Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Blank Noise Story

I just finished reading Known Turf by Annie Zaidi – a book I cannot recommend too highly, if you like pieces that make you think – and the last piece in the book, on her association with Blank Noise and her relationship with public spaces, really resonated.

I ‘got into’ the Blank Noise Project partly through (what I once felt was) misplaced enthusiasm. I tend to contact people whose writing/work impresses me and since the internet allows me to do so, I try to let them know that I, Sunayana Roy, appreciate the hard work they have put in. When I first heard of BNP, way back in my college days I believe, I mailed and suggested that they start a Calcutta chapter.

There was a Calcutta chapter eventually, a few years later, a historic meeting for many reasons: I met Dipali there, in the flesh, and I cannot imagine my life without her today; I took Vicky and Rahul to the meeting (I still don’t know why) and the next thing I knew Vicky and I were doing BNP interventions with a baby in a sling; Vicky became a full-fledged member while Rahul was made an honorary member-for-life on account of having jumped in so young.

Over the year or two that that particular chapter survived, I met a lot of people and explained BNP to them over and over again. People joined and people dropped out. Many misunderstood the basic idea of BNP. Put quite simply, BNP members are not regular activists and they do not operate a helpline; the Project is not an NGO, nor can the average member help you file FIRs or counsel you professionally. What the Project is, is an initiative that allows its members to challenge their own conceptions and perceptions of their place in the world they live in. It is a personal journey that you can make alongside fellow members but you will not necessarily be making the same journey even if you travel together.

My journey, for instance, began with me as a young woman whose whole concept of physical intimacy and privacy had taken a severe battering. Breastfeeding on demand made me heavier, clumsier, more prone to embarrass myself with leaking breasts and a baby who made no bones about which part of me he wanted. I fed him in front of my father and uncles and I had to feed him in public transport. While I had never been a shrinking violet, these felt like excessively brazen bodily displays then (now the memories feel like the most natural thing in the world, sweeter than bathing on a hot day).

When this nervous, shaken me was asked to consider why I wore what I did on public streets and why I didn’t wear other things in my wardrobe, it was one thing to state proudly that yes, I have the right to wear what I want, when I want. It was something completely different to get myself to actually wear those clothes in public. I, who had delighted in the short and the tight as a rebellious college kid, had been battered into the loose and the shapeless by pregnancy.

The less secure I was about my own body, the easier it was to give in to what I was expected to wear (the loose and the shapeless). None of this made me happy.

All those afternoons of debate with fellow BNP members and in particular our first, memorable intervention in New Market jolted me out of that rut. It woke that rebellious college kid up in me and made me hunt down my old clothes, my old attitude to dressing as a means of self expression.

It changed my perception of this city. I have loved Cal for the greater part of my life, but something about walking the streets like I own them (since I pay taxes I suppose I do pay for their upkeep), something about this BNP idea of reclaiming public spaces made me fall in love with the place all over again. Yes, women in Cal get sexually molested and they face a lot of non-physical intimidation, but this is my city and today I walk it proudly.

Better yet, I traverse the city without thinking too much about it. I take it for granted as Vicky does. As I should always have been able to. I still keep a weather eye out for gropers, pinchers, feelers-up and catcallers but by and large they no longer bother me. I hardly ever register non-physical sexual harassment (if you're singing a song I'll give you the benefit of the doubt -- I too sing aloud now and then) and if it gets physically invasive then I'm no longer afraid of raising a big old stink.

Would I have reached this same level of confidence on my own? I doubt it but perhaps I would have. What I would not have had would be this understanding of my own space in my city, the foundation for my confidence.


starry eyed said...

Loved this post.

chandni said...

awesome post!

dipali said...

I came to that Blank Noise meeting because I wanted to meet you, because I loved your blog!!!
And that, as they say, is how it all began.
Love-fest apart, Known Turf is an absolutely wonderful book. I love the way Annie writes.

saptarshi said...

Very true. I know many people who mistake Blank Noise for an activist group. It is not. Blank Noise is more about the self than the other. Blank Noise gave me a platform to ask questions to myself, to others too, but it changed how I think and look at public spaces too.

Of course I met some of the nicest people I know through Blank Noise. I have thought about it and realised that you can never really 'leave' Blank Noise. Because you can't 'join' Blank Noise either.

dipali said...

@saptarshi:you can never really 'leave' Blank Noise. Because you can't 'join' Blank Noise either.

That is so true. It does change one, irreversibly.

Sue said...

Starry, Chandni -- Thanks :)

Dipali -- Me too. I find her style very lucid and I appreciate that.

Saptarshi -- You're right, I still feel a part of it despite not having been an active participant in an intervention or online initiative in years.

Dipali -- Yes, it does change one.

Annie Zaidi said...

thank you. And glad too for the journeys. all of ours.

Sue said...

Annie -- To quote The Kinks, "Strangers on this road we are on, we are not two, we are one."