Spirits and Substances of Modernity: An Interview with Andrea Wright

Men buying gold in Kuwait City to take home to their families in India. Photo by Andrea Wright.

This post builds on the research article “Making Kin from Gold: Dowry, Gender, and Indian Labor Migration to the Gulf” by Andrea Wright, which was published in the August 2020 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

In the following author interview, Andrea Wright reflects on her ethnographic and historical engagements with Indian labor migration to the Gulf. While flows of substances, like gold, were crucial in forging the kinship relations Wright describes in her accompanying article, dreams of modernity and ghosts of neglected pasts similarly animated these circuits of labor and capital. Wright elaborates on the interconnections between these multiple spirits and substances of migration and aspiration in this conversation.

Isabel M. Salovaara: Your primary focus in this piece is on gold as a kinship substance, but you also evoke other related substances—such as oil and food—that together link labors of production and reproduction between India and the Gulf. How do you think attention to substances might help us understand more broadly the ways that productive and reproductive labor are ideologically distinguished and then re-linked in the process of making relations under capitalism?

Andrea Wright:
Attention to substances, such as food, oil, and gold, arose because these were the materials that migrants themselves used to describe how relationships are built and sustained. I am particularly interested in how the gift of gold from a brother to a sister allows us to examine kinship and gender in areas other than marriage and parent-child relationships. For me, this contributes further information on how we can disentangle sex, gender, and sexuality.

IMS: The purchase of gold among your interlocutors was primarily directed toward dowry—a practice that is technically illegal and, as you note, a taboo term among your interlocutors. What can the silences around the word dowry, alongside the determined accumulation of gold for sisters’ weddings, tell us about the tensions between “tradition” and “modernity” encapsulated in this term and its practice?

AW: In addition to helping their sisters marry, both prospective migrants and current migrants tell me, with sincerity and excitement, that they work, or want to work, in the Gulf to “make India modern.”1 In these conversations, modernity and development often include improvements to infrastructure, the increased consumption of commodities, and ideological changes. Many migrants described modernity as infrastructure: airplanes, constant electricity, and clean water. In addition, my interlocutors shared their dreams and hopes, in which modernity also involves such activities as living in the city; “doing what you want”; love matches, as opposed to arranged marriages; and having enough capital to buy the accoutrements they saw on TV shows and on display in malls. It also involves “getting fat” and wearing shiny shirts and large watches.

For the men with whom I work, helping one’s sister marry through gifting gold and modernity were not seen to be at odds. This is in direct contrast to descriptions by Indian government officials and some scholars who argue that development will help eradicate the “traditional” practice of dowry, and this practice is viewed negatively due to its relationship with gender inequality and violence against women.

As your question notes, my interlocutors very rarely used the term dowry to describe buying gold for their sisters or daughters to marry. This, of course, points to the difference between anthropological categorization and individuals’ everyday practices. Dowry is largely an analytic term, like kinship, and one that is not used in daily life. However, conceptually, I am not sure the term dowry worked for migrants, given the state’s association of dowry with problematic “traditions” and their association of dowry with both defining their masculinity and their work to “make India modern.” These engagements with modernity point to the limits of state power and call into question the logics of assimilation.2

In a village near Hyderabad, India, a family used money their sons sent home from the Gulf to buy a tractor and build a pucca house, or a house made of concrete and bricks. Photo by Andrea Wright.

IMS: In reading your piece, I was struck by the ways in which many of the practices you described might be read as forms of everyday arbitrage and speculation around the value of multiple labors and precious substances. Differences in the price of gold between India and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for instance, are exploited to “purchase” marriages to IT workers in more prestigious locales. How do you see your ethnography as speaking to recent conversations on speculation and temporality in global capitalism (e.g., Bear 2020)?

AW: A version of this article is also a chapter in my forthcoming book, Between Dreams and Ghosts: Indian Labor Migration and Middle Eastern Oil. In that book, I invoke the poetics of ghosts and dreams. These are terms that migrants, themselves, use to explain their migration.3 Future visions often emerge in dreams: dreams of modernity, material comfort, and expanding capitalist frontiers. These dreams build upon past narratives, which are most often discussed by my interlocutors as traditions, obligations, or histories.

Ghosts arrive as reminders of the past; they shape contemporary practices and disrupt the present (Derrida 1994). In my research, ghosts appeared when a man fails to fulfill his familial obligations after migration. I was first made aware of this when an employee of a recruiting agency, Mr. Anthony, told me a story. This story was in response to seeing a group of men who he assumed spent money on consumer goods instead of gold for the sisters’ and daughters’ dowries:

A number of years back there was this boy and girl living in Mumbai and they wanted to get married, but they didn’t have any money so the boy decided to go to work in the Gulf for two years and then he would come back and they would get married. The boy was a Christian . . . he went to the Gulf, but he didn’t come back after two years, he stayed on and met someone else and fell in love and married her. Then, after some years, the boy and his wife—who was pregnant—returned to Mumbai from Dubai just for the Christmas/New Year holiday. The boy decided to go with some friends to a dance place for the Christmas or New Year dance and the wife did not go because she was pregnant. The boy saw his friends and danced with some girls there and then who should come but the old girlfriend, the one he did not marry. She came up to him but did not say, “Why did you leave me?” or accuse him for not coming back. They danced to a song and before the beginning of the next song the girl said she was cold, so he gave her his jacket. She then went to the loo—this is a toilet—and the boy waited but she did not come back and finally they were closing up the dancing place and he decided to leave. The next day he went to the girl’s house and her mother was there. She also did not ask why the boy never came back to her daughter. Finally, the boy said, “Auntie, where is Anita?"—Anita was the girl’s name—“She took my jacket!” Anita’s mother replied, “That is not possible! You don’t know? She died last year! But if you don’t believe me, come, I’ll show you the grave and the marble in which her name is carved.” They went to the grave and there she was buried, but also there was the boy’s jacket. Anita, the girl, had killed herself the year before.

As he finished this story, Mr. Anthony, paused, stared at me gravely, and then continued:

And you may not believe that ghosts are in Mumbai, but this is true and it happened. And would you know that not fifteen days after this the boy died from fever and chills. This is why people have to be careful when they are running around with girls, because girls take it too serious and too many boys go to the Gulf and forget about their girlfriends here in India. A jilted girl in India will kill herself, but in the Western Europe and America they are not like that, they are too easy going.

As Mr. Anthony told the story, other employees of the recruiting agency crowded into the cramped office space, where we ate lunch in order to listen. Mr. Anthony is an excellent storyteller and his theatrical pauses, fluctuating voice, and enthusiasm held everyone’s interest. As Mr. Anthony concluded, another recruiting agency employee, Latif, broke in, “The boy was not a Christian, he was a Muslim. I know where this graveyard is!” A second recruiting agency employee, Iravan, a Hindu, disagreed, arguing that the story was about a Hindu migrant. Despite this disagreement on the religion of the young man, everyone agreed on the dangers posed for communities and families when a young man moves to the Gulf.

I’ve now heard this story in multiple contexts, and in these contexts it retains certain salient features. These include the motivation of going to the Gulf for a few years in order to fund a marriage or support one's family, the gendered and class aspects of this migration, and the potential dangers that when young men go abroad, they will forget their obligations. There are multiple spectral presences in this story: the ghostly woman, one’s past relationships, the seducing “modern” future, and the missing young man in his community. Anthropologists find ghosts appear in moments of rupture and change (Mueggler 2001; Palmié 2002; Lomnitz 2005). When ghosts do appear, they often remind individuals and communities of their histories and social obligations (Trouillot 1995, 146–47; Palmié 2002, 11; Lomnitz 2005, 260). Moreover, one cannot ignore a ghost, because ghosts are often powerful, with the power to protect or harm individuals (Mueggler 2001, 3; West 2005), as the death of the young man at the end of Mr. Anthony’s story demonstrates. To returned and current workers in the Gulf, the story describes how migration may help workers achieve their dreams, but migrants must also attend to their social obligations.

IS: One of your interlocutors, Shabana, expresses her perplexity at the unseen connections among gold, oil, and currencies as their values fluctuate in tandem. To what extent do you see ethnographies of transnational extractive capitalism as offering elucidations of these connections, and for whom? Do your multi-lingual abstracts gesture toward broader, perhaps non-scholarly audiences for your work?

AW: You ask a fascinating question concerning how to understand Shabana’s questions regarding the price of gold. In the article, I quote Shabana’s discussion of the price of gold during the Great Recession of 2007–2009. As her sister was preparing to marry, Shabana, frustrated by the price of gold, asked, “Why is gold increasing at a skyrocketing pace? What has gold rates to do with U.S. dollar or oil? Or is there no gold in the gold mines?” Sighing, she said that the increased prices “make people’s life more miserable than it already is.” This question began a conversation among her friends regarding the connections among the price of gold on the global market, Indian marriages, and gold’s value in contrast to currency.

This conversation spurred me to do more research on the price of gold and its history. I was struck by the multiple connections among labor, colonial capitalism, and gold’s price on the market. In 2015, gold was the second largest import to India after oil, but this has not always been the case. Prior to independence, India was a main exporter of gold on the world market. After independence, Indian politicians cultivated an economic policy with the aim of greater self-sufficiency. An aspect of the economic measures implemented was the control of gold into India and the levying of duties on the importation of precious materials. Additionally, increased restrictions were placed on the export of Indian gold. The result was that, in 1961, the “price of gold in India [was] almost twice the price of gold on the world market.”4 Due to these restrictions and the demand for gold in India, gold smuggling became a lucrative endeavor for merchants in the Gulf. Originally, merchants in Kuwait used smugglers based in Dubai to carry goods to India. However, in the early 1950s, coinciding with increased oil revenues in Kuwait, Kuwaiti merchants became less interested in the smuggling and Dubai merchants overtook the endeavor. In Dubai, the gold trade helped the economy recover from the effects of the depression of 1929 and the collapse of the pearl trade.

The smuggling of gold, despite the self-sufficiency measures in place by the Indian government, created an avenue for Indians to participate in global economies of trade. Gulf merchants purchased gold legally in London, Zurich, Paris, and New York.5 This gold was taken to Dubai and then smuggled into India via dhows entering the port in Bombay. In Bombay, Indian agents paid either in dollars, pounds, or rupees (preferably coins—because they were the same in Dubai and India) for the gold. In 1966, one British agent noted the complexity of the economy and the role of Indians abroad in this economy. He wrote, “It is interesting in this context that even, for instance, the Indian textile worker in Bradford [England] plays his part in the business by selling his sterling earnings at a high premium.”6

Today, when Indian men working in the Gulf buy gold for their sisters’ weddings, as Yogesh and Shabana’s brother both did, they are participating in an exchange of oil, gold, and labor that has historically traversed the Arabian Sea.

I included abstracts in Hindi and Urdu with the hope of expanding the number of people who may decide to engage with the article. Professors at universities in South Asia are fluent in English and already actively engaged in many of the scholarly debates that arise in Cultural Anthropology and other journals. The abstracts in Hindi and Urdu were not written with these professors in mind. Rather, I hoped interested individuals who are not anthropology professors might come across the article, find it of interest, and want to talk about and/or challenge my arguments. To facilitate this, I wrote the abstracts in Hindi and Urdu with fewer technical terms.


1. Associations between migration and modernity are not new. In the first half of the twentieth century, British magazines equated good citizens with those who traveled by plane and argued that the technological “backwardness” of not traveling by plane made the “nation sick” (Bhimull 2017, 77). During that time, modernity and the future were connected to the idea of speed, and people needed to speedup in order to modernize (Bhimull 2017, 50–51, 87). Today, communities around the world associate mobility with development and modernity (cf. Chu 2010; Pedersen 2013; Amrute 2016).

2. In my book, I consider how migrant laborers situate their everyday practices through stories about the past and the future, and I draw upon Audra Simpson’s (2014, 2017) work on refusal in order to explore the ways in which these stories engage with dispossession and assimilation.

3. Poetics are speech functions that are discursively creative and represent relations; speakers use poetics to create equivalencies (Peirce 1932; Jakobson 1960; Lempert 2008; Silverstein 2011; Bielo 2019).

4. From HBM Political Agency, Trucial States, Dubai, to Sir William Luce, British Residency, Bahrain. 19 January 1966. 1181/66C (RE 1:1966: 841-846).

5. Report by Patrick Eyers to the Political Agency, Trucial States, Dubai. 9 April 1962. (RE 1962:515).

6. From HBM Political Agency, Trucial States, Dubai, to Sir William Luce, British Residency, Bahrain. 19 January 1966. 1181/66C (RE 1:1966: 845).


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