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On Topic: literary fests, India's racism, Pinjra Tod and public apologies

News from home:

The controversy surrounding Vedanta’s sponsorship of the London edition of the Jaipur Literary Festival continues; the primary issue being the funding of a literary space (considered by many to be a free space) by a mining conglomerate with a chequered human rights record. Here is an open letter signed by writers, academics and others addressed to the speakers - to reconsider their participation and even consider a boycott. Several writers have expressed their reasons for participating in the event, despite knowledge of the sponsor, as have other public intellectuals who have emphasized the necessity to make visible the transgressions of Vedanta through a boycott, and to interrogate the public legitimacy the company has gained by sponsoring, endowing literary and cultural festivals.

Recently Masonda Ketada Olivier, a French tutor from Congo, was beaten to death in the capital, in what was obviously a racist attack. In a similar instance of violence in February, a Tanzanian girl was beaten, stripped and paraded naked by a mob in Bangalore. African envoys condemned these acts of racism and xenophobia by boycotting their participation in the government-organized Africa Day celebrations, as documented in this report. But they have taken back their objections after the Indian government was forced to do some damage control. Also, from the archives Joshua Muyiwa, a Nigerian-Indian journalist writes on experiencing racism in Bangalore.

Here is V Geetha’s response to Jayalalithaa’s victory in the recent assembly elections in Tamil Nadu:

Jayalalithaa’s victory is not as conclusive as it might appear. She has perfected a style of populism that is fundamentally cynical — and relies on what might win favour both in a political and “moral” sense. The cynicism is apparent in the much praised PDS handouts. The quality of the rice that is given free is invariably poor, there is a dearth of goods, especially cooking fuel, pulses, and it is never quite clear whether these are unavailable or have been diverted into the shadow economy. It is also evident in the freebies, which are procured at unbelievably low prices and are sold and resold by the recipients — the charmed circle of the party faithful affords an efficient patron-client setup that manages these transactions.

The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutional validity of criminal defamation in a recent ruling. Gautam Bhatia in his incisive response writes about why this sets a dangerous legal precedent for freedom of speech. Here is an excerpt:

In general, criminal defamation is disproportionate because it uses the criminal law to prosecute a wrong that is purely private in nature. A private wrong is one that is purely between the offender and her victim, and has no implications for the society at large. For example, if I fail to control my dog, and it bites you, then you may sue me for compensation in a civil court. Society, the state, and the criminal law have nothing to do with it. However, if I murder a person, then it is not just about one individual taking the life of another, but has ramifications for public peace, order and security. This is why murder is a criminal offence, involves a term in jail, and is prosecuted by the state.

 This article provides a feminist reading of the ruling, and looks at how criminalizing defamation would adversely impact women who want to speak up about sexual violence and harassment.

As a follow-up to Jisha’s story, here is an insightful commentary by J Devika about how the welfarist policies in Kerala have failed its marginal citizens. She writes of how the social exclusion faced by marginal subjects— lower caste, Dalit women, and the urban poor—is not assuaged by education or employment.

Finally, there's good news for the activists and supporters of the Pinjra Tod, a student activist group that has been contesting discriminatory rules faced by women in hostel accommodations provided by Delhi colleges. The Delhi commission for Women (DCW) has sent a notice to 23 registered universities in Delhi asking them to explain restrictions on mobility of female students. Members of Pinjra Tod react to the notice in this interview  on The Ladies Finger.

Justin Trudeau offered a formal apology in the Canadian parliament for the Komagata Maru incident that took place in 1914. Komagata Maru, a Japanese steamship carrying mostly Sikh immigrants was turned away from Canadian shores in 1914, due to fears of an impending “Hindu invasion”. Pramod Nayar, in this excellent article , looks at similar instances in the past, and delves into the ethics of formal, public apology, which is often used as a means to assuage collective guilt.

Revelation and recognition, therefore, are clearly the first stages in the offering of a public apology, as David Boyd has proposed. What is revealed, however, is what is already part of the historical record. But it is the admission of wrong-doing or culpability that characterises this particular revelation within the framework of the public apology. The country recognises its culpability in the act/event. However, we also recognise that such an admission must be read only as an admission of regret and not as either justification or defence. The public apology cannot, then, ever be offered in the sense of justifications or defence: it is assumed that a nation apologises because its actions which may have been justified or defensible then, are not so now. This is an interesting conundrum because a nation’s actions, which might be necessary or justified at their historical moment in that nation’s political views, may have to be apologised for at some point in the future. The public apology is therefore a communicative act that stretches from past to the future.


Meanwhile, away from home:

A saddening report on the death of a Pakistani transgender activist, caused by delay in treatment after being shot multiple times.

Elena Ferrante, probably the most famous and critically acclaimed of contemporary writers speaks about the Neapolitan quartet in this email interview with Nicola Lagioia, featured in The New Yorker. The entire correspondence will be published in Ferrante’s forthcoming book. And Elena Ferrante’s real identity remains a secret, still. Here is an except:

One learned very early to have the greatest concentration amid the greatest disruption. The idea that every “I” is largely made up of others and by the others wasn’t theoretical; it was a reality. To be alive meant to collide continually with the existence of others and to be collided with, the results being at times good-natured, at others aggressive, then again good-natured. The dead were brought into quarrels; people weren’t content to attack and insult the living—they naturally abused aunts, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents who were no longer in the world.

The word 'Dalit' will remain in Californian school textbooks, as will the history of caste discrimination, as per a recent verdict. This report provides us with a trajectory of the debate, and also tells us about what is at stake in these troubling efforts to whitewash certain unpalatable truths about India’s history. Here's a piece on why the verdict is a victory.

Thomas Pogge, a philosophy professor at Yale stands accused of sexually harassing a former student. Read this Buzzfeed essay on the ongoing investigation into Pogge’s behaviour.


Here’s news that should cheer you up:

This is a gem of a conversation among three leading Indian women poets, Meena Alexander, Priya Sarukkai Chabria (who has been published by Zubaan) and Arundhathi Subramaniam.

Ranjani Pandit has a singular vocation— that of catching unfaithful partners. In this piece she writes about her experience as a private eye, and being called a ‘love detective’.


On Topic: student politics, workers' protests, cyberspace misogyny, Ambedkar's legacy

And we're back!

Here’s what we have been reading:

We must begin with what has been termed the ‘Indian spring’—the student protests that began with slapping sedition charges on a few students from the Jawaharlal Nehru University. This has been seen as an attack on the autonomy of the university, indicative of a general sense of intolerance toward dissent and a spirit of enquiry that is the foundation of all education institutions. Not only have the students of JNU viewed as freeloaders being educated at the expense of the taxpayer, but also they have been publicly delegitimized as ‘immoral’. Amidst the cacophony, Janaki Nair, in this essay offers a rational and lucid analysis of the role of the public university in the current time:

“The perceived illegitimacy of “politics on the campus” is aimed not against the various shades of the Left, which, till recently, stood dangerously isolated and endangered in the surge towards the dominance of market forces, but against at least two strands of politics which have, at least in a university like JNU, been uniquely and visibly allied. These are the Ambedkarite forces and the feminists. Not only has the public university, for the first time in post-Independence history, enabled the participation of the widest range of its citizens in higher education, it has given them the resources to think their social worlds anew, in an institutional space that permits and encourages new structures and relationships”

…the university is being pushed away from being a full-blooded and lively institution, which encourages critical thinking, if necessary, of the state, and dreaming of new worlds, to being a mechanism for training people to fit the world they know and receive."

Here is a brilliant discussion among Saikat Majumdar, Arunava Sinha, Gita Hariharan and Anjum Hasan on the recent attacks on writers, and the general milieu of intolerance festering in the public sphere.

Towards the end of April Bangalore witnessed unprecedented protests by garment factory workers against changes to EPF norms. T.M Veeraraghav spotlights the disparities that undergird a city like Bangalore in his piece for The Hindu:

“These factories exist in clusters and hence workers in garment manufacturing units could mobilise themselves instantly. There are an estimated 5,00,000 people working in garment factories in the city. Predominantly women (estimated to be around 85 per cent) and for them, usually with salaries of around Rs. 6,500 a month, the few hundred rupees they save as PF is the only social security.”

…. “It is important to address the difference in the way PF is looked at by those surging with a booming corporate economy and workers, like those in garment factories — PF is not the only saving mechanism for the young manager or techie, for many it’s just a mandatory contribution that one has to make.”

Chandan Gowda, in his response, reads the protests as a challenge to the idea Bangalore being the ‘Silicon Valley of India’, and in a sense, argues that this is a means for garment workers to make their claims to the city visible:

“But these workers, and those involved in manual or non-glamorous work, are invisible in the dominant imaginations of Bangalore. If the pleasures of anonymity in urban areas are celebrated, the pain of invisibility there is less talked about.”

“The garment factory workers' protest was a confident and dignified announcement of their presence in Bangalore: they are a sizable workforce; their work matters to the city's economy; they could not be taken for granted; they need to be respected.”

Delta Meghwal a 17-year-old artist pursuing a degree in teaching was raped and consequently murdered by her physical training teacher. This report looks at attempts to pass of her rape as consensual sex. Sharanya Manivannan, in her article, questions the mainstream media’s silence about Delta’s death.

We found an older post from last year, and we think it must be read. Zenisha Gonsalves’ account of the treatment meted out to women by Indian female gynaecologists is perhaps the first step towards sensitizing medical students, and practicing doctors about the ethical codes they must practice with every patient. Conservatism, morality lessons and outright shaming of women goes against this code of civil, responsible behaviour. The best part is that the piece ends with a crowd-sourced list of progressive gynecologists across Indian cities. A much needed database indeed!

This longish essay in The Guardian looks at the rise of the doctor-writer, and how such autobiographical medical narratives are therapeutic to doctor and patient alike.

Monobina Gupta writes on the inherent sexism that undergirds news reporting in India. Kate Middleton’s so called ‘Marilyn moment’ made it to the front page of one of India’s well-known newspapers, and here is Gupta’s critique of such invasive reportage.

What happens when the pillars of access and anonymity that buttress cyberspace are used to perpetuate and air highly misogynist opinions? Stephen Marche offers a nuanced commentary on The Red Pill, an online community hosted by Reddit, which acts as a virtual space where ‘men can be men’:

“In the hours upon hours I spent wandering this online neighbourhood, I saw mostly feral boys wandering the digital ruins of exploded masculinity, howling their misery, concocting vast nonsense about women, and craving the tiniest crumb of self-confidence and fellow-feeling. The discussion threads are a mixed bag of rage and curiosity: screeds against feminists, advice on how to masturbate less, theories on why women fantasize about rape, descriptions of arguments with girlfriends, guides to going up to strangers on the street, and, most of all, workout schedules and diet regimes.”

Finally, R.K. Pachari has been fired from TERI, as reported here.

Mohammed Junaid writes on Rollie Mukherjee’s images of Kashmir.

On the occasion of Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, Ananya Vajpeyi looks at the attempts to appropriate his ideas both by the Hindu wing and the left. She looks at the afterlife of Ambedkar in our time and his increased visibility in the public sphere. In her analysis she poses crucial questions about the possibility of an alternative political philosophy:

“The novelty and the idealism of these mass (student) protests were clear for all to see; but as a participant in many of these events in Delhi, I can testify that they were also marked by uncertainty and a lack of direction: Who is leading this inchoate Indian Spring? Does it have a clear agenda? Will it develop into a real political alternative in the future? Can a student-led movement, which is by definition transient (like students who enter and pass through the university), acquire a staying power of its own, or will it be subsumed under the banners of existing political parties and held hostage to their failures and limitations?”

Tired of all male panels? The Ladies Finger spots a recent one for you. But here is an alternative.

How image driven is the publishing industry? To what extent does an author’s size determine whether she will be published? This article looks at the unacknowledged nexus between physical appearance and the chances of being published.

Meanwhile, solidarity pours in for the continuing the hunger strike by students of Jawaharlal Nehru University . Here is a report on professors showing solidarity by undertaking a one day fast.

The gruesome rape and murder of a young Dalit law student Jisha, has been ignored by the mainstream press. The Ladies Finger offers a roundup of the case.

Letter from the Publisher: the year that was and the year that is


Dear author, supporter, friend of Zubaan,

Another 365 days have gone by (and then another 31) and somehow, although the new year begins with just another day, there’s always a sense of new beginnings, new hopes, of looking back, and looking forward.

At Zubaan, we’ve had a busy year: we published some wonderful books, and reissued some of the best of our classics, our academic list grew from strength to strength, and our non fiction books covered a wide range of subjects. You’ll find a full list, with brief descriptions, of our 2015 titles below.

It’s also been a year of changes: in 2014 Preeti Gill, longtime editor at Zubaan and the brain behind our Northeast list, left to start a new and different professional life. In 2015, Anita Roy, who’s also been with Zubaan from the beginning, relocated to England to be with her parents, although she still continues to work with us, and is a virtual presence in the office every day through Skype.

Monetary constraints – all independent publishers are struggling, we’re no exception – meant that we were unable to bring in new people, and the existing Zubaan team, Shweta Vachani, Ishani Butalia, Meghna Singh bravely took on additional work, with support from our colleagues Satish Sharma, Elsy Paul, Santosh Singh and Usha, who keeps us well fed and ensures a regular (crucial) supply of coffee and tea.

Towards the end of 2015, we began to wind down our three year long project on Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia, a project supported by IDRC (International Development Research Centre), as a part of which 50 research papers were commissioned from across South Asia, and these will now be published in a set of volumes, the first of which came out in time for the Jaipur Literature Festival where we had an excellent and well attended (over 600 people!) discussion. The panel was called ‘Body of Evidence: Sexual Violence and the Search for Justice in South Asia’ and it was moderated by our co-coordinator of the project, Laxmi Murthy, with Meghna Guhathakurta from Bangladesh, Sumathy Sivamohan from Sri Lanka and Essar Batool from Kashmir as speakers.

As always, we organised a number of events – our regular Critical Conversations at Oxford Bookstore which featured two lively discussions, one on sexualities and the other on writing from the Northeast. In collaboration with the Heinrich Boll Stiftung, we held a number of discussions on Partition in Delhi, at Jindal University Sonepat, in Kolkata (along with Peaceworks, a unit of Seagull Books) and Ahmedabad (along with Ahmedabad University). Cultures of Peace, our annual festival of the Northeast (also in collaboration with the Heinrich Boll Stiftung) made its way this year to Guwahati (where we partnered with the North East Writers Forum) and Bangalore, and in Delhi. A unique partnership was with EUNIC, the European Union Institutes of Culture, with whose help we brought over eight writers from Europe for a one day programme where they were in conversation with Indian writers. Cross Border Conversations, the programme, will now translate into a book. Our Young Zubaan programmes included discussions and workshops in schools, in bookshops (Full Circle Bookshop, one of our favourite places) and more.

And there’s much to look forward to in this year: we’ll soon be publishing a book that traces the lives of the mothers of Manipur, the women who staged a naked protest outside Kangla Fort in Imphal; a riveting and moving account of her life as a Transgender activist by A. Revathi, a book on the mass rape of women in Kunan Poshpora in Kashmir entitled Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?, a volume that traces questions of impunity, of speech and silence in relation to sexual violence, by V. Geetha, and our South Asian volumes edited by Uma Chakravarti, Meghna Guhathakurta, Seira Tamang, Mandira Sharma, Neelam Hussain, Laxmi Murthy and Urvashi Butalia.

We’re lucky to be working with a set of people on whom we can rely for quick turnarounds of our work – these are our typesetters and our printers, who just never say no to our demands and who do their very best to meet our deadlines.

All this put together helps us to survive. But more than ever before, for independents, breaking even, making a profit, however small, is an issue. In this last year, we reorganised ourselves a bit, to enable us to work towards being sustainable. We set up a company, owned by the senior staff at Zubaan, that took over all the publishing activity, leaving the projects to the Zubaan Trust, so creating a hybrid structure. As well, we set up a unit called Track Changes, that takes on consultancies, that offers self publishing, that does design and print jobs professionally, to earn some revenue for Zubaan. Track Changes has been making slow progress, and we’re hoping that very soon it will start generating good business that will help Zubaan to survive. And here again, we’d like to ask for your help: if you know of people who want things edited, who need readers’ reports on manuscripts, who need editorial feedback, or writing skills, or design and production, do please send them our way. We need to work towards making Zubaan sustainable and self supporting, and this is one way of doing this: we’re happy to produce books, reports, take on writing assignments, etc.

We continue to be inspired and moved by the books our writers offer to us, the books that we go out and find; women are writing so much more, they’re doing exciting, joyful, serious, funny and just stunning books. The tragedy though is, that while the books are lovely, it seems to become more and more difficult to sell them. Brick and mortar bookshops have been closing, ebook sales have not picked up enough, so to survive, one has to find new ways of getting the good word out. It’s here that we’ve been helped by our authors and our friends, who put out the word about new books and we want to thank you all for this and to ask for your continued support. Do please review our books, talk about them, tweet about them, and get the word out. For our part, we’ll continue to publish against the grain, and to put in whatever efforts we can to reach the books to you.

We have a whole new set of ideas about how to do this, but we’d also like to engage you, our readers, our authors, our friends, in the exercise of thinking where you would like Zubaan to go in the future, and we plan to come back to you with this question very soon. All ideas, radical and otherwise, are welcome.

So do write and tell us what you think, give us your ideas about how we should develop, change, adapt, and of course that most important thing, survive!


An Interview with Dr. Bhalla: The physicist-turned-Partition-archivist

You may have heard of a little project called The 1947 Partition Archive. It started about five years ago, with a tiny part-time team that put all their waking hours into it. Since then, it has exploded in popularity. It now has about 250,000 likes on Facebook and a team that spans the globe. The Archive’s mission is to interview the people who lived through Partition and record their stories — before the entire first-hand memory of the lived experience of Partition is gone.

Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla is the founder of this mammoth endeavour. I first meet her at a Zubaan event about Partition: The Long Shadow. I’m kind of bowled over by her whole existence; she is a physicist with a doctorate, who quit a plum job at Berkeley to start the Archive. She’s also incredibly unassuming and down to earth. The next morning, we meet at Café Turtle in Khan Market — an interesting space to be talking about Partition, given that it is named after Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan — to embark on a long conversation about her life and work.

Dr. Bhalla grew up in and lives in the U.S., so I am curious about what brings her to Delhi. It turns out that she comes here three times a year for work. This time, she’s here because the Archive is moving into a new phase and formalising into a trust. She’s here to fundraise and get people on board.

However - surprise! - “I’m actually looking into moving here now and at least getting the Delhi part of our branch off the ground.” Whoa! How does she feel about that? “Well, you know, I was born in Delhi! I spent the first ten years of my life here. And I come here often enough so it doesn’t seem that foreign to me. But it’s changing a lot and every time I come it seems like a [different] country. It’s not the same place I left. The only thing is — I’m used to being completely independent in the U.S. That’s normal [for me], but in Delhi there are a lot of barriers to being that way. And you know you hear all these crazy stories about Delhi being so dangerous and this and that so — there’s that. But I’m actually excited about it.”

Dr. Guneeta Bhalla

Dr. Guneeta Bhalla

Her answer pretty much leads me straight my next question, about what it was like conducting Partition research as someone who doesn’t live in the Subcontinent. “The first interviews I ever conducted were in Faridkot, in Punjab, when I was visiting my family. And there I used to just switch into Punjabi mode — you know, were in the village, speaking Punjabi.” She thinks that the only difference between her and everyone else who had been listening to the same stories was that she, perhaps by virtue of being of the diaspora, of having been educated in the U.S., saw the value in recording the stories. “Maybe other people around me were not seeing [these stories] in the same way because maybe they were used to it.”

“I think also, as part of the diaspora, there’s always the identity issue. [Recording stories] was like reconnecting with my identity and understanding why things are the way they are now and how we ended up in the U.S. And it’s all related to Partition - why our families ended up over there.”

Her father’s family came from Lahore, and she has many stories from his side. I want to hear one, so she tells me: “The story goes that my grandfather didn’t want to leave Lahore. He thought all of this would blow over. All his friends had moved, had sold their properties. He so firmly believed that nothing would happen — it was his ancestral city, all our ancestors had lived there for who knows how many generations — that he stayed on till August 13, when his neighbour said that I’m taking your family (his sister, my grandmother, my dad and his siblings) to the other side because things are getting bad.” The neighbour in question, by the way, was Faiz Ahmed Faiz — Dr. Bhalla had always heard that her grandfather’s family lived next door to a poet, but she only recently found out who the poet actually was. The train her grandmother and her father were on turned out to be a military train, and the family saw many horrifying things on the way to India. They ended up in the Amritsar refugee camp, where her grandmother’s brother took them in. Dr. Bhalla remembers stories her grandmother told of going places in a Jeep and driving over dead bodies. She was flabbergasted to hear those stories — “[they] sounded completely crazy!” Meanwhile, in Lahore, the Pakistani military showed up at her grandfather’s residence on August 14. “They said this is now Pakistan, and you have to leave. So [my grandfather] called some trucks and filled them up with everything in the house and got ready to leave. But as he was leaving, [the military men] said all of this is now property of Pakistan and you have to leave on your own.” He begged them, Dr. Bhalla says, to let him keep a few things, and finally he was able to take some financial documents and an heirloom Guru Granth Sahib belonging to the family that was a few hundred years old. The family still has the blueprints of one of their two houses in Lahore, a house on Lake Road that has now been turned into a government building.

“My grandfather and grandmother were separated for a very long time — they didn’t know what had happened to my grandfather. Eventually they reunited in a refugee camp. My grandmother never really got over it. She had a lot of interesting habits later in life such as taking a few possessions with her wherever she went and being very possessive about them. They lost everything. They were very — I didn’t know this because I didn't grow up wealthy — but they were very wealthy and they lost everything during Partition… Resettlement was very challenging for them, and [my grandmother] never quite got used to this side.”

She’s going to Lahore next week, she tells me, for a “personal-slash-Archive visit”, for the very first time. She’s been asked to take the blueprints to whoever occupies the Lake Road building now, and to show them this pre-Partition memory. She sounds nervous yet anticipatory to visit her ancestral city. “I’m going to be visiting our family’s old house and seeing Lahore for the first time.”


What led her to start this project? Did she ever imagine it would take over her whole life?
This story, too, is about family. In 2010, her grandmother’s brother died. “I couldn’t sleep that whole week… It was just like a bout of madness — an intense and completely irrational desire to put everything aside and just do this without even looking at the future, making no plans.” Initially, she says, it was totally haphazard — the small team was just doing whatever it took to record as many people as possible. She couldn’t do it herself, of course, even though she worked every evening after her job and throughout the weekends — so people kept joining, and all of them had to be trained, and equipment had to be acquired for every member of the team. Cameras were borrowed, handed out, returned, and so on. “Our house turned into almost this weird little cafe, where all these people kept coming in to borrow all this equipment, and I was living with my partner at the time and he was just like what’s going on?!”

She had no intention of leaving her career as a physicist at all — but there was a moment when the project grew so big that a decision had to be made. In January 2013, Dr. Bhalla left her job and started managing the Archive full time. She volunteered at this for almost two years, living only on her savings. When her savings ran out, she says, it was one of the hardest periods in her life. “You don’t realise the insecurity that goes along with [not having money until you experience it].” The insecurity becomes a mindset that is hard to get out of.

Eventually, luckily, they got a couple of very generous donors in Silicon Valley who saw the value in their work and donated enough money for five salaries. That’s where the Archive is right now, but Dr. Bhalla wants to raise more money now and expand the scope of the project, and the team.

How did they find this funding? “It was completely crowdfunded — we would go to mosques, gurudwaras, mandirs [in the U.S.] and make announcements, ask for money… People whose interviews we recorded, some of them would just donate. We had this policy of not asking [interviewees] for money but a lot of them… ended up becoming our donors.” The donations they have gotten thus far have been largely unsolicited. They’ve only started their first major solicitation effort now. Yet people seem to want to donate. Funnily, “[t]he only reason we turned into a nonprofit/NGO is because somebody gave me a cheque and I didn’t know what to do with it. You know how much they gave me? It was… $194.70. And I said, what am I supposed to do with it? [The donors said] well, you should form an NGO and deposit it in the Bank.” For six months, the team held on to that check. They were a small group, they didn’t even have a name at that point. Then someone came up with the name 1947 Partition Archive, and they formally registered the organisation, and finally deposited that first donation.

This project is huge — in size and impact. No one has ever recorded the oral history of Partition on such a gigantic scale. Dr. Bhalla tells me that the Archive was inspired by a project that memorialized the trauma at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 by recording the survivors’ oral histories. There are also Holocaust museums around the world that do similar work. However, Partition — an event that is considered the largest mass migration in human history and shaped the Subcontinent as we know it today — has not been given that kind of attention — until now.


Dr. Bhalla thinks that being nurtured in Silicon Valley is really what gave the project the big push it needed. She had always told people about her long-standing desire to do this, but she never encountered the kind of excitement or interest that was really needed - even when she talked about it in India - until she went to Berkeley as a physics postdoc. “I was so obsessed with the idea I kept talking about it everywhere I went. I had just moved to California so I didn’t have any friends there yet. I just kept going to student clubs, and I started talking to people, and a lot of students were the ones who originally joined in.” The Archive, strangely enough, became part of a tech incubator. People were pretty confused, she says, about what to do with a nonprofit in a tech incubator because naturally they couldn’t accept venture capitalist money. Still, “it worked out well for us! Because we learned a lot of intersting ways of doing things that we would not have otherwise. We started out with just me, and we went to a team of sixteen people in that space.”

Berkeley was also the perfect place to start this project because it is one of the few universities in the world that has an Oral History Centre. The Archive team had a world of resources right at their doorstep, and that’s how physicist Dr. Bhalla ended up becoming well-versed in oral history. Her phsyics background, though, is not totally irrelevant to the Archive. “The thing with physics is that I’m trained to build efficient systems to gather data from nature. With the archive, I used the same mentality - this is going to sound cold and horrible,” she laughs, “ - to build a system to gather data efficiently from humans.” They also brought on board a lot of people who had different types of talent - in history, in the humanities. “But maybe it helps that I’m not from the humanities because I don’t have the same sort of ownership over the stories because I’m not doing research on them, I’m just gathering them and putting them out to the world.” She thinks that the fact that they are not actually collecting these stories for research makes the process a lot more efficient, and helps them accomplish their goal of archiving as many memories as they can as quickly as possible.


However, she does admit that the team struggles with not having enough time to think through everything - especially urgent ethical issues. “Putting [the stories] out to the world is a whole other story, and we realised quickly that that’s not something that we can take very lightly, and it has to be done very carefully…It’s something that requires skills and knowledge and understanding, and looking at pros and cons, understanding how the public will receive it. [We] just don’t want to cut any corners or do anything too quickly and make a mistake.” They’re trying to balance the desire to collect, collect, collect, as quickly as possible, with the need to pause and think. An aspect of this ethical struggle is representativeness and possible biases towards one’s own community. Initially - since Dr. Bhalla is Sikh and Indian - people were suspicious, thinking she would only gather Indian stories, or only Sikh stories. However, since they were careful to build a diverse team, people no longer have that suspicion, she says. But naturally, these things have to be thought about.

Another aspect is the ethics of collection. They were lucky to have the Oral History Centre, which helped them develop a methodology of collection. Again, the Archive team faces a struggle to balance the urgency of collecting the stories before they’re gone with the need to respect the people who are giving them their stories. I ask Dr. Bhalla about ownership. There’s a release form, which is in legal language, and story collectors also give interviewees a version in plain English or whichever language the interviewee speaks, and explain the contents. People have to wilfully sign over ownership of that particular recording to the Archive - and if they don’t, the Archive doesn’t collect that story. “In terms of ownership, they own their story forever. The only thing they are giving us ownership of is that particular recording… They also sign a form to donate their story to us. The form also says we can only do something educational with their stories as stated in our mission.” Laws in first-world countries like the U.S. and the U.K. are very strong, but similar laws don’t exist in India, and probably not in Pakistan or Bangladesh either, which Dr. Bhalla admits makes story collection much more difficult here.
They are now trying to work on a way to bring [interviewees] their digital files for free. “The files are way too big to just stick on a DVD or email - so we’re working on things like sending everyone their audio files for free. It’s a matter of resources…[earlier,] volunteers were putting in their own pocket money to do this for people until we just ran out. [We’re working on building] a better system to send people their recordings. It’s just that it’s happening so fast that a lot of these things are not happening in the way that they would if we were to sit down and do it properly. But we just don’t have the time; we’re trying to rush and focus on just recording. Which means that these things like sending people their recordings get left behind, and it does cause distress, we do realise that, but it’s not as bad as not recording their story at all. That’s how we’ve justified it. But we…realise we have the responsibility to work on that.”

Making the Archive sustainable as a nonprofit is also an ethical issue. What they do is, they ask for contributions from the individuals who want to use their stories for research, or for writing or filmmaking. For example, a human rights museum in Canada wanted to display some stories. The Archive requested that the licensing contribution be waived. Similarly, “We have authors and documentary filmmakers who are very interested - and if the authors are going to be making a profit - if they’re academic, it’s okay, they can use the stories - but if they’re going to be making a profit, a portion of their proceeds have to go back to fund the Archive. Because if they’re benefiting from these stories, if they’re making a profit, some of that profit has to go back into story collection. [Being a nonprofit means] fundamentally that whatever money comes in goes back into story collection, it never goes into our pockets. Our salaries are public information and they’re set in advance, and they’re actually poverty level, so none of us are getting rich or anything off of this.” She laughs. “And if anybody did make a lot of money it would never be us, it would always be the institution and then that institution would put that money back in the mission.” The nonprofit structure makes her more comfortable ethically with the work that the Archive is doing.

But how do they deal with making the trauma and the guilt of Partition stories public?
“Good question! So we actually haven’t made them public because we don’t know how. We’re forming a Task Force on how to institutionalise the memory of partition. These are the questions that will be answered by that group of people. We have a number of individuals are already on board from the U.S., and Urvashi [Butalia] from here. And we’re looking for more individuals.”

The little previews that they put up on their Facebook page, which is the only bit that goes public, “[is] created in collaboration with the interviewee. So the editor work[s] directly with the interviewee, and [goes] back and forth until they [are] happy with the clip. As a nonprofit we not only have the burden of doing that, but we also can do that - unlike a for-profit [where it] would be like we’re using too many resources.”

And how does the Archive balance perspectives of gender, caste, class and ethnicity? Partition played out very differently for different communities. Dr. Bhalla nods in agreement. That is certainly an issue they grapple with, especially considering that initially, the Archive only ended up collecting the stories of middle class and upper middle class people. That’s why, she says, they started their Story Scholars Program. “[These are] paid scholars who go out within their geographical and language regions to record stories, and they’re encouraged to record stories in every economic group. We have had stories come in from people who [are] tribal, or transgender. We’ve had stories come in from a lot of communities who are often underrepresented in the mainstream. And that was our way of trying to addressing this problems, to have paid scholars who went out to rural areas, to villages.”

Their goals? What do they want to do with the stories once they are collected?

“Our biggest goal is 10000 stories by 2017, which is the 70th anniversary [of Partition] and we are looking into devising some sort of public awareness campaign…while everybody’s alive we’re just focused on recording the stories. In the future the idea is to disseminate the stories, to engage the public - you know, what the Holocaust memorials do now. They have everything from K-12 education curricula, and…different projects, essay contests, tolerance education [to engage students]. This is just the beginning is how we see it. The first step…How do we bring the memory of partition to the world in a way that is educational?” They want the stories to have a positive effect on society, to prevent things like the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and 2002 in Gujarat, and also the recent Dadri lynching. “It’s almost like it’s become okay, and it’s become normal. And that’s not okay. Those things should not become the norm like they have. I hope this work will help guide hearts and minds in the right direction - and I think it can. We see that on our Facebook page every day. It’s amazing the interaction between Indians and Pakistanis that occurs.” Laughing, she says, “When I need inspiration, sometimes I go on our Facebook page and I’m like, yeah, we’re doing the right thing.”


It’s interesting - they have such a massive Facebook following, when the people who use Facebook are largely of an age demographic that is, in terms of generations, twice removed from Partition. What is it like having created a project that is about the fading memories of people who will be gone in a few years, but is also about the passion of younger people to record those memories? Their team, too, is very young. How do younger people, people of Dr. Bhalla’s generation, of my generation, relate to Partition? How do they contribute?

“What happened is - when I recorded stories, I found myself getting carried away. It was like watching a movie, except even more engaging. Because you really got carried away in this other person’s life.” And all of a sudden, she says, along with this, other things also happened in the process of hearing someone’s testimony. “There [is] this bond that [is created] with this [older] person, there [is] this incredible trust.” She says that she realised that young people in the old days used to experience this all the time with their grandparents, “but in our modern day and age, these interactions have become so non-existent that when we have them, we experience this sort of emotional transformation, and I felt more and more people my age needed this experience.” She told other people about these transformational experiences she was having. When they joined in the process of story collection, they experienced it and told other people about it. “It was such a beautiful way to connect with another human, to non judgmentally record their story; and both people come away transformed.”

She also finds the intergenerational heritage of Partition experiences among families displaced by Partition very interesting. In her and her team’s experiences of story collection, she says, the vast majority of people who lived through Partition did not harbor violent feelings towards other communities. They had bonds with members of other communities and did not consider them the Other. Of course, there was a lot of inter-community Partition violence. However, she says, this did not seem to lead to prejudices based on religion or community in that generation. And on the occasions that it did, “when we break it down, we find that the love is usually for people that they knew personally - and the hate is for - oh, the bad Hindus or the bad Muslims, just this group they don’t know.” She finds that the next generation, “our parents’ generation, didn’t experience the bonds with the Other. They only heard stories about the bad things the Other did. Because they didn’t experience the bond, they seem to harbour very strong communal feelings.” Finally, the young generation that is participating wholeheartedly in the project now is simply curious. “We seem to have a kind of curiosity - like what? Why do we hate them again?” In their interview process, they try to spend a lot of time on pre-Partition memory. They often see the surprise of family members listening to the interview - “I had no idea my grandmother had a Sikh friend. I had no idea that my grandfather’s best friend was a Muslim.”

I remember an ad I saw a few years ago, a Google ad. Another Silicon Valley connection. She knows what I’m referring to. This is an ad in which a young girl is talking to her grandfather in India, who recounts memories of living in what is now Pakistan, playing with his friend Yusuf whose father ran a halwai shop, from where they used to steal sweets. The girl later sits down at her computer, in order to - guess what - google “park with ancient gate in lahore”, which turns up the result, “Mochi Gate,” after which she googles “oldest sweet shop near Mochi gate.” She calls the number of Fazal Sweets near Mochi Darwaza, which is picked up by Yusuf’s grandson, who flies Yusuf to India. Cue the sniffles. Long digression, but it seems so relevant to me to think about how the internet makes such a project possible, is the perfect place for the curiosity of the third generation to find its answers. Of course, not all answers will be as delightful or easy to find as Fazal Sweets. Some answers will unearth terrible violence and trauma. But there is curiosity about the pain as well. Maybe that’s why the Partition Archive has taken off like it has on Facebook.

Dr. Bhalla sees this curiosity in her Story Scholars: “We have a digital meeting every month, and they’re very excited to meet each other across the border. I remember scholars in Pakistan wanted to see if they could come to India - they tried to get a visa but it didn’t work out. Even for me, I’m very curious, I wanna know what’s going on on the other side of the border.” And I find it interesting she says that - as someone who has collected all these stories, she still is curious about what is “going on on the other side”. The Internet can’t answer everything - there is something, some information, some felt experience, that cannot be conveyed, that still remains “on the other side”, and this curious generation feels its absence keenly.

But to say that this generation, this age, is totally removed from Partition, as though Partition was some event that happened and is now over, is also an act of erasure. Partition is still there, in the now. The fact is that Partition was what formed these three nations - Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. Whenever we identify ourselves as a citizen of any of these three nations, we reference and call upon the memory of Partition. And this is what I want to talk about next. Dr. Bhalla invokes these ideas when she says, “When you interview someone [and they talk about their pre-Partition life], they did not identify themselves as Pakistanis or Indians…Punjabis identified themselves as Punjabi, Bengalis as Bengalis. So the concept of India, the making of that identity, was a very conscious effort by the Nehru government. It didn’t just happen.”

And in the case of Bangladesh, this memory reverberated when East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Indeed, this memory reverberated (for India) in 2002, in 1984, during the Dadri lynching. Are those events, I ask, experienced as a repetition of Partition?

“We first interviewed people who first survived the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942. They walked for a month [to get back home]… some of these people were Punjabis, some Bengalis - and some walked all the way to West Punjab. And then a few years later they experienced Partition - and then they experienced the wars, if they were living near the border - and then they experienced 1984. I met somebody who experienced four migrations and is now living in the U.S. - and he doesn’t even trust the U.S.’s seeming security and stability. He [says] no, this could fall apart any second.” She continues, “And that was really really interesting to me, because I had never fathomed it ever falling apart. I was always raised with such an illusion of security and I was like, that’s not going to happen! And he was like nope - everything you think is not going to happen will happen and can happen.”

ON TOPIC: Matriliny, Ishq, and solidarity / save the climate, save the world

A statement by women’s groups, students’ groups, progressive groups and individuals, on the eve of December 16:

If we turn to cases filed under the new amendments to the law against sexual assault that were passed in the wake of the movement in December 2012, the scene is dismal. Be it the women in Muzaffarnagar, Bhagana or Bastar, or the women employees of Tehelka or TERI, they all await justice.

The Wire comes out with a compelling article on domestic labourers in the city, and access to toilets.

"Anchita Ghatak, one of the founders of Parichiti (an NGO that works with domestic workers in Kolkata), believes that rather than having been rooted out, casteist ideas about purity and pollution have instead been ‘modernised’ into a more socially-acceptable discourse about class, literacy, and hygiene – a pattern which has been observed in other parts of India. Whereas employers may have once explicitly invoked caste in order to bar domestic workers from using the toilet (as well as from other parts of the house), today they are more likely to claim that their employees ‘do not know how’ to use toilets and are ‘too uneducated’ to learn."

There is finally a verdict for Suzette Jordan's rape case.

Eli Saslow's moving story in The Washington Post about the physical and emotional challenges mass shooting survivor, Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, faces.

In this insightful piece, Surya P. Sethi talks about how the Paris Agreement is nothing more than a feel good statement that still doesn’t allow the bottom half of the world to achieve a certain level of development and tackle the impacts of climate change efficiently.

Have you seen Agents of Ishq yet? On the website of Parodevi Pictures’ new project to “give sex a good name,” Devdutt Pattanaik writes about the day his mother came home.

What ended Kerala's matrilineal society?

But as the scholar K. Saradamoni points out, "None of these theories appear to have taken note of the fact that matriliny offered an identity and security to women." Nair women always had the security of the homes they were born in throughout their lives and were not dependent on their husbands. Sexual freedom was also remarkable so that while polygamy was happily recognised in other parts of India, in Kerala women were allowed polyandry. Nair women could, if they wished, entertain more than one husband and, in the event of difficulties, were free to divorce without any social stigma. Widowhood was no catastrophic disaster and they were effectively at par with men when it came to sexual rights, with complete autonomy over their bodies.

What was the first sex question you asked Google? A lovely article on Medium explores the sex education '90s and '00s kids got through the internet.

On white debt: Eula Biss's article in the New York Times explores the debt white people owe to racism.

Once you’ve been living in a house for a while, you tend to begin to believe that it’s yours, even though you don’t own it yet. When those of us who are convinced of our own whiteness deny our debt, this may be an inevitable result of having lived for so long in a house bought on credit but never paid off. We ourselves have never owned slaves, we insist, and we never say the n-word. ‘‘It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill,’’ [Ta-Nehisi] Coates writes of Americans, ‘‘and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear.’’

An article in The Atlantic investigates how slavery is still alive and well. "There are now twice as many people enslaved in the world as there were in the 350 years of the transatlantic slave trade."

How did Balochistan become a part of Pakistan? Yogeena Veena uncovers the history of nation-building.

Two trailblazing scholars passed away this month: Fatima Mernissi and Benedict Anderson.

Women face trouble within and without homes; Chatura Rao (a Zubaan writer!) writes about abuse, women, and homelessness.

"The girls who come here,” Farida says, indicating with a tilt of her head, the women sitting in the porch, ”have quite some options. Urja [a shelter] helps you choose who you want to be. But many cling to the memory of that one love or marital relationship that went wrong, and refuse to move on. A man-woman relationship is just one aspect of a person’s life. More important is personal growth and developing an independent identity. Not as a woman in traditional roles, but as a human being."

"The idea that computers are for boys became a narrative." NPR writes on when women stopped coding.

In Chennai, Living Smile Vidya, a trans woman, has opened her home to other young transpeople.

In October, the same month when her biopic was released (can we pause for coolness), Vidya wrote at length about one of the hardest aspects of her life. Finding a house to live in. Landlords who say no outright, passive-aggressive ones, ones who hide behind ‘this is a decent neighbourhood’, greedy ones. Transpeople spend half their lives looking for a place to live, she wrote. It didn’t matter if you were well-known, accomplished, frequently seen as a treasure of the arts world. Landlords have a way of grinding you down to ‘unsuitable’.

A beautiful piece in Time Magazine on a possible shift in rape culture we are witnessing in the wake of #solidaritywithstoya:

What was astonishing was not the courage it doubtless took for Stoya to type those 55 words and hit send — knowing that she would be accused of lying and attention-seeking, knowing the number of people who would claim that as a sex worker, she cannot expect to claim rape and be believed. What was astonishing, though, what had my heart between my teeth, was the number of people who did the opposite. Even before more former partners and colleagues of Deen came forward with more accusations of rape and violence, major porn studios dropped him as a performer, and many outlets publishing his work and writing cut ties. The hashtag #solidaritywithsoya trended around the world.




Sunday was Delhi Queer Pride! Did you go?


Aanchal Tuli reports on a discussion about Fire, Deepa Mehta’s alternately celebrated and reviled movie:

“In a clip presented at the session, we were reminded of how posters were torn and theatres damaged by Shiv Sena activists, who thought the movie was against Bhartiya Sanskriti. During their session, the director remembered how she was told that there were 'no lesbians in India' and that she should be banned for introducing this 'western devil' in the country…we concluded that a film like Fire would never have seen the light of the day had it been made in 2015."


Paromita Vohra says some brilliant things about selfies, the gaze, and the multiple meanings of our actions.

“Recently, I got into a small debate online about whether men take more selfies or women do. Research based on data from Selfiecity indicated that women take more selfies. A more recent survey indicates men might have overtaken women…The question may be: why does it matter?…What is this anxiety rooted in?”


The Ladies Finger blessed us this week with this hilarious list of things to avoid saying as a dude in a feminist space: “As a feminist man I will acknowledge my privilege, like the PRIVILEGE of being surrounded by these pretty women.” (Who hasn’t heard some douchebag say this at least once?!)


On these online forums, Indians seeking maids can be classist, casteist, and generally disgusting with exceptional candour. “BookMyBai was in the news this month for their problematic ad saying, “Diamonds are useless. Gift your wife a maid.” Terrifyingly, that’s an ad for a product, not a service.”


On the intolerance debate:

  • Arundhati Roy says that intolerance is not an accurate description for the violence visited upon minorities in India, and argues that the current government promotes Brahmanism. The ABVP takes offence, calling her words anti-national, anti-Indian-Army, and pro-Pakistan.
  • Ratna Kapur in The Wire argues that tolerance in an inadequate concept: “Tolerance operates as a gatekeeper, policing the boundaries and drawing a line between those we like and those we do not like. It does not offer any vision of transformation and becomes a substitute for justice.”


Arundhati Roy, John Cusack, Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg talk about the rise of the surveillance state:

“I was glad to see that when Snowden made his debut on Twitter…he said, “I used to work for the government. Now I work for the public.” Implicit in that sentence is the belief that the government does not work for the public. That’s the beginning of a subversive and inconvenient conversation. By “the government”, of course, he means the US government, his former employer. But who does he mean by “the public”? The US public? Which part of the US public? He’ll have to decide as he goes along. In democracies, the line between an elected government and “the public” is never all that clear. The elite is usually fused with the government pretty seamlessly. Viewed from an international perspective, if there really is such a thing as “the US public”, it’s a very privileged public indeed. The only “public” I know is a maddeningly tricky labyrinth.”


Why science fiction matters to the postcolony:

“But Dune is more than a direct allegory for the tragic unfolding of history. It recasts the Middle East and North Africa and its peoples into a new, and perhaps truer, image of themselves; an image that can only be appreciated through the experience of reading. Yes, events have not unfolded as triumphantly [for MENA] as they do for the Fremen. But the literature of science fiction and fantasy expresses the irrationality with which the real world violently comes into being. It draws out the metaphors with which reality is made.”


Katha Pollitt’s take on the shooting at a women’s health clinic in Colorado - “Abortion opponents are at the forefront of a wider effort to punish poor women and attack social services.”


Jason Hickel says, enough of aid - let’s talk reparations for colonialism.

“It is tempting to see [colonialism] as just a list of crimes, but it is much more than that. These snippets hint at the contours of a world economic system that was designed over hundreds of years to enrich a small portion of humanity at the expense of the vast majority…This history makes the narrative of international development seem a bit absurd, and even outright false. Frankie Boyle got it right: “Even our charity is essentially patronising. Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day. Give him a fishing rod and he can feed himself. Alternatively, don’t poison the fishing waters, abduct his great-grandparents into slavery, then turn up 400 years later on your gap year talking a lot of shite about fish.”


In the wake of the death of Laquan McDonald at the hands of yet another police officer, Black Americans stage an economic boycott of Black Friday, the U.S.’s annual post-Thanksgiving shopping extravaganza, vowing to give #NotOneDime to the capitalist state.


In her new video 'Borders', M.I.A. fuses biography with art and politics to create compelling commentary on refugees - commentary not prompted by the current European 'crisis', but by the invisibility of other, past, forgotten 'crises'. Sinthujan Varatharajah writes:
"As a Tamil woman and refugee, M.I.A. has been subject to racist and sexist discourses on refugees before they became public grounds of debate. She today applies these tropes as a political strategy to subvert mainstream conceptions on refugees, borders and security regimes. Shorthanded accusations of exploitation made by some, specifically people of color with no refugee background, divorce her from the tremendous work she has done for her own refugee community - and beyond to support refugee advocacy over years. MIA has always articulated her art and politics from the position of a former refugee, a position not many of her critics can claim for themselves. Her "refugee-dom" has always been paramount to her career and has been reflected in her multimedia art long before her most recent video. It was never a trend or bandwagon she jumped upon, but one that was created and picked upon by others: non-refugees."


Fatima Bhutto in Granta writes about the pleasure and the labour of the kitchen - her “other thing”, when she’s not writing:

“I love to cook. It’s joyous. I love the creating and the sharing. I think of how it connects mood and sentiment, occasion and celebration. But cooking has always been a luxury to me, all indulgence and praise. I never worked seriously on it, never so thanklessly. No one who comes into the Delaunay, or any other restaurant for breakfast, however well-meaning, thinks to thank the tourier. No compliments are sent to the chef, who has given up his night and also his day, when he returns home to sleep through the afternoon.”


PS: Join us for this Saturday for a day of conversations between European and Indian women writers! Curated by Zubaan with support from EUNIC India, this event will feature, amongst others, Annie Zaidi, Paromita Vohra, Bee Rowlatt, Espido Freire, Mrinal Pande. What else are you doing with your Saturday anyway?


A Rag Doll After My Heart


Rag Doll was originally a Marathi book, called Maajhi Chindhyanchi Bahuli. It was written by Anuradha Vaidya, a prolific feminist writer of Marathi, and is about, as Vaidya states in her Introduction, “the relationship between a mother and daughter who are not linked by blood or birth…[it is also about how] social criticism, mockery, distrust, condescension and disapproval become the bane of the relationship.”

Anuradha Vaidya

Anuradha Vaidya

Vaidya’s niece, Shruti Nargundkar, has translated this work into English. She mentions in her own introduction (playfully called “My Gambit”) that her love for the Marathi language emerged at a very early age from reading her aunt’s works, in which she saw reflections of her “family legends and stories, family traits, (her) family’s own brand of humour”. She tells me a little bit of the history of Vaidya’s writing over e-mail: as a little girl and a very young housewife, Vaidya started writing poems for herself in a notebook. Slowly, her work grew to be part of a wave of women’s writing aiming to erase the image of women as exploited, hapless creatures; inspiring women to learn to live as human beings in the present, without being oppressed by history or fearing for the future. Her distinctly feminist voice is respectful of the simpleminded traditions in which it is based. She has written across genres, and her “poetic expression blended with her talent for story telling, and a poetic novella was born.” With “fond faith”, Vaidya trusted Nargundkar to translate her work.

a short introduction to our translator:

Shruti Nargundkar is an education innovator, entrepreneur, teacher and an instructional designer. She and her husband founded and ran a large vocational training institute in Melbourne for nearly a decade until 2012. Since then, Shruti offers consulting services to the Australian vocational training and education sector through her firm Nextext. A woman with wide interests, Shruti is a trained Hindustani Classical singer and loves to cook and feed people. She writes a food and family memories blog, which can be accessed at http://shrutinargundkar.blogspot.com.au

Shruti lives in Melbourne with her husband and two daughters, and their 14-year-old kitten-at-heart cat, Shadow.

the process of translation:

Shruti Nargundkar

Shruti Nargundkar

Translation was a difficult process at times - Nargundkar had to maintain the rhythm of natural speech or narration. At times, even when she chanced upon the perfect words, she had to let them go, because they rhymed a bit too much, or successive lines had an exact syllable count, which would have ruined the flow. “It was very hard to turn these away.” Getting the specific rhythms of Marathi to translate to English was also really difficult. “Some times words just fell into place, but often I was confounded at the end of a line or a stanza – how do I punctuate this? Is this poetry or not? And if it is, does it…take the story forward?”

Certain meanings were also at risk of being lost. Marathi figures of speech, imagery, and words do not have equivalents in English. “[Translation] struggles to make sense outside [cultural and geographical] boundaries.” Before actually embarking on the project, Nargundkar had not thought about the challenges - she was consumed with wanting to begin the project. “I soon realised that what I thought was a matter of reading and writing to establish linguistic and semantic equivalence was actually a challenge on the lexical, idiomatic and syntactic level. How does one convey the cultural tone of “footprints etching gopadma”; or what word in English could exactly convey the exact idiomatic import of the word “pallav”?” Explaining every single idiom would have required endless footnotes.

She ended up using three broad strategies in translating. Sometimes, she translated verbatim, used words in their original forms and provided annotations. If this could not be done - or the lines compelled her to do something different - she created some new words or phrases to maintain the flow and mood. “If “doodh bhaat” signified baby food, I had to invent the phrase “mash and milk” in order to stay within the realms of poetry."

In the original, Nargundkar says, the mother offered a lot of emotional cues that made it easy for her to understand what exactly the feeling was that she had to translate. However, the daughter offered relatively fewer cues of this nature - with the exception of her angst at being adopted. Nargundkar decided to interpret the silence as its own form of communication.

In the end, even though Nargundkar has tried her best to retain the Marathi-ness of the story - even the untranslatable - the reader is also a significant part of the process of translation. “[Rag Doll] would need [its] readers to try and treat English as only as a medium of engagement with the narrative, and be accepting of the unusual or the unfamiliar.”

on the intergenerational heritage of women’s stories:

Her aunt’s original novella was translated into Hindi and won a major award for translation. However, how did the fact that she was translating a story that belonged to a member of her family, indeed, to a family tradition specific to women (these kinds of traditions being common to many oral storytelling cultures), make her translation different?

Nargundkar acknowledges that Marathi has a very rich oral tradition of songs that women sing while doing their daily chores or on special occasions. These songs often tell stories of women’s lives and are replete with colourful vernacular and domestic imagery. Vaidya drew from this tradition - however, she also experimented with the tradition and stepped out of its traditional form by “us[ing] verse in a…ballad like fashion to tell a whole life story…[and by using the] sustained imagery of life as a game played on the worldly board.” As a reader of her aunt’s work, Nargundkar perceives the usage of verse adding a dramatic, conversational tenor to the tale. So while the heritage of this familial writing and storytelling culture is traditional in places, it is also unorthodox in places.

She believes that her English translation is more privileged, because she has a cultural and familial inheritance from her aunt’s line of strong willed women who took charge of their own lives. “The shared codes and sentiments made it easy for me to understand and communicate how the mother in the narrative defies what the world thinks is her lot.”

why an english translation?

“I hope to take this tale from its very local setting to a wide global readership, and the English translation will allow this. There is a new and growing interest in international adoption, and for that matter, in surrogacy, to create or grow a family, or to provide homes to children that have been orphaned by disease, war, and poverty.” She hopes that the message this book gives - that powerful love can be found in adoptive relationships despite the stigma of adoption whereby adoptive families like the one in Rag Doll “are never allowed to forget that they are not of the same blood in the worldly sense” - will help readers grappling with such issues.


how the book came to be illustrated:

Rag Doll became an illustrated book quite organically. Says Urvashi Butalia, Zubaan founder: “[Y]ou know, poetry lends itself so well to the visual, especially narrative poetry like this. The more we worked on Rag Doll…the more we sort of began to see it visually…it was just in one of those conversations in the office - probably a lunchtime conversation - that the idea of visualising the narrative, then thinking of Shruti as someone who could do it - somehow came about and once we'd articulated it, it seemed just so right.”

Shruti Shyam

Shruti Shyam

The Shruti she talks about here is not the translator, but graphic designer Shruti Shyam, who was brought in to be the illustrator. Shyam had been working with Zubaan on various other projects, and the editors loved her style. Ishani, editor of Young Zubaan, says “I thought it would be the kind of challenge that she'd rise to.” They checked with Shruti Nargundkar and Anuradha Vaidya, both of whom loved the idea, and once the illustrations and text were put together, “they seemed a perfect kind of fit."

a short introduction to our illustrator:

Shruti Shyam, 24, is a graphic designer, artist and Ultimate Frisbee enthusiast, currently studying at the Savannah College of Art and Design. When she isn't busy illustrating and designing book covers, she can be found exploring the streets of Savannah on her trusty bike, trying to get lost.

the process of illustration:

When Shyam first read the poems, she was struck by the raw emotion that came through. She knew she wanted to create black-and-white illustrations, to express visually the darkness in the poems. She tried a vector variation of the illustrations, but in the end, the simplicity and evocativeness of hand-drawn, black-and-white illustrations won out.

While all this was happening, Urvashi came across something interesting - Tsunamika dolls. A member of Dastkar brought a bunch of these dolls to the office, which were then distributed to everyone. Tsunamika dolls were a project of Auroville, which was aiming for a kind of community therapy through creative work. Afflicted fisherwomen created the dolls with fabric left over from Upasana Design Studio’s products, to overcome the trauma of the tsunami of 2006 through creative work.

When Shyam saw the dolls, she had a burst of inspiration: “…these dolls were the perfect representation of the rag doll in the story - stark, silent and unmoving, yet seemingly able to convey a thousand emotions…[the usage of a] simple doll [would create a] sharp contrast between the complexities of the mother's emotions and the…blank faced doll.”

Shyam decided to share what she saw in her mind while reading the book with the readers. Her illustrations would subtly cue the reader to details that were not there, in a literal way, in the novella, but instead were evoked in the mind of a reader - herself. These details pointed to the processes of reading and illustrating - which were themselves other kinds of translations that a work of literature goes through.

“Details such as the way the mother ties her sari and the changing patterns on her daughter's clothing give the reader certain details…[about] where they are from and how well the mother cares for her daughter…that may not be a literal translation of the text.” What’s fun for her about being an illustrator for a book is the creative freedom to interpret the text. To share her interpretation with readers, she says, is a huge honour.

a picture book for grown-ups:

We are curious about what Shyam thinks of the idea of an illustrated book for adults. She admits, “It is a bit of a challenge to steer away from the assumption that a picture book, or a book with illustrations is only aimed at children…[j]ust because a book is illustrated, it does not mean it is a children’s book. I may not be speaking for every adult out there, but I certainly enjoy looking at interesting visuals alongside large chunks of text.” Even through e-mail, I can sense her animation about the topic of who illustrations are for.

Tsunamika dolls. Image by Upasana Design.

Illustrations, she says, generally give readers visual cues as to what to expect out of the story - whether they are direct or abstract. They are also evocative of feelings, which is one of the important things she hopes her illustrations will accomplish for this book, which is very much about emotions.

Shyam believes that children are incredibly intuitive and see things in ways that adults cannot; also, illustrations make things easier to understand for people new to reading. That’s probably why children love illustrations.

However, illustrations also speak for themselves, and there are so many different types of illustrated books out there. “There are picture books for young children, which aid learning processes, illustrated graphic novels which take the reader through the story one panel at a time, and even illustrated books that tell a story with no words at all…[illustrations are] just such interesting thing[s] to look at…you can form your own interpretation!”

She seems to be saying that illustrations are not necessarily a replacement for words - although sometimes, of course, they can and must be - but sometimes, they are an accompaniment for words that provide the reader (no matter their age) a different medium through which to experience the story, and sometimes, they are the story.

The Deoliwallahs: A conversation with Yin Marsh and Joy Ma

On Friday, October 9th, Yin Marsh - author of the upcoming Zubaan book Doing Time With Nehru - visited the Zubaan office with her friend Joy Ma. Yin and Joy are part of a community of Chinese immigrants who had settled in India. Starting in 1962, about 2,000 members of this community were incarcerated in an internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, as a State reaction to the Sino-Indian Border War. Though the conflict only lasted one month, many internees were kept in the camp for up to four and a half years after they were first interned. Doing Time With Nehru is about Marsh’s experience of being incarcerated in Deoli when she was a young child.

In the camp, they had minimal access to basic amenities like electricity, food, etc. There was no schooling. Many people were separated from their families in the camp and after being released. Some families were new immigrants, with only a couple of generations settled in India; however, some had come as early as 1780, and a community of labourers arrived in the 1800s to work on tea plantations. So when many Chinese-Indians were forcibly deported to China, it was a land some had never even seen. Some Chinese Indians were citizens; they had their citizenships taken away. A community that, as Payal Banerjee says in her Introduction, had a “long and enmeshed socio-cultural belonging” in India, was almost overnight cast as foreign, “alien”, and dangerous in the national imagination.

After the internees were released, they found that their property and land had been confiscated by the State; they were forced to go and make a home in unknown parts of the country, starting with nothing. However, in their new homes, things did not go back to how they were before. Social and institutional discrimination against the Chinese-Indians was now rampant.

Many members of this community eventually left India, finding life too difficult in the country they had once called home to continue living there. This is also the case for Marsh and Ma. Both of them now live in the U.S.

They are back now - along with two other ex-internees, Steven Wen and Michael Cheng - “to seek closure, to ask for an apology from the Indian government, to talk about a history that has gone unacknowledged for so long” (scroll.in). They call themselves “The Deoliwallahs” and recently got a campaign partially funded on Indiegogo, called “Voices of Deoli”. They wanted to raise financial support for travel to India, and also for a new documentary film being made by a supporter of the community - Rafeeq Ellias - in order to spread awareness of a story that was systematically suppressed from Indian national memory, and therefore, one that very few (especially in the new generation) had heard. The documentary eventually did get made, and was recently screened at the IIC in Delhi. It is called Beyond Barbed Wires: A Distant Dawn.


Yin Marsh (left) and Joy Ma at the Zubaan office in Shahpur Jat October 2015

Yin Marsh (left) and Joy Ma at the Zubaan office in Shahpur Jat
October 2015


An Interview

I ask Marsh and Ma how they found the ex-internee community.  Marsh says that for her, she completely lost touch for a while - until 2012. She didn’t really engage with the past before that. She was so angry at India that she completely rejected that part of her history. Marsh’s daughter, Nicole Marsh, writes in the Foreword to the memoir that although occasionally her mother would talk of her past, there was no real exploration of those memories within her family. However, when she was in college, she studied oral history, and that made curious about her own family’s history - specifically her mother’s history. Eventually, the conversations between Nicole and Yin led to the idea for a memoir.

The memoir kickstarted things. When it was published, members of the community started reaching out to Marsh. She says that once Nikki (as Nicole is fondly called) met a travel agent. She told her mother that the travel agent made her think of her. When Marsh asked why, Nicole said that the man grew up in Darjeeling and his uncle was interned. Nicole invited him to the book launch, where he bought a book and sent it to his uncle. It turned out that the uncle was someone Yin Marsh knew - a man named Ming Tung Hsueh. The travel agent was also in touch with a writer named Kwai Li, who wasn’t an internee but had written about life in Calcutta, and told her about Marsh’s memoir. Li got in touch with Marsh and asked her if they could meet. When they met, she gave Marsh Joy Ma’s business card, who Li was supposed to meet on her trip to San Francisco but couldn’t. And that was how Ma and Marsh ended up meeting.

For Ma, her family always talked about that part of their history. As a result, they were in touch with many of the ex-internees, and they knew a lot of people. However, everyone was busy with work and their own lives. Marsh’s book, though, “really led to the resurgence of something - everybody was ready to do something more.” This was the chain of events that led to the Voices of Deoli movement.

Joy Ma is a very interesting ex-internee, because she was born in the camp. Her mother was pregnant when the family got arrested. Therefore, she is the youngest member of that community. Marsh, too, was young when she was interned - she was thirteen, just transitioning into adolescence. What was it like, being that young and being incarcerated by the State?

“As a teenager, I was just so angry,” remembers Marsh. “I was really mad when I got away from it. I had lost everything, I had lost my identity. All of a sudden I wasn’t Indian anymore, I didn’t know what I was.” Her parents never emphasised their Chinese identity that much - and besides, she was in boarding school most of the time. She didn’t feel Chinese. But, according to the government, nor was she Indian.

Her brother - Bobby - who was around eight at the time, loved the camp, strangely enough. He had a “grand old time,” says Marsh, smiling. He thought they were on a camping trip. He would have stayed there another two months.

Joy Ma reflects, “When you're a teen so many things are going on. One thing I think made them so angry was being treated like prisoners. In the beginning they weren’t angry. Anger came later. In the beginning there was guilt, and shame, and humiliation.” And fear, Marsh adds. What had they done wrong?

The anger was after they were released. They weren’t allowed to go home, they lost everything, their families were split up. At an age when identity and a sense of belonging was paramount, these very things were stripped away from Marsh. “For years I didn’t want anything to do with India, with the food, or anything,” Marsh reminisces. “It was just a total rejection [of India],” adds Ma.

Ma’s parents tried to shelter their new baby from the fear and the deprivation of the camp, and showered her with love and warmth. Her brothers - one a teen, and one eight - had lived a comfortable life before the camp, but at Deoli they were made to do chores - not only to help out their mother, but also to keep them busy. There were no schools in Deoli.

Catching up to school was hard after they were released. Ma, who joined Class One then, didn’t have much to catch up on, but her brothers had great difficulty getting admission to school. Not only was post-war society now xenophobic towards Chinese-Indians, but they had also missed a significant amount of schooling. There was one volunteer who tried to teach children in Deoli, and parents tried to homeschool their kids, but it wasn't the same as going to school. Ma’s mother went around begging priests at missionary schools to take her sons. They finally got into St. Xaviers, which the Ma family was very grateful for. But it took “some clawing” for Ma’s brothers to get back to the standard. Michael Cheng, one of their fellow Deoliwallahs, has a “real stigma” because he was never able to catch up. He lost three really important years in the camp.

Both Ma and Marsh feel like the schools, except for a handful, were not at all sympathetic to them. “Missionary schools, for all their preaching and saying come to me whenever you have trouble, and then when you had trouble, they turned away,” says Marsh. She has very negative memories of her Loreto Convent years. Ma adds that her mother never sent her to Chinese school after the camp. It was just too hard, trying to catch up at regular school; and also, the released families simply couldn’t afford any extras.

It was just hard to resettle after the camp. Ma’s original home was in Alipurduar in North Bengal, but her family was released into Calcutta. “My dad, he just loved everything in his old home and he tried his best for us to go back. All the time we were staying in Calcutta, he was trying to figure out to go back, but we were never allowed to go back - and he was questioning, why? And never got an answer.” Her mother would have nightmares of the barbed wire and wake up crying.

Before the war, Ma says, “It was a Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai time.” Indian people felt warmly towards the Chinese; diplomatic relations were great. “But the change after the war - it was almost…overnight.” After her family’s release, she ended up going to Delhi University. Although the level of sexualised racism towards women who look Chinese, or Tibetan, or Northeastern, were not even close to what they are today, she says, she remembers getting racial slurs yelled at her by boys on the streets when she was in high school. That’s why she started thinking that India was not a permanent home for her - she did not want to live in a place where people were allowed to say such things to her face. She went to New York for her Master’s (she’s a journalist). “But you know, they say that in the United States too…”

“United States is racist too,” affirms Marsh.

The Deoliwallahs are back to ask the Indian State for an acknowledgment and an apology for what happened to them. Marsh outlines their reasons for why they want an official, public apology: “If the Indian government does apologise it would significantly begin the process of healing and closure…the Chinese community will begin to trust the government again, and that at the same time, the local Indian community will start looking at Chinese Indians, not as enemies, but as fellow citizens who were wrongly treated.”

Doing Time with Nehru cover




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Infiltrating the master's house: why is Fifty Shades so popular?

Two things happened recently that made me think about Fifty Shades of Grey.

E. L. James released another book, called Grey, which is apparently written from Christian Grey’s perspective, and last month I came across an essay on Guernica on the original novel. And it struck me that although it has been ages since Fifty Shades and its sequels came out, I don’t think I have ever had a week go by without an article, ad, listicle or some paragraph tucked away in an article about it. Earlier this year when the film came out, intervals of life without Fifty Shades shortened considerably, and for a while it was hard to read news online without having ad columns pop up on the sides with Jamie Dornan’s constipated sexy-face in a thematically grey suit. While I do not appreciate the broad strokes of vitriol that are normally directed at Fifty Shades for reasons that form this essay, I do find it a little strange that it is so consistently visible, even though I am an Indian woman, writing this in Delhi, and the social milieu that I inhabit – newly (and in this case barely) employed hipster graduates with little tolerance for romantic fiction – is as far from the target audience of the novel as possible. It turns up everywhere: bookshops, airports, railway stations, pavement stalls, not to mention Facebook and Twitter.

It was still surprising, even jarring, to come across the book on Guernica Magazine. Guernica is where I have found gems over the years: pieces like Mirza Waheed’s ‘The Torturable Class’ (my introduction to Kashmiri politics) and interviews with people like Habibe Jafarian and Hayv Kahraman. I trust it to come up with interesting, well-crafted, occasionally life-altering prose.  I should add that this essay on Fifty Shades, by Aya de Leon, was also political. It went deep into the origins of E. L. James, born Erika Mitchell, and speculated about the effect of Pinochet’s dictatorship on her Chilean immigrant childhood. In a nutshell this was the argument: ‘While some feminists have argued that Fifty Shades is a tale of domestic abuse wrapped up as a love story, it can also be understood as a romanticized allegory of Pinochet’s dictatorship.’

Once I got over my surprise, it struck me that my initial reaction is exactly the kind of problematic relationship most feminists and students of literature have with Fifty Shades of Grey and its immediate predecessor Twilight. We cringe, we do not deign to read; at best, after reading a few pages – which are obviously awful – we throw our arms up. We agonize over the fact that people like these books. The Fifty Shades series has three books in total, and Twilight four. These are books of medium to heavy thickness, and it continues to surprise/worry many of us that they are devoured with appetite and shown hysterical devotion by a large number of people. By mid-2014 it had already sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. I have no idea what the figures are now, after the film. In my case it manifested most recently in incredulity that Guernica should publish an essay on Fifty Shades. I have seen the same dismissal in many published pieces, especially those written by respectable, well-known feminists on respectable, well-known platforms. Most of these authors wear with pride the fact they have read either a few pages or, at best, the entirety of only the first book of either series. They also wear with pride the fact that they do not understand its appeal, as if this incomprehension is also a protection against accidental stupidity, or internalized misogyny, with which every adoring reader is charged.

To clarify a few points here: I have no doubt that both Twilight and Fifty Shades are extremely violent and misogynist. I have read all the books in both series. They are both about young, naive and vulnerable women who enter into highly unequal and dangerous relationships with men who are (in one case supernaturally) older and stronger than them. These women face forceful confinement, possessiveness, threats against their life and finally enter into marriage – an institution steeped in the tradition of seeing women as property and disposable reproductive instruments. These books are also homophobic: both Edward Cullen and Christian Grey baulk at the thought that they may be seen as gay. Indeed, there are no LGBTQIA characters in either series. Besides, masculinity is repeatedly written into the text as the male’s right to infantilize, stalk, dismiss and abuse his female partner. In both cases, the protagonist loses her (male) best friend in the process of fusing with her partner. And both series are awfully written: endless repetitions, banal diction, rickety, purposeless sentences, primary-school expression and, of course, the terrifying ‘inner goddess’.

The point of this litany is that it eases the way to a question: since all of these things are obvious, why do so many women – intelligent, adult, and competent – read these books? When I was interning at a car sales showroom in the summer of 2012 (a horror story in its own right; I was terrible at it) I found a copy of Fifty Shades lying in my boss’ car when she dropped me home one day. The significant bit was that it was lying hidden under the seat, heavily dog-eared. This was not just a pleasure; it was one that was self-conscious and covered in shame. This makes sense, since most of my attempts at discussing these books have been tedious things dominated by frantic avowals of not being a fan in order to be taken seriously, and then a petering out, because there was no interest in the absence of fandom. These two attitudes –vicious dislike and surreptitious copies under car seats – sum up how these books have been received, to the point that any conscious, unapologetic reading became a rare thing. Amy Jenkins writes in the Independent: ‘Fifty Shades was always said to be the book that took advantage of the new-found anonymity of Kindles – you could read it on the train and no one would know.’ But Jenkins’ essay too stops with the limited observation that the books are quite, quite badly written and violently sexist. Again, no attempt to analyze their popularity.

This is why Aya de Leon’s commentary was refreshing. I did not really agree with the argument; while E. L. James’ Chilean heritage is certainly very interesting: the idea that the plot of Fifty Shades is a metaphor for the sexual violence and human rights abuse under Pinochet regime seemed both too convenient, and a bit simplistic in its A-Level quality of biographical criticism. However, what it did was treat Fifty Shades as a delayed cultural effect. In doing so it raised the parameters of commentary from entertainingly hateful to soberly critical. The only other piece of writing that, in my knowledge, subjected the books to a critical eye has been Eva Illouz’s ‘Hard-Core Romance’ (2014). I have not been able to get my hands on it yet, but a useful summary of its explanation as to why Fifty Shades continues to be popular was found in a book review. Bestsellers, Illouz contends, "are likely to be texts that encode problematic social conditions – that is, social conditions that threaten individuals' capacity to pursue certain central goals, be they satiety, happiness, or material wealth". This is an analysis I accept without hesitation.

And for me, although Fifty Shades is ostensibly about sexual pleasure and satiety, the trajectory of desire throughout the books is underscored by questions of wealth and class distinction. There is a scene in Fifty Shades Freed where Ana and Christian talk about the pre-nup. It is quite predictable: the billionaire protests against safeguarding his empire, to which Ana apologetically replies, “I’m bringing nothing to our marriage but my student loans.” This admission is perhaps what lies behind the phenomenon of Fifty Shades as a bestseller.

We live in a world where there is no free education, no real possibility of class mobility beyond a certain point (I am not even going into the question emancipation from class itself). As women, we also live in a world where a pervasive aesthetic tyranny pressurizes us to live up to punishing standards of beauty that often require mutilating and arresting both the body and its natural desire for food, rest, growth and ageing. Think about it: dieting, threading, waxing, working out, bleaching, labioplasty – the list goes on. And the endgame, the promised reward, is a monogamous heterosexual state-sanctioned partnership with a man who either provides us with all of the above, or at least offers sexual fidelity and importance, elevating us from oppressed, undesirable objects to colonized, valued objects. Now, if my reading is harsh and unrepresentative of many marriages and partnerships, it is because this is not descriptive of how most human beings end up navigating the hot-coal intersection of gender and class expectations. It is rather the description of what norm expects us to follow in most urban cultures.

And this norm is never more reified and normalized than in the genre of popular romantic fiction.

One of the more awkward moments of my undergraduate life as an English literature student was when I had to write an essay on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Published in 1740, this novel is as triggering as it gets. The plot revolves around a poor fifteen-year-old girl who is sent to look after the household of a young squire called Mr. B, who is a sexual predator and entirely a product of his new-found inheritance. He confines Pamela to his manor, intercepts her frantic letters to her parents when she asks to be taken back, and by turns threatens and bribes her to sleep with him. Since I am quite sure you will not pick it up for weekend reading, I will keep the spoilers: the full title of the novel is Pamela; Or Virtue Rewarded. The ending, therefore, consists of Pamela’s brief escape from this house of intimidation and sexual harassment, when she is interrupted by Mr. B’s contrition and proposal for marriage. Of course, Pamela promptly forgives him and there is a marriage, followed by some more drama with B’s snobbish family and a happy ending. Virtue, then, is coded both as a gesture towards accepting the norm, but also in a self-protective mimicry of that, i.e. chastity in the face of a financially exploitative deal and swift acceptance in the face of a more profitable one.

Would Pamela have accepted this proposal without the manor, the money and Mr. B’s position in society? To put it more correctly, would Pamela’s acceptance of the proposal have been a believable fantasy – bestseller material – without those things?

Similarly, from the very first time they meet, the interaction between Ana and Christian has been marked very carefully and explicitly by class difference. Ana receives presents that she needs quite badly, but keeps reluctantly.  During the course of their relationship in the second and third books, Ana’s dependence of Christian’s wealth increases, as she participates in his family life with its improbable conveniences, including a housekeeper, chauffeur and even a helicopter. She is bought expensive clothes, makeup, laptops – everything needed for a plush, urban, middle class life; the precise kind of life that a young American graduate (perhaps graduates everywhere) both craves and finds unaffordable.

It is even worse when you aspire for these things as a woman. While queer, trans or BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) women are in many cases erased from the narrative of such achievement itself, even for a young, cis, white woman, it is more difficult than for her male counterparts. As Ana demonstrates in her first meeting with Christian, she thinks of herself as plain, and inadequate because of the plainness: a feeling that Bella in Twilight, Jane in Jane Eyre, and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice all share. Fast forward to Fifty Shades Freed, we find Ana congratulating herself:

I gaze at myself, trying to absorb how I look. My body is so different these days. It’s changed subtly since I’ve known him . . . I’ve become leaner and fitter, and my hair is glossy and well cut. My nails are manicured, my feet pedicured, my eyebrows threaded and beautifully shaped. (p.47)

Money, specifically Christian’s money, changes Ana’s self-perception and material existence. The price? The above passage is succeeded by the discovery of bite marks all over her body, not made out of pleasure, but specifically to mark her body as Christian’s property.

This is a typical moment that highlights the problem with this book. That the need to mark a woman’s body is seen as an irritating but understandable, to be resolved by hurling a hairbrush at the man and then forgiving at the first sign of contrition.

I would like to go a bit further and attempt a slightly different reading – one that sees Ana’s reconciliation with her abusive partner as not a naïve lack of self-respect but as a clear-headed and necessarily unacknowledged compromise. In the beginning of the series, we read Christian as a man who is not interested in a relationship. He desires an (unfair) contract-bound, purely sexual relationship which Ana refuses to be part of, seeing it as counterfeit and less valuable than a romantic relationship. Instead she wants “hearts and flowers”, a recurring phrase through the series, standing in for monogamy, traditional rituals of romance and marriage. By the second book of the trilogy, Christian has forgotten all about his original parameters. He has morphed into Boyfriend Proper, and proceeds to propose in a room full of flowers on a boat:

“You wanted hearts and flowers,” he murmurs.
I blink at him, not quite believing what I’m seeing.
“You have my heart.” And he waves toward the room.
“And here are the flowers,” I whisper, completing his sentence.

I think the reason that this series is a bestseller is because Ana achieves the transformation of Christian, and not because of the appallingly-written descriptions of what claims to be kinky sex.  What Ana rejects in the first books is not sex on the basis of contract, but sex on the basis of an inadequate and exploitative contract. She chooses to aim higher and assimilate Christian’s sexuality into an arrangement that benefits her on a permanent basis, and makes her the sole beneficiary of his financial, social and emotional capital. And never once is this conscious. The text itself tries as hard as it can to suppress any suggestion of a motive on Ana’s part that is not romantic love. It is rather that the popular model of romantic love itself is a product of necessities and compulsions imposed by a system where the fantasy of a billionaire who offers wealth, status, convenience and validation is a soothing balm to the unsolvable problem of being (un)equal to the most successful man.

There is, of course, a much better answer to the problem. The answer lies in emancipatory feminism. Not a feminism whose highest goal to mimic and outdo the most powerful man, but to shake off the very structures that allow for a Christian Grey to exist in the world and be seen as something enviable and cool. Emancipatory feminism would point out that Christian, even at his best, kindest self, is brutal to the invisible workers in his company whose cheap, unrewarded labour affords him his helicopter and other outrageous displays of self-aggrandizing generosity to a single person.

Audre Lorde’s famous, overused formulation comes to mind. A black lesbian feminist, an outcast in most narratives that occupy popular imagination, she said, “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.” For her and many other feminists, the solution lies in revolution and not resignation to an elaborate game of assimilation and capitulation, the aspiration being freedom from the need to be needed by an able-bodied, rich, cis, heterosexual partner to validate existence. But that dream comes with the risk of losing the plot. Choosing to love someone not assigned to us by the norm is to court social rejection at best and murderous violence at worst (see the history of interracial and inter-caste love).To resist the entitlement of a stalker is often to risk verbal and physical violence. And bestsellers point to the problem, not the most ethical or inclusive solution. Instead, they give us calming little pellets of fantasy that solve the question of unequal opportunity, unchecked privilege and male entitlement by giving women strategies to manipulate and tip the game in their favour. The most comforting component of these strategies is perhaps the fact that they read like anything but strategic: Anastasia, like her literary predecessors, practices a degree of open-mouthed naïveté that very few women in real life can afford. We have to worry about making the ends meets, and our decisions can never have the moral neutrality (or vapidity) Fifty Shades, and indeed, most popular romantic fiction so casually flaunts. And this is why they are are popular: they offer a way through patriarchy that is not about dismantling the master’s house, but infiltrating it and taking over.


Regarding the recent Dadri lynching, Tarun Vijay of the BJP attempts to convince us why the lynching was un-Indian and un-Hindu.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta rebuts:

“Lynching a person merely on suspicion is absolutely wrong,” Vijay informs us with all sincerity. It is almost as if lynching is fine so long as it is not based on mere suspicion. It is saying, in effect, that if Akhlaq had actually been guilty of eating beef, it would have been fine to lynch him...[he says] differences [are] tantamount to provocation to murder.

If you read one thing from today's On Topic, read this. Gautam Bhan writes on Kafila -

Mohammad began to die a long time ago. When violence against particular bodies becomes legitimate, becomes a series of “misunderstandings,” it is not violence at all. It is the order of things. It is not prejudice but probability. Beef, property, a panchayat election, love jihad, a job, an argument, a WhatsApp message – these are not causes, they are just modes. The last circuits in a motherboard whose pattern is set in place.

Mohammad began to die at least as early in 1992. When we speak of his death in September 2015, it is already too late. The violence is not his death. The violence is that his body lost its right to be murdered because it has slowly been stripped of its life, bit by bit, for years.

Rural farming collectives run by Dalits reduce dependence on, and therefore subjugation by, the upper castes:

What is really remarkable is that Dalit girls are leading some of these agitations. In February last year, Sandeep Kaur, a 25-year-old diploma holder in computer applications from Matoi village in Sangrur, floated an Ekta Club along with a group of 10 Dalit girls. They launched a two-month long agitation, and managed to convince the Dalit families of Matoi of the need to bid collectively for the land..."Now we don't need to beg upper caste farmers for even cattle fodder. This land is enough to feed cattle of all Dalits in Matoi," says 45-year-old Amarjit Kaur.

Unwanted, unneeded hysterectomies performed on marginalised Indian women without their informed consent show the intimate connections between modern medicine and patriarchal, class, and caste oppression:

...women reported going to private hospitals in Gulbarga or cities close to the border in Maharashtra and Telangana complaining of lower abdomen pain or menstrual irregularities. The doctors would tell women that their uteruses were damaged, swollen, had worms, were stained, or had turned green or black. The women in Chapla Naik said that doctors had told them that the uterus “kharab hua” (Hindi for “had gone bad”)—and had to be removed...“Others who are educated can look at the report and say this operation has to be done for this kind of pain. What do we know? If someone tells us to get an operation done, we will get it done.”

A report in Vantage about tuberculosis and the pregnant body:

The 30-year-old told me that she had never had a regular menstrual cycle since her periods first began when she 13 or 14 years old. She was married soon after. “When I got married and came to Mumbai, I realised that my sister-in-law was getting periods every month. I had no idea we were supposed to get it every month. I have been taking medicines to treat this problem. Socho—Think!,” she said. Soon after, she began visitng several doctors...to try and understand why she was not able to conceive. More often than not, she would be faced with condescending practioners who did little to help her predicament. “My neighbours taunt me and say I am not able to bear a child. My family also scolds me sometimes, out of love,” she said, before adding, “They are bound to say some things to me, aren’t they?” After she was finally diagnosed that day, she told me that she hoped her disease would not infect others in the house, even though the doctor had informed her that extra-pulmonary tuberculosis was not infectious.

Should Virginia Woolf have had children? Rebecca Solnit questions why women who devote their lives to things other than birthing and raising children are subject to constant interrogation:

People lock onto motherhood as a key to feminine identity in part from the belief that children are the best way to fulfil your capacity to love...[b]ut there are so many things to love besides one’s own offspring, so many things that need love, so much other work love has to do in the world. While many people question the motives of the childless, who are taken to be selfish for refusing the sacrifices that come with parenthood, they often neglect to note that those who love their children intensely may have less love left for the rest of the world.

An app that tracks American drone strikes is banned from the Apple App Store for being "crude".

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera reports on the suspected U.S.-led bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan...

...and the Intercept reports on U.S. media sources' obfuscation of the U.S.'s role in the bombing:

In its own special way, the New York Times has been even more craven [than CNN]. Its original article on the attack opted for this bizarrely agent-less formulation: [Airstrike Hits Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan]. Some airstrike, traveling around on its own like a lost tourist, ran into a hospital in Afghanistan.

This article engenders conversations in the office. U.S. centric, but interesting:

...academic Marxism tends to view working-class people abstractly, leaving college-educated revolutionaries unable to speak plainly to anyone outside of academia. As soon as they step out of school, they discover that no one understands a word they speak unless they speak plain. This further deeps the idea that revolutionary theory is not for the working classes. These college educated revolutionaries have fundamentally accepted, in a-historical terms, the profound devastation of the working class... It is accepted as eternal that working class people cannot read, do not like to read, do not like to think, etc. This ignores the fact that the weapon of theory has been vital to oppressed people's liberation, from illiterate slaves risking their lives to learn how to read, to Malcolm X discovering the power of knowledge while sitting in his prison cell.

A conversation between Angela Davis and Toni Morrison on the importance of literacy, and public access to reading material (through libraries that are available to marginalised classes, in prisons, in rural areas) in the revolution.

See you next week! Or whenever we get around to the next On Topic.

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