Thursday, August 26, 2010

Voicing The Voiceless Is Only The Concern Of The Artist In The Ivory Tower

Jaded16 is a Radical Feminist from India. She writes a humour blog Oi With The Poodles Already’, attempting to make her world a little woman-friendly using healthy doses of irony and sarcasm to de-condition the Indian masses. It is at times like these when she loses all her sense of humour and starts looking for a rock big enough to live under.

As a child of 11, I got my first Austen novel from my grandmum. I remember getting lost in the beautiful words, spending hours just reading, laughing and crying with Anne Elliot -- the routine dance of any Austen fan. I'd lose hours while reading her and the Brontes and whenever anyone would wake me up from the trance their words wove around me, I'd take a few minutes to re-enter my "real world". This world would seem blurred, the one I left in the book was much more interesting. Often mum would get annoyed with my obliviousness to reality, often worry that one day I'll get locked in my head and just never come out.
Generally, I'd laugh it off. Today, I see the truth -- however dangerous it is -- in her words.

If anyone passes even the slightest glazed eye, wise or otherwise, it's rather easy to notice that speaking for the marginalised has become a sort of a fetish, a desirable thing even in academia. Now don't be so quick to put me in your HateBook, let me explain. The past two or three decades have seen a sudden boom in international academicians who have a keen interest in "uplifting" oppressed communities by giving them a voice and a platform. The idea of diaspora is extremely interesting (in additional to being lucrative), so is helping Dalit and Tribal or Women's writing to get published. But just like the fact that changing a street's name from it's old Victorian name to the name of any Indian hero isn't going to ever erase anything around two hundred years of apathy, this entry into academia doesn't get any closer to "activism" or even "help" than  Shobha Dé to feminism. Call it the coloniser's existential  guilt -- just about two centuries too late -- or zie's UnSubtle effort at being politically correct (with the hopes of effacing history), this obsession with the "native" cultures is alive and thriving.
People today know Mahashveta Devi because of Gayatri Spivak, the 'East' at all because of Said, the political agenda behind the selective cannonised texts taught to colonised students because of Achebe and Gauri Vishwanathan, this list goes on. This is why today an Amitav Ghosh can talk about Indian boundaries, nationalities and bodies from sitting at his study in New York. Sometimes, this isn't an extremely bad thing. For once, we don't have the colonial perspective showing Natives to be "organic", "in touch with nature", "more bestial than human" and the rest gag-reflex-heightening stereotypes, I get that only too well. However, that Jaded part of my LadyBrain is only happy to point out how globalisation of authors and texts is the new fashion, where the author's identity is more important that what zie has to offer. The more exotic Native zie is,  the better. Earlier this month, I figured out that I was about to get published in a literary journal only because I'm an IndianLady (Doubly Exotic, they exclaimed with joy!). Where the exercise of writing coming out of a colonised or an oppressed subject's radical edge is blunted as zie walks lovingly into Co-Option's arms. Sort of like that time when a professor I admired (once) said "Domination by men in the home sphere is okay". Or when my dog barked at the BuildingCat from my balcony but couldn't do anything but put his tail into his bumhole when he actually met that FelineQueen. I'm sure you get my drift. But I digress.

Co-option loosely masquerading as freedom is the punch of many writers favour and gladly drink. The artist gets to sit up high in the ivory tower -- let the record show I haven't taken Yeats's name AT ALL -- and judge all the little insignificant people down. Sometimes, the artist uses a telescope and then zie's position is slightly more secular. This doesn't negate the fact that someone from the outside is talking about the inside story, as my friend dearly puts it. And then when the artist really does descend the ivory tower, realise the world outside zie's head is actually (gasp!) real and all the things zie fought against, thought zie was immune to actually exist. Sure as my aunt's denial when accused of snobbery, the artist will also, too quickly back pedal. "Oh, it was just a mistake", "No, of course I don't mean it" and many, many futile admissions do not change the privilege the WorldInYourHead holds. Or so I am learning.

I can passionately talk about equality, losing casteism from our vocabulary, launch indignant attacks at other people's silencing but when placed on a pedestal, I tripped down too. Quite badly. Today I gave a talk (with a friend) about Dalit feminism to young Dalit women (as well as women of the lower echelons of society). These young girls were either first generation learners of English or they had difficulty comprehending the theoretical lingo our paper was stooped in, as it was designed for a purely high-strung academic seminar. We expected that, even simplified the terms. But while speaking to them, I realised how anthropological my words sounded. "US and THEM" or "You and I". The binaries were drawn, albeit subconsciously. However unintended they were, they were THERE. For a moment I got a little frustrated at their apathy and the distance they felt from the Dalit feminists we were discussing. And then, taking a step back, examining my privilege led me to reason their 'apathy'. Turns out, talking about yourself in third person isn't fun. Pathetic attempt at humour aside, reflection revealed that some of these girls came from a very "post-caste" academic background where talking about caste was entirely irrelevant, where they identified more with the upper-castes (understand it as neo-colonisation, if you will) or this 'distance' was their way of coping with such a ruthless reality of being the 'Other' wherever they went. Speaking of someone is easy, being their ally is relatively better but talking to them takes the ultimate test of privilege, I seem to be bitterly failing here. This obsession with de-silencing the oppressed or "voicing the voiceless" is sometimes  a way of masking your own unease with "them", I can see that today. Yes, even my questioning their 'apathy' was criminal. If only I could be more aware of my thoughts, I'd have probably avoided going down this lane. 

Today, I understand what being locked in my head has done to me.  I can do little but offer my heartfelt apologies and promise to learn and TRULY shed privilege. This isn't enough, but today this is all I can do.