I was suitably intimidated when it was suggested that I begin my association with Arts Help with a piece that detailed my journey as an individual and the type of stories I’d like to cover for the publication going forward. Writing a 40,000 word thesis for graduate school was frankly, less daunting than attempting to talk about myself and my passions and what I’d like to put out into the world. I thought long and hard about why that was the case.
The task was, after all, a spin on one of the world's most popular inquiries - “tell me about yourself, and what makes you tick.” I had no lack of passions, no dearth of opinions and no shortage of personal convictions. Yet, as I sat down to write this piece and greeted the blank document before me, the thoughts I meant to share with my readers materialized as jagged syncopations on the page. This was not a simple case of writer’s block. And then it hit me – I, a non-binary South Asian person, struggled to take up space.
It dawned on me that I had internalized so much of the cis-heteronormative narrative that sought to belittle and make invisible people like me. That, despite my relative privilege and positionally, I was still grappling with the notion that my voice was valid. I seemed to be at odds with myself.
Being openly queer is, among many things, a testament to self-declaration. It is an inherent insistence on being able to determine for oneself what one’s story is and can be.
I resolved then, to use this article as a starting point to be open and vulnerable about my journey. To embody that spirit of self-declaration and to take up space. As the famous feminist quote popularised by Carol Hanisch goes, “the personal is political.” I realised that in expressing myself, I was taking a meaningful step towards realising the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Gender Equality in my own way. Quotidian personal revolutions are also radical acts, and expressing myself counted as one.
I was born to a Parsi mother and a Bengali father and had an upbringing that encompassed the best of both worlds. In my adulthood, I gravitated towards documenting the history of the Parsi community in Mumbai. It was exciting because of my unique perspective as both – an insider and an outsider to the community.
The Parsis adhere to patriarchal and patrilineal customs, which often result in women who marry outside of the community being ostracized along with their children as well. Many people from the community I considered my own hesitated to speak and share their knowledge with me. This reticence gradually faded when they came to see that I did understand their language, culture and traditions. I did come across those Parsis who expressed not only contempt for my research but also for my existence itself. In retrospect, I realise that much of what I did was an attempt at self–authorship as well - much like the exercise I am attempting with this article. I wrote a history of my community believing that it was a story I could tell and one that I could tell well. I granted myself the space to do it, despite my somewhat fraught relationship with my community.
Colonial Mumbai, or Bombay as it was then called, served as the geographical and historical stage for my work. Over the course of my research, Bombay came to inhabit a more prominent role in the stories I wanted to tell. The city I loved and grew up in was an urban palimpsest. Each layer of the cityscape I explored presented its own story, wound by the people who came to occupy it. The more I spoke to them the more I realised that both, the history and the contemporaneity of cities are inextricably tied to their people. It is their narratives that give meaning to the static, physical places they inhabit. My quest to know the Parsis better resulted in a deepening love for my home. Much like my academic work, Mumbai and its people will take centre stage as I write for this publication.
My work will aim to highlight their stories and contributions to the thriving public life of the city. My writing will also focus on the narratives of queer people, women, and those from other marginalized communities who are using art as a medium to not only draw attention to their own narratives but also larger issues in social justice that they seek to address.
My exercise with this article was to allow myself to take up space with my writing. It was a cathartic experience for me. It forced me to confront my own insecurities and internalised biases, while also allowing me the opportunity to share my journey and my passions with my readers. My aim now is to make space. To bring to the fore stories of people who, despite the pressure to remain quiet and unseen, push against the grain to take up space for themselves and their art. To reiterate, the personal is always political. To take space, and to make space for one another is to challenge dominant narratives and power structures that have long oppressed and silenced marginalised voices. I expect my storytelling journey to be a hopeful one, and cannot wait to share the experience with you.