Tag Archives: fascism

The Venus Flytrap: Reconciling Spirituality & Resistance

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Last week, a possibly well-intended but definitely poorly-executed infographic made the rounds, with a pair of lists intended to distinguish Hinduism from Hindutva, the fundamentalist strain of the former. The infographic relied heavily on scripture and comparison, and erased completely the existence of oppressions of caste, gender and other divisions. As someone with a spiritual life, elements of which draw from practices which fall under the umbrella of Hinduism, I was appalled by its lack of political consciousness. I am not being purposely vague in my self-description. My phrasing is meant to register my opposition to many structural and practical aspects of organised religion, my discomfort in identifying myself with one, as well as the syncretism of my beliefs – while still acknowledging this part of who I am and what influences it.

This is a necessary self-reckoning for people of all spiritual inclinations and religious backgrounds. When fundamentalisms arise, responding by attempting to a-historically defend religions is not only insufficient but dangerous. When we do this, we participate in creating the veneer of gentility that allows for injustice and violence to occur and be swept under the carpet when it does.

I have only respect for those who find that the most effective way is to throw the bhakti out with the bhakts’ bathwater, as many distinguished sociopolitical thinkers have done. I can also extend my understanding to those who, unable to counter the sophistication of critical theory with a sound articulation of why they feel as they do, think that aligning with orthodoxy is the only way to retain the solace they receive from what is ultimately a deeply private engagement. They feel that they have no choice but to side with factions which, while possibly structurally oppressing them, will not overtly shame them (this is done covertly, by fostering insecurity and an inferiority complex). Both these sets of believers will disagree with me, but I do not see them as binaries and neither do I see myself as being in the middle.

I am speaking to – but not for – those who also belong to neither set, but who believe that a vital public rendition of one’s sacred self demands standing up against inequality, challenging systemic persecution and resisting tyranny. By its nature, this cannot be consolidated into a movement, but can interweave with the good work already being done.

It is not by defending religion that we absolve ourselves, but in practising a deeper enquiry into where our beliefs, practices and the world intersect. We must look at the true guiding principles of our private faiths, and see how perfectly tenets like compassion and integrity match with tenets like secularism and justice. This is far from an easy process, and has costs including losing personally meaningful guides who espouse bigotry.

I learned that if there is no room for my sexuality, my politics or my love for the environment within an available framework, I must make my own. And we each should. Our very own, deeply personal ones, which do not seek to evangelise, but which allow us to move through the world ethically and with grace – in all senses of the word.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 16th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Sometimes, Resistance

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Sometimes resistance is in making art, in creating something that serves as a respite or a record, or even both. It’s a different mode of the imagination, working not with the potential of personal failure but against the question of greater futility. To ask the question of whether art is futile and then to make it anyway is an act of faith, and one which supports acts of defiance and necessary disobedience.

Sometimes resistance is in writing poetry, measuring words out so that they sing and sting at once. Sometimes resistance is in reading it: comparing translations, researching what happened in the year it was penned, finding out how the poet lived and died (and whether it was because of what they believed in). Sometimes it’s in the contemplation of how, stripped of those identifying details, it’s eerie in how many places, and at how many points in time, what’s described could resonate. Sometimes resistance is in saying the lines out loud, matching their rhythm to a melody. Sometimes resistance is in a song.

Sometimes resistance is in putting one’s body on the line, in marching or in sitting for hours in candlelight or under the sun, letting placards shout when the vocal cords need rest. It’s in letting sheer presence register a cause, while risking physical danger.

Sometimes resistance is in prayer, not merely for one’s own comfort, but with the profound belief that nothing that is truly holy will condone cruelty, especially when it is executed in its name.

Sometimes resistance is in study, in seeking out information that has been suppressed, tracing the trajectory of events, applying one’s own intelligence, and always remembering the proverb, “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.”

Sometimes resistance is in argument, in saying the words as clearly as possible even while shaking and shaking with rage, or with sheer horror at the lack of empathy in the challenger. Sometimes resistance is in consciousness-raising conversation, in listening non-judgmentally and offering counter-points.

Sometimes resistance is in crying afterwards.

Sometimes resistance is in silence: the dignity with which one leaves a table at which no room is made for anyone deemed the Other, even if one’s own name is embossed on a seat there. This is not the same silence as lying by omission. It is not the same silence as turning away.

Sometimes resistance is in drawing a kolam, putting one’s intention into something destined for disintegration. Sweeping it clean and starting over with fresh intention each time. Quite often, perhaps, resistance is like drawing a kolam. It’s quotidian work, located at the threshold of what is personal and what is public. It’s a generous act, sustaining legions of working ants. Averting evil through its geometric codes. Inviting blessings and visitors. One bends to the ground and touches it in the most eloquent rejoinder to the question of art’s futility, as if to say: “I draw this pattern because I believe in its beauty and its function. And because my belief in its power – and my capacity to replenish it – won’t change, you are more than welcome to step across its lines”.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 9th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Do Not Be Daunted

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All around the world, political currents which seemed to some to only be undulating, just mildly threateningly, on the horizon have not-so-suddenly arrived onshore. Those who warned about what could come or tried to stop it were not able to keep bigotries, anti-democratic actions and sectarianism at bay. If this moment is historical, it is not only because people in the future (if humanity has a future, although climate change experts predict otherwise) will speak of it and trawl through records of it, but also because it has happened many times already. Such times – in which vast tides of populations turned towards destructive ideologies – are a part of known history, both recent and distant. In such times, Bertolt Brecht – who lived in exile away from Germany when the Nazis were in power – wrote, we will have to “keep singing”. To quote: “In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing About the dark times.”

This could be read as a moral imperative – that there must be singing, so to speak, no matter how bleak the larger reality we live in. We can understand “singing” as including all manner of arts, all modes of study, and all acts of creation, including abstractly the raising of children, the tending of plants and self-care. But that final line – “About the dark times” – holds a standard for that imperative. Again, everywhere, the question arises of what the artist’s, teacher’s (or in our particular time, influencer’s) responsibility is in bringing awareness to injustice, helping galvanise change, or recording events.

Many hold this responsibility incredibly seriously, which we need. But to chastise those who don’t is correct only when it comes to those who refuse to, who support the status quo and prefer the different forms of denial that allow it. For there are those who create joy as neither denial nor distraction, but as salve and reviving agent. Beauty and sweetness are powerful healers. We cannot give in to the idea that there can only be grimness in “the dark times”; we must not lose our sense of melody, and of the many ways to strike a chord.

The Talmud – a legal compilation sacred to Jews, who were persecuted by the Nazis (our modern benchmark for democratically-elected evildoers) – offers possible instructions in the form of these beautiful instructions: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” The last line is the most resonant. It’s simply not going to be possible to be a torchbearer, a teller-of-truth-to-power, at all times. Exhaustion, personal circumstances, self-doubt, reasonable fear and difficulty will happen to even the best among us. Perhaps one more way to interpret that directive, and use it well, is to understand that it’s not necessary to be hopeful, or imagine that we must behave as beacons of hope, but when hope comes, we must honour it. In this way, little by little, we will still do what we can to resist, record – and rise above.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 19th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Cassandra In The Kingdom Of Closed Eyes

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A boy is knifed in a train and bleeds to death on his brother’s lap on a station platform and no one sees. A young woman is stabbed and bleeds to death on another station platform and no one sees, but someone covers her with a shawl so that her womanly shape isn’t visible, for that is all they can see of her. Something cold sits on my heart, listening to them; how do they do it, looking me straight in the eyes and blithely revealing that they are among the unseeing?

They don’t register the headlines, the statistics, the faces, the stories. They demand proof even as it plays out before them. They claim blips and skewings, and when faced with facts, claim conspiracy. Last weekend I saw someone carrying a poster with a version of Bob Dylan’s words: “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?” Some – no, many – deaths don’t count because some (many) lives matter less than others. There’s a quota that can never be filled enough for them to say “Enough”. That’s not a riot, they say. And a riot’s not a holocaust. And at least a holocaust is not… well, no one will be left to finish that sentence.

And someone will ask me (I know the script) – how can you connect them, the boy with the skull cap and the girl with the stalker – and like a fabulist I will have to try to prove a theory of invisibility. About how there are reasons why some people can only see some things and not others. And I will play right into their hands when I tell them: when a girl was raped on a bus five years ago, you lit candles and raged, when the same thing happened to another girl in Salem a month ago, you scrolled past her, just like you did the one whose body was towed in a garbage truck, the pregnant one found brutalised at the bottom of a well, the one who was never written about at all but whom you would have ignored anyway.

Then they’ll say: where were you when the earth first wept (not yet born), or when that other silence stuck like tar (raising my voice, then as now, but it didn’t carry in the wind) or when those other dead were named (I hadn’t known then – but you had). As though their wilful, obstinate unseeingness is vindicated because of my not being omniscient. And they never turn the same question on themselves: where are you now, as this unfolds, and why do you justify it? And if you ask, they say flatly, “But there is nothing happening.”

They cannot see the forest burning for all the ashes in the trees. Cannot see structure, system, sense. Cannot see anything beyond their own noses, even as they fill with noxious smoke.

Here’s what I see then, if you can tolerate a Cassandra in the kingdom of closed eyes: nothing we have not already seen. Nothing humanity does not already know. Nothing humanity can forget – unless humanity has forgotten the meaning of itself.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 6th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Exhumation of Salvador Dali

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It’s a suitably surreal story, the kind that would make a fascinating novel (and later, when the author can finally quit her day job after selling the film rights, a good movie too). Picture it: it is the 1950s. In a small Mediterranean village called Port Lligat, a celebrated painter builds a waterfront home where he spends some decades, most of them married to his muse. When not busy with her own work, she poses for him as the madonna, a sleeping nude about to be pounced on by tigers, and herself as a matrix of suspended spheres, among other renditions. The couple are childless, but there are families who live near them who employ a young, married nanny. The painter and the nanny have an affair, and more than sixty years later, a professional tarot reader comes forward and convinces the courts to order an exhumation of the painter’s body to determine whether he is her father, as her grandmother once told her.

So Salvador Dali is to be exhumed, although his estate – worth over 300 million euros – will fight the court order. The big hitch in the paternity suit is that Dali was rumoured to have a phobia of female genitalia. Unlike stereotypical muse-artist relationships, it was his wife, Gala, who enjoyed their open marriage (along with some other atypical dynamics like requiring Dali to receive her permission in writing before visiting her at the private castle she spent her summers in). The plaintiff’s mother, the nanny, is now in her late 80s and suffers from Alzheimer’s, and corroborated the parentage story only a few years ago.

The whole thing is mildly entertaining, but also mildly distasteful. Still, who are we to judge? So many people are still hung up the concept of bloodlines as proof of superiority – or something – and that’s even without millions of euros in the picture.

I was curious about precedents for Dali’s exhumation. The 19th century English poet Elizabeth Siddal, who also posed for her husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings, was buried with the only copy of his early literary attempts, and her body was later exhumed so he could retrieve them. Then the poets Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca came to mind. The former had been a civil servant who died suddenly days after Chilean dictator Pinochet’s 1973 military coup; the latter was long known to have been executed, with three others, in 1936 by fascists in a Spanish civil war. Neruda was exhumed in 2013 to investigate murder claims, but when he was reburied in 2016, the mystery remained. Lorca’s corpse has never been found, although over the years numerous excavations have been made to determine where his remains lie.

What’s interesting about the search for the truth about Neruda and Lorca’s deaths is that, unlike the Dali exhumation, they speak to, and are reminders of, a larger cause. Thousands died in the same events, yet we only know of the famous few. And there are mass graves the world over: they contain not just the bodies of the dead who had no rites, but also the pain of the surviving who have no proof.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 29th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.