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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.

The Venus Flytrap: Breaking Down In Berlin

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Eventually, the only explanation I could find for the despair the city dredged up in me clicked into place: Berlin, post-partition Berlin, was younger than I was. Four years younger, to be precise, which meant that a vast number of people in the city carried the memory of when and where their city had been divided. They held that demarcation within themselves, a hidden knowledge. Perhaps some raw nerve in me had been tapped by, or tapped into, this.

Every day that I was in Berlin, I woke up and wept and wept and dragged myself out of the attic room my friend Nawaaz had generously let me stay in during his own summer in the city. I had to fill the hours somehow, so that I would not collapse, so I did everything. I consumed beauty and pillage in museum after museum; admired the verdigris that crowned the architecture; pronounced currywurst to be unimpressive – like any tourist. Puzzled by my state, Nawaaz was extraordinarily kind, taking time away from his own plans for me. We went to a gorgeous Afro-Cuban musical performance and drank – oh, I wish I remembered what it was; in those nights I never imagined I would ever stop raising liquor to my lips. We went to the Philharmonic and listened to a youth orchestra. We went to Potsdam with another friend, where we walked improbable distances and I posed with sunflowers twice my height on Friendship Island (bless the act of portrait-taking, the act that stakes a claim to be seen, to scratch one’s presence in a moment into a tangible surface; when I see that photo now, I not only think “I was there”, but also, “I am still here.”). New and old acquaintances took me under their wing: took me boating on a lake, filled the seats at the table where I blew out the candle on my birthday cake that year, told me fantastic stories from their own lives and travels, eased those hours for me. I avoided the Holocaust memorial. I couldn’t risk that fragmentation.

I was in the throes of a mental health crisis, and perhaps it heightened my sensitivity to the place, to its underpinnings. Yet Berlin was followed by a few days all alone in Paris, when I was nothing if not suffused with light. It was that respite that convinced me that the older ruptures in Berlin and the newer ruptures in me had spoken to one another. But empathy is not trauma, as overwhelming as it can be to experience it.

This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had visited its remains, now a gallery of murals, and gotten my passport stamped with the motif of a standing bear at Checkpoint Charlie. Seven years since that trip, I turn my theory around in my head. Is there every really a clean selvage between self and situation? I do not blame Berlin for the bewilderment I felt. I am grateful it showed me that I had been unwell. I send love to its invisible borders, place my warm palm on them, somewhere in the ether.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 14th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Veils Between Worlds

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It is said that there is a veil between worlds that allows us to believe that we inhabit only one completely, and when that veil thins – or perhaps only flutters lightly, as though stirred by a strange wind – that certainty dissolves. At dawn, at twilight, when the body is creating life or shedding it, in certain seasons – this is when we are in liminal space-time. We can sense or see the gossamer. Some of us know the borders and thresholds better than others, dwell in them, while others cannot believe in their existence. All and none of these things are true and untrue at once. That is the nature of liminality.

This time of year is one such interstice, for some cultures. The ancient Celts had Samhain, when costumed performers known as mummers would enact a play involving wounding and revival. They would be dressed to look like spirits, perhaps to confuse those very same spirits who would be wandering at this time, and for whom offerings would be kept. Many believe this festival contains the origins of the American holiday, Halloween. In Mexico, only days apart, is Dia de los Muertos, when the beloved dead are welcomed back and cherished with feasts, their graves strung with marigolds – that vibrant flower so closely associated with Tamil funerals as well.

There is fierce discourse that demands more depth from those who celebrate Halloween for fun. People’s heritages are not costumes, no matter how attractive their traditional attires are. The occasion’s underlying spiritual and cultural beliefs should not be erased in favour of capitalism, or candy. Such concern should travel wherever Halloween has travelled. Here in Chennai, there are parties for children now, and different parties for adults – no more than another reason to dress up, get a sugar high or a liquor buzz, and revel. This is okay, provided cultural sensitivity is observed. Halloween isn’t quite like Thanksgiving, an occasion that glorifies genocide, and which has bizarrely been refashioned by Indian influencers as a #gratitude moment. But still, there’s something beneath the merriment, an engagement with our mortalities and our pain or curiosity about the same, which for those who dare to pause and hold their breath for a moment will dizzy, disquiet and ultimately teach.

Entering, and being touched by, the liminal is not limited to certain times. Those are only the times when it seems to be easier. Those who misunderstand liminality impose taboos that create fear, and it’s this fear that – when ritualised, whether people like that word or not – becomes a scary costume or a supernatural film. The greatest fear is reversed into comedy (cheesy taglines selling Halloween-centric anything) or catharsis (video games in which we kill zombies and feel the blood-rush of our bodies reminding us of our aliveness).

My grandmother died on a Halloween, many years ago. The experience of losing her was ethereal. It deepened me into belief – whereas before it was as though I had only held strings of words under my tongue and in the crevices of my heart, but did not yet have language. Grief was only a part of it; the other part was illumination.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 31st 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Jealousy With A Halo

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Of all the emotions, named and unnamed, the one that is most rarely admitted to is envy. The more we destigmatise talking about mental health, the easier it has become to admit to persistent feelings of sadness and fear. Wrath is a tricky one – how it is expressed can determine others’ reactions to it, but admitting that one feels it on occasion is largely acceptable. You can be angry in a whole range of contexts, and even say that you hate someone, as a corollary of this first emotion. You can say you hate a professor, a parent, a parking lot attendant – people you may encounter just once or perennially – and few will blink at the harshness of the word. But envy? This powerful emotion that’s so easy to detect (and judge) in another is the last one that most will confess to feeling, let alone being motivated by.

Anything that is suppressed manifests somewhere else. There’s a cord of envy that runs beneath so many opinions and choices, be they personal, professional or political. Those who cannot recognise how it provokes them are condemned to expending their energy on dragging others down, sometimes very self-righteously. “Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo,” as the author H.G. Wells put it.

About a decade ago, the German term schadenfreude, meaning “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune”, became popular among English speakers.  It turns out there’s a corresponding English word, epicaricacy, but this hasn’t entered common parlance. Before the whole world (wide web) decided that wokeness was aspirational, it was hipsterdom that dictated culture. Back then, dropping obscure words from many languages was one way to signal how cool you were (now, some would die of shame – ah, another negative emotion – if they did something so privilege-revealing).

The trendiness of the word schadenfreude allowed for people to explore and even express their envy – provided that its object had experienced some failure. It did not bring into the light the more insidious, painful kind of envy borne of another’s good fortune. That’s the kind that holds the risk of twisting the one who feels it into both personal bitterness and detrimental actions.

A similar contemporary moment might be the author Roxane Gay’s list of anonymous nemeses, whom she dramatically refers to as such on Twitter, with unveiled resentment. As a result of her candour, having a nemesis or several has become a part of online repartee. Some suggest that it provides a flippant way to channel ambition. At the very least, it’s honest. It doesn’t pretend that jealousy doesn’t exist.

But where is the space for useless, acrimonious, incurable envy? Why do we – we whose homes are broken by lies and secrets, whose careers have contained moments of sabotage, whose hearts have harboured poison – act as though this base emotion belongs only to the worst of people, and not our beloveds, our associates or ourselves? But it’s a human emotion, as human as love or disgust. If we didn’t deny its existence, if we didn’t conceal our envy from ourselves, perhaps we will find ways to dispel it – and the destructiveness it is known to spur.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 24th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Karmic Footprints

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So Ellen DeGeneres, a beloved pioneer of queer visibility in the media, has shady friends. At least one that we know of: former American president George W. Bush, a conservative politician who was in office during the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 and subsequently waged wars in West Asia, thus creating a poor human rights record – something he shares with many who have held positions of power. The revelation that she had hung out with him at a recent sports match disappointed so many of her fans that she felt compelled to respond to the outrage. DeGeneres said, “Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be friends with them. When I say, ‘be kind to one another,’ I don’t only mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”

Here’s the thing – most of us have shady associates. DeGeneres’ capital and cultural weight mean she mingles in circles which wield power; all of us mingle in circles which confer and reinforce that power through votes, purchases, retweets and other personal choices. Power isn’t the only factor – cruelty happens in myriad, sometimes little, ways. We maintain rapports with people whom we’d abhor if we knew only their actions and opinions, but not them. We have trauma bonds, pragmatic enmeshments or happy memories with some; we can’t stand our loneliness without a few; and sometimes there’s a love that trumps all. The ugly truth in all cases is that the harm they do doesn’t affect us deeply enough.

DeGeneres was wrong to conflate this special consideration with goodness. To say that having friendships with people who wittingly create harm for others shows kindness is deliberate obfuscation. Such friendships may be convenient, unusual, meaningful, uncomfortable, symbiotic, resolved, or more. But not kind. Being kind to a malicious individual annuls kindness as a way of being. A friendship is not an act of charity, so the argument that we can be altruistic to someone who did past damage but is now in severe need isn’t relevant.

In the TV series The Good Place, a demon conducts an afterlife experiment on four condemned humans, creating a version of heaven that proves playwright-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s line, “Hell is other people”. In the latest season, the now-reformed demon is determined to fix the system. He visits a living human who – having received knowledge about the afterlife’s workings while on psychedelics – is committed to as wholesome and unhurtful a life as possible. The demon discovers that this hermit is a profoundly broken person, obsessed with what we could call his karmic footprint. He doesn’t do anything good or useful. He’s too busy avoiding doing bad.

Like a carbon footprint, a karmic footprint too is an inescapable fact of the human condition. While we can control to some extent the pain we personally cause, we (sometimes subconsciously) justify our loved ones’ actions so as to justify our relationships with them. Doing so isn’t kindness. It’s merely compromise. The least we can do is hold this self-awareness as we try harder to keep our own hands clean.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 17th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Decolonising Language

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In the 19th century, a woman named Uvavnuk was struck by a meteor, lost consciousness after experiencing a vision of the bear-human spirit of the meteor, and came to with a song on her lips that has fascinated scholars of spiritual experience ever since. The language she sang, spoke and lived in (we inhabit languages, as they inhabit us) was Inuktitut. The legend about her mystical encounter is longer than her song; Europeans collecting what they called folklore documented and translated both. Until colonial contact, the Inuit languages were oral, and at least nine scripts were developed across the vastness of Canada for functional purposes after this contact began. Now, a new script that will consolidate and replace the others has been formally accepted. Called Inuit Qaliujaaqpait, it uses the 26 Roman alphabets. Natan Obed, president of the cultural non-profit Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, was quoted as saying, “It’s the first time we’re exercising our own self-determination to implement our own writing system.”

Several Canadian press outlets carried the same story, verbatim, and I was intrigued by one particular line. Devoid of quotation marks, the exact words – “Inuit have decolonised the alphabet” – are not attributed to Obed, but are implied as being the summary of his opinions. The term used recalls the 1986 manifesto Decolonising The Mind by the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in which he declared that with that text he was bidding a final farewell to writing in English, having already ceased to produce creative (as opposed to non-fiction) work in that language some years prior. His political assertion was instrumental in expanding the body of work originally created in African languages, including Gikuyu and Kiswahili.

Ngũgĩ wrote of how schoolchildren were faced with two Gikuyu orthographies – rival ones, developed by different missionaries. Imagine having nine, as Inuit peoples do. The Gikuyu scripts were eventually integrated, and like Inuit Qaliujaaqpait, shares the alphabet with English (without certain letters). The use of the coloniser’s alphabet, while rejecting the coloniser’s language, is a striking way of accepting history but charting the future anew. There are others: they may require learning or eliminating, but always imagining.

“Decolonising” is a buzzword now, lending itself enjoyably to hashtags and T-shirts. Someone gave me a set of stickers recently which say “Decolonise this place!”. I accepted them with glee, but realised they’d be best used in an act of protest vandalism. I’m not opposed to such gestures, but what would their context be? If I stuck them on, say, railway signage, hostel gates or temple undials without deconstructing that big word, would their intent still be conveyed? Or would nothing happen but self-congratulatory wokeness? I think I’ll pass them along, to inspire someone else. Perhaps they’ll know how to incorporate them into their activism meaningfully, while I’m unable to.

The same 26 letters can be assembled in a hundred million ways, after all. And the same words have different effects, depending on the recipient as much as the presenter. I believe we can have the courage to request translation, and to love without guilt the complicated privilege of many tongues, whether sinuous or rusty. Those are powerful decolonisations too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 10th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The 37% Rule

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Since I’m house-hunting yet again, a friend who has a head for these things told me about the 37% rule. She said that if I fixed the mindset that I would only check out 100 flats, right around the 37th one was when I would say “Yes”. Or, more honestly, “Okay”. Statistically, that’s when people cave and decide the search is over. As I have no such mathematical sense at all, my only immediate deduction was “Oh god, I have to see 37 flats?!” The scary part was whether it’s even possible to find 37 landlords in this city who don’t mind single women, non-vegetarians and people who refuse to live in spaces painted in lurid “vaastu colours”. 37 chill, tasteful landlords? May their numbers flourish, whether I can keep count or not.

My friend went on to say something that I couldn’t shrug off, however: the 37% rule also works in romantic relationships. If one decides when they start dating that they will see ten people, the third or fourth suitor will be the one they decide to settle down with. I could see how this might apply to someone with a goalpost in mind. For instance, someone entering the arranged marriage market could, based on hearsay and practicality, decide that they’d choose or stop trying after ten birth chart appraisals. They’d arrive at their tipping point motivated by the need to close the deal.

Except, those kinds of numbers had long vanished into the distant past for both my friend and I, and if someone had told us right at the start that we needed to set a target, we would have said – with all our hearts – just one, please.

The 37% rule, despite being percentage-based, does also yield a dramatic number. The age of 26 is the optimal age to marry, according to this rule. As a Business Insider article put it: “[It’s] the point at which we can stop looking and start taking those big leaps of faith.” I had to concede that I’d already known this about myself: had the opportunity been available to me at 26, that’s absolutely when I would have entered my (first, anyway) marriage. How had this seemingly arbitrary theory so accurately deduced when I’d been most earnest, most in alignment, most adequately-experienced-but-not-yet-cynical and most set to benefit? If it was true for me, it was surely true for many.

I did take a leap of faith at that age, on the smouldering comet-tail of two messily overlapping relationships. I gave everything I had to a creative project instead, lost myself somewhere in the plummet, and surfaced a few years later strong and with something substantial to show. Some of my friends who married at the time experienced parallel trajectories of passion-collapse-growth, and after vastly different journeys we now find ourselves back on similar quests. For partners, for places to live, for something to call home. No equation is going to tell us when, or where or how. But at least we recognise now who needs to be #1 – after all this time, its ourselves we must trust again to be enough to come home to.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 3rd 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Token Seats At Token Tables

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Her name is Chanel Miller, and she wants everyone to know it. She has revealed it in conjunction with the release of a memoir; her 2015 assault at Stanford University became a notorious case in which everyone from the media to the legal system tried to absolve her attacker. A preview of the book reveals that the university tried to coax her into creating a statement of forgiveness on a plaque for the memorial garden they instated at the site of the crime. She refused.

Somewhat relatedly, the author Kamila Shamsie was stripped of her Nellie Sachs Prize due to her support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel’s human rights violations. Ironically, the German award is given for “outstanding literary contributions to the promotion of understanding between peoples”, something reflected in Shamsie’s pro-Palestine activism. There are plenty of such honours, which appear to encourage anti-establishment thought, but only if it falls within certain parameters.

It’s profoundly frustrating when the work one does is co-opted by those it actually challenges. You can see this frustration all over Greta Thurnberg’s face in her widely-publicised speech at the UN. Right at the start, someone in the audience actually laughs, revealing how little seriousness the environmental activist is really given. Every person who cheers on this new hero but refuses to take personal steps to lessen their effect on climate change is letting her down. Our retweets don’t mean a thing if that plastic cup still goes into a landfill.

Powerful people and institutions allow interlopers in, indulge them, lionise and most crucially distract them, and continue to not incorporate the messages they carry. They are given a seat at the table as a means of placation, and a way to convince them that their work is finished or can be redirected. The indulgence also has its limits. As long as Thurnberg doesn’t do anything that crosses some major player’s invisible line, she will be entertained – and used as entertainment. If you’ve ever found yourself at a gathering and had the distinct feeling that you were on display, with the awareness sinking in that you’d be the topic of conversation once you left the table, you get the picture. Depedestalisation was recently discussed in this column, and some of the same ideas apply.

Can we say No to having that seat at the table at all? It’s a brave but not always viable choice. The choice between two outcomes – utilising the platform as a critical space, or making a statement by withdrawing – is not an obvious one. The latter can sometimes do little more than boost one’s own street cred, while the uncomfortable on-stage squirming of the former can add dimension to an event or the ensuing discourse. In some cases, agreeing to participate is to be cahoots with the problem, whereas in others, the participation brings challenge or at least nuance. But whether we fight for that seat, take it, or reject it, we have to treat the experience as window shopping. It isn’t the destination. We just need to know what’s available before we set about building a bigger, more honest, more effective table.

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

The Venus Flytrap: When Misogynists Fantasise About Feminist Revenge

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Is it alright to comment on something one has not seen? It’s a risky choice in this era of fake news, when we are all in danger of forming opinions not only borne of ignorance but from actively being manipulated. When I read that a sequence from a TV serial – described as being horrifying and which had since received a slap on the wrist from a regulatory body – was still available for viewing online, I toyed momentarily with whether I should watch it in the interest of journalistic duty. Then I chose not to. Surely, when it comes to depictions of gratuitous violence or injustice, the answer to that question can sometimes be Yes.

Instead, I read news about that scene, from the TV serial Kalyana Veedu. The violence described was both physical and verbal: a gangrape, ratified by dialogue that’s clearly an anti-woman fantasy. In it, a woman plots against another woman, hires a group of men to enact her instructions, and is then punished by them in exactly the same way. A further revenge sequence, involving fire and male genitalia, is something Freud (or better yet, Camille Paglia) would probably have analysed as the projection of male envy. A TV serial has more than one mind behind it. Just the thought of the kind of discussions that happened behind-the-scenes is hair-raising. I’ve been in enough work meetings with men who hallucinate that they are creative and cutting-edge to know that there was almost definitely someone there who imagined that castration by fire is what feminists want.

The Broadcasting Content Complaint Council, responding to viewers’ dismay about these sequences, fined the TV channel what seems to be a token sum, but more meaningfully has ordered a week-long apology to be played before every episode of the same serial.

To take umbrage against such content is straightforward. This is a good thing, to have internalised healthy protest so deeply, but the hope is that by now our sociocultural politics have evolved so that calling out such objectionable material isn’t enough. The Me Too movement worldwide, and the revelations it has provided into the way workplaces have functioned for so long, has made it crucial for us to no longer stop at disgust and anger but to delve into how such contraventions of integrity happen, and how they can be prevented.

The TV channel that aired this vicious sequence claims that the TV serial has family-oriented values. Perhaps our next line of enquiry should begin there. Among the public who made the complaints, was it only the visual violence that was the problem or the logic behind it as well? In other words – were they upset because rape is perceived to be a violation of chastity (a completely oppressive concept) and a taboo topic, or because rape is wrong, full stop? There are some interesting dinner table conversations ahead, if we choose to take this incident as not just a teachable, but an eminently learnable-from, moment. Those who wrote those scenes, produced them and were perplexed by the reaction to them didn’t conjure those ideas out of nowhere. Like I said – they’re not really that creative…

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

The Venus Flytrap: The Catharsis of Tears

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Even those who barely followed the Chandrayaan-2 lunar exploration mission knew how ISRO’s Dr. K. Sivan broke down and wept when they lost contact with the Vikram Lander last week. This week also saw two male sportspersons weep openly on camera. Yao Ming cried, taking responsibility for China’s defeat at the Basketball World Cup. Rafael Nadal sobbed elatedly after triumphing at the US Open Tennis Championships. Public attention during such personal moments is not always tasteful, yet these events spur discussion on a strangely divisive topic: crying openly. Many still find displays of emotion weak and unprofessional. Especially in men.

Of course, some will say that as a feminist I am predisposed to enjoying men’s tears (delicious, especially with a citric twist of bitterness – haha). Funnily, this is almost true. It’s not enjoyment, per se, but an appreciation for when someone has been willing to break through their own conditioning and be vulnerable and honest in a given moment. When we understand patriarchy to be a structural problem that oppresses people of all genders, we see what toxic masculinity does. The simplest manifestation of it is that boys and men are rarely permitted the catharsis of tears.

While women are undermined as being hypersensitive by nature, crying in professional situations is viewed on similar terms. When I was growing up, I watched and internalised a clip of Oprah Winfrey (or if my memory fails me, another influential woman) saying that she would never, ever cry in front of anyone in a workplace. I started working in my mid-teens, and learned quickly how to display anger professionally but to always cloak pain until I was in a more private space. I believe this to be true for many women who work outside the home. We steel ourselves.

One of the experiences that made me begin to unlearn this conditioning was being at a presentation several years ago in which a young woman broke down midway, due to criticism. I was powerless in that situation, but neither did I feel outraged on her behalf, because she was doing something that I could not relate to. I was aware that of the two senior men there, one enjoyed demoralising her, while the other saw it as a rite of passage that would instigate better performances. In the time I continued to work there, I saw many women crying in the same seat. I knew it was why they kept leaving, while I stayed, eroding a little more each year with all the humiliation I swallowed and expressed only as anger. I often found a way to tell them that they deserved better; but it was almost too long before I gave myself the same permission.

Tears have a natural place in every aspect of life – love, work, and even leisure (a great book, a thrilling game). They not only provide release, but also help us see the truth of our own emotions. An uncontrolled spate of crying tells us what we need to know, what matters to us, and what we should do next. Without that heartfelt expression, we sometimes cannot gain the momentum for the following step.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Enough of Enid Blyton

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The UK’s Royal Mint has heeded the caution of its advisory committee and decided against issuing a commemorative coin to coincide with the 50th death anniversary of Enid Blyton, whose books have been a part of the childhoods of several generations of readers. The caution was because a backlash was feared; it’s difficult to miss the explicit racism (some critics allege sexism and homophobia too) in those books.

Those who think the Royal Mint’s decision was excessive argue that social norms keep changing, and that it isn’t fair to judge the people of the past by what is politically correct in the present. This would be a reasonable argument, since dead people don’t have the benefit of learning and evolving their viewpoints as the living do, except that Blyton was criticised in her own time for work which was already perceived as racist, even receiving a publisher rejection for a book long after she had established her career. What’s more evident here is not Blyton’s bigotry, which may or may not have been on par with her surroundings, but the bigotry of her defenders today, who are willing to overlook the damage that honouring a prejudiced person and their work can have.

Blyton died in 1968, and as far as I’m aware is not an author whose work has been kept in circulation through its inclusion in academic syllabi. Her books continue to be purchased by parents and libraries, with over 2 million copies reportedly sold in the last 5 years. This is not in itself a problem; no one with a respect for literature knocks a reading habit, wherever it springs from. But what is worrying is the context. A 2017 study by the Arts Council England discovered that just 1% of all children’s books published in the UK that year featured a main character of a minority ethnicity, despite nearly 33% of schoolchildren being from non-white backgrounds. When the literature being produced does not sufficiently reflect modern society, the continuing popularity of older work with problematic values is a matter of concern.

As it happens, assuming the ACE statistic could have applied to the year prior too, one of my own books – released in the UK in 2016 by Lantana Publishing, which was founded to produce culturally diverse children’s books – would have counted. When it comes to situations like this, one longs to not be among the exception. But when that book, The Ammuchi Puchi, was republished in India last year, it entered a vibrant, growing world of incredibly exciting work for all ages which normalises and celebrates darker skin tones, local names and environments, splashes of mother-tongues, folklore, indigenous artforms, progressive viewpoints, unusual storylines and more. Contemporary, original children’s literature is thriving here.

Any book-buying parent or educational facilitator in India who is still exclusively reaching for Enid Blytons or even Amar Chitra Kathas (with their colourist portrayals, among other uncomfortable things) out of sentimentality is depriving the reading child of a treasure trove. Give them your old favourites too; but know that they will be far more enriched by newer books, the kind we didn’t have when we were growing up.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Solastalgia

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The omens on the path to hell appear to be beautiful. Last week, the sea waves swelled with light, transformed the shoreline into something out of a dream. I was too far from the coast and had too much lonesomeness in my bones – lonesomeness is the anti-venom, I am finding as the years pass, of adventure – to go and see them for myself. I envied those who did that night, envied them more than only the sight of it. Envied whatever it was – ease of companionship or with isolation, proximity, some uncomplicated impulse – that let them have it while I seethed, my eyes and feet dry while longing burned in me.

I had seen bioluminescence in sand once, when a zoologist showed it to me by digging his fingers close to the shoreline, conjuring a memory of how he had once brushed some off a nesting Olive Ridley turtle and found that it shimmered. “Sea creature on sea creature,” he had said. Magical. I hadn’t known at the time that bioluminescence in large quantities is dangerous, a sign of the apocalypse. I had known by the time the shore lit up, but the truth is that my sense of marvel would have been no less pure had I been in Thiruvanmiyur that night. “We used to see it in the water at Batu Ferringhi sometimes,” my sister told me, reaching almost twenty-five years into our childhoods. I had no memory of this, and rued this too. Awareness changes nothing of the ache of being drawn to a thing knowing it’s as good as a drowning.

Rivers covered in pretty water hyacinths indicate heavy metal poisoning, and clog the flow. Scenic casuarina and aromatic eucalyptus trees drain the soil, selfishly hoarding nutrients while other flora wilt. Botanists in the UK recently announced that cycads, palm-like plants which thrive in heavy CO2, have made a comeback. A male cone, followed by a female cone, have appeared, making reproduction possible. They were common 280 million years ago when Earth had more carbon dioxide naturally. Like the bioluminescence that embroidered Chennai’s waves, all these things appear to be more beautiful and praiseworthy than they actually are.

Solastalgia is the word for emotional and mental distress over climate change. It could replace “sapiosexual” in dating app bios. There’s also a nihilistic edge to it, something that suggests you’re willing to be spontaneous with whatever time’s left. To be solastalgic says, “Kiss me before my lungs collapse”.

It’s terrible to find beauty in such devastation, isn’t it? I’m asking because I’m not sure. Studies show that the carbon footprints of tourists account for almost 10% of carbon emissions. Wanderlust is bringing the end of humanity closer, but we can’t seem to stop wanting. Rainforests burn and glaciers dissolve, and still there is this hunger – to see it all, to feel it all, even if it means we are going to be the full stop after a very long, very irresponsible sentence. I’m telling you: I’d have gone to the seaside that night and been solastalgic, but there would have been goosebumps on my skin from something other than the salt-tongued wind.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 29th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Doting On, Then Dethroning

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The social media world (which is a world, but not the world) recently officiated the dethroning of a celebrity who had made social justice a part of her branding. UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and actor Priyanka Chopra was unceremoniously “cancelled” when comments she made after being called a hypocrite by an audience member at an event went viral. Chopra had expressed pro-military views, which she did not recant or explain. She was no doubt caught off-guard when asked to comment on global politics at a beauty conference, but her response was weak for someone who had been associated with activist causes for almost a decade.

But Chopra’s recent comments were consistent with her prior choices and actions. Consider her track record – promoting fairness creams, making anti-black statements both on film and to the press, slut-shaming women in a commercial for a dating app she invested in, posing on a magazine cover with an anti-refugee message on her clothing, and so on. The real question is: how can anyone be disappointed?

There are so many songs with lyrics that are variations of the idea that people will build you up just to tear you down for a reason. The backlash came largely from the same people who had pedestalised Chopra.

Could it be that the nature of the hivemind – which is ultimately conformist because a notion loses its edginess the moment it gains traction – continuously demands sacrificial lambs? It just so happened to be Chopra’s turn. If you noticed, a fresh pedestal rose simultaneously, extolling Ayesha Malik (who had called Chopra out). If Malik chooses to remain visible and outspoken, she will eventually be dethroned herself. There’s no such thing as an #unproblematicfave.

As I watched the angry posts against Chopra roll in, I found myself fighting the urge to join in more. I’d already said my two-paisa, wondering how her dubious choices had been acceptable up to that point. I’d never been a fan, although I’d really liked when she spoke about finding love as an ambitious woman. I didn’t have anything to add. So why did my fingertips itch? Holding back, I understood that all of us online that day were being provoked into expression, fueling one another. It’s a scenario that repeats itself, sometimes several times a week. Chopra fumbled when asked for her opinion in an unexpected context; meanwhile, we the online citizenry have made it our second nature to form and share opinions even when none are asked for.

The Greek god Cronus ate his children because he feared being overthrown by them. What happens here seems to be a kind of reversal, in which the devout devour their gods. They replace them with new ones, then repeat the ritual.

To install someone on a pedestal is to give our power away. When they are knocked down, its our own power they lose. Imagine what we could do if we fostered things that matter, things we didn’t feel like breaking because somewhere deep down, we are afraid of what we are capable of achieving ourselves. It’s not only the power we misattribute, but the disappointment when it appears to be misused too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 22nd 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.