On My Way of Living in India Anne Feldhaus Arizona State University
I am a woman from the USA. As far as I know, I am white, non-Jewish, and heterosexual. I am unmarried, and I have no children. During the past fifteen years, while Writing Culture, Anthropology as Cultural Critique, and Fictions of Feminist Ethnography were being published and discussed in the U.S., I have spent much of the time living in India. Most of this time I have spent not in Delhi, but in Pune, in a part of India better insulated than Delhi is from Anglo-American theoretical trends. Through a 1993 Social Science Research Council seminar on "Representation," through an hour spent in the International Book Service in Pune reading the introduction to Vinay Lal's South Asian Cultural Studies: A Bibliography (Delhi: Manohar, 1996), and most recently through reading Thomas McCarthy's review essay "Doing the Right Thing in Cross-Cultural Representation" (Ethics 102 [April 1992]:635-49), I have begun to come out of my Rip Van Winkle-like stupor and to imagine what some of the furor might be about. In this context of still-profound ignorance of the issues in my colleagues' minds, I offer the following notes on my way of living in India. Living in India is a necessary condition for carrying out field work there. Almost by definition, people doing field work are different from the people among whom they live. In India I even look different from most other people (even more different than they look from one another). Those few people in India who do look like me are generally tourists, missionaries, or--in the past--wives or daughters of colonial administrators. Over the years, I have developed methods for reducing my difference and for avoiding being treated in terms of stereotypes about people who look like me. Here I will discuss two of the most important of these methods: using a regional language and wearing Indian clothes. Speaking Marathi I first went to India as a college student in 1970. When I was invited to go to Pune that summer, my knowledge of Indian culture was confined to translations of the Bhagavad Gita (which I found immoral) and some Upanishads (which I found incomprehensible). The experience of India--specifically, of life in a Brahman family that doted on me and of visits to numerous city temples and some regionally important pilgrimage spots--cured me of my existentialist leanings and gave me a renewed sense of the importance of the concrete particularities of everyday life--"renewed," I say, because my Roman Catholic childhood and Sacred Heart education had prepared me quite well to appreciate an all-encompassing ritualization of life. During that first visit to India, I had different kinds of conversations and misunderstandings with a variety of people, all of whom spoke with me in English. There were others I met whom I would have liked to speak with, but I knew no Urdu, Hindi, or Marathi, and they no English. Even with those who did speak English, I realized, I was missing much of what was going on--including a large number of jokes. I cried bitterly on my departure from India, sure that I would never return. The struggle against racism and poverty in the United States would take all my resources, and to be able to visit India even once had been an extraordinary luxury. Nine months of driving a taxicab--the most appealing job I was qualified for with a B.A. in Religion--sufficed to compromise my political ideals and propel me into graduate study at the University of Pennsylvania. I viewed graduate school as a way to get back to India, and the study of Marathi as a means to get to know people better and to make new friends. Chief among those I wanted to get to know better through Marathi was Vahini. Vahini was an old woman who lived as a dependent in the household where I had stayed on my first trip. As I slogged through my first years of studying Marathi, several hours a day almost every day for three years in America, and near-constant immersion for a summer and a year in India--to the point where, early on, I started talking what little Marathi I knew in my sleep--the image of Vahini kept me going. I wanted to be able to talk with her: to learn about her life and to come to know her thoughts. Eventually I did get to talk with Vahini. She told me some things about life in the old days in the town where she had lived as a young wife and widow. (I quote her once or twice in my book Water and Womanhood.) When she was still strong enough to get out, she took me a couple of times to see some neighborhood temples that she liked to visit. She showed me two trees of different kinds that had grown entwined together in the courtyard of one of the temples. And she received me with as much attention as she could on my weekly visits during her final illness. Vahini was much older than I was, and she was not much of a talker. Her age, her poverty, her widowhood, her gender did not encourage her to think that she had anything very important to say, nor did they incline her to be very curious about my life outside of the part that intersected with hers. And yet, we shared a warmth and some moments of conversation that made our relationship one that I presume to identify as a friendship. On my trips outside of Pune, I have often had the experience of talking with someone who has never before spoken with anyone who looks like me. Many people find it incredible that someone who looks like me can speak Marathi (statistically they're right), and some find it hard to believe that it's Marathi I'm speaking. I remember having a conversation with an irascible old woman who kept telling me, in Marathi, that she couldn't speak English and therefore wouldn't be able to talk with me. I kept replying, in Marathi, that I could speak Marathi and would be able to understand her quite well. After we had gone back and forth this way a couple of times, she suddenly said, "You're speaking Marathi?" --"Yes, I'm speaking Marathi," I replied, and she then went on to talk with me about whatever it was I wanted to learn from her. Some people express quite explicitly their delight at being able to talk with someone from so far away. I too take pleasure in these moments of contact with strangers, in being able to bridge, however briefly, the gap of color, culture, geography, and separate individual identity. If there are differences in wealth and power between me and my interlocutors, the primary significance of these differences is that they make such moments possible in a one-sided way. I am the one who found the means to visit India and to make it to whatever obscure place I'm in that day. I am the one whom someone paid to eat and live while I studied the language we are speaking, and I am the one who makes her living in part by having conversations like this. Unlike my conversation partners, I have the means to get up and leave, to get onto an airplane and go to a land of technological marvels and exotic luxuries, to slip unnoticed into the world that refers to itself as "first." And yet, in terms of the particular context in which we meet, the other person has the upper hand. I am the supplicant, and my interlocutor has the power to give or withold the information and interpretations I want. In the world we share so briefly, it is I who am the odd, weak stranger, honored to be received as a guest. There are also moments in which Marathi acts as an obstacle, creating awkwardness or misunderstandings. These moments include the times when my poor ear, unfamiliar accent, weak vocabulary or shaky grammar cause a conversation to go awry, or never to get off the ground. More interesting are the times when I try to talk Marathi with someone who doesn't know it, with someone who doesn't want to speak it to me, or in a context in which it is otherwise inappropriate. Early in my study of Marathi I developed the habit of speaking it all the time. I wanted to practice as much as I could, and Marathi is not a language that can easily be practiced outside of Maharashtra. I went around, then, indiscriminately trying to speak Marathi with every Indian person with whom I had occasion to talk. Many of these people, seeing a white person and hearing my attempts at speaking an Indian language, would answer me in Hindi, assuming that that was what I was trying to speak. It took years before I learned to recognize that such people were speaking Hindi, not simply difficult Marathi; and it is only recently that I have relaxed enough to try to understand the Hindi. (I have never studied Hindi, but I have heard it quite often, and it is close enough to Marathi that I ought to be able to handle it better by now.) Until very recently, and still now sometimes, I would simply get angry at the people's racism, saying or sometimes even shouting: "Don't talk to me in Hindi! Use Marathi!" Meanwhile, I was carrying on my own brand of linguistic racism. Especially as my Marathi has gotten better, many of the people who speak to me in Hindi or English do so because they themselves do not know Marathi. When I meet an Indian in Pune, my first instinct is to address the person in Marathi -- in part to show off, in part to induce intimacy, or at least to avoid being condescended to, and in part because Marathi is the language I'm in the habit of using. But some of the Indians in Pune are Gujaratis, Bengalis, Parsis, Panjabis, Malayalis, and so on, many of whom can speak only a few words of Marathi. Many more Indians in Pune are Muslims, and many of them are more comfortable using Hindi or Urdu than Marathi. (In fact, Hindi is almost as universal a street language in the Cantonment area of Pune as it is in Bombay.) In speaking Marathi with people who do not consider themselves Marathi speakers, quite often I am simply being rude. One of the social-linguistic skills of sophisticated, multi-lingual Indians (this includes most Indians) is to be able to tell by looking at people what language to use in speaking with them. The clues are subtle and not invariably reliable. One friend in Pune decides whether to speak Hindi or Marathi to a rickshaw driver by looking inside the rickshaw, above the front window, for the religious inscription or image that can in many cases be found there: if the inscription is in Marathi, or if there is a picture of a Hindu god, my friend speaks Marathi with the driver; if there is an Urdu or Hindi inscription, then my friend uses Hindi. Other clues are found in clothing, facial hair, skin color, and carriage. My slowness to read such clues is a measure of my foreignness and of my lack of linguistic sophistication (and perhaps also of my own brand of Marathi nationalism), but it is also a product of my liberal American training not to categorize people based on the way they look. There are many other people who speak Marathi perfectly well, but who do not want to speak it with me. Some of them think they are being polite: using the rules of linguistic sophistication, guessing my language from my looks, they start out speaking with me in English or--if they don't know English--Hindi. When such people persist in using English or Hindi after I've made my preference for Marathi clear, though, they do so because they don't have the patience to deal with my imperfect Marathi, because they want to practice their spoken English, because they find English more appropriate to the subject we're discussing, or because they are ashamed of Marathi. As my Marathi has improved over the years, the number of people who are impatient with it has decreased. I now agree readily to talk English with anyone whose English is better than my Marathi--a rule that would have prevented me from learning the language had I had to implement it earlier in life. There are some friends who sometimes have the patience and at other times do not; with these friends I switch back and forth, depending on the relative degrees of my stubbornness and their tolerance, and depending on what we are talking about. Intimate and domestic matters are most unproblematic to talk about in Marathi; and Marathi becomes a means whereby such friends can stress my intimacy with them, either in front of other foreigners or when only Marathi speakers are present. (Marathi can also serve quite effectively to create or intensify the great intimacy among those few foreigners who speak it.) Conversely, people with whom I almost always speak Marathi, including people who know little English, will use English words or phrases to talk with me about love or death. This is, I think, part of a different kind of linguistic phenomenon. It has more to do with the subject matter than with who is talking or to whom (though of course it cannot be done between people who know no English at all, and it probably happens most often between people who use English in some other situations also). Using English in an otherwise "purely" Marathi conversation has, in such a case, the effect of distancing the speaker from emotionally distressing or embarrassing topics. With people who want to use me to practice English, I am generally quite brutal. At first I used to think that, since I was the one who had come all that distance to study their language, I should get to practice Marathi on them; I should not have to let them practice English on me. Moreover, the better I got at Marathi, the less and less patient I became with poor English. Eventually I have come to see that the fact that I get to travel so far to learn Marathi has more to do with the political, economic, and social inequities of the world than it does with any differences in our desire for knowledge or our worthiness to practice a language. Most of the people who want to practice English on me would jump at the chance to study English in America. Unfortunately, this does not usually make me any more patient. In academic contexts, people frequently choose English over Marathi for reasons that have little to do with me. This is particularly true at universities, where English is generally the medium of instruction and the principal language of administration and of conversation among faculty members. In fact, I think, faculty members whose first language is Marathi generally speak a mixture of English and Marathi among themselves, and this is what I have ended up doing with those with whom I am most at home. With the Marathi scholar with whom I have worked most closely, S. G. Tulpule (d. 1994), I spoke such a relaxed combination of Marathi and English that I generally was not aware what language we were using. I believe that we talked mostly Marathi, and I know that we corresponded almost exclusively in Marathi, but both of us threw in plenty of English words. Other academics, especially those who are not particularly confident about their skill in English, seem more determined not to speak Marathi with me. I sometimes get the sense that such people are ashamed to speak in Marathi. They seem to think that it is a weakness on their part, or condescension on mine, that I want to use Marathi with them. In this respect, they are like another kind of people who insist on English. These are usually men, usually older than me, people who grew up while India was ruled by the British and who have never gotten over what I think of as their "colonial mentality." Such people, I sense, think of me as a Memsahib, a white woman, a colonial mistress; they cannot look at me and speak Marathi, and they are not at all comfortable with my speaking Marathi to them. I want to tell such people that I am not British, that my country was also a British colony, that I don't think Marathi is only a servants' language. But I have learned simply--as far as my impatient nature will permit--to resign myself and, if necessary, to extricate myself as gently as possible from the conversation. In at least one case, my inability to be patient about this has interfered with my work. In the early days of my study of religious meanings of rivers, I interviewed a kind and generous late-middle-aged Brahman man in Wai. With exasperating persistence, this man returned to English every time I tried to switch the conversation to Marathi. I was using a tape recorder in order to record his exact words--but it was his Marathi words I wanted, not the English ones that were what he was willing to give. Finally, in expressing the religious importance of Wai's river to its region, he called the region a "land flowing with milk and honey." "Now he's quoting from the Bible!" I said to myself in disgust, and turned off the tape recorder. Only later did I realize the irony: what this man had been saying, in a too-familiar idiom, would come to be central to the thesis of my book. In this case, in addition to the man's use of English making me suspect that he was confusing me with a British Memsahib, the quotation from the Bible may have made me think that he was confusing me with a missionary, or at least assuming that I was a Christian. Frequently people in India tell me that I'm a Christian; people who look like me, they say, are all Christians. My anger at this ignorance and racism makes me want to tell them that I am a Jew. On one occasion, though, I found such sterotyping simply charming. Among the crowd gathered for a Mahanubhav festival at the remote holy place Riddhipur, there was a man from an even more remote village. Seeing me and wondering about who I was, he asked a man from Rddhipur, where I had been staying, whether or not I was a Mahanubhav. "No," said the second man. "She's a Christian." "What's that?" asked the first man. "You know, a Christian. They worship Iisuu." "Ishnu [Vishnu]?" asked the first man. "No, Iisuu," said the second, miming the posture of a crucified Jesus. "You know, the ones who wear those long white clothes," he added, gesturing down toward the ground to sketch a priest's robe. In part, my reluctance to be identified as British or Christian reflects a desire to dissociate myself from colonial rulers and missionaries. In part, I avoid English so fiercely because I want to participate in the renewal of self-worth and pride in independent India--a nation that has been independent only two years longer than I have been alive. Similarly, my insistence on Marathi associates me with those who struggled, during my early childhood, for the creation of Maharashtra as a Marathi-language state (the modern state of Maharashtra came into being in 1960, only ten years before my first visit), and my avoidance of Hindi aligns me with those who resist the homogenization of Indian culture and the political dominance of north India that are implied and fostered by the spread of that language. However, I am coming to realize that my resistance to Hindi could all too easily be confused with the insistence of some, in Bombay and elsewhere, that Marathi--and Marathi-speakers--be given primacy in the state of Maharashtra. As such insistence becomes more strident and more prevalent, I need to distinguish ever more carefully between the different kinds of people who do not address or reply to me in Marathi. Wearing Saris At the most basic level, from my own point of view, what makes me so fanatical about speaking Marathi is that I want to be taken as a real human being, as a member of the in-group, and not as someone who is to be treated as strange, foreign, different, or special. In this context, it saddens me that I cannot drink unboiled water with impunity, that I cannot sleep comfortably in a row of women and children on the floor of a closed room, that I do not like to chew pan, and that I need to spend long periods of time alone. But these are facts of my life, and the one about water seems particularly inalterable. My clothes, though, unlike my immune system, can be changed, and on my second and third visits to India, in 1972 and 1974-75, I took gradually to wearing saris. I wear saris, I think, because I want to be taken not just as a real human being, but as a particular kind of human being. I want to be taken as a woman. When people ask me why I wear a sari, the reasons I give them vary with my mood. "You like our Indian sari?" people (usually men) sometimes ask me (usually in English), and I generally just smile and say, "Yes." When people manage to ask the question without making me feel as excluded as the word "our" in the phrase "our Indian sari" does, they get a more complete answer. I think the sari can be a beautiful garment, when it's worn naturally and with confidence. The modern sari, though, is physically uncomfortable in a couple of ways. It is worn with a blouse that, no matter how good the tailor, always feels too tight around the breast, making it hard to breathe very deeply. Even a slight gain in weight makes the sleeves too tight also, eventually threatening to cut off the circulation in the arms. Sweaty legs stick to the inside of the petticoat, making walking treacherous, and monsoon puddles turn both the petticoat and the hem of the sari into sharp-edged, muddy weapons that chafe the ankles. Even in the best of circumstances, the long, multiple skirts hamper movement. The end of the sari that gets thrown over the left shoulder tends to fall off that shoulder--seductively, I suppose, if it's handled right, but annoyingly when one is trying to get something done. Despite their physical discomfort, though, in social terms saris can be extremely comfortable. Saris are quite useful for sitting on the ground, cross-legged or with one knee up and the other leg folded under it. They are good for covering the head, whether against the sun or against unwelcome stares. And, worn well, they are the best means I know to announce the fact that one is not a tourist, that one has been around for a while, and that one might in fact seriously mean to carry on a conversation in Marathi. The catch in that last sentence is the phrase "worn well." Learning to wear a sari well has been almost as difficult for me as learning to speak Marathi. First I had to learn how to make the folds in the front of the skirt, then how to keep them from falling out of the petticoat. Then (and this took at least fifteen years) I had to learn how to wear the skirt long enough that other women would not laugh at me. Women friends would repeatedly tug at the hem of my sari, trying to make it brush the ground; I would continually worry that their doing this would make the top of the skirt come loose at the waist. I had to learn to put the end of the sari over my shoulder in such a way that it was not bunched too awkwardly and yet did not fall down too often (I dislike the sari pins that airline stewardesses and some others use to deal with this problem). And I had to learn to arrange things so that the part of the sari going from the skirt to the shoulder neither stretched too tightly nor hung too bulkily over my breasts and hips. Besides wearing the sari properly, I also had to learn to pick appropriate saris to wear. Kamala Visweswaran's "Sari Stories" are reminiscent of my experience too. I like muddy and subdued colors that are not appropriate to someone as young as I used to be. I like traditional designs and prints that are usually not in style. Above all, I like cotton saris, though they wrinkle very quickly and must be starched and ironed and carefully kept from fading. When eventually, some years ago, one of my most outspoken critic-friends paid me the high compliment of saying, "You're starting to look a little less awful than you used to," I felt that I had truly arrived. When I started wearing saris, I did so in part because that was what adult, married women in Pune wore at the time. I was in my mid-twenties, and I thought I was an adult. And yet I was not married. In part, the sari was a statement that not being married did not prevent me from being an adult. Now that my hair has turned white and people have stopped asking me when I'm going to get married, I no longer need to prove my adulthood. I do, though, want very much to be taken for a woman. Not that I want to be treated as a woman in all respects. I like to sit with the women in the kitchen of a house I visit, but I also like to sit with the men in the front room, talking about things they know that I want to find out. I want to have time to read and write; as a result, I don't want to spend too much time cleaning and chopping vegetables or picking through grain, and I've never become skilled at the time-consuming drudgery of making Indian breads. I would not be able to play the female role in most Indian marriages I know. And yet, increasingly, I find that I want to be identified as belonging to the gender of the people who wear the saris. The reasons for this, and the reason I express it by wearing a sari, are multiple and complex. I want to show deference to a tradition that I do not come from, that I do not agree with in all respects, and that I nevertheless try to understand. I also want to express, in a symbolic (metonymic?) way, a kind of physical solidarity with the women I meet: I want to share one part of their physical experience of the world. At the same time, I want to curb the tendency, on the part of some men, to treat me as an honorary man. I want to assert, that is, that it is not necessary to be a man to do the kind of work I do or to have the kind of freedom I enjoy. And yet I do not want to imply that doing my work or having my freedom makes my life more valuable than the lives of other women. As with the use of Marathi, there are some situations in which the sari is a hindrance to communication rather than a help. Nowadays an increasing number of even married women in Maharashtrian cities wear the salwar-kameez (a sort of dress with pants), a north Indian outfit that in 1970's Pune only schoolgirls and female college students (and adult Muslim women) wore. As a result, in Pune I feel some pressure to change my style with the changing times. In villages and in the majority of urban families, especially lower-caste urban families, though, saris are still the normal attire for adult women. My speech and my way of wearing a sari (with the end generally hanging from my left shoulder rather than pulled over my head) already mark me as someone who grew into Indian life (if not "grew up in India") in high-caste surroundings. Wearing a salwar kameez would, I fear, only intensify that identification--one that can cause a whole other set of obstacles to communication. Besides, I'm too set in my ways now, and have too many beautiful saris, to change. People who know me well are used to my clothing, and they accept it--as, indeed, I accept whatever they usually wear. "That's a nice color." "Where did you get that sari?" "How much did it cost?" "Isn't that a bit hot for this time of year?" such friends and acquaintances might ask. But I sometimes sense the disapproval of well-dressed women strangers, or of an occasional short-haired social reformer in a rough cotton salwar-kameez. And at least once I have shared an ironic smile with a young woman on a busy Pune street, as, clad in jeans and a tight, knitted top, she has flipped her long, loose hair to one side and swung her leg over the back of a young man's motorcycle. Being Friends In studying and using Marathi, then, and in learning to wear, and regularly wearing, a sari, I have undertaken two disciplines aimed at breaking down as far as possible the things that separate me from people in Maharashtra. Not only do these disciplines backfire sometimes, in ways that I have mentioned; they are also, ultimately, doomed to failure. That is, they are doomed to failure if success is to be measured by the ability to slip unnoticed into the population. In Germany I can do that, as long as I keep my mouth shut. In India I cannot. One glance in the mirror is sufficient to remind me, any time I'm tempted to forget. But Indians are used to diversity, and they are comfortable with it in ways that Americans are not. The people in Maharashtra who make me feel welcome are certainly not the people who treat me as a special, honored freak. But neither are they the blue-eyed Citpavan Brahmans who hear my Marathi, see my sari, and say, "You look just like one of us!" The ones who make me feel welcome are the people who talk with me about whatever the subject at hand is, who accept me as a human being, invite me into their homes, and tell me important things about themselves and their lives. Over the years, some of these people have become my friends. I don't want to write about my friends. I don't want to betray their confidences or to invade my own privacy, in the context of my professional (that is, paid) work in America. In fact, for a long time, I was hesitant to write about any living people. Though I was fascinated from the beginning with the popular, folk, and ritualized Brahmanical kinds of religion that I had seen during my first visit to India, my graduate training prepared me to be a text scholar, and that is what I did in my first few major academic projects. I chose Mahanubhav literature for my dissertation research in part because the Mahanubhav sect is still alive, and so the search for manuscripts and interpretations would give me the chance to meet living people. But I was reluctant to study those living people or their contemporary religious lives per se. It did not seem right to inquire into, and then to talk or write publicly about, the beliefs, thoughts, and religious practices of people who were or might become my friends. GŁnther Sontheimer helped me get over my qualms. GŁnther was a German professor who spoke and understood Marathi well. He was very much at home in Maharashtra, whether in a mansion or in a shepherds' camp. (He always dressed impeccably in Western clothes and shoes.) A man of few words, GŁnther answered my doubts gently, saying, "But it's not private for them. It's a matter of fact." (By "them" he meant people involved in the mainly rural kinds of Hinduism he studied.) Later I came to realize that my sense of religion as something private, personal, and to some extent embarrassing probably derived from American Protestant influence on the Roman Catholicism in which I had been brought up. In any case, I am by now quite comfortable asking people all kinds of questions about gods, rituals, festivals, and temples; in Water and Womanhood I even report on some of my interviews with women about their reproductive histories. Gradually, then, I have come to do something I call field work, and to report some of the things I've learned and some of the understandings I've developed in the course of that work. The field work and my reports on it have brought me rewards of the sorts available in American academia: employment, advancement, a modest amount of wealth and power. Most importantly, though, they have given me the means to return again and again to India. In a purely professional undertaking (if there is such a thing), living in India is a prerequisite for doing field work there. Indeed, I began this essay by pointing this out. But in my case--as well as, I imagine, in the cases of dozens of others like me--the ends and the means are reversed: field work provides the opportunity to visit beautiful places and to meet interesting people. Field work is an excuse to live in India. Through living in India, speaking Marathi, and wearing a sari, I aim to have interesting conversations, to develop friendships, and to reach understanding across barriers of difference. What I have described here is some of what I do, from my side, to diminish the difference and lower the barriers. I travel to India, to Pune, and then from there out to smaller places. I learn a language and change my clothes. I ask questions, look at things, watch people, and try to listen to what they say. Yet I know that any conversations I have, any friendships I develop, and any understanding I gain depend ultimately on the openness and generosity of other people.