Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Monkeys, Firecrackers and Dust

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Monkeys, Firecrackers and Dust

Article excerpt

August 1

The principal of the college leads me from her office to the Visitors Room where the English department is waiting to receive me. Seventeen women cluster about the small room, watching me as I enter, some smiling, some suspicious, some caught up in conversations that have nothing to do with the Fulbright Lecturer who will be joining their faculty for a term: me. I have rarely in my life felt so out of bounds, so out of place.

For this is Lady Shri Ram College for Women, part of Delhi University. I am to be the only male on the faculty-the only other men I will see here are servants and secretaries. As I walk along the halls of the college I am, initially anyway, an oddity. The young women stare with surprise, even alarm. Many are indifferent. A few are amused.

The Visitors Room is stifling despite ceiling fans whirling furiously above us. The monsoon is late this year-it should have arrived, breaking the heat, by mid-July-and though temperatures have dropped from the June peaks of 120-130 degrees Fahrenheit, the sun beats against Delhi, against these red brick and plaster buildings, baking the earth. The women gathering about me seem unconcerned with the heat, despite their brilliant and flowing saris. Having been in the city for five days I am learning to sweat graciously. Why resist the inevitable? Why not welcome what brings relief

Swiftly Dr. Gopinath, the principal, introduces various members of the department before abandoning me. Kasturi, Anjana, Mrs. Khosla. The names disappear from sound and memory almost as soon as they are uttered and I feel that I am smiling like an idiot.

"Please, please"-they usher me to a small buffet of food, tea sandwiches, samosas, pakoras, glasses of soft drinks, improvised on two round tables shoved together. I select a few items and gratefully accept a glass of sweet cola. We all gather in a tight circle of folding chairs, paper plates balanced awkwardly on our knees. I do not get the chance to eat.

"What will you like to teach for us?" asks one of my new colleagues.

"Dr. Gopinath said you will offer a writing workshop for girls who live in the hostel," announces another.

"But he can lecture on modernism and the novel," says yet another of the serious woman gathered about, studying me.

I notice that several of my new colleagues are silent and detached, if not quite hostile. Only weeks later do I discover that some are put out at this entire arrangement. Meenakshi Gopinath, with all the energy and ambition that have created quite a reputation for her well beyond the college, arranged on her own initiative with the Fulbright Office to have me appointed here and thrust my presence on the department as a fait accompli. It will be some time before I can overcome lingering resentments.

"That's what we're here to decide," announces Kasturi, the head of the department. A woman in her late 40's-that's my guess-Kasturi is warm and bustling, full of good will, clearly in charge. She combines qualities of a den mother and warden.

"But you've told me what you wanted," I say, smiling, struggling against a surging tide of dismay. "The one letter I received before leaving-you said you wanted me to lecture on postcolonial literatures." I notice several frowns, some shaking of heads.

"Yes, that's what we told him." This from, I think, Anjana, who will take special charge of me, having earned her doctorate at Penn State and thus, supposedly, best equipped to deal with an American.

"But it's not what the girls will want," says Kasturi briskly. She turns to me. "You will be lecturing our third-year girls and they, you see, must be concerned with preparing for their final exams. It's a terrible system really and we keep trying to do something about it. But then. The exams are set not by us but by Delhi University. They are rusty beyond belief. Archaic. There you have it."

I'm nodding, grinning foolishly. …

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