Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Venus Flytrap: Old Gods And New Ones

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I’m often asked how I reconcile my irreverent delight in multiple mythologies with my, well, devotion. How can I say that Rama is a terrible husband, but still murmur a couplet from the Vishnu Sahasranamam to soothe my weary nerves? How can I light candles in churches, wishfully say “Inshallah” and also chant in Sanskrit? The answer is that I see story, history and spirit as distinct threads. Braided together, they make an ethos, one way to absorb and encounter. To be a human reaching for the divine is to have the humility to know that only by holding those threads as distinct in the mind can the braid then be experienced in polyphonic fullness, through the heart.

We have the capacity to accommodate variations, unpredictability and what might appear to be inconsistencies. In forests, I rustle with the thought of the Rig-Vedic Aranyani; pining, I reach for the Inuit Sedna: when I sense the feline mystique, I remember the Egyptian lioness Sekhmet. If a story soothes my heart, is it not a prayer too?

New deities are constantly being made, just as old ones are being retired (have you read American Gods, Neil Gaiman’s unputdownable novel about what happened to the figures of European folk religions, gradually forgotten by migrants to North America?). It’s fascinating how, on a national stage, the latest expression of patriotism is to pledge allegiance to one such new deity, an artistic creation of late 19th century Bengal.

So Bharat Mata’s official temple, which contains not an idol but a map of India, is one kind of religious expansion. There are of course shrines to film stars and politicians, replete with garlands and aartis. There are also those which emerge from organic impulses, rooted in faith and incident, such as two dog temples in Karnataka built in 2008 and 2009, respectively – in Channapatna, the canine is worshipped as an animal familiar of the village goddess; in Ranebennur is a temple to a pet that’s said to have miraculous posthumous powers.  The Bullet Banna temple in Rajasthan, which sprang up in 1988, has an interesting origin: a rider was killed one night, and no matter how many times the police took his bike to the station, it kept mysteriously reappearing at the site of the accident. The idol in the shrine is the bike itself.

In the 1970s, a Hindi film called Jai Santoshi Ma popularised a new myth about a daughter of Ganesha. Until the film’s popularity had women all over the country undertaking new fasting rituals, the spot of what became the “ancient” Santoshi Ma temple in Jodhpur had been a shrine to the folk deity Lal Sagar ki Mata. Presiding deities are replaced, subsumed, emerge elsewhere, become obsolete, turn into cult figures. This happens both naturally and through imposition.

Spiritual practice is not monolithic – as lived belief, it is constantly enriched and complicated by many sources. It is porous, subjective, disorganised. When we streamline it, let be strictly defined, and – most importantly – limit the rights of others to pursue it in their personal ways, we lose more than just entwined stories and manifold possibilities. We lose spirit itself.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 24th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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The Venus Flytrap: The Casual Casteism Of The Term ‘TamBrahm’

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It was a night like so many others in my mid-twenties. My friends were already at the dimly-lit club, along with a very young couple, new to the clique. I was the last to arrive, and much inebriation had already taken place. “You must be a Tam-Brahm too, right?” asked the cheerful girl, shortly after we’d been introduced. Before I could launch into the response that my friends could expect of me, her boyfriend piped up: “No, she’s not. Brahmins don’t keep names like Manivannan.”

This is true – my surname comes from the Tamil bhakti movement; it’s in the verses of the Azhwars, including the foxy and mysterious Andal’s. Do I like my father’s name? Sure, I do. Am I proud of it? No, because pride is about achievement. I did nothing to achieve a poetic surname, just as my companions that evening had done nothing (not even karmically!) to be ranked upper caste. I was struck that a young person in a casual, urban social setting, that too in a state of intoxication, had maintained such a sound grip on how to peg people quickly. And the infuriating, ugly question thus raised: what could my caste background possibly mean to that setting?

Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice evening. But it was also an encounter that in many ways exemplified how caste still holds its gridlock in the minds of otherwise cosmopolitan – and even very lovely – people. I was raised abroad, of mixed heritage and caste-oblivious; I never encountered it as a personal marker until I tried to apply to college in India, at almost 20. This too was a privilege. Once I moved to Chennai, I found that almost all my friends came from atop the caste pyramid. This was not incidental: it spoke to the fact that the artsy, alternative, more affluent circles (what a Venn diagram; why aren’t our associations more diverse?) that I moved in were thus dominated. I was among the very few odd ones out, and was made, suddenly, very aware. Even if I hadn’t chosen to educate myself, there were countless slips, suggestions and jabs that reinforced the need.

I can relate several more of them to prove my point, but instead I’ll make a request: it’s time to retire the term “Tam-Brahm”. Don’t try to make a horrible thing sound hip. That it rhymes doesn’t make the history – or the present – it references any cooler, or more palatable.

When you sit with me – or to put a fine point on it, anyone who is not like you – in a conversation and cavalierly place the words “Tam-Brahm” on the table, it is more than just an uncomfortable allusion. It is a subtle act of aggression. Through this ID, what you make clear to me (perhaps unconsciously) are your rank in a hierarchy versus mine, your defensiveness about the caste system, your negating of centuries of violence, oppression and inhumanity, and most of all, your unapologetic embrace of all the same.

Casteism will not die until caste does. And you are so much more than what your ancestors did to other people – including, perhaps, to mine.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 17th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Not This, Not This | This Too, This Too

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There’s a love that looks like no love you’ve ever seen. And on some days, and certain nights, you can almost convince yourself that it looks for you, too.

Almost. The deeper you travel into a life of your own design, the further away the mirage of a co-sojourner appears. There is no one who falls asleep thinking of you. The face you see when you wake up is your own, in a mirror, all evanesced dreamscapes and smudged kohl.

But you must indulge it, a little dulcet speculation. You parse the present as though it already comprises kernels of a different future. Everything that has happened to you has happened in the absence of the one who loves you, who does not know it yet, whom you contain no memory of. The world appears less maimed through this awareness, this version of the story in which there is someone you would walk through the rain to meet, had you only known how to reach their door.

What you do contain, positively, is wisdom. It beams in you like a blacklight tattoo when you need it most. Like that night when you came home after seeing someone so perfect you could have sworn you wrote them into being, but you couldn’t sleep, and not because you’d been hit by lightning. There you were, your palm on your chest at 2am, breathing deeply, sitting still and listening to your heart. How it wouldn’t stop saying, “neti, neti.” Not this, not this.

“Not never, but not now,” you explained to those who were dismayed. But even then, you knew.

A seer tells you to say affirmations to draw love into your life. A priest prescribes garlanded circumambulations. A doctor puts you on multi-vitamin supplements so your hair might stop falling out and you’ll have the energy to go dancing. A friend downloads another app into your phone. You’ll do some or all or none of these.

But mostly you’ll just do what you have to do. You’ll return to the poems, and when the wish to mouth their magic into someone’s ear becomes too much, you will go to Rilke’s “You Who Never Arrived”. You don’t cry like you used to, emotion billowing from you as unmistakably as a bullfrog’s throat. Your sorrow gets mistaken for anger. Your strength for coldness. Your grace for forgetting. Now your tears are scant and taste like tea steeped far too long.

And the flights of speculation too grow fewer, which is why you notice them, lift them to the light in curiosity. There is nothing to anticipate. Days and nights of lacklustre certainty. And it’s you who must tell your heart, this time: “Iti, iti”. This too, this too. Even this. This with its saudades. This with its cosmic signs that anagram to red herrings. This with its gambles made on someone else’s loaded dice (but you’ll make them anyway). “Heads you win, tails I’m lost” – that country ballad by Jewel you’re surprised to remember, so many years later. This now, this here, this always – with its almosts that only almost count.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 10th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: When The Devadasis Were Virgins

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Aruna Sairam shuffled onto my playlist with a song of a longing devadasi, and I called a friend who knew it well. He had the original Telugu text of Paiyyada, while I pored over an English translation. Together, we transliterated: ‘The one who rested his head on the fabric over my breast is embittered by me – aiyo…” At the end of our spontaneous cultural salon, he mentioned another Kshetrayya padam, one in which the raconteur says frankly to the deity Konkaneswara that it will cost a hundred gold coins just to enter her house, and three crore to kiss her.

The poem reminded me of one of my favourite devadasi songs in Tamil, which goes – “kathavai saathadi / kaasilathavan kadavul aanalum, kathavai saathadi”. “Shut the door, girl – if he’s empty-handed, even if he’s god himself, shut the door!”

When Rukmini Devi Arundale appeared on a Google doodle last week, it was the devadasis I thought of again. In the 1930’s, Arundale appropriated the devadasi dance known as sadir, angularised its sensuality, censored its eros and turned it into the caste-privileged form renamed as Bharatanatyam. This was part of a larger project of erasing their matrilineal, woman-centred culture, which had garnered disrepute (it came to be banned all over India). This should be widely-known, and isn’t, because of the sheer domination of one narrative over another. Before their fall from grace, devadasi women from as early as 8th century were known as: dancers, musicians, multi-linguists, land-owners, endowers of public infrastructure, impresarios, polymaths and poets. Today, they are dismissed as sex workers.

We forget them both: the mid-20th century devadasi in a system of ruin and abuse, and the medieval devadasi whose empowerment and erudition remains beyond what many women enjoy today.

I’ve also been reading about the Asur people of Jharkhand and West Bengal. I heard about them just a few days ago, when their traditional telling of the epic battle between Durga, my beloved goddess, and the buffalo Mahishasura, whom the Asurs trace their lineage to, became the stuff of headlines. A fascinating alternative rendering, not unlike how Ravana has the sympathies of Tamil people.

But I’m not convinced that the story we’re being told is the one the Asurs themselves tell. When the word “prostitute” was raised in reference to Durga, as a means of literally demonising those with this belief, I wondered – what if the original word was “apsara” (like the transgendered Mohini, who used her seductive charms on asuras too, before she bedded Shiva). What if, indeed, the word was something like “devadasi”? And if it was “sex worker” – well, as a woman who happens to be Hindu, I am frankly more offended by misogyny than blasphemy.

Another mythological word we misunderstand is “virgin”. It means a sovereign woman or goddess, by no means devoid of sexuality, and in complete control of her own. Hence, unmarried. Like a devadasi was, except to her god and her art.

Myths are full of history, and history is full of myths. We can love their messy richness, and if we must sieve them of anything, let’s sieve the manipulations that serve only their blinkered tellers.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 3rd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

“Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”

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I’m so very delighted that my essay on femininity, fashion and exile, “Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”, from the anthology Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories (HarperCollins India/Hardie Grant Australia), has been republished in The Ladies Finger. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

The Venus Flytrap: Dialogue Is Protest

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Many years ago, I was playing with a then 6-year old cousin of mine when for reasons I cannot remember, the second World War came up. What I do remember, however, is having to sit him down and as gently as possible explain some of the human costs of that era. I remember him quietly and seriously absorbing what I was telling him, wrapping his understanding of the world around this difficult, new information.

You already know this difficult information. You encountered it in your textbooks, as my cousin did eventually, because your textbooks included it. Textbooks do not include everything. And while it is easy to look at streamlined history in hindsight, it is not easy to watch it unfold or to prod at silences and erasures. So we look away, convinced we are not a part of what proceeds. And by doing so, we become complicit.

Recently, I’ve found myself doing for adults what I had to do for my cousin as a child. I’ve had to ask them to join the dots and consider how their personal experiences of gender, caste, language, race and other defining barriers are connected to the way power is structured, formally and informally. And to ask them what they mean, when they repeat what they’ve heard elsewhere. I’ve even had to ask them a question that makes me feel ashamed to have to put to any person who has gone to school: do you read before forming opinions; and what do you read?

In doing so, I’ve laid my own principles open to interrogation. I’ve laid myself open to hostility. I am tired, I am frightened, but my conscience demands that I engage. What motivates me to have these dialogues is not the need to impose my perspective, but the bleak awareness that alternate perspectives are rarely provided with compassion, without resorting to belittling. This is true for all sides.

Which is why, as much as possible, what I try to do is ask.

If you are worried about fundamental freedoms, you probably feel cornered of late. You don’t have to march at a protest or be active on social media to feel the corrosion even in your personal interactions. ‘Are we really so few – those of us who care?’ you wonder. Maybe. But couldn’t it be that people don’t care mainly because they don’t know?

The resistance is not to an open mind, but to that profoundly scary step of leaving a comfort zone of distraction and denial.

How did you develop your views? For instance, for myself, I know that having felt like, and been, an outsider from childhood is probably why I gravitate toward the underdog. Let’s think about how people come to social consciousness, and make it easier for them, rather than simply attacking their ignorance.

It is true that propaganda is, sadly, more effective than conversation. Fear and laziness allow for that. But my belief is this: instead of shouting back at structures from an ivory tower of our own, let’s talk. If it’s people we’re fighting for, it is people we must talk to.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 25th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.