Dark Female Selves: undermining the Market’s stranglehold

xenaEver notice, that as much as we’d like to be in control as proper feminist women, our emotions undermine us.  We go all soft and queasy imagining seductions that sweep us off our feet.   Disapproving though I am, of the institution of marriage and commitment, a sly self within me longs for sexual seduction replete with monogamous fucks.  Yes, my suspicions about human sexuality cast aspersions on women (and men) in committed relationships.  For that, please bear with me– my inner woman often sits and watches for a white knight to ride by (although the knight is sometimes a tough femme in kickass boots and tats, think Xena, Warrior Princess).  My inner woman seems in league with a world that’s in the process of institutionalizing gay couples whom marriage (and tax benefits) makes safely monogamous.

/www.imaginative-traveller.com

/www.imaginative-traveller.com

Tucking the fantasist firmly back in place, I put on my glasses (varifocal, naturally) to examine the world at large.  Wherever I turn, consumerism/ media/ capitalism marches hand in hand with indiscriminate sexual desire.  Looking at ads, even rifling through the newspaper, I wonder if sexuality is the underlying thrust (deliberate patriarchal metaphor there) to global markets.  There’s always a new and better model in the works, coercing us into wanting, wanting, wanting in an endless frenzy of desire.  Undiscovered gadgetry awaits us–cars, mixies, make-up, homes, vibrators.  In the name of adventure and getaway, as a reward for labor through the work year, we colonize remote cultures and beaches.  All is tech and tourism.

outsourceWe in the ‘third world’ have been blessed–we have been outsourced to.   So, to deal with Western customers, the Indian young learn to speak English with an American accent (not, however, with much grammar) to counsel the first worlders about gadgets and money instruments.  An Indian accent will not do in such scenarios:  along with jobs, and money, the young mold themselves into capitalist globetrotters.  They leap easily over oceans and histories.  Driving into Bangalore every other month or so, I marvel that the States I left in the mid-nineties has come back to haunt me in 21st century India.

Speaking for myself, I can only eat so much, play so much, fuck so much, before my appetite is sated and I turn jaded.  Some days food tastes like sawdust in the pizzerias and chi-chi restaurants of Bengluru.  The name has turned indigenous, if the city has turned mongrel.  ‘Bangalore’ the garden city of the Brit colonizers, has now become the concrete city as a taxi driver informs me in pidgin, English-Kannada mix.  We’ve recovered from the British and the thrall of white civilization only to fall prey to the racism-s and attendant -isms of making money.   Lightening our melanin [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_skin_color] tainted skins, underarms and vaginas, Indian women fall into the arms of MNCs (Vichy, Dove, Unilever, to name only a few).  [http://jezebel.com/264396/indian-women-whiten-their-skin-fight-the-patriarchyShonit Biswas 1 year ago, comments, “such sexy milky, creamy, smooth, armpits…wanna lick them for hours”  Viscerally offputting remark, yes, but common sentiment voiced by young Indian men,  typical consumers of the marketed white flesh available everywhere.

As a grad student in the States, I came acrosss Luce Irigaray, feminist philosopher.  [http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/294014/Luce-Irigaray]  Reading her writings, my anger took visible shape as a Feminist.  In the binaries of patriarchal thought, white=value=rational thought=male.  Even in casteist India today, the upper caste boasts of fair skin, and lower castes are consigned to  blackness. [see discussions here– http://www.patheos.com/blogs/drishtikone/2012/04/varna-caste-system-and-skin-color-shallow-understanding-and-dubious-arguments/ and http://historum.com/asian-history/18145-were-indian-castes-based-racism-skin-color.html%5D   Perhaps today, wealth is an efficacious skin lightener, a class marker that recasts caste!

If we reflect on the binary logic of most contemporary languages and cultures, white=sun=day=virtue=light=male, and black=earth=night=sin=dark=female. Although, Irigaray sees the binaries working through Western philosophy, I find the same logic operating through contemporary Indian thought and custom.  Linked by media and market value, pretty similar logic works through different nations on various levels, although inflected by particular histories and cultures.  Its a small, small world–dictatorships, capitalists, socialists, democracies–bound together by MONEY.

The Hindus, for example, bow down to the Sun god, perform elaborate ritual namaskars, or prostrations, in His praise, and deny the Goddesses of earth and night.  [http://www.shantiyoganola.com/sun-salutations-the-meaning-of-surya-namaskara/]  In the Ramayana, sacred Hindu epic, Sita the virtuous queen–abducted by a demon and released, presumably unravished–finally retreats to the maternal bosom of Goddess Earth, in revolt against the aspersions cast on her chastity.  [I link here to Namita Gokhale‘s thoughtful analysis of the role of Sita as virtuous wife for any reader interested in that mythic Indian wife: http://namitagokhale.com/sita.html.]  For the chaste queen, the only way out is a descent into earth and darkness.Sita cries

As I sit here to type my disquiet at Indian patriarchy,  I look about me.  Men charge around the ashram dressed in whites, women sport colorful saris.  Where is virtue vested, in these sartorial symbols?  My own androgynous Merlin, my Swami suggested that darkness begat light, and not the other way about. Darkness, he hinted, encompassed all, even light nurses a seed of darkness. In my past hours of meditation, dark beckoned to me: I concentrated on following thought until I thought no more, encompassed in the warmth of godly dark.  Only Swami made sense of my attraction to the dark.

If in the binaries of logic, then, one side is devalued, must it be the associations of the feminine?  Women in the real world often embrace male rationale, rise to power, become leaders in politics, industry, commerce, or academia: Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook.  [see for eg.–http://www.nypost.com/p/news/national/women_worst_enemy_sjGvDqEhR54DfmBOsMLc9K]  And men may, in their way, reclaim the feminine, my own Merlin for example.  Our genders are fluid, shaped by our selves and our particular histories, even if our physical bodies are sexed.   So, my love of the dark womb of the earth, the vast black of Space and goddess,  must subvert the masculine–the bold seductions of consumerism, of phallic sexuality and its institutions.  Where am I headed, then?

"In and Under Water" painting by Ana Teresa Fernandez

“In and Under Water” painting by Ana Teresa Fernandez

O, but that’s a question based in the logic of patriarchy.  I refuse to journey from point B to point A, to climb higher, to progress to a GOAL….  I move in circles, I travel in mazes, I let darkness enclose my steps, I cannot know where the goddess goes.  She presses my hand, I tremble with fear and joy, I live–and, I wait to die into the dark.

To Sleep with Trees: a small meditation on lives & deaths

To sleep like Rip Van Winkle for a hundred, a million years…and then to wake into the wonder of a world made new.
It’s not the waking but the sleep I crave.
I long to plunge into a deathly sleep, a sleep that transfigures my nascent, waking self.
I would be a changeling, stumbling bravely through a sphere seen anew.
A sleeper who wakes not herself, but another altered eye/I.

neemtreeAs a child, I used to creep out of the back door of the bath room, out to sit under the Neem tree in the night quiet. [http://www.organeem.com/neem_tree.html] Sitting there, I would let the minutes and hours slip away, breathing in the sentience of non-human earth. Way back in the bowels of the house, caught by human anxiety, Mum would hunt for me, “Grie, Grie, where where are you?”

The faint echoes of her voice cautioned me into total still, under the leafy neem scented starlight. Though our house lay in the center of Madras, three roads bordered the bungalow:  our back yard only connected to old lady Achutha Menon’s front yard, separated by a wall and yards of shrubbery.  Mum, moreover, had planted trees all about the compound wall, cutting us off from neighboring lives.

On the ground, seated beneath the Neem, I, small Grie, shared a reality that humans, bustling about their lives, missed. Feeling the earth breathe, the insects bite and rustle, small creatures (rats?) stir about me, I touched G-O-D, unknowable mysterious process that, even then, reassured and brought me curious strength.

Years later, Mum referred to those ‘catatonic’ states of mine. She’d been worried, she said, but Swami put her mind to rest, though he counseled me not to sit alone when he sent me off to his women’s college in Anantapur, about six years down the line.

Dad had died by then, so my mind tunneled into different spaces of grief and loss, crevices disparate from my dark Neem shelter.  In the scrublands of Andhra, I discovered, at the farthermost edge of playing fields, a rocky outcrop that I could sit atop to consider the barren, stony hills.  None of the other girls ventured close, scared off by tales of surrounding graves and their attendant ghosts.  But, the quality of solitude was different: with dad’s death, complexities of adulthood came creeping over my soul, trailing in its wake, romantic fantasies, sexual infatuation, and existential confusion.

Photo on 24-06-13 at 5.52 PM #2Only now, sitting in this little semi-open patio, with the Rain tree’s [Albizia Saman] branches spreading overhead in the green company of shrubby foliage, I wake from the thrall of an unplanned two hour sleep to chanting from the hall, and feel a sudden breath from the child I was.  [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albizia_saman]

Now, with Dad, Mum, Swami departed into the past–
now, stressed by a recent encounter with my ninety years’ old aunt who revels in the busy, petty minutiae of human interactions,
who still plays one human against the other,
have I woken to unspeaking child’s awareness.  Now, the little dog lies on the doorstep, a squirrel dashes from shrub to tree, a butterfly hangs from a flower, and only the gusting breeze bustles.

My father died in his fifty-third year, the earliest of my loves to depart, Mum in her seventy-fourth, and mysterious Swami in his eighty-fifth.  I envy my Dad his exit at the height of his human achievements.  Me, I’m 52.  My soul, and body, tire of interaction, I long for sleep in the bowels of the earth, next to the Rain tree’s roots.
Saman1744

Literate encounters: rural women and educated me

Deeply suspicious of institutions and organizations, but unable to rest easy with my own little nest-egg, I look around for folks I can help in any way– financially mostly, but also with a bit of personal involvement.  Here, in Puttaparthi, most village folk (even those in their thirties) are either illiterate or literate just enough to read labels with difficulty, having just scraped through high school, about tenth grade.  Exploring various definitions of ‘literacy,’ commonly accepted as the skill of reading and writing, I came upon the following by the U.N.:

“[This] view, responding to recent economic, political and social transformations, including globalization, and the advancement of information and communication technologies, recognizes that there are many practices of literacy embedded in different cultural processes, personal circumstances and collective structures”….‘Literacy’, throughout history and across societies, has encapsulated a varying range of skills and erudition, but its antonym, ‘illiteracy’, has always been synonymous with disadvantage. It is this definition that, perhaps, elucidates the concept best.  [http://www.unric.org/en/literacy/27791-the-evolving-definition-of-literacy]”

Photo: S.B. Krivit

Photo: S.B. Krivit

Even here, in rural, backwoods Rayalseema, I commonly notice all manner of villagers talking busily into their mobile phones.   Sitting on a bullock cart, jogging along with a stack of hay on tarred roads, the ‘driver’ wields his mobile phone while he urges on the skinny, underfed bullock.  Inside the ashram, too, I’ve come across maids and  sweepers chatting importantly on their phones.  I knew that they probably weren’t ‘literate’ but couldn’t figure out how they managed until a ‘dhobi’ or washerwoman wanted my phone number.

woman phoneSaraswati fished out her phone, laughed, and asked me to enter my number.  “How are you going to know that its my number when you want to call me,” I asked. She told me that she’d assign a symbol to my number, so that she’d know it was me.  Showing me different symbols, dots, dashes, asterisks, she reeled off the names behind the numbers.  Remembering symbols is impossible for me, my educated mind and memory used to the alphabet, but Sarawati had formulated her own personal code. Living here, I’ve learned not to label folks easily, even ‘literacy’ becomes an unclassifiable spectrum.  As in the UNIC quote,  strategies like Saraswati’s are part of “”many practices of literacy embedded in different cultural processes…”

Although I’m not actively searching for girls who want to study further,  I stumble across quite a few without looking, given where I live.  In Rayalseema [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rayalaseema] a district that suffers perennial water scarcity, the villagers eke out a bare living from seasonal crops.  Thanks to its founder, the ashram provides free schooling, but getting into college after that is impossible for the villagers as they possess only very basic English language skills when they make through from high school.  atp-frontOffering free education, Swami’s women’s college in Anantapur nearby, is now part of a whole university.  Ironically,  the standard of literacy required is beyond the locals.  In fact, I studied for 5 years in his college, and graduated with a Master’s which got me free education in the States!

The villagers, or original inhabitants of Puttaparthi before it became a bustling tourist town thanks to Swami, depend on the infrastructure of the ashram (and its attendant free hospitals, colleges, schools, canteens) for employment outside that of the land.woman farmer   The ashram proper employs a number of yard sweepers (also block janitors), a sweeper for each block of tiny apartments.  Most of them have been around for years.  Hard as the job is, it comes with benefits, and so prized, often passed down through generations of the same family–mother to daughter/ son, or even husband to wife.  Non-gender specific, the women actually outnumber the men.  Gangamma has been doing the job for years, arriving in the ashram at dawn, going home to her house in the village for lunch, and returning in the afternoon for another stint until about 5 pm.

Technically she’s not assigned to my block, but on the ground floor as I am, with a little private garden, I’m a face made familiar through the years.  During festival seasons, especially when Swami was alive, the place gets a noisy influx of pilgrims from the outlying areas.  Out for a spree with the excuse of religion, farm workers themselves, they don’t look for toilets but search for any semi-private spot to squat and do their business, more the women than the men.  At such times, I keep a wary eye out for such offenders.   Sure enough, a couple of years ago, I found a fetid pile of human feces in the corner, under some plants. At a loss about how to clear it up, I was glad to see a trio of sweepers cleaning up my neighbor’s yard in the absence of the regular guy.

sweepersNoticing me and my quandary,  the women wished me and assured me they would deal with the mess.  Curious to see how they would clean up human excrement, I hung around.  The two who had assured me most vociferously continued to sweep, but the third, the one I was least acquainted with, the quietest of the lot, disappeared.  Returning with a cardboard carton in hand, she proceeded to flatten it and, then, neatly swept up the stinking pile and deposited it in the waste bin.  Impressed with her wordless efficiency, I asked for her name and tipped her well.  That was how Ganga (the ‘amma’ is a suffix denoting formality, i.e. Gangamma) and I came to be acquainted.

After that incident, I would run into her sweeping elsewhere while returning from my morning walks.  Always quiet but smiling, she wished me on sight.  Dark and sloe-eyed, I find her the epitome of Indian womanhood, her hair oiled and coiled up in a bun, clad in a simple working woman’s sari.  Every so often, when the irregular worker assigned to my block failed to show, she appeared to sweep out my yard, so we got acquainted over a couple of years.  But, returning after a gap of two months from my Goa hiatus, I saw her no longer until she turned up at my door, suddenly one day.  Immersed in my writing, I was impatient, and told her to return when I was free.  Only later, when my composition was done did her words and appearance hit my consciousness, prompting a wave of guilt.  Teary eyed and hair in disarray, she’d appeared to tell me that her mother had died with no warning, just fourteen days after the death of her father who’d been ailing for some time.

Artist N.S. Abdul Rahim (Kerala, India)

Artist N.S. Abdul Rahim (Kerala, India)

Kicking myself for my selfishness, I inquired after her when I came upon the other sweepers.  Thankfully Ganga showed up to meet me again, and I could hear her out.  Weeping inconsolably, she repeated that the death of her mum had been a total shock. Bedraggled though she looked,  she’d returned to work.  In the weeks that followed, her face grew lined and she lost weight in her grief.  There no way for me to console her, I could only tell her that she should watch herself, that time would heal the pain a bit, even if, at the moment of loss, sadness overwhelmed all thought.  Diffident in the face of her loss, I presented her with a couple of my own mum’s saris and some money, poor consolation.

Over the troubled course of a month, Ganga continued disturbed and weary, but slowly her face regained its old contours.  Approaching me again, she said that she wanted her daughter to meet me.  Her daughter had recently finished high school, and wanted now to go on to study for her intermediate,  a two years interim course before graduate college.  Wondering if her daughter liked studying, and if her grades were any good, I questioned Ganga, unwilling to assume responsibility on hearsay.  “She wants to study further.  She’ll be the first woman to study beyond school in our family.  Anyway, please amma, I want her to meet you.  She looks like you, her nose, her face.”

I acquiesced.  What else could I do?  I warned Ganga, however, that I wouldn’t finance her daughter’s studies completely, although I could help out a bit if I thought the girl was serious.  She smiled at me:  “I’m not asking for any financial help.  I just want her to meet with you.”  So I did.

Pramila, her daughter arrived with together with Ganga,  and two small, restless kids, one her younger sister, the other a cousin.  In India, the concept of family is rather different from the West:  even cousins are commonly referred to as sisters or brothers. Until they clarify the relationship for me, I routinely get misled and assume they are all part of one family.  Although Ganga has four daughters, one older than Pramila and the last younger, she’d brought her niece along rather than her other two kids.  Looking far younger than her years, Pramila was quiet when I questioned if she was the oldest:
“Hey Ganga, I wanted to meet your oldest daughter, the one who is going to study.”
“My eldest is at home, my family has decided that she shouldn’t continue.  She’ll stay home and look after the house when I come for work.  Anyway, her eyes are weak. She wears spectacles.”
“But, glasses are not a big deal, I wear them too.  I’ve been wearing glasses since I was eight years old.”  I assured her.
Ganga remained unconvinced, “When she was about 10, the doctors slit a stye on her eyelid.  Then, they told me that she couldn’t see too well, that she’s to wear specs.  It’s better she remains at home.”
“What are you planning for her? Marriage?”

Source: The Times Of India Group © BCCL

Source: The Times Of India Group
© BCCL

She nodded hesitantly, “Pramila’s the one whom we want to send to Anantapur for further studies. My younger brother is checking colleges now. They ask for a capitation fee* of about 2 lakhs (ie about 200,00 rupees), then we pay fees of about forty thousand.”  [on the controversy about capitation fees charged by colleges and schools for entrance in India, see http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/keyword/capitation-fee/featured/4 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitation_fee ]
“What subjects do you want to take for your major?” I ask Pramila who looks totally out of it.
Like a parrot, she responds, “CEP.”
girl studentsI’ve no idea what the letters stand for, so I ask her to explain and learn they stand for “Civics, Economics, Politics,” one of the majors possible for an intermediate degree. On questioning Pramila if these are her favorite subjects, or the ones in which she gets the highest grades, she replies in the negative. Her cousin, studying for a degree in Anantapur at present, has told her she should choose this major.
“What do you want to do after this?”
“I’ll go to TTC.”
More initials, here they stand for “Teacher Training Center.” And at the Center, what is she training toward? A degree, a diploma, a certificate? She doesn’t know. Is the major relevant to entering TTC? She doesn’t know. “My brother has told me,” is her invariable response.

Gradually, I get her to come out of the shell of wordless disinterest, goading her with questions on her favorite subjects, on the papers she written best in her exams. Pramila has given me the certificate of her overall grade in school finals, a C-, but she doesn’t know her individual grades in different subjects. Finally, she admits that she feels that she’s done best in Physics and Biology. Surprised by that, I ask her to meet me again. After she checks, she’ll know for sure the subjects she’s done best in, and I’m curious if they tally with her own estimation. Poking her further out of her shell, I prod,

“do you want to end up doing housework even after your studies? If you don’t have a goal in life, if you don’t decide where your interests lie, and just listen to your brother, or, later, your husband, what is the point of your parents spending so much money on you? You’ll be the first woman in the family to do further studies, you shouldn’t let your parents or yourself down.”

Unfortunately, without proper guidance academically and emotionally, there’s an all too real possibility that Pramila could end up later in life as a maid or a sweeper.

Graduating from an ‘English medium’ school, Pramila doesn’t speak English, not even broken English. When I speak in English to her, I’m not totally certain that she understands me. But, by the end of the visit she’s more animated, and promises me to talk to her cousin, go to the Teacher Training Center in Anantapur, and to check her grades for individual subjects. I don’t set too much store by these promises. I’m not sure how long the enthusiasm will last, though Ganga assures me her daughter will meet me again. At the last I spell out the word g-o-a-l to her, explain what it means, and tell that she has to define some goals in life for herself.

Artist: Loui Jover

Artist: Loui Jover

I’d like to help further her education, but only if she will help herself, will attempt to become a woman who thinks for herself, and works towards some (any) goals in life. Motivation is hard to sustain in her circumstances. I doubt that Pramila will come by, but pray she will!

FAT comfort: wrestling with the image police

What’s happened to you, you’ve ballooned!big wonder woman

The ‘tactful’ remark greeted my hesitant foray into the garden after a self confinement of nearly 5 months in my apartment.  On venturing outside, I was only too aware that the garden lies in the epicenter of the ashram, subject to the sundry looks of passers-by, self advertised spiritual seekers. Ironically, the comment had issued from one of the longtime residents, hardly a slim woman herself.

The community had gone through an upheaval with the death of its founder 5 months earlier, and we were still reeling from sensational revelations of hidden wealth, silent immediate thefts by the managing council, and speculations about the true date of his death. [see for eg. http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/more-gold-found-in-sathya-sai-baba-s-ashram-in-puttaparthi-116432http://www.ndtv.com/topic/sathya-sai-central-trust; ] Unable to socialize, gossip, or add to the rumor mill, I’d shut myself up in my room. But, my room lies in the eye of the storm, behind Swami’s erstwhile residence, itself next to the big hall of worship where the 12 day death rituals were conducted–I could elude none of hysteria.

I’d lost the three of them over them over these 50 years of my life–Dad first when I’d just turned 15, Mum next, four years after my return from the States, and now, Swami two months into my 50th year. Menopausal, hurting with grief, I couldn’t take the socio-spiritual hubbub. So, for five months, I stayed within my little apartment. A box really, but one Swami had personally gifted to me just two years before he died. A prescient talisman, the room was simultaneously my protection and an object of envy, a double on the ground floor occupied by a questionable single feminist when whole families occupied a single.

How did the time of self immuration pass? Times of depression or great grief are periods of hibernation for the soul. The body may ache from lack of exercise, but the spirit needs silence and solitude to nurse itself back into human interaction. Menopause, lack of exercise, over-eating, all played their role: I knew I’d ballooned up.

But, still mentally vulnerable, that unthinking comment by a sista, a self-promoted white sari clad seeker, triggered my angry response, “Hey, you’re not so thin yourself. What gives you the fuckin’ right to comment on others?” Of course, she was righteously offended, unable to comprehend my anger or its cause. To her way of thinking, the remark was merely a casual joust, to me it was an insensitive blow to my already shaky psyche. I’d had to summon up my willpower and courage to go outside, into the glare of human interaction. Perhaps I unconsciously sought the friction of social intercourse that the scar tissue of ill-healed grief might toughen up?

Anger has always been my defense, armor to withstand the blows of the world. angryblackwomanWhere other folks cry, I scream. I throw tantrums. I used to break glass and crockery, tear up clothes, smarting from social hurts I couldn’t explain even to myself. “You’re oversensitive, you read too much into things,” friends and acquaintances advise me. But I’ve never been able to figure at what point sensitivity crosses over into the prohibited area of over-sensitivity.

Unfortunately, in order to be a productive, socialized, civilized human, this knack of differentiation is a pre-requisite!

Patch (for sale) by artist karapassey

Patch (for sale) by artist karapassey

Fat is chain-mail too, a sheath both defensive and aggressive. [on a life changing book, see http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2012/04/09/fat-is-a-feminist-issue-2/ ]  Right from childhood, I’ve been plump, overweight, at one point even labelled obese by the school doctor, a family friend.  I remember my mum outraged by the word, “obese, what a word to use.  She’s not obese!”  So, the very first time I heard the word, it was an insult, an affront to parental nurturing.  Looking up the word, I took in its connotations and cringed.  That was the beginning of fat guilt:   I was the culprit in my obesity.  My mum consulted our family doctor after that report about my ‘obesity,’ and he put me on a diet.  It didn’t work.

Obesity, however, didn’t come in the way of my activities.  I played throwball, basketball, netball, even tried hurdling.  Inclined to sports, and addicted to swimming, I continued stubbornly overweight.  And obese I grew up–through my troubled teens, my father’s death, my college years in Anantapur, through grad school in the States, and my return to India and the ashram.   It took my Mum’s death to make me lose weight.  I walked miles each day, worked out frenziedly between times sitting in the big hall for Swami’s darshan.  Appropriately enough, that was the time my sexuality made its presence anew after a decade of dormancy. I wonder if such sexual hunger at time of loss is a reaffirmation of life force, the urge to the species to continue to propagate its kind.

Crossing the forty watershed, I looked much younger than my age.  It had nothing to do with weight, however–I’ve never looked my age thin or fat.  angry black womanNow, at 52, I still don’t look my age, fat though I thankfully am.  Looking young, to me, is more trouble than its worth. I’d rather look my age if not a little older: youthful looks often encourage patronage, particularly by the men. I still suffer from the occasional male follower, at a stage when sexuality is more trouble than it’s worth. How did I regain my weight and recover the self I’m most comfortable with? [see a wonderful post on self image: http://www.thefword.org.uk/features/2010/01/feminism_and_fa]  A torn knee ligament which the aches and stiffness of menopause only made more painful, Swami’s death–the last of the trinity I love–and the accompanying depression/ grief.  So here I sit, typing these words, too big for the world as ever.  I’m out of the agoraphobia of intense loss, go for regular walks early morning, work out with weights, but I’m a big mama.

After 52 years of being obese, with a skinny interim of maybe 5-6 years, I have at long last learned to rejoice in my big self.  Too large for the social spaces I’m in now, and spaces like academia that I moved in earlier, I am the right size for me.  Men can’t easily talk down to me, either physically or intellectually, nor do most women. [see also– http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/oct/11/gender.society ] Thin socialized women find me unsettling:  loud, big, and rebellious, unable to conform.  I make my friends uneasy, as I really have not much yen for company.  My solitary self does not revel in too much interaction.  [on singleness today, see http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/05/09/going-solo-klinenberg/http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/04/16/120416crbo_books_heller]. Most comforting now, I’ve begun writing again, taking up as much space as I want in words and letters.

I spread myself easily: I am fat enough for comfort.

dirty words, filthy mind, profane body–reclaiming language & god

Women porters Madras 1920s

Women porters Madras 1920s

In that never never time of memory, a decade ago when Mum was alive and Swami too, I worked at the Western Canteen, pre-dawn, mornings, afternoons, and evenings. A dog used to accompany me there, leave me to work and sometimes even appear to take me back. Pappu was my Mum’s dog, really, but she took it upon herself to assume responsibility for me.  (Who owns whom?)   Eddie, a co-worker seeing Pappu’s solemn duty, joked, “one man and his dog.” Without thought, I reacted, “No Eddie, love, its one woman and her bitch.” Eddie found my come back apt, but funny, as I did too at the moment. But, my own quip remained with me through the years: unconscious knee jerk reaction to language and its sexism.

Now, when I’m writing this blog, putting words down after a silence of almost twenty years, I find that words like ‘bloody’, ‘period’, ‘bitch’ run through my sentences. I wonder at myself that I gravitate instinctively toward words or phrases resonating with women’s sexuality. An Young Woman in Sari, Rides BicycleGrowing up an overweight child prone to tantrums, fits of withdrawal, I had my parents worrying about my mental health.  [See Mollow’s article that looks at fat discrimation even in the queer community: http://bitchmagazine.org/article/sized-up-fat-feminist-queer-disability] Getting my periods early didn’t help either, nor that I possessed a shrieky witch’s voice too loud for the surroundings.  These traits added to a mind that couldn’t take anything for granted meant that I invariably got singled out.  Trouble followed me around.

My discovery of Audre Lorde, when doing my doctorate in the States, lifted a weight off me.  Reading “The Uses of Anger” and the poems in “The Black Unicorn” and meeting Lorde herself gave me a role model. I fancied Lorde literally bulging out of the confines of white racism and academic restrictions with her big black lesbian body.  She thrust the physicality of her black, woman’s body in the midst of white anemic writing. Lorde Myself too big, too loud, too argumentative for my Indian context–the well behaved, upper class schoolmates, or conversely, the conservative, modestly hindu collegemates in Anantapur–I rejoiced to be one among the big, black women I met.  [On going against the norms of modest Indian womenhood, read http://thefeministwire.com/2013/05/walking-the-tightrope-good-indian-girls-race-and-bad-sexuality/ ]  Called “nigger” by my black friends, I learned the painful ironies of that sisterhood.

Running out of beer late one night, Jackie, my girlfriend, and I walked down to the corner store only to be told by the lone clerk that we couldn’t buy alcohol after midnight, although we knew that the cut off was 1 pm.  When Jackie and I suggested that he wasn’t selling us the liquor because we were black, the store clerk was on the verge of pushing the panic button, thinking he was about to be attacked by us.  Merely the sight of our skins signaled aggression to him.  Where then is the difference between black and brown.  Did Indian culture and upper classness distinguish me any from Jackie, my  tough black ghetto woman?

A month or so later, Jackie left me, jailed for shooting a dealer when he intruded on her territory.  I wonder if I’d been around in that park whether I’d have been arrested too regardless of my involvement or not. [For a look at internalized racism and its workings, see http://shotgunseamstress.blogspot.in/2012/10/radical-anti-racist-racism-or-rarrrrrrr.htmlanti-socialLater, while writing my dissertation, I wrote of a black/ brown/ colored woman’s, particularly a lesbian’s, “monstrously feminine” body in the convoluted prose of critical theory.  The jargon of ‘high’ theory protected me against the messiness of words, the dirt of description and anecdote, the visceral secretions of women’s cussing.

Growing up, I learned first to lisp English syllables.  Speaking the different vernaculars of Coorg and Tamil communities, Mum and Dad, educated intellectuals both, spoke fluently the language of our colonized past.  Indian English is my first language, and I now dig in the mire of its sexist, racist, and classed legacy.  I speak my woman’s self and body, not to abuse my self but to savor the curious delight of an identity too big for others’ comfort.

But, twenty years down the line, doctorate or no, class markers or no, I am yet prey to a secret guilt that I am too gigantic, too clumsy still for the spaces in which I live and write.  That these negative socio-cultural attitudes persist, internalized somewhere in my psyche, is proof of the immense power of cultural norms.  I fight against these dictates of womanliness, but in moments of self-doubt they rise like specters to haunt me.  I shut myself up in an ashram room, go for walks only at first, faint light, and speak to hardly anybody but Tippy.  Grie Verd, the my private childhood nickname for myself fits snugly into the “malformed series of noh masks” by a Japanese artist in a collision of non-white hurting(s).  Apt indeed that I find these malformed faces/ masks beautiful! [see ‘About’ page: https://quiescentbeing.wordpress.com/about/]

And what about my clumsy quest for otherness, the ache of longing for some vast awareness that  includes all, animate and inanimate, and judges none?  Any route or religion seems to demand purity, often an ascetic purity involving continual cleansing of humanness–of the dirty woman’s self and body, in particular.  But I’ve been born with a being who hinted otherwise, that total acceptance of the self and universal process leads, will nilly, to surrender.  Surrender which rejoices in just being, worship and adoration without mind,  a sense of arbitrary divinity—I am tumbling through Generation-Organization-Destruction, process, entropy, cosmic chaos, multiverses.  I live in god. I am everything and nothing—loud, big, messy, dirty, bloody, slutty, womanly, angry micro in the macro cosm.

"Venus Variation Large" Artist-Susan Grabel

“Venus Variation Large” Artist-Susan Grabel

fat, bad, and witchy: a woman seeks god

A sinner, that’s me.  Always in trouble, always pulled by stuff that is often termed ‘bad.’ But what’s life without a bit of vice?  As long as you’re not really hurting other people, that is.  Living in an ashram as  I do, I run into narratives, stories of changing for the better, a progress toward goodness.  The Goddess and her consort know– whenever I hear these meta-tales of ‘evolution’ toward moksha, nirvana, heaven, a better life…etc I need a good long drink and a ciggie, if not a fuck.  Drugs, yes, done those, loved coke, but it doesn’t have a hold on me these days, and grass, too mellow.  All the last including sex, however, involve too much preparation and judgement: unfortunately, nowadays, I’m too lazy to take the risks I did when I was younger.

The implicit evaluation in “O, you’ve changed,” impels a mad rush of fury:  I want to beat someone up.  Can’t do that anymore, I’m not fit enough, unfortunately, but the urge remains.  I ‘m comfortable with the demon under my skin now.  Of course Swami it was, gazing at me long and deep,  who declared, “She’s good only….but, who will know?”  That acknowledgement led me to believe in myself, in my weird anti-social ache for otherness.  Earlier, through my childhood, I had always believed myself to be a bad person, given to anger, always questioning, always restless.

feminism-2bWriting this, I realize I’m glad to be–the middle-aged, menopausal, overweight, aggressive, limping, intellectual, hot-headed dyke I am.  Forget the trials of my twenties and thirties, when despite my anger, I still looked for understanding, needing beauty to complement my brains.  After my Mum’s death in 1999, I took to walking and working out in order to get the grief out of my system.  Though I  tired my body out, tears were always a hair’s breath away, as was temper.  Anyhow, for the first time in my life, I was thin, and beautiful.  A dab hand at make-up, attending darshan in the big hall at that time, I became the cynosure of all eyes, female and male.  But, much as my hormones danced and I enjoyed the lustful looks, my anger kept pace. Beautiful women may enjoy being objects of desire, but  my toned body and made-up face nursed an angry genie.  Follow her around and she’s liable to shriek a curse, or take an iron rod to your legs, and I’ve done both!  One arrogant boy in white, one of the chosen elect, close to Swami, drew my ire.  “You fuckhead,”  I said, and punched him in the chest.  Walking away, I turned to have a gander, and there he stood, with his hand to his chest, stunned. Now with Swami’s death, holy N— spouts religious clichés, and hopes for a top slot in ashram management.

Anyway, my brief spell of fighting fitness came to an abrupt end while semi squatting to lift weights at home.  With a loud pop, my knee ligament tore.

Take Up Space by Heather Keith Freeman

Take Up Space by Heather Keith Freeman

Misdiagnosed, the knee has never recovered, and is prone to swell and hurt.  Menopause followed up the injury, and I’m back to my bad ass overweight self.  What a relief!

What are my vices?  Not many, small ones but reassuring.  Long, cold gins and tonic whenever I’m out of here in the summer, and in winter, my staple, “Honeybee” the Goan brandy that lives up to the promise of its name.  Reminds me, I’ve got to drive down soon to Bangalore, while smoking a Camel toward a pizza and g-&-t.  Not far, a hour and a half away.  I live a life with G-O-D, yes, but I want to burn out fast, reach an explosion of stars and hear the anarchic laughter of space.

Being with God, for me, is the ultimate here and how, a sense of absolute oneness with a chaotic cosmos:  laughter and rest, where nothing in this world, the good, bad and ugly is taken seriously.   “If you really want to, you can be one with god in the blink of an eye.  It’s simple,” my Swami repeats endlessly.  Yet, spirituality becomes an exam, with grades along the way–visions, inner voices, yogic powers;  in any religion, people judge, evaluate and label sister worshipers.  I cannot bother with the rest of the community about me, only G-O-D, process without end, a journey with no goal.  For this absurd  love–of nothingness, formlessness, and journeys nowhere–I give you “Ithaca” by C.P. Cavafy, another outsider, civil servant and closet queer in Alexandria at the turn of the 20th century.  Sean Connery reads with background music by Vangelis who did the marvellous soundtrack for Blade Runner.

“….Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.”

 

Bloodletting II: my bloody sexualities

In a country like India with so many taboos about periods, my Mum was curiously casual about her first child’s coming of age. [see a description of taboos and problems in India here- http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/29/opinion/the-taboo-of-menstruation.html?_r=1& ] Only nine, and overweight as I was, my period shocked both her and me. In the 1970s, most girls started much later at about 13 or 14 years.  “Well, you got it early, so it’ll end early,” was her consolation.  I wish those words had come true, but they didn’t quite prove prophetic.  I ended my monthly blooding only at 50, a nice round figure. Forty-one years of ‘maturity’ proved useless as the idea of having kids left me cold.  I’m not into marriage either, being single, grâce à dieu, is the best choice I’ve ever made in life!

I’d like to reclaim the time of monthly periods as empowering, but, I have to admit, I’m a little relieved at the onset of menopause.

Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati, India.

Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati, India.

[see men’s research on goddess worship and period power: http://www.metaformia.org/articles/menstruating-women-menstruating-goddesses/; http://indianstemples.blogspot.in/2012_12_01_archive.html]  If only menopause didn’t arrive with various aches and sudden stiffnesses in a body shocked by the sudden withdrawal of hormones. The withdrawal itself wasn’t too hard a process for me, given some of my friends’ sufferings. More scanty, the period became more painful and frequent as well. My problem was towards the end–I’d be sure I was going in for a feverish virus, when, lo and behold, I’d see blood. Grateful for the abrupt bloodiness, I’d know the pain and stiffness would leave, and that I didn’t have the ‘flu.

Back to Mum. Warning me not to get too close to the boys (for months I would not allow any boy even to brush past me), she took off to attend a wedding. Already in her forties by then, Mum had tutored me in the art of using clean, old cloths to wrap between my legs. Torn from thin, cotton saris that had been saved for that purpose, I’d throw them away unless the blood flow was minimal.  Only then, would we wash and reuse them.  Looking back down the years, I find that my Mum’s method was ecologically sound as well as hygienic.

Quite apart from the nuisance of bleeding inconspicuously, I’ve noticed that there’s always weird stuff happening at “that time of the month.” My period was a trouble magnet. The time of my first period, for instance, my schoolmates and I were in the thick of rehearsals for “Tulips of Amsterdam,” a major school performance where the younger kids swayed onstage in bright orange stretch pants and short blouses. Plump as I was as a child, those seventies stretch pants proved more traumatic with thick wads of cloth between my legs. Sundry girls would comment, “hey, Grievs, you look kinda boyish down there.” Those ghastly stretches pants defined every contour and crevice. Hiding the news of my ‘maturity,’ I kept my bleeds deathly secret: if anyone deduced the cause of my ironic ‘boyishness’, they kept quiet about it.

More troubles followed when Dad decided to treat the family with a summer holiday in England, a year or so later. Trips abroad were a big deal in the days of protectionist India, especially trips for the entire family.  In Brockley, London we put up my uncle’s house.  Uncle K— had married a Britisher, Jean, and had actually disappeared from the visible face of the earth for a while to escape his mother’s demand that he qualified as a doctor. periodMy Aunt Jean wass a kind, solid Englishwoman, and she made us kids feel welcome when my Dad and Mum deserted us for a romantic twosome in Paris.  Naturally, with wonderful timing, my period made its appearance. Too shy to say anything to my aunt, I was at a loss about where to throw the used cloths. As children will, I wrapped and stuffed them into a bottom drawer, just hoping the whole mess would disappear. The smell grew stronger by the day and Mum didn’t appear, but Aunt Jean getting a whiff, during her housekeeping, discovered my shameful secret. I don’t remember much about the trauma of getting caught, but Jean was an understanding woman.  She showed me where I could throw the bloody detritus with no fuss.

Thank the Goddess, any Goddess, I found that sanitary pads existed about a year later. Leafing through one of my Mum’s woman’s magazines, (‘Femina‘ or ‘Eve’s Weekly‘ most likely) I came upon ‘Kotex‘ and its elastic belts. [of all writers, V.S. Naipaul comments on these two women’s mags, the first of their kind in the country, see http://books.google.co.in/books?id=BDBSzbe252kC&pg=PT117&lpg=PT117&dq=eve%27s+weekly,+femina&source=bl&ots=rChVNrDH8a&sig=8HRDDH8e_U7Yk9LqglP13JaCtdI&hl=en&sa=X&ei=bZ-RUdDHF4LorQfXmYCwBQ&ved=0CGsQ6AEwBg] After that first awesome discovery of pads, I read women’s magazines assiduously in hopes of finding more tips.  At eighteen, I tried tampons, not really knowing how or where to push them in. But, after several tries, squatting in the bathroom, I managed.

Over Mum’s and her sister’s anxiety (probably, they worried about breaking the hymen), I used Johnson’s ob’s regularly, preferring to push the tampon in with my fingers instead of a plastic inserter.  I found obs heaven sent in their practicality.  [See skywind’s comment to http://philobiblion.blogspot.in/2005/11/menstruation-why-is-it-so-hard-to-say.html] I loved that I could continue to go swimming even during my period. As the oldest child, I was forced to embark on a continual journey of discovery about my body, given that my mother was a generation older than other mums, only married at 34.  [more about my mum in a post to come]

image on Tom Tom Magazine

image on Tom Tom Magazine

Despite her worries, my mother yielded to my wishes, allowing me a freedom of mind and body. Not having a son, my father made sure I was never inhibited by my gender: I dreamt of becoming a fireman or a policeman, both macha fantasies. Unhampered by her female body as a child,  Grie was feminist even before knowing the word. Growing up with two intellectuals for parents, I was trained in deconstruction as I learned to mouth syllables.  Nothing was taken for granted at home, even the concept of religion, hindu and catholic as Mum and Dad were. Though Swami was a given, his visits home reinforced my parents’ ideas.

Even marriage as an institution was questioned.  A poignant memory recurs:  suddenly one visit, Swami looks over toward us, my younger sister and me.  We were only about 11 and 13 years old.  He gazes at us, and grumbles, “One of them has marriage madness.”  Sure I was the one being accused because I was in the throes of a hidden crush on David Cassidy, scrawling “Mrs. David Cassidy in my notebooks, I trembled. Fortunately for me, Swami’s finger pointed at my sister. Not really understanding the exchange at the time, I was only thrilled to have escaped with my pash undetected.

Later, after being sent to the States, in therapy there for being abused by an older woman in the college in Anantapur, I realized what that accusation meant. Marriage as an end in itself, a social identity, was challenged by Swami. Though he warned me on leaving for the States, “Don’t change partners like shirts,” when I returned having done exactly that, he teased, “You did change them like shirts, didn’t you? Girls and boys.”  True enough, after the abuse in college, I had needed to check out my sexuality for myself.  Under Swami’s mocking guidance, I learned to see sexuality as a spectrum. We position ourselves on one end of the spectrum, as lesbian or gay, or, on the other, as straight hetero, but bodily attraction is a slippery slope. Given different contexts, we are pulled toward people, men and women, to whom we may not be attracted at first glance. I know I’m going to piss off a lot of folks with this view, but it’s what I’ve learned through life.

Swami was a strange being, androgynous though physically of the male gender. Growing with him through different stages in my life, I’ve realized that rational classifications don’t apply in his case.  If I’m a feminist, a woman who likes being a woman and feels equal if not better than the men around, my perspective is  shaped through him. Though the society Swami moved in is homo-social, a segregated society, with women often belittled, Swami undercut those social morés frequently. For example, in a private address to a bunch of male students in college, with women sitting in an adjoining room, Swami remarked, tauntingly:
Spiral_Goddess_symbol_neo-pagan.svg“In the early days of Indian culture, women like Gargi and Maitreyi [women ascetics] were treated on a par with men, wearing the sacred thread and debating philosophy. Made jealous by their prowess, the men took the sacred thread and made it into the ‘mangalsutra’ so that the women could be put to serving the men tea and coffee.” [check out a sexist and caste-ist explanation of the sacred thread here: http://ajitvadakayil.blogspot.in/2013/04/upanayanam-sacred-thread-ceremony-of.html]

An astringent comment on the patriarchalism of Indian culture, Swami’s words go unnoticed, and unremembered in favor of other sayings on the role of women as mothers. But I was present, and of course, Swami’s rebuttal of men’s superiority went straight into my fierce woman’s heart, especially since I had just returned from the States after writing a feminist thesis. On my return to India, I had feared the set up in the ashram–men and women segregated, with women consistently put down. Swami’s deconstruction of Indian his-story gave me courage.  And so, I stayed on with the being I love most on earth, and learned to trust myself loving him. I am woman and strong, loving and loved….

Check out the blogs listed, wonderful indian women on the PERIODhttp://madperiodwoman.wordpress.com/
http://youngfeminists.wordpress.com/2008/06/09/menstruating-goddesses/
articles & tips: http://menstrupedia.com/blog/
discussion: http://newint.org/cgi-bin/new.comments.pl?action=rss&article_key=/blog/2012/05/11/becoming-woman-india/index.html
for a young western feminist, see- http://sketchbookradical.wordpress.com/

A dance through death–of non-human beings

Mornings, these days, I want to wake at 3 am, enjoy the dark quiet before the ashram about me stirs all too soon. Now, I’ve made it to 4 am or nearly so, but when the alarm shrills at 3, I fumble to shut it down. Even at 4 am, when I move to draw the curtains open, I notice the corner room opposite on the third floor. The lights are always already on. An old couple, husband and wife, they’ve redone the room and moved in to stay only about a year ago, after Swami died

So many people still wander around, as I sit typing later in the day. A boy announces loudly, self-importantly to his sisters (or are they his girlfriends?), “You must know the places here. There is the western canteen, there. There is the Swami’s room” They nod, smiling, proud of his knowledge of the ashram.

I observe all, a fat spider spinning my webs onscreen. In this heat of May, my body balloons up, and clothes that fit me a couple of days before feel constricting today. I hang about behind my locked doors in long Indian cotton gowns, which shroud the body, shoulder to foot. Yet, if I’m braless, I need a long scarf to veil me for modesty; men of course loiter on their balconies shirtless, nipples exposed.  I dress properly, pants and shirt, only early morning when I leave the flat for my walk. Even at a quarter to six, I meet other ashram dwellers walking by on the tree lined concreted road behind. I exchange greetings with those whom I’m acquainted. It is a community after all, much as I struggle with its norms.

Among those morning walkers, I detect signs of Swami’s absence. The ‘boys’ erstwhile whiteclad, now, the few who turn up are in jeans and tees. Time stretches, there is more time to stroll, to walk. ‘Darshan‘ in the big hall is not as much a compulsion now as it was in the days when Swami walked the hall. Then, people lined up early, arguing about who was first in line so that they could stand a better chance at a spot where they could catch his eye. After his accident years earlier, after the initial dumbstruck horror of his non-presence, people slowly slacked off. Used to a being who never missed his rounds in the hall, a diurnal rhythm as regular as the sun, folks had to accustom themselves to seeing his erratic arrival–first, in a golf buggy, perched in front to be visible; then later in the Prius, kulwanthallmuch worse as he’d keep the glass deliberately rolled up; and, finally, pushed around in the wheelchair almost eye level with the seated devotees.

More exposed, more vulnerable as Swami was in the wheelchair, he could not be seen from the back of the hall.  Plush as it was, the wheelchair offered him up to his devotees, a victim where once he was master.  Swami played all roles, slave or master, enjoying the ironies of  human hierarchy.  In the hands of the boys who pushed him around, he spoke in muffled tones allowing the men around him to intercede.  His gestures often feeble and his eyes distant, those about him took it upon themselves to translate his words.  Serving himself up to his devotees in a plate, he dished himself up as  an icon even before he died, with those ‘close’ to him acting as pundits. Those men in the know increasingly took decisions of their own. Doctors turned up with remedies for Alzheimers‘, Parkinsons‘, and other malaises, attempting to ‘cure’ Swami even as they prayed to him for succor, or for their own cures. A comedy of human blindness.

The urge to get a good spot in the hall, to catch his eye, gave way to the inclination for social ritual. As Swami‘s arrival in hall became hit or miss, the attendees passed their time in various ways: gossip foremost, a chance at a tête à tête with the VIPs in the front rows, a sprinkling of minor celebrities. With the menfolk, staff and VIPs, seated on the veranda, looking down through the women ostensibly at Swami‘s house, the hall offered a chance at surreptitious romance or flirtation. Life’s nitty-gritty, human interactions carried on much like the great, sinful world outside the ashram gates.

In the midst of these worldly pursuits were sprinkled the grieving, the needy, the devout. But, that was Swami‘s way, “head in the forest, hands in society.” Living in the ashram meant being put through the mills of god, to be ground exceeding fine. Rubbing shoulders, smells, and sweat with same people in the lines, day after day, morning and evening, brought out all the jealousies, the viciousness, the petty snobberies, the kowtowing. As Swami retreated, the people in positions of management came into prominence. And did they enjoy it!

My place in the second row, my identity after mum died was always suspect. Many a time, Mrs. S– the white-haired domina of seating hauled me up for snapping at the ‘security girls.’ Women of indeterminate age, anywhere between 25-60, they’d graduated from the same college in Anantapur as I had, electing to do ‘security’ duty for the perks of an authoritative seat in front.  Security, there was, plenty of it, from being checked at the entrance for contraband like books too big, cigarette lighters, pens etc to saris too flimsy, blouses without sleeves, overly visible cleavage. Mrs. S—would smile, showing her large teeth, pat me kindly, and remark, “so, are those snakes on your shoulders showing?” Ooh, we’d get patted down daily, as did the cushions we carried which had to be stitched up at the sides.

That I carried on for darshan as earnestly, single-mindedly as I did for nigh on 10 years amazes me today. But, all said, that was Swami‘s mystery, the sense of otherness he carried into daily life. The adventure of being with him while detesting the society about him kept me going. I had to tread a fine line, as everybody realized that I was there, inexplicably, under his eye, personally supervised.  I could not carry rebellion too far, I loved him too much. My retreat from the hall during the last 3-4 years of Swami‘s life came about without my volition, maybe Swami spurred me on from within myself. Perhaps, my goblin god kept his jester (me) out of trouble as the hall slowly lost its mystique and surrendered to human routine.

Swami remained without appearing in the hall for longer and longer lengths of time. He confined himself to his room. Illness, perhaps. But, with such a strange being, I wondered, even then, if the drama of his decline was orchestrated. By whom? By himself, a being who used and manipulated his physical self without a pang of regret at its bodily suffering.

Long before the decline, I remember sitting next to Mum in the front row: Swami came by, paused to make a quip about something. Looking down at his foot peeping out from under the long orange robe, I saw that all the toes were rimmed in blood. Sweeping away the robe, I examined his other foot as he stood there jesting but quite aware of my horror. Yes, the toes were crusted with blood. What human being could cut his nails quick to the veins, making them bleed, oblivious to the pain? Torturers know that driving even the thinnest sliver under a nail makes the victim scream with agony. If, in the simple act of  cutting his nails, he could be so oblivious, why should he care about the agonies of disease, old age, or death?

That distance from one’s own body is not easily achieved. The nearest I’ve come is when I’ve pierced my own ears or brows, or during the 41/2 hours under tattoo needles. In that time, while the body is cut or pierced, pain becomes an experience in itself–no different from forcing yourself to eat on a full stomach, to depriving yourself of sleep, or to be hung over, or experiencing an orgasm. Pain/pleasure, or pleasure/pain form a spectrum of physical sensation. These experiences of the body are detached from the inner self.  Perhaps an evolved being may achieve total detachment from physical sensation even as the body undergoes it.Swami sil

Who knows? I don’t even want to fathom these depths. I only know that in the 52 years I’ve been with him, since I tumbled into this world, Swami’s life has been a little too neat yet too full of paradoxes, too mysterious for any human rationales. G-o-d lies all about me, seeps into my being, what have I to worry about in this strange adventure I call life?

Of fools like me–eccentrics in a spiritual asylum

Around the corner from me lives Subramaniam.  When I sit here at my window, I see him as he rolls by, white haired, chubby faced, rotund. Although he must be at least 65 years old, there is still something childlike about him.  Mornings he sports a bed head, white hair sticking up in spikes, a look that I still (52 myself) attempt to duplicate with hair gel or wax.  His clothes are different too: for the last three days he wears the same bright red baggy pants, and a loud red plaid shirt.  With his hands scrunched up like a child’s, one finger pointing toward the ground, he is the resident ‘Idiot’, a fool, certainly mental.

Continuing to live on in the ashram after my Mum died, I heard a loud rapping at the front door suddenly one night.  Nine o’clock is late night here, particularly in those days a decade ago.  Everything had shut down, and quiet filled the place– especially so for my flat on the high road, just behind Swami’s residence.  Taken aback at the rumpus, I stood behind the door (a mesh door) and asked cautiously, “Who is it?”

“Grie, Grie, it’s you isn’t it? I know your mum, where is she? Her name is T–, your sister’s name is N–, she’s married. She lives in France. You lived at 4a/1 Tank Bund Road. Don’t you know me? Why didn’t you get married?”

“Who is it?” I repeated, wondering what was going on.

“I was there, in the D— Mental Hospital from ’73’-75. Dr. D—, your dad, he’s dead. Is your mother dead too?”

“Hey, go away. I’m not opening the door. You’ll get into trouble knocking at doors after 9.”

“I’ll get into trouble?”

“Yes, you will, now, c’mon go.”

Subramaniam mulled my words over, standing behind the door for a while, and then he left.

The encounter stayed with me through the rest of the night.  The details he remembered had touched a nerve, and I found it difficult to sleep. 

Image courtesy of Jennifer Warters

Image courtesy of Jennifer Warters

Subramaniam’s memories of his stay as a mental patient at my father’s hospital triggered my own memories of Mum and Dad.  As children, my younger sister and I had played in the grounds of our family’s mental hospital.  He remembered me, but I had no memory of him. My childhood years, except for sporadic bursts of random memory, remain a blank even today.  But, in the years that followed after Mum’s death, Subramaniam and I developed a curious camaraderie. “Take me with you when you go to Madras. Promise me,” he’d demand off and on. Those years I was an alien to the ashram community, looked at with suspicion.  Subramaniam’s memories became a lifeline to my own identity, lost as I was in no woman’s land.

Most ashram folks couldn’t comprehend what motivated me to remain, an obvious misfit, with my cropped hair, jeans, tattoos. There I was, alone in a big flat when whole families stayed cooped up in small room, a woman without work, and single. Swami keeping me on didn’t help either.  He didn’t place me in an institutional framework like he did most single women of my age–he put them to work in the school, college, or hospital. Me, he kept to myself, prohibiting me even from helping out in the canteen where he’d plunked me down earlier.feminist-comics And, he never forced external social markers on me–long braided hair, womanly ornaments, the Hindu/ Indian red dot on the forehead. Good, womanly woman I could never be, and he left me be.  Bolstered by Swami’s support, I always reckoned that social morés asked too high a price in such badges of belonging.

Eccentric alien as I was, my frequent outbursts of fury put me further outside the pale. Particularly aggravating in their holy whites, men dominate the surroundings, elevated to supremacy merely through gender.internet-dominatrix Unable to look me in the eye, the male staff talk down to women, particularly single, jobless me. My hackles rise with such treatment, especially when a few of these holy beings took to following me around. Trude, an Austrian friend and ashram habituée, joked that the ‘boys’ in white ( men anywhere from 20-40 years old)  fixated on me because  they longed for a dominatrix to spank them into submission. I wouldn’t have minded, in those years, a leather whip in hand to slash across their hypocritical cheeks!

Give me Subramaniam any day.  Staying alone in his little ground floor room, he trundles around the place, even venturing outside the ashram gates.  Leaning against the gate, mouth pursed in a perpetual pout, he watches the world go about its routine.  I’ve often seen him engrossed in a chat with the policemen who guard the sanctum sanctorum, or with sundry workers.  Sometimes they picked on him for a laugh, but mostly they looked out for him.  A mascot, god’s idiot, one of the holy fools, Subramaniam moved out of  the mental hospital into a community of spiritual seekers.  Who’s to say who is closest to god’s heart?  The VIPs whom Swami conversed with in the big hall, who lecture away to the public?  Those whom he called in for private talks?  The men who donated big bucks to ease their mercenary consciences?  In Swami’s absence, those same front men, and their wives on the women’s side, use the hall for business deals, networking, routine commerce of life.

Or, are the white clad ‘boys’, running busily on errands about the hall, are they the Elect?  Now that death deprives us of Swami‘s physical self and its attendant hierarchies of ‘closeness’, what defines the status quo?  Seated in chairs about a marble tomb, or arranged cross legged in rows by order of importance, the pious chant sacred songs and mutter benedictions.  Seated furthermost in the back are the ordinary, nondescript faithful who wait long in lines for a sight of the tomb.   Subramaniam, of course, does not enter the hall.  He ambles outside, sometimes pausing against a wall, belly out, lost in his reveries.

Abetting his vagaries, I keep vigil in my room, gazing out onto the garden, hearing the singing from afar.  Somedays I never leave the flat, or if I do I embark only on an early morning stumble.  Early mornings, I may avoid social niceties.  Subramaniam, a self identified ‘mental patient,’  Grie, a self admitted ‘eccentric’ –only a thin social line separates us.   I think I would cross that border and join Subramaniam, if I could only let go–of a sanity still holding me in line–to evolve into an Idiot other Grie.

jester2

Spiritual Punk 2–security in anarchy

Evenings, I close myself off, draw the curtains against the dark, and put myself into a capsule removed from the world outside.  I float through the ether, crawl across the glowing laptop screen in black words, or creep through layouts, options, displays, WordPress webs.  More bot insect than human, I am caught up in discussions on Al Jazeera, You tube, blogs, feeds, the web.

Where am I now?  The ashram lies outside my window, but I live spaces inaccessible to the time before. Before the unthinkable happened and my Merlin died. (Reading sagas of Merlin as a child, I used to wonder even then how Arthur carried on.) When people outside my window bustle along to bhajans, routines, preoccupations of their own, I am journeying into nebulous spheres, inner and outer.  The darklight of inner vision impels me to re-discoveries, past memories of a quicksilver being, into webs of interconnected worlds.  Paradoxically, that inner urge leads me outwards, out of safe communal haven, into realms often anti-social, chaotic, anarchic, miraculous.

People taunt me, rebuke me,
they call me crazy
but I see
the whole world is crazy–
Yes, friends, I am crazy.
The agony is now insufferable,
I am driven to destroy all
like the thunder and lightning,
torment and energy.
O friends, I’m crazy.
Bulleh Shah

Saved from years past, the yellowed scrapPhoto on 21-04-13 at 8.18 AM attests to a time that I sat in the big hall, morning and evening, to have darshan, a word now reified, empty of meaning.  In Sanskrit ‘darshan’ means sight, although Indians, especially Hindus, use the word to connote seeing the divine.  Visiting temples, we receive darshan of the particular idol (god) present. Often the devout see the symbols as real, possessed of miraculous powers. To visit one Shiva temple is not enough, another may offer different benefits. Ideally and philosophically, of course, the icon is only symbol for a God (a form describable in words) endowed with particular attributes. But,that God or form (Rama, Krishna, Lakshmi etc) offers a bridge to the formless, through faith. Outside the pale of human cognition, that formless Other is unknowable through reason or language. A three step process, Hindu worship moves from idol/icon to idealized form to formless Other outside the bounds of language.

The intricacies of Hindu philosophy are beyond me and this blog, but I suggest that acts of worship are never simple. Swami, living breathing body, was himself a symbol. Unpredictability and mystery framed his life, but so did massive social projects such as supplying water to outlying villages, relief to drought/famine victims, institutions like free hospitals, free schools and colleges.  The paradox unsettles easy formulas for his followers.  Though people remake his daily utterances into prophecies, their human reason writes these narratives. We sit secure in the confidence that we are the Chosen, privy to divine mysteries. World religions are constructed on such premises, why not particular communities?

In seamless social transition, the devout receive darshan of the marble tomb, now the center of the big hall. Tomb=avatar=god=formless brahman?  But, what if one step (the initial step) of the process is enough?  For the good devotees, the marble tomb is now harbinger of miracles and signs, a sanctified sight, metonym of the (dis)embodied Avatar.  The concrete symbol assuages doubts, affirms the codes of correct spiritual practice.  Having lived , fought, cried, argued with, and loved, a Magical Being, I spurn the cold concrete.  Societies need to continue along regulated tracks, as do those who require human shelter. Limping, fifty, and menopausal as I am, I do not.  I fight the good fight, punk to the last.   I struggle to rediscover the adventure of a living Merlin, the uncertainties of  a human god.

That god booted me out of the ashram on my mother’s death, but just as inexplicably called me back a few months later.  And, years down the line, he packed me off again–to sell our house in Chennai, falling down and decrepit–ten years after my Mum’s death and two years before his own, so ensuring my financial independence when he was gone.  Three years before Swami died, I wrote to him (sending the letter as usual by courier, one among hundreds of others) that the games in the hall were too much for me. I’d rather sit in the flat without darshan but in solitude.  In reply, he started coming by for drivessai_baba_car_darshan in the Prius, right by my garden.  Standing there, looking down at my Merlin, I found myself surprised often by his secret smiles, acknowledgement of a covert anti-social pact.  This, the same god who earlier used to question Mum if I so much as missed attendance in the hall for a couple of days.  Process is all, “kaalame devam” or “time is god.”  Swami was never static, he danced along with time, never missing a beat, a minute. He danced through life’s different stages, gleeful youth, solemn middle age, painful decay, but through it all those brown eyes darted ironic grace, joy in process, in entropy.

Knowing me better than I do myself, he spoke my unspoken self into being.   “You have no use for society, have you?”  Merlin observed once, his eyes compelling truth.  Bereft of words, I looked back at him, mumbling “nooooo  Swami.” He nodded in return.  That exchange warms me now as I type these words, disaffected by the world he’s left behind.  Who is to say that Swami is not punk? Sacrilegious and far out as it may sound, punk nihilism is an Other face of god that human societies cannot acknowledge–the terrifying Kali of Hindu mythology, the dancing Juggernaut Nataraja destroying all–the dance of  destruction contingent on the work of creation.   G-O-D=Generation-Organization-Destruction, in my Merlin’s own words.
Kali

This post continues in “Spiritual Punk 3″….

 

Spiritual punk–a tattooed woman goes home to god

Since I’ve labelled myself, or the noh mask icon on the blog, a “spiritual punk,” I’ve got to explain a bit.  As usual, I assumed that the internet would prove a catalyst, and so it does, overwhelmingly so. I found punks of all sorts on the web, Muslim, black, queer, fat, women, as well as the usual white men.  If I had any worries about using a racist term to describe myself, my fears proved ungrounded in today’s punk scene.  Punk, in fact, invites the dissidents, the outsiders, and those suspicious of social edicts.
But first, fyi, ‘spiritual punk’ is a particular strain of marijuana available online, both seeds and seedlings. All of you who’ve clicked your way to this blog, feel free to click further on Google. The strain appears particularly potent. spiritual punk-samsara seeds-fem ‘Samsara’ seeds is the secondary label: particularly apt for my blog: “Samsara refers to the process of passing from one body to another throughout all species of life. Hindus believe that consciousness is present in all life forms, even fish and plants…. Most Hindus consider samsara essentially painful, a cycle of four recurring problems: birth, disease, old-age, and death.” [http://hinduism.iskcon.org/concepts/102.htm] Wonderfully pertinent to my digressions on the interconnectedness of the universe, or on the miraculousness coincidence!

Why am I a punk? Because I see myself as the eternal outsider, who never fits in and who never shuts up about it.tatsme Mongrel to the core, I have always barked away frantically at attempts to make me toe the line. With a potato-half pressed on the back of my ear and a needle on the other side, I pierced my ear lobes diy, my eyebrow too. Though people tried to describe it as masochism, I found the piercings empowering, a protest against societies which tried to make me fit in, to homogenize my different selves into a well behaved whole (hole). I even tried piercing my tongue, but had to stop with the job nearly done; I couldn’t get the needle out through the base of my tongue. When I walked across the street to get it pierced, I found myself with a novice whom I had to direct. When he pierced my tongue too close to the tip, I got him to remove the ring and repierce me, while blood spurted all over. With swollen tongue, I walked back to my teaching assistants’ office to meet with students to discuss their writing.

Three years later, when I returned to my Swami, he never mentioned the piercings except to remind my Mum of the time I’d cut off my eyebrows, eyelashes, and hair after my Dad’s death. (I removed the piercings one by one over a couple of years with no external prompting, tired of the villagers’ naive curiosity.) Merlin’s total acceptance of my distaste for social edicts bound me to him. Never did he criticize me for my anti-social tantrums, nor would he allow anybody else, even my Mum, to do so. His absolute awareness and understanding of my self exceeded my own: Swami knew me better than I knew myself. Graced with such acceptance, I integrated my punk anger into a recognition of the chaos of the universe, of a god who celebrated entropy above social order. That G-O-D, in Swami‘s phrase, meant Generation-Organization-Destruction, with no part of the process prized above another. Process is all, the universe breathes, we die. So am I a spiritual punk. God as a symbol (sometimes a living symbol) is an anarchic sprite, the Coyote trickster of the American Indians, a beautiful, yet goblin being with warm brown eyes. Human, but non-human, more feral in his/its ways than a man with hands and feet of clay, Merlin/ Swami.

Today in my early fifties, fat and limping, I still fantasize about steel safety pins in my ears, about tattoos that crawl over my hip and down my swollen knees. Women in steel toed boots with green hair, red eyes, black/ brown skinned, still make my blood thrum, and the music–L7’s “Monster in Me” was and is the anthem to life, complete with “my lovable curse,” my Swami.

Come on over
It’s getting late
It’s time to fish
No time to cut bait
Ghoulish passion you inspire
With your kind of trouble
I’ll never tire
Monster
(monster in me)
Bring out the monster
(monster in me)
Monster
(monster in me)
Bring out the monster
(monster in me)
You bring out
The monster in me
In a world full of disposable icons
All the jokers with the phony come-ons
I know I can depend on you
Cause when we’re together,
we’re hurtin’ crew
We don’t need to look for trouble
My partner in crime, my insanity double
When life takes a turn from bad to worse
You’re always there, my loveable curse

Oh, Donita Sparks, the growl that issued cuntside, the reassurance that bad as I was, there were women to keep me company or kick my ass.  I remember a party in grad school where the white women who’d invited me began worrying I was going to get my black punk friends over to thrash the place!

Trawling the web today, from my ashram room, I’m totally psyched to discover Osa Atoe, of Shotgun Magazine. [check out her zine and music here: http://issuu.com/shotgunseamstress/docs/makingwaves01-rev1_complete, https://www.facebook.com/shotgunseamstresszine] Aware of the contradictions of punk, she still carries on the dream,

I have my own utopian fantasy of what I think punk rock should be and some small part of me feels like it’s possible, so I can’t let it go no matter how many times I get let down. Fantasies of utopia are what get you hooked on punk in the first place right? ….punk rock, offer[s] you a different way to relate–a different way to have community and live your every day life that feels more fair, honest and free. At moments, it really does feel perfect even though nothing ever really is. When I was around 19 and 20 years old, I believed whole-heartedly in the ability of the punk scene to actually be anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, feminist, anarchist–all of these things existing perfectly inside a bubble.
Numerous people by now have made the point that punk rock isn’t as separate from the “regular world” as we’d like to think it is. Many people have also pointed out that no matter how punk we believe ourselves to be, there’s still a little piece of The Man inside us all that recreates the injustice we wish didn’t exist in the world. —Osa Atoe

neverdie

[http://shotgunseamstress.blogspot.in/2010/02/punk-rock-utopian-fantasy.html%5D

this post continues in “Spiritual Punk 2”

 

New year days–different dates for different hindus

afternoon heat, or
a relentless sun?
or power tools
that whine
through my head?

I can’t write

buildings one behind
one, behind the other.
devotion
will fire
throats in unison

I can’t write

chant a benison–
Telegu,
then Tamil,
then Malayali
new year’s day

and I can’t write.

New Year’s day falls on so many days through the months. Here, in the thick of these unfaltering celebrations of an Other year, I cower behind my grove of plants. Bank holidays, market holidays, each community demands its due on the calendar. I made it through New Year’s day four months earlier, a day consecrated to celebration on the Western calendar, and for resolutions and cards. In arid Rayalseema where the ashram sits, the seasons cycle along different tracks–monsoon, summer, small rains, sun, and more sun. Looking out from my window, a non-participant in any ritual, new year or other, I find that relief only arrives when the crowds trickle into a quiet strollers, and the sounds that issue from the hall behind quieten to a murmur, of the obligatory morning and evening vedas /bhajans.

Swami often remarked that one should treat every day as if it is New Year’s day, wake with fresh eyes to see and act our lives anew. Each day, each minute, each second lies in time’s basket: we have to pick them afresh. That simple awareness is hard to come by when I am 51, my body and mind bear the weight of so much living that the first step out of bed is hard: I am stiff, and my feet and knees inflexible. Gradually, through the morning chores, they loosen up, but my mind can take longer. On certain days, it lies in stupor, wanting only ‘Mad Men’ or some such to avoid the chore of thinking.

Without the sea,in this landlocked town, almost scrubland in the summer months, March,April, May, I turn dessicated. Without Swami, I am bound into aimless routine. Even these words turn vapid onscreen; mere language does not initiate meaning.

jungle book

[Jungle Book Art Print by David Fleck | Society6]