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Interview – Indu Harikumar

Indu Harikumar, artist and writer, creates project spaces for conversation and experience-sharing on gender and sexuality through people-powered, art projects on social media.  Amongst these, for example, are #notestomylovers and #identitty on Instagram. #notestomylovers is a series of insightful and engaging posts that articulate deeply felt but perhaps often unspoken thoughts on intimacy, personal space and the body.  #identitty explores and presents the relationship people have with breasts, and the wider perceptions, transactions, and personal experiences that impact this relationship. Talking to Shikha Aleya about vulnerability and sexuality, Indu says, “When someone is being vulnerable, they sometimes allow another person to be comfortable in their own imperfect lives… I know that a lot of times I think that if I’m being vulnerable, why can’t you be vulnerable? And I am now trying to remind myself that there is no gold standard.”

Shikha Aleya (SA): Indu, hi, and thank you for talking to us on the theme of vulnerability and sexuality. Please tell us a bit about yourself growing up. What are your insights into your personal journey as an artist exploring complex themes of body, gender, sexuality, and of so much that goes into our construction of the narratives surrounding these?

Indu Harikumar (IH):  Now that I look at the work that I do, I am surprised that I do it, because not very long ago, say six or seven years ago, I ‘d imagine that if anyone talked to me about sex, they probably wanted to have it with me.  I would either be excited or really scared. So, to come to a place to have had conversations with people I don’t know at all, where they’re telling me something deeply personal and sexual, and I share something from my own life would have been unthinkable. What’s changed for me because of my work is that in my interactions with my partners, I have to tell them only nuanced sexting works for me. Six years ago if you said I want to have sex with you that would have been enough, now I need more. I call it an occupational hazard.

I am now forty-one years old, I remember that when I was about sixteen, my father told me, you can find whoever you want, and I felt as if he was abandoning me! Most people I hung out with then were scared of their fathers, they had to do everything on the sly, meet people on the sly. Sex was a ‘bad’ thing! It was paap (sin). There was all this conversation about how penetrative sex would hurt. And how good folks saved themselves for marriage; even the lead singer of Backstreet Boys said so!

I’m South Indian and dark-skinned, I was also skinny and flat-chested, I didn’t think I stood a chance. Because by the time I got my first period (at fourteen), there were girls who were well-endowed, and all the boys were flocking towards them. I just knew I would never have that kind of power and had to over-stretch myself to get some acceptance and maybe some love. Carrom board is how men described people like me. Flatron (here I mean Flatron TV), and Manchester, is used now. My goal in my teens and my 20s was ‘I must, I must, increase this bust’!

Other than having what I thought was deficient boobage, people in ads and Bollywood who lived happy lives, were worthy of love, were successful, all had a certain kind of body and more importantly, a certain skin tone. I didn’t think I could negotiate much with my body, so if somebody took some interest in me, I was more than willing to build a world around them, even when all my needs were not met, even when I was being hurt in the process. With such an acute sense of inadequacy and this deep need for acceptance, I opened myself up to a lot of abuse.  In the words of Arundhati Roy, “Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty.”  And I think I have experienced a lot of cruelty in my life.

Before I started this work, and I’d hear people say ‘F&*k patriarchy’ and other dictums, I’d think to myself, patriarchy doesn’t even know I exist, what power do I have to call it out? ‘No dictums’ is my policy when it comes to work because not everyone has the privilege. I sure didn’t have the privilege.  My understanding of feminism comes from stories of people’s lived experiences which has made me feel like I am not alone. It has come from a very personal space, from asking deeply personal questions on the Internet. It has come from dating different people. It has come from beginning to use Tinder at 35 and sharing my experiences.

I was thirty-five years old and just out of a relationship, in Vienna, and I was trying Tinder for the first time. I didn’t know the social code, so I didn’t know if it was okay or not to share that I was on Tinder. I wrote about being on Tinder and about discovering sexual power for the first time at the age of 35. In India I’d heard, “Look, nobody’s going to be interested in you post-thirty, you know, women have a shelf life!” All my friends were married and I was trying really hard to fit in, I didn’t think I had much choice. But in Vienna and on Tinder, my dateability would soar because I was an egg yolk in a sea of egg whites. With my ego massaged, I would try Tinder In Mumbai and Delhi and notice my dateability ebbing.. This led me to ask people (on the Internet) about their experiences which led to 100IndianTinderTales.

I had illustrated and written for children till I did 100IndianTinderTales. So I was worried that drawing bosoms would mean that schools would not call me again because teachers and parents  would think of me as a ‘bad influence’ on the children.

But schools continued to call me to talk to children about body image. When I go to schools to talk to teens about body image, I never go in as an expert; what I do is try and be vulnerable, I talk about my life as a teen struggling with my issues. And this “Oh, this adult had a problem too?” opens up conversation.  Most adults are winging it, everyone wants to give gyan (lecture), like I’ve sorted this out and let me tell you what to do. I haven’t sorted it out, I am just as much as a work in progress as the kids, with a few more years of experience and a better vocabulary to understand my complex inner world, perhaps.

SA: Vulnerability, like sexuality, is a concept that means different things to different people. How do you understand vulnerability?

IH: How do I understand vulnerability? I’ve been on the Internet for twenty-five years now. I have also looked at the Internet as a place where I could be myself. I was not rejected as soon as I entered a place. I could form connections based on words. So I also looked at the Internet over the years as a place where I could be me, it was my diary, my safe space. That’s how I also started to use the Internet, writing like an editor wasn’t watching, writing like I wouldn’t be called out, writing despite having no talent and when I began 100IndianTinderTales it was not because I thought somebody was going to give me these tales. Because why should they? Why should they be vulnerable to an absolute stranger? It came from a deep place to connect, – am I the only one who is having these shitty experiences, tell me about yours… Let me learn from your experiences and also make art.  While I was doing the project I saw that when one person said they like having rough sex, they normalised it for a lot of people and then I would get similar stories. When someone talked about abuse, others talked about assault and experiences which they couldn’t share with their friends then because of the fear and shame of being told, “What were you thinking? Why are you so stupid?”  Identitty happened because I was talking to someone on Instagram about breasts. They said when they walked on the street and men hooted or ogled at them, they thought something was wrong with them. I had always believed that if I had larger breasts my life would be more sorted which led me to ask folks what their experiences were.

SA: Do you think we attach a meaning or a value to vulnerability?

IH: I was watching something recently that said it was a bad thing to be vulnerable, but I don’t think it is a bad thing. I do see that there is a certain amount of power in vulnerability, it also needs courage, in my experience. When someone is being vulnerable, they sometimes allow another person to be comfortable in their own imperfect lives. But sometimes they may also be making another person uncomfortable, because they maybe talking about something that the other person doesn’t want to think about right now, something that disrupts another’s world view. I know that a lot of times I think that if I’m being vulnerable, why can’t you be vulnerable? And I am now trying to remind myself that there is no gold standard.

SA: In this article, you have spoken of language being integral to the way you engage with the world, and say, “If it wasn’t for languages, the many I have had the pleasure of learning and speaking, I don’t know who I’d be. It has made me feel like I belong.” How would you connect these concepts of language and of belonging, to experiencing, processing and negotiating both one’s sexuality and one’s vulnerability? 

IH: There’s more to language than what we speak, our bodies have a language of their own, our eyes and our faces speak. The thing we have to ask is: are we paying attention to these cues? I’m currently working on something to do with consent, sexual consent, there are so many cues that people give out when they are not interested even when they verbally consent. Fear shows in our eyes and bodies, our bodies become stiffer, we smile when we love something, tears, how our bodies lubricate, become harder and softer, these are all cues. Even in a non-sexual context there are so many things that humans do! We are taking the luxury of language to not look at all of these things. But when you do not share the luxury of a language, there’s so much that humans say to each other without saying anything.

SA: Looking at people around you, at a world attempting to renegotiate their relationships with self, with friends, with partners, with family, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, what are your insights on vulnerability? How can we, as communities, build spaces that are safe, inclusive, self-affirming, supporting us through these negotiations with self and others?

IH: When I was a teenager, I had a lot of, what I called relationships, which were on the Internet. The world would say,“But that’s not real! What’s this internet person?! Why don’t you know any real people?” So for me, Covid, especially last year when everyone was under lockdown, I thought it legitimised the kind of relationships I had as a teenager. People would say, “How do you connect with someone you’ve met online?! You don’t know who they are!” But over the years, I’ve had several such connections, you know, where you feel connected to someone you haven’t met because you texted them or sent them memes.

I remember when I was doing Tinder Tales, I was suddenly getting a lot of media requests from all round the world. Now I’ve been a wallflower all my life and suddenly everyone wanted to ask me questions and I was like “What am I supposed to tell these people?!” I had this giant stye in my eye, which wouldn’t go away, and then I went to the doctor and he asked, “Are you stressed?” Nobody had asked me if I was stressed because everyone was like “Yay, your life’s taken off, everyone wants to interview you!” So at that point I remember matching with someone and who was probably catfishing me. Catfishing is when you’re lying about who you are, or impersonating someone else. I didn’t care, because it meant that I could have this connection without anyone asking me questions about my eyes, it felt safe. I didn’t want to meet people! So this was the only way for me to have a connection.

During Covid-19, when I started to ask people what are the kind of connections they have, I felt the situation legitimised a lot of things. People were eating food together. People were watching Netflix together. Of course, people were getting naked all the time, having sex online, but this was not considered okay.

One of the stories that I got which I found so fascinating was from Kerala, where somebody talked about how they went to meet this person they had matched with on a dating app. The lockdown had been lifted and this person drove to her house. I had to write to this person and ask, since this woman lived with her mother, what did you tell the mother? They said they told her, “We were Facebook friends”. I didn’t know that’s legitimate!

So when I look back, I remember a lot of people said, “What is this Internet and why would you connect with strangers? Aren’t there enough real people!” I think that during the pandemic the kind of connections that people were forging are very different and I want to talk about something I wrote for a First Post piece. People had to deal with their loneliness and their need for connections, there weren’t as many distractions. When there are many distractions, we tend to use people like commodities. In the pandemic one had to be slightly more real with oneself and had to sit with a lot of the discomfort that connections bring you, and deal with it.

About safe, inclusive spaces, I’d like to say, I am not an expert and I don’t have dictums, and that I think is the starting point. If we stop being experts, if we allow people to be vulnerable, where they are allowed to make mistakes, we will be creating safe spaces for ourselves and for others.

Cover Image: Used with permission of the author 

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