Alienation through education

John Edgar Wideman, in a talk this weekend at the literature festival Écrivains du Monde organized by Columbia University Centre in Paris, mentioned the gap he felt in his literature classes while studying at the University of Pennsylvania. There was no African-American writer in the reading list he was handed. In his conversation with Christiane Taubira, ex-Minister of Justice of France, he mentioned the alienation he felt, also echoed by Madame Taubira herself from her experience of being educated in Cayenne.

I found myself reflecting on my own process of education, especially in Ahmedabad. In my Catholic school run by the Carmelite Order, my English classes were filled with characters from old Britain that we continuously sought to emulate in vain. Literature was to be a place where English was spoken; so our school banned us from bringing our own cacophony of languages ranging from local Gujarati to Malayalam to Punjabi and Bengali. To bring our brown identity into the school premises meant inviting humiliation, an experience that Edward Said highlights while speaking of his education at Victoria College in Alexandria, Egypt.

There was not a single Indian writer in the books we studied in our English class at Mount Carmel. We read India through the eyes of Rudyard Kipling, yet we were made to forget that we could learn to observe our land through our own eyes. Our eyes could not see the real India, we were educated to understand. Through the other texts we read, ranging from poetry by William Wordsworth that we had to recite for our final exams to the unfathomable Charles Dickens, I was made to understand that brown characters had no space, nor did the everyday landscapes of India that I was so used to. My everyday self and space in India was made banal, to be looked down upon, to be erased so as to create and recreate the scenes from Shakespeare’s works. The only original tragedy had to be the story of Romeo and Juliette. The local Laila and Majnoon, singing around the trees and kissing behind gardens full of roses were low-brow. It would be blasphemous in my school to even compare the two tragedies in the same sentence.

My education taught me to shut my mouth up and retreat, for my brown skin could not be a speaker. I was told to believe that I didn’t even have a voice; for the voice was reserved for the dead poets and writers long buried at the Highgate Cemetery. I think of my education as having played a deep role in colonizing my understanding of my life and thoughts along with my place in the world. And I am amazed to find that a colonial institution such as Mount Carmel school with not a single non-Indian soul running it today can continue the legacy – with such pride – of an act so silently subjugating.

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When sexual predation marks academic boundaries

I happened to be reading a journal on anti-colonial and migration studies from Beirut, when I got to know that one of the works being analysed was a work by a professor who had sexually harassed me.

He is still at the university, running free, gaining academic success. And here I am, in Paris, wondering whether women in this community across the Mediterranean are safe.

I was sexually harassed in May 2013, four years ago. I did set up a case against him, but the outcomes were not to my satisfaction. The level of efficiency of rule of law in Lebanon along with my previous experiences of sexual harassment from the local army meant that I decided to go through the university legal structure to seek remedy. After a long painful trial that lasted the summer, and after long testimonies given over Skype from India, I got an email from the then president of the university saying that the professor in question will undergo compulsory counselling. That’s it! No firing. No kicking him out of the university and the country! No shaming him in the academia as he continues to write about colonial subjugation.

Right now, I am realizing that some of the academics I would have wanted to work with and who fall into this group of anti-colonial writers are mostly men and would laugh if I ever brought up the misdeed of their fellow academic. I would find that my strength as a woman academic would be questioned. This is not the first time I find myself locked in the academic networking chain, so crucial for one’s success as a writer and an intellectual, because of the prospect and memory of sexual predation.

I find it ironic indeed, that this brown anti-colonial man attempting to re-write histories of subjugation is himself a creator of subjugation. I remember very well the event of harassment. I remember him, as we sat together for dinner at his place, beginning to cite some cringing phrases from the then popular Fifty Shades of Grey. While I clearly tried to express my disgust, he went forward to grab my hand, refusing to let me go out of the house and I began to realize the quick turn of the event. I did finally manage to get out of his apartment.

It took me many days to understand what had happened. I had refused to name it as sexual harassment. It was only during my conversation with fellow women classmates that I realized that this form of interaction, between someone who is a professor and someone who is a student is not normal. So much for the colonial subjugation!

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Interviews with my Grandmother: Part II

My grandmother’s name is Snehlata. It translates to “a vine (lata) of love (sneh).” I would say that she is rather a “a vine of strength”, who has succeeded in keeping her ever spreading family together. Today, her children and grandchildren are spread out across India, the US, Canada, Azerbaijan, (and, hey, France!)

My grandmother was born in Godhra, a small town in Gujarat, India. She was born into Modhvaniya Vaishnav family, meaning that she is a Vaishnav (follower of one or all forms of Vishnu).

When asked about what Modh meant, my grandmother seemed not to know. It was my father, who suddenly became very enthusiastic about my project, who also provided the missing piece to the puzzle. His knowledge on religion has inspired a forthcoming project – Interviews with my father.

The Modh in Modhvaniya indicates that my grandmother and her family fall into the tribe of Goddess Modheshwari worshipers, indicating that before conversion to Vaishnavism, more than five generations ago probably, my ancestors were actually followers of Shaktism. My grandmother can ascertain that we have been Vaishnavs for at least three generations before her. Vaniya indicates the caste; we are vaniya or baniya or the merchant caste. My friends have fun making jokes about how caste-ist I am because I chose to study economics.

My grandmother is the mother of my mother, hence my maternal grandmother. My grandmother married into a family that was also a follower of Modhvaniya Vaishnavism; so did my mother. These marriages occurred through arranged marriages. One of the questions that I asked my grandmother was about finding suitable partners for marriage  (not for me, oh dear no!) – how do you assure that you find a good husband or good wife who is Modhvaniya Vaishnav? You can apparently not marry until your seventh cousin in the family.

So basically, you can marry in your tribe but not in the family (until the seventh cousin). My grandmother says that my father actually doesn’t belong to their Godhra family by blood. My father comes from the Modhvaniya Dhandhuka family, which is a Pushtimarg following Modhvaniya family based in Dhandhuka, a small town not far from Ahmedabad, India. In trying to make sense out of this, I have concluded that probably more than one family was a part of the Modhvaniya tribe that later converted to Vaishnavism. I might be wrong. (If you have the piece to solve the puzzle, please send me an email.)

My extended family largely consists of intermarriages between the “Shah”s and the “Parikh”s. Not that all families with these last names belong to the same sect as my family, but that those who belong to Modhvaniya vaishnavism usually have these two lastnames. My grandmother was a Shah before she got married; Parikh after. My mother was a Parikh and still is a Parikh because my father is a Parikh. So every time that I have an option of choosing a secret question to retrieve a password, I cannot use the option of “What was your mother’s maiden name?” Guess what, it never changed! Well, maybe her middle name did change, from her father’s firstname to my father’s firstname.

Check out Part I

Part III coming soon…

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Interviews with my Grandmother: Part I

Pushtimarg is a sect within Hinduism (and under Vaishnavism) that my family follows. It has been translated loosely as “A path (marg) of Grace (pushti)”, but I would translate Pushti rather differently. In my childhood, pusht, the root of pushti, was used to describe older men, who were pusht about their principles and values, or rather, upholding strongly of their principles and values. So Pushtimarg, for me, means a path that helps you uphold your principles.

This meaning that I had understood in my childhood brought me to my thesis that equated Pushtimarg and the rise of other similar sects as comparable to the rise of Calvinism (and Protestantism in general) in the late 16th century. While trying to understand the values of sacrifice for the older and the younger generation that my parents exalted, I made a connection between the rise of the Protestant ethic and pushtimarg. This link that I framed into words while having a conversation with Prof. Theodor Hanf, a true Weberian of a kind, got us both very excited. Now, said Prof. Hanf, I needed to do the field work.

I came from a scientific background that only sees quantitative methods as scientific; I had always laughed at the degree of “scientific” knowledge you could get through qualitative methods, like interviews, ethnography, or participant observation. Qualitative methods is a religion of it’s own, Prof. Hanf would have said. After I did “change religions,” shifting from economics to sociology, I had to convince myself that qualitative work could indeed be scientific. As with every religion, my conversion story is full of miracles, including one where I came upon the holy text written by Mario Luis Small (How many cases do I need?) which managed to convince me that ethnography could be scientific; it just needed to be evaluated with different criteria than that involved in quantitative methods (which have, unfortunately, increasingly been seen as being the only scientific way possible to do social sciences).

I asked myself – where exactly do I start studying about Pushtimarg? I read a few papers, mostly written by British social scientists during the time of colonial rule in India. Following the tone of the Empire itself, the paper had a note of “white man’s burden” to it, which left me dejected. So, I decided to turn to my grandmother.

Check out Part II

Part III coming soon…

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Objective discrimination vs “Experienced” discrimination

If you had asked me 10 years ago if I had ever experienced discrimination, I would have thought for a few seconds and said no.

As my education in social sciences along with interaction with the political sphere increased, I began to re-think past events and find patterns of discrimination that came from various sources; this discrimination had not been felt at the moment it was being directed against me. In other words, I began to integrate the presence of discrimination in the process of choice of actions and behavior. Through this process, I underwent what in sociological literature is termed as “biographical reconstruction,” in the sense that I began to see my life as being governed by the fact that I am both “brown” and a “woman,” two facts which were not important to me before.

This observation has led me to think two aspects about the nature of discrimination. These two aspects are separated in time as pre-enlightenment and post-enlightenment in relation to the directed discrimination:

  1. The pre-enlightenment period: This is the period when one is consciously unaware of the discrimination being directed to oneself. Objectively speaking, the discrimination does exist in the human relations. Yet, considering the lack of awareness of discrimination, one does not consciously integrate this presence in deciding one’s actions.
  2. The post-enlightenment period: This is the period when one becomes aware of the discrimination being directed to oneself. It is not static; rather it is a process. The presence of discrimination is taken into account while choosing one’s actions.

The shift from pre-enlightenment to post-enlightenment is marked in the identity of the person. The parts of social behavior or appearance that the “post-enlightened discriminated” individual feels as being the target of discrimination suddenly become central to governing the individual’s behavior.  The social fact of being “brown,” for example, suddenly became predominant in my choice of dressing, the food I would consume, the political views I would adhere to, etc. I am also more prone, in general, to identify events that might not contain “objective discrimination” targeted against me as containing discrimination. Hence, I am prone to experience more discrimination than that which might actually be targeted, objectively, against me. This in turn implies that my response to non-discriminatory relations might, in some instances, be one that would have been if it was, indeed, a discriminatory one.

Now, my question is, how does this re-naming of a social relation/ action from my side as discriminatory affect the individual or institution with which this relation is made? Does my naming of a relation as discriminatory make it discriminatory over time? How does this affect the individual or institution whose non-discriminatory relation or action is interpreted as discriminatory?

My other set of questions pertain to how other minority individuals, who face objective discrimination and undergo enlightenment, shift in behavior and meaning-making of everyday interactions? Is there a bias to exaggerate the number of discriminatory interactions? If yes, how does this change the aggregate perception of discrimination? How does this change group action of those who see themselves as target of discrimination on similar grounds (specific shade of skin colour, gender, nationality, religion, etc)?

My third set of questions focus on the difference in the effects: how to account for discrimination when it objectively exists but is not “experienced”? Is there a change in how one chooses one’s actions when one is not aware of the discrimination being directed as us? Does this change the degree to which the discrimination affects outcomes, for example, in opportunities and outcomes of these opportunities?

If you have any answers, I would be happy to know!

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How do I say goodbye?

Metros will run tomorrow, from Malakoff to Saint Lazare, ebbing with people, making tides of people. The man playing on the out-of-note violin will still sing an adopted song. The centre will brim with markets and half-rotting tomatoes and the farmer will still make a joke about his wife. He will laugh, before his joke even ends, and everyone will laugh before the sarcasm has time to unfold.

You will have forgotten that it is Wednesday and that the goose might be running around with all the gossips. The newspaper stall will be out of Le Canard again. You will swear, everyone will swear, because everyone swears. There is a nice bakery just across the street though. The smells of margarine that replace butter in cheap croissants that they make here will rise in the air, even faster, even better.

The lunch hour will come too soon. The dinner too late. In between, there will be an infinity filled with seasons that will change, of skies that will go from purple to grey. The little spaces between the apartments that are doomed forever to walking men and dogs will be filled with an audience from behind their windows. Cigarettes will be lit, half burnt cigarettes will fall. Someone’s hair will burn and everyone will complain that there are too many immigrants. But the men will keep walking, with their dogs.

The night will fall too late, too early. Everyone will laugh in the bars tomorrow night, looking down at their shadows that move in lines and circles in the Seine. You will probably drink so much that you will need to let some water out at the corners where people are still moving and still blind because they need to catch the metro. They are running – it will be the last metro before the sun rises.

But then the sun will rise again, and metros will run from Malakoff to Saint Lazare and I will not be there to complain that this city smells of piss.

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Putting on class to save my gender

Every time I go back home to Ahmedabad, I suddenly become conscious of my social class in a way I never do here in Paris. Every act, every movement suddenly becomes a path to negotiation of my place in the society; an ever-sensitive tension lies as I negotiate my space as a woman, as someone who is revolting against “what should have been.”

Every time I go back home, I have to hide the fact that I bike my way to the universities where I teach here in Paris. I have to hide a part of my average upbringing, so that I can legitimately make claims to a superior position.

Most of my time is spent hiding what would otherwise slip out of my internalized movements or the way I laugh too loud or the way I cannot talk about soap operas and the latest Bollywood movie. Most of my time is spent building walls so that I don’t let the pieces of myself fall out.

One of my excuses to myself to continue this pattern of putting on a class has been that it helps me establish a higher position in relation to men who cat-call, men who are always on patrol to catch an occasion to gain sexual access. I feel the need to use the system of class in a way that reinforces this class so that I can protect myself from my own gender.

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