The model minority: Indians in the US

So, today I shared a wonderful statement of solidarity written by a student in the Indian American community. It outlines how there are Indians in the US who stay neutral, or even try to distances themselves from other minorities that are not “models” – and that instead, we should all stand in solidarity against all minority-phobias. I was excited that she had articulated the statement so powerfully, and wanted to share it widely.

At around the same time, ironically, a certain Indian immigrant to the US that I know posted this on Facebook:

Screenshot 2017-04-13 23.06.42

Women can finally now use their maiden names in their passports in India, and all this person could think to compare that to is to autocratic countries that require males to sign consent documentation for women to travel/etc.? Since when has comparing to the worst ever meant that you are doing well (doesn’t it usually mean you’re doing pretty badly, when all you can compare to is the worst in a distribution?)

And why, oh why, the need to make veiled insults at “that other” – those Muslim countries (by the way, not all, and by the way, go to certain cities in certain Middle Eastern/Muslim-majority countries and you’ll see gender norms and treatment far more advanced than that in Delhi, for example).

Why in the WORLD should we compare the advancement of women’s freedoms in one place to another in the first place? So like, if the government hypothetically used to beat women and now the prime minister said that was no longer allowed, would we then say “less violence against women, delighted. ps: far better than countries where systematized killing of women is happening!” How ridiculous.

It enrages me that this is seen to be another “move” in a competition of who’s best and most powerful, one religion somehow claiming it can trump another. Come on. It’s about universal, basic equality that women in India were supposed to have in the first place, and they’re “getting the right” to put their maiden names in their passports in 2017.


On listening

Will the ideals you defend today stand the test of time? Are you on the right side of history? Are you trying to give people freedom or take it away from them through oppression, false propaganda, and taking advantage of the power imbalances in the places you have a voice because of your demographics, what position in society you were born into, what bubble you call your own?

Why is it so easy for a middle class Indian immigrant to defend an “Indian Kashmir” from afar, for a white American couple to defend the actions of Trump, for a Hindu prime minister to spread lies about demonetization having an effect on “Pakistani black money”, for a billionaire white man to restrict a free press, for a fake newspaper to spread lies about “love jihad”, for a white press secretary to spread lies about Islamic terrorism? For an Indian American man raised in a community where he was able to get ahead to extrapolate that that must be the experience of an African American too? For men to tell their housewives in the 1910s that they don’t need suffrage, for women to wait 50 years after African American men got it, because false propaganda claimed that “90% of women either do not want it or do not care.” (Sounds a little like the current POTUS’s false estimates on various situations…)

Source: The Atlantic, 2012

For one woman in the 70s…or today… in the US to proclaim that we have “enough” rights when another woman doesn’t feel that way, and the statistics show we don’t have equal rights. For another woman now in India to proclaim she doesn’t want to go out at night so who cares what safety is like, she doesn’t need to be out at that time anyway, while another one wants to, or needs to be – for her livelihood, for her desire. Why is it that you think that what is enough for you is enough for another person living in another situation?

I’ve been thinking: we need to check our privilege, yes, but we need to check our voices, too. Who are we to speak for others who are out there speaking for themselves? Maybe we just need to listen for a little while, and amplify the voices of those who are already speaking for themselves.

The inevitable culmination of every society doesn’t have to be…

“Anthropology at that time was in transition, moving from the study of men dead and gone to the study of living people, and slowly letting go of the rigid belief that the natural and inevitable culmination of every society is the Western model.”
Lily King, Euphoria

“I asked her if she believed you could ever truly understand another culture. I told her the longer I stayed, the more asinine the attempt seemed, and that what I’d become more interested in is how we believed we could be objective in any way at all, we who each came in with our own personal definitions of kindness, strength, masculinity, femininity, God, civilization, right and wrong.”
Lily King, Euphoria

“Why are we, with all our “progress,” so limited in understanding and sympathy and the ability to give each other real freedom? Why with our emphasis on the individual are we still so blinded by the urge to conform? … I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work, in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be. And maybe I will never find it all in one culture but maybe I find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world.”
Lily King, Euphoria

“But I don’t trust a crowds – hundreds of people together without cognition and only the basest impulses: food, drink, sex. Fen claims that if you just let go of your brain, find another brain, the group brain, the collective brain, and that it is an exhilarating form of human connection that we have lost in our embrace of the individual except when we go to war. Which is exactly my point.”
Lily King, Euphoria

“When only one person is the expert on a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read the analysis?”
Lily King, Euphoria

“I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work, in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be.”
Lily King, Euphoria

“The truth you find will always be replaced by someone else’s.”
Lily King, Euphoria

“You don’t realize how language actually interferes with communication until you don’t have it, how it gets in the way like an overdominant sense. You have to pay much more attention to everything else when you can’t understand the words. Once comprehension comes, so much else falls away. You then rely on their words, and words aren’t always the most reliable thing.”
Lily King, Euphoria

Getting a home wifi connection in Delhi

The first time I really thought about what it would be like to get a connection was from reading William Dalrymple’s amusing(ly written, not so amusing going through the experience) narrative about what it used to be like to try to get a landline phone connection in Delhi, in City of the Djinns. Now, every time I’ve moved to India to live here I’ve very conveniently managed to move in with flatmates who already had everything set up.

This time, finally, it was my turn. So, I guide you through what it is like to get an Airtel wifi connection in Delhi:

  1. Day 1. Select the plan you want online. I asked around and figured out how much and what speed my flatmates and I needed. I also figured out that the connection cannot be in my name because I don’t have a lease/document linking me to this address. So, though I am coordinating, I have to use my flatmate’s ID documentation.
  2. Day 1. A few hours later, a random Airtel person calls me to tell me that he needs to come by to get our documents. I tell him to come at a time that my flatmate will be home, then tell my flatmate the documents she’ll need to provide.
  3. Day 2. The next day, I get a call from yet another Airtel person, who tells me to go to, enter in a “CAF #” that he read out loud to me, pay the Rs. 1000 activation fee using this online form, then Whatsapp him “the confirmation number” (which I figured out was the Transaction ID which I would get upon confirmation of my payment).
  4. Day 2. Then, a third Airtel person, later in the day (while I am at work) calls my cell phone to tell me he is at my house (at 3pm) to install the wiring. I told him, of course, that no one was home because we all work (wow! no housewife?!). So he complained a little but did grudgingly come at 6pm after I got home. It took about 1 hour for him to install the wiring. That’s when he told me yet another guy would “come later” to install the modem.
  5. Day 3. Finally, a fourth Airtel guy showed up at my flat (luckily, I was home this time). He is now installing my modem. He needed a laptop with an ethernet connection (though my laptop doesn’t have this sort of port, luckily, someone in the house had one) to install it. He has assured me that the wifi will work by the end of the day! Fingers and toes and everything else crossed.

A fittingly bureaucratic process for a bureaucratic country, and fairly efficient (assuming that I do get a working wifi connection within 3 days of my initial request – that would not be bad!). But….did 4 different people have to call me at different times during the work day (and 3 of them show up at my house, most without calling ahead of time), and without even telling me what the process was going to actually be at the beginning? Hmmmmmmmm.

The end.

The inheritance of caste

I have just started reading Nivedita Menon’s Seeing Like a Feminist – so far, highly readable and recommended for anyone in India or studying India. Though I have lived in India a few times and thought about/talked about this a lot, the introductory section brought to light new realizations for me – there have been a lot of gendered traditions that I have come which I often assumed were due to either social norm, or perhaps lack of enforcement of a written law; I am rather dismayed to learn that actually, a lot of it has to do with the laws themselves, too – and the, as Menon calls it, “naturalization of two dominant patriarchies – upper-caste and British colonial” – which is clearly reflected in both the written law and the discourse that happens in recorded parliamentary and judiciary sessions around it.

Anyway, as I figure out more about the origins (well, I don’t know about ultimate origins, but at least the more recent origins) of why things are the way they are for women here (and everywhere), I’m going to blog about them. Mind you, this will not really appear in any particular order, just as and when it’s addressing a topic that I have been wondering about (or angry about…likely, both) recently.

So – onto the inheritance of caste coming from a father, how that came about (this is also explicitly an interesting topic in the light of recent events surrounding Rohith Vemula and his mother, Radhika Vemula, and ironic how much the ruling that led to father’s caste inheritance is mirrors the plight and public attempts at humiliation of the Vemula family by the State) – and how interrelated caste and gender are in the political discourse:

Supreme court judgment of 2005 – Shobha Devi

Take for instance, the Supreme Court judgment (of 2005) which ruled that a child inherits the father’s caste. It thus held illegal the election of an upper-caste man’s daughter from a constituency reserved for a candidate belonging to a Scheduled Tribe. In her petition defending her elections which had been challenged by the defeated candidates, Shobha Hymavati Devi had argued that her father had not legally married her mother (belonging to the Bagatha, a Scheduled Tribe), whom he had abandoned along with his children by her. Therefore, since Shobha Devi was brought up by her mother in her community, she should be considered to have inherited her mother’s caste. The Justices of the Supreme Court were not impressed by this reasoning. Indeed, they expressed their ‘dismay’ that a politician, in her bid for political office, would stoop so low as to ‘brand her five siblings and herself illegitimate and her mother, a concubine.’

There are two implicit assumptions at play in this judgment – once, that ‘illegitimacy’ is something that any respectable person would try to hide, and so a declaration of illegitimacy could only be a ploy to hold on to office. Two, the three upper-caste judges constituting the Bench seem to share the general, upper-caste, anti-affirmative action understanding in India that a Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) identitiy is an underserved advantage that must be limited as far as possible. Thus, while the judgment has the potential to be read subversively as establishing a precedent to recognize women’s rights in common law marriage as well as to legitimize inter-caste marriage, its underlying assumptions establish it instead, as a precedent for naturalizing caste identities passed on through patriarchy.

Menon goes on to outline other examples of patriarchy very clearly being held up by courts and states in the country –

  • the defeated Bill that sought to deny Kashmiri women the right to permanent citizenship of their state if they married outside of it,
  • MP’s “Mukhyamantri Kanyadan Yojna” where “the state government takes over the role of the father in perpetuating marriage as an inevitable and unavoidable fate for all” and started instituting virginity tests (as a way to make sure that a couple wasn’t already married and trying to get the state to pay for their wedding….the assumption being that all unmarried women are virgins obv!) – where does one start to question this one – the assumption that it’s a father that gives a daughter (property) away in the first place (oh how I loathe the word kanyadan), that she is assumed to be a virgin, or that now the state is taking over the whole arranged marriage business?,
  • Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code – whereby a husband can bring a criminal case against another man for having an affair with his wife (where the wife is not culpable), but of course, a woman can’t use this same provision against another woman. Obviously, “the assumption is that the wife is the husband’s property, a passive object over which no other man has rights”

Indeed, as Menon points out, even the man who wanted to annihilate caste thought that it could best be done through…more marriage?

The real remedy for breaking caste is inter-marriage. Nothing else will serve as the solvent of caste. -Ambedkar (1936: 67)

Enlightened for his era…but how unfortunately still coming from gendered assumptions. (Why does the gender inequality always come as the last to be recognized, even though it affects the most people in the world? Women are not even a minority! Well, Simone de Beauvoir has good answers to this one – in fact, it’s the analogous reason to one of the theories behind why India doesn’t split up – too many intersecting social cleavages. Women wear way too many other hats in their societies, and are too isolated in the realm of their familial identities and histories (religion, caste, husband supporter, in-law supporter, mother….) to band together and let the “woman” identity be the most salient.)

I’ll leave it to another post to elucidate more of Menon’s thoughts on the male and the state’s general need to control women’s bodies. Of particular interest globally, as a concept, I would think, given the recent burkini ban (and accompanying enforcement) in France.

controlling bodies

“100 years later women’s bodies are still being controlled by men”


Excerpts I liked from My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor

Excerpts I liked from My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor

Found these written down in a random document on my computer from last summer!

Excerpts from My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor

July 8, 2015

I was fifteen years old when I understood how it is that things break down: people can’t imagine someone else’s point of view.

They were like two trees with buried roots so tangled that they inevitably leaned on each other, and also strangled each other a bit.

If you grow up on salsa and merengue, then polkas and jitterbugs look as if they jumped off the pages of the National Geographic.

As I lay in bed at night, the sky outside my window reflecting the city’s dim glow, I thought about Abuelita’s fierce loyalty to blood. But what really binds people as family? The way they shore themselves up with stories; the way siblings can feud bitterly but still come through for each other; how an untimely death, a child gone before a parent, shakes the very foundations; how the weaker ones, the ones with invisible wounds, are sheltered; how a constant din is medicine against loneliness; and how celebrating the same occasions year after year steels us to the changes they herald.

I remember wondering what made her so intriguing. How could one become an interesting person? It wasn’t just having a boyfriend you could describe as a hero, thought that certainly got my attention. It had more to do with her questioning the meaning of her existence, thinking in terms of a purpose in life. She was a teacher but still educating herself, learning about the world and actively engaged in it.

The parish in Yonkers was 100 percent Irish, he rationalized, and the priest had no choice but to affirm his community’s values. I disagreed. Bigotry is not a value.

“Half a debate is listening to what the other person says,” Ken advised. It was easy to present your own points, much harder to listen well enough to respond effectively to your opponent.

When I was little, listening and watching for cues had seemed like the key to survival in a precarious world. I notice when people hesitate or get defensive, when they care more about what they’re saying than they’ll admit, or when they’re too quick about brushing something off. So much is communicated in tone of voice, in subtleties of expression, and in body language.

A line of reasoning could persuade, but so could a sequence of feelings. Constructing a chain of logic was one thing; building a chain of emotions required a different understanding.