Sunday, December 23, 2012

Protesting Rape in New Delhi

Running away from tear-gas (the smoke that you see).
Tens and thousands of protesters with placards lined up the avenue from India Gate to the Rashrapati Bhavan, all the news channels reported, to demand justice for the gang-rape of a 23 year old in a public bus who is still in a critical condition at a hospital in Delhi. The politicians, the law enforcers, and the public, for once seemed to be on the same page in terms of condemning the brutal attack. I had to see it for myself for this, I felt, was a sign of a progressive India that would not stand for such heinous crimes.

Yes, there probably were about a hundred thousand people there, may be more.  It was heartening to see so many people out on the streets. The news channels called it the largest protest against rape in Delhi.

The warm fuzzy feeling in my heart subsided soon. Here is why:

Damper 1: Blood Lust

One of the many lamp-posts "occupied" by protesters.
Alongside the cries of “We Want Justice!” were the following slogans and placards:

-          Rape the Accused
-          Hang the Rapists
-          Goli Maro Saloko (Shoot the bastards)
-          Delhi Police Ek Kam Karo, Churiya Pehenke Dance Karo (Delhi Police do one thing, wear bangles and dance)
-          An Eye for an Eye – So, what for Rape?
-          Yes it is another story. It has to be the last story. Only Death Sentence
-          Law for Rapist – Hang till Death. Or no Vote.
-          Capital Punishment is not a Solution. Make the accused rapists suffer Castration.
-          We want Justice for the Innocent. Hang them to death.

While you could probably find a few who were against capital punishment, the popular demand of the day was for death, along with some sexist chants about effeminate policemen. They all seemed to be out for blood.

Damper 2: Aggressive Policemen

The protesters were out for blood, yes, but all they were doing was chanting and marching up and down. There were some who were trying to break down a barricade that the police had set up, but largely it was a peaceful protest. Yet, the policemen that surrounded the Presidential Palace felt the need to use tear gas and water cannons on the crowds. If the crowds were unruly, it was only in situations where people tried to escape the police attacks.

I was surprised. I could not understand why the police would behave this way. Do people not have the right to protest in democratic India? At a time when state officials spoke along the same lines in terms of condemning the rape, why do the state representatives on the ground (aka the police) behave differently?

Damper 3: Gnawing Questions

  1. If Delhi is the Rape Capital, why was this the first time that people came out on the streets in such large numbers? “Because it could’ve been me,” said a friend. And that is the harsh reality. When a rape takes place in a capital city, in a public bus, to an urban, middle-class woman, people identify with it and they protest. There is no such empathy for rapes that occur in rural areas and slums, for Dalit rape victims, for adivasi rape victims, rape victims in Kashmir or in Chhattisgarh. So, perhaps there will be some justice in this case, but rape will probably still go on.
  2. To what extent was this rape a product of “neoliberal India”? This was a case of poor fruit vendors and petty salesmen raping a middle-class woman. Were they reacting to the woman or to the system that creates these harsh inequalities in such a brutal fashion? Has the system, by focusing on economic wealth only, neglected those who were left behind, who can only find expression in such unimaginably cruel acts?

There is a silver lining, however: Today, the whole of India seems to be against rape. That may not be good enough, but it is a start; a start to understand that rape is not only about individual responsibility, but also about social responsibility.

 - Saturday, December 22, 2012

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Power, power, super-power!

 Yes, it was the world's "biggest" power-failure affecting 600 million people in the north and in the east. Yes, the metro in Delhi stopped working and many passengers were stranded. Yes, it happened in the world's largest democracy. And yes, if you happened to open Google News on July 31, you have seen coverage from across the world with not only descriptions but prescriptions for resolving power crises.

Points to ponder:

1)     It is via Google News that I learned of the power crisis. Why is this important? Because the culture of "power back-ups" may well have contributed to the persistence of an inefficient power system.

2)     Is this kind of power-failure a political move by the government? Anna Hazare seems to think so: a conspiracy to dismantle protest in front of Jantar Mantar by preventing people from attending the hunger-strike using metros.  It sounds a little too conspiratorial and too costly a move, but you never know, I guess!

3)     A reshuffle of the cabinet following the power-outage indicates that the government is embarrassed. And with good reason. How can India be the "next super power" with such power failures?!

4)     For neo-liberalized India, quick solutions are to be found in further liberalization, it looks like. Reuters ran a story yesterday on how to find hope in India's power outage, arguing this outage will spur reforms and investments and can change the experience of liberalization itself. Does anyone remember the sections on incrementalism in Stiglitz's Globaliation and its Discontents? Please review? 

5)     I think it's worthwhile to pause. Yes, 600 million people were affected by this outage for several hours. But, people are affected everyday by a phenomenon known as "load-shedding" which can last for up to three/four hours a day in some areas. How different was this power-outage from load-shedding for the aam (ordinary people)?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The New India

When I went to India as part of the "Group of 27" in January, I had wondered whether the India we were experiencing was the "real" India as we tried to grapple with its many contrasts – the fancy hotels adjacent to slums; the 'mega' malls next to makeshift tea-stalls; the Mercedes-Benz riding alongside a bull-cart. In our attempt to understand the essence of India, we rode the metro, cycle-rickshaws, and auto-rickshaws, we shopped in crowded bazaars, bargained with road-side vendors, drank tea at rudimentary tea-stalls, and ate at road-side dhabas.  Even then, many of us came back to the US feeling that we did not mingle enough; that our presence was a bit 'imperial'.

This time, unaccompanied by my American colleagues, I wondered what would happen. And now that I am here, I am somewhat overwhelmed by all the glitz. I realize that as absurd as it may sound, my experience in January was one where I saw more of the "99%", if you will. Here are some examples:

·        Last time, the fanciest store we saw was Fabindia – a socially responsible local clothes store. This time, all the malls I've been to are much like the malls in the US, with even the same retail stores. From Puma and Diesel to KFC and Chilis, neo-liberalized India has it all!

·        This time, several people made comments to the effect "money is not an object", "money is not an issue" during conversations/negotiations, something I admit I only heard in movies till now. Some lessons in humility, perhaps?

·        Last time, we didn't get a good sense of the difference that caste makes. Perhaps I didn't look at the right place. The 5-page "matrimonial" section of the weekend edition of the Times of India not only highlights the importance of caste, but also class. The different ads are classified according to the key desirable criterion: Brahmin, Khatra, Aggarwal, Bisa Aggarwal, Sikh, and so on (I have to admit that I don't know what some of these even mean: what does it mean to be an Aggarwal?).  Most are accompanied by phrases such as "high status and respectable business family desirable". Invariably, the ads are placed by "extraordinarily beautiful, slim, and fair" women and "well-qualified, clean-shaven, handsome" men who are engineers/NRIs.

·        Last time, I didn't realize that Delhi wasn't a "safe place for women". Also, in some ways, being surrounded by white Americans had its advantages: no one would dare harm a foreigner (read white foreigner).  This time, I have to be more careful about what I wear and how I look. To add to the worries, the Chief Minister stated that "women should not dress provocatively" (ah, if a mullah had said this, all hell would've broken loose).

Sunday, April 1, 2012

India in the Classroom: What are our Students saying about Indian Nationalism?

Are our students able to engage material on India in a thought-provoking, intelligent, and sensitive manner? I present the thoughts of two students in POSC 364: Politics of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who ponder about the trials of the “nationalist project” in India in the midst of decolonization and take varied positions. How does Partition fit in within the context of independence from British rule, they muse.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

One morning in Delhi

One morning in Delhi, April, Dai and I walked in the direction of the metro station a few miles from our hotel where we would later meet most of the group.  We were walking on the gravel just off the paving of a fairly busy two lane light commercial road.   Just ahead of me and only a few meters to the left, a toddler in a short mustard-colored sweater, a boy not more than eighteen-months-old was squatting on the gravel pooping.  (I thought about using the word “defecating” but it seemed to erase the feeling of affection for this child that I wanted to convey); he looked to me like a brown version of our son, Ben at that age, and I was flooded with identification, a memory of the feel of baby skin and the joy of a beloved body doing its maintenance work.   

Farther to the left was a blue camping tarp held up by six or eight irregular poles, tree branches a couple inches in diameter and about five feet tall.   Next to the plastic-rooved but wall-less room was a small woman in a very beautiful turquoise sari, who appeared to be whisking something in a large metal bowl.  There was a man behind her who was calling to the toddler.  I felt like a voyeur and averted my eyes, but then caught the bed under the tarp.  A pile of familiar looking comforters was folded back, revealing white sheets; this bed could have been my own; I experienced that cold-morning-in-Hamilton pull of the warm bed. 

The cost of my hotel room could have fed this family for weeks, I thought.  What right did I have to be here with my significant carbon footprint, my ignorance of the language, my invasion of a family’s privacy first thing in the morning?  These thoughts did not erase the sense memory of that child’s skin, the pull of the bed, the brilliance of the turquoise sari.

I am not a naïve person, and I am well aware of my unearned privilege.  I am sixty years old, I have worked in shelters and taught in poor rural and urban areas of the US, lived in a village in Montenegro, and traveled in Central America and Palestine.   But this memory of the family on the gravel in Delhi has not left me for more than a few hours since we returned from India.  I can’t say what I am doing with it, only that I continue to experience the silent encounter as a gift, even as I make no new sense of  the cruel contrast of our circumstances.    


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

India in CORE China

Workers in a denim factory, southern China.
Image from the documentary China Blue
Workers in the recycling industry, Dharavi slum, Mumbai
Source:Korea Times

When we returned from India in January, we had one week before spring semester classes began.  All I could think about was India, but I had to prepare a class on China.  More specifically, I had to prepare the class I teach for Colgate’s CORE Cultures and Identity program, an interdisciplinary course which lets me teach about Chinese history, society, political economy, art, religion, food, literature and anything else I can stuff into the 15-week semester.  Normally I love preparing this class, but this time my brain only wanted to think about Indian history, society, political economy, art, religion, food, and literature.  I found myself reading novels about India (Mistry’s A Fine Balance), histories of India (Dalrymple’s City of Djinns), looking up World Bank statistics about India, Googling Bollywood films…. I had to cut myself off and get to work.

I decided to sign up to teach my Nations and Nationalism course next year, so I could indulge in a whole unit on India.  (I wonder if I can assign all 944 pages of Ram Guha’s India after Gandhi? Will students freak out when they see its telephone book-like heft? But it's such a fabulous read!) 
But in the meantime, I want to find ways to bring India into my course on China. I always start off the course by giving students some statistics about China in comparison to other countries.  I don't give them any background or explanation, but instead let them peruse the data to see what they notice.   This year, I featured India prominently. For example, one of the tables I offered looks at GDP/per capita and growth rates:

Comparing China with Selected Countries 1980-2010
GDP/per cap*
Growth rate %
Growth rate %
India GDP/pc*
India growth rate %
Syria GDP/pc*
Syria Growth Rate
*current US $
Data from World Bank, World Development Indicators

As I hoped, my students noticed that China, India, and Syria are all very poor countries in comparison to the United States.  They also note that China's economic growth in the last two decades has been exceptional.  Compared to China, India looks like an underachiever.  (This is something that many Indians obsess a great deal about, as I pointed out in a previous blog post, “Chinese in India.”)  But compared to Syria (or Haiti or Indonesia or Romania or Nigeria), India’s economic growth looks very impressive. 

I also plan to bring India into class later this semester when we look at the manufacturing economy that is the driver behind China's economic growth.  In that unit, I have my students watch China Blue, a documentary about Chinese workers in a denim factory.  Students find this film eye-opening and often emotionally devastating.   They are appalled to see young men and women (mostly women) their age - and much younger - working to exhaustion to produce blue jeans for lower and lower prices.  They not only find the exploitation horrifying, but also express disgust at the living conditions for the workers: tiny concrete dorm rooms stuffed with eight or ten girls, squat toilets, no hot running water.  I have heard former students exclaim, months after they saw the video, that they still feel guilty every time they buy a pair of jeans.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Difficult Lesson

When we are young we understand only part of what travel is about: we think the point is to learn about other places.  Only when we’re older do we understand that travel offers us the chance to learn important things about ourselves.  And sometimes it doesn’t just give us the chance at such lessons– it forces them upon us.  This is the story of such a moment. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Reflections: Faces of India

A month ago we were in Gurgaon and Delhi, on the last leg of our trip, wondering whether we have “taken in” enough of India to say something meaningful about the world’s largest democracy. Fearing that we hadn’t seen enough “people”, some of us scurried off to overly-crowded shopping areas such as Chandni Chawk and New Market, before joining the group at Nizamuddin’s Darga. “We will see ‘real India’,” we told ourselves.

A month has passed and I wonder, have we seen real India? What is real India? Who is a typical Indian? And here, I have to falter, as I process the images of the various faces we encountered:

• The bus-attendant who put out a stool and held our arms as we got off the bus every time.

•The bus driver who only smiled as we got on or got off.

• The various guides we had, each with different accents, but with grand stories about the places we were visiting.

• The street vendors who would not leave us alone.

• The coconut-water-wallah who gave me a brown coconut although I wanted a green one.

• The road-side chai-wallahs who thought I was an NRI (non-resident Indian).

• The road-side candy-wallahs who were surprised that all I wanted was aam-goli.

• The auto-rickshaw driver whose family moved from Pakistan in 1947.

• The store-owners in Chandni Chawk who said, “How the hell did they get in here?” referring to the group of four women who did not look like each other at all (Carolyn, Beth, April, and I)!

• Other store owners in Chandni Chawk who took us through alleys and winding stairs to their stores to show us beautiful sarees.

• The rickshaw-wallahs who were bemused by 27 foreigners riding rickshaws to Jama Masjid.

• The women in the “women only” section of the train who giggled watching Chris make self-deprecating comments about ignorant Americans to justify his presence.

• The half-naked priests in various temples who blessed us with garlands and rose-petals.

• Fully-clothed priests who offered us Prasad in the form of cookies.

• The hotel staff who were always, without fail, very courteous and helpful.

• The researcher who was very polished and well-spoken.

• The Colgate alum who started a new tourism company.

• The people in the “Muslim areas” who dressed very differently.

• The local tourists who were posing for photographs every now and then, very much like many of us.

• The “student” who was not a “guide” (but he was!).

• The group of protesters who looked like they were at a fair, having a good time.

• The tout who wanted to show me an elephant.

• The little girl who managed to sell me five necklaces, five pairs of anklets, and also got me to buy her ice-cream (she's the one in the picture; photo credit: Chris Henke).

I realize I can go on and on about the faces of India. And I also realize there is no one face. We probably have some notion of what a typical Indian looks like or is like, but that is also probably a constructed image that we have created out of the snippets of information we have on India: call centers, Bollywood, insurgency, Kashmir, IT, computers, Slumdog Millionaire, and so on! In a way, we really haven’t seen “real India,” but is there a “real India”?

Photo: Girl with the necklaces by Chris Henke.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sunil Gaur, the naturalist who spoke to us at the bird sanctuary in Bharatpur, sent me these recent photos of some of the wildlife we were lucky enough to see when we visited. Sunil welcomes dialogue with Colgate naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

India in the classroom

One of the most memorable experiences I had in India came on the last day, when we visited the Delhi Handicrafts Museum. This is a museum where one can encounter not only works of art, but living artists, who come to the museum from all over India and produce their works and sell them directly to visitors. Visitors are able to meet and talk to the makers of the objects they buy.

During our visit, I noticed that David Dudrick appeared to be having a very intense interaction with a woman standing in front of some large painted scrolls. She was singing and gesturing to the images. David was clearly very moved by it, and I snapped his picture.

I stayed and listened a while longer. I learned that the woman, whose name is Mommi Chitrakar, is a maker of something called a "pat," a scroll that illustrates a song (or serves as an aide-memoire to the singer). She was selling scrolls that depicted a variety of stories, including an episode of the Ramayana (which, naturally, was purchased -- see my previous post, "Shadows of Homer"), as well as one about the Titanic (which seemed to be closely based on the movie). She was more than happy to sing all the scrolls' songs for us. Eventually, she showed us one about the 2004 tsunami. Here is a video taken by Dai Yamamoto of her singing this song: video link

Monday, January 23, 2012


If I'd been asked to guess before our trip what scents I would remember most from India, I would have been wrong.

I probably would have guessed "curry," which would have been wrong in several ways, not the least of which is that "curry" isn't actually a food category in India; it's a word that's been imposed by Western culture to describe a wide variety of different Indian dishes.

I might have gone on to guess "incense", or, maybe, if I'd been thinking about the more negative stereotypes, "sweat," or, "urine."

Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Chinese in India

I can pass as a local in China,
 but not in India
In her post, “I Am a Good Muslim: I Wear the Veil,” Navine Murshid describes being mistaken for an Indian, and a Hindu.  Although Navine and I wandered through those alleys near Nizamuddin Dargah together, my experience was in some ways the opposite of hers.  In India, I felt like I found out what it's like to be white.

I have traveled in non-Western countries before, but only in East and Southeast Asia, where my Chinese ancestry gives me the privilege of hiding or displaying my first world, Western status almost at will.  In China, where I spent many years working and doing research, in Thailand, and Korea, I could choose to fade into the crowd (or be treated to cheaper prices) by speaking Chinese/keeping my mouth shut, modifying my posture, and inching away from my non-Asian travel companions (including my 6’2” green-eyed husband.).  When I wanted to be treated as a wealthy American (to get good service, or just to sail unquestioned into a fancy hotel lobby to use the toilet), I would lift my chin, put a confident bounce into my step, and (most importantly) chat loudly in fluent American English.

my top 25

Toward the end of our trip, I started asking many of my colleagues to tell me about their favorite moments from India, as well as their "not in Kansas anymore" experiences.  As I listened to their answers, I realized that it is really hard to pick just one example for each.  To process and distill some of my memories from the trip, I decided to make a gallery of just 25 of the many pictures I took in India.  It was really hard to choose just 25...and the exercise made me realize the limitations of photography for representing a place and the range of experiences that one can have there.  But in the end I tried to select photographs and write captions that convey some of the (often contradictory) emotions and encounters from the trip.

Friday, January 20, 2012


Early in the trip, we went to Auroville, a utopian community started by a woman called The Mother to live by the teachings of a sage by the name of Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo was educated in Great Britain, but later renounced his active life and settled in Pondicherry. He died in the early 1950s. His spiritual companion, the Mother, led the community and supervised the building of the shrine you see here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Like many of my fellow travelers, I imagine, I have spent the days since we landed re-acclimating, trying to right a wayward stomach, to persuade my circadian rhythm of the fact of Eastern standard time. Many times the past few days I have been awake when I ought to have been asleep (and vice versa, of course) and it is in these waking moments that I have given the India trip my most sustained thought. Much of the thought has been intellectual, but some of it has been purely visceral. I have felt profound relief and gratitude opening the tap and drinking the clean Hamilton water.

If potable water seems a luxury, all the more so a pantry full of food and a warm house whose construction has long been complete. A stable internet connection—something that eluded me the entirety of the trip—seems positively decadent.