A walk to remember

Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk (KRPW) has been at the centre of innumerable debates regarding the rights of the sexual minorities in the city. While its importance as a movement cannot be discounted, its inherent politics and the problems it faces on a daily basis need to be (re)negotiated. Soumabrata Chatterjee explores some old questions with perhaps some new twists….

 Coincidences in public spaces often open up complex politico-cultural interactions.  On 13th July, I happened to come across the Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk (KRPW) as it made its way through Gariahat.  The participants walked with élan as I was left behind wondering whether this walk (being a part of the larger Queer movement in India) had any transgressive potential left in it to disrupt the hetero-patriarchal State. I was a disinterested outsider. Some value judgements were in order. This walk being the oldest of its kind in India (starting from 1999) had certainly stood the test of time. It had prompted onlookers to acknowledge the problems of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender communities in India. But what about its own politics? Is the walk a clarion call to the Supreme Court to renegotiate its decision to curb the sexual freedom of the non-normative sexual identities? Or is it a blooming expression of a desire for sexual freedom? Or has it lost its subversive quality and become a mere spectacle, one to be admired but never to be feared? Is the Queer movement, by extension, is dead?

I know the questions I am putting forward are archaic. But my position as a disinterested spectator informs the naivety of my project. Being exposed to bits and pieces of Western discourses on sexuality I attempted to theorise a walk from which I stood miles away. My arguments were vituperative. I questioned the politics of representation behind the walk. Was the transgender community as clearly documented as the gay community? Was the walk elitist because it moves across spaces which might be culturally/economically diverse but dominated by bourgeois and semi-bourgeois people? Or did I quickly assume that the upper-class people were not ‘queer-phobic’? What does it mean to be a working-class member and a transgender and a queer? How do these politically charged identities come together?

At this point I came across a person which is a participant in this walk. He corrected me on some accounts. Let us call him A. His class, caste and gender identity is not important. A told me that the walk had to change its course from Park Circus to Jodhpur Park because the Chief Minister was attending an  Iftar Party at Park Circus Maidan. He questions whether the government could have changed the route of a political rally at the last minute without drawing media attention. I thought to myself, does this factual discrepancy remove the charge of elitism? It doesn’t, he said. Why do I think this movement is elitist? This walk had people from all spheres of life. There were “the suave swish lot, facebook activists, cause hoppers, there were also transgenders from remote areas of Bengal, from states like Manipur.” My views are based on a sweeping understanding of the media representation (Facebook etc…) which has disfigured reality. But I wonder isn’t Facebook a slice of lived reality? Reality is mediated through its variant representations. Facebook is just another interpretation among others. Then should I critique those photographers who wish to document the sophisticated intellectual who displays queer pride in all its self-sufficiency? Or should I consider those photographs which give me nameless faces with muffled voices? Being a disinterested spectator what should be my point of departure? Can I discount the politics of my cultural insider (A)? I have omitted his class, caste and gender affiliations but doesn’t that determine his point-of-view? And if I include his details doesn’t that reek of an identitarian politics? From which do I write? Ultimately can I even write? Except the agency of a disinterested spectator what other forms of validity can I aspire to? Then I suddenly remember the words of the French philosopher Michel Foucault – “Power is everywhere” and “comes from everywhere.” It does not have an agency or a structure.  It is enacted and embodied rather than possessed. It is diffusive, formless.

The spectator-partcipatant divide has been an ongoing debate in socio-cultural circles. But if we look at it in a peculiar way we will realise that A is not only a participant. He is a spectator too in relation to my positionality. We are basically mirrors turned onto ourselves. Rapidly changing positions I try to place myself within the walk. I found it immensely difficult because I did not share memories or struggles with my revolutionary counterparts. The walk then becomes a metaphor for a macro-narrative of oppression. A records an instance when a transwoman who is otherwise regularly harassed (both physically and sexually) at Rabindra  Sarobar, walks with confidence in her fish net stockings and leather boots and the police are just a group of stumped visitors. “The equation gets reversed that day”, he says. But what about the remaining 364 days where she will be again molested in every brutal way possible? A moment of liberation does not (read should not) undercut the years of subjugation? Or is freedom so rare nowadays that it can only be bought by losing everything? Also, most other people in the march will return to the safety of their homes or even masked identities. In a revolution, some pay more, some pay less and some do not pay at all. How do we measure freedom then? Certainly in “coffee spoons”…

The rhetoric of the march being inspired by the Stonewall riots is simple. As a poster read, it is a fight for rights. But it is far more complex than that. In the world of homonationalism, there is always the ‘good’ homosexual – a person who maintains the socio-political fabric of the hetero-patriarchal state. He can be put into the ‘other’ category in the age of globalisation and diversity. But what of his sexual ‘difference’ (read ‘deviance’ because that is what societies misinterpret ‘difference’ for) which presents as a perennial ‘knot’? As Dipesh Chakraborty spoke of subaltern identities, these sexual minorities can often pose a problem to the logic of a free, diverse patriarchal India. Culturally they cannot be subsumed. Yet they are. How? Why?

Co-optation and subversion go hand-in-hand, A explains. True. But doesn’t the Focauldian idea of co-optation mean that the society often allows a transgressive example to flourish insofar as it goes to a certain distance and proceed no further? Is the walk for sexual liberation ultimately compartmentalised? Isn’t there a cheat code, a way to bypass societal constrictions? There isn’t. The walk has to happen in a recognisable context. But this context is corrupted by Statist politics. How can the walk retain its identity? It cannot. Rather it needn’t. There are inherent hierarchies between the walk as well. The cause of the transgenders is different (this being the operative word) from the cause of Gays or lesbians. Is Queer just an umbrella term to collectivize (not homogenise) marginal voices? Can the voice from the margins be heard loud and clear from the centre? Or is the locale of the walk (which I earlier thought to be elitist) is ultimately crucial to its subversive potential? The walk takes place across specific socio-political spaces leaving a trail, a memory of transgression behind it. Even if it is co-opted at the end doesn’t that leave some traces? Some footsteps for us to follow and build another walk?

I question the exhibitionism and the deliberate creation of a public spectacle. A tells me about the politics of funding and how this walk has managed to survive the onslaught of NGOs. It is self-invested and self-organized. Debates are organized regarding the attire of the participants but everybody is given the privilege to choose at the end. But the idea of consensus bothers me. Always has. Who takes these decisions? Sadly I forgot to ask these questions to A. I still wonder…

 Post-1960s cultural theory has debunked the notion that we are born free. We are born into a complex web of socio-political cultures which ultimately robs us of our identity as individuals and creates subjects out of us. Subjects carry out the tasks that our society instructs us. The subject is never prior to politics but is an ‘effect’ rather than a ‘cause’. In a way, culture then is defined not as a reified category but according to its functionality. Strangely however, what culture excludes is also included. What is outside is inside as well. So the queer is not something which can be easily excluded. The self-sufficient heterosexual self has to determine his identity against the homosexual. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s idea of supplementarity has to be invoked in this context. He defines it as the play of presence and absence which facilitates the production of meanings. The deviant is always constituted in relation to the normative. Both are mutually inclusive. Thus the play between presence and absence is a prerequisite of interpretation. Supplementarity is the effect of such an interpretation. There is no escape. In fact we re-inscribe what we set out to destroy. Does that mean the walk re-inscribes those power relations that it set out to destroy? The next day when people walk across the street, when shopkeepers return to their usual jobs do they remember that transwoman? Do they give her some sort of respect?

After arguing for a while, A questions me whether I have something new to say. All has been said and done. What do I have to contribute to this movement? I am just a disinterested spectator. How can I participate? I remain silent. When I was returning home that day I understood what role I had to play. I was the absent. He was the present. We are both different. Yet he needed me as much as I needed him. It is true that I do not have anything new to say. But does the walk have anything new to offer? The answer to both is no. Yet it is not. The idea of repetition involves a homage to the original yet it creates its own identity. Difference and repetition go together. Like every person who joins in the revolution every year enriches it a bit, every disinterested spectator looks, learns and moves on…

Soumabrata is a research scholar in English Studies at JNU.

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