Tag Archives: dating

The Venus Flytrap: Depression-Curing Boyfriends On Hire

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On Independence Day, Mumbai-based entrepreneur Kaushall Prakash launched an app called Rent A Boy|Friend, through which one can employ male company for brief periods. The line in their name between Boy and Friend is deliberate, suggesting the demarcation between physical engagement and what the app’s Instagram bio calls “Pure Friendship”. Physical intimacy and meeting in private locations are supposed to be prohibited on it. Intriguingly, the app states that its aim is to “eradicate depression”. The men whose company can be hired are expected to provide emotional support, not just attend functions or share meals with the customer.

Understandably but unfairly, this aim has been met with mockery in certain sections of the media. Reactions often fixate, in typically classist and conservative ways, on how the educational prerequisite for the gentlemen one can meet through the app is 10thor 12thstandard graduation. As though PhD holders are more likely to be thoughtful, sympathetic or have good listening and guidance skills (tell that to the erudite men on The List of Sexual Harassers in Academia).

While I’m in no hurry to give Rent A Boy|Friend a certificate of good intentions, there’s definitely something being added here to the conversation on depression, loneliness and the need for companionship. For the first time in India, an app connecting people on a personal level explicitly forefronts these issues instead of using oblique terminology about marriage or relationships. The app’s concept is not new abroad: in China, hundreds of services provide “fake boyfriends” whose time can be bought to take home to meet the family on holidays, or even for just a couple of hours to hang out with at the mall; a website called Invisible Boyfriend lets you co-create text message conversations as though you’re in a relationship; Japan’s kyabakura culture offers non-sexual, romantic company at clubs.

Rent A Boy|Friend only provides the company of men (for men and women alike). While the founder’s reason for this – “Rent-a-girlfriend sounds weird in India but it’s okay abroad.” – is a bit insubstantial, if the service’s condition that sexual contact is not allowed is true, it doesn’t in itself sound sexist to me. There’s an argument to be made that neither dating nor sex work are guaranteed to be safe or respectful for women in India at this time. As one of many women who downloaded then deleted Tinder, an app meant unambiguously for dating and hookups, I can only imagine how much worse the harassment, entitlement and abuse would be when the power dynamic involves a financial transaction.

As gimmicky or even shady as it may seem at first glance, tell any honest person who dates men in India about such an app and she’ll be curious – not interested enough to try it, probably, but certainly interested in the concept. Obviously, a “rented” boyfriend isn’t going to fix one’s mental health or loneliness. But naming the issues puts emotions, not only life goals or sexual availability, at the centre. No matter what our gender or orientation, and regardless of whether we think an app can fulfil our longings, that’s a change in perspective that would benefit us all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 30th 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: Fire-Trampoline Marriages

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We need to talk about those fire-trampoline marriages. You know: the kind where after a grand time running around town setting other people’s hearts on fire, someone takes a leap off a ledge, bounces right into the waiting arms of the patriarchy, and looks back up (still bouncing, not a toenail singed) and shouts: “I always told you I’d marry someone of my parents’ choosing!”.

If only real life was as comic panel-perfect as this analogy. Because what happens next largely happens out of sight. While the man or the woman with the trampoline conducts their socially-sanctioned conjugal bliss in full public view, cheesy captions and all, there is also a person trapped in that metaphorical burning building. The ashes of charred dreams and the mess left for them to clean up are not metaphorical at all. (The jumper’s spouse is a contemplation for another time).

It should be no surprise that in an India where only 5% of marriages are inter-caste (i.e. actually based on something other than upholding the system), there are a whole lot of fire-trampolines. This applies especially among those who are more educated, more affluent and for the most part, urbanites. There’s a profound disconnect between the veneer of liberal values and sexual mores that are enjoyed superficially and one’s actual beliefs.

But more so than a question of ideologies, this is really an issue of accountability. To mislead and treat someone badly then write it off as something you needed to do for the sake of family, culture, religion, money or general appearances is not “the right thing to do”. There’s nothing honourable about it. The most devious version of all is when the jumper pleads their cowardice, and claims they wish they were strong like you. Don’t believe it for a second.

I hear many stories from the people left holding the broom, the bucket and the bad end of the stick. Here’s what I told the last woman who cried to me about a man who suddenly got engaged to someone else while almost simultaneously declaring his love for her for the first time. (Yes, men do seem to jump into fire-trampolines more than women because the system is essentially designed to serve them better). This is what I told her: “It’s not that he doesn’t know what he wants, despite what some will tell you, including him. It is that he knows what he can have. He can have the convenience of his marriage, and by leaving this door ajar, he can also have emotional intensity – and more – from you.”

Because anyone who keeps a fire-trampoline handy has got other tricks up their sleeve. It’s no leap (pun intended) from “I told you I’d marry someone of my parents’ choosing” to “You knew I was married.”

At first it’s horrific, the aftermath among the embers. But eventually, you see distinctively what happens to the two survivors. The one who jumped continues to keep jumping, through more and more hoops of their own making. As for the one who was trapped in the inferno, the one who walked through flames? You already know what resurrects from ash.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 27th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Candlelight Dinner With A Difference

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“No, I won’t write about Valentine’s Day!” I texted my friend back, when he suggested the topic. I’d barely hit Send on my next line – “V-Day is vaandi-day only” when I remembered that for several years as a politically-aware young adult, I had refused to acknowledge the romantic festival because I believed so strongly in another V-Day.

V was for Vagina. V was for Violence. V-Day was the global movement founded in 1998 by playwright Eve Ensler (who created The Vagina Monologues) to fight violence against women. February 14th is where you’ll find it on the calendar, and it began as a series of fundraising performances of the play, and expanded to include a variety of artistic and political forms of grassroots engagements worldwide, all of which confront and try to change the disgraceful UN statistic that 1 in 3 women will be beaten or raped in her lifetime.

I couldn’t ever observe Valentine’s Day, knowing that it is in intimate relationships that this abuse is most pervasive.

“Do I write too much about women?” I started texting my friend, and once again I corrected myself: I realised that when we talk of violence against women, or any form of gender-based violence, we need to stop calling it a ‘women’s issue’. If anything, it’s more of men’s issue. It’s an issue of toxic masculinity, of what happens to men in any society that demands that they be unemotional, aggressive and authoritative. Women aren’t the problem. Men aren’t the problem. Patriarchy is.

I had never stopped believing in its principles, so why had I somehow forgotten about this other V-Day? It was probably because once I moved to India, I discovered that Valentine’s Day itself is subversive. To declare romantic interest or sexual involvement under the hostile watch of right-wing ideologies and discriminatory constraints is itself a radical, and therefore dangerous, act. Every year, couples are attacked, forcibly married or forcibly separated, by powers-that-be that do not recognise the power of love.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s probably healthy to crinkle one’s nose at least a little at saccharine hormonal garblings and socially-pressured exhibitions of rosy veneers. But let’s not forget that to feel love and not be ashamed of it is a human right. And before we celebrate it, let us first demand and exercise that right. It belongs to people of all genders, across all castes and communities, and of any sexual orientation.

So if you’ve got a candlelight dinner planned this weekend, why not bring that awareness to the table? Light at least one candle in memory of someone killed for falling in love with someone of a different religion, or someone driven to suicide because they were bullied for being gay, or even an ancestor of your own who was forced into an arranged marriage while the heart longed for deeper companionship. And maybe light another candle for the other V-Day: in memory of a woman lost to violence in a bond where there should have been love. Bring the revolution to the table, let it illuminate the conversation, and see if it doesn’t change your relationship for the better too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 11th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Dating While Being Intimidating

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“Strong women intimidate boys and excite men”. There is an image of a woman wearing a tank top with these words on it that has been doing the rounds online recently. It’s a glamour shot – an advertisement for the American clothing company that sells the top. But the line is so powerful that the image, free of branding, has gone viral. Is it cocky? Only if you’re someone who hides behind the idea that people fear you, like a little creepy-crawly that casts a looming shadow. But for most people for whom the line strikes a chord, particularly straight women, it appeals not so much to the ego as to the never-not-broken heart.

            No one gets to be strong without first having been shattered. The Japanese have a beautiful artform, kintsugi, in which a lacquer of powdered gold is used to repair cracked pottery, rendering an object more beautiful not despite but because of its brokenness. Some of us are thus now made almost entirely of gold.

            I wish I had a rupee for every time someone said to me, as though it was some major insight they were offering me, “I think men are just afraid of you.” (I’d always have exact by-the-meter change for autorickshaws then). But what does the “just” in “just afraid” really mean? It’s a word that seeks to paint as obvious what is in fact an imbalance, a reflection of the disturbing reality that empowered women are punished most of all in the arena of personal relationships. How can a positive trait like strength – and attendant qualities like ambition, success, independence and candour – be anything other than desirable?

            When a man, especially in a romantic context, is put off by a woman’s strength it is not because he isn’t sure that he can handle a life that demands more of him (this is what he will invariably say as he conveys his regrets). It’s because he actively prefers to not try. The kind of woman he is not afraid of is the one he will choose. She is not necessarily weak. But she is always afraid of him. The truth is, fear does excite weak men – her fear, that is.

            But I think of all the times I have held the beverage before me with slightly shaking hands, lowering my eyes as I received the condescension of being told or showed that I am too strong to love, and I can tell you – of course there was fear then. And despair. And anger. But when I finally raised my chin, the only emotion they’d register would be the last. Scary lady.

            I reject the idea that I am too difficult to love. And if that means being rejected by anyone less than my perfect equal, then so be it. (Why try, why not do the rejecting first? Well, that’s what really separates the weak from the strong – whether you embrace vulnerability or seek to avoid it).

            I’d add a clause to the quote on the tank top. That bit about exciting men? Boring. And easy. Anyone – intimidating or otherwise – knows this. I’d rather be seen, not just salivated over. I’d rather be understood than craved. Of course I want to excite you (it would add another crack to my gold-filigreed heart I didn’t) – but just as much, I want to challenge you, to learn from you, to provoke your sense of purpose, to arouse your best self, to stimulate in you – just as there is in me – an insatiable appetite for life.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Her Perfect Equal

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At the beginning of her long affair with Harold Pinter, Antonia Fraser was warned by her brother, “You are a woman and a strong character yet you want your husband to be stronger. Women with strong characters who want to dominate are always fine because there are plenty of weak men around. Also plenty of strong men for weak women. But yours is a special problem.”

It is because of this special problem – this particular affliction of being an alpha female looking for neither her master nor her mutt but her perfect equal – that I reacted with a dismay not usually reserved for celebrity gossip at last week’s more plausible than usual reports that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are separating. The end of this power pairing isn’t yet another Hollywood meltdown; to me, it will be the combustion of the only modern relationship paradigm that I find truly desirable.

In recent years, I’ve found myself drawn to Jolie, an unlikely role model – too famous, too contemporary to truly analyze, and hounded by public obsession and private demons both. I find something very inspiring in the way in which, as a woman of a highly dysfunctional nature, she has turned her life around without ever losing the essence of her idiosyncrasy. In creating her family, she has revitalized the idea of the matriarch, updating the archetype without losing its noble connotations. Her advocacy has helped people around the world, and her artistic body of work shimmers with a certain aptitude. But it is her partnership with Pitt that ties this all together – it is an alliance that subverts the notion that intense, eccentric women cannot be partnered, at least not in any significant non-disastrous fashion. Like Jolie herself, it originated in scandal and evolved into something admirable, intriguing and undeniably powerful.

There is a danger in suggesting this, because it is an admission that mating is important – a very conservative idea for some. But more draconian still is the denial of passion, devotion and basic need – these are human impulses, not just female ones. I am interested in the idea of romantic partnership as collaboration, and have long puzzled over why there are so few examples of successful pairings that involve an unusual, forceful woman.

I read somewhere once, “Who could Madonna possibly date? She’s Madonna. Jesus, maybe.” The punchline, years later, is that she did date a man named Jesus, but the underlying contention remains: a theoretically post-feminist society has come to accept many things, but the virago with a domiciliary instinct is not one of them. This is neither a fault of the movement nor of the establishments it challenges. The notion boggles our minds simply because there is no existing marital script, at least in the archives of the collective psyche, to offer a successful example of such a couple.

Brangelina is the closest we have ever come to it. I want them to stay together not because of any vicarious tabloid satisfaction, but because they represent to me a sort of hope, a trajectory upon which to chart my own path. Can a woman be mother, martyr, magnate, mad – and still have her mate? Like Jolie, I intend to have my cake and eat you too – and hers is the only recipe I know so far.

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.