Tag Archives: desire

The Venus Flytrap: Desires Unmet

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In Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, a group of mostly illiterate older women share and write down sexual fantasies and revelations with one another in a gurudwara classroom, while those in charge believe the old ladies are actually learning English. In Alankrita Shrivastava’s film, Lipstick Under My Burqa, four neighbours with significantly varied lifestyles conduct the shine-and-subterfuge that so many women in conservative places like India do. In secret, they work, party, sing, join protests, read erotica, conduct affairs – slipping on and off masks (or more literally, articles of clothing, be they burqas or swimsuits) that allow them to move between their true and ordained selves.

In both cases – the book, set in suburban London, and the film, set in Bhopal – the women’s solidarity with one another is a natural falling-together, an effect of proximity and circumstance. They have not been influenced by rhetoric, or raised with exposure to it; they have been moved only by logic and desire, despite how incompatible the two may seem. Indeed, I can see both groups together, crossover-style: among them, the resourceful Shireen who climbs the ladder of a sales career without her husband’s knowledge, the elderly Arvinder who reveals a memory disguised as a story, the wilful student Rehana who articulates rebellion in front of the sudden spotlight of a camera, the grieving Kulwinder who finds that life can still hold pleasure.

It was by coincidence that I watched Lipstick Under My Burqa on one of the days when I was also reading Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows. They complemented each other so well, such that the middle-aged, widowed character of Usha in the film, played by Ratna Pathak, would have found herself at ease in the English gurudwara. Like the migrant widows, she is regarded as a non-sexual being. In truth, they are anything but – something which is routinely unacknowledged, either in fiction or in life. It was only extraordinary to see her portrayed in Indian cinema, for the many Ushas around us are dismissed daily, their desire seen alternately as non-existent, humourous or shameful.

Lipstick Under My Burqa left me saddened for hours afterwards. Was this the movie that had caused such a controversy with the censor board (not to mention the creation of that odd little phrase – “lady-oriented”)? There’s a little bit of sex, sure – but more vividly, there’s rape. Marital rape, to be precise, which does not legally exist in India. And humiliation, heartache and helplessness. It’s a film about women’s fantasies, yes – but more pertinently, it’s a film about women’s realities. About need and nature and how both are crushed by force. Nothing titillating about that.

It’s a film about fulfilled desire only as a matter of luck, and sexual repression or frustration as demands. I won’t say more, because I shouldn’t give away what happens in this poignant and disturbing film. But I will say this: if, like me, you are filled with sorrow afterward, turn to the surprisingly uplifting Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows as a chaser. I’m grateful I was consuming both pieces of art at once. Book and film, too, fell together in quiet solidarity.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 7th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Distraction of Waiting

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Here is a short list of things I long for that I can have, but don’t yet: leopard print d’Orsay pumps with a heel of precisely four inches; a holiday in the Western Ghats; an oxidised silver nose stud in a large indigenous design.

That last one has become an obsession. You see, I can’t seem to find any readymade ones that have the South Indian straight pin – simple, sleepable-in, stress-free. They all have coil-wires, also known as Bombay screws.

A year or two ago, I wound up in the Emergency Room at 1a.m. because a coil-wire nose stud I had worn that evening had irritated the inside of my nostril so much that the delicate tissue had swollen, and I could not remove the ornament. There I was, lying on my back in the ward, so perfectly aware of the ridiculousness of the incident that I decided to enjoy it. I think those on duty were slightly taken aback by my excellent taste (or maybe just the size of the bijoux versus the size of my face). How deliciously diva-like. “Madam,” breathed a wide-eyed attendant, clipping instrument in hand, “Is it gold?” Of course it wasn’t. It was cheap beads and alloy and mine for one-night-only, evidently.  But I was most pleased that my Midas touch was being admired. “Not at all,” I smiled, and let two strangers put their fingers into my nose.

What keeps me from just having another bespoke nosepin made, like I did for the one I wear daily (and why yes, that is gold)? How can I explain my waiting other than in terms of delayed gratification?

In this age of instant satisfaction, I’m in praise of anticipation. I don’t want everything at once. I want to want things before I have them, to know that wanting to be true. To first covet then cherish.

The to-be-read pile of books I waited a whole year each to have released in paperback, and still paid princely sums for. You’d think I’d have dived into them instantly upon arrival, surfacing with bed-raggled hair and raccoon eyes like on any morning after a torrid encounter. But no. They gather dust. Their pages don’t bow from being held open. I’ll read them all some day. Savouring. Just not today. They comfort me by the sight of them, their proximity to my sleep and dreams.

The slow burn seduction. The phone that pings and pings all day but never with that particular name. Until it is. And then another intricate dance starts, the more long-winded the better: reams of repartee, a season of sexual tension. Maybe that’s masochistically frustrating to some, but it’s catnip to nine-lived poets. The pleasure of all that is possible.

We must covet the things we can have, among the larger dreams we nurture, because life is full of disappointments of all sizes, and – for those blessed enough to afford it – this is one kind of self-care. We must indulge desire as a form of hope in the fight against futility.

Desire, and defer awhile. See if anything changes. Steady, steady, steady – what’s the rush? The world is ending, anyway.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 26th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Devotion, Desire, Darkness

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There are places in ourselves we spend our whole lives moving toward, and sometimes we encounter them in literal landscapes, points on maps we can place our fingers on as we might on cherished skin. And sometimes, much later, having travelled far geographically and otherwise, we can go back. This was how I found myself in Kolkata, eleven and a half years later, with a hibiscus in my hand and a recentred (re-centred, or recent red?) heart. In the version of the story I had been telling for a decade about my first time there, I had painted myself as a fool. It was the simplest way in which to explain how something had not been for me, and I had chased it anyway.

The Fool is the first card of the major arcana of the tarot. All journeys begin on a Fool’s footing.

I moved to India a couple of months before my 19th birthday, thinking I would live in Kolkata. It was a wager I had made with my parents after I ran away from (their) home – I’d return, briefly, if they would then send me where I wanted to live, which as far as they were concerned was only away from them. But only I knew of what had been appearing in my dreams, symbols I blandly tried to explain as the desires to study or to be free.

My first time in Kolkata crushed my spirit. Only the temples – Kalighat and Dakshineswar – held anything of meaning for me there.

And with that journey, the desire to move to that city disappeared. I understood that it had only ever been a pilgrim’s longing that had taken me there.

So when something – a book launch – called me back in December, I recognised the calling to be the same. Just as once, a long time ago, I had gone seemingly in pursuit of textbooks, I packed my devotion stealthily under guise of a love of literature and found myself once more in the goddess’ city.

One temple by night, the gold-tongued goddess in the red light district one sees only through shouts and shoving and swindling. And one by morning, bumping out of the city in the dusty dawn to the miracle of no queues, and a moment of sitting quietly by the western window of the sanctum sanctorum to have the priest reach through the wrought iron and place in my palm a compact of kumkum, and a deep pink hibiscus.

If my prayer was a secret, I wouldn’t share it with you. But I know it is etched across my face, these treacherous eyes of mine that yield everything. I want not only to let go of my disappointments, but to let go of my desire for the things that disappointed me.

I have known the darkness of feeling the goddess had let my hand go; and I know the gift of flight that belongs to those who never hold anything in fists.

And so, just as I have taught myself everything over and over again in my life, I will teach myself how to desire again.

 

kaliflower

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 14th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Review Of One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

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Distance allows us to be dismissive of the lives of other people, to filter their narratives down to a few essential keynotes and tragedies. In One Part Woman, translated into English three years after its Tamil original garnered widespread acclaim, Perumal Murugan turns an intimate, crystalline gaze on a married couple in interior Tamil Nadu. It is a gaze that lays bare the intricacies of their story, culminating in a heart-wrenching denouement that allows no room for apathy.

Kali and Ponna, land-owning farmers in Thiruchengode, enjoy a completely happy marriage on all counts but one. Despite over a dozen years together, they are yet to have children. Theirs is a sexually-charged and mutually fulfilling relationship; it is neither for lack of effort nor of intent that they are unable to conceive. The couple perform countless acts of penance, entreating various deities – among them the half-male, half-female god on the hill attended by a Brahmin priest and the tribal goddess Pavatha of the same hill, to whom blood sacrifices are made. Ponna weeps at the onset of every menstrual period. Neither love nor their thriving land is enough to keep at bay the despair of being without offspring in their community. They are constantly on the receiving end of disparagement from the people around them: Kali’s sexual potency is the subject of sly and open taunts, while every slip or argument Ponna has with another is turned on her using her childlessness as an indication of her character or capabilities.

The disparagement arrives in wounded, less unkind guises too – particularly from their mothers, who tell stories of hereditary curses that could explain their misfortune and sing dirges lamenting the couple’s barrenness. Eventually, the two women decide that there may be only one way. Every year, on the fourteenth day of the chariot festival to the androgynous deity on the hill, the rules of all marital contracts are relaxed. Any man is allowed to lie with any woman – a tradition acknowledged as being a socially and divinely sanctioned method of conceiving should a husband be sterile. Ponna’s mother and mother-in-law, in the hope that it is Kali who is the cause of their infertility, suggest the solution of sending her to participate. The resulting anxieties and attendant manipulations challenge the marriage, and alter its course.

One Part Woman is a powerful rendering of an entire milieu which is certainly still in existence, which it engages with insightfully. The author handles myriad complexities with an enviable sophistication, creating an evocative, even haunting, work.

The novel is also acutely sensitive in its approach toward gender and sexuality and humane in its treatment of longing. While fundamentally an emotional work, driven by personal desires and losses, it also unsettles the reader with what it frankly reveals about simplistic ideas about progressiveness. The society in which the book is set in is permissive in ways that the urban middle-class in the same state at large is not, even though known markers of suppression, such as caste laws, hold sway. But, here as elsewhere, the true hindrances to happiness and progress come in much more personal forms.

Murugan’s writing is taut and suspenseful, particularly as the book progresses towards its climax. At a slim 230 pages, the novel moves quickly, but with such a finely-wrought intensity that tension remains high right up to the final paragraph. Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation deserves mention – the language is crisp, retaining local flavour without jarring, and often lyrical. Highly recommended.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line.

Book Review: The Cousins by Prema Raghunath

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Marriage, as an institution and an instrument of hegemony, can only delineate desire. It cannot expunge it. In a post-feminist world, and we cannot overestimate the role of feminism here, it is an institution confronted with either a complete collapse or a deliberate and measured dismantling and refashioning. To live, love, court and couple in such a time is often bewildering, but not so bewildering that the contrasting lack of agency of only a few decades or generations ago has vanished out of sight. The characters of Prema Raghunath’s The Cousins exist in a space of arranged marriages and filial duty, the norms and expectations of their early 20th century upper caste Tamil milieu determining the courses of their lives. They do not have agency as we now assume it. They do, of course, have desire and personal volition – and by extension, must endure consequences and repercussions both of their own making and because of the inextricability of questions of public morality, custodianship and duty from their own choices and the choices made on their behalves.

The book’s titular cousins, Goutami and Krishnanand, spend their entire lives as ships passing in the night. Goutami is the product of an unhappy childhood – she loses her mother as a toddler, loses her sister as a teenager and is raised as little more than a servant maid by her aunt. Krishnanand is the archetypal playboy – he deflowers his female cousins in the days before their weddings, is above reproach on account of his superior charm and the fact of his gender, and squanders opportunities at home and abroad in carefree sprees. She falls in love with him while still little more than a child, her older brother Achyutan (who loses himself in drink and mourning) discourages the match, and Goutami is married off to the dependable and conscientious Seshadri. Krishnanand also marries briefly, to a haughty woman who essentially puts him in his place and leaves him repentant in a number of ways.

Goutami and Krishnanand share only one kiss, that too in their youth, and remain consumed by longing well into old age. Their paths cross often, and sometimes improbably, such as in a distant Himalayan town where both Seshadri and Krishnanand are coincidentally posted. Goutami is unfaithful to her husband, a matter which both her own father and Seshadri himself handle with little emotion. “You were a bad girl,” says her father to her, many years after an affair, as though this is how a woman’s infidelity has ever been dealt with. Oddly enough, Raghunath’s curious and somewhat unrealistic handling of the nature of desire and its corollaries is the one thing that ultimately makes the book interesting. Unsatisfied by the way this novel explores love, commitment and sexuality, one is left pondering the question of articulation – how did people in less permissive eras express desire? The concept of sin intrinsically lends itself to binaries; how were liminal spaces negotiated? In what ways is our understanding of romance in generations past coloured by our own misperceptions?

The Cousins’ chief problem is in its structure: it shifts constantly between speakers when it could just as easily and probably far more successfully have been told in a single narrative voice.  One moment Goutami is speaking to her granddaughters, relating the story of her life. In the next, Achyutan reflects on how many people’s ashes in urns he has set into rivers. If the star-crossed love between the cousins is the fulcrum on which the novel pivots, this is certainly lost in the cacophony. Instead, all sympathy goes toward an unlikely hero: Seshadri. That he stays by his wife despite her straying is irrelevant, because loyalty is a far more complex subject than this novel chooses to grapple with. What makes him likable is that he chooses to educate his daughters, first defers the default option of marrying them off and then allows them to marry to their own liking, and even arranges at one point for Goutami to spend time living and working in England while he remains in India. He emerges as far more progressive in his thinking and actions than the self-involved and fairly insipid duo the novel is ostensibly about. In contrast, it’s difficult to feel much for Krishnanand and Goutami, who have no qualms about running roughshod over other people in general but lack the courage to find a way to be together.

It’s not clear what Raghunath attempts with this novel: to tell a love story, to present a portrait of a bygone era, or to explore the ambiguities of lived experience. In the first two regards it does not fare well. In the last, however, it does in some way inspire thoughts and questions. An otherwise completely mediocre work, The Cousins is salvaged, ironically, by the fact it does not satisfy, and in doing so prompts the reader to turn those questions elsewhere: to the self, to other people, and to better-written books.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Poem: Mamihlapinatapai

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Mamihlapinatapai

Yahgun (Tierra del Fuego): a look shared by two people, each of whom wish the other would initiate that which they both desire, but which neither one wants to concede.

The saddest word in the world
has a piñata nestled
within it. You will never
know the richness of
your own heart until
you have held it high
above the totem
of your body and
blessed its
rupture.