Tag Archives: feminism

The Venus Flytrap: The Vocabulary of Violence

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Somewhere near the end of a marriage, a well-regarded author had an initially consensual sexual encounter which turned violent. She looked this truth in the eye in an essay published a few years ago, when she perceived the encounter in a way that was complicated, but cathartic. Time passed, and she seems to have found herself still triggered by news about the other person, who continues to thrive in the world. She looked more of the truth in the eye, saw more of the ugliness that remained despite her will to narrativise her experience in a nuanced way. Last week, she tweeted and deleted and tweeted and deleted, finally saying that she chose “a peaceful life” over this struggle.

As Harvey Weinstein, notorious sexual predator from the cinema field, finally goes to jail, there are all kinds of thoughts swirling about what we’ve learned in the last couple of years, how we’ve reckoned with our experiences, and about the limits of language. Most of us will never know the vindication of having those who destroyed us, or tried to, have justice meted out to them. Some may have pursued due process, and found that the system is designed to fail them. Many more won’t or can’t. I am speaking not only of abuses of a sexual nature, but of all violations that become unspeakable because the consequences of revelation are too high.

But let us return to the topic of only those grim events that some say fall under a “grey area”, where consent, pleasure and violation (and even love) were all present to different degrees. Concepts of justice that come from rigid or punitive frameworks, which require cleaner experiential demarcations, may not give us release. The “peaceful life” of not being forever known by someone else’s wrongdoing is preferable.

The Me Too era has helped many privately reframe and understand certain experiences differently. I know that I have. This kind of excavation takes courage. The feelings and the words for them get jumbled like alphabet soup. Some of those words cannot be walked back. I do not want to freeze myself into them. The point of the grey area is that it is not either/or. Where events were complex, and where we resist simplifying them, it can be powerful to keep the knowledge that one’s feelings are tidal.

There’s no statute of limitations on trauma. The whisper network is not only about warnings, as is commonly understood. It’s about being able to see one’s truth whole, and process it meaningfully with those one is close to. Some silences are not suppressions, but ways of retaining power or peace. They aren’t necessarily silences at all, but allow for holding experiences and healing from them.

“The vocabulary of sexual assault is not always enough to communicate our experiences of violence,” decolonial feminist scholar Dr. Anjana Raghavan said to me in a personal conversation. “Often, our stories are cut short by responses of outrage or defensiveness. It will not suffice as a long-term strategy.” I quote her with permission; in the messiness of forming and unlearning strategies, among the silences and incompleteness, her words are succinct.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 27th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Patriarchy Is Taught, Not Intrinsic

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On Valentine’s Day, students at the women-only Mahila Arts and Commerce College, Maharashtra, were asked to take a mass oath declaring that they would never fall in love, have a romantic relationship, or marry someone of their own choosing. They would have arranged marriages, but without providing a dowry. The few among them who spoke to the press appear to have taken the oath by choice. It was not clear, however, whether they had been presented with a choice not to.

At another college, Shri Sahjanand Girls’ Institute in Gujarat, 68 women hostelites were forcibly made to remove their undergarments for a sudden inspection. The college’s bylaws forbid menstruating women from sitting with non-menstruating women during mealtimes. Their periods are noted in a register, and they must stay in the hostel’s basement during the same. Obviously, the college is not a co-ed one. Its name itself is patronising – to use “Girls” to describe women is to reduce their agency as adults.

The college’s egregious privacy violation, and the discriminatory mealtime segregation that led to it, comes because it is run by a religious sect that counts among its edicts that those who consume food prepared by a menstruating woman will be reborn as oxen, and women who cook while menstruating will be reborn as dogs. Specifically, as female dogs.

I can’t bring myself to use the correct English term in this context, even though I’m not averse in the least to its carefully-deployed or subversive expressions (including as reclamations of feminine power). One headline I saw used the Hindi word, as per a discourse by the sect leader’s, followed in brackets by the English translation. I’m not Hindi-proficient. I don’t know if it packs a punch in that language, but the effect of the English word in the mouth of a man, directed at a woman, is often stomach-turning. I felt the word inside those brackets. I felt its etymology of hatred towards all that is female, fertile and free.

These incidents have occurred around the same time as a senior politician’s statement that education is one of the factors that enables divorce, which he blamed for familial and societal breakdowns. Neither the nature of these incidents, nor of the mindset revealed in that statement, are new. In fact, they are oppressions we’ve collectively been challenging, and even changing, for a long time. Their resurgence is something to be vigilant about.

A hilarious and horrifying matrimonial ad – in which a man of many bigotries and no employment demands that potential wives who meet his thorough checklist get in touch via SMS but do not call him – has been making the rounds. Each time I saw it, it occurred to me how every mocking reshare also broadcast the ad further. There are women out there who fit the bill, who see themselves proudly in roles that scaffold a patriotic-patriarchal agenda. There are also women out there who may not think of themselves as rebels, who only lie that they’re not having their periods so they can spend time with their friends. Then there are women watching, counting down, making the connections. They’re coming for us all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 20th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Feminist Pishachinis

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Before I sat down to write this, I was sure that almost every woman columnist in the country has written, will write about, or is currently submitting a file on the same topic at this time. We were going to repeat ourselves and each other, I thought, overlapping in our grief and our jargon. And we had to: we had to reinforce what’s important, spread the message in different circles, be a chorus of resistance. Then I sat down, and found my heart in my mouth and no words at my fingertips. There have been years and years of words: words in whispers, words in affidavits, words in screenshotted conversations, words in editorials, words out loud (even scream-loud), words swallowed but turned to choices, words that echo. And yet.

A few months ago, a misogynistic NGO in Karnataka organised what they called a “Feminist Pishachini Mukti Puja”, a year after their Kanpur chapter organised symbolic funerary rites for women who had left their marriages. One organiser called the experience “cathartic” for the ex-husbands who performed these rituals. They consider themselves activists for men’s rights. Such events gave some of us well-deserved memes and humour breaks, but it was sadness that reminded me of them. Both to laugh at and to perform the spell-casting are to lose the point: no magic is needed to make women suffer in India. For that, we have: patriarchy, politicians, police, people in our homes, people in our workplaces, people who are complete strangers, people in public, people online. They may be, and are, of any gender. They may be, and are, of any affiliation. What they have in common is that they hate us so deeply: women, other women, some women, women unlike themselves, any woman, all women. That hatred manifests as everything from protective measures to punitive measures.

I looked at the faces of the men in photos of that puja to eradicate women, and at the faces of the men in the photos of a celebration of the extrajudicial encounter in Hyderabad in which 4 suspects in a murder-rape were killed. Both sets motivated by the same violent impulses and beliefs. Any woman they had in mind was theoretically theirs to destroy, or avenge. The divorcees had been abusive, as their participation ascertained. Those cheering the fatal encounter – having left their wives, daughters, mothers, women co-workers and friends somewhere “safe” – were, statistically speaking, also more likely to be than not. Besides, violence is not only physical.

In the last few days, many women have managed to say – through the mire of renewed heartsickness and anger – exactly how this makes us feel. This is how we feel all the time. Each time something horrific happens, we aren’t reacting with shock. There’s a fear we live with constantly, a fear of something that’s like a pollutant in the air. We breathe it in every day. Some days, someone dies because of it. If there is a day at all in India in which that doesn’t happen (just because it doesn’t become a headline doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen), it’s still a day on which someone – no, many – survived an attempt.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 12th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: False, Or Incomplete?

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Last week’s column was spurred by reactions to a potentially false sexual harassment allegation, but did not delve into the catalyst for the same: (potentially) false allegations. Over the past two years, with more women than ever sharing their experiences of harassment and assault, the question of veracity has come up repeatedly. It’s a fair one. But it’s also a good-faith practice to acknowledge that very few people stand to gain from such fabrications. Outliers (or plain liars, if you prefer) who do benefit are outnumbered by those who risk, and face, consequences for telling the truth. We can objectively accept that a tiny percentage of fraudulent cases exist, but that they should not cancel out the rest. We can also attempt to talk about what falseness means.

Firstly, there’s a difference between potentially false and incomplete, and the latter is often tarred with the same brush as the former. An incomplete story can have complicated factors, like: being in love with the perpetrator, being pressured by sources other than the perpetrator (like their “cool” friends) to go along with a situation, and so on. It can be difficult to respect people who distance themselves from their earlier allegations, especially if they’ve made it challenging for others to come forward afterwards in the same environment. But our private character judgements should not cloud principled stands.

In certain uncomfortable situations, wherein I did not have a good intuitive reading of the accuser or their desired outcomes, I’ve found it possible to consider the spirit of what was being said, if not the letter. This has been true in cases in which an unreliable narrator blew the lid open on a well-connected and gregarious accused, who had long been protected. What we can believe then is not the speaker’s testimony as much as the many crusted layers of silence, denial and complicity that allowed the perpetrator to carry on as they had. Within these layers are the stories we’d quietly known all along, always whispered or implied, as well as our own secrets – such as how prided ourselves on being street-smart enough to escape, or how we had experienced trouble too, but mollified the situation, or how much we liked the alleged perpetrator.

A series of particularly gruesome rapes and murders were reported in India last week, and some will wonder why I’m still writing about sexual harassment when “more serious crimes” are happening. But it’s an obfuscation to place crimes on a continuum of violence without acknowledging how a continuum functions, how actions increase in violence the more we allow leeway for what we perceive as minor infractions. Ribald jokes in the office aren’t on the same scale of egregiousness as assault, but both are wrong. We must see how they are related: how being okay with one wrong leads to the next worse thing being possible, and then the next worse, until… The webcomic Sanitary Panels said it best with a cogent new take.  “This is horrific! Why don’t women talk about sexual violence more?” says a stick figure holding a newspaper. “We do. But you don’t believe us if we’re alive…” responds the other.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 5th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: #MeToo Messiness

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Let me be the first to admit that I don’t really have a good understanding of the latest Twitter-based scandal involving a man accused of sexual harassment, audio recordings in which an advocate purportedly tries to conceal evidence, and one of the more social media-visible participants of the #MeToo movement in India. I came to hear of it through a dramatic pronouncement by a heterosexual male friend, whose “all of metoo is false” text message I responded to with a slew of eyeroll emojis. It is simply not possible to discredit an entire, complex, global, multi-pronged movement because of a potentially false allegation. But people are certainly trying to, which is a kind of telescoping of the larger context. The context is cultural, not individual.

Similar to my disinterest in the intricacies and daily-shifting loyalties in this case, others who are unable to keep up with the tide and who don’t have grounding in social justice ethics or praxis are liable to slip between the cracks ideologically. We do not live in times in which we think for ourselves, and a great deal of the vocabulary and framing now available to us is new to common parlance, and requires a certain degree of privilege to understand and employ. The demand that we quickly form opinions, without deep engagement, means that some people default into the easiest stance – which in this case is that the entire anti-sexual harassment movement is a mess.

We would do well to acknowledge that it is messy, though. A few days after sending me that message, the same friend seemed to have a mini-crisis. It began with him saying he’d been lusting over someone but was afraid of flirting due to “cancel culture”, then a segue into whether mental health issues should be accepted as blanket absolutions, and finally an admission of feeling conflicted about having to mediate harassment-related issues in a workplace. All these issues had collapsed on themselves, and led to a confusion which was most expediently cut through with dismissal.

This is a very common phenomenon. It’s critical to address why many men and women do not feel like the language or actions of this vital movement speak to them or for them. The reasons will be manifold. Personal apathy is only the tip of the iceberg.

We are being dishonest if we claim that we had this level of empowerment even four or five years ago, or if we claim that we truly know what we are doing now. Performative activism that doesn’t contain practical elements, long-term vision or self-reflexivity is challenging for even die-hard feminists to navigate through and counter. It is even harder for those who find certain concepts (which we may smugly think of as “just decent behaviour”) to be new. Rather than shame, how can we build learning resources, hold meaningful space, and improve access to both – while also discussing restitution and justice? Can we not fixate on famous cases, and focus on improving the culture at large? I have more questions than solutions because that’s where we still are – and because the answers should also be manifold, diverse and anything but individual.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Token Seats At Token Tables

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Her name is Chanel Miller, and she wants everyone to know it. She has revealed it in conjunction with the release of a memoir; her 2015 assault at Stanford University became a notorious case in which everyone from the media to the legal system tried to absolve her attacker. A preview of the book reveals that the university tried to coax her into creating a statement of forgiveness on a plaque for the memorial garden they instated at the site of the crime. She refused.

Somewhat relatedly, the author Kamila Shamsie was stripped of her Nellie Sachs Prize due to her support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel’s human rights violations. Ironically, the German award is given for “outstanding literary contributions to the promotion of understanding between peoples”, something reflected in Shamsie’s pro-Palestine activism. There are plenty of such honours, which appear to encourage anti-establishment thought, but only if it falls within certain parameters.

It’s profoundly frustrating when the work one does is co-opted by those it actually challenges. You can see this frustration all over Greta Thurnberg’s face in her widely-publicised speech at the UN. Right at the start, someone in the audience actually laughs, revealing how little seriousness the environmental activist is really given. Every person who cheers on this new hero but refuses to take personal steps to lessen their effect on climate change is letting her down. Our retweets don’t mean a thing if that plastic cup still goes into a landfill.

Powerful people and institutions allow interlopers in, indulge them, lionise and most crucially distract them, and continue to not incorporate the messages they carry. They are given a seat at the table as a means of placation, and a way to convince them that their work is finished or can be redirected. The indulgence also has its limits. As long as Thurnberg doesn’t do anything that crosses some major player’s invisible line, she will be entertained – and used as entertainment. If you’ve ever found yourself at a gathering and had the distinct feeling that you were on display, with the awareness sinking in that you’d be the topic of conversation once you left the table, you get the picture. Depedestalisation was recently discussed in this column, and some of the same ideas apply.

Can we say No to having that seat at the table at all? It’s a brave but not always viable choice. The choice between two outcomes – utilising the platform as a critical space, or making a statement by withdrawing – is not an obvious one. The latter can sometimes do little more than boost one’s own street cred, while the uncomfortable on-stage squirming of the former can add dimension to an event or the ensuing discourse. In some cases, agreeing to participate is to be cahoots with the problem, whereas in others, the participation brings challenge or at least nuance. But whether we fight for that seat, take it, or reject it, we have to treat the experience as window shopping. It isn’t the destination. We just need to know what’s available before we set about building a bigger, more honest, more effective table.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 26th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Meaning of “Life”

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Among the enshrined principles of the United Nations Population Fund is the concept that “Human rights are universal and inalienable; indivisible; interdependent and interrelated.” Among these, the belief in the inalienability of a right – in other words, the certainty that it cannot be taken away or given up – gives those who possess it a sense of resting easy. Something hard-won (even if also intrinsic) should be permanent, after all. But once in a while, an enquiring vigilance provides necessary maintenance of the right in question. When I came across news that India’s Supreme Court had admitted a petition to “decriminalise abortion”, I wondered what on earth they were talking about. It turns out that what is up for legal appraisal is the right to terminate a foetus beyond 20 weeks, which has so far been permitted only in case of abnormality or a danger to the mother’s life.

In a beautiful exposition, the petition asks about what the meaning of the word “life” in this context can be – whether it can go beyond physical survival to be “liberally construed so as to comprehend not only physical existence but also quality of life as is understood in its richness and fullness consistent with human dignity?”. Should this petition work, it may help to affirm a more progressive way of looking at the issue of abortion in India, expanding technical legality to make room for rights, freedoms and choices.

Why is (some) abortion here legal to begin with? It’s a let down to consider that this fundamental human right may be available not for sound ethical reasons, but due to an underside of female foeticide and even eugenics. As some experts like climate change specialist Fred Peace say, the use of the word “overpopulation” can be racist – for example, where the reputed Smithsonian Magazine described Mumbai’s Dharavi as “a vision of urban hell”, he saw it as thriving. When mass sterilisation and other draconian measures can’t apply, supremacists can still rely on the idea that people themselves (particularly the poverty-stricken) will choose termination. Every gynaecologist’s office in the country has a poster about not disclosing sex for a reason. Western conservatives’ “sacredness of life” argument, which is currently systematically challenging the right to abortion in state after state in the USA, is irrelevant in a place where certain lives are already devalued over others.

Here, the loss of virginity is more taboo than the elimination of offspring. Which is why the expansion of the legal provisions around abortion is important. By posing that crucial musing on the quality of life, the conversation broadens meaningfully. Just because a person won’t die in childbirth doesn’t mean that other aspects of her – creative, financial, professional, mental, among others – aren’t extinguished or debilitated. This isn’t an abstract consideration. Its tangibility lies in how we define the answers for ourselves.

Perhaps it isn’t enough to feel assured about the inalienability of rights, be they about bodily autonomy or any other subject. Perhaps by thinking about the potential of losing them, we find ways to both protect and to expand them – in spirit and practice, and for as many more people as possible.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 18th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Female Dalai Lama

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Did you know that the current Dalai Lama guest-edited a 1992 issue of the French edition of Vogue? This incident is mentioned in a lengthy official clarification newly released on his website, which addresses some controversial points in a recent video interview with the BBC. In this interview, he said – not for the first time – that if he had a female successor, she would have to be conventionally attractive. The clarification alludes to how he’d once said the same in that magazine’s glamorous ambience, but not to how these remarks were repeated for decades to come, as late as 2016 and now, in 2019.

The clarification includes the following: “[It] sometimes happens that off the cuff remarks, which might be amusing in one cultural context, lose their humour in translation when brought into another. He regrets any offence that may have been given.” It’s true that offhand verbal slips aren’t the only measure of a person’s character, and that one of the excesses of “cancel culture” is that contrition is rarely enough even in the mildest of cases.

But is there really any context where judging a person on parameters of attractiveness, withholding job opportunities because of them, or ridiculing those who don’t fit them (the Dalai Lama even made an expression he called “dead face”), are amusing? Or is it more likely that there are some situations where these statements can be openly challenged and others where they can’t? Many of the reasons why not will directly tie into structural inequalities, which branch into toxic workplaces, family hierarchies, public safety concerns and so on. As anyone who’s had to proffer a half-smile or hollow laugh at an inappropriate comment made in any setting knows, confrontation is not the only measure of disagreement. The statement would be offensive no matter who made it, a recruitment manager or a spiritual leader.

And this is the big context: in a rapidly regressing world, a female Dalai Lama would be a historical first, and of significance to millions. A spiritual life is a life of seeking, sometimes without solutions. The desire to reconcile faith and feminism is made fraught by such beliefs and actions, be they from powerful and well-connected religious figures, or from astrologers, gurus, influencers and ordinary people who internalise and propagate dangerous ideas, including communalist, misogynistic and casteist ones. People invested in equality who also have spiritual lives use their discernment, express divergence when possible, but also risk alienation equally from skeptics and their own teachers or circles. But the alternative – disavowal – is not necessarily compelling.

The women whose words comprise the ancient Buddhist anthology called the Therigatha knew about another kind of disavowal. They wrote about leaving their homes and losing their youth. The celebrated courtesan and monastic Ambapali was among them, with a famous poem on aging in which she described the failings of her body. But her translator Martin Wickramasinghe, whose idea was expanded by her translator Charles Hallisey, insisted that she was not lamenting the impermanence of beauty. She was saying she had been beautiful once, and was beautiful still. Or perhaps, who knows, she was saying she couldn’t care less.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 4th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Emotional Excavations

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Every now and then, a discovery occurs that reveals the imaginative or knowledge-based shortcomings of those who made it, or who first respond to it and shape how others view it. The Ishango bone unearthed in 1960, a baboon fibula with 28 markings dating to the late Stone Age, is a perfect example. The artefact has passed into modern feminist lore, with apocryphal stories of irate professors throwing their hands up in frustration, saying: “Think! Who owned this, if it was a calendar? Does a non-menstruating man need a calendar of 28 days?”. A related reference is a riddle which hopefully no longer challenges anyone: “A boy and his father get into an accident. Both require surgery. So why did the surgeon look at the boy on the table and say, ‘I can’t operate on him. He’s my son!’?”

To return to ancient objects, new information on the sprawling geoglyphs in southern Peru known as the Nazca Lines has excited researchers. The geoglyphs were created over 2000 years ago either by carving the ground, or forming images using piled stones. If seen from a great height, they reveal geometric designs and outlines of plants and wildlife, including numerous birds. Some among these birds are now believed to have been non-native, which lends itself to many theories.

But in these speculations is some condescension, including about how the geoglyphs were designed. It’s not like pre-colonial Peruvians had hot air balloons, went one throwaway remark. Well, to quote a meme illustrated with the Easter Island colossuses and various pyramids: “Just because white people couldn’t do it doesn’t mean it was aliens.” Perhaps there is extraterrestrial intelligence out there. More immediately provable is human contempt for the intelligence of other humans. We rarely appreciate the sophistication of those whose cultures (and populations) were systematically erased. Even when we don’t see the world as we were taught to, we often express our visions through inherited and absorbed vocabularies.

While meditating recently, I saw a vulture, and one of my most disagreeable beliefs about myself surfaced – that my ability to look others’ mortality in the eye is not what makes me a good caregiver, but is in actuality unsentimental and calculating. And then the creature’s message came forth: “The vulture waits not for death, but for sustenance”. Suddenly, this was as obvious as the symbolism I’d unthinkingly internalised. Afterwards, recalling the archaeological site of Catal-Huyuk, I read about vulture excarnation as a human pre-burial ritual and the prevalence of skeletons without skulls there. These are mysterious because they don’t fit satisfactorily into tutored worldviews. Practical explanations are given, like: this is because burials beneath the house would smell less if stripped of flesh. But does that engage the emotional? It’s bereavement we speak of, not the disposal of spoilt food.

That gender bias riddle in which a surgeon is prevented from operating on her son invokes medical ethics based on emotion. This is a rare acknowledgment of how reason, like art and ritual, is also emotional. What if every hypothesis got the heart involved, and that what we hold privileged as the mind included the vast province of the imagination?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 27th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Nobody’s Muse

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When the legendary cultural critic Susan Sontag was 17 years old, she married a sociologist around a decade her senior, with whom she had a son. Her husband, Philip Rieff, published Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, widely considered a landmark text, in 1959. For years, rumour held that Sontag had such a large role in the work that she was practically its co-author. Now, her latest biographer claims to have evidence that it was her work all along, and that she had signed over authorship out of desperation to keep her ex-husband from gaining custody of her child in their divorce.

History doubtlessly contains more erasures like this. I recall once watching the cellist and poet Kevin Gillam perform Bach’s beautiful cello suites. But which Bach did they belong to? He cited scholarship by the conductor Martin Jarvis that it was Anna Magdalena, the composer’s wife, who wrote them. Perhaps this memory surfaced because I’ve been rationing the final few episodes of the cancelled TV show Mozart In The Jungle. I adore it. It “has blood”, to paraphrase the maverick maestro Rodrigo De Souza (deliciously portrayed by Gabriel Garcia Bernal) at its heart. He is irresistible – therefore, best on screen and as far as possible from in the flesh, please. Please! Brilliant, and potentially brilliant, women spin into disorder following affairs with him. One of them begins to receive visits from ghosts of musicians past, just like he does. But it’s women who come to her, beginning with Nannerl, Mozart’s thwarted sister. Then others: women forgotten because they weren’t allowed to shine. They come as warnings.

And there are those left to wreck themselves, supernovas self-imploding, as the profoundly feminist and beautiful Savitri Ganesan biopic Mahanati (which I watched to avoid finishing Mozart) illustrates.

It’s something I think about a lot in relation to #MeToo. A monster’s art isn’t as interesting to me as the art that they suppressed. Many women went underground, remained footnotes, lost confidence and disappeared with nothing to their names. They only came into the orbits of monsters because they had some spark of talent in them too. There must have been more Sontags who didn’t manage to surface again. Maybe their work was stolen. Or maybe it was never made. It might be better to be celibate than to be someone’s muse.

Actually, to be honest, there’s one more alternative. The much-married Lawrence Durrell wrote (this quote is famously misattributed to his friend and fellow rake – I mean writer – Henry Miller): “There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.” Well, speaking as the woman, let me rephrase. Replace with the pronoun of your weakness and try again: love them, suffer for them, and turn them into literature. I prefer to do it all, do it bleeding, and put my name on it too.

Come to think of it, it’s a sweet irony that Durrell is rarely credited for these words of his either. I wonder what Sontag (or her ghost, appearing to an ingénue on the cusp of a mistake) might say about that.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 16th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Spacewalk That Wasn’t

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Every March 8, International Working Women’s Day, institutions and companies around the world participate in activities that celebrate women. While many fail, making it a day about rose-and-chocolate distribution and even gobsmackingly regressive events like beauty contests, some do hit the mark and do something meaningful. Even if it’s just for a day, it still feels powerful to see all-women plane crews, media coverage on gender issues, announcements of long-term equalising strategies and the like. Those that consult their calendars a little too late but want to jump on the bandwagon sometimes aim for Women’s History Month instead. It’s hard to know for sure, but it seems a bit like that’s what happened at NASA. The US space agency announced at the start of the month that the first ever all-women spacewalk, supported by an all-women team on Earth, was to take place on March 29. Only they must have come up with the idea quite soon before that announcement, because they’ve just made another one.

The historic spacewalk won’t happen because, despite some of the most meticulous planning that takes place on this planet or any other, they somehow failed to account for the astronauts’ spacesuit sizing requirements. Given the incredible things that happen to our bodies in space (from growing taller to losing fingernails due to compression), and how carefully these variables are met or made as comfortable as possible, it’s interesting how standard size differences weren’t considered. In the case of something as simple as stocking enough variations more likely to be used by women, who are often smaller, the need simply wasn’t expected to arise.

It gets more awkward. Of the two astronauts selected, Anne McClain and Christina Koch, only one will now be able to execute the spacewalk. Both require a medium size hard upper torso of the spacesuit, and there’s only one available at the International Space Station. Koch will wear the spacesuit for what will now be a routine spacewalk. It’s obviously just an embarrassing lapse of attention on NASA’s part, but it still causes a twinge. Because unfortunately, here on Earth we’re used to power games where there’s room for only one woman on a team, and women are pitted against each other as competitors even otherwise. Routine, for us.

Somehow, the iconic words that Neil Armstrong, first astronaut to walk on the moon, spoke there come to mind. Actually, it’s the misquote that made history that comes to mind: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong told the press that he had actually said “a man”, but the word wasn’t heard or registered. Millions readily accepted that he said something more abstract and vast, but why? The parody account @manwhohasitall explained English’s internalised sexism best with this Tweet: “I’m not hung up on the term ‘spacewoman’ because I know it refers to both women and men.” Tim, age 44, male spacewoman.

This muddle in NASA’s attempt to score woke points during Women’s History Month shows how in certain ways, some people are definitely still stuck in 1969. If “man” is to “person” as “mankind” is to “humankind”, what’s “woman” then? Well – “token”.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Not Loose

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Could there possibly be anyone who doesn’t have a crush on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? If her progressive worldview and personal journey weren’t impressive enough, the newly-elected American politician won even more hearts after conservatives released an edited video of her from college, happily dancing, intending this to smear her reputation. (She responded with another video of her happily dancing, in her lofty new office). There’ve been similar, malicious smear attempts, like a photo misattributed as a selfie of hers which made the rounds, in which a woman’s feet are seen in a bathtub, with a hand holding a vape pen, and a suggestive reflection in the faucet.

Dancing, relaxing, having fun, being and feeling attractive – all activities deemed inappropriate for a woman because the overall impression is that she is… What exactly? The answer is spelled out many times over in the heterosexual dating app Bumble’s new commercial for the Indian market. Bumble’s premise is to let women decide whether to make contact or not. The ad stars Priyanka Chopra, one of its investors, and shows her in various scenarios being described with a positive adjective, followed by “not loose”. The inference is that loose women use Tinder or other apps, while not-loose women use Bumble. Newsflash: it’s the same dudes on all platforms. And it’s the same pitting-women-against-each-other strategy that’s run the world for millennia.

But why not “loose”? The slut-shaming is shocking, given Bumble’s purportedly woman-friendly ethos. How can a dating app that claims to be based on women’s empowerment denigrate women in this manner? Bumble’s Twitter replies to the surprisingly few people who have protested were patronising, claiming that “loose” is a misogynistic term (it is, which is why Bumble’s use of it is especially misogynistic, positioning women who enjoy their sexuality as less admirable than those who don’t) and making vague statements on “on the ground” work in response to clear objections.

And what on earth is “loose”, anyway? Back in 1994, before we could take for granted sex-positivity (i.e. the acceptance on a socio-political level that sexuality is natural, to be celebrated, and not at odds with the fight for social justice) as a cornerstone of sound feminist principles, the poet Sandra Cisneros released an entire collection called “Loose Woman”. The titular poem unfurls like an anthem. Among its many thrumming lines are these: “I built my little house of ill repute. / Brick by brick. Labored, / loved and masoned it. / I live like so. / Heart as sail, ballast, rudder, bow.”

If that’s what it means to be a loose woman – hardworking, passionate and proud of herself – then who knows why it’s deemed unappealing. And worse, incongruent with being ambitious, curious, busy, free or equal – the ad’s buzzwords.

It’s clear Bumble’s India strategy is just the latest version of that old Ladies’ Night bar tactic. It appears to be for women, but all it offers women is something watered-down, while it’s the men who are the true target market. And when it comes to the political playing field, it pays for anyone who isn’t a man to remember this too. It’s their world. We’ve got to usurp it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 10th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Sex Workers In Ayodhya

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Morari Bapu, a spiritual leader noted for his Ram Katha sermons held around the world, came under fire over the weekend for inviting 200 sex workers from Kamathipura, Mumbai, to attend an event which he conducted in the city of Ayodhya. This drew outrage from a number of other religious figures, who predictably spoke of sin and shame. Ayodhya is regarded as the birthplace of Ram, in whose praise Morari Bapu recites the Ramcharitmanas, Tulsidas’ 16th century Ramayana with the distinct religious tones which have since been popularly associated with the epic.

As one important criticism of arts-based activism more familiar to us goes: it is not enough to bring the kutcheri to the kuppam, when the kuppam is still (figuratively) kept out of the kutcheri. This makes Morari Bapu’s initiative admirable: he did not choose to just deliver his discourses in the red-light district, but brought the people of that district onto holy (and hotly-contested) ground. Sex workers who spoke to the media of their experiences at the Ram Katha did so in glowing terms.

But, here’s a pinch of salt: given the incendiary context in which we live, can we really read even generous acts as apolitical? How can they be, when religion is the expressed basis of compassion as well as the implicit basis of hatred? So what are Morari Bapu’s politics? I confess my ignorance: being non-proficient in Hindi means I lack access to much material and commentary. I wish I could offer the unequivocal hope that he is that unbelievably rare figure – a progressive spiritual leader – and that his welcome to sex workers is a feminist act. His dedication of a 2016 Ram Katha to transgender people, during which he was quoted as having expressed the wish that a person from the community should one day lead a similar event with his support, would be one such heartwarming example.

But I’m wary. So what I’ll pay attention to instead is a contradiction: earlier this year, Morari Bapu criticised politicians who use the performative gesture of eating in Dalit households as a pawn to attract voters, going a step further by saying that marrying people from the same households would actually be meaningful. He is correct: inter-caste marriage is radical, truly risky (as murders by family members have shown in too many cases) and potentially revolutionary. However, more recently, he also criticised a CM’s comment that Hanuman was a Dalit, calling it a divisive statement while others like himself were working for unity.

This contradiction – of focusing on transcendence rather than reality – is where good intentions go to die. If we insist that our acceptance of others lies in our commonalities, we also insist on certain erasures. We can assume that the 200 sex workers who visited Ayodhya from Kamathipura were pious – but is that why they should be respected? Will the atheist or non-Hindu sex worker be offered the same? Will she be offered respect as a routine part of life, upon her return to her workplace – where, night and day, men whose actions are never questioned as they enter temples come to commit the sins of objectification and abuse?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 27th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.