Tag Archives: divorce

The Venus Flytrap: Voyeurs & Vultures

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Nobody’s saying a divorce can’t be celebrated – except, that right belongs only to those directly affected, who may feel a sense of liberation or closure. But imagine having hordes of people enjoy the news of your divorce, because they hope you’ll be miserable enough to make art from it. That’s what’s happening to singer-songwriter Adele, whose personal announcement has caused great excitement among many fans. Gleeful reports about how she was spotted entering recording studios, with “sources” saying a heartbreak album is around the corner, add fuel.

Some dug up how she allegedly joked to the press, early in her career, “When I’m happy, I ain’t writing songs. I’m out having a laugh. If I ever get married, it’ll be, ‘Darling, I need a divorce. It’s been three years, I’ve got a record to write’”. As though a carefree statement made when she was both younger and just getting acclimatised to success makes such vulture-like anticipation acceptable.

How does Adele feel about her divorce? The correct answer is: none of our business. Is she going to make beautiful music from it? If she does, let it be for her own catharsis. Let her lock it up and have it be revealed in a hundred years. Because those who think she owes it to them to mine her pain for their pleasure – or as a soundtrack for their own cathartic moments – don’t deserve it. An artist’s only obligation is to honour her own journey, in life and work. The audience is incidental. Honestly, so is the art.

I remembered how disappointed I was in 2005 when Tori Amos, my personal queen of teenage intensity, released a seemingly uninspired (but actually deeply grieving, gently healing) album called The Beekeeper. Like other entitled fans, I thought moving to Cornwall to raise chickens and a child had made her lose her edge.

But so what if she had? Did she not deserve her peace? I understood only once I was on the other side, and felt the exhaustion of being projected upon. A literary author is not a superstar, but in smaller but still prickly ways, dehumanisation happens. It runs the gamut from backhanded compliments like being told at a celebration for a book how someone preferred an earlier one and expected more like it; to disrespect of boundaries because personal interaction was presumed to be an all-access pass; to an ugly experience when readers knew a loved one was dying, and someone still had the malice to send me casual criticism while claiming to usually enjoy the pieces they’d never once dropped an appreciative word for. The equanimity I strive for now is this: knowing both praise and aversion are reflections of the recipient, not the maker.

And you know what? And after all those dramatic years of loving Amos’ dark albums, it’s funny how The Beekeeper is almost the only one I still listen to. And I understand now: it’s not that she had lost her charm, or her edge, back then. It’s that I needed to grow before I could see it, and recognise the grace and fire that had withstood what went into the work.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 28th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Rising Divorce Rates Are A Good Thing

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As a child, I once got my hands on some kind of corporate diary, and flipped through its strange front matter curiously. It contained various facts and trivia – time zones, international calling codes, capital cities, and what I think of now as a slightly pedantic list of statistics. Including, strangely, divorce rates. India’s was 0%. I didn’t live in India then, and assumed that that actually meant that no one there ever got divorced. Now I know, of course, that it just meant that so very few did that they were anomalies. And that in less abstract terms, divorce was often brushed under the carpet even when it did happen – so that, quite possibly, even people who lived in India would have liked to think that 0% meant exactly that. No divorces, just happily ever after. Each and every time.

Not much has changed in over two decades, not in terms of the numbers. In 2017, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, an international forum established in 1961 that works in public policy) reported that India’s divorce rate stood at 1%, or 13 in 1,000 marriages. This statistic has just been reconfirmed, and come to public attention again, thanks to an infographic released by an Australian legal agency called Unified Lawyers which has been making the rounds. According to them, India has the lowest rate of divorce in the world.

This is very unfortunate. Just as a very high divorce rate (such as Luxembourg’s 87%) could be construed as unhealthy, an almost non-existent one shows that something is wrong. Are the vast majority of Indian marriages even mostly fulfilling ones? Let’s not lie to ourselves.

The truth is that an increased divorce rate would be meaningful evidence of the effect of social justice movements on ordinary households. It would mean, among other things: women staying in or returning to jobs, which let them live on a single income; people getting second chances at life when the horoscopes are perfectly matched but the couple themselves are incompatible; survivors being able to leave abusive situations with support and without stigma; and respect for individual freedoms. Especially where women’s empowerment issues are concerned, more divorces would actually imply success. Not failure.

For those of us who are surprised by the statistic, given how many divorced people we ourselves know, this is a moment to reflect on our privilege. We think divorce is not so terribly taboo anymore, but if so, why aren’t there more of them? We must be careful to not generalise based on what is true for our circles, or to presume to understand individual experience even then.

I don’t know anyone who found getting a divorce easy, or who wasn’t punished for it in some way after. So it’s also a moment to reflect on just how much it takes to terminate a marriage. Staying married in a system that’s designed to make you stay is no evidence of the strength of a marriage. But being willing to to leave the institution, see the divorce through, and go on – that’s strength. May it become easier for anyone who needs to make that decision.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 7th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Interview With R. Vatsala

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“When I am asked, do you only write about women and families? I say: what is there is the outside world that is not there in the family? The deifying of families must end; they are made up only of individuals. We have not yet found a better system, but if we are to continue with this one, we must accept that the nucleus of equality or inequality begins within it.”

Read my piece on iconoclastic Tamil writer R. Vatsala on Scroll.

Book Review: Love, Loss, And What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi

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The muse writes back, and is far more generous about the marriage than the artist was. Maligned in ex-husband Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton, model and culinary savant Padma Lakshmi tells her side of the story, along with a handful of comfort food recipes. Love, Loss, And What We Ate opens on a promising, often evocative, footing.

She’s gracious through the recounting of her high profile marriage and divorce, compelling when talking about her early childhood and fiercely independent mother, and canny in her self-deprecations (“silly little cookbook”). Her descriptions of life within her grandmother’s kitchen are charming and familiar. Even a chutney of discarded citric rinds as a metaphor for how her grandmother dealt with the bitterness of marriage doesn’t ring twee.

So when a shockingly problematic streak shows up about a third of the way through the book, the reader who has rooted for her all along stumbles. The first trace of trouble is when Lakshmi extends her experience of racial discrimination as an immigrant schoolchild to her country of origin. For her to say that she is considered dark-skinned in Tamil society is disingenuous, to say the least. And she backs this with this bombshell: “my extended family urged me to avoid the sun… out of fear that my skin would darken to the shade of an Untouchable..”

While we’re still reeling at her word choice, we’re introduced to her second stepdad Peter, whom she hates. He is a “lower-caste” Fijian Indian, with a “crude, beast-like ignorance”. What follows includes references to his “stench”, his “ugly” Hindi accent, and “some inferior poni grain” he eats instead of basmati. She wants her mother to be with someone more “cultured”.

This vitriol is reserved for only for Peter, who is still her mother’s partner, as well as her own daughter Krishna’s favourite grandparent. By contrast, her mother’s second husband, whom she divorces when he doesn’t believe that a relative of his has molested the young Padma, is merely “pretty darn handsome”. The casteism, classism and colourism on display are guilelessly entitled, with neither self-reflectivity nor shame.

The author – well-travelled, well-heeled, well-connected, speaker of half a dozen languages and self-proclaimed bookworm – has no excuse for her lack of sociopolitical intelligence or conscience. At the very least, somewhere between her late partner Teddy Forstmann’s philanthropy and the Rousseau she thanks Rushdie for handing her in the acknowledgements, a little tact would have served her well.

Perhaps unable to recoup after this ethical failure, or perhaps because Lakshmi’s early style gradually gives way to a tabloid-friendly one, the narrative simply begins to bore.

And then she chucks another jawdropper. The first non-breast milk meal Lakshmi gives her daughter are a few sips beef broth at a hawker stall in Singapore. The result? Brahmin guilt. “I prided myself on how well one could eat following a Hindu Brahmin lacto-vegetarian diet. I had extolled its virtues on many occasions and truly believed in its merits. I know what had happened, while an accident, was also karmic retribution for all the bodies of animals I had consumed in my life and career in food”. Yes, really.

Who would have known that the saffron brigade had an ally in the glamourous Lakshmi, who without irony refers to her ex-husband as a “fundamentalist atheist” and to herself, repeatedly, as a “secular Hindu”? After watching the author eat everything from live snails to her own placenta, it’s the reader who’s left with a bad taste in the mouth.

Love, Loss, And What We Ate is really a book about men – a series of partners whose influence and guidance shaped Lakshmi’s life. She plays the ingénue often, and credits everything from her sartorial sense to her gastronomical savvy, and even this — her writing — to a lover. She does not memorably detail even a single non-related female friendship or mentorship. Most disappointingly of all, as co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America, Lakshmi speaks only about her experience of the disease, not the work of the foundation, or its impact. With the exception of her mother, she does not weave in other female narratives of struggle and success – be they on the catwalk, in the culinary world, or in any of the many spheres of her experience. Her feminism begins and ends with the desire to date more than one man at once – a desire she quickly regrets once she realises she doesn’t know who has fathered her child.

But there is a singular feminist saving grace in this memoir, and that is the other Ms. Lakshmi – her mother. Vijaya Lakshmi’s journey is a tale of its own, beginning with an arranged marriage in which the groom cheats on her on their wedding day, and a divorce after which she endures a two year separation from her child. Upon her arrival in the US, she takes her mother’s name as a surname, abandons her limited diet, dates and falls in love, has the courage to leave marriages, explores what the world has to offer, and even takes her daughter to a nudist beach. None of this is typical for her generation, and in the Chennai they still call home, it isn’t even typical for her daughter’s. It is the story of this dedicated nurse – who keeps fruits in the fridge for her terminal patients, and manages somehow to save enough money to give her daughter Indian vacations, skating rinks, and myriad pleasures – that is ultimately the maverick one.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line’s BLink.

After The Affair

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I don’t like to judge relationships because they are not two-way mirrors; you can never tell what really goes on just from looking in from the outside. But in all this buzz about Jennifer Aniston “breaking her silence” on her ex-husband’s relationship with Angelina Jolie, something obvious seems to be lost. I admire both the women for different reasons. Aniston displays such class in a situation that would reduce most of us to pottymouthed puddles of tears. And Jolie is just cool, even when she’s “uncool”.  Brad Pitt doesn’t deserve either of them. If there must be a villain at all, it’s him.