The Venus Flytrap: Gaslighting Genocide

Once, photojournalism and visual forms of documentation could be relied on as a noble, if not always unproblematic, way of testimony. Especially in the days before the internet and the mass availability of cellphone cameras, images had the power to wake the conscience. We know this because of iconic photographs such as Nick Út’s 1972 click of a young girl in a napalm attack, which would become emblematic of the Vietnam War and of chemical warfare. Images of malnourished children in the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s also moved people in the West to offer tangible monetary donations to help them. In India, Pablo Bartholomew’s photograph of a dead baby after the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy made people all over the country understand its seriousness. Visual journalism has always helped us not just imagine, but to understand.

So I am not sure why we – who now see images of pain on a daily basis – are less moved by them than we once were. There shouldn’t be a saturation point to empathy beyond which we become desensitised. This is not acceptable– especially not when taking positions of active denial.

In interpersonal relationships, the term “gaslighting” is used when a person’s reality is manipulated through another’s outright refusal to acknowledge it. For instance, one sibling telling another, “Our parents were not abusive; you’re making it up”. Or a spouse who says “It’s not inappropriate for me to go on holiday with my ex; you’re delusional”. We see that gaslighting now continuously where narratives of mass suffering or fear are concerned. When Myanmar’s extremely well-spoken Aung San Suu Kyi tells a BBC interviewer that there is no genocide and we nod our heads and decide to accept her propaganda, complete with captions about the “TRUTH!”. As for footage of Rohingya people wailing, fleeing, begging to be killed rather than to be deported – telling their own stories – we decide that they must be lying. We decide they must be setting fire to their own homes. We decide they must be killing their own children. We watch a video of a man carrying his mother on his back for four days and we call it a political stunt. We watch a video of a child carrying her baby brother on her back, their dead parents miles and miles behind them and say she was bribed into crocodile tears. We scroll past the video after that.

We decide they are not like us, because we decide first of all that we are not like them. And that’s where all such crises begin.

In times like these, I’m not interested in which “side” started a conflict, or who allowed it to fester. The distance of analysis like that belongs either to less empathic people or to a later time. Is it or is it not a genocide? It will be before long. Experts will count the numbers later and say “oh yeah, it was” – but today, right now, is when those numbers are being racked up. Maybe we as individuals can do little of real value to assist. But it should not be so easy for us to tear our eyes away.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 14th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

In Femina Magazine, Dec 18 2015 Issue

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

A Q+A In The Affair

I’m still thrilled about the publication of my short story, ‘Sweet’, in the brand new The Affair magazine. Here is an interview about the story, the sense of place in my work, and more.

A Few Reviews

A few articles about the reading at Spaces last week.

Here’s one in The New Indian Express – the scan, and the text link.

Here’s a very thoughtful one at

Thank you, everybody, who came or sent good wishes.

Feature in Ritz Magazine

I’m in the December 2010 issue of Chennai’s Ritz magazine, as part of a feature which also includes Kuttirevathi, K. Ramesh and Tishani Doshi.

Click the image below to check out the article (it becomes legible once you double click). I should note that the name of my novel in progress is wrong (why do many journalists get it wrong? It’s not Stars, it’s not Czars, it’s not SARS. It is Scars.) But you already knew that. :)

Some Media About The Bangalore Reading

When I spoke to Deccan Chronicle last week about the TFA reading that was on Tuesday, I thought it would wind up just being an event listing. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that it turned out to be quite a nice piece, which enabled me — for the first time, I think! — to talk about what I am working on now, poetry-wise.

I was also surprised, for different reasons, at the number of factual inaccuracies this article in Mid-Day contained, but at least I got to say a little more about my current projects in it. Also, here is a frank review by someone who attended the reading. And finally, a video by someone else — it starts a little after the poem does, and you can’t hear it too well — but at least you can snicker at all the sports equipment in a bookstore!

Thanks to everyone who came; I hope another chance to read in Bangalore comes soon!

NXG on Mozhiudal

There’s a nice write-up in NXG, The Hindu today about last weekend’s queer poetry reading. You can read it here.

I like how the writer begins the article by noting how the reading seemed to be a safe space – the same thought occurred to me while I was there, and in the days since I have also pondered over whether to write about it too. It was more than just the fact that I know the organizers and the Pride movement in Chennai well — the vast majority of the audience were new faces. Still, there was a good underlying energy, a welcoming one, that I rarely sense at readings here.

Perhaps I should explain my context. Somewhere early in my publishing career, I got stuck with the tag of being a writer of “erotic” poetry, a label I view with discomfort. Now, I have nothing against erotica. I love it. I have nothing against sex either. What I do have a problem with is reductionism. Erotica by its nature is intended to titillate. My work, by and large, isn’t. Anyone with a little sensitivity who looks over my body of supposedly erotic work should see neuroses, longing, loss. If they see  a horny woman poking at her keyboard with sticky fingers, that’s their own oversight. A woman can be horny, complicated, desireless, wounded, surrendering, conquering in different lights.  So can a man. If you choose only to see her in one light, then you’re missing out on a whole lot.

What this has come to mean is that I have become defensive (as you may have gathered from the paragraph above, even). In India, or at least in Chennai, I limit what I share at readings. Look, I don’t mean to come off like a snob, but we’re an awfully perverted bunch, don’t you think? So, so as to avoid various unpleasantries, I limit what I share. It frustrates me. I like to have fun at readings. I like to feel free, to play with the audience, to laugh. I like, above all, to be honest.

In this sense, Mozhiudal was one of the safest spaces I’ve read at in Chennai. To me, the very notion of a queer reading is based on the acceptance that sexuality is complex and varied, and is vital to our experience of the world – exactly the sort of basis that removes all need for apologies and excuses. Remember this: sexuality as opposed to sex alone. I opened with what I think of as my lightest piece,  and without question the most beloved among my fans, “Poem”, and moved on to more risque work, pieces like “Possession” and “Holding The Man”. Reading the last one in particular, I was struck by how its motifs of arrest and secrecy were, perhaps, rather reminiscent of the queer experience, even though the people in my poem are a heterosexual couple. And also my explicitly queer work – “Hibiscus”, “Linea Negra” – and then looping back to my other much-misconstrued crowd-pleaser, “How To Eat A Wolf”. Not once did I feel like I had gone too far, or become too vulnerable. The last poem I shared, in two voices with Aniruddhan Vasudevan, was my translation of Subramanya Bharati’s “Suttum Vizhi”. How was this a queer work, or a sexual one? Maybe because Bharati would certainly have been no homophobe; in death he certainly has lent his voice to the Pride movement. Maybe because from the tongue and pen of another woman, my transcreated lines – “woman precious as the eye, my love fills me with turbulence” – turn vaguely subversive. Or maybe because this is what it comes down to in the end — love, loss and longing. The human heart. The body and its blood.