I’ve been invited here to speak to you of representations today. I’m told this group is interested in culture and translation – in the realm of feminism and praxis – and I’ll be talking specifically about a few images that linger on, even when exercises that seem as benign as translation occur. I am not sure how many people in the audience are familiar with Mumbai of the Globalisation, Privatisation and Liberalisation era, and I am not entirely certain that any summary I could provide would come close to even scratching the surface of all that Bombay and later Mumbai experienced in the past two decades. So you will have to translate the circumstances I speak of.
Introductions have always been my weak spot — I never know how to quite answer the “where are you from” question. Not that I have a history of origins so complicated that I don’t know where I come from, it’s just that the moment I say I am from “Mumbai, India”, the conversation usually dies out. For people who’ve grown up in different parts of India dreaming of going to Mumbai (for some Bombay) and making their dreams come true — I don’t know how to talk of the Mumbai I know, of intense competition that you learn to lovingly call “survival”, of the brusque lifestyles, of the city where private spaces are now becoming extinct — to the effect that we’ve started creating the “private” everywhere we can — where you find spas and slum dwellings in the same street, where such clichés actually hold true, for the city they dream of has no room for such cracks. To people who don’t know India, much less Mumbai, all and everything Mumbai has come to symbolise is Slumdog Millionaire and any suggestion that Mumbai is more than someone’s Orientalist-wet-dream is met with condescension. This is usually the point in the conversation when I stop talking altogether or just walk away.
Since I moved to this city six months ago, introductions have become my least favourite exercise. Another conversation nightmare is, “What was your childhood like?” as people think I’m being creative with details when I say I grew up reading and re-reading works of Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Enid Blyton and Wordsworth on one hand and am equally well versed with the worlds of Rabindranath Tagore, Ruskin Bond and Anant Pai. Another horrid question is, “What is your mother tongue”, for English doesn’t seem like a true enough answer, least of all to me. But it’s the only answer that fits the traditional definitions of a “mother tongue” – I have never really understood what mothers have to do with languages – it’s the language I think and dream in, can articulate myself but it still breathes foreign to me. Lately French has joined the rank too. Popular images that came through via texts and visuals are of the “Indian global citizen”, of the new middle class, upper-caste child that speaks impeccable English as well as knows the “traditional texts and scriptures” (translated in English will also do), a person who manages tradition – of a certain kind, accessible only to some people in the caste and class hierarchy – with modernity. Most of our middle class households imbibe the idea, consciously and otherwise, that our dream is the American dream. Of studying and working in the US, of internalising meritocracy – this is also why so many people study English and Spanish, with specific American pronunciations; you find the various “Learn Perfect American English” institutes littered all across India.
I am not suggesting that growing up anywhere in India in the 90’s was an uniform experience, rather that it meant something to be growing up in Mumbai, a city so many people think of as the cultural capital of India and being able to more-or-less set the norms for most other youngsters in other small towns and cities – I didn’t think it was true till many years ago a friend from Bengal pointed out the favourable change in people’s attitude towards me when I’d mention I am a Mumbaiite. There was a moment, somewhere in 2002 or 2003 where suddenly my friends and I discovered the power we wielded as residents of Mumbai, and we’d loudly make fun of participants of other cities whenever we went for Science fairs and competitions. We called them “vernacular trash”, forgetting that English too was a vernacular language to someone else in a different spot on the globe, or the way English had reached us, drunk on the status our city afforded us. We grew up soon after, learnt that it was politically incorrect to make such statements and started fraternising with the “under classes” in a wave of bourgeois guilt. Luckily for us, we met reality soon enough, figured out there was no “under class” and that the people we wanted to save so badly had more to give us than the other way around – in terms of practical advice and even as producers of theory and knowledge.
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