I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I told my Dada (grandfather) that I didn’t believe in god.  It was an interesting conversation.  And my introduction to advaitic thought and the beginning of many years of reading and learning vedantic and upanishadic texts.  But what I want to talk about is what brought me to that decision of atheism.  As my grandfather pointed out, not believing in god is not a bar to being hindu.  In many ways it is the antecedent to brahman.  I think at least part of my reason for not believing in god was a deep-seated desire to have nothing to do with the hinduism that I saw around me.  So I’m talking here not of just religious thought but of codified religious hegemony.  That which legitamises the creation of a caste-based hierarchy that I passionately disagree with and am fundamentally opposed to.  So being an atheist was a possible escape.

Now let’s talk about why I like my Dada. I could always depend on him to point out what would then be entirely obvious.  People in power like to stay in power.  People in power don’t like it when people whom they oppress don’t do what they’re told.  And if you don’t want to be the person who has ‘power over’ then you have a pretty simple and incredibly frustrating time ahead.  Witness the smartness: he didn’t try to convince me of reasons why I should want to be hindu.  He just told me that it wasn’t something I could opt out of.  That it was part of where I come from and as such part of who I would become.  This was a valuable lesson in the nature of privilege.  Whether or not I align myself with the system of oppression my name and my genealogy gives me privilege as a brahmin.  It is, from that point on, up to me to determine whether being brahmin gives me automatic brahman.  Or, as I believe, gives me sufficient tools to know atman and strive for brahman through the life I live.

So here is my favourite poem that conveys the problem of religious hegemony most clearly and without apology.

Advaita: the utlimate question (By Meena Kandasamy)

Non                                      Dualism
Atman                                  Self
Brahman                               God
Are                                       Equal
And                                      Same.
So                                         I
Untouchable                        Outcast
Am                                       God.
Will                                       You
Ever                                      Agree?
No                                        Matter
What                                     You
Preach                                  Answer
Me.                                       Through
Your                                     Saints.
One                                      More
Final                                     Question
Can                                      My
Untouchable                        Atman
And                                      Your
Brahmin                               Atman
Ever                                     Be
`                      One
`                       ?

The formatting of the last two lines has gone a bit funky so I’d suggest you click the link in the title to get it the way is should be.  I also highly recommend that you go read more of her poetry.  You can find it here.  She’s a very talented poet-woman-dalit-feminist-activist who writes about the world as she experiences it.  Oh and if you discover you like her poetry and her politics you should also read her personal blog.  It is a joy to read the work of someone who writes as well as she does and has at least as much of a love and appreciation of baba saheb Ambedkar as I!


Looking for marigolds

I like resistance.  And in a world where every day I have to deal with injustice and stupidity I take comfort in the pockets of resistance I find.  This often means that strange things make me happy; seeing a stencil peeking out of foliage, yarn graffiti, graffiti in general, a community house, a picket line, news of a strike, a union building, badgemakers and the mythical monuments specially for me.  It makes me happy because I can see them, and it makes me happy that despite all efforts to erode, eradicate and erase; they’re still there.

When I was in Chicago a couple of years ago I went looking for Haymarket Square (I was there on the anniversary of the massacre and wanted to go pay my respects).  Most people I talked to had no idea what I was talking about, much less where it was.  Interestingly, the people who did not know anything about it were white.  The only white folk I found who knew what Haymarket Square was were two history teachers in their late 60s.  On the other hand, every black person I met on the street knew what it signified.  When I walked to the general location (I looked it up on the internet, the socialists were having a picnic there but had failed to mention the actual address!) an old man on the street told me I was in the right general area.  He also told me that he was too drunk to help with directions, but that if I asked any other black people they might be able to help.  I asked a girl in a bakery, she didn’t know where it was but she did know that her grandmother knew it ’cause she talked about it a lot.  So I got help from the grandmother, and two guys on the corner of the drug rehab centre.

I did finally find the square and the monument that had been built to replace the racist one that had been built there to begin with.  That was the highlight of my trip to Chicago.  And what it highlights is this: people with privilege don’t need to learn about things that don’t concern them, and people who are oppressed have to work to remember/forget their history and learn the history of their oppressors.

20th of November was Transgender remembrance day.  Another year of bigots and fools perpetrating violence against people they can never hope to equal.  I spent the day hiding from the world and thus missed going to the remembrance held by A Gender Agenda but I looked up the videos (go look/listen).  Which brings me to marigolds.  Not because I’m particularly fond of them as flowers.  I like tube roses and narssici.  But thanks to AGA’s project they are now going to be part of my mental map of transgender remembrance day.  AGA was giving away marigold plants to each person who was there as a living marker of the people who have lost their lives to transphobic violence.  I’m going to be walking around this city looking to find tiny little marigold spots of solidarity that mark out the memory of the people who should be here.  And what makes me really happy is that I know I won’t be the only one.

I hope that when someone sees the little marigold I’ve planted outside my office window they will know they aren’t alone in remembering what they remember.  And that we’re still fighting, we’re still here*.

*Luna Lovegood is smart.

How to stay still on a moving train

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine and we were talking about politics and physics but since neither of us knows enough about physics to talk about it for any length of time it was really mostly about politics.  But that conversation got me thinking about the nature of privilege and the amount of work it takes to keep still.

My parents are doctors so ‘first, do no harm’ is something I grew up hearing.  That and various versions of the same from Hinduism and Islam.  Growing up, I had plenty of privilege.  In activist groups working on issues around poverty and injustice I was often the person who would get taken seriously, or part of the group of people who would get taken seriously.  The times when I would not get taken seriously were when the groups were made up mostly of men from a similar class and caste with comparable education.  This happened frequently enough to give me sufficient insight into what it feels like to be treated as irrelevant.  It also happened often enough for me to see first hand all that I didn’t want to be.

So I learnt to see which battles were whose, and where I could locate myself in them.  And I messed up plenty of times and got told off plenty.  Of course I only started being told off once I’d let people know that doing so wouldn’t make me leave.  And even then they were cautious and apologetic about it.  That changed over time.  People I worked with started trusting my intentions and my actions enough to demand what they needed without apology.  I found friends whose challenges became harder to meet because they were actually treating me as capable of meeting them.  But it never got easier for me.  I got a lot better at it, and I got a lot of practice, but it was never easy.  And I never stopped making mistakes.

Moving to a different country was an interesting exercise.  Suddenly I found myself in a context where my body, my words and my experience were at best entirely irrelevant and at worst offensive and dangerous.  People who knew nothing about my world expected brownie points for having heard of/or read Arundhati Roy.  The world that did not speak the language they spoke, do politics the way they did had no meaning for them except as something to appropriate and fetishize.  This is a dynamic I’m familiar with (in India those in power talk about ‘tribal’ people much in the same way as people in New Zealand talk about Indians).  But what took me by surprise were the radical communities.  I expected dealing with their own privilege to be a central theme.  In stead I found a variety of intellectual justifications for maintaining their ignorance: “we shouldn’t be too inwardly focused, the struggle is out there”, “we have more in common with each other than we have differences”, “as long as workers unite everything else will work itself out”.  For me the most distressing part of hearing these was that I agreed, in part, with all of them.  But the parts I disagreed with didn’t really seem to exist so even voicing them made me sound insane.

I spent a long time lying low and working out the system.  And it took a while before I felt like I understood what was going on enough to feel certain that I wasn’t what was wrong with the way things were done here.  It helped a lot that I came from a colonised country and had an immediate and visceral reaction to the history of New Zealand.  But even that took work.  Because the colonisation of India is entirely different to the colonisation of New Zealand.  The occupiers still have the power, they get to pretend that colonisation is a just a figment of the imagination of the fevered few, and most political and international decisions are under colonial control.  In many ways I was lucky; my Dad was already going to Te Reo classes and I got to tag along, I had experience of a worldview similar to Te ao Māori so being in those spaces did not strike me as strange or uncomfortable, I was an immigrant not carrying a body that signifies colonial oppression so it was relatively easy for me to hold space.  Had it not been for these factors, chances are the sum of my knowledge about New Zealand history would have come from the Pākeha colonial perspective.

Decisions can be very simple, if not easy.  Coming from where I do, I found it inevitable that I identified as Tau iwi.  This of course made life that much more difficult when it came to navigating Pākeha New Zealand.  Not only was I a brown-skinned immigrant, I was a brown-skinned bad immigrant for not taking on ‘main-stream’/Pākeha New Zealand ideals and world-views.  Being Tau iwi and being brown in a white, structurally racist and structurally colonial society takes work.  And I’m learning how to keep still.

So turns out  keeping still on a moving train involves running at the speed of said train in the direction opposing its travel.  See?  Simple.  Not easy.