Sexual Justice and the Problem of Language
By Aveek Sen
I remember reading Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics for the first time at university, in the mid-Eighties, as a confused and un-self-aware young person. I found her exciting as well as disappointing. The passion with which she lived the Personal as Political was inspiring (although I could use that inspiration only much later). But that very passion left little room for play, for those baffling grey tones, when it came to her reading of literature. Uncovering patriarchy in fiction and poetry seemed to make it all rather uniformly grim and predictable.
This uneasy-making mix of the rousing and the levelling has remained part of my personal experience of the political to this day, especially when lived out in public spaces and fora. Almost ten years ago, when I started writing about sexuality in the print media, it would fill me with uncertainty and nervousness, but with exhilaration too. It felt like doing something new, involving risks that were well worth taking. Since then, public discourse on sexuality has moved on, in India, from HIV/AIDS to 377, and I find myself being oddly more careful today with what and how I write.
Now that there is a public discourse on sexuality — in the media, in literature, in academia — it has become so much easier to write against the grain, to strike a cheeky-camp note and ruffle hetero-normative feathers, to wax pink-lyrical, to churn out rainbow-hued gush or red-ribboned sentimentality. All these are now established modes of being subversive that one can ‘do’ without much effort. They have their own clichés and stereotypes, their own unshockingly-shocking ways of grabbing public attention. Gay pride marches are significant new forms of public visibility in Indian cities. But think of how they are invariably reported, visually and verbally, in newspapers and on TV: the same pictures of flamboyantly dressed and made-up people, making it impossible to figure out whether you are looking at Mumbai, San Francisco or Rio. It is wonderful to have a globalized community to belong to, with its own globalized language of free expression. But, if what is at stake here is a politics of identity, then is not this reassuring process of global community-forming itself a new problem, levelling identities down to mechanically reproducible images? Surely, queerness cannot look, sound and smell the same all over the world, and still be queer!
The problem with the language of protest — or with any ritualized form of dissent — is that the global semiotic system absorbs the shock of it too quickly through its networks of instant communication, rendering it respectable, and therefore innocuous, in no time. You feel thrilled lighting candles against the brutalization of love, and you realize that everybody is making the same set of gestures (candles, signatures, Bob Dylan songs) all over the world for all sorts of reason. And the whole thing starts looking insidiously scripted, and therefore robbed of the power to defamiliarize and disrupt.
I suppose I am a hopeless romantic in believing still that the politics of being different should somehow, at some irreducible level, be disruptive (if not quite revolutionary), and therefore difficult — for the protester as well as the protestee. It is a tricky balance to strike in the post-modern, post-ideological and largely post-political world. The urban liberal, with his heart in the right place, stops his car and lights a candle on Park Street (or its global equivalent), signs an internet petition, or joins a community with a click of the mouse. As the Pet Shop Boys drone on in Rent, “It’s easy, it’s so easy…”
Is bilingualism a kind of bisexuality as well? Are our English-speaking erotic personalities different from our vernacular ones? To what extent are sexual identities linguistically inflected? Is sex in English different from sex in Bengali? Do these linguistically different personalities attract or repel different kinds of people, in different ways? How consciously do we make use of linguistic range in our erotic play? Are you the same person, the same sexual-emotional-romantic creature, when you are thinking of someone while listening to Tagore’s Shudhu tomar bani noy go, when you copy out a Shakespeare sonnet for someone, send someone the YouTube link to Raat akeli hai, or dance with a stranger after a couple of martinis? And what are the larger cultural and historical meanings of these different selves in a single person? How do you communicate the richness and fun of being thus to someone who does not have access to this range of registers, not necessarily because this person is less privileged or more boring than you are, but simply because he or she knows only one language?
These questions kept niggling at me during a series of workshops on sexuality some friends and I had been conducting recently. Each workshop was with a different set of people and at a different venue: undergraduates in a suburban college, graduate students in a new suburban university, rural women who are social workers, male and female schoolteachers from a cluster of villages in the Sundarbans. We conducted these workshops in Bengali, in order to create a vernacular discourse around contemporary issues or spheres of experience that have become the preserve of Anglophone societies or sections of society. This meant having to discuss the biology of sex as well as sexual attitudes, assumptions and mentalities. We had to find Bengali equivalents of English words for parts of the male and female sexual anatomies and for different, very specific, kinds of sexual practice.
We did not want to sound either clinical or coy, and hoped to talk informally and naturally. But, as the sessions progressed, what I began to feel was not the usual embarrassment or nervousness of having to break the taboos of silence, but something else. As I was carefully translating into Bengali words and phrases that I would automatically use in English, the very nature of these things, their ‘feel’, started changing for me. I found myself becoming a different kind of speaking personality — a voice whose sexuality felt discomfitingly alien, and over which I seemed to have less and less control. Paradoxically, this augmented ‘mother-tongue’ did not make communication easier, but the contrary. I felt a peculiarly tongue-tied distance from other human beings that was at once social and more intrinsic than social.
What had changed for me was not only language, but also an entire register of experience. It was as if I was not speaking but being spoken by another tongue that felt strange to the point of falsifying the experience of my own identity and personhood. It was easier to discuss in this new language the violent and oppressive aspects of sexuality, rape and abuse, than pleasure, desire and happiness. Brutality and injustice were easier to talk about than tenderness and freedom. I started sounding deadly earnest or ridiculously precise, neither of which was quite me.
In a society riven with inequality, sexuality has a conflicted relationship with both language and silence. Most forms of repression and oppression feed on silence. The breaking of these silences often involves importing words and concepts into the vernaculars from other linguistic registers or languages (usually English). Such ‘consciousness-raising’ then becomes informed with the awkward gradients that separate the worlds of these languages or registers.
Sexuality’s necessary darkness needs to be protected as much from the divisive and clarifying glare of language as from the ills of benightedness.
[Aveek Sen is senior assistant editor (editorial pages), The Telegraph, Calcutta.]