The Venus Flytrap: Secret Saltwater Reservoirs

Ceres spins between Mars and Jupiter, tiny in relation to the planets but with a gravitational force that rounds out its celestial body, larger than other asteroids. For the last five years, the Dawn probe has been doing a reconnaissance in and around the dwarf planet. Here’s what we know, newly: there is water there, the rumour of subsurface oceans, the prospect of sustaining life.

Ceres was named for the Roman goddess of the harvest, who was one of the deities who expressed her displeasure with a ‘prodigium’, punishing humans for their offensive behaviour. A prodigium was, binaristically speaking, the opposite of a miracle.

There are other dwarf planets: Eris, named for the Greek goddess of discord, who tossed a golden apple and incited a petty feud that escalated into the Trojan War; Haumea who shines somewhere beyond Neptune’s trajectory, named after the Hawai’ian goddess of childbirth; Makemake, named for the unpartnered fertility deity worshipped by Easter Island’s Rapa Nui people; and of course, the formidable Pluto, which shares its name with the Roman lord of the netherworld, who holds Ceres’ daughter Proserpina (Persephone, in another tongue) hostage for half of each Earthly year, causing the stark variations between seasons in some parts of our planet. Unlike Pluto, who suffered the indignity of losing planet status, Ceres went from being a 19th century asteroid to becoming a dwarf planet. Unlike all the others, Ceres is moonless.

Moonless, without the company of a satellite to count the orbits of short days and long nights by, and holding reservoirs of saltwater, which seep from its fractured crust, containing the memory (or at least the implication) of an ocean once. Ceres may, still, have an underground ocean, a carefully withheld secret. We cannot see her – oh, there it is, the anthropomorphisation I was scientifically trying to resist – with the naked eye, but even on the nights when we don’t think of her, which are more often than not, surely somewhere in our subterranean consciousness it helps to know she is out there. Not all saltwater is the sea, not all saltwater is tears. But in our search for meaning in this lonely universe, there is solace to be scrounged from a metaphor, or in any shared symbol in which we sense something like ourselves.

Ceres intrigues scientists because any celestial object that bears water offers, at least until proven otherwise, the possibility of habitation. By us, human beings, who have almost destroyed the bounty of our own planet and intend to colonise more. Which brings us back to the mystery of Ceres’ aquatic geology. There’s another possibility, another intersection at which myth maps on fact: what if Ceres, a small planet once ocean-surged, had homed a sentience that resembles us in its intellect and sentiment? Neither intellect nor sentiment have kept us from tormenting Earth and its beings, after all. Perhaps, in this interpretation, the mystical and the terrestrial met, and Ceres unleashed a prodigium on that dominant lifeform. Perhaps what that lifeform had in common with us, every other imaginable marker aside, was greed. What happens next, then, is not so much fate as it is choice.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 13th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: An Ethics Of Dirty Laundry

I’ve been biting my tongue a lot recently. Most of this restraint has come while watching meltdowns and breakthroughs happening on social media – messy, convoluted, loaded, divisive, and always more complicated than what can be gauged by an observer who arrives mid-scene. The nature of opinion-sharing today often has us respond to an escalation, without necessarily having information of what led there. We are expected to behave as though our opinions are always fully formed, and then be intractable about them.

I learned a lot from dialoguing out of view. There were private commiserations on profoundly obliterative and appropriative actions, in which those who had earned their opinions were erased. Once, I tweeted then deleted a stray thought, not wanting to add to the noise and aware of needing to evaluate my own stake. Another time, I offered my solidarity and asserted that I did so because we often don’t, publically. (We do perform solidarities, constantly, but that’s not the same thing; I noted with amusement certain strategic joinings of hands – not reconciliations, but mergers in a highly brand-building sense). Several times, I typed a feeling out and pressed backspace on the whole thing. Even right now, I’m not entirely sure if I’ll wind up hitting that key on all this too.

This circumspection came because within the lacuna between what is seen (the curated web façades, evident structural issues and socio-political positions, the flashpoint that invites or incites response, and one’s own inferences and biases) and what is unknown (backstories, dynamics, pressures, intentions – and again, one’s own inferences and biases) there is far too much risk of skidding. This is true even for the apparently non-participating observer.

In those out-of-view conversations, a variety of silences co-existed: pained silence, thoughtful silence, judicious silence, telling silence. Questions of allegiance, obligation and divergence arose repeatedly. Both the silences and the questions came out of personal histories, not political differences.

What is called infighting assumes proximity, of sentiment or background, when this could just be optical proximity, as meaningless as alphabetized order. We disdain this as selfishness, unsupportiveness. But how can we know whether there were grounds on which loyalty could be built, and that it was not broken somehow, behind the scenes? The truth will sometimes be embarrassing and oblique, because it involves human beings. One’s beliefs will be shown to stem from situations that seem pathetically personal. They will contain envies and pettiness, alongside betrayals and traumas. How can one divulge all this, and stand in judgement? It cannot happen without a mess.

We need to work towards what I will call “an ethics of dirty laundry”. Dirty laundry is the messy, human, hopelessly subjective element in many public escalations. It is also, as we learned from the #MeToo movement, important. Forming cohesive practical strategies that can incorporate, with integrity, experiences and instincts will help the loose fragments we call communities and movements. Can this be done respectfully, without pandering to voyeurism? Or must we return once more to our whisper networks, and with them the uneasy knowledge that they’ll never be wide enough to keep more people from waltzing into traps both fresh and old?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 6th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Not Quite Black And White

At first, monochromatic photos of women who frequently share their visages filled my phone’s screen – familiar and familiarly attractive. I was used to double-tapping a heart on them, perhaps even used to their beauty. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly challenging about the latest Instagram trend, despite the caption “Challenge accepted”, and the women’s empowerment hashtags alongside seemed random. Then, slowly, a different category of photos trickled in, posted by women who rarely shared photographs of themselves solo. I would not be so cavalier as to say they hid; rather, they usually just allowed different aspects of their lives to speak for them. They regularly shared their art, photography, food choices, friendships and leisure, but didn’t often place their physical appearances front and centre.

There are stories in those images, from the women who rarely pose. The halo of a hooded winter jacket around one face implied an adventure, the quiet side profile perusing documents hinted at intellectual pursuit, a selfie in a dirty mirror from one who usually prefers to remain unseen conveyed a powerful declaration. The automatic glamour and gravitas of monochrome aside, the portraits that some women have been choosing to post cannot be called superficial. The captions remain as minimal as ever, yet – at least in some images – I had the sense that there was something more to all this.

We’ve seen a fair share of so-called challenges that are rightly called frivolous: from belting a pillow to one’s naked body (#quarantinepillowchallenge) to posting a photo for just 24 hours and deleting it (#untiltomorrow), and more. Saree, “glow up”, makeup and other fashion-related “challenges” also persist; and indeed, create real challenges for women whom stalkers find through them. As for the hashtags, we see trends like #womensupportingwomen all year round (and especially on International Working Women’s Day, March 8th, when every brand on the planet wants a woman to fill their coffers, oops, I mean pamper herself). But something differed…

Finally, I learned: the lack of details in the captions belies the origins of #ChallengeAccepted, which was begun by Turkish feminists reacting to the brutal murder of a young woman by her ex-boyfriend. She was one of over 40 women killed in the country by a partner or relative in July alone. The Turkish government has plans to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty that deals specifically with gender-based violence. Poland, Bulgaria and Slovakia have already rejected or withdrawn from the same.

Perhaps most of the women responding to the challenge worldwide have little idea about all of this, and are just enjoying a moment to bask in appreciation. But I’d like to think that something about the spirit of true resistance – battle-weary, not very pretty resistance – spoke to them before they picked out that desaturated filter, meant originally not to invoke glamour but to symbolise how newspaper stories reporting crimes are often accompanied by black and white photos of the victim or survivor.

Even not knowing all of this, however, it’s true that any woman who posts any image of herself – ever – in the quotidian environment of hostility and harassment online, is being brave. Every time.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Breaking Like Biscuits

In the new reality show Indian Matchmaking, there’s a telling little parable in the fact that the matchmaker Sima Taparia (aka “Sima from Mumbai”) believes herself too conservative to handle one of her clients, a career-minded young woman. She sends her to another matchmaker who puts on all the airs of open-mindedness, but tells the client point blank that women should not consider themselves the equals of men. Nuggets like these hold up a provocative mirror, in this show that audiences either love or hate, but seem to binge on either way. This is what India is, and it’s true for enough of its diasporas too. The studies and statistics speak for themselves: notably, the soaring rate of women who leave the workplace after marriage or childbirth and the miniscule percentage of inter-caste marriages. Is the show colourist, sizeist, casteist, sexist, classist, divorce-stigmatising, ableist, heteronormative? It’s honest. It’s Indians, here and abroad, who are all those things.

Perhaps many are embarrassed by the show because it hits very close to home, paralleling conversations they’ve had with their families without cameras rolling. To be fair, perhaps some are triggered too, having experienced the toxicity of the process. Ultimately, that’s what the show neatly underlines. It doesn’t glorify marriage, arranged or otherwise. It merely presents the institution for what it is at best, which is not so attractive at all upon scratching the surface, and leaves it to us to judge it, as we should. There are enough single parents, painful backstories and villainous archetypes represented in it that complicate any superficial cutesiness.

“In India nowadays, marriages are breaking like biscuits,” says Taparia. Whether or not she thinks it’s a good thing, it is. People are freeing themselves from bad decisions.

Subtle, hilariously presented socio-political critique aside, what Indian Matchmaking captures well is the loneliness of its subjects. Arranged marriage has long been regarded as practical, sensible, devoid of whimsy, downright algorithmic. The fear, isolation, disappointment and manipulation that send many hurtling into it are swept under the rug. But here, the subjects speak of these components openly. 

In one scene, a headstrong woman pins her hopes on an astrologer’s prediction, and this surfaced a specific reminiscence for me. I’ve never come close to the vicinity of having an arranged marriage, for many reasons. But someone I loved had one. In the month I was predicted to get engaged, that person secretly became betrothed. There was a wedding in the year that my stars aligned, and it was not mine. Since then, those who cast my horoscope say, “You turned down a marriage in 20XX? It’s indicated here that you were married then.”

It’s there in my chart, and I have the scars in my heart to prove it, but I’ll never know how my destiny was thwarted, or stolen. Here’s what I do know: the other person changed theirs. We do have that power. That’s what I loved most about Indian Matchmaking. The first season leaves most of the storylines deliberately incomplete, which is as it should be. We should all know by now that Happily Ever After is only one way to end a story.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 23rd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Price Of A Joke

Let me try to write this without taking any names at all, since – allegedly at least – a missing epithet was what started it all. Sometime last year, a Mumbai-based comedian took a jibe onstage at the way in which Indians exaggerate about their idols (in this case, a literal idol – a statue of a historical personality). Superpower-attribution was the punchline, as is evident from the video excerpt of one minute and six seconds that made the rounds last week in an organised effort to attack the comedian. She received violent threats; two of her abusers have been arrested. Yet the comedian was not only pressured into issuing an apology, but a venue she’d performed in was also vandalised, and further action may still be taken against her.

Some say that the fact that she pointedly did not use the honorific title for the historical personality was the problem, that this was disrespectful. Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry for the personage doesn’t use it either. Yet a little-known entertainer became the deliberate object of ire.

No matter how small-minded some are, and how they condemn those who believe in fundamental freedoms, including of expression and speech, there is a force of goodness in the world that rises in solidarity. Ironically for those who seek to crush and erase, those they attack invariably become more celebrated. The comedian who many of us hadn’t heard of before last week is now a name we’ll recognise sympathetically and with respect. We don’t find it hypocritical that she apologised, understanding it was a gesture of placation that protects her. We may encourage her next work in a bigger way. And if – like so many who went underground to stay alive with some measure of peace, or worse, like the journalist shot on her porch by an assassin who didn’t know who he was murdering, like the social media star killed by her brother, the jailed dissidents, and others – she is permanently suppressed, she will still be among the names we won’t forget.

There’s a new translation of a novel by a Tamil author who experienced similar persecution some years ago, and is now internationally renowned in part because of the outpouring of support that he received. In it, he seems to compassionately rue the bitterly limited lives of those with intolerant perspectives. He seems to wish freedom from their insularity for them.

The truth, if we examine it, is that dogmatists are fuelled not by pride but by insecurity, not by faith but by envy. They cannot bear the idea that anyone else should feel the liberty they won’t permit themselves to have. This is why they project wildly onto icons and insignia, and organise in mobs. They feel inadequate on their own.

No wonder they hate anyone who can be their own person. All by herself, with a mic. There’ve been at least two more concerted attacks on comedians since last week – on someone who defended the original target, and through the insidious leaking of personal contact details of another. The attackers go after all that opens the heart or mind. It’s no surprise that laughter is anathema to them.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 16th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Unpartitioned

So much happens in the penumbra that the pandemic casts; so much that takes place when our attention has been averted – rulings handed down without our awareness, or at best, in the guise of necessary constraints on civil and other freedoms. Changes in international immigration laws, particularly in the USA, are about to leave lakhs of Indian students and workers stranded, facing deportation or forced into major decisions that may permanently change their trajectories. In the meanwhile, the former colony of Hong Kong has swiftly been politically reabsorbed into a country it does not necessarily want to be a part of any longer. Non-human beings – plants and animals – are losing their habitats to quietly passed decrees. With and without our common knowledge, more like this is happening everywhere.

To return to those people who will now be forced to come “home” – how sure can you be that this is their home? 

I have held Indian citizenship my entire life, despite never having lived in this country until I was an adult. I grew up, first, for a few years, in a nation that has yet to reckon with the long shadow of a civil war. And then, for not a few years at all but for almost eighteen of them, in another nation where I was, for all legal purposes, (you guessed it) an “international student”. At the very end of my time there, I was so desperate to stay that I lived on a tourist visa that required me to perform an emotionally and legally precarious border-crossing every month, until I couldn’t. Every year I’ve been here since then has reinforced my sense of unbelonging. My story isn’t unique.

The stories you think you know – about how only the privileged travel or migrate, about the ignorance and entitlement of the diaspora, and pithy condescensions that one can be at home anywhere in the world – aren’t realities as often as assumed. Life’s vicissitudes are personal and vast. No one is only the document they hold, or don’t.

Let’s bring our attention back “home”, then. Trespasses of physical landscapes are but abstractions, and distractions, in relation to what happens within borders to those presumed to not belong there. While the pandemic can make envisioning broader pictures and possible futures hazy, it’s important to remember that only a few months ago, the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens were blazing issues. They still are, to those who have been or could be personally affected by any similar legal rulings. 

In fact, the pandemic has highlighted just how volatile and arbitrary it truly is to technically be from a place, but have no foothold there, even while within it. The plights of lakhs of “migrant” workers – meaning here only those who’ve moved between states within the same nation – who underwent or undergo special peril during the lockdown should have already taught those of us who haven’t experienced it personally just what a capricious concept belonging is. Some are sheltered within borders, some are held captive, some are exiled beyond them – and most do not know which it is, until the unpartitioned sky feels like it’s falling on their own lives.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 11th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: What’s Behind Your Boycott?

The Chinese are credited for having invented – among many other things – movable type printing, tea cultivation, mechanical clocks, bristle toothbrushes and umbrellas. Plus several other items that are quite debatable in their utility, depending on your perspective of course, such as gunpowder and silk. Why, the oldest known residue of alcohol was discovered in a 9000-year old artefact from Henan province. So if one is really serious about boycotting anything of Chinese origin, the list is exhaustive. Why stop at momos and mobile phones? The same would be true for almost any other region or culture. The weft and warp of human history has many interwoven threads. To try to pry one apart would require an unravelling of the whole. 

Boycotting silk because of its cruelty to silkworms, or because of the exploitation of weavers (this, I personally do as much as I can)? Boycotting tea because of the horrible legacy of colonial tea estates across Asia (this, I can’t give up completely yet – I’m truly sorry)? More power to you who make these meaningful choices. But boycotting noodles made of raw materials from India, manufactured at an Indian factory where Indian people are employed, with the product itself filling the tummies of (yep) Indians? Praising a ban on an app that offered many Indians platforms for their creativity, brought joy to millions more, and gave employment to everyone who worked at any level at their local offices? I’m not clapping for you.

Boycotting is a principled action that may or may not have an impact on the target, but which certainly has a positive bearing on fortifying one’s ideals and sense of personal accountability. The list of things we could thoughtfully boycott include single-use plastics and other materials that affect the environment, brands that use labour unethically, celebrities who promote discrimination or have been abusive, and events sponsored by unscrupulous organisations. For a boycott to be meaningful, it has to not only be about abstaining from something but also include long-term behaviours or short-term actions that support something else. Those who conscientiously boycott goods from another country may want to boost India’s economy by purchasing exclusively from local producers, for example. Matching what would have been spent, had one not set a personal embargo, with an equal donation to a progressive organisation or cause is another way to thoughtfully do this. 

There are plenty of Indian products that deserve our mass boycotts, while we’re on the subject. What about – just for a start – the brand formerly known as Fair & Lovely, which has revamped its name rather than taking itself off the market and apologising to the generations of people it emotionally scarred and the entire races it has insulted? Why brood vaguely on a whole other country when there are companies, institutions and systems right here that require our attention? Besides which, boycotts are only one type of solution. To dismantle with an intent to rebuild – far different from destroying without a plan or as an assertion of force – requires multi-pronged approaches. Does our rejection further the cause we truly support? Do we even know what that cause is, and what it requires?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 4th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Personal Capacity

Please don’t read this column today if your heart needs consolation or your mind needs relief. I would like to be able to give you those things, but to honour my own well-being, I must accept that I don’t have the capacity to right now. Sometimes, I overestimate my capacity and don’t heed the trigger warning myself, so I’m assuring you now that you aren’t missing out if you don’t go further. If what you need today is music, or something delectable to eat, or sunlight through the tracery of leaves, then that’s all you should seek, and no more. There will be other days when excavations and confrontations are due.

But if – and only if – you have the space for it, let’s talk about the weight of the world. Let’s talk about how, when someone well-known takes their own life, there’s a shockwave that goes through the collective, then a range of predictable ripples. People express disbelief, which may be true in the moment but is ultimately hollow, revealing their inability to notice that struggle is a constant in many lives. People are also exhorted to be kind, without exploring what this means in practice. Among these many platitudes is a highly dangerous trend, which repeats every time such an event takes place: the invitation to privately get in touch. “My DMs are open” is the standard line. What happens next? How many truly have the bandwidth to hold the non-judgmental listening space they offered, and how many tap on the lid of someone’s Pandora’s box of pain and then vanish without staying for the murky work of the unpacking?

This time, beyond the trite and sometimes triggering bromides, is a kind of rage that is befitting of the time we’re living in, when everything is being torn down in the hopes of it being remade. There is anger towards an industry designed to ostracise and to withhold rewards. This is a good thing. But the person whose loss spurred these thoughts is erased by the finger-pointing and speculation. That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t named or referenced them directly. Some events like these do become symbols, especially where institutional murders or mysterious and connected demises are concerned. But for others, we must tread more lightly. There’ll always be more names in those hashtags, but they are not just hashtags.

If we engaged with carework, community, solidarity, world-rebuilding and re-envisioning systems on an ongoing basis, there would be less need to frame tragedies as catalysts. We could mourn a person without projecting onto them, co-opting their stories or in any way taking away from something that is ultimately, and profoundly, personal.

But why only mourn when we can support in the first place? If the struggles of the living – oppressed people, abused people, the hard-working and under-compensated, bullied students, anyone at all, really – are acknowledged while it matters, so much grief could be averted. To consider the collective often means to consider more deeply the individual (begin with yourself, and radiate outwards). There is no one approach, except: empathy must be a full-time endeavour, not just an expression reacting to a flare.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 23rd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Pestilence Lore

When an amabie rises out of the ocean (or even, as was chronicled in August 1895, out of an irrigated paddy field), it brings with it two tidings. The first is that an abundant harvest is coming. The second: epidemic will follow. But the amabie of Japanese lore – described as a three-legged mer-creature, usually either scaled or covered in hair – is both harbinger and healer. If the afflicted are shown a drawing of it, they will be free of disease. In the 19th century, woodblock printed newssheets carried these images; today, not only are paper amulets being distributed at Shinto shrines, but manga artists have shared tens of thousands of renderings of this entity online, to ward off the novel coronavirus.

The belief that there are powers that both bestow and dispel disease is reflected in India as well. Here, goddesses including Mariamman, Sitala and Raksha Kali are propitiated, often with the understanding that the illness itself is a form of grace. The Babylonian deity Aplu, the Yoruban orisha Babalú-Ayé, and the Tibetan Parnashabari (who once held sway in India religious practices too) also hold these dualistic powers.

Folk belief, legend and religiosity tread a fluid line. When Norway suffered from bubonic plague in the 14thcentury, the illness became associated with the character of an elderly woman. Named Pesta, she would carry either a rake or a broomstick. If she was sighted with a rake, some succour would appear in the community; if she was sighted carrying a broomstick, then all was doomed. In one tale about Pesta, a boatman realises only mid-way across a river that his passenger is the dreaded plague herself. This is when a third object in her possession is revealed: she has a book, presumably of final fates. The boatman pleads for mercy, but she consults the book and shake her head. She cannot avert his death, although she can ensure that he doesn’t suffer. The lesson: acceptance.

The German legend of the Pied Piper of the town of Hamelin is about a rat-catcher with a mysterious musical instrument that he played to bring the vermin out of their hiding places, holding them enchanted all the way to the outskirts and beyond. Despite ridding the town of the infestation, he didn’t get paid properly – so he exacted his revenge by playing his pipe to lure children away instead. Many versions of the story have tragic endings. Some believe there’s historical evidence of these events, particularly the loss of the children. Because they’d been led away dancing and singing, neither activity is permitted on the street, Bungelosenstraße (“drumless street”) where they were last reportedly seen in June 1284. The lesson: gratitude.

These beliefs and stories may find little favour with science, which does not regard pandemics and contagions as being prone to persuasions in this way. But they are vital. They honour how illnesses are largely arbitrary and inevitable, yet in the magical way of all stories, offer hope to allay the fear, like honey that helps the medicine go down. After all, if there’s one thing the myth of the amabie teaches us, it’s this: art is a remedy.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 9th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Revelation And Apocalypse

The word we use to signify the end of everything is a word that means revelation. The Greek word apokálupsis opens the last book of the New Testament, and had given the scripture its first name according to old titling norms. The dismal prophecies contained therein must eventually have given rise to the English word, and its usage. Yet in and of itself, in its original purity it meant only to see something hitherto unknown with clarity. To have it be unveiled.

Any life aligned to a sense of purpose is a life of varied apocalypses. I hesitated as I typed, wondering if the plural should have been apocalypsi. I couldn’t recall encountering the plural in text, and perhaps that is because the meaning of the word is assumed to be, quite literally, the be-all-and-end-all (this calls to mind some other canonised religious literatures, which are prefaced by “The” rather than the more accurate “A”, as one among hundreds of tellings). Within a single life are many demises, and many rebirthings. This apocalypse we are in now, on a collective scale, is neither the first nor the last one – not for humanity, not for the planet, and not even for many individuals.

In the tarot, the Death card symbolises dramatic change, transformation, a necessary shedding of a chapter or cocoon. Endings and beginnings: the contemplative way is to see these can both be found in the same circumstance, the way a door can both contain and release.

What is true of the afterwards of every apocalypse is that nothing is the same again. In the throes of pandemic, the term “new normal” has been repeated so much that it’s already lost meaning. Perhaps what’s expected to happen is only normalisation, just like abuse and discrimination are normalised. There’s no agency in this, only a shifting of responsibility. That we’ve been let down by the structures that run the world is true, but acquiescence is not only unacceptable, but also a waste of what the poet Mary Oliver called so memorably one’s “one wild and precious life”.

One of the harder spiritual lessons I’ve tried to wrap my head and heart around is how even having confronted peril, and having survived it, some people don’t change. They don’t reckon with themselves, beautify and heal the path they’ve been on, or hold close the gratitude of having survived. This is a choice. Anyone who experiences enough of, or comes out of, this time – rife with a plague, disasters and even locusts, right out myth – has been given a revelation.

In a non-fiction book on faith and art, the author Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “Creative scientists and saints expect revelation and do not fear it.” Perhaps this offers a clue about why some utilise the opportunity while others squander it the way windfalls often are. No matter one’s calling, alignment and purpose show us how to survive, and honour that survival. There’s no mandate for what to do after a test of endurance such as this. There’s an adventure here (from the Latin root, adventus – “arrival”). There is a thereafter, and if we’re in it, what will we do?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 28th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Lipstick Behind My Mask

When enough of this is over – because who knows if all of it ever will be? – there may come a day or an evening when something in the world beckons me to line my eyes and step into it again. I will venture out for something other than an errand or a dreaded obligation, and because I’ve weighed a risk and found that caution cannot convince me out of something that I crave. On that day, I’ll paint my lips and keep them secret, looping a mask over the lower half of my face. Hands that cannot touch but must speak will perform the mudras of the sequestered: fingers to the mask, then palm extended in a kiss presented but not blown; hand to the chest to emphasise the things that words have already conveyed.

Words will have more power in the new world than before, because we will need them more. We may be more easily swayed by them, because anything that contains power is always mined and misused – but we will also wield them better. We will need to, to shorten the new distances between us and fill the voids left by touch and all it does. But we won’t see each other saying them, won’t see how words take shape when spoken. Behind my mask, the lacquer on my lips could be crimson or could even be cyan. Only I would know. Perhaps there’ll be a minute or two when the person I embellish my face for, the company I risk encountering the virus for, will get to view it before we begin our meal. Separated by a clear partition on a disinfected table, served by people who’ve been rendered even more invisible and removed than they already and unfairly were. I’ll smile, vividly, before eating the colour off.

Lipstick is not frivolous. It wasn’t frivolous to the women at the Belsen concentration camp during World War II, who received a strange shipment of red lipsticks, and who (according to the diary of a British lieutenant active in the camp’s liberation) wore it even if they didn’t have adequate clothing to dress themselves in. It wasn’t frivolous for the women because of whom the economic term “lipstick index” was coined, when its sales increased during a recession because it offered a relatively affordable experience of luxury.

Lipstick as assertion of life and the desire for joy. So no, lipstick won’t be frivolous to those who still choose to wear it under their masks as they venture outside in the time to come, tinting their faces beautifully then covering them clinically, coming home to dispose of stained masks, finally understanding why women in cultures where concealment is enforced have always known that beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder. It won’t be frivolous to those who wish to wear it, but have not the means for the purchase, or who can’t for reasons best known to them.

Behind a mask, only the eyes can reveal a smile. But we’ll bring those velvety bullets to lips no one can read, always having known how their blazing colours also tinge the voice.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Who Is To Blame For “boislockerroom”?

How is anyone surprised by the existence of the “boislockerroom” Instagram account, which shared private images of girls and women and was filled with violent fantasies? Run by teenage boys from an elite Delhi school, it is but one such account in an ocean of obscenity. Every woman and girl in India who uses social media knows this. While teenage access to smartphones is a marker of privilege, the larger picture of misogyny in India, even online-based expressions of it, cuts across class, caste and other divisions.

These teenagers did not become practicing misogynists in a vacuum. They aped behaviours that were normalised to them, and were portrayed as aspirational. Let us remember that immediately after the 2018 rape and murder of an 8-year old child in Kathua, the top search term on pornographic websites was for her name. This is a country where too many people hoped that there was footage of such a horrific incident, and sought it for their pleasure.

As I write this, #girlslockerroom is trending on Twitter, with screenshots that allege that the person who exposed the boys’ Instagram account was herself a part of a private group that objectifies men. I’m unable to wade through the misogyny of the tweets to verify where this information originated from. The new hashtag was clearly initiated primarily in a retaliatory fashion, to absolve the male students. 

Those who truly care about men and boys address toxic masculinity, issues relating to transmen and other queer people, mental and other health-related concerns, and socioeconomic challenges such as how class marginalisation and capitalism burden male breadwinners – every day of the year. Just like how feminists talk about the issues that matter to the communities they support, constantly. Those who become advocates for men only when it gives them a chance to criticise women are invested only in taking women down, not in making anything more fair for anyone. If there is to be a similar conversation about male objectification, it needs to be led by feminists of all genders. Not by misogynists.

What we know for certain is that at least one of these “locker rooms” existed. Among the hundreds of participating students will be some who could respond to an opportunity to change, and deserve that chance. No one who has experienced emotional or mental violence through these accounts is obligated to forgive them, but the murky work of moulding better human beings asks that we, who are not directly involved, don’t stop at admonishment and disgust. Otherwise, we’ll be trapped in cycles of outrage, forgetting the tedious work of ongoing resistance when there’s nothing that spikes our anger.

So when we’re done fixating on this group of teenagers, treating them like an anomaly when in fact they are the norm, here’s hoping that more people will trace their shocked “How could this happen?” to a logical conclusion: the hidden malignancies of the institution of family, and the inadequacies of the education system when it comes to teaching empathy and ethics. The blame rests somewhere bigger than on any one kid or the people who raised him. There’s so much more to fix here. 

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 9th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Fiction, Poetry, Essays & Selected Book Reviews/Interviews (2020)

A short story, “Anbarasi and the Ribbon-Fish”, in The Hindu Business Line Ink.

A short story, “In The Forest, Under A Claw-Shaped Moon” in the Influenced: Stories From The Lockdown anthology.

A short story, “Filaments”, in Tata Cliq/Que.

On Annie Zaidi’s Bread, Cement, Cactus, in OPEN.

On Tenzin Priyadarshi’s Running Toward Mystery, in OPEN.

On hereditary dance in contemporary novels, in The Caravan.

On Anukrti Upadhyay’s Kintsugi in Huffington Post.

Interview with Nisha Susan on The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook and Other Stories in Huffington Post.

Interview with Tanuj Solanki on The Machine Is Learning, in GQ India.

A personal essay on Funny Boy and the Indian Tamil gaze on Ilankai Tamils.

Two poems, translated into Italian by Andrea Sirotti, in YAWP.