Yesterday I was cleaning my grandmum’s cupboard as I do every winter on her death anniversary. We’ve given most of her things away, all that is left of this amazing woman are a few clothes, a few letters and many photographs for which I cannot be thankful enough. Every year I see these frayed pictures, and she’s always standing in the kitchen, or the veranda. Some pictures show her in room where the temple is. And a few are with me, standing beside me in the balcony, pointing at something far off in the distance. I’ve seen these pictures many times, today I couldn’t help noticing how in all of her pictures she is in one corner or a room. There are just two pictures of her outside the home space, those are when she went to her native place with my grandfather. This isn’t to say she didn’t ever travel out of the house or that she was kept confined. In fact, my grandmum has visited most of India and a few countries of the Subcontinent as well. But if you just see these photographs, you’ll see a woman always in a room, in a corridor or in the veranda; never is she idly sitting either. She’s either cooking, praying or showing something to her grand-daughters. If I were to construct her life on the basis of these photographs alone, you’d see a Lady who never set foot outside the house, was preoccupied with many household chores as one would expect from any Lady of her generation — or this one too — a life that revolves around others while she is lost in one of the other corners of the house. The truth is, there are many women who didn’t enjoy the class and social privilege my grandmum had, who spent and continue to spend decades in their homes. I don’t mean to intone that this is in any way a negative thing or just blame The Evil Patriarchy for it — how I wish it were that easy! — but rather point out how some spaces are so heavily hued with this blemish called ‘gender; till even their representative counterparts share the same inscription.
These gendered spaces aren’t unique creations of this country or any specific community, rather it is a universal disease. White Women’s writing and even movement has been heavily censored and controlled by their spouses or other male-relatives — from Christina Rossetti to Sylvia Plath — isn’t exactly a secret or a revelation. However, if these women had been Dusty, this LadyBrain thinks their disembodiment would have been much more severe — here we can place responsibility on the Empire all we want! Squee! — as the idea of a Dusty Lady being anything other than an object to be gawked at is a threat to Whiteness. Earlier this year a movie called Eat Pray Love starring Julia Roberts came out and I can safely say I’ve never seen so much loosely packaged neo-colonisation since AVATAR came out. Spaces, people, cities, people all open to lead the Whitewashed tone of the film into giving us a ‘well-rounded’ spiritual journey of a woman who wants to ‘discover’ herself, predictably in adequately exotic countries. For the most part, indigenous people exist in the movie to lend insights to the Poor White Woman who is simply lost, who has lost her appetite for life and simply must appropriate other cultures ceaselessly to feel better about herself. At one point, the protagonist comes to India in search of ‘the spiritual’ — because White people come to Dusty Land for mainly two reasons leaving aside their fascination with Dusty Poor People: Either to feel closer to God in a language they don’t understand or to learn Kamasutra — and quite predictably, we see the protagonist provided with a Dusty Lady (Tulsi) who makes her realise how lucky she is, to not have parents who will marry her off like cattle. Liz enjoys the kind of mobility and agency only White people can in movies and spaces like these, where she says “Perhaps you and your husband will be happy after all” in her parting scene with Tulsi. Another similar example that comes to mind is Elizabeth Russell from Lagaan — yes Dusty films can perpetuate Whiteness too. Insert appropriate gasps here — who is allowed physical as well as social mobility because of her pearly exterior, whereas Gauri is laughed at when she talks about the power Elizabeth yields. In addition, Gauri has to contend being the Third World Earth Goddess, one who soothes the male protagonist’s wounded ego, Elizabeth can openly defy her brother’s imperial policies and is rewarded in the course of the narrative. Even in many books, Dusty or otherwise, the same claustrophobic policing of gendered spaces is upheld when it comes to further erasure of hued women. As readers we’re encouraged by the narrative to sympathise with Jane Eyre while Bertha burns in the attic, to not question when Tagore’s Dusty women remain within the home sphere while his Memsahib’s coo exotically over the ‘enchanting landscape’. Even in Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines, women who identify as Western (though they may never be able to scrub off their hued epidermis) or who are Western are the one’s with any real complexity or nuances. Many Dusty Ladies are simply a litany of names, or are present in the scene just to make their lighter counterparts seem more ‘liberal’ or ‘emancipated’.
Even in literature that comes from pens of Dusty Ladies themselves, strangely we carry our confined spaces with us. In Nabneeta Dev Sen’s ‘Ami Anupam‘, as delightful and wickedly funny the prose is, women almost always speak from within rooms, from the kitchen or from the periphery of the garden; Kamla Das’s ‘LadyInsights’ in her autobiography center around her being completely still and passive — in and out of situations involving coitus even — where thoughts come to her the moment she goes catatonic; Jumpa Lahiri’s Ashima’s silences in the Namesake speak volumes at the dinner table or when she’s cooking food. The names, bodies and faces change, the voice still comes from somewhere within the structure. Like the jarokha Mughals kept their wives behind, Dusty Ladies see and perceive their realities through the gauze of the DudeCouncil’s pre-approved gendered spaces of the inner courtyard, of the back room and other places where silences each come heavily garbed in meanings, waiting to imprint or latch on to anyone who enters. Today, we still have gendered spaces, only now it seems like a unanimous ‘consensual’ action as yet again all Ladies flock in a corner at any social gathering or dinner.
What really perplexes me today is how easily many feminists or ‘gender-sensitive’ people talk about ‘Sisterhood’ without missing a beat, without pausing to consider how much privilege it takes to say “We’re all sisters in a struggle” when the ‘struggle’ we face as Dusty Ladies is more than just a fable of the Third World, it’s our lived reality. Instead of toting around Sisterhood as some kind of badge for identifying as a Lady, it would be wiser of said feminists and ‘gender-sensitive people to make it a goal to aspire toward to: Sans appropriation or patronising Dusty People. I know it will be hard — for where will all the well-meaning neo-colonising-Empire-hugging-people do now? Think of deconstruction as your new hobby and it will just come to you.