The Venus Flytrap: An Inch Between Right And Reactive

I had no idea that the emoji lexicon had expanded to include one indicating small-sized penises, until I noticed a weird trending topic on Twitter’s “What’s Happening” sidebar. “Women in South Korea are mocking men’s penises and fuelling an anti-feminism movement”, the headline provoked. I ignored it for a whole day, hackles raised by the second half of the line. Women fuelling an anti-feminism movement? It’s not that it doesn’t happen. It’s just that when it happens, it’s usually other women who are the targets – not men.

When I finally did click on the link, it led to a paywalled article with a different headline. I gathered just enough to realise that this was actually a very interesting, and concerning, event. Some feminists had been using a symbol of a hand with an inch between the pointer finger and the thumb, before it became an emoji. It was also used in protests against gender-based discrimination and inequality. Subsequently, misogynist groups began to trace people and organisations that had used the symbol – to boycott, pressure into unemployment, and more.

I lack cultural or other contexts for this South Korean phenomenon, and what little I know of it is through English language conduits. But, it’s possible to have impressions rather than opinions, and let these impressions form the basis of developing opinions relevant to one’s own context. For instance, I don’t condone the mocking of physical features. I can’t agree with other feminists who use that emoji as part of socio-political expression. That said, I think this emoji has its uses in personal chats – as a response to unsolicited pornographic photos, and to malicious people who happen to have penises who threaten, extort, neg or shame the other party in an intimate conversation. As a quick comeback, it’s not entirely unfair. However, as part of broad political rhetoric or expression, it’s cruel and unproductive, and should have no place.

Body-shaming, like fraudulent use of anti-dowry laws or other gendered safeguards, isn’t a conversation that should be led by misogynists. It should be led by feminists of all genders, who can correctly contextualise the backdrop and the trajectory of a negative event. To paint the angered and wounded who do something less than perfectly fair as being purely in the wrong, without exploring and addressing the cause of their frustration, only fuels more retaliatory actions. A comprehensive set of solutions would hold space for it, but also address harm caused to the recipients of that frustration. It wouldn’t assume that all people of a certain category are alike. Misogynists, on the other hand, frame the issue from the start with their eye on the endgame – i.e. discrediting women. 

Some comprehensive solutions come from holding space for uneasy topics, without being poised to respond with the right jargon, template reactions, mean-spiritedness or an unquestioning allegiance to a worldview. We need to learn to do this in smaller ways first, and eventually this will create ripples in the larger social fabric and on public stages. It can be far more tempting to resort to a rude emoji or a biting retort, but this isn’t always useful. Context, as ever, matters.

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

The Venus Flytrap: The Parable of the Mustard Seed

Kisa Gotami ran, carrying the corpse of her child to where the Buddha sat, observing the vagaries of the ever-moving world. “Give him back to me”, she cried. He had been so young that she could count the months of his life on the digits of her own body. His body, borne within hers only a little while before, weighed almost nothing in her arms. Only her heart was unable to bear the immensity of what was.

 The Buddha agreed to help her – but to do so, he needed a single mustard seed from any household that had not experienced death.

Gotami, who had earlier stopped strangers and begged for medicine that would revive the child, who had been told that only the Buddha could offer her the cure she needed, set off again in search of this antidote. She roamed from house to house, raising her plea at each threshold.

“Who is able to count how many have died here?” she heard at one door. At others, the look in the eyes of the one left behind, upon hearing her enquiry, spoke clearly. At every home, a story was shared in lieu of a single mustard seed. There was no one living whom death had not visited, who did not carry in their hearts even a mustard-seed measure of grief. Gotami returned to the Buddha having understood the essence of life, accepting her loss as a part of what it means to love or to outlive.

This powerful parable has been with me every day in the last few weeks, as I grieve my father’s demise. When the pall of the second wave of the pandemic began to loom over India a few months ago, I too knew that my life would not go unscathed – almost no household in this land would. Our days and nights of mourning are also other people’s days and nights of mourning. In comforting another, I find comfort for myself. The knowledge of collective grief is a strange balm. It is not comparative grief, but a catchment of bereavements. I open the clasp across my roaring heart and let my sorrow merge into the flood-flow of all the world’s grief. I hold it and am held within it, and I know its mirror-name. “We are so lightly here,” Leonard Cohen wrote. “It is in love that we are made; in love we disappear.”

Now the second wave is receding, and it calls to mind how coastal waves recede before a tsunami – all that is hidden on the littoral floor is revealed. We may wish to understand the warning. All cycles and catalysts of nature are inevitable. But they are not insentient or without mercy. We cannot always grasp the deeper eloquence of the universe, or put into words its delicate stirrings in the smallness of our lives. But to know we are within a tapestry, one that connects us to all that has breathed, all that has thrilled to know itself in the uniqueness of its experience, all that has lived for itself or loved another, is a gift. It is, as Kisa Gotami knew, a form of enlightenment.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 10th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Grief In The Time Of A Democidal Government

The day before my beautiful father passed into the light, I posted a Tweet, sharing for the first time this aspect of my private life. In it, I said that he had been on a ventilator for ten days, and that it was okay if one did not pray for him or for I, but that I asked only this: “Next time, cast your vote well.”

My father is one of lakhs of Indians who have been murdered by the Modi government during this pandemic. It is not only the deaths of those who were COVID+ when they died that count among these, but also every post-COVID death, every never-tested death, every fudged data death, every death by penury, every death by suicide because of an untenable situation caused by how public resources were funnelled into propaganda and unaccounted coffers rather into our infrastructure, every death from walking a highway because of an arbitrary lockdown, every death from another ailment that could not be treated because hospitals had no room or equipment, every death that could have been avoided had the election rallies and the Kumbh Mela that brought this second wave upon us had not happened. This is avarice and evil. It’s wilful. Negligence is an understatement.

I value my privacy; it was in a moment of need, not anger, that I posted that Tweet. It was also a moment of empathic unity with everyone who has suffered so much recently, and all who will continue to. I am glad I posted it before and not after he died, because what happened was this: regime supporters began to hurl abuse my way. Dozens of quote-Tweets expressing vile sentiments, cursing and blaming my family and I, without an iota of kindness. Some even skewed what I said to suggest that I was against the DMK government, which – since it is openly against the terror at the Centre – I’m currently grateful for. What I experienced happens daily online. Rightwing trolls (and to a lesser extent, progressive-posing provocateurs) descend on people in their times of pain and loss without decency or sensitivity, sending terrible words, and even death and rape threats.

This is the naked face of all who support this despicable regime, including those who are not Internet trolls. There is no temple that can be raised that will be enough to cleanse their souls of sin.

You see, I’m a believer. My father’s last rites were performed by the people he loved the most in the world: four women, two of us menstruating. In the absence of crowd and formality, we sent him across in the way we needed to: with our hands, with our words, with our own ceremonies. 

My father was a devout man, who identified as Hindu – and like anyone with a pure heart opposed the regime at the top. He had a beautiful, non-Brahminical, non-patriarchal, and most importantly heartfelt farewell, replete equally with the Sanskrit prayers we know by heart as much as all else we were moved to offer. It was not a political gesture.

But may I remind you of this: here in this undeclared yet evident Hindu Rashtra, the waters of the holy Ganga have been clogged with bodies that could not be given this dignity. Mass, indistinguishable pyres have spread ashes over cities. Ask your conscience whether a government that believes in God or Goodness, orthodox or otherwise, would have allowed for all this to happen. This terrible regime has caused such immense despair across this land – intent instead on raising monuments, erasing history and distorting if not destroying the possibility of joy, peace and prosperity for everyone who lives (or lived) here.

I was with my Appa etherically in the last minutes of his life, guided by the divine to connect with him even though I did not know what was taking place. I had a profound spiritual experience that will hold me in grace for the rest of my life, and to the afterlife that he will greet me into one day.

This is something that the rotten-hearted who use God as a prop without practicing compassion will never understand. My faith is strong, and so I am in the chorus of all of us who chant this: the evil that has consumed our country must go, and must be replaced by leadership that is equal, just, rational, honest and can begin to repair all the damage that this regime and its cheerleaders are doing.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Healing Is More Beautiful Than Justice

“It wrenches me beyond describing, therefore, to accept that I have violated that long-standing relationship of trust and respect between us and I apologise unconditionally for the shameful lapse of judgement that led me to attempt a sexual liaison with you on two occasions on 7 November and 8 November 2013, despite your clear reluctance that you did not want such attention from me.” In November 2013, Tarun Tejpal – the accused in a rape case against a younger, subordinate colleague – not only sent this email to the survivor, but even had it published. This confession did not suffice; over seven years later, a “fast-track” court has just acquitted him.

In Eve Ensler’s book The Apology, she channels/imagines her late father, who had sexually abused her, and gives herself the apology she longs for. In Michaela Cole’s TV series I May Destroy You, which fictionalises a crime she experienced, she creates her closure as well, through a series of fantasised potential outcomes to confronting her trauma, including apology. Layli Long Soldier’s poetry collection Whereas is a response to the duplicitous language and covert non-delivery of the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, a U.S. government decree that was quietly signed in 2009 – so quietly that many indigenous people, including the poet at first, did not hear about it. Sometimes an apology means nothing – it cannot hold water in court, cannot repair what was done, cannot give back what was lost. Or it is tendered in a crafty way, to further exploit, to attract sympathy, to offer ruses and excuses.

When I was contacted casually by someone who had hurt me in an incident that I later understood as having been sexual assault, I felt a mixture of dread and curiosity. My therapist said, as I processed my feelings: “You need justice.” I think I smirked, recalling everything I knew about how abusers of all stripes get away with wrongdoings of all degrees of severity, as I replied, “What is justice?” It was a question I had to answer for myself. After weeks of anxiety attacks, I sent him a long email. I wrote unequivocally about the impact of his actions and begged him not to reply if he could not do so gracefully. He didn’t; a relief. It was never his apology I needed.

But in the aftermath of Tejpal’s acquittal, I experience again the fear of being manipulated through words, the fear that the recipient of my email has just been biding his time and now has permission to be vicious, dishonest or glib. A bit of that old shadow creeps across my heart: here, on the public stage of the world, under the aegis of the law, is proof that an offender can make a confession and still be absolved. What if this sets a behavioural precedent, and not only bolsters a legal one? What do words mean then? What do apologies?

Long Soldier writes: “Yet the root of reparation is repair.” Healing is more beautiful than justice. Perhaps they are sometimes synonyms. We cannot always have it. When we can try, we must – giving to ourselves, guiding our own ways into restoration.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Matching Mangalsutras

“It wrenches me beyond describing, therefore, to accept that I have violated that long-standing relation

For Tanuja Patil and Shardul Kadam, a Maharashtra-based straight couple, starting their marriage off on an equal footing meant exchanging mangalsutras. They will both wear the traditional nuptial chain, conventionally worn only by women.

Objects like this are inherently loaded ones, even though they are also privately sentimental ones. For some, the radical abjuring of all such markers is the only form of acceptable self-presentation. For others, there’s sincerity in adapting markers so that they reflect the self, the partnership and shared or specific beliefs.

There are certainly strong arguments to be made for how an accessory isn’t going to equalise an institution, but these apply most at large. If all woke couples began to wear matching nuptial chains tomorrow, this will become just as meaningless as those cringey karuppu kannadi wedding photos that every Chennai couple takes (sorry folks, you look like rejects from a 90’s boy band music video). But within the scope of this one partnership, the ornament has been chosen to represent the kind of marriage the couple is making an effort to co-create. As Kadam stated, “Tanuja and I can define our relationship better than anyone else; we support each other’s work, believe in each other’s dreams, and are in this journey together. So, who cares what the world thinks?”

A friend of mine got married sitting on her mother’s lap recently. I’ve never been married, but I wore bridal mettis for a few years, because I wanted to (an aside about the evolution of gendered ornaments: mettis were originally worn by men to indicate their marital status – to women who were taught to keep their sights on the ground, rather than look a man in the eye). Many have opted for legal registrations over the uneasiness of figuring out how to have a ceremony that doesn’t reinforce regressive mores. Some reinvent the rituals to suit what they believe in, from eliminating certain portions to rewriting incantations. The mangalsutras mutually tied at the Patil-Kadam wedding would fall into this category.

Now and then, these little things happen that rearrange one’s personal equation to overarching institutions and traditions, and the way we navigate these as people who know that we all internalise conditioning, but can grow and choose anew. They are not radical things, just individually precious ones. Inter-religious and inter-caste marriages, even if they have the most traditional ceremonies, will always be more progressive on a larger and more long-term scale than small gestures. So will marriages that transcend racial and heteronormative boundaries. Then, of course, there’s the eschewing of marriage altogether in favour of partnership, and bonds that are forged and renewed without the scaffolds of societal and legal sanction.

But marriages and partnerships, even if they have elements which appear to be open-minded and reformist, are only as successful as what goes on out of sight. True equality within a partnership can’t be gauged only in comparison to cultural norms. Neither can acceptance or acquiescence be understood as contentment. The truth is our standards are low, with centuries of abusive relationships in our collective histories. Our simple gestures must open the door to deeper transformations, and broader change.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 20th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Toxic Positivity, Test Positivity

Here in this brutal second wave of coronavirus in India, with mental health problems endemic in a population that’s suffered economically and emotionally for upwards of 14 months, how are there still people glibly ignoring the reality of the situation in favour of chirpy phrases and flu tonics? That is not hope. That’s toxic positivity.

If you’ve done this, you may feel like you are helping. But this sadly doesn’t do anything useful for the person on the receiving end, who has to make an effort to be polite in response to platitudes when there’s so much else that needs (sometimes urgent) attention.

Loved ones who say “be positive, test negative” mean well; often, they want to make the recipient feel better. But there are much better ways to do this than to try to diminish the threat of the virus. Being unwilling to hold space for the fear, confusion, exhaustion, grief or other difficult emotions of a coronavirus or coronavirus-adjacent experience has adverse emotional repercussions on the person being told to cheer up.

Unless you are going to personally visit a patient’s or caregiver’s kitchen (double-masked mandatorily, obviously) and pluck, peel, chop, hand-pound and strain the selection of rhizomes, leaves and spices that you casually suggested over Whatsapp that they consume frequently – Don’t. It isn’t that these remedies are ineffective; it’s that it’s far easier to shoot off a prescription than to prepare something. You don’t know what the practicalities of their schedule, the ingredients or income at their disposal, or their energy level on any given day are.

I’m writing this amidst a respite from the way the virus has affected my own circumstances, and I’ve noticed what actually helped me in terms of communication. Since updates vary even between different parts of the same day, so if someone has reached out to you to, respond promptly. If you’re not usually in frequent contact, ask before you call – a caregiver may have their hands literally full; a patient may be resting. Catering, financial aid and such essentials may be appreciated; if you can provide, do.

In lieu of insensitive or even stupid phrases, ask meaningful questions or offer things that balance the difficulty of the situation with the hope that you feel (because you can; you’re not in their shoes).

“I pray for this night to be safely behind us,” a dear friend texted, showing me he wouldn’t pretend things weren’t scary with some “It’ll be okay!” nonsense. This crucial assurance let me safely pour my anguish out over a 2am phone call.

“I am curious about what is guiding you emotionally and spiritually right now, helping you find your own inner rhythm and be cared for and loved?” another dear friend asked. This beautiful question opened up a space for me to name, request and receive nourishment.

 On that note: supplementing prayers with angry questions toward the authorities who let this country down will go far in helping us collectively recover from this horror. We must inculcate heartfelt resistance over toxic positivity. That’s what will give us resilience for the long haul. Those of us who survive are going to need it.

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

The Venus Flytrap: It’s Clear Who’s To Blame For India’s Second Wave

The party that I would prefer to have lead Tamil Nadu for now has just been elected into power. I am glad, but I felt and expressed my first criticism of their new term on the day the election results were announced (specifically: how their cadres celebrated in contravention of COVID-19 protocols at their headquarters). This is as it should be: in a functioning democracy, our leaders serve us, and take actions that adequately address our concerns and demands. It is our right to ask questions and have quibbles, all the time. It doesn’t matter whether or not one voted for them; we appointed them collectively. We are the stakeholders, and they are accountable to us. Whether they begin their term on our high expectations, our disappointment or even our dread, we should not forget that this is the foundational power dynamic in a democracy. As for them: an efficient public office-holder will always welcome feedback – without consequences for the sceptical.

As India faces a humanitarian crisis of unbearable proportions, and day after day new information emerges about how the nation-state actively made and continues to make decisions that are tantamount to democide, we must reflect on these incredibly straightforward expectations of democracy and how they have been all but abandoned in recent years. This has happened on both institutional and individual levels; on the former, GS Vasu, this newspaper’s editor, opined clearly on the role of the media and judiciary a few days ago (“There is blood on our hands”).

On an individual level, the corrosion of the sense of having a right to share perspectives that counter authorities’ image, statements and conduct has been insidious. Even as an opinionated person, the stumbling block that has made me censor myself has been sheer horror that anyone can be as evidently heartless as those who support an inhumane administration. It’s not the authorities themselves who instigate this horror as much as their citizen (and NRI) defenders. The wearing down is on a personal level first, and on the level of external threat only later. While institutions have their own introspection to do, the role of the many, many ordinary people who sacrificed their personhood, ethics, relationships, intelligence, common sense and compassion at the altar of a skewed national narrative is important. They did not hold accountable the government they wanted, and volunteered as foot-soldiers to shout down (in private, social, work and online spaces) the slightest criticism of it, and even the most relevant questions.

The medical catastrophe India is undergoing was preventable. The relevant questions were always being asked, and still are as masses die due to sheer negligence and the populace fends for itself desperately, crowdsourcing aid even as foreign supplies sit undistributed and public funds go unused or misused.

What is happening today is even worse than anything any detractor feared. India is the living – and dying – manifestation of the Martin Niemöller poem about how dangerous regimes dismantle populations layer by layer, abetted by public complicity in the form of not speaking out, until “Then they came for me / And there was no one left / To speak out for me”.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Getting Out Of Her Hair

Oh, how low the bar is for cis-het men to appear to be romantically impressive. 

The actor Riz Ahmed, walking the Academy Awards red carpet with his partner, the novelist Fatima Farheen Mirza, asked press photographers to pause for a few seconds as he reached over to play with Mirza’s hair. I guess he was trying to look like he was adjusting it. Except it didn’t need adjusting. Mirza’s coiffure, a side-swept and very smooth fringe and even smoother straight hair left down her back, had probably already been worked on by professionals who had ensured it would stay in place. Which it did. No flyaways, no wisps, no pedestrian disarray. In fact, he could have wound up messing it up by touching it at all. Which he didn’t, but still: what was the point of that unnecessary, interruptive, red carpet-traffic-holding up caress of her hair? Or here’s a bigger question: why did so many press outlets and people get so excited about it, as though it was the 21st century equivalent of a gentleman covering a puddle with his cloak so that a lady wouldn’t have to take a slightly longer step across or around it? Some kinds of chivalry are best left dead, thus avoiding both dry cleaning bills and dramatic eye rolls.

Look, who knows what the dynamics of their marriage are. Maybe random acts of interference are their love language. Maybe it’s none of our business.

But that moment on the red carpet, that little performance for the public eye? That was for us to see and maybe even for us to fawn over, but mostly it was just territorial behaviour on Ahmed’s part. The gesture is not necessarily controlling in and of itself, because people do appreciate different kinds of displays of affection, depending on their temperaments, needs and comfort levels. But it’s certainly territorial – Ahmed put his back between Mirza and the photographers, as if to say, even if lovingly, “Remember that she’s mine”.

I’ve been meaning to read Mirza’s work ever since I became aware of her through the couple’s last viral moment in the media. That was when Ahmed revealed in an interview that the couple had a rom-com style meetcute – they were both vying for the same power point for their respective laptops at a café. It’s the classic un-pandemic daydream of certain introverted, ambitious types: to be immersed in your work, and then serendipitously find love just by stepping out for a change of scene (her hair was probably perfect that day too, as it is in all such daydreams). Mirza is a bestselling author. I’m annoyed that I hadn’t known of her except through her spouse talking about her, and that I’ve been reminded about her only because he drew the spotlight again.

I checked out a sample of her novel, A Place For Us, and smirked because right there on the first page was a line that was kind of funny, miscontextualised. A man greeting guests at his sister’s wedding is described like so: “He smoothed down his hair, as if a stray strand would be enough to call attention, give him away.”

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

The Venus Flytrap: Player Of The Match

The popular cricket website ESPNcricinfo have announced they are taking an embedded bias out of sports reportage: they will stop using the term “batsman”, replacing it with “batter”. They will also use “Player of the Match” rather than “Man of the Match”.  

As the portal’s editor-in-chief, Sambit Bal, wrote: “Words are not just about what they literally mean but about what they imply as well… Gender equality as an ideal is an objective that we will struggle for generations to achieve, but gender neutrality in language is easily achievable.” This sounds balanced, and more honest than the eyewash campaigns that numerous companies perform in the name of inclusivity, diversity or equality. Here, they’ve tagged the effort correctly as being only about neutrality. As flagged by some sceptical of the change, the portal is still holding manels (panels comprised exclusively of male speakers), so it’s just as well that they know that there’s room for improvement.

Writing in response to ESPNcricinfo’s decision, the former cricketer Snehal Pradhan noted that various platforms had already been using “batter”, but only when referring to women on the field. Now a sports journalist, Pradhan referenced a prior article of her own from 2015, in which she had observed that “By attempting to be gender-neutral by using ‘batter’, it is ironically having the opposite effect, of being gender-specific, as it is being used almost exclusively for the women’s game.” She celebrates the neutralisation of the language through consistent usage and retiring “batsman” altogether, but draws attention to where more meaningful change can be instated in larger aspects of sporting access and infrastructure. 

Pradhan writes that the terminology was not really a priority when she played. I can see how “batsman” could have remained in the jargon for as long as it has, and how it may not make a difference where it matters. 

Still, language is flowing, not fixed. The point is not to correct it once and for all, but to continuously update it so that it reflects the present. 

I’d love to see the word “manpower” become obsolete. Wouldn’t “workforce”, “labour force” or “staff power” suffice? Another word that always annoys me is “craftsmanship”. When I need to use it, I try to phrase the sentence so that I can replace it with “artistry” or something similar, or even the lengthier “well-crafted piece”. “Crafting” works fine, but it could be argued that “craftsmanship” centres the artisan, not the object, and this can be meaningful in the context of ethical trade practices. “Craftspersonship” is just ridiculously clunky. I’ve found “crafting” in a thesaurus, but have never come across it in writing. It doesn’t have the gravitas of “craftsmanship”, this is true. What does one do?             I write and make art about mermaids. I’ve not used “merman” even when the illustration suggests the same, because that would mean I don’t think “mermaid” is neutral, and I do. I’ve used “triton” occasionally, but deliberately. Will my preferred word become outdated with time? Maybe. That’s okay. Language is riverine: it wears down the old, observes its own current, resists enforced redirection. Its beautiful, vexing mutability is something to accept, and indeed to appreciate.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Elderly Loneliness And Elderly Love

The fear of loneliness leads many people into marriage, including the young. Especially the young, more accurately – but that’s a topic for another week. Societally, assumptions about the elderly as well as an overall ease with brushing their existences and needs under the carpet can keep them from seeking partnership later in life. A few weeks ago, a 73-year old retired teacher in Mysuru put out a classifieds ad for a spouse, and found a willing 69-year old suitor, as well as derision. Speaking to regional media, she shared that she had experienced ridicule, even through phone calls, following the ad. She also said that she had undergone a traumatic divorce at some point, which had kept her from wanting to find a partner again in spite of her loneliness, until fears around her health and mobility made her understand it as a practical need.

I find her honesty courageous, and I hope things work out between her and her potential spouse. We are a long way away from societies in which meaningful support and adequate resources are built into the foundational infrastructure, and loneliness is an intangible that cannot always be addressed through such frameworks anyway. Her decision to come forward and put a heartfelt call out for companionship is courageous, too. It is not easy to do this, at any age.

There’s a dampener on this story, however. The retired teacher had a caste requirement for her late-life partner. She had been able to work through hurdles relating to age and other stigmas, but held on to her prejudice. This is just as it was some years ago when a famous matrimonial ad for a gay man that stated a blatant caste “preference” ruined what could have been a welcome step forward in the right direction. But this is the only judgment we can make without having been in her shoes.

The truth is, though, that many of us do walk in similar shoes. The unhappily partnered. The technically, but not meaningfully, secure. The abandoned. The, simply and not so simply, unpartnered.

While hoping to be unobtrusive (mainly because I was aware I was projecting a bit), I’ve tried to imbibe lessons from some elderly people who led solitary lives. I often contemplate those lessons, now that they are gone. Among them are a kind man who built kinships so strong that someone discovered him within half an hour of his passing. A successful woman who kept her heart soft, which I saw in how she enquired gently about what her former beloved’s wife was like, when the opportunity presented itself decades later. A lovely 101-year old whom I helped home after finding her disoriented in a public place, who had never married, and relied on state and neighbourly welfare.

As for the retired teacher, I hope she regains her privacy soon. But I will remain curious, in some way, about how she spent the years between her divorce and her decision to remarry. That’s where the most useful learning may be: in how to live, how to fill the quotidian in spite of the loneliness, not in how to avoid dying alone.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 17th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Anhedonia In The Time Of COVID-19

For weeks, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Chennai that were added to the tally each day plateaued around the 150 mark. Like others, I watched the count obsessively. It seemed like it we were in the last leg of a difficult journey, and that this number would taper off – it was just around the corner, really. Then, the figure leapt upwards into the thousand-plus range. There’s no reason to think it won’t keep rising. The positivity rate has almost tripled too. The second wave has come a shock, and speaking for myself, I’m feeling really demoralised.

I’m surely not the only person who spent a whole year being patient and vigilant – making compromises, deferring experiences, taking every precaution – and who, having allowed themselves a glimmer of hope, is once again feeling distraught. These are familiar circumstances: an uptick in public denial and excess, correlated by an uptick in suffering. How many more cycles of this? The bubonic plague ravaged medieval Europe and West Asia for hundreds of years. Is this what the rest of our lives are going to be like?

Whew. I said it. Now that that awful scenario has been articulated, I can try to move on to useful thoughts.

First, I’m trying to learn something from my chagrin towards those who behave recklessly. They deserve the flak, but giving them my energy has already proven pointless over the course of the last year (oh, what a long year it’s been). My judgement is only powerlessness, coagulated into anger. Having the moral high ground doesn’t keep me safe from this contagion.

Mental health experts have been speaking about increased levels of anhedonia – the inability to take pleasure in pleasurable things – along with depression, malaise and other concerns relating to the stress of the pandemic. One of the coping mechanisms I relied on from early on was target-meeting, including even in enjoyable activities (i.e. number of books read, number of pieces drawn). I’ve been wildly productive through this period. I’ve also been very unhappy, like most people. Anhedonia is linked to dopamine deficiency in the brain, which is why it’s common in addiction recovery. In my case, because I linked my dopamine hits to a sense of achievement, the activities that produce relaxation or happiness also began to produce stress. I must now rewire the way I pace things, creating pockets for not just rest but restlessness. Rest for me was spacing out; restlessness is doing nothing, letting the emotions arise and working through them. Burying the restlessness isn’t helping me, long-term.

We’re now in the long-term, and that’s painful to accept. I shared the above because how we cope with our frustration needs recalibration from time to time. If we don’t check in with ourselves and administer to our current states, we risk irresponsibly throwing caution to the winds for a cheap thrill, lashing out at others, or other manifestations of suppressed or sublimated feeling. In the so-called new normal, it is normal to feel demoralised. But the moral high ground has space enough for that – and for the social distancing that forces us to get closer to ourselves, and introspect.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Teigen’s Twitter

“This Tweet is from an account that no longer exists.” Twitter now shows this message when you click on a link that used to lead to something model Chrissy Teigen had posted. During a decade on the platform, Teigen had become known for self-deprecating jokes and searingly honest revelations – such as uploaded a photo of herself grieving a miscarriage just a few months ago, which inspired others to share their own experiences cathartically. Everything she published was dissected – she literally couldn’t even make a nonchalant remark about discovering jacket potatoes without news outlets spinning stories about it.

But Teigen faced the complete breadth of online harassment – from a conspiracy group attacking her family to cheap blows from anonymous accounts. In her final note on the platform, it’s clear that these all amount to the same; one of the levelling (but not equalising) characteristics of the internet is that all harassment is delivered without distinction. She wrote: “I encourage you to know and never forget that your words matter. No matter what you see, what that person portrays, or your intention. For years I have taken so many small, 2-follower count punches that at this point, I am honestly deeply bruised.”

Teigen deleted her account shortly after saying the above, but her words are retained in screenshots and media coverage. I wouldn’t be surprised if they circulate in memes too; I saw a stray Tweet from someone making a dig at her expense, claiming she had quit Twitter because of something irrelevant they had done. Teigen’s brave and vulnerable departure message did not deter the trolling.

I sometimes dream of closing my social media accounts. I think most people who use online platforms out of necessity, usually because their work requires it, do. Harassment is a part of the reason why, but so are many other things. The pressure to self-promote, the requirement that one be accessible, voyeurism, and the depletion of trying to be visible without being vulnerable or without resorting to a curated façade are some other reasons.

Those who stay find workarounds that help with the toxicity of being online. These include timed log-ins, apps only on one device, short periods of “digital detox”, as well as the liberal use of the mute, block, unfollow, restrict and unfriend features. I have some friends who don’t have their own accounts, but do check others’ public ones. This runs the gamut from occasionally looking up dear ones’ achievements to stalking love interests, so it’s a mixed bag of caring, curiosity and triggers even so. We each have a motley bag of both boundaried and unfiltered methods to navigate these spaces, through our presence as well as in our observance or our participation. The aim is to find a balance that mostly works, at least on enough days. Right now, my equation in flux. I’m interested in finding out how life can be restructured with less constant online activity, and how my engagement and connection modalities will evolve. We don’t have proof of it – we have no right to have proof of it – but my sincere speculation is that Teigen is enjoying hers much more now.

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

The Venus Flytrap: A Rip In The Fabric Of Society

I had no idea that ripped jeans were some kind of statement until a few days ago, when Chief Minister Rawat of Uttarakhand bemoaned women wearing them. This “culture of the scissors”, as he called it, is apparently shredding the fabric of society.

This made me remember the sad fate of my favourite pair of jeans ever. They were from GAP’s Curvy range, and fit me perfectly. I bought them abroad around a decade ago and they weren’t cheap. I put them aside when an illness made me lose a lot of weight. I pulled them back on again with joy once I gained my health back, and wore them constantly for a few years. One day, while crossing a road, I was hit by a person on a motorbike and fell. Thankfully, I was not injured, but my beloved jeans tore at the knee. I continued to use them, anyway. I wore them to the office. I wore them to temples. They were just bottomwear, no big deal.

I was even wearing this pair in the author photo in one of my books because, well, I just hadn’t thought about it. I had been quite stressed out and uncomfortable about my appearance at the time, and the kind and talented photographer still managed to create a good portrait out of my tense face. Ripped jeans on my folded legs? They were just what I had under the very unassuming white shirt I’d settled on.

If someone were to see that photo and think I was trying to make a statement – well, I feel very sorry for how sexually repressed they must be. Nice of them to overcredit my styling skills that day, though.

I stopped wearing those ripped jeans not because they were ripped, but because my body changed again. They’d survived several years, my physical fluctuations, that incident with the bike, but I felt we’d come to the end of our journey together. I gave them away then, with sadness. They were packed off along with kurtas and other items of clothing that someone could make use of at a polite job. Now that I know that ripped jeans are scandalous to some, I wonder what the woman who received mine did. I’d like to think that she at least wore them happily out at home or with friends with whom she felt free. Or maybe they were just given to a boy, since no one seems to be afraid of boys’ and men’s knees.

I never found another pair as perfect again, and I stopped wearing jeans for the most part because of this. This is almost a moot point in the Zoom era of course, when one can deliver serious lectures wearing a pressed collared top over a lungi and unshaved legs, without anyone knowing. But if I ever find such a pair again, soulmate jeans that feel like they were made for me and enhance my ease in my own skin, I’d wear them all the time. Even if they they tear at the knees. It’s my comfort that matters, not someone else’s seedy gaze or their assumptions about me.

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