Foreword to The Doctor and the Saint (TDATS)
When I first heard about TDATS, I felt that someone had walked into a bright room and shut the windows. Reading Arundhati Roy failed to bridge any kind of gap, but I wasn’t the complaining types.
My father likes the Indian Express. My mother likes tomato chutney and no, neither of my parents are either Syrian Christian or brahmo. This doesn’t mean I have no right to talk about brahmos (as opposed to BrahMos which Arundhati has already written about) or Syrian Christians. All around me are these two communities – in the church, in the street, in the posh neighbourhoods, in the temples. While the Syrian Christians dominate in the churches, the Brahmos do so in the temples. Whereas there was some distinction between brahmin and brahmo earlier, now those fine lines are mostly indistinguishable. How brahmo/brahmin or Syrian Christian a person is, is implied in peoples’ names, in the way people refer to each other, in the work they do, in the clothes they wear, in the marriages that are arranged, in the language they speak.
Making the effort to read TDATS made me aware of all these gaps. Reading TDATS made me aware of the gaping holes that exist in the way knowledge is portrayed in my country and how writing gets hijacked by the savarna elitists.
Arundhati is a prolific writer. Fortunately for her, her work, unlike the work of Ambedkar shines out from shelves of libraries and bookshops.
Her foreword TDATS is not directed at Hindu fundamentalists or extremists but at those who consider themselves moderate and happy to pretend to know Ambedkar through her.
When Arundhati’s foreword was published, some dalit scholars objected. Their debate was not a new one. They had always taken exception to being represented by the elitist savarna privileged. According to them, Arundhati Roy born to brahmo and Syrian Christian parents was the latest in the long line of privileged caste Hindu reformers to take up the mantle of representation to the ignorant white and savarna privileged of her generation.
Putting the Arundhati – dalit scholar debate into context for those unfamiliar with its history and its protagonists will require detours into their very different political trajectories. For this is by no means just a theoretical debate between two factions who hold different opinions. Each represent very separate interest groups, and their battle unfolds in the heart of India’s national movement. What they say and do continues to have an immense bearing on contemporary politics. Their differences were (and remain) irreconcilable
The dalit scholars are Arundhati’s most formidable adversaries. They challenge her not just politically or intellectually, but also morally.
My only response to Arundhati’s critics is this. She is an author. She can (and will) write what she wants, when she wants, where she wants etc. That is her privilege. The internet is an insult machine and she will take any criticism of her as an insult. That also is her prerogative.
As far as representation is concerned – she has and WILL represent displaced adivasis dealing with dams, tribals reeling under corporate goondaism, dalits fighting the caste system, women facing violence, communalism, victims of nuclear proliferation, devadasis, rape victims etc. She shall talk about them at a national and international level. After all she is more educated, articulate, better looking (by white/savarna standards) – honestly would a white or savarna audience have bothered to hear about all these issues if the actual victims had spoken or written about these things?
She has also been asked by the international NGO High Woes to write a book about transmen and she is thinking about accepting the offer. She is currently reading blogs on breast reconstruction surgery and testosterone. She also wears a pink ribbon in support of breast cancer patients, inspite of hating pink for its gender stereotyping bias. She has addressed LGBT rallies in Mumbai, Delhi, Coimbatore, Agra and Nagpur against Sec 377. Arundhati wrote a scathing piece in the Haleyana publications, directed at trans men for wanting to be the voice of the trans men movement when there were enough savarna cis, gay and lesbian elite voices talking on their behalf. An excerpt from this says “Anyway, these are my thoughts on trans men and it may not fit into your notion of what one should say or do, but perhaps we have different readerships and donors in mind? I was writing for those in India, and as well as outside, who are new to the subject, for whom transmen are just some exotic neo-modern development (I saw a new line of gents wallets in a department store in the US called ‘Trancemen.’) I am sorry that you have reacted with such anger to my speech, because was made in complete and absolute solidarity with the trans movement.”
To all those who criticize my foreword to TDATS, I have only one thing to say “I spent so much time reading the foreword – valuable time during which I could have further rearranged the stars in my firmament. Does this sound patronizing to you? If your answer to this is yes, then all I have to say to you is to go and write your own forewords” I myself am uncriticizable. Even if you do criticize me, I don’t care. And even if I care, I am not going to stop writing whatever I want to write. Penguin has promised to publish them. They have promised not to shaft me like they did Wendy Doniger whether you object or demand withdrawal.
So boo to all of you.