Tag Archives: power

The Venus Flytrap: Her Perfect Equal

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At the beginning of her long affair with Harold Pinter, Antonia Fraser was warned by her brother, “You are a woman and a strong character yet you want your husband to be stronger. Women with strong characters who want to dominate are always fine because there are plenty of weak men around. Also plenty of strong men for weak women. But yours is a special problem.”

It is because of this special problem – this particular affliction of being an alpha female looking for neither her master nor her mutt but her perfect equal – that I reacted with a dismay not usually reserved for celebrity gossip at last week’s more plausible than usual reports that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are separating. The end of this power pairing isn’t yet another Hollywood meltdown; to me, it will be the combustion of the only modern relationship paradigm that I find truly desirable.

In recent years, I’ve found myself drawn to Jolie, an unlikely role model – too famous, too contemporary to truly analyze, and hounded by public obsession and private demons both. I find something very inspiring in the way in which, as a woman of a highly dysfunctional nature, she has turned her life around without ever losing the essence of her idiosyncrasy. In creating her family, she has revitalized the idea of the matriarch, updating the archetype without losing its noble connotations. Her advocacy has helped people around the world, and her artistic body of work shimmers with a certain aptitude. But it is her partnership with Pitt that ties this all together – it is an alliance that subverts the notion that intense, eccentric women cannot be partnered, at least not in any significant non-disastrous fashion. Like Jolie herself, it originated in scandal and evolved into something admirable, intriguing and undeniably powerful.

There is a danger in suggesting this, because it is an admission that mating is important – a very conservative idea for some. But more draconian still is the denial of passion, devotion and basic need – these are human impulses, not just female ones. I am interested in the idea of romantic partnership as collaboration, and have long puzzled over why there are so few examples of successful pairings that involve an unusual, forceful woman.

I read somewhere once, “Who could Madonna possibly date? She’s Madonna. Jesus, maybe.” The punchline, years later, is that she did date a man named Jesus, but the underlying contention remains: a theoretically post-feminist society has come to accept many things, but the virago with a domiciliary instinct is not one of them. This is neither a fault of the movement nor of the establishments it challenges. The notion boggles our minds simply because there is no existing marital script, at least in the archives of the collective psyche, to offer a successful example of such a couple.

Brangelina is the closest we have ever come to it. I want them to stay together not because of any vicarious tabloid satisfaction, but because they represent to me a sort of hope, a trajectory upon which to chart my own path. Can a woman be mother, martyr, magnate, mad – and still have her mate? Like Jolie, I intend to have my cake and eat you too – and hers is the only recipe I know so far.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: The Maladjusted Medium

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“These leaves are used in headache ointments,” she said, and handed me a few. They had a interesting, pleasantly medicinal smell. I asked her what the tree was called, but its name is the last thing I remember from that evening.

We were in the playground, waiting for the baby to tire herself out. The woman speaking was employed by my friend, for whom I was translating the conversation. She walked over and tore a bit of bark off the same tree. “This is used to make paper,” she said. “Where I come from, there’s nothing but these trees and maybe twenty houses, spread out far from each other.

“At night it’s pitch dark. By 6pm, my heart starts to palpitate. I can hardly sleep.”

“Didn’t you grow up there?” I asked. “How can you be so afraid? And what are you afraid of?”

“Ghosts,” she said. “I saw one when I was ten years old.”

Later, she would say that she didn’t normally tell people about these things. About how since she had seen that ghost, with its ghastly monkeylike face, she lived in nightly fear. About how some years after that, she developed the ability to channel deities, and exorcise the possessed – only in her case, it wasn’t so much an ability as an inability to resist being taken over. It always happened without her control, on two specific days of the week.

Later, I would also wonder why she had told this story at all – at 6pm on a Tuesday, no less.

It was the first her employer had heard of this side of her, and there were many questions. She carried on talking about her experience as a medium – but mostly, she talked about fear. Her fears seemed normal enough – fear of the dark, fear of spirits, fear of being in train stations at night, fears about negotiating life in this city as an unthreatening, working class woman.

At some point, she stopped me mid-translation. “I don’t want to talk now, I’m getting scared.” But it was too late. Even as we began to change the subject, she started to hyperventilate. Her slight body tensed and shuddered violently, her face contorted in anguish. I ran for the baby, thinking back on an incident from my own childhood in which a possessed woman had grabbed hold of me and flung me around like a crash test dummy. My friend put her arms around her until she calmed, sobbing. We left the playground as soon as we could.

There was only one thing about the possession that disturbed me, and disturbs me still: how a person of such power – a person who had the capacity to support her community as a healer – could have so little control over it. She was at the mercy of her own power. It had, in fact, turned on her.

And doesn’t this ring true for many of us? How easy it is to hide our own light, our own gifts, so as to get along with a hostile environment. But to get by on a mediocre life when one is meant for extraordinary things is to poison the self. On some level we are all maladjusted mediums. How many of the ghosts that besiege you are of your own killing?

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Viva La Diva

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True to her reputation, the diva never lets on that she knows how to swim, but shoved off a plank, she’ll stay afloat like a Salem witch. And what’s more, she’ll kick – hard, with resolve, and at anything that tries to keep her submerged. If you think the diva can be drowned, you’re wrong. Even when it looks like she’s gone under, she’s only blowing bubbly kisses to the coral, and you can rest assured the coral is waving back.

The diva is all kinds of cool, of course. She refuses, not straddles, dichotomies. She appraises Picasso’s division of all women into two categories (goddesses and doormats), assumes herself to be in the former, then chews out the master himself for his lack of imagination. She prays for miracles but distrusts deus ex machinae. She’s rumoured to bite, but mostly bleeds. The diva, she cries. Then she puts her face back on and sets her jaw. The diva is best met in mirrors.

Because to own your divahood isn’t just to put on your red heels on a complicated day and parade anyway. To tap into one’s inner diva is an act of resistance. The diva is the one who laughs like a woman with straight teeth though hers are not, the one who doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve but seared on her skin. The diva learns how to dive eventually – but only because she’s been pushed off the edge so many times.

When I say I speak in defense of the diva, I’m not speaking in defense of the bitch, the backstabber or the beauty queen. I’m speaking in defense of that little flame inside that picks its broken self off the kitchen floor and then makes you do the same after every extinguishing. That flame is your diva, because only something so bulletproof, so deliberately defiant, can endure so much. And that, the diva, for all her tantrums, for all her impossibilities, certainly is. To tap into one’s inner diva is an act of resistance, and the diva herself is by nature irresistible.

My favourite fictional diva is Hedwig from the cult musical-turned-film Hedwig And The Angry Inch. Surviving heartbreak, plagiarism, communism and a botched sex change operation that leaves her not between but beyond gender itself, Hedwig takes the world on with just one wing and an assortment of wigs. “It’s what I have to work with,” says Hedwig, in the film’s most chillingly universal moment. The diva takes what she can get, works her tragedy into triumph, and dares to ask for much, much more.

“Kiss me and you will see how important I am,” wrote Sylvia Plath in her journal, and for this line alone I have forgiven her everything else. I love my Mae West, my Maria Elena, all the multiple goddesses I channel with affection and aspiration. But tonight, I’ll toast to the Plath who wrote that line. I can see her now: open face, determined chin, the eyes of a beggar but the smile of a coquette. The diva who will say it, feel it, write the poem, feel even worse, and publish it anyway. And when they ask why, I’ll answer as myself, my most favourite diva of all: I don’t kiss and tell, I just kiss and write poems.

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.