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.