Tag Archives: psychology

The Venus Flytrap: The Illusion Of Safety Is A Highly Gendered Phenomenon

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Some years ago, a spectacularly acrimonious argument with an auto driver had me racing up several flights of stairs, palms sweating, ears ringing with filthy curses, desperately seeking the reassurance of the friend who opened the door. Shaken, I recounted the incident: the driver knew where I lived, I was at the drop-off location frequently, it was a long ride, he knew what I looked like, what if, what if…?

“Don’t be silly,” said my friend. “How many times a day do you think he has a fight? Do you think he keeps accounts of each one?”

His logic was so beautiful, so collected, that for a few moments relief washed over me. I was just being paranoid, I agreed. I mean, why would I think that… And then the genderedness of our perspectives clicked into place. My male friend lived in a city in which he could unzip his trousers by a random wall if the bathroom queues were too long, and no matter how many women dropped by, his neighbours still said friendly hellos to him. I lived in a city in which I never left a party without someone asking me to text when I got home, and none of those same neighbours ever looked me in the eye. Both these cities share the same name and map coordinates, and vastly different emotional echolocations.

Which city did the murder of S. Swathi at the busy Nungambakkam railway station happen in last week: his or mine? Entitlement or vulnerability? Both, as it happens, which is why the reactions to it have been so shameful and so confused.

Chennai is not any more dangerous than it ever was, so let’s drop that sensationalist line of thinking. Ask a college student, ask a transwoman, ask every person wrapping a dupatta on her body as though it was made of chainmail. If you hear women themselves saying that the city has “become unsafe”, what’s between the lines is this: if someone chooses to kill me publicly, they may just get away with it. The psychological stakes have been raised from eyes averted from slaps in parking lots and ears plugged to screams in the adjacent building to even greater non-involvement.

The need to categorise the murder as only an issue of urban safety is an act of obfuscation. True, we should be able to take for granted working CCTV surveillance and prompt responses from authorities, as well as protection for those who come forward as witnesses. But to ignore the larger picture of public indifference and poor socialisation means changing nothing about how things really are. We can talk about these things while still honouring Swathi’s family’s request to not speculate on her case.

We cannot address women’s safety without talking about stalking, specifically how treating love as a dinner table taboo and allowing misogynistic cinema to teach its ways instead has destroyed its spirit. Modern Indian culture does not empower people with respectful courtship etiquette, but neither does it empower them with the skills to handle rejection. And when a person confides that someone makes them feel afraid, how seriously do we take them?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 30th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Year Of The Aranya Kandam

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Some of my friends tell me they have had a year from hell, but I know that what I endured was a year in purgatory. Purgatory because of its impermanence, its seemingly endless yet certainly finite suspension. Purgatory that may or may not be connected to the word “purge” – the ridding of the self of toxicity, the negative; cleansing, absolution. Purgatory, above all else, because I was not condemned. I asked for the descent.

Mythology and Jungian psychology teach us how the descent is a rite of initiation, a necessary and transformative undertaking that one can either resist or rise to. Because its timing is so often arbitrary, the last vestige of control remains in accepting it as adventure. Like the Fool, the first card of the tarot arcana, one volunteers for the exploration – or as I think of it, the excavation. Like Sita setting forth into the forest, the beginning of multiple exiles, kidnapping and banishment, one receives the fall from grace as grace itself. We enter the forest, the desert, the underworld heroically. These are not necessarily physical landscapes, but archetypal ones, metaphorical topography. Bewilderment – becoming the wilderness itself.

Like Ishtar arriving at the gates of the underworld, I screamed my madness at the gatekeeper and demanded entrance – If thou openest not the gate to let me enter/ I will break the door, I will wrench the lock/ I will smash the door-posts, I will force the doors/I will bring up the dead to eat the living/And the dead will outnumber the living – and how I was given it, stripped of every ornament, stripped of pomp and circumstance, lowered through each subsequent level, until I stood buck naked before my shadow twin, chastised and begging for rescue.

Nothing prepared me.

She who enters the forest like a queen leaves it like a commoner. She who enters the desert like a fugitive leaves it like a free woman. She who enters the underworld like a dying thing leaves it resurrected. Purgatory changes you. It challenges you, shatters the boundaries of your being, breaks your heart to make more room, pares your body to take less space. It makes a pilgrim of you, and if you’re lucky – if the rules of mythology apply to you, and I find that if you believe in them, they do – it will bring you to deliverance.

This was my year of the Aranya Kandam, and it is in this knowledge that my second book of poetry is ingrained and taking shape. I have spent the year identifying with things I never imagined I could see myself in: the pepper vine laying its heart-like leaves against the bark of better-rooted things, the pining Sita, the wounded and the war-weary. I have spent the year seeking sanctuaries: villages, hill country, communes, the sea, and always, always trees. I have spent the year bringing myself back to life.

Ishtar, finally rescued, ascends through each of the lower realms, reclaiming her lost embellishments – only to find that she is less loved than she had believed. The one who she demanded entry into the underworld for has forgotten this kindness. Sita walks through fire not during exile, but after it. The long wait ends in humiliation, not happiness. Knowing this, can I be blamed if I choose now to linger just a little longer, savouring the petrichor, the silence, the love of the good earth…

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: Die Laughing

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The funniest story I have heard in weeks is a tragedy. It’s presented as a true story (but repeated so often and to such effect that it has surely taken on some less than fact-faithful colouring). The storyteller, a magical man named Rane who summons strange things out of drums, knew someone who had an infection on his leg, which somehow landed him in a coma. The leg turned gangrenous, and in his unconscious state the family was told that they could either amputate or wait for him to die. The festering limb was promptly chopped off. The amputee, out of that danger but still unconscious, spent a few more weeks languishing in his scary siesta. And one day, he woke up, all damn cool, cool as the cucumber he had lain like for those weeks, threw his bedsheets off, looked down at his missing leg, and died of shock.

I wish I could tell you this story as deliciously as it was told to me. Suffice to say that of the many, many funny stories the magical drummer shares, this one was by far the most uproarious. It’s not surprising – macabre humour might quite possibly be the best kind. Deep down, we love laughing at our own wretchedness and mortality. And we love pretending to be shocked by our capacity to.

Nothing illustrates this better than the dead baby joke. When I first discovered them on the net, I was horrified. What kind of gruesome mind could make light of such calamity? The images were repugnant – “How do you make a dead baby float? Take your foot off of its head”; “Why is there always hot water at childbirth? In case of a stillbirth, soup.”; “What’s the difference between a baby and a dart-board?
Dart-boards don’t bleed”.

I didn’t realise until I’d read a long list of them that I had kind of been chuckling away, transfixed by the sheer horror of it all and unable to stop reading.

Schadenfreude may be one reason why we’re able to delight in off-colour jokes. Just as watching a violent movie can be a cathartic release, we’re able to explore the sinister aspects of our psyches through macabre humour. That part of us that is capable of evil – and we are all capable of evil – gets a vicarious spin. Once the initial shock wears off, a certain sordid pleasure sets in. It’s the same one you get upon finding that everyone at the table is bitching about the same person you’ve been silently seething about, and you can just stay coy, no longer having to play the gossipmonger. I would never squeeze babies into a bottle just to see how many it would take to make “baby oil”, but in reading the joke, my mind saw it, felt it, and released the need to ever consider the question out of its own volition.

There’s a bit more gallows humour to the story of the man who rose from a coma and died of a heart attack, because of who the story came from. Rane himself had once sustained a head injury, gotten arrested, and was sent for a medical check-up upon his release. Grave results were expected, and his father spent the whole week fearing the very worst. They were, as it happened, truly shocking – Rane was given the all-clear, and his father was so relieved that he died of a heart attack.

We looked around the table at that point and tried to show some sympathy.

The truth is, we all nearly died laughing.

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.

Review: Hanif Kureishi’s Something To Tell You

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Hanif Kureishi’s latest novel is a startlingly clear-minded, often hedonistic, but ultimately believable look at the complications of life, love and sex. Jamal, a middle-aged psychoanalyst, remains obsessed with the loss of his college girlfriend Ajita and lives in guilt over his own participation in the murder of her father. Despite his own neuroses, or rather, because of it, he has experienced great success in his field, and enjoys an intimate all-access pass into the lives of the wealthy and popular. As if in contrast, his sister Miriam, some variant of a spiritualist with too many children and piercings, lives in disorder and filth, and he shares a typically middle-class relationship with his son, Rafi, who lives with his estranged wife Josephine. His Pakistani father is dead, and his elderly English mother is in a relationship with a woman she knew as a child.

Jamal’s famous director friend Henry suddenly embarks on an affair with Miriam, which serves as a sort of turning point in excavating the past. It turns out not only that Ajita is alive and well, but her brother Mustaq – once also in love with Jamal – has reinvented himself into a flamboyant, affluent celebrity musician. As things take their course and it becomes clear that Jamal needs to confess to his crime, what remains to be seen is whether his desperation to absolve himself of his errors will tear them apart or bring them together.

Although Jamal is both narrator and default protagonist, every character is so persuasive, so larger-than-life yet perceptively etched, that at most times the book feels like a vehicle for an ensemble cast. And there are many – exes, offspring, lovers, cameos both by real celebrities and characters taken from Kureishi’s earlier fiction. No relationship has a denouement, be it to a ghost made from guilt or a girlfriend. Everyone is fair game in this complex web of selves past and present – and a declaration of love is inevitably a declaration of war.

Sex, of course, levels everything out, from class to race to religion (the evil paterfamilias – for what’s a Freudian analyst without one? – that was Ajita’s father is replaced by the Bush-Blair empire, and its effects on an England just about to be hit by terrorism). Miriam and Henry indulge in orgies at clubs; the same occurs in Mustaq’s home. Jamal and the preadolescent Rafi discuss sex, violence and psychology as they watch cats copulate. Jamal has a less terrible, yet equally detrimental secret in his past: a career as a pornographer. Sex is everywhere, with little hint of scandal – unrealistic perhaps, but how refreshing.

The humour, when it appears, hits chords of brilliance, as when Henry’s adult daughter Lisa visits Jamal at his office, calls his work “patronizing analyst quackery”, then says, “Freud’s been discredited over and over. Patient envy… Penis envy, I mean. Jesus.”

Slips, Freudian and otherwise, abound aplenty in this novel. Accidental pregnancies and murders have their place, but above all else are the slips of the heart – who is loved or desired, who stays loved or desired, and why.

Despite their superficial dysfunctions and exaggeratedness, its characters are innately human. Children are loved, oppressors are hated, death and age catch up. At its heart, the simplest truth remains: hell is other people, certainly, but it is also their absence.

Most commendably, the novel is neither soap-operatic nor stuffed with psycho-philosophical ramblings. For a story that could so easily have lapsed into either direction, populated as it is by a veritable circus of characters and narrated by a man preoccupied by the psyche, Something To Tell You avoids those pitfalls. This is not drama. It is contemporary life, with its mish-mash of sexual expressions, unconventional domestic arrangements and relationships that do not ever fall apart completely, only reincarnate to accommodate what life brings along. Kureishi does nothing but tell it like it is in this utterly delicious read.

An edited version appeared in today’s New Sunday Express.