By Nidhi K
At home, there are no easy conversations. Everything from what to cook for the next meal and religious propaganda, to fiddling with technology and an elongated sigh, is a potential tiff. For a small family of three, we have an awfully large gap.
When did everyday conversation get this exhausting? I don’t remember exactly. Apparently, when I was two, I didn’t care if I knew the language. I’d talk endlessly, anyway. I’d make up words — who cared if they didn’t mean anything? Today, I’m the opposite. I often find myself with more meaning than words. Amidst ‘woke’ conversations — about politics, feminism, religion and everything else under the sun that are worth caring about — I am unable to get across my ideas, unreduced, to people who probably matter the most to me.
The last instances I remember of desperately trying to talk to family had to be in high school — you know, when you’re all for the power of conversation, and want to engage with everybody who comes your way. Uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins, there was no bar to my then forming reformist ideas. I’d talk a lot about religion and science, and how I didn’t necessarily see them as adversaries. I’d talk against the gossip of other religions and communities, I’d talk about my fascination with (what I now know as pseudoscientific) ideas about the Vedic times, and above all, there would always be a thrill to thinking.
I’d already begun to notice some infantilising responses though. I’d be furious at any sign of “oh, but you’re young.” I learned to make my adolescence my best friend. Too bad my teenage years are nearly gone.
The first signs of trouble at home came when I began talking about menstrual taboos. I’d bring it up every month, almost as regularly as my periods. There would be bleeding, crying, yelling, and painfully trying to communicate how harmful asking women to ostracise themselves from regular lifestyle was. I’d talk about ideas of purity and pollution, question dogma, and why the hell I couldn’t touch my bed when I was “out” (a particularly Kannada euphemism, “horagaageeni”). By then, I’d gotten used to unilateral requests from my parents for ‘rational, peaceful communication’, and eliminating ‘emotion from what I want to say’. So I think I held my ground well.
No success, though, obviously.
I had no idea how to respond when mid-conversation, amidst many well-thought out points from both sides, I’d be felled by the brahmastra — “You have it so much better than women from before.”
They’d say, “We’re trying to change things, slowly. You have a mattress now, a separate bathroom. None of the previous generations had those comforts. You can’t change the world in a jiffy. Sometimes, when you respect elders, you have to just do what they say, in the belief that they know better than you. Change happens slowly, and we are against this practice too, but you should keep talking about it, raising concerns. And slowly, they will budge.” Initially, it made sense. I had so much empathy to spare. Except, none of that ever happened. I saw my little cousin indoctrinated, and I heard that my uncle had tried to do away with the custom before I was even born. It started to seem like it wasn’t just the intention to respect that bound my parents to the custom.
That was when I first encountered the wall. Then, it began to show up everywhere.
I’d sit in the family room when guests had arrived, and listen to theories about temples under the site of the Taj Mahal, about the nasty Mughals, about the rewritten histories, about rape conspiracies. I just don’t know how to respond to them. I don’t know what arguments to invoke. We seemed to be on different planes altogether.
Here’s what I do say, though. I question what makes existing histories true, how there needed to be research outside of mythological references, how the answer to hate is not hate, and how ‘oppression’ as a concept can help us understand and change this fear-mongering. And then my father made it easier one day. He dropped the garb of rationality and made a personal, detestable remark against an entire community. I stormed off.
I guess every family has that list of touchy topics; they’d probably match up for many of us — nationalism, feminism and women, religion and conservatism, caste. And having your head up against that wall constantly, meant that I had to stop. We get too emotionally invested in what we believe in. From a kid who didn’t have a shit to give about the news, I slowly began to feel like anger runs the world. And from conversations motivated by the idea that bigotry is just another belief system, I grew into a surer, more political person, and my dilemmas now revolve around different things, not necessarily as directly relevant to ‘brush, bathe, college’ as earlier.
I still try, sometimes.
I resist the feeling I already know what’s going to happen in a conversation, and it leads to some really great results sometimes. The most successful conversation recently, was talking about household and emotional labour with my mother. We talked about how my father and her were probably socialised into different default roles, and maybe that’s why he found it easier to finish his religious duties and his meal, and head straight to bed. My mother and sometimes, I (feminism doesn’t stop me from being lazy), had to clean up after him. She’d complain about how much more work she had and how tired she’d be, and we had a nice talk about male entitlement. Occasionally, we’d call out my slightly embarrassed father who’d try not to show , and at other times, she would teach me to empathise with him. That ‘site visits are really hard’, and ‘he probably has no energy from thinking about your enormous college fee’. She’s right, but I also know that they never stop defending the system.
Other times, it’s not so successful.
They still try too.
They’ve been doing the initiating of conversation lately, trying to get me to talk about what I believe in. I don’t know if they are mildly threatened or scared by my half-assed confessions to them, or if they are just interested. I think it’s a bit of all of these. My mother told me she watched some videos of Alok-Vaid Menon — a gender-nonconforming poet and activist — discussing transmisogyny recently. We talked about a non-binary pronoun “they”, and my mother was tolerant with my lack of patience and sense of doom. I have only just noticed that my flight responses now get activated at every sign of such conversation.
Recently, we were talking about Modi (I am convinced he’s going to tear the family apart one day), and I was trying to communicate how a Sanskritised Brahmin idea of India isn’t going to help anyone.
She said, “But it’s your culture, why wouldn’t you want it to progress? I know Modi is not perfect, but he’s trying to do good for the people.” There it was again, the wall. The wall always makes me feel like I am a lousy reader, and how inefficient at what I’m so sure about I am.
My friend recently said to me, “Sometimes, I want to shake my family and ask them where this sort of ideas about other communities comes from. It’s not like they don’t know people — colleagues, friends, neighbours; they’re polite when they meet.” While our families’ repository of so-called ‘progressive’ and ‘inclusive’ principles — like Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam — are invoked pretty often, but in practice there’s contradiction, I relate to my friend when she expresses her confusion over why there’s so much hate. Sometimes, like my friend, I wonder how my family can’t see it.
I was thinking about how I’m swifter when I am texting them, and sassier for no reason. Maybe it felt like an outlet for fury. Maybe it’s revenge for all the WhatsApp forwards. “Yeah, put on a rational side and resort to being a degenerate shame for a human being,” I once blurt-typed. But soon, I started to get troubled by the words I saw myself using. I remember using the word “hegemony” once, and no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t successfully/accurately say it any other way. Not in English, not in Kannada. Because texting relies much more on English, like an unstated rule, it was easier to fall into that trap. It was easier to notice. It was the words, but also much more than the words — it was the arguments, the motivations, the information we consumed, and it was also something unidentifiable. Recently it fell into place for me. That beyond a point, my family and I were untranslatable to each other.
Once I saw the problem, I saw it everywhere. I didn’t know how bad it was, till my mother very recently asked me, “Hey, I saw something you’d written. What does ‘patriarchy’ mean?” An alarm went off in my head. I’ve been so conveniently cut off: “When was the last time we’d spoken to each other?!” Rough and brief, I said something that amounted to ‘male-dominated system’. But that didn’t capture anything for me. Not in Kannada, not in English. She often now jokes about how I actually dominate the family, and I just stay confused.
My friend and I also talked about how regardless of age or generation, we all switch to English to have these political conversations. I still related it to my ‘inefficiency’, and the lack of resources or common intellectual terrain to talk about it in a desi language. We are such obedient post-colonial babies — we love our English, our access to Western ideas, exposure to academia, our caste privilege, and of course, the internet. We had consumed ideas about the Patriarchy, about institutions, systems and structures, about how the fight is not against individuals but larger status quos we all have learned, and how ideas of safety, purity, honour and culture were packed into our identities as women. This learning happened, of course, in English, from fancy articles and websites that taught us what “tone policing” meant.
My friend suggested something interesting, “I think it’s the outsider status of English that makes the argument easier. You can switch to English, fight it out, and switch back to the language of the ‘home’. It makes emotional transition smoother.”
College has accomplished something unexpected for me, something terrible and something fantastic.
The something fantastic. Among my friends we all talk about talking at home, not talking, strategies, failures and the Wall. Another friend was talking to me about the various degrees of feminist behaviour among the three generations of women in her household. We bonded over how tiring these conversations are, and how we’ve almost stopped trying. It’s a lot of work, and more often than not, it isn’t worth it. Now, we agreed over the coffee table, when we hear our mothers saying something sexist, or spot any potential for talking about politics, we just let it go. Our favourite words in the world, thanks to meme-talk, are “I can’t.” Another acquaintance and I discussed music we love. She said, “I get so angry when people with hostile politics like the same music as I do.” I quickly typed out, “SAME”, and hit enter. One friend proofreads my insecurities, “I think you’re being too careful. We all say problematic things,” and another gives me small ideas for the next time I’m giving up on the Wall. “I moved the conversation on reservations away from ‘equality’, towards ‘representation’. My father agreed with me after that,” he said.
The something terrible. Reading dusty academic papers, and talking about things we have in common, made me feel so much more understood, so much more at ease, than growing up around someone. It has made the world click into my head. It’s also unfair, but the jargon-y world of “revolution”, “colonialism”, “mansplaining”, “Brahminical”, and “microaggressions” has given me a safe space, packed into the mutually understood connotations of those words. The friend with the cool insights also told me about how she’s lost hold over her mother tongue, since the brush with academia happened. I never had much in the first place. My connection with non-Western radical ideas, and Indian feminism is shamefully weak. Outside of my soothing north Karnataka dialect, my Kannada voice isn’t solid either.
This doesn’t just affect family interactions. When we organised an event around women’s sexuality on campus near Delhi, the flawed, glaring systems of exclusion we are part of, became visible. We tried to break it, by talking about vaginas with the housekeeping didis at our college hostel, but we spoke in awkward silences, ‘umms’, ‘uhh, how do you explain that’, and fragmented Hindi.
I always feel a mix of frustration, helplessness, guilt, and anger when I think of the inability to communicate with the other, especially with those who are outside the “self-congratulatory”, like my friend puts it, space of Western influence. We are born into this ‘sophistication’-obsessed middle class, and in our need to belong, we never cared enough to invest elsewhere, in our own.
I haven’t found a cure to this. The walls get thicker every day, as we learn other things, and I have dived into the pool of selective engagement. I tell myself that it’s nice sometimes, it’s self-care, that it’s okay to not have to deal with men’s rights activists. That it’s not my job to convince someone why certain lives matter, and that the things that affect me exist. However, I know it’s also escapism, when I am so defeated by conversations with people who don’t share my usual spaces. I don’t want to be the guy who is incapable of talking to people unlike him. Being caught in my web of words and meanings stops me from fishing more, from breaking cycles, and from sharing ground with people who try so hard to calculate what’s happening in my head.
A few months ago, in a big argument I saw the women in my family cry and support each other (while the men couldn’t stop talking about themselves. They were trying, but their masculinity made them incapable. That was the only way they knew how to be, I think in partial, unhappy defence). It was one of those couple-fights that had unearthed years of inequality, emotional labour, and tolerance that had kept the male ego inflated. The women shared the suffering and work that goes into maintaining a family, they empathised with each other about not having time for themselves, and empowered each other to deal with the pressures of tradition, and lack of support systems. When four women in my family get together, they lose no opportunity for catharsis. And to make each other feel like life is wonderful.
It was a sight to behold, from the crushed corner I occupied. But I couldn’t watch. I stuffed my earphones in my ears, and I pretended like I wasn’t there. Like I wasn’t also part of what caused so much distress. Until, one of them brought up some serious ill-will about another woman (not present) to make a point about what they went through. She doesn’t suffer the way I do.
Why did this conversation have to go there, I asked myself.
“Why was that necessary?” I later asked my mother. “And why was pa being so defensive?”
And the tables turned instantly. She asked me not to antagonise my father, and that there’s a lot of unfairness, but families are nonetheless really important, and that she’s really happy. “This happens in all families,” she added, as if that made everything acceptable. At least there is no *insert worse thing that could be happening*. How do I reply to that? Well, I shout, or stumble– say something I didn’t mean, or mostly, I choose to not speak at all, and return completely bitter, feeling like an impostor.
There’s no in-between.
I try to remind myself that it’s not about me, or them, or us, or this ambivalent relationship we share. Of course, in the moment, it’s always easier to blame. But it’s really a matter of languages, of universes, of romancing the lightyears, slowly. As far as “having my entire life ahead of me” goes, I find it arduous to take this on.