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

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/

Hungry sharks–queer encounters in Cavelossim

Ten days into my stay at Luisa-by-the-Sea in Cavelossim,
Photos of Luisa by the Sea, Cavelossim
[This photo of Luisa by the Sea is courtesy of TripAdvisorI decide to get some lunch more suitable to my south Indian palate, so I venture into ‘Sagar Kinara’, a Hindu restaurant that offers a variety of cuisines. No sooner do I enter and look around for a table, a woman hails me, “Hey there, are you alone?  Come, join me, lets have lunch together.” Surprised at her chumminess, I take her up on her invitation.  Skinny, white, blonde and about my age, she’s a little inebriated, but that doesn’t put me off.  I order a gin and tonic to catch up with her.  Plates of shrimp, dhal, rotis, litter the table, but she merely picks at the food and begs me to share.

Sandy tells me that she lives in Goa, but is really from Scotland. She questions me about where I’m staying, and remarks that she owns a couple of apartments, one, indeed, in Cavelossim.  “Would I like to see the apartment?” Renting out those flats provides her with income, but she’s still short of cash.  The information given with bitterness,  she begins a rant about Goans being crooks. Why then, I speculate to myself, did she invest in property here, particularly as I know there are restrictions on foreigners owning property in Goa? http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/3351813/Keeping-it-legal-how-to-buy-safely-in-Goa.html

A few years ago in London, she and her friend buy a “Vogue” magazine in order to check the advertisements. Interested in applying for a job as a train driver, her friend knows that the London Underground  has advertised in “Vogue” for women subway train drivers. In that same issue, Sandy coincidentally sees adverts of property in Goa, probably with pictures of the sunny coast, and quaint Portuguese architecture. The prices, to western eyes, are low despite being quoted in sterling.  Just having sold her house and with money at her disposal,  she yields to impulse without even having set foot in Goa.

On arriving here, as to be expected, Sandy is disillusioned as the construction is way behind schedule. Now, a few years wiser, sitting in ‘Kinara,’ downing a couple more beers, she mutters that the other owners (all expats) and she are involved in a class action suit on the property developer.  Syllables a bit slurred, only picking at the prawns before her, Sandy mutters, “don’t trust Goans, they’re goin’ to rip you off. Le’ss go, le’ss see my flat. I fix’d it up nice. I ‘ll hav to clean it up, but com n see.”

We need to visit the rest room first, and as I take my turn, Sandy pays off the waiter.  I force money on her on our way out, followed by curious smiles from the staff. Surprised at the car, Sandy worries about my driving on the narrow winding roads along which the local buses, taxis, scooters hurtle along. We make our way back to Cavelossim, and to her flat which lies in a complex fronted by expensive looking shops. As we get down, she greets two men at the gate effusively, only to receive reserved nods in return.  On the first floor, her flat is carefully furnished with attention to detail, but the tenants have obviously just moved out.  Sheets to be washed are piled up in a corner, the kitchen counter is grimy with food debris.

“Who’s gonna clean all this up?” I ask.
“I’m the maid, I come in twice a week to give the place a once over.  No money, I need the rent.”
About her tenants, she snaps, “Those people were strange, they moved out soon.”  [mumble, mumble]
I puzzle over Sandy’s life– she’s so short of money that she cleans the flat herself. Labor here is a little more expensive than in the ashram, but to hire a maid is still cheap. Though I notice her outbursts, I initially put it down to her being a bit sloshed with beer, but begin to suspect she is as irritable with her tenants.
“those Russians, they come in and think they own you. Those Russian girls with older men, see how young they are?  Whores, and most of them underage.  I called the men downstairs for help when a Russian man abused me.”

She wants to go out for dinner but I need to get to Luisa-by-the-Sea to leave the car.  Besides, its still too early.  Once in the villa, I get out the gin, and Sandy hits the bottle.  She gets expansive: “When you walked into Kinara alone, I thought, that’s unusual, an Indian woman on her own, walking into a hotel. I just had to call you over.”  Recounting her various relationships, she glosses over any reference to gender.  I call her on that, “so was your partner a man?” My gay-dar has picked up the omissions, though she looks straight with her longish blonde hair.
“My partner was a woman. She died.”
Sandy rambles on, “I’m a dyke, its hard being a dyke in Goa.  There’s no gay scene here at all.  My hair was very, very, short earlier, like yours, but I got fed up of Indians calling me ‘uncle’. Don’t you get called ‘uncle’?”
“No, maybe ’cause my boobs are big.”
“Hey, you telling me I’m flat?  I got boobs, see.”
Looking more closely at Sandy, I notice scars on her shoulder with red welts trailing down her arm.
“I fell down the stairs and my shoulder joint got broken,” she explains too glibly.

Later, after more gins, she confides,  “A Goan family in Colva, my neighbors, threw me down and beat me up.  They threw boiling oil on me, ‘tell anyone, and we’ll see that you get beat up even more.’  Whom can I tell?”
I am horrified by her tale: the red welts and white scars are palpably real, but I also suspect that there is more to the beating than she lets me hear. Unwilling to delve too deep, and wary of her mood swings, I let her story be.

We go out for dinner, walking down the main road and looking about for any suitable restaurant. Deprived of choice, we head down a narrow lane that ends in a restaurant on a jetty, on the River Sal.
hungry sharkThe place calls itself “The Hungry Shark,” and we see quite a few diners, all whites, the women dressed for dinner. As we walk up to a table in the corner, the guy at the next table smiles and winks at me.  I stare hard at him, picking up the vibes of a foreigner-local interaction. Sandy, on the other hand, is loud; she joins her hand in an Indian namaste and walks up to the couple’s table. “Hello, how are you, we’re here for dinner. Is this a good place?”  The woman is reticent, but the man, perhaps in his forties, dark haired and sunburned, starts up a conversation. He discloses that they’ve been coming there every year for the past three years.
Sandy responds, “what’s a white woman to eat here? There’s nothing on the menu. Give me dhal tadka, kya?”
I order the Goan prawn balchao, which arrives too vinegary and sears my tongue.

Seated with my back to the dark waters of the River Sal, I look toward the interior of restaurant.  Three men cluster around a pool table, two browns and a white. The white man has an young girl draped over him. From northeastern India by the looks of her, with narrow uptilted eyes and high cheekbones, she can’t keep her hands off the man, older and stocky though he is. The pair intrigue me, and I point them out to Sandy.
“Of course she’s a whore. Look at him.”
Her comment rings true.  Oblivious to the girl’s caresses, the man is absorbed in discussion.  All three men pay the girl no attention, and yet she is striking with her exotic looks and flamboyant dress.

The restaurant, despite the Brits dining at the brightly lit tables on the jetty, darkens and takes on a more sinister hue.  I am unable to finish the second gin and tonic.  Sandy, on the other hand, wants a shot and insists that a genuine bottle of tequila be brought to the table so that she may examine the label.  Genuine though the bottle look, I wonder if the contents are diluted.  But, the shot is brought, and Sandy downs it, orders another.  At long last, we request the bill: it is a hefty sum.  Splitting the amount, Sandy runs short of cash and I make up the difference.  When we question the alcohol noted on the check, we realize that the place serves no small pegs–every time we’ve ordered liquor, we’ve been served a double.  “The Hungry Shark” is a monster alright!

Tottering with all the pegs she’s put away, Sandy blusters about not having enough cash on her as we walk back through the dark lane.  “Forget it, no big deal,” I say, but my reassurance falls on deaf ears.   Midway between her flat and my studio villa, my own temper flares up.  I’ve had enough of her.
“Fuck you, Sandy, I’m off.”
“Can you reach home safe?” she questions.
Her concern is genuine. She looks ludicrous, hardly able to stand, worried about me.  A visceral empathy with her–her contradictions, her mess of memories, the violence of her interactions–almost undoes me, but I move on. To the studio, and to bed, and the relief of solitude.

I never see Sandy again nor do I attempt to. Strange fish, stranded on the shore, belonging neither to the Indian seas nor to the tourist reefs. For the space of an evening, Sandy and I, both women and both misfits, overlapped in our common shadows; then, we swam away in separate currents, fashioning our different selves.