Tag Archives: politics

The Venus Flytrap: Anxiety In Times Of Public Crisis

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Over the weekend, a series of anxieties I’d been having all month came to a head and – clarity dawning on me on what the root cause was – I decided to cocoon myself, digitally and otherwise. I locked my social media accounts, refrained from posting, minimised online consumption and focused on grounding myself. My experience is subjective in that I am a double exile: I belong to a minority that experienced genocide, moved to an apartheid state in childhood, lost that one for speaking the truth, and am an official but not sentimental citizen here. I have a sensitivity to the conditions that lead to violence, the way certain birds know when a storm is coming. But my experience is not unique, either – all over India, news and footage of brutality, coming most recently out of Delhi, have been upsetting, confusing and frightening to people with a conscience. For some, the events triggered the trauma of prior occurrences, but one needn’t have personal or communal memory of persecution to feel affected by them, even from a distance.

A friend thoughtfully shared what someone she looks to for spiritual guidance told her: that one must avoid the tendency to narrativise in these times, managing them in small increments so as to not become overwhelmed. This may seem at first glance to be counter-logical. Should we deny the big picture? Should we ignore what led us here, and what historically has been proven to lead from here? No and no, but we must remember to locate ourselves within this largeness as well. I recalled what a healer told me once on dealing with another kind of PTSD that is also mine: invoke the stars above me, and the earth below me. This is similar to the sensory awareness exercise known as the 54321 method that cognitive behavioural therapists teach, identifying sights, smells, sounds, textures and tastes in one’s immediate surroundings to defuse the state of panic.

An online group counselling session I joined seemed directed at encouraging people to seek individual help – but professional therapy, like all healthcare, is a luxury. It was clear that many people are distressed, and far from apathetic. This was affirming to see, in a way. Still, I found myself unable to schedule an appointment with my own therapist exclusively to discuss the way the socio-political climate was clawing at my past and making me terrified for the future. I soothed myself with wordless children’s books. I freed myself from the tyranny of articulation.

In times of horror, we are repeatedly called to stand up, speak up, hold the line. We are told we are cowards for observing without action, even if fear paralyzes us. We are told we are privileged if we look away even to catch our breath. All these statements are empty ones in the shadow of the horror itself. I have no better statements for you, not today. I hold this mirror up only to show you that you are not alone. And maybe, steadily, we will find ways to help ourselves and one another as we parse what has happened and what is still to come. Breathe. Breathe.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 6th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Reconciling Spirituality & Resistance

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Last week, a possibly well-intended but definitely poorly-executed infographic made the rounds, with a pair of lists intended to distinguish Hinduism from Hindutva, the fundamentalist strain of the former. The infographic relied heavily on scripture and comparison, and erased completely the existence of oppressions of caste, gender and other divisions. As someone with a spiritual life, elements of which draw from practices which fall under the umbrella of Hinduism, I was appalled by its lack of political consciousness. I am not being purposely vague in my self-description. My phrasing is meant to register my opposition to many structural and practical aspects of organised religion, my discomfort in identifying myself with one, as well as the syncretism of my beliefs – while still acknowledging this part of who I am and what influences it.

This is a necessary self-reckoning for people of all spiritual inclinations and religious backgrounds. When fundamentalisms arise, responding by attempting to a-historically defend religions is not only insufficient but dangerous. When we do this, we participate in creating the veneer of gentility that allows for injustice and violence to occur and be swept under the carpet when it does.

I have only respect for those who find that the most effective way is to throw the bhakti out with the bhakts’ bathwater, as many distinguished sociopolitical thinkers have done. I can also extend my understanding to those who, unable to counter the sophistication of critical theory with a sound articulation of why they feel as they do, think that aligning with orthodoxy is the only way to retain the solace they receive from what is ultimately a deeply private engagement. They feel that they have no choice but to side with factions which, while possibly structurally oppressing them, will not overtly shame them (this is done covertly, by fostering insecurity and an inferiority complex). Both these sets of believers will disagree with me, but I do not see them as binaries and neither do I see myself as being in the middle.

I am speaking to – but not for – those who also belong to neither set, but who believe that a vital public rendition of one’s sacred self demands standing up against inequality, challenging systemic persecution and resisting tyranny. By its nature, this cannot be consolidated into a movement, but can interweave with the good work already being done.

It is not by defending religion that we absolve ourselves, but in practising a deeper enquiry into where our beliefs, practices and the world intersect. We must look at the true guiding principles of our private faiths, and see how perfectly tenets like compassion and integrity match with tenets like secularism and justice. This is far from an easy process, and has costs including losing personally meaningful guides who espouse bigotry.

I learned that if there is no room for my sexuality, my politics or my love for the environment within an available framework, I must make my own. And we each should. Our very own, deeply personal ones, which do not seek to evangelise, but which allow us to move through the world ethically and with grace – in all senses of the word.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 16th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Sometimes, Resistance

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Sometimes resistance is in making art, in creating something that serves as a respite or a record, or even both. It’s a different mode of the imagination, working not with the potential of personal failure but against the question of greater futility. To ask the question of whether art is futile and then to make it anyway is an act of faith, and one which supports acts of defiance and necessary disobedience.

Sometimes resistance is in writing poetry, measuring words out so that they sing and sting at once. Sometimes resistance is in reading it: comparing translations, researching what happened in the year it was penned, finding out how the poet lived and died (and whether it was because of what they believed in). Sometimes it’s in the contemplation of how, stripped of those identifying details, it’s eerie in how many places, and at how many points in time, what’s described could resonate. Sometimes resistance is in saying the lines out loud, matching their rhythm to a melody. Sometimes resistance is in a song.

Sometimes resistance is in putting one’s body on the line, in marching or in sitting for hours in candlelight or under the sun, letting placards shout when the vocal cords need rest. It’s in letting sheer presence register a cause, while risking physical danger.

Sometimes resistance is in prayer, not merely for one’s own comfort, but with the profound belief that nothing that is truly holy will condone cruelty, especially when it is executed in its name.

Sometimes resistance is in study, in seeking out information that has been suppressed, tracing the trajectory of events, applying one’s own intelligence, and always remembering the proverb, “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.”

Sometimes resistance is in argument, in saying the words as clearly as possible even while shaking and shaking with rage, or with sheer horror at the lack of empathy in the challenger. Sometimes resistance is in consciousness-raising conversation, in listening non-judgmentally and offering counter-points.

Sometimes resistance is in crying afterwards.

Sometimes resistance is in silence: the dignity with which one leaves a table at which no room is made for anyone deemed the Other, even if one’s own name is embossed on a seat there. This is not the same silence as lying by omission. It is not the same silence as turning away.

Sometimes resistance is in drawing a kolam, putting one’s intention into something destined for disintegration. Sweeping it clean and starting over with fresh intention each time. Quite often, perhaps, resistance is like drawing a kolam. It’s quotidian work, located at the threshold of what is personal and what is public. It’s a generous act, sustaining legions of working ants. Averting evil through its geometric codes. Inviting blessings and visitors. One bends to the ground and touches it in the most eloquent rejoinder to the question of art’s futility, as if to say: “I draw this pattern because I believe in its beauty and its function. And because my belief in its power – and my capacity to replenish it – won’t change, you are more than welcome to step across its lines”.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 9th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Reminders At Reis Magos

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Here is a partial list of some of the plants I noticed a few days ago at the Reis Magos Fort in North Goa: asarina vines with light purple trumpet-like blossoms; frangipani trees statuesque in a courtyard that could been in a different edifice (an inspired house, a resort); dark-leaved Krishna tulasi; white bougainvillea; coconut trees ridging the coastline of the Mandovi estuary; a banyan tree that – a sign tells you – parasitically strangulated a coconut tree over almost a century then collapsed once its host caught fire; flowering weeds whose names elude my knowledge, growing mutinously between the red laterite bricks. I had wanted to see the fort, and the view of open water from its citadel points, but once I was there a strange feeling made me linger on the foliage instead.

When this Fort became a jail, the opening at the back was sealed with masonry,” said a signboard on the wall outside an entrance. I didn’t step inside. There was a lamp hanging from the ceiling, and beyond it a simple door with bars that revealed fronds of leaves, the water, and Panjim on the other side of a bridge. In other places therein, the glass that had been put in during reconstruction transformed the space, as windows do. Sunlight flooded away the tangibility, but not the fact, of what had happened within those solitary confinement cells and prison holds. To imagine what had was what caused the dizziness that made me steady myself with greenery.

I found it beautiful, this centuries-old fort restored into use and given such serenity only as recently as a decade ago. Its beauty was necessarily marred by its history, exhibited in signs throughout, in captions alongside photographs of freedom fighters and longer descriptions chronicling aspects of Goa’s political past. I skimmed the texts, a little apprehensive about the slant they may take. One anecdote caught my eye: of how African soldiers (from where, though; the only description was “tribesmen”?), themselves under colonial rule, had been deployed by Portugal to suppress revolutionary dissent. In order to manipulate them, they were shown maps depicting Goa as being larger than India. It’s an age-old tactic, exaggerating threats, and still used today to spread misinformation and goad people into inhumane actions.

It was impossible to ignore the larger signs (except if one can’t read in English). Near the entrance, I looked up to see a “Death Hole”. Upstairs, in a hall lined with art by Mario Miranda, was its other side. One could reverse vantage points: feel the claustrophobia of the idea of hot oil cascading from the ceiling, and then feel the bloodthirst and security of being where one could thwart the enemy.

From within a fort, one can believe oneself safe. One can take borrowed pride in its architecture. One can even let the robust walls muffle the sounds of nearby screaming. One can. That never means that one should. History doesn’t only echo. Sometimes it’s in what’s here, condemned to repetition. The signs are all there, and when we’ve steadied ourselves on pretty plants and sun-dappled waves and sea breezes, we cannot refuse to look at them.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 26th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Do Not Be Daunted

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All around the world, political currents which seemed to some to only be undulating, just mildly threateningly, on the horizon have not-so-suddenly arrived onshore. Those who warned about what could come or tried to stop it were not able to keep bigotries, anti-democratic actions and sectarianism at bay. If this moment is historical, it is not only because people in the future (if humanity has a future, although climate change experts predict otherwise) will speak of it and trawl through records of it, but also because it has happened many times already. Such times – in which vast tides of populations turned towards destructive ideologies – are a part of known history, both recent and distant. In such times, Bertolt Brecht – who lived in exile away from Germany when the Nazis were in power – wrote, we will have to “keep singing”. To quote: “In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing About the dark times.”

This could be read as a moral imperative – that there must be singing, so to speak, no matter how bleak the larger reality we live in. We can understand “singing” as including all manner of arts, all modes of study, and all acts of creation, including abstractly the raising of children, the tending of plants and self-care. But that final line – “About the dark times” – holds a standard for that imperative. Again, everywhere, the question arises of what the artist’s, teacher’s (or in our particular time, influencer’s) responsibility is in bringing awareness to injustice, helping galvanise change, or recording events.

Many hold this responsibility incredibly seriously, which we need. But to chastise those who don’t is correct only when it comes to those who refuse to, who support the status quo and prefer the different forms of denial that allow it. For there are those who create joy as neither denial nor distraction, but as salve and reviving agent. Beauty and sweetness are powerful healers. We cannot give in to the idea that there can only be grimness in “the dark times”; we must not lose our sense of melody, and of the many ways to strike a chord.

The Talmud – a legal compilation sacred to Jews, who were persecuted by the Nazis (our modern benchmark for democratically-elected evildoers) – offers possible instructions in the form of these beautiful instructions: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” The last line is the most resonant. It’s simply not going to be possible to be a torchbearer, a teller-of-truth-to-power, at all times. Exhaustion, personal circumstances, self-doubt, reasonable fear and difficulty will happen to even the best among us. Perhaps one more way to interpret that directive, and use it well, is to understand that it’s not necessary to be hopeful, or imagine that we must behave as beacons of hope, but when hope comes, we must honour it. In this way, little by little, we will still do what we can to resist, record – and rise above.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 19th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Dialogue Is Protest

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Many years ago, I was playing with a then 6-year old cousin of mine when for reasons I cannot remember, the second World War came up. What I do remember, however, is having to sit him down and as gently as possible explain some of the human costs of that era. I remember him quietly and seriously absorbing what I was telling him, wrapping his understanding of the world around this difficult, new information.

You already know this difficult information. You encountered it in your textbooks, as my cousin did eventually, because your textbooks included it. Textbooks do not include everything. And while it is easy to look at streamlined history in hindsight, it is not easy to watch it unfold or to prod at silences and erasures. So we look away, convinced we are not a part of what proceeds. And by doing so, we become complicit.

Recently, I’ve found myself doing for adults what I had to do for my cousin as a child. I’ve had to ask them to join the dots and consider how their personal experiences of gender, caste, language, race and other defining barriers are connected to the way power is structured, formally and informally. And to ask them what they mean, when they repeat what they’ve heard elsewhere. I’ve even had to ask them a question that makes me feel ashamed to have to put to any person who has gone to school: do you read before forming opinions; and what do you read?

In doing so, I’ve laid my own principles open to interrogation. I’ve laid myself open to hostility. I am tired, I am frightened, but my conscience demands that I engage. What motivates me to have these dialogues is not the need to impose my perspective, but the bleak awareness that alternate perspectives are rarely provided with compassion, without resorting to belittling. This is true for all sides.

Which is why, as much as possible, what I try to do is ask.

If you are worried about fundamental freedoms, you probably feel cornered of late. You don’t have to march at a protest or be active on social media to feel the corrosion even in your personal interactions. ‘Are we really so few – those of us who care?’ you wonder. Maybe. But couldn’t it be that people don’t care mainly because they don’t know?

The resistance is not to an open mind, but to that profoundly scary step of leaving a comfort zone of distraction and denial.

How did you develop your views? For instance, for myself, I know that having felt like, and been, an outsider from childhood is probably why I gravitate toward the underdog. Let’s think about how people come to social consciousness, and make it easier for them, rather than simply attacking their ignorance.

It is true that propaganda is, sadly, more effective than conversation. Fear and laziness allow for that. But my belief is this: instead of shouting back at structures from an ivory tower of our own, let’s talk. If it’s people we’re fighting for, it is people we must talk to.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 25th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.