Re-Righting Nether Roots
Breathing as the Dusty Third Worldling on a regularly alarming basis, is a difficult space to occupy, surely; even more so if you identify as feminine, which by this time almost always needs a special mention, like a parentheses of obligation. Given the Empire’s dedication to mapping and charting such invisible spaces, boundaries and borders often make me anxious and claustrophobic. Growing up with the ‘Kargil War’ being a part of the bigger, back-ground, constant state of war with chalk lines between two supposedly different countries of the Subcontinent, hearing rumours in the school playground that America was going to invade us — soon after 9/11 — that Pakistan is going to launch an attack, that people from Over There may come in any time and take us over like they did in ‘those’ countries like Iraq and Iran, that it was indeed true when we’d hear someone’s aunt’s sister’s cousin’s maid’s mistress’s sister had fled Over There because these days patriotic-and-patriarchally-inclined people decided it’s quite okay to invade borders and bodies personally because they belong to the ‘opposing country, that ‘those’ horrid buggers — any nation we’re displeased at the moment comes in this category — are going to be the End Of Us, destroy the sanctity of a country as diverse, at parts even ‘broken’ like ours and then you’d hear sighs when people said, Leave It All To God. I’d think of all this when I’d pore over maps and atlases with my sister, tracing ‘borders’ with our fingers, see if we can stretch edges and make it a Nation Of The World, like our geography books said with, what seemed to me, utmost confidence. At the end, I’d read a paragraph that countries like India and ‘Others’ of the Subcontinent, continents like Africa are a part of the Third World or the Nether World — as my Childcraft books called it — and that such countries haven’t joined the First World, but if they ‘work harder’ and ‘do more’, one day we’d join the league of ‘developed nations’ too.
So, being a Lady born out of such Nether Roots, when I sit to write in my NotMotherTongue, I break and close while trying to form words and shapes of sounds; especially when I use this ‘harsh’ tongue English sometimes becomes to me to talk about ‘my’ roots or my experience that sees the world through dark-tinted glasses with splotches where ‘religion’, ‘culture’, ‘regional tongues’ intertwine to make what I can half-claim as ‘my world’. I was going over my earliest short stories this week and (quite predictably), they smacked of something Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie would write, with characters that had names I’d only see in such books, always in search of the ‘perfect Indian sun’. It’s only in the last six years or so that I found the knotted and restrained writing of most Dusty Ladies, echoing the truth I was feeling but could somehow never word out. A few months ago, a relative asked to read my ‘writing’ or the short stories I was working on, and when I showed it to her, as much as she wanted to support and encourage me, she said that, “Are you sure this is our reality?”, words I can’t seem to forget now; for in less than ten seconds, she’d outlined the biggest problem I face when writing out ‘my’ world: The Cultural Polemic that somehow speaks in a collective echo instead of ‘one voice’. Even while growing-up, seeing the occasional Indian contestant in whatever American game-show or later, ‘reality-show’ meant knowing ‘their’ victory was somehow compulsively caught with ours, and that any flaws that person would show on TV would be marked somewhere on our skin too. One writing advice I’ve got repeatedly — advice I specifically didn’t ask for — is that, “Forget everyone else, just write your own story” as if this ‘personal’ and the ‘public’ were indeed two neatly ordained narratives, and as if I could easily slip ‘in’ and ‘out’ of each at will, as it were. Relegating the ‘personal’ to the ‘political’ or trying the inverse isn’t an option, for Dusty Ladies — supposedly — Never Air Dirty Laundry, be it in private or public, because as it seems we don’t have any ‘dirt’ to show anyone anyway. Maybe this is connected to the idea when ladies write ‘angry’ writing, it comes from a deep and a dark space — maybe even the uterus? — and that this ‘anger’ that women have is just for attention or to join the race to become the country’s Next Best Prostitute¹. But I digress.
Constructing realities for me (and it seems many other dusty ladies²) is a problem, mainly because we can’t seem to divorce the personal from the polyphonic polemic reality we see around us. Either the words are too harsh or too far removed from the reality, because Cartesian dichotomies are quite fun to see the world with, no? Either, the words are completely censored, or the ‘fantasy or dystopia’ enters reality through tubes — as it does routinely for Mahashveta Devi — and then the stories don’t matter at all; for if it’s a fantasy, then it can’t have any bearing on our dusty backs or daily lives, of course. To voice such entangled truths, that we’re perpetrators, victims, enemies, servants and commanders of this epistemological violence, that the Empire may have crumbled — if history is to be believed at all — and we’ve created a new one in its place. As the Universal is designed to leave hued bodies like mine out, speaking from the personal is the only choice there is, at least until you ignore thecensorship that sometimes runs bone deep. And after having these thoughts get past between my brain and eyes³, if any words do come out, it’s very difficult to not paint the picture like Shobha De tends to do, to show conflict that is consumable and easily resolved with a few — if at all, any — changes in the class structures; or to see the world through a single lens of ‘wholeness’ and ‘oneness’ the Indian government is always too quick to rationalise ‘diversity’ as. There are times, my friends and I wonder how would it feel to buy into the Nationalist Vision of India, to see it as a burgeoning economy which has somehow no debt to pay to the various people it oppresses — for ‘dalit’s’ are all ‘Maoists’ anyway, surely — and to enthusiastically and guilelessly cheer with Obama whenever he and the power he symobilises urges us to ‘do more’. Most times, we can do nothing beyond indulge in such empty fantasies, for we do know, that the moment the tongue starts twisting truths, it spits sharp stones edged syllables, no matter how thinly we veil it or not.
As a lady, who has always had history narrated to me, by people who do not resemble me, in a language that is not mine, many times, history feels like an interesting story someone’s weaved, but never physically real, were I to only rely on books and no narrativised accounts, of people I know and those I don’t. In such cases, I often wish I could change history, frame it as I see fit, stretch out voices that get shut in, and mostly, ‘erase’ the idea that we’re somewhere ‘down under’; so in some fiction pieces, I tried that too only to see the words didn’t sound like my tongue could ever form. It’s taken me a long time to see that I’m not a ‘point of access’ for people — familiar or otherwise — to my localised ‘history’, that constructing a reality that make me comfortable in my skin is the one that is going to dislocate someone else’s, or that I don’t need to be ‘away’ from the ‘story’ or ‘land’ or ‘soil’ that I see as ‘mine’ to build it successfully. Mostly, it’s a relief to find that Re-Righting My Roots isn’t my privilege, nor my duty, all I have to do is sound this ‘voice’ that comes as close as it can to mine, before I forget it altogether.
1. Because ladies write about the time they had coitus (even consensually! Gasp!) or the time they wanted to indulge in coitus (even consensually! Gasp!) was enough for some famous dude to claim that Indian Women Writers Are Basically Doing The Prostitution Under The Name Of The Feminism. And dude’s opinions on ladywriting is never wrong, obviously.
2. Ask the ladies in the ‘Storylines’ anthology, they’ll explain.
3. I stole this from Regina Spektor, but it’s alright because we’re both Ladies and therefore practically the same person, no?