The Venus Flytrap: Democracy And Apocalypse

The word “apocalypse” is from the Greek language, in which it means: unveiling, uncovering, great revelation. To be post-apocalyptic, then, is to be fully in possession of knowledge. Where does that place us today, when this word is used as though the naming itself will protect the world from what is being unleashed on it by the accretion of greed? Some people would call it an accretion of fear, but I beg to differ. To look into the bloodied face, even in a distant photograph, of a child and affirm the belief that that child has less of a right to exist than you do is not fear, only greed. “The less there are of him, the more there is for me.”

There are two more Greek elements worth weighing in these times. One is from mythology. The other is from politics.

When Paris brought his conquest Helen to Troy, the prophet Cassandra met them at the port and tore the veil from Helen’s hair, only to be dragged away and silenced. Cassandra had been cursed by the god Apollo, in whose temple she had been a priest, that her prophecies would always be precise – but that she would never be believed. She was Paris’ half-sister, and had warned at his birth that he would destroy the city.  The moment Helen set foot in Troy was the moment when its destiny spun irrevocably into bloodshed. Cassandra saw this, and cried herself hoarse trying to convince the people around her. There have been many Cassandras. And there still are, speaking the truths that most will later claim not to have heard at all.

The second element is democracy, which is generally held to have first successfully been attempted in ancient Greece. I recently learnt that the philosopher Socrates was opposed to the concept, because democracies are wholly dependent on education, i.e. the ability to make informed choices. Let’s consider this angle. If we are to fight fascism, we must examine why democracy sometimes fails. There is the basic stratum of education: that which we are taught, and the system already excludes many on this count. Then there is the next: that which we go forth and learn. As adults – beneficiaries, rejects or merely survivors of that system – we complacently educate ourselves on forwards, memes and propaganda. This is entirely a choice. And ostensibly, so is everything that happens in any democracy as a result.

In the first few days of what is becoming seen as a post-apocalyptic / apocalyptic / apocalypse bardo world, I found myself very quiet. In actuality, this was neither the end nor the beginning. The warnings had been issued, the teachings had been shared, and to use the language of the new world disorder, solidarity had been pronounced. What else was left to say? So I sat for a while and thought of beautiful distractions, as an attempt to soothe myself. Until even that led to futility: the question of what the purpose of making art is, if all the stories already told did not keep us from allowing these ones, the ones we are enacting and witnessing, to come true.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 2nd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Dialogue Is Protest

Many years ago, I was playing with a then 6-year old cousin of mine when for reasons I cannot remember, the second World War came up. What I do remember, however, is having to sit him down and as gently as possible explain some of the human costs of that era. I remember him quietly and seriously absorbing what I was telling him, wrapping his understanding of the world around this difficult, new information.

You already know this difficult information. You encountered it in your textbooks, as my cousin did eventually, because your textbooks included it. Textbooks do not include everything. And while it is easy to look at streamlined history in hindsight, it is not easy to watch it unfold or to prod at silences and erasures. So we look away, convinced we are not a part of what proceeds. And by doing so, we become complicit.

Recently, I’ve found myself doing for adults what I had to do for my cousin as a child. I’ve had to ask them to join the dots and consider how their personal experiences of gender, caste, language, race and other defining barriers are connected to the way power is structured, formally and informally. And to ask them what they mean, when they repeat what they’ve heard elsewhere. I’ve even had to ask them a question that makes me feel ashamed to have to put to any person who has gone to school: do you read before forming opinions; and what do you read?

In doing so, I’ve laid my own principles open to interrogation. I’ve laid myself open to hostility. I am tired, I am frightened, but my conscience demands that I engage. What motivates me to have these dialogues is not the need to impose my perspective, but the bleak awareness that alternate perspectives are rarely provided with compassion, without resorting to belittling. This is true for all sides.

Which is why, as much as possible, what I try to do is ask.

If you are worried about fundamental freedoms, you probably feel cornered of late. You don’t have to march at a protest or be active on social media to feel the corrosion even in your personal interactions. ‘Are we really so few – those of us who care?’ you wonder. Maybe. But couldn’t it be that people don’t care mainly because they don’t know?

The resistance is not to an open mind, but to that profoundly scary step of leaving a comfort zone of distraction and denial.

How did you develop your views? For instance, for myself, I know that having felt like, and been, an outsider from childhood is probably why I gravitate toward the underdog. Let’s think about how people come to social consciousness, and make it easier for them, rather than simply attacking their ignorance.

It is true that propaganda is, sadly, more effective than conversation. Fear and laziness allow for that. But my belief is this: instead of shouting back at structures from an ivory tower of our own, let’s talk. If it’s people we’re fighting for, it is people we must talk to.

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

The Venus Flytrap: I’ll Always Have Paris

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