The Open Dosa

Consuming the Ordinary Differently

In an ideal world, I would keep my secrets

This essay won the SJU Prize for the Personal Essay 2024. The theme was Keeping Secrets. The judge, writer Amulya Shruthi had this to say: “I loved everything about this highly polished, superbly executed personal essay. It deftly locates the personal and the political within each other with so much wisdom and tenderness. I enjoyed the gorgeous idea that secrets are essential to the thriving of personal and public utopias. This essay makes one pause and think of the delicate things that walls and boundaries protect within our personhood. And it is indeed a meditation befitting our moment, when the opposite of secrets and privacy plays out–as a violent, moralistic surveillance state.

Full envy for this clarity of thought came off!”

No one is poor in Ayodhya
No one is unhappy in Ayodhya
No one goes hungry in Ayodhya
No one is robbed in Ayodhya
No one is beaten in Ayodhya
No one is illiterate in Ayodhya
No one is an atheist in Ayodhya
No one is cruel or miserly in Ayodhya
No one is sick in Ayodhya
No one is old or crippled in Ayodhya
No one in                   Ayodhya

-Vivek Ramaswamy, “Ayodhya” from After (2022)

Sometime in my early 20’s, I decided I wanted to emulate the same honest and deeply trusting relationship I saw between Rory and Lorelei, a mother-daughter duo on a comedy-drama TV show called Gilmore Girls. They were the best of friends, they confided everything– all the minute details of their lives– in each other. No secrets. I was moved, and deeply envious, because my mother so far had no inkling of my romantic endeavours (or, for that matter, certain other kinds of endeavours as well). Our relationship was perhaps lacking without an open, real conversation about this subject. So I decided to introduce her to my then-boyfriend.

This did not go well. Imagine displacing a small stone at the base of an intricately balanced set of boulders, each leaning on and supporting each other, in defiance of the laws of physics. You think because it’s held this position for millions of years, surely your small intervention would remain inconsequential, only to be proven wrong by the deep rumbling you begin to feel beneath your feet.

My mother disliked my then-boyfriend (and this is saying it kindly). She was shocked to the core that I had the audacity to call him, let alone choose him as my boyfriend. She thought he was “the most senseless man ever”, and that “his nose ring” was “the ugliest thing” she had “ever seen”. Hyperbole, of course, and granted, some of it (very little though) was based on some truth. But loyal to the cause of romance, I decided I would leave home dramatically in defiance of my mother’s wishes and be with the man of my choosing, even if it upset her.

I also decided that perhaps I shouldn’t try to reproduce a fictional equation between a very real mother and a very real me. Or that it was naive to think my mother would slide into this play-act as easily as I did: she didn’t have the stage directions I had. But it left me thinking a lot about the script of my ideal world, my ideal relationship with my mother, and what it means to be honest and authentic. I ended things with then-boyfriend eventually, and mended ties with my mother, but ever since I have been more careful, if not considerate, about letting her in on certain factors of my life.

In Thomas More’s fictional classic, Utopia, where the term was coined, More describes meeting a strange but wise traveller, Raphael, who has sailed across the globe learning the different constitutions of the different commonwealths, and then presents the one that is infallible in his opinion— an island called Utopia.

Utopia is something of a prototype of a communist ideal, where everyone is on a level playing field (except for women, children, and slaves), and in the absence of private property, all people serve the public good. Everyone is generally happy here, in good health, diligent, and honest. Thomas More notes, close to the end of the text, that this isn’t his ideal utopia, but that there are many things to learn from this one. In many ways, he is correct, as the term ‘utopia’ has since been adopted into the English language to describe an imagined, though perfect, place.

Everyone has their own Utopia— Raphael’s utopia is different from More’s, is certainly different from mine, and is probably different from yours. But one facet that stands out, and seems to come up a lot in different kinds of utopias, is the one concerning privacy. In Raphael’s utopia, “all men live in full view, so that all are obliged to perform their ordinary task and to employ themselves well in their spare hours.” The doors of the houses here are without locks, “any man may freely enter into any house whatsoever,” as there is no private property and hence nor is there any fear of theft. In a utopia, this seems to imply, in the absence of anything that will tempt him towards corruption or perversion (because these malevolent elements are exterminated), no man will have any cause to keep any secrets.

The tendency that utopias to surveillance-states tips them over the very thin line that separates them from dystopias. Everyone is happy and hard working, but possibly only because Big Brother is watching you. Any toeing the line outside of obedience, one would disturb the very delicately balanced ecosystem of the Utopia. One would introduce perversion into a world that must and can only exist without it. This is all the more dangerous because perversion is contagious. One man out of line would mean that no one is in line. Entire Utopias can be taken apart with the smallest aberrations.

I think back to my Gilmore Girls-inspired utopian vision of my relationship with my mother. In this version, I bring home my then-boyfriend, and she loves his quirky nose ring, and finds him strange but fascinating. He likes her in turn, and they become good friends. I get to stay within the comforts of my own home. My mother then helps me pick out outfits (from my own closet) for my dates, invites then-boyfriend home for movie nights with lots of junk food, and has a very open honest conversation about contraception, and how I can be safe should I choose to go down that road. She holds my hand and gives me tissues when things eventually end with then-boyfriend, but also guides me through maintaining healthy relationships even after they end. Honesty, openness are as much a part of this utopia as they are in Raphael’s.

My mother’s utopian version of our relationship is probably a little different than mine, but all said and done, I suspect she would like honesty and openness in hers too. And why not? The truth liberates us: how empowering it is to live authentically. To not have to hide anything, and, above all, to have no shame.

Earlier this month (it is February 2024 as I write this), the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) ruled state of Uttarakhand tabled a draft of the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) Bill in the state assembly. One provision that stands out in the Bill is that live-in relationships need to be officially registered. Failing to do so could lead to a three month prison sentence, or a Rs 10,000 fine, or (if you are particularly unlucky) both.

This comes shortly after the consecration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, on January 22nd. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief guest of the event, the day was declared a public holiday across several states in India, and a half-working day for all government employees. The event was regarded as a seminal moment, the prime minister ushering in a new India. At the podium, Narendra Modi declared, “after ages of wait, our Ram has come home.”

The temple is built on the contested site of the demolished Babri Masjid, a mosque built in 1528 by Mir Baqi, one of the Mughal emperor Babur’s commanders. It was claimed that the mosque was built on the site of Ram’s birthplace, the Ram Janmabhoomi, which led to its demolition on 6 December 1992, by members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The consecration of the Ram Temple here is therefore significant, because it signals the removal of false elements (here, the mosque) in favour of the truth (which is considered here, the temple).

When Narendra Modi says, “our Ram has come home”, he draws a parallel of this moment in time with a moment in the Ramayana, the epic attributed to Sage Valmiki, when Ram returns to Ayodhya, his kingdom, after years of exile, to claim his birthright throne. When Ram returned to Ayodhya, he brought with him peace and prosperity, as per the scriptures, “there had never been a happier time.” Ayodhya under Ram’s rule was Valmiki’s Utopia.

I imagine if I was a resident of Uttarakhand, and I decided to move in with then-boyfriend in defiance of my mother’s wishes, and this under the proposed UCC Bill, I would have to also think about whether I am ready to be in defiance of my government, or be willing to serve three months in prison, and think about how I would be able to finance a Rs. 10,000 fine. I probably wouldn’t have had my dramatic exit in the name of romance. It would have involved a lot more planning, and certainly wouldn’t have had the climatic punch I sought. But more importantly, I wouldn’t have had the same sense of certainty that I would someday be able to come back home, the same certainty that my mother would forgive me (and I her). I couldn’t expect from the government what my mother could do for me.

Utopias are luring, they’re seductive. I can’t imagine anybody who doesn’t have a version of a utopia they’d want to have a live-in relationship with. Utopias come with the best stretches of your imagination, it’s hope on steroids. Everyone has one. I have mine— liberal, sustainable, socio-anarchic, library-economy, public-transport-central Gilmore Girls-esque utopia. I’m sure you have one too.

Illustration credits: Misbha Fathima

My favourite thing about Utopia is the word itself, which is pronounced “yoo-toh-pee-uh”. “Yoo”, or “eu” comes from the Greek “eu”, which means “well”. “Toh-pee-uh”, or “topia” comes from the Greek “topos”, which means “place”. So when you pronounce “Utopia”, you mean the “well place”, in other words the perfect place. But since it is spelt with a “u” instead of a “eu”, it takes instead from the Greek “ou”, which means “not”. So when you write “Utopia”, you mean the “not place”, in other words the place that isn’t. Utopia is hence both the perfect place, and the place that is not.

My utopian Gilmore Girls-inspired relationship with my mother, is not. Raphael’s Utopia island utopia, is not. Thomas More’s alternative utopia, is not. Valmiki’s utopian Ayodhya, is not. Modi’s utopian Ayodhya, is not.

Utopias are inherently paradoxical, and yet, or perhaps hence, so deeply desirable, and so all the more dangerous. Certain utopian visions have led nations and their armies to build themselves according to the constitutions, ideals and laws they consider better (and truer) than the other’s, but in complete denial of their own fallibilities. The violence utopias deny in their philosophy, they end up imposing in their execution, leaving virtually no room for deviation. This is both detrimental to the people living under such constitutions, and impossible for the people running them to impose them.

I decided I’d keep certain details of my life to myself, and only reveal them to my mother when I felt it would be appropriate. I suspect my mother knows of this decision, because she doesn’t ask. I also suspect my mother keeps certain details from me, and I honour this by not asking. We’re both allowed our own spaces outside of each other’s utopias with the secrets we keep, with the details we don’t reveal. We betray each other’s utopias in favour of our own ones, but this way we get to occupy some of each other’s as well. Our secrets, paradoxically, draw us intimately closer to each other.

As we inch closer to a certain idea of utopia, and in turn toward a growingly surveilled state, we must remind ourselves to keep secrets. In an ideal world, we would keep our secrets. We would have locks on our doors, and corners where we can conspire, form parties, have occasions to corrupt each other, be corrupted by others. We would have the taverns and ale-houses, and stews among us. We would live with whoever, whenever, without having to inform our governments. We would leave our homes in our dramatic exits, in the name of love. But we would come home knowing we could come home. We would deviate, we would digress, we would betray, and in those moments find our own authenticity, our own truths.

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