Thursday, February 24, 2005

Madurai (D. Willis)

The early morning departure area is abuzz even at 5:30 a.m., many flights going all over India. The heat of the day means that most flights in India take off or land as early or as late as possible. The signs of a newly invasive capitalism are everywhere. India like China has chosen to open the flood-gates to a new economics. It is a different India that the one I knew in the 1970s, when it could take up to three hours to get out of the airport. The night before I was out in 50 minutes. Some benefits come with this new wave, but there are many who cannot come close to these benefits.

My flight to Madurai is on a propeller plane, and all I can see is the haze and clouds, the smoke of fires from burning straw, the dust, always the dust. Landing in Madurai, which has a small airport some seven kilometers form the city, I am met by my brother J. Rajasekaran, who will help me with interviews and visits as well as accompany me to Nagapattinam and LAFTI on Thursday after we have done some work in Madurai.

Sekar greets me in Tamil and I reply, my Tamil rusty from so many years away. It is good to see him. Sekar is an anthropologist and fieldworker who was born and brought up in Madurai and who is now the coordinator of the University of Wisconsin program in Madurai along with his wife Vidya, who is the Director. We have known each other 35 years. He is also an impressive vocalist of classical Carnatic music, a collector of folklore and folk-songs, and a rock-and-roll musician famous all over Tamil Nadu.

Madurai is a temple city for the Goddess Meenakshi. Worth looking up on the net, and you will be rewarded if you check for images. A pilgrimage site for people from all over India, Madurai is the home to perhaps 1.6 million people. When I first came to Madurai in 1970, there were 400,000 people. The village I lived in outside the city has now become part of the city. There are people, and there has been development, everywhere. The wild ride into the city, which is one of my three home-towns (the others being in Iowa and Japan), feels comfortable as it is eye-opening. India is full of life everywhere. In the space of a few hundred meters, you will encounter children going to school, cows wandering on the street, grandmas watering down the dust in front of their homes, vendors of numerous goods from bicycles, bullock carts, goats, dogs, water buffalo, cars, trucks, buses, and more. The cacophony, the din, is intense. When you drive in India as our taxi cab driver is doing, you constantly lean on your horn and keep your eyes out everywhere for something or someone darting out in front of you or turning towards you. The rules of the road in India are to follow the flow and be ready for anything.

We go to the apartment Sekar has found for me on the northern edge of the city after crossing over the Vaigai River. I should mention that Madurai has a history that goes back somewhere around four or five thousand years. This is a rich multitude of cultures with Hindu predominating, but many Muslims, Christians, and others as well. After getting me settled and having a talk about our plans coming up, we go the University of Wisconsin program house, where I meet the five American college students, all of whom have interesting projects and speak quite good Tamil. My own Tamil is somewhere in the recesses of my mind, and I feel the lesson of disability that comes with not being able to participate fully in what is going on around me. It is an important lesson for all of us. As the day goes on my Tamil slowly comes back, always in encounters with local folks. It is a fluid language like Japanese that pays more attention to exchanges between people than preciseness about tense, descriptive adjectives.

I hit the ground running with Sekar. He is nothing if not energy, curiosity, and warmth. I am lucky to have a brother like him. Soon after lunch we begin our research forays for interviews, collections of materials, and so on. The first interview is at the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary (TTS), an activist institution with ties to the activist Christian community in Germany, America, and elsewhere. TTS has both a Social Analysis Center and a Dalit Resource Center. I will spend time during the next two days at these centers interviewing various people, but the first person I want to meet is Gabriele Dietrich, a remarkable Indian scholar-activist.

Garbiele has worked with Krishnammal and Jagannathan, something I only discovered some time after I had found her writings on the internet. You can see an important essay of hers if you type her name or the title of this paper, one among many as she is a prolific scholar, "Inculturation Versus Globalization?" The title says it all, but the depth of theory and the urgent, compelling flow of the writing, impatient at times, is towards an activism expressed in different ways by Amma and Appa.

We enter the compound of TTS after a dusty bike ride through the crowded, dusty, hot, and eye-opening streets of Madurai. Nothing prepares you for India, least of all Madurai. But I am right at home, happy to be dodging bullocks, hearing the loud bulbous honks from trucks equipped with a horn out of the Model T era, watching children coming home from school in their uniforms, smelling the ‘hotels’ cafes with banana-leaf meals. You cannot get bored in India.

I am a little sorry for Gabriele as we are arriving unannounced. I had tried to contact her by an email address I found on the web, but the messages kept getting bounced back. Not suprising, I guess, there being many more important matters than computers in India. Sekar has called ahead to the Social Analysis unit where Gabriele works, or perhaps the Dalit Resource Center, and learned that a good time to catch her is around 3:30 or 4:00 after her mid-day nap, something all sensible Indians have, of course.

We knock of the door of her bungalow and are greeted in Tamil by a handsome young European-looking young man, apparently her son. After some time Gabriele appears in her sari, a bit groggy and just waking up, peering at us through her glasses. She seems to be in her late 40s or early 50s, but I learn later she has already had a festschrift published, which is usually done when you are 60.

And who are these strangers in my house? All of the initial greetings are in Tamil, mostly by Sekar, with me saying a bit before switching into English. I explain who I am and why I am in India this time for research. She listens quietly, intently. I feel myself being judged, calculations of time and energy and efficiency. Who is this random guy and how quickly, or should, I send him off? But I am intent on my story and my purposes. And her work is elegant, sparse, hard-hitting, and always returns to what use is it, her writing, for the activist works at hand and the needs of the oppressed. There is much I can learn from her, I can tell, just from this essay I have found on the web. Please listen, Gabriele, if you will, to my story.

Gabriele came to India around the same time I did, in the early 1970s. She and her husband stayed, became Indian citizens (she from Germany, he from the Netherlands), and approached the problems of Indian society and the enormous needs that are out there through social democratic and theological approaches. But this is not the time she is going to tell me any of this. "What can I do for you?" is the direct question after my brief introduction (in which I thought I had already told her).

Then I tell her that we are journeying in a few days to Nagappatinam to see Krishnamal and Jagannathan. I can feel a wholesale change in the tenor and atmosphere of the room. Ah, Krishnammal… Coffee appears and we get to the point, how we would like to learn more about her writings and what she sees as her key works. It is rather a cheeky approach of mine, but I am keen to learn from her, as I said.

Gabriele’s scholarship is deep and wide-ranging. And always comes around to the question of how knowledge can be used. I am reminded of my friend and colleague James Banks, the great scholar of multicultural education, who has a similar concern for the construction of knowledge. We have a discussion that goes from Dalits and violence to gender, transgression, transcendence. Post-colonial feminist theory. Women as the last colony? An important and clearly hard-hitting discourse today, but Gabriele thinks we need to realize that it is much more challenging, that what is really happening is a neo-colonization of the spirit and of societies. You don’t need external colonization any longer if you have an effective internal colonization. The question is, is it possible to build alliances between internal colonies? As she notes in her writing, "Production for Life and Livelihood vs. Production for Profit is the sustained focus in the struggles of marginalized women and in the National Alliance of People’s Movements."

Oh, and by the way, can you get me some good pictures of Krishnammal? We need it for an award we are applying for, for her and other activist women…

The Other David


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