This weekend my parents’ friends are visiting some obscure little village in some Dusty Part of India, because they apparently have a house there — and they didn’t even know it! — and the lovely Government wants to run it down and make a road connecting two villages, all in the name of progress that almost never reaches people it professes to help. After dinner, while cleaning up my Mum wondered out loud how different their lives would have been, had they lived in that house instead of this one in Mumbai. My sister and my cook began to imagine hilarious scenarios of stereotypical country life, of menial labour — because bonded labour is the new funny, People Of The Olde Interwebes — and suddenly she exclaimed, “They would speak a different Gujarati! And their English would sound like something out of a bad nightmare. I’m so glad they live here”. The idea that language and dialect would be different troubled her, especially that the family’s English wouldn’t be as ‘polished’ as it is now; their past-present-futures are different when this new dialect is injected in. The friends in question started marking the differences, he said he wouldn’t have been a corporate lawyer, she wouldn’t have been able to work and so on. Through this dinner I was stuck with a bitter taste in my mouth thinking how easily the Other is always an intruder, a predator, dangerous; it unsettles this well-established center. The Lady in question concluded, “We could be better people living here. Can you imagine us there? We would have probably been zamindars or something” and many other UnEntertaining variants of playing the Desi Coloniser. It’s always easy to claim superiority if you’ve already relegated a space that unbelongs and is unhinged as different, for this is what difference boils down to, an excuse to claim, possess and punish in one swift act¹.
Long after this dinner, I was still thinking of the above conversation. I couldn’t put down exactly what unsettled me so deeply, it was only when I started rereading Spivak’s essay ‘Can The Subaltern Speak?’ did the pieces fit together. At one point she writes, “The Coloniser constructs himself as he constructs the colony”; like did this couple. While imagining this alternative life, their present life was romanticised and their rural “would-have’s” were conspicuously ‘backward’, which is precisely why selling away that house didn’t pose a big problem to them. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only instance I’ve heard or experienced where more ‘developed’ or narratives of ‘progress’ take center stage. This week my friend put up a picture of me on Facebook dressed in traditional Indian clothes. A few people who know me from my blog and know this friend found it startling that someone who speaks so ‘freely’ and ‘liberally’ on many issues can choose to bend down tradition’s way. These are times when my ethnic identity or just wearing ‘ethnic’ dress becomes interchangeable with embodying tradition and essentialism; the alternative is to completely disengage with this identity and embrace being
‘universal’ Western. What’s the problem with e-showing and choosing to dapple in my ethnicity — out here as a Hindu woman of a certain caste and class privilege — you say? More often than not, I’m perceived as someone who doesn’t necessarily have a voice or someone who is touting for my country’s oft spoken about ‘traditionalism’. Anyone who knows me, even a little bit, knows about my strong distaste for patriarchy. Somehow in traditional clothes, the ‘me’ they saw was a different one, and immediately an inferior one. One acquaintance even wrote to me asking if everything was okay because as she put it, “This is so out of character for you!”. And on Facebook, a tiny argument broke out assessing if I’ve changed or not; while no one talks to me just about me. This is another advantage of being Othered — as DustyLadies, this is a common experience for us — words fly all about you, but you will never be able to catch them. Like the figure of Sati (the widow who has to put herself on her husband’s pyre and be immolated with him), there are only two readings of DustyLadies. Either some ‘progressive’ Westerner is telling us how terrible our lives are, because we follow certain traditions or our Male Counterparts who speak for us (like they did in the case of Sati) and almost always showcase tradition as a voluntary act. Meanwhile the woman on the pyre burns.
Disgruntled by the thin demarcation between ‘ethnic’ and ‘orthodox’ I turned to a few close activists who know the rural realities of my country better than I do to see if there was anything of credit in this construction at all. While they understood and sympathised with my situation when speaking in a Glocal context, they referred to Indian rural women as “ourselves undressed” more than once. While this binary is troubling, damaging and too narrow, this is a very common opinion; it perhaps even has a dash of truth lodged somewhere between the Othering and imperialism. But once again, voices are being dubbed as ‘tongue-dumb’, as ‘backwater verses’ and god knows what else — I had tuned out of the conversation long before this part — these voices are repeatedly disallowed of agency and choice. My school teacher always talked of dislocating discourses from their words and environment, to see them empirically in order to arrive at a fair conclusion. One Dalit activist I know is trying to get her anthology of short stories published, and is often rejected because it doesn’t ‘tap into the tribal sentiment’ of Dalit women. Because her voice is different, because it cannot be localised to this part of this state, coming from this dialect and community, it’s declared ‘inauthentic’. Another example is of the poet Kamla Das who salaciously wrote her autobiography in order to earn much needed money, later she interrogates her fault at leaving out or exaggerating certain parts of her life, blaming the ruthless form of the autobiography for expecting a specific role out of her, and then she blames herself for giving in. Because, once again, her relationship with truth is a controversial one, her poems are rejected as ‘authentic’ experience of an Indian Woman. We still want to adhere to the well-formed Indian Doll Figurine in the words of Torru Dutt or Sarojini Naidu.
Voices of Dusty People — Dusty Ladies in particular — undergo a lot of censorship, self-imposed or otherwise, and in this case to dislocating such voices becomes a double bind, not only you strip them of any ethnicity, authenticity and value, they’re reduced to muffled words that easily slip into the ‘Ourselves Undressed’ bind that the West is waiting to devour. I’m not arguing that anyone who identifies themselves primarily through their ethnic persona is wrong but rather I am more than what I dress, how I speak. When you ‘other’ me, immediately cast me two steps below everyone else because of my difference, dislocated from my soil, all you will find is an empty shell of ‘me’.
1. See the brief history of colonisation circa start of time till present date.