You can’t help liking Alok Vaid-Menon. He is a big, butch, badly dressed (he really has no fashion sense at all), badly made up (he really has no makeup sense at all), foul-mouthed, political whatever-it-is-he-calls-himself. Though he claims all gender categories are useless and he wants the end of gender, he also calls himself trans (welcome to the messy contradictions of US identity politics). At the heart of it, he is a violated body crying out in pain and crying out to be loved. You can’t help liking him for that honesty and that heart. But there’s just too much wrong with his poetics and politics to let that feeling last.
Performing across various Indian cities this summer, ‘they’ are (or were?) part of a performance poetry assemblage called Dark Matter (Janini Balasubramaniam is the other) who have performed their particular brand of kickass US-style identity politics, super-aware and super-unaware at the same time, all over the world (one of the ironies of their privileged position as US performers that appears to be lost on them as are their own uppercaste statuses).
Alok is performing alone but ‘their’ plural identities take up enough space on stage for us not to miss Janini, though I do miss ‘them’ too, even if I am not sure about Janini’s preferred pronoun and my exhaustion with the stupidity of these pronoun policers means I will not care to find out. Or find out why Janini has been missing of late. My point is why call yourself a Hindu male name if you believe in neither Hinduness nor maleness and then why complain about being called ‘him’ or ‘he’? Get over yourselves, bitches, is what I have to say, though Alok, somewhat portentously, thinks this is a murderous act of misgendering performed on murdered trans bodies. Nevertheless, I’m just going to use the word Alok whenever the question of a pronoun comes up.
Portentousness marks Alok’s entire oeuvre. Let’s take a look at the overarching frames of Alok’s performance universe. It is held up by several untenable contradictions peculiar to the US context which Alok grafts on to the Indian context (based on his Indian origins) with a seamlessness that is as naïve as it is dangerous.
Alok opened with a blistering set of attacks on men, gay men and women in that order. Never mind that this involved the homogenising and monolithicising of these three categories and the fact that this immediately alienated the whole space at Humming Tree, Bangalore. It is a testimony to our openness as members of these three benighted cateogries that none of us left the room. Though it would have been nice if all of us had. You can’t cry all through your performance about being misrecognised and misunderstood and then do precisely that to everyone in the room.
Simultaneously, and here’s the first contradiction, Alok claimed women and allies and feminism as ideology. The claim was too easy, too neat. For those of us who see ourselves as allies of women and feminism, it is a tricky terrain that we negotiate every day. For those of us who engage with and work with men, we know that it does not help to brand them in one way and smash them over the heads relentlessly with our sense of how hideous they are. Alok did that all evening, except when it came to Alok’s father whom he recuperated lovingly as rebel gone wrong, after smashing him. If Alok extended that recuperation to all men, it might have produced some better poetry and, most certainly, some better politics.
Contradiction number two is about capitalism. Just calling something capitalist does not absolve one of complicity in it. Just referring to Silicon Valley techies making money while you shamelessly and openly claim to use and love social media (because apparently real people do not love Alok at all and everyone is a bitch and bastard to him, tsk tsk) does not make for a cute contradiction.
Once again, those of us who try to work against capitalism in every day of our lives know that it is hard fucking work and something in which there is no coming out clean or being cute about how we love our clothes and shoes and how we love Kim Kardashian because we think she is so lonely. It is akin to the kind of anti-capitalism the CPM follows, assimilating LGBT struggles, or the environment or Adivasi struggles or Dalit struggles or even women’s struggles into some superstructural airline container which would explode into a rainbow shower of glitter of amazing beauty once the class revolution is over or, in this case, just recognised. This is the standard misconception of Left parties across India and the world. It is also the self-deluding and self-appointedly radical politics that US academia fashions for itself and which Alok leans heavily on. Just recognition of capitalism or even complicity means jack. One needs to work it through.
Contradiction number three is about history. Alok claims to have a sense of history but it is a warped sense, a bit like his aunt’s – Urvashi Vaid, a pioneering LGBT person of colour lesbian activist in the US – in which all was well with us till the big, bad white people came in and fucked things up for us forever (Ruth Vanita and many other soft Hindutva types (read the whole queer movement in India) also buy into this narrative). Homophobia is placed at white people’s door. So is the gender dyad. So is pretty much everything else. And we are just brown victims of it all. Vanita and several others have blamed homophobia in India on the British. We were all loving homos up to that point, apparently. The Naz judgement calls it the evil “Judeo-Christian” legacy. The RSS would be chuffed.
It is the most patronising rubbish, among other things. We do not need some brown whatever born and brought up in Texas to tell us we are colonised. We have been and are comprador, agent, rebel, nationalist, neo-colonial and much else and we do not blame white people for all of it. For some of it, sure, but not all of it. We have always had our own brand of homophobia throughout history and much before the poor British came along and died of malaria here (though clearly not enough of them did) and we need to own up to it.
There were more contradictions but those were less untenable and some of them even pretty useful. But some pains should have been taken, and Alok needs to take these pains in the future, to show the difference between New York and Bangalore, to show that anti-trans/TERF politics does not really exist here, to show that Alok-trans here is a subgroup who are oppressive, uppercaste and offensive and are eating into the real struggles of aravanis on the ground (Alok’s show was in conjunction with the Aravani project, an art project with aravanis in Bangalore). Perhaps if Alok showed us the differences and then tentatively built bridges, it might have been useful. Instead, we only had the corrosive overdrive of US performance poetry, which is pretty intense but also pretty shitty in that it smells worse and worse all the way home.
In the quieter moments, Alok was endearing, almost crying, almost making us cry. I wish we had more of that. The violence Alok faces on the streets of New York every fucking day shows us what a sham cosmopolitan world’s number one city that is. The facts that Alok wants to be loved, wants his body recognised and has been in denial of his body all his life are all terrible.
But it would be tough to go up and hold him after all the shit he poured on us, on me as a gay man, for example. I’d still try though.