While the Gods Were Sleeping by Elizabeth Enslin (2014)

'While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal' by Elizabeth Enslin. Berkley: Seal Press, 2014. Provided with a review copy by the publisher.
‘While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal’ by Elizabeth Enslin. Berkley: Seal Press, 2014. Provided with a review copy by the publisher.

I devoured this in about three days when I had lots of other work I should have been doing. ‘While the Gods Were Sleeping’ is a wonderful, honest account of a young woman’s encounter with an alien culture that she hadn’t been all that interested in coming face-to-face with, and it was that honesty from the outset that made me like, and empathise with, Elizabeth Enslin.

A young anthropology student in the 1980s, Enslin meets her future husband Pramod while at grad school. She had intended to specialise in some part of Africa, but as Pramod becomes an increasingly important part of her life, she switches academic tack and forces herself to become interested in South Asia. Her descriptions of the confusion and desperation of finding your path through grad school is so relatable to anyone who has been through this themselves.  Her attempts to combine her research and love interests leads her to the Nepali Terai–the plains bordering India–where her husband’s family live. She admits never having been drawn to Nepal, even while her peers were taking themselves off on pilgrimages to the mountains, and this is something I feel an affinity with. After having lived in Kathmandu for a year myself, I feel a strong attachment to the country now, but while I loved India and was constantly drawn back to it, I still am, it was really only my job in Kathmandu that took me there, and it might have taken me several more years to make it there if not for the job. I still don’t entirely understand the stereotypical hippy-trail pull of Nepal, and neither did Enslin.

While the Gods Were Sleeping is Enslin’s account of how she trod the very tenuous line between Nepali daughter-in-law and foreign anthropologist, how she had to make enormous compromises and sacrifices in both roles, but was ultimately successful–in that way that ambitious, talented women often are–in making it all work, imperfect as it was.

Although the sub-title of this book–‘A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal’–is actually perfectly descriptive of what transpires, as Enslin is involved with some women’s movements in Chitwan, knowing what I do of Nepal, I thought it meant the Maoist insurgency. In fact, the book is set some years before that, in the 1980s, but it was only when I was quite a long way into it that I realised that particular rebellion had no part in the story. It’s a minor thing which might not bother a reader who knows less about the country, but I thought it was unnecessarily misleading.

Anthropology is a discipline that, as a student of literature and history, I was always taught to be suspicious of, and I admit that I still am, even after completing a PhD at an institution in which it was strong. While the Gods Were Sleeping, while not an overt critique of the discipline, certainly raises a lot of the issues that we should be suspicious of, particularly those concerning neo-imperialist attitudes. Even as a pretty savvy young scholar, Enslin had some rather naive beliefs that can be largely attributed to the need for an academic to structure their work in a particular way to meet funding requirements and so on. For example, Enslin writes:

“When I switched from Africa to India, I had hoped to base my work in an area where there would be a clear divide between oppressors and oppressed, and some grassroots movement welling up from the latter. When I gave up on India and resigned myself to Nepal, I knew the grassroots movement would be hard to find but still hoped for some line between the haves and have-nots.” (p. 89)

Enslin was approaching Nepal as somewhere that didn’t fit the parameters that she required for her PhD study, that failed to rise up and meet her, rather than vice versa. But, to her credit, she recognises this in hindsight and that’s what makes her account the nuanced, self-reflexive study that it is. She writes, later:

“I grew to love that concept of culture the way I loved my Swiss army knife. If culture, rather than human nature, made us who we were, there was nothing natural or inevitable about racism, hate, war. With a concept of culture, we anthropologists could fix anything, or at least explain it. But too deep a love can disappoint, and that concept of culture had so far mostly failed me in Nepal. Ever since my first arrival, Pramod’s family and village had offered a perfect opportunity for intimacy with another culture. My pregnancy offered even more. Even when I didn’t plan research there, I should have been more curious. Yet all along disappointment nagged at me: these Brahmans I lived among were not the kind of Others I had in mind when I decided to become an anthropologist.” (p. 120).

Enslin is the author of an influential academic essay, ‘Beyond Writing: Feminist Practice and the Limits of Ethnography’, which I have been encouraged to read after reading this book.

While the Gods Were Sleeping is not a ‘mainstream’ book that a large number of readers will be able to identify with, but anyone with an interest in real South Asian issues, feminism, athropology and the developing world will find it immensely satisfying.

My new article in Intersections

intersections_logo

I’ve just had an article published in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, an open-access academic journal. It’s called ‘Reconciling Feminist and Anti-Caste Analyses in Studies of Indian Dalit-Bahujan Women’, and looks at the work of three publications by Indian feminist presses. It’s a modified and shortened version of one of the chapters of my PhD thesis.

This article is a good example of why I chose to leave academia (nothing to do with the article itself! But the publication process.) I first submitted this two years ago. I had to have my final changes made at the end of 2012. My final proofs were done in mid-2013. Yet it is only now being published. I’m not blaming anyone involved, but the whole academic publishing process means that studies are not reaching their target audience in a timely manner, even when there aren’t the physical logistics of printing and distribution involved–Intersections is an online journal. The system really needs an overhaul, but is unlikely to get it anytime soon. For example, I wrote this long before the author of one of the books discussed, Sharmila Rege, died last year. I wouldn’t necessarily have changed what the article contains after the news of her death reached me, but I may have wanted to add some kind of footnote in recognition of it.

But, all is well that ends well. Here is an extract from the article, and the rest of the article can be read by everyone (I love open-access academic journals, especially now that I’m no longer based at a university!) here.

“In the west the catchphrase ‘all the women are white, all the blacks are men’ came to capture black women’s feelings that they were alienated from both the feminist movement and the black civil rights movement. In India, there has been a ‘masculinization of dalithood and a savarnisation [upper-casteing] of womanhood. This paper examines three book-length studies of women’s involvement in anti-caste struggles that go some way in reconciling feminist and anti-caste positions concerning dalit-bahujan women: We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement, by Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon (Zubaan, 2008), Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Reading Dalit Women’s Testimonios by Sharmila Rege (Zubaan, 2006), and The Other Half of the Coconut: Women Write Self-Respect History, edited by K. Srilata (Kali for Women, 2003). All three books were published by leading Indian feminist presses. This paratextual fact is central to a key argument of mine—that recent, feminist-inspired histories of dalit-bahujan women are trying to reconcile the fissures between feminist and anti-caste analyses, but are not always entirely successful because one of the two modes of analysis remains dominant over the other. Feminist and anti-caste modes of analysis have not always complemented each other in activism or scholarly discourse, with ‘mainstream’ feminists often believing that their movement is caste-neutral, and lower-caste women believing that the feminist movement does not provide a space for their particular grievances, heavily marked by caste. I argue that these feminist studies attempt to reconcile a feminist analysis with an anti-caste one—that is, the authors and views expounded in the texts are informed by feminist and anti-caste positions. But, it is still evident that the two modes of analysis have an ambivalent relationship with each other. ‘Feminist’ often remains synonymous with ‘upper-caste.'”

Change, Mo Yan (2012)

Change, by Mo Yan. Translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. London, New York and Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2012 (2010).
Change, by Mo Yan. Translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. London, New York and Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2012 (2010). (Purchased in Nepal).

Chinese? Yes, a radical departure from what I normally read, let alone review. I spent far too many years restricting my reading while completing my PhD that expanding it to other places and genres and even genders still feels a bit naughty but also quite liberating. This short piece of autobiographical fiction/ fictional autobiography (?) by one of China’s pre-eminent authors was published by Kolkata-based Seagull Books, and it is really this fact that drew me to it (and motivated my inclusion of it here).

Seagull Books is a very interesting press specialising in publishing translations of radical writers, or non-fiction on ideas that many mainstream publishers overlook. They have published a large body of Mahasweta Devi’s work in English translation; produce a series on censorship (which includes a title on censorship and Islam penned by Kamila Shamsie); as well as curate the series that Mo Yan’s Change belongs to, provocatively titled “What Was Communism?” and edited by Tariq Ali.

Seagull Books deliberately positions itself as an international publisher based in India, rather than an ‘Indian publisher’ which, rightly or not, is a label that can suggest inferior quality to outsiders (though certainly less so these days, with the entry of many international publishers to India). Seagull’s production quality is not only good, it is excellent–eye-catching and innovatively designed. The cover art on their books by Mahasweta Devi is iconic, and this series on communism is just as distinctive, with bold red and yellow designs.

And what about Change itself? Described as a “novella disguised as an autobiography (or vice versa)” I’m not sure it was the best introduction to Mo Yan, who I had been intending to read for some time. The interest in an ‘autobiography’ of a writer whose other work one hasn’t read is limited. But it is certainly a title fitting to this series, as the narrator (whether that is Mo Yan himself, or some fictionalised avatar) recounts growing up in an often illogically rigid communist China. More of Mo Yan’s titles, translated by Howard Goldblatt, appear in the series.

Of Mothers and Others: Stories, Essays, Poems, ed. Jaishree Mishra (2013)

Of Mothers and Others

A surprisingly lovely book. I was prompted into buying this at the Jaipur Literature Festival after seeing it launched, and noting that some excellent writers were included: Urvashi Butalia, Mridula Koshy, Shashi Deshpande, among others whom I like. But I was a bit concerned that it might turn out to be earnest, or sentimental, or twee. Motherhood is a topic that could easily fall into these traps. But this book wasn’t any of these things, largely, I think, because of the enormous variety of genres and angles covered.

It would be easy to assume that you know what this book is about, and jump to conclusions. But despite the universality of the fact of motherhood (everyone was born from one), there is no uniformity, between or within societies, of what mothering physically, culturally, or psychologically constitutes. And this comes through perfectly in this book. Anita Roy, in her non-fiction “Eating Baby” somewhat comically recounts the angst of feeding her baby son. This is something that I think many non-mothers, or non-parents (like myself) would be quite surprised by. I hadn’t imagined it could be such a daunting task! Though I do remember my parents’ stories of how at a certain age I would turn my spoon upside down just before it entered my mouth, making mealtimes a very messy business. I hadn’t realised, though, that perhaps babies wouldn’t always want to eat. Or that when they can eat what things has to be thought about carefully, to avoid stressing their sensitive systems. I thought anything soft enough would do! This learning curve is something that Roy discusses. She also describes the raw emotions of the post-birth days, when things that would not normally have concerned her did:

“I was head-over-heels in love, of course—but more than that, overwhelmed by a kind of world-encompassing, almost intergalactic, compassion. The thought that there existed at that very moment other babies who were hungry, was almost too much to bear. I believe this is not uncommon. But slowly, as I returned to ‘normal’ after the radical, human openness of birth, the psychological defences came up, narrowing the love down somehow, focussing it like a beam, until I was again able to tolerate the intolerable, until other people’s hungry children seemed merely irritating, inevitable and nothing to do with me.” (pp.24-5)

Perhaps it is self-preservation that causes this, as daily life would be unbearable if one could not block out these terrors, though perhaps a more compassionate place. I am thinking of India now, particularly as I am in Calcutta as I write this.

I have had a number of conversations recently about the lack of humour in Indian writing. This was pointed out to me, for the first time I think, at the Jaipur Festival, but several other people I have spoken with in recent days have reiterated these feelings. Bulbul Sharma, then, is a welcome relief if one is looking for this type of writing. Her “Grandmother at Large” explores the joy of being a grandmother, and she admits that she thinks she loves her five grandchildren more than she does her own children:

“I am amazed that my children have managed to produce such perfect children. I repeat: I do love them more than my own. I love them with a pure, selfless, unconditional love just the way a mother rat loves her ugly babies.” (p. 102)

It is easy to laugh at painfully proud grandmothers who whip out the “brag book” at any pause in conversation, but Sharma also has the ability to laugh at herself. Describing her two-year-old twin grandsons:

“The world cannot touch me, no one can hurt me, irritate or upset me when the twins are with me, one perched on my shoulder, the other on my lap. ‘Dadi… so nice…’ they say. I am not sure whether they mean the picture in the book we are looking at or the chocolate in their mouth. I believe with all my heart they mean—me (though the other day they saw a picture of Kareena Kapoor and said, ‘So nice’ with equal, if not more, enthusiasm. I was a bit hurt at the sudden betrayal).” (pp. 108-9)

There are a number of accounts of coming to terms with having a child with a disability, and with the loss of mothers and children, which are deeply touching. Shalini Sinha’s “Amma and Her Beta” is a beautiful double tribute to her recently-dead mother, and her teenage son with Down’s Syndrome, to whom her mother was primary caregiver. Manju Kapur’s “Name: Amba Dalmia” is a painful and moving account of how she dealt with the sudden death of her twenty-one-year-old daughter, in 2001. When reading these accounts in particular I felt that this book should be read by all, women and men, as they are about humanity and parenting, though I suspect the vast majority of readers are likely to be women.

Amidst the personal memoirs, short stories and poetry is one academic-style essay by Sarojini N. And Vrinda Marwah, “Shake Her, She is Like the Tree that Grows Money!: Contests and Critiques in Surrogacy.” I’ll admit that surrogacy, whether “at home” or abroad, is not something that I have given much thought to, ever, and continues to be something that I don’t have strong opinions about. But one line really caught my attention and resonated with an itchy feeling that I’ve had for some time, and that I thought I was alone in feeling, about IVF in western countries:

“Feminist critiques of surrogacy have highlighted that the ART [Assisted Reproductive Technology] industry lies at the intersection of patriarchy and market, wherein these technologies meet rather than question the pressure on women to be mothers. These are expensive technologies with low success rates and significant health risks, and their ‘demand’ comes from and reinforces a culture that glorifies motherhood and biological determinism over other options such as adoption or even voluntary childlessness.” (p. 197)

I think this is something that needs to be examined more, at least within the societies I am most familiar with, but I don’t believe it will be anytime soon. It can be hard enough to broach the sensitive topic that perhaps not every woman should, or needs to be, a mother.

I only wish I could have passed this on to my own mother, almost three years gone now, who I think would have enjoyed reading it. And this state of being motherless is something that many of the authors in this book would understand perfectly.

[Of Mothers and Others: Stories, Essays, Poems. Ed. Jaishree Misra, foreword by Shabana Azmi. New Delhi: Zubaan and Save the Children, 2013.]

Dreaming in Hindi, Katherine Russell Rich (2009)

 

I picked up this book after a rather long hiatus from my own Hindi learning, feeling the need to get back into it and wanting some encouragement. I initially found Dreaming in Hindi a bit stilted, but as I got to know Katherine better, the book grew on me. When looking up images to add to this post whilst I was about half way through reading it, I was saddened to discover that the author died earlier this year, from the breast cancer that she had struggled with off and on for about half her life. The poignancy of the second half of the book was heightened by knowing this.

Dreaming in Hindi is a memoir of New Yorker Katherine Russell Rich’s year spent in Udaipur in 2001-02, studying Hindi. At forty-five years old, Rich had been through a lot in life—suffering from cancer twice before writing this book, losing her job, going through a divorce—and immersing herself in a completely new and different experience was her way of feeling alive. The year is tumultuous but ultimately rewarding and life changing for Rich.

Interspersed with her observations about life in Rajasthan, her American classmates, and the fallout from the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat—both of which happened while she was in India—are explorations of the linguistic theory behind the experience of learning a second language as an adult. Rich interviewed numerous linguists in the US and read a lot of the scholarship on the topic, to try to better understand what was happening to her brain as the Hindi slowly, but surely, took root. I haven’t read Rich’s first memoir, The Red Devil, about her battles with cancer, but I suspect this attempt to explore the workings of her brain as this new thing took root there may parallel how she attempted to understand the cancer spreading through her body. While this linguistic aspect of the book was interesting at times, I couldn’t help but feel that much of it was unnecessary. The memoir itself was strong enough to not need this. I found these parts a bit tedious, and I wanted to get back to the real story.

I enjoyed Rich’s humour, which enabled her to laugh at herself at times when she clearly felt out of her depth and uncomfortable as a foreigner in a small Indian city. As her Hindi progressed, she was able to make the kinds of connections and friendships with Indians that most foreigners would not be able to:

“With Hindi, I have the surprise element. “The first time I saw a Westerner speaking Hindi, it was like seeing a chicken barking,” Vidhu recently remarked. “Until then, I thought they were just coming here walking on their toes, looking at us like animals. But when a foreigner came to my house and started speaking Hindi, I was like, va! My whole world changed.” In France, the simple fact that I was saying it in their language elicited eye rolling and contempt. In India, I can mangle words till they squeak, but the fact that I’m saying anything at all provokes astonishment. “Oh, very good! Very good!” someone will invariably say after a sentence such as “Your shoes are nice.” I set up the cheap ego trick, fall for it constantly, don’t care that it’s merely proof that there aren’t a lot of other leghorns talking.” (p. 117)

Aside from this rather charming humour, I didn’t feel that Rich was a natural writer throughout much of the book. Parts of it were rather stilted or forced, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. It may have been that she dropped pronouns a lot of the time, giving the impression of an interior monologue with fragmented thoughts and feelings that trailed off sometimes. I got used to this pace, but before I did it felt quite awkward.

I’m about to do an intensive Hindi course in Delhi myself (though not for nearly as long as would be needed to bring me up to scratch) and Dreaming in Hindi has encouraged me that it might be possible to be proficient, one day. I’ve had the nagging feeling that I started out too late—taking up Hindi in my mid-late twenties—and I’d repeatedly heard that learning a new language in adulthood is just too hard. I refuse to believe it, and Dreaming in Hindi proves that it may be a challenge, but not impossible.

“An Unfinished Story: The Representation of Adivasis in Indian Feminist Literature”

An unfinished story: The representation of adivasis in Indian feminist literature

I got my third journal article published! This one has been in press for a very, very long time, so good to see it finally off my hands!

It’s in the journal Contemporary South Asia (vol. 20, issue 3) which is not an open-access journal, you’ll need a library subscription to see this one.

But here is the abstract:

Contemporary Indian feminism is concerned with a number of social justice issues, including the circumstances under which ‘adivasis’ or tribal people, live. India has a large body of work on these peoples, but much of this romanticises them and fails to treat them as the inhabitants of a modern, industrial and globalising India. In this article, I discuss two works published by Indian feminist presses that provide new and alternative ways of representing adivasis. Anita Agnihotri’sForest Interludes: A Collection of Journals and Fiction is a multi-genre collection that reflects the author’s time spent as an IAS officer in adivasi regions of eastern India. Agnihotri plays the dual role of privileged outsider and informed insider, which lends her narrative a forceful authority. Bhaskaran’s life story of the Keralite adivasi activist C.K. Janu, Mother Forest: The Unfinished Story of C.K. Janu, attempts to present adivasi politics as relevant to modern India, yet the formal structuring of the text and the stylistic choices made by the translator and editors undercuts this. Both Forest Interludes and Mother Forest contain formal and stylistic innovations and, though not without problems, they represent a promising departure from traditional literary representations of adivasis – a departure that situates these subaltern peoples within a more contemporary discursive field.

Curfewed Night: A Memoir of War in Kashmir, Basharat Peer (2011)

Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night is a moving memoir of an ordinary, middle-class, Muslim Kashmiri who has witnessed the destruction of his homeland. Writing on and from Kashmir has increased in the last few years–Urvashi Butalia’s Speaking Peace, Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator and Anjum Zamarud Habib’s Prisoner No. 100 (reviewed earlier by me) come to mind–but there is still a dearth of first-hand accounts from this region that is difficult to report from and relatively cut-off from the rest of India, psychologically as well as geographically.

Peer recounts his relatively peaceful early childhood in Kashmir, followed by his teenage years which saw Kashmir becoming increasingly militarised, his move to Aligarh, in Uttar Pradesh, to attend university, his time spent working as a journalist in Delhi, and finally his return to Kashmir. Despite his good job in Delhi, Peer felt the overwhelming desire, an obligation, to return to Kashmir and write about what he experienced in the state. As he writes:

“I had shared some stories with a few friends in Delhi, but I could never say everything. I would find myself stopping in the middle of a sentence, rendered inarticulate by memory. The telling, even in the shade of intimacy, was painful. And a sense of shame overcame me every time I walked into a bookstore. People from almost every conflict zone had told their stories: Palestinians, Israelis, Bosnians, Kurds, Tibetans, Lebanese, East Germans, Africans, East Timorese, and many more. I felt the absence of the unwritten books of the Kashmiri experience. The memories and stories of Kashmir that I had carried with me could fade away. I had to find the words to save them from the callous varnish of time. I had to write. And to write, I had to return and revisit the people and places that had haunted me for years.” (page 95)

This belief in the power of words, literature, reportage to help rectify the wrongs is repeated throughout the book. One cannot but help feel that it cannot make much difference to the situation, but that it is still necessary to expose the crimes in the hope that one day, enough people will be horrified by the brutality that some change can be made. Either way, the written and spoken word is all some people can do to try to make a difference.

The most poignant and horrifying tale that Peer tells in Curfewed Night, in my mind, is the story of Syed Abdul Rahman Geelani. A teacher of Arabic at Delhi University, Geelani was wrongly implicated in the attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001. Despite a strong defense which, from Peer’s account, unequivocally proved that the evidence upon which his charge was based was extremely flawed, Geelani was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was acquitted after appeal, and allowed to return to his teaching job at Delhi University, but one cannot imagine the effect that such a false accusation could have on a person’s life. Many other horrifying stories of torture, mistaken identity and sheer terror are recounted by Peer, imploring the reader to wonder, however naively, what on earth the Indian government thinks they are doing with Kashmir.

Peer finds, however, that the injustices are not all one-sided, and that however horrifically “India” has behaved in Kashmir, the Kashmiri militant separatists have been guilty, too. Peer speaks to one ex-militant who had been imprisoned and tortured, badly damaging his eyesight and ability to conduct a normal life. Once released from jail, the support he receives from the organisation he fought for, the JKLF (Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front) is inadequate. Meanwhile, the leaders of that organisation live in big houses with fancy cars, with no understanding or little compassion for the torture that the men fighting on their behalf have suffered.

It may be one of the biggest cliches around, but Curfewed Night demonstrates, first hand, that in war there are no winners.