Monday, October 1, 2018

Bipasha বিপাশা (1962): A tale of three rivers

Bipasha (Bengali, 1962) is concerned with reconciling cultural beliefs about spatial identity and meaning with the political realities of independence and division. It also intends to redeem the personal trauma and shame of the children of Partition. In order to achieve these monumental tasks, Bipasha engages in an aggressive and relentless flow of narrative symbolism. But if you can manage to rise above the torrent of religious, nationalist, and spatial mythology, it's a film that will reward patient viewers.


Bipasha, our heroine, shares a name with the traditional Sanskrit title for the Beas river, Vipas विपाशा or Vyasa. In Bengali, as "v's" become "b's", the protagonist is alternately called Biyash or Bipasha. This scripting choice seems to intentionally link the heroine to the mythological river as it is known in both the Rig Veda and Mahabharata.

Beas Watershed (Stanford, 2012)
Historically, the river is also legendary for defeating Alexander the Great's ambitions in the subcontinent--for at the banks of the Beas, Sikander's armies lost their taste for war and refused to march any further.

The modern Beas flows through the Punjab Plain, and is a major tributary of the Indus. In the Partition of the Punjab, the Beas fell on the Indian side of the line. Post-partition, the Beas remained a subject of contention between Pakistan and India. After a number of stop-gap agreements, in 1960, the Beas was officially allocated to India's governance under the Indus Waters Treaty. In 1962, India's newly-minted official claim to the river may have been fresh in the minds of Bipasha's politically informed viewers.


Bipasha (Suchitra Sen) has just passed her exams at a Catholic mission college, but is seemingly filled, like many a graduate, with existential doubt about her future prospects. Even her friend Yashoda cannot seem to lift her spirits with a healthy prescription of procrastination.

Predictably, (for those who have seen a few Uttam and Suchitra pairings), Bipasha is abruptly pulled out of her melancholic reverie by the obnoxious neighbor in the flat next door, one Dibendu (Uttam Kumar). Dibendu is engaged in loudly declaiming a poem about how he has conquered a Bipasha, reached into her heart, and stolen a pebble from it. Fuming, Bipasha storms into his flat and demands an explanation for his rude behavior. He claims that he dove into the river, Bipasha, and retrieved a rock from the bottom. He's also darn proud of it, and swears that everything's been a funny misunderstanding, a coincidence one would only expect to see on stage. Bipasha isn't convinced, and walks out after a hefty tongue lashing.

Of course, she spies a news story in the paper that confirms his story about the engineering student Dibendu Chatterjee's exploits in the Beas river. Shamed, she tries to make amends, but finds he has moved house permanently. She then visits her swami-ji (Chhabi Biswas), but surprisingly not for confession, but rather to tell him she has gotten a tribal scholarship (i.e. a murky plot device) to work in Panchet on the Damodar river, also the site of a newly completed dam. He tells her that she has "fought much in her life, but can proceed without fear" (see image #1 above). It is the audience's first clue that perhaps the source of Bipasha's moodiness goes beyond her quarter-life crisis.

Bipasha's first order of business in Panchet turns out to be attending an elaborately choreographed performance of the story of the goddess Ganga, the personification of the holy Ganges. (You can watch the performance here: [3:37-13:33] or search for the film on YT with English subtitled narration of the myth of Ganga and Shiva. I treasure the often thoughtful dialogue of '60s Bengali films, and heartwarming serenades are everywhere, but it is a rare treat to see an extended group dance sequence, especially of this caliber, in a Bengali film of the period.)

Suchitra Sen as Bipasha displays perfect degrees of increasing intensity here. Her reactions to Ganga's lines about the river's greater purpose--to give life to the nation--feel visceral and authentic. It's a great example of the power of showing over telling. Later we hear a single flirtatious line comparing Bipasha to the goddess Ganga, but here we see her realization of this metaphorical connection play out in real time.

Bipasha is shocked to find that the author and director of the play is ... Dibendu! A coincidence actually occurring at a theatre this time... how droll, what delightful foreshadowing. She goes backstage to make her apologies, and finds that he is quite unaffected by her insults, and just happy to see her again. All is as it should be, who could stay mad at that sweet upturned face for long? It also turns out Dibendu is working as some sort of engineering management position related to the newly constructed dam. SYMBOLISM, guys.


After a flirty chai-time visit and an accidental run-in or two, the two strike up an acquaintance, and we find out that Bipasha's mother was Punjabi, and her father, a Bengali Brahmin--thus explaining her fluency but her "non-Bengali" looks. (Whatever that means, but y'all, my money's on the short hair.)

But since things are progressing a bit slowly, Bipasha takes matters into her own hands and decides to be rather blunt in laying out what she wants...

... Further visits from her one friend in town, Mr. Dibendu, सिर्फ, শুধু. The look on his face as he realizes that she's no longer flirting, but deadly serious, is delightful--it is the sort of pay-off one counts on in the famous chemistry of Uttam and Suchitra's onscreen partnership. Like a properly educated Bengali boy, Dibendu asks about the massive Punjabi quotation on the wall. Bipasha no sooner recites the Sikh saying then she falls into a fiery flashback of her experiences running from the Partition violence in Punjab.

She recounts to Dibendu the horrors of the flight to India. She and her father were part of a group that was beaten to death on the road. She fell into a ditch and escaped the violence and rape, but woke to find her father dead. A kindly Sikh man and his son took her under their wing, but the son died in the course of the journey, trying to protect Bipasha and his father.

Trained in filmi ways as I am, I fully expected the Sikh fellow to adopt Bipasha. But instead he leads her to the safety of the new border post and then tells her that though they both SEEM alone in the world, the entirety of India now belongs to her. (Also, have a nice jeevan, beTi, while I pledge my remaining days to asceticism).


Eventually she found her way to the Swami-ji, and the mission school, but she continues to feel alone in the world. Dibendu admits that he too has no close family either, but was raised by his grandmother, who alone showed him love amongst his aunts and uncles, and left him her property when she died. Two little orphans, united by their PTSD and loneliness. A "dil-squish" moment if ever there was one.

From this new stage of intimacy, Dibendu and Bipasha get cozier in the rain and by the river, etc. etc. Finally, Bipasha asked to pay a sick call on a dubiously healthy looking Dibendu. After re-making his bed and thus proving her domestic skills, they settle into a cuddly wink-wink discussion of the future: theirs to be precise. 

From his portrait on the wall, Tagore looks down at the young lovers with the grim appraisal of the seasoned poet laureate, noting that the course of true love doth never run so smooth.


Yup, on the eve of their wedding, Dibendu receives a mysterious letter and disappears before the ceremony.

Refusing to admit that he has abandoned her, Bipasha gravely covers her own parting with sindoor and proclaims herself Dibendu's wife ... to the horror of everyone in attendance. She sets off to track down Dibendu. On her own again, but this time, full of purpose.


Spoilers below...

Bipasha's detective work leads her to follow the address of the letter to Dibendu's uncle. Turns out Uncle served some rather nasty family history to Dibendu the night of the wedding, with some ugly legal action on the side.


Surprise! Dibendu was born a month early, and his father denied that Dibendu was his son IN COURT. Dibendu's mother admitted she was not married to his father at the time of Dibendu's conception. IN COURT. So, yes, Dibendu, we are disinheriting you because apparently that is something we can do despite your grandmother's wishes because COURT. Also your parents are alive but want nothing to do with you, obviously. Bipasha proudly, if sadly declares to Awful Uncle that she is Dibendu's stree, but only sort of, because it is now obvious he ran off to save her the shame of his parentage.

A brief aside: I maintain that अदालत-drama is always the worst in filmidom, even when it happens long ago/far away and doesn't consign the majority of screen time to legal high jinks.

Meanwhile, a dejected and decidedly gone-to-seed Dibendu is searching the kotha district of Allahabad, where his uncle claims his ma was last seen. He gets it into his head that the tawaif's voice he hears is also his mother's voice, making a fool of himself by stumbling into a private performance.

Rushing to overtake him, Bipasha arrives in Allahabad, heading to the police station first. Here the police are helpful for once (shades of Kahaani), and somehow direct her straight to Dibendu.

But Dibendu wants nothing to do with her and screams at her to leave. Because she's a faithful stree, and frankly, Dibendu looks ill, she plops right down on his armchair as he falls into a nightmarish sleep.

Nobody rocks a fever-dream sequence like Uttam, and this particular picturization is as chilling as Nayak's. A crowd runs after a black-clad Dibendu through a claustrophobic alley, taunting him with various insults about his parentage, his mother, the shameful state of his birth. Finally he breaks from them to cringe behind a pile of garbage, while the crowd yells, "Kill yourself." Dibendu wakes up in a cold sweat, with these last two words pounding and repeating in his ears. His eyes light on his shaving kit. No prizes for guessing his next plan.

Poor Bipasha gets to awaken to his suicide note, and his heartbreaking confession that he cannot let her be tainted by the sin of his birth. She runs after him, but is confronted by a crowd around a pool of blood on the street. Not a great way to start one's day. Seems that the suicide attempt was not completely successful, and Dibendu has been rushed to the local hospital. Bipasha tries to visit, but is rejected by Dibendu once again.


She takes comfort from the presence of her swami-ji, but all is not as it seems. For the swami-ji is taking the details of Dibendu's story RATHER personally and seems to be doing some investigating of his own.

At this point in the film, a person familiar with masala tropes might guess that the shame of Dibendu's parentage will be resolved after all. And yes, there's a Nirupa Roy-level "Ma-BeTa" reunion to look forward to. Furthermore, Allahabad is obviously not a coincidental destination for the climax of this story. Allahabad is the home of the Triveni Sangam, or the confluence of the three holy rivers, the Ganga, Yamuna, and mythical Saraswati. This is the site of the Kumbh Mela, where every 12 years impossibly massive crowds of believers come to find spiritual cleansing and a release from the cycle of death and rebirth.

I would not have been surprised  if Allahabad had just been a symbolic location, a place where Dibendu was fated to meet his parents and find out that the truth of his parentage was not as awful as he had thought. And while these things certainly happen--this is popular cinema, the public expects a certain payoff--they only happen after a much more personal climactic event.

Bipasha convinces Dibendu to have a real talk. Not the kind where he has a meltdown and pushes her away. She speaks eloquently, softly, and powerfully.


In her kind but firm way, she tells Dibendu that he was an innocent child and should bear no sin for what his parents did. Their marriage or children will not carry the weight of the past generations. Dibendu will be their first ancestor, the beginning of a new line.


This is some radical stuff. But hey, it's ok, because we know that Bipasha represents Ganga, and therefore Dibendu is transformed by her words. He agrees. With them, all things will be new.


Sure, you can find propaganda laced throughout Bipasha, but it's not a propaganda film. It is political, but it is also profoundly hopeful and radically modern. Where it finds a hurt, it also seeks to heal. In sum, its empathy surpasses its philosophical ambitions.

I have a great weakness for films that take a grand political problem or situation and project it on to the volatile passions between lovers. But often in Indian cinema these stories end tragically, or, alternatively, present a moral solution that is somewhat stilted or fatalistic. In this case, Bipasha succeeds in telling a story that deals with a raw recent past, engages in some serious steps towards philosophical and emotional catharsis, and manages to give the main couple a happy ending. Ok, yes, it does take a hard pass on telling Bengal's own history of Partition (into West Bengal and East Pakistan) in favor of telling a safer, more distant tale of violence, destruction, and displacement in the Punjab. But to me, this was a brilliant way to address the overarching pain of the displaced Bengali, without opening the local Pandora's box, so to speak.

The use of a Sanskritized Hindi rather than Bengali, Urdu, or Punjabi (not to mention the word "Hindustan") for the flashback scenes was also an interesting choice. It places the film firmly within new national borders and nationalist sentiments. Yet neither Pakistan nor Muslims are mentioned, as far as I could tell. Its worldview is structured by a Hindu-centric, Nehruvian ideal of public space. Building the new nation is paramount, a nation that is neither held back by the fear and trauma of Partition (embodied by Bipasha's experiences) nor the sins of one's forefathers (embodied in Dibendu's family history).

Together, Bipasha and Dibendu present an ideal model for the emerging Indian citizen. Bipasha, the displaced and orphaned citizen of a divided land, is healed by her partnership with Dibendu. In him she finds the companionship, belonging, and family she has so long lived without. And likewise, Dibendu's shame is washed away by Bipasha's loving absolution. His caste, his parentage, his inheritance--is nothing--his future with Bipasha is everything.

One walks away with a clear message: the children of Nehru's India should rise above loss, caste, and the crimes of the past and work to bring prosperity out of the land. After all, it's no accident that Dibendu the engineer (the industrializing mind that tames the river) falls in love with Bipasha (the representation of the river goddess) living and walking near the new Panchet dam project. Ultimately, Bipasha and Dibendu must overcome their obstacles and come together as one, as their partnership represents the symbolic marriage of human aspirations and nature herself.

Still, I can't help but bless the production team that decided to give this story a progressive and redemptive twist. The same message could have conceivably been filtered through heavy-handed moral scare tactics or misogynistic plot devices. Instead, this film begs the viewer, "Be healed. Heal one another." Bipasha is a certainly a symbol of the displaced, traumatized child of Partition. But she is also a real person with agency, a survivor who fights for a better life for herself and her partner. She pursues Dibendu in good times and bad. He may have written the play in the first half, but she writes the new script for their life together. And in the moment Dibendu listens to her, and chooses to be the first of a new generation, we viewers, regardless of our nationality, can also choose to be free of our own ancestral burdens.

In this way, for me at least, the situated questions of a postcolonial, industrializing nation are transformed into timeless answers for anyone who cares to listen. Good art can do that.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Colonial novels: the good, the bad, and the ugly part I

Image result for kim kipling
I don't know if I've ever talked about my deep dislike for Kipling's much beloved Kim, but for me it represents everything I don't want in a colonial novel. Kim is a British street ruffian involved in various military and private schemes in turn of the 20th-century northern-India. He speaks Hindustani better than English, adopts a Buddhist holy man, and gets into various scrapes on a pilgrim trail. The social hierarchy of the British is ridiculed, but at the same time, reified through Kim's character itself. Even if the Indian characters are allowed to be human and flawed and layered in the way Kim is--Kim's Tom Sawyerish superior cleverness ultimately exemplifies the subtextual British imperial superiority. It's a hard trait to swallow in an age of postcolonial criticism (if not the true disappearance of Empire). To be clear, I'm fond of The Jungle Book and Just So Stories, so I'm not so much a Kipling-hater as a Kim-detractor. I also don't love the way Kim is written--it's snobbish and spends a great deal of time talking about the attributes in horses and philosophy I find least interesting.

Image result for heart of darkness
In contrast, last year I finally read Conrad's The Heart of Darkness (I know one is supposed to read it in school but it was never assigned to me, maaf kar do), and although I found the philosophy and descriptive prose riveting, the faceless and animalistic way that black Africans are drawn left me feeling queasy. That's hardly a revelatory critique, but Kim seems a humanizing, progressive work in comparison--despite the fact that it brings me no literary joy.

A lot of people (especially in the sphere I find myself in these days), perhaps rightly, avoid colonial fiction altogether and choose to champion postcolonial fiction. Unfortunately, I'm not so great at appreciating present-tense prose (kill me now unless you are actually translating your book from a present tense-heavy foreign language) or magical realism (why not just call it fantasy in need of anti-depressants?), so this category often loses me with it's stylistic trends.  I do read postcolonial fiction that suits my stylistic tastes when I can find--it's just that Nadine Gordimer and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie etc. are not without plenty of blogger commentary.

For me colonial fiction reaches its zenith in the 1920s-1940s, when empires were falling and folks were starting to question the imperial mission. Questions and shifting loyalties and cracks in international edifices begin to appear everywhere. What luck! It's also my favorite period of popular fiction, so I'm doubly biased. Anyhow, I've read quite a bit of fiction in this category in the last several years, and below I shall sort them based on my own arbitrary criteria into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Just because and just so.

Note: My list below only includes work by white settler colonial writers, because their flaws and successes happen within the same conversation: the discussion of how to critique the oeuvre of the oppressor.

Ethical points: This work:
  • Questions or examines the behavior, system, or mindset of imperialism
  • Portrays non-European characters in humanizing and interesting ways
  • Engages in self-reflection of  main character's European colonial interaction with non-European colonized people
  • Heart, humanity, beauty expressed
Stylistic points: This work:
  • Provides pure entertainment
  • Provides philosophical or poetic or descriptive pleasure


Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953) Rumer Godden

Rumer Godden grew up in East Bengal on a tributary of the Brahmaputra, and moved back and forth from England to India until the end of WWII. Her unusual early childhood years are fictionalized in The River, later made into a pretty, if a bit tone-deaf film by Jean Renoir. Though it's hard to find a mainstream review that doesn't compare her Indian novels to A Passage to India (which she admits was a revelation for her in the 1920s), in my opinion, her novels collectively hold more authentic emotional and critical weight.

This particular novel is a heavily autobiographical account (see her memoir, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, for the slightly more literal version of the story), fictionalizing her hungry years as a single mother in Kashmir. In reality, Rumer's husband had gambled away their house and fortune and the two maintained separate households during the war years in lieu of an immediate divorce; with Rumer receiving next to no financial support. Instead of going back to an England that had never felt like home, especially in the midst of the waves of air raids, she (and her character) choose to find a place in Northern India to wait out the war. This novel depicts that attempt to live on next-to-nothing (though she explains that many around her had literally nothing) in rural Kashmir near Srinagar. The protagonist, a mother of two children, is hardly a typical memsahib. She speaks and writes Urdu, her closest friends are local Hindu and Muslim merchants, and her children are brought up in an uncouth way (that surely represented Rumer's longing for her own freedom as a child at her Assam home). At first the situation feels idyllic. But she finds herself in deeper and deeper cultural water as the years pass.

She doesn't realize until the eleventh hour that she has been creating enemies of the locals through a series of ignorant, seemingly small lifestyle choices. When her entire family falls sick of a mysterious illness, she begins to believe that she is being poisoned. Eventually, the would-be murderer is unveiled, but it is here that the protagonist's own position as a hostile outsider in the locals' eyes that is truly revealed. As this situation was taken straight from Rumer's experiences, the novel's nuanced and intellectual treatment of the fictionalized "villain" of her own nightmare stands out as an almost superhuman feat of self-examination and social critique.

6/6 points: all the ethical points, but is certainly not an "entertainer." Thought-provoking, philosophical, if anxiety-inducing tale.

A Passage to India (1924) E M Forster

This needs no introduction. I feel it is a better novel for the conversation it launched than its actual content...which sometimes feels contrived, if strongly sketched.

6/6 points: Reflection and questioning drives the plot, the characterizations are fascinating, but it's missing a bit of heart. Entertaining? In the way a noir film keeps you on the edge of your seat and refuses to answer your questions . . . yes.

The Lady and the Unicorn (1938) Rumer Godden

This story flows from Rumer's time as a dance teacher in Calcutta and her distress over the way *Anglo-Indians (then called Eurasians) were treated by mainstream (i.e. white) colonial society. As she herself was marginalized as a working woman who associated with the Eurasian set, it was even more personal of an issue for her. It's a very early example of her work, and thus verges on a syrupy melodrama she avoids later, but is still an evocative picture of ugly racial and class tension amongst "good society."

5/6 points: explores gray areas of representation and still manages to entertain while questioning the system.

*Sometime I'd really like to write or read an analysis of Anglo-Indians in Bengali film and literature. For those bloggers who watch Bengali cinema, what are the depictions that stick out to you? For me, Rina in Saptapadi (1960) or that one working girl in Mahanagar (1963), come to mind.

The African Queen (1935) C S Forester

90% of this novel is a description of a perilous river journey undertaken by two misfits, a crotchety trader and a spinster missionary woman. Symbolically or not, the emblem of the "civilizing mission", the woman's missionary brother, dies in the first pages of the novel, leaving her free to experience the "real" Africa, or at least the real wilderness. "Natives" are nowhere to be found here, really, except as moving targets or potential converts. If you've seen the Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn film, you've definitely experienced a more satisfying version of the story. What the book touches that the film can't is an earthy exploration into the mindset of two lovable, if tremendously ordinary, white settlers in an extraordinary situation. The examination of colonialism is perhaps more a critique of imperialist gains or losses on the African continent in WWI. Defending a lake or a jungle which can only marginally be claimed for any European power by a sane observer, suddenly becomes the height of absurdity. Here, Europeans are out of place and useless in aggregate, it is only the individual human spirit that matters.

4/6 points: Heart is everywhere here, it is ultimately the only "winner" against the unfeeling elements. A lot of points lost for the invisibility of black Africans themselves.

The Complete Oom Schalk Lourens Stories (1920s-1940s) Herman Charles Bosman

There are two popular readings of Bosman's works in South Africa these days. One, people see his work as an outdated send up of early 20th century Afrikaner/Boer farming society that is unacceptably affectionate in the wake of Apartheid's terrors. Two, his satirical short stories are beloved for their intricate commentary on the absurdities and not so lekker aspects of plaas lewe (farm life). Bosman gathered most of his material living in the real farming community of Groot Marico in the Northwest province of South Africa. His most popular narrator, Oom (Uncle) Schalk Lourens is a fountain of humorous tales about feuding farmers, Boer war tragedies, starry eyed arrogant youths and aging commandos, ghosts and the supernatural, and endless dorpie (village) archetypes.

I wouldn't blame any black South African who finds him completely unpalatable. Bosman's tone is almost unfailingly jocular, even in his saddest stories. Bosman may seem unforgivably callous towards social issues and injustices to the modern reader. However, his strength lies in his ability to reveal both the ridiculousness and the humanity in extreme Calvinism or Boer bigotry or rural ignorance or cultural taboos. All is treated to an equal helping of irony and laughter. Afrikaans folks still regard Bosman with some degree of awe: because this settler/pioneer farming culture (not at all unlike the German and Scandinavian farming culture from which I hail) has never been satirized with more biting accuracy. (The Groot Marico Bosman festivals also look painfully similar to Midwest literature festivals, and I'm still laughing about it.)

Like every brilliant satirist, he is divisive. If you read his stories for black African representation, you may see offensiveness where I see harsh critique. Either or neither of us may be right, Bosman's true beliefs are shrouded in the legends with which he surrounded himself until his early death in 1951.

4/6 points: One of the wittiest AND the most poignant writers I've ever come across. To me, he is
Saadat Hasan Manto crossed with Mark Twain. And if that doesn't make you want to pick up his literature as a complete uitlander (outsider), I don't know what will.

Circles in a Forest (1984) Dalene Matthee

This South African classic stands out for its understanding of the environmental destruction endemic to the colonial era (whether imperialist extraction or through unthinking settlement of the wilderness). It also provides a rare analysis of class and cultural differences in settler colonialist society in South Africa. In some ways this is an apologist treatise for poor white Afrikaans farmers, and in other ways, it is an indictment of the entire settler project. Dalene is read religiously in Afrikaans educational institutions, but her flaw in this--her best work--is that she almost completely ignores racial oppression amongst the many injustices (often British-imposed, an ongoing theme in a century of bitter Afrikaans literary memory) she critiques. As it was released in the last days of Apartheid censorship, perhaps this is understandable, but it doesn't make it quite forgivable. Still, an amazing read for those who can give it room to be a product of its time. You could also watch the 1990 film starring a young Arnold Vosloo, but it's more interesting as a representation of cinema from a transitional South Africa than for anything it does well (which is little).

Note: Matthee's stories are set in her home near the resort towns surrounding Knysna forest, where a tragic series of fires wiped out many communities earlier in 2017. People have blamed climate change for the ongoing drought conditions in southern South Africa, but either way, it points to the continuing necessity of prioritizing conversations about tourism and human-environment interaction in developing states; and the disproportionate effects of environmental catastrophes on low income and informal settlements.

4/6 points: What it loses to National Party propaganda, it almost makes up for in its hardscrabble protagonist's fight to protect nature from the encroaching global capitalist threat. What, that sounds strangely relevant to today's issues? That's because it is.

Next time: The BADDDDDD ... at least in terms of colonial critique and self-examination.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Life updates: Where I'm headed next year (and where I've been)

So, in February of this last year, I had the chance to visit Johannesburg, South Africa. My best friend (who I met in elementary school in MN, but is now expat-ing her way around the world teaching at international schools) was getting married to a lovely Afrikaans fellow whose family lives in Joburg. It was a whirlwind two weeks of sightseeing and wedding events and late night chats about history and politics over braii, but let's be honest, mostly Cape wyn (barbecue and wine in Afrikaans). The wedding itself was at a lovely game lodge in Free State (a few hours south of Joburg), with beautiful views and hordes of vicious mosquitoes descending from the thatched lodge roofs at night.

Mosquitoes or no, when I sank into my seat on that plane going home, I felt pretty conflicted. Despite moments of difficulty one always has in new places, I felt like I had found a place I could *maybe* actually live and thrive. The weather was just right, the people friendly, the environment just enough like home in terms of available food and daily comforts to give a modicum of sanity. And yet, there was so much that was radically different and, well, as my best friend puts it, "South African society is like crack for social scientists." So, in April, I started on an eight month mind-eff of a process of applying to grad school and navigating South African bureaucracy to get back to Johannesburg.

I know, another personal post
At the same time, I've been working through a lot of my personal baggage about my South Asia and Hindi-Urdu studies, which I had to let fell by the wayside for a number of reasons. One, I knew that Delhi as an environment for study (something my academic friends pushed me to consider) was just out of the question given certain quirks of health that I have. My jaw disorder alone doesn't do well with intense crowds and noise, and I have to eat a very limited diet in order to make sure other long-term problems don't flare up. Practically, my heart tried to pull me in that direction for several years, but my head told me it would be foolish to expect myself to be able to handle that environment for more than a few weeks at a time. I also realized that the academic field of South Asian studies was frighteningly small--a bad outlook for building a potential career. Beyond even that, I was trying to process my experience with my Hindi-Urdu studies, which looked great on my transcript, but was in practice rather traumatic because of the maddening dysfunctionality of my university department. After the trials of my last two semesters, the language itself became somewhat tainted for me (which makes me more upset than anything specific I actually experienced there).

In some ways, this has been a really blessed (there's my inner Midwesterner coming out, ha) year. I
have had a lot of time to spend with my family and friends who are still in Minnesota. I took some professional development classes for geography teachers with the local association MAGE, which gave me more pedagogical and technological tools to engage students in my last semester of teaching AP and world geography. MAGE also asked me to present at their fall workshop/conference, where I got a chance to share some of my super-nerdy strategies for using world cinema to teach social studies. I read a lot of world and classic fiction books and saw probably 50 films of different stripes, which y'all will probably get some posts about soon (whether you want them or not!). I dug into some new language study: Mandarin (semi-formally) and Afrikaans (informally). My new stepmom (very new--as of two weeks ago) is from Beijing (also one of my favorite places I've ever traveled), and I'm having fun trying to interact (badly, albeit) with her in her home language. And obviously, Afrikaans is spoken by a significant minority in SA, and more importantly, by most of my friends there.

Black Narcissus--the book more than film--helped me deal
(maybe I'll leave that to another post about Rumer Godden) 
I was hoping that by engaging with a world entirely other than South Asia (though I've read some fiction and kept Hindi and Bengali films in my heart), I would eventually get back to a place where hearing Hindi didn't trigger anxiety attacks and feelings of personal betrayal. (Obviously, a discarded plan can bring both personal loss and a guilt over one's own faithlessness, however irrational those feelings may actually be.) Thankfully, over the last two months, I've seen that strategy begin to work.

Though I've certainly had every advantage in terms of being an international applicant, it's been a mind-eff of a year. Half the time I thought it wouldn't work out at all. Even at the moment I finally finished my applications, most of the universities in SA were shut down over the student "Fees must fall" movement.

But, long freaking story short, the universities reopened, I got a couple of acceptance letters, and last week I finally was granted a study visa. So, now, as long as things continue to go smoothly with arrangements for housing, finances, registration, etc., I will be at the University of the Witwatersrand (affectionately known as WITS) in Johannesburg by February, 2017. I'll be studying "migration and displacement" at the African Centre for Migration and Society. Maybe if I like it (and they like me) I might even stay on another year or so to continue studies in public health or health sociology.

I'm excited and scared and delighted for this new plan. Maybe I'll love it, maybe I'll hate it, but either way, I'm sure it's going to be a real adventure. I hope you'll stay tuned.

P.S. I am in the middle of this fabulous Bengali film, so look for a post on that soon.

*The first photo isn't mine, but those towers are a pretty famous site when you're driving away from Joburg to Free State. The second screen-shot is from No Regrets for our Youth (Japan, 1946), an anti-fascist Akira Kurosawa film that I strangely got the urge to watch after our *ahem* American election. The fourth is of jacaranda trees in Joburg (via pinterest).

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Decolonizing My Social Studies Classroom: using cinema to challenge mental maps

Two of the most famous "Arabists", Gertrude Bell and TE Lawrence,
visiting the pyramids with Winston Churchill in 1921.
Area studies folks love to talk about the creation of "imagined spaces" and "perceptual landscapes". Once you scratch beneath the veneer of this sort of jargon, it's easy to understand why the concepts these terms describe are currently en vogue. Forget about the porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, virtually all borders are now recognized as somewhat fictitious and (at least) intellectually insecure. They are the ultimate anthropological artifacts, and arguably the most largest monuments of individual human intervention. Outside of territory exchanging hands through collective negotiation and invasion, ordinary people such as politicians (like James Balfour of the infamous Balfour Declaration), navigators (like James Cook), empire builders (like Cecil Rhodes of DeBeers and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe), and explorers (like one of my more dubious heroes Gertrude Bell) created the 20th century and 21st century world map.

Europe: 1900 (source)
As recently as in our grandparents' or great-grandparents' lifetime, the familiar map as we know it didn't exist, or at least, or at least, was free to be re-imagined and reshaped at will. Four or five generations back, some of my ancestors lived in Prussia. That territory then became German, then Polish, then German, then Polish again. Reportedly, my great-great-great grandfather Kruger, a goat boy who married a goose girl and migrated to the U.S., was obsessed with the military exploits of Frederick the Great and Napoleon until his death. For him, borders were surely loose concepts, at best. But to many people born after the mid-20th century, the lines between political entities probably seem immutable. Unless, that is, you happened to live in a disputed ethnic homeland, a hinterland with valuable resources prone to occupation, or in a recently established state, etc.

Which begs the question, who are the 21st century guardians of this awareness of map-making and map-breaking?

Well, high education rates aside, they probably aren't residents of North America. U.S. citizens post-1950 tend to look at world maps with a combination of boredom and awe, and to me the reason is twofold. One, we have not had to relearn the U.S. map since 1959, when Hawaii became the 50th state, and two, we have not experienced a significant war for territory on the contiguous North American continent since the conflict between U.S. troops and Pancho Villa in the Southwestern U.S. in 1916. (Unless you count the long process of "displacement" of indigenous people during "peaceful" frontier settlement.) When even the possibility of change to a nation state's borders exists outside of living memory, that nation state can easily come to believe in its own permanence, and through the rigidity of that mindset, to see other places as equally permanent.

We are not the best people to ask about spatial imagination.

The United States of Eurasia (MUSE) 

However, let's forget for the moment the modern notions of sovereignty and nation states. When we turn to the idea of "regions" we find, perhaps, the best example of imagined space. Contrary to our common mental categories and divisions, Asia is actually not (gasp) a separate landmass from continental Europe. The most radical social scientists and politicians *might* divide the regions by tracing a finger down the Urals and including the Northern European Plain (the most populated tract of Russia) into Europe as a whole. After all, it's got "Europe" in the title. But anxieties about Russian expansionism run deep, and after all, we don't really want to encourage Russian inclusion into civilized Europe, do we? Therefore, anything in the Russian sphere of interest cannot be Europe. It's Eurasia, at best, Asia at worst. And therein lies the moral problem: meaning, Asia as the ultimate "other", of course.

For most of us, imagining Asia and imagining Europe amounts to the exact same action.

Arranged (2007)
We cannot, at this stage, easily do one activity without involving the other. Perhaps, once upon a time (let's say 500 years ago), the two were free to imagine each other without much interference. But at some point in the European-defined Age of Exploration and Colonization, the wires got forever crossed. As Ashis Nandy points out in The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism, the colonized person/nation's concept of self is no longer self-generated, it is dependent on the colonizer's image of that person or nation; so much so that even the act of rejection of the colonizer's imagined world only further cements the boundaries of the worldview that the colonizer created.

These internalized limits and categories certainly create political boundaries on paper and on the ground, but even more so, they create our mental maps--our personal and societal vision of the world. They decide not just where Turkey begins and Bulgaria ends, but what that transitional space signifies, and why it is necessary in the first place.

In order to decolonize the classroom, the invisible assumptions underpinning these mental maps must be (A) recognized and (B) challenged.

In other words, students must be freed to re-imagine space. 

Never on a Sunday (Greece, 1960)
Top assumptions ...

1. Colonial and neo-colonial mental maps have fixed, timeless borders.

2. Colonial and neo-colonial mental maps have black and white categories that place people in black and white spatial roles.

3. Colonial and neo-colonial mental maps exist outside the individual's ability to critique or change. BUT when colonial and neo-colonial mental maps DO change, it is because the West has decided to change the rules (which is legitimate), or because the non-West has decided the rules must be changed (which is obviously illegitimate).

And the challengers are ....

1. Films about explorers (to open students' minds to the unknown)

As colonial as the word "explorer" admittedly sounds, exploring is a comfortable transitional role for an American to assume, a role that asks students to treat the world as a new place without any "mistakes in it", to learn to turn a fresh eye to unfamiliar landscapes. "Explorer's" films highlight plucky individuals grappling with hostile landscapes and shifting borders. They can introduce discussions around the constant modernizing quest to tame the wilderness and to scramble for resources, but without reverting to tired American bedtime stories of Lewis & Clark or Davy Crockett ... while simultaneously avoiding placing the student immediately in a a position of uncomfortable ignorance or defensiveness.

One of my favorite films to use for this purpose is Letter Never Sent (1960), a beautiful and terrifying Soviet film about a group of scientists on an expedition to the Siberian interior to search for natural resources "for the Fatherland".

In the first half, the film mostly seems concerned with the popular "civilized man turning savage again" trope, comparable to The Lord of the Flies or well, every season of LOST. However, in the second half, the group is decimated and separated by a massive forest fire. Then, the only question is, will any of them survive to return to their families again? And was the venture worth the risk?

Watching the African Queen (1951), or The Naked Jungle (1954) might also be entertaining examples of White Man and Woman vs. the Wild. But it's hard to beat LNS for pure cinematic value or environmental realism. I often lean toward making students watch older films when possible, but this is an easy subgenre to find in recent action and adventure and science fiction (if not always in parent-friendly films), and a relatively painless way to to remind students that most of the earth's territory was once uncharted.

2. Films about the alien and stranger (to entangle students' emotions in other people's realities)

Though they're often tearjerkers, films that portray stateless persons, refugees, separated families, etc. are helpful in showing the human impact of political boundaries and bureaucratic red tape, and the humanity on both sides of a border. This is a pretty common genre in art house international cinema, but so far, Baran (Iran, 2001--pictured below) and Lakhon Mein Eik (Pakistan, 1967) have gone over well in some of my classes.

Any story about immigrant experiences could achieve a comparable end. Ultimately, I want students to think about what it means to navigate invisibility, hostility, and displacement. West Side Story (1961) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971) are excellent jumping off points, since U.S. students often have some familiarity with these stories and settings. English Vinglish (2012) is also probably a good choice, as it's both amusing and fairly universal in its themes.

As long as you can create an emotional reference point to humanize later discussions, or even a vocabulary to use across the board, I generally find that students will feel a kinship with similar, if more complex struggles elsewhere. If they watch Fiddler on the Roof and talk about anti-Semitic pogroms, then later we can discuss ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or East Africa with a bit more second-hand displacement experience with which to ground our conversation.

[Note: Of course, there are other ways to provide a similar second-hand experience. In my geography class last year, we did a refugee crisis simulation--where some students got to be the European gatekeepers and some "got" to be Syrian and North African refugees.]

3. Films about revolutionaries and rebels (to shift students' expectations of the "other")

This is one of my favorite categories of film. Half the time these films were released as propaganda serving some party on the political spectrum or some particular regime. But they are still fascinating, inspirational, and for U.S. citizens at least, enlightening. We tend to think of most other countries' citizens as disempowered in comparison to Americans, while simultaneously fearing the power that other countries' citizens may choose to seize.

I love the following films both for entertainment and discussion purposes: Lawrence of Arabia (1960), The Last Bridge (Austria, 1954) The Hunger Games films (2012-2015), The Red Detachment of Women (China, 1961), Kommunist (USSR, 1959), Battle of Algiers (Italy-Algeria, 1966), Island in the Sun (1957), and Baaz (1953).

Note: despite the appearance of the above list, I don't try to turn out communist sympathizers (nor do I push my students toward the American left or the right), but I do like to turn out students who respect revolutionary ideals in theory, and the right/ability of other people groups and oppressed populations to try to change their circumstances.

My next experiment ... 

Next year I think I'm going to have my students watch the surprisingly relevant Vincent Price/Samuel Fuller film about a forger who tried to "steal" an entire U.S. territory: The Baron of Arizona (1950).

I'll probably pair it with a reading on Cecil Rhodes and/or other famous landgrabbers, along with a conversation about land redistribution in postcolonial nations.

In conclusion ...

Sabarmati (1969)
If a student's mental map is neo-colonial (favoring the Western world in all matters of spatial choice, definition, and agency), then in order to decolonize the classroom, the teacher needs to shift the balance of power in the imagined space first by:

1. Encouraging creativity and curiosity when envisioning the possibilities and limits of human use of the landscape (even if it means temporarily letting students slip into easy colonial roles)

2. Fostering empathy for people who don't fit well inside those limits

3. Giving students a chance to spend an hour or two rooting for people who challenge those arbitrary boundaries or their own comfortable categories

Pedagogically, it's all to easy to stop here ... having hopefully encouraged the growth of empathy and awareness, if nothing else. But mental maps are also drawn from a specific lookout point--from the ground we psychologically stand upon. And that choice of ground is often suspect. As Prof. Harry Goruba (University of Cape Town) points out:
Yes, the view of Cape Town from here is as stunning as it is panoramic — just as the tourist brochure tells you. What arrests you here though is not really this view but the vision it encapsulates: the vision of an era when the world was out there for the taking, when Africa was envisioned as a vast landscape, lying supine at your feet, waiting for the lights of civilisation and commerce to shine over it. It is this panoptic vision of a world under the gaze and surveillance of an imperial man that hits you in the guts: this, in essence, is the modernist dream of encyclopaedic knowledge and control over native subjects. This is one way of thinking Africa from the Cape: the modernist, imperialist version that Cecil John Rhodes embodied and envisioned. It is a vision that represses other peoples, other histories, other knowledges; rather than a dialogic engagement, it privileges a mono-centric, colonising view of the world. [Excerpt from: How not to think of Africa from the Cape, 2011]
So, I'm adopting a fourth goal, elusive though it may be to attain. 

4. Helping students develop the mindset of a "borderlander", a concept inspired by the life of Czeslaw Milosz and developed by Krzysztof Czyzewski. Milosz was a Lithuanian-Polish poet (and one of my favorites), author of the anti-totalitarian work "The Captive Mind", and also Nobel Laureate. He hailed from a region of Lithuania that changed national "hands" many times through his lifetime.
Behind my thoughts is the practice of the borderland. Can one “practice” the borderland? If we understand by this term a certain territory, it would be more appropriate to speak of “cultivating” or “exploring” the borderland. But I am speaking here about a territory that is not necessarily situated in a specific place (for example, a state borderline); rather, I am referring to an area crisscrossed by internal borders, where the inhabitants speak different languages, pray in different temples, or have different national identities. In multicultural areas like the territories of the former Jagiellonian Commonwealth, the word “borderland” described not only a place but also a certain ethos or tradition.The way those notions used to be perceived is reflected in the very term “borderlander,” which refers to a person with tangled family roots who is characterized by tolerance, empathy, critical patriotism, a resistance to ethnic phobias, fluency in many languages, and curiosity about otherness. A borderlander loves his or her small homeland but is open to the outside world. [Emphasis mine] (Source: Line of Return: Practicing “The Borderland” In Dialogue With Czeslaw Milosz. By Krzysztof Czyzewski; Michigan Quarterly Review, 2007.)
It may not be a radically decolonized perspective, but it's a start. 

Now it's your turn! What (semi-accessible) movies would you recommend to expand my resource cabinet, and what do you think are the most important neo-colonial assumptions that affect our mental maps?