India Reimagined

by Huma Munshi

Ten years ago, I travelled to India with my parents to get married to a man I had met only a handful of times. This was not a marriage in any real sense of the word; it was done without my consent and despite my many protestations. I left that “marriage” but I have never fully recovered from that trauma and I am not entirely sure I ever will. Ironically, for a time which has had such a profound impact, my memories of my “wedding day” and the days leading up to this, are fractured – I can remember snippets but not the entire narrative.

Much has happened to me since that trip then but one of my biggest fears is to be a victim again: to feel powerless; to lose control over my life, to lose my liberty. So going back to India, which I did on New Year, was always going to be a very emotionally difficult time. Indeed, I was filled with a fear that I would have flashbacks from that time.

Some may wonder why I decided to make the journey, particularly if it was to cause me such distress. I had resisted for a long time, but had finally decided that it was time to create new memories of India and a new narrative. It cannot be the case that a part of my identity – I am of Indian heritage – can continue to be a symbol of my oppression and I associate it with the violence that was inflicted on my physical and spiritual self.

In fact, the trip would always be something different, I realise now. It was done with a supportive friend; I would be able to appreciate the culture without any familial expectations; I was not being married against my will; it was not happening again – I was safe.

Huma Munshu ©

Huma Munshu ©

One of my favourite books about India is called Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. The writer, Suketu Mehta, eloquently depicts how he fell in love with Mumbai all over again after a period of feeling alienated by its chaos, poverty, inefficient bureaucracy and corruption. It was a title that would come back to me time and time again, as I travelled the country

What everyone will tell you when they land in any city in India, if they are travelling from the west, is the sensory impact of being in a place, which is so foreign in every way. From the smells that hit you to the dry heat, from the noise – the car and scooter horns are a constant backdrop – to the dust that clings to you; and the images that stay with you long afterwards, there is the child with the brown eyes knocking on the car door begging for some rupees and the family living on the railway with their meagre belongings.

I could ramble on about the many complexities, beauty and the utterly seductive nature of this country, but for the sake of brevity I will focus on three elements.

The first of these is survival. What is striking about India, with a population of 1.27 billion, is that everyone is fighting and clamouring for survival. It is a cliché to talk about the juxtaposition of the riches enjoyed by a fraction of the country with the abject poverty the other part of the country live in. But it is glaringly obvious in every way as you travel.

As we drove around the country, young children and adults trying to sell all manner of products, from the latest books to costume jewellery, to clothes to peanuts, constantly approached us. Every possible item is there to be sold and every person is trying to grab your attention so they can be the recipients of your well-worn rupee notes.

The second thing I was struck by, was the obsession India has with colourism and skin tone. I deliberately use the word India in its entirety because it seems to permeate every sphere of the country. In the hotel that I stayed in in Delhi, alongside the bottles of miniature shampoo and body wash, was a bottle of “skin lightening cream.” The advertisements on the television were full of products with the promise that, if used, they would make the person “fair and lovely”. This legacy of colonialism, where the ideal of beauty is determined by your skin tone, remains strong. This is also linked to income and class. Middle and upper class Indians have the means of buying these products and staying out of the glaring sun to keep their skin as light as possible. For those Indian people experiencing poverty they have no choice but to go out to work in the afternoon sun, with little or no access to these (appalling) skin lightening products. So skin tone can denote both how ‘attractive’ you are and your class.

Huma Munshi ©

Huma Munshi ©

My final observation of India is that its beauty struck me. I don’t mean beauty, which is necessarily aesthetically pleasing. I mean the beauty in seeing a cow walk through a busy road, unharmed and sanguine; the beauty of the colours of the glass bangles sold in the markets that catch your eye; the beauty of the sprawling square of the clock tower in Jaipur. There is also a sense that despite its chaos, (and there seems to be so much chaos![1]) that somehow it all works.

I will end my first column of 2014 with a note of hope. India was once a place I associated with the oppression and horror of a marriage ceremony I undertook against my expressed wishes. My journey back has helped me redefine what this country now represents for me and perhaps, in turn, I can understand and accept my heritage as something that is no longer a source of fear or shame.

“It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.”

Invictus by William Ernest Henley


[1] I know I say this as an outsider.

Huma Munshi started the #fuckhonour hashtag to express her anger at the oppression women have experienced. She is a writer, poet, blogger and trade unionist. She is a regular contributor to Media Diversified, F-Word and Time to Change.
She has written widely on honour based violence, mental health, film and intersectionality. This weekly column will reflect her passion for activism, a feminism that reflects her own experiences as an Asian Muslim woman, film reviews and current affairs.Enhanced by Zemanta
Read more of her articles here.

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15 replies

  1. I came here via a tweet request asking for names of women of colour who inspire. My fiancee Irom Sharmila Chanu has been placed under death threat (honor killing) because she has agreed to marry me. She is also kept in isolation in Manipur. Part of the isolation is a refusal to present her for trial. I no longer think that the reason the British ignore her is to do with race or colour. The FCO are about trade and arms selling. 35 British ex-soldiers on anti-piracy protection have been imprisoned in Tamil Nadhu on very dubious grounds but I don’t think many in the UK have heard of them or care that much. But you are interested in women of colour. Today is international women’s day so there will be a little internet buzz and a chance for a few more people to hear of Irom Sharmila Chanu. On 13 March she will be released for a day before being rearrested on charges of attempted suicided. Then she will return to imprisonment which began 14 years ago and remains indefinite. She protests the AFSPA which gives absolute immunity to paramilitaries patrolling in her state of Manipur and has led to the widespread use of rape and gang rape as an operational necessity for the Indian Army for use in one of its conflict zones and a right they refuse to dilute regardless of every judicial commisison looking into its effectiveness. It has already been ruled legal by the Supreme Court on the grounds that extreme measures may be taken by the Republic to defend the Republic. But many commissions question its effectiveness. On 29 March 2014 is the tenth occasion she will be summoned for trial in Delhi. The judge at the Patiala is trying a production warrant against the SP Imphal Central Prisons. Another thing you didn’t mention about India is the rampant corruption. Its now running at 7 lac rupees to join the police and several million to become a sub-inspector. The SP Imphal Central Jail goes for a lot more. I don’t know if any British Writer would be interested in telling her story. There are versions most heavily censored. The only scribe who has helped was a Tamil who didn’t have a dog in this fight. So he didn’t collude with the local corrupt NGOs. Research away if the story interests you. 14 years following Gandhian non-violent struggle, kept alive by naso-gastric intubation. There’s a lot of hypocrisy in the support given there. If you want me to link to your interest in Shadeism. Yes it’s a lot older than the British. The ancient classics talk of the fair races and the dark races. But in Britain you have to be rich to be able to afford sunbeds or travel to Spain for your hols twice a year. Only the poor are pasty white. In India as you say only the poor have to work in the fields. She is known as Mengaoubi they say but I’ve never heard anyone call her that. She is very fair. As you may know Indians from the Northeast are even more different from the North South Aryan Dravidian divide. Though Aryan and Dravidian are language groups not races yes. Manipuris belong to the Tibeto-Burmese language group. So some might say they don’t look Indian. Well if you had time look into her case. She still be in prison for a few years and in the cycle of media interest from April to around September no one really cares about her. But there’s usually some fuss made in India around this time. If she is presented to trial before the election there will be much more interest. So I assume manipuris will continue to break the law and not send her. Irom Sharmila Chanu, Human Rights Defender, Security Ward, Jawaharlal Nehru I M S, Porompat, Imphal East, Manipur, 795005

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  2. “What is striking about India, with a population of 1.27 billion, is that everyone is fighting and clamouring for survival.” – love the metaphor here whether intended or not, and how it mirrors survival in all its forms, be it the people who live there, the memories that exist there, or the people that travel there.

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  3. Thanks for an eloquent view. Turning a past trauma into a self-discovery of beauty within is an awesome journey; beauty often sits atop a stem of thorns.

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  4. If colorism is only due to prejudices from the colonial era, why does it seem like the lower the caste, the darker the skin?

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    • Thank you for reading, it was quite scary initially but it felt like the right time as I have written so widely on “honour” based violence and “shame”. Sometimes the most important writing is that which you do from the deepest parts of your emotional being. x

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  5. This is a very well written account.

    The sensory description of India is brilliant. From landing at the airport, to discovering skin whiting creams in your hotel, I can imagine the setting vividly.

    This is also an empowering piece. Life is about finding and defining your own narrative. Having understood your reasons for returning to India, and your initial reluctance to do so, it’s inspiring to read that you’ve reclaimed an important part of your identity in the process.

    I look forward to the next instalment!

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    • I love reading about India, with all the details of life and the people (my fav authors are Arundhati Roy, Manju Kapur and Kiran Desai) so describing my experience in India, albeit as a visitor, felt v natural to me. I hope to write something longer at some point. I wrote a piece of fiction based in India here if you are interested: http://humamunshi.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/india-by-morning/

      It is so important to reclaim and not continue to be controlled by the past. The journey is long and painful, but the alternative is to not live but merely exist. Hopefully it gets easier. hx

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  6. I love the idea about creating new memories and narrative for India and I hope you have succeeded in doing so. Your pictures looked beautiful and as if you were lapping it all up. It would have been so sad if you had not been able to return to what is your country, because you are too traumatised by something which happened there in the past.

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    • Thank you for the kind words..I resisted going for a long time because of deep fear and anxiety. But sometimes you have to do things that challenge those fears and take back control.

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