A few months ago, my student asked me why do I read so much — well, what is much? — and I couldn’t reply to that seemingly simple question. I made an excuse and told him I’d explain later, when I’d realise it myself. I’ve been reading for as long as I remember; I started because I wanted to be like my mum, snuggled on her side of the bed with the reading light on and lost in her little niche every night. Soon enough books weaved their magic spell on me and now I have the incurable fetish for words, written or otherwise. That is still not a reason enough that can explain my relationship with reading; for books are just my way of knowing the world. Especially after it dawned on me that most books that I read weren’t really meant for me despite the claim of their ‘universal’ status. Even as a child of 12 I knew I was never going to raft down the Mississippi with Tom Sawyer, I had no ‘crazy’ acquaintances like Mrs. Haversham, if I met Mrs. Dalloway in real life she’d frown at my skin and many such examples that made the cultural static between my world and theirs painfully visible under all the layers of Cannonisation and Universalism. And for a long time, I considered myself lacking in someway for not feeling at home in these masterpieces of World Literature. These days I just fondly call this list ‘Dead White Ubiquitous Writers’ who are just about as universal as my dog is for the rest of his species. Doesn’t mean I won’t read Wuthering Heights every year or won’t hurt from the way it treats ‘dark-skinned ruffian’ Heathcliff, but rather I am aware of this difference and am not ashamed of my subject position in and out of the text anymore, however alienated the text or the language makes me feel.
As reading is such an important part of my identity — you don’t major in Literature if you feel anything less, People Of The Olde Interwebes — the question why I read plagued me for quite a while, I even brought it up recently when my friends and I were discussing Zadie Smith’s essay on ‘Death Of The Author’. Each of us had our own reasons, one liked to read to escape to another world, another liked to escape from this world, one reads so that she doesn’t have to listen to her own thoughts all the time and another reads to feel a part of something. But my LadyBrain was still hoping for a better and a concrete answer that would stop the constant inner interrogation for good and allow me to bask in my books once again. One time I brought it up in class to see how other ‘non-readers’ viewed books and the politics behind them where one dudely student remarked that I was making a ‘personal issue’ about a harmless question, because apparently, “Seriously? Reading? Words don’t matter that much anyway, nor do they change the world in any way” is quite a popular opinion among most afore mentioned ‘non-readers’ when all I was doing was not making a problem out of a personal question; but making a personal question an absence of a problem, to borrow and modify from Foucault. Reading is a space where there is infinite potential for negotiation of meanings and implied subtexts. For instance, Kamla Das talks about making walls — “I shall build walls with tears/She said, walls to shut me in”, almost a retort back to Woolf’s statement that being ‘locked in’ is the worst possible scenario — to me it’s a resilience while my student read it as an act of submission. Such possibilities often make me giddy and for a while I thought I’d found my answer. And then last week while voluntarily melting my BrainCells watching TV I reached my happy place. Who knew the idiot box could lead to wonderful Lady Insights Of The Super Important Variety?
This Lady Insight was ushered by a DHL ad¹ that ended with the obnoxious statement, “No one knows Asia-Pacific like we do” at the end of their cocky reassurance that they are the best shipping services after all. I’m sure they aren’t as daft as I’d like to think they are, and they know full well making a statement like that does graze quite heavily on the history of colonisation and occupation South-East Asian countries have, especially so when the team who asserts this ‘knowing’ is European. I started ranting at the TV and in the next half hour they aired the commercial again and that’s when I realised what the ad also implied that I missed in the first waves of fury: they had ‘knowledge’. This knowledge would in no way be used for understanding — if they did they wouldn’t make such an insensitive commercial to begin with — or perhaps even empathasisng with the cultures they claim to ‘know’ but rather we still use knowledge for cutting, just like Foucault, Derrida and Judith Butler have been saying all these years. Knowledge used to cut across people, cultures and histories, using this weapon to somehow support the standard of supremacy and domination that the West is so anxious to uphold, albeit rather subtly as is the case with this ad. Under this façade of globalisation and ritual chanting that the ‘world is a global village’ lies a macabre truth that if some people had their way, they’d still be occupying bodies and asserting their rights on ‘alien’ flesh. This isn’t to cement the Coloniser in the draconian cast of Ultimate Evil — though they come very close — but to see we still think of Whiteness as Ideal Humanhood, that given a choice we’d chose White bodies over hued ones as our films, literature and ads amply show. This racial preference is so inexorably twisted with our collective psyches that now we don’t even realise it when we discuss actors like Katrina Kaif or Kareena Kapoor for their ‘wonderfully pale skin’ and not their acting skills. We use knowledge to hack into unavailable bodies and spaces too, for why else would knowing about some Hollywood celebrity’s dark confessions become transcendental to MudSquatters?
And just like that, the fascination Colonial and Cannonised texts hold for me — and countless other hued eyes — now makes sense as I wander into texts hoping to see the Coloniser’s guilt in some texts or the awareness that the Other existed out of their theoretical discussions, to see if anyone ever felt queasy about subjecting half of the planet to their will. I use this knowledge to cut into the idea that they’re perfect, that they deserved — has there ever been another word as twisted as this? — to willfully colonise others, that their ‘culture’ is impenetrable and constantly eliding for a Woman of The Other World as I am, to see if beneath the façade of being the Master, is there a fear or a threat of the Slave, to see if our hued bodies matter at all to them, even after all these years. Using knowledge to cut isn’t the problem here, but the dichotomy that ‘We’ are somewhat different and by extension superior to ‘Them’ is. The only possible solution is to break into the cutting and ask ‘at whose cost’ at every juncture for us to stop bleeding out our last dregs of supposed humaneness.
1. I couldn’t find the ad which is just as well. Wouldn’t want to start Collective Bleeding of Lobes. Not yet, anyway.