Filed under: Grief, PhD chat, Subjectivities, Yoga | Tags: ashtanga, fieldwork, habitus, India, passing, performativity, positioning
Sometimes my fear of losing overrides my ability to listen. This is a lesson I should have learnt already. As I undertake the mind-numbing labour that is interview transcription, I note how as I went from one interview to the next my contribution became less and less. When my input appears it is more measured, concise, to the point.
I’ve always felt how I express myself is at odds with what I mean. This is no doubt true. And I am no doubt not alone in this. One always speaks as the stereotype of the person they think they are. Delving into the stories people tell about themselves and their losses, I’ve been struck by how we rarely say things in concrete terms. We’re always skirting, dancing in vagueness – like, sort of, kind of, thing. It’s as though words, language, is constantly failing us. Or else we’re scared that in the act of capturing we enact violence to the ‘thing’ (experiential, sensory realm) itself. And yet we understand each other, make sense of each other through these mumbles, incoherences, gestures. We talk in codes, metaphors, sounds, utterances, signs and silences – those most important silences. How we ever manage to find a space to commune and feel known by another amazes me. I often would walk away from an interview encounter carrying one impression but in the process of typing speech into words on a blank page it impresses upon me in a totally different way. Sometimes when I hear myself ask the questions that occurred to me at the time, I cannot even recognise my own thought process. The stories we tell through language are already not our own, but then they become mine as listener and researcher and in turn they become owned by the page or screen. It feels as though something seeps away in each step of this process, that messy something that’s better to edit out.
So too must we be transparent with ourselves about how we go about understanding. First of all – there is no neutral place. We’re always giving something, even in silence – perhaps especially so. Spending time in the mysore practice room taught me this. As well as the theorists before that. India has taught me this too, aggressively so at times. And again my adopted Indian family before that. I think spending a lot of time being the only white face in a room/house/temple full of brown bodies, all speaking in a language once foreign to me is an experience instructive as all the post-colonial theory I can get my hands on. Because what happens is you stop seeing difference. I started to understand a different language through listening alone. When, after some time becoming part of, I got mistaken for Indian, I don’t think it had anything to do with not seeing my white skin – that much was obvious – but a reaction to the way I had consciously and unconsciously developed a disposition, a bodily disposition that went beyond appropriate clothing or eating with the right hand. This wasn’t merely a performance – it was as though ‘India’ had tapped into something vital in me – but the process through which I on occasion managed to ‘pass’ is still elusive to me.
In the research encounter my identity became more performative as I had not yet cultivated an academic demeanour I could rely on. I was concerned people would not take me seriously but on reflection the only person who struggled to take me seriously was me. Becoming serious would mean becoming present. And never being neutral can feel like a heavy burden to bear. More so when its due to things you can’t control like being female or feeling complicit in the neo-colonial benevolence of the new empire.
Down the other end of the Skype line in another time zone my PhD supervisors tell me once again “You need to clarify your position. It’s still not clear where you stand.”
Most of the time I view myself as an outsider in the academic world, in the ashtanga world, in rooms of white middle-class people. When positioned as the one with power whether that’s when I’m using academic discourse to get people to talk to me or paying for chai and chocolate cake at the Green Hotel in Mysore with 1000rs note, it disturbs me and I seek to displace myself. And sometimes power displaces me. I’ve been thinking perhaps that’s part of what going on with sexual harassment in India. My body symbolises power but it can still be violated by your body. I can always become silenced (again).
Knowing from where we speak is the most important lesson for the critical researcher. I’d say its pretty important for a yoga practitioner too. And I will have to establish my position for my thesis as much as I loathe fixity. My supervisors tell me too that the position I will take is only a performance. But I wonder if there’s more to be said about why I understand emotionally and you understand logically and if we can describe this without resorting to gender roles.
Positioning oneself is all about becoming part of a structure that is recognised. The habitus cannot exist without the field (Bourdieu). That’s why the entrance fee is through learning the language (and that’s not just about words). We reach our limit in structures that reject us on things that either we cannot or choose not to change. Its here we fall back into the space between the idea of ourselves that finds room to move through performing and passing and what stands still, caught up against weighty structures. That’s why I always start with stuckness. Why don’t people recover from loss? What happens when you’re deemed as failing to capture the dream of the ‘good life’? Why can’t they/we speak? Trauma is often considered to be a result of not having a story. But the voices in the stuckness have always been speaking clearly its just that the world is poorly equipped to translate. What if we all developed the capacity to listen to each other even in the midst of prejudice. Might then we find relief in the stuckness and find space for flourishing to exist in and alongside the messiness.
Being in India has caused me to reflect upon the hug in the Indian context. The hug is a relatively modern addition to Indian etiquette where the Hindu customs of touching the feet, or Namaste – two hands pressed together and bowed head – or the simple handshake are the commonly used means of greeting someone (variable depending on the context). The hug in India is mostly found amongst the younger generation and the socialite set, the Bollywood starlets etc where the hug is adopted as part of a trend or from a desire to adopt Western habits.
The hug is, however, a common greeting in North India amongst all ages. Having lived with a Punjabi family for many years I have attended many functions where I had to greet guests and my right arm barely had rest from embracing multiple backs one after the other.
The idea of free hugs has also been adopted in India, though limited to young people in big cities. A free hugs movement – Free Hugs India – has been set up by Vinit Mehta inspired by Juan Mann’s Free Hug’s campaign. The video below shows Free Hugs being given out in the streets of Mumbai:
Even A R Rahman – India’s music maestro – was inspired to write a song ‘Jiya Se Jiya’ about the Free Hugs Campaign with an accompanying video.
And indeed India is home to the Hugging Mother, Amma, who is effectively the saint of hugging. Millions from India and abroad journey every year to Amma in Amritapuri to receive a hug from her, a hug that is believed to contain healing or even miraculous qualities. What is perhaps most remarkable about Amma is the truly indiscriminatory nature of her hugs. Her embrace marks no boundaries between genders, ages, caste or ethnic background.
This is in contrast to how intimacy between men and women male is frowned upon throughout India. The conservatism over male-female contact highlights another of the many paradoxes of India. India is a place where you are constantly being rubbed up against people on public transport and elbowed in the markets; where you will be forced to strip naked in a massage and have all your bodily parts rubbed vigorously but in public (aside from big cities) you cannot show a bare shoulder. In a country where everything is so raw and open; men peeing on every street corner, herds of farm animals sitting/shitting on the highway, litres of mucous and flem being propelled from mouths and noses in every direction, where bodily fluids are so free and unconfined, the shunning (or fear) of intimacy is a curious contradiction.
Though in India, boys and men certainly do not seem to shy away from showing their affection for one another. Everywhere you look boys wander the streets holding hands and grown men embrace one anothers shoulders. This form of male intimacy is bizarre to the western eye, as contact between two men is presumed to have homosexual undertones.
Touch has become so intertwined with sex, almost to the point that touch becomes graphic – it feels invasive to our sense of personal space. Perhaps in a country like India that suffers from over population and where privacy is a luxury, not hugging is a means of defense against the fact people are up in your face all the time. Whereas the West adopted the hug as a way to free individuals from the cold, unfriendly nature of modern life, in India hugs are almost unnecessary – at least not a requirement to prove oneself as an emotionally mature person. When life is lived out in the open there is nothing left to hide, or to be freed from. Or at least what is deemed as necessary to individual well-being may be far more immediate and essential than a hug.
The meaning of the hug is still controversial in India. But this leaves the hug in an ambiguous space that allows possibility for the hug to become more than merely a social obligation. India has the foresight to see the hug is not a remedy to the world’s ills. This could be due to the fact that individual subjectivity is considered differently than the ‘I’ centred self prominent in the West. The hug is something to be desired when one’s sense of self is constructed in competition with others, when the self is only after satisfying one’s own interests. Yet when the self is considered as one of many, the self is always tied to others, so there is no need to demonstrate closeness – (closeness is always there).
But as India continues to develop rapidly into a capitalist power it may not be long before we see the spread of an individual centred self – no doubt already prevalent in India’s cities. In turn India may then undergo a similar process of emancipation from emotional and psychological repression as experienced in the West and the hug, along with cognitive behavioral therapy and happiness babble, will rise in popularity, falsely promising to liberate the Indian population from their psychological misery and relieve them of their craving for intimacy.
Regrettably as a consequence this may cause India to lose its delightfully grotesque openness and boundaries will be placed on desires; eradicating India’s contradictions leaving only formality and a one-dimensional sense of self in its place.