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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?

Previously: Once Upon a Time There Was an Indian Village and Everyone Lived Happily Ever After, You're an Indian Feminist? But You Don't Live in a Ditch!

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*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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Comments

2 comments have been made. Post a comment.

privilege and marginalization

I liked your post on the complexities of S. Asian history and literature, Battameez! For those in the global North who may be sensitive to the power dynamics between the North and the South may be unaware or uncomfortable with the power dynamics between various nation states within the global South as evidenced by India's role in the subcontinent. After all just as it is correct to question the integrity of the Indian
state and it's big Brother-esque role in the Indian subcontinent, it
would be just as correct to question the integrity of the Sri Lankan and
Pakistani states and their treatment of minority groups.

This issue raised in this post is also reminiscent of your previous post about multiple and intersecting sites of privilege.You noted your discomfort of Gulabi Gang's Sampat Pal's methods, I think it is imperative to be critical (in a constructive way) of privilege when we see it, irrespective of the marginalized space that the individual/organization/nation state may occupy. No doubt it can also open up possibilities of further misuse of privilege and we need to be constantly aware and be self-reflexive. In cases that we are not, hopefully others will call us out on our behavior. I am reminded of Huey Newton's speech about gay rights: 

 <blockquote> We should deal with the factions just as we deal with any other
group or party that claims to be revolutionary. We should try to judge,
somehow, whether they are operating in a sincere revolutionary fashion
and from a really oppressed situation. (And we will grant that if they
are women they are probably oppressed.) If they do things that are
unrevolutionary or counterrevolutionary, then criticize that action. If
we feel that the group in spirit means to be revolutionary in practice,
but they make mistakes in interpretation of the revolutionary
philosophy, or they do not understand the dialectics of the social
forces in operation, we should criticize that and not criticize them
because they are women trying to be free. And the same is true for
homosexuals. We should never say a whole movement is dishonest when in
fact they are trying to be honest. They are just making honest mistakes.
Friends are allowed to make mistakes. The enemy is not allowed to make
mistakes because his whole existence is a mistake, and we suffer from
it. But the women’s liberation front and gay liberation front are our
friends, they are our potential allies, and we need as many allies as
possible.</blockquote>

With respect to Manto, I've been conflicted about him. I find his stories to be very incisive and dark, especially his writings on Partition. But his feminism (if one can call it that) it seems to me was rooted in a very masculine space. I draw these inferences from Chugtai's writings about her encounters with Manto. So it seemed to me that he was willing to treat Chughtai as his equal. Because she was also convicted of obscenity (they first met in a courtroom charged with obscenity in writing, if memory serves me right) and because she was educated and a writer, a role dominated by men in pre-Independent India? Through Chughtai's prism I found his treatment of his partner quite shabby.

My turn to apologise for the tardiness

Hey 3rdWorldFem, 

For those in the global North who may be sensitive to the power dynamics between the North and the South may be unaware or uncomfortable with the power dynamics between various nation states within the global South as evidenced by India's role in the subcontinent. After all just as it is correct to question the integrity of the Indian state and it's big Brother-esque role in the Indian subcontinent, it would be just as correct to question the integrity of the Sri Lankan and Pakistani states and their treatment of minority groups.

Exactly! When talking of North-South dynamics, we lose out on the nuances within and across North and South itself. Like questioning India's role in the Subcontinent, we also have to be critical towards various complex interactions within the Subcontinent -- like Bangladesh government asking for a legal "apology" from the Pakistani government  for rape crimes in the 1973 war of Independence, but doesn't acknowledge they did the same thing in the Nepal-India border a few years later. All of this gets engulfed in "South Asian historiography", as if feminism has nothing to do with history, as if we don't carry this history on our body (not in the I-feel-for-my-raped-sisters-and-we-are-all-one kind of way, rather sometimes similar power dynamics seep into our academia and/or inter-personal relations). 

With respect to Manto, I've been conflicted about him. I find his stories to be very incisive and dark, especially his writings on Partition. But his feminism (if one can call it that) it seems to me was rooted in a very masculine space. I draw these inferences from Chugtai's writings about her encounters with Manto. So it seemed to me that he was willing to treat Chughtai as his equal. Because she was also convicted of obscenity (they first met in a courtroom charged with obscenity in writing, if memory serves me right) and because she was educated and a writer, a role dominated by men in pre-Independent India? Through Chughtai's prism I found his treatment of his partner quite shabby.

I'm pretty unsure about Manto myself. His alcoholic tendencies are well known (and documented), and no defending the horrid way he treats his partner and offspring. 

But (yes, there is a but), I don't remember the story's name, there is this lady who is sitting in front of a mirror, looking at herself, unable to recognise the monster that she sees. So she starts scratching the mirror, as if the rub out the grotesque, and she ends up scratching her face off, while thinking of the things she saw and things she didn't put a stop to. Yes, his 'feminism' (not sure if he was ever feminist), is quite grotesque, his women are perpetrators and victims, all at once. And no matter how masculine his gaze, that will always leave Manto as a "grey space in feminism" for me.