As a teacher to high school children, whenever we discussed social justice in the worlds of books we read, one question that would repeatedly come up was, "How do we understand privilege, if you say it is all around us—how can we work with the 'lowest' common denominator if there will always be more walls and more marginalization?"; and I remember not being to answer that question most of the time. By the end of the year, as a class, what we could loftily conclude was where our own privileges and marginalizations lay; given that we did all that we could to "not speak for others." Of course, we should have realized that growing up in Bombay meant we were speaking for others; coming of age in the decades of neoliberal economic policies in the cultural capital of the country does that to a generation of people—by being the very people who later India Shining addresses, we yield that kind of power. The privilege to voice someone else's story, and to use our particular frame to view their lives.
When we talk of "consumption," "modernization," and "development" it is almost always in the context of Mumbai, Delhi or any other city—as if any space that is not a city or doesn't have the socio-economic potential to catch the attention of global markets isn't worth talking about. So, you'll find numerous people like me who could discuss and/or engage with "semi-urban" and "rural" places, though the frame I viewed them was that of a Mumbaiite, as if they "lacked" something, or had to "catch up" to some norm set by people like me, despite my best efforts to keep from doing just that. Coming from a space like mine—I'm sure we've all been at this spot, caught between being privileged and marginalized all at once, no one, I guarantee you, is ever only always a victim—the best we can do is to break out of this frame, to start using their (whoever "they" may be) lenses to see how they live their lives. This means, of course, we listen to their stories, or sometimes accept that "they" may not want our voices, or do not fit in our definition of progress, civility and democracy—and know that sometimes our silence is necessary for their speech—and still be able to call ourselves feminists (or whatever ideology you support), to love and support them, and ourselves, as both parties stand at the opposite ends of the argument.
One story that absolutely leaves me reeling every time I read it is Gulabi Talkies by Vaidehi (translated by Tejaswini Niranjana); whenever I feel like I "know" [x] or [y] group, my gut reaction is to shroud myself in this short story, where most of the given assumptions we work with stand interrogated. Beautifully wrung, this story has only one constant: It can quite soundly remind you that you have a lot more to listen to, watch, and learn when it comes to tales of "rural India" and especially, women of rural India. Set in a sleepy fishing town in Andhra Pradesh in the '70s, the story is penned in Kannada and Niranjana's translation is delectable—managing to retain the sheer visual power of Vaidehi's words. Since globalization is always envisioned as a process that mostly began in the '90s, this world doesn't qualify as "developed," it doesn't have the tell-tale signs of a "destitute, starving" people. The people of this town are hierarchically organized, through caste and communal ties—so much so that even houses and public spaces cater to this hierarchy—and the life of one woman, Lilibai, is set in motion when the "talkies" (a television set) arrives in this village, which becomes a cinema-at-home for the whole population. Lilibai goes from being a midwife—a job that is quickly being outdated with the intervention of western and industrialized medical science—to being the gatekeeper of the talkies. Women are rarely allowed to be gatekeepers of a society, and Lilibai exploits this position to the fullest—she extorts others, sometimes charges half-price to pocket the illegally made money, swaps stories of her boss' sex life to barter social standing and food in the community, and when the talkies shut down, she discovers she has no job, stranded as she is, in the middle of "modernity" and "tradition"; of the past and the future, of the community and the nation. What is of note here is that not only do we have a place that isn't immediately identifiable as "Indian" (it's not Delhi or Mumbai, and thus not immediately "national") to stand as a metaphor for the Nation, but that "rural" areas have always had a complex negotiation with the idea of "progress," "development," and even, the "nation"; whether you or I acknowledge it or not, this conversation continues.
Another jarring conversation that breaks this frame of the "always resisting rural woman" is the Gulabi Gang documentary that takes a searing look at the life of Sampat Pal and the women she helps. Sampat Pal, a Dalit in a village in Uttar Pradesh (UP) started an organization called "Gulabi" (Pink) Gang, which is mostly autonomous, and its aim is to make lives of women violence-free. A couple of times, the Gang is said to have beaten up a few people who were convicted as domestic abusers and since then, they use that reputation to threaten most of the community into negotiations that seem best suited for women, given the situation. From getting young pregnant girls married to their lovers (despite both their families' opposition), to yelling and cursing the police force, Sampat Pal seems to be a woman who has a solution to everyone's problems.
We were watching this documentary in class, trying to see if we could find a different narrative to "Women's Day" this 8th of March, and halfway, ended up being shamelessly charmed by this cranky woman, who seems to want to scold everyone at all times. Then, her niece runs away from home and comes to Sampat, seeking protection from domestic and sexual abuse, and that night, Sampat sneaks her back to her marital home—I remember most people in the class gasping at this point; after all we'd seen Sampat house orphans and destitute women completely unrelated to her, surely she wouldn't turn her own niece in, right? At this point, the documentary goes dark for a bit, hazes over, as the filmmaker asks the niece the next day, if her family members hit her when she retured. She looks straight into the camera and says, "Yes, they gave me a good trashing. What else would you expect?" I don't remember what happens right after; I was crying by then.
What ensued was probably the hardest discussion we've ever had as a class—do we still see Sampat as a feminist? Does this erase the work she does? Or the very real relief she gives to many women's lives? She is constantly negotiating with the law, and as leftists, what do we make of that? and so on. I remember not being to say much else but "How could she?"; in retrospect, the documentary purposefully leaves unclear some sections of her life—we aren't sure who exactly funds this Gang of hers, or whose grains feed her and I suspect her ex-in-laws (whose abuse she fled from, by the way) help her in ways more than one. To keep on going like she does, she needed to barter her niece's safety—I never know where I stand with this documentary. How do we react to a person who is complicit in abuse and is marked by it at the same time?
I don't have any clear answers. All I know is, this is not my place to judge, it is not my story to tell. I don't live Sampat's (or Lilibai's) life—my class and caste position ensures I will never be asked to make these sorts of decisions. Technically, there shouldn't even be a comparison; we come from very different worlds, we have our own set of privileges and oppressions, and yet, my world achieves its definition from being "different" than hers and vice versa. We are all framing this frame, being framed by it, and the sooner we recognize this, the sooner we will be better equipped to hear "their" stories," and their lives that may oppose everything we stand for, to see these complex negotiations, when we agree, and especially when we don't, with their outcome.
I will choose this hazy picture a thousand times over any assumption that we "know" anyone's life or story—and remind myself to listen. And then listen harder.