It is easy to forget when going abroad, whether for work or pleasure, that we return in a way as unofficial ambassadors. We may not think of ourselves this way, and it might not seem ethical or appropriate, but it is a reality. Last year, Smith College gave me PRAXIS funding for an internship in India. I spent three months interning for a human rights organization in New Delhi. In my case, the boundaries were clear: I was to be a representative of the college whilst abroad, and in turn represent to the donors who made the experience possible my vision of India. Smith College was waiting to hear about not only the quality of my internship, but also about my trip on a personal level. As a woman, I had to be prepared to answer loaded questions regarding my safety during the internship.
In the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi rape case, India could not escape intense international media scrutiny. In the years since, navigating discussions about India outside of the college bubble has been a minefield. The cases of violence against women that dominated news feeds seemed everyone’s first thought. As a consequence, well wishes and congratulations regarding my internship position were colored with concern and safety warnings. Fully aware that these negative images of India were only one part of a larger picture, I left with the intention of bringing back another view of India, one that would not play into the media stereotypes perpetuated by ratings-driven news broadcasts. My goal was objectivity and observation-based representation.
Of course, this is much easier said than done. The summer I spent in Delhi was a blur of scorchingly spicy food, friendly stray dogs, and kind people. I was warned that people would stare, maybe even touch me without permission, and that street robbery was common. Even though none of these things happened to me, they happened to others as they do in many other countries or cultures where customs are vastly different from our own. It soon became clear that this duty of representing India in a more nuanced and truthful way would perhaps be the most difficult aspect of my trip. I would have to be careful in my reports back, to both Smith College and the many relatives and friends who waited for my return. They would have to be honest and truthful, but I also had the responsibility to not play into stereotypes, especially in such a racially-polarized political moment in time.
I alternated, from one day to the next, between inhabiting the mainstream narrative and adopting a highly critical stance. My entry to Delhi was guided by the Northeastern community, as I was staying in the young and diverse Humayunpur neighborhood. By virtue of the way I look, this community of people took me in. They pointed me in the right direction when I got lost in the tightly packed enclave, slipped extra momos into my bag on my way home from work, and were patient with my pathetic attempts at Hindi. I was taken to a jazz club by new friends and ate roasted corn whilst watching Tamil movies. I went to the older markets, avoiding expat haunts like Connaught Place and Khan Market in favour of smaller places my co-workers recommended to me, in some sort of effort to experience something authentic, misguided as that might be. In any case, who would eat at Johnny Rockets as my fellow American interns liked to do, when you could have chai and pani puri by the road?
Of course the India that I experienced and spoke of upon my return could not be completely objective. I still had the unwanted responsibility of proving this internship was ‘safe’ to recommend to other Smith College students and that the PRAXIS fund had been used for worthwhile purpose. To be frank, I had to justify my enjoyment of the summer and of India to many people, despite the fact that I witnessed upsetting and difficult situations. Would my positive observations in some way be a betrayal of the those who are attacked, marginalized, assaulted, and ignored? How could I write about India without exoticizing or essentializing a country that is more akin to a continent? How would I answer questions about India’s currently booming growth in the development sector without discussing the displacement of large numbers of adivasis? Did my research interest in government-sanctioned displacements influence my attitude towards particular sectors of society? The questions were seemingly endless.
My thoughts on India would not be of any national or even local importance. Yet I still felt the need to do justice to my experience without perpetuating general negative attitudes towards India. Instead, I needed to find a a way of representing India truthfully as I had experienced it whilst steering clear of essentializing or romanticizing. After all, the image of Jyoti Singh, the Delhi rape case victim who has become a stand-in for all victims, was impossible to forget.
The current racialized politics in the United States compounded the difficulty I had writing about India. As fear and anger towards minority groups grow, anti-Indian sentiments have increased. While I did not want my descriptions of India to contribute to harmful minority stereotypes, I also did not want to want to minimize the very real suffering of women, adivasis, Muslims, and countless other groups across India.
In the end, I could only hope to articulate the cloud of contradictions and dilemmas inherent in observations of ‘elsewhere’. I have no answers as to what is or isn’t appropriate or ethical. Before you can begin to parse out a representation that is as unbiased as possible, you first have to understand your own politics and the position from which you are making these observations. In my case, I was a foreigner, privileged, and supported by funds from a prestigious academic institution. How did these factors contribute to the picture I was trying to paint? Did my desire to not contribute to negative stereotypes blind me to negative things that occurred? Has my own previous history of travel led me, through comparison, to take lightly, or simply not notice, people who stare? I am sure the luck that I have in making friends wherever I go influenced my observations more than I could imagine. Kind people have let me into spaces I could not otherwise enter, and have in turn imparted their own subjectivities to me, changing the way I saw and how I processed my own observations. Anthropology has taught me that nothing is without politics, and no one is without bias, so perhaps all that one can do is to navigate and temper our observations with an awareness of our own subjectivity.