A Woman Like That
Last year, I met an extremely interesting woman; she was fierce, passionate and charming. She had one ‘problem’, she was a part of the bigger sect we post-caste Indians have conveniently labelled ‘Dalit’. And to advance her (un)popularity, she was a former sex-worker. She worked as a maid in one of my aunt’s houses and I spoke very briefly with her before my aunt reprimanded me for talking to a woman like that. As if, whatever ‘problem’ or ‘disease’ she had, it would somehow seep through my skin too, or worse I’d become a woman like that too! Or maybe she just really hates two utreuses talking — and you know utreuses, they ruin everything! — and that’s why she made me go to another room. Or maybe having a woman like that under your roof makes the air contaminated and you need to make sure that her ‘stench’ leaves with her. I for one am confused as to why would you let her work in your house if you feel it’s necessary to douse the house with ‘holy’ water after she leaves (think of the water waste daily!), obviously considering you can’t stand to be in the same room as her. I’d rather not employ someone I have a problem with than to employ them and treat them as less than human. But, that may just be me. I’m just a sillyarse LadyBrain after all.
I’ve heard about women like that since I figured out ‘that’ was a part of the Secret Indian Code parents or grown-ups use when referring to sex-workers. Or a woman who commits adultery – are you shocked that some women out here have affairs? Perhaps you should really give up thinking that all we do is squat in the mud all day. It might make comprehension of humans as a species a tad easier — or perhaps she’s a woman who had pre-marital sex. A woman like that always had to correspond with any vulva going out of line. Somehow circumstance, context and coercion wouldn’t be a part of such a discussion, just emphasis on how wrong the sexual transgression was and it ends with the same bleat of These Modern Women Racing To Be The Next Best Prostitute. Imagine my shock when someone I know called Arundhati Roy a woman like that. It shook the ground beneath my feet — take that Rushdie! — when I realised I didn’t know the Secret Indian Code at all. Turns out, a woman like that doesn’t require special prowess or inclination to indulge in more than socially sanctioned amounts of coitus but rather any woman whom the DudeCouncil considers ‘going out of her place’.
For a while I thought perhaps Arundhati Roy made a statement about feminine sexuality, or even hinted that it exists and that had the DudeCouncil up in arms. Or maybe she called Dalit activists ‘people’ like the last time; then I could understand the fury that comes up whenever anyone mentions her. This time all she had to do was write a couple of brilliant articles on Indian politics and she has entered the race to become the Next Best Prostitute too, and completely without her knowledge from what I understand. As of now there are four ways one looks at Roy depending on the direct relation of the size of one’s lobes and the person’s inclination to not use them :
- Either she’s a sillyarse LadyPerson blabbering about the Maoists and how their fight is justified and she suggests alternative ways to just killing them as one would fleas, so she’s a Leftist and people in the Left are silly.
- She is a completely unreliable person when it comes to politics because she started off with writing fiction. And sillyarse ladies cannot be trusted to talk about politics who like to ‘dream’ things up.
- She should stick to what she knows best, dreaming up things and winning Bookers.
- She’s a LadyVulva. Like anything they say can be important at all.
Any critique of Roy, wise or otherwise, always narrows down to her gender and the profession she chose and then you go on to elaborate what she should do with the rest of her life, especially if it entails quitting to be one of the most outspoken voices of Indian politics. And perhaps you grudgingly acknowledge the fact that she won the Booker so she must have some slivers of talent after all considering she won an International Award Of The Important Variety. And then you add, “Maybe that Booker was a fluke. Explain why else has she not written another novel?” and even my Medusa face doesn’t stop you from detailing the flaws — where flaws become her inclusion of people from the lower castes — in God Of Small Things. And then while someone was ranting about Roy some more, I tuned out and started thinking about other women like that in Indian herstory. Starting from Mahashveta Devi who writes from the Subaltern, to Kamla Das who suffered vicious consequences for choosing Islam over Hinduism, to Ismat Chughtai who had to censor every word she wrote because of how she hinted at feminine sexuality under veiled and contained spaces to the recent writers of today like Namita Devi Dayal who shifted genres from non-fiction to fiction. The basic idea is to contain these writers into controllable spaces where the DudeCouncil can bask in the safety of never being accused. Between these admissions lies a truth I don’t want to acknowledge, that one not necessarily be feminist to be censored or policed, that being female is more than enough.
Women like that have a history of being ostracised, heavily critiqued and sometimes just negated to the point of being invisible. One professor I knew told me how publishing houses like Zubaan or Katha let women’s writing out because “no good publishing houses will publish such substandard writing. They get printed because they are women and not despite of it¹”. As if gender and sex are a blemish a woman can overcome if she tries really hard and adopts an ambiguous sounding name like A.S. Byatt then no one will regulate her into becoming a Silly Lady Novelist. Women like that need to taught their proper place in society, need to allow the DudeCouncil to ventriloquise them without mouthing any inconsequential muffles about ‘each voice for her own’ or other topics we pesky feminist like to take up ever so often, need to accept that no matter what they do, they will never be in a position to reach their MaleStreamed counterparts (who by the way are allowed to hop and skip between as many genres as they like! Ask the dude organising races for prostitutes. He’ll explain) and in a few words, Just Keep Quiet.
And when women fail to do that, they become Women Like That — diseased, contaminated, untouchable — and their tales become cautionary folklore. Every time I mention I hope to be a cultural theorist or a writer someday, all I hear is “I hope you don’t want to be one of those ‘women’s rights women’. They don’t do very well, you know. Some don’t even get married! Can you imagine?”, to which I am now going to reply, “Sorry, it’s too late. I am a woman like that“.
1. I still remember this statement even though I heard it more than two years ago.
Sorry for the sporadic posting last week. As my evil exams are now a thing of the Olde Tymes, posting will be much more organised.