Tag Archives: marriage

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: In Defense Of The 13th Fairy

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Some time ago, I’d been travelling in a rather boring but reasonably picturesque small town which thanks to its appearance in a few films had started to gain the attention of honeymooners. Labouring under the impression that someone who had broken the heart of one of my loved ones had taken his parentally-ordained bride to this town, I spent my time there quite pleased that it had little to offer (unless you have very special company, in which case every place is Paris anyway). Taking in the relative lack of charm, I looked forward to presenting proof of the heartbreaker’s ambivalence towards his own honeymoon.

Imagine my shock when I returned from that trip to find this loved one was getting re-engaged, to a person she’d been unceremoniously dis-engaged from once already. As for the unimaginative honeymooner – in one of those juicy jinxed nuptial details, he came along with his spouse to the re-engagement function, held recently. Oh, and it turned out they hadn’t even been to that cinema-friendly location. That was a mishearing repeated to me. They’d been somewhere much lovelier, with a name that was almost a homonym. Oh, whatever – I’d quite liked that dull little town in the end.

I wasn’t introduced to the heartbreaker at the re-engagement, but I should have been, given that I was once again playing my esteemed role of “always the 13th fairy and never the bride”. As a fellow disruptor, he could have been my sidekick. If I could resist kicking him, that is.

In fairy tales, the 13th fairy is the one who, deeply miffed that she hasn’t been asked to attend the naming ceremony, coronation or wedding, shows up anyway (wearing brocade and bright burgundy lips, naturally) and pronounces a delicious curse that sets the ball rolling for the rest of the story. Drama! She might be the black sheep of the family or the goddess Eris of the golden apple, but if it wasn’t for her there’d be no one to blame but poor decisions and basic incompatibility. Oops.

No one crashed the event. We’d all been politely, obligatorily and cordially invited. But trust me not to bite my tongue. Before, after (and in what might have been whispers if those in earshot hadn’t laughed – during).

See, I think the 13th fairy gets a bad rep. What’s the backstory? Was she not invited because she knew the bride embezzled money from her friend’s start-up to pay for her dowry, or because she knew the dowry-guzzling groom was still seeing his ex? Because the families involved were too busy trying to sabotage each other to be concerned with etiquette? Because there was a hierarchy involved and she was all about subverting the dominant paradigm? Or maybe because she was the only one who – engine running on the getaway car – would look her betrothed loved one in the eye and ask, “Are you truly sure you want this?”

That’s not a curse – that’s compassion. Fairytales conveniently end on the wedding, remember? Given the state of the institution of marriage, historically and in modernity, I don’t mind being the 13th fairy. Somebody’s got to be.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 7th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Freedom To Marry

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Here’s a romantic story for you: in the late 70s, a man in his early thirties went and got himself a passport so that he could travel to Sri Lanka to ask his girlfriend, whom had met in medical college in Madras, to marry him. He was the eldest son and stood to inherit a sizeable inheritance, which he walked out on in order to be with his beloved. They married, and he entered her family and didn’t look back.

That man is my father, and the woman he fell in love with is my mother, and if they were to get married in Tamil Nadu today, nearly forty years later, they wouldn’t legally be able to register their marriage. That’s because the Tamil Nadu government has introduced new prerequisites that now make it technically impossible for consenting adults to marry without the presence and approval of all living parents. Those recently registering marriages in the state have been asked to bring their parents (preferably fathers, for obvious patriarchal reasons) along. This is not entirely new: in November last year, The New Indian Express reported that a registration office asked for a consent letter from a 29-year old groom’s father. There is now an official circular that clearly details the need for verification of parental addresses, the furnishing of parental death certificates and other paternalistic demands. While not explicitly stated, the technicalities correlate with one thing: parental approval.

It’s a decision so regressive that it’s hard to believe it has come in 2018, but it happens in a very clear context: the Supreme Court’s Hadiya case, involving a young Keralite woman who converted to Islam from Hinduism and married of her own free will, and the violence relating to inter-caste marriages that Tamil Nadu itself continues to see unabatedly. Add to this renewed bigotry towards Periyar, who like Ambedkar advocated for inter-caste marriages as a way to abolish the caste system. In this context, also, are numerous under-reported incidents, such as how – just weeks ago – a panchayat in Punakaiyal village, Thoothukudi district, chased out all women who had married outside their castes in the last fifteen years.

We who speak of “love marriage” must necessarily also speak and think of caste and religious exogamy as its natural extension, instead of being content to accept that romance is radical even if it happens only within tightly-knit, and thus closely-guarded, circles. To marry within one’s own demographic background, even with some disapproval (due to economic disparity, prior matrimony, different subcaste, etc) is not radical at all. It changes nothing about society’s greater hegemonic structure, which includes misogyny and various forms of discrimination. Neither is it helpful to jump ahead to whether or not marriage as an institution is worth preserving without recognising that for many people, it still has meaning both practical and sentimental. To be unable to register a marriage therefore is a terrible blow. Marriage registration eases a number of bureaucratic processes, from obtaining loans and visas to divorce and child custody.

It speaks so poorly of current society that I still think of my parents’ marriage as radical, and not just for their time…

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

The Venus Flytrap: Women Infantilised By Society And Law

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A young Indian woman named Hadiyah, moved and perhaps given meaning by a faith other than the one she was born into, decided to convert. She eventually signed up on a matrimonial website that would allow her to find a like-minded partner. Despite Hadiyah being 24 years old, and despite the fact that Kerala high courts had rejected two petitions filed by her father claiming she had been forcibly converted, a third such petition resulted in her marriage being annulled – and her being sent into parental custody with this infantilising statement: “A girl aged 24 years is weak and vulnerable, capable of being exploited…”. The Supreme Court has since ordered an investigation into the marriages of formerly Hindu women to Muslim men as a potential terrorist conspiracy.

The concept of “love jihad” is not only Islamophobic, it is also a clear insult to all women. And with violent overtones: recent reportage has revealed some truly terrifying tactics including kidnapping, coercion and even drugging women (at an Ernakulam hospital) so that they comply with their parents’ wishes. In every such scenario, the freedom of an adult woman to make her own choices is either questioned or curtailed. It is also worth iterating that marital rape is not criminalised in India. Marital rape cannot exist in this worldview because women’s autonomy – the right to reject or consent – does not exist. She is her family’s, community’s, state’s – or in a panchayat-style redressal, her rapist’s – property. A woman in India can’t assuredly choose or refuse a partner, but a man can rape his wife under protection of law.

Another recent case involved Irom Sharmila, who ran for election in Manipur after a 16-year hunger strike. After defeat at the polls, she retreated from public life and reportedly found solace in Kodaikanal. But when she announced her engagement to her long-term partner, the welcome proved to have been short-lived. A Tamil Nadu-based Hindu group filed a petition to keep her from marrying there, alleging that the city’s security would be at stake. Oddly, it was marriage – the antiquated notion of “settling” – that had roused the petitioners.

To these two high-profile cases relating to marriage, mobility and the denial of adult women’s agency, here’s a third one that suggests how such a societal milieu comes about and is maintained. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court denied an abortion to a 10 year old who had been raped by her uncle, ignoring medical experts’ caution that the risks presented by a late-term termination were outweighed by the risks of carrying the foetus to term and undergoing childbirth. (Abortion is legal up to the 20th week, after which special permission must be given). She gave birth via caesarean section last week. According to reports released after the delivery, the survivor was never told that she was pregnant, but that she had a “stone” in her stomach. This can only mean that despite having undergone the horrors of rape, she continues to be denied basic sex education, or the right to information. Neither her body nor her mind have been treated with respect.

She gave birth to another girl. And so the cycle continues.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 24th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Fire-Trampoline Marriages

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We need to talk about those fire-trampoline marriages. You know: the kind where after a grand time running around town setting other people’s hearts on fire, someone takes a leap off a ledge, bounces right into the waiting arms of the patriarchy, and looks back up (still bouncing, not a toenail singed) and shouts: “I always told you I’d marry someone of my parents’ choosing!”.

If only real life was as comic panel-perfect as this analogy. Because what happens next largely happens out of sight. While the man or the woman with the trampoline conducts their socially-sanctioned conjugal bliss in full public view, cheesy captions and all, there is also a person trapped in that metaphorical burning building. The ashes of charred dreams and the mess left for them to clean up are not metaphorical at all. (The jumper’s spouse is a contemplation for another time).

It should be no surprise that in an India where only 5% of marriages are inter-caste (i.e. actually based on something other than upholding the system), there are a whole lot of fire-trampolines. This applies especially among those who are more educated, more affluent and for the most part, urbanites. There’s a profound disconnect between the veneer of liberal values and sexual mores that are enjoyed superficially and one’s actual beliefs.

But more so than a question of ideologies, this is really an issue of accountability. To mislead and treat someone badly then write it off as something you needed to do for the sake of family, culture, religion, money or general appearances is not “the right thing to do”. There’s nothing honourable about it. The most devious version of all is when the jumper pleads their cowardice, and claims they wish they were strong like you. Don’t believe it for a second.

I hear many stories from the people left holding the broom, the bucket and the bad end of the stick. Here’s what I told the last woman who cried to me about a man who suddenly got engaged to someone else while almost simultaneously declaring his love for her for the first time. (Yes, men do seem to jump into fire-trampolines more than women because the system is essentially designed to serve them better). This is what I told her: “It’s not that he doesn’t know what he wants, despite what some will tell you, including him. It is that he knows what he can have. He can have the convenience of his marriage, and by leaving this door ajar, he can also have emotional intensity – and more – from you.”

Because anyone who keeps a fire-trampoline handy has got other tricks up their sleeve. It’s no leap (pun intended) from “I told you I’d marry someone of my parents’ choosing” to “You knew I was married.”

At first it’s horrific, the aftermath among the embers. But eventually, you see distinctively what happens to the two survivors. The one who jumped continues to keep jumping, through more and more hoops of their own making. As for the one who was trapped in the inferno, the one who walked through flames? You already know what resurrects from ash.

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

5 Decades Of Desire: The 30s

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I am often assailed by longing for the woman I was at the cusp of 26, neither too young to know nor old enough to know too much. Not only was I free-spirited and passionate, but I was also met by what I sought. Except, as I sensed even then, I could not keep them: those entanglements, that exhilaration. And so, I am also often assailed by compassion for the woman I was at the cusp of 26.

This year, I will turn 32. But right now, I am 31 – “a viable, die-able age”, as Arundhati Roy unforgettably wrote in The God of Small Things. I prefer to focus on the first word. There is so much that is viable about being a never-married woman in her 30s.

It is true that on any given day, I am likely to feel more lucky than lonely. The blessings of being unburdened are easy to count, and I have the luxury of counting them often. But it’s not all lovers and solo travel and disposable income and possibility. It is also, more often, practical thinking and responsibility and the weariness of combat. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

But why is it that I feel lucky? More than anything else, it’s because I’ve outgrown so much conditioning about what a woman’s life should look like. Even, in fact, what a wild woman’s life should look like. I’m more interested in what it is. Do I believe in Love with a capital ‘L’?  I’ve found pondering the question a waste of the imagination, when I now much prefer the small ‘l’, the verb, the everyday extravagance of being and feeling instead of waiting.

This life that is neither tragic nor in need of rescuing is anomalous, and I recognise why it’s necessary to not present a unidimensional version of it. So here is another truth: that there is melancholy. Last year, I climbed into an autorickshaw wearing an empire waist tunic and the driver gently suggested that I move to the middle for a less bumpy ride, as I appeared to be newlywed and “carrying”. I struggled not to cry on that ride, not because of anything as inane as mistaking concern for body shaming but because those things are not true for me, and may never be true. I am soft and never-wed and I carry memories, desires, legacies and scars, but only and all of me.

But the beauty of being this age, of having arrived here tenderly, toughly, is the sincere acceptance that it’s alright. All of it – melancholy, uncertainty, anger, hunger and even moments of bitterness – is perfectly alright. They are balanced by laughter, courage, wisdom and – yes – pleasures little and large. We are all every age we have ever been. And sometimes I am already all the ages I will ever be. The great moral challenge of my decades to come, should they come, is whether I’ll be able to hold on to both: unyielding principles and petal-perceptive heart.

An edited version appeared in The Indian Express on International Women’s Day, 2017.

Love, Freedom, Solitude & Consequence

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When negotiating the delicate balance between aloneness and isolation, these lines from Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Vinegar and Oil” waft back to me – “Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,/ right solitude oils it. // How fragile we are, between the few good moments.” There are ways to reject the institution of marriage without having to deny the emotional impact of giving up social legitimacy, protection and – indeed – companionship. That’s the reason why my new book of short stories, The High Priestess Never Marries, is subtitled as follows: Stories of Love and Consequence.

There are consequences to loving, there are consequences to pretending to be in love, there are consequences to leaving, there are consequences to pretending to not want love. No matter who you are, you must negotiate these.

These are the consequences that the intelligent, and often very brave, women in my book of stories confront. They are women who, if you asked them, would say “bachelorette” is an andro-centric diminutive; reclaiming “spinster” is a stronger statement. They are widows. They are adulterers. They are lovers, they are losers, they are leavers, they are seekers.

The institution of marriage is profoundly problematic, deeply patriarchal in nature. To be a feminist is to necessarily challenge it. In India, for instance, we know that statistically speaking, women are leaving the workforce at an unprecedented rate (participation stands at just 27%, even compared to 37% a decade ago) – which means that a woman’s passions and ambitions, no matter her achievements or education level, are simply sublimated into the system. We know that only 5% of marriages are inter-caste, which means that even in so-called “love marriages”, the fundamental function of the institution as a means to perpetuate hierarchical systems remains virtually intact. We know that marital rape is not recognised by law, incontrovertible proof of the idea that a woman, and by extension her body, become the property of the household into which she marries. These are not uniquely Indian problems. It is not a coincidence that the English word “husband” is of agricultural origin: a wife was among the possessions he managed on his property.

It must be possible to challenge the system from within it, and some of the characters in my book try to, through transgressions and interrogations. But to not be within it affords its own agency, even as it strips a woman of privileges as varied as not being regarded as morally bankrupt to the literal, physical security of a companion to walk dark streets with (a companion who, if questioned by the equally patriarchal law enforcement system, can validate the relationship where a woman’s word alone has no currency). And it’s those women – the loners and non-conformists, who largely fill the pages of this book.

Autonomy may be stained with fear, but it is pervaded by freedom. It is in this freedom that the characters in The High Priestess Never Marries play, pray, push the envelope and prise their own hearts open continuously. They dive into the myths. They trek into the mountains. They dip their paintbrushes into the palettes of their lives. They serve their hearts on a platter, seasoned to perfection. They weep into the sea. They have lovers’ tiffs with the moon. They copulate with trees and devote themselves to deities. They keep very still. They sing. They sigh. They say No, they say Never, they say Not Now – they say Yes Yes Yes O Yes.

They fall. But how they fly.

(An edited version appeared on Bonobology.com)

The Venus Flytrap: She Of The Coal-Singed Soles And The Stillwater Ponds

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In Wayanad some years ago, I found myself outside a temple compound in the forest, its doors closed for the malefic afternoon hours. It may have been lovely to enter the temple, but what I had come for was just beside it. A pond, its surface caparisoned by moss. Trees leaned toward it, cascading silent strings of leaves. Its water was perfectly still.

I sat under a tree and immersed in the quietude for several minutes. Was the sadness palpable in the place native, or had I carried it with me? The name of the pond was “Sita’s Tears”, and legend says that this was where Sita had wept before she re-entered the earth. Among the many Ramayanas, in one that culminates in Wayanad, it was in this forest that she lived the latter part of her life. The earth had cupped her tears and kept them, and they in turn had maintained a façade of serenity. While beneath that surface, a tempest of a thousand years teems.

As I sat beside Sita’s Tears, I recalled a dream I’d had some months earlier from which I had woken with great sadness. In it, I had visited a Sita temple near Nuwara Eliya, in Sri Lanka. This is where, in many tellings, Hanuman finds Sita, in the grove in which she tells him to take her jewels but not her. Lanka was destined to burn, for her beloved would only be suspicious to see her in the arms of another. Even if, as in Kamban’s verses, he lifts her not by limb or waist but by the earth beneath her body (for she herself, after all, is the earth). In Seetha Eliya, the earth is black, as if scorched by fire.

Some say she was born in Mithila, Nepal; others prefer the version in which she is a Lankan princess, daughter of Ravana, exiled upon water like Moses or Karna when a soothsayer reveals that she will be the cause of her father’s death.

I finally received an answer to a question I had posed sardonically: “I wonder when Sita Navami is?” It turns out that it is this Sunday, and is in fact observed annually on the 9th day after the new moon in the month of Baisakh – although clearly not with any major aplomb, anywhere. The only information I could find was painful. To celebrate Sita as an ideal wife is equivalent to celebrating her suffering. And to do so with words like ‘chastity’ and ‘sumangali’ are nothing but celebrations of the suppression and subjugation of women everywhere.

I had wanted to know if a Sita Navami existed because I had wondered if she had been forgotten; instead I found that she had only been misremembered.

But this I know to be true: we celebrate Sita most often when we don’t realise it. When we vocalise support for single mothers. When we stand up for those abandoned by their spouses. When we breathe quietly in nature and allow her alone be our witness.

I have sat beside the still water of Sita’s Tears. If it rippled at all, it was because of my own.

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

The Venus Flytrap: On The Sexism Of The Iconic Marriage Proposal

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Borrowed largely from Hollywood, thoroughly supported by the wedding industry complex, and encouraged by the pressure and appeal of social media (“She said yes!”), the proposal has gained popularity as a nuptial rite of its own. Both in love marriages and modern arranged marriages with their tinny gloss of long engagements and staged meet-cutes, this gesture – often described as romantic – signifies a certain threshold in a relationship. Given the highly public nature of most marriage rituals, that a private novelty has gradually come to be included among Indian customs is a nice thing. Only, as we move away – as we must, if we believe in a better world – from traditional circumscriptions on marriage, it’s worth thinking about which notions of romance are worth preserving and appropriating.

The thing about the iconic wedding proposal – a ring, a bended knee, four scripted words – is that it is almost without exception, in heteroromantic contexts, performed by the man.

This would be okay if a proposal was just a loving gesture, and not a watershed moment which advances the status of a romantic relationship. Neither is it a request, because what comes after the famed question is an equally scripted reaction: surprise, excitement, and invariably, acceptance. The words “will you marry me?” sound like they are asking for permission, but in practice they are giving it. The surprise element is a decoy, unless the supplicant is truly clueless as to what the response will be (in which case, I hope there’s a sympathetic refund available for that bling). In the version of the script that we have all subconsciously downloaded, the woman has waited for it, and the man has decided on its timing. It was her waiting that was the true petition; he simply offers his agreement through the enactment of asking.

Marriage is patriarchal – but surely love is not so pathetic?

Sometimes a woman must say no, because that is her true answer. Sometimes a woman must pose the question herself, because she must pursue what she desires, and she need not wait for anyone’s validation of the same.

But more than either of those subversions, I like the idea of the decision to marry being a matter of consultation, a series of increasingly confident discussions. I fail to understand how one person asking a life-altering question and the other shifting quickly from astonishment to certainty inspires any trust in that couple’s ability to articulate, negotiate, and make choices together.

We haven’t evolved marriage out of our worldviews yet, and perhaps we don’t need to. But we do need to keep evolving its workings, questioning it as an institution and contextualising it in ways that emphasise individual wholeness and challenge structural inequalities, as expressed in misogyny, casteism, colourism, homophobia and other chauvinisms.

Let’s begin by falling in love. Let’s begin by being honest. Let’s do boring things like talking about whether or not to get married and radical things like changing the problematic verses and actions in the ceremonies. Indian marriage has so far been about social legitimacy, not about togetherness. Let’s begin by rewriting that script. Or better yet, let’s begin with no script at all.

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

In Femina Magazine, Dec 18 2015 Issue

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I was very thoughtfully interviewed by Kirthi Jayakumar earlier in 2015 for Femina. The piece appeared in the Dec 18 2015 issue of the magazine.

Please keep your eyes and hearts open and your loving wishes sent in the general directions of The High Priestess Never Marries (HarperCollins India, 2016) and The Altar Of The Only World (HarperCollins India, 2017). And me, if you have more love to spare. Because I do, and I’ll try to make more books from it :) Happy new year! xo

Sharanya Manivannan Femina 1Sharanya Manivannan Femina 2

Review Of One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

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Distance allows us to be dismissive of the lives of other people, to filter their narratives down to a few essential keynotes and tragedies. In One Part Woman, translated into English three years after its Tamil original garnered widespread acclaim, Perumal Murugan turns an intimate, crystalline gaze on a married couple in interior Tamil Nadu. It is a gaze that lays bare the intricacies of their story, culminating in a heart-wrenching denouement that allows no room for apathy.

Kali and Ponna, land-owning farmers in Thiruchengode, enjoy a completely happy marriage on all counts but one. Despite over a dozen years together, they are yet to have children. Theirs is a sexually-charged and mutually fulfilling relationship; it is neither for lack of effort nor of intent that they are unable to conceive. The couple perform countless acts of penance, entreating various deities – among them the half-male, half-female god on the hill attended by a Brahmin priest and the tribal goddess Pavatha of the same hill, to whom blood sacrifices are made. Ponna weeps at the onset of every menstrual period. Neither love nor their thriving land is enough to keep at bay the despair of being without offspring in their community. They are constantly on the receiving end of disparagement from the people around them: Kali’s sexual potency is the subject of sly and open taunts, while every slip or argument Ponna has with another is turned on her using her childlessness as an indication of her character or capabilities.

The disparagement arrives in wounded, less unkind guises too – particularly from their mothers, who tell stories of hereditary curses that could explain their misfortune and sing dirges lamenting the couple’s barrenness. Eventually, the two women decide that there may be only one way. Every year, on the fourteenth day of the chariot festival to the androgynous deity on the hill, the rules of all marital contracts are relaxed. Any man is allowed to lie with any woman – a tradition acknowledged as being a socially and divinely sanctioned method of conceiving should a husband be sterile. Ponna’s mother and mother-in-law, in the hope that it is Kali who is the cause of their infertility, suggest the solution of sending her to participate. The resulting anxieties and attendant manipulations challenge the marriage, and alter its course.

One Part Woman is a powerful rendering of an entire milieu which is certainly still in existence, which it engages with insightfully. The author handles myriad complexities with an enviable sophistication, creating an evocative, even haunting, work.

The novel is also acutely sensitive in its approach toward gender and sexuality and humane in its treatment of longing. While fundamentally an emotional work, driven by personal desires and losses, it also unsettles the reader with what it frankly reveals about simplistic ideas about progressiveness. The society in which the book is set in is permissive in ways that the urban middle-class in the same state at large is not, even though known markers of suppression, such as caste laws, hold sway. But, here as elsewhere, the true hindrances to happiness and progress come in much more personal forms.

Murugan’s writing is taut and suspenseful, particularly as the book progresses towards its climax. At a slim 230 pages, the novel moves quickly, but with such a finely-wrought intensity that tension remains high right up to the final paragraph. Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation deserves mention – the language is crisp, retaining local flavour without jarring, and often lyrical. Highly recommended.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line.

TOI iDiva: “Are women now becoming unafraid of controversy?”

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The question posited to me was “are women now becoming unafraid of controversy?” My short response is straightforward: “when have we ever been?” Afraid, that is. To look to the likes of the poses and performances of Veena Malik and Vidya Balan as signifiers of a bolder, less diffident womanhood is woefully ignorant of historical facts. There have always been controversial women. From the revolutionary (Phoolan Devi, Irom Sharmila), to the attention-courting (Kamala Das, Protima Bedi) to the free-spirited (Amrita Sher-Gil, Akka Mahadevi), there is a very long legacy of evidence that upsetting the acceptable is hardly a cutting-edge phenomenon.

And isn’t it very curious: why does controversy, when it comes to women, so often come down to sex, or more banally, the wonderful but ultimately reductionist arena of clothing (or lack thereof)?

Which brings us to the question of what the function of controversy is. Is it enough just to titillate? There’s probably nobody out there who doesn’t, as a voyeur or a vendor, love a good scandal. But if all one has to do is undress – well, how very boring.

What about subverting the system? I.e. does appearing topless on a magazine cover with an incendiary tattoo free other women to do the same, or does it merely elevate Veena Malik to certain celebrity, without a positive trickle-down effect on the freedoms of other people? Controversies come in two categories: the contrived and the accidental. The first stirs up the sensational on purpose. The second becomes notorious not by design but because it surprises on more complex levels than the obvious.

Some months ago, I began to wear a certain sartorial item that I had long admired. That I was turned away from two stores when I tried to purchase the said item should have given me a clue about what was to follow. Still, purchase it I did, for myself, for no reason other than that I found it beautiful.

The humble metti, nuptial toe-rings, were by far the most subversive thing that I – doyenne of firetruck-red lipstick, leopard-print thigh-highs and strapless sari blouses – had ever worn.

“What next? If thaalis were ‘pretty’ would you wear one too?” snapped someone.

“You’re not supposed to!” exclaimed another. Such a simple condemnation. Supposed.

“It suppresses sexual desire by way of the reflexology system,” rued one who found the whole idea disappointingly regressive. (“It’s not working,” I deadpanned.)

“Now there really is nothing left that will entice you to wed,” tsk tsk-ed one more.

These are some of the reactions that came from my own friends – free-thinkers, free-lovers, free-wheelers one and all. I noted the discomfort in the taciturn glances of strangers too: diverted interest (“this chick’s taken”), curiosity, and most of all, confusion. I do not, after all, look like I’m married – which is to say, I do not look like I am marriageable. The suggestion, then, is that I am one without being the other. Cue the collapse of logic in a certain moral universe. Which, if all sartorialism is semiotics, is precisely the effect I’m going for.

I’ve learned something very interesting as a result of wearing this most conformist and conservative of ornaments. It is that, contrary to what Audre Lorde wrote, perhaps the master’s tools can in fact dismantle the master’s house. True dissidence is rarely ostentatious. It occurs not at the level of wanting to be seen but on the level of deciding to – simply, guilelessly – be.

One last question: if the essence of controversy lies in shock value, are we perhaps just too easily shocked?

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.