As this is the week of Diwali, most of the Ladies of my house are busy preparing various sorts of obligatory ‘Diwali specialties’ while the MenPeople take a break from work, colonise various electronic ports of the house — from the Computer to the TV, in an extremely vapid version of the Matrix — and more or less just laze around. In traditional feminine spaces of the house (the kitchen, the veranda, the room with the temple) you’ll see a lot of bustling activity, hear voices teasing, laughing, sometimes sharp clipped tones when instructions go wrong; the air goes stale here, turns inwards on itself, the cracks speak volumes and there is a constant negotiation of silences. Ironically, such quasi-unregulated ‘women’s spaces’ often leave me claustrophobic — especially when I’m supposed to don the Dutiful Indian Daughter’s Shoes or otherwise — as these spaces often remind me of Gertrude Stein’s famous words describing a box,
“Left open, to be left pounded, to be left closed, to be circulating in summer and winter, and sick colour that is grey that is not dusty and red shows an empty length sooner than a choice in colour. Hope, what is a spectacle, a spectacle is the resemblance between the circular side place and nothing else, nothing else“;
where femininity is at display in such an obtuse manner that femininity and the Body Feminine becomes a monolithic garment that is supposed to cover us all; that I imagine it leaves a few bodies bare on purpose. Such bodies are always marked, for being different; if you squint really hard you can spot them at a distance too, flitting from one room to another, searching for a place to be.
Unable to stand the noise and the commotion in my room, I left to go to a book sale across town hoping to lift my mood a bit. And sure enough, at the end of the store, the shelf marked as ‘Feminism’ did make me smile for a while till I processed what it held. Either there were Western feminist texts like The Second Sex or The Feminine Mystique or multiple copies of memoirs of women from Gulf nations, talking about the violence and repression they face there. Maybe I am too cynical, but since when did memoirs penned by White women, based on the life of women from Saudi Arabia constitute as feminist texts? Surely, the voice of anyone anywhere is worth listening to irrespective of gender, class, sexual orientation, colour, caste, ethnicity and so on. But in the transcribing of voices, how much is lost, how much is censored, how much is directed to fit the convenient slot of the Powerless Third World Woman, the Eternal Victim are invisible questions the back of 4th edition paperback doesn’t divulge. The way this LadyBrain sees it, writing for the Coloured or Marked Body has become a business, a fetish of sorts to be sold to White as well as hued audiences, as both are reassured that their positions are left unchallenged. I’ve seen a lot of women reading Jean Sasson‘s books, many have recommended them to me and I have read each one of them (it’s an incurable disease People Of The Olde Interwebes), they are a sort of ‘go-to’ book sources the moment anyone professes any interest in gender or culture theory. It’s rather unfortunate that each book is a memoir about women who undergo the terrifyingly real — and sometimes even hyper-real — routine of rape, torture, patriarchal stronghold on minds and bodies, while none of these women write the books themselves. As glad I am that someone is reading or listening to these voices, so much is co-opted in the process that I’m left with a bitter taste of the DoucheColonial Gaze on my skin, that is omnipresent in the text. Also, these books are an excuse for several right-winged groups to say, “Look how those Muslim buggers treat women! At least we don’t stone you¹”. It’s fascinating — where fascinating is the new grotesque — to see how ‘comfortable’ we are reading and even consuming these voices, as long they are far away from our society. Which is why an anthology like Poisoned Bread made a few too many people angry and eventually defensive (because which god-fearing, self-respecting Hindu would want to be reminded of all the sins zie has committed for centuries on Dalits?) but books like Princess and Daughters of Mayada are fetishised.
This weekend over a family dinner, I was seated at the ‘women’s table’ as usual, wondering when did I morph from child to woman, old enough to be the invisible ear for middle-aged Ladies who need to vent out their LadyEmotions through the forms of humour and snark. As the conversation turned to ungrateful husbands and disobedient children I looked at the table at the end corner of the room where a young mother kept on glaring at her daughter of about six years of age for hiking up her dress or sitting 'inappropriately'. I always had the same problem growing up; I could truly empathise and almost wanted to send her an invisible signal reassuring that she'd learn to ignore such comments soon enough as I watched her burst into tears later. Body policing is something Ladies Of The Dark Regions learn very quickly and rather subtly, only when someone points it out, the cracks in our disciplined bodies become visible. I remember reading Freud's theory on Penis Envy -- and rolling my eyes to eternity of course! -- and realising how bourgeois and Euro-centric the theory was considering MudSquatter kids like I and my friends weren't generally allowed didn't play with boys till about the time we were aware just how and why our bodies were different, we knew how girls were supposed to run, jump and be and how 'those boys' could be as carefree as they wished, to ever want to voluntarily see the little dudes up, close and personal to ever develop envy for that dangly appendage. In fact, after facing direct sexism and existing under the thumb of patriarchy as many DustyLadies do, then this supposed envy comes out, just so we can -- for a while -- be as unmarked as the culture lets us be.
The point is, as 'occupied bodies' the body -- theoretical or literal -- is a taboo subject to explore, discuss or even think about. There is a popular superstition that if a little girl swings her legs -- non-applicable to little dudes --, one of her parents will die thus effectively blackmailing the girl into sitting still and poised at all times. The body is something that hardly goes unnoticed out here which is directly ironic to how much effort goes into negating it. The motive is to police, tutor and chart it the way the DudeCouncil wants, which will make these unruly bodies into wives and mothers of the Dutiful Variety. I went to a Girl's Convent school and can still remember how certain Muslim girls would suddenly start wearing full length tights under their uniforms in sixth or seventh grade, the way other girls would whisper "she got the curse¹!" much to the poor girl's embarrassment. The shock on seeing classmates changing into the hijab or donning the veil everyday the moment they stepped out of school is still raw, I could never reconcile the Girl I Knew with the Girl In The Veil, to me they were separate bodies altogether, one marked as someone else's and the other as bits of 'herself'. I am not saying the veil is an imposition and there is never a possibility of it being a choice, rather that to a person who will never be expected by society or her religion to practice veiling, the invisibility of the veiled body bears a certain meaning to me, which may or not go along with the traditional space of hijab and its many practices.
A few months ago, my student asked me why do I read so much -- well, what is much? -- and I couldn't reply to that seemingly simple question. I made an excuse and told him I'd explain later, when I'd realise it myself. I've been reading for as long as I remember; I started because I wanted to be like my mum, snuggled on her side of the bed with the reading light on and lost in her little niche every night. Soon enough books weaved their magic spell on me and now I have the incurable fetish for words, written or otherwise. That is still not a reason enough that can explain my relationship with reading; for books are just my way of knowing the world. Especially after it dawned on me that most books that I read weren't really meant for me despite the claim of their 'universal' status. Even as a child of 12 I knew I was never going to raft down the Mississippi with Tom Sawyer, I had no 'crazy' acquaintances like Mrs. Haversham, if I met Mrs. Dalloway in real life she'd frown at my skin and many such examples that made the cultural static between my world and theirs painfully visible under all the layers of Cannonisation and Universalism. And for a long time, I considered myself lacking in someway for not feeling at home in these masterpieces of World Literature. These days I just fondly call this list 'Dead White Ubiquitous Writers' who are just about as universal as my dog is for the rest of his species. Doesn't mean I won't read Wuthering Heights every year or won't hurt from the way it treats 'dark-skinned ruffian' Heathcliff, but rather I am aware of this difference and am not ashamed of my subject position in and out of the text anymore, however alienated the text or the language makes me feel.
As reading is such an important part of my identity -- you don't major in Literature if you feel anything less, People Of The Olde Interwebes -- the question why I read plagued me for quite a while, I even brought it up recently when my friends and I were discussing Zadie Smith's essay on 'Death Of The Author'. Each of us had our own reasons, one liked to read to escape to another world, another liked to escape from this world, one reads so that she doesn't have to listen to her own thoughts all the time and another reads to feel a part of something. But my LadyBrain was still hoping for a better and a concrete answer that would stop the constant inner interrogation for good and allow me to bask in my books once again. One time I brought it up in class to see how other 'non-readers' viewed books and the politics behind them where one dudely student remarked that I was making a 'personal issue' about a harmless question, because apparently, "Seriously? Reading? Words don't matter that much anyway, nor do they change the world in any way" is quite a popular opinion among most afore mentioned 'non-readers' when all I was doing was not making a problem out of a personal question; but making a personal question an absence of a problem, to borrow and modify from Foucault. Reading is a space where there is infinite potential for negotiation of meanings and implied subtexts. For instance, Kamla Das talks about making walls -- "I shall build walls with tears/She said, walls to shut me in", almost a retort back to Woolf's statement that being 'locked in' is the worst possible scenario -- to me it's a resilience while my student read it as an act of submission. Such possibilities often make me giddy and for a while I thought I'd found my answer. And then last week while voluntarily melting my BrainCells watching TV I reached my happy place. Who knew the idiot box could lead to wonderful Lady Insights Of The Super Important Variety?
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 budding wordling and receptor of English Literary Academia in India, it's not difficult to notice our affinity to the terms 'Postcolonialism', the 'subject position of the Oriental reader', our tendency to use words such as 'colonising space or time', 'deoccupying bodies' and many other words in Literary mumbo-jumbo that somehow help us to disentangle the mess two hundred or so years of colonisation has left us with. At least for those privileged enough to understand said lingo. And for the ones who don't, there is always assimilation into the larger ColonialMissionary looming over our heads, yielding keys to the fantastic universe of soap-operas, movies and music. And perhaps even kinky alternatives to intercourse of the coitus variety. But I digress. Either way, there are two options: 1. Fight the Imperialist Chromatic Hegemony or 2. Be consumed by it (perhaps even like it!). I wish there weren't such clear dichotomies -- take that Descartes! -- that there was some possibility of subverting or perverting the Neo-Colonial garbage thrown at us MudSquatters. But how can you topple an ideology or put it through the cycle of systematic and total bouleversement without exposing the underlying ulterior motive?
At least, this is the assumption many Postcolonial theorists make. Apparently it comes with the territory of considering oneself three steps above everyone else because you can theorise 'them' and 'their mental condition' as 'they' lie passively consuming all societal messages, like 'they' were brainless sheep in a culture factory. This is a sort of obsession, expecting the world to open 'herself' -- another side-effect from nineteenth century academia -- open to mapping, stealing narratives and even tongues. This way, each potential Postcolonial subject sits with their corner of land and language, positively asserting they can voice the people that come with the geography, denying that this re-possession of land isn't another colonisation. After all, if you speak their language, you can represent them, right? I could continue ad nauseam in this vein but for the sake of my sanity and yours, let's pretend I did and move on. This fetish with cartoligising, mapping, codifying history isn't a new one. But the belief that the only way to de-colonise the self, dance the coloniser's dance to unlearn old tricks is a recent one. Repeated and ritual use of terms such as Diaspora has trivialised the culture-specific experience of immigrant Jews and African communities; especially when writers such as Salman Rushdie and his band of dudely writers claim to be "children of Diaspora" while sitting in a comfortable mansion in the freaking Center of Western Imperialism. Or when many theorists compare racism with casteism, treating them as the same phenomenon and erasing each prejudice's specific history, localising it to an understandable and reachable series of events. Not that different from the Victorians, isn't it? These and countless others are the barriers that come up when a native sits back to theorise zie's own culture and all its Colonial baggage. Imagine the plight of my lobes when I read some Western account on any Orientalist practice. Spoiler: It's not a very pretty visual. Often it involves strange burning sensations of the nuclear kind in the vicinity of my LadyBrain.
There are some crimes that are just gut wrenching to think about. "Honor" killing, the murder of a someone (usually a woman or girl) by family and friends over sex / marriage is an awful thing.
I object to it personally. as a father of a girl, I shudder to think what could bring a father or brother to slaughter their own kin. It cannot end soon enough for me.
There are some great resources committed to ending 'honor' killing, listed at the end of this post. If you know of others not listed here, please leave them in the comments field.
What has my mind today is not the 'honor' killings themselves but how the topic itself is discussed, presented and marketed in western societies - the EU and US. The news reports and accounts of these killings reveal these deaths in terms of the way they are carried out, along with details of religious and cultural practices that seem primitive, cruel and that fly in the face of any rule of fairness, reasoning or legal structure.
Sure, we get upset by such murders, but are these 'honor' killing being used to reinforce a "single story" about the populations where these killings occur? As Chimamanda Adichie illustrates well, repeated and dramatic negative images about a culture other than one's own, can reduce our own awareness to a "single story" of who those people are. It lumps people into one-dimensional creations, not as complex and alive in our minds as we hold ourselves. It strips individuals of identity and reduces people to "one of those people".
Chimiamanda talks about people being framed in a "patriarchal, well-meaning pity" by holding them in a "single story of catastrophe".