On Treasuring Difference
This weekend I went away to another city to see an old friend and to mainly get away from a busy routine. As always, it seemed I didn’t feel like I left Mumbai back at all, it seemed everywhere I went, a tiny part of the city followed me around with the same malls, coffee houses and other signs that point out Capitalisation is here to stay. I can’t say I was too surprised when I heard the discussions on Difference out here too, after all they are quite commonplace in Mumbai, where being cosmopolitan is more important than being political, where we cherish Difference with a fetish. It’s funny — where funny is the new painful — how strong the rhetoric of “let’s celebrate our differences” can be heard from so many corners of our country, especially in the light of the ‘Kashmir Issue’ India is trying so hard to placate. I remember my geography texts having at least once chapter on ‘Unity In Diversity’ in any given year, where we’d learn that though we come from so many languages, born into a myriad of dialects and religions, we ultimately have to live with each other in peace and solidarity. On a Glocal platform, as Dusty People of one of the “biggest democracies in the world”, Difference is a buzzword to use for us — and in our place if you don’t remember a politically
convenient correct term — where Difference becomes A Good Thing, within parentheses of course. Lately even in feminist discussions the idea of a ‘politics of Love’ is a recurring one, and I can say it does sound appealing at first, to love through discrepancies and asimilarity. But when we probe a little further into this uber vague concept of ‘Difference’, big gaping cracks show up that cannot be ignored.
A few weeks ago my friend got teased for ‘not knowing her own mother tongue’ by people in her art class, easily glossing over the fact that she spent most of her childhood in a pro-BJP State and any language except Hindi was somehow detongued from her colloquial dictionary. “We pride in the fact that as a nation, we have such a vibrant tradition of languages and dialects” is one of the most repeated sentences in public and private conversations, nationalist debates and any other type of discourse that wants to reduce reality to the most simple and ‘rational’ factors. While we repeat these hollow phrases, the MNS makes yet another discriminatory policy based on Difference in language. Difference is a word I’ve always hated, even as a child I couldn’t understand why this Difference wouldn’t let me play with dudes my age, why I had to take care of the way I walked and not place blame on some dudes who looked at me in a ‘weird’ manner or why I couldn’t share my Childcraft books with my cook’s daughter, though we both took equal delight in reading. Today Difference is the reason I get invited to conferences that want to perpetuate ‘diversity’ by giving voices which are from multilingual Hindu backgrounds, as this time around Difference isn’t too noticeable or too marked as being born with LadyBits is. Now, if I were from the lower shelf of Difference, at a disadvantage because of caste and gender, then these words wouldn’t have the luxury of being so flippant about these boundaries. While you can rightly argue that this Difference isn’t the one theorists like Gayatri Spivak and Chandra Talapade Mohanty urge us to celebrate; in fact these walls cage us further in like laboratory animals, each of us bearing sophisticated labels of ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Scheduled Caste/Tribe’ to the extent that these few words decide our levels of access in society, I can’t ignore how difficult cherishing plurality can be.
As a DustyLady, in most feminist discourse — virtual or otherwise — I’m supposed to slip into the shoes of the ‘Third World Woman’ who must be adequately exotic yet knowledgeable, whose Difference should be as heavily marked as possible, otherwise the degree of just how ‘Indian’ or ‘Colonised’ I am is under scrutiny. My friend and I joke sometimes that we should carry portable swarms of flies around our faces so that people see us as “dusty” right away and we don’t waste any time explaining (yet again!) how we speak English though we come from a ‘backward country’ or that we don’t huddle in ditches as a fun activity. More often than not, a composite — singular — Third World Lady is produced or re-presented to uphold the age-old authorising signature of Western Liberal Humanist Intentions of Greater Good™. In such a space, my ‘exoticness’ or ‘plural ethnic identity’ becomes the reason for Othering hued skins. Almost like pesky anthropologists, ethnicity now enters a place where it can be exposed of ‘untruthfulness’, a grading scale that decides how ‘x’ amount of authentic fervour the voice carries. In other safe(er) spaces, ethnicity or caste privilege (or lack thereof) becomes the raison d’ être for entry and access. There is a book club my mum goes to which is exclusively for Hindu ladies where they re-interpret old scriptures and religious texts; the reason they believe in catering to a certain selective audience is “Other people don’t understand us”. Such exclusionary actions justify shutting people out because of ‘difference’ and the need to keep the borders drawn; to make sure demarcations exist.
As much as I’d prefer to have a ‘Politics of Love’ wash over us in bell hookisan fashion, the truth is such lines-marks-borders do more harm than good. One one hand ethnic identities have to be preserved before they drown into the bigger flow of being ‘Universal’ or ‘Global’; at the same time ethnicity and the very plurality can work as a trap. A popular opinion is that social memory is lodged in the Body, so to preserve it, the Body has to become a site of re-location. As always, dislocated and diasporic bodies of postcolonial people don’t have the privilege of re-locating the Self or the Body, of undressing one ethnic layer of skin over another or of problematising which ‘hued difference’ takes preference over the other. All we do today is clutch on to this Elusive Difference, hoping that somehow it becomes a ticket out of further appropriation or objectification.