The Venus Flytrap: There’s Something About Amy

I can’t remember when or where or how I first came across Amy Winehouse, but she had her hooks in me way back when her success was a cult hit, not the embarrassing phenomenon it is today. It was more than just that smokey, showstopping voice, which would come to win her nearly unanimous acclaim. It was the lyrics. The nonchalance with which she, 19 years old when her first album came out, sang about lovers simply not man enough for her and tramps in f-me pumps had me captivated.

Today, of course, she needs no introduction. With her skin disease, stints in rehab, coked up performances, visa troubles, peculiar dress sense, publicly violent marriage and what seems to be a hell of a knack to get photographed looking like she’s a cross between your worst nightmare and your second worst one, she’s become a sort of running tabloid joke. A woman so obscene not just in the way she looks but the way she lives that no one really knows what to do with her. Heiress flashing her nethers? No. Silicone starlet? No. Spawn of two stars, reality TV wannabe, Disney tween queen gone wrong? “No, no, no”, as Amy herself infamously sang.

She’s in a category all by herself.

Winehouse is conventionally attractive only by a gargantuan stretch of sheer kindness or kinkiness. She neither cleans up pretty nor seems to make the effort to try to. The last epitaph on earth that could wind up on her tombstone would be “media darling”. No, that phrase is for wimps and little marionettes dancing on the strings held by some big machine. Amy Winehouse – or at least, the Amy Winehouse I imagine – would snort at the thought if her nostrils weren’t stuffed already.

In a world positively festering with clones and clichés and pretty puppets galore, Winehouse is a gash, an anomaly, an abomination. It’s what makes her irresistible. It’s what will, ultimately, canonize her good and proper as a Dangerous Woman. An unforgettable one.

Because here, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the few people in the entertainment industry anywhere who are where they are by sheer talent alone. Winehouse, in other words, is a serious artiste. And one in the style of the true greats – a reckless, ruthless, roaring creature. No apologies here, no excuses. No pretending to be anything but who and what she is. We can’t take our eyes off the mess the paparazzi show her to be because we’re just too mesmerized by her music to look away. She’s the siren’s call – and she’s also the shipwreck.

That category she’s in by her lonesome? It’s a category she seems to have created all by herself too, although this is probably just a side-effect of being idiosyncratic and destined to be iconic. And that’s what’s most intriguing about her – in a time of daddy-bought celebrity statuses and pin-up doll factories, this ridiculous, fabulous woman went right ahead and manufactured… herself.

And it’s the kind of self no one else wants to be, not right now anyway. But mark my words – when her birth centenary – which she’s not likely to see, if the track records of the legends before her are anything to go by – rolls around, rest assured there’ll be “Come As Amy” parties (ever been to a “Come as Frida” one?). Beehive hairdos, nasty eyeliner and tequila on tap all round. Not too many entertainers around today are going to leave such legacies. Not too many people, entertainers or not, dare to live life so unapologetically. And for that, I keep my headphones plugged in and raise a decidedly Bacchanalian toast in her honour.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.


Last night I lay on my roof and prayed for a sign.

A star fell, immediately.

I’m still waiting.

The Venus Flytrap: In Defense of Insensible Fashion

Some people know they’re depressed when they can’t eat or sleep. I know I’m depressed when I stop giving a damn about what I’m wearing. I’m a huge believer in what Tim Gunn called “the semiology of dressing”; my ostentatious collection of attire and accessories – stacked, scattered or in storage – colour my allegiance glorious. From fluorescent pink bras to huge hibiscus hair ornaments to boat-shaped bags you could zip me into, I have it all, and then some.

Ever since I began choosing my own clothing, I’ve taken this liberty and spun carousels with it. In college, I enjoyed semesters of never repeating an outfit. It wasn’t as though I set myself a challenge. I just had that many clothes and that much imagination and that much disrespect for the humility required in the face of Institutions.

My passion for fashion has often been privileged over common sense. I own a red feather boa, after all. I’ve stalked through international business districts in cowboy hats and feathered ornaments. I went to church the other day draped in a black wool crotchet poncho. In Madras. In May. Because that’s just what I think I should wear to church. It helps me feel, you know, spiritual. Whatever sins I confessed to, rest assured they were not sartorial.

Get off your holier-than-thou clotheshorses, I’m only kidding (but not about the poncho). For more drastic consequences than death by flamboyance, consider this: I’ve done dozens of spoken word readings, but excepting a few truly special ones, pretty much all I recall about most involves what I wore. When I did my first solo show a year ago, I embarked on several expeditions seeking the perfect outfit. I settled on thigh-high leopard print boots and a brown kurta worn as a dress with a huge waistbelt. I spent the afternoon before the event hand-stitching the kurta to my shape. I wrote my set list in the taxi on my way to the show.

Do I dress for men? Absolutely. I also dress for women. I dress for pets. I dress for plants. I dress for praying and flights and to hang out by myself. I dress to drink black coffee at 1a.m. and dance around in my sister’s room for an hour and incur her wrath. I dress because if God had wanted us to be drab, She wouldn’t have created the bias cut and the body to carry it off.

I also dress down. I do the typical Fab India kurta and jeans work thing. I tie my ridiculous Draupadi hair up. When I really need to get serious, I even wear my glasses. It’s all about aura. And as the most cunning coquette will tell you, sometimes it pays to keep it toned down.

I’m a slave to my narcissism, alright. Stoned on my own sensuality (and greatly bolstered by my uncanny ability to spot rock bottom bargains). Vainpot? Yes. Victim? No chance.

What I do, dressing up and down and occasionally upside down – it’s not what a magazine or a man or a mannequin told me is expected of me. It’s not under someone else’s power.

There is one dogma I live by, and it is this. Anais Nin wrote: “Women always think that when they have my shoes, my dress, my hairdresser, my makeup, it will all work the same way. They do not conceive of the witchcraft that is needed. They do not know that I am not beautiful but only appear to be at certain moments”. And that’s my secret.

Because it is power. And all of it, every last bead and hook and the divine proviso of femme fatale-ness vested within, is mine.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.

The Word Witch: A Q+A

In conversation with Filipino writer and visual artist Michael Mata, with whom I shared an intense, creative and destructive friendship in high school, and who I had not spoken to in seven years. This exchange took place online, mostly in March 2008.

Michael had read the manuscript of Witchcraft, my first book of poems (unpublished as yet). All poems referred to in this interview are from there. Some are available online, in text or recorded format (see Elsewhere section).


by Michael Mata

Michael: You know, I really like the first poem ‘Witchery’ though I find it very disturbing. What provoked you to expose your dark side? Why sorcery?

Sharanya: The book opens with the poem ‘Witchery’ because it introduces the persona who runs through the entire collection. It’s quite no-holds: I tell you straight up that there’s something a little sinister about how things are going to go. It’s both a warning and an invitation. That’s why the last line ends like it does. She says to the reader, “Do you want to find out? Or will you make your assumptions and close the book forever?”

I am generally a cheerful person, but am capable of entering a very powerful sort of darkness. It’s not sorcery, but it scares some people. It occurs to me that in different times and places, women like me were and are still being persecuted. Idiosyncratic women. That was one of the reasons why the collection ended up being called Witchcraft.

Another reason is, I suppose, more shallow – but it did ultimately make the deal for me – since I’m one of those ugly ducklings, I came into my own power through a great deal of pain. I was fascinated for years by something Anais Nin had written: “Women always think that when they have my shoes, my dress, my hairdresser, my makeup, it will all work the same way. They do not conceive of the witchcraft that is needed. They do not know that I am not beautiful but only appear to be at certain moments”. And that’s the other part of the persona. Her vulnerability. She is perceived to be so many things because of this great darkness that all her craft comes from. But what she really is isn’t nearly as one-dimensional.

Michael: Thank you for that insightful answer! It’s pretty obvious that you consider the philosophy behind your work very deeply. But I want to explore this idea further: You say that you possess a powerful darkness. What sort of darkness is this?

Sharanya: You know, to talk about it makes it almost trivial. But I’ve seen over and over in my life that I attract certain kinds of people. Lost souls, for instance. By the time I was 21 I already had someone make a serious attempt on my life. It makes life difficult, it makes trust difficult. I am told I have a dark aura, which magnetizes certain things and people toward me. There is nothing in my life that suggests otherwise. The only way to live with it is to subvert it. Somebody told me once that it doesn’t matter how long a room is left in darkness, once a lamp is lit in it, it is illuminated completely.

Michael: You come from India, a country that has long worshipped the feminine aspect of the God head. But it is a religious system that believes the feminine divine possesses a dark and destructive side. How do you feel this archetype affects your work? Do you believe archetypes unconsciously rear their heads in the expression of their progeny?

Sharanya: Absolutely. My cultural background, my interest in feminist spirituality and in mythology in general, all these have dramatically affected my work. I certainly believe that we are all composites of archetypes, and how we tap into each at different moments dictates our choices and our destinies. Speaking of destiny, there is always the danger of living out your archetype. Archetypes choose people, not the other way around. But there is a danger in believing too much, in projecting into epic forms our personal struggles.

Oh, I have heard some criticism that my poems channel Kali exclusively (Kali being the obvious choice for most people making the comparison). I don’t agree on two levels: first, to the reductionist approach to Kali as destroyer and darkness, and to the contention that no balance exists in my work. Kali is the ultimate duality. In my work there is a lot of nuance, a lot of vulnerability. The persona in my poems is driven by her weakness, not some superficial bravado. It’s the loss and abuse and pain in her that makes her what she is.

Michael: You know Sharanya, as you know, I am a Christian and I believe in a religion that considers witchcraft to be immoral. Witches and women with familiar spirits were actually stoned in Biblical times. What is your position on this divergent view? Is sorcery immoral? Where does it come from? Is it primarily feminine?

Sharanya: What patriarchal religions – and Hinduism today is a very patriarchal religion too, don’t forget – call sorcery and black magic are really things in nature. Things in nature which women had and could still have the potential to tap into and activate. Our bodies are connected to the moon, the moon controls the oceans, and all life came from there. Also, the “witch” excuse has been used for so long to persecute women who, like I said earlier, were simply idiosyncratic. Women who lived alone, for example. Women who liked to leave their hair down. The fear of the witch is really the fear of the woman. Patriarchy itself exists out of the terrible fear of female sexuality.

Michael: What are your spiritual beliefs?

Sharanya: I refuse to believe in a god who is not Ecstatic.

Michael: To return to what you said about persona earlier, does that mean that there is only one voice in the entire collection, one female persona? Reading through the poems in Witchcraft, I was struck by the different moods and ideas this persona projected. She could be loving and tender one moment, then frightening and dangerous the next. Are all these moods coming from the same persona or are there actually several in the collection?

Sharanya: Ultimately, yes. I should argue that there are possibly a few personas – the Karna alter-ego, who appears in a trilogy, the voice of my great-grandmother, who appears in ‘Parampara’, the gender-neutral and indistinct voice of ‘The Ten Idylls’ sequence, and the persona alluded to in the opening poem. But in my own approach to my poetry, I don’t see these voices as separate. Like the facets of a mirror ball, they catch the light at different angles and reflect it. But essentially, they are the same. So yes, that is how it is in this book. My work will probably change in future, and I hope it does.

To think of the persona as human helps bring her many voices or aspects together. We all have moods. As a writer, I don’t mitigate mine. They all manifest across the breadth of the collection. She’s a loud, bitter, brilliant, gorgeous, angry, fierce, despairing, joyous, violent, cruel, terrified, shy, melancholic, jealous, strong, impossibly benevolent, vain, spiritual, irreverent being. As we all are, or can be, if we let ourselves.

Michael: Your poetry is remarkable for being so distinctly feminine: You write about ideas and fears only a daughter, a mother or a wife could have. Also, your poems seem to be primarily birthed out of personal experience. Do you agree?

Sharanya: I do agree that my work comes largely out of personal experience. I know, because I am repeatedly told this, that my work is distinctly feminine. How this came to be, I am not sure. I did not consciously set out to write about or for women. I did not think about my femaleness as a particularly curious part of my style. I’d like to ask you – why do you think my poetry is distinctly feminine? This is not a challenge; I ask because I am curious why this so frequently comes up.

Michael: I think it has something to do with the perspective of your poetry: Your poetry is feminine because it is completely female in thinking. When you write something, it is from the perspective of a woman trying to understand the world, trying to understand men. It comes naturally to you, because you are completely and utterly feminine in your being.

Sharanya: I think I am androgynous. I really feel that the most womanly woman has a bit of man in her; the most masculine man has a bit of woman in him. We are not extremes. There is a balance and a bisexuality at each of our cores. How far we tap into this differs. Close friends and I have spoken about how it can be hard to reconcile the “utterly feminine” side of me and the side that comes across as a man-eater – I have had disputes with people I care about and who care for me because of this. I realize in image I am feminine, in thought and action I don’t fit so neatly into the pigeonhole. This unnerves some. Some people still believe that women should be box-sized, compact, easy fits.

Michael: What artists have inspired your work? You are a big fan of visual artists such as Frida Kahlo and Georgia o’Keefe. You also seem to admire Anais Nin considerably. How have these feminine artists informed your own work?

Sharanya: Frida Kahlo is my biggest inspiration. To live so full a life, regardless of such pain – can you imagine how strong she must have been, how buoyant her spirit, no matter how broken? And as an artist, she pioneered the confessional, the intimate, the created self in a way that has deeply influenced the course of my own artistic choices. Another big influence is Tori Amos. Boys For Pele, particularly. To go that far into one’s own darkness and come up with beauty – that that is possible at all, was what I learnt from her. And the idea of narrative. That the poem (or the song) is itself, but it must also be weaved into a tapestry of a bigger story, be bigger than itself.

Two men I admire greatly are Joseph Campbell and A.K. Ramanujan. Campbell because his work is so illuminating, when I read him I have to do it a page at a time because at the end of every page my knowledge is so much richer that I cannot swallow too much at once. And you know, his work was story itself. Ramanujan because his transcreations of the Sangam poems were, I realize now, an event in literature. Amazing, amazing, amazing. Discovering them changed my life, the landscape of my own work, more than the work of any other poet or translator.


Michael: You were brought up like a nomad: you lived in India and Malaysia, have visited several countries, were constantly being shifted from house to house, situation to situation. Did this constant state of being uprooted influence you? In what ways did it shape the nature of your poetry?


Sharanya: First of all, purely in terms of craft – a poem is a microcosm, it’s pocket-sized. For me to enter the mind space required for work on my novel, which has been lagging for years with occasional bursts of productivity, is a difficult task. But a poem floats down from somewhere else, is out on a page within minutes, and it’s done. So the shuffling, the moving, lent itself to poetry writing very well. The necessity to reach out and grab something, pin it down, and move on.


In my life I have lived in only three countries, and I did not even live in the country of my birth (India) until I was eighteen. But I have also lived in so many homes, slept on so many couches, on beds without mattresses, lived out of boxes and suitcases… The first home of my life was Sri Lanka. I lived in Malaysia for a long time but it was never home. Even as a kid, I never thought of it that way. The notions of nation and identity we observe around us impact us more than bald personal facts, I think.


I’m not going to tell you I’m a bohemian or something because the only people who do that really aren’t. I’ve got really far-reaching roots, but they kind of trail behind me like a jellyfish’s tentacles, you know? I take them and go, and go, and go.


Michael: Why are you so obsessed with the sea?


Sharanya: Coasts, my god, what pathos! They’re breathtaking, like thunderstorms. The power of nature, of the creator, of the world itself. And you know, my obsession is really about coasts. Not the marine stuff so much. Coasts are the mediators between what we know, what we don’t know, what is safe, what is dangerous. They are the point of change, the point at which worlds intersect. They are borders. You can see what that means to someone like me, who negotiates with identity and exile in my life so much. I would often rather worship a coast than an idol. They’re absolutely impossible to ignore. And so intimate, so subjective, in the emotions they evoke. My favorite beach is one which almost everyone I have spoken to about it completely hates.

Michael: What other images and motifs do you feel really inspire you?


Sharanya: It’s hard to pinpoint inspiration sometimes. Everything inspires me, but that epiphany moment itself is difficult to place. I’ve found that there isn’t really a formula. And often, certain things which reliably inspire, like music or substances for instance, don’t automatically translate into poetry or paintings. They elevate you to a state where you are better primed to receive. That doesn’t always mean that you receive. Sometimes you just enjoy things in the moment.

Michael: Okay! Now, let’s talk about something else: Are you a feminist?

Sharanya: See, I know there is the temptation to co-opt every powerful, strong or otherwise interesting woman out there into the “movement”. So while on a day-to-day basis, I think about feminism, write non-fiction about it, form opinions and make decisions either motivated by its ideals or as a result of options that I can access because of it, I do not want to be compartmentalized that simply. Ideologies don’t make people. And I’ve come to be quite disillusioned about feminism as it is today, because I’ve encountered too many people to whom it is a fashion statement, or who in their private lives embody all the worst about female rivalry and in-fighting. And you know, labeling someone or their work “feminist” is a kind of ghettoization. And like any other label, it gets in the way. It essentially means you can deconstruct my work or worse still, my life, in a certain way, and that to me is hugely limiting. Look at ‘The Bad Wife’, at ‘How To Eat A Wolf’. Are they “feminist”? In my worldview, maybe. But vulnerability, failure, weakness — those things are politically incorrect. I think it is far more important, if not better, for someone to live a full life, a feminist life if you must, than choose to be defined by that label. For myself, I might use it. But not for my work. No.


Michael: Define feminism.

Sharanya: Oh, tough one. Because there is what it is in theory, and what is in practice, and what it is in plural.


Michael: In the future, what would you ultimately use your fame for? What causes or ideas would you promote and live by?


Sharanya: It’s not something I think about. Success coddles the head. I want to just go on doing what I do, growing as a person and an artist. Look, I’ll be honest and say that I do hear that something I’ve done or something about me is inspirational in some way. And it’s a beautiful moment to hear it. I am always excited by good feedback, etc. But reality continues, my private reality and relationships and day-to-day concerns. I never let myself confuse those things. I’ve experienced cult success, and I hope to never become famous in a mainstream way. That would kind of be a nightmare. I would rather touch people in a way that is meaningful than in some mass, caricaturized way.

Michael: Would you ever publish a collection of short stories? What written prose works are you working on right now?

Sharanya: I’m not a short story writer. It isn’t my form. I may not even be a prose writer, as I’ve discovered in recent years. Not as much as I am a poet, in any case. But I am working on a novel, Constellation of Scars.

Michael: What do you hope to achieve through your written legacy? How would you want to be remembered?

Sharanya: I don’t know if legacy is what I hope for. I would like to be remembered as someone who loved, who felt deeply. I have no predictions.

The Word Witch

By now, you know that plans for the book have come to a standstill. And I don’t owe you the story because I have to save something for the memoirs, right? Let it just be said that it was all pretty Twilight Zone. Is all, actually.

However, when production was still in full progress, I did an online conversation with a friend from a long time ago, as part of what we thought would be book-related publicity. There’s no sense in holding onto the interview for future use — by the time the book does come out, it may be outdated.

It’s a pretty comprehensive interview, and Michael is a wonderful interviewer. Rereading it, I was struck by something profound.

The day after I realised that my book was in total limbo, a dear friend had a vision of one of my past lives which revealed a great deal. It also told me that choosing to name the book Witchcraft was a decision with a wisdom I had not known at the time. But which I had also always known.

And that is why I do not fear for the book’s future.

I have posted the Q+A up on its own page on this blog, here.

The Venus Flytrap: Solo In The City

I am not Carrie Bradshaw, and Lady help anyone who thinks so (for the record, the glorious Samantha, the most soulful maneater in the recent history of female iconography, is my favourite). But among the many moments of Sex and the City that struck a chord in me in spite of its protagonist was the occasion when she realized that perhaps, if we’re all destined for only one great love in this life, New York City was hers.

What does it mean, to have an affair with a city? To be lonely in a way so profound that one speaks to it, feels it under her skin?

I’ve known different types of loneliness in different cities, just as I’ve been different selves in them. But never, nowhere, have I had the kind of erratic, love-hate, impossible relationship to a place the way I do with Madras.

This is not the city in which the pivotal moments of my adolescence played out. Its highways, its bars, its boutiques have not been background sets to my life the way other surroundings have. This is the city that once put me on emergency antidepressants, devastated me in other ways at other times. But it is the city in which I am today, and will be tomorrow. It is the city I cannot run from, and I’ve long acknowledged my surrender.

Among other places I’ve called homes, there are two about which I still dream. One of them is lost to me in practical, bald ways: the tyranny of immigration. In those dreams, I am wistful for a life that I possessed fully, irreplaceably. The other still lies open, like a day I can simply walk into, if I so choose. For months I thought I wanted this second city. I knew myself in it so well.

But I am still here. Still here loving every single auto ride. Thinking of her, my naked city, bereft of hoardings now, as a girl stripped of her jewellery, suddenly bare of everything but her dimples. I’ve written elsewhere about this affair – how even my birth here was accidental, how my last long residence was equally fortuitous, how I wound up back here again against what felt like the wishes of every cell in my body. I have called her mistress and muse in different breaths.

I am alone in this city though there are people I live with and people I speak to. I am alone in this city in an absence of love – an absence into which the city decants herself perfectly. I am alone with this city, perhaps, like that Red Hot Chilli Peppers song.

A friend told me last year how in every hotel room he occupies, he leaves his footwear facing opposite directions. It’s a sign to the spirits, he said, that one is there only temporarily, and will not cause trouble. In the seven months that I’ve been in Chennai again, I’ve been following this advice, as though to invoke the energies of dislocation once more. I won’t be here long. I won’t cause trouble.

Today, for the first time, I placed left and right shoe facing the same direction. For whatever it is worth, for whatever this affair will amount to, I will ride it out. At the end of this, when we come to it, she will have beaten me to a pulp again. Surely. That is her nature. And it is mine to succumb to her.

For if there is one thing I have learnt, it is that the way forward is truly, truly only possible with all the epic, luminous ache of a broken heart.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Infidelity Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

Infidelity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The lines we draw and how we negotiate them are all that varies between who we think we are and what we could be capable of. We are all that person.

What wounds me most may be nothing to you; what devastates you may be a mere trifle to me. The trick lies somewhere between hopscotching around the bare nerves in the battlefield of relationships and pretending they don’t exist, or subverting them altogether.

The old rules didn’t work. Women wept, men slept (around). No one asked, no one told. But no one needs that anymore. We are each more independent as individuals today than we have been throughout civilization. Nothing high-maintenance makes it, only that which is straightforward and obvious in its function survives. The single exception to this rule is love.

But what constitutes cheating? It varies from couple to couple, from context to context. The man in the sexless marriage who stays with his wife for the sake of his child but keeps a bachelor pad is no worse than the woman who claims eternal devotion to her boyfriend but has intense emotional affairs with other people. The loving gay couple with the everything-but-the-kiss rule may be truer and more loyal to one another than the anything-but-the-physical rule so many relationships abide by.

Our moral spectrums are like rubber bands. We believe they hold things together, but it shocks us how much they can accommodate. Circumstance and opportunity bend us, reshape us, twist up all we know of ourselves and deliver us – changed but wholly the same.

And yes, we have all seen it – the way the heart shatters, the jealousy, the rumours, the tragedy. We’ve had it done to us, we’ve watched it unfold its heartbreak within our families and the lives of our friends. We believe it is the worst thing anyone could do, a crime against love, the deadliest sin. And then we do.

And then know, in a way we never knew before, a way in which we never dared to know ourselves before: loyalty is not about what one does with one’s body. It’s about what one does with one’s mind.

Once, I knew a man who thought he could believe in an open relationship only in theory, never in practice. Once, I knew a woman who thought she would never be with anyone but him. Today they live in separate countries, and she is Leonard Cohen’s Gypsy Wife. And who he is, whether he too climbs the table in that dark, dangerous café, or remains on the threshing floor with an arm raised for the bride’s bouquet, she does not dare to ask now.

And so what? If that to them is the only way they know how to love (themselves, one another, others), then leave them to it. I’m with the writer Lisa Carver on this one: “We need the guilt, the mystery, the corrosion of our heart and its rebirth.” I can’t speak for the man I once knew, but I know his gypsy wife does.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.


Something happened that leaves the book stuck. There is no longer any funding. The book budget, and with it, some elements of the production process, have disappeared. Literally, overnight.

What this means is that I do not know when my book will be published.

And that is okay.

The Venus Flytrap: Is Marriage The New Singledom?

I find myself, at 22, an old maid.

No, I’m just being dramatic. But you can’t fault me for my dour mood considering that in the past year or so, I’ve discovered that I’ve turned into a minority: unbetrothed, un-hypenated-surnamed and barely past legal age, I’m surrounded by people in my age group who’re taking the leap into holy and not-so-holy matrimony. From primary school friends with Facebook albums full of wedding pictures to discussions about fiancée visas to perfectly serious queries about whether I am married myself (and why not), everyone seems to be quite cozily committed, and more than willing to shout it from the rooftops.

I’m perplexed. Shouldn’t I expect this to happen in, say, five years’ time? Or is there some kind of generational trend in action here – have young women become so chastised by all the pop culture out there about successful, single, “independent” and really very lonely 30-somethings that they’re taking the plunge sooner?

As a census category, the average age of first marriage for Indian women is an almost juvenile 19. But the women I’m thinking of are from all over the world, exclusively urban, with the English language and exposure to its media in common. All the old bugaboos that we associate with early marriage are noticeably absent. Family pressure is no factor – if anything, their families have tried to talk them out of it. With the exception of one friend who doesn’t believe in premarital sex, religious reasons don’t figure either. All these young women are doing it because they want to.

It’s been a very long time since postponing marriage was rebellious; if anything, it’s now the safe choice. True, the right to delay or opt against marriage were some of the great struggles of our foremothers’ lives. But this was at a time when it was one or the other: career or crèche. Feminism is contextual. Our struggles evolve as society does. And if the experiences, anecdotes and celluloid versions thereof of the popular idea of the modern woman are anything to go by, the fine line between real agency and shallow imitation is lost.

Because here’s reality: women who are actually single by choice remain outside the mainstream. Condi Rice, Sushmita Sen and Geri Halliwell are prominent examples. Their legitimate choices are questioned and analyzed, whereas the temporarily unattached statuses of those who imitate that choice to disastrous results, ignoring the fact that it is simply not suited to them as individuals, are perfectly acceptable. It’s no challenge to the system, after all. Same shackles, different shtick.

Extended (but impermanent) singlehood gives one great company: a hundred chick lit novels, a hundred more TV and film characters, and millions of insecure women hellbent on convincing the world that their impersonations are the good life. But look a little closer. Does anything preoccupy those lives to the extent that men do? Money and Manolos alone do not a happy woman make. My generation reads between the lines while women less than a decade older gullibly swallowed hook, line and clichéd cosmopolitan. Frankly, I can’t think of anything any more conformist than that.

So I’m happy that my generation sees the sense in not buying so completely into myths of superficial empowerment. If we’ve learnt this vicariously from observing the failings of those before us and not through actively participating in the experience of decade-long serial monogamy and glossing over loneliness with lies and pretty trinkets, all the better.

Something tells me that because we are more honest, both to ourselves and in what we choose to project publicly, we’re also more likely to succeed in cracking that modern riddle: what does it take for a woman to have it all?

Maybe most of us are built like chopsticks: perfect when paired, good for nothing but to poke out an eye or tuck in a ponytail otherwise. There’s no shame in that. Getting that baggage out of the way could really help when it comes down to the tasks of pursuing real success and happiness.

And the baggage of divorce? There are no guarantees in life. Marriage, late or early, is always a risk. Staving it off for as long as possible doesn’t actually negate it. It just means you die sooner.

Now all that’s left is for me to get over my engagement envy.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.

The Blasphemy Reading

Venue is a mystery because it is extremely cool.

RSVP to find out.

Ok, we discussed it and changed our minds.

It’s the Rama temple in Koyambedu, near the outstation bus stand and the market. Meet us at the little cupola-like thing (CC’s description: small platform with a roof) outside. 10am. Bring poems that fit the theme.

Man Twitters Out Of Jail

I’m not on Twitter because my life is way too hyper-connected as is. And because I am an egoistical artist type prone to enjoying shocking people (though not on this prim little blog), I would be totally addicted to inflicting the minutiae of my fabulous life on everyone who declares themselves curious.

So I don’t.

But here’s one hell of a reason to. Someone owes the Twitter folks a drink or fifty.

Review: “The Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

First published in today’s The New Sunday Express.

Because I work with the reimagined archetypes of Draupadi and a (female) Karna in my own writing, I cracked open Divakaruni’s retelling of the Mahabharata expecting, even hoping, to feel some envy. The Palace of Illusions presents the epic via the voice of Draupadi/Panchaali. It’s an ambitious project, and not without predecessors, choosing as its medium one of world mythology’s most idiosyncratic women.

To rework an epic is like writing a ghazal: there is infinite variety within the constraints of its key identifiers. But Divakaruni’s Mahabharata bears little difference to what we popularly understand to be the epic. That Panchaali is the narrator offers only a slight, undistinguished shift in perspective.

Plot-wise, the story is largely faithful to the original. The author succeeds in conveying depth and nuance in almost every character, portraying for example both Kunti’s resentfulness and righteousness, or Drona’s cruelty and greatness, in different lights. But when it comes to rendering her protagonist, the results are unadmirable.

Curiously absent are elements that truly challenge the misogyny of the original epic. Where is Panchaali’s famous lust, which in some retellings (but not this one) caused her husband in a previous birth to have cursed her with five husbands to quench it? Despite unexplored hints at her temper and capacity for vengeance, she is depicted mostly as obedient, pleading codes of honour as a ruse to mask cowardice. Even the single attempt at subversion, the centering of Panchaali’s secret love for Karna as the great regret of her life, is trite.

This Panchaali is obsessed by her roles, self-conscious – never is there a moment when she is not a princess, a queen, a wife, an exile, a woman wronged. Weighted down by these, she markedly lacks individuality – an enormous pity because what good is it to retell a familiar story without injecting it with a special spirit? Ultimately, the reader never manages to be fooled into believing that it is Panchaali speaking, as the best first-person narratives can do. Nowhere remains the intense, resilient, dangerous Draupadi we know of, who undoubtedly inspired the author herself.

Panchaali, in the final reckoning, is a weak, malleable character. She is unlikable, consumed by her ego, lacking the essential humanity that makes us love our heroes; the only thread that keeps the reader concerned for her is the memory of other, more fully-fleshed Draupadis.

Divakaruni seems to have juxtaposed one of the near-identical female protagonists of her previous books onto an epic setting. But positioning an indistinct character in a grand plotline cannot make the transposed character inhabit that skin comfortably by default. One wishes that Divakaruni had been bolder, dared to manipulate the epic in a manner that could have made this Draupadi truly hers.

Perhaps what draws the reader back to Divakaruni’s books regardless of their clichés has always been her impeccable stylistic craft, particularly her extraordinary gift for metaphor. But her writing in The Palace of Illusions is functional, stripped of lyricism. The closings chapters have their gripping moments, riding on the emotional crescendo of the original, but it is too late by then for the novel itself.

The Palace of Illusions succeeds as an introduction to the Mahabharata. But both its feminist and artistic aspirations seem shallow. Divakaruni’s reinterpretation of the Mahabharata falters above all because of an absence of imagination. The pathos of the original tale and its powerful heroine as raw canvas, combined with her gift for imbuing beauty in even the most repetitive storylines, should have made this book the author’s masterpiece.