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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.

The Venus Flytrap: Vicariously Voyeuristic

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Photographs of actor Jennifer Aniston, looking radiant as she greeted her ex-husband Brad Pitt backstage at the 2020 SAG Awards, capture vividly the micro-reactions within an encounter which video shows lasted barely a few seconds. Thrilled to see each other but moving in different directions, they touched as they pass. The affection shared between them sent ripples of delight across the world. It was a beautiful set of moments, but best understood as self-contained.

In 2010, the performance artist Marina Abramovic held a major show at New York’s MoMA, “The Artist Is Present”, in which she sat silently and essentially “gave darshan”. People who queued for hours to have her briefly look into their eyes reported epiphanic experiences, including cathartic tears. Among them was her former collaborator and ex-partner Ulay. There’s footage of her beginning to cry when she sees him, his own wordless communication, and her finally leaning across the table to take his hands. The crowd applauds. In the context of what Abramovic’s show tapped into – esoteric concepts of human connection, and of seeing and being seen – it was all very poignant. Still, he sued her to the tune of €250,000 a few years later (and won). Then he appeared for another public reunion at another event of hers (performance artists!). Now, they’re rumoured to be working on a book together.

Their true dynamic is between them. Our projections on the same belong to us, and show us insights into ourselves. Aniston and Pitt’s amiable encounter serves the same hunger in us for stories of reconciliation as the Abramovic-Ulay one did.

We do know that the end of their marriage was bitter, and that Aniston has been painted ever since as an icon of personal disappointment. They’ve been divorced for 15 years, during which Pitt created a family with actor Angelina Jolie. That marriage ended with child abuse and substance abuse allegations against him. How revealing of gender politics that he could make light of his chequered life onstage at the awards show, whereas Aniston never stopped being skewered in the press for having been abandoned. In the tabloid-fueled collective imagination, rekindling things with Pitt is supposed to be Aniston’s happily ever after. But would we really wish that on anyone?

The extremely, uncomfortably public lives of two others – and the decision they’ve made to protect themselves – are relevant here. The actor Meghan Markle and the gentleman formerly known as Prince Harry announced this month that they would be formally leaving the British monarchy in the hope of receiving less scrutiny and harassment. Their choice challenges both the institutions of monarchy and of family, which desperately need either dismantling or reconfiguration. Surely that’s more interesting that focusing on the individuals.

The “public eye” is not always so public. It may include neighbours, extended family, friend circles, strangers on social media. All of us are under pressure to conform to a narrative that’s acceptable, even attractive – even while vicious narratives may be imposed on us. It’s cyclic: we can’t tear our eyes away from other people’s lives, either. Since we are all constantly cross-watching, perhaps it’s prudent to ask – what are we being shown?

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

The Venus Flytrap: Reconciling Spirituality & Resistance

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Last week, a possibly well-intended but definitely poorly-executed infographic made the rounds, with a pair of lists intended to distinguish Hinduism from Hindutva, the fundamentalist strain of the former. The infographic relied heavily on scripture and comparison, and erased completely the existence of oppressions of caste, gender and other divisions. As someone with a spiritual life, elements of which draw from practices which fall under the umbrella of Hinduism, I was appalled by its lack of political consciousness. I am not being purposely vague in my self-description. My phrasing is meant to register my opposition to many structural and practical aspects of organised religion, my discomfort in identifying myself with one, as well as the syncretism of my beliefs – while still acknowledging this part of who I am and what influences it.

This is a necessary self-reckoning for people of all spiritual inclinations and religious backgrounds. When fundamentalisms arise, responding by attempting to a-historically defend religions is not only insufficient but dangerous. When we do this, we participate in creating the veneer of gentility that allows for injustice and violence to occur and be swept under the carpet when it does.

I have only respect for those who find that the most effective way is to throw the bhakti out with the bhakts’ bathwater, as many distinguished sociopolitical thinkers have done. I can also extend my understanding to those who, unable to counter the sophistication of critical theory with a sound articulation of why they feel as they do, think that aligning with orthodoxy is the only way to retain the solace they receive from what is ultimately a deeply private engagement. They feel that they have no choice but to side with factions which, while possibly structurally oppressing them, will not overtly shame them (this is done covertly, by fostering insecurity and an inferiority complex). Both these sets of believers will disagree with me, but I do not see them as binaries and neither do I see myself as being in the middle.

I am speaking to – but not for – those who also belong to neither set, but who believe that a vital public rendition of one’s sacred self demands standing up against inequality, challenging systemic persecution and resisting tyranny. By its nature, this cannot be consolidated into a movement, but can interweave with the good work already being done.

It is not by defending religion that we absolve ourselves, but in practising a deeper enquiry into where our beliefs, practices and the world intersect. We must look at the true guiding principles of our private faiths, and see how perfectly tenets like compassion and integrity match with tenets like secularism and justice. This is far from an easy process, and has costs including losing personally meaningful guides who espouse bigotry.

I learned that if there is no room for my sexuality, my politics or my love for the environment within an available framework, I must make my own. And we each should. Our very own, deeply personal ones, which do not seek to evangelise, but which allow us to move through the world ethically and with grace – in all senses of the word.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Sometimes, Resistance

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Sometimes resistance is in making art, in creating something that serves as a respite or a record, or even both. It’s a different mode of the imagination, working not with the potential of personal failure but against the question of greater futility. To ask the question of whether art is futile and then to make it anyway is an act of faith, and one which supports acts of defiance and necessary disobedience.

Sometimes resistance is in writing poetry, measuring words out so that they sing and sting at once. Sometimes resistance is in reading it: comparing translations, researching what happened in the year it was penned, finding out how the poet lived and died (and whether it was because of what they believed in). Sometimes it’s in the contemplation of how, stripped of those identifying details, it’s eerie in how many places, and at how many points in time, what’s described could resonate. Sometimes resistance is in saying the lines out loud, matching their rhythm to a melody. Sometimes resistance is in a song.

Sometimes resistance is in putting one’s body on the line, in marching or in sitting for hours in candlelight or under the sun, letting placards shout when the vocal cords need rest. It’s in letting sheer presence register a cause, while risking physical danger.

Sometimes resistance is in prayer, not merely for one’s own comfort, but with the profound belief that nothing that is truly holy will condone cruelty, especially when it is executed in its name.

Sometimes resistance is in study, in seeking out information that has been suppressed, tracing the trajectory of events, applying one’s own intelligence, and always remembering the proverb, “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.”

Sometimes resistance is in argument, in saying the words as clearly as possible even while shaking and shaking with rage, or with sheer horror at the lack of empathy in the challenger. Sometimes resistance is in consciousness-raising conversation, in listening non-judgmentally and offering counter-points.

Sometimes resistance is in crying afterwards.

Sometimes resistance is in silence: the dignity with which one leaves a table at which no room is made for anyone deemed the Other, even if one’s own name is embossed on a seat there. This is not the same silence as lying by omission. It is not the same silence as turning away.

Sometimes resistance is in drawing a kolam, putting one’s intention into something destined for disintegration. Sweeping it clean and starting over with fresh intention each time. Quite often, perhaps, resistance is like drawing a kolam. It’s quotidian work, located at the threshold of what is personal and what is public. It’s a generous act, sustaining legions of working ants. Averting evil through its geometric codes. Inviting blessings and visitors. One bends to the ground and touches it in the most eloquent rejoinder to the question of art’s futility, as if to say: “I draw this pattern because I believe in its beauty and its function. And because my belief in its power – and my capacity to replenish it – won’t change, you are more than welcome to step across its lines”.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Schopenhauer’s Porcupines

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The bistro was closing, the small city’s streets quietening even further, when the conversation among the last of us lingering at the table meandered onto the subject of how to love well. A friend spoke of a letter he had once written to an old beloved, in which he had referenced a fable written by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, which delineated how causing and feeling pain are inevitable elements of intimacy.

In Schopenhauer’s tale, a group of porcupines huddling together for warmth in winter discover that unless they learn how to negotiate the reality of each other’s quills, they will perish. The story appeals equally to those who believe that feeling and wanting deep love will invariably cause agony, and those who believe that a compromise can be found. At the table, his hands and fingers enacting the movement of raised and acquiesced quills, my friend beautifully rendered the theory like so: “Each time two porcupines try to get close, one risks getting injured, if the other has its quills up but this one doesn’t. And if both do, they cannot draw nearer.” Someone else at the table completed the thought: “… Both must lower their quills at the same time, in order to be together.”

I have suffered when I’ve had my quills up,” I said. Our taxis arrived; we hugged goodbye with plans of meeting in other places, but not before I told my friend concisely about how liberated I had felt a few months earlier, when I had told someone (who’d reappeared in a Machiavellian flourish) how they had hurt me, with unvarnished honesty. As an anecdote, it is flippant, but I consider every baring of the heart a triumph. For me, the greater woundings I carry all have to do with variations on silence – denials of truth, manipulations, fear censoring the words. This is why seemingly smaller encounters, which are not supposed to have an impact, feel amplified to me. In their provocation are echoes of other things unsaid or suppressed. Each time I express my experience, there’s more breath in my body, more felicity in my choices that follow.

To lower one’s quills is about receptivity too, not only vulnerability. It’s also about courage, which tends to frighten those who don’t engage because of fear. As another friend put it: “When you tell someone you feel hurt, they can’t twist that fact. What will they say: insist that you don’t feel hurt?” This courage prevails against both lies and silence. I had found it powerful to lower my quills to show someone whom I knew did not care for me that I knew I was worth caring for.

Mulling the porcupines’ dilemma, it’s clear: the ones worth loving and being loved by have the wisdom to know that we will hurt each other, but more intentional than the hurting is the resolve – and the trust –  that we will always try not to. The ones who love well know that we are all quill-bearing creatures in need of warmth, bristly but so very tender, and capable of patiently learning where each love needs leeway, and where it locks into place, snugly.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Reminders At Reis Magos

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Here is a partial list of some of the plants I noticed a few days ago at the Reis Magos Fort in North Goa: asarina vines with light purple trumpet-like blossoms; frangipani trees statuesque in a courtyard that could been in a different edifice (an inspired house, a resort); dark-leaved Krishna tulasi; white bougainvillea; coconut trees ridging the coastline of the Mandovi estuary; a banyan tree that – a sign tells you – parasitically strangulated a coconut tree over almost a century then collapsed once its host caught fire; flowering weeds whose names elude my knowledge, growing mutinously between the red laterite bricks. I had wanted to see the fort, and the view of open water from its citadel points, but once I was there a strange feeling made me linger on the foliage instead.

When this Fort became a jail, the opening at the back was sealed with masonry,” said a signboard on the wall outside an entrance. I didn’t step inside. There was a lamp hanging from the ceiling, and beyond it a simple door with bars that revealed fronds of leaves, the water, and Panjim on the other side of a bridge. In other places therein, the glass that had been put in during reconstruction transformed the space, as windows do. Sunlight flooded away the tangibility, but not the fact, of what had happened within those solitary confinement cells and prison holds. To imagine what had was what caused the dizziness that made me steady myself with greenery.

I found it beautiful, this centuries-old fort restored into use and given such serenity only as recently as a decade ago. Its beauty was necessarily marred by its history, exhibited in signs throughout, in captions alongside photographs of freedom fighters and longer descriptions chronicling aspects of Goa’s political past. I skimmed the texts, a little apprehensive about the slant they may take. One anecdote caught my eye: of how African soldiers (from where, though; the only description was “tribesmen”?), themselves under colonial rule, had been deployed by Portugal to suppress revolutionary dissent. In order to manipulate them, they were shown maps depicting Goa as being larger than India. It’s an age-old tactic, exaggerating threats, and still used today to spread misinformation and goad people into inhumane actions.

It was impossible to ignore the larger signs (except if one can’t read in English). Near the entrance, I looked up to see a “Death Hole”. Upstairs, in a hall lined with art by Mario Miranda, was its other side. One could reverse vantage points: feel the claustrophobia of the idea of hot oil cascading from the ceiling, and then feel the bloodthirst and security of being where one could thwart the enemy.

From within a fort, one can believe oneself safe. One can take borrowed pride in its architecture. One can even let the robust walls muffle the sounds of nearby screaming. One can. That never means that one should. History doesn’t only echo. Sometimes it’s in what’s here, condemned to repetition. The signs are all there, and when we’ve steadied ourselves on pretty plants and sun-dappled waves and sea breezes, we cannot refuse to look at them.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 26th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Do Not Be Daunted

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All around the world, political currents which seemed to some to only be undulating, just mildly threateningly, on the horizon have not-so-suddenly arrived onshore. Those who warned about what could come or tried to stop it were not able to keep bigotries, anti-democratic actions and sectarianism at bay. If this moment is historical, it is not only because people in the future (if humanity has a future, although climate change experts predict otherwise) will speak of it and trawl through records of it, but also because it has happened many times already. Such times – in which vast tides of populations turned towards destructive ideologies – are a part of known history, both recent and distant. In such times, Bertolt Brecht – who lived in exile away from Germany when the Nazis were in power – wrote, we will have to “keep singing”. To quote: “In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing About the dark times.”

This could be read as a moral imperative – that there must be singing, so to speak, no matter how bleak the larger reality we live in. We can understand “singing” as including all manner of arts, all modes of study, and all acts of creation, including abstractly the raising of children, the tending of plants and self-care. But that final line – “About the dark times” – holds a standard for that imperative. Again, everywhere, the question arises of what the artist’s, teacher’s (or in our particular time, influencer’s) responsibility is in bringing awareness to injustice, helping galvanise change, or recording events.

Many hold this responsibility incredibly seriously, which we need. But to chastise those who don’t is correct only when it comes to those who refuse to, who support the status quo and prefer the different forms of denial that allow it. For there are those who create joy as neither denial nor distraction, but as salve and reviving agent. Beauty and sweetness are powerful healers. We cannot give in to the idea that there can only be grimness in “the dark times”; we must not lose our sense of melody, and of the many ways to strike a chord.

The Talmud – a legal compilation sacred to Jews, who were persecuted by the Nazis (our modern benchmark for democratically-elected evildoers) – offers possible instructions in the form of these beautiful instructions: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” The last line is the most resonant. It’s simply not going to be possible to be a torchbearer, a teller-of-truth-to-power, at all times. Exhaustion, personal circumstances, self-doubt, reasonable fear and difficulty will happen to even the best among us. Perhaps one more way to interpret that directive, and use it well, is to understand that it’s not necessary to be hopeful, or imagine that we must behave as beacons of hope, but when hope comes, we must honour it. In this way, little by little, we will still do what we can to resist, record – and rise above.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 19th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Feminist Pishachinis

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Before I sat down to write this, I was sure that almost every woman columnist in the country has written, will write about, or is currently submitting a file on the same topic at this time. We were going to repeat ourselves and each other, I thought, overlapping in our grief and our jargon. And we had to: we had to reinforce what’s important, spread the message in different circles, be a chorus of resistance. Then I sat down, and found my heart in my mouth and no words at my fingertips. There have been years and years of words: words in whispers, words in affidavits, words in screenshotted conversations, words in editorials, words out loud (even scream-loud), words swallowed but turned to choices, words that echo. And yet.

A few months ago, a misogynistic NGO in Karnataka organised what they called a “Feminist Pishachini Mukti Puja”, a year after their Kanpur chapter organised symbolic funerary rites for women who had left their marriages. One organiser called the experience “cathartic” for the ex-husbands who performed these rituals. They consider themselves activists for men’s rights. Such events gave some of us well-deserved memes and humour breaks, but it was sadness that reminded me of them. Both to laugh at and to perform the spell-casting are to lose the point: no magic is needed to make women suffer in India. For that, we have: patriarchy, politicians, police, people in our homes, people in our workplaces, people who are complete strangers, people in public, people online. They may be, and are, of any gender. They may be, and are, of any affiliation. What they have in common is that they hate us so deeply: women, other women, some women, women unlike themselves, any woman, all women. That hatred manifests as everything from protective measures to punitive measures.

I looked at the faces of the men in photos of that puja to eradicate women, and at the faces of the men in the photos of a celebration of the extrajudicial encounter in Hyderabad in which 4 suspects in a murder-rape were killed. Both sets motivated by the same violent impulses and beliefs. Any woman they had in mind was theoretically theirs to destroy, or avenge. The divorcees had been abusive, as their participation ascertained. Those cheering the fatal encounter – having left their wives, daughters, mothers, women co-workers and friends somewhere “safe” – were, statistically speaking, also more likely to be than not. Besides, violence is not only physical.

In the last few days, many women have managed to say – through the mire of renewed heartsickness and anger – exactly how this makes us feel. This is how we feel all the time. Each time something horrific happens, we aren’t reacting with shock. There’s a fear we live with constantly, a fear of something that’s like a pollutant in the air. We breathe it in every day. Some days, someone dies because of it. If there is a day at all in India in which that doesn’t happen (just because it doesn’t become a headline doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen), it’s still a day on which someone – no, many – survived an attempt.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 12th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: False, Or Incomplete?

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Last week’s column was spurred by reactions to a potentially false sexual harassment allegation, but did not delve into the catalyst for the same: (potentially) false allegations. Over the past two years, with more women than ever sharing their experiences of harassment and assault, the question of veracity has come up repeatedly. It’s a fair one. But it’s also a good-faith practice to acknowledge that very few people stand to gain from such fabrications. Outliers (or plain liars, if you prefer) who do benefit are outnumbered by those who risk, and face, consequences for telling the truth. We can objectively accept that a tiny percentage of fraudulent cases exist, but that they should not cancel out the rest. We can also attempt to talk about what falseness means.

Firstly, there’s a difference between potentially false and incomplete, and the latter is often tarred with the same brush as the former. An incomplete story can have complicated factors, like: being in love with the perpetrator, being pressured by sources other than the perpetrator (like their “cool” friends) to go along with a situation, and so on. It can be difficult to respect people who distance themselves from their earlier allegations, especially if they’ve made it challenging for others to come forward afterwards in the same environment. But our private character judgements should not cloud principled stands.

In certain uncomfortable situations, wherein I did not have a good intuitive reading of the accuser or their desired outcomes, I’ve found it possible to consider the spirit of what was being said, if not the letter. This has been true in cases in which an unreliable narrator blew the lid open on a well-connected and gregarious accused, who had long been protected. What we can believe then is not the speaker’s testimony as much as the many crusted layers of silence, denial and complicity that allowed the perpetrator to carry on as they had. Within these layers are the stories we’d quietly known all along, always whispered or implied, as well as our own secrets – such as how prided ourselves on being street-smart enough to escape, or how we had experienced trouble too, but mollified the situation, or how much we liked the alleged perpetrator.

A series of particularly gruesome rapes and murders were reported in India last week, and some will wonder why I’m still writing about sexual harassment when “more serious crimes” are happening. But it’s an obfuscation to place crimes on a continuum of violence without acknowledging how a continuum functions, how actions increase in violence the more we allow leeway for what we perceive as minor infractions. Ribald jokes in the office aren’t on the same scale of egregiousness as assault, but both are wrong. We must see how they are related: how being okay with one wrong leads to the next worse thing being possible, and then the next worse, until… The webcomic Sanitary Panels said it best with a cogent new take.  “This is horrific! Why don’t women talk about sexual violence more?” says a stick figure holding a newspaper. “We do. But you don’t believe us if we’re alive…” responds the other.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 5th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: #MeToo Messiness

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Let me be the first to admit that I don’t really have a good understanding of the latest Twitter-based scandal involving a man accused of sexual harassment, audio recordings in which an advocate purportedly tries to conceal evidence, and one of the more social media-visible participants of the #MeToo movement in India. I came to hear of it through a dramatic pronouncement by a heterosexual male friend, whose “all of metoo is false” text message I responded to with a slew of eyeroll emojis. It is simply not possible to discredit an entire, complex, global, multi-pronged movement because of a potentially false allegation. But people are certainly trying to, which is a kind of telescoping of the larger context. The context is cultural, not individual.

Similar to my disinterest in the intricacies and daily-shifting loyalties in this case, others who are unable to keep up with the tide and who don’t have grounding in social justice ethics or praxis are liable to slip between the cracks ideologically. We do not live in times in which we think for ourselves, and a great deal of the vocabulary and framing now available to us is new to common parlance, and requires a certain degree of privilege to understand and employ. The demand that we quickly form opinions, without deep engagement, means that some people default into the easiest stance – which in this case is that the entire anti-sexual harassment movement is a mess.

We would do well to acknowledge that it is messy, though. A few days after sending me that message, the same friend seemed to have a mini-crisis. It began with him saying he’d been lusting over someone but was afraid of flirting due to “cancel culture”, then a segue into whether mental health issues should be accepted as blanket absolutions, and finally an admission of feeling conflicted about having to mediate harassment-related issues in a workplace. All these issues had collapsed on themselves, and led to a confusion which was most expediently cut through with dismissal.

This is a very common phenomenon. It’s critical to address why many men and women do not feel like the language or actions of this vital movement speak to them or for them. The reasons will be manifold. Personal apathy is only the tip of the iceberg.

We are being dishonest if we claim that we had this level of empowerment even four or five years ago, or if we claim that we truly know what we are doing now. Performative activism that doesn’t contain practical elements, long-term vision or self-reflexivity is challenging for even die-hard feminists to navigate through and counter. It is even harder for those who find certain concepts (which we may smugly think of as “just decent behaviour”) to be new. Rather than shame, how can we build learning resources, hold meaningful space, and improve access to both – while also discussing restitution and justice? Can we not fixate on famous cases, and focus on improving the culture at large? I have more questions than solutions because that’s where we still are – and because the answers should also be manifold, diverse and anything but individual.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 28th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: To Create Rather Than Produce

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It takes a long time for Shashi Tharoor to get onstage, even in the recorded and edited version of events. First, there’s another comedian’s set. Before and after, there are glimpses of him getting advice from the more experienced, references to how there are just 24 hours in which to rehearse, time spent within a vehicle in traffic, him looking at his notes backstage. By the time the politician, novelist and now stand-up comic’s turn arrives in the Amazon Prime special he features in, there’s the sneaking suspicion that the producers added as many buffers as possible around his gig itself.

They didn’t need to. Onstage, Tharoor is unexpectedly genial. He consults notes (“Panama Papers”, he quips) unselfconsciously. He grins when he thinks he’s done well. He mostly does, because whether or not the punchlines come as a surprise, there’s something strangely sincere about his whole attempt. It doesn’t come off as something quirky to do on the campaign trail, and neither does he seem out of place. No, he seems like he really wants to be there, at a comedy club in Noida, trying to make an audience of mostly millennials laugh. It’s all quite unlike what we are used to politicians doing, and yet exactly what they should be doing: hoping to please us, versus the other way around.

What I admired about Tharoor’s foray, at the age of 63 and while still at the height of a public (and controversial) career, is that he made that foray at all. In an era in which anyone can become a meme, when cruelty masquerades as incisiveness, it takes courage to try anything new.

One of the many, many chain reactions of our productivity-based, capitalism-driven world is that it’s much harder for us now to just attempt something. Instead, we must monetise our efforts. We must create an illusion of having mastered new learnings and skills while we were also accomplishing other things. Failure both isn’t permitted, and is permanent. “Failure” is also defined by people who hold their opinions on another’s work to be more valuable than the risk, time and energy put into creating that work itself. It doesn’t take even a second to hit the thumbs-down button.

Nowhere is this more evident than in careers in the public eye, particularly in the arts. Tharoor’s stand-up comedy set was mostly well-received. What happens next? If he doesn’t pursue a full-length show, he’ll be called a one-hit wonder who didn’t dare go further. If he does, and it flops, he’ll be castigated. This is partly where the pressure comes from. Success is expected to be repeated, formulaically. If one withdraws for a while to immerse in intensive knowledge-gathering, skill-honing or art-making, they do so at the risk of courting obscurity.

All this has a detrimental effect on culture itself – on what becomes culture. Perhaps if the consuming public wasn’t so intent on dismissing everything out there as mediocre, while simultaneously demanding more and more, it would be possible for those who create culture to actually to do so. To create rather than to produce, that is. For its own sake: applause or no applause.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 21st 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.