Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Drawing a Line in Water

Our visit to the dargah (tomb) of the Sufi saint, Nizamuddin Auliya, in Delhi was one of the highlights of the trip for me.  As a scholar of popular Hinduism, our journey into the labyrinthine alleys that lead to the tomb was a trip into another of India's remarkable religious worlds, one that I had only read about it in books.   Dargahs are well-known as sites of religious syncretism in the subcontinent, open to people of many faiths.  It could have been places like this that prompted the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh (1615-1659) to answer, when asked to demarcate the differences between religions, "How can you draw a line in water?" Here, everyone who seeks inspiration can come sit in the presence of the deceased saint's baraka (the healing, empowering divine force that flows from God through those closest to Him).

Nizamuddin Shrine in daytime; we saw it at night.
It was fascinating, and disturbing, to see the stark ways in which the dargah's space was gendered.  In the middle of the main inner courtyard sat the saint's tomb raised on a marble plinth, his mausoleum sheltered within a marble structure with lattice windows and covered with a blanket of fragrant rose petals.  Women were not allowed inside, so I dutifully handed my offering to Alan, entrusting him with my wish, and proceeded clockwise around the shrine.  Two sides of the plinth on which the tomb sat were fully occupied by women and children. Taking the women's cue I walked up one of the lattice windows and peered in at the men inside circling around the tomb, white prayer caps on their hands and their hands full of roses.  From where our group stood, awkwardly (note to self, 27 is too large a group to bring to an "off the beaten path" site), we had a good view of both the male qawwali singers seated in the courtyard directly facing the door to the saint's shrine and a smaller enclosed courtyard where women danced and shrieked, whirling their unbound hair in the characteristic pan-Indian sign of spiritual possession.

Prestige, money, and honor flowed richly around the male singers. It is always intriguing to see how money is transacted in a religious space (and I'm hard pressed to think of many where money does not change hands, somehow or another) - here the devotees of the saint, or fans of the singers, would approach a "manager" seated next to the singers, opening their wallets.  The manager would flip through the bills and remove one of an appropriate denomination, but still the devotee would insist - take more, take more.  What a way to give!  So different from the petty calculations that preoccupy me before I offer a gift, in whatever context.

To our right, a very different scene unfurled.  Around this space circulated stigma, suffering, healing, conflict.  We did not go inside as that would have been, in my view, too intrusive, so it's hard to describe exactly.  But what I saw resonated with what I've read in Carla Bellamy's and Sudhir Kakar's work on sufi shrines in India.  In addition to fans of qawwali and devotees of the saint, dargahs also attract those afflicted with spirit possession.  The women's bodily contortions, flailing limbs and wails were all indications of a battle going on within the possessed individual as the djinn that possessed her encountered the baraka of the saint.   The mental health infrastructure in India leaves a lot to be desired.  Dargahs (along with Hanuman temples, goddess temples and other places for "chasing out demons") are where people suffering from all kinds of conditions we might call depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, etc. come for what amounts to family therapy.  Rarely does a female (or male) patient come alone. Whatever afflicts the patient is connected to a whole network of beings - family members, djinns, the patient herself, the saint, God - and so her treatment and cure also entail changes made within this network.

It's easy to see contrast between the men's side of the shrine and the women's as a clear reflection of  gender oppression in South Asian society.   Indeed, I see it that way too.  But in my view, the most important lessons of cross-cultural encounter begin when one takes the critical insights drawn from analyses of gender and power, race and class in another context and apply them to one's own.  What good does it do, really, to just point a finger at Indian Muslims and say - look how oppressive their gender relations are!  In my view, without a self-reflexive turn at some point, such analyses have a tendency to leave one feeling satisfied and maybe even a bit superior about one's own (terribly flawed) society.   The dargah's division of space reminds me of many places on Colgate's campus - for example, the gym: where women upstairs on stationary bicycles peddle furiously away in silence getting thin,  while the men work out with the weights downstairs getting buff.   We could get even more traction discussing the gendered organization of space at The Jug, Hamilton's notorious student watering hole.   All this came up in discussion the next morning over the breakfast buffet and over chaat at the Sundar Nagar Sweet Shoppe, and made me grateful for so many thoughtful, critical, honest and open-minded colleagues.  As a measure of how stimulating our discussions were, I'm still thinking about them at 4 am, when I arise too early here at home, part of me still back in India. 

As we make our re-entry to this time zone, I wonder what aspects of life in India make people think in new ways about our lives in the US? 


7 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for helping us all think through this challenging moment, Eliza. It is definitely one of ones I'll continue chewing over (both for its own sake and for my own complicated reactions to it) for a long time.

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  2. Abhinav MaheshwariJanuary 18, 2012 at 6:37 AM

    Good post Eliza. I actually lived near the dargah, in Nizamuddin East, for a year, before coming to Colgate. Not to miss your point, but the Kareem's in Nizamuddin West has one of the best mughlai food in Delhi :) Hope you get to try it. All my best wishes! Abhinav (I am in Hong Kong these days).

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    1. How excellent to hear from you, Abhinav! We did go to Kareem's afterwards, and filled their entire basement dining room. The chicken tikka was one of the absolute top meals of the trip, for me, and given fourteen days of amazing meals, that's really saying something. I hope all is well with you in HK!

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  3. Gender is certainly an issue in other parts of the world. It is an issue at home, and you're right, sometimes you need that moment where, instead of judging, you use it to reflect. Thanks for this post, you've made me think a lot more about many things.

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  4. Relevant. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFh5F8cFb3g

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    1. Anonymous - that clip from Miss Representation, about the extremely distorted views of gender we consume through the US media is totally relevant. Thank you!

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  5. Excellent post, Eliza. I am really enjoying the variety of lenses being used in this blog!

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