On Cultural Difference, Inclusion and Interaction

By Matthew Belmonte

Rikshaws on Ekdalia Road in Kolkata

I am back home in England, having reached here beginning of June after a stop for a speaking engagement in France. My two years in India were a clean break from America, as my four-year contract at an American university ended in 2010 without renewal. I am slated to take up a post in a reputed UK university from beginning of December. Back “home” in England after six years away, though, I am not feeling settled — having sofa-surfed my way through these past three months in UK, still when asked for a permanent address I am resorting to Cornfield Road, Ballygunge, Kolkata. In the cold rain here in England I so much am missing drenching in the warm monsoon, and even the coconut man rolling his cycle outside my window with cries of “chaap!” — but most of all I am missing that family spirit that exists within the autism community in India, a spirit that shows at its best India’s capacity for inclusion — a capacity as yet unrealised.

I mentioned in my Pecha Kucha talk that a group of cultures as socially focused as India’s can be remarkably adept at supporting and scaffolding the behaviour of those who are defined within the social in-group, but also ruthlessly efficient at shunning and ostracising members of the out-group. Families dealing with autism spectrum conditions, unified by their common experience, broaden the in-group to include not only their own daughters and sons and cousins but also everyone else’s. I call this disability-spurred broadening of social inclusion the _Anjali_ effect, after the Mani Ratnam film that explored this phenomenon. It’s a warmth that has become endangered as India urbanises and its middle class Westernises and turns inward, and that is a loss.

UK is a colder place than India, in more ways than one. In fact only person with whom I’ve managed to strike up a conversation on the local trains in London was basically from Maharashtra! This social distance is quite a contrast to an event such as Pecha Kucha where I was privileged not only to share the stage with such engaging personalities and fascinating projects and tales, but also to be treated to such free-flowing and wide-ranging conversation. I saw myself rather as the odd person out: being a bit thrown by the format (I can become quite a control freak when it comes to having my finger on the next-slide button!), and too busy with one project and another to have rehearsed as I would have liked to have done, I ended up “winging it” through my presentation, and as I sweated through the preceding speakers I was thinking what tough acts for me to follow! I loved Tania James’s comic reading with a more serious cultural theme, and all the discussions of religion and politics, education and politics, theatre and politics, journalism and politics, recycling and politics even — so much of politics made this event very much a Delhi occasion, isn’t it? Seeing these other presentations juxtaposed with my own work reinforced in me the impression that science – especially the science of human behaviour – is framed by and frames broader culture.

I am having so many projects and collaborations going on in India that I know that I’ll be back – only question is when. In Kolkata we are conducting the first study of autism prevalence in India, in Bangalore we are working on an iPad game that teaches communication by pointing for people with autism who lack communicative speech, and in Delhi we are examining the brain functions that underlie different degrees of autistic traits throughout the general population. I can hardly wait to get back to all this – but more importantly back to my friends and to the cultures and communities that have so charmed me. Once I have matters settled here in UK and find some time for a break, I would be on an aeroplane back to India at the soonest.

* Matthew Belmonte read English literature and computer science as an undergraduate, and took postgraduate degrees in neuroscience and in fiction writing before shifting to Cambridge for four years of postdoctoral research, spending four years as an assistant professor in the US, then shifting to India where has been a visiting professor at the National Brain Research Centre, Haryana, and a visiting scholar in Kolkata. He is the recipient of a 2009 US National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award, and the 2010 Neil O’Connor Award from the British Psychological Society. His research explores the brain physiology that underlies autistic cognitive traits in people with autism spectrum conditions, in their family members, and in the general population. Matthew spoke at the last Pecha Kucha Night at the American Center, in November 2011.

This entry was posted in Interesting Ideas and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *