A Voice for Her
Few years back DG was an interpreter for an art exhibit where the curator had flown artists from des to demonstrate their art. It was a middle aged couple from interiors of central India who only spoke local dialect not even proper Hindi. The lady until then had never stepped out of her village her first trip was to New Delhi US consulate for visa and second was landing in the US of A. The couple and a very amiable relationship they had six children back home few of them were married.
As an interpreter DG’s job was verbatim communication between the artists and the museum patrons. Patrons had too many questions for the artist and their exotic land. They would answer in monosyllables and the patrons would look at DG’s face as if she was refusing to interpret what they just said. Any question they asked, like how did she like the place, how was food etc. the woman just had one word in her language, good. The patrons asked why don’t they say anything else or elaborate. This compelled DG to think hard why was she so reticent in usage of adjectives and sentences. She was neither dumb nor reticent she just didn’t have words to express herself it is not that her language lacked it was her lack of knowledge of language that limited her expression.
This revelation took DG to her childhood where her dad would drag the family to visit his widow mother and would insist kids especially DG listen to the stories she told. Every year the old lady told same stories a princess and her bad step mother or how the sparrow and crow together made a porridge. They were interesting until DG had not started reading Reader’s Digest ( at seven she was reading RD) once you are exposed to the world of words who wants to listen to same old stories. Working with these artists DG realized how limited and isolated was her grandma’s life in that hamlet where oral tradition only lost and nothing got added to it by a generation that as no longer interested in listening. It reminded her of alienation of ABCD grand kids from their desi grandparents who raised them from the day they were born here in the US and Canada. Once kids entered middle school and experienced a wider world these loving grandparents were speaking a different language . The kids could no longer communicate with their grandparents ones they realized their classmates had grandparents who were not only driving but were net savvy and understood their experiences at their level.
As Malcolm X proclaimed in Learning to Read, “I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in letters that I wrote, especially those to Mr. Elijah Muhammad. In the street, I had been the most articulate hustler out there. I had commanded attention when I said something. But now, trying to write simple English, I not only wasn’t articulate, I wasn’t even functional.”
When someone is sexually assaulted they have difficulty describing what was done to them it is not that they do not know what was done to them it is lack of vocabulary that prevents them from articulating their experience. This is especially true for children because some can’t even name their private parts. Reminds of those 1980s movies where in court scenes rape is being prosecuted and the victim is asked to describe what happened to her. What you cannot name how can you be expected to describe it. Shaming the words is disempowering the user.
Words are powerful they not only open a doorway to the world but they also put you in the center of the world that refuses to let you in. Words carry meaning so choose your words carefully for they can make or break you. If you don’t have words you don’t know what to tell and if you don’t tell your silence is taken as your choice. It is important for us as women to not only master words but claim them for they are the steps to our redemption. As mothers and socializing agents we can teach our kids whatever we want then why not begin with naming the unnamed…
A Voice of Her Own
It is interesting how power and control plays in subduing inherent human voice of some humans be it women, children, dalits, people of color, immigrants, disabled to name a few and then declare them disempowered thus thrives a whole industry to empower them. It was the year the first chair person of NCW (National Commission of Women) Dr. Mohini Giri retired on her way she made a stop in our city and we organized a small farewell party. Long with academics and activists came our grassroots women. These were the urban lower middle class women we worked with for years and were now able to get them out of homes to attend events, they came with their heads covered but no longer wore “ghunghto” (veil). It took us weeks to help prepare Kanwar speak two sentences to Ms Giri that she and her friends are very sad that she is retiring they are very thankful for she did great work for women and especially of our state. Kunwar had been nervous all day she was mocked by family and friends that now she has become “neto” (politician) and will be speaking to “baddo log” (powerful people). She wore her best sari, finished all her chores, fed her kids and left early with us to attend the event that didn’t start until few more hours she sat repeating her lines and sweating profusely out of fear of public speaking.
Finally the chief guest arrived and formalities were done then came the moment we had been waiting for introducing our grassroots workers and for Kanwar to say her lines. As Kanwar uttered “didi hum bahut dukhi hain…” (sister, we are very sad…) Ms Giri caught her hands and said “hum tumhara dukh samajhate hain bahan…” (I understand your pain, sister…” and went past her. Kanwar was in tears she had practiced her lines so much and this was her chance that just whisked past her. DG and her colleague stood there looking at their labor of love rolling in tears; she was young so was pretty upset and chose to step out of the group picture. She kept wondering, “how do you know her pain, you didn’t even let her complete the sentence. Now she has a greater pain that is all her hard work went unnoticed and her folks will mock her.”
Few years later when DG went to des for recovery she was signing up at the medical college for intensive physio therapy. Then she walked with quad cane her steps were very wobbly; the crowds were maddening people falling over each other. She was a pretty attraction, a woman dressed as a Charlie Chaplin walking with a quad cane and spouting English. After waiting in women’s line for an hour she was behind a woman who was asked her name and age, she was about to open her mouth jumped in a man from nowhere over DG’s shoulder and shouted her name and age. DG turned back stalled the process and asked him if the woman was deaf and mute. He said she was his wife so he was giving her personal information. DG’s other question was this is an information a four year old can give why did he feel the need to do so over DG’s shoulder. He said, he was trying to be helpful as she is in pain (the woman had been standing in the line for more than an hour with not much problem). DG wouldn’t let it go, she not only told him off but also said, “Bhale manus, apaki patani ghar ka sara kaam karti hai, do bacche palti hai abhi tak to ghar, bacche aur aap ko surakshit rakha hai isne to kya yah apana dhyan nahin rakh sakti ya apana naam nahin kah sakti. (gentleman, your wife attends all domestic chores, raises two kids and has kept, home, kids and you safe so why do you think she can’t take care of herself or tell her name?”) The man had sheepish look on his face and the woman had a smile of gratitude while she finished her turn at the counter she stealthy pressed DG’s hand on the quad cane.
In experiencing your person and claiming your space in any context to be able to tell what happened to you or what was done to you is a very pertinent. In the name of love and protection the first thing that is taken away is your voice and then your choice. It is like someone takes away the hockey stick from a child and then declares to public the child does not know how to play hockey. In everyday life a large number of women are silenced by taking away any chances of voicing their concerns in the name of love, safety, honor shame etc. and a proclamation is made for whole gender, that it does not know what they want so someone else has to be benevolent enough to speak for them and empower them. Claim your voice and speak for yourself before you speak for another human. Challenge patriarchy every day and everywhere.