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Lisa Goff
English Professor Stephen Arata and daughter, Emma, stand on a balcony overlooking Shillong, India, where Arata taught as a Fulbright Scholar last semester.

Arata shares experiences as Fulbright in India

By Rebecca Arrington

For years English professor Stephen Arata would get the Fulbright catalog and "drool over it," wishing he taught American instead of British literature, the area of study typically in demand by universities abroad. Then last year the publication arrived, and amid the listings was a position for scholar of 19th- and 20th-century British lit.

Arata applied for the coveted post, a three-month-long professorship in India, and much to his delight got it. "I'd always wanted to visit the country," he said.

Arata stayed in the city of Shillong in the northeast region of India called Meghalaya. It was a closed state until recently, due to civil instability. "I was only the second Fulbright to go there," said Arata, who was visiting professor at North Eastern Hill University from August through December. In India, "university˛ refers to graduate school and "college" signifies undergraduate study. He taught a course in 20th-century British fiction and was guest lecturer in three other M.A. classes.

India's canon "would be considered much more traditional -- Beowulf to Virginia Woolf -- than ours." It doesn't take world literature into account. Indian literature and other literary works throughout the world aren't making their way into India's canon, not because of an unwillingness to change or be inclusive, he said, but because of limited resources. "Things we take for granted -- paper, books, paper clips -- aren't plentiful there."

Amenities are wanting, too. At North Eastern Hill there was only one telephone in the English department, which often didn't work, and the electricity wasn't dependable, Arata said. "There was no e-mail, no Xerox machines. The only way to communicate was in person."

Despite scarce supplies and equipment, scholarship thrives, he said. The biggest difference he found between the students he taught in India and those he instructs at U.Va. is that Indian students are "excruciatingly deferential. Š They hold their professors in high esteem, which was nice, but they thought it would be disrespectful to challenge my lectures," he said. "It took a long time to convince them that I really wanted them to talk to me. There were days when I longed for some brash American student to tell me I was terribly mistaken," Arata recalled smiling.

Although Hindu, Moslem and Sikh cultures are dominant in most of India, in Shillong self-described "tribal" cultures indigenous to that area, some Christian-based, are prevalent. The city is located in the Khasi Hills at the base of the Himalayas. English is the official language there as well as in all of India.

Arata's wife, Lisa Goff, and their daughters Emma, 7, and Haley, 4, accompanied him to India. When he wasn't teaching at the university, he and his family spent most of their time together. "We were able to have the nuclear family" experience, he said.

When they ventured out, they were well-received. The people were warm and gracious, Arata said. Not many from the U.S. visit Shillong. "We were there three months before we saw another American." As a result, "Our novelty value was quite high. We were the recipients of many invitations to tea."

Arata and his family made many friends in the Khasi neighborhood where they lived. They even adjusted to the city's still-agrarian-based workday. "Most go to bed at 9 p.m. and get up at 4:30 a.m.," he said.

Two serious problems facing Shillong and all of India are pollution and overcrowding. "Indians are meticulously clean in their person and in their homes," Arata said. However, there's no system in place for managing waste. "The streets in Shillong are filthy, and the rivers are choked with garbage," he said. During his visit, India's population reached 1 billion. Shillong's citizenry, alone, has tripled in the past 20 years, he noted. "You were aware that the city had been planned for far fewer people."

Intermingled with the crowded, littered landscape, however, was the lush, natural beauty of the area. Although Arata visited the city during its rainy season -- "I now have an experiential knowledge of what monsoon means" -- the "amazing" flowers provided a break in the dreary weather. "They were incredible," he said. "I was told that there are more orchids in Shillong than any other place in the world."

Now back on Grounds, Arata said his time in India was a wonderful experience professionally and personally. He is grateful to the University, especially Arts & Sciences Dean Melvyn Leffler, for adding financial support to the "modest Fulbright stipend" he received to make his semester abroad possible.

For details on Fulbright fellowships, see http://www.iie.org/cies/

 


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