Invisible Subjects is a series of anonymous interviews, conducted by me, with a member of the public. The purpose of this series was to find the extraordinary in strangers’ lives, to pull out the truth that we can learn from absolutely anyone. I believe the things that will drive us forward as a society are empathy and togetherness; people are all we’ve got, and I wanted to showcase people here. It’s important we do not take for granted the wealth of knowledge and experience that surrounds us each day – for in every face we pass on the street, there is an unbelievable story, something absolutely unique, that we can learn from them. To gain the riches of knowledge from others is fundamental to succeeding together. I have loved these conversations, the subjects and their subjects. I hope you do too. – Madeleine
This interview was conducted on FaceTime. It’s 9am and I am sitting in bed, with two phones in my lap – one to record, one to actually speak on – trying to meddle with the sound as my legs are crossed under a duvet. Almost 5,000 miles away, my interviewee sits in a café in Calcutta, laughing as I scramble to get my microphone to work. This amateur interview thing is a bit more tricky with 5,000 miles and 5.5 hours of time difference. After flailing around, wondering, in the back of my head, if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, finally my microphone decides to allow me, and we start.
Thank you so much for being interviewed by me, I really appreciate your time. First things first, tell me a bit about yourself…
Sure. I’m from Calcutta, India and I’m a recent graduate from Queen Mary University of London. I’m sort of looking for gainful occupation – I like to consider myself Schrodinger’s millennial. (She laughs).
Ha, I love that! Tell me a bit about your family, and your growing-up experience.
It’s a different cultural system here, we grew up in a different set of cultural norms, beliefs, traditions – it’s quite different from my life in the West. I think one of the main challenges after moving to the UK was probably moulding myself into someone completely different. It’s like you have to come out of the shell that you were born in, and sort of go through a metamorphosis into someone else, to be able to fit in with a different culture. My home here is just me, my mum and my grandmum, a family of three women. And in fact, I think a major chunk of my time was spent around women; the reason I can associate myself with feminist causes of today is because I’ve had such strong women to look up to my whole life. I think growing up with them, being in their shadow, has taught me a lot about what women are like here. Beaten in normal households, and in professional fields, in everything.
In moving, then, to London, did you feel like the identity you’d grown into at home was not accepted?
I’d definitely say that I was a bit lost in translation. It’s like I had to translate my whole existence into a language simplified, so that it’s easier for the rest of the world to appreciate me or to accommodate me in some ways. So I had to make that compromise.
‘Compromise’ is an interesting word, isn’t it? On one hand, it’s a good thing in life, to compromise. But sometimes it can feel like giving a piece of yourself up. Having spent three years in London, do you still feel compromised?
I wouldn’t say compromised at the moment, but I think I’ve changed. I can no longer go back to being who I was. If I had to reclaim all those parts of me which had been translated, it’s an enormous process, and I don’t think at this moment I’m willing to do that, to reclaim what’s lost.
And now you’re back in Calcutta, how does home feel now?
I’d say… Home is sort of an alien feeling now. I don’t think – we have this fictional idea in formed our minds, that we create when we are in distant lands, we think of our homes in a very simplified, static way. A home being a permanent seat of all our emotions. But when we come back, we do not realise that people have changed, and most importantly, times have changed. So the home you have in your mind is just a very fictional idea; the home you come back to is a different place, a different entity in time altogether. You definitely have to readjust. That’s what it is to me.
That process of readjustment, when you’re not expecting to have to undertake it, can be quite a shock to the system I imagine. While you were studying… Well, what was your reasoning for moving all the way across the world?
My reason for moving across the world, I think, was to understand myself as a postcolonial subject. Sitting at home, it would be difficult for me to come to terms with the fact – I mean – living here, where I am right now, I would never see myself as a postcolonial subject. I would have to sort of, you know, put myself in a space which is quite Western dominated, and feel that I am the one who is Other here. That conscious othering of the self could happen only if I switched places.
‘Postcolonial subject’ is a really interesting term. Do you want to speak more about that, about how it feels to see yourself that way? Why was it important to you to see yourself that way?
I think that’ll be an elaborate discussion if I delve all the way into it. But I’ll say this – chiefly for personal growth. Only when you’re out of your comfort zone do you begin to understand the subtle nuances of being and existing in a society which is quite unfair, for the majority of the people in the world. I think I needed to subject myself to that feeling of alienation. That’s when you begin to look at things more subjectively, and that’s what I needed.
Did expectation meet reality?
Could you speak on any instances where you felt that particularly strongly?
I was working for Penguin Random House for a bit. I was probably the only brown girl in the press marketing department. That felt quite alienating, I felt like, ‘I’m the only brown body in a dominant white space.’ Even in museums, galleries – the lack of representation of people of colour is just so stark.
The art scene in London, as you say, has a whiteness problem. How did you experience galleries, and how would you like to have experienced them?
I definitely wanted to see some more brown people or brown people, or generally minority ethnic groups. But I think exhibitions were predominantly populated by the white audience. Sometimes, being the only brown girl, people’s gazes towards me – I could sort of trace them. There’s a word – ethnographical gaze – them looking at me in a very curious manner. That gaze reminded me of the colour of my skin, of my identity, as a foreigner and an Other, who’s occupying “their” space.
How do you feel like the white existence within art spaces needs to shift?
It must shift. First of all, if you’re speaking commercially, if you want to attract a “colourful” audience, I would reduce the ticket prices. I did ask around a bit. I did speak to some of the black students, and some said that exhibitions are such a costly affair that they’re better altogether avoided. So, for the economically disadvantaged, if you can sell tickets at a concession, that would be a great help. Let them experience art, let them soak in culture and tradition. You know what’s fascinating? There was a huge black art exhibition at the Tate Modern, I think in 2017, and a major chunk of the audience was white. You are selling the art made by black people, you are telling their history, and who’s witnessing it? The white audience.
And they’re selling the trauma of black history to a white paying audience…
It’s just like jazz culture. The whole Harlem renaissance, the way it happened – a black artist performing in front of a white audience, it’s such a huge cultural protest in itself. It’s a protest culture, and we must acknowledge that. If you’re selling our culture, let us be a part of it. If it’s our history and culture, let us take ownership of it, let us be there, we want to be present, be present everywhere, and re-assimilate ourselves with that identity.
Moving back, now, to you speaking a little earlier about being from Calcutta, and as a woman there, experiencing the way that women are, growing up surrounded by them. How has being raised by women brought you to be this woman that you are now?
By any means, it made me tougher. I am more… Things which are quite patriarchal in nature, they strike me in the moment. I can tell if you’re someone who has a sexist ego, I can really see through that. Being with women, it made me understand a lot about my own sexuality. I can’t put myself in one category in terms of gender and sexuality, but I know that us women are as fluid as water, and so is our sexuality. It’s come from what I’ve seen growing up.
Was that fluidity exemplified to you by your mother and grandmother?
I’d say particularly my grandmother.
Tell me about her.
We have this crazy, stupid legal thing in India which was outvoted recently, and due to that law, homosexuality was a crime in India. But it’s no longer that. It’s actually an old colonial law which took a long time to get rid of. Colonialism happened, and so many years later, we are still struggling to put things in places – the reassembling of the self is still happening.
I remember talking about this thing of queer identities to my grandmum once. She mentioned some stories of her life to me. This is undivided India, when India, Bangladesh and Pakistan used to be one entity. She was still living in Bangladesh, and there was this friend of hers who was married off very, very early. She, apparently, had confessed to my grandmum that she felt something which a man feels for a woman. I don’t think she had access to the term we now use, lesbian, we weren’t modern enough to create a vocabulary of our sexuality. My grandmum knew it. She could have reported her or something, but she didn’t. She wholeheartedly accepted this idea. Also, since she grew up in a very rural atmosphere – you know that the transgender community in India – back then growing up, she was very close to that community, and she had learned some dancing and singing from them. Though, again, in certain Hindu communities, I don’t think you are allowed to “believe” in trans people. But my grandmum’s family, being quite liberal, they did go out and assimilate with people and she had strange stories to tell, stories quite relevant to the current time. Stories old as time but still so, so, so relevant. We can still associate with those stories.
In India there’s a lot of transgender activism going on. It’s only a handful of them who have been uplifted, not living on the fringes of respectable society. We still need to do a lot when it comes to their rights.
Over your lifetime in India, how do you feel like that disentangling from colonial law, which is such a slow process that’s not over…
I don’t think it can be over for any colonial country. This whole process, it becomes a definitive chunk of history. You cannot erase it. If you do, your history is incomplete. You have to look back and acknowledge the summary of your slavehood and say, ‘I am a free man.’
I hadn’t thought about it that way. So what are you doing now? What’re you up to?
I’ve been working at this museum, it’s called the Gurusaday Museum, established by a folk society, who appreciate the hand crafts of local art. We are trying to restore that museum, and my job is to digitise all the museum’s existing records. It was on the verge of being shut down, we are trying to revive it, collect funds to support it. We are curating all the artworks which were collected even before India was partitioned, so if those are lost, then a big heritage of this country would be lost.
Are you living with family?
Yes. It’s super comfortable! The best facilities you can dream of, and home cooked comfort food, and of course, emotional support which I’ve been missing all along. The fact that you have your family around you, mentally, you feel a bit stronger, that I can do it, and it comes from the people around you. There are people to nurture you, to help you, they’re there to pick you up if you fall.
And what about the future?
I definitely want to stay in India. But I think I’m planning to study a bit more, a master’s degree, I’ll probably enrol in a year or so, back in Europe. I have a curious relationship with Europe – I wouldn’t say I miss it, but there’s something I found there, like another me, another version of me. It’s like when I’m there, I’m a whole new self, and I miss seeing that. I’ll probably be back in Europe for another year or so, to get a Master’s, then come back again.
I want to do more work in postcolonialism, and modernism – there can’t be modernism without the colonial side of it. If you look at the period, the time period of it, the Global South becoming a colony and the Western powers and the ally powers that all join hands, some waging wars just to get access to the colonies. It was all a round exploitation of the darker side.
I want to say thank you for your time, I appreciate you taking time out of your day so much.
Thanks for such pertinent questions. I’ve enjoyed them a lot!