Tag Archives: women

The Venus Flytrap: The Jealousy Of The Genius

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The enigmatic Annapurna Devi died in Mumbai at 91 last week. Her gift with the subahar and as a singer were legendary; but almost no one ever heard either, except if very selectively allowed into her home as a disciple. In her youth, she was also the first wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar. In an attempt to quell his jealousy and salvage their marriage, she took a vow that she would cease to publicly perform, and continued to keep it even after their divorce.

The Malayalam author KR Meera has spoken often of women she met when she was a young journalist who were introduced to her as the wives of eminent men, but whose true talents had been suppressed. As she once told me in an interview, a particular incident illustrated this state of affairs. An elderly woman who was married to the great man she had come to meet seemed especially intrigued by Meera’s work. Out of politeness, Meera asked her if she had ever been a writer herself. As the author recounted to me, “The graceful woman who was the incarnation of love, care and compassion turned angry and ferocious, and said: Used to write? Who? Me? This man sitting here saw me for the first time on a stage while I was reciting poetry. The great poet Vallathol had blessed me, saying, ‘You are Saraswati, the goddess of learning’. And this fellow fell in love with me and married me and then what? My literary career ended then and there.And he was climbing up the ladder while I was toiling in the kitchen and giving birth to his kids.

Annapurna Devi, too, had been called the embodiment of Saraswati. By her father, the celebrated composer and musician Allauddin Khan. One could say he was possibly biased, except that he had first refused to teach her music. He had educated Annapurna’s older sister, and because this had caused problems in her marriage, he’d refused to teach the younger girl. She’d learned from simply listening to others’ lessons, and when her father eventually discovered her talent, he felt compelled to begin her formal studies in music. Eventually, it was an unfortunate marriage that thwarted her career too.

Some obituaries of Annapurna Devi romanticise her reclusiveness and praise what is perceived as her non-attachment to the material world. Doubtlessly, she found a way to sublimate her creativity into a spiritual life, of which teaching was an extension. But it’s dangerous to call that her choice. It’s, firstly, an erasure of her truth, which she shared in rare interviews in which she did not mince words about Ravi Shankar’s abusive and deceitful nature. But it’s also dangerous for all those out there whose passions are simply called hobbies, who rub the ink on their fingertips onto their aprons and watch as the words they wanted to inscribe evaporate like steam from a boiling pan, whose thoughts unfold in ragas they must wait for a secret hour to hum, who hide their illustrations inside plain notebooks that lie like obsolete currency in locked drawers. To call such sacrifice a choice is to abet their suppression.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 18th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Poison In The Pages

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Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark have found three books in its library, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, painted in poison. Bookbinders of that time often reinforced books by using manuscript fragments, and archivists over the years have discovered precious texts among the same. Unable to read the words therein due to a layer of green pigment, the researchers sent the books for micro-XRF analysis. The pigment contained arsenic.

But this will come as no surprise to history and trivia buffs. It was fashionable in Europe then to wear poison, use it in interior décor, and make art with it. The pigment Scheele’s Green, also known as Paris Green, contained arsenic. Its beautiful colour was found in the fabric of ball gowns and cravats, and the works of Cezanne and Monet, among other painters. It was commonly used in wallpaper, and not just in affluent homes; whole families often died mysteriously after a décor makeover, and one suspected reason for Napoleon’s demise was that the walls of his exile home contained it. And arsenic-laced pigment was used both for aestheticizing books, as well as an insecticide in the binding. This toxic substance was widely appreciated just because it could make things pretty.

Strangely enough, at around the same time, a concealed poison caused much alarm and was linked to hundreds of murders in Italy. Known as Acqua Tofana, it was believed to be composed principally of arsenic, although post-mortems didn’t always reveal this substance. It took its name from the apothecary believed to be its manufacturer, Giulia Tofana. With a few trusted women, including Hyeronyma Spara who either was or pretended to be a sorceress, she created a poison that was also sold exclusively to women. It would either be packaged as a compact, and could be openly kept on a dresser alongside other cosmetics, or in a vial with the brand Manna di San Nicola, under guise of being a holy oil from the tomb of St. Nicholas of Bari (also known as Santa Claus).

Mozart claimed Acqua Tofana caused his death, and the stories around it are so fascinating that I hope a brilliant novelist pursues them. Among the rumours half-sceptically accepted as history is that there was a high demographic of young Italian widows for decades. That their deceased spouses were often much older was seen as a less likely possibility than that they’d introduced a tasteless, colourless, mysterious blend into their food.

How much of the legend around Acqua Tofana and its sisterhood of makers and clientele is based on the distrust of women? What it brings to mind is the ancient Indian legend of the vishkanya, women whose bodies had been trained from birth, through the gradual imbibing of poisons in small doses, to themselves become lethal. Physical contact with them could kill, and vishkanyas were raised for this purpose alone. Of course, they served whoever raised them. But imagine they indeed existed, and broke away, and formed a feminist legion. I don’t want to touch a book with arsenic in its binding. But I’d love to read one with such poisons and intrigues in its pages.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 12th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Stripping For A Cause

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There’s a reason why you may not have heard of actor Sri Reddy before she stripped in front of Hyderabad’s Movie Artist Association (MAA) to protest the sexual exploitation of women in the cinema industry. That reason is why she chose to protest: Reddy alleged that despite coerced sexual favours obtained by gatekeepers in the field, she and other women were still denied career opportunities. The protest came shortly after MAA rejected Reddy’s application for membership. Later, Reddy also told the media that she had been raped by a producer’s son.

One does not have to agree with everything Reddy said or did in order to support the larger cause of her protest. In one interview following the protest, the actor seemed to both vilify sex work (“Big directors, producers and heroes use studios as brothels. It’s like a red-light area.”) as well as make a derogatory statement about caste (“Naresh [veteran actor and senior member of MAA] said we have to clean that place [where she stripped] with water. That is a big crime. How can you talk like that? I’m not an untouchable girl.”). Her articulations are undoubtedly problematic.

But to claim that her protest was just a performance or an attempt to steal the limelight is wrong. The use of the naked body as a last resort to reclaim power or demand attention to a cause has a powerful history. Without seeking to draw facile parallels with Reddy’s protest, other examples span the range from preventing doxxing to political insurgency. In 2004, 12 Manipuri mothers stripped in an iconic anti-military protest after the custodial rape and death of a young woman. Australian musician Sia released a nude picture of herself last year to foil an attempt to auction it off. Just weeks ago, farmers from Tamil Nadu stripped outside Delhi’s Rashtrapati Bhavan demanding drought relief funds. The body in protest is not sexual – in fact, it subverts the gaze by drawing attention elsewhere, to the cause for protest.

Reddy has been blacklisted by the MAA. She will not be able to work in Tollywood, and given that the exploitation she speaks of is widespread in most fields in India, may find it difficult to find employment anywhere. Disappointingly, other actors have not validated her allegations, despite the widespread awareness of sexual harassment and assault in cinema. But she joins the ranks of Sruthi Hariharan, Parvathy, Radhika Apte and a brave handful who have challenged the normalisation of misogyny behind the scenes (and onscreen) in their respective industries by speaking up.

Finally, there’s this. On MAA’s website, the very first category on a list of Galleries is literally called “Hot & Spicy”. This line of text precedes gratuitous images of women: “Maastars.com is an Official website of Movie Artist Association, you can find here Actress Hot and Spicy Photo Gallery. (sic)”

Proof, and how flagrant. A frustrated artist and rape survivor choosing an incendiary form of protest is not nearly as obscene as a mighty institution like MAA so openly celebrating the objectification of women on its online presence. Reddy is right – the industry is rotten, and thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to be.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 12th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Lady Snacks

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A writer in her 20s, to borrow from Virginia Woolf’s iconic treatise, needs a room of her own and disposable income. A writer in her 30s needs a room of her own, disposable income and no concern whatsoever for her slowing metabolic rate, because book-making and binging go hand in hand. Just ask the pretty inlaid tray that sits at the back of my laptop, currently filled with almond biscotti, dried fruit trail mix, coconut-coated peanuts and assorted chocolates (I already ate all the potato chips). It is literally behind every word I write. In the acknowledgements page of my next book, I will have to thank Netflix for a good work-life balance, Swiggy for recognising that a woman’s place is not by default in the kitchen, and God for inventing all the ingredients that go into peanut sticky chikki with rose petals.

Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo’s CEO, has been thinking a lot about snacking women lately. But there’s a sticker over my webcam, so her friends in surveillance couldn’t have included me in her recent field studies, based on which she concluded that there exists a need for a snack innovation: gender-specific Doritos. This might be why there’s only one line in this interview she gave about this breakthrough that applies to me (I think you can guess which one it is): “[Women] don’t like to crunch too loudly in public. And they don’t lick their fingers generously and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavor into their mouth… For women: low-crunch, the full taste profile, not have so much of the flavor stick on the fingers, and how can you put it in a purse? Because women love to carry a snack in their purse.”

The lazy way to make a product gender-specific is usually through colour and design. Children’s toy manufacturers are notorious for this kind of thing, making everything from pink globes to pink go-karts, but equally so are several men’s grooming products, an entire category which can be described as “putting the same moisturiser in a dark blue bottle”. Doritos could have gone this way, and we’d have been appalled for about two seconds before gluttony and a Pavlovian attraction to vivid fuchsia packaging might’ve had us whipping out our ladies’ debit cards – the one with a stereotypical graphic of a shopper on them (this is a real thing). The amount of consideration that went into Nooyi’s announcement makes laziness preferable.

A chip without crunch is a soggy, less tasty one. But Nooyi is not wrong in her observations. From hiding the messiness of dining to hiding its very fact, should it invite commentary on the body, many women are conditioned to downplay their eating habits. Which means they probably will eat the inferior chip rather than the loud one. What PepsiCo plans would, in a classic capitalist move, irresponsibly perpetuate such conditioning under the guise of sensitivity.

The best way to point fingers at a corporation like this, which only mirrors society, is to relish licking the flavours off those same fingers, knuckle deep in a bag of carelessly self-loving, mojo-feeding, tummy-cheering yumminess. Shamelessly. Slurpily.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 8th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Desires Unmet

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In Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, a group of mostly illiterate older women share and write down sexual fantasies and revelations with one another in a gurudwara classroom, while those in charge believe the old ladies are actually learning English. In Alankrita Shrivastava’s film, Lipstick Under My Burqa, four neighbours with significantly varied lifestyles conduct the shine-and-subterfuge that so many women in conservative places like India do. In secret, they work, party, sing, join protests, read erotica, conduct affairs – slipping on and off masks (or more literally, articles of clothing, be they burqas or swimsuits) that allow them to move between their true and ordained selves.

In both cases – the book, set in suburban London, and the film, set in Bhopal – the women’s solidarity with one another is a natural falling-together, an effect of proximity and circumstance. They have not been influenced by rhetoric, or raised with exposure to it; they have been moved only by logic and desire, despite how incompatible the two may seem. Indeed, I can see both groups together, crossover-style: among them, the resourceful Shireen who climbs the ladder of a sales career without her husband’s knowledge, the elderly Arvinder who reveals a memory disguised as a story, the wilful student Rehana who articulates rebellion in front of the sudden spotlight of a camera, the grieving Kulwinder who finds that life can still hold pleasure.

It was by coincidence that I watched Lipstick Under My Burqa on one of the days when I was also reading Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows. They complemented each other so well, such that the middle-aged, widowed character of Usha in the film, played by Ratna Pathak, would have found herself at ease in the English gurudwara. Like the migrant widows, she is regarded as a non-sexual being. In truth, they are anything but – something which is routinely unacknowledged, either in fiction or in life. It was only extraordinary to see her portrayed in Indian cinema, for the many Ushas around us are dismissed daily, their desire seen alternately as non-existent, humourous or shameful.

Lipstick Under My Burqa left me saddened for hours afterwards. Was this the movie that had caused such a controversy with the censor board (not to mention the creation of that odd little phrase – “lady-oriented”)? There’s a little bit of sex, sure – but more vividly, there’s rape. Marital rape, to be precise, which does not legally exist in India. And humiliation, heartache and helplessness. It’s a film about women’s fantasies, yes – but more pertinently, it’s a film about women’s realities. About need and nature and how both are crushed by force. Nothing titillating about that.

It’s a film about fulfilled desire only as a matter of luck, and sexual repression or frustration as demands. I won’t say more, because I shouldn’t give away what happens in this poignant and disturbing film. But I will say this: if, like me, you are filled with sorrow afterward, turn to the surprisingly uplifting Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows as a chaser. I’m grateful I was consuming both pieces of art at once. Book and film, too, fell together in quiet solidarity.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 7th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Women Infantilised By Society And Law

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A young Indian woman named Hadiyah, moved and perhaps given meaning by a faith other than the one she was born into, decided to convert. She eventually signed up on a matrimonial website that would allow her to find a like-minded partner. Despite Hadiyah being 24 years old, and despite the fact that Kerala high courts had rejected two petitions filed by her father claiming she had been forcibly converted, a third such petition resulted in her marriage being annulled – and her being sent into parental custody with this infantilising statement: “A girl aged 24 years is weak and vulnerable, capable of being exploited…”. The Supreme Court has since ordered an investigation into the marriages of formerly Hindu women to Muslim men as a potential terrorist conspiracy.

The concept of “love jihad” is not only Islamophobic, it is also a clear insult to all women. And with violent overtones: recent reportage has revealed some truly terrifying tactics including kidnapping, coercion and even drugging women (at an Ernakulam hospital) so that they comply with their parents’ wishes. In every such scenario, the freedom of an adult woman to make her own choices is either questioned or curtailed. It is also worth iterating that marital rape is not criminalised in India. Marital rape cannot exist in this worldview because women’s autonomy – the right to reject or consent – does not exist. She is her family’s, community’s, state’s – or in a panchayat-style redressal, her rapist’s – property. A woman in India can’t assuredly choose or refuse a partner, but a man can rape his wife under protection of law.

Another recent case involved Irom Sharmila, who ran for election in Manipur after a 16-year hunger strike. After defeat at the polls, she retreated from public life and reportedly found solace in Kodaikanal. But when she announced her engagement to her long-term partner, the welcome proved to have been short-lived. A Tamil Nadu-based Hindu group filed a petition to keep her from marrying there, alleging that the city’s security would be at stake. Oddly, it was marriage – the antiquated notion of “settling” – that had roused the petitioners.

To these two high-profile cases relating to marriage, mobility and the denial of adult women’s agency, here’s a third one that suggests how such a societal milieu comes about and is maintained. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court denied an abortion to a 10 year old who had been raped by her uncle, ignoring medical experts’ caution that the risks presented by a late-term termination were outweighed by the risks of carrying the foetus to term and undergoing childbirth. (Abortion is legal up to the 20th week, after which special permission must be given). She gave birth via caesarean section last week. According to reports released after the delivery, the survivor was never told that she was pregnant, but that she had a “stone” in her stomach. This can only mean that despite having undergone the horrors of rape, she continues to be denied basic sex education, or the right to information. Neither her body nor her mind have been treated with respect.

She gave birth to another girl. And so the cycle continues.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 24th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Breastfeeding – In Public, In India

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We had just ordered lunch at the 5-star hotel when Shamala Hinrichsen’s 8-month old got hungry too, so his lovely mom reached right into her dress and started to feed him. Our conversation continued as she rocked him gently. That was the first time I’d seen a woman breastfeed publicly in Chennai, without hiding her body. A foreigner of Tamil origin who’s been travelling extensively around India on work, she says, “I’ve seen women in rural areas do it with unapologetic authority. It’s a perfectly natural act.”

The Indian railways announced recently that 100 of their stations will have segregated nursing areas. In a letter to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, these areas were specified as “[a corner] provided with a small table and a chair with appropriate partition/screen around it.” But is that enough? Dentist Dr. Deepa V., whose child was recently weaned, never nursed openly owing to shyness. She says, “In public facilities, people still turn to the wall to hide themselves. I remember the looks my relatives gave me whenever I lifted my salwar to feed while travelling with them. I think this discomfort is the main reason why we train babies to accept formula milk earlier.”

Another mother, now nursing her 7.5 month old, related how she sat at an eatery in a Chennai mall and started to nurse, unable to do so in the stuffy public toilets. Immediately, the staff directed all the male customers to sit away from her. She was appreciative of the concern for privacy and comfort. “I think the horror stories we read about breastfeeding moms being fined, shamed or trolled are really a US problem,” she says. “There’s a solid sisterhood solidarity everywhere for the nursing mom. No judgement if I’m in a salwar kameez or saree or tank top or shorts and I want to feed the baby – that’s it, the sisterhood comes into force.”

Theatre director Samyuktha PC returned to work 3 months after childbirth, bringing her daughter to rehearsals, and openly nursed when required. “At first, I did cover myself, but the cloth over me just made Yazhini and I sweat so badly. And it felt cruel to do that.” From then on, she simply asked if others were comfortable, and carried on – anywhere. “But outside of home and work, bad experiences happened quite often – men staring, women thinking it was their right to drape me. But I was also supported and told I was courageous. I would rather it be normalised.”

While it comes down to personal preference, there’s no doubt that these preferences can be inhibited by societal norms. Which is why Shamala’s unapologetic public nursing seemed especially triumphant to me. In Mumbai recently, when she began to breastfeed on the ground floor of a café, men on the balcony level took their phones out and started to photograph her. She kept feeding. “Would I be gawked at or judged if I were feeding someone with a spoon? I think not. Possibly because it is from an appendage. My breasts. I would like to think people would be as judgemental if I were feeding from, say, my nose.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 13th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.