ReConference 2019: Thoughts from Day 2

If there’s a theme that could sum up my experiences of day 2 of #recon2019, it’s that of personal stories, which end up making political statements. Not that day 1 didn’t have this, but what stood out most for me were the stories that people kindly shared, on stage, in conversation with a group or personally. Here’s some of:

1. BDSM and power dynamics: at a fundamental level, I have been able to understand the role of power in BDSM to be able to explain why it’s not (only/always) an exploitative type of sexual behaviour. In trainings that TARSHI conducts, we emphasize how BDSM often is far more mindful of consent than other socially legitimised relationships. Tshegofatso Senne from South Africa highlighted the levels of information and self-awareness that BDSM entails. Parties involved get into it fully knowing the risks of behaviour they’re about to engage in. What was mind-blowing was the dynamics between a dom and a sub that the speaker explained. One would assume that the dom is in power, but in reality is the sub – because the sub gives instructions, sets the tone for what can happen and when it should stop. Whoa!

2. Age of working and sex work: Jules Kim from Scarlet Alliance, Australia, raised the question of why, if sex work is work, the age of when a young person can legally start working is different from the age they can get into sex work. Clearly shows morality creeping into anything to do with sex and bodies – as if other forms of labour aren’t exploitative! If anything, sex workers around the world have been able to build powerful unions to make sure clients who don’t follow rules are pushed straight out. I know for a fact that most “white collar” jobs don’t give us such opportunities to out an abusive co-worker (ref: #metoo!) Jules Kim also shared the repercussions of this idea: organisations don’t get funding if they work with underage sex workers, so these young people slip between the cracks.

3. Science knows who is a woman: a powerful personal learning over the last few years has been to question the efficacy of science in explaining gender or sexuality, and learning to build the language to counter such claims at professional and personal spaces. This came back to me in the second plenary of the morning, where athletes, and sports and gender rights activists and professionals discussed how being “too fast” has brought them under intense, violating scrutiny. Katrina Karkazis is a cultural anthropologist who’s written an “unauthorised biography” of testosterone, and shared how when “testing” whether female athletes are “women enough”, we are under the assumption that a higher level of testosterone translates directly into better performance. Human bodies don’t work that way!

Seeing videos of Caster Semanya and Dutee Chand and hearing Pinki Pramanik live formed the most humbling, powerful and hard hitting moments of the day for me. I was awed by their grit and passion, outraged at the levels of despair they were pushed into (and having to justify their gender over and over) and above all, deeply touched by just how much they simply wanted to run. Repeatedly, the idea coming up in their words was that they hoped they aren’t barred from running due to this. Katrina Karkazis talked of a regulation (upcoming? Proposed? Wasn’t sure) that sought to conduct a “health exam” on every female athlete where the clitoris will be examined as it’s an indicator of how much testosterone the body can process. How can men be allowed to run with any level of testosterone and why do we believe that testosterone is a uniquely “male hormone”? Will men be tested for levels of “female hormones” in their body to decide whether they will be competing “wrongly” with other men in a race they will surely lose because of high levels of the wrong hormone? *smh*

4. Pushing for inclusion in spaces that are keeping you out: The facilitator of the curated session on disability (I missed their name) wrapped up the session (where participants, many of them people with disabilities) discussed personal experiences and how their countries approached disability. Janet Price asked why, world over, women’s movements weren’t inclusive (enough) of disability, and participants again shared their difficulties in accessing some of these women’s movements spaces. The facilitator ended by encouraging disability rights activists to go there and be part of these movements even if they weren’t invited. I hope I understood the line and context right, but this left me wondering whose “responsibility” inclusion is. Can one movement know enough about including the other without ever interacting with each other? In addition to the many fights that especially non male disability rights activists have to do to be heard within disability rights movements, should we expect them to also take up educating others? This feeds into a larger, fundamental question I have about whether as an activist, I have the responsibility to educate more people, or I can take a step back to safeguard my mental health when it makes sense to do so.

5. Tradition is for everybody? Kawira Mwiricha (who’s made the sexting sticker app I mentioned yesterday) also has a wonderful installation of kangas, traditional wear of the Swahili people, which has bright and colourful designs with a line on them. Kawira explained the this is likely the only type of clothing in the world the has to have words on it, an idea that appeals to me immensely. The installation has 21 kangas, each representing a “different type of relationship” (non heteronormative) from a different country. The words on each kanga are different, as is the design, closely connected to lgbtqia+ movements in the country. I was stunned at the amount of research that has gone into each kanga as Kawira explained how designs represent organisations, movements and motifs related to the country. As a bonus, Kawira also showed a video of how the kangas are used in a ritual to take a bride from her maternal home to the church to get married, and told us that this is one of the most legitimised use of kangas that is unfortunately not sanctioned for women who are queer. Kawira’s 21 kangas subvert the use of these cloths in a marriage setup.

I don’t want to miss out on the sex workers’ opera, which had sex workers performing song and dance and talking about their right to consent, busting ideas about sex workers always being forced into the occupation and of them as those who break marriages! The performance was powerful, fun and most importantly, was about sex workers telling their own stories.

Heading into day 3 with the hope of catching up on the installations that I’ve missed out so far. There’s been a lot to process from the last two days, but writing this has helped!

ReConference 2019: Thoughts from Day 1

I’m at ReConference in Kathmandu. #recon2019 is organised by CREA and has pulled in over 500 people from 50 odd countries, and I’m here on behalf of the organisation I work with. #recon2019 aims to rethink, reimagine and reshape conversations around feminism, sexuality, disability, abortion and other related topics.

Day 1 was super stimulating, balancing a nice mix of the serious, the thought provoking and the fun! Here’s a bit of what stayed with me after day 1.

The serious:

1. The rise of anti gender movements globally, including the North: Sonia Correa have examples of how anti gender movements cleverly bring together the religious and the secular, are transnational (taking the movements across to other countries) and are willing to be open enough to accommodate anything that they feel is “threatening”, ranging from same sex marriage (“it disrupts family”) to sexuality education to anti abortion laws to insisting on the binary of sex or gender. While the ideas the movements were about weren’t new to me, it was chilling to see the blurring of national boundaries and the banding together of communities that would normally not see eye to eye (the religious fundamentals and the secularists, for example). As people working on sexuality or activism, the environment only gets tougher and tougher. The internet, a godsend for us, is also used so effectively by those on the “other side”.

2. Feminism, law and criminalization: so much of feminist movements over the decades of 20th century were about adding crimes against women into the law and appeals to ensure that perpetrators are put behind bars. But this panel, consisting of people from Mexico, the USA, South Africa and India, got me thinking about laws and women. Estefania Vela from Mexico was wonderful to listen to, so articulate and engaging! Vela talked about how the number of “crimes” getting added into law was ever increasing, with new categories coming up, like “obstetric violence” or “reproductive trafficking”, with the idea that no protection is possible for women without criminalization. But the issue – and this was echoed by other panelists – is that legal systems are seldom effective in following through. So we’re not really “changing” the society through these laws, and in fact women face the brunt of these, either because men are thrown in jail and their families suffer because of the lack of effective social safety nets, or because the legal system is biased against people of certain recess and communities, and most shockingly, women themselves get convicted – an example from another panelist was of drug using women who get pregnant being thrown in jail.

Panelists talked about alternatives to carceral justice and how feminists are now reevaluating their work to get these laws in place, and that was a very thought provoking moment: it’s important for us to be able to look back at our work, recognise its failings, but also get the right to be able to say “we didn’t know better then!” without being fired upon for that. I also wonder: laws are “easy” language, to some extent. Even with complicated topics like consent, laws give as framework off which we start conversations. It’s an effective tool to rule by fear, for honestly, while I know fear based messaging isn’t going to take us anywhere, what language can make people sit up and listen? All the while, the way these laws have turned against the women they were supposed to protect also confuses me. Vela repeated how the idea that laws are the “in the meantime” solution while we work on structural change in society, but that approach conveniently leaves aside the work on reducing poverty, bringing in public education and public healthcare, etc., which will go farther in “protecting” women. I have no clear ideas about this, but this session really got me thinking!

The fun things:

1. Coffee stains tell my future: I hate coffee but willingly gulped half a cup of bitter coffee in a session on reading coffee cups to start discussions around sexuality. The facilitator was from Armenia, and told us how she adapted the local tradition to get women talking about issues they could never broach openly. Sitting in groups, I was surprised how all of us – complete strangers – shared personal issues, family discussions, self doubts and violence. What a lovely way to turn around a ritual!

2. “Video me?” There’s a sticker for that! Kawira Mwiricha from Kenya has developed a support fun sticker pack which can be used for sexting. The faces used are gender and race ambiguous, and go “explicit”. Kawira hopes these stickers can help the partners start conversations on consent, discuss what they like, what they’re worried about, etc. This was fascinating! Oftentimes we struggle with language to express sexual desires, especially those that are seem as shameful or “extreme”. I was floored by how much the focus was on pleasure, and even more when the last sticker she showed was “let’s cuddle” 🙂 🙂 it’s called Backsies, in case you want to check it out.

3. New media to counter misogynist news: Brenda Wambui, also from Kenya, talked about the importance of new media in providing alternatives to mainstream news which in Kenya (and in SO many parts of the world) is misogynistic. Brenda runs a podcast called “Otherwise?” where 80+% of the guests are women. Later during tea, I asked Brenda what it was like to run a podcast as a woman in a society she described as not friendly to women in media (so women with opinions?) Brenda said she gets trolled every so often. While I haven’t (luckily) been trolled, as the editor of a nearly 10 year old online literary magazine, I face scathing comments on and off from angry contributors. They often resort to our (the two member editorial team) gender, calling us bored housewives, referring to us as young or immature women, etc. – funnily enough, these are often older people who write about the wisdom life has given them. What is it about women taking stances – much more open in Brenda’s case, and about editorial decisions and requesting people to revise their contributions, in my case – that ticks people off? I can vouch for the professionalism in my email exchanges with the writers, even as they descend into angry, rude and personal remarks.

The day ended with the fabulous Four Queens from Mexico with an outrageously funny and bold, cackling, high energy performance of “cabaret”, based on a Mexican popular music format. They performed songs on family’s loving gifts of household appliances to a researcher every time she scaled greater heights in academia; on cunnilingus; and even an adaptation of Despacito that had nearly all audience members up and dancing! All the time, the background had kitschy videos setting the context of the songs and with subtitles, since the songs were in Spanish.

What does day 2 promise? It hasn’t been easy writing this entire post on phone, but I hope to be able to write again while I’m in #recon2019

‘Ink Pen’ Tales

This morning, VK gifted me a Hero pen out of the blue. He’d found it in CP yesterday, he said. It is brown, with a golden cap, and has ridges along the line where the ink barrel meets the grip. I was excited because I can’t remember the last time I saw this kind of a Hero pen – and yes, I have another kind.

My silver-coloured Hero pen is known to those who’ve known me well over the last two decades. I got the pen in 2000, and then it was a silver-grey ‘special’ Hero pen, with thin, Chinese designs in red and black paint. My father, a pen fanatic, got it for me. That year, if I remember correctly, most of my cousins in school were gifted this pen by my father, but I wonder if the pen meant anything to them as close to what it means to me.

The pen went with me through my biggest stages in life. I got through class 10 with flying colours. I struggled through class 11 and sputtered through class 12. As the board exam neared, my parents took me to a mass prayer session organised by the Kanchi math, in Vani Mahal in Chennai. I got a black, fat fountain pen that was ‘blessed’ by the seers. I used that pen for two of my exams, sticking to my beloved Hero pen for the rest. When the results came, I’d scored well in three exams, and less so in two – and you guessed it, those two were the ones I’d written using the ‘blessed’ pen.

That’s it. The role of the Hero pen in my life was cemented.

Hero went with me to my university entrance exams, after writing which I was so confident about making it that I bungled up the Indian engineering entrance exams. And get through to that university I did, and the pen went with me to Singapore.

As I navigated a new country, being alone for the first time and figuring out making friends with people who were different from me, the pen gave me solace. I used it for long letters to parents; journal entries that dripped with confusion and confidence, and even lecture notes, much to the amusement of some Singaporean classmates who used gel pens in a variety of colours to take their notes. Once, I left the pen in a friend’s room and realised it much later in the night, and spent an anxious night before I woke up and texted her to know that it was there, alright.

The pen journeyed with me through graduation, my initial years of working, and my Master’s. VK came into the picture, and was introduced to it too. Along the way, friends got to know about the pen and my attachment to it, and a friend from school could even tell that I’d written my card wishing her on her wedding using this pen!

I’ve spent many harrowed days believing I’ve lost the pen, only to see it turn up later (I almost feel like I’m jinxing it by saying this). Most recently, it went missing in my new house, and this time I resigned myself to my fate, saying I was pushing my luck too far. It was gone for nearly two weeks. And one day I moved a mattress and ta-da! There it was, my faithful friend.

So this morning I excitedly filled the new Hero pen with ink. With a lot of anticipation, I pulled out my journal to write my first few words with it. And…it was rough. And it smudged. The scratchy feel of this pen was starkly different from the way my silver Hero pen glides on paper. VK wondered if the pen was original at all. I said that fountain pens need to be broken into; I distinctly remember that the silver pen took some time to turn soft.

We then talked about our lives with fountain pens growing up, until gel pens and ballpoint pens took over. As children switching from pencils to pens, we were not allowed to use ballpoint pens, and so I remember that blue ink on our selves was a standard feature of most of us class 4 kids. We remembered blue-stained white shirts and skirts, blue streaks on our nails, and the ‘ink cloth’ that faithfully rested within our pencil cases to be called to duty in a moment’s notice to deal with an ink-based emergency. Those pens would need to be filled with ink; only fancy kids got pens which had suction-based ink holders or cartridges. Ink fillers were a necessity for the rest of us.

Fountain pens no longer feature in the lives of school-going kids, I’m sure. They hardly feature in the lives of most adults too, unless it’s a Montblanc or a Waterman. Yet, there’s something pleasing about using a fountain pen when you want to write in a journal or take notes in a meeting. There’s something meditative about filling ink – I’ve never been one for cartridges – and wiping out any leaks and testing the pen after the process. A friend recently told me how joyous it was to put together an ink pen in a quaint shop in Bombay – for all of forty rupees – and how she writes her journal entries using it now, and how happy it makes her.

A recurring theme in my recent writing has been about slowing down or being mindful of what I pack into my day. A fountain pen could be a part of the process, don’t you think? By harking back to an old concept, from a time where things were not as frantic, and a past that’s mine but also shared with generations before mine?

Free porn and the lives of ‘porn people’ and their fans: Jon Ronson’s ‘The Butterfly Effect’

(Written for In Plainspeak‘s November issue – read the original here)

The first time I heard the phrase ‘Butterfly Effect’ was in Jurassic Park, when mathematician Ian Malcolm uses it to explain Chaos Theory: ‘A butterfly flaps its wings in Peking, and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine’. Can such seemingly disconnected events actually, when intricately observed, have had some thread of a connection?

Jon Ronson’s fascinating podcast The Butterfly Effect examines in seven parts the effect that a single person’s series of actions has had on the multi-billion porn industry. Set in ‘the Valley’ – San Fernando in the USA, home to this industry – Jon Ronson traces the impact that he believes Fabian Thylmann, who bought PornHub and nearly every other online porn tube, had on the thriving business of pornography. Ronson focuses on different groups of people, including Thylmann himself, directors, actors and even some consumers.

I admit I started the series with some trepidation. Would it take a holier-than-thou approach to porn, blaming the Internet for providing easier access to porn or for enabling ‘amateurs’ – everyday yous and mes, non-actors – to upload porn? Would it talk of adult film actors only as people stuck in this profession for want of something better to do?

The beginning of the series assuaged my concerns somewhat: Ronson shared how the idea for the series came when he saw, in a hotel lobby, a woman he could clearly tell was an adult film actor – she was in a bright blue and tight dress, standing out among everyone else dressed in boring clothes – and observed the look of “total contempt” that the hotel receptionist reserved for this woman. “It made me think that some people are only comfortable with ‘porn people’ when they’re on their computers, and not in their immediate vicinity,” he says.

Indeed, throughout the series, Ronson takes a practical, business-like perspective towards those he calls “porn people”, avoiding steering into murky, moral waters, but maintaining empathy and affect.

Ronson begins by trying to understand what exactly Thylmann did by interviewing him and some of his team members. Thylmann grew from being a geeky teenager in Belgium sharing porn site passwords in the 1990s on CompuServe (then a very popular site with chat rooms and message forums), to buying Porn Hub in 2010 and then buying out most of his competition. Ronson believes that the method used to classify porn on these sites (‘Asian’, ‘blow job’, ‘teen’) affected the porn industry significantly. Directors now not only had to contend with their painstakingly written and directed adult films being uploaded online for free viewing days after they were released, resulting in their incomes plummeting over the years, but they also had to make movies like ‘Cheerleader stepdaughter orgy’ to make sure their films appeared in as many categories as possible!

Ronson moves on to interview adult film actors, thankfully not telling (only) sob stories; some women present strong stories of struggle and hope. He finds that female actors slip between the cracks when they are in their early/mid 20s to early 30s: not young enough to be a ‘teen’ anymore, but not old enough to be a ‘MILF’ either (I was a bit shocked that a female porn actor was already a MILF at 30). If they had a big ass, they could, however, go into the ‘big ass’ category. The ones in between have to try their luck; one such woman talks about moving coasts to come to the Valley for a few months, in the hope of making some money before heading back home to survive the rest of the year. Another woman describes her emotional conversation with her teenage daughter after she found out that her mother was a porn actor, and how the daughter eventually accepted it. Free porn that Thylmann ‘enabled’ hasn’t spared male actors either; one actor who quit porn after it stopped giving him enough money went on to become a nurse, but over time, older videos of his started making the rounds online and he was eventually asked to leave by the hospital.

So what happens to the female actors who do fall between the cracks? Ronson’s exploration of this was the most interesting section of the series for me. Enter the world of custom porn, which employs these women as actors or in production. Thanks to the Internet, people – usually wealthy ones – can anonymously submit requests to custom porn producers with an idea that would be filmed exclusively for them. These requests accommodate any level of detail they want: indeed, some specify the exact type of lighting, angles and locations and reject the final video if any of these are not followed.

Not all of custom porn is technically porn, though, for oftentimes sex is not involved. Some involve women dousing themselves in condiments, while another has a woman dressed like Wonder Woman who wants to go out, but gets attacked by a gremlin. The one that intrigues Ronson the most is of a man from Norway who sends his forty-year-old stamp collection to ‘customs’ producer duo Dan and Rhiannon and asks them to film a group of women setting it to fire. Dan and Rhiannon are, understandably, stumped; they ask the man if he’s sure, and he is. They record it and send it to him, and he emails them regularly for a while, telling them how thankful he is for the video. Ronson tries to reach the man, and he’s unsuccessful for several months, until another custom producer tells him about a very similar ‘bizarre’ request. After multiple requests, the stamp man agrees to be interviewed over email by the second customs producer, and it turns out that his wish to see the stamp collection burnt reflects his emotional trauma from being rebuked for being a ‘nerd’ who collected stamps.

Those commissioning custom films often have some deeper, psychological reasons that they are trying to address, Ronson finds from his interviews. The person who commissioned the Wonder Woman video had his mother leaving him when he was five, and he had tried to stop her from leaving by sitting on her suitcase. While one customs producer said she is never interested in knowing the backgrounds and stories of the people who commission them, others aren’t able to successfully keep themselves from wondering. One person requested a custom film of a woman speaking to the camera to dissuade them from suicide. The woman who acted it out was in tears; the producers wondered if the video had, in fact, helped the person, for they never heard from them again.

I found that Ronson handled this sensitively, trying to get multiple perspectives around customs – of the makers, the actors, the proposers. Where I wish there had been more diversity was in his exploration of the ‘effects’ of porn on its consumers. Much of it focuses on young people, and one ‘expert’ claims that thanks to porn, young men are unable to sustain erections when they’re in bed with a ‘real’ woman, because they’re so used to the picture-perfect porn stars… and that’s why teenage pregnancies are dropping, not because of fewer young people being sexually active or because of sexuality education!

However, there’s one touching – and chilling – story of a young man diagnosed with ADHD and autism who got put on the sex offenders’ registry at 18, because he shared a clip of anime porn with a 17-year-old, his girlfriend of sorts – a type of anime that they had bonded over (and it was easy to find because of the minute categorisation, thanks to, you guessed it, Fabian Thylmann). The man lives with his mother and they talk about his difficulties living as a sex offender, where one isn’t allowed anywhere around a child or any place with children: which means restaurants, supermarkets, parks, localities with parks or schools in them, are all out of bounds. Ronson explores this sensitively, leaving questions in our minds without explicitly asking them. What are the lines of consent? What happens to someone when they turn 18 that they were not a day before? How does one account for neuro developmental disorders in sexual ‘offences’?

As the series rolls on, one wonders whether all of it can be traced back to Fabian Thylmann’s activities, but perhaps it’s a wanton exaggeration employed by Ronson to talk about the staggering but seemingly obvious effects of free porn. Ronson maintains his role as a neutral observer-narrator for the most part, except perhaps when he seems to be goading Thylmann into feeling guilty about what he’s done. Ronson questions Thylmann about his wealth and repeatedly goes back to him with the upsetting stories he’s heard from producers and actors – Thylmann, however, never gives in.

I found The Butterfly Effect fascinating; it was wonderful to see discussions around porn without a singular lens of exploitation, and to tease out the nuances of how porn can be helpful – as in the case of those who request customs – or not. There was so much new to learn, presented effectively over seven episodes. I like to think that I view the subject of pornography objectively, but even so, this was a wonderful insight into the mundane lives and needs of actors and directors, as well as the effort that goes into making the porn clips that we consume without a thought. And for one thing, it made me think about the importance of paying for porn, especially feminist porn.

Food and diet philosophies

I’m standing at a Safal store, staring at their limited stock of fruits with utter dismay. I have apples at home. I also have bananas and pears. And papayas. I need another type of fruit, but they only have pomegranates, which I just had, and they have honeydews, which I’m not sure I should have as winter sets in – who knows when the crop is from?

Finally, I go for the honeydew after checking with the shopkeeper whether it would ripe for tomorrow. The fruit felt rock solid, and I couldn’t find anything quickly about ‘how to pick honeydew’, so I only have his word to go by. I wonder what tomorrow is going to be like.

Tomorrow is the first time in my life that I will subsist only on fruits. Tomorrow is, in fact, I think the first time in my adult life when I will not have any type of grain in any meal – something that friends in Delhi seem to be doing with ease during ekadashi or navratra vrats. In my early years of knowing about these fasts – I had had, until then, the somewhat misplaced notion that young women didn’t fast – I used to be amazed at these women’s ability to control their temptations and go through the motions of the day. How could they spend a whole day without rice or roti, sometimes without salt, and worse, even without water, like during Karva Chauth? I was surprised that I had grown up without ever exploring, or even being aware of, this seemingly regular feature of women’s lives in this part of the country. Not only was I blissfully unaware, but I also used to make grand pronouncements about how nothing would make me fast. I was referring to fasting for religious reasons, of course, but look where I ended up – all set to eat only fruits for a whole day!

If you could see my face now, you will see disappointment, misery and dread all dancing about it in turns. All because this ‘voluntary’ fast, at doctor’s orders, is for health reasons, taken to calm down my somewhat-truant digestive system. The overall diet has been, for all intents and purposes, relatively smooth: I have to have sprouts every day, and in the first week (yup, it’s only been a while yet), I haven’t been bored yet. Contrary to what I thought, I can survive the night with just a bowl of steamed veggies for dinner. And the dry dates soaked in water that I have to have every morning are turning out to be less disgusting by the day. I’m even lucky to be allowed to have regular breakfast and lunch, I can have bhel and chivda for my namkeen cravings, and can thank my stars that I can, around two hours after waking up, have a cup of tea. Pepper, garlic-herb butter and oregano seasoning are my best friends, liberally sprinkled on my sprouts and salads, a fact I have conveniently withheld from the doctor for now.

While the diet has been easy and relatively light – I wonder about diets followed by people who want to desperately lose weight or control their thyroid or something pretty serious – I find my thoughts wandering to food that I can’t really eat. One night, my mind telling me that the bowl of veggies wasn’t enough, I broke the rule and greedily ate a few pieces of chikki. Another day, I had a Cadbury Eclairs, saying that a little piece couldn’t hurt. On Saturday, I had wine, declaring it was a cheat day. I knew I had reached a low this evening when I looked longingly at the dabba that held Marie biscuits.

Again, I wonder what tomorrow is going to be like. Will I start hating fruits? Will I be relieved when I return to the sprouts-salad days? Will I be grumpy, my stomach growling because I’m fed up of eating apples-bananas-honeydew-papaya-pears and will simply not eat anymore? Or will it set me on a new path where I’m no longer incredulous about how people fast? Only time will tell.

Pic from https://www.flickr.com/photos/13070711@N03/

Crimson Skies, Held Up by No Women

I swear I promised to not watch Chekka Chivantha Vaanam expecting anything because I’d been so disappointed by Kaatru Veliyidai. I resolved that I would not dissect the movie’s female characters. I’d heard good things about it, I’d stayed away from reviews, heck, I hadn’t even listened to the songs – I was expecting only to be entertained.

And entertained I was! I was glued to the seat start to finish, anticipating what next; I was blown away by the music; I stayed till the end of the credits because I didn’t want the thrill of the film to dissipate just yet. I was so pleased with myself for staying true to my promise.

A few days later, I was talking about it to a friend, telling her how I’d successfully switched off that part of the brain that gets agitated with sexist, misogynist or flat portrayals of women. Damn! Shouldn’t have done that. The next day, I was already going through the movie in my head, remembering scenes that I could. I saw the music album’s cover, with the four ‘lead’ women.

When I started processing this, all I felt was incredibly let down. It’s 20-fricking-18 and we still have these movies?! I tried to rationalise. Does the director need to have ‘strong’ female characters? He tells the story based on characters that in his mind are very realistic. I think that is what really got me irritated: that a director whose work I’ve been raised to admire seems clueless about (the diversity in) women in general, and all the more, has been stuck in his depiction of women for a few decades now.

Here is a laundry list of what I remember about women in CCV that have my gripe. Obviously, spoilers ahead.

  1. There are 5 pretty serious female characters, but they each have 4 or 5 lines to say (except for Jo). These don’t even qualify for the Bechdel Test, because they are to ‘their’ male character or about him.
  2. MR needs to lose his fancy with Bambi women: I realised I didn’t even register the name of Aditi Rao Hydari’s character. After her one scene with the mic, I don’t see any signs of her as a media professional. Jo describes her – subtitled in English – as the journalist ‘flunkie’. I don’t know why she was in the movie. To prove Varadha’s machismo? To titillate? To be the object Ethi holds to ‘draw out’ Varadha?
  3. Zoomed in shots of women in bikinis while introducing Thyagu. Yawn.
  4. Tamil women in every part of the world, including Siberia. Just like in Kaatru Veliyidai, where the army unit seemed to be full of Tamil speaking folks.
  5. Sister: going from pregnant to clutching baby to whimpering in fear.
  6. Chaaya, whose only lines are about informing Ethi about something that’s happened to her father, or ask him if he loves him (or some such). Did I get the hint that she was handling the ‘business’ while Ethi was back in Chennai?
  7. Renuka, who looked like she had some kind of a career going (who knows, I’m just going by her clothes), but we have no idea how or why she puts up with Thyagu. I guess I should thank my stars that she at least had the guts to spit back at Thyagu when she was thrown in jail.
  8. Jo, who was involved, aware, sorting out things for her husband and father-in-law, like a tireless daughter-in-law: Rasool’s loyalty, handling her husband’s affair with dignity, heck, even accompanying her husband after her father was killed. Jo, who was the only one who had a few seconds of screentime of her story, which the other unfortunate characters don’t get. Jo, who had to change from share auto to cab to bus to run away with her husband hours after her father’s death. Jo, who died quietly, but only after reassuring her loser husband.
  9. Poor Jayasudha, who disappears without a trace. Why didn’t they kill her too? Or did I miss something?

I could go on, but in all, the presence of these women only seems necessary to give the male leads a(nother) reason to do what they do. Erase their characters and few lines, and the movie will not lose much.

Let me try to rationalise again. This is a story of four men trying to capture power. The women are simply incidental, even if major events, especially in the climax, are apparently set off due to them. Why should I expect more of the female characters, then? Besides, the movie already has dozens of characters who seem to apparate and disapparate, so why hold it accountable only for letting down the women or not developing ‘strong’ female characters?

Then again, what makes a female character ‘strong’? Are they considered strong if it’s ONLY IN RELATION to the men? That is, they help move the story forward for the male character? Think mothers, girlfriends, wives, Manic Pixie Dream Girls, the loosu ponnu that The News Minute did a feature on.

I honestly don’t know why I expect such things of movies any longer. It feels like a gaping hole if a director hasn’t moved on with the times and is unable to register the presence of female moviegoers who may want to see female characters fleshed out a little bit more, portrayed like humans with stories and thoughts, as opposed to cardboard characters whose lives only revolve around men. I question the storytelling intelligence of a director who’s not able to think out of the box and develop diverse people to be their protagonists.

Oh well, my joy with CCV lasted a few days. For my mental health and for entertainment to not be forever ruined, I need to snap out of this. That’s easier said than done – I have well over a decade’s worth of unravelling to do, not bring home thoughts from work where such discussions abound, not remember and get annoyed with older movies that I’d once enjoyed. Ah, well – who said it’s easy to live in a bubble?

Sowkiyama?

A theme I come back to over and over in songs that I like is how easily they flit from one emotion to another. If you go back years on my social media feeds, you will see me praising one song or the other for this feature. Ruth aa gayi re. Rasathi unna kanaadha nenju.

Today, it’s Sowkiyama, from Sangamam. Obviously, I’ve heard this song hundreds of times, but somehow, this aspect of the song came to me one day when I was in a cab, waiting at the Chirag Dilli signal, anxiously clutching a bunch of test reports and wondering what my doctor’s appointment would yield. I was a nervous wreck – I was alone, and felt truly alone – and I was miserable, having had to miss a vacation that I was really looking forward to.

And into this melange of moods burst into song a bunch of girls accompanied by an enthusiastic veena.

Sowkiyama, kanne, sowkiyama?

Sadly, thinking or writing about this song evokes unnecessary imagery – of the punishment that it was to watch Vindhya play a Bharatanatyam dancer. I refuse to believe that there wasn’t another qualified woman they could cast.

Moving on.

I distinctly remember – sitting in that cab, Nithyashri’s words sent a surge of exhilaration through my body. I started observing every line, eager for the mind to stop thinking about doctors and hospitals. And nearly one year down the line, I’ve managed to write about it!

Barely two minutes into the song, I already have much to swoon over: the ghatam that comes in unexpectedly to take over from the mridangam for just a while. The control over her voice that Nithyashri has. It bends to her will. It brings to my mind a rivulet that’s playful, going steady for the most part but suddenly, just as you’d got used to its path, makes an unanticipated turn through a crevice in a rock – a navigation that you could expect from someone of her calibre, but is astonishing nevertheless.

I’m also stunned by the way the tune changes shape to accommodate the feeling in the lyrics, somewhat like a happy boggart, in this case.

… ena vizhigalil nadanamittai
pinbu idhayathil irangivittai
mella mella en uyirai parithukondai…

Only a few of Rahman’s songs stand out for me for the way the lyrics and tune glide hand in hand, like they do in this song.

The three sangathis of ‘Sooriyan vandhu vaa enumbodhu’ each convey a bloody different emotion:
– I have a simple question
– Do you still not know?
– It’s pointless – what can the pani thuli do, after all?

The next few lines are a mix of Nithyashri’s exceptional talent and the tune, and the master’s craft. As she goes from one line to another, she goes from expressing desire (kodi kaiyil ennai kollai idu) to a gentle warning (andha modhiram oddiyanamai aagum munname anbe azhaithen) to an outright cry of anguish (en kaatril swasam illai!)

If you had to visualise the way the tune jumps from the first ‘en kaatril’ to the next to the last, it’s like Nithyashri is guiding her voice along a veetu vaasapadi. A set of three steps flanking the porch. And it’s all wrapped up with a playful ‘adhu kidakattum vidu unakenna aachu?’ Don’t you worry, lover, I’m doing ok!

There’s more. The ethereal ‘pinbu idhayathil irangivittai’, sung so breezily that you can imagine someone stepping softly into another’s cloud-like, fluffy heart.

Not one to let up, Nithyashri gives us a parting gift with many moods of Sowkiyama towards the end – NINE, to be exact. Some of which are lucky enough to have chords lending gravity to their emotion.

I try to imagine the number of things that have come together to create this blessing of a song. I wonder about the people who lent their talent here – the kids, the divine saxophone player we’re all thankful for, the percussionists, the veenai player who makes you sit up and say towards the end ‘Did you hear that? Did you? Was it just me?!’, and so on. And at the risk of deifying, I try to map what might have been going on in the mind of the person who brought all this together. That’s a futile task – all I can do is thank him.

Alaipayuthey and the politics of flirting and marriage

It’s the year 2000. The first quarter. Trailers for Alaipayuthey are out, and so is the music. I’m 13, and my brain and body suddenly burst onto the stage where romance, relationships, attraction and pleasure are at play. Rahman’s tunes, brought to life by the stunningly handsome Madhavan, send me into a tizzy. The family notices; I am, after all, religiously reading every word I can about the movie, running to the living room when I hear a few notes of Endrendrum Punnagai from the trailer, tearing off ads for the movie from Tamil and English newspapers and magazines and keeping them stuffed in my bookshelf, writing out error-ridden lyrics of Snehidane in my diary. I make it clear that I want to watch the movie even as Amma hesitates after watching snippets of Kadhal Sadugudu which has Madhavan and Shalini frolicking between the sheets: ‘It looks vulgar’, she says. But I don’t relent. I wasn’t allowed to go to the cinema with friends then, and my only hope – my older sister – has ditched me to watch it with her friends. And so I go to watch the movie, to feast my eyes on the glorious Madhavan, with my father.

***

Alaipayuthey was some sort of a milestone in my life: it was the first time I gave serious thought to the idea of romance and relationships as possibly playing out in my life -moving beyond crushes to thinking about what I might like in a person, and the idea of a genuine relationship and what it entailed.

Let’s take flirting, for instance. As a 13-year-old, watching Shalini not wince or run away or blush (well, she does, but not much) when Madhavan pursues her (more on this in just a bit), was a reaffirmation that I could show interest in someone  – that is, that I didn’t always need to be the recipient. When they cross paths on a train many days – or weeks – after their first somewhat-fleeting meeting during a wedding, she looks at him as much as he looks at her. This unabashed expression of interest stayed on in my mind.

How does the movie draw the line between flirting and harassing? As years wore on and I engaged more and more with feminism, the idea of Karthik (Madhavan) chasing this woman began to niggle away at my head. Mani Ratnam is clever; by making his female lead respond to the male lead – without anger, without telling him off – he distracts us from the idea that Karthik is stalking Shakti, something that we readily identify when, say, Vijay does it. As I thought back on the scenes, I was struck by how creepy it was that Karthik would ride his bike along the lane in which Shakti lived with her parents – I had gone through something similar in class 12 that had me panicking whenever I had to go home after school. And how discomfiting it was to see him try to figure out which college she studied in, and find her there.

In a work setting, someone recently mentioned hearing from girls in a semi-urban setting how boys’ relentless comments and jeering when they took the public bus to school or college was their opportunity to express interest in a boy, a permissible window where they were safe to initiate or respond to a relationship advance – subtly – in the presence of public. This idea was surprising when I heard it, but made sense as I thought more about it. It isn’t easy for women to initiate or quickly respond to romantic (or sexual) interest, but for those of us with some level of privacy, there are options, which are not available to everyone else.

I can’t think of any way to justify Karthik chasing her around, but was Shakti doing something similar? Staying within the boundaries of ‘propriety’ but responding with enthusiasm when she was approached?

***

While many movies I’d watched until then had dealt with life post marriage, this one was special for it showed (in its own flawed ways) how a relationship evolves through your dating stage to married-partner stage.

Looking back on it after 18 years, as a married person, I catch myself thinking ‘If only I knew…’ Marriage is tough, unforgiving and harsh. And (as long as it doesn’t cross boundaries into physical or emotional violence) it coexists with a strange mixture of affection, can’t-do-with-can’t-do-without and a shared hope for a future. When I think about the scenes in which Shakti and Karthik fight about them going to meet her seriously-ill father, and the next morning they make up and go together to see him, I see how compromises are made and we (often grudgingly) give our preferences a miss to keep the other happy. In all of four years, I see me and my partner flit from fighting to making up to wondering why we did this without the other to why we didn’t do this without the other. Marriage requires you to apologise, admit something by pushing your ego back, to learn that you and your partner will take each other for granted, to fathom how both of you have changed slowly, but surely, over just a few years.

I wonder what Shakti and Karthik did after she recovered; how long did those tender moments of affection that we saw in the ending scenes last? Did he get tired of taking care of her while she recovered? Mani Ratnam tantalisingly brings in these aspects – the difficulties in marriage, as in Alaipayuthey; the idea of refusing marriage, OK Kanmani; an abusive, violent and yet (problematically) ‘romantic’ relationship in Kaatru Veliyidai – but stubbornly stays within socially accepted norms of love, relationships and marriage.

***

Listening to one song in Alaipayuthey pushes me back into my school days of excitement and hope. Into my third decade of life, a few years wiser with marriage and sudden health issues, that nostalgic trip gives me a few minutes of happiness and memories of wild, carefree (and may I say, delusional) ideas of flirting, romance and marriage.

Celebrations!

It’s been a quiet month here, but that’s because I was busy with publishing the 100th issue of my monthly online literary magazine, Spark! Read it at www.sparkthemagazine.com.

Spark was founded by my sister, Anupama, and me in 2009, when we were both lazing around while on a break, at my parents’ home. That winter afternoon, we thought of starting an eMagazine, gave it a name and built a strategy around it, and launched it in January 2010. Since then, we have published an issue regularly on the 5th of every month. And it’s non-commercial, which means the two of us – yes, it’s just been us all along – have been putting in resources, time and effort every month, these eight years.

It is always special when you get recognition for hard work. And this interview of ours in Scroll, added the cherry on the cake as we prepared to publish the 100th issue: https://scroll.in/article/873713/how-do-you-keep-a-non-profit-literary-magazine-going-for-eight-years-ask-the-co-founders-of-spark

Head to sparkthemagazine.com to read the 100th issue. Every issue is around a theme and there are thousands of wonderful, diverse stories, non-fiction and poetry you can find there.

Sustainable Menstruation with the Menstrual Cup

I was in the office loo, panicking. I could feel the seconds ticking by, and I knew that many minutes had passed since I got in. I wondered what my colleagues were thinking about my long absence. But I was most worried about how to pull out the menstrual cup that was stuck inside me.

I cursed myself. Why did I have to try this on a working day, of all days? Sitting ungainly, squatting in the air a few inches above the toilet, I wondered what to do next. Should I go home? But what will I do going home? Should I go straight to a gynaecologist? I remembered a scene from Sex and the City in which Carrie gets her diaphragm stuck inside and one of her friends has to pull it out (and I just got a manicure, her friend grumbles). I felt ashamed to have brought things down to this level.

You see, I’d been toying around with the idea of switching to an eco-friendly means of menstruation management for many months. I was upset with the amount of waste being generated, month on month. A colleague from postgrad days had started a company called Boondh, procuring and selling menstrual cups, and she had begun spreading awareness about it. That pushed me a little closer to the idea of buying a menstrual cup. She then joined forces with a few other similar organisations and with Feminism in India, they ran a campaign ‘The Pad Effect‘. The campaign explained that there was a gender-caste angle to the unsustainable method of sanitary waste disposal too – it was mostly women from historically disadvantaged castes who would sort the waste, often with bare hands. This tipped me over the edge.

I ordered a teal menstrual cup from Boondh. It came in a pretty cotton pouch, with instructions on how to insert and remove the cup.

So the morning of the office loo episode, I was excited; I’d got my period for the first time after buying the cup, and I spent a few minutes in the morning figuring out how to fold and insert the cup. I managed to push it in, but I could feel it inside (which, from my extensive research, I’d figured was not to happen, but what the heck – I was trying this for the first time!) To protect against leaks, I also used a panty liner and carried extra pads. I excitedly announced to my colleagues that I was officially a menstrual cup user (and by this time the cup had settled in so I couldn’t even feel it) and talked about what a wonderful concept this was. A couple of hours in, I decided to see how much the cup had filled. I knew one could keep it in for eight hours without any concern of it overflowing (for a regular flow day), but I still wanted to just see how things were.

And that’s how I found myself in the loo, unable to pull it out. At first, I tried to find the small stem at the bottom of the cup to grip it and pull it out. I found it in a few seconds, but it was lodged in so deep that I couldn’t get a strong enough grip to even begin moving it.

I wondered why I didn’t consider an easier means of sustainable menstruation management, like cloth pads or biodegradable pads. Argh! I spent a few more minutes standing up, sitting down, and trying various other things in the hope that it would slide out. You know, just come out like a baby, but without all the pain and agony and life-changing-ness.

And that’s when I remembered that I have to use a wholly different set of muscles! The little pamphlet in the Boondh bag said one has to push like they would during bowel movement.

Bowel movement! A wave of relief swept over me as I realised I had cracked the code. Tada! The cup neatly slid down the vaginal canal, and I could easily grip it and pull it out. I wanted to cry out of happiness.

I looked into the cup. It was barely a quarter full.

Sheepishly, I emptied it, washed it and pushed it back in, relieved that I know what to do now.

And that, folks, was how I became a regular menstrual cup user (except during the periods immediately following my surgeries). These days, I am able to insert the cup and forget about it for many hours, and there are very few leaks, so much so that I might stop using panty liners as a backup soon (or invest in eco-friendly versions of those too).

So in the interests of sharing with my little world what I learnt from my experience, here are a few things that I hope push you to consider adopting the menstrual cup for your menstruation management.

  1. Read, read and read. There are many menstruating people who share their accounts of learning to use the cup  – not only in the West but many in India too. There are many tips and videos on how to insert and remove it, and how it works. Knowing that others had a similar learning curve and struggled with it in the initial days helped me enormously in staying on track and continuing to use the cup despite the initial discomfort and fear. 
  2. Understand how your genitals work. I know several friends who are on the lookout for eco-friendly menstrual management options, but the idea of pushing something up the vagina makes them uncomfortable. We worry that it will get lost in there (and despite working in the field of sexual and reproductive health I panicked too). But note that the cup doesn’t go so far in that you can’t pull it out (it works like a tampon, but I have never used tampons so this is just hearsay!). But more importantly, the vaginal canal is probably the most interesting machine in the body – if it can push a baby out, a menstrual cup is easy-peasy!
  3. Don’t freak out thinking about the size of the cup vis-a-vis the size of where it goes into. The cup, made of medical grade silicone, is flexible, and will ‘pop out’ after you insert it folded. 
  4. There is hardly any ‘mess’. The idea of sticking your fingers up when you’re bleeding, or seeing a whole lot of menstrual fluid, is discomfiting to many of us. I’m not queasy about such things, but I was also worried about how messy it would be. Honestly, it wasn’t! The cup doesn’t fill up as much as we expect, so the fluid will mostly never spill on to your hands when you pull it out. And we’re used to bloody mess ever since we started menstruating – spills on the bathroom floor, leaks, and so on… this is just another such thing! I found it really interesting to note how much I actually bleed on a day I feel my insides are melting out through my vagina… it’s honestly not much! (I’m lucky on that front and I recognise that not all of us are)
  5. You don’t feel it inside (once you figure out how to insert it properly). I swear. A few days ago I was practising the shoulder stand asana during yoga class when I remembered that the cup was inside. Practising yoga when I was using sanitary pads used to be a little uncomfortable, with the pad chafing against my thighs. Some say you could go swimming with the cup too! I haven’t tried yet, but I found it effortless to go running or practise yoga when using the cup.
  6. It’s quite easy to be prepared for a period with the cup. You’d need to sterilise it in boiling water before and after the period, so it’s easy to do that and put it in a ziploc bag or a cloth bag and whip it out when your period begins. There are many people who have shared how they have managed to use the cup even when travelling. I haven’t done that yet, but I think I can manage well with tissues and hand sanitiser even in public toilets!

So I’d really recommend menstrual cups if you’re looking for a sustainable menstrual management option and aren’t afraid of experimenting a bit with what goes inside 😉 All it takes is a couple of cycles for you to get used to managing your period with the cup. Besides the fact that it’s convenient and worry/hassle free, it makes me happy about doing my little bit to reduce waste.