© 1996 by Monisha Das Gupta
I am an Indian woman who has been going to school in the United States for the past three-and-a-half years. I live a fractured life: fractured between two realities Third World and First. The feeling of dislocation is ever-present, as is the need to find a comfort zone. I have come to value the unstable, amorphous terrain that I inhabit even though it is a very painful experience.(1)
One of the most empowering things I have learnt from feminist theory(2) was the inanity of presenting ourselves as coherent beings who could (and should) rationally dissolve existential and intellectual contradictions. Feminist theory taught me to strive for another kind of coherence. It involved bringing together experience and expression. As I worked to repair the faultline between my social realities and my intellectual projects, other fissures opened up exactly because of that exercise.(3)
The conflicts I embody have to do with shifting identities. I have learnt to use some of them strategically, especially in my political work. Others are not as manipulable and I war with imposed and self-imposed tendencies to essentialize them. I am a Third World woman who has had the advantage of a middle-class upbringing, education, and progressive parents. Precisely because of these advantages, I am now a Third World woman in the western academy. My transition from Calcutta to Smith College, back to Calcutta and from there to Brandeis University marked the beginnings of destabilization. The process made me acutely aware that my identities were no longer fixed and secure.
Soon after starting graduate school I realized that being an international student did not protect me from racism. Some initially startling experiences led me to identify with the struggles of women of color, whose works I was being introduced to by my friends and a couple of professors. Given the two broad categories White and Black that subsume people and their histories in this country, I have chosen to embrace the label 'Black.'
Identifying as a "woman of color" is both empowering and problematic. It is empowering because it offers me some clearcut ways to define my politics. I have situated myself on the margins of the world of 'players' and that has been my academic and political vantage point. On the other hand, my alignment puts me in the awkward position of representing or speaking for Black people in the predominantly White institutional setting of my university. When I am hired for a position or consulted, my tokenization as a "Black" student becomes evident. In such situations, I feel the pressure of standing in for people whose voices I cannot claim. When I am among African Americans, I cannot help being aware that I am not them. While I share the burden of racism, invisibility, and tokenization in an American context, my roots are elsewhere. My history is different, though colonialism provides some powerful intersections. When I am with Indian immigrants, I know most of them would distance themselves from me if they realized I identified myself as a person of color. My support group in the Boston area, South Asian Women for Action (SAWA), is the only place where I can bring my Indian-South Asian-Black-Third World feminist identity with some level of comfort.
When I returned to India, none of these acquired identities made sense. There I was, a 33-year-old unmarried female. The unconventionality of this allowed me certain liberties that many of my contemporaries do not enjoy. At the same time, the liminality of my status (I had not attained adulthood in the eyes of the elders since I was not married) exposed me to the patriarchal prerogatives of people ranging from the bus conductor to my father. My physical location had changed once again and I found it enormously difficult to retain the clarity of my political stance on issues that had provoked me in the three years I had spent abroad. In those three years, I had become self-consciously political. I still see myself as having mobilized around political issues for the first time in my life on moving to the United States. Holding on to this identity became increasingly incompatible with my daily reality at home. My reconstructed self did not translate very well into that context. Angry, and disappointed at the ineffectiveness of my precious Third World feminism, I constantly asked myself if I did not need a very different politics of location, different from the one I acted on within the contours of U.S. sex, gender, and race politics. Would that mean abandoning a complex of stances and identities that were nevertheless crucial to what I had become in my years abroad?
The most painful part of the trip home was the severity of the discontinuities in my identities and politics. Within a week of my going back, I remember my father complaining about how he was being exploited by our domestic workers. "Get a grip, Dad," was my reaction. I was repelled by my father's seemingly absurd accusation. The domestic workers we were talking about were displaced women who had come from rural areas to find work in the city. The only work immediately available to them is usually domestic service, which is taxing and ill-paid. The women who worked for us did chores like washing utensils and clothes, housecleaning, cooking and marketing for several households in our neighborhood. Some of them held as many as six to ten jobs. If they washed utensils, they would have to go back to the same household twice daily to get the lunch and dinner dishes. Those who had left their families behind in their villages would stay with their employers. Their every action was closely monitored. They had no privacy. Others, who had family members with them, lived in slums and after taking care of the households they worked for, had to tend to their own families. Looking at these harried, overworked (sometimes bad-tempered and sharp-tongued) women, I would think of the irony of my work. In the comfort of the western academy and a lifestyle that took for granted running hot water, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines I professed the primacy of daily lives of such women in understanding the politics of Third World "development."
As weeks went by, I noted the new lines on my father's face. The city had ground my father down in the three years that I had been away. He was sick and trying hard not to collapse. I slowly realized how expensive staples had become and how difficult it was to make ends meet on a single person's income. My mother had retired that year after 38 years of teaching. The prospect of getting her pension was dim. Neither of my parents counted on it. My mother's health has been so uncertain that she can no longer run the household on a day-to-day basis. This has meant a battery of domestic workers (aware of the precariousness of our household) and a spiraling medical bill. Both my parents and the women who worked for us contended with the same problems rising cost living, shrinking services, an indifferent and corrupt state government that is in name Communist. Hence the women's monthly demands for a raise, go-slow tactics (resistance/agency in academese), my parents' tense discussions about what they could afford, and the complaints of "exploitation" from my father. It was no longer possible to contemptuously dismiss my his point of view.
This time I had managed to take some money home and I slipped the rupees that I changed for my dollars into the household account. Officially, $1 bought Rs.30.(4)
In the blackmarket one could get two or three rupees extra for a dollar depending on the denominations of the bills. The women who worked for us knew I lived abroad. To them that meant I had money. They would ask me for an umbrella, a sari or clothes for their children when they knew my parents were not within earshot. None of these things would have cost me more than a couple of dollars but I knew my parents did not have the means to buy these things on request and the requests were frequent. I also knew that the women asked for these things because they really needed them. My mother compromised by giving them old clothes, the spare umbrella.
The sense of imbalance between my two worlds was acute. It was not that the 'problem' of employing domestic workers and the conditions under which they worked was a sudden revelation to me. My mother had always insisted that we do the bulk of the household chores ourselves. She was also aware of the hardships domestic workers endured and tried to do what she could. So much of what I faced was not new. What was new were my dollars, my sociological viewpoint, and my activism. These I could not reconcile with what happened around me at home in Calcutta.
The inappropriateness of my situation has a lot to do with the structural positions I occupy in the two settings that I shuttle between First World and Third. In the political economy of my household and neighborhood, I do not occupy an unambiguously marginal position. I am thedaughter of the household, a good girl, whose "goodness" depends on an acquiescent existence.(5) In the three months I lived at home, my self-sufficiency and my scholarship formed a shadowy background that was hardly ever acknowledged. At the same time, by "virtue" of being the daughter, I entered into curious powerplays with a large range of people the maids, the watercarrier, the vegetable vendor, the landlord, the landlord's rival cousins. I do not want to have anything any longer to do with the highly ritualized acts of patronage and disempowerment. But to transgress the sharp lines of class, caste, and gender lines that I know intimately as an insider, would mean pitching my whole household into crisis. My personal investment in that household prevents me from doing it. The decision clashes with my intellectual and political integrity.
I returned home deeply discouraged by my inability to maintain a sociological perspective. By a "sociological perspective" I do not mean objectivity but what Alvin Gouldner understood as reflexive sociology. Such an approach would require the sociologist to "penetrate deeply into his [sic] daily life" because the "knowledge of the world cannot be advanced apart from the sociologist's knowledge of himself [sic] and his [sic] position in the social world, or apart from his [sic] efforts to change these."(6)
One of the books that kept me company during the bewildering months in Calcutta was bell hook's Yearning.(7)
Nothing could describe my feelings better as I read her essay on Zora Neale Hurston and Zora's homecoming to Eatonville, Florida, where she studied and documented African American folklore.(8) As hooks reminds us, this meticulous documentation was not merely "fieldwork" for Zora. It was a "gesture of self-recovery" that connected her "in a deeply emotional and spiritual way to the life of the community."(9) The poetics of return took hold of me and how I yearned for that connection Zora felt with her community. But what community, which home? On re-reading Minnie Bruce Pratt after coming back, I, for the first time, grasped what she meant by those "safeties" that lend the idea of home its comfort.(10)
Unlike Zora, I did not did not go home with the intention of doing any particular project. Yet, as a "Third World scholar in the western academy" my home is the object of my inquiry. It is our 'thirdworldliness' that legitimizes our presence in certain pockets in the western academy. Unlike Zora, who slowly realized that her 'Barnardese'(11) was not going to get her anywhere with Eatonville men and women "who had whole treasures of material just seeping through their pores,"(12)
I did not have to discard any acquired manner of speech. But I had gone back something new dollars and a politics that made me different in my eyes and made me different in the eyes those who were a part of my life in Calcutta. It was impossible to distance myself from either the money or the politics, both of which obscured the hope of immersion and recovery.
What happens when we, Third World scholars in the western academy, return to the geographical-social contexts in which we were once embedded? How do we do our work? How do we think about it? What happens to the ways of being we craft when we are away? What kinds of knowledges of ourselves do we bump into when we go back?(13)
I am questioning the apparent seamlessness of subjectivities as we return to what used to be 'indigenous.'
The bulk of critical writing by Third World scholars in the west has focused on the ways in which Third World scholarship has been appropriated, distorted and tokenized by the western academy. I have learnt much about the "othering" of Third World scholars and their work. This continues even as some U.S. universities scramble to put development, postcolonial studies, Third World feminisms on their curricula. The deconstruction of this process of objectification is necessary for us to understand what it means to write and teach about our countries, our histories, and cultures outside the geographical contexts to which we trace our origins. While we are objectified in a multitude of ways by racist societies in the west, we do not exist in the west only as objects. I had to reconstruct my subjectivity on entering and living in the U.S. When I returned home these reconstructions did not disappear. I doubt if they do for most 'international' scholars even if going home is a true homecoming that brings with it a sense of belonging.
So, when we go back with our dollars, and our politics profoundly shaped by our encounters with the west, how do we confront that legitimizing thirdwordliness on coming up against its reality? That encounter is naturalized when there is no discussion about the continuities and discontinuities in our standpoints and social positionings as we shift contexts. If we, as Third World scholars, do not begin to address these questions about our work then we insist on an authenticity that we cannot claim. Just as the history of colonialism makes a postcolonial search for an untouched past futile, our present histories of transnationalism makes it impossible for us insist on a Third World authenticity because that erases the identities we have built in contexts outside the Third World.
- The Dissonance Web Board
1. Reading Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands/ La Frontera (San Francisco: Spinster/Aunt Lute, 1987), I realized I was certainly not alone in feeling beleaguered. Anzaldua has shown me how this buffeting against cultures can become "a new story to explain the world and our participation in it" (80-81).
2. For Ruth Linden, who formally introduced me to feminist theory, the energy of feminist theorizing flowed from bringing together experience and theory.
3. Lata Mani in her article, "Multiple Mediations: Feminist scholarship in the age of multinational reception" Inscriptions 5 (1989) points to such a possibility when she says, "Feminists have called for a revised politics of location 'revised' because unlike its initial articulation, the relation between experience and knowledge is now seen to be not one of correspondence but one fraught with history, contingency and, struggle" (4). In my many readings of this article, I had never dwelt on this line until it caught my attention when I reread it on my return from India. Minnie Bruce Pratt's "Identity: Blood Skin Heart" in Yours in Struggle, (New York: Long Haul Press, 1984), which Mani footnotes in reference to her comment, is a fine example of a rigorous search for the histories of oppression and struggle that hide beneath the security of an identity, home and community.
4. To understand the exchange rate and the strength of the dollar, it would be helpful to note that Rs.30 would be the daily budget for vegetables and a pound of fish in a middle class family in Calcutta. By Indian standards, however, this budget reflects an inflation in food prices, which sometimes reaches a high of 20% every three months.
5. It is only fair to point out that neither my mother nor sister (nor I) have been acquiescent women. My mother and sister have established themselves as very strong individuals but the struggle has been very hard and has required, especially on my mother's part, immense self-sacrifice. Ultimately, they have come up with active patterns of being good women and, for all of us, finding ways to continue to live up to that image has been very important.
6. Alvin W. Gouldner, " Toward a Reflexive Sociology," ed. Charles Lemert, Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classical Readings (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993) 466.
7. bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (Boston: South End Press, 1990).
8. bell hooks, "Saving Black Folk Culture: Zora Neale Hurston as anthropologist and writer," Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (Boston: South End Press, 1990), 135-143.
9. Ibid, 141.
10. Minnie Bruce Pratt, "Identity: Skin Blood Heart."
11. Hurston's term for the language she learned to speak at Barnard College.
12. Ibid, 137.
13. Lata Mani in "Multiple Mediations" discusses the historical configurations of certain knowledges the west produced and reproduced about India and Indian women. She says, "The disjunctions between how I saw myself and the kind of knowledge about me that I kept bumping into in the West opened up new questions for social and political inquiry" (11). As a woman studying abroad and researching subjects that seemed foreign and distant to friends and family at home, I came across knowledges about myself that did not coincide with what I had become in exploring the social, political questions that Mani saw opening up for her when she traveled west. To further the projects already theorized by scholars like Mani and Chandra Mohanty, I want to chart the transnational production of knowledge about ourselves as women who move between worlds and are structurally situated in these worlds in positions that coincide and diverge.
[Navigating Way Net]
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