Notes from India #4: Struggles in displacing structures of thought

Annual Day Rehearsal
Annual Day Preparation

This article is part of a series of articles written by Mathujitha Sankaran about her experiences during the year abroad in India. Click here for part onepart two, or part three.

The problems that will be laid out in this article refer to the problems when expressing ideas or even merely speaking with people whom you share very little common ground with. When having to reach out to my colleagues at the Koovathur Model School, I realised that there was not much of a common ground between myself and the teachers. Despite being able to speak the same language or to relate to each other culturally, I felt the repercussions of having had a completely and radically different childhood. The staff of the Koovathur Model School and I are culturally closer than I may be with my cadres at ECLA––however, I am certain that the experience of my study, my play, my imagination, my globalised habitat, would be more relatable to the extremely diverse crowd at ECLA, whom I share little common cultural grounds with. This has an obvious set of reasons, however, the disparities in the frame of knowledge between the urban and rural populace leave me handicapped at moments when the teachers and I have to work together on projects for the school.

Before I narrate the instances of such projects, I would like to raise a few questions regarding the differences in the frame of knowledge. Is there a way to localise perception? Furthermore, how can we learn to forget this ‘my way of perceiving’ so as to be able to understand the system of values that affect the people you interact with? This is largely a question concerning the conceptualisation of thought whereby the underpinnings of my framework of thinking originate from my social, economic, and cultural underpinnings. Over my time at the Koovathur Model School, I became more conscious of the ramifications of having lived in a context that is vastly different from the teachers and students situated in the rural context, especially when an equilibrium has to be achieved in the process of exchanging ideas between myself and the teachers.

An incident that is particularly indicative of the ramifications of socio-cultural circumstances affecting thought-formation happened when I was responsible for the scripting of a drama for the Koovathur Elementary and Primary School Annual Day. The purpose of this function is generally to commemorate the overall achievements of the school and its student body over the academic year. The usual suspects that take place at the event––drama, song, dance, awards, speeches. The writing of a drama was a collaborative effort between the teachers and myself – very simply put in Spivakian terms, it was a process that clearly illustrated the differences between the metropolitan North and the South and aimed to resolve the disparities involved in the coming to terms with the ongoing globalization and the resulting advent of materialism.

As for the writing of the scripts itself, the teachers and I were sitting around, cross-legged, legs stretched, drinking tea, having short-fused conversations and hoping that some grand idea for the drama will unfold itself on our blank pieces of paper. I remembered a recent incident with a family member who was using the mobile phone exceedingly and so I suggested writing a play about the epoch of technology. Mobile phones have seeped through the Indian terrain––be it rural, desert-land, forested, dense––every being has a phone. It is a lovely sight to see an elderly lady sticking her fingers into her sari blouse to fish out her phone. Or when elderly people who do not know how to optimally use their phone approach you to help them recharge their phones with their coupon worth about Rs. 20. It’s endearing really, for the fact that telecommunications has reduced the travails for those living within the confines of rural infrastructure who for a long time had to rely on letters and telegram to relay important information to kith and kin. With these ideas in mind, I was eager to write a drama script with the teachers about the demands of living in a technological epoch––and most importantly to script a drama that tackled the immediate assumption that technology equates to progress.

The premise of the drama deals with the issue of the growing reliance of technology. It is about a family who reside in a metropolitan area and who gradually come to terms with the way progress in the quality of life has been achieved through technology. The parents are worried about their daughter’s excessive mobile phone usage and they decide to take her through different eras that each identify with progress differently. The first era is the pre-historic era which was characterized by tool-making and whose “Noble savages” lead lives free of the depravities of modern life. The second era is the reign of the sovereign, which is defined by the subsuming of all power by a monarch. Gradually the teachers and I realized that we were not merely broaching the effects of technology as the drama was dealing with various issues such as the evolution of freedom, the dynamics of subordination––domination and most importantly––the concept of human contentment.

Sure, the play would make overarching assumptions about modernity, but as we were moving forward with the ideas which kept propelling and changing form, we were mostly unsure of its structure. Most importantly, there would be no primary message except that the idea of progress expressed in each era is incommensurable. I was pleased with its loose structure, or lack thereof––but the teachers wanted to succinctly end it with the message that lives have indeed improved. In response, I felt that the play lacked the maturity to wax rhetoric about the improvements that technology has brought to our lives. The teachers felt that access to technology has reduced the inconveniences of life, which in rural contexts is largely felt. I, on the other hand, who judged the repercussions of excessive reliance on technology through my metropolitan dispositions, felt that the issue of technology was far too ambiguous in order to gauge whether it made our lives better or not.

They wanted to moralize––I didn’t. They were displeased with the drama’s lack of a conclusion and I was pleased with its ambiguities. Some teachers thought the drama’s need to have an inconclusive ending was an attempt at being too sophisticated––I thought concluding the drama with an open-ended question was fit for the occasion of commemorating the end of school’s academic year as it would also give the attendees an opportunity to mull about their lives. Then it dawned upon me that I was imposing my value system, that included how the discourse of societal affairs should be dealt with, on the way ideas should be represented in a drama when one teacher looked at me with a schoolgirl-like annoyance and told me: “You’re city girl! All we want in this play is to sing and dance, and to finish it off simply with a ‘lesson of the day’. No one is going to want to think about this play. Parents just want to see their kids having fun.” Why was I so presumptive about the importance of thinking? And why did I think it was necessary to think?

I gradually understood what I was grappling with. I understood development to be also detrimental to some extent, considering the fact that I spent the majority of my life in dense urban metropolitans. I felt the discontent that plagues the narrative of many urban-dwellers. The teachers saw something else: to them, technology was not merely confined to improvements in communications as technology was prevalent in every aspect of infrastructure––be it transport, sanitation, water, agriculture. I eventually saw that a drama scripting process was a venue for me to express sentiments about the urban-rural divide, while hastily and wrongly assuming that the issues important to me were important to the rural dwellers as well.

My one or two ideas about the ethical consequences of development collapsed under their own grandiose weight because they are not always relevant to the students and teachers. And this is the oddity of translation: that my Metropolitan mode of being needs to tame itself “to learn to learn from below”––as Spivak puts. My metropolitan attitude needs to displace my framework of thought which is still struggling to displace itself from its strong association with my socio-cultural and economic attributes. This engagement with the teachers showed me that it is vital to any engagement process to acknowledge the limitations of one’s framework of ideas, beliefs and attitudes which might not always translate as relevant to other parties. Hence there is a need to continuously displace the structures of one’s thought before embarking on any inquiry as it can lead to a richer self-reflexive understanding of “Why I think in this manner?” and “Does my opinion matter?”

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