Trick Mirrors

Or, Things That Seem True Right Now, Given The Appropriate Caveats Driven By Local Context And My Own Limited Perspective, Though I May Change My Mind In The Future Because I’m Reflecting On Millions Of Thoughts In A Hall Of Mirrors

There are many things I’m thinking about after this summer in India. Here are ten of them, in no particular order, and I’m excited to discuss what’s behind them with anyone, any time.

  1. Strong schools actively recruit parents and neighbors as educators, not to mention as chefs, custodians, instructional coaches, and administrators.
  2. Academic rigor has to take a back seat if trauma, poverty, transience, and toxic stressors have not been addressed.
  3. Private capital investments in the public education sector tend towards a morass of repulsive corruption, especially when it comes to buildings and land.
  4. Teachers have the capacity to lead a school on their own if parents and community members are empowered to provide observation, feedback, resources, and operational support.
  5. A healthy social organization needs a stable ground presence and stable leadership, even if there is turnover in the mid-level. That turnover can bring fresh ideas and talent, but if all three levels turn over, the organization is a flash in the pan.
  6. Putting a program on the ground, giving it a name, and publishing snazzy photographs of it doesn’t mean it makes an impact.
  7. Sometimes it’s better to turn down a gift if the strings attached to it will bind your hands.
  8. It’s easier to take pride in investment than in charity, because investment recognizes existing assets that can be built.
  9. There are a lot of students on this planet who deserve better educational opportunities, and meeting the challenges of each child’s intricate contexts requires a long-term commitment.
  10. There is nothing more exhilarating than the face of a child who is learning something meaningful.



Combating Indiaphobia, Part Two: Driving

Winding around rural roads on the back of a motorcycle, veering around semi-trucks, helmetless. Sitting in the front seat of an old car, holding a seatbelt with no buckle, as the old Tata Indica howls like an aged ghoul. Crossing a busy intersection on foot, with no lights, no signals, no stopping the endless sea of traffic. Launching over a hidden speed bump, unmarked by a sign, crashing to the ground before it, hearing the metal of the car creak and moan. Nearly missing a herd of buffalo as you barrel down the sun-cracked highway at one hundred and twenty kilometers an hour.


I’ve never driven in India, nor operated a motorcycle, nor ridden a bike. Yet even as a passenger on the roads of India, I feel the physicality of my mortality, and cling it close to me. I grow intimately aware of the fragility of life. I ready myself, at any moment, for some unpredictable misfortune to befall me, to bring my journey to a loud, screeching halt.

Now, I know the data. Accidents are not uncommon here, but fatal ones are far more likely to happen on a rural American highway, where speeds are higher, where attention spans are shorter, where people follow the rules. The institution of traffic is so well-established in the United States that we put all of our faith in it, so much so that even if an accident is caused by poor road conditions, signal failure, or blind turns, it’s “the other guy’s fault.” Paradoxically, we outsource our own autonomy to the institution of traffic, even as our fellow drivers on the road are fully autonomous, to be held fully responsible for their actions.


There is something about the placid lawfulness of American roads that puts people in a state of presumption. The operator believes that things should be fine, that everything will go as planned, that the driver can sit back, listen to music, call or text a friend without any worries. That presumption is often well-grounded. After all, a red light halts us even at the unconscious level. Many of us have experienced driving to a destination, arriving, and not remembering how we got there.

And yet, inattention is what leads to so many accidents. It’s that automaticity that comes when one’s institutions seem secure. It’s a familiar moment, where you take a turn on the green arrow, or start your car again after stopping at a stop sign, without looking left or right, only to be hit by an oncoming car.

Then again, there is something about the chaos of an Indian road that demands the totality of every driver’s attention. It requires an attitude of suspicion and mistrust of all fellow drivers, and of the roads and traffic signals themselves. You cannot trust that red light will stop other drivers. You cannot trust that your turn signal will catch anyone’s attention. Here, defensive driving means remaining utterly stationary. Aggressive driving means not just being aware of your surroundings, but interacting with other drivers, looking them in the eye, assuring them that, yes, you exist, and you have a destination that you intend to go to.

Perhaps that is why so many people in India hire drivers—to have somebody around who is able to dedicate their entire mind and skillset to the chaos of Indian driving. It is hard.

And yet, to continue to overuse my well-worn maxim, truth is many-sided. There is a system here, at the bottom of everything. There are rules amid the total chaos. They’ve risen from the soil organically, to meet needs on an ad hoc basis, and it is fascinating as yet another example of how two groups with the exact same toolbox can build wildly different structures.

Driving in the United States is a largely visual experience, reliant on traffic laws and signals. It would be really dull to simply state a bunch of laws, so here are some couplets.

Lights tell you to stop and go
Signs to speed up and to slow
Check your mirrors, left and right
Flash your headlights late at night
Blinkers on for when you turn
Parallel parking you must learn
Though you may invite some scorn
If scared of crashing, honk your horn

Driving in India feels more auditory and physical, reliant on structures, pedestrians, and other drivers. More, couplets!

The mirror’s broke so don’t just stare
Honk your horn; we’ll know your there
Blink to tell us we can pass
We’ll honk too, not to be crass
There’s no sign to slow you down
But speed bumps work, so don’t you frown
As you park we’ll help you out
Before you knock we’ll give a shout

I should perform at a driver’s education course.

Some larger cities have lights and signage that are increasingly followed, they are rare anywhere else. In most areas of India, there is no law or traffic infrastructure that is sufficiently respected or adhered to justify an individual driver putting faith in it. It will not serve them. At best, they will be unable to move, caught behind the aggressive progress of other drivers. At worst, they will have been pushed off of the road into a ditch.

And those larger cities with lights and signage are often a labyrinth of urban planning. Mumbai resembles a spider’s web of backroads and flyovers, as city planners have tried to cope with rapid population increase and sprawl within a wholly inadequate infrastructure and an increasingly constrained size.

But people get by. Because, as in any other context, when people cannot rely on systems, like traffic codes and structures, or authorities, like attorneys or police officers, they have to rely on each other. Communities tend to be stronger when institutions for absorbing responsibility and agency are weaker. In Indian traffic, they are quite weak. And, perhaps as a result, or perhaps as its cause, the community of the road is quite strong. People understand the mutual challenges, and they work together. They announce their presence and communicate their intentions constantly with other drivers. They honk not to curse or shout, but merely to remind other folks that they’re around. Indeed, amid the religious invocations and nationalistic overtures, the backs of trucks and rickshaws are almost always painted with the phrase: “HORN OK PLEASE” Pedestrians help too, motioning with hand signals to try to make sure things flow, somehow. Local residents will erect guerrilla speed bumps outside their schools and temples to make sure that drivers can’t speed even if they wanted to. And, ultimately, people get from place to place.

Traffic on the roads

Of course, it’s not all pears and roses, and there are still loads of arguments about accident fault. Besides, you give up a few things when you lack the institutional buttressing. There’s little civil recourse for traffic damages. Something like traffic court exists, but it’s such a pain, and automotive insurance is so rare, that it’s rarely ever pursued. People often have to deal with the damages themselves. And sometimes that means that your bumpers stay a little cuffed, and your carpaint stays a little smudged. Even so, nobody here seems to mind too much. After all, it’s something of a relief to let go of the attachment to the aesthetic integrity of one’s car. As long as it moves without too much fuss, then the car is still a car.

So, never fear, Ronak dear. Take courage. You’ll make it out of these roads alive. Just place your trust, not in the roads themselves, but in other drivers. Not too much trust, though. Stay vigilant, pay attention, and make sure they know you’re there. It’s like a healthy friendship. Mutual trust, attention, and respect. Any less, and just run into trouble.

You can listen to your hippity-hop later.

Domestic Violence in Gujarat

I spent the past week working in Bhuj with Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, a women’s collective I mentioned briefly in my last entry. KMVS began in the late 1980s as a small initiative, attempting to organize Kachchhi artisan women. As drought, earthquakes, industrialization, poverty, and migration slowly eroded away the profitability of their other sources of livelihood, these women turned industriously towards textiles and handicrafts to make ends meet. However, most of their profit was consumed by the ubiquitous “middle man,” alienating the producers from the fruits of their labor, and leaving the women in a continued state of disempowered destitution. KMVS began by helping these women expand discourse and mobility beyond the gender-restrictions imposed in their communities, and to organize collectively to produce, manage, market, and sell. It’s a decentralized collective, relying primarily on smallmahila mandals to generate at the grassroots level.

Over the years, the expressed needs of Kachchhi women have led KMVS to expand into more and more arenas, ranging from microlending to vocational training to literacy to reproductive rights to governmental representation of women. In this entry, I want to focus on just one of KMVS’s interests: ending domestic violence.

In most countries of the world, the paradox of domestic violence is that it is both ubiquitous and invisible. Domestic violence often happens under a blanket of social silence, and it is very hard to get accurate figures on its incidence. In India, most estimates posit that anywhere from 35% to 50% of women have suffered physical abuse at the hands of their partners. According to the Indian Ministry of Law and Justice, in urban households, figures are even higher, at 60%. But the survey laments that, in rural areas, surveillance of—and protection from—domestic violence is inadequate. The Ministry of Law and Justice estimates that only 5% to 10% of cases are reported to the police.

This may not come as a surprise. Cultural conditioning, structural gender inequality, and economic dependence are the reality for many women in Kachchh. Under these conditions, many are unable to justify leaving the homes of their husbands or marital families, even under severe abuse. Though this is hardly unique to India, age-old customary norms create an ecology that, tacitly or explicitly, condones spousal abuse and rape. And until recently, if a survivor were to “go public” with her case by reporting it to the police and invoking the law, there were few resources to protect her. Many would be forced to return to their abusive homes. Others would be evicted, with no shelter and no source of income. Rarely would the courts take cases of cruelty or abuse seriously. Indeed, one study found that in Mumbai, a majority of cases of cruelty of husband upon wife are registered only after the woman has been found dead, often either by dowry death or by suicide.

Even if we divorce law from society, until 2005, a survivor would have had little legal recourse. The penal code criminalizes a “the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman [who] subjects such woman to cruelty,” but providing substantive proof of cruelty is almost impossible, and the courts rarely respect it unless it is causally linked to dowry demands. For that matter, giving or taking a dowry itself is a criminal act, as is dowry death, an all-too-common form of femicide emerging from dowry disputes. However, one must prove that money or articles exchanged were connected to dowry demands, and it is easy to make such demands subtle enough to be imperceptible to judicial rules of evidence. Divorce was rarely allowed except on grounds of chronic brutality, which, again, is almost impossible to prove. Rape is criminalized, but according to the code, can only be committed by a man upon a woman, and does not apply if a husband forces non-consensual intercourse upon his wife. There were no laws to protect a woman from harassment or sexual assault.

In response to these shortcomings, and with intense involvement of civil society organizations, the government passed the 2005 Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA). The PWDVA is a civil law which aims to give protection and resources to any woman who has suffered from physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, or economic abuse by any man with whom she is in a domestic relationship. For those of you folks who geek out on legal mumbo jumbo like I do, the text is fascinating. Even if you don’t, though, it’s worth taking a look at some of the differences between the Indian and Indiana contexts, in terms of addressing domestic violence. Because it is handled very differently.

Perhaps the most salient difference is that PWDVA is civil law, rather than criminal law. In common law jurisprudence, civil law tends to be about restitution, and criminal law, about retribution. Indeed, under PWDVA, no arrests can be made at all, unless the accused violates a court order. Instead, working within a culture where the institution of the joint family is paramount, the laws tasks service providers with facilitatating mediated reconciliation or compromise first, leaving legal actions such as divorce or protective orders as a last resort.

PWDVA describes itself as endeavoring to protect the right of women to a violence free life, to charge the state with facilitating that right, and to expand the legal understanding of domestic violence, so to allow women to act upon a much wider range of abuses. It does this in a variety of ways. First, it creates access to medical, legal, counseling, childcare, shelter, and protection services. If called upon, these service providers are required to provide the survivor with the requested services, free of charge, and to whatever degree of confidentiality she desires. Second, the survivor is able to choose her services. If she wants, she can bypass the police altogether, only seeking counseling or legal services. Third, it creates a class of “protection officers,” individuals whose sole duty is to facilitate the protection of the survivor. These are not police officers—in fact, they can belong to NGOs. A protection officer’s charge is to assist a survivor in filing a report, to coordinate and liaise with service providers, to educate the survivor as to her rights and options, and to ensure that the survivor is protected from further acts of violence. Fourth, the magistrate can issue court orders in response to the expressed needs of survivor, including protective orders, monetary relief, child custody, and residence orders preventing the abuser from removing the survivor, her belongings, or dependents from a shared household. Fifth, because this is a civil law, the burden of proof is much lower. Though orders can be appealed by the accused, a survivor only needs to submit a report of domestic violence for a magistrate to begin issuing orders. And third-parties can issue reports, as well, with the liability protection of a Good Samaritan clause. It also means that everything from minor verbal abuse to rampant physical abuse has the potential to be viewed on the same spectrum of domestic violence, if it is interpreted as a gender-based abuse of power and control, allowing the possibility of an early intervention. This is in line with the emerging spectral view of sexual violence in the states, beginning with sexual harassment and ending in sexual assault or rape.

I was curious about the choice of the term “domestic violence,” and its legal meaning in PWDVA. In the United States, many advocacy groups are pushing to replace the term “domestic violence” with the term “intimate partner violence.” The thinking is that intimate partner violence broadens the scope to include many forms of power violence, including ones that occur in intimate relationships which are not confined to a household, marriage, or domestic setting. It also inherently includes sexual violence, such as sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. Finally, it transcends boundaries of class, gender, and sexuality, to some extent, by not presuming that domesticity is inherent to intimacy.

In India, however, the term “intimate partner violence” may constitute not a broadening, but a narrowing. Part of this is because PWDVA takes an interpretation of domestic violence that lies somewhere in between intimate partner violence and family violence. In the context of PWDVA, abuse of a woman by any man in the marital household equally constitutes domestic violence. That is, a husband, brother, father, brother-in-law, father-in-law, or any other male figure sharing a household can be held responsible for domestic violence in the exact same manner under PWDVA.

At first, that sounded a little strange to me; after all, only the husband-wife relationship is sexually intimate. Isn’t that power of a different kind? I was then reminded that a majority of married couples in India do not live alone, but live together in a joint family, where a range of different power relationships abound and interact, of which intimacy is only one. There are also economic relationships, social relationships, career relationships, residential relationships, familial relationships, cultural relationships, and age relationships.

I was also reminded that many Indian marriages are brought about not by love, but by arrangement. That’s a false dichotomy, of course. Many arranged marriages are also loving marriages, and arrangement is not the same as force. In many cases, it’s similar to having a friend set you up on a date. And it’s not like people in arranged marriages aren’t having mutually consensual recreational sex. But, nonetheless, especially in more traditional households, I can’t escape this transactional feeling surrounding an arranged marriage.

Now, here’s where I have to check myself, and try not be too hasty to pass judgment without reflecting on history and context. I have to remind myself that without machinery or servants, the duties of cooking, cleaning, washing, feeding, and caregiving are full-time. I remind myself that maintaining a steady livelihood, be it hunting or harvesting food, building protective shelter, or generating income to pay for both, is also full-time. It should be possible to split these jobs equally, but instead, these two full-time jobs were designated to gender roles: the first for the wife, the second for the husband.

I remind myself that elderly parents with only one daughter require a source of livelihood, which under these gender roles could only be achieved by marrying that daughter to a man. That elderly parents with only one son also relied on him as a source of livelihood, and the addition of a wife and children may require the additional support of a dowry if a woman is not permitted to work. That many people care to see their family name continue, and many communities care to see their traditions carry forward, and everybody loves an Indian wedding, and everybody loves babies. That these latter desires were often easiest to achieve by marrying within one’s own caste. By marrying not individuals, but entire families.

That’s one way of understanding the causal dynamic, anyways. But it conspicuously ignores the collateral inequities generated by the institutions of marriage and the joint family. The commodification of women. The fact that the woman’s role is inherently stationary and the man’s is inherently mobile. The mandate that each gender is required to fulfill their role and only their role. The household dynamic where the needs of the husband are the needs of the household, and the needs of the wife are silenced. In such a dynamic, the husband is a subject, and the wife is an object, a machine of labor, a helpless victim, anything but a being with agency.

I have no idea if this perspective is fair or delusional — I’m an outsider. But to the extent that this dynamic can be found — a marriage which is less of an intimate partnership, and more of an economic one — such a relationship naturally lends itself less to intimate partner abuse, and more to economic abuse. It’s a different sort of power, and it is abused in a different way. Indeed, the perpetrators of dowry violence are as likely to be in-laws as husbands. Outside of the dowry, you find other forms of economic abuse. You find wives who are refused food or shelter. You find prohibitions to enter certain rooms, to use the latrine, to bathe, to sleep on a bed. You find theft of a wives’ parents’ household, alienation of assets, disposal of household effects.

So the term “domestic violence” in India includes domestic intimate partner violence, but makes other forms of domestic violence actionable as well. Of course, the problem still stands that thousands of women who are in non-domestic intimate partnerships could be excluded from legal remedies. This is most problematic in areas where dating is taboo, where people cannot talk about their relationships openly or consult with others on what a healthy, loving relationship consists of, except within the context of a domestic marriage. And that sort of secrecy may actually encourage intimate partner violence, if only because many survivors would be hesitant to report it, for fear of revealing their relationship. Even if such abuse is reported, the culture surrounding it is a victim-blaming one. “She shouldn’t have been dating boys before marriage.” “She shouldn’t have been so scandalous.” “She should have told her parents.” You’ve heard it all before.

But even if the term “intimate partner violence” were to be introduced in India to try to capture these issues, the term “domestic violence” should not be abandoned. It’s possible that broadening a term too much can dilute our understanding of the gravity and seriousness of some power abuses in the context of intimate relationships, blurring them with other sorts of abuses such as elder abuse. But I think advocates here are right to argue that the term carries weight in the Indian context thatwill last for some time.

And it seems to be working. Support, both by women and by men, both by rural villagers and the urban elite, is growing for the PWDVA approach, and after counseling and mediation sessions with places like KMVS, rates of recurrence of violence are decreasing–and, perhaps more importantly, women are much more likely to speak out in the case that recurrence does occur.


Now, by now, I’m sure many of you have noted how gendered my language is. Indeed, the entire law is gendered. As with rape, under PWDVA, only women can be victims, and only men can be perpetrators. In any patriarchal society, this is still better than nothing. But of course, reality is always a bit goopier. Scores of cases exist where a woman in a marital household, such as a mother, mother-in-law, elder sister, or wife, is the primary perpetrator of domestic violence, be it economic, emotional, verbal, physical, or even sexual. You also have many cases of spousal abuse where the husband is the victim. Other than a protective order, no action could be taken in response to any such violence under PWDVA. None of India’s gay and lesbian couples in shared households would be able to use this law to seek protection or assistance in case of domestic violence. And thousands of Indians fall outside of the law’s neatly sliced binary categories of gender. Just last year, a tribunal on the rights of transgendered women was held in Bangalore. Most were survivors of intense violence and discrimination by their families and communities. Rarely were they able to obtain any work other than sex work. They explained how they were disenfranchised from government benefits, often simply because of bureaucratic forms which could not comprehend how one’s gender can be listed differently from last year’s form to this year’s. While a legally designated woman, transgendered or not, can appeal under PWDVA in theory, getting one’s status changed is almost impossible here, effectively disenfranchising the entirety of people who do not fit into the category of “woman” neatly enough.

The law strives to be inclusive of divorcees, widows, second wives, and other non-traditional survivors of domestic violence. But the gendered language of the law perpetuates the patriarchal notion that all power belongs in the hands of men, and that a woman can only seek relief by appealing to the state. For example, in Indian criminal procedure, you find a strangely-worded law called “Order for Maintenance of Wives, Children, and Parents”:

If any person having sufficient means neglects or refuses to maintain (a) his wife, unable to maintain herself…a Magistrate of the first class may, upon proof of such neglect or refusal, order such a person to make a monthly allowance for the maintenance of his wife…

It sounds like the wife is a plumbing system, doesn’t it? This property language is extended to children (as it is in the states) and to elderly parents, as well. And it’s alienating, as it so deeply institutionalizes a notion than men are the sole agents in a household.

The inscription of the gender binary onto the structural geography of Gujarat is considerably more marked than I’ve seen in the states. Here, women have their own lines in airport security, their own cars on trains, their own police stations, with women police officers at their disposal. Understandably, few people I’ve spoken to here want to give these institutions up, expressing that they are necessary buffers against patriarchy.

How can a fluid understanding of gender identity be reconciled with such a systemic bindary? It’s the age-old dilemma: do we revolutionize from the ground up, or do we accept the system, but try to work within it to mitigate its harmful consequences? I never know the answer. But I suppose PWDVA tries to do a bit of both. It’s a revolutionary step, in many ways. But it comes to force by both challenging and reinforcing gender roles.

In any case, no matter how well-written, every law takes material form through the people who implement it. And the cops and magistrates are old dogs. This law, and the civil society that supports it, are going to have to teach them new tricks. How they’ll bark, and if they’ll bite, remains to be seen.

Development in Mundra

Kachchh is the home of more than my forefathers. It is home to the agrarian Ahir, the cattle breeding Jat, the weaving Harijan, the nomadic Rabari, the Wagher fishermen. It is home to mangrove forests, coral reefs, wild donkeys, breeding flamingos. It is home to fierce cyclones, ruinous droughts, and devastating earthquakes.

Kachchhi mudwork

The earthquake of 2001 had a leveling effect on Kachchh, literally and otherwise. It affected everyone, rich and poor, high- and low-caste, of every religion. Everyone was forced to bear witness to pain and death. Everyone had to suffer the destruction of places, routines, and histories. Everyone had to face a future filled with uncertainty and hardship. Cities and communities were brought together and torn apart by this commonality of experience.

This leveling was, perhaps, only momentary. It’s no secret that government can be corrupt, incompetent, ineffective, and unresponsive in the wake of a disaster. Perhaps it will be said that they did their best in managing the earthquake relief. They gave out plots of land to those who lost properties, but did little to help construct anything. They facilitated some relief aid, but huge amounts disappeared as the aid passed through the talons of government bodies. Most people were on their own. It was a difficult recovery for everyone, and for many the recovery is incomplete. It helped if you had networks outside of Kachchh to rely on. It helped if you had family with enough disposable income to borrow a bit of money for rehabilitation. It helped if you had savings to help shoulder the cost of rebuilding. But many people had none of these things.

Even as aid poured in, without any way of distributing it equitably, with poor roads in remote rural communities, much of this money stayed within the urban centers. Those who were most vulnerable, and often hardest hit, were also those with the least access to help.

A hut in transient fisher’s village next to a coal-fired power plant

Just three years earlier, in 1998, Kachchh was ravaged by a powerful cyclone, and, as the local response to it organized, it became apparent that a large number of civil society organizations already existed in Kachchh, some well-specialized in elements of disaster relief. An informal collaborative of these organizations worked together as a network to facilitate disaster relief after the cyclone.

Seeing encouraging results in 1998, and facing another cyclone in 1999, the organizations grew increasingly interested in formalizing their network, and in 2000, Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan was formed. Beginning with about eleven organizations, the network has swelled over the past decade to thirty-five. Each organization continues to operate independently, but receives additional funding and network support from the Abhiyan umbrella. These organizations ran the gamut, from domestic violence relief to environmental advocacy to rights education to trade cooperatives, and a lot could be said about each of them individually. Almost all of their efforts, however, work to organize marginalized communities of farmers, artisans, fisherfolk, livestock breeders, and saltpan workers. Abhiyan’s main strides are in bolstering rural communities and gram panchayats to realize their full potential through decentralized planning, reliable access to information, and sustainable viability of traditional livelihoods.

Bhadreshwar Setu

After the 2001 earthquake, Abhiyan saw that despite an outpouring of response from donors and non-governmental organizations outside of Kachchh, most of these interventions were, as Abhiyan puts it, “thematic and territorial in their approach,” rather than holistic. As so often happens, the “community’s need for help [had] been overtaken by the NGO’s need to help,” and thus created “a complex web of dependencies, expectations, and layers of ‘beneficiaries.’” Despite good intentions, the NGO approach of “implementing large programs, driving global agendas, and working with pre-determined outcomes has increasingly made the people passive recipients.” Abhiyan formed a network of thirty-three Setu Centers across the Kachchh region to try and reverse this trend.

Literally meaning “bridge,” the Setus are facilitation centers that each work with independent clusters of villages and panchayats. Though they share a common purpose, each has its own specific interventions, depending on the needs expressed by the communities they work with. Still, all assist the villages and panchayats in becoming more self-sufficient. For instance, a number of Setus, realizing that communities rebuilding after a disaster often had to rely on external engineers or health professionals that they could not afford or trust, began training local youth as community teachers, para-engineers, para-health, para-veterinary, and para-legal professionals. These community members thus had the expertise to shoulder most issues that arose in a sort of self-help capacity. In another example, members of a Setu noticed that fish prices were incredibly expensive, even though local fishermen were not profiting. It turned out that a chain of resellers was driving massive cost inflation. In response, the Setu organized a fisherman’s collective to sell better quality fish at a cheaper price by eliminating the middleman and introducing competition. The plan worked, and the prices dropped, while the fishermen themselves began earning fairly.

My supervisor reheats day-old chapatis

While spending a week with the Setu in Bhadreshwar, a village about twenty kilometers from Mundra, I met some members of Machimar Adhikar Sangarsh Sangathan (MASS), a fisherman’s union. The main project of MASS is to mitigate the ecological and social consequences of rapid industrialization along the Mundra coast. The development of massive shipping ports and power plants by outside corporations, bolstered by earthquake relief aid, has displaced nearly ten thousand Wagher fisherman, who annually set up temporary villages near the coastal estuaries for their catch. It hasn’t helped that the ports themselves have blocked these coastal rivers. Moreover, the new coal-fired power plants have led to a rise in respiratory problems not only for the fishermen, but for the laborers in the plants, and for residents of nearby communities. The dumping of polluted waste into the rivers has killed off or sickened many of the coastal fish, again shrinking the yearly catch, while also slowly destroying the delicate beds of coral offshore, one of the only such reefs in India. The construction of ports has required the cutting of immense numbers of coastal mangroves, which is causing a slow desertification of the coast. The killing of mangroves, too, means far less protection from the ever-more frequent cyclones, the consequences of which we have seen in Burma and Bangladesh.

One of the members of MASS, Samji, takes me on a motorcycle tour of coastal Mundra. As we drive to the ports, everything seems to vanish, as though we are entering an endless desert. The winds are ferocious. The whipping sand buries into my scalp, burns my arms, clings to my eyelashes. Looking left to right, I can see nothing, and in front of me, only tall cranes, barely visible, are creening through the arid haze. It is only when we pass by the few remaining mangroves that the sand stops. The mangroves catch the sand and hold it back, and instead, I feel only a cool coastal breeze. Even with so few survivors, the deep roots and hardy branches of the mangroves protect me from harm as they once protected Mundra from cyclones. I would never notice their presence except for having known their absence. And I fear that absence, and I try not to imagine how a cyclone might ravage this area, these ports and power plants, the villages, the fishing communities, the city of Mundra, without their shield.

A year ago, this deser was a dense mangrove forest

Samji shows me the remains of a migrant fishing community, who had since returned to their permanent villages for the coming monsoons. The huts are makeshift, and it is incredible to me that these fishermen will stay in them for eight months of the year. I see a competition emerging between civil society and corporate responsibility. I see a MASS school sitting near the huts. Directly next to it is a slightly fancier school, constructed by a corporation building a port and a power plant on the coast. Nearby are two water tanks—one placed by MASS, a larger one placed by the corporation.

Despite being surrounded by power plants, this community has no power. The water is polluted, the fish are sickly, and the rivers are filled in by sand. In response, the fishermen have come out in full force against the coastal development — a public hearing on an expansion along the coast saw a showing of six thousand fishermen strong, and lasted over five hours. But much of the damage has already been done.

Reconstruction and development have been mashed together into one here in Kachchh. The aid pouring in after the earthquake has become, for many outside corporations, an opportunity to profit in the region. To be sure, this sometimes benefits the Kachchhis themselves. Roads have improved. Power is increasingly available. Employment is rising. Water is cleaner. Development, for many here, is a good thing, profit and all.

But truth is many-sided. And this development is rarely done in consultation with its neighbors. And why should it? The development companies did not need to bother being conscious of environmental damage or local livelihoods, because neither they nor the government would stop their development. Repeatedly, land was occupied and stolen from people without governmental permit or local permission. Repeatedly, buildings were constructed and operations were carried out that exceeded or violated environmental restrictions. But the courts are often compromised, and the opposition is weak, as many of the farmers who sold their land for these ports and plants have effectively been bought off.

The Wagher fishermen receive little sympathy from those in power. Their industry is unloved by the vegetarian upper class, and their Muslim religion earns them few points with supporters of the Hindutva movement of Gujarat. Triply marginalized, there is little recourse available but that offered by the ragtag titans of local NGOs, who are well-connected and energetic, but few in number.

After Setu constructs a school in the fishing village (right), a development corporation constructs a slightly larger one next to it (left)

Driving along the long rural roads of Kachchh, it would be easy to look out of the window and feel as though I were passing by just a lot of land, peaceful and calm and silent. The shrubs, the grazing cattle, the little rivers. But the more that I learn about what’s happening in Kachchh, the stronger my senses grow. More becomes visible between the letters and the lines, and the world begins to speak. The new buildings and the old, dilapidated huts. The empty lots and the occupied ones. The electrical outages, the street lights, the breadth and reach and durability of power. The types of produce available. The length of rainfall. These things are symptoms and consequences which point to a cause. Each is an index of industrialization, of short-sighted development. Each is evidence of change occurring too fast for purposeful planners to keep up with. It is a spaceship chasing the speed of light, a curve chasing an asymptote, Achilles chasing the tortoise.

And each is part of a system. Not a system consciously created, with rules, with winners and losers. In spite of its mechanized appearance, it is an organic system, with principles and properties and propensities. And in its operation, some things are created and some things are destroyed. We can call these as winners and losers, but to do so mischaracterizes the complexity of what’s happening. It anthropomorphizes and simplifies. The changes in Mundra have to do with much grander dynamics of globalization, of social equity, of capitalism, of heterodoxy, of needs and desires.

At the same time, there is a danger to using the language of systems to discuss this. We might become too acquiescent to the status quo. We might fool ourselves into thinking of the system as dynamic in function, but static in structure. We might come to believe that we must accept some destruction and loss as a necessary byproduct of the system’s operation, because, after all, every system generates waste. “These fishermen have to go! They are clinging too tightly to the old ways. The world is changing and they must change with it!” Then the highest ambition we can reach for is to accept the system, but minimize the scope and magnitude of its destructiveness. “Well, maybe we can mitigate dumping of toxins.” “Well, maybe we can set limits on mangrove destruction.” “Well, maybe we can designate a formal fishing zone somewhere.”

This polluted water is one of the few rivers left on the coast.

But there is a very different morality that is unsatisfied by this. This morality believes that a world is possible where people are not destroyed simply because they are continuing to live. That change can be inclusive, especially of those in closest proximity to it. That within a system, humans are making choices, and those choices grow more powerful in a collective.

In Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Jonathan Lear explores the fate of the Crow., one of the First Nations of the United States The Crow were traditionally nomadic warriors, and a vast portion of their cultural tapestry of rituals and beliefs were grounded in the need to protect territory, fight enemies, and migrate constantly over expanses of land. When Crow land was stolen by the United States government, and when indigenous societies were being destroyed by war, disease, and genocide, this culture was rendered meaningless in the context of the changing world it was trying to survive in. The crow would set stakes in the ground called coup lines to mark their territory, but these had no meaning on a reservation. Coming of age rituals emphasizing war and combat had no meaning when all other native peoples had been massacred. Nomadism had no meaning when there was nowhere to go.

When cultural meaning cannot be made of new events, there is no way to go forward, no language with which to conceptualize the place of the Crow people in this new world. As the Crow chief Plenty Coups put it, “After this, nothing happened.” The Crow were faced with a choice. They could fight to the death, disappearing with their traditions into the history books. Or they could “watch as the sparrow does,” to sit and listen to the changing world, to survive through it, and to try to carve out a new place within it on the other side. To do so, one cannot rely on reason, because the only reason is raw survival. One cannot rely on evidence, because nothing can be seen through the meaningless haze of the future. One has to rely on faith alone, on radical hope, that by living consciously in a changing world, and with a bit of luck, one may build a space in which the Crow can discover a new way to exist, without relinquishing the memory and practice of what it means to be Crow.

Mangroves and sand.

Maybe that doesn’t look altogether different from the first view, that “the world is changing and they must change with it.” But I think there is a degree of empathy that is missing in that first view, and I think its absence may motivate us to turn the other way even when something is very, very wrong. To me, the conflict on the Mundra coast requires an inclusive morality that engages even as it accepts, that protests even as it evolves, that preserves what is valuable in tradition even as it accommodates what is valuable in modernity. This is not a new notion. It has been done countless times before. But it requires consciousness, awareness, forethought, care, and intentional conversation. Empathy naturally produces such attitudes, and a little more of that is needed here.

Not that there’s much incentive for empathy, when antipathy is so profitable.

Bhuj + Mandvi

My ancestry is Kachcchi-Gurjar, a group of ethnic Gujaratis who migrated to the region of Kachchh as merchants some centuries ago. The history is a bit spotty, but as described in the “Mahavir Comics” that accompanied the previous entry, Jain Tirthankaras are all from warrior-caste, Kshatriya families. Indeed, the Buddha, too, was born into nobility, rather than being of Brahmin birth. It’s crucial here to note that both religions emerged as part of a Protestant-Reformation-esque movement in India, critiquing the elitism and patronage of brahminical Hinduism. The Brahmins were the only caste to have knowledge of the Vedas. They guarded this oral knowledge fiercely, thus ensuring their spiritual monopoly over the other castes. But Mahavir and the Buddha argued that a person can achieve Enlightenment without the support of the Vedas, and thus, without the interlocution of the Brahmins. To that end, these anti-brahminical figures functioned as revolutionaries, severing their followers from the old world order by denying its legitimacy.

The largest propagations of Jainism and Buddhism occurred under the grace and support of powerful kings like Asoka. Gaining an upper hand in their power struggle with the Brahmins was appealing. These kings would nationalize or regionalize the religion of their choice, patronizing temples, scholarship, and spiritual activities. Large waves of people would be thus converted, and often not through force. In Europe, even as kings enjoyed the benefits of the new Lutheranism and Calvinism, so did the radical ideals of Protestantism inspire grassroots support as well. The same occurred in the subcontinent. Differently from Europe, however, Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists often got along quite well, and people were generally free to practice all three at once without too much fuss. Indeed, the Buddha is one of the ten greatest incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, scores of Hindu gods adorn many Jain temples, and all three borrow heavily from the others’ cosmology, mythology, and ethics.

The king’s castle in Mandvi

Our family seems to have been part of one of those waves of conversion. Many centuries ago, we were hanging out in Rajasthan as Kshatriyas. After falling under the sway of Jainism, we migrated to Gujarat, and had to abandon that caste. Not only is Jainism casteless, but of all of the possible sources of livelihood medieval India, being a warrior was about as far as you could get from ahimsa. Instead, most newly-christened Jains turned to commerce, which, in pre-capitalist India, was the occupation that seemed to be in best accord with Jainism. It did not require the use, abuse, or killing of animals. It did not require the destruction of trees or the manipulation of the earth. It did not require them to propagate a religious text that they had rejected. And to boot, it was a fairly new, up-and-coming sort of occupation, somewhat outside of the traditional order of things, just like the Jain dharma.

This put the Gujarati Jains in a neat place when we migrated to Kachchh, much later. By then we had effectively become Gujaratis. You anthropologists out there know better than I that ethnicity is fluid and constructed and constantly being renegotiated (ooh-lah-lah!). At that time, Kachchhi occupations were primarily animal husbandry, artisanship, arid farming, and salt harvesting, and Mughal migrants were mostly fishermen. This left a space available in the commercial realm for my ancestors. And fill it they did. The Kachchhi-Gurjars, by and by, became extremely successful traders and businessmen.

A Jain dharamshala bearing the images of my great-great-grandfathers

Even so, it seems that the ethos then was to use wealth to build one’s own community, one’s backyard, one’s family. I find a beautiful Jain dharamshala in the city center with comfortable shelter for the homeless; I find a free school for girls built during a time when girls were rarely able to go to school; I find a marriage cooperative where poor and rich alike pitch in to marry all of their children together in pomp and circumstance; all bearing the name of their benefactor: my great-great-grandfather. I don’t mean to boast in pointing this out, but only to mark a few instances in a long history of generosity, instances which I find humbling. Even as they give me pride for my heritage, they serve to indicate that, no, I don’t know my community as well as my forefathers once did. That, yes, there was a time when everyone in this community knew names and faces like the back of their hand.

By the end of World War II, as India was beginning to hunger for its independence more voraciously than ever, the Kachchhi-Gurjar community was amassing the resources to send the next generation to bigger cities, like Bombay and Calcutta, and ultimately further abroad. Like so many others, they sought to create a future for their children that had more options and opportunities. The world was globalizing rapidly, and the Kachchhi-Gurjars were ready to ride them planes. These youths received Western educations, and many of them settled down there, in the United Kingdom and in the United States. They found jobs as doctors, engineers, pharmacists, or entrepreneurs, and moved into houses with more space than they knew what to do with. They struggled to keep their community together, to find ways to continue religious practices, to maintain their culture even in such a strange new geography. But space in the U.S. is wider and more sparse, and Indian groceries are hard to come by, and English is the lingua franca, and it’s harder to keep to a strict vegetarian diet, and you’ll rarely find enough Jains concentrated together to justify building a mandir. And so, even though they maintained immensely strong ties with their desh, their motherland, these Kachchhi-Gurjars became a diaspora, and were forced to accept new ways to feel at home. That fact is reflected in the generation that came afterwards—in my generation.

Sunset over Bhuj

Bhuj is Kachchh’s biggest metropolis, but as you leave the plane, you wonder what people mean when they say something like that. Because your plane is the only plane landing in Bhuj, and the terminal, though pretty, is small and ancient. Looking out of the window of the plane from the sky, all you saw were hills, shrubs, and sand. You found yourself waiting for the sprawl you’re so used to seeing from overhead. Now, you’ve landed, and yet looking around you, you still see only hills, shrubs, and sand. Where is the city?

Patience, now. Shanti. As with many cities, seeking to avoid the noise and pollution of an airport, it just takes a short drive. And when you finally reach Bhuj, it sets you wondering again, this time with curiosity. Such a mixture of buildings, some clearly very old, and others brand new, interspersed and intermingling. You’re used to seeing cities that are old and coherent, that retain the aesthetic mystique of their past even as they vault into the present. Or cities where modernity has all but buried the past underneath commerce and industry. Or cities where the old neighborhoods and new developments are clearly separated in space, where the crumbling walls of the city fort mark where the traditional bazaar ends, and where the shopping mall begins. But Bhuj is like none of these. In Bhuj, the first floor of a building may be pristinely renovated even as the second remains in ramshackle. A series of shops in the main market would set any historian on edge. Even the piles of bricks and trash would seem to belay consistent carbon-dating. When was this city built?

It is being built still today, comes the answer.

The newly constructed Swami Narayan temple in Bhuj, to replace the old one that was damaged

You ask again, until you get an answer that doesn’t sound like it came from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. In 2001, Kachchh was decimated by an incredibly powerful earthquake. Houses and shops collapsed, infrastructure sundered, and thousands of lives were lost in the most brutal manner. That trauma has stayed with the people of Kachchh. The memory of witnessing so much pain and experiencing so much loss is not one that can be easily exorcised. In many parts of the region, it is still inscribed in the physical landscape, as properties remain rent asunder, as plots remain barren, as people remain homeless or unemployed or hungry or destitute.

But pain has the power to trigger not just destruction, but creation. Disaster has the power not just to consume a community, but to produce one. And here the latter function was charged. From the earthquake, a global community emerged, and a global network became reignited.The Kachchhi-Gurjar diaspora generated an immense outpouring of aid, donations, social programs, community centers, creative endeavors, phone calls, and letters. To be sure, many other communities sent in aid as well, be they Gujarati, Jain, Indian, or ethnically unrelated. But the diaspora community had the advantage of knowing the Kachchhi geography. Their understanding of the topography of the Kachchhi-Gurjar social network allowed for an apt use of local resources. They had places to stay and places to offer, and could go to the ground itself to ensure that good things were happening. They knew how to redevelop, rehabilitate, and redistribute without eradicating the crucial aspects of history and culture they held dear. And all of this was due to that key, additional, rare, essential resource: the ties of heartstrings. More than most other donors, the diaspora wanted a home to return to. The cities of Kachchh could not just be rebuilt as functioning urban centers. They had to be rebuilt as homes.

Mandvi beach, where my mom once spent many summer vacations

Bhuj and Mandvi thus continue to be old towns, even if the buildings shine bright and new, even if the modern architecture is more earthquake and cyclone-resistant, even if you now have broadband and cell networks and good roads and power grids. The same social networks remain. People still know everyone in their neighborhood by name and face. People walk slowly, smile broadly, and live honestly. I don’t mean to idealize them as in any way “quaint” or “simple.” All of the complexities of life can be found everywhere. Urbanization is not the only source of depth and thoroughness. But it’s simply true that people walk more slowly here. It’s simply true that they smile more honestly, and more broadly.

We have dinner in a tiny old restaurant. The kitchen would have made a tourist nervous if they had been traveling on their own.But when you realize that all the tables are packed with hungry locals, you know the place checks out. The light has gone out in the main room, and so one of the busboys tries to light a few candles.The strong coastal winds blow them all out. The cook brings us a few plates, and I taste the most delicious meal I have ever had in India. When it comes time to pay, he and my uncle argue over the price. But, wait. Not in the usual way. The cook refuses to accept extra money, and wants to give us a discount, because it is my first time returning home to Mandvi. My uncle is having none of that, and makes sure the cook gets his tip. Urban bargaining and haggling seems to only happen here in jest. Even when rickshaw drivers find out I’m a foreigner, they give me a fair price.

The house where my mother once lived, post-earthquake

I have the opportunity to see the flat that my mother spent her first years in, and many a summer vacation. It is the second story of a building in the old part of Mandvi. Our car can’t make it through the tiny streets, which after all, weren’t built for such things. So we hop into an auto rickshaw, which keenly maneuvers around dark bends and skinny alleyways. After a few turns, a little uncertain of where we are, we ask a few of the people living in the area, who immediately know which house it is, and walk us to the door.

The place still bears the scars of the quake. The balcony is collapsing, its bars and banisters snapped and rotted. The doors are mostly intact, but are cracking in places, and are battered by the black ash of the tremors. In spite of the seismic waves, though, I recognize the place as a home. Much of the old color of the place is still visible, even in the dim light of the night. The ornamentation on the wooden columns is clear, and I can easily imagine what the place must have felt like decades ago, on a cool summer day, with the breeze from the Gulf of Kachchh weaving its way through the tiny streets, up to these balconies. I can imagine the trek to the beach, eating corn and riding carnival rides. I can imagine the entire joint family sleeping together on the floor in the main room of the flat.

My niece dives for Ganesha

I can’t quite express what I feel in words, seeing this place. Part of it is pride for my past. I think we always feel a bit of that, as we learn more about where we came from. Even if our forefathers were cruel or prejudiced, even if we reject everything for which they stood, there is a sense of identity there that seems transcendental, that can still make us defensive of our history. But a larger part of my feeling, in this moment, is an immense gratitude for the present. For all that I have, the space, and the freedom, and the relationships, and the knowledge. For the family and friends that care for me here in India, housing me, feeding me, and showing me everything that fills their daily lives. For the friends I love back home, who always listen to my excited ramblings, who bring me soup when I’m sick, who hold my hand when I’m weary. For my parents, who I love so much more than I can ever express, who have given me so much, whose goodwill has basically orchestrated this entire journey of mine.

They’ll never take credit for this, but it’s theirs.

Religion, Faith, and Dharma: A Meditation

There is a plot tucked in this entry, describing a Jain meditation camp I attended for four days. But this entry is also a meditation of its own. It is threaded together from the distractions I encountered while attempting and failing to be focused on atman.

The birth of a Tirthankara is foretold by auspicious dreams. This is a Digambara shrine, because there are sixteen visible. The Shvetambaras say there are fourteen.

The word dharma is usually translated directly into English as “religion.” But scholars of religion, ever keen to expand their own vocabulary, and thus their own descriptive power, have since teased the two words out into something of a dichotomy. Religion, they argue, describes a code of praxis, a series of beliefs, rituals, practices, and ethics that will lead one to the ultimate goal of the tradition. Dharma, on the other hand, describes the ultimate aim, the final goal around which the adherent should configure their will. The pathway to that goal is unprescribed or indescribable, and indeed, there may be as many pathways as there are individual souls in the universe.

You can start to infer a sort of T-chart comparing and contrasting these two, as you think about them. This notion of religion presupposes a sort of community, a real and material body of people which collectively espouses a common set of practices. Dharma, on the other hand, seems to be something quite a bit more abstract and philosophical, almost separate from and inaccessible to material rituals and religious communities. Religious ethics tend to operate in the form of prescribed and universal rules, such as the Ten Commandments or 613 Mitzvot. Dharmic ethics, on the other hand, have to operate in the form of optional and individualized vows, relative decisions to restrict attitudes and actions in a certain way. This sort of thing.

The king is stoked. Tirthankaras are always born into warrior-caste families, which seems to be a Jain way of making a hilarious jab at the elitist Brahmins.

A silly thing that has come of this dichotomy is the notion that the Abrahamic traditions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) are religious traditions, while the traditions of the Indian subcontinent (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism) are dharmic traditions. This is often wielded as some sort of critique, that the Abrahamic traditions have lost their way by getting lost in the prescriptions of religious texts and in the conflicts between religious communities, while the Indian traditions maintain some sort of integrity to the ancient purpose of their faith. But, of course, we know that all dichotomies are pretty bogus. Every Abrahamic tradition has elements of religion and dharma, as does every tradition of the Indian subcontinent, and probably in equal measure. It’s unfair to claim that Abrahamic devotees lack a sense of the deeper truth and purpose at the end of their tradition, and its idealistic to claim that Indian devotees don’t often get lost in religious incantations that no participants understand the meaning of.

So, in the case of Jainism, we can talk in terms of Jain Dharma, or we can talk in terms of the religion of the Jains. The first is a philosophical, theological, and cosmological conversation about the tradition as it is in principle. The second is a sociological, anthropological, and psychological conversation about the tradition as it is in practice. Often, the distance between the two is very great. But in exploring the territory between religion and dharma, between the Jains and Jainism, we can learn a great deal.

No miracle surrounded the birth of Mahavir. It was crucial that he be born just as any other human.

The program of the International Summer School for Jain Studies, through which I have been traveling from city to city, mostly consists of academic-style lectures and discussions, intermingled with visits to monks and nuns, historical sites, and holy places. It’s an academic program, and though we certainly experience Jainism internally to some extent, there is no presumption that the students in the program will ever be interested in practicing the Jain religion or accepting the Jain dharma. We are encouraged to be critical as well as open, exclamatory as well as inquisitive, and most of us felt the liberty to wander in and out of Jainism as we placed, bowing at temples but taking photos as well, eating Jain food but ordering a pizza later. Throughout the program, all of us spent much of our free time traveling, exploring, and building powerful relationships with the people around us, and with each other, as fellow students in the program.

However, unexpectedly, a four-day meditation camp was added to the end of this program, free of charge. I was excited about this, initially. It was an opportunity to experience the practice of Jainism very internally, a different experience from academic study of the religion, or even from pilgrimage tours. But the camp was, perhaps, not the most timely experience. For many students in the program, these were their last few days in India. It was their first time here, and they may never come back again. To spend it in a meditation camp, with the inability to travel or leave the building, was rather unappealing. Moreover, we were all to take a vow of silence, a vipaasana. This Jain mode of introspection is a harsh one. Forbidden also are writing, reading, gesticulations, and even eye contact. It is a period of enforced solipsism, even so much so that sometimes, practitioners are confined to a cell for as long as a week at a time. This was not to be our fate. But nonetheless, to spend the last few days with new friends in total silence was an incredibly depressing notion to many of the students.

Mahavir was born around 599 BC. He was a contemporary of the Buddha, and both preached in Bihar. Some say they were the same person, but don’t tell that to a Jain.

But it wasn’t just an issue of timing. The deeper issue had to do with the nature of this particular form of Jain meditation, created and propagated by the Acharya of the Shtanakvasi sect of Shvetambara Jainism, Acharya Shivmuni. According to Jain theology, there are two main substances in the world. Ajiva is the lifeless, visible matter that makes up the material world and our bodies, emotions, and intellect. Jiva is life, consciousness, knowledge, and infinite bliss. Jains believe that all living beings, even plants and microscopic creatures, have a soul, or atman, made of jiva. This soul is bound to a body, and thus to the cycle of rebirths, by karmic matter, the materia of actions, of attachments to this world of ajiva. So long as karma obscures our soul, our true Self in Jainism, we will not be able to know the infinite qualities of jiva, and we will be forever bound to this world, to have our soul transmigrate from body to body, suffering and dying over and over again. The Jains believe that by coming to know the Self, by shedding karmas and by preventing the inflow of more karmas by avoiding violence and by detaching ourselves from the material fruits of our actions, we can attain enlightenment, nirvana, when the light of our soul shines forth through our body, and when we gain infinite knowledge, power, and bliss. And by detaching our soul from ajiva, we can attain liberation, moksha, where our jiva is freed forever from the painful cycle of rebirths.

All of the students in the program would agree that they find this system of beliefs fascinating, and indeed, this is what they have come to India to study. But the self-meditation of Acharya Shivmuni effectively requires that its practitioners believe in these truths. It carries a certain prerequisite of faith, which is easily fulfilled when ones chooses to attend the program, but which was not fulfilled in this case, when a number of non-Jains were made to attend the program without much of a choice. We were told to meditation upon the separation of body and Self. We were told that our relationships were transitory, that our experiences were meaningless, that all would die with us as the soul left our body for another cycle of birth and death. Insofar as these preachings denied the relationships and experiences we had just built over the past month, they were painful to hear. And insofar as most students did not believe in a soul that could offer some solace after this condemnation of material life, there was nothing to redeem us from what we had lost.

Mahavir witnesses the pleasures and pains of the world, developing his intellect and comprehension. And, of course, he interrogates the universe.

In Islam, the Qur’an is taken to be the word of Allah. However, all interpretations made upon the Qur’an are said to be fallible, insofar they have some distance from the Word. However, in a religion like Jainism, there is not even such a Qur’an. The words of Mahavir are as fallible as those of any other human being, not because Mahavir was fallible–indeed, he was omniscient–but rather, precisely because he used words. Any such use of language immediately presents the truth only in a partial way, at best. Sentences must have an order, and that order biases certain concepts before others, prioritizes certain things, leaves other things unsaid. Words are imprecise and ambiguous. In every sense, we can only regard the words of Mahavir as having partially expressed the absolute Truth. This observation leads quite naturally to the doctrine of anekantvad, described earlier in the entry, “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” But it also means that Mahavir himself preached that his followers should not follow his words in blind faith, but should rather seek out their own path, and make their own efforts. Only through direct experience and internal knowledge can Truth be gained.

Yet Acharya Shivmuni asserted that this way, this method of meditation, was the only way to liberation. The difference between the body and Self had to be understood, and this was the only way to do so. This contradicted our understanding of Jainism, and the firebrand rhetoric left a smoky taste in our mouths. What right did the Acharya have, after all, to claim dominance over Truth? To claim the pre-eminence of his own chosen path? To be angry and frustrated with us if the path did not work for us? Jains rarely trust their fellow man, for no matter how wise, they too are still waiting for nirvana. It didn’t help that our vipaasana prevented us from voicing our frustrations and questions openly. There was no place to have an open dialogue, no setting in which to try to help each other frame the meditation in a way that could be useful to us. And so instead, the frustration, bottled up in the vacuum of silence, simply exploded in rebellion. People were late to meditation sessions, or simply absent. Silence was repeatedly broken. Effectively, the validity of the entire method was called into question.

Like the Buddha, Mahavir grows weary of the comforts of nobility. It is interesting that those who renounce the world in Jainism are those with the greatest wealth.

It should be said that we learned a few fascinating new meditative techniques. We attempted yoganidra, the sleep of the yogi, where the mind is to remain conscious even as the body rests. It can be likened to an experiment in lucid dreaming, where the dreams consist of the soul wandering through the memories of its past lives. We even attempted a sort of self-inflicted penance. We would stand on scalding hot stones out in the sun, barefoot, and listen to a narrative about how Jain monks travel miles and miles barefoot, every week. We were instructed to sit on the stone, to lie down on the stone, to experience the heat and the pain, but to separate our Self from it, so that only the lifeless body was in pain. Even without believing in Jain dualism, many of us found it valuable, if only as an experiment to empathize with the monks.

But the meditation took its toll. I tried to keep my silence for at least a full day, but my own integrity was mediocre at best. I gave short verbal responses to important queries, wrote frequently, and gesticulated without any restraint. The silence was valuable for gaining some insight. It’s rare and helpful to be trapped in oneself for some time, to explore and synthesize and wander the caverns of one’s own mind. But it’s also valuable to be able to connect and communicate with others, to share in intellectual and spiritual transactions while engaging in a practice that is so new and unusual. Indeed, perhaps the most powerful part each day was the half-hour of bhakti, or devotional, that we had each day. One of the nuns would begin singing a song, and her voice was so sweet that it softened our disgruntled faces. We were told to sing, too, to raise any song we liked, from any religion, or simply a melody which conveyed a message of love. Those moments of connection and music were beautiful and precious to us. Because for many of us, our religion was our relationships, our experiences. That was our self.

Mahavir renounces the world, shedding his clothing, possessions, family, relationships, kingdom, and past. He pulls out his hair with five plucks of his hand.

What was going on, here? The Acharya was doing precisely what he was asked to do, and indeed, this approach seems to have been helpful for thousands of other people that have come to him as disciples in the past, monks, nuns, and laity alike. In my view, the problem was a conflation of religion and dharma. The Acharya claims self-meditation as the best possible pathway, if not the only one, to the final aim of Jainism. That is a mistake, in my view. It may be a good path for some, a poor path for others, and a premature or belated path for yet others. But the fact is that if disciples are rebelling, if the path is inviting more resistance than openness, if it is clearly working against its desired goal, then it is not the disciples that should be changed, but the path. A different method–a different religion–should be designed or selected, one that better fits the needs and aptitudes of the seekers of dharma.

The students, for their part, were a patient, open-minded, and intelligent bunch. Why the frustration and rebellion? To dig a little deeper than the reasons already given, in my view, the problem here was a problem of faith. Indeed, the order of events in Jainism is Right Faith, Right Knowledge, and finally Right Conduct. To gain the true knowledge buried within the Self, one needs to first have faith that the knowledge can be found there. And with Right Knowledge, Right Conduct emerges naturally, and dharma is achieved. But we students could not have had Right Faith unless we had willingly invested ourselves in this meditation camp by choosing to attend it. We didn’t have psychological ownership over the vows. It became impossible, effectively, to perform the meditation, without faking that faith, without presuming a truth we did not believe. And that would feel dishonest.

Jain monks live as beggars. Vowing to never perform the violence of preparing food , they instead only eat what leftovers are willingly offered by householders.

It is interesting that in this camp, there was a ban on the voice. In the West, I have grown accustomed to thinking of the voice as a sort of a symptom of consciousness, a sign that there is something real and deep buried within another’s flesh. Silence is death, lifelessness, senselessness a sort of torturous confinement. Here, it is the opposite. The voice is a thing that binds the the Self to a body, that can only express partial truths, that is locked within the world, that requires matter to resonate off simply to exist and be heard. The voice cannot be heard inside the Self. Silence is a renunciation, a symbol of faith, of trust in something greater than the ego.

That is an important contrast, and I think hits at the crux of this issue. Religion is what lives and exist materially in the world, and dharma is the ideal. Because dharma is invisible, it can only be known if one has faith in its existence, “out there,” or “in here.” Religion, from Latin, literally means “to reconnect.” Dharma, from Sanskrit, literally means “to make firm or steady.” Isn’t it possible to play with those metaphors, to make them two sides of the same coin? Isn’t this the case with all knowledge? That if we approach a teacher or a friend or a book with skepticism first, with doubt, how can we ever hope to gain any knowledge from it? It feels like integrity, to make sure we approach knowledge cautiously, to not accept truths blindly. We are trained to be critical, and indeed, the people I know with the greatest integrity make careers out of critique in academia. But ultimately we have to offer something. We have to posit something, or we will never be able to act. That positioning is an act of faith, a prerequisite to action, by way of knowledge. Knowledge itself is invisible, and only with faith–as opposed to reason–can we accept it. We can buffer it with reasons, of course, and we can choose where to place our faith by employing reasons. But there is no knowledge without faith. This is what I think Jainism means, when it offers that process.

While meditating under a Bodhi tree upon the nature of the Self, Mahavir achieved Enlightment. This is what Acharya Shivmuni wanted for us, ultimately.

Our final meditation session was something of a surprise–a fierce and almost firebrand Pratikramana. We were walked through all of the various karmas of soul, our anger, our pride, our deceit, our envy, our sorrow. We were made to contemplate upon the things we carried with us, the things that clouded our vision, that clung us to this world. We were guilted into confession, yelled at in Hindi and English, and a few of us were brought to tears. But when we opened our eyes, we turned to each other, and, as the isolating walls of gender broke down, we were free to greet one another, hug one another, friends and strangers alike, to apologize for any pain we might have caused one another, and say, michhami dukkadam: May all evil be fruitless. At that moment, all frustrations about the past four days could be forgotten. We could shed that anger, and as the silence of vipaasana broke, move forward into the rest of our respective journeys.

I have faith in that, at least. But as for the rest…does faith rely more on guidance, or inertia? Does it require the psychological ownership of vow-taking, or can laws be imposed rather than chosen? Is it better facilitated by monologue or dialogue? Is it better placed in a community or an individual? These are things that I don’t know, and the questions may well be meaningless. I do believe, though, that faith requires at once some degree of humility, and some degree of liberty. The precise balance, I suppose, is what mediates the form of a religion.


The morning sun in India isn’t tethered to the kaleidoscope of color that defines the Western sunrise. Nor is the evening sunset. Rising or falling, the sun here is simply a glowing white orb, a disc slowly slicing through the hazy twilight, sheen and round like a pearl, soft and supple like the moon. By night and by day, the two twins spin in a dance, in a trance, god and goddess, their mythologies encircling the world, filling the ether. These are the gods we can see and touch. We can contact them directly, and plead to them for more of the same, or for something better, or just for a change. We can’t reach them, but we know they are there. We verify their presence when we feel their heat, and when we see their light, and when we understand that nothing in this world could be without them. And so there is an inherent interconnectedness in spite of the salient distance between us and them. My great grandmother did not buy into the conspiracy theories that the moon landing of 1969 was staged. But she denied the event for a very different reason: because the moon was a goddess. And you cannot land on the face of a goddess. You can, at best, speak to it. But if you try to chase a goddess, then the closer you try to get, the further away you will grow.

We walk under this morning sun through the farms of Aligarh, a rural town in Uttar Pradesh. The sun’s heat hasn’t yet reached the soil, not yet having crossed the horizon. The path in front of us is lit merely by foreglow. It is dotted by old shrines, Hindu, Muslim, and Jain. The shrines are small, with usually no more than a single room or statue, for the workers to offer a quick recognition of their existence, their lot, and the nature of the universe as they pass by during their work. It’s a place to thank the sun and the moon, by and by, for their good work in holding the cosmos together. Colonel Kahn was still asleep, and so we are guided this morning by his friend The Captain. I call him Captain Sahib, or “Captain Sir.” It’s a bit redundant. But you find no shortage of terms of respect here in India, and it is entirely proper to chain them together in an elaborate fashion. Bhaisaab, a common term to refer to other men with respect, itself is a portmanteau of bhaiya (brother) and sahib (sir). You can then tack on a ji, a less gendered term of respect, and make bhaisaabji, to really win some points.

Captain Sahib was a farmer in his former life, and occasionally returns to the task during the harvest season. But his main role today is as a seasoned military officer, who has served all over the Indian subcontinent. His knowledge is immense. He identifies each and every crop, pointing out which bajra (pearl millet) is meant for humans, and which is meant for cattle. He shows us the plant form of anthrax, whose concentrated form is notorious in the states for the scare in the 1990s. Here, it is an invasive weed, which once clung to wheat imported from the United States, and which is basically ubiquitous in this area. The first round of harvest is just nearing completion, and the last bits of barley are being plucked. The fields will soon be sowed and planted again in preparation for the rainy season, and within a month, the entire region wil become lush and verdant. But for now, the farms are more soil than crop. We speak to an older couple, working early in the morning to avoid the hot sun, clearing their fields of weeds. As we talk, we hear shouts from the road. A man’s horse has run away from him. He chases him down as his friends laugh and jeer, teasing the poor fellow. The man finally catches his steed and calms him down. He continues on his way, a smile slipping across his face that speaks both of relief and of good humor. The work here is hard in the north Indian heat, but there is no stoicism here.

The bulk of the activity this morning is in digging, sculpting, and firing bricks.  The brick masons are mostly migrants from Bihar, who come to Aligarh and surrounding towns and villages as skilled labor. Because most of the locals are agrarian, there are few people adept enough at masonry to reap the rewards of mining the clay from the soil. Masons cut clods of mud into rectangles and pile them onto horse carts, which take them to the chimneys of fire where the browns clods will become red bricks. The work depends heavily on the cooperation of the weather, and we see the remnants of a few moments of tension. A pile of mud, giving the form of what certainly used to be a stack of rectangular clods, lies drying in the dirt. We guess that these bricks were rained on before they could be taken to be fired, or before they could be covered. They will all need to be remade.

The bricks are all branded with the sign of the swastika. It is a surprising and intimidating symbol to see embossed on such benign objects, and a Westerner questions the integrity of these workers, and the purpose of these bricks. But the swastika is perhaps the oldest and most sacred symbol of the Indian subcontinent, used prominently in the religious art and architecture of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and many other spiritual communities. It seems to have some connection to the Aryan peoples who migrated to India millennia ago, and it represents different things for different communities. But in Jainism, it represents a fourfold order of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen, united in solidarity under the banner of non-violence. It seems perhaps tragically ironic that the symbol has transformed in meaning so greatly over the ages. But, of course, it is just a symbol, and a symbol, like any word, like any tool, can be wielded by any person for any purpose. A medication intended for healing becomes a respite from depression to be abused. A dagger intended for violence becomes a surgical scalpel turned to the purpose of repair. So a swastika, too, can represent the ideals of Jainism, or the ideals of Nazism. What remains true about the symbol in any case is that aspect of being a banner for common identity, irrespective of the nature of that identity. Here, it seems to merely be marking the masoncraft of these Bihari migrants.

Captain Sahib and Colonel Kahn are both security officers at Mangalayatan University, where we are staying here in Aligarh. It is a Jain university, though only ten or fifteen percent of students are actually Jain. Still, all students are expected to follow a Jain diet while at the university. The university offers programs in just about any field, from business to music to IT to hospitality to religious studies. It is new and nimble, trying to establish itself as a world-class university, though it is located in an unknown sort of town. The land around it is what I described above, and the land of the university itself was at some point taken from those farmers and landowners. Security is tight, and there doesn’t appear to be much of a town-gown relationship. But this is a different sort of way of doing education, and the students seem to be happy about being here.

The campus boasts a beautiful Jain temple, where, every morning and evening, students lead a prayer service, play music, and hold discussions about the texts, principles, and philosophy of Jainism. Most of the participants seemed to have been raised Jain, and while we were there we did not get the opportunity to witness much inter-religious dialogue. The students themselves are brilliant, and know their scriptures well, able to answer any of our questions with quotations, citations, metaphors, and detailed elaborations. And although there is not much room for a critical lens, I am always amazed at the intelligence of Indian students, who at a very young age know far more than I know even now.

In the basement of the temple is a series of paintings and carvings depicting some of the moral principles of Jainism. The art seems very fire and brimstone, almost evangelical, and seems to be designed to respond to the fact that this is a university campus filled with students. Stories are told of how drinking, smoking, sexuality, debauchery, decadence, and eating non-vegetarian food will lead to hellish punishment in a later life. These scenes of punishment are brutally depicted. It’s not a very Jain way of presenting moral philosophy, and I feel alienated by the blatant and senseless punitive tone of the scenes. A Jain would frame these issues with much more nuance, for in Jainism, there is no deity or law to punish an individual for any misgivings. The goal is simply liberation of the soul from the material world, but it is a quest that all beings traverse alone, and they themselves make the decisions that they feel will lead to more or less success along that road. If one is trying to inspire fear in people through depictions of hell, in order to order their behavior, then in at least five or six different ways, that person is not a Jain.

The young students of Jainism, however, demonstrate their wisdom and acumen yet again at Mangalayatan Temple, a compound some kilometers away from the university built about a decade ago. The compound has a Jain day school, a series of temples, a cave explaining the basic principles of Jainism to non-Jains, a library, and a dharamshala. We perform a morning pooja at the temple, but, being amateurs, have no sense of how to perform the offerings. We are thus each paired with a sort of guru, a student of Jainism, each probably only eight or nine years old, but already wearing their robes of saffron. They guide our hands and direct our tongues with patience, forgiving our errors but ensuring that they would be only minimal. They teach us to pray, and they teach us to dance. I am humbled by their humility and their piety, which I suppose is what one would call leading by example. Each offering is a metaphor. The shelled rice we offer will never germinate again—similarly, the soul, hopes the Jain, will be liberated from rebirth, and will not be born again into the world of material suffering. The holy water washes away dirt from the hands, as, hopes the Jain, penance and consciousness-building meditation will wash away karma from the soul. Step by step, the esoteric rituals in Sanskrit and Prakrit are decoded and demystified.

My beliefs about the world and the universe change day by day. But it is always the case that full, immersive participation in a ritual like this, where all of the participants understand each of their actions with depth and gravity, makes me feel the faith in the room. It’s a sensual, not a rational, experience. And it is the lifeblood, the pulse of faith, ringing with the triumphant voices of the many children holding our hands, in alternation, in harmony, in chorus, in dissonance, in unison.