A family friend introduced me to writer Riddhi Dastidar a few years ago in Calcutta. Ever since, I've been following her writing, admiring how brave and well-researched her pieces are, and how immersive her poetry. She has done extensive research and writing on gender-based violence, restorative justice, psychosocial disability, queer issues, environment, education and culture (poetry/literature), and is one of my go-to people on social media to understand these issues and read her opinions and experiences.
She made some time amidst the chaos in Delhi to answer the Goodbye, 2019 questions in depth:
The nicest thing you did for someone in 2019?
Probably adopting Kaju, the dog who used to sleep on our staircase. Now she sleeps on my bed, and makes me sleepier, and chews my blankets.
Also, I don't know about nice but I've been trying to make activism and 'academic knowledge'/ theory accessible on social media this year and I think that's useful. Theory shapes how we understand the world and ourselves. That's why oppressive regimes fear and try to dismantle universities and discredit academics — particularly in cases of public institutions like JNU, JU, Jamia where marginalised communities are able to access such theory and aim higher than the vocational training the government’s limited imagination sees as their natural destiny.
Most recently I've been helping support resistance to the CAA/NRC/NPR by: fundraising for the Joint Forum Against NRC, documenting and amplifying on-ground police brutality/civilian protest that our media won’t show unless pushed, connecting less-heard voices to media and starting conversations in the alumni group of my ex-employer to hold safe spaces for (already minority) Muslim and Bahujan friends there. These are all things I think most people can do.
The book that helped you the most in 2019?
I’ve read a LOT this year, mostly for gradschool and work. I love hybrid non-fiction that takes serious theory and plays with it in interesting ways, making it relevant to our current moment. I’m hoping my dissertation will ultimately turn into this.
A book I read right before getting swept up into the protests was How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. It’s about many things. As someone who is VERY ONLINE and also lives with a disability (OCD) while trying to be as ‘productive’ as possible — her writing on the privatisation of spaces and services, the monetisation of our free time and the ethic of ‘productivity really resonated.
Most compellingly, she writes about bioregionalism. I find this idea crucial in thinking about how we can take concrete action against the climate emergency in our local spaces and thinking through ‘justice’ when it comes to sexual violence perpetrated by those known to us. And now, the local protests in public spaces are to me a beautiful demonstration of what bioregionalism can be in conjunction with online connection. I think everyone should read this book.
Also, Eve L. Ewing’s Electric Arches is my favourite book of poetry I’ve read this year. I have the closing poem of that book, Affirmation Song as the wallpaper on my phone.
Undoing Impunity by V. Geetha is required reading for anyone who wishes to start understanding how the State enables impunity around sexual violence on marginalised peoples. Deconstructing Mental Illness by Renu Addlakha is really great for starting to understand ‘treatment’ of psychosocial disability in India.
The song you heard on loop this year?
Lonely by Jamila Woods. I feel like loneliness is my most elemental state at some level. Just in the nature of the human condition where you can never truly know every aspect of someone, even the people you love most.
Don’t Try by my partner and musician Amartya Ghosh, relevant to our political climate which was written back when Ramjas Univ. was protesting the PM/fighting ABVP. I also cannot be cool, so I have to admit my deep love for pop. Taylor Swift’s Cruel Summer is definitely up there.
The film/TV show you fell head over heels in love with?
The Haunting of Hill House. All of it except the last episode. Everyone read Shirley Jackson at once. She wrote the book it was based on and is an excellent writer in general, but deliciously, of horror.
Your biggest accomplishment this year?
It’s been a very difficult year because of how much work I did alongside (to pay for) gradschool, the nature of the work, and the debilitating depression/OCD I fell into. So surviving through it is one.
I mostly taught myself how to be a journalist. I wrote a feature on sexual violence and restorative justice for The Wire that I think fed into some useful and deeply necessary conversations. Think I planted some seeds there. This feature for Skin Stories on how India continues to violate the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and perpetuates institutionalisation/disenfranchisement of persons with ‘severe’ mental illness is very close to my heart.
I published a lot this year, including in international poetry mags. A story of mine was shortlisted for the 2019 Himal Short Story Prize, poetry has been shortlisted for the TFA 2020 Award + I have a poem in Harper Collins Anthology of Queer Poetry out next year.
Your big 2019 lesson/takeaway?
Speak up and show up no matter how limited you think your power is and how apathetic others around you seem. You cannot predict the people who will feel seen and heard and respond themselves.
If you read and work too much on sexual violence, your libido will suffer :|
Who are you creative crushin’ on lately?
Jenny Odell and Japanese Breakfast.
A recent epiphany you've had?
That all our Indian education (CBSE) has been bullshit. Especially if you grew up upper caste/middle class like I did. For instance: My parents had an intercaste marriage (Brahmin mum, Kayastha dad — and my mum’s family was so vehemently against it, she was exiled from her family for a while). So I was aware of caste as a terrible legacy that led to lasting tension and faultiness in my family. BUT I was still unaware of it in the sense that it mediates everything, every day.
Now, reading and getting more involved in activism, I realise that the whole narrative we were fed in our textbooks was like okay there are 4 castes and there is income inequality but LOOK, Ambedkar managed. And so we are taught that we must be exceptional and that despite your circumstances, you can manage to get ahead. If you're focused you can really ‘make it’. When actually the real question this obscures is, WHY IS THERE SUCH HUGE INCOME AND POWER INEQUALITY AND WHY DO WE STILL BUY INTO THIS BULLSHIT NARRATIVE THAT CAPITALISM WILL SAVE US?
Personally this ‘if you try hard enough’ narrative also hurt me for many years as a disabled queer nonbinary person who tried and failed to ‘be normal’.
Any big plans/projects planned for the new year?
-Helping to overthrow fascism, haha.
-Finishing up my dissertation which is a scary amount of work. Eventually I want to turn it into a book of hybrid poetry/nonfic on ‘madness’.
-Finally sit down and write the book of dystopic short fiction I’ve been scribbling in my Google Keep.
-Most importantly, I will be looking for a JOB! I'm very frightened by our media landscape right now but hey ethical media houses looking for a features journalist, I graduate in April 2020, please hire me!
Rate 2019 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being Totally Sucked
Politically — 1 especially the morning after May 23rd, August 5th, Trans Bill and CAB. Writing this some days after the 19th pan India protests, and a day after the blackout in UP began, I feel both more hopeful and more despairing.
Personally— -10 and +10. Accomplishment wise like 8
Thanks, Riddhi. You've educated me and helped me find my voice this year! I hope 2020 turns out great.