Tag Archives: activism

The Venus Flytrap: Quiet Outrage And Battle Fatigue

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On Saturday afternoon, I climbed into an auto I had hailed on the street just as a small group of teenagers were walking by on the other side. They were a mixed group of boys and girls, smiling and chatty with one another, and at least one of the girls was in a sleeveless outfit that ended at the knee. I registered fairly little of them, and would not have thought about them for a split second longer, had the driver not spoken just then.

I paraphrase from Tamil: “Like this, of course they’ll get their necks slashed.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Didn’t that happen at that train station? If they walk around the city undressed, what else is going to happen but getting their necks slashed?”

“Stop the auto.”

He did. I disembarked silently and took a few steps away. He drove off. I didn’t note his license plate. I didn’t take a photo. What would the point of Internet-shaming him be? Would it stop women from being attacked? Would it change people’s attitudes? Or would it just be one more app-friendly act of resistance, the kind that saturates our feeds yet does not spill over into our lived practices of equal partnering, better parenting or structural overhaul? Petty wins don’t give me power trips. They give me fatigue. The battle is so much bigger, and so continuous.

That evening, I read about Qandeel Baloch’s murder at the hands of her brother. The auto driver had thought a teenage girl deserved a brutal death for wearing something she must have liked. He found it only natural to relay this as a passing comment. Baloch’s brother had had that same thought. He carried it out. Somewhere in Pakistan is a college lecturer, or a taxi driver, or a research analyst – anyone at all, of any gender – pointing to a woman they don’t know as they tell someone else that she’s asking for it. For her boldness. For her vibrance. For her desire to simply be.

“So, he didn’t aruthufy your throat, no?” Many I know would have taken the ride anyway. They told me so. An auto driver is as irrelevant and impersonal to them as the teenager was to him. Neither of those dehumanisations are right.

The act of disengaging, for me, was more loaded than outrage. This is not categorically true; it must be used with acumen. But we cannot be so rash with the latter that we forget that a lived practice manifests in myriad ways.

I quietly unfriended one sleazebag and one mansplainer recently. I quietly wait for friends with problematic politics to arrive at certain insights that click only when they’re experienced, not tutored. I quietly listen when elderly conservatives bluster, and then I quietly go home and write. And that afternoon, I quietly remained standing on that street with my arm held out, alone. I hadn’t raised my voice. But I had stood my ground.

Several minutes later, the same driver came back around. “Naanthan,” he said, a little sheepishly.

Vendam,” I said. He moved on, a stupid grin still on his face. I didn’t have that luxury.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Calling To A World That Isn’t Listening

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Deeply disheartened, I stood before a lit lamp and tried to find a reason to raise my voice in a world made deaf by its own silences. A line flickered to mind, and I recognised it as the title of a book I’d wanted to read, but had never purchased. That line was: “finding beauty in a broken world”. The environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams wrote a collection of essays by that name, on seeking a way of being that integrates all the fragments shattered by human brutality. I yearned for the book suddenly. I have buried myself in language for as long as I can remember. It salves me. It puts me, too, back together.

I sought an excerpt online, the way another person might view a movie trailer. In the first page, Williams writes – “…I faced the ocean. ‘Give me one wild word’. It was all I asked of the sea.”

That was how I had felt, at my altar – and that page led me to this page you read now.

All libraries carry the memories of trees, and sometimes it is to the source that we must go. The summer streets are carpeted with the yellow flowers of rusty shield-bearer trees. I recall the closing lines of Adam Zagajewki’s poem: “Praise the mutilated world/ and the gray feather a thrush lost,/ and the gentle light that strays and vanishes/and returns.” This is what I try to do, in the evidence of the lines that precede them: “You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,/ you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully./ You should praise the mutilated world.”

As I write this, my voice hurts – both spiritually and physically. For the latter, I drink a kashayam, and for the former I seek the balsam of words. And as I do, I remember something: not too long ago, I was a part of a panel on women’s issues. After the event, one of the other participants asked me, “So, did you never fight with your parents as a teenager?” Of course I had, I said lightly. “Oh really? How is it fighting when you have a voice as soft as yours? Not possible.” The indignation I felt was at once blunt and sharp, like a pair of precise surgical scissors. But in the interest of politeness, I said nothing. I looked her in the eye and allowed a tactful bystander to laugh the situation off with a “that’s just her voice!” How little the person who had insulted me knew of war, I thought, to not be able to tell a fire from a blown fuse.

Tonight, through my bedroom window and yours, the first full moon of the Tamil year will blaze. Perhaps you’ll see it, awoken by mosquitoes or misery (or just the stealth of moonbrightness). And if you do, remind yourself. To sleep well is an act of self-care, and those of us accused of caring too much frequently forget to tender ourselves the same. A mercenary measures steps in blood, a soldier in miles, and a warrior in how gently one’s footfalls shape the earth. Were we only so gentle with ourselves, too.

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

“Not Silence, But Verse” – Poetry Reading, Prajnya’s 16 Days Campaign

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Prajnya’s 16 Days Campaign Against Gender Violence this year features a reading of poetry in Tamil and English by Salma, Kuttirevathi, K. Srilata and myself. Full details of the reading, on Saturday November 27th at Full Circle/Chamiers, are in the flyer below.


Pink Panties, In Protest!

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Ignore my most recent column in its entirety. This is exactly what you should be celebrating on February 14 this year. Girly guerrilla activism! I love it!


Join A Consortium of Pug-Going, Loose and Forward Women on Facebook. I haven’t been this gleeful to get a group invite in forever.

Check out the blog.

The campaign is in response to the attacks two weeks ago by a group of Sri Ram Sena moralists on women patrons in a pub in Mangalore.

Review: “The Shape of the Beast: Conversations With Arundhati Roy”

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First published in today’s The New Sunday Express.

Over a decade after the extraordinary success of The God of Small Things, and somewhere before the publication of what will only be her second book of fiction, comes The Shape of the Beast. This collection of fourteen interview transcripts chart Arundhati Roy’s career as a political activist from between 2001 and the present, and thus comes almost as an exercise in taking stock, in looking both backwards and forwards. Its insight into the mind of one of our foremost public intellectuals is valuable.

In many ways, this is an extremely deliberate book, clearly seeking to fashion an arc of evolution with its snapshots of Roy’s opinions at particular points. Fortunately, it is largely devoid of the egotism one might expect from any such venture by a similarly larger-than-life celebrity. The hero of The Shape of the Beast is undeniably Roy – but her choice to speak for many is by far its central focus.

The Beast in question is, naturally, a political animal. In these interviews, Roy takes on, in her penetratingly poetic manner, the hegemonies of state, religion, imperialism, corporate entities and social constructs. All of them have been published before, so in themselves they say nothing new. But collected together they shed light not so much on the nature of the Beasts that democracy, egalitarianism and sheer goodness are up against, but on the woman who dares to outline their shapes.

What we get then are interviews which seek to understand where Roy’s perspectives come from, how her upbringing and life prior to and since fame shaped the logic behind her activism. The dialogues segue easily from the political to the personal, exploring the relationship between her background and belief system. Whether discussing American imperialism, Maoist insurgency, Narmada Bachao Andolan or Kashmir, the connection to Roy’s fundamental principles is laid bare. Unpopular as her views have been in some circles, both her stunning clarity of thought and refusal to be ignored are evident in these interviews. The Shape of the Beast thus functions convincingly on two levels: as a comprehensive source of the opinions to date of our most beloved and beleaguered activist, and, simply, as fodder for fans.

The most revealing interview of all is the final one, conducted in March 2008, in which Roy speaks about herself as a person, a writer and a celebrity and the private and public negotiations of these selves and projections. The political weight of the other conversations is absent here, and because of this it knits together the two Roys who have inhabited our common consciousness since 1997 – the glimmering, melancholic writer who gave us The God of Small Things and the fierce, incisive activist we have seen since then.

The book’s success lies primarily in the fact that it is neither mere defense for a decade of what some have seen as incidental activism, nor an exercise in self-congratulatory vanity. There is certainly some amount of careful persona distillation here, but hers is a voice that represents in equal measure both the disenfranchised and the simply far less eloquent. And for this, one remains grateful.

“I insist on the right to be emotional, to be sentimental, to be passionate,” says Roy in one of the interviews. This is exactly the kind of statement that does not endear her to her detractors, but it is also the reason why the rest of us remain so enamoured. She dares to be a subjective voice speaking on objective things, an anomaly in an arena of clichéd catchphrases and the politically fashionable, if not politically correct. Love her or loathe her, we need Roy. And this book, in a nutshell, is why.

Why I Dropped Out of Kitab 2008

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When I was 17, I was a much more ambitious person than I am now. I wanted not just to write and create, to love and to live, as I do now – I was firmly committed to being the change I wanted to see in the world. It was, perhaps oxymoronically, altruistic ambition that drove me. I wanted to save people. Women, to be exact. I categorically read nothing but feminist literature. I wore sloganned T-shirts. I volunteered. I picked fights with people at every single sniff of sexism.

I was serious. And one of the things I did at this time was to start producing alone what I envisioned to be a series of events that would combine my two passions: live performance and activism.

This series was called “CRESCENDO: Raise Your Voice”, and its first installment was in aid of a Petaling Jaya-based women’s rights organization. It grew out, in part, of the opposition I encountered trying to produce and perform The Vagina Monologues at my college at the time (a compromise was reached: I could do one monologue and one piece with another actor, under the title The Valenki Monologues. Valenki is Russian for felt boots. Right up to when I left KL, I continued to be surprised by someone or the other who remembered me from the performance, years later — the little lace and leather skirt really must have been something, but I’m digressing). CRESCENDO was zero-budget and featured poetry and music by artists performing pro bono, with all funds raised going toward the charity.

A few days prior to the event, a mass email by someone who had directed, by coincidence, a production of TVM for said organization and who had had a massive falling out with them sent out a mass email calling for the boycott of the event I was organizing. To cut this long story short (and there is also much I could say about the similar propaganda-type hostility I encountered a year or two later trying to organize a CRESCENDO event in Chennai, but I won’t), the mass mail was timed so as to have a direct impact on the scheduled event. Interestingly, the fallout gained me a certain notoriety that dogs me to this day – and roped in even more performers who had heard about it only because of the controversy. But here’s the thing — whether the organization had been at fault in their dealing with the director was not, to me, the issue by this point. That a long delay in addressing the issue was made, and somebody else’s hard work was capitalized upon in order to finally do so, rendered things unethical.

Something similar happened to this year’s Kitab festival. While I won’t go into details, allegations were thrown. Allegations timed to coincide with the few days before this festival, professional and personal battles that really should have been handled months ago. The timing reeked of deliberate sabotage. Because of my prior experience, I could not empathise with those who chose to bring up their allegations now. They may be right. But their methods leave me out in the cold.

Counter-allegations came. By this point, the damage was done. Sponsors fled. Bad press (and this is why I can blog about the matter: it’s already out there). The whole picture is still emerging, and there may be more than just two sides to this coin. Having been responsible for my own flights and accommodation, the difficult decision of whether to take a risk on what had suddenly become a very unsolid investment had to be made.

I chose not to go. I can reroute my tickets. But I won’t be able to recoup the losses of paying to be at an event with bad turnout or bad publicity (and please — if you’re thinking about giving me the line about no publicity being bad publicity, hold it — I would know. As Jeet said, controversy is my poodle: she follows me everywhere).

I am deeply disappointed – I was looking forward to Kitab since the middle of last year. But logic prevails. Being self-sponsored, in simple terms, means that if an investment will likely not produce returns, one doesn’t make it. The terms of my invitation – zilch sponsorship and no honorarium – were accepted in the interest of what seemed to be a good, strategic investment. But they no longer make sense.

I wish Pablo Ganguli and Kitab 2008 the very best. I regret not being able to be involved, but due to the current circumstances, my participation does not seem viable. While I do not wish to take sides in the current situation, and can clearly see that neither party is guilt-free in the matter, I certainly do resent the fact that the commitments, time and even expenses of participants like myself who only have to lose should the festival fall through were not taken into account by those who waited a year to publicly make their complaints.

Also see: Peter Griffin’s all-sides round-up.