Tag Archives: independence

The Venus Flytrap: Even The High Priestess Has To Hustle

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In the classic Sex And The City episode, “A Woman’s Right To Shoes”, Carrie – a successful, single writer – attends a birthday party for the child of an old friend. She is requested to remove her shoes at the door. When she goes to retrieve them as she leaves, she finds that someone with the same size and very little impulse control has strutted off in them. Specifically, in $485 Manolo Blahnik heels.

After a few days, Carrie sheepishly goes back to check if the shoes may have turned up. Her friend offers to pay for them, balks at their cost, tells Carrie she finds it ridiculous and gives her less than half instead. She thoroughly shames her for what she calls her “extravagant lifestyle” and compares it unfavourably against her choices: kids, houses and the like.

Carries leaves, feeling awful, and eventually comes to her senses: if she has spent large sums of money on gifts for this friend at all the “milestones” of her life (most recently, her child’s party), why does her friend begrudge the achievements of hers, just because they don’t involve matrimony and mortgages? She finds an ingenious way to prove her point that plays right into her friend’s bourgeois worldview.

I recently watched this episode again after many years and found myself quite emotionally invested in it. I identified with Carrie’s shame and indignation, and wished for myself her audacity in fixing the situation. Instead of stewing in a pot of polite resentment, as I’ve been doing.

In October, I had not one but two new books published: The High Priestess Never Marries and The Ammuchi Puchi. My social media feeds right now alternate between the evocative red of the first’s cover and the vibrant jewel tones of the second’s pages. But each time I talk or share about my books, I feel guilty and apologetic.

Because you see, ultimately, devotion to art is not seen as legitimate in the eyes of most of society. It’s the thing you do because you’re selfish. It’s the thing you do because you snub approved goalposts. It’s the thing you do because a girl like you with so much time on her hands needs a hobby.

I don’t believe any of that. But I’m affected by it. What a catch-22: if I didn’t care, I wouldn’t have made the labours of love that I have made.

Why should I feel like I’m hustling when all I’m doing is showing you my heart? And my heart isn’t composed of hashtags, it isn’t crowdsourced attention, it isn’t app-friendly. My heart isn’t the hubris of overnight success, it isn’t borrowed or bought.

Not your baby’s first poop, but my baby’s first reader. Not my selfie of the day, but my selfhood, woven in words. Not a smile plastered on in hungover honeymoon photos, but the tears I wasn’t afraid to let anyone see. Not a posh new address on Papa’s money, but the sanctuary I am building with my own hands and the gifts and curses life gave me.

I cheer on the choices you make. Why can’t you cheer on the chances I take?

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

Book Review: The Goddess And The Nation: Mapping Mother India by Sumathi Ramaswamy

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The idea of nationhood (or, say, the idea of empire) is predated by a long, animistic history of the idea of the earth itself as a fertile, maternal source. The emblematic figures (Britannia, Mother Russia, Marianne among them), almost always associated with revolutionary or consolidating eras, that have been taken to represent these motherlands are in many ways developments from that fundamental impulse, even without religious connotations. In The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India, Sumathi Ramaswamy turns her attention to Bharat Mata. The book contains 150 fascinating images of and relating to this modern “goddess” – a pre-Independent Indian invention of significant historical interest.

Ramaswamy’s accompanying text, however, suffers from a number of failings, both in proposition and delivery. Overly verbose and almost tediously academic, the writing could have benefited a great deal from a sense of irreverence. Ramaswamy deeply dislikes the icon who is the subject of her work, mostly on account of Bharat Mata’s Hindu-hegemonic associations. To have expressed this dislike with more pluck and spark instead of thinly veiled contempt would have made for far more engaging reading.

It helps to begin by considering a brief history of the image: it originated in Bengal several decades before Independence, and the first of its most notable appearances was in a painting by Abanindranath Tagore (circa 1904) of an unadorned, sadhu-like woman. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s hymn Vande Mataram (“I worship the mother”) was brought into the nationalist movement by Rabindranath Tagore in 1896 (the writer otherwise opposed the concept of nation as woman/mother, as in his novel The Home and The World). The hymn became associated, at least per Ramaswamy’s narrative, with an increasingly militant, Durga-like representation of Bharat Mata. During the five decades or so of its greatest popularity, the new demigoddess could be seen draped in the tricolor, suckling the children of her nation, riding a lion, handing weapons to her favourite sons and so on – all while sitting on, standing in front of, or literally embodying the map of India.

The author makes one noteworthy contribution to the field of visual arts theory: the rather poetic term “barefoot cartography”, referring to “a set of demotic practices and techniques whose primary creative influence and aesthetic milieu is the art of the bazaar”, with the bazaar being taken to mean the kitsch style seen on calendars, hoardings, film posters and the like. The term is lovely, but its use in this book is largely condescending.

Ramaswamy approaches the artists and activists associated with these images through a strangely skewed prism. Decontextualized, everybody from the nameless painters of mass-produced prints to Amrita Sher-Gil, Subramania Bharati and Sister Nivedita are tarred with the suggestion (if not accusation) of being in support of sectarian Hindu nationalism. The book is rife with bizarre logic: for example, that Sister Nivedita loved and wished to distribute Abanindranath Tagore’s benign painting while also being a devotee of Kali is “inconsistent”, as though spiritual leanings and aesthetic ones are always aligned (and how colonialist/Orientalist is the idea of a bloodthirsty, one-dimensional Kali anyway?). That Amrita Sher-Gil, who was once moved to declare that “India belongs only to me”, painted her Mother India as a dark-skinned beggar “seems sacrilegious” to the author, because it is unlike the recognizable luminous, light-skinned deity-figure who more popularly bore that name. Sacrilegious to whom? The purveyors of the Bharat Mata image, who essentially fashioned a new object of veneration, may have expressed themselves in traditional idioms but didn’t see ingenuity as blasphemy.

Consider also two examples of how non-divine women in propagandist paintings are read. In the first, in reference to a photo of women during a street march in the 1930s, there is this line: “women have a special claim on (a sari-clad) Mother India by virtue of being (sari-clad) females themselves”. In the second, after some discussion about how the female soldiers of the Rani of Jhansi regiment wore standard uniforms and not saris, she writes that “the barefoot cartographer[‘s] own vision of love-service-sacrifice could seemingly only accommodate the male body as the armed defender or map and mother”. What did women wear if not saris at the time, and why reduce them to their sartoriality? And how does realistically portraying the Ranis as they were dressed reflect an andro-normative worldview; would it be preferred that they fight in saris, too? Such an incredible disregard for historical context is frustrating and baffling.

Ramaswamy gives herself away in a series of adjectives midway through the book: “Bharat Mata’s offensive, divisive and embarrassing anthropomorphic form”. It is the last of the descriptors that is most revealing. Bharat Mata’s contemporary co-opting into the right-wing visual vocabulary is certainly problematic. But from a historical perspective, it is necessary to bear in mind that we are all bound by the orthodoxies, conventions and lexis of our times. She may be read as a Hindu nationalist emblem today, but through its heyday the symbol was, though naïve, mainly and merely nationalist – an allegiance that was less unpopular (in fact, downright subversive) in colonial times than it is today.

Multidenominational manifestations of the image, which could have benefited from deeper study, receive only cursory mentions: for instance a march in Rajahmundry in 1927 in which students sang Vande Mataram while carrying banners that said “Allahu Akbar”, or an image in Subramania Bharati’s Intiya magazine which also carried the Bharat Mata image as well as the Muslim phrase. And some omissions are evident: such as how, oddly, Ramaswamy completely misses the Christ-reference in a 1931 illustration of a crucified man within the outline of India.

The book’s most interesting chapter focuses on the first temple to the symbol, inaugurated in Benares in October 1936 by Mahatma Gandhi. Strikingly, the temple contained no idol: Bharat Mata was the cartographic India itself, a sprawling relief map in marble. Offerings such as flowers were not permitted. In many ways, this can be read as the most inclusive evolution of the symbol: non-religious, privileging the scientific, without demographic markers or restrictions. Yet here again, Ramaswamy chides the “refusal – in fact failure – to create a set of secular rituals”. What are secular rituals? Why should any rituals be created at all? The author suggests that their creation would have saved the monument from its relative obscurity, but it helps to remember that the symbol of Bharat Mata herself is a sort of anachronism from a time when such a symbol had, and to some extent fulfilled, its purposes. Aside from M.F. Husain (whose attraction to geopoliticizing the female form in a way that is possibly Hindu Ramaswamy seems vaguely uncomfortable with), there hasn’t been a contemporary visual artist in decades who has worked notably with the image.

The Goddess and The Nation is a passionless study about a subject that arose out of the passionate struggle of multitudes, then fell into disrepute. The book closes with a mention of the “delicious subversion” of the barefoot cartographers – something which the author otherwise refutes throughout it. Such contradictions are rife, but one in particular stands out – Ramaswamy writes that barefoot cartographers demurred from portraying the violent deaths of female martyrs for the nation, but when the assassination of Indira Gandhi is rendered violently, “the limits of patriotism’s barefoot cartographic imagination have been reached [because of] the risk of pointing to the death of the very mother and map for which many of its martyrs have given up their lives.” Barefoot cartography, by its nature, is diverse and constantly evolving. The only limits to such an imagination are those imposed by predisposition and condescension.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

The Venus Flytrap: Damsel In Dangerlok

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Being of a consummately indolent species, and what more, having recently crossed into the zone of being over a quarter of a century old (and therefore prone to, and hopefully excused for, senility and imperiousness), I consider it a bit of an achievement to finish reading two books in a day. The two I read on that particular day were both autobiographical to some degree – one was candidly subtitled as a memoir, while the other carried all the markings of thinly-disguised non-fiction – but were diametrically opposed in the domestic lives of the women protagonists in question.

Isabel Allende, in The Sum Of Our Days, offered a relatively vanilla account of her matronly interference in bringing her “tribe”, her “people”, together over the course of a decade or so. Eunice De Souza, on the other hand – or more accurately, her alter-ego, Rina Ferreira – went about with parrots sitting on her head (there is proof of this elsewhere – a glorious photo of De Souza doing just this while smoking in her kitchen in her bathrobe exists) in Dangerlok, her scrumptious novel about a lecturing poet, single and past middle age, enjoying her solitude and flexing its margins as and when she pleases. There may have been some vanilla in this book, but it was probably infused in vodka.

I know who my tribe are, and I know them to be both a very small group and one that is widely dispersed. This is how I prefer it, although it helps to have a few dear ones within a reasonable radius. I feel the same way about my “people”, and by this I mean (see the earlier point about imperiousness first) my readers. Recently, I had to count the publications my stories and poems have appeared in and noted there were two dozen – half of which featured my work in the past fifteen months alone.  What made me happiest was that if I made only one new reader as a result of each of those journals, that tallied up to enough. How many true readers can a poet have in her lifetime anyway? A colleague – or a comrade if you will – once told me that he placed the agreeable number at around twenty. That night, having taken my estimate (and a nightcap for good measure), I slept contentedly, assured my work in the world was plodding along as it should.

What occupies me more and more is not the question of whether to live alone or not, but how. I think my needs are relatively simple. A room to sleep in, a room to work in, a well-stocked fridge, some plants, unobtrusive neighbours (if any), and some sort of animal – either a cat with a sanguine personality or a small dog (I didn’t grow up with dogs and want one thanks to both an acquired affection and a need to compensate). Friends are always welcome but can’t borrow my books or trinkets. Nobody ever wakes me unless explicitly requested to.

How soon can I do this and how far away can I get? 25 and already a curmudgeon (but I will tell you this: I was never young). You can rest assured, though, there will be no parrots in my hair. Owls in a tree, though, if I can have that. And butterflies.

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.

Guest Column: IDiva’s “Break Free” issue

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I had a guest column appear in Times of India’s IDiva supplement today. The brief I was given was “life as a PYT (pretty young thing) in Chennai”. What fun!

Whatever anyone might say about me and my having grown up abroad, take this: I lived in Sowcarpet for eight months in my late teens. How’s that for street cred? And when I say lived, I mean it – glam, bling, potty mouth and all. So whenever I think that even Nungambakkam can’t take my sass, I remind myself: if I was rocking my divahood in a North Madras labyrinth five years ago, this city better learn to keep up with me!

But it’s true: life as a PYT in a decidedly unsexy city like Chennai is a challenge, and the secret to it is to never forget it. Never take it for granted. So every time a girlfriend and I have a Zara’s or 10D lunch and order a pitcher for just the both of us, every time I take the 29C in a sleeveless blouse and don’t get hassled, every time I stare down that horrible policeman who patrols my road on evenings, harassing single women, until he revs up his bike and retreats – I celebrate it!

The way I see it, it’s a choice. You can let the parochial mentalities and hypocrisies depress you, or you can engage with the city as it is. Like all sexually repressed societies, Chennai is obsessed. Which means that as women, we are actually far more objectified than we would be in freer societies. I say, embrace it. If every Raman, Soman and Quick Gun Murugan on the street can admire your goods, why can’t you? We live in one of the few places on earth where it’s perfectly acceptable to wear flowers in your hair, for any occasion and for none at all. Sarees, salangai, all of Pondy Bazaar rolled out for your choosing. A great town to look like a woman, as my transgender friends will attest. Reclaim the kitsch. And the chic.

The truth was, for me, there was a defining moment – what I call my “When I Learnt To Stop Worrying And Embrace My Expat Status” moment. It took months of Fab India kurtas, polite smiling, neutralizing my Ceylon Tamil accent and general diffidence before it happened. But once I realised that nothing was worth losing my spark for, I stopped compromising.

Finally, it helps to keep a sense of perspective. One of my favourite Chennai anecdotes is of when my older friend (who was as much a badass in her time as I am today, and even more so now) suddenly put out her cigarette with a mumbled expletive, then went up to an old woman and her grandchild and made small talk.

When she came back to see me laughing at this show of conformity, she said, “You know that old woman? She has issues with my smoking – but she once sent a nude photo of herself to a friend of my dad’s”. My laughter turned to shock. My friend winked. “Bet you wish I’d told you that before you saw her, eh?”

Oh yes, my fellow PYTs (and our wannabes) – this town has seen a lot before us, and will see a lot after us too. I just plan to leave stiletto tracks visible enough for the next generation. No hypocrisy here.

The Venus Flytrap: Viva La Diva

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True to her reputation, the diva never lets on that she knows how to swim, but shoved off a plank, she’ll stay afloat like a Salem witch. And what’s more, she’ll kick – hard, with resolve, and at anything that tries to keep her submerged. If you think the diva can be drowned, you’re wrong. Even when it looks like she’s gone under, she’s only blowing bubbly kisses to the coral, and you can rest assured the coral is waving back.

The diva is all kinds of cool, of course. She refuses, not straddles, dichotomies. She appraises Picasso’s division of all women into two categories (goddesses and doormats), assumes herself to be in the former, then chews out the master himself for his lack of imagination. She prays for miracles but distrusts deus ex machinae. She’s rumoured to bite, but mostly bleeds. The diva, she cries. Then she puts her face back on and sets her jaw. The diva is best met in mirrors.

Because to own your divahood isn’t just to put on your red heels on a complicated day and parade anyway. To tap into one’s inner diva is an act of resistance. The diva is the one who laughs like a woman with straight teeth though hers are not, the one who doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve but seared on her skin. The diva learns how to dive eventually – but only because she’s been pushed off the edge so many times.

When I say I speak in defense of the diva, I’m not speaking in defense of the bitch, the backstabber or the beauty queen. I’m speaking in defense of that little flame inside that picks its broken self off the kitchen floor and then makes you do the same after every extinguishing. That flame is your diva, because only something so bulletproof, so deliberately defiant, can endure so much. And that, the diva, for all her tantrums, for all her impossibilities, certainly is. To tap into one’s inner diva is an act of resistance, and the diva herself is by nature irresistible.

My favourite fictional diva is Hedwig from the cult musical-turned-film Hedwig And The Angry Inch. Surviving heartbreak, plagiarism, communism and a botched sex change operation that leaves her not between but beyond gender itself, Hedwig takes the world on with just one wing and an assortment of wigs. “It’s what I have to work with,” says Hedwig, in the film’s most chillingly universal moment. The diva takes what she can get, works her tragedy into triumph, and dares to ask for much, much more.

“Kiss me and you will see how important I am,” wrote Sylvia Plath in her journal, and for this line alone I have forgiven her everything else. I love my Mae West, my Maria Elena, all the multiple goddesses I channel with affection and aspiration. But tonight, I’ll toast to the Plath who wrote that line. I can see her now: open face, determined chin, the eyes of a beggar but the smile of a coquette. The diva who will say it, feel it, write the poem, feel even worse, and publish it anyway. And when they ask why, I’ll answer as myself, my most favourite diva of all: I don’t kiss and tell, I just kiss and write poems.

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.