Posted by: Nita Kumar | April 7, 2019

A Personal Shaking-Up

In America the door bell never rings unexpectedly unless it’s Jehovah’s Witnesses. I squinted at my unexpected visitors because they weren’t in dresses and hats. They were South Asian. As soon as I opened  my door they explained where they had parked and whether that was all right. I had to step outside to look. “Yes,” I said dubiously. This is what they wanted, a parking place?

They waited. They said they were from Swadhyay, which meant nothing to me. They spoke in soft, polite Hindi. “Come in,” I said. My Hindi had that inflection of resignation in it that Hindi can so easily have. “Ayiye.

There were four of them, dapper middle-aged Indians, trying to pass their doctor-manager-engineer professions off as subsumed by their simplicity. They had no crease or frown. With a half-smile and a soft insinuation, they took turns speaking.

It turned out that I was their sister. That the Bhagavad Gita was the fount of all truth. That Krishna was the world’s most Enlightened Being. That they had a guru, some P— Baba. He had told them to personally meet everyone and share their emotions and truths. People were lonely. They no longer met each other. So these people put aside an hour every weekend to go around and meet everyone. They were from neighbouring cities, Glendora, Covina, Diamond Bar.

Oh dear, said my mind. This is going to be boring. How do I turn it around, say to my research advantage. After all, these are prime informants on the topic of Hindutva.

I had been working on a chapter on “Women and Islam” as they appeared. I toyed with the idea of telling them about it. “Let me share with you what’s on my mind, now that you’ve so kindly dropped in.” In fact, I had been struggling with the paragraph on reform and how all too often that meant a tighter definition of religion. “Did you know that Muslims some decades ago had the exact same problem as you all do now: how to spread the word that’s so dear to you and to make more people conform to it?”

Of ocurse that would be too crass. Instead I interrupted to ask, “How did you know how to find me? No one can find me!” I meant the utilities companies.

I shouldn’t get into more boring stuff; they are explaining the internet to me now. “Let me tell you a little about myself,” I interrupted again.

“I adore Hinduism.

“I teach it, in several versions. Right now I am teaching the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In the past versions of the same class, I have taught the Vedas, the Upanisads, the Dharmashastra, the Arthshastra, the Bhakti poets, the caste system, yoga, folk religion, goddesses, etc. etc.

“I have a thirty-year old organisation in India, to preserve our traditions and cultures.

“I teach children, and youth, in India-centric ways. I make curricula. I train teachers.

“In our organisation we have done projects on the Ramlila. We have made books on the Ram story.

“I have researched and written about people’s lives, beliefs, religions, dharma.”

I am like your darn guru. He woke you up from your slumber to realise that there was more to life than making money. That’s what I do.

I said, more kindly, “Instead of just working for oneself, to improve one’s consciousness, people should support causes like mine.” I gave a vivid picture of problems in India and where we were headed if some of us did not intervene.

“You are in pain,” they said.

Pain? Is that the right word? I looked noncommittal.

They praised me, but in very few words. They did not rise to the bait when I emphasised again that they should donate something, maybe sponsor a child or an activity, maybe just publicise our efforts, maybe spread the word in their temples and to their brothers and sisters. They kept boomeranging back to their guru.

How he had decided to not take a penny from the government or form an organisation.

But I have a staff and an estate and I need money.

How he had decided to just go door to door and win over people.

That sounds good. We ethnographers do that.

How people who were totally uncultured earlier could now recite various paths and shlokas.

Well, maybe they need some solid education or income-generating skill instead, not that there is no value in culture.

We went back and forth for some time. Their politeness triggered a bit of rudeness in me. “We’ll never use your name. We are not seeking anything, not soliciting….” they said. “But I am,” I replied. “I want you to please use my name. Spread my word. Tell everyone what we are doing. I am seeking support. Let everyone give something.”

They still did not rise to the bait. Finally, I said the M word. How my beautiful, precious religion was being distorted and disfigured and how I found that difficult to tolerate, so if they did not mind….

No, no, they did not mind at all. And as if they had not heard anything I had said, they concluded with more anecdotes and declarations about their Baba’s great lessons. Then they looked at each other. They said thank you’s politely and ingratiated themselves out.

I was a little hoarse after their visit. I was shaking. It was mortifying to feel that I had not made a dent in their armour. I had no good idea how to. It was my first such encounter and it was worse than my imaginings.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | February 13, 2019


The things that matter to me

If I were to make a collection of the things that I do not want to lose upon retirement, here is how it would go:

I do not want to be in a position where I am not sitting at my laptop to make a statement about colonialism, or gender. I have to be able to make them. That is, someone has to ask me, someone has to be ready to publish my piece, someone has to invite me to speak and someone should listen to me—not a hall-full of recruited people so much, as at BHU or LSR, though that is better than nothing, but a small group of highly interested, interacting people whom I respect.

I don’t want to not have a car (a good car) or a driver or a garage to park it safely in or a driveway to take me right up to my door.

I don’t want to not have a kitchen with big counters and everything in it that I need to cook what I fancy.

I don’t want to not be in a place where my children and grandchildren like to come and really enjoy visiting or living.

I don’t want to not have a doctor that I can call with a complaint. I don’t want to crib about doctors and medical systems. I just want to have one.

I don’t want to not have a Bose player.

I don’t want to not be able to get an hour, if not more, worth of exercise everyday, between walking, yoga, and cycling or zumba. And not not be able to combine each with something else: say, walking with looking at the landscape or people, yoga with music or the news, cycling wth reading or TV, and zumba with people you want to be with. 

When I get the bad news about preposterously huge bills, as I seem to get all the time—from the PF/ESIC people, the CA, the owners of land, the electricity and solar panel suppliers, the tax office, and on and on—I do not want to not be able to dismiss it, as now, with a shrug, thinking vaguely of social security and retirement savings, investments, and possible loans against these. I do not want to be in a position of worrying, “Where the hell is this going to come from?”

I don’t want to not have big windows to look out of. If I like, to climb out of.

I do not want to not be on top of the latest thing in the world, whether retirement or anything else—to have to sit making lists like this one….because there is some worry somewhere that I had better cover the ground….but what is the ground….

Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 28, 2019

The inspiration of dish-washing

My favourite thng must be washing dishes. I woke up at 4.30 am, my phone and radio both sounding off, but most of all my brain, stirring and moving and panting, going in circles like a distressed dog. As all this went on for twenty minutes, I tried to understand the distress. Why was I not fresh and bursting with energy, ready to go? I had had my dose of sleep, said puritanical Nita. I had my work waiting, said the boss. The early, early morning was beautiful, the dark through the slats of the bedroom blinds special–said the aesthete. So, then, it must be my stomach. Meaning my will power. Could I please remember to not treat my stomach so injudiciously, as a dumping ground for whatever met my fancy?

It’s all very well to have a diagnosis but you still need to do something. I ran my arms like a windmill. I stood on my toes in a tarasana. I went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. I changed channels on the radio, making a fine judgement between Hayden and the news. I turned on lights, boiled water, steeped tea, squeezed lemon, poured honey. To each petty task I gave attention, in the way that advanced souls do.

But it was not until something made me move naturally towards the sink and take up the sponge that I found peace. So, while the tea was brewing, I washed every single thing, including empty jars and flower vases. I wiped the counter several times over. I was breathing easier and a pall had lifted from my head. I had already achieved something. As it became 5, my morning had assumed shape and meaning.

Another thing to remember, together with respecting my stomach. The best first thing you can do in the morning is some kind of housework, not bending down over your laptop to solve the problems of the world.

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.

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