Making Our Bodies Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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.

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?

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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.

DeTonguing The Subaltern

This week all that seems to happen in India is the World Cup and How Incredibly Important It Is, for it is a game that involves super-important dudes with super-important dudes of other countries, and almost every newspaper is discussing the economics,  sport tactics, strategics and politics — I don’t even know what this means when it comes to ‘politics’ of cricket. I counted about eight to nine unevenly shaped blurbs about crimes against women today as the Sports section has taken over the front page news in Times Of India¹; I still can’t believe this is a ‘national’ newspaper. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court initiated an inane bill about ‘rehabilitating’ sex-workers, there are 52 reported deaths of female-identified Maoists in Arunachal Pradesh and there is another case of possible gendered-violence in Kashmir where two girls were shot in the streets of Sopore, in Kashmir for being ‘promiscuous‘ as cited by the military resources. All of this gendered violence in the last two weeks alone and ‘national’ newspapers such as Times Of India and DNA have hardly mentioned any news that do not include the World Cup. I’d like to believe this erasure isn’t conscious; that the stories got mixed up or maybe there was too much corporate pressure to ‘sell’ the World Cup as much as they can. For a while this trick works and I visualise extremely busy and frazzled editors who just had to edit these stories out, out of pressure and not out of choice². And then, TEHELKA covers the mediated-forced sterilisation of Wayanad tribal women and the bubble pops as silences roar.

Women of this tribe are sterilised to ‘control’ the population, most times they don’t know the surgery they are consenting to. As the article mentions, other women — possibly sterilised too — to recruit women for a price, so that more women can get these procedures done; all in the name of the Religious-Capitalist-Oligarchal State Controlled Reproduction loosely translated as, “Your men have no control, so we will curb your reproductive ability! It’s a win-win for both!”; except when it’s not as most patients don’t get sufficient post-op care — one can’t think of ‘recovery’ and ‘healing’ when there are mouths to feed — further deteriorating the health of these women. One would think this makes for Important News, especially since this is State-sanctioned violence, but then this LadyBrain will remind you that no news that really happens to uteruses is newsworthy; not when we can report the state of cricket, global sports and predict performances of teams. Meanwhile the thousands displaced to make space for the stadiums, the cuts in the budget to ‘accommodate’ expenses for the World Cup are ignored. Theoretically speaking of the Third World Woman (or Feminine-Identified Body) is relatively easier, I can go on creative bents but when it comes to actual and physical erasure, words fail me yet again. When encountered by this gendered detongued subaltern, all that remains is forked tongues and silences, yet again as mainstream Hindu feminism remains quite as narrow as it was 20 years ago. Today perhaps multi-lingualism has entered Hindu feminist theory and practice, but when it comes to going beyond the frame of the privileged, upper-caste Hindu body, we draw blanks.

Erasure of bodies that cannot be classified under ‘upper caste’, ‘Hindu’, ‘able-bodied’ and ‘Woman’ are predictably excluded, it’s really not a co-incidence no matter what I keep telling myself. Ironically, these Othered women’s — and feminine identifying people — bodies become the starting point for capitalism to build empires — where else can you find the dreadful combination of Poor, Woman, Caste-Social-Religious minority? Their homes and fields are ideal campsites for testing drugs and fairness creams, they’re also hotbeds of toxic dumps and this isn’t a co-incidence again that the most amount of gendered and sexual violence (at the hands of Upper Caste Men) happens in these neighbourhoods. Everything adds up to one equation — DeTongue The Subaltern, Disrobe Her Voice. And the ‘solution’ isn’t adequate healthcare like many Western-Leaning-Hindu feminists suggest, as again the healthcare that comes in is thoroughly western and still riddled with colonial whips — these patients can’t sign their names, so male relatives have to sign for them and subsequently ‘choose’ the healthcare, sometimes treatment papers are disguised as drug-trial consent forms — and repeatedly all we do is further violate this fissured Subaltern Woman’s body. Even interventions of privatised philanthropy fail sometimes as the zeal to define the colonial and corporate power through the Western gaze takes over, or on other occasions it is the reliance on capitalist-prescribed values of private medicine — which again work to exclude more bodies than it does to include them — that results in yet another system of oppression. Culturally, these communities are rich in what First World Feminists (read tourists in exotic places) like to call “indigenous knowledges”, this knowledge is communally shared among the tribal and peasant women for domestic, local and public use are then subject to Western ideologies of intellectual property rights which are only functional and understood in a controlled, possessive and privatised form. Thus this idea of an intellectual commons among tribal and peasant women actually excludes them from ownership and facilitates corporate biopiracy. Not only do they lose medical care and support, but even their knowledge is fetishised and tokenised by us, by western feminist theory and privatised philanthropy.

This is the space that mainstream Marxist axioms get engulfed in, as these women and feminine-identified bodies are violated in every imaginable way, under a religious-capitalist-oligarchal state controlled patriarchal system. This is a community of women made invisible and written out of national and international economic calculations mainly because it’s convinent and besides, no one notices such discrepancies. We have sports people to please and fret over. This is an open letter to mainstream Hindu feminists to pay more attention to the everyday localised experiences of tribal women and the micropolitics of their — ultimately — anticapitalist struggles. We need to start seeing the embedded of their local and particular lives with the ‘global’ and ‘universal’ norms that we’re so fond of; justice and equality has to be re-membered in transborder, trans-communal terms.

— From an Ex-Hindu.

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1. Continuously referring to rape survivors as ‘rape victims’ and stating ‘allegedly’ before any woman-related crime are a few of the many reasons TOI does wrong, on an alarmingly regular basis.

2. I can be quite the willfully ignorant unicorn when I want.

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