Tag Archives: humour

The Venus Flytrap: Paan Or Peen?

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Two old ladies were smoking outside their nursing home when it started to rain. One of them immediately pulled out a condom, snipped off the end, rolled it over her cigarette and continued to smoke. (Don’t ask me about the logistics: let’s just say it wasn’t really a cigarette but a cigar, or maybe a fat roll of medicinal herbs). “This way it doesn’t get wet,” she says coolly between puffs. Her friend, impressed by this jugaad, asks where she can get her own, and is informed that any drugstore will have it. So when the rain abates, the little old lady pops down to the nearest local one and asks for a box of condoms. The pharmacist is embarrassed (again, don’t ask me why – maybe this story is set in Chennai), but tries to be professional. He asks her which brand she prefers. “Anything will do,” she shrugs. “As long as it fits a Camel.”

I came across this joke on the same day that an Indian condom company announced its new pickle-flavoured launch, and so I laughed extra hard (that pun was so unintentional that I’m going to keep it). At first, I thought “For the Parantha and Achaar lovers!” was just too bad a tagline to be real, and refused to believe this product could exist. After all, a global competitor had punked us a year ago by announcing an eggplant-flavoured one, which turned out to be a publicity stunt to spark more discussions about safer sex. Then I remembered that the less easily impressed you are, the more difficult it is to get laid. Clearly, I wasn’t their target market.

In fact, a little research told me that betelnut-flavoured condoms were supposed to be made available to the Indian market ten years ago, developed specifically after taste tests with Mumbai sex workers, who preferred it to common ones like chocolate, banana and strawberry. I can imagine why – wouldn’t you rather have some paan in your mouth than some random man’s peen? I also learned that in addition to the usual ice cream flavours, bacon, durian, and even garlic condoms have been manufactured around the world. (Don’t worry, there are mint ones too). And sure, you could say they’re all more likely to be party favours or novelty items, but I guarantee you that in the heat of the moment, many people have been glad to have some latex lying around. (PSA: Flavoured condoms are meant only for oral sex, and may cause allergies if used otherwise).

Then there’s everything from cannabis flavours (not to be confused with cannabis lube, which can actually get you high), a limited edition caipirinha one that was sold at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and even vegan liquorice ones. Manforce, the company behind the achaar one, already has the synthetic tastes, or at least scents, of jasmine, butterscotch and banana (also known as the original eggplant emoji) in its range.

So is Manforce going to, erm, withdraw instead and claim the pickle condoms are just a conversation-starter campaign? Or are things going to get ooruga-smic (yes, I had to go there, and I’m not sorry!)?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 10th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: My Name Is Will by Jess Winfield

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One of the best things about Shakespeare is that he isn’t a sacred cow – rather, he is more like the last carcass in a shortage. Every bit of his body of work can be put to use in some way – his writing finds extended life in everything from parody to purist portrayal, allegory to animation. You must forgive this slaughterhouse imagery – in the brilliantly blasphemous My Name Is Will, we find the young Shakespeare in much similar circumstances: chasing daily after hens in his father’s butcher shop, which are promptly decapitated, divided, and dined upon by his family.

We also find him, invariably, disarming the tunics off medieval lasses, lost in the arms of a hallucinogenic trip or taking up arms against persecution. But the teenage William isn’t the only one whose misadventures with politics, women and drugs we encounter. Enter William Shakespeare Greenberg, aka Willie, American graduate student in 1986 California, who’s having trouble getting his thesis on his namesake finished. His distractions include his professor’s alluring assistant Dashka, an unfettered relationship with the activist Robin, Oedipal issues and making sure that he gets a giant psychedelic mushroom delivered and paid for without getting incarcerated.

Cleverly juggling the plot between William and Willie in alternating chapters, My Name Is Will finds the two young men at stages when they are about to come into their own. Both are at turning points with women – will duty or desire make the decision? Professionally too, both linger at the threshold of their destinies. And both are deeply engaged in the politics of their time. As with all eras in which those in power wield it without moderation, the counterculture thrives – and both Will and Willie are fortunate to be a part of these dissident environments, and indeed it shapes their fates.

And there is drama aplenty – serious cliffhanger-style drama at that. Winfield is astute in his construction of the novel, leaving protagonists dangling so precariously between chapters that the book is rendered utterly unputdownable. With its ingenious, engrossing narrative style and its generous servings of sex with a side of wit, the book strikes a winning note.

William finds himself in the possession of a sacred relic that leads him to uncover a clandestine network of Catholics in the authoritarian Protestant Elizabethan regime (centuries later, Willie’s thesis postulates that Shakespeare was secretly Catholic). Willie has his own sacred relic – the giant mushroom, which he too must ensure gets delivered into the right hands – at the risk of losing his own freedoms under President Reagan’s crackdown on illicit substances. Though running on different trajectories in space and time, at points, largely owing to the transcendental effect of the said illicit substances, the two lives entwine and intersect.

My Name Is Will is a delight from start to finish. Its puns are deliciously bawdy in true Shakespearean style – Winfield never overshoots the humour, and in fact the most audaciously wicked joke in the book is such a subtle one it might escape a less dirty-minded reader.

Also to the author’s credit, the impressive amount of research into the Bard’s works and milieu that clearly went into this novel, as well as his own extensive study of the texts, never overbears on its entertainment value. And rare is a funny book that raises legitimate questions about civil freedoms, free speech, moral policing and government (even twenty and four hundred and twenty years after its protagonists struggle with them), without losing its punchlines to polemics. My Name Is Will is a terrific novel – funny, incisive and original. Despite its irreverence, or perhaps because of it, it captures the spirit of Shakespeare’s enduring appeal and comes closer to greatness than many self-proclaimed tributes.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

The Venus Flytrap: In Defense of Developing World Diva Hair

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I have oppressed woman hair. No, not “oppressed hair”, as Alice Walker famously put it; the ceiling on my brain cannot be blamed on the chemicalisation or colonisation of my locks. I mean I have the hair of an oppressed woman, heavy duty developing world diva hair. Think Draupadi. Think Dravidian Rapunzel. I have hair that practically demands sitting on a swing and gazing wistfully at a world of dangerous things like riding side-saddle, or smiling beatifically in Amar Chitra Katha comics while undergoing trials by fire for the love of incredibly undeserving men. (Such activities are much better scapegoats for the ceiling on my brain).

But why should I apologise? Not everything needs to be forced through a feminist or subaltern perspective, you know. Remember that line, my similarly-styled sisters: it sounds a lot better as a defense than, “Don’t hate me ‘cuz I’m beautiful, hate me ‘cuz your boyfriend thinks so”. And if you must know, I have oppressed woman hair as reclamation, damnit! It’s subversive to be traditional in a world of peroxide and pageboys! These tresses are radical aesthetics, deliberate declarations! They are avant-garde, anarchist, insurrectional… and just incidentally, quite pretty.

I know hair is political. But I think above and beyond that it is deeply, deeply personal. I wear mine messy, letting it be as schizophrenically curly or straight as it pleases. When I am healthy it shines black. When I am not it dries brown. I used to trim it myself, until I stopped wanting to trim it at all. It’s a gorgeous disaster – which happens to be my favourite kind. But I promise you I comb it. Most days, anyway.

I discovered I had this ridiculous hair ten years ago, about the same time I started wearing a fake nose stud, before my parents – modern folks who continue to be deeply disappointed by the bindi-wearing, diamond-nostriled, handloom-sareed miscreant I turned out to be – let me pierce it for real. I’ll never forget that day. I loosened my hair to retie it in a classroom and someone said she wished she had my “beautiful long hair”. That’s when I noticed it myself. I was thirteen and nothing about me had ever been beautiful in my life.

So you see why I can’t let it go.

There are things which come with the acceptance that one is, herself, a complicated country, a feral thing. My developing world diva hair is one of those things, for me. I’ve seen how, subconsciously, it has been part of my semiology. I have tied it up to desex myself. I have worn twin braids to appear innocuous. I have worn it like a wild thing and been that wild thing. I am not the only kind of woman I know, mine is not the only femininity. But this is the only kind of woman I know how to be.

A woman friend of mine recently went bald, and a couple of days later, fell off the bed and injured her newly shiny cranium. On the upside, it was easier to check for bumps.

“You do realise,” I told my bed-bouncing friend, “That your autopsy report will have the words, ‘jungle sex'”?

“What a great way to go,” she grinned (emoticon-ally, that is. World Citizen is just a euphemism for people whose entire social lives are conducted via technology). I couldn’t disagree – that’s exactly what a badass bald babe wants on her Wikipedia memorial page, anyway. I guess a simpering traditionalist like me, in the event that all other attempts at infamy fail, could just hang myself by the hair.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Surviving Venus Retrograde For Dummies

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Venus, my beloved cosmologically-savvy friends tell me, is in retrograde. Which means that it looks like it’s moving backwards in the heavens (or in the regions beyond the gravitational influence of the earth, if you’re a soulless skeptic), but it isn’t. Kind of like when your columnist appears to be gossiping and procrastinating on Gtalk, but isn’t – I assure you she is having really incisive conversations plumbing the depths of the human psyche, letting her findings percolate, deciding on an appropriate sociocultural context, then spending several hours editing the resulting treatise apropos the word limit, all to entertain you for four minutes over Saturday morning hangover coffee.

So Venus is not moving but she looks like she is. This means your relationships, creative pursuits, travel plans, business investments and sartorial choices are all liable to be royally screwed for a six week period that occurs every year and a half. As I am a penniless celibate sociopathic manquée prone to hanging ostrich feathers from my septum piercing, I can’t really tell the difference. My royal screwage is probably congenital.

You, however, may see Venus backtrack blazingly through your life, but thanks to my vast expertise in astrological spam mail and related Facebook applications, I’d be delighted to guide your remaining two weeks of disasters in all spheres relating to love, lust and luxury. Yes, this retrograde cycle is almost over, and if you’re not also finished by then, cross my palm with silver. Except it loses colour in this abominable weather, so I’d prefer gold.

A strikingly obvious feature of Venusian retrograde is when former flames make an appearance into your thoughts, or your life itself. Take time then to reminisce about the instances they dressed better than you, beat you at Scrabble or set fire to your cat, because you may be currently extra liable to deluded nostalgia. Please note however that if your ex’s reappearance in your life happens while you have coincidentally set up shop in their neightbourhood, this is not a planetary effect. It merely means that you are a stalker with a business strategy. That’s not karmical, just comical.

Avoid beauty procedures. Plastic surgery, radical haircuts and the like are obvious taboos, but may I recommend adding showering to the list? It will avert suitors, and new alliances formed at this time tend to be star-crossed anyway. If you’re tempted to invest in the stock market, don’t. My reasons aren’t that romantic. It’s called an economic crisis. If you need an astrologer to tell you that, remember that I am worth every gold ingot (per minute, taxes extra). Don’t travel – you may cause envy in your astrologer. If you find yourself stagnating on your magnum opus, join the rest of us brilliant tortured types at the bar. You may meet someone suitably inspiring. Just don’t propose marriage. Venus is on rewind, and you’re probably just on rebound.

When Venus goes direct in the middle of April, trees should flower, birds should get operatic and damsels should have frequent wardrobe malfunctions near you. Provided you’ll have heeded my advice, very little should interrupt your bliss – except for Mercury going retrograde three weeks later. Then, however, I can’t help you. Merc rules communication, and you may find that your correspondences to me remain mysteriously unacknowledged – I mean, undelivered. I assure you that such silence is a purely cosmological phenomenon and has nothing to do with your hourly messages to me during Venus retrograde. Or the paanwalla pushcart parked near my house. In such cases, let me just say that all my Venus Flytraps stay firmly zipped.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Die Laughing

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The funniest story I have heard in weeks is a tragedy. It’s presented as a true story (but repeated so often and to such effect that it has surely taken on some less than fact-faithful colouring). The storyteller, a magical man named Rane who summons strange things out of drums, knew someone who had an infection on his leg, which somehow landed him in a coma. The leg turned gangrenous, and in his unconscious state the family was told that they could either amputate or wait for him to die. The festering limb was promptly chopped off. The amputee, out of that danger but still unconscious, spent a few more weeks languishing in his scary siesta. And one day, he woke up, all damn cool, cool as the cucumber he had lain like for those weeks, threw his bedsheets off, looked down at his missing leg, and died of shock.

I wish I could tell you this story as deliciously as it was told to me. Suffice to say that of the many, many funny stories the magical drummer shares, this one was by far the most uproarious. It’s not surprising – macabre humour might quite possibly be the best kind. Deep down, we love laughing at our own wretchedness and mortality. And we love pretending to be shocked by our capacity to.

Nothing illustrates this better than the dead baby joke. When I first discovered them on the net, I was horrified. What kind of gruesome mind could make light of such calamity? The images were repugnant – “How do you make a dead baby float? Take your foot off of its head”; “Why is there always hot water at childbirth? In case of a stillbirth, soup.”; “What’s the difference between a baby and a dart-board?
Dart-boards don’t bleed”.

I didn’t realise until I’d read a long list of them that I had kind of been chuckling away, transfixed by the sheer horror of it all and unable to stop reading.

Schadenfreude may be one reason why we’re able to delight in off-colour jokes. Just as watching a violent movie can be a cathartic release, we’re able to explore the sinister aspects of our psyches through macabre humour. That part of us that is capable of evil – and we are all capable of evil – gets a vicarious spin. Once the initial shock wears off, a certain sordid pleasure sets in. It’s the same one you get upon finding that everyone at the table is bitching about the same person you’ve been silently seething about, and you can just stay coy, no longer having to play the gossipmonger. I would never squeeze babies into a bottle just to see how many it would take to make “baby oil”, but in reading the joke, my mind saw it, felt it, and released the need to ever consider the question out of its own volition.

There’s a bit more gallows humour to the story of the man who rose from a coma and died of a heart attack, because of who the story came from. Rane himself had once sustained a head injury, gotten arrested, and was sent for a medical check-up upon his release. Grave results were expected, and his father spent the whole week fearing the very worst. They were, as it happened, truly shocking – Rane was given the all-clear, and his father was so relieved that he died of a heart attack.

We looked around the table at that point and tried to show some sympathy.

The truth is, we all nearly died laughing.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Putting The “Bra” In Bravado

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The boss of a friend of mine had a business associate visit their office recently. Partway through their meeting, the boss abruptly went over to where his employees were seated, took off his shirt, turned it inside out, and put it back on again. “It was the wrong way round,” he told his gawking workforce. “And we have a guest.”

“I see,” said my friend. “And here I thought you were just happy to see me.”

If you can ignore the developing subplot between my friend and his boss, what’s really interesting about this incident is the casualness of male toplessness, and its machismo overtones. Hindu priests show off much more than their sacred threads while upholding their patriarchal paradigms, boxers parade their pectorals even as they pound each other senseless in a flood of testosterone and aggression, and football players – they of that hypermasculine pastime – streak across fields with their shirts off upon scoring a goal. There is bravado in barechestedness: nothing says Alpha Male like a flash of man-mammaries, nipples loud as neon signboards.

And putting the “bra” in that bravado is a Japanese e-boutique, Wishroom, which has sold hundreds of pink, black and white brassieres for men. Your menstrual envy (you know, the one that compensates with war and violent video games) got you down? You can now actually pull yourself up the bra straps and be a man.

These aren’t foam-filled cups meant for dressing in drag, and neither are they built for men with bountiful breast tissue (for that, the Australian “Male Support Vest”, which minimizes and de-feminizes, might be more your thing). There is no real aesthetic or functional purpose: no frills, no sequins, and no fancy cleavage-cushioning technology. They are meant, it seems, to be primarily a sensual secret – “I like this tight feeling,” says the boutique’s flat-chested representative as he unbuttons his shirt to reveal a black, leather-finish piece, in an online video. “It feels good.”

There’s a saying in Bombay that on a quiet day on Marine Drive, you can hear a thousand bras snap. The man bra (or the much catchier “Bro”, as they called it on Seinfeld nearly a decade and a half ago) might make it two thousand. Rest assured, though, that there is at least one bra (and its wearer) that won’t succumb. As a longtime admirer of blokes of the bellied and B-cupped variety, I don’t find the male bra a very uplifting idea. If anything, the thought of all that silly coverage plunges me into annoyance. It separates me from getting my cheap thrills and pushes up various types of resentment. It also supports ridiculousness and badly fleshed out metaphors.

Still, like any reasonable person, I think that people should wear whatever they damn well please, so I won’t get fashion fascist on you curious gentlemen. I can only subtly discourage you. As someone who once went bra-shopping without wearing a bra (a story for another time), I guarantee that less lingerie equals many more lingering glances. You may not have the necessary equipment, but if it’s good enough for Jacqueline Bisset swimming in that white tee and nothing else in The Deep as she – oh, um, sorry, got distracted – it’s good enough for you.

The curve may be mightier than the sword, as the marvellous Mae West said. She may have been right in more ways than one – just imagine a sumo wrestler or Turkish oil wrestler in a sports bra, or Michael Phelps in a bikini, and tell me you aren’t feeling slightly… unhooked.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: A Toast To Sobriety

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This is how we know that the financial crisis has finally hit home: pretty soon, there are going to be multitudes more homeless on the streets of Tamil Nadu. As tends to happen in times of crisis, they will come almost exclusively from one minority: in this unfortunate case, bootleggers. Whereas the impoverished masses generally seek solace in drink, these former Sultans of Smirnoff, these de-crowned Jesuses of Jose Cuervo, traditionally find salvation in dryness. The state’s, that is. But those days are over. Tamil Nadu is letting liquor loose.

As per honoured cultural customs, alcohol can only be procured via four avenues: from the government-run TASMACs, duty-free at the airport for those lucky jetsetters, overpriced in bars (that must by law be attached to twenty rooms – independence is always evil), or from our buddies the bootleggers. But now that imported liquor will become available in the TASMACs and rumours of even more relaxed laws swirl around town like the olive in a martini, those customs are soon to be a thing of the past. Goodbye innocence, hello mass inebriation.

Since all social problems are inconceivable without the presence of an intoxicating substance (such as gulab jamun, frequently found at traumatic events like weddings), we can expect a huge surge in crime and moral decline. It is well-documented that elephants never rampage, students never fail exams, trains never get derailed and women are never abandoned without alcohol being involved somehow.

The fact that one of history’s most famous teetotalers was Adolf Hitler, and some of history’s most famous leading lushes included Winston Churchill, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (the latter two were also a whiskey distiller and a wine-grower, respectively), should be regarded only as mere coincidence and a purposeful distortion of data.

Let’s not forget that extremely dangerous side effect of liquor consumption: honesty. Can you imagine how bleak a future without hypocrisy, self-censorship, underhanded insults and duplicity will be? It may lead to a breakdown of all communication. We’ll all have to hike out somewhere far from civilization, grow out dreadlocks, get high and ponder our navels and the origin of the universe. Unlike anything ascribed in our holy and historical traditions, of course. If things get really apocalyptic, we may even begin to take up that celebrity-endorsed foreign import, yoga.

And a word on the health consequences. Alcohol may have been proven to protect against cardiovascular disease and extend the lives of moderate drinkers, but more importantly by far, it is also known to cause sterility, impotence and lack of libido. We are definitely better off without any impediments to our ongoing social experiments, such as trouncing China in the quest to fit the most number of malnourished babies into a single square kilometre as possible, and getting our most unpleasant relatives married off and out of the range of our rifle scopes.

Finally, on a most sobering note, we can only imagine what will happen to the house rules that prevent men from entering dens of sin in slippers. As everybody knows, there is nothing more uncontrollably titillating, or more of an invitation to collapse into anarchy, than the sight of the male toes. Today it’s tequila instead of homegrown toddy. Tomorrow, it will be a pageant of protruding pinkies and podiatric cleavage. Oh impressionable, corruptible, guilelessly gullible people of the post-prohibition era – how will we ever survive such an onslaught?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.