I am delighted to announce the release of my sixth book, Mermaids In The Moonlight, published on the Indian subcontinent by Red Panda/Westland.

Mermaids In The Moonlight is a children’s picture book and marks my debut as an illustrator. It will be followed by a graphic novel for adults, Incantations Over Water.

A press release from my publisher about both books is here:

Selected Interviews, Reviews & Events

Virtual book launch hosted by Bahrison’s Bookstore, in conversation with Neha Singh.

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

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

Mermaids In The Moonlight is intended to be a feminist picture book.” In conversation with Chintan Girish Modi for Hindustan Times

“Some silences come from erasures and deliberate elisions, and some silences exist because one is listening, creating the space for a truth to emerge. Both of these are honoured in Mermaids In The Moonlight and in Incantations Over Water.” In conversation with Priyanka Sacheti for Michigan Quarterly Review

“In Mermaids in the Moonlight, a mother from the diaspora takes her child to Batticaloa for the first time, and they listen to the mysterious underwater sounds in the lagoon. The child, Nilavoli, asks her mother about the story of the mermaid in the depths below, and the mother responds by telling the truth — she does not know — but also by sharing stories from around the world, interweaving them with information about heritage and history. The book is essentially a gesture of inheritance.” – In conversation with Rushda Rafeek for the Los Angeles Review of Books

“One thing that The Ammuchi Puchi—which was a book on bereavement, and took over half a decade to find a publisher because it was prose-heavy, like Mermaids—taught me was that it’s okay to be fearless. It’s okay to write complex narratives and explore heavy themes when writing for children. They already feel everything. It’s we as adults who have sometimes forgotten or lost that capacity.” – In conversation with Avantika Bhuyan for Livemint

“My family is from Mattakalappu (Sri Lanka). My mother would say when I was a child that there was a mermaid in her hometown, who could be heard singing in the lagoon on full-moon nights. This phenomenon is real, usually attributed to either shells or fish, and has been recorded and documented. As an adult, travelling to Mattakalappu for the first time, I was struck by how mermaid (meen magal) figures are all over the town, but there is an absence of lore about them. This folkloric void was my starting point for this work.” In conversation with Paromita Chakrabarti for The Indian Express

“Nestled amid the magic of mer-beings and the mysterious depths of stories from foreign lands is the tender tale of a rite of passage, an initiation into wonder and otherworldliness. A rarely seen depiction of the mother-daughter dynamics that will serve as your anchor in the vast sea of what-could-be.” – Kannalmozhi Kabilan in The New Indian Express

“Dreamlike illustrations” – Praveen Sudevan in The Hindu

“”The stories can hold safe space for adults, and children to understand that the world is kind and cruel at the same time, and to tell children that when life becomes overwhelming, curling up in the lap of stories could be restorative. Amma gives Nilavoli many things – truth, imagination, curiosity, and the cultures of many peoples. A child loved like that can make the healing less painful.” – The Bookdog

“Doubt and faith are equally valued in this book: as a work steeped in collective loss, and which taps into collective lore, I have taken care to acknowledge lacunae, and to leave open-ended questions exactly as they are.” – A picture-essay on the book’s illustrations in Scroll

“Mesmerising… The mythology of mermaids has always enthralled children but I love that this book dives a little deeper into the mythos and explores strong female identities…” – Toka Box

“…a sheer treat for the senses… The book’s vibrant illustrations make the work unpredictable, and yet alive, just like the evocative prose.” – Mid-Day

A session at the Hyderabad Literary Festival, with Dr. Vijay Kumar Tadakamalla and Savie Karnel.

A session at the Atta Galatta Bangalore Literature Festival, with Priya Muthukumar

A conversation with Storyteller Bookstore

“Over and over I have read, to my seven-year-old daughter, Westland author Sharanya Manivannan’s Mermaids in the Moonlight. I received Mermaids as a gift from a friend who breathes books like air, and my daughter and I have both loved it so dearly.” – Durba Chattaraj in Scroll

The Venus Flytrap: The Moon’s Long, Lingering Comet-Tail

Sometimes – often, in fact, though not always, not when secretiveness is deliberate – you can tell when someone is smitten. The volcanologist and science journalist Robin George Andrews certainly is, writing in The New York Timesabout that “beautiful volcanic pearl in the sky and its mystifying moonbeam”. He isn’t the only one – he quotes Sarah Luetgenn, a scientist studying the moon’s tail, as saying, so simply, “It almost seems like a magical thing.”

The moon as a volcanic pearl – the moon as magical – such delight when science and poetry dance together. And yes, it appears the moon has a tail, comet-like: discovered after the Leonid meteor shower of 2008 intensified its brightness and carefully studied ever since, it is made of sodium dust. The planet Venus appears comet-like at times too; its ionosphere billows out in a teardrop-shaped tail when solar wind density is low.

I, a poet who is not a scientist, have turned the thought of that pearl over and over in the palm of my mind, pondering it. Pondering its comet tail. Poetry always comes, or returns, to the smitten.

A beloved who was born under a sting-tailed moon, whose star chart and mine entwined, collided and imploded supernovically, came back. The shape of the constellations revealed themselves to me again after many nights of artificial light.

The moon’s sodium tail cannot be seen by the naked human eye. But it’s there, hundreds of thousands of miles long, a lingering. Because of the moon’s orbit, over the course of each month the Earth becomes encircled by its beam of scattered sodium. This makes me think of a mandala of salt, a sphere of protection and belonging.

There is a type of moonlight that is called earthshine, faintly illuminating the orb within which a young crescent grows or recedes in the evenings after or preceding a new moon. Words intoned under the dark moon become incantations; one makes a choice between shadow or ashen glow. Both are ways to name the area of earthshine, that phenomenon when the hidden whole decides to claim its place.

A hundred years before the astronomer Johannes Kepler brought planetshine into scientific understanding, Leonardo da Vinci – who held imagination and the measurable in perfect symmetry – wrote in his notebooks about this phenomenon. He believed the moon to be oceanic, and he knew that at least some of its light, at least on certain memorable nights, came from the earth. 

Even NASA doesn’t retreat into technical jargon, letting the grace of language – of old, old ways of seeing – describe what is. The waxing crescent is “the old moon in the new moon’s arms”. The waning crescent is known as “the new moon in the old moon’s arms”.

There’s a cradling in the sky that we are fortunate to behold, when we look up at the right moment, some configuration of place, time, instinct and opportunity that makes us pause in our tracks. If we’re sensible, we’ll know this is nothing special – it comes around every month. If we’re honest, though, we surrender: to love’s lunar pull, happenchance’s centripetal force, the heart’s hard-to-see but not invisible preordained and chosen trajectories.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 18th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Women At Work

Women’s Day, the popular rose-and-chocolate-scented contemporary spinoff of the revolutionary International Working Women’s Day, has just passed. Thank Goddess for thatJust a few days before this year’s occasion, a traffic constable in Chandigarh who took her baby to work caught the attention of many, and the gamut of reactions to her illustrated well why considering Women’s Day as a celebration is to completely miss the point.

Identified as Priyanka, the constable had just returned to work after six months’ maternity leave. As her spouse and in-laws were not in town, she had been forced to take her five-month old baby to duty with her. A local resident who had spotted the constable at work took a video of her – in uniform, wearing a surgical mask, directing traffic with her right arm while her child was held with the left. This subsequently went viral online.

Some glorified her, some criticised her, and a few asked the right questions instead of doing either. This is where the connection to the typical misconstruing of Women’s Day comes in. To glorify a woman who is performing multiple roles because of a lack of infrastructural support is simply to brush under the carpet the many systematic and societal problems that force her into doing so. It’s a kind of gaslighting to applaud someone’s courage, strength or resilience without recognising that they should never have been in the position of being forced to express those qualities to begin with. To criticise a woman who is performing multiple roles because of a lack of infrastructural support is simply to force her into a corner – in this case, the “choice” to leave the workforce and become a homemaker. 

As for the right questions – those all pertain to access to childcare across fields, the recalibration of family dynamics and the wider recalibration of what community and kinship mean, and accounting for gendered nuances in the workplace and beyond. They are not about an individual who was just doing the best she could on a given day.

Priyanka is now facing a departmental probe. Whoever took the initial video of her perhaps inadvertently contributed to the significant personal and professional stress she was already under.

Priyanka’s situation calls to mind Nazia, who had been taking her four-month old Jahaan to the Shaheen Bagh protest last year. Jahaan passed away from a cold, and Nazia faced immense criticism from privileged quarters who did not care to ask the right questions then either, about the family’s living conditions or access to healthcare.

This was a month before the first case of COVID-19 was reported in India. If Jahaan had died just a few weeks later, we wouldn’t have heard of him. He was weaponised against his mother; not entirely dissimilar to how Priyanka and her child were tokenised as inspiration or public advisory.

In the year since then, we have seen or experienced how people with choices have chosen to behave, and we have also seen or experienced how that affects others who may or may not have an equal amount of agency. How have we still not understood that societal structures undergird everything we do?

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

The Venus Flytrap: Judicial Misogyny & Bad News Fatigue

Sometimes, the heart is so weary that the hand can barely bring itself to click on a newslink. I feel this hopelessness often these days. Active outrage is not necessarily an empathic emotion, just as immediate quietness can mean exhaustion or contemplation, or observing before opining, not only callousness. No social justice effort that demands constant engagement, with neither rest nor reflection, can sustain itself long enough for a meaningful outcome. Horrible things happen every hour (as the statistics show); terrible things capture the headlines every day; every week, our sense of shock is renewed. No one has that kind of unflagging energy, to keep shouting. Those of us who want a better world must learn how to take turns, which is not the same as passing the buck.

So when I saw the latest misogyny reported on a judicial level – the latest today, which may not even be the latest by the time you read this – I wasn’t sure if I had it in me to look properly, let alone respond. Then I did begin to look into it, and realised that there were in fact not one but two Supreme Court cases in the headlines, with related sentiments. The Chief Justice of India himself, the Honourable Sharad Arvind Bobde, asked the rapist who attacked a minor in one case: “Will you marry her?” On the same day, the CJI was also quoted as having said in another case, in which a woman alleged rape by her live-in partner, “When two people are living as husband and wife, however brutal the husband is, can the act of sexual intercourse between them be called rape?”   

Behind both statements are echoes and echoes and echoes, centuries of evil that have seeped into and become a part of – even a proud, sanctioned part of – the culture. Each time such a scenario catches our attention, we must touch base again with this big picture. Otherwise, we are incomplete in our appraisal. This is one of the reasons why the weight of resistance is so wearying. It’s never about just one incident, even as we must be careful to not blur into that big picture the person or persons currently in the crisis spotlight. But the magnitude of it is mind-boggling.

What is there to say, really, when feeling crushed by this collective weight? The disgust and anger when a case is still being fought, when someone has survived, is unlike the disgust, anger and sorrow when someone has not. Some place names become codes for crimes: Unnao and Hathras, for example, each with multiple horrors that its name itself evokes. I open my browser briefly as I write and already there’s another case, another case in which a Dalit girl has been found murdered in a field, in Aligarh this time.

So forgive me: today I have nothing pithy or sharp to say, nothing that will amplify the noise. Anger is only one way to look this in the eye. The quietness – and for others who don’t even say this much, the silence – of contemplation, the space it creates for restrategising, is not the same as looking away.

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

The Venus Flytrap: More Ministers of Loneliness

Tetsushi Sakamoto is Japan’s first Minister of Loneliness. This new cabinet post is an acknowledgment that loneliness, exacerbated by pandemic-related isolation and stress, is a serious issue.

In October 2020 alone, Japan recorded 2153 deaths due to suicide; by contrast, the total number of people who had died from coronavirus in the country up till then was 1765. When announcing the new Ministry, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga commented that women were at higher risk. This is interesting since the “gender paradox in suicide” is a known occurrence, wherein men’s attempts are likelier to be completed even though women may have more ideation or a higher number of attempts.

Three years ago, when the U.K. announced its Ministry for Loneliness, I wrote in this column about how loneliness is interlinked with structural oppressions, even though people across positionalities experience it. I wrote: “In order to address loneliness, then, we must address everything.”

I learned something I hadn’t known then about the U.K.’s Ministry. Its creation was based on the findings of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, which was established by an MP who was murdered soon after. Cox was murdered by a far-right extremist who presumably opposed her beliefs, which favoured refugee rights and other humanitarian concerns. Her involvement with the issue of loneliness was probably an extension of her compassionate worldview.

Maybe Cox’s killer is lonely as he serves out his life sentence without parole. Or maybe he had already been so desolate in his life that he found comfort in a supremacist philosophy.

Since its inception, the U.K.’s Ministry for Loneliness has had much reshuffling. It cannot be simple work, dealing with an intangible element that dominates so many lives. While the Ministry has initiated various campaigns and awarded grants, there is scarce information online about what it has been doing during the pandemic. But there is a video dated March 2020 with a small selection of recordings of calls to them. The “loneliness epidemic” preceded the pandemic. Japan’s decision to address this formally is important, and will hopefully create strategies that can be employed widely.

Hopefully. Loneliness is a profoundly subjective experience, even if vast swathes of a population self-identify as lonely, or other supporting data indicates this malaise at large even if self-identification is not reported. I like the idea of such Ministries mainly because they can help destigmatise that self-identification. 

Can I help with that too? I am a deeply lonely person, and I always have been. I’ve been alone on most of the best and worst days of my life. My skin hunger was so bad this month that I cried once from needing to be held. My circumstances, my history and my choices may be unique, but my loneliness is not. Yet I am grateful every single day to not be in denial about this essential aspect of my being. Denial leads one into unhappy relationships, into being pawned by sinister ideologies, into transient gratifications and their inherent risks. In naming myself as lonely, I hold myself safely and wholly. I honour the truth of my heart, and I find ways to soothe it without distraction, without deceit.

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

The Venus Flytrap: A Theory On Cancellations

A few weeks ago, the TV host Padma Lakshmi used her hand to mix ingredients for puliyodharai and people had Reactions to this. I don’t know what those Reactions were exactly, because I didn’t care to look, but I knew they were happening. You see, every time Padma Lakshmi does something of note, “of note” being relative of course, I find out because someone out there finds it a teachable moment in which to share my critique of her 2016 memoir, and tag me on the same. The memoir reveals its author to be openly casteist and highly problematic in ways that disprove her progressive reputation in the West.

It doesn’t bother me to see these tags, but it does make me wonder why my piece seems to be one of very few, if not the only, one that discusses those issues. I must admit I sometimes also wonder if more people have read my review than her book – I say this not to be snarky, but because every time someone shares it, others express shock. Lakshmi’s bigotry is not common knowledge. 

People who’ve made smaller infractions, or whose views have traceably evolved, are discredited for far less. But, also, others who’ve made significant infractions remain celebrated.

I have a theory about all this: in order for a cancellation to snowball, the first detractor must aggressively drum up a wave. They must gear their criticism to galvanise mass condemnation. As I never had an interest in getting Lakshmi cancelled, and do not believe in that highly punitive approach at all, I did not invest my energy or time into this. So no wave. On social media, most people get pulled into waves, and do not long observe ripples – or pacificity.

I see this theory substantiated in a few ways. Firstly, there’s excessive traction for pithy and sometimes reductive hot takes. Nuance is inconvenient, especially when one has already made up one’s mind (or has decided to have their mind made up for them). People like to agree or disagree in broadly painted strokes. Secondly, there are those who build clout through takedowns: misconstruing statements to trigger engagement, picking a target then working backwards on an attack, swift and damning disavowals when even the slightest difference of perspective is present. Thirdly, there’s a particular kind of chameleonic social media user who waits to see what the consensus is, and then aligns with it – even if that means contradicting what they aligned with a few weeks prior. The necessary mix of objectivity, subjectivity, reflexivity, curiosity and good faith that enable learnings and solutions is missing.

Unless we choose social media absence, we participate in all this in some way or the other: alternating as stone-casters, targets, pawns and cohorts. Perhaps also choosing to be observers, energy-rationers and listeners will help dissolve the toxicity of the spaces we participate in.

It cannot be overemphasised that social media is an argumentative and unforgiving milieu. Optical gains and on-the-ground productivity often vastly diverge. If it’s true, as I feel, that mass social media activity does not happen organically, then, collective brushing-under-the-carpet is also not arbitrary either. There’s more to ponder…

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

The Venus Flytrap: Who’s Looking At This Logo?

Let me tell you how debauched and vain I am. A great artist made an illustration of me, more accurate a likeness than even photographs. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. So I stared at it for ages, admiring her talent and by extension admiring myself. After say three or four hours of such self-absorption, I suddenly felt like there was something phallic about what I had thought was my hand in the image. “You idiotic girl,” said the friend I showed it to, not unfairly. “That’s a parrot.” I looked again, and so it was.

Another time, I showed a different piece, one I had found charming, to that friend. “Isn’t it cute how the mommy cat has boobies?” I squealed. They were paws, of course. Paws. So I felt quite relieved when the same friend recently shared with me one of her own creations, in which the feminine divine was unmistakeably rendered in a vibrant, semi-abstract style that emphasised Her distinct anatomy: heavy bosom, yantra-style yoni and all. I was quite relieved that there was no room for me to misinterpret those symbols with the ramblings of my dirty mind.

All this occurred to me when, for the first time in many years of being a customer, I saw the Myntra logo in a way that I could never again unsee. The e-commerce retailer has long used a stylised letter M, in orange and pink hues, as its branding. It still does, except that the exact placements of the colours have now changed. One person who looked at the logo and perceived the M as a naked woman with her knees open (that’s the can’t-unsee image that everyone who’s heard of this case has now seen, mostly for the first time) decided to file a lawsuit.

Why Avesta Foundation’s Naaz Patel decided to invest her effort into going after this logo instead of into, oh literally anything else, is baffling. Joining activists who are working on getting marital rape criminalised, having the Nirbhaya fund be well-utilised, pressuring online platforms to take cybercrime more seriously, and other major issues? Nah. An innocuous, colourful M was the problem more “offensive to women”.

That’s not a dirty mind. That’s an idle one.

 Like I said earlier, I totally understand how she saw what she saw. But some things simply lie in the eye of the beholder, and knowing the difference between when something is offensive and when one’s mind is just making a Freudian joke is important. Not to mention time-saving and energy-efficient. 

There’s also an un-funny, even frightening, component to this entire incident. It shows how progressive values can be misrepresented in opportunistic ways. Patel’s conservatism should not be mistaken for feminism, but it will be. 

The pettiness of a case like serves as a distraction from what truly matters. I would rather have the old Myntra logo back, even if I will always see a provocative image in it, than a new one that is nothing more than a symbol of how regressive thinking was given such weightage in India’s courts, while much more meaningful battles, legal and otherwise, continue to languish unattended.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 4th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Sexual Intent

The Bombay High Court has ruled in a case pertaining to an attack on a 12-year old girl by a 39-year old man that he was not guilty of sexual assault because no skin-to-skin contact took place. He had groped her breasts, without removing her clothing. He was only deemed guilty of “outraging a woman’s modesty”.

On, which breaks down notable cases so that laypeople can understand them, lawyer Ashok Kini notes that “Neither the POCSO [Protection of Children From Sexual Offences] Act or any other laws in India define what is ‘touching’ or ‘physical contact’”. On the same website, lawyers Radhika Roy and Harshita Singhal broach the precedent case Ravi vs State, wherein holding the hand of a child (with sexual intent) was ruled as sexual assault, writing that this judgment has “shrunk the scope of sexual assault”. This has frightening repercussions for future cases, involving either minors or adults.

The phrase “sexual intent” bothered me, and I was (as a layperson) unable to find a legal definition, at least in India. But, according to the United Nations’ General Recommendation 19 to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, sexual harassment is the “unwelcome sexually determined behavior as physical contact and advances, sexually colored remarks, showing pornography and sexual demands, whether by words or actions.”

The word “unwelcome” suggests the interpretation of what constitutes invasive behaviour should firstly be from the perspective of the person who is subjected to it. Ascertaining the accused’s “intent” is problematic. The accused is not always going to express that they had such intent, especially if they’re aware of the legal ramifications of such an admission.

It should be easy to imagine a variety of scenarios in which, following a sexually transgressive experience, the perpetrator responds: “I only pulled your neckline up because I didn’t want our colleagues to leer at you”; “I only hold your waist so that our classmates think you’re ‘taken’ and don’t bother you”; “It wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t so drunk”; and the like. Sexual intent? No, no!

It should be easy to imagine these because they are intrinsically a part of the lived experience of many in this country. So is being groped, over the clothes, especially in public. I can’t speak for anyone else, but there is no way that I will ever feel that the archaic legal term “outraging a woman’s modesty” suitably defines my experiences.

If you’ve read this far, you won’t need a trigger warning. When I heard of this shocking judgement, my mind flew back to a night twelve years ago. I’d been on a sidewalk and had an intuition that the motorcycle coming from the opposite direction was trouble. I shifted my handbag to the shoulder away from the street. A mistake: it wasn’t my handbag he was after, but my breast, which he reached out and painfully smacked as he rode past. If he received pleasure from that touch, it was not from my body as much as from having and exerting the power to hurt me. Does that count as “sexual intent”? Why wouldn’t that count as assault?

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

The Venus Flytrap: Anna Shay’s Reality Check

I wasn’t going to write about TV again this week, I swear, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Anna Shay.

Anna Shay – ah, heart-capturing heiress, arguably the brightest star on Bling Empire, the latest shot-pre-pandemic reality show. On the cusp of 60, with a fashion aesthetic that’s grunge-meets-diamonds, and a personality that: (a) makes you wonder if her co-stars know how lucky they are to know her, and (b) offers an attractive snapshot of a way of being, even sans the diamonds, especially for those who rarely see role models and representations of unconventionality that aren’t stereotypical or overblown. Fate dealt Shay a very nice hand, in the form of material privilege, but there’s something so down-to-earth about her, and that’s what’s positively dazzling.

 Shay presents two very evident traits during this show, both of which invite admiration. The first is that she comes across as being wise, in myriad, mostly subtle ways that don’t register quickly on a reality show’s edit style but which create an effect over the course of the season. The second is that she is clearly a private person. We find out, when her misbehaving friends meddle through her personal belongings and play rude pranks, that her life is quite colourful; but she draws a curtain so that we don’t ever have details. We don’t know who her lovers are, and running an internet search even reveals that she has successfully kept the names of her four ex-husbands firmly offstage. That curtain-drawing is an art; she just quietly, semi-smilingly, does it somehow. She doesn’t mince words, and she doesn’t always have to use them. The effect is formidable.

There’s a third trait. She is kind. Shay is not given to ostentatious displays of charity like her self-declared nemesis Christine Chiu, who doesn’t appear to notice the irony of sponsoring orphans as a party favour while also holding on to regressive ideas about bloodlines and boy successors. Rather, the kindness comes through in the way she treats people in her orbit: whether that’s non-judgmentally advising a friend in a toxic romantic relationship, helping the odd one out feel more welcome, or accepting apologies graciously. At the same time, Shay doesn’t suffer fools gladly, one of the tell-tale markings of someone who lives authentically. No saccharine, no passive-aggression. Just good boundaries. She’s not bored enough to invest in drama, even when it’s all that’s being asked for.

Who knows why this highly self-contained individual opted for the exposure of mass-marketed reality TV. If neither money nor boredom were motivators, what could it have been? The impression one gets is that Anna Shay signed up for the experience, with an open mind and an unflappable sense of selfhood, knowing she would be baited, but that didn’t have to lose her cool. (Above all else, this woman is cool). The impression one gets, actually, is that she’s not that interested in impressing anyone. As a result of which we cannot help but be more than a little in awe. It’s an effect that almost never occurs any more in this entertainment format. We’re not laughing this time; we’re watching and learning.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Why Just Like That?

According to the internet, a whole shelf of creative writing books quote Toni Morrison as having said or written, “All art is knowing when to stop”. I couldn’t verify whether the late author was the source, but suffice to say: someone wisely said this, and it is wise as well to heed the advice. 

The news that Sex and the City – the groundbreaking television series that had a vast, and arguably international, influence on sociocultural developments – will be returning for an encore was what brought this to mind. The original series ended sixteen years ago, a long time given the pace of the world in the interim. It was followed up by two films, and the second one, at least, was an extreme disappointment (some feel this way about the first, too). So this new revival series, slated for ten episodes and entitled And Just Like That…, takes several risks just by being attempted. The most kamikaze of them all is that it will not feature the show’s strongest character, the vivacious and lovable Samantha.

The reason why is that, unlike everyone else involved in this production, the actor who played her – Kim Cattrall – knew when to quit. In fact, Cattrall has given various exasperated interviews in the past about how she felt bullied into doing more work within the Sex and the City franchise, becoming increasingly firm and vocal about her stance in recent years. She has also made no secret of her poor relationship with the show’s lead star and executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker, which contributed to her not wanting to reprise her role, going as far as calling her colleague out on social media. But most importantly, she has been quoted saying, “I don’t want to be in a situation for even an hour where I’m not enjoying myself.” In this regard, Cattrall shares some core similarities to the iconic character she essayed. Joy and pleasure are pivotal; self-assertion is a must.

Those are among the fine takeaways that anyone who watched the original series already has, so what will this revival accomplish? There are a hundred shows out there now that play with the same themes, and suit current tastes. Sex onscreen barely elicits a blink anymore. Neither does talking about it. Those hundred shows owe something to the original Sex and the City, and are arguably a part of its legacy. But as for And Just Like That…, just how edgy or interesting can a programme about three privileged white women in New York City be in 2021, really?

There is one twist, though: it will be a show about women in their 50s, aging women, and perhaps we still don’t have enough of those. On the one hand, there’s no better case against the axiom that one should quit while ahead than a project that challenges how women are forced into retirement (whether from employment, or from exploration or enjoyment of any kind) by societal expectations. But the chasm between a high note and a has-been is perilous in the world of entertainment and art. Can they brave it without Samantha: the oldest, wisest, warmest of them all?

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

The Venus Flytrap: Counting Down To The Kurinjipoo

In the year that the kurinji last bloomed most profusely, I waited in this coastal city for my body to stop bleeding so that I could travel to the hills to see the flowers. My body, imbalanced, did not stop in time. The summer slipped away in illness and sorrow, and even by the season’s tail – when just enough flowers remained like a whispered rumour – something else kept me away.

One morning in the last gasp of December, I woke to the calculation of how much time had passed since, counting to the next season when purple petals will unfurl in the hill, a revelation. Only nine and a half years to go.

I had read that a kurinji inflorescence occurred in 2020 too, little-documented because people were not yet cavalier about travel then. There are different cycles because of different times in which the plants took seed, and because of other vicissitudes of the natural world. Perhaps the next chance to see them is closer still, but what feels like chance is often only a sum of circumstances. 

More than one person told me back in 2018 that they were pessimistic about whether the flowers will bloom again in 2030. But we don’t know, do we, if we will even be here on this planet then? Or what this planet will be, after our extinction. Remember the phrase “nature is healing”, that so quickly became a caption for hoaxes and humour? I can believe the kurinjipoo will still be here, even when our footprints no longer make paths in the dirt to see it, to capture its image, then to show ourselves to the world through that image. It’s easier to believe in a flower than in human wisdom sometimes.

Extinction is not an auspicious idea to break a new year open with, perhaps. Let us say finiteness then. The finiteness of a calendar year, a month in which only one moon-bleed should come unless the tides of body and world are out of sync, a single day. How will I fill this finite year, taking into it the lessons of the last one – a year even non-believers felt was cursed, and all who experienced it were forced to take in small increments. Did you, like me, keep lists? I found one from March or April, headed: “What I will do in the next 21 days of lockdown”. Many of us would not have survived if we’d known how long the winter was to be. Many didn’t.

I am 35 years old. I have seen neither the kurinji nor snow. What do I know of any seasons but the ones my body has clocked?So here we are at the start of a year that feels less like a fresh page and more like wiping off the debris on a windowpane and daring to look at the horizon again. Here’s what I know: if I focus on life hour after hour and week by week, working sedulously with what is at hand, that’s enough. What is beyond will still arrive in radiant glimpses, even if its blossoming is still a long, abstract time away.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Shock Absorption For Creatives

Deepa Mehta’s celluloid adaptation of Shyam Selvadurai’s novel Funny Boy has had a truly rocky run: from pre-release controversy over its casting and language issues as well as its political moorings, to poor international reviews and now the loss of its status as a foreign language Oscar entry. In November, I had a negative experience as a token consultant on this movie, and wrote about it at length on Medium. While that experience made me disengage from the film and its attendant discourse, there was one aspect of the hullabaloo that I kept contemplating. How does an artistic project get made without anyone involved flagging its problems while it’s under process? Without condoning the bad choices made in the production and release of this movie, and in no way absolving those who made such choices, I felt that there were some lessons therein – from a creative angle.

When one of its actors posted an objectionable Tweet, likening the film’s critics to trolls who haven’t created anything of their own, I saw a glimmer of significance in that sentiment that made me pause. She was wrong, and in a racist way, about the detractors in this case being trolls. She was not wrong, on a more general level, about there being aspects to artistic creation that only those who have done it can understand.

For example: when I write about books now, as the author of six of them, I approach the texts quite differently than how I did much earlier in my career. Thinking back, I recognise that ignorance and inexperience made me unduly harsh then. It’s not that experience makes one’s standards lenient. Rather, the standards themselves become more thoughtful, realistic and worthy as one’s capability increases. Opinion is not the same as critical appreciation or analysis, and consumption alone does not translate to the ability to meaningfully engage, a nuance lost in a world of one-click ratings.

That’s on the criticism side; as creators, we can adjust our approaches too. Artists, across genres, are always at risk of not being able to see beyond our passion, self-belief (which may cross the line into egotism) and insecurity. This results in thin skin and defensiveness.

Here are some of the measures I’ve been using, to build shock absorption into my creation and release processes. They are a combination of professional due diligence and self-care practices: finding beta readers beyond known circles; requesting accuracy/sensitivity reviews of work-in-progress; avoiding checking post-publication reviews on shopping/books websites; not having notifications for my name or my titles; incorporating disclaimers and uncertainty into the work; getting better at discerning who comes in good faith and who doesn’t; and very importantly, trying to be conscious and self-forgiving (not self-justifying) about the choice to put something out there knowing it can either be skewed or that I could have been mistaken. These make the process more inconvenient, but letting go of the output becomes healthier.

Humility, not hubris, is the key – both for creators and for critics. We are all only working with the skills we have at any given point of time; this knowledge itself goes a long way towards gaining more.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 31st 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Love Jihad Laws

For everyone in India, the end of this year, just like the end of the previous one, brings another new question on the notion of belonging. Last December, the Citizenship Amendment Act passed, inspiring significant protests, including the iconic Shaheen Bagh peaceful sit-in which was dismantled when the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown began in March of this year. The notion of belonging addressed then was about nationality, about paperwork or its absence that could render a person either enfranchised or stateless. Now, another question on belonging arises through the passage of Uttar Pradesh’s Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, known popularly as one of the ‘love jihad’ laws. Madhya Pradesh intends to follow suit, with its paradoxically named Freedom of Religion Bill 2020. Karnataka is considering similar legislation. The question of belonging that these concerns is this: who does a woman belong to? Its base is the belief that a woman cannot belong to herself.

The ‘love jihad’ laws, even in their terminology, appear to criminalise one religious community. But in the fortnight since U.P. passed theirs, the most reported of their seven (and counting) cases reveals another target. The first woman to be held under the law was a 22-year old of Hindu background who is married to a Muslim man. She was arrested upon a complaint lodged by her mother. The woman says that she was administered injections that forced a miscarriage in custody. Officials deny her story.

The very concept of ‘love jihad’ is based on the idea that Muslim men with nefarious intentions use marriage to forcibly convert Hindu women. It negates any agency on a woman’s part. She is property, and the owners of that property (family in collusion with public authority, or vice versa) do not wish to transfer that property to a man they disapprove of. Forget the law for a moment and look at the sentiment that undergirds it: an adult woman belongs to her parents, the nation-state and her husband; her personhood and body are not her own; her human rights can be suspended if she acts autonomously. 

This week in Bihar, something like an episode out of the Mahabharata happened: a man allegedly gambled away his wife in a game. His friends sexually assaulted her; he also attacked her with acid. We can be wilfully impervious and say this was a twisted anomaly. Or we can acknowledge that such atrocities don’t happen in a vacuum. He believed he owned her. It’s this fundamental belief that plays out across a spectrum of oppressive/abusive behaviours and societal norms, culminating in legislation that sanctions the same.

Whenever a cruel new law is brought into force, many people express shock. But legal passage takes time, and cannot happen unseen in a democracy. Democracies also become non-democratic through the assent of citizens, who pay no attention to emerging changes, then feel as horrified as if the ground shifted beneath their feet. Then, they accept the status quo – and are shocked once more by the next ethical earthquake. But all this was warned of years ago, and more dire warnings hang in the air. Are we listening to what’s coming next?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 19th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.