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Once Upon a Time There Was an Indian Village and Everyone Lived Happily Ever After

As a teacher to high school children, whenever we discussed social justice in the worlds of books we read, one question that would repeatedly come up was, "How do we understand privilege, if you say it is all around us—how can we work with the 'lowest' common denominator if there will always be more walls and more marginalization?"; and I remember not being to answer that question most of the time. By the end of the year, as a class, what we could loftily conclude was where our own privileges and marginalizations lay; given that we did all that we could to "not speak for others." Of course, we should have realized that growing up in Bombay meant we were speaking for others; coming of age in the decades of neoliberal economic policies in the cultural capital of the country does that to a generation of people—by being the very people who later India Shining addresses, we yield that kind of power. The privilege to voice someone else's story, and to use our particular frame to view their lives.

When we talk of "consumption," "modernization," and "development" it is almost always in the context of Mumbai, Delhi or any other city—as if any space that is not a city or doesn't have the socio-economic potential to catch the attention of global markets isn't worth talking about. So, you'll find numerous people like me who could discuss and/or engage with "semi-urban" and "rural" places, though the frame I viewed them was that of a Mumbaiite, as if they "lacked" something, or had to "catch up" to some norm set by people like me, despite my best efforts to keep from doing just that. Coming from a space like mine—I'm sure we've all been at this spot, caught between being privileged and marginalized all at once, no one, I guarantee you, is ever only always a victim—the best we can do is to break out of this frame, to start using their (whoever "they" may be) lenses to see how they live their lives. This means, of course, we listen to their stories, or sometimes accept that "they" may not want our voices, or do not fit in our definition of progress, civility and democracy—and know that sometimes our silence is necessary for their speech—and still be able to call ourselves feminists (or whatever ideology you support), to love and support them, and ourselves, as both parties stand at the opposite ends of the argument.

One story that absolutely leaves me reeling every time I read it is Gulabi Talkies by Vaidehi (translated by Tejaswini Niranjana); whenever I feel like I "know" [x] or [y] group, my gut reaction is to shroud myself in this short story, where most of the given assumptions we work with stand interrogated. Beautifully wrung, this story has only one constant: It can quite soundly remind you that you have a lot more to listen to, watch, and learn when it comes to tales of "rural India" and especially, women of rural India. Set in a sleepy fishing town in Andhra Pradesh in the '70s, the story is penned in Kannada and Niranjana's translation is delectable—managing to retain the sheer visual power of Vaidehi's words. Since globalization is always envisioned as a process that mostly began in the '90s, this world doesn't qualify as "developed," it doesn't have the tell-tale signs of a "destitute, starving" people. The people of this town are hierarchically organized, through caste and communal ties—so much so that even houses and public spaces cater to this hierarchy—and the life of one woman, Lilibai, is set in motion when the "talkies" (a television set) arrives in this village, which becomes a cinema-at-home for the whole population. Lilibai goes from being a midwife—a job that is quickly being outdated with the intervention of western and industrialized medical science—to being the gatekeeper of the talkies. Women are rarely allowed to be gatekeepers of a society, and Lilibai exploits this position to the fullest—she extorts others, sometimes charges half-price to pocket the illegally made money, swaps stories of her boss' sex life to barter social standing and food in the community, and when the talkies shut down, she discovers she has no job, stranded as she is, in the middle of "modernity" and "tradition"; of the past and the future, of the community and the nation. What is of note here is that not only do we have a place that isn't immediately identifiable as "Indian" (it's not Delhi or Mumbai, and thus not immediately "national") to stand as a metaphor for the Nation, but that "rural" areas have always had a complex negotiation with the idea of "progress," "development," and even, the "nation"; whether you or I acknowledge it or not, this conversation continues.

Another jarring conversation that breaks this frame of the "always resisting rural woman" is the Gulabi Gang documentary that takes a searing look at the life of Sampat Pal and the women she helps. Sampat Pal, a Dalit in a village in Uttar Pradesh (UP) started an organization called "Gulabi" (Pink) Gang, which is mostly autonomous, and its aim is to make lives of women violence-free. A couple of times, the Gang is said to have beaten up a few people who were convicted as domestic abusers and since then, they use that reputation to threaten most of the community into negotiations that seem best suited for women, given the situation. From getting young pregnant girls married to their lovers (despite both their families' opposition), to yelling and cursing the police force, Sampat Pal seems to be a woman who has a solution to everyone's problems.

We were watching this documentary in class, trying to see if we could find a different narrative to "Women's Day" this 8th of March, and halfway, ended up being shamelessly charmed by this cranky woman, who seems to want to scold everyone at all times. Then, her niece runs away from home and comes to Sampat, seeking protection from domestic and sexual abuse, and that night, Sampat sneaks her back to her marital home—I remember most people in the class gasping at this point; after all we'd seen Sampat house orphans and destitute women completely unrelated to her, surely she wouldn't turn her own niece in, right? At this point, the documentary goes dark for a bit, hazes over, as the filmmaker asks the niece the next day, if her family members hit her when she retured. She looks straight into the camera and says, "Yes, they gave me a good trashing. What else would you expect?" I don't remember what happens right after; I was crying by then.

What ensued was probably the hardest discussion we've ever had as a class—do we still see Sampat as a feminist? Does this erase the work she does? Or the very real relief she gives to many women's lives? She is constantly negotiating with the law, and as leftists, what do we make of that? and so on. I remember not being to say much else but "How could she?"; in retrospect, the documentary purposefully leaves unclear some sections of her life—we aren't sure who exactly funds this Gang of hers, or whose grains feed her and I suspect her ex-in-laws (whose abuse she fled from, by the way) help her in ways more than one. To keep on going like she does, she needed to barter her niece's safety—I never know where I stand with this documentary. How do we react to a person who is complicit in abuse and is marked by it at the same time?

I don't have any clear answers. All I know is, this is not my place to judge, it is not my story to tell. I don't live Sampat's (or Lilibai's) life—my class and caste position ensures I will never be asked to make these sorts of decisions. Technically, there shouldn't even be a comparison; we come from very different worlds, we have our own set of privileges and oppressions, and yet, my world achieves its definition from being "different" than hers and vice versa. We are all framing this frame, being framed by it, and the sooner we recognize this, the sooner we will be better equipped to hear "their" stories," and their lives that may oppose everything we stand for, to see these complex negotiations, when we agree, and especially when we don't, with their outcome.

I will choose this hazy picture a thousand times over any assumption that we "know" anyone's life or story—and remind myself to listen. And then listen harder.

Previously: You're an Indian Feminist? But You Don't Live in a Ditch!

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Comments

7 comments have been made. Post a comment.

OK, this is the first time

OK, this is the first time I'm reading battameez's posts here but as an 'Indian feminist' I'm so excited to see this on Bitch!
Thanks a lot. I'll be following this with keen interest. It's easy to feel alone as a young woman trying to live life on her terms (mostly trying to negotiate between her feminist beliefs and the compromises she is forced to make for survival) and trying to effect change in whatever ways possible, so I get very excited when I find similar voices. :)
This post was definitely an encouraging start to the series especially since you started with a feminism beyond what one imagines in a big city. Lots of ideas to grapple with. I'll seek out both the book and the documentary.

It's hard to speak of a uniquely Indian feminism since this 'India' (at least the one the nationalists would like to uphold) does not exist for so many people. And with all the regional, communal and caste fissures it's practically impossible to draw upon an "Indian" feminism. I don't have a lot of experience regarding the many parts (physical but also beyond that) of India (although I'm trying to change this) so I feel like I'm constantly hearing a dominant middle class, neo-liberal, heterosexual, urban feminism. So it's great that there are narratives which complicate our relationship to how we envision feminism and how we can change its contours to a more diverse, divisive one. But like you hint in the article, the question of intersecting oppressions almost make sure that like you, my position as an urban, middle class feminist will skewer the balance of power when I'm 'listening' to the 'other' stories. Does diversity simply become accommodation? Caste and Class (not to mention sexuality and gender identity) will always make sure that even if we are to imagine a unified Indian feminism it will replicate the same divisions we see in our rigidly hierarchical society. So I welcome and acknowledge diversity, contradictions and conflicts as an essential part of the feminist movement we're all trying to be part of. I completely agree that the 'haziness' is a positive addition to our discourse.

Hello

Hello AnjuInDelhi, 

I totally sympathise with the lonliness that accompanies a lot of feminists (even within feminist circles or whatever) -- because of what kind of feminism are you holding up may probably not be one easily digested by middle-class, neo-liberal, heterosexual, urban, Hindutva feminism. It's lovely to see there are more such feminists out there. 

I wouldn't say 'India' doesn't exist for a lot of people -- I think they have a very different relationship with it (If you're interested, there's a fantastic essay exploring this same relationship called The Last Cultural Mile by Ashish Rajadhyaksha). 

I specifically want to address this: 

But like you hint in the article, the question of intersecting oppressions almost make sure that like you, my position as an urban, middle class feminist will skewer the balance of power when I'm 'listening' to the 'other' stories. Does diversity simply become accommodation? Caste and Class (not to mention sexuality and gender identity) will always make sure that even if we are to imagine a unified Indian feminism it will replicate the same divisions we see in our rigidly hierarchical society -- 

A year ago I would have agreed to this statement, it comes from a place of guilt and responsibility for me. As discussed in the earlier post, we use certain frames to talk about (and view) Indian feminisms -- a year ago, the idea that "no matter what you do, our voice will always dominate theirs" was enough for me to freeze and not do anything at all. The point is, when you listen -- the frame starts shifting a bit, suddenly Rural Indian Women aren't a category you know, their lives don't fit neatly in the "oppressed" or the "oppressor" scales; we think of ourselves as complex creatures, but whenever we talk/engage with the Other, somehow they are very easy to codify etc. For many feminists (espcially online and not from India) see Sampat as this hero -- and she is, in many degrees -- "a baddass extraordinaire who beats men up", but completely miss the backstory of at whose cost does it happen etc. 

Why can't we dissent in public? Why are we so keen on having One Voice, One Face of Indian feminism? I, for one, think we're safer in conflict. It's easy to support people who talk and think like you, the challenge is, how willing are you to support those who aren't your friends -- and I take it that you'd agree with such a feminism, given by your comment. Christ, we need more voices like these out there. 

rural-urban divide

Thanks for the article. You are indeed a "battameez" - talking about social justice and what not! But more seriously, some interesting stories there.

I disagree, however, with the following claim

"What is of note here is that not only do we have a place that isn’t immediately identifiable as “Indian” (it’s not Delhi or Mumbai, and thus not immediately “national”) to stand as a metaphor for the Nation"

I agree that the story might have juxtaposed "tradition" with "modernity" and that was a common theme for a very long time. If you're referring to a story set in the 70s, however, the rural was still very much part of the national pysche and in the forefront of national debates in India. In eastern India, you had the Naxalbari movement that started in 1967, in Tamil Nadu, the Dalits were participating in uprisings against upper caste landlords in the late 60s. And of course rural and urban Dalit movements were very active throughout the 80s, 90s and has seen a revival in this century. Tribal movements have also been very active in this century. So it appears that perhaps your read of the story adopts an urban( Mumbaiite, no less which which views itself as the bastion of Indian modernity) frame.

Relatedly, I am curious about the following:

"Another jarring conversation that breaks this frame of the “always resisting rural woman”... "

As much as I agree with your critically interrogation of Sampat's position as well as her financial sources. And kudos for that, I am curious as to why you chose these stories which to some degree suggest helplessness. Is it your intention to suggest that rural women, despite their agency, cannot extricate themselves?

Also, a small correction, according to the Sunday Tribune article that you linked to, Vaidehi's book was edited by Tejaswini Niranjana but translated by several people.

Joy to be reading such material on Bitch!

We meet again

Hello 3rdworldfem, 

First off, thank you for your kind words and encouragement, made my day! 

While the text operates its meta-narrative with a sense of a collective identity "we are a small town, but this could be the story of a lot of small towns in India" (it's certainly a kind of nationalism), it is also constantly questioning the idea of Who Gets To Be The Face Of The Nation. For instance, Times of India (Delhi or Bombay editions) can stand in as metaphors and mouthpieces for the whole nation, but the Hindu (a newspaper many identify as "South Indian" even though it covers national issues and has nationwide readership) will never be considered 'national'. 

Leaving Naxalbari and the Telangana Lands Rights Struggle aside from this discussion -- it requires a whole post on its own! -- while the rural was a part of the national imagination, today as readers of Vaidehi's story, a small town in Andhra Pradesh doesn't scream 'national' to us -- we've learnt to recognise national  as North Indian (Bollywood helps cement this idea a lot too). So while the text is aware of its borders, and it's larger meta-narrative actively participates in a kind of nationalism (as stated above), as readers, we don't immediately associate Lilibai with a national allegory, we have to break out of this frame, shift our understanding of 'national' for Vaidehi's text to work. The anthology is edited by Niranjana, she has also translated some stories. Gulabi Talkies is translated by her. Also, do check out the film Gulabi Talkies (in Kannada), they've re-imagined Gulabi as a Muslim woman and then this whole 'who-can-speak-for-the-nation' business becomes visible in the film itself. 

Coming to Sampat Pal -- I didn't choose these stories to suggest any kind of helplessness of rural women, I wanted another frame than the "These women suffer abuse and they resist! Go feminism!!!11!!". Considering we come from different places (urban and rural women), we have to grapple with each other's lives and histories before any action can happen -- listening to understand there is so much we don't know, so many things that we don't have a right to judge. For instance, I don't advocate or support violence of any kind, so Sampat and her gang, walking with lathis, bothered me at first, like, "Is the kind of feminism we want to support". It took me a while to realise it's not my place to tell her (or anyone else) how they should do feminism. I have to will myself to listen to her to get to the why of it all -- I may not always agree, but I owe it to her to listen to her. 

Rural women are helpless, sometimes they're strong. Sometimes, they incite men to rape other women (see the Khairlanjee trials, Gujurat 2002), sometimes they help people who may be lower in the caste/class order -- they're complex people, woven by their social location and structure, and we owe them at least, this complexity. Wether this complexity we can grapple with or not (the hazy picture) is not their concern. 

Thank you

Many thanks for this thought-provoking post. I am diving for my copy of Gulabi Talkies right now!

Hello again Shoshana,  Do

Hello again Shoshana, 

Do check out the film Gulabi Talkies, it's a fantastic adaptation of the text -- in the sense that it keeps the basic structure alive of Vaidehi's story but plays around with so many elements, it stands alone as a wonderful star in Indian cinema. 

Thank you for your kind words, they do much for me. 

Pink Saris

Sorry about my long break from your page - I can't wait to get reading!
Thanks for this post, and especially for the following sentence:
We are all framing this frame, being framed by it, and the sooner we recognize this, the sooner we will be better equipped to hear “their” stories,” and their lives that may oppose everything we stand for, to see these complex negotiations...

I just wanted to add that now that I have seen the documentary, I am puzzled
by the filmmaker's choice to focus so exclusively on Sampat Pal. Since the group is
a collective, I found myself deeply curious about who joins,
how they join, duration of most members, what Sampat Pal has them do, etc.
While she is clearly a force of nature and a one-woman show in her own right,
there is strength in numbers, and vigilante justice of this kind is rarely
successful when carried out alone.