Rewriting The Box

Many people argue that routines are boring and often numb the soul; in addition to raise a person’s potential to inch closer to making an extremely inexpensive version of ‘A Clockwork Orange‘, on a startlingly daily basis — I do get this argument. This is the reason ‘self-help’ books like ‘The Secret’ and ‘The Alchemist’ work right? At the same time, many people also detest change and often go to great lengths to avoid facing it; maybe the afore-mentioned people go as far as to make-believe that change doesn’t exist at all till it smacks them right in the face. Not that I‘d know anything about it. Please. I’m the most UnstablyStable person I know. Also, the most humble, as you might have caught on by now.

To further this pathological need to keep everything as similar as always, we do a lot of BatPoop crazy things. What never fails to amaze me is just how many people stereotype and ‘box’ people (including myself sometimes) in convenient labels. I suppose it saves them the effort to think or somehow use their GrayMatter a little above the barest of bare minimum. See a girl walking on the street dressed in pink from head to toe, she’s suddenly ‘HumanBarbie’, see someone write or stare into space (often confused with existential magnitude) and the person is a ‘philosopher’ or at least ‘an artsy type’, see a boy walk with a sashay and he is ‘gay’, see a mother and daughter fighting in public and they are ‘The daily entertainment troupé’, see someone walk with a scowl and you’ve remembered that misanthropist quote “Sell your children to the rich as food“*. A rather large part of the population engages in such ‘boxing’, there is no point in pretending otherwise. Except if you’re Dalai Lama, only then you’re excused of this particular faux pas. At least, I’d like to believe that (Note to self : Recovering Optimists meeting tomorrow).

I never realised just how horrible this ‘labeling’ can be to the human psyche, until a few days ago. Three days ago, in class I made a presentation on Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication Of The Rights of Woman’ without drooling all over the paper or mumbling anything as intelligible as “She’s just awesome. Really“. For the most part anyway. Important to note that my paper was long and it often used words like “Post-Jacobian era femininity” and harked backed at Puritanical definitions of womanhood (a little bit of SelfPromotion is always healthy with a teaspoon of pride, I say). What I mean is, I really hadn’t expected people to pay attention. Generally when I talk, people tend to focus on the words ‘Feminism’, ‘Anti-Woman’ or ‘Really nincompoop-y of patriarchy to do so and so” and soon my fellow feminists and I are heralded with chants of “Man-Hater!”, “Baby-Burner” from many directions. You can imagine my surprise at the fact that I didn’t have to use my Medusa look on my classmates at all. And these are the same people who thought ‘A Farewell To Arms’ was a diet book! Can you completely blame me for thinking most of them were shallow airheads? Maybe you can, I’d agree with you, if it were any other day. These are the same people who think ‘Sense and Sensibility’ is a philosophy book. Before you’d start calling me a privileged arsehole, let me draw attention to the fact that we’re a Literature Major class. One cannot go around thinking ‘Pygmalion’ was written by Sophocles just because it draws the name from a Greek myth anymore.

I'm sure the inside of my brain was this. Seriously.

I'm sure the inside of my brain was this. Seriously.

I wish I’d remembered sooner what my grandmum said about scatterbrained airheads one time, “These are the people who will always surprise you so much by doing anything even remotely sensible that you’ll end up being the fool“. Had I remembered this, I wouldn’t have been so taken aback by the fact that people took notes and even asked for explanations after I was done talking. And while I was answering them, all I could think to myself was how big an arse I was being. So what if some of my classmates thought Amitav Ghosh writes literary pornography just because there are a few to many ‘stroke my boner now‘ references in the book? Who did I think I was to think of them like that? The privately funded cynic to bray at everything that displeased me? Or the re-incarnation of Marie Corelli? Certainly not. Besides, my French isn’t that good yet.

Needless to say, I felt horrible for being so petty and Tina Fey-y in ‘boxing’ everyone to a type. The person who laughed at “What women did back then can be simplified into saying they provided womb-services. Till they hit menopause that is” line wasn’t necessarily who guffawed at “she was called a hyena in petticoats“, I scolded myself. Believe me when I say, I didn’t expect to hear loud laughs for quoting ‘The neglected wife often makes the best mother’ or see scowls at being snarky at Pat Robertson’s definition of feminism — Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.

The whole time I was talking, I could see the judgmental conga-line going back and forth in my LadyBrain. Dorothy Parker would have been so proud of me just then; I could almost see my grandmum again, laughing at me. At that moment, I decided to completely let go of my Darwinian instinct to ‘box’ people. Everyone deserves a benefit of the doubt. I’d completely break ‘the box’ all of us are so prone to carry around in our heads, I wouldn’t EVER again treat scatterbrained airheads like I was Judi Dench ever again, was my strong conviction. There are just so many ways a girl can be a complete swot and I didn’t want to have either of it.

After class, when I asked my friend just why were people laughing so much, she said my bra was showing AND my hair was sticking up the wrong way. Drat! My grandmum had been right all along, “Too much thinking rots the brain” she used to tell me. She was such an ‘abstract thinker’ too.

* Really. Jonathan Swift did say that. I’m not that good at making stuff up. Not yet anyway.

P.S. So how big an arsehole you think I was being?

The Things We Always Remember Edition Of Selective Memories

I saw Before Sunset about two years ago and this one line has still stuck around in my head — “Memories are wonderful things, if you don’t have to deal with the past”. Contrary to popular belief I don’t quote  such lines quite ritually. Because that would be embarrassing; not that I know anything about it(ish). But this week as I was teaching Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Third and The Last Continent” to my students, the question of ‘Indian-ness’ came up throughout the text. We started off with describing all things Indian — Gandhi, sarees, removing shoes at the doorstep, Malgudi Days (this was mine. My students have no clue of R.K.Narayan) and cricket. Cricket in India is what God is to the Pope; maybe Indians are more loyal to cricket, I’d say.

Suddenly, one of them said, “Indian-ness is hating Pakistan“; a sentence that still chills my bones.  A class of 13-year old children (emphasis on CHILDREN) have such strong views on a community they have never actually interacted with, backing their views with various cultural stereotypes all aimed at objectifying and dehumanising a specific people, I stood rooted to the spot, unable to speak for a while. Sentences like, “Muslims are like that. They are a hateful, violent community“, “They SMELL!“, “Why do you think no Muslim is ever on the ‘Most Successful People’ page?” and the old obvious standby “Most of them are terrorists anyway” started swirling around before I could stop them. They even made distinctions between certain sects, making sure to highlight the Gujarati heritage of Khoja Muslims, as if that’s the reason they are ‘different’ and ‘better’ Muslims. Then the Saudi Arabian Muslims are ‘more sophisticated’ than the rest and “the US Muslims are the best, because they aren’t really Muslims at all” concluded the class with a laugh.

By this time my brain has UnNumbed itself and was ready to challenge all these slanderous statements. Poor Jhumpa Lahiri’s wonderful prose lay forgotten as we discussed at length what kids called “The Problem With Muslims: Class ONE”. Further discussion brought out many more stereotypes I was unaware of. Did you know Indian Muslims sometimes eat humans (supposedly) and this is why we should hate them?! They were very careful in making clear demarcations about just who is a ‘good’ Muslim. Apparently people who they knew were ‘good’ Muslims as they weren’t ‘very religious’ or ‘didn’t like fanatic Muslims’. One student coined this definition by saying his friend “Doesn’t ever say Allah-anything in public“. Their lack of identification as Muslims makes them ‘good’. I really wanted to take off my TeacherShoes and just lock myself in my room. So much hostility messes up my mental health in a huge way; thus I decided to don my Big-Girl socks and face the tiny heathens children head-on.

When I brought up the fascist policies of the BJP , they all drew a blank. The same reaction when I talked about the Godhra riots or the Babri Masjid conflict that India is trying to resolve since the last two decades. Turns out, these kids have selective memories when it comes to Indian History. Textbooks talk of the suffering Hindus faced during the Partition but not one peep of the thousands slaughtered Muslims or the gang-rapes Muslim women had to undergo at the hands of Sikhs. We talk about how selfish Jinnah was for even suggesting the creation of Pakistan but we don’t talk about the reason why the Muslims felt the need to have a separate State on the first place. The idea that Pakistanis don’t really have a say in how their country is represented to Indian media was entirely alien to them. Maoism is one of the biggest threats to Indian Nationhood today, if the media had to have their say. Their side of the debate is entirely obliterated (does this ring any bells regarding systematic silencing?). One could argue that they are just children and kids make erroneous judgments, which is pure definition of poop to my mind. If they can believe and propagate a single-story-view of history, they are capable of understanding history as it ought; objectively and without prejudices.

It doesn’t help one bit that Indian media is pro-BJP either. Somehow, many popular newspapers don’t seem to find the idea of “Hindutva” (which is basically preference of Hindus over non-Hindus. Not that different from Hitler is it?) very disturbing. But when Raj Thackerey actually implements this policy, Mumbaikars can’t stop talking about how exclusionary politics are bad for progress and suddenly phrases like “We are Indian first and Mumbaikars later” start floating in the air. However whenever the question comes up to defend our Muslim brothers and sisters, suddenly everyone becomes apolitical.

Even in cinema, if there is ever a Muslim character, great pains are taken to show how Non-Muslim hir really is or because of how personal the entire narrative is, we end up thinking of the character as an exception to the rule instead of the ‘type’ hir is supposed to be. In that light, the opinions of my students don’t seem so appalling, if the entire world around them is harping one tune, they are bound to sing along (generally speaking). What really gets to me is even their parents do nothing to change the prejudices; if they are the original holders of this view that is. We never pay attention to how much influence the family as a unit has on our minds. I still remember my uncle saying at one point that he could “...identify a Muslim by the way he walks. It reeks of sin” when I was six.

Somehow, when it comes to Muslims, Indians get defensive about our nationality and ‘nationhood’ (which is extremely problematic as the basis of its very definition banks on techniques of Other-ing and alienation) but we will NEVER think of the reason why there is so much hate brewing between our two countries. Fingers pointing towards this leader or that government, this regime is the reason the two countries can’t resolve issues, THEY DON’T RELEASE OUR PRISONERS EITHER! and many (un)entertaining variants of Othering.

History has a history of being selective, this is a truth universally acknowledged. But when it comes to Muslims, Indian history becomes amnesic. We’re so ready to dispel of our past, any event that shows that Indians aren’t the nationalist, collective mist that popular culture extols, that we completely forget the most important lesson: TO BE HUMAN.

This post also appears in Womanist Musings

Ramblings On Masculinity: Re-affirming The Female Gaze Or Trying To Anyway

This week I took a long hiatus from blogging, tried to escape the reality of trolls by handing over my moderator-ly duties to a certain pink dragon, pulled up my socks and did my best to repel the gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach that told me I should have been writing all this while. The plan worked, for a while, methinks. Turns out me not writing will be like my teacher not piling pits of reading on us. And just as effective. Though, I published the post on another blog (because I’m just that crazy). Here, let me get you started —

“This week as I lay hiatus-ing, I took it upon myself to dig through the annals of my journal to see if there was indeed any message from HigherPower present in my words, warning me that one day ‘this day shall come’, like a supposed self-fulfilling prophecy that a certain douche dude made about 20 years ago that, “Feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream“. Lo and behold for exactly 20 years after we see Ugly Betty©! Thus my sudden need to go complete John Nash on my journals (sans the math of course). The above can also be read as an excuse to do something besides give my dog endless belly rubs or further procrastinating writing papers for a rewarding publishing factory that manufactures mass consent my college program. Or maybe I am just that far gone in the tutu circus. Anyway, my journals have been useless in the science of studying *me* for anything beyond drool marks and kisses around Plath and Gauri Deshpande’s names.

So, you are my witness dear BLOG! reading person, that I’ve never had any pre-anything on expecting that a certain Dude — Let’s call him Jerk # 256 for future reference — from the nooks of my life would come out to say to me, “You can’t write about men! Because you’re not one!”. With that premise, if I were to pull a Felicity Huffman stunt, you think all dude-ly insights will suddenly come running to my now transformed ManBrain in addition to being absolutely insensitive to trans-people? Don’t answer that, seriously. Let’s just pretend I can think like a ManPerson without the virtue of having a dangly appendage between my legs*. Or having the compulsion to scratch my nether regions in public for kicks. Or engage in any other stereotypical ‘manly’ behaviour, for no matter what commercials want us to believe, the key to manliness isn’t drinking peewater beer or using Axe deodorants. At least not where I hail from.

Masculinity as seen here, in the Orient as Said coined us, is basically constant dominance over the Other. The Other is just about anyone who refuses to conform to the norms of the KyriarchalMonster. In this case, even my dog falls outside the patronage of such a system considering I’ve raised him to rebel at everything. At least that’s what I keep telling myself when he’s chewed up yet another pillow. Kyriarchy’s first cousin, MonsieurLePatriarch has been controlling our lives from the day they realised we could be kept quiet, by force or otherwise, many moons ago.”

Read the rest of this article here

P.S. I’m sorry I didn’t reply to everyone who e-mailed me this week (thank you by the way), I promise I’ll get to it as soon as I’m done working on my SuperSecretProject by next week-ish.
P.P.S. I’m wondering if you, dear BLOG! reader will be interested in a series of posts exploring the media re-construction of Indian masculinity and femininity as it is taking place today?
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