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.


Posted by: Nita Kumar | June 9, 2018

Damned by art

Kayasth women are famously artistic. The art work around a kayasth home is likely to have been created by the lady mistress of the house. It could be paintings. It is often embroidery. It could be odd things such as painted china or fabric-lined baskets or appliqué tablecloths. If there are innovative coasters or lampshades, actually derivative of others’ designs but no one can tell, they will all be made by her hands. She will typically produce all the art without a degree or training in art. Art is in the kayasth (female) genes.

Men might have the same genes, but given gender inequality in our patriarchal system, men have to bear such a heavy burden of examination success, accomplishment in rhetoric, smoothness in tact and diplomacy in the public world, pompous demonstrations of wisdom, to say nothing of wit and jocularity, at home and abroad, they simply don’t have the time to indulge their artistic side. So they leave it, perhaps with a secret sigh, to their wives and daughters. They bring in their wit and jocularity, and their command of appropriately quoted poetry, to “support” their wives and daughters, and bask in the glory of the home thus created.

My data? I have seen more framed paintings, embroidered doilies, crafty constructions in glass cases, all made by kayasth ladies, all over the world, than I would care to count. I continue to see them regularly, right up to today.

Needless to say, as a kayasth woman myself, the world I grew up in seemed a totally normal one by kayasth standards. My mother painted (my father, with a self-indulgence of his feminine side, did as well for a brief time). She also sculpted, knit, embroidered, designed, crafted and collected. My grandmother and her three sisters have large gilt-framed water colours on all the walls of a seven-bedroom family house in Mussoorie. They also have collections of their paintings in their own homes as well, inherited by their children and now grandchildren. My aunts, both chachis and buas (nine in all,) and mamis and mausis (ten in all,) made epic wall paintings, banners, sculptures, dolls and clever crafty things, as well as keep impeccably artistic homes and garden. Every flower garden and pot was likely to be a groomed one. My sisters-in-law all paint, craft, embroider, etcetera—except the ones who are from other castes and nations. My female cousins regularly post pictures on Facebook of what is best described as their installations in their homes and gardens. Some of them have done so well with their painting of fabric or carving of Ganesh images on assorted metal surfaces that they earn by it. My nieces are all artists or budding artists as I discover when I visit their homes.

Our own daughters showed signs of artistic talent when very young, and could effortlessly outdo schoolmates in drawing and painting. My husband, however, hated amateurishness, whether in kayasthas or in Bengalis (he was both) and could sense the shadow of feminine imprisonment in the traps of art before it was even visible to the eye, and nipped the mechanical drift to art in the bud. For three decades I have been a faithful follower of his philosophy: professional art or nothing.

Until I visit a fellow kayasth home. My first thought as I sit in the quietly tasteful drawing room and look around at the eyeful of art, from armchairs to photo frames, is, “Ah-h-h!” What this translates to is, “I am home….” Four grandmothers, after all, nineteen aunts, some thirty cousins, sisters-in-law, nieces, all with the same dusky, pretty, glowing, exquisite drawing rooms. It took a long time of living and the training of an anthropologist for the realisation to dawn that this kayasth lady artwork was a pattern. Its explanation? I’ll keep it simple, and say that the clue lies in my calling them “ladies.”

Ladies are people—just as a tourist is a certain kind of traveller, or Lata Mangeshkar is a certain kind of a singer—who are made to believe, and convince themselves, that their identities lie in their perfect homes, their beautiful just-so aesthetics, and beyond that, in their intelligent homemaking, from which derives also the identities of their disciplined, studious, children and their brilliant, successful spouses. It’s the peak of bourgeois morality.

Now one could argue that there are worse fates than to be damned by art. But your death is not in a crusade, not for a cause, but from a poisoned gift, where the art can exist only within the closed four walls of the home, or the outer, even higher walls of the garden. I have sometimes seen the escape of the self-exiled artist from the domestic into the public world, say in three out of a hundred women, who then hold exhibitions and get press coverage. But they carry some sadness with them when they thus move from the home to the world. The unvoiced sadness of betrayal, of a larger good for an ego-related one. The loss of support from a husband, now a tiny bit less looked-after. The loss, therefore, of virtue.

As for me, I have so successfully de-classed myself that, nostalgia for my family’s homes aside, I have driven our all vestiges of “the artistic” from my own home-making and home. Short of putting a mound of dirt in it, I am remarkably tolerant of my home’s proletarian grit. I think I secretly believe that that is artistic….

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 3, 2018

Providence in 1987

I had an excursion into the past today. I lunched with a young colleague in my department who had been appointed a year and a half earlier, in my time as Chair, and then I had taken leave and been away for precisely the year and the half that she had spent here after joining. So I wanted to find out how she was faring and had finally planned the lunch with her. I knew she had a Japanese background, though she is of Chinese birth, and chose a Japanese restaurant, I not being fond of Chinese food either so not considering that a choice.

She liked the restaurant. I watched with interest as she ordered a dish she particularly recognised, pronouncing it expertly, and gave me guidelines as I fumbled around the mostly unfamiliar menu. Somehow it was easy to ask her all kinds of things, including what I had failed to ask in a previous visit to the restaurant because my companion had been an older person.

How young she was, though, was unknown to me. At one juncture in our conversation I mentioned the year of my Ph.D. “Oh!” she said. “I was not even born then!” She was exactly the age of my younger daughter.

That threw me back into a flurry of memories. One year after my Ph.D….in my thirties….where had I been? What had I been doing?

I had a post-doctoral position at Brown. How little they paid in those days! But my husband, two daughters and I could not have been happier. We had a lovely apartment, the ground floor of the house of a colleague with whom we shared the back door, the basement and its washing machine and dryer, and the driveway. There was a Woman’s Club at the university that kept old furniture for rent to people like us. We got the basics. Our colleagues took us shopping and we bought the rest, including our first round of groceries. After that, we walked. We started at Brown in January and got our car only in August.

January! Providence was under a blanket of snow. Because it is not flat but on a hillside, or several hillsides, the snow looked even thicker and lumpier than it was. Our windows had double panes but our heating bills were several hundred dollars a month. One daughter was five and a half, kindergarten material. The other was barely two months old. Whenever we went out for anything, say dropping Irfana to Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School’s kindergarten, little Nandini was bundled out too.

Day and night were one—a grey light through the windows; noisy, warm, vents doing their thing inside; many lamps, carpets and children’s things all around creating their own circles of warmth; and us up at all times. The baby awoke at 4 am and we were all up, playing music, reading, eating. I had to teach only one class, at 6 pm. I had already revised my dissertation the year after my degree and it was making its way in the press. I was invited to conferences and wrote papers. I was called to campuses to present my work and did that. I was short-listed for every position in my field that I applied for and travelled up and down the country. I was in the Providence airport every month.

It was all so easy, so smooth, so much fun. We spent the summer in India, when Nandini learnt to walk. We got a car on our return and spent the Fall apple-picking and picnicking. Irfana was in grade one, reading voraciously. Nandini was one year old and qualified for a baby-sitter. I became more active on campus. We didn’t take children everywhere any longer. We went out for lunches and dinners and entertained actively. We also had friends elsewhere and drove regularly to Bridgeport and Fairfield, Boston and New York, Washington DC and Philadelphia.

All that time, I am trying to remember, I must have been writing and thinking about my work. We were in Providence from January 1987 to December 1990. My first book was proof-read there and out in 1988. My second book was submitted, revised and re-submitted there and out in 1992. My third book, an edited one, was planned and put together there, and came out in 1994. There were at least five conferences and lectures every year and about the same number of book reviews and incidental appearances. The second research project that I had completed after the Ph.D. (well, not ‘completed’) was beginning to appear in talks and presentations.

All this happened because I had no great plan or ambition. All I knew was that I had to keep busy with my research and my writing. I could not have conceived of a break or gap so no break or gap appeared. I had not much interest in a tenure-track job in the US and we were only conspiring as to how to go back. All we knew was the attractiveness of research grants and we worked hard and got one each for after the Providence stay. It was fun.

As part of this flashed through my mind and part was touched in passing, I had little to say to my young friend at lunch time. My own experience had been so specific, so different, so atypical of the newly minted Ph.D that there was little advice to give her. I was from India and actually wanted to go back. I enjoyed the post-doc but had no desire for an assistant professorship. I loved completing my two books and getting the third one ready but now wanted to do other things. My teaching was my calling and my courses the best ever. I enjoyed my motherhood to the hilt, little baby, young girl, both. I was so young! I could stay up, stand up, jump around, walk on—all for as long as I liked.

But all this happened, finally, because Sombabu willed it so and made it happen. He was there all the time, with Nandini, with Irfana, with me. He wanted me to have my career. He planned things of secondary importance around things of primary importance. He gently pressed and pushed me to complete tasks that I thought I was doing naturally. He cooked and he cleaned and he did a lot of laundry and he fed us all and he came with me or he stayed at home but talked to me about it all. All along he kept playing his sitar and getting it into the ears of the two girls.

His plans bore fruit. He wanted me to flower into a successful academic and it happened. He wanted us to enjoy New England and we did. He wanted the two girls to feel they were totally nurtured and secure and they were. Lest you think that I am romanticising him—he needs no romanticisation. He was a full-blooded romantic who lived out a romance of a life for all of us.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | February 17, 2018

The trouble with children

In disentangling the discourse of children and education in India, I argue that the discourse is a dual or double one. Mythological stories, fiction, people’s unprepared utterances, more serious discussions, all claim that a child is a mine of resources and can achieve anything. The larger discourse of agency in India supports this idea. In this bigger version, your will is supreme. By saying “I will,” you achieve your purpose. Accompanied, did I fail to add, by excruciating practices of self-discipline and self cultivation. All those practices produce the tapa to give so much energy that you can, literally, do anything you will.

This larger idea is what produces the idea of a child, a child being up to modern times, only a miniature adult, as being potentially anything, a creature infintely realizable. Then occurred a social change in nineteenth century India. A colonial education, new in structure and ideology, was introduced, together with the English language. In order to deal with this over-ambitious, under-planned policy that was supposed to trickle down from the top to the bottom, people at every level adopted various strategies. These included: extra tuition for students, the production of guides and ‘keys’ to aid studying, rote-memorization, and treating the textbook and the syllabus as gods that could not be challenged. These strategies and the policy and structural changes that produced them, were not discussed and debated openly. The colonial government was a controlling and censoring one, and Indians were distracted from an interest in children or education by the larger challenge of a nationalist movement.

Consequently, these strategies were unarticulated, un-discussed, and came to seem mysterious. Some children seemed to succeed in the new educational ventures and some seemed to fail. Since the science of it, the reliance on certain tools, was not clear, it seemed like a magic or alchemy. Combined with the older idea of the power of the will, the discourse of learning now became, “Anyone can do it if they want to.” But remember that earlier a process and a technology had been spelled out (bodily discipline) and now there was a technology (textbooks, guides, tutors and rote memorisation) that was not spelled out. The not-spelling-out made the technology into an alchemy.

As a result of this new mystification of what produces success in learning, those who fail to learn are similarly made mysterious. There is something about children who fail that makes them fail. Since responsibility must be attributed to something—there cannot be a vaccuum—it is ascribed to the family, to the genes, if you will, of the problem child. Again, nothing clear is said about the families that produce failures. They are not distinguished by caste, though caste is sometimes mentioned. They are distinguished often by class, but many exceptions are allowed. It cannot be their Indian-ness as it was in British colonial times. An ambiguity pervades the discourse. Terms like neech qaum, pichhre hue varg, chhote log, garib tapke are thrown around (lower castes, backward classes, small people, poor levels). If questioned directly, “Does caste lead to a failure to learn? Does poverty?” the person using these terms will be evasive and defensive. Speaking the language of modern Indian secular democracy he/she will say, “No! Of course, whoever wishes to learn can learn.” Then, speaking the language of their common sense, they will say “Yes! Because, you, see, not everyone is the same. Not everyone can learn.”

So that is the double discourse of the child. Everyone can learn. But not everyone can learn.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | February 16, 2018

The geographies and temporalities of the pre-modern and modern

Two stark contrasts. First, I phoned my lawyer in India. He sits in his chamber only at 8 pm at night, as do all lawyers in India, because they attend court in the morning. That suited me, sipping my cup of tea twelve and a half hours behind India. Rudra Nath Tripathi, the lawyer, speaks in a civil tone and is difficult to provoke, though an observer might say that I try my best.

“Rudra ji, when is our court date?”

“6th March.”

“You said you were going to phone us and tell us the date. What happened?”

“Well, I was going to phone you, closer to the date.”

“Oh? But suppose we planned to be out of town just on the 6th, 7th, 8th of March? Because we did not know twenty days before?”

“No, no, there is plenty of time. Anyway, now you know.”

“Yes, but only because I called you. Why didn’t you phone, as you said you would, just as soon as you got the date?”

“You should just come in. Phoning is not enough.”

“I did come in, twice. That’s when you said, “I’ll phone you.””

“Oh, well, whatever.”

At the end of the conversation, I eat humble pie, because he is my lawyer and if pushed beyond a point, will stop doing everything.

Just after this I went online to the Consulate of Italy in Los Angeles to apply for a tourist visa to Italy in May. The site led me through a few different links to an appointment in March for one visa, to last twenty minutes, to be preceded by getting all documents ready in duplicate, to be confirmed three to ten days before, and to be attended in person, in time. Many other points were listed, each reiterated and emphasised, with a clear undertone of a threat for not fulfilling the conditions outlines as well as a value judgement about your understanding in not fulfilling the conditions.

The whole site was designed with careful consideration of an average intelligence, average calculating abilities, typical mistakes, ridiculous gaffs , usual lapses in memory, the normal fears and weaknesses of normal people, and the patterns of trouble that expensive Consulate offices can have from random visa-seekers. The site reminded visitors that theirs is a free service, that is, that the tax payers of Italy were paying for everything that I was doing with the Consulate.

Now, of course, sites are all programmed in the same way and even my lawyer’s office in India can develop a site like that. Indeed, many Indian businesses and institutions do have wonderful sites, and you can get fooled into thinking that they are actually as efficient as their site shows them to be. So, a part of this is just technology.

But I have been in person to the Consulates of Germany, Denmark, Holland, France and Norway. The sharp ladies and gentlemen working there wasted no extra word, had their eyes on their clocks, used a combination of the rational but also the human, and made complicated, pre-planned connections to complete their job. True, they had a jagged edge to their civility from working in boring jobs, worried about their compensation, and stuck in artificially lit offices the whole sunny day. But they were super efficient. If anything were to go wrong, they could be held responsible. The British Consulate excepted and I will tell that story separately. These Europeans had no debris in their heads about the linearity of their mission: a straight line from where the petitioner for their services stood to the provision of that service. Each step was marked, each distraction waved aside, each obstacle planned for, the timing worked out to the half-hour and the results placed in sight.

Obviously, the Italians, especially the Italians, are not genetically programmed like this. For some eight generations they have simply had it drilled it into their heads that this is how the world must run. Indians, by contrast, have had not a single generation of it yet, nor is it even in sight. They might never do it  because it stems from a realisation of the crucial importance of rationalisation. Indians seem to be managing, in a huge conspiracy they have put together, without rationalistion. There could be a political  revolution and a radical party of Rationalisers could take over the country and put to death all the foot-draggers, but short of that, no gradual change is discernible.

It seems simple enough. If you were to study the layouts of, say, the DMV office (or any government office,) Bank of America (or any bank,) Kaiser Permanente (or any medical provider,) and Toys R Us (or Target, or Best Buy, or any warehouse type of shop)—you would immediately recognise what, spatially, rationalisation consists of. It would need only the simplest, even a cursory, study. The principles do not have to be invented, just applied to another place.

But for us in India there is no will and no desire to do so. Linearity must mean a wrenching from some other logic. It must mean imposing an understanding of the world that is not only difficult because not natural, but painful because it directly contradicts something more meaningful.

As I write, I realise that I am swaying from my initial mission of praising the Europeans and condemning the Indians. The unattractive figure of my lawyer is being replaced in my vision by the sweet figure of Kanti, the cook. I would hate for her to be transformed into David, the chef.

But why? Maybe they have more in common than is apparent. Maybe Kanti is more ‘modern’ and David more ‘not-modern’ than seems to be the case. Maybe the Europeans in the consulates don’t joke and laugh because language is a tough thing and these particular ones are in the visa business where they are taught to worry about which next brown person will escape the paperwork and take illegal sanction in their country.

I need to think this through more. I need to refresh my thoughts by going on a holiday.

To Italy.

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