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MY BOOKS

MERMAIDS IN THE MOONLIGHT

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

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

The Altar of the Only World-15

 

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

 

 

THE HIGH PRIESTESS NEVER MARRIES

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

 

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

 

THE AMMUCHI PUCHI

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

 

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

 

WITCHCRAFT

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)

INCANTATIONS OVER WATER

I am delighted to announce the publication of Incantations Over Water, my first graphic novel and seventh book. This book is the companion volume to my picture book Mermaids In The Moonlight; together they form my Ila duology.

“Sharanya Manivannan’s Incantations Over Water is storytelling magic — Ila the mermaid has an irresistible voice steeped in history, myth and pure wonder. Like its compelling narrator, this powerful book will call to you. A beautifully told and illustrated tale of the Kallady lagoon, and of the water that connects us all.” – V. V. Ganeshananthan

“Sharanya Manivannan’s storytelling is quicksilver, refusing — yet again — to be constrained by genre. Incantations Over Water is lyrical and experimental, invoking old lore, timeless sprites, and magic that isn’t of the obvious kind.” – Amruta Patil

An excerpt and exclusive video on News9.

An excerpt in Scroll.

An essay, “Making Up The Mermaid of Mattakalappu” in The Willowherb Review

An essay, “Ila, The Mermaid of Batticaloa” in Mermaids Monthly

“You could say that I had been working towards the Ila duology my whole life” – An interview with Suhasini Patni, Scroll

“…stunning lyricism leaping off its pages… gorgeously illustrated… Incantations over Water is an exploration about memory, home, loss, and the power of narratives. Densely researched and ecofeminist in its approach, the novel is an enthralling poetic and visual feat.” – Tasneem Pocketwala, OPEN Magazine

Incantations puts forth a knowledge that doesn’t have to be translated or, rather, can’t be translated — which is an act of intimacy telling us to know a people instead of simply extracting their wisdom. Diving beyond Western concepts of capturing and documenting information for posterity, it takes us to the deepest corners of the ocean of knowledge, where each story can have several meanings, making the whole beautiful and wondrous.” – Sneha Krishnan, The Hindu Literary Review

Incantations is a lyrical book, with prose that reads like poetry, and sentences that stay with you long after the pages are turned… Manivannan has illustrated the book herself, creating visuals of the lagoon and Ila that are beautiful and stirring.” – Joanna Lobo, Firstpost

“Her words and art have a hypnotic effect as they draw the readers into a world that is replete with ‘cultural history, eco-consciousness, political reality, and personal longing’. Magic surrealism meets glorious profundity, making this a novel that one would want to keep around for many years.” – Shrestha Saha, The Telegraph

Incantations Over Water demonstrates not only the literary excellence but also the genius of Sharanya Manivannan as an illustrator”.- Saurabh Sharma, Writerly Life

Incantations offers what you desire to draw from it and then some.” – Kannalmozhi Kabilan, The New Indian Express

…”the book is a visual delight due to its marvellous illustrations, (Manivannan’s pen has brought to life all the sea creatures, especially mermaids) as well as a treat to read, due to her poetic writing.” – Rachna Chhabria, Deccan Chronicle

“Sharanya Manivannan writes, ‘In any endeavour — in any pilgrimage, in any undertaking of the heart — always leave a votive for the ones who left no trace.’ This is what Sharanya does in her book ‘Incantations over water’. She acknowledges that this book is a votive for all her lost kin and for a history much less known.” – Pallavi NB, Deccan Herald

Virtual book launch with Karuna Ezara Parikh

A conversation with Anukrti Upadhyay for Pashyantee

A conversation with Cushy Book Club, University of Delhi

“I write and draw primarily for my own solace or pleasure” – an interview with Sukant Deepak, Indo-Asian News Service

The Venus Flytrap: Imponderable

For the first time in what could be a long time, I brought the shutters down on the old year without reflecting on it, consciously rejecting a habit of contemplation and journaling – but perhaps still keeping some of the intentionality that the annual cusp usually contains for me. All I wanted, and still want, is to let 2021 go, and let go of all it took from me and all it demanded of me. To let go of my losses, to let go of the questions. But perhaps that, too, is a form of desire – the desire I took the step over this year’s threshold with. And not, of course, the only one.

The word “imponderable” – which I could choose to describe the previous year with, to describe my hesitation to appraise it – has an archaic meaning, according to one dictionary. It also means “very light”. The mul cotton lightness with which we must wear our experiences, our tragedies, our rearranged selves. The weight of my tread across this year’s threshold was necessarily then, in this sense, imponderable.

We stare at another cusp now, and have already crossed into another valley: the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is here in India. 

Another heart-sinking weight: the awareness that only those who were careful in the unprecedented first wave and the devastating second, and between these and since them, are going to care at all now. “Lightness, lightness,” I tell myself – “try to hold the knowledge that people don’t care lightly. About themselves, about each other, about you” – the last one twisted up in other knowledges, revelations the year that cannot quite be left behind had brought.

I brought this year in by myself in a borrowed house by a beach: writing, reading, cooking, watching TV, listening to music, healing. Staving off the sorrow with courage and the fear with curiosity. I pondered the question: is it necessary to have hope? Am I better served by taking a sombre, steady approach, letting each small step forward surprise and comfort me, treating each new attainment as miracle and celebration?

I am not alone in my sorrow and my fear, my courage and my curiosity. They are the companions of many, as this new year dawns.

I have not had other companions this week. But there has been the sound of the sea-waves, in a neighbourhood quiet enough to hear them. The dialogues of a frequently-meowing cat, and of frequently-fighting dogs. The other night, a man whom I assume was intoxicated was in the street, shouting at people. Everyone was out of sight; I was out of sight of them all. Except to the crows I observe and who observe me, whom I occasionally feed, and whom I look to for auguries amidst the uncertainty.

This, then, is a way to begin again. It is what I tell myself, reminding myself also that if I survive this pandemic – as I hope I will – there is less lonesomeness on the other side. There is camaraderie and comfort awaiting beyond. We will find each other again. In the meanwhile, we will make of these flows and ebbs what we will.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 6th 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Stay Wild, Sweet Child

This week, a Class 11 student died by suicide in Chennai, leaving a note for her mother that has since been circulated on social media. Written in a mix of Tamil, English and Romanised Tamil, the note clearly indicates that sexual abuse was a large motivating factor for the student’s action. In an angry, despairing tone, she called out schools, relatives and society for the pain they cause to women and girls. In one line, she wrote: “The only safe places are the graveyard and the mother’s womb.”

A minor public shockwave rose and will dissipate as quickly. This society – or to partially quote the note, “this [expletive] society” absorbs such tragedies with ease, and allows them to happen again and again.

She was all of 17 years old. She is gone, too soon, and the words here have no meaning to her. But I know there are so many like her, pushed to shattering points because of the many ways that a conservative society punishes them for even existing, let alone for resisting. One doesn’t have to be an iconoclast to suffer – the pressure of conformity chisels at the personhood, the freedoms and the joys of even the most “ordinary” of people.

So these words are for anyone who feels that way, no matter the particularities of your situation. They are especially for students and young adults. If you’re open to hearing from someone who is perhaps a couple of decades further down the path than you are now, this is what I want you to know.

Firstly, I won’t lie to you. You will never stop cursing this society, and your expletives will always be justified.

You will never stop encountering obstructions, even from unlikely quarters. Sometimes, they will break your heart or destabilise you. Other times, you will laugh, and write that person off. Count the victories. Use your bitterness like medicine, for that’s what it is. You will make a life for yourself not within these oppressions, but despite them.

Whenever you are boxed in, make it possible for yourself to reach into a deeper resource built from all the times you swam in the light and claimed it for yourself. When you are released from those boxes, even briefly, you will see that no part of who you are was lost, even when you had no choice, even when you just had to keep your head down, stay quiet, and work at what matters. Do those three things, diligently – with your eyes firmly on escape. Define what escape means for you.

All of this has happened to me over and over again, and probably always will – unless life gives me the beautiful opportunity to root myself in a nicer place. Which reminds me: you will keep evolving, but don’t count on this society to change. Its rot runs millennia deep. 

To experience our lives meaningfully we must resist, even so. Don’t believe anyone who says that getting along will make life easier. It will only make you chafe. It will make you unkind.

Choose kindness then. Choose to thrive on the margins. That’s where all the wildflowers are, lushly blooming.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 28th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Failing The Feminism Exam

“What people were slow to observe was that the emancipation of the wife destroyed the parent’s authority over the children. The mother did not exemplify the obedience upon which she still tried to insist… In bringing the man down from his pedestal the wife and the mother deprived herself, in fact of the means of discipline.” These strange words do not belong in some moralistic novel from a few centuries ago, but from a comprehension passage in the English paper of the Class 10 board exam. The passage has since been withdrawn, with all students who were taking the exam given full marks for that section by default.

There were other passages in the same paper – on the same page was one which talked about how a wife who deferred to her husband would then be able to exert authority over others in a household (“Children and servants were taught in this way to know their place”), and one which bizarrely and ahistorically claimed that “In the twentieth century children became fewer and the feminist revolt was the result”. The section had eight questions in all, according to the leaked page. Perhaps there were more proclamations along this vein too.

The leaked page was brought to public attention through senior Opposition politicians, who condemned the misogynistic text and staged a Lok Sabha walkout to protest it. That the exam board acted swiftly and handled the issue without punishing students for their mistake is a good thing. At the same time, there remain some questions about how such a highly important text as a CBSE board exam could have been set in this manner at all, without internal checks and balances to keep it from happening.

Sometimes, people ask me how I come up with a new topic for this column every week. I tell them – “Something is always happening”. More often that not I mean: something upsetting is always happening. Something that wouldn’t have happened if incredibly basic rights, respect or common sense had been honoured or heeded. Sometimes, sadly, something that shouldn’t have happened. Sometimes, not sadly but not without distress, a thing like this: deep misogyny, garden variety really, on display by some twist or slip of bureaucratic processes, or some twist or slip of human behaviours.

“It’s nothing”, one can say, this particular “something”. No one suffered. All the students who were supposed to respond to those passages must have understood, through this public debacle, that those ideas and phrasings are objectionable.

But I wonder: is space now going to be held in classrooms and homes to talk about why they’re objectionable? Is this incident going to be properly utilised as a “teachable moment”, and if so, who leads these small-scale, sometimes quite private, conversations? What do they say across those desks and those dining tables, what cues do they take from contemporary society that influence their approach? Are they didactic, or do they hold space for slow but sincere learning, rage, confusion and more? That paper wasn’t set in a vacuum. It is not an anachronism. It reflects, unfortunately, thoughts that still prevail at large, shaping society, and all it comprises.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 16th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Evil Within Families

Earlier this week in Maharashtra, a 19-year old woman and her spouse visited her mother and her brother. They had been estranged ever since the woman had married of her own choosing in June. She was also pregnant. While she was in their kitchen, her 17-year old brother beheaded her with a sickle, with their mother urging him on. The deceased’s husband was able to flee. The murderers proceeded to take selfies with her severed head and paraded it for their neighbours, before being forced to surrender to police.

Occasionally, an event like this one erupts through the veneer of public gentility and appals everyone who hears of it. The tendency is to understand the event as anomalous, to express horror and disbelief that a brother would murder his sister, that a mother would encourage her son to kill her daughter, that family members would be so intoxicated by bloodlust that they would commemorate a murder by displaying the evidence.

But this perception of unusualness only feeds the factors that allow crimes like this to happen at all. By pretending that violence doesn’t happen on a continuum, and must be addressed much earlier on that continuum in order to prevent its more gruesome manifestations, society condones all of it on some level. The act itself may be extreme, and its ghastliness is shocking. But the impetus for it is so commonplace that it can quite accurately be just called “culture”. In this case and any like it, it is cultural norms that gave the criminals the belief that their actions were righteous.

Cultural norms that treat parental authority as being inalienable, women as being property, love as taboo, marriage as needing to happen only within certain clear parameters, and so on, create the belief within individuals that they are doing the right thing, even when they are actually acting in accordance with a sanctioned reality in which individuals behave as systemic agents and perpetuate grievous injustices – and justify them.

On the subject of reality, there is also this: one’s consciousness within an abusive household, family or relationship is often vastly distorted from what it would be within healthy circumstances. The deceased in the terrible case described above managed to physically flee her family, but the smallest avenue of access that they had to her was used against her, in the most vicious way imaginable. 

After she left, her mother and brother had remained firmly ensconced, if not also entrapped, within the poisonous reality of the beliefs that had made her elope in the first place. These beliefs are not only about grander ideas, such as a belief in the importance of caste perhaps, but play out in the very intimate – the belief that their victim was worthless. The woman and boy who killed their family member and felt triumphant about it acted out of a hatred that societal analysis alone cannot account for. That hatred belongs to a more arcane realm, the exploration of which begins with accepting these fact: the institution of family is not sacred, and the idea that home is a safe place is more of a privilege than we readily admit.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 9th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Revenge And Relief

My friend looked sincerely distressed as she related what she had seen online: a Chennai-based woman had posted images of her battered face, alleging assault by her ex-boyfriend. She had also shared video evidence of him assaulting another person, and posted about emotional abuse and infidelity she had experienced. The woman identified her abuser, a champion bodybuilder and gym owner. My friend had come across the case at random, and had been following it closely.

“I need to see this guy taken down,” she said. She was aghast that despite the social media support the survivor received, real-world results seemed inconclusive. “What can we do?”

I asked her whether she thought the survivor’s intended outcome was fulfilled. We talked about how the vast majority of abuse goes unreported because the procedure is humiliating and harrowing, and due process, if it serves justice at all, is a long one. We talked about how the survivor herself may have gotten the closure she needed by going public with her experience and warning others. We talked about how little we really know about others’ lives, but how we are stoked or moved by incidents that enter public visibility because we project onto those incidents that which is unresolved in our own.

 “But the bad guy gets taken down in the end,” she asserted, with conviction.

The closest I’ve come to seeing karma in action was last week, when the cockroach I reached out to smash against the wall tile promptly fell into my blue tea on the stove, and was lovingly surrounded in death by butterfly pea flowers, now unpalatable. Serves me right for murdering it instead of engaging in a mindful tea-making ritual, I suppose. If karma has ever played out in the reverse direction in my life, I’ve certainly not been able to recognise it as that. Or perhaps the mechanism is more impersonal than that – our personal feelings, our need for vindication, are not relevant to a longer storyline that may be beyond our capacity to follow.

Still – righteous relief was writ large across my friend’s face only a few minutes after our conversation. We picked up our phones to look at the survivor and alleged perpetrator’s social media feeds and saw: just hours earlier, the latter had been arrested. For my friend and for everyone else who had been emotionally invested in the situation, this was great news. Hopefully, what happens next is just.

I don’t always know how to live with all that hasn’t healed or been avenged or at least been tidily tied up in the unravelling, fraying tapestry of my life. I don’t always know how to practice Rilke’s edict to “try to love the questions themselves”. In that exchange with my friend, I was the cynical one – but glad to be freed of my cynicism, even briefly. Even still, it was just the cheered look on my friend’s face that gave me that satisfaction, not even what was happening in the case that she cared deeply about. How idiosyncratic and particular our perception of the world really is, microscopically-focused and personally-influenced even as we think we speak of the world.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 25th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Up Too Long

“If you’re down too long, people root for you. But if you’re ever unfortunate enough to be up too long, you better get a helmet.” The amazing Oprah Winfrey read out this excerpt from Will Smith’s new memoir, Will, while interviewing him on her talk show earlier this month. “Amen to that! Don’t we know that?!” she exclaimed after reading the passage, offering the actor a high five.

Winfrey is one of the great modern icons of resilience and joy-centred living, someone who beat tremendous odds to create a life of meaning and abundance – both of which she has visibly been generous with. If she gets envied for being successful, and criticised as a result of that envy, who can go unscathed? 

Some of such pettiness was on display when Falguni Nayar, founder of e-commerce giant Nykaa, made the company publicly-traded this month, becoming a billionaire in the process. As only the sixth Indian woman to achieve this status, and just the third who fulfils the criteria of being “self made” (prosperous without generational wealth), Nayar’s achievement is a rarity.

But how tongues wagged. There isn’t critique now as much as there is criticism. (Here’s valid critique: it’s been long-rumoured that Nykaa has an exploitative workplace environment). The criticism now is about privilege. Nayar founded Nykaa after having worked in the finance sector for decades; her spouse Sanjay Nayar is also successful in that field. USD 2 million of the couple’s savings went into establishing Nykaa in 2012. It’s a lot of money, sure, but they did earn it. The part no one wants to admit is this: if most of us were simply given USD 2 million, we wouldn’t be able to multiply it to a billion. (Maybe we wouldn’t want to? Different conversation.) That takes work ethic and business acumen that even the privileges of education, networks or high income cannot buy. Appreciating that Nayar had and utilised both, even while critiquing labour practices and capitalism, is just giving credit where it’s due.

Most people cannot do the things that the people they criticise do. They kind of know it, too (cue: extra vitriol). But much of the time, they don’t even make the attempt. Forget bank accounts: do they put their hearts on the line?

Fear keeps us small. Frustration with ourselves for not pursuing our desires masks itself as high standards, performative principles or just being too-cool-to-care. I had a friend who wanted to create, but wouldn’t. She happened to have known Arundhati Roy in school. Once, after relating some personal gossip about Roy, she sniffed and said, “I expected better from her.” Literarily speaking, that is. I wasn’t sure what “better” than writing a contemporary masterpiece was. Eventually, pouncing at a low moment, she tried to coax me to “grow up” and quit writing. I lost touch with her then. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear if she’s scrunching her nose up about me now and again too. But I’d rather hear that she’s finally creating the work she always longed to, instead of wasting her precious time side-eyeing others as they flounder or fly (but always, either way, try).

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 19th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Tulsi Gowda

Honestly, it was her gorgeous outfit that I noticed first. I won’t pretend to have known who she was and even to have long been a fan (as many do when major awards are announced!). No, I confess under-informedness. When Tulsi Gowda, the 77-year old environmentalist from Honnali, Karnataka, walked up to the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, to accept her Padma Shri award for a lifetime’s dedicated to forest conservation, I admired her beauty first, and only after Googling her could I also admire her work. 

She wore the traditional attire of her Halakki Vokkalu culture. Her black checked saree, with a red border and gold zari work, was wrapped in a sarong-style that allows ease of movement, with twists that leave the back and shoulders bare for more comfort. Around her neck, layers of many-beaded necklaces accentuated the halter-neck drape. She was barefoot at the awards ceremony, and perhaps often if not always is.

Sadly, in India, appreciating someone’s style is almost never simply a happy-making moment. I wish I could have just admired Gowda’s powerful presence, enhanced by her striking garments and accessories, and enjoyed learning more about her work later. Instead, a couple of small pebbles of rue also rolled around in my heart.

Firstly, and not flippantly: the same moral police that hasn’t blinked an eye at what they surely perceive as being merely the rustic apparel of an elderly tribal woman would be up in arms if a younger woman had appeared in a backless saree at a state event. Forget public ceremonies – the stalking and abuse that women with online presences experience constantly says enough. Of late, there has also been a visible increase in policing around traditionally feminine ornaments. The withdrawn Saybasachi ad in which a model wore a mangalsutra in a low-cut blouse and the campaign to boycott brands that put out Diwali advertising in which the women featured did not wear bindis are indicators of this. The saree, as a similarly emblematic article of clothing, would not escape such scrutiny. But much depends on who is gazing. It’s never actually about the object, but about who wields it.

Secondly, and relatedly: context. There’s no controversy about Gowda’s apparel because her context doesn’t threaten the sensitivities of the establishment (or its minions) – but neither does she. All great public recognitions also come with invisible undercurrents: everything from internal politics, funding agendas, PR exercises and more. That doesn’t make recipients undeserving (well… sometimes it does). In Padma Shri Tulsi Gowda’s case, even as we celebrate her achievement, we must see it in its larger context, which is ominous. Here is just one example: India’s coal shortage, which indigenous and non-indigenous activists have correlated with the Government of India’s support for mega-corporations like Adani, Vedanta and Jindal appropriating forest reserves for mining. According to Survival International, 80% of new mines will be on what are or were Adivasi lands. What does it mean to honour one indigenous environmentalist against such a backdrop, in which the lands, waters and skies are being desecrated, and in which many more activists for Nature or for human rights are consistently silenced?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 11th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Symbols In A Regressing Society

Two advertisements were withdrawn in India last week, each widely commented on. Dabur’s karva chauth commercial, which featured a queer couple and peddled a skin bleaching cream, drew ire from multiple quarters. Progressive people were upset by the appropriation of queer narratives to peddle a festival that is considered anti-feminist. Conservatives were angered by the portrayal of a lesbian couple taking part joyfully in a Hindu festival. As for me: no commercial for complexion whitening will ever have my support. Not even if it involves kittens.

Sabyasachi’s social media campaign for their new mangalsutra line was less all over the place, and its withdrawal was therefore more sobering – in that “another week in eroding India” kind of way. The problem, this time perceived only from conservative quarters, was that it showed the nuptial chain nestled in cleavage. That the model also evidently ticked off certain inclusivity criterion, with her dark skin and voluptuousness, is not without importance. The same ad, had it featured one of the many svelte, Caucasian models working in Mumbai, may not have caught the same intensity of ire. The discomfort experienced by those against the ad cannot be said to be entirely about an object considered sacred. The model’s looks subtly imply caste and class locations that unsettle those who consider themselves arbiters of culture, or indeed of taste and style. The discomfort thus comes from witnessing a sense of empowered sensuality wielded by a woman, that too a woman who doesn’t conform.

The mangalsutra is Indian society’s official license to have sex. All this ad did was put this license on display. A cis-het man once told me that he found the thaali hanging between the breasts of the many married women he’d slept with very titillating. The same person later reacted with shock when I started wearing metti on my firmly-unhusbanded feet because I wanted to, and furiously questioned whether I’d buy myself a thaali if I found that aesthetically pleasing too. The hypocrisies of a repressed society are many, and exist to some extent in us all no matter where on the political spectrum we place ourselves. 

Byju’s paused Shah Rukh Khan’s brand ambassadorship when his family became dragged into controversy last month. It was really the brand’s loss; this month, the superstar’s Diwali advertisement for Cadbury’s warmed many hearts. There is widespread perception that Khan was targeted for refusing to toe the line in terms of state propaganda. Whether one is tacit or outspoken, this danger remains. When cricketer Virat Kohli issued a strong statement about religiously motivated attacks on his teammate Mohammed Shami last week, his infant daughter was sent rape threats.

Some would say this is nothing new: wives, partners and girl children of Indian cricketers receive rape threats from “fans” whenever the team loses. But this proves the point again. Self-appointed custodians of culture prize symbols, rituals and figureheads above people and lived realities. How can a healthy, evolving culture then thrive? It can’t. With each of these infringements, however small they may seem, we lose more and more vitality – and we lose conviction in what makes it worth it to keep “tradition” alive.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 6th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Helpline For Men Who Want To Stop Hurting Others

Línea Calma (“The Calm Line”) is a helpline for men in Bogotá, Colombia. It was launched in December 2020 to provide assistance for men dealing with anger, jealousy, the desire to control, anxiousness and other emotions, some of which potentially lead to violence against women. The New York Times reported that the calls are “urgent and pleading” – a sign both of the necessity of such a helpline, and the willingness of many to better themselves and the lives of those around them. Línea Calma has recently been featured in a number of international publications, which invites this dream: what would such helplines be like, in other parts of the world?

As far as I know, nothing like it exists here in India yet. But there are helplines for men to report abuse, including physical or sexual violence from women and especially when domestic abuse charges have been raised against them (under Section 498A). In their approach, these helplines are the opposite of Línea Calma. They villainize women. There is nothing that suggests that they work toward dismantling toxic patriarchy. One of the largest, with a network of 40 NGOs, even brands itself as “saving” the Indian family system.

What would a helpline for men that actually understands that the root of all gender-based violence in this country is the patriarchal system as enforced primarily by the institution of family be like? To have such a premise would mean that even a man who has experienced abuse from his wife or wife’s family should be able to call this helpline and be understood and assisted. The onus will not be on the person seeking help – the one on the inside of a personal nightmare – to shoulder systemic weights, but the onus is on the staff to avoid a misogynistic framing.

Most feminists would agree with the above; but very few “men’s rights activists”, as they call themselves, would consider an inclusive view that takes into account how patriarchy is bad for everyone or how patriarchal agency is societally and culturally inbuilt into people of all genders in places like India. Just like how Línea Calma centres its approach on machismo, a culturally-sanctioned belief in male dominance, other helplines must find their own contextual centres. 

But in a country as diverse and unequal as India, a single contextual centre may not apply. Beyond requiring multiplicity of languages, sensitivities to other factors including caste, class, religion, community-specific gender dynamics and education will also be essential. If the helpline can set the overall approach, the callers can themselves fine-tune it, working in tandem with counsellors as per their personal needs.

What a tall order this helpline is turning out to be. But the fact that there is so much to deliberate while even dreaming of it, let alone setting it up, indicates how very necessary something like it is. I invite you to envision these possibilities as well, and then to bring that envisioning one level more deeply into your own context. In the absence of the helpline, what do we offer ourselves and each other each day that brings us closer to the dream of a better world?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 27th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Child-Free

K. Sudhakar, Karnataka’s Minister of Medical Education and Health, observed World Mental Health Day on October 10 by making this statement at NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences): “A lot of modern women in India – they want to stay single. Even if they get married, they don’t want to give birth. They want surrogacy. So there is a paradigm shift in our thinking, which is not good.”

I agree with the Minister. This paradigm shift is not good. It’s great. It may even be the best thing to have happened to South Asian culture in… Centuries? Millennia? Well, a very long time, for certain.

Last year, I turned 35 – the age at which pregnancies are medically classified as “geriatric”, and data shows a steep drop in reproductive viability. I had decided in my late 20s to some day adopt as a single parent, but still found myself Googling “freeze eggs Chennai” in the middle of some teary nights. Then, tragedy hit my already broken family this year, and as I crawled out of the rubble I found that for the first time in my life I vehemently did not want to be a mother. I did not want to pass on the intergenerational trauma I had inherited, or to take sole responsibility for any life except my own. 

I’d been marriage-averse since I was a kid, but parenthood was something I longed for. To lose that longing was my own very surprising and very welcome paradigm shift.

Legend has it that my maternal lineage will end with my generation, due to a curse. Indeed, my cousins, siblings and I are marked failures at marriage or procreation. Who knows what my grandfather’s enemy intended, but I wonder if they imagined this sweet consequence: that at the end of a bloodline is at least one person who has begun to perceive it as a gift.

It’s only been a few months of breathing in this fresh air for me, so I hesitate to make any grand declarations about my change of mind. But I know this much is true, at least for now: I feel free. I feel delicious possibilities stretched out before me: what I can do with my money and my time, how I can date without the pressure of finding a co-parent, how I can centre my life. I feel young, which I factually am, through an unpressured lens. My mental health has improved through this freedom, as have other aspects of my health, holistically speaking.

The weight of oppression within so many marriages and families, bolstered by taboos and a combination of surrounding gaslighting and nonchalance, is hugely detrimental towards the mental health of all those who are trapped within them. K. Sudhakar was right to draw attention to this in his speech, although he had it backwards: those able to choose life outside of those institutions have found a solution. The choice is not only self-compassionate, but also refuses to contribute to suffering in the world through unreflectively entering harmful parental or partner bonds, as far too many do. May our numbers grow, even if (especially if) we don’t reproduce.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 16th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Offline, But Okay

The apps went down and the atmosphere cleared – just for a bit, just enough to breathe in what it feels like to be without them. Unless, of course, you were hyperventilating from a crucial message not going or coming through, desperate for a dopamine hit from a photo you posted, or feeling suddenly bereft of a tool that reliably distracts you from all the things you don’t want to think about. But for me, the global simultaneous outage of Whatsapp, Instagram and Facebook felt… nice. It meant that what was going to be a Whatsapp voice call became a Zoom video call instead, and the space of that personal conversation was augmented gently. It meant that there were less places to scroll in the blue-lit darkness of insomnia. It meant that I could indulge in the fantasy of what it would be like to just not have some social media platforms around anymore, and despite the obvious losses of certain photographs or words, I found I liked the thought.

Everything was back by the time I woke up the next day. This was, of course, a relief to millions. The small bubble of finding myself breathing easy in that transformed atmosphere was a privilege, a highly subjective one. During the hours that this mega-corporate was down, those who depend on its platforms for mental health reasons were affected. So were those whose livelihoods require them (nope, no sympathy for the billionaire who owns these entities). Loneliness and fear must have risen. Despite my own unpleasant feelings towards social media, and my sense of security that I could still reach anyone I needed or wanted to reach, I was glad the outage was over. People need connection.

The elderly, the unwell or the struggling aside (I know, I know – rare is the person who wouldn’t self-identify in the last category these days), the relatively-doing-alright who felt frustrated or inconvenienced over truncated casual chats or random scrolling have an opportunity to reflect – specifically, on what life in places that experience Internet shutdowns is like. When fundamental rights to communication and access are clamped down on, there are major impacts on everything from timely medical interventions to educational and professional opportunities to basic safety and sustenance needs. The horror of not knowing what one’s crush was typing before the outage doesn’t compare to the horror of not knowing if one’s loved ones are safe or even alive.

There is much we don’t know yet about what caused this massive outage, and theorists have stoked the flames intriguingly, firing questions on capitalism and power. Still, it doesn’t really matter what happens to these or similar platforms. What matters is only what happens to us, IRL. Sometimes the world feels like it’s contained in our palms, sometimes the world feels as suffocatingly small as a screen. Both of these are distortions. It’s a privilege to think about what it means to be online, and to distinguish it from what it means to be connected. If we have that privilege, as I strongly felt I did during the outage, it’s important to not forget it now that the apps are back.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 7th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.