Tag Archives: protest

The Venus Flytrap: Incarcerated Poets

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Sometimes, copying American observances isn’t a bad thing (this is never going to be true for Thanksgiving, though). As National Poetry Month comes to a close in the USA – and everywhere online, especially thanks to the popular daily writing practice of NaPoWriMo – news of a young Somaliland poet who has been imprisoned is on my mind. Those defending Naima Abwaan Qorane, whose poetry is said to reference Somaliland’s former unity with Somalia, say that she has been suffering rape and murder threats in custody.

This isn’t the time to go reading Qorane’s poetry – frankly, it is the poet and not the poetry we should be concerned about. Hers is not a unique case. As PEN International, Amnesty International and other organisations track and try to make known to a wider audience, writers around the world have always been targeted by draconian measures when their work does not suit the agenda of those in power.

From a single PEN International press release alone, I know of Aron Atabek in Kazahstan, Amanuel Asrat in Eritrea (detained incommunicado for 16 years), Dareen Tatour in occupied Palestine and Liu Xia in China, whose Nobel prize-winner husband Liu Xiaobo died in police custody last year. Closer to home, Kovan finds himself arrested with alarming frequency for his protest songs. Does he get released? That’s not the point. The point is that we don’t even know the names of most languishing behind bars. Please note that I have only named poets here, and that too just a few. A comprehensive list of authors, journalists and other kinds of writers who are facing or have recently faced persecution for subversive or seditious work would be very long.

I remember someone naively, and with great entitlement, telling me not very long ago: “I totally love doing activism, but I just don’t think poetry should be political”. That person then went on to cite Subramania Bharati as a favourite (preceded by, “Oh cool, you have heard of him” – oh you young ‘uns, have a little grace!). The irony that Bharati had been a great dissident, also incarcerated, was perfectly lost on them.

There is nothing romantic about being a poet, or anyone, with radical ideas. There is nothing sexy about exile, arrest, imprisonment, ostracism, punishment, murder or any of the consequences that come with having radical ideas. But I see a false correlation between these things, and this is dangerous: it means we celebrate people after they have suffered, instead of raising the level of safety for everyone.

As readers, we owe it to our love of literature – whether in the form of pamphlets with a cause, hashtagged posts, printed books or protest songs – to keep ourselves informed about what is happening to those who produce it. And all readers are writers, even if only in their hearts. So as writers, our responsibility to stand up for one another – even for those names never heard of, writing in languages never translated – is even greater. A sense of community isn’t about liking one another’s posts on social media. It’s about this – holding a larger vision of interconnectedness that goes far beyond what words can do.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 26th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Stripping For A Cause

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There’s a reason why you may not have heard of actor Sri Reddy before she stripped in front of Hyderabad’s Movie Artist Association (MAA) to protest the sexual exploitation of women in the cinema industry. That reason is why she chose to protest: Reddy alleged that despite coerced sexual favours obtained by gatekeepers in the field, she and other women were still denied career opportunities. The protest came shortly after MAA rejected Reddy’s application for membership. Later, Reddy also told the media that she had been raped by a producer’s son.

One does not have to agree with everything Reddy said or did in order to support the larger cause of her protest. In one interview following the protest, the actor seemed to both vilify sex work (“Big directors, producers and heroes use studios as brothels. It’s like a red-light area.”) as well as make a derogatory statement about caste (“Naresh [veteran actor and senior member of MAA] said we have to clean that place [where she stripped] with water. That is a big crime. How can you talk like that? I’m not an untouchable girl.”). Her articulations are undoubtedly problematic.

But to claim that her protest was just a performance or an attempt to steal the limelight is wrong. The use of the naked body as a last resort to reclaim power or demand attention to a cause has a powerful history. Without seeking to draw facile parallels with Reddy’s protest, other examples span the range from preventing doxxing to political insurgency. In 2004, 12 Manipuri mothers stripped in an iconic anti-military protest after the custodial rape and death of a young woman. Australian musician Sia released a nude picture of herself last year to foil an attempt to auction it off. Just weeks ago, farmers from Tamil Nadu stripped outside Delhi’s Rashtrapati Bhavan demanding drought relief funds. The body in protest is not sexual – in fact, it subverts the gaze by drawing attention elsewhere, to the cause for protest.

Reddy has been blacklisted by the MAA. She will not be able to work in Tollywood, and given that the exploitation she speaks of is widespread in most fields in India, may find it difficult to find employment anywhere. Disappointingly, other actors have not validated her allegations, despite the widespread awareness of sexual harassment and assault in cinema. But she joins the ranks of Sruthi Hariharan, Parvathy, Radhika Apte and a brave handful who have challenged the normalisation of misogyny behind the scenes (and onscreen) in their respective industries by speaking up.

Finally, there’s this. On MAA’s website, the very first category on a list of Galleries is literally called “Hot & Spicy”. This line of text precedes gratuitous images of women: “Maastars.com is an Official website of Movie Artist Association, you can find here Actress Hot and Spicy Photo Gallery. (sic)”

Proof, and how flagrant. A frustrated artist and rape survivor choosing an incendiary form of protest is not nearly as obscene as a mighty institution like MAA so openly celebrating the objectification of women on its online presence. Reddy is right – the industry is rotten, and thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to be.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 12th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Postcards And Silences

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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: 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.

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.