Is There an Indian Way of Thinking about Comparative Literature?
E. V. Ramakrishnan
Modernity was interpreted and understood in much of the colonial period on terms that privileged European hegemony. This is the reason why a unitary view of “Indian Literature“ as a monolithic category gained currency in this period. Orientalist legacy has complicated the picture. The larger question about forging an alternative view of ’modernity’ can become a viable project only if we can reclaim the plurality of Indian literary traditions. We need to recover counter-narratives that questioned the essentialist ways of defining “Indian“ and “literature.“ We need to recognize that even at the regional level, “bhasha“ literatures are highly plural and multiple. Comparative studies of Indian literatures seem to assume that the literature of each language is a ’unified’ category. The oppositional tradition in each of the literary tradition has largely been forgotten in our eagerness to homogenize “Indian literature.“ The conflict between the cosmopolitan and the indigenous is evident in each bhasha literary tradition. The defining feature of Indian modernity has been this internal dialogic structure of bhasha literatures. The oppositional world views that call hegemonic structures of power into question did not originate in our encounter with colonial modernity. This is why Comparative Literature in India needs to go beyond texts to the sub-texts that inform the texts. We need to evolve a discourse that can bring out these socio-political sub-texts.
The question of modernity is also related to the manner in which we constitute the domain of the literary. The orality of a writer like Fakir Mohan Senapati cannot be understood merely in stylistic terms. Earlier I mentioned the Malayalam fictionist Vaikkom Muhammad Basheer (1928-1994) whose works opened up the field of Malayalam literature to a cosmopolitan that was highly subversive. Like Fakir Mohan, he also used a highly double-voiced discourse in all his major fictional works. Coming from a minority community which could not lay claim to the cultural capital of the majoritarian communities, Basheer had a critical relation with the mainstream literature of Malayalam. He could see the hegemonic nature of the secular modern that excluded much of the everyday life of his own community. Basheer deliberately uses a minimal language that is devoid of all overtly ’literary’ elements. In the colloquial speech of the illiterate women he embodies an alternative view of modernity that is both immediate and sensual. The fragmentary and chaotic nature of the oral speech permits Basheer to challenge the hegemonic power structure that dictates absolute views about identity. In his long stories Basheer is able to bring out the moral evasions in the enactment of a nationalist discourse that embodies a linear view of modernity. His world of small time crooks, pick-pockets, gamblers and petty thieves defies the normative of the nationalist paradigm that legislates identities into standard stipulated formats. What is oppositional in Basheer opens up not only ways of resisting authoritarian points of views but possibilities of community formation. This is where the carnivalesque and the double-voiced need to be seen as productive of alternative paradigms of modernity in Basheer as well as Senapati.
It is time the comparatists in India understood the possibilities inherent in the textual materials available in bhasha traditions. In his introduction to Colonialism, Modernity and Literature: A View from India, Satya P. Mohanty rightly observes that, “At the intersection of popular-oral and canonical-written traditions of literatures, and situated historically in a moment of profound change in power relations brought about by colonial rule, Fakir Mohan Senapati’s Six Acres and a Third provides a unique vantage point from which to analyze the relationship between literature and the shifting meanings of modernity, both colonial and traditional“ (p. 8). This is a challenging project that needs to be addressed with all resources at our disposal from the vantage points of major writers of the regional literary traditions who have contributed toward shaping our ideas of the modern, the Indian and the literary.
To return to the question of the title, if there is an Indian way of thinking about comparative literature, it will question the very idea of “India.“ An ethically responsible way of reading Indian texts in a context-sensitive way will be a starting point for evolving an Indian school of comparative literature. Such readings will fragment and pluralise our perspectives and alter our relations with the past and future.
1 Appadurai, A. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalisation. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
2 Achebe, Chinua. 1988. “Colonialist Criticism“ in Hopes and Impediments. London: Heinemenn-International.
3 Casanova, Pascale. 2004. The World Republic of Letters. Trans. M. B. De Bevoise. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press.
4 Castoriadis, Cornelius. 1987. The Imaginary Institution of Society. Trans. Kathleen Blamey. Cambridge, U.K. : Polity Press.
5 Damrosch, David. 2003. What is World Literature? Princeton: Princeton University Press.
6 Das, Rijula and Makarand Paranjape, Trans. 2011. “Visva-Sahitya“ by Rabindranath Tagore. Journal of Contemporary Thought, No. 34 (Winter, 2011).
7 Mohanty, Satya P. 2010. Colonialism, Modernity, Literature: A View from India. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.
8 Morrison, Toni. 1992. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Random House.
9 Taylor, Charles. 2007. Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.
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