Tag Archives: aging

The Venus Flytrap: No Wider Than The Heart Is Wide

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Once, when I was much younger, someone laughed because I said I loved Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”. He did not know that I could see the future. I did not know until I was in that future that Millay had only been 28 when it was published in November 1920. Perhaps she too could see the future, or perhaps for her too, the future had come too soon. So young, and already, to quote the sonnet’s last lines: “I cannot say/ what loves have come and gone, I only know that summer sang in me/ A little while, that in me sings no more.”

Millay characterised herself as a lonely tree in winter, when to many she must have seemed to still be in the prime of her life. I thought of this when my friend, a wonderful middle-aged woman I’ve known for years, asked me what my age is now, then took my hand and huffed as if to say “Don’t be ridiculous” when I told her. This was after I had spent several minutes nostalgising the liberation I had felt in my mid-20s. Past, present and permanent had come together that morning. I had met this visiting friend in a part of a city I rarely go to anymore, but in which I had spent many meaningful nights and days at one time in my life. Being there, I was reminded of what once was, but which I doubt is likely to ever be again. The boughs of the tree of my life were so laden with flower and fruit that they broke.

Earlier, I had also asked my friend whether she will always live in her 3rd floor Paris walk-up, because of the stairs. It was an impudent question, as I realised only upon asking it, and it said more about my preoccupations than her abilities. Having just turned 60, my friend has already outlived Millay by a couple of years. Is it normal to be this morbid, to seek such calculations and measure against them? I count other years: I am as old as my mother was when she had me, I am as young as Christ was when he was crucified. I have either stopped lying to myself that I haven’t been keeping count, or else I started to without quite knowing why, the way a season can leave your landscape before you’ve even sensed the next one. Some things have wintered in me too. And I don’t wonder what made the young Millay so cold in her foreknowledge when she wrote that poem.

But I am older inside than most people will ever be able to relate to,” I had told my friend, in explanation. But clearly, others can or did. Rereading “What lips…” today, I discovered another poem of Millay’s. “Renascence” was published even earlier, and is about a frightening mystical experience which left her all-knowing. In it was one answer to the question of bitterness, an almost inevitable corollary of wintering: “The world stands out on either side / No wider than the heart is wide.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 16th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Desires Unmet

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In Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, a group of mostly illiterate older women share and write down sexual fantasies and revelations with one another in a gurudwara classroom, while those in charge believe the old ladies are actually learning English. In Alankrita Shrivastava’s film, Lipstick Under My Burqa, four neighbours with significantly varied lifestyles conduct the shine-and-subterfuge that so many women in conservative places like India do. In secret, they work, party, sing, join protests, read erotica, conduct affairs – slipping on and off masks (or more literally, articles of clothing, be they burqas or swimsuits) that allow them to move between their true and ordained selves.

In both cases – the book, set in suburban London, and the film, set in Bhopal – the women’s solidarity with one another is a natural falling-together, an effect of proximity and circumstance. They have not been influenced by rhetoric, or raised with exposure to it; they have been moved only by logic and desire, despite how incompatible the two may seem. Indeed, I can see both groups together, crossover-style: among them, the resourceful Shireen who climbs the ladder of a sales career without her husband’s knowledge, the elderly Arvinder who reveals a memory disguised as a story, the wilful student Rehana who articulates rebellion in front of the sudden spotlight of a camera, the grieving Kulwinder who finds that life can still hold pleasure.

It was by coincidence that I watched Lipstick Under My Burqa on one of the days when I was also reading Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows. They complemented each other so well, such that the middle-aged, widowed character of Usha in the film, played by Ratna Pathak, would have found herself at ease in the English gurudwara. Like the migrant widows, she is regarded as a non-sexual being. In truth, they are anything but – something which is routinely unacknowledged, either in fiction or in life. It was only extraordinary to see her portrayed in Indian cinema, for the many Ushas around us are dismissed daily, their desire seen alternately as non-existent, humourous or shameful.

Lipstick Under My Burqa left me saddened for hours afterwards. Was this the movie that had caused such a controversy with the censor board (not to mention the creation of that odd little phrase – “lady-oriented”)? There’s a little bit of sex, sure – but more vividly, there’s rape. Marital rape, to be precise, which does not legally exist in India. And humiliation, heartache and helplessness. It’s a film about women’s fantasies, yes – but more pertinently, it’s a film about women’s realities. About need and nature and how both are crushed by force. Nothing titillating about that.

It’s a film about fulfilled desire only as a matter of luck, and sexual repression or frustration as demands. I won’t say more, because I shouldn’t give away what happens in this poignant and disturbing film. But I will say this: if, like me, you are filled with sorrow afterward, turn to the surprisingly uplifting Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows as a chaser. I’m grateful I was consuming both pieces of art at once. Book and film, too, fell together in quiet solidarity.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 7th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Unbirthday

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In January, I had a deep weep session – in anticipation of the end of July. The event I was dreading was an annual affair that I had never before not looked forward to, or celebrated, or otherwise been excited by. Yet there I was, seven months from it and already filled with an unprecedented sense of panic.

My unamused older friends thought this was way too much drama to turn, as one of them put it, one year older in puppy years. Only, through the runny mascara-streaked lenses of my anxiety and alarm, it was very clear to me that it was people years I was dealing with. And 25 in people years was an absolute shock.

Leos can’t help but announce their birthdays. Birthdays combine the best of the famously leonine generousity and the equally famous leonine narcissism: stroke my ego, and I shall smother you with really excellent cake. So I did announce it. Variously, I made passive-aggressive statements about aging disgracefully and how any visiting wise men were welcome to bringeth Stolichnaya from the East, Sampoerna from the East Indies and… something from Easter Island (the clever quip got quashed by the questionable lack of cheer). And just as I do every year, I bought myself way too many beautiful things, “for my birthday” – only this time I was simply channeling my distress into retail therapy, not just exploiting a damn good excuse to the fullest. Especially reproachable behaviour considering that since I spent the day itself holed up at home writing, and then indulged a most unglamourous KFC craving, none of those accouterments saw the light of (birth)day anyway.

But that’s okay. The only thing better than being the birthday girl is being the unbirthday girl.

An unbirthday party is where Alice met the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse in Wonderland. An unbirthday party was what I had, the first one a week ahead of the big day, when a couple of friends down the coastline whom I had definitely spent some time wandering in rabbit holes with called up one morning and said, “We’re half an hour to Mahabs. Have lunch with us.” You could say I am presently in the midst of an unbirthday series.

I could bore you at length about just why hitting 25 had me so stressed, but as I discovered between that curveball realization in January and my birthday, this was textbook quarter-life crisis behaviour. Only, being an overachiever, I ran smack into it five whole years before it was due. Many told me they’d experienced it themselves before turning thirty; it coincides with what in astrology is called the Saturn Return (yup, in Western astrology as in Tamil curses, Saturn is one and the same). Most also said that a sequence of Mad Tea Parties was the only known remedy.

Knowing all of this was right on track did make me feel a little better. I’m even quite cool about what is supposed to be the real bugaboo, the big three oh, considering that I seem to have mostly exhausted my quota of quarter-life angst. Besides, as one hedonist friend put it, if there’s any number that people who frequent Mad Tea Parties should worry about, it’s 27 (just ask Janis or Jimi). Which is… oh oh.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.