Cartographies Of Struggle

As the eldest daughter of a Hindu family, I am expected to occupy a number of spaces that intertwine, merge and blur with the larger idea or identity that I like to believe is me, somewhere inside, that will still remain once the layers of cultural expectations, communally re-enforced values are taken away, not to mention that little role-play where I imagine for a while what would happen had colonisation not been a part of my collective history or memory. Very little of what I believe in — politically or otherwise — is designed to fit into this public persona of the Dutiful Indian Daughter™, we’re expected to be infinitely nice, obedient, subservient and perhaps more importantly, as voiceless as possible; all of this erasing and silencing goes down in the name of religion, tradition and customs. There is a clear demarcation between what is publicly acceptable and what isn’t, the moment that line is crossed, we become people like ‘that’; and everything we do reflects this invisible wall. More often than not, whatever is the ‘negative’ is seen as ‘Western’ and by extension it is bad — this list includes being independent, setting personal and bodily boundaries, speaking too much in English, wearing ‘revealing’ outfits, swearing, smoking, drinking alcohol, making ‘funny’ faces while eating ice-creams¹, sitting with one’s legs uncrossed among many other things. Most of these rules exist for bodies that identify or are read as ‘feminine’ — who cares as how people really identify themselves as long as society can can extend the chromatic heteronormativity to any body it wishes? — bodies that identify or are seen as ‘masculine’ get away with relatively more transgressions; in fact the closer they look ‘masculine’ the easier to overstep and discard boundaries. Meanwhile, ‘real’ identities swirl inside, lay hidden for the most part. God forbid you’re Queer in such a mix, then it’s just Dr. Dilbag’s guarantee to cure teh Queer out of your crotch! But I digress.

Contrary to popular opinion that ‘colonisation is over‘, we still walk move see swirl stand sleep in the DoucheColonial Daze, still go by Victorian standards², still see the image of the Woman In The Wet Sari as iconic to Bollywood cinema — an image that typically leaves the woman at the mercy of the ‘evil rain’ to not have her sari cling to her so much as to ‘make’ Randomly Lurking Dude rape or assault her, she becomes a part of Nature’s fantasy, the dude’s desire-object-animal as well as a spectacle for the viewer watching the film, washing guilt of assault completely away as it’s a part of a ‘performance’. Having dusty bodies open to assault without any kind of responsibility sounds vaguely familiar to colonisation, no? — as well as use the same excuse of ‘she shouldn’t have worn such revealing clothes, if she did then she can’t complain’ in law courts for cases of sexual assault and rape to citing that jeans on school campuses are ‘vulgar‘, we are very far away from shedding the Collectively Colonised Skin. Whether we acknowledge it or not, most of our fundamental ideas of ‘acceptable’ behaviour, sexual or otherwise, reflects Colonial ideals; there are so many who believe ‘reproduction that doesn’t produce children that we can make into Ideal Indian Citizens is of no use’. At this point my LadyBrain wonders if Blake and his supposedly ‘libertarian’ views – libertarian at the cost of his wife, as always — crafted our ‘modern’ sexual sensibility, or are we that controlled by the State. In any case, this web of colonial meanings, forms and words is the one through which we craft and project ourselves, and wrenching ourselves from such draconian standards is no easy feat³.

In such tangled ideas, as Dusty Ladies, our spaces are disciplined and marked, the body is policed and kept as controllable as possible. From such cracks of gender binaries, forced borders and chalk lines, there is a healthy proportion of lesbian and transgendered people despite the valiant — where valiant is the new repulsive – efforts to keep them out of narratives and as invisible as possible, and the lesbians that Deepa Mehta’s Fire brought out in the 90′s till date remains one of the biggest Indian Queer protests. I remember watching photos of women with placards that read, “I am a Lesbian AND an Indian” as a 10-year-old in the newspapers, wondering why is the inclusion of the word ‘Indian’ so important on that placard. Today, I don’t see nationality as inconsequential, considering an overwhelmingly popular opinion is “Such things (read Queer people) don’t happen Here. We are nice, good, traditional people. It must be happening in all those countries Over There”, clearly identifying being Queer to being UnIndian, as if Sarojini Naidu or Toru Dutt never played on homo-eroticism, ever! Especially not when speaking of the ‘Nation’ or ‘Nation-Mother’. That must be some Western Bugger’s doing, surely. Being Queer is being Other, walking and ingesting life as the Outsider because Indian society has no space for ‘such things’, if I am to go by the larger nationalist narrative. Recently, I watched a Bengali documentary, “More Than Just A Friend” on Bengali Lesbians and Genderqueer identifying people, where most of them admitted being hurled with the word ‘Lesbian’ on the streets, in a largely Begali-speaking narrative. This English word sticks out as a sore thumb, it sounded harsher than the curled Bengali consonants too. Using terms like ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’, terms that are specifically colonial in their origin, form and meaning is another step to Other the Outsider’s body and identity. I could claim to the the song-beats of Universal Sisterhood™, say that the term ‘lesbian’ is a liberating one, that being lesbian and Indian isn’t a special set of complications, then I wouldn’t live up to my reputation as a postcolonial reverse-racist now, would I?

Similar to the term ‘hijra’ that stands specifically to the caste-class-intersexed sexualities of the subcontinent– which are sometimes forced to keep the ‘tradition’ going — words like ‘lesbian’, ‘trans’, ‘genderqueer’, ‘gay’ etc don’t completely convey the dusty complications that come with these identities. Perhaps it’s time to start re-defining these terms in our languages — Urdu has a term ‘humjinsi’ which means ‘outside of gender’ — to root them in our crisscrossed hued cartography of identity and of struggle to be included in the term ‘human’. Besides, now that we have a word and a defined term in a regional language, those inane excuses that queer people exist only Over There can be cut up to pieces.

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1. Someone I know got reprimanded for eating ice-cream ‘seductively’ out on public. How I wish I made that up.

2. Parts of our Constitution, particularly that pertaining to sexuality will transport you back to 1821.

3. Number of Bhaba’s or Spivak’s essays do not change this reality, as much as I’d like to believe it.

 

On Peddling Access

This week I heard at an international seminar, “Existing while woman is such a hard thing to do, but I do it because I have no other way out”¹. I thought of saying to this lady, “Existing while woman is indeed hard, horrible, twisted and sometimes oppression’s declassé sibling, Existing While Dusty would be more frustrating, given that we don’t even have Bodies — if I am to see any literature or not-literature that comes out of the West, Center or even Our Core — our bodies are given to us, constructed  with seeds of neo-colonisation, imperialism and capitalism; they’re in a way genetically-socially engineered to ensure we always fit in the shoes of the Other, that this dust you see right under our pores is sewed on carefully so that we remain just where we were fixed so many years ago, and that sometimes I want to sit and bit by bit remove each dust particle out, unravel this debris to see what lies inside, hoping it isn’t yet mutated into something that again just furthers the idea of this epidermal tissue over another”. While I’ve begun to believe in the sacred act of Interruption©, to Not Let People Get Away When They Say Something Inanely-Appropriative, I didn’t say a thing when I heard this, mainly because this isn’t what many Progressive And Liberal-Bending People had come to hear. So if I did foil this plan, it’d foil their money’s worth, as well as make me guilty of having Marxists and other Left-Leaning people think of currency, and that is something my LadyBrain refused to take responsibility for, as there is nothing quite as heinous than having Liberals think they’re being UnLiberal or NotForward even for a second, no? But I digress.

The country they had come to discuss in terms of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ folds itself imaginary border upon border as they talked of sections unmarked by caste and practices, because ‘liberals don’t see such binary distinctions’ and the Land they spoke of had ‘potential’ and a ‘future’, nothing like it reality is, caught in a web of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. What amuses me — where amuses is the new disgust — that these Left-Leaning-Turning-Almost-Right-Liberals’ dedication to unseeing caste and ethnicity of minority tribes as one of the factors they’re kept ‘backward’ as they talk yet again of which policies that will ‘change’ the life of ‘all class minorities’, defining lives of so many people, on class oppression alone, still licking believing Marx’s theory of the feudal-zamindari system, which was untrue then and hasn’t magically righted itself in the past 150 years. The objective of this seminar was clear, “Save the Brown people from their Brown oppressors, and let Marx and Engels decide what is To Be Done Of These People” — they were very subtle in promoting this view, I confess — what shocked me is how many people do actually believe in such dynamics, both Indian and otherwise. Before I could interrupt, one theorist started talking about reproductive labour and simultaneously I saw my braincells leave in a neat row. Words like ‘accessing bodies’, ‘egalitarian goals’, ‘globalised wombs’ swirled around us, as the theorist dabbled on his fanstastical vision of tomorrow’s reproductive labour; as if having the Orient ‘open its wombs’ is a mere co-incidence. What is interesting here (leaving the horrid racism aside) is how a Dusty Feminine Body is assumed to be limitless in a way only third-world-women’s bodies are, infinitely open and possess-able². Many doctors and scholars insist that surplus reproductive labour isn’t exploitative, especially because compensation for ‘womb’ services are rather generous, which just page one of Google proves wrong.

Another question that I can’t wrap my thoughts around is, who decides ‘surplus’ on reproductive labour? How can anyone determine that the Body has ‘x’ amount of reproductive value and everything else is surplus is there any way of possibly determining what the body can or cannot do? — that after a ‘certain limit’ this labour or value becomes sellable. Of course, it’s pesky giants like neo-Empire that insists this ‘surplus’ value should be translated to money, and the caste-class-religion minorities do all they can, to survive for which I can never judge them. My problems step in — and are unanswered — when we begin to question the autonomy of these ‘womb-carriers’ or ‘breast-givers’ in such transactions, autonomy that legal documents do not support nor encourage. To further ‘complicate’ matters, many hijras also solicit their bodies³, as their other options are to beg for money, gatecrash weddings, make ‘profit’ from the mystique and Othering society places on them. As hijra bodies, their bodies and gender presentations don’t conform to ‘normal’ (read: chromatically heterosexual) manifestations, again questions of ‘surplus’ remain static. For instance, a hijra woman’s womb may be categorised as ‘surplus’ – because labelling people like laboratory animals is quite fun, no? — as zie doesn’t ‘need’ or has ‘no use’ of her womb, so to speak. But the ‘rates’ of hijra wombs are considerably lower because of their chromosomal anomaly, as people don’t want to ‘use outcast bodies’ if they can help it. In many cases, hijra women make less money than they would in their ‘traditional’ activities of begging and dancing. So is the ‘value’ of such a womb still ‘surplus’?

The insistence of the Left-Leaning-Right-Liberals that, ‘when people consent to certain trade activities, things like caste and religion don’t matter, only monetary gain or loss does’ disables the exploitation dusty wombs go through, precisely because the narrative of class-oppression is given importance, while consequences of being caste-religion-sexual minorities are consciously erased so that consumption of Third World Reproductive Labour can take place with a ‘placated’ conscience and ‘without any violations’. Access is peddled to us, through us, so that the guilt of erasing and privileging bodies goes invisible. How’s that for being Liberal?

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1. This was supposed to be ironic humour. But, all irony is lost on me when not-Dusty people start sprouting the woes of their lives, especially when they refuse to acknowledge what their Light Skin is screaming to me in neon signals, which is basically, “I’m shiny, you’re not. So I win”. Or maybe I have no sense of humour at all, which is understandable because ladies aren’t supposed to be funny anyway.

2. Ask Chandra Talapade Mohanty, she’ll explain everything.

3. “We must make use of all the body parts we can“, Jyoti a hijra said this, when asked why is she a prostitute as well a womb-subject of potential surrogacy in a CNN interview.

Sub-Merged Margins And Us

Last week while returning a couple of books at the library, I saw the woman in the line next to mine was holding a copy of  ‘Writing Caste, Writing Gender‘, a book I’ve read cover-to-cover a few times. She saw me looking at the book and started  a conversation about the editor and how this was her first book on Dalit feminism. So I told her a few other names, and she marveled how I knew ‘so much’ about ‘them’ — as it turns out I’ve got ‘Privilege’ and ‘Hindu’ stamped on my forehead in invisible neon ink — because as she assumed correctly, I couldn’t possibly be ‘one of them’¹. While I smiled at her, I was cringing inwards to see how swiftly she spoke in ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ speak, forgetting the ‘We’, we forged somewhere in the middle, if the Constitution is to be believed at all. As insulting her words were — of course she ‘meant well’, after all Hindu Ladies have never really been evil, check our scriptures if you want! — this erasure of Dalit people, or the failure to acknowledge them as humans isn’t new. ‘Caste’ seems to be a word we love to forget, dropping it from our consonants as if it doesn’t matter at all, or as if the entire country just comprises of one monolithic Hindu ethnic identity. Moving across borders, an otherwise non-imperial article on Nepali bonded labour of little girls mentions the intra-generational debt, servitude and communal ‘tradition’ of gendered slavery, but yet again re-writes caste-struggle as a largely class-based one. Any time people want to play hide and seek with the term, I can only think of my aunt who calls Dalit women, ‘women like that‘ and almost wish I could ask them to pronounce the word like I do with my students when we learn new French words and phrases, just to make sure the word ‘caste’ can sound from their tongues too.

Looking beyond India’s borders, when the words ‘an Indian lady‘ are mentioned, the image that is the most popular is the Sari-Clad dusty woman, preferably looking docile and happy. Even a Dusty Lady as internationally recognised as Arundhati Roy, or rather the image² we know as ‘Ms. Roy’ caters to the same trope where beautiful bodies of spectacular South Asian women in silk and cotton saris, face framed with wispy, curly hair invites the consumer to gobble and cement the Image Of The Third World Woman as the one of Serenity, Peace and Wisdom™ and by extension further exotifying us. And in this one idealised ‘womanhood’ or ‘femininity’, Dalit or ‘lower-caste’ femininity, needless to say has no space to survive. No matter how subtle a form of body-policing is, when you erase or censor a body you censor words and voices too, the art of which Hindu society has perfected over centuries. In feminist circles and academia, talking about the Self as the Margin is a lofty trend, for occupying ‘Marginalia’ is the new PovertyPorn, where you can critique and consume your position in one easy move! While writing while woman is a hard job, writing while ‘marginal’³ is a far more lucrative option — especially if you belong to a community that does indeed squat in the mud, for nothing says ‘marginal’ like a ‘tribe’ or a ‘family’ that lived on trees or was related to Gandhi. While manufacturing this parallel universal that caters solely to the DoucheColonial Gaze of the Universal, bodies that are Othered step another foot back into oblivion. This is probably why we know of Jumpha Lahiri and not Bama today. Embodying the ‘marginal’ in writing films, in manners wise or otherwise, smacks too much of the lens filmmakers like Shekhar Kapur or Danny Boyle use, namely: See How They Squat Prettily, while guilting the audience into tears and gasps and nodding solemnly when it comes to collecting the profits. Playing this CharityCharade works only if the audience wants to see the same breakdown of seeing brown (feminine) bodies being saved from brown (masculine) bodies or any other notion that doesn’t challenge any Empires, of years past or the one we live in now.

A few years ago, when I went to Delhi the first time, like the over-excited tourist I did go to see the Taj Mahal and the tour guide spoke of length about the screens through which the Emperor’s wives looked from, the rationale behind them being somewhat similar to that of the hijab, to protect the woman from the MaleGaze and to preserve a certain amount of modesty. He used a funny word, he called it ‘women’s wall’ and since that day, any time I see any predominantly Mughal construction, I always look for that ‘women’s wall’. Recently, in many academic and theoretical discussions, this ‘marble slab’ or women’s wall builds itself up too, whenever the talk shifts to ‘those lower castes’ who always must be ‘given a solution to work with’. As upper-caste Hindu Ladies, there are quite a few systems that keep our tongues heavy, at the same time, we perpetuate the same suppression by keeping other feminine bodies and spaces as curtailed as we can, playing into the bait of embodying the victimiser, if only for a little while. Margins still exist, even if they’re constructed by feminine spaces or bodies; the ‘lower’ caste feminists need to erase their invisibility one step at a time, in spaces that are feminist and otherwise; whether we acknowledge this de-tonguing or not, it is a daily reality for them. Like the Bigger Whiter Universal culture sees many women of colour as ‘revolutionaries’ — or ‘terrorists’, pick one according to your mood! — as we come from ‘politically unstable countries’, the Dalit Woman is also cast as a Maoist, out to kill and destroy the precious government.

The Gendered- Subaltern, which occupies the lowest step on the ladder of humanity, is seen as a ‘submerged’ land, which will unfold and break away from the chromatic hegemony of Upper Castes and Classes, only through unraveling itself via memories, private testimonies and mainly, by re-writing and re-voicing it’s ‘voicelessness’. In this frenzy to ‘heal’ and ‘join’ spaces, people, communities — only tokens, mind you — repeatedly cast ourselves as the ‘marginal’, the detongued animal-subaltern-marginal sub-merges, bobs up and dives into silence. A few years ago, Spivak asked whether this Subaltern even has the ability to speak, today another question pops up, IF the Subaltern speaks, can we even listen anymore?

———

1. We have a lot of convenient labels for all sorts of unnecessary words. Instead of saying ‘people’ or ‘Dalit’ we just say, ‘them’; which serves as a distancing and a condescending tool, all in one.

2. This ‘image’ of Arundhati Roy has nothing to do with her as a persona, activist or an author but rather how this ‘persona’ is packaged and sold to us, engaging in (ironically) the same dichotomies her texts generally break away from.

3. ‘Marginal’ is the liberal-elite version of the Marginal –as it were — where differences are constructed so they can mark, decode bodies and cultures easily for instant consumption.

Tales This Tongue Didn’t Twist

There is a story my father likes to tell when people ask him what his eldest daughter wants to do ‘with her life’. It seems that I was 13 and determined when I’d interrupted his important business call to say, “When I grow up, I’ll be a famous Lady Author” with hands on my hips and my eyes defiant. He says, almost always laughingly, that was the day he’d started worrying about me. Quite predictably, the writers I admired were White Ladies or Dusty Men — say hello to the child born on the brink of globalisation — and I had a grand scheme of writing a book by the time I was 25 and saying wise things like, “Oh writing is like breathing for me, I may have never consented to it, but it keeps my veins full”¹, appearing on TeeVee and inspiring little ladies everywhere to write, pretty much like Jo of Little Women, maybe with pants instead of frilly skirts though. And then, between all these juvenile fantasies, words and tongues I started opening up to, it became clear how alien and few Dusty Ladies were a part of my daily vocabulary, how little I knew of my culture and it’s deferential treatment to anyone who identified as female within its folds, or that I’d never really felt represented in words as much I could in this hued writing. It shocked me to see that I didn’t identify as strongly with Anne Eliot as much I had previously thought after reading Ismat Chughtai’s stories or that as much I suffered with Clarissa Dalloway, truth was she would probably never see beyond the hue of my epidermis tissue. This is where I stumbled into wonderful — feminine-identified — Indian writing, my world began to fill with names like mine, and people who too found themselves stuck on the fringe between being Western or Dusty, and of course the silences accompanied this writing too.

I’m still adjusting to this shift, from the open prose of George Eliot, which is ‘open’ and ‘free’ in the way only a few people in this world are allowed to be, to the heavily veiled writing of Dusty Ladies. I’m still haunted by Abburi Chaya Devi’s protagonist in ‘Sleep’ who grows up in such a restrictive environment that she doesn’t know what to do when she wants to laugh. I can replay the scene in my head when at the climax of the story she wakes up her mother to say anxiously, “Mother, I feel like laughing. The laughter is bubbling up, what shall I do?”. Years later, I realised it was a snippet of her own life where she was punished for laughing by her parents for laughing at a professor’s joke. I’ve always reveled and lost myself in Emily Dickinson’s verses — to an extent, I still do — and then I stumbled somehow to Eunice De Souza whose verses give silence quite an another underbelly altogether. This silence intrigues me as sometimes it enters my writing too, it’s something a lot of women have noticed and re-negotiated. It seems if you identify as a Lady out here, some people just cannot wait to bind you in rules and borders, asking and clearly specifying the lines you are not allowed to tread. Last year I attended a writing workshop where the speaker started with asking about things we, as the current youth demographic of India, wrote about or were sensitive to. The most common answers were politics, religion and sex. Then the speaker asked how many people would fearlessly write about these topics, and it was quite telling that most people who raised hands were dudes; most girls in the room and I shared guilty looks², for not letting that part of us out, as if we’re betraying ourselves in some strange way. Of course, then the speaker went on to explain how we should ‘break free’ from these cultural chains and just give in to writing urges with the loathsome self-assurance that only Upper Caste Hindu Dudes in India enjoy. The truth is, we can’t wipe away gender — whether assigned or taken — as if it’s a dark stain, scrub away till it lightens its way to disappearing completely; in fact the more we try to hide it, the more it reeks up the prose³.

Whenever I’ve given any such exotic — all Lady-Prose is exotic! — prose to read to my male friends, the most predictable plea they come up with is, “Maybe be a little less intense? I know you’re oppressed, or your protagonist is, but does your writing have to be this violent? It’s frankly upsetting sometimes”, which is when I explain that I didn’t give in to half of my hysteria while writing and they hastily change the topic to something less ‘dark’. This self-de-tonguing steps in earlier than we let on. In Storylines, most writers speak of this ‘looming monster’ that prevents them from broaching subversive topics, too fearful of what their parents, community and spouses will think or say. This doesn’t mean that women writers in India only talk of unicorns and babies, but they have to negotiate a lot of guilt — self-imposed and otherwise — for guarding their tongue and measuring syllables and in the privacy of their Shelved Selves, the guilt of giving in to societal expectations. Sometimes I’m amazed that we get any writing done at all considering how our time is different from dude’s concepts of time and space: it’s cyclical, lunar — Ladies remember the block of time when they did so and so household activity more than the analogue or digitalised time research, by one French Feminist says so — and excruciatingly repetitive, and that for many writers today, time and space are still just abstract concepts they don’t have possession over.

This blog turns one today, however I can safely say I’ve concealed more than I’ve bared myself. Every time I write something I’ve to carefully step over spots so as to not hurt or overtly expose who I really am, or my parent’s concept of ‘me’. For all my feminism and dedication to activism, there are a lot of things that are left unsaid and buried. Maybe one day this tongue will truly uncoil. Who knows? Today, I’m just glad for all the conversations and ideas we could initiate despite all of this.

P.S. Special thanks to Wallamazoo, Arvan and Veronica for being such kickarse friends and all the adorable guest bloggers without which this space wouldn’t have been as interactive as we want it to be.

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1. In my defense, I was 13. You can’t fault a 13 year-old for daydreaming, can you?

2. This doesn’t mean women don’t write about religion, politics or sex. Just that in that room, we definitely didn’t own up to writing about these topics even if we did.

3. The Dude who was organising races for the Next Best Prostitute will tell you a lot about the female stench.

 

Dusty Women And Our Spaces

Yesterday I was cleaning my grandmum’s cupboard as I do every winter on her death anniversary. We’ve given most of her things away, all that is left of this amazing woman are a few clothes, a few letters and many photographs for which I cannot be thankful enough. Every year I see these frayed pictures, and she’s always standing in the kitchen, or the veranda. Some pictures show her in room where the temple is. And a few are with me, standing beside me in the balcony, pointing at something far off in the distance. I’ve seen these pictures many times, today I couldn’t help noticing how in all of her pictures she is in one corner or a room. There are just two pictures of her outside the home space, those are when she went to her native place with my grandfather. This isn’t to say she didn’t ever travel out of the house or that she was kept confined. In fact, my grandmum has visited most of India and a few countries of the Subcontinent as well. But if you just see these photographs, you’ll see a woman always in a room, in a corridor or in the veranda; never is she idly sitting either. She’s either cooking, praying or showing something to her grand-daughters. If I were to construct her life on the basis of these photographs alone, you’d see a Lady who never set foot outside the house, was preoccupied with many household chores as one would expect from any Lady of her generation — or this one too — a life that revolves around others while she is lost in one of the other corners of the house. The truth is, there are many women who didn’t enjoy the class and social privilege my grandmum had, who spent and continue to spend decades in their homes. I don’t mean to intone that this is in any way a negative thing or just blame The Evil Patriarchy for it — how I wish it were that easy! — but rather point out how some spaces are so heavily hued with this blemish called ‘gender; till even their representative counterparts share the same inscription.

These gendered spaces aren’t unique creations of this country or any specific community, rather it is a universal disease. White Women’s writing and even movement has been heavily censored and controlled by their spouses or other male-relatives — from Christina Rossetti to Sylvia Plath — isn’t exactly a secret or a revelation. However, if these women had been Dusty, this LadyBrain thinks their disembodiment would have been much more severe — here we can place responsibility on the Empire all we want! Squee! — as the idea of a Dusty Lady being anything other than an object to be gawked at is a threat to Whiteness. Earlier this year a movie called Eat Pray Love starring Julia Roberts came out and I can safely say I’ve never seen so much loosely packaged neo-colonisation since AVATAR came out. Spaces, people, cities, people all open to lead the Whitewashed tone of the film into giving us a ‘well-rounded’ spiritual journey of a woman who wants to ‘discover’ herself, predictably in adequately exotic countries. For the most part, indigenous people exist in the movie to lend insights to the Poor White Woman who is simply lost, who has lost her appetite for life and simply must appropriate other cultures ceaselessly to feel better about herself. At one point, the protagonist comes to India in search of ‘the spiritual’ — because White people come to Dusty Land for mainly two reasons leaving aside their fascination with Dusty Poor People: Either to feel closer to God in a language they don’t understand or to learn Kamasutra — and quite predictably, we see the protagonist provided with a Dusty Lady (Tulsi) who makes her realise how lucky she is, to not have parents who will marry her off like cattle. Liz enjoys the kind of mobility and agency only White people can in movies and spaces like these, where she says “Perhaps you and your husband will be happy after all” in her parting scene with Tulsi. Another similar example that comes to mind is Elizabeth Russell from Lagaan — yes Dusty films can perpetuate Whiteness too. Insert appropriate gasps here — who is allowed physical as well as social mobility because of her pearly exterior, whereas Gauri is laughed at when she talks about the power Elizabeth yields. In addition, Gauri has to contend being the Third World Earth Goddess, one who soothes the male protagonist’s wounded ego, Elizabeth can openly defy her brother’s imperial policies and is rewarded in the course of the narrative. Even in many books, Dusty or otherwise, the same claustrophobic policing of gendered spaces is upheld when it comes to further erasure of hued women. As readers we’re encouraged by the narrative to sympathise with Jane Eyre while Bertha burns in the attic, to not question when Tagore’s Dusty women remain within the home sphere while his Memsahib’s coo exotically over the ‘enchanting landscape’. Even in Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines, women who identify as Western (though they may never be able to scrub off their hued epidermis) or who are Western are the one’s with any real complexity or nuances. Many Dusty Ladies are simply a litany of names, or are present in the scene just to make their lighter counterparts seem more ‘liberal’ or ‘emancipated’.

Even in literature that comes from pens of Dusty Ladies themselves, strangely we carry our confined spaces with us. In Nabneeta Dev Sen’s ‘Ami Anupam‘, as delightful and wickedly funny the prose is, women almost always speak from within rooms, from the kitchen or from the periphery of the garden; Kamla Das’s ‘LadyInsights’ in her autobiography center around her being completely still and passive — in and out of situations involving coitus even — where thoughts come to her the moment she goes catatonic; Jumpa Lahiri’s Ashima’s silences in the Namesake speak volumes at the dinner table or when she’s cooking food. The names, bodies and faces change, the voice still comes from somewhere within the structure. Like the jarokha Mughals kept their wives behind, Dusty Ladies see and perceive their realities through the gauze of the DudeCouncil’s pre-approved gendered spaces of the inner courtyard, of the back room and other places where silences each come heavily garbed in meanings, waiting to imprint or latch on to anyone who enters. Today, we still have gendered spaces, only now it seems like a unanimous ‘consensual’ action as yet again all Ladies flock in a corner at any social gathering or dinner.

What really perplexes me today is how easily many feminists or ‘gender-sensitive’ people talk about ‘Sisterhood’ without missing a beat, without pausing to consider how much privilege it takes to say “We’re all sisters in a struggle” when the ‘struggle’ we face as Dusty Ladies is more than just a fable of the Third World, it’s our lived reality. Instead of toting around Sisterhood as some kind of badge for identifying as a Lady, it would be wiser of said feminists and ‘gender-sensitive people to make it a goal to aspire toward to: Sans appropriation or patronising  Dusty People. I know it will be hard — for where will all the well-meaning neo-colonising-Empire-hugging-people do now? Think of deconstruction as your new hobby and it will just come to you.

 

 

 

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