Cataloging Gray Areas
As a person who is born and identifies as a (dusty) lady, noticing how my ‘body’ or the space it occupies is as natural as breathing; though this space is hued coloured over and eventually pushed to the fringe. As I’m considerably tall, it would be hard to not see me, one would assume. In fact, there are so many places where I slip in and out of corners and rooms without anyone noticing, sometimes this sort of partially-cloaked-conscious invisibility surprises me too. At first, this un-seeing of my body — whether consciously done or otherwise — seemed liberating. I could spend hours in my room reading or writing before my mum or aunt would come to check in and see what I was up to, generally hours would pass before they’d notice, or at libraries I would take in the smell of old musty books without the clerks giving me cold stares. Lately, this is changing as I’m “growing up” and my “womanly assets” are becoming more evident¹, but this hasn’t affected my (in)visibility. All that has changed is a few parts of my anatomy now stand for my whole person, and I remain as faceless as ever in most public and private spaces. I was self-absorbed enough for a while to think I Was The Only One and yesterday when I heard a lady behind me yelling at a rude dude who brushed past her, “Can’t you see I’m standing here?” when it hit me that being or identifying as a feminine body is more than enough to render anyone (in)visible. Interestingly, even when I’m in NotIndia, my body is more-or-less (in)visible, but what glows is my epidermal tissue. The Feminine Body — assigned or chosen — is more or less voiceless, especially if we’re hued bodies — how else will infinite access and possession be assumed univerally? – and this is the voicelessness of a privileged, able-body. Which is exactly why hearing about the women in most psychiatric wards left me numb and horrified last week. I thought I was (in)visible partially, when these women are seen as bodies devoid of complete agency.
Like most things we do say think assert about most aspects of behaviour is mediated, specifically from Olde DoucheColonial Standards to the New Standards Of The New Empire, especially when it comes to matters of psychology, psychiatry, medicine, sexuality and everything else, so do our definitions and boundaries of ‘crazy’, ‘insane’, ‘normal’ are still incredibly Western in chalking these lines, and as young as 40ish years in establishing the Indian Association Of Clinical Psychologists. The intelligence tests we take are Weschler’s revised tests, not all of them necessairily suit the Subcontinental Mode of learning and studying, most of these tests fall apart once we question the colonial mode of education that we still follow. I remember learning poems like ‘Daffodils’ and ‘Death The Leveler’ ‘by heart’ as a child; I’d be asked to recite these poems and the grown ups in the room would look at me patronisingly while saying, “She’s such an intelligent child! And the pronunciation! Perfect pitch!”, today I push those memories away as a violent master-slave dichotomy forms whenever I see yet another kid made to perform such poetry-acts. The doting adult steps in the shoes of the Omnipresent Coloniser, rewards the child for obeying the Empire’s mode of speech; all this while the text seeps in the skin and is absorbed by the ‘body’ as it were. Which is precisely why having the access and ‘command’ over English is seen as a matter of pride, not privilege. Psychology tests that are suited to Indian sensibilities were made first in 1999 and revised in the last few years, however most don’t take this colonial intake of knowledge into account²; similarly tests that detect ‘mental’ illnesses and disorders are still crafted for a part of the globe that isn’t as hued or as caught in colonial chains as we are. If the (in)visible feminine body is cataloged as ‘crazy’ (read deviant), and even ashrams as fluffy looking as this one — I don’t know what a white lady is doing in the header — become sites of dislocating and disrobing agency and consent as ‘those crazy women don’t know what they want anyway’. And this is one of the few spots that doesn’t peddle ‘crazy’ women as prostitutes as many government hospitals do, mainly because the ashram caters to women with class and to an extent, caste privilege. Meanwhile the detongued-subaltern-woman-animal that women and other feminine identified bodies roar silences as their caste, class and religion puts them in a position open to exploitation and manipulation.
In addition, true to the thickest stereotypes about us, there are a few communities who believe in the existence of witches and tantrics — not witches as one sees and identifies in the Western world, but rather as perpetrators of evil. Leaving aside the reviews of Nice Imperial People like the REALL organisation that published articles which say “Will These People Ever Learn?“, most incisive commentary like that by Mahashveta Devi shows the extent to which mental illnesses in women are largely another form of body policing and cataloging most deviant female bodies — we don’t care if the assigned gender roles match or no, especially not after the body is assigned as the ‘crazy’ one — to confine and restrict this perceived deviancy. In spaces where worrying about ‘pesky’ things like ‘postpartum depression’ isn’t a privilege, women tend to ignore symptoms, or no one pays attention to them till it escalates to a state of ‘lunacy’ — I can hardly blame them, when one is fighting for survival, mental health isn’t an important priority or most women don’t have the access to such knowledge — and the village or the community gets ‘rid’ of them. Women with multiple ‘miscarriages’ (read abortions to get the Precious Male Child) are often misdiagnosed as ‘crazy’ or ‘barren’ and left to fend for themselves, the Municipal Psychiatric Ward in Mumbai attests this horrid excuse. Even in popular media depictions, it’s the ‘husband’ (generally from a wealthy family) who is married away to a women from a lower class/caste background than him, she is more or less tricked into this marriage or her family pawns her off — remember Koshish, Ek Asha? — and her ‘love’ and ‘dedication’ (read servitude) ‘cures’ him of his ‘mental illness’. However, when women go ‘crazy’ they’re called ‘witches’ and are disposed³.
In these intersections of ‘madness’ and ‘being woman’ are gray truths I almost didn’t want to hear last week, I wanted to run away listening to anecdotes of these women — generally from lower ‘caste’ and class backgrounds — who have been identified as ‘crazy’ for being ‘queer’ or openly identifying as ‘not-women’, a few ‘insane’ women who checked themselves in after years of abuse and other ‘certified crazies’ who were diagnosed with ‘schizophrenia’ since their childhood. There is no doubt that people with mental health issues exist, but the less class or caste privileged you are, less amount of agency you have over this decision, less choice with what happens to your (in)visible body. Women and feminine-identified are stripped of their voice, identity and consent — some are given new names too — the moment the catalog on their body reads ‘crazy’. I can’t decide what bothers me more, this manufactured (in)visibility or the fact that most times it is their male-counterparts (fathers, husbands and/or brothers) who decide ‘what is to be done about these women’. I confess, I don’t even want to know.
1. My great-aunts come up with the most delightfully-cringe-inducing phrases, always.
2. See Gauri Vishwanathan’s ‘Masks Of Conquests’ for more details about the ‘colonial intake of knowledge’.
3. Mahashveta Devi’s play ‘Bayen’ is an excellent example.