Borrowed Memories And Half-Sounded Syllables

Last week, I saw ‘A Passage To India‘ with my parents and grandma, it started out as a hilarious exercise in pointing out just how many racist elements could one mesh in a movie — turns out more than we can ever count! — and making cynical notes in my head like, “Not all Indians are always smiling all the time, okay?” and “Not all brown women keep their gaze centered on their feet, no not even always in colonial times!” to the part where my grandma started laughing at the “Silly white women trying to speak Hindi!” and then she started telling us about her school days — some 65 years ago when she was roughly about 12 years old¹ — where she and her friends would race to the Colonial Bungalow near their school in Pune, about running right home whenever they’d hear the horses hooves — for almost always it was the British in their town on horses — and trying to touch the fence of the Bungalow but being too scared to physically try it out, to the time when she and her older sister got caught and were lashed for ‘something’ which she doesn’t tell us. She was laughing at how uneven and rough their Hindi sounded, but didn’t know what the movie was about as her English isn’t as good — partly because of the time she was born in and in part because of her own decision to never ‘learn that tongue’ as an adolescent — and for a bit there, mum was transcribing what was happening on-screen and stripping the dialogue, settings from its inherent racism — pretty ironic for  a woman who once protested against the ‘White Imperial Capitalist Hegemony’ in the mid 80’s I thought — and by the time my grandma fully understood why were the White women speaking to the sari-clad-purdah-observing women, it wasn’t funny anymore to her. It took her a couple of days and a few sleeping pills to ‘become’ herself again.

Something like this isn’t a routine occurrence in my household — contrary to popular belief I don’t crumble and break down every time I pass a colonial structure or when I watch English movies or while reading English books — but a movie as specifically racist to Indians as ‘A Passage To India’ or going to the museum, looking at weapons that may have been used on some of my student’s great-grandparent’s are times when I want to re-write history or break away all ties with ‘my’ colonial past — whichever comes first. When faced with historical markers in specific situations, it becomes a tad difficult to view things objectively², to take the position dad took while viewing the film that, “This was an anti-racist book written in the colonial times! Pretty courageous on Forster’s part, no?”, to concede it under the label of This Is How Things Were Back Then. On some level I do understand that Forster like Joseph Conrad was ‘trying to do the right thing’, critiquing colonialism while it was going on — not a terribly popular opinion at that — but I find it very hard to applaud individuals who were more ‘humane’ than others — seeing how both perpetuated harmful and lingering stereotypes of the ‘native’ they were both writing of — to give Shiny Activist Medals™ to Dead White Dudes — a formidable camp on its own — that in no way produced any nuanced critiques of the Empire, not even ‘back then’. While Forster was writing ‘A Passage To India’, talking about Memsahibs and the ‘fascination’ all Brown men must inherently have with White women, we had writers like Premchand³ and Pandey Becan Sharma Ugra writing decidedly postcolonial literature — and many, many Dalit and tribal writers whose accounts  live primarily in their specific community’s oral traditions considering they ‘lacked’ Premchand or any other upper-caste Hindu writer of the time’s privilege to education and position in the caste-hierarchy.

This isn’t to say Forster’s work holds no value, rather that teaching Forster without critically engaging with all of the narrative’s faults would be wrong, especially to ‘us’ as subjects of the ‘ex’ Empire;  it’s’ interesting’ — where interesting stands for the fact Guari Vishwanathan was right all along —  that we as postcolonial subjects are still made to learn many such works and that generally any mentions to ‘postcoloniality’ are kept confined in the upper echelons of academia —  as if ‘theory’ and ‘lived reality’ are two different boxes  and clear demarcations exist between them at all times. The fact we still go on learning such texts without feeling the need to explain the gaps and silences ‘our bodies’ re-present with absences (in the text) or the fact that when we suggest popular genres such as steampunk should be interrogated via postcolonialism as Jha does in her wonderful post is enough to cause fury and all the whitesplainers to come out of cracks and caves — also in Dusty Land, you need not always be White to be a whitesplainer, it’s that special gift we still have from the neato colonisation thing — is because the easy and popular narrative of history is ‘an event that happened, a long time ago’ and cannot have any possible lingering effects, that ‘somehow filter’ down to our bodies. That we see and face neocolonial attitudes that are loosely disguised as ‘globalisation’ and ‘multicultural exchange’ — when each time it’s the dominant culture that dictates the ‘exchange’, if it takes place at all — and that even in ‘brownspace’ we are still grappling with colonial attitudes and mindsets.

One way to look at history is to see it as a way of narrativising time — maps in turn codify space — but what happens to memories? Or experiences that ‘trickle-down’, we set up hierarchies to which experience — or oppression — is ‘more’ legitimate or ‘deserving’ of ‘attention’, what about second-hand memories that live through generations? Seeing mum leave out racism in her narration of the movie to my grandma — initially — altered her memories of her childhood for her, mum’s intervention at the time was out of kindness I assume, but after a point even this intervention is impossible to make after a point. How do you codify such a situation where words are futile and syllables don’t even fully form — as they didn’t form either for mum or my grandma — what happens then? I’m not suggesting wipe out all traces of the Empire — if it were even possible — rather we have to learn to contextualise our bodies in this mix — if and when we can — intervene when we can and not invalidate one another with claims of Whose Oppression Isn’t Real Enough™ to support and view each other through differences and not as a quest to homogenise and smooth over.

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 1. India got ‘independence’ in 1947 technically, but it wasn’t until the mid-1950’s that the officers left. Many had settlements and stayed on here — their ranks may have been stripped off or resigned, there still existed an uneven power dichotomy when they lived as residents as per my grandma’s accounts as well as many other oral accounts.

2. Don’t particularly agree with Brecht there, the dichotomy between ‘critical thinking, feeling and objectivity’ doesn’t exist for me. Who said we can’t think, feel and reflect at the same time — if and when we can — does ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ always have to exist in two separate spheres?

3. This is a good paper on Premchand’s experimental depiction of the Subaltern (the wife)  in his short story the Shroud — though I disagree with the way the paper posits Ghisu as a ‘subaltern’ when his character fits more with Gramsci’s ‘Organic Intellectual‘.

Writing Over Bodies

My book obsession is quite well known, in most circles I move and am allowed in; there is a long-standing joke that I don’t need food but just a fresh page to live. So when my student asked me rhetorically whether I ‘ever tire of theory’, he was rather surprised to know I did — can’t entirely blame him for holding this view, after all I did spend the last seven months talking solely in theories and of texts — in fact, I agree with Spivak¹ when she accuses prose of ‘cheating’. We are taught theory in a manner that we will be able to ‘frame our realities intelligibly’ — pretty problematic on its own already — but when it comes to translating words to practice, somewhere we break and falter. I teach English to children of lower caste and socio-economic backgrounds — technically speaking — this is the space I should be unleashing my postcolonialism in, making sure the harmful ideas that say, “Only a person speaking Good English will ever get a job anywhere”, but I can’t. The truth is, they do need a functional level of English to be employed anywhere  and if I start saying, “Forget the Empire’s tongue! Let’s subvert it and smash the system”, I will confuse them and even humiliate them — for subversion happens once you’ve mastered the tongue — and as first-generation learners of English, learning this tongue is hard enough as it is. On most days, the best I can do is not scold them — as the institution ‘requires’ me to — and not shame them when they code switch² to their native tongues.

(Un)Ironically, what I do end up doing is teaching postcolonialism, Said, Spivak and others to my IB students who are at times even more caste and class privileged than I am. We talk of the Subaltern, while when talking to the Subaltern — my code-switching students in this case — we still re-enforce the most heinous ideas concerning them, their languages and perhaps most importantly, routinely erase their Englishes. When this broken pattern of relating to people above and below us in the hierarchy of being is brought to light, the best we do is, “acknowledge privilege” and then hit a dead-end. The only difference is that now we have Shiny Good Activist Medal™. This isn’t to imply that my students — or even the Subaltern itself — don’t know about the neato colonisation thing, or the reason why certain texts are canonised and others weren’t, we’ve talked of those things — but that’s what it really is: rhetoric, words and talk. These words swirl out of my tongue, out in class, they nod and ask questions and we study on. When they see exam questions using standard forms of English — one they haven’t mastered particularly well — and their ‘intelligence’ is rated on how they fare in these exams, that are designed in an Othering tongue, so to speak. Then we hear stereotypes like,” Those damn Dalit buggers! We educate them, but what use? They still fail exams and waste our time and money. They are basically a waste of space and seats, I tell you!”, when we’re making sure they remain in the same position — one step under us.

Three weeks ago, I went to an international conference on Queer And Transgendered Bodies* and somehow I was one of the few ‘visibly dusty’ people there — whatever that is supposed to mean. The person I went with was Indian too, but she has light-skinned privilege; so when we were talking about some Western Feminist Fail, I got relatively more hostile reactions than my light-skinned friend, who in this ‘temporary’ white space merged in with many speakers and was ‘read’ as white, more than once. When we brought this up in the consequent discussion, it was waved away with, “But we understand why this happens. As a white person, I sympathise with your position and you are right! There are uneven dichotomies present in the world…”, which led the whole discussion to an end as the Shiny Good Activist Medal™ was passed around when people acknowledged that they were, in fact, a privileged group. This isn’t to intone that accepting and acknowledging privilege is easy, or as Jamie explains it, “The more privilege one has, the harder it is to conceive the gap between livable life and mere existence and thus the harder it is to perceive the need to act positively to bridge that gap”, rather that when it comes to not being able to bring my postcolonialism in a class of underprivileged students or about spending days in an air-conditioned classrooms debating the politics of poverty or being accountable to voicing marginalised people, it all boils down to privilege — and just listing or acknowledging it simply cannot do as a ‘solution’. By placing importance on the idea of ‘debunking privilege’ or ‘taking theories down’, what we’re doing is swathing words with more rhetoric — and this is framed as the only way to ‘deal’ with privilege — and thus effectively avoiding doing anything with our said privileges.

What we routinely do in theory — for instance — is separate the ‘object of race’ and ‘subject of racism’, forgetting that any marginalisation happens on bodies, living-breathing-tired-raging bodies. Within feminist circles, ‘intersectionality’ is a term that gets thrown around a lot without realising its magnitude. We frame oppression in neat, tidy terms and columns while this codified oppression leaves physical, psychological and systemic wounds on our bodies³. Acknowledging one’s position in kyriarchy is a start and not the end to ‘owning up to privilege’. We need to contextualise our bodies — if and when we can — see marginalisation outside of words we theorise in, see our unique intersecting identities, how complicit each and everyone is in each other’s oppression and work for a way forward; these bodies of flesh, colour and hues, with history and agency, bodies that are naturalised and silenced. It’s not enough to cite Donna Haraway — for instance — when speaking of a cyborgian reality and using her example of the ‘radical cyborg’ who “makes chips in Santa Rita or India by day” and transforms into a cyborg by night, merging technological and biological boundaries to write (her)self into history, those bodies from Santa Rita and India need to inject themselves into reality and history, by their own will. As marginalised people, accepting and owning our bodies is one of the most radical acts we can do, by locating it in a hierarchy, in theory, in action we can claim support, love, respect and care.

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1. She says, “Plain prose cheats” when asked why she chooses to write terms like “subject-position”, “chromatic-heteronormativity” as opposed to ‘understandable’ terms.

2. Magda has a wonderful post — a phonetic delight to be honest — on code-switching and postcolonial English. The code-switching that happens in my classrooms is a tad different though, here the lack of privilege that ties itself with ‘knowing’ English performs the code switch.

3. Descartes may be dead, but we do love his legacy of dichotomies, no?

*Of course, saying ‘Transgendered’ but meaning ‘perhaps not straight’ and coming nowhere close to any trans* representation at all.

 

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