Looking For My Body

It is nearly impossible to be a Dusty Lady and not have your body become a canvas of comments, critiques and opinions; specifically the one’s you didn’t ask for. You know the ones by orthodox ladies — and sometimes, not so orthodox people — who say things like, “I liked it better when your face was fuller, now you just look like a vegetable” or “You call that a chest? Pfft. How will you ever rear children with that?”¹ without lowering their voice or taking their eyes off of you, and then the next minute your head starts hurting and you think to yourself that you will never, ever again go to these silly events again, after which you get your cousin to spike your drink which makes the whole evening bearable, blissful even. Only when you next see these people again, you remember that promise you made to yourself; smack your head — figuratively, for your real hands must never do such a thing in public — and then start looking for a cousin to trick into slipping very suspicious liquids in your fruit juice, so that you can nod and let the words float by you till the time you get home and vow to never, ever go to such silly events till the next time. I don’t know what is more amusing — where amusing becomes the new migraine — that people don’t see the effect their words on the bodies they are commenting on or the fact that I’ve accepted it as a routine activity. Only when this week, some trolls made similar remarks focusing on the body alone, did I start to unravel and start re-acting to their statements and assumptions.

Bodies, dusty bodies particularly almost never speak. We are spoken for — of course colonialism still lives on! What do you mean the British left 60 years ago? — in true imperial fashion,  and this tilted-equation even translates to the way we see, read and frame bodies. Last week, in a study break I ended up watching TeeVee for a bit. And just my luck, I ended up watching two minutes of Dabangg and I couldn’t help chuckling and then sobbing how this less-than-3-minutes trailer encapsulated perfectly how we view bodies. Here’s a convenient list:

  1. Land is feminised — very subtly, I must give them that — so it’s ‘lawless’ and must be ‘disciplined’. Land becomes a deviant body and of course a dude has to ‘bring it back to its place’.
  2. Dudely bodies are mobile. Feminine bodies move in the periphery. And this mobility is not restricted to just physical activity, it shows up in how feminine bodies are dressed too; dudes are in pants and shirts, most women in saris, bringing another form of ‘bondage’ and ‘restriction’ to play, as the sari needs to be physically and compulsively wrapped around the body².
  3. A privileged dudely body need not respect any other bodies. Disabled or feminine, especially not if this body is a ‘criminal’. Bodily agency is for taking, obviously.
  4. When a dudely body transgresses socially, it’s allowed and forgiven. When the dusty lady transgresses — talks back in this case — she is threatened with ‘romantic’ violence³.
  5. If any dusty lady is portrayed as ‘mobile’ then she surely must expose her ladybits for a living — which as society routinely tells us, is a truly terrible, terrible thing to do. Because no ‘good’ dusty female body transgresses; if dusty ladies start doing vile, vulgar things like dance in public, who will cook and rear sturdy boy-children then?

As an upper-caste Hindu lady, I will never know how my identity as a ‘body’ is taken away communally, the brutal way in which Dalit bodies get erased or may never have to veil myself because of religious dictats. In that regard, my body does have privilege or a few liberties anyway; however this doesn’t change the fact that in most cases, because I’m a dusty lady, my body reads as one without agency, as the caste and social status come in later. What fascinates me today is how we’ve ‘accepted’ and mainly shuffled around the Olde DoucheColonial Standarde when it comes to keeping the feminine body free of annoying things like consent and autonomy, especially since we’re a country which claims to have ‘shed its tracts of being colonised’. But I digress.

I don’t really listen to any radio stations — dusty or otherwise — but whenever I do, in about a few minutes I have to compulsively turn it off as every other song is about ‘taking’ love (or bodies as sung by dudes or dude protagonists) and giving ‘herself’ up to the “man” or “husband” or ‘settling in her in-laws’ while every time my LadyBrain screams, “what about her?”. This isn’t to imply there are no songs where the female protagonist of the film gets to voice her point of view — such generalisations are the reason I’ve stopped reading the Times Of India — but that most narratives are built and written around the male perspective, sometimes  even when it’s written by a lady! If I were to set out, figuratively or literally to ‘look for my body’ in re-presentations of our culture, say in mainstream Bollywood movies or songs, I come away with a big gaping void. The Feminine Body™ as it were, doesn’t exist in most representations. We do see a caricature of what femininity or ‘womanhood’ is supposed to be, but characters that are multi-dimensional and dynamic, radical and practical are almost never dusty ladies. This probably explains why I’ve taken to words and poems of Kamla Das, Eunice De Souza and Gauri Despande, almost like an addict, as these are the few spaces where the Body is aired and allowed to be. It may not be my body, or the way I even view the Feminine Body, femininity or even being woman, but such re-presentations reassure me that this body too, has breath and a voice.

Whenever I’ve spoken of such gendered dis-memberment of the Body to my LadyFriend, she laughs and then sighs, as for a person who claims to see the body-policing as a ‘routine’, there are many things that make me uncomfortable and livid. So then yesterday, I asked her amid a rant, “What do I do then? Ignore that I can only be at peace when I hear a few selected Ladies, who are generally white and sadly, dead? Why do I need to go read Dickinson every time I crave for The Body to come alive, or go through reading Das again, even when she says ‘he takes my body away, and I didn’t even nod my head this time?’. Do you suggest that I should learn to not think of how much this epistemological violence the ‘absent’ body undergoes?”  and she told me, “You do what most women in your place did. They wrote”. And that’s what I did, in hopes that The Body isn’t voiceless, yet.

——

1. There are many variants of such body-policing, and these are just examples. The real thing is much worse. You can thank me for sparing your lobes later.

2. No, people who wears saris aren’t ‘bound’. But the way the sari functions, and the way we wear it does bring to mind restricting bodies to certain kinds of mobility. And by ‘bondage’ I didn’t mean to imply kink. Because dusty bodies never do such ‘Western’ things. Not even when you tempt them with coco-cola.

3. ‘Romantic’ violence is violence done or implied by dudes (generally) to feminine bodies because they want to woo them. No, it’s not scary at all, because they always fall in love and get married, so then violence is clearly ‘for a good motive’.

 

Build Me My FatherLand

My father is a bit of a history buff; and I get my obsession with mapping events from him. However, when it comes to seeing history as a linear pattern of events, we part ways. My idea of history is too ‘messy’ for him, as I tend to always look at Subaltern points of view — or the voices ‘history’ forgets, so to speak — while he is content with historian’s voices; and the fact that these voices come from a culture and a tradition of privilege aren’t his concern. Needless to say, we have a lot of disagreements when it comes to understanding and seeing history, even when it comes to news and current affairs. Yesterday when Azam Khan questioned how ‘integral’ a part of India Kashmir really was, my father flew into a temper, indignant  at the idea that an ‘Indian’ had any doubts whatsoever regarding how much Kashmir means to us; he started talking about the Kargil war and how our ‘Motherland’ cannot be fissured any more if we want to maintain any semblance of stability. Later that evening, the same news flashed across major networks and my grandma grumbled how easy it is for people to talk about ‘borders’ and question the integrity of Kashmir without witnessing the struggle it took us to attain independence and make these ‘borders’ matter. And then she remembered one speech Nehru gave where he lamented, “what was broken up which was of the highest importance, was something very vital and that was the body of India”. The imagery both discussions conjured up was “motherland”, “mother”, “mother’s ungrateful children” — that is us — and “mother’s body” that ‘we’ve hacked up beyond recognition’. While these words swirl around me, I can’t get over the hyper-feminisation of space, as if this feminised space of imagining India as a “she” or a “her” is an entirely neutral construct and has no bearing on history whatsoever.

Swapping bodies or rather the Body with a female one, isn’t a fateful or even a convenient co-incidence. The female body bears a herstory of  discipline and confinement, historically and otherwise. Victorian novels are full of such cracks, where a feminine body is kept locked up, or just kept to the house. Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals talk about walking with her brother, and about constantly stopping to sit down and then eventually to walk back, bringing to bear the immediacy of physical body policing that went on under being ‘Feminine’. Moving forward a century and a continent, during the partition, Muslim and Hindu women’s bodies literally became markers of the religion or the ‘side’ the belonged to; where women were abducted, raped, assaulted and in some cases, ‘marked’ in the truest sense of the world to ‘correct’ their faith. Here, the female body is displaced, abducted, and systematically scarred to signify community, nation and state. Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What The Body Remembers may be a ‘fictional’ re-telling of the partition, a particularly gory one that too but the issues of feminine displacement the narrative unfolds strike a little too close to home. Urvashi Butalia mentions the many barriers she faced while recording the partition for her book The Other Side Of Silence as most women of the Sikh community had repressed their memories of the communal mass-violence. These memories only re-surfaced decades later, when there was a similar Hindu-Muslim riot; what is striking is, this is a communal memory that most women had suppressed unanimously. Men’s account of the same event details violence and loss of land, women remark the loss of ‘the body’. Sadat Hassan Manto or Ismat Chughtai’s short-fiction reflects the same horrifying gendered violence that we almost never mention when we talk of the partition. Can words like “motherland” still be conceived of as words that have no specific significations, collectively and polemically?

We talk of Kashmir as the ‘glory’ and ‘crown’ of India. Many believe how ‘ugly’ the map will look if Kashmir won’t adorn it. The strict governmental control we keep over map-making and specifically regarding the ‘borders’ of Jammu and Kashmir, almost meticulously and possessively hashing the lines as if these lines will somehow duplicate themselves over other ‘borders’ too. Many leaders and voices from Kashmir have denied their role in such political cartography, while we still carry out our fantasy of ‘possessing’ Kashmir. Given how sensitive the issue of ‘borders’ is for the Indian government, whenever any government official makes a statement, almost always it’s the nationalistic rhetoric that coerces the notion ‘Kashmir is ours’. Repeatedly, India and Kashmir are converted to feminised spaces and bodies, thus possessing these spaces — even metaphorically — becomes an achievable activity. Now that this “body” is feminine, it is then easy and necessary to “map” and “mark” the body in order to discipline the inhabitants of Kashmir, so that this “marking” becomes at once visceral and metaphorical. The feminine body is known to be ‘limitless’ if we go by the traditional folklore; the ‘motherland’ isn’t ‘limitless’ geographically but the emotional and patriotic sentiment it projects to us is. There is a Toru Dutt poem that mentions the “mother is half of my sky and half of my body” and “now my body is disappearing”, as she slyly notes the nationalist anxiety the nation as a whole had over the loss of a defined border before the British left. Today, her words take a double edge, where not only are we anxious about keeping borders intact, we also actively participate in ‘capturing’ and ‘keeping’ the body in tact, be it in maps or in our minds. Leaving theoretical ramblings aside, women are seen as ‘honour’ and ‘dignity’ of the community, as the fleshy signifiers of morals and values — publicly and otherwise — and when they fail to uphold this ‘honour’, punishing and disciplining this flesh doesn’t remain just a fantasy, as we well know.

If we were to consider a FatherLand, a land defined by borders alone, by keeping in mind the Body as a masculine space, would such gendering of violence even be a question? Would we expect our FatherLand to mold to our cartographical desires? Would we think his honour is tainted by a stretch of land gone to the enemy? The truth is, in order to possess and ‘claim’ Kashmir as ours, it needs to be feminised and tamed, it has to remain bound so that we can call it ‘free’.

 

 

The Landscape Ahead: Who Will Identify The Individual?

Identity—the very essence of who we are and how we interact with others—is in the middle of a period of extraordinary tumult. The Internet and a host of new communications technologies have transformed the concept of identity and redefined our relationships to businesses, governments and constantly churning networks of friends and peers.

Growing numbers of digital natives now define themselves by their Web presence as well as their real-world presence. Indeed, they move seamlessly from their online to offline lives, and they expect to assert who they are on their own terms.

Call it the audacity of self-identity. I am whatever I say I am.

J.D. Lasica, Identity in the Age of Cloud Computing (emphasis mine)

There are several types of identity by which we all are known.  The two identity types that most people are familiar with are:

Self Identity – the way one person is defined by one’s self.  It is the act of a person telling a group – “This is who I am”.

Group Identity – the way one person is defined by a group of people.  It is the act of a group telling a person: “This is who you are”.

Most of us employ a mixture of group identity terms as self-identity.  We use language, which we did not invent, to describe who we are.  Often, we did not even choose the words we use (i.e. fat, skinny, smart, gay, man, woman, tall…and so on).  Labels, judgments, names, terms – all consisting of language.

It is society, in this model, that decides how ‘best’ or fully to recognize someone and define them.  What are a person’s rights?  Society will decide.  What is good behavior in personal appearance, sexual preference, gender assignation?  Society will decide.  Who is good-looking?  Society will decide.  Basically, when the question is ‘how am I to be identified or valued?’ Society will decide.

Regarding labels, let me briefly touch on some reasons why they are unreliable, right out of the gate:

Language is a metaphor. The words we speak and print are substitutes for things that we use to communicate.  The words ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ are not people.  Each of us is our own self, made up of different atomic mass, independently operating, existing and thinking.  We don’t even look or sound the same from one person to the next, based on differing values and sensory perceptions.  ‘Gay’ or ‘straight’ mean different things to different people and they mean different things simply if the label is applied after or before two people meet for the first time.

Perceptions vary. What looks blue to me can look violet to the next person.  I can look at a 30-year-old person and see someone young.  My daughter can look at the same person and see someone that is ‘very old’.

My working theory is that labels are most effective when a person uses them to describe one’s self.  They are much less accurate when someone is labeling another person.

None of this is new or revolutionary, but it’s important to bear in mind for this conversation.

The dynamic between self-identity and group identity is mirrored in the competition between self-determination and herd/mob behavior.  This struggle has been in the mainstream conversation for over 200 years, because it played out in the struggle for democracty and liberty in the United States.

The evolution of ‘the rights of the individual’ is interesting because the topic is framed within a context that rights are granted by government, society, the group.  The Declaration of Independence opened the door a crack with the following language:

all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This document is essentially a list of ways that the group (US Government) will recognize people.  The Bill of Rights, furthers this assertion of primacy in the description of individuals.  People exist as rights, because the document (as proxy for the group) says so.  Also, the document states the manner in which people will be recognized, not just who but what.

For its time, the documents above were revolutionary.  Everyone’s frame of mind was in the collective…parish, village, family, clan, tribe, kingdom and so on.  They took group definitions ‘out onto the skinny branches’ where they were dangerously close to being more about the individual than the group – by asserting that in some ways the group must recognize the individual.

From there, the definition of the individual has been tested, refined and broadened to extend these rights to include blacks, indigenous peoples, women and children.  As grew the rights of the individual, so grew the expectation of autonomy from one group of individuals to the next.

Looking back, I think that the biggest crack in the herd model was the First Ammendment.  Free speech, freedom of assembly basically left open the barn door, eventually allowing the herd to roam free.  There have been attempts to slow the exodus by trickery and fear-mongering, with lines drawn in the sand even now, on issues like gay marriage, gender rights and more.

A common thread persisted however, that when these individuals spoke up for and demanded their rights – it was over the larger group’s objections and with their permission or decree that rights were granted.  The framework of the group granting the individual a definition of rights persisted.  It was still about smaller groups fighting to have rights as individuals.

Over time, the framework for the conversation shifted.  The model for a group demanding the rights of its individuals had been established as precedent.  Namely, that individuals could wrest power from the mob.  Eventually, people began to ask other questions, changing the context:

What other rights do we have?

What rights to I have?

Why am I asking for my rights from the group?

The cat is out of the bag.  Not only are people asking these questions, but we are coming up with answers.  Free speech gave power to the individual.

The Herd or the Individual?

The herd-mind is everyone working for the group.

The hive-mind or herd-mind can be inefficient, dishonest and manipulative. The herd-mind behavior is assumed to be a coordinate effort by many to achieve a common goal.  Even if the coordination is merely a reliance on tradition and allegedly proven ways of success and the common good. The messaging of herd-mind labels and definitions of who people are and what they should be doing, comes from religion, government, advertising, entertainment and corporate culture settings.  Dress this way, speak this way, think this way…and so on.

It is in reality, many people operating for the benefit of a few or for no coordinated reason.  Whereas most people in the herd are working, making money, spending money, paying taxes and going along with things because it is a past-looking view.  A patriarchal view of the idealized family structure imprinted upon the society at large.  It is also a convenient responsibility dodge for the timid masses.  As if people become clones of Sgt. Schultz “I see nothing!” becomes the mantra.

It is the status quo.

The individual mind is one person working for their own benefit.

The examples of selfish individuals, concerned only with themselves and their own successes are in everyone’s life.  That is the unhealthy version.  The image of a balance individual is not one propagated through history.  In élite circles, certainly these minds exist, but as ‘shakers & movers’ and ‘captains of industry’.  For a very select few, the whole slate of freedom and individuality have always been available.

The model of an individual naming one’s own self in one’s own terms is not a common one – until now.  What has been needed is for individuals to stop defining themselves on the group’s terms.

Neither a society of only individuals or only the group can be viable..  There needs to exist a middle ground, where the health of the group and the individual are both supported.  Throughout history, the balance of power was tilted toward the group.  With overpopulation, starvation, disease bearing down on us, we will either choose now to find that balance or soon find ourselves without a say in the matter, as military dictatorships place us all under their thumbs ‘for our own good’, using the urgency of the world crises as justifications for their draconian dictatorships (see Bush/Cheney right after 9/11).  We can look in our past and our present for some likely examples: Somalia, Ethiopia, India, Burma, China, Darfur…and that shameful list goes on.

Our societies are in crisis and status quo political and religious organizations propose that we eschew science for religion, and reject birth control for rampant breeding.  Both strategies good only for swelling the ranks of poverty.

Signs of change and a way forward.

Social media is a playground for creating new identities on the fly.  People are practicing the craft, the thought process, the experience, the creativity and the rewards of creating themselves in their own image – for their own reasons.  Web presences in various formats abound with new ones being created daily, from pictures, email addresses, names, avatars, moving characters, sounds and operational / functional creations each serving as a new identity.

Here in the phyisical plane, we are seeing an explosion of ways that people identify themselves in their own terms and for their own reasons.  In terms of sex, gender, body – definitions that have been taboo or criminal for centuries are now simply someone’s way of saying ‘this is me’.  Which, is what they always have been.

Conversations in the lives of trans gender people are among the most rich and fertile examples of the choices and fluidity of self-identity.

Sex-positive groups, blogs and other social meeting points are a place for individuals to practice this new craft of individuals existing in their own terms as a healthy group that can sustain itself and its members.  It is a very exciting time that we live in.  We are watching the birth of a society built upon the strength of individual identity.

This is a weekly post by Arvan. Remember the Open Guest Posting Policy? It still works!

Breathing As The ‘Eternal She’

As a DustyLady who completely and absolutely hates restrictive dichotomies, more often than not I’m squeezed into a tiny box of stereotypes so tight I eventually grow claustrophobic and completely disinterested, barely an inch away from completely disengaging myself from these situations. As Women Of The Broken World, we’re supposed to be either poor, limitless, undeniably open to possession and incredibly in tune with Nature or Gramsci’s little organic intellectuals, capable of seeing through oppression enough to elevate one’s status to an Earth Goddess, imparting wisdom on every stone; while the dusty realities of who we really are conveniently effaced. Sometimes I just need to read an article like this one and hear  distinctive popping sound in the vicinity of my temporal lobes and hope fruitlessly it’s going to end soon. And no, sometimes, even caffeine doesn’t help. Just reading opinions like “I like women from countries that have sustained political turmoil,” makes me want to pack every book I possess, a vat of coffee and just go live in a cave till this blimp called ‘civilization’ is over. In which way can you say Assange isn’t being an arsehole excluding the one that implies cultural appropriation and tokenism is a sign for appreciation? If you can figure that one out, let me know.

Assange translated for everyone -- courtesy Of the Privilege Denying Dude

Once the urge to puke at his every word went away — by the fifth or so read — one thing that becomes clear is the cast of the ‘Eternal She’¹ that is manufactured for women from ‘broken countries’ to keep us at an exotically attainable distance. Exotic dudes are generally just pouty and exude potent sexuality, capable of letting the ‘inner beast’ — of course all exotic dudes are animals inside! Who said colonial tropes have to die anyway? — possess them into taking the WhiteWashed Lilly of a Woman for an erotic journey, but exotic ladies or the ‘Eternal She’ is always in a position of subordination. If the Dusty Lady is not in a submissive position, sexually or otherwise, then she is either Westernised or has 2 parts English ancestry, which makes her not ‘authentically’ Dusty anyway, so giving her quasi agency doesn’t upset the world order. From the drugged tame Auoda who is rescued by the adventurous White Man,  to say Peter Walsh’s Daisy whom he leaves behind in India² as he re-forms his ties with Clarissa Dalloway, and all women that I can’t name right now, so many whose names we’ve erased away, all fit into the shoes of this ‘Eternal She’: Eternally passive, eternally waiting for the White man to rescue her, or just make her more than a minor background detail in the narrative. Her ‘ethnic’ identity comes through from her ‘native garb’ that she loses through the course of the narrative, to something more civilised as a dress or a skirt. In my mind’s eye, eventually their skin goes white as well. In this way, ‘Ethnic’ dress becomes interchangeable with tradition and essentialism, and the female body enters an unstable arena of scrutiny and meaning, till you can change ‘Ethnic’ with ‘Woman’ with ‘Body’ and come away with the same image, ready for consumption at will!

Besides the obvious problems with the ‘Eternal She’ Earth Goddess routine, what is more brutal is the complete ahistoricisation of WOC and their communities. When you place this woman as a representative for her entire ethnic class or group, it becomes quite difficult to think of the ‘Eternal She’ as a product of her specific history or circumstances, considering you just robbed her of her history. One example that comes to mind is ‘Jewel’ from Lord Jim whose name is changed from ‘Ratna’ (which means jewel in Hindi) depriving her of a visceral geo-political location. When characters like Ratna roam the pages of these colonial, cannonised texts we see them as side-steps to the Bigger, Whiter character. Is it that big a surprise when we as WOC still have to prove to the world that, why yes, we are people too? Ratna (in this text) and all other ‘Ratna’s we don’t know are brutally displaced from their land, their people — somehow they still maintain the most stereotypical qualities of their communities — till we begin to see them as isolated specimen in a Female Of The Species kind of way. So if this character undergoes any kind of gendered hardship at the hands of her community, the Bigger Whiter character can save them and still not be accused of abhorrent racism. See? It’s a win-win situation for all; and surely Ratna, whoever she was or is needed to be ‘saved’ anyway. If this ‘Eternal She’ gets the bearing of history on her ‘broken’ back, then she can hold such colonial narratives and spaces accountable for their actions, so twist her tongue till she forgets her culture and people, till she resembles the biologically made Frankenstein, devoid of past and by extension a memory.

Another trope that upsets me with this ‘Eternal She’ routine is how her story is narrated, conveniently told to fit in the agenda of the narrative — from emancipating the Third World Woman to giving a detailed Marxist solution to her problems — that though she speaks, no words come out. Reading Hosseini’s ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ left a bitter taste in my mouth precisely because I couldn’t hear her at all in the book, though the book’s protagonists are two Dusty Ladies. Reproductive labour is the one space that all such narratives love to delve into, while completely forgetting how different reproductive labour is in colonised countries. It’s not a ‘simple’ case of hiring womb services — which is in no way simple actually — it’s an un-negotiated idea that women’s bodies are up for reproductive labour. Here there is no case of ‘surplus’ labour being sold off for profits, for bodies become surplus; a new-age psychic ‘re-memberment’ of sorts, if you will. The ‘Eternal She’ cannot be placed on any Marxist axiom or any other mainstream feminist chart, fixed to be rescued or helped. Instead of urging this kind of faceless framing of bodies, it would do us good to keep our histories, our memories — collective or otherwise — and not consume our part-human-part-animal-part-clone identity of the ‘Eternal She’ on such a regular basis that ideas like ‘women from such countries have stronger and more defined characters’ are commonplace. We’re not your metaphors neither do we exist to lend you wisdom. We are not the Eternal She.

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1. I stole ‘Eternal She’ from Spivak. But we’re both feminists, so stealing is totally okay. Because what is feminism if I can’t plagiarise content from you, right?

2. Yes Daisy is essentially English, but she’s been in India for so long that she is now Dusty By Association™. Yes, I hear it’s quite contagious.

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.

 

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