The Venus Flytrap: Offline, Living

I am so grateful that social media did not exist, at least not in the way it does now, when I was a teenager or a child. I am also nostalgic for the world wide web (remember that?) of my early adulthood, when it was possible to connect with people meaningfully and not just as your-projection-meets-mine, blogs democratised space for new writers, advertising didn’t clutter the screen, and the phone and the computer were distinct devices. This is because of the dire turn that social media and the internet have taken over the last decade. The former became less a place to engage than a hypermarket where capitalism and dirty politics collude. For many of us, social media is the internet in a sense. When I try to use the platforms less, for instance, I’m offline. I’m not browsing websites, or reading news or commentary directly from the source instead of via a link.

It was recently revealed that Facebook, which owns Instagram, knew from before the pandemic through its own internal research that the latter negatively impacts teenage girls’ mental health, affecting their body image particularly. The studies even showed that up to 13% of users who experienced suicidal thoughts were able to connect them to the platform. The company chose to dismiss its own findings.

Even from the relatively privileged position of requiring social media presence only for work and using it begrudgingly, it has still had myriad repercussions on my mental health. I am not a teenager, but no one who has ever been a teenage girl forgets what it’s like to be one – to be so intensely charged, so full of possibilities, and so unaware of how one is being broken daily in ways that will take decades to resolve. Mega-corporations that demand sacrificial participation in their economies so as to “belong” better offline makes those offline lives that much harder.

Michaela Cole, who won an Emmy this week for writing the brilliant TV series I May Destroy You, said in her acceptance speech: “In a world that entices us to browse the lives of others to help us better determine how we feel about ourselves, and to, in turn, feel the need to be constantly visible — for visibility, these days, seems to somehow equate to success — do not be afraid to disappear. From it, from us, for a while. And see what comes to you in the silence.”

This is not something most of us can do, for many reasons. Cole herself has a social media presence. So this speech is only a reminder, in the same way that the leaked information about the platforms above is. Knowing what we know, can we give ourselves permission to disengage a little more each day? Speaking for myself, I’m finding it easier to, at this time, because the platforms are just that toxic. I can feel the way Twitter upsets me every time I open it. But then, I compulsively open Instagram or Facebook despite knowing they will bore me. Algorithms and other contrivances show us what they want to. In increments, at least, we can try to see less of it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 23rd 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Activism(™)

Have you ever had a friend whom you loved for reasons other than their politics – which sometimes made you cringe, and at other times left you shaking with anger – but who one day made an about-turn and learned all the hard-hitting jargon, all the sexy causes and all the clever ways of covering their former obnoxiousness? They overcompensated in ways that confused you (especially when the mask slipped), and made you worry if you weren’t offering the space for growth that you claimed to believe in. Discomfiting.

Sometimes, the actor Priyanka Chopra publically behaves exactly this way, trying too hard without trying much at all. Chopra is a judge on an extremely ill-advised reality show called The Activist along with musician Usher and dancer Julianne Hough. I’ll save myself the column inches about the actor’s gaffes in recent years that reveal regressive values – you’re probably well aware, given their frequency. For her co-judges, there’s no immediate recall of their problematicness (although if you seek it, you’ll find something – but this is true for literally everyone, celebrity or not). Chopra, on the other hand, has created a brand image that relies heavily on appearing radical, and being on The Activistmakes it all the more difficult to not notice the hypocrisy. Again.

The Activist’s premise is this: three teams compete for a chance to present at the G20 Summit about their chosen cause. Their efforts will be measured by social media metrics and media stunts. In other words: the cause doesn’t matter, just how cool you can make it look.

Social media is saturated with those who perform this way, gathering clout that quite often translates to real world opportunities. It’s no surprise that someone dreamed up a show that takes this unaltruistic approach to its logical conclusion. I wonder what the consolation prize for the show’s losers are. Probably that word that’s thrown often at people trying to make a living: “exposure”.

But wagging a preachy finger here is meaningless. Vast numbers of people will watch the show because we are like that – we’ve become used to channeling our own ennui into things we know don’t nourish us, keeping a cycle of dissatisfaction going. The cycle serves capitalism. Our outrage, this piece included, gives the show real estate in our minds. That’s just what those who benefit from this want.

Sometimes I wonder if the era for provocative but effective statements has passed, now that provocation is common currency, and that quieter, slow work is all that matters. The Activist could have made sense a couple of decades ago, before it became this fashionable to be progressive. American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been ridiculed for wearing a dress with the words “Tax The Rich” scrawled on it to the Met Gala. The same gesture, had it occurred when she was lower on the rungs of power, would have garnered applause. How is she to keep watch on the fluctuating barometer of social media pressure, while also actually doing the work of public policymaking? That dress is at the dry cleaners now, and we’ve all got our own dirty laundry – and our own work – to do.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Women On The Supreme Court

Until just over a week ago, the 34-member strong Supreme Court of India had just one woman among its judges. Now it has four, with the new appointments of Hima Kohli, B.V. Nagarathna and Bela M. Trivedi, who join Indira Banerjee, who was sworn-in in 2018. They were among nine new justices who have been elevated to the apex court, a decision made by a collegium headed by the Chief Justice of India, N.V. Ramana. The CJI has remarked that he is still unsatisfied with the low percentage of women presiding at the Supreme Court. I think I can speak for a lot of people when I say: well, so are we.

To the Supreme Court’s credit, that the work still left to be done is being highlighted is a good thing. The celebration of small gains is best reserved for our personal lives; on a larger scale, we wind up celebrating the tokenistic too often. In over 70 years, the Supreme Court of India has only had eleven women judges, beginning with M. Fatima Beevi as late as 1989 (which is also to say: until last month, the Supreme Court of India only had eight women judges in its entire history). Courts across the country are disproportionately headed by male judges. High Courts in some states, including Uttarakhand and Bihar, do not have any women judges at all. The high percentage of vacancies (42% out the sanctioned strength) in the High Courts is an issue that the CJI’s collegium say they intend to address, and a better gender ratio appears to be one of their criteria for selection. There are presently at least three transgender judges in the country (Swati Bidhan Baruah in Assam, Joyita Mondal in West Bengal and Vidya Kamble in Maharashtra), but this number too must rise. The recently-appointed Justice BV Nagarathna is scheduled to become India’s first woman CJI in 2027, but she will retire barely a month later upon reaching the stipulated age.

The need for greater gender and other forms of parity in the legal arena isn’t about optical representation (which it can sometimes be in other fields, including entertainment) but about how this can positively impact the application and the development of the law itself. The glaringly obvious human rights travesty of marital rape remaining legal in India is just one that if corrected will bring countless people succour or freedom. One would imagine that a Supreme Court with more women in it might bring in the necessary change. 

With that being said, the expectation that a more diverse court will be more progressive or sympathetic to nuances that your average Indian man (no matter how erudite) can miss is a bit optimistic. Power is power, and people tend to abuse it, regardless of gender or other identity markers. Patriarchy cannot persist without the participation of people who don’t benefit from it but who are conditioned, and then keep deciding, to be its agents anyway. But I assure you: all this cynicism is just another way of expressing hope that good change is coming, but we need so much of it that we aren’t holding our breath.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Oppression, Privilege & The Artistic Spotlight

The rapper Arivu’s sidelining from the hit song “Enjoy Enjaami”, which was inspired by his ancestors, who were disenfranchised labourers in Sri Lanka, has been noted ever since the track first came out. “Dhee ft. Arivu” read the credits, putting the performance collaborator before the conceptualiser, lyricist and performer himself. Then came a remix that dropped his name entirely, and most recently, a Rolling Stone India cover featuring only Dhee and Shan Vincent de Paul (both of whom rose to fame through collaborations with Arivu). The magazine misframed its cover story in a Tweet, later clarifying that is about the two artists’ forthcoming albums. Optically, at first glance, it looked like one more way to steal the spotlight from Arivu.

At the time of this writing, Arivu has not responded publicly to the controversy. However, he and Dhee posed for a photograph together at a party for composer Yuvan Shankar Raja, shared online by actor Dhanush. This is a move designed for social media semiotics. Arivu – the most successful of the three artists in the controversy – has gracefully chosen silence, for now, and this silence has spurred many inferences and projections. We cannot know what he is thinking, and he may not want us to, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from speaking on his behalf.

Or from fighting publicly, as de Paul’s diss track after director Pa Ranjith called out Rolling Stone India – which had a ripple effect of drawing abuse toward Dhee and himself – showed. Unlike the powerfully-connected Dhee (whose stepfather is music director Santosh Narayanan), who is clearly savvier about letting things blow over, as the least recognisable of them and probably the most inexperienced at handling trolls, de Paul did what a lot of people would do, i.e. react upon triggering. Or perhaps his detractors are right: “no publicity is bad publicity”, as the industry adage goes.

There may be an element of strategy to this mess, which has increased awareness of new releases from the A.R. Rahman-backed label, Maajja. There’s also much insider knowledge, PR decisions and other factors involved that we aren’t meant to be privy to, but which we certainly do play into. The socio-political complexity of this – specifically the relevance of caste – has inspired trenchant discourse. Still, missing in all this is the acceptance that the myth of Tamil unity is a dangerous and chauvinistic one.

Arivu is a Dalit musician from Tamil Nadu by way of colonial Ceylon, where his family were Malayaha Tamils. Dhee is Australian Tamil from Sri Lanka, and Brahmin. Canadian Tamil de Paul’s family fled Sri Lanka as refugees. The latter two are of Jaffna extraction – not the only kind of Ilankai Tamilness, but not enough people know there are others (a topic for another time, says this Batticaloa-extraction writer). They’re all Tamil, sure – but they are not the same. Neither assigning a hierarchy of oppression or privilege nor an uncritical mantle of “Tamil excellence” or similar rah-rahness is fair to any of them, or to the layered histories and identities each carries. Political allyship or solidarity isn’t about uniformity; it requires acknowledging profound unease, not glossing it away in pursuit of coolness.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 2nd 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Women Just Want To Have Fun

According to the Madhya Pradesh High Court (Indore Bench, presided by Justice Subodh Abhyankar), “India are a conservative society, it has not yet reached such level (advance or lower) of civilization where unmarried girls, regardless of their religion, indulge in carnal activities with boys just for the fun of it (sic)”. The case that was brought before the court concerned a woman who attempted suicide after her consensual partner told her that he was marrying someone else, then lodged a case of rape against him. Instead of just dealing with the particular intricacies of the case, the bench felt it fit to opine on Indian women’s desires and personalities at large. While it’s possible that the prosecutor here feels she has gained justice, court rulings create precedents which can affect the outcomes of future cases. That’s where some of the trouble here lies.

Firstly, it’s a technical quibble, but all girls should be unmarried because child marriage is morally wrong and legally a crime. The official court order quotes the judge as also having used the archaic word “lass”. As in: “… a boy who is entering a physical relationship with a lass must realize that his actions have consequences…”. The “boy” in question here is an adult. Infantilization in descriptions of people above the age of 18 is telling.

Secondly, to misquote Cyndi Lauper, “girls” do just want to have carnal activities for fun. That’s not a newsflash.

There’s another layer to this case, even as the red flag of the lack of acknowledgement of the sexual autonomy of adults is noted. The judge stated that someone who found herself in the situation that the prosecutor did should not have to resort to suicide. Fair. But neither should she have to resort to lodging a case of rape, walking back her own choices and thereby diluting what it means to have the right to say Yes as much as the right to say No. Perhaps there are no or few legal avenues available to resolve feelings of betrayal and despair, and such experiences cannot really come within the purview of the law. This is where more thoughtful, ethical and equal social mores would make a difference. Where respect for adults’ choices about sex and relationships prevails, the likelihood of someone having to give up their own power in order to heal will be far lower.

According to the report of the case in question, the woman’s parents had opposed her inter-faith relationship before her partner decided or was made to get engaged to someone else. A couple of weeks ago, this column covered a Chennai woman who roped the police in against her parents for trying to force her to wed. As far as redressal goes, how one frames one’s experience – who gets cast as villain, even if one feels victimized either way – matters.

Between the assumption that women in India have no sexual selves beyond the contract of marriage, and how retroactive legal revocations of consent have implications on society’s ability to adopt healthy sex-positivity, there’s serious regression happening here. That should clear the judge’s doubts about what stage of civilization we’re at.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 24th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Padukone’s Stand For Pay Parity

Deepika Padukone has been dropped from – or has dropped out of – Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s forthcoming film Baiju Bawra after making a perfectly reasonable request – that she be paid remuneration equal to her co-lead’s pay. Incidentally, she is also married to her former co-lead, Ranveer Singh.

Bhansali and Padukone had previously worked together on Bajirao MastaniGoliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leelaand Padmaavat (all of which also starred Singh). She was a known collaborator, whom the director could trust; when word got out about the rejection, she even put up a heartfelt post online thanking him for what she called an “iconic partnership” over the years. Her chemistry with Singh was guaranteed, both professionally and personally. Why would Bhansali and the producers look any further for a leading lady, and why wouldn’t they pay the perfect one what she deserved? 

Padukone’s 12 crore remuneration in Padmavaat had made her Bollywood’s highest earning woman actor (Kareena Kapoor reportedly requested the same recently to essay Sita’s character in Alaukik Desai’s forthcoming Ramayana adaptation, and was denied the role). This figure may seem astronomical to most of us, but in its correct context, it is practically just an honorarium, not real remuneration. In contrast, Bollywood’s highest paid actor, a man named Shah Rukh Khan, can make 100 crores per film. Gender-based pay disparity among Bollywood actors is an issue that Taapsee Panu, Sonam Kapoor, Priyamani, Padukone herself and many others have spoken out about or hinted at, usually in relation to having been ousted from talks because they asked to be paid fairly. But little has changed despite these occasional rumbles, as this Baiju Bawra fiasco shows. If this is how prejudicial things are at the very top, imagine how the disparity trickles down through the ranks of the industry.

What I would really like to see now is Ranveer Singh taking a stand. Will he drop out of the film as well, and make a statement about how he did it because his co-star was not being paid equally? This could encourage a ripple effect of beneficial copycatting in the industry, and bolster Padukone’s own stand, thus making it easier for others to both discuss and demand pay parity. Alternately: will he tell the producers to reduce his own wages so that they would be able to afford hiring both Padukone and himself for the project? The second possibility will be a nice, smart way to snub those who denied Padukone her rightful income. As very successful actors who, being married and all, probably pool some or all of their incomes, neither of them would be making a major artistic or financial compromise this way. More importantly, it would publicly be an exposure of how such calculations are made by producers to begin with, and how they automatically privilege male stars.

Padukone’s dissatisfaction should be enough to set things straight, but if it were, she and the rest of Bollywood’s women wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with. Since it isn’t enough, maybe it’s time that Singh and other men shouldered the load of making a righteous fuss more often. After all, they can quite literally afford to.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 12th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Pathbreakers Rejecting Patriarchy

Just an hour before her scheduled wedding in July, 22-year old Chennaiite Janathulla Firdose successfully staged an intervention that prevented it from happening. She had been engaged against her will to her maternal uncle. Undaunted, she lodged a complaint with the All Women Police Station in Puzhal against her parents and the groom’s other relatives, and circulated a video detailing how she felt about being forced to get married. The police showed up on the appointed date, and the event was called off.

I looked askance at the tone of some of the reports on this incident, which highlighted the police’s efforts, including how they “convinced” the woman’s parents and gave her further advice on her future. This is real life, not Brooklyn Nine-Nine. There are good people who happen to be cops, certainly, but law enforcement as an institution has been responsible for a great deal of harm. The institution doesn’t need a PR favour – especially when an incident isn’t even about them. 

Ms. Firdose is the hero of her own story. It wasn’t that the police rescued her as much as that she rescued herself by reaching out, taking a risk and finding the resources she needed. That her escape seemed unusual enough to draw attention says something about how rarely we feel we can do what she did – ask for help, and be supported by services and systems. Even where our rights are technically protected, to actually take a further step and exercise them takes gumption. Part of this comes from a warranted distrust of institutions, but most of it comes from knowledge of systemic and public apathy or complicity. Imagine if every person being forced into a marriage, as well as every person being pressured out of a relationship, felt assured that they could rely on legal rights and human decency to protect them.

I wonder: would the police – or indeed, anyone – still have intervened if the video had not contained a threat of suicide? Generally speaking, beyond this single case: could someone reaching out and simply stating that she did not consent to a marriage have stirred the same reaction? Mostly, “well-wishers” may counsel the complainant about respecting their elders, the exciting possibilities that come with marriage, or how they are too young to know what’s good for them. All this probably happened in this case as well, prior to the video and the police involvement, but fortunately, she didn’t cave.

“I thought sports would be my ticket to a job and avoiding marriage,” Kamalpreet Kaur, Indian discus-throwing Olympian, told the press this week. It is wonderful to see more women speaking out openly about how they do not want to succumb to marital pressure, and about the choices they made to stay true to themselves. Stories like these are footpaths that cut through the grass, away from the paved track. Someone else who needs to break away sees a possible alternate trajectory for themselves. Gradually, the landscape changes as the new path becomes more well-worn. It becomes easier to traverse, and there are footprints – and maybe even friends – that make it less lonely, even if (for some) ultimately solitary.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 5th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Sexism At The Olympics

They are still calling it the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, even though we are quite evidently nearly eight months into 2021 (also known as – the year things didn’t get better). The Games are happening despite widespread public and professional opinion in Japan – an Asahi Shimbun poll found that 83% of respondents were against the event being held, towns that were supposed to host athletes pulled out so as to protect their residents, the Japan Doctors Union warned against the possible creation of a new “Olympic” strain, and the country is under an official state of emergency due to the virus. Still, the tournament is very much ongoing, with checks and measures such as daily testing for athletes and the banning of spectators from the events (but not, despite what the Internet said, anti-sex cardboard beds).

But as it happens too often, the development of these new security and hygiene protocols have not necessarily been inclusive. Some athletes have come forward to talk about how the rules initially prevented them from bringing their nursing children with them. A blanket ban on travelling with their families meant that even those whose babies literally depend on being breastfed were forced to choose between their careers and their loved ones.

Aliphine Tuliamuk, a member of the U.S. Olympic women’s marathon team with a nursing child, wrote to the International Olympic Committee, resulting in a change of the rules. But Ona Carbonell, of Spain’s artistic swimming team, has since spoken about how the new provisions still demand a choice. Carbonell’s partner and child would have to quarantine in a hotel room for the duration of the Games, and she would have to leave the Olympic Village’s bubble every time feeding was required, thus taking repeated risks. Whether a nursing athlete “chooses” to leave her child at home or to negotiate quarantine rules, the situation adds mental stress that could affect her performance. As tennis champion Naomi Osaka recently demonstrated: the psychological costs of public-facing careers are huge. Especially if you’re a woman.

During the qualifications stage for the Tokyo Olympics, Germany’s women’s gymnastics team wore full-body unitards as a protest against attire that sexualises athletes. Meanwhile, the European Beach Handball Championships fined the Norwegian women’s team for wearing shorts rather than the mandated bikini bottoms (the musician P!nk announced that she would bear the fines).

There are rumours that Yoshiro Mori, a former Prime Minister of Japan who served as chief of the Tokyo Olympics organising committee before resigning in February, may return as honorary advisor. What will this mean? Mori resigned due to a backlash over a series of sexist comments, including that meeting with women in senior positions would be time-consuming as “women talk too much”. Hiroshi Sasaki, who was the creative director of the Games’ opening and closing ceremonies, similarly resigned after it emerged that he had body-shamed entertainer Naomi Watanabe by remarking to colleagues that she should perform as an “Olympig”. Sexism isn’t a competitive sport – or is it? Sometimes it certainly feels like it, what with the sporting world and the rest of the world constantly trying to set the next worst record for gender-based discrimination.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 29th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Siddiqui’s Lens

Danish Siddiqui, one of the finest photojournalists in the world, was killed while embedded with Afghan security forces during conflict with the Taliban in Kandahar last week. Those who hadn’t known his name certainly knew his work. He captured images that that immediately became iconic (or by today’s measure, viral), including powerful photographs of the coronavirus pandemic in North India and the January 2020 pogrom in Delhi.

One of the signature elements of his work was the way he took care to conceal faces. Voyeuristic photojournalism dehumanises by clearing identifying people in moments when they may be unable to give consent, and broadcasting the same in a way that crystallises terrible moments. But Siddiqui had a sense for shadow, light, fabric and motion and used these to great effect. The image of a Rohingya refugee bending to touch the wet shore, the boat she escaped on still behind her; the image of a family of three holding each other upon hearing of the death of their spouse/parent; the image of a man with his arms over his head, being beaten bloody by a mob – you cannot identify a single vulnerable face in any of these (perpetrators are not vulnerable). Thus, larger stories are evoked and memorialised. Siddiqui captured the big picture. He created historical documents.

This is not to say that he didn’t create any work at all that didn’t fall into tropes of exploiting emotion, only that he had quite evidently begun to perfect an idiom in which one didn’t have to utilise those tropes any longer. Siddiqui’s untimely demise is a great loss to photojournalism as a medium that helps uphold democracy and justice through recording and disseminating truth. The medium’s use in this way is often a lofty ideal, but he demonstrated it in practice.

I distinctly remember the anger I felt upon seeing press photos immediately after the Easter 2019 bombings in Sri Lanka, which captured people’s confusion and anguish as they looked for their loved ones. There was one woman in particular who was recognisable across different images, perhaps not even taken by the same photographer. By contrast, Siddique’s photo essay showed the spaces the victims had lived in, and objects from their daily lives. Eschewing shock value, this technique thoughtfully rendered the pain inflicted on these communities. A sewing machine, a Jesus statue still wrapped in plastic, a schoolbag – these simple items evoke the depth of loss. They do so without inflicting further violence – the violence of insensitive documentation – on either the deceased or those who mourn them. While creating this work, Siddiqui was briefly arrested in Negombo, one of the locations of the concurrent blasts. Incidentally, his arrest was on World Press Freedom Day.

Tellingly, Siddiqui’s death has been celebrated by those who want the truth obscured. While his life and career have been curtailed, the impact of his work remains, and will continue to teach. Here’s to the emergence of more photojournalists who provide dignity to their subjects, and who brave the perils spawned by human evil so as to provide mirrors that show society exactly what we are – and shame and inspire us to do better.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 22nd 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Cat’s Cradle

In late 2017, a short story in The New Yorker entitled “Cat Person” went viral, like no English-language fiction had ever done before. The author Kristen Roupenian’s debut, it tapped into the Me Too movement’s complex and charged conversations on consent. Last week, Alexis Nowicki, who works in publishing, released a personal essay revealing that Roupenian had based the story’s protagonist on her. She had contacted Roupenian, and confirmed what she suspected. Nowicki wrote about how her actual relationship with a since-deceased man she called Charles was far better than the relationship depicted therein. 

The entire ethical issue could have been avoided if Roupenian had been more careful with her craft. The story would not have been impacted if the protagonist lived in a different town or pursued a different undergrad major. These were the details that Nowicki saw herself in; not, by her own admission, the most important parts of the story.

Speaking on the story’s fame, Roupenian told The Guardian in 2019, “I can’t think without feeling shrunken. It’s like everyone’s talking about me, and it makes me feel small.” In her essay, Nowicki writes, “I was angry, still – that someone who knows so intensely about what it’s like to watch your readers misconstrue fiction as autobiography would have dragged others, without their knowledge, into that discomfort.” This unpleasant feeling is known to many who encounter success, notoriety or both – from artists who draw on true narratives to those whose photos become memes. Roupenian felt this on a scale of millions. Nowicki felt it in her personal circles, who recognised her and Charles immediately. Neither experience could have been nice.

But no one involved in “Cat Person” – Nowicki whom the protagonist was built on, Roupenian who wrote it, Charles whom the three real life and fictional women all dated – is not messy. It’s not hard to imagine how Roupenian, triggered by a lover’s constant (and manipulative) talk about an ex, became a bit obsessed with that ex. Significantly, most of what she knew about Nowicki was not through social media, but shared by Charles. In catharsising her feelings through fiction, she should have been creative with a few highly interchangeable details. But if Roupenian’s motives are dubious, so are Nowicki’s.

Charles remained publicly anonymous despite the spotlight cast by “Cat Person”. Nowicki has violated his privacy, posthumously, despite knowing he was ashamed by the story. She has offered unassailable proof to anyone who knew him that Charles treated Roupenian (and possibly others) poorly. Knowing her identity, strangers can unearth his too. Her defense of him suggests internalised misogyny; the “he was good to me” argument is a human shield that many sexual predators get to crouch behind. Roupenian shot to fame through writing based on Charles. Nowicki has now done the same.

The ethics are less tricky than they appear at first. Roupenian was sloppy in her craft; Nowicki clever. Both got their revenge. If both privileged their own experiences above Charles’ – well, is it so bad when something doesn’t revolve around a cis-het man, for a change? Or are we still uncomfortable when women tell their stories, as fact or as fiction?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 15th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Rejecting Religious Fundamentalism

This week, an anonymously-created, open-source website called S*lli Deals – named for a slur against Muslims – went live. On it were the photographs, names and social media handles of numerous Muslim women in India, and the lewd suggestion that these individuals could be purchased, like in any “Deal of the Day” promotion. It was an open invitation for harassment of all kinds.

Women have their photos stolen and misused all the time, especially online. I’ve written in this column in the past about discovering my own images being reposted by sleazy accounts, among hundreds of others’. But this latest cybercrime – the latest in a long line – should not be seen only in light of overall societal misogyny, but specifically has to be understood in the context of anti-Muslim hate. The women were targeted because of their religious background. This too joins a long line of similar incidents of varying levels of brutality, spanning from bias to genocide.

Anti-Muslim and anti-minority rhetoric in India currently happens very overtly, and from very high platforms. It has been a part of election campaigning. Hate speech rings out at major rallies, such as at the Hindu Mahasabha in Haryana a few days ago, where among other radicalised public speakers was a 17-year old who opened fire near Jamia Millia University at an anti-CAA protest last year. Those who openly incite violence against minorities have impunity. In the meanwhile, activists who work for equality and justice – usually with political secularism, regardless of personal sentiment, as a core value – suffer and even die incarcerated (like Father Stan Swamy) or assassinated (like Gauri Lankesh, or further back, like M.K. Gandhi).

The reprehensible term “love jihad” has been used for years to control and punish Hindu women (and now, Sikh women too, as recent cases in Kashmir have shown). It is based on the idea of women as property, chattel that cannot be permitted to exercise free will. Abusive enterprises like S*lli Deals also operate under the concept of ownership, and by extension trade or trafficking, but with two additional layers: inviting public participation in the oppression, and explicit religious discrimination. 

No religion is free of fundamentalists. No matter its tenets. No matter how meaningful or uplifting a private spiritual life may feel, to deny that some will always use religion to create violence of all kinds is to help perpetuate that violence.

People like me – who technically belong to the Hindu religious majority – are often dismissed in conversation with versions of the statement: “You do not know the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism”. Actually, I do. I spent most of my life in a Muslim country, 17 years to be precise, with anti-minority edicts enshrined in its Constitution. I have personally undergone the quotidian discriminations of belonging to a minority and having my culture be erased on a systemic scale, and I raised my voice loudly against these maltreatments there too. None of this made me anti-Muslim. It made me anti-bigotry. I know the dangers of religious fundamentalism on a general population, full stop. It’s irrelevant which strain – all are equally violent, and must be rejected, for the good of everyone, of every denomination.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 8th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Mental Health & The Public Stage

About a month ago, tennis champion Naomi Osaka announced that she would no longer participate in post-match press conferences, explaining that these events had a negative impact on her mental health. She went on to withdraw from the French Open, following criticism and paying a hefty fine for not attending a mandatory media event. Osaka posted a statement on social media about having “suffered long bouts of depression” since the 2018 U.S. Open and having “huge waves of anxiety” when forced to speak in public.

Some of the criticism, the most publicised of which came from white male tennis celebrities including Boris Becker and Rafael Nadal, painted Osaka as someone ungrateful who didn’t want to do her job. But Osaka’s job is only to train and to play to the best of her ability. As a successful athlete, she could choose selectively to engage with the press or the public through endorsements, interviews and other modes. To expect her to come off the intensity of the court and be cordial or even cheerful on a world stage, without having had time to process elation or defeat, is cruel. 

The demand that one be visible, accessible and open to scrutiny just because one’s work is appealing to large audiences is just wrong. This is a burden, not a part of the work. Whether the career in question is that of an international athlete, or of a home-based entrepreneur who is forced to develop influencer skill sets rather than focus on what they are gifted at making, precious time and energy is lost on cycles of feeding and fending off exposure.

Recently, musician Sinead O’Connor released a memoir in which she revealed her perspective on her own trajectory. Collective memory had held that O’Connor destroyed her career through a series of antics. But many of these – tearing up a Pope’s photo in protest against child sexual abuse, refusing to play the U.S. national anthem, boycotting the Grammys – were acts of activism. O’Connor now says, decades later, that her meteoric fame had undone her. These powerful statements were made from a platform that she was relieved to be deposed of.

O’Connor also shaved her head, considered very shocking in the 90s. Not coincidentally, another musician (another woman, too) who did the same in 2007 was Britney Spears. This was a furious attempt to wrest power back from those who controlled her public image, including her own kith and kin. In a statement made this week, Spears petitioned to have the legal conservatorship that her father and family hold over her removed. Some of the abuse that she recounts includes constant monitoring, not having control over her finances, having a birth control device implanted in her body without her consent, and much more. Spears’ situation makes it clear: the eyes of the whole world can be watching, and they’ll still have mutual consensus that they can’t see abuse or unkindness. 

In such a world, to release artistic work, exhibit athletic performance or share any creative, intellectual and practical bounties is already too much. Why then would anyone want to also let themselves and their vulnerabilities be open to discussion?

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

The Venus Flytrap: Sex And The Superhero

“If Batman and Catwoman had sex, would he go down on her?” It sounds like a conversation between adolescents, but the question had the internet aflame last week, when Harley Quinn co-creator Justin Halpern revealed in an interview that a scene depicting this intimate act had been censored from the series’ third season. Halpern stated that DC, the powerful parent company that owns the original fictional universe of these characters and their myriad spin-offs, was generally supportive of creative choices. Except, when it came to this scene, the co-creators were told that “Heroes don’t do that.” That meaning giving oral pleasure.

Harley Quinn is an animated series for adults, based on comic books that also contain adult content, including sex and violence. In today’s television streaming universe, to have a pearl-clutching response to pleasuring the oyster is downright archaic. This controversy is not about the portrayal of sex, or about sensitive material that may not be suitable for audiences of all ages. It’s about a discomfort with pleasure, specifically if the person experiencing that pleasure is a woman. It’s also about discomfort with tender expressions by masculine figures. Sex, as we know, can sometimes be about power or capital instead. Perhaps those iterations are more acceptable to some than mere, or sheer, pleasure – both given and received.

The Batman character was created in 1939, and was a forerunner in what came to be known as the Golden Age of American comics, which continued till the mid-50s. After the Comics Code Authority, an industry-regulated mechanism, came into effect in 1954, DC Comics included this edict in its in-house editorial policy: “…the inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged. Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance, and should be drawn realistically, without exaggeration of feminine physical qualities.” By the time I was a comics reader in the mid-90s, the last point at least had long gone out the window. Hypersexualisation of women was an overt part of the books and the animated shows, made for kids, that I consumed. But that wasn’t all: in 1999, writer Gail Simone created a list called “Women In Refrigerators”, listing the myriad ways in which women characters met brutal ends in comic literature. This history is relevant because the characters of Catwoman and Batman were shaped by these trends too, just the censorship of their relationship is now.

But it’s really the decision-makers at DC who’ve revealed a little too much about their own sex lives. Whoever told the Harley Quinn team that “It’s hard to sell a toy if Batman is also going down on someone” seems unfamiliar with the adult toy market, hentai, fan fiction, diverse audiences or – umm – sexual fantasy and sexual reality. We don’t all necessarily want to watch animated erotica, and we certainly don’t all want the same things in bed. But as Glen Weldon of NPR, one of many commentators who weighed in on the issue, said: “I’d argue that thinking of others and putting their needs above yours is pretty much the definition of a hero.” Not that just being a good lover makes anyone a hero, of course!

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