The Non-Fiction of My Feminism, by Amrita Narayanan

Art: Leonora Carrington, Inn of the Dawn Horse

One afternoon in 1988, a symptom begins: I find I can no longer read the news. The sentences unravel, the words waft, my eyes follow their own route-map, past photos that blur upon contact with them, past the names of the Indian political parties that dissolve into alphabet soup, and onto the sidebars that line each page. Thirty minutes in, I have read several of the obituaries; perused the highlights of Help Wanted; skimmed Brides Wanted (fair-skinned, domestic); and, familiarized myself with the merits of Priya’s Plum Jam and Pickles.

At eleven, I had not been reading the news for many years at all so it was not much of a loss. I’d been a late starter to reading: my mother says perhaps I realized that beginning to read meant the end of being read-to, and therefore facing up to being alone. You took time to wean yourself off being read to, my mother said, you loved the intimacy of it.

Reading, for me, meant a parting from the world of mother. Psychoanalytic feminism tells us, that the nature of the child’s parting from the mother, and her world, and the kind of reception she receives “outside” — the way the “outside” looks back at women and mothers — are critical determinants of whether that child tends towards feminism or patriarchy.

Perhaps it is natural then, that children don’t begin reading with the news but with story-books instead; the world of imagination can serve as a cushion between the mother’s world and the outside world. What a fantastic, enveloping, seductive buffer it was. The doors of a new intimacy had opened for me in 1982 with The Wizard of Oz. I was seven years old. From the Emerald city, I wandered, several glorious years, during which I read seemingly endlessly, cramming the stories into my mouth like they were grapes, chocolate, full course meals laid out on a banana-leaf as they do at weddings. I was wanton, shameless, doing it all, the cheap treats and the heavies, the local and foreign, age-appropriate or not: Carroll, Tolstoy, de Jong, Kipling, Blyton and Desai.

The symptom began when I crossed the buffer and encountered reality, the daily news, whose consumption by every adult around me, seemed to annihilate the prospect of secret gardens, magical lands, fantastic and perilous travels and eventual triumphant joy. Years later I started calling the symptom, the incapacity to read, not a symptom but what it really was, a Sulk.

Like any good sulk, mine involved the component of punishment to the perpetrator. In this case, the perpetrator were the news journalists, presenting the terrible reality of everyday life. These were reporters who failed as writers, particularly as writers of the bodies of women and girls, and I think somewhere in my sulking, in refusing to read, I thought I was letting them know this.

Let me make my case for the sulk. Those days, rape and female infanticide, bride-burnings, honour killings, and sexual harassment — then euphemistically known as “eve-teasing” — were all reported deadpan, staccato with the tones of a police report or at times the mildly disappointed manner of a weather channel reporter announcing a passing storm. By delivering the news in this way, the truth and reality, with a minimum of opinion, the newspaper had created an absence of intimacy between writer and subject-matter. Without the buffer of a writer, the newspaper resembled a loudspeaker blaring the reality of misogyny in short sermons: Good women will be protected as far as possible/Good Women are in relationships, as mothers, homemakers and wives/Good Women must wear overt sign of their Goodness by virtue of their conduct, dress and location at nighttime/Good Women must not Loiter in the Streets.

Sulking is a state that begs for rescue from another, but to be fair I did briefly try to rescue myself from the sulk. For a few weeks, I ransacked the house, libraries, and women’s magazines desperately looking for non-fiction that was written intimately, in a way that might render me the truth without feeling like I was thrown from my mother’s lap to rapacious piranhas below. Yet, every bit of non-fiction I could lay my hands on supported the same news, delivered like a memo: Women must take care of themselves, the law cannot help women who loiter. In addition, my further forays only turned up the most distressing news of all: there were only two types of sex, rape, and marital sex — the former that could be read about in the newspapers and seen on television, and the latter that was unspeakable and also banned (thanks to the Indian Censor board) from being graphically expressed in the movies.

Perhaps the most depressing of all were the women’s magazines, who seemed to either focus on starkly exposing the reality of misogyny, or obediently coping with it. Manushi-for-women the feminist magazine wrote photo-essays about rampant rape with the police complicit; The Eves Weekly and Femina, Indian equivalents of the American Good Housekeeping and Marie Claire, replete with tips on stain removal and luncheon preparation, frequently included a section on how to avoid getting raped amidst the other household and beauty tips; Avoid going outside after dark, dress conservatively, hold your books to your chest, avoid talking to unknown men. Complaining to the authorities was never one of the tips in the “avoiding harassment” section.

The sulk and its symptom — the incapacity to read the news — allowed me to escape, cleanly and well. Thirteen years old, I fled back into the ample, salubrious, heady arms of fiction. Each morning, I went through the motions of reading the daily news, a prisoner doing time while my parents regarded me with a kind of benevolent, suspicious concern. As the requisite minutes ticked, the article captions flitted under my unseeing eyes, and a few advertisements, usually for mouth watering food items, inserted themselves into my awareness. Then the thirty minutes I’d promised my parents would be up and I would flee to my storybooks. Though they gently berated me for my lack of interest in the real world, I could sense they felt a kind of relief that I had found a place for myself. In fiction, the stream of life was continuous, and I was the eater of it, seemingly endlessly. It was a state of affairs that would never be mirrored in the world itself.

I passed the required current affairs class, the one that had propelled me into reading the news in the first place, with some notes cobbled from some friends.

*

When I look back on it, two refreshing pieces of non-fiction stand out, in relief from that time period. One was Life Magazines photo of American diver, half underwater, long legs and pointed toes visible, and the accompanying text: “14-year old Kathy Flicker, knifing the water, her form as flawless as the photographers timing.” The other was in a publication that is less known internationally but no less mighty in its impact, an outstanding Indian weekly news magazine that sadly went out of print in the early nineties. The Illustrated Weekly had had, consecutively, two iconoclastic feminist men for editors — Khuswant Singh and Pritesh Nandy — who tore up the veneer of gentility and decorum that otherwise characterized the Indian news. That year, they ran a cover story, a photo-essay about a girl named Hanifa, an 11-year old, who had been serially raped—by a family member, followed by none other than the police themselves— before being sold into prostitution. I read The Illustrated Weekly article without the slightest difficulty, several times. The writer, a man, had brought himself acutely and tenderly to Hanifa’s story. Feminism I decided, was being able to write intimately about young girls and women.

And the photo-text of Kathy Flicker? There was nothing about my thirteen year old form that was flawless, and yet the picture stuck in my mind, filed along with every story of a girl that came my way: Alice, Anthea, Laura, Lucy, Pollyanna, Polly Flint, Jo March, girls from locations as far flung as war torn London or the American West. The list went on, endlessly like the stream of ever-eatable life (as long as there were stories). Each of these had in common with the photo essay on Hanifa and the photo-text of Kathy Flicker: intimate, evocative, vulnerable writing that showed tenderness and admiration for girls.

But those two pieces of feminist non-fiction could not ease the burn of the enormous slight that was the misogyny of the mainstream media. I let fiction lick my wound, devouring stories with a real hunger, but now frequently eating past my satiation and digestive capacity. I lived on the addicts attendant hope: a consistent and infallible palliative to the hopelessness of reality.

In 1992, I left India to study in the United States. In my mind there was Kathy Flicker: the hope that a girl could be noticed without getting hurt. The news in English, in the United States, did not let me down. Reality, I decided, could be delectable so long as it was not about one’s immediate surroundings and fate. I became a fan of The New Yorker and Creative Non-Fiction, on whom I could count for the same depth, beauty and narrative that I got from fiction, minus the horror.

Horror of the writing that is. Rape is no more common in India than it is in other parts of the world. What made Indian Rape horrific was not only the rape but its backdrop: a legal and journalistic nexus that kept invisible Indian girls invisible; Policemen who rape rape-victims tear away at the fabric of human trust in a way that everyday rape, awful though it is, cannot. Lawmakers and members of parliament who make unashamed public statements blaming women’s clothes or work hours for rape, have that same crushing effect.

I decided I wanted to stay in the United States for as long as I could. I read, studied, endlessly. Collected, among other things: the complete works of bell hooks; a doctorate in Clinical Psychology; Psychoanalysis.

*

When I returned to live in India, it was 2010 and seventeen years later, I missed my reading incapacity dearly. I tried in vain to find that old rudderless drifting that had guided me through my teens but some kind of work ethic intruded. Lacking my old capacity to sulk, I found a new one.

Mehsana has the Worst Gender Ratio in India, read the cover story. Mehsana was forty five minutes from where I then lived in Ahmedabad. The article explained that this state of affairs was caused by selective abortions: girl children in Mehsana were made to disappear before they were born using sonogram technology illegally to conduct pre-natal sex screening. The journalist noted that the political leaders of the city had “sent a letter to each family in the city informing them that girl children ought to be treated equally to boys”. An op-ed in the same newspaper observed that Mehsana district would be obliged to tackle this problem because marriage-age boys in Mehsana now had difficulty marrying within their caste due to the small numbers of same-caste girls. Even in analyzing a problem involving girls, the columnist had begun to focus on how it would impact boys and men. The debilitating news was written in emotion-less English.

I would walk, on days like those, on the banks of the Sabarmathi river on the grounds of the former home of Mahatma Gandhi, now a public museum and garden, a rare shady spot in the dusty city of Ahmedabad, a bell hooks book held tightly in my hand like a totem. On the ashram grounds, in large relief, is a replica of a statue that was one of Gandhi’s few possessions, a Japanese pictogram that dates back to the seventeenth century, that now has a permanent place in the Indian imagination as with most things associated with the Mahatma. The replica consists of three monkeys, each of whom uses his paws to cover eyes, ears, or mouth: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

Perhaps the Indian press was, in some way, being Gandhian. But India was no longer in the time of Gandhi. At that time there were other, more pressing oppressions. Both colonialism and caste oppression took a centre stage in Gandhi’s fight. Following his lead, Indian feminism sacrificed writing the crimes of misogyny so that the crimes of colonialism and caste could be written. This was especially true for women who could read and write, upper-caste, relatively well-off women like my mother. The privileged narratives of feminism were amongst the least of the oppressions, it was thought. The women of the post-independence, Gandhian generation, openly sacrificed at the altar, the idea of women as sexual subjects: in the battle against sexual objectification Indian feminism has demanded only a non-sexual subjectification, that is the right to be seen as subjects-without-sex. Though a powerful demand that no doubt played a role in our being able to have a women head-of-state, and in demanding physical safety for women, the demand made post-independence women complicit in the sacrificing of their daughter’s rights to sexual expression.

Gasping for breath, I found clean air in another brilliant small-imprint publication. The Little Magazine did a special on Impunity. In the subtitle that The Little Magazine chose for the Impunity issue I found the words took the shape that had been necessary and absent from the mainstream reporting on Mehsana: Getting Away with Murder, it read.

In the throes of the worst gender melancholia I had ever known, I was able to read but now found myself almost entirely unable to write. This time, unlike in 1988, the gentle hands of time reached forward to pull me back in to sanity. It just happened to be 2012, the watershed year when Indians dramatically changed the way that we wrote (and read) about women in the mainstream media. In September and then again in December of 2012, two brutal and highly publicized rape cases, that of Pallavi Purkayasta in Mumbai and Jyothi Singh in New Delhi, rocked the nation, who until then had responded to the terse 200 word rape-reports in the daily news by merely turning the page or choking back words in a sip of tea.

Two faces — as it happened, both remarkably beautiful — forever changed the mainstream media’s nameless, faceless, monotonous reporting on Indian women. For the first time, at least in my read, the mainstream media carried memorable, meaningful op-eds about rape. Two remain forever emblazoned in my mind. “No country for Young Women,” wrote lawyer Ratna Kapur, explicitly explaining what the media had always brutally reminded us of, that the law did not protect unmarried women. Writing however, might. “Is the Indian woman a person?” wrote psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar. It’s a qualified yes. An Indian woman is a person as long as she is in relationship as a mother, daughter or wife; outside of a relationship she is an object, to be treated as men wish.

I took it and ran. From the verge of a sulk, the winter of 2012 got me writing again.

If what I read and did not read was to protect and pleasure myself, so was what I wrote (and did not write). Before I moved from the United States I’d had the project of (re) writing the Indian woman’s body as sexual. In the thick of rape as punishment for sexual female bodies, I came back to a couple of short stories I had been sitting on since before I moved back. I wrote: adding to the stories till I had nine, enough for a book of short fiction, perhaps one of the first of its kind. It was a full book of erotic stories by an Indian woman about Indian women, in a genre that has since happily thickened, in defiance of the rape culture .

Indians have been in transition from the sacrifice of female sexuality that characterized pre-independence India. We had identified sexual bodies as white female bodies and writing our own bodies erotically was part of reclaiming. Though I wrote a book, I did not write: my name. A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories was published under the pen-name Aranyani.

My publishers cautioned me that the book would not sell without my face on it. I told them I had no choice. Backstage, sotto vocci, my mother told me, that it would irrevocably shatter our relationship if I added my name to the book. You could say I followed the advice of Gandhi. Or the “women’s magazines” of the 1980’s.

Hug your books to your chest, this will help you avoid getting pinched on the bus.

*

The book was received favourably but people looked askance at the pen name and a writer whose debut was women’s erotic fiction. The publisher turned out to be right, it did not sell much. In the meantime, I moved, to Goa , a part of India where Gandhi’s unseeing monkeys wouldn’t haunt me, and where it was safer for a woman to loiter on the streets dressed as she pleased.

One September morning, a few months after the book had come out, a new friend called. Katha Kakar is an Indo-German anthropologist, debuting as an artist. She’d called me to ask if I’d like to do a reading at her art opening, a first exhibit of erotic, feminist art, that happened also to be in Goa. In the space where I hesitated, she formed the words that were like the year 2012: “This way, neither of us would be doing it alone”.

Feminism is a “we”, a link of solidarity between women (and men) with room for multiple identities.

I read, happily. Feminist non-fiction comes from artists and writers, who are midwives of sorts, women and men, characterized by a tender witnessing, whose work it draws out and osmotically re-hews tenderness from hitherto silent reporters and sulkers.

As bell hooks did with me.

Feminism is the invitation to be part of something linking.

Feminism is a potent, shapely, poignant, intimate, progressive, linking, narrative.


Read the rest of the Feminism Series here.


Amrita Narayanan is a clinical psychologist and writer based in Goa, India.   She is the author of a book of short fiction, A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories (Aleph Books, 2013), and her short story Stolen, appears in the anthology A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: Extraordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present (Aleph Books, 2015).  Her psychoanalytic essays on the topic of psychoanalysis, culture and women’s sexuality, have won awards in India and in the UK and are published in journals such as Psychodynamic Practice and Psychoanalytic Review.

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