9 MIN READ
When historian Ranajit Guha initiated a Subaltern Studies collective in the 1980s, he, alongside his peers, did so after identifying the deeply problematic nature of Indian history writing. In purportedly taking stock of the ‘post’ colonial time, history writing, claimed the collective, continued to foreground the Indian 'elite' – the ‘upper caste’ intellectual class – as the protagonists of history while erasing of the 'subaltern' – the materially oppressed and culturally marginalized – from the narrative of a nation coming to terms with the exit of a colonial power.
While the subaltern collective no longer exists, the political and intellectual outputs of the project have hitherto exposed the biased nature of history writing. In the process, it created a critical space for the subaltern in history (re)writing and beyond. The prominence with which the 'urban poor' are spoken about in South Asian studies, for example, may be considered one such influence of 'subaltern studies' in the way cities are read and written about on this side of the globe.
We are at a similar critical moment in contemporary Nepali history, made no more explicit in the manner that the ‘people’ seem to have come of age during the course of the ongoing ‘Citizen’s Movement’, or Brihat Nagarik Andolan as it is called.
In the early days of January 2021, as the Citizen’s Movement was being formulated, the actor Dayahang Rai issued a plea to Nepali citizens to join the movement. “If not now, when?” demanded Rai. Among all his peers in the film fraternity, it was quite poignant that it was Rai who made this call. Rai’s identity has a certain 'place' in the history of the Nepali nation-state - that of the ‘subaltern’, historically maimed and marginalized by the state. His is also a face, a ‘Mongolian face’, that has gained a special recognition in the cinematic universe, both as a popular hero and a serious actor. The former, as a ‘hero’, is in and of itself a radical feat in a society that has been conditioned to only imagine an ‘Aryan face’ as its ‘hero’ or ‘heroine’. In making a public call to join the Citizen’s Movement, Rai, to many, became the ‘real hero’.
Rai’s call to action makes for an interesting reflection when read next to an interview he gave nearly a year ago. In the interview, he makes a very pointed reflection about what his face represents, or does not represent, in Nepali cinema. He confessed that it is indeed no minor feat that his face is now accepted as the face of a ‘hero’. However, he also cautioned that a long struggle remains before the Nepali film industry accords a central space to the history of indigenous struggle that his face represents. In other words, there is no place for a ‘minority’ history or story in Nepali film in the present time.
But life does not always have to imitate art. Enter, Sapana Sanjeevani.
Fighting fire with fire
Sapana Sanjeevani, the firebrand poet and artist who has come into her own during the course of the Citizen’s Movement, carries a backpack with a patch that says, ‘bigreko keti’, or ‘bad girl’. It is perhaps fair to say that bigreko keti is the radical reincarnation of the ‘sisterhood of sovereign souls’ that was the ‘charitrahin cheli’ of the early 2000s. The charitrahin chelis, or ‘women of bad character’, were a group of young women who took ownership of their lack of ‘character’, and turning it around to raise a middle finger to all things that the patriarchy upholds as ‘good’ – or all the ‘good’ things that uphold the patriarchy.
Similarly, Sanjeevani is a bigreko keti insofar as she appropriates the phrase to articulate her own agency. Sapana does not so much appropriate, as rather holds the phrase by the scruff of its neck, gapes its mouth wide open, and breathes radical new life into it. In other words, she resurrects the phrase and equips it with a new language, or rather, a poem of resistance. And with power and poise, she recites:
No! I am not your Sita!
Neither am I the tolerant and docile mother Janaki.
Oh Ram! listen carefully,
I am not melting under the weight of your masculine arrogance,
And bury myself alive.
Beware! Should you direct me to a trial-by-fire,
I am not jumping into the pyre in quiet acquiescence.
Instead, I will yank those fingers and throw you into the pyre myself!
No! I am not your Saraswati!
The goddess of knowledge, I am not sealing my lips no more,
Neither am I defending the rapist father pretending to be my god.
Oh Brahma! listen carefully,
I am not going to be a victim of your vulgar lust.
Beware! If you so much as cast a dirty glance in my direction,
I will no more be quiet because you happen to be my father,
I will gouge your eyes out Brahma, and I will murder you with my bare hands!
With one sweeping move, Sanjeevani exposes the Vedic texts for what they primarily are - a collection of myths institutionally mobilized to redesign history so as to bend the future to the will of power of the state and the market, with the present as a site of unfettered reinvention. The re-runs of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, popular TV shows from the 90s, during the pandemic in India, may be a case in point.
Sanjeevani uses the power of performative art to slay mythical characters. In doing so, she declares that the fight is on. During the Women’s March on February 12, where Sanjeevani recited the poem, her declaration was met with an equally charged audience that exclaimed in unison, ‘Inqlab Zindabad!’, as if to say, they too were up for the fight to reclaim the future.
As for the accusation that the poem is ‘violent’: the hint of ‘violence’ is a symbolic gesture and a rhetorical tool. Violence in the poem is proposed as conditional – ‘hurt me and I will punish you’. But more importantly, should we not ask ourselves how and why religious and Vedic texts have blinded us into ‘unseeing’ how Ram threw his wife into the agnipariksha pyre, much to Laxman’s surprise? Or how Saraswati was a permanent prisoner of her own father, Brahma’s, lustful gaze? Or how Shiva forcefully ‘married’ a child, Goma? Are these all not malevolent, masculine acts of patriarchal violence systemically committed on the female body? Do they not sound like modern-day violence – honor killing, sexual harassment, and child marriage -- committed by those very ‘good’ men that walk the earth as the reincarnations of these ‘godly’ figures? Do we not choose to ‘un-see’ our own complicity in their perpetuation? Should we, then, not confront the ‘self’ instead of Sanjeevani? Should we, then, not join her in fighting fire with fire?
By the time the protest on February 19 entered its final act, one would notice that the protestors, assembled at the Mahankal Temple, Tudhikhel, in front of a pick-up truck, a make-shift stage for the day, had begun to disaggregate into little fragments, away from the stage. It was perhaps time for some to say their goodbyes while others had maybe run out of energy after standing still, cheering, clapping and shouting for over two hours. However, when Mohna Ansari, a former National Human Rights Commissioner, rights activist, and emcee for the day, announced Sanjeevani as the next to go on stage, something visually stunning began to unfold. As soon as Sanjeevani’s name came up, all who had left to create their own little silos descended back to the center, closer to the stage, waiting for her to belt out a powerful rendition of her poem, yet another song of resistance. And oh, did she sing!
I reject this society!
This society that treats its fellow citizens with disdain:
‘bhaiyya’, ‘dhoti’, ‘tharu’, ‘bhotey’, ‘jyapu’.
I reject this racist society!
I reject this state!
This state that writes the constitution with the blood of its citizens,
I reject this criminal state!
Who knows how long before ‘mainstream’ art begins to imitate ‘minority’ life. Who knows how long before Dayahang Rai’s subaltern history becomes the protagonist, the ‘real hero’, of Nepali cinema. For now, Sapana Sanjeevani stands tall and confident at the intersection where art meets life – the protest. There is a lot to take from her poems, to use them as a mirror to fix blind faith and blind spots – to fix the ‘self’. But from a strategic point of view too, if the Citizen’s Movement reflects on what ‘works’ and what doesn’t to galvanize the people for future political programs, it would do well to dwell a little longer on Sanjeevani’s poems. Hers is the act that commands an audience and creates protestors. Hers is the story that speaks the history of minority struggle in this anachronistic society that refuses to reform. Hers is the story that renders elite history redundant and demands not so much its revision, but rejection. Hers is the story that breathes life into the movement, simply because it turns disaggregated spectators into a collective of the ‘people’.
Meeting at the intersectional spaces of marginality
An iconic picture of the first people’s movement from April, 1990, features a 22-year-old woman, Durga Thapa, rising head and shoulders above a sea of men facing her in wonderment. She screams, ‘long live democracy!’. Stunning as the picture is in its poetic rendering of female power, the aftermath of the resistance has consigned the picture to the realms of romance, for nothing substantive has improved in the lives of Nepali women and the marginalized ‘other’ in the decades since. However, there have been important shifts in the landscape of ‘representational politics’, particularly after the constitution was promulgated in 2015. ‘Identity’, including the ideas of representation and inclusion it entails, is no longer a catchphrase. As discourse, ‘identity’ has deepened its political content. This new depth is relentlessly brought to the fore through the intellectual and creative production of subaltern writings and artistic oeuvre. Fiction, poems, performative art, and essays now inundate the public sphere with Dalit, feminist, indigenous, and Madhesi voices. Together, they reveal the fractures in Nepali society, even as they collectively give (re)birth to the ‘people’ as a self-representing collective – as variegated as the collective might be.
Such a collective production makes ‘representation’ a redundant practice, and at times patronizing even, when the ‘people’ are now more than able to ‘speak’ on their own. It is especially so if the language of the people is more effective and powerful than the language of ‘representation’, for this ‘new’ language gives not just a ‘voice’ to the people but also ensures the ‘presence’ of the people. Of the many who speak such a language with aplomb and gusto is Raju Syangtan, a poet and writer of Tamang heritage. It is the same heritage shared by one Surya Bahadur, the daily wage porter who breathed his last breath, less than a year ago, on a sidewalk in Kirtipur, his body partially draped in his naamlo. In middle of the pandemic lockdown, as the Nepali state callously left its citizens on their own, Surya Bahadur Tamang gave up on life when there were no buyers left in the ‘market’ to purchase the only thing he could put on sale on a daily basis – his labor. On behalf of Surya Bahadur, Raju writes:
Oh people who are alive,
Before you conduct a post-mortem on my body
I have a request to make.
Not with knives and scissors
But with a pen, do the post-mortem.
Like an ancient town,
My skinny body feels.
Read through my ribs
And write if you wish to,
The history of my hunger.
Sanjeevani and Syangtan’s poems meet at the intersectional spaces of marginality. Sanjeevani’s is defined and shaped by her identity as a Madhesi woman, and Syangtan’s as a Janajati man. Their voices, which come to life during protests, are met with thunderous applause. This ‘passing of the mike’ during the protest is a start, literally speaking. Symbolism matters. However, a truly substantive ‘passing of the mike’ happens, as it should, only when it is these intersectional spaces, at which Syangtan and Sanjeevani meet, not only define but also lead the movement. Such leadership must take center stage, not just in performative acts during protests, but also in the ‘Union House’ that serves as a preparatory and reflective ‘meeting’ ground for organizing protests. In the silos of gender and caste outside the ‘Union House’ where anxieties boil to the surface over endless cups of tea, how can such anxieties move across the silos to unionize and lead the movement? How can the current leadership of the Citizen’s Movement unburden themselves from the historic burden of ‘representing the other’? How can this unburdening happen in the spirit of solidarity across difference – difference in the way the movement is interpreted and articulated as a permanent struggle?
In a rather telling reflection during a recent public conversation with Hima Bista, a feminist activist and advocate of gender rights, Sanjeevani said of her poems, “I don’t think I am speaking on behalf of anyone. It is our voice, which people happen to find relatable”. Sanjeevani’s poem is the story that contemporary people are telling each other about contemporary times and their uncomfortable location within the Brahmanical and patriarchal history of this nation-state. Her poem signals the coming of age of the ‘people’ and announces the birth of a new leader. By design or default, when we come to a point where a face begins to ‘represent’ the Citizen’s Movement, can there be a ‘face’ that is a voice and a presence that ‘represents’ the ruptures in present time? Can there be a ‘face’ that disrupts the elite history of the ‘nation-state’ coming to terms with the idea of a ‘state-nation’ in the wake of the possible exit of a neocolonial ‘ruler’ after the Supreme Court’s recent verdict – a first step in the permanent movement for the ‘democratization of democracy’? Can the ‘face’ of the protagonist of this movement be that of the ‘anti-hero’ – the subaltern collective?
Raju Syangtan’s poem is originally in Nepali. Sapana Sanjeevani’s is in Maithili. The translations are the author’s with consent from the poets, who also helped with the translation.
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