A few weeks ago, I was told I should change the way I write. Adopt a new style, write more academically, adapt to a new world. At the time I took what she said into consideration, her light eyes seemed sympathetic and wanted more than anything to help me. She told me her own story, where she came from, how she found it difficult to adapt to a new form of knowledge and writing- much in the same way, she explained, as I did. She gave me tips on how I could go about doing this. Read a published paper she said, maybe copy and paste a paragraph from that paper onto your document so you can copy the exact style. It reminded me of a little child tracing a drawing from a colouring book. She repeated again, “You just have to change your style of writing.” I was uncomfortable at the thought. Partly, because my pride was hurt. Of all the trouble I’d had with academics over the years, writing was definitely not one of them. Writing had become a crutch, to aid me through the many gaps and holes in knowledge, to compensate for my lack of understanding in the visual. Yet, here I was, failing a paper and being told I should change the way I write. If my discomfort started with a hurt ego, it soon grew into something else altogether. It wasn’t that I couldn’t write very well, it’s that I couldn’t write to match a certain standard. I couldn’t write to tick the boxes on a certain checklist that decided what was academic and what was not. They didn’t want to know if I had the capacity to deconstruct the politics of a certain issue, but if I could use existing theories to prove an already existing presumption. I decided to let my discomfort simmer for a while, so I could wait for the rest of my papers. I wanted to see if this would be an isolated incident. It wasn’t. I could see, however that different people approached my writing in different ways. Some made allowances for straying from standards of acceptance, some gave me credit for doing just that. The former interested me more. In one of those papers, the examiner conceded that I had analysed the issue very well. What was odd, was that the issue she quoted wasn’t what my paper was based on at all. She thought it was one problem, when I thought I had evocatively insisted that that was not what I was interested in. The rest of the feedback helped realise why she’d read my paper wrong. She said she wished I hadn’t spent as much time explaining the problem and devoted my words to explaining established theories to prove it existed. Yes, a repetition of the previous examiner’s feedback. What was this problem though? I took up a couple of long paragraphs explaining how Brahmanical patriarchy worked, to lay claims to its existing manifestation in the lives of migrant adivasis in India. What the examiner wished I’d done, was eliminate the entire problematic and instead find a theory that could explain it. How could I tell her that Marxist feminism cannot explain Brahmanical patriarchy, ecofeminism can’t explain it, postcolonial feminism can’t explain it, radical feminism can’t explain it, black feminism can’t explain it, Virginia Woolf had no idea about it, Simone de Beavoir devoted no books to it, Spivak had missed it, and bell Hooks was farther away from it than the examiner herself was. I certainly used post colonialism to talk about land rights, but I can only use brahmanical patriarchy to explain the lives of these migrant adivasi women. My first paper was on caste too. It’s distressing how there’s no space for caste within the academia today. It’s distressing how it isn’t seen as its own unique form of conceptualised theory. I cannot speak about any political issue in India without invoking the implications of the caste system and I cannot use any standardised form of theory to explain it. I feel like Hal in Infinite Jest sometimes, the sentences are constructed perfectly in my head and make absolute sense, yet, when I speak people only hear monstrous rumblings in an alien tongue.
A deep disenchantment with academics seems to have set in. The last time I was sitting in a classroom, the entire world seemed to present itself to my abstract picking and blurred gaze. Countries and their internal conflicts were art forms I sought to master; theories and theorists I wore like branded clothes;film movements and television series dissected and analysed, each with a sticky note of political context. But I am tired of the various affectations of academia. Sitting in class with a globe in the middle,countries picked blindly and politics torn away from cultures by the blind,deaf and dumb has bored me thoroughly.
I am beginning to feel like I walk into class in a slow strut, brown skin and Indian accent, with a sash across my body that says ‘India’. China and Indonesia have their own too. Anytime we get mentioned, we sit up straight and smile and nod. We represent whole countries. I become a farmer with a family to feed on the verge of suicide thanks to Monsanto, I become Modi’s personal PR machinery, I become the nation languishing with an antiquated caste system, I have also supposedly suffered the terrible effects of inequality in income distribution. Everyday is a different role and a different representation. I am dreading the Swimsuit competition.
If you have just read a news article on Paris, do you have to write an angry article in rage about terrorism? Do you have to go for that candlelight vigil because a friend sent you a Fb invite?Do you have to claim you mourn every death in the world and casually throw in everything from Black slavery to Afghanistan? How can we possibly claim to understand the particulars of every conflict in the world, wax eloquent as experts on each of these “issues” when you might struggle to point out where it is on a well-marked map?
I have done a terrible injustice when I have written or spoken about these “issues” in the past. How can I write anything about an Afghani woman’s life, when I can’t even give her a name?
I don’t know what the coloured woman’s perspective is either. I have brown skin, but I haven’t ever experienced racism. I only have brown skin when I am in a sea of Whites.
Studying politics in the First World has reduced experiences to just this: slotting and categorisation of experiences in text book chapters, an ‘ism’ in each title. These theories that serve as rule books to explain the functioning of a world-system does little to situate humanity within it. Terrorism slips into critiques of neo-liberalism,occupations in postcolonialism, various trajectories of being a woman into feminism. Where are the people here?Where the lives? Where their different realities?
Meanwhile I sit in a class where Triumphs Of Brit Army says all of colonisation was not bad.
We’ve been raging about who we mourn, but who do you think gets to mourn? The blog does not support Youtube videos anymore, but here’s a little something: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVodbIi798w
Someone once mentioned in a passing comment, that the Dalit movement in India is very different from the LGBTQ. One is about rage and anger,the other about celebration, the Pride March is full of colour and music and dance and the quintessential drugs and alcohol. The Dalit movement has its own music too, wonderful witty numbers by the likes of Sambhaji Bhagat and Sharat Chamar Nalingati. But the thing is, that while the Dalits might have a visible antagoniser held at a wary distance, the LGBTQ movement is not resentful of sympathisers outside the league. But this is not to say that they aren’t angry; their colours may seem celebratory but their language of protest is just as potent as that of the Dalit movement. In fact,I really don’t see how any issue, class struggle,caste oppression,feminism, anti-globalisation…how can any of this not be underlined by anger?
Over the years I have realised how overtly political I am, often I choose to believe I can titter about offensive stereotypes or dismiss a sexual comment, but you know what?I can’t. In college or outside of it, the friends I was with and the people I worked with, all deeply involved with socio-political issues, well-read and intelligent, but the conversations were never distanced from that sense of anger. So when I walked into my Feminist Society meeting at uni, I was vaguely amused by what I thought drove feminists in the first place:righteous anger about deeply disturbing inequality and injustice. Now do not get me wrong, I am not talking about resentment here, I am talking about anger. Here were a group of women and men, eager to help and excited about feminism, but can put up a powerpoint presentation on running a campaign against sexual assault and violence and smile through it all.
A conversation with Homie from Home the other day and we realised this lack of anger and protest was explicit here. Everyone was polite, they stood in their long queues, got up for an elderly person in a crowded bus, said their thank you and their sorrys, and never posed a sense of threat to your personal space. Students in a Politics class did their readings,made powerpoint presentations everyday, spoke about Marxism and development issues, wars fought and won, recession and a breakdown of world order, all without ever getting into a heated debate! I didn’t even know you could speak about Marxism without a loud tug and jolt between opposing sides of the debate. Rallies and protests are happening in London even as I write this, some distinct shouting of slogans, against maintenance fee, higher education tuition fee, things that matter, but do they sit around and plan protests by sending out friendly requests? Baking cookies and samosas so people might sign petitions? How odd. Homie from Home says, it’s because they have nothing to aspire to, even with austerity measures and what not,they believe they can lead fairly comfortable lives and have never felt any great instability in their lives to shock them into feeling a deep sense of resistance.
Are there any angry First World activists out there who’d like to tell me about their own brand of anger?
Meanwhile I shall go back to wondering how a friend could take a Marketing class while learning Politics, so she can get a job and make some money.
In my first week at the Uni, I met several international students.Italy,Greece,Palestine,China,Armenia…all lost, fragmented in their identities, desperately in search of fellow countrymen and all feeling completely inadequate while expressing themselves. They would sit through numerous orientations, trying to glean some information, while White people in suit and tie,with flashy powerpoints would tell them what they should and shouldn’t do. They would come out, flustered and frustrated because they hadn’t understood a word of it. The Italian must have assumed she spoke fluent English back home, the Greek must have revelled in his writing skills. Then they come here to find that it was all a sham, the trouble they had gone through for years honing and correcting their accent was all for naught! Their high school English teacher was a fraud. They even have to go through a gruelling 3 hour language test, where they might excel in writing and reading but fail miserably in listening because this was not the same language they had learnt.
Meanwhile I get an exemption from the test, can chatter away in English and figure out the forms they have to fill and phone settings and bus passes. To them, I am clever merely because of my grasp of the language. I laugh as someone asks if people in India speak english, I smile graciously when they compliment my accent and vocabulary, I generously acquiesce to help them ‘figure things out’ while explaining that I have been speaking English since I was 2. My language is a validation certificate to be bandied about here to gain acknowledgment, to surpass the brown on my skin,to use well while avoiding the twang in my accent and common Indian slang.
As a classmate explains how arduous she find the readings and how she sometimes has to find online translations of academic terms, I wonder if I might seem half as smart without being able to speak fluent English. The various affectations of my language in India, sprinkled with different regional languages gave authenticity to my ideas that atleast politically, were intrinsically Indian. The English I speak here though, has a tendency of sounding like an outsider’s perspective even when I talk about India; atleast to my own ears. How then does a Thai student go through the process of translating her thoughts before being able to say it out loud and then have people not understand it? The very process of translation has diluted her idea and she is aware of it even as she forms the words. All meaning is lost.
Who knows if the Over The Moon can wax eloquent on how the West refuses to see anything more to China other than perceiving them as a threat? Who knows if Just Punk Not Japanese can make long passionate speeches about politics in music?And I will never know if my very thought process would be different if I didn’t think in English.
It was frustrating doing my Bachelor’s in a private university in India and talking about politics. You cannot talk about things like poverty, caste system or even the functioning of governance in rural areas because almost everyone in the class is middle class/upper middle class and don’t even know what a village is might look like. There was an especially ridiculous moment when while trying to develop a campaign to get people in rural areas to drink only pasteurized milk, the lot of us in class made up fantastic ideas of what rural India looked like and how we could influence people we didn’t know a thing about.
So what do I do? I look for a bigger world, a diverse background. Hey I can’t get into a govt college in India, I’ll go to another continent and see what the world looks like from their perspective. Spend a fortune and a great amount of time applying to extremely streamlined courses- the kind you don’t find in India. The first day in and it’s like a potluck of political and social backgrounds and everyone’s brought their own flavours on every conceivable topic. Neoliberalism, Marxism,Feminism,Postcolonialism, Aural and Visual Politics, the works! It’s quite the menu and everyone’s interested in one or all of them. The professors aren’t here to lecture, but merely prod and gently tug and push, you can say anything and everything is graciously acknowledged. Sounds like a veritable academic experience right?
But what do I talk about when in a class on Hip Hop and Politics, we travel from the US to UK to Canada and then just circle around those countries. How about when we can’t seem to move out of a Disney studio in Hollywood while discussing Visual Politics? Then there are those jerky rides through feminist movements during the Civil War or even the full ferry on NHS. No, it’s not like I have nothing to say about any of that, in fact I can wax eloquent on any of those topics. But what’s the point of the potluck when everyone only samples one dish? Are the rest there merely for show and colour?I could feign righteous anger about the NHS in crisis (talking neoliberalism) and the risks of privatising healthcare but er, farmer suicides/large scale displacement/ access to education and food and water in the rest of the world! And hey,this isn’t a ‘whose problem is bigger?’ thing,but whose problem do YOU think matters?
Looking back I realise even when I felt suffocated merely studying Indian politics in comparison to the West, I was atleast trying to expand my outlook. The world is a small place in the First World. China, Japan,Brazil,India,we appear on the menu as side dishes, to complement the main course,but can never be the subject matter as a standalone.
And as far as Aural Politics goes, how about this