Traveling to a new country for the first time can be daunting. And traveling to a country with a culture, tradition, food and climate totally different from your own can be a sensory adventure. I recently got an opportunity to interview professor Elizabeth Cole, who had travelled from the United States to India for the first time.
On a beautiful December evening, we settled on a couch in a Marriott hotel in Mumbai. After a quick exchange of hellos, we glanced at the ceiling-to-floor glass window. An elaborate Indian wedding was taking place on the grassy lawns of the hotel outside. Marigolds, hennaed women in lehngas, chairs covered in white cloth and men in sherwanis filled the lawn. “I've always been very interested in India,” professor Cole said.
Professor Elizabeth Cole is the Interim Dean of the College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts (LSA) at the University of Michigan. She is a professor in the departments of Women’s Studies and Psychology. She also has a faculty appointment in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies. Professor Cole's research interests include the application of intersectionality theory to research in psychology, women’s activism, and diverse women’s perceptions of body image and sexuality.
Deepak: Welcome to Mumbai, Dr. Cole!
Elizabeth Cole: Thank you!
D: When I moved to the U.S. from India for the first time, I went for a walk soon after arriving. The first question that came to my mind was, “Where is everybody?” The streets were so empty. What are some of your first impressions of India so far?
EC: My visceral impression was the intensity and pace of this place. They say that the first thing people usually notice in India is traffic and I think my sense of the intensity and the pace is not unrelated to the traffic. People are out in the streets even when we were returning late from dinner. There's just a lot of life being lived outside and it felt like a high-energy place. I wonder if some of that is also related to the demographics here. So many people are so young compared to the U.S.
D: You mentioned that prior to traveling to India you had read a number of works of fiction set here, including the works of Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, and Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance.” Have you read any fiction set in the colonial era? Traveling around Mumbai, did you see any remnants from that time?
EC: Yes. We were visiting alumni, some of whom hosted me in the clubs they belong to. It was kind of surprising and interesting how you could see the colonial vestiges in the architecture of these clubs. It was a wonderful opportunity to visit these elegant places and I’m so grateful to the alums who offered us such hospitality.
D: People can have preconceived notions about a place, but they can be surprised when they actually see that place in person. Is there anything you have seen or experienced in India so far that you weren’t expecting?
EC: What really surprised me is how many references I've seen everywhere to Christmas! I can't believe I've seen so many Christmas trees and heard so much Christmas music. When I first got to the hotel, I was so exhausted that I didn't even notice the Christmas stuff. When I came down the next day, I saw a note from the staff in my room, inviting me to a Christmas tree lighting. They’re piping Christmas music into the lobby downstairs! On first reaction, I thought Christianity is hegemonic everywhere, but I was talking to someone about it and they said it's become like another festival in India and that people celebrate the rituals of it, but it's not attached to any kind of religious observance.
D: Growing up in India, I always looked forward to Christmas because that’s when I got to eat delicious cake at my Christian friends’ homes.
D: Speaking of cake, how are you liking the food here?
EC: Someone introduced me to fresh lime soda – sweet and salty. That was brand-new and fun. You know, a couple of places I went to I felt like the Indian food was very similar to what I get in the U.S. And one of the places I went I was surprised by how unspicy it was. I kind of wondered if they made it that way for me because they saw that I was from abroad. And today we went to a restaurant called Trishna where I had South Indian fish curry and I also had a kind of bread that I hadn't had before that was almost like a noodle. So, that was interesting and I enjoyed it.
D: Since you’ve been spending so much of your time with the alumni, I want to ask about your impression of the University of Michigan alums in India.
EC: I have met quite a few alumni here, who are just really devoted and committed to trying to find ways to set up partnerships and make resources available so that other students from India can have that experience. I really enjoyed talking with them about the ways they had a transformative experience while they were at Michigan. I was primarily talking with our LSA alumni, who talked about feeling this sense of intellectual freedom there and they loved that you could come to Michigan and to LSA and you didn't need to be admitted into a particular program-- they were able to combine different programs to suit their curiosity. It was inspiring and really delightful to hear the ways that they were on taking that kind of rich experience and translating it into careers that were interdisciplinary.
D: Can you give an example?
EC: For example, I met Sujatha Duvvuri of She Made foods. In her business, she's combining understanding of how you create a product and get it to market with an appreciation for nutrition and social justice. And how you make jobs available to people who didn't have them before. There's a real creativity, I think. She’s developing recipes involving a lot of fun; she is testing things, trying things, doing things in new ways, so it was just such a great example of what the liberal arts can do for you. And she’s hosted U-M interns to work with her on marking and nutrition. I was just impressed with the quality of the work she was doing and I think that's another hallmark of an LSA education.
D: Thank you so much for talking with me Dr. Cole.
EC: Thank you for interviewing me.