Tales This Tongue Didn't Twist
There is a story my father likes to tell when people ask him what his eldest daughter wants to do ‘with her life’. It seems that I was 13 and determined when I’d interrupted his important business call to say, “When I grow up, I’ll be a famous Lady Author” with hands on my hips and my eyes defiant. He says, almost always laughingly, that was the day he’d started worrying about me. Quite predictably, the writers I admired were White Ladies or Dusty Men — say hello to the child born on the brink of globalisation — and I had a grand scheme of writing a book by the time I was 25 and saying wise things like, “Oh writing is like breathing for me, I may have never consented to it, but it keeps my veins full”¹, appearing on TeeVee and inspiring little ladies everywhere to write, pretty much like Jo of Little Women, maybe with pants instead of frilly skirts though. And then, between all these juvenile fantasies, words and tongues I started opening up to, it became clear how alien and few Dusty Ladies were a part of my daily vocabulary, how little I knew of my culture and it’s deferential treatment to anyone who identified as female within its folds, or that I’d never really felt represented in words as much I could in this hued writing. It shocked me to see that I didn’t identify as strongly with Anne Eliot as much I had previously thought after reading Ismat Chughtai’s stories or that as much I suffered with Clarissa Dalloway, truth was she would probably never see beyond the hue of my epidermis tissue. This is where I stumbled into wonderful — feminine-identified — Indian writing, my world began to fill with names like mine, and people who too found themselves stuck on the fringe between being Western or Dusty, and of course the silences accompanied this writing too.
I’m still adjusting to this shift, from the open prose of George Eliot, which is ‘open’ and ‘free’ in the way only a few people in this world are allowed to be, to the heavily veiled writing of Dusty Ladies. I’m still haunted by Abburi Chaya Devi’s protagonist in ‘Sleep’ who grows up in such a restrictive environment that she doesn’t know what to do when she wants to laugh. I can replay the scene in my head when at the climax of the story she wakes up her mother to say anxiously, “Mother, I feel like laughing. The laughter is bubbling up, what shall I do?”. Years later, I realised it was a snippet of her own life where she was punished for laughing by her parents for laughing at a professor’s joke. I’ve always reveled and lost myself in Emily Dickinson’s verses — to an extent, I still do — and then I stumbled somehow to Eunice De Souza whose verses give silence quite an another underbelly altogether. This silence intrigues me as sometimes it enters my writing too, it’s something a lot of women have noticed and re-negotiated. It seems if you identify as a Lady out here, some people just cannot wait to bind you in rules and borders, asking and clearly specifying the lines you are not allowed to tread. Last year I attended a writing workshop where the speaker started with asking about things we, as the current youth demographic of India, wrote about or were sensitive to. The most common answers were politics, religion and sex. Then the speaker asked how many people would fearlessly write about these topics, and it was quite telling that most people who raised hands were dudes; most girls in the room and I shared guilty looks², for not letting that part of us out, as if we’re betraying ourselves in some strange way. Of course, then the speaker went on to explain how we should ‘break free’ from these cultural chains and just give in to writing urges with the loathsome self-assurance that only Upper Caste Hindu Dudes in India enjoy. The truth is, we can’t wipe away gender — whether assigned or taken — as if it’s a dark stain, scrub away till it lightens its way to disappearing completely; in fact the more we try to hide it, the more it reeks up the prose³.
Whenever I’ve given any such exotic — all Lady-Prose is exotic! — prose to read to my male friends, the most predictable plea they come up with is, “Maybe be a little less intense? I know you’re oppressed, or your protagonist is, but does your writing have to be this violent? It’s frankly upsetting sometimes”, which is when I explain that I didn’t give in to half of my hysteria while writing and they hastily change the topic to something less ‘dark’. This self-de-tonguing steps in earlier than we let on. In Storylines, most writers speak of this ‘looming monster’ that prevents them from broaching subversive topics, too fearful of what their parents, community and spouses will think or say. This doesn’t mean that women writers in India only talk of unicorns and babies, but they have to negotiate a lot of guilt — self-imposed and otherwise — for guarding their tongue and measuring syllables and in the privacy of their Shelved Selves, the guilt of giving in to societal expectations. Sometimes I’m amazed that we get any writing done at all considering how our time is different from dude’s concepts of time and space: it’s cyclical, lunar — Ladies remember the block of time when they did so and so household activity more than the analogue or digitalised time research, by one French Feminist says so — and excruciatingly repetitive, and that for many writers today, time and space are still just abstract concepts they don’t have possession over.
This blog turns one today, however I can safely say I’ve concealed more than I’ve bared myself. Every time I write something I’ve to carefully step over spots so as to not hurt or overtly expose who I really am, or my parent’s concept of ‘me’. For all my feminism and dedication to activism, there are a lot of things that are left unsaid and buried. Maybe one day this tongue will truly uncoil. Who knows? Today, I’m just glad for all the conversations and ideas we could initiate despite all of this.
1. In my defense, I was 13. You can’t fault a 13 year-old for daydreaming, can you?
2. This doesn’t mean women don’t write about religion, politics or sex. Just that in that room, we definitely didn’t own up to writing about these topics even if we did.
3. The Dude who was organising races for the Next Best Prostitute will tell you a lot about the female stench.