Our fights must begin in our homes, in our choices, in our language and in our refusal to ignore the hate.
I never wanted children. It was a political decision, as much as it was a personal one.
“No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” This had been activist Margaret Higgins Sanger’s rallying call that I had made my own. But the finalities of life that we mark for ourselves have a way of unravelling when faced with the mortality of the people we love. Nothing prepared me to confront my father’s mortality. Three days after his surgery, that lasted close to 14 hours, I sat in the hospital lounge exhausted, when I saw three women sobbing. I recognised them from before. Their father was diagnosed around the same time as mine. After four months of pain, agony and multiple sessions of radiation therapy, the doctors had given him no more than a week to live.
They looked like my family – father, mother and two girls. Our fathers were the same age and had the same diagnosis. They lost him, but mine had survived.
Two months later, I got on a flight to return to the life I had left behind. I was alone with myself after a very long time, and the life I had left behind looked different than the one I wanted now – with a child. I wondered why and what had changed? Was it the encounter with my father’s mortality? Had this encounter made me chose motherhood? Did I want to see my parents live on through my child? Was it is the proximity to death, that reduces everything to primal need to procreate?
I didn’t know. I couldn’t articulate with certainty “why” I wanted a child, the way I could articulate my decision when decided not to have children.
There is a beautiful line in Odyssey: “Nobody, That is my name. Everybody calls me Nobody.” I have always liked that line. The choice to not be yourself, for a brief moment. Being yet unbeing, to be free from my name, and its history, even if it lasts only for a while. Tabula rasa, a clean slate, just long enough to think, to make arguments afresh, and anew. I wished then, that just for a few hours could be a nobody. But there are no quiet spaces to contemplate counterfactuals in the reality of everyday life.
On the first day of the jurisprudence course, over a decade ago, my philosophy professor concluded the lecture with, “Always reserve the right to change your mind. Nothing in life is a foregone conclusion unless and until your life has ended.” That statement had made an impression on the 19-year self. Over the years I started all my lectures with the very same quote.
“Reserve the right to change your mind. Nothing is a foregone conclusion until you are gone.”
The decision to have a child is not merely a private matter; it is a significant political decision. Now that I had changed that stance, every political position I had believed in, every argument I had ever made in furtherance of that position had to be reconsidered and adjudicated again.
When I became pregnant and found out that it was a girl, I became preoccupied with what it meant to raise her within the institution of family? A family is still a political unit, heavily regulated by the state, often reducing women to their bodies. Desire outside the bounds of heterosexual marriage continues to be criminalised, and rape within marriage remains legitimate. The most intimate, visceral parts of our being – love, desire and lust remain governed by law, violence and social mores.
By bearing her, I was bearing witness to life in ways I had never perceived before. In her, I saw the map of my being, my limitations, my prejudices and predicaments that I would pass on to her. To raise her as a thinking-desiring-political being in this highly unequal and unjust society, I had to become infinitely better.
While I struggled with these questions, on a fateful morning news started trickling in that Hyderabad University research scholar Rohith Vemula had died. The details of the events that led to his death were cruel and heartbreaking.
Six months after Rohith’s death, a talented Palestinian-Syrian dancer, Hassan Rabeh, living as a refugee in Lebanon, jumped to his death after a last breathtaking performance – as those who saw it described it. Then there is little Aylan Kurdi found along the Turkish shore, whose mother decided to risk her children to the ocean because the land was no longer safe.
Everywhere I looked, I saw hate, and indoctrination clothed as an education.
Then Pakistan’s outspoken, fearless and self-made working-class heroine Qandeel Baloch, was found dead in her home. Her brother, confessing to her murder, said: “Yes, I killed her last night. Strangled her to death… I am not ashamed of killing her.”
The social media that had made her a star applauded her brother for “doing the right things” and called her “a disgrace”. A woman who had transgressed boundaries questioned power and undressed the farce of religious clerics on national TV, would not be allowed to live.
Margaret Atwood, writing in Second Words (1983), narrates the incident when she asked a male friend why men felt threatened by women. He replied, “They are afraid women will laugh at them and undercut their worldview.” She then asked her female students why they feel threatened by men. They answered, “We’re afraid of being killed.”
Leading up to her murder, Qandeel had openly declared her fear of being killed.
Every woman I have ever met, at some point or another has feared violence, for thinking and speaking her mind, and sometimes just for existing. In 2017, why is thinking, speaking and merely existing as a woman a radical act?
My little girl turned one recently, and in the past year, I have been perpetually angry, upset or afraid.
I saw gruesome photographs of a mentally disabled woman, Otera Bibi, being lynched and killed, were circulated widely. I felt sick. For the next week, I couldn’t sleep, I often awoke up caught in a nightmare I couldn’t outrun. But I knew that my nightmares were often other people’s permanent homes. I could wake up from them; others couldn’t.
When I found out that Gauri Lankesh was murdered, I felt like a truck had hit me. I did not know Gauri Lankesh. I had met her briefly in the company of a friend, who introduced her as the patron saint of the young and the rebellious. This was soon after the murder of another scholar MM Kalburgi. Trying to lighten the conversation she had said, “Banglore’s quota is done for a while. They won’t come after another one of us for a while.”
I try to remember her face after she had made that comment. I wonder if she had laughed. The more I try, the less I remember. But I recollect her as being defiant and fearless, and full of chutzpah.
Gauri Lankesh was an intelligent, strong-willed, brave, and audacious women who spoke truth to power. I want my daughter to be that person when she grows up. Powerful, fearless and glorious. And if I raised her to be this woman, what would I do if someone then put a bullet in her marvellous mind?
What would I do?
I didn’t know how to mourn Lankesh. I had met her once and barely knew her. Before I could find the words or the silence, an anti-Lankesh hysteria had spread. Even her lifeless body had become seditious.
“She was an anti-national and deserved to die”, was the narrative that was repeated and circulated from the pedestal of hate and the newsrooms, into the nation’s living rooms and WhatsApp chat messages.
In Banglore, the cyber crime police arrested, Malli Arjun for posting, “One person with leftist ideology is dead, other such people will also meet the same fate.”
Arjun, 22 and unemployed, confessed to posting hate messages, through multiple online profiles and ids. The Delhi Police registered a FIR against Shillong native Vikramaditya Rana for threatening violence against her and several female writers, journalists and activists including Arundhati Roy, Shobhaa De, Kavita Krishnan and Shehla Rashid through Facebook posts. Rana has been posting hateful messages on Facebook that go viral.
“Not an iota of sympathy for Lankesh, and the killers should have shredded her body with bullets and even blasted apart her apartment.”
“Serves her and her kind right for the damages these so-called journos have caused our nation.”
“Let the shooting of #GauriLankesh serve as [an] example to those anti-nationals who masquerade as journalists and activists.”
“Episode of serial assassinations of all anti-nationals.”
While such statements shocked a few, many more agreed with him. Like Arjun, Rana had multiple accounts. A cursory look at this page reveals a litany of hate and bigotry. His accounts were regularly suspended. But he returned triumphant, to dispense more hate to his compatriots who validated and applauded his hate. Lankesh was just his most recent target.
The troll is not just a troll to be dismissed. Let us not forget the political usefulness of the mob and their power. They are not the means to power; they are the power of hate thriving amongst us. They are not marginal or the fringes, they are the republic. Rana and his “friends” are a virtual mob, contagions of hate dispersed throughout the country, bleeding a nation to death. Their words, no matter how vile become justified when wrapped in the flag.
As I tried to reconcile my anger and argument, my partner showed me a Facebook notification:
“Gauri Lankesh – that bitch was an anti-nationalist.”
This was no troll; this was someone we knew. This was an urban middle-class grandmother of two, who had posted this comment on Arnab Goswami’s fan-page. My partner had seen the notification and was visibly disturbed. It took him another day to show it to me. A week since we are still coming to terms with the reality of these words.
Violence is not always armed, but its language can be weaponised.
The battles we are fighting are in our own homes, the ideology of hate is no mythical monster. It lives in the hearts and tongues of people we know, people we are related to, people we call our friends. This hate is not singular, it spreads and infects everyone it touches, not just its willing participants.
These words that signify so much hate will escape the realm of social media, and defiantly march into our homes and find other targets.
No matter what the violence, and how we employ it on others, we always bring it back home with us. You cannot spew hate on others, and then not let it infect our lives and those around us.
Hate lives in the intersections of multiple acts of violence through space and time.
Our fights must begin in our homes, in our choices, in our language and in our refusal to ignore the hate.