Books and Orgasms

Moving to India after studying for 7 years in an Ivy League University in the US with astounding resources at your finger tip, can be challenging. For a year though I continued to enjoy my Columbia University online privileges and I made full use of them. So much so that I didn’t even bother to figure how to navigate the website of Ahmedabad University library. But every time I downloaded something via the Columbia library I would feel the need to do it so surreptitiously, lest some IT personnel at Columbia notices me visiting that website long after I had graduated. I used to do it like a mouse stealing cheese, in and out very quickly. I never lingered on that website anymore like I used to.

Then this December tragedy struck! I found out that Columbia had finally revoked my privileges. Like a rejected lover who still has to come to terms with the rejection, I continued to visit the website a few more times, but I knew it was over. It was then that I remembered the Biblio website (name changed), that life saver of resourceless students and faculty from where one can download full books and articles free of cost. What a blessing! Now every time I go on Biblio and find an article or book I need, the pleasure is simply orgasmic. I literally go Oh My God! Oh My God! Oh My God as I download them. Either I am a nerd or simply one who is easily aroused. Or both?

Photo-Essay: Tel Aviv Dairy – I

Cafe Dissensus Everyday

By Mary Ann Chacko

In Fall 2015, I was awarded the ‘Asia on Its Own Terms’ Doctoral Summer Fellowship in the East Asian Studies Department at Tel Aviv University (TAU). It brought together local and international researchers specializing in China, India, Japan, and Korea. This fellowship, which covered our travel expenses and housing in Tel Aviv for a month (May 14-June 18, 2016), was funded by the Yad Hanadiv grant instituted by the Rothschild family.

My decision to travel to Israel at a time when the contentious academic ‘Boycott of Israel’ is in place made my choice a very political one. Numerous people in my life were astonished that I would even apply for a fellowship to Israel in the first place. Many of them sent me numerous articles on the Boycott movement. While I do not support Israel’s unequal war against Palestine, I decided to go because I was…

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Photo-Essay: Strange Fruit in Bed-Sty

Cafe Dissensus Everyday

By Mary Ann Chacko

I live in Bedford Stuyvesant in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. It is a predominantly black neighborhood and one that is becoming increasingly gentrified. My closest subway station is Utica Avenue on the A and C train lines. Getting home from the station involves a short walk through Fulton Park. Last night it was dark by the time I got home from my University. For the past couple of days, I, like many others, had been greatly agitated by the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by the American police. That night I stepped out of the subway station and started to walk home through the park. Suddenly I stopped dead in my tracks. In front of me was a sight that immediately reminded me of “Strange Fruit,” that haunting song, sung by the Black artist, Billy Holiday, and written by a…

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How Have You Responded to the Public Display of Penis?

Cafe Dissensus Everyday

By Mary Ann Chacko

This is a piece I started writing in August 2015. But, as it often happens, the fire went out of the piece and I laid it aside until recently, when an article in the New York Review of Books stoked that fire and I picked up the piece again.

In August 2015, Maryanna Abdo, an American, tweeted about a man who masturbated at her in broad daylight in Mumbai. When her attempts to confront him and take him to the police station were foiled, she took his picture and tweeted about this incident. Way to go! It is also noteworthy that a couple of men came forward to help her even though they were unsuccessful in nabbing the offender.

As a woman, I admire Maryanna’s proactive response to the harassment. The tenor of the responses to her tweet, however, surprised me. First, her respondents were predominantly…

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The mythical child at the center of Smriti Irani’s concerns about schooling

Cafe Dissensus Everyday

By Mary Ann Chacko

One day, many years ago, I was travelling by train from Kochi to Kolkata. My coach was empty except for a young family comprising of a mother, father, and child. From their conversations, carried out in Hindi, it was soon apparent that the father was an Army personnel posted in Kochi. Their son, a boy of about 5 or 6, was chatting animatedly with his parents. During the conversation he pulled out an imaginary machine-gun and pretended to shoot. His father asked him who he was shooting and the son instantly replied, “I am shooting Muslims.”

The parents laughed.

But sitting in the other corner of the coach, a cold chill shot through me; my fear made all the more visceral due to my own marriage to a Muslim.

You might wonder why I am starting this piece with such a polarizing narrative, as if we…

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Dear Madam Smriti Irani: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

In her speech in Lok Sabha India’s Human Resources and Devlp Minister Smriti Irani quoted a “Roman Philosopher” (who happens to be Cicero) on his idea of treason against a nation-state:

“A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.”

After reading out this quote, Irani added with a sneer, “If I had quoted Chanakya (renowned political scientist of ancient India and advisor to the Hindu King Chandragupta Maurya) today people would have accused it is “saffron. That is why I quoted a Roman philosopher.”

For me Cicero’s quote,  and the purposes to which Irani deploys it, does not exemplify the essence of a democratic nation-state but rather the “if you are not with us you are against us” mentality of an intolerant and totalitarian state. It is acceptable to quote a Roman philosopher but dangerous when the speaker has little knowledge of Roman history.

For do you know what is most ironic?? Cicero himself was condemned as an “enemy of the state” and brutally killed after the death of Julius Caesar because Mark Antony regarded Cicero as a threat and an enemy to the new Roman leadership.

Maybe Irani should have stuck to quoting Chanakya after all!

On Death

Death has always fascinated me.

It was customary in my Christian community in Kerala for family members to give a last kiss to their loved one after they are laid out in the coffin. I will never forget the first time I kissed a dead body, the customary peck on the forehead of my grandfather’s brother, when I was a young girl. The cold, taut skin startled me, and memory of that feeling has stayed with me since.

The closest I got to a dead body was when I went into a mortuary to help my mother bathe a dead body, a family friend’s sister. I realized then that when we die our bodies lose their suppleness and we become like cold alabaster, like a plank of wood. Since then hugging my loved ones when they are supple and warm has been my preoccupation.

It was, however, the death of two people I adored that erased my fear (if I ever had any) of death: that of my paternal grandmother and my mother’s younger sister, Maggie. They adored me, and losing them to death suddenly made death a very welcome prospect for me. In dying I would be with them.

Since the three of us siblings moved out of our nest it is our parents who convey the news of the passing of loved ones to us. Three of us live in different parts of the world and since we will not be able to comfort the grieving families in person our parents insist that we call them. I am very thankful to my parents for demanding this of us because I have had numerous people confide in me that they do not know how to talk to someone who has just lost a loved one. When I call I do two things, I celebrate the memory of the loved one and then I make sure that I remind the family member of how much their love and care must have meant to their loved one.

For the past couple of days I have been more preoccupied than usual with death. And coincidentally a couple of articles on death came my way at around the same time. One was on the need to make conversations about death a part of our everyday talk and the other was one on Oliver Sacks and the gracious manner in which he welcomed the knowledge of his last days. Yesterday I spent a lot of time going through the post-mortem pictures of celebrities. To see them in all their glory in one picture and then to see them lying pale and lifeless on the autopsy table in the next made me ask myself what the meaning of life, of my life, of any life, was. What is the purpose of our brief lives on this beautiful earth?

The Shitty Draft

I am back from a year’s fieldwork in India. My doctoral dissertation is a multi-sited ethnography of the Student Police Cadet (SPC) project in Kerala, India. The biggest dilemma before me was–what do I do now? I have the data but how and where do I begin my writing process. I heard of the strategy used by my friend, Diana Rodriguez Gomez, who had done a visual ethnography among refugee students on the Columbia-Ecuador border. Before she got down to writing she spent a month reading her data. That seemed perfect. I had “gathered” data–particularly my field notes–quite diligently. But I had not gone back to them. It also gave me something to do that was less terrifying than “writing my chapters.”

With this plan in mind I set up an appointment with my Dissertation sponsor/advisor in the Department of Curriculum & Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. But she had another suggestion. Don’t go back to your data, not yet. Instead spend some time writing out the thoughts that are foremost in your mind. Don’t read. Don’t think of chapters. Just do some free writing of your impressions and thoughts from your fieldwork. She called it the “Muscle Draft”. Ok, that seemed doable and almost exciting. I would be writing yet didn’t have to worry about citing anyone! Didn’t have to struggle with questions like–what is my argument? what is my theoretical framework? what is my conceptual framework? I could just write!

I shared this new plan with Leya Mathew, my friend over at U Penn and she recalled that someone she knew called this the “Shitty Draft”! Even better because as my friend told me, “takes all the pressure out immediately when I tell myself this is my “shitty draft”” She couldn’t have said it any better! I decided to borrow that phrase as well and am currently in the process of producing my shitty draft.

I was narrating all this to yet another friend of mine, Stephanie McCall. She has defended her dissertation and had worked under my dissertation sponsor. When I told her the path our sponsor had suggested to me, she said that it was because our professor believes that when we get back from fieldwork “we already know what we want to write about.” Writing the shitty draft helps bring them to the surface.

I am writing my shitty draft and enjoying every moment of it! Friends to whom I shared this experience told me they wished someone had given them this advice when they came back from the field. So here I am sharing it for all those who, like me, love writing yet spend hours before the computer, shoulders stiff, sensing the anxiety and fear surreptitiously creeping into our minds, and feeling completely alone as we flagellate ourselves with thoughts that question our very ability to do doctoral research.

Fear of Non-Compliance


Recently I had to go to Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), the capital city of the South Indian state of Kerala, for some research-related work. I had reserved a seat in the train for this 4 hour journey from Cochin to Thiruvananthapuram. I pushed and squeezed my way between seats and passengers to arrive at my seat only to find it occupied by an elderly lady. I informed the lady that she was seated in my place. At that, a younger woman seated nearby pointed to another seat where a young woman was sitting and requested me to sit there instead.  That seat by the aisle actually belonged to the elderly lady. I was disappointed as I loved to sit by the window during train journeys. But I was informed that it would be difficult for the old lady to move out of that seat. Though irritated I decided to give my seat out of sheer respect for the aged,something I was sure my mother would have expected me to do.Moreover the intense heat of the summer made the prospect of occupying the window seat slightly less appealing.

The young woman who was occupying the old woman’s seat did not have a reserved seat. The train was crowded and she did not try to hide her displeasure at having to give up that seat for me. I sat down.

Two young children, a girl and a boy, sat between the elderly lady and myself. They were, as I soon surmised, the woman’s grandchildren. Opposite us sat a young man and a middle aged woman. Another woman stood in the space between our seats. At one point both the children got up from their seats to accompany their parents who were seated near by.  The lady who had been standing sat down in their seat. Soon the children were back.The lady who was occupying their seat asked them to sit in the opposite seat between the young man and the woman. The little girl frowned and shook her head in refusal. The lady asked her a few more times but she continued to refuse.The child’s mother ignored the scene that was unfolding until the lady who was occupying the child’s seat said to the child; half playfully, half seriously, “Compromise cheyathilla aliyo?” (You won’t compromise, will you?”). I noticed her glance sideways at the child’s mother as she said this.

At this the mother told her daughter, somewhat feebly, “dear, sit next to the aunty* on the other side.” The child refused. Finally the lady moved out of the child’s seat and the child sat down next to me once again. It occurred to me that I had given up my window seat for her grandmother and had this imaginary conversation with the child.

Me (pointing to where her grandmother was seated): Whose seat is that?

Child: My grandmother’s

Me: No, it is actually mine. Your grandmother was sitting in my place when I came in. But I let your grandmother sit there because it is difficult for her to move from there and come and sit here.

So why don’t you sit in that aunty’s seat and let that aunty sit in your seat (even as I said this I realized I had no idea why that lady was not sitting with the young man and the women, when the three of them were apparently travelling together).

I, however, did not have this conversation with the child. For one, I did not think it my business to teach ‘values’ to a stranger’s child or a child I had just met in the train, especially when her mother was right there watching the scene unfold. But yet another equally important reason for holding my tongue was my fear of ‘public humiliation’ in case the child did not listen to my moral and give up her seat for the lady.

This incident unleashed numerous questions in my mind:

What does ‘fear of non-compliance’ entail? What does it mean for a teacher to fear non-compliance in her students? How do teachers (and parents) tackle non-compliance in children? Even more importantly, who do we get upset, angry, disappointed or humiliated when someone ‘listens’ to what we have said yet fails to or refuses to obey/comply to what has been said? Does ‘to listen’ mean ‘to obey’? If not, why is the act of listening expected to bring forth compliance? And why is listening one-sided–Adults speak, Children listen?

 (* In India “aunty” does not necessarily refer to a relative. It is a word used to address an older woman.)

A Visit to a Sub-Jail ‘Somewhere’ in Kerala, India

As part of my doctoral dissertation, I am studying a cadet program designed by the Kerala Police for school children. My field work, thus, takes me into police stations for interviews with police officers. After one such interview the police woman I had been speaking to offered to take me to visit a sub-jail adjacent to the police station. Just as we were about to go to the jail, we met an advocate, the parent of a student at the school I am conducting my fieldwork. He too was going into the jail to meet with the prisoners as part of the services offered by the Kerala State Legal Services Authority (KELSA). He offered to take me into the jail with him.

We knocked at the large gate of the Sub-Jail. An officer opened the small opening in the gate and peered at us. He knew the advocate (whom I shall call Mr. Venkat henceforth). Mr. Venkat introduced me as someone who is studying the cadet program and wanted to visit the jail. The officer closed the opening and came back after a few seconds to let us in. I am unable to describe what I felt as I stooped low and entered the jail through the small gate/wicket that is located within the larger gate. It was something I had seen so many times in movies! I stepped onto a very clean tiled parking space. Adjacent to it was a small but well-maintained garden. It was lunch time and the enticing smell of chicken curry wafted towards us. We walked up to the officer-in-charge  and Mr. Venkat once again introduced me and explained the purpose of my visit. The officer, however, told us that it will not be possible for me to visit the jail without the permission of the higher authorities. But he and the officers standing around were willing to answer any questions I had for them. Mr. Venkat sat close by and got ready to meet the prisoners who wanted to consult him.

I started chatting with the officers. I had not come prepared to ask questions as I had thought I was going on a walking tour of the jail! But suddenly I remembered a news item I had heard on TV recently about the excessive number of prisoners in Indian jails, numbers that far exceed the capacity of individual jails. So I asked the officer how many inmates were currently present in the jail. He said 88 (7 women who occupied a separate building and 81 men). When I asked next about the actual capacity of the jail, the officer became slightly suspicious. “You won’t write this anywhere, will you?” he asked. No, I said (and that is why I am not disclosing the actual location of the jail here). He said the jail had a capacity for only 27 people! But he and his colleagues waxed eloquent on the changes that had come about in the jails. They particularly highlighted the improvements in the quantity of food given to the inmates. For example, where they were given 70 milligram of mutton previously, they now received 100 milligram. The quantity of milk that went into the tea had also been increased. One officer joked, “Once they come in they forget why they are in, in the first place.” Before serving food to the prisoners, the officer-in-charge tasted the food, something I got to see myself. Due to safety concerns, prisoners were not allowed to accept food given by visitors. The prisoners cooked the food and cleaned the jail and its premises. Being a sub-jail located in a small area, they did not have much space for too many activities. The prisoners received a nominal salary for their services. The jail had a TV and a library. While talking to the officer, I noticed that their shoulder badges read KJ (Kerala Jail) rather than KP (Kerala Police) as I had expected. They said that while they came under the Home Department, Kerala Prisons is a different department and its officers were purely in charge of jails. This was indeed new information for me.

After talking to the officers, I joined Mr. Venkat who was in conversation with a prisoner. He was a young man of twenty-three, who had been caught for 27 cases of theft. Items valuing up to crores of rupees had been confiscated from him and his accomplice. The latest was a theft of rubber sheets and pepper. The officers explained that the first time he had been caught, his mother had done the needful to get him out of jail and had got him married in the hope that he will turn a new leaf. But he had been caught soon after for more cases of theft. If convicted, he would get a total of 5 years in jail for different cases. Once convicted, prisoners are removed from the Sub-Jails and taken to District or Central Jails depending on the duration of their sentence. Then the officers announced another prisoner and told the lawyer, “Here is the right person for you; he and his team arrived here yesterday.” Soon a handsome young man walked towards us. He looked desperate and utterly dejected. The officer who brought him in told us that he spoke no Malayalam. We found that he spoke only Hindi, a language Mr. Venkat was not well-versed in. So that gave me the unique opportunity to serve as translator between this prisoner and the lawyer. This young man was a native of Uttar Pradesh. He and a team of 10 guys had come to Kerala to sell cloth. Usually they go to Chhattisgarh but because of the cold weather, they decided to come to Kerala instead. However, before boarding the train from Delhi, they felt “greedy” [his words] for some quick money and so bought 16 GB memory cards for 100 rupees each. These memory cards, he assured us, were sealed and had ‘Made in China’ etched on them. Upon reaching this town, they sold the memory cards to different shopkeepers all of whom, according to him, bought the cards only after testing them. They sold the memory cards for Rs.250 each. But the cards had stopped working once they reached the customers. The shopkeepers had then lodged a complaint with the police and the men had been caught.  He, along with other team members, has been imprisoned under Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code which dealt with offences involving cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property. In a voice heavy with desperation, the man narrated to us, “This is my first time in Kerala, first time I am buying memory cards, and first time I am in jail. Back home they have not eaten anything since knowing what happened to us. I am going to write my higher secondary exam this February. If I am put in jail, it will destroy my future.” He informed that all except one of the shopkeepers were ready to accept ‘balance’ and withdraw the case. By ‘balance’ he meant money. But one shopkeeper was adamant and wanted to see him go to jail. The advocate explained his options to the young man, told him what he needed to get bail, and answered all his concerns very patiently. The young man asked if his case was a “normal” one or a “grievous one” and the advocate assured him that it was “normal.” He told the young man that first he should do the needful to get out on bail and then worry about the settlement. The man said that his dad and relatives were on their way to Kerala. They had someone they knew in the town, since the presence of a local person was essential to get bail.

During this and the conversations with the other prisoners, I was closely observing Mr. Venkat.  There were many a time when I felt irritated by the prisoners’ statements. For instance, the one who was in jail for 27 cases of theft said that there were no witnesses! I thought the guy has some gall! But through it all Mr. Venkat never lost his cool. He was friendly and concerned throughout, telling them of all the options before them, advising them not to repeat the offences in some cases, and making numerous phone calls from his personal phone for the prisoners. He told me, “They are already broken. We cannot imagine the misery of imprisonment. Our freedom is completely taken away from us. We must not add to their misery.” On my side I had never felt as useful as I did when I was translating the prisoner’s anxieties and concerns to the lawyer. I was grateful for an organization like KELSA (Kerala State Legal Services Authority) which, among other things, conducted legal literacy classes for students, offered legal advice to those in jail, and helped needy prisoners file and defend cases. Growing up in Kerala, I remember the lawyers were a butt of ridicule and were often referred to derogatorily as “kesilla vakkil” (a lawyer who has no cases). This, in itself, I believe, can possibly put off someone from pursuing that profession.  But as I watched this lawyer, I felt an immense respect and regard for the profession, so much so that I thought if I were not a teacher, I would have been a lawyer. [This was first published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday]

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