Tag Archives: singlehood

The Venus Flytrap: Sexlessness And The Single Woman

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In the 5th century BC, the Athenian empire waged the Peloponnesian War against a league of city-states headed by Sparta. This inspired the playwright Aristophanes’ 413 BC classic, Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece decree a sex strike as a means to end the war. Actor Janelle Monae recently referenced this concept when she told a magazine: “until every man is fighting for [women’s] rights, we should consider stopping having sex.”

Obviously, we know that not only men desire sex. So the premise of the Lysistrata strike bears pondering. When you withhold sex, you withhold it from yourself too. The truth is that long periods without sexual contact are common among highly independent women. Being outspoken or open-minded comes with its own set of barbs.

If you refuse to play by the rules of heteronormative engagement, you are denied respect, just as women who do play by those rules are. But there, the lack of respect occurs within certain comfortable scaffolds, such as the assurance of monogamy, convenience or protection. Here, because you are more adept at identifying small-scale manipulations and refusing to react accordingly, the disrespect is even more insidious, designed to ultimately convince you of your undesirability. What most people accept as a courtship dance feels like a fencing match to you. Over time, poorly-thought politics, rudeness and other such personality markers become real turn-offs, cuteness be damned. And if you practise ethical principles, you don’t see people uni-dimensionally, making casual disengagement difficult. You can’t sleep with people who treat you badly; but you can’t do the objectifying, either. The result: less sex than everyone thinks you’re having.

A friend shared a page from Heather Havrilesky’s book of advice, How To Be A Person In The World, that resonated for me. “We have to be self-protective but vulnerable… You don’t put yourself in situations where you’re going to cycle through bluster and neediness. That means you really can’t hook up with random men. Even if you never let your guard down in those situations, they still hurt you. They [expletive] your sense of self. They lead you to believe you’re only good for sex, and you can’t EVER settle for feeling that way.”

Reading these sentences made me realise how rarely we discuss this outside personal conversations. There aren’t enough sentences in the world about this aspect of the sexuality of singlehood because they are confidential sharings, never set down. With our confidantes, we move beyond limiting, self-deprecating complaints like “haven’t been laid since Obama’s first term” to deeper revelations about need, validation, boundaries, instincts, ennui, inadequacy and sublimation.

All this applies especially if you have “trouble” compartmentalising. But why idealise compartmentalising in the first place, instead of a more holistic approach to self and other? Not compartmentalising, not assigning people functional roles and not demarcating yourself all sound pretty healthy to me. Similarly with “not being able to tell the difference between sex and love”. Why is the person who decides this difference never the one whose emotions are involved? To fully embrace ourselves as sexual beings, we cannot stop at simply shifting the shame from our bodies to our hearts.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 20th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Love, Freedom, Solitude & Consequence

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When negotiating the delicate balance between aloneness and isolation, these lines from Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Vinegar and Oil” waft back to me – “Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,/ right solitude oils it. // How fragile we are, between the few good moments.” There are ways to reject the institution of marriage without having to deny the emotional impact of giving up social legitimacy, protection and – indeed – companionship. That’s the reason why my new book of short stories, The High Priestess Never Marries, is subtitled as follows: Stories of Love and Consequence.

There are consequences to loving, there are consequences to pretending to be in love, there are consequences to leaving, there are consequences to pretending to not want love. No matter who you are, you must negotiate these.

These are the consequences that the intelligent, and often very brave, women in my book of stories confront. They are women who, if you asked them, would say “bachelorette” is an andro-centric diminutive; reclaiming “spinster” is a stronger statement. They are widows. They are adulterers. They are lovers, they are losers, they are leavers, they are seekers.

The institution of marriage is profoundly problematic, deeply patriarchal in nature. To be a feminist is to necessarily challenge it. In India, for instance, we know that statistically speaking, women are leaving the workforce at an unprecedented rate (participation stands at just 27%, even compared to 37% a decade ago) – which means that a woman’s passions and ambitions, no matter her achievements or education level, are simply sublimated into the system. We know that only 5% of marriages are inter-caste, which means that even in so-called “love marriages”, the fundamental function of the institution as a means to perpetuate hierarchical systems remains virtually intact. We know that marital rape is not recognised by law, incontrovertible proof of the idea that a woman, and by extension her body, become the property of the household into which she marries. These are not uniquely Indian problems. It is not a coincidence that the English word “husband” is of agricultural origin: a wife was among the possessions he managed on his property.

It must be possible to challenge the system from within it, and some of the characters in my book try to, through transgressions and interrogations. But to not be within it affords its own agency, even as it strips a woman of privileges as varied as not being regarded as morally bankrupt to the literal, physical security of a companion to walk dark streets with (a companion who, if questioned by the equally patriarchal law enforcement system, can validate the relationship where a woman’s word alone has no currency). And it’s those women – the loners and non-conformists, who largely fill the pages of this book.

Autonomy may be stained with fear, but it is pervaded by freedom. It is in this freedom that the characters in The High Priestess Never Marries play, pray, push the envelope and prise their own hearts open continuously. They dive into the myths. They trek into the mountains. They dip their paintbrushes into the palettes of their lives. They serve their hearts on a platter, seasoned to perfection. They weep into the sea. They have lovers’ tiffs with the moon. They copulate with trees and devote themselves to deities. They keep very still. They sing. They sigh. They say No, they say Never, they say Not Now – they say Yes Yes Yes O Yes.

They fall. But how they fly.

(An edited version appeared on Bonobology.com)

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.

TOI iDiva: UnValentine’s Day

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Wandering through Wonderland, the intrepid young Alice encounters a hubristic Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall, wearing a beautiful cravat. The cravat, as it turns out, was an unbirthday present. An unbirthday, he explains, is every one of those other 364 days in a year on which one might also receive gifts. It is, as he says, “a knock-down argument”: by celebrating unbirthdays she can avoid getting terribly hung up on that one day, that albatross, the birthday.

Yes, we all know what Humpty Dumpty’s fate is. He, like some of us, will never get put back together again (although lots of men, and maybe some horse-like satyrs, will try). I know Valentine’s Day can be very hard for some people. Seeing as it’s become increasingly difficult to ignore it even here in Chennai, there seem to be two ways to deal: be Anti-Valentine’s, or be UnValentine’s.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to waste a fortnight, spending thirteen days feeling edgy (and not in a fashionista kind of way) in anticipation of the one that will make you bristly or downright miserable (add a margin for heartsick hungover-ness). To be UnValentine’s is to spend 365 (it’s a leap year!) eating chocolates.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to say you don’t care when you really, really do. To be UnValentine’s is to care – about yourself and how you deserve to be treated.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to secretly buy expensive lingerie just in case someone notices you in your glorious misery and gives you some mercy luck. To be UnValentine’s is to hopefully get laid more than once annually.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to be discouraging of insipidly meaningless extravagance. To be UnValentine’s is to be encouraging of profoundly meaningful extravagance.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to obsessively analyse information on your exes to work out how they’re spending mid-February, and with whom. To be UnValentine’s is to already have them blocked on all your feeds, because there is no day, ever, when unsolicited news of them is welcome to upset you.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to hate pop music because it sucks to be alone. To be UnValentine’s is to hate pop music because it sucks.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to go on a date ironically. To be UnValentine’s is to not have to call it a date in order to feel validated.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to begrudge your coupled friends their coupledness. To be UnValentine’s is to not stoop to entertaining the regrettable idea of coupling with your friends just because they’re around.

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to observe Single Awareness Day (SAD). Because, you know, one is so critically unaware of one’s singledom otherwise. To be UnValentine’s is to know one’s loneliness but not be distinguished by it.

In South Korea, Black Day is observed on April 14, eating black noodles and commiserating about being single. In Chennai, this particular UnValentine’s Day happens to once again be a public holiday. You can eat black noodles if you like, but you’ll have to share it with your relatives (how’s that for misery?).

To be Anti-Valentine’s is to Valentine’s what militant atheism is to organized religion. Don’t shake your fist at something that doesn’t exist. To be UnValentine’s is to be a believer: in yourself, and your right to red roses, right-hand rings, assorted ridiculousness and loyally royal treatment. Any day you damn well please.

(“It’s a knock-down argument”.)

Here’s the truth: I’ve never celebrated Valentine’s Day. I have no idea what it means to be wined and dined and defined by one person’s attention on one particular day. What I would miss on that day I might miss on any other day of the year – and so, what I could celebrate on that day, I could celebrate on any other day of the year as well.

Romance is sweet. Revenge is sweeter. But nothing is as sweet as self-respect.

An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India.

The Venus Flytrap: Damsel In Dangerlok

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Being of a consummately indolent species, and what more, having recently crossed into the zone of being over a quarter of a century old (and therefore prone to, and hopefully excused for, senility and imperiousness), I consider it a bit of an achievement to finish reading two books in a day. The two I read on that particular day were both autobiographical to some degree – one was candidly subtitled as a memoir, while the other carried all the markings of thinly-disguised non-fiction – but were diametrically opposed in the domestic lives of the women protagonists in question.

Isabel Allende, in The Sum Of Our Days, offered a relatively vanilla account of her matronly interference in bringing her “tribe”, her “people”, together over the course of a decade or so. Eunice De Souza, on the other hand – or more accurately, her alter-ego, Rina Ferreira – went about with parrots sitting on her head (there is proof of this elsewhere – a glorious photo of De Souza doing just this while smoking in her kitchen in her bathrobe exists) in Dangerlok, her scrumptious novel about a lecturing poet, single and past middle age, enjoying her solitude and flexing its margins as and when she pleases. There may have been some vanilla in this book, but it was probably infused in vodka.

I know who my tribe are, and I know them to be both a very small group and one that is widely dispersed. This is how I prefer it, although it helps to have a few dear ones within a reasonable radius. I feel the same way about my “people”, and by this I mean (see the earlier point about imperiousness first) my readers. Recently, I had to count the publications my stories and poems have appeared in and noted there were two dozen – half of which featured my work in the past fifteen months alone.  What made me happiest was that if I made only one new reader as a result of each of those journals, that tallied up to enough. How many true readers can a poet have in her lifetime anyway? A colleague – or a comrade if you will – once told me that he placed the agreeable number at around twenty. That night, having taken my estimate (and a nightcap for good measure), I slept contentedly, assured my work in the world was plodding along as it should.

What occupies me more and more is not the question of whether to live alone or not, but how. I think my needs are relatively simple. A room to sleep in, a room to work in, a well-stocked fridge, some plants, unobtrusive neighbours (if any), and some sort of animal – either a cat with a sanguine personality or a small dog (I didn’t grow up with dogs and want one thanks to both an acquired affection and a need to compensate). Friends are always welcome but can’t borrow my books or trinkets. Nobody ever wakes me unless explicitly requested to.

How soon can I do this and how far away can I get? 25 and already a curmudgeon (but I will tell you this: I was never young). You can rest assured, though, there will be no parrots in my hair. Owls in a tree, though, if I can have that. And butterflies.

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

The Venus Flytrap: The Armchair Amourist’s Guide To Valentine’s Day

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I’ve never celebrated Valentine’s Day in my life. Don’t ask me why. But considering the popularity of armchair activism in Tamil Nadu lately (yoo-hoo, bona fide Sri Lankan Tamil here, and yes I am talking to You), I’m sure I’m perfectly qualified to proselytize on the subject.

Presenting then, The Armchair Amourist’s Guide To Valentine’s Day. Because face it – with the torch song graveyard that is your iTunes playlist, no one believes you when you claim to be a cynical misanthrope. Here’s a much more believable list of excuses to justify your chronic inability to get laid.

1. The heart transplant wait list – Want to simultaneously give someone the shivers and get them off your case? Offering them an intense look as you take their hand and whisper, “Thank you for the chocolate heart. May I have your real one now? As in, the organ pumping blood. I want to be around for the next season of Lost and really kind of need it,” should do the trick.

2. Women’s rights – I’ll confess I didn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day for a few years running because I was celebrating V-Day, aka Vagina Day, the international campaign to end violence against women. The revolution was my boyfriend (I’ve still got that on a tee shirt). I was simply too busy sending e-cards with visuals of suggestive open fruit and forwards about reclaiming the word cunt to do mushy things with the real one. This probably explains why I find supermarkets so very sexy.

3. Alphabetical objection – Alternately, claim to have a serious issue with the letter V itself. Why does it come before the letter W, which is a double V and therefore twice as cool? Spend the day coming up with a complex theory, invoking words like “semantics”, “hegemony” and “dialectics” as many times as you can. Avoid words like “verisimilitude” and “Voltaire” as far as possible. Then, in the grand tradition of Valentine’s lone rangers, blog it for the miserable masses. If all goes well, by next year, you could even have a chat date with someone you’ve never met in your life (unless Orkut counts as life).

4. Penance – Get by on your glory days. Say you celebrated twice last year, in two different time zones (if you can pull it off, slip in a mention of joining the mile-high club). And that in the interest of fairness, you felt a bit of restraint might be in order this year. You’re planning on celebrating your birthday twice, anyway.

5. Adventures in internationalism – In South Korea, Black Day is celebrated on April 14. Singles go out to eat black noodles and commiserate over their lonely hearts. Tell your friends that in the interest of expanding your cultural perspectives and your palate, you’re going to do this the fully traditional way, and earn your right to be utterly miserable on Tamil New Year.

6. Anatomical accuracy – As someone on a quest for truth and enlightenment, you are shocked by the simplified heart symbol that has come to stand for that most noble of causes, love. Express your disdain by going “visceral realist” (thereby squeezing in a reference to Roberto Bolaño that’ll be sure to impress literary types like, umm, yours truly). Just be sure that any anatomically accurate tattoos you might get aren’t of your heart. We both know that’s really made of marshmallow.

If all else fails, remember: you can still stay at home with your torch songs and a bottle of Shiv Sena-sanctioned non-alcoholic wine. It’s only for a day, anyway. As gastroenterologists say, this too shall pass.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Is Marriage The New Singledom?

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I find myself, at 22, an old maid.

No, I’m just being dramatic. But you can’t fault me for my dour mood considering that in the past year or so, I’ve discovered that I’ve turned into a minority: unbetrothed, un-hypenated-surnamed and barely past legal age, I’m surrounded by people in my age group who’re taking the leap into holy and not-so-holy matrimony. From primary school friends with Facebook albums full of wedding pictures to discussions about fiancée visas to perfectly serious queries about whether I am married myself (and why not), everyone seems to be quite cozily committed, and more than willing to shout it from the rooftops.

I’m perplexed. Shouldn’t I expect this to happen in, say, five years’ time? Or is there some kind of generational trend in action here – have young women become so chastised by all the pop culture out there about successful, single, “independent” and really very lonely 30-somethings that they’re taking the plunge sooner?

As a census category, the average age of first marriage for Indian women is an almost juvenile 19. But the women I’m thinking of are from all over the world, exclusively urban, with the English language and exposure to its media in common. All the old bugaboos that we associate with early marriage are noticeably absent. Family pressure is no factor – if anything, their families have tried to talk them out of it. With the exception of one friend who doesn’t believe in premarital sex, religious reasons don’t figure either. All these young women are doing it because they want to.

It’s been a very long time since postponing marriage was rebellious; if anything, it’s now the safe choice. True, the right to delay or opt against marriage were some of the great struggles of our foremothers’ lives. But this was at a time when it was one or the other: career or crèche. Feminism is contextual. Our struggles evolve as society does. And if the experiences, anecdotes and celluloid versions thereof of the popular idea of the modern woman are anything to go by, the fine line between real agency and shallow imitation is lost.

Because here’s reality: women who are actually single by choice remain outside the mainstream. Condi Rice, Sushmita Sen and Geri Halliwell are prominent examples. Their legitimate choices are questioned and analyzed, whereas the temporarily unattached statuses of those who imitate that choice to disastrous results, ignoring the fact that it is simply not suited to them as individuals, are perfectly acceptable. It’s no challenge to the system, after all. Same shackles, different shtick.

Extended (but impermanent) singlehood gives one great company: a hundred chick lit novels, a hundred more TV and film characters, and millions of insecure women hellbent on convincing the world that their impersonations are the good life. But look a little closer. Does anything preoccupy those lives to the extent that men do? Money and Manolos alone do not a happy woman make. My generation reads between the lines while women less than a decade older gullibly swallowed hook, line and clichéd cosmopolitan. Frankly, I can’t think of anything any more conformist than that.

So I’m happy that my generation sees the sense in not buying so completely into myths of superficial empowerment. If we’ve learnt this vicariously from observing the failings of those before us and not through actively participating in the experience of decade-long serial monogamy and glossing over loneliness with lies and pretty trinkets, all the better.

Something tells me that because we are more honest, both to ourselves and in what we choose to project publicly, we’re also more likely to succeed in cracking that modern riddle: what does it take for a woman to have it all?

Maybe most of us are built like chopsticks: perfect when paired, good for nothing but to poke out an eye or tuck in a ponytail otherwise. There’s no shame in that. Getting that baggage out of the way could really help when it comes down to the tasks of pursuing real success and happiness.

And the baggage of divorce? There are no guarantees in life. Marriage, late or early, is always a risk. Staving it off for as long as possible doesn’t actually negate it. It just means you die sooner.

Now all that’s left is for me to get over my engagement envy.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.