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Introducing Muddying the Waters

1. The affective turn in feminist and queer studies, and the humanities in general, has stressed the need to address the impasse or political fatigue of poststructuralist theory by studying the relationships of the emotions and of the sensorial and the embodied to the social and political. These conversations, however, have remained largely segregated from dialogues around ethics and methodologies of alliance work and around questions of solidarity and responsibility in border crossings.

2. For a thought-provoking discussion on the need to retain a commitment to scholarly objectivity, see Kamala Visweswaran 2011.

3. Situated solidarities also have affinities with the work of scholars such as Anjali Arondekar (2009), Lauren Berlant (2011), and Elizabeth Povinelli (2006), who theorize the complex relationships between self and other and underscore the need to formulate more context-specific politics of emotion, collaboration, and responsibility.

4. For an elaboration of Carole Boyce Davies’s discussion of critical relationality, see her chapter, “Negotiating Theories or ‘Going a Piece of the Way with Them.’”

5. I am grateful to Elakshi Kumar, who first used the term “academic memoir” to describe this project, which I found useful in giving Muddying the Waters its final shape.

6. Sangtin Kisaan Mazdoor Sangathan (SKMS, also referred to at times in this book as “Sangathan” or movement) can be translated as Sangtin Peasants and Laborers Organization. SKMS currently works in Mishrikh, Pisawan, and Reusa development blocks of Sitapur District in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The struggles of approximately six thousand members of SKMS, spread in seventy villages of the district, have focused on issues of access to livelihood and fair payment; access to irrigation waters; caste-, class-, and gender-based violence; and on linking processes of intellectual empowerment and disempowerment with those that constitute socioeconomic and political empowerment and disempowerment. More than half of SKMS’s members are women, and over 95 percent are dalit.

7. Desiree Lewis’s incisive comments on sangtins’ diary have helped me to articulate my points here and in the next paragraph.

8. Deborah Gould defines affect as the “body’s ongoing and relatively amorphous inventory-taking of coming into contact and interacting with the world” (Gould 2009, 23). It includes the bodily, sensory, inarticulate, and non-conscious experience that may escape us and our languages, “but is nevertheless in play, generated through interaction with the world, and affecting our embodied beings and subsequent actions.” Attending to the affective, then, is a way to preserve a space for human political action and inaction that may be “nonconscious, noncognitive, nonlinguistic, noncoherent, nonrational, and unpredetermined” (23). While privileging affect runs the danger of obscuring and leaving unresolved democratic commitments to the principle of participation by all affected interests (see Barnett 2008), I agree with Pratt that “feelings or affect are not at odds with, and need not replace, nuanced thought or critical democratic politics” (Pratt 2012, xxx).

9. Dia Da Costa, “The Good Women of Chharanagar,” under review for inclusion in Budhan Theatre, edited by Dakxin Bajrange and Ganesh Devy (Baroda: Purva Prakashan).

10. This has parallels with Stuart Hall’s elaboration of a Marxism without guarantees. Hall reminds us of how ideological categories are developed and generated out of given materials and transformed according to their own laws of development and evolution, and also of the necessary openness of historical development to practice and struggle. Arguing for a need to acknowledge the real indeterminacy of the political, Hall states: “Understanding ‘determinacy’ in terms of setting of limits, the establishment of parameters, the defining of the space of operations, the concrete conditions of existence, the ‘givenness’ of social practices, rather than in terms of the absolute predictability of particular outcomes, is the only basis of a ‘marxism without final guarantees.’ It establishes the open horizon of marxist theorizing—determinacy without guaranteed closures. . . . Certainty stimulates orthodoxy, the frozen rituals and intonation of already witnessed truth. . . . It represents the end of the process of theorizing, of the development and refinement of new concepts and explanations which, alone, is the sign of a living body of thought, capable still of engaging and grasping something of the truth about new historical realities” (Hall 1996, 45).

Chapter 1. Translated Fragments, Fragmented Translations

The epigraph to this chapter is by Katyayani, a poet and activist based in Uttar Pradesh. This poem appears in her Footpath Par Kursi.

1. Tarun Kumar and I wrote “Theater of Hopes” at the invitation of Mary Thomas and Christian Abrahamsson for Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. A freelance actor, director, and writer, Tarun Kumar is based in Mumbai and frequently works with SKMS. “Theater of Hopes” was inspired by Tarun Kumar’s diary in Hindi, where he reflected on the theater workshops that he and I organized in Sitapur and Minneapolis in 2007 and 2008.

2. Several of the “fragments” that appear in this column were originally shared with Piya Chatterjee in the two long letters that I wrote to her between December 2010 and June 2011.

3. The faculty matters and promotion and tenure files mentioned in this paragraph are associated with the responsibilities that I was carrying out at that time in my capacity as associate dean for faculty in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota.

4. Adrienne Rich, “North American Time,” 1983. The complete poem can be found at, accessed 8 March 2014.

5. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak 2000b, 370.

6. Babli is my sister’s nickname.

7. I wrote the original Hindi poem in response to a poem that Bhashwati wrote and shared with me in 2003. I initially translated it into English in 2012. In September 2013, Elakshi Kumar revised the translation.

8. My poem, “Dar es Salaam ke Naam” was translated into English by Raza Mir and published as “For Dar es Salaam” in South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection (winter/spring 2001): 19.

9. My joint family included my paternal grandparents and Baba; my paternal uncle and his wife and son; and my parents and siblings.

10. The term bhangi is casteist. At the same time, it specifies the continuing dehumanization to which members of this caste are subjected. It is to mark this specificity, and to show the subtle and non-subtle ways in which this casteism and untouchability endure, that I use this label here.

11. Mochi, like bhangi, is a casteist term; see previous note.

12. This was an interview that this collective of scholar activists conducted with me in February 2011 for Kültür ve Siyasette Feminist Yaklaşımlar (Feminist Approaches in Culture and Politics,, an online e-journal published quarterly in Turkey since October 2006.

13. In fall 2012, for example, a teacher from a New York high school invited me to a Skype meeting with her twelfth-grade English literature students, who were preparing to visit West Bengal later in the academic year. The teacher had assigned Playing with Fire so that the students could understand “gender issues in India.” Throughout the session, the teacher and the students remained preoccupied with such topics as untouchability, female infanticide, and oppression of rural Indian women. Far from engaging with the ways in which the sangtins complicated these topics in conjunction with the violence of NGOization as well as the role played by educated experts who think they know rural women’s issues in the global south, the group insisted on deploying the dominant discourse on violated Indian women and how NGOs can help in their so-called emancipation.

14. Lini Wollenburg, David Edmunds, and Chesha Wettasinha, 2013, invitation letter to Rambeti to attend a workshop, Climate Change, Innovation and Gender, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 28 April-1 May 2013. Issued by Prolinnova and Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, 3 January.

Chapter 2. Dar es Salaam

1. Social places are constituted and reconstituted in a space that is formed by the coexistence of social interrelations and interactions at all geographical scales. A place, 2 then, is made out of a particular set of social relations interacting at a particular location (Massey 1992a, 1992b).

2. While life stories took anywhere between five hours to several days to record, shorter interviews usually lasted less than three hours.

3. Reflexivity refers to the capacity of the self to reflect upon itself as well as on the underlying systems that create it (Prell 1989, 251). Intersubjectivity can be defined as the shared perceptions and conceptions of the world held by interacting groups of people (Johnston et al. 1986, 236).

4. My use of “Hindi/Urdu” seeks to complicate the artificially created divide between Hindi and Urdu.

5. Interview with Farida (alias), Dar es Salaam, 7 October 1992.

6. Personal communication, 4 June 1993.

7. These faculty members included Professors Louis Mbughuni, Patricia Mbughuni, Marjorie Mbilinyi, Zubeida Tumbo, Issa Shivji, Suleiman Sumra, Muhsin Alidina, Adolpho Mascarenhas, Ophelia Mascarenhas, and Abdul Sheriff.

8. The shift from “I” to “she” is deliberate on the part of the author. Gloria Anzaldúa’s (1987) work provides powerful tools to wrestle with this excerpt from Abbas (1993) and several other passages that I share in the original chapter of my dissertation, from which this sidebar is extracted.

9. Interviews with Shana Bajaj, 4 November 1992; Muhsin Alidina, 17 February 1993; Damji Rathod, 15 October 1992; Jasu Damji, 16 November 1992; Parin Jaffer, 27 January 1993; Vadan Majithia, 24 September 1992; Roshan Bai, 30 July 1993; Francis Fernandes, 10 December 1992.

10. Farida interview, 22 October 1992.

11. Nargis interview, 27 January 1993.

12. Farida interview, 22 October 1992.

13. Maria Pereira interview, 15 November 1992.

14. Immanuel interview, 1 July 1993.

15. Sujata Jaffer interview, 25 November 1992.

16. Damji Rathod interview, 23 January 1993.

17. Jasu Damji interview, 16 November 1992.

18. Sarla Rathod interview, 9 October 1992.

19. Julie Mohammed interview, 13 November 1992.

20. Ibid.

21. Muhsin Alidina interview, 15 January 1993.

22. Ibid. These concerns of the community leaders were expressed in Federation Samachar 25, no. 3 (July 1991): 23; Tabligh Report, in Khoja Shia Ithna Asheri Jamaat, Dar es Salaam: Biennial Report, 1988–89, 13.

23. Alidina interview, 15 January 1993.

24. The frequency with which Bollywood actors and singers are invited to Dar es Salaam can be gauged from the concerts that were held there between April and July 1993. In March, two Indian film stars, Govinda and Ayesha Zulka, were invited to Dar es Salaam for Eid celebrations. A private group called the Papla Trust organized concerts of pop-music singers from India and of ghazals and geets in April (Daily News, 6 April 1993), while another group invited several singers from India to perform all over Tanzania (Daily News, 26 April 1993). A Qawwali singer was invited from India in April and May (Daily News, 8 May 1993). Hindi movie stars from Bombay were invited to perform in the Best Dancing Stars Nite in the Diamond Jubilee Hall in June (Daily News, 16 June 1993). Another group of dancers and film singers was invited to perform at the Starlight Cinema for a week in July (Daily News, 21 July 1993). The popular English weekly, The Express, featured a permanent information plus gossip column on Hindi films, film stars, singers, and musicians to keep its readers informed of the latest developments in Bollywood.

25. Alidina interview, 15 January 1993.

26. Ibid.

27. Mohamedali Meghji, cited here, was president of the Supreme Council of the Federation of the Khoja Shia Ithna Asheri Jamaats of Africa.

28. Razia Tejani interview, 25 September 1992.

29. Ibid.; Razia JanMohamed interview, 27 September 1992.

30. Federation Samachar 24, no. 1 (September 1989): 29.

31. Muhsin Alidna interview, 15 January 1993.

32. Faizal interview, 4 October 1992.

Chapter 3. Reflexivity, Positionality, and Languages of Collaboration in Feminist Fieldwork

1. We recognize the problematic nature of homogenizing dichotomies such as western-nonwestern, first world–third world, and north-south. Here, we use these terms to refer to an unequal structure of knowledge production—rooted in post/ colonial hierarchies—in which scholars based in resource-rich institutions of the north (wherever that north might be geographically located) continue to dominate the contexts in which knowledge about southern peoples and places is produced, circulated, consumed, and critiqued.

2. The second epigraph to this section is from H-NET’s call for papers for “Acts of Knowledge: Collaborative Epistemologies and Economies of Thought,” 5 November 1997.

3. For a discussion of discursive geographies, see Pratt (1999).

4. The original edition of Sangtin Yatra was self-published by Sangtin and went out of print within eight months. A revised edition was published by Rajkamal Prakashan, with the authors identifying as Sangtin Lekhak Samooh (2012).

Chapter 4. Representation, Accountability, and Collaborative Border Crossings

1. The two movements Dreze refers to are the Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan and Akal Sangharsh Samiti.

2. Although I have interacted with activists and workers in nongovernmental organizations from various parts of South Asia, my most sustained work has been with NGO workers and activists in Uttar Pradesh.

3. Interview with Farah Ali (alias), Lucknow, 27 March 2002. Most of the names of people and places associated with Farah’s life have been changed in the analysis I present here.

4. Ibid.

5. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has since been replaced by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

6. Chamars are officially classified as a scheduled (formerly, “untouchable”) caste, while yadavs are classified as members of the OBC or other backward castes. Hari (alias) belongs to the yadav caste. Maya is a chamar, and Kishan (alias), also a chamar, is Maya’s husband’s brother.

7. Notes from Mahasangh meeting, Mahila Samakhya program in Sitapur, 25 March 2002.

8. These women were seen as “founders” in the sense that they signed the registration papers for the organization, Sangtin, which had not yet undertaken any activities, but which was there to step in after Mahila Samakhya phased out from Sitapur.

9. The activities include writing, sharing, and collective reflection on journal entries over a period of several months, followed by recording, transcription, and editing, and interpretation of life-historical interviews of each member. For more details on how this process eventually unfolded, see my introduction in Playing with Fire (Nagar 2006a).

10. The English translation of this poem, titled “Chuppi” (silence or muteness) in Hindi, first undertaken by me in 2002, was revised by Elakshi Kumar in 2013. I thank Elakshi for this revision.

Chapter 5. Traveling and Crossing, Dreaming and Becoming

1. This chapter incorporates notes in Hindi that Richa Singh drafted in June 2005 for a coauthored chapter with Richa Nagar (Singh and Nagar 2006).

2. For many women living in Sitapur, the mayaka and sasural tend to be in separate villages, towns, or districts.

3. For detailed discussion of the collective process, see introduction and chapter 1 of Playing with Fire (Nagar 2006a, Sangtin Writers 2006).

4. For a discussion of inequalities in status, salaries, skills, and circuits of influence, their strategic deployments, and how these were negotiated within the collective, see Sangtin Writers (2006). An ongoing struggle with such power differentials has been a critical part of this journey.

5. This and the following translated excerpt from Sangtin Yatra appear in chapter 6 of Playing with Fire (Sangtin Writers 2006).

6. Since Surbala had already left MSS in 2000 to build Sangtin, she did not receive this communication.

7. Director of MSUP, letter 31 May 2004.

8. Gender trainers can be described as consultants, usually from urban centers, who are hired by NGOs to provide “gender training,” in this case to rural women, who are educating or “sensitizing” others in their communities about gender issues (see also note about gender trainer in chapter 6).

9. Sangtin’s new mission statement of 2006 stated: “Founded in 1998 by a group of local women in the Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh, the organization, Sangtin, works for the sociopolitical and intellectual empowerment of rural women, youth and children and of the communities in which they are embedded. . . . [The] book Sangtin Yatra constituted a critical part of Sangtin’s growth. Sangtin Yatra was fired by a desire to imagine how the organization Sangtin could become a true sangtin . . . for the most marginalized women of Sitapur. Sangtin is committed to enhancing the ability of . . . least powerful individuals and groups to challenge and change—in their favor—existing power relationships that place them in subordinate economic, social and political positions. At the same time, Sangtin Yatra has also inspired a vision that aims to empower the local communities intellectually by questioning the very idea of who is on the margins. . . . Rather than thinking of marginalized communities as people who need to be connected with the mainstream, Sangtin wants to work towards getting rid of the structures that create the margins in the first place.”

10. The introduction and chapter 6 contain details about what this emotional and intellectual labor entailed and about some of the insights that emerged from it.

11. Maya, who was active in the Mahila Samkhya Program, never participated in any writing activities of Sangtin Writers or of Sangtin Kisaan Mazdoor Sanagthan. However, her active participation in the movement building work from the very beginning made her inseparable from the journey of Sangtin.

12. Quoted in the second epigraph above, Mukesh Bhargava has worked closely with members of SKMS since the mid-1990s. This epigraph is from a longer poem, “Global Dunia,” that Bhargava first wrote in the mid-1990s and later expanded in 2003 during the second U.S. invasion of Iraq.

13. Elakshi Kumar’s incisive remarks have helped me to articulate my points in this chapter about desire, knowledge, and the meanings of the political.

14. Desiree Lewis’s insightful comments on an earlier version of this chapter have helped me refine my ideas about language and power in SKMS’s vision and work.

Chapter 6. Four Truths of Storytelling and Coauthorship in Feminist Alliance Work

1. For an elaboration on “power geometry,” see Doreen Massey (1993).

2. “Gender trainer” here refers to a feminist expert or consultant. These trainers were often hired from women’s organizations in the urban centers to provide “gender training” to women who were mobilizing other women in rural areas. The assumption guiding this practice is obvious: that rural women do not have a theory of gender to interpret the politics of gendered difference and have to be, therefore, schooled in this theory through consciousness-raising.

3. In the above diary excerpt, Surbala’s reference to the removal of sindur and bangles as ideological exploitation is not simply a comment on the problem of hierarchization of knowledges and practices. She is also providing a critique of the imposition of certain kinds of ideological work (in this case by gender trainers) on subalternized others.

4. I translated this passage from a written version of Arun Trivedi’s speech, cited by Dainik Jagran (Hindi Daily, Sitapur, 6 January 2012, 9). The epigraph above by Rajendra Singh is from a speech given at a meeting hosted in Washington, D.C., by the Maryland chapter of AID, 3 June 2004.

5. Recall that Richa Singh resigned from MS in protest of her transfer from Sitapur in 2004 and that Surbala had left her position in MS in 2000.

6. Discussions with Sofia Shank have helped me to refine my discussion of Aag Lagi Hai Jangal Ma here and elsewhere.

7. Anganwadi refers to a government-sponsored child-care and mother-care center. The Anganwadis were started by the Indian government in 1975 as part of the Integrated Child Development Services program to combat child hunger and malnutrition.





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