Tag Archives: gender violence

The Venus Flytrap: #MeToo, Obviously

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Last week, a young attorney collated a privately-verified, anonymity-assured list of male sexual predators in Indian academia. The list revealed Indian feminism’s splinters: a dozen senior feminists rushed to condemn it, a move seen as being protective of their own interests based on kinship, institution and caste. One defensive response heard often was: “Women have always had a whisper network, so why go public?”

I was recently interviewed for a documentary on workplace sexual harassment by Lime Soda Films. It so happened that the Harvey Weinstein allegations had just broken, and a cascade of #MeToo posts filled social media that day. My hands shook after the first segment we shot, in which I detailed one particular incident in a corporate scenario. But my anger was neither at the perpetrator nor because of the incident itself, but because of the environment in which it had happened. The hostility in that workplace was fed by numerous characters – among them women, too. It made my hands shake with emotion even years afterwards. But I could only circle around it.

The story of a particular predator in that environment was only the easy one to tell, the starting point. I named him off-camera, but didn’t bother to onscreen. He was irrelevant to my trauma, ultimately, despite being illustrative to the conversation on why people don’t report sexual harassment. At the core of that story is something else, another story based on my consent and how it was abused, a story too painful to tell about a man deemed by those around him as too desirable to be a predator. No, story is the wrong word. Experience. And other experiences too terrible to transform into tell-able tales. Friends who attacked their partners. Abusive partners who turned out to also be predators in their fields. Manipulators so dazing that we’re inside their lies before we realise they are labyrinths. Above all: the way I use the plural because to use the singular already feels too specific, too much like a story and not a secret.

The whisper network doesn’t suffice because the worst experiences are ones we don’t share. I looked at that list and thought: What’s 70 names in a rape culture of 1.3 billion people? A few women were brave enough to whisper loudly enough. That’s all. And we know of, but are still circling, the worst of it. How can I protect someone from going through what I did when I cannot even speak of it? I can’t. Most of the worst people walk free in the world. Perhaps that’s why we who see the private struggle behind a public list fight so hard for the hypothetical. We’re tired of women being cautionary tales. We want the villain to be the protagonist for once.

Justice is a long shot. We get used to the idea that we’ll never get it. So we count and recount our stories. The ones we yell out loud. The ones we whisper. But mostly, honestly, the ones we don’t divulge at all. And the ways we tell and retell them to ourselves anyway, whether we keep track that we’re doing it or not.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 2nd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods, Blind Screens, The Sun And Her Flowers, Wild Embers

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Even when Tishani Doshi writes of the strange gratitude of “not being in the nicer hotel”, for the inspiration that comes “Because if it weren’t for this mouse-spiced/ air, this particular desire to be anywhere/ but here, how else to turn the howl/ into song?”, or when Ranjani Murali takes a recording-assisted tour of Alcatraz, the blood and body of their new books of poetry is quite literally just that. No matter what their other preoccupations or locations, both poets circle around and back to the subject of female fear. Doshi’s Girls Are Coming out of the Woods is underpinned by macabre newspaper headlines that cut close to home, manifesting in brutal crimes, and memories and dread that breathe down one’s own neck at all hours. In Murali’s debut, Blind Screens, she often employs as her canvas the cinematic screen, and in technicolour or off-camera, she situates several of her most politically loaded poems from a tangential gaze, always framing as her subjects women in relation to morality and society.

This is the most visceral of Doshi’s three books of poetry, reaching into the wounded places of the feminine psyche in ways that ache with how universally they are experienced. Some of the poems have direct triggers, cases that make the headlines, and the triggers open out onto traumas. Take this powerful description in the poem “Disco Biscuits”: “… most of us have known a man/ who arrived like Bill [Cosby] – sleek and proud as a July/ thunderstorm. How so many of us gave in to that sleekness/ because when you’re young you don’t know that your bones/ have been giving way the second you were born. So you give/ and your giving’s large and uncalculated. But then/ there’s the haunting.”

Throbbing through the collection are many hauntings, among them murdered women unknown or beloved. In “Everyone Loves A Dead Girl”, the poet says frankly, in the voice of such a ghost: “I would like to talk about what it means to suffocate on pillow/ feathers, to have your neck held like a cup of wine,/ all delicate/ and beloved, before it is crushed.” The poet does exactly this, pinning down images of death and decay unflinchingly. Even musings on aging relatives and crematoriums don’t come from nowhere: at the centre of them is something beyond idle morbidity. In “The Leather Of Love”, she writes: “And when we lie in bed and talk/ of the body’s failings, of the petulant dead, of / disenchantment and insufficient passion,/ we’re chewing through fears so thick our/ teeth are beginning to rust.” An army of girls – girls “with panties tied around their lips”, “girls “found naked in ditches and wells”, girls who didn’t survive or maybe did – emerges in the collection’s eponymous poem, dedicated posthumously to a murdered friend of the author’s. Rather than rouse, it chills. “Girls are coming/ out of the woods, clearing the ground/ to scatter their stories” she writes. You can almost hear her breathlessness in the last line – the poet passing the baton to the voices coming through her: “Girls are coming out of the woods./ They’re coming. They’re coming.”

In Blind Screens, Murali slips a cast of heroine characters, female actors and women in celluloid-stronghold cities like Bombay and Madras into poems in several registers, and just like all subtext cinematic and otherwise, they bind the collection together. Sometimes, we see them through the dehumanization of the male gaze, as in “Circa 1970’s Tamil Film Stalker’s Ghazal”, which escalates quickly from admiration to physical violence. Murali’s voice changes deftly; in the very next poem, “Mangaatha, or The Case of the Former Circus Artiste Now Distracted”, she takes on the persona of a performer as she flees a gang of men, all whom have handled her, literally, in less that professional ways. She holds tightly to her trapeze bars and swings away – but straight into the gaze of “the young policeman…. his mouth blackening/ at the sight of my pooling silk”.

This deft interplay between stage illusion, misogynist delusion and the literal difficulty of being female in a society trained to perceive itself as entitled to putting its hands on all it rests its eyes on comes together most forcefully in “Historical Movie Scene”, in which a male audience member heckles the narrator as she gets up to leave a theatre. Onscreen, a woman dances, “a glitter-filled belly button zooming into our faces”, while the man screams, “Ey, figure da, looking, going”. She stumbles and keeps walking, while “The same heckler calls out, “Wait, ma, watch/ where you’re going!” to me as the actress dances a stream of blood/ into an unfenced balcony, where a throng of snarling,/ cotton-stuffed, cross-eyed vultures claw into her mouth.”

This accomplished collection contains many variegations that fill and colour its pages with all the elaborate textures of Indian cinema: among them, “Beggars”, with a fortune telling parrot electrified with terror by a feline scent, which morphs beautifully through Murali’s phrasing into predators of another kind: “the director who recently/ celebrated the hundredth day jubilee,/ the local minister, the mayor, and even/ the child-star who likes to play with/ cheetah cubs in his spare time.”

In “Female Lead Waits For The Kurinji”, she juxtaposes two tropes: that of the flower that blooms once every twelve years, archetypal since ancient Tamil literature, and that of the modern heroine for whom a flower is but a metaphor. In the poem’s final lines, the narrator says to the kurinji, with or without self-consciousness: “Your own curse/ is not that of lack, but of being watched as you bloom.”

One imagines that the girl who becomes a woman – who “blooms” under watch – may often speak to herself in the rudimentary voice of Rupi Kaur’s poems. The Sun And Her Flowers is a book that surprises: nothing of Kaur’s work online suggests it will be anything but craftless, but placed in context, in page after page rather than in pithy cropped Instagram lines, a different effect accrues. Not quite beautiful or original, but together, the poems carry a clarity that is convincing, a soft voice that soothingly intones the familiar. A few pages in, one is reminded of a specific multi-genre work of art, discussed below, and understands that a slow-release impact is intended. What is not achieved in craft is compensated for in fine emotional control, the tenor in which Kaur writes about topics as personal as rape and the poignance of knowing how little time she has left with the mother who she has finally begun to understand. Some of Doshi’s girls, too, along with Murali’s women, must have had these thoughts.

But this is not to suggest ingenuity. In interviews, Kaur deliberately presents the image of being a non-reader. A recent article on her sardonically points out her interest in a book of Kafka’s – not for the contents but for the cover design. It’s an image that those who love to loathe all writers of her ilk, and the Instapoetry fad itself, enjoy. But it is patently false. As even just the first pages of The Sun And Her Flowers turn, there’s a clear debt to Beyonce’s Lemonade – which was scripted by the poet Warsan Shire. Again, in the sections that speak of immigrants and refugees, Kaur transparently aspires to resonate like Shire does. It would be remiss to not bring up Nayyirah Waheed’s allegation that Kaur plagiarised her work, an allegation layered with an undertone of anti-blackness. So the poem “legacy”, which goes “i stand/ on the sacrifices/ of a million women before me/ thinking/ what can i do/ to make this mountain taller/ so the women after me/ can see farther” begs the question: whose shoulders has Kaur chosen to stand on, unacknowledged? It is not enough that she labels two illustrations as homages to two Punjabi visual artists, Amrita Sher-Gil and Sobha Singh – more problematic is how she devises the image of herself as a literary pioneer in her lineage, without credit to the many pools from which she sourced her syntax.

But here, another poet similar in background – female, Punjabi, raised in the West, famous through social media – bears mention. Read side by side with Nikita Gill’s new book, Wild Embers: Poems of Rebellion, Fire and Beauty – which attempts to revise fairytales without ever moving past the Disney versions and is replete with confusion about its emotional and political core – The Sun And Its Flowers appears all the more sincere in its naïveté. It’s an uncanny contradiction: Kaur is clearly winning for she has studied how to be accessible, but the work somehow comes across as true. Which is why we can’t dismiss her on the basis of craft alone – not only is she better than her contemporaries who attempt depth, but the struggle and sentiment conveyed in her work is also the very pathos that moves stronger poets like Shire, Waheed, Murali and Doshi. Whatever their calibre, the girls are certainly coming out of the woods – bearing words, accusatory and revelatory.

An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.

The Venus Flytrap: Tamil Cinema & The Romanticisation Of Abuse

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For the first time, I’m not looking forward to a Mani Ratnam film. Not in that non-committal “well, maybe if someone insists that we go watch it” way or the lazy “I’ll just see if it’s on Netflix eventually” way but in very clear-minded and cautious way. The question is: can I watch this film without being triggered? The theatrical trailer I saw for Kaatru Veliyidai clearly tells me: No.

Here’s what I saw: a man (played by Karthi) yelling at a woman in front of his colleagues, her confusion slowly registering on her face. I saw that woman (played by Aditi Rao Hydari) say helplessly, in the manner of anyone unable to break out of a toxic scenario, “I don’t know why I keep coming back to you’. I saw him being extremely possessive, gripping her tightly as he yells at other people, telling them that regardless of all conflict between them she is “[his] girl”. In the clincher, I saw the woman whisper from behind a door, telling him: “I cannot gauge when you will come to me and when you will hit me instead”. Although “hit” doesn’t suffice; how do I translate the sheer physicality of the Tamil words vongi adi? In every frame, she is fragile or frightened. In short, all I see of Kaatru Veliyidai is an emotionally and physically abusive relationship.

Trailers are often misleading, of course. Some will say heightened dramatic elements were purposely kept in focus so as to tug at the audience’s emotions. But mine were not so much tugged as they were triggered. Because abuse is never love. Whatever the contents of the film may ultimately reveal, I’m deeply disturbed by how a trailer edited in such a way is touted everywhere as a love story.

Tamil cinema has a long history of popular films with problematic takes on romance. Guna was about kidnapping and Stockholm Syndrome. Mannan was about disempowering women, taking them out of the workplace and into the kitchen. Nattamai, among others, featured the trope of forced marriage to rapists. The examples – both older and current – are endless, really, for what passes for love. It is not only explicit violence, including stalking, that we need to cast a critical eye on, but the romanticisation of abuse itself. Call it a drama, a psychological thriller, even an action movie with an emotional twist. Just don’t call it a love story.

So no, I won’t be catching Kaatru Veliyidai at the cinema. There’ll be too much standing up involved, you see. First, I’ll have to stand up because I may get beaten up if I don’t during the mandatory national anthem. Then, I’ll have to stand up again to walk out of the theatre because some scene in which a woman is brutalised, either emotionally or physically, is probably going to push me over the edge. I’m sure someone will write to me now to say I’ve misunderstood, that the film is about a fighter’s PTSD from being on battle frontlines. Let me pre-empt you by saying: my response to the trailer is also PTSD, another fighter’s, from the frontlines of a lifelong war.

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