Tag Archives: relationships

The Venus Flytrap: Vicariously Voyeuristic

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Photographs of actor Jennifer Aniston, looking radiant as she greeted her ex-husband Brad Pitt backstage at the 2020 SAG Awards, capture vividly the micro-reactions within an encounter which video shows lasted barely a few seconds. Thrilled to see each other but moving in different directions, they touched as they pass. The affection shared between them sent ripples of delight across the world. It was a beautiful set of moments, but best understood as self-contained.

In 2010, the performance artist Marina Abramovic held a major show at New York’s MoMA, “The Artist Is Present”, in which she sat silently and essentially “gave darshan”. People who queued for hours to have her briefly look into their eyes reported epiphanic experiences, including cathartic tears. Among them was her former collaborator and ex-partner Ulay. There’s footage of her beginning to cry when she sees him, his own wordless communication, and her finally leaning across the table to take his hands. The crowd applauds. In the context of what Abramovic’s show tapped into – esoteric concepts of human connection, and of seeing and being seen – it was all very poignant. Still, he sued her to the tune of €250,000 a few years later (and won). Then he appeared for another public reunion at another event of hers (performance artists!). Now, they’re rumoured to be working on a book together.

Their true dynamic is between them. Our projections on the same belong to us, and show us insights into ourselves. Aniston and Pitt’s amiable encounter serves the same hunger in us for stories of reconciliation as the Abramovic-Ulay one did.

We do know that the end of their marriage was bitter, and that Aniston has been painted ever since as an icon of personal disappointment. They’ve been divorced for 15 years, during which Pitt created a family with actor Angelina Jolie. That marriage ended with child abuse and substance abuse allegations against him. How revealing of gender politics that he could make light of his chequered life onstage at the awards show, whereas Aniston never stopped being skewered in the press for having been abandoned. In the tabloid-fueled collective imagination, rekindling things with Pitt is supposed to be Aniston’s happily ever after. But would we really wish that on anyone?

The extremely, uncomfortably public lives of two others – and the decision they’ve made to protect themselves – are relevant here. The actor Meghan Markle and the gentleman formerly known as Prince Harry announced this month that they would be formally leaving the British monarchy in the hope of receiving less scrutiny and harassment. Their choice challenges both the institutions of monarchy and of family, which desperately need either dismantling or reconfiguration. Surely that’s more interesting that focusing on the individuals.

The “public eye” is not always so public. It may include neighbours, extended family, friend circles, strangers on social media. All of us are under pressure to conform to a narrative that’s acceptable, even attractive – even while vicious narratives may be imposed on us. It’s cyclic: we can’t tear our eyes away from other people’s lives, either. Since we are all constantly cross-watching, perhaps it’s prudent to ask – what are we being shown?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 23rd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Schopenhauer’s Porcupines

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The bistro was closing, the small city’s streets quietening even further, when the conversation among the last of us lingering at the table meandered onto the subject of how to love well. A friend spoke of a letter he had once written to an old beloved, in which he had referenced a fable written by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, which delineated how causing and feeling pain are inevitable elements of intimacy.

In Schopenhauer’s tale, a group of porcupines huddling together for warmth in winter discover that unless they learn how to negotiate the reality of each other’s quills, they will perish. The story appeals equally to those who believe that feeling and wanting deep love will invariably cause agony, and those who believe that a compromise can be found. At the table, his hands and fingers enacting the movement of raised and acquiesced quills, my friend beautifully rendered the theory like so: “Each time two porcupines try to get close, one risks getting injured, if the other has its quills up but this one doesn’t. And if both do, they cannot draw nearer.” Someone else at the table completed the thought: “… Both must lower their quills at the same time, in order to be together.”

I have suffered when I’ve had my quills up,” I said. Our taxis arrived; we hugged goodbye with plans of meeting in other places, but not before I told my friend concisely about how liberated I had felt a few months earlier, when I had told someone (who’d reappeared in a Machiavellian flourish) how they had hurt me, with unvarnished honesty. As an anecdote, it is flippant, but I consider every baring of the heart a triumph. For me, the greater woundings I carry all have to do with variations on silence – denials of truth, manipulations, fear censoring the words. This is why seemingly smaller encounters, which are not supposed to have an impact, feel amplified to me. In their provocation are echoes of other things unsaid or suppressed. Each time I express my experience, there’s more breath in my body, more felicity in my choices that follow.

To lower one’s quills is about receptivity too, not only vulnerability. It’s also about courage, which tends to frighten those who don’t engage because of fear. As another friend put it: “When you tell someone you feel hurt, they can’t twist that fact. What will they say: insist that you don’t feel hurt?” This courage prevails against both lies and silence. I had found it powerful to lower my quills to show someone whom I knew did not care for me that I knew I was worth caring for.

Mulling the porcupines’ dilemma, it’s clear: the ones worth loving and being loved by have the wisdom to know that we will hurt each other, but more intentional than the hurting is the resolve – and the trust –  that we will always try not to. The ones who love well know that we are all quill-bearing creatures in need of warmth, bristly but so very tender, and capable of patiently learning where each love needs leeway, and where it locks into place, snugly.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 2nd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The 37% Rule

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Since I’m house-hunting yet again, a friend who has a head for these things told me about the 37% rule. She said that if I fixed the mindset that I would only check out 100 flats, right around the 37th one was when I would say “Yes”. Or, more honestly, “Okay”. Statistically, that’s when people cave and decide the search is over. As I have no such mathematical sense at all, my only immediate deduction was “Oh god, I have to see 37 flats?!” The scary part was whether it’s even possible to find 37 landlords in this city who don’t mind single women, non-vegetarians and people who refuse to live in spaces painted in lurid “vaastu colours”. 37 chill, tasteful landlords? May their numbers flourish, whether I can keep count or not.

My friend went on to say something that I couldn’t shrug off, however: the 37% rule also works in romantic relationships. If one decides when they start dating that they will see ten people, the third or fourth suitor will be the one they decide to settle down with. I could see how this might apply to someone with a goalpost in mind. For instance, someone entering the arranged marriage market could, based on hearsay and practicality, decide that they’d choose or stop trying after ten birth chart appraisals. They’d arrive at their tipping point motivated by the need to close the deal.

Except, those kinds of numbers had long vanished into the distant past for both my friend and I, and if someone had told us right at the start that we needed to set a target, we would have said – with all our hearts – just one, please.

The 37% rule, despite being percentage-based, does also yield a dramatic number. The age of 26 is the optimal age to marry, according to this rule. As a Business Insider article put it: “[It’s] the point at which we can stop looking and start taking those big leaps of faith.” I had to concede that I’d already known this about myself: had the opportunity been available to me at 26, that’s absolutely when I would have entered my (first, anyway) marriage. How had this seemingly arbitrary theory so accurately deduced when I’d been most earnest, most in alignment, most adequately-experienced-but-not-yet-cynical and most set to benefit? If it was true for me, it was surely true for many.

I did take a leap of faith at that age, on the smouldering comet-tail of two messily overlapping relationships. I gave everything I had to a creative project instead, lost myself somewhere in the plummet, and surfaced a few years later strong and with something substantial to show. Some of my friends who married at the time experienced parallel trajectories of passion-collapse-growth, and after vastly different journeys we now find ourselves back on similar quests. For partners, for places to live, for something to call home. No equation is going to tell us when, or where or how. But at least we recognise now who needs to be #1 – after all this time, its ourselves we must trust again to be enough to come home to.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 3rd 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Waiting For A Love That May Not Come

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Some years ago, a list of 36 questions from a study on intimacy became popular because of an essay on how these questions could make two people fall in love (its writer’s bio at the time said she was “working on a book about the dangers of love stories”). I would’ve liked to try that experiment, just as I would’ve liked to report my findings after serving Come F*** Me Penne à la Vodka, an urban legend aphrodisiac.

But to do either, one needs a willing participant. And those are few and far between.

Interestingly, of those 36 questions, four pertain to death – three of them, to imaginings of one’s own death. Let’s refer to an out-of-syllabus philosophical question: “If you could find out exactly how and when you will die, would you want to know?” Paraphrase it: “If you could find out exactly how and if you will find lasting love, would you want to know?”

Be careful before you say yes, because remember: death is an inevitability, but love is not. Do you know the boarding school horror story about a girl who saw a grotesque image in the mirror after performing an occult ritual meant to reveal her destined beloved? What if you peered into the future and found there was nothing to see? Or something that spins all you believe into disorder?

I’ve had my share of tarot cards turned over. I’ve watched pencils track planetary orbits on paper-charts. I’ve circumambulated shrines wearing garlands that turned to flower dust, as they waited without explanation for the one who did not come. Prosaically: I’ve held my heart open. I’ve wanted, I’ve wanted, I’ve wanted. I’ve waited. Were they lies or miscalculations, the things that did not transpire? What if someone had told me, at one cusp of questions or another, that they never would?

What if it happens now, at the next onslaught of yearning – that someone will fold my fingers over my fate lines and finally tell me the brutal truth? Would I want to know? Would you?

Or what if the truth was that the route ahead is sinuous; that one day, after long  meandering, I’d come upon it, add it to my silvered strands, someone else’s children, the sweet tattoo of the scarlet letter, a bricolage of experience – a life so unlike what anyone expected? How would I choose to fill the years ahead if something was to reveal that the apportionment of time I will have with what I long for will be but a fraction of my life? How would I fill my “nothing”? Or is it better to not know, to hold hope that beyond each turn in the brambled growth is the fulcrum?

So be careful as you consider that question. And move delicately when another person shows you their own longing. Don’t tell them they will certainly find the love that they’re seeking. Don’t tell them it’s their fault that they haven’t. Don’t tell them that you know, because that’s a lie. Some lives fork into unmapped places, and are whole even so – even if, in some slants of starlight, something still tenderly aches.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 18th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Learning To Love

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It doesn’t matter, ultimately, what your marksheets say. Some doors will open because of them, others will open in spite of them, and still others will be slammed in your face anyway. So many students, actively having been taught otherwise, crumble under the pressure of having to prove themselves within systems that exclude more than they educate. So it’s refreshing that Kanishak Kataria, the IIT-Mumbai graduate who topped this year’s UPSC civil services final exam, is being discussed so much not for his academic achievement, but for a statement he made to the press when asked about the same. For what seems to be the first time anyone can recall, Kataria thanked not only his family but his girlfriend too for having supported his efforts.

It says so much about us, about the culture we live in, that what should have been an obvious and even casual statement was instead an unprecedented one. Noted activists celebrated it as a challenge to India’s caste-codified and otherwise constricted societies, in which love has neither place nor value. Others also applauded how so simple an acknowledgment proved how relationships, and by extent our general emotional lives, are no hindrance to hard work, or success. This small of note of gratitude delivered a double blow both to many families’ insistence that romance is damaging to studies, and to the profoundly toxic way in which young people are forced to hide their romantic and sexual selves, often to their own detriment.

And for once, it’s a beautiful thing that a woman wasn’t named, but was acknowledged for her role alone. She need not become his spouse, or follow any other trajectory that leads back into a normative model of societal expectations. Through her anonymity (which will hopefully continue, for her sake), Kataria’s girlfriend can be just that: a person whose support made a difference to him at this stage of his career, and because of whose existence we have another reason to talk about the deep linkages between love, caste, gender and social progress at our dining tables and our tuition centres.

As we don’t know her name – and have no right to know it either – she also avoids being identified forever after in reference to this relationship. This is a trap that even highly accomplished women, including human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and actors Meghan Markle and Angelina Jolie, have repeatedly been dragged into, both in the media and in the collective imagination. The anonymous woman who is the girlfriend of the UPSC topper can go on to become anyone; if we ever learn her name, let it be for who else she is, not for whom she is currently dating. And as for Kataria – no matter what he makes of himself in the future, he’s already made a difference now. Not because of his academic ranking, but because he has shown students and their parents that all this is possible, at once: to be in love, to be open with one’s family about romantic relationships, and to respect and acknowledge people while also respecting their privacy, all while aspiring to (and sometimes accomplishing) great things.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 11th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: A Good Ghost(ing) Story

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If you’ve been ghosted and have sincere doubts that you’ll ever enjoy vengeance for it, take vicarious relief in the recent story of a man who learnt that ten years after he abandoned his partner (by moving out of the country without letting her know!), she had become his new boss.

This sordid tale with an assuredly happy ending comes courtesy of a workplace advice website called Ask The Manager. The ghoster, a Maths teacher at an international school, had written in to ask how to handle the situation, after finding out that the new school director was none other than his ex, who he names Sylvia. Before responding, the advice columnist wrote back and gathered a crucial piece of information: the duration of the relationship. The ghosting hadn’t happened after a few dates or an awkward one night stand – which we all know is bad enough – but after three years together, two of which involved cohabiting. I repeat: he moved to another country without telling his live-in partner.

Personally, I have a history of being cyberstalked by people who have ghosted me, both flings and friends. Please don’t ask me what the logic behind that is. I can only tell you that I have very good taste in everything, with the notable exception of people. So you can bet that no one who’s ghosted me will wind up as my subordinate unless that’s exactly what they planned on.

“Ghosting” was coined as recently as 2014, but hit such a chord that it made it to the Collins Dictionary the following year. Applying it retroactively to various confusions of the more distant past helped many. There has never been anything honourable about abruptly dropping communications with another person, leaving them bamboozled in every sense of the word.

But there are also people who claim ghosting when in reality the ghoster had been driven to an impolite extreme because all their efforts had failed. What’s the word for that – when someone has consistently ignored the other’s requests, responses and feelings, possibly even been abusive, then feels surprised that the other person has let go? The Dictionary always has more room, especially as our hearts don’t always have to be so accommodating.

To get back to the drama at the international school: the advice website recommended that the teacher write a pre-emptive note acknowledging the situation, so that Sylvia wouldn’t be in for an unpleasant shock at her new job. The teacher accepted the advice, and we who have too much time to spend on the Internet were then treated to an amazing follow-up.

Without responding directly to him, Sylvia arranged for a meeting with the chairperson of the board to discuss the scenario and ensure it didn’t affect their professional environment. The teacher decided to quit.

Even told entirely from the ghoster’s perspective, this is a great story. Imagine how much more beautiful Sylvia’s version must be! It may not have all the elements of our best revenge fantasies but we can almost be certain her wardrobe was on fleek. What would you wear on a day when karma is likely to rule in your favour?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 23rd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.