Thursday, May 06, 2004

Reading the Diaspora: Amitava Kumar and South Asian Literary Criticism

[Another "Kumar"... last one, I promise]

Several recent discussions in the world of academic blogs have highlighted the increasing gap between ordinary language and common-sense reasoning and the rarefied world of literary criticism, where jargon is at once intimidating and frustratingly vague ('connotative'). In some recent posts I've been attempting to identify critics who I think perform a kind of criticism that is at once more useful to non-academics and motivated, at least partially, by the principles of empiricism and denotative description. In that camp I included the American critic Edmund Wilson, but I would also include Amitava Kumar.

Amitava Kumar's 2002 book Bombay, London, New York did not receive the attention it deserved, in part because it came out at around the same time as another book he edited, World Bank Literature, which did get a little more 'play', especially in Marxist-postcolonial theory and anti-globalization circles. Bombay, London, New York is beautifully written and accessible, though there are many challenging, complex passages and insights. One doesn’t need to know about cathexis or catachresis to read this book.

For some reason, the critical debates surrounding Indian literature have remained somewhat underdeveloped. I can think of four primary causes for this underdevelopment. (1) Many critics feel that the literature is as a rule not rich enough to merit a school of criticism. I don't think this to be true. (2) Critical fashion has led most established and aspiring theorists to avoid anything that might smack of 'mere' interpretation. Speculative theory leads to career advancement; localized knowledge or “deep knowledge” in a given region leads to area studies ghettoization. (3) Most postcolonial literary critics are so politicized that literature inevitably seems less important than an analysis of politics and society. And finally, (4) People who have taken on the literature itself have often found their responses so determined by the standards of political correctness that they fail to evaluate on the basis of quality or originality (Reasons 3 and 4 overlap).

Amitava Kumar's book avoids all four of these traps, and gives a fresh and original angle on a viable approach to Indian literature. Kumar grew up in Patna, and did undergraduate studies in Delhi, before coming to the U.S. for graduate study. He writes movingly about his first encounters with literature (he was never really a literary type), and has a fascinating account of Naipaul, which seems more like a kind of literary channeling or an inhabiting than criticism in the formal sense. Naipaul’s lonely stories about exile and the construction of a diasporic identity occupy an important place for Kumar, as do Naipaul’s accounts of his early struggles with the sense of despair at ever achieving his dream of becoming a successful writer. Alongside Naipaul, Kumar channels some recent prodigy NRI writers – especially Pankaj Mishra, Hanif Kureishi, and Raj Kamal Jha – who give more recent examples of serious literary ambition alongside a dramatic sense of writerly personality.

Kumar’s criticism is crossed with semi-journalistic accounts of the experience of H-1 visa high tech workers in the U.S. as well as personal experiences of emigration from India, adaptation to the U.S., and life in the Indian diaspora. The personal experiences clearly have an impact on the method Kumar defines for his approach. As Kumar puts it at the end of the preface: “This book is a record of my reading practice.”

In directly describing his personal transformation through reading, Kumar testifies to the intimate power this literature has over many readers, and proves that it is not what cynics make it out to be (i.e., multiculti crap marketed for American liberals). But even as he celebrates the value of postcolonial/South Asian literature on aesthetic terms, he is also clear that politics cannot be ignored, especially when teaching in North America. I find hs take on why and how to teach Arundhati Roy particularly compelling:

Roy’s voice is nothing if not preeminently pedagogical. My enthusiasm for it is linked to the ways in which this writing offers itself for use in a classroom. I teach world literature to students at an American university. The category of world literature is vague; it is understood that the ‘world’ in the name primarily refers to the non-European ‘world’, as distinct from and outside the canons of English and American literatures; the works placed in it can be reduced, without any exertion at all, to multicultural exotica. Arundhati Roy’s novel and essays challenge the assumptions of such categorization. Roy’s recent essays make visible the relations between the East and the West, relations primarily of power and exploitation; they foreground politics in a way that doesn’t allow an empty formalism to be practiced in the classroom; and their urgency, as well as their link to powerful current events like the protests in Seattle and Genoa, forbid their consumption as multicultural fortune cookies. (53)

Kumar is raising an issue that many of us don't like to talk about, namely, the sense in which much postcolonial pedagogy is participating in what Stanley Fish has called “boutique multiculturalism” -- the presentation of something exotic, but ultimately harmless. What Roy's essays on politics and globalization do is directly implicate American students in the content of the fictional literature they are being taught.

The Critique of Hybridity in the Abstract

One mistake Kumar corrects is the tendency amongst some critics to assume that hybridity in its simple sense (i.e., blending traditions, multiplying discourses) is always in the interest of progressive thinking or social justice.

But hybridity is no longer ideologically important in and of itself. To be sure, it is thrilling to hear Punjabi songs on American rap music stations (as happened in the spring of 2003, with Jay-Z’s remix of Panjabi MC’s “Mundian to Bach Ke" ... itself a remix of a Busta Rhymes track ... which itself took a sample from the 1980s television show Knight Rider). But does it have any concrete benefits for anyone? Is it a sign of substantive cultural exchange, or merely an American mega-producer's appropriation?

In my view, it is premature to assume that global culture has in fact reached a phase where everything is immediately accessible and translatable – that somehow because of the Internet all cultural and linguistic borders are now meaningless. Wrong: you can read "Dear Raed" all day, but you still won't know what life is really like in Baghdad until you go there...

Hybridity continues to do some work, but it’s become much more important to evaluate it critically and specifically. Hybridity can be exploitative (as in, the re-packaging of India for western consumption), and it can even be conservative/reactionary (as in “Vedic Science”). According to Kumar, it is necessary to “abandon the mantra of an abstract notion of hybridity”:

The only standard to work by has to be, to use Roy’s phrase, ‘the greater common good.’ It is clear that despite its celebration in Indian English fiction and criticism, hybridity is open to contradictory uses. (58)

The Value of Small towns

One of the great merits of this book is that Kumar has clearly read both contemporary and ‘modern’ Indian fiction quite thoroughly and with great personal interest. The more subjective and personal accounts in Bombay-London-New York show that the issues such as hybridity, migration, and the travails of postcolonial nationhood are by no means merely ‘academic’ issues. Kumar grew up in Patna in the 1970s and 80s; then it was a pretty isolated town in the notoriously backward and corrupt state of Bihar. For him, leaving home was the beginning of opportunity, but it also came with a profound sense of loss (shades of Naipaul again). Moreover, Kumar invokes literally dozens of writers over the course of the book who deal with the life of small towns in India. Many of them are unknown and unpublished outside of India (the best examples might be Upamanyu Chatterjee and Qurratulain Hyder).

Select Comments on this Post

Reading the Diaspora: Amitava Kumar and South Asian Literary Criticism


On : 5/6/2004 12:33:11 PM Brey (www) said:

Couple of thoughts.

I appreciate the reference. I often find myself distressed over the language of intimidation that is found in most postmodern and literary criticism. I wonder to myslef, if these people are so against the ivory tower of the academy why do they use elitist language so freely. I know that the Latin can be used to overcome misinerpretations but c'mon. Anyway, the book sounds fascinating.

Two summers ago (I think - it might have been last summer) the Indian government supported a tourism program entitled "Indian Summer" that both encouraged Brits to travel to India and held Indian-British cultural events in the UK. I remember reading an Economist or New Statesman review of it all that indirectly addressed Fish's boutique multiculturalism. The campaign projected an idealized India that also accomodated the romanticized lingering (latent?) colonial perspective. Sort of "Come see exotic India while we treat you to the luxurious lifestyle of an English gentleman."


On : 5/6/2004 3:44:07 PM Amardeep Singh (www) said:

Interesting -- I hadn't seen the Fish term used anywhere else. I think the essay came out in a book called "Professional Correctness": he makes, as always, lots of good points. Though there are always places where you can argue with him...

And I think there's no reason why literary critics shouldn't aim to address more than one audience. And there's certainly nothing stopping us from trying to write directly and clearly.
It doesn't preclude serious philosophical/theoretical exploration. If anything, an emphasis on clarity could help us do a better job of it.


On : 5/6/2004 4:34:29 PM Brey (www) said:

The term wasn't actually used but the tone of the article was in the spirit of that term.


On : 5/6/2004 9:07:48 PM P Kumar (www) said:

Kumar is raising an issue that many of us don't like to talk about, namely, the sense in which much postcolonial pedagogy is participating in what Stanley Fish has called "boutique multiculturalism" -- the presentation of something exotic, but ultimately harmless. What Roy's essays on politics and globalization do is directly implicate American students in the content of the fictional literature they are being taught.


Who's 'us'? Most of 'us' recognized years ago that the West peddles us as exotica and some of 'our' writers participate in this sell-out. []



On : 5/6/2004 10:26:32 PM Amardeep Singh (www) said:

By 'us' I meant people who teach South Asian lit in American universities. It may or may not be a job you respect, but that's not my concern.

To be fair, Amitava Kumar doesn't deal with Divakaruni, Bharati Mukherjee, or Anita Desai. He does deal with Upamanyu Chatterjee. He also talks about some Hindi writers that have influenced him, Alokdhanwa and Phanishwar Nath Renu (both from Patna). He also likes to quote the great poet and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi. One quote that stuck out for me was this one: "Har cheez yahan bikti hai, har cheez ko bikti dekha hai" (Everything here is for sale, I have seen everything being sold here.)

And one other point: the exotic language of "God of Small Things" is balanced by Roy's hard-edged politics.

Amitava Kumar is for real. Take a look at the books before you trash him. (Also, many of his essays are available online... maybe I'll do a post with some links soon)


On : 5/7/2004 10:34:31 AM P Kumar (www) said:

There is nothing hard-edged about Roy. She is a purveyor of fluffy rhetoric - pretty sentences without bone. Read Guha's spot-on analysis of Roy. []


On : 5/7/2004 10:57:07 AM Amardeep Singh (www) said:

I haven't seen the Guha essay on Roy. I assume you're talking about Ranajit Guha... Could you send me a link?


On : 5/7/2004 12:25:06 PM P Kumar (www) said:

Ramchandra Guha - Historian, socialist and cricket writer. No links.


On : 5/7/2004 1:08:02 PM Amardeep Singh (www) said:

Thanks for the clarification. I think he generally goes by Ramachandra Guha (note the 'a').

I did find this:

There are also apparently articles on EPW (including one on December 15, 2001), but you have to register to get to them.
More once I've done some reading.


On : 5/7/2004 3:40:12 PM Kumar (www) said:

Dr. Singh:

About the fascination with 'hybridity' in some circles--it's seemed to me that it rests on the mistaken inference that the mere existence of 'hybrids' casts doubt on the 'objectivity'/'value' of various conceptual schemes.

Let me elaborate. Some biologists--Anne Fausto Sterling, for example--think the mere existence of intermediate forms of sex (in the biological sense) means that the conceptual distinction between male and female is suspect. In other words, gender is a purely social construct with no basis in biology.

But this is a mistaken argument. Here's an analogy: Just because colors come in a spectrum, with one color insensibly grading into another, does not entail that red and blue are really the same.

This mistaken argument, I think, is the basis for the enthusiasm over hybridity in 'progressive' circles. Too many think (mistakenly) that hybridity by itself challenges the 'status quo': an obvious virtue in the eyes of progressives.

P.S., I hope the introduction of a non-lit-crit thinker hasn't disoriented too many readers ;)