2001 Student-Faculty Fellows: Kenyon College

India: Individual Projects

Mentor: Miriam Dean-Otting, Religious Studies
Students: Soubhik Saha ’02; Erin Diane Saunders ’02

We had meals together as often as we could and one of the highlights of the stay in Kolkata was having dinner at Soubhik’s grandfather’s home. They delighted in fixing Bengali specialties for us. Here we are (Erin Saunders, left; Soubhik Saha, center; and Miriam Dean-Otting, right with some members of the Poddar family)

Abstracts of Reflections and/or Research

Miriam Dean-Otting

My teaching has definitely been influenced by this experience. I have always enjoyed engaging one on one with students but this is the first time I have been able to engage in field work with students. It was both daunting and exciting. I have learned that if risks are not taken one can not grow and this trip certainly entailed risk. However, the benefits were tremendous. Probably the single most rewarding aspect of the trip was watching my students grow in confidence as they encountered the obstacles of the city. Kolkata during monsoon season is a particularly challenging environment in which to carry out interviews. Traffic can be backed up for hours, streets can be flooded or at least muddy and illness is everywhere. In spite of these obstacles, both Erin and Ronnie persevered in their work. They became very adept at negotiating traffic (no mean feat), getting directions, and persisting when interviews were canceled. They each learned from each other. Unfortunately the projects usually took us separate directions but the times together were both fun and instructive. Sometime in the first semester we plan to present our work at Kenyon in a panel format. We will be showing slides and talking about the three marginal groups we studied in Kolkata: women, Muslims and Jews. Probably there will be more than one opportunity for the students to present their work. Erin will be doing an independent study with me that will build on the work she did in Kolkata. Soubhik will be transcribing his interviews and putting together a short essay integrating his interviews and research.

Soubhik Saha
Divided Bengal: Hindus and Muslims in Calcutta

For his research Soubhik Saha interviewed Muslims in various places in Kolkata. On the day we visited the synagogues Soubhik took this opportunity to interview the Muslim darwan (custodian) of Beth El synagogue. He learned that this position had been in this man’s family for over fifty years.

The opportunity for me to study in Kolkata this past summer made me realize that even though I am a student studying at a small school in rural Ohio, I am a student of the world. For the past few years I have been very interested in the notion of “Divided Bengal,” the interaction between Hindus and Muslims in West Bengal in particular. But for me to be able to go to India and learn first hand from people who actually lived through the period and took part in the massive migrations was amazing. I must admit at times the task seemed overwhelming. Many of the people whom I interviewed questioned me at first. Being a Hindu, visiting Muslim homes and discussing minority politics could be seen as controversial and unusual by some. But I was eventually able to gain the confidence of my interviewees. I must also say that I enjoyed going to Kolkata with a professor and another student. Although I did much of my research independently, I gained a feeling of camaraderie with Prof. Dean-Otting and Erin. There was a mutual excitement in the air as we discussed our daily findings and discoveries with each other. This trip in another way was a confidence builder for me as well. After traveling around the city over the almost four weeks I spent in Kolkata, I began to realize my abilities to maneuver around the city and speak Bengali were improving rapidly. I no longer feel foreign in Kolkata, the home of my extended family, and this has made me feel closer to them. Now I am looking forward to the future. I am excited to share my findings in the minority politics of the Bengali Muslims with the Kenyon community.

Erin Saunders
Social Services for Women in Calcutta

Erin Saunders’ work in Kolkata focused primarily on Nari Seva Sangha, a shelter and skills training center for single women. She used a translator and recorded her interviews with a mini-disc recorder. Here Erin is pictured with her translator interviewing a woman who is doing textile block printing.

My experience in Kolkata this summer has greatly affected not just my academic interests, but also those of my career. Conducting interviews and spending time with the women of Nari Seva Sangha established life-changing connections. I did not get intimately involved in their lives or establish friendship, but I was led into a new world. They opened windows that I had not even known existed, much less noticed that they were closed. During the interviews, the complexity of their situations stood directly in front of me. I was caught between the organizers’ wishes, the lives of these women, and my project. Having the support of Professor Dean-Otting made all the difference when trying to work through these issues. It was also neat to talk with Soubhik about his research project and discuss any shared frustrations. Learning about both his and Professor Dean-Otting’s projects added to the breadth of this experience. I am returning to Kenyon College with an even stronger interest in these issues. I have the confidence and first hand experience to make my studies come alive. This is true, not just for my independent study focusing on India, but also for my other classes. Even if my research does not directly relate to the class, it has created a deeper understanding and new patterns of thought that are useful in any academic enterprise. Thus far we have not taken action to share the findings in a formal setting. Later this semester we plan to present our papers to the college and perhaps hold discussions of interest for students. We hope to do a group project focusing on the margins of Indian society: Jews, Muslims, and women. In this manner our project all speak to one another and to society at large.