Tag Archives: divahood

Guest Column: IDiva’s “Break Free” issue

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I had a guest column appear in Times of India’s IDiva supplement today. The brief I was given was “life as a PYT (pretty young thing) in Chennai”. What fun!

Whatever anyone might say about me and my having grown up abroad, take this: I lived in Sowcarpet for eight months in my late teens. How’s that for street cred? And when I say lived, I mean it – glam, bling, potty mouth and all. So whenever I think that even Nungambakkam can’t take my sass, I remind myself: if I was rocking my divahood in a North Madras labyrinth five years ago, this city better learn to keep up with me!

But it’s true: life as a PYT in a decidedly unsexy city like Chennai is a challenge, and the secret to it is to never forget it. Never take it for granted. So every time a girlfriend and I have a Zara’s or 10D lunch and order a pitcher for just the both of us, every time I take the 29C in a sleeveless blouse and don’t get hassled, every time I stare down that horrible policeman who patrols my road on evenings, harassing single women, until he revs up his bike and retreats – I celebrate it!

The way I see it, it’s a choice. You can let the parochial mentalities and hypocrisies depress you, or you can engage with the city as it is. Like all sexually repressed societies, Chennai is obsessed. Which means that as women, we are actually far more objectified than we would be in freer societies. I say, embrace it. If every Raman, Soman and Quick Gun Murugan on the street can admire your goods, why can’t you? We live in one of the few places on earth where it’s perfectly acceptable to wear flowers in your hair, for any occasion and for none at all. Sarees, salangai, all of Pondy Bazaar rolled out for your choosing. A great town to look like a woman, as my transgender friends will attest. Reclaim the kitsch. And the chic.

The truth was, for me, there was a defining moment – what I call my “When I Learnt To Stop Worrying And Embrace My Expat Status” moment. It took months of Fab India kurtas, polite smiling, neutralizing my Ceylon Tamil accent and general diffidence before it happened. But once I realised that nothing was worth losing my spark for, I stopped compromising.

Finally, it helps to keep a sense of perspective. One of my favourite Chennai anecdotes is of when my older friend (who was as much a badass in her time as I am today, and even more so now) suddenly put out her cigarette with a mumbled expletive, then went up to an old woman and her grandchild and made small talk.

When she came back to see me laughing at this show of conformity, she said, “You know that old woman? She has issues with my smoking – but she once sent a nude photo of herself to a friend of my dad’s”. My laughter turned to shock. My friend winked. “Bet you wish I’d told you that before you saw her, eh?”

Oh yes, my fellow PYTs (and our wannabes) – this town has seen a lot before us, and will see a lot after us too. I just plan to leave stiletto tracks visible enough for the next generation. No hypocrisy here.

The Venus Flytrap: Viva La Diva

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True to her reputation, the diva never lets on that she knows how to swim, but shoved off a plank, she’ll stay afloat like a Salem witch. And what’s more, she’ll kick – hard, with resolve, and at anything that tries to keep her submerged. If you think the diva can be drowned, you’re wrong. Even when it looks like she’s gone under, she’s only blowing bubbly kisses to the coral, and you can rest assured the coral is waving back.

The diva is all kinds of cool, of course. She refuses, not straddles, dichotomies. She appraises Picasso’s division of all women into two categories (goddesses and doormats), assumes herself to be in the former, then chews out the master himself for his lack of imagination. She prays for miracles but distrusts deus ex machinae. She’s rumoured to bite, but mostly bleeds. The diva, she cries. Then she puts her face back on and sets her jaw. The diva is best met in mirrors.

Because to own your divahood isn’t just to put on your red heels on a complicated day and parade anyway. To tap into one’s inner diva is an act of resistance. The diva is the one who laughs like a woman with straight teeth though hers are not, the one who doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve but seared on her skin. The diva learns how to dive eventually – but only because she’s been pushed off the edge so many times.

When I say I speak in defense of the diva, I’m not speaking in defense of the bitch, the backstabber or the beauty queen. I’m speaking in defense of that little flame inside that picks its broken self off the kitchen floor and then makes you do the same after every extinguishing. That flame is your diva, because only something so bulletproof, so deliberately defiant, can endure so much. And that, the diva, for all her tantrums, for all her impossibilities, certainly is. To tap into one’s inner diva is an act of resistance, and the diva herself is by nature irresistible.

My favourite fictional diva is Hedwig from the cult musical-turned-film Hedwig And The Angry Inch. Surviving heartbreak, plagiarism, communism and a botched sex change operation that leaves her not between but beyond gender itself, Hedwig takes the world on with just one wing and an assortment of wigs. “It’s what I have to work with,” says Hedwig, in the film’s most chillingly universal moment. The diva takes what she can get, works her tragedy into triumph, and dares to ask for much, much more.

“Kiss me and you will see how important I am,” wrote Sylvia Plath in her journal, and for this line alone I have forgiven her everything else. I love my Mae West, my Maria Elena, all the multiple goddesses I channel with affection and aspiration. But tonight, I’ll toast to the Plath who wrote that line. I can see her now: open face, determined chin, the eyes of a beggar but the smile of a coquette. The diva who will say it, feel it, write the poem, feel even worse, and publish it anyway. And when they ask why, I’ll answer as myself, my most favourite diva of all: I don’t kiss and tell, I just kiss and write poems.

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.