“Darkness to light”: Beyond the fear (and burdens?) of colonisers

Between us, when the first articulation of ‘Blossoming of light’ came up, it struck a chord. When one shared it with the other, they wrote back, “it’s inspiring and thinking about it makes me think of hope”. As we tried to shape our thoughts around Malar-Oli and share it with our community members, we ended up writing (and you will find this statement in the About Us section too), “So it kind of means the ‘Blossoming of Light’, since our journey from darkness to light is not as linear, or unidirectional as we would like it to be. And the idea behind it is that with every new ‘voice’, writing or art that gets created from among us, we blossom a bit more towards light, a bit more towards knowing.”

We received some cautionaries about the metaphor ‘darkness to light’. Our attention was drawn to two things: the ‘colonial missionary history’ behind the metaphor, and the easy relationship that may get drawn from dark/light to black/white. We admit that our thoughts hadn’t wandered into this pit of metaphors and our immediate reaction to receiving this criticism was, ‘should we simply remove that completely?’ On second thought, we wondered why must we censor ourselves when there is an opportunity to articulate our own journey and position fully as well as to indulge in dialogue.

Against the denial of darkness

In 2014, Ani Dutta and Raina Roy wrote a paper titled ‘Decolonizing Transgender in India’ that appears in the Transgender Studies Quarterly. The paper raises some pertinent questions regarding the use of ‘transgender’, but we will not enter into a detailed critique of the paper here as that falls outside the scope of our discussion. Since the primary question before us is of colonisation and metaphors thereof, before ‘decolonising’ we are faced with an important task of identifying when did the colonisation of trans and intersex people truly begin in India. This is not a question that is sufficiently addressed in our political work and writing. We would argue that the colonisation of our minds and bodies was begun by the Brahmanical colonisers of the Indian subcontinent, and this colonisation project was only supported and continued by the White/Western colonisers. We are subject to both these colonisers who continue to work in tandem across national and international borders, and at no point in history have either of these colonisers – the Brahmins or the Whites – shown us any form of mercy or even considered us worthy of partaking in any part of the ‘light’ that is this entire world. To keep us in a state of enforced ‘darkness’ is part of the long standing project of this colonisation.

As two trans, non-binary persons who struggle with the multiple manifestations of this darkness – attempting to chart out a course, any course, towards finding our own inner light – we find that denying a) this darkness exists and b) this darkness is enforced upon our body, mind and consciousness means to deny the reality of the world we are forced to live in. A political endeavour of decolonising, we can all agree, must begin from the accurate recognition of the history and modes of our colonisation. Is it not darkness if we live without any significant place in written history? Is it not darkness that we can’t trace our leaders to any point in time beyond a couple of decades back? Is it not darkness that one of our only ‘well-known’ real ancestors recorded in the pages of ‘early modern’ history has been reduced to a mere ‘legal case’ for cisgender writers to repeat back to us, and that the only story of hers that we know is of the excesses committed on her body by the state and society? Is it not darkness that the rest of our history is consigned to horrid myths that deny us self-respect and equality? Is it not darkness that we are not allowed a collective vision of ourselves before or beyond this current moment of an endless battle with the State?

Speaking of darkness in this way is not to continue to tie ourselves up, or to lose ourselves, in this narrative. We have said that the journey from darkness to light is not linear. This is because we do not imagine darkness and light as some sort of a well-composed harmonious co-existence. As trans people we know that the closer we pull towards some form of awakening, infinite obstacles arise as though working on automaton. As trans people we know that we also find comfort and shelter in this darkness, to wait for another day; we make light of this darkness, to find hope in another way; we weaponize this darkness to stay alive in any way; we sit with the pain of this darkness, without respite, everyday. In sum, we know how to deal with it. But that still leaves the collective and individual question: what are our imaginations for the end of this darkness? And for the lack of enough words allowed to us, can we claim that end as light, as truth, as awakening, as consciousness – that we have been denied yet. Can we imagine that journey as one that is somehow universally human? And when we imagine such journeys are we not staking our claim to being universally – equally – human?

Light as fulfilled consciousness

Another aspect of the ‘darkness to light’ metaphor that was underscored to us was about its theological roots – more specifically, as we understood it, in reference to the white colonial/racial missionary project. This is a more difficult question perhaps. At least some of us have spoken – very few from India perhaps – about our complex relationships with religion, theology and god. A near-universal truth is that trans persons are not allowed to easily, and fully, practice the religion they are born into, very few are able to convert easily into religions of their choice, even fewer perhaps are able to exist within their chosen religion without facing some censure or feeling the need to prove themselves, some practice “unrecorded” syncretic faiths, others choose to reject religion altogether. We wouldn’t be far from the truth if we said that a majority of (majoritarian) religions actively propagate hate towards trans and intersex people. And as we go ahead with our work here, we hope more members of our community will write about this, whether in agreement, opposition, or deeper reflection.

But the fundamental question here would be: do trans and intersex people have the right to seek an awakening of our consciousness – ‘religious’ or otherwise? And closely related to this is the question, do trans and intersex people have the right to freely seek, live and profess their consciousness? For, after all, aren’t our identities itself rooted in the most profound awakening – regarding the human right to self-determination. A right that is afforded no real value in the Indian subcontinent.

Though well-known, we would like to underline here Dr Ambedkar’s words appearing in his Philosophy of Hinduism, “…Hinduism far from encouraging spread of knowledge is a gospel of darkness.”… “The period of defeat and darkness is the period when Chaturvarnya flourished to the damnation of the greater part of the people of the country”. And the laws of this religion enacted in pursuit of Brahminical colonisation have ensured the denial of light, and the right to self-determination, to trans and intersex people as well. Hence it is, we can safely say, that the Brahminical transgender ‘leaders’ who hold their Brahmin birth more valuable than their trans liberation and claim to be ‘awakened’ by the former, have become firmly temple-bound, rather than being mentally free to work for securing our actual rights. We have some amount of writing on this, and part of it appears in our resources page. And we would urge more critical writing and debates from within the community in this regard that will be definitive in dismantling the stranglehold of Brahminical Hinduism on trans and intersex lives, and all of humanity too.

As trans and intersex persons who are struggling to live in a country where the ‘sacred laws’ and their ‘sacred books’ such as Mahabharata (Book 8, sec 45; emphasis added) declare shamelessly thus about us, our siblings, and our relationship to our fellow beings: “Mlecchas [barbarians, non-Aryans] are the dirt of humanity; oil-men are the dirt of Mlecchas; eunuchs are the dirt of oil-men; and they who appoint Kṣatriyas as priests in their sacrifices are the dirt of eunuchs.” And where should we go now, from here, if not towards light?

Awakening and enlightenment, however – and this is particularly true for trans people – are also questions beyond one or other religion, or theology, or access to the cultural practices of spirituality. For instance, in the fairly well-known Buddhist text Milinda Panha (‘Questions of Milinda’)1, said to have been written in 1st or 2nd century BC, to the question of who cannot attain insight despite practising the dhamma correctly (devoutly?) Nagasena responds with a list of people who simply cannot attain insight: and listed alongside rapists, murderers, robbers, animals, ghosts and the like are two words “eunuchs and hermaphrodites”. Considering the complicated histories of appropriations of texts from the time, the question ‘at what point in the history of this text did these assertions get written and recorded’ is very important and best answered by historians2. We welcome such inputs as they will uncover much about the truly complex forms of colonisation being practised upon trans and intersex bodies.

But here our fundamental problem goes a little beyond who wrote what and when – for we certainly didn’t – to the more pressing reality that this notion still exists across faiths, whether intended to colonise or redeem. Even in the most reasoned and logical worlds, we – not due to any real or imagined action, but simply by being – exist outside realms of reason; we cannot apply reason, we cannot demand reason.

We are supposed to exist, as though without a consciousness of our own, incapable of creating a consciousness of our own that transcends the demeaning state of explaining our bodies to the world. We are forever outside the bounds of logic, and even the most well-intentioned today who seek our alliance, don’t really know where to put us, what to do with us. And we feel the same towards them, but with greater and untold harms done to us than will ever be done to them. Therefore, coming back to the question of the colonial-theological metaphor, the more accurate point to ponder might be: has any one of these theologies – whether vile or merciful in intent – ever truly considered us worthy and capable of this life and enlightenment to be shared equally with them? If not, then why must we carry the burdens of their meanings, their actions? Let the colonisers carry their own burdens, censor themselves, and leave us free to use languages that will fulfil the journeys of our consciousness. And let the colonisers amongst us choose to unlearn.

In conclusion

As we write this, we also draw firmly towards an understanding that our transness is, in many ways, a foundational awakening the fulfilment of which strikes fear even in the most ‘awakened’ minds. It is an awakening – a truth, a light – that this world has conspired to make into an abyss. It isn’t innocent, let’s say, that one of the ‘modern’ tools to quell this awakening is named ‘conversion therapy’. It isn’t innocent that the psychiatrist never relents, only reinvents, while watching us flounder. So also, we imagine our journeys from darkness to light are journeys away from this world’s abyss towards our own independent flight.

And sometimes a part of that is just about telling our stories, unfettered – to each other; unafraid – of each other. A relationship of trust that must be built – with each other. As James Baldwin wrote in Sonny’s Blues, “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

Towards the blossoming of light.

 

Notes:

1 Translations of Milinda Panha accessed were – a) T W Rhys Davids. The Questions of King Milinda (available online); b) Bhikku Pesala. The Debate of King Milinda. (available online).

2 In her 2003 book Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste, Gail Omvedt describes Milinda Panha as such “The Questions of Milinda represents a transitional phase: the Buddha, being gone, has no concern for the offerings of gifts but can feel the pain of a splinter which has nothing to do with karma–but he was in the process of becoming a superhuman being.” (p. 107, Ch. 3 – Transitoriness and Transformations).

Acknowledgements: Thank you, Samma, for suggesting that this go as our first editorial.

Team Malar Oli

At heart we are just bunch of anxious and nervous first-timers in online publishing. We want to talk to each other and learn from each other. For us, a huge part of our learning, self-exploration and community building started over the internet and so we want to keep learning, through art and writing, and by being vulnerable together.