Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ode to dreams forgotten

The ebb and flow of words
within the silence of time;
heavy-headed, I sleep
in yellow dreams
At nine.

A space,
a kaleidoscopic sea;
as a passive smoker shrugs,
inhaling monotonic hours,
sweeping down with cartoon prophecy.

I am of course still sleeping,
rolling over ever-stifling time;
steady-footed, I sink,
in tender amnesia
At nine.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

What is Indian Literature?

The attempt at categorization

Our relentless effort to establish order cannot be better illustrated than by our peculiar yet untiring attempts to categorize the world around us. Disorder puts us in a very tricky situation, for if nothing is fixed and nothing determinable then our egotistic assumptions on the knowable world –and our possession of that ‘knowledge’- hangs precariously, since the universal and the general –upon which knowledge is structured- is replaced by the chaotic- manifest in arbitrary individualism and defiant subjectivity. We like to organize things into neat little boxes that make us feel good about ourselves and reassure us that we know what is where; we like to think by categorizing them we have conquered them and subdued them into those neat little boxes we find in biology books and anthropological studies.

Academics and Scholars, naturally, have therefore an even greater zeal in categorizing and then theorizing such categories. In Universities teaching Literature you are likely to encounter whole Papers and Blocks like ‘Australian Literature’, ‘African Literature’ and the new arrival ‘Indian Literature’. Deeply political as it is to define ‘Literature’, for present purposes let us say it is the mass of all literary work within the category imposed upon it; hence ‘Indian Literature’ is representative of all literary work that may be termed ‘Indian’. The complexity of defining the second word, for once, pales in comparison to that of the first. What is ‘Indian’, and what constitutes its literature? The category seems to defy categorization. So how do you do it?

It’s easy if you are Warwick or Oxford; you just need to mix Tagore with Shobha De, add a touch of Vikram Seth, a dash of Salman Rushdie, and you have made yourself the perfect Indian curry. Unsavory as that might sound, it is perhaps not as ‘wrong’ as it seems since a Cambridge definition of ‘Indian’ is purely their perception of the Indian and unsurprisingly the books selected are the books that have made the westward journey and got there. But the problem at hand is -if we must- then how does one define Indian Literature?

One can either look at ‘Indian’ as implying the political India, or the more elusive cultural ‘India’. Political India –as the geographical chunk encompassed by the international border- in terms of an Indian Literature would imply an aggregative approach where every literature within India – Hindi, Maithili, Marathi, Telegu, Bangla and the vast many language-literatures of India- together constitute Indian Literature. This statement itself makes obvious the lack of any unity in such an approach and, to put it as Aijaz Ahmad does “A ‘national’ literature… has to be more than the sum of its regional constituent parts, if we are to speak of its unity theoretically.” India, as a nation that never existed as unified entity till two centuries ago, and a nation that has never, till date, spoken one single language, has a culture that, if one follows the tourism brochures, revels in this diversity. But even in this complexity let us attempt to try and salvage if we may a unified culture that is Indian, and which may aid us in understanding what Indian Literature is or could be. It’s not just cliché humor to say that India exists in Cricket and Bollywood movies. To look for Indian culture –and subsequently Indian Literature- we must look at what surpasses the distinctions of demographics, ethnicity, religious groups and language clusters.

In terms of language it comes down to what language does an India think in, or rather in what language can one envision an India? Languages specific to certain regions are often limited in conceptualizing the vastness of this problem and are often geographically restricted in terms of market-audiences. Hindi, in spite of sixty years of aggressive (and expensive) state promotion and propaganda, has failed to become the medium of our national consciousness, severely restricted and loathed as it is in the South, the North-East and various other parts of the country. The most politically scandalous thing to do now would be to suggest English as a -if not the- language that can conceptualize an India and subsequently be the vehicle of Indian Literature.

We may shy from it but it isn’t incorrect to say that India is the product of colonialism, and that our colonizers, for better or worse, invented an India. English, therefore, was the first language to adopt ‘India’ into its vocabulary and even NCERT textbooks concede that the rise of English speakers in India not only united the country but gave rise to a sense of pan-Indian nationalism. But it is not as easy as saying Indian writing in English is what constitutes Indian Literature.

Indian Literature, if we must, has to be that literature which is able to recognize this India as a united entity, and speak of this unity. It is perhaps largely due to lack of alternatives that Indian writing in English constitutes a large bulk of what I may term ‘Indian’ Literature. It is also not to say that since India is a product of colonialism Indian literature cannot speak of anything else except our colonial experience. It is merely to state that Indian literature needs a broader scope of national understanding and at the moment only English seems to be doing that.

An interesting point to note is that the India that is producing, reading and theorizing this literature is hardly representative. An elite wealthy English-speaking minority is hardly the average Indian, but oddly, it is perhaps the only India that cuts across other religious and linguistic divides. For most of this country there simply exists no Indian Literature since there simply exists no one India. Every language group has its own India, one which cannot be translated into another language, which in turn has its own India. In that sense, the Indian literature which is in English is representative of only one of these many Indias that exists today, the only difference being that the audience –the readers, writers and scholars- of English are spread across the country and cut across all other language groups in this country, though limited nonetheless by economic barriers.

It is indeed tempting to jump to conclusions regarding this situation, but one needs to understand the latent complexities of this problem before branding it good or bad. The concept of an Indian literature is just as arbitrary as any other attempt at categorization. The need for this categorization perhaps arose out of the mere necessity of creating something new in the curriculum of a University, one possibly far removed from all such concerns of actually defining an Indian identity. Perhaps the real purpose was mere scholarly discourse and academic debate, where the emphasis is on posing questions, not on eliciting a single answer?

However, there really is no need for there to be a single answer to this question –and that precisely is my conclusion.