The Venus Flytrap: No Common Sense In The COVID Crisis

Whether you’re the kind of person who doesn’t keep avid track of the figures, or the kind who types “coronavirus Chennai” daily into search engines to see the latest ones, you probably know – the official case numbers have been falling steadily in the city. But this is not yet cause for celebration, as dire second waves in various parts of the world should show us. It is now, when the caseload is within a bracket that feels manageable (“feels” is very subjective: I mean manageable only from a general public perception, not from the perception of frontline workers, for example), that we must exert the most care.

Like all who diligently wear masks when heading out, I’ve heard plenty of arrogant statements from people who refuse to, or who have taken no effort to cut down on non-essential activities. Boasts: “I would have had it already, since I’ve been out and about everywhere without a mask since March”. Insensitive remarks: “Most people survive, and everyone I know who’s had it said it was mild,” or, “Look, if it’s your fate to get it, you will.” Whines: “I’ve been cooped up, and I deserve to enjoy an evening out.” There’s also what some have termed “COVID bullying” – peer pressure, including taunts, to resume social activities.

The world is over a year into this pandemic, and we all know the basic etiquette around it, yet too many wilfully insist on flouting the same. The refusal to wear masks even on request should be a punishable offence at this time. Moreover, it’s alarming how some have been holidaying, holding non-essential gatherings and more. Those doing such things for fun, because they miss aspects of their lifestyle and feel entitled to them, are not the same as those venturing out for necessities. A need like getting a computer fixed is nothing like a craving to hang out in a café. No one should feel emboldened about carrying on as we were pre-pandemic.

Sometimes, after I’ve ventured out, I’m assailed by feelings of shock at how restrictive my year has been and how much I long for normalcy, and various shades of anger, fear and sorrow. It is my guess that these unpleasant emotions are rife in the population. They would only be natural effects of the challenges we are facing, collectively and individually. Yet, some individuals – enough individuals as to form a mass – respond to this complexity through inconsiderate behaviour. 

Every place in the world that has managed the pandemic well has done so through public cooperation and common sense, not denial and discourteousness.

It’s important to remember how this pandemic came to India: through international travellers. Then, in the early months when the privileged stayed indoors and learned how to whip dalgona coffee, it spread among those who had no choice but to head out. A series of decisions on administrative, organisational and societal levels further proliferated it. If we experience a second wave, it will come through irresponsible choices. All around us, people are making them. Let’s not give in to the pressure to do the same. Next year promises to be better only if we don’t.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 15th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Devil’s Advocate Wears Prada

Amidst all the PTSD we’re going to have, this may also be remembered as the year when cringe-TV – any series that everyone claims to hate, but everyone also devours compulsively – finally got its due for what it is. Escapism. I’ve found myself quite enjoying shows I would earlier have considered badly-written, boring or even upsetting, in the way that glimpses into lives one cannot have can sometimes be. But what is it to me who got to jetset off to where, when no one really lives the way they used to anymore? Right now, reality TV of the non-gaming variety has been just frivolous enough to take the edge off, well, reality.

The latest series I watched was about four very ordinary but very privileged women, second-tier Bollywood personalities. Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives is essentially a platform-raising gimmick for its principal cast, right down to a clearly staged stalker storyline, which I won’t spoil for your own cringe-binge viewing. It was totally vapid – so of course, I watched all of it. 

But the show was so overly-curated (not necessarily scripted, just that there was an obvious unspoken code between the cast that they would get along, steer clear of touchy subjects and so on – which is, in its way, commendable) that not once but twice did a villain have to be thrown into the mix. That villain was its executive producer, Karan Johar. First, he instigated a fight at a restaurant by urging the women to nitpick each others’ flaws, flaws that they had clearly agreed off-camera to keep that way. Then, he gatecrashed their holiday, gathered them around, and threw trollish questions their way. He called them pre-menopausal, as though this natural process is something negative, and unemployed, as though their fashion and jewellery design lines didn’t exist. This time, they laughed off his sexism. Johar’s appearances were evident attempts to stir drama into the decorum. In that way, he turned out to be the show’s most recognisable character.

We may not be dripping diamonds and chillaxing at resorts, but we all know a K-Jo or two. There’s a thorough moral ambiguity to them, and they often appear to be on friendly terms with everyone. Which is to say: they are frenemies to all. They pocket relevant information to spring at the right moment, are often charming without being sweet, and thrive on unpredictability even if they appear to lack mystery. Unlike the self-absorbed, who may annoy in similar ways but aren’t trickster-like at the core, they are constantly observing everyone. Unlike those who hate themselves so much that only someone else’s strife can give them a feeling of triumph, they are only after mild amusement. The boat, or the yacht shall we say, never gets rocked badly enough that anyone is really scathed.

And so their noses and meddling fingers stay in our lives, and we figure out a way to be at least partially as amused by them as they are by us. Though once in a while, for the sake of our own peace, we must ask ourselves a slightly trollish question too: does the Devil really need another advocate?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 3rd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: If You Must Know Anything…

When I lift my chin, slightly westward, from where I sit working, I see a handmade sign. It speaks to me now, in this time that often feels like being on a catamaran on the wide open blueness with no land in sight. The poster was made crudely and quickly because the words on it, decontextualized from Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds, are all that matter.  “If you must know anything, know that you were born because no one else is coming.” The original text ends on “was coming”, but the words I want to look at every day do not. That one tweak brings a sense of honest futility to the line. I need it, because self-valour cannot help me any more than sorrow can. 

“No one is coming,” a close friend who resurrected her life this year also said once, about herself. It is true for me too, and maybe even for you.

Vuong is not a poet from some previous century. He is young, feted, and uses Instagram. There, he took the time to respond at length, on the Story feature, to a query about using metaphors in poetry. Except, he may have gotten metaphors and similes somewhat confused. This resulted in a slew of disproportionately antagonistic posts about him on Twitter, a platform he doesn’t even use.

There, the poet Phillip B Williams candidly pointed out the covert reasons for this furore: “No one yet has been brave enough to say ‘I am sick of hearing Ocean’s name, reading his poems, seeing him win shit, and reading his quotes everywhere.’ Because that, my friends, is called being mean. So you hide it behind posts about craft or fairness or whatever.”

Envy and entitlement driving the belief that one has the moral or professional higher ground is more common than you’d think. It happens all the time, and cowardly attackers push others into casting stones as well. Their joy in bringing someone else down will invariably be short-lived, however. What they truly want is to have attention, and unable to create anything of value that draws it to them, they manufacture a spectacle instead.

To quote from the novelist Alexander Chee’s post: “I keep thinking about how in a year Ocean is going to get asked for a blurb by the people who did this metaphor crap.” When it suits the spectacle-starters to ingratiate themselves, they always do. When condemnation magnetises more mileage, they do that instead.

The attacks on Vuong caught my eye not only because I use his words daily to corral my broken heart into a shape I can live with. I noticed and kept thinking about them because they were the perfect example of a scarcity of goodwill in human engagements, both with those personally known and those recognised only by name or work.

Life may be arbitrarily cruel, but people are not. We get to choose malice or kindness, over and over. It says so much that somehow, the same knowledge settles into so many: that there’s no one coming, no one else in the world, as populous and polyphonic as it is.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 26th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Mary On The Green

“Mary On The Green” was a ten-year-long fundraising campaign for a memorial to the influential 18th century feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecraft to be erected in London’s Newington Green. It came to a dramatic conclusion with the unveiling of a statue earlier this month, which has had a divided public reception. Created by the artist Maggi Hambling, the statue is for Wollstonecraft, not of Wollstonecraft, and features an “everywoman” figure. It is a relatively tiny figure, emerging out of a surge that some interpret as a “a swirling mingle of female forms”. It is naked, slender and toned, with a physique that adheres to non-inclusive beauty standards. Except for, well, luxurious pubic hair. Its visual politics aside, it’s also strangely lacklustre for all the collective energy that went into it.

Beholding or consuming art is subjective, but I’m with the chorus who finds this work uninspiring. 

However, most of this chorus has only just been introduced to this work – although as a publicly-funded campaign, there were democratic involvements in its processes. Most significantly, the final shortlist before the commission was awarded had come down to Hambling and to another artist, who according to historian Dr. Fern Riddell on Twitter happens to be a man. That a man should create this homage to Wollstonecraft was shot down by public opinion.

Except, Dr. Riddell shared images of the two finalist works side-by-side, and… You’d have to be quite wilful about refusing to admit the advantages of the one designed by a man, to prefer Hambling’s trophy-like sculpture. The other one was both aesthetically attractive as well as functional. It even had curved bench space that could allow a person to sit within the work of art, and perhaps hold a meaningful conversation (with the statue, as one does with the sea or with a tree, or with another person). Of course, I know these are lofty ideas – drunks would have passed out on those benches, troublemakers would have graffiti-ed it, pigeons would inevitably have showered their insults all over it too. Maybe, if not almost definitely, some people would have had sex on it too (in the tradition of Wollstonecraft’s daughter, of course, who was the author Mary Shelley. She is widely believed to have hooked up on her mother’s grave with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley). 

Overall, that tasteful and overruled sculpture was a rendition with pleasing possibilities. There’s an interesting lesson here on the dangers of over-democratising art, even as the broader public discourse is very heatedly still on questions of representation, appropriation and more.

Amidst creating new work of my own, I’ve been mired in such anxieties, second-guessing, seeking opinion, learning, questioning, withdrawing in worry and more. Then, I had a different, personal glimpse into how a renowned artist had relied only on trusted collaborators who had somehow failed to convey pressing issues, resulting in controversy.

I’ve arrived at the conclusion that well-considered art comes together neither by consensus nor by sovereign choice-making. There’s an interwoven listening stage, gathering inputs. Then, there’s doing what one’s heart tells one to, respectfully and with acknowledgement that one only knows what one knows. Finally, there’s the letting go.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Kamala Harris’ Laugh

Kamala Harris’ ascent to the White House makes me feel represented. No, I’m not talking about her being of partial Indian heritage – as too many have, obnoxiously, usually erasing her Blackness while asserting their caste pride. I’m not even talking about her being a woman, because feminism has evolved to a point where representation isn’t quite so simple, and we must consider her record and role as an American politician foremost. All that said, I identify for an unsophisticated reason: Harris has a big laugh, and bursts into peals of it frequently. So do I.

There are whole video compilations online of her laughing, sourced from footage from over the years. I’m hardly the only one to notice and be attracted to her mirth. I could watch that laugh all day. She seems to do it everywhere, even right into mics in front of her, which amplify that glorious, open-throated cackle. She doesn’t cover her mouth when she does, or apologise for it. She laughs lavishly.

To have women laughing, without inhibition and often, is still noteworthy. Our laughter ripples the fabric of any setting – a society, a workplace, or a seat of power – where certain subtle rules and controls are in force. Decorum is a smokescreen.

I’ve written in this column before about being requested to laugh quietly while in a (not even fancy) restaurant, which was promptly exited and boycotted henceforth. People are not comfortable with women who take up space in any way – even with the intangibility of our voices, whether that’s in a big laugh or a screaming orgasm or even a quietly but firmly delivered argument. In the last of these, noise pollution is not even an excuse, and that says it all.

Laughter isn’t just an expression of enjoyment. It can be used to convey unkindness, be a sardonic expression of bitterness, signify nervousness, or simply be the body physically relieving emotional stress or tension. There appears to be joy in the kind of laughter Kamala Harris has so often been captured collapsing into, the kind of laughter I collapse into. But it’s more than that.

I’m trying to explain this without projecting onto Harris, who is ultimately a public figure with a track record that some admire and others are suspicious of, and who like anyone entrusted with power must be held to a high standard. But the reason why her laughter makes me feel good is something like this: I weep torrents and thunderstorms. I don’t dismiss my anger, although I am learning the art of slowing down reaction. I have the work drive of a honeybee. When I laugh out loud it isn’t always because I am in such abundant euphoria or have so little concern for public courtesy. It isn’t because I lose myself or my manners. No, it’s just that – like my sorrow, my fury or my work, I inhabit my laughter completely. A loud laugh implies: “It’s not only my laughter that is irrepressible”. Perhaps that’s not a good trait in a politician, elected to serve. But it’s a wonderful trait in the rest of us, especially the (extra)ordinary women of this world.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 14th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Anger & The Willingness To Meet Ourselves

The actor Vijay Sethupathi has withdrawn from a film on the cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan due to online pressure, which included a rape threat being made against the former’s child. When the possibility of criminal prosecution arose, an apology video allegedly by the troll was published on a news platform. He claims to have been overcome by anger related to job loss, calls the child he threatened his little sister, and ropes in his mother to plead his innocence. It is not yet verified whether the people in the video are who they say they are.

The channel that had broadcast it showed blurred screenshots of the offensive tweets, and that’s when I noticed that the fake profile used a display photo of another Kollywood actor. I’ve seen his face in many DPs. You see, a malicious person once distributed my phone number in a fan group of his. 

Let’s talk about anger, since the man in the video seems to think the emotion justifies the action and the threat. I still boil with rage when I think of that situation, only the least of which was the number sharing. It was part of a larger scenario which emotionally scarred me in ways I’m unlikely to ever fully heal from. No one who was involved ever apologised; the closest was when a woman who defended my harasser begged me not to post his identity online, because that could ruin his chances on the matrimonial market. I didn’t not for him, but for her.

Where do I put my anger? None of us is perfect, and all of us are wounded. We have volcanic pain within us, and we become inflamed when its memory surfaces. But anger is not the primary emotion. “The anger tells me something important about me, and about how I am out of balance. But beneath that, the love is helping me to move beneath the anger to sit with my basic woundedness, the basic heartbreak, and that’s real complex,” Lama Rod Owens, spiritual teacher and author of Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation through Anger, says in a video clip.

I can’t speak for the inner work the troll with the anonymous apology is still capable of doing or otherwise; we only know that he’s sorry he got caught. Inner work is a choice, one that drags us into harrowing places. Not everyone makes it, by which I mean both the choice and the meaningful culmination of the work.

Someone I cherished suddenly ended their friendship with me this year because they were angry that I was in strong spirits despite personal challenges – this is not inference, but literally what they told me. Their choice was to not explore what truly pained them in their own life, but to find a projection screen and punching bag instead.

Leaning into the heartbreak beneath my anger in myriad situations is teaching me much about why people turn abusive, across contexts. We are all powerless against Life, but the exercise of self-reflection can in turn become tiny pockets of agency, determining so much about our experience, and how we impact the experiences of others.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 2nd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Medusa & Ahalya

Outside a New York City courthouse now stands a sculpture by Luciano Garbati, depicting the mythical Medusa, who was cursed with a gaze that turns all who look into her eyes into stone. In this rendering, she holds the decapitated head of the demigod Perseus in one hand and a sword, tip pointed at the earth, in the other. It is intended to subvert the classical story, in which Perseus beheaded her.

Like any myth worth its salt, there is more than one Medusa tale. Each is no less true than the other; all depends on who is doing the telling, and who is doing the listening. We know her largely because of Greco-Roman mythology, but according to the 5th century historian Herodotus, she was absorbed into their mindscapes from the Berber traditions of North Africa, where the snakes rooted and alive in her scalp were sacred. The goddess in some cultures became a monster in others.

It is not only because of the relationship to stone that Medusa’s story is like Ahalya’s, of the various Ramayanas. In the version we are mostly familiar with, via the poet Ovid, Medusa was a priestess of Athena. She was punished with snake locks and a fearsome appearance after being raped in the temple by another deity, Poseidon/Neptune. But then, the contemporary poem by Patricia Smith, in which Medusa didn’t mind at all that they “defiled that temple the way it should be defiled” is another way to see her. Even if seeing her comes with a consequence. 

Similarly – perhaps Indra deceived and raped Ahalya, for which she was punished with petrification. His punishment was having his body covered by a thousand vaginas, which later turned into a thousand eyes upon worshipping the goddess Nagapooshani, over whom snake heads loom like a parasol. Ahalya, turned to stone, must wait for touch to free her.

But in ancient and medieval texts including Somadeva’s Kathasaritsagara, Kamban’s Ramavataram and the Yoga Vasistha, as well as modern renderings, Ahalya knowingly and delightedly responds to the seduction. An S. Sivasekaram poem rues over why she chose a humiliated life over eternal life as a stone; in K.B. Sreedevi’s story Shilpe- rupini, she turns back into stone upon hearing of injustice done to Sita; in Sant Singh Sekhon’s play Kalakarshe invites Indra’s artistic gaze. In Sujoy Ghosh’s short film, she is a desirous woman, and accomplice to a darker greed.

To look upon desire with fear is to be unable to recognise what it is truly dangerous (and may come disguised as beauty). In Hélène Cixous’ well-known 1975 essay entitled “The Laugh of the Medusa” are these words: “You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she isn’t’ deadly. She’s beautiful and laughing.”

When I view images of Garbati’s Medusa, with her Caucasian features and her thigh gap and her pudenda curiously free of serpentine curls, I still think – this is just one version of her. One interpretation doesn’t usurp all the other ways in which an archetype speaks to us. Each of our gazes is its own rendition, and none need to be set in stone.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 24th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: I.R. L.

In the final instalment of a popular advice column, the journalist Oliver Burkeman listed out eight learnings that he believes are the secrets to a happy life. One of these points begins, “The capacity to tolerate minor discomfort is a superpower”. In the paragraphs that explain what this means, an aside jumped at me: “This is how social media platforms flourish: by providing an instantly available, compelling place to go at the first hint of unease.” How true this is – a tire punctures, and we tell the world. A mosquito buzzes us awake, and we tell the world. Then, we stare at the screen as we wait for whatever proceeds next IRL, watching our notifications as we do. 

IRL – “in real life”. I think I encounter this acronym less often than earlier, possibly because the demarcation is no longer as clear. Social media is also life, now. Real life, with real stakes. This is despite knowing that online platforms are not the world. They are always only a bubble, or a tightly knit cluster of bubbles, one that we used to believe was self-curated but increasingly understand is based on algorithmic dictations as well as agendas with money and power behind them.

We understand this, we do, but we frequently behave exactly how the system coaxes us to. Hardly a day goes by when one’s entire timeline isn’t talking about the same topic. When it’s a major event, cataclysmic or otherwise, this makes sense. But sometimes it’s literally about picking an arbitrary target and then – like those little creatures trailing each other off a cliff in the Lemmings game from the early ‘90s, inspired by the myth (aka “fake news”) that real lemmings die en masse this way – following the designed flow. Some days, people lose hours to dissecting another random individual’s equally random opinion. Later, each party’s personality becomes set in stone: there’s the person who fleetingly expressed a fatuous idea, and may it never be forgiven, and there’s the hero whose hot take made that original thought go viral for everyone else’s self-righteous responses and ridicule.

This has an impact on our daily well-being and ability to think holistically, and over time it becomes dangerous on larger levels. Let’s take a hypothetical situation, wherein someone with a talent for making anything about themselves leverages on some incident and begins to spin a narrative around it, drawing in more and more people and implicating them all. Soon, organisations, institutions, the press and more get involved and…

Oh, that’s not a hypothetical situation? Yeah, I know.

This is our cue to derive inspiration from some of the pettier people we know, IRL. You know the frenemies who somehow never hear about any good that comes your way, but always ferret out every tiny trigger and criticism and personally ensure that you’re aware of it? That superpower for acknowledging and talking about only what serves them is something to learn from, and selectively use. When we do this, we can also ask, each time we get distracted by some concocted drama: what is being made to disappear from view because my attention is not there now?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 5th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Flights To Nowhere

They’re funny, the ways that our longings manifest. Our intensities and fragilities find expression in baseless but profoundly affecting actions. Anywhere between six and nine months into this pandemic, depending on where you are and when it began to have an effect on your life, and with no end in sight, some of these longings are finding collective fruition. There is, for example, the collective denial of people who claim they’re safe in the cafés they’re hanging out in, maskless and closely-seated as seen on their IGstories. But the most ludicrous collectively expressed longing has to be the flights to nowhere. Some airline companies around the world have begun operating special journeys for passengers who just miss the experience of flying. The flights take off and land at the same airport, performing a joyride in the clouds for hours while passengers… well, they do what we all used to do on planes, I guess.

I personally can’t imagine taking a flight for fun. Those tiny, weird toilets (can you imagine the queues in those narrow aisles to wash one’s hands each time another stale packet of peanuts is opened?). The monotony, interrupted only by bumpiness. Throw in having to wear protective accessories, additional check-in procedures and oh yes the expense of going absolutely nowhere – and the question arises: who does this for fun? 

A lot of people, evidently. Qantas Airways sold out its first flight to nowhere within ten minutes of opening bookings. Starlux, a Taiwanese airline, also notched similar sales times. Ever mindful of the suffering of millions of their fellow citizens, to whom they brought this international illness, some Indians with large disposable incomes to spare are reportedly looking forward to when they can do the same. Fly away – if not from their problems, then at least everyone else’s.

I’m sorry to be so harsh. No one is really doing well right now. We all need succour. But there’s finding solace, and there’s outright selfishness. The excuse that taking flights to nowhere keeps the airline industry’s unemployment lower has to held up against the larger context of the carbon footprint of flying (which isn’t going to be significantly reduced by the vegan menu an opportunistic organisation wants Singapore Airlines to adopt on its own same-destination routes). Moreover, how does knowing that travel is always a luxury, and is often denied as a right to those who need it, not sour the entire idea?

Our situation today is the result of something collective, too: hubris. As the Norwegian translator Johanne Fronth-Nygren said in an interview in July, about a decision made before the pandemic, “It is the privileged middle class speaking, we who will always have “good reasons” to fly, our relations and our work being so important that their value somehow cancels out the destruction we inflict on our and everybody else’s environment as we maintain them at the level we have become accustomed to. There’s an arrogance, an injustice and a stupidity in this that I couldn’t perpetuate. Of course flying is just the tip of the iceberg of global inequality, but I think it’s a good place to start making changes…”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 24th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Roses For Rhea

It’s been exactly three months since the actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide. In the timeline of bereavement, that is not long, barely enough time for the shock to settle for those who actually lost him. Closest among these people was his partner, Rhea Chakraborty, also an actor. Chakraborty is currently incarcerated, reportedly in a cell without a bed or a fan. Officially, she was arrested by the Narcotics Control Bureau on the charge of purchasing recreational drugs for the deceased. Unofficially, the arrest follows a crescendo of character assassinations against her. The unofficial charges, fanned by TV channels and social media, include murder, embezzlement, sorcery, infidelity and domestic abuse.

Chakraborty arrived at the NCB office wearing a black T-shirt with these words: “Roses are red, violets are blue, let’s smash patriarchy, me and you.” It’s tempting to assume that she carefully selected this outfit that day, knowing that paparazzi – who’d been hounding her, without regard for pandemic-related social distancing, let alone her right to personal space – would be watching her every move. Or maybe she was exhausted or frightened, and didn’t give much thought to what she threw on. Either way, the rhyme made an impact. That she owns that T-shirt at all shows cognizance about what’s happening to her, and why.

That it’s other women, some of whom knew Rajput well (including relatives and a former partner), who lead the charges is a whole set of case studies on toxicity and guilt. That people at large seems to have accepted this narrative, though, is entirely about how comfortable India is with vilifying women.

It’s a mistake to hold Rhea Chakraborty up as some sort of feminist icon of the moment. By now, we should know better about cycles of pedestalisation and dethroning, which ultimately don’t move things forward collectively and also unfairly place too much on individuals’ shoulders. Chakraborty is not in a position of power. She is not where Natalie Portman was when she walked the red carpet in a cape embroidered with the names of women directors who weren’t nominated for Oscars. She is not where Princess Diana was when she strode stylishly into divorce, in a number considered so risqué it was dubbed “the revenge dress”, immediately after her spouse admitted to infidelity in a televised interview. 

She is, literally, in a dire situation. If we complicate victim-hero binaries, we’ll see that yes, Chakraborty is a symbol of how this is not a safe country for women. But she is also just one person, whom multiple institutions have scapegoated. “Justice” for Rajput – better phrased as peace with his demise – will require seeing the same: he was also just one person, who found the weight of the world too heavy to bear. Forcing his partner to bear this now, in a time of grief no less, will not bring him back. Fixating on either of them when thousands of farmers and dozens of students – and untold numbers of people, trapped within aspects of patriarchy, including unequal marriage, gender discrimination, toxic masculinity and various stigmas – have also died by suicide, due to systemic inadequacies, brings justice for no one at all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 15th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Feeling Good With The Guptas

We need things to feel good about right now. Such balms are scarce at this time, for the international pandemic and the national economy have had negative effects on nearly every one of us. It’s too early to count our unhatched hopes, as well, even though it helps at many moments to remember resilience, count lucky turns, consider what it means to have advantages, weigh up blessings, celebrate small wins, and so on. A privilege I enjoy and am thankful for daily is my entertainment streaming subscription (just one this year, yes, thanks to that metaphorical tightening of the belt), Netflix, which sparked up my screen last week with Masaba Masaba. The series stars the actor Neena Gupta and her daughter, designer Masaba Gupta, playing themselves, referencing their lives’ events within the framework of fiction.

The can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her gorgeous Masaba Gupta is such a natural that you wonder for a millisecond why this talented woman didn’t follow in her mother’s footsteps earlier, but you know the answer: how often do we see someone dark-skinned and not thin star in Indian productions, especially without fetishizing those attributes? To play herself isn’t a conceit; it’s the ultimate gambit in an industry that has never looked kindly on anyone who doesn’t fit certain conventional models. 

Indeed, the overall unconventionality of the Guptas is given a refreshingly breezy treatment. There’s no drumming up of Neena’s decision to have a child out of wedlock in the 80s, Masaba’s mixed heritage or divorce, or other angles that a different show, one that tried too hard, would have milked. Even the humiliating experience of seeking to rent a home as a single woman, or the hurtful one of being disrespected after a booty call, are shown matter-of-factly, but without pressing for pathos. It’s not just a feel-good show, but also one that doesn’t talk down to us.

A couple of days after I finished the series, I realised what the intangible thing that I’d especially liked about it was. Masaba Masaba ends on what would usually qualify as a television cliffhanger, but the lightness of touch that makes this show so effervescent means the conclusion settles rather differently. In a time during which nothing can be taken for granted and nothing is guaranteed, it’s nice to feel like one has actually fully experienced something, without a residual pang of any kind. It would certainly be delightful to see the Gupta women onscreen together again, but it would also be perfectly alright if another season didn’t come around, soon or even ever. You know how sometimes all you need is one little cupcake, and you don’t have to reach for another? That feeling – of, to put it simply, a kind of self-containment that doesn’t have to mean finality, but also could – is this show’s endnote. 

This is what makes this show so perfect for pandemic viewing. There’s not only a wholesomeness but also a wholeness to it. In this time of losses and longings, so many unfulfillments, it doesn’t leave us craving. In any other year, this would be a backhanded compliment at best – but this year, it’s anything but. It’s peak satisfaction.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 7th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: When Protest Loses The Plot

Bloomsbury India will no longer be publishing a non-fiction title on the bloodshed that took place in Delhi in January, following protests that the book is not only factually unsubstantiated but also promotes a skewed and dangerous perspective.

This response over one book, in a country where Mein Kampf is a consistent bestseller while most new works find very few readers, needs to be understood in terms of context, not just principle. Right from Bloomsbury’s decision to publish it, to the clashing waves of opinion against and for it, to the withdrawal of publication (not equivalent to a ban, a legal measure that only a government can take), the industry has walked right into major chaos for future books. Especially ones that challenge the powerful.

The day after the withdrawal, another publisher stepped forward to release the controversial book. Online, supporters of the book’s ideas discussed digital self-publishing, which showed an incongruous victim mentality, since there’s enough infrastructure available to the right-leaning to establish brick-and-mortar publishing companies. The language of liberal ideology – terms like “marketplace of ideas” and “freedom of speech” – were repurposed to suit an anti-liberal agenda. All this happened while on the liberal side of things, anger against one publisher and declarations boycotting them were the main event.

Some ideas are more dangerous than others, but this is not so much because of an idea itself but because of the machinery that pitches that idea forth. The machinery around propaganda narratives has gained a firmer footing because of this incident. Books have been withdrawn because of pressure before (titles by Wendy Doniger and Salman Rushdie immediately come to mind), but not usually because of pressure from liberal quarters. This feels more like falling for a trap than a victory. With this precedent, fighting the next round, especially if suppression and censorship really are involved, will be harder.

The dissemination of ideas – including manipulations, fabrications and smokescreen-suppressions – happens in more dynamic ways today than ever before. With a cellphone, internet and a couple of apps, a layperson can easily create, forward and receive (mis)information. Then, there are more sophisticated and frightening uses of technology. The social justice and intellectual sectors have no handle on the speed at, and new shapes in, which it’s all happening. Books still have a place in this scheme of things, as knowledge repositories for those wanting to engage with a subject in more than a cursory way. But most people aren’t exploring any concept, even what they live or die or kill or swear by, at such depth.

The ways that information – false or true – explodes or trickles into public consciousness, and results in individual and collective actions for better and for worse, does not require something as time-intensive (both in its production and its consumption) as a book for propagation. The core message can be conveyed in a meme, a text, a few seconds of video. This is the larger context of this controversy. To fixate on one offensive book that no one beyond the already-convinced would have read is to not be on the same page at all with what is happening in the world at large.

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

The Venus Flytrap: W.A.P.

If you don’t already know it, you’ll just have to go look up what the acronym “WAP” stands for, in the new hit song that carries that title. You see, I can’t tell you. Two of the three words might not be print-appropriate, and the other one is highly suggestive. The song itself isn’t suggestive, though. It says what it means, wants and needs upfront. Written and performed by rappers Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, the track is unabashedly about female sexual desire, and how exactly to elevate that desire into pleasure.

 It’s the music video that really ups the ante (and upsets some anti-feminists, but we’ll get to that later). Women writhing and twerking, explicit lyrics, outfits that parade and demand praise for the body (I’ve always wondered why revealing apparel is said to “leave little to the imagination”, when the effect it can have is to pretty much conflagrate the imagination) – nothing new. We’ve seen them in a thousand music videos before, and sometimes we’ve found them hot and sometimes we’ve found them distasteful, but quite rarely do we encounter the sheer exuberance that “WAP”’s visual depiction achieves. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like it’s objectifying anyone, or pandering to anyone else.

I can only chalk this up to the amount of creative control that Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion must have had over its production (safely shot during a pandemic, to boot). The video shows women in control, who look like they’re having fun, and even ends on a note that made me laugh out loud – because sexy play is about all kinds of things, humour included. I hear there are censored and uncensored versions, and I’m not sure which one I watched, but – and this seems to be the point of the entire audiovisual endeavour – I really enjoyed it.

Some of the people who seem most offended by the song must have rather enjoyed it too. One can always tell, especially when the gentlemen doth protest too much. Conservative American political commentator Ben Shapiro remarked that he thought a perfectly natural bodily function signifying arousal was probably a medical condition, substantiating this claim as his doctor spouse’s professional opinion. Entertainer Russell Brand, who has opened up about receiving treatment for sex addiction in the past, released a judgemental video (four times as long as the song) about how he thought it wasn’t doing much at all for women’s empowerment.

Again, nothing new – people of all ideological stripes everywhere have real problems with women enjoying themselves. Remember the uproar over Swara Bhaskar’s masturbation scene in the movie Veere Di Wedding? Trolls who hate the actor for her vocal views on democratic rights still don’t fail to bring it up while condemning her.  Desire is a complicated thing, full of frustrations that sometimes transmute into flimsy rhetoric, shaming others, moral policing, or in this particular case, misogynoir (when the prejudice is about both race and gender; the principal artists in this song are both African-African women).

Which is why, all the more, the sheer fulfilment expressed by the dancing, desirous, sated ladies in the “WAP” video is such a thing of joy.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 24th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.