The Disease Of Being Universal

This week, as India deals with the after-effects of Obama’s visit,  where we dissect every word he said, try to re-read into the words he didn’t say, search for any snippets of news that would piece the puzzle to just what did the President really want to convey, we somehow conspicuously forget to think about the organised deaths in the Kashmir Valley. This is an old strategy employed by Indian politicians and policy-makers, to completely dodge the issue and hope the problem — this can mean anything: the poor, the huge population, silly Ladies asking for rights, take your pick according to your mood! — will just dissolve away as we busy ourselves with four more years of systematic oligarchy. Every single newspaper since the past three weeks have been talking about the President’s impending visit to India, covered every second of his visit and now are doing soul-deep articles on the clothes the First Couple wore and other extremely relevant topics while the account of four Dalit women who were raped yesterday just outside of Mumbai for pressing charges against army officials for previous episodes of unwarranted assault and violence are somehow unwritten about.

This morning as I seethed in fury at the sheer injustice of it all, another post about the Obama visit shines at me from its spot on the newspaper. I can re-hear the words, “I am so happy, that India has now left behind the rank of being a Third World Country” that had almost become the national rhetoric last week; only this time the question “At whose cost?” is glowing just beneath it and refuses to go away unanswered. Many history lessons from my school days come to mind where I’d read India’s name in the list of ‘backward’ nations and shuffle around it, swirling the words in my mouth, imagining what ‘forward’ must look like then. And today, it seems that ‘forward’ is here; I’d always thought this day would somehow magically manifest itself over the calendar, be celebrated and leave a mark. Little did I know, this very mark will never come off of my skin, no matter how hard I try to scrape it off. I can’t seem to understand our dedication to the words “global village” or “solidarity” especially since they’ve started to look more dangerous than ever to me, considering our fetish with borders and chalk lines; between nations and states, added to our affinity with using the many perks of ‘democracy’ — military authoritarianism of course! — or any other ‘freedoms’ can afford us. In some part of my LadyBrain I can for a few moments understand why would being ‘Universal’ appeal to us, for who wouldn’t want to UnWrite the narrative of the Empire, People Of The Olde Interwebes? I won’t lie, being the Inscriber has held its charm for me; I have dreamt many times how would possessing and prodding spaces feel like, instead of just ‘occupying them’. But when reality sinks in, too many discrepancies between the dream and the lived reality become painfully visible.

The newspaper is still open, screaming the words ‘global economy’, ‘freer economic policies’, ‘exchange of privilege’ and I can’t help but laugh. We’re a country that is constructed by the Center to delight, to serve and to offer free culture to exoticise and to make Other. We thrive on selling decoded culture to anyone who wants to buy it, to being one of the major supplier of agency-less DustyBodies so that the status quo of the superior races does not shift; and in this process we’ve internalised the belief that being universal is the only way to progress, that when we leave the stench of our Third World Bodies behind can we don our shiny new skins of Being Them, which almost always is white. Being a universal MudSquatter is a very peculiar position to be in, trapped in two worlds of appropriation and tokenism. A few weeks ago, a theorist I met told me my poems need to be ‘less gendered’ and ‘more universal’ if I want to see them published in any International Anthology. As I was leaving, he reminded me to not completely erase the “gender aspect” or even the “Indian flavour” because then the reader would be disappointed to not find the Image Of The Indian Woman zie had in mind. I laughed it off then, internally vowing to never set eye on this DoucheColonial theorist ever again, only today I can see the meaning of his words, maybe not the way he intended them though.

When my fellow feminists and I were discussing the Radical Movement of the 80’s in India for a panel discussion a while back,  how flawed the movement was and specifically how it condoned mass-erasure of people who wouldn’t fit the prescription of being affluent, educated and upper-caste, somehow the talk shifts to devdasis and hijras. Devdasis are a specific caste of temple-dancers theoretically speaking,  but in reality they are prostitutes, available for the consumption of Brahmins and other caste-privileged dudes and hijras are India’s equivalent of intersex and/or transsexuals, again the dynamics of caste, class and community intersect, localising the phenomenon to specifics of our Culture. One feminist suggested that they way to ‘deal’ with Devdasis is to just categorise them as ‘prostitutes’ and then just work towards legalising prostitution. While I wholeheartedly am in favour of legalising prostitution — what part of giving agency back to DustyLadies doesn’t sound fun to you? — the ‘blemish’ of caste cannot be erased that easily, we need a solution that goes beyond just legalisation. Practices of Devdasi’s vary from state to state and are further fissured by more caste demarcations, where a few communities practice it for economic reasons and aren’t necessarily bound to prostitution by birth as other communities are. When these specific communities are bound to prostitution by birth — as the women who are born into the caste that worships Yellama are — the problem goes more than just skin deep, here women aren’t allowed to have a choice of other than selling their bodies, to keep the ‘tradition’ going. Applying the Universal answer here isn’t enough, I said it then and I’ll still repeat it. The same goes for the ‘treatment’ of Hijras, as out here, trans-sexuality isn’t a choice or an organic biological need or any other reason that works with agency. Here Hijras are interwoven with specific communities, classes and castes, to the extent that sometimes little boys are kidnapped and made trans-sexual; or they have to be born inter-sexed and the family abandons the baby for some reason only to be adopted by the Hijra community of that region. Universal narratives of transgender , trans-sexual and inter-sex cannot be blindly applied here. Again, Universalism reared its ugly head again as one activist suggested a Pride March “just like the one they have in D.C” when what we need are more obtuse measures of having the Hijras integrated in society like allowing them to reside in commercial housing areas rather than communes in the outskirts of the city and so on.

My first foray into Dalit feminism was two years ago and one day I excitedly compared it to Black Feminism, as both are oppressed because of their gender and race/caste for a paper. Recently, poring over my journals from that year, I was enraged at the 18 year-old me for erasing each culture and forgetting their specific conflicts and expressions, for letting the ‘Global’ or the more cannonised view step into the ‘Local’, in effect blunting each movement. What I cannot rub away is how overwhelmingly easy it is to be Universal, to allow the Bigger Narrative wash over you. What disturbs me today is how responsibility is squared on POC’s shoulders to keep up with the Global norm though the invasion by this very Global norm comes through Colonial channels and dialogues, how we have to go ‘Glocal’ while the Bigger Empire remains intact. We have to start cherishing hybridity, plurality and differences before the Disease Of Being Universal swallows us whole.

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4 Comments

  1. I’m going to have to start on the top and work my way down here:
    “This is an old strategy employed by Indian politicians and policy-makers, to completely dodge the issue and hope the problem [...] will just dissolve away as we busy ourselves with four more years of systematic oligarchy. ” This is some scary, scary stuff. And something I’m afraid is much more common around the world than people are willing/able to see/admit to.

    “I am so happy, that India has now left behind the rank of being a Third World Country” I wonder how this is determined; which countries are First and which are Third World countries. Is it some kind of economic and social progress measurement (and who got to decide on that scale), or are you a Third World Country until the majority of the rest of the world recognizes you as a First World Country?

    “‘global economy’, ‘freer economic policies’, ‘exchange of privilege’” All these phrases are phrases which give me chills down my spine. ‘Freer economic policies’ almost always end up working in the favor of the stronger economy involved.

    On Pride Marches and the like, I agree strongly with the point (I think) you are making. Before one can begin to integrate people as equals into a society, those people must have the same rights under the law, if not the prejudices will prevail.

    It is something I worry about a lot, how many of the local traits will disappear with this contant movement towards Globalisation.

    Reply
    • ” I wonder how this is determined; which countries are First and which are Third World countries. Is it some kind of economic and social progress measurement (and who got to decide on that scale), or are you a Third World Country until the majority of the rest of the world recognizes you as a First World Country?”

      I think it was some Dead White Dude somewhere who decided that most of the Orient was dusty and by extension a breeder for MudSquatters. And you know what they say about people who squat in the mud. That we’re anti-progress and anti-knives and forks! :)

      And you’re spot on with the integration point. And we’re on the same page with the skepticism on Globalisation. If you were in India, you’d be called “anti-progress” like me too. Fun times!

      Reply
      • Yeah, I mean, we could have gotten over the mud squatting, but the knives and forks thing? No way! People who don’t eat with knife and fork are just by definition lesser beings, it’s that simple. (Note the sarcasm.)

        Reply

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