Saturday, December 24, 2005

Contentious Traditions - from Sati to Spirituality

“So much of human suffering lies not in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but rather in the nature of our response to them.”

How do you react to a thought such as this? Raise your eyebrows and dismiss it as one of many vapid lines from some new-age guru? Wonder if the person writing this has ever thought about or understood how structural inequalities determine lives of millions around the world?

The sentence I quote above is from the second half of a book. Now what if I add that the first half is a brilliant first-person account of the social construction of illness. Consider that this author has also written, in another life, a highly regarded book that analyses the debate on sati in colonial India? Would it influence your opinion if you knew that the author was, in a previous life, a postcolonial-feminist scholar who taught in the Women’s Studies program at UC-Davis? Would you then be willing to read the quote above without smirking or dismissing it as new-age drivel?

I am talking about Interleaves: Ruminations on Illness and Spiritual Life, written by Lata Mani. Lata Mani, while commuting to the UC-Davis campus, was hit by a stolen Pepsi truck traveling at 100 mph. After several years spent in coma, and many painful years of gradual recovery, she decided to write.

Interleaves explores my mind’s disintegration as the result of brain injury, and my baptism of fire into a new status as a disabled person. Like others who have faced catastrophic health crises, I learned more than I would have cared to, about the social construction of illness.

Interleaves is also a chronicle of my awakening to God, in the form of Devi, the Divine Mother, who came to fetch me from the debris in which I had crash-landed. I am immeasurably grateful to the Divine Mother for rescuing me into her arms and for pouring into my consciousness instruction in the art of living” (p.7).

I had read about Interleaves in The Hindu several years back, but never managed to find a copy. Two days back, I found one in Lawrence Liang’s ALF office. And I agreed with Lawrence when he said it was very difficult to come to terms with a book like this. It is not so much that Lata Mani’s writings on spirituality are radically new – she says in the very beginning that the “instruction she received” is nothing new, that it is in fact, “ancient truth.” The difficulty lies in coming to terms with vocabulary that academia shuns, particularly those who are wedded to a left-secular worldview.

Needless to say, I would not have bothered to give this book a second glance had I not known more about the author, her previous life as an academic who wrote very knowledgeably about power, colonial discourse and the agency of the colonized. I would have also, perhaps, tossed aside the book if it was only about spirituality. I will admit that what drew me in was the first half of the book, a wonderful first-person account of the social construction of illness.

In one chapter titled “Surreal Stories: on Yogis, Dentists, and the Art of Listening,” she writes about her visits to various medical practitioners.

“I am sitting in the dentist’s chair…he is compassionate. He seems to understand, at least, that I am in physical distress…just as I am settling into something resembling comfort, he says, “Can you go jogging, or does it make your brain jump up and down?” And I wonder if he has understood a single word that I have spoken. But he is smiling, and the kindness in his eyes is genuine. I simply say, “No,” and he begins to drill” [p.47-48].

When I read these lines, I was immediately reminded of an article that Lata Mani had written in which she narrates another encounter in a doctor’s office.

"I am lying in wait for the complex verbal negotiation that attends each visit to my acupuncturist. I want a diagnosis--a definable illness, a definite cure...he asks the dreaded question: 'Well, what is your Ph.D. thesis about?' I blurted out what I consider my minimalist 'no-nonsense' description: 'I am working on the debate between colonial officials, missionaries and the indigenous male eite on sati (widow burning) in colonial India'."

At this point he turned away from my foot, into which he had just finished inserting needles, and asked, 'So, how do you understand widow burning?' I felt myself stiffen. He had thrown me a challenge that would require a command performance in colonial and post-colonial history and discourse, one that I did not feel equal to at the time. So I said evasively, 'It's a long story and I'm trying to sort it out'.

'Good', said the genial man in the white coat tapping my arm. Not waiting for a response, he continued. 'Of course, you are Westernized and your ideas have probably changed from living here. I wonder what women in India feel about it?' So saying, he left the room." [Rest of the thought-provoking article here]

From sati to spirituality – both highly contentious traditions in everyday life in India, and in the world of the Western academy. Positioned as a graduate student in the U.S., but as someone who grew up in homes and neighborhoods in parts of Chennai and Bangalore where “spirituality” was always the subtext to religious ritual, I am not at all sure how to make a book like
Interleaves a part of what I would naturally read. But then, I am also reminded of Milton Singer’s term – compartmentalized identities – to describe Brahmins in Chennai who are equally at ease performing their daily morning rituals (that are seemingly irrational/pre-modern) and going to a workplace that values all that is rational and modern. Like A. K. Ramanjan’s father who was both a mathematician and an astrologist!


  • Dear Aswin, Great blog entry. I had not heard about Lata Mani till now. But you have certainly piqued my interest. Thanks. amrita

    By Anonymous amrita, at 12/27/2005 11:05 AM  

  • Hey Amrita - I'll try to get a copy of the book back to Buffalo. I'm hoping to meet her in B'lore before I leave.

    By Blogger Aswin, at 12/27/2005 11:05 PM  

  • best site

    By Anonymous printingworld, at 10/13/2006 9:23 AM  

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