“I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s,
I will not reason or compare, my business is to create”
– William Blake
I was 13 when this quote first entered my life, and since then it has, time and again, given meaning to me in my darkest moments. At 13, with this quote, I was first introduced to this “other world”. In between my grief of losing a member of my family, and the pain of surviving in a family that was acutely in pain, this quote and the world around these words gave me hope. In Prithvi Cafe on those humid mornings and scorching afternoons, perhaps I glimpse a truth that I have tried to hold on to all these years. Those moments showed me that it was possible to relate to others deeply, that it was possible to fall in love and have others fall in love with you – with all the madness that it means. It showed me what collective energy looked and felt like, showed me that others were in pain too, and all of us were suffering together. Writing and theatre showed me that there is a way in which to truly and vulnerably express that suffering – to share it with the world, to listen when others share, to empathise with them, and hold their hands because sometimes thats all we can do.
All these years, I sought that energy again, and if I think about it like that – it makes sense that I have landed up where I did. Over the past few years, I had forgotten what it means to not “reason or compare”, and that made me suffer deeply. I judged myself for not having paid enough attention to my career, I compared with others and convinced myself that I had no skills to offer to the world, at times I tried to reason that this way of living was somehow “better” than others, in an attempt to understand why I have landed up where I have and to not feel it like a failure. In a system where friends find that their work and efforts and skills find gratification in the form of recognition and success and money, to have none of these made me feel like I had failed. Instead of continuing to have faith that “my business is to create”, I allowed myself to be “enslaved by another man’s (system)”.
I know how much I missed it – this energy of “creating”. I was at a tribal museum in Bhopal, surrounded by the beautiful and vulnerable and universal energy that I saw in everything they created – from their tools, to their shrines, to their homes, to their art. In that moment, I longed so deeply for that energy – to be one with the universe of creation. I felt jealous of these people who lived in a system in which this energy was available to them to tap into in every little thing they did with their day – whether they created food from the soil, or created art from stone, or created homes from clay. I felt angry and “enslaved” in this system, the one where I don’t create at all. Where all my work is – is managing other people, coordinating with other people, talking to other people, engaging with other people. Perhaps there are possibilities to create in this way too but they just weren’t coming to me.
Just a few days before this trip to Bhopal, we had a three day workshop within Nirantar. I was dreading this workshop with every cell in my body. At the time the space in Nirantar was alienating, excluding, hostile and made me anxious to be in it from a mile. But it was also the time that I had made a promise to myself, this is where I will be. Despite every reason and incentive to bail, to abandon ship and start over, there was a part of me that kept me rooted right here, to this place. Even on the worst day, I convinced myself I will try and do the best I can in the space that I have available, but that I will discipline myself into coming to this space, and be vulnerable to this space. During this workshop, I suddenly remembered being told about zentangles – this method of creating a particular kind of art – that is rooted as much in creativity as it is in discipline. Maybe all art forms are, come to think of it, but this one is explicitly so. The moment I started to feel anxious in the workshop, I reached out to a sketch pen and started drawing zentangle after zentangle. Everyone noticed what I was doing, they asked me, they were even perhaps irritated that I was doing this but I didn’t feel at all apologetic. I knew that I had to do this, and when I did, something happened. The negative anxious energy in me started to come out in a positive, creative and celebratory form. Maybe its as Einstien discovered, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another”. Slowly, I started to feel the difference in me. The space and the people around whom I couldn’t stand to be, suddenly I felt love for them, and I felt their acceptance of me. I felt like I could come to be in that space, and that space will come to have me.
This happened, and then the tribal museum the weekend after. I started to slowly become convinced of this lose idea that I was grappling with – that there is something about creative energy that has the potential to help us be and stay much more conscious of the world in and around us, and perhaps even transform it as we go along.
Create what? The task I have unwittingly committed to is a massive one. “Create a system” – a feminist system -“or be enslaved by another man’s” – yes the writing is on the wall. But how does one create a feminist system? When I was younger (can’t believe thats the term I use for when I was 18, but its true). I used to think creating a system meant creating a macro system. When I consumed all that delicious Marxism, and Leftist Idealism, I just knew that until the macro doesn’t change, the micro won’t either. When I went to a school for tribal children after my undergraduate, and took on the task of building thematic curriculum with them based on a Freirian pedagogy, I was disgusted with my work. I thought so little of it, thought it was wishy washy. I wanted to do what other friends were doing “research”, “policy” – big fat changes for adult people. What was this “working with children” thing anyway, so worthless. I wanted there to be agrarian reforms and economic reforms and healthcare reforms and environmental reforms – all at once – radically. I guess, I believed then that the only way to create a system is to destroy the other one, the one that exists.
At that time, I didn’t think much of myself as a “woman” or a “feminist”. I had a long journey to make from that moment on till the moment I would encounter Ursula, and she would help me make sense of this dilemma. So what is a system, UKL would ask me, I think, if we sat and spoke. Is this system a Utopia? What kind of utopia? And aren’t all utopia’s, perhaps by virtue of being “static”, a man’s system that can enslave all else in them? But UKL gives me an alternative too – a deeper, more spiritual alternative, rooted in a way of understanding the world that we have come to disregard in this current “system”.
“Every eutopia contains a dystopia, every dystopia contains a eutopia.
In the Yang-Yin symbol each half contains within it a portion of the other, signifying their complete interdependence and continual intermutability. The figure is static, but each half contains the seed of transformation. The symbol represents not a stasis but a process.
It may be useful to think of utopia in terms of this long-lived Chinese symbol, particularly if one is willing to forego the usual masculist assumption that yang is superior to yin, and instead consider the interdependence and intermutability of the two as the essential feature of the symbol.
Yang is male, bright, dry, hard, active, penetrating. Yin is female, dark, wet, easy, receptive, containing. Yang is control, Yin acceptance. They are great and equal powers; neither can exist alone, and each is always in process of becoming the other.”
-Ursula K le Guin
So perhaps that means that all that is creative is perhaps also destructive? That in creating a new system, bit by bit, you’re also destroying an older one? This feels much more approachable, and echoes much more the feelings in my heart.
Maybe what this also means is that what is destructive is also creative? I think I understand that too, which brings me to the final section of my stream of consciousness.
Its difficult to write about this and I don’t know where to start. So maybe I will start by introducing C again. C is, without doubt, my soulmate and my home. We met each other when we were 15-16, and soon after, we told each other that we were in love with each other. We were young and we didn’t know what these words really meant, I on my part was gripped by fear – I didn’t know what I wanted from my life, and to think that I was in love with this person and to know that I could see myself spending the rest of my life with him is a scary thought when you’re 16. I know he felt the same way, and I know he was afraid too. For many years – we danced around each other – experimenting with the boundaries of friendship. Together we created a language in which we could speak of all that made us feel vulnerable, anxious, afraid and human. Together we treaded the tightrope of intimacy, discovering each others bodies along with each other’s souls. The first six years that we knew each other, maybe we were in a “yin” kind of space. A space that was dark (yes without doubt), easy (in parts and moments, differently for the both of us), and most importantly of acceptance – of each other – as we were, and of the nature of our relationship – as it unfolded. 6 years later, we found ourselves in a different space. We chose to “penetrate” a certain boundary, we chose to be together, as a couple. Those years, by virtue of this commitment – were the “yang” years. These years were active in that we made an effort to be with each other, to fight through our differences. They were penetrating in that we dug into each other’s beings, we unearthed the very best and the very worst in each other. They were bright, in the moments of our togetherness, in the moments of our joy, in the moments in which we laughed together and the moments in which we cried together. But these years were also years of control – over each other, over ourselves in order to be with each other, over circumstances so that they may lead us to each other. The “yang” phase started almost exactly 6 years after the “yin” one, and almost exactly 6 years after that, we found within ourselves, the seed to destroy what we had created.
Its not easy to let go of something you have created with such love, such intensity, such investment, and yet, having faith in the process of “creating”, it felt like the right thing to do and both of us chose to walk back into friendship, into our own darkness, and into its acceptance. In destroying the way our relationship and we in it, have existed so far, are we also creating another way to be? A system that does not enslave one another? I really hope so.
What this phase has done for me, however, is that it has also simultaneously destroyed many of the assumptions about myself that I held close. It has destroyed in me any ‘utopias’ I may have had about how things should be, any ‘expectations’ about how I and others ought to be with each other. This destruction has helped me plunge into my own darkness -the “yin” energy – the one that according to UKL – is dark, wet, easy, receptive, accepting, and above all – female. Slowly it starts to feel like the most natural next step.
Inside of my darkness, among all other things, I have confronted another idea of ‘utopia’ that I had come to believe all these years. That it is not, as UKL identifies, “located not in the afterlife but just off the map, across the ocean, over the mountains, in the future, on another planet, a liveable yet unattainable elsewhere.” If utopia is a process, then its also a process that must happen here and now, in the present. If utopia is a process, then maybe it must transform the past, rather than abandon and distance from it.
All my life, I have run towards a utopia (perhaps, or definitely according to my dad). I can’t grudge myself for having run, because if I had not run far, I would not have found myself where I am now – where I am now which makes perfect sense because of what I seem to have been seeking since 13. But running towards this utopia has led me to realise that utopia is a process, has led me to realise it is both acceptance and control, that it is both creative and destructive. Coming to this realisation is deeply settling. It makes me stop running and learn to stand and breathe. It makes me need to stop and create, because perhaps you can’t create when you’re running. And most importantly, it makes me hopeful, that there is another way of being with my past, one that is accepting, and maybe some day, one that is healing.
A fortune teller once told my mother – that I will never live in Mumbai (the city of my birth and my childhood), and that I will most likely divorce – after marrying – the person that I love. It seems he also said that this “divorce” will be for the best for both of them. Here I am, in New Delhi, with a soul mate who is my best friend, and it feels like destiny has come to pass. Maybe this journey was written in my stars all along? And where do we go from here?
My father always asks this question, perhaps its pertinent here – “what is my role in all of this? am I only playing out my destiny? or do my actions have impact the direction my life will take?” To this, my mother always says that “Your destiny has brought you to this moment, your actions define where you will go next”. Is it that hers is an answer of acceptance and his of the need for control? Or is it that his is the question of acceptance, and hers is an answer of control? Maybe this is the yin-yang relationship I have grown up with, in which it is never really clear which one is the masculine and which one is the feminine – that they become each other interchangably – and their relationship signifies their interdependence and continual intermutability.
So here we are. And where are we going?
If I already had the answer to that question, all this would be pointless.
All I have are desires, hopes, dreams intertwined with fears, shame and low self worth. Is it that I want to control destiny, lead it to where I want it to go? Or is it that I want to accept destiny, even when it means something deeply painful? Or is it, as Thich Nhat Hahn says, that we need to “We accept others (or in my case destiny) as they are, and then they have a chance to transform.”?
As I complete this sentence, the thunder echoes around me and I am reminded of monstrous rainy nights in Mumbai, in my home, with my home, and all I can do now is have faith that one day I will come home to myself.