Tag Archives: writers

The Venus Flytrap: Take Them At Their Word

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Last week, a young male spoken word poet based in Mumbai was alleged to have sexually harassed teenage girls. Two things happened in the immediate aftermath: in an act of concerted schadenfreude, another poet, a young woman formerly associated with him, became the target of a smear campaign that completely detracted from the accused himself. Less visibly, a detailed, anonymously sourced list of predators in the poetry scene was created.

When the first such List was created in India last year by Raya Sarkar, exposing academics, it brought a backlash from several established feminist thinkers, most of whom hypocritically showed how they enable their associates’ exploitations by obstructing disclosure. The jargon used was “due process”, without acknowledgment of how due process has historically failed those who do not have structural privileges. But there were also many people who felt a deep discomfort about such exposure, but who did not resort to victim-blaming to articulate it. I personally wasn’t made uncomfortable, but I did note something significant in my own response: I would not expand such a list, even though I could. Each of us could probably come up with a whole List ourselves (and some have).

It’s worth making a distinction between those who think these Lists are unethical and those whose feelings about them are more imprecise. There’s a reason why the methodology seems so shocking, even if one doesn’t disagree with it. Older or more experienced women (me included) have a mixture of higher thresholds, thanks to being forced to grit our teeth, and complex trauma that keep us from divulging what we know. It hurts terribly to have come so far but be unable to move beyond certain incidents, or to realise that one had been in love with a perpetrator, or to jeopardise one’s career by outing power players.

It’s very telling that this short list of sexually predatory Indian poets is full of young men, presumably being reported by young women. A comprehensive list, especially if it includes all artistic genres, will topple so many giants off their pedestals. That list doesn’t exist because we haven’t made it. We’ve stuck to our whispers. Let’s not even get as far as physical assault or artistic erasure, itself a form of violence. I haven’t even named the misogynist who came to an open mic with a theme of violence against women, told the host to introduce him as my friend, and took the stage as though he didn’t harass women. I haven’t named the many sleazebags who’ve asked me to have a drink in their hotel rooms instead of meeting me at the restaurant downstairs. I haven’t named those who’ve met me in the restaurant but took no interest in my writing, yet thought it acceptable to ask prurient questions about my private life.

I haven’t named anyone, not even the young spoken word poets mentioned above. That’s my own conditioning. And look again: I’ve chosen to mention only the most negligible of stories. That doesn’t give me the higher ground; it only means I’m maintaining my own territory. More power to the young, who are risking theirs in service of justice.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 15th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: If Money Isn’t Found In Books…

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When I took a workplace sabbatical to become a consultant, one of the first things I researched was whether going many days at a time without wearing a bra causes sagging. I am happy to tell you that Google told me the opposite is true, but the reason I can enjoy this at all is because of another, far greater, luxury: to work largely out of home, at least for long as I can manage it. Lest you think I’m sitting in some posh veranda, blowing bubbles, bra-lessly contemplating Deep Thoughts and quilling Poems with a peacock feather – when I say working out of home, I still mean working for other people, writing or editing a variety of things for them so that they, in turn, can write me cheques. “Other work”, you see, is what all artists who don’t have inheritances, spouses with sizable incomes or a steady stream of foreign commissions or royalties must do. And that is the vast majority of us.

But don’t we make pots of money from our books, you ask? There are outliers in commercial fiction and selected non-fiction (like celebrity memoirs), but literary work sells very poorly in India. The agent Kanishka Gupta has written extensively about these nitty-gritties, but to break it down for you: the average author makes about 10% on the cover price of each sold book. I remember buying a box of sweets for my former office, a mid-sized advertising agency, when I signed a publishing contract and thinking – only if every single colleague bought a copy of my book would I make enough in royalties to cover the cost of that treat.

Like me, many authors work in allied fields like communications, journalism, media, academia and publishing. Then there are those who can’t or choose not to monetize their literary skills, whose breadwinning careers are unrelated. To give you just a few examples: Upamanyu Chatterjee is an IAS officer. Tanuj Solanki works in life insurance. Kaushik Barua works for the UN. Mainik Dhar manages a global food company. Amrita Narayanan is a psychologist. N.D. Rajkumar, by his own description, is a “coolie” on the Indian Railways. Poovalur Jayaraman, who is in his 80s, sells vadas and bondas from a pushcart. Kavery Nambisan is a doctor, as is Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar – who was suspended from his job as a civil surgeon last week because of a controversy about his writing.

As you can see, each person’s resources and financial security thus vary. At best, any literary income usually only supplements a base revenue from another profession. At worst, as in Dr. Shekhar’s case, even that is risked by the fact that there is very little respect for the arts and their makers in India.

Office?” people have exclaimed to me. “But I thought you were a poet!” It’s unfashionable to admit to having a “day job”, but I want to demystify the idea that we don’t need one. Unless one is extremely fortunate or already privileged, the pragmatic reality is that we do. Readers, this is what goes on behind the curtain. Aspiring authors, this is only some of what you’re in for…

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 17th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Writer’s Room: Sharanya Manivannan

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For “Writer’s Room”, a feature in Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror LIFE (Architecture), December 2017

I like to have plants within my sight, and so I work with my desk pushed up against the doors of my balcony. I currently grow bougainvillea, roses, jasmine and hibiscus – all of them miss the Chennai summer, which inspires immodestly beautiful blossoms in them. I had grown tulasi, too, but it did not survive the fortnight in October I spent away – incidentally, in Colombo and Batticaloa, where my roots are. Pun unintended. Other plants, like the karpuravalli, have not survived the gluttony or envy of pigeons that claim this as their habitat too. Not long ago, I was delighted to learn that the mysterious half-circles I found on the leaves belonged to the leaf-cutter bee. The leaf-cutter bee is shy and autonomous, which might tell you why I love her. This balcony that for now is mine is in Chennai, a pleasantly green city of India, and I am doubly fortunate to have many trees thrive within my sight too.

I work on my computer, and this one is an old lady who’s been with me for nearly seven years. In notebooks, I make to-do lists and brainstorm and doodle and scribble in atrocious handwriting when I’m trying to record quickly what another is saying. My real handwriting is quite pretty, but it is not what fills their pages. Speaking of which – this desk is not ever nearly as clean as this picture suggests. Take it from me: most of the writers you’ll meet in this column will spin a little lie about that! As they say: a clean desk suggests a messy drawer, and I really think the only place that needs to be pure is the heart.

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: A Postcard From Bundjalung Country

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I write this to you by hand from a wildlife sanctuary in Brisbane. My companions have gone to an animal show, while I have chosen to catch my breath and reflect. I am surrounded by bird calls (I promised you this a few weeks ago) and the quick footsteps of excited children. I still have white sand in my shoes from a beach I stole away to on my last morning in Byron Bay. This brings to mind the first time that I travelled to this land, when I’d lain on my back under regal trees and it was Singapore by the time I washed Larrakia country out of my hair.

But that was Darwin, in the North, and it is Bundjalung country I have been in this time.  On one of three rainy days, the writer Jeffery Renard Allen and I were having coffee when a woman came up to us and asked if we wanted to meet one of the Elders. That woman was Dale Simone Roberts, and as Jeff leant to be introduced to the seated Elder, Aunty Dorrie Gordon, Dale turned to look me in the face and said “Bless your journey. I can see a little bit. You’ve been fighting for the women.”

I burst into tears.

I don’t know what it was: the history and trauma embodied by Aboriginal people like Aunty and Dale, and the ordeal and fresh wounding embodied by Jeff, as an African-American man in the world today; or the fact that while I was contemplating the everyday resilience of others, someone had seen right into mine. Aunty blessed me in her way, and I touched her feet first, as we do in mine.

Immediately after, a precious conversation with Helen Burns, a local writer with whom I’d forged an instant bond upon discovering that we are both writing fiction projects on Andal. She told me how sometimes she sees a person in Tamil Nadu, on a bus perhaps, and could swear that they were Aboriginal. In Pitjanjara (one of many indigenous languages), she said, the word for ‘parrot’ is ‘kili’. I fished into my handbag for my notebook to write this down, and it fell open to an image of Andal I hadn’t realised I had carried to this distant continent.

How many countries are within each nation? How many countries are within each individual?

Among my panels was one on multicultural influence. My passport declares one thing, my heart and tongue claim another, and my history sprawls though acres of a third.

But an Australia-India Council grant has brought Rosalyn D’Mello, Salma and I here to promote our feminist anthology, Walking Towards Ourselves, and over and over again we found ourselves simultaneously adding nuance to popular narratives and expounding on the dire condition of women in India. One journalist told us that a national Year 12 exam asks students to write essays on the same. On us.

 And when she asked about India itself, I told her a list of things I was afraid to speak about, and in this way I named them – the many countries within a nation that only on some days do I call mine.

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

Some Recent Press

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I talked to Isahitya (October 2012) about vulnerability, mysticism and the book I’m concentrating on now.

And to Doodleblue (August 2012) about my old column, “The Venus Flytrap”, and what I dislike about India.

And to The New Indian Express from London (July 2012) about participating in Poetry Parnassus.

The House and the Kitchen Table

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So V.S. Naipaul thinks no woman writer is his equal. Boring. Why waste column inches – let alone energy – on outrage? I take Naipaul’s statement about as seriously as one should take any statement by a cranky old egotist known for his bad moods, long sulks and antiquated bigotries – it might make for an awkward dinner party, but if you’re there at all, you can spend it plotting what to include when you deliver his eulogy. His former editor (and most recent object of his derision) Diana Athill has gone on record to say she used to remind herself in moments of strife, “at least you’re not married to him”. We, thankfully, don’t have to entertain the invidious Sir Vidia in person at all.

So there’s really nothing remotely rewarding about taking apart Naipaul’s arrogance. There is, however, one other thing that the eminent curmudgeon said about this matter that’s of some interest. Somewhere in his diatribe about sentimentality and “tosh” in writing by women (which you are no doubt already familiar with), Naipaul is also quoted as having said: “”And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”

Now that is an almost empathic statement. Too bad about the context.

In their own way, Naipaul’s words echo a different response to the question of women and fiction. When it was put to Virginia Woolf in 1929, Woolf went on to write the canonical essay “A Room of One’s Own”, which posited that financial autonomy as well as actual physical space are imperative to the writing process. She argued that it is necessary, in short, for a woman to be able to literally lock herself into her work and lock the world out in order to produce it at all.

Decades later, the African-American womanist Alice Walker challenged and expanded what she believed was Woolf’s privileged point of view: she wrote (in “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”) that before a woman could own a room with a key, she first had to own herself – a prerogative literally denied to slaves and others of disenfranchised backgrounds.

So when Naipaul speaks of a woman not being “a complete master”, he actually wanders into feminist vocabulary, an interesting if unwitting step in an otherwise unexcitingly misogynist contention. It is, in effect, a concession: the acknowledgment that one’s experience of the world is limited by gender, and that gender roles in turn continue to be asymmetrically demarcated. Naipaul is correct in saying that the perspectives of women writers are influenced by their lack of dominion in various spheres of life. He is inexorably wrong, however, to dismiss these perspectives as any less important than his own or those of any other male writer.

The most elementary rule of writing is that one must write what one knows about. Good writing, even fiction, comes from an empirical place. So if the narratives produced by women writers reflect, as Naipaul says, a “narrow view of the world”, then the more pertinent question is – do they reflect that world truly? Do they speak for it? Are they authentic?

So if we are to assume that most women, in some regard, live without autonomy, then we must also allow that those who write have done so in a variety of less than ideal compromises: in secret, under pseudonyms, at the kitchen table, between feeding times, in custody, against regimes domestic and otherwise, without intention or access to publish. They have done so, more often than not, not from the comfort of a private office, but in the liminal spaces and snatches of time afforded by lives that do not, generally, afford much space or time, or respect.

If their writing is coloured by the fact that they are mothers, wives, daughters, wage-earners, dependents, care-takers, then by that same token Naipaul’s is surely also coloured by the fact that he is a racist, masochist, elitist, sexist misanthrope. But the circumstances out of which these women – or anyone, regardless of gender, who is disadvantaged in any way – write out of do not diminish their work any more than Naipaul’s infamous abuses in his personal life and corrosive statements do his own literary output. To write in spite of possessing a “small” life is an act of agency. Naipaul, whose own father took to writing as a means of escaping poverty, should certainly know this.

The work of the writer is to bear witness – but this is not as grandiose a trope as it sounds. To bear witness to life is to bear witness to its kitchen tables, its bedrooms, its little heartbreaks, its disappointments, its pettiness, its fleeting fulfillments and – yes – its sentimentalities. If the fiction produced by women writers does all these things, then I would say they are doing something correct. A narrow but clear view of the world is far preferable to something sprawling, sweeping, but ultimately in denial of the world itself.

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.