I thought at last that it was time to roll up the crumpled skin of the day, with its arguments and its impressions and its anger and its laughter, and cast it into the hedge.
— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
We were all waiting to see the doctor. The winter was at its peak, and it was that hour in the late afternoon when the light sinks and the mosquitoes come in. I decided to shut the book I was reading and savour the gathering gloom. There were three couples — all in their early forties, very Bengali, very South Calcutta. One might see them outside Priya (at a Rituparno Ghosh matinée), at the Pous Mela in Shantiniketan, or at the BNR hotel in Puri. One of the gentlemen was keeping his wife engaged in a minute discussion of his cholesterol graph over the last couple of years. His voice quivered with the hypochondriac’s triumph at having found, at last, a proven and legitimate cause for worry. (His wife’s finger quietly marked the page of the Desh that she was not being allowed to read.) Another gentleman was flamboyantly picking his nose; his wife was using Sananda as protection. The third couple seemed to be contemplating the metaphysical possibility of a life without conversation. The flesh was weary, they had read all the books, and they had run out of things to say to each other. Cricket-noises were coming in from the surrounding flats.
Lulled by the air of collective trust and shared mortality in the room, I noted that my lips were feeling dry. So I took out a chap-stick from my satchel and anointed them. Immediately, there was electric in the air. Six pairs of eyes fastened on me with a look of perfectly consensual disgust. It was just a matter of seconds. But a whole gamut of expressions and little movements animated the faces and bodies of the men and women in the room. In the women, there was derision first, then curiosity, and finally an indulgent amusement with their husbands’ radiant discomfort. They looked me up and down, speculated, giggled inwardly at their husbands and went back to their back-issues.
The men were more seriously chap-stuck. I had, quite inadvertently, touched something quick in them, from where sprang a strange, pungent mixture of shock, loathing and what I can only describe in retrospect as a fear of contagion. The hypochondriac, who was sitting nearest to me, let out a helpless little tsk, and gathering his blood-reports together, turned away from me towards his wife with a quick torque of his body, as if I had sneezed on his face. The others were more subtle. The nose-picker tried to find out what I had been reading. And Mr & Mrs Dangling Conversation were riveted, in spite of themselves. (I must admit at this point that the plastic shell of my chap-stick was a bright pink. A mischievous colleague had got me a rose-flavoured one from England as a gift.)
Two things struck me about the situation. First, the sense of an instant and unspoken consensus about my act in a room full of strangers. Second, there was a mysterious excess or disproportion in the men’s gut-reaction to what I had just done. Why were they so touched to the quick by something as trivial as this' What was the hypochondriac turning away from' What was at stake in all this'
On my part, I noticed soon that my pulse had quickened. The reactions in the room had caught me unawares. In these few seconds, I felt embarrassed first, then baffled with having provoked somebody to loudly clicking his tongue before physically turning away from me, followed by the first, sharp smart of what I knew to be nothing other than anger. Years ago, at university, I had read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for the first time. “My heart had leapt. My cheeks had burnt. I had flushed with anger,” Woolf had written there, to describe how she felt when she came upon a piece of rank misogyny in the British Library. She was struck by her own anger then, lurking among the other reactions (“interest, confusion, amusement, boredom”).
I am struck here by how Woolf uses the language of joy and arousal to describe her anger. This reminds me — does it banalize Woolf to invoke her here' — how quickly my own anger in the waiting room had turned into a perverse, vengeful enjoyment of the others’ discomfort. It was as if my entire social being was suddenly made to confront the allure, and exhilaration, of outrageous performance. It was a perfectly infantile moment for me, full of its own cheap, camp thrill. I thought, my heart racing with every kind of condescension, should I just stare steadily back at the hypochondriac and give him a solemn little wink' I didn’t do that, of course. And I am glad today that I didn’t. Man, woman or child — who does not know how wonderful it feels while such feelings last, but also how cravenly stupid they leave one feeling afterwards' But I am also glad that I continue to use my chap-stick in public without feeling at all political about it. That would have been monumentally silly.
This incident came back to me again the other day, as I was reading about Taslima Nasreen’s arrival in the city in various newspapers, and saw her latest photographs. I had felt the right things, in an abstract way, when her latest book was banned in Bengal. I had also vaguely wondered then, quite apolitically, whom she had slept with on either side of the Shadow-Line. These men must have used every inch of refinement and influence in their bodies to clobber her book down. My mind had boggled, only briefly, at the efficiency of this old boys’ network and at the devilry of the “communal” excuse, before moving on to other things. But I woke up one morning to read in the papers that Nasreen had been barred from offering flowers at an event in the city to commemorate two recently-dead Rabindrasangeet singers — because she was wearing jeans and a shirt. One of the organizers — a venerable retainer of the Tagorean establishment — had deemed her improperly dressed and had made sure, through others, that she be disallowed from paying her respects, as she had been invited to do initially. Nasreen understood what was indirectly being said to her, and immediately left the place. There were many eminent men and women there — educationists, bureaucrats, musicians. Most of them knew what had happened. It occurred to none to protest, then or later.
I felt — for the first time, properly — the full import of the change of air in Calcutta towards Nasreen when I read about this unsavoury incident. And the first thing I felt was a rush of anger — that old, Woolfian anger, which makes the heart leap, the cheeks burn and the vengeful imagination rear its infantile head. It was all right for many of her readers in Bengal as long as she presented herself as a victim of religious bigotry and sexual oppression. But when she starts writing, without helplessness and with no sense of having been abused, of actually enjoying her sexuality quite freely, of feeling once again in control of her body and mind as active agents of sexual desire and choice, then the axe must fall.
Middle Bengal is still too twistedly repressed, and repressive, to accept sexual candour as natural to a woman. This repression is mostly played out in the realm of sexuality, but its consequences can be felt in other spheres too. Any appearance, action or way of life and being which necessitates thinking again from first principles, a re-examination of convenient and comfortable assumptions, a change in one’s orientation to things — that is, any form of difference — provokes in this society a peculiarly nasty fear. And the mechanisms of the state, and those of its cultural establishment, separately and in their overlap, are perfectly geared to perpetuating this fear as well as this nastiness. In human terms, this comes out as a profound discomfort with pleasure, and as an envious resentment of certain forms of individual, often unconventional, happiness. The insecure and the unfree, the puritan and the hypochondriac, will always be at their ugliest when confronted with the lineaments of gratified or freely expressed desire. And the easiest way to take this out is to use all one’s empowerment (though politics, culture, seniority or the sheer fact of being male) to get to how a woman looks and what she chooses to wear.
Yet, when I saw Nasreen’s latest before-and-after photographs in the local supplements, and read how she was talking to reporters about her “new look”, I couldn’t help a vague misgiving. Turning into a gutsy page-three firebrand may not be the best possible mode of self-transformation for a writer. There is nothing at all wrong about shopping for a new wardrobe or successfully persevering with a low-cholesterol diet. But it might turn out to be an unfortunate thing if Nasreen’s new image, and the processes of acquiring and maintaining it, turn out to be the most publicized statements of her subversiveness.
A female writer may find herself in a strange double-bind in relation to her society’s gaze, to how this gaze reads her and how she may find herself wanting to be read by it. It is in the nature of the nastiness being directed at Nasreen to either reduce her achievements as a writer to her sexual life and personal appearance, or else, to produce the more pernicious obverse of this: to actually channel her creativity, her compulsion to write, into an endlessly rehearsed contrariness, expressed in ways that could often be quite banal. In this, she would perhaps have to guard against not only feudal viciousness, but also the apparently sympathetic and liberal interests of the seekers after a story or a cause. Power-dressing, power-shopping or power-dieting could become just another, more insidious, form of powerlessness, and could reduce the integrity — indeed, the point — of one’s existence, as a writer and as a human being, to something sadly other than what it could have been in all its fullness. Being angry, and repeatedly claiming the right to express this anger publicly, could turn out be a huge waste of time and energy for a writer. And this amounts to being defeated by vindictiveness — society’s and one’s own.
Again, I went back to A Room of One’s Own, and marvelled at how clearly and wisely Virginia Woolf had understood, way back in the late Twenties, the damage that anger could do to a woman’s writing, and to her life and self-image as a writer. The money and a room of her own, which Woolf saw as essential for such a life, are perhaps much less of a problem today in our society — although I’m not so sure about the room. But she also speaks, in her own case, of a process of inner transformation, which is just as essential to the fullest enjoyment of these privileges, then and now: “by degrees fear and bitterness modified themselves into pity and toleration; and then in a year or two, pity and toleration went, and the greatest release of all came, which is freedom to think of things in themselves.”
For Woolf, this hard-bought ability to think of things in themselves is what makes the writer “incandescent”, when “all desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance” is “fired out”. This is when writing becomes most free, and therefore most subversive — through the writer’s lucid, fearless and playful realization that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else.