Tag Archives: race

The Venus Flytrap: Behind The Zenana’s Doors

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The doors opened and I was inside a zenana: an erstwhile one, turned into a hotel. “A harem” was how my new friend described it, until I gave her the other word. She’d been staying there on her many trips to India over three decades. Nothing of the façade suggested what was within: courtyards, labyrinthine staircases, powder blue and mint green paint, leafiness and sunlight. Even the bustle of Triplicane was extinguished. Mani Ratnam had just been shooting there, and the huge airy room on the roof was still having its regular furniture brought in when I visited. Later, I was disgusted to learn – this mysterious place where I’d been welcomed is infamous for a policy of allowing only white guests. That’s why the seclusion – it is really exclusion.

Still, I’d been there at noon on a new moon day and the gracious caretaker had insisted on taking dhrishti for me as he smashed or split pumpkin, coconut and lime one by one on the road outside, camphor burning. What do we make of these mismatches – when the parts don’t add up to the sum, when a place or a person is nice to you but nasty in general? This was also the second time recently when I’d been treated warmly somewhere, but scratching beneath the surface revealed an underbelly of racism.

Things are not what they seem, and then they are. And then sometimes you find that they are how they are only because you are what you are. Or what you seem to be.

I’ve written elsewhere at length about my Karaikal Ammaiyar mode – a method of dressing that appears careless but in fact is designed to make people take me seriously, or to let me be inconspicuous while I go about my own work. Karaikal Ammaiyar was the 6th century poet who prayed to be turned into a wraith so that her she could move through the world unencumbered by her own beauty. My “true” hyper-feminine, quite glamorous self takes a backseat to this style quite often. There’s something tricky about this mode though, which I keep forgetting. It makes me lower my guard. It puts me on the footing of assuming my own unattractiveness, and so makes me open in ways I don’t easily when aware of myself. I felt it happen recently: I put on my armour, and I dropped my guard.

Only, I was then left wondering: if my alluring self was real, how was my Ammaiyar self also honest? Perhaps like the plain-looking lodging that opened onto a zenana, but revealed itself to be stark of heart, something in my austere manifestation held more than a kernel of truth. Had I played the Ammaiyar disguise so much that I had grown in it, and begun to hold myself in authentic ways even in that state?

My friend who stayed at the zenana had asked me to meet her somewhere else the previous night, with instructions to “dress and behave like a goddess”, so we’d be given permission for something. I knew what she meant. Recognition is mostly a game of optics. Authenticity, though, is about much so more.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 22nd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward juxtaposes the America of today, where any Black boy can die from police brutality at any time, with the Jim Crow era, which still lingers in the memory of an aged generation. Among this generation are Mama and Pop – as Philomène, a magnificent traditional healer dying of cancer, and her husband, a gentle man actually named River, are known to their grandson Jojo.

The novel unfolds in three voices, opening on Jojo trying, painfully, to assist his grandfather in slaughtering a goat. It is his 13th birthday, and his mother will soon neglectfully buy him a baby shower cake, another reminder of how fortunate he is to live with his grandparents. At times, Jojo’s narrative can seem too sophisticated, especially as compared to his speaking voice. This settles once the reader recalls that Jojo is gifted with extrasensory perception: he can hear what cannot be expressed, the thoughts of animals and of his toddler sister, Kayla, whose vocabulary has been slow to develop. It’s a credit to the seamless way in which the supernatural and the mysterious are spoken of in this book that we sometimes forget this detail. Later, we learn that like others in his family, Jojo can also see and communicate with spirits.

Jojo’s mother Leonie, who had him as a teenager, is the second voice. She takes her children along for the long drive to the prison from which their father, Michael, is about to be released. Michael is a White man whose cousin killed Leonie’s beloved brother, Given, whom she still sees when high on meth. Much of the book’s action takes place on this journey, where the children are exposed to everything from thirst and nausea to a police encounter. The third voice enters the book later: Richie, a ghost of Jojo’s age, joins the family on the car journey back from Parchman, where Michael was serving time and where a horrifying incident from Pop’s own youth took place.

It’s difficult to think of this family as a broken one – despite the drugs, incarceration and disease – because the love in this book goes at least as deep as the decay. When Ward writes of love, every character is redeemed. Most profound among these loves is what exists between Jojo and his grandparents. It shimmers in countless quotidian acts, just as his vigilant care for his sister does. The love between Mama and Pop, too, is full of tenderness – palpable even while she ails, out of sight of the action. Then there’s the exhilarating selfishness of the romance between Leonie and Michael, a love that almost has room for no one else, not even the children it has brought into being, although Leonie’s own love for her mother is almost luminescent – “I thought about that Medusa I’d seen in an old movie when I was younger, monstrous and green-scaled, and I thought: That’s not it at all. She was as beautiful as Mama. That’s how she froze those men, with the shock of seeing something so perfect and fierce in the world.” Even one of the ghosts aches with love, plaintive with longing for the only man he knows as his father. Yet, again and again we are also shown: there is no real redemption.

This is a book that gets better with every page, so that by the time we are halfway through, all the earlier confusions – from the unevenness of language between Jojo’s articulations and observations to various small points lost in the non-linear, occasionally dense, lyrical style – fade. As its climatic final pages and the inevitable death they contain draw nearer, Sing, Unburied, Sing demands stepping away to recalibrate before returning. Devastation is unavoidable, both in and by this impressive novel. Ward saves her choicest moral ambiguities for near the end, so we find ourselves in medias res even then – haunted, as are all her characters.

An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.

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.