Fostering Hospitable Silences
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 — 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.
When it comes to my other performed “homes” — of the Nation, of the community, of the secured public sphere — within these spaces, there is often a perpetuated (false) sense of security, that some invisible thread of “Indianness”, “Hinduness” “[Insert label here]” is supposed to bond people across communities — more often than not it fails to do just that², which by extension codifies the performance of security, of a distinguishable “sameness”. Whenever a challenge is aimed at these hospitable silences, not only are we, the Others on various margins supposed to keep silent — for “We’re at home. Please have these conversations somewhere else” or “These aren’t appropriate conversations for the dinner table, coffee shops or anywhere actually” are reasons good enough to keep most people in spaces like mine silent — but we’re thanked for being silent. For some being “thanked” means not being victim-blamed, for others it means not being kicked out of “home” — in all physical and metaphorical senses of the word — the reward with silence is often enough to keep marginalised bodies to the side streets and certain realities are constructed to be “more real” than others, some narratives are “more credible” than others — this toxic hospitable silence enables such marginalisation with ease and subtlety. As Thurs mentioned earlier “Silence is not consent”, the conversation that is affected by the sound-stopper, by a certain fostered sense of silence that takes root in the ‘transgressor’s’ body as a story that needs to remain untold, to maintain the “rhythm”, to make sure the surface always reflects a perfect, unperturbed picture. My student is twelve and somehow, she knows quite clearly of boundaries she is not allowed to step over — perceived borders are kept secure and by extension everyone who fits within these borders, and Others “outside” of “home”, searching for alternate modes to access, to “home”.
Within these performances of “home” within feminist theory, queer theory (all distinct “homes” for different people, for instance), or any constructed homespace, what I find is an evasion of any “conflict” — the surface must only ever gleam, of course! — and little to no desire to commune. While volunteering we use the words “compromise” and “commune” a lot – each word that has now re-formed to mean a negotiation of words, bodies and spaces; for “compromise” or “communing” doesn’t always have to mean a total lack of interrogation or resistance. To compromise, to commune can also mean to stop making sounds, in order to listen, to stop to re-frame silences to hear, to listen to spaces, if we let it.
1. I’m working with Chandra Talapade Mohanty’s re-framed question of home to mean a space where one locates “community”. It doesn’t always have to only mean a geographical, historical and/or sensory space.
2. Colloquially speaking, “Indian” is synonymous with “Hindu”, “Hindu” is synonymous with “Intolerance of other religions and communities” and so on — often these performed homes cache more than they link spaces, people(s) and communities.