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.

Cartographies Of Struggle

As the eldest daughter of a Hindu family, I am expected to occupy a number of spaces that intertwine, merge and blur with the larger idea or identity that I like to believe is me, somewhere inside, that will still remain once the layers of cultural expectations, communally re-enforced values are taken away, not to mention that little role-play where I imagine for a while what would happen had colonisation not been a part of my collective history or memory. Very little of what I believe in — politically or otherwise — is designed to fit into this public persona of the Dutiful Indian Daughter™, we’re expected to be infinitely nice, obedient, subservient and perhaps more importantly, as voiceless as possible; all of this erasing and silencing goes down in the name of religion, tradition and customs. There is a clear demarcation between what is publicly acceptable and what isn’t, the moment that line is crossed, we become people like ‘that’; and everything we do reflects this invisible wall. More often than not, whatever is the ‘negative’ is seen as ‘Western’ and by extension it is bad — this list includes being independent, setting personal and bodily boundaries, speaking too much in English, wearing ‘revealing’ outfits, swearing, smoking, drinking alcohol, making ‘funny’ faces while eating ice-creams¹, sitting with one’s legs uncrossed among many other things. Most of these rules exist for bodies that identify or are read as ‘feminine’ — who cares as how people really identify themselves as long as society can can extend the chromatic heteronormativity to any body it wishes? — bodies that identify or are seen as ‘masculine’ get away with relatively more transgressions; in fact the closer they look ‘masculine’ the easier to overstep and discard boundaries. Meanwhile, ‘real’ identities swirl inside, lay hidden for the most part. God forbid you’re Queer in such a mix, then it’s just Dr. Dilbag’s guarantee to cure teh Queer out of your crotch! But I digress.

Contrary to popular opinion that ‘colonisation is over‘, we still walk move see swirl stand sleep in the DoucheColonial Daze, still go by Victorian standards², still see the image of the Woman In The Wet Sari as iconic to Bollywood cinema — an image that typically leaves the woman at the mercy of the ‘evil rain’ to not have her sari cling to her so much as to ‘make’ Randomly Lurking Dude rape or assault her, she becomes a part of Nature’s fantasy, the dude’s desire-object-animal as well as a spectacle for the viewer watching the film, washing guilt of assault completely away as it’s a part of a ‘performance’. Having dusty bodies open to assault without any kind of responsibility sounds vaguely familiar to colonisation, no? — as well as use the same excuse of ‘she shouldn’t have worn such revealing clothes, if she did then she can’t complain’ in law courts for cases of sexual assault and rape to citing that jeans on school campuses are ‘vulgar‘, we are very far away from shedding the Collectively Colonised Skin. Whether we acknowledge it or not, most of our fundamental ideas of ‘acceptable’ behaviour, sexual or otherwise, reflects Colonial ideals; there are so many who believe ‘reproduction that doesn’t produce children that we can make into Ideal Indian Citizens is of no use’. At this point my LadyBrain wonders if Blake and his supposedly ‘libertarian’ views — libertarian at the cost of his wife, as always — crafted our ‘modern’ sexual sensibility, or are we that controlled by the State. In any case, this web of colonial meanings, forms and words is the one through which we craft and project ourselves, and wrenching ourselves from such draconian standards is no easy feat³.

In such tangled ideas, as Dusty Ladies, our spaces are disciplined and marked, the body is policed and kept as controllable as possible. From such cracks of gender binaries, forced borders and chalk lines, there is a healthy proportion of lesbian and transgendered people despite the valiant — where valiant is the new repulsive — efforts to keep them out of narratives and as invisible as possible, and the lesbians that Deepa Mehta’s Fire brought out in the 90’s till date remains one of the biggest Indian Queer protests. I remember watching photos of women with placards that read, “I am a Lesbian AND an Indian” as a 10-year-old in the newspapers, wondering why is the inclusion of the word ‘Indian’ so important on that placard. Today, I don’t see nationality as inconsequential, considering an overwhelmingly popular opinion is “Such things (read Queer people) don’t happen Here. We are nice, good, traditional people. It must be happening in all those countries Over There”, clearly identifying being Queer to being UnIndian, as if Sarojini Naidu or Toru Dutt never played on homo-eroticism, ever! Especially not when speaking of the ‘Nation’ or ‘Nation-Mother’. That must be some Western Bugger’s doing, surely. Being Queer is being Other, walking and ingesting life as the Outsider because Indian society has no space for ‘such things’, if I am to go by the larger nationalist narrative. Recently, I watched a Bengali documentary, “More Than Just A Friend” on Bengali Lesbians and Genderqueer identifying people, where most of them admitted being hurled with the word ‘Lesbian’ on the streets, in a largely Begali-speaking narrative. This English word sticks out as a sore thumb, it sounded harsher than the curled Bengali consonants too. Using terms like ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’, terms that are specifically colonial in their origin, form and meaning is another step to Other the Outsider’s body and identity. I could claim to the the song-beats of Universal Sisterhood™, say that the term ‘lesbian’ is a liberating one, that being lesbian and Indian isn’t a special set of complications, then I wouldn’t live up to my reputation as a postcolonial reverse-racist now, would I?

Similar to the term ‘hijra’ that stands specifically to the caste-class-intersexed sexualities of the subcontinent– which are sometimes forced to keep the ‘tradition’ going — words like ‘lesbian’, ‘trans’, ‘genderqueer’, ‘gay’ etc don’t completely convey the dusty complications that come with these identities. Perhaps it’s time to start re-defining these terms in our languages — Urdu has a term ‘humjinsi’ which means ‘outside of gender’ — to root them in our crisscrossed hued cartography of identity and of struggle to be included in the term ‘human’. Besides, now that we have a word and a defined term in a regional language, those inane excuses that queer people exist only Over There can be cut up to pieces.

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1. Someone I know got reprimanded for eating ice-cream ‘seductively’ out on public. How I wish I made that up.

2. Parts of our Constitution, particularly that pertaining to sexuality will transport you back to 1821.

3. Number of Bhaba’s or Spivak’s essays do not change this reality, as much as I’d like to believe it.

 

Looking For My Body

It is nearly impossible to be a Dusty Lady and not have your body become a canvas of comments, critiques and opinions; specifically the one’s you didn’t ask for. You know the ones by orthodox ladies — and sometimes, not so orthodox people — who say things like, “I liked it better when your face was fuller, now you just look like a vegetable” or “You call that a chest? Pfft. How will you ever rear children with that?”¹ without lowering their voice or taking their eyes off of you, and then the next minute your head starts hurting and you think to yourself that you will never, ever again go to these silly events again, after which you get your cousin to spike your drink which makes the whole evening bearable, blissful even. Only when you next see these people again, you remember that promise you made to yourself; smack your head — figuratively, for your real hands must never do such a thing in public — and then start looking for a cousin to trick into slipping very suspicious liquids in your fruit juice, so that you can nod and let the words float by you till the time you get home and vow to never, ever go to such silly events till the next time. I don’t know what is more amusing — where amusing becomes the new migraine — that people don’t see the effect their words on the bodies they are commenting on or the fact that I’ve accepted it as a routine activity. Only when this week, some trolls made similar remarks focusing on the body alone, did I start to unravel and start re-acting to their statements and assumptions.

Bodies, dusty bodies particularly almost never speak. We are spoken for — of course colonialism still lives on! What do you mean the British left 60 years ago? — in true imperial fashion,  and this tilted-equation even translates to the way we see, read and frame bodies. Last week, in a study break I ended up watching TeeVee for a bit. And just my luck, I ended up watching two minutes of Dabangg and I couldn’t help chuckling and then sobbing how this less-than-3-minutes trailer encapsulated perfectly how we view bodies. Here’s a convenient list:

  1. Land is feminised — very subtly, I must give them that — so it’s ‘lawless’ and must be ‘disciplined’. Land becomes a deviant body and of course a dude has to ‘bring it back to its place’.
  2. Dudely bodies are mobile. Feminine bodies move in the periphery. And this mobility is not restricted to just physical activity, it shows up in how feminine bodies are dressed too; dudes are in pants and shirts, most women in saris, bringing another form of ‘bondage’ and ‘restriction’ to play, as the sari needs to be physically and compulsively wrapped around the body².
  3. A privileged dudely body need not respect any other bodies. Disabled or feminine, especially not if this body is a ‘criminal’. Bodily agency is for taking, obviously.
  4. When a dudely body transgresses socially, it’s allowed and forgiven. When the dusty lady transgresses — talks back in this case — she is threatened with ‘romantic’ violence³.
  5. If any dusty lady is portrayed as ‘mobile’ then she surely must expose her ladybits for a living — which as society routinely tells us, is a truly terrible, terrible thing to do. Because no ‘good’ dusty female body transgresses; if dusty ladies start doing vile, vulgar things like dance in public, who will cook and rear sturdy boy-children then?

As an upper-caste Hindu lady, I will never know how my identity as a ‘body’ is taken away communally, the brutal way in which Dalit bodies get erased or may never have to veil myself because of religious dictats. In that regard, my body does have privilege or a few liberties anyway; however this doesn’t change the fact that in most cases, because I’m a dusty lady, my body reads as one without agency, as the caste and social status come in later. What fascinates me today is how we’ve ‘accepted’ and mainly shuffled around the Olde DoucheColonial Standarde when it comes to keeping the feminine body free of annoying things like consent and autonomy, especially since we’re a country which claims to have ‘shed its tracts of being colonised’. But I digress.

I don’t really listen to any radio stations — dusty or otherwise — but whenever I do, in about a few minutes I have to compulsively turn it off as every other song is about ‘taking’ love (or bodies as sung by dudes or dude protagonists) and giving ‘herself’ up to the “man” or “husband” or ‘settling in her in-laws’ while every time my LadyBrain screams, “what about her?”. This isn’t to imply there are no songs where the female protagonist of the film gets to voice her point of view — such generalisations are the reason I’ve stopped reading the Times Of India — but that most narratives are built and written around the male perspective, sometimes  even when it’s written by a lady! If I were to set out, figuratively or literally to ‘look for my body’ in re-presentations of our culture, say in mainstream Bollywood movies or songs, I come away with a big gaping void. The Feminine Body™ as it were, doesn’t exist in most representations. We do see a caricature of what femininity or ‘womanhood’ is supposed to be, but characters that are multi-dimensional and dynamic, radical and practical are almost never dusty ladies. This probably explains why I’ve taken to words and poems of Kamla Das, Eunice De Souza and Gauri Despande, almost like an addict, as these are the few spaces where the Body is aired and allowed to be. It may not be my body, or the way I even view the Feminine Body, femininity or even being woman, but such re-presentations reassure me that this body too, has breath and a voice.

Whenever I’ve spoken of such gendered dis-memberment of the Body to my LadyFriend, she laughs and then sighs, as for a person who claims to see the body-policing as a ‘routine’, there are many things that make me uncomfortable and livid. So then yesterday, I asked her amid a rant, “What do I do then? Ignore that I can only be at peace when I hear a few selected Ladies, who are generally white and sadly, dead? Why do I need to go read Dickinson every time I crave for The Body to come alive, or go through reading Das again, even when she says ‘he takes my body away, and I didn’t even nod my head this time?’. Do you suggest that I should learn to not think of how much this epistemological violence the ‘absent’ body undergoes?”  and she told me, “You do what most women in your place did. They wrote”. And that’s what I did, in hopes that The Body isn’t voiceless, yet.

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1. There are many variants of such body-policing, and these are just examples. The real thing is much worse. You can thank me for sparing your lobes later.

2. No, people who wears saris aren’t ‘bound’. But the way the sari functions, and the way we wear it does bring to mind restricting bodies to certain kinds of mobility. And by ‘bondage’ I didn’t mean to imply kink. Because dusty bodies never do such ‘Western’ things. Not even when you tempt them with coco-cola.

3. ‘Romantic’ violence is violence done or implied by dudes (generally) to feminine bodies because they want to woo them. No, it’s not scary at all, because they always fall in love and get married, so then violence is clearly ‘for a good motive’.

 

Breathing As The ‘Eternal She’

As a DustyLady who completely and absolutely hates restrictive dichotomies, more often than not I’m squeezed into a tiny box of stereotypes so tight I eventually grow claustrophobic and completely disinterested, barely an inch away from completely disengaging myself from these situations. As Women Of The Broken World, we’re supposed to be either poor, limitless, undeniably open to possession and incredibly in tune with Nature or Gramsci’s little organic intellectuals, capable of seeing through oppression enough to elevate one’s status to an Earth Goddess, imparting wisdom on every stone; while the dusty realities of who we really are conveniently effaced. Sometimes I just need to read an article like this one and hear  distinctive popping sound in the vicinity of my temporal lobes and hope fruitlessly it’s going to end soon. And no, sometimes, even caffeine doesn’t help. Just reading opinions like “I like women from countries that have sustained political turmoil,” makes me want to pack every book I possess, a vat of coffee and just go live in a cave till this blimp called ‘civilization’ is over. In which way can you say Assange isn’t being an arsehole excluding the one that implies cultural appropriation and tokenism is a sign for appreciation? If you can figure that one out, let me know.

Assange translated for everyone -- courtesy Of the Privilege Denying Dude

Once the urge to puke at his every word went away — by the fifth or so read — one thing that becomes clear is the cast of the ‘Eternal She’¹ that is manufactured for women from ‘broken countries’ to keep us at an exotically attainable distance. Exotic dudes are generally just pouty and exude potent sexuality, capable of letting the ‘inner beast’ — of course all exotic dudes are animals inside! Who said colonial tropes have to die anyway? — possess them into taking the WhiteWashed Lilly of a Woman for an erotic journey, but exotic ladies or the ‘Eternal She’ is always in a position of subordination. If the Dusty Lady is not in a submissive position, sexually or otherwise, then she is either Westernised or has 2 parts English ancestry, which makes her not ‘authentically’ Dusty anyway, so giving her quasi agency doesn’t upset the world order. From the drugged tame Auoda who is rescued by the adventurous White Man,  to say Peter Walsh’s Daisy whom he leaves behind in India² as he re-forms his ties with Clarissa Dalloway, and all women that I can’t name right now, so many whose names we’ve erased away, all fit into the shoes of this ‘Eternal She’: Eternally passive, eternally waiting for the White man to rescue her, or just make her more than a minor background detail in the narrative. Her ‘ethnic’ identity comes through from her ‘native garb’ that she loses through the course of the narrative, to something more civilised as a dress or a skirt. In my mind’s eye, eventually their skin goes white as well. In this way, ‘Ethnic’ dress becomes interchangeable with tradition and essentialism, and the female body enters an unstable arena of scrutiny and meaning, till you can change ‘Ethnic’ with ‘Woman’ with ‘Body’ and come away with the same image, ready for consumption at will!

Besides the obvious problems with the ‘Eternal She’ Earth Goddess routine, what is more brutal is the complete ahistoricisation of WOC and their communities. When you place this woman as a representative for her entire ethnic class or group, it becomes quite difficult to think of the ‘Eternal She’ as a product of her specific history or circumstances, considering you just robbed her of her history. One example that comes to mind is ‘Jewel’ from Lord Jim whose name is changed from ‘Ratna’ (which means jewel in Hindi) depriving her of a visceral geo-political location. When characters like Ratna roam the pages of these colonial, cannonised texts we see them as side-steps to the Bigger, Whiter character. Is it that big a surprise when we as WOC still have to prove to the world that, why yes, we are people too? Ratna (in this text) and all other ‘Ratna’s we don’t know are brutally displaced from their land, their people — somehow they still maintain the most stereotypical qualities of their communities — till we begin to see them as isolated specimen in a Female Of The Species kind of way. So if this character undergoes any kind of gendered hardship at the hands of her community, the Bigger Whiter character can save them and still not be accused of abhorrent racism. See? It’s a win-win situation for all; and surely Ratna, whoever she was or is needed to be ‘saved’ anyway. If this ‘Eternal She’ gets the bearing of history on her ‘broken’ back, then she can hold such colonial narratives and spaces accountable for their actions, so twist her tongue till she forgets her culture and people, till she resembles the biologically made Frankenstein, devoid of past and by extension a memory.

Another trope that upsets me with this ‘Eternal She’ routine is how her story is narrated, conveniently told to fit in the agenda of the narrative — from emancipating the Third World Woman to giving a detailed Marxist solution to her problems — that though she speaks, no words come out. Reading Hosseini’s ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ left a bitter taste in my mouth precisely because I couldn’t hear her at all in the book, though the book’s protagonists are two Dusty Ladies. Reproductive labour is the one space that all such narratives love to delve into, while completely forgetting how different reproductive labour is in colonised countries. It’s not a ‘simple’ case of hiring womb services — which is in no way simple actually — it’s an un-negotiated idea that women’s bodies are up for reproductive labour. Here there is no case of ‘surplus’ labour being sold off for profits, for bodies become surplus; a new-age psychic ‘re-memberment’ of sorts, if you will. The ‘Eternal She’ cannot be placed on any Marxist axiom or any other mainstream feminist chart, fixed to be rescued or helped. Instead of urging this kind of faceless framing of bodies, it would do us good to keep our histories, our memories — collective or otherwise — and not consume our part-human-part-animal-part-clone identity of the ‘Eternal She’ on such a regular basis that ideas like ‘women from such countries have stronger and more defined characters’ are commonplace. We’re not your metaphors neither do we exist to lend you wisdom. We are not the Eternal She.

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1. I stole ‘Eternal She’ from Spivak. But we’re both feminists, so stealing is totally okay. Because what is feminism if I can’t plagiarise content from you, right?

2. Yes Daisy is essentially English, but she’s been in India for so long that she is now Dusty By Association™. Yes, I hear it’s quite contagious.

Tales This Tongue Didn’t Twist

There is a story my father likes to tell when people ask him what his eldest daughter wants to do ‘with her life’. It seems that I was 13 and determined when I’d interrupted his important business call to say, “When I grow up, I’ll be a famous Lady Author” with hands on my hips and my eyes defiant. He says, almost always laughingly, that was the day he’d started worrying about me. Quite predictably, the writers I admired were White Ladies or Dusty Men — say hello to the child born on the brink of globalisation — and I had a grand scheme of writing a book by the time I was 25 and saying wise things like, “Oh writing is like breathing for me, I may have never consented to it, but it keeps my veins full”¹, appearing on TeeVee and inspiring little ladies everywhere to write, pretty much like Jo of Little Women, maybe with pants instead of frilly skirts though. And then, between all these juvenile fantasies, words and tongues I started opening up to, it became clear how alien and few Dusty Ladies were a part of my daily vocabulary, how little I knew of my culture and it’s deferential treatment to anyone who identified as female within its folds, or that I’d never really felt represented in words as much I could in this hued writing. It shocked me to see that I didn’t identify as strongly with Anne Eliot as much I had previously thought after reading Ismat Chughtai’s stories or that as much I suffered with Clarissa Dalloway, truth was she would probably never see beyond the hue of my epidermis tissue. This is where I stumbled into wonderful — feminine-identified — Indian writing, my world began to fill with names like mine, and people who too found themselves stuck on the fringe between being Western or Dusty, and of course the silences accompanied this writing too.

I’m still adjusting to this shift, from the open prose of George Eliot, which is ‘open’ and ‘free’ in the way only a few people in this world are allowed to be, to the heavily veiled writing of Dusty Ladies. I’m still haunted by Abburi Chaya Devi’s protagonist in ‘Sleep’ who grows up in such a restrictive environment that she doesn’t know what to do when she wants to laugh. I can replay the scene in my head when at the climax of the story she wakes up her mother to say anxiously, “Mother, I feel like laughing. The laughter is bubbling up, what shall I do?”. Years later, I realised it was a snippet of her own life where she was punished for laughing by her parents for laughing at a professor’s joke. I’ve always reveled and lost myself in Emily Dickinson’s verses — to an extent, I still do — and then I stumbled somehow to Eunice De Souza whose verses give silence quite an another underbelly altogether. This silence intrigues me as sometimes it enters my writing too, it’s something a lot of women have noticed and re-negotiated. It seems if you identify as a Lady out here, some people just cannot wait to bind you in rules and borders, asking and clearly specifying the lines you are not allowed to tread. Last year I attended a writing workshop where the speaker started with asking about things we, as the current youth demographic of India, wrote about or were sensitive to. The most common answers were politics, religion and sex. Then the speaker asked how many people would fearlessly write about these topics, and it was quite telling that most people who raised hands were dudes; most girls in the room and I shared guilty looks², for not letting that part of us out, as if we’re betraying ourselves in some strange way. Of course, then the speaker went on to explain how we should ‘break free’ from these cultural chains and just give in to writing urges with the loathsome self-assurance that only Upper Caste Hindu Dudes in India enjoy. The truth is, we can’t wipe away gender — whether assigned or taken — as if it’s a dark stain, scrub away till it lightens its way to disappearing completely; in fact the more we try to hide it, the more it reeks up the prose³.

Whenever I’ve given any such exotic — all Lady-Prose is exotic! — prose to read to my male friends, the most predictable plea they come up with is, “Maybe be a little less intense? I know you’re oppressed, or your protagonist is, but does your writing have to be this violent? It’s frankly upsetting sometimes”, which is when I explain that I didn’t give in to half of my hysteria while writing and they hastily change the topic to something less ‘dark’. This self-de-tonguing steps in earlier than we let on. In Storylines, most writers speak of this ‘looming monster’ that prevents them from broaching subversive topics, too fearful of what their parents, community and spouses will think or say. This doesn’t mean that women writers in India only talk of unicorns and babies, but they have to negotiate a lot of guilt — self-imposed and otherwise — for guarding their tongue and measuring syllables and in the privacy of their Shelved Selves, the guilt of giving in to societal expectations. Sometimes I’m amazed that we get any writing done at all considering how our time is different from dude’s concepts of time and space: it’s cyclical, lunar — Ladies remember the block of time when they did so and so household activity more than the analogue or digitalised time research, by one French Feminist says so — and excruciatingly repetitive, and that for many writers today, time and space are still just abstract concepts they don’t have possession over.

This blog turns one today, however I can safely say I’ve concealed more than I’ve bared myself. Every time I write something I’ve to carefully step over spots so as to not hurt or overtly expose who I really am, or my parent’s concept of ‘me’. For all my feminism and dedication to activism, there are a lot of things that are left unsaid and buried. Maybe one day this tongue will truly uncoil. Who knows? Today, I’m just glad for all the conversations and ideas we could initiate despite all of this.

P.S. Special thanks to Wallamazoo, Arvan and Veronica for being such kickarse friends and all the adorable guest bloggers without which this space wouldn’t have been as interactive as we want it to be.

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1. In my defense, I was 13. You can’t fault a 13 year-old for daydreaming, can you?

2. This doesn’t mean women don’t write about religion, politics or sex. Just that in that room, we definitely didn’t own up to writing about these topics even if we did.

3. The Dude who was organising races for the Next Best Prostitute will tell you a lot about the female stench.

 

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