The Venus Flytrap: We Have All Written/Said Problematic Things

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When we consider a poem like “The White Man’s Burden”, all the enchantment of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” fades away. When we realise that Enid Blyton’s books were full of racism and sexism, and that we were happily oblivious to these prejudices as we read them, we cringe. More egregiously still, when we think retroactively of the “groupie” culture of 70’s music, we balk at all the statutory rape that took place.

Especially if you write, perform, work in policymaking, or teach, such examples are worth reflecting on. From actions to accidental slippages, they tarnish entire bodies of work. Whether or not one is in the public eye is irrelevant. Accountability shouldn’t be motivated by criticism, but by one’s own conscience. What would you do differently, looking back at your own work?

A few weeks ago, a friend posted a poem that I wrote when I was 17 on Facebook. I commented with a disclaimer, which she was sweet enough to insist was unnecessary. But to me, it was. You see, the poem contained the word “androgynous” as a reference to Plato’s androgyne, the being made of two halves so as to be a perfect whole, who need not seek love beyond the self. But if I were to write a similar poem now, half a lifetime later, it would not even occur to me to use a word that belongs as a queer identifier, because my own understanding of the word has changed.

Similarly, when I was doing the final proofs for my new book, The High Priestess Never Marries, I removed a playful reference to the Mahabharata’s Dronacharya, who demanded that the tribal archer Eklavya sever his thumb, from a story. When I had written the story five years ago, my understanding of caste was less evolved than it is now. To put it simply: I wouldn’t make that joke now because I would no longer think it was funny. I had been wrong, whether I knew it or not. How many times had I read a book and thought of how much better it would have been if it weren’t for that completely unnecessary drop of indigo in the milk: “fat” or “dark” being used interchangeably with “unattractive”, period pieces which used racial pejoratives like “savages” outside of dialogue, elitist self-identifications like “TamBrahm”, and so on? How can I leave that bad taste in someone else’s mouth, when I know better now?

Norms and languages evolve. So do we. And we must remember: while we owe it to our own personal growth and to the audiences that we hope to reach (whether that’s in a book, in a personal conversation, or on Twitter), we are all works in progress. We’re all continuously changing, and if we’re open to it, we’re continuously learning. I wonder what I’ll think of my recent writing in 15 years. I wonder what I will find problematic then. My point is to say that it’s okay. We grow most when we have the humility to know that we don’t know everything. The best disclaimer, and the best apology, is to delve deeper and do better.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 13th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: “Girl Power” Meets The Goddess

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A few months ago, at a foreign event promoting a book of writing by Indian women, an audience member posed a question about what they saw as the paradox of the mistreatment of women vs. how “everyone in India worships goddesses”. The question perturbed me, most immediately of all because each of us onstage was of a different faith background (the inquirer’s assumption only addressed mine). So I said as much – that the misconception that all Indians are Hindus is dangerous to begin with.

But the question was also disturbing because its reductiveness was familiar: we hear those statements in India too. Navaratri is an interesting time to ponder this. On the one hand we witness faith as lived expression, and on the other hand, for example, there’s the way brands “modernise” goddesses on social media. (Well, considering it’s Navaratri, perhaps there should be a few more arms and hands in this, but let’s get to those later.) Many attempts to contemporise fail to capture something vital: that the power of the Goddess is ancient, not modern. She exists, as all who actually know her know, beyond linear time.

So what does some cute graphic putting her in a pantsuit and a smart caption about how badass she is really do? Does it blur the distance between pedestal and mortal circumstance, or reinforce it using superficial symbols? There’s subversive and then there’s simplistic. The girl power-meets-goddess figure rhetoric is just as empty as any other get-clicks-quick scheme.

All major religions today need feminist reform movements. Hinduism’s faces a trick door: unlike other major religions, it already has principal feminine icons. The challenge then is not to excavate the buried feminine, as it is in Christianity for example, but to raise questions about the patriarchal co-opting of the same.

“We worship goddesses and beat our wives” is the most tired, most falsely equivalent condemnation there is, and ties in far too closely with another problematic proclamation: “Don’t treat her badly because she embodies the goddess”. Does she? What if she doesn’t want to? What if she’s neither interested in being your sister nor your idol? And if the average abuser doesn’t connect the abstract feminine with the actual woman, is it fair to expect that his philosophy be so literal? Have we actually considered what his philosophy may teach, instead of merely aggrandising its symbols?

It’s not goddess imagery that needs revamping, but our relationship with religion. For many people, the more their ethical compass develops, the more they will veer away from religion altogether. For those who find themselves still drawn to spirituality, a more deeply interconnected matrix is needed: one that brings together creativity, sexuality, the intellect, politics, ritual practice and the intangible.

This means interrogating what the highly subjective endeavour of “worship” means, studying scriptures, reinventing liturgies (like wedding chants, for example), challenging taboos and more. And for Indian feminists of most faith persuasions, the effort collapses completely if the end of caste is not also a leading principle. It has to be holistic. All in all, feminist spirituality is pretty demanding – but believers already know that the love of God always is.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 6th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Mirror Of Another Time

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I wanted to encounter my gods as objects of beauty, and not as objects of praise. There, in the Bronze Gallery, I found I had miscalculated, for what was I doing if not engaging in idolatry, tracing with my eyes limbs and lines that had transferred from wax to mould to molten five-metal? They had travelled through centuries coveted and worshipped, smuggled and salvaged, to arrive finally behind glass – bare of turmeric, the cascade of milk, the caress of flowers.

I wanted to encounter myself at 19 again, the last time I had been in this gallery (isn’t this the shame of all of us who don’t appreciate beauty within stone’s throw of our dwellings, hungering for distant terrains to locate our most inspiring experiences in?). I want to say I have visited it in the interim years, and perhaps I have – but the only clear memory I have is of exploring it with another girl, to whom I texted a whole Audre Lorde poem to, stanza by stanza, whose admiration of the cambers of womanly bodies in bronze I had hoped to mean something more than purely aesthetic.

I looked from the statues to the mirrors behind them, poised so as to allow a dorsal view: the way a garment drapes at the back, snail-curls of hair. I was in those mirrors too.

In Tiruvarur, years ago, someone pointed to a woman in the Mucukunda murals, another feat of Chola artistry, and told me that she looked just like me. This became my conceit: a devadasi from centuries ago, ancestress or avatar. When the murals were fully restored later, I was fortunate to be among the celebrating party. We were given mirrored trays so we could wander the hall and look at the paintings on the ceiling without straining our necks. I stood underneath my dark-skinned, long-eyed charmer and saw her face and mine in the same reflection. It was a moment of triumphant vanity, a mysterious confrontation. There’s a funny comfort in catching one’s own eye.

When confronted by beauty upon beauty, one sees nuance, becomes partial to certain renderings. In the Bronze Gallery, I contemplated how we cannot touch these statues, but other hands have. Artistan, thief, curator. I imagine a pair pressing a stylus into the softness of wax, a softness that the 16th century Devi in the far-eastern corner embodies and expresses with eyes that brim with stone-still sadness. From that Audre Lorde poem on the fullness of body and moon – Thus I hold you / frank in my heart’s eye / in my skin’s knowing / as my fingers conceive your flesh…

I walked away, gazed down at her from an upper level, returned to cross the hall only to adore her again. She was the reason I had contemplated touch. It was her eloquent left eye that held me captivated. In the play of light and shadow in that corner, the right one was opaque. Right eye stoic to the world, left eye brimming with truth. This was how I saw her.

But who’s to say who or what it was I saw – sculpture, mirror, self, memory, symbol?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 29th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Twisted By Rage

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Sometimes I watch or find myself engaged in an altercation and see or sense a frustration that comes from another place altogether. This is most evidently observed online, i.e. “Internet outrage”. The thing at hand – this post, this comment, this incident even – isn’t the true source of that emotion, just the scapegoat on which it is temporarily fixated. A decade or so ago, we heard the term “road rage” just as frequently. I suspect the two phenomena – vocalising an emotion by directing it strangers on the street, or at 2D versions of people on the web – have the same origins.

But what is that emotion?

I’m choosing to write this not as an observer, but as someone with a deep wellspring of rage. Mine doesn’t manifest online too much, but I do have a temper that’s as easy to spark and as difficult to put out as a forest fire. I carry trauma in my body, and my hair falls constantly, my teeth clench often, the centres of my palms radiate pain, I go months without menses, I cannot sleep well, I don’t cry enough. It is the backlog of years. It is my burden, and my work to do. I carry trauma. This is my reason. But it is not my excuse.

I sit with my rage and feel my way through it. I know and name it, try to keep it out of others’ ways. I fail and look deeper. Something in me is always howling. It would be easy to howl out loud. It would also be wrong.

Recently, a dear one’s mother told me how stubborn she finds my friend. I had witnessed the disputes she was talking about. On the one hand, I understood her dismay. On the other, I knew very well where my friend’s surliness came from. And so this is what I told her: that they both worried about the same things. That loneliness manifests as irascibleness. That there are things we barely know how to express to ourselves, and these are the things that take on their own twisted expressions.

Shatter the mirror and see the kaleidoscope. Everyone is hurting. And almost every one of us is already doing the best we can, but that doesn’t absolve us from the need to do even better.

Every day, one tries. Every day, one can fail. Rage thoughtlessly externalised swallows whole; rage never expressed poisons slowly. Even if the work of healing comes to an end, the work of trying to be a better person never does. There is no benchmark beyond which one’s goodness is sacrosanct.

There’s a viral web poster that goes: “I meditate. I burn candles. I drink green tea, and I still want to smack some people.” Yes to all of the above. Rage is not hunger, to be so quickly quelled. The people we want to smack aren’t usually those who harmed us. The difference between a jerk and a self-aware person is in the answers to these questions: what do you do with that want? Who or what do you turn it towards? Who does it make you turn into?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 22nd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: India’s Crisis Of Faux Feminism

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Last weekend, a woman took her own life in Porur, hanging herself in her home using a saree. She was a painter in her late 20’s, and the mother of a toddler. She was married, and had lived with her parents and her partner. Under any circumstances, a suicide is a tragedy. I won’t name the deceased, but a couple of media outlets have, describing her as beautiful and brilliant (with images of her, but not her art).

In her suicide note, the artist wrote that she had “had enough of feminism”, and that she had been “rude” so as to demonstrate her “feminine strength, penn sakthi.” This is also the subject of both headlines I’ve seen so far on this case (one on a website which had a “Killed By Feminism!” image which seems to have been removed).

But it would be equally remiss of me to criticise media sensationalism instead of looking beyond it to the fact that the artist didn’t seem to know what feminism is, but believed she had been practising it. And this poor understanding is propagated not by the media but by a vast and vocal legion who refuse to study the histories and theories within feminism, consider nuanced perspectives, interrogate personal privilege and positionality, honour intersectionality, cultivate compassion – and above all else, strive to live in alignment, especially when it’s unseen or challenged.

In India, wearing skinny jeans is a feminist act, for a woman’s attire in this country courts judgment and can be used to justify harm. But to declare that one is a feminist because one wears skinny jeans is solipsism. To reject a marriage proposal on one’s own terms is a feminist act. To post that rejection online and expect another person to be publicly shamed for their hurt, confused response – not so much. That sort of posturing has taken over the movement. And it is a movement, not a static display.

When we confuse proving one’s feminism with practicing one’s feminism, we end up – well, exactly where we are.

Suicide is a health issue, and stigma around mental illness is a sociopolitical one. The National Crime Bureau has recorded over 20,000 suicides by female homemakers (“housewives”) every year since 1997 (as a recent study by Peter Mayer shows, almost four times as many as another national crisis: the number of farmers who take their lives annually). This doesn’t include those who worked beyond the home, such as the artist discussed earlier.

Relatedly: even as education rates rise, the female workforce now stands at just 27%. Alarmingly, this is a 10% drop since 2005. So women study for longer, leverage this to obtain marital “security” with partners deemed of greater eligibility, and remain within the patriarchal system as homemakers. The class background that gives them this “choice” also gives them constant online access, and the crushing pressure to brand themselves as empowered.

Where does feminism come in? It doesn’t, not enough. Not for as long as the painstaking long-term work of structural dismantling and the painful everyday work of practice, practice, practice are tossed aside in favour of the clickably cool and the patently faux.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 15th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Heartbreak Whisperer

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By the time I hang up, it will be late into my night or theirs, but I know that by the time they come to me they have exhausted their usual sources of solace. And so they call from somewhere in the world, asking almost shyly first, and I listen and let them weep and then tell them what I know to be true. One friend recently told me, “I knew you’d understand.” Another said, “You’re the only one who doesn’t judge.” I hadn’t heard either of their voices in a long time, but it didn’t matter. I am happy to be just their heartbreak whisperer.

Heartbreak is a form of grief, and all grief deepens after the initial stage of public acknowledgement. In that stage, desperate for distraction, most people make themselves fun to be around. They want to be social, and to be seen. They want to be tagged in as many photos as possible, caught mid-laugh, their arms around new acquaintances, raising a toast to the camera and the concept of liberty. Their anger, confusion and sorrow are gladly indulged, because it’s really not that difficult to say, “There, there, hon – bottoms up!”

But the mask wears thin, and not just one’s own. Fairweather friends show their true colours and leave, or must be left, with the added damage of tending to that loss. No one who tells you “get over it” is your friend. But even close ones grow weary, and one grows guilty and self-critical. Ultimately, we’re left to our own disasters.

It’s socially unacceptable to stay heartbroken beyond a point – an extremely arbitrary point, often determined by no more than your confidante’s disinterest. There used to be a popular calculation: that it would take you half as long as you were with someone to get over them. But how provably untrue. What does “with” mean anyway?

It takes as long as it takes. If your physical heart underwent surgery, you would give your body all it needed to heal. Well, your metaphysical heart shattered into pieces. How can anyone expect it to behave like it didn’t happen? Why do you?

Among those who hit the ground running, successfully staving off the horror of their true feelings by throwing themselves into adventure or work or a rebound, the mess comes out later, inconveniently. By then, the early sympathy is gone and they’re entrenched in new self-made environments. But there it is: the unrequited love calcified into insomnia, the self-destructiveness in the second year after divorce, the irreversible regret.

So this is why I’ll be the heartbreak whisperer, across time zones and in violation of sanctioned timelines. A heartbreak isn’t something you build a bridge across and “get over”. You almost drown, you sink to the very bottom, and there you learn the language of water. And when you surface, breathing raggedly but breathing, not only are you in a new lease of life but you’ve also seen the undercurrent of another world. I’ve spent a lot of time in those depths. No one who’s seen them forgets. Anyone who tells you to forget is telling a selfish, and dangerous, lie.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 8th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Ms-Ing The Point

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The exorbitant price of the taxi could have annoyed me. Or, that my mobile data didn’t work between baggage claim and a definitely-long-walk past the arrival gates, thus making it impossible to connect to transportation apps. Or, my name being misspelt on the receipt.

Instead, what made my teeth clench was what came before that misspelt name: “Mrs”.

The man behind the counter had either glanced at me and assumed this, or only used one of two options anyway: “Mr.” or “Mrs.” Why did he not use the impartial “Ms”, which does not indicate marital status, a factor that is no one else’s business except in a few specific scenarios?

Most women are used to sundry mailers addressing us as “Mr.” This week, I received a tax exemption certificate – a semi-legal document – which addressed me that way. Do only men buy property, earn incomes or give to charity?

This default gendering extends even to corporate entities. The “M/s” before a company’s name actually stands for Messieurs, the plural for “Mr.” in French. The world is full of unquestioned maleness, and we maintain it unthinkingly.

This is why, when PV Sindhu embraced Carolina Marin, who had just beaten her for the gold medal at the recent Olympics, she was lauded for her “sportsmanship”. But try this simple exercise: “Michael Phelps displayed wonderful sportswomanship.” How does it roll off the tongue? Now pick anybody and try “sportspersonship”.

It may not change anything at the level of your conversation. But it will have an effect somewhere else, in someone else’s discrimination scenario. When we’re told that “he” is grammatically correct when in doubt, always dare to doubt it.

Then there’s the supremely gender-neutral “Mx.” But, baby steps. One of those baby steps, however, is sensitivity toward queer pronoun choices too. People are who they tell you they are, at least as far as gender pronouns go.

It’s wrong to assume that anyone you encounter in a position of power is a man. It’s wrong to assume that companies are always run by men. It’s wrong to assume that a woman is married because, say, she has clearly been travelling alone (and no one “lets” a single woman travel alone in your shrunken-heart version of the world). And it’s offensive to demonstrate this wrongness through, among many other methods, the terms of address you use.

I was taught in school that one should always begin letters with “Dear Sir/Madam” or “Dear Mr./Ms.”. (Personal resolution: I’m going to start reversing the order wherever possible). The example used to illustrate why was “Imagine if the person who has received your resume is a woman and she gets angry? She’ll put your application in the dustbin!”

Were we supposed to think she was personally insulted? Or that she simply would not hire anyone whose worldview didn’t even have room for the slightest nuance of gender, knowing full well what kind of employee, colleague and decisionmaker that person would be? I don’t know what the teacher intended, but the only right answer is the latter. You see, two decades later, I am that angry woman. And I know exactly why she’s angry.

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