Tag Archives: women writers

The Venus Flytrap: Don’t Compromise

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Nearly a decade ago, I took some of the worst advice I’ve ever received. It was in the form of this unforgettable, but retrospectively mystifying, line – “You have to decide – do you want to be a full woman or a writer?” The person who said it was encouraging me to quit my job and be footloose and foolish, both nice and sometimes rewarding things for a young person to be. It was superficial advice without logistical backing, conveyed by someone not only with tremendous privilege, but who knew exactly what the effect on a vulnerable, hopeful person would be. It was cruel advice designed to ensnare: I would either choose “writer”, and suffer without grounding, or choose “full woman”, and simply leave the playing field. Either way, very little art would be made.

She knew I’d choose “writer”. I was fortunate to eventually be able to walk back some of my choices, and recoup some losses. But to this day, I’ve no idea what was meant by “full woman”, but an old note I found trying to work it out begins on an eerie and absolutely revealing line. “I don’t believe in sisterhood.” Certainly, the advice-giver wasn’t a fan of other women. So when she told me that it was alright to be financially dependent for the sake of art, what she was really saying was that it should not be possible for women to have full lives.

While I was still young enough to be living out that advice with relatively little consequence (there’s a finite period of time during which you can still do this; the trouble is that once you’re in the hold of that floating life, you won’t recognise when its expiry date has passed until your life blows up), I received completely contradictory guidance from someone who had equally wanted to ensure that I wouldn’t make art. She was not as eloquent as the earlier advisor, which is why only one line remains in memory – “You were younger then. You’re a woman now.” Funnily enough, this advice too had to do with being a woman. The advice was to “choose” to compromise making art for the sake of the security of a full-time job, and to also give up any hope of leaving a situation that did not feel like home. I was a little older, true, and so I recognised: the advice-giver, stuck in a painful place of not being creative, just wanted company.

These two encounters were far from the only ways in which people I’d cared about or respected tried to thwart my growth as an artist. They are good examples, though. The first encounter was with someone powerful, the second with someone who was also struggling artistically. Both harboured bitterness. They are also archetypal, and many promising artists meet them in the forms of mentors and friends along the way. They may be gatekeepers, artists or peers. Such an influence is partly why so many promising artists also disappear. When they offer you a trap that implies that making art is a sacrifice, self-indulgent or an obligation, remember: it’s not, and you don’t have to choose.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 14th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Vidya, Dark As A Blue Lotus Petal

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Who can tell what will survive the ages? Sometimes I think of all the beauty we have already lost to neglect, or worse, to elision. So when the scant biography of the 7th century Sanskrit poet Vidya, given to us by her English language translator Andrew Schelling, opens with this acclaim – “All agree that Vidya is the earliest and the finest of Sanskrit women poets” – we must not fail to read into the line that follows – “Or, if any woman wrote before her, the work hasn’t survived.”

There is a whole other corpus of literature that is forever lost to us, a shadow corpus of voices that did not even enter what we call the oral tradition, and which never had a chance of inscription.

When we are fortunate enough to still have the actual work of a historical artist, hagiography should be given only second place. In some ways, the fact that Vidya is little known except to scholars and readers of classical literature has allowed her poetry to be appreciated on its own standing, and not on the basis of what is said of her. This is a unique position: to neither have been co-opted nor forgotten. Schelling says that about 30 poems by Vidya survive; of these I’ve found half of them translated into English in his books.

Usually, the work will speak for its makers in ways that interlocutors cannot. The Vidya in these poems was scandalous: “As children we crave / little boys / pubescent we hunger for youths / old we take elderly men. / It is a family custom. / But you like a penitent / pursue a whole / life with one husband. / Never, my daughter / has chastity / so stained our clan.”

She was sly, funny and interested in extra-marital affairs: “Neighbour, please / keep an eye on my house / for a moment. / The baby’s father / finds our well-water / tasteless, and refuses / to drink it. I’d better / go, though alone, / down to the river, / though the thick / tamala trees and stands / of broken cane / are likely to / scratch my breasts.”

She lived long enough to experience bitterness: “Now that the days / are gone when I cut their / tendrils, and laid them / down for couches of love, / I wonder if they’ve grown brittle and if / their splendid blue flowers / have dried up.”

She was also South Indian. To quote: “But a gossip / by nature, / southern by birth, / I can’t hold my tongue.” And as though anticipating a later poet who would describe her as “Canarese Saraswati”, she wrote: “Not knowing me, / Vidya, / dark as a blue lotus petal, / the critic Dandin / declared our goddess of verse-craft / and learning entirely white.”

Before you seek Vidya out for yourself, here’s a small and beautiful stanza, echoing to you from a distant century: “I praise that silent / listener / her whole body bristling – / only a poet / linking words with ineluctable cadence / can touch / her entrails with fire.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 1st 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.