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

Shortlisted for the Atta Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize 2021


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-15


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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


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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


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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: Many Mermaids

Yemanja flowed through the Ogun river, moving with the current into the Lagos Lagoon, and then surged into the Atlantic Ocean – travelling onwards with enslaved people on ships. This is why she is honoured among many in Africa and its diasporas. She is worshipped, in some forms, as a mermaid. So is Mami Wata, another spirit/deity who is also depicted as fish-tailed. Then, there are the Nommo – space mermaids who taught the Dogon people astronomy. There are many African mermaids, and many mermaids everywhere in the world.

            Nyai Ratu Blorong is the goddess of the Sumatran waters, the one who causes tsunamis. Also from that region is Mathabu’l-Bahri, whom legend holds is the mother of Singapore’s founder; the merlion emblem of the island state is derived from this tale. In Gurindji country are the karunkayns, who can remove their tails like petticoats, and the yawkyawks, who can shapeshift into other reptilian, insectoid and marine forms. In Japanese waters are the ningyos, whose flesh curses those who consume them with the torment of immortality. La Pincoya of the Chiloé islands controls the fish-harvest. Sedna of the Arctic Circle has her tangled hair attended to by human shamans. Pania haunts the Aoteraroa shoreline, arms outstretched, seeking. Hwang-ok of Doengbaeksom scrys a yellow topaz orb in which she can see her loved ones left behind – some say, in India.

            The plurality and universality of the mermaid is clear. So is her ancient provenance. Mermaid plaques from 2nd century BCE Chandraketugarh, Bengal have made the rounds on social media this year (believed to be in a private collection). They are predated by many others, including Atargatis of Aleppo, Syria.

            The Tamilest mermaid I know is Thai: Suvarnamaccha of the Ramakien, daughter of Ravana. Actually, that’s not true: the Tamilest mermaid I know is the one I – conjured? was enraptured by? – let’s say she came to me. Or: she called to me, and I came. Her name is Ila, and she exists in my books Incantations Over Water and Mermaids In The Moonlight. I created her because I come from a place where mermaid motifs are everywhere, and the lagoons resonate with mysterious sounds beneath gravid moons, but lore about them is missing.

In 1837, the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen published a sad story about a young mermaid who longed to have a soul, like humans do, and not transmogrify into sea foam at the end of the centuries of her lifespan. In 1989, The Walt Disney Company made a cherished animated film inspired by it, a happy love story. The red-haired, Caucasian daydreamer Ariel, its protagonist, has since heavily influenced the concept of mermaids in the international public consciousness.

The live action version of The Little Mermaid will be released next year, and stars Halle Bailey, an African-American actor. This has upset some people, and confused others. But that is only because they don’t know any other mermaids – and this is their loss. Take it from me, one who made up a mermaid because there can’t be too many of them: the waters contain depths far beyond the human capacity to fathom. There is more than enough ocean.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in September 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Professor’s Cautionary Tale

An incident of slut-shaming and sexism that took place in a Kolkata institution almost a year ago recently came to light in the press, and has now even made international headlines. In October 2021, a young professor at St. Xavier’s University was summoned to meet the management. She alleges that she was subject to a “witch trial”, during which she was condemned for photographs of herself in swimwear. The parent of an undergraduate student who had been caught viewing them had lodged a complaint against the professor, alleging that her photographs were “sexually explicit”.

            The photos had been uploaded to her private Instagram account, were not taken on university premises, and were posted months before she joined the faculty. The professor says they were put up as IG Stories, which disappear after 24 hours. She was forced to resign, and has written in the press about the serious consequences this had for her and her family financially and health-wise. In the meanwhile, the institution has reportedly sued her for defamation, to the tune of a whopping 99 crore rupees.

Father Felix Raj, the university’s Vice-Chancellor, claimed in an interview that the professor had admitted that she had given her students access to her Instagram. If the institution’s version is correct, the professor’s choice to accept follow requests from students, thus blurring certain professional boundaries, would certainly have been wrong. But that doesn’t resolve the logical issue: if the IG Stories had been posted months before she joined the university, how could she or why would she have granted access to students she had not even met?

What is uncontested is that the account was private. It is unclear whether any action has been taken against the student who may have cyberstalked the professor, using means that could have included hacking or fake accounts. At the very least, they had access to circulated screenshots, a possibility that then takes this entire situation into the terrain of stolen images. The disgusting underbelly of photographic phishing in India – when photos of a person are stolen, circulated, given false captions, morphed and more –  is the reason why many women have private accounts. Evidently, even those do not provide enough safeguards.

There is some amount of misogyny at the core of this issue, no matter how you look at it. The professor has every right to dress as she wants to in her personal time, and to document and even to share this – even on a public account, if she so wishes. Her wardrobe has no bearing on her work, and neither does any aspect of her private life. The student’s intrusion, and then the parent’s intrusion (with the expectation that authorities punish the professor), into her private life is categorically unscrupulous behaviour. The institution has been more than heavy-handed, and tarnished its own reputation in the process.

The professor has written anonymously that she has “settled for being a cautionary tale for the time being”. But the caution, one hopes, will not be for others like her. It should, when the dust settles, only be for creepy individuals and conservative institutions who do not respect the rights of others.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in September 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Atypical Love

The Supreme Court of India has recognised the legitimacy of what we can call (inspired by its own phrasing) Atypical Love. These words come from the SC’s mid-August decree, which ruled in favour of reinterpreting an institution’s rulebook to permit leave to care for both the complainant’s adopted and biological children. “These manifestations of love and of families may not be typical but they are as real as their traditional counterparts,” observed the court. “Such atypical manifestations of the family unit are equally deserving not only of protection under law but also of the benefits available under social welfare legislation.”

            Atypical love and atypical families, in the eyes of the court as per this order, will also include queer couples and unmarried heterosexuals. This is cause for celebration for all who live in the shadow of the Typical – which is to say the heteropatriarchal – sometimes in secrecy, sometimes defiantly, but always with heightened vigilance.

            Some day, I hope that the recognition of individuals who are their own families – who are, essentially and practically, alone – will also be validated in the eyes of society. The law will follow. Even where it already applies, legitimacy is not lived reality; this gaze remains unchallenged in actual practice. Speaking from experience, to be a woman alone in this country is a perennial source of chagrin, fear, anger, rejection and uphill battling. I could write volumes about this. For now, two relatively unserious examples of how a person without a family is viewed will suffice.

            The first: I always book window seats on trains and buses wherever possible, but “We are travelling as a family,” is offered as a reasonable excuse for me to have to give up my seat. I just say No, but I grit my teeth behind a smile. It’s the expectation that annoys me so much more than being asked. Why are my desires as a passenger to enjoy the scenery less important than a group’s desire to sit together, when in all likelihood they were together and will remain together beyond the hours of the journey?

Here’s a more dramatic example that became funny in retrospect: on assignment years ago, I was taken into tiger territory by a local guide. My instincts told me not to get out of the vehicle, although my colleague did. He came back aghast and shaken, saying it was an open area and not an officially designated space, and that they vamoosed before any animals were spotted (or rather, spotted them). When I asked the guide why he had acted irresponsibly, he said: “I wouldn’t take families here. I thought it’s okay because you are bachelors.”

            Meaning: no one’s going to cry for you, my spinster sister, so go ahead take all the adventures you’re inclined to. Which, to be fair, is a nice contrast to the other imposition one more frequently encounters: you are a threat to the patriarchal system and deserve to be extinguished.

            So I love – atypically and applaudingly – the Supreme Court’s ruling. May its recognitions of what different lives look like extend further still, reflecting in the ways people regard, respect and subsequently treat one another.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in September 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Justice & Healing

There are presently two sexual assault cases registered by Kerala police against activist and author Civic Chandran. The details of the cases blur a little in press reports, but it can be inferred that the accused targeted women writers and readers at literary events and through social media. Chandran has been granted anticipatory bail in both cases, on similarly conjectural grounds, by the Kozhikode district sessions court.

            In one case, the court observed that as a noted leftist thinker, it’s “highly unbelievable that he will touch the body of the victim fully knowing that she is a member of the Scheduled Caste”. In the other case, the court observed that a sexual harassment complaint would not prima facie stand when the complainant was thought to be wearing “sexually provocative clothes”.

            In both cases, the Kozhikode district sessions court decided to let Chandran off the hook, through an inflated opinion of Chandran’s character and a misogynistic depreciation of the accused’s character.

Reading about Chandran’s work, and about how he allegedly made statements on the “hypocrisy of people in Kerala towards sex” shortly before these cases, reminded me so much of some other notable cultural activists. Their professed leanings are progressive; their actions and words in actual interactions are not. Some of them were implicated in the MeToo movement. Some were not, and still ramble unscathed, coteries around them preciously protecting their reputations while whispers abound – and will always abound.

There was something I learned during one such scenario that became public some years ago. That was: there is always more, much more, beneath the surface. In that situation, it was easy for many to side with the accused because the most visible case was a little complicated, even for those of us who believe women on principle. But the ripples it set off were powerful: in private, even secret and almost always unrecorded ways, other survivors came forth. Most could not risk the visibility of a call out or a formal filing. All were empowered, in the very clandestine places in which healing happens, in some way. Knowing one wasn’t alone in one’s experience has that effect. Healing is more important than justice, sometimes. I’m not saying this happened for everyone, but if it did, then it happened just as the damage happened – out of sight.

At other times, healing is predicated on justice. The outcome for every survivor who seeks legal recourse has an impact on the emotional liberation or continued suffering of many others. Today, this pertains very visibly to the release of eleven rapists and murderers, who had been serving life sentences, involved in what is known as the Bilkis Bano case, part of the carnage of the 2002 Gujarat riots. There too, a judgement of character on purely casteist grounds – that as Brahmins, the perpetrators were inherently good-natured and had reformed – prevailed over the acute need for the survivor’s physical and mental safety.

The Kerala High Court and the Supreme Court of India have both been moved to address these respective travesties of justice. It remains to be seen whether righteousness will triumph, or if wickedness will be left to ramble further.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in August 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Attack On Rushdie

In the lionizing – or the demonizing – of a public personality, many perceive a problem as being unique. Having a bounty on his head is a Salman Rushdie problem, for example, and not an expansive threat on human rights. In a sense, this is true: a human being was nearly murdered at Chautauqua Institution a few days ago, while all the abstract concepts around this event (hate, freedom, power) remain intact in their intangible and universal way. But the problem goes beyond him – both in the conjectural sense of what we stand to lose when we are deprived of creativity or dissent, and in the lived reality of an environment in which these are excised.

            Rushdie had been scheduled to speak at the Chautauqua Institution on August 12 on the United States as a haven for persecuted writers. The contents of his speech haven’t yet been released publicly. Books themselves are at risk in the USA, through internal bans by school districts (over 1500 titles were banned between July 2021 and March 2021, mostly on subjects such as race and queerness, as reported by the writers’ rights organisation PEN America; Rushdie is a former president of the same). But we can surmise that those who create them are safer there than in many places around the world.

Rushdie certainly felt that way, at least. This may be because government-led oppression of artists and intellectuals is not a major peril there at this time (it has been true at other times in American history, and can be true in future). That does not mean that an individual is safe from being harmed by another, as happened to the author last week. He was brutally, through fortunately not fatally, stabbed multiple times by an assailant identified as 24-year old Hadi Matar.

Rushdie experienced persecution from Islamic fundamentalists after the release of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. In a 2012 essay, book critic Madhu Jain wrote about how her review was misshapen by an editor’s choice of incendiary excerpts, which precipitated the book’s banning in India and Pakistan and the subsequent fatwa issued by Iran. Its Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was found dead under unresolved circumstances; its Italian translator Ettore Capriolo and Norwegian publisher William Nygaard faced attempted murders. The question of whether the offended read and ponder before reacting is always present. Here in India, the journalist Gauri Lankesh was murdered in 2017 by a hitman hired by Hindutva fundamentalists; the killer later admitted to not knowing who the assigned target was, and expressed regret upon learning of the value of her work.

Rushdie has been outspoken about the threat to fundamental freedoms in India, where he was born, both currently and in the past. Just before this attack on his life, he co-signed an open letter to President Droupadi Murmu on “the rapidly worsening situation for human rights in India, specifically freedom of speech and creative expression.” As always, we would do well to consider the larger picture, to not fixate on how an author was attacked where he felt most free, but on how unfree we all really are, and what to do about it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in August 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Pickles & Bananas

Someone – I’m just going to say someone because I just cannot bear to add to this person’s fame – threw a ketchup-smeared pickle slice from a McDonald’s burger up at the ceiling of an art gallery and called it Art. The acid in my belly is simply simmering. Is it envy? Is it hunger?

            With me, it’s always hunger. Though this time, it’s a little envy too (what is also called, ahem, indignation). I mean – the stars are art, the smog is art, the steam from a kettle is art, the stretchmarks on my thigh are art – but they are not Art and they are certainly not pricetagged at $10,000 New Zealand dollars.

            I don’t know if the pickle installation, currently on display at Michael Lett, a gallery in Auckland, has sold. The banana duct-taped to the wall for $120,000 US dollars at Art Basel in 2019 did sell, after all. Art pieces tend to stay up, discreetly stickered to indicate their taken status, until exhibitions are over – so not only was that banana sold, but it was also consumed post-purchase. By a performance artist (not the purchaser). With an audience, presumably applauding this high concept culinary desecration and its statement on, I dunno, futility, mortality and gastroenterology? Of course, the authentic, artistic spirit of the original banana lived on – a new one was immediately taped up. Presumably, the owners of this intangible banana routinely have the tangible bananas replaced, wherever they are displaying this Art.

            That pickle slice on the ceiling – it’s a steal, really. Someone probably bought it. Maybe someone else will risk their tummy for a ladder-related performance piece involving eating an ingredient that’s been exposed for weeks. “Someone” – you know. So many someones that this world is full of. Sigh. Also, confession: I’ve blocked the Artist’s (yeah, capital A because A is for…) name from my memory already, because why should they live rent-free in my head? I suppose to finesse my frustration better, I ought to say: art not artist, etc. Yeah. Sigh.

I read about the profound pickle, felt all kinds of pangs and pains, then went and checked my bank statement again to see if the quarterly capitalised interest that was due days ago had come in. One keeps an eye on these things, you know – unless money is no object (or apropos nothing, nothing at all, art object). It had not. I settled in to contemplate the ceiling for a bit. I certainly felt like throwing something at it.

The installation in New Zealand is fittingly called “Pickle”; the Art Basel one was titled even more aptly, “Comedian”. The funniest thing about it is also the most terrifying: it was a ferocious success. Such effortless gains are made from deliberate spectacles, in art and in other realms. (Sigh). What else was there to do but mope a little, try to count my blessings and not my bank balance, and then – as one is always suggestible when it comes to food – order a burger. And enjoy it, because why not? Another word for pickle is “relish”, and one should take that as a verb. All is art, after all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in August 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Bus Stand Resistance

A group of people who live within spying distance of a bus stand frequented by students of Trivandrum’s College of Engineering (CET), taking umbrage at the sight of young women and men spending time together, decided to take matters into their own hands. Last month, they vandalised the bench by cutting it up into three one-seaters. Is it easier to pat yourself on the back from a moral high horse, or do you lose balance and fall off?

            In an act of happy resistance, the students sat on each others’ laps on the newly severed bench and posed smilingly for social media photographs. This unique protest worked, rather splendidly. Trivandrum mayor Arya Rajendran was reportedly angered by the conservative infringement of basic liberties that the students had faced, and made swift amends. The mayor is just 23 years old, and her response demonstrates how having young people in high civic offices can bring meaningful change that is relevant to the times. Other politicians, including Kerala’s General Education Minister V. Sivankutty, also expressed their support for the students.

Moral policing events in India don’t end well that often, and it’s such a refreshing change that this story appears to have culminated happily. Trivandrum authorities have announced that this bus stop – which had previously been more of an illegally constructed shelter – will now become a full facility, as well as a “gender neutral” one. While it’s unclear what this means in this context, we can surmise that discriminatory actions such as the division of people by gender will not be tolerated as a matter of principle. Moreover, free Wi-Fi will be provided at the facility – a cheerful development, since it will encourage loitering. The concept that this is a public space, for public use, is well-promoted through this gesture.

This is especially vital because people who are not men are not often seen occupying public space at random. For instance: a woman at a bus stop isn’t idle; she is likely to be commuting from her work at an office to her work within a household. When she needs a little solitude, she is more likely to retreat to the terrace than to step out to a park alone, where inquisitive or even threatening stares will disrupt her peace and make her vigilant. Even if she was with a friend, someone in her family may ask them why they were stepping out “alone”. The allowance for leisure and personal space are intimately linked to the use of public space.

The Why Loiter? movement initiated in 2014 was a great step in asserting within the public discourse that it is not just men who have the right to enjoy or simply be present in a public space – staring at others, shooting the breeze, listening to music on their phones, doing whatever they please. What was treated and normalised as a gendered privilege was questioned, with the intent of expanding possibilities for others to experience that same right. This incident in Trivandrum will hopefully disempower those like those pesky residents near CET. Their having to put away their binoculars, or at least their bench-cutting devices, is something to celebrate.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in August 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Unlearning Love

The language around love and abuse seems to be changing – at least in my world, as observed through algorithms. Finally – finally – it feels like the truth is being not just revealed but generously shared: about what it requires to love yourself, to love others well, to heal in the absence of love and to recognise that not everything that bears that name is love at all.

There’s a reason why these seemingly complex concepts are so effectively elucidated by counsellors, healers and other experts online. That’s because they are complex only until they are acknowledged. Then they become as simple as sunlight in the summer because, look: it’s everywhere, it’s always been there, it illuminates all one always felt but could not explain, with the clarity of day. The solutions – subjective and full of anguish – take time, but the tools feel within greater reach.

            A few weeks ago, I wrote in this space about limerence – an acute state of longing into which those who have not been safely loved often escape. A few months ago, I wrote here about broken mirrors – about how we cannot see ourselves as we are if those around us hold up distorted reflections of who they prefer us to be or have judged us as. The emerging, easily digestible yet profound conversation around love and abuse, combined with my commitment to heal through various therapeutic modalities, have helped me reframe my life, and understand myself.

            Equally powerfully, age-old, untrue tenets about love – broadly, love of all kinds, beginning with the familial and extending into the romantic and social – are also being dismantled.

Here’s just one example of a fallacy that, when challenged, seeds deep inner change and facilitates healing. Who has not been told at some point: “No one can love you until you love yourself”? Now, with newfound lucidity, such dangerous lies, which blame the unloved or the traumatised, are finally being called out for what they are: propaganda in service of those who do the damage.

In actuality, if a person has been raised unlovingly, they are wired to receive only more unlove through life, because they either recognise or reject new experiences based on the blueprint they were given. Note that I say receive, not attract – nobody magnetizes pain, as compassionless theories disguised as spiritual ones assert.

Self-worth is not fundamental. It is inculcated through being raised with love. Self-respect and self-love, which are distinct but connected, also originate in upbringing. All are reinforced through experience; their antipodes are reinforced too.

Despite my sense of the change, I cannot speak for the world at large, and whether it is truly opening to such transformations. But in my own life and in the lives of others I can see the ripple effect of radically relearning this: there is nothing wrong with us intrinsically, but there is something wrong with what was instilled in us about what care, belonging and relationships are, should be or can be. With the succour of discovering that we were good enough all along comes the desire to be even better. Who do we want to become, as we remake our lives – painfully, patiently?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in July 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Limerence

When I first encountered the word “limerence”, I equated it with a crush or infatuation – some small, sweet thing. It was a word I tried on for size for certain unsettling feelings that occasionally stirred in me. At almost 37, I have not fallen in love in my 30s, not even once – a feat for the perennially single and poetically-bent. But in limerence – sure.

            Later, when I discovered the vocabulary that helped me frame what I had suffered from for my whole life, and was healing from anew, the word took profound significance. In the language of experts who work on complex PTSD and narcissistic family systems of abuse, “limerence” is a toxic experience that adult survivors often have in the romantic and sexual realms. I first came across it in this connotation through Anna Runkle (aka “Crappy Childhood Fairy”).

Limerence is an intense, unfounded longing for an unavailable person. It is neither romantic nor whimsical, but is powerful, painful and sometimes bittersweetly beautiful. It is a state of mind that is ultimately harmful to the person experiencing it, and potentially harmful to the object of their affection.

I learned of a related concept, “euphoric recall”, through Dr. Ramani Durvasula, probably the world’s most popular expert on the subject of narcissistic abuse. This is when we erase our painful memories, instead elevating selective glimpses or incidents of tenderness or potential, self-flagellating by skewing our own realities.

The deep-rooted cause of limerence is yearning for the family that one deserves, which is transferred onto others. Its trauma-informed application has helped me understand my romantic personality, and the disappointments and devastations I was wired for.

I have begun to see better some of the darker valleys of my heart because of the illuminative power of having the right concepts. I see how, then or now, it was not that lover or that leaver I ached for, but perhaps for my little sister to care about me, my uncle to support me, my mother to be more like the imaginary figment I needed her to be and less like who – or what – she is. I have been limerent for familial love, and projected that onto those I desired romantically or sexually. Grieving my father’s demise brought severe bouts with euphoric recall, from which I would repeatedly talk myself down with the facts. But my cognition has changed now.

            The truth is that one longs for unavailable people because one is themselves also, actually, unavailable. The emotional bandwidth it takes to survive abuse and its after-effects leave very little left for deep engagement. Limerence means you never have to do the work; you just daydream. Euphoric recall means your pain addiction keeps being fulfilled (there is much relatable, digestible expert information on the neuroscience of abuse available on social media). Seeing these dangerous traits in myself is liberating. It doesn’t absolve anyone I have ever loved or been limerent over of their roles in the hurt I had known. But it takes away my illusions and delusions – and lets me see what’s really in front of me, and clears my vision of both the past and the path ahead.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in July 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Reproductive Rights In India

The Supreme Court of India is currently considering listing, in a plea for an urgent hearing, an abortion case. The plea is being made as the Delhi High Court rejected the plaintiff’s request to allow her to terminate her pregnancy, despite recently having crossed the 20-week mark beyond which abortion for unmarried women is not permitted in India. The Delhi HC’s division bench reportedly chided the plaintiff: “Give the child to somebody in adoption. Why are you killing the child?”

            These are sentiments expressed by those who hold anti-abortion views (they are mostly not “pro-life”, for their concern for living beings – as corroborated by complementary views on childcare, religious fundamentalism, guns, the environment and so on, depending on where they are – usually ends upon birth) everywhere. Similar statements were widely shared by those who celebrated when the Supreme Court of the United States of America overturned the landmark 1971 Roe vs Wade case last month, almost instantly revoking abortion access across some parts of the country, with more to be lost.

Here in India, some feel that reproductive rights are safeguarded in comparison to recent developments in the USA. This is not entirely true. The case presently being considered by the SC of India – one in which every week matters – is an example. Although the plaintiff’s personal reasons for seeking to terminate the pregnancy have been covered in the media, I’ve purposely omitted them because every reason why an individual wants to have an abortion is reason enough. All of them are deserving.

Abortion is legally available in India not because of feminist or human rights principles, but because of eugenics, population control and other factors to do with an overarching system driven by repressive, not just regressive, beliefs. While sex-selective abortion is supposedly illegal, in practice, the space for female foeticide clearly exists, as long as medical practitioners offer the relevant information. In that particular grey area is the need to distinguish between those who are coerced to abort girls and those whose misogyny prevents them from raising girls well.

So much – too much – comes down to the power that medical practitioners have, and the decisions they make about whether a patient’s freedoms and choices are respected or otherwise. A few weeks ago, an uninformative and judgmental Twitter thread by a gynaecologist telling patients that questioning the longstanding shorthand of “Are you married?” is just privileged woke posturing went viral. It went viral because it distressed many people, whose memories of terrible experiences of moral policing, body shaming, misdiagnoses, under-diagnoses and malpractice at the hands of Indian doctors were triggered by the blatant medical gaslighting on display.

Reproductive health is a particularly sensitive area for it is so closely linked with sexuality – which terrifies the conservative. Should the SC of India take up the plea to allow the medical termination that the Delhi HC didn’t, the case will challenge the ban on abortions after 20 weeks if the pregnant person is not married. It could expand access to abortion as a human right, and any expansion of human rights is welcome – especially here, and in all other places where they seem to be shrinking.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in July 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: When You’d Rather Cancel Than Be The Change

“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” goes an iconic quote from the Dark Knight film trilogy – so aphoristic that many scarcely believe it originated in a modern film, and not in an ancient treatise on war or life.

            But even the dead are certainly not exempt from falls from grace. It’s just surprising sometimes who gets depedestalised. Last week, around her birth anniversary, a Twitter thread positing that Frida Kahlo had been a white cultural appropriator went viral. Comments on it showed that this happens annually, i.e. there are people out there who keep trying to get her cancelled on her birthday (how sweet).  Of course, it’s not the deceased person in question who is actually being cancelled, but those who imbibe her work and continue to be inspired by her. Kahlo is known for having battled unthinkable pain and choosing to thrive anyway, and for creating paintings that were testimonies to an unusual life.

As many pointed out, the facts were rather lacking in the attack. Kahlo was half-mestiza, through her mother, and half German Jew, through her father. Her maternal lineage was of mixed Spanish and indigenous origin, like most Mexican people. Her work acknowledged all facets of her ancestry, with a natural inclination for the culture and location she was raised in. Not all of her politics or life choices could stand the test of time: for example, she supported Josef Stalin, and her marriage was rife with severely toxic elements. Relevant to the Tweetstorm in question, she had class power that allowed her to enjoy elements of indigenous artistry, in her wardrobe and in her décor. That she and Diego Rivera, her spouse, possibly helped to visibilise native culture and thereby influenced preservation or artisans’ revenue may or may not be a qualifying factor.

Kahlo was flawed. The same can be said for anyone – anyone at all. But her positive impact on millions who are encouraged by her inner strength is not propaganda or hype. Still, because we cannot convince those in our circles not to support the dictators of today, because we are alarmed either for ourselves or for loved ones whose lives we view at close quarters to learn how extraordinarily difficult it is to exit abusive relationships, because we too adore pretty things and have privileged guilt – we pick a target and throw stones.

A few days later, I saw something much worse: the person being called out was Anne Frank.

Frank – who died in a concentration camp at age 15 after two years hiding from the fascist Nazi German state in a concealed annexe, during which she kept a diary that found great posthumous value – apparently had “white privilege”.

This time, I didn’t even bother to enter the rabbit hole of the so-called discourse.

I’ll say it again: a sense of powerlessness, or unresolved feelings of personal disharmony that manifest as parts of our public personalities, because of which we project onto people who are either on our side or are no threat, are not substitutes for the messy, compassionate experience of navigating or creating change that matters.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in July 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Unholy Righteousness

Last week, a video emerged of two people – reportedly, a husband and a wife – who had been embracing in the Sarayu river when onlookers began to hit the man, then dragged them both out of the water. Their affectionate behaviour with one another was considered offensive by the crowd.

            The Sarayu is a tributary of the Ganga, considered by many Hindus to be the most sacred of rivers. The incident took place in Ayodhya, a holy and highly contentious location. But no matter where this had happened, the mob’s reaction would be familiar. Moral policing of people’s desires and relationships is not new in India. There is a spectrum of such repressive violence: from right-wing thugs who physically attack couples and women on Valentine’s Day to landlords who refuse tenants who are not married heterosexuals. But even for the latter category: their neighbours are more likely to be offended by sounds of pleasure coming out of their windows than by sounds of battery. Moral policing requires that one interfere and create strife when joy or love are observed, and stay out of it silently when abuse or distress are witnessed.

On some level, it is as though the couple standing in the river – and anyone who has ever been morally policed – was attacked because they displayed something other than unhappiness, and the profound unhappiness at the heart of this society is glimpsed again in that reaction.

This week, some of my father’s ashes will finally be immersed in the Ganga, as per his own wishes. He was among the victims of devastating third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India – believed to be inflicted on the country largely through election campaigning. This is the same river in which, just over a year ago and the height of the pandemic, unclaimed bodies numbering in the hundreds if not more were found floating.

Those corpses had been people who could not have the dignity of final rites, for reasons we can surmise range from penury, to loss or illness of all kin during that brutal collective crisis, to the sheer overwhelm experienced by cremation ground workers. This year, a contradictory narrative has come up: that the burial of bodies near a ghat of the Ganga, and subsequent low water levels that expose them, were the reason for this disturbing phenomenon. This is supposedly an ancient custom, but one which strangely enough was not offered as an explanation in 2021, when macabre visuals were widely shared internationally. Custom alone does not explain the numbers either, even if they are only the officially reported ones. In a time where any narrative can be given mileage if a powerful hand wishes to promote it, true stories are frequently buried or sunk, and take a long time to re-emerge – if ever.

So much worse happens in a holy river than a kiss. How quickly all is forgotten, and forgiven, when it comes to the sins of those in power. Imagine if the moral righteousness that makes people interfere in the personal lives of others – that deep misery that disguises itself as rectitude – was used instead to hold to account the powerful.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in July 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Writing Without Reading

It’s not often that remarks in a student newspaper go viral. The very first set of questions posed to writer Sarah Underwood in her interview with one called Felix was “Did you read The Odyssey? And if so, when?” Who knows why the publication made an enquiry that most writers worth their salt would find insulting, but they were on to something. Underwood had not read Homer’s Odyssey, the Greek classic that has been translated and retold many times by many voices, when she wrote a novel that drew from it. In her own words: “I actually started and finished writing without sitting down and reading the whole thing.” An author behaving with the blasé confidence of a highly opinionated and highly ignorant book-influencer – you can imagine what ensued.

Online books “discourse” on any given week is messy and drama-filled – but now and then, there’s consensus. Writers, readers and scholars are suitably aghast by Underwood’s nonchalance. They are agitated that she got her foot into the infamously bolted doorways of publishing without trying too much, when great efforts fail; they are also agitated by an uncaring work ethic and the implications of the same.

Classical scholar Olivia Waite warned in a brief Twitter thread that “…if you aren’t careful with your sources, you’re going to let in white supremacy”, talking about how Nazis have drawn from Scandinavian, Greek and Roman mythologies and that these stories have been used in skewed agendas. The uses of mythology in grandiose narrativization – and the incredibly violent consequences of these – are certainly not unfamiliar in India, either.

Inspecting any belief about collective consciousness will often show that we usually know less than we think we know, and that what we do know is widely divergent, based on our internal desires and principles as influenced by larger currents and exposure.

When it comes to stories that inform the collective consciousness, recorded text does not have greater weightage than oral narrative. But we think it must. In India, this is especially true of epics. As many scholars and storytellers say, the Ramayana in one’s head is a mix of Doodarshan’s televised serial and Tulsidas’ religious scripture, not the text attributed to Valmiki, yet most do not trace or make these distinctions.

There’s an argument to be made that Underwood chose a subversive method of approaching a text she says she found impenetrable, drawing from it without deferring to it. In its own irreverent way, Underwood’s honesty is refreshing – even as the chagrin of those who are under-recognized for their work and gatekept out of opportunities is utterly valid.

I would be open to reading Underwood’s queer feminist imagining of The Odyssey. As a writer, one who spends extensive time in research, I scoff. But as a reader, one who just wants to enjoy a story, I shrug. There are translators, notably of poetry, who don’t even know the source language, but whose work I’ve admired. Admittedly, there are multiple levels of problematic engagement in all these things: among the publishing industry, literary circles, creators and readerships. But that’s also part of the pleasure of literature: something to chew on, even at leisure.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in June 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.