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Discovery of India – and Positionality

May 17th, 2008

Trailer for sale or rent / Rooms to rent fifty cents

I’m reminded of one of my undergraduate professors of poetry, Richard Tillinghast, who advised us to only read one book at a time. He said he couldn’t think of Huck and Jim without hearing the tremor of far-off drums and feeling the heat of a tropical sun, the fault of reading Huckleberry Finn and Heart of Darkness at the same time. (Do I have the image right, Professor? It has been a long time.) It’s a funny thing. I’ve been immersed in the sights and sounds of Delhi for a couple days now, but I can’t get the sounds of Tuesday night’s karaoke party out of my head. It looks like Roger Miller will be accompanying me on my discovery of India. (If we are going to take a hard look at our positionality, we are sure to stir up some strange debris.)

It strikes me that there are two fundamental ways to encounter a culture that is new to you. The first is to try to assimilate it to previous experiences and knowledge. So, passing the barbers on the side of the highway in Delhi, I couldn’t help thinking of photographs from early twentieth-century Paris of the street barbers I know from my studies of France. Not so strange, after all, one wants to say… The other tendency is to revel in the different and unfamiliar. So, it wasn’t long before I was gawking at the sidewalk shrines to Hindu gods and goddesses. Something very different is going on here, methinks. Either tendency has its problems. The first can lead to the casual dismissal of difference, to a flat vision of the world; the second can lead to exoticization. For my part, I’d rather aim for something more like open-minded inquiry. Is “discovery” too strong a word for this?

I started writing because I wanted to say a word on the title of our blog. Why Discovery of India? The title comes from Jawaharlal Nehru’s classic account of Indian history, which he wrote during the Second World War and just after while imprisoned by the British. Nehru, leader of the independence movement (with Gandhi), went on to become the first prime minister of India and the driving force behind Indian development. He’s somewhat out of fashion these days. It’s hard to see the shadow of his socialist dreams for India in the bright billboards advertising the latest Bollywood release. But Nehru makes for good reading and good thinking. What he set out in Discovery of India was an inquiry into India’s past and the identity of India. Subtle, open-minded, complex, Discovery has little space for anti-colonial diatribe or nationalist mythmaking. I always read a piece of it with students when we study European decolonization.

This morning we went out to visit the Mehrauli archaeological complex, site of the magnificent Qutab Minar, the enormous stone tower built to celebrate the triumphs of the Muslim Sultans of the twelfth century and following. (Perhaps someone else will say a word more about it our visit?) Among the archaeological marvels, we enjoyed observing the dress and manners of the many Indian tourists visiting there. And they took long looks at us, to be sure. There, under the beautiful dome of the Alai Darwaza, “one of the gems of early Islamic architecture” (say the guidebooks), we began talking with an older gentleman who was there with his children and grandchildren. He asked Lee to take a picture of his family for him. And then he asked where we were from. “America? I have a brother in New York,” he told us. And I have a brother in New York, as well. The Indian man told us he came from Gujarat. I was immediately reminded of Nussbaum’s indelible account of the communal violence in that city in 2002 that starts her book. I couldn’t help wondering whether those events touched this man. Was he Muslim? Or Hindu? Caught up in the violence one way or another? And how else would be place himself, anyway? By caste or language or regional background? Or as a man, a husband, a father, a grandfather? Or as a brother? These are questions to ponder, but not the kinds one can easily ask of a fellow tourist who has asked you to take his picture. Instead, we exchanged a pleasant conversation about the wonders of Qutab Minar. It was his fourth visit here and he always enjoyed it. He was happy to show it to his children. And happy to meet an American. We smiled, shook hands, and set out for further discoveries.

Exotic Creature

May 17th, 2008

ForeignersI’ve had interesting experiences as a member of a minority while traveling to India–someone who fully admits that she often thinks and speaks of “otherness” in an intellectual setting, but who rarely has an opportunity to experience minority status as a real, lived experience. That’s why I’m here. To have a hands-on experience in a culture other than my own with the hopes of gaining insight into the people, their history, their customs, their prejudices, their location, many of their beliefs, and, particularly for me, their arts. To become better aware of myself, not from reading books but by experiencing something separate from the familiar.

My awareness began in a simple way at the Newark airport as we waited to board our 14+ hour flight to Delhi. As we gathered at the gate the large group of my fellow travelers around me made primarily of Indians looked strange all of a sudden. Out of place. Foreign. Then I became increasingly aware of my own presence and was reminded of a conference visit many years ago to Atlanta. Along with some friends, my husband and I went to the CNN Center via the underground. As we gathered, waiting for our transportation, I became aware, in the same way I had at the airport, of my existence as “other.” I don’t use that term in a pejorative way. But “other” is appropriate because it reflects the feeling of tension I was experiencing. I had brought the tension with me–perhaps from white guilt, perhaps out of an anxiousness at looking inward, or perhaps simply out of inexperience.

Hours after we left Newark on Wednesday (and three movies, a nap, dinner, breakfast, snacks and another nap), I found myself once again feeling a personal tension. We were asked to fill out a form to get through immigration, which I did. As I sat, waiting for the plane to coast to our final departure post, I reread my form, realizing I had left blank the center section, which read, “To Be Filled In By All Foreigners.” I began to blush. And then I filled in the middle section.

And it happened again today when we visited Qutab Minar mosque. We, along with the other non-Indians there, were asked several times by the Indian women to take our picture with them (see photo above). They tugged on our hands, gathered us together and smiled along with us at the clicking cameras. Suddenly we were the phenomenon, the strange and mysterious. So much so that they needed to photograph us to show others. The Indian men never asked; they merely stood close by us while someone took their picture in silence as if a sudden noise might scare away the herd of interesting and exotic creatures. That really is what it felt like. And suddenly I became self-conscious in a new way. Not as in Atlanta or at the airport. My “otherness” felt usurped. One of my colleagues talked about the occurrence as something similar to being a sight for those visitors to Wooster who want to see the Amish in our community. I thought of it in relation to visiting Disney Land, where small children (and sometimes adults) are encouraged to gather around the Disney characters to have their photos taken. In essence, I felt on display in a way that was not only uncomfortable but also unwelcome. It was challenging to smile at the camera. I didn’t particularly like being the center of attention because of my strangeness. I didn’t want to be looked at as a character or a mystery. But then I acknowledged my ethnicity, and I was swept away with that personal tension between understanding my own uniqueness and the discomfort of being made self-aware of my “otherness.” I’m certain this will not be the last time I experience my minority status while in India. Nor would I have traded that experience for anything in the world. My insight has been sharpened. My love for greater understanding has increased. And my strangeness and difference have become insightful, and I have begun embracing the tension that reminds me of my ethnicity, my race among the many throughout our world.

May 16th, 2008

Group at JNU   In the photo above you see the members of our group around a table at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India during the afternoon of Friday, May 16, 2008.  The speaker (at the end of the table) is Dipanker Gupta who is a Professor in the Center for the Study of Social Systems at JNU.  Professor Gupta spoke to us about the caste system in India.  Others from our group will be blogging about this presentation.  I am sharing, in this post, some of the content from the presentation that followed Professor Gupta’s that afternoon.  Professor Gurpreet Mahagan, who is Professor of Political Science in the School of Social Sciences at JNU spoke to us about religious (and other) pluralism in India and the political issues and challenges it raises.  Professor Mahagan began by pointing out that there are over 1600 spoken languages in India and more than 33 official/recognized languages.  The process of integrating religion and politics in India almost 60 years ago lead to a sort of redefining of liberalism. Professor Mahagan identified and briefly discussed three “moments” or “processes” that serve as historical reasons for what is seen today in Indian governance and politics.  These three moments are: (1) Pre-colonialism, (2) the colonial period and (3) the framing of the Indian Constitution.  Due to colonialism, the Indian state, at the beginning, had to start with a pre-existing diversity / plurality.  The argument for India to be a religious state was resisted in favor of an “even handedness.”  Professor Mahagan distinguished this sort of ‘theory of justice’ (justice as even-handedness) from Rawls’s later articulation of justice as fairness (in A Theory of Justice).  I took it that the key difference between even – handedness and fairness is that with the former only certain particularities about the thick conceptions of good that are endorsed by members of the diverse communities can be taken into consideration in political decision making.  Rawls’s position involved abstracting more completely away from such details because he thought failure to do so involved certain kinds of unjustified partiality or bias and hence a lack of fairness.  The resulting secular state was identified by Professor Mahagan as involving two dimensions.  These two dimensions of secularity are: (1) there should be no established religion (this was not in the original draft of the constitution, though India eventually took this on) and (2) No one should be discriminated against or disadvantaged on account of their religious identity.  Since Hinduism, importantly, is a religion of practice rather than a religion of belief, it was determined that it was practically impossible to restrict such practice of religion to the private sphere. Doing so would be a kind of discrimination.  It strikes me as a wise (though clearly not problem free) practical position that stands in stark contrast with the secularism of France in particular and even the U.S. to a lesser degree.  


May 15th, 2008

We all arrived safely. After fourteen hours on the plane, we are sitting in the Hotel bar, drinking Indian beer, eating Japanese snacks, and listening to American 80’s music. We are also watching a cricket match on the TV and trying to understand the game! The appetizers are excellent. We are having Kati rolls (Indian bread wrapped around Paneer or chicken and Shish Kabobs) Note: we are going to be describing the foods we eat here every day!

Leaving Wooster

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