Tag Archives: relationships

The Venus Flytrap: The Adultery Law

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What could we have told the woman who took her own life this week in Chennai – after her cheating husband allegedly told her that adultery was no longer a crime – about how that law had never been meant to protect her? The now defunct Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, which had read: “Adultery: Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offense of rape, is guilty of the offense of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such case the wife shall not be punishable as an abettor.”

Note that precise phrasing: “consent or connivance”. Conveniently, the law as well as those who upheld it understood consent, and applied it so alliteratively – to connivance! Unless a man participated willingly in his cuckolding, his wife’s lover could be charged with a crime.

Could we have explained to that deceased woman how she had never had any recourse to justice through this law? That it had been devised for one man to punish another, and that for any woman (as per the moral codes of our society), shame itself would have been the first among various insidious punishments. If wives, being chattel, were allowed to emote, anyway.

If we’d been ignorant of this archaic decree, that was also likely to have been because as a law that men could invoke against one another, it hadn’t received much exercise in public memory. Men don’t so often go after one another in quite that way. Not as often as women get the blame. Not as often as women are turned on each other, conditioned for example to hate the one who got caught in a deceitful husband’s web and not the husband himself who so dexterously spun it. Or even if she hates that husband, to possibly not love or know her selfhood without even him.

This law had no provision for women to lodge a case. Not for women whose husbands were having affairs, nor for women who had been fooled by married men. In fact, lawyers speaking to the press suggest that one of the rare usages of Section 497 was as an act of retaliation by men facing dowry harassment proceedings. It’s vaguely disquieting how when a law that was hardly ever used was repealed, the fact of its rare usage only reinforces many things about misogyny in our social fabric.

I wish the deceased Chennai woman whom that law was used against, at least in speech, this week will be the last one ever to suffer because of it. And I wish also that after the striking down of the sexist Section 497 and the homophobic Section 377, the next to go will be Section 375, which considers rape within marriage to be criminal only if the survivor is below 15 years old. Where is consent here? All that’s evident is connivance.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 4th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Depression-Curing Boyfriends On Hire

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On Independence Day, Mumbai-based entrepreneur Kaushall Prakash launched an app called Rent A Boy|Friend, through which one can employ male company for brief periods. The line in their name between Boy and Friend is deliberate, suggesting the demarcation between physical engagement and what the app’s Instagram bio calls “Pure Friendship”. Physical intimacy and meeting in private locations are supposed to be prohibited on it. Intriguingly, the app states that its aim is to “eradicate depression”. The men whose company can be hired are expected to provide emotional support, not just attend functions or share meals with the customer.

Understandably but unfairly, this aim has been met with mockery in certain sections of the media. Reactions often fixate, in typically classist and conservative ways, on how the educational prerequisite for the gentlemen one can meet through the app is 10thor 12thstandard graduation. As though PhD holders are more likely to be thoughtful, sympathetic or have good listening and guidance skills (tell that to the erudite men on The List of Sexual Harassers in Academia).

While I’m in no hurry to give Rent A Boy|Friend a certificate of good intentions, there’s definitely something being added here to the conversation on depression, loneliness and the need for companionship. For the first time in India, an app connecting people on a personal level explicitly forefronts these issues instead of using oblique terminology about marriage or relationships. The app’s concept is not new abroad: in China, hundreds of services provide “fake boyfriends” whose time can be bought to take home to meet the family on holidays, or even for just a couple of hours to hang out with at the mall; a website called Invisible Boyfriend lets you co-create text message conversations as though you’re in a relationship; Japan’s kyabakura culture offers non-sexual, romantic company at clubs.

Rent A Boy|Friend only provides the company of men (for men and women alike). While the founder’s reason for this – “Rent-a-girlfriend sounds weird in India but it’s okay abroad.” – is a bit insubstantial, if the service’s condition that sexual contact is not allowed is true, it doesn’t in itself sound sexist to me. There’s an argument to be made that neither dating nor sex work are guaranteed to be safe or respectful for women in India at this time. As one of many women who downloaded then deleted Tinder, an app meant unambiguously for dating and hookups, I can only imagine how much worse the harassment, entitlement and abuse would be when the power dynamic involves a financial transaction.

As gimmicky or even shady as it may seem at first glance, tell any honest person who dates men in India about such an app and she’ll be curious – not interested enough to try it, probably, but certainly interested in the concept. Obviously, a “rented” boyfriend isn’t going to fix one’s mental health or loneliness. But naming the issues puts emotions, not only life goals or sexual availability, at the centre. No matter what our gender or orientation, and regardless of whether we think an app can fulfil our longings, that’s a change in perspective that would benefit us all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 30th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: On Romantic Nemeses

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I was telling a friend about how I’m likely to encounter a romantic nemesis of mine in the coming weeks, when he asked me to explain the term. Was it just a fancy way of saying “ex”? Haha. No.

You see, in order to become an ex, one first has to have been acknowledged as a girlfriend, boyfriend, partner or bae. There are whole swathes of our pasts that have no such acknowledgment, yet somehow we’d been pulping tamarind in their kitchen at 9pm, or been bubble-wrapping something that made us think of them for a long-distance care package, or been the one they texted through their father’s surgery instead of talking to their fiancée. Only you were not, you were never, “the one”. No – you were “a friend”. Or worse, “just a friend”.

The past tense of “romantic nemesis” is usually “lover” – a word I like very much but which makes a lot of people queasy. Is it because it’s associated with illicit affairs? Ahem, well… Of course, it might also make any said romantic nemeses queasy, because it contains the word “love”. This activates their allergies.

Having left my uninhibited 20s behind a few years ago, I now find there’s an entire category of could-have-beens who, without having gone through the lover phase, plonk right into the romantic nemeses gang like they bribed their way to graduation. Before, the shift from lover to romantic nemesis seemed awful but logical. Now, I belong among the wizened elder millennials who’ve conducted entire non-relationships on the basis of cautious approaches, boundaries, and (gasp) conversations. Sadly, the ghosting, cowardice, non-communicativeness and general bad behaviour that necessitates the nemesis tag still happen, eventually. Just without the passion that’s supposed to precede them. It’s terrible, I tell you. It’s basically like they’ve seen you naked even though you’ve never slept with them. How could “ex” suffice?

It’s difficult to explain this romantic nemeses thing without being told that one is too dramatic or sensitive. But what I’m describing is far more common than not, a kind of duplicity that we don’t question. There are so many lingering non-relationships, with all the emotional demands of full-fledged ones and some but usually not enough of the fulfilment. And even though our attention spans are but the length of one finger’s scroll, even brief interactions leave a lasting, often silenced, impact. We haven’t and shouldn’t evolve out of the longing to connect deeply. Sometimes, the heart is wounded not because you loved someone, but just because you trusted them enough to think they may not play to pattern. And then there’s the wounding that does come with love, only it’s never named.

I could dismiss someone a friend was briefly involved with as a “player” or a “dudebro”, angry at how he wasted the privilege of having known her, but if I put myself in her shoes honestly – if I truly consider how all pain is a palimpsest and that heartbreak of this nature is also historical – “romantic nemesis” is a far better description. Nemeses, that is. It’s funny how many there are, no, the ones who aren’t even supposed to count?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 2nd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Charismatic Abusers

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The mistake we make when thinking about charismatic and powerful abusers is to assume that their charisma and power come from their talent. That the sheer force of their brilliance makes them irresistible. This is why we ask questions about what to do with their art, whether it is necessary to boycott their work, whether it is fair to teach it to facilitate discussion or if that time is better spent on the under-rated (a category that overlaps with the abused). And we fixate on the one or three (or sixty-something) cases we get the identifying details of, as though they are the whole story. They are not. Because the secret to why charismatic and powerful abusers get away with what they do for decades, rising in the ranks, is that they are devious. Their abuses extend beyond the professional into the realm of the intimate. They weaponize the most beautiful thing of all: love, or more accurately, its possibility.

Beneath every list of allegations is something else, something far more nebulous – a collection, large or little, of broken hearts. There’s no chance that a perpetrator in the workplace (be that a studio or a boardroom) has not also behaved reprehensibly in his private life. That the ongoing, worldwide revelations about sexual harassment have begun to include abuse (particularly but not exclusively emotional abuse) in relationships delineates this.

This is only partially about author Alisa Valdes writing about how, 22 years ago when neither of them had established their careers, she dated Junot Diaz – and he treated her very badly. I’m thinking of the women who contacted Valdes to say he’d done the same to them. I’m thinking about how we aren’t entitled to any of their stories – but also of how many of them would certainly have been storytellers, and we’ll never hear of them, because they had to swallow their truths and stay in the shadows. I’m thinking, actually, about my own JDs. That archetype: the charismatic person (usually male) you fall in love with, whose overtures you consent to, whose maltreatment you don’t know what to name, the ghost of which lingers for a long time.

Many years before someone I knew, had liked and respected, and now know to be a perpetrator was outed, I read a book of stories by someone who’d loved him and saw her hurt spilled all across its pages. I knew of their history as we all know things, in our small-minded, wide-mouthed spaces. But not everyone gets to alchemise what happened, into art or into anything. If we manage to, we’re still harrowed by a lack of acknowledgement of abuse of that nature, which operates under the false promise of love. But it’s so gauche in these circles to speak of love.

We’re all fooled – as their audiences, as their friends, and even as spectators to their exploits. By charm, not by talent. It’s important to recognise this, because it helps those they fooled with greater repercussions. The ones who encountered their ugliness in the workplace, of course, but equally the ones who were overpowered in seemingly romantic configurations – and then dismantled, invisibly, from within.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 10th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Wish On A Coffee Bean

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My friend and I made wishes on coffee beans and planted them – buried them, actually. We gave our wishes to the earth, hers into hallowed ground and mine in potted jasmine. We took photos of each other first, before we parted, each holding our kalpa-beans, and exchanged promises to check on each other on the dates by which we had decided our wishes would be granted. We were playing with the universe. On the morning on which we’d made this pact of aspiration, I had just made manifest a cherished dream of mine. And so, slaked of desire, I went for the whimsical. Perhaps I wasn’t playing with the universe so much as teasing it, saying: “I will ask for the thing I cannot have, and you will withhold it from me, or you will humble me by giving it to me. I will either be sanctimonious or I’ll be sweetly surprised. I don’t mind either.”

I set a short deadline, while my friend – more sincere than I in her entreaty – set a realistic one. And I waited. No, I didn’t. That’s a lie. I just watched. Today, on the day I write this, she will reach out to me with a question. And my answer is ready: “Nothing.”

Nothing granted, everything ventured. It is sanctimonious that I am today.

What I did in those weeks of watching was to watch myself as much as I watched what transpired, the things that held tendrils of possibility that I would indeed be humbled by the universe’s willingness to listen. I watched myself considering the relationship between desire and actualisation. And I watched myself wanting – this is true. And I allowed for and enjoyed the surprises that visited me, but without pausing to ask if they were correlated to a wish made on a coffee bean in a convoluted way – by naming something so deeply desired but already assumed to be unviable.

Here is the secret of why I am not sad, not on this un-disappointing deadline day and not even on the nights when I trace and retrace the question of how I became this person who writes so often of terror but so little of love. It is because it takes not much for me to feel fulfilled. I wasn’t always like this, but I learned (in the only, never easy, way that one can learn these things). I don’t think I can say it better than these lines from a story I wrote once: “So I began to adore simply, not loudly, and always in the awareness that those like me must live like flowering trees. We are who we are, prosperously or otherwise. And our lives are crowned, now and then, with moments of exaltation—each held and breathed in deeply, and then let go.”

I neglected to mention – those were roasted coffee beans. They won’t sprout. The exercise of placing them into earth was only to say, “Even against all contrary evidence, I choose to believe. I choose to ask again, even if I’ve been denied before.” We already chose happiness long ago; so every ritual that reminds us is a pleasure.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 3rd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Sand Mandala

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I am letting go of someone I love, and I am doing it by looking at all the ways it’s been done to me and learning from all the mistakes I made as I’ve done it before. I’m thinking of those who disappeared on me – “ghosted” is the word now, and how that haunted me. The one I’m letting go of doesn’t know it, but I’m already gone, and one of these days a reckoning will come when they will force me to tell them why. I can’t begrudge that. I have asked that question of others. I have deserved an answer. But I’m thinking especially of those with whom I chose not to converse with, because to do so would be to tell them something that would turn them against me permanently, and with – I know from having been burnt by truth-telling – consequences.

I saw a video of a painting made of black powder on a linoleum floor of a cat and a snake. A broom hovered over the two figures, then swept their scales and stripes into a meaningless pile. I wondered at the risk the person who’d made this had undertaken – what if the camera wasn’t on? Would they recreate the entire sequence again – the painting and destruction both? How many times?

What I really wondered was why they did it at all – how can anyone make a beautiful thing and then destroy it? Then I recalled sand mandalas, how Tibetan Buddhist monks painstakingly paint elaborate symbols using coloured granules, only to ceremonially undo them. Not with the effacing glee of a broom, but part by part, in sequence. The sand, collected in a silk-wrapped jar, is then released into a river. Such care in the dismantling.

Everyone I love, I try to raise into my way of loving. This was what had gone wrong with this situation too. In my desire to remake another, I could only elevate them into loving me well, but could not impact how they are fundamentally wired. Which is to say: they learned just enough, but not enough. We arrived at a place where the seed of hatred they hold in their heart had overwhelmed everything else I saw – and wanted to see – in them. My own heart is so small, I rued and rued, until someone changed the narrative for me: to refuse to make space for cruelty is not itself unkind. Not, itself, incapacity.

I thought I built citadels out of love. Or gardens. Sanctuaries. At least, I can say with certainty that this is what I have always tried to do. But if I am honest, fear and memory have made me build sandcastles at times, sown with eventuality. I don’t think this was one of those times, but I’ll take my cue. A sand mandala, then. Made more and more beautiful with tending, with each intricate addition and every surprising colour. Not a ghosting, not a burnt bridge, only a meticulously reconfigured arrangement. Not with words, for mine are blades. Not with messengers, for that is cowardice. Only this intention: silk-wrapped, released into the elements, and with so much love, let go.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 5th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Imaginary Women, Imaginary Villains

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Neha Gnanavel, who is married to film producer Gnanavel Raja, obviously wants us to forget the objectionable things she posted about women in the cinema industry last week. Which is why she deleted the Tweets in which she threatened to name those who she believes have had consensual affairs with married men, referring to them as being “worse” than sex workers (she used less polite language). As yet undeleted, however, is her long defense of her views. Fair enough. There’s no need to scapegoat Ms. Gnanavel. She was only expressing the same sentiments that many in our deeply misogynistic society hold. Let’s talk about those sentiments, two in particular: that women – rather than the men who chose to be with them – are to be blamed for destroying families, and that sex workers are contemptible.

Infidelity is complicated, just as human desires, emotions and decisions are. Of course we want to simplify it, if only so that it becomes less painful. That doesn’t have to be done by painting women as villains by default. A recent meme I saw went so far as to hold culpable the woman who raised the woman who became involved with a married man – that’s two generations of woman-blaming! Anything to protect a man from taking responsibility for his choices. Whether blaming a married man’s lover, her mother, or his own wife – any culprit will do. As long as the only one who behaved dishonourably, the one who did the cheating, is absolved.

In heterosexual contexts, when the gender roles are reversed, the partnered woman who has an extramarital affair is still the one who is condemned. I cannot think of even one instance, anecdotal or celebrity-related, where the other man in the picture had his name forever tarnished by his involvement in what is called “home-wrecking”.

This is where the second of Ms. Gnanavel’s expressed sentiments comes into play. Why is calling someone a sex worker (using less respectful words, or not) a slur? This prejudice is premised on the idea that sex workers have agency and own their bodies entirely – something which it’s worth noting that most other women in patriarchal societies are not allowed to. Just as the imagined sex worker has control over her sexuality, so does the imagined mistress and the imagined adultress. Their imagined autonomy challenges the status quo. They choose (while married men do not – ha!). So consumed is the average, often incognisant, patriarchal agent with these hypotheticals that they don’t stop to ask themselves what they find so frightening.

Aside from a fundamental lack of understanding about capitalism, the idea doesn’t even hold water against that other favourite bugaboo – that girls and women will be kidnapped and trafficked (thanks, Mahanadhi). So which is it – that sex workers have volition, or are forced? How does the muddled misogynist mind hold these contradictions at once?

I wouldn’t know, but it’s a contradiction that the feminist mind also manages to hold, and engages with through the concepts of consent and desire. And there’s space in this discourse for even the heartbreak of betrayal, without resorting to either the assumption of villainy or the presumption of victimhood.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 29th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.