Fostering Hospitable Silences

[Trigger Warning for mention of sexual abuse]. 

As a person who works with survivors/victims sexual and domestic abuse, I’m quite used to getting calls from people all over the city, most times it’s when I’m at the center — I talk to them and we assess the situation, whether the caller is in immediate danger or not – generally they want someone to listen to them. Very rarely do I get requests to meet up with people — which can be dangerous for both of us — but every time I’ve met someone, it’s only to have them rushing back in a maximum of twenty minutes, for the time-window their abusers leave them, where they have some amount of unaccounted time-slot is often very less. Last week I got a call from a woman living in South Bombay, in one of the most reputed neighbourhoods and she wanted to meet me to discuss long-term solutions (which the group I work with occasionally handles as well). She called me after midnight and I was set to meet her the next day, and she wanted to change the location for she wanted to remove all possible run-ins with anyone who may report back to her family — and every place I came up with her was unacceptable for her. “Barista?” “It’s too public”, “[x] book store?” “that’s hardly the place for polite conversation”, “[x] place?” “We aren’t supposed to talk about these things there” and both of us eventually burst out laughing at how absurd this conversation was — both knew what we were going to discuss and there wasn’t even a single space we could discuss those things — and then we both fell silent. We need silence now. Right? To keep peace? To keep the surface calm?

I want to talk about this silence, this polite hospitable silence — often used as a conscious or otherwise decision to mask, hide, distract or forget altogether about the rough friction, of intersecting differences, that de-stabilise us, that move together to move any ‘safe’ or ‘home’ space. This silence shows up everywhere we construct spaces to be “homelike” — in  classrooms, in actual homes, in well-loved literature texts — and we learn to nurture them. Last month a student came out to me as queer and she waited till our last “official” class was over and then did she decide to tell me — and when I asked her why did she have to wait till it got over considering we’ve talked about just about everything, she explained that she didn’t want to “upset” the rhythm of the class. Alternatively, I should have asked her why was “keeping” the rhythm so important to her, but that time I was quiet, parsing what she’d just told me. In home spaces¹, it seems the general reaction is to secure and perpetuate a sense of a border or a territory, a line we must learn to never cross. Many times, between friends, in classes, whenever the talk goes to any “taboo” topic, immediately and inadvertently my voice softens itself and then I have to remember to revert back to my general tone and loudness — and these are spaces I generally feel comfortable in, a performed home of sorts, and yet this silence is always around.

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Privilege, Power, Colonialism, and International Development – Part 1

Numa identifies as Bangladeshi-Austrian for the sake of convenience, and works in the field of International Development for which she sometimes gets paid a living wage. She has the ambition of engaging and encouraging wider dialogue on development from a dusty perspective and hopes that she can contribute to making the world less fail in one way or another. She is trying to blog regularly on awkwardatbest.wordpress.com but mostly has a very short attention span.

I grew up in a multicultural bubble where the idea of discrimination because of race, gender, class, ability, and sexuality was never discussed openly. It wasn’t until 2006-7, at university, where I started reading about privilege and oppression, that I discovered the tools to process my own experiences as a WOC. I realized that it wasn’t so much that my environment growing up had been free of racism or sexism, but that I had just  never been primed to recognize any -isms as such.

My immigrant parents were not equipped to help me deal with my experiences as an ethnic minority. They had grown up in a country where they were not the Other, and so subtle racism, or institutional racism didn’t really register with them. The only type of racism that they had learned to recognize, was the blatant “Get the fuck out of my country, you dirty brown foreigner” type of racism.

So I what I internalized was that discrimination was always blatant and happened out of ignorance, out of a lack of education. “Ignorance” was also code for “poor”, and for the longest time I genuinely believed this incredibly classist explanation. I really thought the only people who could be racist were uneducated, and thus, poor.

I realize now that this was a badly thought out, almost instinctive, coping mechanism where my class privilege was used as a form of protection against the forms of oppression I faced, namely racism. It was a bit like “Ha, I may be brown, but at least I’m not poor!” sort of thing, where oppressions are pitted against each other.

This kind of attitude also helped insulate me against the racism of my peers and immediate environment. As long as racism was only perpetuated by a group I never had to deal with, then the things that felt like racism invoked by my peers, were a different kind of creature. I was able to maintain the illusion of safety and lead a relatively untroubled existence.

Unfortunately for me, this meant that I once realized the actual pervasiveness of racism and other kinds of -isms, I found myself surrounded by people who had never had to think about any of these issues either. If it hadn’t been for the internet, I would have never have found the resources to help me make sense of my experiences with oppression and privilege.

By the time I started my postgraduate studies at the end of 2008, I was already well-versed in issues of discrimination. However, I had not yet thought about how oppression and privilege manifests itself within international development. When I started my degree, I was still naïvely under the impression that since the very concept of international development was about ensuring global economic and social justice, development theory and practice would be critical of all kinds of oppression. Like some kind of -ism free utopia…

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Between The Lines

Recently I came across Sara Ahmed’s fantastic essay ‘Feminist Killjoys (And other Willful Subjects)’ and have been re-reading several sections of the essay since. I identify with more parts of the essay than I can count, but one line that never leaves me is “[As a feminist killjoy] you become the problem you create” –- a single sentence that probably embodies the essence of my grandmum’s journals. Part of why I wanted to learn to read and think in my native tongue is because I want to read my grandmum’s journals, written in a pidgin many Gujurati’s. Apart from accounts of food items, daily expenditure and some chants dedicated to Krishna, there are extensive notes on translation and literary criticism of Oriya, Telugu and Bengali women’s literatures — in a different tongue altogether¹ — and her research of many texts banned in the British Empire. Most of the texts that are listed in her journals were banned because of “obscenity” under Section 292 of the Penal Code — not that big a surprise that most of these banned and censored texts were written by women and especially by women of the “lower sections of the society”. I couldn’t find most texts she talks of, but luckily I found Radhika Santwanam written by the Telugu poet Muddupalani in a great aunt’s attic — sadly, the text is in English but there were translator’s notes along with it, explaining their choice of words and consonants. Loosely translated, the text can be called “Enticing or Appeasing Radhika”, an epic erotic poem that talks of Radha and Krishna’s love affair — a text that inverses the male literary tradition of supposing the “male” as a locale of power when speaking of sexual agency.

I spent most of the last month reading this poem, in its many parts and verses, simultaneously shocked and in awe of Muddupalani’s audacity to speak so explicitly about female sexuality, of Radha’s encouragement of Krishna and her niece’s love affair, of the various ways Krishna has to woo and appease to Radha, a text quite “queer” by today’s “re-readings”. While the text is beyond beautiful, with its many deviances and silences, sadly this text has always faced heavy censorship at the hands of the Raj — interestingly when Muddupalani wrote it originally two centuries ago, her autobiographical prologue mentions no objections to the content or her context as a distinguished courtesan of the Thanjavur court². The Empire banned it for “obscenity” and “shamelessly filling poems with crude descriptions of sex” — cannot thank K. Lalita and Susie Tharu enough for keeping a neat account of all the charges levied against Muddupalani, ranging from ridiculous to incinerating and everything else in between — and for about 150 years after the ban Indian scholars maintained the same views about Muddupalani. In many instances, grandmum calls Muddupalani “adulteress” as this is the name she was known by. The more time I spend with grandmum’s journals, her accounts of the Raj’s censorship, read this exquisite poem, the more angry and fascinated — where fascination is the new disgust — I get.

While I understand on some level that when J. S. Mill urged women to find a “literature of their own” or when Virginia Woolf speaks of “submerged literatures”, they both positively don’t mean anyone but  White and Western, to expect otherwise of them would be being willfully ignorant, it doesn’t make reading western feminist literary criticism any easier, especially not the reverential tone most Indian universities take while discussing them. While Woolf was tracing the “female tradition”, in parts of Bengal Radhika Santwanam was on its nth plea for being released out of further banning and censorship. While Annie Besant was busy re-defining Bharat Natyam as a dance that upper caste Indian ladies could perform without being confused as prostitutes³ — and being confused as prostitutes was a fate more terrible than upper-caste men sexually exploiting said prostitutes, of course! – Muddupalani’s text was being reviewed by renowned Hindu male Telugu scholars as one “unfit to be seen by Indian women” as my grandmum’s notes detail. Throughout her journals, between parentheses she keeps on asking “Why did no one stop these bans?” and never once is the question answered by either her explicitly or her notes. I can assume today, that no one thought the text was worth “saving” because it doesn’t fit the Orientalist view of India, it doesn’t posit India as a land of “past glory and knowledge” — in fact there is a healthy cultural paranoia of the “Other” in some verses — so while patriarchal versions of the Ramayan and Mahabharat were “revived” (rather allowed to remain in circulation), such subversive texts were censored and almost disappeared from our collective memories for a century and a half.

As Sara Ahmed explains in ‘Feminist Killjoys’ later, the narrative of immigrant’s discourse of happiness is such, that when they “move on” from their memories of colonialism and racism, do they gain entry into the text of “happiness” — similarly for Muddupalani and god knows how many other such writers coercively made marginal by joint forces of colonialism and the patriarchy, they’re “allowed” to exist as memories from marginalia. Anyone who challenges this assumption starts embodying the “problem” they’re questioning — as my grandmum felt, going by her journals and all the questions she could never answer for herself, as I feel digging into her thoughts and by extension create a host of my own questions.  If anything, one day I hope, I can help produce feminist literary criticism that probes between these words that get lost between lines, between cultural semantics and semiotics, between what is mine and what the world expects of me based solely on my hue and geo-political location.

——

1.  There is substantial code-switching between many tongues. Simplistically speaking, her notes on Oriya, Bengali and Telugu literatures are written in a mix of a rural and urban colloquial dialect of Gujurati, as these were the tongues she thought and spoke in, while her formal education was in Oriya and Bengali — Telugu she learnt as a pastime — so while I rely heavily on her sources, bear in mind that most of these are translations and re-copies, I haven’t been able to find many original texts.

2. “Chaste” upper-caste ladies probably wouldn’t be allowed to write as explicitly as Muddupalani was, because of her situation as a court courtesan — as a courtesan owning to sexual agency meant less consequences than women of upper-castes. This isn’t to romanticise her later days of forced prostitution once the British took over the Thanjavur court, rather because of her unique context, she could write a text very few women in her time would be allowed.

3. The age-old Hindu antidote! Add Hindu god’s name in front of said obscene act and suddenly it is rid of its sins. Bharat Natyam before this re-definition was called “natyam” or “nautch” (word used by British anthropologists for the Urdu term “naach”) which was the same “nautch” prostitutes would perform. Foolproof formula, I must say.

The Rest Is Not Silence But Belongs To Me

This is a guest post by Thursday of Weekday Blues. I refer to Thurs as my Token Moozlum Friend when around my radically conservative Hindu family (but no one else gets to call Thurs a token for ungodly things will befall on you; and for all you know, we could definitely curse you with our third worldy exotic magic). Thurs is currently residing in a first world country and plotting to help us third worlder’s infiltrate. Be nice, people of the interwebes!

——–

Someone once said I could never truly be invisible.

I offer my lived experience as proof I can never be truly visible. At least, not in my lifetime. My revolution is a long way from now.

Because while we are supposedly taking down the master’s house, the master is laughing at us.

Bugger the master. I’m building my own house.

*

I am wary of groups. Groups mean labels. Yes, St. Thomas says if we have words for things it helps us deal with what they are. But groups — consciously or unconsciously — create and Us and a Them. There is rarely anything comfortable about having an identity built on such a base, for your comfort is someone else’s marginalisation.

& I have always been a Them.

I do not have the luxury of relying on a community to take care of my needs, to affirm my value as a member, because they continuously erase me, despite claiming to be in my interests. I feel as though there are bits and pieces of me that exist in some strange limbo that detach at will whenever I am with others, so that I am never whole. So excuse me for not conforming, because I don’t buy your assimilation bullshit.

I am everyone’s Them. & I will always be an Other.

*

We didn’t intend to.

Speaking as a Muslim, intent does matter. Especially when you intend to sin. But could you imagine walking into a shop, knocking over a vase, and then getting out of it by claiming you didn’t intend to? Of course not. You pay for the vase and leave quickly.

The difference is that human beings aren’t vases.

*

Words have power. I bear their weight, and the weight of my own truth. Because silence is hardly useful, or innocent.

Silence is not consent.

Voice is justice tearing through the nerve cells, reaching for one more dawn. & Voice is a terrible, beautiful thing. But even as it is claimed, it can be taken away, or coerced. Eroded, bit by bit.

Silence kills voice.

Silence is not consent.

The same people who tell you that you are cowardly to hide behind words are the ones whose worlds shatter when you speak. For criticism is nothing — nothing — compared to the unbearable weight of the system upon our shoulders, and the trials a voice goes through to be heard cannot, and should not, ever be trivialised.

*

I do not claim to represent a community. I speak for myself because no-one will speak for me. I do not believe in “solidarity” as-is, for I have experienced for myself the insidious nature of this very top-down relationship. I am not in solidarity with people who demand that I let go of my baggage, for if their ideal was so noble, they would not erase us.

& I do not believe that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, because with friends like these, I don’t need enemies.

*

Must we react? What are we reacting to? Can we never do things for ourselves, of our own volition, to explore the chasms inside ourselves that we have to cross, & cannot cross alone?

*

I struggle to know the worth of me and mine even if it has been trampled, glossed over, erased, and obscured in old books, in single sentences that leap at me on pages. I’m not interested in telling you how your world was built on the backs of me and mine. But every time you say I am angry, every time you shove your Oh So Privileged Voice in my face and expect me to be silent, to be complicit, my voice will be thunder and typhoon spilling from my lips. The clouds swelling in the sky over your head will make you tremble. I will shout until I have no voice left, and even then, even if you have crushed me until I am a speck of dust to the eyes of you and yours, you will still hear me roar.

*

I once wrote that kyriarchy had much in common with fruits. I never saw myself in that analogy, because being me is like being trapped in a small room where everyone is throwing things and they don’t ~mean to~ but the bulk of it hits you. Maybe an orange, being eaten while the others ignore it.

So I will try to be a durian. I don’t expect it to be easy, or less tiring. Weighed against what others suffer, what others have paid and are paying — their blood, their freedom, their lives — mine seem insignificant. Dusty skin does an excellent job of hiding the scars, and words never leave scars, do they?

But a price — no matter how small or how large — would have been exacted from me anyway.

For daring to exist.

What I would remind you is that durians grow on trees. With several others, that may grow at different speeds and from different heights, but all of them will eventually ripen. & break free.

I am not alone.

There are more of us than you think.

A Conspiracy Of Silences

A couple of weeks ago, the lady I buy my bi-weekly magazines from near the railway station started talking to me. The caste system is so pervasive¹ that all we’d ever exchanged over the past three years is, “Has [x] magazine come yet?” — from me — and she’d say, “No Madam, no one reads this one, so I have to send out a special order for you” and we’d smile at that gesture, but that would be all. So two weeks ago, when I went to the stall after a few weeks of absence, somehow, she asked me about my plans after graduation and I mentioned something about going out of Mumbai and before I knew it she was telling me about her daughter; how she wants to study further but doesn’t have the means. I’d seen her daughter a few times, helping out around the stall, I’d thought she was around my age, but it turned out she had two years to graduation. That day, I put this newspaper lady in touch with a couple of activists who worked specifically with underprivileged Hindu girls — the newspaper lady’s family came from a challenged economic background, but as Hindu Brahmins, they occupy higher shelves of the caste system. I don’t particularly like these activists and their goals but knew they’d help these two women out. Yesterday, I come to know the daughter rounded up about nine more girls from similar economic backgrounds but from varying castes which of course, the activists couldn’t stand for and helped only the Hindu girls. As people, we are constantly choosing and prioritising one over another, even if we don’t want to; build-ing and break-ing communities and spaces, they always carry with them little parts of us we show and hide. I didn’t want to approach these activists at all for their restricted goals, but by reaching out to them six more girls benefitted. However, the three that get left behind, their silences roar the loudest.

When I heard this yesterday, the first thing I did was look for financial aid that would suit these three girls, and as it turns out being caste, religious and a gender minority means you enter How Oppressed Are You Really Game™ which is almost always designed to leave you out, and two of them didn’t ‘fulfill’ the criteria for receiving the aid; though the one who did get aid brought forth two more girls. Next week, these girls are seeing another educational reform activist — this one is specifically for Dalit women — and hopefully some solution will emerge. In social justice too, we are constantly con-structing similar communities — not speaking of individual acts, rather the ones that are cultural context based — whether these communities have origins online or in physical geographical borders, they are shaped by production process — read dominance of the digital dollar — and actual histories. What troubles me is, we start with logical and factual fallacies or the Need To Help As Many As Possible, like this small group of girls sometimes we too look at solutions only in singular steps and spaces. In the case of safe spaces, there is an overwhelming urge to create a space where silence isn’t an act of violence but a choice, maybe even a protective gauze that will save us from the omnipotent presence of the DoucheColonial Empire. I confess, this is a tempting and beautiful fantasy to even consider, the possibility of a space where marginalised bodies and voices can express themselves without being attacked and cracked open is too tempting– the myth of ‘reverse-racism’ would be the first one to go if I had my way — and then we’d be human equivalents of unicorns. But even in ‘safe spaces’ — virtual and otherwise — a dichotomy slips through that dictates who remains inside, who eventually speaks, who has the authority to be believed; virtually speaking in most spaces that I’ve interacted in, all we do ‘see’ are absences, ‘hear’ only absences. It gets even trickier when the body you’re interacting with has a face and a name to go along with², this voicelessness is ‘harder’ to ignore — of course we can quantify pain, humiliation and violence! Like this for instance  — and the desire to make an insular community deepens.

Given the differences in languages, dialects, caste and class statuses re-aligning margins and commonalities — within our unique marginality — is not only impossible, but an extremely dangerous concept to even consider. Providing one marginality and slipping into someone’s space is step one to obscuring someone else’s struggles, which flies into the face of the ‘safe space’ goal, not to mention how it serves to homogenise people and their specific intersecting locations. So instead of the Revolution™ or that Perfect Safe Space, can we just interrupt — if and when we have the ability — the bigger mainstream ideal, be it in feminism or elsewhere? I’m not insinuating that communities that have been proven unsafe over and again for marginalised bodies need to be contested and constantly challenged — I’d rather talk to you of time travel instead — just pointing out how the onus is always on the marginalised body to carve out that ‘space’, ‘community’ or ‘origin’. Instead of ‘building communities’, what if we focus on shifting locales of power and loosening borders? Whether we like it or not, most of us are points of access to others — for instance, while teaching I am the point of access for children between theoretical knowledge and practical use when learning and re-forming syllables — I have little to no control over being ‘this’ via medium. What I can do, is ask access at whose cost and context? There are times when I absolutely loathe this position of access — being a cable wire for the ‘global’ to objectify the ‘local’ isn’t fun! Who knew! —  but what if we negotiate this ‘position’ of access?  Instead of challenging the militant Hindu activists — and not receiving any help at all — what these girls chose to do is seek aid elsewhere, while bringing forth more people in the chain.  Similarly, instead of fighting in harmful and unsafe spaces, if we leave our absences behind, we can re-orient ourselves to providing access to marginalised bodies, to local producer communities so that they can re-insert themselves as actors within the global arena and prevent re-appropriation of their identities.

To paraphrase my friend’s words, “As a Third World Woman, don’t expect me to build anything, ever. What I will do is express myself with break and silences as I disrupt the hegemony. Don’t expect me to smash and tear anything down, I have enough people doing that to me as it is”. Ultimately, what I hope to do is give and receive access that will enable Othered bodies and me the position of strength to negotiate within hierarchies and hegemonies. Meanwhile, my silences conspire and leave marks, re-present to us absences. Today, this minor disruption is more than enough.

———

 

1. I couldn’t ask about her ‘problems’ as it would definitely be me squandering my caste-privilege about considering I didn’t know a thing about her then; she couldn’t ask me because of the invisible — but firm — class dichotomy me being a customer created.

2. Many virtual interactions are considered ‘unreal’ because ‘bodies don’t matter online’, or in an essence ‘get left behind’.

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