Speech Through Silences

I got an invite from the Embassy Library this week, inviting me to a dinner they’re holding to celebrate Virginia Woolf’s birthday, the invite carries the stamp of the Bloomsbury Press that the Woolf’s used and there is a quote, “Arrange whatever comes your way”. Had I received this invite two years ago, I’d be squealing with enthusiasm because of the impressive logo, happy that I am a member of a library that holds such dinners — completely unaware of my privilege — I would probably even participate in the auction for the first edition pocketbooks. After all, Woolf was one of my first literary loves, I read every book she wrote in a period of six months at 18; I even presented an extremely gushy paper on her ‘stream of consciousness’ method of writing and how ‘revolutionary’ it was, considering it came from a lady, in a time ladies weren’t attributed to having many ideas or thoughts, how she situated politics of power in the Body amid other fangirly ideas. Today, I want to half-occupy that naïve girl’s space, be that ecstatic and genuinely in awe with Woolf, to not have this pesky voice in my head saying, “You know, if Woolf saw you at this dinner, she’d probably ask you to be removed out of the hall”¹; I want to unknow — in parts anyway — how her narratives construct me, always on the fringe, refusing me entry to her world. Today, were I to even forcibly re-inject ‘me’ or what ‘my body’ represents  in any of Woolf’s narratives, it would be a complete waste as her construction of ‘me’ is a void, leaving gaps for Liberal Humanism to come ‘save me’. And to think a woman and a figure that set out Othering people who didn’t match her skin tone is a cult literary feminist icon drives the idea of constructing the DeTongued Third World Woman home; this Third World Woman represents a frame: one without a body or a voice.

If I were to ‘map’ this dis-voiced body, it appears everywhere from well-loved colonial texts to western feminist scholarship. If I got a paisa for the number of times any White feminist text or study references ‘the Indian dowry system’, ‘the Indonesian women working in sweat shops’ and ‘the eternally toiling Chinese farmer, who also takes the beatings of her husband with equal silence’ then I’d probably be out of ditches to feed and clothe. Most of these texts talk about oppression and inequality in predominantly First World terminology and insert the Third World woman between parentheses, marking the ‘difference’ between both in invisible neon ink; this Western Feminist theorist constructs herself as the ‘Local’ and ‘us’ as the Exotic-Global-Marginal-Animal that is brought out to make the statement stretch beyond America or Europe’s borders, theoretically speaking only, of course². Some take it a step further and go to great lengths to discuss the Devdasi traditions, bonded labour or caste-based prostitution with the feminist-as-tourist-in-an-exotic-land where the theorist exclaims, “I can’t possibly describe to you dear reader, how sad these women’s lives are! My heart gushes for them! I lived with them for about two weeks and now will go on to theorise their life though I probably took out my own interpretations, but these women won’t ever know, because people in ditches don’t read” in perhaps more culturally-appropriative language. It serves to keep the hued woman (or feminine-identifying body) under a cage of ‘difference’, this way the theorist can engage in healthy povertyporn as well as give in to their ivory-tower complex by playing the Theorist With Divine Knowledge Of Feminism That Will Save The Dusty Bodies without acknowledging the privilege it takes for anyone to see people from this anthropological distance  — say, like the one I’m doing now! Privilege bites all our bums, dusty and otherwise — or to offer solutions that are theory and pitch perfect but go hollow the moment any subjectivity weighs in. Quite similar to the Dance Bar Ban of 2005 in Mumbai, in theory this ban aims to ‘liberate women’ but ends up putting sex-work, Dalit sexuality — as a big portion of bar dancers are from the Dalit community — behind stigmatised lines;  making it ‘forbidden’ and impossibly ‘deviant’ in one swift blow, ignoring just how much harm it is doing to the very women it aims to ‘liberate’³. In spaces like these, the Silences of the DeTongued minority speak further and faster than any literary or theoretical mumbo-jumbo.

I’d love to live up to my reputation as a reverse-racist here and say, “These Western modes of feminism are horrid, we should burn all those books and just sit around in our ditches as Third World Women we are trained to do”, but eschewing western modes of feminisms and activism isn’t my privilege or concern. What interests this LadyBrain today is how we can take our colonially-given meanings and forms and twist it to our own cultural specifics, to make sure feminism reaches every marginalised body it has the access to or we will be re-writing yet another discourse that is designed to leave people out. Capitalism may be something Marx theorised first – only in the Eurocentric world that is – but till date, the site for production remains the bodies of dusty third world people, women in particular. More often than not, this Woman-figure becomes metonymic for the nation, her clothes become repositories of tradition, so curbing her freedom and her movement becomes synonymous with charting the body and the Nation, in any nationalist framework. Words glide glaze roam about and around her but very little voicing happens from her Body, meanwhile, the dusty realities of who ‘we’ as Third World Women live and experience step back into realms of fiction and mythology, fissuring our identities. This fissured identity fragments further under English – especially if this English term is learnt ‘by heart’ – so the colonial textual framing of this Third World Woman enters our bodies every time it is spoken aloud, every time we say words like ‘being the bottom tier of the site of production of meaning and form’4 and we absorb the narrative that is woven around us, especially in academia.

For many dusty bodies, feminism becomes another route to get tangled in Words That Are Spoken About Us and never To Us, no denying how colonial and imperial it can be – I’d rather talk about the different varied species of bullfrogs than suggest otherwise – but it doesn’t have to continue this way. Like Vandana Siva the eco-feminist says, “If we locate feminism in the Body capitalism and racism start their dislocation in, and work our way upwards, chances are we’d dismantle gender, class, caste, racial discrimination without even realizing it”. Imagine if we start with Dalit tribes, or any sexual and racial minority, how much privilege are we undoing? The Subaltern, the Third World Woman, The Marginal-Animal-Slave-Object doesn’t have to exist if we focus on the words that come out between cracks, if we see speech that comes from absences this very Third World Woman re-presents to us.

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1. See Woolf’s Selected Letters or Diaries for her intolerance towards Indians.

2. See Gloria Steinem’s Outrageous Acts And Everyday Rebellions, Germaine Greer’s The Whole Woman, Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions, all are texts written in the late 90’s to early 10’s, so the excuse, “But they were writing in colonial times” is moot here.

3. Important to note that the feminists who supported the ban were mainstream upper-caste Hindu feminists who completely failed to see how much this law places Dalit women on a disadvantage. For more on this, see the wonderful Meenakshi Moon and Urmila Pawar’s introduction to ‘We Also Made History’.

4. This line is taken from Kristeva’s essay on Indonesian factory workers

 

Cartographies Of Struggle

As the eldest daughter of a Hindu family, I am expected to occupy a number of spaces that intertwine, merge and blur with the larger idea or identity that I like to believe is me, somewhere inside, that will still remain once the layers of cultural expectations, communally re-enforced values are taken away, not to mention that little role-play where I imagine for a while what would happen had colonisation not been a part of my collective history or memory. Very little of what I believe in — politically or otherwise — is designed to fit into this public persona of the Dutiful Indian Daughter™, we’re expected to be infinitely nice, obedient, subservient and perhaps more importantly, as voiceless as possible; all of this erasing and silencing goes down in the name of religion, tradition and customs. There is a clear demarcation between what is publicly acceptable and what isn’t, the moment that line is crossed, we become people like ‘that’; and everything we do reflects this invisible wall. More often than not, whatever is the ‘negative’ is seen as ‘Western’ and by extension it is bad — this list includes being independent, setting personal and bodily boundaries, speaking too much in English, wearing ‘revealing’ outfits, swearing, smoking, drinking alcohol, making ‘funny’ faces while eating ice-creams¹, sitting with one’s legs uncrossed among many other things. Most of these rules exist for bodies that identify or are read as ‘feminine’ — who cares as how people really identify themselves as long as society can can extend the chromatic heteronormativity to any body it wishes? — bodies that identify or are seen as ‘masculine’ get away with relatively more transgressions; in fact the closer they look ‘masculine’ the easier to overstep and discard boundaries. Meanwhile, ‘real’ identities swirl inside, lay hidden for the most part. God forbid you’re Queer in such a mix, then it’s just Dr. Dilbag’s guarantee to cure teh Queer out of your crotch! But I digress.

Contrary to popular opinion that ‘colonisation is over‘, we still walk move see swirl stand sleep in the DoucheColonial Daze, still go by Victorian standards², still see the image of the Woman In The Wet Sari as iconic to Bollywood cinema — an image that typically leaves the woman at the mercy of the ‘evil rain’ to not have her sari cling to her so much as to ‘make’ Randomly Lurking Dude rape or assault her, she becomes a part of Nature’s fantasy, the dude’s desire-object-animal as well as a spectacle for the viewer watching the film, washing guilt of assault completely away as it’s a part of a ‘performance’. Having dusty bodies open to assault without any kind of responsibility sounds vaguely familiar to colonisation, no? — as well as use the same excuse of ‘she shouldn’t have worn such revealing clothes, if she did then she can’t complain’ in law courts for cases of sexual assault and rape to citing that jeans on school campuses are ‘vulgar‘, we are very far away from shedding the Collectively Colonised Skin. Whether we acknowledge it or not, most of our fundamental ideas of ‘acceptable’ behaviour, sexual or otherwise, reflects Colonial ideals; there are so many who believe ‘reproduction that doesn’t produce children that we can make into Ideal Indian Citizens is of no use’. At this point my LadyBrain wonders if Blake and his supposedly ‘libertarian’ views — libertarian at the cost of his wife, as always — crafted our ‘modern’ sexual sensibility, or are we that controlled by the State. In any case, this web of colonial meanings, forms and words is the one through which we craft and project ourselves, and wrenching ourselves from such draconian standards is no easy feat³.

In such tangled ideas, as Dusty Ladies, our spaces are disciplined and marked, the body is policed and kept as controllable as possible. From such cracks of gender binaries, forced borders and chalk lines, there is a healthy proportion of lesbian and transgendered people despite the valiant — where valiant is the new repulsive — efforts to keep them out of narratives and as invisible as possible, and the lesbians that Deepa Mehta’s Fire brought out in the 90’s till date remains one of the biggest Indian Queer protests. I remember watching photos of women with placards that read, “I am a Lesbian AND an Indian” as a 10-year-old in the newspapers, wondering why is the inclusion of the word ‘Indian’ so important on that placard. Today, I don’t see nationality as inconsequential, considering an overwhelmingly popular opinion is “Such things (read Queer people) don’t happen Here. We are nice, good, traditional people. It must be happening in all those countries Over There”, clearly identifying being Queer to being UnIndian, as if Sarojini Naidu or Toru Dutt never played on homo-eroticism, ever! Especially not when speaking of the ‘Nation’ or ‘Nation-Mother’. That must be some Western Bugger’s doing, surely. Being Queer is being Other, walking and ingesting life as the Outsider because Indian society has no space for ‘such things’, if I am to go by the larger nationalist narrative. Recently, I watched a Bengali documentary, “More Than Just A Friend” on Bengali Lesbians and Genderqueer identifying people, where most of them admitted being hurled with the word ‘Lesbian’ on the streets, in a largely Begali-speaking narrative. This English word sticks out as a sore thumb, it sounded harsher than the curled Bengali consonants too. Using terms like ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’, terms that are specifically colonial in their origin, form and meaning is another step to Other the Outsider’s body and identity. I could claim to the the song-beats of Universal Sisterhood™, say that the term ‘lesbian’ is a liberating one, that being lesbian and Indian isn’t a special set of complications, then I wouldn’t live up to my reputation as a postcolonial reverse-racist now, would I?

Similar to the term ‘hijra’ that stands specifically to the caste-class-intersexed sexualities of the subcontinent– which are sometimes forced to keep the ‘tradition’ going — words like ‘lesbian’, ‘trans’, ‘genderqueer’, ‘gay’ etc don’t completely convey the dusty complications that come with these identities. Perhaps it’s time to start re-defining these terms in our languages — Urdu has a term ‘humjinsi’ which means ‘outside of gender’ — to root them in our crisscrossed hued cartography of identity and of struggle to be included in the term ‘human’. Besides, now that we have a word and a defined term in a regional language, those inane excuses that queer people exist only Over There can be cut up to pieces.

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1. Someone I know got reprimanded for eating ice-cream ‘seductively’ out on public. How I wish I made that up.

2. Parts of our Constitution, particularly that pertaining to sexuality will transport you back to 1821.

3. Number of Bhaba’s or Spivak’s essays do not change this reality, as much as I’d like to believe it.

 

On Peddling Access

This week I heard at an international seminar, “Existing while woman is such a hard thing to do, but I do it because I have no other way out”¹. I thought of saying to this lady, “Existing while woman is indeed hard, horrible, twisted and sometimes oppression’s declassé sibling, Existing While Dusty would be more frustrating, given that we don’t even have Bodies — if I am to see any literature or not-literature that comes out of the West, Center or even Our Core — our bodies are given to us, constructed  with seeds of neo-colonisation, imperialism and capitalism; they’re in a way genetically-socially engineered to ensure we always fit in the shoes of the Other, that this dust you see right under our pores is sewed on carefully so that we remain just where we were fixed so many years ago, and that sometimes I want to sit and bit by bit remove each dust particle out, unravel this debris to see what lies inside, hoping it isn’t yet mutated into something that again just furthers the idea of this epidermal tissue over another”. While I’ve begun to believe in the sacred act of Interruption©, to Not Let People Get Away When They Say Something Inanely-Appropriative, I didn’t say a thing when I heard this, mainly because this isn’t what many Progressive And Liberal-Bending People had come to hear. So if I did foil this plan, it’d foil their money’s worth, as well as make me guilty of having Marxists and other Left-Leaning people think of currency, and that is something my LadyBrain refused to take responsibility for, as there is nothing quite as heinous than having Liberals think they’re being UnLiberal or NotForward even for a second, no? But I digress.

The country they had come to discuss in terms of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ folds itself imaginary border upon border as they talked of sections unmarked by caste and practices, because ‘liberals don’t see such binary distinctions’ and the Land they spoke of had ‘potential’ and a ‘future’, nothing like it reality is, caught in a web of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. What amuses me — where amuses is the new disgust — that these Left-Leaning-Turning-Almost-Right-Liberals’ dedication to unseeing caste and ethnicity of minority tribes as one of the factors they’re kept ‘backward’ as they talk yet again of which policies that will ‘change’ the life of ‘all class minorities’, defining lives of so many people, on class oppression alone, still licking believing Marx’s theory of the feudal-zamindari system, which was untrue then and hasn’t magically righted itself in the past 150 years. The objective of this seminar was clear, “Save the Brown people from their Brown oppressors, and let Marx and Engels decide what is To Be Done Of These People” — they were very subtle in promoting this view, I confess — what shocked me is how many people do actually believe in such dynamics, both Indian and otherwise. Before I could interrupt, one theorist started talking about reproductive labour and simultaneously I saw my braincells leave in a neat row. Words like ‘accessing bodies’, ‘egalitarian goals’, ‘globalised wombs’ swirled around us, as the theorist dabbled on his fanstastical vision of tomorrow’s reproductive labour; as if having the Orient ‘open its wombs’ is a mere co-incidence. What is interesting here (leaving the horrid racism aside) is how a Dusty Feminine Body is assumed to be limitless in a way only third-world-women’s bodies are, infinitely open and possess-able². Many doctors and scholars insist that surplus reproductive labour isn’t exploitative, especially because compensation for ‘womb’ services are rather generous, which just page one of Google proves wrong.

Another question that I can’t wrap my thoughts around is, who decides ‘surplus’ on reproductive labour? How can anyone determine that the Body has ‘x’ amount of reproductive value and everything else is surplus is there any way of possibly determining what the body can or cannot do? — that after a ‘certain limit’ this labour or value becomes sellable. Of course, it’s pesky giants like neo-Empire that insists this ‘surplus’ value should be translated to money, and the caste-class-religion minorities do all they can, to survive for which I can never judge them. My problems step in — and are unanswered — when we begin to question the autonomy of these ‘womb-carriers’ or ‘breast-givers’ in such transactions, autonomy that legal documents do not support nor encourage. To further ‘complicate’ matters, many hijras also solicit their bodies³, as their other options are to beg for money, gatecrash weddings, make ‘profit’ from the mystique and Othering society places on them. As hijra bodies, their bodies and gender presentations don’t conform to ‘normal’ (read: chromatically heterosexual) manifestations, again questions of ‘surplus’ remain static. For instance, a hijra woman’s womb may be categorised as ‘surplus’ — because labelling people like laboratory animals is quite fun, no? — as zie doesn’t ‘need’ or has ‘no use’ of her womb, so to speak. But the ‘rates’ of hijra wombs are considerably lower because of their chromosomal anomaly, as people don’t want to ‘use outcast bodies’ if they can help it. In many cases, hijra women make less money than they would in their ‘traditional’ activities of begging and dancing. So is the ‘value’ of such a womb still ‘surplus’?

The insistence of the Left-Leaning-Right-Liberals that, ‘when people consent to certain trade activities, things like caste and religion don’t matter, only monetary gain or loss does’ disables the exploitation dusty wombs go through, precisely because the narrative of class-oppression is given importance, while consequences of being caste-religion-sexual minorities are consciously erased so that consumption of Third World Reproductive Labour can take place with a ‘placated’ conscience and ‘without any violations’. Access is peddled to us, through us, so that the guilt of erasing and privileging bodies goes invisible. How’s that for being Liberal?

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1. This was supposed to be ironic humour. But, all irony is lost on me when not-Dusty people start sprouting the woes of their lives, especially when they refuse to acknowledge what their Light Skin is screaming to me in neon signals, which is basically, “I’m shiny, you’re not. So I win”. Or maybe I have no sense of humour at all, which is understandable because ladies aren’t supposed to be funny anyway.

2. Ask Chandra Talapade Mohanty, she’ll explain everything.

3. “We must make use of all the body parts we can“, Jyoti a hijra said this, when asked why is she a prostitute as well a womb-subject of potential surrogacy in a CNN interview.

Re-Righting Nether Roots

Breathing as the Dusty Third Worldling on a regularly alarming basis, is a difficult space to occupy, surely; even more so if you identify as feminine, which by this time almost always needs a special mention, like a parentheses of obligation. Given the Empire’s dedication to mapping and charting such invisible spaces, boundaries and borders often make me anxious and claustrophobic. Growing up with the ‘Kargil War’ being a part of the bigger, back-ground, constant state of war with chalk lines between two supposedly different countries of the Subcontinent, hearing rumours in the school playground that America was going to invade us — soon after 9/11 — that Pakistan is going to launch an attack, that people from Over There may come in any time and take us over like they did in ‘those’ countries like Iraq and Iran, that it was indeed true when we’d hear someone’s aunt’s sister’s cousin’s maid’s mistress’s sister had fled Over There because these days patriotic-and-patriarchally-inclined people decided it’s quite okay to invade borders and bodies personally because they belong to the ‘opposing country, that ‘those’ horrid buggers — any nation we’re displeased at the moment comes in this category — are going to be the End Of Us, destroy the sanctity of a country as diverse, at parts even ‘broken’ like ours and then you’d hear sighs when people said, Leave It All To God. I’d think of all this when I’d pore over maps and atlases with my sister, tracing ‘borders’ with our fingers, see if we can stretch edges and make it a Nation Of The World, like our geography books said with, what seemed to me, utmost confidence. At the end, I’d read a paragraph that countries like India and ‘Others’ of the Subcontinent, continents like Africa are a part of the Third World or the Nether World — as my Childcraft books called it — and that such countries haven’t joined the First World, but if they ‘work harder’ and ‘do more’, one day we’d join the league of ‘developed nations’ too.

So, being a Lady born out of such Nether Roots, when I sit to write in my NotMotherTongue, I break and close while trying to form words and shapes of sounds; especially when I use this ‘harsh’ tongue English sometimes becomes to me to talk about ‘my’ roots or my experience that sees the world through dark-tinted glasses with splotches where ‘religion’, ‘culture’, ‘regional tongues’ intertwine to make what I can half-claim as ‘my world’. I was going over my earliest short stories this week and (quite predictably), they smacked of something Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie would write, with characters that had names I’d only see in such books, always in search of the ‘perfect Indian sun’. It’s only in the last six years or so that I found the knotted and restrained writing of most Dusty Ladies, echoing the truth I was feeling but could somehow never word out. A few months ago, a relative asked to read my ‘writing’ or the short stories I was working on, and when I showed it to her, as much as she wanted to support and encourage me, she said that, “Are you sure this is our reality?”, words I can’t seem to forget now; for in less than ten seconds, she’d outlined the biggest problem I face when writing out ‘my’ world: The Cultural Polemic that somehow speaks in a collective echo instead of ‘one voice’. Even while growing-up, seeing the occasional Indian contestant in whatever American game-show or later, ‘reality-show’ meant knowing ‘their’ victory was somehow compulsively caught with ours, and that any flaws that person would show on TV would be marked somewhere on our skin too. One writing advice I’ve got repeatedly — advice I specifically didn’t ask for — is that, “Forget everyone else, just write your own story” as if this ‘personal’ and the ‘public’ were indeed two neatly ordained narratives, and as if I could easily slip ‘in’ and ‘out’ of each at will, as it were. Relegating the ‘personal’ to the ‘political’ or trying the inverse isn’t an option, for Dusty Ladies — supposedly — Never Air Dirty Laundry, be it in private or public, because as it seems we don’t have any ‘dirt’ to show anyone anyway. Maybe this is connected to the idea when ladies write ‘angry’ writing, it comes from a deep and a dark space — maybe even the uterus? — and that this ‘anger’ that women have is just for attention or to join the race to become the country’s Next Best Prostitute¹. But I digress.

Constructing realities for me (and it seems many other dusty ladies²) is a problem, mainly because we can’t seem to divorce the personal from the polyphonic polemic reality we see around us. Either the words are too harsh or too far removed from the reality, because Cartesian dichotomies are quite fun to see the world with, no? Either, the words are completely censored, or the ‘fantasy or dystopia’  enters reality through tubes — as it does routinely for Mahashveta Devi — and then the stories don’t matter at all; for if it’s a fantasy, then it can’t have any bearing on our dusty backs or daily lives, of course. To voice such entangled truths, that we’re perpetrators, victims, enemies, servants and commanders of this epistemological violence, that the Empire may have crumbled — if history is to be believed at all  — and we’ve created a new one in its place. As the Universal is designed to leave hued bodies like mine out, speaking from the personal is the only choice there is, at least until you ignore the censorship that sometimes runs bone deep. And after having these thoughts get past between my brain and eyes³, if any words do come out, it’s very difficult to not paint the picture like Shobha De tends to do, to show conflict that is consumable and easily resolved with a few — if at all, any — changes in the class structures; or to see the world through a single lens of ‘wholeness’ and ‘oneness’ the Indian government is always too quick to rationalise ‘diversity’ as. There are times, my friends and I wonder how would it feel to buy into the Nationalist Vision of India, to see it as a burgeoning economy which has somehow no debt to pay to the various people it oppresses — for ‘dalit’s’ are all ‘Maoists’ anyway, surely — and to enthusiastically and guilelessly cheer with Obama whenever he and the power he symobilises urges us to ‘do more’. Most times, we can do nothing beyond indulge in such empty fantasies, for we do know, that the moment the tongue starts twisting truths, it spits sharp stones edged syllables, no matter how thinly we veil it or not.

As a lady, who has always had history narrated to me, by people who do not resemble me, in a language that is not mine, many times, history feels like an interesting story someone’s weaved, but never physically real, were I to only rely on books and no narrativised accounts, of people I know and those I don’t. In such cases, I often wish I could change history, frame it as I see fit, stretch out voices that get shut in, and mostly, ‘erase’ the idea that we’re somewhere ‘down under’; so in some fiction pieces, I tried that too only to see the words didn’t sound like my tongue could ever form. It’s taken me a long time to see that I’m not a ‘point of access’ for people — familiar or otherwise — to my localised ‘history’, that constructing a reality that make me comfortable in my skin is the one that is going to dislocate someone else’s, or that I don’t need to be ‘away’ from the ‘story’ or ‘land’ or ‘soil’ that I see as ‘mine’ to build it successfully. Mostly, it’s a relief to find that Re-Righting My Roots isn’t my privilege, nor my duty, all I have to do is sound this ‘voice’ that comes as close as it can to mine, before I forget it altogether.

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1. Because ladies write about the time they had coitus (even consensually! Gasp!) or the time they wanted to indulge in coitus (even consensually! Gasp!) was enough for some famous dude to claim that Indian Women Writers Are Basically Doing The Prostitution Under The Name Of The Feminism. And dude’s opinions on ladywriting is never wrong, obviously.

2. Ask the ladies in the ‘Storylines‘ anthology, they’ll explain.

3. I stole this from Regina Spektor, but it’s alright because we’re both Ladies and therefore practically the same person, no?

Sub-Merged Margins And Us

Last week while returning a couple of books at the library, I saw the woman in the line next to mine was holding a copy of  ‘Writing Caste, Writing Gender‘, a book I’ve read cover-to-cover a few times. She saw me looking at the book and started  a conversation about the editor and how this was her first book on Dalit feminism. So I told her a few other names, and she marveled how I knew ‘so much’ about ‘them’ — as it turns out I’ve got ‘Privilege’ and ‘Hindu’ stamped on my forehead in invisible neon ink — because as she assumed correctly, I couldn’t possibly be ‘one of them’¹. While I smiled at her, I was cringing inwards to see how swiftly she spoke in ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ speak, forgetting the ‘We’, we forged somewhere in the middle, if the Constitution is to be believed at all. As insulting her words were — of course she ‘meant well’, after all Hindu Ladies have never really been evil, check our scriptures if you want! — this erasure of Dalit people, or the failure to acknowledge them as humans isn’t new. ‘Caste’ seems to be a word we love to forget, dropping it from our consonants as if it doesn’t matter at all, or as if the entire country just comprises of one monolithic Hindu ethnic identity. Moving across borders, an otherwise non-imperial article on Nepali bonded labour of little girls mentions the intra-generational debt, servitude and communal ‘tradition’ of gendered slavery, but yet again re-writes caste-struggle as a largely class-based one. Any time people want to play hide and seek with the term, I can only think of my aunt who calls Dalit women, ‘women like that‘ and almost wish I could ask them to pronounce the word like I do with my students when we learn new French words and phrases, just to make sure the word ‘caste’ can sound from their tongues too.

Looking beyond India’s borders, when the words ‘an Indian lady‘ are mentioned, the image that is the most popular is the Sari-Clad dusty woman, preferably looking docile and happy. Even a Dusty Lady as internationally recognised as Arundhati Roy, or rather the image² we know as ‘Ms. Roy’ caters to the same trope where beautiful bodies of spectacular South Asian women in silk and cotton saris, face framed with wispy, curly hair invites the consumer to gobble and cement the Image Of The Third World Woman as the one of Serenity, Peace and Wisdom™ and by extension further exotifying us. And in this one idealised ‘womanhood’ or ‘femininity’, Dalit or ‘lower-caste’ femininity, needless to say has no space to survive. No matter how subtle a form of body-policing is, when you erase or censor a body you censor words and voices too, the art of which Hindu society has perfected over centuries. In feminist circles and academia, talking about the Self as the Margin is a lofty trend, for occupying ‘Marginalia’ is the new PovertyPorn, where you can critique and consume your position in one easy move! While writing while woman is a hard job, writing while ‘marginal’³ is a far more lucrative option — especially if you belong to a community that does indeed squat in the mud, for nothing says ‘marginal’ like a ‘tribe’ or a ‘family’ that lived on trees or was related to Gandhi. While manufacturing this parallel universal that caters solely to the DoucheColonial Gaze of the Universal, bodies that are Othered step another foot back into oblivion. This is probably why we know of Jumpha Lahiri and not Bama today. Embodying the ‘marginal’ in writing films, in manners wise or otherwise, smacks too much of the lens filmmakers like Shekhar Kapur or Danny Boyle use, namely: See How They Squat Prettily, while guilting the audience into tears and gasps and nodding solemnly when it comes to collecting the profits. Playing this CharityCharade works only if the audience wants to see the same breakdown of seeing brown (feminine) bodies being saved from brown (masculine) bodies or any other notion that doesn’t challenge any Empires, of years past or the one we live in now.

A few years ago, when I went to Delhi the first time, like the over-excited tourist I did go to see the Taj Mahal and the tour guide spoke of length about the screens through which the Emperor’s wives looked from, the rationale behind them being somewhat similar to that of the hijab, to protect the woman from the MaleGaze and to preserve a certain amount of modesty. He used a funny word, he called it ‘women’s wall’ and since that day, any time I see any predominantly Mughal construction, I always look for that ‘women’s wall’. Recently, in many academic and theoretical discussions, this ‘marble slab’ or women’s wall builds itself up too, whenever the talk shifts to ‘those lower castes’ who always must be ‘given a solution to work with’. As upper-caste Hindu Ladies, there are quite a few systems that keep our tongues heavy, at the same time, we perpetuate the same suppression by keeping other feminine bodies and spaces as curtailed as we can, playing into the bait of embodying the victimiser, if only for a little while. Margins still exist, even if they’re constructed by feminine spaces or bodies; the ‘lower’ caste feminists need to erase their invisibility one step at a time, in spaces that are feminist and otherwise; whether we acknowledge this de-tonguing or not, it is a daily reality for them. Like the Bigger Whiter Universal culture sees many women of colour as ‘revolutionaries’ — or ‘terrorists’, pick one according to your mood! — as we come from ‘politically unstable countries’, the Dalit Woman is also cast as a Maoist, out to kill and destroy the precious government.

The Gendered- Subaltern, which occupies the lowest step on the ladder of humanity, is seen as a ‘submerged’ land, which will unfold and break away from the chromatic hegemony of Upper Castes and Classes, only through unraveling itself via memories, private testimonies and mainly, by re-writing and re-voicing it’s ‘voicelessness’. In this frenzy to ‘heal’ and ‘join’ spaces, people, communities — only tokens, mind you — repeatedly cast ourselves as the ‘marginal’, the detongued animal-subaltern-marginal sub-merges, bobs up and dives into silence. A few years ago, Spivak asked whether this Subaltern even has the ability to speak, today another question pops up, IF the Subaltern speaks, can we even listen anymore?

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1. We have a lot of convenient labels for all sorts of unnecessary words. Instead of saying ‘people’ or ‘Dalit’ we just say, ‘them’; which serves as a distancing and a condescending tool, all in one.

2. This ‘image’ of Arundhati Roy has nothing to do with her as a persona, activist or an author but rather how this ‘persona’ is packaged and sold to us, engaging in (ironically) the same dichotomies her texts generally break away from.

3. ‘Marginal’ is the liberal-elite version of the Marginal –as it were — where differences are constructed so they can mark, decode bodies and cultures easily for instant consumption.

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