She was from Hatton, in the hill country. Like all small facts that paint big pictures, it immediately told us her history – or at least as much of the history of another that can be gauged, sometimes unfairly, by data. She was a nurse, and we were next of kin, waiting in a hospital corridor. After a few minutes she asked us, “Where are you from?”
“Here,” we replied, because it was simpler. Her expression showed she was not convinced. “You sound Sri Lankan,” said the nurse. “But you look Indian.”
We asked her what she meant. “Your pottus,” was all she said – and instantly another picture flooded back, of grand-aunts wiping their foreheads clean of kungumam as they fled the Tamil neighbourhood of Wellawatte in the riots of 1983, of 30 years of war. The realisation was chilling. If I had always lived in Sri Lanka, I would probably think of the huge pottus I love the way I think of certain dresses I also love, living in India. Semiotically charged, to be worn at one’s own risk.
I didn’t always love wearing pottus. As a child, made to by parents, I was sometimes bullied for it (I won’t forget the boy who called me “Headgear”). I wondered why my international school classmates couldn’t make the connection between Gwen Stefani’s glittering bindi in the “Don’t Speak” video we watched hundreds of times in 1998 and the small black sticker on my face. Sometimes the sticker was red; other kids asked if I was married because that’s what they’d heard. Black for the non-married, red for the married. A teacher gently said it represented the third eye then looked at me for validation – but honestly, I had no idea.
I cannot remember whether I grasped the pottu’s political power or its beauty first. Its spiritual import only came to me much later. When I, proudly never-married, sometimes streak excess vermilion into the parting of my hair it’s in praise of all three possibilities. Prudes respond as they did to the metti I bought myself and wore for some years. I’m hardly the first, though. The actor Rekha caused a sensation in 1980 when she attended a wedding wearing the marital sindoor, a statement she then repeated many times.
There are many original ways to utilise the pottu. During the last couple of years, the Iodine Bindi has been distributed for free by NGOs in areas where women suffer from a deficiency of the mineral. The artist Bharti Kher’s work features the accessory as a central motif. Stickers of various shapes and sizes are meticulously layered over objects, creating the visual effect of texture. Sperm-shaped sticker pottus cover a fibreglass elephant sculpture in a painful slump on the floor. This famous installation is called “The Skin Speaks A Language Of Its Own”.
What does my big pottu (sindoor or sticker, it doesn’t matter) convey to dangerous men wearing tilaks? How long before the reverse of that conversation in Sri Lanka happens – when people will be forced to wear them rather than forced to not, concealing themselves, hoping for safety on buses arbitrarily stopped, trains suddenly invaded?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 30th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.