India Diary: Four

My friend Christina Sharpe calls it thinking juxtapositionally: placing items alongside each other to map relationships and engagements, to see how world-making is generated. Often, Christina does this with visual objects. I’m borrowing her method here to think with Dalit and African American poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, the latter period because it’s what I specialized in and I think that poetry has yet to receive sufficient attention (not sure what sufficient would mean, but the poetry, especially by women, needs much more attention). I know a lot about the Harlem Renaissance and I am slowly—very slowly—learning about Dalit poetry, so this is an attempt to join two aesthetic practices that I think speak to each other, lay claim to each other, and infuse each other, if we complicate linear models of history and think, instead, of how aesthetic works touch each other (frottage), always creating contexts through which they can be experienced.

*

To be Borne of a Male Mother
Mother, oh dear me
I don’t want to grow in your womb
don’t bear me for nine months in futility.
                You belong to a caste, and father another caste
                you both eloped only to reject the caste.
                When caste is still chasing you, and me too.
                do you think I need to be born?
You could defy caste norms, but couldn’t bear caste confines
you couldn’t sense intricacies of inter-caste marriage.
                When father’s caste is victorious
                when the jury leaned that side
                I don’t want to sprout in your womb
                I want to grow in the womb of a male mother.
Uncle Judge,
pass a decree to the god and mark a copy to me
that fathers only conceive hereafter
bear and rear children.

—Ravinuthala Prema Kishore, trans.K. Purushotham

Black Woman

Don’t knock at my door, little child,
        I cannot let you in
You know not what a world this is
        Of cruelty and sin
Wait in the still eternity
        Until I come to you
The world is cruel, cruel, child
        I cannot let you in!

Don’t knock at my heart, little one,
        I cannot bear the pain
Of turning deaf-ear to your call
        Time and time again!
You do not know the monster-men
        Inhabiting the earth,
Be still, be still my precious child,
        I cannot give you birth.

—Georgia Douglas Johnson

*

I am slowly working through this writing by Amba Azaad, a disorienting introduction to Dalit political and cultural writing. I have a lot to learn and unlearn, and I’m hoping I can keep listening, no matter how unbearable what I hear.

Faced with the demands of the aesthetic object, I open myself to experiencing it, knowing that feeling marks and guides reflection—I was going to write “thinking,” but that felt untrue. One must risk feeling—the aesthetic object demands this risk. And then training kicks in, and I ask what I should know, no matter how partially, to engage the world of the aesthetic object and to track its action in the world. It wants to do something: What does it want to do? How can it do it? Is it doing it? How does my encounter with it engage with what it wants to do?

How do aesthetic objects encounter each other? What happens when such encounters are staged across geohistory?

*

*

When I read “To Be Borne of a Male Mother,” I heard Georgia Douglas Johnson’s poems on motherhood in her second collection Bronze (1922). Along with other black women, Douglas questioned what it meant to become a mother—the concerns of motherhood in slavery, best known through Morrison’s Beloved, continue through the Harlem Renaissance, and, as the murders of Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, and Trayvon Martin demonstrate, persist into the present:

Reading together the middle passage, the coffle, and, I argue, the birth canal, we see how each has functioned separately and collectively over time to disfigure black maternity, to turn the womb into a factory (producing blackness as abjection much like the slave ship’s hold and the prison), and turning the birth canal into another domestic middle passage with black mothers, after the end of legal hypodescent, still ushering their children into her condition; her non-status, her non-being-ness.—Christina Sharpe, “Black Studies: In the Wake”

But the fit is not quite right, and this is because of the peculiar way caste functions. Here’s Dr. Ambedkar on caste in India:

“Endogamy is the only characteristic that is peculiar to caste.”—“Castes in India” (presentation 1916, publication 1917)

The tyranny practised by the Hindus upon the Balais, an untouchable community in Central India, will serve my purpose. You will find a report of this in the Times of India of 4th January 1928. The correspondent of the Times of India reported that high-caste Hindus—viz., Kalotas, Rajputs and Brahmins, including the Patels and Patwaris of the villages of Kanaria, Bicholi-Hafsi, Bicholi-Mardana, and about 15 other villages in the Indore district (of the Indore State)—informed the Balais of their respective villages that if they wished to live among them, they must conform to the following rules:

1. Balais must not wear gold-lace-bordered pugrees.

2. They must not wear dhotis with coloured or fancy borders.

3. They must convey intimation [=information] of the death of any Hindu to relatives of the deceased—no matter how
far away these relatives may be living.

4. In all Hindu marriages, Balais must play music before the processions and during the marriage.

5. Balai women must not wear gold or silver ornaments; they must not wear fancy gowns or jackets.

6. Balai women must attend all cases of confinement [= childbirth] of Hindu women.

7. Balais must render services without demanding remuneration, and must accept whatever a Hindu is pleased to
give.

8. If the Balais do not agree to abide by these terms, they must clear out of the villages.

[10:] The Balais refused to comply; and the Hindu element proceeded against them. Balais were not allowed to get water from the village wells; they were not allowed to let go their cattle to graze. Balais were prohibited from passing through land owned by a Hindu, so that if the field of a Balai was surrounded by fields owned by Hindus, the Balai could have no access to his own field. The Hindus also let their cattle graze down the fields of Balais. The Balais submitted petitions to the Darbar[= Court of Indore] against these persecutions; but as they could get no timely relief, and the oppression continued, hundreds of Balais with their wives and children were obliged to abandon their homes—in which their ancestors had lived for generations—and to migrate to adjoining States: that is, to villages in Dhar, Dewas, Bagli, Bhopal, Gwalior and other States. What happened to them in their new homes may for the present be left out of our consideration. —Annihilation of Caste (1936)

Contemporary examples of caste-based violence abound.

Johnson and Kishore meet on the grounds of—not motherhood—this thing that needs another name—the “womb to tomb” economy?

To be Borne of a Male Mother
Mother, oh dear me
I don’t want to grow in your womb
don’t bear me for nine months in futility.
                You belong to a caste, and father another caste
                you both eloped only to reject the caste.
                When caste is still chasing you, and me too.
                do you think I need to be born?
You could defy caste norms, but couldn’t bear caste confines
you couldn’t sense intricacies of inter-caste marriage.
                When father’s caste is victorious
                when the jury leaned that side
                I don’t want to sprout in your womb
                I want to grow in the womb of a male mother.
Uncle Judge,
pass a decree to the god and mark a copy to me
that fathers only conceive hereafter
bear and rear children.

—Ravinuthala Prema Kishore, trans.K. Purushotham

*

(a few days after we arrive in India, a news report says a man went to a Dalit woman’s workplace—he was from her village—he dragged her out and raped her. Almost every account of violence against Dalit women includes rape or some other form of sexual mutilation.)

*

These might be considered tentative notes toward a still unfolding something.