Tag Archives: freedom

5 Decades Of Desire: The 30s

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I am often assailed by longing for the woman I was at the cusp of 26, neither too young to know nor old enough to know too much. Not only was I free-spirited and passionate, but I was also met by what I sought. Except, as I sensed even then, I could not keep them: those entanglements, that exhilaration. And so, I am also often assailed by compassion for the woman I was at the cusp of 26.

This year, I will turn 32. But right now, I am 31 – “a viable, die-able age”, as Arundhati Roy unforgettably wrote in The God of Small Things. I prefer to focus on the first word. There is so much that is viable about being a never-married woman in her 30s.

It is true that on any given day, I am likely to feel more lucky than lonely. The blessings of being unburdened are easy to count, and I have the luxury of counting them often. But it’s not all lovers and solo travel and disposable income and possibility. It is also, more often, practical thinking and responsibility and the weariness of combat. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

But why is it that I feel lucky? More than anything else, it’s because I’ve outgrown so much conditioning about what a woman’s life should look like. Even, in fact, what a wild woman’s life should look like. I’m more interested in what it is. Do I believe in Love with a capital ‘L’?  I’ve found pondering the question a waste of the imagination, when I now much prefer the small ‘l’, the verb, the everyday extravagance of being and feeling instead of waiting.

This life that is neither tragic nor in need of rescuing is anomalous, and I recognise why it’s necessary to not present a unidimensional version of it. So here is another truth: that there is melancholy. Last year, I climbed into an autorickshaw wearing an empire waist tunic and the driver gently suggested that I move to the middle for a less bumpy ride, as I appeared to be newlywed and “carrying”. I struggled not to cry on that ride, not because of anything as inane as mistaking concern for body shaming but because those things are not true for me, and may never be true. I am soft and never-wed and I carry memories, desires, legacies and scars, but only and all of me.

But the beauty of being this age, of having arrived here tenderly, toughly, is the sincere acceptance that it’s alright. All of it – melancholy, uncertainty, anger, hunger and even moments of bitterness – is perfectly alright. They are balanced by laughter, courage, wisdom and – yes – pleasures little and large. We are all every age we have ever been. And sometimes I am already all the ages I will ever be. The great moral challenge of my decades to come, should they come, is whether I’ll be able to hold on to both: unyielding principles and petal-perceptive heart.

An edited version appeared in The Indian Express on International Women’s Day, 2017.

Love, Freedom, Solitude & Consequence

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When negotiating the delicate balance between aloneness and isolation, these lines from Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Vinegar and Oil” waft back to me – “Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,/ right solitude oils it. // How fragile we are, between the few good moments.” There are ways to reject the institution of marriage without having to deny the emotional impact of giving up social legitimacy, protection and – indeed – companionship. That’s the reason why my new book of short stories, The High Priestess Never Marries, is subtitled as follows: Stories of Love and Consequence.

There are consequences to loving, there are consequences to pretending to be in love, there are consequences to leaving, there are consequences to pretending to not want love. No matter who you are, you must negotiate these.

These are the consequences that the intelligent, and often very brave, women in my book of stories confront. They are women who, if you asked them, would say “bachelorette” is an andro-centric diminutive; reclaiming “spinster” is a stronger statement. They are widows. They are adulterers. They are lovers, they are losers, they are leavers, they are seekers.

The institution of marriage is profoundly problematic, deeply patriarchal in nature. To be a feminist is to necessarily challenge it. In India, for instance, we know that statistically speaking, women are leaving the workforce at an unprecedented rate (participation stands at just 27%, even compared to 37% a decade ago) – which means that a woman’s passions and ambitions, no matter her achievements or education level, are simply sublimated into the system. We know that only 5% of marriages are inter-caste, which means that even in so-called “love marriages”, the fundamental function of the institution as a means to perpetuate hierarchical systems remains virtually intact. We know that marital rape is not recognised by law, incontrovertible proof of the idea that a woman, and by extension her body, become the property of the household into which she marries. These are not uniquely Indian problems. It is not a coincidence that the English word “husband” is of agricultural origin: a wife was among the possessions he managed on his property.

It must be possible to challenge the system from within it, and some of the characters in my book try to, through transgressions and interrogations. But to not be within it affords its own agency, even as it strips a woman of privileges as varied as not being regarded as morally bankrupt to the literal, physical security of a companion to walk dark streets with (a companion who, if questioned by the equally patriarchal law enforcement system, can validate the relationship where a woman’s word alone has no currency). And it’s those women – the loners and non-conformists, who largely fill the pages of this book.

Autonomy may be stained with fear, but it is pervaded by freedom. It is in this freedom that the characters in The High Priestess Never Marries play, pray, push the envelope and prise their own hearts open continuously. They dive into the myths. They trek into the mountains. They dip their paintbrushes into the palettes of their lives. They serve their hearts on a platter, seasoned to perfection. They weep into the sea. They have lovers’ tiffs with the moon. They copulate with trees and devote themselves to deities. They keep very still. They sing. They sigh. They say No, they say Never, they say Not Now – they say Yes Yes Yes O Yes.

They fall. But how they fly.

(An edited version appeared on Bonobology.com)

The Venus Flytrap: When You Burn A Bridge, But You’re Still On Fire

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The forests are burning, again, and so are the bridges. In one of the most striking images that I‘ve seen, a trajectory of incandescence outlines the distant black hills against the night sky, while the reflection of the blaze dapples the Ganga waters. Visually hypnotic, but terrible both in cause and consequence. The burning has gone on for a long time.

Those bridges I spoke of are only metaphorical: one way to find sense and language for this much incineration.

How does one withdraw support from those who abuse it? Amputation is a question of the correct knife. Sometimes, a needle will do to loosen a knot. Sometimes, it takes the the heaviness of a guillotine. Most times, it requires pulling out the knife that was plunged into one’s back and using it to stake freedom.

You built a bridge so you could share the bounty of your own land. You built a bridge so you could live more of other places, other impressions. You built a bridge because there was someone on a further bank who seemed to need it badly, and you misunderstood those who paid no heed as cruel, not cautious. You built a bridge so you could stand at its centre and marvel at how you suspended everything – doubt and mistrust and past failure – to build it anyway, and here it stands. And still you arrive at the day when you find the balustrades breaking down, the traffic one-way, and silt  weakening the foundations you lay with your own hands. And so you set a torch to it, and as the first flicker kindles, the words in your mouth and your beaten, beating heart are I’m free, I’m free, I’m free.

What is not known about amputation, except by those who have successfully performed it, is this: you don’t cut anything of another person away. You only excise that which has become gangrenous within you because of your involvement with them.

I woke very early one morning this weekend with the awareness that I was carrying tight orbs of anger and unhappiness, forms of thwarted love that had outlived their circumstantial triggers. I was as surprised by them as I would have been to find mice in my mattress, and I responded in the same way. They had no place in my life, in my body, in my bed. The arsonists behind those conflagrations had long since left or been left, but this was what they had left behind.

Who set the forests on fire? Who taught you tears could douse them? I looked at those red-hot burdens and said: this is my work to do.

Boundaries are just as beautiful as bridges. They keep out those who don’t deserve your bounty, your benevolence. But as you draw the lines and keep vigil within them, know that everything that wound up on your riverbank still belongs to you. Some things you cannot transmute except by way of bonfire.

You’ve been an inferno for a long time, any way.

What rises from the ashes is aurelian, smoke-feathered, jewel-eyed. It takes flight by the light of broken bridges as they burn.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 5th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Nothing To Laugh About

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It was the middle-aged waiter’s sweetly apologetic tone and awkward phrasing that gave him away. Clearly, he was not the one with the objection. He was only the messenger.

This is what he said: “You have independence. But please, laugh a little quietly?” Sudhandhiram – the Tamil word for independence; he knew he was infringing on our rights, and he wanted us to know that he was sorry. We were two women who had finished a long lunch, eaten three types of dessert, and paid the bill. We were loitering, already considered a suspect activity for women. Ladies loitering while laughing loudly. Someone – patron or staff or management – had found this worthy of reprimand.

I have a big laugh. People recognise me by it in crowded auditoriums. Strangers turn to look upon hearing it (possibly to check they haven’t wandered into the set of a horror movie). I do not cover my mouth with a dupatta when I laugh. I do not usually wear a dupatta, in fact, because I don’t believe that anything should be covered unless in the interest of weather or aesthetics, rather than decorum.

I’ve jumped ahead a few paces because there’s something you and I, and everyone in this uncomfortable status quo, knows axiomatically. No one would have dared to go up to a chuckling man about to leave a restaurant and told him (politely or otherwise) to can it.

A woman who makes her presence felt – merely through function, existence or expression – in a public space is a public nuisance. And a woman who does not invisibilise herself makes her presence felt. Anywhere. Women who breastfeed on overnight buses. Girls who sweat through their football jerseys until their coloured sports bras show. Women who have to buy three movie tickets just so that no one sits on either side of them. Women who scream for help through thin walls while the neighbours turn the TV up louder.

I believe in silence in libraries and in meditation halls. I believe public walls should not be pissed against, and bhajans shouldn’t be played on loudspeakers. These are courtesies. They affect large numbers of people as they study, reflect, commute, sleep. They are intersections at which personal liberties can infringe on others. They are not gendered. Not even the open urination thing.

In conversations about women in public spaces, the topic we discuss the most is safety. In this painfully unequal world of ours, it is a concern. But a group of four women will still be asked, “Are you out alone?” (“No, each of us is out with three other people for company”). This is because the conversation has yet to extend to the notion of rights to public space. To be there, basically. To step into a public space should not mean giving up one’s autonomy over one’s body, voice or mobility. It should not mean adjusting (that delightful term used for everything from marriages to train bunks to bra straps) one’s very presence so that it looks, sounds and seems more like an absence.

In a world that makes one weep, we must take every chance to laugh out loud.

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

The Venus Flytrap: I’ll Always Have Paris

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Paris was the gift I gave myself when no one else would have me. It was an armistice of beauty I bought in a time of despair. I had wept my way through a month in England and a week in Berlin and arrived, fragile cargo, at the city of light. There, I breathed easily for a handful of days near the end of that summer. And then I would go back to India, and to much worse yet to come. But those few and blessed days became some of the most precious stones I’d bead onto the thread of my life. I knew them by touch: a memory I felt for whenever I doubted my gifts, my deservingness or my capacity to love myself. They still shimmer.

            This is what Paris is to many people – those who have set foot in it, and those who know it in fantasy. On Saturday, I woke up to the news about the terrorist strikes on the city. I saw the mourning on social media first before I saw the reason why. “An attack on Paris is an attack on love”, someone* wrote on Facebook. And indeed it is. Not just love in the romantic sense, but love in the sense of altruistic compassion, which is formalised in the ideology known as democracy. Something about the city stands for freedom – whether that is the freedom to kiss or the freedom to think. Paris is beautiful in ways both intangible and palpable. It stands for the idea that life can be beautiful, and then it shows you how. At a distance, the city is a muse. In attendance, it is living magic.

            I took a room in Montmartre that overlooked a ficus-gilded wall. For four days, I wandered by the river, in the churches, to the museums. I saw a woman with a cobalt blue parrot in the Latin Quarter one day and outside my hotel the next. I clicked a love-lock into place. In the most charming sequence from those days soaked in the miraculous, I found myself crying with joy in the Tuileries one afternoon, unable to believe that I could feel anything other than pain for the first time in a long time, and when I left the gardens and crossed a bridge, a stranger stopped me and gave me a gold-plated ring. She said it belonged to me. And so it does.

            This is not entirely panegyric. My first day in Paris was spent in its outskirts, in its underbelly if you will, among refugees. That’s a story for another time. But I know that story too.

            Does Paris matter more than Beirut or Baghdad? Does it matter more than Damascus or Maiduguri? Does it matter more than Muzaffarnagar? No. I am sad about Paris not because of outraged sentiments, but because of pure sentimentality. I am angry, about other places near and far, every single day. None among us is omniscient, which is the simple reason why our indignation or concern appears to be selective. We learn later, and then we know better next time. If you are upset about what happened in Paris because terrorism is terrible, then recognise fear-mongering under any name it appears by. If you aren’t particularly upset about what happened in Paris, but you care about liberté, égalité, fraternité, then recognise what is at stake. Everywhere. Maybe the attacks on Paris hurt so much because the city is a civilisational catalyst, one in which those principles are already – and I use this word deliberately – enshrined.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 16th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

*With thanks to Narayani Nadesan

The Venus Flytrap: Not A Private Matter

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When I became involved with Chennai’s first LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender – or in broad terms, queer) Pride Month, I fully expected to encounter disapproval from openly intolerant people and organizations. But more disturbing were the less transparent remonstrations, from individuals who seemed far more open-minded than the average Chennaiite. The most lingering of these impressions was when I was told that the rights of sexual minorities are less important than other causes, and that they are, and should stay, “a private issue”.

Whether or not an issue is more or less important than others is a highly subjective matter – we always fight against or for what hurts or matters to us most, based on what we are exposed to by virtue of our circumstances. But the underlying contention was that queer rights only affect some people, whereas issues like education, clean sewage and pollution affect everybody.

And this is where I beg to differ.

Fact is that sexuality and sexual agency are extremely public issues. The entire so-called moral bedrock of society is based on forcing people to behave in certain sanctioned ways, regardless of whether or not these ways are in tune with their biological, psychological and emotional orientations. If this wasn’t the case, arranged marriages – which organize people’s sexual behaviour within a regimented, strictly heterosexual social framework – would not exist. Vast swathes of misogynistic behaviour would all but disappear, because much such behaviour comes as reaction to the threat perceived in fully self-possessed female sexuality. Count honour killings, eve-teasing and molestations – any act of “punishment” based on gender and sexuality – among them. Women would have complete autonomy over their uteruses. People could marry out of caste or culture freely. Divorce would be destigmatized. Asexuality, too, would be accepted as part of the continuum of possible sexualities.

And of course, if sexuality was a private issue, archaic Penal Code laws that criminalize private adult sexual behaviours (such as consensual anal sex between men) would not exist. The law would stay out of bedrooms (and yes, bathrooms and brothels), as long as consent is present. Did you know that under Section 377 of the Code, oral sex between consenting heterosexual adults is technically illegal? Does all this still seem like a minorities’ problem?

I see the Pride movement as paving the way for a society that is better for everybody in it, not just queer people. An environment which is accepting of diverse sexualities is one in which everyone, including straight people and people who “don’t make a big deal about their orientation”, is freer. Perhaps then sexuality will truly be a private matter.

Freer to do what, you may ask? To me, the answer is simple – to love who they love, and be who they are. And if that’s not an issue that matters to every person there is, so universal that no one – bar no one – is unaffected by it, I don’t know what is. Ultimately, I don’t think this is about sex nearly as much as it is about freedom, identity – and love.

So this June, as supporters take to the streets in a fabulous parade, raise awareness (and the roof!) with panel discussions, performances and film screenings, bear in mind just how many people we’re fighting for. All with open hearts will be welcomed with open arms.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

For more details about Chennai Pride 2009, check out the Facebook group.