- The Body, Sensoria, and Self of the Powerless: Remembering/“Re-Membering” Indian Untouchable Women
To Professor A. K. Ramanujan 1
I. “Allow Us to Speak for Ourselves”
My anthropological encounters with urban Indian Untouchable women 2 during the eighties were slow and difficult. I distinctly remember how during a discussion an Untouchable woman’s simple declarative sentence, the one which helps me start this essay, had prompted me to approach them for study in the summer of 1986. My memories and writing relate with and respond to their ways of remembering, forgiving, and forgetting within their world. We both are at the center of this essay, reflecting on each other and on our respective cultural locations and self-limitations. Our biases as well as empathies are a part of the same passage in which we learned to communicate better. [End Page 147]
Extending my previous field experiences and studies of Untouchables (mostly men), I initially underestimated the social complexity of their concerns. They forced me to rethink our respective social locations. If they were considered socially “the lowest” in India, then I was an Indian emigrant trying to capture their “otherness” as well as their self-definition. Moreover, our distinct though overlapping interests guided us. These women wanted to improve their social lot to acquire a positive self-worth in changing India. They found in such an endeavor the goodwill and moral support of an educated Indian useful, at least locally. On the other hand, I sought to decipher and understand those who were culturally least known to me. To do so was also to learn about another crucial dimension of my Indian identity.
Despite the label of “the lowest of the low,” these women had a lot to say, I found, once directly approached and carefully listened to. 3 But initially my own subtle preconceptions (including perhaps my “caste mind” and gender bias), I now think, also stood in my way. I recall how I had bypassed their “everyday concerns” for such “weighty matters” as reform ideology, caste conflicts, and political power struggles.
But, fortunately, I did not lose too much time. Once I was in their midst, their “practical approach” to life was evident. If they conveyed how (and how much) they still suffered, they also stressed their tenacious approach to life. Their powerlessness was thus paradoxical: it disabled as well as emboldened them. With a negative social position, they felt free of the uppercaste 4 “purdah morality” and its constraints. 5 They effortlessly protested, mimicked, mocked, satirized, and challenged (when practicable) their suppressor and tormentor (zalim). Naturally, they wanted to make sure that I did not exploit them in any way. Nor did they want an “educated babu” who would represent them “for your reasons” (to quote their phrase). One woman local leader, I remember, had remarked, “Try to understand our joy and suffering from where we are [hamari khushi aur gam samjho vahan sé jahan ham hain].” 6 Distrustful of political leaders and most modern educated Indians, who showed only “hollow sympathies [khokhli hamdardi],” they were bitterly against such “pseudo-protectors” of their rights and dignity. They sometimes found the educated Indian more ignorant, condescending, confusing, and dangerous than an orthodox Hindu. To some radical reformers, the modern educated Indian was “the new usurper and peddler of the sufferer’s voice.” 7
Before the field work, these Untouchable women fit the frame of a faceless and mute “subaltern,” conforming generally to the Foucauldian account of a long-term, one-way exercise of social power, domination, and control. Long subjected to an unremitting technology of domination, they betrayed benumbed minds and “docile bodies.” Foucault’s [End Page 148] forceful European historiography of different modes of objectification, especially in terms of the insane, the sick, and the poor, resonated exceptionally well, I thought, with Untouchables’ current concerns. 8 Always subject to multiple “confinements,” social constraints, and “moral policing,” these women seemed a version of “the poor” of seventeenth-century Europe.
But such an interpretative “fit,” I soon realized, had to be subjected to a closer ethnographic examination. Even some of my Untouchable women informants once warned me not to drown their speech and experiences...