The Road Rose To Meet Me

A conversation with Dr. Deenaz Damania

Sharanya Manivannan: I am someone who seeks maps for how to live meaningfully, and I believe that these maps must be shared. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into yours. Can you begin by telling us what brought you to Coonoor, and what made you decide to make this town your home?

Deenaz Damania: I think Coonoor – discovering Coonoor – has been a very important part of my life journey, at this stage. I was, at one level, not completely at peace with what was happening in my life, because of different pressures and challenges. I wanted more. I was not using who I was. I was not deeply happy, and I tend to be a kind of person who is deeply happy and who loves life. I knew that unless I made a couple of important changes, I would step away from who I am as a human being, basically. So this was at the back of my mind, at a very subconscious level. I had recently quit a very active career, and I was in this space where I had time to think.

It just so happened that a very dear friend of my first husband, whom I lost to cancer, lived in Coonoor. I hadn’t seen him for many years, and I decided to visit him. I arrived in the evening. When I woke up in the morning, Sharanya – I don’t know how to describe it. I felt I had come home. A certain sense of peace descended on me. That was it. I knew not a soul here except this one fine gentleman, when I decided with my second husband to build a home here. For him, it was a holiday home. For me, it was a life transformation. It changed my life and filled in the gaps in ways that I didn’t know life would. I didn’t know what I would do with my life here, but everything fell into place.

SM: Would you then say that a sense of place is very important to a person’s well-being, or is everything within?

DD: Actually, a place as a place has no meaning. A place if it connects to one’s soul has meaning. At one time, Bangalore had that connection for me. At some level, it still does. Bombay had it for me when I was growing up. So it’s not Coonoor the place as much as what Coonoor represents for me today, which is: another way of life, another value system, a slowing down of the hurry. Ruthlessly travelling and taking flights and being important and sitting on boards of companies – that phase is done. Coonoor represents the simplicity of the mountains, of nature, of plants.

SM: This connection between place and person: how does one recognize it, and forge it?

DD: One has to be internally prepared. I know people who say a mountain is fine for two days and then it’s boring. Or they ask me, “How can you be alone with your husband just visiting every month or you going to Bangalore every month? How can you be alone for ten days or two weeks at a time and not be lonely?”

The cultivation is all at the non-verbal level. It’s your needs, and the lack you experience. I don’t think I could have done it when I was a vibrant 40-year old, for example. Perhaps – I don’t know. But now, a lot of my worldly needs have been met. A lot of my active chasing of success has been met. I was, to that extent, feeling complete. What was not complete was that there were still parts of me that were not finding expression in life. By moving here and taking time to get to know myself better, I discovered I liked myself more and more. I discovered that I can be friends with the birds and the flowers, and I can achieve a sense of completion within myself, to the extent that I can be alone and not be lonely.

SM: When we were first introduced you spoke of how you just want to keep learning. Can you talk about learning and self-growth as active pursuits?

DD: I think my life is all about learning. Formal learning and informal learning. I started as a post-graduate student of social work. I practiced social work. I went into the corporate world. I taught myself management consulting and research, then I did a PhD in that – much later, when I had two children. Struggled, struggled, struggled, but did it. Then I went into teaching at the post-graduate level, to management students. Then I became a psychotherapist. Every ten years, my career has changed. UNICEF, Government of India, child welfare, destitute children, corporate world, consulting, adoptive parents…

Everything is connected yet everything is disparate. I’ve had about five careers. A very defining part of who I am is curiosity. I love asking “Why?” at every stage of life.

SM: Another thing that strikes me from our earlier meeting as you talk about transformation and choosing to change is that you said that day, “Nothing is forever.” There are many ways to interpret this, and in many moods. I’d love to know what it is about this phrase that you feel strongly about.

DD: When we grow older, we become more and more like our parents ,whether we like it or not. I feel sad that we are too much like our parents and too little like our children. I believe the lessons that our children teach us are our most precious lessons. If we can build on the foundation of what our parents give us, but become more like what younger people teach us, we can be better. That is the openness to change. Thank God nothing is forever.

Change can be internal. Change can be life circumstances.

When I was 22, I was confident, ready to go abroad to live and work at a fabulous place on a fabulous scholarship. Three months before I was due to go, I met a man two and a half inches shorter and 12 years older than I was, and I gave it all up and married him two months later. Nothing held meaning except this wonderful human being I had met. So that changed the entire course of my life. I would have become a high-flying, full time therapist back then. I put it on hold till much later in life. But if I did not embrace that change, I would have been a much lesser mortal.

 Change is very hard. You give up who you are and become who you should be. It is associated with pain, never with joy. Change is the only way to become a full human being. Otherwise, we die as half human beings.

SM: I’d like to circle back to something you said, on a personal note. I come from an abusive family. The last thing I want to be is like my parents. I’m unlikely to have children, although that may change – after all, life is full of transformation. What then does one do when conditioning, circumstances, other people’s deliberate attempts, have prevented one from shaping one’s life as one wants? Is there anything you can say broadly to people who need to wrest power back to shape their lives?

DD: Freud said life is deterministic. His whole approach was that things are shaped till you’re 6, then God help you. Unless you do a lot of psychoanalysis. I believe that sometimes years of psychoanalysis may not be beneficial to us, unless there is a conscious effort to change one’s perspective and enable a shift within us. I do believe that one can overcome one’s challenges. One can become a better human being based on the suffering one goes through. For that, we need two kinds of intelligence: the mind, and emotional intelligence.

Some of the finest human beings I have met are through my therapy practice. My clients have had the courage to question, to challenge, to rebel and to grow. The most difficult times we have in life are with our families, for everybody. The most satisfying times, if one is lucky, are also with one’s loved ones. So when I use the terms “parents” and “children” I don’t mean literally. I would be the last person to believe that blood is thicker than water because I’ve worked in adoption. When I say “parents” and “children” I just mean older people and younger people.

SM: Thank you for clarifying that. Just now, you talked about learning from clients. You once mentioned a person anonymously who said “I have lived a rich life but not a happy one.” The distinctions between these struck me as interesting…

DD: I am very clear. I find that a life of purpose and meaning is far superior to a life which can generally be described as a “happy life”. You can choose to believe that you are  “happy” without engaging your mind or heart in any significant manner. I would not define that as a happy life. Ultimately, we are not born into this world to have a small, narrow focus. We are born to have purpose and meaning. I learnt that when I started suffering. Through my suffering I realised that there was another purpose to my life. Who was I to question what had happened to me? Why should I feel angry about it? Why should I feel like a victim? So what if people looked at me with pity?

When I lost my first husband, I didn’t want to live. I knew I had had a good life but the desolation, despair, depression and sadness were hard to deal with. At such times, one struggles to overcome the desire to go too. At that time I was deeply lonely, and I can relate to everybody who loses a friend or a spouse. Deeply. I became a more compassionate human being on the saddest day of my life.

Within the same year, I lost my husband and both our girls left home for work and study. I took a decision to find purpose and meaning through that suffering. Let me tell you – the finest human beings come to you when you are searching for answers. It need not only be family. I found my answers. The minute I did, my suffering became less. I don’t know how to describe that, but I found my purpose in life to go ahead. I strongly feel that meaning and purpose are something all of us should seek, actively.

SM: You have also benefited from therapy; there was a particular experience of receiving grief counselling under the stars in Lonavala that you recounted…

DD: I graduated from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. In early January 2001, they asked me to come and speak at a conference that they had organised for the first time of international therapists and counsellors. At that time, I had said that I couldn’t come, as I had a husband who was very ill and dying and that I could not leave him. It so happened that he passed away that March. I remembered that the conference was later in April. On an impulse, I wrote and said: “I am alone now. My responsibility is over. I’ll come.” I went just to distract my mind. It was the most fantastic experience, even though I hadn’t expected it to happen.

At the introductory round of the conference, I said, “I am grieving now. I am grieving the loss of a soulmate. I’m not my usual self, but I came here quite honestly to just be away from home.” That night, two of the world’s best therapists sought me out. We sat outdoors, under the stars, and they helped me release much of my pain. It was magical. I came away a new person.

I had never studied grief therapy as a specialisation, and I then realised the power of it. It helped me stand up much faster, from what would have taken me months and months otherwise, and get in touch with myself.

SM: Do you attribute any of this to being in the hills, under the stars?

DD: Just the stars could never have done it, but they certainly added something magical to the experience.

I used to be a much more reticent person when it came to speaking about my inner world. But these two women, these therapists, drew me out beautifully. Ah! Now that you’ve connected the mountain and the stars – maybe it couldn’t have happened in an urban environment…

SM: Your garden in Coonoor is full of flourishing things: fragrant magnolia, nourishing kale, fresh strawberries. Among them are sculptural objects, made not just of stone, but also of driftwood. You have brought some of these back from hiking expeditions along the Bhavani river and other places. Can you talk a little about how to stay spry, both in the heart and in the body?

DD: My hiking or walking did not start until I was in my 40s. My first hike up any mountain was up Kinabalu, on the island of Borneo in Malaysia –

SM: Kinabalu is a tricky trek! That was your very first one? (DD nods) That’s adventurous!

DD: It happened because just about four months earlier, my husband – who had been a robust guy – had been diagnosed with a pretty deadly cancer. We came through the first round of surgery. We were living in Malaysia. One day he said, “Come on, get ready, you have to walk with me every day. We are going up Kinabalu.” I had no idea what Kinabalu was, but we began training to trek.

I went up the mountain with this man. For us, it meant more than just a trek. It was a “We shall overcome” thing.

It was beautiful – beautiful. Absolutely fabulous, and from then on I was hooked to the outdoors. To a large extent, my interest in trekking, walking and nature were gifts from Malaysia.

SM: How have you cultivated that interest over the decades since?

DD: I feel alive when I walk. It’s difficult to explain, but I connect with myself when I walk and I feel good. I have inherited my mom’s arthritis but I never wanted that to stop me from anything I wanted to do. When I had a couple of meniscus tears, a year ago, my orthopedician said, “Deenaz, you cannot walk up steps or slopes anymore”, I wept in front of him. How could he tell me that I can’t walk in the hills I love? But it healed. My meniscus tears are in control. I didn’t have surgery. I still walk.

SM: You found love again later in life, and remarried, which is inspiring and challenges so many societal notions about love. Is there anything you can share with us about how this happened?

DD: It happened just before I turned 60. I just know that the closeness and comfort of the bond experienced during the first close relationship of 25 years had clearly “allowed’ me to be vulnerable, and that I had found the reawakening of romance and caring neither unnatural nor something to run from.

The two experiences have been so different, each enriching in its own way, and each with its own challenges at different stages of my life. Interestingly, each set of experiences has contributed to my personal growth and resilience, and helped me emerge as a psychotherapist with a deeper understanding of the human condition, compassion and ability to make a difference in people’s lives.

SM: I began this by saying that I like maps. Toko-Pa Turner wrote: “Drop your maps and listen to your lostness like a sacred calling into presence”. Can you describe a moment in your life when this happened – when you chose to drop a map you had created or been given, and let your lostness lead you into something extraordinary?

DD: I love the word “lostness”. During the past 25 years I have experienced it twice.

The first time was when I lost the love of my life, and felt my life was over. Before that, I had given my all to researching the deadly illness and been so brave in the face of so many odds. Then, my doctor friend sat me down and explained to me that my husband was suffering very deeply and literally staying alive because of his love for me, and that I should cease all medication and let him go in peace. Out of that terrible sense of lostness and grief, I had that most difficult and last conversation with my beloved, and gave him “permission” to leave and journey on… Although he had lost the ability to speak, his eyes conveyed that he had understood and let a tear fall, and he left my world a day later.

The second time was another very deeply troubling time when I had felt alone and almost “abandoned” by life. I was losing my self-confidence and my natural ability to laugh and be in love with life. That was when that sense of “lostness” gave me the courage to take charge of my life, and start the new journey of my life that brought me to these mountains, and I have never looked back.

The road rose to meet me and embrace me and comfort and energize me, and today I am living the kind of life at the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual levels that I had never dreamt was possible!

First published in Coonoor & Co in 2022.

Waiting For Summer Rain

The longing first comes at last light, not in the high heat of noon.

            This is the hour when windows are closed to keep deadly mosquitoes at bay, the hour when breeze must be compromised in service of safety. So it is to live in the plains, where summer’s scorch and winged assassins, together, wake one again and again through the night. But it is not night – not yet. Now, it is the liminal time described as “crepuscular”, a word that evokes the nature of moths, and other creatures and beings of the in-between. The day’s torpor still clinging to one’s skin, the heat’s strain on the mind, and a parchedness that has less to do with water and more to do with unspoken feeling, and that is how one feels too: in-between.

There is a reason why this longing comes at this hour, and not sooner. Something about dusk, its changing colours, feels reminiscent of cloud cover. This longing, the longing for summer rain, is stark when it feels like the longed for may be near, may be almost – almost – here.

Summer rain that arrives preceded by a moody sky, stirring anticipation before it. Summer rain that arrives with an orchestra – the sounds of strings of rain drops falling on many surfaces. Rain on tin roofs, on umbrella vinyl, on window glass, on dense foliage, on hot tar, on hardened soil, on other water. Some of these sounds are almost silent. Each is surely distinct, depending on proximity or buffering, yet there is only one sound in my memory. I can hear it now, in my head.

There is a particular way the body responds when rain is percolating in the atmosphere, a pleasurable tension. Sultriness of air, sultriness of body.

And then there is the scent. Scent of water on dry earth. An awakening scent, roused from earth made wet after a long time without such touch. The English word for it is “petrichor”, coined only in 1964 by the mineralogist Dick Thomas, a word borrowed from the Greek – “ichor” for the mythical fluid that flows in divine veins, which animates “petr” for stone. Before this, it was known as “argillaceous odour”; those who studied it knew the chemicals that release it are within the baked and waiting clay, not the giving rain. But this other, newer word, accorded ancient gravitas and the allure of poetry, is beautiful; and because of its beauty so many more of us understand: what rises to us with first rain is the fragrance of coming together, of mingling.

A spell of summer rain is not always a summer storm, yet when it finally arrives the ferocity of the heart’s response elevates its impact. It is a celebration – and the hope is to be caught in it, in a sense. To not have it take place when one is occupied, or out of sight of a window through which the swirl of trees in the draft can be observed, or within an edifice built to keep the elements out in more than necessary ways.

In Tamil Nadu, the start of the period of deepest summer, known as agni-nakshatram (translating literally to “fire-star”), was traditionally marked by a downpour, after which the heat would intensify. That summer rain could be experienced as Nature offering a respite and a caveat at once. Climate change has altered these patterns, this gracious concord made between heat and succor.

In recent years, there is not always this announcement, or at least not one shared consistently throughout the region. Sometimes now, the weather turns torrid without a word, and the windows and the heart are not first washed ceremonially by the first rain of a fresh year, as per the old calendars.

They are not the same, the heavy monsoonal showers that will come in a few months. They lack the decadence and desirousness of that epigrammatic burst of summer rain, those torrents that say – I know you’ve waited, and will wait again, but here for now – be gratified, be quenched.

First published in Coonoor & Co in 2022.

The Venus Flytrap: Abuse Is Not Love

No one’s life is a circus for other people’s entertainment – not even if they are a reality TV star, not even if their entire career has been about public visibility. Sometimes, when distressing events in a celebrity’s personal life play out in public ways, it is not only their right to privacy that is important, but also our refusal to normalise certain actions.

            Kim Kardashian is being stalked and harassed by Kanye West, her former spouse, whom she is still legally married to despite her efforts to dissolve the partnership. The couple have four children together, whom Kardashian raises. None of this is news to most people – we are already privy to these details, and much more.

            West’s grandiose Valentine’s Day aggression of sending a truckload of roses to Kardashian was quickly followed by him sharing screenshots of her private messages to him, including ones expressing her worries that his actions could endanger her current partner and children.

            West is not behaving in a romantic fashion. These are acts of emotional violence that intimidate Kardashian and her loved ones. They are unacceptable behaviour, full stop.

            When West’s diagnosis of mental illness became public, Kardashian stood by him graciously. In the official statement she released, she also took the opportunity to address “the stigma and misconceptions” around his condition, thus depersonalising the situation in a way that was also useful for other caregivers and the ill.

            About half a year later, in January 2021, Kardashian formally filed for divorce. Till date, the divorce has yet to come through, and West’s refusal to resolve the legal terms are believed to be the reason. Furthermore, West has chosen to make some of their conflicts public – posting about being unhappy that their eldest child has been allowed by Kardashian to use TikTok, for instance.

Kardashian has clearly felt pressured to present her side of the story publicly too. Now, her statements on social media acknowledge West’s “constant attacks” and how his hostility has impacted their kids. “Divorce is difficult enough on our children and Kanye’s obsession with trying to control and manipulate our situation so negatively and publicly is only causing further pain for all… I wish to handle all matters regarding our children privately, and hopefully he can finally respond to the third attorney he has had in the last year to resolve any issues amicably,” she posted earlier this month.

Kardashian’s situation may be in the public eye, but it is far from unique. Similar to Britney Spears, who was abused and controlled by her family for thirteen years in full view of the world, Kardashian is experiencing forms of abuse that many others do. We may not necessarily be able to help her, but we can admit what’s wrong in her situation and recognise it in and around our own lives – where it may indeed be our place to intervene or to act. Far too often, a controlling partner is deemed romantic and a controlling parent is deemed caring. But abuse is not love. The misuse of the word “love” should never be used to justify abuse – yet it is, all the time, just look around…

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

The Venus Flytrap: Feminist Realities

I took to heart a lesson in feminist activism that I learned a few years ago. I was invited to speak to students who were part of an outreach programme in Batticaloa. The day after the event, I met the organiser for a meal. She told me then that something I had said, about the possibilities if not the necessity of rejecting the institution of marriage, was not relevant to the youth I had spoken to. She was right. On the one hand, offering a perspective led by example may have impacted or interested a few. On the other, if I had paused to think about it, I would have recognised that that perspective could not be applied to most of the people present. The truth is that real change is slow, and that even as we create art, manifestos and more that present desired outcomes – we must work with ground realities not ideals.

            This is why it is not just irrelevant, but also obfuscating, to say that many people are forced into wearing the hijab or that it is an unfeminist garment. What is important is that to force them out of schools or colleges because they wear it – as is happening in Karnataka now – is an injustice. This enforcement will not come from their communities, but from authorities and bigots.

It helps to recall that historically, the right to dress as per one’s own choices, as per cultural norms, or like those with structural power do, has always been politically loaded. The Kingdom of Travancore imposed a “breast tax” on women from marginalised castes who wanted to cover their upper bodies until 1859. Dalit men who sport moustaches are murdered even today in parts of India. Hijab-wearing Muslims in Karnataka and beyond are the latest minority to be punished using the rhetoric and semiotics of appearance.

In a brutal case that no one should forget, a 17-year old student at a college in Nokha, Rajasthan, was raped and murdered in 2017.  She had been the first Dalit girl from her village to go to university, and the ripple effect in the community was reportedly that families had begun to doubt again whether they should give their daughters tertiary educations. Those humiliating videos now all over social media of teachers being forced to remove their hijabs and other religious attire before entering their institutions are of people who are able, but not necessarily willing, to make a compromise. That compromise is not only forced, but is also something not everyone can make. The desired consequence of this move is ultimately to confine more people to their homes, depriving them of independence as well as education.

It helps to recall also that the liberation of women was one of the justifications that both conservative and liberal people used when the USA began bombing Afghanistan and other Muslim countries after 9/11. The war crimes that followed cannot be justified. Those truly concerned with the liberation of women will be concerned only with how an education will empower them throughout their lives, and is indeed a fundamental right – not what they wear as they gain that education.

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

The Venus Flytrap: The Westland Closure

I submit this column on Tuesdays. On Tuesday February 1, I had just sat at my desk when the shock news that the megaconglomerate Amazon had shut down Westland Books – a major Indian publisher, homegrown in Chennai over six decades and owned by Amazon for the last five years – came without a single warning. My two latest books (one barely a month old, one barely a year old) were released by this publisher. I didn’t write my column that day; a week later, I’m struggling to resume my usual rhythms. This holds true for hundreds of directly affected people. Despair reigns. The knowledge that our books (our babies!) will leave the market, become out of print, and that remaining copies will be physically destroyed has been completely shattering.

            Speculation is rife about how this closure happened at all, but what is not widely discussed is just how short a window of time remains for Westland titles to reach the market. The huge backlist will go out of print on February 28, with a deadline of February 15 for bookstores to order their final stock. The small frontlist goes out of print on March 31. March 15 is the presumed final order deadline, but may be sooner as the company and distributors navigate this unprecedented situation.

The size of and titles listed in these final orders depend purely on reader purchases right now. Bookstores will have to pay upfront; their lists will be smaller than most imagine. While books won’t be recalled – that is, if they aren’t returned first (due to e-commerce’s popularity, brick-and-mortar bookshops return stock regularly, which the author then has subtracted from her royalties) – they will be few and rare.

            Other than the importance of purchasing books urgently, there are some other things that readers need to know about this situation. For example: the date for last orders will likely also apply to libraries. Readers can convince institutions to bring books in, as well as personally donate Westland titles to community libraries. The Free Libraries Network ( is a good place to start.

            As for republication, the reality is that except in the event of a complete buyout of the entire catalogue, renewed life is simply not possible for every book. Even if a book finds a second publisher, it won’t re-enter the market until the new publisher honours their existing contracts, which could mean a year or two, especially with so many now jostling for room. Self-publishing is expensive and impractical; not all books work digitally either.

            The viscerality of pulping has horrified most authors and readers. Many ask: but why? It’s industry practice: unsold books are pulped regularly to clear warehouse space. Since a shuttered company can neither store nor legally sell its books, any that remain unhomed when all efforts are exhausted – including (hopefully) its own library donations – will suffer this fate.

            I don’t want to imagine it, but sleeplessly grieving I do. I wonder if they’ll give me the ashes of my Incantations Over Water and Mermaids In The Moonlight, and some day those will be mingled with mine and immersed in the lagoon that we all came from…

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

The Venus Flytrap: #MaritalStrike

Marital rape is legal in India, and it appears that it will continue to remain legal for a man to sexually assault his wife in this country, as the Centre appears to uphold regressive logic about the same despite ongoing efforts to criminalise. “Family issues”, “the dignity of a woman” and other such phrases have been used by the Centre as it buys more time from the Delhi High Court on a batch of related petitions that challenge existing law. Just prior to this development, the hashtag #MaritalStrike was trending online. The hashtag was used by men to declare that they would not get married if marital rape became a crime in India. A modern Lysistrata perhaps, but in reverse – where the protestors of the Greek play withheld sex on a pro-peace principle, these keyboard anti-heroes are decidedly pro-violence (and quite exaggerate their own desirability).

            Well, good riddance, yes. Indian society could only benefit if those would-be-rapists took themselves out of the matrimonial market and out of the gene pool too. But if only they could be taken at their word (or rather, their confession).

Months ago, I wrote in this column about Línea Calma, a Colombian hotline that supports men struggling with aspects of toxic masculinity. This brilliant initiative centres men’s responsibility in reducing harm. I wrote that no comparable Indian hotline exists, whereas misogynistic ones that claim to uphold the institution of family by supporting men with abuse cases lodged against them do. Several angry messages came my way after that piece was published, from Indian misogynists threatened by the fact that men in other countries were actively fighting patriarchy (and that a woman writing in an Indian newspaper drew more people’s attention to how poorly the Indian situation compared). No surprise then that the same anti-feminist network is behind #MaritalStrike. In a predictable move, they have since banned women from their organisation. Women with internalised misogyny issues who support anti-feminist men (they call themselves “men’s rights activists”, a misnomer) are no longer welcome in that circle.

Many have laughed these people off. I would like to as well, but can’t. I don’t think it’s funny that many of the would-be-rapists who have participated in #MaritalStrike will likely be married off by their families soon enough. They will marry women who will be raped. They’ve already declared, in public, that this is so important to them that they would rather not marry at all if their partner’s consent matters.

What would be amazing, though off-script for Indian patriarchy in the best way possible, is if participation in #MaritalStrike actually leads to engagements falling through. If families of prospective brides realise that the proposals on their hands are from would-be-rapists, and decline them. If families of would-be-rapists realise that their sons are menaces, and that they would be complicit in violence and abuse if they knowingly get them married – and don’t. Imagine it: the humiliating “Does she know how to sing?” at a bride-viewing being replaced by a “What are his/your views on #MaritalStrike?” instead. Just asking the question becomes a form of violence prevention – and if the law evolves sensibly, crime prevention too.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Successful Divorces

Earlier this week, actor Dhanush K. Raja and producer Aishwaryaa Rajinikanth announced that they are getting divorced after eighteen years of marriage. This is the second high-profile divorce in the South Indian cinema field in recent times. Actors Samantha Ruth Prabhu and Akkineni Naga Chaitanya also announced their parting in late 2021.

            The individuals concerned have a right to privacy, and need not explain their decisions to the public. So, respectfully setting aside all subjectivities and intricacies, here is a more general perspective: high-profile divorces help normalise the pursuit of happiness and destigmatise leaving unhappiness behind, especially in places like India where marriage is imposed on the vast majority of people as both inevitable and inescapable.

            Any marriage can fall apart, regardless of the love or the infrastructure behind it. But in a country where marriages are mostly arranged, very rarely cross lines of caste, religion or class, and are considered sacrosanct in ways that allow all manner of inequalities and violence to exist unresolved within them, divorce is threatening to the social order. It threatens a social order that demands subservience, even if suffering is involved. This is exactly why divorce can be one of the keys to a better life. It isn’t for everyone – but neither is marriage.

The act of leaving requires finding a new blueprint on how to live – and possibly live better, too. There are many divorced people in India, and most of them aren’t celebrities, but some things are more clearly understood from a remove. This is why films and literature influence us where real life stories don’t always register. As for the real lives of celebrities, we aren’t entitled to information, but we can take inspiration. If speculation became introspection instead, it could be useful. Say, for example: if an unhappy couple or an unhappy person within an unhappy couple glances at a gossipy headline and contemplates a choice they too can make, something productive comes from what would otherwise be a moment of mere intrusion.

The interesting thing about celebrity-style divorce is that it is often PR-vetted, well-worded and presented as amicable. This too offers a new way of thinking about the process. This isn’t about how it looks to others as much as it is about how those within the process can experience it as something other than a failure. Even when it is one – even when the language that feels fair and accurate to describe an ending marriage counts it as a mistake or a failure, the language for what comes after it can be hopeful.

Life doesn’t always offer second chances, and to take one despite systemic pressure not to is brave. Without glorifying separation, we can see that it can be a beautiful thing to many – bringing new beginnings, freedom, greater peace of mind, self-renewal and more. Here’s to more people opting out, and opting for contentment. Here’s to supportive conditions that will let more people make this choice with less pain. As anyone trying to make their exit, or having successfully made their exit, will tell you: there is more than enough of that in a marriage that isn’t working, after all.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Silos & Fortresses

Call them silos, echo chambers, the algorithm or well-curated interests, but more and more, venturing out from ours is hard. Partly by design, partly because doing so is simply bewildering.

Like many, I learned about the terms “trad” and “raita” because the founders of two bigoted apps that target Muslim women were identified as being part of the former group. Raitas are the kind of rightwing people that everyone in India knows well – we either are them, and if we are not, we most definitely have colleagues or family members or other close associates who are, or at the very least we have been attacked by them online. But it seems even they distance themselves from the trads, who are even more hardcore, and who in turn distinguish themselves from the raitas (whose name they coined, disparaging them as a kind of liberal too). One knows that political views are on a spectrum, but the extent of fundamentalism accepted and nurtured by young people on the rightwing side of it is alarming to learn.

Alishan Jafri and Naomi Barton’s in-depth analysis in The Wire, “Explained: ‘Trads’ vs ‘Raitas’ and the Inner Workings of India’s Alt-Right” which goes into detail about ideology, social media behavioural patterns and Nazi inspiration for trads, is highly recommended reading, especially if like me you are new to these terms. It’s important to know that these are not fringe elements, but are now mainstream – and will only continue to grow.

The idea that there are enough people out there for the trad ideology to have a name, and not just be a few stray extremists on the margins, is terrifying. The idea that there are so many people out there who think that the ruling party or its IT cell are not hard-hitting enough is terrifying. These aren’t just ideas, of course. The reality is that the nation’s moral rot is deeper than it’s bearable to imagine.

But imagine we must. I’ve been thinking about social researcher Brené Brown’s Braving The Wilderness, a book that largely focuses on the ways in which polarisation, siloisation and loneliness interact. Brown writes, “The sorting we do to ourselves and to one another is, at best, unintentional and reflexive. At worst, it is stereotyping that dehumanizes. The paradox is that we all love the ready-made filing system, so handy when we want to quickly characterize people, but we resent it when we’re the ones getting filed away.”

What this means in actual terms is that we can’t just balk in horror or further fortress ourselves away, but must be curious about how radicalisation happens, and how to reverse it. It is emotionally demanding to engage – that won’t change. It can also be a risk to well-being or to life – that, clearly, is going to intensify in this country. But the subtitle of Brown’s book offers a rumination. It is: The Quest For True Belonging And The Courage To Stand Alone. Those who align with hatred inevitably become devoured by it too. That is not true belonging. But those who stand alone stand also stand together, against a tide that will otherwise sweep us all away.

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


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

An interview on “The Subverse”, the podcast of Dark ‘N’ Light

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.