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Desire: An Intersectional Perspective

“As a tool of social control, women have been encouraged to recognize only one area of human difference as legitimate, those differences which exist between women and men… But our future of survival is predicated upon our ability to relate within equality. As women, we must root out internalized patterns of oppression within ourselves if we are to move beyond the most superficial aspects of social change.”  – Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider

If you have not seen the 2018 Tamil Language film Pariyerum Perumal, then this is a spoiler alert. Director Mari Selvaraj, who also recently made the stunning film Karnan, tells a complex story about caste and desire in Pariyerum Perumal. Jo, the female protagonist of the movie plays a naïve upper caste girl, who falls in love with Perumal, the Dalit protagonist, without thinking even a little bit about the question of caste. In a way, her love seems representative of the idea that one can do away with caste just by acting like it does not exist. On the other hand, her lack of awareness does not allow her to see that her land-owning father and male cousins are the very reason why hierarchies persist between her and Perumal. Her privilege also makes her unaware of how her obsession with Perumal creates problems for him, making him the target of humiliation, harassment and bodily harm. And Perumal  – rather than worrying about the banal things a college student should be worrying about such as exams, classes, love, sex – is hunted down and made to worry about something more existential – his life.

In a country, where several upper caste directors have told stories of inter-caste love by privileging desire over caste by turning caste into a prop in the script, Mari Selvaraj chooses to tell a different and far more realistic story. Desire, in Pariyerum Perumal, simply cannot be privileged over caste by the audience or the script, because it is not a separate entity. Desire – or how one comes to feel it – is entirely shaped by one’s positionality, which among other things is also shaped very, very palpably by caste. In other words, love cannot win it all in this movie, because love is entangled and deeply embroiled with the politics of caste. When Perumal is harassed and subject to violence, he does not aspire to become a heroic defender of love or a martyr, like most filmy heroes. He instead fights to survive for another day, so that he can have a chance to feel the many textures of love that he aches to feel for his family, for his dog, for his friends, and for Jo, without having to justify or defend himself.

In the final scene of the film, Jo’s father “accepts defeat” and decides to give Perumal a fair chance to date his daughter. Over tea, he asks Perumal if Perumal feels as deeply for Jo as Jo feels for him. Perumal smiles pensively and responds, “I don’t know. Before I could understand it you tore me to pieces. But your daughter is very lucky. She can say what she feels openly, anywhere. I have to die so many times, before I can say what I feel.” Desire, the movie, tells us is born in an intersection  – what we feel as love, as desire, as attraction cannot be understood if we fail to account for caste.

The Marathi movie Sairat shows us a similarly entangled desire. In Sairat, the female protagonist, Archana is not able to stay naïve for long. The father she adores is not as covert in his dealings as Jo’s father is in Pariyerum Perumal. He harasses and threatens Prashant, the man she loves, right before her eyes, forcing her to elope and to make life away from her home and family. At the end of the movie, she is killed along with Prashant for defying the politics of caste. Made by Nagraj Manjule, Sairat also shows that desire feels and develops very differently for Archana than it does for Prashant. Even though she leaves her home for him, and is killed in the end for being with him, her choices and her options are shaped throughout the film by her caste privileges. At one point, these differences even drive a wedge between the protagonists, forcing us as viewers to see that caste cannot be treated as a plot device in scripts written by and for upper-caste consumption, and that it is in fact, deeply rooted in how we come to know ourselves as desiring subjects in the subcontinent.

What these movies make obvious is that desires emerge at complex socio-political intersections between gender, sexuality, caste (and class, religion, ethnicity, nationality etc.) and that they are felt and experienced differently by people based on their positionalities. In most stories about caste and desire, I find that desire is often understood to be a “human” quality that protagonists must feel in the same way, regardless of their caste. Only its external expression, and the ways in which desire is perceived, seems to be shaped by the politics of caste. In other words, desire seems internal to a person, untouched by caste, and caste feels like an external factor that can shape the flows of this all too human desire. A tussle ensues in these movies. If desire wins, the audience is taught that caste is bad, and one shouldn’t let it “stand in the way” of “young love.” If caste wins, then the audience is asked to contend with the violence of caste that prevented two people from feeling something as basically human as desire. But not in Sairat or Pariyerum Perumal. In these movies, caste is not external to desire, not a mere dam that restricts the flows of desire. Caste makes and shapes gender and sexuality, and therefore, engenders the textures of desire that a person feels. How the protagonists come to see their bodies in relation to other bodies has a lot to do with their caste positionalities; it dictates what they feel safe feeling, and not just what they feel safe expressing. Caste is not simply “in the way” of a desire that seems common or same for all humans. Desire itself is made different by the politics of caste.

These intricate portrayals should push us to think complexly of intersectionality. Kimberley Crenshaw, in her work on intersectionality warns us of the problems of the “the tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis,’” and proposes her theory of intersectionality in order to show how these categories are entangled so deeply that they inevitably co-produce each other. Race cannot be understood without a discussion on gender and sexuality, and vice versa. But despite the content of her work, her category of “intersectionality” is often used in the public discourse to bring any two categories together as if they are indeed mutually exclusive categories. This means, we still continue to define one category as if the other doesn’t exist and then simply use the other to “expand,” what we already know about one category.

In India, caste is pushed under the rug so very easily – unlike religion which is often exaggerated in analysis and representation – that it is easily set aside as a category that is mutually exclusive with gender or sexuality. The problem with this is two-fold  – firstly, most often the categories used in feminist/queer activism are populated by narratives of the less marginalized and more privileged castes. These narratives come to define broad categories like “woman,” or “lesbian,” or “queer.” Secondly, when caste is factored in, it becomes a mere addendum to an already pre-defined political category. This allows upper caste feminists to speak as feminists without paying any heed to how their caste positions shape their understandings of political categories; and it forces women from less privileged castes not only to speak of their caste constantly, but also to speak as if they only speak for “their own.” In other words, it universalizes the experiences of the privileged, and parochializes the experiences of those who do not have the privilege of the upper castes in India. In an excellent speech, Cynthia Stephens underlines her frustration at being marginalized at the table for feminists, on account of her caste. The caste apartheid presents itself in spaces that are meant for the discussion of gender equality and sexuality, because of how long we have ignored its centrality in shaping desires and gendered forms of expression; or, because we assume it only shapes the desires of those whose castes are made visible through the upper caste gaze, but not all.

But as the opening quote from Audre Lorde notes, “Our future of survival is predicated upon our ability to relate within equality….we must root out internalized patterns of oppression within ourselves if we are to move beyond the most superficial aspects of social change.” And for this, I believe it is important for us as feminists and as queer activists  – especially, if we are ones with caste privilege – to note the limits of our contribution to the making of these political categories. So predicated is the field of politics and political activism on our claim to knowledge that it becomes a matter of shame for most of us to admit what we do not know about the experiences of others. But as feminist Donna Haraway notes in her famous essay, Situated Knowledges all knowledges are, in effect, partial. We all know what we know because of how we are situated in the world in relation to each other. And this situatedness is shaped by a complex, intersectional politics. In a way, no two people can have the same experiences of any of the political categories we use to further our causes, even if we feel the same categories apply to both people. I mean, do two women ever have the same stories to tell about their gendered experiences? What we have are overlaps amidst our differences. And so, our knowledges of categories that seek to define all of us are always partial, regardless of how well-educated or well-read we may want to claim we are.

Striving to acknowledge intersectionality for what it is, then is a question of being open to admitting what we do not know about each other even when we are allied with each other in a political movement. It is being able to see that some of our definitions are functioning as universals, creating margins where margins do not need to exist. It is about moving aside, making space and listening to experiences and feelings of desire that may be very different from our own. It is about grooming our ears to be open and acknowledging of differences, rather than hoping to hear “sameness” and drawing on the “sameness” alone to populate political categories that come to represent a diverse set of people. It is about knowing that the “we” in activism is a fraught word, and that it is always going to be loaded. It has baggage that we will not begin to address until we learn to read what Crenshaw wrote all those years ago right  – our political categories are not mutually exclusive, they shape each other, they co-produce each other. They co-produce us – and so what we feel as desire isn’t simply ever a question of our gender or sexuality alone. We are always outsiders to the larger sisterhood – all of us; not only some. And it is as outsiders to each others’ experiences that we must learn to become allies. This way, we do not risk associating any of our political categories with a single story – the story of the privileged. We do not erase narratives that are different from our own; neither can we claim to own them. We instead will have to learn to acknowledge the limits of what the intersection we emerge at can teach us, and step aside, to make way for other stories.

Cover Image: A still from the film: Pariyerum Perumal

Article written by:

Shweta's life is a little bit like a patchwork quilt. She started her career as a medical doctor, and then worked as a medical writer, producing multimedia content on sexual and reproductive health for several NGOs. Currently, she is a student of sociocultural anthropology, discovering the pleasures of being entangled with transnational and queer feminist scholarship and activism. She is grateful to the many people she has met in her life—family, friends, co-workers and mentors—who constantly push her to made her political views more and more nuanced. She hopes her writing reflects her openness to new modes of engaging with the world, and her curiosity about life. She writes about gender and sexuality both from her personal experiences, and from the academic interest she takes in the subtle textures of human experiences. She has called many places home in her life. Currently, she resides in Washington DC, USA and Chennai, India.

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