Speaking Volumes: Rooms With Views

Bharti Kher's bindis, with tiger

Bharti Kher’s bindis, with tiger

(Published in the Business Standard, January 22, 2013)


Say the word “feminist” in India, and pick your way carefully between two abysses. One is an old confusion about the meaning of the word, which trips up even the most intelligent.

The author, Manu Joseph, for instance, asked me in a public conversation why women would want to be “the same as men”. He was genuinely puzzled. Nothing in his otherwise wide experience and reading had introduced the idea that feminists wanted to be given the same rights as men. They were, however, perfectly happy to acknowledge every shade of variation between the sexes, embracing not just heterosexual men and women, but the lesbian and transgendered community as well.

On the other side, Madhu Kishwar’s essay, Why I Do Not Call Myself A Feminist, stood as a reminder that many in the Indian women’s movement still thought of feminism as a foreign concept, awkwardly imported from the West and slung around Indian shoulders. (This ignores the small detail that Indians across all backgrounds do identify as feminists, from Sampath Pal who runs the Gulabi Gang in Haryana to the activist and writer Kutty Revathi in Tamil Nadu and many more.)

In a series of tart fables, the writer Suniti Namjoshi introduced the Blue Donkey, whose colour sets her apart as a strange creature, to be argued over, claimed and turned into a legend despite herself. The Blue Donkey can stand for many things—the figure of the writer, or of those discriminated against for their sexual choices or the colour of their skin—including the figure of the feminist in India, a creature who makes those around her uneasy because they don’t know where to place her.

Nivedita Menon’s superb new book, Seeing Like A Feminist, cuts to the essentials. “When one ‘sees’ the world … with the gaze of a feminist, it’s rather like activating the ‘Reveal Formatting’ function in Microsoft Word. It reveals the strenuous, complex formatting that goes on below the surface of what looked smooth and complete.” She makes several core points, while stressing that her book is not ‘about India’, any more than Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was ‘about Australia’. Anyone can “see like a feminist”, men as well as women. To fully see like a feminist is an exercise in empathy, and requires you to look more carefully at and interrogate the power structures behind not just gender but class (and in India, caste).

I was reminded of a very different essay, written by Vinod K Jose on the Indian media, where he says: “ The duty of journalists is to dissect the workings of power— to explore and describe and reveal how power is acquired and used.” This is not so different from the task before the person who wants to see like a feminist, but in both cases, you risk something unexpected—not danger, so much as vertigo.

In the neat circumference of 200 pages, Menon unpacks everything that may have seemed familiar. The great Indian family—“nuclear, patriarchal, patrilineal”—is a relatively new construct, as she points out, and it displaced several other kinds of families. There are several other models of family, from the matrilineal structures once common in South India and in the North-East, to the simplicity of the non-legal definition she suggests: “What is a family? A group of people who love and support one another over good times and bad?” This may not seem such a radical idea, until you place it beside the stark statistics that indicate marriage is still considered the only worthwhile goal for most Indian women (over 47 % are married by the time they’re 18, which would seem to erase any question of reasonable, adult choice in the matter).

If you read Menon’s tract for the times alongside just one other book, make that The Fabulous Feminist: The Suniti Namjoshi Reader (Zubaan). Namjoshi is one of the many wonderful Indian authors who slipped into oblivion, and who, like GV Desani and others, is rediscovered with grateful surprise by new generations. Her fables questioned everything—including, in The Mothers of Mayadip, the myth that a world ruled by women would necessarily be less cruel than its opposite—and delighted my generation of readers. The Blue Donkey trots through much of her work, quietly questioning all that she comes across, interrogating the unspoken rules by which we live, and yet, asking no more than she should be allowed to go her own way. Namjoshi rewrites well-known stories from the Panchatantra and from Grimm’s fairy tales, and her own fables pack a punch.

For those who like the idea of seeing like a feminist, consider Namjoshi’s story of the Bird Woman. “Once there was a child who sprouted wings,” it begins. The neighbours are horrified, and suggest that the wings should be cut, or clipped, or something. “Think of that child,” they appeal to the parents. “What are you teaching the poor little thing?” And the parents say, “We are teaching her to fly.”

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