The White Solutions to Brown Problems

This one starts on a personal experience, but I hope it has a larger lesson that is topical. Not so very long ago, I negotiated a Ph.D. from Princeton University. Shri Ashok Chowgule has for some time been pressing me to share that experience with the larger world, and “prevailing ideology” in David Brooks, “Lonely Campus Voices”, The New York Times, Sept 27, 2003 that Shri Chowgule circulated, plus certain behaviour, essentially unchanged since it was televised to the world on May 18, 2004, prompts me now to do so.

I won a Parvin Fellowship for 1983-84 to Princeton University and during that one year fulfilled nearly all the requirements of a major in anthropology (i.e., the honours course requirements for a BA in cultural anthropology). Sat for the GRE and, armed with my course grades and my GRE, and with strong encouragement from Prof James Fernandez (who later shifted to Chicago), applied for regular graduate admission.

Joined as a graduate student in 1985 and had 5 years in which to complete (an MA and) the Ph.D. before being obligated to return to sarkari naukri back home (the average time taken by an indigenous student exceeded 7 years).

I must say those 5 years were a most educative experience – the pluses of the American educational system are well-known and I won’t repeat them here. Mainly, these are the opportunities and facilities the system makes available to any one who wants seriously to study.

This is about what I didn’t know then – and I have no reason to believe it has changed in its basics.

First, my teachers as a Delhi Univ undergraduate in the early 60s were as good or better than the ones I had at Princeton in the 80s. Whatever the drawbacks of the Indian system, ours has a discipline and a rigour that enables those trained in it to do very well there.

Secondly, for all the academic freedom proclaimed, there are high walls you cross at your risk. The playing field is a large one, but its boundary is then sharply demarcated.

Thirdly, racism is subtle but sharp. I was encouraged by Prof Fernandez and, after he left, by my advisor Prof Hildred Geertz, to reverse the well-entrenched hierarchy of enquiry (in which Western/White/West-based anthropology studies others, preferably dark-skinned, non-English speaking, Third World natives) and bring to bear my nonWestern eyes and nonWestern perspective to any aspect of American culture that interested me. As I told an indigenous student (of Tamil-Irish parentage!) who asked, “But aren’t you supposed to study someone exotic?”, “What makes you think that to me you Americans aren’t exotic?” “Oh!”

But life in America is expensive, and while my Department had always been understanding and generous, no funding agency was prepared to give me a grant to do my fieldwork on mainstream Americans. I read some of the feedback. Essentially, it was a question of authority: who is he to study us? Politely and carefully-worded, but the subtext was clear – student, Indian, Brown, Third World, inferior, the ruled, the periphery, etc. to study the No.1, White, First World, superior, the rulers, the centre, etc.? Nah!

This “who is he to study us?” played like a signature tune to the very end. Upto the qualifiers (the MA), I played by their rules, did their coursework, met all their academic requirements to their pronounced satisfaction. I was apparently successfully co-opted and could be a fine example of their system (senior administrator from world’s largest democracy, fluent in English, Westernized, much older than the average indigenous student, and dutifully kneeling at their altar to Athena, not mine to Saraswati).

Then came the fieldwork, of studying Americans as “them”. My area of ethnographic enquiry was the Western social paradigm in its American expression, but in its “bhayanaka”, not “adbhuta”, side; and to express it I introduced “rasasvadana” (from Indian aesthetics) as an ethnographic method.

Suffice it to say that, as I began to share my experiences and critical understanding in the Department, I was soon disabused of the notion that, as a Brown foreigner, I had interpretative authority. For example, some interpretation I shared with Prof Laurence Rosen was “wrong”. So I began to use the words of the indigenes instead of my own; I used American quotations to say to White Americans what obviously they were not prepared to hear – let alone accept – from a Dark Brown Indian who was forgetting his place in their larger scheme of life!

The procedure required the submission and clearance of the draft dissertation by the main advisor, its approval by a second reader, then it was to be seen by two more readers who’d have it for a fortnight each, and then, all going well, the date for the student’s final public oral exam (FPO) would be notified – and the whole world and their nears and dears could attend!

Right on schedule, I handed in my final draft to Prof Geertz. Her initial response – “marvellous”. Three days later she said she couldn’t accept it – it wasn’t “science”. I pointed out I was critiquing “Western science”. She wanted this change and that, and changes that I felt I could make without compromising my integrity and that of my thesis, I made. At one change, I drew the line. I said that if I made it, it would no longer be my dissertation; it would become hers. She was asking me to convert from my faith (as an academic credo) to hers, and I wasn’t prepared to convert. She said that then she couldn’t accept my dissertation. I said, fine, I’d go back without the Ph.D.

Impasse. Sensation. After all, here I was. A brown sahib there, and not just any chhota-mota brown sahib. I had been a Parvin Fellow at the same university. I had a certain official status in my own country. My academic results had been to their entire satisfaction. How would they explain not awarding me a Ph.D?

Friendly American students advised me to write as my guide wanted; when subsequently I published I could rewrite as I wanted. I was horrified to discover this well-meant advice was a very common one. The important point was to get the degree, not how you got it? And I then realized the American doctorate is not awarded, it is negotiated.

The negotiations began. No, no, I sat tight – in my dharma, that piece of paper would not go up (or down!) with me when my time finally came. As my wife will certify, I was quite prepared to return home without that degree. I was certainly not going to “sell” myself for White / Western recognition. What to me was important was what I’d studied and learned and understood, and that they couldn’t take away from me.

My second reader was Prof Gananath Obeyesekere (of Sri Lankan origin) and to him Prof Geertz referred me and my draft. Prof O, apart from being a fascinating teacher, is one smart cookie, and he brought to bear his Asian chutzpah in dealing with the American system (and, believe me, first-generation clued-up Asians who smartly want to play the American system to their own advantage – as I did – can certainly do so). So we negotiated certain portions of my draft without compromising on its integrity and he sent me back to Prof G. She declined to look at the draft, saying that if O had okayed it, it was okay by her.

It then went to big-name professors Jorge Klor de Alva and James Boon, with a covering note that I would be happy to explain any point they wished. Complete silence from them both for their fortnights, and the date of the FPO was announced.

Now, I’d sat through the FPOs of a number of my seniors – small friendly affairs, just other students of the Department (and perhaps some friends) and a supportive faculty that’d known the student for six years or more. Professional, yes, but very friendly, and I’d seen how once they gently led a sweating student out of his sudden and total mental block. Nothing to worry about, except that in my case I was warned “they” were out to get me! So, strategy became necessary, and some close, concerned American friends and I went into a huddle. The student has about half-an-hour to “present” the dissertation and then the questioning starts. We decided that I would raise no substantive issue in my presentation (let the questioners do that) and I wasn’t, absolutely was not, no matter how much the provocation, to lose my temper!

The entire faculty were seated around a long table, I was at one end, and the hall was overflowing with students from my and related departments. Word had certainly got around – martyr to the lions!! And, oh yes, instead of my usual jeans, I wore a kurta and a churidar pajama.

For 25 minutes I spoke, and carefully said nothing at all. Then, questions from the faculty.

Appropriate ones, including one from Prof Laurence Rosen about the application generally of my anthropological method, except for Profs Klor de Alva and Boon who were clearly seething with anger (Boon was literally red in the face) and who took over and dominated the table.

Prof K de A: “Who are you to write this about us? Can this be written about your country too?”

Prof B: “Your behaviour is uncharacteristic of Hindu behavior”

Across the table it went, around those two statements of theirs I’ve never forgotten. Cutting, insulting, snubbing. K de A saying that all that was needed was to replace the title page with one saying “India”, and what’s the difference. Boon’s statement suggesting that Hindu (not Indian, mind you, but Hindu) behaviour is characteristically one of humility, of abject and grateful servility (yes, the kind leading “Hindu” members of our country’s Parliament happily displayed in the CPP meeting on May 18 – V’mala 59).

And not a word from Prof Geertz or anyone else to restrain or divert them (as not a word at that CPP meeting from La Duce Suprema while her Hindus behaved in the way she obviously considers characteristic of us).

No, I did not lose my temper. But Prof G didn’t allow any questioning from the audience; she ended the FPO immediately after the faculty had done with me. There was a moment’s silence, then the students gave me a standing ovation, and student feedback later was that faculty behaviour had been “obnoxious”.

I had successfully negotiated my degree. But I declined the invitation to dinner with the faculty that the new Ph.D has, as having become their peer. A few days later, the five years soon to be getting over, I left.

(And please do not compare my negotiating my Ph.D. to caro Raul’s obvious negotiation of his M.Phil. – V’mala 62. I had sat for and passed the proper prerequisite examinations!)

Poor Prof Geertz was clearly very embarrassed that her potential White swan had metamorphosed into this ugly Brown duck! No, no, the Department and she – and this I make emphatically clear – had been very supportive, and my qualms about “namak-harami” were brushed away by her and by Prof Rena Lederman. I value indeed the opportunity I had to study the Western system from within it. But my concern is with the hegemonic paradigm so well-illustrated in the uninhibited typecasting of Hindus by Profs Klor de Alva and Boon (see Part 1 of Krishen Kak, “Enucleated Universes: An Ethnography of the Other America and of Americans as the Other”, Princeton University, Ph.D. dissertation, June 1990, available in America on an inter-library loan through your academic or friendly neighbourhood public library.* On “namak-harami”, see its fn 5, Part 1.III).

Now, it is easy to point out worse attitudes in the Brown system but we, by our own general consensus (by “the people’s mandate”, if you prefer!), are a people inferior to the White.

Call it the “fair and lovely” syndrome. If you’re fair, you’re by definition lovely. And the White is by definition fair and, therefore, lovely.

The White West universities by general consensus (that includes themselves and elite English-speaking Indians) are the best in the world, and the White Western educational system is the best, and the White West is the best……..

Sure it is, if you’re willing to be coopted by their system, to gratify them by praising theirs and running down our own, to becoming faux White. Okay, okay, the full reasoning is in that dissertation which first q.v., so “flames” will be promptly extinguished if you’re responding angrily only to its findings as repeated here. Don’t forget I defended in extenso, publicly and successfully these findings there!

Apart from my experience as a graduand, this offering illustrates two points: how mainstream America / the Westen social paradigm / mainstream White culture really perceives us “Hindus” and, much more significantly for us, how we continue to reinforce that perception.

And the larger point of that research that, in analysing the Western social paradigm, implicitly warns against blindly seeking a White solution to Brown social problems. The remedy is worse than the disease, and we seek it at our peril. *

This article was first published at on June 25, 2004. 

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