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Last Collection: Bakirathi Mani

Last Collection: Bakirathi Mani

Welcome everyone, and thank you for this incredible honor. It occurred to me that this final collection talk might be your way of paying me back after you've written all those final papers for my classes! So, I've dutifully spent many hours thinking about doing research for this talk. I sat in front of my computer waiting for inspiration to strike, and in the meantime refined my skills of procrastination. Instead of writing, I assiduously read one website after another: from the celebrity gossip at, to the entertainment news on, to snarky movie reviews. And at the end of all that time online, I got hungry and went to make myself a little snack. The next day, I again waited in vain for inspiration and turned in solace to the web, until finally I had a couple of days to write this collection speech and found myself in a state of panic. It looks like at the end of the semester I've finally perfected my research skills! As it turns out, I don't have any pithy metaphors to offer about life after Swarthmore. Instead I have only my own reflections on how our lives have been intertwined over the past four years, and how our collective work might help us to think about the world around us.

Graduation is always a sentimental as well as celebratory occasion. At the very least, the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony tomorrow will enable you to commemorate your achievements. You have survived Swarthmore: its academic and intellectual rigours, its intimate and at times claustrophobic environment, its emotional and mental demands. Over these past four years, you have also pulled a variety of all-nighters: not only the nights you stayed up trying to finish a paper, but more importantly all the nights you stayed up with friends and lovers, talking and weeping and fighting and being together in a way that is only possible at Swarthmore. So instead of focusing on your considerable academic work here, I want to spend some time talking about the lives you've created beyond the four walls of the classroom. I want to explore how your time here has enabled you to find a perspective on yourself and on the world that you may never have imagined before.

This year, graduation is an especially sentimental occasion for me as well. Not only do I have to say goodbye to so many of you, whom I have worked with extensively over the past years; it is also a season of celebration and reflection in my own family as my brother graduates from MIT next weekend. So I want to acknowledge two people in the audience whose love and care has shaped my own life: my parents, Pushkala and APS Mani. They join me in the audience today, having flown in from Tokyo just a couple of days ago. The last time that they saw me speak in a graduation ceremony, it was 1992 and I was graduating from high school, (that's probably when all of you were in kindergarten or first grade, which is a little mortifying). They are my first audience and strongest supporters, and for that I want to thank them.

My parents and I are the family members of a graduate, and like so many of you, our time together is filled with mixed feelings: feelings of celebration and anticipation, but also concern and perhaps caution. I cannot speak for my whole family, but for myself, I have selfish concerns. As my brother finishes his graduate degree, I want him to pursue his career anywhere in the world. But I also want him to be close enough to Philadelphia to visit me once in a while. That's just me speaking as an older sister who occasionally bosses my brother around. For my parents, I feel that their attendance at our graduation ceremonies has been a mixture of pride and pain. Pride in the achievements of their children, but also a painful acknowledgement of how far their son and daughter have moved away from home. So to all the parents and family members in the audience: my warmest congratulations. Please know I share with you both an enormous sense of pride in the accomplishments of your Swarthmore graduate, but I also understand the mixed feelings that can accompany that sense of tremendous joy at this time.

As someone who has been a student, a teacher, as well as a family member of graduate, let me try to explore this moment of transition between Swarthmore and the so-called "real world." However much Swarthmore is described as an "ivory tower," there are probably more real-world lessons you've learnt here that are useful in life beyond Swarthmore, and by that I mean more than just the skills of reading and writing. I think that there is a way in which Swarthmore prepares you to think about the world in imaginative ways, and so my aim today is to think creatively about your relationship to a globalizing world.

I have a long relationship with this word "globalization." When I studied international relations as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, my course curriculum was heavily centered on what we called "guns and bombs." Our liberal arts education centered on foreign policy, on histories of warfare, on tactical strategies for international diplomacy. This was in the early '90s, after the first Gulf War. In one of my large lecture classes during my freshman year, we read an essay by the political scientist Benjamin Barber, who wrote an essay titled "Jihad versus McWorld." Here's the introduction from Barber's essay:

Just beyond the horizon of current events lie two possible futures — both bleak, neither democratic. The first is a retribalization of large swaths of humankind by war and bloodshed [...] in which culture is pitted against culture, people against people, tribe against tribe [...] The second is being borne on use by the onrush of economic and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity and that mesmerize the world with fast music, fast computers, and fast food [...] pressing nations into one commercially homogenous global network [...] The planet is falling precipitantly apart AND coming reluctantly together at the very same moment.

One of my professors translated that essay into plainer English for us: he said that the world was split into two camps: one that Barber called "McWorld" and the other, "Jihad." Whereas McWorld characterized the economic, social, and cultural uniformity produced through the movement of media and capital, Jihad characterized the emergence of new nationalist and separatist movements (in the '90s, this would include the Balkanization of the former Yugoslavia as well as the emergence of new nation-states after the Cold War). I remember that reading Barber's essay left a great imprint on me, not least because I was actually awake in my class that day. On the one hand, this essay seemed to capture the complexity of world events at the close of the 20th century. On the other hand, Barber painted a bleak picture of the world, a view of the future that made no room for new kinds of communities, identities, and solidarities.

Barber's thesis on globalization came to mind when I was reflecting on our present relationship to the so-called "real world." Fifteen years later, despite major political, ecological, and social upheaval, the ways in which we think about globalization is not so different. We talk about globalization in polarizing terms: either as the free mobility of capital (McWorld) or as the emergence of new and threatening nationalisms (Jihad). Our conceptual tools for dealing with this binary are somewhat limited. The difference between McWorld and Jihad, between what used to be called "the east" and "the west," is now transformed into an unbridgeable gulf between modernity and tradition, liberation versus oppression, or as the current U.S. president would have it, you're either with us or against us. That kind of polarizing rhetoric leaves very little room for choice, and no breathing space for contradiction.

My own foray into studies of globalization since my undergraduate years has moved away from the science of guns and bombs towards the study of the humanities. I'm now an English professor, not a foreign service diplomat (that's at least one indication that your majors have very little to do with your eventual careers!) Thinking back onto my early college experience, I don't think Barber was wrong. Certainly, what he had to say was compelling, particularly as he pointed out how difficult it was to form a global community, if we take into account political, cultural, and ideological differences. But at the same time, Barber was also threatened by the emergence of new national and ethnic groups who made claims on the modern world. In that sense, I think that Barber understood the world very differently from me. I arrived in the United States as a foreign student: to me it was America that was weird and confusing, not other peoples in other parts of the world. So as we look towards the 21st century — towards the world that you are inheriting — my question is: is there a way of understanding globalization beyond the dichotomies of "us" versus "them" that we are already familiar with?

In my English classes, I use literature and film as a way of reading the world around us. We read novels, short stories, plays, and poetry by authors who are immigrants to the United States, and who represent a vast array of literary traditions — authors who trace their origins to the Caribbean, to Asia, to the Middle East, and Africa. Our objective is not only to explore the ways in which "other" peoples and "other" cultures live, but also to understand how we are shaped by our engagement with those peoples and places. Those of you who have taken my courses know that we in the West have been shaped profoundly by our engagement with the so-called East: that these two camps share long histories of cultural exchange and trade, as well as histories of imperialism and colonialism. It is this legacy that informs our understanding of globalization today. We cannot ally with either side — east or west, McWorld or Jihad — because we are shaped by both; our lives are constituted by this contradiction, and we must live with the differences that define us.

That sense of living with difference, of being in-between two worlds, is captured beautifully by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri. Some of you might know her name: Lahiri's most recent book is called Unaccustomed Earth. I've just got my hands on that book, but I've been mired in grading those infamous final papers, so I have yet to read it. But I'm a great fan of her writing, and especially the stories from her first short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. The last story in that collection is called "The Third and Final Continent," and it's the story of an unnamed Indian man who travels in the 1960s from India to England for his graduate degree, returns to India to get married, and then travels again from India to the U.S. to become a librarian at MIT. When the narrator first arrives in the U.S., he looks for a temporary accomodation and finds a room to rent in the house of a woman named Mrs. Croft. Mrs. Croft is described as a "tiny, extremely old woman" whose "mass of snowy hair was arranged like a small sack on top of her head." She wears a Victorian ruffled-collar gown: and Lahiri says that, "Age had battered her features so that she almost resembed a man" (Interpreter of Maladies 177). The narrator has never met anyone like Mrs. Croft, who is so unlike his own mother or anyone else he knows. She is 103 years old, and the narrator is impressed by the sweeping sense of history that Mrs. Croft has witnessed. But he is also appalled by the fact that Mrs. Croft has never traveled far from her Cambridge home, when in contrast he has traveled across continents and left his wife behind in Calcutta.

The day that the narrator arrives in the U.S. is also the day that the first Americans land on the moon: and so when the narrator meets Mrs. Croft, she declares her excitement at that turn of events. Here's a passage from the story:

She slapped the space beside her on the bench with one hand, and told me to sit down. For a moment she was silent. Then she intoned, as if she alone possessed this knowledge:

"There is an American flag on the moon!"

"Yes madame." Until then I had not thought very much about the moon shot. It was in the newspaper, of course, article upon article. [...] The voyage was hailed as man's most awesome achievement. [...]

The woman bellowed, "A flag on the moon, boy! I heard it on the radio! Isn't that splendid?"
"Yes, madame."

But she was not satisfied with my reply. Instead she commanded, "Say 'splendid'!" (179)

For the rest of the story, each time the narrator enters Mrs. Croft's home to go back to his room, she commands him to say "Splendid!" This goes on for weeks, long after the American flag falls down from the moon's surface, and by that time the narrator is tired of responding to Mrs. Croft's command. But he does so every evening, until one day he leaves her home and moves into an apartment with his wife, Mala, who comes to join him from India.

The point of this short story is that across their vast differences — differences of race and class, of religion and of national origin — Mrs. Croft and the narrator forge an unexpected relationship. They don't become friends (far from it, as they are still landlord and tenant) but they do develop a mutual understanding and respect for one another. Mrs. Croft, who hasn't gone beyond her front yard for the past 20 years, welcomes into her home this young man from India who doesn't have the slightest clue about life in America. In turn, the narrator learns from Mrs. Croft that he must be open to new relationships, including a relationship with Mala. For despite the fact that the narrator and Mala have an arranged marriage (they speak the same language, eat the same food, share a similar religious and class background), they are virtual strangers to each other. It is only when the narrator brings Mala to meet Mrs. Croft that, for the first time, she forgets about the men on the moon. Instead, she proclaims that Mala is the "perfect lady!" So it's through Mrs. Croft that the narrator and his wife fall in love with each other, and over the ensuing decades build a life together in America.

Is there a moral to this story? I don't think so. But what's interesting about Lahiri's work is that she provides us with a way of understanding the intimacy of globalization. If you think about the historical background to this short story, it's the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that allows professional Asian immigrants (like the narrator) to come to the United States. The arrival of the men on the moon in 1969 also coincides with a moment of crisis in the U.S. civil rights movement: it is the year of the Stonewall riots, which inaugurates the U.S. gay and lesbian movement, but it is one year after the death of Martin Luther King, and the country is still mired in the Vietnam War. So when the narrator meets Mrs. Croft, the political climate is not particularly conducive for an Indian immigrant and a 103-year old American woman to get to know each other. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the story is not the fact of men landing on the moon, but the fact that a man like the narrator can travel across the seas and find a home and a sense of friendship in the house of Mrs. Croft.

The tentative alliance that is forged between Mrs. Croft and the narrator holds a gesture of hope, a possibility of negotiating the differences between "us" and "them," between the West and the Rest. "The Third and Final Continent" imaginatively creates a relationship between two people that stretches across oceans and continents. Theirs is a relationship characterized by discovering the new world (which in this case is America as well as the moon); but it's also an alliance that is shaped by the melancholy of past lives and peoples left behind. It's a way of thinking about the future of the world that centers on new forms of communities and solidarities. And in that regard, it's probably more optimistic — and more accurate — than the threat of either "McWorld" or "Jihad."

At the end of "The Third and Final Continent," the narrator, now long-settled in Boston, drives to Cambridge to see his son, who's now in college. (Unfortunately he's at Harvard rather than Swarthmore!). And Lahiri writes, in the voice of the narrator:

Whenever he is discouraged, I tell him that if I can survive on three continents, then there is no obstacle he cannot conquer. While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination. (Interpreter of Maladies, 198)

So, like Lahiri's narrator who tries to figure out his place in a new world, let me try to explain how you can imagine new communities and solidarities in the world outside Swarthmore. It seems to me that part of the process of being open to new alliances is to understand who you are in relation to the places you've gone, the people you've met, and the memories that you carry. Forging alliances across difference is about having a critical perspective on the various personal and political histories that have shaped you.

The literary critic Edward Said had something very prescient to say in this regard. In his 1978 book, Orientalism, Said cites the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who writes:

"The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is 'knowing thyself' as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory." The only available English translation inexplicably leaves Gramsci's comment at that, whereas in fact Gramsci's Italian text concludes by adding, "therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory." (25)

Those of you who've known me in my classes at Swarthmore also know that I don't generally share my personal life with you. That is an inventory that I've kept fairly private, even though it has informed my most public interactions. So I thought I could end my talk today by sharing with you an inventory of myself, in the hope that my own narrative of travel can help you make your way after Swarthmore.

As most of you know, I was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), and when I was a year old I moved with my parents to Tokyo. That is where my brother and I grew up, and that is where my parents continue to live, over 30 years later. I went to an international school that was administered by an Irish Catholic nun, and I was also one of the very few children in my class whose parents came from the same country. Most of my friends were of multiracial parentage, and so many of them could claim Japan as one of their homes. In contrast, as a child I was always taught to say that I was Indian, from Bombay. It wasn't until I came to the United States that I met others like myself, the second-generation children of (largely professional) immigrants who migrated from South Asia. During my first year in college, I met many young men and women of South Asian origin. When I asked them where they were from, they responded that they were from Pennsylvania; from Connecticut; from California; from Dubai; from Hong Kong — they were from places in the world so far from India. For me, those conversations were far richer than anything I was hearing in my large lecture classes: those 3 a.m. conversations fueled by caffeine helped me to realize that a brown-skinned, curly-haired, tall girl like me could claim to be Japanese, even if only in name and not in citizenship.

So yes, in my view globalization is a personal experience: an experience of displacement and dislocation, of ambivalence and unsettledness. I couldn't quite figure out where I belonged, or to whom I belonged. When I finished college that became all the more true because I didn't have a job, or a partner, or plans for further study. Through a friend of my family's I had an internship at the United Nations in New York but (like most interns) I wasn't paid for that work. So two months after I graduated from college, I made what was probably my most random life decision: I decided to move to New Delhi, which is a city I had never lived in. In New Delhi, I enrolled in a master's degree program at a public institution where the dormitories had no air conditioning, no phone, and only sporadic electricity; we had running water for four hours a day (on the other hand, my tuition fees were only $35 per semester). A far cry from my cushy undergraduate dorm, and I even found myself becoming nostalgic for the campus cafeteria. But it turns out that the two years I spent in Delhi were the most transformative years of my life. I met people who came from small towns and cities in remote regions of India; who were of every religious faith and linguistic group; who were students, journalists, actors, airline stewardesses, and Communist party workers. My time in Delhi was important not least because I learnt that although I had an Indian passport, in many ways the only home I knew was in Tokyo. Eventually, I left India to do my doctoral research in California, and so my personal and intellectual travels have taken me across two continents, if not three. At no point in those years after graduation did I ever think I was going to end up teaching literature at Swarthmore. In fact, I had been waitlisted at Swarthmore when I applied as a high school senior (so teaching here has been my own form of payback!) The point is that in some ways the choices I've made have been a matter of chance, and luck, as well.

Teaching at Swarthmore for the past six years is the longest time that I've spent in one city in the United States. Strangely enough, the college has begun to feel like home for me as well. Four years ago, when you were first-year students, I met my partner at the Quaker Matchbox. That man, Mario Ruiz, is also here with me today. For someone so invested in studies of globalization, I surprised myself: I fell in love with a Chicano man who speaks Arabic and teaches Middle East History. Both of us now carry in our lives our chequered pasts: our nomadic forays across Asia and the Americas, around the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and far beyond. We have families who live across the country and halfway around the world. But most importantly, with Mario I have learnt to engage with difference. The differences that shape us are personal and political. But in learning to confront and converse across these differences, I have built a partnership with Mario that has reshaped my life in the most unexpected ways. This is my inventory of the self, to which I constantly add. And since I have had the pleasure of knowing so many of you, adding your stories to my inventory, I constantly rewrite my own narrative.

As I said at the beginning of my talk, I have no advice to give you. You are light years ahead of where I was when I was graduated from college: many of you have jobs (or leads to jobs), you have graduate school admissions, and some of you even have leases on apartments. I had very little: I knew only that my parents had come from afar for my graduation ceremony, that I wanted to make them proud, that my future was uncertain, and that, despite my overwhelming fear, I had to try to meet it with confidence. So the only thing I can say is: be open to your engagement with the world. Be open to the people you'll meet, the places you'll go, to the decisions that you'll have to make. This is a difficult time to be open: in this country, at least, there is a culture of fear that shelters us from engaging with the world. But whether you plan to travel far away or just as far as Philadelphia, I ask you to be aware of new possibilities. Surround yourself with friends who are both empathetic and critical: who remind you that you can always, within limits, rewrite your narrative of your self. Be open, too, to the prospect of falling in love. If like me you watch reality dating shows — my current favourite is A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila — you know that as much you deride all the contestants on T.V., part of you wishes that it were so easy to fall in love! So be open to the joy in your own life and perhaps in the life of another. There is no difference in the world that cannot be negotiated through mutual respect, admiration, and affection.

This is a fabulous, amazing — and dare I say it, a splendid — part of your life. You deserve all the love and laughter that comes with it. Bring that sense of joy to your encounters — bring that intelligence to your reading and writing of the world. You have a capacious ability to shape the world around you, and you have an unparalled education that gives you the tools to do so.

Congratulations, graduates. The world is yours.

Thank you.