Tag Archives: beauty

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Laying It Out In Lavender

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“When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple” goes the famous poem by Jenny Joseph. Well, Aishwarya Rai is just 42, old only by the punishing yardsticks of the entertainment industry. She looks fabulous, but wouldn’t be forgiven if she doesn’t, or if she looked beautiful and aging. On the red carpet at Cannes, she appeared whimsical, winking at the camera in a lavender lipstick like it was the most natural thing in the world, while the world itself looked on aghast. The often-forgotten title of that poem is “Warning”. In it, a woman trapped in a conformist lifestyle promises to misbehave in her elderly years, and wonders if she should start practicing; she begins with wearing purple.

Why is a woman putting on a cosmetic so temporary that she’ll only have to blow her nose once into a tissue to have most of it come off the subject of debate? “Debate” was a word actually used in headlines (why were headlines made because a woman wore a cosme… never mind). In one article, several inquiring ladies gave the shade a shot and found that that particular lipstick, by a brand that Rai is an ambassador of, does not retail in India. Their trip to two stores seemed to yield no equivalent, which led them to concoct the colour themselves through mixing white and purple eyeliners with a concealer base on their lips. They didn’t like the effect (their photos don’t have too many smiles, which may have made a difference).

Which brings us to this ridiculousness: how does white eyeliner exist when a lilac lipstick, which is stunning when offset by the dark skin of so many Indian people, can’t be readily found? For local manufacturers and franchisees, my sapodilla skin is probably the swarthiest tone they consider. My even more dark-skinned friends must either fork out several thousand rupees per product for elite brands like MAC or Inglot, or forego skin cosmetics altogether. Similarly for more deeply pigmented colours which will stand out on an array on eyelids and cheekbones and lips. This isn’t simply about whether people can afford it, or even a hyper-ethical question of whether any of us should wear makeup. Beauty standards are enforced by diminishing not just diversity, but self-esteem, as envisaged and enacted through self-presentation.

Here’s the thing: Rai may have made ill-advised fashion choices in the past but when it comes to this lipstick, my guess is it was neither faux pas nor advice. Some L’Oreal executive would have held out a palette of options and suggested a baby pink to go with the floral print on her dress or a bright scarlet to go with the blood-boiling rage against the system. Rai wore violet because she wanted to. Maybe her child liked it. Maybe she was making a subtle homage to the queer rights movement, whose emblematic hue is purple. I’d like to think that the Jenny Joseph poem was the most plausible reason. After decades of being micro-managed and body-shamed and made complicit in the way other women are manipulated and devalued – through a pastel smile, was she issuing a powerful warning?

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

The Venus Flytrap: I’ll Always Have Paris

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Paris was the gift I gave myself when no one else would have me. It was an armistice of beauty I bought in a time of despair. I had wept my way through a month in England and a week in Berlin and arrived, fragile cargo, at the city of light. There, I breathed easily for a handful of days near the end of that summer. And then I would go back to India, and to much worse yet to come. But those few and blessed days became some of the most precious stones I’d bead onto the thread of my life. I knew them by touch: a memory I felt for whenever I doubted my gifts, my deservingness or my capacity to love myself. They still shimmer.

            This is what Paris is to many people – those who have set foot in it, and those who know it in fantasy. On Saturday, I woke up to the news about the terrorist strikes on the city. I saw the mourning on social media first before I saw the reason why. “An attack on Paris is an attack on love”, someone* wrote on Facebook. And indeed it is. Not just love in the romantic sense, but love in the sense of altruistic compassion, which is formalised in the ideology known as democracy. Something about the city stands for freedom – whether that is the freedom to kiss or the freedom to think. Paris is beautiful in ways both intangible and palpable. It stands for the idea that life can be beautiful, and then it shows you how. At a distance, the city is a muse. In attendance, it is living magic.

            I took a room in Montmartre that overlooked a ficus-gilded wall. For four days, I wandered by the river, in the churches, to the museums. I saw a woman with a cobalt blue parrot in the Latin Quarter one day and outside my hotel the next. I clicked a love-lock into place. In the most charming sequence from those days soaked in the miraculous, I found myself crying with joy in the Tuileries one afternoon, unable to believe that I could feel anything other than pain for the first time in a long time, and when I left the gardens and crossed a bridge, a stranger stopped me and gave me a gold-plated ring. She said it belonged to me. And so it does.

            This is not entirely panegyric. My first day in Paris was spent in its outskirts, in its underbelly if you will, among refugees. That’s a story for another time. But I know that story too.

            Does Paris matter more than Beirut or Baghdad? Does it matter more than Damascus or Maiduguri? Does it matter more than Muzaffarnagar? No. I am sad about Paris not because of outraged sentiments, but because of pure sentimentality. I am angry, about other places near and far, every single day. None among us is omniscient, which is the simple reason why our indignation or concern appears to be selective. We learn later, and then we know better next time. If you are upset about what happened in Paris because terrorism is terrible, then recognise fear-mongering under any name it appears by. If you aren’t particularly upset about what happened in Paris, but you care about liberté, égalité, fraternité, then recognise what is at stake. Everywhere. Maybe the attacks on Paris hurt so much because the city is a civilisational catalyst, one in which those principles are already – and I use this word deliberately – enshrined.

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

*With thanks to Narayani Nadesan

Fiction in Kindle

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Kindle Magazine has published an excerpt from my novelette “Afternoon Sex” in their Food issue. The entire story appeared in issue 14 of Hobart, which can be purchased here.

In a nice full circle vis-à-vis reprints, The Body Narratives has also republished my essay on the (round) belly as a marker of beauty, which first appeared in Kindle.