Some Notes on the Conference on South Asia 2005

I missed the two keynote addresses, and I missed most of the first day of papers as well as the two ‘pre-conference’ meetings held on Thursday. But I still saw a lot of interesting papers.

[Note: I'm going to be a bit circumspect in describing the talks I saw. For one thing, work presented in a talk, while ‘public,’ is often still in progress. And I wouldn’t want to give anyone’s major conclusions away if they haven’t been published. Incidentally, abstracts from the conference are available as a PDF here. Still, it might be interesting to some readers to see a thin slice of the work South Asian Area Studies scholars are doing these days...]

* * *
Let's start with the ‘Delhi’ panel on Saturday, with Vasudha Dalmia, Lawrence Cohen, Rashmi Sadana, and Veena Das. Given all the attention given to Bombay recently, it seems apropos to think about urbanism in ‘swinging’ Delhi. Of the four papers, Dalmia’s and Cohen’s really seemed to focus in on urbanism and cosmopolitanism. The other two papers were ‘set’ in Delhi, but had other concerns.

Vasudha Dalmia spoke about a Hindi novel by Krishna Sobti called Samay Sargam (2000). Given Delhi's turn to suburbanization in the past 15-20 years, there is a special value attached to some of the gardens in ‘old-New Delhi’; these are the setting of many of the events in the novel. (A review of the novel is here).

Rashmi Sadana spoke about the debates over translation, focusing specifically on the Hindi and Bengali translations of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Apparently, the Hindi translator of the novel, Gopal Gandhi, excised a number of sections dealing with Chamar (low-caste) leather-workers, which he thought might offend his ‘vegetarian’ (read: high caste) Hindi readers. But Seth praised the translation nevertheless (the characters in Seth’s novel are understood to be Hindi speakers, though Seth renders their voices in English).

Lawrence Cohen spoke about some of the recent multimedia-triggered scandals that have rocked the Indian media recently. His primary concern was with the murder of two gay men in a posh south Delhi apartment last summer: Pushkin Chandra and Kuldeep. In the Indian media, the double-murder prompted some discussion of why it might be time to finally try and decriminalize homosexuality in India (Cohen didn't address this issue). But it also provoked a rather offensive and troubling column by Sapan Dasgupta ("The Problem Is Not Homosexuality")>

Along the way, Cohen also alluded to other media scandals, including the MMS sex-video scandal involving two Delhi students, as well as the Tehelka videotaping of BJP officials discussing their flagrant bribes of Zaheera, the chief survivor/witness in the Best Bakery case coming out of the Gujurat riots of 2002.

Veena Das's paper was the product of fresh interviews she and a team of researchers have been doing with working-class Delhi women on their relationship to sexuality. She's making a kind of rejoinder to the psychoanalytic generalizations of Sudhir Kakar, but it sounded to me that the work might be in an early stage.

* * *
Kumkum Sangari’s paper was on Gandhi’s later writings, where he seemed to be going in a new direction philosophically. Written just before his death (and with the tragedy of the Partition fresh in mind), he came to accept a number of propositions that he had earlier rejected -– including the need for separation of "religion" from "culture" (and possibly, by extension, of church and state). (I tried to Google some of the writings from 1947-1948 that Sangari mentioned, but couldn't find reference to them on the internet)

On the same panel, Abha Sur spoke about Meghnad Saha, a famous astrophysicist from Presidency College, Calcutta. Saha is especially notable because he was from a lower caste at a time when most scholars at elite institutions like Presidency College were from higher caste backgrounds. Sur sees an alignment between Saha’s use of social metaphors in his scientific writing with his critique of caste hierarchies at the College.

As an aside (this was not in Sur's talk), Presidency College in general seems to be an important site for many Indian social scientists and humanists in American universities. Many famous people -– including Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Amartya Sen, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak -- went there. And while Presidency College is not quite as central as it once was to intellectual life in India, it’s still surprising how many of the people one meets at the Madison conference are Presidency College graduates. (Also worth noting that quite a high proportion of their graduates end up in the U.S. and U.K.)

* * *
My co-panelist Arnab Chakladar gave a detailed paper on two Shashi Deshpande novels, That Long Silence and A Matter of Time. The part that caught my eye was the connection Arnab made between the emphasis on women and property in Deshpande’s novel and the vexed relationship that women have historically had to property – where their rights of inheritance are still not quite equal to men. This is even after the reforms instituted by the Hindu Succession Act of 1956. Things might be finally equalized with the Amended act (see this).

* * *
My friend Monika Mehta gave a talk in a bollywood-oriented panel on the Indian government’s role in sponsoring the ‘family films’ of the 1990s. One thing I didn’t know was that films considered especially wholesome are sometimes exempted from the ‘Entertainment Tax’ that applies to most commercial films released in India. (I knew that patriotic and war films are exempt from the tax, but I hadn’t known about the ‘wholesomeness’ exemption). DDLJ is an example of a 1990s film that was exempted from the Entertainment tax.

Anupama Kapse also gave a very interesting talk on the same panel, on the transformation of melodrama in the 1940s. The authors of The Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema have considered melodrama to be a genre quite separate from early silent film genres like the ‘mythological’ and the ‘historical’. But Kapse shows otherwise (and again, I won’t say too much about her argument here). Her two examples were a 1939 film called Aadmi (directed by V. Shantaram) and a 1950 film called Aurat (which was the original model for Nargis’ Mother India). I found the clip from Aadmi to be pretty brilliant -– a self-reflexive satire of the melodrama genre.

* * *
I attended part of a Sikh studies panel, and was favorably impressed by papers by Sunit Singh and Arvind Mandair. Sunit Singh is working on an essay by Bhai Khan Singh Nabla called "Hum Hindu Nahin" (We Are Not Hindus). Though earlier scholars in Sikh studies had situated this text as a response to certain court cases involving the British colonial administration's understanding of the relationship between the Sikh and Hindu communities, one of Sunit Singh's goals is to see the essay as more autonomous and theological. In other words, it's part of a conversation occurring amongst the different religious communities of India; the attempt to sort out the meaning of Sikh identity is not necessarily determined by the policies of the Raj.

Hum Hindu Nahin is probably not an easy text to track down, but it looks like some folks on the internet have been doing a bit of translating on their own: here, and here. The pages translated are messy and the English is non-grammatical, but you can sort of get an idea.

And Arvind Mandair had some interesting insights on the theological work of Bhai Vir Singh. It’s quite a bit more sophisticated than one might imagine, and very non-Indic in many ways: in at least some of his tracts, Vir Singh's approach to philosophy seems to have been ‘onto-theological’ -- in the vein of Pascal, rather than the Singh Sabha movement (or Bhakti, for that matter). Certainly there isn’t anything even remotely similar to it in the Sikh tradition.

* * *
My own paper on the new creative nonfiction genre in Indian writing in English seemed to be received pretty well, even though it’s at a relatively early phase of development. Most of what I was talking about related to defining the genre of Maximum City, but I argued that Arundhati Roy’s literary/political essays as well as Amitava Kumar’s three genre-crossing books are part of what might be a new form of Indian writing.

* * *
As Sepoy mentions, our conference coincided with the annual meeting of the World Dairy Expo. Fittingly, on the first leg of the flight home, I found myself sitting next to a chatty woman who is a family dairy farmer from Vermont, and who was only too happy to school me on the ins and outs of American dairy farming. (For instance, did you know they get up at 2:30 in the morning to milk the cows?) I expected some complaints about big farms and agribusiness, but actually, her biggest complaints were about the 'hippie-types' in the Organic dairy movement. As this farmer (who runs a modern-type family farm) describes it, the whole organic dairy thing is kind of a sham...