Geeta Patel is a feminist whose questions are not restricted to the world of gender and sexuality, but spiral across literature, language, science, political and economic systems.
Brought up in Colaba, Mumbai, Patel is associate professor of Middle Eastern, South Asian languages & cultures and women, gender and sexuality at the University of Virginia (UVA) in the US, as well as the director of UVA in India program at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. In her work in academia, she examines various media, from poetry to insurance documents, from Bollywood films to advertisements, to make incisive analyses that straddle disciplines and prompt the reader to look at society through a more discerning lens. She has published numerous books and papers, which include Lyrical Movements, Historical Hauntings: On Gender, Colonialism And Desire In Miraji’s Urdu Poetry. Published in 2002, it is a haunting look at gender and narratives of love, loss and longing. Her new book, Risky Bodies And Techno-Intimacy: Reflections On Sexuality, Media, Science, Finance, crosses from the realm of the personal to the political and examines historical ideas of risk, health, wellness, insurance and technologies which create and perpetuate notions of selfhood and identity.
Patel was at the Godrej India Culture Lab last month, in conversation with Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy, writer-film-maker Paromita Vohra and activist Bishakha Datta, for a discussion on sex, gender, desire and freedom. Eltahawy, bringing her firebrand feminism to the fore, spoke as a Muslim woman who had rejected patriarchal definitions of feminity and expressed her sexuality in an unabashed manner, while Vohra stressed on the importance of a positive space for people to talk about sex. Datta debated the ideas around sexuality and inclusion while Patel spoke about the importance of fantasy in narratives around sex, raising questions about gendered bodies, power narratives and moving beyond things that make us uncomfortable. Edited excerpts from an interview with Patel:
What’s sex got to do with it?
For me, it is important to open up the question of sex and desire and wrest sex away from the primary narrative of violence and control both in the streets and at home. As a result of this, we somehow lose the idea of pleasure. I wanted to reclaim desire, sexuality and the body for women. Desire should shake you down, crawl under your skin. Often desire simply gets returned to the body and the focus turns to a particular sexual organ. I wanted to reclaim the entire body as a zone of pleasure. To me the body is not separate from the mind which derives pleasure from music, poetry and particular sentences. When we talk about looking, there is a lot of violence connected to it and I wanted to change this lexicon of looking. I wanted a woman to be able to open up her skin to the air and elements and be looked at freely. When we talk about sex, fantasy is really important as it allows you to share a common space for the body and the mind. Fantasy can be a song and your body changes while you inhabit the world of this song.
What kind of feminism do you identify with?
I want to claim a feminism which is outside the realm of name-calling and labelling. What happens with this is that it ends up seeming like the job of feminists is to scold you. To me it is important for feminism to open up and enable political transformation. I am not enamoured with the idea of progress and transformation can be small and can even come out of belonging to a political event. I want a kind of feminism that has joy and pleasure at its heart. Feminist work that just lives in anger and rage gives up that joy.
‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ is the campaign of the moment. What is the connection between education and empowerment?
There is no such thing as a simple education and the standard format is usually limited to schoolbooks. The way in which this is organized is that people who have no access to education are left out of this discourse. Education means critical analysis, social, civil, aesthetic awareness. It isn’t just a top-down flow, which makes it a power narrative with a single group controlling and dispensing knowledge. Neither education nor empowerment is a single project—for both to work they have to be collaborative.
The Beti Padhao campaign is a good place to begin because at least there is a focus on the girl child, but it has to move beyond conventional education. In all my fieldwork, I learnt a whole lot of things from rural women I was working with in UP. These women ranged from grandmothers to young girls, all of whom had no book learning, but knew all about the joy of sharing. And even though they themselves had so little, they were uninhibited and generous with sharing information, memories, food or chai. And my writing changed as a result of this interaction and became much softer, and this is a learning I passed on to my students as well.
Your writing interweaves the personal with the theoretical and has this non-linear approach that spans genres and disciplines. Could you take us through the process?
So, when I write, I start with questions. In the case of Risky Bodies And Techno-Intimacy, it was, what made people stop thinking? What did they do when they came up against things they didn’t like and couldn’t go beyond? And that led me to the question of habits people had. So my writing addresses all these questions and it is structured like a raga or a poem.
In my books, I look at sites that matter for different reasons—either because they are completely ordinary, or because something happened at a particular time, or because they were the place at which a transformation occurred. For me, particular images, themes or ideas will carry across the chapters. I ask people to become active readers and pick up or follow different threads over chapters. So, for example, one thread in Risky Bodies is on farming and it’s picked up in different ways across chapters so you can follow it and track it. So, for example, you can trace the way in which jai jawan, jai kisan, jai vigyan became a slogan for the government and then tie it to a Sri Lankan film on farming, and think about the way in which loan-burdened farmers in India often commit suicide. Following this strand, you will get the connection between the chapters.
I want the reader to think with me and read the book slowly, in the same way that one would listen to a raga. There are chapters you like and those you don’t and this tells you about yourself. So the book is deliberately theoretical but its work is political because when you notice what you can’t deal with and cannot read, then the book is doing political work for you.
You have spoken about the importance of memory and forgetting and the political connotations that this has on your writing. Tell us about this.
The way I write is also very personal. The question I asked myself is that when I went to the US to study, why did the stories of aravani, kinnar, hijra (the transgender community) fall away from my life? I was a queer woman and this was part of my queer archive. Then why did I not remember them? This act of forgetting came from places where I could not think.
I tried to address the issue of what happens to a person when you travel across constituencies and different political economies and habits. When you live by translating yourself all the time, you end up becoming more amenable to the language you come to inhabit. So in some way the original “you" changes as it forgets parts of itself. So I wanted to examine how I had changed and also what those changes might entail.
For me, one of the big theoretical questions for gay, lesbian, transgender, cisgender studies is that when we think of loss of memory, we always accuse people who are homophobic and anti-gay of forgetting us. However, when I examined the place that I stopped thinking, I realized that the person who forgot me was me. So we ourselves as queer subjects have a selective memory that comes and goes. This particular narrative helped me understand places where different versions of me didn’t coalesce. So the writing that results as an answer to these questions is basically a hybrid—it’s personal narrative, storytelling, gender theory and science all rolled into one.