Earlier this week, I got to hear President Obama during his stay in Mumbai as a part of the student’s interactive session where we were supposed to ask questions as he wanted to ‘know’ and ‘connect’ with the youth of India. Of course this demographic was rounded off from the most affluent and well known colleges of the city and if I’m not mistaken, clear caste selections were visible too; where under the excuse of having all the ‘brightest’ and the ‘most’ creative group of students, quite predictably students from lower castes were excluded because apparently ‘those’ students weren’t good enough to be even passed on as tokens! Can you imagine how deviant and depraved they must be, that institutions had to collectively silence them? But I digress. In other inconsistencies, the city is spruced up, the roads where he would pass by are redone, beggars are displaced, stray dogs are removed from their place and other forms of erasure I probably can’t even gauge have gone on. But none of this is surprising, this is the routine whenever Anyone Of The Important Variety visits the city, from the Prime Minister to Ambassadors of other nations. For a couple of days, my city changes its face, we stretch out corners to make them seem like crossroads and the day the President leaves, everything is back in its place, except perhaps the beggars and the dogs. But who cares about them anyway? They probably will vandalise this newly done street with their stench and bodies, so they’re better off in some obscure little ditch, the Empire muses to itself. It’s particularly ironic that though President Obama came with hopes of expanding job opportunities, of creating ‘openings’; so much closure and hazing was inspired by his very motive to ‘open’, almost as if the blurry lines between ‘open’ and ‘fixed’ have been mutated to fit the version a few ImperiallyInclined people saw fit.
The talk turns to borders and boundaries one minute and becoming a ‘global village’ the next. What struck me most in this lop-sided conversation is how perfectly parallel it is to our reality; where we staunchly oppose spaces between people but will not hesitate to create a gulf between states or communities — that’s the only way a ‘democracy’ works it seems, People Of The Olde Interwebes! — that we let our Collectively Colonised Persona to slip under yet another Empire, that of emptied meanings. Generally speaking, spaces between bodies, virtually and otherwise is frowned upon. My immediate family members never seem to understand why I don’t have a Facebook account — what part of encouraging people I don’t even like have access to most of the important details of my life sounds ‘fun’, explain to me once again — or the fact that I don’t like to be hugged is a big shock to people. They always want to know why is it so that I need this ‘space’, that I like to keep a few things out of public access. It takes a MudSquatter to fully comprehend just what I mean by ‘keeping boundaries’ and just how incredulous it is to most people I associate with. “No Facebook account! How are we supposed to know what goes on in your life then?” are the most common complaints followed by Super Shocked Gasps when they realise there is a reason why I don’t want them to know ‘what goes on in my life’.
Also, because of the fact that I am a LadyPerson and identify as one too, somehow the intimate cords of ‘sisterhood’ and ‘solidarity’ are supposed to be a reflex to me; that I should be most comfortable in ‘women’s spaces’ and such gendered niches. Again, at family events the Super Shocked Gasps step in when I confess I’m not at ease in such spaces, that I don’t like undressing in front of a bunch of other Ladies regardless of the fact that we have the ‘same parts’. When I ask to be treated differently or that people respect my ‘space’, almost immediately tongues start forming the words along the lines of, “See! This is what reading so many English books does to DustyLadies!” or “Is this OUR culture? To ask for space!?”. A week ago, my LadyFriend and I were discussing matters of coitus in a coffee joint and a Lady from the table across was making faces in our direction because we were talking without any undertones of guilt or shame or perhaps she really just detests free speech that comes out of Uteruses. Anyway, she felt compelled to come to our table and lecture us on how ‘shameless’ we are for talking about things like that (in public no less!) and we heard all that she had to say because that is what DustyLadies do, we ‘respect’ our elders and then she left with feeling UberEntitled at having done “her bit” to keep the Tights-Wearing-Foul-Mouthed-Coitus-Discussing girls in line. The point isn’t how ridiculous her action was, but that it’s quite ‘alright’ for her to butt in like that and lecture us. Had we started laughing at her face (I really did want to, I’ll confess), she would have been even more enraged at us breaking yet another moral code; the idea that the Private isn’t up for intersection with the Public is a concept she has no interest in. Sadly, she is a reflection of a lot of our cultural expectations and practices that encourage such ‘forced’ merging of spaces to prod, regulate, police and tutor all that the DudeCouncil can about its DustyLadies.
On the other hand, we’re obsessed with boundaries, more than willing to have chalk lines divide us into slots of Hindu, Muslim, Indian, Pakistani and for LocalFlavor we’ve got State Lines collectively deciding that our identification cannot seep out of these metaphorical and literal lines. This Sunday, one student asked the President about Afghanistan and his goal to retract troops by 2011 where the answer was (predictably) colonial, as if borders don’t exist at all, as if ‘help’ can be doled out universally without taking into account the nature of spaces it ‘invades’ and the many hued implications it carries. Interestingly, for the last two weeks, we’ve been engaged in a nationwide debate about ‘the Kashmir Situation’ — those of us who’re not busy silencing Arundhati Roy that is — where we ‘liberal-minded people’ sit in our comfortable, privileged living rooms and decide, debate and drone about the importance of keeping certain borders, namely the one that will keep those Bloody Pakistani Buggers Decidedly Out without as much as even wondering what do the people of Kashmir want. While the need for private spaces is unfathomable — especially when Ladies demand it because they can’t crouch under the shadow of being ‘attractively temperamental’, they become just plain ‘hysterical’ — public spaces are open and uncharted, waiting to be possessed and locked into another set of boundaries that constitute ‘national’. And (insert gasps here) when the same kind of borders are asked by people from Kashmir, they become ‘anti-national’ or ‘separatist’ and a threat to National Security. If you too guessed that they are ostracised and almost labeled as ‘contaminated’ because they don’t please the bigger, popular demand of ‘borders’, then the Empire will not like you very much, I’m afraid.
We’re constantly swaying between public and private spaces and the stark difference in each’s reception angers me often. The slips between the public and private are an only a part of the reason; the real reason is how easily we castigate spaces into ‘possess-able’ (therefore invading them is justified) or ‘unnecessary’ (where denying their existence becomes second nature). I’ve never been able to forget Virginia Woolf’s statement that ‘Perhaps being locked in is the worst outcome’ mainly because how equally right and wrong she is. Being locked in can be a luxury and a space away and yet it can uncurl to be a theft of freedom if the person being locked isn’t allowed to decide. I don’t need to remind you which ‘locking in’ takes place more times I should have the gall to admit now, do I?