The Tales Of Feminist Conferences in India, and of Ice.
In my blimp of an academic career, I have been invited thrice to speak on feminist academic panels that address “global” issues, and all of those times, they requested papers on the Partition, on “sexuality in times of conflict” and other violence-oriented themes, and all three times I was chosen over Sri Lankan and Pakistani feminists. The first time it happened, I didn’t think it meant anything, but by the third time I heard that “Your paper fits more into what we are looking in this panel,” there was definitely a pattern emerging. One of those three conferences, I did get to meet a Sri Lankan feminist, and after a while we even exchanged our papers—the conference was a distant memory by then—and I was extremely surprised to find our papers departing on the same premise of the impunity of the Indian and the colonial State. I am still thinking through why the organizers of these events (two were funded by the Ivy Leagues, one by an English press) would be uncomfortable with a Sri Lankan or a Pakistani feminist questioning the integrity of the Indian State in the Partition but be okay with someone from the “inside” addressing these qualms.
Moving away from this anecdote for a bit, let’s focus on Sadat Hassan Manto, the man who was tried thrice for his "obscenity"; charges were dropped but in popular memory he remains quite "obscene" and "vulgar" considering he wrote about the horrors of Partition in brutal, gruelling ways. It took communal riots in the 1980s for people to find resonance in the sense of utter confusion and disgust Manto’s protagonists were talking about. My first introduction to Manto was eight years ago, while doing some research for a writing competition where we were called on to talk about the “horror we went through during the Kargil war”—and I stumbled across Tetwal Ka Kutta (Tetwal’s Dog) in my grandfather’s collection. It’s the story (an afsana, the book reminded me) about a dog caught in the border between India and Pakistan; for the majority of the story soldiers from both ends can’t decide which nation the dog belongs to, and in the end both kill him, thinking of the dog as the “enemy’s blood.” Years later, when I started researching on South Asian historiography for my MA, the sentence “The ‘Woman Question’ has been central to the making of South Asia” was reborn in Tetwal’s Dog, caught between borders that think of women as a tabula rasa, a generation of bodies that have to be marked as identifiably “Indian” or “Pakistani.”
Literature becomes history becomes literature under the tutelage of writers and poets like Manto, Ismat Chughtai, and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose “disordered” stories and gazhals paved the way for Bhism Sahani’s Tamas, Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What The Body Remembers. All of these works, in a lot of creative ways, consciously write national histories on the bodies of women, whether through histories of rape (of both Hindu and Muslim women, by both religious groups) or through histories of “correction” (where women, in history and some novels, are “sent back” to their “original” countries after they’ve lived decades in the “new” country—important to remember here, geographically, linguistically, many may have never left their “original” countries, just that in the decades after the Partition, new borders sprung up that they weren’t aware of, while they were still healing, trying to assimilate into the culture they were forcibly wed into), or in Chughtai’s case, the infamous "Chauthi Ka Jora" (the wedding outfit on the fourth day of the wedding ceremony, a seminal short story) which reads as a woman’s inability to “let go” of the past—but can also be a story of remembering the gory past, and trying to deal with those ghosts.
These narratives exist as a “sore spot in our history,” and regrettably such communal riots that form the brewing pot of these stories are not a one-time occurrence, if films like Bombay and Firaaq testify to a national memory of a certain kind; as feminists we’ve questioned why are these even considered “sore points,” as ideas of nation, women, honor and communities collide into each other to make up the shroud of silence that is linked to the Partition and the 1971 war—these stories probe us out of apathy to re-think how “glorious” our nation’s histories really are. But to date, a Manto story is hard to swallow—mainly because we don’t know what to make of them. Is he feminist? Are his women feminist if they’re slashing “enemy” women down? If they are "broken" women, whose lives have shattered along the edges and don’t they know how to reconcile those pieces of themselves? What Manto does is showcase his women as people, as perpetrators and victims of abuse, as bodies that have suffered violations, bodies that have fragmented and ones that have begun to mend, in ways you and I will not always agree with—this distances from “neat” narratives makes Manto "obscene," his women into margins.
Similarly, in Urvashi Butalia’s seminal The Other Side Of Silence, the question still remains: How do we “deal” with the “margins"? She has testimonies of Dalit women saying the weeks immediately after Partition were their most lucrative years, as they could loot the houses of people who abandoned their money and their lives. Or of hijra women who didn’t know which country to migrate to as they were caught in the “crossfires of nations and sexual identities”**—a few groups of hijra women who till date, on 15th and 16th August still “cross over” to the “other” border.
It is no surprise that India is a Big Brother-esque figure in South Asia, especially, in histories of nation-building (the Partition, the 1971 Bangladeshi War of Independence, the decades under IPKF in Sri Lanka are just the tip of the iceberg), as researchers, we carry these legacies on our bodies and words. What kind of “secular” feminism are we advocating, if this “secular” voice comes from one platform only? Who talks of one kind of history only? What happens when this margin is speaking to you and you don’t have enough slots to categorize them? Why are stories of the Partition by Indian authors the narrative that we are mostly familiar with (Shauna Singh Baldwin, and Bhism Sahani come to mind here)—no matter how sympathetic they may be to other margins? Maybe this is where papers don’t “meet the overall tone of the panel” as my friend from Sri Lanka is told at events that invite us to “re-look” at South Asian history—perhaps because they don’t “meet” the frame of the Forgiving and Secular Indian Feminist, Who Talks Of Muslims And Sri Lankans And Bhutanese As If They Were Human. Perhaps because these voices challenge the impunity and complicity of feminists like me, who may be challenging dominant ideas of nationalisms in global panels, but end up having a hand in further silencing other voices.
Like Faiz’s infamous “strangers” or like Manto’s Eshwar Singh—how far are we willing to go to uphold one notion, one story of South Asia? How much further till we’re nothing but colder than ice too?
*I do not mean to imply that there are no consequences of questioning the role of the Indian and the Pakistani State, or that writing about such a sensitive subject was easy, but the narrative was still "accepted."
**Self-identified as “in between sexual identities” going by Butalia’s textual ethnography.
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