Commercial Ventures and Tour Bus
Commercial Ventures and Tour Bus Scholarship in Banaras
by Ratnesh Pathak
I am a paan-chewing Banarsi Brahman and sometime research assistant to Western scholars. I am not a scholar, but I have been close enough to the process of scholarship to be concerned about some of the problems of field work in India. It pains me when I see scholars come here from great distances and at great expense to engage in research and leave having practically an imaginary picture of their subject, one which they could just as well have made up in their libraries at home. It is also quite amazing to see intelligent people pretending to be experts on their subjects after a few months, maybe a year, of fieldwork. It is especially maddening to me when some foreigner comes around acting superior, thinking that he or she knows all about some aspect of Banaras because he/she has read the authoritative works on the subject and has worked here. I have lived in Banaras all my life and have been curious about my own environment, but I would never dare to imagine that I had come to full knowledge of any aspect of Banaras. Great saints, poets, Sanskrit scholars, philosophers, ritual specialists who lived their lives and left their bodies in Banaras, even until their last moment of existence felt that they still had much to learn about Banaras, a city thick with every aspect of human existence, with history, culture, tradition, social change. This is not to say that I do not applaud the sincere attempts by scholars to understand and document elements of life here. Some of the work I have seen is most heartening. But I would like to offer a few observations and suggestions for scholars doing field work here which may be helpful in making them at least conscious of their approach and attitudes toward their subjects.
Ten years ago I had my first experience working as a guide for a Western-trained scholar. The scholar was in Banaras working on his dissertation. One evening during Ram Lila season, he was in my neighborhood trying to ask a group of children why the Ram Lila was not being performed. One of the children, knowing that I knew a bit of English, came running to my house and told me I was needed to help talk to a foreigner. I went out and in my halting English explained to the scholar that Ram Lila had been postponed due to rain. I invited him to my home and offered him tea. He was in Banaras to explore means of cultural transmission in India. He did not explain his project to me in those terms though. In the half-Hindi, half-English language of most Western scholars, he told me that he wanted to talk to children about the Ram Lila and what they thought about it. I had a mixed reaction to his project. The Banarsi side of me said, “Oh, what nonsense.” This side of me, I think, came from that the inherited point of view that all white people are angrez (British).
My experience of Westerners had been limited. My community remembered the British as dirty meat-eating, toilet-paper-using rulers and robbers of Indian wealth. All white foreigners were regarded as British. I was born after independence and had not seen any of the ruling British. My first encounter with foreigners was seeing the hippies in Banaras. They fulfilled every Banarsi expectation of white people, adding to the list of defilements drugs and promiscuous behavior. Banaras gave these people the treatment they felt they deserved. Banarsis felt that all that the money they were spending so freely was actually money stolen from India by the British, so it was only right that we take as much of it back as we could. When the foreigners came snooping around asking stupid questions about how many people are at this festival, or why do you believe in Ram, then we simply gave them nonsense answers to their nonsense questions. Asking such questions like “What do children think about Ram Lila” is like asking a rickshaw driver about the Hindu philosophy of life. The rickshaw driver only knows that he must peddle or he will not eat. He is concerned with tires and chains. He is inside life, dealing with it. Westerners who come to Banaras are outside life. They know nothing about life here. They are looking at it from the outside and asking such inappropriate questions. So, one side of me reacted to his inquiry negatively.
The other side of me, though, looked at the scholar and saw him as a person to be treated with respect. My father was a lawyer and often dressed in Western attire when going to court. I knew other professionals, including professors from Banaras Hindu University, where I was a graduate student, who had that certain distinguished air about them. I had an image in my mind of what a respectable and intellectual person should look like. This scholar fit into that image. He wore glasses, had a neatly-trimmed beard, was well-dressed and had the demeanor that I associated with respectability. His appearance, along with his stated purpose of conducting research, helped me to take his question seriously. He was, after all a foreigner who needed assistance understanding Banaras culture. I tried to be as helpful as possible and this led him to ask me to work for him as his assistant.
At this point, I had very little background in Western thinking. My education up to the master’s level had been for the most part Indian. I had been exposed to snippets of Western literature, but not enough to influence me to any significant degree. Banaras and the Brahman community in which I lived and breathed was my chief reference point. This scholar began my education in the Western scholarly point of view by giving me an anthropology textbook to read. After working with him for over a year, he completed his research. Soon thereafter I became the research assistant for another scholar, who was working on the recitation of the Durgasaptasati in Vindhyavasini. After my time with that scholar, word got around that I was available as a research assistant and I have had an almost constant stream of research scholars with whom to work.
After several years of working with scholars, I began to be familiar with their ideas and their approach to working on topics in India. What I found was that most Western scholars do not really come to India to know India, to partake of life here. Instead of talking to people, getting to know them as individuals, imbibing the sense of life here, many scholars are only anxious to get their data, their raw material. It is like they are here on a commercial venture. They are here on business. In the competitive world of academics, scholars must constantly be producing material if they are to get tenure, if they are to stay ahead in the business. They have to collect their primary data, their raw material and rush it back home to that it can be manufactured for Western academic consumption. The raw material of South Asia will be transformed into better jobs and higher status for those who are skilled in both collection and the manufacture of trendy, fashionable articles. While current scholars look back on colonial commercial enterprise and production of oriental knowledge with contempt, they seem to be dead blind to the fact they themselves are engaged in a very similar venture. While they closely examine the assumptions of the British, they do not think that their own assumptions fit into the same category.
Scholars also seemed to be engaged in what I call tour-bus scholarship. They are always in a rush, wanting to keep on schedule, to see the things they came to see and get back home safely with their stories and souvenirs. They may come and be present for a few months, eat our food, do without toilet paper, etc., but they never truly fit into the rhythm of life here. Their minds stay in the air-conditioned comfort of the Western-manufactured academic bus. They see everything though the tinted windows of Western academic thinking. They rely heavily upon the academic guide books, the luggage they have brought with them, to help them interpret what they see here. The books of the leading Western scholars or Western-trained Indian scholars are always considered the authorities on Indian subjects. They have been given research grants and are obligated to produce research along the lines of their proposals. Their proposals follow the paths, the models, set out for them by the experts in their fields. So they look for those details of the Indian landscapes which will fit into their theoretical models, which correspond to the descriptions found in their guide books. This leads to all sorts of interesting problems.
I will not say, though, that all Western scholars fail so miserably in doing justice to their subject. I have met scholars, those whom I consider true scholars, who pursue every aspect of their topic to the fullest degree possible for them. They open their minds, dig out all the information they can on their subject, and will explore the tangled connections and side roads to which their research leads them. They are totally involved in their subject and they want to understand it and accurately describe it. Curiosity, love for their subject, is their primary motivation, not academic or commercial ambition. Of the other scholars, only a minority are truly what I would call purely commercial. They come here with narrow goals and time limits; they want to find the material for a specific subject in order to publish an article on it. They are not at all interested in receiving all the information on a subject. They do not want to get involved. They only want enough for their story. An extreme case of commercialism is a researcher who came because he wanted write an article on the Ayodhya issue. He planned to sell the article to a magazine. He wanted to get the goods and be out of here in a month. Other scholars are semi-commercial. They also want to produce a publishable article or book, and they choose a subject for its marketability, but they are interested enough in their subject to become involved in it in a limited way, time permitting. But even with some of these people, the consumer-oriented mentality remains. They may be involved in the subject, but it is still something they want to possess and they will go to any means to get it. I once met two Scandinavian women who had come here to research the electric crematoriums. They seemed truly interested in the subject. When they found I had worked with a well-known professor, they told me that they were his students and persuaded me therefore to help them. They got their work done quickly and left. It was only when the professor returned to India that I learned they were not at all his students. I realized that I, as their local informer, was only a means to an end, nothing more. I questioned, also, if their interest in their subject, was only a means to an end as well. I wonder why some of these conniving and greedy people do not go into a more appropriate and lucrative business. Honestly, integrity, and patient plodding should be the stuff of scholarship, not commercialism. Academia should allow no room for wheeler-dealers; the serious scholars have enough problems with which to concern themselves.
A major and fundamental problem is that scholars are often blind-sighted by perceptions learnt in Western universities. Research scholars regard the successful professors of the West as being the sole possessors and dispensers of authoritative knowledge on South Asia. Even though scholars, up until this very day, regard the orientalist scholarship of colonial times as misinformed and misinforming, they do not acknowledge that the Western powers are still in the process of describing India according to Western models of knowledge. The early orientalists may have distorted Indian tradition by regarding Brahman pandits as the authorities on Indian culture, but today the situation is even worse. All of India, from pandits to dalits, is considered merely raw material available at cheap rates for use by Western-trained scholars. Indians, regardless of the extent of their learning and insight, are not considered authorities unless their thinking corresponds to and has been accepted as valid by the Western scholarly community. The basic idea of Western scholars seems to be that Indian scholarship is an exaggerated description and poorly written. This may contribute, along with the Western superior attitude, to the view that the rest of the Indian population is also incapable of correct thinking. The opinions of local people who may actually be more knowledgeable about a certain topic, but who do not fit into the Western image of reliability, are disregarded.
An incident involving this favoritism served to convince me that I did not want to go on with my studies and complete a Ph.D.; I do not want to become involved in this near-sightedness. I had been working for some time with a research scholar and had thought that I could lead her to the most informed people in Banaras for her topic. I am a fifth generation Banarsi and know who is who here. But one day the scholar asked me to help prepare some festivities for a special guest. When I asked who the grand personage was, it was told me that it was a professor from the local university. Now, anybody who is anybody in Banaras knows that the professor, who is not a Banarsi, was not the one to consult on the topic. But in the Western scholar’s eye, this professor had the proper credentials and was given far more respect than any of the more learned, but local, non-academic, non-degree-possessing informants.
There is more to this story. What happened, in the end, is that the Indian university professor, having helped the Western scholar with her work, tried to steal it. The knowledge that most Banarsis would have given freely to a deserving person, was looked upon by this professor as an academic possession, something to be stolen and sold in the form of a book. He clearly had imbibed Western attitudes towards knowledge. The shallowness both of the Western scholar’s reliance on academic credentials and the professor’s idea of knowledge as a commodity with a price-tag, which I have seen repeatedly in Western scholar’s greed over “their topic”, does not suit the true pursuit of knowledge. Western academic insistence upon the production of privately-owned articles and books as indicators of academic success is blatantly a reflection of Western culture. A scholar who is working blindly out of such a culture, will never be able to describe Banarsi culture because he or she cannot think in terms of our culture. The value of a topic is seen by Western scholars only in terms of what sales, what is trendy in the current academic scene, not for what value it has on its own terms, in its own context.
Another distorting aspect of Western academic culture is the acceptance of texts as authoritative evidence. This problem comes in two forms. One is the tendency to accept the latest, popular academic books and models on a subject, the latest word so to speak, as being at the apex of all accumulated knowledge and therefore the superior guide. I have seen it happen on multiple occasions that a scholar will come here, see an event, and think he knows all about it because he read about it an authoritative book. Because he has read the authoritative and comprehensive book list on his subject, the scholar has a high regard for himself and his superior position. If a local informer tells him another story, he will think the informer is wrong or misguided. Scholars believe that whatever they have learned at Western universities and in current books is the best information and that what they are hearing here is second-rate material. For instance, I worked with a scholar who was working on the goddess Vindhyachal. The scholar heard references to the Autsanasa Puran, a text specifically about the goddess Vindhyachal and the geographical descriptions of Vindhya zone. The scholar had never heard of this text before coming to the field. As far as she knew, the text had never been translated into English, quoted or mentioned by any other scholar. So until she saw the original manuscript, she was very suspicious about the existence of such a text and the verses which were quoted from that text in various interviews and in the printed Mahatmya books on Vindhyachal. She thought the references to the text were fabrications of the local people.
A most unfortunate situation is when so-called authoritative books on a subject are full of misinformation or are biased in a certain direction. A scholar comes here with the books he or she has read as the basic ground of perception. He or she looks for a picture of reality which will correspond to his version of received truth. There is a tendency to read the interpretations of this received truth into basic observations and to deny validity to any evidence that might go counter to the desired picture. The previous works of other scholars can serve to seriously handicap one’s ability to actually observe the present. This has been a problem to one extent or another with every scholar with whom I have worked. It can lead to a continuation and amplification of misinformation when the scholar refuses to see what is actually happening. Several scholars have come to Banaras to work on Hindu-Muslim conflict. According to the information they had received, they considered conflict as defining Hindu-Muslim relations in Banaras. When they were shown the silk industry, which has required ongoing Hindu-Muslim cooperation for centuries, they were not at all interested in having their notions disproved. They did not see this as a sign of cooperation and I doubt if they ever mentioned it in their work. Their attitude was set. Another fact presented to the scholars interested in conflict was the popularity and importance of Banarsi saris. All over India they are considered to be special attire to be worn at important occasions, especially weddings. If Muslim-Hindu conflict was so deep-rooted and basic, why would Muslims put their hearts and livelihoods into making saris for Hindus and why would Hindus so value the saris made by Muslim hands? There was never an answer to this question by scholars. It did not fit into their received ideas of communalism.
Now, communalism is only one topic of current scholarship on South Asia, but it is a popular one. The most disturbing part of the situation in which people look for evidence of communalism is that the people who are involved in this kind of activity are intellectuals and they have the responsibility to give society a picture which is real and not based on propaganda of the mass media and the politics of their government. Scholars should try to examine the popular topics. Are the topics popular because they perpetuate negative images of India? Does not the West still consider itself superior to the East? If a focus is given to negative topics, even if it be to disprove them, does it detract from scholars’ looking for the positive in a culture? Scholars sometimes fail to see that their topics have been to some extent decided for them by previous scholarship, previous perceptions and attitudes. Inaccuracies and misconceptions, having a long history, can be very deep-rooted.
This leads me to the second aspect of reliance on texts. It is not just works of recent Western scholarship which are the problem. The problem with basing information on texts could be said to go back as far as the Vedas. The problem goes back before the work done in the previous recent decades, to the work of colonialist scholars and to that of early translators of texts, and finally to the texts themselves. Fortunately, scholars are awakening to the problem of texts, but there is still a tendency to give extra weight to texts over other kinds of evidence. Texts like the Manusmriti are an element of my own life, but only one among many elements. When scholars ascribe authority to ancient texts on modern or ancient matters, they give the text an authority that it does not necessarily deserve. Things are constantly changing in society. Even going back to the time when the texts were first written, the rituals described in them had probably become outdated. Cultural practices take time, a long time, to develop and a much longer time to be codified. The codification, though, does not mean that the practice has become static. Though general practices and rituals were codified in the epic period, as time went by the texts were revered, but not because they corresponded to everyday reality. Early Western scholars, though, regarded those same texts as being descriptive of Hindu religion and practices. They were translated and sometimes mistranslated and misinterpreted by Western scholars to give another layer of unreality to the situation. The scholarship on India for the recent decades has largely followed the tradition of relying on texts as authority and has absorbed much misinformation based on past scholarship. Non-textual and folk traditions were therefore largely ignored. A Western-produced book which has been a source book for several scholars with whom I worked, describes death rituals in Banaras according to ancient texts and totally neglects non-brahmanical death practices. Students who came to study death in Banaras were surprised to find things not as they had been described in the book. Another authoritative Western-produced book on the Devimahatmyaya talks only about textual goddesses. Recent work done on goddesses rely on this book as reference. It leaves out all the non-brahmanical goddesses which have their own independent identities. These goddesses may be of more ancient origin than the prominent brahmanical goddesses, but scholars either consider them recent adaptations of brahmanical goddesses, or simply ignore them. It seems sometimes that what is actually happening on the streets of India, in daily life, in a constantly changing society, is of little interest to scholars–perhaps because reality is much more difficult to grasp than a text. Textual studies may be difficult, but it is much more of a challenge to grasp a living culture. But the homage to texts is still a tendency of scholars. A certain attention to old texts is admirable, but excessive attention seems to lead to lack of interest in what is really India, what is really happening here now, what is truly important to the present generation of living beings in India.
Standard descriptions of ritual practice made by fly-by night observers or descriptions taken out of ancient texts do not fit the reality of life here. This is sometimes a disappointment to scholars. It has been the idea of the West that India is slow to change. Though unobservant scholars may not perceive them, changes happen all the time. For instance, when I and another scholar were working together, we started looking for the Lota-banta, a mela (festival) which was mentioned in several books about Banaras and which was a very popular mela in my childhood. I remembered the mela from my childhood. But when we went in search of Lota-banta , we found that it no longer exists. While it is assumed that Hindu practices, festivals and rituals are ancient and static, this case shows that within a matter of a few years a tradition may be neglected and disappear. It is living people who make festivals happen, who keep traditions alive, who constitute a culture. Too often, though, scholars, are looking for a festival, a ritual, a practice and ignoring the actual people as if they were only pawns moved about in the ancient and fixed grid of tradition.
Things to Do Differently
What do I think scholars should do differently to avoid tour-bus scholarship and commercialism? I do not think I can offer many suggestions for the commercialism problem. That is a problem caused by the Western academic system which demands that scholars produce popular articles. If scholars want to be successful, they must play the game. But I think sometimes scholars allow ambition and personal status to get the best of them. Scholars can be mindful of the competitive system in which they exist, yet still try to retain some bit of humanity about themselves, some humility, some empathy for the people they study. This is the best way to avoid tour-bus scholarship. You need to get off the academic tour-bus when you come to do your field work. You may have been well-trained in current thought and methodologies of research in your subject, but that does not make you an expert on life in India. It makes you an expert only in your own Western academic context. When you come here, try to take the more humble attitude of a newcomer, a learner. There are many pitfalls in scholarship you can avoid if you try to be mindful that you are in a situation where you are not running the show, where your ideas are not the predominant ones, where you need to respect and respond to the society here instead of making it accommodate you and your project. Only then will you be able to make the first step toward truly getting involved in the local situation.
There should be some mental preparation before coming here. In my personal experience, most of the researchers I have worked with have suffered major disappointments when things do not work out for their projects in the way they planned. Sometimes the problem is that they have come here to work on something specific and they find themselves in the general. There is so much information with which they have to deal that it overwhelms their theoretical framework. Another problem is when people come with certain ideas and a fixed proposal, but find the situation to be not at all like they thought. So they are downcast and confused. Another problem is when scholars come here and cannot find enough information for the project on which they wanted to work. It has always been interesting for me to notice the reaction of the people with whom I work when they are faced with such difficulties. There is disappointment, depression, degrees of denial, and sometimes even a complete change in personality. A friendly person can become a total jerk when his plans for his research fall apart. Scholars should come here prepared to be flexible. Talk to your advisors beforehand and have it understood that if the conditions here prove your project unworkable, that you will not be penalized for changing your direction in midstream. Prepare yourselves to be educated by the field. Try to have a open mind and be flexible. It will be much easier than trying to make the Indian environment conform to your expectations. Your work will also have a better chance of being authentic because you will be more likely to report what you see and not just what you hoped to see. You will also avoid much unnecessary mental anguish for yourself and your assistant.
You should also be prepared by having a firm grounding in the language of the area in which you will be working. It is ridiculous to come here to do research if practically all you can say is “What?” It is better to stay at home and study the language more, or come here for a year only to study the language. You would never expect someone to be an expert on England who did not know English. Neither will you receive much respect here if you have not taken the time or interest in learning the language properly. There are even problems for scholars who know standard Hindi. When they are conducting interviews, they phrase questions in very standard Hindi when the people they are interviewing speak Bhojpuri or Hindi. This causes a communication gap. Either the interviewee does not understand the question or does not want to answer in standard Hindi. Sometimes the research scholar keeps repeating the question because he has not received the answer he wants and it is very irritating to the one being interviewed. So you need to know the language and you need to know when you still need help in communicating. If you use an interpreter, it is best to let the interpreter ask the question, then wait patiently for the person being interviewed to fully answer the question. It is very distracting when the scholar keeps interrupting to ask what is being said and demands on-the-spot translation. It prevents a natural flow of expression and sometimes when the flow is interrupted the thought of the interviewee in lost. If you have a good interpreter, you can trust that his interpretation of the interviewee’s answer is good. It is even better to have recording equipment also. You can record the interview by tape recorder or video recorder and go over it later. Simply explain the questions to your assistant before you go to the interview. Explain to the interpreter the reasons your are asking the questions and what information you are really trying to get at. Have the questions placed in order so that they will lead the conversation where you would like it to go. But be prepared in all interviews for the conversation to take you into unexpected topics, topics that you might consider irrelevant to your work. Be patient. Not every interview will produce jewels of information for you. Do not be obnoxious by trying to shake answers out of people. Always be polite and the people might let you come back a second time and talk to them.
It is important not to offend people. Scholars should try to learn about the social etiquette of their area. They should especially realize that just because they are white and having money and education, does not guarantee that they will be welcome at everyone’s doorstep. Remembering this, they should take great pains to be respectful of local people and of their biases, customs, schedules. I have heard that few scholars are given lessons on these things at their universities. If you have had no lessons in day-to-day proper behavior, you should ask local people to give you instructions before you set out in your work. Even then, there are many things that people will not say to your face. Many people still regard all white people as angrez. Once I went with a scholar to interview a sadhu. We tried to introduce ourselves to him, but he immediately put forward in perfect English “Are you a veg or non-veg? Do you eat beef?” The scholar admitted to being meat-eater and the sadhu refused to talk to him. Another scholar wanted to interview someone named Brahmacharyaji who was supposed to be an expert in that the recitation of Durga Saptasati. We tried to interview him several time, but each time he sent us away without explanation. One day, we were having lunch in a building next to the recitation place where he was giving his discourse. He mentioned in his talk that he hated the West and Western people. Many foreigners are not accustomed to reverse discrimination and it does not even occur to their minds as a possibility.
For instance, scholars are not aware that many people are very offended and disgusted when foreigners walk in on the performance of religious rituals. They will not say anything to you, though. They may even politely say that it is fine for you to go in if you ask them, but this may not be the truth. And the priest who is busy performing the ceremony and the participants may not like your presence at all. It is best if you stand to the side at some distance and watch the affair and not bother people with questions. Most people do not like to be questioned during a ritual or a festival. I have seen scholars try to barrage people with questions immediately after a ritual is over. They do not realize that usually people have things to do after the ritual or that they are anxious to go home. It is best to wait until later to go to peoples’ homes and ask questions about the ritual.
Learning about the daily routines and schedules can serve you well. For instance, you might not have a good interview or be able to see the manuscript for which you are searching if you go to someone’s home at the wrong hour. In the morning someone may be having their meal or doing puja. In the afternoon many people are napping and do not want to be disturbed. You need to find out about the schedule people keep in the area. Schedules change according to the season. In Banaras in the summer people work in the morning and evening and during the daytime they sleep. In winter they shift to coming out late in the morning and finishing social obligations early in the evening. All this needs to be taken into consideration. It is good to make appointments ahead of time, but do not be disappointed if at the time you arrive you find that there are other quests at the house. Simply sit and talk a while and set up a time to come back later if forcing an interview would interrupt the atmosphere of the moment.
Some scholars are so caught up in their own agendas and are so pressed for time, that they set for themselves a very rigid schedule. They want to plan things far in advance, line up several interviews and appointments in one day and set very specific times for appointments. Some are so demanding and pushy that they have even tried to interrupt people doing their morning puja. People are very offended by such behavior. Being so rude and clumsy in a culture in which you are trying to obtain answers will not work to your benefit. You will get taalu answers. Taalu is a term we apply to those situations where people say things just to get rid of people. They may be brief, curt answers or absolutely stupid or wrong answers. But they are not the answers you want to get. But they are answers appropriate for tour-bus scholars who do not have the time to be polite and respectful. Unfortunately, some scholars do not realize that this is an important part of scholarship. They do not teach courses in appropriate behavior in college. It is a sad fact that university education leaves out much about the culture you are studying, as well as how you should learn to move about in that culture in an appropriate manner. Some scholars are absolutely horrified to find that there are few Western toilets and hot showers in Banaras. There are many other things of which they are unaware and for which they are psychologically unprepared. There are many things which they simply cannot understand even after receiving what seem to local people as very logical, reasoned explanations. Their own assumptions and prejudices cloud their entire vision. Their problems adjusting to the conditions in which they find themselves lead them to have a negative view of the area and this negative view creeps into their work in various ways.
I have seen various Western biases exposed in different ways. The most blatant expression of prejudice came one day when one scholar asked another what he was working on. The scholar replied that his work was on the poetry of Ravidas, often referred to as Raidas, a member of a chamar or untouchable caste. The other scholar replied, “Oh, you are working on that type of people.” His attitude was very condescending. Scholars should go beyond this type of prejudice. Other scholars have taken the attitude that Hindu-Muslim tensions indicate a very backward society. They read this interpretation into the situation without stopping to consider racial situations in their own country. I have asked them to think about answers for why some white people do not like black people. You will probably not get some profound answer such as it is a matter of conflicting political interests. A prejudiced person does not have to have a reason. That is the whole point: prejudice is unreasonable. But prejudice is universal. It may be backward, but it is not at all confined to India. I try to make scholars aware of their own national, cultural and racial prejudices.
A major point of contention I have had with several scholars is over the gender issue. The scholars come here and want to condemn every aspect of women’s position in Indian society. They have a very negative, very judging attitude. They do not want to consider the positive aspects of women’s lives here. The women of India do not all spend their life in misery. There are some abuses, and things can be improved, but there are many good things in the lives of women. But scholars devote little time to looking at what is positive in women’s lives. They focus on the negative, always comparing the position of Indian women to the position of Western women. The negative aspects get exaggerated. There is also little reflection on the problems modern Western women have which Indian women do not have. For instance, the difficulties of raising a family alone, which many Western women face, is rarely known to Indian women. Scholars sometimes get upset at Indian men like myself who try to explain the positive side of things. There is no respect for our culture as a culture which has produced many happy living beings who live satisfied lives. Scholars should be able to step back and observe a culture and try to see why things are the way they are without pronouncing judgment according to their own ideologies. There is no point in venting one’s anger at one’s assistant or informant. It is inappropriate. Whereas in the past religious differences gave colonial bigots excuse to call Indians heathens, now such topics as feminine rights serve to issue similar judgments. Scholars should not try to be preachers.
Conflicting values and social practices can keep scholars at a distance from their subjects. While I was not the subject, but the research assistant, I saw that how some scholars treated me was a reflection of how they would deal with their subject. Scholars wanted me to conform to their program in ways that were very strange to me. I usually obliged them until it became unbearable, as in the following case: A certain scholar, before employing me, asked me to sign a written contract with her binding me in specific terms under detailed articles as her research assistant. I did not feel good about it from the very beginning. For one thing, I do not life to consider myself an employee. I like to get involved with the scholarship, learn something myself from it, be a friend and help to the scholar. I like to think they are sharing their research grant with me because I helped with the project, not because I was their employee, their servant. But some scholars cannot understand this. They want a strictly formal arrangement. In this case, according to the contract, I was allowed to have one hour for lunch each day. If we were in the field and lunch was not taken, the hour could be taken as an early leave for that day. One day we were trying to interview a group of pilgrims from South India. When we went to their lodging place, they were out sightseeing. When they returned, they immediately went to have lunch. The scholar decided that I should go home for lunch and then come back and do the interview. So I came home, had lunch, and went back after 45 minutes. By the time I had returned, the pilgrims were gone sight-seeing again. This is where she showed me her imperialistic attitude and made a nonsense comment that it took me a very long time to have my lunch. I showed her that the clock and even after that she kept blaming me for not getting an interview with the pilgrims. This was the time when I read the paragraph of the contract and reminded her about her order for to me to go home and have lunch. I had not even taken my full hour for lunch. She was still upset. This situation led me to a bitter situation, when for the first time in my life I left research work in the middle of an unfinished project. I decided never to work with her again which was unfortunate and let her to go back to the States with an unfinished project.
The imposition of this very systematic relationship seemed to me as the scholar’s way of expressing a social arrogance. If this was her way with me, if she treated me in such a condescending manner, I doubt if she would have had much respect for the pilgrims, the subjects of her study. She would have tried to impose her own cultural norms on them. It is best that she went back home. Scholars should not try to bring their culture with them when they come to India. Leave your contracts in your offices. Try to get a sense of how we do things here. A nod of the head is all it takes to make an agreement. A little knowledge of the culture and of the people will help you learn who can rely on and who you should not involved with. A contract or other similar impositions and their indication of social bias and commercialism will only keep you apart from the culture.
Following the few suggestions I have given will not guarantee successful field work, but I believe that it will help you take the first steps toward departing from the Western academic tour-bus and entering the field with an open mind and humble attitude. The field is wide open to those who would leave behind their presuppositions and agendas. Let down your barriers and allow yourself to be embraced by all your find here. You cannot pretend to remain an unbiased observer, so it is better that your biases are tempered by an intimate involvement in your subject. You will never understand a culture by imposing your ideas upon it. You will never understand someone by handing them a questionnaire to fill out. Let them tell their own stories, not just the stories that will prove your theoretical model. Your work will be enriched and you will give an authentic representation of your subject. We will be happy and honored to welcome all sincere seekers. For these scholars there is always plenty to see. The most stupid thing I ever heard a scholar say is “Banaras is over-worked,” meaning that enough research had been done on Banaras. Being born and raised in Banaras, I myself can claim to know only ten or twenty percent of Banaras. The problem is that the scholar that made such a statement was thinking in commercial, tour-bus terms. He had read the academic tour-guide versions of Banaras and was ready to move on to something else. He needed to find something new to produce for the academic market. If you are this kind of scholar, please stay home. Otherwise, you can look me up anytime. I will be happy to discuss your project with you. I live at Lolark Kund.
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