This summer, I did a course on children’s literature at King’s College, London, United Kingdom. Exactly a year ago, last summer, I interned with Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), at Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, India. The first one required me to read interesting works and attend classes and participate in discussions and write papers, all the while being in a beautiful city. The second one asked of me to read up on land rights and building of dams and displacement of people and then travel to villages in scorching heat with news of when the lands would be submerged, or what needs to be done to not let it happen, or how to claim rehabilitation in case it already has, and file RTIs and go through rooms and rooms of files. The first was about instagram updates, pretty clothes, and good food. The second about no phone, two pairs of clothes, and stacked up biscuits in my backpack.
A friend wrote to me while I was in London asking me if I ever sat back in my cozy room there and compared it to last summer. She wanted to know which of the two made me happier. To be honest, I want to know it too. Sadly, not all things can fit into ‘happy’ and ‘not happy’. Experiences in themselves are neutral, I think. They just happen to us like we happen to them. Once they’ve happened, they leave us with memories, smiles, tears, lots of learning, and tweak a little something inside us. Though I might not have a clear answer for my friend, or for myself, I can share what I’ve been thinking in the last few months: how I chose to be at these places, at those times. I wasn’t forced to be there because of my circumstances and I could get away whenever I wanted to, if I wanted to. It was a choice.
Last year, at NBA, I wrote a poem about inequality in the world, in my world, and I remember my father’s reaction being so different from what I had expected. In the poem, I compared my birthdays to that of the girls I taught at a shelter home, and how that says so much about the society we live in. It was the first time I thought of my birthday as more than just me. Although he appreciated my writing, I could tell that it saddened him; offended him almost. He read it as me rejecting everything my parents had done for me so far: the life they’d given me, the comforts they wanted me to have (because they couldn’t) and so on. It was hard on me too, because until then, I saw my privilege as only mine, as though it was a personal choice that no one could have a say in. Not something that automatically draws in the people I’m connected to.
Slowly, I’m realizing that there is much more to privilege than “Oh-I-think-I’m-privileged”, and “Oh-I-think-I don’t-want-to-be”. Maybe it has more to do with opportunities than anything else. Even if I tell people that I am on aid in college, got funds to be able to go to London, that I travel second class, have a medium sized home in a medium sized city, nothing can take away from the fact that I’ve been bombarded with opportunities. To study, travel, learn and grow in abundance.
I’m learning to accept my privilege while also trying to be conscious that someone else is robbed of it, for me to have it. I’m also teaching myself to be empathetic to those who might not have the privileges that I do (for whatever reason: social/economic/political), or those who might have a lot more than I do. The latter is sometimes harder. I’m learning to accept my middle-ground. This middle-ground is where I stand, thinking about where I come from, where I am, and where I want to go.
Often privilege plays a huge role in connecting (and disconnecting) us with people. The people we meet enter our lives based on factors to do with privilege. The locality or city we live in, the school or college we go to, the family we belong to, all play a role in determining our social standing. Interestingly, social media (read facebook) is acting as a weird leveler. It gives everyone similar access to the space on the internet, making it hard (and irrelevant?) to know how privileged one is. However, the same concept can backfire too. It is much more easier to draw conclusions about what people’s lives are, hence making it easier to attack them. We build opinions about people (and their internet self) and expect them to behave accordingly. We dismiss someone because of who we think they are, or why we think they don’t have a right to have the opinion they do:
Oh, she’s too rich to understand how the poor feel; has he ever lived without an air-conditioner?; you don’t get to say that social media is illusion. you’ve got like 300 likes on every picture!; why are you going to the mall, aren’t you marxist?; you can say dark skin is beautiful, because you’re conveniently fair-skinned; ‘size doesn’t matter’: ha! because she’s zero- sized/ of course he has to say that because he is over-sized!
We’ll all been in these phrases, on one side or the other, or on different sides in different contexts, proving the transience of it all. Of identities, arguments and the need to be right all the time. Often we fight superficial battles, for instant gratification, or mere sense of authority. I don’t mind people taking to terminology to express their identities if they believe that is what suits them. I am also aware that most of the times it’s not even in our control. The government, our families and societies will generously tell us who we are (male/female/heterosexual/hindu/muslim/indian/blahblah), expecting us to be grateful for it.
What bothers me though is the apathy that sometimes comes with letting identity take over. We dismiss, disregard, or disrespect someone not just because of what they say, but because of where they come from (according to us). It frustrates us when someone is behaving differently from how we know them to behave; want them to behave. When our being a woman or a man, leftist or rightist, gay or straight becomes more than our choice of wanting to be that; when our chosen identities control us, and not otherwise.
It takes effort to keep reminding ourselves that these are all choices, based on a particular amount of knowledge coming from a particular kind of exposure (making it non-exposure really?). It is ridiculous to see people defend (and sometimes fight for) terminology so much. Language- 01. Empathy- 00.
In my second year of college, a classmate walked up to me and told me I’m Marxist. I hadn’t studied or understood Marx enough to take to his ideology, or reject it, which is what I said to my classmate. But he insisted and told me I’ll admit it eventually. That ‘eventually’ hasn’t come yet, and I don’t know if it ever will. I don’t know if I can let one word contain all the intricacies of who I choose to be, no matter what that word is. Recently, another friend told me that the background score to my life should be “I’m so fancy” (it’s an actual song; quite catchy). I smiled.
We’re all in this together, isn’t it? Fighting stereotypes, racism, sexism, patriarchy, trying to be politically aware—all depending on our priorities and how much it affects us (or not). It is very easy to brush off someone who doesn’t agree with us or doesn’t feel the same way about something. Or sometimes feels the same way but not in the same proportions as us (two spoons anger, one sadness, with a pinch of hatred please). Anything else becomes unacceptable to us and we end up fighting with our own.
I know of so many people who could have brilliant conversations with each other, and learn from each other, if only they wouldn’t let their tags shut it out for them. All of us come with our own particularities, and will never completely understand the other. In fact, we’re all constantly learning, changing, growing, reducing, be-ing. When our existence itself is a process, how can we be certain about anything else? Certain, not just to please ourselves and others, but to fight and kill for its sake. In a world that is already burning with indifference, false sense of identities, irrational hate against all ‘others’, the least we can do is release some empathy into the air. And maybe some irrational love?
Like many others my age, I too, am struggling to find my place in this scary universe. Every time I post, write, or think something, I end up questioning which side I might belong to (or come of as), what I might end up doing in future, how much I will contribute to the problems and/or solutions of the world.
Last summer, working with NBA was my wake up call to the harsh realities that I was so comfortably protected against. Even today, when I look back, it feels like a reality show that I successfully completed: no food, lots of struggles, people fighting for homes and lands and existence. Me, in the middle of all that, fitting in/standing out. It numbs me to think that these are simultaneous realities, at this very moment. Realities that people cannot walk away from.
This summer at London was more about how to be independent: do your own laundry, shop for groceries, wake up by yourself, sleep alone at night, send postcards to family. I cannot reject either of the experiences to completely claim one. While talking about London is relatively easy (boastful!?), to talk about NBA would mean tapping into the deepest of my senses, and carefully let out what I experienced; felt. There are no pictures from last summer that I can hide under, hoping that they would tell my story, as is the case now. Now that I think of it, I’m left in the middle-ground again. A middle-ground that allows me to travel the distant world, while also being sensitive to my immediate world. It’s a good place to be.