Tag Archives: feminism

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.

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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.

The Venus Flytrap: Tamil Cinema & The Romanticisation Of Abuse

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For the first time, I’m not looking forward to a Mani Ratnam film. Not in that non-committal “well, maybe if someone insists that we go watch it” way or the lazy “I’ll just see if it’s on Netflix eventually” way but in very clear-minded and cautious way. The question is: can I watch this film without being triggered? The theatrical trailer I saw for Kaatru Veliyidai clearly tells me: No.

Here’s what I saw: a man (played by Karthi) yelling at a woman in front of his colleagues, her confusion slowly registering on her face. I saw that woman (played by Aditi Rao Hydari) say helplessly, in the manner of anyone unable to break out of a toxic scenario, “I don’t know why I keep coming back to you’. I saw him being extremely possessive, gripping her tightly as he yells at other people, telling them that regardless of all conflict between them she is “[his] girl”. In the clincher, I saw the woman whisper from behind a door, telling him: “I cannot gauge when you will come to me and when you will hit me instead”. Although “hit” doesn’t suffice; how do I translate the sheer physicality of the Tamil words vongi adi? In every frame, she is fragile or frightened. In short, all I see of Kaatru Veliyidai is an emotionally and physically abusive relationship.

Trailers are often misleading, of course. Some will say heightened dramatic elements were purposely kept in focus so as to tug at the audience’s emotions. But mine were not so much tugged as they were triggered. Because abuse is never love. Whatever the contents of the film may ultimately reveal, I’m deeply disturbed by how a trailer edited in such a way is touted everywhere as a love story.

Tamil cinema has a long history of popular films with problematic takes on romance. Guna was about kidnapping and Stockholm Syndrome. Mannan was about disempowering women, taking them out of the workplace and into the kitchen. Nattamai, among others, featured the trope of forced marriage to rapists. The examples – both older and current – are endless, really, for what passes for love. It is not only explicit violence, including stalking, that we need to cast a critical eye on, but the romanticisation of abuse itself. Call it a drama, a psychological thriller, even an action movie with an emotional twist. Just don’t call it a love story.

So no, I won’t be catching Kaatru Veliyidai at the cinema. There’ll be too much standing up involved, you see. First, I’ll have to stand up because I may get beaten up if I don’t during the mandatory national anthem. Then, I’ll have to stand up again to walk out of the theatre because some scene in which a woman is brutalised, either emotionally or physically, is probably going to push me over the edge. I’m sure someone will write to me now to say I’ve misunderstood, that the film is about a fighter’s PTSD from being on battle frontlines. Let me pre-empt you by saying: my response to the trailer is also PTSD, another fighter’s, from the frontlines of a lifelong war.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 6th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Not Your Women’s Day

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We don’t want your token rose because what do you think this is, Valentine’s Day? It’s not Mother’s Day either, and you need to find a way to respect women that doesn’t require them to be desexualised into a familial role.

We don’t want your chocolate unless it’s as dark as the history of our oppression, as bitter as you think feminists are, and full of nuts – which is what we’ve been driven to by all these antics.

We don’t want your “saree day at the office” dress code because we are not employed for your viewing pleasure. And – on this day or another other – if you have a problem with our bra straps showing, or our bare arms, or the fact that we won’t wear a slip under a white tunic, we’re certainly not going to make the effort for you.

We don’t want your special discounts. Unless that discount happens to be 25%, which is where the gender pay gap in India stands as per the latest report by Monster India. And no, we don’t want to hear your smug justification about how you spend 25% more time at the workplace than we do. It’s not our fault if you can’t manage your schedule as efficiently. It’s not our fault that we leave on the dot because when we get home, we have even more to do, because no one considers that housework is also work.

We don’t want your complimentary salon services unless you promise to ask each one of your patrons, “Who are you doing this for?” and have them at least ponder the answer before ripping hair out of their skins with hot wax. And we don’t want the allied weight loss programme, ever. Don’t even offer.

We don’t want your free cocktails, because we never liked Ladies’ Night to begin with. Here’s an honest poster for you: “Stags! Here’s bar full of half-drunk women disappointed with watery shots, just waiting to you to hit on them!” Yeah, that. Just try lowering our inhibitions while we’re busy raising our standards.

We don’t want your contests that basically require competing with other women. Just No.

We don’t want your televised speeches and mandatory tweets about the girl child, not when your misogynistic actions and ideologies contradict them.

We don’t want to hear how strong you think (you have to say) we are, because this isn’t a weightlifting tournament.

International Women’s Day falls on March 8th every year, so this is either a day late, or 364 days early. It’s been observed – not celebrated, necessarily, but observed – since 1909, and was initially known as International Working Women’s Day owing to its political (specifically, Socialist) roots. The day’s history is one of strikes and protests, and here are some in India this year: a silent protest by Garment Labour Union in Bangalore, a double-observance of Savitribhai Phule’s death anniversary called Chalo Nagpur, and.. I can’t even find one more to finish my sentence nicely. I dearly hope there are more.

The pink-hued capitalism and condescension we see around us this week demeans the day’s true meaning. How shall we observe it next year?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 9th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Lady-Oriented

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I learned a new adjective to describe myself last week. It’s “lady-oriented”. This expansion to my vocabulary came courtesy of a Central Board of Film Certification document banning the film Lipstick Under My Burkha. Everything about the trailer of the said movie looks amazing. Women having conversations with other women, women exploring fantasies, women admiring themselves in mirrors, women experiencing pleasure. Lady-oriented, definitely. By a woman (Alankrita Shrivastava), full of women and most importantly, for women. What’s not to like – unless maybe you don’t really like women?

Instead, the industry (and its gatekeepers) commend films like Pink (starring Amitabh Bachchan and, sorry, who were the female actors again?). I didn’t like it, but understood: it was a feminist film about women who are not feminists, made for other women and men who are also not feminists. It was not a film made for me, frankly. But Lipstick Under My Burkha might be. Will we ever know? Not if the CBFC has its way.

In Hollywood, meanwhile, a sexual predator just received an Oscar. But Casey Affleck, with multiple sexual harassment allegations against him, is hardly the first. Roman Polanski is only the most obvious example: his 2003 Best Director award was accepted on his behalf as he cannot enter the United States without being incarcerated for rape. Meryl Streep gave his win a standing ovation.

But Brie Larson, who had to present Affleck’s Best Actor awards at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars, refused to even applaud. This, like Denzel Washington’s visible anger at being thanked by the perpetrator, also caught on camera, was the only permitted expression of her horror. For Larson, who won an Oscar herself last year for portraying a sexual abuse survivor, to have to twice felicitate Affleck is a perfect example of the glass ceiling: no matter how hard a woman works, she is ultimately forced to kowtow to the patriarchy, which will always validate even its worst abusers. Sometimes to standing ovations from other women.

To come back to the situation in Indian cinema, actor Prithviraj recently pledged to stop supporting sexist films, apparently having an epiphany after his colleague, who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted, came back to the set. I liked the gist of his statement, as reported, but could not read it beyond “God’s most benevolent yet intricate creations. WOMEN!”, its patronising introduction. What I wonder is this: why did his colleague have to return to work in order for him to achieve enlightenment? If she had chosen to retire, would he have also have kept choosing to play chauvinists, unable to make the connection between environment and effect?  Awe for her bravery – incidentally, a favourite trope of films about, but not for or by, women – is just another form of objectification.

Sigh. How sad it is that nearly every time we want to talk about women’s empowerment, we’re invariably drawn back to the context: misogyny.

That’s why I like this word, “lady-oriented”. It doesn’t even have to consider the male gaze, like literal lipstick worn under a burkha or peaceful ignore-the-doorbell bralessness. May we have more lady-oriented films. May we have more lady-oriented everything.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 2nd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Gaze Of The Pervert

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No one wants to be woken by a trembling loved one in the wee hours of the morning. My mother was shaking, confused, apologetic.  Turning on her phone at dawn, she had been confronted with a web-link and an aggressive message: “shocking to see her exposed like this.”

A young friend of hers, a man of my age, a doctor, a bachelor (that’s right, when women are reduced to their marital statuses, why not charge the discussion this way too?), had attacked her through that most quintessentially patriarchal of manoeuvres: by slutshaming me.

The photo in question has me seated on the floor, a foot stretched out to reveal beautiful anklets. My hair is loose, my expression is soft. I am in fading black jeans and a long sleeved blouse, cut low, my cleavage visible. I look like I am dreaming of important things.

The photo in question had appeared only on a single indie magazine, accompanying an interview, not a television channel or mainstream media. There was no chance he had come across it unless he had actively stalked me, or belongs to any of those hideous groups that sources images of women for public shaming and private pleasure. And in any event, that he had not contacted me directly dispels any lingering doubts. Neither the infantilising of an adult in her 30s nor the harassment of a senior citizen are acceptable.

I had that photo taken. I had control over its publication. I look like myself in that photo. My best self, even. A soft, strong woman at ease in her own skin.

The only obscenity in all this was that man’s gaze, and his sinister confidence that my mother would privilege his perverted morality over my autonomy. He used me to hurt her, and used her to further an ancient agenda of oppressing and punishing women. Unforgivable.

Yet how utterly common it is, the policing of women’s bodies. The great patriarchal paradox is that the female body is annexed as the repository of culture and honour, but is also continuously desecrated by word, deed and gaze. So those who entrust a woman to safeguard those civilisational concepts within the site of her body are the same ones who routinely violate them. And her.

Lately, the historical Nangeli, because of whom 19th century Kerala’s casteist, sexist breast tax was lifted, has come back into discussion owing to the erasure of her story from school textbooks. Infuriated at a system that required lower caste women to first uncover – expose – for appraisal, then pay to cover their breasts publicly (itself a colonial influence; traditionally, we were more comfortable with the fact of breasts), she cut hers off and presented them to the tax collector.

Nangeli’s breasts bloodying a plantain leaf. My breasts in a plunging neckline. Kannagi’s grenade-breast, cindering the city of Madurai, dominion of Meenakshi who was born with three breasts. I – the “slut” – dare to link myself to these emblems of “chastity”. Because both words are constructs, designed to eliminate personal agency and misattribute power. Effectively, there’s no difference between severing and showing. If you see a difference, it’s your gaze that needs checking.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 19th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Loves Of My Life

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She walked in and my jaw fell open. I was onstage, and lost my train of thought mid-sentence. I gushingly apologised to the audience, saying “I’m sorry, I’m so distracted by my friends, thank you all so much for being here!” and half the crowd turned around to see who had made the writer wordless. This particular friend had told me she’d be travelling during my book launch in Chennai last week, but there she was to surprise me – and as I said to her later, she should have worn a feather boa for all the flutter she caused!

It was perfectly fitting, because my new book (The High Priestess Never Marries) is only partly about all the wrong loves. It is in larger part about the right ones. Love for the self, for the world, and for one’s significant others – by which in my case, I plainly and unequivocally mean my friends. Are these platonic friendships? Yes, in a certain very clear-cut sense. But I love holding hands, I love hugging, I rest my head on my friends’ shoulders and they rest their feet on my lap as we talk for hours. I kiss their heads if I don’t want to leave lipstick on their faces. I massage knots out of their backs when they need it. These too are forms of intimacy.

Exhausted the following day, I met another old friend and we literally just slumped on a sidewalk after some sathukudi juice and chattered away. This ease came from years of effort, deep root-reaching. With friends, do things to invest, not impress.

Friendship is grossly underrated in patriarchal society because the cubicle of matrimony is prized above all other bonds.

I took a pool cab home from my sathukudi sidewalk date. Two college-age boys got in and immediately started discussing how painful it was for one of them to hear that a girl they know was seeing someone. They wondered if they would ever find their own “someones”. The next day, I saw another pair of young men in a bookstore pick up a mushy self-help title on romance; one said “Ithu use agum, machan”. I loved this – young men talking openly about their emotions, being willing to learn, and to teach themselves and each other what they need to know. Men of my age and older – empirically, not categorically speaking! – often fail at these things. It made me so happy to actively see the change that feminists like myself have demanded in the personal sphere – one that makes it acceptable for everyone to be tender, vulnerable and hopeful.

I wished the same thing for both pairs of friends I eavesdropped on: that through their societal and sexual “aloneness”, they’d see the love they already have in their lives for what it is.

I wouldn’t want to partner with anyone I don’t love as intoxicatedly as I love my friends. I will never look for a partner or lover to replace anything that my friends give me, for my friendships are not proxies for the real thing. They are the real thing. My significant others. My co-sojourners. The loves of my life.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 12th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.