Negotiating Silences Within Spaces

As the eldest daughter of a Hindu family, I 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. Whether or not I believe in the values and ideals endorsed by Hinduism is inconsequential to the space of the ‘dutiful Hindu daughter’ that is allotted to me. It works as a double bind, where even imagining another identity is impossible and at the same time, this old one is a comfortable claustrophobia we’ve become used to. This weekend while talking to a few of my old friends as we sat discussing and catching up whatever we’d missed over the years, one thing was clear — this is a big one people of the Olde Interwebes — All Of Us Were Uncomfortable In The Skin That Is Technically Supposed To Be Wearing! After a little alcohol and a few hours of talking, all of us started talking about things that left us uneasy about our ‘roles’. From too much expected virtuosity to too many barriers to being “ourselves”, the problems started coming through. What struck me is how natural the whole conversation was, like I’ve heard this many times before and knew exactly where to sigh, exclaim, gasp, be silent, chime in accord. Like a well rehearsed scene, it flowed seamlessly. So did the guilt that comes after such a confession.

Even the way we were talking was shrouded in ambiguity and a hazy layers of meanings. We didn’t say, “I hate such and such” but instead started sentences with “I wish I didn’t have to…”; never fully coming out and expressing what lay inside. And then like an extremely French déjà vu I remembered where I’ve seen this happen. Practically everywhere, my LadyBrain now remembered. In family discussions that involve Decisions Of The Extremely Serious Kind, I’ve seen many an aunt and even my mum enter the discourse from breaks and silences. Retreating before anyone else notices, the Voice is again beneath the purdah safe in its distance from the world and yet sad due to its very muffled impact. I will not say that this is how every woman is every day but confess that we’ve all played a part in this hide-and-seek at some part of our lives. What really strikes me is how voluntary the action seems, more natural than breathing sometimes.

Keeping in mind the above contexts, it is fascinating to this LadyBrain to see how these spaces and silences are navigated and at times even transgressed, without seeming so. Now that is what people call duplicity! I say, learn a thing or two from my aunts who can seem like they’ve never heard of subversion while they turn the oldest practices sanctioned with collective approval to a personal rebellion. A few of my aunts and great-aunts are widowed, single and without children. After the demise of their spouses, they spend more than half of their day praying to God, worshiping his various forms, chanting kirtans.  You’re probably wondering what is so transgressive about the act of bowing down to publicly approved modes of worship, faith and religion. It’d help to see these practices as a way of carving out time for themselves, a concept so invisibly radical I can’t even begin to explain. Most of these women have spent a better part of their life being subservient and obedient, selfless and almost spineless; putting everyone else’s desires before theirs. And now, within this space religion allows, they’re spending time with themselves. Thinking, feeling and simply being. One of these aunts I mentioned spends about five hours every morning in various religious practices, she’s famous for them in my family. In fact, no one calls or visits her at those specific hours, allowing her that space unto herself, which is more than many people get irrespective of their age or social standing. I don’t want to romanticise their loneliness, or their near-outsider status but just point out how within these regulated spaces too, between cracks and fissures, there is space for a person to breathe and live.

Another interesting space is the Kitchen, typically No Man’s Land. Yes, I know these are the pesky NewAges and MenPeople cook too! And wash their own dishes! And even use a glass for drinking water! And some even go as far as to wash the glass after drinking water! However, more than 80% of the time, it’s women who cook clean swab taste wash dry and do everything else in and out of the kitchen — it’s all unpaid and glorified labour after all! — let’s just agree on that. Here, again the kitchen can become a space for freedom, away from the white noise of other rooms. I’ve heard my cook and my mum bond over the silliest and sometimes the most serious subjects these past years. One thought sparks off another, and in this space largely undisciplined by Men, thoughts can drift, be bodiless and even be let out. I’m not glorifying female labour, or trying to show how resourceful  women are as beings (ick!) but a space traditionally understood as oppressive can co-exist as a liberating space, sometimes.  These are the Post-Modern times after all!

There are many essentialist arguments that show the benevolence of women’s silence, how it is their innate virtue to remain quiet, by which the offender gets the opportunity for self-reflection and eventually change or transform which is just a fancyarse way of saying “Stand all the abuse, and keep your head down while you’re at it”. I’m not talking about that silence — I’d rather talk about the various kinds of frogs on the planet than about the ‘virtue’ of silence — but one that allows us to be whole only within breaks. It’s not necessarily a choice, certainly not an overt one at the same time these ripples do help us be without literally splitting into two halves. For people like my friends and I, this speaking from within the invisible purdah becomes our way of articulating what lies inside while wrapping it in the garb of Tradition and Duty. I won’t deny there are many flaws with such broken talking, but how can I critique something impartially that allows me to be whole, in different parts? To quote Gertrude Stein only when I begin to “Dance a clean dream, secure the steady rights and translate more than translate the authority” do those little bits of me start coming back. With breaks and stops, but they come back nonetheless.


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  1. Vasundhara

     /  October 5, 2010

    I know you get a lot of body as well as thought policing but can I just say I adore you? I love your writing style and honesty. And by the way, every word you wrote rings true. I mean it. First when I read it I was shocked at the clarity and utter truth about this post. I’ve been this woman many times myself, entering from the fringe and retreating back.

    And I get your psychosis over trying to be impartial to such a personal mode of communication we’ve all come to master. Really THANK YOU for this. You have no idea what it is to be reflected so strongly in someone else’s words, especially when I was convinced that all that I am thinking is just in my head.

    Also, I just have to point out, you come up with the most wonderful phrases. I’m going to remember “broken talking” for a long time.

    The sentence that just did it and unclenched me was “Retreating before anyone else notices, the Voice is again beneath the purdah safe in its distance from the world and yet sad due to its very muffled impact.”

    I know I’m gushing but really thank you for writing this blog even though many would like you silenced.

    ~ Vasu

    • Thanks Vasu for your kind words. Speaking of delightful phrases “entering from the fringe and retreating back” is pretty great too. Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

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