"Nothing in my life until then had prepared me for what I saw." She remembers discussing with her Polish friends how unbelievable it was that such atrocities could have ever occurred. While most of her friends were diplomatic in their answers, some showed very anti-Semitic attitudes. "For the first time in my life I began to understand what anti-Semitism is," she says.
Global Brandeis Profiles
Visting Professor Smita Tewari Jassal: Rooted Cosmopolitan
by Miranda Neubauer '10, Global Brandeis correspondent
FEB. 27, 2009 - In the late 1980s, Smita Tewari Jassal was volunteering for the Capital Children's Museum in Washington D.C. as a guide for an exhibition called "Daniel's Story," an introduction for children to the difficult subject matter of the Holocaust. "It was always very interesting for the youngsters -- they could never really figure out what this woman in a sari was going to tell them about that," she recalls. Her favorite aspect of the program, though, was that it provided an opportunity for the children to meet a Holocaust survivor at the end of the tour. "The children left without the really traumatic feeling that everything had ended," she says. "It really was a story of hope. There were survivors who could talk about it."
Throughout her travels from India to Poland, Israel and the United States, Jassal has had a deeply personal need to recover lost memories and forge a connection with the past she identifies with. This year, Jassal is Brandeis' Madeleine Haas Russell Visiting Professor in the department of Anthropology; the honor is a rotating faculty position in Non-Western Studies. She taught an introductory course on South Asian culture in the fall and is currently teaching "Gender and Development: Perspectives from South Asia."
Jassal was born in New Delhi in 1954. Growing up in Delhi, Jassal received a "modern" education as a student at a Roman Catholic school. "However, I feel that living in Delhi and going to such a school I was kind of distanced from my own roots and own traditions," she recalls. "So when I trained to become an anthropologist, it was a dream of mine to go and reclaim my roots and understand my own people and make that connection."
Jassal's own personal search led her to her first academic concentration. She conducted fieldwork in the rural villages of north India. While doing research, she noticed that "women were doing a lot of agriculture annd labor, but they were not recognized in the official records...they were invisible."
It became important for her to find a way to bring the issue to the attention of the wider public. Jassal's first book Daughters of the Earth: Women and Land in Uttar Pradesh (Manohar, New Delhi, 2001) is a culmination of her field work. In a forthcoming book, Jassal will investigate the folklore of Indian rural society, with an emphasis on the oral traditions of men and women.
Jassal has often wondered about the origin of her personal need to connect with her heritage. One source of her interest could stem from her marriage to a man from anonther religious and cultural background. Unlike Jassal, who is Hindu, her husband is Sikh. She remarks that "there is a lot of pressure to be integrated into the society that you marry into, [but] at the same time there's also this huge effort to hold on to your own identity."
Jassal's marriage has intimately attuned her to the trauma of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1948. The split forced Jassal's husband's family to come to India from Lahore, thus abandoning their small chemical production firm. Coupled with the death of one of the family's daughters, the process of relocation was a hardship for the entire family.
Jassal's husband's story is a typical experience of partition, an issue she explored at a seminar in Israel in 2003. Facing the hardships of an uprooted life, the members of that generation had to start from scratch to build their lives again. Jassal feels that this issue is often left unaddressed. In India, there is "no formal recognition of the fact that millions of people lost their lives and livelihood. Nobody ever discussed how deeply people were affected," she explains.
Neighborhoods in India with Muslim populations were emptied out, leading to a wish of the "people born in those areas [to] go back and visit and make a connection with where their ancestors came from."
When Jassal moved to Poland with her husband, an ambassador, she found herself confronted with the realities of a new trauma that deeply affected her. "I was disturbed by the concentration camps," she recalls. "Nothing in my life until then had prepared me for what I saw." She remembers discussing with her Polish friends how unbelievable it was that such atrocities could have ever occurred. While most of her friends were diplomatic in their answers, some showed very anti-Semitic attitudes. "For the first time in my life I began to understand what anti-Semitism is," she says.
Jassal's travels to Europe, the Middle East and the United States have been integral to her lifelong mission to be in touch with her heritage. After spending time in different countries, Jassal feels she now "sees everything in relation to my roots."
It is with this attitude that Jassal is introducing Brandeis students to her culture. Talia Warmflash '11 remarks that Jassal's course style is unique because "she approaches the topic from a very personal level, she speaks about her family and her own fieldwork...and she also gives us a historical background." Jassal has remained true to her philosophy of being in touch with history. "For me, it's very important that I make available readings in the original. If we're talking for instance about Gandhi, I would like them to read Gandhi in the original...and then make up their own minds."
Smita Tewari Jassal is now teaching Brandeis students the wisdom she has gained during her years of field research around the world. She has lent a unique perspective to global culture and is an invaluable addition to the teaching staff at Brandeis.
Learn more: Department of Anthropology