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Stanford Report, March 8, 2000

Anthropologist analyzes transnational movements of Indian culture


Photo by L.A. Cicero

The movie begins with a familiar story line: Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Her close-knit family in England worries. Then the girl's father uproots the whole family to take them back to their roots in India, where marriages are still arranged by parents.

In a darkened theater in California's Silicon Valley, a man who left India many years ago, a successful computer engineer in his mid-50s with three daughters, finds himself unexpectedly dissolved in tears.

Purnima Mankekar tells this story about an acquaintance's reaction to an Indian film with a sense of wonderment. "What," she asks, "is tearing at these hearts?" Mankekar, an assistant professor of anthropology at Stanford and a member of the far-flung Indian Diaspora herself, searches for ways to explain such complex heart tugs, the global-yet-local nature of today's cultures.

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"A lot of overseas Indians, including people [whose families] left India centuries ago, are much more captivated by these Indian-made films than by those from Hollywood," she says assuredly, after having reviewed industry box office data. "Something resonates, a cultural meta-discourse of behavior and relationship patterns connects them to these films. Some of the people I've met from Guyana and Trinidad actually learned what little Hindi they know from watching these films, and the Indian film industry has become more sensitive to the needs of the Diaspora because they have become a major part of their audience."

Mankekar grew up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of New Delhi, where she was fascinated by movies -- so fascinated that she came to Stanford's Communication Department to study their impact after earning her undergraduate degree in India. She is now one of a growing number of Stanford faculty who are studying the transnational nature of culture, especially linkages between the western United States and Asia. Besides others in the Cultural and Social Anthropology Department who are focused on this topic, faculty in engineering, political science, economics, biology and business are all working on projects about India, partly because India, like Taiwan and Japan before it, has strong business ties to Silicon Valley.

Film and satellite television programs are part of the transnational cultural transmission that Mankekar studies. So are ethnic newspapers, Internet sites, grocery stores and celebrations, such as the Indian Independence Day celebration that drew 8,000 people to Fremont, Calif., last Aug. 15. These are sites for what she calls "public culture." Many of the Fremont parade-goers are also part of the personal global transmission process through frequent travel, phone calls and e-mails to their "homeland." Globalization, Mankekar tells her Stanford students, many of them from Asian family backgrounds who have experienced it firsthand, doesn't mean one homogenized way of thinking and behaving but many curious localized effects. In one session of her popular class this winter, for example, she showed a film of Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific playing cricket -- a game they borrowed from English colonists but greatly modified.

"We can no longer teach anthropology about discrete cultures," Mankekar says. "Our students would laugh us out of the classroom because the world today has all these overlaps."

Take, for example, grocery stores. "When Indian immigrants first come to a country, they want to know where the Indian grocery stores are," says Mankekar, a woman whose friendly manner, direct gaze and open-ended conversational style have won her a teaching award as well as many revealing interviews with strangers. Over vegetable bins and spice racks, she has met many an immigrant and struck up a conversation. "One way to maintain tradition is through your food; it comes up all the time in my interviews," she says. "But the grocery store is not just about food. It's also the place to get advice about what the good neighborhoods are, how to find an apartment, even employment."

Mankekar's earlier studies, which earned her a doctorate in anthropology and also brought her in contact with Akhil Gupta, another Stanford anthropologist who is now her husband, probed the effects of state-run television in India. Her book, Screening Culture, Viewing Politics, has just been published by Duke University Press. Researched as Hindu nationalism surged in India during the late 1980s and early '90s, the book documents how television reshaped Indians' identity, particularly lower-class women who aspired to middle-class status for their children. Her current project focuses on the Diaspora's involvement in the production and consumption of an Indian culture outside of India -- within the San Francisco Bay Area. "I want to understand how Indians create community here and the affiliations that enable them to negotiate the pulls and pushes of the homeland and where they are now living," she says.

Mankekar also plans to look at how India has been transformed by the opening up of the Indian economy and the introduction of transnational media, such as satellite television. CNN came to upper-class urban Indian households in 1991 for the Gulf War. By 1996, there were 76 channels churning out 1,800 hours of programming daily. Foreign-based satellite networks like Zee, Star and Sony now provide nation-specific programming to Asia. To compete, Doordarshan, India's government-owned network that once emphasized nationalistic themes, now provides programs in regional languages and on topics of local interest. "I see it as reterritorialization of culture, drawing local sites of cultural production into increasingly complex relationships with each other and with global circuits of capital," Mankekar says.

'Body shopper' engineers in Bay Area

In her current work, Mankekar interviews Indians who have come to the Bay Area in three waves. Farmworkers came around the turn of the 20th century. After U.S. immigration laws were amended to favor the professionally skilled in 1965, large numbers of doctors and engineers emigrated. The latest wave, which began only in the mid-1990s, has transformed Sunnyvale and Santa Clara, two Bay Area communities where Indian computer industry engineers and their families live in large numbers.

Working on contracts under special visas granted to Silicon Valley companies, rather than to the workers themselves, these immigrants cannot easily move and often have highly educated spouses who cannot legally work in the United States, Mankekar says. "The workers are called 'body shoppers.' Isn't that interesting? Doesn't it speak volumes about their status? It completely disturbs our ideas about immigration and citizenship."

In their homeland, the attitude toward overseas Indians has changed, says Mankekar, who like other expatriates has been subjected to snide remarks in her homeland for having left. "Until the mid '80s, there was a big discussion about the brain drain, so that the person who decided to live abroad was very often considered to be betraying their responsibilities to their motherland," she says. "Now overseas Indians are considered to be part of the nation." The changed attitude can be traced partly, she says, to the non-resident Indians' remuneration to families and also to capital for investment at a time when India badly needed foreign exchange and couldn't get more loans.

Most of the overseas Indians she has met also have strong feelings about India, Mankekar says, which "range from antagonism and hostility to absolute loyalty." They go to Indian films and read ethnic newspapers. "It's so interesting to me the passion with which they write [letters to the editor] about things happening in India as if they were happening in their own neighborhood."

Television's role in reforming identity

Mankekar uses a range of research techniques, but one of the most valuable, she says, has been getting people to tell her what they thought about a film or TV drama. "What I've found is that when people talk about the stories they watch, they also talk about their own lives."

Take, for example, a popular serial that state television aired in 1990 of an ancient Indian myth. A particularly dramatic segment involved Drapudi, a woman in a polyandrous marriage who is used as a wager by her husbands with their enemies.

"The husbands lose and she is dragged into the court of the king where she is publicly disrobed," Mankekar says. "She just loses it. She gives it to her husband. She calls him impotent. She gives it to the king, all the assembled courtiers. The segment is about the legitimacy of her anger."

The directors were interested in nationalistic themes, but for the women viewers whom Mankekar interviewed, the TV serial prompted emotions about their vulnerabilities as women in their families and in public places, she says. Women would compare Drapudi's treatment to incidents in their own lives, or of their mothers and daughters. Viewers, she argues, used the television portrayals to both understand and critique their own subservient roles in families and society.

"I also found TV played an important role in making women think about the kinds of things they could do to benefit the community, not just themselves and the family. The flip side of that is that only certain kinds of action were legitimated [by the shows]. An aggressive, frontal critique of inequality within the family was less acceptable. Critiques around control of women's sexuality were not OK. At the same time in the TV story lines, women were being encouraged to come into the public sphere."

Now, Mankekar says, international media competition is bringing more attention to family relationships than did state TV. Dramas about adultery and divorce may be removed from the real lives of the lower-class women she interviewed, but Mankekar has no doubt the portrayals fascinate them and affect how they view themselves and the world.

"It's a wonderful time," she says, her eyes gleaming, "to study how ideas are transmitted around the world." SR