Tuesday, March 8, 2016

90.

“There was a time in Africa the people could fly. Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. She said, “Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind.” 

So begins "The Invention of Wings," by Sue Monk Kidd, a book I haven't followed with another because I am so reluctant to leave it behind. It chronicles thirty five years of the lives of Sarah Grimke, a nineteenth century abolitionist and suffragist from a plantation-owning family in antebellum South Carolina, and Handful, a slave owned by her family. It resonated with me more than I expected; beginning with it on International Women's Day feels right. Although it is a richly imagined, riveting read about real individuals, based on extensive historical research, its themes are so universal I wanted to pull the characters through the pages to converse with them about my own life. 

The most harrowing scenes in the novel (and there are many) might be a testament to how far we have come as a society, but they are also a testament to how far we have not-or perhaps a commentary on the human condition, which I suppose is not going to change in any substantial way. Sarah Grimke, afflicted with a lifelong stutter since she was traumatized from watching a slave being whipped as a child, imagined she would grow up to be a jurist, with her keen interest in the law and the support of her father and brothers, who were all of the legal profession. The beauty of the ending (which I will not disclose for those who want to read the book) is in the pain of it, the way it led me through "the Graveyard of Failed Hopes, an all-female establishment." The story is narrated alternately by Sarah and Handful and while critics have said that their relationship was too straightforwardly positive, I think it was as straightforward and complicated as any relationship between women of starkly different classes. How many of us have had intimate, deeply meaningful relationships with the women who wait on us, or who work for us, or who will never know the life we do, for any number of reasons? Nearly every woman I know will have at least one such person in her life, but who among us would call this uncomplicated? It's something that often nags at me, the way I am able to share confidences and responsibility with people whom I couldn't-or wouldn't-socialise with at dinner parties or over coffee, because the gulf is too wide. It is "never a simple thing" as Handful put it, to transcend who we are, but this transcendence is exactly what I have reflected on this first week of Women's History Month.

A good friend thinks I have too many small frustrations in life, and perhaps I do, and perhaps they snowball into a larger restlessness that I burn off in impassioned speeches while my husband patiently listens. I feel simultaneously angry about the gilded cages which Pakistani women reside in and ashamed to think it, because we are so conditioned to believe that the plight of Other women, the ones which belong to the unwashed masses of our imaginations, is the only suffering worth noting. What right have I to complain about my freedom to dress as I please or travel freely, or even wander down the street without a dupatta or a car, when there are women dying in childbirth or being sold to rapists in the same land, is how the dissenting voice of patriarchy goes. I remember in college a friend had a sticker in her room with a quote attributed to Buddha and it said "You can be free at any moment you choose." I thought it was a stupid quote; nobody can simply choose to be free-I saw it as just another naive soundbite manufactured for college students' dorm doors. It came back to me the other day. I had walked down the street to the pharmacy, flushed with the realization that I had forgotten my dupatta in my mother's living room (seeing as how I never wear one unless I am walking the few meters from Point A to Point B). A slow-moving car followed me home. The men in it honked and hooted; I ignored them because I am non-confrontational, quietly seething while I impatiently rang the bell so I could slam the gate on their smug faces. The same week, a beggar woman had told me to wear a dupatta "next time," spitting out her words with the righteousness of someone who was carrying a sign about her recent conversion to Islam. I balled up the one lying in my car and didn't touch it. It had suddenly occurred to me that I don't have to and I don't have to be frustrated by the wearing of it, when I am harrassed either way. I was fourteen years old, the picture of feminine modesty in a shalwar kameez and dupatta over my childish body and lack of breasts, when seven or eight teenage boys dragged me to a corner and liberally groped me at a concert. Shortly after that incident, I became an expert at not only dragging a male acquaintance everywhere I went, but also walking with my back to a wall or stack of merchandise while shopping, lest someone decide to grab my behind. It was the natural way of things; everybody did it. Well, I am going to be thirty years old in a couple of years and I will no longer do it. I can be free at any moment I choose, and I choose now. 

I'd been brooding over how to get more plants in my room without attracting ants and allergens, seeing as how my son and I are allergic to everything, ever since I read an article about nature-deficit disorder. I was convinced that if I don't already have it, I will soon. I am miserable on days when I don't get fresh air and trees and anyone who lives in Karachi knows those days are plentiful. On a particularly lovely day, I decided to take my son to Clifton Beach for his most-favorite activity, which is petting and riding the horses by the water. An exhilarating hour later, I had a naked toddler (predictably, he had rolled around in mud and destroyed his clothes and diaper), a soiled diaper bag and no idea where the car was parked, since I had decided to remember it was "by the red truck" which had since moved. Again, the slow-moving cars and honking and again, the feeling of who-gives-a-damn. I would not have my son see me panicking over a bunch of pubescent boys with no manners and ruining my right to enjoy an afternoon that had until then been all mine. I kicked off my shoes, put down the baby and we walked up and down the beach, making a leisurely stroll of the car-hunt. I haven't looked back since and I am incredulous that it took me this long to cast away the anxiety of other people watching, men watching, to the point of buying money plants for my room instead of just Going Outside. Well-meaning friends and family have made this about Safety, saying I will attract the wrong kind of attention. All I can say is, I have attracted that attention all my life while giving a damn, and the only thing that has changed since I quit giving a damn is my own happiness.

“For a moment I felt the quiet hungering thing that comes inside when you return to the place of your origins, and then the ache of mis-belonging.” The words may be about Charleston, but for me they could be about here. I have cycled through loving this city, detesting this city and I am now coming to terms with the hunger for home coexisting with the anger that it will never feel like it is mine. I will likely not transcend the boundaries of who is who, but I will be more likely to have conversations with unlikely strangers and for a moment, we will meet. I will continue moving through the gentle bourgeoisie paranoia of drawing rooms full of aunties who implore me to keep myself and my child away from the evil eye, but I will also tell them (if they think to ask) that I do not believe that we can suffer from too much love or openness to the world. I will probably look in the mirror with self-loathing now and again, but I will also allow myself to cast away the weight of judgement about my breasts or thighs or hips or whichever part of me takes up too much space that day. I will look the school peon in the eye and tell him no, of course I will never get you in trouble for giving me an honest compliment, because I do not need to be protected from a sentiment as human as "You look nice today," not even when it comes from the horrifying Lower Class. Everyday rebellion, feeble as it is, is the only way to invent my wings. Nobody ever said that the growing of them, the pushing through bone and cartilage, would be painless, but I can be free any moment I choose. 















1 comment:

Meher Ali said...

Struggling with this a lot living in India as well (its nothing like Karachi, but similar everyday choices). The thing is, I see women here - other americans in particular who I think are mostly oblivious, not trying to make a statement - just do their own thing and who cares if they get stares. Thats great, but sometimes it feels less like 'transcendence' and more like alienation. I feel like to connect with people, you have to really meet them where they are. So its a constant figuring out of what is worth compromising and what you want to say 'screw this' to. Like I don't care to conform to what society expects me to do alone as a woman, its too restrictive, so although I get funny looks, I'll walk places alone and sit at cafes by myself and do my work and thats a kind of freeing. But I won't choose to wear a sleeveless top when Im taking the bus...part of it is just to make my life easier and be anonymous of course, but also, I want to sit down next to some random auntie and be able to smile at her and maybe even talk to her without immediately putting her off for what im wearing. I dont know if I should care so much what this random auntie thinks but what you said about 'everyday rebellion', as rewarding as it may be, is often just too exhausting, too hard. does that make sense?