Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Museum on caste

By RAMA LAKSHMI The Times of India 17 Apr 2006
After 16 years of debate and delay in the US Congress and Senate, the Smithsonian Institution finally announced this January the plan to open a National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum will be one of the largest in the US dedicated to explore the tortured history of African Americans, their struggles against slavery, racism and injustice, and also to celebrate their triumphs. The museum, estimated to open in 2016, will tell the story of the African American experience through photographs, video films, oral histories, archival documents, letters, diaries, posters, music, art and literature. The legacy of racism in the US is not very different from our own shackles of the caste system.
The caste system is arguably even more degrading and pernicious than racism in the US. Many believe that the biggest social cleavage in India is not religion or gender, but it is caste. Despite progressive constitutional guarantees and abolition of untouchability, discrimination continues. Can we envisage a museum on the caste system in India? To do that, we may have to think beyond the notion of museums that present our history as a series of archaeological artefacts and royal treasures. A museum need not just be about archaeological artefacts, it is also a repository of collective memory. There is a profusion of story-telling museums around the world today that are built around people’s histories.
A caste museum is one way of confronting the existence of a parallel narrative (of Dalits) that has remained invisible from mainstream historiography. The experience of caste in India is an integral part of our history and permeates every aspect of our collective experience — history, identity, religion, economy, rituals, justice, and nation-building.
There are a lot of Indians who would dismiss caste as a thing of the past. They claim to live in a caste-neutral 21st century. If indeed, it is something we have overcome, then the story truly belongs in a history museum — of how a crippling social system was defeated by us. The nation and future generations will benefit from an acknowledgement of this past. But is it really over? Problems as old and deeply embedded like this do not disappear by a set of laws enacted for over 50 years, but they have to be debated and confronted at shared platforms.
Museums are sites of dialogue about traumatic episodes of history and also of community pride — the black history museums in the US, post-apartheid museums in South Africa, the Holocaust museums, the aboriginal museums in Australia, post-Soviet museums in the Baltics and the recent on-line Chinese Cultural Revolution Museum. There are those who would say that this may only deepen our social divisions. But such a museum need not be a confrontational site. It could also be a site to celebrate the prideful moments in Dalit history, literature and art.
For example, how many school-going children read about Dalit figures like Jhalkari Bai and Udha Devi, who courageously fought the British army? What would be more fitting than a tribute to these a gallery attached to the figures in National Gandhi Museum at Rajghat? Our history tends to be formal, inflexible and academic — a grand national narrative that subsumes the various strands of social and public histories. It is time we present different and differing approaches to our culture and identity. We need to go beyond fixed narratives because history has to be constructed continually and make room for other instruments of social memory — whether it is the history of our caste system, independence movement, partition history, Emergency, or even the Aryan migration theory.
Whose stories belong in the museum? Surely, not just those of the privileged. I don’t suggest replacing one version with another, but creating spaces in a museum where both stories can live together and engage with each other’s truths. A museum’s story need not be static and can be continually and collectively built. The museum of the caste system can be a dynamic locus of reflection and reconciliation. The writer, a journalist for The Washington Post, is on leave studying museology

The Friedan Mystique

Of course, even if The Feminine Mystique is rated a dreadful book, there remains the possibility that its author did a great deal for American women. This view will seem intuitively plausible to anybody who believes that feminism itself did a great deal for them. There is certainly no doubt that Betty Friedan was one of, arguably the most important of, the movement’s “founding mothers” (to quote again from the many obituaries). Possessed of boundless energy, an instinct for leadership, and self-confidence verging on arrogance, if not megalomania—even the most fawning obituaries felt obliged to mention her dictatorial impulses—she seemed always to be out front during the formative years.
In 1966 she was the main founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW), and in the 1970’s played significant roles in creating the National Women’s Political Caucus (slogan: Make Policy, Not Coffee) and the National Abortion Rights Action League. And the evidence suggests that, despite its flaws, The Feminine Mystique did succeed in articulating the grievances of a certain class of American women while simultaneously packaging an ideology for the nascent movement.
Well, what did feminism do for American women? Many people would argue that it had at least one important and incontestable achievement: the opening-up of broad new career opportunities for women, and especially for those with a claim to intelligence and education, like many of the suburban homemakers described in The Feminine Mystique. But this argument needs to be seriously qualified.
During the years in which the movement was taking shape, something else was happening: an explosion in the number of educated women: the number of female college graduates in America more than tripled (to around 5 million) from 1940 to 1970. It is inconceivable that this swelling supply could have long existed without creating its own demand in the labor markets. With or without a feminist movement, educated women would have seen opportunities opening up. Indeed, it is fascinating to speculate on a counterfactual scenario wherein they would have received their opportunities without the unpleasant side-effects of movement feminism: without sexual warfare, affirmative action, boundless litigation, and maybe even without the raging political correctness that would make it increasingly troublesome, even for a president of Harvard, to mention the possibility of innate differences between men and women.
A difficulty for anyone who wants to believe in Betty Friedan and also in the feminist movement is that she herself became a critic of it. During the 1970’s, she was increasingly unhappy with its emphasis on lesbian concerns and obsessive anti-male rhetoric. In 1981, she produced The Second Stage, a book intended to bring feminism back to its senses—to reestablish its relevance for heterosexual women who expected to marry and have children. Referring to women’s “femininity,” she complained in the opening chapter: “We blush even to use that word now.” Her new position brought on breaks with other feminist icons, including Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem.
But The Second Stage did not have the resonance of The Feminine Mystique, and utterly failed in its effort to force the movement back on track. Part of the problem here was that even while disagreeing with the movement’s radicals, she shared many of their basic assumptions. Like them, Friedan assumed that the women’s movement must always be on the Left. Like them, she took it as axiomatic that, aside from certain reproductive differences, men and women were indistinguishable. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter began talking about a military draft and indicated that such a draft would include women; quite a few women proved unthrilled by the prospect, and The Second Stage, which appears to have been written at about this time, registers concern about such women. They are said to be demanding equal rights while failing to accept equal responsibility.
Finally, we learn from The Feminine Mystique that her own marriage was a shambles. This brings us to an inescapable question: whether the unhappiness Friedan purported to find among affluent suburban women was somehow reflecting her own wretched situation. In principle, of course, a book’s findings should be judged on the evidence put forward by its author and not by details of the author’s life. In principle, the problem that has no name could have been discovered by a suburban housewife who thought her own life was marvelous. But when an author is passionately committed to sensational new ideas for which the evidence is shaky, it is impossible to avoid suspicions about her own problems and predispositions.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Fusion and synthesis

We often hear the cliché that truth emerges through the clash of opinions in the "marketplace of ideas." This is the ideal of democracy, of unregulated free speech, of political factions, and to a certain limited extent, it is obviously true. We wouldn't want to live in a place where someone's version of truth was handed down from on high, and we were not free to discover it.
But there is lower truth and higher Truth, discovered truth and revealed Truth, inductive truth and antecedent Truth. In each case, the former is the type of truth that may be fought out and determined in the marketplace of ideas, while the latter is only apprehended in another way. In that case, fighting it out the way you would a spending bill, a scientific debate, or a legal case would only muddy the water and debase and distance ourselves from the Truth we are seeking.
The sort of Truth discussed on this blog does not emerge through contra-versy, that is, "flowing against." Rather, it is only achieved through con-versing, or "flowing together." All of my work is the end product of years of "conversing" that you cannot know about. Nor can you know about my subservience to, and reverence for, those who surpass my understanding.
That is, it is a work of fusion and synthesis that could only be achieved by dwelling in a multitude of disparate and outwardly contradictory particulars and allowing their higher truth to emerge at their own rhythm and pace. This truth cannot be imposed from on high. Nevertheless, once it is revealed, it reveals itself to be from "on high." It is a higher truth that flows from a "center," not on the same plane as the lower truths it synthesizes.
When I talk about this truth, there is a knee-jerk instinct in some to treat it as any other truth available on a lower plane. This reflects the independent American spirit of "everyone's entitled to their own opinion." Yes, that's true, as far as it goes. posted by Gagdad Bob Sunday, April 02, 2006 at 6:29 AM 3 comments

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Consensus, synchronicity, and solidarity

Tusar N Mohapatra said... Construed almost synonymous with democracy, the idea of plurality and choice is also lapped up by the market economy. The more the merrier, is the new refrain. But what about consensus, synchronicity and solidarity? Are they not equally significant?
This war between the modern and the post-modern has forced upon us lopsided priorities and warped perspectives. The fact that the divergent concepts must be applied in their respective locus is easily forgotten, and the contra attempted to corner browny points.
Then what about creating such a consensus on a particular knowledge system or a philosophy? Can’t it be attempted in an informed environment by employing dispassionate discourse? Or, at least, is it not worth striving for?
Sri Aurobindo holds a unique position among the modern day thinkers of the world. He has lived through the tradition of the east as well as the west for quite a long time and has not only delved deep into the soul of both the cultures, but also written about them extensively in English with a universal sweep.