Making Our Bodies Matter

A friend and I started talking about communities, alliances and feminism(s) a few months ago — this conversation is a brief culmination of our identities and ideologies.

Me: Writing about bodies isn’t too difficult for me, that was until I realised “writing about bodies” meant writing of bodies other than mine, or even if I were to write about myself, the language automatically becomes clinical, my gaze objective and the talk goes to whatever is ailing me — it’s never about how I feel about my body, my relationship with my scars or what I see when I look in the mirror. As I am now living in a new city and adjusting to the weather patterns here, I have to take more care of my skin here than in I did in Mumbai, I have to leave myself notes to apply [x] cream before my heels crack and bleed — it’s such a jarring experience to see that my body has carried on without me (in a sense), has already started cracking, started healing in some parts while I have gone on and done something else. It all came to a head when I was thinking of Suheir Hammad‘s words — when she says “What am I saying when I say I sit in this body, dream in this body, expel in this body, inherit in this body” — where she posits the body as a start to all experiences, and here I was forgetting to take care of my body altogether, even in the most routine and seemingly trivial ways. I’ve often complained to friends that I feel ‘bound’ in this city — as public transport systems are irregular and auto rickshaws are a luxury I cannot always afford — so most of my ‘movement’ is between my apartment, the massive Uni campus and its libraries. Now that I re-think what I mean when I say ‘bound’, I mean more than just physical limits to where I can go or am kept from, I find limits in my syllables and expressions — precisely because my body feels those limits more intimately and primarily, as if my body translates these borders in the silences that creep up everywhere, from my thoughts to my academic writing. It’s only when I completely stopped producing words and syllables a week ago, went for a three-hour long walk, felt my words come back to me as I described to my guardian just why were my heels bleeding this time I realised how closely my body felt limited here*

*This isn’t to say there weren’t other barriers in Mumbai, just that navigating these particular changes is an entirely new experience for me.

Renee: It’s equally jarring to see your body stopped in time, unable to keep up with you, and trying to formulate contingencies for when it starts to slide backwards in time. This has been my experience since losing my job just more than a year ago.

My teeth hurt all the time now; one has eroded almost to the gum line, and I touch them constantly with my tongue and my fingers to make sure none are loose. I waited out a UTI two months ago, but an ear infection still lingers (and makes my teeth ache even more). There is no money for a doctor or dentist to attend to current ills, never mind the dreams I once had for my body. Most upsetting, when my current stash of hormone pills runs out, in perhaps a month or so, I may not be able to afford more, and at that point the person I know as me officially begins to disintegrate. I never really knew myself before starting hormones, and the threat of losing that is terrifying beyond what I can describe. Already I find myself glancing in the mirror more often, touching my face, to make sure I still exist.

But it’s not just the physical degradation I feel. For now, I’m staying in a friend’s spare room, sleeping upon a mattress on the floor, with all my worldly possessions piled in boxes around me. My days are lived largely in the space between my bed and the downstairs basement, where the household television is. I have few reasons to go anywhere else, and fewer resources to do so. I wear the same clothes most days, because to do anything else means doing more laundry, which inevitably costs someone money, even if that someone isn’t me. I don’t shower every day, or moisturize, or shave, or wear makeup, because all of those things are an expense too…and so again my body suffers.

It’s apropos that my body gets neglected first and most, as it’s the rejection of my body by others that led me here. Slowly it decays, out of sight and forgotten.

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On Signs And Signifiers

I’ve been pretty busy moving and settling in a new city these past three weeks, I couldn’t keep up with people, let alone the internet — thus thankfully missing debates around whether Mumbai should have slutwalks or not. One of the organisers asked me whether I’d be willing to help organise as we’ve worked on a few things together before. She was quite taken aback when I declined her offer (given that Slutwalk Mumbai ends up taking place) as we usually agree on most things when it comes to activism and organising. She asked, “But don’t you love your freedom? How can you pass up an opportunity such as this to see and know how far we can push boundaries?” and then I didn’t have any answers for her as I was, and am still caught up in thinking how for her, and a lot of people Slutwalk™ has come to symbolise the sum of all feminist rioting considering  Delhi, Calcutta, Hyderabad and Mumbai (from time to time) have had walks and pickets by feminists and people involved in gender justice, for causes ranging from more college seats for women to raising awareness about sex-selective abortions — each issue that emerges from our specific caste, gender, class conflicts in each specific city long before Slutwalk™ became an enterprise. Since this exchange, the rhetoric behind supporting slutwalks has become intertwined with “respecting and loving oneself” — where love¹ (of the self, of the ‘community’) is continuously intertwined to the extent that any opposition to slutwalk today is to “hate” freedom — and peculiarly, this ‘freedom’  that SW represents has to move away from anything “recognisably” Indian — whatever that means to people individually and collectively.

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In other parts of the country — especially Delhi — newspapers and news channels are all fixed on Anna Hazare’s impending fast tomorrow, that has been a part of national rhetoric and vocabulary since late April. On the whole, Hazare demands for a new anti-corruption bill, asks people to fully and directly engage with the government and hold them accountable. When it comes to the news coverage of his speeches and his entire fast, the comparisons drawn to Gandhi are more than co-incidental – tomorrow being Independence Day for India, the analogy becomes even thicker, Hazare is viewed as the “one man army” who is going to drive away corruption, going by Gandhi’s views of freedom. While I don’t necessarily agree that this protest is “peaceful” at all, that by specifically re-membering India’s history of independence as one without critically admitting to ourselves and others that it meant freedom for only ‘some’ people, I do find such a ‘nation-wide’ movement fascinating — as from time to time we see women also supporting Hazare’s fast², it’s been a while since women have been featured under the “national gaze” as more than just agency-less subjects. However, coming to the actual protest due on 15th August at Delhi, it seems women may not have a harassment-free space to march and protest. Can’t say I’m particularly shocked if tomorrow there are mostly men broadcasted over the news — as Hazare (like Gandhi) still see women’s roles under traditional patriarchy of wifedom and motherdom. For instance, the Alcohol Prohibition Act reads like one that empowers women, to talk about their abusive alcoholic spouses – it supposes that only men can be alcoholics, that one has to be an alcoholic to abuse people; there are many loopholes to this and quite a few of his other arguments too, one of the most troubling being — does an anti-corruption movement erase/will attempt to smooth over India’s history and geography of communal violence and casteism?

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Fostering Hospitable Silences

[Trigger Warning for mention of sexual abuse]. 

As a person who works with survivors/victims sexual and domestic abuse, I’m quite used to getting calls from people all over the city, most times it’s when I’m at the center — I talk to them and we assess the situation, whether the caller is in immediate danger or not – generally they want someone to listen to them. Very rarely do I get requests to meet up with people — which can be dangerous for both of us — but every time I’ve met someone, it’s only to have them rushing back in a maximum of twenty minutes, for the time-window their abusers leave them, where they have some amount of unaccounted time-slot is often very less. Last week I got a call from a woman living in South Bombay, in one of the most reputed neighbourhoods and she wanted to meet me to discuss long-term solutions (which the group I work with occasionally handles as well). She called me after midnight and I was set to meet her the next day, and she wanted to change the location for she wanted to remove all possible run-ins with anyone who may report back to her family — and every place I came up with her was unacceptable for her. “Barista?” “It’s too public”, “[x] book store?” “that’s hardly the place for polite conversation”, “[x] place?” “We aren’t supposed to talk about these things there” and both of us eventually burst out laughing at how absurd this conversation was — both knew what we were going to discuss and there wasn’t even a single space we could discuss those things — and then we both fell silent. We need silence now. Right? To keep peace? To keep the surface calm?

I want to talk about this silence, this polite hospitable silence — often used as a conscious or otherwise decision to mask, hide, distract or forget altogether about the rough friction, of intersecting differences, that de-stabilise us, that move together to move any ‘safe’ or ‘home’ space. This silence shows up everywhere we construct spaces to be “homelike” — in  classrooms, in actual homes, in well-loved literature texts – and we learn to nurture them. Last month a student came out to me as queer and she waited till our last “official” class was over and then did she decide to tell me — and when I asked her why did she have to wait till it got over considering we’ve talked about just about everything, she explained that she didn’t want to “upset” the rhythm of the class. Alternatively, I should have asked her why was “keeping” the rhythm so important to her, but that time I was quiet, parsing what she’d just told me. In home spaces¹, it seems the general reaction is to secure and perpetuate a sense of a border or a territory, a line we must learn to never cross. Many times, between friends, in classes, whenever the talk goes to any “taboo” topic, immediately and inadvertently my voice softens itself and then I have to remember to revert back to my general tone and loudness — and these are spaces I generally feel comfortable in, a performed home of sorts, and yet this silence is always around.

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Between The Lines

Recently I came across Sara Ahmed’s fantastic essay ‘Feminist Killjoys (And other Willful Subjects)’ and have been re-reading several sections of the essay since. I identify with more parts of the essay than I can count, but one line that never leaves me is “[As a feminist killjoy] you become the problem you create” –- a single sentence that probably embodies the essence of my grandmum’s journals. Part of why I wanted to learn to read and think in my native tongue is because I want to read my grandmum’s journals, written in a pidgin many Gujurati’s. Apart from accounts of food items, daily expenditure and some chants dedicated to Krishna, there are extensive notes on translation and literary criticism of Oriya, Telugu and Bengali women’s literatures — in a different tongue altogether¹ — and her research of many texts banned in the British Empire. Most of the texts that are listed in her journals were banned because of “obscenity” under Section 292 of the Penal Code — not that big a surprise that most of these banned and censored texts were written by women and especially by women of the “lower sections of the society”. I couldn’t find most texts she talks of, but luckily I found Radhika Santwanam written by the Telugu poet Muddupalani in a great aunt’s attic — sadly, the text is in English but there were translator’s notes along with it, explaining their choice of words and consonants. Loosely translated, the text can be called “Enticing or Appeasing Radhika”, an epic erotic poem that talks of Radha and Krishna’s love affair — a text that inverses the male literary tradition of supposing the “male” as a locale of power when speaking of sexual agency.

I spent most of the last month reading this poem, in its many parts and verses, simultaneously shocked and in awe of Muddupalani’s audacity to speak so explicitly about female sexuality, of Radha’s encouragement of Krishna and her niece’s love affair, of the various ways Krishna has to woo and appease to Radha, a text quite “queer” by today’s “re-readings”. While the text is beyond beautiful, with its many deviances and silences, sadly this text has always faced heavy censorship at the hands of the Raj — interestingly when Muddupalani wrote it originally two centuries ago, her autobiographical prologue mentions no objections to the content or her context as a distinguished courtesan of the Thanjavur court². The Empire banned it for “obscenity” and “shamelessly filling poems with crude descriptions of sex” — cannot thank K. Lalita and Susie Tharu enough for keeping a neat account of all the charges levied against Muddupalani, ranging from ridiculous to incinerating and everything else in between — and for about 150 years after the ban Indian scholars maintained the same views about Muddupalani. In many instances, grandmum calls Muddupalani “adulteress” as this is the name she was known by. The more time I spend with grandmum’s journals, her accounts of the Raj’s censorship, read this exquisite poem, the more angry and fascinated — where fascination is the new disgust — I get.

While I understand on some level that when J. S. Mill urged women to find a “literature of their own” or when Virginia Woolf speaks of “submerged literatures”, they both positively don’t mean anyone but  White and Western, to expect otherwise of them would be being willfully ignorant, it doesn’t make reading western feminist literary criticism any easier, especially not the reverential tone most Indian universities take while discussing them. While Woolf was tracing the “female tradition”, in parts of Bengal Radhika Santwanam was on its nth plea for being released out of further banning and censorship. While Annie Besant was busy re-defining Bharat Natyam as a dance that upper caste Indian ladies could perform without being confused as prostitutes³ — and being confused as prostitutes was a fate more terrible than upper-caste men sexually exploiting said prostitutes, of course! – Muddupalani’s text was being reviewed by renowned Hindu male Telugu scholars as one “unfit to be seen by Indian women” as my grandmum’s notes detail. Throughout her journals, between parentheses she keeps on asking “Why did no one stop these bans?” and never once is the question answered by either her explicitly or her notes. I can assume today, that no one thought the text was worth “saving” because it doesn’t fit the Orientalist view of India, it doesn’t posit India as a land of “past glory and knowledge” — in fact there is a healthy cultural paranoia of the “Other” in some verses — so while patriarchal versions of the Ramayan and Mahabharat were “revived” (rather allowed to remain in circulation), such subversive texts were censored and almost disappeared from our collective memories for a century and a half.

As Sara Ahmed explains in ‘Feminist Killjoys’ later, the narrative of immigrant’s discourse of happiness is such, that when they “move on” from their memories of colonialism and racism, do they gain entry into the text of “happiness” — similarly for Muddupalani and god knows how many other such writers coercively made marginal by joint forces of colonialism and the patriarchy, they’re “allowed” to exist as memories from marginalia. Anyone who challenges this assumption starts embodying the “problem” they’re questioning — as my grandmum felt, going by her journals and all the questions she could never answer for herself, as I feel digging into her thoughts and by extension create a host of my own questions.  If anything, one day I hope, I can help produce feminist literary criticism that probes between these words that get lost between lines, between cultural semantics and semiotics, between what is mine and what the world expects of me based solely on my hue and geo-political location.

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1.  There is substantial code-switching between many tongues. Simplistically speaking, her notes on Oriya, Bengali and Telugu literatures are written in a mix of a rural and urban colloquial dialect of Gujurati, as these were the tongues she thought and spoke in, while her formal education was in Oriya and Bengali — Telugu she learnt as a pastime — so while I rely heavily on her sources, bear in mind that most of these are translations and re-copies, I haven’t been able to find many original texts.

2. “Chaste” upper-caste ladies probably wouldn’t be allowed to write as explicitly as Muddupalani was, because of her situation as a court courtesan — as a courtesan owning to sexual agency meant less consequences than women of upper-castes. This isn’t to romanticise her later days of forced prostitution once the British took over the Thanjavur court, rather because of her unique context, she could write a text very few women in her time would be allowed.

3. The age-old Hindu antidote! Add Hindu god’s name in front of said obscene act and suddenly it is rid of its sins. Bharat Natyam before this re-definition was called “natyam” or “nautch” (word used by British anthropologists for the Urdu term “naach”) which was the same “nautch” prostitutes would perform. Foolproof formula, I must say.

Thinking In Tongues

Lately I’ve been very busy translating things — French things to English, diluting some literary Gujarati with the help of my grandma and strangely, also my thoughts from English to my native tongue(s) as this summer break she helps me read in a few tongues that have been rusting inside me since the past few years.  For a long time, English has been my go-to language and my native tongues occupy a secondary position, of horrid pidgins that mix many tongues and dialects – which are hilarious at best and painful at worst — and a language I must use with family, with people who aren’t fluent enough in English, a language that is substituted for English and even then I barrel this tongue with English words — I don’t see this as a necessarily bad thing, just illustrating how no matter how hard I try, my native tongues come to me as an after-thought. Sometimes, my grandma will ask me to read પાની and instead I read “water” in my head, and to save face say the Gujarati word out loud — but she knows anyway that it doesn’t come to me ‘naturally’. Generally we smile at each other when this happens, she asks me to try again and I instruct myself to think in my mother tongue, and it works for a while. Then in about two minutes, she asks me to read a whole sentence and I am again judging it by English syntax and grammar forms. I don’t need to learn to speak read write in these tongues, those I did as a child either in school — where the State you belonged to dictated the tongues you’d learn  – or at home where we speak our mother tongue. It’s thinking in different tongues that I am working on and so far, miserably failing.

For years, my English and the ‘talent’ to say things well have been indistinguishable from my identity as an upper-caste Hindu lady, “who will one day go to the U.S. also and write big-thick books for people to read” to borrow my cook’s words as she describes who I am and what I will do — according to her — to her neighbours. She says fondly, “Look at her English, I want my daughter also to speak like her! How fast-fast she goes, sometimes talking liddat on the phone and marking something in study books also” as her neighbours smile politely at us. I’ve gone to this neighbourhood since at least the past decade or so, I used to play with many children who now don’t speak with me at all, and if they do only in English — They say, “How you do” and I used to say, “ठीक हूँ” — and they’d get embarrassed and I’d get angry that no matter what I did ‘those people’ don’t want to speak in their native languages — it’s taken me a lot of time to see how them addressing me in English was their way of leveling ground between us and me stomping all over it and patronising them and replying in Hindi was nothing but my privilege raising its head. English still remains for us a class and a cultural marker, a certain kind of English that you speak marks you from which part of the city you come from — if you code-switch and say, “I don’t know, ask ajoba no” for instance, pegs you from North Mumbai — and the more ‘unadulterated’¹ your English is, the better education and class background you are assumed to have. It didn’t help that I am ‘convent educated’ — a phrase we treat as a synonym for ‘Good English And Decorum’ — and was taught by British and Indian nuns who’d both tell us that “Your native languages can stay at home. Here we speak English — like people“. So we’d speak at lunch in our native tongues, but even that stopped as we grew older and English was just more convenient; plus by then, speaking in English meant Serious Business².

Today, I can re-learn to think in my native tongues because I have the privilege to, because I’ve been code-switching for years at home, because I know English considerably well and can have the luxury of enjoying my native tongue. Language is where we locate our power dynamics in, from these lenses we view and read rest of the world — and me writing in મારી ભાષા will be viewed as ‘reactionary’ or me trying to ‘smash the Empire’ or maybe I have an ‘agenda’ instead of it seen as one of my tongues, my Englishes as I weave both tongues into one. Things only get more complicated when I am read out of contexts — ones I can control and especially ones I can’t — and we’re still talking and parsing each other in English. If I could, I wouldn’t still be able to write in my native tongues, because I wouldn’t be ‘understood’ — mainly because the internet may hypothetically be a ‘global platform’, in reality the digital dollar lays the rules down. To keep the ‘intersectionality’ badge shiny many western feminists love to theorise ‘race’ matters from the omnipresent douchecolonial gaze — where all the third world feminist issues are child marriage foot binding dowries FGM female feticide corrective rapes ‘sex-slave’ industry bounded labour and nothing else — where the western feminist can ‘interpret’ our cultures as ze sees fit — usually as metonymic for all our hybrid realities, to the extent that “Africa” becomes FGM, “India” becomes “child marriage and female feticide” and nothing else, all this is done in the culture of ‘solidarity’ and to extend sistersong.

It’s not that big a surprise that when regional and local feminism(s) are “translated”, almost always it’s an Orientalist view of the third world, where the western feminist can be a shocked and horrified of the lives we live daily in the third world — and the most common reason I’ve heard is, “Well we are all women, we can understand each other”³ — and for ‘understanding’ each other, my life has to be translated in English, in contexts and terms it doesn’t belong in. Two weeks ago at a transnational feminist conference, a western feminist asked me what is the ‘safe’ way to promote solidarity — and I’ll still stick by my answer: Learn my language, it’s only fair because I learnt yours.

Maybe then, in the gaps and silences a translation leaves western feminists will understand learning our tongues won’t do much — as learning a tongue and thinking in one are two entirely different things and that one is a skill and another a re-clamation of the marginalised; I hope I’ll reach there someday.

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1. Read ‘unadulterated’ as not ‘tainted’ by our devilish heathen native tongues, of course.

2. It is even More Serious Business when parents use English out in public to scold us. That’s when hell freezes over.

3. Direct quote.

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