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On Sleep

A dear friend recently mentioned she had been blogging 10 years. I checked my own blog and there it was: 2006, two posts. Ten years of writing whatever it is that I wanted to and find kind people to read it. This year, then, I feel should be the year I revive my blog. What better way to battle this sleepless night I am having, currently.

Speaking of, sleep and I have had a very contentious relationship for years. I’ve considered a sleep complete waste of time (as opposed to spending time on Twitter or whatsapp) and sleep has considered me unworthy of bestowing the restorative blessing that she seems to grant many others with. I have struggled with sleep since I can remember, which is about nine years old. Gloomy, terrifying sunny afternoons where the household would be asleep and I would dread being the only one in the house who couldn’t claim a break in time like that.

As I grew older, nights became a complete waste of time because there was so much to be done, so much time spent reading, writing, thinking of boyfriends; just so much to be done and night had a way of putting an end to those plans. Most my 20s were sleepless, unless I was so exhausted that nothing could keep me away. Phone conversations till late in the night, books I couldn’t put down, friends who stayed over. I rejected sleep.

It’s payback time. I barely get four hours of sleep every night. Which is better than one hour of sleep that I used to get about three years ago. I wake up in four hours, do something I like doing and in an hour I am back in bed. It truly isn’t ideal because the next day I am scarcely rested. Upside though, I get to do all the things I wouldn’t have gotten to do if I had normal sleeping patterns. So, if I want to make an entry in my art journal, I can do that. Or write a letter for my #100letters. Or read the books I keep buying endlessly. Or write this blog post, even. So much to do when you can’t sleep.

And yet, that’s exactly the problem. When a bipolar person is in the manic phase, sleep is the first thing to take a hit. (Depressive phase in me induces excessive sleeping but that can differ from person to person.) I’ve been trying to sleep since 10 p.m. tonight. It’s 1.45 a,m now. I’ve had a big day. And it tired me out. And yet, my mind is alive and my body, awake. I thought it was just tonight but I looked back the last four nights and I realised all those nights, I had slept little or very badly.

You’d think I’d be used to this now and would be catching signs of mania early. But I still haven’t. I still think my body will behave, so will my mind. It’s well into mania that I realise I’m there and then the irritability, the immense confidence, the rash driving, the snapping and losing of temper and the general invincibility I feel starts to make sense. And so does the sleep. Waking up every two hours, or not sleeping at all some nights.

Why sleep is important: This might seem like a stupid thing to bring into focus but it’s as necessary for me in terms of reiteration as it is for those who might be seeking personal experience with lack of sleep and bipolar disorder. Lack of sleep makes me moody: You might think it does that to everyone but it’s a challenge to me because I am then governed by my moods for the next few days. I make decisions based on how I feel and not by calm, rational thought.

Lack of sleep  makes me continuously irritable. This is tragic because everyone from a complete nincompoop on the road to my little kids bear the brunt of it. I snap regularly and I snap at complete non-issues.

Lack of sleep also perpetuates a no-sleep cycle where I cannot sleep for a few more days. It starts with one and suddenly, I’ve found so much extra time that the excitement of doing the things I love is so great that I forget to sleep. Suddenly, my mind is abuzz with ideas of all the things I can do if I don’t sleep. This adds to the frenzied activity already in my mind and then I head to a complete collapse, at the end of which I am tired, mildly disoriented, irritable, unable to work or have a fair, pleasant day, and most of all, unable to make decisions: this goes for instant decisions when I drive, more deliberate ones when I am at work and even more important ones when I have to decide for the children.

This really crisp and informative article tells you more about sleep and bipolar. It also tells you why you need to sleep, how to get adequate sleep and how you need to address the problem of bad sleeping. I found it very helpful.

What I do when I am manic and don’t sleep:
I wake up early even if I don’t want to. 
I try and eat little for dinner. 
I listen to music on headphones.
I read Anna Karenina. Or Crime and Punishment. (Sorry Tolstoy, Dostoyevski) 
Some nights, I take evil glee in the extra time and do the things I love doing. 

The last one is a bad idea because while sleep is important to everyone’s well being, it is particularly crucial to those who are bipolar. They are triggers for a very bad manic (or even depressive) episode and if you’ve been there, or know anyone who has, you know you don’t want to go there.

It’s far too late now and I have made one sketch, written two poems and one more blog post from a prompt that I will post tomorrow. For now, sheer exhaustion and sleep are claiming me for themselves, finally. And I go with the disappearing stars of dawn.

Be well. 

A story for your grandchildren

It starts easily enough
A chat on the balcony
An exchange of numbers
One of you asks the other out for a meal.

But it’s lunch break at work
And it’s hardly food you’re hungry for.
You bag it, you hurry to one of your homes
Chinese take-out cools in the flat summer afternoon.

Things are crazy from there.
You are hard-pressed to find a place
Where you haven’t pulled over by the road
To steal a kiss, a fumble, an entire blowjob.

Then you misunderstand.
A conjuring’s at hand; and you,
Forever sick from love, hungry
For curlicues of an ordinary life, miss the trick.

Your careless arrangement grows ugly things now.
Beautiful, ugly things. Lies like muslin
Anger like a rain, a building up like a journey
A tearing down like a broken garden

There’re oceans now, and people.
And a splash of a cold, a shock of heat
As you forget the exact degree
Of the warmth of each other’s breath.

Your desire builds futile bridges over choppy seas.
And your yearning plumbs tunnels in blue depths
You label stars and find a way to use them
To be markers on your way.

Morning comes.
Stars disappear, your pathway a joke of light
A tree sways and the breeze brings sadness
And an email. “How are you?”

A winding missive of memory.
A reiteration of remembrance
You’ll always be the one, it says
I’ll never be the same without you

I will never be happy.
The email promises; it continues: we had it perfect
And I’ll always treasure it
It’ll be the story I tell my grandchildren.

27 Aug 2015.

Get that reading habit back.

About a year or more ago, my son, newly turned 5 then, and I were talking about reading. Now, for a while I had limited my reading to online or on device. So as I tried to avoid preaching while extolling the virtues of reading, he said to me, “But Amma, I never see you reading a book.” He was right, in a sense. My reading had reduced drastically; from reading a book a week, I was down to one book in three months. His comment woke me up and told me I was letting my reduced attention span become worse by reading with the internet on all the time, or choosing to read shorter stuff, some days only headlines, without wanting to get to the details.

This had become a dangerous habit and it took me some time to get to a point where I could stick with a book. Thankfully, I’ve read a few this year, although far from the target I set for myself.

On an average, I meet at least one person in a week who tells me they just don’t have the time to read. A lot of them don’t use the time-to-read excuse anymore because it is really easy to counter. What is more tough to argue with is reduced attention spans. Everyone casually refers to their social ADD (though I wish they wouldn’t use that term. ADD is pretty darned debilitating.) and says they can’t stick to a book. No focus and reduced attention spans? That I totally get.

So from my own experience of getting back to reading, I wondered why we stop reading and what it takes us to get back. To answer both those questions, I knew I had to ask myself why we started reading. I began to read because I was thirsty to explore the knowledge I had been given in school. I became a reader because the first book I was presented with my name inscribed on it was Oliver Twist, a Ladybird Kids Classic, Abridged Version. The book was utterly and truly beautiful. The typeface, the illustration, the colours, the way the book felt (glossy and hardbacked), the ridge on either side of the spine. And my mother’s beautiful penmanship inscribing the first few pages. Just beautiful. I am pretty sure I had books before that but none that felt so distinctly mine. Before that, all books were shared and were mostly books from which my parents would read to us. It was with this book at 8 years or so, that I obsessively started reading and hoarding. The world of Oliver Twist offered words for emotions I couldn’t identify. I met people I would never meet in this lifetime. I saw clothes, streets and names that I hadn’t seen till then. After that, school was an obstacle bang in the way of my reading life. Soon, I was done with pulp fiction by the time I was 15; I started reading literary fiction, rarely going back to paperbacks or what are now called “bestsellers”.

Reading left me with a high like a good, hard swim; like the morning after a night of great sex, like the high of nice little joint — these are all transformative experiences for me. There’s a physical difference, not just a change, in my environment within and without. You see, the joys of reading are insidious, subtle. There’s no instant gratification; there is no place for you to sound smart and seek validation as you comment publicly on anything, and no joy that comes with being thought of as wry and clever. The joys of reading are slow and stealthy. They don’t quite appear till you’re half way through the book and by then it would be a shame to abandon reading. And then it flowers, the joy of reading a good book. It starts from your eyes and enters all the way to your overtired brain, spreads to your forehead like a happy allergy, all the way down your neck and then rapidly, like a fever, dripping till the ends of your extremeties. And then, suddenly, like a wave in a glass aquarium, all of the gushing is contained. Reading doesn’t make you jump for joy or dance with madness (it does but you don’t do it because you are too busy reading). When this joy is suddenly contained at the tips of your fingers and the points of your toes, it lashes back; joy and rapture come back in waves all over you, right back to your head and eyes, even as you read more that’s giving you joy. This back and forth of waves causes you to fall in love with characters without whom you’re legitimately lonely for a day or two after you’ve finished the book. It causes a covetousness for words that leave you richer, and yet, bereft. It causes a greed and inquisitiveness for the writer; who is she? does he wear pyjamas to bed or sleep in the nude? does she always look perfect or does she have bad eyesight? All kinds of relationships are built with a book when you’re in its throes. Watch and you’ll see.

It’s easy to give up reading because it is what you do when you have spare time. Once formal education is done with, very few people set aside especial time to read. Of course, then, reading suffers. It’s also an easy habit to get out of, and the highs, like I said earlier, are slow. None of the instant gratification of being online.

If you’ve given up reading, or have never read, and are trying to get back on track, start with a book of short stories. They help you get your attention’s impetuous flights back under control and keep you focused on reading for short periods of time; much like focusing on small tasks in order to achieve the bigger task of a work day.

Set aside time to read. Don’t think you’ll read on the bus, or when you’re in the loo, or when you wait for someone. Those times are easy to demolish by other distraction. Set aside 15 minutes to half an hour, to begin with, to read. It really helps if you can do it at the same time every day. I try to read before bed, and for about an hour after I send my kids to school.

Always carry a book. Always. And no time to do it like now because ebooks.

Keep a book list, preferably in one place. And if you like to see proof of your achievement, tick them off every time you finish reading the ones on your list. I email myself new book recommendations or the ones that I wish to read.

Needless to say, turn notifications off and be mindful. Because even if you turn them off, you tend to check your phone because you get all fidgety and jittery without it. So, mindfulness will help you come back to reading before you go down the twitter rabbit hole till 2 a.m.

Everything becomes better about you, by the way, when you go back to reading. Your mind is stiller, and you might ask why is the mind being still a good thing. I assure you, a still mind is a creative mind. The things you think about become better and bigger. No longer are you worried too much about the small things that you occupy yourself with, and you know they’re small things. You ponder larger questions, superimpose them on your life, or the lives of others, discover the sameness of humanity and soon, you start to actually think harder, in a more real way. You will eventually end up being and sounding smarter but that’s hardly a priority in the scheme of things. I mean who wants to sound smarter when you could be mooning over Psmith?

Sumana Mukherjee tweeted this link on how reading is the only transcendental experience left in the world that we inhabit today. And I couldn’t agree more with this splendid piece. 

This is a list that helped me ease back into my reading. I have added a few that I didn’t read during this time but ones I think will totally do the trick. The trick, then, is to get back into the habit, because that’s what it is. Once your brain is rewired to making this a habit, then the sailing is usually smooth.

1. Bhima: Lone Warrior by M T Vasudevan Nair. 
This book is a translation of the Malayalam Randamoozham . I recommend it heartily for various reasons but mostly because it is the familiar. You know most of the references and stories, you know all the characters, you know the eventual fate of the characters. What you don’t know is what the alternative perspectives give you. Other reasons to read this book are: Terribly easy read and yet with the gravitas of a complex novel; a story that’s engaging emotionally and intellectually; story telling that is a masterclass in the craft.

2. Any of the Harry Potter series. JK Rowling.
I went back to think of why it was so difficult to get back to reading and what it is that will keep someone engaged. I realised it was pure, sparkling, gripping joy that kept me reading. And trying to start with a difficult book that you’ve heard so much about is the wrong way to derive that joy. Start with firing the emotions that you felt as a kid when you read books that grip you. Harry Potter does that wonderfully. Once you can sit down and read for an extended period of time, read tougher, nicer, meatier, more meaningful books.

3. My Name is Radha by Saadat Hasan Ali Manto.
In actuality, you can pick up any book by Manto and find yourself back to reading. Manto writes with a sort of insight that defies the simplicity he presents his work with. This anthology is essential Manto; between its pages are many women, Bollywood, Bombay, Ambala, Delhi, Peshawar, pimps, prayers and poignancy. None of them decipherable, none of them so different from you and me.

4. Roots by Alex Haley
This is a book that finds its place in almost any book list for which you ask me a response. Non-fiction, terrifically written and deeply, intensely moving, Roots changed my world view forever. It changed the way I looked at human beings, our politics and our innate natures. It reads really, really easy for a non-fiction book.

5. Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis
This book gave rise to one of the most iconic fictional figures of our time. A monster so insidious and lethal that it kind of terrifies you how much you resemble him. Martin Amis’s prose is, for the lack of a better word, just plain stunning. His writing unafraid and while some might think this book is ambitious, I assure you it isn’t. It’s worth every 15 minutes that you spend in the first week of your return to reading.

Here on, I am just going to give name and type without commentary. These are all easy books to read and yet meaningful, rich and gripping. Feel free to add to the list in the comments.

6. Fascinations by William Boyd (Short story)
7. Blue Beard’s Egg by Margaret Atwood (SS)
8. Girls at War by Chinua Achibe (SS)
9. Kiss, Kiss by Roald Dahl (SS)
10. Burning your Boats by Angela Carter (SS)
11. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates (SS)
12. Open by Andre Agassi 
13. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
14. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
15. Lolita by Vladimir Nobokov
16. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
17. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
18. The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
19. The Fig Tree by Aubrey Menen
20. Malgudi Days by RK Narayan (yes, there are people who haven’t read it!)
21. The Boy Who Talked to Trees by Yashwant Chittal
22. A River Sutra by Gita Mehta (SS)
23. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
24. Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
25. The Psmith Omnibus by PG Wodehouse. 

Hidimbi by the River

Bhimasena: lover,  keeper of secrets, healer.
How burdensome your love for
The lotus-blue Panchali
To whom the Saugandhika
and it’s quest were just another sorcery
Of dark eyes.

My skin lightens,  Bhimasena, draining
Itself of jet,  along with the memory of you
The seed grows,  Bhimasena,  and I grow big
Enough to envelope the forest in my womb
In an incestuous hope that you will enter it.

The forest, it grows dark,  Bhimasena
Dark as our love was when you chose
To walk away,  dutiful son,  loving brother
Absent father. Bhimasena

(Inspired by Bhima: Lone Warrior, the English of Randamoozham by MT Vasudevan Nair)

What the internet gave the Kerala man. (Apart from porn.)

I am often at the receiving end of, “Oh but you are Malayalee. You come from a matriarchal society,” when I talk about anything from feminism to food preferences. I take great pains to correct that statement. I patiently start with correcting the term (matrilineal, and not matriarchal), then I gently point out it’s just one community in Kerala that was so, and Kerala has many communities, and the usual mix of religions. I then ask what that has to do with the price of fish. Because, while in some ways it might be empowering and perspective-altering to receive your mother’s name, and her property, (technically, traditionally it is the maternal uncle’s property that used to get passed down to his nephews and nieces among Nairs), for all practical purposes a household used to be run by a man, usually the maternal uncle who decided everyone’s fate. Matrilineality, therefore, in my observation helped with one aspect of independence and liberation: financial security. But it did nothing to empower Nair women with the self confidence that is so needed to get out of an oppressive relationship she might be enduring in her domestic sphere. 


Laying that down as context, I zoom out a little and look at the larger Kerala with its rich, textured and varied ethnic groups, and communities. A society that’s arguably progressive, and educated, Kerala is a place where with this coexists a patriarchy that is, at an immediate glance, as surprising and confounding as it is deep rooted. In a state where communism (whatever its avatar today) thrives, where women work just as hard as men — if not harder — to sustain their families, the incongruity of the existence of male chauvinism and blatant patriarchy worries and fascinates me. If educated, financially independent women still struggle for justice, safety and equality, then what hope do those without the above-mentioned privileges have?

The evidence of a sexually repressed, frustrated people is all over Kerala. On the streets, on TV and online. Take the streets, for instance. Young women, and sometimes not-so-young-women, get flashed at regularly. I bet a whole lot of women in Erna-flasher-central-kulam have seen their first erection right in the middle of a busy street on a dreary old work day. Fathers still decide how the women in his family will behave, husbands still stay a mile away from child care, and running a home. I regularly hear women in my age bracket say if they wear a (moderately) low-cut blouse with their sari, their husbands will “pack them off”. It is said with laughter and camaraderie but it isn’t a joke at all. ‘Decent’ married women don’t do things their husbands don’t like. ‘Decent’ single women don’t do things their fathers and brothers don’t like. Anyone who decides to not be ‘decent’ has then crossed over to slut territory. I suppose this could be said for the rest of India.

Enter TV presenter and actress, Ranjini Haridas. A 30-something presenter who wildly successfully anchored a reality talent show for six years on Asianet, a Malayalam TV channel. Haridas is possibly little known outside Kerala. And so is the hate that she inspires. People of both genders criticise what they see as an inauthenticity when she speaks: heavily anglicised Malayalam is Haridas’s trademark, a chip she wears proudly on her shoulder. She is quoted as having said in an interview that the few years she spent in the U.K. as a Masters student were responsible for her forgetting her Malayalam. (I can’t verify the authenticity of this statement.) That may have been a young woman’s knee-jerk reaction, wet behind the ears as she was, to the criticism she received (in droves) when she first began hosting the show. But over time, more and more interviews quoted her as saying she didn’t care for what people said, this is the way she chose to speak and that’s the end of it. 

She wasn’t spared: pilloried on mimicry shows (a still-hugely popular genre in Kerala); blatantly and publicly told off by respected senior actors; guests on her own show and other women anchors have all taken pot shots at her. She’s a classic template for poking merciless fun at girls who decided to be “modern.” Men hated her. But the women, ah, here was a fascinating story unfolding. Young women, ripe for rebellion and finding their wings, all over Kerala felt here was something they could point to in case of crisis. “If she can, I can.” Haridas wore sleeveless clothes, body-con dresses, knee-length shifts, off the shoulder blouses, see-through ensembles, stuff that no anchor had worn on Malayalam T.V. hitherto; she did her hair experimenting with high glamour; she didn’t shy away from adventurous make up; she wore exactly what her free little heart desired and she did it with confidence, not letting criticism of her clothing or her speech cramp her style in the least bit. Men kept hating, she kept working, laughing all the way to the bank in her designer high heels.

She was in stark contrast to the Malayalee TV presenter that bored the hell out of viewers till then. These women wore a look of innocence, a certain… freshness one associates with the “untouched”. Her makeup was traditional with pink (ish) lipstick, and kohl-lined eyes, made up and yet not so much that it would make an impact. Her hair was tucked away in demure braids, or a little bun at the nape of the neck, and imprisoned in jasmine. She didn’t use her hands much, and smiled idiotically a lot. She was a vision, a girl-you-gawk-at-in-a-temple vision. Beautiful, efficient and tameable; completely devoid of impact, a threat to none of the men who ogled, and aspirational for none of the women these men lived with.

If a channel was targeting a younger crowd, you’d find young women dressed in jeans and a perfectly unremarkable top, with requisite hair and make up, and personality that was even more unremarkable than the T shirt. Usually, there was a guy who co-hosted and hogged all air time. 

You see, us Malayalee women look down on those who wear make up, although secretly we wished we could carry it off too. We think we are natural beauties (and I must admit some are) and to do anything with a tube of lipstick is to enter slut category. So most girls from middle class homes will wear lipstick on occasion and blot it till it very nearly disappears because good girls don’t wear lipstick. (For those of you who are going to come at me saying “but I have Keralite friends who aren’t like that,” I am going with a middle class majority here. Not those who have lived in cosmopolitan places or cities outside Kerala.) Until a few years ago, we didn’t wax our limbs; not because we believe in our feminist right to do what the hell we want with our body hair, but because salons are the dens of the devil. You could end up in a porn video on the interwebz if you went to a salon. I suspect that isn’t the case in the bigger places in Kerala, like a Cochin or Trivandrum or Trichur but most of Kerala still believes a salon will sell you off to pimps. And even those who do go to a salon and get all smooth, tend to do it very quietly. It’s not a thing we’re comfortable talking about.

It was into the households of these women that Haridas with her open hair, loud laughter, gender-irrespective hugs reached. With her beauty-contest-winner title, her U.K. masters degree and a sense of fashion that was more confidence than style. Which, I suppose, is true style. Suddenly, there were Haridas clones all over Malayalam TV. Open hair, clothes that edged away the ornate salwar kameez, or the graceful sari. Suddenly, and hilariously, perfectly ordinary girls were speaking Malayalam like it was a foreign tongue; and men were mercilessly skewering them over it; women were touching and hugging boys on screen and bantering with celebrities without the usual deferential tone. Just like Haridas. Just like normal young women do off camera. And men hated it. 

Till my mother recently pointed it out to me, I didn’t realise how much. I am a Haridas non-supporter; my mother, a woman of great wisdom and gentle confidence, is pro-Haridas. My objection is simple: I don’t like that she has distanced herself from her mother tongue, but that comes only second to the fact that she does it in the most inauthentic way. My mother’s reasons are also simple: she loves the show and says no one can carry it off as engagingly as Haridas. And that she lives exactly how she pleases, no matter what the rest of the world is saying. 

This conversation led my mother to direct me to Haridas’s fan page on Facebook. A regularly updated, selfie-heavy, hate-filled page. If that woman, (Ranjini Haridas I mean, not my mother) reads the comments on a regular basis and still continues to post as she does, she has all my respect and then some. Because, omg, there’s an army of perverted, hateful and angry men spewing venom there, doing what they can, from calling her slut in different ways (I had no idea how many words Malayalam had for slut) to offering her a screw so she’d ease off. 

They abuse her ancestry, they call her a slut, a corpse, a cunt, a eunuch, ugly. I was repulsed by almost 700 comments collectively in the first few posts on her page. (I didn’t see any threats of rape, the favourite hate-tool of men use to intimidate women online, thankfully.) But the sheer volume of hate, and all from men, was appalling, and fascinating. Why were all these men hating on her? A middle aged man called her the South Indian Sunny Leone (because a porn star is not an actor but a whore, correct?) going on to abuse her in Hindi, English and Malayalam, so great was his objection. Another one posted a picture of a firecracker, the Malayalam word for which is apparently colloquialism for, guess what? Yep, whore. They leave no aspect of her untouched — her makeup, who she is with in the picture, her clothes, her smile, teeth, even her being single, or being raised by her mother, having lost her father early. She’s ripped apart like a carcass in a butcher’s shop would if you let a hungry mob in. 

This one, for instance, has a misspelt speech bubble to make it sound like Haridas’s Malayalam. It basically says, “I know very little Malayalam.” 

Or this, where the insults are heaped high, all basically tiresomely calling her a whore, (or a variation of it), or old, or ugly, including a comment with a picture of her with an African person, an intended insult I am afraid to explore. 
This one below basically asks her to die, now that she’s old. (She isn’t 35 yet.) The comment below that is captioned “who is prettier?”

 And this below is our firecracker guy. Under which is a private photo of Haridas that went viral a few years ago and brought her under another deluge of filth.

In reply to this, and much much more such harassment, Haridas posted this on voting day recently, telling her detractors exactly what she thought of them, in classic tongue-in-cheek Ranjini style. (The comments on this one heap more abuse, more firecracker, more I’ll fuck you, more you-ugly-whore hate.)


I decided to explore a little and checked out the pages of other presenters/actors/professional celebrities who are women in other places. I found very little abuse, very little misogyny addressed to those in the public eye. My observation is that harassment and misogyny is directed more at regular, non-celebrity folk. Posting numbers, abusive language, lewd comments, direct hate are all directed mostly at women who aren’t in the public eye. But in the fan pages of actresses/models/TV personalities, there was more empty adulation than outright misogyny. There’s the odd deviant pimping his services, or some creep posting a name and number of a girl (:/) but this kind of rampant bile, this kind of utter disrespect was rare, if not almost absent. 

To me, it says many things, this hatred from men in Kerala young and old, educated and not, married or single. The insults are almost always sexual in nature, the language is highly disrespectful, (apart from being abusive itself): the use of nee, the informal word for ‘you’ in Malayalam is the only way she’s addressed. Her lack of hypocrisy is another source of anger. Unlike many women who care about their reputations, Haridas tends to live life rather candidly and if that threatens the Malayalee man, then so be it.  

The way I see it, the anger these men feel is directed at her being happily single even though she’s … gasp… nearly 35! Anger at her being unfazed by the barrage of biting criticism, at her completely normal way of behaving even on screen (she hugs, touches, gesticulates and uses her body freely that way you or I do). The anger is towards her success — six years of calling her a whore and she’s still the top rated, and possibly highest-paid, anchor in Kerala. The anger is towards her completely ignoring the very men that hate her; they just can’t seem to get a rise out of her. But I think the thing that threatens them most is that she is an aspiration: she is what a lot of their daughters, sisters and wives would like to become. Glamorous, articulate, successful, confident, and assertive. Everything that these men don’t want in their women, lest they get left behind; lest they get dragged to a police station for raising a hand; lest their women leave them after finding self-worth. 

If I were to say just the way Haridas dresses and talks is what’s causing the outpouring of misogyny, to anyone who looks at it superficially, I might be right. But if you look around and see another instance of hate, I’d be proved wrong. Manju Warrier, arguably one of Malayalam cinema’s best actresses, returned to acting after 14 years of staying away from the industry. She had a daughter with her actor husband, who incidentally, continued to act with women half his age, she made a home and never gave a single interview in all the years she was in the background. 

This last year, she has separated from her husband and has made no public statements about her marital situation. Her husband, actor Dileep, has gone on record to say he doesn’t like women working after marriage, while all these years he has insisted it was Warrier’s choice to give up acting at the height of her successful career. Their daughter, a teenager, lives with the father. 

Warrier, too, has a Facebook page that updates her fans about her news. She posts happy personal pictures, pictures of her shoots, travels and messages about causes. And yet the hate spews. As she fits better into the mould women are expected to fit in Kerala, the language is a lot more toned down. Clearly, having been married and proving to the world you are fertile is cause for people to be more respectful when they talk. And because Haridas dresses the way she does, and talks more English than Malayalam, and basically flips everyone off, she deserves to be spoken to disrespectfully. 

The hate on Warrier’s page manifests itself differently; she’s called a bad mother on the basis of the interview her husband gave in a woman’s magazine. She is wished ill-luck with her come-back film; she is condemned for leaving her marriage and husband, a man that much of Kerala adores and considers a great actor. Outside of these three things, apparently, Warrier doesn’t exist or rather, shouldn’t exist. Women too join this criticism of her, openly posting judgemental comments on what they think of her decision to leave her husband, criticising her bitterly for being “negligent” of her daughter, for seemingly classifying fame, career and money higher than her daughter and husband. Mind you, all this while not knowing anything else but that the two are separated. 

There’s scores of advice on the page of this 36-year-old artiste urging her to go back to her husband, to stop being selfish, to “realise” that beauty, fame and wealth won’t last forever. The denigration is endless and by the looks of it, hugely one-sided. You see, Dileep’s fan pages are full of people kowtowing to his talent, looking forward to his new films and the usual fanboy drivel. No advice to him on his personal life at all. Even newspaper reports have been inherently sexist in reporting any developments on the divorce/separation.  

This duplicity emerges repeatedly in Kerala, in conversations and in mainstream media, and now internet hate: It’s okay for a woman to work, bring home money and support, either single-handedly or as a second income, her family. But the minute she decides to pursue a career, as opposed to keeping a job, and chooses to go after it ambitiously, she’s just turned into the devil. The second income (in some cases the only income) she brings in is very welcome, but not the success or the sacrifices that she has to make. Among all the different kinds of men I’ve met, no one hates a woman’s success more than a certain kind of Malayalee man. 

I started this off as internet hate piece among men in Kerala, the internet as a new place to flash and wave figurative penises at women they couldn’t go anywhere close to; successful, dignified, articulate women that threaten their glaringly obvious chauvinistic attitudes. Internet hate towards women in the public eye isn’t particularly new, and takes on different forms, as Amanda Hess’s explosive essay earlier this year in the Pacific Standard illustrated. But the issues in Kerala that lead to what is clear misogyny are so much more that I had to digress a little. 

The truths that this kind of internet misogyny reveals to me are scary: Malayalee young men continue to be sexually frustrated; traditionally thought to be a sexually permissive society, Kerala, in the last few decades, has seen a huge change in morality, with patriarchal attitudes towards sex becoming more prevalent, where virginity as a virtue is priced highly and sex is seen as corruption. 

If these men are a sampling of most men in Kerala then it would seem Malayalee men are inherently crude, disrespectful, and have no finer sensibilities with regard to equality, individuality, racism, or sexuality. But perhaps the most disturbing thing of all, to me, is the fact that all this is juxtaposed with education, that it exists in a society that for decades has upheld socialist values of equality and respect between genders. How does one reconcile the two? What is the point of an education if it hasn’t helped you cultivate a respect for the girls you go to school with? How badly has education failed us, if men still consider sex and sexual insults the best way to attack a woman? Authors and artists, both male and female, have stood at the forefront of progressive feminist attitudes, writing, art and debate. Why has education failed to integrate their work and contribution towards building a society that is more respectful towards women?

Questions for jealousy

Irrational jealousy,
When did you become me?
Long ago when I had a man
On the left palm of my hand
I told him to go play.

When he came back, because he knew he could
I couldn’t smell any kisses, neither numbers, nor wood.
And it was okay then. And we could talk
A lot like friends, more like lovers,
Once we’d both gotten over the shock

Of finding things this normal, no questions asked.
And I liked to hear the odd story, of sex that wasn’t as great as ours.
I asked him about love, and whether they had better breasts,
All he said was a faithful no. Truth or kind lies, he left me to guess.
I never knew, then, nor did I care

To investigate the run of adult play
I knew love was to be shared, not locked up and hidden away.
So now that you have me, jealousy, you bitch, all I ask of you
As you viciously smoke me like a cigarette,
If not shared love, what must I feel instead.

On Innocence.

Have you seen a summer frangipani. One that blooms just after spring? It is a miracle of form and life sciences. It sheds all its leaves. Patiently, without a hint of emotion, taking off every single leaf that it wore through the year. Unabashedly displaying its anorexic structure. Strong in places. Knobbly in some, lean, accusing and aspiring in others. You wonder why it would stand still like this, shorn of its natural baggage, why it would last skeleton-alone, and then you see at the tips of its giant finger-like accusation, bunches of furiously blushing flowers. Fragrant and bold, and yet under that exhibitionism, a blush that is hesitant, stopping at half a petal. The waxen, flagrant frangipani. That is innocence.

*****

Watch with the sun in your eyes, a little girl of three. Four, maybe. Not quite a baby but not quite grown enough for the word to be inappropriate. Watch as she climbs with uncoordinated hands and legs up a slide, completely graceless, completely serene. She is unaware, and sweetly uncaring, of the impatient kids who queue up behind her. There’s a mini storm brewing behind her of children’s bursting, cyclic energy waiting to explode at the top where they let go, and plummet gleefully on the slide. There’s queue of scorn and good upbringing behind her, a temptation to push her aside, even over, maybe. A serpent of impatience and cruelty waiting just so that she is done with her slow turn on her hands and they can all have their quick thrill.

The girl climbs on, unaware what’s going on behind her, body bending to the demands of the ladder that she just cannot tame under her wayward hands and legs. Her face shows no fear, only a heartbreaking earnestness towards her task. She knows not that other children do it better than her. That those behind her are like her in size, shape, age and impatience. She knows not that she will not have their empathy. Her foot slips. There’s a barely-suppressed groan from behind her, as the serpent gets ready to strike with the venom of unkind words, the kind you find only in playgrounds of children. But she’s a star. She has not let that hurry her into climbing like it would an adult. She climbs only like she knows how. And suddenly, just when the snake-kids behind her are at snapping point, she is at the top. The sun is setting and you can’t see her face. Only the glorious silhouette she’s become, the gold of a setting sun tattooing its gentle fire all around her little form, trying to confine her in its soft-filter picturesqueness. Except the sunlight didn’t account for her hair; it’s a mess and plays with the breeze, collecting the sun’s fire from her outline and sending it away in waves from the top of her head, like a well-meaning baby Medusa of light.

She’s up there and because her face is hidden in the light, you can only imagine her smile, the gently raised cheekbones of her pure face the only clue. A smile that comes from anticipating that cold sweep to the earth, releasing every little fear and embarrassment she boldly hid in her heart. In that brilliant moment, she starts to sit down and the summer cotton of her frock billows all around her in a perfect umbrella. The breeze collaborates with her victory climb and the umbrella is a poster for all that is innocent about her. Despite it being there only for a second, because it is there only for a second before she sits down, and decides to claim fruit of her journey by taking a tiny, exciting ride down, down, down to the earth. She, as the axis of her one-second umbrella, too is innocence.

*****

My grandmother, a woman of love, humour, music, bad teeth and temper lost most control of her arms and legs due to a particularly bad case of spondylosis. In time, she was confined to her bed and her room. She ate there, watched tv there, read books there. She saw visitors there. She ate her apple there. Drank her coffee there.

Her skin was smooth, like a tautly-stretched, moist balloon once it has burst. When she would eat something that needed to be picked up with her hands, I would watch her. Her hand made a slow, heavy, waving descent to the bowl she intended to pick up her piece of apple, or orange, maybe banana, from. When it touched the bowl, it would rest. A limb in thought. Her fingers with taut, smooth, honey skin would stretch like a scared little ET and try to pick up a piece of fruit. The sneaky old piece would shift just when she got a grip on it, leaving a minuscule pool of nectar in is place. Her hand would try again, lifting like a dumb giant and dropping back into the bowl. My grandmother had no will against this recalcitrant limb. The fruit would behave itself this time, recognising the limitations of the bowl it was in. Yet, elfin by nature, it would slip out again to hide between other pieces of fruit. Third time lucky. She would have the fruit between her exquisitely awkward fingers and the slow rise to her mouth would start. Sometimes, she won, some times the piece of fruit, finding its freedom in the folds of her starched upper cloth. The days she won, I watched her gnawing slowly, laboriously at her fruit and when she had a few satiating bites of it, she would turn to me a give me a big smile. I have never seen anything more innocent.

*****
Sometimes you look into the mirror and all you see is everything you’ve become. The faces you put on for people, all you. Different parts of you. Even when you cry, it’s a face. One that you gaze at through your pain, despite your pain to look for aesthetics. Are you beautiful when you cry. Those days when you smile at your reflection and you can’t see anything right with it, those days you make faces like you were a child, tongue out, nostrils flared; indelicate, ugly and utterly free. Suddenly, one day, there’s no face to put on, no tears to wipe delicately, no bad teeth to look at you smile, no faces to make, and you’ve had enough sleep, you’ve eaten well and there’s nothing that happened the day whole day that has made it exciting. An absence of the mean, a presence of the cognisant. You are perfectly ordinary. And that does not make you sad. Look again in that mirror. Because, that too, is innocence.