Sunday, October 23, 2011

Neem Green, Bitter-Sweet: India and a verdant revolution.

Tata and I stood amongst slender green stalks of pearl millet, each yellow head bowing against my waist. “Chatlu Raktham Thagtundhi”. The plants drink blood. I watched him, head low, millet in palm. There was another suicide in Kahjada Appa’s field. He looked out over my gaze. They found him, his tongue discolored from the chemical fertilizer. He looked over the swaying grain. The fifth this month. He looked to a silhouette of a bending women placing seed to earth. Bhoomi padipoyindi. So the earth fell.

India’s Green Revolution stands to be one of the most controversial development schemes. As national leadership such as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh laud the Green Revolution (Times of India), a diverse amalgamation of farmers, activists, and NGOs disagree over its impact on rural communities in India. Out of the debate influenced by development discourse, and colonial/ national agenda for rural development, several contested theories emerge and collide, overlapping and exposing postulations of identity and questions about development. In the book Post-Colonial Development: Agriculture and the Making of Modern India by Dr. Akhil Gupta,we explore the complexity of rural Indian identity and ‘unbundle’ the imperatives of market prices, scientific technology, “indigenous” knowledge, societal hierarchy, and development. By analyzing theories such as Development Discourse and Colonial/ Nationalistic recuperation of “indigenous” through development, Gupta suggests that the very identity of rural farmers of India is dualistic and encompassing of much more than what leading theories of development perceive. Through post-colonial theory, Gupta suggests, we are able to discuss the duality of rural Indian practicesof agriculture during the mass-utilization of hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers as well as unbundle social, political, and cultural complexities that arise from that duality.

According to Gupta, the purpose of his book in his words is “an attempt to draw together disparate events, contexts, and levels of analysis to think precisely of the overlaps between the discourses and actions surrounding biodiversity of some Indian farmers and the cerebral machinations of highly placed politicians and bureaucrats acting on the world’s stage” (327). By his thesis, Gupta has illustrated his point through ethnographic analysis as well as theory to offer an alternative narrative to (under)development and the global order. Gupta constructs the“post-colonial” reality of farmers through analyzing agricultural methods of farmers influenced by factors such as market prices and bank loans to illustrate a duality of rural Indian identity.

In the following reflection I will describe and support his line of thought through a case study that evaluates techniques of India’s Green Revolution and descibe Colonial/ Nationalistic perception of the “indigenous,” Development Discourse, as well as post-colonial rhetoric to challenge historically dominant paradigms. In conclusion, I will then suggest as the beneficial implications for framing the dilemma of the green revolution in terms of post-colonial theory by drawing attention to the structural violence that stems from conflicting theories which have enabled for the inability of social mobility and the ‘underdevelopment’ of post-colonial India.

Akhil Gupta, before illustrating the post-colonial duality of rural identity and its value as an alternative theory to the paradigms of development, begins by describing the two historic trends that have influenced development in India. To understand the theories of development, Gupta explores how colonial powers, nation-states, and liberal institutions have viewed developing the “indigenous”. Gupta begins by discussing colonial notions of “indigenous”. India, according to Gupta, was seen as a static society that was both primitive yet naive by Colonial powers. India was either seen as a civilization that needed its culture to be preserved like an artifact buried in a hall of antiquities (Orientalists) or, according to Anglicists, India “was regarded as a native civilization with disdain” (170). The colonial perspective, either the Oriental or Anglicist notions of the “indigenous” does not take into consideration the societal hierarchy that stratifies India. This point segments into Gupta’s analysis of Nationalistic recuperation of “indigenous communities.” As colonial rhetoric did not draw attention to the changing demographics in India during colonial rule. Gupta quotes Homi Bhaba who so eloquently coins the term “not quite/ not white”. Indian elitists that were too brown to be considered “anglo” yet at the same time these elitists were too “westernized” to be ‘authentic’ natives (170).

After the Colonial power lost its control over India and the new democracy was able to establish itself, developing the ‘backward’ was certainly of interest of the Indian government. These ‘backward’ people, as the famous post-colonial scholar Partha Chaterjee states, was a convulsion of lower castes and obscure tribal people who were “ considered savage, simple, and primitive.” Although a diverse group with very little in common, these tribes and castes were placed in the broad category known as scheduled tribe and the Indian government felt that it was in need of uplifting (171). This is the foundation for Gupta’s grouping of Colonial and National recuperation as one. Gupta states that although Colonialism and Nationalism are two different political entities, even quite conflicting as illustrated by India’s history, both political constructs have viewed “indigenous” in the same way as a people that is in constant need of saving and liberation through development because as their ascribed identity as an antithesis to ‘high culture’ in what ever way that is defined by the theories(172).

Like Colonial/ Nationalistic recuperation to the ‘indigenous’ is constructed out of the constant need of salvation for the other, Development Discourse also strives to do the same but outside the confines of colonial or national boundaries. Liberal institutions like the World Bank tend to confuse the difference between ‘indigenous’ and ‘local’. The “indigenous” are fetishized for their so-called naturalistic insight into the protection of the environment and written about as keepers of the fate of the natural world (178). Gupta quotes one of the most famous post-colonial scholars of all in refuting the theory: Gayatri Spivak: “I cannot understand what indigenous theory there might be that can ignore the reality of nineteenth-century history... To construct indigenous theories one must ignore the last few centuries of historical involvement (178).

I certainly agree with Gupta’s description of past theories and the words of both with Bhaba and Spivak on the dynamic nature of culture. The fact that the previously mentioned theories assumed that the “indigenous” was static and unchanging illustrated the ethnocentricity of each theories’ recognition of the other and how to change them through development. A theory like post-colonialism, however, does not see culture as static, but a fluid duality imprinted with historical, cultural, and political significance. Post-colonialism unbundles not only the dilemma between “indigenous” and “modernity” but also social hierarchies established by religion (caste system) as well as a global hierarchy of what constitutes as ‘underdeveloped’. The other theories mentioned then refuted by Gupta see development as a positive influence on the “indigenous” population (however the theory defines the ‘other’ to be). Gupta illustrates this throughout the book. One example, however, gets at the very essence of the complexities of the Green Revolution- not only agronomically and ecologically, but also socio-economically and culturally. In this case study, we understand how post-colonial rhetoric allows deconstruction of development and enables us to distinguish underdevelopment conceptually.

According to Gupta’s interviews, the farmers of Alipur prefer desi wheat for its taste, color, and fine quality. But if selecting this organic, indigenous seed, the farmers must face the following restrictions: 1. the wheat takes longer to grow and might not be ready for harvest for the second round of sowing crop. 2. chemical fertilizers can not be used on desi wheat because it is too tender and would perish under the harsh chemicals. So then the desi wheat would need natural fertilizer (cow manure) in order to mature but it is not so readily available. 3. desi seed is expensive to purchase. Poor farmers rely on loans in order to purchase not only desi seed but the high yielding seed and chemical fertilizer. The bank allows the farmers to take hefty loans while the bank has a collection of selected dealers on hand for the farmers to invest in. These dealers have old seeds. Thus, the farmers find themselves in a vicious cycle of debt because often the old seeds fail and the farmers purchase more and more fertilizer, thinking that thee seeds will grow. If the farmer can not pay his debt in time, the local bureaucracy will repossess his land. The farmer then feels pressure to make his pay and can not take time for the slower desi wheat to cultivate.

This example under the post-colonial lens is riddled with dualities. Firstly, when Gupta asked the farmers how they would fertilize their fields, the farmers would constantly switch between scientific terms such as ‘petrochemical’ as well as humeral Ayurvedic notions of agronomy such as ‘drink’ and ‘thrive’ and ‘breathe’. Here we see a duality that is not mentioned in the other two theories because of their perception that the other is static, or when ‘developed,’ is choosing one over the other as development is seen as change to ‘modernity’. But here Gupta has clear ethnographic insight on how farming in Alipur does not conform to the descriptions of “traditional” or “western” but rather a duality of both. Secondly, this narrative demonstrates that there is a hierarchy among farmers. Some can afford the desi wheat while others can not. Those who can not have no other option but to purchase the hybrid seeds in order to make a living. Even though they do not prefer the hybrid wheat to the desi wheat. This sets up up for point three. Thirdly- under the post-colonial lens, a structural disequilibrium is present. The persistent local government about exact and on-time payments illustrate the tension that poor farmers face. Their decision of seed is not based off of preference, rather, it is by the structural, societal, economic, and cultural restraints placed on him that influence him to purchase hybrid seeds. These are seeds that do not reproduce, illustrating the deep roots of structural violence in the bank-dealer-bureaucracy triangle. Where does the farmer go from here?

In my state of India, Karnataka, a state in the ‘suicide belt of India’ due structural violence from the (under)development of the Green Revolution, the small town of Raichur, my ancestral town where the fields were once my blankets, became graves. When I visited Raichur last January, ten farmers had committed suicide that month out of the inability to pay their cavernous debts. My grandfather, mayor of the town, grew alarmed and called for a town meeting. Although he understood that the situation was complex because of the inability for farmers to pay off debts and beat the vicious cycle, he could not ignore the 17, 368 farmers across five states who turned to suicide the year before. He called for a town meeting. Farmers from all over the province came to speak of the difficulties of farming and dealing with adamant bureaucratic officials. By unbundling the complexities of a dire and desperate situation, the community of farmers has gotten stronger and is working to mobilize with other villages in the area.

Through a grassroots, dialogue-based campaign amongst the villages, hidden towns like Raichur may be able to find support in those outside its walls. The very self-awareness of a previously unknown phenomena through deconstructing the complexities of underdevelopment is the first step to any attempt of social mobility- regardless of structural violence.


These farmers are not benefiting from development instilled by liberal and national policies. Rather, due to the deconstructing nature of post-colonial theory, we are able to evaluate whether the development policies of the Green Revolution are helpful or harmful to a rural community like India. Thus, from an anthropological perspective, the Green Revolution, although produces high crop yield, is a damaging system to a large majority due to the structural violence within the process of acquiring seed for cultivation to grow food. By framing development in post-colonial terms, we can now articulate the positives and negatives of the Green Revolution. Post-colonialism as a lens to analyze the Green Revolution can instill change in the hands of those who unbundle the complexities of such a dilemma. It is what individuals like Vandana Shiva and the farmers of Karnataka and my grandfather who utilize it in order to communicate intellectually, eloquently, and cultural-competently in order to contest neo-liberal structures and the Indian government.

Tata I greeted him on the phone, imagining him in a soft cotton lungi, shoulders dark from the sun, seed by seed. “Andaru vastunaru”. They are coming. I imagined him tying a dhoti around his head like the other farmers to stay cool from the heat. The town meeting would be a large fair: poppy-colored tents enveloping men who peppered in the words nitrates and irrigation in sentences, curling them between thick telugu words while sipping chai. “Ra ma ra.”Come. And so I was with him, smiling through the phone, organizing one after one like pearl millet steady swaying in the wind. Bhoomi Bhangaru. Precious Earth.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Office Tigress: The Cosmopolitan Indian Woman under the Sari

Stiletto heels click against the dust covered path. She checks her silver watch and turns to me. “We need to walk faster! It is 5! I must help Mama for dinner!” She begins to walk quickly, her grey pleated skirt swinging faster, and then she begins to jog. A young man in a navy blazer waves at her; she waves back and yells “I hope you complete the report!” he nods and she keeps running. The packed bus waits in front of her and she climbs on with the assistance of young women in pencil skirts and men in suits. The bus speeds forward, barely missing a street cow crossing the bustling Bangalore road. I watch Shravanthi pull out a compact mirror and eyeliner and draw a dot above her brow. The college day has come to a close. Tradition takes over by night fall.

India is the land of promise. With a population of more than 1.8 billion people (CIA World Fact Book 2011) and a growing educated middle class, India is one of the best countries for business. In fact, Samuel J. Palmisino, the CEO of IBM and 2011 Forbes Person of the Year (largest outsourcer to India) is quoted for saying that: “why would you invest in US companies when you can do it with India’s extraordinary talent for a fraction of the price?” (Youtube Technology, Innovation, and Deficit Reduction 2011). The CEO speaks the truth. With few governmental regulations, bright, agitated, and eager college graduates from illustrious institutions, and low cost of living, India makes the perfect country for outsourcing. According to research compiled by the esteemed Software Training Company RTTS, an estimated 47 billion dollars have been generated due to outsourcing and the IT boom in India (as of 2007), and it is estimated that an additional 1.3 million jobs will be transferred from US and UK to India and other eastern countries (RTTS 2010).

Since the late 1990’s India’s IT boom has attracted the attention of the first world. Cities such as Bangalore (the birthplace of the IT boom) and Hyderabad, once small cities, have become sprawling metropolises with skyscrapers and the richest industries claiming the best and brightest youth in India. Men and women who were once wearing saris and dhotis now carry brief cases and wear ties and suits. Western dress has become the uniform of the growing middle class. But India, not only the nation of potential affluence, is also a land of rich history, diversity, and culture. Traditionally, strict gender roles and conduct were followed by men and women regardless of religion, caste, creed, region, or ethnicity. “Working is a luxury” my mother says as she boils my father’s evening tea. “We were raised to be good wives. To be support.” But since the IT Boom, more and more women have attended business, computer, and management classes than ever before. According to a study in BusinessWeek, 42.6% of college students in India are women (BusinessWeek 2011). Hindustan Times reports that there has been a 70% increase of females attending college in India and 122% increase of women enrolling as engineering majors since the beginning of the Indian IT boom of 1998(Hindustan Times 2010). But college women face a culture clash: Western ambitions versus Eastern traditions. The conflicting ideals of these ‘worldviews’ have created an interesting identity of young Indian female students and professionals.

As globalization, according to anthropologists Emily A. Schultz and Robert H. Lavenda is the “reshaping of local conditions by powerful global forces on an ever-intensifying scale” (Lavenda and Shultz 2009: 358), young Indian middle class women have formed a dynamic and sometimes conflicted dual identity that is influenced by Western ideals in some environments but adheres to familial obligations of traditional engendered conduct. Whenever I visit my cousin sister Shravanthi in Bangalore, I realize that her position as an Indian woman is more complex that it seems. Like most college students in India, Shravanthi lives with her family. Shravanthi is twenty years old and is completing her final year of a B-Comm degree. This is the Indian equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in Business Management. She is an office tigress, a well-educated young Indian woman who is determined that one day she will work for an affluent American company after her education. On the prowl, Shravanthi like many female college students in India, prowls and strives for academic and professional success in a once male-dominated world. But she realizes that although she has the opportunity to compete and make her dreams a reality, she must also come to terms that her joint family also ascribes duties for her that she cannot ignore. This is a woman’s journey of cultural hybridity: dowries, dollars, and dating. Welcome to India. Watch your step. You never know who you will be walking into.

It is seven in the morning. Shravanthi pulls on her tie as Latha the maid hands her a stainless steel cup of coffee. Shravanthi’s mother boils rice for breakfast in the kitchen while readjusting her sari as my uncle sits at the table, Times of India in one hand, coffee in another. “Today I have class at 9. But I am getting ready earlier because mom wanted me to bring some lentils from the bazaar”. Shravanthi gulps the coffee, waves to her father, and takes the scooter keys from the table. “I will be back!” she calls as she runs down the stairs. She is greeted by our grandfather who lives on the first floor of the bungalow. “Yakaada eltunavu?”our tata asks her. “Bazaar, tata” she responds in Telugu in a hushed voice as she lowers her eyes, a female custom of respect. Tata then asks Shravanthi to bring a jasmine garland for Nainama our grandmother for her daily prayers. He hands her a 1 rupee coin and Shravanthi tucks the money into her pocket. “Vastanu, Tata” she bows and he nods in agreement. We ride the scooter into the busy streets amongst rikshas (three wheeled taxis) carrying children in uniforms to classes, fancy sports cars driven by professional men in suits, and tea wallahs selling hot cups on bicycles. Shravanthi is not the only woman dressed in a skirt and tie. Next to us, two girls on a scooter race past, holding their skirts down as they navigate. When we arrive at the bazaar, we stop in front of a tall building surrounded by motor bikes and cars. “This building is full of call centers” Shravanthi said. Next to the entrance of the building, the lentil wallah sells split peas, lentils, and pulses. As Shravanthi haggles with the seller, I watch two women in suits buy a jasmine garland and tuck the parcel under their arm as they walk into the call center building. Perhaps the women will use the garland for a statue within the office. I ask Shravanthi and she nods. “Yes all offices have deities. Women still pray in the morning. Even if they have work”. We buy a garland as well and hurried home.

When we arrive, Nainama takes us to the prayer room and adorns the portrait of Sri Venkateshwara, the household god with the garland. “Deva, na pidlu chusko, aya. Munchi abaylu teesko na kutrulu ki, aya” she calls at the pictures as she bows repeatedly. Shravanthi blushes. Our grandmother had prayed that the Lord should bring Shravanthi a good husband to take care of her. As we run upstairs Shravanthi whispers “Shit. I wish she did not do that all the time. It might happen too soon.” Shravanthi hands the bag to her mother and goes to her room. “It is nice that Nainama prays for us. But I do not know if I want an arranged marriage” Shravanthi confides in me. She collects her things, it is time for class.

As we enter Shravanthi’s university, Dayan Sagar’s College, I understood why. While driving into the parking lot, I realize that every student, female and male, is wearing in western business attire and are intermingling. “Shravanthi!” a boy in black slacks greets her and gives her a hug. “Waqas!” she exclaims. (Hugging publically outside the confines of the college would be considered ‘lewd’ and ‘disturbing’ behavior). “This is my friend Waqas” Shravanthi introduces me. (Note that the mixing of a Hindu woman and Muslim man would be unheard of outside the university environment). We are later surrounded by a mix of Indian women and men who we are laughing and chattering loudly in English. They discuss class assignments and professors’ teaching styles. They gossip about other students and who was secretly dating who (dating is certainly taboo in Indian households). They debate as to which Linkin Park song is better. Some of the girls lean on boys and some boys watch girls in the corner of their eyes as the suited males argue about the Cricket World Cup and puff on cigarettes. But soon the bell rings and it is time for classes. In the classrooms, boys and girls sit next to each other. Shravanthi and I sit next to Waqas and Kumar. Students, Shravanthi once explained to me, are taught not only about economic models and how to understand the stock markets overseas, but also how business culture functions. Shravanthi told me how the professor spoke of efficiency and ‘monochronic time’. He often narrates the fascinating life stories of some of the strongest CEOs such as Indra K. Nooyi (CEO of Pepsi Co) and Irene Rosenfeld (CEO of Kraft Foods). Shravanthi is inspired by the strong women who run multinational corporations. She aspires to be that one day. She likes what she hears about business culture. “I have the ability to be better than anyone else because I am working at it. I like the idea of a meritocracy. It is free of corruption and unfair privileges some members might receive because of their gender or caste or religion. It seems like the more studying I do, the more I can achieve. It’s in my hands. I like that”. During class, the students compile information for a group project. I watch as boys in suits and girls in skirts debate on this best business plan for a theoretical insurance company. Shravanthi looks so at ease and empowered as she leads her group project. I watch her dynamic hand gestures and her nods as she listens to her classmates. I begin to understand why she loves what she studies: power from self-vigor.

After class, I ask Shravanthi how she felt about class. “I love it. Business Management is my passion. I love leading people and I feel so independent. I want to make my dreams of working for an American company a reality. I really like my class because I feel that regardless of me being a woman, people will listen to what I have to say because of my intelligence. The competition is fierce. We earn our positions regardless of family background. This is a meritocracy and I like that because I am not placed in a position. People do not tell me what to do or when to do it. I do it because it is my job”. Shravanthi’s face turns grim. “But sometimes I wonder if my dream will come true. You and I and your sister are the only girls in the family. You and your sister live in America so you do not have the same obligations that I have”. I ask her to go on. “Nainama expects me to get married to a man from our caste and of our heritage. When I get married, it will be difficult to continue my education and get a job. It is different here, Priyanka. Look at my mom. She married when she was a teenager. It was an arranged marriage and she completed three degrees. But she has a duty to her husband, to her kids, and to her in-laws. She cooks for the joint family. One day, that could be me”. I realize that Shravanthi has more at stake than Waqas or Kumar in her class. Not only did she have to compete with her classmates, she has to compete with time and tradition. But although her future of education might halt, for now she has the freedom of a student and professional. Shravanthi turns to me as I think about what she had just said. “Enough of this heavy talk. Let us get coffee!”

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Café Coffee Day is the most popular café franchise in India. Established in 1998 (the same year of the birth of the IT Boom), the chic, modern lounge is the Indian version of the American Starbucks. The décor is sleek, simplistic, and clean. White lounge sofas line the walls of the room. Unlike most restaurants, the cafes are standardly air conditioned. English is the lingua franca as boys and girls loosen their ties and sink into the swanky seats. Baristas effortlessly shake cream and freshly ground espresso beans and serve petite sandwiches. Although the concept and atmosphere may be a ‘Western’, the flavor of the café is discretely Indian. Indian pop rock plays softly, flat screen televisions along the walls display Bollywood dance scenes, and the sandwiches are flavored with Indian masala spices and seasonings. The hospitality is also an Indian phenomenon. Unlike American cafes in which the customer orders at a counter, baristas in India approach the seated Indian youth and cordially ask what services he could provide and grants every whim of the group. For example, if a group of youths want to watch the cricket game instead of the Bollywood clips, the host will change the channel. If individuals want to hear English songs instead of Indian rock, the manager will oblige. Groups of young men and women will sit for hours, long after the coffee glasses are empty. These cafes, like Indian classrooms and offices, are one of the only places in which men and women may speak with each other in public without the company of elders. But with the modern décor and lax atmosphere, Café Coffee day is sanctuary for love birds. It is one of the only safe locales for secretly dating couples. No wonder the mottos of the franchise is “a lot can happen over coffee”. For a couple hours a day, young professionals and students can live the Western experience of courting and dating, a concept that is taboo outside the confines of such a place. For a moment, young men and women can experience what Hollywood portrays as “love at first glance”.

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Shravanthi and I meet a group of ten young adults- both female and male. The boys loosen their ties as the girls unbutton their collars, exposing their necks. The barista approaches our table. “What may I offer you, madam?” he said in formal English, pen and paper in hand. “She and I will have a double shot mocha frappe” Shravanthi answers. As we wait for our coffee, Pavan, one of the young men asks me about America. “It must be a damn paradise, huh? You can date and meet boys whenever you would like. Do you have a boyfriend?” I laugh. Pavan goes on: “Here we cannot date, but we bring the girls we fancy to the café. Here at least we can be with the girls we secretly love and flirt with them,” I watch him wink at a thin girl with hooded eyes across from him. She giggles and bites her lower lip. The order arrives and Pavan trades seats with Shravanthi so that he can sit with his ‘girlfriend’. Shravanthi, Waqas, and I continue the discussion about dating: “India is getting modern” Waqas said while sipping his cup. “We have brand name clothes” he points to his Dolce and Gabbana belt. “We have fancy cars like Mercedes. More and more women are getting educated. The literacy rate is going up. The cities are getting bigger and bigger, but we fucking youth still have expectations from our families. It is damn hard. Love marriage, although romanticized in Bollywood films, is not at all a reality. I must marry a Muslim girl even if I like a Hindu. Its bloody hell”. Waqas stares longingly at a girl across the table. Shravanthi pipes in: “Yes and we Hindus have so many damn restrictions of who we can marry. He must be of our caste and our Hindu horoscopes must be aligned in the stars, and everyone in the joint family must approve: grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, older cousins, mother, father, and my brother. That is a long list of people we must satisfy”.

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Back home, Shravanthi and I help our mothers chop vegetables for dinner. I ask Kavita aunty (Shravanthi’s mother and my mother’s sister-in-law) and my mom why they did not complete their education or get a job. “Times were different when we married in the early 80’s. We did not have a choice. We knew we were going to get married regardless. At that time, the office was for men. We were raised to be good wives. But it was not too bad. Our husbands were the breadwinners and they bought us things. See this ring? Your father bought this for me on our anniversary. He pays for everything: travel to India, medicines for my father back in my village, and for your education. I had many offers for marriage but your father showed the most potential. He was a doctor with a job across the sea in the United States. He is what we call a good catch (note that hypergamy or ‘marrying up’ was and still is the goal of Indian matrimony because for women it is traditionally their only form of income)” my mother said it in such a matter-of-fact way that I am stunned. Education, my alma mater, I cannot imagine growing up without college and neither can Shravanthi. Shravanthi was placed into an advanced primary school system, one of the best in Bangalore. From childhood, she had been competing with students- male and female alike in hopes of becoming a corporate superstar. “We are house wives and we live our dreams through you” Kavita aunty adds. “But you know, you are still Indian and eventually have obligations to fulfill. Perhaps through working you may support your family, but when you come home you will have to unzip your pencil skirt and tie on your sari. You will have to heat evening tea”. Shravanthi dutifully continues to slice tomatoes, each one as precise of the last cut. I imagine she seethes inside, her mother’s words burning her.

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There are exceptions, of course, the societal standards. Shravanthi and I share a mutual aunt (who moved from India to New Jersey with her husband and son) She, unlike our mothers, continued her education and was granted permission by her husband (my father’s youngest brother) to work at an IT firm. Unlike most marriages, the union between my uncle and my aunt was a love marriage. Although usually taboo, the couple was of the same caste and their horoscopes aligned so the union was as sound as an arranged one. When she used to live in India, she lived on the first floor with her husband and her father-in-law and mother-in-law. Shravanthi and I recall how she would prayer with her mother-in-law and cook for my grandparents. Then, in her suit, she would go to work and return in the evening. When she came home, she changed into traditional Indian attire and cooked dinner for her in-laws and made sure they were comfortable. Our aunt, although had a corporate job, had to take on a different identity in the home and adhere to the female role of housekeeping and hospitality for her husband and in-laws. This is a model that Shravanthi might one day follow.

Shravanthi already has offers for her hand in marriage. Shravanthi counts the proposals on her fingers and estimates the monetary value of each man after dinner. “Let’s see! There is a doctor, a business man, a lawyer, and a software engineer. But the best of the lot is an Australian university educated business man from a wealthy family who is worth a couple million! Cool huh?” she sighs and falls onto her pillow. “But I am not sure if I want that. What if he is an asshole? What if I cannot meet my friends anymore and cannot work? It depends if he gives me permission. But fuck him, yah? I should do what I want. Besides with my degree I can make so much money and live on my own. Of course when mom and dad get old I want to take care of them. They will live with me, and I do not mind living at home and cooking for them. But you have it lucky. Sometimes I dream of going to the United States and completing my Master’s Degree. Then I will have a wonderful job and maybe be a manager and I can decide when and how I can work. In America, I can date who I want. I will have my independence” I understand the friction she feels. How can she balance her cosmopolitan and Western influenced attitude while possibly managing an Indian home? Traditionally a patrilineal family dynamic, it is custom for Indian wives to move into the house of her husband’s family. She, through marriage, becomes the kin of her husband’s lineage and not of her blood family. Women for the most part do not live by themselves. My mother often explains: “women are like diamonds. They must be guarded by the family”.

But how does a young woman like Shravanthi who feels she does not need to be ‘guarded’ cope with a previous generation’s notion of female duties? Shravanthi, however, does want to manage a home even if a husband is in it or not. She does want to look after he parents. This Indian obligation is one she does not fight. It is not only her duty, but she wants to provide for her parents. Thus even though she still assumes a dual identity- Western in certain spheres and Indian at the home- it is an identity she sometimes sees not as an engendered duty but as a young woman who cares for her parents. “I love my family dearly. And if I must act a certain way eventually, so be it. But I need to understand who I am then what others expect from me”- a ‘Western’ notion in a not so ‘Western’ world. We lie down together, and sigh as Britney Spears’ “Not a girl not yet a woman” softly croons from the cassette player and a cow moos under our window. Not yet a ladki, not yet an aunty, indeed. We laugh until we cannot not laugh anymore.

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India’s economy continues to boom. As more corporate and IT jobs are available, men and women will compete regardless of societal obligations. More and more office tigresses are generated every year through cutthroat college programs and prowl the office corridors, hunting for the best positions and paychecks. Perhaps it is their inner drive and ambition to prove themselves as the best candidates for business positions; more is at stake. According to news articles published in the past year, college women in almost every major city of India have received high scores than their male counterparts on national college exams: in Patna, the top 4 highest achieved scores were earned by women (Times of India Mobile 2011), in Ludiana, the top 2 highest achieved scores were earned by women (Times of India Pratim 2011), in Bangalore, the highest achieved score was earned by a woman (One India News 2011), and 75% of top admissions at the illustrious Hindu College of Delhi were female candidates (Times of India 2011), to name a few examples. These women, although living a dual life of Western etiquette in certain spheres as well as the engendered conduct ascribed by Indian families and society, are able to achieve distinctions despite personal-contextual friction.

- - -

It is eight on a Friday night and Shravanthi and I are behind the roaring of her scooter. The hem of her posh cocktail dress lifts around her knees as I hold on to her waist. We speed past a lorry truck, ‘OK GO HAVE A NICE DAY’ is painted across the back of the clunky vehicle and we honk and wave. We are on our way to a house party of one of her classmates. I lean forward as she shouts above the humming: “Perhaps I will marry, perhaps I will not. Fuck it. Who knows? I don’t care now. But now I can’t wait to graduate and compete for my chance to be among the female working elite. I not only want to do this for myself, but I want to prove to my parents, grandparents, and even people outside my family that I can do anything with my ambition. But fuck this heavy discussion, yah? It’s time to freak out! Drink a few beers! Let’s live to our fullest before my fat husband knocks down the door! ” we howl and cuss as old women in saris watch us behind their Mercedes window. Did I see a tinge of longing in their eyes? Let them watch. We take on Bangalore, even if it is Shravanthi’s last night on the prowl.

Works Cited


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"Karnataka 2nd PUC results declared; Girls beat boys again!" India News | Breaking News | Headlines |

Business News | Entertainment | Sports | Features | Cricket - Oneindia News . N.p., n.d. Web. 1

Aug. 2011.

"Keeping Women on the Job in India - BusinessWeek." Businessweek - Business News, Stock Market &

Financial Advice. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Aug. 2011.

"Number of India’s Female Engineering Students Doubles in a Decade - The Global Ticker - The

Chronicle of Higher Education." Home - The Chronicle of Higher Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 1

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The Times Of India. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Aug. 2011.

"RTTS: Outsourcing - Statistics." RTTS - The Software Quality Experts. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Aug. 2011.

"The Times of India on Mobile." The Times of India on Mobile. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Aug. 2011

Thursday, July 21, 2011


neem neem

green green

I n d i a

falls from the folds

of my mother's sari

like basmati.


follow terra cotta paths

like roads I drew on the back

of your palms

years ago, himalayan


maps past

rust locks, iron rot

jacaranda trees , neem

leaves, heel

to sand

heel to sand.

Never compromise

root constellations.


black they will call you

until you are engulfed

now stuffed like pheasants


the seed in your pocket

is for saving.

neem neem

green green

the seed in your pocket

is for saving.

A man once told me I was too passionate and so he built me into a walled garden like my mother and her mother and her mother till we never remembered the color blue. I dedicate this poem to my mom Suchitra Srinivasa.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Ga nv go

U li si a ge yu tsa, my granddaughter, the mountains that surround us today were carved by Su li, Great Buzzard in the sky” I watched the old man hold his granddaughter Jaya on his lap as he pointed to the sky. “But u du du, grandfather, where were we?” The man with ginger root palms chuckled. “We have always been here, A ge yu ts, just like A tsi lv, fire that burns within”. The little girl pressed her hand to her grandfather’s chest. Just like the fire that burns within.

Language is power. Language is the arbitrary vocal symbols we use to encode the experience of the world. It is one of the fundamental behaviors that makes us human. The way we communicate can bind us together or can set us apart. But how is it that something as valuable as human connection can separate us? It is through historical and geo-political contexts that can make one language powerful than another. The saga of colonialization was the manifestation of linguistic power politics. When I visited Cherokee Reservation, North Carolina for research, I became aware of the sheer power of words. Power of language, although historically steeped in the ethnocide of a people, now is a glimmer of hope. Emerging from the darkest periods of American history lay the ingenuity, hope, and fight for language revitalization. This is Ka no he lv s gi, the story of Jaya and my her family’s fight for language reclamation.

The story of Native American language is historically one of heart break. During the 1800’s Indian youth were forced to attend anglo boarding schools in order to “kill the Indian and make a man”. Jerry Wolfe, Jaya’s grandfather told me how when he was a five years old, he was forced from his family to live in a boarding school. “They did not let me speak Cherokee. They cut my hair. They made me wear White man’s clothes. When I spoke to my cousins in Cherokee, they made us wash our mouths with soap. To be Indian was considered A s ga ni, sin. We were constantly bombarded with images that read ‘Speak American’ or ‘Kill the Indian Make a Man’. They reminded us of the Trail of Tears, the forced displacement of our ancestors. They told us it was for the better. We were convinced that we were half animal until we spoke English with fluency and lived a ‘White lifestyle’. When I came home to my parents in my navy blue uniform, my mother and father would say: ‘where is my son? They brought back a white man. Where is my son?’ The Indian in me was dead. I spoke English. Unlike my father’s childhood, I did not hear my grandfather’s stories and wisdom. I was too White to understand the ancient ways. We stopped speaking Cherokee”. I could see pain behind his eyes. But it did not end there.

In the 1950’s, boarding schools shut down across the United States yet the mentality that Native meant ‘primitive’, ‘savage’, ‘heathen’, ‘dirty’, ‘drunken’, ‘uncivilized’, and ‘ignorant’ was still prevalent in American society. Native American students were taught in anglocentric public schools that enforced the stereotypes of indigenous people. By anglocentric, I mean that although the institution did not intentionally attempt to eradicate native culture, the education system lacked the understanding of the cultural discrepancies between Indian and prominent American culture and neglected the needs of native students. The majority of teachers on the reservation were White. Although a hierarchy was not stated, it was quite visible as to which ethnicity was perceived to have a more dominant, intellectual voice. Rose, Jaya’s mother recalled the constant bullying in schools: “I remember when a White teacher yelled at us one day after we played a practical joke on her: “you will all become drunks one day!” That’s when my brother dropped out of school”. The structural violence that the Cherokee people underwent hurt me and confused me. How did the people survive I thought as my heart grew heavy.

Jerry took my hand in his: “I want to make sure they know our history is larger than the Trail of Tears and the forced displacement of our people. If 12,000 years of Cherokee history spanned over 24 hours, the Trail of Tears would last only five minutes. We live on.” In 2004, New Kituwah Academy opened in hopes of keeping Cherokee alive. The school is the first language revitalization program in in North Carolina. New Kituwah predominantly teaches children from the age of 2 to 6 with the synthesis of the elders’ wisdom and cutting edge technology. Children learn about their heritage through apple products that are inscribed in Cherokee. New Kituwah also hosts adult classes so that parents can speak Cherokee to their children. After school programs such as basket weaving, storytelling, and mentorships at the Cherokee Museum enable teens to learn and work in an academic setting for language revitalization. Jerry Woolfe has assisted students on presentations at the Smithsonian and has had students help him record the stories of elders who remember boarding schools. These efforts are recognized by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in North Carolina. Students have the opportunity to intern for the tribal office. Language preservation is not an attempt for natives to return to pre-colonial ways, but to be mindful of history and identity flux from a native perspective. Immersion schools are determined to integrate native youth into American society with hopes that their students will be proud of their identity as American Indians while performing to their best of their ability in non-native United States. Jerry told me how proud he was of his students: “I am so thrilled to work with my students every day. When these little kids speak Cherokee to me, I am so happy. When I was their age, I thought Cherokee would die. But here I see Jaya speaking Cherokee. It makes me weep. They are our future. The children learn the true story of our history. For years, my daughter was taught that the Trail of Tears was our only history. But we are a people who have been thriving for millennia. I am here to be Grandfather. I am here to be A li s de lv di or support”. Jaya called to us in Cherokee: U lv, sister! Come see the buzzard!” She pulled me along the path as we giggled.

“You know, they say Cherokees were the known as a-dv-ne-li-s-gi, Great Orators? Great Orators …When my White school master years ago told me to kill the Indian in me, I did. I lost myself. Where to go? Then the Spirit told me: go back, go back to Cherokee and you will find yourself again. I did. I thank, U-ne-qua, The Great Grandfather for taking me back home. Taking us all back home. This is our fight. And soon, our students will fight with us and we will come together and prosper again. They will be our ambassadors outside the reservation. They will integrate: be proud of who they are and when asked speak about their identity as they prosper in the anglo world”.

Jaya, Jerry, and I saw the great bird spread its wings and flew over us. Over the mountains.

To Hi do- like a top, I am in in the center of my world.

I watched Jaya and her U du du walk away hand in hand. Jerry called back to me “We will be back. We always come back”.

I looked to the mountains. The mountains swallowed sky.