Tag Archives: chennai

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: Kadalai? Kadavule!

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Putting kadalai is one of my favourite hobbies (a close second to a most favourite hobby, which is receiving kadalai). The etymology of “kadalai podrathu” is probably from the Marina Beach romance culture, which made the too-healthy-to-be-sexy sundal an aphrodisiac.

Kadalai is not kaadhal, kadalai is not a commitment. Kadalai is just flirtation. Kadalai is repartee and possibility. The best thing about kadalai is that it’s very uncomplicated. So you can share a cone with anyone, metaphorically speaking, and usually be perfectly satisfied with just that. But no less than Rumi is credited with a poem on the chickpea, which includes these zesty lines: “Grace first. Sexual pleasure, then a boiling new life begins, and the Friend has something good to eat.”

I recently discussed this while in the midst of another favourite activity, procrastination (also fun to do with another person). “I wonder what sundal would be, then,” I procrastinated with my friend Sukanya. She expanded the Tanglish lexicon of lust and love immediately: “Sundal would be a booty call text. It’s quite spicy and it’s been cooked – by then some process has happened.” Kadalai progression.

Sukanya lives in an exotic foreign country known as Mumbai and when I visited her once, she asked me to bring a certain local delight – rose milk from the airport Krishna Sweets. Thankfully, it did not bukkake in my luggage. Rose milk would be “final achievement unlocked” she winkyfaced. Except, of course, it turns bad the next day. A comparison I am, sadly, very familiar with.

Chicken 65 is obviously what happens when a height-disproportionate couple tries to have an egalitarian oral experience (quite overrated anyway; in fact, we could say it’s only semiprime). A karuvadu situation might generally mean something dried up beyond redemption, but do you have any idea how tasty karuvadu actually is, after days in the sun? Heat plus anticipation equals much deliciousness. Slow burn. Keep it roasting.

A vengayam, to misquote a famous politician, would be a dudebro who seems complex and deep at first (you know, listens to Cohen and always meant to listen to Mitchell too, takes long solo bike rides to brood in scenic settings, maybe reads a little Zizek – or just reads a little at all), but once everything’s peeled off there’s nothing there. Oh, and he also makes you cry.

Speaking of when everything’s been peeled off, a pachaimolaga is a thing that looks disappointingly small but is capable of imparting much fieriness. Or maybe you’d prefer the pappadum or appalam – the hotter it gets, the more it expands. Apropos which, long before the eggplant emoji, we were already saying “oru kathrikai kooda ille”. Sigh.

Which brings me to how, in these days of both grocery apps and dating apps delivering juicy convenience to our doorsteps, some of us still thiruvify the thenga ourselves. The good old-fashioned way. By hand, the way God and Dr. Ruth told us to. If you don’t think this analogy applies to your anatomy, it’s quite possible that too many already do. And if all this Tanglish has been lost on you, let’s just say the last word is simply: ladies finger.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 30th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: For The Women Who Weren’t Born Men

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Maybe they don’t know everything, the women with the divining sticks, but they sure know how to reel a girl in. Maybe they don’t see everything, but they do see you there on the beach, alone or in some laidback configuration, and somehow – they see enough.

And so they come up to you as you’re rolling your jeans up or dusting your bum off, scrunching the newspaper your sundal came in and absentmindedly considering whether to litter, trash or recycle. And they look you in the eyes with a smile of recognition and say: “Nee ambulaiya poranthirikanum, ma!” You should have been born a man.

Even later, when you find out that there’s nothing unique about this line, you will consider it a compliment, because it is meant as one.

And the shore-side soothsayer will offer you this opening gambit as she takes your palm, because whatever else she knows or doesn’t, she can intuit you aren’t going to take it as an insult.

Though later, you learn: some women who do terrible things to other women have been told it too. Other women who do worse things to themselves have been told it too. Are those also ways to be men, then? “Internalised misogyny,” you think. Women who should have been born men because maybe then they would hate themselves, and each other, less.

Even later, when you bristle and say, “Well, if I lived somewhere else, was steeped in better societal conditioning, desexing me wouldn’t feel like a compliment.”

But you don’t live anywhere but here. You live here in this city by the sea. With a long beach where you could be detained for holding hands at night. And by the brightness of day, you give yourself away because only someone who doesn’t mind sun-kissed skin would be loitering. Someone like you, a woman like a man.

Count them and see how few they are, the women. How far between the canoodling (straight) couples and the water-shy families. While half-naked men splash around like they own this city, or indeed, this sea.

“Should have been born a man”, you ponder – and you look at the transwomen who also mill about between stalls selling blackened corn and displaying balloons to shoot for prizes. And you wonder what the fortune-tellers say to them, though you don’t quite know how to ask.

And not yet, not today, but soon – you may wander along that beach and arrive at the memorial of another woman who “should have been born a man”. And you’ll think of the crowds of men in white who surrounded her, and all the women still in their kitchens, whose lives she made a little easier.

At first, when you were younger, you thought that all that the fortune-tellers meant with that provocative, alluring opening gambit was this: that you have courage in excess, a province you demurred was not exclusively male. Later you understood: if you were a man, in this place and in this time, what you could do with that courage would have multiplied. Or to put it another way, perhaps you wouldn’t have needed that much courage at all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 8th 2016. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Turtlewalking Through The Night

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“Little is known about the lives of turtles underwater, but this much has long been understood: Where a turtle hatches is where she comes back to nest, a dozen or so years later. In the nearly three decades of the SSTCN’s work, Venkatramanan estimates that 2,50,000 eggs have been transferred from the beaches to the hatcheries, of which 2,00,000 hatchlings have been released into the sea.”

Read my piece on turtlewalking in Chennai, and the increasingly threatened marine ecosystem, in Hindustan Times.

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: All Scene, No Art?

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I tried not to judge, but wouldn’t you roll your eyes at the words “colouring book workshop for adults”? Then came the real kicker – the fee. It was the cost of a nice 3-course meal for two at any midscale restaurant. And if that restaurant happens to be family-friendly, you’d probably get table mats to not just colour, but also do crosswords and matching puzzles on. Totally complimentary.

Of course, other people’s time and money are not my concern. The off-putting feeling was really about what passes for leisure-cultural activity in Chennai. “But this is interactive” is no defense: when listening to an orchestra, doesn’t one participate right down to the goosebumps on one’s arms?

Some time ago, at the launch of a very good book, I looked around at the meagre audience and felt deeply annoyed. Just a couple of days prior, there had been another reading by aspirant writers, and their absence meant a conspicuous lack of support for someone who had stayed the course and worked hard to gain their current success. I’ve noted this often, over the years: the desire to be read, heard, watched, admired, applauded – but a reluctance to offer the same.

So many burn out because they fuel only their ambition, not their sense of awe. Whenever I discourage someone from self-publishing a collection before sending even a single poem to a poetry journal, or chide them for not reading enough, it’s because I’ve seen a little farther down the path than they have. I speak from just the distance I have come so far, but this I know:  the journey is full of disappointment, rife with treachery, and one keeps on it through tenacity, humility and something I can only name as grace. If you demand an audience while refusing to be in one, you become the proverbial frog under the coconut shell. And so does the art you make.

But when I was asked when I’d last been to an arts event not directly related to my own field, i.e. literature, I couldn’t pinpoint one within the last three months. I posed the same question to other Chennai-based artists – when had they last had a cultural experience outside their turf? A musician was unsure – there’d been a photo exhibit in the last month but he couldn’t recall its name. A dancer knew distinctly that at least a year had passed since catching Ponniyan Selvan onstage. A theatre practitioner had attended a concert early this year. The person who’d asked me the question, also a musician, couldn’t remember. My own answer had been a cheat: I’d visited two heritage monuments in Karnataka.

This highlights the next level of the problem: professionals who don’t frequently cross-pollinate locally. Even if most of us privately, compulsively, consume culture through books, films and music, this doesn’t necessarily influence our collective milieu. As tempting as it is to blame Chennai’s sparse arts scene (with a few concentrated festivals a year, not a continuous buzz) I’d prefer to turn the onus on us: those in, and who want to be in, the arts. Let’s colour outside the boxes a little more, shall we?

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

The Venus Flytrap: The Illusion Of Safety Is A Highly Gendered Phenomenon

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Some years ago, a spectacularly acrimonious argument with an auto driver had me racing up several flights of stairs, palms sweating, ears ringing with filthy curses, desperately seeking the reassurance of the friend who opened the door. Shaken, I recounted the incident: the driver knew where I lived, I was at the drop-off location frequently, it was a long ride, he knew what I looked like, what if, what if…?

“Don’t be silly,” said my friend. “How many times a day do you think he has a fight? Do you think he keeps accounts of each one?”

His logic was so beautiful, so collected, that for a few moments relief washed over me. I was just being paranoid, I agreed. I mean, why would I think that… And then the genderedness of our perspectives clicked into place. My male friend lived in a city in which he could unzip his trousers by a random wall if the bathroom queues were too long, and no matter how many women dropped by, his neighbours still said friendly hellos to him. I lived in a city in which I never left a party without someone asking me to text when I got home, and none of those same neighbours ever looked me in the eye. Both these cities share the same name and map coordinates, and vastly different emotional echolocations.

Which city did the murder of S. Swathi at the busy Nungambakkam railway station happen in last week: his or mine? Entitlement or vulnerability? Both, as it happens, which is why the reactions to it have been so shameful and so confused.

Chennai is not any more dangerous than it ever was, so let’s drop that sensationalist line of thinking. Ask a college student, ask a transwoman, ask every person wrapping a dupatta on her body as though it was made of chainmail. If you hear women themselves saying that the city has “become unsafe”, what’s between the lines is this: if someone chooses to kill me publicly, they may just get away with it. The psychological stakes have been raised from eyes averted from slaps in parking lots and ears plugged to screams in the adjacent building to even greater non-involvement.

The need to categorise the murder as only an issue of urban safety is an act of obfuscation. True, we should be able to take for granted working CCTV surveillance and prompt responses from authorities, as well as protection for those who come forward as witnesses. But to ignore the larger picture of public indifference and poor socialisation means changing nothing about how things really are. We can talk about these things while still honouring Swathi’s family’s request to not speculate on her case.

We cannot address women’s safety without talking about stalking, specifically how treating love as a dinner table taboo and allowing misogynistic cinema to teach its ways instead has destroyed its spirit. Modern Indian culture does not empower people with respectful courtship etiquette, but neither does it empower them with the skills to handle rejection. And when a person confides that someone makes them feel afraid, how seriously do we take them?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 30th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.