"What would you like to change from your childhood?"

Professor Rekha Sethi with Hindi students
Professor Rekha Sethi with Hindi students

Rekha Sethi is a Professor and former Vice Principal at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. She has authored five books, edited eight and translated a poetry collection from English to Hindi. She co-organized a web-lecture series on ‘Women Writings in India’ with Dr. Fauzia Farooqui, South Asian Studies Program, Princeton University and chaired a three-lecture series on ‘Indian Literature of the Marginalized Society’ at Duke University, USA. She has also published extensively in leading literary journals and has presented her work at international and national conferences, literary meets and literary festivals in India, Europe and the USA. She was recently awarded the Vatayan Antarrashtriya Shiksha Samman, 2023 at Oxford Business College, London and was invited to Duke University, USA for a short residency program.


I'm in a Hindi class at Duke University, USA. Intermediate students studying Hindi as a foreign language have been asked to converse with me. They are encouraged to ask any questions to the Hindi professor from India. Talking to me in Hindi will boost their language skills. One by one, the students are sliding notes with questions towards me. “What are the things you like... What is your favorite movie?” I answer “Umrao Jaan”. Perhaps no one is familiar with this movie. Their teacher, Kusum Knapczyk, who is very popular among her students, promptly displays a poster of the film on the screen and explains that it is the classic 'Umrao Jaan', in which a famous actress of Hindi cinema, Rekha played the lead role and the film became particularly popular for its music and acting. Someone asks if I liked the film 'Masaan'? The student has just seen this film while studying Dalit literature in one of his literature classes. I am about to say 'yes' when suddenly someone asks very quickly 'Why Umrao Jaan?' and I say,

“It holds a profound sadness that resonates deeply within me. Even today, watching this film, I find myself in tears.”

Just then comes another question that I had never thought of myself. "If you had to change something from your childhood, what would you like to change?"

I was not prepared for this question. I never thought that the way I lived my life could have been lived differently. It didn't have to be a particular way, it can even be changed! After a pause to think, I respond that perhaps if it were possible, I would do away with the restrictions on my comings and goings, imposed on me because of my gender. Those taboos dwarfed my confidence in my dream-like childhood. Even today, I am sometimes struck with an instinctive fear of finding myself lost on the road during a commute. 

In North Carolina's city of Durham, the streets are sleek and clean. Along the edges, footpaths of modest elevation and around them, a row of dense trees. These long-winding roads are not flat. And if you look from a distance, they appear like waves, rising high and then falling steeply all along the way.

My conversations with these students have become animated. What does it mean to be a girl in India, or anywhere really? Two of these bright minds have penned some exquisite poetry. One, spinning a tale of her mother navigating the roles of being someone's daughter, someone's wife, and someone's mother, now being probed by her own daughter in verse - is she simply confined to being a daughter, a mother, or a wife? And if she doesn't live up to the standards of a dutiful daughter, a devoted wife, or a nurturing mother, does her existence lose its purpose? A 19-20-year-old Indian-origin girl living in the US pours out this poem in her class, drawing inspiration from her mom's life, and damn, my soul aligns with her. I chime in -

"Wait, take a look, plenty is changing. We have got to cast our gaze towards all those narratives too."

But I can feel the girl's agony too. She's the offspring of Indian-origin parents, born here in America. The gap between her home and the outside world is creating a void within her. Right by her side is another girl, an American by roots, is also venturing into the realm of poetry. How a girl, who grew up in Afghanistan is being denied the simple act of donning shirts and pants like her brothers after all these years? Now, she can't even play ball with her brothers. The father has decreed that she must wear the hijab. How does the journey of this girl, grown in Afghanistan, echoes through the soul of the girl sitting in America, translating this experience into a foreign language. There must be some shared sisterhood there!

These journeys weave through different junctures, then I return to my childhood and Umrao Jaan's childhood. Umrao Jaan was incredibly beautiful, hence bought by those who could sell her on the streets. Innocence auctioned off in the brothel! Her melancholy still reaches me today. My eyes get moist. A page from my childhood is also connected with that same sorrow. In Indian families, we continually teach children that they don't know anything. Despite reaching great heights, their confidence remains weak amidst this tug-of-war between tradition and taboos. Even after reaching great heights, the mind remains weak. Whether to go this way or that? Which path to choose? Where to stop, where to sit, and breaking all bonds, and where to break every barrier and make your own path with courage from the shackles of your mind. Every day, many girls in India and around the world are navigating through these questions, forging their own paths.

I look out of the classroom window and see happy, young faces. Duke University is one of the greatest universities in the world. There, people from different countries and different races are coming together with great enthusiasm to build their futures. A girl from rural Uttar Pradesh in India is there to pursue a Ph.D. in Biotechnology. She was part of my special lecture. She talks about positive changes in her life. Hearing all this, the heart is reassured. The world is changing, even for girls.

I met many professors at Duke. Meeting Professor Satti Khanna was a perspective-changing experience. We met almost every day during the four-day lecture series. Professor Khanna has translated several books by Vinod Kumar Shukla from Hindi to English. When we first met, he asked a single question about the theoretical aspects of women's writing, Dalit literature, and criticisms - do all these literary cannons attempt to bring some change within us? Do they change us (a little or a lot)? Initially, it seemed that his insistence on the self was somewhat unnecessary. Literature's job is also to provide a perspective on understanding society, analysing social biases, struggling for equality, and suggesting paths to freedom. However, Professor Khanna's slow unfolding of his own story in his class made me realize the importance of self in his perspective. He teaches an advanced course in Hindi literature and has chosen some travel narratives for this course because, in his view, journeys transform us to a great extent. They not only change us but also open a new world for the readers in the form of another university teacher's perspective.

During those days, Krishna Sobti's travelogue 'Buddh Ka Kamandal Ladakh' was being discussed in his class. He urged me to comment on an excerpt of about one and a half pages for his students. He wanted the students to get the perspective of a teacher researching and teaching in another university in the world. I was delighted with this initiative. I started my talk with the introduction of Krishna Sobti to enable the students to form an image in their minds, so that they could know the author whose journeys they are becoming a part of. Based on my three or four meetings with Sobti, I discussed how writing was a form of resistance for her. She wrote about political events and always reposed her faith in India's pluralistic culture. Her article titled 'The Country that is Ayodhya and Faizabad too' was published on the front page of the Hindi daily 'Jansatta'. Some talk about her dressing style, which was again an attempt to register her protest which she mentioned in her book 'Gujarat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan Tak'. Then, we delved into the linguistic pragmatism of Krishna Sobti. Subsequently, I engaged them in a conversation about the thematic utility of language in exploring the narrative potential of life events adopting the form of literature. The discourse extended to the realm of travel narratives, a unique genre that is not just an account of journeys but holds specificity because a human experience, transformed through an individual's journey, becomes a distinctive identifier in the recognition of a culture.

At Duke University, only two students are enrolled in the advanced course, yet the university takes this initiative that the students get the best and are able to think critically and write their experiences well. After class, a student approached her professor and expressed a desire to embrace me in a warm hug. For any teacher, it's a soothing moment to realize that, much like a seasoned professor, a young student is equally affected by the way literature is decoded and also how layers of meaning are unveiled.

This classroom experience is an incredibly fluid encounter. There's not an iota of pretension in Professor Satti's persona regarding his erudition and teaching. In that room, the five of us—Professor Satti Khanna, Professor Kusum Knapczyk, myself, and those two young students—seem to be completely immersed in a unified experience. It's a testament in itself, reassuring and affirming! The childhood apprehension has long been left behind. The ongoing process of teaching and learning, which spans across decades, has broadened our perspectives, illuminated the entire room with a newfound self-assurance.

The fear of getting lost on the road perhaps still lingers. Throughout my entire journey at Duke University, Professor Kusum Knapczyk served as my guardian. She would take me along and bring me back. The university's H-11 bus journey of about ten minutes swiftly shuttles us from one place to another. Like a pristine arena in the fast-paced world of American academia, Duke University, too, had a rapid rhythm; students and faculty have to traverse from one building to another for classes. Some students zoom in on skateboards or scooters from one place to another, but when one looks towards the roads, the buildings along their edges, homes, and student residences, they have their own pace, like a gentle smile of immersion!

One of the university's attractions is Duke Gardens. Very vividly detailed, it is not possible to see it completely. We see a Japanese structure midway. There's water in the middle, a red-coloured bridge over it, and the fall colours shade everything around. The leaves are yet to fall from the trees, just their colours have changed. Shades of green, yellow, saffron, red... red has many hues too. Deep pink, vermilion, a rich deep red, like English maroon. There is also a White Garden. White flowers, white pumpkin decorations... Green and white all around, manicured! The colours of the fall seem a little faded. Professor Kusum Knapczyk is taking me around. All credit for my Duke journey goes to her. Before this, I had met her at some international conferences, but this time's experience was entirely different. Her story is a shining example of girls' courage. Simple-hearted, hardworking... she has converted teaching into the main goal of her life. Seeing her popularity among students left me amazed.

News often arrives from abroad that the number of students in Hindi classes is decreasing. Neither the learners show much interest, nor do the teachers exhibit the same enthusiasm for doing something new. If observed, in foreign countries, there is a distinct direction for Hindi education. Language, literature, writing styles, cinema, and advertising—all contribute to the learning and teaching of Hindi. In the intermediate Hindi class one day, based on my research we discussed the language of advertising on the structure of advertisements. I explored with the students how advertising deviates in language, what elements make the language of advertising creative, and more. Analysing the similarities in international products' punchlines in advertisements that target the market was a delight for the students. Then, they each wrote a slogan, adorned with their imagination.

In literature classes, we read parts of Indian women's writings, including Anamika, Krishna Sobti, and Amrita Pritam. The interpretations I provided seemed to instil a new enthusiasm in the minds of the students. They shared that while some of them continued to read Indian literature, the perspective I presented was something they hadn't thought of before. At the end of the class, some students expressed gratitude. The sparkle in their eyes and the emotional intensity reached me, but a feedback I received few days ago filled my heart with joy, giving me a modest sense of accomplishment in being a teacher. Amid all this, it felt good to hear students asking, "Kusum Ji, what will you teach in the next semester?" Kusum Ji's teaching method is such that there is a waiting list for her classes. Students say they enjoy learning in her classes. Kusum Ji, in Duke Gardens, tells me that she sends students on a 'Treasure Hunt,' creating a map, where recognizing names of flowers, trees, colours, and vegetables becomes fun. A synergy of experience and education. It's not surprising that Kusum Ji received the 'Best Teacher' award at Duke.

These three days at Duke were filled with dense experiences. On the first day, when fatigue began to set in on the road outside the hotel, I, immersed in my exhaustion, questioned myself about what I was doing so far from the comfort of my home at this age. What have I come to achieve across seven seas? Perhaps there is nothing left to achieve in life, yet the attraction of unknown experiences has drawn me. Journeys work to sculpt life on the stream of experiences. You don't know when, where, and what will change. Unknown experiences settle on the surface of the mind in a way that they become a permanent layer in the tapestry of memories. My experience at Duke will always remain one like this!

Here is the Hindi version which was published in the Hindi magazine "Samalochna" 



This event was supported and funded by Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Duke India Initiative and Duke Service Learning.