Vineeta Sinha is the Department Head of the South Asian Studies Programme & the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore. She is currently a research affiliate at The Mittal Institute and is examining the culture and traditions of Diaspora Hindus in Singapore and Malaysia.
Tell me about your new book that you have been researching while you are here.
The title of the book is Temple Tracks, which has been gifted by my son Ashish Ravinran, who is a filmmaker currently based in New York. The book draws inspiration from the field of Anthrohistory, and is based on ethnographic and archival research I have been conducting on Diaspora Hindus for many years. One of my principle interests has focused on the religious practices of Hindus in Singapore and Malaysia and the importation of festivals, deities, and rituals from rural Tamil Nadu in India into British Malaya.
In Temple Tracks, I return to theorize the practice of building temples and shrines for various Hindu deities along the railway tracks in Singapore and Malaysia. I began actively working on this topic around January 2011. By this time, it had been announced that the Singapore stretch of the Malayan railway tracks that had existed on the island since 1932 was going to be removed by June 2011. Ironically, it was in witnessing the removal of the tracks by South Asian labor in contemporary Singapore, that I was inspired to think about the laying of the same across the Malayan landscape by their ancestors, starting in the 1880s.
Temple Tracks carries several intersecting narratives: one, the history of railway construction in British Malaya; two, the history of Indian labor migration into Malaya; three, the history of religion-making in Malaya; and finally, my own ethnographic journey as a researcher, which tries to pull together these different strands. My argument is that paying attention to these overlapping strands allows a different retelling of the history of the railways, Indian labor and temple building in Malaysia and Singapore.
As I write this book, I am reflecting on how to present the material, because, on one hand, the project stands on a firm intellectual scholarly ground, addressing fundamental categories like labor, religion and technology and their interface — through a focus on the history of the railways. On the other hand, I have a sense that the book will have a traction with railway enthusiasts outside academia — whom I have encountered and engaged in the course of my research. So, I am trying to build this recognition into the book’s conceptualization, given its potential appeal to multiple audiences.
Can you share more about the book that you wrote that was a part of the 50-volume series?
The Institute of Policy Studies commissioned a 50-volume series to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence. In some ways, this was not a new book for me to write, because I have been working on the Singaporean Indian community for almost two decades. However, it was both a novel and challenging project in the sense that I had to write about the history of the Indian community in the port city-state of Singapore in a short 100-page monograph for a non-academic audience. Above all, I wanted to convey the internal diversity and complexity of the small Indian community in Singapore without presenting it in monolithic and homogenized terms.
Can you talk about how you first started your studies on Diaspora Hinduism?
I was born in India in the North East Indian state of Bihar. My father was an academic and practitioner in the field of agricultural and communication studies. As a young child, the family traveled all over India with him. At the age of 12, we moved to Singapore when my father took up a position here.
At the National University of Singapore, I majored in sociology and anthropology. As an undergraduate, I was fortunate to meet some of the most inspiring teachers at the Department of Sociology — who sparked an intellectual interest in religion and Hinduism. The Hinduism that I confronted in Singapore was actually very different from my personal experience of everyday Hinduism. The variety of Hinduism I witnessed was South Indian Hinduism — primarily from Tamil Nadu. The temples, the rituals, the deities and the festivals were all unfamiliar to me. Yet when I began to be interested in studying Hinduism, I found myself in a strange situation. From the outside, people assumed that I was studying my own community. But actually, it was all very novel to me because I did not even understand the Tamil language at the time — and I was very much an outsider.
Who are some of the other academics who inspire you?
That’s a long list: M.N. Srinivas, Syed Hussein Alatas, Veena Das, Lynn McDonald, Geoffrey Benjamin, Dorothy Smith, Benoy Kumar Sarkar, Tzvetan Todorov, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Sidney Mintz, Harriet Martineau, Pandita Ramabai, and Florence Nightingale, just to name a few.
In recent years, Sunil Amrith has been a huge influence and inspiration given his towering role in theorizing Southeast Asian migration histories. His book Crossing the Bay of Bengal has been fundamental in producing different ways of thinking about mobility and flows of labor, ideas and material objects. I have also been very captivated by the writings of Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre and their work on everyday life. In all the work that I have done so far — both by way of research and teaching — I have prioritized everyday perspectives, a theme that continues in Temple Tracks.
In particular, Dorothy Smith has been decisive in my own journey as a woman academic. She has been an important resource and influence for woman scholars who continue to struggle to discover a language with which to talk about and make sense of their experiences in the workplace. Her theoretical and methodological contributions — standpoint theory and institutional ethnography — strongly resonate with me.
I can see that as a theme in your work, as you also wrote about women’s role in building institutions in Singapore.
I am currently working on a book project with my colleague Prof. Lily Kong of the Singapore Management University. For this project, we are looking at women’s presence in institutions of higher learning in Singapore. We have identified 10 female academics — in leadership positions — in the social sciences, arts and humanities and STEM disciplines. We have conducted in-depth interviews with them with a view to mapping their everyday lives as academic in institutional settings. We hope to complete the book soon.
What do you see as a path forward for female academics?
It is a struggle. It was a struggle for Dorothy Smith and it remains a struggle for all of us today. Though expressed in different modes, the problems have not gone away.
I admit that in the past I was hesitant to be placed in senior level administrative positions. In fact, many women academics opt out of taking admin leadership roles, partly due to the deep entrenchment of academic institutions in patriarchal norms. But since I have had the opportunity to be head of two departments at NUS, I have learned that women’s presence in leadership positions does matter – both academic and administrative – especially in areas where policies are debated and made.
Sitting on recruitment and reviewing committees and on management boards, I have witnessed that even my lone presence as a woman tempers the tone of the discussion and prevents loaded and blatantly sexist and even racist questions to be raised — even if it is just for political correctness. But the effect is more important in these instances. In these positions, I have had opportunities to raise critical issues, many of which I am convinced would not have surfaced otherwise. I have seen the value that even one person who thinks against the grain can bring to the discussion and this can make a difference.
While I remain skeptical of all institutions, I am encouraged enough to now say that it is indeed essential for women academics to occupy supervisory, managerial and administrative roles in universities. I have heard from junior women faculty and women graduate students how empowering it is for them to see women in leadership positions, not to mention the mentoring and role-model opportunities they see in this. I am inclined to agree with them. It is clear that the situation is not self-correcting and warrants sustained intervention at all levels.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.