Tag Archives: love

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.

The Venus Flytrap: A Tale Of Two Poets (aka A Little Aishwarya Rai Appreciation)

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If Karan Johar was going for a parody effect with the character of the poet in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he failed. Essayed by Aishwarya Rai, Saba of the shayaris was surprisingly familiar, real and honest in a way that nothing else in that film was. In a club of her choosing, she grooves to a remix of an iconic ghazal before taking her date home; the next day she tells him not to mistake passion for familiarity. It’s not a line of defense, only of caution, because she proceeds to get to know him, and to invite him into her world of art and contemplation. She’s divorced – love suits her more than marriage did, although when her ex-husband sidles up to her at an art gallery in a moment of cinema coupling perfection, she still recognises him by aura, and smiles. And when she does fall for her current lover, and sees what is not to be, she tells him this too. All in (I’m inferring, because subtitles vazhga, I mean, zindabad) profound, lyrical Urdu.

It wasn’t the first time Aishwarya Rai had played a poet, though. In the grip of that particular melancholy that only a certain kind of cheesy-but-never-cringeworthy cinema can cure, I watched Kandukondein Kandukondein again after ages. And there, in just one scene, was Meenu sitting under a tree overlooking a river’s grassy banks – writing. So she didn’t just read widely, recite Bharati by heart, and manifest a man who knew his words almost (but not quite) as well. She wrote, too. At least until the #1 reason for the fatality of art/ambition among women happened: a deceptively suitable man. (Take it from me – the ones who love you but are too afraid to be with you are more common than linebreaks in verse).

But then again, she did ball up that paper she was writing on and throw it into the scenery before a pretty dubious song sequence.

Imagine if Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s Saba was Kandukondein Kandukondein’s Meenu grown up and grown away. That the longing in her, once a trickle she thought was as pretty as rain, had pooled: tidal, bottomless. So the naïve woman plunging into a temple tank in the village of Poonkudi and the wiser woman who walks cobblestoned roads a continent away, all the while diving into the well of her own emotions and memories, are not so different after all.

Meenu seems to stop writing, starting to sing professionally instead, encouraged by the good if slightly macho man she marries at the movie’s end. Saba, meanwhile, might be who Meenu may have become if her luck had veered just a little off the conventional trajectory. Still writing, still loving. Because she didn’t crush up the core of who she is and throw it into landscape or landfill. Because she kept claiming her words for herself, and not just the ones someone else placed in her mouth. Because, most of all, she’d touched the bottom of the pool she thought was made just to play in, and surfaced from it with knowledge of the deep that can only be learned – but never taught.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 15th 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: 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: 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.

The Venus Flytrap: Koi No Yokan And Kintsugi

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What marvels do the languages we’ll never know contain, what things would they tell us about ourselves if only we knew how to decipher them? Sometimes there are feelings I have that calcify inside me until, years later, a comet of words will set them free like a kiss in a fairytale. What if the words that will give me back to myself are ones I will not even understand?

Those lists of beautiful and supposedly untranslatable words are like too many macaroons at once. I’m not sure such delicate turns of phrase are meant to be gorged that way, instead of being savoured. I encountered one of them, unaccompanied, the other day – and perhaps because it was alone, among lines and not in lists, it arrested me. I mused over it slowly. This was the phrase, from the Japanese language: koi no yokan. The presentiment upon meeting someone that, eventually, you will fall in love with them. But not yet.

The last time I had that sense, I had held on to the possibility like the fact of the moon: full in rarer moments, obscured in most. Sometimes the probability of love took me far, literally. Sometimes I forgot about it. Once or twice, it ambushed me, and I would find myself bawling, as though a claypot I didn’t know was in my hands was suddenly in shards on the floor. All in all, let me say this: what was never promised but expected to be eventual was more inspiring than disappointing. Perhaps some glimpses of love yet to come, intuitions that hold true for only as long as morning dew on a leaf, are meant only to do that much.

The last time I really loved someone, I didn’t have a clue that it would come to pass for the year and a half in which I had known him peripherally, before he suddenly came into view like an aperture of sight or imagination had been adjusted. I never saw it coming, and sifting through memory later, I was humbled by the intricacy of life’s convolutions, how something only a short distance away had never shimmered at me with sweet allusion, or cast its spectral foreshadow.

Although here’s what I suspect and may never be told the truth about: he knew before I did. He’d had that presentiment, and if he had known the Japanese words, he may have known what to call it.

There are other words now to fill the gap that cannot be bridged. I know some of them. Others hover outside my comprehension.

Mulling over koi no yokan, I remembered that where that early recognition had caused me pain had actually always been only in platonic friendships. Their loss scars me far deeper than amorous disillusionment. I’ve matured into a tendency to see romance as transient in ways that I refuse to presume, even now, of friendship. I spent all of this year recovering from two friendships that failed my faith in them.

Again, and always, another Japanese word: kintsugi. The art of fixing what’s broken with gold, which hides neither its beauty nor the reason for its need.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 22nd 2016. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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)