Tag Archives: rights

The Venus Flytrap: Nothing To Laugh About

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It was the middle-aged waiter’s sweetly apologetic tone and awkward phrasing that gave him away. Clearly, he was not the one with the objection. He was only the messenger.

This is what he said: “You have independence. But please, laugh a little quietly?” Sudhandhiram – the Tamil word for independence; he knew he was infringing on our rights, and he wanted us to know that he was sorry. We were two women who had finished a long lunch, eaten three types of dessert, and paid the bill. We were loitering, already considered a suspect activity for women. Ladies loitering while laughing loudly. Someone – patron or staff or management – had found this worthy of reprimand.

I have a big laugh. People recognise me by it in crowded auditoriums. Strangers turn to look upon hearing it (possibly to check they haven’t wandered into the set of a horror movie). I do not cover my mouth with a dupatta when I laugh. I do not usually wear a dupatta, in fact, because I don’t believe that anything should be covered unless in the interest of weather or aesthetics, rather than decorum.

I’ve jumped ahead a few paces because there’s something you and I, and everyone in this uncomfortable status quo, knows axiomatically. No one would have dared to go up to a chuckling man about to leave a restaurant and told him (politely or otherwise) to can it.

A woman who makes her presence felt – merely through function, existence or expression – in a public space is a public nuisance. And a woman who does not invisibilise herself makes her presence felt. Anywhere. Women who breastfeed on overnight buses. Girls who sweat through their football jerseys until their coloured sports bras show. Women who have to buy three movie tickets just so that no one sits on either side of them. Women who scream for help through thin walls while the neighbours turn the TV up louder.

I believe in silence in libraries and in meditation halls. I believe public walls should not be pissed against, and bhajans shouldn’t be played on loudspeakers. These are courtesies. They affect large numbers of people as they study, reflect, commute, sleep. They are intersections at which personal liberties can infringe on others. They are not gendered. Not even the open urination thing.

In conversations about women in public spaces, the topic we discuss the most is safety. In this painfully unequal world of ours, it is a concern. But a group of four women will still be asked, “Are you out alone?” (“No, each of us is out with three other people for company”). This is because the conversation has yet to extend to the notion of rights to public space. To be there, basically. To step into a public space should not mean giving up one’s autonomy over one’s body, voice or mobility. It should not mean adjusting (that delightful term used for everything from marriages to train bunks to bra straps) one’s very presence so that it looks, sounds and seems more like an absence.

In a world that makes one weep, we must take every chance to laugh out loud.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 24th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Pride and Prejudice

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I’m thrilled by the gay pride parades held earlier this week in Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore. I know it doesn’t matter that Chennai didn’t have one (far as I know, anyway) – legislatively speaking, any successful activism will affect us nationwide. I know there’ll probably be one here next year, if not sooner, and that we’re the stick-in-the-mud city, but we’ll catch up. I know all this, really I do. Still, I’m kind of, just a little, selfishly sad.

You see, I am a faghag. Ever since school, my closest friends have always been gay men. I find these relationships infinitely less complicated than those with women, which are ruined by the deeply-conditioned rivalry that is the cross we bear, and straight men, who get the wrong idea when you call them “honey”. There’s no social situation I adore more than one in which I’m surrounded by boys, all whom are prettier than me, and none of whom will take me home for anything more Broadway karaoke.

So you can imagine how I felt when I moved here. To sum up a rather horrifying realisation: I couldn’t find the gay men. I was a faghag in straight-acting city.

I knew they had to be around. Homosexuality is universal, no matter what conservatives claim. Our ridiculous sex laws and current brand of moralism are, after all, British imports: indigenously, our mores and mythologies are deliciously decadent. Chennai could not possibly be the boring strictly-hetero capital of the world – Tamil Nadu’s recognition of transgender rights was proof enough. But relying exclusively on Gtalk marathons with friends elsewhere to get my fix, sometimes it really did feel like it was.

A couple of months into the relocation, I met a flamboyant producer who had the stereotypes down pat: loud shirt, bitchy repartee, the works. I nearly fainted when he mentioned his wife and three kids.

At one point, I got so desperately perplexed that I went to a gay dating site, just to remind myself that it’s not that they don’t exist, my future friends, they were just in hiding. It was lots of fun for about two minutes, and then the chest area-only profile shots got a little repetitive. All I learned was that you can take the heterosexuality out of the Indian man, but not the Oedipus complex.

Over time, the nature of my conversations and enquiries took more serious tones. It didn’t take a genius to see that my problem was not a lack of gay men – even men who identified as straight divulged to me that they had enjoyed encounters with other men. The sexual aspect in itself was common.

What was not common, however, was the lifestyle I had come to associate with gay men. This was a sobering understanding. How ever these circles and communities came together, there was no room for the faghag. Not only was I out of depth among them, I was also completely superficial.

I am always intrigued by situations that challenge my liberalism, and this lonely experience was enlightening. What I knew of gay culture was homogenous, centred around the arts and pop culture – a fabulous culture, to use the iconic word. But that is not gay reality in Chennai, which is characterized by concealment and subterfuge, not concealer and showtunes.

So rest assured that when the pride parade finally hits the city, I’ll be there in full regalia. Only this time, I’ll keep in mind that the fight for acceptance of diversity can, reasonably enough, include my exclusion. I can’t wait to see what a more open Chennai will look like. Even if it looks like nothing I’ve ever known.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.