May 30, 2014

May I speak? Should I write? Dare I? : Phenomenal woman… might I be?

I am so tired of trying not to say the "wrong" things, and looking over my shoulder every time I utter a halfway sensible comment. Granted, Facebook conversations can be some of the least effective and the most dangerous in an era of infidel attention spans and relentless unabashed surveillance. But that does not have to mean that my right to say what matters to me - about the injustice, violence, cruelty and exploitation around me - is non-existent. It only means that I should stop being lazy and a "keyboard activist" - to borrow a friend's description of himself. And I realise that I have become the same. Yes, for a brief period in my life I was a full-time activist. But, in the last year and a half I have given up on activism. Or rather, on openly taking the side that I think is right. Which, actually, does not make anyone an activist. But, you know what, we are so terribly embattled today - and not just in India - that just expressing an opinion on everyday cultural or political issues feels like a tremendous achievement, like something that we should be appreciated for. Or given the way people are arrested across the world for speaking up against injustice, maybe we should be decorated for it (yeah, in creep the state and its institutions and symbols despite my be/itter judgement...).

As I realise now, giving up on expressing my opinions - and (at least, for me) action and activism begin with first forming and expressing opinions, triyng to understand an issue - is the equivalent of giving up on myself. On the passion that made me spend nine long maddening, frustrating, exhausting years trying to find the way I could best channel the anger, care and empathy aroused by others' suffering into critical, transformative work. And I have found it - not in activism, but in Sociological research. This is work I do extremely well, and work I love doing. However, this work - not unlike activism - provokes and encourages me to take stands, and live my life in accordance with my values and worldviews. Not just write or read about it, but to talk about it with others, to see how I and others can do things differently everyday so that it might weaken existing oppressive power relations and force open a tiny crack for resistance and change. Whether it is signing petitions, clamping down on consumption, holding up banners in a protest rally, or finding ways to transform Indian classrooms and education.

Perhaps the problem lies as much in my critical feminist stands or anti-racist, anti-capitalist worldviews as in the temptation of gaining quick reassurance, quick appreciation, a quick response to anything I write. Social networking websites could be the fastest way to trouble and the least effective in reaching a thinking audience. A more conservative route to writing and provoking thought seems more advisable. I have been trying not to write, not to speak, not to think. And the last is impossible, maddeningly impossible. But then, so is trying not to be afraid. I have been putting up and deleting posts on Facebook because with every passing day, every news report of rapes, killings and arrests, I have increasingly needed the reassurance of knowing that there are still some people out there who agree with what I think is right. Knowing that if someday my family or friends need protection or support someone might come forward, if not to offer a roof over our heads, then to furtively hold our hands. But, hard on the heels of that reassurance comes the fear of being caught with an opinion the mighty may not like. Thank god for the 'delete' option. Sigh of relief. And sneaking contempt for my terrified self that these days, is afraid of even keyboard activism. And off to bed trying not to think of riots, rapes, Dalit massacres, unconstitutional arrests and unlawful detentions and disappearances waiting to happen. In the country I call home. In the cities I loved growing up in, supported by the institutions I once fiercely believed existed as evidence of my country's proud resistance to colonial rule.

But I think I have to find the resolve to write: not on Facebook, not for personal reassurance or release, but to try and open up silenced dialogues, to scratch out sulky non-cooperation and deep-rooted prejudices and disconnect, to build solidarities, to build dreams and hopes of meaningful change, to dig up out of the rubble of destruction sites of reflection and resistance. Resistance that allows me and others to ask for justice, to ask for egalitarianism, to ask for peace, protection and dignity for all.

Maya Angelou died the day before yesterday. I have spent these two days trying to hide from her vivacious smile and her snapping eyes looking out of file photographs printed by every newswebsite worth its name; trying to shut out her deep gravelly voice and the sound of laughter and challenge in her words emanating from a zillion Youtube videos. Because I am not sure I can live up to my own ideals, or stand by what I think is right. And I want to. I terribly want to: despite the fear my half-Hindu, half-Muslim name has invoked in my heart of hearts since I was this high, despite the knowledge that the rights I support, the entitlements I believe in do not exist for those who have wielded the baton in post-independence India.

Will I overcome my fears? I can try. Would courage be a smart choice? Most likely, not. But if I still tried, then that is what would earn me some respect, make me Angelou's Phenomenal Woman. . . at least in my eyes.

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