I spent the weekend at a literary festival where I found myself skirting away from a certain famous author every time I encountered her. We smiled at each other courteously, she probably acknowledging that I was also wearing a Speaker tag, and me because I had no idea what to say to her. But I wasn’t starstruck. In fact, the situation was quite odd: since the age of 14, I had read nearly all her books. Except I’d never quite liked them. To go up to her for a selfie and a handshake felt hypocritical to me, and I reflected on these mixed feelings. Surely her books had taught or given me something? The problem: there was no way I could say what that was without seeming trite, artificial or downright rude.
So I smiled and kept walking each time I saw her, unable to acknowledge the many hours I had spent on her work. She must have found me haughty. The truth was more nuanced, and I had spared her the explanation.
n inverse of sorts also happened. I was among the audience at one session when a male author said something so offensively sexist that before my mind could react, my body did. I stood up and walked out without a thought – but not without a tweet (which didn’t name him) immediately after. Imagine the awkwardness the following day when a case of mistaken identity put me face to face with that author. I introduced myself, and he responded with, “I’m X, the one you don’t like.” Politeness kicked in, and “Sorry” was the first word that flew out of my mouth. And then I regained clarity. “Actually,” I said frankly. “Not sorry at all.”
Back in the authors’ lounge, I regaled my friends with the incident. “Looks like they put you on the right panel!” said someone, good-humouredly. She was referring to an all-woman session called Bitch Please.
These encounters and thoughts on open statements, private musings and the nuances in between all culminated for me at that panel, which was about being a woman in the public sphere. I balked a little, because it’s my words that I see in the world, not myself. But later, looking at photos from all my sessions, I was surprised by my body language: straight back, crossed legs, direct gaze. Hashtag #bossbitch. If I didn’t know myself, I would have thought I was radiating power. My tension is invisible, even at the session where bright lights, noise and a migraine were making me so uncomfortable that my palms were literally sweating. I suspect many authors guzzle water onstage thanks to hangovers, but I do it as a nervous reflex. I wasn’t lying when I said in one panel that I am deeply shy and anxious. But I have to concede: to an observer, it probably looks like I am. Lying, that is.
Our interior selves react to other people’s public appearances. But it’s our public selves that respond openly to one another. Much falls between the cracks. Which has more integrity: getting the two to align more consistently, or admitting that they just don’t?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 16th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.