A life’s pursuit

By
November 17, 2009

When Brinda Mehta was growing up in Bombay, India, she heard the song “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” sung by Edith Piaf, and fell in love with the French language.

“This is a language I have to learn,” she thought. “It was one of the reasons of the heart.” The song’s theme is “I regret nothing,” and Mehta has found that idea to be the driving force behind her work as a scholar of post-colonial feminism. “The song says that you refuse to be a victim, of the past or of the future, that you go on,” she said.

Mehta in her office in Mills Hall. (Alixandra Greenman)

Mehta in her office in Mills Hall. (Alixandra Greenman)

Having just published her fourth book, Notions of Identity, Diaspora and Gender in Caribbean Women’s Writing, Mehta has worked to dismantle the idea of the global sisterhood and essentialism in the ideas of identity. Yet she has found that post-colonial women do have an essential experience in common: they refuse to be seen as victims. “To be victimized is to be denied freedom of expression,” she said. “It’s very easy to put someone in the victim box because then you don’t have to deal with them.”

Of course, her intellectual experience with francophone literature and post-colonial feminism is more complex than the message from a French song. Her mother and aunts were feminist activists during the Indian independence movement, and her father was a teacher. By the age of 12, she knew the only way to make a difference was through education. She is now a professor of French and Francophone Studies at Mills College.

Christian Marouby, Mehta’s colleague in the Mills French department, describes Mehta as responsible for a paradigm shift in Caribbean studies. “She’s responsible for putting (Caribbean women) on the map.”

Mehta’s 12 page résumé does little to sum up the complexities and interconnectedness of her experiences and academic work. Growing up in India as a woman is the driving force behind all of her convictions. “She is first and foremost a feminist,” said Marouby. “A post-colonial feminist.”

She formed her feminist and de-colonial consciousnesses as a reaction to her very colonial education. “I never had any formal training in post-colonial theory. It was something that I acquired in books but also through experience and from the women in my family. They were living libraries of knowledge and struggle,” Mehta said.

India has a long legacy of feminism. Like Mehta’s mother and aunts, many women went out into the rural towns during the independence movement to educate the people there about the anti-colonial efforts. “In India, you cannot be an academic feminist in a vacuum,” she said. And so Mehta has studied and published and given talks all over the world, including Tunisia, New Orleans, Egypt, China and Québec.

Yet she remains decidedly humble and genuine. “Integrity is something very impressive about Brinda,” said Marouby. “There is no disconnect, it seems, between her work, her teaching with her deepest convictions, and what makes her who she is.”

The concept of identity is one of great complexity for Mehta. “What I find powerful,” said Marouby, “is that she’s enriching and complicating questions of identity, making it in flux rather than given.” As she studies post-colonial women, Mehta searches for manifestations of that identity in everything, from written work to cooking to embroidery.

“The position of ‘the other’ has always fascinated me,” said Mehta, referring to “the other” as any group of people who have been marginalized. “People always ask why I don’t study India, but India is a place of familiarity, so I wanted to write about something else. To put myself in the position of ‘the other’ took real humility. The concept of ‘otherness’ is a real preoccupation of my work.”

Yet Mehta’s own identity and path in life seem so clear. She appears to be a woman with a destiny and, moreover, a woman who is fulfilling that destiny deliberately and with great sensitivity. Her identity as an Indian woman is obvious both superficially (she wears decadent silver earrings and Indian pant suits, called salwar khameez, loves the color saffron and claims she couldn’t live without chai and spices) and intellectually. Asking herself what it means to be a feminist in India, a question she grappled with very early on, led her to question what it means to be a diasporic feminist, and that question created her examination and affiliation with “the other.”

For such a focused, sensitive woman, Mehta is surprisingly passionate about flamenco, the music and dance of the gypsies. The gypsies originally came from her mother’s home state of Rajasthan, and have a long history of struggle and dispersion. That history has felt both familiar and different to her. “There’s something about flamenco that just moves me so deeply. It’s a cry of anguish but also a cry of revolt,” she said. After her mother passed away, Mehta spent a lot of time in the deserts of Rajasthan. “I heard this music,” she said, and felt her attachment to it. “It’s something that’s very primal and very maternal.”

After receiving multiple writing and teaching awards and giving international talks and holding professorship, Mehta is still doing what she’s wanted to do since she was 12 years old: teach. Her students call her by her first name and she jokes with them about bringing pizza to class. Her conviction is obvious – what she is teaching is essential.

“It’s not just knowledge for the sake of knowledge,” said Marouby, reflecting on Mehta’s academic achievements. “It’s the possibility to make a difference in the world.” Mehta makes that difference through constantly educating and reaffirming her commitment to post-colonial women by giving them a voice. This is always done with the utmost integrity.

“Non, je ne regrette rien,” sings Edith Piaf – “No, I regret nothing.” “Car ma vie, mes joies, aujourd’hui ça commence avec toi.” “Because my life, my joys, today it all starts with you.” Maybe Mehta thinks of those words every time she meets a new student, or publishes another book. “It all starts with you.” Her life and her joys – and her struggles and pain – have manifested into a clear academic mission. Directing that mission and projecting her life and her joys begins again every time she meets another student.


A life’s pursuit was published on November 17, 2009 in Features

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  • Shoshana Perrey

    She’s been the single most impassioned and impacting professor I’ve had at Mills. So many of classes left me full of emotion, analysis, reflection and the inspiration to learn more about whatever she was teaching. Highly recommend taking her course Theorizing Cultural Studies in the Americas when she teaches it next time.