Oh, how low the bar is for cis-het men to appear to be romantically impressive. 

The actor Riz Ahmed, walking the Academy Awards red carpet with his partner, the novelist Fatima Farheen Mirza, asked press photographers to pause for a few seconds as he reached over to play with Mirza’s hair. I guess he was trying to look like he was adjusting it. Except it didn’t need adjusting. Mirza’s coiffure, a side-swept and very smooth fringe and even smoother straight hair left down her back, had probably already been worked on by professionals who had ensured it would stay in place. Which it did. No flyaways, no wisps, no pedestrian disarray. In fact, he could have wound up messing it up by touching it at all. Which he didn’t, but still: what was the point of that unnecessary, interruptive, red carpet-traffic-holding up caress of her hair? Or here’s a bigger question: why did so many press outlets and people get so excited about it, as though it was the 21st century equivalent of a gentleman covering a puddle with his cloak so that a lady wouldn’t have to take a slightly longer step across or around it? Some kinds of chivalry are best left dead, thus avoiding both dry cleaning bills and dramatic eye rolls.

Look, who knows what the dynamics of their marriage are. Maybe random acts of interference are their love language. Maybe it’s none of our business.

But that moment on the red carpet, that little performance for the public eye? That was for us to see and maybe even for us to fawn over, but mostly it was just territorial behaviour on Ahmed’s part. The gesture is not necessarily controlling in and of itself, because people do appreciate different kinds of displays of affection, depending on their temperaments, needs and comfort levels. But it’s certainly territorial – Ahmed put his back between Mirza and the photographers, as if to say, even if lovingly, “Remember that she’s mine”.

I’ve been meaning to read Mirza’s work ever since I became aware of her through the couple’s last viral moment in the media. That was when Ahmed revealed in an interview that the couple had a rom-com style meetcute – they were both vying for the same power point for their respective laptops at a café. It’s the classic un-pandemic daydream of certain introverted, ambitious types: to be immersed in your work, and then serendipitously find love just by stepping out for a change of scene (her hair was probably perfect that day too, as it is in all such daydreams). Mirza is a bestselling author. I’m annoyed that I hadn’t known of her except through her spouse talking about her, and that I’ve been reminded about her only because he drew the spotlight again.

I checked out a sample of her novel, A Place For Us, and smirked because right there on the first page was a line that was kind of funny, miscontextualised. A man greeting guests at his sister’s wedding is described like so: “He smoothed down his hair, as if a stray strand would be enough to call attention, give him away.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 1st 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.