July 2011

Nandini Ramachandran

Mystic Myna

A Slut Walks Away

What does it mean to say I have survived
until you take the mirrors and turn them outward
and read your own face in their outraged light?

--- Adrienne Rich, Through Corralitos Under Rolls of Cloud III, An Atlas of the Difficult World

On June 25, George Orwell’s birthday, the denizens of Delhi were due to slutwalk. It seldom gets worse, the organisers insisted, so if we don’t March for Dignity, who will? Indian women suffer as a gender, not a class. The evidence abounds: parents eradicate their daughters in utero; grooms burn their brides for dowry; marital rape isn’t a crime. If anyone understands the trifling relationship between clothing and violence, it is us. It was a sound argument, for all that it has been little heard. In the manner of most things Indian, the slutwalk has been indefinitely postponed and ardently argued in the "public domain." Rightwingers fumed, leftwingers had hysterics, the Powers that Be dithered. Now slated for July, it is apparently up to men to decide when we get to walk around.

Fires, detractors of the slutwalk point out, rage everywhere. Alongside femininity, opinionators debated corruption, godmen, and the failing state. There was renewed alarm about “maoism” taking over a “fourth of India’s districts.” It is true, they agreed, that Indian women are beaten, raped, and tortured to within an inch of their lives. But this is because humans are poorly made and have to be taught submission. Who needs more unruly children on the loose in this so-called democracy? Someone, somewhere, ought to behave, and it is unlikely to be men. A perfect example of this sort of reasoning is Bhudeb Mukherjee, circa 1890, whose views on female modesty have been handed down for generations:

In a society where men and women meet together, converse together at all times, eat and drink together, travel together, the manners of women are likely to somewhat coarse, devoid of spiritual qualities and relatively prominent in animal traits. For this reason, I do not think the customs of society are free from all defect. Some argue that because of such close association with women, the characters of men acquire tender and spiritual qualities. Let me concede this point. But can the loss caused by coarseness and degeneration in the female character be compensated by the acquisition of a certain degree of tenderness in the male?

…in the Arya system, there is a preponderance of spiritualism, in the European system a preponderance of material pleasure. In the Arya system, the wife is a goddess. In the European system, she is a partner and a companion.

To most Indian men, one sometimes suspects, the logical leaps required above are intuitive. It is clear as glass to them why women pay the price for male folly. All I can ever summon in response to this constant invitation to surrender is outrage: why are we so different from women elsewhere? The light of outrage, Adrienne Rich wrote, is the light of history springing upon us when we’re least prepared. In that spirit, it is to history I turn to understand the bizarre contortions expected from my kind of human.

In the essays "The Nation and Its Women" and "Women and the Nation," Partha Chatterjee investigates the duality that plagues Indian feminism. He suggests that the national movement was, in part, an experiment in reinvented patriarchy. It harnessed a faltering tradition to fashion a new kind of Indian woman. This woman -- docile, domestic, "spiritual" -- was then expected to compensate for vulgar modernity and its dark satanic mills. The fabric of our patriotism, Chatterjee argues, was woven out of this idea of all women aspiring to be Victorian matrons. Here be Kundamala Debi, chiming in with advice to cultivated Bengali housewives in 1870:        

See how an educated woman can do housework thoughtfully and systematically in a way unknown to an ignorant, uneducated woman. And see if God had not appointed us this place in the home, how unhappy a place the world would be.

Partha Chatterjee builds on this argument in Politics of the Governed, his most accessible book for a global reader. The language is clear, the canvas sweeping, the thought remains subtle as ever. Democracy, he tells us in the introduction, is the politics of the governed. It is the politics of those who are disenfranchised by history, of those who arrived into modernity just as it was transitioning into postmodernity. In the first essay, “The Nation in Heterogenous Time,” he emphasises this:

It is no longer productive to assert the utopian politics of classical nationalism... for the postcolonial theorist, like the post colonial novelist, is born only when the mythical time-space of epic modernity has been lost forever…

Homi Bhabha, describing the location of the nation in temporality, pointed out how the narrative of the nation tends to split into double-time and hence an inevitable ambivalence: in one, the people were an object of national pedagogy because they’re always in the making, in a process of historical progress, not yet fully developed to fulfil the nation’s destiny; in the other, the unity of the people, their permanent identification with the nation has to be continually signified, repeated, performed.

The mapping of this space between mythic modernity and postcolonial democracy is the surest summary one has of his life’s study. The gulf within modernity exists, he explains across the body of his work, everywhere in the erstwhile Third World. For the three-fourths of humanity forgotten during the invention of liberal democracy, the greatest conflict of all is within.    

We are not citizens, Chatterjee would say, but populations. Our identities are deeply tied into other people’s descriptions and empiricisms, while our own definitions have been steadily stripped from history. We are, all of us, 'natives,' a condition as contradictory as it is congenital. “This is precisely why,” he writes in Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World, “we do not have a Kalabari anthropology of the white man. And that is why even a Kalabari anthropology of the Kalabari will adopt the same representational form, if not the same substantive conclusions, as the white man’s anthropology. For there is a relation of power involved in the very conception of the autonomy of cultures. That is, in fact, why the problem of nationalist thought is only a particular manifestation of this much more general problem. If nationalism expresses itself in a frenzy of irrational passion, it does so because it seeks to represent itself in the image of the Enlightenment and fails to do so. For Enlightenment itself, to assert its sovereignty as the universal ideal itself in the real world as the truly universal, it would in fact destroy itself. No matter how much the liberal rational may wonder, the Cunning of Reason has not met its match in nationalism. On the contrary it has seduced, apprehended, and imprisoned it."

Chatterjee points out that all nations sponsored by colonialism are torn between competing utopias. Whether it was the black Jacobins of Saint-Domingue or the Bengali babus in Calcutta, postcolonial people founded their identities, and thus their nations, on the profound differences between their realities and that of the metropolis. They faced an unique ideological conundrum: how do you construct a metropolis with no colonies? To be "Western" was, to us, as ambiguous and contested a goal as any civilisation can find. We wanted to be "modern," with all the privileges and rights that implies, without sacrificing the "inner person" that makes a people into a Nation. As colonial modernity encroached, we retreated further into our homes to locate this autonomy, and the martyred Indian wife was one consequence.

The people of these nations, Chatterjee claims, operate in two overlapping domains. They were forged by the classical associations of civil society, though they function within the dilemmas of representation inherent in the political society of postmodernism. This disjunction, further, is built into the structure of our nation-states, for democracy moved on during the 20th century. Liberal democracy was focused on the individual and "his" right to be heard; postmodern democracies depend on welfare and the "pastoral functions of government" as their primary source of legitimacy. A government that will not take care of its people -- however they may be defined -- is no government at all.

Elaborating upon what this means, Chatterjee draws upon Benedict Anderson and the alternate "serialities" produced by postmodern political practice. In The Spectre of Comparisons, Anderson outlines two kinds of seriality within modern communities. On the one hand are the “unbound seriality of everyday universals”: citizens, feminists, revolutionaries, bureaucrats, professionals, intellectuals, workers. These are the categories that create nations. Meanwhile, one is confronted by the “bound seriality” of governmentality- ‘the finite totals produced by modern electoral systems’-- and it is by catering to these manufactured communities that the welfare state redeems itself. It lifts ‘the poor’ out of penury, it ‘emancipates’ women, it ‘develops’ indigenous populations to make them fit for modernity.

Having set up this dichotomy, Chatterjee rebels against it, suggesting that the real crux of political action lies in the interaction between these two kinds of seriality:

Unbound serialities are potentially liberating. Bound serialities, by contrast, can operate only in integers… Anderson, in the tradition of much progressive historicist thinking in the 20th century, sees the politics of universalism as something that belongs to the very character of the time in which we live... One should note that time in this conception easily translates into space, so that we should indeed speak here of the time-space of modernity… politics, in this sense, inhabits the empty homogenous time-space of modernity… I disagree..

Empty homogenous time is the utopian time of capital. It linearly connects the past, present, and future, creating the possibility for all those historicist imaginings of identity, nationhood, progress and so on that Anderson, along with many others, have made familiar to us... The real space of modern life consists of heterotopia... time here is unevenly dense…

The paralegal, despite its ambiguity and supplementary status in relation to the legal, is not some pathological condition of retarded modernity, but rather part of the very process of historical constitution of modernity in most of the world.

Chatterjee then argues that bound serialities, as imagined by the newspaper and the novel, have strategic value. They allow individuals to transcend daily reality by acts of political imagination. We are born into many "unbound" identities, and bound serialities help us prioritise and negotiate between them. The "Indian wife" is as unbound, by this argument, as the "Indian woman" is bound. However different one may be from folk that share one’s nationality and gender, being the ideal wife and mother sets us all a common goal to aspire towards. It imparts, as it were, moral overtones to an empirical community.

This is precisely why, Chatterjee would argue, the identity of an "Indian wife" has proven such a spectacular success over the past two centuries. This is also the greatest challenge faced by the Indian feminism: to change the lives of Indian women, it needs to radically overhaul our imaginations. To be human, one must needs be implicated, often in a web of contradictory allegiances. As feminists, the first step in any sustained course of social change lies in ensuring women see through two sets of intricately woven lies -- the illusion of personhood and the myth of modernity. Humanity, we have to reassure ourselves, will come to mean a very different thing when women are included within it.