Assorted Reflections from India

As I mentioned in the previous post, I am in India for two weeks with students from the US. The students arrived a week before I did, and have completed their second week here. This past week, we spent about three days in Ahmedabad at the Environmental Sanitation Institute, a Gandhi-inspired organization designed to promote health literacy in urban and rural India. After that we departed for Mumbai (where I’m writing this post), the Indian city of dreams, home to some 20 million people from all over India (and, of course, the world).

I don’t have a single theme or thread to explore here – and, sadly, no pictures at the moment, as internet connections are unreliable and slow – but I did want to share some moments that have stuck out.

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Off to India!

static.squarespaceI’m composing my first blog post from an airport! I’m on my way to Ahmedabad, Gujarat to join students from Phillips Academy and Phillips Exeter Academy on a program called Niswarth.

Lots of links above. Niswarth is an opportunity for students and faculty to learn with each other and peers from Indian schools. We will learn about modern India — politics, religion, culture, history, educational system — while also grappling with questions of privilege, inequality, social change, moral agency, and justice. I’ve been on this trip twice before (in 2008 and 2011) and am delighted to be a part of it once more.

A couple years ago I wrote about the pedagogy of this program for Independent Teacher, an online magazine published by NAIS. You can read that article here.

More interesting, however, is the blog that is being updated regularly by student participants from this year’s trip. It’s well worth a read! (I’ll also try to share thoughts and reflections when I can.)

 

“Nailed,” by Meena Kandasamy

I’ve been getting ready for the Educators for Teaching India conference tomorrow, and I continue to be in awe of the power of Meena Kandasamy’s poetry. She is a contemporary poet-activist (b. 1984) who writes about feminism and caste annihilation (among many other things). Here is one of her many remarkable poems.

Nailed

Men are afraid of any woman who makes poetry and dangerous
portents. Unable to predict when, for what, and for whom she
will open her mouth, unable to stitch up her lips, they silence her.

Her pet parrot developed an atrocious fetish for the flesh of
sacrificial goats, so Kulamaayi was bolted within a box and
dropped in the Kaveri.

She teased and tormented his celibacy, so Miss Success-Village
was thrown into a well by a wandering socialite-godman.

She was inaccessible and unattainable, so Durga was put in an iron
trunk that settled on a riverbed and even the men and women
who tried to approach her were informed in a prerecorded voice
that she was out of reach and network range and coverage area.

She was an outcaste who had all the marks of a fiery orator who
would someday run for parliament, so a nail was driven into her head
on the instructions of her brahmin fiancée and her coffin was
set adrift in a wailing river.

She was black and bloodthirsty, so even Kali found herself shut
inside her shrine.

They were relatively low-risk, so most other women were locked up
at home.

A Language Map of South Asia

SouthAsiaLocalLang

An anti-monolithic visual!

The idea that something is monolithic — India, Hinduism, religion — is, in my experience, one of the most enduring misconceptions people can have when they begin to learn about a topic.

I have used this graphic for the past few years with good success, both in courses with high school students, and in professional development presentations I’ve given to fellow teachers. It’s been great at getting across a couple related ideas:

1. India is not monolithic. There is no one single India; rather, it’s probably better to think about Indias. (This is similar to a point I made here about Hinduisms, Buddhisms, and the like.) We can see different languages, such as the Sanskritic ones in the north (with the horizontal bar linking letters) and Dravidian ones in the south (with the rounder letters). There are real cultural and linguistic differences that a map such as this one points to.

(Other scripts are present as well, and they give a sense of the broader cultural diversity of this region: there are Perso-Arabic scripts in the western part of this map, there is Tibetan (not quite properly formatted), and there is Chinese.)

2. The other idea, which is in many ways, a restatement of the first point, is that India is internally diverse. The idea of internal diversity is central to the cultural studies approach to religion, but it’s not always the most intuitive one for students to grasp. With an abstract idea such as this one, I often find that seeing something grounds understanding better than just hearing something (for example, if I simply tell students that India is internally diverse), and I think this image is a good way to help students see the internal (linguistic) diversity of India.

This visual also has real value as a schema — a way to help organize subsequent knowledge. Even though this map is about languages, I can refer back to it when we begin to study Hinduism and Buddhism to remind us that these religions, like India, do not speak in one voice.

What is Hinduism?

Padmanabhaswamy temple

The Padmanabhaswamy Temple, home of recently-discovered riches beyond imagination.

What is Hinduism? Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, once famously said that “Hinduism is all things to all men.” While this definition does not seem to get us very far, it may actually be more helpful than it appears at first blush. Hinduism is an incredibly diverse phenomenon, something that has roots going back many thousands of years while also retaining an incredible capacity for reinvention, redefinition, and assimilation, at both the local and pan-Indian level. (And, of course, since the Indian diaspora, all over the world.) Continue reading