MY BOOKS

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THE QUEEN OF JASMINE COUNTRY

The Queen of Jasmine Country_Cover Spread

Shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2019 [Fiction]

 

Longlisted for The JCB Prize for Literature 2019

 

Longlisted for the Mathrubhumi Book of the Year Award 2020

 

More about this book, including interviews, reviews and excerpts.

 

THE ALTAR OF THE ONLY WORLD

The Altar of the Only World-15

 

More about this book, including interviews, reviews and excerpts.

 

THE HIGH PRIESTESS NEVER MARRIES

The High Priestess Never Marries

Strung like luminous pearls, The High Priestess Never Marries is a collection of evocatively written short stories that feature women who seem suspended between relationships, living in moments fraught with desire and despair. Set in current day Chennai, these unnamed female protagonists cherish their independence, even within the bounds of relationships, and find their inner voices through an exploration of sensuality and choice. These are women who have accepted their many loves, their imperfect selves, and their fractured lives. In appreciation of the portrayal of single women in strong roles who cherish their independence and imperfection, The High Priestess Never Marries is awarded the South Asia Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity 2015-2016.” – Award Citation

 

Winner of the LAADLI South Asia Media & Advertising Awards for Gender Sensitivity [Best Book – Fiction]

 

Shortlisted for the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award for Fiction

 

Longlisted for the Atta Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize 2017

 

More about this book, including interviews, reviews and excerpts.

 

THE AMMUCHI PUCHI

Ammuchi Puchi

Honourable Mention for a Neev Children’s Book Award 2019

 

Shortlisted for a Peek-A-Book Children’s Choice Award 2018

 

Nominated for Best Writer Of The Year at the Comic Con India Awards 2019

 

More about this book, including interviews, reviews and excerpts.

 

WITCHCRAFT

Sharanya Manivannan - Witchcraft

“Sensuous and spiritual, delicate and dangerous and as full as the moon reflected in a knife.” – Ng Yi-Sheng

 

‘Bloody, sexy, beguiling as in a dance with veils.” – from the foreword by Indran Amirthanayagam

 

(Out of print)

The Venus Flytrap: Locked Down, Longing

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Someone I haven’t touched in years emerged again in the shape of words, after a night through which fear and worry had not let me sleep. Sapped of circumspection, I had sent a simple message. Dawn had still not diluted the darkness, yet he replied immediately. He’d just been thinking of me. He too had been restless all night. He’d woken mid-way, he said, and seen the constellated sky through a parting in the curtains. The stars had coaxed a memory of another night under the same sky, of us in other chapters of our lives, of me. He asked me what I remembered.

We’d been back in contact for some time, without meeting, and an ease had returned to our acquaintanceship. But not this much, not yet.

He expected he’d be in my neighbourhood after the lockdown lifts. I offered lightly that we could meet – but not hug. “We could fist bump, with gloves,” he said. Everything and nothing is hypothetical now. The only gloves I own are fingerless lace ones. What could they possibly keep me from? Before I finally slipped into sleep at that swiftly brightening hour, I sent this: “Talking to you as the sun came up reminded me of some mornings long ago. Don’t disappear on me again. I don’t know if I will forgive you next time.” He responded; but not with words.

Days pass, in a calendar that seems to loop on itself. Hours upon hours. Do you keep count? How do you measure this strange and revealing circumstance? A healer told me once, after everything had changed for me, when I wept that the world was like it had never been before: No, the world is exactly the same. It’s you who has changed. Now the reverse is true. I believe we are closer to our truer natures, while what is beyond us has altered. We choose: guile, doubling down, mirroring, or to behold ourselves whole.

One afternoon in my own captivity, a transformer burst and quietness descended. No fan blades whisking the air, no electrical thrums, no traffic or construction anyway – then, I heard a voice. I’ll never be certain, but I hope it was the neighbour whose own words are always soft, and can’t counter her grown son’s frequent and miserable scoldings. She was singing “Poongkuyil koovum…”, with its lyrics about encountering divinity in nature, in a seaside flower grove where a kuyil opens its throat in seduction.

It’s the bird’s mating season now. I thought of a kuyil I’d watched for a year, in a house I miss every day – a house where this confinement could have been more bearable, where I would have observed a courtship unfolding on the boughs of a crow-nested tree. The woman’s voice faded away, perhaps because my imagination overwhelmed my listening. I didn’t catch my favourite line – “Thanimaiyil inimai kannden…” – but I felt it, felt it like the vibration created by stroking upon the rim of a resting prayer bowl. In solitude, I saw sweetness, the woman sang, even if I could no longer hear her – those words reaching through the ether to touch, and to touch again.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 30th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Poetry, Essays & Fiction (2018-2020)

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An essay, “Apportionments of Love”, appeared in the anthology Knot For Keeps: Writing The Modern Marriage (HarperCollins India 2018) and was republished in Scroll.

A poem, “Something Was Promised Me”, appeared in The Sunflower Collective.

A poem, “The Mothers”, appeared in Rattle.

A sonnet, “Sometimes, There Are Cyclones”, appeared in The Indian Express.

A short story, “The Walk”, appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Spring) issue.

Suvarnamaccha

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There is a limestone isthmus between two tiny islands – Rameshwaram and Mannar – that once connected the Indian peninsula and Sri Lanka, by foot and for half a century even by rail. No bridge, made by nature, by people or by their machines, has been able to remain standing, holding these two points together. Cyclones, such as the 1964 one which turned Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu’s far south into the ghost town and another one dated to 1480, have overwhelmed every attempt with a watery erasure.

There happen to be dugongs in these waters – those gentle, sea grass-grazing creatures which many believe led centuries of cabin-fevered seafarers to experience visions of mermaids.

Many Ramayanas recount the episode in which Hanuman and his army of vanaras, men and god-kings (and at least one squirrel) build a bridge of boulders to Lanka, and some believe that this isthmus was the result of this endeavour. In certain Ramayanas, particularly those that come from South East Asia, the marauding army finds its constructions sabotaged. Each day, the bridge extends through their labour, cutting further into the sea and closer to the other side. Each night, it retracts. Hanuman watches closely and discovers a bevy of mermaids removing the boulders by darkness, working as efficiently as his own legion. They are led by Suvarnamaccha, whose name contains the words for “gold” and “fish”. She is impossible to look away from – everything about her, from her commanding presence to the alluring curve of her caudal fin, dazzles. It is clear that this waters are her dominion. She refuses to engage with him. Until she does.

What begins as a bureaucratic quarrel becomes love, or something like it. Suvarnamaccha notices how gorgeous the opponent is; Hanuman registers her desire, and with it, his own. There is a wildness in both of them, humming within their human consciousness, and which they each recognize in the other. Suvarnamaccha calls her army of fish-tailed women away from their task. The bridge is completed, and prepares to bear the weight of Hanuman’s legion as they cross the sea to arrive in Lanka, in search of a kidnapped queen. When Hanuman asks her why the mermaids had kept dismantling the bridge, Suvarnamaccha tells him that she is a daughter of Ravana, the kidnapper king who has more faces than a hall of mirrors.

This brings me to an interlude, and to a merging of tellings. This is what I imagine Suvarnamaccha did for her sister, in the renditions of the epic in which incest becomes the knotty underside of the embroidery. That sister (this is a kinship that is not necessarily consanguine) was the one whose mother was Ravana’s chief consort Mandodari. I imagine Mandodari somewhere in the innermost chambers of her palace, giving birth as silently and secretly as she can. She had meant to end her life when she consumed the grail of milk-mingled blood from a chthonic sacrifice; instead, she had become pregnant with a progeny cursed to bring about the king’s downfall. I imagine Mandodari walking alone to the shore, where she sets her newborn into a lined basket and lowers it into the water with a prayer. There is nowhere on this island that her daughter will not be found, and killed. The baby-bearing basket is swept into the currents. I imagine Suvarnamaccha coaxing the tides with her tail, gently leading her sister to a land where she will be discovered, and named by the king who would become her father as Sita.

Let us return to Suvarnamaccha who becomes pregnant too, later in this mythos, entwined underwater with the charming and devastating Hanuman.

Did he love her? When we consider how myths have been recorded across millennia, it becomes clear how rarely the question gets asked. And how much less frequently the answer has mattered to those who tell this story, or many like it.

In the South East Asian Ramayanas, Thai and Khmer among them, Hanuman is far from the celibate that most Hindu traditions hold him to be (but there is a Suvarchala, whose mother was shadow and father was sun, with whom he had a sexless marriage, as enshrined in a temple in Telangana). Jain beliefs also name among his wives Anangakusuma and Lankasundari.

His lovers and spouses are numerous, and he has at least one other child who is part-piscine, though born through stranger means. Upon burning Lanka – some time after leaving Suvarnamaccha – Hanuman plunges into the sea to cool his own flaming body, and a drop of his perspiration falls into the mouth of an unnamed makara, a mythical sea creature that itself is part-aquatic and part-terrestrial. Makardhwaja is cut out of his mother’s belly when she is caught by fishers in Patala-lokam, the netherworld, and becomes a warrior.

In the separate stories of Macchanu and Makardhwaja, they both meet their father – they both battle him, knowing or not knowing their lineage but bound by loyalties far more meaningful than blood. But what becomes of their mothers, or the memory of them? Does Makardhwaja ever learn his mother’s name, the one who became entangled in a net and was sliced open for meat? Does Macchanu ever visit the gulf of his birth, to meet Suvarnamaccha somewhere in its depths and swirl with her in her realm? Surely she is there, in some configuration of a story made of water, and therefore unable to be razed by fire: golden-tailed and ageless, the sunlight glinting on her scales when she surfaces from time to time out of the sea that carries the sky’s reflection, and peers up at the clouds to see if she can catch a glimpse of another tail – simian, strong and ever so slightly charred.

An edited version was published in The Indian Express’ Diwali 2019 special edition.

The Venus Flytrap: Healthcare Workers In A Time Of Health Crisis

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As a neurosurgeon and the managing doctor of a hospital, Dr. Simon Hercules would have directly or indirectly served thousands of patients. It was probably while in the line of work, treating COVID-19 positive people, that the doctor may have contracted the infection himself. He passed away over the weekend, and was prevented from having a dignified burial by two mobs of residents from the very neighbourhoods that his hospital serves.

On Sunday night, his family and a few colleagues received his body and travelled in an ambulance to a cemetery in Kilpauk. Here, the first mob refused to allow them to proceed. They then went to a cemetery in Anna Nagar, where a second mob unleashed violence on them, pelting stones and logs at the ambulance. A harrowing night ensued for the mourners and the ambulance staff, including sustaining severe injuries. It culminated in a colleague of the late doctor having to dig the ground with his bare hands in order to complete the burial, under police protection.

This was not the first such Indian instance, however. In Meghalaya, a deceased doctor’s family had to wait 36 hours before a burial plot was available to them, due to a mob of hundreds preventing the rites. The cremation of another doctor in Chennai, originally from Andhra Pradesh, was also initially stopped by a mob. All such gatherings were formed in direct violation of lockdown rules.

Medical workers have also faced sudden evictions, ostracisation from their neighbours, and other forms of discrimination during this pandemic. A report in The Guardian on March 20th detailed how a Kolkata nurse and her children were thrown out of their apartment without notice, and how janitorial staff and others had been sleeping on plastic sheets on hospital campuses, prevented by neighbours from returning home.

Just two days after that report was published, millions of Indians assembled with or without social distancing to bang pots and pans together, supposedly to show their appreciation for healthcare workers. As many healthcare workers themselves, both in India and abroad, have said: all such gestures are meaningless if not accompanied by demanding accountability from authorities, especially for increasing production and availability of PPE kits, as well as for increasing testing and other measures. Dr. Pradeep Kumar, who performed the final rites for Dr. Solomon Hercules, spoke to India Today about how misinformation spread to the public (about how the virus is transmitted, and falsities such as that lighting candles would dispel it) was behind the shocking breakdown of civil behaviour that night.

It is a mistake to aggrandize any role and assign noble qualities to it by default. But workers in the healthcare sector – not only doctors, but everyone who works in a medical environment – are at risk in this pandemic precisely because they are the ones fighting it directly. Everyone deserves basic dignity: the medical officer and the migrant labour, both. Middle-class India is revealing its vilest face through this pandemic, ungrateful to the vital people who administer the medications, clean the bedpans, build the cities, harvest the fields. How do we expect to survive without them? And do their own lives mean nought?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 23rd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: To Whom The Song Belongs

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Every time I hear the original “Masakali”, I think of the first time I heard it. A friend had sent me a video in which the melody was overlaid on a black and white clip of slapstick comedians Laurel and Hardy dancing. Something had upset me, and he’d sent it to lighten my mood. I’ve long forgotten what I was miserable about, but I’ve never been able to listen to that song without thinking of him.

Many popular works of art have such a mnemonic effect on us, conjuring everything from teenage summers, indelible loves, special trips and more. “Masakali” must mean a lot of things, to a lot of people. So, how many seconds of “Masakali 2.0” did it take for you to recognise that the remix was a dud?

The song’s composer A.R. Rahman criticised the rendition on social media, in a departure from his congenial public image. Playback singer Mohit Chauhan, who recorded the original, also expressed his dismay. All this is not just drama fodder. It reveals the seedy underside of being an art-maker within capitalism.

Shortly afterwards, playback singer Neha Kakkar spoke up about being insufficiently compensated for her work in cinema; she said that concerts provided better income. It bears remembering that the iconic Leonard Cohen was forced to resume touring in his 70s to evade bankruptcy.

Many of us are guilty of falling for the notion that music, or any art, is free. It’s nice to think that a beautiful song belongs to everyone; and in a sense, it could. It’s just that someone made that song. More than one someone, sometimes. To create a thing of beauty or meaning and to give it away is very different from losing it, or losing one’s claim over it – or never being paid enough for it, literally.

In 1974, Dolly Parton turned down the chance to have Elvis Presley record a song she wrote, “I Will Always Love You”, giving up the potential for it to be even more popular and lucrative. Presley’s manager had demanded half the publishing rights to the song, and Parton made the painful decision to reject the deal. This was a brave choice, but such a choice isn’t always available to every creator. Especially when one needs the money, needs the door to open, or knows they may not get another opportunity.

The Covid-19 lockdowns have made TV shows, films, music and books an integral part of how people (with the privilege of access) are managing the situation, especially from the perspective of emotional well-being. Most people really are grateful for these entertainment and enrichment materials, no longer taking them for granted. However, this gratitude can be made more meaningful by sparing a thought for what will likely happen to the creators of the same artforms in the near future, economically speaking. This will impact what gets produced, promoted or published at all. Whether as artists or as consumers, we must become invested in dismantling capitalism as it exists today and reassembling better systems – systems which ensure that no one goes hungry, regardless of their profession or background, and also recognise the arts as essentials.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 16th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Nemesis’ Narrative

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Last week in lockdown viewing, I watched a Netflix mini-series called Self Made, based on the true story of the entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker (née Sarah Breedlove), born to formerly enslaved parents in the American South and eventual founder of a million-dollar haircare empire. It’s a show about race, class, gender, and the concept of beauty. If you haven’t seen it yet, and plan to, there may be spoilers ahead.

In Self Made, Sarah’s arch-nemesis is the person who introduces her to cosmetology. The wealthier, light-skinned Addie Monroe first gains her trust then insults her, telling Sarah she isn’t attractive enough to sell her product. Sarah replicates the product and finds her own success, but her rival follows her like a shadow. Addie dredges up Sarah’s flaws over and over through the decades.

While watching the show, I thought – hmm, this feels true to life. Grudges can fester for ages. Sarah’s own trigger-proneness was also recognisable; there are certain old woundings that shape us, and which have the strange dual effect of propelling us forward but also dragging us back. Impressed overall, I spent a little time looking up the original Madam C.J. Walker, and found that the biggest criticism of the show was the portrayal of the real woman – Annie Malone – who was villainised as Addie Monroe.

It is factual that Malone (herself one of the first African-American women to become a millionaire) had employed the real Madam C.J. Walker briefly, but why their association ended is not documented. No evidence exists of a lifelong feud. Perhaps there’s a whisper of truth in it: that the two entrepreneurs disliked each other. Still, the way the filmmakers extrapolate this possibility undermines the legacy of both women. It suggests that their struggles (and triumphs) against societal discrimination weren’t nearly as important as their rivalry. Besides which, if anyone should have a bone to pick, that’d be the ghost of Malone, who pioneered what Walker studied and built on, only to become the jealous bête noire of a biopic.

The show made me wonder, ultimately, about my own animosities. In the narrative of my life, in which I am the hero (just as you, in the narrative of your life, are its hero), I wouldn’t want my various antagonists to occupy much space at all, let alone screen time. Of course they’re there, of course they’ve influenced everything through their sabotages and betrayals. It may even be true that it’s individuals, not structures or circumstances, who make particularly painful imprints on us. We may connect them to a larger problem, say, misogyny – but the one who enacts it is the one who induces our bile. Still – it’s not the anti-hero who makes us the protagonist, just as there’s no need to suppress another in order to play the lead in one’s own life.

Yet people do. This is the weird tic inside Self Made’s fiction that makes it compelling even while problematic. Addie Monroe feels exactly like that person: the one with such a hawkish eye on another’s journey that they think they’re running rings around that someone without noticing they’re really just walking in circles themselves…

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 9th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Working From Home, Within A Crisis

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I’ve been working from home since late 2016, and I hope I can offer some suggestions on effectively doing so if you’re new to it.

To begin, some practical tips: never work in bed. It’s terrible for your back. If you don’t have a desk, use a dining table or kitchen counter. If you have enough space so that you can set up an “office”, do so, and don’t eat or watch TV there. Demarcating spaces will also help you demarcate time. You may feel you have a lot less or a lot more time than you did before. Keep daily checklists (personal and professional) as well as weekly and monthly planners. It helps to keep your eye on the big picture when the days merge formlessly. If there’s less work, set manageable growth-oriented tasks: updating your CV, making a vision board, etc. Leisure soothes; don’t beat yourself up.

Working from home is an enormous privilege, as evidenced by the thousands of migrant labourers who walked the Indian highways to reach their villages when this lockdown was announced. People who are or provide the supply chain, sanitation services, home deliveries and medical attention can’t work from home either.

This reality doesn’t nullify the fact that “home”, even if there’s a roof above one’s head and Wi-Fi, can be a highly toxic environment. This is truer than not in the Indian context, bound by patriarchy, where every family has a mountain of “dust” swept under a flimsy carpet. Set private boundaries even if others don’t respect them. For instance, commit to not engaging with anyone whose behaviour sets you off. Bite your tongue, keep up self-healing practices if you have the privacy to, and train your eyes on the long-term. If you realise that you don’t want to live like this permanently, accept that it will be months at least before changing your life becomes viable. Focusing on surviving this, then getting out.

No matter your scenario, mental health is a priority at this time. In a state of uncertainty, we are softer targets than ever. With the anxiety-inducing effects of constantly checking the news, paired with the tentacles of inadequacy that brands/influencers still shoot into our lives, it’s best to be careful about social media usage. Take up journalling: empty your worries into it. There are many guided or prompt-based practices online. Be flexible about how you define productivity. It’s hard to concentrate right now, so if you don’t learn a new language or tackle that to-be-read pile, it’s okay!

When you feel overwhelmed, return to this question: Who do you want to be when all of this is over?

The skills you acquire in this time are not only meant for crises. They are all adaptable into the next normal, post-pandemic. Try to see this period as a beautiful opportunity to inculcate practices for the long-term. These include taking up meditation or exercise, budgeting better, building meaningful connections based on communication (not activity), fairer division or more efficient management of household chores, eating more creatively, developing clearer socio-political ideas, achieving a healthy work-life balance, becoming self-disciplined and much more. Lean into growth, not fear.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 2nd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Wishes For Well-Being

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I write from a place where I manufacture hope for myself – and for the world – out of nothing but with all of me, the way a silkworm spins a cocoon from its body, or the way the sunlight-catching gossamer that a spider weaves from itself becomes at once its home and its art.

May you find in this time of constraint that you have more will and more heart than you usually have recourse to. May you draw from old wells of strength, and may they show you how you have been here before, and how you lived through it. The circumstances may be amplified, but the feelings are familiar. You have felt helpless before. You have known isolation. May you receive this while bolstered by that memory, just as I send it to you from a place of periodic equanimity, gained by experience and with the sense that all the world has slid now to the level of disquiet I always live with. And having lived that way, I can tell you that you can too. If you have the bare minimum to stay alive in this adversity, you can still find or make mirth, romance, creativity, comfort.

I know that somewhere in this city, the boughs of mango trees must be ladening with ripening fruit. The season for them has surely arrived, as seasons do, even out of turn in this time when ecospheres evolve. Soon, the rare jacarandas – you may know where amidst these many streets suddenly empty of our urgencies and our vanities they are rooted – will prosper in purple. Have you noticed how many words in the English language for this colour borrow from the names of flowers that carry it? Lilac, lavender, violet, periwinkle. Jacaranda is not one among them, both tree and tint. How beautiful to think of them all: summer’s bounty – the flowering trees, the fruit-bearing boughs, the weeds, a wild luxuriance. They will loom radiant in their posts whether we can see them, or touch them, or take from them or not. I write from a place with no foliage in my sight, for the first time in over a dozen years. It’s enough for me to know it thrives out there, away from our plucking hands and our polluting vehicles. Remember that nature has its own rhythms, and that you can conjure them up in thought. They susurrate within you. They are you.

May this find you in a place where your water, your electricity, your subsistence and your Wi-Fi are blessedly stocked. May you have enough. May you know that your coffer of courage, your vault of ingenuity, your repository of goodwill, and your larder of intuition are renewable resources. You do not have to fill them as we did before, using the ways we took for granted. There are other ways: gentler, simpler, more generous, more connected from afar. May you know that you are precious, and so is each life. May you know that if you are lucky, it is disgraceful – as in, incognizant of the universe’s grace – if you do not use your survival to make the world a better place.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 26th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Wild Goose Chases

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So many of society’s systems have been revealed to be constructs by the global coronavirus pandemic. I’d been pondering all things illusory when a series of comic recollections of wild goose chases lightened my mood.

#1: I was on a boat in Pulicat Lake with an international photographer who’d flown in exclusively to take pictures of the flamingo season that local photographers were confidently presenting as thriving (probably using old material). Climate change had deemed otherwise; there’d been no birds in a long while. “Come next month,” the fisherman making his living from rare boat rides forgivably lied. My breaking point was when I suggested we change the story angle and salvage the effort: there was a colonial fort nearby. We circled and circled. The edifice had long been ruined, overrun by vegetation. It didn’t exist anywhere but on Google Maps and influencers’ charades.

So soon after that a curse was arguably in effect, a filmmaker friend wanted to visit a “film city” right here in Chennai. There were amazing, recent reviews online. Again, after hours of searching, getting snappy and exhausted, we finally accepted that it didn’t exist. A place that had opened and shut over a decade ago was still being promoted by – whom? Who has the motive for such mischief?

Wild goose chases #3 & #4: I was in Vagamon, where my favourite architect Laurie Baker had lived, in a house that was still a notable town boast. Except the interiors looked like a boys’ dormitory; outside, a tacky fountain was draped with plastic flowers. Red laterite, lush foliage, legacy? Nope. Everything about the assignment was superficial: I was to weave a facade of serenity from a bizarre itinerary covering too many hill stations in too few days. The fakest element of all was my newfound camera-toting colleague, who spent the trip buttering me up, convincing me to secure a similar assignment so we could meet again. I tried; thankfully, the wheeler-dealer’s using me as an unpaid intern rasped to halt when he admitted he couldn’t be bothered to read the published article, while posting it all over social media for his own credit.

Social media is a master mayajaal, a net of illusion. Concerned friends tell me about how a close relative of mine who is prone to fits of violence and manipulation contingent with untreated mental illness presents herself as a mindful, enlightened creator online. The true stories and the Instastories are a mismatch. I make an income from putting words in other people’s mouths (it’s called PR, babe). I know what goes on behind glamour. But when personal trauma and deceit intersect, it’s hard to stay unafraid. This is a situation many are in: cloistered in quarantine with all that work, money and travel lets them escape. On a greater scale, we also know we aren’t getting the info that could potentially save us.

I was able to laugh a little remembering those wild goose chases; but still, they led back here. The world should not go back to normal when this pandemic is done. Let the falsehoods dissolve once and for all. Let human survival be worth it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 19th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: What The Virus Shows Us

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Imagine if able-bodied people routinely honoured habits taught in kindergarten – like closing the tap while lathering up or brushing, or washing hands after using the bathroom (many have commented on how long the queues at sinks in men’s bathrooms are right now, which tells you…). Imagine if these remarkably simple habits weren’t regarded as crisis-only measures. In fact, we’re already in crisis, all the time. Climate change has long been scheduled to kill us and many of Earth’s other populations, but that’s never taken seriously. Wash your hands, yes, but remember: even if you survive the coronavirus epidemic, the planet is running out of water and summer is around the corner.

Meanwhile, some European airlines, legally required to perform 80% of their allocated routes or lose them to competitors, have been burning fuel on empty planes. This is the kind of excess that misses the point: human life is at stake because of how humans have chosen to live.

This epidemic has begun to show that many of the structures that undergird modern civilisation are deeply flawed. The capitalist model in which few profit while many struggle is profoundly unsustainable. So is any system which deprioritises the environment. Or any way of life that strips us of our humanity, turning us into cogs in wheels, Other-ing peoples, measuring our worth by our productivity (or by any measure of validation that erodes our integrity or joy).

In this state of emergency, universities have switched to online classes, jetsetting meetings have become conference calls and telecommutes have been encouraged for various white collar jobs. People with disabilities, often excluded from opportunities because “there’s no substitute for presence”, have rightly shown indignation at how the world has been quickly reordered now whereas lobbying was ignored. The truth is that more of us could operate like this all the time: saving money, fuel and personal energy while cutting environmental risks and improving our quality of life.

International travel bans reveal starkly how illusory the lure of hashtag wanderlust always was. Just because we can have something doesn’t mean we need it. Especially when, like hand sanitisers today and maybe hospital beds tomorrow, there isn’t enough to go around. We’re also realising how free universal healthcare and paid sick leave are fundamental rights, which too many are deprived of.

We didn’t arrive at pandemic panic without there being long-term decisions at high authoritative levels. Our anger must be used to perform our own civic duties better, demanding greater accountability from those in power who can make structural differences, and activating change on the individual level too.

Experts currently say that most who contract coronavirus will recover, but to maintain high caution to protect the vulnerable (the elderly, the immunocompromised, etc.) who may be infected through them. What is a flu to one is death to another. If this doesn’t lend itself to a pithy teaching on responsibility and interconnectivity, what will? If this epidemic doesn’t galvanise those who survive it to insist on radically changing bureaucratic and ethical norms so that they support rather than define what society is, then humanity truly is doomed – and not because of a virus.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 12th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Anxiety In Times Of Public Crisis

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Over the weekend, a series of anxieties I’d been having all month came to a head and – clarity dawning on me on what the root cause was – I decided to cocoon myself, digitally and otherwise. I locked my social media accounts, refrained from posting, minimised online consumption and focused on grounding myself. My experience is subjective in that I am a double exile: I belong to a minority that experienced genocide, moved to an apartheid state in childhood, lost that one for speaking the truth, and am an official but not sentimental citizen here. I have a sensitivity to the conditions that lead to violence, the way certain birds know when a storm is coming. But my experience is not unique, either – all over India, news and footage of brutality, coming most recently out of Delhi, have been upsetting, confusing and frightening to people with a conscience. For some, the events triggered the trauma of prior occurrences, but one needn’t have personal or communal memory of persecution to feel affected by them, even from a distance.

A friend thoughtfully shared what someone she looks to for spiritual guidance told her: that one must avoid the tendency to narrativise in these times, managing them in small increments so as to not become overwhelmed. This may seem at first glance to be counter-logical. Should we deny the big picture? Should we ignore what led us here, and what historically has been proven to lead from here? No and no, but we must remember to locate ourselves within this largeness as well. I recalled what a healer told me once on dealing with another kind of PTSD that is also mine: invoke the stars above me, and the earth below me. This is similar to the sensory awareness exercise known as the 54321 method that cognitive behavioural therapists teach, identifying sights, smells, sounds, textures and tastes in one’s immediate surroundings to defuse the state of panic.

An online group counselling session I joined seemed directed at encouraging people to seek individual help – but professional therapy, like all healthcare, is a luxury. It was clear that many people are distressed, and far from apathetic. This was affirming to see, in a way. Still, I found myself unable to schedule an appointment with my own therapist exclusively to discuss the way the socio-political climate was clawing at my past and making me terrified for the future. I soothed myself with wordless children’s books. I freed myself from the tyranny of articulation.

In times of horror, we are repeatedly called to stand up, speak up, hold the line. We are told we are cowards for observing without action, even if fear paralyzes us. We are told we are privileged if we look away even to catch our breath. All these statements are empty ones in the shadow of the horror itself. I have no better statements for you, not today. I hold this mirror up only to show you that you are not alone. And maybe, steadily, we will find ways to help ourselves and one another as we parse what has happened and what is still to come. Breathe. Breathe.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 6th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Vocabulary of Violence

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Somewhere near the end of a marriage, a well-regarded author had an initially consensual sexual encounter which turned violent. She looked this truth in the eye in an essay published a few years ago, when she perceived the encounter in a way that was complicated, but cathartic. Time passed, and she seems to have found herself still triggered by news about the other person, who continues to thrive in the world. She looked more of the truth in the eye, saw more of the ugliness that remained despite her will to narrativise her experience in a nuanced way. Last week, she tweeted and deleted and tweeted and deleted, finally saying that she chose “a peaceful life” over this struggle.

As Harvey Weinstein, notorious sexual predator from the cinema field, finally goes to jail, there are all kinds of thoughts swirling about what we’ve learned in the last couple of years, how we’ve reckoned with our experiences, and about the limits of language. Most of us will never know the vindication of having those who destroyed us, or tried to, have justice meted out to them. Some may have pursued due process, and found that the system is designed to fail them. Many more won’t or can’t. I am speaking not only of abuses of a sexual nature, but of all violations that become unspeakable because the consequences of revelation are too high.

But let us return to the topic of only those grim events that some say fall under a “grey area”, where consent, pleasure and violation (and even love) were all present to different degrees. Concepts of justice that come from rigid or punitive frameworks, which require cleaner experiential demarcations, may not give us release. The “peaceful life” of not being forever known by someone else’s wrongdoing is preferable.

The Me Too era has helped many privately reframe and understand certain experiences differently. I know that I have. This kind of excavation takes courage. The feelings and the words for them get jumbled like alphabet soup. Some of those words cannot be walked back. I do not want to freeze myself into them. The point of the grey area is that it is not either/or. Where events were complex, and where we resist simplifying them, it can be powerful to keep the knowledge that one’s feelings are tidal.

There’s no statute of limitations on trauma. The whisper network is not only about warnings, as is commonly understood. It’s about being able to see one’s truth whole, and process it meaningfully with those one is close to. Some silences are not suppressions, but ways of retaining power or peace. They aren’t necessarily silences at all, but allow for holding experiences and healing from them.

“The vocabulary of sexual assault is not always enough to communicate our experiences of violence,” decolonial feminist scholar Dr. Anjana Raghavan said to me in a personal conversation. “Often, our stories are cut short by responses of outrage or defensiveness. It will not suffice as a long-term strategy.” I quote her with permission; in the messiness of forming and unlearning strategies, among the silences and incompleteness, her words are succinct.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 27th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.