Buenos Aires-Why am I here?

26113766_10103370164425544_1218020451908521533_nAs I consider dawn from my room in Buenos Aires, I think over my adventures of the last three weeks. I am half-way through my stay here and wondering why I am here. Just to dance tango? Quizas (maybe). Last night at a milonga, a woman from Florence told me that her coming to Buenos Aires changed her forever. Changed her personality! Before she had lived to work. Her career was everything. Because of BA, she lives to enjoy this life. She echoed voices that I have heard repeatedly since I arrived here.

I came because Oscar Casas casually asked when I would come. I have been dancing tango for four years now. My dancing is acceptable. I considered a planned Christmas in Boston for a daughter who is currently not speaking to me and with a boyfriend who did not want to be there. Why Boston? Why not Argentina? So I booked a ticket. Boston could wait.

Buenos Aires was not what I had expected. I was prepared for a cosmopolitan European-like city with a South American flare (whatever that is) where most people spoke some English. I found a crowded, hot, former European-like (but now too poor to maintain itself) collection of neighborhoods. I was overwhelmed by noise, trash, heat, traffic, dripping AC condensation, and the inability to navigate because of my own ignorance– of the city and its language, Spanish. Nothing like a little contrast to shake the balance and provide a little perspective. But the energy of the Milonga (fast dance), the lilt of the Vals (waltz), and evocative sadness and romance of the Tango– all of that exists here. That energy is like the steam of the boiler room, escaping to fog your windows and distort your vision of the world.

The dancing only added to the “change of weight” (a practice in tango of moving one’s weight from the balance on one leg to another). People stay up all night dancing to music from the early to mid-twentieth century here. I joined the circular rotation. I now no longer sleep in 6-9 hour stretches. I nap between dances.

After my first week, I wrote to Oscar, telling him that I had just had the time of my life dancing. He messaged me, “Oh my friend this is nothing get ready. You didn’t chose tango. TANGO CHOSE YOU!!!

Tango chose me? But why?  This is not my heritage. I don’t really belong here. But this adventure is not about belonging somewhere. BA and tango are about feeling the dance, the next step.


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“Holding Space” in India

Last night, Geetika and her husband, Harsh, invited me to “the club.” Shveta, Amol, and the girls escorted me to dine with several of my new RGNUL colleagues. We had a lovely supper outside on the garden lawn and celebrated our new friendships. I was intending to blog about that delicious dinner and terrific conversation with friends, but events of this morning pre-empt that post.

This morning I sat with Professors Subhradipta Sarkar and Archana Sarma of ITM University, outside of Delhi. They were here for the two day human rights conference this weekend. At one point during breakfast, they asked me how I was finding things in India. I started with the usual, “wonderful,” “busy,” “great colleagues” but then noted that I had felt “shocked” by the disparate treatment of women, and particularly the assistant professors and female students. Perhaps, the wonderful evening last night and my concern for my women friends made me more directly honest about my impressions. Subhradipta and Archana were understandably concerned and we had a very good conversation about India’s evolution as an independent nation. They patiently explained that while the U.S. has had almost 240 years to adapt to and evolve with its constitution, India has had only about 65 years. Change, the realization of equity and equality, takes time. They told me about the progress for women and girls, new educational and employment opportunities, the influence of technology, and of the media. I came away with a greater appreciation for the changes that have occurred in India. I was reminded that I have a tendency to want and expect change overnight.

I returned to my room and logged on to start this blog and to thank Geetika and Harsh – all of them. However, I was distracted by a Facebook post by my dancer friend, Patte, regarding “holding space” for people. See Heather Plett, What it means to “hold space” for people, plus eight tips on how to do it well, http://heatherplett.com/2015/03/hold-space/

While Plett’s wonderful essay begins with a discuss of palliative care for people transitioning from this life to the next, her discussion is applicable in a variety of contexts. For example, it applies to an American academic visiting India. When you hold space, you “walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control. Sometimes we find ourselves holding space for people while they hold space for others.” (Plett, 2015) When I read these words this morning, I realized that I have been holding space (at moments more purely and effectively than at others) and that my new friends here have been holding space for me. Subhradipta and Archana held space for me.

I came to India to teach women’s right, sexual harassment law, and LGBTI rights, among other subjects. I wanted to offer a different perspective to students and academic colleagues. I did not come to “change” India or make it “better.” What hubris that would have shown! I realized this morning that I came to hold space while India transitions from a more historically traditional life to a new, more global, egalitarian one. Transitions, whether they are life and death transitions or cultural and political ones (yes, a multidisciplinary perspective is critical!), can be difficult. I have several times, however, failed to hold space effectively for India, for my students, and even for my new colleagues.

Plett wrote about 8 traits that facilitate holding space:

  1. Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom.
  2. Give people only as much information as they can handle.
  3. Don’t take their power away.
  4. Keep your own ego out of it.
  5. Make them feel safe enough to fail.
  6. Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness.
  7. Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc.
  8. Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would.

This morning I revealed my judgment and frustration. My ego was all over the breakfast table. I would make decisions for India (through educational and legal reforms). Fortunately, my friends, and particularly Shveta, have held space for me. They have made me feel safe enough to fail.

I don’t write this blog to heap ashes on myself –or others. I write it as a celebration of learning– my own and India’s. Plett also wrote, “Holding space is not something that we can master overnight, or that can be adequately addressed in a list of tips like the ones I’ve just given. It’s a complex practice that evolves as we practice it, and it is unique to each person and each situation.”

I take heart that I am evolving individually, as India is evolving (at its own pace and in its own way) as a nation. I am so grateful to Shveta and Geetika, Jasleen and Gurmanpreet– my office mates– who have held space for me to be here.

Jasleen and Jennifer



As I contemplate leaving Patiala in two days, I understand how dramatically this visit has changed me. I wish the same joy of discovery and growth for my friends here who are, no doubt, evolving too.

Fittingly, my first full day in India, I had all the guidance that I needed to be a good space holder. At the Gandhi Smriti, a small plaque on the wall read, “My life is my message.”

IMG_0931And now I return you to my previously scheduled posts…….

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Lunch with RGNUL Colleagues at the Baradari Palace

To celebrate my last full week here in Patiala, one of my wonderful Indian colleagues, Dr. Anand Pawar, took me and several other professors to lunch at the Baradari Palace. This gorgeous building was formerly the home of the Maharaja Rajindera Singh, and is now a heritage hotel, another oasis in the middle of congested and noisy Patiala.

Geetika (Law), Jennifer (Law), and Shveta (Political Science)

Geetika (Law), Jennifer (Law), and Shveta (Political Science)

Gurman (Law), Jennifer, Geetika (Law)

Gurman (Law), Jennifer, Geetika (Law)

Anand (Law), Jennifer, Jasleen (Sociology), and Aniket (3)

Anand (Law), Jennifer, Jasleen (Sociology), and Aniket (3)

We enjoyed many traditional dishes (including my favorite, dal makhani) and a few new ones, including cheese stuffed with cheese!IMG_1220

IMG_1213Geetika pointed out the queens’ gallery that overlooks the dining room of the palace. Women did not take meals with men in the days of the Maharaja but they could watch from above.

After lunch, our waiters brought us finger bowls and I admired Geetika’s henna’d hands. (Headline picture.)

IMG_1226We also took a few pictures within the palace halls. We admired all of the gurus.

IMG_1227Later, I took a stroll on the grounds that look out over the Baradari Gardens.

IMG_1230 - Version 2I will update this post if my friends send me more good pictures from this delightful afternoon. My sincerest thanks to all and especially Dr. Anand who hosted us. I also appreciated visiting with Geetika and her husband later for coffee and sweets. We had a really interesting conversation about Indiana customs and the future of India at their home with Gurman, who later drove me back to the RGNUL campus. A memorable (and delicious!) way to celebrate my last teaching days here in Patalia.

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The Girls’ Hostel

The other night, I had a tour of the girls’ hostel thanks to Prof. Gurmanpreet and Ritika Vohra. The vigilant gate guard allowed my entry even though I came after the 7 pm curfew because I was with Prof. Gurmanpreet.  Some of the women (I will not call them girls because RGNUL is a college. Most of these women are old enough to vote in India) were still having dinner and welcomed me into the “mess” (i.e. mess hall).

Girls' hostel residents at the mess.

Girls’ hostel residents at the mess.

Ritika (seated to my right) introduced me to “Uncle”  who runs the mess and “Auntie,” who cooks and runs the “canteen” (the snack window).

"Uncle," Dr. Jennifer, and Ritika

“Uncle,” Dr. Jennifer, and Ritika

"Auntie" who runs the canteen.

“Auntie” who runs the canteen.

IMG_1055I also met Jasbir Kaur, the lady who monitors the sign-in for the security of all the women. If a woman is late coming in, however, she will not be admitted until she explains her tardiness to the “warden” (the teacher in charge of the hostel).

The complex is divided between double rooms for younger women and single rooms for 4th and 5th year women. A lovely garden is surrounded by a high wall, enclosing swings and a badminton court that the women may access until 11 pm.

All rooms have AC and most have a small balcony from which some hang their drying laundry. According to the students, birds that nest on the AC units are a problem since they soil the clean laundry. But otherwise, the girls find their room adequate. Every hall has a communal washroom with separate stalls.

Several common rooms have small sofas, a flat screen TV, and a game board. No boys (male students) are permitted entry into the hostel complex. (Read about the Lakshman Rekha in the next blog post.)

Students meet their parents, who are not allowed into the rooms of the hostel, in the parent waiting lounge. Parents may stay at the Guest House and visit with the students there, but students female students must return to the hostel by 7 pm.

IMG_1051Every university faces a challenge in housing young adults and helping them transition to completely independent living. RGNUL’s approach is not universal in India and is clearly very different from the one taken by most colleges in the U.S. I wonder. If we did a “cabin swap,” and placed Indiana University students here and RGNUL students in Indiana, what would happen? How would the students respond….?

I give special thanks to Gurmanpreet who was kind enough to introduce me to another type of house, one right down the road from mine… but one on the other side of the world.

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Lakshman Rekha

It was sunset in Patiala. Some male students were playing soccer on the small field next to the Facility Block. A few more played pick-up games on the courts. Young couples, murmuring before curfew, sat on benches up and down the main road that runs next to the hostels.  As it grew darker I walked with several groups towards the hostels.

IMG_1241One of my student friends pointed out for me the Lakshman Rekha, the line not to be crossed.

Below the lamplight, the bump in the road is the Lakshman Rekha. In the distance are the girls' hostels.

Below the lamplight, the bump in the road is the Lakshman Rekha. In the distance are the girls’ hostels.

According to Hindu legend, the Lakshman Rekha was the line drawn by Lakshman to protect Sita, wife of the God Rama. Lakshman was Rama’s brother, charged with the protection of Sita while Rama was away chasing a golden deer. When Rama did not return, Sita begged Lakshman to venture out and search for him. To fulfill his charge and duty to Rama, Lakshman enclosed Sita in a magical ringed line (rekha). If anyone (other than Rama, Sita, or Lakshman) attempted to cross the line, he would be burned by flames springing from the line.

I asked “What would happen if a boy crossed the line?” “He would certainly be punished,” was the answer I received.

As 7 pm approached, the young men said goodnight to their ladies. Young women walked quickly to the hostel gate. Many greeted me as I said goodnight to them, from their side of the Lakshman Rekha.



The guard and matron stood sentry at the gate while the college coeds filed through.

Shivani and Dr. Jennifer

By 7 pm, Sita was again protected.


I walked back to the Guest House on a deserted road.


The men continued to play soccer and pick-up games on the lit courts.

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An Indian Hotel Cancellation Policy

I recently booked a hotel in Delhi on an Indian website in anticipation of my departure next week. (Whoa!)

I read the cancellation policy as I tell all my students to read their contracts and the fine print. This policy included the following paragraph:

Most hotels do not allow unmarried / unrelated couples to check-in. This is at full discretion of the hotel management. No refund would be applicable in case the hotel denies check-in under such circumstances ..

I guess if the Buddha and Ananda wanted a room, ananda

or Mother Teresa and Jesus Christ,


they might be out of luck!

Not good karma, if you ask me……  Now, how can I turn this into a Contracts’ exam question?

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Khalsa College National Seminar on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (updated)

On Saturday, Dr. Shveta’s husband, Amol Singh Dhaliwal, offered to drive us to Khalsa College. Located in Mahilpur, the college is about 130km (or ~82 miles) and a 2.5 hour drive (or longer if the cows are stubborn) from Patiala. And, Seerat came along for the ride. It was an expedition!

Amol Singh Dhaliwal driving us patiently to Khalsa College, Mahilpur, India.

Amol Singh Dhaliwal patiently driving us to Khalsa College, Mahilpur, India.

We arrived late but still took time to enjoy tea with our hosts and the assembled academic speakers. The opening ceremonies were different than those at RGNUL but still lovely.

IMG_4134 copyIMG_4136 copyAfter the presentation of flowers, including a good sprinkling of petals on my forehead, we ate a sweet. Then Mr. S. Jagg Singh asked me to cut the ceremonial ribbon to begin the academic portion of the seminar (see headline picture).

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Khalsa College National Seminar on Women's Rights and Gender Equality.

Khalsa College National Seminar on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality.

Professor (Dr.) Manvinder Kaur (seated to my right on the dais) gave the Keynote Address. I followed as the Guest of Honor. I presented on the comparison between Indian and American legal efforts to affirm the rights of women and to champion the dignity and equality of LGBTI and gender nonconforming people. I spoke about Jyoti Singh, the medical intern who was brutally murdered in Delhi in 2012, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. I contrasted the 2013 Indian criminal prohibition on sexual harassment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I spoke frankly about definitions of the word “sex” and how it could be interpreted to protect members of a particular chromosomal sex, the expression of gender (including nonconforming gender), or sexual expression. Indian sexual harassment law protects only chromosomal females. I encouraged these future leaders to work for the extension of Indian protection and tolerance regarding sex-based harassment and violence.

IMG-20150309-WA0014[1] copy

IMG-20150309-WA0015[1] copy

After the break and in addition to her more formally academic presentation, Dr. Shveta also spoke about her humble beginnings. She relayed how she has had the opportunity to advocate for human rights and present in Africa, South America, and Europe. She encouraged the young women to work hard in their studies and to believe that they can accomplish anything. She added that if she could from her humble background, she was confident that they could go much farther. She spoke in Punjabi, sprinkled with English and Hindi. Many of the participants at the conference spoke English as a third or fourth language so much of the proceedings were in Punjabi. However, my PowerPoint slides and pictures conveyed my message and I have no doubt that the conversation continues.

Quite a few of the women gathered after the day’s presentations to chat outside of the dining hall where we eventually had our lunch. I took pictures with many of them who seemed very interested in me– the foreigner. I realized that I had not seen another foreign-appearing person in three weeks. I understood their curiosity.IMG_1140

We expressed our gratitude to our hosts and took one more picture before starting the long drive back to Patiala.

IMG_1138Life is not easy here and getting the message of change and reform to the more remote corners of India takes time and dedication. I am here for just another week. Dr. Shveta and the other educators in India will carry-on with a perseverance that is beyond admirable. My thanks go out to the individuals, families, and groups who are living the change that they want to see in India.

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

~Mahatma Gandhi

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