Tag Archives: social media

The Venus Flytrap: Wild Goose Chases

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So many of society’s systems have been revealed to be constructs by the global coronavirus pandemic. I’d been pondering all things illusory when a series of comic recollections of wild goose chases lightened my mood.

#1: I was on a boat in Pulicat Lake with an international photographer who’d flown in exclusively to take pictures of the flamingo season that local photographers were confidently presenting as thriving (probably using old material). Climate change had deemed otherwise; there’d been no birds in a long while. “Come next month,” the fisherman making his living from rare boat rides forgivably lied. My breaking point was when I suggested we change the story angle and salvage the effort: there was a colonial fort nearby. We circled and circled. The edifice had long been ruined, overrun by vegetation. It didn’t exist anywhere but on Google Maps and influencers’ charades.

So soon after that a curse was arguably in effect, a filmmaker friend wanted to visit a “film city” right here in Chennai. There were amazing, recent reviews online. Again, after hours of searching, getting snappy and exhausted, we finally accepted that it didn’t exist. A place that had opened and shut over a decade ago was still being promoted by – whom? Who has the motive for such mischief?

Wild goose chases #3 & #4: I was in Vagamon, where my favourite architect Laurie Baker had lived, in a house that was still a notable town boast. Except the interiors looked like a boys’ dormitory; outside, a tacky fountain was draped with plastic flowers. Red laterite, lush foliage, legacy? Nope. Everything about the assignment was superficial: I was to weave a facade of serenity from a bizarre itinerary covering too many hill stations in too few days. The fakest element of all was my newfound camera-toting colleague, who spent the trip buttering me up, convincing me to secure a similar assignment so we could meet again. I tried; thankfully, the wheeler-dealer’s using me as an unpaid intern rasped to halt when he admitted he couldn’t be bothered to read the published article, while posting it all over social media for his own credit.

Social media is a master mayajaal, a net of illusion. Concerned friends tell me about how a close relative of mine who is prone to fits of violence and manipulation contingent with untreated mental illness presents herself as a mindful, enlightened creator online. The true stories and the Instastories are a mismatch. I make an income from putting words in other people’s mouths (it’s called PR, babe). I know what goes on behind glamour. But when personal trauma and deceit intersect, it’s hard to stay unafraid. This is a situation many are in: cloistered in quarantine with all that work, money and travel lets them escape. On a greater scale, we also know we aren’t getting the info that could potentially save us.

I was able to laugh a little remembering those wild goose chases; but still, they led back here. The world should not go back to normal when this pandemic is done. Let the falsehoods dissolve once and for all. Let human survival be worth it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 19th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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: Doting On, Then Dethroning

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The social media world (which is a world, but not the world) recently officiated the dethroning of a celebrity who had made social justice a part of her branding. UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and actor Priyanka Chopra was unceremoniously “cancelled” when comments she made after being called a hypocrite by an audience member at an event went viral. Chopra had expressed pro-military views, which she did not recant or explain. She was no doubt caught off-guard when asked to comment on global politics at a beauty conference, but her response was weak for someone who had been associated with activist causes for almost a decade.

But Chopra’s recent comments were consistent with her prior choices and actions. Consider her track record – promoting fairness creams, making anti-black statements both on film and to the press, slut-shaming women in a commercial for a dating app she invested in, posing on a magazine cover with an anti-refugee message on her clothing, and so on. The real question is: how can anyone be disappointed?

There are so many songs with lyrics that are variations of the idea that people will build you up just to tear you down for a reason. The backlash came largely from the same people who had pedestalised Chopra.

Could it be that the nature of the hivemind – which is ultimately conformist because a notion loses its edginess the moment it gains traction – continuously demands sacrificial lambs? It just so happened to be Chopra’s turn. If you noticed, a fresh pedestal rose simultaneously, extolling Ayesha Malik (who had called Chopra out). If Malik chooses to remain visible and outspoken, she will eventually be dethroned herself. There’s no such thing as an #unproblematicfave.

As I watched the angry posts against Chopra roll in, I found myself fighting the urge to join in more. I’d already said my two-paisa, wondering how her dubious choices had been acceptable up to that point. I’d never been a fan, although I’d really liked when she spoke about finding love as an ambitious woman. I didn’t have anything to add. So why did my fingertips itch? Holding back, I understood that all of us online that day were being provoked into expression, fueling one another. It’s a scenario that repeats itself, sometimes several times a week. Chopra fumbled when asked for her opinion in an unexpected context; meanwhile, we the online citizenry have made it our second nature to form and share opinions even when none are asked for.

The Greek god Cronus ate his children because he feared being overthrown by them. What happens here seems to be a kind of reversal, in which the devout devour their gods. They replace them with new ones, then repeat the ritual.

To install someone on a pedestal is to give our power away. When they are knocked down, its our own power they lose. Imagine what we could do if we fostered things that matter, things we didn’t feel like breaking because somewhere deep down, we are afraid of what we are capable of achieving ourselves. It’s not only the power we misattribute, but the disappointment when it appears to be misused too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 22nd 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Vortex of Umbrage

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There’s always another someone saying another something, and like cats chasing a laser pointer our attention jumps from one flare-up to the next. Last week, the Dalai Lama made sexist and racist statements better suited to a muted family Whatsapp group than to a dignitary of his position. This week, director Sandeep Vanga, whose Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh would have brought toxic masculinity back in style if it had ever gone away to begin with, claimed that slapping is a gesture of love. The designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee tried to sell his own products through a psychological trick called negging – undermining the subject’s confidence so as to move in for the kill (in his case, claiming women wearing gaudy apparel or makeup were secretly in deep pain). All these statements rightly deserve condemnation. But what happens when we get stuck inside the vortex of umbrage, retaliation and no change?

Watching women reveal their traumas from past intimate relationships on Twitter, in order to discredit the violent rhetoric in Vanga’s movies, horrified that they’d felt driven to share these experiences to counter the glorification of abuse, I encountered a necessary yellow-light-says-pause in my own outrage cycle. Those who refused to see the links between pop culture and lived culture were unlikely to have a change of heart. They’d surrendered both intelligence and goodness when they picked “It’s just a movie, yaar” as the hill to die on. At what personal cost were the survivors relieving their stories?

The author Toni Morrison is often quoted from a 1975 speech: “It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again your reason for being.” She went on to talk about how decades of research, art and science can go into proving a single prejudice wrong. All that energy is directed towards reaction, rather than innovation.

Every one of us falls into this trap unwittingly. Some even lay the trap unwittingly, wiring themselves into contrarian or essentialist positions, and then we’re in an endless volley of call (or it is call-out?) and response. The only people who win at this are full-time trolls. Most of us are not, but all of us who consume and produce real-time opinion get sucked into illusory distraction. It can make us feel like we are deeply engaged and constantly productive, but what is the accumulative good of the same?

A meaningful recalibration may require slowness and some silence, eschewing the quick rejoinder for a more involved project of engagement, processing and creativity. The truth is that when we are bombarded with information, we are overcome by a lemming effect. We look where we are directed to look, and then expend our energy as a unit. In the backdrop, everything remains perfectly intact while we agitate, swayed into overestimating our personal importance. But there is a place for that too. It’s in the work that we get distracted away from. What is that work – that intensive, time-consuming, tedious but important work that isn’t being done?

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

The Venus Flytrap: So Many Stalkers

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A random cricket fan went from anonymous to anything but overnight, thanks to zealous people on the Internet who thought that brief footage of her cheering her favourite team on was an invitation to stalk, name and even impersonate her.

I’m willing to buy that the first few who posted wondering who she was were idly curious. We sometimes use social media fairly unthinkingly, sharing what we’re watching, eating or doing. But the aggressive wave that followed was not curiosity. They – first people, then press – ran image searches, stalked her social media, revealed her name and profession and reposted her photos. They felt entitled to know all about her, and then to use her likeness and identity to their own ends. They believed the world shared this right, thereby making their own breach of her privacy acceptable. Objectification is inherently dehumanising; but this went further, conferring celebrity status and professing adoration as veneers for crude behaviour. At its worst, it reinforces the belief that a woman cannot have fun for her own sake; it must be repossessed for male pleasure.

I had a hunch that she would have been forced to lock her Instagram account because of this scrutiny. What I found was worse. There were multiple profiles in her name (which I won’t mention). I clicked on a couple. Each had tens of thousands of followers. Her photos had been stolen and reproduced, and accounts impersonating her had mushroomed. Sickened, I didn’t keep looking for her real profile.

There’s a chance that the woman at the centre of this is enjoying the attention, and may be using it productively. More power to her, if so. One good way to subvert attention, desired or otherwise, is to leverage it. But the moment she begins to, she’ll find herself trolled, and be accused of opportunism. This salivating horde will never allow her to have a personality; she can only be an object of fantasy.

In the best case scenario, she will be thick-skinned, boost her career, raise awareness for whales and abandoned children, and live happily ever after. But this is not just about her. We aren’t only just beginning to work out the ethics of such privacy violations, because we’ve seen them before. A teenage actor winking, a tea seller with eyes the colour of colonial aspiration, a student standing in the background of a Shah Rukh Khan selfie (have you forgotten most of them? Good.). And the most sobering cautionary tale of all: last year’s so-called #PlaneBae.

During #PlaneBae, someone overheard a man and a woman getting to know each other on a flight, live-tweeted their interaction, and got thousands excited about what seemed to be a developing romance. The man was happy to make TV appearances afterward. But the woman had to issue a public statement pleading to be left alone. She had been doxxed and stalked both online and offline. She had neither asked for nor benefited from the situation, and it had come with consequences.

One stalker could be called a creep. But what do you call a crowd of them? And what about when global Internet culture itself cheers along?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 9th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Every Woman’s Instagram Messages

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My Instagram direct message requests folder is currently full of men who think they’re on Tinder. Every single day for a few weeks now, I’ve been blocking a steady stream of unwelcome messages. It’s like having a dripping tap: it may not seem like a great inconvenience, but it adds up. You could tune it out if you’re wired that way, but it’s constant nonetheless. Drip, drip, drip. Heart emoji, “hai so hot”, unsolicited dick pic. Probably. Instagram has one security feature – blurring out the sent image – but even if was a floral “Good Morning” a la Whatsapp groups, I’m not about to give anyone the benefit of the doubt so quickly. If there’s a way to turn off DMs from people you don’t follow, I’d love to know it.

What makes me feel bad is that all this unwelcome attention came after I posted a photo against the sexual objectification of women, using a particular hashtag. Body positivity, empowerment, style as a form of identity, freedom of expression: clearly, none of these matter to the hundreds of men who began following and messaging me. They didn’t even read the caption.

Even in the best case scenario, they saw photos of a woman they found attractive, and decided she would appreciate and respond to their interest. They’re foolish enough to think that a woman they don’t know will say thank you, privately – if not more. And I’m only talking about the more polite, non-explicit ones here. I’ll go so far as to say that many of these strangers must think they are complimenting me. But that’s not how this attention has made me feel.

I’m also aware that among these strangers must be a few really contemptible people who are perfectly cognisant of the effect their messages have on the recipient. I’ve encountered plenty of men like that: ones who take pleasure from provoking women, desperate to register their presence to her even in the most annoying of ways, if that’s all they can do. Then there are those who feel that if a woman shows her face or her shoulder or her cleavage or her toes on camera, she is duty-bound to receive their responses to the same. They cannot imagine, even though it is gospel truth, that her photograph has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with them.

When I started to write this piece, I wanted to explore how – hypothetically speaking – a man could express his attraction to a woman he doesn’t know, whom he has seen online in a non-dating app context. He can’t, really. Because her inbox is too full of unsolicited sexual attention. And her hackles have only been getting sharper and sharper.

So let me reverse the gaze and tell you what I’d do. I’d do nothing. I’d engage with his work if I found it interesting. I’d enjoy my crush on my own time. I would never think I was entitled to his attention just because I gave him mine. And the funny thing is: this has worked out for me once or twice. And once or twice, I’ve noticed someone doing just the same, and said hi.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 26th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: What We Don’t Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Delta Meghwal

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Delta Meghwal wanted to study. She was raped, murdered and towed away in a garbage tractor.

Delta was the first girl in her village (Trimohi, Rajasthan) to go to secondary school. Then she went on to Jain Adarsh Teacher Training Institute. She was Dalit. She was 17.

On the evening of March 28th, the hostel warden instructed her to clean the PT instructor’s room, where she was raped.

Returning to her room, injured and terrified, she called her father. The next morning, she was found dead in a tank. Police then took her body to the hospital in a municipal garbage tractor. The autopsy showed that there was no water in her lungs. She did not drown herself.

Pause. You didn’t know. Now – do you care?

Delta Meghwal was an artist. A painting she made of a camel in Class 4 was hung in Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje’s office. Is it still there – reproaching the politicians who haven’t spoken a word about her murder?

She is not the first woman – artist or otherwise – to meet a tragic end because her talent stood at odds with what was expected of her. I don’t see Buzzfeed articles, neatly packaging tragedy for public consumption, with images of her paintings. I don’t see a government agency being set up in her name to provide arts scholarships for underprivileged girls. When her devastated father tells a reporter, “I shouldn’t have educated her… maybe she’d still be alive”, all I see is the story of Delta’s murder being used to frighten disenfranchised parents into wanting less for their children.

Most of all, I don’t see your 140 characters of hashtagged outrage. And that is what makes me sickest of all.

When Jyoti Singh Pandey – valorised as Nirbhaya – was raped and murdered, the entire nation grieved publicly. We observed candlelight marches. We claimed her as sister and daughter. We demanded that laws be changed. If that solidarity is reserved only for those whose backgrounds don’t discomfit our smug lightweight activism, it is no solidarity at all. It is ugly hypocrisy. There is zero meaning to your still angrily shuddering at the words “Delhi gangrape” if you ignore Delta Meghwal today.

The mainstream media is silent. In Barmer, Pali, Jodhpur, Bangalore, Delhi and Bikaner, photos of small demonstrations show mostly men, protesting caste violence. Where are the women, the ones who cried for Nirbhaya?

Talking about Delta’s death means talking about caste, and our complicity when we ignore aspects of any power system that serve us, but not others. It means being uncomfortable.

Now, when I hear the words “the Delhi gangrape”, I want to correct the grammar. That was a gangrape that took place in Delhi in December of 2012: in that same month, in that same city, there were others, mostly with fewer perpetrators involved.

That year, 24,923 rapes were reported in India (more – more than we know or want to imagine – were not). 98% of those perpetrators were known to the victim. We chose to focus on one case in the 2%, conveniently othering the rapists on the basis of class.

What about Delta Meghwal – has she been othered too?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 14th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.