Tag Archives: romance

The Venus Flytrap: Being Adored

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Chemistry is one thing, being adored quite another.

At the cusp of my 20s, there was a gorgeous man with whom I never became involved, even though a deep and evidently mutual crush existed between us for something like three years. A friend of his told me then, “We sit here and talk about every girl who walks by, but when you arrive, he falls completely silent”.

I saw his eyes light up whenever he saw me; and because I could ask for no purer reaction, neither could I ask for more.

No, that’s a lie – I am a shy woman. And I like to be asked.

But this is true: there is nothing really complimentary, deeply meaningful, about being found attractive. There is only a marginal, and often perishable, difference when it comes to being lusted for. Both are ultimately about the beholder and their pursuit. This is why, so often, it wilts upon fulfilment – curiosity satisfied, skin that yielded so tenderly so quickly thickening to hide. For by the light of morning none among us is anything but vulnerable, but some among us are so afraid.

I have not been adored often. I’d like to think that I would always appreciate it, and so would always recognise it. I say this knowing that there’s a part of me that is coy and cruel, and takes and does not reciprocate, while pining for other things that don’t spin intoxicatedly around the vagaries of my caprice.

Such spirals are not adoration, just another form of beholding: if fortunate, one knows better than to risk touch. In astronomy, there is the concept of evection. The word literally means “carrying away”: it indicates the eccentricity of the moon in response to the sun’s attraction. Even the moon is driven mad, and sometimes we are simply moon-kiss’d.

The last time I saw the man who fell silent, his eyes suddenly-lit, whenever he saw me, we had bumped into one another unexpectedly in a public place. Neither of us could contain our delight – we held both of each other’s hands and sparkled hellos elatedly, and then simply let our hands drop away. That too, was almost a decade ago, but I count it among the few times I knew myself to be genuinely cherished.

Should we have acted on it? Maybe, maybe not. He adored me, I adored him; this is not a bittersweet memory.

It was not Love, but it was love enough. Adoration is something else altogether, something soulful and joyous and often taciturn.

The hands, the feet, the eyes – these are the holy centres. The gestures: to kiss the hand, to touch the feet. And those most taciturn and most soulful things rendered by the eyes…

Not everybody knows how to do this, how to adore. It takes a certain grace, a certain respect, to be able to look at a person and make them feel beautiful without it being about the way they appear, feel desirable without it being a proposition, feel extraordinary and original and singular with it being only – and only – about some sublime and recondite essence of their own.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 26th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: On The Sexism Of The Iconic Marriage Proposal

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Borrowed largely from Hollywood, thoroughly supported by the wedding industry complex, and encouraged by the pressure and appeal of social media (“She said yes!”), the proposal has gained popularity as a nuptial rite of its own. Both in love marriages and modern arranged marriages with their tinny gloss of long engagements and staged meet-cutes, this gesture – often described as romantic – signifies a certain threshold in a relationship. Given the highly public nature of most marriage rituals, that a private novelty has gradually come to be included among Indian customs is a nice thing. Only, as we move away – as we must, if we believe in a better world – from traditional circumscriptions on marriage, it’s worth thinking about which notions of romance are worth preserving and appropriating.

The thing about the iconic wedding proposal – a ring, a bended knee, four scripted words – is that it is almost without exception, in heteroromantic contexts, performed by the man.

This would be okay if a proposal was just a loving gesture, and not a watershed moment which advances the status of a romantic relationship. Neither is it a request, because what comes after the famed question is an equally scripted reaction: surprise, excitement, and invariably, acceptance. The words “will you marry me?” sound like they are asking for permission, but in practice they are giving it. The surprise element is a decoy, unless the supplicant is truly clueless as to what the response will be (in which case, I hope there’s a sympathetic refund available for that bling). In the version of the script that we have all subconsciously downloaded, the woman has waited for it, and the man has decided on its timing. It was her waiting that was the true petition; he simply offers his agreement through the enactment of asking.

Marriage is patriarchal – but surely love is not so pathetic?

Sometimes a woman must say no, because that is her true answer. Sometimes a woman must pose the question herself, because she must pursue what she desires, and she need not wait for anyone’s validation of the same.

But more than either of those subversions, I like the idea of the decision to marry being a matter of consultation, a series of increasingly confident discussions. I fail to understand how one person asking a life-altering question and the other shifting quickly from astonishment to certainty inspires any trust in that couple’s ability to articulate, negotiate, and make choices together.

We haven’t evolved marriage out of our worldviews yet, and perhaps we don’t need to. But we do need to keep evolving its workings, questioning it as an institution and contextualising it in ways that emphasise individual wholeness and challenge structural inequalities, as expressed in misogyny, casteism, colourism, homophobia and other chauvinisms.

Let’s begin by falling in love. Let’s begin by being honest. Let’s do boring things like talking about whether or not to get married and radical things like changing the problematic verses and actions in the ceremonies. Indian marriage has so far been about social legitimacy, not about togetherness. Let’s begin by rewriting that script. Or better yet, let’s begin with no script at all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 7th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Not This, Not This | This Too, This Too

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There’s a love that looks like no love you’ve ever seen. And on some days, and certain nights, you can almost convince yourself that it looks for you, too.

Almost. The deeper you travel into a life of your own design, the further away the mirage of a co-sojourner appears. There is no one who falls asleep thinking of you. The face you see when you wake up is your own, in a mirror, all evanesced dreamscapes and smudged kohl.

But you must indulge it, a little dulcet speculation. You parse the present as though it already comprises kernels of a different future. Everything that has happened to you has happened in the absence of the one who loves you, who does not know it yet, whom you contain no memory of. The world appears less maimed through this awareness, this version of the story in which there is someone you would walk through the rain to meet, had you only known how to reach their door.

What you do contain, positively, is wisdom. It beams in you like a blacklight tattoo when you need it most. Like that night when you came home after seeing someone so perfect you could have sworn you wrote them into being, but you couldn’t sleep, and not because you’d been hit by lightning. There you were, your palm on your chest at 2am, breathing deeply, sitting still and listening to your heart. How it wouldn’t stop saying, “neti, neti.” Not this, not this.

“Not never, but not now,” you explained to those who were dismayed. But even then, you knew.

A seer tells you to say affirmations to draw love into your life. A priest prescribes garlanded circumambulations. A doctor puts you on multi-vitamin supplements so your hair might stop falling out and you’ll have the energy to go dancing. A friend downloads another app into your phone. You’ll do some or all or none of these.

But mostly you’ll just do what you have to do. You’ll return to the poems, and when the wish to mouth their magic into someone’s ear becomes too much, you will go to Rilke’s “You Who Never Arrived”. You don’t cry like you used to, emotion billowing from you as unmistakably as a bullfrog’s throat. Your sorrow gets mistaken for anger. Your strength for coldness. Your grace for forgetting. Now your tears are scant and taste like tea steeped far too long.

And the flights of speculation too grow fewer, which is why you notice them, lift them to the light in curiosity. There is nothing to anticipate. Days and nights of lacklustre certainty. And it’s you who must tell your heart, this time: “Iti, iti”. This too, this too. Even this. This with its saudades. This with its cosmic signs that anagram to red herrings. This with its gambles made on someone else’s loaded dice (but you’ll make them anyway). “Heads you win, tails I’m lost” – that country ballad by Jewel you’re surprised to remember, so many years later. This now, this here, this always – with its almosts that only almost count.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Dear Mrs. XOX…

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The other day, I received an email that could have been a threat, a case of mistaken identity, a prank, or a strategy by some slick operator. The sender warned me to stay away from their boyfriend – let’s call him Mr. XOX. They’d even created an email address expressly for this purpose – “Mrs. XOX” was their chosen pseudonym. Considering that I don’t know anyone by that name, I had no initial clue what to make of this.

Bizarrely enough (and this is where the slick operator suspicion comes in), Mrs. XOX told me, in explicit terms, that women crave her boyfriend due his impressive appendage. She also told me to delete a particular number (which, of course, I never had to begin with). Yup, my poison penpal gave me the phone number of a well-endowed man.

First, I laughed. And then, just in case this sender was real, I felt very sorry for anyone who’s been driven to such insecurity in a relationship.

So, Mrs. XOX, if you’re reading this – I want you to know first of all that I don’t know and have never met your boyfriend. I’d never want to meet him either, because something tells me he doesn’t treat you right. And I don’t like to be around those who disrespect women.

Maybe you’ve written to me because your boyfriend put the idea into your head that he’s involved with a stranger. This tactic is called gaslighting. It’s when someone controls you by convincing you of a false reality, wearing away at your reason and intuition, until you can no longer trust yourself. As a result, you become paranoid and are driven to extreme behaviours. Gaslighting is one of the most common tactics of emotional abuse.

I want you to know, Mrs. XOX, that emotional abuse is abuse. Don’t be afraid to call it by its name. It happens to the best of us.

You’re not crazy. You’re not possessive. You’re not desperate. These may be words you have been called. But they are not who you are, they are just the effects of this abuse.

But those harsh words are not what other women are either. If he has cheated on you, remember – that was his decision. The fault is entirely his and you can blame no one else. If he has made you hate and punish other women, he has made you hate and punish yourself. You must look squarely at him and see him for who he is. And then, freed of the need to possess or belong to him, begin the process of rebuilding who you are.

Most of all, Mrs. XOX, I want you to know that I don’t mean to insult your intelligence. You probably know all of these things already. I’m only here to remind you: you deserve so much better. This is not what love is supposed to feel like.

Maybe you’re Mrs. XOX. Or maybe you’re someone like her – pushed beyond your pain threshold out of love. My wish for you is this: walk away. You will heal. You won’t need to be Mrs. XOX when you can truly be your own person.

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

In Femina Magazine, Dec 18 2015 Issue

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I was very thoughtfully interviewed by Kirthi Jayakumar earlier in 2015 for Femina. The piece appeared in the Dec 18 2015 issue of the magazine.

Please keep your eyes and hearts open and your loving wishes sent in the general directions of The High Priestess Never Marries (HarperCollins India, 2016) and The Altar Of The Only World (HarperCollins India, 2017). And me, if you have more love to spare. Because I do, and I’ll try to make more books from it :) Happy new year! xo

Sharanya Manivannan Femina 1Sharanya Manivannan Femina 2

The Venus Flytrap: Dating While Being Intimidating

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“Strong women intimidate boys and excite men”. There is an image of a woman wearing a tank top with these words on it that has been doing the rounds online recently. It’s a glamour shot – an advertisement for the American clothing company that sells the top. But the line is so powerful that the image, free of branding, has gone viral. Is it cocky? Only if you’re someone who hides behind the idea that people fear you, like a little creepy-crawly that casts a looming shadow. But for most people for whom the line strikes a chord, particularly straight women, it appeals not so much to the ego as to the never-not-broken heart.

            No one gets to be strong without first having been shattered. The Japanese have a beautiful artform, kintsugi, in which a lacquer of powdered gold is used to repair cracked pottery, rendering an object more beautiful not despite but because of its brokenness. Some of us are thus now made almost entirely of gold.

            I wish I had a rupee for every time someone said to me, as though it was some major insight they were offering me, “I think men are just afraid of you.” (I’d always have exact by-the-meter change for autorickshaws then). But what does the “just” in “just afraid” really mean? It’s a word that seeks to paint as obvious what is in fact an imbalance, a reflection of the disturbing reality that empowered women are punished most of all in the arena of personal relationships. How can a positive trait like strength – and attendant qualities like ambition, success, independence and candour – be anything other than desirable?

            When a man, especially in a romantic context, is put off by a woman’s strength it is not because he isn’t sure that he can handle a life that demands more of him (this is what he will invariably say as he conveys his regrets). It’s because he actively prefers to not try. The kind of woman he is not afraid of is the one he will choose. She is not necessarily weak. But she is always afraid of him. The truth is, fear does excite weak men – her fear, that is.

            But I think of all the times I have held the beverage before me with slightly shaking hands, lowering my eyes as I received the condescension of being told or showed that I am too strong to love, and I can tell you – of course there was fear then. And despair. And anger. But when I finally raised my chin, the only emotion they’d register would be the last. Scary lady.

            I reject the idea that I am too difficult to love. And if that means being rejected by anyone less than my perfect equal, then so be it. (Why try, why not do the rejecting first? Well, that’s what really separates the weak from the strong – whether you embrace vulnerability or seek to avoid it).

            I’d add a clause to the quote on the tank top. That bit about exciting men? Boring. And easy. Anyone – intimidating or otherwise – knows this. I’d rather be seen, not just salivated over. I’d rather be understood than craved. Of course I want to excite you (it would add another crack to my gold-filigreed heart I didn’t) – but just as much, I want to challenge you, to learn from you, to provoke your sense of purpose, to arouse your best self, to stimulate in you – just as there is in me – an insatiable appetite for life.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 9th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.