When we come into our own

Updated: Jun 19, 2020, 04:19 IST | Rosalyn D'mello | Mumbai

As a non-conformist who has had to overcome barriers of privilege, class and colour, I realise it is with such outcasts that the inclusive, equitable world of the future, devoid of power hierarchies, belongs

Even when I had yet to evolve my individuality, I knew that I was adamantly non-conformist in my views, in my habits, in what I wore, and how I spoke
Even when I had yet to evolve my individuality, I knew that I was adamantly non-conformist in my views, in my habits, in what I wore, and how I spoke

picI can't remember the first time I heard the word 'intellectual'. It might have been when I was an undergraduate at St. Xavier's in Mumbai, possibly because that was where the boundaries of my subjective universe expanded.

We had a magical library, and to enter it you had to climb what came to be known as the Harry Potter staircase. Though I had yet to evolve my own individuality, one thing I knew for certain about my personality, I was adamantly non-conformist in my views, in my habits, in what I wore, and how I spoke.

I may not have been the first in my family to go to college, but I was definitely among the first to pursue and invest in an education in the humanities. I felt lucky to have had brilliant professors, who alerted me to the significance of morality and ethics within discourse. I still have the notes I had made during Professor Eddie's lectures. He had, I find in retrospect, spoken about intersectionality long before I encountered the term as a feminist. Apart from my teachers, it was also my mother who impressed upon me the importance of kindness, through touch, through humility.

Still, surrounded as I was by many classmates who were very obviously more privileged than me, had left me with a malnourished self-esteem. I had well-meaning friends who delighted in teasing me for being a dumb blonde because I had coloured my hair that shade, egged on by my sister-in-law, and obviously, it made me stand out because of my complexion.

I was so naive then I didn't even realise I was being shamed on a daily basis. I learned, quickly enough, that I didn't have the IQ my friends did, and I didn't really belong to any circle I was part of. I felt like an outsider and so, internalised that I was not entitled to be part of anything. I even made peace with the fact that I was not smart. I went along with it.

Because I already had self-esteem issues because of incessant discrimination from childhood on account of my dark complexion and the shame of not being beautiful. I was content just to know people who considered me as a friend, who didn't mind associating with me in public. It was only in private contexts I felt like I was allowed to shine.

It was around this time when I was 16 or 17 that I had met Mona. There was no circumstantial basis for our friendship. We were not part of the same circles, we didn't sit together in the classroom. I don't know how we found each other, but we spent hours talking to each other and nourishing each other's intellects. She never made me feel small, nor did she shame me for my inability to grasp an idea, she made me feel like we were co-journeying into a world of ideas. It was exhilarating. The only other person who nurtured that side of me was Partho.

I still struggle with seeing myself as an intellectual, even though, for political reasons I know it's important for us to claim this term so that no one else has monopoly over it. All my self-education, particularly through feminism, has helped me understand more empathically how structures of inclusion and exclusion work; and how caste, class and gender privilege operate.

Five years after having written my first book I am able to see even more clearly how all the people I once held on a pedestal have fallen in my estimation of them. I see how I had been programmed to operate from a space of awe, to feel humbled by anyone who had the privilege of being articulate and authoritative. I see how I even gave them power through my obeisance.

Now that I have come into my own, I obviously wish I had arrived here sooner. Some weeks ago, Mona and I were talking about where we could have been in our careers if we'd had the head start that entitled men have historically enjoyed. But then we also understand that many of the pit stops we had to make, along the way, invariably helped us transform into people capable of greater empathy and kindness than the so-called intellectuals we held in awe.

I think of the author of the book series that lent the library staircase its name, and instead of feeling enraged, I feel really sad when I read her transphobic comments. Another person whom I first read when he was a columnist at the magazine that fired me for not being a good enough journalist wrote a transphobic column recently, for the weekend edition of a newspaper that has otherwise championed queer rights. It enraged me.

But then it occurred to me that the future doesn't belong to people like them. It belongs to outcasts like me who have fought and are fighting to make space not just for us to exert agency but to help empower the historically marginalised. We mustn't waste our rage trying to talk truth to toxicity.

We have a whole world to build, one that is more equitable, and that dismantles existing power hierarchies, one that dares to be inclusive, one where intellect is equated with kindness, respect and the capacity for forgiveness, virtues once ridiculed as 'feminine'.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx

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