By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Sital Kalantry was a young girl when her parents sent her back to India to stay with her grandmother. During that summer, her grandmother told her that she was going to “marry her off to a rich man” so she’d never have to worry about anything except her household.
Kalantry cried the whole way back on the plane to New York, frightened by a glimpse into an alternate universe that might have been her life if her parents had not immigrated to the United States.
“My fate was altered by moving to another country,” she said.
As she grew up and later attended law school, she eventually found her calling by dedicating her life to making sure women and others disadvantaged by their societies had similar ways to escape their fate.
She has worked as a corporate lawyer (for 7 years), taught at Cornell Law School (for 15 years), and now teaches at Seattle University (S.U.) Law School, and her work has encompassed such harrowing topics as survivors of acid attacks in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and women in prison in Argentina, in an interview in which she is almost breezy and cheerfully optimistic.
She uses her grounding in both Asian and American cultures to fight for justice in both places and encourage others to do the same.
“I feel like as somebody who is bicultural, I think I bring an approach to my academic work that is unique and that allows me to do comparative law work through a different lens, and to also bring those insights into public advocacy work in the United States,” she said.
The backdrop to this pursuit were the journeys between India and the U.S. that characterized her childhood and continued as an adult.
“Almost every summer when I was growing up, I was like an anthropologist, a participant, living and learning the norms of a society that was so very different from the world I was embedded in in New York,” she said.
Asked to speculate on a “counterfactual”—what her life would be like if her parents had not immigrated—she thought for a few moments then described a scenario something like what her grandmother had envisioned for her.
Although in the last few decades, girls in some socio-economic classes have more opportunities than they did previously, at the time she would have been growing up in India she may never have pursued higher education, lived in a dormitory, or been able to marry the person of her choice.
But worst of all, she would perhaps be unable to identify the injustices that surround her.
In a commencement address in 2020 to students at a prestigious law school in India, she repeatedly exhorted them to learn to recognize the disparities around them by engaging with those that are less fortunate.
She was chastised, on one of her trips back to Maharashtra, when she handed a dish directly back to the serving woman washing them, as she might have done back home in the U.S.
Her grandmother scolded her for not placing it on the floor so that her hand never touched the dish at the same time the hand of the servant was placed on it.
In the address, Kalantry repeatedly talked about using the privilege of being born with wealth and caring parents—such as those who would send women to an expensive law school in India—to fight and struggle for justice.
Transported into an alternate universe
Her first exposure to injustice was circumstantial, when her father left her mother—pregnant with her, in India—to find work in the U.S. Later, her mother left her in the care of her grandparents until she was 4.
Upon arriving in the states—in Queens—she said it was “like being adopted,” since she had never met her father and had no memories of her mother. Her mother left her when she was 4 months old.
Her first English words, taught to her by her parents when she came home from pre-k after being pushed off the slide for only speaking Hindi, were, “He hit me, she hit me.”
Years later, teaching her students contract law at Seattle University, she would describe learning the vocabulary and analytical skills of the law as similar to learning a new language.
“You have been tossed into a country where you don’t speak the language and you know what, in two months, you will. And it’s okay to be confused, but this is a boot camp and you’re going to just transform,” she would tell them.
She tested into the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, gaining a scholarship.
When she would ask her father about his early years, he regaled her with a repeated story—not atypical of an immigrant—of his hardships in India.
“The story he told me is of wearing one shirt every day until it’s ripped and patched and working in candlelight and living as a squatter in a house,” she said. Her father also obtained a scholarship.
Her trips back to India during summers continued. On one of them, when she was 8, traveling alone, Air India left her passport in JFK Airport.
So she arrived in Indian immigration without a proof of identity. Immigration officials planned to put her in detention—essentially jail—until her uncle was able to come 24 hours later and post a bond for her, guaranteeing she wouldn’t vanish. Her uncle had also used his contacts as a journalist to smooth the gears of her release.
It was another glimpse of that alternate universe she had escaped—and which she would spend her later life trying to free others from enduring.
“To be transported the way women were, as well as seeing the gender roles that my cousins and family were playing, to see how different life was, it was like Star Trek where you’re instantly transported into a completely different environment. You’re transported back and that’s what’s made me want to work to try to bridge the gap that exists in gender equality,” she said.
While she was at Cornell, as an undergraduate, she began to take feminist theory and join women’s groups, and was first able to really articulate her objections to gender roles in India—and the U.S.
She went on to the London School of Economics and finally to law school at University of Pennsylvania.
With loans to repay and still perhaps under the shadow of her parents’ mindset of desiring her to prove herself financially, she went into corporate law.
She worked on international development projects, such as financing for dams. But in the end, she realized she was not satisfied with commercial projects.
She entered academia when her former professor at Yale Law School, where she spent her third year, invited her to co-teach a legal clinic with him—she was able to work with students to represent people from marginalized communities.
As she went on, and taught at Cornell, she led students on trips to India to study and advocate for victims of horrific acid attacks, to Argentina to study women in prisons, and to other parts of the world to study the plight of indigenous peoples.
She became a crusader for justice and individual rights. Among her many published papers, media interviews, book chapters, columns, and other publications, she has written on “the consequences of the use of acontextual information” to support political and legal agendas.
Essentially, this means that actors want to advance their own particular ideology, take (mis)information about society and women in other countries, and apply it to the U.S. to justify legal decisions.
In one paper, published in the Cornell Law Review, she shows how U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and others take information from China and India out of context to justify opposing abortion rights.
The proponents of this view equate eugenics with abortion. They say that women choosing to have abortions in the U.S. are eliminating certain segments of the population here, such as women or children with Downs Syndrome, so the practice is tantamount to eugenics.
Kalantry argues that eugenics has been associated with the coercive actions of governments or organizations that seek to redefine a society’s makeup—it has never been seen to relate to individual actions.
More importantly, she points out, Thomas as well as other judges use the fact that in India and China, abortions have led to an excess of men to argue the same thing would happen here, in the U.S., if abortion is not stopped.
But the fundamental flaw of this way of thinking is that it equates the behavior of people or governments in Asia, who desire to have at least one boy-child, with people of Asian ancestry here.
Kalantry also argues that any attempt to help a community must start by listening to those community members themselves. During the commencement address, she spoke of a case in the Indian Supreme Court that led to the government banning transnational surrogacy—in which poor women bear the child of a paying couple.
But in coming to their decision, the judges didn’t speak to a single surrogate mother. And many later said they had relied on this practice to pay for healthcare or food.
Solving real-life problems
At Seattle University, students and faculty are particularly concerned with issues of social justice, she said in response to a question asking her to compare her current classes with Cornell Law School.
One topic she visits with her beginning law class involves human rights and big business.
In her class, she asks her students to play the role of an officer hired by Amazon to identify human rights problems that may in part be a result of the company’s actions.
She is also hoping to start a center in India that would bring students from India to S.U. and send students from S.U. to India. The center would also tackle problems of immigrant communities here, such as Nepalese who may not have access to immigration services that are only in English and Spanish.
At Cornell, through the India center, she was able to facilitate high-level dialogue, bringing in the U.S. ambassador to India and a supreme court justice from India.
“It’s really at the stage of having conversations with people who could support it,” she said.
“We want the faculty to have resources to use their academic knowledge for the solution of real-life problems impacting people in India, as well as Asian American communities in Seattle.”
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.