Letters between a Lepcha Geographer and a Naga Anthropologist

Dear Dolly, 
 
I am so glad I reached out to you after hearing your UCLA talk, and for your honest and generous response that unspooled into such a heartfelt conversation. When I heard your UCLA talk, I found myself nodding along, laughing (that menopause analogy is hilarious and brilliant), and tearing up because so much of what you said resonated with me at a body and soul level. Like growing up hearing about spirits and curses (apparently if you tried to steal the fruits from a Lepcha bongthing’s (shaman) garden your hand would shrivel up or the story of the little ghost boy with no face running alongside my uncle’s car in Mangan, Sikkim); the feeling of utter confusion and insecurity in grad school seminars (like the time I read the first lines of Laclau and Mouffe’s ‘Hegemony and Socialist strategy’ – “the subject is dead” and burst into tears because I had no idea who the “subject” was and felt I had made a big mistake by coming to grad school); but also the feeling of liberation and freedom you describe when you find value in your own voice and the beautiful friendships and mentors in academia who offered comfort and support. So here we are in conversation once again about our experiences as tribal women from the Northeast/Himalayas in the Euro-Western academy – Ok! let’s see how this experiment unfolds.

As I listened to your talk, I was struck by the strong resonances it had with my own experiences growing up in Dehradun and the summers spent with my mother’s family in Sikkim. So, just to share a bit more about me – my maternal family is from Sikkim, and belong to the Lepcha tribe. My paternal grandfather a Ladakhi Christian met my grandmother a Bengali Christian in Srinagar , Kashmir, where they married and settled down (a story for another time is how some folks attributed any academic success in our family to our “Bengali genes” *eye roll*).

Dadiji (Florence Chandramukhi Gergan) and Memeley (Sonam Skybladen Gergan)

Srinagar is also where my father went to school and he then went to Jammu University, where he received his PhD in Geology (the first Ladakhi to do so!). I was born in Gangtok, Sikkim and when I was about two, we moved to Dehradun for my father’s work as a geologist at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan geology

Elder brother (Matthias Phurba Sonam Gergan), Amaley (Longthormit Gergan), me and Abaley (Dr. Joseph Thsetan Gergan)

I remember growing up quite patriotic because of how in Dehradun, Uttarakhand’s Hindu pahadi pride mixes with national pride in the Indian Military Academy, ONGC, Survey of India, and Forest Reserve of India – all iconic national institutions. Dehradun also has a good mix of folks from the wider Himalayan region – a sizeable population of Tibetan refugees, Nepali folks mostly from military families, and folks from Ladakh, including some of my paternal relatives. Today, there is a sizeable population of students from the Northeast but not so much when I was growing up. Two of my closest friends in high school were from Kuamon and Garhwal, and the other school kids nicknamed us the “Gorkha regiment” *eye roll* So I guess I am a Himalayan hybrid lol and though I had an appreciation for both my Lepcha heritage and Ladakhi ancestry, I did not identify deeply with either. If anything, I grew up feeling like I had a sense of responsibility to both communities. 
 
It was only much later during my Delhi University admissions process that required producing an “ST certificate,” where I began to have some sense of a tribal identity as a broad state category, separate from ancestral and cultural ties to a place and people, you know? I remember staring at the certificate and thinking what the hell does “BOT” mean? At Delhi University I developed close friendships with tribal students from different Northeastern states (Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland), who introduced me to an alternate reality of India that challenged my pahadi patriotism. But it was only later during my time in TISS (2006-08) Mumbai, that I would understand the full weight of this reality. The students, faculty, and fieldwork travel at TISS, transformed and challenged me, and shook all the remaining patriotism out of me. I was part of the first cohort to specialize in Dalit and Tribal Social Work (DTSW) at TISS, a product of the labor of Dalit and Tribal professors there. I credit my own political and academic foundation to the formative years spent learning with my DTSW batchmates, the internships, and the passionate professors who encouraged each one of us to pursue further studies. I still carry with me the legacy of their vision and leadership.

Ok wow, information overload. Let me switch gears, and turn it over to you with some questions and provocations that came to mind as I heard your UCLA talk, so here goes: 
 
Q: What was everyday life like for a child growing up in place made unfamiliar by violence and colonizing forces, and designated by the state as a “turbulent frontier”, a backwards region, and as you mention in your talk a “disturbed area”? I’m thinking especially if any childhood memories stand out to you or that hold a special place for you that may or may not map onto outsider’s perceptions of living in a “disturbed area”. 
 
Q: You talk about your mother and how “I am here because of her sacrifices” – truly, we stand on the shoulders of our elders and ancestors. You also talk about her incomprehension at the many years you have dedicated to research and activism, summarized in the title of your talk “Are you still studying?” This reflection made me think about two separate but related concerns regarding family – first, as a Lotha woman and an anthropologist, what place, if any do personal family and community histories, have in your scholarship especially given how we are trained to distance ourselves from these histories in academic training and writing practice? Second, for women, queer folks, and those who are non-conforming to societal norms, family can often be a site of violence. What does reciprocity and responsibility to family and community look like in such a context?
 
Q: Another thing I loved in your talk was how you weave in the spirit world with politics, and critique how within academia and anthropology these were understood as primitive beliefs. Could you share some encounters or stories involving spirits and the supernatural that have remained with you and that perhaps shape your political and personal journey?
 
Q: Within US academia, given the institutionalization of diversity and decolonization talk, many minority scholars feel this pressure to self-promote and market themselves in very individualizing terms. In general, academic success can feel like a very selfish and individualistic pursuit where you constantly have to demonstrate you are doing something unique or ground breaking. Sometimes we forget the ground has been broken by so many others who have gone before us whose labor and foresight were not valued or knowingly dismissed. Do you feel this tension in your academic career? And perhaps relatedly, I’m thinking of the lines you quoted from W.E.B DuBois “I know an excellent colored man in my town” – how does it feel to be held up as the excellent Naga/Tribal/Lotha woman in town?
 
Q: You mentioned how anthropology as a discipline has failed you, and how disciplinary and institutional spaces can be the site of so much pedagogical violence especially for tribal and minority students. I was reflecting on my own experience in the discipline of geography, and how even though it is a very white and colonial discipline, I have found it to be quite a dynamic field with room for diverse fields of thought. Perhaps it’s because geography doesn’t have a strong canon like sociology and anthropology, and moreover it does not have a home in any of the ivy leagues. Not to make this into a geography vs. anthropology debate lol but do you think some disciplinary and institutional spaces are less welcoming for tribal students? What advice would you give to tribal students wanting to pursue their further studies in the social science and humanities field?
 
Q: Ok a final question (for now), looking back at your research and scholarship, I see the theme of decolonization has been either latent or explicit in all your writing. How do you see yourself developing this theme in the future and what projects are you most excited about working on?

Jan 2nd, 2021
 
Dearest Mabel,

 
Thank you for sharing this story. I am so moved Mabel. 
 
I like the idea of reflecting together via letters. For some reason I feel the format is perfect; sort of a very deep political and feminist conversation in a letter-writing genre. Have you read “The Torture Letters” by Laurence Ralph? (2020 University of Chicago Press). Check it out, I was moved reading this book. It is a powerful text and all the chapters are written as letters. I feel we can have something along that line too. An Open letter about our experiences as academics and what we feel as writers. 
 
I was chuckling when I read about the ghosts in your email. Oh man! That faceless ghost was also part of my childhood. Connecting with Himalayan ghosts and urbanization is wonderful. Have you read “Tragic Spirits” by Manduhai Buyandelger (2013)? 
 
There were stories about ghosts, especially around the railway station in Dimapur. I heard stories about passengers getting off from the midnight trains arriving in Nagaland and encountering urban ghosts in shops and cafes. The faceless autorickshaw driver, or the shop keeper who had hoofs instead of hands. And then when we went up to Wokha, stories of the British ghosts awaited us. The most amazing one for me was the white headless ghost in a white horse who galloped across Wokha. In my grandparents’ place, I would hear stories about ghostly soldiers from the World War II as well. The sounds of the hoof going thok thok thok, the elders would tell us, was heard across the household. It seems the haunting became scarier after the concrete steps were constructed because the sounds of the hoof were magnified. That’s what my uncles said. When they narrated these stories, they emphasized the thok thok thok so much it still scares me!
 
Alright. I promise you a long email, but for now, let me just reflect on your email and the questions. 
 
Hugs
Dolly

Mhalo Kikon (m0m), me and my niece Kimiro Kikon Sautman

DOLLY

Dear Mabel,
thank you for reaching out to me. It means a lot that the UCLA reflections opened up spaces for us to connect and talk about our lives. I am responding to your note during a time – February 2021 – where I am embarking on a journey with questions about pedagogy, structural violence, and the role of engagement as an anthropologist. That a single discipline or identity should define our lives is rather a sad thing, but I am identifying my role as an anthropologist for a reason. The training that I received, particularly ethnographic writing, taught me how to write and frame the world around me. My connection and ability to go through the written text and celebrate stories and theories is part of the transformation of Naga society. 
 
My success as an academic is tied to the Naga people’s spirit of resilience and attempt to engage with justice and reconciliation. As indigenous people whose vision for sovereignty and justice in post-colonial India turned into the world’s longest armed conflict, the questions and puzzles that drive me to write and think are founded on a history of the Naga people. When aspirations and dreams are exiled, as we have seen from the Naga people’s quest for the right to self-determination, what kinds of realities and neocolonial regimes take shape? Such questions came to me much before I entered a doctoral program to earn my PhD in Anthropology at Stanford University. At the same time, my own experiences of being a tribal woman from Northeast India and the perceptions of being stupid or a free loader (being a beneficiary of the Scheduled Tribe Reservation) pushed me to prove myself. The debate about affirmative action and a merit based “open” competition in Indian society is a fraught one. Therefore, the sparks that shaped my life is not a personal story. 

There is a collective truth about being shamed, about being angry, and being categorized as tribal/Adivasi, and realities of suffering and violence. And from all these emerged a pathway of light – a journey where all that experience created a vision to forge ahead and address concerns about political aspirations and how we might explore new dreams and ideas. At this moment, I am on that journey. I have found a sisterhood and a community who came before me to walk that path, many are here today among us marching and thinking and writing, and a multitude will come after us. Because human beings we will never cease to dream, I believe that our ability to imagine and strive for justice and hope will always remain a beautiful journey.

MABEL

Can I interject here? I think this is so important to reflect on: When do our personal struggles become a part of the collective struggle? This feeling of humiliation is something that all “reserved category” people have experienced in educational spaces. I am sometimes wary of giving it too much space or importance in my story but increasingly, I find that these moments are important to acknowledge (in specific spaces) especially if one has the privilege of being a professor. I think it makes so many tribal students feel seen and heard. I know I felt that way when the tribal professors I knew in TISS, opened up to us about their struggles within academia.

DOLLY

Becoming articulate and being able to write is to become aware of the depth of colonization and the fractures of decolonization. All the postcolonial experiences for marginalized citizens in India revolve around unresolved accounts of exploitation, dispossession, and discrimination. Though I was drawn to the power of the text, the philosophies, and the ethnographic texts I read as a graduate student, the privileges that came with institutions of higher learning obscured its relevance. It made me ask new questions. If texts and getting an education became instruments to reiterate and reproduce caste, race, and toxic intellectual masculinity, how do we become accountable academics?  

MABEL:

Ooh boy, this is good stuff. You are articulating a central struggle I experience with the structure of academia and the academic writing process.

DOLLY

What concerns me as someone from Northeast India is the reality of the region. Northeast India and its history, and the lived experiences of the people from the region is a reality.

Mhalo Kikon with us

Being part of the academy and as an anthropologist, I am passionate about ethnographic writing as a practice that constantly makes me conscious. Writing makes me a Naga, a member of the communities from Northeast India – one of the most diverse regions in the Indian subcontinent – and also a citizen who carries an Indian passport. The true spirit of federalism succeeds when there is a closeness that communities feels about their ancestral lands and their respective nations; the power to manage and govern their resources and histories. Citizenship works when our role as citizens is grounded in exploring ways to embrace a collective history and how we can better ourselves as ethical citizens. For me, the collective history in the context of Northeast involves the history of militarization, human rights, and resource extraction.

Me and mom in Shillong

MABEL

I really loved how you phrased this bit: “and also a citizen who carries an Indian passport. Really, what does Indian citizenship mean to those who have never been considered full members of the state?

DOLLY

Responsible citizenship is not possible when tribal and Adivasi lands are taken away by extractive companies. Unless we understand that the most marginalized communities in the country are given the power to shape their futures, and that they are the traditional custodians of their land and holds deep knowledge, the postcolonial experience of citizenship is bereft of real meaning. This consciousness starts with me – deep in the belly of my writing and thinking world – as forms, thoughts, alphabets, confusion, rage – all struggle and jostle for space to make meaning and sense. Therefore, when I speak and write about racism, caste, privileges, the challenges of diversity in the academy, or the issue of standardized academic writing, what concerns me is to start these dialogues, or join in to reflect on ongoing collective actions and practices. 
 
None of the topics I am grappling with are new in the academy. And this requires us to remain committed as academics who are reflecting and engaging with issues of diversity and justice. Many of us have decades of training and a great determination to uphold radical scholarship and ideas, but these efforts are concentrated in “helping” indigenous, minorities, queer, or colored students and staff. Many of us also take up administrative and governance roles in the academy to address these issues at an institutional level, but there are complex processes at work. Of course, we can get into a deep conversation about who is “us” and who is “we”. For me this “we” is primarily the first-generation indigenous scholars and writers. And this “us” constitutes the alliances of solidarities founded on respect, decolonization, and fellowship across race/caste/class we have managed to establish. But let me dwell on a smaller everyday issues. For instance, how we understand the word “peer” in the academy? The hierarchy and power relations in the academy are real. The earlier we accept this truth, the better it is for us to tear down civilities founded on condensation and superiority on the basis of race, case, class etc. The word peer gets thrown around carelessly. Thus, when we say that our drafts and manuscripts undergo a “peer” review for journals and edited books, the experience is often hard. For some it is traumatic. If the measure of our intellectual excellence is getting an article in an academic journal, it creates even more anxiety. Often, there are stories how indigenous scholars and other minorities have had to swallow all kinds of sexist/racist/casteist comments to get through these gates. The reward is a “peer review” article but perhaps being in the academy should not be about normalizing racism and casteism. 
 
Are indigenous scholars, intellectuals and academics on probation? Unless we are clear and explicit about our argument and research to a select group of academics, we remain intellectual prisoners in an academy controlled by white/upper caste/class academics. Thus, be wary of academic terms like “peers”. This is something I want indigenous, first generation, queer, colored, marginalized scholars entering the academy to chew on, swallow well, and digest. Find a safe and nurturing community early on. If you are trapped in a toxic network or a social circle where you feel suffocated to constantly explain your position or are drawn to feel small and inferior, move out. Get out. That is not the space for you to grow and find your voice. Remember, your presence in the academy is a mind-altering reality for that white/upper caste/class colleague. It might be potentially the most radical thing they have actually seen in their lives. The subject from the ghetto, the marginalized voice, the indigenous body from a reservation, that Dalit/tribal/Adivasi body equipped with language, text, and thoughts making it across the fortress of an institution called the academy. Your presence is already an intellectual rebellion pitted against a dominant institution founded on colonialism, violence, and deep inequality. 

MABEL

This is such great advice about finding a nurturing community also the “Get out” bit, reminds me of the movie! I think a big part of why I have fared well in academia so far, is that ever since TISS, I have been surrounded by supportive mentors and friends who are more like personal cheerleaders. I also love the word study of “peer” – so many complex power dynamics encapsulated in that one word. Perhaps going through the “peer review” process is also a reminder of the true nature of the university that has never had a healthy relationship with marginalized groups, and has in fact been complicit in creating and justifying tools of oppression.
 
Both our disciplines, Anthropology and Geography, have played a role in justifying colonial expansion and creating racial and spatial hierarchies that have legitimized mundane and extraordinary violence against tribal people and their territories. In speaking with our dear friend Pasang Sherpa, she explained how as the first anthropologist from her community, her primary audience is the Sherpa community in Nepal and the diaspora. However, she is constantly pulled into projects as the “indigenous voice on climate change” – something she cares about deeply but this requires her to side line her passion project on transnational Sherpa identity. Her story really illustrates the disjuncture between what kinds of stories indigenous scholars want to write vs. what academia thinks indigenous scholars should write about. 
 
That’s why I love your work on fermentation and food, it decenters the focus on the state and consider what brings communities across the Himalayan region, together. And the thing is, even from an academic perspective, studying transnational indigenous identities and fermentation cultures, is exciting and generative of rich theoretical insights. But due to academic gatekeeping very few indigenous scholars have legibility or credibility to get a wide readership. Those same insights, packaged in more sophisticated language by upper-caste and white scholars, will get a wider readership either because of the theorists they are in conversations with or just because of their networks. You know kinda like the indie or underground music scene, and how it only becomes famous when some mainstream artists samples their beats or like when Bollywood remakes a Tamil movie and it becomes a super hit but then you watch the Tamil movie and you’re like hey this is way better lol.

DOLLY

That’s a good one Mabel! Of course, identities are not homogenous. As a Naga anthropologist, I observe how tribal elites and the wealthy stay close together because they need to survive and protect their beautiful lives. The Naga people have witnessed and experienced one of the world’s longest armed conflict in the twentieth century. After the government of India and the Naga armed groups entered a ceasefire in 1997, the government introduced a series of development programs and economic initiatives on the ground. The reality is grim though. Nagaland tops the charts as the state with the highest rate of school dropouts in India. in 2018, a national survey on schools found out that in Nagaland, the student dropout rate at the primary school level (Grade 1-4) is 19.4 percent, which was four time above the national average of 4.3 percent.[1] Therefore, as I talk about the academy and representation, the reality is terrifying. Indigenous children and the future generation from marginalized communities increasingly experience a distressing reality of deep inequalities and poverty. Do they have dreams? Yes. How do they go about seeking the knowledge and planning a pathway to a university degree? What kinds of support structure do they have in place? 
 
My experience as an academic contains some lessons, and this is why when I speak about gatekeepers in the academy, this is not a hollow assertion. I came up the academic ladder, first as a field informant, then as a researcher, and then an established author and writer. To be honest, I was embarrassed of calling myself an author for a long time. Did I write? Yes. But horribly. That is what I thought. Overtime the process of writing, the joy of expressing in text and also connecting with a community of readers led me to embrace writing and language as an exhilarating world. I do not think about my writing as neatly falling into a political, cultural, or social slot. The texts are all of these and perhaps more. Unless I embrace my own identity as a Naga and recognize the world of my elders and the existing suffering and resilience of my people, I cannot empathize with other struggles out there, or have a vision to imagine and work towards a shared future. If I am not able to embrace the spirits and prayers and the sorrows that bleeds from my own land, my writings, stories, texts, theories, and principles I write and stand for remain incomplete. It is all meaningless. 
 
I also experienced the terrifying disease in the academy known as the imposter syndrome. It is a terror for many and it was for me as well. This suffering made me realize something. The desire for knowledge can also empty out our soul. Like sad dried tumble weed rolling across a dry desert, any education that makes someone feel so small and insignificant is a degree devoid of liberatory and emancipatory politics. 

MABEL

Omg I feel like I knew so many sad dried tumbleweeds in graduate school! They made me so nervous, and always with May 1968, like what is with that year? This also reminds me of Ajantha Subhramaniam’s book the “Caste of Merit” (2019), and how the language of meritocracy especially within elite institutions, conceals the larger context of structural privilege, hence reproducing casteist and racist hierarchies.

DOLLY

Yes, but merit is also a keyword across universities in the global north. What is a graduate seminar classroom for you? Is it just the sounds of smart aggressive theory-soaked voices, like war drones hovering in pleasure and inflicting terror? And should such an intellectual toxic space be identified as an intellectual exercise? Perhaps not. It is a psychological war of intellectual terror. A room of dominant brown, black, and white privileged and entitled students sharing a camaraderie and undergoing a training to become gatekeepers of the academy. Defenders of merit and intellectual gatekeepers in the academy often convince themselves that they well intentioned academics devoted to keeping the “standards” of the academy. This includes fixing any ideas that are not clear (read: experiences they have not been exposed to, and therefore are unable to understand why that should be counted as a contribution of any sort). The intention of being political as an academic is funneled into being intellectual gatekeepers, like bouncers in a night club, they check who has the “right” kind of writing structure, disposition, and vocabulary to make it across and be counted. Dominant anthropological and disciplinary frameworks continue to be controlled by academics who are like octopuses. Their tentacles are many; they are on editorial boards, selection committees, hiring boards, cool networks, project leads, and so on. Do they claim to represent diversity? Yes? No? It is not mine to answer for anyone. My role is to suggest that we must recognize the times we are living and writing about the academy and the politics of diversity, merit-based education, and what constitutes excellence. We are living in a world that appears more divided, more unequal, and we are heading towards a future where indigenous peoples are rapidly losing their land and resources to extractive regimes. What is our responsibility as academics? What kinds of legacies do we intend to leave behind as academics? Other than individual names in articles and books, a string of fellowships/grants on individual CVs, how do we engage with the living world around us? 

MABEL

I love both these questions! I find myself experiencing this dissonance from being in an extremely privileged position within US academia, while also being a visible minority in most institutional spaces here. I have to remind myself that my interest in research began with an interest in learning more about my mother’s Lepcha heritage and why her tribe was called the “Vanishing Tribe.”  What I found through my research on anti-dam activism led by Lepcha youth from Dzongu in North Sikkim, is that not only did young people challenge this colonial representation of the Lepchas, they were aware communities don’t just “vanish” but are made to through dispossessing them of their lands, their language, and their sense of self-confidence. For instance, my mother has a Lepcha name but did not grow up speaking Lepcha and did not know the exact meaning of her name. During fieldwork in Dzongu, as someone was trying to figure out my family background, they asked me my mother’s name. When I told them it was “Longthormit”, their eyes lit up and they said, “oh! What a beautiful name.” Turns out, Long is stone and Thor is lake, and her name means: a beautiful lake/one that arrives to after passing through a difficult rocky journey. I could totally be misremembering this and Lepcha speakers out there please correct me, but I just thought it was so beautiful and that moment has really stayed with me especially because I don’t speak Lepcha. And really, the only languages I speak fluently are Hindi and English, so it was so special to learn the meaning of her name and then share it with her! I really live for such moments during research even though they don’t happen very often. And even when they do, they might never make it to an article but really, it is those moments that reward being humble and curious that make research worthwhile for me.

Amaley & Abaley : Dr. Joseph Thsetan Gergan & Longthormit Gergan

DOLLY

What a powerful story. I have a Lotha Naga name too – Sanchopeni – which means the saved one. Your story allows us to reflect about the depth of colonization and structural violence. Explored through text and language, such moments offer us new frameworks and dialogues about politics and to connect with the past/present/future. Surely, we agree that the history of racial segregation, genocide, indigenous reservation, militarization, and all liberation movements across the world gave us radical theories and frameworks to look at the world critically. Yes? Then why and how do indigenous and first-generation students, including those from marginalized communities continue to suffer from the imposter syndrome in the academy? Why does this intellectual disease I call “Not good enough” continue to eat our self-esteem, keep us awake at night, and thrive in academy? For some who read this essay, a voice will whisper saying, “Well, it’s their problem.” Did you hear that voice? Did you? We do not have the space to get into a debate about structural violence, but what I can offer you is a space of introspection – an invitation to walk with us and look at the scale and experiences of education and trauma. As I invite you to ponder on academic diversity, a topic that occupies my mind nowadays, I also urge you to reflect what does it mean for a Naga child from a poor family working to supposedly get an education working as a domestic help

During the Pandemic

No
You are wrong
Kukur, randi (dog, prostitute)
Kile jawab kore? (why do you talk back?)
Khabo? (you want some?)
Lobi, mangishe na (take it, you asked for it)
 
Slap
Kick
Spit 
Slap
 
Repeat
 
Then words of wisdom
 
“Be grateful you are getting education as a domestic servant”
 
No. Of course, it is not supposed to be that way. Child labour and domestic abuse are wrong. These are themes we engage with in an advocacy campaign launched in 2020 titled “During the Pandemic”. You see, our lives as academics are more than pronouncing how things are wrong and creating new concepts, citations and references of all the violence, poverty, and injustices. It is not because I happen to witness and advocate for gender justice in Nagaland that I invite you to an introspective journey. Unless we co-create and design an inclusive curriculum together, the inhumanity in the academy grows, making us incapable of doing anything except build higher gates in the name of good intentions and academic excellence. “It is your fault”. We remain trapped in this timeless logic, and our conscience remain buried in the cold dark cave called justification. 
 
 
The success and obsession with clarity in academic writing must include focusing on the political reality of our times. If the theoretical lens we adopt to understand colonization, the right to self-determination, resource extraction, climate change, and systemic racism, then we must also recognize the tyranny applied to define academic excellence. 
What does it mean to have a voice? 
What does it mean to conduct research and come up with something original? 
What does it mean to encourage researchers to submit strong research papers? 
What does it mean to demonstrate knowledge through an argument? My training as an anthropologist in North America discouraged me from using the passive voice. “Active voice” said my teachers, cohort and seniors. Active voice. Always active, always engaged, always assertive. As an ethnographer, for many years I parroted that unless we were able to answer the “so what?” question, my research and writing was flat – like a flat plain, boring, and mundane – like mass manufactured candies all tasting the same. Sweet. Oh, so sweet. But flat and so boring. I have let go of that smart taunting question. We cannot afford to study places/citizens/animals/forests just to respond to a “so what?” query. It is one thing to make an exceptional argument and score an intellectual point, but it is another thing altogether to write and engage with places and questions as though our lives and every bit of sanity depends on it. For me, I just happened to take a turn in my journey. And around that bend I realized that the measure of academic success is like filling sand in a paper bag. The bottom gives way and the sand returns to the earth where it belongs. When we seek to contain knowledge and wisdom as an “academic success” story, its purpose becomes meaningless.


MABEL

  Dolly Kikon walks off the stage. Credits roll.

Raiot

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Dolly Kikon is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Social and Political Science, The University of Melbourne. She received her doctoral degree in Anthropology from Stanford University (2013). Before embarking on her academic career, she completed her bachelor degree in law from University of Delhi and practised in the Supreme Court of India (New Delhi) and the Guwahati High Court focusing on human rights and constitutional provisions relating to tribal communities in Northeast India.Her published books include Living with Oil and Coal: Resource Politics & Militarization in Northeast India (University of Washington Press 2019 and Yoda Press India, 2020); Leaving the Land: Indigenous Migration and Affective Labour in India (co-author Bengt G. Karlsson) (Cambridge University Press India, 2019); Life and Dignity; Women’s testimonies of Sexual Violence in Dimapur (Nagaland) (NESRC 2015), Experiences of Naga Women in Armed Conflict: Narratives from a Militarised Society (WISCOMP 2004).Mabel Denzin Gergan is a geographer by training, and her research focuses on postcolonial environmentalism, Tribal/Indigenous theorization, anti-colonial politics, and race and ethnicity in South Asia. She is Assistant Professor of Asian Studies at Vanderbilt University, USA

One Comment

  1. Maitreyee Choudhury
    June 9, 2021
    Reply

    This is such a powerful conversation! Thanks for introducing this unique way of expression through letters. Don’t no why, got reminded of the ‘Persian Letters.’ Wish to hear more from Dolly and Mabel.

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