Tag Archives: etymology

The Venus Flytrap: Democracy And Apocalypse

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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: Dropping Names

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Recently, a friend dropped me a note under a different name from the one I’d known him by for eleven years. I raised one culture-mulcher highbrow eyebrow at his new moniker and immediately called him out on it. As expected, the change had been a result of his moving to Australia, where – he said – his new buddies had rechristened him. I snorted privately and exhorted publicly: “Be proud of your polysyllabic name! Besides, Bobby doesn’t rhyme with Banana (while your real name does)”. Rhyme is important to me – in case I ever have to write a sonnet for an epitaph, I don’t want my options to be limited to hobby, lobby and (ahem) snobby. Banana, cabana and Hannah Montana lend themselves much better to eulogizing.

He had changed his name on all his social networking profiles, chat and email programmes. I found this annoying and somewhat regressive, but he insisted that letting one’s friends call you by nicknames is sweet. “Sure,” I acceded. “But you don’t see me changing my name to Ammamma Kitty”.

At this juncture I will confess to the following: I have a different legal name for reasons you can exaggerate in your imagination, once published an article under a pseudonym inspired by an alter-ego inspired by a plush toy, and yes, one of my friends calls me Ammamma. Many others do call me variations of Kitty (though not, you monkeys, the obvious synonym). Still, to my mind, none of these things are rooted in embarrassment, which is how I saw the friend-henceforth-known-as-Bobby’s choice. There is a long history of Asian people assimilating by taking on Western names – how many Tripurasundaris have become Tinas, and how many Mei Lings, Marilyns? Rueful, I considered how Bobby rhymed with Robby, a diminutive – in every sense – of Rabindranath.

No, the whole thing made me want to commit many cliché reactionary acts, like politicizing my sloth as a bed-in, wearing homespun khadi, piercing my other nostril and rereading Spivak (she of the ex-husband’s name). I was too lazy for all of this, though, and had evening plans that interfered with the bed-in, so I settled for clicking the “like” button on someone else’s snarky post to “Bobby P.” asking when he was going to cut a record and start a fragrance line. The view from my high horse was pretty great.

Of course, I was duly chastised. Later that day, I went out with an expat friend. We were the last to arrive, and a group of people I hadn’t met before were already there. “Hey everybody,” said my friend cheerily, and extended a hand in my direction. “This is Ranya”.

Then she turned to me and said, just as cheerily, “I’m so glad you texted earlier, because I spent ages online trying to remember how to pronounce your full name, but on my phone I have the ‘version for dummies’ saved!”. This was true. Ranya was the nickname I hadn’t needed to bring back to India, cases of extreme closeness or extreme mangling notwithstanding. Someone had given it to me back in school, when P. Diddy was still Puff (and still cool), Bobby still had a name that rhymed with Banana, and I – well, I was Ranya.

I did, however, at least already have one nostril pierced by then.

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.