Ivory tower

Jaded's picture

Sub-Merged Margins And Us

Last week while returning a couple of books at the library, I saw the woman in the line next to mine was holding a copy of  ‘Writing Caste, Writing Gender‘, a book I’ve read cover-to-cover a few times. She saw me looking at the book and started  a conversation about the editor and how this was her first book on Dalit feminism. So I told her a few other names, and she marveled how I knew ‘so much’ about ‘them’ — as it turns out I’ve got ‘Privilege’ and ‘Hindu’ stamped on my forehead in invisible neon ink — because as she assumed correctly, I couldn’t possibly be ‘one of them’¹. While I smiled at her, I was cringing inwards to see how swiftly she spoke in ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ speak, forgetting the ‘We’, we forged somewhere in the middle, if the Constitution is to be believed at all. As insulting her words were — of course she ‘meant well’, after all Hindu Ladies have never really been evil, check our scriptures if you want! — this erasure of Dalit people, or the failure to acknowledge them as humans isn’t new. ‘Caste’ seems to be a word we love to forget, dropping it from our consonants as if it doesn’t matter at all, or as if the entire country just comprises of one monolithic Hindu ethnic identity. Moving across borders, an otherwise non-imperial article on Nepali bonded labour of little girls mentions the intra-generational debt, servitude and communal ‘tradition’ of gendered slavery, but yet again re-writes caste-struggle as a largely class-based one. Any time people want to play hide and seek with the term, I can only think of my aunt who calls Dalit women, ‘women like that‘ and almost wish I could ask them to pronounce the word like I do with my students when we learn new French words and phrases, just to make sure the word ‘caste’ can sound from their tongues too.

Looking beyond India’s borders, when the words ‘an Indian lady‘ are mentioned, the image that is the most popular is the Sari-Clad dusty woman, preferably looking docile and happy. Even a Dusty Lady as internationally recognised as Arundhati Roy, or rather the image² we know as ‘Ms. Roy’ caters to the same trope where beautiful bodies of spectacular South Asian women in silk and cotton saris, face framed with wispy, curly hair invites the consumer to gobble and cement the Image Of The Third World Woman as the one of Serenity, Peace and Wisdom™ and by extension further exotifying us. And in this one idealised ‘womanhood’ or ‘femininity’, Dalit or ‘lower-caste’ femininity, needless to say has no space to survive. No matter how subtle a form of body-policing is, when you erase or censor a body you censor words and voices too, the art of which Hindu society has perfected over centuries. In feminist circles and academia, talking about the Self as the Margin is a lofty trend, for occupying ‘Marginalia’ is the new PovertyPorn, where you can critique and consume your position in one easy move! While writing while woman is a hard job, writing while ‘marginal’³ is a far more lucrative option — especially if you belong to a community that does indeed squat in the mud, for nothing says ‘marginal’ like a ‘tribe’ or a ‘family’ that lived on trees or was related to Gandhi. While manufacturing this parallel universal that caters solely to the DoucheColonial Gaze of the Universal, bodies that are Othered step another foot back into oblivion. This is probably why we know of Jumpha Lahiri and not Bama today. Embodying the ‘marginal’ in writing films, in manners wise or otherwise, smacks too much of the lens filmmakers like Shekhar Kapur or Danny Boyle use, namely: See How They Squat Prettily, while guilting the audience into tears and gasps and nodding solemnly when it comes to collecting the profits. Playing this CharityCharade works only if the audience wants to see the same breakdown of seeing brown (feminine) bodies being saved from brown (masculine) bodies or any other notion that doesn’t challenge any Empires, of years past or the one we live in now.

Jaded's picture

'Skin Deep' In Whose Skin?

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.

Jaded's picture

Voicing The Voiceless Is Only The Concern Of The Artist In The Ivory Tower

As a child of 11, I got my first Austen novel from my grandmum. I remember getting lost in the beautiful words, spending hours just reading, laughing and crying with Lizzie -- the routine dance of any Austen fan. I'd lose hours while reading her and the Brontes and whenever anyone would wake me up from the trance their words wove around me, I'd take a few minutes to re-enter my "real world". This world would seem blurred, the one I left in the book was much more interesting. Often mum would get annoyed with my obliviousness to reality, often worry that one day I'll get locked in my head and just never come out. Generally, I'd laugh it off. Today, I see the truth -- however dangerous it is -- in her words.

 

If anyone passes even the slightest glazed eye, wise or otherwise, it's rather easy to notice that speaking for the marginalised has become a sort of a fetish, a desirable thing even. Now don't be so quick to put me in your HateBook, let me explain. The past two or three decades have seen a sudden boom in international academicians who have a keen interest in "uplifting" oppressed communities by giving them a voice and a platform. The idea of diaspora is extremely interesting (in addition to being lucrative), so is helping Dalit and Tribal or Women's writing to get published. But just like the fact that changing a street's name from it's old Victorian name to the name of any Indian hero isn't going to ever erase anything around two hundred years of apathy, this entry into academia doesn't get any closer to "activism" or even "help" than  Shobha Dé to feminism. Call it the coloniser's existential  guilt -- just about two centuries two late -- or zie's UnSubtle effort at being politically correct (with the hopes of effacing history), this obsession with the "native" cultures is alive and thriving.

Syndicate content
Powered by Drupal, an open source content management system