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How bell hooks influenced some Indian women and queer people

American feminist activist bell hooks died last week. What did she mean to a section of Indians whose lives and work have been influenced by her?

bell hooks in a screenshot from the show Speaking Freely 
bell hooks in a screenshot from the show Speaking Freely  (Screenshot via YouTube/ Freedom Forum)

bell hooks was the moniker that the American feminist, professor, and social activist Gloria Jean Watkins, who died on 15 December at the age of 69, chose for herself. She styled it this way, in all small letters, because she said she wanted the focus to be on her work, and not on who she was.

hooks is known for propagating and advocating radical feminist politics. When rights movements everywhere sought quick-wins, hooks meditated on consequences of knee-jerk reactions to violence of any kind, leading the feminist discourse by her exceptional focus on intersectionality, compassion, and healing.

Also Read: Remembering bell hooks, inclusive feminist, sharp critic

While hooks was a global icon, she was a person of great significance to many Indian women and queer people too. Here’s what her politics meant specifically to a few people who have studied, practised, and followed hooks’ work.

Kamalika Ghosh, 32, journalist, Delhi
Ghosh finds articulating her loss difficult. To her, it’s devastating that “there would be no more of [hooks’] writings.” During difficult phases, hooks’ works have not only taught her “that forgiveness is the greatest human attribute” but also “that you can forgive people who haven’t been fair to you while still holding them accountable.”

Manjiri Indurkar, 34, writer, Mumbai
It’s hard to pinpoint hooks’ influences, but in a way, Indurkar says her life has been shaped by the hooks’ works, “as if she sometimes carried me on her shoulders, metaphorically of course.” Indurkar, author of it’s all in your head, m submits that she “wasn’t ready for it [hooks’ death], especially in this phase when I am struggling; I almost felt angry that she left this world.” She says that this is not because she was actively thinking about hooks, but because she has recently moved cities and one of the books that she took with herself from her parents’ home was All About Love: New Visions – a book she’d want to always hold on to. Reading hooks has also helped Indurkar evolve over the years, helping her write her book, which features turbulent relationships with her grandmother and ex-boyfriend. It’s because of hooks that she was “able to at least try to get into their minds,” Indurkar says, adding that this invariably came through the “compassion that could only be rendered by a bell hooks ecosystem, which is intersectional and beyond theoretical ‘isms’.”

Chintan Girish Modi, 36, freelance writer, Mumbai
Modi is grateful for hooks’ contribution to contemporary Buddhism, “especially in the English-speaking world, through her feminist and anti-racist scholarship anchored in the relentless practice of love.” He sees her as his kalyanamitra, “a word used in some Buddhist traditions to speak of a friend or teacher who helps us on the spiritual path.” For him, hooks’ “body may have departed from this world but her legacy – her thoughts, speech and actions – is present here and now in her books and in the hearts of the people she touched.”

Covers of a few of bell hooks' books 
Covers of a few of bell hooks' books 

Sneha Subramanian Kanta, 34, academic, Toronto
“South Asians come from a collectivistic culture, which is great to belong as a part of a community, but many a time this can force [them to] reconcile with toxic behaviours,” Kanta says. In that sense, to her, “bell hooks spoke of how vital it was to be with people without seeking them as an escape and how solitude is vital to love wholly.” Adding how ‘love’ in India occupies a ‘fraught’ place Kanta, like Indurkar, also feels that hooks helped her realise “how patriarchy hurts everyone, how systems of intergenerational trauma may be propagated through families, and why it is important to re-engage our beliefs and way of life.” hooks “metamorphosised the meaning of love from a passive stance of being a recipient to a more active and sustained collaboration […] to create a holistic, healed world for our future generations.”

Priyanka, 27, lawyer, Bengaluru
A Bengaluru-based neuro-queer person and lawyer, Priyanka, says that hooks’ death symbolises “losing an institution of hope, kindness and compassion.” However, she believes her body of work will continue to nourish her and inform her politics, for “her writings and works point towards integrating hope and joy, the articulation of which is lacking in our contemporary politics, which is punitive and retributive.” As an asexual aromantic person, Priyanka sees hooks’ writings as a “radical permission to go beyond the binaries of romance/sex/friendships.”

Shwetha Chandrashekar, Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Having first read hooks in a Delhi University course on feminism and gender, Chandrashekhar, feels that “hooks’ works remind us that seeking equality and justice are unfinished projects that demand empathy, resistance, compassion, and community work.”

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