Tag Archives: prajnya

The Venus Flytrap: Postcards And Silences

Standard

Last Friday, the feminist thinktank Prajnya held an event called “Letterbox of Resistance”, part of its 16 Days campaign against gender violence. At different spots in the city through the day, volunteers wrote postcards and letters by hand, to be mailed off to people, organisations and institutions to which we had something to say.

But what did I have to say? I stared at my postcards. My mind was just like them: blank, but prettily doodled.

It was unnerving, after endlessly attempting dialogue and insisting in its usage as a radical force, to be confronted by my own silence.

Not loaded silence. Not withheld words, just their sheer absence. Given the opportunity to distantly but directly address someone and give them a message, I found myself struggling to think of who might benefit from this interesting form of intervention. I took cues from others at the table. So I wrote to the Nadigar Sangam about misogyny in Tamil cinema, but not to specific actors. I attempted a pro-intersectionality message to the seat of power in New Delhi but between instinctive apprehension and educated cynicism, it flopped. I applauded those who wrote to kids they knew, but couldn’t think of anyone whose parents would appreciate my preaching to them. I thought about my own family – in fact, one of my friends addressed a postcard to a relative of mine, who badly needs some schooling in kindness – but still came up blank. So much for being the one with a way with words!

Years ago, when I had read Aamer Hussein’s epistolary short story, “Nine Postcards From Sanlucar de Barrameda”, its luminosity had led me intoxicated to my own rendering, and an inspired series poured out of me. Postcards that could not be sent, as the story will tell you if you read it, because their intended recipient did not care at all, for them or for me. Instead, I wrote each one and emailed it off to a friend. There were nine, for Hussein’s were a map (mine osculated the Pondicherry border). They contained lines from Basho and things I didn’t even know yet were true, memories, questions, and the sum of what it means to be sentient to an abandonment before it has cicatrised into amalgamated trauma. It became the first story I finished writing for what became my book that’s on shelves now.

I thought of those postcards that could only ever be received too late, whose intended address had changed over the years, from deceiver to rightful receiver (that would be you, my dear reader), and how passionately I’d penned them. While straightforward messages about a cause I care about so deeply eluded me. It was a lesson update in humility: expression is one thing, communication is another.

One last Letterbox of Resistance postcard sat before me. I’d stared at it for over an hour, doodling and crayoning it idly as I reflected on what my inarticulateness meant.

In the end, I sent that last postcard as a note of gratitude, and a surprise. It was meant to uplift not just the addressee, but also – after all this voice-raising and silence-swallowing – me.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 1st 2016. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: #SorryNotSorry? #NotOkay.

Standard

Over the weekend, I strapped on a pair of red stilettos for a poetry reading organised by the feminist think-tank Prajnya. The theme of the event was “Zero Apologies”, and the poets shared writing in Tamil and English about being forthright, without fear. For me, I find that the first line of apology begins at appearance. I enjoy clothing, ornamentation and maquillage – but my enjoyment of the same is where external judgement of me also begins. It’s a topic I explore at greater length in an essay in a new book called Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories, but for now, suffice to say: I wasn’t sorry at all for the thigh-high slit in the skirt I wore that evening, and I laughed off the fact that my gorgeous shoes were falling apart even as I stood in them.

What an empowering thing it is to stop apologising for being ourselves.

But even as I said yes to “Zero Apologies”, and was delighted to express none whatsoever, something lingered in my mind and it wasn’t just good manners. While preparing for the poetry recital and finding poems that suited the subject, I found myself thinking not only about when we should never apologise, but also about when we really should.

‘Sorry’ is a beautiful word. We say it both as a habit and as a force of conditioning that makes us downplay ourselves, but swallow it at the moments it is made for. We apologise, unnecessarily, for our necklines, our ambitions, our tears, our uncertainties, our emotions. We say the word for all the wrong things, but we’re miserly with it when we’re actually wrong.

I thought back to a few recent instances when I have said it and meant it, a strong word used to keep small lapses small. Once, when I didn’t make it to a dear one’s special occasion; once, when I apologised on behalf of someone I felt responsible for; more than once, when busyness or hunger made me snappy. And I thought further back into the past, to times when my apologies were insufficient. Because sometimes ‘sorry’ is just a placeholder, a way to salve things so they can be worked on slowly. When you have caused damage to another, you cannot justify having done so. You can only say, unequivocally, that you will try better. And then do.

Only in its most routine or manipulative deliveries is ‘sorry’ anything other than a starting point. Because, by itself, it’s never enough. It’s only the key to rebuilding, not an end to itself – and this is where we falter. We misunderstand both apology and forgiveness, centring them on incidents and not on understanding.

I will never apologise for being strong, dedicated, principled or flamboyant. But I will apologise for my blind spots, misreadings, temper and wickedness, should I have the clarity to see them, even if only much later.

And call me old-fashioned, but the one thing that I most believe no one should ever apologise for having or expecting? Good manners!

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

“Not Silence, But Verse” – Poetry Reading, Prajnya’s 16 Days Campaign

Standard

Prajnya’s 16 Days Campaign Against Gender Violence this year features a reading of poetry in Tamil and English by Salma, Kuttirevathi, K. Srilata and myself. Full details of the reading, on Saturday November 27th at Full Circle/Chamiers, are in the flyer below.