Tag Archives: Valentine’s Day

The Venus Flytrap: Patriarchy Is Taught, Not Intrinsic

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On Valentine’s Day, students at the women-only Mahila Arts and Commerce College, Maharashtra, were asked to take a mass oath declaring that they would never fall in love, have a romantic relationship, or marry someone of their own choosing. They would have arranged marriages, but without providing a dowry. The few among them who spoke to the press appear to have taken the oath by choice. It was not clear, however, whether they had been presented with a choice not to.

At another college, Shri Sahjanand Girls’ Institute in Gujarat, 68 women hostelites were forcibly made to remove their undergarments for a sudden inspection. The college’s bylaws forbid menstruating women from sitting with non-menstruating women during mealtimes. Their periods are noted in a register, and they must stay in the hostel’s basement during the same. Obviously, the college is not a co-ed one. Its name itself is patronising – to use “Girls” to describe women is to reduce their agency as adults.

The college’s egregious privacy violation, and the discriminatory mealtime segregation that led to it, comes because it is run by a religious sect that counts among its edicts that those who consume food prepared by a menstruating woman will be reborn as oxen, and women who cook while menstruating will be reborn as dogs. Specifically, as female dogs.

I can’t bring myself to use the correct English term in this context, even though I’m not averse in the least to its carefully-deployed or subversive expressions (including as reclamations of feminine power). One headline I saw used the Hindi word, as per a discourse by the sect leader’s, followed in brackets by the English translation. I’m not Hindi-proficient. I don’t know if it packs a punch in that language, but the effect of the English word in the mouth of a man, directed at a woman, is often stomach-turning. I felt the word inside those brackets. I felt its etymology of hatred towards all that is female, fertile and free.

These incidents have occurred around the same time as a senior politician’s statement that education is one of the factors that enables divorce, which he blamed for familial and societal breakdowns. Neither the nature of these incidents, nor of the mindset revealed in that statement, are new. In fact, they are oppressions we’ve collectively been challenging, and even changing, for a long time. Their resurgence is something to be vigilant about.

A hilarious and horrifying matrimonial ad – in which a man of many bigotries and no employment demands that potential wives who meet his thorough checklist get in touch via SMS but do not call him – has been making the rounds. Each time I saw it, it occurred to me how every mocking reshare also broadcast the ad further. There are women out there who fit the bill, who see themselves proudly in roles that scaffold a patriotic-patriarchal agenda. There are also women out there who may not think of themselves as rebels, who only lie that they’re not having their periods so they can spend time with their friends. Then there are women watching, counting down, making the connections. They’re coming for us all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 20th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Strawberries In The Salt Sea

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So the meerkats at the El Paso Zoo love crunching on cockroaches, and the zoo’s Valentine’s Day fundraiser has them snacking on lots of them. So many, in fact, that it seems like the zookeepers feared the meerkats were going to have a roach overdose and decided several more species could enjoy the treat. Now, cotton top tamarins, golden tamarins, white-headed marmosets, rhinoceros hornbills and northern tree shrews also get to partake of the pests. The reason? The zoo’s donation drive, called “Quit Bugging Me!!!” (all exclamation points deliberate – and probably appropriate), lets people name a cockroach after an ex, before it’s fed to another creature. And since there’s a webcam livestream for the meerkats, participants can even watch the devouring. Catharsis via cockroach proxy. Other zoos, including the Hemsley Conservation Center, UK, and the Bronx and Boise Zoos, USA, are doing the same. Meanwhile, the Sydney Zoo is offering to name a snake after an ex for just $1. But those snakes are staying alive.

Petty? Valentine’s Day is an occasion that inspires a range of reactions in the unpartnered: from a melancholic twinge to righteous rage. Indifference is the ideal, but it isn’t possible every year. As much depends on what you see around you as how your heartscape feels. Of course, the truth is this: every day is Valentine’s Day for those deeply in love and those who are deeply lonely.

If you’re in the latter category, but aren’t feeling bloodlust this year, there’s a better sight worth pondering on. A striking photograph was shared online from Ventura Beach, California, in which strawberries lay scattered on the coast at low tide, with hills on the horizon and a blue afterglow in the atmosphere. Strawberries, heart-shaped and show-stoppingly crimson, are widely regarded as an aphrodisiac. Still on the twig, in this photograph they appear at first glance to be red roses on long stems, the green calyxes seeming like plant sepals, the fruit like blossoms.

But as beautiful as they are, these shore-strewn strawberries are not edible. Neither is their presence miraculous, for all that happened is that storm water washed the fruits out of the farms they were being cultivated in, close to the beach. They mingled with effluents in the drainage before being flushed out to sea. Then, the tide brought them in, salted. They are not meant for our mouths, but they are pretty on the eye.

There’s a Scottish folksong, recorded by Sandy Denny as “The False Bride” and by other singers under different titles, that describes this scene almost eerily. In the song, the lover has wed another and the abandoned one must somehow perform joy at the ceremony. The lyrics contain this mysterious verse: “All men in yon forest they asked of me, / ‘How many strawberries grow in the salt sea?’/ And I answered them with a tear in my e’e, / ‘How many ships sail in the forest?’” Those toxic strawberries that seem out of a dream remind me, to quote another line from this song, to bid “Adieu to false loves forever”. And keep my eyes open for other, truer, fish in the sea.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 14th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Candlelight Dinner With A Difference

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“No, I won’t write about Valentine’s Day!” I texted my friend back, when he suggested the topic. I’d barely hit Send on my next line – “V-Day is vaandi-day only” when I remembered that for several years as a politically-aware young adult, I had refused to acknowledge the romantic festival because I believed so strongly in another V-Day.

V was for Vagina. V was for Violence. V-Day was the global movement founded in 1998 by playwright Eve Ensler (who created The Vagina Monologues) to fight violence against women. February 14th is where you’ll find it on the calendar, and it began as a series of fundraising performances of the play, and expanded to include a variety of artistic and political forms of grassroots engagements worldwide, all of which confront and try to change the disgraceful UN statistic that 1 in 3 women will be beaten or raped in her lifetime.

I couldn’t ever observe Valentine’s Day, knowing that it is in intimate relationships that this abuse is most pervasive.

“Do I write too much about women?” I started texting my friend, and once again I corrected myself: I realised that when we talk of violence against women, or any form of gender-based violence, we need to stop calling it a ‘women’s issue’. If anything, it’s more of men’s issue. It’s an issue of toxic masculinity, of what happens to men in any society that demands that they be unemotional, aggressive and authoritative. Women aren’t the problem. Men aren’t the problem. Patriarchy is.

I had never stopped believing in its principles, so why had I somehow forgotten about this other V-Day? It was probably because once I moved to India, I discovered that Valentine’s Day itself is subversive. To declare romantic interest or sexual involvement under the hostile watch of right-wing ideologies and discriminatory constraints is itself a radical, and therefore dangerous, act. Every year, couples are attacked, forcibly married or forcibly separated, by powers-that-be that do not recognise the power of love.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s probably healthy to crinkle one’s nose at least a little at saccharine hormonal garblings and socially-pressured exhibitions of rosy veneers. But let’s not forget that to feel love and not be ashamed of it is a human right. And before we celebrate it, let us first demand and exercise that right. It belongs to people of all genders, across all castes and communities, and of any sexual orientation.

So if you’ve got a candlelight dinner planned this weekend, why not bring that awareness to the table? Light at least one candle in memory of someone killed for falling in love with someone of a different religion, or someone driven to suicide because they were bullied for being gay, or even an ancestor of your own who was forced into an arranged marriage while the heart longed for deeper companionship. And maybe light another candle for the other V-Day: in memory of a woman lost to violence in a bond where there should have been love. Bring the revolution to the table, let it illuminate the conversation, and see if it doesn’t change your relationship for the better too.

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

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.