May 23, 2016

A Thank You Note to Mothers, Aunts, Grandmothers

Jamini Roy

Jasmeen urged me to think about my feminist journey. I thought and remembered that I had called myself a ‘feminist’ quite thoughtlessly, in high school. At age sixteen or seventeen. Most of my role models at the time were men. Men seemed dynamic, confident, in control – able to handle the tumultuous world. I was often in awe of them, I wanted to be like them. I called that feminism. It was essentially my discomfort with the definition of the feminine that my social location had imposed on me. It was not a word of solidarity at all. It gave me an opportunity to say “I wasn’t feminine like them”; “I din’t care to be feminine”. So the Julia Robertses and Jennifer Lawrences channeled themselves into me – I was the tomboy who managed male attention (at a slightly later age) quite easily. So I gave myself some points. The word feminist helped devise a survival strategy in a world where a woman could only claim gender in a voice of victimhood, defeat, effacement. It was a selfish journey. It had nothing to do with solidarity with other women, it, in fact, meant alienating myself from other women. I felt the pressures of patriarchy intimately, violently, through the adoption of the identity of a non-feminine woman. And I am not the only one in history and myth to do so – Razzia, Chitrangada and now Katniss are all created through the logics that I had embraced. Katniss is attractive because she sports a side-braid and tolerates the impact of high violence with equanimity. The Greek warrior almost. Who would put other women at a discomfort. She was ahead of them in attaining equal status with men as well as admiration and attention of men.

It has taken my feminism a long journey into the labyrinthine worlds of modern sexuality to understand that women are made by a violent political apparatus. The invocation of the category ‘woman’ is to make men (or equivalent carriers of masculinity – for example, the nation-state) feel powerful, in control, as well as having a place where they can express vulnerability when and on whatever terms they choose. In college, I became friends with women who were card-carrying ‘feminists’. I admired them; I wanted to join their ranks. I learnt feminist lessons of sexual liberation, rejection of the familial imprisonment of marriage, embracing of economic and political freedoms. Freedom was at the core of this feministm. By the time I was graduating from college, I had experienced many of these freedoms – except they didn’t free me of the burden of feeling my own interiority through a masculine standard that I was holding myself to. Modern sexuality was bogus. It was yet another trap. I concluded.


In the past decade of trying to become an anthropologist and politically engaged (yet often numbed in the face of the bid to take sides) person, I have gone from rejecting feminism as a handmaiden of liberalism to settling with the notion that that some ideas (even if borne out of enemy camps) had inherent value. To appreciate them and to facilitate their travel to persons of multiple genders for a wide and variegated interpretation of what liberty, freedom meant – was perhaps not such a bad idea. It probably meant the word ‘freedom’ could generate a placeholder in which different feminisms could be born. I have my doubts though - about the expectation that a free woman was the best way to be a woman. I don’t understand the academic debates within feminist theory so well. But I will place on record my discomfort with the argument that violence against women in the non-west is somehow an event of their own wanting or alignment. No violence can be. Whether or not the intervention of the white feminist or supranational, neo-imperial authorities may be a desirable thing, the fact remains that women in situations of violence, coercion, humiliation must be offering their own forms of protest or resistance –whatever may be the scripts of the same. An elderly Bengali lady who fed me many meals when I visited her village, always told me – I wish I was educated like you, I would never get married, it is only a version of slavery. She hadn’t been taught liberal feminism, she knew it as well as any fancy professor. My grandmother who now suffers from dementia tells (perhaps, madness is her form of freedom) of her husband – if my family had not been destituted in the move from east Bengal, I would never have married this man. These are women who have lived lives of immense struggle, often not having an escape. Which does not mean they didn’t desire an escape. Perhaps, that is freedom in itself – the promise of escape. Women’s mobility is systematically punctured in most societies. Mobility becomes a script of power. I came to be a feminist in my fundamental embrace of being un-settled. Of being mobile, flexible, unmoored –whatever its anxieties and insecurities might be. Thus, winning a battle for mothers, aunts and grandmothers whose lifelong desire and protest I inherit.

May 14, 2016


Thanks Anu! I am taking this dusk shot to be my dawn.
I have been trying to claim the morning. Never having been a morning person ever in my life. I usually wake up at five. Today at four. The break of dawn, initially beautiful, has been become my pretty neighbor now. Time seems to stand still at this hour. As the world sleeps. Or pretends to sleep. The internet is alive though. It doesn’t sleep. Somewhere some political battle is bandied about. Somewhere fashion changes. It all seems distant – hazy. Like the picture of an article behind the New York Times paywall. You wanted it, but the cost is too high to get it. So you grow ambivalent to it. At least at this  hour.

It’s the only time in the day where the ‘now’ wins over the ‘then’ or ‘ever’. I feel an urgent morning hunger. Around six thirty I make myself toast and wrap it in Nutella. My morning consumerism. The house is still quiet. Its dreams are speedily drawing to climax. My brother slips out to run – quietly. Lights of software houses and shopping malls blink in tiredness across the horizon. It is dawn they say. Dawn.  A fragile break in the relentless rollout of time. From darkness into light. From sleep into wakefulness. For many, it is a new day’s fight. For the unslept, it is a continued attempt at fighting time. Sleep is capitalism’s respite against itself, some say. Perhaps true. It is the only way, I say, to experience the transition between intensities of time.


Into tiny shards of torn glass
I broke it.
It broke.
The passive voice makes me
little less guilty.
Glass breaks.
I knew that.
As fingers quiver
As branches sway
It is the wind that should be guilty
The scorch of the sun
Rising tide
Shaming wives
Not me

I don’t even care for tumblers
It was an heirloom
Or a birthday gift
Who cares?
It broke.
Into tiny shards of future.
Time grins at me.
It could even be the fault of glass
Why can’t it be stronger?
Against my finger!
Fingers are violent instruments
Glass should know that
These are tiny chips of guilt
Strewn across the floor
Ever waiting
To prick a foot
Invisible against the sun
Yet angry
I broke their home.
Their home was torn apart.

May 9, 2016


Arati, played by Madhabi Mukherjee (Mahanagar, 1963)

 In Joy Goswami’s poem, Nondor Ma, Dulali or Priyobala rues the uprooting of (presumably) the 1971 move from east to west Bengal. It is a forced uprooting of war and hunger. I recognize that. But Dulali comes to inhabit the predictable trope of woman as home. Women hold onto roots, to homes, to stable coordinates. It is taken to be the primary quality of femininity. The Masculine is mobile, empowered in its vitality, virility, unburdened, agile. The view of home from the world is essentially, I argue, the view of the masculine in locating the feminine - as redemption, as home, as return. Thus, the subaltern, the housewife, the migrant, the refugee is figured in our social science discourse as a feminized figure. They must all yearn for home. For what else could they want? They do not appreciate the pleasures of expanse, the bourgeois flaneur would say. But Ranciere and Arati and the sandwichman and the whore prove otherwise. 

Home for many is experienced as incarceration! The lonely wife in an opulent household, Charu in Ray’s Charulata negotiates her loneliness and incarceration in the first scene where she runs from window to window looking out onto the garden with her binoculars. It is these binoculars that make her being a little less suffocating. Of course, Charu can access the textual worlds of Bankim’s novels, being an educated woman and an avid reader.In Ray’s Mahanagar, Arati desperately seeks the expanse of the city – the camaraderies of other women at the workplace. In Tagore’s play Dakghar, Amal, a sick child, sits by the window and wonders at the magic of the world beyond. It is this beyond that creates the primary coordinates of home. And capital accentuates the promise of beyond.