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Please tell us about yourself?
Dr. Saiba Varma is a medical and cultural Anthropologist with a PHD from Cornell University. Her studies and interests include violence, medicine, psychiatry, and politics as they pertain to Indian-controlled Kashmir and South Asia in general.
Professor Saiba Varma received her PhD from Cornell University in 2013 and was a postdoctoral fellow in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University till 2015. Professor Varma is a medical and cultural anthropologist working on questions of violence, medicine, psychiatry, and politics as they pertain to Indian-controlled Kashmir and South Asia more generally. Saiba spent twenty months doing ethnographic research in Kashmir, the site of a chronic, unresolved conflict, and one of the most militarized places on earth. In her research, she explores how spaces of psychiatric and humanitarian care confront, but also become microcosms of, the broader politics of violence and occupation that characterize life in Kashmir. She is interested in how medicine and psychiatry, as forms of knowledge and relations, are not only ways of shoring up “facts” about illness, the body, or health, but also spaces where mistrust, doubt, and suspicion proliferate.
This fall, Dr. Varma is teaching ANSC 148 (Cultural Perspectives on Global Health), a core class for the undergraduate Global Health Major. This is her first quarter at UCSD, and she is excited to be by the beach and in a new place! She brings with her a unique perspective and approach to practicing Global Health.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
Dr. Varma did her undergraduate degree in Cultural Anthropology, and tells me this is when she fell in love with the field. In 2006, while in graduate school, she traveled to Kashmir for the first time since she was a child. She was very interested in the conflict in this area of India. Armed resistances in Kashmir had been brutally repressed by the Indian government, and even though the uprisings failed, the Indian government never removed their troops and the area became stuck in a permanent state of war.
Dr. Varma noticed the unsettled feelings in Kashmir, and was interested in the state of the people there who grew up in this conflict. She became interested in how people grapple with conditions of violence, their coping mechanisms, and the social results of conflict on the family and on individuals and how this affected their mental health. During the time Dr. Varma was in Kashmir a mental health crisis was erupting. 90% of the people in the area are traumatized and Kasmir has the highest rate of PTSD in the world.
These facts intrigued Dr. Varma and she endeavored to study this phenomenon in relation to the study of the culture and people in Kashmir, as well as the sociopolitical and conflict related issues of the area. It was this experience that transformed her into a “medical” anthropologist. Her key goal: not coming into a place and imposing her own ideas on a culture – an important concept that all who study and practice Global Health should consider.
When asked why she chose Kashmir to base her academic research and writings on, she told me she’d been there as child before any of the conflict had taken place and it had left a very strong impression on her. She was interested to return and see the differences after the years of conflict. Additionally, the existing body of knowledge and research on the issues in Kashmir was dissatisfying to her and consisted mainly of security studies conducted by the Indian government and not about the people who live there. So, she decided to research it herself and worked on it for her PHD!
Can you tell us about your research?
Dr. Varma’s research in Kashmir consisted of fieldwork in a state-run, psychiatric hospital, which was one of her main field sites. In this hospital she witnessed an overflowing deluge of patients- hundreds a day. So many patients that the doctors were overwhelmed and could only see each for 30 seconds or less. Dr. Varma’s second field site was substance abuse rehab clinic, and she also worked with Doctors Without Borders and in local humanitarian organizations. When asked if mental illness was highly stigmatized in this area, Dr. Varma replied that stigma is a global problem, but that families in Kashmir would do an extraordinary amount of caring for the mentally ill before they would take someone to the hospital. This challenges the idea of stigma, because these families were not in denial and cared for their ill relatives within the family.
I asked Dr. Varma:
What health issue do you feel is one of the most pressing and necessary for our generation to work towards solving? To which she replied: “What do YOU think? I am curious!” It is a good and necessary question to be asking, but also is a very difficult question to answer. My answer was something along the lines of: the high rates of maternal and neonatal mortality due to lack of access to adequate care. Her answer to the question was: the dangerous possibility of resorting to imperialistic tendencies to practice Global Health. In order to avoid this, she thinks that we must work towards making biomedicine legible to different communities around the world, and we must make an effort to work with already existing health care systems when trying to implement health interventions. All communities have their own way of treating the sick and the ill, and it is important to respect this and work alongside this to implement positive, non-top-down health care.
Dr. Varma was fascinating to talk to for the short time that I did, and I have to say I wish I could take ANSC 148 again to soak up some more knowledge about her interesting research. She is excited to be teaching this class, and is ready to facilitate important conversations on the topics of medical and cultural anthropology.
To conclude, here are some tips for succeeding in ANSC 148, straight from your professor, Dr. Varma:
- Come ready to ask questions and take risks!
- Sometimes people think they’re asking obvious questions, but these questions generate the best conversations and it helps me as a teacher realize that we need to focus on that.
- As a student when you ask questions you feel like it’s for you, but for the instructor asking questions is like giving a gift!