oncejadedtwicesnarked: Spivak is looking disgruntled and pissed. (Default)
The following is an edited and translated version of a paper I presented at a conference at the French Embassy in this city last week. This paper is around the interwebes in different forms, link back please if you’re quoting it.
 

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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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oncejadedtwicesnarked: Spivak is looking disgruntled and pissed. (Default)

--- This post is dedicated to a dear friend in angrezland. You know who you are --


This December, along with re-gain some modicum amount of control over my hands, I’ve embarked on another impossible task -- reading Indian fiction that makes the “best selling” list, it’s less condescending than it sounds. Classmates and friends have (rightly) complained about my preference of Subaltern literature, or any literary fiction that isn’t mainstream -- in distribution and in its ideology, such a hopeless hipster, as always -- which leave me with shelves of essays by Nivedita Menon and Richa Nagar, with most works of Spivak, Susie Tharu, Mahashveta Devi and Shauna Singh Baldwin but have never read any Chitra Banerjee or worse (gasp!) Shobha Dé -- the Queens of Feminist Writing in Fiction, I’m told. Shobha Dé and I will never see eye-to-eye, not since she came to my college in Mumbai proclaiming the fight for women’s rights has long been over for young women in Mumbai colleges and it’s only those rural women who have to yet be empowered. That said, whatever little I know of her work, she has sassy urban protagonists, who have sexual agency and at times even exhibit physical and bodily autonomy -- on some days that counts as feminism, no? In any case, I decided to read Chitra Banerjee’s A Palace of Illusions last week, most classmates and friends recommended this book because of the book’s reputation to “render the (otherwise) mute Draupadi in the patriarchal Mahabharat with a powerful voice”. I want to talk about this “giving a voice” business before we can get to the text itself. A decade ago, feminist academia was awash with “voicing” fringe groups -- for Indian feminist academia it was Dalit and tribal women -- for Eur-Am academia it was Third World Women. This is where the voice of a group becomes an intellectual and economic project for some, “global feminist networks” crop up for research and “solidarity building”. Interestingly, these networks are directly responsible for many Eur-Am feminists’ award winning theses; today, most of those networks have perished*. Interest in ‘fringe’ groups now has to be translated to issues around ‘identities’. Voicing, articulating a voice, becoming a voice that needs articulation -- none are innocent projects.


If the murky spaces of consent, negotiation of agency are not your preoccupation, Palace of Illusions sets open an ambitious project, it works within the framework of the Mahabharat, Draupadi still does and says all that she is supposed to, but this time she has a “back story” as the reviews promise. She’s a rebellious, moody, quirky and a dark heroine, ruled by her impulses -- decisions that eventually launches the Great War of Hastinapur. Her infamous derobing scene (where she is dragged in the court to be undressed in front of all the members of the Royal Court, including her five husbands who gambled her along with all their other belongings) is transformed to a tragedy, where her faith in Krishna saves her on the outside, but we get to see her strong willed thoughts even if Krishna had never enchanted her robe to never end. All of this is all and well, if “voicing” is all that you want to read and engage with. Banerjee’s work occupies an extremely strange position in society -- literary and otherwise -- for (most) Hindu nationalists love her (as they get to say, “See how great Indian women were in Ancient India? It’s only after the Muslim colonisation that we have become such degenerates”), for many feminists her book opens up a space for Draupadi to speak her mind, to ask a few feminist-y questions and for international publishers like Harper-Collins, Banerjee works as Orientalist (but not really because it’s written by an Indian herself!) project, where the book constantly interrupts itself to explain Hindu customs and traditions and for others, it’s a “fresh” perspective to an old tale -- the text is extremely aware of this balance and manages to hold attention too. But, if we were to question *who* can re-claim Draupadi’s voice (if at all), silences draw blanks.


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oncejadedtwicesnarked: Spivak is looking disgruntled and pissed. (Default)
Jaded

March 2012

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