Tag Archives: beauty

The Venus Flytrap: The Nemesis’ Narrative

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Last week in lockdown viewing, I watched a Netflix mini-series called Self Made, based on the true story of the entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker (née Sarah Breedlove), born to formerly enslaved parents in the American South and eventual founder of a million-dollar haircare empire. It’s a show about race, class, gender, and the concept of beauty. If you haven’t seen it yet, and plan to, there may be spoilers ahead.

In Self Made, Sarah’s arch-nemesis is the person who introduces her to cosmetology. The wealthier, light-skinned Addie Monroe first gains her trust then insults her, telling Sarah she isn’t attractive enough to sell her product. Sarah replicates the product and finds her own success, but her rival follows her like a shadow. Addie dredges up Sarah’s flaws over and over through the decades.

While watching the show, I thought – hmm, this feels true to life. Grudges can fester for ages. Sarah’s own trigger-proneness was also recognisable; there are certain old woundings that shape us, and which have the strange dual effect of propelling us forward but also dragging us back. Impressed overall, I spent a little time looking up the original Madam C.J. Walker, and found that the biggest criticism of the show was the portrayal of the real woman – Annie Malone – who was villainised as Addie Monroe.

It is factual that Malone (herself one of the first African-American women to become a millionaire) had employed the real Madam C.J. Walker briefly, but why their association ended is not documented. No evidence exists of a lifelong feud. Perhaps there’s a whisper of truth in it: that the two entrepreneurs disliked each other. Still, the way the filmmakers extrapolate this possibility undermines the legacy of both women. It suggests that their struggles (and triumphs) against societal discrimination weren’t nearly as important as their rivalry. Besides which, if anyone should have a bone to pick, that’d be the ghost of Malone, who pioneered what Walker studied and built on, only to become the jealous bête noire of a biopic.

The show made me wonder, ultimately, about my own animosities. In the narrative of my life, in which I am the hero (just as you, in the narrative of your life, are its hero), I wouldn’t want my various antagonists to occupy much space at all, let alone screen time. Of course they’re there, of course they’ve influenced everything through their sabotages and betrayals. It may even be true that it’s individuals, not structures or circumstances, who make particularly painful imprints on us. We may connect them to a larger problem, say, misogyny – but the one who enacts it is the one who induces our bile. Still – it’s not the anti-hero who makes us the protagonist, just as there’s no need to suppress another in order to play the lead in one’s own life.

Yet people do. This is the weird tic inside Self Made’s fiction that makes it compelling even while problematic. Addie Monroe feels exactly like that person: the one with such a hawkish eye on another’s journey that they think they’re running rings around that someone without noticing they’re really just walking in circles themselves…

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

The Venus Flytrap: A Female Dalai Lama

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Did you know that the current Dalai Lama guest-edited a 1992 issue of the French edition of Vogue? This incident is mentioned in a lengthy official clarification newly released on his website, which addresses some controversial points in a recent video interview with the BBC. In this interview, he said – not for the first time – that if he had a female successor, she would have to be conventionally attractive. The clarification alludes to how he’d once said the same in that magazine’s glamorous ambience, but not to how these remarks were repeated for decades to come, as late as 2016 and now, in 2019.

The clarification includes the following: “[It] sometimes happens that off the cuff remarks, which might be amusing in one cultural context, lose their humour in translation when brought into another. He regrets any offence that may have been given.” It’s true that offhand verbal slips aren’t the only measure of a person’s character, and that one of the excesses of “cancel culture” is that contrition is rarely enough even in the mildest of cases.

But is there really any context where judging a person on parameters of attractiveness, withholding job opportunities because of them, or ridiculing those who don’t fit them (the Dalai Lama even made an expression he called “dead face”), are amusing? Or is it more likely that there are some situations where these statements can be openly challenged and others where they can’t? Many of the reasons why not will directly tie into structural inequalities, which branch into toxic workplaces, family hierarchies, public safety concerns and so on. As anyone who’s had to proffer a half-smile or hollow laugh at an inappropriate comment made in any setting knows, confrontation is not the only measure of disagreement. The statement would be offensive no matter who made it, a recruitment manager or a spiritual leader.

And this is the big context: in a rapidly regressing world, a female Dalai Lama would be a historical first, and of significance to millions. A spiritual life is a life of seeking, sometimes without solutions. The desire to reconcile faith and feminism is made fraught by such beliefs and actions, be they from powerful and well-connected religious figures, or from astrologers, gurus, influencers and ordinary people who internalise and propagate dangerous ideas, including communalist, misogynistic and casteist ones. People invested in equality who also have spiritual lives use their discernment, express divergence when possible, but also risk alienation equally from skeptics and their own teachers or circles. But the alternative – disavowal – is not necessarily compelling.

The women whose words comprise the ancient Buddhist anthology called the Therigatha knew about another kind of disavowal. They wrote about leaving their homes and losing their youth. The celebrated courtesan and monastic Ambapali was among them, with a famous poem on aging in which she described the failings of her body. But her translator Martin Wickramasinghe, whose idea was expanded by her translator Charles Hallisey, insisted that she was not lamenting the impermanence of beauty. She was saying she had been beautiful once, and was beautiful still. Or perhaps, who knows, she was saying she couldn’t care less.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 4th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Deeper Shade of Brown

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I probably wouldn’t have watched the new live-action Aladdin remake, but it was the birthday girl’s outing of choice. Social media had prepared me to cringe at just how problematic this beloved movie from my childhood really was, full of Orientalism, cultural conflations and racist tropes. But there I was with tears streaming down my face during the “A Whole New World” sequence, smudging the 3D glasses and my real glasses both, moved by the surrealness of watching the song in a new rendering. Briefly, I forgot the different sort of pang that had come earlier – seeing that Princess Jasmine, unlike her animated counterpart, was light-skinned. I was surprised by how hurt I felt, grasping then just how powerfully her original incarnation had impacted me.

As far as princesses go, it was 2009 before a black girl, Tiana of The Princess And The Frog, was illustrated. Amazingly, brown kids like me had Jasmine back in 1992. She was a rare representation. Not of brownness per se, but of darker skin (the actor in the remake is half-Indian: technically brown, but light-complexioned). Jasmine, the cartoon, was properly brown, “like dosas, samosas and stikki chikki”, as the title of a children’s book on skin colour goes. This was why I was also vividly drawn to Esmeralda, from the often forgotten The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. Brown like caramel and sapotas. Brown like me.

My skin tone is the kind that gets bleached out in sunlight and in smartphone selfies (there’s a historically racist bias in photo technology, some of which remains in play with manufacturers today). I prefer my true colour, and I wish to be visible as a darker-skinned woman who is achieving things, going places, and yes, is even attractive. I want to claim and share the space, the void really, caused by colourist erasure. It is currently over-run by light-skinned brown celebrities criticising racism in the West but promoting fairness creams and practising casteism in India.

An international publication once adjusted the settings so much on my portrait (which perfectly captured my true tone) that I looked positively pink. Bubblegum pink. Someone must have thought they were doing me a favour, like how people are quick to say like it’s a compliment, “Don’t worry, you’re not so dark.” Conversely, any fetishizing of dark skin takes me right back to the creepy man who told me when I was little – “Black Beauty. Like that book you’re reading instead of talking to me.”

But I am worried. Even today, many children do not have enough positive acknowledgments of their appearances. This includes all non-normativity in: skin colours, body sizes, hair textures, the shapes of facial features, heights, (dis)abilities, illness-related conditions, amputations, scars and more.

There’s a feminist twist in the new Aladdin and it can’t compensate for the whitewashing of the iconic original Jasmine for me. Despite all that character’s flaws, she was a way for some (though not all) darker-skinned children to see ourselves as being at the centre, admired. She was beautiful. For those of us who didn’t know we were too, it meant the world to be shown a reason to believe it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 13th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Behind The Zenana’s Doors

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The doors opened and I was inside a zenana: an erstwhile one, turned into a hotel. “A harem” was how my new friend described it, until I gave her the other word. She’d been staying there on her many trips to India over three decades. Nothing of the façade suggested what was within: courtyards, labyrinthine staircases, powder blue and mint green paint, leafiness and sunlight. Even the bustle of Triplicane was extinguished. Mani Ratnam had just been shooting there, and the huge airy room on the roof was still having its regular furniture brought in when I visited. Later, I was disgusted to learn – this mysterious place where I’d been welcomed is infamous for a policy of allowing only white guests. That’s why the seclusion – it is really exclusion.

Still, I’d been there at noon on a new moon day and the gracious caretaker had insisted on taking dhrishti for me as he smashed or split pumpkin, coconut and lime one by one on the road outside, camphor burning. What do we make of these mismatches – when the parts don’t add up to the sum, when a place or a person is nice to you but nasty in general? This was also the second time recently when I’d been treated warmly somewhere, but scratching beneath the surface revealed an underbelly of racism.

Things are not what they seem, and then they are. And then sometimes you find that they are how they are only because you are what you are. Or what you seem to be.

I’ve written elsewhere at length about my Karaikal Ammaiyar mode – a method of dressing that appears careless but in fact is designed to make people take me seriously, or to let me be inconspicuous while I go about my own work. Karaikal Ammaiyar was the 6th century poet who prayed to be turned into a wraith so that her she could move through the world unencumbered by her own beauty. My “true” hyper-feminine, quite glamorous self takes a backseat to this style quite often. There’s something tricky about this mode though, which I keep forgetting. It makes me lower my guard. It puts me on the footing of assuming my own unattractiveness, and so makes me open in ways I don’t easily when aware of myself. I felt it happen recently: I put on my armour, and I dropped my guard.

Only, I was then left wondering: if my alluring self was real, how was my Ammaiyar self also honest? Perhaps like the plain-looking lodging that opened onto a zenana, but revealed itself to be stark of heart, something in my austere manifestation held more than a kernel of truth. Had I played the Ammaiyar disguise so much that I had grown in it, and begun to hold myself in authentic ways even in that state?

My friend who stayed at the zenana had asked me to meet her somewhere else the previous night, with instructions to “dress and behave like a goddess”, so we’d be given permission for something. I knew what she meant. Recognition is mostly a game of optics. Authenticity, though, is about much so more.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 22nd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Beauty & Outer Beauty

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One of the truest signs I know of a person being untrustworthy is if, after being introduced to someone who they are aware has caused you or another immense pain, they comment on their perceived physical attractiveness. It does not speak well of someone’s character if everything they know about a person and what they have done can fly out of their hearts and heads because their presence so easily dazes them. How can they see anything else, being aware of their nature? What follows for me is that sinking feeling: like has spoken to like, and I’d witnessed a warning.

What are you wired to see first: inner beauty or its lack, or the façade? Even when meeting someone new, you can re-wire yourself so that aura, body language, and above all else the subtle changes in your own energy and emotion are the lenses through which you see. Both an open heart and bitter experience are great co-teachers. But we must keep getting refresher courses in things like this. They don’t call being deeply perceptive as having “second sight” for no reason.

Before you trust a person, do you check that you can trust your instincts? Two friends of mine recently encountered someone I have been fortunate not to have to engage with directly yet, but whose manipulations are well-known to everyone but the person they are with. One was simply unable to extend a handshake even out of habit, no matter how awkward it looked. The other found herself unable to make eye contact with that person, despite their wide grin and eager expression. Politeness and courtesy are the next level of honing that instinct – when you’re able to match façade with façade without absorbing or being influenced by toxicity. Save the winter wonderland approach for the ones who know what they did to you; offer the cordialities to the ones who don’t know that you know what they did to others.

Even the strong allure of initial sexual attraction can be upended when one’s antenna is working. I recently hung out with someone whose good looks had left me slack-jawed on our first meeting. In the interim, however, I’d learned over personal messages and social media that his political beliefs – i.e. an extension of his conscience and values – were highly suspect. I stared at him across the table and wondered why I found him so very lacklustre-looking all of a sudden when I’d gawked over his calf eyelashes and brawny shoulders earlier. I was thankful to have seen past all that prettiness to the actual person, quickly.

But what is inner beauty, anyway? A bit of a misnomer, I think. Why isn’t it “beauty” and “outer beauty” instead? Imagine a value system that isn’t based on one (the inner) being the flip side, or the redeemer of, the other (the outer). So beauty then is judged on who one is, based on what they do, their effect on other people, what connecting with them feels like, and what looking into (or not being able to look into!) their eyes reveals. When you look at someone, do you see the whole picture?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 25th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: When It Comes To Hair, There’s Another Type Of Conditioning

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In the middle of a match at the WTA Finals in Singapore against an opponent she would go on to defeat, the tennis player Svetlana Kuznetsova sat down during a changeover and requested a pair of scissors. Without a mirror, she reached behind her head and began to hack off inches of her thick, tightly-wound braid, grimacing with effort.  As she took the last few snips, the crowd began to clap.

She didn’t loosen her braid first, or go off the court to cut it. The shorned locks remained on her chair for the rest of the match.

This wasn’t the first such occurrence in the sport, however. As an article on Tennis.com says: “Andy Murray cut the front of his hair during a defeat to Rafael Nadal at the year-ending 2015 ATP Finals in London. Boris Becker trimmed his bangs during a four-set Wimbledon semifinal win over Ivan Lendl in 1988.” What made Kuznetsova’s action unusual enough to make headlines was that she had defied an implicit beauty convention. Watching the video of her chopping off her hair gives one the same awe as seeing pictures of Alicia Keys sans makeup or the dancer January Low onstage, bare-bellied, at seven months pregnant.

An athlete’s practical decision to save her game shouldn’t elicit a “wow”. The braid was heavy and kept hitting her in the eye; her performance improved after the trim. (Bobby pins? Retying? Who cares – it’s just hair, it’ll grow back!) But we’re taken aback, even if for only a moment. Half that “wow” is in admiration of Kuznetsova’s dedication. The other half is pure conditioning. It’s why we’re surprised on some level every time a woman rejects an aesthetic ideal. All the more when the rejection itself isn’t a performance or a statement, but just the simplest and more obvious thing to do.

This calls to mind women who do far more radical things that expose and challenge the policing of hair than simply cutting off a few negligible inches. The classical dancer Geetha Shankaram-Lam, for example, is completely bald by choice. Harnaam Kaur and Balpreet Kaur both sport full beards to honour religious reasons; the former is a model, and the latter became famous for her gracious response upon being shamed on Reddit. The actor Cameron Diaz spoke up in favour of pubic hair, hardly a trivial declaration considering the cultural impact of pornography.

“It’s just hair,” I wrote earlier. But is it? Like the rest of the female body, it’s policed and sexualised. Its figurative power goes beyond beauty and aesthetics. How it’s worn on the head is taken to speak on behalf of everything from one’s sexuality to one’s spirituality. Whether it is depilated or otherwise on the face and body is taken to speak on behalf of everything from one’s sanity to one’s upbringing.

We have much to ponder over why Svetlana Kuznetsova taking a scissors to her braid during a tennis match is almost a spectacle. Would you do it? Why or why not? Our musings can teach us much about how we see ourselves and others, and how we want the world to see us.

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

The Venus Flytrap: A Mirror Of Another Time

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I wanted to encounter my gods as objects of beauty, and not as objects of praise. There, in the Bronze Gallery, I found I had miscalculated, for what was I doing if not engaging in idolatry, tracing with my eyes limbs and lines that had transferred from wax to mould to molten five-metal? They had travelled through centuries coveted and worshipped, smuggled and salvaged, to arrive finally behind glass – bare of turmeric, the cascade of milk, the caress of flowers.

I wanted to encounter myself at 19 again, the last time I had been in this gallery (isn’t this the shame of all of us who don’t appreciate beauty within stone’s throw of our dwellings, hungering for distant terrains to locate our most inspiring experiences in?). I want to say I have visited it in the interim years, and perhaps I have – but the only clear memory I have is of exploring it with another girl, to whom I texted a whole Audre Lorde poem to, stanza by stanza, whose admiration of the cambers of womanly bodies in bronze I had hoped to mean something more than purely aesthetic.

I looked from the statues to the mirrors behind them, poised so as to allow a dorsal view: the way a garment drapes at the back, snail-curls of hair. I was in those mirrors too.

In Tiruvarur, years ago, someone pointed to a woman in the Mucukunda murals, another feat of Chola artistry, and told me that she looked just like me. This became my conceit: a devadasi from centuries ago, ancestress or avatar. When the murals were fully restored later, I was fortunate to be among the celebrating party. We were given mirrored trays so we could wander the hall and look at the paintings on the ceiling without straining our necks. I stood underneath my dark-skinned, long-eyed charmer and saw her face and mine in the same reflection. It was a moment of triumphant vanity, a mysterious confrontation. There’s a funny comfort in catching one’s own eye.

When confronted by beauty upon beauty, one sees nuance, becomes partial to certain renderings. In the Bronze Gallery, I contemplated how we cannot touch these statues, but other hands have. Artistan, thief, curator. I imagine a pair pressing a stylus into the softness of wax, a softness that the 16th century Devi in the far-eastern corner embodies and expresses with eyes that brim with stone-still sadness. From that Audre Lorde poem on the fullness of body and moon – Thus I hold you / frank in my heart’s eye / in my skin’s knowing / as my fingers conceive your flesh…

I walked away, gazed down at her from an upper level, returned to cross the hall only to adore her again. She was the reason I had contemplated touch. It was her eloquent left eye that held me captivated. In the play of light and shadow in that corner, the right one was opaque. Right eye stoic to the world, left eye brimming with truth. This was how I saw her.

But who’s to say who or what it was I saw – sculpture, mirror, self, memory, symbol?

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