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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Slipping Out Of Gendered Spaces

Earlier this week I was discussing Wuthering Heights with my class of 11th graders. We were talking about how demarcations, borders and outlines of the Body are continuously challenged in the text, in such a way that the Body becomes a hybrid of human and beast. At one point Catherine exclaims, “Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He is always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being”, here the Body possesses masculine and feminine spaces simultaneously, which by extension ‘queers’ love, as well as allows the Body to dislocate itself from chronic heteronormativity. I was about to explain how the text polices this ‘abnormal’ body when one student asked me to stop. He couldn’t reconcile the idea that a woman’s body can embody and imprint from her lover’s body and identity. He didn’t like that she remained autonomous of her identity while slipping into Heathcliff’s body (figuratively speaking) at will. The way he put it, “Why isn’t she happy with the space she’s given?”. As trans-phobic his statement was, I could understand where it stemmed from. Even when all I wanted to do was stop the class right there and start discussing transphobia, probably also whack him on the head¹ with Gender Trouble till he saw how pungent his assumption was and all I could do was try to not start ranting and fuming, I could see why he thought this way. As a culture, we’re told to see transsexuals and intersex people as the Other, we’re encouraged when we participate in erasing people who identify as trans; so my student’s reaction was hardly out of the ordinary. What stuck with me is how ‘natural’ it was for my student to say what he said, without even pausing to consider that androgyny or ‘gender bending’ may go beyond people who are ‘born that way’.

I don’t really remember how I finished the class, I do remember mulling over what my student said even as I was waiting on the platform for my train to come. Before I knew it, I’m standing in front of the ‘Ladies Compartment’ marked with blue stripes and for a second I couldn’t move.  We gender our spaces wherever and whenever possible, and this differently ‘marked’ compartment proved just that. The reason behind keeping separate train compartments for Ladies and Dudes is to keep groping and sexual harassment to the minimum — by employing the Cure The Disease And Spare The Symptom Method — but the boundaries are clear. If I look like a Lady, I must travel in the space alloted to me or I shouldn’t complain when I get assaulted when I travel by the ‘general’ compartment; questions whether I identify as a Lady are quite easily ignored. At social gatherings and dinner parties, somehow unanimously women use separate rooms or tables, where even the talk is gendered. The Dudes sit sipping alcohol and talking of ‘dudely’ things finance, architecture, politics — I don’t even know what else as I’m generally in the opposite section — whereas Ladies talk about children, husbands, cooking, chores and ungrateful relatives. As a child I used to think that men must speak a different language altogether as they seldom talked to girls or women. This isn’t to say the two genders never interact socially — we’re one of the biggest populations on the planet, so some social intercourse is happening somewhere — but that in the presence of these different spaces, we don’t step out of our boundaries. I am often uncomfortable in such gendered tables or rooms as the manufactured differences always get to me; not because I’m uneasy in my prescribed gender but because there is no scope for me to transgress if I ever wanted to. Media and social traditions foster the idea that a person who identifies as queer or trans is a laughing-stock. In fact most encounters with hijras leave people giggling, because opinions like “can you imagine being a man down there! It’s so sad and funny!” are too commonplace. In fact, “Bobby Darling” is used as a slur to discourage boys from showing their effeminacy, effectively silencing the woman behind this slur as a body who independently chose her trans identity.

Under feminist discourse, the Body is a site of production and consumption of knowledge, power and desire; but the question that concerns us today is which Body is allowed this power. As Butler beautifully points out in Bodies That Matter, often there is a selective politics involved in normalising cis, White and thin bodies over any other Body. Which is precisely why trans and intersex bodies are seen as strangely asexual or overtly promiscuous — pick one according to the ruling party’s policy as well as your mood! — the goal is to render them ‘alien’, Other, ‘different’, to ‘expose their limitations’. This way, passing invasive laws, abusing trans people, trafficking trans bodies becomes quite easy. Earlier this month the Indian government passed a bill that offers hijras a monthly pension as a way of ‘helping’ them, since “most eunuchs live in misery” as Jagdish Mamgain of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi is quoted by the Belfast Telegraph as saying. While there is no denying that most hijras and trans people of other lesser known communities do live in abject poverty, that they are often discriminated against because of their ‘ill-fitting body’ or that they belong to an ‘inferior caste’, I don’t see how this bill is any way beneficial to them. My problem with this bill doesn’t lie in the idea that ‘those filthy hijras get money for being deformed!’ like many right-winged arseholes do, but rather how even here the trans body is under scrutiny and policing. According to this bill, “a eunuch must submit a medical certificate from a government hospital as proof of no longer having male genitalia, as well as an affidavit proclaiming they are not married and proof of age” to qualify for this meager pension. So hijras whose male appendages have been forcibly castrated — to keep the fine tradition of the hijra community alive — in other words, people who identify as transwomen are allowed this pension. What about transmen? Or people who aren’t born intersex, but choose to transition or identify as trans? Apparently, their bodies don’t matter under the Law’s consideration. We’re again ensnared into normalising and preferring one type of trans body over another.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of such a law or any gendered space is how any category — hijra, woman, man — are placed in a metonymic process where people who fall under specified categories — transwomen, heterosexual woman and man — become interchangeable till the point that any individual who deviates from this norm is punished and coloured invisible. While I am indeed happy for people who will benefit from this bill I can’t ignore the Othered Bodies, left to be oppressed and disposed as the stronger hegemonic narrative wills them to be. And out from these policed and controlled laws comes yet another gendered space where the Body is yet again sculpted, chained and punished till it mutates to socially sanctioned norms while the metaphorical body within it is long dead.

—-

1. Not really, as I oppose any kind of violence — especially the violent kind — but I did get furious for a few minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Charting Invisible Bodies

As a Lady born on the brink of globalisation, English is something that comes to me as naturally as breathing. As a kid, I had access to all sorts of books, movies and songs from the ‘Center’ of civilisation — U.S. and Europe of course! — and was encouraged to speak in English as much as I could. Apparently, an English speaking person is a marker for a ‘civilised’ and a ‘cultured’ individual, even roughly about 50 years after the The White Buggers Left India Alone And Took Their Annoying Bulldogs With Them. There was a sense of shame or even guilt when my native tongue Gujarati would be brought up; I went as far as to believe that the person speaking Gujarati was a different ‘me’ than the one fawning over Austen and Disney and somehow they must be relegated into different spheres of seeing and believing. It took a few years for me to realise the dynamics of the DoucheColonial Gaze I had internalised and am still trying to see the person inside who speaks her native language as a fully fleshed organism rather than something out of visions E.M. Forester had in a Passage To India.

Memories of reading Wordsworth’s Daffodils are clear, so is the sense of disappointment that settled in when I realised I’d never see the flower on Indian soil, but I have very few memories of easing in to my native language, letting it unfurl against and within me. Till date, I dream think talk rant rave in English and occasionally in French — for having one language colonise you is simply not enough, the Queen said — and the person who I am in my native language sits inside and aside. This weekend, while watching a performance of Wilde’s ‘A Lady Of No Importance’ and hearing people thunder and applaud at the ‘perfected British and American accents’ did Caliban’s idea of ‘red plague’ and the notion of turning language to curse at the coloniser¹ came to its full appeal for this LadyBrain. Numerous instances where people feel embarrassed to sound ‘Indian’ come to mind, where you perform an accent and a manner of speaking till all that is left behind are dregs of another being rather than you. While there is no one way of speaking a language you don’t belong to — too bad geographical proximity doesn’t count, for that way I should speak American as I live obnoxiously close to the WorldWide Embassador of America: McDonald’s — or can ever dream of ever possessing fully regardless the number of degrees you have in this said tongue. Most of my favourite authors are from the Center, hard to undo the cannon and numerous whinyarsed problems in the same vein can be talked of time and again. What really sticks with this LadyBrain is how as post-colonial subjects anything we consume today, from the copiously auto-toned baritones of Taylor Swift to Foucault’s Genealogy,  we’re inevitably fixed sideways, invisible, alloted the space of the Proverbial Other. Even in spaces that are decidedly ‘intersectional’, colouring the Other invisible is a game we play right after the first rounds of Subtle Cultural Appropriation and before Packaging The Other As One Of Us.

As a ‘invisible body’, being in such spaces and cultural texts is a duplicitous position to hold namely because there is no specific direction or position to occupy in theory, whereas literally you’re fixed and pinned down in borders and boxes. Like Jane Eyre, I can sometimes slip in and out of these texts and corners, if the Omnipresent DoucheColonial Liberator is present like she did in and out of rooms and moors. At the same time, the ‘bestial’ Bertha still awaits my position beside her as the Woman of the Other World. The problem is, “I don’t always want to be Bertha, to be castigated and locked off” like one of my students put it. This isn’t to insinuate the internalisation of colonialism is a strictly one-way process, I’d like to think it’s a negotiation, despite how silently it’s whispered. There is an overwhelming desire to identify and even step right into the coloniser’s shoes, to feel giddy with the power, to be free and disseminate agency and rights among Othered, lesser spaces and individuals. Like George Bernard Shaw, it would be nice to be socialist and endorse FABIAN ideals while keeping the eye glazed whenever any talk goes beyond the borders being English, it would be nice — where nice translates to nausea — to have such cultural amnesia, to constantly slip up and about the boundaries of deciding who is ‘oppressed’ and to what degree. I won’t lie that I’ve never dreamt of a world that wasn’t Eurocentric, dedicated to keeping and maintaining the ‘Up‘ status-quo or thought of everyone speaking Hindi the way the world does English or if everyone was simply happy with their designated borders.  But when reality sinks in, I still break myself up while speaking in this NotMotherTongue and alienate myself when the overbearing gaze of the native tongue that is evaporating daily from my mind and body sets its hold on me. And the bigger problem that this ‘splitting into half’ is how much of this conflict is welcomed, or even self-inflicted. As an ‘invisible body’ it would be reassuring to categorise the Coloniser as the ultimate source of All Things Evil; especially for bringing to this LadyBrain’s mind the legend of Pandora before The Curse of Yellama (which is the MudSquatter version of Pandora, perhaps two shades more dustier). Like Caliban, the impulse to bite back at the oppressor is equally overwhelming as well. And stuck somewhere in the middle is the invisible body.

If I were to map the invisible bodies on the globe, a majority would take up The Third World; and the other half would take up half the world’s population that is biologically or culturally inclined to being feminine. Imagine if you’re a Double Invisible Body and then someone, magically, gives you a pen and you start reclaiming your body and space; only to realise that body you mention is already in someone else’s possession — namely capitalisation, neo-colonisation and cultural appropriation — and that space never existed but between the cracks of your own mind? Only when we stop fixing, cartologising, mapping and charting both ways — our and the Coloniser’s identities — do the gaps and breaks help us build a cohesive language of silence, expressed through feeling and not saying.

in

finite

absences the spaces we con

struct

build and

no one comes

the silences — speak volumes

the gaps start creaking songs

of virtual ashes

bytes unto bytes.

—–

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!. Who knew I could even like Shakespeare at times? Wonders never cease.

 

 

Writing From The Mud Edition Of Stereotyping

As a ‘natives’ of what is still considered today ‘The Third World’ sometimes we get asked the silliest questions, as my students and I were discussing today. It never fails to amaze me how deep and inanely hilarious — where hilarious is the new heartbreaking — stereotypes are. Especially when they are as sensitive as, “Have you ever seen an American toilet?” or “Eaten waffles?”. Another popular one is the assumption that Indians smell of dogs with rabies or something more pungent; we laughed when I brought this one up today but I remember it wasn’t nearly as funny when my friend called me in tears from the UK where some woman got up from her seat just so she could be ‘saved’ from the obviously Poisonous Emissions Of The BrownPeople. Another favourite anecdote is when a woman told me “I didn’t know people could be so educated in India” after I’d given her directions in fluent French. Or when in movie after movie, Indian culture is exoticised, appropriated and eventually reduced to the country that “makes that pepper thingy”, my skin just leaps up in joy. I am not talking about how my pride as an ‘Indian’ — whether I will ever be able to say ‘nationalism’ without sarcasm is an ongoing experiment people of the Olde Interwebes — is tarnished when I hear or am asked such questions but rather how tiny and contained my ‘box’ as this ‘Indian’ is.

Last year, I was sitting at a coffee-house, reading a book and a woman walks up to me and starts inquiring about the book in a rather loud tone. Then she asked me if I could understand the book considering it was in American. Surely, now I cannot think of this anecdote without openly laughing but then I felt as if she was talking to a different version of me, preferably one that was three centuries removed from the present time zone and I was expected to be that way. Frustratingly and sadly these aren’t the only instances of such blatant Othering I can remember. And I’m surely not the only one with such experiences, I’ve heard similar accounts from many people all highlighting that “we” as a culture are somewhere lost in the space-time continuum and can only squeak out a few words of English when addressed to in an ear-shattering decibel and/or accompanied by hand gestures. The point here isn’t how incriminating these remarks are — well not too much anyway — but how people are so ready to stereotype and box people, cultures and ethnicities. Readers of the Olde Interwebes, you will probably defend yourself by saying, “I don’t stereotype people!” or even better “I’m an extremely progressive person with Liberal leanings. Surely I don’t fit into these slots” to which I can only say, let the LadyBrain explains what she means.

When thinking of India, probably the first image that comes up is hordes of people gathered in a crowd, preferably looking uneasy. Or the global favourite — The Charmingly Poor Indian Who Squats In The Mud With The Flies Around Zie’s Face. One assumption is that somehow all Indians squat in the mud, for the longest amount of time; as if squatting in the mud is something that we do, regularly, professionally and perhaps even recreationally. I will not say that we never squat in the mud but just that it isn’t exactly a hobby, to put it delicately. There are hordes of Indians that set out of their homes with a small bucket of water each day, squat on railway tracks while pooping. Again, this isn’t a choice or even remotely entertaining. Instead of considering Indians to be ‘mud-squatters’ it’d do people good if you look at the conditions behind the said mud-squatting. Perhaps tiny annoying facts like neo-colonisation by capitalist markets, cultural imperialist reasons that allow some people to exploit other broken backs, acute and harsh desperation will make one see how mud-squatting isn’t as culturally neutral as it seems. That way, tourists won’t specifically ask to see ‘slum people’ and then proceed to take their photos as one would for a biology study. At least, I hope not.

Despite all your vehement denials, most liberal spaces — virtual or otherwise — even the ones specifically dedicated to ‘Radical Inclusion’ will reserve seats for the ‘limbless handmade paper maker’ (preferably with a few flies always abuzz his face) but will have no space for people that fit into my demographic. This barrier can be easily overcome if I can possibly procure old and historic looking documents that would affirm that I do descend from the MudSquatters as well, hereby reaffirming my comfortably exotic status, ripe for exoticising and appropriating as one wants. Attempts at pathetic humour aside, I get many comments and e-mails that praise my ‘good grasp of the Western world’ along with a remark or two about how UnIndian I ‘seem’ like because apparently I don’t talk like someone who spent their whole life huddled in the corner of a ditch. Or in some backwater place where all sorts of germs and diseases have infested my body. For what use is a healthy person of colour? But, I digress.

The point is, for a person like me i.e. educated, occasionally smart, comfortably affluent and searching ways to negotiate my colonised body and psyche to a space with as few ‘isms’ and ‘ists’ as possible, I (or my ilk) get either spaces dominated by the Canon, White discourse or a space culturally so removed — ironically all the ‘tokens’ of my culture are present there — that I end up feeling alienated. I’m not condoning the activity of encouraging less privileged people as the ever attractive MudSquatters a chance to voice themselves but rather displeased that this middle point of access that I currently embody means nothing to so many people. I used to teach at a school for children of low socio-economic background, donors would request me and other teachers to give whatever they wanted to offer only to the ‘truly needy’. As if the kid who is slightly better off economically speaking doesn’t deserve the perks the other ‘truly deserving’ — another phrase that has yet to be said without sarcasm — get. Even in popular media, either the plot revolves around a rural setting or the extreme élite. The middle-class representation is evidently missing, as if this stubble called the ‘middle ground’ never existed. Similarly, as a WOC, I’m expected to fulfill Cartesian roles : Either to be as far removed from my culture as possible that I’m ‘assimilated’ into the bigger White default discourse or be so ‘exotically’ and ‘consumable’ that my culture becomes a marker for all that I am. It all comes down to ‘To Squat In The Mud Or To Not To Squat In The Mud’. There are no easy answers, except for this one thing I firmly believe in — No matter how much I represent ideal Indianness or not, I’ll never ever be able to do anything just right to anyone’s specifications. So to end with the ever quotable Dorothy Parker, this is my message trying to fit anyone in a cultural box so tiny that even Matthew Arnold wouldn’t like —

” But now I know the things I know,
And do the things I do;
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you!”

The Things We Always Remember Edition Of Selective Memories

I saw Before Sunset about two years ago and this one line has still stuck around in my head — “Memories are wonderful things, if you don’t have to deal with the past”. Contrary to popular belief I don’t quote  such lines quite ritually. Because that would be embarrassing; not that I know anything about it(ish). But this week as I was teaching Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Third and The Last Continent” to my students, the question of ‘Indian-ness’ came up throughout the text. We started off with describing all things Indian — Gandhi, sarees, removing shoes at the doorstep, Malgudi Days (this was mine. My students have no clue of R.K.Narayan) and cricket. Cricket in India is what God is to the Pope; maybe Indians are more loyal to cricket, I’d say.

Suddenly, one of them said, “Indian-ness is hating Pakistan“; a sentence that still chills my bones.  A class of 13-year old children (emphasis on CHILDREN) have such strong views on a community they have never actually interacted with, backing their views with various cultural stereotypes all aimed at objectifying and dehumanising a specific people, I stood rooted to the spot, unable to speak for a while. Sentences like, “Muslims are like that. They are a hateful, violent community“, “They SMELL!“, “Why do you think no Muslim is ever on the ‘Most Successful People’ page?” and the old obvious standby “Most of them are terrorists anyway” started swirling around before I could stop them. They even made distinctions between certain sects, making sure to highlight the Gujarati heritage of Khoja Muslims, as if that’s the reason they are ‘different’ and ‘better’ Muslims. Then the Saudi Arabian Muslims are ‘more sophisticated’ than the rest and “the US Muslims are the best, because they aren’t really Muslims at all” concluded the class with a laugh.

By this time my brain has UnNumbed itself and was ready to challenge all these slanderous statements. Poor Jhumpa Lahiri’s wonderful prose lay forgotten as we discussed at length what kids called “The Problem With Muslims: Class ONE”. Further discussion brought out many more stereotypes I was unaware of. Did you know Indian Muslims sometimes eat humans (supposedly) and this is why we should hate them?! They were very careful in making clear demarcations about just who is a ‘good’ Muslim. Apparently people who they knew were ‘good’ Muslims as they weren’t ‘very religious’ or ‘didn’t like fanatic Muslims’. One student coined this definition by saying his friend “Doesn’t ever say Allah-anything in public“. Their lack of identification as Muslims makes them ‘good’. I really wanted to take off my TeacherShoes and just lock myself in my room. So much hostility messes up my mental health in a huge way; thus I decided to don my Big-Girl socks and face the tiny heathens children head-on.

When I brought up the fascist policies of the BJP , they all drew a blank. The same reaction when I talked about the Godhra riots or the Babri Masjid conflict that India is trying to resolve since the last two decades. Turns out, these kids have selective memories when it comes to Indian History. Textbooks talk of the suffering Hindus faced during the Partition but not one peep of the thousands slaughtered Muslims or the gang-rapes Muslim women had to undergo at the hands of Sikhs. We talk about how selfish Jinnah was for even suggesting the creation of Pakistan but we don’t talk about the reason why the Muslims felt the need to have a separate State on the first place. The idea that Pakistanis don’t really have a say in how their country is represented to Indian media was entirely alien to them. Maoism is one of the biggest threats to Indian Nationhood today, if the media had to have their say. Their side of the debate is entirely obliterated (does this ring any bells regarding systematic silencing?). One could argue that they are just children and kids make erroneous judgments, which is pure definition of poop to my mind. If they can believe and propagate a single-story-view of history, they are capable of understanding history as it ought; objectively and without prejudices.

It doesn’t help one bit that Indian media is pro-BJP either. Somehow, many popular newspapers don’t seem to find the idea of “Hindutva” (which is basically preference of Hindus over non-Hindus. Not that different from Hitler is it?) very disturbing. But when Raj Thackerey actually implements this policy, Mumbaikars can’t stop talking about how exclusionary politics are bad for progress and suddenly phrases like “We are Indian first and Mumbaikars later” start floating in the air. However whenever the question comes up to defend our Muslim brothers and sisters, suddenly everyone becomes apolitical.

Even in cinema, if there is ever a Muslim character, great pains are taken to show how Non-Muslim hir really is or because of how personal the entire narrative is, we end up thinking of the character as an exception to the rule instead of the ‘type’ hir is supposed to be. In that light, the opinions of my students don’t seem so appalling, if the entire world around them is harping one tune, they are bound to sing along (generally speaking). What really gets to me is even their parents do nothing to change the prejudices; if they are the original holders of this view that is. We never pay attention to how much influence the family as a unit has on our minds. I still remember my uncle saying at one point that he could “...identify a Muslim by the way he walks. It reeks of sin” when I was six.

Somehow, when it comes to Muslims, Indians get defensive about our nationality and ‘nationhood’ (which is extremely problematic as the basis of its very definition banks on techniques of Other-ing and alienation) but we will NEVER think of the reason why there is so much hate brewing between our two countries. Fingers pointing towards this leader or that government, this regime is the reason the two countries can’t resolve issues, THEY DON’T RELEASE OUR PRISONERS EITHER! and many (un)entertaining variants of Othering.

History has a history of being selective, this is a truth universally acknowledged. But when it comes to Muslims, Indian history becomes amnesic. We’re so ready to dispel of our past, any event that shows that Indians aren’t the nationalist, collective mist that popular culture extols, that we completely forget the most important lesson: TO BE HUMAN.

This post also appears in Womanist Musings

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