Category Archives: the venus flytrap

The Venus Flytrap: What The Virus Shows Us

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Imagine if able-bodied people routinely honoured habits taught in kindergarten – like closing the tap while lathering up or brushing, or washing hands after using the bathroom (many have commented on how long the queues at sinks in men’s bathrooms are right now, which tells you…). Imagine if these remarkably simple habits weren’t regarded as crisis-only measures. In fact, we’re already in crisis, all the time. Climate change has long been scheduled to kill us and many of Earth’s other populations, but that’s never taken seriously. Wash your hands, yes, but remember: even if you survive the coronavirus epidemic, the planet is running out of water and summer is around the corner.

Meanwhile, some European airlines, legally required to perform 80% of their allocated routes or lose them to competitors, have been burning fuel on empty planes. This is the kind of excess that misses the point: human life is at stake because of how humans have chosen to live.

This epidemic has begun to show that many of the structures that undergird modern civilisation are deeply flawed. The capitalist model in which few profit while many struggle is profoundly unsustainable. So is any system which deprioritises the environment. Or any way of life that strips us of our humanity, turning us into cogs in wheels, Other-ing peoples, measuring our worth by our productivity (or by any measure of validation that erodes our integrity or joy).

In this state of emergency, universities have switched to online classes, jetsetting meetings have become conference calls and telecommutes have been encouraged for various white collar jobs. People with disabilities, often excluded from opportunities because “there’s no substitute for presence”, have rightly shown indignation at how the world has been quickly reordered now whereas lobbying was ignored. The truth is that more of us could operate like this all the time: saving money, fuel and personal energy while cutting environmental risks and improving our quality of life.

International travel bans reveal starkly how illusory the lure of hashtag wanderlust always was. Just because we can have something doesn’t mean we need it. Especially when, like hand sanitisers today and maybe hospital beds tomorrow, there isn’t enough to go around. We’re also realising how free universal healthcare and paid sick leave are fundamental rights, which too many are deprived of.

We didn’t arrive at pandemic panic without there being long-term decisions at high authoritative levels. Our anger must be used to perform our own civic duties better, demanding greater accountability from those in power who can make structural differences, and activating change on the individual level too.

Experts currently say that most who contract coronavirus will recover, but to maintain high caution to protect the vulnerable (the elderly, the immunocompromised, etc.) who may be infected through them. What is a flu to one is death to another. If this doesn’t lend itself to a pithy teaching on responsibility and interconnectivity, what will? If this epidemic doesn’t galvanise those who survive it to insist on radically changing bureaucratic and ethical norms so that they support rather than define what society is, then humanity truly is doomed – and not because of a virus.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 12th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Anxiety In Times Of Public Crisis

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Over the weekend, a series of anxieties I’d been having all month came to a head and – clarity dawning on me on what the root cause was – I decided to cocoon myself, digitally and otherwise. I locked my social media accounts, refrained from posting, minimised online consumption and focused on grounding myself. My experience is subjective in that I am a double exile: I belong to a minority that experienced genocide, moved to an apartheid state in childhood, lost that one for speaking the truth, and am an official but not sentimental citizen here. I have a sensitivity to the conditions that lead to violence, the way certain birds know when a storm is coming. But my experience is not unique, either – all over India, news and footage of brutality, coming most recently out of Delhi, have been upsetting, confusing and frightening to people with a conscience. For some, the events triggered the trauma of prior occurrences, but one needn’t have personal or communal memory of persecution to feel affected by them, even from a distance.

A friend thoughtfully shared what someone she looks to for spiritual guidance told her: that one must avoid the tendency to narrativise in these times, managing them in small increments so as to not become overwhelmed. This may seem at first glance to be counter-logical. Should we deny the big picture? Should we ignore what led us here, and what historically has been proven to lead from here? No and no, but we must remember to locate ourselves within this largeness as well. I recalled what a healer told me once on dealing with another kind of PTSD that is also mine: invoke the stars above me, and the earth below me. This is similar to the sensory awareness exercise known as the 54321 method that cognitive behavioural therapists teach, identifying sights, smells, sounds, textures and tastes in one’s immediate surroundings to defuse the state of panic.

An online group counselling session I joined seemed directed at encouraging people to seek individual help – but professional therapy, like all healthcare, is a luxury. It was clear that many people are distressed, and far from apathetic. This was affirming to see, in a way. Still, I found myself unable to schedule an appointment with my own therapist exclusively to discuss the way the socio-political climate was clawing at my past and making me terrified for the future. I soothed myself with wordless children’s books. I freed myself from the tyranny of articulation.

In times of horror, we are repeatedly called to stand up, speak up, hold the line. We are told we are cowards for observing without action, even if fear paralyzes us. We are told we are privileged if we look away even to catch our breath. All these statements are empty ones in the shadow of the horror itself. I have no better statements for you, not today. I hold this mirror up only to show you that you are not alone. And maybe, steadily, we will find ways to help ourselves and one another as we parse what has happened and what is still to come. Breathe. Breathe.

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

The Venus Flytrap: The Vocabulary of Violence

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Somewhere near the end of a marriage, a well-regarded author had an initially consensual sexual encounter which turned violent. She looked this truth in the eye in an essay published a few years ago, when she perceived the encounter in a way that was complicated, but cathartic. Time passed, and she seems to have found herself still triggered by news about the other person, who continues to thrive in the world. She looked more of the truth in the eye, saw more of the ugliness that remained despite her will to narrativise her experience in a nuanced way. Last week, she tweeted and deleted and tweeted and deleted, finally saying that she chose “a peaceful life” over this struggle.

As Harvey Weinstein, notorious sexual predator from the cinema field, finally goes to jail, there are all kinds of thoughts swirling about what we’ve learned in the last couple of years, how we’ve reckoned with our experiences, and about the limits of language. Most of us will never know the vindication of having those who destroyed us, or tried to, have justice meted out to them. Some may have pursued due process, and found that the system is designed to fail them. Many more won’t or can’t. I am speaking not only of abuses of a sexual nature, but of all violations that become unspeakable because the consequences of revelation are too high.

But let us return to the topic of only those grim events that some say fall under a “grey area”, where consent, pleasure and violation (and even love) were all present to different degrees. Concepts of justice that come from rigid or punitive frameworks, which require cleaner experiential demarcations, may not give us release. The “peaceful life” of not being forever known by someone else’s wrongdoing is preferable.

The Me Too era has helped many privately reframe and understand certain experiences differently. I know that I have. This kind of excavation takes courage. The feelings and the words for them get jumbled like alphabet soup. Some of those words cannot be walked back. I do not want to freeze myself into them. The point of the grey area is that it is not either/or. Where events were complex, and where we resist simplifying them, it can be powerful to keep the knowledge that one’s feelings are tidal.

There’s no statute of limitations on trauma. The whisper network is not only about warnings, as is commonly understood. It’s about being able to see one’s truth whole, and process it meaningfully with those one is close to. Some silences are not suppressions, but ways of retaining power or peace. They aren’t necessarily silences at all, but allow for holding experiences and healing from them.

“The vocabulary of sexual assault is not always enough to communicate our experiences of violence,” decolonial feminist scholar Dr. Anjana Raghavan said to me in a personal conversation. “Often, our stories are cut short by responses of outrage or defensiveness. It will not suffice as a long-term strategy.” I quote her with permission; in the messiness of forming and unlearning strategies, among the silences and incompleteness, her words are succinct.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 27th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Patriarchy Is Taught, Not Intrinsic

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On Valentine’s Day, students at the women-only Mahila Arts and Commerce College, Maharashtra, were asked to take a mass oath declaring that they would never fall in love, have a romantic relationship, or marry someone of their own choosing. They would have arranged marriages, but without providing a dowry. The few among them who spoke to the press appear to have taken the oath by choice. It was not clear, however, whether they had been presented with a choice not to.

At another college, Shri Sahjanand Girls’ Institute in Gujarat, 68 women hostelites were forcibly made to remove their undergarments for a sudden inspection. The college’s bylaws forbid menstruating women from sitting with non-menstruating women during mealtimes. Their periods are noted in a register, and they must stay in the hostel’s basement during the same. Obviously, the college is not a co-ed one. Its name itself is patronising – to use “Girls” to describe women is to reduce their agency as adults.

The college’s egregious privacy violation, and the discriminatory mealtime segregation that led to it, comes because it is run by a religious sect that counts among its edicts that those who consume food prepared by a menstruating woman will be reborn as oxen, and women who cook while menstruating will be reborn as dogs. Specifically, as female dogs.

I can’t bring myself to use the correct English term in this context, even though I’m not averse in the least to its carefully-deployed or subversive expressions (including as reclamations of feminine power). One headline I saw used the Hindi word, as per a discourse by the sect leader’s, followed in brackets by the English translation. I’m not Hindi-proficient. I don’t know if it packs a punch in that language, but the effect of the English word in the mouth of a man, directed at a woman, is often stomach-turning. I felt the word inside those brackets. I felt its etymology of hatred towards all that is female, fertile and free.

These incidents have occurred around the same time as a senior politician’s statement that education is one of the factors that enables divorce, which he blamed for familial and societal breakdowns. Neither the nature of these incidents, nor of the mindset revealed in that statement, are new. In fact, they are oppressions we’ve collectively been challenging, and even changing, for a long time. Their resurgence is something to be vigilant about.

A hilarious and horrifying matrimonial ad – in which a man of many bigotries and no employment demands that potential wives who meet his thorough checklist get in touch via SMS but do not call him – has been making the rounds. Each time I saw it, it occurred to me how every mocking reshare also broadcast the ad further. There are women out there who fit the bill, who see themselves proudly in roles that scaffold a patriotic-patriarchal agenda. There are also women out there who may not think of themselves as rebels, who only lie that they’re not having their periods so they can spend time with their friends. Then there are women watching, counting down, making the connections. They’re coming for us all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 20th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Once Again, The Heart

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I went looking for something heart-shaped to use as a photo prop, and amongst my objects just as in my life, I found nothing. That ubiquitous icon had far less presence than I’d assumed, except perhaps by way of ink on paper. I have signed words with lipstick kisses and scrawled sigils, like anyone hopeless and hot-blooded. I thought I had filled my life with love, or at least my longing for it, but it appeared to been abstracted. Not a single heart-shaped handmade soap, cheap ring of sentimental value or box that had once held similarly crafted chocolates could be found among the miscellany that is mine. I made do with a decaying rose – how’s that for a metaphor?

The heart symbol is not mere kitsch; its form is derived from the seed or the fruit of the near-mythical silphium plant. Its other names are uncertain, but it was known to be an aphrodisiac, a contraceptive and an abortifacient, thus making it a regalia of desire and its corollaries like no other.

And then I remembered why I think I see it everywhere: if it feels like the heart symbol is embroidered into my life with the frequency of a hem stitch, it’s because of emojis. Big red ones that throb flagrantly on the phone screen, or burst into tiny heart-bubbles with a sound effect to match. Sweet little multi-coloured ones. I send them everyday. They are sent back to me, always, and this is only because as frivolous as I may be in punctuating my messages with them, I’m not frivolous about who receives them. I can’t afford to be. One of my other, actual hearts – my subtle-body one, not the anatomical one, although we know that the weight of the world on the blood-circulating one is not light – knows better. Not everyone is deserving. Not everyone will meet openness with gentleness, even if the truth hurts.

Earthworms have five literal ones; octopi and squid can have three. We have fewer of those, just a solo organ because of which everything rises and falls, but perhaps several other kinds. Secret hearts no one knows we harbour. Folded-and-kept-in-pockets hearts. Dissolved-like-ash-in-water hearts. We love and lose, and linger in our own afterlives.

Apropos everything and nothing at all, I was thinking of St. Valentine – the martyred saint whose name is taken, sometimes in vain, each year. I must confess that my thoughts were a little macabre. I’d read that the holy relic of his skull, adorned with a crown of flowers a la Frida Kahlo, is kept in a small Roman church. This is of especial importance because his hagiography holds that he was beheaded by order of the law. Other corporeal relics of his are scattered across Europe. My macabre wondering was about his physical heart. Perhaps it was the Kahlo-esque imagery that made the idea that it would be cherished separately spring to my mind.

A heart in its own case, its own cocoon. But isn’t that in some ways always so – that whatever beats within us also has at least one counterpart that tendrils ectopically, as fragile and full as a balloon?

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

[P.S. Read also: https://sharanyamanivannan.in/2011/09/29/the-heart/]

The Venus Flytrap: Shaheen Bagh

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Night and day on the banks of the Yamuna river, a peaceful ongoing gathering led by women has become the inspiration the nation needs to turn towards humane principles. At Shaheen Bagh, crowds are said to burgeon to thousands at times. The very elderly hold court here bravely. Children have always been welcome here, and a vibrant culture of music, puppetry, reading together (aloud and silently) and more has been created by participants of all ages. A small shadow has fallen over this beacon of resistance. A four month old infant, Jahaan, who accompanied his mother Nazia for many rounds of vigil at the protest site, passed away last week after suffering from cold and congestion.

Nazia has already returned to Shaheen Bagh. “Why was I doing this?” she responded to the media. “For my children and the children of all us who need a bright future in this country.” She has two other children under six years old, and her family is of a working-class background.

There are many, especially among the privileged, who brand her selfish, irresponsible, a paid agent and worse. They blame her for her baby’s death. If Jahaan had grown older, and been murdered one day for having been at the wrong place at the wrong time while wearing a skullcap – as happened to 15-year old Junaid on a train in 2017 – would such tears still fall? There are similarities here to the concern that anti-abortion activists and right-wing people in many countries (including India) claim to have for theoretical children, even as they turn away from the plight of refugee children interned in border camps, queer children who are bullied to suicide, and students left behind by warped education systems that sustain generational poverty. The least vitriolic among them may find an individual case “sad”, while refusing to acknowledge how a sequence of events was set in motion. To do so would to be agree with those who protest, at Shaheen Bagh or anywhere.

The trajectory of this bereavement, and the blame for it, doesn’t rest on one person’s choice. How many details there are to determine whether a child will survive a Delhi winter if he has a bad cold. Does his shanty have adequate heating? Do his parents have money for medical expenses and nourishing food? Does their clinic have enough resources? Does the structure of society, with its interlinked hierarchal systems, provide for their wellbeing? In short: would this child survive a bad cold even if he hadn’t caught it a protest? How then can a parent’s decision to take him there be considered the sole one for his demise?

What kind of parent takes a child to a protest? One who cares. One who knows that the world that child has been born into will not let her protect it from its iniquity for long, and that by showing him the truth, she inoculates him against indifference. One on whose behalf we can also ask these questions: What kind of parent teaches a child discrimination? What kind of parent wants a child to inherit a world from which plurality, freedom and compassion have been excised?

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

The Venus Flytrap: Self-Care & Capitalism

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I thought The Goop Lab, Gwyneth Paltrow’s new Netflix series, would be the perfect lazy watch to zone out on, and drain out my snarky side (like physical aggression can be gym-ed away, we’d do well to very carefully and privately dispose of our other belligerences). I couldn’t get past the introductory reel, which ends on the weak laughter of her employees before they are subjected to extreme experiences. It only takes a basic familiarity with workplace dynamics to know what would happen to those who didn’t agree to take shrooms, explore their sexuality on camera, share their deepest secrets or anything else the job requires.

Paltrow says that her company is all about “the optimization of the self”, as explained by the question, “how can we milk the shit out of this [life]?” Well, presumably she meant life, but given that Goop is a multi-million dollar company, who knows? Believe me when I say I’m desperately trying to bite back the snark, but the catalogue includes a candle supposedly scented like her own vagina, and a USD15,000 gold-plated sex toy.

Goop is only the pinnacle of a global culture of capitalist appropriation of the radical concept of self-care. Most of the brands whose products we can’t help but succumb to, thanks to attractive keywords like “organic”, “sustainability-conscious” and “authentic”, fall under this umbrella. Self-care is a necessity, not a luxury, as many pretty ads say. Some of what self-care entails may come naturally, while we need to be reminded of other aspects. The concept has been explored by activists, psychologists, medical field researchers and human rights historians in ways that teach us to honour its importance.

Its conflation with capitalism is where we must be wary. Moreover, a substantial portion of what the self-care industry appropriates, repackages and promotes comes directly out of traditional and indigenous wisdom.

The damage done is two-fold. Tangible effects range from patents being slapped on ingredients and practices which take them away from the communities that best understand them, to crises such as the over-harvesting of sage and child labour in crystal-gathering. Secondly, the avarice in all capitalism-driven enterprise leads to cutting corners, exaggerated prices and dishonest promotion. Chasing the bottomline erases the care with which the original methods were intended to be applied.

The products become parodies, and in turn are parodied. This begets disrespect towards therapeutic and beauty methods or instruments which are indeed effective, as well as towards their practitioners (who are rarely ever well-compensated financially) and beneficiaries, who then hesitate to share information on their healing. One of our colonial hangovers is the rejection of native wisdom in favour of allopathy. But the stealing of such wisdom by money-oriented businesses, whether they are pharmaceutical or cosmetic, neither meaningfully imparts nor protects it.

I should be the last person to lecture anyone on consumer habits. So I’ll share only what’s been true for me: it’s been really important that I sieve apart when my desires are about self-care, when they are about addiction (including emotional deflection), and when they are about indulgence. When I don’t deceive myself, the lies of brands can’t hoodwink me as easily.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 30th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.