Tag Archives: hypocrisy

Guest Column: IDiva’s “Break Free” issue

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I had a guest column appear in Times of India’s IDiva supplement today. The brief I was given was “life as a PYT (pretty young thing) in Chennai”. What fun!

Whatever anyone might say about me and my having grown up abroad, take this: I lived in Sowcarpet for eight months in my late teens. How’s that for street cred? And when I say lived, I mean it – glam, bling, potty mouth and all. So whenever I think that even Nungambakkam can’t take my sass, I remind myself: if I was rocking my divahood in a North Madras labyrinth five years ago, this city better learn to keep up with me!

But it’s true: life as a PYT in a decidedly unsexy city like Chennai is a challenge, and the secret to it is to never forget it. Never take it for granted. So every time a girlfriend and I have a Zara’s or 10D lunch and order a pitcher for just the both of us, every time I take the 29C in a sleeveless blouse and don’t get hassled, every time I stare down that horrible policeman who patrols my road on evenings, harassing single women, until he revs up his bike and retreats – I celebrate it!

The way I see it, it’s a choice. You can let the parochial mentalities and hypocrisies depress you, or you can engage with the city as it is. Like all sexually repressed societies, Chennai is obsessed. Which means that as women, we are actually far more objectified than we would be in freer societies. I say, embrace it. If every Raman, Soman and Quick Gun Murugan on the street can admire your goods, why can’t you? We live in one of the few places on earth where it’s perfectly acceptable to wear flowers in your hair, for any occasion and for none at all. Sarees, salangai, all of Pondy Bazaar rolled out for your choosing. A great town to look like a woman, as my transgender friends will attest. Reclaim the kitsch. And the chic.

The truth was, for me, there was a defining moment – what I call my “When I Learnt To Stop Worrying And Embrace My Expat Status” moment. It took months of Fab India kurtas, polite smiling, neutralizing my Ceylon Tamil accent and general diffidence before it happened. But once I realised that nothing was worth losing my spark for, I stopped compromising.

Finally, it helps to keep a sense of perspective. One of my favourite Chennai anecdotes is of when my older friend (who was as much a badass in her time as I am today, and even more so now) suddenly put out her cigarette with a mumbled expletive, then went up to an old woman and her grandchild and made small talk.

When she came back to see me laughing at this show of conformity, she said, “You know that old woman? She has issues with my smoking – but she once sent a nude photo of herself to a friend of my dad’s”. My laughter turned to shock. My friend winked. “Bet you wish I’d told you that before you saw her, eh?”

Oh yes, my fellow PYTs (and our wannabes) – this town has seen a lot before us, and will see a lot after us too. I just plan to leave stiletto tracks visible enough for the next generation. No hypocrisy here.

The Venus Flytrap: My Weekly Column, Out Now!

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So I woke up nearly two hours early today because I had to see the paper.  After six years in journalism, my byline by itself is no longer a source of hysterical excitement. But (deep breath) I have a column!

That column is The Venus Flytrap (special thanks to Chat for suggesting the name), in the Zeitgeist section of The New Indian Express. Zeitgeist is the Saturday paper, full of “alternative-style” columns. What can you expect from me? My dirty yet political mind, of course. :) Editor wanted “Early Salon.com meets better Sex and the City meets traditional op-ed”. I thought, “I’m game! Just don’t call me Carrie.”

I’ll be posting up my unedited columns here for archiving and sharing. Here’s installment one.

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THE VENUS FLYTRAP

The City of Secret Sin

On New Year’s Day, my sisters and I were at a Barista on Chennai’s trendy Khader Nawaz Khan Road, where we were treated to something of a spectacle in this city: PDA.

Now if there’s any three-letter acronym that raises the hackles of the self-appointed moral guardians of the nation, the Tamil nation, and their general indignation – it’s this one. More specifically, if the parties in question are of opposite genders (men entangled in one another’s arms as they swagger, octopussily, down the street are as common as the cow).

So there’s all the accounting you need for where my manners went when I spotted the hetero couple on the couch, spooning, he nuzzling and kissing her neck while she affected rapturous expressions for a solid fifteen minutes. I stared like my eyelids had vanished. Curiously, the other patrons and the staff were completely blasé.

Was I offended, I asked myself? I, who pride myself on standing for liberated mores, who believes in the legalization of marijuana, the decriminalization of prostitution, the repealing of Penal Code 377? I had a problem with some mild making out within my sight?

No, I consoled myself. You haven’t gone that native yet (I’d been back in the city just a sullen three months at this point). What shocked me, I realized, was that somewhere between my last long spell in India and my present one, it looked like the social order had hiked its skirt above its head and started sprinting into the 21st century. And I had some catching up to do.

One thing I’ve learned about Chennai is that just when you’ve reconciled yourself to her conservatism, her stick-in-the-mud, tattle-to-Appa (or, more appropriately in times past, Amma) sense of staying firmly entrenched in an archaic world – just when you think you know her, she sticks a foot out to trip you up. And then you turn around and see she’s in leopard print thigh-highs.

Still, something about this particular incident uncharacteristically unnerved me. It went further than superficiality: it was actual risk-taking. And that’s when I realized that I was shocked, but not scandalized – actually, I was kind of thrilled. And not just because our voyeur-baiting couple was, well, pretty hot.

It’s been said that identity is a constant process of exchanging masks: and it may hold truer in no other place on earth. This is where women routinely carry around three different outfits to fit into various contexts, relationships are conducted exclusively via SMS, and every straight man wants Mallika Sherawat (but not as his wife). All said and done, under our hypocrisies and – most tellingly – our extraordinary abilities of subterfuge and personality adaptation, we’re as sordid as they come. We populate like we’re competing with rabbits, our HIV rate is among the world’s most rapidly increasing, yet we live in denial of these serious facts, and settle instead for pretensions of progress.

I’ve noticed that these days, everybody’s buying into the myth of New Chennai, and I would imagine, New India. Mid-length skirts and malls make us ‘modern’. As the blogger Krish Ashok put it, the city has gone from being married to tradition to being in a live-in relationship with it. Or so it seems. Because when push comes to shove, we haven’t changed. Misogyny, casteism, religious and communal prejudice – all the old brigades still rule the roost. Our taboos haven’t dissolved; we’ve just found ways to negotiate with them in temporary, individual ways that work in tandem with the system and have no bearing on society at large.

But ultimately – and this is no reflection on the exhibitionists who led to this cud-chewing – these ways are like somebody’s Mami doing the Macarena – mildly amusing, briefly scandalous, but mostly just sad both in a lack of originality and in a reaction so delayed it’s turned cliché. And that’s the thing – when you throw your skirt over your head and run, you have no idea where you’re going. Call me prudish if you will, but I’ll take a full-skirted revolutionary over a panty-flashing bimbo any day.

So as wicked as I found it, I’m not about to equate a little PDA to the dawn of a liberated age. It’s probably more like 3.30am, but considering the 9pm curfews we came from, it’s still pretty cool. Kudos to the cozy duo for taking the time-honoured traditions of Marina Beach to a couch in a coffee joint. I’d gladly waive my right to enjoy my latte in peace for the sake of a little more honesty in this city of secret sin.

Sharanya Manivannan’s first book of poems, Witchcraft, will be launched in June. She blogs at https://sharanyamanivannan.wordpress.com