India: Lata Mani On Reclaiming Her Body and Soul

By Ponni Arasu, Womens Feature Service

Historian and cultural critic, Lata Mani has recently published her third book, ‘SacredSecular: Contemplative Cultural Critique’ that chronicles the changes in her way of looking at the self and the world, as a result of a head injury she suffered in a car accident in 1993. In an interview, the author explains that through her book she has shown how one can, and must, bring together spiritual and secular modes of perception in analysing everyday matters as well as pressing issues like fundamentalism and globalisation.

Q: How did you come to write ‘SacredSecular…’

A: ‘SacredSecular…’ is the second of two books that chronicle the changes in my way of looking at the self and the world, as a result of a head injury that I suffered in a car accident in 1993. The head injury initiated a spiritual journey and I first wrote a memoir titled, ‘Interleaves’. In ‘SacredSecular…’ I attempt to show how we can, and must, bring together spiritual and secular modes of perception in analysing everyday matters as well as pressing issues such as fundamentalism and globalisation. I say, “can and must” because both the sacred and the secular are crucial legacies in our subcontinent.

Q: What kinds of questions were raised by the experience of illness?

A: Until then my body had been fit and I had taken shelter in my mental attic. Now, I was literally thrown into my body. Even though like other feminists I had theorised the importance of experience, and the centrality of the body to discourses on women and to the social control of women, I had not fully inhabited my own body. The post-accident journey forced me to do that..

Q: How did this lead to a new epistemology, a new perspective on the universe?

A: While in bed, in the depths of the pain, I began to experience an extraordinary loving force. I recognised that force as Kali. It kept asking me to die out of what I believed myself to be and be born into something other. This offer was held out to me as an invitation that I could accept or refuse. There was no way I could go back to my past life. I was simply too ill. I was seduced by the love. The process required me to let go of what I knew and step into unknowing without any cognitive assurance as to what I would discover or have to unlearn. Gradually, a new way of relating to the self and non-self began to emerge. The essays in ‘SacredSecular…’ aim to convey the politics and poetics of this new way of being and seeing.

Q: How is one to account for rationality in this process? Is it a category that ceases to be significant or is it just changed beyond recognition?

A: As one goes through a cognitive shift, one relies on the languages one already has at one’s disposal. There is nothing else to fill the breach. So you take existing concepts and try to stretch them. Sometimes, however, what is happening in the present exceeds those languages. How does one comprehend, let alone communicate, the transformative agency of divine love? As I drew on what I already knew to understand my experience, I kept coming up against the shortcomings, the situatedness and the conditioned nature of my way of thinking. So, I abandoned all hope of a meta-narrative. There was no meta-narrative available. But epistemologically and experientially there was nowhere else I could be. I decided that I would have to float on the high seas of unknowing and hope to learn a whole other way. It sounds abstract but the learning took place in the very material context of a challenged body.

Q: How then does one communicate this journey and all the learning and unlearning to others?

A: It is hard. As language deserted me I found one could communicate in silence with almost anything – the cupboard, the floor, the ceiling, the curtain moving in the breeze, the clouds visible through my window, my partner. There are ways in which we can commune with each other, which we have ignored, neglected or refused to attend to. If we think of rationalism as ‘a logic of comprehension’, then what we are called upon to do when we encounter unknown cognitive territory is to hang around long enough to understand what a logic of comprehension appropriate to that situation might be. It is assumed that once you have this kind of mind-bending experience you become utterly alien; that no bridge is possible between it and the politics of the world. ‘SacredSecular…’ intends to challenge such a conclusion.

Q: The book seems to use the recognisable language of Marxism and feminism.

A: Feminism and Marxism are integral to my analytical lexicon. For instance, my use of alienation extends the Marxist sense of that term. The concepts themselves assume new meaning within a new paradigm. So, it is familiar and unfamiliar simultaneously. It may be unsettling. But in the process of unsettling, a different kind of perception and a different mode of reflection are hopefully made possible.

‘SacredSecular…’ is more an invitation than a polemic. This does not, however, disarm its critique of Hindutva or globalisation or hyper-nationalism.. I have written from the standpoint of a practitioner-witness-analyst. I feel that my writing, thinking, acting, being, should manifest the qualities that I claim are a core part of our sacred traditions. If they did not, it would not matter if the arguments were persuasive.

Q: Is this book along with the other, an attempt at “accounting for 15 years of your life”? Could you comment on this notion of accounting and of ‘productivity’?

A: For six years my room, my bed, was the world. From that place I experienced the vastness of the sky… the vastness in which I was one tiny particle. I learned that every particle is crucial. In capitalist societies being productive is about doing. Simply breathing in and breathing out (which is what I did for six years) is not deemed productive. One had to confront the entire tapestry of social conditioning: what is productive, what is not, what is work, was mine a life worth living? I am grateful I was enabled to write, but these 15 years would have been meaningful even if a single word had not been uttered.

Q: What does this say about our roles as activists and thinkers involved in the process of social change?

A: If we don’t ponder on the values we propagate, we will likely reaffirm the very structures of domination we are challenging. If we open our hearts, minds and bodies to the fecundity of life experience we could live richer lives. Further, we can only experience life by being fully embodied and being fully embodied involves paying attention to what is within and what is without. We are an integral aspect of the work we do. We have carried into our activism certain notions of productivism and it has not helped us to sustain ourselves in difficult times and over the long haul. We feel depressed by our incapacity to positively impact seemingly inexorable processes of polarisation, in terms of religion, caste, class and ethnicity. A lot of Left and feminist angst is grief and distress at the realisation that we may not succeed in healing the planet in the foreseeable future. Given that we live in infinity, our contributions are inevitably modest. But every

action, however small, has inherent value. This fact comforts and sustains me.

(Ponni Arasu is an activist and researcher working with the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore.)

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