The Venus Flytrap: Learning To Love

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It doesn’t matter, ultimately, what your marksheets say. Some doors will open because of them, others will open in spite of them, and still others will be slammed in your face anyway. So many students, actively having been taught otherwise, crumble under the pressure of having to prove themselves within systems that exclude more than they educate. So it’s refreshing that Kanishak Kataria, the IIT-Mumbai graduate who topped this year’s UPSC civil services final exam, is being discussed so much not for his academic achievement, but for a statement he made to the press when asked about the same. For what seems to be the first time anyone can recall, Kataria thanked not only his family but his girlfriend too for having supported his efforts.

It says so much about us, about the culture we live in, that what should have been an obvious and even casual statement was instead an unprecedented one. Noted activists celebrated it as a challenge to India’s caste-codified and otherwise constricted societies, in which love has neither place nor value. Others also applauded how so simple an acknowledgment proved how relationships, and by extent our general emotional lives, are no hindrance to hard work, or success. This small of note of gratitude delivered a double blow both to many families’ insistence that romance is damaging to studies, and to the profoundly toxic way in which young people are forced to hide their romantic and sexual selves, often to their own detriment.

And for once, it’s a beautiful thing that a woman wasn’t named, but was acknowledged for her role alone. She need not become his spouse, or follow any other trajectory that leads back into a normative model of societal expectations. Through her anonymity (which will hopefully continue, for her sake), Kataria’s girlfriend can be just that: a person whose support made a difference to him at this stage of his career, and because of whose existence we have another reason to talk about the deep linkages between love, caste, gender and social progress at our dining tables and our tuition centres.

As we don’t know her name – and have no right to know it either – she also avoids being identified forever after in reference to this relationship. This is a trap that even highly accomplished women, including human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and actors Meghan Markle and Angelina Jolie, have repeatedly been dragged into, both in the media and in the collective imagination. The anonymous woman who is the girlfriend of the UPSC topper can go on to become anyone; if we ever learn her name, let it be for who else she is, not for whom she is currently dating. And as for Kataria – no matter what he makes of himself in the future, he’s already made a difference now. Not because of his academic ranking, but because he has shown students and their parents that all this is possible, at once: to be in love, to be open with one’s family about romantic relationships, and to respect and acknowledge people while also respecting their privacy, all while aspiring to (and sometimes accomplishing) great things.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 11th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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