Tag Archives: murder

The Venus Flytrap: Cassandra In The Kingdom Of Closed Eyes

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A boy is knifed in a train and bleeds to death on his brother’s lap on a station platform and no one sees. A young woman is stabbed and bleeds to death on another station platform and no one sees, but someone covers her with a shawl so that her womanly shape isn’t visible, for that is all they can see of her. Something cold sits on my heart, listening to them; how do they do it, looking me straight in the eyes and blithely revealing that they are among the unseeing?

They don’t register the headlines, the statistics, the faces, the stories. They demand proof even as it plays out before them. They claim blips and skewings, and when faced with facts, claim conspiracy. Last weekend I saw someone carrying a poster with a version of Bob Dylan’s words: “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?” Some – no, many – deaths don’t count because some (many) lives matter less than others. There’s a quota that can never be filled enough for them to say “Enough”. That’s not a riot, they say. And a riot’s not a holocaust. And at least a holocaust is not… well, no one will be left to finish that sentence.

And someone will ask me (I know the script) – how can you connect them, the boy with the skull cap and the girl with the stalker – and like a fabulist I will have to try to prove a theory of invisibility. About how there are reasons why some people can only see some things and not others. And I will play right into their hands when I tell them: when a girl was raped on a bus five years ago, you lit candles and raged, when the same thing happened to another girl in Salem a month ago, you scrolled past her, just like you did the one whose body was towed in a garbage truck, the pregnant one found brutalised at the bottom of a well, the one who was never written about at all but whom you would have ignored anyway.

Then they’ll say: where were you when the earth first wept (not yet born), or when that other silence stuck like tar (raising my voice, then as now, but it didn’t carry in the wind) or when those other dead were named (I hadn’t known then – but you had). As though their wilful, obstinate unseeingness is vindicated because of my not being omniscient. And they never turn the same question on themselves: where are you now, as this unfolds, and why do you justify it? And if you ask, they say flatly, “But there is nothing happening.”

They cannot see the forest burning for all the ashes in the trees. Cannot see structure, system, sense. Cannot see anything beyond their own noses, even as they fill with noxious smoke.

Here’s what I see then, if you can tolerate a Cassandra in the kingdom of closed eyes: nothing we have not already seen. Nothing humanity does not already know. Nothing humanity can forget – unless humanity has forgotten the meaning of itself.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Quiet Outrage And Battle Fatigue

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On Saturday afternoon, I climbed into an auto I had hailed on the street just as a small group of teenagers were walking by on the other side. They were a mixed group of boys and girls, smiling and chatty with one another, and at least one of the girls was in a sleeveless outfit that ended at the knee. I registered fairly little of them, and would not have thought about them for a split second longer, had the driver not spoken just then.

I paraphrase from Tamil: “Like this, of course they’ll get their necks slashed.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Didn’t that happen at that train station? If they walk around the city undressed, what else is going to happen but getting their necks slashed?”

“Stop the auto.”

He did. I disembarked silently and took a few steps away. He drove off. I didn’t note his license plate. I didn’t take a photo. What would the point of Internet-shaming him be? Would it stop women from being attacked? Would it change people’s attitudes? Or would it just be one more app-friendly act of resistance, the kind that saturates our feeds yet does not spill over into our lived practices of equal partnering, better parenting or structural overhaul? Petty wins don’t give me power trips. They give me fatigue. The battle is so much bigger, and so continuous.

That evening, I read about Qandeel Baloch’s murder at the hands of her brother. The auto driver had thought a teenage girl deserved a brutal death for wearing something she must have liked. He found it only natural to relay this as a passing comment. Baloch’s brother had had that same thought. He carried it out. Somewhere in Pakistan is a college lecturer, or a taxi driver, or a research analyst – anyone at all, of any gender – pointing to a woman they don’t know as they tell someone else that she’s asking for it. For her boldness. For her vibrance. For her desire to simply be.

“So, he didn’t aruthufy your throat, no?” Many I know would have taken the ride anyway. They told me so. An auto driver is as irrelevant and impersonal to them as the teenager was to him. Neither of those dehumanisations are right.

The act of disengaging, for me, was more loaded than outrage. This is not categorically true; it must be used with acumen. But we cannot be so rash with the latter that we forget that a lived practice manifests in myriad ways.

I quietly unfriended one sleazebag and one mansplainer recently. I quietly wait for friends with problematic politics to arrive at certain insights that click only when they’re experienced, not tutored. I quietly listen when elderly conservatives bluster, and then I quietly go home and write. And that afternoon, I quietly remained standing on that street with my arm held out, alone. I hadn’t raised my voice. But I had stood my ground.

Several minutes later, the same driver came back around. “Naanthan,” he said, a little sheepishly.

Vendam,” I said. He moved on, a stupid grin still on his face. I didn’t have that luxury.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 21st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Illusion Of Safety Is A Highly Gendered Phenomenon

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Some years ago, a spectacularly acrimonious argument with an auto driver had me racing up several flights of stairs, palms sweating, ears ringing with filthy curses, desperately seeking the reassurance of the friend who opened the door. Shaken, I recounted the incident: the driver knew where I lived, I was at the drop-off location frequently, it was a long ride, he knew what I looked like, what if, what if…?

“Don’t be silly,” said my friend. “How many times a day do you think he has a fight? Do you think he keeps accounts of each one?”

His logic was so beautiful, so collected, that for a few moments relief washed over me. I was just being paranoid, I agreed. I mean, why would I think that… And then the genderedness of our perspectives clicked into place. My male friend lived in a city in which he could unzip his trousers by a random wall if the bathroom queues were too long, and no matter how many women dropped by, his neighbours still said friendly hellos to him. I lived in a city in which I never left a party without someone asking me to text when I got home, and none of those same neighbours ever looked me in the eye. Both these cities share the same name and map coordinates, and vastly different emotional echolocations.

Which city did the murder of S. Swathi at the busy Nungambakkam railway station happen in last week: his or mine? Entitlement or vulnerability? Both, as it happens, which is why the reactions to it have been so shameful and so confused.

Chennai is not any more dangerous than it ever was, so let’s drop that sensationalist line of thinking. Ask a college student, ask a transwoman, ask every person wrapping a dupatta on her body as though it was made of chainmail. If you hear women themselves saying that the city has “become unsafe”, what’s between the lines is this: if someone chooses to kill me publicly, they may just get away with it. The psychological stakes have been raised from eyes averted from slaps in parking lots and ears plugged to screams in the adjacent building to even greater non-involvement.

The need to categorise the murder as only an issue of urban safety is an act of obfuscation. True, we should be able to take for granted working CCTV surveillance and prompt responses from authorities, as well as protection for those who come forward as witnesses. But to ignore the larger picture of public indifference and poor socialisation means changing nothing about how things really are. We can talk about these things while still honouring Swathi’s family’s request to not speculate on her case.

We cannot address women’s safety without talking about stalking, specifically how treating love as a dinner table taboo and allowing misogynistic cinema to teach its ways instead has destroyed its spirit. Modern Indian culture does not empower people with respectful courtship etiquette, but neither does it empower them with the skills to handle rejection. And when a person confides that someone makes them feel afraid, how seriously do we take them?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 30th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Review: Hanif Kureishi’s Something To Tell You

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Hanif Kureishi’s latest novel is a startlingly clear-minded, often hedonistic, but ultimately believable look at the complications of life, love and sex. Jamal, a middle-aged psychoanalyst, remains obsessed with the loss of his college girlfriend Ajita and lives in guilt over his own participation in the murder of her father. Despite his own neuroses, or rather, because of it, he has experienced great success in his field, and enjoys an intimate all-access pass into the lives of the wealthy and popular. As if in contrast, his sister Miriam, some variant of a spiritualist with too many children and piercings, lives in disorder and filth, and he shares a typically middle-class relationship with his son, Rafi, who lives with his estranged wife Josephine. His Pakistani father is dead, and his elderly English mother is in a relationship with a woman she knew as a child.

Jamal’s famous director friend Henry suddenly embarks on an affair with Miriam, which serves as a sort of turning point in excavating the past. It turns out not only that Ajita is alive and well, but her brother Mustaq – once also in love with Jamal – has reinvented himself into a flamboyant, affluent celebrity musician. As things take their course and it becomes clear that Jamal needs to confess to his crime, what remains to be seen is whether his desperation to absolve himself of his errors will tear them apart or bring them together.

Although Jamal is both narrator and default protagonist, every character is so persuasive, so larger-than-life yet perceptively etched, that at most times the book feels like a vehicle for an ensemble cast. And there are many – exes, offspring, lovers, cameos both by real celebrities and characters taken from Kureishi’s earlier fiction. No relationship has a denouement, be it to a ghost made from guilt or a girlfriend. Everyone is fair game in this complex web of selves past and present – and a declaration of love is inevitably a declaration of war.

Sex, of course, levels everything out, from class to race to religion (the evil paterfamilias – for what’s a Freudian analyst without one? – that was Ajita’s father is replaced by the Bush-Blair empire, and its effects on an England just about to be hit by terrorism). Miriam and Henry indulge in orgies at clubs; the same occurs in Mustaq’s home. Jamal and the preadolescent Rafi discuss sex, violence and psychology as they watch cats copulate. Jamal has a less terrible, yet equally detrimental secret in his past: a career as a pornographer. Sex is everywhere, with little hint of scandal – unrealistic perhaps, but how refreshing.

The humour, when it appears, hits chords of brilliance, as when Henry’s adult daughter Lisa visits Jamal at his office, calls his work “patronizing analyst quackery”, then says, “Freud’s been discredited over and over. Patient envy… Penis envy, I mean. Jesus.”

Slips, Freudian and otherwise, abound aplenty in this novel. Accidental pregnancies and murders have their place, but above all else are the slips of the heart – who is loved or desired, who stays loved or desired, and why.

Despite their superficial dysfunctions and exaggeratedness, its characters are innately human. Children are loved, oppressors are hated, death and age catch up. At its heart, the simplest truth remains: hell is other people, certainly, but it is also their absence.

Most commendably, the novel is neither soap-operatic nor stuffed with psycho-philosophical ramblings. For a story that could so easily have lapsed into either direction, populated as it is by a veritable circus of characters and narrated by a man preoccupied by the psyche, Something To Tell You avoids those pitfalls. This is not drama. It is contemporary life, with its mish-mash of sexual expressions, unconventional domestic arrangements and relationships that do not ever fall apart completely, only reincarnate to accommodate what life brings along. Kureishi does nothing but tell it like it is in this utterly delicious read.

An edited version appeared in today’s New Sunday Express.

The Shaming of Scarlett Keeling

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(Cross-posted at Ultraviolet)

That violence against women rarely grabs any attention except for in the presence of gruesomeness, sensationalism, drama and tragedy is already known. But more disturbing by far than the fact that the murder of a teenage tourist in Goa last month has been making headlines precisely due its cocktail of all the above elements is the level of moral sanctimony that accompanies the media coverage, the ensuing debates, and even what are ostensibly the responses of those who knew Scarlett Keeling and her family.

On February 18, the body of 15-year old Scarlett Keeling, a British national, was found on a Goan beach. Police initially chalked up her death to drowning after consuming too much alcohol, despite evidence of severe bruising and rape. But investigations and post-mortem investigations revealed contradictory facts, as did eyewitness accounts by people who had seen the girl during her final hours. Scarlett had been in India with her mother Fiona MacKeown, MacKeown’s boyfriend, and her siblings. They were frequent visitors, and on this instance were on a six-month-long trip.

Allegations were quickly leveled against MacKeown for her negligence of Scarlett. The moral higher ground was quickly swamped by those chastising her for her irresponsible behaviour. One whiff of scandal led to another, and details about MacKeown’s private life were dug up. Scarlett’s diary entries were exposed in the media. The bottomline message was that somehow, by choosing to lead lifestyles that included partying, sex and substances, they had asked for the tragedy that befell them. Terms like “alleged murder” were popular, as though it could have been anything else, until today’s gruesome revelation: Scarlett was murdered by having her head held underwater for between five and ten minutes. She asphyxiated to death.

It is alarming to watch the cruelty of the media – from possibly every newspaper in the country to even NDTV’s usually fairly progressive We The People to the blogosphere – and what can be gauged of common opinion by it. Despite the horrifying brutality inflicted on a person who by Indian standards was still a child, and the overwhelming confusion and despair her loved ones are no doubt experiencing, the attacks made against the victim and the family censure them with only superficial demonstrations of sympathy. Political officials in Goa are calling for the revoking of MacKeown’s visa and a ban on her entering the country again, blaming her for maligning the image of the state. She has since gone into hiding, fearing for her life from both the drug mafia and state officials whom she has linked to them.

Scarlett’s boyfriend, an Indian citizen named Julio Lobo, has been taken for medical tests to see if he is “sexually active”. A DNA test of substances found on or in the victim’s body would not be unreasonable, but pray tell, what does his being or not being sexually active reveal about the horrific tragedy? Is it necessary, given that in her diary, Scarlett had written not only that she had sex with him, but that she felt he used her for it? Is there a test that proves sexual activity in males? Or is this like one of those repressed, backward ideas about broken hymens and being able to pee in a straight line? That this person’s private life is being pried into in a manner that is unlikely to shed any light on the senselessness of the incident is nothing more than one of the many ways in which the blame is being pinned on “the wanton Western way”. The boyfriend, we are to assume, has sinned by his affinity to this lifestyle of debauchery, which – we are also to assume – is imported to India by the likes of the Keeling family. But even that doesn’t quite crack it: Lobo is being tested not because of his character – but because of what the conclusiveness of science is meant to tell us about hers.

Lobo, in turn, has retaliated by attacking MacKeown because she had been aware of Scarlett’s lifestyle (but she says Scarlett was neither a binge drinker not drug abuser, to her knowledge). This, too, is reprehensible. At 25 years old, a decade older than Scarlett, his relationship with her could amount to statutory rape. Clearly, prior to the murder, MacKeown’s liberal parenting style benefited him. His attempt to deflect attention from his actual law-breaking by ganging up against the bereaved mother with the rest of the patriarchy squad is sickening.

In other words, the condemning of the murdered girl, her family, her friends, their lifestyles and their choices is a typical misogynist response – the wicked woman gets her dues. And this time, there are not one but two “wicked women”: Fiona MacKeown, mother of not just the victim, but of several more children of “varying paternity”, and Scarlett herself. That the women in question happen to be from the West (that corrupter of our chaste and virtuous ways of life!) is icing on the cake.

Rape, murder, the works – apparently, under the right (or wrong) circumstances, they can all be justified.

Make no mistake. What we see in the media today is not an enquiry into a crime. It is slut-shaming, plain and simple. The nation is not in shock because a 15 year old has been so brutally treated. Those are not the sounds of protest and outrage; they are the sounds of many hands rubbing in glee, so thrilled to be vindicated of their position that women who break the rules deserve what’s coming to them, and what’s coming to them is exactly what happened to Scarlett Keeling.

But what happened to Scarlett Keeling has nothing to do with if she had sex, if she did drugs, if she drank. What happened to Scarlett Keeling has nothing to do with why her mother so frequently chose to travel to India or lived a bohemian, unconventional lifestyle. What happened to Scarlett Keeling has only one reason: some places in the world are not safe for women, not because of culture or tradition, but because of an absence of respect for them as individuals. India is one of them. India killed Scarlett Keeling – and every day, kills many less sensationalized individuals. That Fiona MacKeown has seen this is not delusion on her part.

Cell Block Tango from Chicago

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This song found its way back into my head yesterday, and I remembered that the clip below is one of my all-time favourite music/dance sequences in a film (that credit does not go to Bollywood, believe it or not!). I adore its wickedness. Female aggression — one of my favourite topics. I don’t really think that feminism has even begun to tap into it in its entirety.