Longing for belonging

Paromita VohraWhat does it mean to belong to something?

I thought of this question often as I spent the last few days attending the biennial conference of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television — funny in a way, because, while I am a woman, I do not work in radio and television, though I do make films and audio works. But, belonging is a complicated business.

As a member of the Indian board of the organisation, I was a co-organiser of the conference. And, if you’ve been on any organising committee, you’d know membership comes with A for Argument.

When a group of strong-willed women of diverse ages and experiences — from national newspapers to independent documentaries, community radio to broadcast news — put their heads together to design panels, choose menus and book flights, you can bet there’ll be arguments!

For example, the play list for the opening night’s party. Should we have songs sung by women alone? a colleague wondered. “No, yaar,” I said. “That’s so politically correct and restrictive!” “Okay,” said another. “But no Honey Singh. As feminists, we have to draw a line somewhere!” The playlist did very well without Honey Singh since everyone contributed songs they knew (yes, Kajrare featured).

Often, people feel frustrated by every minor thing being thrashed out in committees. But disagreement does not automatically connote not-belonging. Belonging with people involves seeing where they come from and why they’re saying what they are saying. People argue because they care about and feel deeply connected to some central idea, value or goal.

Perhaps this requires a difficult acceptance from us — while we belong with those ideas, they do not actually belong to us, but to many, in different ways.

I listened as a young Ugandan journalist spoke about wanting to stand for elections; laughed as an older Canadian woman drolly said, “I was born intellectual and became feminist at the age of five”; a young Norwegian radio person remarked, “I have no problems, but still think of myself as feminist”; a reporter from Madhya Pradesh expressed frustration at sexism in rape reportage; an experienced journalist regaled us with a typology of Newsroom Dudes (Mansplainer, Misogynist, Uncleji, Know-it-All, Sexual Predator); a Filipino activist talked about being jailed because of censorship.

Some things resonated deeply with me. There were also things I did not relate to and was even annoyed by. Yet, I never felt like I did not belong in that room because it was full of ideas on the basis of which I’ve built my life and my community of colleagues, friends and even relationships.

Belonging comes, in fact, with the acceptance that it is inherently made up of both connection and disconnection. Despite accepting the description of ‘women in media’, not all might identify as feminist. Despite saying we are feminist, we may each define the term differently. Accepting this — arguing and moving forward — comes with a mutual empathy that recognises that we are all on a journey. Neither our starting nor our ending points may be similar, but the idea of being on some path towards understanding is what we might belong to.

The accidents of birth, rituals of marriage or profession also provide some sense of belonging. But they’re seldom sufficient to encapsulate our identities fully. The world of empathy and ideas gives us a new definition of belonging: that we belong with and in several places or communities at once. Perhaps this loving and relaxed accommodation is the deepest apna-pan there is, in families we are born to and the ones we choose.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com

The views expressed in these columns are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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