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6. Four Truths of Storytelling and Coauthorship in Feminist Alliance Work

Purva Naresh’s play Ok, Tata, Bye-Bye provides a good starting point for this discussion of storytelling and coauthorship in feminist alliance work. In Ok, Tata, Bye-Bye, Naresh (2012) fictionalizes her own struggles as a documentary filmmaker, specifically in relation to a project that she carried out in an impoverished community alongside a highway between Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. This community depended for its survival on truckers who stopped in their village for food, petrol, and sex. Girls born in the village were taught that they were not to be married, for they were born for sex work and to become breadwinners for their families. The play revolves around the attempts of “Pooja,” an Indian documentary filmmaker who arrives from the United Kingdom with her British partner and British funding, to make a film on the lives of these sex workers through the oral narratives of two young women, Seema and Roopa. Pooja believes that if she can record Seema’s and Roopa’s stories as sex workers, she would then be able to raise support from NGOs in Britain to intervene in, and save these young women from, their awful fate.

Of these two potential storytellers, Roopa, who has had some primary schooling, seems to have internalized the same narrative of her own victimhood that drives Pooja’s project—and Roopa is more than happy to provide the story that Pooja wants her audience to hear. In fact, Roopa happily provides a fake story that reinforces all of Pooja’s assumptions because she is aware that providing that story may open new doors of opportunity for Roopa. Seema, on the contrary, has never been to school and passionately embraces everything her life offers her. She fiercely rejects Pooja’s assumption that she is a victim of terrible circumstances, and continuously pushes Pooja to acknowledge all the ways in which Pooja— despite her privileged class position, expensive movie camera, and ideas about women’s emancipation—is also chained by oppressions parallel to Seema’s own.

The events of the play can be interpreted in several ways, but for the purposes of this chapter, it is helpful to focus on Seema’s and Roopa’s very different responses to Pooja’s overtures. Seema refuses to be Pooja’s coauthor unless Pooja is willing to be interrogated and judged by Seema in the same way as Pooja wants to interrogate and judge her. In so doing, Seema explicitly confronts the power geometry that connects elite knowledge producers to their subaltern counterparts.1 Roopa, by contrast, plays the same power geometry—the putative superiority of Pooja’s feminism and the relatively immense resources that underwrite it—to her own ends by signing up to be a participant and coauthor in Pooja’s project.

On the one hand, Roopa’s formal schooling allows Pooja to hear and understand her. On the other hand, it is Seema’s unschooled presence that challenges Pooja and that claims an authority in the narrative that cannot be expressed through formal coauthorship. Together, the two responses highlight the complexities of subaltern agency and the ways in which the formulations of radical desire (including a desire for coauthorship) might be unruly, ill-tempered, incomplete, conformist, and/ or seemingly contradictory, and refuse to align with hopes of dialectical resolution on some “pure” theoretical terms. At the same time, Roopa and Seema push their audiences to interrogate their own assumptions about marginality, oppression, liberation, and charity in the same way as they challenge Pooja’s; and the three women’s struggles with collaborative storytelling effectively convey the messiness of representation in alliance work.

As I watched the play, I noticed the parallels between the concerns about representation, experience, and knowledge making that drove the drama of this particular case, and ongoing debates about the ways in which dominant forms of academic engagement (including but not only limited to feminist research) serve to reinforce the persistent hierarchy of knowledge producers and knowledges. When the structure of knowledge production largely disallows research subjects from interrogating, evaluating, or dislodging the knowledge produced by the academic expert, the status of academic researcher as the “true intellectual thinker” remains undisturbed, along with the hierarchies that elevate theory, research, and academic knowledge production to a higher plane than method, community-based dialogues, and nonconventional academic writing. This hierarchization categorizes as “methodology,” or “activism,” or “atheoretical” most efforts that seek to destabilize or advance academic frameworks on the basis of dialogues outside academia (Nagar and Swarr 2010). Piya Chatterjee elaborates further on this problem when she argues that “critiques which frontally challenge the terms of hegemonic knowledges, and are grounded in critical or radical praxis (in language, stances and modalities of expression) are often dismissed as unsophisticated, untheoretical and ‘too activist.’ . . . Even with the important feminist questions raised about the intimate relationships between epistemology and power, formal scholarly evaluation is often wary and dismissive of research that is open about its commitments and investments to radical and progressive critique and social change” Chatterjee (2011, 2). In effect, then, we have a perpetuation of recurring problems in academic knowledge production: knowledges that dominate and languages that exclude to reinforce what Berenice A. Carroll has called “the class system of the intellect”:

The class system of the intellect parallels in intellectual life the class system in the realm of so-called “productive” labor and capital. It uses claims of “originality” and associated terms (“innovation,” “creativity,” etc.) to rationalize and justify claims to property in ideas and lines of inheritance, preserving for small groups . . . both intellectual hegemony and control of a variety of rewards and privileges. . . . The system operates in substantial measure on various forms of appropriation and exploitation of the material and physical labor of those relegated to lower classes, including predecessors erased from memory and history. Academic ranks and hierarchies are situated in this system . . . but should not be confused with the more general class system of the intellect, which extends beyond academia. (Carroll 1990, 138)

Several feminist scholars have highlighted the epistemic violence enacted by this “system of the intellect” and reflected on the ways in which it can be interrupted. Sharmila Rege’s critique of mainstream sociology in the Indian context can be applied to mainstream social sciences more broadly: “Women, dalits, adivasis, may be included as substantive research areas of sociology and in optional courses but this inclusion keeps the cognitive structures of the discipline relatively intact from the challenges posed by dalit or feminist knowledges. Thus ‘good sociology’ continues to be defined in terms of the binaries of objectivism/subjectivism, social/political, social world/knower, experience/ knowledge, tradition/modernity and theoretical brahman/empirical shudra” (Rege 2010, 90). Rege challenges this approach through one that is based on the Phule-Ambedkarite principle of “Educate, Organize, Agitate.” Rather than being a sequence of progressive steps or actions (e.g., educate → organize → agitate) this mode of engagement can be imagined as a nonlinear, continuously evolving, co-constitutive dialogue where education becomes inseparable from organizing struggles over recognition and redistribution for social transformation. In this multidirectional pedagogy, all the participants are teachers and learners and “the possibilities and constraints on agency as it intersects with social formation cannot be predefined” (Rege 2010, 95).

In Ghostly Matters, Avery Gordon makes similar points about subjugated knowledges and subjectivity when she defines haunting as that “domain of turmoil and trouble . . . when the cracks and rigging are exposed, when the people who are meant to be invisible show up without any sign of leaving” (Gordon 2008, xvi). Gordon turns haunting into a methodology that interbraids the individual, the social, and the political in order to grapple with the social-subjective matter to “richly, conjure, describe, narrate, and explain the leins, the costs, the forfeits, and the losses of modern systems of abusive power” (Gordon 2008, xvii). This methodology resists the assumed distinctions between subject and object of knowledge, between fact and fiction, between presence and absence, between past and present, between present and future, between knowing and not knowing. In seeking to learn from “that which is marginalized, trivialized, denied, disqualified, taxed, and aggrieved,” this approach commits itself to “redistributing respect, authority, and the right to representability or generalizability—the right to theorize”—a right that Gordon argues “entails the capacity to be something other than a local knowledge governed or interpreted by a putative superior” (Gordon 2008, xviii).

A radical rethinking of how we can (re)make knowledges and redistribute the “right to theorize” requires a serious engagement with geography. As Gillian Hart notes, “Any strategy to mobilize . . . must be firmly grounded in particular configurations of material and cultural conditions, and engage directly with specific local histories and translocal connections, as well as with meanings, memories, and the making and remaking of political subjects” (Hart 2002, 313). These meanings and memories are inseparable from what Katherine McKittrick calls the “language and concreteness of geography—with its overlapping physical, metaphorical, theoretical, and experiential contours . . . as they overlap with subjectivities, imaginations, and stories” (McKittrick 2006, xiii). Thus, theories, poems, plays, and narratives that have been erased, dismissed, or rendered invisible can “disclose” new spaces and places, giving birth to poetics of landscape that can creatively “influence and undermine existing spatial arrangements” (McKittrick 2006, xxiii). Coauthoring stories opens up rich possibilities for such creative intervention, especially in alliance work where academic knowledges intersect with knowledges that are produced in and through struggles in sites that are not bound to the academy (see, e.g., Bondi et al. 2002, Mountz et al. 2003, Benson and Nagar 2006, Community Economies Collective and Gibson 2009, Gibson-Graham and Roelvink 2011, Pratt 2012).

If one recognizes all theorizing as an exercise in storytelling, then it is also possible that the epistemic violence of existing paradigms and frameworks can be resisted, mitigated, or confronted by telling stories differently. Clare Hemmings observes that the tales that feminist theorists tell intersect with wider institutionalizations of gendered meanings, and therefore, it matters how feminists tell their stories (Hemmings 2011). She writes:

For example, stories that frame gender equality as a uniquely Western import, as a way to measure or enforce economic and democratic development, resonate disconcertingly well with feminists stories that place “feminism” as a radical knowledge project firmly in the Western past. When feminists celebrate the move beyond unity or identity, when they lament the demise of a feminist political agenda, or when they propose a return to a feminist vision from the past, they construct a political grammar. . . . Feminist theorists need to pay attention to the amenability of our own stories, narrative constructs, and grammatical forms to discursive uses of gender and feminism we might otherwise wish to disentangle ourselves from if history is not simply to repeat itself. (Hemmings 2011, 1–2)

However, paying attention to our storytelling is no easy undertaking. Here again, Hemmings reminds us that as narrations about the past, stories are motivated by the positions that the tellers occupy—or wish to occupy—in the present. Yet, a corrective approach will try to erase the conditions of its own construction, particularly if it purports to give us the final word (Hemmings 2011, 13–14).

Struggling with coauthorship can be a potent way to grapple with challenges of storytelling. It can allow coauthors from varied locations to draw upon and scrutinize their co-evolving and even conflicting experiences, truths, and selves while exploring how these interconnect with expert knowledges produced in the professional realms. Far from seeking perfect resolutions, such an exercise must confront the fact that “power is never really external to dialogue, participation and experience” (Rege 2010, 97), and it must open up spaces to examine the complexities of organizing and struggle in relation to subjectivity, a topic that has received inadequate attention. As Elisabeth Armstrong notes:

Recent feminist theories usually accord struggle an honorable mention. However, their primary focus on the subject and subjectivity ignores the integral relationship between organization and struggle; what works in feminism, how it works, and what feminism support[s] . . . [In discussing only] the feminist subject and feminist subjectivity [w]e have lost explicit articulations about vital questions of representation in organization, [and] also of leadership and interconnection with other political movements. . . . We have lost the opportunity to [debate feminism as] an ongoing process of resistance and assertion. (Armstrong 2002, 92)

Coauthoring stories in and through feminist alliance work makes it possible to mobilize experience and memory work in ways that connect questions of feminist subject and subjectivity with those of representation in organization, leadership, and movement politics. While nostalgia, observes Armstrong, reconstructs or reinterprets a self-contained past for itself, memory work—including that in the form of diaries, stories, and testimonios—seeks to imagine new sets of beginnings (Armstrong 2002, 111). This, in part, is the reason why Zapatismo embraces memory work as “the methodology of the inverted periscope”:

One can never ascertain a belief in or vision of the future by looking at a situation from the position of “neutrality” provided for you by the existing relations of power . . . such methods allow you to see the field only from the perspective of those who rule at any given moment. In contrast, if one learns to harness the power of the periscope . . . by placing it deep below the earth, below even the very bottom of society, one finds that there are struggles and memories of struggles that allow us to identify not “what is,” but more importantly “what will be.” By harnessing the transformative capacity of social movement, as well as the memories of past struggles that drive it, the Zapatistas are able to identify the future and act on it today. (El Kilombo Intergaláctico 2007, 9)

In the context of alliance work, coauthoring stories offers a creative space to mobilize memories in “a polyvocal framework attuned to a complex politics of difference; a process- versus product-based approach [to knowledge production, and] an explicit pedagogical rhetoric that encourages readers to become potential allies” (Connolly-Shaffer 2012, 171–72). As a self-reflexive critical practice, this kind of coauthorship cannot be conceptualized as a text produced by two or more sovereign persons. Rather, such coauthorship can only be imagined as an ongoing dialogue among continuously co-evolving multiple selves that may frequently contradict—yet continue to grow without obliterating—one another. Stories emerging from these dialogues can interrupt the forms of epistemic violence identified by Gordon and Rege and trouble what Jacqui Alexander calls “inherited boundaries of geography, nation, episteme, and identity” so that they can be replaced by frameworks that underscore ongoing “reciprocal investments we must make to cross over into a metaphysics of interdependence” (Alexander 2005, 6).

I now turn to my second story—one that unfolds in multiple stages and sites—and use it as an entry point to articulate what I call four truths about coauthoring tales. I use the term “truth” here in order to acknowledge the importance of knowledges that rely on experience, memory work, and truth claims. Through these truths, I reflect on the labor process, assumptions, possibilities, and risks associated with coauthorship as a tool for mobilizing intellectual spaces in which stories from multiple locations in an alliance can speak with one another.

Unfolding Stories and Stages

In the San Francisco meetings of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) in 2007, Geraldine Pratt organized an “Authors Meet Critics” panel for Playing with Fire/Sangtin Yatra. Sangtin saw Gerry Pratt’s invitation to the 2007 AAG as an opportunity to advance our alliance work, and two of the eight activist coauthors, Surbala and Richa Singh, traveled from Sitapur to San Francisco to attend this panel.

Surbala’s and Richa Singh’s five-week-long trip to the United States was marked by difficult conversations and painful reflections on subjects and languages of—and hierarchies in—knowledge making as well as efforts to rethink the dominant meanings of fieldwork in academia and in the “women’s empowerment” sector of the development establishment. Surbala, Richa Singh, and I kept diaries during those five weeks of traveling through academic and activist spaces in Minnesota, California, and New York, and these reflections laid the foundation of our second book in Hindi, Ek Aur Neemsaar, which was published in January 2012 in India (Nagar and Singh et al. 2012). Ek Aur Neemsaar is a diary of the making of SKMS in the aftermath of the debates triggered by Sangtin Yatra. With this quick backdrop, I first share a translated section of Ek Aur Neemsaar that begins with an excerpt from Surbala’s diary and then shifts to third-person narration. I then describe an event that followed the reading of this excerpt in Sitapur.

We were headed to Syracuse. As soon as I walked through the security check, the machine shrieked in the same way that it had done in New Delhi and Amsterdam. The culprits were my bangles and anklets. . . . The anklets came off, but the glass bangles with iron rims were impossible to take off—they had been on my wrists for nineteen years. I passed the check point after the usual drama, but for the rest of the trip I kept worrying, “How often will I have to deal with this? These bangles will draw me in the circle of suspicion each time we travel somewhere.”

The bangles became a barrier in my way . . . I recalled in that instant how once a gender trainer from the city interrogated us in Mahila Samakhya for putting sindur in our hair.2 Sindur, she claimed, was symbolic of patriarchy. In some branches of Mahila Samakhya village-level workers were prevented from putting on sindur. But in Sitapur, we refused to comply with this expectation because we believed that it was a form of ideological exploitation. Sindur and bangles give us tremendous respect in the places we come from. So why should we give these up simply because they are deemed unfeminist by our gender trainers?

—from Surbala’s U.S. diary, April 2007

In Syracuse, Surbala cut her iron-rimmed bangles after nineteen years and left the pieces in the hotel’s trash. Someone who was a witness to all this could argue, perhaps, that it was easy for Surbala to get rid of her bangles because she was in a place where her bangles carried no meaning. But for Surbala, whose identity as a woman was intertwined with these bangles for almost two decades of her marriage, it was a huge mental struggle to convince herself that the removal of bangles was critical for her to make the rest of her path smoother. If someone had pressured her to remove her bangles and anklets because these would cause problems along the way, Surbala would have considered such a pressure as “ideological exploitation.”3 As Surbala points out, “Arriving at the conviction that those bangles had to be cut and discarded had to be my own journey. In pretty much the same way as a butterfly must find its own strength to break its cocoon. Only then, will the butterfly be strong enough to reach its full flight” (Surbala’s U.S. diary, April 2007). In other words, unwanted assistance in breaking its “cocoon” can be a curse for the butterfly.

Those who swear by the label “feminism,” as well as those who trash it, are often guilty of equating feminism with an already cooked recipe of ideas and positions. Many of these people assume that feminist practices can be widely found among educated, urban, salaried women and that these women are capable of empowering another category of women who are dalit, exploited, and subordinated. What are the issues of these supposedly subordinated women? How must they be empowered? How should they form their relationships with their lovers, husbands, mothers-in-law, sons, and daughters? The solutions associated with these questions often sit in canned forms on all the so-called feminist shelves. Expert feminists will not be able to listen to our movements unless they are prepared to throw out these canned assumptions en masse and restock their shelves with a new approach to feminism. Our companion Kamala from Khanpur Village finds it imperative to resist the language of those women’s NGOs that repeatedly tell her to prove her credentials as an “empowered” woman: “If you are truly empowered, go fight your man for your half of the bread!” Kamala retorts: “Which half of my roti should I fight for when my family’s access to any roti at all is gravely endangered? Fighting for half a roti is meaningless for me in the absence of a struggle for the whole roti.”

The original Hindi version of the above excerpt, along with two other passages, was read at the book launch of Ek Aur Neemsaar in Sitapur on 5 January 2012. On a cold, foggy day, the event was attended by 250 people, approximately half of whom were members of SKMS and another half were residents of Sitapur, with a handful of activists and public intellectuals visiting from Lucknow. At the end of the event, Aparna (alias), a feminist theater activist and consultant from Lucknow who knew Surbala well from past training exercises and meetings of MSS, immediately sought out Surbala and asked sarcastically: “So Surbalaji, when are you going to break your bangles again?”

Surbala was hurt by the way in which Aparna used their past intimacy to pose this question, which mocked the critique of mainstream feminism and NGOized empowerment projects that Surbala and other sangtins have tirelessly articulated. But she replied in a level tone: “Why should I break my bangles twice? I will do something else that will surprise you.” As Surbala recounted this incident to her coworkers in SKMS, she noted how the demands of her family and her work had kept her away from her writing, and how this encounter reminded her of her own ability to powerfully articulate critiques of mainstream feminist assumptions and platforms.

In their everyday confrontations with mainstream discourses of development and empowerment, Surbala and other saathis of the movement “write,” theorize, and rethink power in profoundly complex ways. In so doing, they create knowledge that cannot be easily captured by available vocabularies and frameworks. Surbala’s reply to Aparna indicates this alternative vocabulary, yet the exchange also triggered in Surbala a restlessness and guilt (for not writing) that suggest a deep contradiction. Surbala’s recognition of her own ability to write in ink (even as her circumstances prevent her from doing so), makes it impossible for her to not be attracted to the possibility of translating her knowledge into a language that can be understood by the likes of Aparna. One could argue that Surbala’s sense of guilt (re)legitimizes and reinforces the elevated status of formal writing that most of her fellow saathis cannot claim or participate in. Surbala’s desire to engage through writing is inseparable from the manner in which formal knowledge production affects the conditions under which she and her saathis live. Yet, the collective struggle of SKMS is one where that which can be written in ink must necessarily converse with that which cannot be written in ink. And Surbala understands this in poignant ways.

This story helps me articulate four interrelated and interdependent truths about coauthoring tales through alliance work. Although my discussion builds on previously referenced conversations in feminisms, these truths relate to a wide range of collaborative efforts that seek to enact horizontal forms of solidarity in achieving transformation.

Four Truths about Coauthoring Tales in Feminist Alliance Work

Money is a minor part of what we call “transformative work.” It is the power of collective social experience and feeling, which actually turns naked hills into lush greenery.

—Rajendra Singh, activist

In his chair’s address at the book launch of Ek Aur Neemsaar, Arun Trivedi, the director of Hindi Sabha in Sitapur, described the book as “a true story of the churnings of sangtins’ soul and the making of their movement” (Trivedi 2012).4 He elaborated on the nature of this truth:

This tale connects us with the social truth of our unfolding present. This truth is one that is lived intimately by the poor in our villages and one that is revealed to them as they experience and struggle with [state violence in the name of development]. This is not to say that this book simply narrates or describes; essentially, in presenting the picture of a happening condition, the book goes further than a truth that has been seen, felt and experienced, to give a literary character to a truth of doing. Here, Radha’s words [from Sangtin Yatra that are revisited in Ek Aur Neemsaar] are profoundly moving; the passage [recalling her words] states: “There is a huge difference in bearing a deep sorrow or humiliation on the one hand, and feeling it on the other.” Essentially, this book is constituted by the struggles of those who have borne these experiences. (Trivedi 2012)

I quote from Trivedi’s speech because of the delicate manner in which his emphasis on the “truth of doing” and “social truth” links praxis with experience while simultaneously connecting both of these to authorship, representation, and political struggle. It is in the same spirit that I deploy and claim some “truths” here—to highlight the nature, significance, and unfolding of those knowledges that can be enabled and authored only through a collective commitment to recognize the mutually inseparable nature of doing, feeling, representing, theorizing, and dreaming in alliance work. To summarize loosely, the first truth underscores an always-evolving praxis of translation that is guided by love. The second emphasizes a shared politics, while the third highlights the necessity of staging truths in alliance work. The fourth truth returns us to the theme of radical vulnerability in alliance work.

The First Truth

The meanings of Surbala’s encounter with Aparna will most likely be lost unless the story is embedded in the ten-year journey of an alliance from the writing of Sangtin Yatra to its translation and circulation as Playing with Fire and from there to the making of Ek Aur Neemsaar and its launch in Sitapur. The process of making knowledge about a single event is often informed by complex journeys, translations, and relationships in an alliance, and this process can itself inspire ever-evolving agendas and visions while refusing compartmentalization of research from pedagogy, of academic from activist labor, of theorizing from organizing. In this expansive and syncretic understanding of coauthorship as alliance work that moves through and across different contexts and spaces, coauthorship does not merely include the work of writing but the ways that writing is informed—and coauthored—by all the processes and events undertaken by those in an alliance. Committed alliance work is about building multifaceted relationships through trust; it is about how we engage difference, disagreements, mistakes, and dissonance—or, the “wounds and fissures” that mark the collective “we” (Nagar 2006a, xxxiv–xxxv). This is a process where the possibility of becoming a “community”—with all its strengths and shortcomings—is only realizable through a commitment to becoming radically vulnerable together. The labor of carrying out this commitment, this love, is never purely intellectual or political; it consumes the mind, the muscles, the tissues, and the bones. Tinsely, Chatterjea, Gibney, and Wilcox articulate the demands of this labor with reference to their work in Ananya Dance Theatre:

we were literally working with water; we, northern-living brown women were figuratively working with fluidity. this is a woman of color dance troupe, and central to its vision are artistic excellence, political awareness and community, and creating these across lines of race, ethnicity, and sexuality to perform meaningfully post-colonially. if i brought my stumbling ankles back day after day it was because this pan-brown fluidity was not only inspiring but necessary, absolutely necessary to being whole and present here in this place northern europeans violently robbed first from the dakota, then the ojibwe, and that they imagine as “their” own land (not water). . . . but to work with this figurative fluidity is also hard. what does our work of bridging colors, religions, races, sexualities mean? what does it mean to imagine being “minorities” together? . . . figurative fluidity is hard, and i know this as materially as i know the heaviness of a bucket of water. . . . but the solution to this unevenness can’t be eliminating fluidity, can’t be throwing over attempts to organize in multicolored, multigendered ways in favor of organizing . . . around a single identity. much as i and my co-dancers might long for a dry, smooth stage some days, as if that were possible with all our sweat. no. the solution can only be no solution, can only be maintaining tension between what rushes us together and what flows us apart, returning endlessly to negotiate this balancing act and then re-negotiate it and re-negotiate it again. as rinaldo walcott . . . puts it: “what is demanded is a rethinking of community that might allow for different ways of cohering into some form of recognizable political entity. put another way, we must confront singularities without the willed effort to make them cohere into oneness; we must struggle to make a community of singularities . . .” singularities that roil and clash and teem with life like the spaces where currents meet: because jumping in here you know it will hurt and you know it will be hard but it will be movement, this, putting pressure on water means movement. (Tinsely et al. 2010, 162–64)

If alliance work can be imagined as dance choreography, then coauthorship in alliance work is precisely about building singularities that roil and clash and teem with life. And whether expressed in words or in motion, coauthorship in alliance work is about a continuous and creative tension between the original and the translated so that the definitions and forms of what counts as “original” and what counts as “translated” are themselves in motion. This leads me to my first truth:

Coauthored stories are continuously evolving in and through all the sites of struggle that are part of the alliance. These coauthored tales of alliances are constituted by people who build multifaceted bonds through dreams, dissonance, affect, and trust, and who make and sustain movements through everyday relationships, emotional investments, and creative skills. Translations enabled by these bonds lie at the heart of these coauthored tales: What emerges from and gets debated and articulated in one location gets translated for another location into another language, and the critiques and insights emerging in all the locations inform the revisions and refining of ideas, positions, strategies, and arguments. In these always evolving translations, the solution can only be no solution. For, reaching a solution means the end of fluidity—the end of that which roils, clashes, and throbs with life.

The Second Truth

In a 2008 essay, Ruth Wilson Gilmore tells us about places that have experienced the abandonment characteristic of contemporary capitalist and neoliberal state reorganization. She draws attention to the resourcefulness of people in these locales who—despite the daily violence of environmental degradation, racism, underemployment, overwork, shrinking social wages, and the disappearance of whole ways of life and of those who lived them—refuse to give up hope (Gilmore 2008, 32). If identities change in and through action and struggle, asks Gilmore, what sort of political-economic and cultural projects can highlight the structural and lived relationships between marginal people and marginal lands in both urban and rural contexts and inspire residents in these locales to explore ways in which they can “scale up their activism from intensely localized struggles to something less atomized and therefore possessed of a significant capacity for self-determination” and “life-affirming social change” (Gilmore 2008, 31)? She proposes a syncretic approach to research and activism that offers provisional resolutions to contradictions and challenges by engaging problems, theories, and questions in terms of “their stretch, resonance, and resilience.” Similar to Rege’s vision of Phule-Ambedkarite feminist pedagogy, Gilmore (2008, 37–38) envisions such syncretic practices as having the ability to garner unpredictable energies through collective action to reach further than the immediate object without bypassing its particularity (stretch); support and model nonhierarchical collective action without necessarily adhering to already existing architectures of sense making (resonance); and enable questions to be malleable rather than brittle, so that the project can remain connected with its purpose, even as it encounters and engages the unexpected (resilience). This brings me to the second truth:

If politically engaged scholarship begins with a politics of recognition and intentionally grapples with the ways that such scholarship can help to produce the new realities that it is fighting for, then coauthoring stories is one way of working across sociopolitical, cultural, and institutional locations, languages, and histories to do this grappling. In so doing, such stories can forge generative connections across struggles while remaining grounded in their soil. Although trust is essential to enable any coauthored knowledge or storytelling, trustful relationships—in the absence of intentional grappling with specific political questions and shared political agenda—do not translate automatically into alliance work.

The Third Truth

The next truth revolves around the theme of representation. Everybody represents somebody in politically engaged alliance work. This means that an individualistic conception of leadership and representation—that is, the idea that movements can only be represented by leaders who speak on behalf of the rank and file and that knowledge created by a movement can only be authorized by a person who makes it intelligible through one’s written words or access to publicity—must be complicated by those who want to conceptualize and enact collaborative movements and alliances across borders.

If movement making and knowledge making are fluid and always evolving, then the task of representation cannot conclude. When a movement such as SKMS explicitly recognizes that everybody who participates in a struggle must be forever attentive to their task as a representer, such recognition also challenges those who are “grounded” primarily in the academy to constantly rethink the relationship between authorship of words and authorship of struggles. For example, I might represent Surbala in this chapter while Surbala might represent her encounters with U.S.-based academics and activists in conversations that she participates in on various activist platforms. Similarly, she might represent SKMS’s saathis such as Tama and Manohar in a confrontation with the chief development officer (CDO) of Sitapur; Tama might represent the CDO in a song that he sings at a rally; and we all might represent SKMS in multiple fora. In all these instances, each one of us is required to make tough decisions about which stories, experiences, vulnerabilities, or disagreements we can politicize and circulate; and which and whose complicities with violence we can share, when, why, how, and for whom.

As a movement that wants to be leaderless, SKMS is continuously trying to evolve practices that resist the idea of a single identifiable leader or representer of the saathis’ struggle in any given context. For instance, if there is a protest at the district development headquarters, a well-established practice of SKMS is that nobody keeps the microphone in their own hands for more than five minutes, so that it keeps moving from one person to another. And when the district development officer asks the Sangathan to send a representative to his office for negotiations, the saathis decline: “No one person can represent the movement. You come out of your office and talk to all of us, because all of us are representatives of the movement.” Thus, the movement strives to keep alive its commitment that everybody who is engaged in the struggle must also reflect on her or his task as a representer. In so doing, it pushes us to rethink the dominant meanings of author and authorship.

After winning the battle against the director of MSUP (see chapter 5), the six authors of Sangtin Yatra who were still employed by MS not only continued their jobs there, they also received promotions and significant raises.5 The demands on their energy as well as their personal circumstances led them to decide that they could no longer participate in the movement-building work of SKMS. However, two years later, when SKMS began to earn social and political recognition in Sitapur, these six authors expressed an interest in becoming full-time members of SKMS. If they quit their jobs in MS and became a part of SKMS, they asked, would SKMS give them honoraria similar to what they were making in MS? As founders of Sangtin who wrote Sangtin Yatra, the six women felt that they should always have a space in SKMS, and that such space should be accompanied by monetary compensation. But the stance of five thousand or so members of SKMS at that time was that since SKMS had no donor funds, every saathi should volunteer at least six months of their full-time labor to movement building. After that, the movement would try to provide some monetary compensation to those members with whatever resources it had. In other words, there was no privileged place for the authors of the book Sangtin Yatra because several thousand others had become authors of the everyday struggles that were unfolding in the villages of Sitapur.

The publication of Playing with Fire may have been critical at the time when the authors of Sangtin Yatra were attacked by the director of MSUP; beyond that, however, Playing with Fire did not carry much meaning for a vast majority of the members of the movement evolving in Sitapur. The meanings that the controversy around Sangtin Yatra acquired were important for mobilizing people initially, but in some ways, the written word ceased to be relevant as soon as the struggle for irrigation water started. There is a strong tendency in academia to reduce the meanings of coauthorship and coauthored texts to the printed word. In order to imagine collaborations as alliances that might enable critical transformation in multiple sites of knowledge making, however, we must ponder how coauthorship is about the varied dimensions of a struggle, not all of which can one attempt to capture through the written word. It also requires us to be attentive to how different members of a movement theorize their own responsibility as coauthors and representers of a struggle in different contexts.

Sometimes this representation involves difficult choices that may not meet the approval of audiences in all the sites where the stories of sangtins’ journeys may be traveling. For example, the absence of Richa Singh’s and my own autobiographical narratives in the book Sangtin Yatra raised a question for some academic readers about whether this choice inadvertently reinforced something similar to a sawaran-dalit dichotomy where the two “more-privileged” Richas became the representers of the seven “less-privileged” diary writers, Anupamlata, Ramsheela, Reshma, Shashibala, Shashi, Surbala, and Vibha. When graduate students in feminist studies at Minnesota posed a similar question in 2007 to Surbala, Richa Singh, and me, Richa Singh and I accepted this as a valid critique, even though the incorporation of our stories would have made it a different kind of book. Surbala however, regarded the critique as disrespectful attitude of elite readers toward the collective’s decision to not include the diaries of the two Richas. She stated that the repeated posing of—as well as the assumptions associated with—this critique were similar to the attitude of the bank officers in the villages of Sitapur who tell poor women that they cannot open a bank account in their own name unless they can prove their trustworthiness by presenting a bank passbook issued in the name of their husbands. Surbala said, “Why do the seven diary writers need the stories of Richa Singh and Richa Nagar to authorize our own stories? Why can’t the collective’s decision to present only seven stories in the book be respected as a collective decision?”

There is much that can be said about this last example. For the present purpose, however, I would like to suggest that the meanings of struggles that shape collective writing cannot be fully apparent to its readers in multiple locations, nor can the implications of that writing be predicted by the writers in advance. On the one hand, the discursive, political, and strategic requirements of the kind of alliance work that SKMS represents make it necessary for the authors to maintain some control over their intellectual, theoretical, and creative coproduction. On the other hand, the meanings and effects of SKMS’s coproduction are always unfolding. In the same way that there is an intimate back and forth between the authoring of the words and the authoring of the struggles, alliance work also demands a continuous decentering and recentering of the writers, the readers, the actors, and the spectators in a delicate dance where theory, story, and strategy are deeply entangled, mutually co-constitutive, and thoroughly inseparable. Furthermore, that which is written—and that which remains unwritten—hold different meanings for, and give different kinds of power to, differently situated members of an alliance at different times. Alliance-based coauthorship derives its radical potential from its ability to mobilize spaces for both legitimized and hitherto erased (or invisible) critiques to speak with one another, so that they can evolve into more nuanced critical interventions in multiple sites. A multisited dialogue that is grounded in a political struggle should allow people from each of those sites to be aware of how their circumstances and strategies are articulating with those in other sites, and what that articulation is enabling or stifling in each site. Thus, my third truth is as follows:

Since coauthored tales in alliance work selectively mobilize experience for particular political ends, the labor of the writer, translator, and academic hinges on how s/he reduces and expands stories and silences in relation to context and audience. In this sense, all activism can be likened to political theater, and those responsible for the labor of writing must continuously make ethical decisions about the relationship between the conversations happening in the backstage and the content that is to be presented on the front stage based on the political terrain of a given context and audience (Shank and Nagar 2013). This labor of back and front staging is as much about making political choices (e.g., which stories should be circulated for whom) as it is about making theoretical choices about how to tell—and how not to tell—the stories that are necessary to share. Because of this selective mobilization of experience and frontstaging and backstaging of political conversations, the possibilities, potentialities, and labors of coauthorship are always in process. The written text alone is too limited to apprehend the complex intersections among feminist subject, subjectivity, and organizing; or the work that is enabled by the authors’ engagements with difference at particular historical and political moments. The written text is also unable to adequately capture the resonances of these engagements in the multiple sites where alliance-based knowledges and arguments are interpreted, consumed, contested, or reshaped into other knowledges.

The Fourth Truth

If structures of oppression and subordination are legitimized through professions, that is, cults of expertise that have the power to create knowledge and to selectively empower or devalue knowledges, then the kind of coauthoring I am arguing for asks that alliance workers simultaneously trouble this picture in multiple sites. It demands interventions through which academic knowledges and vocabularies can be troubled by knowledges emerging from sites that are systematically excluded, illegitimized, or rendered invisible in the dominant class system of the intellect—interventions that push predefined assumptions and boundaries of what is legitimized as important knowledge.

To a certain extent, each member of an alliance has to ethically navigate her responsibility as an independent critic and as a member of a collective; but this necessary negotiation between the “I” and the “we” can often become more delicate and demanding for the academic, especially if the academic has the primary responsibility of narrating and translating the alliance’s struggles for audiences located in very different worlds. Rigor in this work, then, demands delicate negotiations between the “I” and the “we,” which in turn require ongoing reciprocities and investments rooted in trust and in shared commitments that may themselves undergo continuous revision.

At the same time, this kind of alliance work requires each member of the collective to be skeptical of the increasing professionalization of our political and intellectual labor. For example, many feminists have critiqued the ways in which the professionalization of feminism through the academy, NGO circles, the media, and mainstream politics aids the translation of our intellectual and political stances into marketable commodities that give us name, rewards, and celebrity. As a transformative program, then, the concept and practice of coauthorship can only be meaningful if people coming together from these different locations commit themselves to addressing these processes and their effects. If imagined and enacted in this way, coauthorship can help us to complicate multiple “fields” in relation to one another through what Susan Sánchez-Casal and Amie A. Macdonald refer to as “communities of meaning” or “knowledge making communities” (Sánchez-Casal and Macdonald 2002).

If the responsibility to represent in alliance work is an ongoing one, two questions for feminists engaged in this work are: First, how do we imagine and enact a thorough, fluid, and multisited methodology of accountability that allows us to theorize complex intersections of location and power, as well as their attendant contradictions, without seeking easy resolutions? Second, how might such a methodology articulate the accountability of the academic to the nonacademic collaborators, the accountability of the activist to the people whom s/ he represents, and the accountability of both the academic and the activist to one another and to the struggles they claim to stand for?

These questions have affinities with what Naomi Scheman calls an “epistemology of trustworthiness” in the context of a crisis generated by the question of why the knowledge claims that come from inside of universities ought to be credible to those outside of—and too often alienated from—them (Scheman 2011). For Scheman, this epistemology refers to “the conditions under which it is rational to accept what others say about matters that concern you. Those conditions, require on the one hand that the institutions within which the relevant inquiry takes place are trustworthy . . . something that . . . calls for demonstrated commitments to social justice; and on the other hand that modes of inquiry involve respectful engagement with the diverse communities that are knowledgeable about the objects of that inquiry and dependent on or likely to be affected by the results of it” (Scheman 2012, 3). Rather than center these questions solely on the university, however, a methodology of accountability demands radical vulnerability. This requires all the coauthors to inspect how each of their locations might enable the conditions under which an epistemology of trustworthiness can be sustained, and what kind of intellectual and political labor might be needed to address the factors that stifle it. This brings me to my fourth truth:

As a multisited cross-border feminist engagement with questions of power, privilege, and representation, coauthorship in alliance work demands that all the authors question their own complicities with the violence of colonial histories and geographies and with capitalist relations of power, as well as their own embeddedness and investments in and relationships with institutional reward structures, markets, and celebrity cults. This questioning must be a part of an always evolving methodology of accountability that pushes each member of the alliance, individually and as part of a collective, to analyze our shifting intersectional locations and contradictions; and to confront the ways in which the institutions and organizations supporting our critical work might be themselves complicit with the forms of violence we might be opposing.

In other words, coauthoring stories in alliance work demands radical vulnerability from those who inhabit different communities of meaning, whether academia, activism, or elsewhere. If feminist alliance work is to realize its transformative possibilities, collaborators must recognize each other as coauthors joined in relations of affect, trust, imagination, and critique, ever open to interrogation by their collaborators, and willing to forego the putative superiority of their protocols of understanding and sites of knowledge making. Far from weakening every differentially located coauthor in the alliance, a praxis of representation and translation that is guided by radical vulnerability gives each coauthor—and the alliance as a whole—more courage to take risks and to continue dreaming and struggling on.

As reflections from an ongoing journey, the truths I have articulated above are not meant to serve as final conclusions, but as points to recenter otherwise marginalized conversations about which or whose knowledge counts, and how. When academic truths gain their rigor through conceptual and methodological disciplining and reductionism, it is easy to declare such truths universally replicable and verifiable. The wild, complex, irreducible contexts of lives, struggles, and relationships are often treated as irrelevant or actively shoved into the background in the process of producing such truth claims. The truths or tales produced through radical vulnerability and love, however, derive their richness and nuances by actively embracing the challenges posed by such contextual complexities. Essentially, these truths are a plea to not give up hope in the beauty, power, and possibilities of alliance work, a point made by Tinsely, Chatterjea, Gibney, and Wilcox: “We cannot afford to give up hope. Is that specific to the experience of marginalization? Possibly. . . . All our projects are about hope ultimately. . . . What enables us to dance? To dance, really? There is so much to remind us we are dancing on other people’s blood. It takes work to be able to create that beauty as a healing force and to enjoy creating it. Building that community and ensemble is about finding a way to let hope materialize into energy” (Tinsely et al. 2010, 164).

It is in the spirit of continuing to find ways to let hope translate into energy that I revisit the arguments made in this chapter through a scene of a play coauthored with members of SKMS.

Coauthoring Intersectionality and Alliance: Aag Lagi Hai Jangal Ma

In the sweltering heat of August 2010, Bitoli and Kusuma left their villages in Pisawan block of Sitapur District to undertake a three-hour trip to the town of Sitapur. There, they were joined by ten more saathis of SKMS: Meena, Jamuna, Radhapyari, Roshanlal, Manohar, Ramkishore, Sri Kishan, Anil, Surendra, and Tama, as well as additional supporters, including Kamal, Shivam, Rajendra, Richa Singh, and me. The women and men saathis were of different ages and personalities and came from different villages. Some of them had been active in SKMS for several years, while others were just beginning to get acquainted with the Sangathan’s work. However, these differences were soon absorbed by an all-consuming process of remembering and retelling, of enacting and creating as we all came under one roof to work together for the next five days and nights, setting aside our preoccupations and worries, our farms and homes, and our families, parents, and children. From this process evolved SKMS’s street play in Hindi and Awadhi, Aag Lagi Hai Jangal Ma (The Forest Is Burning), under the direction of Tarun Kumar (Sangtin Kisaan Mazdoor Sangathan 2011, Nagar 2013). Aag Lagi Hai fiercely resists a ghettoization of issues based on gender, caste, or minimum employment through an analysis of multiple forms of violence at scales ranging from the body (hunger, domestic violence, disappearing livelihoods) to the earth (disappearing forests, ever-rising mansions, pathways obstructed by polythene, overconsumption by the rich), and by embedding itself in an epistemology and framework in which the meanings of “politics” can only emerge cautiously through struggle.

Here I offer the prologue and the last scene of Aag Lagi Hai in translation, as these theorize and enact alliance through coauthorship. As each actor announces her/his own perspective, concern, or truth, s/ he contributes to a fuller collective truth of the struggle that could not be realized without the process of coauthorship. The play ends with a song about a bird and an elephant and their relationship to a fire that is turning the forest into ashes. The bird symbolizes those who are relatively powerless, the elephant denotes those in more comfortable locations who are not immediately threatened by the fire, and the fire itself stands for the havoc of displacement, drought, and death caused by destructive development. Importantly, however, SKMS does not conceptualize the positions of the bird and the elephant as fixed. The same person who is a bird (and trying to extinguish the fire from a position of relative marginality) in one context may become an elephant (and fan the flames or join its trunk with the bird’s beak) in another. The scene—and particularly this song—not only attests to the collective’s commitment to cocreate through intersectional analyses, but also recognizes the strength that resides in acknowledging mutual vulnerability, resonating strongly with Jacqui Alexander’s call to cross over into a metaphysics of interdependence (Alexander 2005).

In identifying the sociopolitical processes, practices, interests, and dependencies through which state corruption comes to inhabit and thrive in the rural development machinery, and in naming the co-constitutive relationships between the mansions of the rich and the hunger of the poor, and between the legal and the illegal, Aag Lagi Hai offers a commentary on the manner in which the development apparatus of the neoliberal state actively underdevelops the poor people and places in order to make the wealthy more prosperous. Particularly noteworthy is the power of the recurring line in the third scene:

If I speak my truth, you will feel a stabbing pain!

The repeated utterance of this line—borrowed from a song sung by SKMS’s member Rambeti interbraids multiple truths of the movement. In so doing, these words underscore intersectional knowledge as the core of the collective and vividly capture the resistance of SKMS saathis to the imposed categories and expertise that ensure the reproduction of the systems that serve to stifle them. These systems include the differing yet connected structures that ghettoize gender-based issues, reproduce caste politics, and repeat patterns of violence in the realm of the intimate. The movement struggles with and against the narratives (re)produced by these interconnections. The recurring line reinforces the play’s engagement with knowledge production as a struggle against silences—not simply against the silences that suppress stories of hunger, poverty, and violence, and not merely against the silences that reside inside and outside the machines of development in the offices or houses of the elected representatives and salaried officials, but also against the silences that result from the absence of an analysis of those things that can never be fully known, felt, or accessed by those who live and play their power. Officials may know their projects and files, but their positions may never allow them to see or feel how corruption does not lie merely in the hands of one particular official or scheme, nor the ways in which the development of some operates through the underdevelopment of others on a systemic level. Indeed, their locations may entirely prevent them from apprehending, imagining, or analyzing the bitter truths that make the fates of the elephant and the bird inseparable.6

The power of the line If I speak my truth, you will feel a stabbing pain!” emanates from the politics of silences and assumptions that are forced upon those who must at once absorb the system and reproduce it—with their own bodies and with their children’s bodies—while their voices and stories remain necessarily absent from the narratives of the nation, democratic state, and development programs such as NREGS and Indira Awaas Yojana (Indira Housing Scheme). Saathis disrupt power by highlighting the ways in which we categorize, name, and understand the moving pieces that shape the structures of family, village, and state—both separately and in conversation with one another. Each moving piece brings its own suffering, but the collective truth that emerges from the suffering caused by all the pieces is far greater than what the officials or the elite can know or bear. Each utterance of the line If I speak my truth, you will feel a stabbing pain!” reinforces the complex relationship between what is lived and what can be known: you do not know what I know, the lines can be read to say, but I spare you the knowledge of that truth because you will not be able to bear the pain of that brutal truth. Yet the truth emerges from the violence that you help to inflict upon me every day.

Because there is no singular system of power to fight or fix, the play is not simply oppositional to power. Rather, it upholds the need for creativity and strategic collaboration with the state authorities in the saathis’ everyday encounters with the development machinery so that they can claim precisely those rights and entitlements that are invoked in the name of the poor in order to justify and legitimize the existence of a democratic state. In other words, Aag Lagi Hai offers a vision in which radical protest and intersectional critique do not entirely erase the possibilities of cooperation and alliance across difference and where the hope for solidarity is always present so that the elephant may unite with the bird to prevent the jungle from burning down.

At the same time, Aag Lagi Hai does not abandon the movement’s responsibility to provide its own self-critique. The success and growth of SKMS in the realm of district development offices has been paralleled by painful conflicts in the homes of saathis, posing a continuous challenge in the lives of women who have embraced the movement. This reality cannot be blamed on the state’s schemes and machinations and represents other “schemes” that also serve to replicate the structures of domination and subordination. The play grapples with this question as one of gendered violence, while being careful to not minimize or glamorize it, or to turn it into a spectacle. Ultimately, the play is cautious not to celebrate SKMS’s own achievements; in building connections across spaces and issues, it recognizes its own limits, absences, and gaps, as well as the fact that the journey has barely begun.

Prologue to the Play

Tama leads the saathis with his song:

When the heart is filthy, what will come from taking a dip in the Ganga?

Heart is the car, knowledge is the engine; what’s the point of being called the driver?

When the accident has already happened, what’s the point of pressing the horn?

When the heart is filthy, what will come from taking a dip in the Ganga?

The field is gone, the farm is gone, why regret the loss now?

The birds have already fed on the crop, why swing the baton now?

When the heart is filthy, what will come from taking a dip in the Ganga?

You may become a Panch or a Pradhan, you may be called a CDO.

When you have eaten all the money, what’s the point of wasting ink now?

When the heart is filthy, what will come from taking a dip in the Ganga?

You may be a BDO, you may be a DDO, or you could be the DM.

What’s the point of issuing new orders when the protesting people are at your door?

When the heart is filthy, what will come from taking a dip in the Ganga?

Scene 3

Meena: [asks the audience] Can deflating one officer truly end state corruption?

Sri Kishan: Arey, how will this corruption end? Don’t we know how deep its roots are and how widely their tentacles are spread?

With a beat of the dholak, all recite the following line:

If I speak my truth, you will feel a stabbing pain!

Roshan: Look at the state of our schools—whether it’s the midday meal, or whether it’s the state of education.

Kusuma: The porridge that comes to the Anganwadis7 is sold away for pennies. The porridge that is given for the children of the poor is actually eaten by the animals of the rich.

Jamuna: And what can I say about the government hospitals? Sometimes it’s the doctor who is missing, and at others it’s the medicines.

If I speak my truth, you will feel a stabbing pain!

Surendra: Thousands of liters of water are pumped in and out of swimming pools in the cities. In the Gomtinagars of Lucknow and the Vasant Kunjs of Delhi, electricity is supplied round the clock. If we can get access to all that electricity and water, we can produce loads after loads of wheat and rice.

Anil: So many of us don’t even have a tiny farm. In the registers of the government, the entitlement is in our name, but the real control is in someone else’s hands.

Manohar: It’s not as if the fields of those who control their own lands are blooming, anyway. The mazdoors and kisaans suffer beatings of the stick in order to get access to a little bit of fertilizer!

Ramkishore: How can we ever get the fertilizer? We don’t even have the Kisaan Bahi.

If I speak my truth, you will feel a stabbing pain!

Tama: The salaries of the central government folks have increased. The legislators and the members of the parliament give themselves raises every other day. But how much has our daily wage increased in proportion to theirs? Roshan sings with a beat on the dholak:

Inflation is killing me, listen my companions in poverty!

Roshan: [with another beat on the dholak] What can I say? For two years now, I have not tasted arhar dal. Tomatoes are forty rupees per kilo. What can we get in the wages of a hundred rupees a day? If you and I won’t die of disease and hunger, then who will?

Sri Kishan: Have you encountered a single dhaba in Piswan or Sitapur where our children are not seen washing the dishes?

If I speak my truth, you will feel a stabbing pain!

Tama: Our well-wishers at the top may or may not increase our wages, but they certainly make sure that there are plenty of shops at every intersection to supply us with gutka, bidi, and liquor.

Ramkishore: If the hungry worker drinks the government’s liquor, the government is happy and its liquor becomes legal. But if we make our own liquor, the police raids our homes!

If I speak my truth, you will feel a stabbing pain!

Manohar: All of this agony makes sense only if we can save this earth of ours. Hardly a downpour happens and every town, every city seems to be on the brink of flooding. And why wouldn’t it flood? These enormous roads and mansions have swallowed our trees and forests.

Meena: Wherever you look, polythene and plastic are obstructing our paths. The kumhars in our villages are dead.

If I speak my truth, you will feel a stabbing pain!

Bitoli: Arey, all these tears and complaints of ours have gone on for decades. No matter which government comes or goes, the poor continue to be subjected to the same old games. Policies and programs are run in our names; research and analyses are conducted in our names, but it’s the mansions of the rich that become taller. And it’s not as if these owners of big mansions who live on our sweat and blood reside only in Mishrikh and Pisawan—they are spread all over the world. Whether it’s Lucknow or Delhi, whether it’s Israel or America!

Photo 10. Bitoli poses a question to the audience of Aag Lagi Hai Jangal Ma. Mishrikh Tehsil Office, 2013. (Photo: Tarun Kumar)

Anil: Tell me one more thing. The drama that we saw in the home of Kamala and Ramautar—which grand scheme did that drama belong to? Don’t think that such dramas happen only in our huts. In the big mansions, there are even bigger dramas between women and men.

Radhapyari: Baap re baap. This is not a drama. This is a fire. A massive fire that will engulf us all.

The whole group sings with Manohar and Tama:

There is a fire in the jungle, the bird is extinguishing the fire.

The elephant looks on. He just looks on.

The elephant does not understand, it’s the bird who is extinguishing the fire.

When the jungle burns, he will burn, too. But he is preoccupied with his own pride.

Filling water in her little beak, the bird carries on fighting the fire.

If the elephant does not join in, he will also burn with the bird.

These songs, these fragments of Aag Lagi Hai Jangal Ma, are among the last words that I offer in Muddying the Waters. Like all other translated fragments and journeys that make this book, my attempt to translate these fragments—however inadequately—is entangled with small hopes. A hope that you, the reader, will be moved by them so that the spirit of Aag Lagi Hai Jangal Ma can reverberate more broadly in everyday struggles with molding, consuming, and sharing knowledge and truths. A hope that these fragmented translations can inspire us to embrace the risk of continuously decentering ourselves and of making ourselves radically vulnerable—as writers and readers, as teachers and learners, as artists and alliance workers, as members of our families and communities, as knowledge makers. A hope that the boatperson will have a reason to want to save the pundit’s life. A hope that we can appreciate the co constitutiveness and conviviality of theories, stories, and strategies, as well as the love and radical vulnerability that make this imagination possible.





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