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EMBRACING OTHER SELVES
- Jane, Mr Rochester and a girl in Bombay

Like all writers, I am often asked about my 'social commitment' as a writer. I prefer to ask this question of myself a little differently. How do I use my writing ' and my reading, which takes up more of my life than writing ' to resist the various essentialisms that besiege our lives' Faced with such a question, I find myself harking back to that useful old story of the philosopher and the carpenter. This is a story that tells us a great deal, not only about authenticity and ownership, but also about the ongoing dynamics between the traditional and the contemporary ' the natural setting for any attempt, literary or otherwise, at 'resistance'.

In this story ' told about Aristotle in Europe, and about an Indian philosopher in India ' the philosopher meets the village carpenter who uses a strong, beautiful knife at work. The philosopher asks the carpenter, 'How long have you had this knife' The carpenter replies, 'It's been in the family for generations.' He notices the surprise on the philosopher's face so he adds, by way of postscript: 'Well, we have changed the handle a few times and the blade a few times, but it is the same knife'

I am partial to this neat little tale for a simple reason: it is all too easy for us to stereotype tradition as bogeyman and contemporary interpretations as resistances. The 'refurbishers' of the knife ' those who retell small and big traditions, individual and collective histories ' include those who distort the past or our joint legacies for their own current political purposes. In other words, the tradition hoarders, those who refuse to keep tradition in good repair, are the easiest enemies to identify. It's the refurbishers ' most of whom may think of themselves as resisters ' that are a more tricky lot. On the one hand, we have those who use tradition, history, culture ' change their handles and blades ' only to perpetuate old stereotypes and create new ones; reinforce old exclusions and strengthen new ones. On the other hand, we have the heterogeneous collective of refurbishers that many of us hope we belong to: those who change blades and handles to expand the map of inclusions. Because this is a heterogeneous group, it becomes necessary, thank goodness, to also initiate a challenge to resistances that are either incomplete, or in danger of turning essentialist themselves.

Playing philosopher is, perhaps, inevitable for the writer. But secretly, and sometimes not so secretly, the writer does much of her 'resistance' at the carpenter's workshop. Sitting where the carpenter sits helps bring together different vantage points from which to evaluate the need for resistance, then fashion different modes of resistance.

Perhaps this sort of general statement makes better sense when we hark back to individual ' but not particularly unique ' experience as reader and writer. For instance, I think of myself as a ten-year-old girl in Bombay (or what was then Bombay), picking up my elder sister's 'English' textbook, and being seduced into entering Jane Eyre's life. Here I was, a middle-class child in an unselfconscious South Indian Brahmin family, speaking a hodgepodge of Tamil and Malayalam at home, and a recent, reluctant speaker of English ' since my parents had moved from one part of the city to another and I had been dispatched to an 'English-medium' school.

I was a product of middle-class aspirations and dominant caste mobility, early post-colonial education, to say nothing of the spectacular cultural kicchdi of the Indian metropolis. The distance between this somewhat hybrid creature and Jane Eyre (or Mr Rochester) is nothing short of staggering. Obviously, I had no articulated awareness of this distance. What I do recall is the almost secretive pleasure of the discovery of the far-away, the Other. And the secret of the pleasure was that while I got an inside view of other people in other places, other times, I also got ' again, without being aware of it, obviously ' a closer view of myself. Getting to know Jane and Mr Rochester opened, as it were, one little window. But at that time, as reader, what use that open window, that view of the Other, if it didn't also mean that a window ' behind me in childhood, a window I would learn to turn to in time ' did not also open to provide a view of myself'

Many years later, I read Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea. Antoinette's home was as foreign to me as Jane's England. Perhaps, in terms of 'general knowledge', more foreign, since our official literary education was so firmly trained on England and its views. But already I knew that Antoinette was closer to me than Jane ' if Jane was a relation by a marriage (or a forced marriage), Antoinette was a second cousin. With this awareness, the two windows I have referred to opened a little more. The views of the Other, of myself, grew just that much more detailed, complex. It was as if the screen, in response to improved technology, grew wider.

Suppose I write a story about this girl and Jane and Antoinette; a girl in Bombay with baggage of her own, Jane's and Rochester's England with the offstage India of missionaries and the lush uncivilized islands of Rochester's first wife; and Antoinette's world, again with its layers of race, gender, power. What is the window, the vantage point, I should set my writing table at' My suspicion is that I would do best to keep all the windows wide open. That if I pretend it's all a question of exploring the colonial experience, I will lose out; and so would I, for instance, if I made it an exclusively 'women's' story.

Of course, stories cannot be written if you do not commit yourself to foregrounding certain aspects of experience, certain details of these aspects. But still, there is that background ' the awareness you have as a writer that leaves its mark on the piece of literature you produce. And when someone else reads it, the background gets even richer. So for a writer, for a reader, and for the literary work itself ' it's best not to sanctify the compartmentalization of different tools of analysis, different aspects of resistance. It's an exercise in impoverishing oneself to produce literature that is only about gender to the exclusion of say caste, or vice versa. So while resistance and resistances in literature react to exclusions, and aspire to wider inclusion, the same principle applies to the form, the mode, and the perspective of the resistance.

Perhaps the form, mode, perspective ' the craft of the carpenter ' its capacities for renewing resistance to all exclusionary strategies ' can be more effective if we keep in view, always, the real secret of the reading and writing exercise. Orhan Pamuk describes this secret as an embrace; not an embrace of the Other, not an embrace of the enemy, but of our other self. Let me edit this and put the word 'self' in the plural. The point of our using our words, ideas, images, the point of all our literary journeys, is to encounter our other selves. The resistance is in the act of our embracing these other selves.

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