This is the first time I have read Subrahmanyam though I have heard about him sometime back. I enjoyed the book — though the reading is a bit slow due to the foot notes, quotes and unfamiliar ideas. Recommended. And, I have already ordered his Mughal history book and connected history volumes.
Posts Tagged ‘Sanjay Subrahmanyam’
Breezily positing ‘two broad categories’ of Indian writers in English, he ignores a host of stylistically original novelists and poets – R.K. Narayan, Arun Kolatkar, Amit Chaudhuri and Vikram Chandra, to name only those whose work has been discussed in these pages. Literary criticism may not be Subrahmanyam’s thing. But the ethnographic authority he invokes while describing the ‘falsity’ of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger doesn’t persuade either. He seems to think it wholly implausible that Adiga’s ‘subaltern’ narrator Balram Halwai (I would rather call him a shrewd member of globalising India’s lumpen proletariat) should know of books by James Hadley Chase, Kahlil Gibran and Hitler. He has clearly not visited Indian mofussil bookstalls where No Orchids for Miss Blandish, The Prophet and, alas, Mein Kampf have long been ubiquitous in Hindi translation, or in cheap English editions (Hadley Chase in especially lurid covers).
Subrahmanyam mocks Halwai, who cannot read Urdu, for claiming Mirza Ghalib as his favourite poet. But North Indians who cannot read Urdu have long had access to the great writers of that language in Devanagari script. According to Subrahmanyam, the expression ‘“kissing some god’s arse” . . . doesn’t exist in any North Indian language.’ How does he know? In actuality, millions of speakers of Hindi, or Hinglish, improvise such commonplace idioms daily, too prodigiously, perhaps, to be archived at the American university where Subrahmanyam teaches history.
Imagine recording the speech of your interlocutor – a driver encountered in a car park in Gurgaon, say – in an Indian language and trying to render it not literally, but credibly, and with some effort at verisimilitude, into English. This is no easy task. The translator always faces dilemmas, of course, and can never get it quite right. But we also know what it is to get it disastrously wrong. It is when the ‘autobiography’ of an Indian untouchable woman appears in French using expressions from Victor Hugo. The falsity in The White Tiger goes much further. It means having a character who cannot read Urdu, and certainly has no notion of Persian, tell us that his favourite poets include Jalaluddin Rumi and Mirza Ghalib. It means having someone who can’t read English being able to recall a conversation in which his interlocutor speaks of books by James Hadley Chase, Kahlil Gibran, Adolf Hitler and Desmond Bagley. Try that lot out on a Hindi speaker who knows no English next time you are in India.
Adiga gets the tone right only when he writes of the world of the bourgeois. Some of this is quite funny and rings partly true.
‘Ashok,’ she said. ‘Now hear this. Balram, what is it we’re eating?’
I knew it was a trap, but what could I do? – I answered. The two of them burst into giggles.
‘Say it again, Balram.’
They laughed again.
‘It’s not piJJA. It’s piZZa. Say it properly.’
‘Wait – you’re mispronouncing it too. There’s a T in the middle. Peet. Zah.’
‘Don’t correct my English, Ashok. There’s no T in pizza. Look at the box.’
Some two decades ago, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote a celebrated essay, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ At the time, a folklorist is said to have responded: ‘More importantly, can the bourgeois listen?’ We can’t hear Balram Halwai’s voice here, because the author seems to have no access to it. The novel has its share of anger at the injustices of the new, globalised India, and it’s good to hear this among the growing chorus of celebratory voices. But its central character comes across as a cardboard cut-out. The paradox is that for many of this novel’s readers, this lack of verisimilitude will not matter because for them India is and will remain an exotic place. This book adds another brick to the patronising edifice it wants to tear down.
Carlo Ginzburg in conversation with Sanjay Subrahmanyam; the introductory passage that precedes the interview gives some biographical details of the both the interviewer and interviewee:
Carlo Ginzburg is one of the best-known historians working today, and his work has been translated into many languages the world over. Born in Turin in 1939, he was educated at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, where he now teaches. He has also taught at the University of Bologna and was Professor of History and Franklin D. Murphy Professor of Italian Renaissance Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) for an extended period from 1988 to 2006. Professor Ginzburg is celebrated for brilliant and methodologically innovative explorations into mentalities, art-history, literature and social history. He is among the pioneers and practitioners of the current known as “micro-history”. His The Cheese and the Worms (English translation: 1980) is an acknowledged classic. His other writings available in English include The Night Battles (1983); The Enigma of Piero (2000); Clues, Myths and the Historical Method (1989); Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath (1991); Wooden Eyes, (1998); The Judge and the Historian (1999); History, Rhetoric, and Proof (1999); and No Island is an Island (2000). Here he responds to questions and remarks from Sanjay Subrahmanyam, who is also Professor of History at UCLA.
The piece alternates between personal information, and the processes that are involved in the making of the historical knowledge; and, at some point, they even become intertwined. It is an interview that needs to be read at leisure and some parts of it are really dense; however, the piece is worth your time. To give a sample, here is Carlos on historians and their continuous dialogues with their own inner devil’s advocates:
Historical knowledge is by definition, as it has been said, a located knowledge, but one should try to avoid preaching (an attitude I detest in all its versions: religious, ideological and so forth). Historians must be involved in a constant, contentious dialogue with their own internal devil’s advocate. To raise serious objections against oneself is not an easy endeavour (to be self-indulgent is tempting); but there is no alternative. I started working on the victims of the Inquisition; only later I realized how deeply my own cognitive approach had been shaped by the inquisitors’ (I tried to unfold the implications of this disturbing contiguity in an essay entitled “The Inquisitor as Anthropologist”).
To my surprise, I am unable to answer your second question and to provide names of historians I admire whose ideological presuppositions I most disagree with. Am I so parochial? In fact, the first name who came to my mind is Joseph de Maistre, who was not a historian. [C.G. refers here to Maistre [1753-1821], a conservative and anti-revolutionary thinker who has sometimes been compared to Edmund Burke]. I feel in trouble – you put forward your question as a real devil’s advocate.
Sanjay Subrahmanyam, the historian (as the LRB helpfully notes), as befitting his academic credentials, turns his book review of Naipaul’s A writers people into an interesting analysis of diasporic Indians and their social, political, and religious outlook.
Here is what he has to say on Naipaul himself:
What would happen if he were to be analysed as an actor in history, the spokesman for a point of view? What does he really represent, and where does he come from? We can do without the materialist presumption that all men are merely creatures of their circumstances, even if Naipaul seems determined to be one. He is a prisoner by choice, and also as a matter of taste. But of what is he a prisoner?
Subrahmanyam does find Naipaul’s book useful, though; and, he has a specific prescription for reading it:
… in the end, there is a reason why we should be grateful that Naipaul exists. With his clarity of expression and utter lack of self-awareness, he provides a window into a world and its prejudices: he is thus larger than himself. This book, like his others, should be read together with those of Munshi Rahman Khan for a deeper understanding of the Indian diaspora and its ways of looking, feeling and suffering.
Along the way, there are some telling sentences about neo-Hinduism that pervades Naipaul’s book as well as expatriate Indians (specifically in California) :
It is the ghost of this neo-Hinduism of the diaspora that lives on in this book, and which also inhabits hundreds of websites posted by other expatriate Indians who find themselves caught in the trap of in-betweenness. Naipaul is wide of the mark in his claim that most Indians today in the US ‘wish to shake India off’ and would rather ‘make cookies and shovel snow’ than deal with their Indian past. On the contrary: these are communities which often greatly admire Naipaul, share his roots in various sorts of neo-Hinduism, claim insistently that Islam is a worldwide threat, agitate over school textbooks in California which state that Hinduism is chaotically polytheistic, and wear surgical masks when they visit India and their relatives, who stir tea with their forefingers. For, ironically, ‘Indianness’ is the chief element in the cultural capital of such groups, as it is for Naipaul himself. On the distant other side, Protestantism beckons, but most Protestantism does not go together with cultural métissage; it is pretty much an all-or-nothing deal. Further, Indians living outside India have, it is well known, been rather racist when it comes to other people of colour, and the anti-black rhetoric that pervades Naipaul’s writings (including the first chapter of this book) is once again only symptomatic of a larger malaise that extends from East Africa to New Jersey.
A must-read review (and, by far the best analysis of Naipaul and his latest offering), irrespective of whether you are interested in Naipaul and his writings or not. Take a look!
Hat tip: A & L Daily