Tag Archives: identity

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: The Pottu In The Time Of The Tilak

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She was from Hatton, in the hill country. Like all small facts that paint big pictures, it immediately told us her history – or at least as much of the history of another that can be gauged, sometimes unfairly, by data. She was a nurse, and we were next of kin, waiting in a hospital corridor. After a few minutes she asked us, “Where are you from?”

“Here,” we replied, because it was simpler. Her expression showed she was not convinced. “You sound Sri Lankan,” said the nurse. “But you look Indian.”

We asked her what she meant. “Your pottus,” was all she said – and instantly another picture flooded back, of grand-aunts wiping their foreheads clean of kungumam as they fled the Tamil neighbourhood of Wellawatte in the riots of 1983, of 30 years of war. The realisation was chilling. If I had always lived in Sri Lanka, I would probably think of the huge pottus I love the way I think of certain dresses I also love, living in India. Semiotically charged, to be worn at one’s own risk.

I didn’t always love wearing pottus. As a child, made to by parents, I was sometimes bullied for it (I won’t forget the boy who called me “Headgear”). I wondered why my international school classmates couldn’t make the connection between Gwen Stefani’s glittering bindi in the “Don’t Speak” video we watched hundreds of times in 1998 and the small black sticker on my face. Sometimes the sticker was red; other kids asked if I was married because that’s what they’d heard. Black for the non-married, red for the married. A teacher gently said it represented the third eye then looked at me for validation – but honestly, I had no idea.

I cannot remember whether I grasped the pottu’s political power or its beauty first. Its spiritual import only came to me much later. When I, proudly never-married, sometimes streak excess vermilion into the parting of my hair it’s in praise of all three possibilities. Prudes respond as they did to the metti I bought myself and wore for some years. I’m hardly the first, though. The actor Rekha caused a sensation in 1980 when she attended a wedding wearing the marital sindoor, a statement she then repeated many times.

There are many original ways to utilise the pottu. During the last couple of years, the Iodine Bindi has been distributed for free by NGOs in areas where women suffer from a deficiency of the mineral. The artist Bharti Kher’s work features the accessory as a central motif. Stickers of various shapes and sizes are meticulously layered over objects, creating the visual effect of texture. Sperm-shaped sticker pottus cover a fibreglass elephant sculpture in a painful slump on the floor. This famous installation is called “The Skin Speaks A Language Of Its Own”.

What does my big pottu (sindoor or sticker, it doesn’t matter) convey to dangerous men wearing tilaks? How long before the reverse of that conversation in Sri Lanka happens – when people will be forced to wear them rather than forced to not, concealing themselves, hoping for safety on buses arbitrarily stopped, trains suddenly invaded?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 30th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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.

“Dark Is Beautiful” Poetry Contest

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Vasantha Surya and I are co-judging a poetry contest for the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign, jointly helmed by Women of Worth and the British Council, Chennai.

The competition is open to anyone living in India (of any nationality), regardless of gender, aged 18 and above.

Deadline for submissions is February 28 2009.

Detailed instructions for submissions can be found on the web site, www.darkisbeautiful.in, and may also be picked up at the British Council, Chennai. Select entries will be displayed at the British Council library and prizes awarded there on March 7.

The Venus Flytrap: Piracy, Privacy, Popularity and Poetry

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It’s not every day that one finds oneself as a subject of a social experiment. At the risk of being frozen out of polite poetic society, I have to admit: I felt just a mite gleeful at having my identity misappropriated for inclusion in a 4000-page pdf anthology of pirated poetry.

The idea was simple: collect together some 3000-odd names of poets, randomly generate cryptic and rather dreadful wordlists assembled into poetic syntax and misattribute one to each, publish the whole thing as a pdf without the authorization of those whose names are used, and watch a congregation of middle fingers go up in the blogosphere.

Now, most people don’t take poets very seriously. The word alone conjures up an image of a limpid-eyed, lily-livered, lovelorn loon. This may be why 20% of us die of suicide, overcompensating as usual for all that lack of attention. You see, poets take themselves very, very seriously. Nowhere better can this be seen than in the reaction to the For Godot anthology, put together by three self-described “poetry researchers”.

The personal contact details of one of the editors were distributed by a poetry community organizer. Comments flooded in demanding deletions (and yes, apparently lots of poets have Google Alerts for themselves). The word “anarcho-flarf” was invented for the new genre. Anarcho obviously referring to anarchy, and flarf meaning “avant garde poetry that mines the Internet with odd search terms, then distills the findings into verse”. The less offensively intelligent among us stuck to “pirated poetry”.

But with all due embarrassed blushes for some of my fellow poets, the fake anthology does raise some interesting questions. To what extent can one really control one’s public identity, and at what point does one’s name become public property? If one’s name is public property, does this by extension mean that the person is also fair game?

I’ve had a lot of secondhand rumours come back to me. Some have a vague basis in truth that has been distorted, while others are so far-fetched that they’re clearly the work of vicious minds. For instance, I am supposed to have posted pictures of myself in a bikini online, thereby blemishing my fitness as an appropriate role model for impressionable Indian girls. Trouble is, I have never owned a bikini. I am also supposed to have tried to murder my mother-in-law. Trouble is, I have also never owned a husband (and not because he was suitably disposed of too, either).

So I do see the point of some of the anger over this anthology. It is annoying, at the very least, to have one’s name misappropriated. Also, if the world is destroyed and all that remains is the Internet, those awful generated poems are going to be credited to us. We’ll be to aliens what Sarah Palin is to SNL.

But truth is, as far as the anthology is concerned, I don’t mind so much. I have a soft spot for guerrilla art, and it’s a backhanded honour in its own way, since piracy always means popularity. It’s also pretty unlikely that my name will be noticed amidst the 3,163 others, and I wouldn’t care about the hardcore stalkers who might find it anyway. It’s equally unlikely that I will ever again share space all at once with Dorianne Laux, Anna Akhmatova, Adrienne Rich, Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes. For the non-reader, suffice to say that they are also known as some of the frequent cameo roles in the modern poet’s wet dreams (and isn’t that too identity misappropriation?). And that little giggle is surely worth a terrible poem I didn’t write.

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.