"Translating utopia: moral quandaries in the multilingual immigrant and Bengali children’s peer group in India"
Speaker: Teruko Vida Mitsuhara (UCLA, Anthropology)
Translating utopia: moral quandaries in the multilingual immigrant and Bengali children’s peer group in India
“I understand what you said, I just can’t translate it” — this proclamation of Bengali language understanding is typical of older and new circular migrant children in Mayapur, a religious immigrant hub 150 km north of Kolkata, West Bengal in India. Rukmini, the 6th grade child quoted above, is herself half Bengali but often finds that she doesn’t fit the norms of her peer group. She doesn’t speak her father’s language, plays with boys (i.e. “is unchaste”), and doesn’t take schoolwork seriously. In a migrant hub where most children are ESL and bi- or multi-lingual, Rukmini is hard pressed to evidence that she belongs there. She has just moved back to Mayapur from Australia and often deviates from her peers in her formulations of how a girl should speak, dress, and behave. Her breaches help illuminate the norm (Garfinkel 1967) and one of the clips I’ll show today is part of a ten-minute negotiation of her chastity and later, her belonging through Bengali language competence.
Despite the fact that everyone living in Mayapur is a devotee of Krishna, brought together to build Krishna’s city as a model for the world—a utopia project by all means, the residents there can hardly agree on anything, especially on the topics such as religious behavior and comportment, what languages they should speak, and how their city should be built. The children have their own takes on the matters as they navigate this “reverse-Babel” temple community where syncretism is the established norm and translingual, hybrid, bricolage speech and identity is common and uncontested. Drawing upon seventeen months of ethnographic fieldwork with six Bengali and international Hindu convert families living within the Dham, the religious homeland of Bengal Vaishnavism, I argue that despite religious conversion and common fundamental understandings of religious texts, the “moral tests” (Briggs 1998) presented in the diverse multinational and multilingual peer group are where children practically “raise to consciousness” what proper enactment of emotions and moral identity means.