Monday, December 21, 2009

The Widow

She was standing outside her gate – just the way she’d been half an hour ago, when my mother and I left for our evening walk.
I wondered if she had ever looked into the world of sad bitterness in the droop of her shoulders and her pulled-down mouth. I couldn’t see her face at the time but I know that look very well – now that I am writing about it I realise that I’ve perhaps never looked at her very well. But I know that look. Five women of my acquaintance have been widowed in the last six years. And if you knew them you would know that they’re five different stories of womanhood and five different stories of widowhood. Whether a woman loves her husband or not, when he dies, she discovers new depths to pain. And ever so much room for hate.
That is what it is – bitterness masquerading as loss undergone by a poor widow. And it is sad, for no person should have to live with themselves so filled with bitterness. She once was a young sister grieving the death of an older sibling, a woman marrying her brother-in-law to look after her sister's children, a very nervous bride, a newly-wed, an expectant mother-to-be, a proud mother-in-law...she’s been a thousand things, but now, all that’s left of her is a seething mass of rage and bitterness. It is not the loss of a dearly beloved husband, nor the pain of a mother - watching with anxious eyes her youngest son on the threshold of manhood who's destined to go through the rites of passage without a father’s stern eye on him. It is the frustration of being trapped, of being a woman. Not because she’s a widow and is now supposed to restrict her movements, lower her voice and spend her days in the service of the Lord. But, because she doesn’t know who she is, now that she isn’t a wife anymore.
In fact, it's been a long time since she knew who she is. So, it is even more frightening for her to have to face the question now, at her age. But the saddest part is she doesn’t even think about being frustrated or lost. She just knows that she is frightened. And she is mad at everyone who is not.
She’s sad and lonely and lost; nearly at the end of the road, and wishing desperately she won’t lose her way – for she’s not used to finding her own way. Or her feet. Oh there are plenty of people keeping an eye on her, looking after her needs and ready to provide for her a shelter. But she’s lost the one person who could share with her the fear of impending death. Or, the one person who, like her, was a little confused with the music and manners of today, who couldn’t eye a laptop without grave misgivings, and who didn’t understand where they had been while this city changed beyond recognition. She lost a companion.
Maybe she didn’t love him – not the way I used to think all wives would love their husbands. But then, like most wives - at least around me - she probably tried her best. After all, it must be hard work trying to love husbands when one doesn’t have the words to talk about childbirth, contraception or chauvinism. And she belongs to that generation for which the three defined a woman’s life - whether those were talked about or not. (Yes, I know the 3 still do, for more women than I like to think) She was never seen as a person, only a wee woman; but you know what’s the cruellest fact of her life? The same chauvinistic religiosity that conditioned her womanhood to find salvation in serving everything male, also ensured that though forever denied a life of her own, she’d never be free of a terrible, haunting fear of death. Afterlife, you see. And hell. And damnation.
So, day in and day out, she lives with this fear and this sense of utter loneliness. And she couldn’t share it with anyone if she was paid a million per word – because they managed to fully wipe out all that in her voice which made her put herself first. If she wished to survive she had to submit. She had to let go of her consciousness as a woman, a desperately hurting woman. . .the consciousness of having been wronged, controlled and manipulated. She just knows intense excruciating pain – she doesn’t know where it comes from, how long she’s suffered or who to blame for it. Yet, she is not a fool for fearing death you know – if life is this crushing and horrifying, who wouldn’t be smart enough to fear afterlife? Which the highest authorities in our respective cultures assure us can make the sturdiest of us cry out for mercy?
Oh, she’s so not a fool. She is a smart woman who knows what her past can tell her about her future. Because she is this woman who never knew fulfillment or happiness on her terms, or the full-blown joy of loving and being loved without conditions. She never knew that a husband could cook, or wash clothes, or take a crying baby from her tired arms and kiss away her tears...or that no matter how old or fat she became, his eyes would always seek her. And yet he not only betrayed her and left her alone, she also has to bear the pain of pretending that she’s devastated by his death. When she’s only devastated by her own life and all those who claimed to love her.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Voting for INC: Exercising Enforced Choice

That is what the latest experience of voting was, for me. Local urban body elections - electing the Mayor and Corporators. I went intending to vote for an independent candidate - about whom I found through an aunt. I knew it won't make any difference. In fact, with the numbers involved in the smallest electoral units, it makes no sense to me why we call ours a democracy.

The moment I arrived outside the door of the polling room I saw this huge line of people from my neighbourhood. I had hoped to avoid them because seeing them reminds me of who I am for them - an identity which means nothing to me except that it is ironically the one thing about me which people can identify, classify and understand. That my father is a Muslim man and so by the laws of patriarchy and silence, so become I.

It is not just that BJP, among others, thrives on communalization of people, places and political practices, it is also that people around me have never bothered to hide their dislike and even contempt for Muslims. Makes life interesting if you happen to be half a one. I am part Hindu, part Muslim. It is an identity which I learnt about as I grew up. As a child, it was only about funny incidents when we'd try frantically to hide symbols of one religion from the grandmother on the other side...! Socially it did not mean much to us. Plus, though both my brother and I are compassionate and sincere people (so I like to think) and to some extent spiritual, neither has ever been religious at all. So suddenly when we found people making faces and staring at us oddly after asking for our last name, we didn't know how to take it. Or how to make the discovery less painful for them!

My hairdresser hates muslims and made no secret of it till she realised my dad is a muslim, a boutique owner in my locality routinely offers her own less than kind observations regarding muslim women, some of the students I tutored during graduation, and their parents did the same...It is not that I am interested in flaunting the fact of being of a mixed or Muslim parentage. That is not of much consequence to me except that I am proud of the fact that it makes me a sensitive and less judgmental person. It has also given me greater leeway in determining the kind of person I am, my values, aspirations, my friends and boyfriends ;) What I severey dislike is the need sometimes, to hide facts about myself, and trust me I have to do it oftener than you'd imagine. And that is where this entire vote-for-congress crap comes in.

I, like most north Indians, have often heard heated comments on how the INC is addicted to pacifying the minority, taking soft decisions on hard realities. It cannot be anybody's case that the Congress has not played the communal card - be it 'pacification' of minorities, paltry promises of secularism and equality or soft-Hindutva. There are hardly any tricks of the political trade the INC has not played. It is definitely not my view that the INC is the best possible candidate for ruling any part of India. Worst of all, it has blatantly pursued a neoliberal agenda; and as a student of Education and Gender Studies, I spend most of my time unpacking in great detail all the harm that agenda has done.

So, for the first time in my life, that day I voted out of an instinct for self-preservation. Not as the person I am, but the person people are hellbent on making me. I voted as a Muslim citizen, instead of as a woman voter in a country with a hideous history of subordination of women; or as an activist demanding effective, meaningful democracy, participation and equality; or simply as a young person not sure of whether for the majority of Indians India as a nation-state is on the right track. The one aspect of my being, a merely factual aspect of my being in fact, hitherto inconsequential in the big scheme of things for me, took over to the extent that it became the guiding factor when I had to make a choice as a voter in a supposedly secular democracy. And I do not know whether I can forgive myself for that moment of fear.

For it was fear rather than any sincere faith in any party's protestations of secularism, or the haath extended to the aam aadmi. I just hoped that INC would not unnecessarily go against its image and deliberately target a muslim youth. Unless of course it becomes necessary at some point for it to do something to rid itself of the stigma of pacifying the muslim voter, and it decides to make an example of a Muslim youth. Something the BJP, the RSS and the self-righteous footsoldiers of right-wing Hindu nationalist forces take pride in doing. The increasing number of bhajan sandhyas, pravachanas, the inevitable babas and the equally inevitable comments in trains, buses, public offices, and queues everywhere...succeed in 'en-musliming' a perfectly irreverent, atheistic young person; so that after a point, that person really begins to wonder if it is indeed as ridiculous an idea that Madhya Pradesh can ever become Gujarat, as she once thought. Unfortunately, for an already polluted and difficult-to-breathe-in Indore, all these have predictably sparked off a who's-the-most-religious-of-us contest among all communities - reducing the city, on most days, to a mess of littered, cordoned-off roads, singing corporators, portable diases, and some times I feel, portable make-believe divinity too.

I am worried in writing about this at all. This, after all, is the perfect argument, perfect logically for those who'd like to claim that bad experience and stigma have embittered me, attributing to me anger and vindictiveness I cannot imagine or opt for. But I wanted to write about this to see if it would make me feel less guilty about my choices as a voter, and also because I want you to know that it is not easy to be nice, caring, upright or unafraid when it is possible for social and political groups to target someone because of their caste, religion, colour or gender.

Monday, October 12, 2009

From The Hindu [12.10.2009]:

In the aftermath of the attack on GHQ, at least one commentator, senior journalist Zaffar Abbas and resident editor of Dawn newspaper in Islamabad, wrote urging the military and civilian establishment to drop these distinctions.
“The attack on the GHQ may prove to be a watershed that compels the security and civilian establishment to realise that the time to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religious militants [is] over, and a consensus [is] needed to confront all such groups as enemies of the state,” he wrote in a front-page comment in the newspaper.