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!

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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.

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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.

——-

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.

—-

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.

 

Re-Membering Ties; Re-Forming Bonds

Last week, I read Houria Bouteldja’s essay on Decolonial Feminism And The Privilege Of Solidarity and came away with agreeing with most of it, though there are some big problematic themes hazed over — like the ‘question’ of Islam and feminism co-existing (hint: this shouldn’t take consideration) or even the notion of ‘decolonisation’ mentioned many times in the essay, making it seem as if a ‘decolonial’ state of being is indeed possible (without using time-bubbles that too!) that there will be a time when colonisation will be washed clean from under our skin or given the radical left Maoist thrust of the website, the essay doesn’t mention ‘rescuing’ Marxism from Marx’s colonialism — but all of this disappeared as I read the speaker subverting the concept of ‘solidarity’ — physically and viscerally — by standing in solidarity with White women, which was her way of disrobing White feminists of extending ‘sistersong’. I read, “Solidarity with [insert nationality here]” and impulsively liked how ‘solidarity’ as a privilege was reverted, like Caliban cursing at his master¹, the act of reversing roles was more important than focusing on what she actually implied. Considering the speaker is an activist, her goal was to level the uneven power dichotomy of ‘solidarity’ when practiced by White (Imperial) feminists and possibly for her solidarity ‘ends’ there, and not in likening herself to any White feminists. All of this I knew and acknowledged as I read the essay for the first time; I’ll admit that the Calibanian instinct didn’t die away even after days. So for a while, I started believing that solidarity is a desirable concept when disrobed of imperial and neo-colonial intent and action, even prioritised theory over action so to speak, forgot that my dusty skin cannot be cataloged either way quite this easily.

Co-incidentally two days after reading the essay I ended up taking my students to the Prince Of Wales museum for a ‘field visit’ — calling the museum by a glorified Maratha hero’s name doesn’t change where it originates from or that it attests our colonial past — and somehow while constantly saying “no you can’t touch it” and “yes, that’s a naked body, that’s nothing to laugh about!” we were  standing in front of the Ratan Tata wing — yes those Tata’s — and all the artefacts that came directly from their family heirlooms. One minute I’m telling them to stop giggling at the nude paintings and next moment we come to the section where weapons ‘of the Empire’ are displayed. Rows of guns, whips, knives, pistols — some from the Maratha period, some from the Empire — which were used on ‘natives’; seeing the old Grandfather Clock which still works by London time and finally the cutlery and silverware exposed our (in)visible history. If I were to re-trace ‘that history’, I’d have to look at the gaps and spaces between these narratives and presentations of history, as ‘my’ past is infinitely linked with ‘theirs’. If I were to imagine ‘Indian history’ has a voice, then for the better part of last two centuries it is silenced² judging solely by the artifacts present in the museum, you’d think there were no Indians who lived in India for the time British people hung out here. Had I gone alone to the museum, this would have been the time for me to leave and give in to the crying fit, but my students were around and still wanted to know if those weapons were ever used on us. I must have nodded ‘yes’ as suddenly everyone was quiet for a while. Finally, standing around the creepy, stuffed animals of the Natural History section, one student tells me that his abbujan’s father — great-grandfather that is — used to be a footman to a British naval officer; we don’t look at each other as he wonders out loud if the weapons we saw upstairs were ever used on his abbujan’s father. At that moment — and even today — my first instinct is to cut away all my ties with such a history or a collective past.

‘Solidarity’ as a term and an implied action has too much responsibility for me to simply use it, even while subverting it like Bouteledja’s essay suggests. If I could, I’d certainly like to have no links or connections of colonisation but that is neither my space nor privilege to ‘re-claim’. As strongly I want to play around with the dynamics of ‘solidarity’ — considering how more often than not, it’s Western chains of knowledge and looking at the world that defines the Third World Woman — to say I ‘stand with European women’ — for instance — I’d have to forget and artificially re-member events around me in a manner that will foster ‘kinship’. Like my students too, I roll the word in my mouth as they do every time a new English word is introduced to them and it doesn’t ‘fit’, so to speak. I don’t feel an ‘innate’ bond with Western feminists, I don’t want to extend my arms ‘globally’ and ‘form bonds across borders’. If anything at all, because of my encounters online and otherwise, I’ve become extremely vary of Western feminists who constantly talk about ‘stretching edges’ and ‘re-defining’ the ‘global standard’ as most of these come down to exploitation of the dusty subaltern³. Even if this ‘solidarity’ were to be free of neo-colonial and imperial zeal, I’d probably still be wary, because this ‘kinship’ can quite easily ‘allow’ us to dislocate each other’s experience and well-intentioned rage and end up appropriating cultures — for instance, I care about Islamic and Dalit feminism but have to be very careful about not appropriating their experience in my ‘outrage’, as I’d be prioritising my feelings over theirs; which in interwebes lingo is aptly a ‘FAIL’.

Re-membering history, like they’re pieces of a puzzle is impossible; re-membering past memories where I was in a decidedly vulnerable position — TW for rape threat — is a luxury I don’t have; ‘solidarity’ feels like a poem I must rote learn to properly exercise my ‘feminist card’. I will never know what a Dalit or a Black feminist experiences, ‘sistersong’ allows me an escape-route to believing I do. Instead of chanting ‘sisterhood’, can’t we listen and support? I don’t particularly care if I’m ‘reaching’ a ‘sister’ in Peru, ‘understanding’ her struggle if I can acknowledge that our struggles are different, and I may not always be able to ‘help’ everyone I may want to. Why do we need bonds or ‘kinship’ to understand that All Are Different, All Are Equal?

—-

1. “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you,/For learning me your language!”  is possibly my favourite Shakespeare quote.

2. Madhubani art co-existed with the Mughal Empire, for instance. But when we look at the British Empire and the display in the museum all we find is their art and traces of their ‘culture’.

3. This isn’t to intone I have an Agenda Against Western Feminists™ and will destroy them with my third worldly powers if I were to meet them, rather repeated negative experience has taught me to keep my guard up.

White Privilege: The Stockholm Syndrome Edition

We recently posted a video on our tumblr feed, which demonstrates the pervasive and nauseating totality of White Privilege. The subject was addressed on DailyKos this morning, with the author dealing with the defensiveness, denial and disbelief from whites about whether such a thing exists.

White Privilege not only exists – it is the law of the land.  From the onset, this country has been built on the sweat, blood & tears of non-whites.  The First Nations were systematically slaughtered and culturally obliterated.  Africans were brought here as slaves.  We have sent people to every continent to kill non-whites.  It was only after uber-white Germany attacked us directly, that we engaged in war with whites.  The French & Indian wars were two white empires fighting for control of the right to steal the land from the First Nations.

Since our Declaration of Independence, we have been fighting for white privilege.  The racism of the South / GOP / Bible Belt is proof that we have not shed this desire.

The most vile and disturbing aspect to me is the deliberate efforts of most of the white US to pretend that this racism is not there.  We gladly turn to our TV show, movies, iPods, flat-screen TV’s, double-latte’s, 401k’s, wallpaper for the living room, SUV purchases and any of the myriad distractions / ego-strokes that are provided for us by the very people and system that profit in dollars from the price paid in blood by non-whites across the planet.

But, we’re stroking the hand of our own executioner.  This system is not designed for some white utopia for us all to live in.  It is a very small, gated community – designed to drive 95% of the planet into labor and poverty, 4% to be jailers and 1% to bathe in the glorious light of a Maxfield Parrish dreamland exclusively populated by the owners of this planet: a few greedy, amoral men who will sell us to slaughter.

The grease of this entire system is every “oscillating Richard” white person who goes along thinking “I’m not racist” / “I’m not the problem” / “What me worry?” and any other excuse that will allow them to proceed with their “American Dream” pursuit to join the very smart, very special, very responsible “good people”.  We turn our eyes to our future home, our children’s schools, that new electronic device, the esteem of our peers and making smart choices with our careers.

We don’t see racism because we don’t want to see it and we can get away with not seeing it.

Our success, our joy, our prosperity, our delight, our social standing, the heat in our house, the food on our table, the health of our children – all paid for in the blood of non-whites.

To this day.

“If you’re not part of the solution – you’re part of the problem”

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This is a post by Arvan. As always, a reminder that the wonderful guest posting page is still open to all non-bigoted peeps.

 

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