5am and still jetlagged…feminism … and Lena Dunham in India… while staring at 14th c. Tughluq ruins.

January 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m on a couch, it is just starting to get light outside, though it is difficult to distinguish the dawn from the glow of a sodium halide lantern diffused by this fog that never seems to lift from Delhi. There is little to romanticize about Delhi, it is chaotic, polluted and teeming with the sort of inequalities that makes one feel both helpless and ever so slightly hopeless. I am extremely lucky, as the little nest that O and I set up for ourselves here allows us respite from the more difficult realities of daily life here.  Our apartment overlooks a 14th century Tughluq ruin and deer preserve—one of the many reminders of deep historical time that litter this city.

At this jetlagged morning moment my mind wandered towards what I like to lightheartedly call my “bummer” conscience—which I wholeheartedly blame on third wave feminism. OK, I guess I can blame some of it on the Catholic upbringing. I don’t mean to sound at all flippant when I use the word “bummer,” but these days it’s really the only way I can turn from more lighthearted to more serious topics without TOTALLY depressing people.

OK, revenent à la troisième vague!!  Though 3rd wave feminism is heterogeneous and can’t be tied to a single cause (like women’s suffrage or reproductive rights, the raison d’être of the first and second waves, respectively), one of its main tenets was that gender dynamics don’t operate independent of global economic, social and cultural factors. Granted I hate the handle third wave feminism, it reeks of academic pretension and all that, but it does provide a purposeful distinction—one that becomes all too clear here in India.

On the way home from the Indira Gandhi Center from the Arts, where Owen was doing some research and I was catching up on some reading, we stopped by Basant Lok, where there’s a market (Le Marché) where we could find some arborio rice for the dinner I am planning to make for some really smart ex-pats who wrote some really good stuff, that our new friend Reihan Salam introduced us to. I suddenly felt like Tom Friedman on a golf course… if I can find arborio rice in Delhi… everything is possible!!!

OK… for a second… and then not really…at all.  We took a tuk tuk back to Hauz Khas and we paused at a light, where two young girls lifted themselves up from the dirt-mounded median strip to beg us for some money. Granted, this is not the first time I’ve seen this—it’s an occurrence just as common in the Philippines. The difference is is that there, I was always in a car, usually with tinted windows, which made it easier to ignore their little hands and faces—a thing you have to learn to do both here and in the Philippines. In the open-aired Tuk Tuk, their dry and tiny hands reached in front of our unprotected faces and there was little we could do to ignore them. Owen handed them a bottle of water and then the two of them pressed on— asking us not for money, but for food. I hated myself for not having the bananas that are over-ripening on my counter right now. It’s thundering and raining outside now, I wonder where they are.

Which strangely, yet not so strangely leads me back to feminism… Perhaps one of the deepest impressions left upon me in undergrad was from an essay written by the Bolshevik feminist Alexandra Kollontai (Bolsheviks don’t ride waves). In it she critiqued Mary Wollstonecraft, who she saw as the bleeding heart of bourgeois feminism—a woman who’s vindications (for the rights of women) were sponsored by the labor of her female and male servants. Only then did it occur to me that Wollstonecraft’s erudition was of course tied to class. This was also the case with Kollontai, as it is with virtually all feminist intellectuals (“Thus representation has not withered away. The female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish.” – G. Spivak). The difference between Wollstonecraft and Kollontai being that Kollontai did not choose to write class out of the picture when she decided to speak out about inequality. I wonder… is 3rd wave feminism, or at least the best strains of it, just now arriving at conclusions similar to those that Kollontai reached so long ago? Spivak herself, I would gamble to conclude would not feel differently about this, as she still holds her banner of Bengali Marxism dear.

OK… now this takes me, perhaps not so intuitively to Lena Dunham*—a young ingenue who has the NYT all abuzz with her apparently stunning talents. She is the (self-proclaimed, yet self-doubting) “voice of a generation.” She is a funny, self-consciously over-privileged, tattooed—but with children’s illustrations, not unapologetic riot grrrrrl (i.e. post-post feminist). Her writing is a witty chain of disclaimers, mea culpas, wrapped in florid pretexts and littered with fashionably unfashionable, yet totally sincere observations. I laughed my a** off on the plane trip over here watching the two debut episodes of Girls—one of the “Virgin loves” selections. But then we started descending into Delhi, we flew over slums and highways. Owen showed up with a handful of sweet Narcissus from the Himalayas. A driver picked us up and took us to our little apartment in Hauz Khas, where Pradeep (who guards our apartment and fixes all things electric) and Kamani (who washes our clothes and floors and everything else) were waiting for us. For some reason I felt so alienated from my own laughter. It was timing that forced me to hold this crowd of people— Alexandra Kollontai, Pradeep, Kamani, and Lena Dunham in my mind, together for one moment, which forced me to confront the dizzying realities of this world.

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