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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)

The Venus Flytrap: No Longer Available For The Emotionally Unavailable

Some years ago, a man I was sweet on – but not so sweet on that I responded to his lukewarm, and invariably circumstance-based, overtures – said to me, as if it was a fact and not a judgement: “You’re just picky.” He was in a new relationship then, and we were attempting to erase the fact of our prior unfulfilled crushes on each other and to proceed along friendship terms. He was unkind about how he did this, and those words were the least of it. He was wrong, in any case. I may be a lot of things – brooding, possessive, challenging, secretive – but picky isn’t one of them. I’ve been picked on, I’ve been preyed on, but I’ve never been chosen. Therefore, I’ve not always had the luxury of choice.

            I have always been drawn romantically to emotionally unavailable people, and on the flipside of this coin is that I have also been – perhaps not always, but with an increasing awareness of it with each year that I get older – unavailable.

            I’ve been unavailable because I’ve been in enmeshed in a lattice of either heartbreak or limerence (they are siblings, but they are different – the first is pure, the other is complicated because despite how painful it is, it is also a way of unconsciously barbing the heart’s door). I’ve been unavailable because I gave my power over to known abusers, kept my lips tight, kept my head down, tried to be someone I not only wasn’t but who would also never, no matter how thorough the self-wreckage, be enough. I’ve been unavailable because I’ve been entangled in ways that weren’t right for me, but had and held me inveigled just the same.

            But finally, for the first time, I’ve become unavailable because I am more than enough.

            I recognized this when I saw that something I would ordinarily have understood as rejection was more layered. It wasn’t that someone did not like me – I have looked into that face, and I know. It was only that he could not see me, wasn’t willing or able to learn me, was averse to curiosity, intimacy and reciprocity, and this would mean acres of disappointment and frustration ahead of me. Intermingled with small doses of pleasure and giddiness – but not enough to justify the costs. I recognized that by choosing to not extend another chance, to a person who may have the desire but not the capacity to take it, I was choosing myself. Perhaps he said No. But I – I said Yes.

            I said Yes, I would rather walk away than to keep pace with a stride that confuses me, that inhibits me, that in one way or another keeps me from me.

            It has taken me a long time to come to this place. This evening, I am writing this rather than waiting for this man (this one; most recent in a long line, but not the last), and my time and my life-force belong to me. I am not the lovelorn in Kuruntokai 234, the day squandered, wistful in the gloaming. Once again, but in a way I didn’t know before, I am free.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in June 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: An Ordinary Woman In Power

Nayana Motamma, also known as Nayana Jhawar, is the youngest woman MLA serving in the new state assembly of Karnataka, which recently welcomed the Congress party back into power. The 43-year old is a former corporate lawyer, is Dalit, is the daughter of a senior woman politician, and is from the Mudigere constituency. She is very clear about demarcations between her personal life and public service, and unapologetically so.

When her detractors began circulating images from her personal life – images stolen from her social media accounts – the MLA responded in a calm and firm manner, reportedly saying to the press: “This is something I’ve always been clear about. My personal life is my personal life, and I keep it out (of my political work). I show people that this is how I live… There’s nothing for me to hide.”

The images were circulated the day before the elections, with an obvious intent of derailing Congress’ campaign at that crucial time. The messaging her detractors promoted was that the sarees that Ms. Motamma wore during the campaign were essentially a decoy, and that her preferred choice of attire is only Western wear suitable for activities such as jogging, partying and swimming. The messaging is archaic, stuck in the mentality that sarees are equated with ideal, acceptable Indian womanhood – and that someone who wears clothing that shows a little more skin is not right for a position of authority. The implication is that she is not who she appears to be – except, as she herself affirmed, all she has done is be herself on public platforms, while enjoying a wide selection of wardrobe choices. It is the being herself part that ignited the ire of her political rivals. Her stated politics also affirm a freer and better society, and are a departure from the illiberalism and bigotry of the party that has been voted out in Karnataka.

I know rather little about Nayana Motamma, and all politicians must be regarded with a pinch of salt. But her strong attitudes about remaining who is she, not hiding that she is a human being with a life of her own, and embracing different sides of herself as a modern person, all speak of a political ethos that has more in common with well-oiled democracies in other parts of the world. She does not seem like the kind of politician who demands obeisance, and that alone is a big step away from many Indian politicians, both past and present.

In one of the photos that has been shared of the MLA, she is wearing a strappy top, and is looking over her shoulder. She looks like any woman on a night out – ordinary, yet in and of itself is an act of defiance. This is a breath of fresh air. Astute politicians across the world often cultivate relatability strategically, and in this case it seems to come naturally. She is the same person, multidimensional: starched sarees and bindis on the campaign trail, crop tops in clubs. Not someone to look up to as much as someone who is already leading by simple example: a very feminist and necessary example indeed.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in May 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytraps: Where Are All The Women MBBS-Holders?

Last week, reports emerged that NEET aspirants at exam centres in Maharashtra, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu had been subjected to inappropriate frisking, sudden requirements to change their attire or to wear it inside out, and even to being asked to remove their bras. The same had been reported in Kerala last year. NEET, which has been controversial since its introduction, is a government requirement for those who wish to study medicine at the undergraduate level. It is a highly competitive and challenging exam. As all students, educators and parents of students are aware – any upset on the day of any such assessment can negatively impact the aspirant’s performance, and potentially their future. Naturally, the kind of upset caused by being asked to remove innerwear, in particular, affects women students most.

According to a 2011 study in The Lancet, a leading international medical journal, only 17% of practising allopathic doctors in this country were women; in rural areas, this stood at just 6%. While this data is over a decade old, in the context of how women’s overall workforce participation in India fell to just 19% by 2021 matters. Moreover, even though women graduate from medical college in greater numbers than men (as more recent data such as from annual All India Survey of Higher Education reports reveal), and there is gender balance in entry to medical studies, the vast majority of women clearly don’t go on to practise or remain in the field. This is a problem not just for them as individuals, who almost certainly have been robbed of agency or conditioned into making a “choice”, but is even more of a problem for the population at large.

            This is not by any means to say that just because a doctor is a woman, she is going to be sympathetic or progressive. We know far too well that this isn’t the case, because the internalised misogyny of women in patriarchal cultures, along with systemic expectations and protocol, are writ large across not only medical but many other fields in this country. This is only to say: if there were more women who practise as medical doctors, it would mean that there are more women who resisted and were able to surmount pressures from their personal circumstances, which would be indicative of other sociocultural shifts.

            The NEET exam is only one of many barriers towards gender inclusivity in medicine, specifically with regards to allopathic doctors (that the nursing profession has always been women-dominated is not denied, and should also be seen in the context of what kinds of careers have been considered acceptable for women, and why). The exam is not even the first barrier – an Indian aspirant to get to the stage where she has been educated enough to, and is then allowed to, pursue tertiary studies, she has already met with other obstacles.

            That a NEET aspirant would be subjected to humiliations regarding her body and her apparel before or during such an important exam is only one obstacle, yes, but it’s among those that can absolutely be prevented – summarily and officially, far more easily than the extrication of deeper societal malaises.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in May 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Why I Don’t Stalk My Crushes

So, I don’t stalk people I’m interested in romantically on social media. Anymore. Or not more than once or twice right at the start of things. I know this goes against every stereotype of our ever-online age, is a waste of sixth sense superpowers (sometimes known as “female intuition”), and deprives me of details I may find useful, but here’s why.

            Nobody is who they seem to be on their social media profiles, not even me. Information that’s found on those curated-but-casual, circumstantial-but-chosen profiles falls broadly into two categories: information that a person wants others to see or doesn’t mind others seeing, and information that is gleaned through clues, which may be unknowingly dropped. These are highly selective or incomplete forms of information. Inadvertently, when we scrollstalk, we thread these scraps together and form an impression about a person and their desires, values and life trajectory. We project both what we want to see, and what we’re afraid of. We jump to conclusions. We do this for people who like, people we used to love, and people they know. Longing asks for its own soothing, has strange ways of seeping out.

            I would make a cute pun about ex-ray vision, but here’s the truth: limerent people like me have relatively few actual exes, and an utter carnage of crushes instead. I’d prefer not to count how many people I cared for whose impending marriages I learned of through social media, in my sordid supersleuth past.

            Despite the rarity of a reciprocated crush (at least, to the best of my awareness), I also know this by now: I’m a bit put off should I learn that someone has checked up on me online. My online posts are for public consumption, even when I’m messy. They are at best a smidgen of my life; and sometimes, they’re a deliberate smudge, because I value my privacy and am not beyond throwing a red herring or two into the mix. If someone in my offline orbit chooses to observe me without trying to engage with me, then that someone never will. Another part of being old enough to know that social media is an optical illusion is knowing that I want to be with someone who makes the effort to be with me, and wants to. Loose lips may sink ships, but tongue-tied baes don’t even leave the bay to begin with.

            Mostly, however, I don’t look at the social media profiles of my crushes because of this: I would like to get to know them for real. I would like for us to linger. I would like for us to talk, and to listen. I would like to ask questions without secretly knowing the answers, to more slowly but more surely learn about each other. I would like to see the true picture, in context: who can they be to me, in my life, and how equal or otherwise is our wanting? I would like to know a lot, you see. Which is why I feel good about not knowing, because when I fool myself into thinking I know, I may also fool myself into thinking they care.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in May 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Diverse Barbies

The upcoming release of the first live-action film based on the Barbie doll franchise (dozens of animated films have been made over the last two decades or so) seems to have gotten Mattel, the American company that owns it, firmly engaged in an inclusivity and diversity PR campaign. Interestingly, the premise of the movie is reportedly that the main Barbie protagonist gets exiled from Barbie Land for being a smidge less than perfect, as defined by the standards of that realm. The trailer only hints at this plot; it is bright and light, full of in-jokes that adults like myself who grew up with the dolls and may have outgrown them but can catch the references will enjoy.

Launched in 1959, Barbie dolls of earlier decades were often criticized by feminists for upholding dangerous bodily standards. Aside from a hyperfeminized bust and waist, the overall anatomical extremity of the dolls was often noted (including that a person who shared these measurements would not be able to balance on their feet). Then there was the whiteness issue: blonde, blue-eyed dolls represented a single beauty standard that dominated the world until rather recently. Mattel took ages to get around to it, but they eventually introduced dolls of colour, in the form of multicultural Barbies and her sidekicks from that universe. Then, there was also the role model question: Mattel responded pretty well with a range of career Barbies (there has been a Barbie President, but there is yet to be a woman in that position in the United States). Still, a baseline of unrealistic and problematic depictions of the doll have been linked to eating disorders and other forms of body dysmorphia.

When it comes to humanoid toys, representation matters. Which is why, even if it has also taken the company an unjustifiable amount of time to do it, their new line of disabled dolls – named Fashionistas Barbie – is a welcome move. It was announced in August 2022, just under a year ahead of the film’s release. The line will feature dolls who use hearing aids, prosthetic legs and wheelchairs, and even a Ken doll with vitiligo. A Barbie with Downs’ Syndrome has just debuted on the market, to positive feedback.

Toys aren’t just toys, just as stories aren’t just stories. This is also why cinema and literature made for children that portrays characters who look like them, have familiar names and come from relatable backgrounds is so important. Children need forms of entertainment that mirror, inspire, teach and bring delight. Sometimes one toy, one book or one film can do all those things – not to every audience, but that is the point. There are many audiences, and this is why accessible, mainstream diversity matters.

On a completely different note, there’s also now a Scary Barbie – not a plaything at all, but a supermassive black hole that has just been detected by astronomers. It is the most luminous space phenomena of its kind ever recorded, and has been observed shredding a star with a ferocity of nearly unimaginable power. It was given a random designation – ZTF20abrbeie – which gave rise to its deceptively cute, but rather well-timed, name.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in May 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Slutshamed By Starbucks

At a Starbucks somewhere in the world recently, an employee decided it would be funny or clever to temporarily rename some of the menu items on a chalkboard, under the heading “Which Taylor Swift ex are you?” The choice of theme must have been influenced by press reports that the singer had broken up with Joe Alwyn, her partner of six years. The selection of beverages included some of Swift’s known and alleged celebrity lovers: Harry Styles, Tom Hiddleston, John Mayer, Calvin Harris, Joe Jonas, Taylor Lautner, Jake Gyllenhaal, and of course, Alwyn – with two question marks behind his name, referring to the speculation.

            The drinks may have been delicious, but the gimmick was arguably somewhere on the spectrum of bad taste – not exactly hateful or hurtful but not nice, either. Swift has dated a lot – so what? There’s also a case to be made about how, if this gag featured reversed genders, there would likely be outcry about how the women were objectified as consumables. Regardless of gender, few would want to be on a public bad-memories / bed-notches list like that, reduced to nothing but ex status.

Starbucks has formally apologized for the stunt. Anyway, in the larger scheme of things, this is all just coffee froth.

            In the neither large-nor-small scheme of things is what was behind both the concept of the gimmick and the offense taken to it, which has something to do with desirous women.

I’ve never been a Swiftie, but that has more to do with being out of touch with current pop music and less to do with what she makes. I’ve certainly enjoyed what I’ve encountered of her work – like the sardonic “Blank Space”, with its frank lyrics about having “a long list of ex-lovers” and no saccharine about what it’s like to be involved with her – and was really impressed when I learned through a documentary just how talented she is. She is also a woman with staying power in a merciless industry, which requires a set of skills quite apart from artistry alone.

She also happens to be someone whose romantic streak is widely-known and widely-discussed. Many women have been dismissed because of, or even buried by, gossip about their personal lives. Swift manages to distil it into her work unapologetically. She’s had her heart broken; she breaks hearts; she longs for a fairytale love; she just wants passionate and myriad experiences. She is like most of us, whether we admit it or not. It’s all in her work, and it doesn’t take a deep dive to see it. And because it’s in her work, it gives expression to other people’s secrets, choices and longings too. This is why she has a fandom.

Those lovers (real and imagined – by her and by others) of hers have already been given avatars as subjects of songs. Nameless, sparkling with rumour and provocative, as muses they are far more interesting than randomly assigned beverages. Besides which – when we listen to lyrics we identify with, in Swift’s songs or anyone’s, we are always the heroine-villainess, the narrator – and not a lapsed love turned muse, as redundant as melted ice-cubes.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in April 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Not Defending The Dalai Lama

One of the most well-regarded people in the world, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, came under fire this month for a brief clip in which he was seen kissing a child on the mouth and then asking the child to suck his tongue. The incident took place at a public gathering in Dharamsala in February. A longer video revealed that the child’s mother was on stage as well, and that the child had requested the Tibetan political and spiritual leader for a hug before the rest unfolded. To many, the larger context rectified the shock of the original clip that went viral.

            The Dalai Lama’s office has formally apologised for the incident, as is correct. The leader’s famously playful nature was highlighted, and his personal regret was expressed.

            However, other defenders of the actions and words caught on camera in February initially faltered by either referencing only the Tibetan greeting of touching foreheads but not the gestures that had caused consternation, or else by claiming that critique would destabilize the movement for Tibetan liberation. Then, less obfuscating and somewhat illuminating responses came to light. A social media post attributed to journalist Tenzin Pema talks about the phrase “nge che le jip”, which translates to “suck my tongue”, and the practice of “po” or lip-kissing – aspects of Tibetan elder-child bonds that do not have sexual connotations.

            But even if these customs were widely-known, which they were not, their grafting onto other mores is highly problematic. They pertain to the bodily autonomy of children. Intentionality is trumped by action in such scenarios. The extremely well-travelled Dalai Lama should have known this.

            It is healthy for cultures to evolve harmful aspects out of themselves. I’m not saying these practices are harmful, although they look that way to my foreign sensibility. That’s for people, especially young people, within the culture to decide. Individually or collectively.

            It’s true that people of an advanced age sometimes display bad manners because of the deterioration of the mind and the body. The faux pas can even be forgiven on this basis, but a prerequisite of this basis is acknowledgement of the leader’s essential fallibility as a human being. His history of important work shouldn’t be a blanket exoneration. He regrets the incident, but others keep defending it.

For some, this incident completely tarnishes the leader, and they have a right to that opinion. Personally, I’m not in favour of entirely cancelling the Dalai Lama over this. While I found the initial clip despicable I do understand that what happened was a bit different than portrayed.

However, to let the event slide can give rise to impunity for other quarters. When someone with the kind of influence that the Dalai Lama has is categorically excused in this manner, others will continue to be too. Age, affectionate disposition, cultural nuances, body of work and so on will continue to be used to conceal, rationalize or even allow abuse at large. These justifications have always been used against survivors. When it comes to children, we have to be especially careful about what we consider widely acceptable, for it can be used extremely damagingly – in secret.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in April 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Rhythm Chanana

In the images and videos that went viral – at least in the ones that I saw – nobody around Rhythm Chanana was looking at her. She appears in those visual records to be in a ladies’ compartment, taking the Delhi Metro. Just another commuter, among others.

            Even though her fellow commuters seemed to be maintaining etiquette, minding their own business (at least in those captured moments), this particular commuter caught public attention because of her attire: a bralette and a miniskirt. Reports are mixed, with Chanana also saying that fake interviews with her are being published, but some sources say that she had been taking the Metro in similar outfits for months.

            In other words, if that was the case: she wore what she wanted, and went about her work and her life.

            Then someone decided to post about it. The identity of the “Metro Girl” was discovered quickly, and Rhythm Chanana became famous overnight.

            Let’s say that Chanana did set the whole thing up in order to go viral. She is studying acting, and presumably wants a break into cinema, and online attention could help with that. Even if she did – so what? A society that reacts to an ordinary person putting on whatever clothes they want to deserves to be conned into a harmless trick.

            Her fashion sense is completely harmless – to anyone else, that is. A large part of me responds to Chanana’s style with the awe that one experiences while watching a tightrope walker. I cannot deny that she chose to do something that I myself would regard as dangerous. That in my own perhaps-provocative apparel choices, I am often as keenly aware of how good I feel as I am of the risk of undesired attention or even aggression.

Dour netizens reprimanding the 19-year old that she will regret what she is wearing should take a good look into their mirrors and their closets – metaphorical ones especially. As for Chanana, I wish for her to look back with only joy at how free she dared to be.

The truth is that most people can’t imagine her sartorial choices on themselves, which is why they’re shocked to see them on another. For some, their thought process may get stuck at the level of conditioning: notions of decency, for example. But for many, it is the violence of the gaze that will follow that actually informs their apprehension or their astonishment. That has nothing to do with decorum or propriety. That has to do purely with the consequences of expressing oneself in cultures where self-expression threatens the dominant paradigm.

            There are consequences, usually. Which is why I don’t care right now whether Rhythm Chanana was seeking publicity. To have a woman get away with wearing clothes that she would usually be punished for, and indeed be rewarded (with a surge of Internet followers and visibility for a career in the public eye), is refreshing. Is it a sign of positive change? Probably not on a large scale – but here and there, in scatterings of small influence, I have no doubt that seeing someone be bravely authentic is making a difference. It always does.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in April 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Playboy Politicians

In France, the politician Marlene Schiappa has appeared on the cover of Playboy magazine – clothed, but in a suggestive pose and a revealing outfit. The cover photograph accompanies a lengthy interview, which is said to be about her stances on various civil issues including reproductive and queer rights.

Schiappa has worked in sectors including gender equality and citizenship, with left-leaning but sometimes mixed political values (for instance: she fast-tracked French citizenship for foreign health workers during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic; but she also called for foreigners who had committed sexual crimes to be deported rather than be tried by strict, existing laws that apply at large). She is known to champion women’s rights and sex positivity, and has also authored numerous books.

            Her decision to pose for the famously sleazy magazine (or “mook”, as the publication calls itself – indicating a cross between a magazine and a book) has drawn widespread criticism. Senior leadership, including French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and others whose stated politics are not conservative, have denounced the move.

            Media reports keep calling Schiappa the “first female French politician” to appear on the cover of Playboy. This made me think that others, more specifically a man, must have done so before her. If one (or perhaps more) did, he got away without any long-term impact, since his name isn’t circulating now. But if that isn’t the case, then inherent sexism is at play in the language of the reports. Why not just “first politician”?

            Still, Schiappa’s decision is definitely a little gimmicky, because to quote her in her defence of the same: “In France, women are free. Whether it annoys the hypocrites and the retrogrades or not”. Which then begs the question about why she did it. In a place where feminist impact has been widely experienced at most levels of society, a woman with as much power and influence as she has hardly needs the platform of a publication with a contentious and specifically misogynistic history to bolster her message.

Yet, reading about her gimmick while living across the world and scrambling for a dupatta every time the doorbell rings, it also feels like one of those necessary pokes at the patriarchy. Here in India, a woman in politics (or a woman anywhere) would not be forgiven for just being authentically herself, let alone for indulging in exercises in risqué publicity. People of all genders, with their deeply internalised patriarchal sentiments, don’t allow for that.

            In the meanwhile, men in high office can consume pornography on their cellphones during State Assemblies and get away pretty much unpunished. For instance: a Tripura BJP MLA was recently seen doing exactly that, similar to the five BJP MLAs in Karnataka and Gujarat who were caught doing the same thing in 2012. While three out of the five were made to resign back then, two of them were reinstated by their party, with one even becoming a Deputy Chief Minister in 2019.

            So I sigh a little: imagining a country where feminists are in power, disagree with each other, and we all still get to do whatever we please. Instead of, well… this.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in April 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Women Flying High

The global average percentage of women in a nation’s commercial pilot force stands at just 5% – and India currently has triple this statistic. 15% of the 10,000 commercial pilots currently working in India, across carriers, are women. This is the world’s highest percentage, as per data released by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). India has also held this record for a while; even last year, at 12.4%, there were more women pilots here than anywhere else in the world, with Ireland and South Africa some points behind at 9.9% and 9.8% respectively. The strong presence of women in commercial piloting here is certainly to be lauded.

            These statistics have been achieved despite no formal push for inclusivity in the sector. As the DGCA also noted, there are no specific training programmes for women or other marginalized people, including caste-marginalized people. That this has been noted suggests that these criteria may become the focus of new programmes, especially those developed to fulfil India’s increasing demand for pilots (5000 new pilots are expected to be required to enter the workforce over the next five years).

That said, some airlines do presently offer benefits for women employees, ranging from taking pregnancies into account without job loss but with minimized responsibilities to childcare related flexibilities. These measures are likely to be what help with the retention of women employees, pilots or otherwise, in the aviation sector.

It’s important to remember that at large, the Indian workforce has been bleeding out its women at an alarming rate: the most recently published statistics showed that women’s participation fell from 30% in 1990 to 19% in 2021. If there are cues to be taken from aviation, they should be heeded. Simply applauding the sector, chalking up another global-stage win and dismissing valid circumspection is pretty much just a form of gaslighting about the reality of women’s work and women’s lives in India.

            15% is the highest share in the world, but it is very far from 50%, which would indicate real equality of opportunity at every stage: from familial support to training to recruitment to active duty. Feminist gains are not made overnight, and pointing this out isn’t to dampen the importance of the existing statistic.

            This is also a good moment to reiterate the difference between women who have careers in the cockpit and those who walk the aisles: the mistreatment of in-flight staff by entitled passengers often makes the news too.

I haven’t flown in years, and was always rather infrequently on the inside of an aircraft anyway, but despite my circumspection, I know how important this is. I distinctly recall walking along a jet bridge in 2016, when I noticed one of the pilots in the cockpit of the plane I was to board. I slowed my pace and watched her until she made eye contact across that distance, and then I smiled and nodded. She acknowledged my gesture. I had been in Mumbai for reasons relating to gender equality, and it all felt significant. To me, that pilot was still a novelty. I hope she knew why I stood there and smiled at her so much.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in March 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Lucky Girls

The fact that they call it a syndrome – a term usually used for medical reasons – should be enough of a clue about how unhealthy it is, but proponents of the “Lucky Girl Syndrome” social media trend strongly believe, or at least appear to believe, that they’re operating at peak levels. Indeed, the trend is all about belief. It’s frustratingly simple: believe it, feel good about it, become it.

My jaw dropped at irresponsible takes by experts who say it’s like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and that the reticular activating system of the brain will respond to the instructions relayed through affirmations, and I was relieved to find meaningful pushback. Shirin Eshkanani (Instagram: @wholeheartedcoaching) said it well: “We must also acknowledge what a privilege it is to believe. Manifestation is rooted in what we believe is possible for us. It is founded on the belief that we are worthy and deserving of good things. Belief is a privilege. It is a privilege that many folks who have experienced trauma or who come from historically marginalized communities have not experienced.”

            The Lucky Girl Syndrome is better categorized under Toxic Positivity – a very dangerous way of framing events and emotions, which gaslights those who try to engage with the actual so as to effectively change their reality, rather than deny its impact.

            Lately, I often wake up feeling grateful that I don’t have what I don’t have (like children) as much as I feel grateful for what I do have (which I could not have had, if I’d gotten what I had wanted). Fate, distinct from luck, has much to do with this. As does my free will. If I’d tried to dupe myself into believing that I was entitled to what I wanted because of sheer wanting alone, I would’ve been mired in worse disappointment. What was truest for me and what I most hankered for have not always been the same thing. It is only now that I consider myself lucky, after the fact, the way one does after narrowly evading an accident.

            In times of perfect alignment, when the narrative of my life has made eloquent sense, I experience wonder about the Universe’s undercurrents of pattern and play and mystery. I’ve said: “Sometimes I feel like I was walking down a path eating a fruit, and threw a seed, and a decade later I came back and there was a tree.” By the time an original longing was made manifest, I thought my desires were different. I was sweetly surprised by what still held true, by the way I still fit into a life I thought I had lost. A life that that was perhaps always meant to be mine.

But luck had nothing to do with it. I was, in fact, abjectly unlucky. I certainly didn’t orchestrate the trajectory of anything through wish alone, but there was no dearth of effort on my part. It was sheer will that saved me. Struggle and disillusionment characterized the nature of the time between desire and fruition.

So I see the longing of those who want to be Lucky Girls. I wish they knew what I know now.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in March 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Love & Support

The private lives of people who were born with the public’s gaze on them are an especially tricky subject; the children of celebrities wield tremendous privilege without necessarily having much personal agency. Inbanithi, an 18-year old who is the grandson of Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister M. K. Stalin and the son of the state’s Minister for Youth Welfare and Sports Development Udhayanidhi Stalin, recently had photographs of him and a young person identified as his girlfriend leaked online. The pictures are believed to have been taken from social media profiles. Not every publication that has reported comments following the leaking by the Minister and his spouse, filmmaker Kiruthiga Udhayanidhi, has respected the couple’s privacy. Some have republished the images. In them, the teenagers appear to be affectionate but not explicit.

            In their comments in response to the leaking, Inbanithi’s parents have both presented a progressive stance. Kiruthiga Udhayanidhi responded first, with a Tweet in January shortly after the pictures began circulating. It said: “Don’t be afraid to love and express it. It’s one of the ways to understand nature in its full glory.” This week, Udhayanidhi Stalin also addressed the controversy directly in interviews, saying that his son is an adult with the freedom to conduct his personal life as he wishes to. As someone formally tasked with youth welfare, Inbanithi’s father’s comment reflects especially well, even if it is a personal opinion.

Moral policing where romance and sexuality are concerned is a major societal issue, one with deep cultural roots. This is an issue that disproportionately affects young people, who are denied many forms of agency and autonomy in this country – even when they are legal adults. They may have the right to vote at their discretion and to impact the national project, but not to make personal choices.

Inbanithi is fortunate that his family is publicly supportive. The harsh reality for far too many young people involves tragedies including the truncation of education, the loss of access to communication devices, shaming and ostracisation from extended family and even violence or death. Every case of murder for loving across caste, class, religious or other lines begins with the belief that people don’t belong to themselves and can choose whom they would like to share those selves with.

I would like to stress that the decisions of the young people in question in this particular situation – be it to date, to click pictures together, or to upload them online – should not be in the purview of public reproach. It is only the public response of the parents that are worth scrutiny. In this case, they have led by example. Their comments have highlighted not only that an adult’s autonomy is to be respected even by their own elders or kin, but also that love itself is a natural and beautiful experience – and that its expression is not wrong. These concepts themselves are taboo-breaking, and may be revolutionary to some. It remains to be seen how and if, in a more formal political capacity, these concepts are propagated further – for the greater good of society, and not only to protect the privacy of the privileged few.

n edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in March 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Musk’s MRAs

About a year and a half ago, I wrote in this space about a Colombian helpline called Línea Calma that was set up to provide support for men who want to dismantle the toxic masculinity within them that makes them violent toward women. It addresses the needs of those who are self-aware enough to reach out and to choose growth over destructive behaviour. The helpline was established by Henry Murrain, a civil servant in Bogota, who subsequently created Hombres al Cuidado, a school that helps men proactively unlearn negative concepts about childcare, domestic work and interpersonal relationships.

            In that column, I speculated on what a similar helpline in an Indian context could be like. I pointed out that while equality-oriented organisations don’t exist, misogynistic ones that call themselves men’s rights activists do, and provide helplines too.

            I did not name any organizations that do this, yet members of the biggest one found my column anyway and took umbrage to it. I received several messages and replies, all of which I summarily ignored. What was clear to me was that the existence of work like Línea Calma’s threatened them, probably more so than the existence of feminist women. They must have been angry with me for highlight how feminist change spearheaded by other men is happening elsewhere in the world, in another very patriarchal culture. It is the evolving, healing men they’re truly disturbed by, and I wonder if they know this.

What anti-feminists lack in self-awareness they do make up for in self-importance. They-who-will-still-not-be-named recently held a ceremony at a park in Bengaluru during which they worshipped images of Twitter CEO Elon Musk and chanted slogans like “Feminist Destroyer Namaha”, in praise of his work in making the social media platform less civil-natured, by no longer shadow-banning or blocking users like them. Some of their own members sit around laughing as they do this, in videos they themselves shared online.

This is a publicity-craving exercise, one that is deliberately absurd so as to attract attention, which of course it did (and yes, I’m giving it some now too). Many of us will laugh at it. But there are people out there who feel somewhere on the spectrum between vindicated about seeing their private thoughts on public display, and radicalised into modern misogyny. They’re who the spectacle was for. Those who put on the spectacle may not have other forms of self-awareness, but here, they knew what they were doing.

I’m thinking about the laughter in that video, what it gives away. I’m thinking about how the sound of women’s laughter itself is such a trigger to those who believe women should keep their mouths closed. And not so tangentially, I’m thinking about that Margaret Atwood quote: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them”. Misogynists who co-opt women’s legitimate, statistically proven fears may be absurd. But they are also dangerous, no less so in practice or in influence than those who are ostentatious and openly assured in their bigotry. They may’ve made public spectacles of themselves; privately, what they no doubt do is far from funny.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in March 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.