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The Venus Flytrap: Healthcare Workers In A Time Of Health Crisis

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As a neurosurgeon and the managing doctor of a hospital, Dr. Simon Hercules would have directly or indirectly served thousands of patients. It was probably while in the line of work, treating COVID-19 positive people, that the doctor may have contracted the infection himself. He passed away over the weekend, and was prevented from having a dignified burial by two mobs of residents from the very neighbourhoods that his hospital serves.

On Sunday night, his family and a few colleagues received his body and travelled in an ambulance to a cemetery in Kilpauk. Here, the first mob refused to allow them to proceed. They then went to a cemetery in Anna Nagar, where a second mob unleashed violence on them, pelting stones and logs at the ambulance. A harrowing night ensued for the mourners and the ambulance staff, including sustaining severe injuries. It culminated in a colleague of the late doctor having to dig the ground with his bare hands in order to complete the burial, under police protection.

This was not the first such Indian instance, however. In Meghalaya, a deceased doctor’s family had to wait 36 hours before a burial plot was available to them, due to a mob of hundreds preventing the rites. The cremation of another doctor in Chennai, originally from Andhra Pradesh, was also initially stopped by a mob. All such gatherings were formed in direct violation of lockdown rules.

Medical workers have also faced sudden evictions, ostracisation from their neighbours, and other forms of discrimination during this pandemic. A report in The Guardian on March 20th detailed how a Kolkata nurse and her children were thrown out of their apartment without notice, and how janitorial staff and others had been sleeping on plastic sheets on hospital campuses, prevented by neighbours from returning home.

Just two days after that report was published, millions of Indians assembled with or without social distancing to bang pots and pans together, supposedly to show their appreciation for healthcare workers. As many healthcare workers themselves, both in India and abroad, have said: all such gestures are meaningless if not accompanied by demanding accountability from authorities, especially for increasing production and availability of PPE kits, as well as for increasing testing and other measures. Dr. Pradeep Kumar, who performed the final rites for Dr. Solomon Hercules, spoke to India Today about how misinformation spread to the public (about how the virus is transmitted, and falsities such as that lighting candles would dispel it) was behind the shocking breakdown of civil behaviour that night.

It is a mistake to aggrandize any role and assign noble qualities to it by default. But workers in the healthcare sector – not only doctors, but everyone who works in a medical environment – are at risk in this pandemic precisely because they are the ones fighting it directly. Everyone deserves basic dignity: the medical officer and the migrant labour, both. Middle-class India is revealing its vilest face through this pandemic, ungrateful to the vital people who administer the medications, clean the bedpans, build the cities, harvest the fields. How do we expect to survive without them? And do their own lives mean nought?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 23rd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Feminist Pishachinis

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Before I sat down to write this, I was sure that almost every woman columnist in the country has written, will write about, or is currently submitting a file on the same topic at this time. We were going to repeat ourselves and each other, I thought, overlapping in our grief and our jargon. And we had to: we had to reinforce what’s important, spread the message in different circles, be a chorus of resistance. Then I sat down, and found my heart in my mouth and no words at my fingertips. There have been years and years of words: words in whispers, words in affidavits, words in screenshotted conversations, words in editorials, words out loud (even scream-loud), words swallowed but turned to choices, words that echo. And yet.

A few months ago, a misogynistic NGO in Karnataka organised what they called a “Feminist Pishachini Mukti Puja”, a year after their Kanpur chapter organised symbolic funerary rites for women who had left their marriages. One organiser called the experience “cathartic” for the ex-husbands who performed these rituals. They consider themselves activists for men’s rights. Such events gave some of us well-deserved memes and humour breaks, but it was sadness that reminded me of them. Both to laugh at and to perform the spell-casting are to lose the point: no magic is needed to make women suffer in India. For that, we have: patriarchy, politicians, police, people in our homes, people in our workplaces, people who are complete strangers, people in public, people online. They may be, and are, of any gender. They may be, and are, of any affiliation. What they have in common is that they hate us so deeply: women, other women, some women, women unlike themselves, any woman, all women. That hatred manifests as everything from protective measures to punitive measures.

I looked at the faces of the men in photos of that puja to eradicate women, and at the faces of the men in the photos of a celebration of the extrajudicial encounter in Hyderabad in which 4 suspects in a murder-rape were killed. Both sets motivated by the same violent impulses and beliefs. Any woman they had in mind was theoretically theirs to destroy, or avenge. The divorcees had been abusive, as their participation ascertained. Those cheering the fatal encounter – having left their wives, daughters, mothers, women co-workers and friends somewhere “safe” – were, statistically speaking, also more likely to be than not. Besides, violence is not only physical.

In the last few days, many women have managed to say – through the mire of renewed heartsickness and anger – exactly how this makes us feel. This is how we feel all the time. Each time something horrific happens, we aren’t reacting with shock. There’s a fear we live with constantly, a fear of something that’s like a pollutant in the air. We breathe it in every day. Some days, someone dies because of it. If there is a day at all in India in which that doesn’t happen (just because it doesn’t become a headline doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen), it’s still a day on which someone – no, many – survived an attempt.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 12th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Rising Divorce Rates Are A Good Thing

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As a child, I once got my hands on some kind of corporate diary, and flipped through its strange front matter curiously. It contained various facts and trivia – time zones, international calling codes, capital cities, and what I think of now as a slightly pedantic list of statistics. Including, strangely, divorce rates. India’s was 0%. I didn’t live in India then, and assumed that that actually meant that no one there ever got divorced. Now I know, of course, that it just meant that so very few did that they were anomalies. And that in less abstract terms, divorce was often brushed under the carpet even when it did happen – so that, quite possibly, even people who lived in India would have liked to think that 0% meant exactly that. No divorces, just happily ever after. Each and every time.

Not much has changed in over two decades, not in terms of the numbers. In 2017, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, an international forum established in 1961 that works in public policy) reported that India’s divorce rate stood at 1%, or 13 in 1,000 marriages. This statistic has just been reconfirmed, and come to public attention again, thanks to an infographic released by an Australian legal agency called Unified Lawyers which has been making the rounds. According to them, India has the lowest rate of divorce in the world.

This is very unfortunate. Just as a very high divorce rate (such as Luxembourg’s 87%) could be construed as unhealthy, an almost non-existent one shows that something is wrong. Are the vast majority of Indian marriages even mostly fulfilling ones? Let’s not lie to ourselves.

The truth is that an increased divorce rate would be meaningful evidence of the effect of social justice movements on ordinary households. It would mean, among other things: women staying in or returning to jobs, which let them live on a single income; people getting second chances at life when the horoscopes are perfectly matched but the couple themselves are incompatible; survivors being able to leave abusive situations with support and without stigma; and respect for individual freedoms. Especially where women’s empowerment issues are concerned, more divorces would actually imply success. Not failure.

For those of us who are surprised by the statistic, given how many divorced people we ourselves know, this is a moment to reflect on our privilege. We think divorce is not so terribly taboo anymore, but if so, why aren’t there more of them? We must be careful to not generalise based on what is true for our circles, or to presume to understand individual experience even then.

I don’t know anyone who found getting a divorce easy, or who wasn’t punished for it in some way after. So it’s also a moment to reflect on just how much it takes to terminate a marriage. Staying married in a system that’s designed to make you stay is no evidence of the strength of a marriage. But being willing to to leave the institution, see the divorce through, and go on – that’s strength. May it become easier for anyone who needs to make that decision.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 7th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Not In Your Nightie

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After several months of keeping this fashion policing under wraps, news leaked that the village of Thokalapalle in West Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh, had proudly and privately instated a dress code. According to this village sanghama-ordained decision, women are banned from wearing nighties during the daytime. Only the ill are exempt, and those who violate the ban face a Rs2000 penalty. Tattlers benefit, with a reward of Rs1000. Since the ban came into effect, village elders claim that women have indeed stopped wearing nighties outdoors between 6am and 7pm, as no ban violations have been reported. Sarees and dupattas have made a comeback on their streets.

Consider the average nightie – ankle-length, sleeved, with a modest collar. Often in less than attractive patterns, sometimes with frilled panels on the bustline that have an additional concealing effect. In fact, the nightie is the definition of dowdiness. It signals a woman who would prefer to be at rest, but is also simply too busy to get changed. To many, the nightie is also the definition of comfort. Wearing one is a subtle declaration of disinterest in dressing up, and of putting one’s ease first. It’s interesting how piqued Thokalapalle citizens reportedly said that the sight of women in nighties in public “inconvenienced” others or made them “uncomfortable”. The women’s convenience is the inconvenience, and their comfort causes discomfort.

It’s not difficult to imagine women going about their daily business wearing nighties. The clothing brand Pommy’s even developed an entire advertisement series around this motif. In it, the actor Devayani defused a variety of conflicts by appearing on the scene donning the utterly domestic nightie. But seeded within the hilarity of these commercials was a powerful statement. In each clip, Devayani asserted with a sweet smile that she was the “kudumba thalaivi” (the head of the household). The nighties conferred that confidence in her. The clincher? The final tagline: “engum engengum” (everywhere, anywhere).

No women from Thokalapalle have spoken up yet to say that the ban is oppressive. Honestly, they probably have better things to do and more pressing battles to fight. But those from the village who have talked to the press paint a uniformly eerie picture. They say that it was younger women from self-help groups who made a decision to “honour their traditions”. They say that everyone is happy. They also say that wearing nighties to go about public quotidian activities, like shopping for groceries, visiting temples, doing laundry or picking kids up from school, is “not good”. Why? They do not say.

All patriarchal societies have restrictions, overt or subtle, on what women can wear. In Thokalapalle, it’s nighties. In Chennai, it’s shorts. Thinking over how this plays out in different places is interesting. To my mind, a nightie is probably the furthest thing from lingerie. But to someone else, who remembers a time when anything other than a saree was shocking, a nightie may be loaded with other signifiers. It’s absolutely wrong to tell women they can’t choose their wardrobes. But there’s something worth observing here, about how desire and style have complementary semiotics, and how sometimes these break taboos, and sometimes reinforce them.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 15th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Avni And Other Tigers

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There is one particular detail of the killing of Avni, the tiger, in Maharashtra last week that I keep circling back to. She was lured using a trail of tiger urine mixed with a men’s perfume, Calvin Klein’s Obsession. The scent contains synthetics that mimic civetone, which is secreted in the perineal glands of civets, and has similar effects to musk, another animal-based perfumery ingredient. Tigers find civetone irresistible; it was deployed here because earlier experiments showed that they wanted to roll themselves all over where it was sprayed, rubbing their faces into it and sniffing with visible pleasure. Essentially, Avni was lured to her death through aphrodisiac pheromones.

Avni was a “man eater”, that archaic word so colonialist in its resonance, which keeps being used in reports about her killing. It’s a word from a worldview that’s clear in its division between animal and human, but specifically Man (colonial order wasn’t the only thing built into the language). As though women or water buffaloes don’t get eaten too (both equally inequal in the hierarchy of the Kingdom of Man). The dictionary suggests that it was first used for human cannibalism (more colonial inference), later becoming used to describe animals. “Man eater” is also still in common parlance as an innuendo, used to caricaturise women who are unapologetically desirous. The fear of the desirous woman is such that she is likened to a creature that kills to devour.

But for cultures that lived or live alongside the tiger, traditionally, fear is mixed not with bloodthirst but with reverence. In the Sundarbans, the tiger deity Dakshin Rai is appeased and asked for protection, while simultaneously expected to be mercurial and voracious. In Karnataka, the tiger god is Hulideva. Naga legend holds that the first tiger, first human and first spirit all shared the same mother. Among Warli and Koli people, Waghya (meaning “tiger”) is one of the principal deities, and Waghoba is the deity of the forest at large in Maharashtra.

It bears noting that it was at the behest of the people living in the Pandharkawada divisional forest, where an estimated 13 people were killed due to tiger attacks, that Avni was shot. While the lack of adequate tranquiliser usage, the decision to kill rather than capture, and the uncertain fate of her two cubs are all worthy of questioning, that she was a threat was something that we must accept. Otherwise, what difference is there between we who live in cities and have the luxury of choosing animal-friendly diets we don’t forage for ourselves, and those who colonised centuries ago and decided that the beasts of our lands were for sport hunting and that some human lives were less valuable than their own?

To return to man-eaters and musky pheromones, there’s another possibility as to why the scent attracted Avni. It’s heartbreaking to think that she died hoping that a mate was rambling in the vicinity. Perhaps what she thought she sensed was a competitor, another tiger on the prowl for the same prey. And so she died ferocious, protective – double-edged, just the way the tiger is understood by those who know it most.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 8th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Adultery Law

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What could we have told the woman who took her own life this week in Chennai – after her cheating husband allegedly told her that adultery was no longer a crime – about how that law had never been meant to protect her? The now defunct Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, which had read: “Adultery: Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offense of rape, is guilty of the offense of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such case the wife shall not be punishable as an abettor.”

Note that precise phrasing: “consent or connivance”. Conveniently, the law as well as those who upheld it understood consent, and applied it so alliteratively – to connivance! Unless a man participated willingly in his cuckolding, his wife’s lover could be charged with a crime.

Could we have explained to that deceased woman how she had never had any recourse to justice through this law? That it had been devised for one man to punish another, and that for any woman (as per the moral codes of our society), shame itself would have been the first among various insidious punishments. If wives, being chattel, were allowed to emote, anyway.

If we’d been ignorant of this archaic decree, that was also likely to have been because as a law that men could invoke against one another, it hadn’t received much exercise in public memory. Men don’t so often go after one another in quite that way. Not as often as women get the blame. Not as often as women are turned on each other, conditioned for example to hate the one who got caught in a deceitful husband’s web and not the husband himself who so dexterously spun it. Or even if she hates that husband, to possibly not love or know her selfhood without even him.

This law had no provision for women to lodge a case. Not for women whose husbands were having affairs, nor for women who had been fooled by married men. In fact, lawyers speaking to the press suggest that one of the rare usages of Section 497 was as an act of retaliation by men facing dowry harassment proceedings. It’s vaguely disquieting how when a law that was hardly ever used was repealed, the fact of its rare usage only reinforces many things about misogyny in our social fabric.

I wish the deceased Chennai woman whom that law was used against, at least in speech, this week will be the last one ever to suffer because of it. And I wish also that after the striking down of the sexist Section 497 and the homophobic Section 377, the next to go will be Section 375, which considers rape within marriage to be criminal only if the survivor is below 15 years old. Where is consent here? All that’s evident is connivance.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 4th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: I Want To See People Kissing On The Streets

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I want to see people kissing in the streets.

Impulsively. Without stopping to check all sides for traffic. Without waiting for the light to change. Without nervousness. Without fear.

I want to see people kissing in the streets, kissing as slowly as dust motes in a slab of sunlight. As slowly as water leaking from an air-conditioner into a bucket on the side of a building with balconies on which other people also kiss (and kiss) – as though kisses, like plants, need bright light and open air and time to grow.

Languidly. Without wanting to be invisible. Kissing instead of speaking with the eyes.  Kissing without having to keep it briefer than a blink, so infinitesimal that even the kissers can’t be sure it happened later, licking their lips to try and remember. Kissing and disappearing into pedestrian crowds, only to turn around and come back for another one, to linger sweetly on the lips in a smile for the separate journeys home.

Kissing even though the breeze is immodest with their dresses, because no one will break stride to shame them, or stare too long, or try to destroy them. Kissing with their eyes closed tight, because there is no need to be vigilant. Kissing with their eyes wide open to the possibilities of a better world.

Kissing passionately. Or tenderly.

Kissing because they want to. Kissing because they can. Kissing because they forgot – even if only in the way that a kiss can contain and keep out the world at once – a time when they could not. When kisses had to be acts of subterfuge, when moments had to be stolen, when whole lives had to be operations of secrets and silences, and sometimes even lies.

There are rainbows everywhere – have you seen them? And we’ve no need to speak in codes anymore, but what would rambling through these streets be if we couldn’t pause to enjoy a metaphor? (And a kiss fills a pause like no words can).

There are still so many who cannot cross that street – let alone kiss there – without danger, even loss of life. Still so many loves that are not equal. Still so many who must draw the curtains, even though the walls are always thin – except when someone being battered is screaming. Still so many violations, upheld by the bed of the law or protected by the umbrella of society.

But let’s begin. I want to see them – whoever they are – be who they are. Kissing, with abandon, in the streets. I hope that one day we won’t be voyeurs anymore, won’t be stunned (even with joy) at the sight. Because love will be something we take pride in, and we’ll celebrate it by simply letting it be.

Because the human heart, homed in the hot-blooded human body, is ancient and dependable. The law, in comparison, is capricious. It speaks, sometimes poorly, only for a time. I want to see people kissing in the streets now, because here we are in an era – and may it last forever – when the language of the law has finally begun to speak with love’s own mouth, love’s own tongue.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 13th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.