Tag Archives: identity

story of a single brown canadian woman’s body

 

If you have been following the last few posts, then you are aware of the fact that I have been working on some new stuff. Rather, this “new stuff” has become a marker of everything that I now produce, creatively.

I am not sure what opened up the floodgates, but somehow, all the inhibitions I had as a writer have been shed. I am unafraid to be vocal.

And the words… they just keep on coming.

My poem, “story of a single brown canadian woman’s body,” is a part of Media Diversified’s newly launched Tumblr Poetry Series. Some of the issues I extrapolate in the talk in my previous post are evident in this poem, as well. Go see.

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Shades of Pink

COMPLEXionE-flier

I have a photograph, “Shades of Pink,” from Toronto Caribana 2010 that will be a part of the COMPLEXion exhibition in Toronto in October. Details below.

WHAT: “COMPLEXion” – a multidisciplinary collaborative exhibition presented by 3MW Collective and Refuge Productions addressing shadeism in communities of colour.

Local artist collectives join forces to bring awareness to the issue of “shadeism” within communities of colour through their multidisciplinary exhibition “COMPLEXion”. This spectacular exhibition will feature painting, photography, installation, film, music, dance, and spoken word, all addressing issues of “shadeism”.

“Shadeism” (i.e. colourism) is a form of prejudice or discrimination in which people are treated differently based on a range of social meanings attached to the shade of their skin colour.

In collaboration between the 3MW Collective and Refuge Productions, COMPLEXion will share multiple stories related to shadeism, from a wide spectrum of people of colour expressed through a variety of mediums including, visual art and installations, music, film, and poetry — together producing a complex and powerful visual and emotional experience.

Participating Artists:

  • Angelot Ndongmo, Storytelling
  • Sun the Real Sun feat. The Students of Lost Lyrics, Musical Performance
  • Ayan Siyad, Photography
  • Nadia Alam, Visual Art
  • Lelu Angwenyi, Visual Art
  • Tavila Disha Haque, Photography
  • Sanchari Sur, Photography
  • Luxshanaa Sebarajah, Visual Art
  • Joanna Delos Reyes, Visual Art
  • Jade Lee Hoy, Visual Art
  • Sedina Fiati, Musical Performance
  • Shaina Agbayani, Visual Art
  • Bilan Hashi, Audio Installation
  • Marie Sotto, Visual Art / Poetry
  • Jeni Hallam, Photography
  • Dre Ngozi, Visual Art
  • Muna Ali, Mixed Media Installation
  • Nayani Thiyagarajah, Mixed Media, Installation /Film
  • Ilene Sova, Visual Art
  • Rema Taveres, Photography
  • Jordan Clarke, Visual Arts

WHEN: The exhibition runs from October 3 to October 7, 2013, by appointment only 647-­725-­0896

The exhibition will also be part of Nuit Blanche, Saturday October 5th from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

The opening reception will take place on Thursday, October 3, from 7-­11 p.m.

WHERE: Brockton Collective 442 Dufferin Street, Studio A Toronto, ON M6K 2A3

http://www.brocktoncollective.com

WHO: 3MWCollective and Refuge Productions

WEB: http://www.3mwcollective.org, http://www.shadeism.com

I won’t be able to make it to the exhibition itself, but it will be worthwhile to catch it if you happen to be in Toronto. Also, some of the works will be on sale.

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Good Indian Girls Do Not Waste Time Writing Books

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 24th May 2011.

*FYI: Beti = daughter, Samajdar = sensible, Thik hai = Alright, Jaldi = Hurry

“You want to do whaaat???!!”

Write a novel. Now calm the eff down.

Ever wonder how it would be to take a hiatus from life to follow that one niggling dream that dances on the edge of your consciousness day-in and day-out? I do. All the time. And, being an Indian girl let me tell you, it isn’t easy. An Indian girl is a ticking time bomb.

“Do you want to be the only thirty-something to marry the leftovers? Life isn’t Sex and the City.”

Jeez. Leftovers. That’s what my dad calls the baldies and the divorcees, since that’s who you will get if you decide to get married post-thirty. Why, thank you. That does mean I have a neat little bracket of five years left, right? Right?

Wrong. If you are a brown girl baby, you will know that we have two very neat choices (no, infanticide is not one of them): academics or marriage. Ever since I started my stint at grad school with my Master’s in English, daddy dearest laid off with all the “beti*, don’t you want to get married?” Now that my year is winding down, and I have to decide for either the PhD route, or the working girl route, there it is again. I am reminded of my expiry date, my limited shelf life, my doomed future as a single brown girl. See, Indian parents do not hand you a Kit Kat when you decide to take a break from life. A break from life is a luxury that does not exist in the Indian dictionary.

I don’t ask for much. Just want to be a Mistry or a Roy. Maybe, a Lahiri at least. Just not a contrived cow. “A contrived what?” you ask. A contrived c-o-w. Now what is a contrived cow? The market of fiction is filled with contrived cows. In other words, books that pass for literature but are instead filled with superficial plots driven by clichés and contrived platitudes. Books that are great for mass market sellouts, but won’t be remembered twenty years down the line.

There is nothing wrong with being a mass market writer. To each his own. The books sell. You make millions and then you are forgotten. If you like money and fifteen minutes of fame, you might consider the route of mass market. But some mass market writers know how to write and make money, while some are just contrived cows who end up making money by chance. Jeffery Archer and John Grisham belong to the former category. Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon also belong to the former category but to a lesser degree, while Twilight series writer Stephanie Meyer is a contrived cow who just got lucky.

I don’t want to become a non-contrived-cow mass market writer either. That is taking the easy way out. I want to create literature. Get short listed for a Booker, if not win one. I want people saying my name with a hushed reverence within literary circles. (Small dreams, sigh.) Or, atleast give it a try. See if I can. How on earth can I concentrate on creating history if I have small versions of myself crawling around me, tugging on my t-shirt and competing for my attention? So, here I am. Dreaming of taking off for a few months and writing my first novel. Yes, you read that right. I am still at the dreaming stage. But even that comes with restrictions.

“No, no. You can’t write on that… it’s too controversial!”

Err, dad. Are you a realist fiction expert? No? Didn’t think so. Back down, maybe?

“But, but, BUT! Can’t you write on something else?”

Hmm. Can I? Sure. Do I want to? Nope.

Now if I had said instead, “Daddy dearest, I want to get married. Here are some high resolution photos of me in an Indian and a Western outfit (you know, to show the purrrfect blend of Eastern and Western values. As if it can be discerned from some lousy pictures the high blends that I am made of!) that you can put on Shaadi.com. Jaldi!* I am so ready to give up my freedom and make babies,” I would have been rewarded with the aren’t-I-lucky-to-have-such-a-samajdar-beti* look. Now, who doesn’t want to be one of those samajdar betis? Do I see hands? No? Shy, are we?

Instead, this not-so-samajdar-beti decides to take a year off from academia, fly off to the city of her birth and start working on her first novel. Yes, he says finally. Thik hai, go. I am sure you will meet someone in India.

Indian parents, I tell you. Will never change.

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Doing the Bharatnatyam to Jazz on the Hyphen

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 14th April 2011.

A better life and

all that jazz;

isn’t that why we come here,

crawling on all fours, begging

for that permanent resident card,

begging to be let in?

All that jazz is

                                    wondering

when all that jazz could become

learning to dance

to an erratic tune,

and making it your own. 

– “All that Jazz,” a poem in progress by yours truly

Every time I think about who I am and where I belong to, I always come up with a big, fat hyphen. On one side of the hyphen, it says Indian, and on the other side, Canadian. Yes, that’s my label: Indo-Canadian.

Labels are not easy to live with, especially hyphenated labels. There is a sense of disorientation when it comes to choosing one side or the other. There never is only one side. Parts of me are fragments of Indian-ness and Canadian-ness, with no clear lines that distinguish the two. I have to live a perpetual balancing act, careful to negotiate my space on this hyphen.

Imagine this. You are at a social function [in Canada]. You meet somebody new. And you get asked:

“Where are you from?”

“Canada”

“No, where are you really from?”

For me, it’s easy to point to my origins, being an immigrant myself. But I have a friend who was born and brought up here, whose parents were migrants from Pakistan, but who has never, ever in his life stepped outside of the borders of Canada. He cannot speak Hindi/Urdu, speaks with a thick Canadian accent, and indulges into all of the normal “Canadian” guy activities. Of course, he won’t watch baseball, but that’s just him.

It’s tricky, though, to decide what activities are strictly Canadian, and what are not. What/who is Canadian? Canada is an amalgamation of countless different cultures. To be Canadian, is not to be “white Caucasian”. In fact, Russell Peters’ proclamation that “white Canadians” are a minority is probably true! No, no. What Canada really is a “tossed salad,” with its July 1st (Canada Day) and O’Canada (national anthem). If you haven’t realised how problematic that image is, let me point it out. Even tossed salads have distinguishable borders.

So, yes, I understand, that it makes it easier (for you) to pin down a label onto someone you have just met. It’s easy to say, “oh, so-and-so is a South Indian, so she must be a vegetarian, or so-and-so is Russian, so he must love vodka!” But even with simple labels, there are problems. Some people contend themselves with a broad term, like immigrants, or South Asians. Both are like brand names that signify a separate category. Immigrant signifies newness or, the perpetual “other”. While South Asian signifies a marginal community; again, the “other”. Do you see how there is a tendency to separate “Canadians” from the mainstream by the virtue of their (our) labels?

And, what about those who have multiple identities? Like Canadian author, M.G.Vassanji, who is an Indian who lived in Kenya and now lives here in Canada. Or, Kwai Yun Li (author of The Palm Leaf Fan and other stories), who was a Chinese born in India, and then moved to Canada. How do we categorise them? Or, should we even attempt?

The Palm Leaf Fan and Other Stories by Kwai Yun Li

There’s more to somebody than where they are from. And belongingness cannot be narrowed down to one area or place; take me for example. I am from India, and I have lived in Dubai for nine years, and recently I became a Canadian citizen. I am not just Indian or Canadian. I am not completely any one of these things, because there is more to who I am and what I identify with. My cultural identity cannot be pinned down to a category or label. Labels are after all static; while one’s cultural identity is dynamic. It’s ever changing.

Let us again imagine a conversation I had with X. X represents all those people I came across over time (and still do) in Canada:

“From Calcutta? You are Bengali, right? So, you must love fish!”

Yes, I am a Bengali from Calcutta, but much of Calcutta is made up of non-Bengalis. Also, I don’t love fish, although I grew up eating it.

“You people love sweets!”

No, I don’t possess a sweet tooth.

“Rabindra sangeet?”

Puts me to sleep.

This imaginary conversation can go on, but why bother? All the stereotypes will fall flat on their faces.

What I want to point out is, our hyphenated labelled existences are expected. We are expected to respond positively to these kinds of annoying and ignorant statements.

How shall I put it? I am… me. I am able to sing the Indian National anthem without a fault, while I still fumble on “O Canada…”. Yet, I feel more comfortable on Queen Street in Toronto than at Chowringhee in Calcutta. So, what does that make me?

But don’t misunderstand me. I am not confused. I know who I am. But, I don’t see why I have to explain who I am to a stranger I just met. My identity is my own.

Let’s start over. Hi, I am Sanchari. I belong to me. What about you?

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Amber Dean on Big Susie’s Sex Worker Advocacy Group

I conducted this interview on 15th November 2010. It was published by The Ally on 24th January  2011.

An exhibition held at the end of summer in 2009 at the You Me Gallery in Hamilton sparked controversy and gave birth to Big Susie’s Sex Worker Advocacy Group when it showed photographs of street based sex workers taken with surveillance cameras. Amber Dean, founding member of Big Susie, explains further about the exhibit that sparked the idea for the group, “The owner of [The] Pearl Company… put together an art show that exhibited photographs and surveillance images that he had taken of women doing street sex work outside of his gallery and theatre. And, he exhibited these [photographs] without their knowledge and… consent”.

The artist in question is Gary Santucci, whose exhibition was described on the You Me Gallery website as “turn[ing his] lenses on the city’s underbelly and [his] mind to the immense question of how we can make positive social change”. Dean, who has done academic work in the area with her PhD on representations of women doing sex work in inter-city neighbourhoods elsewhere in the country, considers that Santucci could have been “well intentioned but he ha[s] absolutely no analysis about sex work”. He had “no concern for the kinds of risks that he was exposing these women to when he… put up these pictures”. 

The uglier picture behind Santucci’s “well intentioned” art exhibit lies in his personal agenda to secure zoning permits for his art gallery and theatre. Santucci wants to be seen as a “moral crusader… who wanted to shine a bright light in the dark corner of Hamilton that nobody wanted to look at”, but either fails or refuses to take into account the consequences of his art show. According to Dean, “[t]here has been a real increase in hostility towards these people who do street based sex work in Hamilton, especially in the last year that started with [Santucci’s] art show, but has mobilised with some neighbourhood groups that have gotten involved organizing with the police out of a desire to just displace street based sex workers to push them out of residential areas into somewhere else”. Big Susie aims to counteract the negative attitude that has been in place since Santucci’s exhibition. Dean contends that “there… was nothing in Hamilton that was specifically doing advocacy for sex workers on a sex positive basis and was advocating decriminalizing”. As recently as last fall, Big Susie came into being with their five board members and a mailing list of a large number of supporters drawn through their past two events, and through support and funding from CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees).

But coming about even as a small collaborative group wasn’t easy: “We received some positive… and negative press. Some of that negative press suggest[ed] that by promoting sex work, [we] are also promoting violence against women”. However, after having received funding from CUPE  and overwhelming turnouts at their last two public events, Big Susie has been optimistic about their growth. Currently, the group hopes to have new people join their board and help build the organization, as well as, hold workshops specifically for street based sex workers on “harm reduction” and “basic safety and first aid”. 

To know more about Big Susie’s Sex Worker Advocacy Group, or to get involved, email bigsusies@live.ca.

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All Work and No Play Makes Me a Grad Student

An edited version was published by South Asian Generation Next on 4th November 2010.

I have been meaning to write this post for a while now. But I have been busy. With grad school. 

Life as a graduate student is overrated. For one, you are always over exhausted. 

Remember that day when you received that acceptance letter in the mail? That absolute joy that filled you when you realised that you would be joining the world of academic elites, something you had deemed impossible? Remember that smugness you experienced when you announced proudly to all those waiting in the wings to judge you by your future prospects? Remember? 

Well, this “joy” is short-lived. It is squashed out of you through over work.

“Now, what is a little over work when a degree with a coveted Master or Doctorate next to your name on an official sheet of paper awaits you at the end of your journey?” you ask belligerently.

I would say nothing, except for the fact that I:

  1. Plan my life around naps: Yes, naps. An undisturbed all night’s sleep is out of the question when you are a grad student. Sleep is an inconvenience. There is just always too much to read, too much to write, too much to do!
  2. Read books with names like Dangerous Liaisons*, except they are books on feminist theory on gender and politics.
  3. Live from weekend to weekend: Weekends mean longer naps.
  4. Dream of the day when I could wake up and go back to being a carefree undergrad student: Sometimes, these dreams can become nightmares when you wake up and realise that they are nothing but dreams.
  5. Want to kill myself when I have to read endless badly written first year papers: You conveniently forget that you used to be one of them.
  6. Marvel at the lack of creativity of excuses on the part of first year students: Yes, you have been there and done ALL of that. So, when a student comes to you and says he couldn’t hand in an essay on time because he accidentally hit a deer on the way to school and then his car broke down, after which he lost his way to the university from the car repair store, you raise a sceptical eyebrow and go “Huh! Really?”
  7. Wish that I had a life beyond naps and endless reading, and then remind myself that I should be lucky to be in grad school, and then wish I had a life… all over again.
  8. Silently plot to kill my students when they hand in unstapled papers and justify themselves by saying, “but I folded the corners”. No shit.
  9. Attend 8:30 morning lectures of first year classes that I don’t belong to, but I am a TA (teaching assistant) for: You have forgotten what 8:30 classes used to be like, especially after you vowed in your first year never to take one again. Karma can be quite a bitch, huh?
  10. Nap in my office in between classes: How else do you think I get through the day?

 Ok, back to my books now.

*Dangerous Liaisons is a 1997 collection of essays on politics of gender, race and identity, edited by Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti and Ella Shohat.

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Caste as an Identity: Dalits Exist on the Edge of Humanity

“Why is my caste my only identity?” – Omprakash Valmiki, Joothan.

‘Dalit’ was not a word that belonged to my vocabulary. The word ‘untouchable’ hovered as a vague ghostly embodiment on the edges of my consciousness, but Dalit was an unknown foreign object that waited just out of reach. I had to only reach out and pluck it. Luckily, in the fall of 2005, Dr. Arun Mukherjee introduced me to Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan in her second year “Post Colonial South Asian Literature” class.

Dalit is a term that was readily adopted by the untouchable communities all over India. As a translator of Joothan from its original Hindi to its English form, Mukherjee writes in the introduction that “this was the first time that [the untouchables] had been able to name themselves, as a collectivity, rather than be named by others”.

Among these “other” names, one that most springs to mind is Gandhi’s ‘Harijan’. A loose term for ‘Children of God’, Gandhi allowed for further segregation of the Dalit community rather than an integration into the mainstream. Kind of ironic, if you think about it.  I wonder if he stopped to think of his foolish mistake. Even today, people from the higher castes (or, anti-Dalits, as Mukherjee puts it) use the term ‘Harijan’ to insult and taunt.

I remember Ma telling me about Gopal. When she was a little girl living in the city of Calcutta, almost half a century ago when proper disposal of excreta had not even come into existence. When you apparently shat into a huge earthen pot that was later emptied out by the sweeper, a designated untouchable. In my mother’s childhood days, Gopal was this sweeper.

The boy cleaning his basket and vessels, after he finished his work. India, 2007. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos.

The boy cleaning his basket and vessels, after he finished his work. India, 2007. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos.

He was known as a mathor, meaning a  guy who was responsible for cleaning people’s excreta (and who cleaned his?). He was literally an untouchable as everyone gave him a wide berth. Sure, he was invited to weddings, but he always had to sit far apart from the other wedding guests.

A recent article in Deccan Herald that sparked me to write this blog post pointed at a demeaning incident where as a way to protest injustice and to get their voices heard, members of the Dalit community were forced to smear human excreta on themselves. In the town of Savanur (in the Haveri distict of the Karnataka state in India), the Dalit community were evicted from their homes by Savanur Town Municipal Council (TMC). In a world where greed wins over humanity and commercialism rules in the face of poverty, the TMC decided that their land would be better off if used for a commercial complex rather than as the homes of the many poor Dalit workers who have been residing there for the past seventy years.

Dalits covered in human excreta at Savanur

These Dalit workers and their families belonging to the Bhangi community (which is also treated as the lowest among the Dalit community) were first given verbal directives by the TMC, which later accelerated to cutting off of water supply, dumping garbage in front of their houses, and insulting and threatening their women. Frustrated, these workers were forced to extreme measures that included a march to the TMC office on Tuesday July 20th, and pouring human excreta over themselves as a way to protest their continued humiliation.

Result? The TMC Executive Officer H.N. Bajakkanavar defended TMC and said that they had assured to provide houses under various housing schemes.  He also explained that the water supply was cut off because it was illegal. Irony again, as Dalit Sangharsha Samiti activists testify that there are other illegal water supplies in town that are still in existence.

As Valmiki writes in his book Joothan, “Because in their eyes, I am only an SC (schedule caste), the one who stands outside the door”. Thus, even though the Dalit community constitutes 16% of the Indian population, they are still left standing outside the door of humanity.

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