The difference is one letter away. Seated in the NYC subway today, it was impossible to not notice in front of me breasts and nipples of a 20 something year old girl wearing a tight white almost transparent lace tank sans bra. Her barely covered breasts were in plain view for me [ as I was seated] and I’m sure the man sitting next to me who kept looking to decipher the notes I was making in French on an article I was reading. The girl was not as hard to decipher as my notes to the eyes seated next to me.
I texted my friend whose interests range from film analysis to surrealism and Buddhism [her PhD] to word play to relate this story and ask her what she thought. It was she in fact who suggested this marvelous play on words in my blog title. She said if I take away the “e” in ‘lace’ and substitute with ‘k’ I get ‘lack’. Nathalie’s clever wordplay rapped on the door of my prudery. The Lace stemming from a lack… a lack of power in one’s life. And so, began my lack/lace reflection on my ten-minute walk to work.
People were in trench coats, light jackets, sweaters, jeans etc so if it wasn’t about weather, then what? It could be an age-thing – the desire to show – sometimes typical of that age group. But it could be about other things as well. I thought about Femen [incidentally lots of young women there!] and other women’s libbing movements, examples and ideas, and I thought about the constant desire to show others that one is free, whereas if freedom could just come from inside there’d be no need to prove one’s free. It would not be necessary to show others that one is free or not from one’s clothing. Others do not need to recognize or tell a woman that she is free. She owns it by her strength and fortitude, not by the clothes she wears because freedom is the domain of the personal, the inside, what we have inside that no one sees through membrane, movement or cloth.
We have been bombarded by freedom images and ideologies via ‘outside’ material things since time immemorial, but we can never find the freedom we are looking for. We haven’t found freedom yet since the 60s, or if you look at France, since the 1940s [Simone de Beauvoir published her Second Sex in what? 1949?]. How much has changed since the 1940s France or 1960s USA? And yet! Yet we do not see that these OUTSIDE things that we hold on to are replaceable, shifting and don’t stay with us. They are exchangeable, expendable, which explains why we move from one thing to the next – movements, memes etc – to prove we are free. We are constantly proving how free we are, to others, but never get free ourselves. We never become free of what society tells us what it means tone free and how it should look.
Then I got tired of thinking, and decided that it’s entirely possible that the girl in the train burnt her bra, like the women of the 60s, and couldn’t wear one on this cool day. And if history repeats itself, it’s highly likely that she won’t be free at the end of the day nor any time soon. But if it was just a fashion statement, then ‘hats off’, or rather ‘clothes off’ to her!
Deepu: are you gay, sir? [very long pause]
Professor Siras : how can someone describe my feelings in three letters?
This question comes from Deepu (Rajkumar Rao], a rookie journalist to professor Siras[Manoj Bajpai ] in Hansal Mehta’s 2016 brilliant film, Aligarh.
Siras does not like the word ‘gay” and does not like how the young describe things so very carelessly. He does not answer Deepu immediately, and in fact never answers any question in the film without first a deep, long reflection. What a cinematic treat for cinephiles! And there are many such treats/pauses in the film, so needed for the quick-to-judge, but it is this same dimension that also gives the movie its deep connection to the character that Bajpai portrays in his best role yet. The Siras character has many other layers including the fact that he is a Brahmin who calls the rickshaw puller a friend – someone he should not associate with, for rickshaw-wallahs are lowly. Thus, for both reality and film, caste-ism and exclusion, high caste and low caste are explored in the poetry, long pauses and human relations.
Professor Siras is a man of words. Yet, one word – gay – would condemn him to a life of isolation. His words and poems did not matter in the end; only his orientation that he kept hidden, in the privacy of his room. He published short stories and a poetry book in Marathi: “Paya Khalchi Hirawal” [Grass under my feet]:
“Oh dear moon,
Fear not the dawn that separates us,
For we must meet again,
When the world sleeps.”
He wrote beautiful words in the depressing room he lived, in a depressing university surrounded by depressing judgments and court procedures. Yet, he saw beauty in everything and everyone. He describes what he feels like poetry, in between words. In the silences. In the Pauses. You fall in love with this professor because he is so real and it is so easy to deeply feel the person Bajpai essays so extraordinarily seamlessly. You feel the loneliness and anguish in the long pauses of his eyes which the two songs [by Lata Mangeshkar] encapsulate so lyrically: “Aap ki nazaron ne samjha pyaar ke kabil mujhe” and “Betaab dil ki tamanna yahi hai” .
Siras’ words change us – the viewers – by their sheer force, but not his milieu. The more we invest in his experience the more we change our own, the way dr Louise banks changes in Arrival. She, too, is a linguist like Professor Siras, but she has to learn to communicate with aliens, not humans like Dr Siras. She decodes the ET language and begins to question her own reality, while Siras must appeal to the unpoetic, close-minded academia at AMU [Aligarh Muslim University] who condemns him for violating moral code.
Aligarh is a small movie based on an actual incident that is very difficult to watch precisely because it is not ‘just’ fiction. The central character – Dr Shrinivas Ramachandra Siras – was an esteemed professor of Marathi & head of the Classical Modern Indian Languages Faculty at AMU – Aligarh Muslim University. He was condemned to death for engaging in a homosexual act that is haram to Islam, even if it is in a country [India] where love and passion of the Kamasutra were born. In 2010 , he was set up, condemned, then expelled for “indulging in obscenity” and found dead days after a secret video of his liaison with a rickshaw driver was recorded then circulated.
In the current wake of the repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, Bajpai laments:
“When I played the homosexual professor Ramchandra Siras in Aligarh, I realized what true loneliness is. The man’s isolation was more of an issue to me than his sexual orientation. I feel the Supreme Court verdict is a triumph for all discriminated and persecuted people of our country; whether it is segregation on the basis of sexual orientation, or gender, or caste or economical condition… we all need the law and the Government to support the weaker sections. If the Professor in Aligarh were alive today, he wouldn’t have to die.”
This, like professor Siras’ revoked sentence, which came a day after his death, comes eight years after this gentle beautiful soul that could have lived to create more words, tolerance and acceptance. He had given decades of his life to AMU teaching languages and opening minds, and had only six months left to retirement. No one knows or wishes to know whether his death was a suicide or not, because he was gay. India – Hindu or Muslim – has consistently opposed gay sex despite having already had a bid to repeal this in 2001 and having decriminalized it in 20029, one year before Siras’s death, which should have saved him. Laws almost always play an important role in changing mindsets, but the public is slow tp catch up because of their inherent biases. a court must recognize people’s rights to love, whether it is a love between an untouchable or Brahmin, and must uphold the dignity denied to the Sirases of India.
Siras moved outside the narrow confines of gayness [as a white male construct based on sex]. His gayness was vast, poetic, ‘gay’ as a lark singing poetry. Siras’ world brought gayness and homosexuality down to sex but for Siras it had nothing to do with sex. Sex was not the central issue, and the spaces that ‘gay’ define couldn’t hold, confine or define professor Siras.
History owes Siras an apology for ostracizing and sending him to his death, and sadly no amount of throwing the British out of their country again can bring back Siras.
I remember parnani [maternal great grandmother in India] as a little girl. Always draped in a beautiful, crisp, white, cotton sari, earrings following the curves of her ears, slender long brown hands full of bangles [gold most likely since Indians only wore gold], and a nose ring. But no husband ever accompanying her. In my child’s and adult mind that can only mean that she was a widow. Nani – her daughter and my grandmother – was a widow, too, but she remarried. I never met parnana or nana [my maternal great grandfather and maternal grandfather]. My mother said nana died before any of her seven children were born, and even before she was married off as a young girl pitching marbles on the dirt. I also never met aji [paternal grandmother], but I did meet aja [paternal grandfather], and he too was always clad in white – a white dhoti and a white cotton airy jersey – that covered his lanky, frail, pale body.
I remember how easy it was easy to spot parnani coming down the gravel track to our house. We could see anyone coming down from the Beetham highway as we longed for parnani’s company, and also for the sweets she would bring us. Even a blind person could spot parnani, a slim white figure, dupatta over her head, against the green, lush, abundant mango trees on one side of the track, and the wayward overgrown bushes on the wrong side of the track. From our vantage point, only the mango trees-side mattered, since that’s where the taxis let her off, and where we picked up the neighbor’s Rose mangoes and chenneth that had fallen over their barbed wire. We would run up the road to greet her, take her hands and walk back skippingly to the house. Upon reaching home, she would take out a clean, white, cotton handkerchief full of paradise plum – hard pastel-colored candy, peppered with sugar dust. How we loved that! And her!
Parnani didn’t speak a word – English or Hindi – but she visited often. She had come in one of the 320 voyages the British made to the islands from India, starting in 1834. That trip uprooted everything for her since she had to leave behind her Indian-only, pre-partition Hindu and Muslim culture to live among much newness: new peoples [Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, French, British, Africans], new food, new herbs and spices so important to Indian women, new language and new behaviors. Perhaps she didn’t mix enough, for there was no television to help her assimilate, and would therefore only have spoken Hindi at home, and naturally would have had no opportunities to integrate. But surviving the long, three-month ship ride from India on the kala pani that claimed one third of Indian lives speaks volumes for her. The British had inveigled, kidnapped and held women, including widows, and married men from all parts of India and placed them in coolie holding depots in Calcutta, Lucknow and Faizabad [Coolies: How Britain Reinvented Slavery, a BBC production]. They were then shipped to the islands of Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname, but also to Martinique, Jamaica and Guadeloupe to a lesser extent. The two-thirds of Indians who survived on the trip to the islands intended to go back, but India forgot about them and these newly-minted Indo-Caribbeans – Indians by way of Trinidad, or Trinidadians by way of India – turned their stranded-ness and dislocation into a life in the islands. And if Gandhi did not stop the British exploitation of Indians to the islands and the whole indentureship business in 1917, it would’ve continued, and Trinidad would have become another “little India” like in New York and New Jersey.
They say my mother’s family comes from Bangalore, but history books differ and say Indians came from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. I don’t know if the books tell a true story. Truth is only a half told story, and it is the British who wrote notes about ‘their’ [the Indians’] arrival, and not the Indians themselves since they didn’t know how to write. Nor speak English even. I question British note-taking and history books not only because they didn’t take that three-month debilitating ride on the kala pani with parnani and the others, so how would ‘they’ or ‘their’ books know the Indians’ ‘truth’? But also because my aja was over six feet tall, thin, so light in complexion that his skin reflected the light, had greyish eyes…not Dalit traits normally as history books want us to believe. There is a lot I don’t know about my ancestors, but what I do know is that nothing stopped parnani from taking a taxi ‘alone’ as a female in a foreign place from Mon Plaisir Road, Campoo to come to our house in Curepe, to interact with her English-speaking, filmy and bhajan-singing-and-dancing great grandchildren. Were we her joy and connection to the lost motherland?
The picture I have of parnani refuses to leave my mind, because now as an adult delving into studies of veuvage, Vidhwa or widowhood, I discovered that women like parnani were a scorned lot in parts of India, and still are in some regions. Maybe the British took widows knowing fully well that no one would miss them and banished them to the islands since India sequestered widows in ashrams after breaking their bangles, taking away their earrings, shaving their heads. Women’s beauty was in their hair, so they were shorn, and made to wear plain white or navy-blue saris and definitely not red, the color of fertility. Their colorless life was intended to decrease their sexuality, and to not attract men since they weren’t allowed to remarry. Women in India in parnani’s time and even long after were ‘ashrammed’ to live out the rest of their lives doing penance for their husbands’ death, even if that husband drank himself to death (perhaps he was alcoholic or had syphilis!) or was poisoned by a jealous mistress! Widows lived a meager existence, not smiling, praying all day, singing bhajans to atone for their husbands’ self-caused, genetic, or ‘however’ death. Deepa Mehta’s film Water, the documentary The Invisible Women: Outcast widows in India, Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dor and Dilip Mehta’s the Forgotten Woman are just some of the movies that give us an idea of the sad, unjust, harsh treatment of widows from where parnani came. They show us that there is nothing colorful or alive from where parnani came: “everything in a place of pilgrimage is auspicious, except widows in India”, as Binodini, the widow in Anurag Basu’s Choker Bali says.
So perhaps parnani wore her white sari because she was widowed? But what of her many beautiful bangles and earrings? Why was she not separated from her bangles and earrings if she no longer had a husband? Perhaps parnani rejected to live in her Trinidadian present as an Indian vidhwa, and chose to keep some remnants of her past by wearing her bangles and earrings proudly on her ‘own’ terms, which spoke for who she was. There was no one to watch over her doing penance in Trinidad, no pundits to enforce her man-made uni-dimensional path to moksha, and no one [man or woman] to judge her as ‘inauspicious’. She lived life as she saw fit, free from the burdens heaped on women in the motherland, moving about by taxi in a new place. Perhaps India did a service to parnani in leaving her behind in Trinidad, the way Gandhi saves eight-year-old in Water – both from a wretched life of widowhood.
I would never know what parnani thought, since she came in silence and left in silence, but I am glad she refused to wear the badge of widowhood on her head and shoulders. Her widow-white attire did not define her as a vidhwa, and neither did it make her absent the way muslim women veil in white to make themselves unnoticeable or absent or like the white of a photo you can’t see.
I don’t see a veiled photo when I think of parnani. My white sari-clad parnani symbolized purity of heart and remains a strong presence in my memory, which neither time nor foreign historical accounts have managed to dim or erase after so many years.
Yarl’s Wood – a short film by Lynne Parks – is long on significance and impact on the criminalization of female migrants. Gateshakers, protesters and interviews – both male and female – form the line-up of voices for this mostly female-centered vivid film.
Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre is a detention center in Bedfordshire for foreign nationals prior to their deportation from the United Kingdom. It is only one of 13 such centers currently in the UK, and it is overwhelmingly female. Sadly.
Young Amina Rafique, who looks barely 16 in the film, was trafficked into the UK from Pakistan as a domestic slave by her father after he killed her mother. She is one of the females now on the outside rooting for insiders. She encourages them to ‘not give up hope’ by telling them about her own experience in the Yarl’s Wood Detention Center.
Amina is grateful for having been on the inside. Grateful to have collected evidence to expose it in order to fight for asylum seekers still inside Yarl’s Wood prison. It is both impressive and miraculous that she can look at her imprisonment in such a positive light in that dehumanizing center. It is also heartbreaking. For those who challenge the system and speak up, they become targets of systemic violence and more silencing (V. Canning at https://www.academia.edu/11937701/Women_Asylum_and_the_Harms_of_Detention ). How was Amina able to look away from the rapes and abuse, and the silenced survivors of, and witnesses to, sexual abuse, the deaths of both children and adults, and the hunger strikes for the time she was there in 2012 and 2013?
Once you have seen the film, the words of young Amina’s advice to her refugee sisters still locked inside that English “First World” prison echo and stay with you:
“We are not criminals, and seeking asylum is not a crime”.
No caption or text required.
Bravo Davide Bonazzi.