Friday, April 09, 2004

Rabindranath Tagore, Arundhati Roy, and the Erasure of History

Recently there has been a flurry of coverage in the Indian media about the theft of Rabindranath Tagore's Nobel prize medal. Tagore is one of very few Indians to win the Nobel, and one of only two to win the prize in Literature (the other is a persion of Indian descent, V.S. Naipaul). Tagore, of course, never particularly cared for honors of this sort -- he sent a one-line telegraph as an acceptance speech, and famously renounced his British knighthood in the wake of the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre of 1919.

The most pointed analysis of the event I have is from Antara Dev Sen's March 31 essay in Indian Express, which I have as an email from the South Asia Citizen's Wire list (it does not appear to be online). Sen believes the media's hysterical response to the theft of the medal is overblown -- especially since India has become a place where Tagore's worldly humanism has seemed to become utterly irrelevant. India's literacy rate is only 64%, Sen points out, and 56% for women. And then there is the long litany of recent social catastrophes:

Through our growing sectarianism, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the sickening Gujarat carnage, our abysmal literacy figures, continuing dowry deaths, and most of all by our blinkered minds, we seem determined to destroy his vision. As we charge through the unwatered, underfed, powerless, uneducated villages and towns of Bharat Mata in our myth-inspired crowns and chariots in search of Ram rajya, we race further away from the Tagore of Ghare Baire (The Home and the World). Its protagonist Nikhil, unmoved by the sound and fury of the nationalistic fervour that threatened to trample individual rights and human justice in its patriotic rush, admits that he could only worship the right and the just, not his country, for "to worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it." We ignore Tagore's lectures on Nationalism, urging us to remove social injustices in order for India's freedom to be meaningful. And pointing out the absurdity of our hoping to be treated justly, as equals, by the more powerful nations when we ourselves are unable to offer that treatment to our own people. We disregard his pleading for the rights of women, challenging the rules of a male-dominated society in Streer Patra (The Wife's Letter). And forget his play Muktadhara (The Free Stream), where he warns against the dangers of sectarianism, mindless education and sacrificing humanity at the altar of political expediency, and celebrates life and freedom as the real abode of God.

Yes -- all of those disasters are real. But is it really true that Tagore's vision has been erased? I would argue that there might be room for some optimism, on two competing fronts. There is, on the one hand, the pro-globalization generation of Indian entrepeneurs, who are determined to think beyond national boundaries in order to contribute meaningfully to the market of ideas and innovations. This group of people has been often touted in the Indian media, so I won't say much more about them. On the other side, however, is the global movement to critique irresponsible capitalism (out of respect, I do not call it an "anti-globalization" movement). The key voice in the latter movement is undoubtedly Arundhati Roy's. With precise ferocity, essays like "The Greater Common Good" have galvanized the movement, inspiring many other Indians to get involved even from a distance. And while only a minority of Indians actually agrees with Roy's views, the essays have been widely influential abroad, raising money for the movement and triggering many global do-gooders to rethink their approach to economic development in the global South. In the sense that she is respected abroad and ignored at home, Roy's position today is exactly like Tagore's was in the 1910s and 20s.

Roy's project of critique, which is gaining in influence both in India and abroad, does operate on a concept of worldly humanism. In that sense, Tagore's vision is alive and well, if still largely unheeded.

Attack on the Bhandarkar Institute

Of far greater importance than Tagore's missing Nobel is the recent attack on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Insitute in Pune (here is another article). This attack, by an RSS type group called the "Sambhaji Brigade," is in 'revenge' for the publication of book by James Laine that raised questions about the Maratha icon Sivaji. Ironically, Oxford University Press had already withdrawn the book from publication in India when the attack occurred. 18,000 books were damaged and 30,000 rare manuscripts damaged or destroyed. It is one thing to lie about history in the interest in using communal violence for political gain; that is a kind of despicable action we have become accustomed to. It is quite another thing, however, to destroy the very artifacts that might disprove the lies.