Professor Profile: Seshadri Aspires For Nonviolence, Despite Societal Tensions
Published: Sunday, September 22, 2013
Updated: Sunday, September 22, 2013 23:09
Not many people can speak seven languages and still try to add more on their list. Professor Kalpana Seshadri does both. She speaks five different Indian dialects and has also studied French and Italian. Seshadri is now learning German, despite the fact that she is an English professor who specializes in post-colonial literature. Learning a new language to Seshadri is like “opening up a whole new world. It’s like space travel, and it’s like a whole new form of life opens up to you,” she said.
According to Seshadri, you grow up in India, and you end up speaking a bunch of different languages. That’s just the way it is. “I grew up in Hyderabad which is sort of in the middle of India, and what it was like when I think back to my childhood is how diverse it was and how completely unconscious I was about its diversity,” Seshadri said. “I grew up in a city that is known for its absolutely gorgeous Nizami Muslim culture.”
Her eyes beamed as she began describing her beloved hometown. “The Nizam of Hyderabad was a viceroy of the Moghul emperor, and he was the richest man in the 1720s. If you go to Hyderabad, you’ll see all those Nizami palaces and architecture, and it’s so gorgeous. So I grew up in a very Muslim city, went to Catholic school all my life, but grew up in a fairly traditional Hindu family that was very secular in its outlook. And then my best friend was Parsi.”
What Seshadri found especially interesting was that her and her group of friends would celebrate all sorts of religious holidays and festivals together, like Eid, Christmas, Holi, and Diwali. “We would even go to the kite festivals together and eat each others’ food, and we would never think about each others’ differences,” she said. There was a mosque right there, a temple right there, a church right up the street. You heard the church bells, the temple bells—you’d hear the call to prayer. It was all seamless, and this is what I really treasured about my childhood. And I miss that, here where everything is so racialized and everyone is so self conscious.”
Before coming to Boston, Seshadri got her Master’s in English at the University of Hyderabad. That was different from her past experience in school because she attended a Catholic convent from first grade until her undergraduate, but the University of Hyderabad was one of the few prestigious schools that followed the American system rather than the typical British system. And there, she met her inspiration, the famous critic Meenakshi Mukherjee. Mukherjee changed the course of Seshadri’s life.
“She was sophisticated, she was smart, she was brilliant, she’d written a lot of books, she had travelled widely, but at the same time she was really grounded in Indian culture and was really open minded,” Seshadri said. “She was like a mentor to me, and I absolutely adored her. She was the reason I decided that I wanted to be a professor, I wanted to write books, and I didn’t want to have the life I could have gone into—arranged marriage, being a society Indian lady, playing cards at the club, doing charity work, and wearing chiffon saris. I most definitely did not want that.”
Seshadri certainly followed Mukherjee’s footsteps. She came to Boston to get her doctorate in English at Tufts University and fell in love with the city. Now, Seshadri teaches the Introduction to Post-Colonial Literature course, Global Englishes, which she absolutely loves, and she also does seminars on race because her scholarship is on theories of race.
While talking about her research, Seshadri has a wistful expression. “The philosophy of race looks into whether race is a social construction or an inherent, biological sort of identity,” she said. “And if it is a social construction, then why do we hold on to a racial identity? These are the sort of questions that I take interest in.”
Coming to the U.S., Seshadri was shocked to see how important of an idea race is. “It was a real eye opener for me,” she said. In South Asia, according to Seshadri, people don’t think so racially. So when she came here, she began researching theories of race and how they connect to colonialism.