Tag Archives: politics

The Venus Flytrap: Worn On The Sleeve

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There’s a scene in the heart-wrenching 2008 film Frozen River, in which two impoverished women who smuggle people across the US-Canada border bring a dead baby back to the parents it was separated from. One of them drives, instructing the other to hold the baby close to her body so that the corpse will not be cold when they hand it to the mother. Something miraculous happens, somewhere between the warmth of the jacket the child is wrapped in, the skin it is close to, and perhaps the familiar sound of a heartbeat.

For some reason, news of US First Lady Melania Trump travelling to and from a child detention centre wearing a jacket with the words “I really don’t care, do u?” (sic) reminded me of this movie, and this scene in particular. It does not matter that she reportedly didn’t wear it inside the centre, one of several where children separated from their families at the US-Mexico border have been detained. Many of those children don’t understand English. Some of us, watching, do. And we do care, but the message wasn’t for us, either.

Some style statements are literal. Propaganda through fashion – and specifically, through styles created by private manufacturers not directly affiliated to governments – is not just for those in the public eye, as Ms. Trump’s own $39 Zara jacket is an example of.

During World War II, textiles with lively prints were produced in the US and UK with concealed messages. An attractive red dress with black and white patterns donated to the FIDM Museum, Los Angeles, sewn in the 1940s, says in reversed writing: “There’ll Always Be An England”. Its wearer would be able to read the text when examining herself closely in the mirror, but would likely walk by countless people who did not catch its hidden message. In Japan at the same time, omoshirogara kimonos, depicting scenes of war and victory, were worn privately. The fabric was sometimes used as the inner lining of kimonos worn outside. India’s khadi movement was a public display of political sentiments. Charles Dickens’ novel The Tale of Two Cities features tricoteuses, women who knitted the names of those sent to the guillotine into their purls. Historically, women in the spectator seats of executions were indeed known to knit. Among their goods was the Phrygian cap, which unlike a crown was a symbol of democracy.

Zara didn’t just make a random jacket put to strategic use, for in the recent past it has also used anti-Semitic and white nationalist motifs on clothing. Neither did Ms. Trump, whose image is carefully crafted, just throw on an outfit. It’s the kind of thing an obnoxious teen might wear to dinner with his parents, except that on her and on this occasion it was more like Cruella de Ville’s Dalmatian fur coat.

Here’s a tiny consolation: in 2017, Turkish shoppers discovered notes sewn into Zara attire by unpaid workers hired by a factory which also made Mango and Next products. These notes brought attention to their plight, shared by workers worldwide. Some opinions are worn on the sleeve; but some truths are sewn into the seams.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 28th 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: Gaslighting Genocide

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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.

The Venus Flytrap: Not Your Women’s Day

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We don’t want your token rose because what do you think this is, Valentine’s Day? It’s not Mother’s Day either, and you need to find a way to respect women that doesn’t require them to be desexualised into a familial role.

We don’t want your chocolate unless it’s as dark as the history of our oppression, as bitter as you think feminists are, and full of nuts – which is what we’ve been driven to by all these antics.

We don’t want your “saree day at the office” dress code because we are not employed for your viewing pleasure. And – on this day or another other – if you have a problem with our bra straps showing, or our bare arms, or the fact that we won’t wear a slip under a white tunic, we’re certainly not going to make the effort for you.

We don’t want your special discounts. Unless that discount happens to be 25%, which is where the gender pay gap in India stands as per the latest report by Monster India. And no, we don’t want to hear your smug justification about how you spend 25% more time at the workplace than we do. It’s not our fault if you can’t manage your schedule as efficiently. It’s not our fault that we leave on the dot because when we get home, we have even more to do, because no one considers that housework is also work.

We don’t want your complimentary salon services unless you promise to ask each one of your patrons, “Who are you doing this for?” and have them at least ponder the answer before ripping hair out of their skins with hot wax. And we don’t want the allied weight loss programme, ever. Don’t even offer.

We don’t want your free cocktails, because we never liked Ladies’ Night to begin with. Here’s an honest poster for you: “Stags! Here’s bar full of half-drunk women disappointed with watery shots, just waiting to you to hit on them!” Yeah, that. Just try lowering our inhibitions while we’re busy raising our standards.

We don’t want your contests that basically require competing with other women. Just No.

We don’t want your televised speeches and mandatory tweets about the girl child, not when your misogynistic actions and ideologies contradict them.

We don’t want to hear how strong you think (you have to say) we are, because this isn’t a weightlifting tournament.

International Women’s Day falls on March 8th every year, so this is either a day late, or 364 days early. It’s been observed – not celebrated, necessarily, but observed – since 1909, and was initially known as International Working Women’s Day owing to its political (specifically, Socialist) roots. The day’s history is one of strikes and protests, and here are some in India this year: a silent protest by Garment Labour Union in Bangalore, a double-observance of Savitribhai Phule’s death anniversary called Chalo Nagpur, and.. I can’t even find one more to finish my sentence nicely. I dearly hope there are more.

The pink-hued capitalism and condescension we see around us this week demeans the day’s true meaning. How shall we observe it next year?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 9th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Democracy And Apocalypse

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The word “apocalypse” is from the Greek language, in which it means: unveiling, uncovering, great revelation. To be post-apocalyptic, then, is to be fully in possession of knowledge. Where does that place us today, when this word is used as though the naming itself will protect the world from what is being unleashed on it by the accretion of greed? Some people would call it an accretion of fear, but I beg to differ. To look into the bloodied face, even in a distant photograph, of a child and affirm the belief that that child has less of a right to exist than you do is not fear, only greed. “The less there are of him, the more there is for me.”

There are two more Greek elements worth weighing in these times. One is from mythology. The other is from politics.

When Paris brought his conquest Helen to Troy, the prophet Cassandra met them at the port and tore the veil from Helen’s hair, only to be dragged away and silenced. Cassandra had been cursed by the god Apollo, in whose temple she had been a priest, that her prophecies would always be precise – but that she would never be believed. She was Paris’ half-sister, and had warned at his birth that he would destroy the city.  The moment Helen set foot in Troy was the moment when its destiny spun irrevocably into bloodshed. Cassandra saw this, and cried herself hoarse trying to convince the people around her. There have been many Cassandras. And there still are, speaking the truths that most will later claim not to have heard at all.

The second element is democracy, which is generally held to have first successfully been attempted in ancient Greece. I recently learnt that the philosopher Socrates was opposed to the concept, because democracies are wholly dependent on education, i.e. the ability to make informed choices. Let’s consider this angle. If we are to fight fascism, we must examine why democracy sometimes fails. There is the basic stratum of education: that which we are taught, and the system already excludes many on this count. Then there is the next: that which we go forth and learn. As adults – beneficiaries, rejects or merely survivors of that system – we complacently educate ourselves on forwards, memes and propaganda. This is entirely a choice. And ostensibly, so is everything that happens in any democracy as a result.

In the first few days of what is becoming seen as a post-apocalyptic / apocalyptic / apocalypse bardo world, I found myself very quiet. In actuality, this was neither the end nor the beginning. The warnings had been issued, the teachings had been shared, and to use the language of the new world disorder, solidarity had been pronounced. What else was left to say? So I sat for a while and thought of beautiful distractions, as an attempt to soothe myself. Until even that led to futility: the question of what the purpose of making art is, if all the stories already told did not keep us from allowing these ones, the ones we are enacting and witnessing, to come true.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 2nd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: We Have All Written/Said Problematic Things

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When we consider a poem like “The White Man’s Burden”, all the enchantment of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” fades away. When we realise that Enid Blyton’s books were full of racism and sexism, and that we were happily oblivious to these prejudices as we read them, we cringe. More egregiously still, when we think retroactively of the “groupie” culture of 70’s music, we balk at all the statutory rape that took place.

Especially if you write, perform, work in policymaking, or teach, such examples are worth reflecting on. From actions to accidental slippages, they tarnish entire bodies of work. Whether or not one is in the public eye is irrelevant. Accountability shouldn’t be motivated by criticism, but by one’s own conscience. What would you do differently, looking back at your own work?

A few weeks ago, a friend posted a poem that I wrote when I was 17 on Facebook. I commented with a disclaimer, which she was sweet enough to insist was unnecessary. But to me, it was. You see, the poem contained the word “androgynous” as a reference to Plato’s androgyne, the being made of two halves so as to be a perfect whole, who need not seek love beyond the self. But if I were to write a similar poem now, half a lifetime later, it would not even occur to me to use a word that belongs as a queer identifier, because my own understanding of the word has changed.

Similarly, when I was doing the final proofs for my new book, The High Priestess Never Marries, I removed a playful reference to the Mahabharata’s Dronacharya, who demanded that the tribal archer Eklavya sever his thumb, from a story. When I had written the story five years ago, my understanding of caste was less evolved than it is now. To put it simply: I wouldn’t make that joke now because I would no longer think it was funny. I had been wrong, whether I knew it or not. How many times had I read a book and thought of how much better it would have been if it weren’t for that completely unnecessary drop of indigo in the milk: “fat” or “dark” being used interchangeably with “unattractive”, period pieces which used racial pejoratives like “savages” outside of dialogue, elitist self-identifications like “TamBrahm”, and so on? How can I leave that bad taste in someone else’s mouth, when I know better now?

Norms and languages evolve. So do we. And we must remember: while we owe it to our own personal growth and to the audiences that we hope to reach (whether that’s in a book, in a personal conversation, or on Twitter), we are all works in progress. We’re all continuously changing, and if we’re open to it, we’re continuously learning. I wonder what I’ll think of my recent writing in 15 years. I wonder what I will find problematic then. My point is to say that it’s okay. We grow most when we have the humility to know that we don’t know everything. The best disclaimer, and the best apology, is to delve deeper and do better.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Kabali As Political Text, In The Right Context

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Growing up – as a Sri Lankan Tamil with an Indian passport who lived in Malaysia for 17 years – there was only one representation of that last country in Tamil cinema. Kollywood’s stars would shoot song numbers there, dancing in front of arbitrary things – pink buses, for instance – and architectural landmarks. It would infuriate me to watch, back then. How could filmmakers promote, touristically and aspirationally, a nation that held people of Indian descent under institutional subordination and cultural indenture?  When the Kabali poster appeared, I thought it would be one more such glorification.

By the time I learned what it was really about, most tickets were sold out. By some movieland miracle, I found myself seated at a theatre with two friends, one of whom had ecstatically called after his first viewing the previous day to say, “You have to watch it. I never told you or asked you about this, but when we first met I heard from my contacts in Malaysia how you had narrowly escaped detention under the Internal Security Act for fighting for Indian rights there.”

In 2007, after two years of tracking illegal temple demolitions and personal struggle to remain in Malaysia, I wrote that any nation that operates on a system of racial superiority and inferiority, as Malaysia does through its Constitution, is under apartheid. The term has now come into parlance, but at that time no one had ever publicly declared it. This attracted the ire of the said government. I was 22, briefly (I thought) in India; I could not go back.

What came first: ethical compass or compassion? I remember exactly when my politicisation deepened. June 2006: a photograph of an Indian gardener whose daughter had died of meningitis at a National Service camp. There was no clear-cut systemic element, no reason for activism. But I looked at that forlorn image and saw in his futility the burden and spiritual fracture of generations of disenfranchisement. It changed me, and my life, forever. Kabali reminded me of the pathos of that photo.

Kabali makes no sense to an Indian audience unaware of diasporic challenges. Around me, the theatre clapped raucously at random bits, but not for the political touchpoints. Me? I wept copiously. Because to those who know, the code is obvious. We know why the antagonist is played by a non-Malaysian actor with an accent so wrong he doesn’t even pronounce the slur “keling” correctly. We know why Kabali agitates against British and Chinese men, but not the Malay-run government. We know why the temple demolitions are in flashback and not in true chronological context. We know the name “Tiger” is an unflattering (thus accurate) allusion to Eelam.

The Malaysian release has a different ending, with Kabali submitting to authoritarian pressure. Like every compromise (and there are many) made in this film, it was worth it. Because if Pa. Ranjith hadn’t made them, it simply couldn’t have been released there.

And there is where it is most needed, among people who deserve to see themselves in truthful, powerful pop cultural lights. The political coding may be deep, but so is the healing that art makes possible.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 28th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.