Saturday, December 31, 2011

on the road!

We left Colgate via bus this morning at 9:15, on our way to JFK. First stop? A McDonalds just off Route 17. Nothing gets you ready for a trip to India like a Big Mac. Actually, I saw mostly cups of coffee in the hands of my colleagues. About two more hours and we'll be at the airport...then two long flights until arrival early Monday morning in Chennai, India.

Update: now at JFK, boarding soon. New Year celebrations somewhere high over the Atlantic...

Day before Departure

Having a developing country background I am always excited to see other " third world" nations. Trinidad and Tobago has a dynamic south Asian ancestry and so for me, this is a great opportunity to visit one of the main countries that has a large diaspora of the Indian sub continent. Will the food be similar, will the phenotypes be similar? Will I feel at home in a new land or will I feel disconnected? As I prepare for India lots of things are going through my mind.  What will I see? How will I react? Will I handle the poverty? What are the environmental concerns?

Suitcases packed - Checked
Immunizations, Passport and Visa - check...
Rupees - check....

All set to go!!! !

Friday, December 30, 2011

Packing and charging and syncing

Well, we're off tomorrow morning.  It feels like the trip has already begun for me in some ways because I said goodbye to my girls in Belmont (MA) this afternoon and drove back to Hamilton.  I'm now frantically packing, charging every battery in sight, and syncing all the electronic things I have acquired for the trip.

WWKMS? (What Would Karl Marx Say?)

I have to admit that I have never been comfortable doing non-academic public writing. I have never blogged before. So, with your indulgence, I am going to warm up to the enterprise of interesting and approachable traveloging by writing about Karl Marx.

Never fear, though: I have enhanced my blog entry with this endearing photo of Friedrich Engels!

There is no longer an official caste system in India. It was outlawed in the 1950 Constitution of India. Yet, the issue of caste still features prominently in the minds of many Americans, and, as a recent New York Times article reveals, it endures in subtle and surprising ways within Indian society.

As the NYT puts it, “certain cultural affinities remain” between caste and career paths in India such that it is often still difficult for people with certain surnames and/or family lineages to break into prestigious careers.

In recent years, however, capitalism has changed this. To some extent, anyway.

The NYT article quotes Chandra Bhan Prasad, an activist for members of India’s so-called “untouchable” caste: the Dalits.

“Because of the new market economy, material markers are replacing social markers. Dalits can buy rank in the market economy. India is moving from a caste-based to a class-based society, where if you have all the goodies in life and your bank account is booming, you are acceptable.”

Even if my trip to India didn’t have the Core curriculum at its center, a quote like this would inevitably bring Karl Marx to my mind. In 1848, Marx (and poor, neglected Friedrich Engels, of course) claimed that capitalism tends to eradicate traditional social stratifications. In place of the “complicated arrangement of society into various orders,” it creates “two great classes directly facing each other – bourgeoisie and proletariat” (Communist Manifesto, Section I).

According to the NYT, this leveling quality of the free market is an example of “the messy and maddening road to progress in India.” I doubt that anyone would dispute the felicity of the social empowerment of India’s Dalits. Who wouldn’t view such a development as “progress”?

Well, Marx and Engels, for one, couched their analysis of modern society in a recognition of the ambivalence of capitalism’s leveling logic. This logic, they observed,

has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors", and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment". It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade (Ibid).

I’m not sure how to come to terms with the tension articulated here, but I hope that this trip will afford me the opportunity to think it over in the company of some interesting people.

What do you think?

Pre-India Jitters

The trip to India has generated a lot of excitement on campus. Finishing grading, in particular, has opened up the doors for extensive speculation and castle-building regarding all that will happen in India. The last minute concerns seem to do with phones – where to get sim cards? Will our local phones work there? Will we have to sell our kidneys for a cell phone?


It has been difficult to be party to all this pre-travel enthusiasm owing to the sudden death of my close friend and coauthor, Jalal Alamgir. I have contemplated dropping out of the trip many a time in the last three weeks, but I will go in the name of this friend whose short life was a wonder and an inspiration. He worked on India and didn't like the place very much (mostly because of the research-restrictions that the government had imposed on him when he was writing a book), but he has always been ready for exploration and adventure. In that spirit, here I go.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Two passages

I've been reading Stanley Wolpert's A New History of India in preparation for the trip.  I'm still on the early pages (and therefore still in very ancient time!), but I wanted to share two passages that struck me, as I thought they might be illustrative of what I hope to get out of the trip.

So, passage one:

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

And what to wear?

What to wear?  No idea.  When I visited Egypt two years ago I was determined not to wear shorts and tee-shirts and look like a tourist.  Conveniently, this allowed me to wear what I always wear, even when I got to ride a camel:

Monday, December 19, 2011

how many trees does it take to gobble up 15,000 miles of carbon?

In just 12 days I will be boarding a jet at JFK International Airport, bound for India.  As we lift off from New York, there will be a lot of things on my mind about the trip---what will we see? what will we eat? when do we get to meet Aishwarya Rai?  Finding out the answers to these questions is going to be an amazing adventure.  But there is one question I have already figured out: what is the "carbon footprint" of sending 27 Colgate faculty to the other side of the world, and back?

Twelve Days until Departure

As you’ll know from the title of this blog, Colgate University is sending twenty-seven of its faculty members to India for two weeks in January in order to enrich the Core curriculum. I am one of the lucky twenty-seven, and I confess to being utterly daunted.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

India and the utopian sprit

The Fall semester’s planning has been interrupted by a series of stimulating conversations that give a foretaste to what we have to look forward to in India: a series of discussions of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita with the Core 151 faculty, a performance by Bharatanatyam dancers, Vijay Palaparthy and Nalini Prakash (Vijay was a student of Bill Skelton, an extraordinary Colgate professor who led generations of students to Chennai on Colgate’s India Study Group), and a discussion of Aravind Adiga’s Booker-award winning novel, The White Tiger.

A Blur of Details

This is page one of fifteen.
The expedition so far has been a blur of details:
  • hotel reservations
  • plane reservations
  • passports and visas
How long does it take to drive from Mammalapuram to the Chennai airport? Can we use our ATM cards in India? Will our cell-phones work there?  What should we bring?  Imagine a two-week family vacation to India - with 27 family members!  

Thankfully we’ve been supported so well by so many people: Sue Odell, the Adminstrative Assistant in University Studies, the good patient folks in Accounting, including Tom O’Neill and Tracy Ogren, Ben Oliver of the Outdoor Education Program, Communications and ITS, the Print Shop and the Colgate Book Store.  It’s truly been a team effort, and though it’s a challenge sometimes to work across all the different parts of the university, that’s what makes it fun too.

I have a feeling our suitcases will be stuffed with some well-deserved presents from India on the return journey.