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My voice having been rendered insufficient I was paralysed with fear and tried to slide back into my position without any visible movement knowing in my gut that it may occur once more.
When I first came to know that India was thinking of converting railway coaches into isolation and treatment wards, I thought it was a brilliant idea. Then I thought of all the people everywhere that can no longer use them for their primary purpose.
Trains are like the veins of the heart, the lifeline of this country, keeping it alive and thriving, but why not use them well if they can’t run at this time?
For me, when I think of trains, I mostly felt a chill down my spine and a loss of desire to do anything, the result of a long ago trauma.
As a middle-class child I was made to feel like an anomaly for disliking trains, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to look forward to train journeys and share in the romanticisation of that experience for that was a story that excluded and silenced my story.
I have many joyous memories associated with train journeys of course, that both precede and succeed this singular feeling and memory. Of returning to boarding school with luggage and a plastic bucket in tow at the end of half-term with a bunch of giggling and excited friends. Of the unique joys of sharing train meals of oily egg curry and rice accompanied by little packets of icy cool yogurt with family or friends. Of lying alone on a berth immersed in a riveting book, a singular kind of pleasure avid train and book lovers will be able to identify with instantly.
But even those stories have other stories wrapped inside of them, and there is always a politics to it.
It was of a time when I was a shy, imaginative and playful little girl with a neat ‘boy-cut’, who wore tiny wire-thin gold hoops on my ears since my parents believed in piercing little girls’ ears early to prevent pain later in life, a toothy smile, in a hand-me-down frock that I loved because it left my legs free to climb. And how I loved to climb the asymmetrical ladder between berths on trains!
This little girl, from my memory, a distant me that I throw ropes every now and then to help her out of all she fell into, was travelling along with her family. A younger and an older sister and her parents, to or from her maternal grandparents’ house in Orissa during a school vacation. It was, in all likelihood, summer vacation, and in all likelihood the dress she was wearing was mustard yellow with honey-comb work on the front and a long belt tied in a bow at the back.
She was thrilled to be spending a whole day or more on the train, and she loved most to spend time with her younger sister.
She, or I, was so absorbed in her life, complete, rich, charged with details of the colour of minute objects that it was, such as the colour of roasted peanuts and the shape of the paper rolled around it and the make-believe ones that she and her younger sibling created that she had no idea how closely packed the sleeping arrangement on Indian trains are or just how absurd it was that complete strangers, or even members of your family whom you may want to steer clear from, would have to spend entire nights on berths laid in close proximity to each other. Her world was such till that time, that such a structure would have not been read as dangerous but rather inviting and fun, in the way it made room for all manner of climbing and split-leg balancing and looking outside the windows where things moved magically while she sat still. That world ought to be a right but is a privilege of a few, shattering for many like myself for being part of another structure of asymmetrical inequities.
She or I never noticed who other than my family members were actually sleeping next to us that evening as the compartments began the night-rituals preparing to sleep. I never noticed a man, through all the time we were on board the train, who prepared to sleep opposite the berth that me and my younger sister were sharing. I never noticed him even then.
My life, as any little girl’s would be, was wrapped around my family and my fly-away imagination. My younger sister and I giggled and joked, exchanged comics and more jokes with my elder sister, who was sleeping below our berth, opposite my mum, and finally we fell asleep. My father slept in the next compartment on the opposite side of the larger section, the two-berth side, on top. We must have been sleeping for an hour or less, who knows.
And then I remember being woken up, in the disconcerting darkness of the train coach, by a hand that was frantically sliding all over my body. A hand desperately searching my seven-year-old sleeping body for something. I don’t know, nor have any way of recalling, how long he might have been doing this before I woke up. I sat up in terror and saw him pull his hand back and I managed, through my absolute sense of shock and bewilderment at what had just happened, to ask with anger and despair, ‘what do you want?!’ He said, I want my water bottle and coolly reached out in a completely different direction to take a plastic green water bottle that was hanging from one of the hooks on the wall above the windows. I looked towards my father’s berth and started calling him, not very loudly. ‘baba’, ‘baba’, I kept calling and he woke up. I told him that that man over there was touching me.
I was seven, a bright student but painfully shy and diffident, and yet I had clarity about violation, I remember now with pride and amazement and know that children intuitively possess till socialization teaches them otherwise. I did not mince my words, nor struggle to understand the violation of this crime nor did I hesitate to reach out for help. My father looked confused and asked me who it was that I was speaking about. I pointed and told him that it was the man sleeping on the berth next to ours and also told him that when I asked him why he did that he told me he was searching for his water bottle. My father looked in that direction for a few seconds with a puzzled expression on his face and said, ‘It’s nothing- go back to sleep’.
This was the tipping point, I believe. It’s a story within a story, a story of hesitation, moral inaction and impunity that makes room for crime against vulnerable children to flourish and to hack and re-order their worlds radically. The abuser heard my father wash his hands off the matter due to his misplaced sense of middle-class good-naturedness and politeness. He calculated that the father does not believe the daughter and the momentary apathy or silencing was all that was needed for the pervert to be emboldened in his actions.
My voice having been rendered insufficient I was paralysed with fear and tried to slide back into my position without any visible movement knowing in my gut that it may occur once more. I tried to climb over my little sister to the other side and slept holding her, thinking that this way the pervert would stay away because she was only two or so, and what person, I thought in my ‘seven-and-a-half-year’ old logic will do anything to a two year old being hugged by her older sister. I could barely breathe but must have fallen into something of a doze and then came the next attack. The man had gotten out of the berth and was standing next to our berth and had begun touching me and I sprung out of the sleeping position and screamed, “Baba, please!”, “he’s doing it again!”
My father too sprung to his feet this time and came and grabbed the man by his collar as he was squirming in his berth and pretending to have been sleeping. He thundered, ‘what are you doing, you bloody rascal?!’ and then it is that the heinous words followed that may have done greater damage than the assault itself, although there is no hierarchizing pain.
‘She was calling me’ said the man, with a kind of cool stubbornness on his face. My father was outraged at this point and shouted at him asking him how he could speak like this of a child and told him to get out at the next station, threatening to throw him out of the train if he didn’t. The man went away somewhere and my father asked me to go to sleep. I was grateful for his actions but remember thinking, how do we know for sure that he will not come back. He did not.
When I woke up the next morning, I looked down and saw my mother and my elder sister sitting next to each other. I searched my mother’s face. She looked grave and distant and asked me to climb down and take my toothbrush and go wash my teeth and face. I do not think she possessed the sense of understanding required to speak to me with sympathy at that point. My sister looked at me speechlessly and I feel as though she may have wanted to reach out but there was a tacit code that she feared she may be breaking if she did, a structure that they we were all placed strategically within without our complete understanding of its logic. I felt ashamed for I don’t know what because till that point it had not occurred to me that I was wrong but rather that I was wronged and I had slept peacefully knowing that the situation had been handled and was behind me. I was wrong.
It would follow that I would often be made to feel as though I was to blame, that my very body, my person was the problem by the same structures of power that made that act and several other possible. I was molested many times after, had men open doors and laugh as they looked at me bathe before shutting it again, momentary routine violence would take place on my body, at least three of them occurring on trains, and slowly and steadily I would be socialized into believing the lie that I was isolated in this, me who had been so clear from the beginning that these were unacceptable cruelties, I would come to accept that I was something of an anomaly and it would be best to keep silent rather than voice sexual harassment which threatened to label me or render me less befitting of either a gender or of a class. I learnt the harrowing social truth that many girls in this country learn, that if I took this to anyone, my pain would only be increased manifold because I would be disbelieved, ostracized, shamed or punished.
It was only as an adult then, thanks primarily to my feminist and political education that I began to articulate the ways in which my trauma was not singular or specific to me or my body and that it was about power, a deep-seated nexus between patriarchal power and state power. I began to understand that bodies and their regulation, whether diseased or not, have much to do, not simply with individuals but with the very organization of society, the politics of domination and the boundaries of truth. It gave me resilience and the strength of subversion when I could grapple with the radical truth that bodies do not merely exist but are produced in ways that have everything to do with power and little to do with nature and that the fate of nations and their positions in the world and their relations with each other are tied to discourses around our bodies and who had control or power over them.
Many years after that incident, when I was traveling by train from Hyderabad to Delhi as an twenty two year old young woman, I was groped by an attendant I registered a complaint against him, even though he begged me not to and even though I had to walk alone till the end of the train late at night, so determined I was to rewrite the history of train traveling violence upon my body. I managed to do that successfully, even though the very process turned into a nightmare that had left me crying as an adult, stuck on the sleeper side of the train. As I found the door between the air-conditioned and the sleeper coaches firmly shut, with my younger sister waiting for me alone on the other side in the air-conditioned coach, all forms of fears and prejudices opened inside of me.
Our trains have been the nation’s heart-line because of their success in compartmentalization after all and the door between the classes, I learned that night, is clamped down hard. The pandemic and its concomitant forms of bio-power threaten to seal them shut tighter. As the signal on my phone too disappeared, I felt cut off from my class privilege, one that never shielded me from sexual and patriarchal harm, but may have created a false sense of protection. I sat down and banged on the door intermittently.
A train ticket collector finally heard my banging and opened the door to let me through but not without shouting at me for behaving irresponsibly. I shouted back but by this time I was in tears, feeling like home is just an idea and all I needed was to get to where my sister was, to tell her I was safe and see that she was safe. Whether we were coming or going home seemed immaterial to me. Despite all my understanding of resistance I broke down like a little girl after returning to my seat. I think we both slept though, that night.
Bodies and how they are negotiated, I am reminded yet again, as I think of the fate of human lives during this tragic pandemic, children and women much less priviledged than me, are often about power and vulnerability to power. Post-structuralist philosopher and political thinker Michel Foucault reminds us that power is not institutional or inscribed in a diktat from above but rather it moves through us, it is “capillary”. Power, according to Foucault, is everywhere, fractalised and invisiblised, flowing and configured through and as our notions of self, effectively subjectivising us, making us into subjects in the way in which it becomes us. Our selves are but often exercises in self-censorship at the service of dominant and productive power or and at best practices of subversion of that power. We, are produced, by forms of power, as objects of pleasure, of violation, of rape, as subjects of scrutiny and surveillance and/or simply as human or less than human. The process of subjectivisation is the way in which power is inscribed through us, our identities and our bodies. Perhaps, my mother’s inability to help me negotiate the violence done upon my body and my ‘self’ stemmed from this ability of power to produce through self-censorship. She too was a victim of that structuring of oppression, where acknowledging me as victim would have meant confronting difficult questions about her position with regards to oppressive patriarachal power, a confrontation that might have altered her notion of self or her negotiation with identity. Shame allows us to particularize, individualize a systemic oppression and renders it a human flaw. It is in that sense a form of bio-power, born from a discourse of sexuality that seeks to control, segregate and dominate the violated child’s body by producing it as guilty and punishable, as ‘other’ in its unrecognizability as object of subjugation.
For Foucault, bio-power is a form of power that modern societies thrive upon as it regulates and organises human bodies and sexualities but much work remains to understand the way in which human emotions, private lives and interactions are instances of the workings of bio-power. So yes, this may look like it has little to do with scare of the blood-curdling pandemic that surrounds us now but, they are indeed linked through the capillaries of bio-power. The story of a girl child sexually attacked inside a train coach and the story of a nation-wide or global lockdown to curb the attack of a lethal virus that seeps through most borders, playing havoc with lives, mercilessly, remind us of the ways in which spaces, organisms and bodies are owned and controlled by the porous nature of power, always subject to or subjectivised through discourses beyond their ‘control’. A pandemic is, not unlike a sexual attack upon a seven year old, a loss of innocence, experienced as a shock or betrayal of the world one took for granted, even a loss of sanctioned ignorance in the case of the latter, but more significantly it is a question of politics of the body.
A pandemic is ultimately a byproduct of excessive bio-power, a market-driven rapacious machinery that works through controlling, hierarchizing and taxonomising bodies, human and animal, in order to serve the needs of the unequal lines of power and greed. In a sense, it is also a breakdown of that power, a deterritorialisation that in an unequal world, as anti-capitalist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have warned us, could make room for greater exercise of control, a more oppressive re-territorialisation of life through bio-politics. Even as we sit hear dreading the breathlessness that the virus may bring upon us, and the ultimate threat of bio-power, death, we cannot forget that there are all kinds of breathlessness, all kinds of emergencies and all kinds of deaths that do not fall under the radar of a nation that often is the carrier of that power and they existed before the pandemic. Isolation, distancing and staying at home, may mean a spate of violence on women and children and, as we are already witnessing through reportage, the homeless, those in states of limbo, even though they are the need of the hour. Discourses of the nation that are born through the language of war and triumph could further entrench other forms of defeat and unlivability and exclude the lives of those that do not fall within the lines of the script. Some who thought had homes can suddenly realise, with a single act of power, that they are not safe any longer.
While hospital beds and train compartments turned into hospital beds comes as a breather to some, to women these spaces are also the carriers of sexual violence just as much as their homes and streets can be. They remind us that isolation is not the same for anyone and for those who have been violated, isolation may bring up fears of plagues that have existed for all their lives, ones they have bravely fought against but can render them even more vulnerable if the epidemic becomes yet another means of regulating, disciplining and subjugating our bodies. The epidemic is bot ushered in and makes room for greater forms of bio-power, the sealing of borders both corporeal and geo-political, the disrespecting of boundaries between human and animal, between yours and another’s, borders and boundaries of vulnerability and ability, are produced, marked and repressed by forms of bio-power and an epidemic is yet another such occasion where it is not only a virus that invades the body, but through it multiple discourses of violation may intertwine to invade our lives. And yet, it can also present an opportunity to think about de-territorialising sites of power by re-thinking ourselves as subjects, connected as we already are, across race, gender and nationality in this epidemic. It may be an occasion to re-think isolation as possible only through connectivity by presenting before us the frightful reality of human isolation that is inevitable and mitigated only by linking hands.
The pandemic in its deathly wake has taken too many lives already, if we don’t vigilantly call out the invisibilised fault-lines of bio-power, if we allow the discourse of darkness to multiply, globally and locally, as it forms new inequities to re-consolidate bodily hierarchies, other plagues will proliferate. We must ask, if the wake of this epidemic is indeed sudden or will interrogation into the bio-politics of nations, medicine and the subjugation of bodies to certain forms of control, movement and taxonomisation give us clues about how long such a possibility lay at our doorsteps and why its neglect is an instance of the workings of bio-power upon individuals? What are the links between a world that feeds upon vulnerabilities and destroys imagination, innocence and empathy greedily and the tragedy that we are witnessing now. Who is it that is truly standing there harming with impunity, for perverse pleasure when that little girl wakes up? The discourse of the pandemic is yet another way in which modern societies, capitalist, classist, racist and hetero-patraiarchal in their structures, may stake claim and produce ‘truths’ that reinforce their solidarities. We must not isolate the discourse of the pandemic if we are truly to form resistance to it, we must read it in all its frighteningly inter-twined connections. And they are not frightening in ways that ‘fright’ has been politically mobilized to mean but frightening in their reach and in their ordinariness.
We would do well to realise that while the virus seems to universalize and not discriminate in its attacks it is hardly universal in the way in which its effects will be felt by different bodies and borders will be tightened to quell its fears and eradicate its existence, creating further migrancy for many in and outside their homes. In the hope that some breathe, others may feel stifled and robbed of breath and yet others produced as less deserving of breath. Breathlessness is not of one kind alone and some may not take away life even but once we are over this, and even as we go through this, let us hope that we remember that ‘we’ is not a singular pronoun but a complex plurality of ‘selves’. If one of the ways in which power flourishes is by colonizing the discourse of disease as a rationalist one, then resistance must ask for opening up that discourse and demanding that histories be linked and emotions be accounted for rather than surrender truth about lives to a landscape of statistics and the menacing desires of vote-bank rhetoric. Let not the discourse of the epidemic be remain multiple and breathing so it can account for the unsettling and myriad voices and trajectories that form its source and play, and birth possibilities of prevention and cure that register those ‘always-already’ existing vulnerabilities. There is a seven-year old girl watching in isolation inside a full railway coach and many others even more vulnerable. Indeed, trains make for good metaphors for the nation or of the global community, for everyone can indeed get on board and move together but not everyone is on board in the same way. They remind some of us of the horrors of isolation and distancing even when there is no epidemic. As we live and think through this brutal pandemic it is a chance to remind ourselves that resistance to power lies in re-thinking co-existence and our shared responsibilities to each other. Our answers are linked to a world before and after the epidemic, and while we cure in isolation, the discourse cannot exist in isolation if it is to generate and articulate sites of resistance. A different destination is possible then.
Image Via Pexels
I am a scholar, poet, writer and visual artist. I teach Literature in English, with
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