Tag Archives: morality

The Venus Flytrap: Imaginary Women, Imaginary Villains

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Neha Gnanavel, who is married to film producer Gnanavel Raja, obviously wants us to forget the objectionable things she posted about women in the cinema industry last week. Which is why she deleted the Tweets in which she threatened to name those who she believes have had consensual affairs with married men, referring to them as being “worse” than sex workers (she used less polite language). As yet undeleted, however, is her long defense of her views. Fair enough. There’s no need to scapegoat Ms. Gnanavel. She was only expressing the same sentiments that many in our deeply misogynistic society hold. Let’s talk about those sentiments, two in particular: that women – rather than the men who chose to be with them – are to be blamed for destroying families, and that sex workers are contemptible.

Infidelity is complicated, just as human desires, emotions and decisions are. Of course we want to simplify it, if only so that it becomes less painful. That doesn’t have to be done by painting women as villains by default. A recent meme I saw went so far as to hold culpable the woman who raised the woman who became involved with a married man – that’s two generations of woman-blaming! Anything to protect a man from taking responsibility for his choices. Whether blaming a married man’s lover, her mother, or his own wife – any culprit will do. As long as the only one who behaved dishonourably, the one who did the cheating, is absolved.

In heterosexual contexts, when the gender roles are reversed, the partnered woman who has an extramarital affair is still the one who is condemned. I cannot think of even one instance, anecdotal or celebrity-related, where the other man in the picture had his name forever tarnished by his involvement in what is called “home-wrecking”.

This is where the second of Ms. Gnanavel’s expressed sentiments comes into play. Why is calling someone a sex worker (using less respectful words, or not) a slur? This prejudice is premised on the idea that sex workers have agency and own their bodies entirely – something which it’s worth noting that most other women in patriarchal societies are not allowed to. Just as the imagined sex worker has control over her sexuality, so does the imagined mistress and the imagined adultress. Their imagined autonomy challenges the status quo. They choose (while married men do not – ha!). So consumed is the average, often incognisant, patriarchal agent with these hypotheticals that they don’t stop to ask themselves what they find so frightening.

Aside from a fundamental lack of understanding about capitalism, the idea doesn’t even hold water against that other favourite bugaboo – that girls and women will be kidnapped and trafficked (thanks, Mahanadhi). So which is it – that sex workers have volition, or are forced? How does the muddled misogynist mind hold these contradictions at once?

I wouldn’t know, but it’s a contradiction that the feminist mind also manages to hold, and engages with through the concepts of consent and desire. And there’s space in this discourse for even the heartbreak of betrayal, without resorting to either the assumption of villainy or the presumption of victimhood.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 29th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Breastfeeding – In Public, In India

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We had just ordered lunch at the 5-star hotel when Shamala Hinrichsen’s 8-month old got hungry too, so his lovely mom reached right into her dress and started to feed him. Our conversation continued as she rocked him gently. That was the first time I’d seen a woman breastfeed publicly in Chennai, without hiding her body. A foreigner of Tamil origin who’s been travelling extensively around India on work, she says, “I’ve seen women in rural areas do it with unapologetic authority. It’s a perfectly natural act.”

The Indian railways announced recently that 100 of their stations will have segregated nursing areas. In a letter to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, these areas were specified as “[a corner] provided with a small table and a chair with appropriate partition/screen around it.” But is that enough? Dentist Dr. Deepa V., whose child was recently weaned, never nursed openly owing to shyness. She says, “In public facilities, people still turn to the wall to hide themselves. I remember the looks my relatives gave me whenever I lifted my salwar to feed while travelling with them. I think this discomfort is the main reason why we train babies to accept formula milk earlier.”

Another mother, now nursing her 7.5 month old, related how she sat at an eatery in a Chennai mall and started to nurse, unable to do so in the stuffy public toilets. Immediately, the staff directed all the male customers to sit away from her. She was appreciative of the concern for privacy and comfort. “I think the horror stories we read about breastfeeding moms being fined, shamed or trolled are really a US problem,” she says. “There’s a solid sisterhood solidarity everywhere for the nursing mom. No judgement if I’m in a salwar kameez or saree or tank top or shorts and I want to feed the baby – that’s it, the sisterhood comes into force.”

Theatre director Samyuktha PC returned to work 3 months after childbirth, bringing her daughter to rehearsals, and openly nursed when required. “At first, I did cover myself, but the cloth over me just made Yazhini and I sweat so badly. And it felt cruel to do that.” From then on, she simply asked if others were comfortable, and carried on – anywhere. “But outside of home and work, bad experiences happened quite often – men staring, women thinking it was their right to drape me. But I was also supported and told I was courageous. I would rather it be normalised.”

While it comes down to personal preference, there’s no doubt that these preferences can be inhibited by societal norms. Which is why Shamala’s unapologetic public nursing seemed especially triumphant to me. In Mumbai recently, when she began to breastfeed on the ground floor of a café, men on the balcony level took their phones out and started to photograph her. She kept feeding. “Would I be gawked at or judged if I were feeding someone with a spoon? I think not. Possibly because it is from an appendage. My breasts. I would like to think people would be as judgemental if I were feeding from, say, my nose.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 13th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Gaze Of The Pervert

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No one wants to be woken by a trembling loved one in the wee hours of the morning. My mother was shaking, confused, apologetic.  Turning on her phone at dawn, she had been confronted with a web-link and an aggressive message: “shocking to see her exposed like this.”

A young friend of hers, a man of my age, a doctor, a bachelor (that’s right, when women are reduced to their marital statuses, why not charge the discussion this way too?), had attacked her through that most quintessentially patriarchal of manoeuvres: by slutshaming me.

The photo in question has me seated on the floor, a foot stretched out to reveal beautiful anklets. My hair is loose, my expression is soft. I am in fading black jeans and a long sleeved blouse, cut low, my cleavage visible. I look like I am dreaming of important things.

The photo in question had appeared only on a single indie magazine, accompanying an interview, not a television channel or mainstream media. There was no chance he had come across it unless he had actively stalked me, or belongs to any of those hideous groups that sources images of women for public shaming and private pleasure. And in any event, that he had not contacted me directly dispels any lingering doubts. Neither the infantilising of an adult in her 30s nor the harassment of a senior citizen are acceptable.

I had that photo taken. I had control over its publication. I look like myself in that photo. My best self, even. A soft, strong woman at ease in her own skin.

The only obscenity in all this was that man’s gaze, and his sinister confidence that my mother would privilege his perverted morality over my autonomy. He used me to hurt her, and used her to further an ancient agenda of oppressing and punishing women. Unforgivable.

Yet how utterly common it is, the policing of women’s bodies. The great patriarchal paradox is that the female body is annexed as the repository of culture and honour, but is also continuously desecrated by word, deed and gaze. So those who entrust a woman to safeguard those civilisational concepts within the site of her body are the same ones who routinely violate them. And her.

Lately, the historical Nangeli, because of whom 19th century Kerala’s casteist, sexist breast tax was lifted, has come back into discussion owing to the erasure of her story from school textbooks. Infuriated at a system that required lower caste women to first uncover – expose – for appraisal, then pay to cover their breasts publicly (itself a colonial influence; traditionally, we were more comfortable with the fact of breasts), she cut hers off and presented them to the tax collector.

Nangeli’s breasts bloodying a plantain leaf. My breasts in a plunging neckline. Kannagi’s grenade-breast, cindering the city of Madurai, dominion of Meenakshi who was born with three breasts. I – the “slut” – dare to link myself to these emblems of “chastity”. Because both words are constructs, designed to eliminate personal agency and misattribute power. Effectively, there’s no difference between severing and showing. If you see a difference, it’s your gaze that needs checking.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 19th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

“Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”

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I’m so very delighted that my essay on femininity, fashion and exile, “Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”, from the anthology Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories (HarperCollins India/Hardie Grant Australia), has been republished in The Ladies Finger. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

TOI iDiva: A Cinderella Story

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Change on the level of society is a generational thing. The dream is that there will come a day when a rape, even a single one, becomes as shocking as a beheading or a skinned scalp – an act of torture from an unevolved era, not a hypothetical, daily risk. But until then, as depressing and perhaps controversial as the notion is, there is only so much we can do: caregivers today have a responsibility to raise their sons differently, while simultaneously protecting themselves and their daughters from the dangerous conditioning that remains rooted in human mentality at large.

Unfortunately, “protection” is interpreted too frequently in ways which are invasive, imbalanced, curb basic freedoms or blame the victim. The city of Gurgaon recently imposed an 8pm curfew on its female population. This curfew carries multiple layers of responsibility: women are discouraged from working or being out of the home past that hour, and their employers are required to arrange for transportation to drop them back home, in addition to a slew of tab-keeping measures that monitor personal details and activities. Accountability is thus shifted completely away from the police and the authorities; should a crime occur past that hour, they can plead as useless as the post-midnight pumpkin in the story of Cinderella.

As many people have pointed out: why is the onus on potential victims, rather than potential perpetrators, to stay off the streets? Why can’t Gurgaon ban its male population from being outside at night?

And why is rape or other gender-based crime (such as eve-teasing or molestation) only expected to happen at night?

The word “curfew” is said to have come from the French words for “cover” and “fire” – “cover the fire”. What Gurgaon has done could happen, as though in a dystopian Margaret Atwood novel, in any other city, and in fact already does happen in informal, unstructured ways.

The visual this term – “cover the fire” – conjures to my mind suggests that the fire is not put out, only kept from view. There is a profound and pervasive stifling of “fire” in women – dissent, expression and passion. But there can be no extinguishing it. As any of us who have experienced the curtailing of ambition, moral policing or other forms of inhibition know, the fiery woman knows when to take the form of water: to become amorphous and slip away, reconstituting in kinder vessels, larger landscapes.

A simple example that you might be deeply familiar with: afternoon sex, after all, is the only kind of sex good girls in Madras have.

The most terrifying thing about a law-enforced curfew is not that it has happened, but that it will continue to. The Gurgaon precedent may “inspire” the administrations of other places. Before we get to that stage, and with the sobering reality that a truly egalitarian society won’t manifest overnight in mind, what can be done to effect little changes that might go a long way?

A culture of fear is a culture of defeat. There have to be better ways to protect ourselves and the other women in our lives than to simply say “stay at home, it’s for your own good”. For example: “morality” is taught in schools, but what about martial arts? We routinely carry shawls to cover our upper bodies, but do we carry pepper spray in our handbags? Do city corporations invest in adequate street lighting?

Instead of questioning women who are alone on the street, can’t the police also question male loiterers? Instead of chasing couples off the beach, why not keep a closer eye on actual crime?

Instead of blaming all women, or suspecting all men, why not take the view that we’re all in this together, and that a society is only as sick as its silences?

An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India.

TOI iDiva: A Toast To The Ladies

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Everybody knows that the second greatest euphemism in the food and beverages industry after “Rocky Mountain oysters” are the words “ladies’ night”. The suggestion: the clinking of glamorous, girly and most importantly gratis cocktails against a backdrop of softcore feminism. The actual serving: vodka deposited with an eyedropper into a sea of diluted juice against a backdrop of hardcore desperation.

Cheapskate tactics? Maybe. Maybe folks only want women to drink if they pay money to do so, which would be perfectly fair.

But then I recall two scenes, not far apart, at the same restaurant in Chennai: in the first, a female friend and I ordered a bottle of white wine. The waiter, asking no further questions, walked off to get us one. In the second, dining with a male friend, I asked for a single glass. “White or red?” I told him my preference. “Chenin blanc or sauvignon blanc?” In the presence of male company, regardless of how minimal the expenditure, female drinking was deemed respectable enough to warrant choices. In its absence, regardless of how extravagant the resulting bill, it was not.

Let’s not even contemplate the topic of the TASMAC adventure, wherein the undercurrent of judgment sensed in prime establishments is more like a riptide.

No wonder then that the news of what the world’s largest alcohol company, Diageo, did earlier this week for its Indian operations has been met with some thinly-disguised consternation. Out of 30 managerial positions at Diageo, 12 have been filled by women – and a further four women have been appointed directors. Additionally, the press reports that the Indian operations of major high-end manufacturers William Grant & Sons, Moet Hennessy and Pernod Ricard are either headed by women, or employ a large percentage of female executives.

“Will a woman really get that?” sulked one very sexist article. That being booze. That being the booze experience.

You know, just like how women don’t get mathematics, or philosophy, or any of those tough, tough things.

What’s ironic is that women here probably know far more about liquor than their male counterparts, because all pleasure that occurs surreptitiously intensifies. Our society is permissive when it comes to men imbibing alcohol. With women, however, it happens differently. Either she is inducted into the enjoyment of liquor by liberal relatives, or she learns how to keep it a secret. This means that she figures out her capacity, how to keep a clear head, what to do if she’s gone overboard, how to conceal the traces. She figures out what she likes and doesn’t, and why. The act of imbibing is not simple for her. I don’t intend to glorify alcohol or gloss over its ill effects, but when it comes to India and alcohol, women have everything it takes to run the show: sharply-honed senses of planning, self-preservation and maverick nonconformism.

Some years ago, I was told about a pink autorickshaw that sold bootlegged liquor. I’ve never been able to verify this, and of course it sounds about as mythical as a women-friendly TASMAC. Still, there’s something about the news that the Indian operations of these beverage enterprises are going to be led largely by women which is almost as delightful a thought as such a vehicle. It may be “just business”, as some might say, but the news is no less than a toast – to all the women out there who by virtue of having to hide, seek, rebel and relish as only the forbidden can be relished learnt not just how to hold their liquor, but how to hold their own.

An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India.

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.

Walking The Talk

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The first association that came to mind when I heard that New Delhi (in the footsteps of a successful public demonstration of the same name in Canada) would be holding a Slutwalk was: bra colour.

I wasn’t planning an outfit, right down to matching underthings, in order to participate in the said Slutwalk; the association came from having recalled a strange Facebook exercise in which women were encouraged to post the colours of their bras as their status messages. Doing so was expected to raise awareness about breast cancer, ironic considering that no explanation was to be given for the status – in fact, the whole thing was supposed to be kept secret from the male populace. Needless to say, it wasn’t a very successful effort.

The term “Slutwalk” seemed similarly counterproductive in an Indian setting: by the time we had all had our arguments about the word “slut”, who uses it here and when and why and if it accurately conveys what must be conveyed, the core message of the protest would have become secondary. The core message in this case being making public spaces safer for women, who risk violence and shaming on a daily basis just by virtue of being out of the home (violence and shaming within the home are invariably connected, but more difficult to tackle by way of event-based strategies). Indeed, this is what happened – privileged to the point of being exclusionary, the term was contextually meaningless, and altogether detracting and distracting.

The desi Slutwalk was renamed “Besharmi Morcha”, Hindi for “shameless protest”. Although the demonstration has yet to take place, tangled as it has become in a great deal of discussion and comparably little action, this is surely an improvement. Also, it sounds a lot like “besame mucho” (Spanish for “kiss me very much”), which is really rather nice.

Oops, did I just trivialize what some historically-clueless people have called the beginning of the women’s rights movement in India?

Lost in all this clatter about the semantically correct and the stylishly cool is the most pertinent question of all: can public demonstration actually galvanize change in today’s world?

Public assembly is believed to be so powerful a tool of political activism that governments are known to either enshrine or fear it. In the United States, freedom of assembly is protected within their Constitution as the very first amendment; in Malaysia, police have been arresting people for wearing yellow ahead of a protest on July 9 for which that colour has taken on totemic meaning. Since the beginning of the 20th century alone, numerous examples have attested to this power. Everything from the physically taxing Salt March to the bloody Tiananmen Square protests to the relatively rather relaxing Lennon-Ono bed-ins of the ‘60s show this to be true. Even the fun Pride Parades of today have their roots in the spontaneous, violent uprising known as Stonewall that took place 40 years ago in New York City.

Public assembly is immediate and visceral: emotions run high, there is excitement and electric tension, and in some cases things can become frighteningly unmanageable. They attract attention, they demand spontaneity, and they always contain some elements of risk. But they are only the most visible representation of a struggle, neither its cause nor its culmination. What happens at a protest itself is far less important than what happens the next day, and in all the days to come.

The Slutwalk also reminded me about a (possibly apocryphal) story about the Aurovillean Mother: that nearly a hundred years ago, she had organized for schoolgirls in Pondicherry to march around the town wearing comfortable shorts, an act of an unimaginable lack of decorum in that time. They were spat at and disparaged, but over time, the town became accepting of different modes of dress. It’s a difference that remains palpable even today, as any Chennaiite woman who heads south for the weekend knows.

At the time of this writing, Besharmi Morcha is indefinitely pending. There is no doubt that if it is to happen, it will garner enormous media attention, inspire a thousand more blog posts, and be the focal point of many discussions relating to gender issues for some time. Perhaps there will be provocative attire (the dress code of the original Slutwalk) on display, perhaps there won’t be. Perhaps the demonstration will be sedate, or perhaps it will be flamboyant.

None of that really matters. Count not the number of people who come to march, count not the number of people who turn up to gawk – count only, over time, the number of assaults and insults that are meted out on those same streets. Perhaps there won’t even be a correlation to the protest itself, but only to a larger framework of engagement and daily, reiterated revolution. But all that really matters is that that number dwindles, as far as it can possibly fall.

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

Book Review: Beautiful Thing: Inside The Secret World Of Bombay’s Dance Bars by Sonia Faleiro

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In August of 2005, the state of Maharashtra introduced a bill of law which put an estimated 75,000 women out of work.

Among these women was a 19 year-old named Leela – sharp-tongued, strong-willed and very “bootyful” – the star of suburban Mumbai’s Night Lovers dance bar, and the eponymous beautiful thing of this thought-provoking exposé. When we first meet Leela, she is trying to coax a sleeping customer out of her bed so she and Sonia Faleiro, at this time a reporter for a national news magazine, can chat. It’s January 2005 – just months later, the bill (which banned dance performances in all establishments rated three stars or below, thus forcing an entire service industry into unemployment or sex work) would be implemented.

Initially researching an article that would be axed, Faleiro was welcomed by Leela and her colleagues with an unusual trust, which later allowed her to document their world as it came to an unceremonious end. She is introduced as a friend to their clients, their families, and to members of all aspects of Mumbai’s underbelly. If there are any doubts about the author’s motives, they are quelled – few women in India today would choose to spend that much time in brothels and bars, fraternizing with both patrons and purveyors, sharing their rooms and their food, travelling with them and accompanying them to hospitals and hotels alike were it not for an emotional investment in those whose lives these are.

But to praise Faleiro for being intrepid enough to venture into this domain is to be all the more awed by the bar dancers themselves. Above all, Beautiful Thing is feminist commentary – by giving us an intimate view into their lives, this book has the capacity to change, or at least challenge, public perception about much-maligned sex workers and bargirls. Perhaps the most important stereotype that it dismantles is that they are people who operate from a position of disempowerment. On the contrary, many bar dancers rose out of sordid circumstances – Leela, for example, was pimped out by her father from a young age, offered for frequent rapes by policemen, abused to the point of being forced to eat her own vomit. Bar dancing bought freedom. Not only lucrative, it gave the women the option of not having to trade sexual favours for money. The nakhra, or artifice, of performance was enough to keep them desired, comfortable and fawned upon – but without necessarily having to service a customer. Unless one wanted to, or didn’t mind, or fell in love.

In other words, bar dancing allowed them to break the cycles of exploitation that trapped them within their societies and families, and gave them careers which made up in independence what was lacking in public respect – a level of independence often denied even to educated Indian women.

Out of the 75, 000 women who lost their careers when bar dancing was banned, Leela’s is only one story, and Faleiro paints her with such humour, chutzpah and empathy that it’s easy to see why the author herself was so mesmerized by her. Just as a bar dancer teases and tempts before getting down to business, we are first entertained by dramatic fisticuffs between Leela’s best friend Priya and the man-stealing, self-mutilating Barbie, and the demands of Leela’s difficult mother Apsara, before the book settles into its ultimately sobering effect. Faleiro charms us with Leela’s grit and glamour before taking us into the red light district of Kamatipura, then to the HIV wing of a hospital, and finally into the inhumanity of the ban itself. When we accompany the ladies to the beauty parlour before a birthday party, we have no idea how disturbed we will be by its end, the gathered weeping to a song from Umrao Jaan as in the near distance, a recently-castrated hijra moans in her bed.

Yet somehow, this glimpse into a subaltern reality seems insufficient by the book’s end. As compelling as Leela’s story is, there is the sense that Beautiful Thing could have had just a few more layers – the author says she conducted research and interviews for years, and one wishes more of this had been distilled into the work. But perhaps this is just the complaint of a reader who, captivated, wishes the book hadn’t ended so quickly. And that, then, would be Faleiro’s triumph: to have seared into our consciousnesses – and more importantly, our consciences – a Leela so forcefully alluring that we are dismayed to have to let her go. Is this the author’s nakhra, persuading us that what we have seen is just not enough, that there is even more beyond the screen?. And if it at all obliges us to not turn away from the corollaries of societal misogyny and look deeper into the misogyny itself, it would be proof supreme of Beautiful Thing’s importance.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian, New Delhi.

The Venus Flytrap: Forbidden Fruit

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This morning, I woke up humming, absolutely arbitrarily, the refrain “movin’ to the country, gonna eat a lot of peaches; movin’ to the country, gonna eat a lot of peaches”. It took a few moments to remember that this is the opening lyric of a song from the mid-90’s – and when I recalled that it was by a band named PUSA (Presidents of the USA) and made the obvious phonetic association, my day began in an auspiciously giggly mood.

If you miss my gist entirely, I can only direct you to T.S. Eliot, whose existentially-ailing J. Alfred Prufrock rued his lack of luck with women and pondered, “Do I dare eat a peach?” Though of course, peaches aren’t for all of us. This brings to mind the cat’s pyjamas of suburban legends I’ve heard about people who really, really love their fruits and veggies (and this is a genre in itself – let’s call it pulp fiction). This one’s set in one of those histrionically chauvinistic universities, in which male and female students are segregated to a degree that suggests that whatever’s in the water in those campuses must be so lushly virile that even the boys risk pregnancy.

That the young woman in this apocryphal tale took a liking to bananas will sound just like any hostel story you might already know involving carrots, cucumbers or – I wince at the thought – corn on the cob (of the venerable and trusty lady’s finger, one never hears). That a banana took too much of a liking to her, became stuck, and went rotten over the course of several days will also remind you of all the wickedly hilarious medical emergencies these stories always seem to end up in. But the really juicy part? It seems that ever since this unfortunate incident, bananas in the women’s canteen of this institution are only served chopped. The men’s canteen continues to serve them whole. Boys, apparently, don’t like bananas. No word, however, on how apple pies are served.

I mean, you’ve got to wonder: why are all these sex-crazed orchard-marauders always girls?

If these stories have any truth in them, I think it’s fantastic that these girls have sexual agency even within such repressed environments (though the effects on their physical and emotional health are a concern). I don’t see a cause for shame in the least. In fact, I feel a little sorry for the boys who are expected to be ripe with lust, and whose escapades lack the extra succulence that all fruit that is forbidden has.

And there isn’t that much that is forbidden to the heterosexual male in our society, or for which he is judged.

I hope this isn’t going to influence anyone impressionable into expressing his raw longing with pineapples, mingling seed with melons, or channeling his desperation into dates with dates. Though if it does, and a proctologist and an institutional policy change get involved, I’d hope it makes its way into the rich archive of similar rumoured romances.

Still, I’ll say this: if raiding (or raping) the grocery store is only a temporary means, there is one thing in particular one can practice on. It’s the straight man’s (and zigzaggy lady’s) only known permanent cure for desperation. The question is: do you dare eat a peach?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Op-Ed: Chennai’s Moral Police

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In Chennai, the term “moral police” is too often a literal one.

Two relatively high-profile incidents in the past week cast the city’s police force in a frightening light, as enforcers of a deeply misogynistic worldview who go as far as to violate the law in order to uphold their principles.

In the first case, a married woman who was with a male friend at the Kotturpuram railway station was apprehended by a police officer, who then physically assaulted the friend in question and cast aspersions as to why the duo were together. When told that her husband was fully aware of this friendship, the officer threatened to make bystanders testify against her.

In the second instance, a 21-year old lesbian who had left home and subsequently been reported as a missing person by her parents voluntarily went to the Thiru-Vi-Ka police station to declare herself an adult operating under her own autonomy. She was detained for a day, and released only into the custody of a relative. Activists from the gay rights group Sangama, who were supporting her, were harassed.

The moral universe occupied by too many members of Chennai’s police force is a murky one, bolstered by a flawed understanding of “Tamil culture”, unchecked sexism, and an abiding disrespect for the law itself.

But these are hardly isolated incidents. If anything, they have only served to reinforce what every woman in this city already knows: the police are more likely to harm than help. As journalist Chithira V put it to me, the security-heavy Gopalapuram neighbourhood – where the state’s CM resides – is a dangerous area, not in spite of but because of the presence of the police. Even the 20 all-women police stations in the greater Chennai area cannot effectively address the daily threats and aggravation that take place in public spaces, by members of the force itself.

Chennai is a city of fear and loathing, and the deep distrust in its sanctioned protectors is not a phantasm of urban legend. The city’s profound conservatism is in conflict with the needs of a modernizing population, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the manner in which its police relegate law and ethics in favour of their private concepts of morality.

The misogyny of the police force finds an accomplice in the unresponsiveness of Chennai’s ordinary citizenry. These instances are too omnipresent to enumerate, but one in particular, also shared by Chithira V, illustrates this pervasive attitude to chilling accuracy: some weeks ago, three women were attacked by a man with a knife on Besant Nagar beach. When they scattered, screaming, the man calmly walked away unperturbed. None of the families or couples sitting near these women paid any attention to the skirmish. The women called the police; an officer arrived, rounded up two random men, and insisted that they were the attackers. The real attacker not only went unpunished, but surely orchestrated the attack expecting this. Even in a group of three, the women were – in the city’s understanding of this word – “alone”.

So deeply embedded is the belief that one must be vigilant of the vigilantes that many women go to lengths to avoid interactions with the police, even at their own peril. A friend who was being followed by an ex-boyfriend felt she could not approach the police if the stalking became more invasive, because her former relationship with him would surely be held against her, and render her a target for humiliation and harassment. I personally leave home well before dark whenever I have planned a night out; having been questioned twice by a policeman on a bike right in front of my apartment, I changed my schedule. This is only an inconvenience, but the sinister underpinnings behind why I had to do it are hard to ignore. When my parents enquired about what the policeman was doing, they were told that a brothel was allegedly operating near the premises. There is no brothel here, as far as I know, but there is a women’s hostel.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian, New Delhi.