Lifespan of a Blooming Chembarathi (Hibiscus)

to Chinnu (Anjana Harish) 
TW: Suicide  

Did your Amma tell you too
that the chembarathi was a sign of madness?
My Amma did. You know, because Pappu
the ‘madman comic’, wears it before Dr. Sunny
gently ‘fixes’ him with a knock to his head, 
after saving Ganga from Nagavalli’s Ghost
in Manichitrathazhu, cult
psychological horror where women are
both accused & victim.
Chembarathi became this Madness–
through repetition, internal rhymes 
of malayalam comedy,
dialogue our families love quoting with
umpteen rules about being the right Malayali 
penne, all straight, like the 
goddamn pasta. Did you like penne? Or did you
like Parotta, maida layers & oil, quintessential
Malayali food? I’m an idiyappam person though.
I–I mean–my hair is as straight 
as its steamed, squished noodles. You would
get this joke. I can’t translate 
the joke to Malayalam–no words
for us, not any I know. 
You might have; you studied Malayalam, but
your Amma didn’t understand 
it anyway. I can guess. Her first
question must have been are you 
mad? I know how Ammas are. To try help you,  
she took you to school, church, therapy, where 
they knocked you around to
put sense in you/get english nonsense out, 
like a stuck chala fish-bone
they can heimlich out & not 
our ribs, cracking into heart.
Curious me googled ‘chembarathi’ and result:
represents the feminine. trope twisted stigma.
Did you know the lifespan of a chembarathi 
at full bloom was one day?
That’s how long the news cared. I dug 
through the articles for weeks, found photos 
of you smiling with her, both in matching red
and that you went by Chinnu instead – a pet-name, 
from your chosen family? Or maybe pen-name? 
We are no Kamala Das & even she went 
by Madhavikutty. I get it. 
our day to be an open book is not 
here yet.


Glossary
chembarathi – Hibiscus
chala – A type of fish commonly eaten in Kerala
Penne – Girl in Malayalam (in latin letters)
Manichitrathazhu – a famous psychological thriller/horror in Malayalam Cinema.
Kamala Das – Malayali poet and writer, famous/controversial for her depictions of same-sex relations in her poetry/autobiography/fiction
idiyappam  – A steamed rice noodle cake common to Southern India, often eaten with curries
Parotta – A type of bread, with Beef Fry; it is the most well known food in Kerala.

Written by Rouha.
Photograph by Nydia Blas, “Untitled” from The Girls Who Spun Gold, 2016.

The Empty Space You Left Behind, & Others by Paul Anagnostopoulos

Paul Anagnostopoulos is a New York City based painter who graduated from NYU with a BFA in 2013.

“These paintings are heavily inspired by the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Delphi was the holiest place in ancient Greece. It was where the Oracle made her predictions and also the site of the Pythian Games, a precursor to the modern olympics. Along the mountain path were the many treasuries and offerings to the gods. These works share this same notion of honor and devotion, performing multiple layers of competition: the strongest heroes, the richest cities, the most exuberant tributes- the best of the best march their way up this holy mountainside in a display of ritualized adoration. With nods to the same motifs of excess, kitsch, and camp often found in ancient displays of worship, this series serves as a contemporary temple devoted to the celebration of queer intimacy, history, and life.”

This Empty Space You Left Behind
2019, acrylic and oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches

Started Out With A Kiss
2019, acrylic and oil on canvas, 18 x 36 inches

Taste The Fruit Of Me
2019, acrylic on wood panel, 8 x 9 inches


Touch My Cheek Before You Leave Me
2019, acrylic and oil on canvas, diptych 24 x 18 inches each

We Can Be Us
2019, acrylic and oil on canvas, 36 x 24 inches

Drown In My Desire For You
2019, acrylic and oil on wood panel, diptych top: 10.25 x 12 inches, bottom: 20.75 x 24 inches

Queer Body and Soul

As a child I was taught that my body was not
My own that it belonged
to the Church, God, and Jesus be
like the Virgin Mary
Carry the children who will
Carry the Church

I was told my body was a vessel
A sanctified womb
Protect at all costs
From men, from myself
Because I am ‘worth waiting for’

Sex is for marriage, for men
For babies
Don’t linger at the edge
I never learned how my body worked
Or what I wanted outside
of children

Without Catholic babies
Ignoring the blueprint
Owning myself
Ignoring old
Men behind pulpits
Or red hats marching

To the Church my body
Malfunctions
Because ‘God doesn’t make mistakes’
Without procreation
My love is null and void
An unholy marriage

But my body is mine and
mine

Alone

Artwork by Marcus Fessler “The Boy Who Raised Poisonous Snakes II” h

The Internet Saved My Queer Soul

Francis Picabia Hera.jpg

The internet is weird and scary, but it is undeniable that it is one of the most important tools for shaping the LGBTQIA+ community and culture.

When people broadly talk about how the internet is the bane of their existence, I immediately think of  pre-teen gay kids living in towns of 500 people or less. What physical community exists for them? Would they have access to a GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance) or accurate non-bigoted information in their physical space? Realistically, sometimes the only place to see people like them who are living happy and fulfilling lives, is online. There is plenty of terrible information on the web, but the only way to learn about the many facets of their community is to log on. Information on queer health or history is not so accessible anywhere else.

GLAAD, a non-governmental monitoring organization for LGBTQIA+ representation in the media found that of the 109 releases from major film studios in 2017, only 14 (12.8%) of them included characters that were LGBTQ. This represents a significant decrease from the previous year’s report (18.4%, 23 out of 125), and the lowest percentage of LGBTQ-inclusive major studio releases since GLAAD began tracking in 2012. Not one of the 109 releases had  transgender representation.

It is painfully isolating not to know anyone else who is gay or trans. It is excruciating not to have the vocabulary to define yourself. Representation is still so difficult to find in mainstream commercial media, and when it exists, it tends to be drowned in stereotype and tragedy. Access to indie shows, books, art, and music that is created for and by the community needs greater importance. Storytelling is a way we can explore ourselves and our identities and have the power to speak our truths.

The internet amplifies stories and the practice of stories. People become able to look up the historical figures absent from their history class. They can find books that never got a chance to be assigned in a high school syllabus.  They can create and share things that are typically discarded as different or abnormal, and find similarities, celebrate differences.

The positive impact of internet culture on the queer community is quantifiable. While there aren’t many studies on queer youth’s online interactions, scholar  Leanna Lucero has explored the “the numerous ways that multiple marginalized LGBTQ youth use social media as part of their everyday experiences, in an attempt to safely navigate their lives through learning, participating, engaging, communicating and constructing identities in digital spaces.”

She explored participants’ accessibility to social media and the frequency of their activity on various platforms. Her data-driven analysis suggests that social media can be a safe space for LGBTQ youth to delve into the complexities of their sexuality and gender in more nuanced ways.

Obviously, the internet is not always a safe haven. Harassment, bullying, and death threats plague online spaces, and can be especially directed at the queer community. Sometimes negativity and harassment even comes from within the community. But without it, so many of us would feel increasingly isolated, only hearing hateful or ignorant voices from whichever ‘real world’ we happen to be situated in.

But the internet isn’t going away. Social media will continue to evolve beyond our imaginations. It’s important for us to make sure that the internet becomes more of a shelter for queer communities. In small towns and high schools, people don’t always get to see a reflection of their identity in a positive way. Comfort and acceptance can be found in everything from Autostraddle to queer barbers on Instagram. Learning identifying words from folks can make you finally feel at home with yourself. Technology can be our weapon and our shield against the world, and we must continue raising and practising awareness of this power and responsibility in the digital age.

 

Artwork by Francis Picabia “Hera”

 

Growing Up With Rohan

Written by Kaashif Hajee

bhupen khakhar.jpg

“So, tell me, na. What’s your girlfriend’s name?” she asked intrusively.

It was a typical family get-together. Aunties, uncles and cousins descended at our – the
unlucky hosts’ – house. As usual, the kids hung out separately in the bedroom, while the adults caught up (read: gossiped) in the living room. When dinner was served, however, the various generations were forced to come together and find common ground.

“Come on, you can tell me – I’m very cool, you know,” she persisted. “Not like your
Mother.”

Small talk was closely alternated with uncomfortable questions.

Anjali Aunty was our mother’s sister – our self-identified “cool” aunt. What that essentially meant was that unlike the other elders, she wore jeans and dresses, frequently went out to eat and would always rescue us from boredom with contraband alcohol at family functions.

Most desi families have an Anjali Aunty. Instead of asking us the run-of-the-mill questions for which we had rehearsed answers – “How are your friends?” “How are your studies going?” “Have you thought about what you want to do in the future?” – Anjali Aunty would ask about the latest gossip, popular films and TV shows, and where we had gone to party the previous weekend. But now that Rohan had turned 15, the socially acceptable age for a boy to be mingling with girls, this playful, well-meaning question too became part of the dinner conversation menu.

“I actually don’t have a girlfriend, Aunty,” Rohan replied, complete with a fake chuckle, infused with embarrassment. “Mumma, could you pass me the paneer please?” he asked, in an attempt to deflect any more probing.

“Oh wow, you mean there’s more than one? Pankaj, I’m sure your son has gone on you,”
Anjali Aunty said to our father. “Have you given him all your pearls of wisdom from your days?”

“Oh god, stop it, Anjali,” he replied. “Why do we always go back to that?” He pretended to
be uncomfortable but was visibly proud. He had been married to our mother for nearly 20 years, but it still didn’t hurt to bask in the glory of his youthful philandering.

“I remember how many hearts Pankaj broke as a young man!” another uncle
proclaimed. “Until he settled down with our darling Sameera.”
“Yes! And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it now?” agreed Anjali Aunty. She turned back to Rohan. “So when are you going to let me meet her, huh? Or should I say ‘them’? I’ve seen your Instagram, beta, you can’t hide from me!” she laughed, self-indulgently.
“Arrey no, aunty, it’s not like that,” Rohan said. His face visibly showed pain from pretending.
“They’re just my friends.”
Like Anjali Aunty would ever believe that. How uncool. Just friends? With all those girls? Ludicrous.

There had always been a set of concrete expectations for Rohan, many of which he
hadn’t been able to live up to: he was supposed to play all kinds of sports, excel at maths and science, be tough and strong, the whole good boy deal. I still remember how much it bothered him when I beat him at tennis, and when he had to ask me, reluctantly, for help with physics.

He was always a better writer than me, though. He’d probably write this story better too.

That night after dinner, my mind was racing. As I lay on my bed, staring blankly at the ceiling, thoughts I had buried deep inside kept poking their ugly heads out. I could not for the life of me understand why it was so acceptable, and even encouraged, for him to have girlfriends (plural, apparently?), while I couldn’t have one boyfriend. For God’s sake, I was three years older than him! If boys are allowed to date during their teens, but girls aren’t, then who do the boys even go out with? It was absurd.

My thoughts tumbled ahead of me. Why was I so restricted? Because boys would take advantage of me? Treat me badly? And, of course, the old “log kya kahenge?” Yet nobody ever reprimanded my father for treating his high school girlfriends so loosely in the past. Nobody told him it was wrong.

Instead, my brother was encouraged to follow in his footsteps. And the logic was that my father always knew he wouldn’t eventually want to end up with “those kinds of girls” – the ones who chose to date him. He knew my mom was the one because she didn’t hang out with boys like him back then. I was supposed to be like her. Not the other girls, the kind my dad had dated. They lacked self-respect and integrity. Charming.

But Shanay and I had been quietly dating for two years now. I was crazy about him. He was smart, respectful, funny, and made me really happy. It was such a healthy, stable and mutually beneficial relationship, but I knew my parents would never see it that way. All it would look like was a boy tainting their lovely daughter, staining her integrity along with theirs.

My mind kept running a mile a minute. I wondered how and why having sex with Shanay was so different from my brother prospectively doing the same with other girls? Why did it not matter what I thought, felt or wanted? Why, instead of me not being allowed to date, was Rohan not being told to treat other girls with respect?

The rules have always been different for us. I can’t get away from that truth. Rohan can always go out whenever and wherever he wants, while I have a curfew, and get bombarded with phone calls whenever I leave the house. Llike I can’t look after myself at 18. I’m never allowed to go to sleepovers or on overnight trips, especially if boys will be there;  I’m always questioned if I’m seen talking to a boy for too long, hanging out too much, behaving “inappropriately.” Always: where are you, when are you coming home, who are you with, what are you doing, don’t talk to xyz, don’t go here, don’t go there, your skirt’s too small, dress too tight, shorts too short, neckline low, too much make up, take the red lipstick off, who are you trying to impress, stop attracting unwanted attention, stop, don’t, enough.

***

Rohan came into my room the next morning. “I want to talk to you about something.”
“What, Rohan?” I was annoyed. “If you want to complain about Anjali aunty and the fam then now is not the time – I have my own problems.”
“No, no, I don’t want to complain about that,” he shyly giggled.
“Okay then what happened? Don’t tell me you actually have a girlfriend and Anjali Aunty
called it before me.”
“No, but I think… I maybe kind of have a crush –”
“What! Oh my God, on whom? What’s her name? That’s so cool Rohan, your first proper crush in so long!” I started frantically looking for my phone to stalk this new girl on Instagram. “I was wondering what’s wrong with you. How long have you liked her for? How did you two meet? Why didn’t you tell me before?”

I was genuinely excited for him, but also silently bitter. It wasn’t fair. I could see it. He would ask her out, start dating her, our parents would let them go on fancy outings, bring her over and spend time in his room – no questions asked. I could never be that lucky.

“Who is she? Come on! Tell me.”

He replied, hesitantly, “His name is Gaurav.”

 

 

Artwork by Bhupen Khakhar

The Question of the Authentic Indian

A Review of Shani Mootoo’s Out on Main Street

In a striking short story titled Out on Main Street, the writer and visual artist Shani Mootoo deconstructs the idea of the authentic Indian identity, countering it with the notion of hybridity, which arises out of (post)colonial actions and legacies, cultural collisions and globalisation. Mootoo herself is a culturally-nationally hybrid figure. She is of Indian descent, but was born in Ireland, raised in Trinidad, moved to Canada at 19, and identifies as queer. This short story reflects the actual complexity of these intersections as they manifest in reality; it is set in Canada but is written explicitly in Trinidadian vernacular, mixed with some French and Hindi, and the narrator is a Trinidadian lesbian of Indian descent in the midst of encountering other similar types of mixed-identity characters. The effect makes the reader question and then debunk, in the context of this specific piece, what exactly constitutes a “real” or “authentic” Indian. Mootoo, through displaying such hybridity in her writing, both of and in the language, pokes holes in the myth that there is even such a thing as an “authentic” Indian (or any nationality/culture) and how ridiculous it is to have a set of standards for cultural/national purity in a world replete with increasing cultural collisions.

Mootoo sets up her argument right from the story’s introductory paragraph: “Janet and me?….we is watered-down Indians – we ain’t good grade A Indians”. Already, we are introduced to the concept of what it means to carry the label of “Indian”. Where there is “watered-down”, there implicitly is purity to act as a counterpoint. Mootoo makes it clear that her protagonists, both the speaker and Janet, are of Indian descent and also look it – their skin is the appropriate shade of brown, but nothing more. At the same time, the narrator and Janet speak both to each other, and to us as readers, in their language of comfort and seemingly birth nationality, which is Trinidadian vernacular. Mootoo implicitly attaches Indo to Trinidadian, to create a hybridity right from the beginning, that immediately calls for the reader’s attention. Meanwhile, she also begins alerting us to the stereotypical standards we prescribe to ‘real Indianness’. For instance, “grade A” is a soft allusion to the commonly held idea that Indians are academically driven, studious and straight-A students; this becomes a prescription for the perception of a ‘true Indian’, that the hybrid figure does not meet. They are different, diluted and thus, inauthentic.

Mootoo continues to tease out other methods of “watering down” or diluting the authentic Indian. There is the “kitchen Indian”, someone who only engages with the Indian culture by eating its food, but does not perform any other aspect of prescribed Indianness. We are prompted to question ourselves as readers about what our own standards for a ‘real’ Indian are, which will additionally alert us to the perhaps alarming thought that we actually harbour these standards, even if subconsciously, in the first place. The parameters for authenticity most likely differ from person to person but there will be common themes: raised in India, eating Indian food, religious – most likely Hindu, wear cultural dress, speak Hindi well, good at math and science, fairly conservative, observe tradition consistently. Straying from or stretching out these parameters results in a feeling of both cultural and national dissonance, both in a person’s internal and external space, and a resulting hyphenation of their identity to accommodate the unwieldiness of that complexity i.e the hyphen-born hybridity present in Indo-Trinidadian. Hence, that dissonance is exactly what would cause someone like the narrator to proclaim “all a we…is cultural bastards”, suggesting they have been proven illegitimate to bear the title of mono-cultural, pure, belonging authentically to the identity that perhaps only their physical body reflects. In other words, they are born outside of the culture they should fully be inhabiting, and this externalization or displacement makes them a “bastard”, an illegitimate child, whose physical features reflect their mother (culture) but their expressions of personal identity often stem from elsewhere – in the narrator’s case, being born as ethnically Indian but their language and disposition being distinctly from Trinidad.

There are several other types of hybridity Mootoo inserts into this story. Firstly, the narrator is a butch lesbian. Many prescriptions for the model Indian woman, largely stemming from Indian society itself, place pressure on women to perform a high level of docile, sweet femininity, to be “so femme that they’re redundant”, like the narrator’s girlfriend Janet. Indian society also has a long history of shunning homosexuality. By simply existing as who she is, the narrator, alongside the femme Janet, already challenges and pushes against these pressures while simultaneously feeling and inhabiting them.

In a later instance, we meet the “Chum-chum brothers”, cafeteria servers who appear Indian, and who mock the narrator for not prescribing to the authentic Indian standard for language, which would be a flawless performance of Hindi. Ironically, the brothers turn out to be from Fiji, therefore exposing they are ‘inauthentic’ Indians themselves; they too are immigrants, and products of an interesting postcolonially-motivated history in which indentured labor from South Asia was taken to places such as Fiji, Malaysia, Kenya and the Caribbean many generations ago. The very event of one of them mocking the other for not meeting some pure cultural identity standard that neither of them have, or could ever have, begins to feel completely absurd. Thus, Mootoo effectively rips another hole in the myth of there being any kind of purity or authenticity of identity in the first place.

What emerges is a narrative where space is made and filled by a variety of Indians who are expected to be impure or deemed “watered down”, by themselves, by other cultures, by similar “cultural bastards” and by all types of Indians. The expectations differ and so do the realities. In Out on Main Street, white men walk into an Indian cafeteria and offer a Muslim greeting because that is their perception and reaction to their model of the Indian. This standard is unmet. The Fijian-Indian servers place an expectation on the narrator’s language to reflect, seamlessly, her Indian heritage, by speaking good Hindi and performing an idealized femininity. This too is unmet. A critical Indian woman, cheekily called Giraffebai by the narrator, places a pressure on Indian males (in this case, the servers) to be respectful even though she believes they are not, in retaliation to Western expectations placed upon all Indians to be “sexist and uncivilized”. These are complicated chains of expectations placed upon the Indian identity from all directions, both from outside and within, which coalesce into the prison-like fencing of a model for authenticity – which, in reality, does not exist beyond our own trappings of stereotype and prejudice.

“So tell me, what yuh think ‘bout dis…” Mootoo asks us in the final line of her story. What she really demands of us is to go back and question the assumptions and pressures we place on people to perform mono-cultural identities that conform to what they are supposed to be rather than what they actually are. Mootoo urges us to see the myth of cultural authenticity for what it is – a myth. An Indo-Trinidadian is not just Indian, but specifically, Indo-Trinidadian, emphasizing that equal space is given for both to exist side by side, and respected as legitimate that way, both within notions of Indian identity and Trinidadian identity. And aside from inhabiting these hyphenated realities or hybrid identities, these figures are also so much else, regarding the many other intersections and permutations of other aspects of their identity, such as their sexual orientation. Mootoo pushes us as readers to ponder ways to make space for hybridity and to accept it as real and authentic too. That hybridity does not make anyone less or diluted or improper, or deserving of chastisement, shame, mockery and most importantly, a sense of failure. Ultimately, we are reminded that no one is and should be considered a failure for being who they are, but rather, the failure lies in our ability to accept the complexity of what that actually means for various human beings and their complicated yet completely valid sense of belonging.

 

 

Artwork by Nimisha Bhanot