It's a huge convention. There are usually more than 1000 panels, with 3-4 participants each. And a total of 10,000 attendants overall (the MLA as a group has about 30,000 members). It's where most preliminary academic job interviews happen in both English and Comparative Literature. There is also a huge book display, with stalls from 50 academic publishers.
Because of this it might seem like heaven for lit/theory nerds. But there are many reasons why it doesn't always work out that way. For one thing, the immense size of the conference and the short panel times make it difficult to get intellectually focused -- not impossible, but it takes work and concentration. And the papers are not of a consistent quality. Some people really put time and effort into the papers they give, but others think of it as more of an academic obligation to give a talk at MLA every so often; papers are often hacked together out of something used earlier in another context. Or they are excerpted out of long chapters, with only minimal effort made to offer adequate context or transitions. The flamboyant titles of some MLA papers get a lot of media attention, but the real scandal is that many flamboyant titles are attached to papers that are quite staid.
Also, quite a number of the people present at MLA every year are either interviewing for jobs, or conducting interviews; going to panels (or giving talks) is the last thing on their minds. And finally, many people go to MLA primarily to socialize. It's the one conference of the year when a significant number of people you know from graduate school (and other contexts) are likely to be around. [In some cases, it's a chance to make new friends; this year there will be an attempt at a "Blogger Meetup", which I'm looking forward to]
That said, if you look you will find. There are a few India panels that I'm probably going to this year One is a panel that I'm chairing. I've taken the times and locations off the panels; I'm listing them just to give some idea of what the papers are about. If you want to attend, you should get the exact information through the MLA website. If any of you are waffling about going, all the interesting paper titles might cause you to think twice:
Hybridity’s Children: Paradigm Shifts in Contemporary South Asian Literature
Session leader: Amardeep Singh, Lehigh Univ.
1. “Beyond Nations and Nationalisms: Rethinking Modern South Asian Literature,” Kavita Daiya, George Washington Univ.
2. “Unfamiliar Relations: Incest and the Postcolonial Novel,” Sangita Gopal, Univ. of Oregon
3. “To Understand Me, You’ll Have to Swallow a World: Salman Rushdie and the South Asian Multitude,” Mrinalini Chakravorty, Univ. of California, Irvine
The idea behind my panel was to look at the "next generation" of South Asian writers, who aren't especially preoccupied by the legacy of colonialism, and for whom "hybridity" is an a priori, and fairly uncontroversial fact of existence. There is a new set of issues that are beginning to come up in the books, and in some cases new spins on old issues. Is it time to move past the term "postcolonial" as an umbrella term to describe what these books are about?
Africa in India, India in Africa
Presiding: John Charles Hawley, Santa Clara Univ.
1. “South Asian Africans and Indian Literature,” Jaspal Kaur Singh, Northern Michigan Univ.
2. “Bombay’s Africa,” Sharmila Sen, Harvard Univ.
3. “Where Gandhi Became Indian,” Amitava Kumar, Penn State Univ., University Park
4. “Sam Selvon and the Romance of Creolization,” Gautam Premnath, Univ. of California, Berkeley
Framing the Secular: South Asian Contexts
Program arranged by the Discussion Group on South Asian Languages and Literatures
Presiding: Hena Ahmad, Truman State Univ.
1. “The Panchatantra and Secular Tale-Telling in the Premodern World,” Brenda Deen Schildgen, Univ. of California, Davis
2. “Secular Literature in Preindependent India: A Look at Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto,” Deepika Marya, Univ. of Southern Maine, Portland
3. “Re-presenting the Burdens of South Asian History: Narayan and Rushdie,” Pradyumna S. Chauhan, Arcadia Univ.
4. “The Vernacular of Doubt,” Amitava Kumar, Penn State Univ., University Park
Race, Caste, and Class in South Asian Literatures
Presiding: Anushiya Sivanarayanan, Southern Illinois Univ., Edwardsville
1. “Race and Class: Reflections on Chitra Divakaruni’s Short Fiction and Poetry,” Bruce G. Johnson, Univ. of Rhode Island
2. “Gopinath Mohanty’s Paraja: An Intertext on ‘Tribal Problem,’” Amiya Bhushan Sharma, Indira Gandhi Natl. Open Univ.
3. “The Unspeakable Limits of Caste: A Reading of Bhabani Bhattacharya’s So Many Hungers and He Who Rides a Tiger,” Rajender Kaur, Ridgefield, CT
4.“The Bhil Woman’s Plums: Dalit Counter-Offerings in ‘Times of Siege,’” Cynthia Ann Leenerts, George Washington Univ.
Masculinity, Ascetic Nationalism, and the Indian Nation
1. “British Colonial Discourse and Ascetic Nationalism in Colonial India,” Chandrima Chakraborty, York Univ., Keele
2. “Ascetic Nationalism and the Muslim ‘Other’ in Colonial India: The ‘Case’ of Swami Vivekananda,” Gautam Kundu, Georgia Southern Univ.
3.“Gandhi, the Father,” Rachel V. Trousdale, Agnes Scott Coll.
I'm also going to several other, non-India panels (and I probably won't make it to all of these). But it's interesting -- some authors I haven't even heard of here (Gopinath Mohanty). Some panel topics seem somewhat familiar (I seem to recall there being a panel on Caste and Race in SA lit at an earlier MLA... and I seem to recall being on that panel!). Others are new -- I'm pleasantly surprised to see that others in my field are starting to talk about secularism! You can bet I'll be in the audience there, the first to ask a question.