30 November 2007

To Ponder Over...

Under the category of 'Daughter of', while filling up a form for obtaining a Voters' ID, I chose to write my mother's name instead of my father's. I may now not get that Voters' ID. A Voters' ID. Something that Vimla, who acts as domestic help for a lot of neighbours, had to convince a very reluctant official to obtain. "What's the point? Doesn't your husband have one?" Her husband. He had abandoned her a long time ago, forcing her to be the sole provider for her family. Vimla today is more economically independent and empowered than several of the women for whom she works. These upper class fully educated women, for whom she works, are very likely to not know about their sexual rights; are very likely to be abused with a marriage and not complain. Because 'single'/ 'seperated'/ 'divorced' status has its own attached social stigma. Vimla would know. But Vimla, in managing to finally get her Voter's ID, was able to register her dissent. And in trying to demonstrate an alternate possibility, even if it was on a government form, so was I.

24 November 2007

More on Nationalist Politics

It's quite amusing to stumble on to this only days after writing the last post. It illustrates the point I was trying to make about how a majoritarian nationalist rhetoric does not serve the concerns of underprivileged sections of society. I'm quoting in length Ania Loomba's Colonialism/Postcolonialism where she's dealing with an extract from a story by Mahasweta Devi:
"In a moving story 'Shishu' (Children), the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi describes how tribal peoples have literally and figuratively crippled in post-independence India. National ‘development’ has no space for tribal culture or beliefs, and the attitude of even the well-meaning government officer Mr. Singh, towards the tribal people replicates colonialist views of non-Western peoples- to him, they are mysterious, superstitious, uncivilised, backward. In other words they are like children who need to be brought in line with the rest of the country…At the chilling climax of the tale, we are brought face to face with these ‘children’ who thrust their starved bodies towards Mr. Singh, forcing the officer to recognise that they are not children at all but adult citizens of free India:
Fear - stark, unreasoning, naked fear - gripped him....Why were they naked? And why such long hair? Children, he had always heard of children, but how come that one had white hair? Why did the women - no, no, girls - have dangling, withered breasts? ... They cackled with savage and revengeful glee. Cackiling, they ran around him. they rubbed their organs against him and told him they were adult citizens of India. ... Singh's shadow covered their bodies. And the shadow brought the realisation home to him. They hated his height of five feet and nine inches. They hated the normal growth of their body. His normalcy was a crime they could not forgive. Singh's cerebral cells tried to register the logical explanation bt he failed to utter a single word. Why, why this revenge? He was just an ordinary Indian. He didn't have the stature of a healthy Russian, Canadian or American. He did not eat food that supplied enough calories for a human body. The World Health Organisation said that it was a crime to deny the human body of the right number of calories. ..."

21 November 2007

Feminism and Nationalist Politics

Much of feminist theorising in India, with its insistence on historically locating various feminist movements, has felt the need to examine the nature of women’s movements during the struggle for independence from British imperialist rule. What has also, most pertinently, been taken into account has been its relation to the prevalent Indian nationalist discourse.

Sarojni Naidu in the midst of a very active and organised All India Women’s Conference in Mumbai in 1930 declares in her presidential address: “I am not a feminist”, and later that:

“We must have no mutual conflict in our homes or abroad. We must transcend differences. We must rise above nationalism, above religion, above sex.” [Quoted in Maitrayee Chaudhuri’s Introduction to Feminism in India]

‘Feminism’ with its obvious western associations had no place in the vocabulary of contemporary nationalist politics. In the agenda of nationalist rhetoric, internal differences are subsumed in the interest of the “larger picture” which the narrative of the ‘Nation’ forefronts.

Of course, it was not as if “the woman’s question” (to use a very loose term) was not being debated. It was, but solely in the context of the struggle for Independence. Women came out into the public space; participated in marches, protests; formed all-women organisations, etc – but all towards the collective goal of achieving Independence. This was somewhat similar to several other movements by underprivileged sections of society whose “cause” was integrated into the nationalist framework.

Among the loudest contemporary voices protesting against such a political schema was Rabindranath Tagore. Though Tagore’s focus was largely on class and caste, and not gender issues, he is important for this argument too. A freedom movement, according to Tagore, that seeks to gloss over internal differences; that does not specifically address the issues of the underprivileged; that imposes the construct of a ‘Nation’ over diverse social, linguistic and cultural groups; can only be a failure, even if it does achieve independence.

Tagore’s warning does not seem to be very irrelevant. For even though, after the Independence in 1947, women were granted suffrage along with men, debates about ‘the women’s question’ had disappeared from the public space in the decades that followed. Several very significant and related questions, which accompanied a lot of women’s suffrage movements around the world could not be raised. The collective energy that had been amassed during the freedom struggle and channelled towards that end was diffused through a paternalistic granting of the right to vote.

17 November 2007

(Self - ) Reflections

"Why is life so tragic; so like a strip of pavement over an abyss. I look down; I feel giddy; I wonder how I am ever to walk to the end. But why do I feel like this? Now that I say it I don't feel it...Melancholy diminishes as I write. Why then don't I write it down oftener?"
-- Virginia Woolf (The Diary of Virginia Woolf vol 2 1920-24. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell)

11 November 2007

Letting Off Steam

I would wish to believe that an awful completely forgettable week, certain disturbing patterns of behaviour and a broken foot are excuses enough to allow for a mini-rant. I'm pretty sure this would seem to be terribly uninteresting (if at all coherent) reading. I am usually against blogs which end up resembling personal diaries/ letters to Agony Aunt, etc. But things have bothered me enough now and I need this to get them out of my system. What makes a doctor believe he has the right to lecture a patient in with a broken foot about sabhyata or Indian culture simply because they prefer to hop across to their office on their own? 'Self-help' apparently is a western concept (or so I was told). Our (making the usual 'us' versus 'them' division and making the grand assumption that I'm ready and willing to be included in any such collective identity) sanskriti teaches us to help others, and consequently taking help from others as well. The above, as far as I can see, is especially important for a young woman to understand in order to be cultured.** And, of course, a concept such as 'self help' is western (and synonymously a corrupting influence). For wouldn't it go against, for instance, the traditional conservative rhetoric behind helping pati-parmeshwar and letting him accept help? Wouldn't 'self help' actually then imply that women are not denied a sense of 'self' to begin with, which traditional roles of housekeeper, sati savitri seek to efface? What also gives people the right to discredit someone on the basis of their subject of interest? (Something incidentally which this particular doctor seemed to do. Missing classes is apparently not that big a deal if one doesn't happen to be a 'sciencie'.) Why must Humanities be considered inferior to the Sciences? Why must Art and Philosophy be so sidelined? Why must being a good student in school always imply potential for becoming a good engineer or doctor?

Perhaps so that doctors can make regressive statements on culture and such like? Or perhaps it benifits power structures and power hierarchies? Maybe if there are more doctors, engineers, software professionals, technicians, management consultants than thinkers, artisits, writers, philosophers, then the nature and existence of such structures os not contemplated, which perhaps implicitly perpetuates such structures? Artists and thinkers then are more important - not because they help build the world, like engineers do - but because they help explain what sort of world is being built. ___________________________________________ ** For the record, some bacteria are more cultured than I may ever be. I happen to be awfully proud of that fact.

1 November 2007

Q & A

Sometimes asking questions is more important than answering them. Sometimes answers are urgently required. Sometimes the need is to find the adequate question; the appropriate 'Why?' Sometimes questions answer more than answers do. Sometimes answers can be questions. Sometimes there are no easy answers to simple questions. Sometimes difficult questions may have the easiest answers. But sometimes there are no answers. And sometimes - no questions.