Episode 1: Ulka Anjaria

Ulka Anjaria

29 November 2018


[Peter] Hi, this is the English and Creative Writing Undergraduate Department representative podcast. I’m Peter.

[Rachel] I’m Rachel.

[Peter] So today we’re really excited to have Professor Anjaria. How are you today?

[Ulka Anjaria] I’m fine, thank you.

[Rachel] We’re so excited to get to know you a little bit better.

[Peter] What book is either on your bedside table right now or on the bedside table of your mind right now?

[Ulka Anjaria] I always have several books open at the same time. So I’m preparing for my new spring course called Indian Love Stories, and I’m reading a novel called The Ascetic of Desire, which is actually a novel set in the 4th century AD in India at the time that the Kamasutra was being written. And it’s actually a novel – a fictionalized story – of the man who wrote the Kamasutra, so it’s very interesting. And then I’m reading, or I haven’t started yet but I’m just about to read, a novel called My Sister the Serial Killer, which is a Nigerian novel about someone whose sister is a serial killer, so I’m looking forward to that.

[Rachel] What’s one book that had a lot of influence on you?

[Ulka Anjaria] I think that the book probably that had the most influence on me in terms of professionally was Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. When it came out in 1997, I was in my final year of high school, and I had kind of been interested in Indian literature before, but everything that I read felt like it was written by a really old man, so nothing really connected to me. And then I read The God of Small Things, which was written by someone who was young, and she was female, and she was just writing about really different topics than I’d ever read about in Indian literature, and it kind of blew my mind when I read it. And so, after that, I feel like I was hooked to the Indian novel specifically but everything that I study in my field.

[Peter] You brought up high school, so we wanted to ask what kind of person you were when you were in high school?

[Ulka Anjaria] I’m trying to remember. So I went to a kind of suburban, not very diverse high school, and it had great classes, and it had great teachers, but it wasn’t really my social set. I was definitely a restless high school student. I was perfectly happy, but I think I wanted more. I was really excited to go to college, and really excited to start to travel. I mean I traveled as a child, but travel more on my own and read more kinds of things. I remember it as a time of restlessness. I guess that’s how I can best define it. I mean I was a bookish student, I read a lot. I had a perfectly nice high school time, but I was definitely looking for more.

[Rachel] At that time in your life, where did you really want to travel?

[Ulka Anjaria] I spent the year after I graduated high school – I spent that year in India. That was important to me. I had been to India many times with my family, but it was important for me to go on my own at that point because I think that I had elderly grandparents, and I didn’t have any family my own age because my parents are both only children, so we didn’t have any cousins, so I was only hanging out with older people, which was great, but it just wasn’t giving me a sense of what was going on in India at that point. And so it was very important to me to be able to go there, live on my own, rent an apartment on my own, that wasn’t with family and experience it as a 22-year-old. That’s the first thing I did.

[Peter] And we also know that in your professional life you’ve traveled many different places, and we know that last year you were on sabbatical in Mauritius. And we were wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that experience was like?

[Ulka Anjaria] Yes, Mauritius is one of the most amazing places that I’ve ever been. It is a tiny island on the east of Madagascar. It’s remote. It’s pretty remote. It is a tiny island of 1.2 million people. And it is a really interesting – first of all, it’s beautiful. It’s surrounded by a coral reef so it has clear waters. And it is one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been. It’s a perfect mix of Africa and Asia, which are my two favorite continents. In terms of the people, in terms of the food, the language, everything about it is wonderful. I rented a house, sent my kids to school; they loved it. It’s a wonderful place, and I hope to retire there after I’m done teaching at Brandeis.

[Peter and Rachel] Wow.

[Peter] What’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever eaten?

[Ulka Anjaria] I’m a big food person. I’ve eaten so many things that I’m so lucky to have eaten. I don’t know, there’s something really amazing about having a really simple 150-rupee dosa in south India, which is something – there’s something surreal about that, especially the simplicity, the complexity and simplicity at the same time. But I’ve also had really nice tasting menus in Paris and things like that that are also really nice. Mexican food is one of my favorites. And I think the biggest surprise for me was Sri Lanka because I just feel like it’s not a food, it’s not a cuisine that gets talked about that much. People know abut Indian food, but no one really knows about Sri Lankan food, so I found Sri Lankan food absolutely amazing and the most underrated food I’ve ever eaten.

[Rachel] What’s the most impactful travel experience that you’ve had?

[Ulka Anjaria] So I really do love to travel. I’ve been to 40 countries, and I want to continue to go to more. The most impactful travel has been places that blew mind because I consider myself an educated person, and I feel like I know a lot about the world, but there’s still some places I’ve been that shatter even my expectations. One of those places was Ethiopia. I mean, I’m not influenced – there’s a lot of negative media imagery around Africa, obviously, and I never believed it, but I still didn’t know what to expect, going to Addis Ababa, and going there, and being struck by what an amazing, vibrant city it is. And the food there is also amazing. And then, being able to drink a glass of red wine made in Ethiopia from Ethiopian grapes while eating this amazing meal, it just feels like a really special thing. And again, even though I know that those stereotypes of Africa are wrong, it still is amazing that there’s part of you still kind of believes that the cities are kind of dystopic. It was an amazing experience to just experience that wonderful city. And I had a similar experience in Pakistan, it’s another place that just gets really bad media. And I’ve just enjoyed my two visits there a lot. And Mexico I think is a big one. I mean obviously in the US … you know, you can sit at a sidewalk café in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City and be surrounded by hipsters and drink really good coffee. It’s such a disjuncture between that experience and how people see Mexico in the US and how people represent it. I think all Americans have a duty to go visit Mexico and actually see what it’s really like. I feel like people would be so surprised at how amazing and normal and really interesting and cool it is outside of these dystopic images.

[Peter] We’re also thinking about what kinds of things have been really exciting for you lately to be reading and studying and thinking about and writing about. What are some things you’ve really been grasping onto?

[Ulka Anjaria] That’s a good question. Things always excite me at different periods. My book on contemporary Indian literature and popular culture is coming out in April, and that was a really exciting project to work on. For my first book, it was on older Indian literature, so it was really exciting for me to just look at what’s going on now. That was something you miss out when you do the historical project. So this book came, really, straight from my heart. Now I’m thinking more about love and sexuality in India. Thinking about everything that I studied in graduate school, everything that scholars study, is always about politics and history, which is really important, and that’s what I’ve done. Even when I study literature, I’m looking at what it tells us about politics and history. I’m thinking more about what else there might be in Indian literature besides that. Rethinking about how you can look back at even just postcolonial India ,70 years, and just see if you look at it through the lens of love, you get a very different picture of what’s important. And so, I’ve been reading more in that topic, and it gives you an entirely different account of India’s postcolonial history; different texts, different focuses, parallel trends that were going on that I didn’t know existed because in my archive I’m always choosing things that were historically or politically relevant. So that’s what I’m kind of thinking about now that’s very exciting.

[Peter] I’m just going to grab the next question because it’s one of my favorites. What’s a niche class that you would love to teach if you didn’t have to worry about any students being interested in it?

[Ulka Anjaria] It’s a really good question. I mean, I’m very lucky because I actually have taught or am teaching a lot of the classes that I ideally would like to teach, and I think that not every professor gets to do that because we do have to worry about things like enrollments or departments that have stronger curricula needs. So I’m lucky to be able to teach these classes. But I think of specific classes; I would love to teach a class on the literature and film of Pakistan. That would probably be pretty narrow in terms of interest just because it would be focused solely on Pakistan, but that would really interest me. I’m really excited about this Indian Love Stories class. That was something that I have been, it’s a new class that I’ve been thinking about what it would look like, I’m still thinking about what it would look like. But that is one that I was itching to teach, so I’m excited to be able to do that.

[Rachel] What’s one of the books from that course that you’d recommend to someone (me) to read?

[Ulka Anjaria] There’s one of the films that we’re going to be watching, it’s called Dil Se, and it’s a Bollywood film that I don’t teach in the Bollywood class because it’s a really extended reflection on love and the different shades of love. It has some influence from Sufi poetics, in which love is always something that you actually have no control over so it kind of grips you and then you’re led, without agency, really, to often to a path of destruction. So the image used often in Sufi poetry is a moth to a flame in which the moth is instinctively attracted to the flame and keeps going closer even though the flame will ultimately result in the moth’s demise. There is a dark element to that, but the idea is of this love that is so powerful that it takes everything that you consider normal life and it takes you out of that. So the film shows that really beautifully. So that’s one of the texts that I’m really excited about teaching.

[Rachel] That’s so interesting. I like that a lot. Is that how you approach the idea of love? Is that a good love story for you?

[Ulka Anjaria] It’s hard to say it is because it’s so – not just even the destruction but that it takes you out of the world. It’s not so much that I believe in that, but I find it intriguing because it’s an entirely inverted way of looking at life than we usually do. And I think what I like about some of the newer Bollywood films is that they’re playing with this idea because love has been so important to Bollywood for so many decades, and now there’s films about young people who are just like we can’t look at love in this way because we have things to do, we have careers and, especially with careers, we have things that we want to accomplish. That idea of love is not compatible with a modern existence. Me, as someone obviously participating in a modern existence, I’m intrigued by these other ways of conceiving of what a valid life might be. So I love the idea, and I love the idea that there are people who want to live like that. Not just with love but with all other ways of thinking about someone’s life.

[Rachel] If you weren’t a professor, if you didn’t have this teaching role, what do you think you would be doing with your life?

[Ulka Anjaria] That’s a really good question.

[Rachel] Just to take this on an entirely different track.

[Ulka Anjaria] I’m not going to venture very far from being a professor. Part of me, I mean, I would love to write fiction. That’s something I’m experimenting with. Not literary fiction but young adult fiction, like mysteries, more genre fiction. I would love to just be a writer, but I am a writer! I always wanted to be a high school math teacher. I really loved high school math, and I love teaching in general, but I love teaching math, which, unfortunately, my poor children suffer for because I always give them extra math lessons because I actually enjoy the process. I’ve genuinely thought about teaching high school math.

[Peter] I think this is a personal question, but what’s one piece of media – a song or book or film or anything – that you feel has some deep understanding into you as a person, or that you would recommend to someone as a sort of lens into yourself or your soul?

[Ulka Anjaria] It’s a personal question not just that other people ask it but even as you think about it yourself. I don’t know if I have an adequate answer to that question. I mean, the book that moved me unexpectedly that I recently read was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, which I found ... I didn’t expect it, I mean I know his writing, but I was powerfully moved by that book. I think it’s partly because he’s such a beautiful writer, but he’s one of the few people trying to develop a new vocabulary for politics and progressive politics in America today given our current situation. He does it so beautifully, and he does it so creatively, and he pushes all of these boundaries for what is considered acceptable, progressive thought. It felt like, I mean I’m not going to compare myself to him at all, but it felt like some of things that I’m trying to write about in my scholarship as well and something that I care about on a personal level too in terms of how we live in today’s world. I think that would be the book that, not that it represents me, but that speaks to me right now, at this moment.

[Rachel] What’s some other media that you interact with, like music or podcasts or tv shows? Anything good that you’ve been listening to lately?

[Ulka Anjaria] My new favorite genre of music is reggaeton. I’ve been listening to a lot of that. But I am definitely not an explorer when it comes to music, I use music as a comfort, so I listen to a lot of the same things over and over again. My favorite genre is Hindi film music. So that’s my comfort zone and that’s what I listen to most of the time. In terms of media, I just basically binge-watched the three seasons of Queen Sugar, which is Ava DuVernay’s show on the Oprah Network, which I absolutely loved. I’m the kind of person who likes to cry in television. It’s a beautiful show. It’s really, again, very of the moment, and I loved it.

[Peter] Could you recommend a song that we could put as an outro to this podcast when we edit the audio?

[Ulka Anjaria] There’s a song I have been listening to a lot from Veer Zaara, which is one of the films I teach in my Bollywood class, called Lodi. So, that would be a good one.

[Peter] This is another one of my favorite questions that we have, which is: What is something that you hate but everyone else seems to like?

[Ulka Anjaria] That’s a great question. The Serial podcast – I really hate it. And I hate all of NPR, let’s be totally honest.

[Peter] I do, too!

[Ulka Anjaria] I know I’m not supposed to say it, I even feel bad saying it on this, but I just really don’t like NPR, anything about it, and I really don’t like Serial.

[Peter] Another question, about something you do like, who’s a celebrity who you’re obsessed with?

[Ulka Anjaria] I was really, really crushed when Anthony Bourdain died. He was someone who was very important to me because he represented to me this ideal of traveling well and ethically and opening your heart to other people and eating around the world. To know that he was so broken, that was really devastating. I think he’s the only celebrity that I shed tears for, and I still like thinking about him often. That was someone I think about in a sad way. In terms of happier, current celebrities, I think Trevor Noah is the most interesting and smart person on television right now. I’m obsessed with him.

[Rachel] This is related, but is there some aspect of media that people would be surprised to know that you like?

[Ulka Anjaria] I think people would be surprised to know that, it’s not media, but that I am a Red Sox fanatic.

[Rachel] Oh my goodness

[Peter] I am surprised

[Ulka Anjaria] I’m not usually the type who’s a Red Sox fan, but I’m a big Red Sox fan. I was very happy when they won the World Series. I watched an embarrassingly large number of baseball games this past year, and I know everyone on the team, and I know lots of information about them. And I have to say, I love Alex Cora also. I think part of what made this year so amazing is this new manager, and I really think that it’s because of him that they won the World Series. I think he’s a genius. I think the way that he conceptualizes the game and the players, and for him to be the first Latino manager in Red Sox history is also amazing. I love him.

[Peter] What are some of your favorite places in the Boston area – for anything, but just some spots that matter to you?

[Ulka Anjaria] I’ve lived in Central Square in Cambridge on and off since college, actually, so since 2000, and I really find that to be a special neighborhood. Now I live in the Port area of Central Square, which has this incredible history, has this incredible African American heritage, that exists in part but also is changing. But I think people in the neighborhood are trying to keep it alive, that history. I like the historical part of it. I feel so lucky to live in a part of a city that is diverse, where my kids go to public school, class-wise and racially, I mean, there aren’t many spots in the US that actually are diverse cities; we live in a very segregated country. I have a special place in my heart for the whole Central Square area. All of it, even the dystopic parts of it, I like it all. I love walking there when I bike into Cambridge or bike into Central or even drive in; I feel very happy when I reach there.

[Peter] What’s one thing that you wish students understood about you or, even more generally, your job and professors that maybe they don’t seem to?

[Ulka Anjaria] I really love students. I’m not just saying this for the podcast. We have really good students. I have colleagues that teach at other universities where they do get frustrated that students don’t understand that they’re working, too. But I just haven’t had those kinds of frustrations because I haven’t had students who come in and question why I’m there, or my right to be there, or why they’re in the class, or why I’m teaching – I haven’t had those kinds of questions, so I don’t feel like there’s something I want to say to students to make them understand. I guess the only thing I can say is just that reading, for English classes, reading and thinking through texts is still an enjoyable thing for the professor as well. I don’t feel like there’s material that I have and that I just want to convey to you, but I genuinely feel that – and maybe students don’t know this, that I re-read everything every time I teach it – every time I re-read it, I enjoy it, and I want to explore it. In that sense, I’m a student, too. I’m also enjoying the parts of reading and watching films that hopefully students are as well.

[Rachel] If you had to offer listeners any one piece of advice, what would it be?

[Ulka Anjaria] One piece of advice I would have is just encourage everyone to travel as much as possible because I feel like there’s something about that that changes who you are at home if you travel. And the more you do it, the better, and the more surprising places you go, the better. I would also say really enjoy these college years. There’s the kind of freedom you have, not just freedom in terms of authority, but intellectual and creative freedom to be your best self in a way that I think a lot of people don’t realize until they don’t have it. Then, I think, people miss it a lot. For me, the four years of college were incredibly special. That was something that I hadn’t experienced – you experience it differently in those years than when you’re in school. I would say try to do as much as you can to appreciate that and to capture some of that, and fold it away and take it with you so that you can have it as you go on.

[Peter] Awesome. Well I think that was our last question, but we thank you so much for being the first professor to participate in this podcast.

[Ulka Anjaria] Thank you for inviting me, this is a great project.

[Peter] We look forward to posting this and sharing it with the department. Thank you so much.

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