Veena Das

Veena Das

Fellow: Awarded 2009

Field of Study: Anthropology and Cultural Studies

Competition: US & Canada


In the concluding words of my recent book, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, I say, “ This is how I see the public role of anthropology: acting on the double register in which we offer evidence that contests the official amnesia and systematic acts of making evidence disappear, but also witnessing the descent into the everyday through which victims and survivors affirm the possibility of life by removing it from the circulation of words gone wild—leading words home, so to speak.”

The phrase “leading words home” summarizes the abiding theme of my research for the last four decades for I am driven by the task to understand the everyday as a site on which we see the closeness of both the ordinary and its violation. My ethnographic task has been to track the traces of each in the other. My work owes everything to the inspiration I get from the great philosopher Stanley Cavell and his mode of reading the texts of Ludwig Wittgenstein. A claim I make is that the moral task of securing the everyday is what connects my interlocutors in the field with the task of leading words home that I take to be the essence of Cavell and Wittgenstein’s philosophy.

I have had great moral luck in the teachers and colleagues I have. Coming from a family displaced by the Partition of India in 1947, I grew up in relatively difficult circumstances in Delhi. The availability of the Delhi Public Library when I was a child accounts for the fact that I discovered the joys of literature and philosophy at an early age since no one supervised whether reading such adult books was appropriate for me or not. In college I first studied Sanskrit and graduated from Indraprastha College in 1964. I love Sanskrit literature and read it for pleasure. For totally contingent reasons I went on to read Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics getting my Master's degree and then Ph.D. in 1970. My teacher was Professor M. N. Srinivas, who just let me do what I wanted.  His careful pedagogy instilled in me a great love for anthropology. (In India we did not make a distinction between anthropology and sociology.) I taught at the Delhi School of Economics from 1967 to 2000 and those were heady days of great Friday seminars, inspiring students, and careful nurturing of hopes that Indian anthropology would become a major influence in shaping public issues. Though I was firmly located in Delhi, I formed lasting friendships with colleagues in many countries that shaped my thinking in many ways. Two scholars in the USA who had a profound influence on me were Arthur Kleinman, who helped me enter a different trajectory of writing, and Talal Asad, who could reframe the questions I was asking in unpredictable ways. Despite differences in our mode of working, Arjun Appadurai’s writings open up new questions for my students and me. My colleagues in India and I continue to be totally engaged in each other’s work. I am especially proud of my students from both India and the U.S. who are today fully accomplished professionals in their own right with academic positions in India, Europe, and the United States. I also edit a series called Critical Asian Studies for Routledge, Delhi, which has given me an opportunity to engage especially closely with the emerging work in social sciences in India, as has my long engagement with Oxford University Press in Delhi.

After a brief but very productive time at the New School University in late nineties, I joined Johns Hopkins University in 2000. My colleagues in the anthropology department make the pursuit of anthropology especially rewarding. Johns Hopkins offers the opportunity to get into intense conversations with colleagues in different subjects and thus to look at your own subject with different eyes. That I can get into discussions about what is human, how to think of the difficulty of reality or the defense of so-called idolatry while walking to work, or after a chair’s meeting,or in a seminar or over a student defense with colleagues from Humanities and Political Philosophy is sheer heaven. As is the combined joy and anguish of having students, graduate and undergraduate, who bring freshness into the world. Matching such discussions with the various intellectual and affective engagements I have had with my interlocutors in the field I think gives me a firm ground to stand on. Finally it is my family, and especially my husband, Ranen, who have been a rock against the (occasional but real) suffocation of either becoming dumb or filling up voids with empty chatter.

Before the honor of receiving the Guggenheim Fellowship, I was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Academy of Sciences from Developing Societies, and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Chicago. I have also been the recipient of the Anders Retzius Gold Medal of the Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography in 1998 and the Ghurye award for my first book in 1977.

All of these influences have combined to helped me define my project for the Guggenheim Fellowship. It is entitled “Entangled Identities: Muslims and Hindus in Urban India." I will be engaged in analyzing the production and circulation of various kinds texts in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and Bengali in low-income neighborhoods in Delhi. Departing from the usual tropes of syncretism or hybridity, I will ask how political theologies are evolving within specific local ecologies and what possibilities these might hold for what I call an agonistic belonging to a plural society. I want to study not only the texts in themselves but also their social life--what disputations are created around them, how they are produced not only as written texts but also as texts that are brought into being in rituals or in healing practices. I will be following the trajectory of these texts and the commerce between humans and inhumans (gods, jinns, ghosts) as these texts become citational and authoritative. I want to know what is at stake for Hindus and Muslims in inhabiting a common milieu and how does the everyday become the site on which the life of the other is thus engaged. The Guggenheim Fellowship will enable me to complete writing this book. I will be in Delhi, Paris, and Baltimore for the duration of the Fellowship.