As a simple defense of the well-being of my lobes, I tend to not interact with people who believe Culture is one monolithic and omnipresent entity, that somehow it is the particular duty of the “youth” to uphold it and keep it intact, for reasons that sound eerily close to neo-colonisation and imperialism. However, there is only so much a DustyLady can do to avoid such people; especially if this person is the key-note speaker to one of her seminars, avoiding him becomes a tad difficult. This speaker spoke of ‘urban myths’ that the ‘young people of today’ perpetuate and one of them is Lesbianism, supposedly. Of course, he didn’t say it that bluntly; he slid it in as one wry statement and I almost missed it — by the time he got to this part, I was already sleeping — but my friend nudged me and whispered “This dude thinks Indian lesbians are a Western myth, like the moon landing or something” and I couldn’t help laughing and then sighing, because not only is this opinion too popular, it has some inkling of truth as well. Lesbianism is seen as a Disease Those White Hippy Buggers From The 80’s Left Behind In India though authors like Devdutt Patnaik have shown traces of queer identities and characters in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist folklore and mythology. As I’ve discussed earlier, Indian lesbians are made invisible, consciously written off as non-existent to uphold patriarchy, despite a plethora of virtual and real spaces like Gaysi and other LGBTQI forums thrive with many people who identify as lesbian. We’re somehow relatively tolerant of gay men and ‘hijras exist on the fringes of gender and cities anyway’, so we don’t engage with them unless we absolutely have to. But the idea that the SariClad Ladies Of Our Traditional Country™ may have feelings for other people who identify as women, collective gasps and cries can be heard.
It’s interesting to see how such visible absences are re-presented in media and even in everyday conversations, however homophobic they may be, such re-presentations do exist. One of the most famous and early lesbian stories is Ismat Chughtai’s Lhiaf which remains shrouded in ambiguity and innuendos throughout, which still cost the author a court trial for obscenity. Today when we study the text, we try to see beyond the draconian control in the writing and see queer-relations within an airless patriarchal setting; we can almost tolerate it, as long as we contain the author and her work into walls of ‘fiction’ and ignore other contemporary queer artists. Amruta Patil‘s graphic novel ‘Kari’ that voices a lesbian protagonist is seen as an ‘experimental’ novel at best. The nuanced drawings and references in the book — she mentions reading Winterson’s Sexing The Cherry a few times, the Body is shown as a site of navigation of memories and events, exercising agency at all times — are obscured under readings like “look how angry her art is!” or “did you see the pretty colours?” and we deliberately unsee the presence of a queer protagonist. It gets to me when voices of people are rendered voiceless by religion or patriarchy, just because it doesn’t fit in the six by four-foot box that people are supposed to fit in, and those who don’t, we paint them invisible. This making invisible is done under the waving flag of religion, where we firmly state that “our scriptures do not depict such lifestyles ever!”, again ignoring a myth in the Mahabharata that talks of two lady priests who make a son out of the earth, mud and soil pouring life into him, modern re-readings show hints of a queer family model in function; however short the verses describing their life may have been.
Such visible absences become even more painful when we move away to more heteronormative narratives, or stories that fold under the ‘bigger’ causes — Uteruses aren’t big enough causes on their own, of course! — to other side-stories that we just never talk about. Every once in a while the word ‘Kashmir’, ‘Arundhati Roy’, ‘Separatist Movement’ peppers conversation as it is one of the most debated issues right now, passionately arguing for or against the ‘self-determination’ of India’s so-called pride, but when it comes to hearing voices from Kashmir, we turn to stone and pretend Kashmir is voiceless, open to be conquered and possessed. This is why it takes voices like the rapper MC Kash from Kashmir to make songs like ‘I Protest’ that reaches airwaves, ripe for ready consumption, the voice is a heavily hued with hip-hop traditions and sounds so far to what we can localise as ‘Kashmiri’ or even Indian¹, so that we can empathise and sympathise from a cultural distance, see the film before our eyes, nod and stop the song when we want to, without really engaging with the visceral nightmare Kashmir today is. Another recent re-presentation of absence is having Hrithik Roshan play a quadriplegic magician, despite being able-bodied in his real life; we applaud his role for ‘portraying disability’ while obscuring the disability, by prioritising a healthy able-bodied person over zie’s disabled or ‘broken’ counterpart.
And even the disease is made aesthetic as the trailer too shows, it’s a romanticised and a lofty notion — something viewers can only enjoy in theatre halls, not that different from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s (the filmmaker of Guzzarish) earlier film ‘Black’ where he portrays blindness, autism and a few other disorders using the same formula of aestheticism and using able-bodies and able-bodied narratives to almost make ‘real’ disability a myth and a grotesque reality. Once again, we represent absences without ever completely engaging them — not that far away from Colonialism are we?
When these ‘absences’ are interrogated, what emerges out is a society or culture that painfully and willingly turns its head away from ‘pressing issues’; but we can’t use this Society as a scapegoat either — even though I may really want to — as even this ‘wilful’ apolitical bliss is political. It’s a choice we’ve somehow collectively taken in the past few years. We’d much rather ‘proceed forward’ to being one of the nations that are regarded as a part of the First World than interrupt and question these absences. Of course the ‘inconsequential’ muffles coming out of the Invisible — spaces and people alike — are further devoiced by keeping them firmly absent. But who cares about people Progress, Change and Development can’t see anyway?
1. I don’t mean to intone MC Kash is any less ‘Indian’ because he doesn’t sound like one, in his song, or chooses to engage with a Western form of music, but rather that his accent is used to Other him. Also, he’d probably sound Dusty if there were any hip-hop songs that sounded like they haven’t come out of the same New York neighbourhood.