You wouldn’t think this innocuous cereal could sound offensive till it is shouted in your face.
Old white men telling us what to do. Old brown men pontificating on our purpose in the world, if any. Self-important young jerks joining in. And the Women of Patriarchy, those handmaidens of mansplaining, parroting the same preposterous message. It doesn’t matter who does it, it grates like the word itself. Because mansplaining is onomatopoeic, embodying its meaning perfectly in the heavy-handed violence of its sound.
Its bludgeoning thud also gives me a sense of déja vu, because I’ve been here before. Not only being mansplained to (who amongst us hasn't had that pleasure?), but on my Sherwood Forest soapbox telling y’all about it. Writing about mansplaining and more seven years ago for a popular column, and for the book Memoirs of My Body that followed, I hadn't anticipated that we'd be agonising over it still, and with greater urgency than before. Because these seven years have sprung upon us a new-old mansplaining vocabulary, with new-old poster boys spreading it forth.
Yet, “chill”. Not because you should roll over, but because this happy-hippie usage is now part of the Mansplainer-in-chief, Donald Trump’s spiteful arsenal, and should fill you with icy horror. Incensed by Greta Thunberg's impassioned crusade against climate change and his Bully Boys’ Club’s remorseless resource-stripping of this planet (as well as her pipping him to the post of Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2019!), the septuagenarian lashed out at the young activist, ordering her to go instead to “an old-fashioned movie, and chill”. And despite his disparagement of her at the World Economic Forum in Davos again last month, she hasn’t rolled over, nor should we. Because, as Bangladesh drowns, Antarctica melts and Australia burns, killing a billion beautiful creatures, Emperor Gluteus Maximus' squawks and tweets, which we’d dismissed as comedy gold, continue to fire up millions against the good sense that might save us.
Merely a minion in comparison, but nauseating nevertheless, British actor Laurence Fox, of the inbred Fox acting family, insisted on BBC that even if, contrary to his own belief, Sikh soldiers had played a part in World War I, their casting in the Oscar nominated film 1917 was “forced” and “incongruous”. Nearly nothing could be incongruous in post-Brexit Britain, so wildly has it gone off the rails, but to hear a thousand racist slugs shriek from under their prehistoric rocks in support of this outrageous opinion still beggared belief. Britons, unsurprisingly mainly women, did speak up to put Laurence in his place, but the actor remained resolutely foxed. Well, PO-HA to you, Larrykins!
You wouldn’t think this innocuous cereal could sound offensive till it is shouted in your face. I may not be a fan of what’s called “chire” in Bengal, having grown up with folks who liked it moist and mashed with on-the-turn bananas, but never in my wildest imaginings (of which very little is about chire) did I think it could become a tool in the hands of the divisive. Yet politician Kailash Vijayvargiya saw in this humble staple a manifestation of ‘otherness’; a not-eating-North-Indian-roti-ness. He claimed that the poha-eating habits of poor Bengali migrants in Bengaluru marked them out as undesirable aliens aka. illegal Bangladeshis, when all it is, is a measure of impecunity.
This, of course, is just one in a long list of boxes you must tick to be a bonafide Bharatvashi, known nowadays as the CAA/NRC/NPR/Poha Test. Otherwise, you are necessarily “anti-national”; that favourite word of nitpicking aunty-nationals and the crafty uncles who pull their strings. Anti-nationals number in the millions, including those with an aversion to having Hindi rammed down their throats, native tongue as it is of only a section of India, or those who possess a healthy scepticism about the tall tales of our technological derring-do in Vedic times that are now being peddled as fact. And while Poha is beginning to smell a lot like bratwurst before the Second World War (another war in which millions of Indian soldiers fought and died for the world, Larrypops), it ain’t new.
In the mid-eighties, my middle school Sanskrit teacher made me stand outside the classroom every day for being “obharotiyo”, because my accent was American and my Sanskrit non-existent, having spent much of my childhood abroad. And if I wasn't being humiliated for the whole school to see, she ensured I stayed in after class to write a hundred clumsy lines on the blackboard in this (undoubtedly sophisticated but) defunct tongue. Other “aliens” like Muslims, dalits, Christians, idealistic students, dogged journalists, MANY nonconforming women, and other defenders of India’s civil liberties and the right to differ, are subjected to much worse. Especially assault, incarceration and assassination. Especially now.
Yet the writing's been on the wall for decades. We cringed at the cries of “Jai Shri Ram” from atop the demolished mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 but plugged our ears till they faded. We found ourselves at odds with the self-congratulatory “India shining” polemic that surfaced at the start of this new millennium. Some paid no heed, whilst others felt pushed out by the rising tide of insularity. But in recent years, even across the oceans, we can hear the blows that bludgeon dissenters, the bullets that obliterate the likes of Gauri Lankesh, and know no matter where we turn in this burning world, we can never outrun this hatred for “the other”.
So, the soapbox is back. Because words are never just words, and mansplaining can be a prelude to terror. Listen.
Shreya Sen-Handley is the author of the
recently published Strange: Stories, the award-winning Memoirs of My Body, and a forthcoming book of travel misadventures