Long after this dinner, I was still thinking of the above conversation. I couldn’t put down exactly what unsettled me so deeply, it was only when I started rereading Spivak’s essay ‘Can The Subaltern Speak?’ did the pieces fit together. At one point she writes, “The Coloniser constructs himself as he constructs the colony”; like did this couple. While imagining this alternative life, their present life was romanticised and their rural “would-have’s” were conspicuously ‘backward’, which is precisely why selling away that house didn’t pose a big problem to them. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only instance I’ve heard or experienced where more ‘developed’ or narratives of ‘progress’ take center stage. This week my friend put up a picture of me on Facebook dressed in traditional Indian clothes. A few people who know me from my blog and know this friend found it startling that someone who speaks so ‘freely’ and ‘liberally’ on many issues can choose to bend down tradition’s way. These are times when my ethnic identity or just wearing ‘ethnic’ dress becomes interchangeable with embodying tradition and essentialism; the alternative is to completely disengage with this identity and embrace being
‘universal’ Western. What’s the problem with e-showing and choosing to dapple in my ethnicity — out here as a Hindu woman of a certain caste and class privilege — you say? More often than not, I’m perceived as someone who doesn’t necessarily have a voice or someone who is touting for my country’s oft spoken about ‘traditionalism’. Anyone who knows me, even a little bit, knows about my strong distaste for patriarchy. Somehow in traditional clothes, the ‘me’ they saw was a different one, and immediately an inferior one. One acquaintance even wrote to me asking if everything was okay because as she put it, “This is so out of character for you!”. And on Facebook, a tiny argument broke out assessing if I’ve changed or not; while no one talks to me just about me. This is another advantage of being Othered — as DustyLadies, this is a common experience for us — words fly all about you, but you will never be able to catch them. Like the figure of Sati (the widow who has to put herself on her husband’s pyre and be immolated with him), there are only two readings of DustyLadies. Either some ‘progressive’ Westerner is telling us how terrible our lives are, because we follow certain traditions or our Male Counterparts who speak for us (like they did in the case of Sati) and almost always showcase tradition as a voluntary act. Meanwhile the woman on the pyre burns.
Voices of Dusty People — Dusty Ladies in particular — undergo a lot of censorship, self-imposed or otherwise, and in this case to dislocating such voices becomes a double bind, not only you strip them of any ethnicity, authenticity and value, they’re reduced to muffled words that easily slip into the ‘Ourselves Undressed’ bind that the West is waiting to devour. I’m not arguing that anyone who identifies themselves primarily through their ethnic persona is wrong but rather I am more than what I dress, how I speak. When you ‘other’ me, immediately cast me two steps below everyone else because of my difference, dislocated from my soil, all you will find is an empty shell of ‘me’.
1. See the brief history of colonisation circa start of time till present date.