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?
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.