28 September 2010

In which I get quoted in a Yahoo! News India article whose premise I reject

A recent post in Yahoo! News India by Nitin Pai called "We Are Not South Asian" cites some research I did for SAJAforum about the origins of the term "South Asia." I wrote two years ago that its first modern usage recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1951 and that it was clearly invented to more-or-less cover "the nation-states created out of the former territories of British India" without saying that ungainly phrase every time.

The gist of Mr Pai's article is that "South Asia" is not only geographically misleading but more importantly that it creates a false identity, namely that it tricks us into thinking there are people called "South Asians" when there are really only Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis, etc. I take exception to both lines of reasoning.

25 September 2010

“Your mind expands when you chat with people”

That’s what Gopal, a painter working in our flat, told me as he and his partner were polishing some furniture they had finished staining. This conversation in Hindi was sort of a breakthrough for me because since arriving in India just over a week ago literally every single other person I’ve conversed with in India either preferred speaking English with me or was too stuck-up to have a conversation--and let's face it, in status-conscious Delhi that happens frequently. Gopal, on the other hand, spoke very little English so by necessity when he invited me to inspect his work and have a seat, the language of conversation was to be Hindi (since I didn't speak his native Bengali).

He apologises for his poor English but explains that people in his economic stratum in West Bengal state were educated in Bengali and Hindi, and English is an afterthought. “So for us, we can understand some English but it’s hard to speak; just like you understand Hindi, right?, but have some difficulty speaking,” he said. (I've translated our conversation from Hindi.)

It's more like reading Kafka in Delhi

As I sit here at peace with the world, Beethoven's Für Elise is wafting incongruously through the air in C-Block of Chittaranjan Park in south Delhi. This was not how I spent my morning. No, my morning was spent despairingly at the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO).

Salman Rushdie has observed that “at the frontier, our liberty is stripped away—we hope temporarily—and we enter the universe of control. Even the freest of societies are unfree at the edge…” Of course I have no reservations about the need for the Indian government to record where foreign citizens live. But the arbitrariness of the procedures I had to follow is an indictment of a country that claims to have clawed its way out of such investment-killing inefficiency.

22 September 2010

Blogging Milton from India, introduction

Besides a Hindi-English dictionary, I brought one very heavy book with me to India: John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose Works. Most people know Milton as the author of Paradise Lost but he wrote a lot more during a career that came to define sixteenth-century English letters. He was both a popular poet and deeply intellectual, rather like Shakespeare, whose plays appealed both to the noblemen in the VIP seats and the commoners standing below them.

Why am I reading Milton in India? There are two reasons, the first of which is just that my eleven months here are a circumscribed chapter in my life and I need a project to lead me through them. The system is closed: I am in India for the first time as a professional scholar, and the rules of my Fulbright grant literally do not allow me to leave the country without putting my funding in jeopardy. Despite a steady stream of cameo appearances by friends and family from my American life, that life has been paused so I can have this one. Because this period stands apart, I thought I should have a project, and it can't be my dissertation since writing it will last at least a year after I return from India. So I'm going to blog, maybe once a week or every two weeks, about what I've read in Milton.

19 September 2010

India is great...

...but I'm trying to put together a publishable article about my arrival here and about preparations for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi next month. If that gets rejected from wherever I send it, I'll put it here instead.

09 September 2010

Traduttore, traditore! More sad news about military translators in Afghanistan

An ABC News report yesterday offered damning evidence that Mission Essential Personnel, a contractor hiring interpreters to work with US troops in Afghanistan, provided the military with interpreters who have either limited proficiency in Afghan languages (Dari and Pashto) or don't speak much English. Sweeping aside the cinematic illusion that if you say something in English everybody will be on the same page, it's clear that one of the fundamental problems with American involvement in Afghanistan has always been communication.

I tackled the question two years ago in an article for SAJAforum. I analyzed a Guardian video project by John McHugh (who is also quoted in the recent ABC article). The eight-minute long video is subtitled so you can watch the dysfunction unfold in real-time as the translator consistently misrepresents the words of the Afghan civilians to the American soldiers and vice versa. Numerous opportunities for constructive engagement are lost. The shred of mutual trust on either side at beginning doesn't survive the translation.

03 September 2010

Mommy, when I grow up can I be an Indologist?

One blog is key to my daily procrastination routine: Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish. Sullivan himself is taking his summer vacation but Conor Friedersdorf, one of his deputy bloggers--I know it's an odd idea that a blog branded for its writer can have an editorial team but Sullivan's defense of the practice is compelling--has solicited anonymous reader emails on the prompt "About My Job."

It's been a remarkable exercise (ever wondered what a mortician or a pharmacist really thinks about his/her job?) which has become that much more remarkable after an email from an Indologist was posted. An Indologist! Now I am not an Indologist because that term refers to someone who studies pre-Modern South Asia and my research focuses on the eighteenth century (what we call the "Early Modern" period), but all of the writer's experiences explaining the field to well-meaning but confused interlocutors exactly track with mine. The word "Indologist" isn't even in my web browser's spellchecker.

Instead of "Indologist," the anonymous emailer writes, people often hear "entomologist." When I have described my field as "South Asian Studies," I have sometimes received the follow up question, "so you study missionaries?" I was completely flummoxed until I figured out that people had been hearing "salvation studies." And of course what I really study is philology (the historical study of language and literature, more or less), but most people have no idea what that is and fill in either "philosophy" or less commonly "phlebotomy." (I would have assumed the writer was exaggerating with the last one except that I have experienced it myself.)

Even stranger is that fact that I think I have figured out who the writer is. I believe it's Professor Wendy Doniger of UChicago's Divinity School. I don't know her personally, though I've heard her speak and I've read a number of her articles, and I think the prose style is exactly right. It was clearly written by someone who is a senior academic because the writer has a certain poise that takes years to develop in a field as complicated and fascinating as Indology. There is a reference to knowing Sanskrit, Pali and Avestan, which also suggests someone who has been at it for years. The writing isn't gendered but I think I detect a women's voice which narrows the field to female Indologists. Lastly the writer states that her favorite author is Milan Kundera, whom Doniger has quoted in articles. I think the odds I have it right are pretty good (though if I'm wrong, please let me know).

I'll close with her eloquent case for why academics often study and teach subjects that seem to have no immediate social value:
But apart from terminology, most people have no idea why one would even do such a thing. The reconstruction and analysis of ancient India? To what possible end? What possible use could that be to us in the modern world? My answer can only be this: that ancient India is an exceptionally interesting subject, not an exceptionally “important” one. But what is important is that, through the disciplines of the Humanities, people  make the effort to look at other times and other places in order better to reflect upon themselves. ...
The purpose of my field, then, is to understand something about the ways of being human in the world. And if I could find a single term to convey all that I’d be home free!
If only...