Crest Program 2017 – Introduction

From April to September 2017, the Crest Internship brought seven undergraduate students from the Department of Anthropology, at the University of Toronto University, Canada to the Centre for Research and Social Transformation (CREST) in Kerala, India. There were three batches of internship teams: from April to May, Ms. Lama El Hanan, Ms. Maggie Morris, and Ms. Harshita Singh; from May to July, Ms. Taneeta Doma and Ms. Honor Kilbourne; and from July to September, Ms. Alex Alferiev and Ms. Amanda Harvey-Sanchez. Each coming from different academic backgrounds, the interns immersed themselves in the daily activities of CREST in order to experientially learn about Kerala social mobilities and its educational system. CREST is a unique institution: it provides support to disadvantaged students (from tribal and ex “untouchable” groups) seeking access to higher education and job placement. This undergraduate fieldwork research project was funded by the Dean’s International Initiatives Fund (DIIF).

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The practical role of the student interns was to offer ex-curricular programming to help the students gain confidence and improve their language skills. Through daily classroom activities, interns worked directly with the CREST staff and the students. They organized creative leadership activities and facilitated socially-relevant group discussions that helped CREST students to develop their confidence in public speaking through the English language. At the same time, interns gained valuable skills in cross-cultural communication and teamwork, while also broadening their understandings of gender, caste, and the politics of everyday life. The academic objective of this research internship was to learn about social exclusion in India. Since the U of T interns live with the CREST students in their hostels, they have had rich opportunities for observation, conversation, exploration, and debate. While at CREST, the interns kept a daily journal of observations and reflection, which later became the basis for structured written assignments. Under the guidance of the program coordinator, Professor Tania Li, the interns have each worked on compelling academic papers that analyze the various factors influencing the capacity to aspire among Dalit youth in Kerala.

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Alex Alferiev

My partner and I were the second pair of interns from Canada to visit the 28th batch of the CREST institution. Going there, I was not sure what to expect. Kerala is famous for its literacy rates and was the first state in India to achieve 100% completion in primary education. The unfortunate downside of such high literacy rates, especially when it comes to post-secondary degrees, is its effect on the competition for jobs. All students in the 28th batch had completed difficult engineering degrees at least at an undergraduate level – many had completed their Masters, and some had their PhDs. Unfortunately, students in Kerala are now in much the same situation as students in Canada, where a post secondary degree alone is no longer enough to distinguish a candidate on the job market. What is required now is social and cultural capital: this is what the program at CREST focuses on developing.


Photo credit: Amanda Harvey-Sanchez

While we were not there at the very beginning and cannot compare the student’s experiences from start to finish, we did witness a change in the students. When I asked about their thoughts on the program, the students highlighted one very important skill that they needed to be competitive in the job market: knowledge of the English language. The missing social and cultural capital was embodied in the individual ability to speak English. Importantly, the students emphasised the fact that CREST provides the opportunity to practice speaking English rather than focusing on the grammar – something that they did not a get a chance to do in government schools.

While public education has brought undeniable benefits and raised Kerala state’s education level, it does not provide this key interaction-based skill. As a result, there is an increasing demand for private English medium schools where the curriculum trains the student’s practical speaking skills, putting public school graduates at a severe disadvantage. At CREST, the students aspire to make up for this limitation. In our six weeks time at CREST, we could see that there was a clear improvement in their conversational English. Through theatre workshops and presentations, the students challenged their insecurities and became more confident. However, if speaking English is no longer the distinguishing feature between aspiring candidates, what can solve the stringencies of the job market?

Maggie Morris

I am lucky to have had the privilege to return to Kerala for a second round of fieldwork in 2017. Having completed the program as a CREST intern in 2016, I have had the opportunity to engage with new students, new staff and rekindle relationships with lifelong friends from the 2016 batch of CREST students.

What stood out to me most, having completed this second round of fieldwork, is what A. Aarthi (a 2016 CREST intern) notes in her own reflections: “confronting inequality in an intimate manner.” Indeed, while my ethnographic research and understanding of caste deepened through this second excursion, my biggest takeaway became a deeper understanding of inequity, positionality and the power in mobility.

Having returned to India a second time, CREST students from my first round of fieldwork were shocked to see me back in India less than a year after my departure. They were beaming, as we ate biryani, drank chia and exchanged new stories about students who had since “graduated” from CREST, gotten married and were now expecting children of their own. We met at all the same places we had previously frequented, and shared sentiment in reliving the “good CREST days” now behind us. On this return, it was a comment that one of my closest friends made which was so strikingly profound for me in confronting this inequality in such a personal manner. As we were saying our final goodbyes, my 2016 interlocutor-cum-friend turned to me and said, “one day I hope to win the jackpot (lottery) and come to Canada to visit you.”

It was here I began to reflect on the power and inequity in mobility. I didn’t need to win the lottery to return to India to visit her, nor would I in the future. I had the economic capital, emergent of a life as a middle-class Canadian, to return to India one day. I had a passport, while my friend above did not. I had concreteness in my ability to mobilize the funds and knowledge required to travel across borders and engage in profound experiences, while it would be pure chance – winning the lottery –  for my friend to come to Canada and have similarly profound experiences.

With the ease of my return to India, I became uncomfortable with this inequity. I was uncomfortable that my sheer presence in return flaunted my economic, social and cultural capital. Throughout my experience, I reflected on forms of inequality which presented itself in “the raw exchange of words” as A. Aarthi notes. I reflected on how my clothing and jewelry were perceived by students as a source of inequality, as students would ask in awe how much they cost. I reflected on how my lightness in hair colour was perceived, which was entrenched in a long history of colonialism in India. What I didn’t reflect on until my return to India, was how simply my presence – in having the power of mobility, was itself one of the greatest sources of inequity which indexed all of those above. It was this experience which reminded me to be critical, conscious and reflect on my own positionality. It was also this experience which taught me that even if I am critical, conscious and reflective, I still occupy that same positionality.

Lama El Hanan

Anthropological works written before the critical turn of the 1980s describe the caste system as a vestige of a premodern hierarchical structure specific to Hinduism. This paradigm has been thoroughly critiqued by scholars such as Arjun Appadurai, Bernard Cohn, and Nicholas B. Dirks among others. However, when I began doing my research at the Centre for Research in Education and Social Transformation (CREST) in Kerala, I realized that the notion of caste as a substantive entity has widespread currency in everyday discourse. Although there is a cultural taboo around talking about caste, people were often very open to discussing the topic with me albeit in very specific ways. Caste was discussed in the context of state interventions in education as well as the developmental programs that were targeted at ending ‘traditional’ casteist practices like untouchability, manual scavenging, and bonded labor in order to transform India into a “modern and secular” society.  These discussions were based on understandings of caste as a pre-modern hierarchical structure and of anti-caste policies as addressing historical injustices rather than current and ongoing oppression. Embedded in them was a sense of pride that stemmed from the cultural narrative of Kerala as a progressive state that has all but eradicated the historical inequalities of the caste system. This “idea of overcoming”, as it was aptly described by a senior administrator at CREST, is something that the institution tries to counter by developing a critical awareness amongst students of the persistence of casteism in Kerala as a structural issue that manifests itself in education and employment inequalities.

What was missing in these discussions, though, was an awareness of how caste distinctions and hierarchies were constantly being enacted through everyday interactions. The ways in which this occurred differed radically from one context to another, and was often very coded and veiled. However it was undeniable that the interpersonal remained an important mode for enforcing social inequalities along the lines of caste. The exclusion of this relational element in the discussions on caste that I had with people sparked my ethnographic curiosity. To borrow Foucault’s phrase, I began to approach my research as an archaeology of silence.  I wondered how people could possibly ignore the ways in which caste was being produced through the everyday when they clearly possessed a critical awareness of its structural workings. In keeping with the theme of archaeology and excavation, I attempted to contextualize this phenomenon within the broader history of the reification of caste as a vestige of a pre-modern hierarchical structure rooted in religion in mainstream social science literature on South Asia and government policy. As Dhareshwar argues, caste signifies not “substantive entities” but rather “relations in the social field of power”. I found that the longstanding reification of caste obfuscates this fact by configuring it as something that is pre-constituted rather than “actively constructed” through people’s agency. In this way, I believe, it prevents people from examining and reflecting on the ways in which caste inequalities are produced through social relations and interactions.

Developing Friendships During Fieldwork

Amanda Harvey Sanchez

One of the delicate issues in anthropology is how to refer to the people we are studying. Some of the common terms include: research subjects, informants, interlocutors, and friends. There are issues with all of them. “Research subjects” takes away the agency of the people studied and frames their identity in relationship to the ethnographer’s research alone. “Informants” seems similarly utilitarian, as if the only purpose of people in the field is to inform anthropologists. It also has connotations of law and crime that might give the impression of anthropology as a detective story. To some extent, ethnography may be akin to a detective story. It involves piecing together observations, informal conversations with various people, as well as formal interviews, and reconfiguring them in dialogue with theory to come up with an explanation of “how things work”. Still, this analogy risks belittling the lived experiences of those being studied. “Interlocutors” seems like a more sensitive term. It still comes off as distant, but it implies a conversation or dialogue and avoids the problematic implications of the former two terms around agency. But framing ethnography as a simple conversation may also be dishonest. The anthropologist does not come to the field without any preconceptions or motives. Ethnography is always informed by theory, and the types of questions ethnographers ask serve the goal of collecting data that will hopefully lead to useful and interesting writing. Using the term “friends” falls deeper into this pitfall. This latter term was the one I was most drawn to but also most critical of before going to Kerala. I like the idea of forming a relationship that involves both give and take. While an ethnographer is gaining information that will help them academically, I think it is important that they also give something in return. However, I cannot let go of the idea that framing those that are studied as friends paints an overly rosy picture which ignores the ethical questions of positionality in ethnography.

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It was a bit surprising for me, then, when I found myself referring to the people I met in Kerala as friends. This happened quickly after I arrived, and now I cannot imagine calling them anything else. I spent 10 weeks at CREST getting to know the students. I went to their classes with them, we talked during breaks, and had lunch together every day. I lived in the same hostel as the girls and often had long conversations with them about everything from our families, to our career goals, to our biggest fears and aspirations in life. I visited the homes of several of the students, and got to know their families and home towns. Now that I am back in Toronto, I still talk to them almost every day online, and sometimes talk about what we will do the next time I come visit. I feel comfortable referring to them as friends academically, so long as I am clear about how the information I am relaying was obtained. More often though, I refer to them by their social location within CREST, as students. I think what is most important is that anthropologists continue to ask questions of positionality and identity, and strive to foster ethical and mutually rewarding relationships with those in the field.

Taneeta Doma

CLIP 1: Filling My Role as an Intern at CREST

I personally enjoy going to class and listening because you can always learn something. It seems less useful for a student researcher’s purposes to sit through three hours of math or English grammar, but I didn’t mind. For me, it was a way of understanding a school system in which I had no previous exposure. If I had attended only the lectures that would have been ripe for research, I might have failed to gather the evidence for a more emblematic picture of what the students have been dealing with their entire lives. Commiserating with them afterward, asking questions and having them ask me questions about western education, was easier because I had that background – okay, there’s a project due for this, they have a presentation at this time, and so on. Some part of my research was comparative – and individually comparative, as I was looking at my own education as it related to the type of education that the students received. In these sometimes difficult classes, I could also simply observe the interactions between the students and their professors in ways that they might not have, in other classes. For example, in Maths the professor spoke in Malayalam, and as a result, there was a more gregarious, collaborative, and ultimately talkative atmosphere than in a class where they would be expected to speak in English alone. I thought being in the room for these classes (even if I was often mistaken for a student in the first few weeks) was useful for my research and for getting to know the students on their own. Being given the freedom to structure our own roles / research topics at CREST was helpful for me because I could alter my duties based on what the students needed. The intern coordinator wasn’t present in the classroom so he wouldn’t have been able to tell us what exactly to do, but being with the students did give me that opportunity. Sometimes the students benefited from not having any interference by the interns because they could work together and form connections that way. Other times, we were a buffer between the students and the faculty, because they were more comfortable talking with us as their peers, and perhaps as a pathway to approaching their faculty, who were (I could sympathize) more intimidating to any student. The umbrella of ‘intern’ encompassed these roles – mediator, sounding board, companion, intermediary – and more as we stretched and contracted to meet the needs of the students, or pulled back as they required it. In some ways, I am happy that I didn’t do as much by way of my intern role, because the students were then able to do more for themselves, and could exercise far more agency in their own education and learning at CREST.

CLIP 2: Hostel Life

When we first arrived at the hostel, I was somewhat anxious about staying downstairs in the kitchen when all the girls were upstairs, but it was dispelled because the kitchen was a prime meeting place in the evenings – there was always lots of activity. The kitchen table seated 8-9 at most, but there were nearly 20 girls, and so I could eat with one set and chat with the rest (as much as I could follow when they were speaking Malayalam – which I completely understood, as it was the only space they could speak their mother tongue freely!) It was in that kitchen that I began to learn Malayalam with a horrific English accent, sang Hindi songs (again with a horrific English accent), and shared pictures of my family with the girls, who reciprocated with some of theirs. Even those with whom I didn’t talk as much could still share a smile when we saw each other those evenings, maybe a ‘hello’ or ‘how are you.’ The cook reminded me of my mother and we formed an unspoken connection in the after-dinner cleanup (mostly unspoken because she didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Malayalam – thankfully, a few of the girls were willing to translate when necessary). At night, in the hostel, the girls ‘let their hair down’ and were themselves in what I hoped was a comforting space. We could talk upstairs, in the girls’ rooms, or in the kitchen, or, a few times, in the room I occupied. (I wanted to keep it open but pesky mosquitoes always made their way in.) It also helped that with so many other people there, the lizards and various insects that had taken up residence for the few weeks in between the 27th and 28th batches scattered (or perhaps they began to matter less). Many of my most cherished memories at CREST were from the girls’ hostel, when we could talk without pretensions. (And laugh until I thought I would die.) I remember most vividly having a silent-as-possible dance party in one of the girls’ rooms to a mix of Malayalam, Hindi, and English music (that I didn’t recognize!) Other times, I would simply sit with the girls as they did their homework, maybe spruce up a PowerPoint or two, or listen to a speech. Many of these felt like things I would do with my sister, and especially because so many of the girls reminded me of my own family members, I felt comfortable with them.

CLIP 3: Interview with a CREST Student

The student I interviewed about his ‘capacity to aspire’ is Aarang^, who is 24 years old and from Wayanad. For this interview, he chose the name ‘Aarang’ because it means ‘full of colour,’ which is meaningful for him as caste, too, is ‘full of colour.’ He identified himself as lower-caste and from a poor family, but maintained that his caste was actually ‘higher’ within that designation of lower-caste. He is fiercely determined to alleviate the difficulties of others through his career, although he acknowledges that he has an obligation to provide for his family as well. The following is an account of the discussions I had with him about his ambitions, his educational experiences, and the role that he believes his social position has played in his successes and failures.

His own ambitions and dreams are not actually oriented towards large sums of money. They are many and varied – he has so far been accused of not planning nor having any concern for his future by family members and teachers (including at CREST), when actually he spends a great deal of time doing exactly that. He is deeply interested in working with trans* people and sex workers, perhaps as a social worker, because he believes they are underserved and undervalued within their communities. He dreams of owning his own restaurant or following in his grandfather’s footsteps and operating a farm. One of his ‘100%’ loves is travelling, for which he always wants to make time, regardless of his career. Other hobbies he hopes to pursue are painting, and to continue his writing, for which I am told his Malayalam is advanced even for native Malayalam speakers. Ultimately, though, Aarang understands that a government position is likely the only job that will give his family the financial stability they need.

As a child, he found it easy to excel in school and was selected for more ‘prestigious’ upper schooling – about 40% of the students in his 7-10th standard classes were identified as high-achieving. At primary school, Aarang says the work was so easy because most of the students were destined for daily work as their final career destination and thus it wasn’t necessary for them to take any non-standard perspective of the curriculum. Similarly, their learning was not independent, nor self-directed. School was intended to teach students the basics so they would be able to get along at a very low level and so wasn’t interested in catering to different or more nuanced perspectives. Because both Aarang’s parents are involved in daily work as well, so it would have seemed that Aarang would follow that pattern into his career. His place among these students often made him a target for comments like “he is only here because he’s of a Scheduled Caste” from scornful members of the public. These comments did not hinder his success – rather, he paid no attention to them, and doesn’t feel that they impacted his motivation to excel in his studies.

Every student, Aarang argues, had the incentive to be high-achieving regardless of their career path, but it wasn’t simply a matter of working hard to get those marks. For example, in his post-graduate course (Masters), marks were the main concern, but those who belonged to particular (dominant) religions and higher castes tended to do better in school. Those who agreed (or appeared to agree) with the professors’ opinions also performed better – which seems to be a pattern. Even at St. Joseph’s College, Devagiri, which was where he did his graduation (Bachelors degree), and which was the site of some of his most positive academic experiences, the class favourites were high-achieving because of their political opinions. None of these seem to fit with the standard meritocracy, which places student achievement solely on their skills (even if that appearance is often given).

His path to university wasn’t chosen so much as followed. His subject of study at Devagiri was the result of an inspirational professor as opposed to his own passionate interest (although he does maintain that interest). He recalls that many of his professors supported the students to pursue post-graduation, but had favourites within the student body based on political opinions. These political opinions drove a number of organizations throughout the college, within some of which Aarang was involved, quite prominently. The leadership positions he held are evidence – and perhaps motivators of – his confidence, which he says stems from what he has done academically in spite of his background. At CREST, his leadership comes through in the way he could command the attention of his classmates during group discussions, the way he could formulate and execute plans for his group’s success, and especially during the morning sessions, where the dramas he created were both intelligent and unexpected.

After leaving Devagiri, however, Aarang was unsure (like most recent grads we see in the West) of what career path to take, given his program of study. He ultimately pursued his post-graduation (Masters degree) at St. Thomas College, Pala, with his parents’ approval, but eventually came to regret this decision because of the experiences he had there. Very similarly to his primary education, teachers and students were more concerned with marks, and assigned them under the heavy influence of religion and caste, as Aarang perceives it. There were very few opportunities for individual, independent thought, as a result of this quite biased curriculum, and professors were not open to alternative perspectives. Unlike his schooling at Devagiri, there were no encouraging professors and so his interest in the material about which he was learning waned. Once he completed his degree, he applied to CREST after receiving advice of one of his friends, who was an alumnus of the program.

Aarang continually mentioned throughout his interview that there were others who dealt with more issues and complications than he did. For example, darker-skinned girls were vulnerable to exploitation by some teachers. He is especially sensitive to gender and caste issues in his community, and employs more progressive views than most would (stereotypically, perhaps even in a ‘West is more enlightened than East’ way) expect. He recognizes women both inside and outside the classroom who are discriminated against and is angry about what he calls “male chauvinism.” He expressed an absolute distaste for casteism, and it showed through in the interactions he had with fellow students, which were (on the whole) jovial and positive. When there were conflicts, they were largely academic in nature.

The two major obstacles Aarang thinks might problematize his objectives are anxiety and speaking English. The former is tied to the same worries that many other students in his position might have – about getting a job, finding something to do that he loves, and how to sustain himself and his family, while benefitting his community. His anxiety is more large-scale, and perhaps easier to understand. However, he possesses a confidence in himself that might come at odds with these anxieties because that confidence suggests that he will eventually succeed at every one of the goals that he has set. Then, it might seem that English speaking is the only true concern.

Aarang is fully cognizant of the fact that English is so prized in India because of its colonial origins. He wrestles with knowing that becoming fluent in English is key to success in an often cutthroat competition for jobs in Kerala, but that English itself should not be a goal because of what it means for India’s past and future as a global power. Most of the English he has learned has been the result of the English films he watches, rather than a conscious effort to absorb the material – this might be a way to bypass the issue of ‘learning English,’ because he simply enjoys watching films of all languages.

Aarang finds it useful to set goals because they “fulfill his soul,” and what he fulfills, he feels he must give to others. (This is similar to his view of money, in that he spends it on others as much as he can.) This is especially true of his experiences, which he feels he must share. One of the ways he does this is through writing, of which he was prolific before beginning at CREST. So, even hobbies and passions that Aarang has identified for himself are ultimately to benefit others, even if they might seem to do the opposite.

^name has been changed