oncejadedtwicesnarked: Spivak is looking disgruntled and pissed. (Default)
[personal profile] oncejadedtwicesnarked
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.


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.

Fast forward a few years, and I am now studying in this city, a place where Mumbai still makes people starry eyed – though the bus companies boast that Mumbai has never been closer before, with routes that promise entry to Mumbai in three and a half hours flat – a city that is often referred to as the “Oxford of the East”, typically in circles where “Oxford” and the “East” carry with them cultural baggage of a certain kind and is currently home to 28, 000 international students. For the first few months, the amount of translations – cultural and otherwise – that occurred in everyday conversation exhausted me, never being used to translate my everyday so that someone who has a faint notion of the “Indian middle class” can fully understand (or try to) what our theory books were hinting at. Nor was I used to translating my thoughts and ideas from English to Hindi or Marathi – a convent education leaves some invisible scars as well, my friends and I frequently joke. It would be a tad too idealistic of me, not to mention completely untrue to wax eloquent about unity in diversity, or other some neo-Indianism. Truth is, diversity is extremely hard to deal with. Translation is draining. Listening can exhaust people. And this is not just me; it’s true of all students and professors who are a part of our “diverse” classroom. Naively, I’d assumed our difficulty with the constant code-switching, translations had forged some sort of equality between all students (regardless if we were from cities, small villages, or from the other end of the world), an equal frustration with words, if you will.

First month sweeps us by, most of us are struggling with the rigorous academic discipline a MA degree expects of us, buried in the massive pile of readings and so on. Over zealously, we set up peer review groups, and come assignment deadlines, one such afternoon we were sitting in one of the many gardens in the university, fact checking each other’s papers. This group could have been the poster child of “DIVERSITY!” anywhere in the world. Two Ethiopians, one Sri Lankan, three Canadians, four Mumbaiites, two Bengalis, one Vidharban and three Konkanis, with varying skills in English that too. We’re talking of the assignment and then suddenly the student from Austria looks at a few papers (all of these papers were of students of India and Ethiopia) and congratulates us for bringing our own insights to the assignment, for going beyond the theory we discussed in class. The student continued further that they expected it of the Canadian students but not of us and what followed next were the tersest moments I’ve ever experienced.

In one moment, the Third World as it were, had crystallised, and borders had sprung up in a matter of micro seconds. Never have I felt as “one” with anyone in the “Third world” category than that day – for that one time only, the Ethiopians, the Konkanis, the Sri Lankan, the Bengalis, the Mumbaiites, Tthe Vidharbans were on the same side – and we saw our classmate say that they’d thought we would be excellent at reproducing what we’d heard in class and analysis is something rare to be found among third worlders. What the classmate was actually saying was, they’d thought we would be fantastic mimics, but not creators. Needless to say, all rosy dreams of diversity died that day as perspective filtered in.

Whatever we’d do, we were still people who could only exist in someone’s binaries and fantasies of the Orient, of the Indian peasant, of the Third Worlder, of the Dalit, or whatever romanticised label applied to us on that day. This image is over-arching, but it manifests in such varied forms it becomes difficult to recognise. The third world creates (material goods), and the first world consumes it, the first world produces culture, we consume that culture and replace it for our culture. In the rare feat that we produce theory, it’s around issues of survival, when the first world produces theory, it’s about global issues. If we produce knowledge, they are local knowledges, again something we’ve learnt to mimic from the International world. It would be an understatement to say how untrue such binaries are.

It would be against my very nature to even suggest going down the “We are just as good as the West” road that many people take up as a defence to such binaries, for it would be too easy a recourse. Or more dangerously, yet again, it ignores the multitude of ways how power structures manifest themselves, it lets us off too easy – whether it’s some of us exploiting the cultural capital our cities and countries hold or if it’s the status someone else’s language enjoys as a “language of the world”. It allows me to ignore the position I hold as a Mumbaiite in some circles, it allows someone else to over look any of my bourgeois tendencies because to their mind I am probably a ditch-squatting-slum-dwelling native, it doesn’t examine the way the elite and the middle class of the country chart the progress for the rest of the nation, keeps us in a frame of “third world worker who is the subject of a thousand human rights violations” long enough to overlook that as a capitalist economy, we’re marching towards the idea of progress only applicable to 2% of the country.

Language and culture are not static and neither are our realities. There is no such thing as mindless turn to modernity or tradition, in any cultural interaction, in every act of translation, of theory, of exchange there are power structures and hierarchies, constantly trying to reaffirm their position and status. I am not suggesting that every cultural interaction is resistance, by that count the very fact that I as an Indian am speaking to a French audience in French in India would be a revolution. I suggest we should take a hard look at the everyday lived reality of two languages – and two cultures by extension – if we ever hope to move beyond dichotomies of any kind.

Date: 2012-02-15 06:24 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] nina_the_tiny
Not only are you an amazing writer, but everything you've said here couldn't be closer to the truth! (just relating it to things I've seen and heard before) And I only mention the amazing-writer-part because I'm so horrible at it, and am probably a little envious, haha.

Date: 2012-02-23 07:07 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] nina_the_tiny
Oh it's ok~ I'm not always on here often, and you know you can take your time to respond. c:


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

March 2012


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