The Venus Flytrap: Funny, That’s Sexist

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In a clip that went viral earlier this week, entertainment journalist Anupama Chopra presented this question to a panel of professional comedians: “Is the comedy space more sexist than other fields in this country?” The context was Amazon India’s recent announcement of 14 specials, not one of which will star a female comic.

The question was addressed specifically to the only other woman at the table – Aditi Mittal. But the rest of the panel immediately began to rumble with responses – notably, with dismissals like how women comedians don’t have enough material for full shows, and the euphemism “situational outcome” (sure, if the situation we’re talking about is structural oppression). Much has been made about the mansplaining in that clip, but what stood out for me was how when Mittal finally got a word in, there was the palpable sense that the anger held in check in her voice and even on her face had silenced the rest of the table.

It wasn’t necessarily anger toward the panel in attendance – to them, she breezily threw shade by taking large, leisurely gulps from her mug as they proffered their opinions, making clear to the camera that she knew talking wasn’t expected of her. It was anger accumulated over working her way up through her industry, and how she ultimately found that her best strategy was in doing things solo (“I wouldn’t be [here] if I hadn’t distanced myself”), because solidarity was absent. These are things Mittal articulated without mincing words, sitting alongside her colleagues. She had never been a part of the brotherhood, no matter what they claim. In fact, as an industry insider pointed out to me, much of this boys’ club is even represented by the same management. And at that table, it was Mittal who had to represent. Sometimes a token becomes an envoy.

And that anger – deeply familiar. Because, really, Chopra’s opening question was inane. Any woman with a career, even in a field that is regarded as “acceptably” female (like nursing or teaching), knows: no, the comedy space isn’t more sexist than other fields in this country. It’s probably just as sexist as other fields in this country, but certainly not more.

For Indian comedy’s sexism problem to be largely a numbers game right now indicates that all of it (field and fault both) are in a fledgling state. It is only when more women are in the industry that we’ll begin to see more deeply-entrenched forms: from sexual harassment to the glass ceiling and more. In short, the everyday sexism that all working women encounter. As for sexist “jokes” – well, ironically, the comedy business doesn’t have a monopoly on that. Every corporate office in this country is full of those.

This brings back to mind something I’ve done often in professional contexts: drinking water so as to rein in emotional tension. Maybe that was what Mittal was doing too. Not throwing shade so much as telling her body to remain calm, to hold it together so she could say what she had to as clearly as possible. Because for once in her line of work, laughter would not be a compliment.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 1st 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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The Venus Flytrap: Beauty & Outer Beauty

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One of the truest signs I know of a person being untrustworthy is if, after being introduced to someone who they are aware has caused you or another immense pain, they comment on their perceived physical attractiveness. It does not speak well of someone’s character if everything they know about a person and what they have done can fly out of their hearts and heads because their presence so easily dazes them. How can they see anything else, being aware of their nature? What follows for me is that sinking feeling: like has spoken to like, and I’d witnessed a warning.

What are you wired to see first: inner beauty or its lack, or the façade? Even when meeting someone new, you can re-wire yourself so that aura, body language, and above all else the subtle changes in your own energy and emotion are the lenses through which you see. Both an open heart and bitter experience are great co-teachers. But we must keep getting refresher courses in things like this. They don’t call being deeply perceptive as having “second sight” for no reason.

Before you trust a person, do you check that you can trust your instincts? Two friends of mine recently encountered someone I have been fortunate not to have to engage with directly yet, but whose manipulations are well-known to everyone but the person they are with. One was simply unable to extend a handshake even out of habit, no matter how awkward it looked. The other found herself unable to make eye contact with that person, despite their wide grin and eager expression. Politeness and courtesy are the next level of honing that instinct – when you’re able to match façade with façade without absorbing or being influenced by toxicity. Save the winter wonderland approach for the ones who know what they did to you; offer the cordialities to the ones who don’t know that you know what they did to others.

Even the strong allure of initial sexual attraction can be upended when one’s antenna is working. I recently hung out with someone whose good looks had left me slack-jawed on our first meeting. In the interim, however, I’d learned over personal messages and social media that his political beliefs – i.e. an extension of his conscience and values – were highly suspect. I stared at him across the table and wondered why I found him so very lacklustre-looking all of a sudden when I’d gawked over his calf eyelashes and brawny shoulders earlier. I was thankful to have seen past all that prettiness to the actual person, quickly.

But what is inner beauty, anyway? A bit of a misnomer, I think. Why isn’t it “beauty” and “outer beauty” instead? Imagine a value system that isn’t based on one (the inner) being the flip side, or the redeemer of, the other (the outer). So beauty then is judged on who one is, based on what they do, their effect on other people, what connecting with them feels like, and what looking into (or not being able to look into!) their eyes reveals. When you look at someone, do you see the whole picture?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 25th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Coven At The Crossroads

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This is a column about things too sacrosanct to write about, but which deserve sharing. About spoken silences. About synecdoches: how smallness can contain splendour. About how your long covenant with your work encountered the best chemistry you have with the world, and they embraced one another – just as you do these people who you knew were friends even before you met them.  About opening your palms later to enjoy how the deep inner magic of a few days has left them glittery. How long will you hold onto this for?

This is a column about women talking to each other. This is a column about women being quiet with each other. This is a column about women reading each others’ minds only so as to have each others’ backs. This is a column about sheer excess, because what the heart communes with another’s heart rarely requires the formality of words.

This is a column about something people call sisterhood, but that’s an illusory word. Someone says “coven”. Someone else says “solidarity”. This is a column about all that, then.

About people meeting for the first time who seem to other eyes to have known each other forever, who share confidences as though they aren’t revelations. And about people who meet after half a lifetime but exchange notes from their journeys as though they’d never diverged. About old friends anew, and new friends already familiar.

About gratitude. About how life gives you only limited chances to see what you really do in the world, but if you’re lucky you’ll see lessons even in the laurels. About knowing better than to mistake glitter for gold, but learning also to love glitter for what it is, and cherish gold for what it’s worth. About grace. About growing deeper. About mirrors. About how what you see is based on who you are. About inner beauty and how every butterfly carries the memory of how it dreamed its wings in the dark of its cocoon.

About amazement. About sitting on the stairs surrounded by wine glasses and the scent of recently-sprayed Volini, talking about chronic illnesses. About shaking it off.

About someone bringing your forgotten bra to you in a brocade pouch one evening and then you draping your shawl over someone else’s shoulders so that she can take hers off at the lunch table two days later.

About gestures. About statements. About synchronicities. About how you packed a box of tea for someone you thought you’d meet, but don’t, then coincidentally catch her at breakfast before her flight. About how you, sleepy and unwashed, thank her for her defiance, for it was the very stuff that transformed an uncomfortable handshake into a warm hug.

A column, then, about many warm hugs. With those you recognise as kindred, even if only for some time as you amble on parallel paths. And with those in whose eyes you see the fear of unbelonging. To them you want to say: I was once you. I still know that me. Come into this garden of mine, this garden of forgiveness and myrhh, resilience and rosewater, for it has room for us all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 18th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Forgotten Wives

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The sudden thunderstorm that had broken over Srikalahasti the previous afternoon didn’t come back with us. Driving down a highway still bemirrored with mirages, I contemplated it with pleasure: a storm with neither aftermath nor announcement, one too stubborn to be tamed or tempted home. Nothing in the landscape showed how it had come and gone. The heatwave slipped me into a nap, waking to the sound of directions being asked for. At a point just before where the Arani river flows from Andhra Pradesh into Tamil Nadu – but how would you know except if you looked on a map, proving again how borders are arbitrary? – the village of Surutapalli stakes its place. An intoxicated Shiva had fallen asleep here, having tasted some of the halahala arrested in his throat. People come to see him in slumber, but stranger still to me was the alcove in which Dakshinamurthy sat. South-facing and tree-canopied here as elsewhere, except with one unusual element: on his left thigh, his wife.

I asked the priest for her name, and it was Gowri. Supplicants approach the couple from the west, and both their faces tilt toward the same. She without complete mythology, known only as consort. How marvellous sometimes to learn, how much more marvellous at other times to imagine.

As I dive deeper into a book I’m writing about mermaids (specifically, about the lost and little-known) I find that I have unexpected company from another book finished long ago, which had its origins in the Ramayana. Hanuman, that god who has a bit of the trickster in him, which somehow makes his loyalty even deeper. He is usually understood as celibate, but in South East Asian renditions of the epic, his partner is Suvannamaccha, whose name means “golden fish”. Each morning as they attempted to build the bridge to Lanka, the vanara army found their work had been destroyed, the rocks returned to the sea. One night, they discovered the mermaids dismantling it. Their leader was the lovely Suvannamaccha, whose father was Ravana. She and Hanuman must part almost as quickly as they fell in love, but their child is yet another hybrid: fish-tailed, simian-faced.

Then there are Ganesha’s three wives: Riddhi, Siddhi and Buddhi. Here, we like to think of him as the child, Pillaiyar. But even when depicted as a spouse in North India, he’s shown with only two of his own. But which two?

The worlds of both gods and men are full of forgotten wives.

As I put the finishing touches to this column, the almost-full moon is mottled by clouds. There is the odd coruscation of lightning. Rain is coming after all, but in its own time – who knows if it heeded my invitation or only its own whims? And I remember another forgotten consort: the Rig-Vedic agricultural goddess Sita’s husband Parjanya, lord of rain. Before Rama, there was rain. I think of an adorable stone tablet in that temple in Surutapalli, of the footprints of the exiled queen Sita’s children, water collecting mysteriously in the indentations of baby toes.

May all that needs quenching in us – our thirsts, our desires, our curiosities – be quenched.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 11th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Creature Coupling

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If you look up moorland hawkers, a species of dragonfly, you’ll find that their conservation status is a cool “Least Concern”. They’re thriving just fine with or without human intervention, but a new study has drawn our attention to them. The females of this species have been observed doing something the females of our species may find familiar: finding resourceful ways to avoid unwanted sexual advances. While we give out fake numbers, plaster on fake smiles in discomfort, and finally namedrop fake boyfriends (the worst one – because an imaginary man’s claim is given more respect than your right to refuse), pregnant female moorland hawkers are simply dropping out of the sky and faking death. Like I said, least concern. Literally no ‘F’s given.

The researcher who observed this phenomenon, Rassim Khelifa of the University of Zurich, hadn’t seen this behaviour in ten years of studying the dragonflies, but further investigation revealed that 27 out of 31 dragonflies were noted making this risky plummet to get away from an aggressive male. I can just imagine the first dragonfly who decided that a predator isn’t just one who wants to consume you, but also one who wants to have sex with you, performing a freefall then telling her friends about her dramatic escape.

The animal queendom is full of extremes when it comes to courtship, and for every example of brutality by one sex, there’s one of brutality by another sex. The black widow spider is famous of course, but you’ve got to appreciate her frankness as compared to the males of the nursery web spider species. They keep food in their mouths and play dead, then begin to copulate when the female comes to inspect these gifts. Then again, a Darwin’s bark spider is forced to perform oral sex up to 100 times in one session; so that his partner won’t eat him. Enough of spiders and their seriously kinky but totally unsexy mating. Take the hermaphroditic banana slug, some of which are pretty much all penis (that’s eight inches for you). They must take care to choose mates that are able to accommodate their size; otherwise, the slug in the female role may find the phallus stuck inside itself – and have to chew it off to live. Drones break their penises off inside the queen bee. And you thought your sex life was interesting.

These are known behaviours in species propagation, and evolutions in the same, such as the moorland hawker dragonfly’s death plunge, are fascinating. Consider more innovations in the world of creature coupling. Two species of the African queen butterfly can no longer produce male hatchlings owing to bacteria; they mate with migrant males, but create only female lineages in a newly evolving subspecies. Oh yeah, and the female caterpillars eat their dead brothers. Last year, a female shark in a Seoul aquarium got so annoyed by the brat who kept bumping into her that she ate him (the brat was another shark; she just another man-eater like you and I). The unicorn is passé (and according to legend, can only be touched by virgins) – maybe your spirit animal is one of these.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 4th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Diving Into The Distance

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I went in search of secrets, and stories only spoken but never committed to script. There in a fan-less portico in the far eastern coast of Sri Lanka, in the unforgiving Chithirai month, the elderly gentleman I had gone to see told me candidly: “I have amnesia”. And then: “I also lost all my documents in the flood.”

But the flood he spoke of seemed suspiciously far away; he told me of writing to his grandmother with an exaggeration about kitchen appliances made of stone floating in the calamity. But no one at 90 years old has a grandmother who writes back and exposes the lie. “Was this the flood of 1956?” I asked. He shushed me. In the labyrinth of his memory, the true distances of decades had long ceased to exist.

Distances. My ancestors were mostly fisherpeople who migrated from present-day Kerala, and when I look at Batticaloa on maps I wonder what it was that drew them further and further. I have drawn that map by hand myself, and wondered: which route did they take to the island’s central east: upon sighting shore, did they voyage southwards, where the gorgeous beaches of Mirissa and Galle didn’t seduce them, or north-bound, where the palms of the Jaffna peninsula too failed to beckon? It’s inconceivable that they followed the path that I did, cutting clear across the country on ground, for they navigated by water. Unless they started elsewhere and moved deeper and deeper east to where lagoon-and-field and field-and-lagoon alternate in a geography of perfect balance.

More than a thousand years later, I take a short flight and a long drive: into the country via the capital city on the west coast, followed by nine hours of highways until I arrive on the farther shore. For the longest time, under alibi of war, it was an emotional distance – an expanse, not a detachment – that was hardest of all for me to cross. One’s roots can only be watered by tears.

I discover that the distance between a matrilineal, matrilocal culture and its swallowing into the patriarchal world order is sometimes a mere generation, or one stroke of a clerk’s pen that accidentally transfers the land to the holder of the masculine name because of an ordinance that never considered how it was possible for a society like this to exist at all.

I try to bridge the distance between that pen and mine when I talk to a group of teenagers from surrounding villages and ask them to name ten writers, anticipating correctly that not one would be a woman. “Complicate the narrative,” was what the outreach worker had told me beforehand, and later over dinner with her I felt saddened that the most I could do was to offer my presence as a kind of shock value. Dialogue cannot happen at a distance.

Always, two literal bridges: the old one and the new one over the Kallady part of the Batticaloa lagoon. I crossed it several times each day, carrying more each time by way of knowledge. I never felt the distance. Even now, days later, I still don’t feel the distance.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 27th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Sexlessness And The Single Woman

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In the 5th century BC, the Athenian empire waged the Peloponnesian War against a league of city-states headed by Sparta. This inspired the playwright Aristophanes’ 413 BC classic, Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece decree a sex strike as a means to end the war. Actor Janelle Monae recently referenced this concept when she told a magazine: “until every man is fighting for [women’s] rights, we should consider stopping having sex.”

Obviously, we know that not only men desire sex. So the premise of the Lysistrata strike bears pondering. When you withhold sex, you withhold it from yourself too. The truth is that long periods without sexual contact are common among highly independent women. Being outspoken or open-minded comes with its own set of barbs.

If you refuse to play by the rules of heteronormative engagement, you are denied respect, just as women who do play by those rules are. But there, the lack of respect occurs within certain comfortable scaffolds, such as the assurance of monogamy, convenience or protection. Here, because you are more adept at identifying small-scale manipulations and refusing to react accordingly, the disrespect is even more insidious, designed to ultimately convince you of your undesirability. What most people accept as a courtship dance feels like a fencing match to you. Over time, poorly-thought politics, rudeness and other such personality markers become real turn-offs, cuteness be damned. And if you practise ethical principles, you don’t see people uni-dimensionally, making casual disengagement difficult. You can’t sleep with people who treat you badly; but you can’t do the objectifying, either. The result: less sex than everyone thinks you’re having.

A friend shared a page from Heather Havrilesky’s book of advice, How To Be A Person In The World, that resonated for me. “We have to be self-protective but vulnerable… You don’t put yourself in situations where you’re going to cycle through bluster and neediness. That means you really can’t hook up with random men. Even if you never let your guard down in those situations, they still hurt you. They [expletive] your sense of self. They lead you to believe you’re only good for sex, and you can’t EVER settle for feeling that way.”

Reading these sentences made me realise how rarely we discuss this outside personal conversations. There aren’t enough sentences in the world about this aspect of the sexuality of singlehood because they are confidential sharings, never set down. With our confidantes, we move beyond limiting, self-deprecating complaints like “haven’t been laid since Obama’s first term” to deeper revelations about need, validation, boundaries, instincts, ennui, inadequacy and sublimation.

All this applies especially if you have “trouble” compartmentalising. But why idealise compartmentalising in the first place, instead of a more holistic approach to self and other? Not compartmentalising, not assigning people functional roles and not demarcating yourself all sound pretty healthy to me. Similarly with “not being able to tell the difference between sex and love”. Why is the person who decides this difference never the one whose emotions are involved? To fully embrace ourselves as sexual beings, we cannot stop at simply shifting the shame from our bodies to our hearts.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 20th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.