A friend of mine recently got into an online argument with an advocate for veganism. When I got dragged into it, I found that while while a wholly vegan diet could certainly cut the world’s greenhouse gas emissions by around 70 percent, that’s not the whole story. Further research unearthed a more recent study at Johns Hopkins University, which says eating meat once a day, in conjunction with a plant-based diet, could actually be more beneficial to the environment all around.
Most of the meat-rich diets are influenced by the western ideal of a ‘balanced diet’- and here is where another problem lies.
Read the full article on RePower: Veganism, Climate Change and Ground Reality – India Chapter — RePower
Source: Initiations: Writing Race
It just occurred to me that I hadn’t shared my articles from my time as a volunteer blogger at the Jaipur Literature Festival @ The British Library, London. Two of the best days of my entire stay in the UK.
This is one of my favourites, because it’s about race and identity, two things I keep coming back to. Another one coming soon!
BJP leader Subramanian Swamy said that homosexuals should conduct their business in private and not flaunt it.
Well, fuck that. (Please don’t pardon my French; I couldn’t care less)
The thing is, Mr Swamy, we are people. We are humans, we are people, and we will be treated as such. We are not second-class and we won’t be treated like we are.
Heterosexuals- people like yourself, Mr Swamy- can ‘flaunt’ their relationship in public (whether they can do so safely is a whole other conversation). They fit into your neat little boxes and therefore they have a place in your idea of India. People like me, and others I know and love, don’t.
I do not fit into any box, not even the one marked ‘homosexual’. My poetry handle describes me as Not interested in being polite or heterosexual. I’m not like you, Mr Swamy, and that’s one thing I will always be grateful for.
No, I’m not talking about your sexuality, because it’s not worth talking about. Although you seem to think that it (or the difference from it) is. I’m talking about your personality.
Mr Swamy, you have a great deal of personality. I wouldn’t dream of denying that. You have forceful views, which I’ve found I almost always disagree with; you are annoyingly articulate, which forces me to confront the fact that fundamentalists are not always uneducated people who don’t know any better. You are cantankerous, which would be deeply amusing if you were less of a bigot and more like the crotchety old grandfather that everyone loves. You know how to use social media, a rare feat in a man of your age, and I can respect that you’re (somewhat) willing to move with the times.
Now, read that again.
Your sexuality means nothing to me, Mr Swamy. It doesn’t factor into my views of you- were you gay, aromantic and/or genderqueer , I would still find your politics divisive, still disagree with you, and still admit your personality. Although, admittedly, I would have thought you traitorous as well, or perhaps pitied you.
But my point is, your heterosexuality doesn’t inform my opinion of you. And mine shouldn’t inform yours either. Because I’m more than my gender or sexuality. I’m a student. A history honours graduate from DU. Almost an English MA. A curly-haired woman. A poet, dancer, writer, dreamer, and many other interesting and uninteresting things. I’m a liberal, politically speaking. You can hate me for that. But what’s the point in hating me because of whom I might or might not sleep with? I wouldn’t dislike your sexual partner of choice because she chose to sleep with a man (also, I’m a #wokefeminist who doesn’t believe in judging a woman’s sexual choices, thankyouverymuch)
Frankly, Mr Swamy, you’re a disgusting old homophobe. Now, normally, I respect people’s phobias. But you’re not afraid; you’re just an asshole. Please, disapprove of me for saying that. However true, it’s very rude and I too would take offence.
One of the tools of poets is anaphora- repetition. I will employ it now:
I am human and I will be treated as such. I am an individual with rights, and I will be treated as such. I am an Indian citizen and I will be treated as such.
How dare you tell me to hide my love, my affection, because you think it’s wrong? How dare you, when the theatres are chock-full of of DDLJs and Humpty Sharmas and every sodding version of Romeo and Juliet that Bollywood has ever dreamt up? The state has no say in who its citizens love, Mr Swamy, and neither do you.
I don’t need your permission to love whom I choose, to hold his or her hand in public. Gay bars are safe spaces that we need because of people like you. And frankly, they’re just fun. AIDS can spread in ways that are not anal sex. Instead of policing people’s private lives, focus on funding the search for a cure. It’ll be a much better use of your time than flippantly reducing human beings to second-class citizens because they don’t happen to be straight OR male OR rabid religious fundamentalist dirtbags.
In sum, Mr Swamy, you want us to not flaunt our ‘business’?
Well, fuck that.
People who are not like you do not need your permission to live.
“They… they’re saying you’re such a slut…”
I was thirteen, and the above line was murmured to me by my then-best friend, whom I’ve rather lost touch with and I hope is doing well. At thirteen, I wasn’t very shocked; not because I’d heard worse, but because I didn’t know what it meant.
“Papa, what’s a slut?”
“It’s a sexually promiscuous woman.”
Well, I didn’t know what ‘promiscuous’ meant either, but rather than talk more during a tense CSK match, I sought out the next best source- a dictionary.
In the columns of the gigantic, moth-eaten Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary Of The English Language, I found that I’d been termed someone who has sex with any man who asked. Please don’t run for the dictionary; that’s not how it’s phrased, but my copy’s halfway around the world.
Which, I reasoned, was rather ridiculous, because we were thirteen; who wanted to have sex anyway? It sounded like an uncomfortable business.
(It had been the late Khushwant Singh who had contributed greatly to my sexual education. I don’t recommend it)
That’s not to say it didn’t sting, of course; which teenager doesn’t dread being gossiped about? On the other hand, a whole new world of insults now opened up before my slightly-shocked eyes, although it took three years for me to actually use any. When I did, though, it was to a boy: with the air of someone delivering her coup de grace, I informed one of my classmates that he was, in fact, a man-whore.
“You should say gigolo.” He replied. I was late to the party, it seemed, and not fashionably.
You might wonder why I’m writing this now. And yes, while there’s a part of me that’s gleefully typing up words like sex, whore, gigolo, for all and sundry, I still feel something like a bee-sting when I type the word slut.
There it is again.
That’s one word I try not to use. It may have slipped out at some point over the years, but I try. There’s something particularly filthy about it- and even, I feel, something maliciously female. I can now easily call a man a whore without tacking the ‘man’ to it, but slut always seems so pointedly female.
Slut-shaming. I hate the term. I hate the practice. I hate the casualness of it, how easy it is when the target is a ‘she’.
A sexually promiscuous woman. But a man is just a playboy. A Man.
This isn’t a rant against slut-shaming; honestly, I don’t quite know what this is, even. I don’t often dislike words in and of themselves- even stuff I’ve made my peace with. But slut is one thing I’ve never been able to find middle-ground with. Maybe it’s personal. Maybe society’s ease with it. I don’t really know.
At any rate, it’s a good word to dislike.
Have you ever tried to fit into another skin? It’s not easy. First, you have to choose a new one; there are usually a few on offer, standard issue, one-size-fits-all, like dresses at Forever New. You can alter them up to a point, but there are limits here and here, tailoring can only go so far, and anyway, you’re supposed to shrink, not expand.
Then, you have to squeeze. I remember my first dress. It wasn’t the lovely one-shoulder black gown that hangs in my closet; it was a cute black and white Globus number that I bought when I was thirteen. Knee-length, about three tiers of skirt, I think. I loved it so much. Never mind the squeezing. You kinda have to go with it- everyone does it. Suck in your stomach and shimmy into that clingy bodice, arrange your skirt- pull your bum in, stomach in doesn’t mean bum out– tie back that hair, there’s nothing you can really do about it, and now smiiiiile. Oh, don’t you look cute!
You also sound like a dying horse, but what to do.
And when one skin splits, you try another. Your own is dry and chafed, grey from lack of sunlight, but what does that matter when there are all these shiny and healthy ones lined up, and somewhere you know there’s one that fits you?
There has to be.
You do the same with what’s under your skin. It’s like Photoshop- you realign your smile, it has to be perfect and show just the right amount of teeth. You line up all your emotions and humanness, like cans on a wall, to knock off what they won’t buy. There’s a certain demand, and you have to supply, even if the curves intersect so high that you’ve lost sight of the price.
I have tried skin after skin after skin, pulled my stomach in and pushed my bones out of alignment to fit into them, only to have it all come apart at the seams again and again.
I’m tired. I’m so tired.
(Title shamelessly stolen from Bee Rowlatt’s unnamed friend)
At what point is my story worth writing? As children, we’re told it’s wrong to take pride in our accomplishments, to talk about ourselves as though we’ve achieved something, however small. So how do I come to the thought that, hey, I’ve got a good story, look, it’s about me ?
But that’s not completely accurate. Emma Sky’s story in Iraq is as much the story of Iraqi people (not the Iraqi people, as though all of them experienced horror in the same way) as it is about the US soldiers she worked with, as it is her own. She wrote it. They claim it. In different ways- in the US, it’s in the political section, in the UK, it’s among the biographies, but I might be wrong there. In Iraq- where would it be in Iraq? But they claimed it.
I talk about what inspires me at Jaipur, about what sticks. This next person sticks, but there’s very little that I can say about her, because to write about her journey and her trauma and the scars that her courage left her with is her privilege. I don’t get to tell that story. Read The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee, let her tell you, in her own words.
Rosalyn D’Mello peeled off layer after layer of protection, and her book- a different kind of courage, a terrifying vulnerability, and words that mingle into my bloodstream like warm wine- is on my Kindle shelf. A Handbook for My Lover is the sort of book I would justly be terrified of writing, not because of the sex, but because of the intimacy. It would be like putting cameras in my bedroom, bathroom, in my closet and in my underwear; an artful sort of bleeding out, time and again, the knife steady between my fingers. I wasn’t sure if I could ever have enough courage- to start, and if I did, to ever stop.
I asked how- how do you choose when to stop– and she smiled and said, the end sort of looms over the whole book. She laughed, sometimes I’d storm out and then I’d go,’ oh no, my book’. She smiled and told me, I think you’ll like it.
I think I will. She answered my other question too- that deciding that one has a story worth telling, even if no one else thinks so, is a brave thing to do, and that’s the kind of bravery I hope to have one day, when I do have a story worth telling. I think I will.
Parts of me are shutting down.
I’m not yet strong enough to wear my empty spaces like I do my lipstick.
Last week, I took a blade to my wrist for the first time in two years. I was crying. Not because I couldn’t stop, but because I no longer have anything sharp enough. I threw three pairs of scissors across the room; I retrieved one and sawed until I saw the blood beading on my wrist
I no longer feel disgusted that sometimes, the only thing that makes me feel better is the burning of open wounds. I don’t feel sick or ill, there is nothing slimy and shameful growing under my skin or at the base of my neck. I am as I am, with every dark, dank part of me that no one wants out in the open.
Maybe, at thirteen and sixteen, M could let go of grief through tears. At twenty, it’s not about grief or guilt. It’s about not wanting to inhabit the sack of skin into which this mind has been poured. It’s about this heart being wrapped too tightly in meat to breathe. It’s about blood and bone and sinew that form a prison for dark things that have no place in the sun’s light because no one wants to try and see or smile at them. It’s about these dark things wanting to know how the air tastes, and they will wreck everything to get out.
It’s about not wanting to be this woman, this person typing everything that you’re reading and wondering if you will smile. I slide lipstick over the empty spaces; I feel them growing as more pieces crumble within the structure. Sometimes I dream about everything under my skin simply winking out of existence. Those are the loveliest nights.
I paint a pretty smile on, the sun lights up my eyes, I kiss with a heart that screams my love, and I type and type, when I should have stopped at
h e l p
Sitting in the office, having finished a couple of techie articles, waiting for either work or lunch, whichever comes first. There’s a niggle in the dip under my shoulder blade- a memory of a Bio class tells me it’s the scapula. Flexing it, I decide to create my own work.
I just shared an article about caste on Facebook. It picks at a thread that I’ve often worried, but been a little afraid to pull at. You see, in India, you never know when you could lose your head over what you say. Makes it hard to take a stand.
I lived in Pune for a while as a kid. When I was about seven, we had a bai (maidservant) called Kusum. Kusum aunty, I called her. She was the sweetest bai we’ve ever had, as far as I can remember. When my father had surgery and mom stayed nights at the hospital, she stayed with us for hours at a time, sometimes at night, leaving only once my brother and I had slept. Until my aunt came down from Chennai, she made sure we had food in the morning, and after school, packed lunch for us, and made sure we ate our dinner properly. It was only a few days, but it was everything.
Kusum aunty had a daughter, or maybe a niece. I don’t remember now, but her name was Guddi. It means ‘doll’. She smiled a lot. We used to play together whenever Kusum aunty brought her home, to wait while she worked. I liked Guddi. We used to throw cushions at each other from across the living room, and one time I threw a bolster, and Kusum aunty gave us the tongue-lashing of the year.
Guddi had long hair that was parted, braided, then doubled up and tied with red ribbons. I’ve forgotten her face, but I remember thinking she was pretty. I loved her hair because it was long and easily braided, while mine was wild and curly and mom nearly wept at the prospect of having to tame it every morning. I remember liking Guddi very much. I don’t remember when was the last time I saw her, and I suppose she’s married now, with a couple of children. She was older than me, so she must be.
I remember that we never ate together, at the table. Not once. Kusum aunty used to give me my food when I sat on a chair at the table, and she and Guddi would sit cross-legged on the floor with their plates in their hands. No one objected- not Guddi, not me. I would eat quickly, as though if I ate and left the table, the ants under my skin would disappear too.
We had another maid, Hansi aunty, in Delhi. She was always sad- my mother told me her story, in bits and pieces, over the course of a month.
Her husband was old, had taken to drinking, had lost his job, had taken to beating. Her son demanded a bike as a precondition for getting a job. Her daughter was in school and refused to help around the house. After 30 years of marriage, with their savings almost gone, she was forced to work as a domestic help. She worked hard in two houses- ours and her own. “Mujhse isse zyada nai hota.” She said to mom. (“I am not capable of (here, strong enough for) more than this.”)
She usually came to work after drinking a cup of chai, and eating- nothing, she shrugged and said. She refused mom’s shocked offers (often with accompanying scolds) of breakfast. But mom refused point-blank to let her leave without eating something. One time, mom wasn’t home when I got back from college. Aunty was. Mom had left a ton of dosa batter in the fridge.
“Make some for Hansi aunty also, okay. Don’t let her go without leaving. She’ll leave at 5- 5.30, so make food before that.”
Well, okay. I can make dosas. Generally, pretty good ones. And there was chutney and something else I can’t remember- maybe sambar, or aloo ka jhol.
So I made dosas. I set the table for two, heated the sambar/jhol, and began to make dosas. Like, okay, normal type of cooking.
Except that Hansi aunty brought her plate and a stool into the kitchen and ate there. She ate with a shaky smile and watery eyes, telling me (and later mom) that she felt like her own mother was making food for her again, and how nice it felt. And that was nice. I felt good, maybe like I was a little less of a heedless brat.
But I ate at the table and she ate on a stool in the kitchen, and she washed both our plates before leaving.
She was the help, so she washed the plates- all in the job description. But there’s nothing to prevent her from eating at the table.
But of course there is. Just as Kusum aunty and Guddi would never have dreamt of joining my seven year old self at the table. Caste and class are interwoven at many levels in India, and the former is old, older than religion, really. Caste acted on my ancestors and their ancestors and theirs too, telling them that this person can be touched and this touch is polluting and this person should not be seen and if you do, go have a bath and become pure again. Caste told Kusum aunty and Guddi’s ancestors that you sit down and look up all the time, be it a seventy year old man or a seven year old child, because you were born here and they were born higher. They did good things in their past life, and you might have killed someone even if you don’t remember, so take the punishment for a crime that you don’t know that of course you’ve committed.
I’ve written emotionally. It was emotional; it was a response to being brought face to face with the fact that I may not believe in caste, I may speak against it in my drawing room and online, but again and again, when I eat at the table and they eat on the floor or on a stool in the kitchen, I am practising the teachings of caste and the system that grinds down innumerable people, and has done so for centuries. I am part and parcel of a system that operates in all arenas of life- social, economic, political, and cultural- to dehumanise human beings, and erase them and their contributions altogether.
The filmmaker Anand Patwardhan visited our school and screened his documentary, Jai Bhim Comrade, once.I have very little memory of the film itself, though I remember being rather disturbed. What I do remember is that Anand Patwardhan asked how many Dalit students there were in the student body. We all looked around, and towards the end of a ten-second wait, I was mentally begging someone, anyone, to put up their hand and scrape off at least a little of the shame I could suddenly feel crusting my spine.
(No such luck)
(The crust is still there)
How many Dalit students did I know in college? None. Did I go out of my way to find any Dalit students and befriend them? No. How many friends do I have whose caste can be said to be significantly ‘lower’ than mine? None.
“I don’t believe in caste”, for me, is a passive thing. The whole truth is that I ignore caste, and the way it plays out in everyone’s life. I say everyone, because no one lives outside the caste system yet. You are either an active participant or a passive one- an enabler. I’ve been the latter for far too long, I think.
I read once that racism and sexism cannot be examined separately. In India, we have a third axis: that of caste. The relationship of any Hindu person to power in India is first a function of their sex, then of their caste, and then of their race (because yes, racism exists in India- it always has), and then of any newer variables such as class and income.
Caste complicates things. A Dalit woman and a Brahmin woman have very different relationships to power. A Dalit woman and a Brahmin man, two Dalits- a man and a woman, a Brahmin trans man and a Dalit man, a Brahmin trans woman and a Dalit man, two trans women- one Dalit and one Brahmin- all different.
Confusing, isn’t it? I’ve used Dalits and Brahmins because it’s probably the biggest polarisation in the caste system, and also perhaps the biggest ongoing re-negotiation of power and relationship in Indian society.
Like I said, caste is confusing. It’s also controversial; it’s not only a social conversation, but also a political one. I also said, though, that I’ve been passive for far too long. So these are conversations that need to take place, at all levels, in order to re-negotiate relationships, and to make the distribution of power as equitable as possible.
One day, that crust might vanish. A seven-year old child might not feel ants crawling under her skin as her friend eats on the floor, while her own legs don’t quite touch the ground as she sits at a table. One day there might be a Dalit child at Rishi Valley. There could be a girl sitting with the maid at the table, eating dosa as the maid cries.
In India, you never know when you could lose your head over what you say. But you take a stand anyway.