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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On Identity

Identity is a result of a social norm. Hence, it exists outside of a human being.

Identity is generated in relation to another human or thing. An identity comes into existence once one can identify ourselves as different from another human or object.

To illustrate the example of identity as being outside of a human and not within, in the sense that it exists in relation to another being, I shall use a hypothetical example. Suppose that you are all alone, stranded on an island like Robinson Crusoe. You have always been like this, alone since you can remember. Now, if someone were to ask you who you are, you would not be able to understand the person since you don’t speak the language (another social fact in the Durkeimian sense.) But let us imagine that you speak the language and you are suddenly asked by something, like god or some voice from the heaven, as to who you are. You will not be able to describe yourself in relation to other human beings, like saying that you are a brown woman, you are French or Pakistani, because these things won’t exist.

One of my students argued that there would still be a “core” identity to this stranded Crusoe. She argued that the core would tell you, if you are stranded, to not kill another human being. But there is no other human being on this island, and if there would be one who suddenly enters the island, we cannot be sure that this “core” would tell the stranded Crusoe to not kill the person.

The Crusoe would still exhibit behavior similar to humans in some sense (like hunting because of hunger) and would develop an identity in relation to other objects (like trees, stones which don’t move, and animals). So there would be an identity, but not in relation to other humans. And this identity would still be a construct, outside of our Crusoe.

Another of my students asked why she can identify herself as different from her own childhood self? For example, you are naive and stupid when you are a baby and now you know that you are smarter than the baby you were, that you are different. The distance here is time, I argue, and this distance makes it appear that we are different now from our selves in the past. This again goes on to demonstrate that identity is a construct; that while you do remain the same physically, you can still differentiate yourself from who you were in the pictures of your childhood.

Notes from the discussion class I teach at Sciences Po Paris, Spring 2017.

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The becoming of an Other

I have tried for a while to give words to how I identify myself after having spent last 7 years in France. Can I put myself in any national category? Am I Indian? Am I Parisian? Who am I in relation to this new space I inhabit?

As I have sought for a space to belong for the last few years, I have discovered a fascinating space – the space for the Other.

There are no set rules on what one does when one comes to this Other. One only needs to not be the natural. I have learnt to speak the new language, but there will always be something crooked about the way I place my words or the way I will smell of harissa and spices like many in the RER B train that passes vertically through the Paris region.

The Other is a place for those who cannot make any claims to being natural, either using a biological excuse (like the skin color) or a cultural excuse (like the kind of clothes one wears). The sense of natural, used often in terms like naturalised, give a scientific uniformity to what one can be so that one is natural. 

The Other is not the un-natural. It is not the opposite of natural. On the contrary, it exists because of the natural, in complement to the natural. The Other almost looks like a natural outcome of the existence of natural. 

The Other is an inclusive place created out of a grander exclusion. The inclusion into this Other is a continuous reminder that one shall never be the natural.

The Other is a dream land that lets you rebuild a home, but on the periphery of natural. You build a home in relation to the natural, in an attempt to be the natural. You buy the cheap replicas of the leather boots from the Chinese store around the corner, color your hair blonde.

Then, you go out and criticize the natural; the next day, you wake up and criticize your neighbor because you speak natural better than her. You are now integrated. You are now the naturalisé into the permanence of the Other.

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Men, Cows, and Sluts: Public Space in Ahmedabad

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I am a woman. I happen to come from a middle class family and live in a rather middle class Hindu neighborhood in Ahmedabad. The Shiv Sena colony of apartments lies right opposite to my apartment.

Ahmedabad is divided into two: the east, which is rather poor and considered dangerous by the middle class west, mostly because of the idea that it is rather Muslim dominated. The west is mostly Hindu. The Sabarmati river, fed into by Narmada waters, divides these two. Until I was 17, the most east I had been was to my school on the other side of the bank.

I did not know what public spaces meant until I went to France, where I began to see them as a meeting place of town or city dwellers irrespective of their socio-economic background. These spaces could be public transportation, or the many parks and squares that become neutral grounds for encounters. These are not temples that I visited on Sundays growing up in India, nor parking spaces of apartments that are segregated to the sub-caste and where I spent my childhood playing with other kids (where I live in Ahmedabad would not allow non-Gujarati non-Hindu families to rent or buy apartments because they would potentially cook meat and hence destroy the “purity” of the living space.)

So once I decided that I wanted to, as a woman, claim my space in this absent public space, I entered as a slut. I was surrounded by men and cows as I walked through the traffic and the million stares that I dared not look back into. These stares were those that told me that I had, by the very act of leaving the covers of my household, deserved to be stared at, and become a public entity to be observed, objectified, and vulgarized. I stopped being a human; I became an object. I am now an object every time I close the door to my house, for then I become an object of my neighbors’ vulgar curiosity. As I go down the stairs, choosing not to take the elevator, I am judged for my femininity. As I walk alone from then on, deciding which direction to take without a male to direct my beastly spirit, I have made a complete conversion to a slut. I am now an object that is devoid of any moral considerations.

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Against women upliftment?

Feminism came to me as a white woman dressed in a pink short dress with perfect nails and brightly painted lips. I was 12, with big glasses and pimpled face, sitting in Ahmedabad. Never in my life, I realised, would I be able to carry that pink dress with my maternally-inherited curves. So I rejected feminism.

I had to relearn what feminism meant to me when I went to the US as a young 15 year old exchange student. It made me look at myself and search for why I feel the way I do about my skin, my body, my hair, my strange accent.

But I had to see myself as exotic to explain my role in the society as a brown woman. Feminism didn’t provide me answers to the problems I faced continuously at home in India, in the society in which I felt I needed to belong, and fight to belong, just because I wanted to.

I found a solution: I needed to “uplift” myself and my neighboring women, but lift us up from where and what? – I did not know. Women needed to be empowered in my poor country; empowered because they had been suppressed. But what if the men had climbed up the stairs they shouldn’t have? Why did women have to do the climbing to fight the oppression? Why couldn’t men climb these stairs down to the place where women all sat together discussing anything – movies, sports, family, or politics – and have some chai.

Declaring that where men stand in the society is the utopia that women need to achieve, I felt and continue to feel, is like using a war to fight the war. That we as women enter this fight on the rules set by men, I have found, is against the very idea that the feminist movement should stand for.

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The Transitioning

A lot has changed since the last I wrote here. I now have a career teaching and I am also transitioning from a field to another: from economics to sociology. For many who have known me, this transitioning has not been surprising at all. I am the only one who seems surprised.

I am now able to take some distance from a field I am preparing to leave, ie economics. I taught a class last semester at Parsons of The New School fame (the Parisian campus) on political economy. We read the basic texts of Karl Marx, Adam Smith, and Keynes. Along with these, we also read some texts that set my critical thought towards economics rolling (one of the most important texts being The Use of Knowledge in Society by F.A.Hayek). At the end of it, I would have been fooling myself if I were to continue in economics, for I was not willing to give up on the theory and analysis to be fancy with numbers that the mainstream success and acceptance in economics demands. I had numerous discussions about the field and the prospect of the transition with my friends and colleagues, whose frankness I am grateful to. I realized that I did not want to spend my life trying to find the best identification method for my parameters, that I wanted to treat these parameters as humans, and not look at simultaneity problems in my analysis with scorn. My equations were to all be endogenous if I were to study society and human behavior, so I had to look beyond.

Accepting the need to transition was important both to maintain my sanity and to continue my rather halted (according to my view) academic career. I went through a very depressing process of applying for graduate programs in economics where I knew my fit in the department was a big zero. I still pushed myself, anticipating only disappointment which came later. Now it shall be round two (or round one in a way).

I have also tried to understand how much of my personal life should intersect with that of my life in the public sphere. I have come to realize that it shall be a topic of continuous negotiation and that nowhere shall I find a constant answer. This has been important especially in the context of teaching (and in the context of writing and publishing now and in the future) where I always tend to use, albeit in a critical way, pieces of anecdotes taken from my living experience. For example, one of the very first academic articles I published was about the Catholic missionary schools I attended in Ahmedabad. I know that I have written less (which is unfortunate) mostly on the pretext that I was potentially causing harm to people who were close (like my family members for example) through criticism of the norms of society(ies) I grew up in and society(ies) that I am a part of, especially by being a migrant.

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