Following the Connections

Tenure: Music to Their Ears

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 am | By Mark Baechtel

Shuchi Kapila believes that English is an academic discipline that is anything but merely academic.

"By the time I got to university, the study of English had become a cutting-edge discipline," she says. "I felt that in studying English I would be doing something to change the world of ideas."

Kapila, who grew up in Chandrigarh and New Delhi, came of age intellectually and academically during a time of foment in Indian society, when the roles of women and questions of class were being re-examined from bottom to top.

"The best work in developing world feminism to date came out during the '80s, when I was in college," she says. "It brought together language, ideology, and the law, and the place of women really opened up in these debates. And there was a strong belief that the theoretical skills you acquired by studying English could be used to study the body of culture. I could see that the ideas I was learning about were going to go somewhere."

Kapila received a B.A. in English at the University of New Delhi, in preparation -- as she thought at the time -- for a career in journalism. She even took the exams necessary to winning an internship with theTimes of India.

"They called and said, '"Well, we're waiting for you to come down and do an interview,'" she says. "And I found I just didn't want to." Instead, she went on to complete an M.A. and M.Phil. in English at New Delhi, then became a lecturer at Miranda House, which she refers to as "India's Smith." It was the education she received from her colleagues there, as much as anything else, which confirmed her in her choice of profession.

"There were some amazing women on the faculty there who were reading theory and feminism and making all these wonderful connections," she says. "I remember in particular one Woman's Day, when I was in Calcutta, there was a scholar at Jadavpur -- a Shakespeare scholar -- who went to this park and addressed a crowd of women workers in Bengali, on the history of the women's rights movements from Victorian England to the present day. She was doing all her scholarly work on Shakespeare in English and then she was able to go to a park and do her speech in Bengali, and I formed the idea then that this was the type of versatility that I would like to develop."

Kapila concluded that developing the skills to help her realize this ambition would require her to leave India. She sent out her applications and ultimately decided to do her Ph.D. work at Cornell University.

"It seemed like it would be an adventure," she says. "I'd be able to work with people who'd done all this interesting theoretical work, and be away from my family for the first time -- truly afloat and independent. I thought I'd certainly go back after five years."

But life, as has been famously observed, is what happens when you're making other plans. While at Cornell, she met another Indian grad student, Shankar Subramaniam, a mechanical engineer whom she eventually married and with whom she had daughter Shivani, now 3-1/2 years old. And while she was undergoing changes abroad, change was continuing apace at home.

"I went back in the middle of my Ph.D. work and tried to find a job," she says. "But the university system is changing rapidly in India, and I had been away from it for a while. Here in the U.S., I was in the pipeline; I went on the job market, and after a few years I found a position at Kenyon."

Kapila found she loved teaching at a liberal arts college. However, as so often happens with academic couples, there was nothing close by for her husband. They kept their eyes open and finally a pair of positions opened in relative proximity: a slot for her at Grinnell, a slot for him at Iowa State University. Grinnell's status as one of Kenyon's peer institutions made the move an easy one, at least in concept.

"The reasons I got into the study of English are also the reasons I'm happy as a teacher at a liberal arts school," she says. "What's most exciting for me is when I'm able to talk about these connections and produce a moment in the classroom when everyone is able to see how language and social movements are implicated in each other. When I teach post-colonial literature here, I'm always talking about culture, politics, society, literature and difference -- as in how we structure our world."

Kapila's scholarship is one more extension of this life spent connecting things together -- continents, peoples, histories, languages, and literatures. Her main project now is to finish the manuscript for Educating Seeta: Family Romances of British India.

In more concrete and personal terms, Kapila's interest in various enclaves of people -- religious groups, racially distinct groups, gender, classes, caste -- and their interactions, positive and negative, is leading her to study the literature of the Indian partition, which emerged out of the political convulsion that severed the subcontinent from the British empire, creating India and Pakistan in the process. Kapila's mother's family was displaced during a the forced resettlement of Hindus and Muslims during this period, which cost around a million people their lives in what amounted to a bilateral genocide. Her grandparents arrived in New Delhi after having been displaced from what is now Pakistan, arriving penniless, and with little children in tow.

"The body of literature that has come out of the partition is large, and since the '80s and '90s, even more has been coming out," she says. "It's almost as if after 50 years, people feel comfortable talking about the major trauma of the subcontinent."

Kapila sees her changed status at Grinnell and changes in the world arena as helping her to press on, 17 years after she left India.

"What's made me happy recently is that, after a very long time, with globalization, the links and possibilities of travel and collaboration are greater," she says. "If it's possible to keep my feet planted on two continents, that's what I want to do."