Tag Archives: gender

Book Review: Centrepiece: New Writing And Art From Northeast India

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There’s a beautiful, almost cheeky, red herring in the very positioning of Centrepiece: New Writing And Art From Northeast India, a comprehensive anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, photography and visual art edited by graphic novelist Parismita Singh. Nowhere on the front or back covers does the word “women” appear, but in contributor bio after contributor bio, the pronouns “she” and “her” repeat. (A little earnest fact-checking reveals that one of a duo does not identify as female, but the coup is nearly complete). In this manner, the “centre” of the title is apparent: imagine a world so woman-centric that it need not be announced.

Centrepiece is primarily concerned with women’s work, not work that is gendered but labour of all kinds that is limited, encouraged or affected in some way by gender. “I reject the idea that work is related only to money or food,” writes Aungmakhai Chak in “The Objects Of Everyday Work: A Photo Essay”, which explores a non-capitalist understanding of beauty through the crafting of tobacco pipes, baskets, earthen jars and woven clothing. Rini Barman’s wonderful piece, “Hands That Brew”, is on rice liquor and the gendered politics behind it, while “Daksare Sketches: Through The Needle and the Loom” by Bumbum Studio’s Shreya Debi and Bilseng R. Marak (the duo mentioned above) is about their own work with fabrics, inspired by the daily movements of women and girls.

These are but some examples; the anthology features over 30 outstanding contributions. Singh’s curation of poetry and artwork is to be praised. Never does either feel like filler material amongst prose and photo-essays. Each genre – from nearly academic papers to hashtag poetry – is given its due, with impressive selections. There is an even contrast between the explicit, such as Dolly Kirkon’s paper, “Women At Work: The Gender, Culture, And Customary Law Debate in Nagaland”, and the unspoken, such as Zubeni Lotha’s untitled photograph of women in military gear, wearing gigantic hornbill headgear.

Among the poetry, Soibam Haripriya’s “Curfew” is particularly evocative, finely blending both gender and governmental limitations. It begins, “curfew and rains,/ and you are home/ thinking slowly/ of how life evades you” then reveals its preoccupation – there is a baby bawling, and the narrator longs for the time before she “became/ a pair of milch breasts”, for now she knows, “Biology is your arch enemy.”

Visual art suffuses the collection. “Mayel Lyang” by Alyen Leeachum Foning is a lovely tale of travel and homecoming, using the handiwork of several artists. The book ends on a spectacular painting: in Kundo Yumnam’s “Self Portrait, 17th May 2017”, a woman draws milk-like threads from her heavy nipples, and knits them together. She is headless; the threads swirl around her torso as though in orbit.

The fiction here often plays with the meta-narrative. Jacqueline Zote recounts Mizo lore in “The Other Side of the Looking Glass: Retelling of Mizo Folktales”, in which a woman tells stories by candlelight to children bored during a power cut. In “Women’s Literature” by Sanatombi Ningombam, a woman attempts to write through a day full of half-rinsed laundry, pots spilling over on the stove and other domestic demands. There’s no chance of success, and only as she crumples up her work in frustration does her husband raise his head from his food to notice it. “What is it that you are so angrily tearing up?” he asks. “It’s women’s literature, women’s literature,” she says.

Centrepiece is a gorgeous collection, with page after page of beauty and surprise. What emerges is a heterogeneous series of portraits and worldviews. There is a clear, and admirable, refusal to pander to the non-Northeastern gaze, and so an outsider reader does not suffer from a niggling sense of voyeurism either. Both female experiences and the distinct cultures of the Northeast are given primacy in a rare, and very rewarding, way. There is so much here to enjoy, and to be educated by.

An edited version appeared in OPEN.

Book Review: Sauptik by Amruta Patil

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On a cremation ground somewhere in the present, the past or perhaps even the future, Ashwatthama of the wounds that never heal tells the story of all he saw in the great war to his companions, the crackers of skulls and bearers of corpses. As far as Mahabharata retellings go, Amruta Patil’s has a knack for choosing sutradhars, or narrators – in Adi Parva, the first volume in this graphic diptych, it was the river Ganga. In Sauptik, the concluding volume, the thread is passed to as different a raconteur as possible: unlike a fabled river, the mass-murdering immortal Ashwatthama is not as easy to redeem into elegance of any kind.

This befits the book perfectly, for the tale Patil spins is one of ignominy, betrayal and repeated falls from grace. Throughout, Ashwatthama attempts a preacher position, albeit sitting beside pyres, pus leaking from his forehead. He is immortal but this is ironically his fatal flaw: he is too central a cautionary tale to be able to teach the same. The effect is brilliant: Patil thus dips between pithy wisdoms (a simple clay lamp, sitting upon its own shadow, with the caption: “Directly beneath the lamp, darkness.”), strictly dangerous political instructions (“Small fires in a big forest keep flammable matter in check. A periodic purge may prevent a large-scale catastrophe. Useful, where civilization is concerned.”) and even artist’s notes (on the Sudarshan Chakra: “best shown as a jagged flying disc or as a mathematical sequence or as a moustached minor divinity armed to the teeth? Is Krishn best shown as a galactic nursery? Or a dirt-eating blue baby? Or a dark, bejeweled androgyne? Is devlok – antithesis of dense, low-frequency matter – best shown as purple-pink mountains or as a blank page? All these diagrams – crude as their executor – are only my attempts at making the Enormous accessible.”).

One of the most profound insights in the book, with its themes of jealousy and self-ignorance, comes from the supporting narrative of Ashwatthama as pyre-dweller. To contextualise his setting, the story of Sati’s feral husband Shiv and her hidebound father Daksha is recounted at the book’s beginning. Deep into the narrative, we are reminded of this auxillary story with a series of self-revealing questions: “To learn a queasy truth, ask yourself this: Who’s the Shiv to your Daksha? Of the worthiest of the worthies, whose name do you refuse to say aloud while a litany of others are mentioned? Who do you hesitate to leave room for in your crowded altar, though their credibility is immaculate? Of the worthiest of worthies who do you give thanks to?”

In fact, philosophy rather than story is Patil’s narrative style, and Sauptik requires some familiarity with the Mahabharata, and it is also recommended that its first volume, Adi Parva, be read beforehand. The epic’s sprawling storyline is illuminated in selected parts, with the text often taking on a sermon-like quality. In all retellings of any epic, elisions speak as much if not more than illuminations. In some cases, prior knowledge is necessary – the conveying of the Bhagavad Gita, for instance, is rendered in simplest terms – “He knelt in the red dust before Krishn. They had a very quiet conversation.” Similarly, a basic familiarity with Vaishnavite cosmology – and indeed, the epic’s other convolutions too – is a prerequisite, otherwise brief interludes like Bheem’s encounter with his half-brother Hanuman are incomplete, and dangling storylines like how Yudhishthir rescued his siblings from the magic lake of the crane-yaksha are completely baffling.

In other cases, inference rather than expression speaks strongest. A diagram of a hand shows each Pandav as a finger, with Draupadi’s name within the palm – but is she what connects the fingers, or what the fist crowds upon?

The answer is unequivocal in Patil’s telling, in which Draupadi is very much the dark horse protagonist, the one rendered with the most pathos and the least equanimity. Some of the most vivid scenes belong to her. In the court of Hastinapur where the game of loaded dice has shown the polyandrous queen to be no more than property, the author eschews the standard narrative of disrobing and divine intervention for a chilling image: unfurled tongue and disheveled tresses, her eyes cold and not bloodshot, Draupadi is Ma Kali herself, pronouncing her curses and vows. Later, a striking scene is dedicated to the combing of her hair with the blood of not just those who humiliated her, but her father, her twin and her five sons too. Her face is extraordinarily beautiful, lit from within, as a handmaiden performs the sanguineous shampoo,

The story of how Draupadi came to have five husbands – often told as an act of obeisance to their mother who tells them to share everything – is spun neatly here as a tale of female desirousness and agency. The Pandav’s mother Pritha (her name restored to its original one from the popular Kunti) too offers counsel in just terms: “The only consent you must seek is hers. Your marriage needs no other approval.” This cannot protect Draupadi from becoming pillage in the war, or soothe her heart of longing and rejection. In a later sequence, she opines how Arjun takes advantage of a pretense of dignity to seek Subhadra out, and make her co-consort among his various dalliances.

The author’s language is evocative, always didactic, and with elegant turns of phrase – memorably, Bheem and Duryodhan wrestling as students in the akhada are “symmetrical as an inkblot folded in half”.

This is a graphic novel, as much painting as it is prose. It is Patil’s third and she retains mastery of the form. When Draupadi is staked in a game of dice in the court of the enemy, she is menstruating in a room painted blood red, its walls unmistakably vaginal in the frame in which she utters her first and only warning to Dusshasan. Elsewhere, despite the book’s themes of carnage and forest darkness, there is beauty, most notably in scenes of intimacy: Bheem and his true love, the rakshasa Hidimbi, amidst plantains and passionflowers; sleep-dancing gopikas in petal-skirted dervish delight, each with a Krishn of her own; the lushly sexual apsara Tilottama.

Patil’s visual genealogy is a rich one, but to her credit, her references never trip into too-obvious, easy-applause territory. So in a poignant double spread about Draupadi’s forest (one chapter elucidates how each protagonist had one of their own), the text explores her defenselessness, emotional abandonments and the way long-suffering patience lends itself to long-held vengeance – while a naked, aurically-dense figure of her calls to mind a stance seen somewhere in Diego Rivera’s oeuvre. Elsewhere, on the epic’s bloodiest night of carnage, we recognise that the Shiv that Ashwatthama has invoked is reminiscent of the Tibetan Buddhist Mahakala. We admire the tableau and the artist’s astute subtlety, balancing allusion with lyrical expression, and turn the page.

But the last page turns onto blank dismay. Sauptik opens on “[a] caution, a key: Don’t impose your preconceptions onto the story then claim objectivity.” Ashwatthama, survivor of aeons, offers this buffer against the limitations of time-bound mores, but Patil herself fails to take this guidance. In a spectacularly misguided endnote signed by the author, she writes of how “brahmin” and “rajanya” are “not genetically transmitted states” but purposes. And more risibly still, choices: “You determine your varna. The bucks stops with you. It is as easy and as excruciatingly hard as that.”

Ashwatthama speaking this on a battlefield or a burning ground out of time may have had resonance, but Patil writing this in a caste-ridden society where the best one can do with one’s privilege is to renounce the system, rather than find ways to whitewash it, is disingenuous to say the least.

Ironically, Ashwatthama – son of Dron, perpetrator of caste-based violence – himself says it better. After the Eklavya episode, he first attempts a justification – “Contrary to the current narrative, Eklavya wasn’t punished for being a poor forest boy with super skills. He was punished for a serious error: laying claim to a lineage he had done no ground-time to earn, from a teacher who had explicitly rejected him. Was Dron’s rejection unjust? Arguably.” – then moves into lip service towards radical subversion – “Karn and Eklavya should’ve just rejected elitist lineages, declared themselves to be what they were – swayambhus, self-actualised ones… Ultimate cocking-a-snook at a system that kept them out.” It’s a bizarre endnote to a book of philosophy on the folly of hubris, but almost – in an unpremeditated way – a befitting one.

An edited version appeared in Biblio.

Book Review: Women At War: Subhas Chandra Bose And The Rani Of Jhansi Regiment by Vera Hildebrand

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The historical Rani of Jhansi, 19th century Maratha queen and Indian nationalist, is frequently portrayed on a rearing horse, brandishing a sword with an infant tied to her back. That last detail is pure fiction: the child in question, ostensibly her son, was 10 years old at the time of the battle memorialised, and no evidence exists of his having accompanied her in combat. The maharani’s role of mother – a pleasing one within the patriarchal realm – is merely reinforced by the symbol. Nearly a century later, it was her spirit (or at least, symbol) that Subhas Chandra Bose called upon to form the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, the Indian National Army’s all-woman unit.

Largely considered a footnote of sorts in the anti-colonial struggle, the RJR was primarily given interest due to its charismatic Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan, who later became the illustrious Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal. Vera Hildebrand’s Women At War: Subhas Chandra Bose And The Rani Of Jhansi Regiment does not simply stop at the cursory, but separates fact from myth, and fills in gaps in public knowledge. Swaminathan’s own memoirs were largely embellished with vivid scenes of combat – which the Regiment never actually participated in firsthand. The RJR propaganda project, and Bose’s order to destroy INA records, also created misperceptions. The book presents a compelling case that what actually happened is more interesting by far.

Bose organised the RJR in 1943 in what is now Singapore, and the total number of recruits is an estimated 450. These recruits were often teenage girls – even as young as 12 – although rules stipulated that they had to be over 18 years old. Dr Swaminathan and other Indian women like the teacher Protima Sen in Burma were tasked with convincing parents to sign the permission slip (curiously, married women were required to obtain this from their husbands, a point that undermines the stated premise of gender equality).

Hildebrand sets the context of the Indian independence struggle and charts Bose’s personal and political growth extensively. Numerous gender-related issues abound in the formation, and indeed legacy, of the RJR. Bose initially shared Gandhi’s prudish views on sexuality, and was even disappointed that his own firstborn was a girl, but later grew to become an advocate of birth control and women’s rights. Gandhi used women in sexist ways in the freedom struggle, and it is clear from this book that some of Bose’s initial motivations were also objectifying in nature. He eventually developed the view that complete gender equality also meant military action. That the RJR did not engage in combat disappointed all concerned. Hildebrand’s neutral, thorough research allows for a wide range of questions to emerge. For instance: did Bose select impoverished illiterate women for the task as their bodies, and lives, were considered more expendable? The historian H.N. Pandit suggests that the entire enterprise was to shock, and thereby destabilize, the British army with the sight of slain women on the frontlines.

The little known, and thoroughly fascinating, truth about the RJR is that most of its members had never been to India. 60% of them were young Tamil women from the Malayan plantations. 20% were Sikh (Hildebrand was unable to find any surviving Ranis from this category). Joining them were college-educated, Burma-raised women and others from various parts of the motherland. Hildebrand’s extraordinary research culminated in interviews with all the living Ranis that she could track down, the majority of whom are elderly Malaysian ladies. A centrefold of photographs attests to Hildebrand’s description of them as “sweet old women” – but more importantly, sweet old women who still remembered their bayonet exercises, which they gladly demonstrated to her, even when unable to rise out of their seats. “With a grimace and a grunt these octogenarians thrust the rifle hard forward, and made a swift upward movement with the fancied bayonet. The training mantra still etched in their brains, ‘[Maaro, kheencho, dekho] – kill, pull out, look.’ Then they usually smiled and said, ‘That’s how you kill the enemy.’”

For two years, the Ranis trained as soldiers, although it emerges that they were ill-prepared for the jungle. While they did not go to war, their time in Rangoon in particular contained many grueling demands, including long-distance night marches and jungle treks. The RJR was formally disbanded in 15 August 1945, just three days before Bose’s sudden death in a plane crash, although groups had been sent home at various points for some months. Hildebrand writes that most of the Ranis “found no audience” for their stories, instead quietly assimilating back into ordinary life, and sometimes concealing their military participation in order to do so.

This participation, lionised as being for race and motherland, was in fact more likely to have been about poverty or about escaping oppression. At 14 years old, Rani Muniammah, the daughter of a rubber tapper, was encouraged to join the RJR so as to have regular meals. Decades later, in a living room with a dominating portrait of Bose, she repeats army slogans to Hildebrand but admits it wasn’t until she enlisted that she had considered the Indian identity. Rani Janaki Bai, too, was encouraged by her father to enlist in order to avoid an arranged marriage. Hildebrand further contextualises the background from which most of the Ranis came: “Many of the women who joined the Regiment from the large rubber estates in Malaya lived and worked under conditions that approached slavery. Sexual abuse by the mainly white estate managers was a common occurrence. The Rani of Jhansi Regiment offered an environment where for the first time the young women found themselves respected and freed of the social stigma of ‘coolie’ status.” After their stint in the RJR, Ranis Rasammah Navarednam Bhupalan and Janaki Thevar Athinahappan turned their attention toward Malaysian independence (won in 1957) and various social justice causes thereafter. However, the book glosses over the problems of race in Malaysia.

The RJR belongs not only to Indian history, but to South East Asian history as well; Hildebrand notes the absence of material on them in Malaysian archives. They were willing to fight, and even to kill or to die, for India’s independence, but as Rani Janaki Bai tells her, “In India we would be foreigners.” The story of the RJR is shot through with far deeper colonial implications: born and raised in South East Asia, but belonging to disenfranchised communities in a region with sociopolitical problems that did not allow them to forget their roots, and with no sentimental attachments to India other than those roused by Bose, these women complicate facile narratives of patriotism.

This book is very much a historian’s tract, not a biographer’s. While the Ranis’ intricate personal stories are not explored in depth, Hildebrand clearly classifies apocrypha as such but uses it in an enlivening fashion. For instance, there is mention of a secret service within the Regiment, which involved a blood oath. Thirty or so Ranis were said to have cut their own fingers to paint a tilak on Bose’s forehead before signing a pledge; Bose was said to have wept with joy at this sacrament. Rani Mommata Gupta, meanwhile, insisted to Hildebrand that a hole had been drilled in one of her teeth, in which she was meant to smuggle microfilm to India.

This much is poignantly, powerfully made clear: what these unlikely soldiers experienced was not only an unusual adventure, but in a strange way a reprieve. As Hildebrand notes, many Ranis described those two years as the best ones of their lives. Their lives before they enlisted were chiefly as daughters; after, they continued in ways that largely recognised them only as wives, mothers, widows and grandmothers. Women At War is a fascinating testament to some women that history almost forgot, who like the apocryphal baby on the back of the original Rani herself have never been seen as anything other than figurative.

An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.

The High Priestess Never Marries Wins A Laadli Award

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I am so deeply honoured that The High Priestess Never Marries has won a 2015-2016 South Asia Laadli Media & Advertising Award For Gender Sensitivity in the category of Best Book (Fiction). The award ceremony was held at the National Centre of Performing Arts, Mumbai, on May 12 2017. I was presented the award by Kamla Bhasin.

It means all the more to me because the Laadli Awards are not literary, but feminist.

The complete citation for the award is as follows:

“Strung like luminous pearls, The High Priestess Never Marries is a collection of evocatively written short stories that feature women who seem suspended between relationships, living in moments fraught with desire and despair. Set in current day Chennai, these unnamed female protagonists cherish their independence, even within the bounds of relationships, and find their inner voices through an exploration of sensuality and choice. These are women who have accepted their many loves, their imperfect selves, and their fractured lives. In appreciation of the portrayal of single women in strong roles who cherish their independence and imperfection, The High Priestess Never Marries is awarded the South Asia Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity 2015-2016.”

 

The Venus Flytrap: Smile Or Snarl

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The photoshoot had a brief I’d never encountered before: Don’t Smile. Instead: look angry, displeased or exasperated. I was to look, in short, like the difficult woman society thinks I am. The task should have been easy. But standing there in my pretty make-up and my prettier fabrics, hoping the sun would neither make me sweaty nor wash my dark skin out on camera, I hesitated. Forget looking intimidating or pissed off. I was just going to look worried. Worried that I wouldn’t look good trying to fulfil a rather wonderful opportunity, that is: to defy the expectation that women should smile more. Smile always. Smile through everything.

The gendered regulation of smiling came up often during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, when she was first criticised for not appearing cheerful enough, then for “smiling like she’s at her granddaughter’s birthday party”. Russian President Putin said this in his International Women’s Day speech last week: “We will do our outmost [sic] to surround the women we love with care and attention, so that they can smile more often.” His speech did not mention how the Russian parliament recently voted 380-3 to decriminalise domestic violence that does not result in injury. Or how a newspaper responded to this decision by telling women to be proud of their bruises.

I’ve been told that my face at rest is a sad one, but most women are told they look angry. Hence the phenomenon of “resting bitch face” (RBF), which became a buzzword a few years ago. A woman can be thinking deeply, waiting, being stoic rather than emoting, listening intently – doing anything but smiling, basically – and she has RBF. All because she is doing something other than transmitting signals of acquiescence, agreement or availability through a smile.

Here, I must interpolate a cultural issue. Certain places are known for the friendliness of locals (unsurprisingly, tourism tends to be major economic source in these places). I grew up in two such places, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, where it is true that people generally smile more, to strangers and known people alike – at least, as compared to Chennai. This remains a source of lasting culture shock to me, and I clock it as one of the ways in which I misunderstand others, and in which I am also misunderstood. This may be why I couldn’t really fulfil the photoshoot’s requirements, to be the Nasty Woman (thanks, Trump) I am. I don’t personally get told to Smile More. Instead, the fact that I smile frequently – habitually, and through conditioning – is seen, not unlike what happened to Clinton, as being condescending or cunning – at best, coy. And often, sexually available.

But once, browsing transfixed in a bookstore, I didn’t pay heed to a man who seemed to always be hovering nearby, muttering under his breath. The moment he managed to grab my attention, I automatically smiled at him, unaware I was being harassed. He looked utterly taken back, and fled. It’s funny, isn’t it, what people will find scary in a woman? A snarl or a smile, it’s all the same to someone who seeks only to control a woman’s reaction – and fails.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 16th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Not Your Women’s Day

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We don’t want your token rose because what do you think this is, Valentine’s Day? It’s not Mother’s Day either, and you need to find a way to respect women that doesn’t require them to be desexualised into a familial role.

We don’t want your chocolate unless it’s as dark as the history of our oppression, as bitter as you think feminists are, and full of nuts – which is what we’ve been driven to by all these antics.

We don’t want your “saree day at the office” dress code because we are not employed for your viewing pleasure. And – on this day or another other – if you have a problem with our bra straps showing, or our bare arms, or the fact that we won’t wear a slip under a white tunic, we’re certainly not going to make the effort for you.

We don’t want your special discounts. Unless that discount happens to be 25%, which is where the gender pay gap in India stands as per the latest report by Monster India. And no, we don’t want to hear your smug justification about how you spend 25% more time at the workplace than we do. It’s not our fault if you can’t manage your schedule as efficiently. It’s not our fault that we leave on the dot because when we get home, we have even more to do, because no one considers that housework is also work.

We don’t want your complimentary salon services unless you promise to ask each one of your patrons, “Who are you doing this for?” and have them at least ponder the answer before ripping hair out of their skins with hot wax. And we don’t want the allied weight loss programme, ever. Don’t even offer.

We don’t want your free cocktails, because we never liked Ladies’ Night to begin with. Here’s an honest poster for you: “Stags! Here’s bar full of half-drunk women disappointed with watery shots, just waiting to you to hit on them!” Yeah, that. Just try lowering our inhibitions while we’re busy raising our standards.

We don’t want your contests that basically require competing with other women. Just No.

We don’t want your televised speeches and mandatory tweets about the girl child, not when your misogynistic actions and ideologies contradict them.

We don’t want to hear how strong you think (you have to say) we are, because this isn’t a weightlifting tournament.

International Women’s Day falls on March 8th every year, so this is either a day late, or 364 days early. It’s been observed – not celebrated, necessarily, but observed – since 1909, and was initially known as International Working Women’s Day owing to its political (specifically, Socialist) roots. The day’s history is one of strikes and protests, and here are some in India this year: a silent protest by Garment Labour Union in Bangalore, a double-observance of Savitribhai Phule’s death anniversary called Chalo Nagpur, and.. I can’t even find one more to finish my sentence nicely. I dearly hope there are more.

The pink-hued capitalism and condescension we see around us this week demeans the day’s true meaning. How shall we observe it next year?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 9th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Lady-Oriented

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I learned a new adjective to describe myself last week. It’s “lady-oriented”. This expansion to my vocabulary came courtesy of a Central Board of Film Certification document banning the film Lipstick Under My Burkha. Everything about the trailer of the said movie looks amazing. Women having conversations with other women, women exploring fantasies, women admiring themselves in mirrors, women experiencing pleasure. Lady-oriented, definitely. By a woman (Alankrita Shrivastava), full of women and most importantly, for women. What’s not to like – unless maybe you don’t really like women?

Instead, the industry (and its gatekeepers) commend films like Pink (starring Amitabh Bachchan and, sorry, who were the female actors again?). I didn’t like it, but understood: it was a feminist film about women who are not feminists, made for other women and men who are also not feminists. It was not a film made for me, frankly. But Lipstick Under My Burkha might be. Will we ever know? Not if the CBFC has its way.

In Hollywood, meanwhile, a sexual predator just received an Oscar. But Casey Affleck, with multiple sexual harassment allegations against him, is hardly the first. Roman Polanski is only the most obvious example: his 2003 Best Director award was accepted on his behalf as he cannot enter the United States without being incarcerated for rape. Meryl Streep gave his win a standing ovation.

But Brie Larson, who had to present Affleck’s Best Actor awards at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars, refused to even applaud. This, like Denzel Washington’s visible anger at being thanked by the perpetrator, also caught on camera, was the only permitted expression of her horror. For Larson, who won an Oscar herself last year for portraying a sexual abuse survivor, to have to twice felicitate Affleck is a perfect example of the glass ceiling: no matter how hard a woman works, she is ultimately forced to kowtow to the patriarchy, which will always validate even its worst abusers. Sometimes to standing ovations from other women.

To come back to the situation in Indian cinema, actor Prithviraj recently pledged to stop supporting sexist films, apparently having an epiphany after his colleague, who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted, came back to the set. I liked the gist of his statement, as reported, but could not read it beyond “God’s most benevolent yet intricate creations. WOMEN!”, its patronising introduction. What I wonder is this: why did his colleague have to return to work in order for him to achieve enlightenment? If she had chosen to retire, would he have also have kept choosing to play chauvinists, unable to make the connection between environment and effect?  Awe for her bravery – incidentally, a favourite trope of films about, but not for or by, women – is just another form of objectification.

Sigh. How sad it is that nearly every time we want to talk about women’s empowerment, we’re invariably drawn back to the context: misogyny.

That’s why I like this word, “lady-oriented”. It doesn’t even have to consider the male gaze, like literal lipstick worn under a burkha or peaceful ignore-the-doorbell bralessness. May we have more lady-oriented films. May we have more lady-oriented everything.

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

The Venus Flytrap: For The Women Who Weren’t Born Men

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Maybe they don’t know everything, the women with the divining sticks, but they sure know how to reel a girl in. Maybe they don’t see everything, but they do see you there on the beach, alone or in some laidback configuration, and somehow – they see enough.

And so they come up to you as you’re rolling your jeans up or dusting your bum off, scrunching the newspaper your sundal came in and absentmindedly considering whether to litter, trash or recycle. And they look you in the eyes with a smile of recognition and say: “Nee ambulaiya poranthirikanum, ma!” You should have been born a man.

Even later, when you find out that there’s nothing unique about this line, you will consider it a compliment, because it is meant as one.

And the shore-side soothsayer will offer you this opening gambit as she takes your palm, because whatever else she knows or doesn’t, she can intuit you aren’t going to take it as an insult.

Though later, you learn: some women who do terrible things to other women have been told it too. Other women who do worse things to themselves have been told it too. Are those also ways to be men, then? “Internalised misogyny,” you think. Women who should have been born men because maybe then they would hate themselves, and each other, less.

Even later, when you bristle and say, “Well, if I lived somewhere else, was steeped in better societal conditioning, desexing me wouldn’t feel like a compliment.”

But you don’t live anywhere but here. You live here in this city by the sea. With a long beach where you could be detained for holding hands at night. And by the brightness of day, you give yourself away because only someone who doesn’t mind sun-kissed skin would be loitering. Someone like you, a woman like a man.

Count them and see how few they are, the women. How far between the canoodling (straight) couples and the water-shy families. While half-naked men splash around like they own this city, or indeed, this sea.

“Should have been born a man”, you ponder – and you look at the transwomen who also mill about between stalls selling blackened corn and displaying balloons to shoot for prizes. And you wonder what the fortune-tellers say to them, though you don’t quite know how to ask.

And not yet, not today, but soon – you may wander along that beach and arrive at the memorial of another woman who “should have been born a man”. And you’ll think of the crowds of men in white who surrounded her, and all the women still in their kitchens, whose lives she made a little easier.

At first, when you were younger, you thought that all that the fortune-tellers meant with that provocative, alluring opening gambit was this: that you have courage in excess, a province you demurred was not exclusively male. Later you understood: if you were a man, in this place and in this time, what you could do with that courage would have multiplied. Or to put it another way, perhaps you wouldn’t have needed that much courage at all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 8th 2016. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: When It Comes To Hair, There’s Another Type Of Conditioning

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In the middle of a match at the WTA Finals in Singapore against an opponent she would go on to defeat, the tennis player Svetlana Kuznetsova sat down during a changeover and requested a pair of scissors. Without a mirror, she reached behind her head and began to hack off inches of her thick, tightly-wound braid, grimacing with effort.  As she took the last few snips, the crowd began to clap.

She didn’t loosen her braid first, or go off the court to cut it. The shorned locks remained on her chair for the rest of the match.

This wasn’t the first such occurrence in the sport, however. As an article on Tennis.com says: “Andy Murray cut the front of his hair during a defeat to Rafael Nadal at the year-ending 2015 ATP Finals in London. Boris Becker trimmed his bangs during a four-set Wimbledon semifinal win over Ivan Lendl in 1988.” What made Kuznetsova’s action unusual enough to make headlines was that she had defied an implicit beauty convention. Watching the video of her chopping off her hair gives one the same awe as seeing pictures of Alicia Keys sans makeup or the dancer January Low onstage, bare-bellied, at seven months pregnant.

An athlete’s practical decision to save her game shouldn’t elicit a “wow”. The braid was heavy and kept hitting her in the eye; her performance improved after the trim. (Bobby pins? Retying? Who cares – it’s just hair, it’ll grow back!) But we’re taken aback, even if for only a moment. Half that “wow” is in admiration of Kuznetsova’s dedication. The other half is pure conditioning. It’s why we’re surprised on some level every time a woman rejects an aesthetic ideal. All the more when the rejection itself isn’t a performance or a statement, but just the simplest and more obvious thing to do.

This calls to mind women who do far more radical things that expose and challenge the policing of hair than simply cutting off a few negligible inches. The classical dancer Geetha Shankaram-Lam, for example, is completely bald by choice. Harnaam Kaur and Balpreet Kaur both sport full beards to honour religious reasons; the former is a model, and the latter became famous for her gracious response upon being shamed on Reddit. The actor Cameron Diaz spoke up in favour of pubic hair, hardly a trivial declaration considering the cultural impact of pornography.

“It’s just hair,” I wrote earlier. But is it? Like the rest of the female body, it’s policed and sexualised. Its figurative power goes beyond beauty and aesthetics. How it’s worn on the head is taken to speak on behalf of everything from one’s sexuality to one’s spirituality. Whether it is depilated or otherwise on the face and body is taken to speak on behalf of everything from one’s sanity to one’s upbringing.

We have much to ponder over why Svetlana Kuznetsova taking a scissors to her braid during a tennis match is almost a spectacle. Would you do it? Why or why not? Our musings can teach us much about how we see ourselves and others, and how we want the world to see us.

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

The Venus Flytrap: India’s Crisis Of Faux Feminism

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Last weekend, a woman took her own life in Porur, hanging herself in her home using a saree. She was a painter in her late 20’s, and the mother of a toddler. She was married, and had lived with her parents and her partner. Under any circumstances, a suicide is a tragedy. I won’t name the deceased, but a couple of media outlets have, describing her as beautiful and brilliant (with images of her, but not her art).

In her suicide note, the artist wrote that she had “had enough of feminism”, and that she had been “rude” so as to demonstrate her “feminine strength, penn sakthi.” This is also the subject of both headlines I’ve seen so far on this case (one on a website which had a “Killed By Feminism!” image which seems to have been removed).

But it would be equally remiss of me to criticise media sensationalism instead of looking beyond it to the fact that the artist didn’t seem to know what feminism is, but believed she had been practising it. And this poor understanding is propagated not by the media but by a vast and vocal legion who refuse to study the histories and theories within feminism, consider nuanced perspectives, interrogate personal privilege and positionality, honour intersectionality, cultivate compassion – and above all else, strive to live in alignment, especially when it’s unseen or challenged.

In India, wearing skinny jeans is a feminist act, for a woman’s attire in this country courts judgment and can be used to justify harm. But to declare that one is a feminist because one wears skinny jeans is solipsism. To reject a marriage proposal on one’s own terms is a feminist act. To post that rejection online and expect another person to be publicly shamed for their hurt, confused response – not so much. That sort of posturing has taken over the movement. And it is a movement, not a static display.

When we confuse proving one’s feminism with practicing one’s feminism, we end up – well, exactly where we are.

Suicide is a health issue, and stigma around mental illness is a sociopolitical one. The National Crime Bureau has recorded over 20,000 suicides by female homemakers (“housewives”) every year since 1997 (as a recent study by Peter Mayer shows, almost four times as many as another national crisis: the number of farmers who take their lives annually). This doesn’t include those who worked beyond the home, such as the artist discussed earlier.

Relatedly: even as education rates rise, the female workforce now stands at just 27%. Alarmingly, this is a 10% drop since 2005. So women study for longer, leverage this to obtain marital “security” with partners deemed of greater eligibility, and remain within the patriarchal system as homemakers. The class background that gives them this “choice” also gives them constant online access, and the crushing pressure to brand themselves as empowered.

Where does feminism come in? It doesn’t, not enough. Not for as long as the painstaking long-term work of structural dismantling and the painful everyday work of practice, practice, practice are tossed aside in favour of the clickably cool and the patently faux.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 15th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Ms-Ing The Point

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The exorbitant price of the taxi could have annoyed me. Or, that my mobile data didn’t work between baggage claim and a definitely-long-walk past the arrival gates, thus making it impossible to connect to transportation apps. Or, my name being misspelt on the receipt.

Instead, what made my teeth clench was what came before that misspelt name: “Mrs”.

The man behind the counter had either glanced at me and assumed this, or only used one of two options anyway: “Mr.” or “Mrs.” Why did he not use the impartial “Ms”, which does not indicate marital status, a factor that is no one else’s business except in a few specific scenarios?

Most women are used to sundry mailers addressing us as “Mr.” This week, I received a tax exemption certificate – a semi-legal document – which addressed me that way. Do only men buy property, earn incomes or give to charity?

This default gendering extends even to corporate entities. The “M/s” before a company’s name actually stands for Messieurs, the plural for “Mr.” in French. The world is full of unquestioned maleness, and we maintain it unthinkingly.

This is why, when PV Sindhu embraced Carolina Marin, who had just beaten her for the gold medal at the recent Olympics, she was lauded for her “sportsmanship”. But try this simple exercise: “Michael Phelps displayed wonderful sportswomanship.” How does it roll off the tongue? Now pick anybody and try “sportspersonship”.

It may not change anything at the level of your conversation. But it will have an effect somewhere else, in someone else’s discrimination scenario. When we’re told that “he” is grammatically correct when in doubt, always dare to doubt it.

Then there’s the supremely gender-neutral “Mx.” But, baby steps. One of those baby steps, however, is sensitivity toward queer pronoun choices too. People are who they tell you they are, at least as far as gender pronouns go.

It’s wrong to assume that anyone you encounter in a position of power is a man. It’s wrong to assume that companies are always run by men. It’s wrong to assume that a woman is married because, say, she has clearly been travelling alone (and no one “lets” a single woman travel alone in your shrunken-heart version of the world). And it’s offensive to demonstrate this wrongness through, among many other methods, the terms of address you use.

I was taught in school that one should always begin letters with “Dear Sir/Madam” or “Dear Mr./Ms.”. (Personal resolution: I’m going to start reversing the order wherever possible). The example used to illustrate why was “Imagine if the person who has received your resume is a woman and she gets angry? She’ll put your application in the dustbin!”

Were we supposed to think she was personally insulted? Or that she simply would not hire anyone whose worldview didn’t even have room for the slightest nuance of gender, knowing full well what kind of employee, colleague and decisionmaker that person would be? I don’t know what the teacher intended, but the only right answer is the latter. You see, two decades later, I am that angry woman. And I know exactly why she’s angry.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 1st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Quiet Outrage And Battle Fatigue

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On Saturday afternoon, I climbed into an auto I had hailed on the street just as a small group of teenagers were walking by on the other side. They were a mixed group of boys and girls, smiling and chatty with one another, and at least one of the girls was in a sleeveless outfit that ended at the knee. I registered fairly little of them, and would not have thought about them for a split second longer, had the driver not spoken just then.

I paraphrase from Tamil: “Like this, of course they’ll get their necks slashed.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Didn’t that happen at that train station? If they walk around the city undressed, what else is going to happen but getting their necks slashed?”

“Stop the auto.”

He did. I disembarked silently and took a few steps away. He drove off. I didn’t note his license plate. I didn’t take a photo. What would the point of Internet-shaming him be? Would it stop women from being attacked? Would it change people’s attitudes? Or would it just be one more app-friendly act of resistance, the kind that saturates our feeds yet does not spill over into our lived practices of equal partnering, better parenting or structural overhaul? Petty wins don’t give me power trips. They give me fatigue. The battle is so much bigger, and so continuous.

That evening, I read about Qandeel Baloch’s murder at the hands of her brother. The auto driver had thought a teenage girl deserved a brutal death for wearing something she must have liked. He found it only natural to relay this as a passing comment. Baloch’s brother had had that same thought. He carried it out. Somewhere in Pakistan is a college lecturer, or a taxi driver, or a research analyst – anyone at all, of any gender – pointing to a woman they don’t know as they tell someone else that she’s asking for it. For her boldness. For her vibrance. For her desire to simply be.

“So, he didn’t aruthufy your throat, no?” Many I know would have taken the ride anyway. They told me so. An auto driver is as irrelevant and impersonal to them as the teenager was to him. Neither of those dehumanisations are right.

The act of disengaging, for me, was more loaded than outrage. This is not categorically true; it must be used with acumen. But we cannot be so rash with the latter that we forget that a lived practice manifests in myriad ways.

I quietly unfriended one sleazebag and one mansplainer recently. I quietly wait for friends with problematic politics to arrive at certain insights that click only when they’re experienced, not tutored. I quietly listen when elderly conservatives bluster, and then I quietly go home and write. And that afternoon, I quietly remained standing on that street with my arm held out, alone. I hadn’t raised my voice. But I had stood my ground.

Several minutes later, the same driver came back around. “Naanthan,” he said, a little sheepishly.

Vendam,” I said. He moved on, a stupid grin still on his face. I didn’t have that luxury.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 21st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Illusion Of Safety Is A Highly Gendered Phenomenon

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Some years ago, a spectacularly acrimonious argument with an auto driver had me racing up several flights of stairs, palms sweating, ears ringing with filthy curses, desperately seeking the reassurance of the friend who opened the door. Shaken, I recounted the incident: the driver knew where I lived, I was at the drop-off location frequently, it was a long ride, he knew what I looked like, what if, what if…?

“Don’t be silly,” said my friend. “How many times a day do you think he has a fight? Do you think he keeps accounts of each one?”

His logic was so beautiful, so collected, that for a few moments relief washed over me. I was just being paranoid, I agreed. I mean, why would I think that… And then the genderedness of our perspectives clicked into place. My male friend lived in a city in which he could unzip his trousers by a random wall if the bathroom queues were too long, and no matter how many women dropped by, his neighbours still said friendly hellos to him. I lived in a city in which I never left a party without someone asking me to text when I got home, and none of those same neighbours ever looked me in the eye. Both these cities share the same name and map coordinates, and vastly different emotional echolocations.

Which city did the murder of S. Swathi at the busy Nungambakkam railway station happen in last week: his or mine? Entitlement or vulnerability? Both, as it happens, which is why the reactions to it have been so shameful and so confused.

Chennai is not any more dangerous than it ever was, so let’s drop that sensationalist line of thinking. Ask a college student, ask a transwoman, ask every person wrapping a dupatta on her body as though it was made of chainmail. If you hear women themselves saying that the city has “become unsafe”, what’s between the lines is this: if someone chooses to kill me publicly, they may just get away with it. The psychological stakes have been raised from eyes averted from slaps in parking lots and ears plugged to screams in the adjacent building to even greater non-involvement.

The need to categorise the murder as only an issue of urban safety is an act of obfuscation. True, we should be able to take for granted working CCTV surveillance and prompt responses from authorities, as well as protection for those who come forward as witnesses. But to ignore the larger picture of public indifference and poor socialisation means changing nothing about how things really are. We can talk about these things while still honouring Swathi’s family’s request to not speculate on her case.

We cannot address women’s safety without talking about stalking, specifically how treating love as a dinner table taboo and allowing misogynistic cinema to teach its ways instead has destroyed its spirit. Modern Indian culture does not empower people with respectful courtship etiquette, but neither does it empower them with the skills to handle rejection. And when a person confides that someone makes them feel afraid, how seriously do we take them?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 30th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.