Tag Archives: history

The Venus Flytrap: Losing A Museum

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Brazil’s national museum was only 200 years old, but contained within it were artifacts aged millennia, like the 11,500 year old female skull nicknamed Luzia. Or even millions of years: like the fossils of a maxakalisaurus, a vegetarian dinosaur. The base on which its reconstructed skeleton stood had been termite-ridden. The under-resourced museum had been forced to crowdfund the repair, reopening the exhibit only in July. But now the entire museum has gone up in flames, along with most of its 20 million artifacts. Some mollusk specimens were saved; the fireproof Bendegó meteorite is intact (perhaps other salvages will be revealed in the coming days) – but what of the frescoes from Pompeii (which survived that inferno, 20 centuries ago)? In the aftermath of the fire, the blame is squarely being pointed on the lack of governmental funding.

Neglect is one way to erase, equally tragic as when the erasure is intentional. The destroying of heritage objects and institutions is a tactic of both power and terror. History is a long list of such acts of cultural genocide, through the annihilation of libraries, museums and monuments. To erase record is to first muddy then suppress memory.

And then there is pillage, which is unquestionably wrong, but sometimes reveals itself retrospectively as fortunate. The entirety of the British Museum, for instance. The first time I went, I fell in love. The last time, I made it minutes before closing time, wanting only to see again the Mesopotamian terracotta relief called The Queen of the Night.

Panting, rushing through those majestic halls, refusing all other possibilities of beauty that might distract, I arrived before that taloned one, who may be Inanna or her shadow, Erishkigal, or the Semitic Lilitu. I briefly touched my palms to the glass. Menstruating, heart pounding, desperately grateful, what came to me in that intense moment was a Durga mantra. A Tamil woman intoning Sanskrit syllables inside her heart, gazing at an Iraqi goddess, in a monument that is at once a paean to human experience and itself a dark remnant of human cruelty. I was there because I had the paperwork that allowed the visit. I was also there because, remarkably, I existed still.

No, it is incomplete to say that it was only paperwork that had given me passage. I had come at the invitation of a body connected to the same monarchy that enacted on the world a colonisation it cannot recover from, can only incorporate into its being. I stood there in England and said grace, this is true, but it’s also true that arriving and departing contained more complicated thoughts. The great Gloria Anzaldúa describes a similar moment in one of her essays: “What does it mean to me esta jotita, this queer Chicana, this mexicatejana to enter a museum and look at indigenous objects that were once used by my ancestors? Will I find my historical Indian identity here, along with its mestisaje lineage?”

To lose is a tragedy, to steal is a travesty, to survive is bittersweet. A museum can contain the world. And each visitor carries her own: ashes, remnants, inheritances, loans, and certain indestructible materials.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 6th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Poison In The Pages

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Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark have found three books in its library, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, painted in poison. Bookbinders of that time often reinforced books by using manuscript fragments, and archivists over the years have discovered precious texts among the same. Unable to read the words therein due to a layer of green pigment, the researchers sent the books for micro-XRF analysis. The pigment contained arsenic.

But this will come as no surprise to history and trivia buffs. It was fashionable in Europe then to wear poison, use it in interior décor, and make art with it. The pigment Scheele’s Green, also known as Paris Green, contained arsenic. Its beautiful colour was found in the fabric of ball gowns and cravats, and the works of Cezanne and Monet, among other painters. It was commonly used in wallpaper, and not just in affluent homes; whole families often died mysteriously after a décor makeover, and one suspected reason for Napoleon’s demise was that the walls of his exile home contained it. And arsenic-laced pigment was used both for aestheticizing books, as well as an insecticide in the binding. This toxic substance was widely appreciated just because it could make things pretty.

Strangely enough, at around the same time, a concealed poison caused much alarm and was linked to hundreds of murders in Italy. Known as Acqua Tofana, it was believed to be composed principally of arsenic, although post-mortems didn’t always reveal this substance. It took its name from the apothecary believed to be its manufacturer, Giulia Tofana. With a few trusted women, including Hyeronyma Spara who either was or pretended to be a sorceress, she created a poison that was also sold exclusively to women. It would either be packaged as a compact, and could be openly kept on a dresser alongside other cosmetics, or in a vial with the brand Manna di San Nicola, under guise of being a holy oil from the tomb of St. Nicholas of Bari (also known as Santa Claus).

Mozart claimed Acqua Tofana caused his death, and the stories around it are so fascinating that I hope a brilliant novelist pursues them. Among the rumours half-sceptically accepted as history is that there was a high demographic of young Italian widows for decades. That their deceased spouses were often much older was seen as a less likely possibility than that they’d introduced a tasteless, colourless, mysterious blend into their food.

How much of the legend around Acqua Tofana and its sisterhood of makers and clientele is based on the distrust of women? What it brings to mind is the ancient Indian legend of the vishkanya, women whose bodies had been trained from birth, through the gradual imbibing of poisons in small doses, to themselves become lethal. Physical contact with them could kill, and vishkanyas were raised for this purpose alone. Of course, they served whoever raised them. But imagine they indeed existed, and broke away, and formed a feminist legion. I don’t want to touch a book with arsenic in its binding. But I’d love to read one with such poisons and intrigues in its pages.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 12th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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 Venus Flytrap: Diving Into The Distance

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I went in search of secrets, and stories only spoken but never committed to script. There in a fan-less portico in the far eastern coast of Sri Lanka, in the unforgiving Chithirai month, the elderly gentleman I had gone to see told me candidly: “I have amnesia”. And then: “I also lost all my documents in the flood.”

But the flood he spoke of seemed suspiciously far away; he told me of writing to his grandmother with an exaggeration about kitchen appliances made of stone floating in the calamity. But no one at 90 years old has a grandmother who writes back and exposes the lie. “Was this the flood of 1956?” I asked. He shushed me. In the labyrinth of his memory, the true distances of decades had long ceased to exist.

Distances. My ancestors were mostly fisherpeople who migrated from present-day Kerala, and when I look at Batticaloa on maps I wonder what it was that drew them further and further. I have drawn that map by hand myself, and wondered: which route did they take to the island’s central east: upon sighting shore, did they voyage southwards, where the gorgeous beaches of Mirissa and Galle didn’t seduce them, or north-bound, where the palms of the Jaffna peninsula too failed to beckon? It’s inconceivable that they followed the path that I did, cutting clear across the country on ground, for they navigated by water. Unless they started elsewhere and moved deeper and deeper east to where lagoon-and-field and field-and-lagoon alternate in a geography of perfect balance.

More than a thousand years later, I take a short flight and a long drive: into the country via the capital city on the west coast, followed by nine hours of highways until I arrive on the farther shore. For the longest time, under alibi of war, it was an emotional distance – an expanse, not a detachment – that was hardest of all for me to cross. One’s roots can only be watered by tears.

I discover that the distance between a matrilineal, matrilocal culture and its swallowing into the patriarchal world order is sometimes a mere generation, or one stroke of a clerk’s pen that accidentally transfers the land to the holder of the masculine name because of an ordinance that never considered how it was possible for a society like this to exist at all.

I try to bridge the distance between that pen and mine when I talk to a group of teenagers from surrounding villages and ask them to name ten writers, anticipating correctly that not one would be a woman. “Complicate the narrative,” was what the outreach worker had told me beforehand, and later over dinner with her I felt saddened that the most I could do was to offer my presence as a kind of shock value. Dialogue cannot happen at a distance.

Always, two literal bridges: the old one and the new one over the Kallady part of the Batticaloa lagoon. I crossed it several times each day, carrying more each time by way of knowledge. I never felt the distance. Even now, days later, I still don’t feel the distance.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 27th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Women’s Language

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The philosopher Hélène Cixous, who wrote extensively about the need for a embodied, feminine authorship, penned in one essay: “I said, ‘write French’. One writes in. Penetration. Door. Knock before entering. Strictly forbidden.”

To write in: in secret, in solitude, in defiance, in allegiance, in spite of. This can happen in any language.

In China’s Jiangyong County, for an uncertain number of centuries, existed a dialect called Nüshu. It was created for, and used exclusively by, women when they were not otherwise permitted literacy.

Nüshu created the custom of “third day missives”, which would arrive in a woman’s marital home on the third day following her wedding. These were booklets of joyful blessings and sad songs, sent to her from her mother and her closest female friends. In literature I have read about this literature, the words “sworn sisters” come up repeatedly, at the centre of the nexus of intimacy.

Among all partings I think of this – a queer woman writing to her lover or desired one, separated from her by marriage. Her secrets travelling to another village, almost safely. Her lover or her desired one receiving these cries of the heart, etched in ink. The lines of the Nüshu script are so delicate, leaflike as compared to standard hanzi logograms, that they were known as “mosquito writing”. I want to imagine those lines being saved, but I also want to think that every woman in her new household would have known how to read too. Would they have kept her secret, or turned against her?

Nüshu was also often written on handheld fans, objects held close – folded or open.

Unlike the Japanese Hiragana or Korean hangul scripts, which were primarily used by women before being absorbed into general use, authentic Nüshu died with its last proficient speaker in 2004. Only scholars know it now, and perhaps deciphering rather than communicating is their primary mode. Because it was written down in personal documents, it could not possibly have been secret, as many claim. So its use was either accepted, or tolerated as a form of lesser communication.

I looked at lines of characters: the same word in different Chinese scripts. There is said to be a link between Nüshu and the most ancient of them all: the writing carved on bones and tortoise shells that would crack upon heating, and be used in divination. How many times did the words for “rain” or “king” appear on those shells and bones? And the ones for “love” or “child”? In the 19th century, these fragments were ground up in traditional medicine, their secrets swallowed.

The lettering for “woman” in the ancient oracle script is serpentine, an almond shape cut through by a flowing incurvation. I meditate in other languages about the scripted, the secret, the silent, the said.

This is how we know that Nüshu was an embodied language: it could be spoken, and sung. The written documents that remain are only vestiges of a certain world. Words build worlds; this language too sustained one. And like those swallowed divinations, I know there are some who carry its spirit, scriptless and soundless, into many vastly different ones.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 23rd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: What’s Gratitude Got To Do With Genocide?

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So America has copied India, and if that makes you happy, feel free to use my sour grapes to make faux champagne. The imitation remains mutual, though. India – or more precisely, cashless, digital, desensitised India – now celebrates Thanksgiving, a North American festival with a history its name completely belies. I noticed it last year, in personal status messages and corporate sales promotions, and the trend continues.  It falls today.

For some reason, many people seem to think that Thanksgiving is a day when you express gratitude. For, I don’t know, having PayTM, credit cards and god-bless-Amazon-India? For being the first to get exclusive UNESCO-certified Whatsapp forwards? Alright, maybe I’m being uncharitable (see sour grapes from earlier). Some sincere, well-intentioned, but sadly ill-informed people seem to think Thanksgiving is a day to be appreciative of one’s good luck and myriad blessings.

But its North American observance, memorializing an autumn harvest feast shared by Puritan colonisers and Native Americans, is also a fictitious lustre on facts. To be exact, it’s nationalist propaganda. The first Thanksgiving of 1637 celebrated a massacre of 700 Pequot people. Native Americans were probably not seated at that table. Among what followed and preceded were: the Trail of Tears, smallpox as warfare, stolen lands, systematic slaughter and too much more.

Reading beyond skewed history textbooks, we know that Columbus sought a direct sea route to Asia. His poor navigation skills opened the Americas up for exploitation over the coming centuries. So when you observe the festival in India, what are you saying thanks for: that it wasn’t your ancestors, just someone else’s?

The Native Americans who survive to this day – whose voices I seek to neither represent nor appropriate – as well as all who were wiped out, with or without descendants, deserve more respect than that.

Distantly, we hear of the resistance against a pipeline that violates sacred Sioux grounds at Standing Rock, where water cannons and mace are blasted at unarmed protestors, who were even locked into cages and attacked by dogs. Distantly, we read of how even as these events unfolded, Obama was posthumously awarding a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Elouise Cobell, who successfully litigated against the United States government in the largest class action lawsuit in its history, for mismanagement of funds and lands leased from Native American nations. Such dissonance, between the things we are told and the things we know to be true. And still, so very distantly, we type out “Happy Thanksgiving! So grateful for all the good things in life yo!” as though nothing is connected, as though the history of human survival is not twinned by the history of human carnage.

Don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. Your “good intentions” don’t bring back the cultures that are lost forever, or revive the ones that are under threat. Your “good intentions” don’t keep human rights violations from happening to this very day. Hell, your “good intentions” haven’t even solved the riddle of how India sends missions to Mars but hasn’t invented tools that replace manual scavenging with bare hands, right here in our own backyards.

And as for gratitude? What’s genocide got to do with it?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 24th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Kabali As Political Text, In The Right Context

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Growing up – as a Sri Lankan Tamil with an Indian passport who lived in Malaysia for 17 years – there was only one representation of that last country in Tamil cinema. Kollywood’s stars would shoot song numbers there, dancing in front of arbitrary things – pink buses, for instance – and architectural landmarks. It would infuriate me to watch, back then. How could filmmakers promote, touristically and aspirationally, a nation that held people of Indian descent under institutional subordination and cultural indenture?  When the Kabali poster appeared, I thought it would be one more such glorification.

By the time I learned what it was really about, most tickets were sold out. By some movieland miracle, I found myself seated at a theatre with two friends, one of whom had ecstatically called after his first viewing the previous day to say, “You have to watch it. I never told you or asked you about this, but when we first met I heard from my contacts in Malaysia how you had narrowly escaped detention under the Internal Security Act for fighting for Indian rights there.”

In 2007, after two years of tracking illegal temple demolitions and personal struggle to remain in Malaysia, I wrote that any nation that operates on a system of racial superiority and inferiority, as Malaysia does through its Constitution, is under apartheid. The term has now come into parlance, but at that time no one had ever publicly declared it. This attracted the ire of the said government. I was 22, briefly (I thought) in India; I could not go back.

What came first: ethical compass or compassion? I remember exactly when my politicisation deepened. June 2006: a photograph of an Indian gardener whose daughter had died of meningitis at a National Service camp. There was no clear-cut systemic element, no reason for activism. But I looked at that forlorn image and saw in his futility the burden and spiritual fracture of generations of disenfranchisement. It changed me, and my life, forever. Kabali reminded me of the pathos of that photo.

Kabali makes no sense to an Indian audience unaware of diasporic challenges. Around me, the theatre clapped raucously at random bits, but not for the political touchpoints. Me? I wept copiously. Because to those who know, the code is obvious. We know why the antagonist is played by a non-Malaysian actor with an accent so wrong he doesn’t even pronounce the slur “keling” correctly. We know why Kabali agitates against British and Chinese men, but not the Malay-run government. We know why the temple demolitions are in flashback and not in true chronological context. We know the name “Tiger” is an unflattering (thus accurate) allusion to Eelam.

The Malaysian release has a different ending, with Kabali submitting to authoritarian pressure. Like every compromise (and there are many) made in this film, it was worth it. Because if Pa. Ranjith hadn’t made them, it simply couldn’t have been released there.

And there is where it is most needed, among people who deserve to see themselves in truthful, powerful pop cultural lights. The political coding may be deep, but so is the healing that art makes possible.

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