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.

(more…)

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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.

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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.

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.

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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