Tag Archives: tamil

The Venus Flytrap: Kadalai? Kadavule!

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Putting kadalai is one of my favourite hobbies (a close second to a most favourite hobby, which is receiving kadalai). The etymology of “kadalai podrathu” is probably from the Marina Beach romance culture, which made the too-healthy-to-be-sexy sundal an aphrodisiac.

Kadalai is not kaadhal, kadalai is not a commitment. Kadalai is just flirtation. Kadalai is repartee and possibility. The best thing about kadalai is that it’s very uncomplicated. So you can share a cone with anyone, metaphorically speaking, and usually be perfectly satisfied with just that. But no less than Rumi is credited with a poem on the chickpea, which includes these zesty lines: “Grace first. Sexual pleasure, then a boiling new life begins, and the Friend has something good to eat.”

I recently discussed this while in the midst of another favourite activity, procrastination (also fun to do with another person). “I wonder what sundal would be, then,” I procrastinated with my friend Sukanya. She expanded the Tanglish lexicon of lust and love immediately: “Sundal would be a booty call text. It’s quite spicy and it’s been cooked – by then some process has happened.” Kadalai progression.

Sukanya lives in an exotic foreign country known as Mumbai and when I visited her once, she asked me to bring a certain local delight – rose milk from the airport Krishna Sweets. Thankfully, it did not bukkake in my luggage. Rose milk would be “final achievement unlocked” she winkyfaced. Except, of course, it turns bad the next day. A comparison I am, sadly, very familiar with.

Chicken 65 is obviously what happens when a height-disproportionate couple tries to have an egalitarian oral experience (quite overrated anyway; in fact, we could say it’s only semiprime). A karuvadu situation might generally mean something dried up beyond redemption, but do you have any idea how tasty karuvadu actually is, after days in the sun? Heat plus anticipation equals much deliciousness. Slow burn. Keep it roasting.

A vengayam, to misquote a famous politician, would be a dudebro who seems complex and deep at first (you know, listens to Cohen and always meant to listen to Mitchell too, takes long solo bike rides to brood in scenic settings, maybe reads a little Zizek – or just reads a little at all), but once everything’s peeled off there’s nothing there. Oh, and he also makes you cry.

Speaking of when everything’s been peeled off, a pachaimolaga is a thing that looks disappointingly small but is capable of imparting much fieriness. Or maybe you’d prefer the pappadum or appalam – the hotter it gets, the more it expands. Apropos which, long before the eggplant emoji, we were already saying “oru kathrikai kooda ille”. Sigh.

Which brings me to how, in these days of both grocery apps and dating apps delivering juicy convenience to our doorsteps, some of us still thiruvify the thenga ourselves. The good old-fashioned way. By hand, the way God and Dr. Ruth told us to. If you don’t think this analogy applies to your anatomy, it’s quite possible that too many already do. And if all this Tanglish has been lost on you, let’s just say the last word is simply: ladies finger.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 30th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Contained Within All Homecoming Is Risk

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October 1st was the tenth anniversary of my move to Chennai. I observed it by escaping to my motherland, Sri Lanka, my third such trip within a year. This will not seem as amazing to you as it is to me if you haven’t known for yourself what displacement does to the mind. On the first trip, I accepted the jarring I felt at not having a foothold that wasn’t built of childlike nostalgia. I chose to risk it by building an adult’s orientation. By the third, I love that I have bearings now: tangible mappings, viable anchors.

I love Colombo for its airport that brings me into the island, so I can wend my way into the places that fill my dreams and my pages with their waters and groves and pastoral lands – places I didn’t grow up in, but have me in a bloodbound soul-hold. At first, I thought: why do I need a relationship with the capital city at all, even if it was my first home?

But then, I love coming down Galle Road as the sun sets and looking to my left to see the sea at the far end of each avenue, dazzling between the facades of buildings in that west-facing marigold light.

I love that in this terrible economy, where nothing costs as little as it should, avocados – among the more indulgent fruits in my regular life – are a mere SL rupees 15 for a 100 grams, even in supermarkets. “What’s that?” asks my Tamil auto driver when I call out at the road-side fruit stall. “Oh, butterfruit,” I say.” He repeats to himself for practice the (he says) “stylish” word I use. Ah-vo-cah-do.

He offers me the Sinhala word: “Allibera.” I ask for the Tamil word. “Tamil le butterfruit dhaan.” he says. But of course.

I love the chill that goes through me as I have a moment of double recognition on a familiar road from my childhood: the indelible image of a “dreadlocked man under a dreadlocked banyan tree”, imprinted in my earliest years somehow, regurgitated in a homesick poem nearly 20 years after, coming together still later, because these trees are still here. And so am I.

I love the love-cake. I love speaking in my native dialect.

Are these small things love, and if so, what is their sum? Maybe I can’t be sure whether I love this city, or even need to anymore, but I do know how deeply you can dislike a place that is your utter comfort zone, your geographical arranged marriage, the place that cannot ever break your heart because you never fell in love with it to begin with. I love not being in Chennai.

Contained within all homecoming is risk. Those who take it move beyond nostalgia. This can be a bitter loss, or great luck. Let us say I have been lucky. Let us say by assuming nothing I gained much.

It’s a simple thing, really: when I say that I love that I can be here, what I mean is that I love that I could come back. That I want, still, to keep coming back.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 12th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Women At War: Subhas Chandra Bose And The Rani Of Jhansi Regiment by Vera Hildebrand

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The historical Rani of Jhansi, 19th century Maratha queen and Indian nationalist, is frequently portrayed on a rearing horse, brandishing a sword with an infant tied to her back. That last detail is pure fiction: the child in question, ostensibly her son, was 10 years old at the time of the battle memorialised, and no evidence exists of his having accompanied her in combat. The maharani’s role of mother – a pleasing one within the patriarchal realm – is merely reinforced by the symbol. Nearly a century later, it was her spirit (or at least, symbol) that Subhas Chandra Bose called upon to form the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, the Indian National Army’s all-woman unit.

Largely considered a footnote of sorts in the anti-colonial struggle, the RJR was primarily given interest due to its charismatic Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan, who later became the illustrious Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal. Vera Hildebrand’s Women At War: Subhas Chandra Bose And The Rani Of Jhansi Regiment does not simply stop at the cursory, but separates fact from myth, and fills in gaps in public knowledge. Swaminathan’s own memoirs were largely embellished with vivid scenes of combat – which the Regiment never actually participated in firsthand. The RJR propaganda project, and Bose’s order to destroy INA records, also created misperceptions. The book presents a compelling case that what actually happened is more interesting by far.

Bose organised the RJR in 1943 in what is now Singapore, and the total number of recruits is an estimated 450. These recruits were often teenage girls – even as young as 12 – although rules stipulated that they had to be over 18 years old. Dr Swaminathan and other Indian women like the teacher Protima Sen in Burma were tasked with convincing parents to sign the permission slip (curiously, married women were required to obtain this from their husbands, a point that undermines the stated premise of gender equality).

Hildebrand sets the context of the Indian independence struggle and charts Bose’s personal and political growth extensively. Numerous gender-related issues abound in the formation, and indeed legacy, of the RJR. Bose initially shared Gandhi’s prudish views on sexuality, and was even disappointed that his own firstborn was a girl, but later grew to become an advocate of birth control and women’s rights. Gandhi used women in sexist ways in the freedom struggle, and it is clear from this book that some of Bose’s initial motivations were also objectifying in nature. He eventually developed the view that complete gender equality also meant military action. That the RJR did not engage in combat disappointed all concerned. Hildebrand’s neutral, thorough research allows for a wide range of questions to emerge. For instance: did Bose select impoverished illiterate women for the task as their bodies, and lives, were considered more expendable? The historian H.N. Pandit suggests that the entire enterprise was to shock, and thereby destabilize, the British army with the sight of slain women on the frontlines.

The little known, and thoroughly fascinating, truth about the RJR is that most of its members had never been to India. 60% of them were young Tamil women from the Malayan plantations. 20% were Sikh (Hildebrand was unable to find any surviving Ranis from this category). Joining them were college-educated, Burma-raised women and others from various parts of the motherland. Hildebrand’s extraordinary research culminated in interviews with all the living Ranis that she could track down, the majority of whom are elderly Malaysian ladies. A centrefold of photographs attests to Hildebrand’s description of them as “sweet old women” – but more importantly, sweet old women who still remembered their bayonet exercises, which they gladly demonstrated to her, even when unable to rise out of their seats. “With a grimace and a grunt these octogenarians thrust the rifle hard forward, and made a swift upward movement with the fancied bayonet. The training mantra still etched in their brains, ‘[Maaro, kheencho, dekho] – kill, pull out, look.’ Then they usually smiled and said, ‘That’s how you kill the enemy.’”

For two years, the Ranis trained as soldiers, although it emerges that they were ill-prepared for the jungle. While they did not go to war, their time in Rangoon in particular contained many grueling demands, including long-distance night marches and jungle treks. The RJR was formally disbanded in 15 August 1945, just three days before Bose’s sudden death in a plane crash, although groups had been sent home at various points for some months. Hildebrand writes that most of the Ranis “found no audience” for their stories, instead quietly assimilating back into ordinary life, and sometimes concealing their military participation in order to do so.

This participation, lionised as being for race and motherland, was in fact more likely to have been about poverty or about escaping oppression. At 14 years old, Rani Muniammah, the daughter of a rubber tapper, was encouraged to join the RJR so as to have regular meals. Decades later, in a living room with a dominating portrait of Bose, she repeats army slogans to Hildebrand but admits it wasn’t until she enlisted that she had considered the Indian identity. Rani Janaki Bai, too, was encouraged by her father to enlist in order to avoid an arranged marriage. Hildebrand further contextualises the background from which most of the Ranis came: “Many of the women who joined the Regiment from the large rubber estates in Malaya lived and worked under conditions that approached slavery. Sexual abuse by the mainly white estate managers was a common occurrence. The Rani of Jhansi Regiment offered an environment where for the first time the young women found themselves respected and freed of the social stigma of ‘coolie’ status.” After their stint in the RJR, Ranis Rasammah Navarednam Bhupalan and Janaki Thevar Athinahappan turned their attention toward Malaysian independence (won in 1957) and various social justice causes thereafter. However, the book glosses over the problems of race in Malaysia.

The RJR belongs not only to Indian history, but to South East Asian history as well; Hildebrand notes the absence of material on them in Malaysian archives. They were willing to fight, and even to kill or to die, for India’s independence, but as Rani Janaki Bai tells her, “In India we would be foreigners.” The story of the RJR is shot through with far deeper colonial implications: born and raised in South East Asia, but belonging to disenfranchised communities in a region with sociopolitical problems that did not allow them to forget their roots, and with no sentimental attachments to India other than those roused by Bose, these women complicate facile narratives of patriotism.

This book is very much a historian’s tract, not a biographer’s. While the Ranis’ intricate personal stories are not explored in depth, Hildebrand clearly classifies apocrypha as such but uses it in an enlivening fashion. For instance, there is mention of a secret service within the Regiment, which involved a blood oath. Thirty or so Ranis were said to have cut their own fingers to paint a tilak on Bose’s forehead before signing a pledge; Bose was said to have wept with joy at this sacrament. Rani Mommata Gupta, meanwhile, insisted to Hildebrand that a hole had been drilled in one of her teeth, in which she was meant to smuggle microfilm to India.

This much is poignantly, powerfully made clear: what these unlikely soldiers experienced was not only an unusual adventure, but in a strange way a reprieve. As Hildebrand notes, many Ranis described those two years as the best ones of their lives. Their lives before they enlisted were chiefly as daughters; after, they continued in ways that largely recognised them only as wives, mothers, widows and grandmothers. Women At War is a fascinating testament to some women that history almost forgot, who like the apocryphal baby on the back of the original Rani herself have never been seen as anything other than figurative.

An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.

The Venus Flytrap: A Tale Of Two Poets (aka A Little Aishwarya Rai Appreciation)

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If Karan Johar was going for a parody effect with the character of the poet in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he failed. Essayed by Aishwarya Rai, Saba of the shayaris was surprisingly familiar, real and honest in a way that nothing else in that film was. In a club of her choosing, she grooves to a remix of an iconic ghazal before taking her date home; the next day she tells him not to mistake passion for familiarity. It’s not a line of defense, only of caution, because she proceeds to get to know him, and to invite him into her world of art and contemplation. She’s divorced – love suits her more than marriage did, although when her ex-husband sidles up to her at an art gallery in a moment of cinema coupling perfection, she still recognises him by aura, and smiles. And when she does fall for her current lover, and sees what is not to be, she tells him this too. All in (I’m inferring, because subtitles vazhga, I mean, zindabad) profound, lyrical Urdu.

It wasn’t the first time Aishwarya Rai had played a poet, though. In the grip of that particular melancholy that only a certain kind of cheesy-but-never-cringeworthy cinema can cure, I watched Kandukondein Kandukondein again after ages. And there, in just one scene, was Meenu sitting under a tree overlooking a river’s grassy banks – writing. So she didn’t just read widely, recite Bharati by heart, and manifest a man who knew his words almost (but not quite) as well. She wrote, too. At least until the #1 reason for the fatality of art/ambition among women happened: a deceptively suitable man. (Take it from me – the ones who love you but are too afraid to be with you are more common than linebreaks in verse).

But then again, she did ball up that paper she was writing on and throw it into the scenery before a pretty dubious song sequence.

Imagine if Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s Saba was Kandukondein Kandukondein’s Meenu grown up and grown away. That the longing in her, once a trickle she thought was as pretty as rain, had pooled: tidal, bottomless. So the naïve woman plunging into a temple tank in the village of Poonkudi and the wiser woman who walks cobblestoned roads a continent away, all the while diving into the well of her own emotions and memories, are not so different after all.

Meenu seems to stop writing, starting to sing professionally instead, encouraged by the good if slightly macho man she marries at the movie’s end. Saba, meanwhile, might be who Meenu may have become if her luck had veered just a little off the conventional trajectory. Still writing, still loving. Because she didn’t crush up the core of who she is and throw it into landscape or landfill. Because she kept claiming her words for herself, and not just the ones someone else placed in her mouth. Because, most of all, she’d touched the bottom of the pool she thought was made just to play in, and surfaced from it with knowledge of the deep that can only be learned – but never taught.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 15th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Diving Into The Distance

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I went in search of secrets, and stories only spoken but never committed to script. There in a fan-less portico in the far eastern coast of Sri Lanka, in the unforgiving Chithirai month, the elderly gentleman I had gone to see told me candidly: “I have amnesia”. And then: “I also lost all my documents in the flood.”

But the flood he spoke of seemed suspiciously far away; he told me of writing to his grandmother with an exaggeration about kitchen appliances made of stone floating in the calamity. But no one at 90 years old has a grandmother who writes back and exposes the lie. “Was this the flood of 1956?” I asked. He shushed me. In the labyrinth of his memory, the true distances of decades had long ceased to exist.

Distances. My ancestors were mostly fisherpeople who migrated from present-day Kerala, and when I look at Batticaloa on maps I wonder what it was that drew them further and further. I have drawn that map by hand myself, and wondered: which route did they take to the island’s central east: upon sighting shore, did they voyage southwards, where the gorgeous beaches of Mirissa and Galle didn’t seduce them, or north-bound, where the palms of the Jaffna peninsula too failed to beckon? It’s inconceivable that they followed the path that I did, cutting clear across the country on ground, for they navigated by water. Unless they started elsewhere and moved deeper and deeper east to where lagoon-and-field and field-and-lagoon alternate in a geography of perfect balance.

More than a thousand years later, I take a short flight and a long drive: into the country via the capital city on the west coast, followed by nine hours of highways until I arrive on the farther shore. For the longest time, under alibi of war, it was an emotional distance – an expanse, not a detachment – that was hardest of all for me to cross. One’s roots can only be watered by tears.

I discover that the distance between a matrilineal, matrilocal culture and its swallowing into the patriarchal world order is sometimes a mere generation, or one stroke of a clerk’s pen that accidentally transfers the land to the holder of the masculine name because of an ordinance that never considered how it was possible for a society like this to exist at all.

I try to bridge the distance between that pen and mine when I talk to a group of teenagers from surrounding villages and ask them to name ten writers, anticipating correctly that not one would be a woman. “Complicate the narrative,” was what the outreach worker had told me beforehand, and later over dinner with her I felt saddened that the most I could do was to offer my presence as a kind of shock value. Dialogue cannot happen at a distance.

Always, two literal bridges: the old one and the new one over the Kallady part of the Batticaloa lagoon. I crossed it several times each day, carrying more each time by way of knowledge. I never felt the distance. Even now, days later, I still don’t feel the distance.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 27th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Tamil Cinema & The Romanticisation Of Abuse

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For the first time, I’m not looking forward to a Mani Ratnam film. Not in that non-committal “well, maybe if someone insists that we go watch it” way or the lazy “I’ll just see if it’s on Netflix eventually” way but in very clear-minded and cautious way. The question is: can I watch this film without being triggered? The theatrical trailer I saw for Kaatru Veliyidai clearly tells me: No.

Here’s what I saw: a man (played by Karthi) yelling at a woman in front of his colleagues, her confusion slowly registering on her face. I saw that woman (played by Aditi Rao Hydari) say helplessly, in the manner of anyone unable to break out of a toxic scenario, “I don’t know why I keep coming back to you’. I saw him being extremely possessive, gripping her tightly as he yells at other people, telling them that regardless of all conflict between them she is “[his] girl”. In the clincher, I saw the woman whisper from behind a door, telling him: “I cannot gauge when you will come to me and when you will hit me instead”. Although “hit” doesn’t suffice; how do I translate the sheer physicality of the Tamil words vongi adi? In every frame, she is fragile or frightened. In short, all I see of Kaatru Veliyidai is an emotionally and physically abusive relationship.

Trailers are often misleading, of course. Some will say heightened dramatic elements were purposely kept in focus so as to tug at the audience’s emotions. But mine were not so much tugged as they were triggered. Because abuse is never love. Whatever the contents of the film may ultimately reveal, I’m deeply disturbed by how a trailer edited in such a way is touted everywhere as a love story.

Tamil cinema has a long history of popular films with problematic takes on romance. Guna was about kidnapping and Stockholm Syndrome. Mannan was about disempowering women, taking them out of the workplace and into the kitchen. Nattamai, among others, featured the trope of forced marriage to rapists. The examples – both older and current – are endless, really, for what passes for love. It is not only explicit violence, including stalking, that we need to cast a critical eye on, but the romanticisation of abuse itself. Call it a drama, a psychological thriller, even an action movie with an emotional twist. Just don’t call it a love story.

So no, I won’t be catching Kaatru Veliyidai at the cinema. There’ll be too much standing up involved, you see. First, I’ll have to stand up because I may get beaten up if I don’t during the mandatory national anthem. Then, I’ll have to stand up again to walk out of the theatre because some scene in which a woman is brutalised, either emotionally or physically, is probably going to push me over the edge. I’m sure someone will write to me now to say I’ve misunderstood, that the film is about a fighter’s PTSD from being on battle frontlines. Let me pre-empt you by saying: my response to the trailer is also PTSD, another fighter’s, from the frontlines of a lifelong war.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 6th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Interview With R. Vatsala

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“When I am asked, do you only write about women and families? I say: what is there is the outside world that is not there in the family? The deifying of families must end; they are made up only of individuals. We have not yet found a better system, but if we are to continue with this one, we must accept that the nucleus of equality or inequality begins within it.”

Read my piece on iconoclastic Tamil writer R. Vatsala on Scroll.