postcolonialism

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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!”.

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Borrowed Memories And Half-Sounded Syllables

Last week, I saw ‘A Passage To India‘ with my parents and grandma, it started out as a hilarious exercise in pointing out just how many racist elements could one mesh in a movie — turns out more than we can ever count! — and making cynical notes in my head like, “Not all Indians are always smiling all the time, okay?” and “Not all brown women keep their gaze centered on their feet, no not even always in colonial times!” to the part where my grandma started laughing at the “Silly white women trying to speak Hindi!” and then she started telling us about her school days — some 65 years ago when she was roughly about 12 years old¹ — where she and her friends would race to the Colonial Bungalow near their school in Pune, about running right home whenever they’d hear the horses hooves — for almost always it was the British in their town on horses — and trying to touch the fence of the Bungalow but being too scared to physically try it out, to the time when she and her older sister got caught and were lashed for ‘something’ which she doesn’t tell us. She was laughing at how uneven and rough their Hindi sounded, but didn’t know what the movie was about as her English isn’t as good – partly because of the time she was born in and in part because of her own decision to never ‘learn that tongue’ as an adolescent – and for a bit there, mum was transcribing what was happening on-screen and stripping the dialogue, settings from its inherent racism — pretty ironic for  a woman who once protested against the ‘White Imperial Capitalist Hegemony’ in the mid 80′s I thought — and by the time my grandma fully understood why were the White women speaking to the sari-clad-purdah-observing women, it wasn’t funny anymore to her. It took her a couple of days and a few sleeping pills to ‘become’ herself again.

Something like this isn’t a routine occurrence in my household — contrary to popular belief I don’t crumble and break down every time I pass a colonial structure or when I watch English movies or while reading English books — but a movie as specifically racist to Indians as ‘A Passage To India’ or going to the museum, looking at weapons that may have been used on some of my student’s great-grandparent’s are times when I want to re-write history or break away all ties with ‘my’ colonial past — whichever comes first. When faced with historical markers in specific situations, it becomes a tad difficult to view things objectively², to take the position dad took while viewing the film that, “This was an anti-racist book written in the colonial times! Pretty courageous on Forster’s part, no?”, to concede it under the label of This Is How Things Were Back Then. On some level I do understand that Forster like Joseph Conrad was ‘trying to do the right thing’, critiquing colonialism while it was going on — not a terribly popular opinion at that — but I find it very hard to applaud individuals who were more ‘humane’ than others — seeing how both perpetuated harmful and lingering stereotypes of the ‘native’ they were both writing of — to give Shiny Activist Medals™ to Dead White Dudes — a formidable camp on its own — that in no way produced any nuanced critiques of the Empire, not even ‘back then’. While Forster was writing ‘A Passage To India’, talking about Memsahibs and the ‘fascination’ all Brown men must inherently have with White women, we had writers like Premchand³ and Pandey Becan Sharma Ugra writing decidedly postcolonial literature — and many, many Dalit and tribal writers whose accounts  live primarily in their specific community’s oral traditions considering they ‘lacked’ Premchand or any other upper-caste Hindu writer of the time’s privilege to education and position in the caste-hierarchy.

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Dislocating Discourses; Rewriting Boundaries

 

This weekend my parents’ friends are visiting some obscure little village in some Dusty Part of India, because they apparently have a house there — and they didn’t even know it! — and the lovely Government wants to run it down and make a road connecting two villages, all in the name of progress that almost never reaches people it professes to help. After dinner, while cleaning up my Mum wondered out loud how different their lives would have been, had they lived in that house instead of this one in Mumbai. My sister and my cook began to imagine hilarious scenarios of stereotypical country life, of menial labour — because bonded labour is the new funny, People Of The Olde Interwebes — and suddenly she exclaimed, “They would speak a different Gujarati! And their English would sound like something out of a bad nightmare. I’m so glad they live here”. The idea that language and dialect would be different troubled her, especially that the family’s English wouldn’t be as ‘polished’ as it is now; their past-present-futures are different when this new dialect is injected in. The friends in question started marking the differences, he said he wouldn’t have been a corporate lawyer, she wouldn’t have been able to work and so on. Through this dinner I was stuck with a bitter taste in my mouth thinking how easily the Other is always an intruder, a predator, dangerous; it unsettles this well-established center. The Lady in question concluded, “We could be better people living here. Can you imagine us there? We would have probably beenzamindars or something” and many other UnEntertaining variants of playing the Desi Coloniser. It’s always easy to claim superiority if you’ve already relegated a space that unbelongs and is unhinged as different, for this is what difference boils down to, an excuse to claim, possess and punish in one swift act¹.

Long after this dinner, I was still thinking of the above conversation. I couldn’t put down exactly what unsettled me so deeply, it was only when I started rereading Spivak’s essay ‘Can The Subaltern Speak?’ did the pieces fit together. At one point she writes, “The Coloniser constructs himself as he constructs the colony”; like did this couple. While imagining this alternative life, their present life was romanticised and their rural “would-have’s” were conspicuously ‘backward’, which is precisely why selling away that house didn’t pose a big problem to them. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only instance I’ve heard or experienced where more ‘developed’ or narratives of ‘progress’ take center stage. This week my friend put up a picture of me on Facebook dressed in traditional Indian clothes. A few people who know me from my blog and know this friend found it startling that someone who speaks so ‘freely’ and ‘liberally’ on many issues can choose to bend down tradition’s way. These are times when my ethnic identity or just wearing ‘ethnic’ dress becomes interchangeable with embodying tradition and essentialism; the alternative is to completely disengage with this identity and embrace being ‘universal’ Western. What’s the problem with e-showing and choosing to dapple in my ethnicity — out here as a Hindu woman of a certain caste and class privilege – you say? More often than not, I’m perceived as someone who doesn’t necessarily have a voice or someone who is touting for my country’s oft spoken about ‘traditionalism’. Anyone who knows me, even a little bit, knows about my strong distaste for patriarchy. Somehow in traditional clothes, the ‘me’ they saw was a different one,  and immediately an inferior one. One acquaintance even wrote to me asking if everything was okay because as she put it, “This is so out of character for you!”. And on Facebook, a tiny argument broke out assessing if I’ve changed or not; while no one talks to me just about me. This is another advantage of being Othered — as DustyLadies, this is a common experience for us — words fly all about you, but you will never be able to catch them. Like the figure of Sati (the widow who has to put herself on her husband’s pyre and be immolated with him), there are only two readings of DustyLadies. Either some ‘progressive’ Westerner is telling us how terrible our lives are, because we follow certain traditions or our Male Counterparts who speak for us (like they did in the case of Sati) and almost always showcase tradition as a voluntary act. Meanwhile the woman on the pyre burns.

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Caught Between Colonised Consonants

These last few weeks have been rather stressful for me, so by the time I get home, I’m more than exhausted, crash on my sofa and let the TeeVee numb my LadyLobes into oblivion for a while. This is around the time my grandmother’s favourite soaps are aired and we’ve developed a routine between the two of us. I help her to get dinner going (in my limited capacities as a non-cook) and she fills me in to whatever I missed in the first 10 minutes of the show. Over these weeks, I have now become familiar with the plotlines of more than seven shows, each predictably depicting middle to upper middle class Hindu households, where the protagonist, generally a virtuous woman battling a myriad of obstacles  from abusive husbands to nose-parker neighbours, this Indian Daughter In Law suffers and endures rather vapidly, always quoting from some scripture or following orders to a T. This is TeeVee land after all, where women go to bed in saris and with their full make-up on, where the idea of a ‘diverse’ family is a multilingual Hindu family — what? have a non-sterotypical Muslim or a Christian character? Never! The TeeVee roars back — and where always, good triumphs over evil, after about every 200 episodes. Of course, when I’m watching these soaps with my grandma these quips are contained in my LadyBrain as she genuinely enjoys these shows. Plus if you saw her blushing the way she does when a Dude and a Lady on the screen brush hands, you’ll get it too.

Yesterday I noticed something interesting in one of these shows; it reminded me of my other grandmum that I lost a few years ago. One of the senior actors on the show had the exact expression as my grandmum would get when I’d start rambling too quickly in English; like many MudSquatters she too could read and write English quite well. Though she was the one who introduced me to Austen and the Brontës; when it came to sounding the syllables she fell short. The actor on-screen was making an exaggerated effort to understand her grandson as the child blathered on in the Coloniser’s tongue – with the American accent no less!—when this grandma of mine looks at me and teases me, “Isn’t this like us? You and your English books, always ranting in that language! Going so fast that no one can even understand! God knows what you must be saying in that language about us!”. While my parents and I converse in English relatively easily, for my grandma this language remains an unexplained pun, as she correctly guesses our tones but the words and their exact meaning escape her. For her not learning English remains her way to defy the Empire, while today I believe in smashing the Empire from within, using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house and caught in the middle are people from my mum’s generation who learnt English to get jobs and status. My parents have a more intimate relationship with our Mother Tongue than I do, for English remains a means to an end for them, as for me English is one of my primary expressions; it’s alienating, frustrating and yet the only tongue I can dream in. The debate of ‘Whose English Is It Really?’ can continue forever. What interests me today how this language is used to cut, to prod, to break into and make room for new dichotomies to absorb. I’ve noticed how my tone changes when I’m speaking to my friends or students, while at home even my English shifts its tenor, it slows down. Here, my a few words from my Mother Tongue blend in, the way I leave questions open is again extremely specific for my community, the language flows more smoothly till the transition to speaking entirely in my Mother Tongue has been made. Sometimes when my Mum and I don’t want to let the maid know we’re talking about something that concerns her, we shift unanimously and almost subconsciously to English and then step right out again in a similar manner. Here, English is used to show and maintain class and to an extent caste supremacy whether we’re aware of it or not.

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