Showing posts with label Literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Literature. Show all posts

Mimicry and Hybridity in Plain English (Updated and Expanded)

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. 

Update from April 2017: I added a new section called "Close Reading Bhabha's 'Signs Taken For Wonders.'" Also, for folks assigning this in a classroom, there is a downloadable PDF version of this essay here

* * *

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, Michel Foucault, 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 starting points.

What I propose to do here is define these complex terms, mimicry and hybridity, in plain English, using references from Bhabha's own writings, but also from other sites -- from specific cultural contexts, historical events, and works of literature art that aren't under Bhabha's purview. 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 in the classroom than Bhabha's essays tend to do alone.

DHSI 2015 Notes 1: Pre-conference on "Social Knowledge Creation"

I'm here in Victoria for week 2 of the DHSI; I might try and post a few brief notes along the way for myself and any others who might be interested.

There were two pre-conferences meeting at the same time on Sunday. One was on maximizing accessibility in DH projects -- especially for users who are sight-impaired -- and the other was on "Social Knowledge Creation."  It was a tough decision, but I decided to go to the Social Knowledge Creation session.

The keynote, on the history of the Wiki idea, was given by John Maxwell. He started with a quote from Ivan Illich from 1973, on "Tools for Conviviality." I'll just post the whole quote, since it's interesting:

“Convivial tools are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision” Industrial tools deny this possibility to those who use them and they allow their designers to determine the meaning and expectations of others. Most tools today cannot be used in convivial fashion.
In effect, a highly open-ended tool like a Wiki is a 'convivial' tool, while other, more strictly hierarchical, means of structuring knowledge are more "industrial."

Maxwell talked about the creator of the first Wiki, Ward Cunningham. Wikis were named after the Hawaiian "Wiki-Wiki Bus," and initially written using the early Mac HyperCard software. Cunningham went on to create the first Wiki website, called WikiWikiWeb, focusing mainly on creating a base of knowledge about software development.

Cunningham defines a Wiki as "a body of writing that a community is willing to maintain." Maxwell, in his comments, expanded on this, describing Wiki writing as "the textual embodiment of a community of inquiry" and as "collective autoethnography." What he finds remarkable about the Wiki framework is that it's a software system "that has no features"; it's effectively just a system of writing. Maxwell also talked about some of his own experiences using Wikis in his research ("Coach House Technological History").

At the end of his talk Maxwell talked about Ward Cunningham's fascinating recent shift away from his own creation -- the idea of a community-edited, but still centralized, body of knowledge. Ward has now invented a new model of a distributed Wiki system that he calls a "federated" Wiki.

Cunningham talks about the reasons for the shift in this article in Wired

But there is one thing about the wiki that he regrets. “I always felt bad that I owned all those pages,” he says. The central idea of a wiki — whether it’s driving Wikipedia or C2 — is that anyone can add or edit a page, but those pages all live on servers that someone else owns and controls. Cunningham now believes that no one should have that sort of central control, so he has built something called the federated wiki.
This new creation taps into the communal ethos fostered by GitHub, a place where software developers can not only collaborate on software projects but also instantly “fork” these projects, spawning entirely new collaborations.
To me, it seems like there’s an unresolved contradiction here: Cunningham started out wanting a centralized index with multiple authors. When that worked -- almost too well -- he changed his mind, and wanted to decentralize his own index, achieving multiplicity not just of authorship but of web domains.

I think many people share Cunningham's ambivalence about centralized knowledge. On the one hand, don’t we want there to be authoritative references out there? The feminist DH critique of the male-centered tendencies in Wikipedia (who edits it, who contributes “knowledge? see this) is in a way accepting the premise that Wikipedia is a powerfully central site for knowledge production and distribution. Insofar as centralized knowledge production is still a widely felt social need, perhaps we need a better, more diverse Wikipedia, not a decentralized, confederated Wiki system where everyone creates and curates their own bases of knowledge.

Moreover, if a decentralized mode of knowledge production really does take off, it likely won’t be led and scripted by Ward Cunningham. The decentralization might also have a price that maybe we haven’t anticipated: the decentralization of knowledge and history can be as empowering to conservative revisionists as much as to progressive thinkers.

During the break, I said as much to a faculty member from a University of Wisconsin campus (I didn't catch her name); she mentioned to me that this debate over the centralization of knowledge was in fact happening in the 18th century as the first Encyclopedias were being compiled. She mentioned a book that sounds relevant, Seth Rudy's Literature and Encyclopedism in Enlightenment Britain

The lightning sessions had many interesting papers. Because these are works in progress, I won't say too much here. I will say that the papers I was personally most interested in were both by graduate students from the University of Victoria itself, and both involved applying various mapping visualization techniques to works of literature. Alex Christie's Z-Axis 3D maps are far enough along that he's collaborating with Modernist Studies Asociation members and planning a session at the MSA that will showcase the methodology at MSA 2015 later this year. Randa Khatib has, in conjunction with colleagues in computer science at the American University of Beirut (which has its own Digital Humanities Center!), developed an installable tool called Topotext, that automatically annotates text files, using natural language processing to extract geographic data. 

On my own, I installed Topotext from the version I found on Github at the link above, and played around with a .Txt version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The concentration of location on the east of Ireland should be obvious for those who know the novel. But what's interesting are all the references in the southwest of Ireland. It's easy to forget the trip Stephen takes with his father early in the novel to Cork, and think, instead, of Portrait as first and foremost a Dublin novel. But that trip to Cork is of course important, both to Stephen's development of his sense of space, and to the concept of Irish space in the novel more broadly. There's more we could say here, but suffice it to say for now that it seems like the Topotext tool has justified its existence here by getting me to think about Portrait's relationship to space in Ireland a little differently than I had before. 

"The First Four" -- Women Faculty in the Lehigh English Department

One of my students was involved with the making of a documentary about the first women faculty in the English department. I had a chance to see the film a few weeks ago at a public screening, and it's terrific -- probably of interest to anyone interested in gender issues in academia. Happily, permissions have been ensured to allow the film to be posted online (on Vimeo). An embedded link to the film is below.

A bit of background. At its inception in 1865, Lehigh University was an all-male college mainly focused on engineering. The university was founded by Asa Packer, a railroad tycoon, and over the years the university had connections to the steel and auto industries as well (major buildings on campus are the "Iacocca Building" and "Packard Lab" -- named after James Packard, who founded the eponymous car company). Colleges of Business, Arts and Sciences, and Education were later added; today they are highly ranked and well-funded.

The university moved to include women as students in 1971 (see "40 Years of Women at Lehigh"). As part of that change, the university also began to attempt to diversify its faculty (which was, not unlike other American academic institutions of that era, universally white and male). A large number of the first women faculty hired by Lehigh in those first years (1972-3) were in the English department.

Three of the first four women faculty were still part of the department when I joined the faculty in 2001. Rosemary Mundhenk, Elizabeth Fifer, and Barbara Traister are friends and have been mentor-figures to me. (Another faculty member hired in this period who also played a mentoring role for me, Jan Fergus, joined the department a bit later.) I consider myself lucky to have started my career as a professor in a department with a strong cohort of senior colleagues who were women. That said, as you'll see from the documentary, things were not easy for these women in the early years.

Finally, I'm quite proud of my student, Laura Casale (@lauralehigh on Twitter), who is one of the four students involved in putting this documentary together. Well done!

The English department's intro to the film is here:

And the film itself:

THE FIRST FOUR from Lehigh IMRC on Vimeo.

Teaching Notes: Transatlantic Modernism

This spring I taught a new graduate course at Lehigh on Transatlantic Modernism. 

As a bit of back-story: Several Ph.D. students I have worked with in recent years have expressed interest in defining their Modernism reading and teaching fields along transatlantic lines, but neither my colleague Seth Moglen (who does American modernism and the Harlem Renaissance) nor I (generally w/ British modernism and postcolonial literature) had looked closely at the historical premises of this. Nor had anyone taught a course with a specifically transatlantic focus.

That resistance to Transatlanticism in English literary studies comes from some deep-seated professional biases. Transnational research projects have become increasingly encouraged and common in literary studies in recent years, but generally speaking regional and period grounding has remained pretty much constant: for the purposes of the academic job market, you are still either an Americanist or a British literature person. One incidental goal of teaching this particular course was to test out whether a transatlantic approach to the writing of this period is in fact intellectually coherent -- rather than simply convenient for students aiming to pitch themselves broadly.

So my query going into this course was: does the "transatlantic" designation -- equal parts British and American -- actually fit modernism as I would like to see it defined? Many readers will be familiar with the transatlantic careers of major American figures such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and Nella Larsen. Here I wanted to cross-reference these American writers' approaches to England and Europe against several key British writers who ended up as expatriates in the United States, most prominently D.H. Lawrence, Mina Loy, and W.H. Auden. The hypothesis is that modernism unfolded in the 1910s and 20s as a singular, transnational literary movement not seriously hampered by the vast distance between the two ends of the Atlantic Ocean.

The conceptual hypothesis might have major pedagogical implications: is it perhaps time for English literary studies to dispense with the traditional segregation of "British" and "American" writing from this period? Despite the major changes in literary methodology that have occurred over the past few decades – the rise of new modes of literary theory, and new sensitivity to issues of social justice and gendered and racial inclusiveness – for the most part, American and British literatures are today thought of and taught as separate from one another. While a certain amount of overlap is acknowledged (writers like T.S. Eliot are generally taught in courses on both British and American modernism), the idea that modernism in English might have been effectively a single event occurring nearly simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic hasn’t really hit home yet.

As I was designing the course, I was especially interested in focusing on the social networks, friendships and literary magazines that linked the various writers to one another. Who travelled where, when? What was everyone reading? In many cases writers who were living in Paris or London published their work in American journals. An American magazine called Little Review, for instance, was the first to publish Joyce’s Ulysses; it was also the defendant in the first obscenity trial against the novel. Similarly, the American magazine Others was the first to publish the provocative early poems of British writer Mina Loy.

I have been interested in whether it's possible that the changing dynamics of transatlantic travel and communication may have played a role in helping modernism play out as it did. Since the advent of faster and larger steamships starting in the 1870s and 80s, transatlantic travel had become considerably more common and manageable. Henry Adams has a great line about boarding a new transatlantic steamer called the Teutonic (on the Cunard / White Star Line) in 1892:
The voyage was less trying than I expected. The ship was so big and so fast, and relatively so comfortable, that as I lay in my stateroom and looked out of my windows on the storm, I felt a little wonder whether this world were the same that I lived in thirty years ago. In all my wanderings this is the first time I have had the sensation. All the rest of the world seems more or less what it was, and Europe is less changed than any of the rest; but the big Atlantic steamer is a whacker. (Henry Adams, cited in Stephen Fox, Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships)

By the 1910s, of course, with the advent of the HMS Mauretania and the HMS Lusitania, the experience was even better and faster than it was in 1892. One cannot help but think that the fact that it took less than a week to cross the Atlantic in person -- not to mention the ease of circulating and disseminating both magazines and books -- may have had ripple effects, and helped to allow new aesthetic styles and ideas to proliferate with new speed in the early 1910s in particular. Could the HMS Mauretania been one of the hidden historical "whackers" that helped put transatlantic modernism in motion? (One might also mention the role of transatlantic telegraph cables, though by the 1910s these were nothing new.)

(More after the break.)

Me on Manto: Interview in "Viewpoint"

Qaisar Abbas of UNT interviewed me on Sa'adat Hasan Manto by email for a magazine he writes for called "Viewpoint." You can see the interview here.  Also see a new essay on Manto by the great Tariq Ali here. There are a number of other essays in the special issue on Manto, which I haven't read yet. The magazine in general is at:

Probably the most arguable (interesting?) section of the interview might be this one:

Manto was tried in India and Pakistan for “obscenity” as he used images of women as sex object and prostitute in several of his short stories. How would you compare obscenity and portraying sex as a social reality in literature? Who defines standards of pornography and sex in fine arts and literature in South Asia?

Manto wrote about prostitution because it was a part of life in his era. Once he was asked this same question, and he had the following rejoinder: 
“If any mention of a prostitute is obscene then her existence too is obscene. If any mention of her is prohibited, then her profession too should be prohibited. Do away with the prostitute; reference to her would vanish by itself.” (via Harish Narang)
I do not think Manto was particularly obsessed with prostitution. It might be more accurate to say that he was part of a broader movement in Modern literature to depict sexuality more honestly and sincerely than earlier generations had done, and writing stories with characters who were prostitutes was one way for him to do that. Even within Urdu and Hindi literature, Manto was not the only one to push the boundary with regards to explicit sexuality in his writing. The first wave of Progressive Writers, emerging from the Angarey group, also did this. One infamous story by Sajjad Zaheer, for instance, was called “Vision of Paradise” (Jannat ki Basharat) which featured a Maulvi who begins to have erotic dreams while he intends to stay up late praying. The story was controversial at the time because it was seen as blasphemous, and reading it today there’s no doubt that Zaheer intended to be provocative regarding religious piety. But it is no less provocative because of its use of explicit sexuality.
Alongside the Angarey group, Premchand himself was often more direct about matters of sexuality than many people realize. His famous 1936 novel Godaan, for instance, features a cross-caste sexual relationship described quite frankly – though it’s by no means pornographic. Finally, it should be noted that Manto’s friend and rival, Ismat Chughtai, also pushed the line regarding the depiction of sexuality.
That said, there’s no question that Manto takes things a step further. A story like “Bu” (Odour) is significantly more explicit in its depiction of a random sexual encounter than anything written by Zaheer or Chughtai. As a side note, this story, which is one of Manto’s most infamous ones, is not actually about prostitution, but rather a middle-class man’s encounter with a poor woman (a Marathi “Ghatin”) working as a laborer. Other stories do deal directly with prostitution, but often with a focus on the hypocrisy and weakness of men. Manto’s prostitutes are often honest and even noble individuals – trying to survive in a society that treats the exploitation of women’s bodies as merely another kind of financial transaction. 
On the question of who sets the standards for obscenity. Here I think there’s no question that by the standards of his time, some of Manto’s stories could be found to be “obscene.” As is well-known, he was tried for obscenity six times during his career, some by the British Indian government before 1947, and some by the independent government of Pakistan. I certainly oppose the censorship, but I think Manto knew what he was doing in writing stories like “Bu,” and I don’t think he or his career suffered greatly because he got in trouble for it; if anything, it may have gotten him more attention and thus helped his career in some ways. That said, with the sexual elements in “Khol Do!” or “Thanda Ghosht,” I do feel these are worth defending, since Manto is referencing sexual violence not for titillation but to make an important ethical point. 

"Ulysses": A Couple of Documents Related to the Obscenity Trials

I am teaching "Ulysses" again this fall with undergraduates, roughly along the same lines that I described in a blog post I wrote after the last experience. It's still every bit as exhilarating and exhausting as it was three years ago.

This time I am paying a bit more attention to some of the legal history surrounding the novel, which as is well known was banned for obscenity in the United States in 1921, and unbanned in 1933. The immediate episode that provoked the ban was episode 13 ("Nausicaa"), which was printed in pieces by the journal The Little Review. The editors of that journal, Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson, were the ones prosecuted in the initial trial, after a lawyer in New York complained about it. That lawyer stated that his daughter had read and been shocked by "Nausicaa" after receiving The Little Review in the mail. The figure of the innocent daughter, "the young girl" reader who might be corrupted by Ulysses became a key rhetorical figure in the to-and-fro over the novel that followed.

1. The documents related to the original trial are not easy to come by online. The best essay I have seen on the subject is a Washington University Law Review essay by Stephen Gillers that describes the history of the trial (as well as its precedents) in great detail. The key discussion related to Ulysses begins around p. 250.

2. One document that is online, but not in a very good form, is Jane Heap's initial printed defense of the novel, and of the Nausicaa episode in particular, which she printed in The Little Review in the fall of 1920 (before the first trial was decided). That essay is called "Art and the Law," and it can be found in an uncorrected scan of several issues of the magazine here.

I have gone through that scanned version and corrected the mistakes caused by OCR. Since the document is, I believe, out of copyright, I am posting the corrected version of the essay here as a service to any colleagues who might find it useful:

"Over and Over He Said 'Survive'": the Poetry of Khaled Mattawa in Light of Libya

I was lucky, at Duke in the mid-1990s, to overlap for a few years with the Libyan poet and translator Khaled Mattawa, then enrolled in Duke's Ph.D. program. I don't think I really grasped the extent to which Khaled's experience as an expatriate (really, exile) would end up impacting me at the time. And I was also a bit too young to be able grasp the level of accomplishment and power of Khaled's first published book of poetry, Ismailia Eclipse. (Sheep Meadow Press, 1995. The book is difficult to find now, though Khaled has helpfully put many of the important poems online here.)

Since the recent uprising in Libya began, I've been slowly revisiting Khaled's work and using the poems, where possible, to help process the incredibly stirring -- but also distressing -- events that are taking place in that country. As one of very few Libyan intellectuals fluent in English living in the United States, Khaled has of course been in demand in the U.S. media in the past two weeks. He did a great interview on PBS's NewsHour, and another on NPR in the past few days. But the most moving statement he's made in light of the rebellion is to write a personal account of growing up in Libya (Benghazi) at the beginning of Qadhafi's rule: "Rising to Shake Off the Fear in Libya". (The essay has appeared as an Op-Ed in several newspapers today.)

Here is an excerpt from that Op-Ed:

A few months earlier on April 7, 1977, members of the revolutionary committees had plastered a poster of Gadhafi’s image on my father’s car. On that same day they had, under the dictator’s direct supervision, publicly hanged several dissidents in Benghazi. 
On the day of the execution, the Ghibli winds blowing from the desert filled the air with dust and turned the sky into a reddish-gray canopy. I’d taken a bus with a friend to catch a movie downtown. Nearing Shajara Square, the bus simply turned around and took us back to where we had come from. Later that evening, state television repeatedly broadcast the hangings. I went to our garage to peel the dictator’s poster off our car. It took an interminably long time.
Along with millions of other Libyans, I have never stopped trying to peel Gadhafi’s image from my life. Even after I came to the United States in 1979 to continue my education, the dictator seemed to follow me. He was the one Libyan most people had heard of, and they wanted to talk about him. I used to be enraged when women told me how handsome he was. To me he was the face of evil itself, the face of separation, exile, thuggery, torture and lies.
(Source: )

Reading this, I couldn't help but think of Khaled's early poem, published in Ismailia Eclipse, describing the very same event, "Fifty April Years". Here is an excerpt from that poem, which Khaled has posted in its entirety on his website:

Revisiting Ahmed Ali: Twilight in Delhi (1940)

[Note to friends: I'm doing a version of this as a talk a couple of different times in the next few weeks. Any feedback, corrections, or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.] 

Ahmed Ali's career is one of the best ones I know to illustrate the connections between the style and ideology of the Progressive Writers' Movement and more experimental and lyrical modes of mid-20th century writing in India and Pakistan. Ali is best known for his English-language novel, Twilight in Delhi (first published in London by Hogarth Press in 1940), but he wrote several other novels in English, as well as a number of short stories and plays in Urdu in the 1930s. He was one of the "Angare Four" -- one of the four authors who contributed short stories to a collection called Angare in 1932, which was furiously condemned by the Indian Muslim community and banned by the British government for material deemed offensive to Muslims in particular. He was also one of the co-founders of the All-India Progressive Writers' Association AIPWA, in 1935-6. Around 1940, however, he left the movement following disagreements with its leader, his friend Sajjad Zaheer. Like many of the other major Indian Muslim intellectuals of his era, Ali had spent some time in Aligarh at the Aligarh Muslim Anglo-Oriental College (today known as Aligarh Muslim University), an English-medium college that was also known as a reformist hub. (E.M. Forster's friend Syed Ross Masood had a connection to Aligarh.)

Thanks to the Annual of Urdu Studies, we have a lot of biographical material about Ali freely available online. Start with this annotated CV. Then see Carlo Coppola's survey of Ali's literary career here. Ali went into diplomatic service right around the time of independence, and was assigned to China. After Partition he elected to make Karachi his home, and later continued to work as a diplomat and a businessman there. In the 1960s, he published a second work of literary fiction in English, Ocean of Night. In the 1980s, he published a diplomatic satire called Of Rats and Diplomats, as well as a self-translated volume of his earlier Urdu short stories from the 1930s and 40s, The Prison-House. I've looked at all three novels, but the only one I can recommend is Twilight in Delhi (the short stories are also recommended) 

In the volume that started it all, Angare, Ali has two short stories, Badal Nahi Aati (The Clouds Don't Come) and Mahavaton ki ek raat (One night in the winter rains). "The Clouds Don't Come" was translated by Tahira Naqvi for Michigan State's Journal of South Asian Literature (JSAL). As far as I know, "Mahavaton ke ek raat" has never been translated into English [I'm actually working on doing one, albeit with help.]  Indeed, as I understand it, despite its importance as a starting point for the  Progressive Writers' Movement, Angare as a whole has never been translated into English; at best we have a few selections here and there in journals like JSAL. I also can't find any evidence that it's ever been republished in India since it was banned by the British in 1933; the only re-publication I know of is an Urdu edition published in England around 1988. (That is, needless to say, the version I myself am looking at; the original, banned Angare is nowhere to be found.) 

[UPDATE: There are now not one, but two, translations of Angare [Angaarey]. The one I know and can recommend is by Snehal Shingavi, from Penguin India. Rupa Publications also has its own translation. ]

In Defense of India's Literary Culture (Dalrymple, Bal, Jaipur, etc.)

There's an interesting -- though rather awkward -- debate up right now at Open Magazine, between William Dalrymple and Hartosh Singh Bal. The starting point for the debate is the status of the annual Jaipur International Literature Festival, which will be occurring this coming weekend in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

Before getting into the ins and outs of the debate, here is what one probably needs to read.

1. Here is Hartosh Singh Bal's starting volley:

2. Here is Dalrymple's response, "The Piece You Ran is Blatantly Racist":

3. And here is Bal's response to Dalrymple's "racism" charge:

4. Here is a further response by Pramod Kumar, who claims that actually the Jaipur Literature festival was not exactly William Dalrymple's own idea in its original inception:

* * *

I should begin by saying that I'm predisposed not to think very highly of Hartosh Singh Bal, because of the asinine essay he published in the same magazine in 2009, "Oh, For a Book to Ban!" (Chandrahas Choudhury at The Middle Stage responded to that essay ably here.)

To put it as succinctly as I can: I'm not really inclined to care very much what a literary critic who doesn't read books thinks.

That said, Bal, in his initial piece in the new "Open" debate, does seem to have improved, and done some journalistic homework this time around. He does make some valid points about some of the the problems with India's literary culture: there's no question that there is still a fair amount of symbolic and financial dependence on the West (though arguably it's as much the U.S. that drives that as it is the U.K.). Reading his essay it seemed to me that his target shouldn't be Dalrymple per se, but rather the overly deferential way Dalrymple is received by some Indians. Moreover, his complaint with the Jaipur festival isn't about the festival per se -- by all accounts, the festival is diverse and inclusive, though it certainly does trade on the celebrities that fly in to participate -- but again, the matter of perceptions. (It might be interesting to ask some Indian readers not clued into LRB and NYRB channels whose name means more to them: Ian McEwan, or Shobha De? William Dalrymple or Amitabh Bachchan?)

That said, I think it's worth pointing out some things about India's English-language literary culture. First, as someone who started out studying the first big wave of Indian English authors -- Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Amit Chaudhuri, Anita Desai, and so on -- one of the things I always used to lament was the fact that all of these writers felt they had to leave India to make their careers happen. It was partly a symbolic matter -- they did want recognition from the London  literary establishment -- but it was at least as much financial. Anyone in their position in the 1970s would have done the same if they could, without really skipping a beat.

One sign of things changing is that that is no longer the case. There is a new vibrancy in the Indian publishing houses, and the Indian branches of transnational publishing companies (i.e., HarperCollins India and so on) that might well allow current and subsequent generations of writers to make a good living as writers without leaving India. Some of the younger writers whose books I've read and enjoyed in recent years fit in that category: Chandrahas Choudhury, Amit Varma, Samit Basu, Deepanjana Pal, and Dilip D'Souza come to mind (there are many, many others). Perhaps they are not getting paid on the scale of Arundhati Roy or Vikram Chandra (i.e., with the huge advances from American publishers), but the last I checked they seemed to be doing just fine.

The issue is not a lingering "Raj effect", it's whether there are publishing houses that can edit and produce serious books, whether there are journalists and magazines that can review those books, and finally whether there are readers who can buy and read those books. By almost any standard, the literary climate   (again, only talking about English for the moment) is much better now than it was 20 years ago. Why isn't that the real story here? At one point in his initial essay Bal asks, "How did a White man . . . become the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India?"  Someone only becomes an arbiter if others elect to make him one. Dalrymple is certainly influential, but there are plenty of Indian critics who can also be held up as "arbiters", including the afore-mentioned Chandrahas Choudhury; we might also mention Nilanjana Roy as a possible candidate for "Arbiter". Bal's piece, in other words, seems to be symptomatic of the very disease he claims to be trying to diagnose. 

* * *

I'm not going to go out of my way to defend Dalrymple here; he's perfectly capable of defending himself. I do think Bal was mistaken to focus on a "Raj" connection for Dalrymple, since Dalrymple really does not stand for that -- as anyone who's read his major books would know. (See: "The Last Mughal" or "White Mughals") For his part, I do think Dalrymple should probably not have responded to Bal with the "racism" charge, since it has proven to be a distraction from more substantive issues. (The cartoon was probably racist; the essay itself was more misdirected than anything else.)

Again, I think the substance of Bal's initial engagement with "Dalrymple" was more symbolic than real -- more focused on the problems with the Indian readers' deferentiality to Western authority -- so it's unclear why Dalrymple was even really his particular target. Isn't the real target Bal wants the Indian English reading public?

The best way to help foster a more intelligent literary culture, one that is driven more by ideas and substance than by cheap postures and obvious symbolism, is to actually focus on substance. How much more interesting would it have been to write a piece about the 2011 Jaipur International Literary Festival focusing not on Dalrymple and Ian McEwan, but on the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif (who is participating in the festival this year), or the great Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi, one of the key figures in the Nayi Kavita [New Poetry] movement? Or the great Chinese, African, and Pakistani writers who are all gathering there this year? The saddest thing about this whole argument is that with all this vitriol we've wasted what might have been a good opportunity to have a different kind of conversation.

Why I don't like Mulk Raj Anand's "Untouchable" (and a few examples of novels dealing intelligently with caste)

When asked to suggest a novel that describes the caste system in India, the first one that comes to mind for many people, especially outside of India, is Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable. But turning to that novel always feels like a cop-out to me, and I wish it weren't quite so 'canonical' as it is. It's not simply that Anand isn't himself from an 'untouchable' caste (or as we would say now, a Dalit) -- in fact, most well-known Indian writers who have addressed caste in their works have come from upper caste backgrounds. The problem with Untouchable is that it doesn't really come close to being convincing in its attempt to approximate the perspective of Bakha. A passage that is a case in point might be the following:

The blood in Bakha's veins tingled with the heat as he stood before it. His dark face, round and solid and exquisitely well defined, lit with a queer sort of beauty. The toil of the body had built up for him a very fine physique. It seemed to suit him,to give a homogeneity, a wonderful wholeness to his body, so that you could turn round and say: 'Here is a man.' And it seemed to give him a nobility, strangely in contrast with his filthy profession and with the sub-human status to which he was condemned from birth.

The strength of this passage might be in Anand's interest in depicting the physicality of Bakha's body -- he was clearly reading modernists like Joyce and Lawrence as he was writing, and the novel is strongly marked by that. But the weaknesses are also evident, starting with phrases like "a queer sort of beauty," which is effectively a kind of exoticism (purely exteriorized), rather than an observed description. Another phrase that troubles me is "a wonderful wholeness to his body," which sounds like Lawrence or maybe Hardy -- and again, it's an ideological descriptor; what it says is hard work makes Bakha beautiful. Anand does not really show us here anything that is particular or unique about Bakha himself, as an individuated character.

And this kind of problem recurs throughout the book. Bakha's actual caste is never named; he is simply described as an "untouchable." The book, in the end, works better as a work of Gandhian agit-prop by proxy than it does as a novel.

There are actually much better novels that deal with caste issues in one way or another. I mentioned Godaan in some recent blog posts -- and that might be one place to start. Another book that comes to mind for me is Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, which is a really closely observed look at the experience of a group of characters from the Chamaar caste in Bombay after independence. And yet another novel that comes to mind might be The God of Small Things, though Roy's novel is so over-loaded with themes (including also incest, the separation anxiety of twins Estha and Rahel, the Communist party, etc.) that it's sometimes hard to say what the novel is primarily about.

One book dealing with caste I would unreservedly recommend is U.R. Anantha Murthy's novel, Samskara. This is a novel published in 1965, originally in the Kannada language. It was translated into English in 1978, and is pretty widely available in the west (it's currently still in print at Amazon). The power of Anantha Murthy's novel lies in its close attention to the specifics of Brahminic rituals, and the sometimes convoluted logic of 'pollution' in a village Brahmin society. The limitation, perhaps, is that Samskara is so narrowly focused on Brahmins; the other caste groups are present as potential threats (or objects of desire).

Finally, when I raised a question on Twitter ("what are your favorite novels dealing with caste?"), Jasdeep of the Punjabi translation blog Parchanve had this answer: "Anne ghorhe da daan by gurdiaal singh(novel), Kutti vehda by maninder singh, Kaang (punjabi short story)". I must admit I've read none of these, though I've heard others (specifically, Prof. Rana Nayar Punjab University) speak quite highly of Gurdial Singh -- stay tuned.

Thoughts on Premchand's "Godaan"

The first surprise in reading Premchand's 1936 masterpiece Godaan is just how different it is from the blurb describing it. Here, for instance, is the standard blurb, lifted in this case from Wikipedia:

The protagonist, Hori, a poor peasant, desperately longs for a cow, a symbol of wealth and prestige in rural India. In a Faustian twist of fate, Hori gets his cow, but pays for it with his life. After his death, the village priests demand a cow from his widow to bring his soul absolution, and peace (Godaan). The narrative represents the average Indian farmer's existence under colonial rule, with the protagonist facing cultural and feudal exploitation.

It's hard to imagine anyone having the patience to read a 400 novel on a subject as limited as this, but fortunately the novel itself is much more than a single villager's cow-related struggles. There are several parallel plots: the story of Hori and his wife, Dhaniya, mentioned above; the story of Hori's son Gobar, and his wife, Jhuniya, who leave the farm in rural UP for an urban life in nearby Lucknow; and the story of the Rai Sahib and his friends in Lucknow. The Rai Sahib owns the land on which the village is situated, and as the novel develops his circle of friends, including especially a philosophy professor named Doctor Mehta, an English-educated single woman named Miss Malti, and the sugar mill director Mr Chandra Prakash Khanna, all become major characters with their own personal and familial plots. Even in the village, new plots begin to spin out involving characters who seem minor at first, but who begin to play more important roles as the story develops.

The novel is in short, a big story in the manner of the grand Victorian novels, with about fifteen major characters. The two nodal points are Hori, the poor villager (whose life really isn't that oriented to the idea of the "gift of a cow"), and Rai Sahib, the powerful Zamindar in Lucknow. In the plot of the novel the two characters are shown meeting once, at the beginning, but from that point onwards their stories go in different directions (though certain incidents, do keep the two characters in each others' orbit).

Another misconception about Godaan comes with its form -- namely, "social realism" -- which might lead one to expect this to be mainly a political novel, with the Zamindar and his high-caste agents as villains, while the poor Kayastha (Kshatriya) and Chamar villagers are heroes. In actuality, Premchand gives full and equal psychological depth to both the high-born urban characters and the poor villagers, and the novel's politics are much more subdued than one might expect from a key figure in the Progressive Writers' movement, writing at the height of the era of anti-colonial agitation. This is undeniably a novel that dramatizes the crisis of rural poverty and the corruption of the ruling class, but what comes across more than the socio-political critique is Premchand's remarkable characterization and plot.

Five Types of Hybridity: Steve Yao in Wasafiri

A little while ago I did a long post on the concept of 'hybridity', hoping to provide a resource useful for people who teach on this topic the classroom (along the lines of my earlier "Introduction to Edward Said & Orientalism"). My intention was to simplify a complex concept in postcolonial theory for a general readership, but I don't think I entirely succeeded -- since the essay I wrote raised three new problems for each conceptual problem it addressed.

Cultural hybridity is simply quite difficult to define, in part because it's a metaphor from biology, and we have to remember that metaphors can fit literary or cultural artifacts well or poorly. Hybridity can also be hard to pin down in part because it's become so widespread (if one takes a look at contemporary American popular music, for example, it's hard to find very much that isn't in some way hybridizing hip hop culture with the conventions of mainstream pop.).

One essay I came across recently, "Towards a Taxonomy of Hybridity" by Steve Yao (Wasafiri, 2003), seems to suggest that it might actually be helpful to embrace, rather than shy away from, the biologism in the idea of hybridity. I cannot post the whole essay for copyright reasons, and unfortunately it is not online as far as I can tell (if readers would like a copy, send me an email and I will send it to you). Here is how Yao sets up his "taxonomy" of hybridity:

Closer consideration of'hybridity's' biologistic foundations can help to delineate a more refined critical 'taxonomy'. As Robert J C Young has usefully pointed out, the English word 'hybrid' stems from the Latin term hybrida, meaning 'the offspring of a tame sow and a wild boar', or more generally according to another source, an 'animal whose parents belong to different varieties or to different species'.' Hence the word also meant a 'person whose parents belong to different ethnic groups, probably of non Indo-European origin'. Going back even further, a commonly held etymology relates the term 'hybrid' to the Greek word hubris, or the quality of overweening pride most closely associated with the heroes of classical tragedy. More specifically, hubris implies a going beyond one's proper station, as in presuming to the status of a god or committing rape. Based on its historical development, then, the term 'hybridity' carries with it a sense of sexual, and implicitly violent, transgression of 'natural' categories that produces a new entity with a complex and multiply determined lineage. Hence the notion entails a necessarily biologistic conception of (reproductive interaction between categorically separated 'types'. This inherent biologism finds its clearest expression, moreover, in the strictest current botanical sense of'hybridity', which designates the union of genetic material from parents of two different genotypes that results in the simultaneous expression of traits from both within a single organism. Transposing this idea of generative fusion to the domain of culture implies mutually constitutive and reinforcing signification between different cultures and traditions.

[...] I propose a new 'taxonomy' of hybridisation that explicitly acknowledges and builds upon 'hybridity's' biologistic foundations. Differentiating among various techniques for combining cultural traditions and/or linguistic systems, this taxonomy includes the following categories: 'cross-fertilisation', 'mimicry', 'grafting', 'transplantation', and 'mutation'.'

In subsequent pages, Yao goes on to show that Marilyn Chen's polyglot poetry (she inserts Chinese characters in her English-language poems, and plays on complex etymologies of Mandarin words in English verses) might be seen as "cross-fertilization": "At this moment in the lyric the Chinese language shapes the poetic articulation of English, thereby constituting an instance of productive cultural interaction."

[Examples of Marilyn Chen's poetry -- though without any Mandarin characters -- can be found here.]

Another example of "cross-fertilization" that comes to mind might be Agha Shahid Ali's attempt to encourage the use of the Ghazal form in English, which I talked about here.

Translating from the Punjabi -- K.S. Duggal

I have been looking at an obscure volume of Punjabi poetry published in 1962, as part of a project I'm doing on South Asian progressive and modernist writing. The volume, Prayogashil Punjabi Kavita ("Experimental Punjabi Poetry," edited by Jasbir Singh Ahluwalia), has never been translated as far as I can tell.

One poem I've found particularly challenging, owing in part to the vocabulary, is by Kartar Singh Duggal. Duggal is a writer whose short stories I know well & have worked on over the years; this is the first time I've seen any of his poetry. Below are three renditions of the poem, the Gurmukhi/Punjabi, the Roman Punjabi, and finally an attempt at an English version. In some cases I had trouble getting Google's "Transliterate/Punjabi" site to render certain Gurmukhi letters, so I left those words in Roman.

Incidentally, I don't necessarily know that I love the message of this poem yet; I'm more interested in the kinds of ideas and the style of the poetry from this period.

ਫਿਰ ਆਈ ਹੈ

ਫਿਰ ਆਈ ਹੈ
ਮੁਸ ਮੁਸ ਕਰਦੀ ਹੋਈ
ਲਿਬੜੀ ਹੋਈ ਵਿਸ਼ ਨਾਲ
ਕੱਜੀ ਹੋਈ, ਢਕੀ ਹੋਈ

ਫਿਰ ਆਈ ਹੇਇ,
ਚਘ੍ਲੀ ਹੋਈ, ਚਟੀ ਹੋਈ
ਕੁਤਰੀ ਹੋਈ, ਛਿਜੀ ਹੋਈ
ਗੰਢੀ ਹੋਈ, ਤ੍ਰਪੀ ਹੋਈ.

ਫਿਰ ਈ ਹੈ
ਫੁਲਿਆ ਹੋਇਆ ਅੰਗ ਅੰਗ,
ਸੁਜ਼ਿਆ ਹੋਇਆ ਬੰਦ ਬੰਦ,
ਅਕ੍ਰੀ ਹੋਈ, ainthee ਹੋਈ

ਫਿਰ ਆਈ ਹੈ
ਪੂਰੇ ਦਿਨਾ ਦੇ ਨੇਰੇ,
ਆਲਸੀ ਹੋਈ, ਹਫੀ ਹੋਈ
ਢਾਹਿ ਢਾਹਿ ਪੈਂਦੀ ਪਈ

ਫਿਰ ਆਈ ਹੈ,
ਝਗ ਝਗ ਬੁਲੀਆ ਤੇ,
ਮੈਲ ਮੈਲ ਦੰਡੋ-ਦੰਡ,
ਕੂੜ ਦੀ ਪੰਡ ਨਿਰੀ.
ਫਿਰ ਈ ਹੈ ਫਾਈਲ
ਹਾਜਾਈ ਔਰਤ ਦੀ ਤਰਾ.

Phir Aaee Hai (written in 1962)
by Kartar Singh Duggal

phir aaee hai
mus mus karde hoee
libRee hoe vish naal
kajee hoee, DHakee hoee.

phir aaee hai,
chaghlee hoee, chaTee hoee
kutree hoee, chhajee hoee
gandhee hoee, trappee (?) hoee

phir aaee haie,
phuliaa hoyaa ang ang,
sujiaa hoeaa band band,
akRee hoee, ainTHee hoee

phir aaee hai,
pure dina de neRe
alsaaee hoee, haphee hoee
dhahi dhahi paindee pei

phir aaee hai,
jhag jhag buleeaa te,
mail mail dando-dand,
kooR dee panD niree
phir aaee hai phaaeel
harjaaee aurat dee taraa

Still She Comes

[UPDATE: I decided to remove my own attempt at a translation, as Jasdeep, in the comments put forward a much better rendering of the poem, which I'm now copying and pasting.]

again, she has come
smiling coyly
doused in venom
veiled, concealed

again, she has come
disgraced, decrepit
clipped , smacked
sewn, stitched

again, she has come
puffed up body
swollen limbs
numbed, stiffened

again, she has come
in the last days
slumberous, exhausted

again, she has come
frothing mouth
begrimed teeth
like a pile of trash
agin, the file has come
like a fallen woman

Assuming that the meaning as rendered above is roughly correct, what is this poem actually about? What is Duggal's "message"?

How to Gender a Hawk ("Shikkra"): a look at a Shiv Kumar Batalvi poem

I came across a link to the Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi on YouTube earlier today, in the course of doing some research for an encyclopedia entry I'm working on. It's Shiv Kumar himself, probably sometime in the early 1970s. Shiv Kumar in person is every bit as magnetic and mannered as you might expect.

After I shared the link on Twitter, Sepoy of Chapati Mystery sent me a link to a Shiv Kumar poem he liked, which then led me to yet another Shiv Kumar poem here, as sung by Jagjit Singh:

Here it is in transliterated Punjabi (forgive any errors; I'm doing this partly by ear):

Maye ni Main ik shikkra yaar banaya
Ohde sir te kalgi
Te perin jhanjar
Oh chogg chuginda aayea
Ik oh de roop di dhoop thikeree
Oh duja mekhan tirhaya
Teeja oh da rang gulabi
oh kise gori maa da jaaya

Ishq da ik palang navare
be aisa chandni vichdaya
dhan di chatt ho gai maili
us pair chappal ke paaya

Dukhan mere Naina De Koye,
Te vich Harh Hanjua Da Aya,
Sari Raat Gayi vich Socha,
Us Aye Ki zulm Kamaya,
Subha Savere Layni Vatna,
We Asa Mal Mal os Navaya,
Dehi De vich Niklan Chinga,
Ni Sada Haath Gaya Kumlaya,
Churi Kuta Ta O Khanda Nahi,
Weh Asa Dil Da Maas Khawaya,
Ek Udari Aisi Mari, -2
O Mud Vatni Na Aya,
O Maye Nee, Main Ek Shikra Yaar Banaya

And here is how one person translated the poem in English:

Mother! Mother!
I befriended a hawk.
A plume on his head
Bells on his feet,
He came pecking for grain.
I was enamored!

His beauty
Was sharp as sunlight.
He was thirsty for perfumes.
His color was the color of a rose,
The son of a fair mother.
I was enamored!

His eyes,
Were an evening in springtime.
His hair, a dark cloud.
His lips,
A rising autumn dawn.
I was enamored!

His breath
Was filled with flowers,
Like a sandalwood garden.
Spring danced thru his body
So bathed was it in fragrances.
I was enamored!.

In his words
Blew the eastern breeze,
Like the sound of a blackbird.
His smile was the whiteness of a crane in the rice fields,
Taking flight at the clap of a hand.
I was enamored!.

I laid
A bed of love
In the moonlight.
My body-sheet was stained
The instant he laid his foot on my bed.
I was enamored!

The corners of my eyes,
A flood of tears engulfed me.
All night long I tried to fathom
How he did this to me.
I was enamored!

Early in the morning
I scrubbed and bathed my body
With vaTana.
But embers kept bursting out,
And my hands flagged.
I was enamored!

I crushed choori,
He would not eat it.
So I fed him the flesh of my heart.
He took flight, such a flight did he take,
That he never returned.
I was enamored!

Mother! Mother!
I befriended a hawk.
A plume on his head
Bells on his feet,
He came pecking for grain.
I was enamored!

What struck me at first, reading that, was the surprise at what seemed to be a celebration of male beauty. His beauty, his eyes, his body... um, is there something about Shiv Kumar we should know?

Another interesting thought from my wife, who noticed that "Jhanjar" would be the anklets that might be worn by a woman, while a "kalgi" would generally be an adornment for a man (as in, ornamentation on a turban). The fact that these two images are juxtaposed does seem to support the idea of a kind of ambiguously gendered love-object.

Actually, the gendering of the word "hawk" ("shikkra") is male in Punjabi, but it's probably a mistake to read too much into that accident. The literary critic Manjit Singh, in "Glimpses of Punjabi Poetry," suggests that the inspiration for the poem (one of Shiv Kumar's earlier works) was a woman who betrayed him:

Another source of inspiration for his poetry was Anushia, who came in his life and promised him life-long companionship. Now Shiv felt somewhat comforted but when she left for abroad without any intimation, he could not bear the loss a second time and sent messages to her to return but she did not come. Shiv likened here to the bird 'Shikkra'... (Manjit Singh, "Glimpses of Modern Punjabi Literature", 1994)

Ok, so maybe this poem isn't what the English translation might make it seem like it is. It's still interesting to me that he chose a metaphor that is so strongly masculine for this poem of longing, loss, and betrayal.

Incidentally, if anyone reading this wants to correct either the transliteration or the translation (which is not my own), I'd be grateful.

Untrendy Topics: Modern Hindi Poetry

I've been doing some research on Indian writers from the 1930s-1960s for a long-term scholarly project, and in the process I've been learning about a few lesser-known Hindi and Urdu writers. In Hindi in particular, I've been interested in the "New Poetry" (Nayi Kavita) Movement, with a small group of experimental writers adapting the western, free verse style to Hindi.

For a little background on Hindi literature in the 20th century, you might start with Wikipedia; it's not bad. The New Poetry movement came out of a general flowering of Hindi poetry from the early 20th century, a style of poetry known as Chhayavad (Shadowism). Mahadevi Verma is one of the best known writers in this style; another notable figure is Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan's father (and actually quite a good poet).

For me, the Chhayavad poetry sounds a little too pretty ("precious," as they say in Creative Writing class), though I must admit that part of the problem is that I simply don't have the Hindi vocabulary to be able to keep up with the language the Chhayavad poets tend to use. I prefer what came after, especially the New Poetry movement. The "New Poetry" style roughly resembles the modernism of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Hilda Doolittle in English literature. The language is stripped down and conversational, rather than lyrical. Some poets, like Kedarnath Singh, focus intently on conveying, with a kind of crystalline minimalism, pure images. Others are somewhat more conventional.

Below, I'll give some examples of a few favorite poems from the "New Poetry" movement, with several poems in both Hindi (Devanagri) and English.

My source today is mainly Lucy Rosenstein's "New Poetry in Hindi", which is available on Amazon for interested readers; Rosenstein prints both the Hindi originals as well as her translations.

In her introduction, Rosenstein describes how modern poetry in Hindi emerged after 1900, with Mahavirprasad Dwiwedi's promotion of poetry in Khari Boli Hindi (earlier, poetry had mainly been written in Braj Bhasha). There was an early spurt of nationalist poetry, but, partially under the influence of English Romantic poetry (Wordsworth and Shelley), a movement calling itself "Chhayavad" emerged in the 1920s. Here is an example of a few lines in the Chhayavad style, from Sumitranandan Pant's Almore ka vasant (Almora Spring):

Vidrum ou, markat kee chhaya,
Sone chaandee ka sooryatap;
Him parisal kee reshmee vaayu,
Shat ratnachhay kharg chitrit nabh!

Coral and emerald shade
sun's heat first gold then silver;
snow mountain scent on silken breezes,
a hundred jeweled brids painting the sky
(Translated David Rubin)

It may be that my own limited Hindi renders poems like this somewhat inaccessible, at least in the original. More generally, operating from the translation, I put poems like this under "sounds pretty, but..." (That's my personal taste. I have friends who love writers like Pant and Mahadevi.)

After the Chhayavad movement, the dominant stream in Hindi poetry seemed to split into two in the 1930s, with Progressives in one camp (Pragativad), and Experimentalists in the other (Prayogvad).

Progressive Poetry was part of a major movement in Indian literature that began in the 1930s. This movement is usually called the Progressive Writers Movement, and it had major literary communities in fiction, drama, as well as poetry; it also had offshoots in many different South Asian languages (earlier I have written about some Urdu writers loosely affiliated with the Progressive Writers, Sa'adat Hasan Manto, and Ismat Chughtai). As the name indicates, this was writing largely motivated by a desire to make a political intervention. A fair amount of the writing was anti-colonial, and much of it was oriented to social and economic reforms within Indian society.

Just after the Progressive trend in poetry began in the 1930s, a much smaller group of Hindi writers initiated a new, experimentalist style. Much of this writing avoided big political themes in favor of more abstract meditations. (Importantly, many of the writers in this movement overlapped with the Progressive Writers, and some were card-carrying political activists (i.e., communists). They simply didn't bring themes from the political world into their writing.

Initially the movement was spearheaded by Agyeya (also sometimes spelled Ajneya in English; his real name was Sacchidananda Hirananda Vatsayan), beginning with an anthology called Tar Saptak, in 1943.

Agyeya (whose pen-name literally means "Unknowable") is a really interesting character. He was educated at home initially, as his father didn't believe in formal schooling, though he did go on to get a Bachelors of Science at a British college. He also started an M.A. in English, but didn't finish, after he got involved in the independence movement. According to Rosenstein, Agyeya spent three years in jail (1931-1934), which proved decisive in terms of his development as a poet. He was a mass of contradictions - widely recognized as an activist and political leader, Agyeya was also deeply solitary in some ways. Raised as a traditional Brahmin, he also exemplified modernism in his intellectual and literary output.

Here is an example of Agyeya's poetry, in the Experimental ("New Poetry") style:


चुप-चाप चुप चाप
झरने का स्वर
हम में भर जाय

चुप-चाप चुप-चाप
शरद की चांदनी
झील की लहरों पर तीर आय,

चुप-चाप चुप-चाप
जीवन का रहस्य
जो कहा न जाय, हमारी
ठहरी आँखों में गहराय,

चुप-चाप चुप-चाप
हम पुलकित विराट में दुबे
पर विराट हम में मिल जाय --

चुप चाप चुप च [??] प


May the murmur of water falling
Fill us,

May the autumn moon
Float on the ripples of the lake,

May life's unspoken mystery
Deepen in our still eyes,

May we, ecstatic, be immersed in the expanse
Yet find it in ourselves

Quiet ... ly ...
(translated by Lucy Rosenstein)

Another favorite New Poetry writer is Raghuvir Sahay, who came of age a generation after Agyeya.

Here is an example of a Raghuvir Sahay poem I really like:

आज फिर

आज फिर शुरू हुआ जीवन.
आज मैंने यिक छोटी-सी सरल-सी कविता पढी.
आज मैंने सूरज को डूबता देर तक देखा.
आज मैंने शीतल जल से जी भर स्नान किया.
आज यिक छोटी-सी बच्ची आयी, किलक मेरे कन्धे चढी.
आज मैंने आदि से अन्त तक यिक पूरा गान किया.

Today Anew

Today life started anew.
Today I read a short, simple poem.
Today I watched the sun set for a long time.
Today I bathed to my heart's content in cool water.
Today a little girl came and shouting with delight climbed onto my shoulders.
Today I sang a whole song, from beginning to end.
Life started anew today.
(Translated Lucy Rosenstein)

Another poem in Rosenstein's collection that clicked with me is by Shakunt Mathur, one of the leading female lights of the Experimental/New Poetry movement.

Here is one of Shakunt Mathur'spoems:

तुम सुन्दर हो, घर सुन्दर हो

जब में थका हुआ घर आओं, तुम सुन्दर हो घर सुन्दर हो
चाहे दिन भर बहे पसीने
कितने भी हो कपडे सीने
बच्चा भी रोता हो गीला
आलू भे हो आधा छीला

जब में थका हुआ घर आओं, तुम सुन्दर हो घर सुन्दर हो
सब तूफान रुके हो घर के
मुझको देखो आँखों भर के
न जुड़े मेंइ फूल सजाई
न तितली से वासन, न नखरे

जब में थका हुआ घर आओं, तुम सुन्दर हो घर सुन्दर हो
अधलेटी हो तुम सोफे पर
फारिं मैगजीन पढ़ती हो
शीशे सा घर साफ पड़ा हो
आहत पर छोंकी पड़ती हो

तुम कविता तुम लिखो सलौनी, में काफी हूँ, तुम प्रियतर हो
जब में थका हुआ घर आओं, तुम सुन्दर हो घर सुन्दर हो

You should be beautiful, the house should be beautiful
When I return home tired you should be beautiful, the house should be beautiful
Even if all day sweat poured
However many clothes you sewed
Even if the child doesn't yield
And the potato is half-unpeeled
When I return home tired you should be beautiful, the house should be beautiful
All storms in the house should be stilled
You should look at me with eyes filled
Without flowers in your hair,
Showy clothes, flirtatious air

When I return home tired you should be beautiful, the house should be beautiful
Reclining on the sofa,
You should be reading a foreign journal
The house should shine like crystal
My steps' sound should startle you

Don't write poetry, beauty, I am enough, you are loved
When I return home tired you should be beautiful, the house should be beautiful.
(Translated Lucy Rosenstein)

Clearly a feminist sensibility! Incidentally, in Hindi some of the lines rhyme, which Rosenstein reproduces in her translation. The language is simple but elegant and the picture she's painting seems true - and this combination is what I like most about the "New Poetry."

Finally, here is Vinay Dharwadker's translation of Kedarnath Singh's "On Reading a Love Poem". This poem isn't included in Rosenstein's volume, though several other wonderful Kedarnath Singh poems are in her collection.

Kedarnath Singh (b. 1934): ON READING A LOVE POEM

When I'd read that long love poem
I closed the book and asked --
Where are the ducks?

I was surprised that they were nowhere
even far into the distance

It was in the third line of the poem
or perhaps the fifth
that I first felt
there might be ducks here somewhere

I'd heard the flap flap of their wings
but that may have been my illusion

I don't know for how long
that woman
had been standing in the twelfth line
waiting for a bus

The poem was completely silent
about where she wanted to go
only a little sunshine
sifted from the seventeenth floor
was falling on her shoulders

The woman was happy
at least there was nothing in her face to suggest
that by the time she reached the twenty-first line
she'd disappear completely
like every other woman

There were sakhu trees
standing where the next line began
the trees were spreading
a strange dread through the poem

Every line that came next
was a deep disturbing fear and doubt
about every subsequent line

If only I'd remembered--
it was in the nineteenth line
that the woman was slicing potatoes

She was slicing
large round brown potatoes
inside the poem
and the poem was becoming
more and more silent
more solid

I think it was the smell
of freshly chopped vegetables
that kept the woman alive
for the next several lines

By the time I got to the twenty-second line
I felt that the poem was changing its location
like a speeding bullet
the poem had whizzed over the woman's shoulder
towards the sakhu trees

There were no lines after that
there were no more words in the poem
there was only the woman
there were only
her shoulders her back
her voice--
there was only the woman
standing whole outside the poem now
and breaking it to pieces

(translated by Vinay Dharwadker) [SOURCE]
I hope you enjoyed at least some of those poems.

Murakami, "The Big Sleep," Allusions to Proust

As I have been teaching Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World this spring to undergraduates, I have been tracking some of the allusions and reference points. Some, like the references to Turgenev's Rudin and Stendhal's The Red and the Black, seem to be relatively straightforward allusions, though admittedly I haven't gone to the Turgenev yet to see if there might be more to it.

However, I did notice something potentially interesting with regards to an allusion I was able to check more closely. Murakami briefly mentions Hawks' film adaptation of The Big Sleep, based on the Raymond Chandler novel. It occurs about a third of the way through the novel, and interpreting it raises some interesting interpretive challenges. Going well beyond simple correspondences between the two texts, Murakami's allusion to The Big Sleep also appears to be an allusion to Hawks and Chandler's own literary allusions (often figured dimissively -- as examples of what not to read, i.e., Proust). In other words, Murakami's invocation of Hawks' film is a kind of versioning or remixing that channels not just a voice or a character from the source text, but the source text's entire orientation to literature. There is only one instance of a direct allusion to The Big Sleep in Murakami's novel, but as many as a dozen instances of what I might call buried allusions, which are only legible once we've applied the key represented by the first, and begun to read Murakami's novel through a Big Sleep lens.

To begin with, here is the passage in Murakami that names The Big Sleep:

I finished my business and hung up, then went into the living room and relaxed on the sofa with a beer to watch a video of Humphrey Bogart's "Key Largo." I love Lauren Bacall in "Key Largo." Of course, I love Bacall in "The Big Sleep" too, but in "Key Largo" she's practically allegorical.

The reference to Key Largo might be somewhat of a red herring -- the parallels that I can think of between Murakami's novel and that other film aren't so interesting to me (both books feature father-daughter relationships and outsider protagonists). But there are more than a dozen between The Big Sleep and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and at least some are examples of the "versioning" mode I alluded to above.

Let's start with a sample allusion from Raymond Chandler's novel (the dialogue in the film from this passage is taken, word-for-word, from Chandler), from the second encounter between Marlow and Vivian Regan (Vivian Rutledge in the movie):

"Well, you do get up," she said, wrinkling her nose at the faded red settee, the two odd semi-easy chairs, the net curtains that needed laundering and the boy's size library table with the venerable magazines on it to give the place a professional touch. "I was beginning to think perhaps you worked in bed, like Marcel Proust."

"Who's he?" I put a cigarette in my mouth and stared at her. She looked a little pale and strained, but she looked like a girl who could function under a strain.

"A French writer, a connoisseur in degenerates. You wouldn't know him."

"Tut, tut," I said. "Come into my boudoir."

She stood up and said: "We didn't get along very well yesterday. Perhaps I was rude."

The irony of Chandler's allusion to Proust is that he is both rejecting him as simultaneously too highbrow for Philip Marlowe -- and too dirty (that is to say, too much of a "connoisseur of degenerates"). Vivian's quip, "You wouldn't know him," comes across as a surface compliment, but actually it's a dig at Marlow's lower class status, and it quickly becomes clear that she actually finds that Marlow is exactly the "connoisseur of degenerates" she says he isn't.

Now, here is a moment from the beginning of Murakami's novel, from the standard Birnbaum translation:


‘Marcel Proust?’ I asked her.

She gave me a look. Then she repeated: ‘Proust.’ I gave up the effort and fell back in line behind her, trying for the life of me to come up with other lip movements that corresponded to ‘Proust.’ Truest? … Brew whist?... Blue is it?... One after the other, quietly to myself, I pronounced strings of meaningless syllables, but none seemed to match. I could only conclude that she had indeed said, ‘Proust.’ But what I couldn’t figure was, what was the connection between the long corridor and Marcel Proust? (9)

As is often the case in Murakami, the rhetorical question the protagonist is asking himself as he attempts to make sense of the professor's daughter's mysterious invocation of Proust, is actually an interpretive question that the reader might do well to apply to the act of reading. Without the reference point to The Big Sleep, there's no direct answer.

The reason the professor's daughter can't speak aloud is later explained (her father has, through one of his neurophysiological inventions, accidentally put her on 'mute'). But what is never explained is what exactly Proust might be doing here, which leads me to think that this reference to Proust is only in Murakami's novel as a kind of buried allusion to a somewhat analogous (but much more cogent) conversation in the Chandler novel and Hawks film.

There's also a more conventional interpretation of the allusion to Proust. Hard Boiled Wonderland..., after all, is a novel that is at least partly about the attempt to recover lost memories. The "End of the World" sections clearly feature a protagonist whose memories are inaccessible to him (they are with his "shadow"), and one of his goals is to try and recover them, and explain how he got there. The "Hard-Boiled Wonderland" protagonist has some other connections to Proust -– for instance, after his "shuffling activation," the smell of fruits sets of random chains of association for him.

Finally, there are a number of other strong connections between The Big Sleep and Murakami's novel, some of which are in the same orbit as the "Proust" connection. Both texts prominently feature eroticized female librarian guide figures, who help the detective/protagonist decode the mysterious signs around them. In Murakami, the librarian helps the protagonist sort out the possible significance of the unicorn skull the professor has sent him. In Chandler & Hawks' The Big Sleep, there are actually two librarians, one helpful and flirtatious, while the other (who works for the pornographer Geiger) gives him the run-around.

The librarians and bookstore proprietors in The Big Sleep operate around the same discursive axis as Vivian's quip about Proust, that "connoisseur of degenerates." That Geiger's ostensible "rare books" operation is a front for a pornography ring is not an accident. Like Proust, whose literary output must be understood as "rarefied" in market/commodity terms, the high-brow posture conceals the presence of moral rot, the discovery of which is the detective's primary job.

And of course, both texts prominently feature characters who have an unconscious life over which their conscious selves have only limited control, though the content of that unconscious is wildly divergent. In Chandler, writing in the era of Freud, our unconscious is a space of sexual rapacity and exhibitionism as well as violence. In Murakami, by contrast the "End of the World" is a kind of utopian alternate reality surgically implanted inside the protagonist's mind without his knowledge. (I am not sure how much can be done here...)

To intelligibly graph the specific parallels between The Big Sleep and the Murakami actually proves to be quite difficult, though of course Murakami's is far from the only text (even within his own body of work) where this kind of problem arises. Does anyone know of a critic who has done a schematic study that might help us describe the different modes of allusion (specifically oriented to the kind of thing happening with Proust above, for starters) that are often seen in self-consciously intertextual postmodern fiction?

New and Forthcoming Publications

I was happy to see that an essay I wrote for the journal Symploke recently became available via Project Muse:

“Anonymity, Authorship, and Blogger Ethics.”

[If anyone who doesn't have access to Project Muse would like me to send you a copy, please let me know by email; I would be happy to send it to you.]

This was something I actually wrote more than two years ago, not long after a series of panels at MLA related to blogging and public intellectual activity. The paper actually began as an MLA presentation, for a panel with Michael Berube and Rita Felski, in December 2006. In the essay, I bring together literary theory relating to authorship (Barthes, Foucault, and critiques of French theory by scholars like Sean Burke), with context from literary history (the 18th century broadsheet as a predecssor to blogging as a genre), in order think about how the possibility of universal, instantaneous publishability is changing ideas of authorship (not destroying it, but changing it).

I was happy to see that it appears that a student at West Virginia University is already using the article in a paper she's writing: here. (It's part of this course)

I have some other publications coming out soon as well:

"Veiled Strangers: Rabindranath Tagore’s America, in Letters and Lectures." Forthcoming from Journeys: The International Journal of Travel & Travel Writing, 10:1, 2009.

"Animating a Postmodern Ramayana: Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues" Forthcoming from South Asian Review, 2010.

"More than 'Priestly Mumbo-Jumbo': Religion and Authorship in All About H. Hatterr." Forthcoming from Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 2009.

Of those, the Desani article was the most difficult to write; it actually had its start as a blog post I wrote all the way back in 2005. I had submitted it for publication in 2007, only to receive a "revise and resubmit" that seemed very challenging at the time. For various reasons, between 2007 and summer 2009 the paper was simply in limbo. I attacked it again this summer, and sent it off, this time successfully. The version that will be published is much shorter than the original version. Some of the materials I referred to, such as Desani's columns for The Illustrated Weekly in the 1960s, are not easily accessible, and I'm toying with the idea of having them scanned and OCRed for the web.

The Tagore essay goes back even further. It had its seeds in the very first blog post I wrote for Sepia Mutiny, back in 2005. I had given versions of it (in a more scholarly vein, of course) as a talk a couple of times. When the invitation came to send it to "Journeys," I was happy to finally finish it.

Finally, the essay on Nina Paley and the Ramayana was written quickly this past summer, almost on a lark. It brings together scholarship on the diversity of the Ramayana tradition (especially in the two important Paula Richman anthologies) with Nina Paley's animated, postmodern appropriation of the narrative.

In other news, the project I have been doing on Mira Nair is approaching completion; I'm hoping to send off the manuscript this fall. I'm also presenting a paper on the Hindi writer Nirmal Verma at the upcoming Modernist Studies Association Conference in Montreal (early November). Finally, I'm presenting at the MLA Convention in Philadelphia at the end of December (a paper on the "open letter" as a literary genre in the era of globalization -- from Sa'adat Hasan Manto to Mohsin Hamid and Aravind Adiga).

"I Wanna Be Like You": The Jungle Book, Revisited

Being a parent gives you a chance to go back over the children's stories you grew up with and even, in some cases, learn about new ones. The following post consists of somewhat scattered thoughts on "The Jungle Book," including a 1967 Disney animated film version, as well as Kipling's original book.

I did not grow up with Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" -- either adaptations or the original story -- but my son has really gotten attached to the 1967 Disney animated film version of the story, and it's gotten me interested in both it and Kipling himself.

The biggest attraction for us initially were the great jazz/swing songs that were made for this particular version: Bare Necessities, Colonel Hathi, and I Wanna Be Like You (with the great Louis Prima on vocals).

My wife grew up in India, watching Indian television, and she says she has fond memories of the Hindi animated version of "The Jungle Book," which you can also see on YouTube here. It's a cartoon serial meant for kids, which means the story kind of branches off on its own. Still, it made me curious: do readers know whether Kipling's "The Jungle Book" is popular in South Asian languages? Are there readers who grew up in South Asia hearing the Kipling stories about Mowgli, Bagheera, Bhalu, Shere Khan, etc.? (Or, growing up abroad, did your parents tell you these stories in a "desi" context?)

I somehow didn't know about the Disney songs growing up, and it's too bad, because both my son and myself are now thoroughly addicted to them. Looking at the music a bit critically, I was earlier a little put off by "I wanna be like you," where I initially thought the singer was Louis Armstrong. The idea of a monkey-king, who liberally throws around African-American slang, kidnapping the "man cub," in order to learn the secret of being human, seemed a little uncomfortably like an allegory of race relations in the real world:

Now I'm the king of the swingers
Oh, the jungle VIP
I've reached the top and had to stop
And that's what botherin' me
I wanna be a man, man-cub
And stroll right into town
And be just like the other men
I'm tired of monkeyin' around!

Oh, oobee doo
I wanna be like you
I wanna walk like you
Talk like you, too
You'll see it's true
An ape like me
Can learn to be human too

It's hard not to think of the analogous human race-mimicry situation: "I wanna be like you/ I wanna walk like you/ Talk like you, too" could be the voice of an under-class minority asking the "man" for access to privileges (here, embodied in the technology of "man's red flower," fire) that make him supreme over the rest of society. It's a little better that the singer is Italian-American rather than African-American, but there's still a slightly off-putting race angle here if you're looking for it. (I'm sure some readers will think I'm reading too much into this.)

Also, just to be clear, I still play this music for my kid all the time, and have no qualms about doing so. I also don't mind that "The Jungle Book" is a good excuse to teach him a few Hindi words: Bagheera, Akela, Shere, Bhalu, Hathi, Bandar, etc. As I riff on the stories with my son, I'm also trying to sneak in some new ones, which Kipling doesn't use: Gainda (rhinoceros), Bheriya (wolf), Magar-much (crocodile).

Some of the race stuff, of course, comes directly from Kipling's other writing. As people who know his other works are already aware, Kipling was obsessed with race (this is the guy who invented the term, "white man's burden," among many other things). He was born in India and spent his first few years there, before being sent to England for boarding school, as was the norm in late Victorian British India. Though he hated his experience in boarding school, he still always thought of England as "home" -- and strongly supported the British Imperial project in India.

As a young man, Kipling returned to India to work as a journalist, and lived mainly with his family in Lahore. He published his first short stories (mainly on the Anglo-Indian community in India) in the newspaper he wrote for, and frequently used material related to his journalism work as fodder. His father, John Lockwood Kipling, was the principal of the art school in Lahore for many years, as well as the curator of the Lahore Museum (Lockwood Kipling is the model for the museum curator in the opening chapters of Kim, incidentally). Some part of Rudyard's interest in animals in India -- which would later nourish one of the best-selling children's books of all time -- probably came directly from his father, who drew and wrote about India's animal life himself in a beautifully-illustrated early book, called "Beast and Man in India". (And Rudyard Kipling's original published version of "The Jungle Book" has great illustrations by John Lockwood Kipling.)

Kipling's own The Jungle Book is a little different in structure from the Disney adaptation of his story. For one thing, the Disney version only uses material from the first three chapters of Kipling's book; "The White Seal," "Servants of the Queen," and "Rikki-tikki-tavi" go in different directions. "The White Seal," for instance, isn't even based on an Indian jungle, but rather involves seals in a northern ocean.

Even in the "Mowgli" chapters, there is a big difference in the fact that, in Kipling's story, Mowgli actually meets his mother and lives in the human village for a time, before being excommunicated because of his ability to talk to wolves ("Tiger-Tiger"). Disney doesn't get into this potentially dark situation (i.e., the boy being forced to separate from his mother by a mob of angry villagers who are ready to stone him to death), and rather chooses to end with just a hint of Mowgli's repatriation into human society and inevitable future adulthood preoccupations -- as he ogles a village girl getting water from the river.

There are other differences too. Kipling's story is more unabashedly violent, and the most dramatic story arc in Kipling's version in my reading is the battle against the monkey-people, which ends with hundreds of dead monkeys. The killing of Shere Khan via a strategically arranged stampede of cattle in Kipling is somewhat anti-climactic by comparison to the stormy fight sequence between Bhalu and Shere Khan in the Disney film.

In Kipling, the society of the Jungle has several different respectable species who adhere to the "Law," including Bagheera the panther, the wolves, Kaa the snake, Balu the bear, and Chil the kite. Shere Khan, the Tiger, behaves a little like an Oriental despot, whom the other people of the Jungle are right to want to depose.

By contrast to the animals who follow the law, the Monkey-people ("Bandar-Log") are sociologically anarchic:

"Listen, man-cub," said the Bear, and his voice rumbled like thunder on a hot night. "I have taught thee all the Law of the Jungle for all the peoples of the jungle—except the Monkey-Folk who live in the trees. They have no law. They are outcasts. They have no speech of their own, but use the stolen words which they overhear when they listen, and peep, and wait up above in the branches. Their way is not our way. They are without leaders. They have no remembrance. They boast and chatter and pretend that they are a great people about to do great affairs in the jungle, but the falling of a nut turns their minds to laughter and all is forgotten. We of the jungle have no dealings with them. We do not drink where the monkeys drink; we do not go where the monkeys go; we do not hunt where they hunt; we do not die where they die. Hast thou ever heard me speak of the Bandar-log till today?"

"No," said Mowgli in a whisper, for the forest was very still now Baloo had finished.

"The Jungle-People put them out of their mouths and out of their minds. They are very many, evil, dirty, shameless, and they desire, if they have any fixed desire, to be noticed by the Jungle People. But we do not notice them even when they throw nuts and filth on our heads."

He had hardly spoken when a shower of nuts and twigs spattered down through the branches; and they could hear coughings and howlings and angry jumpings high up in the air among the thin branches.

"The Monkey-People are forbidden," said Baloo, "forbidden to the Jungle-People. Remember."

"Forbidden," said Bagheera, "but I still think Baloo should have warned thee against them."

"I—I? How was I to guess he would play with such dirt. The Monkey People! Faugh!"

Because they have no social hierarchy, no memory, and above all, no "law," the other animals treat them as "outcasts" (loaded choice of terms!). The Bandar-log themselves treat the other animals with contempt. (I don't see an obvious "race" angle here, incidentally, though it does seem like there is a rationale for Imperialism: the people who follow the Law are justified in either excluding or attacking those who do not.)

When the Bandar-Log kidnap Mowgli, they take him, interestingly, to an abandoned, formerly human-occupied city in the middle of the jungle. Their reasons for kidnapping him are given as follows:

They never meant to do any more—the Bandar-log never mean anything at all; but one of them invented what seemed to him a brilliant idea, and he told all the others that Mowgli would be a useful person to keep in the tribe, because he could weave sticks together for protection from the wind; so, if they caught him, they could make him teach them. Of course Mowgli, as a woodcutter's child, inherited all sorts of instincts, and used to make little huts of fallen branches without thinking how he came to do it. The Monkey-People, watching in the trees, considered his play most wonderful. This time, they said, they were really going to have a leader and become the wisest people in the jungle—so wise that everyone else would notice and envy them. Therefore they followed Baloo and Bagheera and Mowgli through the jungle very quietly till it was time for the midday nap, and Mowgli, who was very much ashamed of himself, slept between the Panther and the Bear, resolving to have no more to do with the Monkey People.

The motivation parallels, roughly, the "I wanna be like you" song in the Disney version of "The Jungle Book," except here the focus is not so much on the "Red Flower" of fire, but on adopting Mowgli as a king who would bring "civilization" to the Bandar-Log.

(It's hard not to think of Hanuman and the monkey-warriors of the Ramayana when reading Kipling's description of the "Bandar-Log." In the Ramayana, of course, they are loyal servants of Rama and brave warriors; in Kipling they also seem to have anthropomorphic qualities, but have none of the positive attributes one sees in the Hindu epic.)