Re-Claiming Subversion

I haven’t written here for more than a month, because honestly I didn’t trust myself to write without exploding into particles of dust, or if I did manage to write somehow it would only be selective expletives repeated over and over — I’ve been more than just a little angry. Warning to readers, I’m not writing this to cater to your sensibilities, nor is this the moment to profess how you belong to [x] group but don’t do any [abc] I talk about. I am exhausted with keeping my anger inside, and it’s coming out in all insidious ways today.

When I repeat out of frustration to western feminists — yes western feminists get clubbed in the same indistinguishable a bubble as “South Asian feminist” feels to me — that abortion wars here are different, we face different demons, we use different strategies, all they seem to hear is “India doesn’t consider abortion is illegal! They don’t have anything to complain about!”. Yes, factually, the Indian nation-state hasn’t outlawed abortion, that can hardly be cited as evidence to prove that there aren’t any problems. Or on the flip-side, almost every feminist (or not) publication from the Global North talks about the problem of female feticide India — additionally India and China are used interchangeably for some reason, as if any place that is Not the Global North must be a homogeneous mass of cultures  — to the extent that “feminism in India” means “sex-selective abortion”. There is a problem with using and perpetuating such a model, where you start equating a region’s “gender problems” to its feminism is probably the preliminary layer of fail; I’ve talked about  it long enough. What you leave out when you stick to the primitive equation of “Indian feminism = sex-selective abortion” are the many methods that the State designs to keep contraception from people who want to access it, to forcibly sterilise groups which the State thinks need to be curbed and even erased. It infuriates me that whenever one speaks of “sex-selective abortions” and its evils — yes fetuses are being aborted because they’re perceived to be ‘useless’ as they’re female, and it is evil, it needs to end, no disputing this fact. But there’s more to just a “culture thinking females are unworthy” that people don’t want to engage with — what western feminists don’t even consider is the way discourse around contraception figures here; mainly because they’re too busy presuming that it’s the same as it is in their native countries, but I digress.

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Making Our Bodies Matter

A friend and I started talking about communities, alliances and feminism(s) a few months ago — this conversation is a brief culmination of our identities and ideologies.

Me: Writing about bodies isn’t too difficult for me, that was until I realised “writing about bodies” meant writing of bodies other than mine, or even if I were to write about myself, the language automatically becomes clinical, my gaze objective and the talk goes to whatever is ailing me — it’s never about how I feel about my body, my relationship with my scars or what I see when I look in the mirror. As I am now living in a new city and adjusting to the weather patterns here, I have to take more care of my skin here than in I did in Mumbai, I have to leave myself notes to apply [x] cream before my heels crack and bleed — it’s such a jarring experience to see that my body has carried on without me (in a sense), has already started cracking, started healing in some parts while I have gone on and done something else. It all came to a head when I was thinking of Suheir Hammad‘s words — when she says “What am I saying when I say I sit in this body, dream in this body, expel in this body, inherit in this body” — where she posits the body as a start to all experiences, and here I was forgetting to take care of my body altogether, even in the most routine and seemingly trivial ways. I’ve often complained to friends that I feel ‘bound’ in this city — as public transport systems are irregular and auto rickshaws are a luxury I cannot always afford — so most of my ‘movement’ is between my apartment, the massive Uni campus and its libraries. Now that I re-think what I mean when I say ‘bound’, I mean more than just physical limits to where I can go or am kept from, I find limits in my syllables and expressions — precisely because my body feels those limits more intimately and primarily, as if my body translates these borders in the silences that creep up everywhere, from my thoughts to my academic writing. It’s only when I completely stopped producing words and syllables a week ago, went for a three-hour long walk, felt my words come back to me as I described to my guardian just why were my heels bleeding this time I realised how closely my body felt limited here*

*This isn’t to say there weren’t other barriers in Mumbai, just that navigating these particular changes is an entirely new experience for me.

Renee: It’s equally jarring to see your body stopped in time, unable to keep up with you, and trying to formulate contingencies for when it starts to slide backwards in time. This has been my experience since losing my job just more than a year ago.

My teeth hurt all the time now; one has eroded almost to the gum line, and I touch them constantly with my tongue and my fingers to make sure none are loose. I waited out a UTI two months ago, but an ear infection still lingers (and makes my teeth ache even more). There is no money for a doctor or dentist to attend to current ills, never mind the dreams I once had for my body. Most upsetting, when my current stash of hormone pills runs out, in perhaps a month or so, I may not be able to afford more, and at that point the person I know as me officially begins to disintegrate. I never really knew myself before starting hormones, and the threat of losing that is terrifying beyond what I can describe. Already I find myself glancing in the mirror more often, touching my face, to make sure I still exist.

But it’s not just the physical degradation I feel. For now, I’m staying in a friend’s spare room, sleeping upon a mattress on the floor, with all my worldly possessions piled in boxes around me. My days are lived largely in the space between my bed and the downstairs basement, where the household television is. I have few reasons to go anywhere else, and fewer resources to do so. I wear the same clothes most days, because to do anything else means doing more laundry, which inevitably costs someone money, even if that someone isn’t me. I don’t shower every day, or moisturize, or shave, or wear makeup, because all of those things are an expense too…and so again my body suffers.

It’s apropos that my body gets neglected first and most, as it’s the rejection of my body by others that led me here. Slowly it decays, out of sight and forgotten.

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Thinking In Tongues

Lately I’ve been very busy translating things — French things to English, diluting some literary Gujarati with the help of my grandma and strangely, also my thoughts from English to my native tongue(s) as this summer break she helps me read in a few tongues that have been rusting inside me since the past few years.  For a long time, English has been my go-to language and my native tongues occupy a secondary position, of horrid pidgins that mix many tongues and dialects — which are hilarious at best and painful at worst — and a language I must use with family, with people who aren’t fluent enough in English, a language that is substituted for English and even then I barrel this tongue with English words — I don’t see this as a necessarily bad thing, just illustrating how no matter how hard I try, my native tongues come to me as an after-thought. Sometimes, my grandma will ask me to read પાની and instead I read “water” in my head, and to save face say the Gujarati word out loud — but she knows anyway that it doesn’t come to me ‘naturally’. Generally we smile at each other when this happens, she asks me to try again and I instruct myself to think in my mother tongue, and it works for a while. Then in about two minutes, she asks me to read a whole sentence and I am again judging it by English syntax and grammar forms. I don’t need to learn to speak read write in these tongues, those I did as a child either in school — where the State you belonged to dictated the tongues you’d learn  — or at home where we speak our mother tongue. It’s thinking in different tongues that I am working on and so far, miserably failing.

For years, my English and the ‘talent’ to say things well have been indistinguishable from my identity as an upper-caste Hindu lady, “who will one day go to the U.S. also and write big-thick books for people to read” to borrow my cook’s words as she describes who I am and what I will do — according to her — to her neighbours. She says fondly, “Look at her English, I want my daughter also to speak like her! How fast-fast she goes, sometimes talking liddat on the phone and marking something in study books also” as her neighbours smile politely at us. I’ve gone to this neighbourhood since at least the past decade or so, I used to play with many children who now don’t speak with me at all, and if they do only in English — They say, “How you do” and I used to say, “ठीक हूँ” — and they’d get embarrassed and I’d get angry that no matter what I did ‘those people’ don’t want to speak in their native languages — it’s taken me a lot of time to see how them addressing me in English was their way of leveling ground between us and me stomping all over it and patronising them and replying in Hindi was nothing but my privilege raising its head. English still remains for us a class and a cultural marker, a certain kind of English that you speak marks you from which part of the city you come from — if you code-switch and say, “I don’t know, ask ajoba no” for instance, pegs you from North Mumbai — and the more ‘unadulterated’¹ your English is, the better education and class background you are assumed to have. It didn’t help that I am ‘convent educated’ — a phrase we treat as a synonym for ‘Good English And Decorum’ — and was taught by British and Indian nuns who’d both tell us that “Your native languages can stay at home. Here we speak English — like people“. So we’d speak at lunch in our native tongues, but even that stopped as we grew older and English was just more convenient; plus by then, speaking in English meant Serious Business².

Today, I can re-learn to think in my native tongues because I have the privilege to, because I’ve been code-switching for years at home, because I know English considerably well and can have the luxury of enjoying my native tongue. Language is where we locate our power dynamics in, from these lenses we view and read rest of the world — and me writing in મારી ભાષા will be viewed as ‘reactionary’ or me trying to ‘smash the Empire’ or maybe I have an ‘agenda’ instead of it seen as one of my tongues, my Englishes as I weave both tongues into one. Things only get more complicated when I am read out of contexts — ones I can control and especially ones I can’t — and we’re still talking and parsing each other in English. If I could, I wouldn’t still be able to write in my native tongues, because I wouldn’t be ‘understood’ — mainly because the internet may hypothetically be a ‘global platform’, in reality the digital dollar lays the rules down. To keep the ‘intersectionality’ badge shiny many western feminists love to theorise ‘race’ matters from the omnipresent douchecolonial gaze — where all the third world feminist issues are child marriage foot binding dowries FGM female feticide corrective rapes ‘sex-slave’ industry bounded labour and nothing else — where the western feminist can ‘interpret’ our cultures as ze sees fit — usually as metonymic for all our hybrid realities, to the extent that “Africa” becomes FGM, “India” becomes “child marriage and female feticide” and nothing else, all this is done in the culture of ‘solidarity’ and to extend sistersong.

It’s not that big a surprise that when regional and local feminism(s) are “translated”, almost always it’s an Orientalist view of the third world, where the western feminist can be a shocked and horrified of the lives we live daily in the third world — and the most common reason I’ve heard is, “Well we are all women, we can understand each other”³ — and for ‘understanding’ each other, my life has to be translated in English, in contexts and terms it doesn’t belong in. Two weeks ago at a transnational feminist conference, a western feminist asked me what is the ‘safe’ way to promote solidarity — and I’ll still stick by my answer: Learn my language, it’s only fair because I learnt yours.

Maybe then, in the gaps and silences a translation leaves western feminists will understand learning our tongues won’t do much — as learning a tongue and thinking in one are two entirely different things and that one is a skill and another a re-clamation of the marginalised; I hope I’ll reach there someday.

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1. Read ‘unadulterated’ as not ‘tainted’ by our devilish heathen native tongues, of course.

2. It is even More Serious Business when parents use English out in public to scold us. That’s when hell freezes over.

3. Direct quote.

Learning Relevance Through Erasure

One of the few things people connect with India besides Slumdog Millionaire and hub of cheap Third World labour are the epics Ramayan and Mahabharat — which are of course, anglicised to Ramayana and Mahabharata. Almost always, these epics are seen as the narrativisation of ‘the great oral tradition of storytelling’, basing this tradition in the past, which not only increases the net worth of such a text but also binds the epic with ‘history’; it’s seen as a ‘pre-colonial’ Indian¹utopia and as the ‘pure’ culture, while neatly obliterating the existence of more than a few hundred narrativisations of these epics — which are subjective to the caste and class of the community they come from — and they’re seen synonymously with Hinduism and our religions — meanwhile western epics like the Iliad and Odyssey are seen as Great Literature and not the representative of a population. Thanks to this pact with ‘history’, these texts are seen as — forcibly — situated texts that describe how Things Were Back Then and almost always read when mirrored with Christianity or the western gaze. So when the text turns out to have any contemporary beliefs or depict any ‘modern’ behaviour, it is hailed as a new ‘discovery’, when in reality these ‘discoveries’ have always existed in the texts. Insert quip about colonisation here.

Lately, there is a new surge of reading ‘religious’ texts through a queer perspective, which perplexes me to no end — for these particular texts, Mahabharat especially, have always been queer texts. I grew up with stories from the Mahabharat and have known tales of Krishna and Radha role-playing and switching genders, Arjun living as a woman for a year with a man’s mind, Draupadi as the daughter born of a man’s body — and these are a few instances I can remember without even looking at the texts my grandmum used to read. Agreeably, in most re-tellings of this epic, even these gender transgressions are somehow inserted into patriarchy — Krishna becomes a ‘womaniser’ who doesn’t mind ‘playing around’, Arjun is written and seen as a character who ‘just dresses as a woman’ while retaining his identity and physical form, Draupadi’s birth is naturalised — however what these studies do is anthropologically ‘carve out’ queer instances and characters, instead of just rescuing the regional-dialectical re-telling from the mainstream one. Not to mention, even these queer characters are seen through the Western lens and then we have debates and papers arguing just why Arjun isn’t a trans* character, without taking into account that being trans* across different cultures or that even ‘queer’ manifests in different forms here. Because of such ritual and continuous exotification, books like Devdutt Pattaniak’s ‘The Pregnant King‘ are a cause for wonder and amazement in the Western world — more like a mild case of, “I used to be Brown but now I Think!”.

The Pregnant King is a text that narrativises and fictionalises the tale of a childless king who was a contemporary of the Pandavs, thus we know the setting is around the Kuru-kshtera war, but it moves on to its obscure characters — some of the most fascinating are Somvat a Brahmin boy who transforms to a woman to be with his lover, a queen who cannot rule because she is a woman, a woman who is raised and eventually identifies as a man and the protagonist who drinks a magical potion that makes him father a child and is then uncertain about his identity — written in English to either get a wider (Western) audience or to cache it under the genre of ‘fantasy’ considering the author is on risky ground for ‘questioning the sanctity of the epics!’. It goes without saying, writing such a novel does take courage, keeping in mind the religious-state-sanctioned communal identity most of the politicians thrive on, how most people view these texts as religious dictats and not just tales, how most of the Hindu-cultural identity is coded into these texts and the fact that the author takes great pains to illustrate gender and caste biases wherever possible. So on some cognitive level, I can appreciate the efforts of the author, but there are too many silences and silenced voices in this text to go un-noticed. As the text is written in English, names are anglicised², alienating me in the process — every time I said the anglicised names out loud, they’d seem foreign and harsh as they don’t roll off like the Sanskrit names do — but I’m used to such translations. What really unsettled me is how culture is diluted and broken down into actions — for instance the puja is described as an “appeasement of Gods with flowers, food and waving of lamps” — is if to make sure the Omnipresent Western Reader would understand every ‘exotic’ word used. Much like footnotes used by the British to ‘comprehend the Hindoo animal’ this text too explains each cultural practice. An apsara is called a ‘nymph’, a bhrama-rakshas is called a ‘demon-spirit’, a yaksh is called a ‘goblin’, each time reminding me that the culture I grew up in is legitimate only when tied to a western-marker. I can already see people protesting, “What is your problem if a text is made relevant? This way more people can read and appreciate it” — this is only half-true. More people will read it because it’s a ‘queer’ perspective to a ‘sacred’ text, an aura of taboo mixes with the erotic thus making it more consumable and irresistible. We don’t always need these western-markers to ‘understand’ a text — I grew up reading words, terms, cultural practices like “Chaise”, “Halloween” etc without anyone  explaining what they exactly meant, read Wordsworth’s infamous poems on Nature and Daffodils without ever smelling the flower for instance —  and turned out quite okay. Reading Dickens was a nightmare — besides his countless race and genderfails — because of so many cultural practices he’d mention that I’d never heard of, so it was Dickens Plus Dictionary in my household. Somehow, just somehow I ‘understood’ it all — no one had to tell me ‘English tea’ was nothing like the chai women in my house would drink in the afternoon — I knew our cultures were different and this difference was used to map supposed inferiority in our skins and authority in theirs.

In addition to dilution of culture and specific practices, the climax of the novel is the fact that most gods are male, female, both, neither all at once and then Yuvanashv comes to terms with his identity that presents as a male and yet he gives birth to his son — by the time I got to this bit, reading had become a chore. Anyone familiar with Hindu mythology knows that Gods are not separate from their feminine forms — Shiv is Parvati is Kali is Krishna is Radha is Indra and so on — but because we read these texts as one does Christian (Western) ‘religious texts’ which are more or less gendered, these characters are also confined to the gender binary. Then of course, liberal universities and humanities departments host fests that ‘uncover’ the ‘queer’ elements in the texts — once again re-enforcing a half-swallowed truth: We Don’t Exist, Till They Say We Do. Growing up too, I learnt that to ‘gain’ relevance I must be ‘understood’ — and if you ‘understand’ the Other, you can possess and chart the Other — and this ‘understanding’ comes when I erase myself, a culture I was raised in, markers that tie me to my current geopolitical location, become a tabula rasa and wait for the Nice Imperial Person to write over me, for only then I am given existence. And people still don’t believe that colonisation exists, or that we live such fissured lives because of our colonial past.

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1. This is factually  incorrect considering the fact one of the first colonisers were the Iranians, dating back to 1800 BCE and invaded the land of the Dravidians — which is why most of us today aren’t entirely neither Aryan nor Dravidian in complexion.

2. It’s not about what ‘sounds’ better entirely — Sanskrit names are derived from that of one’s father to chart a character’s lineage — by anglicising them, these names and tradition are distorted.

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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