Can I wear a sari or not and who decides that?

There was an interesting debate about ethnic fashion adopted by non-ethnic people. An article from MIC describes this practice with different examples of some ethnic fashion styles.

The author claimed that wearing Native American’s headdress is not appropriate using Jessica Metcalfe’s words.

By this point in time, it should be pretty obvious that wearing a headdress that’s even just inspired by Native American cultures is a no-no. As Jessica R. Metcalfe, creator of Native American blog and boutique Beyond Buckskin, previously told Mic:

“[The headdress] is a sacred, important symbol to us. And it’s still a tradition that is practiced in our communities … Whenever you have celebrities or major companies misusing the sacred headdress, that is a direct way of destroying our culture.”

However, the author gives an example of wearing sari in a different perspective.

“The sari was originally intended to keep teenaged girls and women both comfortable in the heat and to look ‘modest,'” noted Palash Ghosh in the International Business TimesThat doesn’t mean non-Indian women can’t ever wear them; when in 2013, British first lady Samantha Cameron wore a sari to a Hindu temple to celebrate Diwali, a temple-goer told the Guardian:

“The fact that Mrs. Cameron made such a huge effort to dress as per Hindu customs most definitely shows how much she values our culture, religion and traditions.”


I agree that if non-ethnic people attempt to make fun of a specific ethnic fashion while wearing it, that would be not appropriate and regarded as a way of “destroying that culture” but in multicultural and global societies, this seems not a simple matter. Artistic value of these clothes is restrictedly possessed by ethnic groups?  What is the permitted point and what is not? and who can decide that?

Aesthetics and Politics

Since the interaction between the aesthetic and political was an important theme in our discussion of the Bangla short stories, I thought I’d open up the topic a little more. One of the reasons why I think protest literature is a valuable genre category is because such literature clearly envisions an audience that does not coincide with the communities who are the central to that literature. At the same, the genre category is also useful as it helps demarcate such works from others that envision radically different audiences and create reading experiences that present their real audiences with an extremely challenging hermeneutics (such as Erna Brodber’s Myal), all with subversive intention. What I didn’t consider in class was a literature that straddled both approaches–and I think Dalit autobiographies sometimes fall into this third category.

In discussing Dalit literature and the conversation around the idea of a “Dalit aesthetic,” Toral Gajarawala proposes what she calls “unreading” as a conceptual framework through which to read Dalit literature. Such reading would “expand the temporal and chronological map provided by the narrative fictional framework in a paratactic way such that the putative event is deconstructed.” Gajarawala’s example is a Dalit autobiography that “domesticates” a central event of Indian history, the Partition, by rewriting the story of Partition as purely something that affects the prices of things ‘at home’. Gajarawala points out that Dalit literature often deconstructs the idea of the “eventfulness” of Indian history because Dalit historiography is a “history of white pages.” I think Gajarawala’s concept is a good way to approach Dalit literature, and indicates that some works of protest literature may create complex audience effects by strategic formal choices. Urmila Pawar’s Aaydan, for example, has a number of really boring episodes described in detail, in addition to all the instances of caste discrimination and humiliation I expect to find in the book. I mean, how much do I really want to know about her uncle? Why does nothing of much significance happen in the first 100 or so pages, except for a couple of episodes in school? One of the reasons I responded this way to the book is because my sense of what is historically eventful or meaningful, especially in the construction of the self, did not correspond with Pawar’s, and for reasons beyond the ethnographic. (She isn’t just showing her audience the rituals of her community.) It’s really striking that the first two pages of the narrative are about women walking from the coastal village to Ratnagiri, the town. When you stop to think about it, that’s a really strange opening for an autobiography, especially when you’re a feted writer. The opening is crucial to authorial and audience positionality; she is locating herself in a way that isn’t historical in the way that the conversion to Buddhism is; in fact, her community seems to exist outside the nation, in a different time from the time actually represented (1950-2000 roughly). The episode, for me, is an example of the challenging hermeneutics that can be found within the tradition of protest literature.

Intersectionality of Struggles

Angela Davis book_Freedom is a Constant Struggle

Activist and scholar Angela Davis, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz has recently released her latest book titled Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. The book is a collection of essays, interviews and speeches that highlight the connections between struggles against state violence and oppression throughout history and around the world. The international connections she makes between struggles is a the necessary and radical type of theorizing that we have been exploring within this course. Whereas we have theorized connections between the struggles of Dalits and African Americans, Davis does so between the struggles of Africans Americans and Palestinians. She talks more about the intersectionality of struggles, than about the intersectionality of identities. She credits young organizers and activists, of the Black Lives Matter movement, for tracing this very type of intersectionality. She acknowledges that they are not myopic in their activism, only focusing upon individual perpetrators of police brutality, but have taken on larger questions of imperialism, structural/institutional racism, state violence, and racism. This kind of intersectional thinking is necessitated in the creation of a truly radical consciousness. This sort of intellectual facility is transformative and powerful in the struggle against and dismantling of complex systems of oppression. These activists show us the extent to which dismantling Palestinian apartheid has become central to efforts against racism in America. Their quest for international solidarity harks back to the internationalist intersections that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was making in between America’s militaristic foreign diplomacy, in Vietnam, and domestic racism, in its own contiguous states. It appears in the not much has changed, even with the election of an African American president. America still wrestles with connecting problems/evils: racism, militarism, capitalism, classism, materialism, poverty, ableism, sexism, and such like.

“Who writes it?”

In the introduction to Survival and Other Stories: Bangla Dalit Fiction in Translation, Singha and Acharya raise an important question “in the discussion of dalit literature – who writes it?” (xxvi). This was one of the questions that I found myself coming back to, over and over again, during the course of this class, in relation to Indian picturebooks for children, featuring marginalized protagonists. Apart from a couple of stories from a series titled Different Tales (Eds. Achar and Sreenivas), there is no “dalit literature” for children. [The category under which Kancha Ilaiah’s illustrated text, Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land falls into – literature for adults, young adults, or young children – is debatable.] There are picturebooks like The Why Why Girl, Sabri’s Colours and Kali and the Rat Snake which revolve around protagonists from Scheduled Tribes (ST). However, it is to be noted that these young ST children belong to the oppressed castes; they are not outcastes, like the Dalits. The writers of these texts – Mahasweta Devi, Rinchin and Zai Whitaker – do not themselves belong to scheduled castes either. All three of them are activists, who have worked with the Shabar, Bhil-Barela and Irula tribes respectively.

As Acharya and Singha discuss, in their Introduction to Survival…, while a separate category of dalit literature – a form of “Protest Literature or the Literature of Resistance” –does exist, these writings are geared only towards adults. These writings, being political in nature and emerging as a product of the dalit consciousness, necessitate questioning the identity of the author, and its relationship to the accuracy of the representation of the dalit characters in the texts. The debate around “who writes it” is valid in the realm of dalit literature for adults, but could the same question be extended for children’s literature too? Considering that there is a lack of “dalit literature” for children, how important is the author’s identity in determining how authentic a text is? Who gets to write, or publish about/for a dalit (or a marginalized) child? Can “other marginalized literature” such as Sabri’s Colours or Kali and the Rat Snake be used in classrooms to speak about the oppression of the dalits too, or would that not be agreeable? How much attention should be given to the caste of a children’s author, while analyzing their text about marginalized communities? Is it sufficient if the author has had the experience of working with children from the marginalized communities that they have written about, or not? How many of these texts – be it Different Tales (written by Dalit authors) or The Why Why Girl (written by an activist, who does not belong to an oppressed caste herself) – reach the hands of the children from oppressed and out- castes? How effectively can adults – belonging to the Dalit, or any other marginalized community – recount the experience of the Dalit/marginalized child? How authentic might the representation of the Dalit/marginalized child be, when an adult is constructing it?

In Anticipation of “United Shades of America”



Comedian W. Kamau Bell has moved through the worst after effects of the cancellation of “Totally Biased,” and is bringing his racial humor back with a new series on CNN called “United Shades of America.” The premise for the show is that he’s going into different places in the U.S. where black bodies are threatened to try to show these places, communities, spaces, in an unbiased light. In the trailer for the show, War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” plays in the background. Clearly, CNN is presenting this show is a very specific way and it’s making me a little uncomfortable.

And while I’m excited for the show (because who doesn’t love race-based humor masquerading as investigative journalism?), I wonder why this is being present this way and who is the intended audience? I’m guessing that because it’s on CNN the show kinda has to look as non-incendiary as possible. The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah interviewed Bell on April 14 and he made it very clear that his stance will not be at all as political as his previous stand up and TV shows:

Noah: In all of the stories that you’re making, are you trying to change these people’s points of view?

Bell: Well, here’s the thing about that. I think that I just went in there to sort of experience a thing. I am curious about the Klan. I have questions. And also, it’s sort of, I believe in the power of awkward conversations to initiate change. That if people sort of shut up and listen to other people talk and go ‘this is making me uncomfortable, but I’ll keep listening.’ You start to learn things.

Bell seems to be arguing that the show is giving both sides an equal say in order for both racists and people of color to get along. Because that’s what’s happening in American racial politics: miscommunication: “We gotta have more conversations. We gotta reach across the aisle. We gotta find a way to get along in this United States of America” (21:29). And, yeah, while the phrases, “ reach across the aisle” make me cringe it’s understandable that he’s playing it safe after the cancellation of his last show: an unabashedly radical tv show that did not pull punches. Even Noah tries to make a jab at the lukewarm politics of the show and suggested it was connected to CNN’s politics:

Noah: “So basically CNN has gone, ‘okay, we’re done with the unintentional comedy. We’re starting with the real… is that what happened here?”

Bell: No comment.

Noah: You know where the bread is.

Bell: Exactly. Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah, got anything to say about Comedy Central?

Noah: that’s uh, uh, uh – *looks at camera* it’s a wonderful place to work.

Here, Bell is pointing out how Noah probably holds back too, which is interesting. It’s like metacomedy, maybe postpostmodern comedy or something like that. I haven’t really found the words for it, or been able to articulate just how many things are being commented on here, or how it challenges everything the Colbert Report was being based on. In any case, I think this show is going to be interesting to watch and to watch those who will watch. I sincerely hope it does better than “Totally Biased.” *crosses fingers*

Caste in Bengal

I recently read this article on caste prejudice in Bengal which tells the story of Lata, a teacher in Burdwan, who experienced caste prejudice. The article details how Lata did not feel caste oppression growing up in a mostly Dalit community, nor did she feel it at university, but in her teaching job she did. Coworkers started by talking about her caste, then began taking away tablecloths and chairs she used. They even told her to sit on the floor when she tried to share a bench with her upper caste colleagues. The article highlights that because Bengal is envisioned as somehow more progressive than the rest of India, there is a perception that Bengal is casteless (which, as we know from class, obviously isn’t true). She also shares how her coworkers discussed Dalit ex-employees in terms of their attractiveness and wonders whether if she was less “good-looking” she would have been identified as Dalit sooner. The article also discusses how Lata speaks up against things she doesn’t believe in, and how that conflicts with notions of acceptable femininity. Lata then becomes threat to tradition not only because of her caste status, but because she does not live up to expectations of passivity of femininity.

“Indian” or “Indian?”

If you “Google” the term “Indian, this is what comes up (see screen shot below).

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 5.52.42 PM.png


Recently, I’ve been thinking about the ways that we, as a society, frame terms and the ways that we label people, and groups of people. Interestingly, a term that has historically been known to cover two different groups of people, the term “Indian,” is not represented in the top results when you Google search it, sports teams actually come up. While we could get into the misrepresentation of “Indians,” I’d rather think about the ways that the term operates for those from India, and those from America. While the term “Indian” has been around for hundreds of years in America, mainly because Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and others identified as “Indian,”and there is now a movement to consider the terms we use for those that are American Indians/Native Americans/Natives/etc. In a Native Times article “Native American vs. American Indian: Political correctness dishonors traditional chiefs of old,” the author lays out the historical reasons that Native Americans are not called Native Americans. Before, they identified as “Indians,” but there has been a shift, due to the ways in which white culture has labeled them “Native Americans” that there has been resistance (Native Times). Furthermore, I got to thinking about this term and India. I basically have wanted to think about the duality of the term for two different cultures for quite some time, but after some research I’ve found that it’s a difficult topic to research. While some say that India has been India for 3,000 plus years and those that live in India identify as Indians, it’s interesting that we see the term pop up more in history only a few hundred years ago. Britain thought of India as a “crowning jewel,” and that it was beautiful, rich, and vast. But when considering all of these terms, I was struck by the thought-process and reasoning behind labeling. What “connotation” does the term “Indian” have? Do we conflate this term with two different cultures and peoples, or are we able to distinguish? By naming your culture, does this do something for it, or does it set it apart from every other culture on purpose/or not? What might the implications of this process be? How can we be sensitive to those that want identify as Indian, while also being sensitive to those that identify as Native American? Any way that you put it, terms and ideas are powerful, and they can change the way that people are perceived.

Survival and Other Stories

I had a hard time getting through these stories, even on a second reading where we were focusing on just the four.  Not that they were hard readings – they were very rich with meaning and depth and, after our  discussions, I came away with a lot of understandings that I missed on my own.  But they were also very sad and heart-wrenching and they leave you with open questions that may be intentional on the writers part – to get you thinking not just while you’re reading, but long after.

In The Deceived, while Maya took part in the deception of the villagers (so they believed, but maybe she truly was possessed by the goddess – how are the villagers to know if that did or did not happen?), what was the purpose of her rape at the end?  Why exactly did that have to happen?  They were incredibly mad at Gopal Thakur for his deception – his stealing, his attempts to rise above the caste he was in, and they did next to nothing – shaving his hair and making him ride a donkey, which in comparison to what they did to Maya is peanuts.  But to the girl, rape. And not just one rape, no, that would have been too lenient – “she tried to save herself even with that exhausted body of hers. But she could not fight with so many rapists who attacked her together.” (28)  We have a gang rape as punishment.  Is this a reflection of what all women in the lower castes of Bengal just expect to experience and it was projected onto this woman?  Or is this a consequence if you assist someone, who you don’t know, attempted to rise up above their caste and you shall pay the price as well?  I found it troubling the sexist way that the punishment was meted out to the female and male, particularly based on what the crime was (noting that I’m not quite sure what is so terrible about riding a donkey and what exactly the symbolism is behind that as it’s not explained).

In Munnali, I was a little taken aback at the fact that the boy (man?) Munnali’s father wanted to marry her off to was the same one that bit her forehead and caused her to bleed.  Or was it?  Her father just speaks about the father and doesn’t say which son, just that one son’s wife has run off and he wants to have her for a son – would it be for the one that bit her?  Or for the one whose wife ran off?  And why would the son’s wife running off be the driving force behind Kana Hella wanting Munnali for one of his sons, whichever one it may be?  Munnali starts out full of such fire at the beginning, with her dreams of working for a family far away, but by the end, she’s resigned herself to marrying one of Kana Hella’s sons and seems to have accepted her fate – is this a critique on expecting more than you should and that it amounts to nothing in the end?  Or simply a sad story about a girl who had dreams that died?

The other two were also quite depressing, but they do linger with you after and force you to consider – are these stories typical of everyday life?  Do they represent all Bengla Dalit’s?  They reminded me a lot of slave narratives – sad, stark conditions, women with little control of their bodies or their futures and people forced into situations that were not of their own making but of the circumstances of their birth, but with little to no hope of changing them.  But, at least they are being read, if nothing else.


Singha, S.P. & Acharya, I. (Eds.). (2012). Survival and other stories: Bangla Dalit fiction in translation. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan.

Gandhism in Anand’s Untouchable

In 1929, Mulk Raj Anand returned to his Punjabi home from his studies in London. Though the purpose of the trip was to visit his family briefly before graduating, Anand resided for several weeks at Mohandas Gandhi’s residence Sabarmati Ashram in western India. While staying there, he occupied his time performing tasks usually reserved for Dalits, especially the task of cleaning the latrines. He also seems to have had extensive direct contact with Gandhi himself, who, Anand later told biographers, critiqued an early draft of Untouchable as too elevated to represent the lives of sweepers accurately. The experience at Sabarmati Ashram greatly influenced the young Punjabi, for he later incorporated a long scene involving Gandhi into the final draft of Untouchable. In the scene, the Dalit Bakha marvels at Gandhi’s power to unify diverse peoples with a message of better treatment for the Untouchables. The message appeals to him because he feels for the first time that someone is speaking on his behalf and interested in ameliorating his treatment. And yet even as the novel showers the Mahatma with the same adoration he receives by his followers, it also notes the shortcomings of Gandhism, though this emerges more subtly. For example, Bakha’s attention begins to wane when Gandhi reverts to singing Hindu hymns: “his attention began to flag. His mind wandered…It irked him to see everyone so serious.” (127-28). Anand also ironically undercuts the unwarranted optimism of Gandhism in another moment: looking out over the vast throng of followers, Bakha “didn’t know what to do, stand still or rush. He realized he couldn’t rush even though the Mahatma had abolished all caste distinctions for the day.” (125) The point Anand is making here is that while Gandhi brings the illusion of abolishing caste, the problem of caste runs much deeper than Gandhi’s optimism can reach. After all, the novel asks us to contrast this moment of optimism with the dominant event of the first half of the book: the fallout over the simple act of Bakha’s accidentally touching an upper-caste man. The novel would seem to argue, then, that Gandhi offers an attractive answer to the problems of caste, but it is an answer not without its own problems, limitations, and even delusions of what it can actually accomplish.

Experimental poetry & contextualizing history


Phinder Dulai’s new book, Dream / Arteries, focuses on what he calls “sacred narratives,” by which he means, I think, the stories that shape collective memory and identity for individuals and communities. His collection takes as its subject the 1914 story of a Japanese ship carrying 376 migrants from Punjab who arrived to Vancouver shores only to be effectively starved out: prevented by the Canadian government from debarking, the ship and its passengers stayed at a short distance from shore, waiting to be allowed in. They were eventually forced to return to India. Dulai combines archival research, photographs, and his own poetic meditations to tell this story to a contemporary audience.

In this video, produced by the Asian American Writers Workshop, you can hear Dulai introduce his project and also, around 9:30, hear him read a poem written from the perspective of the ship.

As we connect our fictional readings in these last weeks with the historical and social contexts we have been discussing this semester, I am reflecting on the power of art to evoke and persuade, and to bring the past to life. Dulai’s work has me thinking about not only art as political, but about the artistic process itself as a political act. Dulai’s is especially compelling because it uses, rather than ignore or replace, would-be official narratives.

More information on the book is here.

This kind of work also represents a connection between our course material and my own interest in migration narratives. As Dulai says in his introduction, most if not all of the ship’s passengers were labor migrants, hoping to find work in Canadian mines. This specific historical example illustrates how migration can offer a lens for looking at connections between labor issues and exploitation, race, and constructed national identities. Looking back at our recent class conversation about connections between capital growth and suffering, I wonder, what does this specific incident have to do with colonial history? Technically British subjects, these passengers were turned away as “undesirable” foreigners. How do political policies, even foreign policies or migration policies, reinforce racism/racist practices and emphasize race over other forms of identity? How do specific historical incidents such as this standoff between the Canadian government and the Komogata Maru relate to contemporary issues of labor exploitation and asylum?


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