I read the word ‘Unfurl’ in an old journal of mine, next to another word I’d written, ‘Uncoil’. And now next to those words, after all these years , I add another word, ‘Shameless’. You see, it takes a Lady without any concept of shame to unfurl and uncoil in public, or as publicly the bytes of the internet will allow this Lady. Maybe things will fall into perspective if I said I am from India, perhaps one of the oldest and most overt patriarchies of the world, where ‘woman’ is a second utterance, sometimes reduced to being a shadow, sometimes even forgotten as an afterthought or otherwise just rendered invisible. Maybe this description feels too romanticised to you, maybe you think I’m just another ‘hysterical’ Lady who fought with some man in her life and is using this invisible space to get even. While it does seem like a likely motive, the truth is more complicated than such simple unraveling.
For one, being ‘hysterical’ isn’t a choice, it’s a condition that is born out of living in such a restrictive environment where each word needs to be censored and measured. Just yesterday, while I was talking to my aunt about her impending hysterectomy, her 25-year-old son entered the room and suddenly the air goes still as she pretended to talk about something else entirely. I was puzzled about why she did that yesterday seeing how her son knows about her ‘condition’ and is mature enough to deal with supposed taboo subjects of the feminine reproductive system; after my cousin leaves I asked her why did she do that. She looks at me and says the words I know too well, these words are inscribed on my body, I’ve heard and felt them so many times. She says, “You know we don’t talk of such things. Have you forgotten the shame that accompanies us when we talk of such things?” and on cue those words start glowing on my body, in my mind’s eye. And she is right, we don’t talk of such things. There are theories that assert that feminine modes of communication are different than that of men. I can’t claim the sanctity of such theories, because the difference in our modes of communication is often used to show how the latter is superior in some way and justified in all the insipid things they do. What I do know is how most of my words, my sister’s, my mother’s or anyone who identifies as feminine in my household speaks a language of silence and spaces. So much goes on with unspoken gestures — the hushed tones when speaking of some cultural transgression, the clipped overtones when I try to speak up, the sharp flashes of anger when I speak up in places and gaps I’m not allowed to — sometimes I think the Other Half, the men of my house don’t even know half of what really goes on in the house.
Our identities are fragmented, the private and the self is kept locked away from the public, it’s Shame that raises its head every time the private tries to blend in the public persona we carry around with us. The Shame (or Lajja as Taslima Nasrin aptly coined it) is a local as well as a cultural disease. Stuck between my body and the person inside, Lajja makes me do a few too many things I otherwise wouldn’t do. Today, because of this Lajja, I have to speak anonymously, keeping the ‘true’ self in my body locked away somewhere, hoping no one will notice I’ve opened my mouth out of place. It would be wrong to say this Lajja is culturally imposed and we’re nothing but mindless pawns who have no choice in this transaction. We let this Lajja under our skin, in so deep that no amount of scrubbing, of westernisation, of having ideals of feminism, of being radical can change it. Till date, I’m uncomfortable in my skin; because in some part of my head I’m convinced that this confidence I’ve cultivated or this persona I’ve made is wrong or undeserving in some way. While there is a bigger and a stronger voice that negates this belief, this small whisper is more than enough to keep me silent for days. Like the counted seeds one gives to birds, I too must count my words and weigh my meanings. One word out of place and I’m deeply unsettled for days, fearful that someone will see beneath the mask and see all that I’ve worked hard to cover.
A lot of people know me as a Lady who is often loud and impulsive, as a person who is quite impetuous and unsubtle, but that’s only a striptease for the public. At home, you won’t recognise me even if you’ve known me for years. At home, my tongue goes heavy on its own, glues itself to the roof of my mouth and not a muffle filters through. Before you can assume any sort of abuse or assault, let me assure you there is none. It’s this Lajja that keeps me and countless others in our place. This shame that is bone-deep is the reason characters like Sita or Radha form such important parts of our folklore. Such women are our ideals, where we emulate voicelessness; where allowing someone else to voice you is being a worthy woman. I can think of those light partitions used in Mughal India called ‘Jarokhas’ where women would be allowed to see through the screen. There are times I feel the screen in front of me, blurring my vision, unallowing me to feel anything beyond previously approved series of emotions. Last month one of my friend’s had to undergo an abortion, and somehow her parents found out. “The ensuing silence pierced deeper than the doctor’s scalpels”, she told me later. This silence is an old friend; my maid calls this silence “her pet bitch” as she is always there, lurking behind corners. And when silence withdraws, Lajja is always there to take the throne. Either way, I get trapped in these norms and unspoken words.
Today I write ‘shameless’ then I erase it only to write it again, with a stronger hand. Like the trend to ‘reclaim’ spaces and words, I will not be able reclaim the silences or Lajja. They were never mine to begin with, I cannot give them back to anyone. They sit aside, and for a while I can unfurl and unclench before I slip into my other shoes. The steps are just as heavy as the silences are, but today this is all I can do. Unclench while I can.