Reflections on the Great Unexpected Auto Debate
Little did I think when I put up this image, that it would lead to such a rich set of comments on class, caste and gender.
The picture had been circulating on the web, in blogs and email lists for some time, and without comment, as a funny, jokey kind of thing. Autos and trucks (in Delhi anyway,) are renowned, as Aman pointed out in his comment, for pithy, witty, quirky, dolorous, amorous etc. comments on life. Briefly glimpsed, their ability to linger in our minds is a reflection of their literary quality.
When this one was sent to me, the reason I posted it on kafila was initially light-hearted too, since we consider autos to be our mascots, as representing kafila’s philosophy and relationship to the city in some way – small, cheeky, full of “attitude”, winding nimbly through the mass of traffic, a resistant challenge to the idea of a shiny, “world-city-like-paris-and-singapore” that our various governments want to turn all our cities into, by neatly removing the poor, the workers, the slums etc.
The auto is our banner of revolt against glittery cities owned by private cars. (Hence “our” autos, as symbols of kafila, not because we own the driver, the owner or the vehicle itself – nothing “feudal” about the use of “our”, which was the charge made by one commentator).
Okay, we didn’t discuss all of this explicitly when the banner was decided, but the moment our friend Amitabh came up with the autos, it was an immediate and joyous recognition. (Except for Shivam, but I’ll leave that to him to explain if he wants!)
So my initial comment was light-hearted, and so, I think, were the first few comments from kafilawala/is. Especially, the style of my ‘Author is Dead’ comment was intentionally self-mocking of a certain kind of academic discourse that many of us participate in, although the substance was serious. Gradually though, precisely because the readership of Kafila is intensely aware of questions of class, caste and gender and of power relations in general, the discussion on the image took off in ways that I certainly had not envisaged. And I can see now that this happened precisely because the auto is the quintessential point of friction between the middle classes and the working classes; a point of friction that is also deeply gendered since largely women use autos and exclusively (in Delhi) men drive them.
And to talk of class in India is inevitably, and accurately, to talk of caste.
So in retrospect I am not surprised by the emotions evoked in and by the discussion, the engagements and sometimes the talking across that happened, especially between our readers Manash and Nameless.
But only in retrospect. At the time I was taken totally by surprise.
But now, with the wisdom of hindsight, and aware with trepidation that I am flouting the express injunction of Nameless, I am tempted to unravel the dense thicket of themes that emerged, to see where they go.
a) The question of desire. Who is the desiring subject, who the object? My initial translation (“It is forbidden to sit with your boyfriend and claim he is your brother”) turned out to be somewhat hasty. Because of course, as Sania and Atreyee noted, it could be both “It is forbidden to sit with your boyfriend and call (him) brother” as well as “… and call (me) brother.” In this case, is it in fact a prohibition at all, or rather, a claim to the status of sexual subject being made by the driver? Is it the passenger addressed by the statement who is assumed to be the desiring subject or the driver himself? What about the desire that might be assumed to flow from the female passenger towards the driver, as pointed out by Nameless and Cynthia? Why is this “reverse” flow not assumed in the first instance?
b) Which brings us to the question of class. Atreyee drew our attention to the fact that the “author” of that statement would be the owner of the vehicle, actually, not the driver, though the driver bears the burden of authorship because of his physical presence in the auto. This brings in a new dimension of class through the fact that the owner would be of a higher class and social status than the driver, (if the two are different, as in most cases, they are). Is what is happening then, moral policing, as I had assumed, or the owner’s classist mockery of the driver’s doomed desire?
Class also appears in the assumption, till the entry of Nameless, that the participants in the discussion are all elite men and women, who would address the auto-driver with a distancing ‘bhaiya’. The assumption was not misplaced of course, given that this discussion is in English and it is on a blog, neither the most accessible of media for the common Indian. But Nameless, the English-educated woman with relatives who could be auto-drivers, ‘made the subaltern speak’, in a sense. Her poignant words struck me to the heart:
“I have also noticed my upper caste women friends, starting to get afraid of men who look so much like the men I have known all my life; and I have never been able to share their fears. And I am tired of seeing the faces of my relatives in movies after movies as villains and rapists.”
Her intervention brought the auto-driver into our conversation; we are ruffled, intensely awkward (shh, shut up yaar, he’s listening…)
c) The question of representation. But does this mean that we cannot speak of him, of the auto, of the statement in the auto, of ourselves as implicated in various ways in and around these questions? Nameless would have us “leave the subaltern subject alone” and “turn the gaze on ourselves”. She demands, why have we chosen this sign, why not focus on signs that reveal our own sexism and conformity?
Come on, Nameless, be fair. This is a blog that has been around for over a year. Many signs and many practices have been interrogated here, many self-critical feelings articulated. Indeed, even in this debate you can see the growing self-criticism of the participants, commentators start thinking about our own status as elite and as elite women, the way we respond to the ”auto-driver” and to working class men in general, to how the city treats “outsiders”, etc.
If we left the subaltern subject alone, our blog would be only about ourselves, i.e. English speaking urban upper class people, and then what sort of critique would you have come up with? That “you people can’t see beyond yourselves”. There have been posts and discussions in kafila about “servants” and how middle class Indians treat them, about Dalit politics, about big dams and “development” projects and their oustees, about how the city drives out its workers and the poor – you would say all of these discussions are illegitimate, since the subaltern subject should be studiously not written about. If we were seeking to or claiming to represent the subaltern, your grouse would be legitimate, but in fact we have never claimed to represent anyone but ourselves – elite people aware of our positionality and our privileges, trying to be honest, and to engage critically with the world around us, deeply aware of our own responsibility for the way it is.
d) The question of patriarchy. If the statement is read as a moral warning against promiscuity, then patriarchy is central to it. Nameless holds that “casteism makes you see patriarchy in lower caste/class groups” – we are and have been, on this site and elsewhere, extremely critical of patriarchy everywhere. In this case, since we were discussing the auto, it happened to be the patriarchy in a particular section of the population. Surely, surely, as a critically thinking woman you cannot be suggesting that there is patriarchy only among the “elites”? This is a worse “binary” than any you have accused us of – the mirror image of the kind of upper class/castes who say “we educated people are progressive, just look at the retrogressive ways of the poor/lower castes.”
Ranju Radha while conceding that there might be patriarchy among lower castes, holds that it is a result of the prevalence of brahminical ideology. “The discourse of moral policing comes from the gender-insensitive/caste-class divided Indian society.”
This makes patriarchy a mere by-product of other oppressive structures and practices of power, whereas a feminist politics would insist that patriarchy has its own separate dynamic.
Feminism is precisely about locating the ways in which patriarchy is produced in different locations. About recognizing the ways in which class, caste and community (or in another context, race) solidarity, can splinter the possibility of gender solidarity. About coming to terms with the fact that the mere existence of biological women does not necessarily create a feminist politics, but also with the equally disturbing fact that in every society, patriarchy operates in its own distinctive way. “Here” it is moral policing, “there” it is the pressure to be sexually active and available; “here” it is to be clothed from head to foot, “there”, to expose a fashionably thin (acquired at any cost) body…