By Meenakshi Thirukode
[This piece was written at different points between 2020 and early 2021.]
One of my closest friends, a german citizen living in Delhi and I, collaborate on projects involving feminist consciousness-raising. Through conducting, varied formats of this workshop, “Pact of Silence – How to break it?”, we collectively, with participants, think through what it entails to create safer spaces for art and cultural workers in a post #metoo context, particular to India.1 We’ve worked through different formats of learning/unlearning, depending on the group we are with and what their needs might be. The most recent format involved a restorative circle. Restorative circles find their history in indigenous communities, particularly in New Zealand and in Canada, where conflict is resolved not via a carceral and punitive State that works on the logic of punish and discard. Instead, it seeks to find ways of accountability, self-accountability and forgiveness so that there’s a way to find a place for all involved, in the kind of world we want to build, that doesn’t look like the world we have with us now. In our restorative circles, there is a lot of sharing and talking but most importantly, listening and pausing. Of the deliberate taking of time, to think, perhaps to process, because so much feels at stake in that moment before we share or in wanting to share, something that has cut us deep, that has sat with(in) us, that has shifted, molded and shaped us, travelled with us, and lived with us in all our mundane rituals to our moments of rising, falling; cumulatively what we call our ‘lived experience’. And then that pause gives way to a narration. The pause of the speaker prepares you to be the best of listeners to that narration. Because, before the words come out, you must wait, you must strain your ear a little, your eyes must flit about looking around you, at everyone, some who lock eyes with you in anticipation, maybe you even let out a calming smile, while others look away, at their hands, fiddling to keep focus. Emotions are bouncing off of the walls, my friend once said. So much so that doing this indoors is almost impossible. We are all preparing in that moment of pause to actually listen. And there it comes, in time, a story about our vulnerable self. Some often say, how they’ve ‘never told this to anyone before’. And I’m always amazed how that happens, as common an occurrence as any, without much spectacle, where a group of strangers come ‘together’ in this accelerated space of togetherness. And then we receive their story, and we carry it. We allow for the speaker to have let go of something, and it always invariably still feels heavy for them, perhaps even more so for the listeners. Now we carry that which has so much stake for all of us. To have this knowledge, a passing on, generation to generation. And it is here, that I have found a situatedness of a site of study that inherently defies the logics of a neo-lib infrastructure of education.
Even in this writing of it, I must be deliberate, I must spell things out, I must not fall victim to the language of quotations and references, not in the articulation of a site of study because that would be lending this piece of writing as something for the ‘institution’, rather than something of an ‘otherwise’. It must continue to defy logics of form and structure and be an experiment of sorts, always going forward intuitively, improvising as I have done in building and collating many sites over the course of my journey in unlearning.
I’ve learnt that any exercise of abolishing oppressive systems must inherently start within each of us and build from there within our interpersonal relationships, in all its complexity, in order for it to have actual political ability of transformation – transforming self first at all times to transform macro level politics. The Far Right or Fascism as an ideology understands this – take for instance Whatsapp family groups, where many post truths are forwarded among family members – leading to many strained relationships between those who dissent and those who are origin families – fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. Whatsapp groups were sites of organising resistance, and it became an easy target for the State to come down hard on those many Willful Children. 2 Many have been spending months, and now close to a year in prisons. Many fled chat groups, many had fallouts and it’s the fallouts that have something to teach us. Fallouts between friends who went to their first protest, because we realised that something else carried us through the peak of a public facing gesture and camaraderie of resisting fascist forces. That something else disappeared with the onset of a global pandemic – weaponised by the same forces. Now we were not together, even while we were, technically, via groups or online platforms, or social media – all tools we had before, and tools we were immersed in at far more intense rates, and yet, something changed. We were atomised in this togetherness and we therefore had to get to really get to know each other. A seemingly simple gesture of talking, discussing and sharing a joke maybe – for lightness. And that’s where it began for me – it started with a joke. A meme, a set of images, a joke of dark humour a friend said, that was supposed to get all of us laughing – togetherness. We were keeping it light but it escalated. I didn’t find it funny. Others did. Some more didn’t. But we recognised something in that moment – we suddenly didn’t actually know each other that well. Someone said as much – “I actually don’t know you enough.” I exited the chat group. Loneliness. We all felt it in different ways suddenly. Solidarity, a common cause, wasn’t enough. There I saw a learning for all of us, for me. We were burnt out, we had tools of the oppressor, and it was glaringly not enough, doing exactly what it was built to do, just as it was meant to be – misreadings, misunderstandings, fights, tears while a surficial togetherness could still find an aesthetic and form. Despite that, we were changing. This change, however painful, and heartbreaking was real. A real life lesson. A lesson learnt. Another site of study. If we could all just recognise and look at it that way.
There was guilt in the fallout. Did we hurt each other, when we thought we were not capable of doing so? Hurt was externalised. Someone else was causing it. That’s how we always saw/see it. But my learning in a post #metoo world, via my work with my friend, through learning from Transformative Justice practices, is that we are, in that Spinozian way, capable of being harmed and causing harm. Guilt, my german friend tells me, has worked in the political context of Germany so that the violence of the Holocaust is never forgotten. Guilt in my friend’s context came after a pause in a restorative circle. It was unintended but it helped me realise, how her life and mine intersected – her narration of her family members trying to trace back and see who among their ancestors were Nazis, took me to a moment of recognising what it meant to remember and acknowledge my ancestors. It feels almost obvious, to see a white german woman acknowledge ancestors as oppressors, but my brownness belied my own lineage to a line of oppressors, within the Caste system in my very particular political context. In ‘Guilt’, a site of unlearning, a shift of POV occurred.
The Channar Revolt (Channar Lahala) also called the Marumarakkal Samaram (Protest to cover the upper body) took place in the early 19th century in Kerala which at the time was the princely state of Travancore. As Amrith Lal writes,
“It began in the early 19th century, when women from the Channar caste (now identified as Nadar, an OBC community) who had converted to Christianity sought to cover the breasts, a right only Hindu upper caste women were allowed to exercise. The diwan of Travancore state, Colonel Munro, issued an order favouring the demand. The upper castes (Nairs), who dominated the bureaucracy as well, refused to allow the order to be followed and attacked (Nadar Christian) women who sought to wear an upper garment. In the face of resistance from the upper castes, the order was even amended to say that Nadar Christian women could wear a jacket (blouse) that was different from the dress worn by Nair women.” 3
Embedded in this story of an uprising, is the story of Nangeli. A story, along with that of a series of uprisings and rebellions by women, that should necessarily be a re-framing of these voices of dissent not merely as an issue of gender. Because that is an erasure of what it really was – an anti-caste assertion. Nangeli, infamously, cut her own breasts as an act of refusal to pay the ‘breast tax’ or Mula Karam– a tax imposed by the Upper Caste Nair’s on Lower Caste Nadar and Ezhava women. Clothing was considered to be a sign of wealth and prosperity and so bearing one’s chest as a lower caste was to show respect for Brahmins and Nairs. Nair women were not fully spared from this practice and were not to wear upper body garments, when in front of Brahmins or when entering temples, again under the pretext of ‘respect’ and ‘honor’. It was Nangeli, however, whose death in protest, lead to the annulment of the breast tax in Travancore. Nangeli, like the Willful Child, the Feminist Killjoy, seems to raise her arms from the dead, each time the State strikes. First, when they demanded a barbaric tax and ever since, in their continued attempt to make her story disappear.
At this point in time, Nangeli’s story and that of the Channar Revolt, have been removed from school textbooks, furthering the act of erasure. Bits of her exist in articles that I find on the internet. So much of her exists in my histories, my story and in how I will tell it. Why I refer to this particular revolt and Nangeli, is that I belong to the community of oppressors – the Nairs. I am a Nair woman. I was brought up to be proud of being a Nair woman, as a part of a Matrilineal society, where women could walk around without an upper body garment. I thought, well, my community went bare-chested before white women fought for that right in their many waves of feminism in the western world. What a gross misrepresentation and learning it has been. What a revelation that all you have been taught as liberation and emancipation is in fact murder, violence, oppression. Guilt, I don’t feel in the same way as German Guilt, but guilt helped change perspective, and introspect, and re-learn this narration, so that I can attempt to tell it the way it happened. I wonder what set of choices were made, for me to come to this story, to Nangeli. How did I find her, or how did she find me. Perhaps what matters is then, that I write this down, that I remember and remind because that’s a site of study, of what I owe and must do, and the story I must tell if I call upon my ancestors.
I have sought many times to summon and acknowledge my ancestors. It’s something I learnt from theories and practices of de-colonizing via America, Canada and even New Zealand and in parts of Australia. While I align and must recognise black and south asian solidarities, I must acknowledge my caste alignment and that it is white supremacist/brahmanical supremacist adjacent. The complexity of this subjecthood is what our pedagogies, the spaces we then invest in to unlearn must embolden, must manifest, if we are to speak of a true project of acknowledgement, reconciliation, emancipation, abolition.
I am not simply marginalised. I must acknowledge not simply my privilege either. But I must do the real work to find that which is being written out, forgotten through many erasures.
Uprisings are essentially feminist killjoys. And so are we. Perhaps it is in the killjoy that we find, make, do and be a new language of an uprising, when other forms and gestures of dissent may be hammered down or co-opted by the State.
Pinjra Tod, a collective of young women who attend university across different states, cities and towns, was formed as a form of protest against oppressive hostel rules that curbed their movement – including and particularly curfews that didn’t allow them to venture out late at night. Pinjra Tod – to break away from the cage. Over the years, many forms of resistance have taken place and during the resistance movement against an unconstitutional citizens amendment act that was being rolled out, there was much to draw from the discourse they offered via their instagram account.
Recently I took a look at Pinjra Tod. On March 5th, 2021 it was Natasha Narwal’s 32nd birthday. She spent it in Jail No. 6, in Tihar Jail. Natasha was arrested on May 23rd, 2020. As recounted in the post, “ She was arrested on May 23rd, 2020 under FIR 48/2020. Along with Devangana, she was granted bail the very next day, the magistrate observing that there was “no reason to maintain the charge under Section 353 IPC”( the only non-bailable offence in the FIR), as “they were merely protesting against CAA and NRC.” However, within minutes of the two being released, the Special Investigation Team of the Crime Branch produced a second FIR (50/2020) and sought to rearrest them. On 17th September, Natasha was granted bail in the High Court regarding this case, the judge stating that there is no video evidence to show her indulging in any acts of violence or incitement to violence. On 30th May, Natasha and Devangana were slapped with UAPA charges. Their appeals for bail under this charge have been rejected in the Session’s court.”4
The image accompanying this post is a drawing by Natasha of her prison cell. There are the glass bottles with plants lined across the prison grill, some photographs which I assume are of family and friends. Books stacked on a ledge. We are told that Natasha and Devangana are fighting for jail reforms – including “asking for the permanent facility of e-mulaquats (visiting rights) with friends and family. They have pleaded for the resumption of access to doctors, therapists, and medical professionals for all inmates. To enable those incarcerated to continue with their education, they have pleaded for access to their research supervisors and resource persons through video conferencing.”5
I think of this story-telling. A recollection of events as they happened, the States relentlessness in bringing down the rod hard and permanently, indefinitely. Recollecting, to be repeated here verbatim, lest we lose this story too, that it gets erased, removed, deleted because we fear what may come if we dare to make a note of this, for posterity, for publication, even if obscure, like we were leaving clues, evidence, – this happened, remember. If the histories of women are lost, erased, and meant to be found, then we do what needs to be done for one of us in the future to find us and others. That’s what pedagogy really entails, in a site located otherwise.
Resistance also teaches you about shifting subjecthood, shifting histories rather than histories written by whoever the ‘winner’ is considered to be. If feminist thinking is so much about the lived experience then that is where you can find many temporalities of a situated site of study.
When we move in and out of a site of resistance, it is a learning on those temporalities we occupy. At once our bodies are at the intersections of class, caste, gender, religion, race. This resisting UC upper middle class bodies at sites of resistance threatens/ed the State. It is a body politic that the States collusion with neo-lib agendas was hoping for a capitalist realist apathy of body, mind, spirit and imagination – of our very consciousness. Instead, she resisted, she improvised, she mixed and mingled and learnt to stand near a body that was easy to identify by the States markers – markers that were adopted as bigoted slogannering or dictats sanctioning violence by the frenzied mob on those who resisted otherwise.
And yet, we must speak here to the continued difference in class and caste struggles, embedded in our body politic as a practice in self-accountability – exemplified in the way we consume these narratives differently, whether it’s bigoted media or the UC/Upper Class inability to fully grasp what it might take to show an intersectional modality of solidarity. Nodeep Kaur, a dalit labour rights activist, who has spoken to the intersections of the farmers protest with that of labour rights owing to her own positionality, said in a recent interview, “This is the difference in class..The upper-class people feel that if they speak again then they will be targeted. But we will be attacked even if we remain quiet.” 6 This in relation to the story of Disha Ravi, who in acknowledging her privilege says,” The immense outpour of love from the people gave me strength. I am grateful for everyone who stood by me. The past few days have been beyond painful, yet I know that I am one of the privileged. I was lucky enough to have excellent pro bono legal assistance but what of all those who do not? What of all those still in jail whose stories are not marketable? What of the marginalised that are not worthy of your screen time? What of those who face the world’s brazen indifference? Although their physical forms are trapped behind bars because of our collective silence, their ideas continue to live on as will the united resistance of the people. Ideas do not die. And, truth, no matter how long it takes, always reveals itself.” 7
And so the ‘rod’ must come down on the Willful Child. She must be put in her place. She must be located as a ‘mob’ instead, as was done with Natasha and Devangana, Nodeep and Disha, and many a body politic of the young urban woman dissenter and the working-class woman at the intersection of caste marginality. These women were meant to be ‘lessons to learn from’ for anyone who dared speak truth to power. I can tell you that I feared taking the names of these women, feared remembering, reminding, of being the willful child myself. Locating her in a fixed, unwavering location of power via Sovereign and Surveillance she will serve as an example to others who dare to be loud, to speak up or to even share the toolkits. In a capitalist realist state of being, co-options of language, our clothes, our bodies, our minds, our music, films, the stuff of life – of lived life – from which we gather and build our knowledge outside of the beast, has already occurred. And so, our endeavour has to always be to find an exit – even if it doesn’t necessarily entail an actual leaving but more of an abolishing at the most intimate and micro level of interpersonal and introspective personal politics. Where the beast has already entered but where perhaps some bits of a willfulness still lies.
1 Pact of Silence – How to break it?, is a collaboration between artists Meenakshi Thirukode and Arnika Ahldag that was active as a collaboration between 2018-2021. They continue the work outside of this framework of collaboration towards creating safe/brave spaces.
2 Here I refer to the figure of the Willful Child, from Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life.
4 From Pinjra Tod’, instagram acct, accessed March 13th 2021, Post Dte March 5th 2021
7 https://scroll.in/latest/989448/the-truth-always-reveals-itself-disha-ravi-issues-statement-about-her-arrest, accessed March 15th, 2021
8 Sovereign and Surveillance here is meant in Foucaldian terms.
Meenakshi Thirukode is a writer, researcher, educator and feminist killjoy. The recipient of the 2016-17 FICA Inlaks Goldsmiths scholar at the M.Res program in Curatorial/Knowledge, Goldsmiths, University of London, Meenakshi also graduated with Honors in the MA History of the Art Market, Connoisseurship and Art Criticism from Christies Education, New York (2008-09.) Her areas of research include the role of culture and collectivity from the POV of a queer femme subjectivity, that’s located within the realm of a trans-nomadic, transient network of individuals and institutions. She runs ‘School of IO’, which is a space of unlearning, dedicated to navigating ‘study’, as a radical tool of political agency.
Her recent projects include organizing the ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ conference at MAC Birmingham, UK as part of the India-UK 70 years celebration (March 2018) and ‘Out of Turn, Being Together Otherwise’, exploring performance art histories in collaboration with Asia Art Archive (AAA) at Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa, India (December 15th-22nd 2018) . Her chapter ‘Towards a public of the Otherwise’, was published in the Routledge Companion Series for Art in the Public Realm in 2020. She is currently a ‘reading resident’ at Stroom den Hague, NL.