Thursday, December 24, 2009

SALA Conference Program 2009

For the past few years I've been posting the program of the annual South Asian Literary Association conference here. I won't be at the conference this year, but there are some really interesting features on the program, so I thought I would post the program all the same. People who are in Philadelphia on 12/26 and 12/27 might want to stop by.

As a hint, the events not to miss are at the end -- the plenary with Wendy Doniger and Rupa Viswanath on 12/27, and the special commemorative session on Meenakshi Mukherjee with Gayatri Spivak and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan that follows.

The Sacred and the Secular in South Asian Literature and Culture

Tenth Annual South Asian Literary Association (SALA) Conference Program
December 26-27, 2009
Radisson Plaza—Warwick Hotel, Philadelphia
1701 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103

Saturday, December 26

4:00-5:15: Session 1

1A. Sikhism and Religious Signification and Demarcation

Gina Singh, California State University-Long Beach, “Sikh Women: Markers of Insurgency”

Sharanpal Ruprai, York University, “The Top Knot: Sikh Women Weaving Gender into the Turban”

Rajender Kaur, William Paterson University, “Marking History, Tracing Diasporic Sikh Subnationalism and Subjectivity in Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?”

1B. Religion and the South Asian Novel

Bina Gogineni, Columbia University, “God and the Novel in India”

Roger McNamara, Loyola University Chicago, “Secular Narratives and Parsi Identity in Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters”

Prasad Bidaye, University of Toronto, “Thus Spake the Brahmin: The Rhetoric of Caste in Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope”

1C. South Asian Protest Discourse

Namrata Mitra, Purdue University, “The Limits of the Secular: Riots and State Violence in Contemporary India”

Simran Chadha, Dyal Singh College, Delhi University, “Of Virgins, Martyrs, and Suicide Bombers”

Amber Fatima Riaz, University of Western Ontario, “The Blasphemy of Protest: Challenging Religiosity and the Zenana in Tehmina Durrani’s Blasphemy”

1D. Enchantments in Theory

Bed Giri, Dartmouth College, “Modernity Re-enchanted? On Postcolonial Modernity”

Ashmita Khasnabish, Boston University, “Reason versus Spirituality: Sri Aurobindao, Amartya Sen, and Mira Nair”

Mary Jo Caruso, St. John’s University, "Building a Community of India: Rabindranath Tagore and the Fusing of the Sacred and the Secular”

5:30-6:45: Session 2

2A. V. S. Naipaul: Diasporic and Transnational Contexts

Jayshree Singh, Bhupal Nobles Girls’ P. G. College, Udaipur, India, “The Context and Construction of Religion and Art vs. Reality: A Critical Study of Selected Travel Writing of V. S. Naipaul”

Bidhan Roy, California State University-Los Angeles, “Encountering Islam: Muslims, Travel Narrative and Globalization in V. S. Naipaul’s Beyond Belief”

Abdollah Zahiri, Seneca College, “A Contrapuntal Reading of Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilization: The Bhakti Movement”

2B. Religion, War, Terror, and Violence: The Effects of Trauma on the South Asian Child

Krista Paquin, University of the Fraser Valley, “Children of the Divide: Physical and Psychological Trauma on Children in Cracking India and ‘Pali’”

Mark Balmforth, University of Washington-Seattle, “Struggling to Abide by Sri Lanka: An Attempt to Engage in Responsible International Youth Activism”

Summer Pervez, University of the Fraser Valley, “The Absence of Childhood: Narratives of Kashmir”

2C. Sri Lanka and Gendered Spaces

Nalin Jayasena, Miami University, “Gendered Geopolitics in the Sri Lankan Armed Conflict: Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist and Mani Ratnam’s A Peck on the Cheek”

Arch Mayfield, Wayland Baptist University, “Cultural Challenges in Sri Lanka: The Gonnoruwa Anicut Project”

Maryse Jayasuriya, University of Texas at El Paso, “Women Writing Religious Difference in Contemporary Sri Lanka”

2D. Diaspora and Postcolonial Writing

Sukanya Gupta, Louisiana State University, “In Search of ‘Destiny’: Cyril Dabydeen’s The Wizard Swami”

Jaspal K. Singh, Northern Michigan University. “Trauma of Exile and the Muslim Indian Diaspora in South Africa: Dual Ontology in Ahmed Essop’s Fiction”

Sohrab Homi Fracis, Independent, “From Darkness into Light: Zoroastrian Mythology and Secular Awakening in My A Man of the World”

Sunday, December 27

8:45-10:00: Session 3

3A. Partition Narratives

Shumona Dasgupta, St. Cloud State University, “Constructing Community: Negotiating Violence and National Identity in Partition Texts”

Prabhjot Parmar, University of Western Ontario, “Bridging the Communal Divide: Manoj Punj’s Shaheed-e-Mohabbat, Boota Singh”

Amrita Ghosh, Drew University, “Towards Alternative Imaginaries: Subversive Border Crossings in Qurrantulain Hyder’s Sita Betrayed”

3B. Anatomies of Postcolonial Theory

Maya Sharma, Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College/CUNY, “The White Tiger as an Anatomy of Postcoloniality”

Waseem Anwar, Forman Christian College University, “Theorizing the Pakistani Post-Postcolonial Real: Ambivalent, Emerging, Amorphous, or Even Beyond!”

Moumin Quazi, Tarleton State University, “A Post-Structural Study of Binary Oppositions in Vikram Seth’s Two Lives”

3C. Songs and the Subaltern

Ira Raja, La Trobe University/University of Delhi, “Living to Tell: Mirabai and the Challenge of Categories”

Sheshalatha Reddy, University of Mary Washington, “‘In brotherhood of diverse creeds’: Hyderabad/India in the ‘speech and song and struggle’ of Sarojini Naidu

Aparajita De, University of Maryland, “The Caged Bird Sings: The Politics of Subaltern Agency in Pinjar”

3D. Arundhati Roy and the Secular

Rajiv Menon, The George Washington University, “’Whose God’s Own Country?’: Caste and Politics in Guruvayur and Roy’s The God’s of Small Things”

Navneet Kumar, University of Calgary, “Humanism, Secularism, and Universalism: Edward Said and Arundhati Roy”

Nicole Tabor, Moravian College, “Secular International Fantasy and Sacred Kathakali in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things”

10:15-11:45: Session 4

4A. Sacred or Secular? History and Identity in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Fiction

Madhuparna Mitra, University of North Texas, “History as Trope: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Narrative Habits”

Farha Shariff, University of Alberta, Canada, “Negotiating Cultural Identities: Second-Generation South Asian Identities and Contemporary Postcolonial Text”

Christine Vogt-William, Emory University, “Reflections on the Sancrosanctity of Names and Naming in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake”

4B. The South Asian Secular Citizen Body

Sukanya Banerjee, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “Bureaucratic Modernity, Moderate Nationalism, and the Secular Citizen Body”

Sami Ullah Band, Kashmir, India, “Whether the Secularism in Kashmir Has Stood the Test of Time”

Indrani Mitra, Mount St. Mary’s University, “Gendered Spaces, Minority Identities and Secular Formations: A Muslim Woman’s Voice”

Suhaan Mehta, The Ohio State University, “Other Stories: Aesthetics and Ideology in Kashmir Pending”

4C. Religion and Class/Caste

Chinnaiah Jangam, Wagner College, “Sanitizing the Sacred Space: Hinduization of Dalit Identity in Telegu Country, 1900-1935”

Smita Jha, Indian Institute of Technology-Roorkee, “Crisis of Indian Secularism: A Study of Untouchable, Waiting for the Mahatma, and Train to Pakistan”

George J. Filip, Arcadia University, “What’s in a Name? Hinduism, Christianity, and the Evolution of Dalit Identity”

Deepika Bahri, Emory University, “The Sign of the Cross: Colonialism, Christianity, and Class in South Asian Literature and Film”

4D. Constructions of South Asian Political Identities

Nivedita Majumdar, City University of New York, “Reclaiming the Secular: An Engagement with the Politics of Religious Identity in India”

Chandrima Chakraborty, McMaster University, “Masculine Asceticisms and the Indian Nation”
Nyla Ali Khan, University of Nebraska-Kearney, “Forces of Regionalism and Communalism in South Asia”
Anupama Arora, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, “Pandita Ramabai’s Encounter with American Orientalism”

1-2:15: Session 5

5A. Spiritual and Material Imagery in South Asian Poetry

Cynthia A. Leenerts, East Stroudsburg University, “Divine Migrations: Religious and Spiritual Imagery in Meena Alexander’s Poetry”

Mahwash Shoaib, Independent, “‘The grief of broken flesh’”: The Dialectic of Desire and Death in Agha Shahid Ali’s Lyrics”

5B. Bollywood and the Representation of Religion

Monia Acciari, University of Manchester, “Jhoom Barabar Jhoom: Worshipping the Star”
Karen Remedios, Southern Connecticut State University, “The Depiction of Christians in Indian Cinema: A Study of Essentialism”
Jogamaya Bayer, Independent, “Jodhaa: A Myth or a Fantasy of an Emperor?”

5C. Salman Rushdie and Postcolonial Epistemological Anxiety

Melissa Lam, Chinese University of Hong Kong, “Religious Autonomy and Midnight’s Children”

Umme Al-wazedi, Augustana College, “The Rise of Fundamentalism and the Negotiations of the Islamic Laws in South Asia: (Political) Shari’a, Fatwa, and the Taslima Nasrin and Salman Rushdie Affair”

Pennie Ticen, Virginia Military Institute, “Skeptical Belief and Faithful Questioning: The Satanic Verses 20 Years Later”

2:30-3:30: “A Conversation with Meena Alexander,” winner of the SALA 2009 Distinguished Achievement Award, Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York, Teacher in the MFA program at Hunter College and the Ph.D. Program at the Graduate Center, moderated by Cynthia Leenerts, East Stroudsburg University, and Lopamudra Basu, University of Wisconsin-Stout, with Parvinder Mehta, The University of Toledo, with an award presentation by Dr. P. S. Chauhan, Arcadia University

3:45-4:45: Plenary Keynote Roundtable Discussion: “India: Religion, Politics, and Culture,” with Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the University of Chicago Divinity School; also in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, the Committee on Social Thought, and the College; and Rupa Viswanath, University of Pennsylvania, with a presentation by Dr. P. S. Chauhan, Arcadia University

5:30-6:30: Commemorative Panel: “Remembering Meenakshi Mukherjee: The Teacher and the Scholar,” led by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Columbia University, with Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan, New York University, Amritjit Singh, Ohio University, and Anupama Arora, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, with introductions by Rajender Kaur, William Paterson University

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Review: Amit Varma's "My Friend Sancho"

The mighty Bombay blogger Amit Varma's first novel, My Friend Sancho, is a quick and entertaining summer read, which also manages to make some serious points along the way. It does not aspire to be "serious" literature, but it is certainly several significant notches above One Night @ the Call Center. Indeed, I would not even put the two books in the same blog post, except Manish planted the damn meme in my head before I got around to reading Amit's novel.

(Before I get much further, I should mention that, while My Friend Sancho has not been published in the U.S. yet, you can still get it in the U.S. from here.)

I gather that Manish's comparison, in the post I linked to above, had more to do with the new market for books like these -- books that are primarily directed at a growing popular market for English language books within India, rather than the western "literary fiction" market to which most diasporic writers really aspire (even those who say they are writing with Indian readers in mind).

But still, do we really have to go there? Bhagat's Call Center was a mind-numbing collection of topical cliches, juvenile crushes, and predictable silliness. I gather that Amit would not be averse to selling a few copies of his book, but My Friend Sancho is a much smarter and more provocative book, which gets into the ethics of journalism, police encounters, and even, to some extent, cross-religious romance. Admittedly, Amit's book does have some blemishes, such as the bits where his fictional character references Varma's real-life blog, for instance. Also, the romance between Abir and Muneeza has a kind of innocence to it that doesn't fit Abir's otherwise jaded persona that well. But neither of these are fatal, and perhaps Varma will iron out some of the kinks in his next one.

You don't have to take my word for it; below are a few paragraphs I liked in particular in My Friend Sancho. If you like them, you'll probably like the novel. If not, perhaps not.

First, my favorite passage in My Friend Sancho is where Abir, the slacker, procrastinating journalist, puts forward his credo with regards to writing:

I worked on the story till about four in the morning. One of the problems while writing a piece like this, I've since realized, is that you get too ambitious. You read your New Journalism pieces from the books where they are collected, you read the features in The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and you tell yourself you want to write like that, and you paralyze yourself. The trick is just to tell the story simply, the best you can, without thinking of how impressed people will be when they read it. So I wrote and wrote.

Spoken like a blogger, except here is one blogger (Amit Varma, not Abir Ganguly, his character) who stopped procrastinating his novel and actually wrote the thing out. I also think he's exactly right about telling the story you have to tell simply and straightforwardly, without worrying whether you'll impress others.

[Note: another Indian blogger who has recently published a novel is Chandrahas Choudhury, of The Middle Stage. Chandrahas' Arzee the Dwarf just came out on HarperCollins India; an excerpt from it is here]

There's some great stuff about procrastination in My Friend Sancho, which resonates particularly well for me since I am a world-class procrastinator myself:

I went to office late in the morning. I worked for a couple of hours. That is to say, I tried to work. My mind kept wandering, and the internet gave it places to wander to. Every three minutes I told myself, Just two minutes more, let me just check out this page, then I will work. But I'd check out that page, and click on a link there, or think of something because of what I was reading and go somewhere else, and so on and on until it was almost lunchtime and I was better informed about the world but less so about my own piece.

I have been there. I have been exactly there, more often than I would really like to admit. (And I suspect Abir Ganguly and I are not alone in this!)

Another aspect of the novel I found provocative relates to Abir's attempt to cope with a police officer in his acquaintance named Thombre who has done something questionable. Rather than demonize Thombre as a clear villain, Abir finds himself sympathizing with the officer, who has risen up from a working class background:

Yes, yes, self-loathing is fashionable and I cultivate it well. But really, had I been born in Thombre's place, with his background, his parents, his circumstances, I have no doubt that I'd have turned out worse. Yes, worse: I would have been the lazy schmuck who failed to clear his MPSC and ended up as a mechanic somewhere, or maybe tired for a lower grade of government job, and was miserable--genuinely miserable, not just down because angst is fashionable. I'd have looked at a career path like Thombre's with envy. He had made the best of what life had thrown his way. I couldn't bring myself to condemn him on moral grounds--the world around him, the real world as he put it, had not place for morality. He did what he had to.

I am not sure I agree with Abir's act of sympathy here; what Thombre has done is not really forgivable in my book, no matter what the extenuating circumstances might be. Still, I find the moral quandary Abir has found himself in intriguing, and it's intelligible given where he is going as a character in this novel.

The writing in all three of the passages I've quoted is functional and unadorned. Excerpts like those above probably won't give anyone Grand Mal seizures as Great Writing. But the voice Varma has invented is interesting and the insights are honest; they resonated with me, giving me a reason to keep turning pages.

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Mimicry and Hybridity in Plain English

This essay is a sequel of sorts to an earlier blog post essay I wrote a few years ago, introducing Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism for students as well as general readers. I do not know if this post will prove to be as useful, in part because these concepts are considerably more difficult to explain. At any rate, I would appreciate any feedback, further examples, or criticisms.

* * *

When the terms “mimicry” and “hybridity” are invoked in literary criticism, or in classrooms looking at literature from Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean, as well as their respective diasporas, there is usually a footnote somewhere to two essays by Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” and “Signs Taken For Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” But students who look at those essays, or glosses of those essays in books like Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, generally come away only more confused. Though his usage of a term like “hybridity” is quite original, Bhabha’s terminology is closely derived from ideas and terminology from Freud and French thinkers like Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan. I do respect the sophistication of Bhabha’s thinking -- and the following is not meant to be an attack on his work -- but I do not think his essays were ever meant to be read as pedagogical reference points.

What I propose to do here is define these complex terms, mimicry and hybridity, in plain English, using references from specific cultural contexts, as well as the literature itself. The point is not to tie the ideas up nicely, the way one might for an Encyclopedia entry, for example. Rather, my hope is to provide a starting point for initiating conversations about these concepts that might lead to a more productive discussion than Bhabha's essays have in my own experiences teaching this material.


Let’s start with mimicry, the easier of the two concepts. Mimicry in colonial and postcolonial literature is most commonly seen when members of a colonized society (say, Indians or Africans) imitate the language, dress, politics, or cultural attitude of their colonizers (say, the British or the French). Under colonialism and in the context of immigration, mimicry is seen as an opportunistic pattern of behavior: one copies the person in power, because one hopes to have access to that same power oneself. Presumably, while copying the master, one has to intentionally suppress one’s own cultural identity, though in some cases immigrants and colonial subjects are left so confused by their cultural encounter with a dominant foreign culture that there may not be a clear preexisting identity to suppress.

Mimicry is often seen as something shameful, and a black or brown person engaging in mimicry is usually derided by other members of his or her group for doing so. (There are quite a number of colloquial insults that refer to mimicry, such as “coconut” – to describe a brown person who behaves like he’s white, or “oreo,” which is the same but usually applied to a black person. Applied in reverse, a term that is sometimes used is “wigger.” [See more on "reverse mimicry" below.]) Though mimicry is a very important concept in thinking about the relationship between colonizing and colonized peoples, and many people have historically been derided as mimics or mimic-men, it is interesting that almost no one ever describes themselves as positively engaged in mimicry: it is always something that someone else is doing.

Mimicry is frequently invoked with reference to the “been-to,” someone who has traveled to the west, and then returned "home," seemingly completely transformed. Frantz Fanon mocked the affected pretentiousness of Martinician "been-tos" in Black Skin, White Masks, and the cultural confusion of the been-to Nyasha (and her family) in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions is one of the central issues in that novel. The characters in Nervous Conditions who have not had the same experience of travel in the west find the desire of those who have returned to impose their English values, language, and religion on everyone else bewildering and offensive.

Mimicry, however, is not all bad. In his essay “Of Mimicry and Man,” Bhabha described mimicry as sometimes unintentionally subversive. In Bhabha’s way of thinking, which is derived from Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive reading of J.L. Austin’s idea of the “performative,” mimicry is a kind of performance that exposes the artificiality of all symbolic expressions of power. In other words, if an Indian, desiring to mimic the English, becomes obsessed with some particular codes associated with Englishness, such as the British colonial obsession with the sola topee, his performance of those codes might show how hollow the codes really are. While that may well be plausible, in fact, in colonial and postcolonial literature this particular dynamic is not seen very often, in large part, one suspects, because it is quite unlikely that a person would consciously employ this method of subversion when there are often many more direct methods. Indeed, it is hard to think of even a single example in postcolonial literature where this very particular kind of subversion is in effect.

There is another, much more straightforward way in which mimicry can actually be subversive or empowering –- when it involves the copying of “western” concepts of justice, freedom, and the rule of law. One sees an example of this in Forster’s A Passage to India, with a relatively minor character named Mr. Amritrao, a lawyer from Calcutta, whom the British Anglo-Indians dread. They dread him not because he is unfair; indeed, what is threatening about him is precisely the fact that he has learned enough of the principles of British law to realize that those principles should, in all fairness apply to Indians as much as to the British. As a foreign-educated, English speaking Indian lawyer in colonial India, he might be mocked as a “mimic man” or a “babu,” but it may be that that mockery covers over a defensive fear that the British legal system is not quite as fair as it should be.

Indeed, the example of Amritrao in Forster’s novel might lead to a broader political discussion: many anti-colonial nationalist movements in Asia and Africa emerged out of what might be thought of as mimicry of western political ideas. The historian Partha Chatterjee argued that Indian nationalism emerged as a “a derivative discourse” –- a copy of western nationalism adapted to the Indian context. Over time, of course, the derivative ideas of justice, democracy, and equality, as they were used by activists, tended to get adapted to a local culture. Perhaps the person who did this best was Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi took symbols of Indian asceticism and simplicity (such as traditional Indian dress and fabric) along with progressive western concepts of socialism, and used that new fusion of ideas to mobilize the masses of ordinary Indians, most of whom had had little direct contact with the British. Through Gandhi, Indian nationalism, which may have started as a “derivative” of nationalism in the west, became something distinctively and uniquely Indian.

As a final note before moving on to hybridity, it might be worthwhile to say a little about reverse mimicry, which in the colonial context was often referred to as "going native." Though mimicry is almost always used in postcolonial studies with reference to colonials and immigrant minorities imitating white cultural and linguistic norms (let’s call this “passing up”), mimicry could also be reversed, especially since there are so many examples, in the history of British colonialism especially, of British subjects who either disguised themselves as Indians or Africans, or fantasized of doing so. The most famous example of this kind of reverse mimicry (“passing down”) might be Richard Francis Burton, who often attempted to disguise himself as Arab or Indian during his time as a colonial administrator. In literature, the most influential example of affirmatively “passing down” might be Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, where Kipling invents a white child (the son of an Irish solidier in British India), who grows up wild, as it were, on the streets of Lahore, outside of the reach of British society. Though Kipling’s interest in “passing down” does not overcome the numerous mean-spirited and racialist statements Kipling made about Indians throughout his career, the thought of being able to break out of his identity as an Anglo-Indian and live “like a native” does seemingly reflect a real affection and a sense of excitement about Indian culture.

For other writers, the possibility of "going native" was seen as a threat or a danger to be confronted; the prospect that Kurtz has "gone native" is certainly one of the animating anxieties in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, for example.

* * *


By contrast to mimicry, which is a relatively fixed and limited idea, postcolonial hybridity can be quite slippery and broad. At a basic level, hybridity refers to any mixing of east and western culture. Within colonial and postcolonial literature, it most commonly refers to colonial subjects from Asia or Africa who have found a balance between eastern and western cultural attributes. However, in Homi Bhabha’s initial usage of the term in his essay “Signs Taken For Wonders,” he clearly thought of hybridity as a subversive tool whereby colonized people might challenge various forms of oppression (Bhabha’s example is of the British missionaries’ imposition of the Bible in rural India in the 19th century.).

However, the term hybridity, which relies on a metaphor from biology, is commonly used in much broader ways, to refer to any kind of cultural mixing or mingling between East and West. As it is commonly used, this more general sense of hybridity has many limitations. Hybridity defined as cultural mixing in general does not help us explicitly account for the many different paths by which someone can come to embody a mix of eastern and western attributes, nor does it differentiate between people who have consciously striven to achieve a mixed or balanced identity and those who accidentally reflect it. Hybridity defined this way also seems like a rather awkward term to describe people who are racially mixed, such as “Eurasians” in the British Raj in India, or biracial or multiracial people all around the postcolonial world. Fourth, though it is more commonly deployed in the context of Indian or African societies that take on influences from the west, one needs to account for how hybridity, like mimicry, can run in “reverse,” that is to say, it can describe how western cultures can be inflected by Asian or African elements ("chutneyfied," as it were). Finally, it seems important to note that there can be very different registers of hybridity, from slight mixing to very aggressive instances of culture-clash.

For all those reasons, it may not be that useful to speak of hybridity in general. What might be more helpful is thinking about different hybridities –- a set of differentiated sub-categories: 1) racial, 2) linguistic, 3) literary, 4) cultural, and 5) religious. The main sub-categories are really (2), (3), and (4), where (2) and (3) overlap closely. In what follows I will explain why (1) is not really very relevant in most cases. And sub-category (5) might be of secondary importance for some readers, though I would argue that it should be taken quite seriously.

1. Racial hybridity. The term "hybridity" derives from biology, where hybrids are defined as reflecting the merger of two genetic streams, so it might seem logical to talk about hybridity in terms of race. But in fact applying the term this way does not seem productive. Most formerly colonial societies have their very specific, localized words to describe people of mixed race ancestry, and the term “hybrid” is generally not used in the context of race. (Indeed, using this term this way might be offensive to people of mixed ancestry.)

In the Indian context, for example, there is an established community of “Eurasians,” who were marked as a separate community by the British after interracial marriage was banned, and who as a result held themselves as a clearly demarcated community even after Indian independence (when most Eurasians left the country). In Latin America, the term “mestizo” is often used to describe people of mixed European, African, and Native American descent. The idea of “racial hybridity” today seems awkward, in large part because it clearly relies on the idea, inherited from nineteenth-century race science, that racial difference is an empirically-verifiable reality. In fact, it is unclear that racial markers such as “African” or “Asian” have any precise meaning. Today, the norm amongst most scholars, which I agree with, is to deemphasize biological or genetic race in favor of “culture.”

Ironically, though the biological basis for the concept of hybridity seems to invite a discussion of race, it seems inappropriate to actually apply it to biracial or multiracial for the afore-mentioned reasons.

2. Linguistic hybridity. Linguistic hybridity can refer to elements from foreign languages that enter into a given language, whether it’s the adoption of English words into Asian or African languages, or the advent of Asian or African words into English. To talk about linguistic hybridity, one benefits from reference to terms from linguistics, including the ideas of slang, patois, pidgin, and dialect. Over the course of the long history of British colonialism in India, quite a number of Indian words entered British speech, first amongst the white “Anglo-Indians,” but over time these words entered the English language more broadly. Today, words like “pajamas,” bungalow,” and “mulligatawny” are often used without an awareness that they derive from Indian languages. Similarly, words like “mumbo-jumbo” have entered the English language from African languages.

As a result of colonialism, the English language has become established in Ireland as well as African, Caribbean, and Asian societies formerly colonized by England (just as French has become established in societies in Africa and the Caribbean that were formerly colonized by France). This fact was historically quite controversial, and it still produces some measure of anxiety throughout the postcolonial world, though most African and Asian countries now embrace English-language education as the language of international commerce. Aside from the fact that English is seen by some as an imposed language, the lingering problem is that in many cases writers who use English in Asia or Africa are using a language different from the one most likely spoken by their main characters. Achebe addresses this problem as follows:

For an African writing in English is not without its serious setbacks. He often finds himself describing situations or modes of thought which have no direct equivalent in the English way of life. Caught in that situation he can do one of two things. He can try and contain what he wants to say within the limits of conventional English or he can try to push back those limits to accommodate his ideas ... I submit that those who can do the work of extending the frontiers of English so as to accommodate African thought-patterns must do it through their mastery of English and not out of innocence (Chinua Achebe)

Works by people who have incomplete mastery of English, like Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard, are sometimes cited as examples of linguistic hybridity. But Achebe’s point here is that such works are less likely to be meaningful or interesting than those by people who have demonstrable mastery of English, but who are aware that one might wish to “extend the frontiers” of the language beyond Standard Written English in order to come closer to capturing the voices and thoughts of people living outside of Europe or North America.

There are many examples of linguistic hybridity that one could mention. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has a famous example of anxiety about the status of English. Stephen Dedalus, an English-speaking Irishman in Dublin at the turn of the century, encounters a British priest, and frets that “the language we are speaking is his before it is mine.” But for Joyce, for whom there was no option but to write in English, and it becomes clear even within Joyce’s novel it becomes clear that Stephen has as much right to English as any native-born Englishman. In Africa, beginning in the 1970s, quite a number of prominent intellectuals rebelled against English. The Kenyan novelist Ngugi w’a Thiong’o, who started his career writing novels in English, decided to give up that practice in favor of writing in his native Kikuyu. Arguing against Ngugi, Achebe defended his use of English as a language that many Africans might have in common (for that matter, Achebe argued, even within Nigeria, there are so many languages that English might be the only national language of the country.) Other interesting approaches to linguistic hybridity include the use of pidgin in Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, and Edward Kamau Braithwaite’s concept of “nation language,” which entails the use of Caribbean patois elements as a liberatory gesture.

Over time, the practical and commercial advantages of writing in English or French over local languages have sometimes quietly settled the debate where writers might have a choice of language (that is to say, writers who have a choice tend to choose the language with the largest market). However, in India especially, vibrant and serious literature continues to be written in Hindi as well as regional languages, though this writing is often overlooked by "postcolonial" scholars, when it either remains untranslated or is translated badly.

3. Literary hybridity. What I am calling literary hybridity (hybridity at the level of narrative form) is fundamental to what we now know as postcolonial literature. In part, basic modern literary forms such as the novel and the short story are modes of writing invented in the West, though they were readily adopted by colonial authors in Africa and Asia (the first Indian novels were being published in the 1860s). But almost immediately after it emerged, the “foreign” genre of the western novel became one of the primary ways by which Africans and Asians began to collectively imagine a sense of national, cultural identity. The fact that the novel may have been a borrowed form did not seem to be a limitation for the first generations of Asian and Africans who used it; in fact, the novel has proven to be an incredibly flexible and open format.

Literary hybridity is often invoked with contemporary postcolonial literature that uses experimental modes of narration, such as “magic realism.” The Indian writer Salman Rushdie and African writers like Ben Okri have experimented with modes of storytelling that blend local traditions and folk culture with experimental (postmodernist) ideas. A novel like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is an instance of literary hybridity in that mingles traditional Indian texts like The Ramayana with a self-reflexive narrative frame that is usually associated with European postmodernist writers like Italo Calvino.

Another way of thinking about literary hybridity relates to postcolonial literature’s response to the Western Tradition (the Canon). While postcolonial writers have freely adapted western literary forms for their own purposes, as with the question of language there remains some anxiety with regard to how Canonical authors have represented (or misrepresented) Africa and Asia in their works. As a result, postcolonial writers have often attempted to “write back” to the British Canon with revisionist adaptations of classic works. Here are three well-known examples:

--Aime Cesaire’s “black power” version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Une Tempete, with Caliban playing a revolutionary black intellectual.
--Jean Rhys’s Caribbean-centered version of Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, which explores the back-story of the white Caribbean Creole Bertha Mason.
--Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is a kind of reversal (or revision) of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

These three examples (and there are might be others... suggestions?) of postcolonial revisions might be thought of as a form of literary hybridity. Cesaire, Rhys, and Salih take the basic plot and form of British narratives that invoke Africa or the Caribbean, but write them from an African or Caribbean point of view.

Another, slightly different example of literary hybridity might be Agha Shahid Ali’s concept of an English-language ghazal (which I talked about here). In conceiving of this, Shahid Ali, as a Kashmiri poet writing in English and living in the United States, wanted to legitimize his own efforts at composing Ghazals in English. But he also clearly had in mind the idea that American poets with no connection to South Asia or the Middle East might start to think of the Ghazal as an English-language form they might adapt for themselves, like a Villanelle or a Sonnet.

4. Cultural hybridity. Culture, defined in terms of art, music, fashion, cuisine, and so on, might be the broadest and perhaps also the easiest place to think about hybridity. Cultural hybridity is also extremely widespread today, as one sees a proliferation of fusion cuisine, fusion cuisine, and fusion musical forms. For most readers cultural hybridity is a given -– something we might encounter without even giving a second thought, when we see an Indian-influenced design in a blouse on sale at the Gap, or when we hear about Japanese (or Arab or German) hip hop.

However, historically, cultural hybridity has not always been quite as easy, nor has it been uncontroversial. In colonial writing, hybridity was clearly less important in many ways than mimicry. Late Victorian writers like Kipling, for instance, saw Indians who seemed to be a mix of east and west as absurd, and mocked them in his stories as well as personal letters. For Kipling and some of his peers, the English-educated “Babus” were engaged in crude mimicry rather than a more intelligent kind of hybridity. For instance, on the occasion of the inauguration of Punjab University in 1882, Kipling wrote the following in a letter to George Willes:

Just imagine a brown legged son of the east in the red and black gown of an M.A. as I saw him. The effect is killing. I had an irreverent vision of the Common room in a Muhammedan get up. At the end of the proceeding an excited bard began some Urdu verses composed in honour of the occasion. It was a tour de force of his own—but I am sorry to say he was suppressed, that is to say, they took him by the shoulders and sat him down again in his chair. Imagine that at Oxford!

For Kipling, the sight of a “brown legged son of the east” in formal British academic regalia is mis-match that is, for him, inherently funny. (As a side note, biographers have pointed out that part of Kipling’s tendency to mock highly educated Indians may have been motivated by his anxiety about his own lack of a college education.) Interestingly, as Kipling continues in his description he seems to grow more sympathetic to the speaker, who has chosen to present verses in Urdu rather than English. Kipling seems to admire the verses (or at least, the choice to present them in Urdu), and yet the speaker's presumably British peers “suppress” what he has to say all the same, by forcing him, rather rudely, to sit down rather than complete his recitation.

By contrast to Kipling, E.M. Forster, in A Passage to India, clearly admires the way many ambitious Indians in the latter days of the British Raj were able to use the English language and make it their own. To continue the example of dress, Forster’s protagonist Dr. Aziz dresses quite easily like an Englishman, without being perceived as anomalous by fair-minded people. Though Ronny Heaslop is ready to mock Aziz for missing a collar stud in a famous early scene in the novel, in actuality Aziz had given his collar-stud to Fielding. Still, Forster’s novel also shows the sharp limits placed on the cultural interaction between Indians and sympathetic Englishmen at the time he was writing.

As a general rule then, cultural hybridity under colonialism seems to be a close cousin of mimicry. It is very difficult for an Indian or African, subjected to British rule, to adopt manners or cultural values from the British without in some sense suppressing his or her own way of being. Something similar might be said of a new immigrant in England or the United States: there is strong pressure to quickly acculturate to the norms of the place where one lives, which sometimes entails curbing a thick accent or changing one’s dress styles or habits. Books like Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, all address the problem of acculturation, and tackle the fine line between adapting as an immigrant to a new environment, and transforming so radically that one risks giving up an essential part of who one is.

Once colonialism ends, however, cultural hybridity in major metropolitan centers, in the west as Well as in Africa and Asia, becomes somewhat more neutral –- possibly a creative way of expressing cosmopolitanism or eclecticism. Many people celebrate cultural hybridity as a way of creating new artistic forms and developing new ideas. Cultures that stay still too long, many artists and musicians would argue, ossify and die.

5. Religious hybridity. This final sub-category of hybridity I’ll mention seems important, in part because religion (specifically, religious conversion) is such a widespread theme in colonial and postcolonial literature. It also seems like a fitting place to end, since Homi Bhabha’s example of hybridity in “Signs Taken For Wonders,” specifically invokes the imposition of the Christian Bible in India. Bhabha notes that despite the fact that local Indians “under a tree, outside Delhi,” readily accept the authority of the Missionary’s Book. And yet, despite that clear Authority, they can only understand the Christianity they are being exposed to through their own cultural filters. Perhaps, instead of becoming simple Christians, the local Hindus are simply adding the reference point of Jesus to a very crowded Hindu pantheon. In thinking about religious hybridity, the question is usually not whether or not someone converts to a foreign or imposed religious belief system, but how different belief systems interact with traditional and local cultural-religious frameworks.

The goal in invoking "religious hybridity," is not to pose people who practice a local religion as "pure," while those who may have converted might be seen as hybrids. In fact, religious traditions like Hinduism were heavily influenced by the encounter with British missionaries under colonialism. Hindu leaders formed societies such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj (and, in the Sikh tradition, the Singh Sabha movement), which instituted reforms and in many ways aimed to recast the Hindu tradition in a way that made it more legible, and perhaps more acceptable, to British missionaries as well as western scholars of religion. In short, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the way Hinduism is practiced and interpreted by many Hindus themselves reflects a certain amount of "religious hybridity."

Major works, such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, or more recently, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, centrally feature the issue of religious conversion. For Achebe’s Okonkwo, his son Nwoye’s conversion to Christianity is seen as a loss and as a form of subservience to foreign cultural values. Analogously, Kambili’s father, in Purple Hibiscus, is seen as imposing a rigid kind of Christianity on his family, at the expense of personal loyalty or familial love. But the novel argues that it is possible to be a “religious hybrid,” that is to say, an African Christian, without giving up entirely on what makes one uniquely African, or in this case, Nigerian.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

"Imagining South Asia" Special Issue Now Available

A long time ago, Prof. Kavita Daiya and I started working on a special issue of the journal South Asian Review, with the topic "Imagining South Asia." After several delays, the issue is finally out. Hopefully the cover should give you some idea of what we were after in the issue:

The source of the image is here.

Here is the table of contents:

Fakrul Alam: "Imagining South Asian Writing in English From Bangladesh"

Savitri Ashok, "Battering Ram, Bruised Nation: Postcolonial Nationalism and the Forsaken Promise of Secularism"

Rajini Srikanth, "South Asia and the Challenge of Intimacy in the Global War on Terror"

Alexandra Schultheis, "Reading tibet: Area Studies, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Human rights"

Bidhan Roy, "From Brick Lane to Bradford: Contemporary Literature and the Production of Asian Identity in Britain"

Lavina Shankar and Rajini Srikanth, "From Multan to Maine: A Conversation with Ved Mehta"

Henry Schwarz, "Resolution, Revolution, Reaction: Reimagining Conflict Transformation Through Art"

Makarand Paranjape, "Imagining India: Aurobindo, Ambedkar, and After"

Kailash Baral, "Identity and Cultural Aporia: Globalization and the Tribes of Northeast India"

Amardeep Singh, "Names Can Wait: Misnaming the South Asian Diaspora in Theory and Practice"

I am putting my own essay online as a PDF if anyone is interested, here. (Needless to say, I would love to hear feedback on the essay if anyone has the time to read it.)

Also, if any of the contributors would like their essays also available online, please let me know.

You can order just the special issue by sending $15 (payable to South Asian Review) to the office of the editor, Professor Kamal Verma, at the University of Pittsburgh. The address to send it to is at this page. For just a few dollars more, you can get an annual individual subscription.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hello from Delhi (and Dehra Dun, and Chandigarh)

We'll be returning to Goa in a day or two, but meanwhile there was some family visiting to attend to in the north.

First up, Delhi. My dominant impression of Delhi this time around is of seeing construction everywhere for new Delhi Metro stations. In a couple of years (when Delhi hosts the Commonwealth Games), I'm sure it will all be wonderful, but right now it adds to the traffic headache. That said, I was impressed by the new domestic airport terminal (the old one was hopelessly insufficient), and by what I took to be preliminary attempts at revamping the central train station.

We were happy to get to meet Jai Arjun Singh at a Crossword book store (Jai, thanks for waiting for us) in Saket, south
Delhi. The bookstore was in a massive, opulent new mall called "Citywalk Select," which has designer boutiques everywhere (Indian, European, and American), and the general feel of the massive King of Prussia mall near our house in suburban Philadelphia. It was certainly surreal, after seeing continuing signs of poverty elsewhere in the city, and Samian wondered how there could be enough Delhi-ites who can afford to pay $500 for Kate Spade purses to support these stores. Also surreal in such a place was the presence of the writer Ruskin Bond, who I think of as an R.K. Narayan-type writer (simple, elegant, and compelling storytelling), not someone you would ever expect to see in this kind of place. In this case, he was doing a book-signing at the bookstore, which was surprisingly packed.

When you're traveling with a two-year old, you don't get to read quite as much as when you're either alone or with other grown-ups. Still, I've been reading bits and pieces of Carlo Levi's Essays on Delhi here and there, and I thought some passages from his essay "The Invisible Capital" (1957) might be of interest:

The city of New Delhi appears, as you drop suddenly down towards it out of the sky, as something unreal and abstract, an immense placeless space, a utopian place. It doesn't really seem like a city; there is no centre, no cluster of houses, only a vast expanse crisscrossed by immensely broad boulevards that seem to stretch out endlessly into the distance, and dotted here and there by monumental buildings, isolated in the greenery. Much as in the shapeless, amoeboid city of Los Angeles, the distances are so vast that you can only move around by car (this modern conveyance that ensures medieval isolation). It is also reminiscent of Washington, with its plan of an administrative capital, silent and reserved; to an even greater degree, it is reminiscent of London, in the attempt to blend a sense of power with a yearning for the earthly paradise prior to the original sin.

I think the comparison to Washington is probably the most apt (I don't see the comparisons to London or Los Angeles at all). More from Carlo Levi on Delhi below:

Construction began here in 1911, in the last few years of a wold that promised eternal progress and security, and New Delhi remains -- as if it were somehow separate from living reality -- as a perfect document of that time and that empire, of its rationale and the principles upon which it was founded. It is, first and foremost, a magnificent monument to an immense empire, the embodiment of an act of detached, prideful will, a will that celebrated and affirmed itself as eternal by projecting itself into the future. But this power chose not to touch, or roil, or modify nature: rather, it seemed to prefer to identify itself with a nature that existed before time itself, a paradisiacal nature, with an absolute naturalistic utopia . . . In this paradise of the viceroys, the detachment is absolute: remote from the real inhabitants, from life itself, and from all of life's muddled heat, pain, and movement. Everything matches a rigorous hierarchy of reason, a precise, age-old, meticulous ceremony.

The above seems like the point of view of someone who came to Delhi and spent a lot of time in government buildings. From the other point of view, one could say that it's those massive government structures that are detached; the rest of the city, even caked by dust and choked by suspended particulate matter, is very much alive.

One more paragraph from Carlo Levi:

In this gigantic hidey-hole, it is possible to avoid being seen, like gods, and to see nothing. Even today a foreigner who lives in a large hotel or a government building can entirely ignore the country in which he or she lives. Soviet writers, who scrupulously attend, with their interpreters, the sessions of the pan-Asiatic congress (the reason for my journey here), with the paternal grandeur and quasi-British detachment (though instead of whiskey they brought with them Armenian cognac), have waited a full week for the sessions to end before taking their first glances at India. It is possible to stay in New Delhi and see nothing, understand nothing: but it is not easy, because the other reality (to which the sole concessions are stylistic: the Mughal architecture of the viceroy's house and other buildings) filters through everywhere unstoppably, just as the tendrils of plant life work their way into the cracks in an old abandoned wall. The vast English lawns have become, through some unknown alchemy, though still bright green and perfectly trimmed, part of an Indian countryside. All that is needed is a woman washing her sari in front of the India Gate, or a begggar lying careless on the grass: all it takes is the trees, and the orange light of sunset.

Though it's now somewhat dated, and certainly bound up with Levi's particular experience of Delhi as an "official" visitor, much of what he says here seems to me to still apply.

A few more travel notes...

We went to attend a wedding in Dehra Dun, and were staying at a guest
house near the Doon School, the English-medium private school that has educated a shocking number of contemporary Indian writers. On a free afternoon, we walked over to the front gate, and tried negotiating with the rather imposing security team about seeing the campus, but no dice. (Samian made up some story about how we have a friend in America who went there, but it didn't fly.) We were left admiring the lush campus from outside the eight-foot walls, and walked back to our guest house, past local women carrying gigantic loads of felled tree branches on their heads. (Perhaps we saw enough.)

Meanwhile, the town of Dehra Dun is choked with traffic, and the streams that run through are heavily littered with trash and heaps of used plastic bags. (The government knows it's a problem. In several states we've passed through, we've seen state propaganda against the use of plastic bags: "We, the citizens of Uttarakhand, pledge not to use Plastic Bags." I don't know if it's working.)

The drive from Dehra Dun to Chandigarh was particularly scenic, though the views were marred by the fog (smog) that hangs heavily over much of northern India at this time of year. Our driver had some colorful stories, one about a place called Kala Amb (black mango), where, legend has it, there was a special tree that had a branch that only grew black mangoes. For years, the Panchayat of that town conducted its business near the tree, and whenever someone was to be hanged, they were hanged on the black mango branch.

Another intriguing story our driver told us was about the road from Dehra Dun to Rishikesh, where, according to him, wild elephants sometimes like to come out and sleep on the roads at night. You have to go around them, and not trouble them too much, lest they decide to uproot a tree, and smash your car with it. He said there was one particular case of a deranged elephant, who had been exiled from his herd, who went on a rampage and killed quite a number of people in this way (I have no idea if this is even remotely plausible, but it's an intriguing idea: the alienated, sociopathic elephant.)

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Friday, October 17, 2008

In Which I Congratulate Adiga and Try to Avoid a Blog-Spat

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post, giving my reaction to Aravind Adiga's novel, The White Tiger. Since then, as many readers probably know, Aravind Adiga won the prestigious Booker Prize for the novel, making him one of only a handful of first novelists to have done so, and also (at 33 years old) one of the youngest writers ever to do so.

While I stand by my assessment of Adiga's novel, I'm not going to bitch and moan about the Booker's selection process or the composition of the committee. Rather, my first response is to congratulate Adiga for the honor, and wish him luck on his next book. (Cheers!)

I was ready to leave it at that, but Manish at Ultrabrown challenged negative reviews of the novel like mine with a post yesterday. For Manish, the complaints against the novel boil down to a question of different ways of failing to achieve authenticity:

I’m going to tease apart two separate kinds of complaints about authenticity. One kind is whether the author successfully executes what he’s attempting, whether you’re pulled jarringly out of the narrative. The other is whether the very endeavor of a highly-educated proxy tackling the voice of the underclass is plausible. (link)

I'm quite sure my complaint falls under #1 -- Adiga fails to do what he is apparently trying to do -- though I'd phrase it a slightly differently: in my view, Adiga never seriously attempts to convince us that his protagonist is a realistic figure, and therefore he never really tries to be "authentic" at all.

On Manish's category #2, the question of whether writers can ever plausibly write in the voices of people not like themselves, I think it's pretty clear that South Asian writers do this all the time -- one thinks, first and foremost for me, of Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. The point of view of working class Bombayites (from the Chamaar caste) in Mistry's novel becomes convincing, even though Mistry is not himself from that background. The audience/readership dynamic is also not really very different: English-speaking readers, in India and especially abroad, are inevitably going to be much better off than the people whose lives they're reading about. The one difference might be that many Indian readers I've heard from have felt that the The White Tiger seemed to be intended for non-Indian readers, while I've never heard the same complaint about A Fine Balance (it's not clear to me where this reaction comes from, so I won't say more about it).

All Indian writers who write socially-engaged fiction in English and publish in western markets are potentially susceptible to the same attack on their authenticity, so in my view it's pointless to even discuss it; it's a structural problem. Rather, it's much more interesting to talk about the way their stories work internally. Mistry succeeds because he puts in the time and effort to imagine what his characters' lives would be like in rich detail, and what their voices might realistically sound like given the limitations of their experience. It takes space to do it -- in my view, this kind of realism can't be done with a few catchy aphorisms or a reductive concept of the divide between rich and poor (Adiga's "light" and "dark"). Which isn't to say that a socially-engaged novel has to be 3000 pages long to be ultimately compelling; rather, good novelists pick out the most telling details and leave out everything that isn't strictly necessary.

Let me give an example of a book that I think does some of this better than The White Tiger does, based on an idea given to me by my wife. Samian, who was raised in Bombay, also didn't like the style of Adiga's novel very much, though she did feel that the plot picked up and became quite exciting towards the end. In a conversation with our local book club last month, she contrasted Adiga's novel to Amitava Kumar's under-read Home Products, a novel that actually covers some of the same ground as Adiga (the journey from Bihar to the big city; the gap between rich and poor; the gap between local poverty and violence and Bollywood glamor), though it does so in a very different way.

Here is a passage from near the beginning of Home Products, which we could contrast to the passage I quoted last time from Adiga's novel:

Her name was Mala Srivastava and she was from a small town near Patna. She had been in the local papers even earlier because she used to recite poems at public meetings. Her poems mocked the manhood of Indian leaders; she called upon Indian youth to cross the border and slaughter people in Pakistan; she wanted the national anthem inscribed on the body of Benazir Bhutto. Mala was only twenty-one when she died. People said that she was pretty. Those who'd seen her performing said she was arrogant and wanted everything from life. A couple of the press reports after her death mentioned that during a visit to Bombay, she had been arrested briefly for having stolen gold jewellery from her host's apartment.

When Mala had still been in high school her father was killed in a road accident and the family had fallen on bad times. But at the time of her death she had been living for a year and a half in a large house in Buddha Colony. The story went that Mala did not need to pay rent on that house in Patna. Her neighbours said that white cars with red lights would deliver sweets and gifts at her door whenever the festivals rolled around. Politicians and officials were regular visitors to her house at different times of the day and night. (Amitava Kumar, Home Products)

You only get a few telling bits and pieces about Mala Srivastava from these paragraphs (there is more to come that I'm not quoting), not a total encapsulation. What you do get, however, is in my view quite provocative and intriguing. Now compare back to the same paragraph from Adiga:

Me, and thousands of others in this country like me, are half-baked, because we were never allowed to complete our schooling. Open our skulls, look in with a penlight, and you’ll find an odd museum of ideas: sentences of history or mathematics remembered from school textbooks (no boy remembers his schooling like the one who was taken out of school, let me assure you), sentences about politics read in a newspaper while waiting for someone to come to an office, triangles and pyramids seen on the torn pages of the old geometry textbooks which every tea shop in this country uses to wrap its snacks in, bits of All India Radio news bulletins, things that drop into your mind, like lizards from the ceiling, in the half hour before falling asleep—all these ideas, half formed and half digested and half correct, mix up with other half-cooked ideas in your head, and I guess these half-formed ideas bugger one another, and make more half-formed ideas, and this is what you act on and live with. (Adiga, The White Tiger)

This is in fact a perfect encapsulation, so perfect that it doesn't really need personalized details. We have Balram Halwai in a nutshell, which frees Adiga to jump right into his very propulsive plot (and I concede that the novel is highly readable and entertaining; it is also worth noting that this is by no means an easy thing to do).

These two characters from the two novels have certain things in common (I'll spare you the details), but are drawn very differently. Where with Amitava Kumar's prose you get the definite sense that the narrator cares about Mala Srivastava in her individuality, to me Adiga's style suggests he's more interested in the generalizations about India his Balram Halwai allows him to make, than in Balram himself.

I don't want to push on this too hard, and I definitely don't want to get into a tedious "blog-spat" with my friends at Ultrabrown. Though I study and teach literature for a living, one thing I've realized over the years is that taste really is subjective, and one reader's minor glitch is another reader's fatal flaw. It's not a science, and that's something to embrace, not hide from with smarty-pants jargon: I love the fact that I can go out to dinner with a group of Indian software engineers, doctors, and so on, and have great conversations about the books they're reading. (I also love the to-and-fro with readers in blog-land, needless to say.)

A final note. Ironically, though I've now devoted two posts to debunking Adiga (but also congratulating him on his success. Congratulations again!), I could easily see myself teaching The White Tiger in introductory courses on Indian literature to undergraduates. It is likely to appeal to my students, while also giving me good reasons to talk about the social issues and cultural phenomena Adiga invokes in his book. (I've had good success teaching other books I haven't loved, including Mohsin Hamid's two novels; both Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist actually worked better than personal favorites of mine, such as The Satanic Verses and A Fina Balance).

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Reading Comprehension, and the Nutty Generalizations About India It Inspired (A Guest Post)

I was talking to a Ph.D. student I work with, Colleen Clemens, about her experience working as a grader for the AP English exam. She had been assigned to work on a question about an Indian author, Anita Desai (the passage was from Fasting, Feasting), and she was shocked at how the students tended to use the passage as an excuse to throw out a series of flagrant generalizations about India and Indian culture. Incidentally, Colleen went with a group of first-year students to India last December, so she's seen parts of the country herself. The following post, then, is a one-off essay by Colleen:

Recently, I served as a reader for the AP English exam. Imagine a room with 1500 college and high school teachers sitting on folding chairs (with no lumbar support) for eight hours a day, seven days straight, reading the almost one million essays written by nervous, twitchy high school students hoping to test out of their first-year college English course. In a stroke of luck and irony, I was assigned Question Two on this year’s exam, in which students were asked to read a passage from Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting and do a close reading to glean insight into Arun’s experience as “an exchange student.”

As an AP grader, I read the same question all week (over 1100 essays.) In order to make us efficient grading machines, we spent a morning calibrating our responses to the 0 to 9 grading scale—we could see right away that we had much to learn about India from these high school students. Though reading 1100 essays has dulled my memory, I still know that several times I had to stop and mutter to myself comments such as “Yes, there are trees in India” or “No, India is not all trees.” I admit, after traveling there in December, much of India made little sense to my western sensibilities—I am still not sure why I saw an elephant walking in Hyderabad traffic or how people can cross the street with such confidence in Delhi—and I am certainly not an expert on India. But I know that there are bound to be trees in a country of over a million square miles.

I haven’t read the Desai book, but looked it up after I got home. The passage on the exam comes right at the end of Desai’s novel:

[FROM Fasting, Feasting]It is Saturday. Arun cannot plead work. He stands despondent, and when Melanie comes to the door, dressed in her bathing suit with a big shirt drawn over her shoulders, and stares at him challengingly, he starts wildly to find excuses.

Mrs Patton will not hear them. No, she will not. Absolutely not. So she says, with her hands spread out and pressing against the air. ‘No, no, no. We’re all three of us going. Rod and Daddy have gone sailing on Lake Wyola and we’re not going to sit here waiting for them to come home—oh no.’

Arun must go back upstairs and collect his towel and swimming trunks. Then he follows Melanie to the driveway where Mrs Patton is waiting with baskets of equipment—oils and lotions, paperbacks and dark glasses, sandwiches and lemonade. With that new and animated prance galvanising her dwindled shanks, she leads the way through a gap in the bushes to one of the woodland paths.

Melanie and Arun follow silently. They try to find a way to walk that will no compel them to be side by side or in any way close together. But who is to follow whom? It is an awkward problem. Arun finally stops trying to lag behind her— she can lag even better—and goes ahead to catch up with Mrs Patton. He ought to help carry those baskets anyway. He takes one from her hands and she throws him a radiant, lipsticked smile. Then she swings away and goes confidently forwards.

‘Summertime,’ he hears her singing, ‘when the living is eeh-zee--’

They make their way along scuffed paths through layers of old soft pine needles. The woods are thrumming with cicadas: they shrill and shrill as if the sun is playing on their sinews, as if they were small harps suspended in the tress. A bird shrieks, hoarsely, flies on, shrieks elsewhere, further off—that ugly, jarring note that does not vary. But there are no birds to be seen, nor animals. It is as if they are in hiding, or have fled. Perhaps they have because the houses of Edge Hill do intrude and one can glimpse a bit of wall here or roof there, a washing line hung with sheets or a plastic gnome, finger to nose, enigmatically winking. Arun finds the hair on the back of his neck begin to prickle, as if in warning. He is sweating, and the palms of his hands are becoming puffy and damps. Why must people live in the vicinity of such benighted wilderness and become a part of it? The town may be small and have little to offer, but how passionately he prefers its post office, its shops, its dry-cleaning stores and picture framers to this creeping curtain of insidious green, these grasses stiffing with insidious life, and bushes with poisonous berries—so bright or else so pale. Nearly tripping upon a root, he stumbles and has to steady himself so as not to spill the contents of the basket. [Anita Desai, From Fasting, Feasting]

Arun “cannot plead work” and must go on a Saturday excursion with Melanie and Mrs. Patton. Clearly, there is tension in the family (i.e., Melanie has an eating disorder, and Arun knows it), but Arun goes into the “insidious” wild though he would prefer to be back in town. The passage—though only a few paragraphs—evidently was all the students needed to make grand claims about India such as the ones that follow:

Arun cannot possibly speak English. He is so incapable, Mrs. Patton must speak in simple sentences (yes, they conflated the narrator with the character) so Arun has any chance of understanding her. And when she sings “Summertime…when the living is eeh-zee,” Arun doesn’t know the word “easy” so he mishears her (this is an example of “epizeuxis,” a word not one person at the table had seen before—lots of students gave us what we would call the “tour of literary devices,” i.e., “on your left you will see alliteration, on your right you will see pathetic fallacy”). Because he cannot speak English, he doesn’t want to go on the trip. In fact, Indians like to work so much, he wants to work on Saturday (missing the subtlety that he “cannot plead work”) instead of going to the beach, an all-American day that he does not understand because he wants to work; one must remember that Indians are very studious. He wants badly to go into town; India is so crowded, Arun is afraid of having the space available to him by being outdoors. But at the same time, India is a jungle (we saw this word so many times, we actually started a pool at our table, chipping in a quarter and the next person to see it would win the pot) full of wild animals such as tigers. Arun feared being in the wilderness—he couldn’t see the birds, so he didn’t know what else was lurking in the wild. And why go outside when he can be in town where he can enjoy the air conditioning, something he would not have seen in India (many students added this air conditioning detail though the passage does not mention it) even though India is REALLY hot? One student exclaimed “He actually got sweaty!” In fact, Indians live in deserts and are afraid of “woodsy” areas. Inside Arun wouldn’t have to see birds—a scary sight since there are no birds in India. Since India is a primarily urban country, Arun would not know how to be in nature, especially when people in India don’t go on picnics. How could they go on picnics? The women would have to walk behind the men and they would trip over their veils! That is, the few women Arun would have ever seen since Indian men don’t see Indian women, women who don’t wear makeup and are more “natural” than American women. Instead of picnicking, the Indian people who are mostly Muslim spend their time worshipping cows, which Arun would certainly have wanted to do on Saturday instead of going to the beach.

I wish I were making up or exaggerating in this pastiche, but I am sad to report I am not (and I didn’t even mention the students who read Arun as a Native American on the Trail of Tears). Ultimately, many students did note his “uncomfort,” “cultural electrocution,” “discomfortableness,” and “awkwardidity,” but of concern is how angry they were with Arun for not “getting on board” and enjoying an all-American day at the beach. Of when Arun trips over a branch, one student boldly stated "Finally Arun trips, putting a cherry on top of the ice cream sundae that is his misery.” The tenor of many of the essays was that Arun should see how lucky he is to be in the United States and get over his fear of the wild. Most kids saw that he felt uncomfortable, but the general attitude was he was just a spoiled brat—as our question’s skit writers put it, Arun is a “privileged little Punjab”—who doesn’t see the glory of the west. Scariest of all were the students who read Arun as an animal himself, so out of the range of human experience they couldn’t even see that he was a boy.

Some astute students did notice he is silenced by the overbearing Mrs. Patton, that the tension between him and Melanie may have been cultural and gendered, that he feels out of place because he is an exchange student, not simply because he is an Indian out of his “comfort zone”--“a stranger in a strange land.” In the end, the question writers did the students a disservice by writing “Indian writer Anita Desai” in the prompt: this subtle othering of the writer opened the door for students to make wild and unfounded claims about India using Arun—and Desai—as their vehicle. Those students who noticed the difficulty of negotiating between cultures scored well on the question and may perhaps be exempt from their first-year composition course. The others will be sitting in my class next year, and I will do all I can to debunk their repository of generalizations about India and the rest of the world.

[Amardeep here again.]
Even if you haven't read the novel, what do you think of the passage above? What does it tell us about the relationship between Arun, Melanie, and Mrs. Patton, and what is the author doing with all of the strange imagery about the "benighted wilderness"?

And -- would this passage by the "Indian writer, Anita Desai" lead you to comment on whether there are trees in India, whether or not there are cities, electric power, English-speakers or automobiles there?

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"Indian Nonsense"

I came across an anthology called The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense, while browsing in a bookstore in suburban Philadelphia. The book is a collection of nonsensical poems and short stories from all over India, most of them translated into English. It’s one of those rare Penguin India titles that ended up getting distributed in the U.S. (An earlier book, which I discovered in exactly the same way, was Samit Basu’s The Simoqin Prophecies. Also, I should point out that the editors of The Tenth Rasa have started a blog to promote the book.)

I’ll say a bit more about the idea behind the collection below, but what I have in mind for this post is a celebration of nonsense by example, not so much a thorough review For now it might make sense to start with a couple of poems. First, the spirit of the collection is perhaps best captured by a favorite Sukumar Ray poem, “Abol Tabol,” (translated alternatively as "Gibberish" or "Gibberish Gibberish" to catch the reduplication), first published in Ray’s book of the same title in 1923:

Come happy fool whimsical cool
Come dreaming dancing fancy-free,
Come mad musician glad glusician
Beating your drum with glee.
Come O come where mad songs are sung
Without any meaning or tune,
Come to the place where without a trace
Your mind floats off like a loon.
Come scatterbrain up tidy lane
Wake, shake and rattle ‘n roll,
Come lawless creatures with willful features
Each unbound and clueless soul.
Nonsensical ways topsy-turvy gaze
Stay delirious all the time,
So come you travelers to the world of babblers
And the beat of impossible rhyme.
(Translated by Sampurna Chattarji from the Bengali)

("Glusician" is not a typo, by the way; its utter unjustifiability is in some sense the point of the poem.)

Another of my favorites from the collection is an almost-limerick, originally written in Oriya by a writer named J.P. Das, and is called “Vain Cock”:

Taught to say ku-ku-du-koo, ku-ku-du-koo
He only said, ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’
Such a vain cock—
You’re in for a shock:
Not tandoori, you’ll only be stew.

(The joke here of course is that in many Indian languages a rooster’s cry is rendered along the lines of ‘ku-ku-du-koo’, and presumably in the Oriya version of “Vain Cock” the phrase “cock-a-doodle-doo” is rendered phonetically exactly as in English. The Vain cock, in short, is due for stew because of irremediable Anglophilic tendencies in his onomotopoeic ejaculation.)

And yet one more, this time by Annada Sankar Ray.

“What the Little Girl Learnt”

Yes ma!
Baa baa black sheep
Have you any wool?
No ma! No ma!
That’s all bull.
Not black, not a sheep.
Not at all woolly.
So where’ll I get wool?
You’re wrong, fully.
(Translated from Bengali by Sampurna Chattarji)

We obviously lose a little here in translation from the Bengali, especially at the end. But the point still comes through: “No ma! no ma!/That’s all bull” is a way of talking back to the dominance of English nursery rhymes in India, even outside of "English medium" elite spaces. Shakespeare and Dickens may have begun to give way to Tagore and Rushdie in Indian English literature classrooms, but "Baa baa black sheep" and the gloom-filled "Ring a Ring a rosies" still rule the nursery rhyme canon. (In this case, "black sheep" also has a certain possible racial tinge, which Ray seems to be resisting.)

Other nonsense rhymes in The Tenth Rasa have a bit of an anti-colonial flavor to them as well. For instance, there’s a Tamil folk rhyme translated by V. Geetha:

Mister Rat, Mister Rat
Where are you going?
I’m going off to London
To see Elizabeth Queen.

You’ve got to cross the seven seas
Pray, what’s your solution?
I’ll buy a ticket for a plane
And fly across the ocean.

You will get hungry on the way
Pray, what will you eat?
I’ll buy bajjis and vadas, hot,
And give myself a treat.

(Vadas, yum. Exactly what I would want to eat if I were going on a journey across the seven seas, to see the Queen of England…)

The many words for different kinds of food, in different Indian languages, is also widespread theme, as we see in a short tidbit from Sampurna Chattarji’s collection, “The Food Finagle: A Culinary Caper”:

Idli lost its fiddli
Dosa lost its crown
Wada lost its violin
And let the whole band down.

(The above was originally written in English, and part of the pleasure here is in hearing the sound of south Indian dishes – Idli, Dosa, Wada – spilling phonetically into English.)

As I hope these examples illustrate the pickings in The Tenth Rasa are quite rich. People who haven’t been exposed to this type of writing before might want to also get ahold of Sukumar Ray’s wonderful Abol-Tabol, for which a quite decent English translation is available.

And Heyman, Satpathy, and Ravishankar have piqued my curiosity about the Indian experiences and writings of the father of English nonsense writing, Edward Lear (Lear spent two years in India, and left an extensive travel journal, as well as a handful of excellent poems, including “The Akond of Swat” and “The Cummerbund”)

For the curious, here is a bit more on the way this volume was put together:

The Title. The title is an allusion to Bharata’s Natya Shastra, which has a famous chart of the nine literary Rasas, or moods (“spirits”): love, anger, the comic/happy, disgust, heroism, compassion, fear, wonder, and peace. The one that was missing was perhaps the rasa of “whimsy” – or nonsense. The Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore noticed the absence, and suggested that a tenth rasa might be needed (he also published a volume of writing for children, as well as a collection of Bengali folk rhyms called Khapchhada (1937), which has never been translated in its entirety. And Sukumar Ray, the most famous Indian nonsensicalist of all (the Indian Lewis Caroll) took up this charge quite directly, which contained an apologia at the beginning of the Bengali edition: “This book was conceived in the spirit of whimsy. It is not meant for those who do not enjoy that spirit.” In his introduction to The Tenth Rasa, Heyman points out that the Bengali for “spirit of whimsy” is “kheyaal rawsh” – where “rawsh” is the Bangla version of “rasa.” Thus, The Tenth Rasa.

The Sense in Nonsense. Some readers might think we are just talking about “pure” nonsense, but Heyman defines the specific literary genre he is working with quite carefully:

We may begin by classifying literary nonsense texts as those where there is a type of balance between ‘sense’ and ‘non-sense.’ Such balance is necessary if the text is not to become either plane sense, as in a best-selling crime novel, or utter gibberish, as in a baby’s babbling. The former is unremarkable, the latter, unintelligible. Good nonsense engages the reader; it must ‘invite interpretation’, implying that sense can be made, but at the same time it must foil attempts to make sense in many of the traditional ways.

In order to keep the balance, the ‘sense’ side of the scale must weigh heavily: Nonsense thus tends to be written in tight structures, that is, with strict poetic form or within the bounds of formal prose. It also usually follows meticulously many rules of language, like grammar, syntax and phonetics. Nonsense stories are about identifiable characters and the usually simple plots are understandable.

In short, in order to be interesting, nonsense has to be carefully crafted; it usually bowdlerizes the kinds of literary forms with which we're most familiar.

A little bit later, Heyman describes the distinction he makes between nonsense and related genres like riddles, fantasy, and fables:

Jokes, riddles, light verse, fantasy, fables—none of these forms is in itself nonsense. A joke is funny because it makes sense; nonsense is funny because it does not. A riddle is clever because, eventually, it makes sense; nonsense is clever in how it suggestively does not. Light verse, fantasy, fables… nonsense can live in any of these forms and more. Indeed, it thrives on some overarching form that gives it some recognizable shape and meaning—something to make sure the nonsense techniques do not make the text explode into boring gibberish—yet the form itself provides only such (necessary) restraints; it does not equal nonsense. Thus, nonsense is a kind of parasite inhabiting a host form, yet it has a life of its own.

In short, what we’re speaking of is not just any old bakwas, but the most refined rubbish.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Rushdie @ Google

Last week I was in New York for just a few hours, accompanying some family members who had a chore at the Canadian Consulate. My three hour visit to the city happened to coincide with Salman Rushdie's reading at the New York corporate office of Google, on 8th Ave, so I left my family members to fend for themselves for an hour, and hopped on the A/C/E. I'm related to someone who works in the office, so even though I am a bearded English professor, I was able to enter the Googleplex for lunch (at their legendary cafeteria), and see the reading at this unusual venue.

First of all, the turnout was striking, considering that this is an office comprised mainly of software engineers and sales/marketing people working for an internet search/advertising giant. The auditorium within the office was full, with about 200 people -- about what you might expect to see at a college or university with an English department. Quite a number of people had copies of Rushdie's new novel with them. In short, Googlers read.

Second, the reading was being teleconferenced live with three other Google offices, which you could see on a screen projected behind Rushdie's head. (By contrast, when we have readings at Lehigh, we have enough trouble just getting the microphones to work...)

Third, in keeping with Google's "do your thing" office environment, there was a bright red exercise ball just hanging out on the floor of the auditorium, about 10 feet from the podium. It was unclear to me whether it was there as a seating option, or simply as decoration (the bright red goes well with the Google office's bright, "primary colors" palette).

Rushdie himself tailored his comments to his environment quite nicely, reinforcing my impression of Rushdie as a demi-God of public speaking engagements.

First and foremost, Rushdie acknowledged the role that search engines and the internet in general have come to play for him as he researches and writes his books. The new book, The Enchantress of Florence, is a historical novel set in the Early Modern period (the time of Akbar the Great in India). The idea of the book is to link the cultural and historical milieu of Akbar's India to Europe in the Renaissance, using an abducted Indian princess who ends up in Florence.

While earlier, the internet "had a lot of breadth, but not a lot of depth," Rushdie said, now there are major resources available for serious scholars, who earlier might have had to travel to several research libraries to gain access to rare historical documents.

Rushdie did a fair amount of research online for the project, and for the first time, he decided he needed to include a bibliography of web sites along with the extensive bibliography of books he consulted while writing the new novel.

Some of the websites he mentioned are: Persian Literature in Translation (where you can find the Akbar-Nama, Akbar's Regulations, and Muntakhab ut-tawarikh), Gardens of the Mughal Empire, and Richard Von Garbe's Akbar, Emperor of India.

Rushdie also talked a bit about the way in which the growing availability of information about world history in the internet might transform how we think about history. Again he was in some sense talking to the employees at Google: "though you are all people interested in the future," the kind of work being done by companies like Google has a significant potential to transform contemporary understandings of the past.

An audience member asked the question, along the lines of, "what could we at Google do to make your job easier?" and in response Rushdie mentioned his reservations about the digitization of in-copyright literary works that has been part of the project. He wasn't opposed to digitizing current books in principle, but argued that it has to be done in a way so as to make sure that authors are fairly compensated for their works. (Otherwise, he stated, rather direly, "it could destroy the publishing industry.") In my experience using, the "snippets" view seems to work quite well to limit access to in-copyright texts, so perhaps Rushdie was being overly alarmist here.

As for the novel itself, Rushdie managed to convey a lot about what he's up to in The Enchantress of Florence without actually reading an excerpt. The anecdotes about "Angelica" in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Akbar's sacrificed sister, and the gay culture of Renaissance Florence, all piqued my curiosity, anyway.

At the end of the reading, I dutifully took my copy of The Enchantress of Florence up to the author for signing, and was pleased that, for once, I wouldn't have to spell out my name.

(As for my thoughts about the new book -- wait just a bit. I'm about 60 pages into the novel, and enjoying what I'm reading thus far. The story he published in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, The Shelter of the World, is part of the new book, so if you liked that you might enjoy the new novel as a whole.)

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Review: Preeta Samarasan's "Evening is the Whole Day"

The situation for the Indian community in Malaysia has worsened in recent months, as many readers may be aware (see here and here, for starters). There were a series of major protests a few months ago, and as I understand it the situation remains tenuous (though I must admit I haven't been following the political situation there closely).

Most people in the west know little about Malaysia, and indeed, even in India, it’s really by and large Tamil communities that have a strong historical connection to the country (see Wikipedia here); the Indian diaspora in Malaysia is, by and large, a Tamil diaspora. Given the recent tensions and the general interest in different South Asian diasporic experiences, a novel like Preeta Samarasan’s Evening is the Whole Day will likely be of interest to many readers.


Evening is the Whole Day is a strong first novel, chewy with language and rich with intricate attention to detail. The book is structured as a series of out-of-sequence chapters, which do provisionally move the story forward even as the novel’s “present” skips back and forth – like that Christopher Nolan movie whose title I can no longer remember.

The story centers around a Tamil family in the Malaysian city of Ipoh, circa 1980, and the real emotional core of Evening is the Whole Day is a contrast between two young women along class lines. Uma Rajasekharan struggles to survive her teenage years in a dysfunctional family (a badgering, snobbish grandmother, a largely absent father with a dark secret, and a resentful, often cruel mother), but finally escapes, relatively unscathed, to attend college in New York. (I’m not giving anything away, incidentally; the first chapter of the novel is set a week after Uma’s departure.) By contrast, the servant girl, Chellam, is forced to bear the weight of the collective madness of her master, mistress, their respective children, and the master’s wayward brother (known memorably in the book as “Ballroom Uncle”). Chellam is in every sense ruined, first by her nuclear family (her father is a drunk), and then by her damaged employers. Meanwhile the children in the Rajasekharan family are able to continue to live their lives without directly confronting the shame and hypocrisy that should be their parents’ legacy.

There are, admittedly, limitations to Evening is the Whole Day. The style and the wordplay may strike some readers as too similar to Arundhati Roy’s style in The God of Small Things, though I personally wasn’t bothered by this. Actually, I think there are merits to building intensity and drama into the sprawling, challenging idiolect Samarasan uses – every sort of word is in here, including a number of Malay and Tamil phrases included without a glossary (most can be understood from context, though a few could not; people who know some Tamil might see things in this novel that I missed.). At the same time, I think there are considerable merits to rather different approaches, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s minimalism. (I recently read Lahiri’s new book, Unaccustomed Earth, and thought some of the stories were magnificent.)

What was more bothersome to me was the somewhat narrow focus on the internal drama of a single, affluent family. After a glorious first two paragraphs at the opening of the novel, my heart sank a little once Samarasan settled on a relatively static locale (the "Big House"). Though Samarasan is hardly inattentive to the divide between rich and poor in her book, I expected to hear more about the plantation-working Tamils of Malaysia, who, as I understand it, make up the majority of the Indian population in the country -– and who are generally far from affluent. Instead, all but two of the main characters are born into wealth (the exceptions being the mother, Vasanthi, and the servant, Chellam).

There is a back-story offered, showing how the Rajasekharan family came to be so prosperous while so many of their expatriate countrymen remained dirt-poor, but the origins of the wealth are to a great extent taken for granted by the younger members of the family. Finally, non-Indian Malaysians (specifically people who are ethnically Chinese and Malay) are also surprisingly few in number –- though perhaps that simply reflects the cultural and linguistic enclosures of Malaysian life. (If so, it’s too bad; it’s tragic to think that whole communities in such a diverse society could have remained nearly completely isolated from one another for so long.)

Perhaps in future novels, if she’s inclined to stay with Malaysia as a location (she’s lived in the U.S., but now lives in France – she might find inspiration elsewhere), Samarasan can take us further into the broader world of Malaysian life.

Having said that, several chapters in the middle of the novel do work though some of the ethnic and political upheavals in Malaysian society, starting in the late 1960s, and these were the chapters I tended to find most gripping.

Here is a dialogue between Appa (Raju Rajasekharan), who was born into wealth, and attended Oxford before returning to Malaysia to practice law, and Amma (Vasanthi), who comes from a lower-middle class Tamil family in the city of Ipoh. Amma doesn’t have much education, or understanding of the fragility of the political environment for Indian Malaysians:

[Appa] “The problem with their racial politics,” he began, “is that—“

[Amma] “Aiyo, all this politics I don’t know lah,” she said. “Whatever they want to do as long as they leave us alone it’s okay isn’t it?”

“Leave us alone? Leave us alone? You call this leaving us alone? Their bloody article 153 and their ketuanan Melayu, yes yes I know you’ll insist you can’t understand a word of Malay, so let me explain it to you, let me tell you what it means: it means Malays are masters of this land, do you understand? Our masters! With that kind of language—“

“Tsk, after all it’s their country, what, so why shouldn’t they be the masters? Just because you cannot sit at home and keep quiet means—“

“But it’s our country just as much as the bloody Malays’! Do you realize some of our families have been here longer than theirs? Ask the Straits Chinese—“

“Tsk, all these grand ideas…”

Grand ideas. The sin of which he’d always stood accused, by Lily and Nlini and Claudine, by others before and after them. The difference was that Amma’s own ideas really did stop there. Her very thoughts trailed off into nothingness, not just her sentences. (99)

It’s interesting for Amma to say, “all this politics I don’t know lah,” given that she’s a character who doesn’t know any Malay. (The Indians from poorer backgrounds are less engaged with the broader Malaysian culture or the Malay language, while the more affluent Indians are acutely aware of the dangers of that isolation.)

Again, though there are a few chapters that engage with politics along these lines, this isn’t truly a political novel. Tunku Abdul Rahman’s and Lee Kuan Yew’s names appear only once each (and you have to be looking). Here is another passage, with Amma and her eldest daughter Uma, traveling by rail on the brink of the ethnic/political riots of 1969:

For now he, a Malay man seated across the aisle and behind Uma and Amma, concentrated on correcting certain misperceptions. “Eh thanggachi!” he called out softly, leaning sideways in his seat, his teeth yellow under the black velvet of his songkok. “Thanggachi!”

Thanggachi meant little sister in Tamil, but Uma, six years old, in stockings and a smocked dress with a sash, knew two things without having to think about them: 1) the Malay man didn’t really speak Tamil; and 2) she wasn’t anyone’s little sister.

“I’m not thanggachi,” she said, and, by way of honest-but-friendly introduction: “I’m Uma Rajasekharan.” Only implied, but keenly felt by all present: And who are you, audacious songkok wearer with yellow teeth?

“Tsk,” said Amma, one hand flicking Uma’s knee, “don’t be rude.” She shut her eyes against the green glare streaming through the curtains and leaned against the headrest.

“Oh oh, so sorry lah thanggachi,” said the Malay man,” but I tell you something, okay?”

[…] “Keretapi Tanah Melayu mean railway lah thanggachi,” the man went on. “Meas Malay Land Railway.” Malay Lands means Malaysia lah, thanggachi, that also you don’t know ah? Looking at me with eyes so big, your own country also you don’t know the name is it? Aiyo-yo thanggachi, your own Na-tio-nal Language also tak tahu ke? No shame ah you, living in Malay Land but cannot speak Malay? Your mummy and daddy also no shame ah, living in Malay Land and never teach their children Malay?” (116)

If you find dialogues like these interesting (they are, I should say again, not fully representative), you’ll probably enjoy Evening is the Whole Day.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

"The Age of Shiva" -- a Review

I was surprised by how much the others in my book group didn't like Manil Suri's The Age of Shiva. The biggest complaint was from the mothers in the group (including my better half), who didn't like Suri's use of a first/second person narrative method (the novel is written in the voice of a woman named Meera, addressed to her son, Ashvin). Several people said they didn't think Suri really pulled off the trick of writing about the intimate space of family life from a woman's point of view.

Reading as a man, I didn't notice any particular moments where I felt there was an unrealistic perspective, though obviously I can't be the judge. Certainly, some of the intimate passages regarding things like Meera's breastfeeding of her son (the opening paragraphs of the novel) are quite risky -- stylistically overwrought but certainly plausible, to my eye.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, reviewing the novel in the Guardian, wasn't bothered by this aspect, but by other things. Jabberwock, whose opinion I respect, loved the novel, and found Suri's attempt at a woman's point of view convincing. Then again, both reviewers are men. The only review of the novel by a woman I've come across is by Caryn James, in the New York Times -- and she doesn't take issue with Suri along these lines.)

Though I suspect other readers may share my book group's distaste, I did think The Age of Shiva had some real strengths. My friend "SN," for instance, liked the psychological complexity of the bond between mother and son in the novel, something I also appreciated. The Age of Shiva is, more than anything else, a novel about the overwhelming, consuming love a parent can feel for a child, especially in a situation where the parent has little else to live for. With this as its central theme, the novel is actually somewhat unique (most contemporary Indian writers tend to balk at this much psychology -- where 'nothing really happens').

A second theme will be more familiar: the changing circumstances and possibilities for Indian women in the years after independence. On the one hand, some major cultural transformations seemed to be underway, symbolically represented by Indira Gandhi's rise to power. In the novel, the main agent for "progressivism" is actually Meera's father, who champions what the Congress party says (it takes time for him to learn that there is a big gap between what Congress says, and what it does). But for ordinary women, even in cities like Delhi, not much had really changed through the 1960s, and even "progressive" ideologies can come across as coercive. To illustrate what Suri is after regarding gender relations, here is a representative passage from shortly after Meera's marriage into the Arora family, as she's observing the customs practiced by her much more conservative in-laws:

Each morning after her bath, I would see Sandhya [Meera's sister-in-law] in the courtyard, performing her pooja of Arya [Sandhya's husband]. She would swirl an earthenware lamp resting on a round metal thali in a circle before Arya's face, as one might in front of a picture of a shrine. She would mark his forehead with ash from the platter, and sometimes dab on some vermilion and a moistened grain of rice. She would bend her head and wait for him to color the parting in her hair with a line of the vermilion. Then she would bend even lower to touch his feet--first the right, then the left. She would run the same hand over her head to bless herself as she began to rise.

The first time I saw this pooja, I stood in the kitchen transfixed. The touching of feet was a ritual strictly forbidden by Paji [Meera's father] in our house. 'All this scraping, all this servility--hasn't anyone in this country heard of human dignity? Aren't there enough gods in the temples already to satisfy this national hunger for groveling? We spent two centuries licking the boots of the British--did you ever see them prostrating themselves at anyone's feet?'

Meera's father, referred to in the novel as Paji, is a "reformer" who sharply limits the role of religion, specifically these kinds of religious rituals, in his house. Clearly, part of his distaste at the type of pooja Meera witnesses in her in-laws' house derives from a kind of colonial hangover -- the British didn't do this, so why do we? On the other hand, quite separate from the British, isn't he right about the insidious effects of "servility" and "scraping"?

Interestingly, Paji's character turns out to be coercive and sometimes flat-out cruel. By contrast, the kind of deep devotionalism embodied by Sandhya in the passage above is linked to being utterly disempowered, but it is at least honest. The tension between the two ways of thinking -- two ways of being -- is really the central tension in Meera's mind, as she attempts to survive her unhappy marriage and limited prospects.

* * *

There are other things to appreciate in The Age of Shiva. Meera's husband Dev, for instance, is a singer who tries to make a go of it as a playback singer in Bombay in the 1960s. His idol is the great 1940s icon, K.L. Saigal, who was best-known as a singer of mournful romantic ballads like this one ("Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya"). The tragic image of K.L. Saigal is a kind of running leitmotif in The Age of Shiva, and adds somewhat to what is a somewhat elegiac tone overall.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Indian Literature: Translation Stories

There have been quite a few stories in the past couple of weeks about the issue of translation in Indian literature, most of them stemming, I think, from the annual Jaipur Literary Festival which took place last month. (Incidentally, I've been keeping up with these stories through The Literary Saloon, by far the best blog for world literature out there right now. All the links below come from that blog.)

Some of the stories read kind of like pep talks for translators -- come on guys, get translating! This story, in The Hindu, might be one such example. Mini Krishnan focuses on the idea of a translator as a creative figure in his or her own right -- a "conjurer." One of the translated passages she quotes, from a Tamil writer, seemed particularly evocative to me:

The translator throws her voice so skilfully that the truth of a text originally written in an Indian language is “heard” in English. Here is Vasantha Surya translating the Tamil writer Ki Rajanarayanan: “Taking out the betel leaves one by one as if he were taking things out of a pooja box, he would lay them out with the devotion due to objects of worship. . . Next he would sniff the broken areca nut. Then he would blow on it. This sniffing and blowing procedure was repeated several times, his hand transporting the areca nut from nose to mouth, nose to mouth, more and more rapidly until ooomm-oosh, ooomm-oosh, ooomm-oosh, dabak! Into his mouth the areca nut would go, having been noisily purified.” Which Indian — educated in English, unable to read his mother tongue or born of a mother other than Tamil — will not thrill to such a retelling? (link)

What I liked about this is the fact that the translator doesn't feel the need to translate every word. Even though I don't know Tamil, I have a pretty good idea of what a word like "dabak" must mean, just from context. I think even writing originally written in English can often get away with the inclusion of many more words from Indian languages than people might think. (I've seen my students pick up words on their own as they read books by Indian authors. They often have no idea how to pronounce them, but the foreignness of the words usually doesn't stop a dedicated reader; if anything, it presents them with an interesting puzzle to solve while reading.)


There's also another story in The Hindu, this one about the future of Hindi literature. Much of the article rehearses the trend we might expect -- Hindi literature is in trouble because of the growing emphasis on English in Indian cities. On the other hand, things look quite different once you get out of the big metros, so perhaps the situation isn't really that dire:

Battling the two formidable adversaries of the Internet and English writing, the consumption of Hindi literature has long been restricted to school curricula and competitive examinations. Then there are some who accuse publishing houses of not putting in enough to propagate Hindi literature. “Hardcover books are expensive and beyond the reach of most Hindi readers. Paperbacks are released only after the hardcover has raked in enough profits. The publishers should take pains to promulgate this literature to places where it is sure to be voraciously devoured,” said Khalsa College student Brijesh Kumar, adding that another undeniable aspect of the scenario was Hindi’s limited scope in professional set-ups, particularly with the advent of the new MNC/BPO culture.

Another significant facet of the readership equation is the apparently increasing age of readers — Hindi books seem to be read only by people well into or well past their middle age.

Author Teji Grover, however, said to arrive at an accurate reading of the scenario, one would have to make a trip to the rural areas where there is a hunger for Hindi books that rivals the obsession with cinema. “I don’t think there is a readership crisis at all. If one diverts one’s gaze past the urban centres, children vie to read even the smallest scrap of paper they find lying around. I have chanced upon discussions comparing Premchand to Gorky in remote villages.” (link)

In short, maybe it depends on where you're standing. If Hindi literature publishers can find ways to sell cheap books out in the smaller towns and villages, they might find a potential readership numbering in the hundreds of millions.


It's not only literature, of course, that needs to be translated. The coverage of the Jaipur Literary Festival in the Deccan Herald had an interesting point about the urgent need for translation of science and technology terms.

What was Dr Suman Sahai, president of Gene Campaign, doing at the Translating Bharat festival? Throwing new light on language, of course. Sahai started Gene Campaign in 1993. The Campaign is a grassroots organisation with a presence in 17 states across India. Gene Campaign is a research and advocacy organisation working on farmers' and community rights, intellectual property rights and indigenous knowledge, among other related issues.

These are all regions where language – and its accurate translation for proper comprehension – plays a primal point. “There is a need to bridge India and Bharat, a need to simplify our dialect,” she pointed out. Science and technology continue to be in India, while the people who practice the laboratory findings of science are on the fields of Bharat. She is convinced that it is time that we got down to reporting science and technology in Hindi. And in regional languages, of course.

The time is more than right, indeed, it has been so for a while, to develop a contemporary vocabulary in science and technology. The challenge is not as simple as, say, translating telephone as ‘doorbhaash’. That is one example of how a word can be accepted in the ‘foreign’ language and Indianised with no lapse anywhere: it’s still called telephone, or teliphoon, if you wish, almost across the country. So, the translation has to be simple enough to be taken to the farmer, to be accepted at the grassroots and carry with it some flavour of the technology.

Well, if you think that’s simple, try this one that kicked up a bit of a debate at the conference: How do you explain gene modification to the farmer? While you ponder on that, here’s a hint from Dr Sahai. Try, gene ‘sanshodhan’. Or would you like to make that simpler? (link)

In France, there are government bodies that make sure that every new technology object has a proper French word that has some kind of justification linguistically. I don't know if this is being done in Hindi and regional languages -- but perhaps it should be.


And finally, The Hindu has yet another story, this one on the publisher Namita Gokhale, who is starting Yatra Books, a publishing house dedicated solely to translations -- back and forth, between English and any number of Indian languages (and from one Indian language to other Indian languages). An interesting bit about the publisher's approach to translation comes out when one of Gokhale's associates describes the direction given to the translator of a novel by "Shobhaa" (Shobha De?):

Neeta Gupta joined us as we chatted in Namita’s cosy study, with the winter sun’s rays prying gently through the window. She said, “We are trying to discount Sanskritised Hindi promoted by hardcore bhasha followers. We tell our writers and translators not to shove in difficult words that sound pompous unless it’s a text that demands classical Hindi like Shakuntala. We used Bombaiya Hindi in Shobhaa’s Spouse. We want to throw away that baggage of having a rigid vocabulary, the Raj Bhasha angle and its tediousness has to go.”

Namita added, “Languages are evolving, whether through Bollywood, advertising or even our daily speech. They have a vibrancy of their own; we have to let them go where they want to. Like Indian English is already accepted as a language, it has also developed its own dialects.” (link)

I strongly agree, and wish all the best for Yatra Books.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

"All About H. Hatterr" Coming in October.

The NYRB Classics imprint has a blog called "A Different Stripe," which keeps track of where its authors are showing up in the media.

Recently, Sara, the blogger there, announced that NYRB's new edition of G.V. Desani's classic novel, All About H. Hatterr, finally has a release date -- October 23. The novel has been out of print in the U.S. since about 1986, so this is very good news. I used the NYRB Classics version of Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August in a class last year, and it worked out nicely. Hopefully I can teach the weird and remarkable Hatterr sometime in 2008. (My students won't know what hit them.)

Incidentally, I did a blog post about Hatterr here.

(I even ended up writing the formal article on Desani I was hinting at in that earlier post. It's currently under "revise and resubmit" with a British journal, which means -- fingers crossed -- it might actually be coming out sometime soon. Admittedly, I still have a lot of work to do on it before I can resubmit it.)


Saturday, January 27, 2007

More Vikram Chandra Media Fun

On, if you search for "Mild-mannered Author Delves Deeply Into India's Underworld," you'll get about 25 newspapers that printed an AP article by Marcus Wohlsen on Vikram Chandra.

I have a bite-size quote in this article too -- all 25 printings of it.

[UPDATE: Another 25 newspapers have titled the story "Author Delves Into India's Underworld." So the real number of newspapers that have carried the story is about 52.]

"This is a great novel, perhaps the greatest book on Bombay ever written. Certainly a contender for the Great Indian Novel," wrote one reviewer in the Hindustan Times.

Whatever the book's standing as literature, the popularity of "Sacred Games" is undeniable. It has remained on India's top-10 best seller list since its release.

Younger Indian readers have embraced the novel's rowdy social panorama of criminals, cops and slum-dwellers in a country still saddled with the class tensions of the caste system, says Amardeep Singh, a professor of world literature at Lehigh University who keeps a blog about new South Asian fiction. They also find its encyclopedic use of Indian obscenities "thrilling."

"It's a breaking of a certain unwritten set of taboos of what you can and can't talk about and the language you can use," Singh says.

"Sacred Games" has also sold well in England, where it was named a top book of 2006 by several British critics, and has been translated into 14 languages, from Hindi to French to Croatian.

HarperCollins beat out five other publishers to buy the U.S. rights to "Sacred Games" for $1 million, and has reportedly pushed the novel with a $300,000 marketing budget - a rare sum for a single book. There are 75,000 hardcover copies in print in the United States so far, with the book already in its fifth U.S. printing.

Ah well, not the greatest quote. But I do think there's an almost refreshing rudeness in books like Sacred Games and Maximum City.

UPDATE: Also check out this piece by Josh Getlin in the L.A. Times.

(Next week, I promise -- no more Vikram Chandra propaganda!)

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

In the Washington Post: Vikram Chandra, and a little from me

I'm quoted in an article in this past Monday's Washington Post, on Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games:

The seminal event of Chandra's 45 years, by contrast, has been the transformation, beginning in the early 1990s, of India's sleepy socialist economy into a dynamic engine of internationalization and growth.

"We're living through this precarious time when great changes are happening," Chandra says. The India he grew up in felt like "a little bubble at a far distance from the rest of the world." But in the India his 7-year-old nephew has inherited, "the West as a presence is completely available every day -- and his expectations of his place in the world are very changed."

This new India is a place where the middle class is growing in size and confidence. It's also a place, as Chandra points out, where there's still "this huge mass of people who have nothing" but who can now see what they lack.

And it's a place, according to Lehigh University professor Amardeep Singh, where "the stories people want to tell" aren't so much about colonialism anymore.

Singh teaches courses with titles such as "Post-Colonial Literature in English," using texts from regions as diverse as Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean. He notes that Chandra's first novel was replete with colonial themes, but he sees "Sacred Games" as something quite different.

"I would use the phrase 'novel of globalization,' " Singh says. In "Sacred Games," he points out, the English language Chandra's upwardly mobile gangster struggles to learn is associated less with India's former colonizers than with the broader international economy that dictates its use.

Not surprisingly, the notion of a globalized Indian literature has sparked a backlash. Indian authors writing in English, especially those living overseas, have been charged by some critics with distorting Indian reality to cater to Western audiences. Chandra took some hits on this front himself, even before "Sacred Games," and was irritated enough to lash back in a Boston Review essay titled "The Cult of Authenticity."

His advice to any writer similarly attacked: "Do what it takes to get the job done. Use whatever you need. Swagger confidently through all the world, because it all belongs to you."

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