Posted by: Nita Kumar | December 8, 2018

Who’s afraid of the big, bad myth?

I closed my eyes and asked myself, “Open your mouth and let a story fall out.”  I did. Here’s my story.

The person was walking down the side of a river—a scene we have looked at from a bridge, sometime, somewhere. Logically, the person—it’s a young man, we see as he comes closer—should be aiming at the bridge because the road itself leads nowhere, winding along by the river as it does, and the bridge it is that connects one side to another, to habitaiton, transport, kingdoms. The person, however, takes the low road and we see there’s a path under the bridge.

Under the bridge sits a faun. Yes, a faun. Naked, except for a skin of some kind around the middle. Thin, gaunt, with little horns, a goatee, arched eyebrows, a quizzincal expression. Neither is surprised to see the other. The young man asks what the faun is doing there. The faun is chewing grass and throwing pebbles into the river and does not disturb himself overly to reply, jerking his chin slightly, “Nothing.” The faun does not ask in turn what the young man is doing there. That would be too obvious. It’s for us, the story-teller and her audience to figure out.

Well. The young man is actually a young woman, a girl I’d prefer to say, in disguise. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s you. It’s anyone who does not want to be ‘girlie’ but definitely not be a boy either. They just want to be free, to pass off as one or the other, to wear whichever kinds of clothes they like, to be free to be friends with whoever of either sex they want. In short, to stop playing roles. It is so unintelligent to play your role as if you didn’t know it was a role, and then to act all diffident and feeble as if you could not break out of it if you liked. Anyway, so this young person could be boy or girl and is boy at the moment, and it’s not clear if the faun likes them because they are ostensibly boy or because they are really girl.

How much could the faun afford to judge anyway? The faun is male, right, with a penis somewhere under the cover made of skin, and the beard and hair here and there? But what a male—so thin, so timeless, so unattractive, I mean by regular male standards. And with horns. Really.

All this somehow fades from consciousness and what remains is just the faun’s presence. The faun is the gentlest of presences, almost merging with the river and its grassy bank. The faun is like a moving thought, not a thought that you control but a thought that ocurs to you and you glide with it to unknown places. 

They start travelling together.

[Okay, I have to see what happens after that.]

As I told myself this story, I realised that I had shed my fear—of the great canon of mythological and fantasy literature, of all the brilliant writers who seemed to have excessive imagination whereas this poor reader, falling all over their books, seemed doomed to realism. I realised that my realism could produce exactly those fantasies that must lie at the heart of any fantasies. I had always known that it’s true that if you open your mouth a story will fall out, but here was a story about a faun. When I had never in my life spent a second thinking about fauns.

Simultaneously, I was helped in my other work, of writing books about history and gender and so on. My protagonist was duplicitous, not a he, not a she. They didn’t know where they were going and what they were searchng for. They did linger with the faun and know somehow there was an answer here. But, under the bridge, they were already in a nowhere land, not India, not Holland, not nevernever land, but maybe between a Lucknow fading into mysteriousness in the east and a place to its west where the sun was setting but where was it, what was it….All these are commentaries, are they not, on gender, power, friendship, mysticism, searches for truth and meaning, sojourning and journeying, desire, interpretation.

I realised that by now I could do both the story and its interpretation.

The big, bad fantasy story had become a friendly and welcoming faun–I mean friend.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | December 1, 2018

One’s narrative

Mujhse bichhar ke tum khush rahte ho

Meri tarah tum bhi jhuthe ho

The songs filled the night long after the guests had gone.  “Have you heard ghazals?” she had asked them, lately returned from India.  They knew a lot, let us say, they had mastered a lot.  They looked uncomprehending and uncomfortable.  So she said, “They are—romantic songs” and put on several in succession.  She thought, “They are—for us.  For older people.  They are not romantic songs in which you celebrate mindless youth, the time of the body’s awakening, the first despair of a lost love; they do not make direct statements of any kind.  But when you mature, after you have turned fifty, sixty, you feel a deeper pain, at all that can be possible and is missed, at all the heart can contain.”  And she sat there, long after they had gone and the dishes put into the dishwasher and the counters wiped clean and leftovers debated over whether to refrigerate or freeze or dump, she sat there and felt and felt and felt.

She thought of her old friend Ruchira.  How long could a comanionship have a hold on you?  A friendship of some two years, thirty two years back!  Laughable surely.  She had studied, travelled, become a professional, loved, married, had children, seen the older out of the domestic hearth and set up independently, all this, and she sat alone, thnking of Ruchira.  Because she shared with her the same feelings about love and longing and crying as they had together, once.  They had not exactly said they did.  Nothing much was said.  That was why it lasted, it stretched out across the decades as an archng shadow that took a much shorter path than what the years marked out and remained as fresh and vivid as the day they had sat together listening to a similar song or thought in some other form, and barely looked at each other to confirm what they felt, or maybe just realized from each other’s presence without even looking.

She never actively thought of Ruchira, never missed her, never tried to write to her.  Maybe Ruchira had changed, maybe she was with someone and maybe she did not even exist.  She was there in the air around, in the sound, and lodged firmly inside herself.

Here she was thinking about love, listening to ghazals, and drinking and smoking as hours became from larger to small and then began increasing again, and what she had settled down to do was nail down the question of history.  

So here was the problem.  There was a world she was very clear about.  Let us call it the world of the women.  They had names: Lakshmi, Durga, Parvati, Sita. The goddesses. Shakuntala, Rani, Maneka. The queens. Rani, Pushpa, Kanti. The servants. Suniti, Latika, the mothers. Nita, Chandana, Bandana, the daughters.  We know who—were the mistresses.  They had all failed.  The servants had failed because theirs was an untold history and they had no voice to tell it, no audience to hear it.  The mistresses had failed because theirs was a violent history that had sought to wrest others’ world from them and make them all one.  But the effort was discredited and had brought them no results.  So, the theorist concluded that recourse lay only in constantly questioning this latter history and making transparent its violence.  But the servants were mothers too, and their daughters and they themselves both perpetrated and suffered violence.  Where was the recourse?  Naively, one could say that some daughters could join hands with other daughters, and mothers too with mothers and all together try to do something with their history.  But what was there to be done?  What was beyond the nation?  Only words.  Narratives. 

Her own narrative would go like this.  Europe was beautiful.  Europe was this lanky, close cropped man who had grown up somewhere on a vineyard in the north of Germany, had travelled and struggled and established a business as a wine importer into Oregon.  He was giving them a taste of German wines today.  Oh, they were delicious.  But more delicious yet was the taste of Europe in his being, his accent, his hints about his past life, his bringing into the room that vineyard, that history called Germany, that culture called a cold country, white people, potatoes and weiners and a lovely speech she couldn’t speak.  She tasted with the wine, the river called Rhine, the place called Baden, the ritual called a meal and a conversation.  Yes, they had colonized and terrorised.  But there they were, the Germans, lovely.  As were the French, the Dutch, the Italians, the English.  Whom should she dislike, whom criticize?  They were all part of her.

How had this aberration occurred?  A privileged childhood with education and reading.  The opportunity to travel and see these places.  The money to savour Europe.  The freedom to imagine and fall in love.  This is where her narrative had forked off from the goddesses, the queens, even the mothers and daughters.  Now it was up to her to do something to produce some unity for her own sake and for theirs.

Why was unity the important thing, though?  Why could they all not exist separately, equably, one in a hovel, the other in a bungalow?  One eating dry rotis, the other baguette and brie?  Were there separate realities or not?  Did one control the other because one thought the other and wrote the other?  Was it in the creating of the narrative that the control occurred and the control cancelled out the existence of the other and left only the one standing?  It sounded plausible, but how were we to prove it?  Maybe it sounded plausible because only one performance was being staged, again and again?  How was the other to be given the stage?

Pardon me while I change my ghazal CD.

Yes, there is an ahistorical failure of the nation to come into its own.  Is this just our dream or theirs too?  What is their dream?  To be ambivalent (Chakrabarty 2000: 38), original (39), antihistorical and antimodern (41)?  Why not say: to have certain definitions of the self not translated by us in our jargon, to have certain conceptual systems not quite coherent to us, to have a knowledge of the self in its past, present and future not merely unfamiliar to us but scary because it is not even a self and a history we can recognize?  Why not say: a different language that we do not know?  But we suspect it to different degrees, some with close glimpses into it and much sharing of pleasures and emotions?  

If “the idea is to write into the history of modernity the ambivalences, contradictions, the use of force, and the tragedies and ironies that attend it (43)…. Histories that aim to displace a hyperreal Europe from the center toward which all historical imagination currently gravitates will have to seek out relentlessly this connection between violence and idealism that lies at the heart of the process by which the narratives of citizenship and modernity come to find a natural home in “history” (45)…I ask for a history that deliberately makes visible, within the very structure of its narrative forms, its own repressive strategies and practices, the part it plays in collusion with the narratives of citizenships in assimilating to the projects of the modern state all other possibilities of human solidarity (45)”—if this is the idea then we must also ask, removing ourselves from the centre for the moment, what history have they had, what history can they have?

There is certainly a battle.  The victors are the ones who get to make the rules.  The idea of a battle is not a European or a modern one.  At every point in history rules have been made by victors, and the defeated recognise this, though they continue guerilla warfare.  So, if the battle here has been won by ‘modernity’; in the writing of history, and the creation of the nation state, everyone must accept the rules now made.  The defeated have lost their chance to write their history, of caste, of sect, of the patriarchal family, of domination in these sites.  Their violence is negated by the new legitimate one.  Within the new rules, the way to win future battles is to compete for the same rewards, now those of the nation state.  Everyone needs the attributes of citizenship: secularism, knowledge of rights, equality, competition, social mobility, education.  The histories that have been lost can be restored, if at all, by the first, prior step, of making everyone the equal legatees of the new dispensation, as in the New World where, old inequalities laid aside, some wake up to their losses and strive to represent them in narratives.  In the Old Old World, they cannot, not my goddesses or queens, because they do not have the voice needed and therefore  not the audience.  In recommending this, we also acknowledge that those who are the previous beneficiaries of this singular march of history, such as the elite of India, or professional historians, or nationalists, are merely there earlier, thanks to precise institutional effects, such as of education, and not because of an essence, of having been gifted by some perspicacity or being already different kinds of beings.  Chakrabarty’s vision is profoundly anti-historical, anti-change, anti-empirical and anti-sociological.

It is possible that there are two (at least) fundamentally separate, distinct narratives: that of the women, that of me.  The question then is, is there an inbuilt incapacity to represent the other?  Can a Christian not speak for a Jew, Shakespeare for Shylock?  Can a white not support a black, the journalist acted by Clint Eastwood in Real Crime for the accused?  Can only a woman understand a woman’s pain, and Sudhir Chandra’s thorough explication of the Rukhmabai case is only hollow?  What is the essence here, colour or sex or religion or class?  Why am I not permitted to declass myself, to feel like a Russian, to empathize with Muslims, to become one with a man?  My education in school has exposed me to words, to narratives, that did exactly this: they revealed what was beyond the singular experience of the one person and her group.  My other education in the larger world has brought me into repeated shocks of going outside myself, again with class, nation, sex, religion.  If such projects are essentially worthless, why does it not feel like that?  Whose words and evidence should I believe, my own and writers and artists who seem to support my going-beyond-myself potential, or the theorist who says, “Oh, my limitations, my violence in trying to go beyond.  Oh, the horror, the horror?”

In modern India, the only difference between me and the women is that I have access to certain privileges that they do not.  They are  not essentially different.  We have already much in common: love of sky, air, water; song, paint, theatre; pan, masti, abandon; harmony, peace, accord.  We do not have other things in common: my brie, their chokha, my baguette, their litti, my yoga, their body pains, my Shylock, their Ravana.  But whatever I imagine is ‘my own’ has come from my upbringing and education, very carefully nurtured by my parents precisely because it would lead to good things, as it has.  Yes, there has been a conspiracy of such parents to keep their children in and other children out.  That is the battle I talked about.  Parents today all recognize the rules.  Kanti realises that  her son Dilip, already a dropout, is destined to reproduce her besieged life unless he is forced to go through school, and I do necessary violence in bringing her to the brink of this realization through cross-questioning and bullying.

This is a nationalist, reformist, developmentalist approach, agreed.  How to characterize Dipesh’s?  very essentialist, unilateral, over-dramatised and hyper-real, afraid, nay, terror stricken at the devastation wrought by a history which is only struggling to be real and has not even established its status with the large majority of the population.  Since it has not, we can still work to find a third path, away from the one we have followed and now eschew, and away from that which was also characterised by violence and domination and was moreover unable to give choices to the ‘people’; a third path that can be simultaneously questioning but also practical.    

I read Chakrabarty’s text as an intensely personal one.  He speaks as a member of a collective, ignoring the fact that the kinds of problems he is addressing have been brought up by others outside this ‘collective’.  He speaks directly as a citizen of an ex-colony, appropriating from this position numerous advantages that accrue to the downtrodden.  He speaks as a Bengali, for whom Nirad Chaudhuri’s “legendary name now stands for the cultural history of Indo-British encounter” (36), practising in such strokes an internal imperialism to match the Britishers’ overt one.  It is personal in that no one else occupies this exact position.  Since it is personal, I can respond in a personal vein too.  I empathize sincerely with the pain that Chakrabarty evidences.  So much idealism breeding so much violence.  Violence that destroys extant dreams, stories, lives, minds.  To be left with only a mimetic and hyper-real existence.  And an existence that does not even have a place in world history.  I do truly empathize with the pain in this text.

But I do not collapse my understanding of history and the nation state with this particular understanding.  The idealism has been reflexive too.  Reform has problematized itself.  Violence has been resisted, sometimes to an extent that the admissable goals of the idealism have also been defeated, together with the violence of its procedures.  Many, many pasts, dreams, lives have not at all been destroyed.  Indeed whether ‘preserved’ or destroyed, it has been a matter of negotiation and agency for the subjects concerned.  They continue, changing and reformulating themselves, today.  If the ruling class has a second-level existence, that is a grave problem for it, but it is not a problem necessarily shared by other classes, who have other problems.  If the ruling class of India does not get a share in world history, it deserves condolences for it having striven for that, but unsuccessfully.  Other classes have not so striven, and are neither unsuccessful nor deserve to be pitied.

To use the analogy of the anthropologists’ informant (41), the subject can not in fact be only spoken for.  He carves out, all the time, his autonomous space and refuses to be represented by another’s statement (Kumar 1992).

Posted by: Nita Kumar | November 8, 2018

The Shadow and the Light, we think

Sleep, of course, is wonderful. Waking up, not as much.

It feels difficult to justify as you awake in the morning what it is precisely that you are busy with. The radio that accompanies your alarm informs you of a mass shooting late at night in your very state. The sheriff gives a press release which is very controlled and legal. He will not venture to guess anything about motive or choice, and the mass murderer is conveniently dead, but he does call it ‘senseless.’

Not only the shooting, but something in the very reportage seems to go against the grain of everything you stand for: ordinary people, justice, calm leadership, but also passion, a commitment to a certain ideology, a reckless determination to work for it and prove it.

You are keen to begin on your morning’s writing. You gather your materials while your tea is brewing. Meanwhile, you cannot resist listening further to the radio and extend chores that allow you to do so: make your bed, do your dishes, tidy up.

As you move around, the feeling of senselessness hangs like an unaddressed question mark on your head. The desire to hide under the covers hints at an unexplored touch of depression. You cannot be excited about your work in India because that, first of all, needs the fund-raising you are not doing. You dare not open your emails because you are wary of the two reminders that are surely waiting for the reviews you promised two weeks ago.

As for the book, you are almost certain now that you miscalculated when you told the publishers you would deliver by December. How will it be possible? You are angry with yourself, not for anything else but for belittling the work—as if there were two you’s, the one who did a demanding job with serious professionalism, and the other who insisted on trivialising the work by setting wrong deadlines and making glib promises.

There are two of everything: the people and the government. The victims and the murderer. The idealists and the dogmatists. The children and the adults.

You finish your exercises, use the bathroom, arm yourself with your cup of tea, settle down with lamp, shawl, book, laptop.

It has been one hour since you awoke. You are aware of a seismic shift within you. Not only are you comfortable inside with the nagging doubts and questions appeased, a smile has spread out somewhere within. A sense of excitement at life’s possibilities is taking wing and fluttering up like a small but strong butterfly. Your mind is stretching and yawning and flexing its muscles.

You are already toying with a new project. Think this, research that, write this, plan that.

You are ‘yourself’ now.

How does the shadow disappear? It was so controlling, so inevitable. Whether the sun literally rises or not (of course it never literally does), your insides rise and shine. What suspicious light is this that appears?

Which is the truth? The dark foreboding of chaos that you experience briefly as an afterlife of sleep (first cousin to death, after all)—or the happy control that replaces it. Which is the falsehood?

Thus will it be with the shooting. There will be many tears, worries, regrets, accusations. Then the shadows will all dissipate and everyone will live on thinking about the senselessness of death, of course it will never happen to me.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | November 3, 2018

Love for Life

In a world changing so rapidly, as the cliche goes…you know that you can still keep a handle on life, don’t you? You do it by listening to old Hindi songs.

As I listen, I enter the sixties. Not as observer or audience. Or critic or scholar. I am the subject of the songs. I sing their words. I know their feelings. They are my voice as well as my instrument. They teach me to live.

Mere Mehboob tujhe meri mohabbat ki qasam….All you need to fulfill your love is to swear by it. Intensity is all that success demands. And whether you are twelve, thirteen, fifteen, or sixty-five, intensity should be easy to come by. Remember, you don’t know her–you just glimpsed her.

Ajib dasta hain yen, kahan shuru kahan khatam….Life is a story, mysterious, unknown, and of course every turn is wonderful because shared with you by him/her/them. Moreover,  tumhe yah nur mil gaya….you of course have a love in your life; you just may not know who it is.

Dhire dhire machal ai dile beqarar, koyi ata hai….Someone is coming, o heart, tremble a little….Where are they? Who should we love? Who can we love? Passers-by of course, those you work and live with, those you “fill in” for yourself after merely glimpsing them. That life is fantasy, or fantasy life, could be a hard lesson to learn but not for us with our songs.

Pukarata chala hun main gali gali ….Who does not? Want someone to look at one? Turn around? Smile? Give time? So, it may have been sundry overage overweight heroes such as Rajendra Kumar, Vishwajeet, Joy Mukherjee, Dev Anand and Shammi Kapoor who perform histrionically to the words—but they can be ignored and forgotten. The words live on.

Rahen na rahen ham, mehka karenge….When you are heartbroken, you can console yourself with the conviction that your fragrance, your sound, your shadow, will all haunt the loved one, because that’s what love—intense love—is. Forever.

Nigahen milane ko ji chahta hai…..The first proclamation of subjectivity. Who cares how far the oppression extends….what the discourse is….important is that I can string together words to give me power. It is words that declare love, independence and desire. Words, I have.

Tasveer teri dil men jis din se utari hai….Again,  of course, I, the girl, the woman, can take the lead in declaring love, boldly, smartly, oh so, attractively. Who would not want to be her?

Ap yuhin agar hamse milte rahe, dekhiye….The finest perfection of flirting. What a terrific lesson to learn. Then all one has to do is to find a space to play the games in. Well, it’s all around. In Loreto there were a hundred girls, and then more.

Itna na mujhse tu pyar jata ki main ek badal awara….And when you do not want to fuss around with relationships, you can shed them off with one eloquent ghazal. To pretend to be “the man” is no challenge—a scarf or tie will do it.

Diwana hua badal…sawan ki ghata chhayi….ye dekh ke dil jhuma…li pyar ne angrayi… Perhaps the most perfect statement of how life was virana…solitary…and then, there was a riot…not in your emotions, man, in your body as the heart, breath, skin and so on all shift and heave. That’s what you are–a riot. How do you know? The clouds tell you so.

Which brings me back with a thump to the cloudless skies of California and its dry landscape. The challenge is not just the “changing world” or my age but the place as well.



Posted by: Nita Kumar | September 23, 2018

Our ambitious school

When people hear of our school, they respond by telling me a story about a similar thing that they once did or saw. The head of the Performing Arts Department ay BHU began to describe a wonderful venture for orphans somewhere in Bihar. My cousin in Delhi volunteered to take me to see the Centre for Art and Culture in Gurgaon set up by a great philanthropist. She did not say as much but what she meant, what they all mean is, “I’ll put you in the right company. I know just what you are describing.” Even mummy, who would have guessed it, suddenly narrated, to show empathy with us, how she and daddy had started a prize for bright children sometime, somewhere. What they also mean is, “We’ve done that, been there.”

Accordingly, my good, old friend said yesterday, as I made mention of our school, “My friends and I did something similar once.” When in graduate school, that is, when about twenty one years old, three of them had organised the child-servants they had at their respective homes, immigrant children from western districts, and held classes for them in the garage of one of the three girls. It made them rush morning and evening, before and after their own classes. Yes, she said in response to my own declaration of why it was all worthwhile, the little immigrant children had loved to learn. I guessed that the whole venture must have lasted about a year or less, because the three girls had their own studies and exams, and my friend left for America, as others must have moved on to other things.

My friend is sensitive, and since I sat there smiling and listening, and did not make a comment, she murmured, “But we were so young, and full of energy. And you are still doing it, in your sixties! You’ve done it for decades! And are still struggling so much! Why do you do it?!”

I was longing to explain, and I did. “The reason is that our project is so ambitious. It is not for the poor. The whole point is to integrate children. We have some of the ‘best’ families in our school. And then, labourers and rickshawallas. The idea if to have such a high quality school that anyone would choose to study there, and they do. To maintain the quality, I made sure that our own daughters went there all through. It must be a school of world standards.” I went on, passionate, “Then, on top of it all, it must be an innovative school in which we practise all the latest ideas about children and learning, and constantly experiment and innovate. It should be in the league of the few really different and progressive schools in the world.”

She nodded, full of friendship and love. So I expanded some more. “If there is one legacy I want to leave, it’s not anything else but to have made a change in the educational system in India. For that, you have to reach the ears of people. I want to run a small, model school that is just perfect, but that can demonstrate how education should be. Anyone can come to see it. And then I want to write about it and that would be the way to reach people.”

“Yes! Write about it! You should!”

“I do write about it, and talk about it. Some people do know.” As I said this, I realised, of course, that writing is good—“but, honey, you must be read” (The Wife.)

She nodded, a little surprised at that, not sure of what to say further in support. She did not think of asking, “Where do you write? What do you write? How do people take it? What are your other writing plans?” And I realised that writing is good—but, honey, not only must you try to get read, you must resign yourself to the bitter truth than some people will never read at all. Well. You must make videos.

I went on and on. That’s what opening up the subject does to you.

Even when they get it wrong, your near and dear ones do listen when you explain what it actually is. I need, now, someone to put hard questions to me and challenge me, instead of letting me say my familiar things and get away with it. I have reached a plateau and need someone with less empathy and more scepticism. I need a friend still, but a bit of a difficult friend.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | September 16, 2018


How obvious, and how terrible, to be caught in the vice grips of greed and desire.

I long to own the house I have lost, the house that belonged to my parents. I long to have back my parents. I feel sure that if I could have the last ten days of my mother’s life, I could make her live longer.

I am greedy for more, more, more. More time with my parents, more time in the house, more peace of mind.

I can’t get up in time in the morning but long for more waking hours. Every night I set my alarm wrong, only because I am greedy.

As for desire, I lust not after food, but the hunger that comes before food and sometimes continues with you if you eat judiciously. I am protective of the balance in my stomach and greedy to protect it. 

And I do lust after exercise. Even if exhausted and longing to lie down, I will drag myself to the gym.

As for love, let me not even begin. As soon as I see pictures of my granddaughter, I know that my face becomes idiotic. I am counting every day till I see her again, greedily counting the passing time as otherwise I count the gaining time. Desire has no reason.

How do I overcome all this greed and restore peace inside? How to stop longing for more and more—more balance, more quiet, more time, more love? Didn’t I just say, more greedlessness, more peace?

I have to look seriously into our philosophers and saints. Did they really conquer desire? Which desire?

Posted by: Nita Kumar | September 11, 2018

The University of Texas at Austin

When amber waves of grain failed one part of the world and overwhelmed another, it was time to strike a balance. Once in a while the rational and the humanistic come together to restore balance in a disturbed situation. Eisenhower and Nehru in the 50’s, with their advisors, orchestrated such a balance, although the event was followed by a chill in relations on both sides. PL, or Public Law, 480 was proclaimed that provided India with the 25% of food in cereals that it fell short of, and removed around 25% (coincidentally the same figure) of excess grains that America had.

For some time this built up a debt that India bore. Then in the sixties, two thirds of the by-then massive debt was cancelled by Kennedy and Johnson, and a new scheme started for the rest. India was to pay in books. The Library of Congress was to receive multiple copies of every book published in English in India and selected numbers of books in major Indian languages. These were then supplied under the Title IV award to some nine universities: Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. Each place requested, received and processed their books differently, as may be imagined. The results were different in every case, but as graduate programmes in South Asian studies built up, faculty hiring expanded, languages were promoted and sought out—the overall result was similar to the irrigation of lush, freely waving, amber fields of grain.

I was profoundly touched when, finally finding my way around the suburban maze of Tributary Ridge Court, not to be confused with Tributary Ridge Drive, Terrace and Street, I gate-crashed into the South Asian reception at the University of Texas, Austin. I was in Austin for a private visit and the reception had happened to be on that day. An old South Asia hand (how I have longed to use ‘hand’ for myself all this time) I knew, of course, that Austin was one of the nine South Asia Centers. I had even been there for a lecture or two, and been wined and dined at places and with colleagues the details of all of which dim in the washes of time, silting into memories of good, familiar talk held together with a fair amount of alcohol. But it’s one thing to know something in theory and another to witness it as a live, moving picture in front of your eyes.

The reception, in the house of the Chair of South Asia, Donald Davis, was packed with South Asianists. There were students, from the U.S., and from international parts. These could be recognised by their youthful energy, often disguised as coolness, and their serious interest in conversation, sometimes hidden under a shyness. There were visitors, short term and long term. The short term ones looked eager and wore native clothes, such as saris they had suitcased over for their short visits as ambassadors of South Asia abroad. The long term ones had families and little children and carried on intimate conversations about domestic matters with their local colleagues. Then there were professors, adjunct, tenure-tracked and tenured, and emeriti. The adjunct faculty were inevitably handsome, articulate and impressive. So were the tenure-track ones, only slightly seedy compared to the adjunct ones, in that they had to burn the midnight oil and remain unbrushed to get their tenure files even beginning to be ready. The tenured professors were hearty, bemused, benign to everyone who chose to cross their paths, studiously casual on every topic. The emeriti were the other ones, apart from some of the students and short term visitors, who were dressed as if they were out on a social occasion. They cared that they had spent their professional lives teaching and publishing on South Asia, that now they were retired and no longer in the centre of things, and that a reception in their area of expertise was a pleasure to go to.

I cannot resist begging the reader’s indulgence to say a tangential word about the culture of under-dressing in the USA. A party has only to be announced that its goers will replace perfectly good everyday clothes with torn and misshapen t-shirts, shorts and sneakers, and fluff up their hair to look emphatically unprepared for a social event. How does this preferred cultural practice relate to plebeianism or democracy? And even if the masses in the country prefer to live according to some American dream of anti-elite-Europeanism, what about the informed and sophisticated faculty of a major university—do they also want to strike out against civilisation and make some kind of a point about being “American” down to their (non-existent) bootstraps (they are likely to be barefoot or in their slippers)? For all my forty plus years in America, I have a profound prejudice towards dressing well for social occasions and see almost no reason why one would not, especially when we are not strikingly radical in any other aspect of our lives.

All this notwithstanding, I stood there in awe, my heart dripping with tenderness for South Asia at Austin. There were specialists on Akbar and pre-colonial state formation. There were masters of the Dharmashastra and Buddhist texts. Here lurched an expert on khari boli syntax and the Hindi short story. Helping himself to a pinot noir was an Islamicist and women’s studies scholar. To my right stood a Tamil poet. To my left sat a historian of early colonial Bengal, and at her head stood a historian of late colonial Maharashtra. Here was the old-as-me scholar of popular performance with a focus on the nautanki, and there was the Sanskritist who had laid bare the adi-Ramayana.

I took it all in with relish, as they flitted past, grouped and re-grouped, made small and big talk, greeted and parted. I knew many of them, had heard of quite a few, and was rapidly introduced to some of the rest. A few were old buddies, from the seventies or the eighties. Some were colleagues and trusted peers with whom one had talked and drunk together at conferences. Some were names as familiar as friends, but actually known through their words and not their faces or voices. All were dear. All were great. All were the most compatible company my heart could ever desire.

How can I possibly make this clear?

I came to the study of South Asia at the relatively late age of twenty seven, long after I had fallen in love, many times over, severally, with English literature, with Russian history, with Marxist dialectics, and with everyday life in India as expressed in the short story. Then I landed at Chicago and Kim Marriott told me in husky tones that there was a logic to hierarchy. Ralph Nicholas communicated a romantic village world-view. Susanne Rudolph gave elegant insights into the state; Lloyd Rudolph the same in hopelessly chopped sentences. Wendy sat flowingly and spoke flowingly about a Hinduism she seemed to be partly creating. Barney Cohn built up, between grins through mutton chop whiskers, a fascinating, if then only partially visible, bridge between the working class proto-artisans of E.P. Thompson’s Britain, a ship sailing east laden with Ideology and Discourse, and a resulting encounter in which two people spoke to each other across a curtain called Colonialism, doomed to misunderstand each other. Meanwhile South Asian men and women toiled in the fields, performed rituals and constructed and re-constructed their lives. My South Asia at Chicago was a palimpsest on which I pored over, turning pages, deciphering writing, breathless and choked with excitement.

The study of South Asia was for me not the pursuit of a discipline. It was a translation of myself into another set of codes, and of another code into myself. When I read Homo Hierarchicus, I thought of my grandmother. Ron Inden’s work on Bengal made me dream of my mother-in-law. Milton Singer was like a grandparent, and Ed Dimock an uncle. Clint Seely, Colin Masica, C.M. Naim all seemed to be playing games as senior brothers do, while imparting voluminous information. “Voluminous” should be best mentioned in the context of Maureen Patterson, always buried in volumes (if at home busy with her cats). All of them, over the years, were the people I ate and drank with, in their homes and mine, in cafes and summer farms, over the department coffeepot or simply out of a brown bag in a seminar. My seniors, Val Daniel, Peggy Trawick, Sherry Ortner, Nick Dirks, Phil Oldenburg, Howard Spodek, Kathy Ewing, Judy Pugh, set my frames. My peers, Phil Lutgendorf, Bo Sax, Ann Gold, Gloria Raheja, and many, many others, were my best friends—because they seemed to know more intimately than anyone else the turns of my own life and existence. And because we also brought up our children together, theirs called evocatively Lila and Mira.

To study South Asia was to enter a book of fiction and discover that the principal characters within it were all the people I had known all my life but never fathomed–and myself. As happens in a novel, as Forster tells us with the example of Moll Flanders, I now knew the characters of this novel more thoroughly and intimately than I had ever known anyone in real life. Who knows, if after entering this work of fiction, I ever led a “real” life? Or only lived a life that I had studied and researched, that Wendy and Barney and Ed and Ramanujan had shown directions to through their vivid interpretations?

For decades—with the rigours of writing, publishing, teaching, to say nothing of bringing up two beautiful daughters, sharing a husband’s life, then going through the void-like darkness of losing him—I had forgotten that initial excitement of South Asia.

That reception of the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas, Austin, brought it back–all the more exciting for the gap. Lest I be accused of romanticisation, read just one chapter by Don Davis, Cynthia Talbot, Rupert Snell, Indrani Chatterjee or Gail Minault.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | September 2, 2018

Children’s books and movies: Who is grist for the mill?

In Winnie the Pooh, 1926, and The House at Pooh Corner, 1928, Alan Milne carries forward his telling of the adventures of a little boy and his animal friends in a forest. The books have since expanded into an empire, of stories and movies and episodes and paraphernalia. Apparently the empire generates some billions of dollars of profit every year. It also creates pure pleasure and excitement for children, including some I know personally. 

Of course, the stories and poems are based on some life, and while it could be another’s children’s lives, as with J.M. Barrie, they are in this case based on Milne’s own son’s life. The same man is the father and also the writer. He plays with his son, and observes him, and likes the play, or is captivated by it, but also likes where his imagination is taking him, and is definitely captivated by that. 

The father is a Victorian and Edwardian father. In that world, parents and children do not hug or kiss except son and mother, lightly, on the cheek. The child is totally in the care of the nanny. He apologises for disturbing his parents and does not associate them with fun, so when his father claims that he (the father) was both having fun and writing a book, the child says disbelievingly, “I didn’t know you could do both together.”

The writer is a professional writer who already has a reputation for books and plays and can afford to make his family’s life centre around his need to write. If he doesn’t write he has no identity or respect, including from his wife. Much like Tagore spinning off story upon story about village men and women, landholding bhadralok, and little children he played with and observed, no doubt his own and his relatives’, Alan Milne spun tales about the little boy he adventured with and observed. In both cases, the grown men have to be credited with having the risk-taking imagination, the sheer nervous energy, to enter the worlds to which the children in their orbits are throwing open the gates. After all, children are regularly making such offerings all around us, but only a particular kind of an adult, among them a certain kind of gifted author, will take up the offering.

Almost anything a writer touches is desecrated in real life in the process of transformation into a work of art. A mother, father, sibling, animal friend, place of birth, favourite space, romance, friendship, nation—anything, could be villified, sanctified, coloured over, blown apart, transformed into non-recognisibility, and recreated. It is the job of the artist to do this. Realism or reality does not come into it. 

The only test is, does the work of art work or does it not? Does it persuade us that it is an alternate universe where we may, suspending our disbelief, enter and briefly reside?

The test is not: what happened to the actual child the author had in his life, the one innocently dependent on him? 

What happened was that, from the perspective of the reader, there exists a wonderful book. What, or who, went into it was the grist for the mill.

We have to say, at the end, that of course there are plenty of adults who are very caring parents, or uncles and aunts and friends, who do enter into their children’s play worlds and share years of love and happiness with them. They do not write stories about their children friends. Either they can not write the sotries, or they will not. It does not matter, because they do not. Their children are not grist for their mills.

Who is happier, the child who is, or the child who is not?

That seems to be a question that some people end up asking, and is clearly a modern sensibility that does not constitute an artist’s question. We do not need to search for the actual Christopher Robin. Because the loop is endless. The search for the “actual” is itself a work of art, as the film Goodbye Christopher Robbin shows. It brings us no nearer the search for the actual, actual child. Works of art are all we have.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | June 13, 2018

An Extraordinary Child

My extraordinary child has suddenly turned into an ordinary person.

An adult for over a decade now, my extraordinary child was intelligent beyond compare, precocious, sensitive to the world, a voracious (and speedy) reader, funny, beautiful, with all the qualities you could name. She not only had every kind of fact at her fingertip, she was so astute in her judgement she could see through all falsehood and focus in each case on what was most important about the fact. She gave advice in a balanced way and remained cool through crises. She was always wise beyond her years and a terrific companion.

Then a change happened in her life and overnight she got transformed into an ordinary person.

Now, she worries and gets nervous at the slightest deviation of life from the (imagined) norm. She keeps searching for more and more facts on an issue and seems to not be able to sift the wheat from the chaff. Her judgement has become cloudy. She cannot see things in perspective. Obvious answers elude her. She spends time on relatively trivial things in repetitive ways and confuses them for the important. She forgets, she is careless, she gets easily upset and she takes refuge in commonplace novels.

Where did my brilliant, extrardinary child go?

She got transformed by motherhood. Now she looks at her baby, and like every other parent, harbours the illusion that her baby is an extraordinary one.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | June 9, 2018

Italy and our baby

While visiting Italy still seems like a great idea, every poster and image confirming its wildly romantic nature, flying Alitalia does not seem exciting at all.

I can imagine bringing to the management’s attention some of the shortcoming in our, the passengers’, experience. The tea was cold, the dinner rolls stale, the food choices limited, the baby’s bassinet seat reservation messed up—in a rough order of ascending importance. The management would naturally say, “Madam, we do our best. But there are some details we cannot guarantee. And flying economy in today’s competitive age means that you have to be resigned to a somewhat basic level of service.” Then I would whisk out my trump argument. “But—don’t you see? It’s not about the content, but the style. If only your service people had the attitude that the customer was a valued one, the customer would feel valued.”

The Alitalia stewards and stewardesses, alas, walked around with the attitude that they were being forced to do this highly pleasure-less work. That the particular customers they had to interact with were likely to be more trouble than they were worth. That there was no point in smiling or putting on a friendly countenance. That a stony face and a shrug of the shoulder or a dry “no” were totally adequate to the occasion.

The forces of globalization are so strong that everything about the flight was “standard,” a fake resemblance to an international norm of some kind of intercontinental flights. Air India, at least in the past, had such high standards of the national! Stewardesses wore saris and greeted you with a namaste. The piped music was of the sitar and sarod or maybe bansuri. The wallpaper had a Mughal motif. The food always had pickle and saunf, and its entree was of course parathas and zira rice and dal and panir.

What happened to Italian cheeses and Italian meats and Italian salads? Even when pasta was served, it was like a foreigner’s pasta, that is, a fast food pasta, not an insider expert’s. Even when little baked cheese things, confusingly labelled “pizza,” were given as a snack, these were as inedible as in, say, an Asian airline—from a country that ate pizza day and night. Even though my cohort and I would smile at Air India’s Aryan and Mughal excesses, I today regret that Alitalia finds it unimportant to even aim at giving its passengers a taste of Italy through their twenty hour long flight.

Little Samira, in her seven months—today, on the 1st, she is seven months old—has travelled through Rome twice already. Why does memory “start” only from a certain age, say four or five or even six years, and everything before that vanish? There was not much of “Rome” to the airport except for giant posters of Roman architecture and sculpture and of rolling green parks—and the ubiquitous slim ice cream cones with the colourful gelatos. But to her it will be only words that we will repeat, “You were walked up and down Rome airport—the Leonardo da Vinci airport no less—and you loved the Nursery room. You played around there as if it was your playpen,” and for before that, more words, “You stayed two and a half months in Claremont. Everyday you’d go to the park. You rode around southern California in your car seat. You came to nani’s office and threw her pens around. You frequented the Village.”

She’ll feel nothing upon hearing these words and even develop a boredom with them, as a child does with adults’ fond, meaningless mutterings. I have heard enough of them myself. I could not even vaguely remember any mountain trips taken when I was two or three or four, not in the least, not the sound, or taste, or feel of the mountain, nothing. Yet, apparently, as a child I had gone with many family members to holy places high up in the Himalayas, where Shiva appears as an icy linga. In those days—we are speaking of the early fifties—we trekked up to the peaks on foot. The more delicate ones, the infirm, some women, the very young, rode part of the way on donkeys. Where did we camp? What did we eat? What were the views?

So I made these two observations today—one, that a glorious country and an ancient civilisation can have an unimpressive product in the modern age, a point that India proves over and over again, and I would rather rant about that, though I have, in the heat of the moment, chosen Italy. And two, that a baby does not care, or remember, where she is travelling. As long as the chest she is held against and the arms that lift her up are familiar ones. Even not so much the face—Samira is happy to beam and stare at every one of the three hundred passengers’ faces.

There’s another pitiful observation that we have been making for the two or three months that Samira has shown progressive awareness of her surroundings. It seems that even babies are fascinated by IT. She looks first at the laptop or phone screen in a room if such a thing is around, then at any other object. She finds a lighted screen and a keyboard endlessly hypnotic. She know that a touch establishes a causal connection between these two things. She drools at the prospect of touching a key or the screen, and now, in her growth spurt, arches her strong, muscular body forwards and sometimes backwards, to somehow force her way into that domain. Much as we tut-tut about it, we are aware that baby-sitting could be an easy challenge to meet if we permitted ourselves to use the aid of a lighted screen of some sort and that that is why so many less reflexive caretakers park their babies in front of TVs and laptops or arm them with phones.

My final learning experience today was an Edward de Bono one. We had tickets that gave us fifteen days in Rome. The idea was to have the perfect Roman holiday. Of course we had imagined every lovely stereotypical thing many time over. We had tickets, visas, hotel bookings, even a rough beginning with Itaian phrases. Then, in May, for a variety of reasons, we decided to cancel the trip and rescheduled our itinerary to take us straight through to Delhi via Rome without a stopover.

Now this change was necessitated by the impossibility of our stopping in Rome in May. Today, arriving in Rome (airport…) on the 1st of June, we realised that there was no bar to stopping in Rome in June. When re-booking, it had simply escaped us that an option was to change our dates and spend fifteen days in Rome as planned, but in June, not in May. We did not practise, as de Bono might say, lateral thinking.

Maybe part of my bitterness with Alitalia for their lack of Italian-ness is that lost holiday.


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