EN 4262 Seminar One notes

Introduction: Global and Local Indias: Tropes and Issues


I.   What this module is (and isn’t) about

It’s not an “Indian Literature” module narrowly defined – i.e. it’s not about the historical development of Indian Anglophone literature in the context of Indian writing in general, Indian history, post-colonialism, nationalism etc.  (For this, consider for example Arvin Krishna Mehrotra’s edited volume A History of Indian Literature in English, or C. D. Narasimhaiah’s Indian Literature of the Past 50 Years 1917-1967, or Anna Guttman’s The Nation of India in Contemporary Indian Literature, or Gauri Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India, among others.  This is a worthy and important way of approaching contemporary Indian writing of course, and the present module also benefits from this, but it’s very well-trodden ground, and this module attempts to do something different).

a.   Literature as Cultural Production: in the first place, we will consider literature not as a canonical or in any way exemplary cultural form, but one aspect of culture as a whole.  Literature in this sense is not only a discourse of self-imagination and representation, but also of a socio-political unconscious, a wishfulness as well as a self-loathing.  It is an inter-textual discussion with all other Indian writing, as well as with parts of the British literary canon, but it’s also an imaginative ethnography, a voyeurism of the socially-marginal, a political ideology, etc. etc.  This in a way means that we should be as much concerned with religious practices, as with religion as it is reflected in Indian Anglophone writing; with Dalits, crime, cricket and Eve-teasing in contemporary India as much as with their appearance in our texts.  Literature is a useful and accessible mode of cultural production for our purposes (outside of India, without access to Indian languages and everyday life), but it is by no means isolated from or superior to other forms of cultural production like film, media discourses, social praxis, social media.

b.   The Synchronic and the Diachronic: this pair of terms from linguistics gives us a schema for the approach embodied in this module.  While we cannot afford to ignore the historical shape of Indian literature and culture (the Diachronic), we are primarily concerned with contemporary Indian Anglophone writing, and the ways in which this is positioned vis-à-vis contemporary India and the contemporary world.  This means that while we will be considering India’s particular cultural contours and how they intersect with global capitalist modernity, we will also be looking at some of the key tropes of that modernity: cosmopolitanism (abject and high), capitalism and its effects on society, the rich-poor divide, dislocations of identity (alienation), the body as the locus of disciplinary and discriminatory practices, science/technology and knowledge production.  Think of the “synchronic” and “diachronic” as being aligned (broadly speaking) with the “global” and “local” respectively, forming a kind of “T” junction where the local/diachronic inserts itself into the transverse arm of global/synchronic issues.  We are most concerned with the spot of intersection of the “T,” although to understand that better, we need to be familiar with both the horizontal and vertical arms that structure that intersection.

c.   India and the Indian Diaspora: we are as much concerned with India in the diaspora, as we are with the Indian nation and the domestic socio-political sphere.  While Indian diasporic identity (and writing) is no doubt shaped by what happens (or happened) in India, the two are not identical or co-terminous.  Even the texts we are reading which are set in India (Calcutta Chromosome, White Tiger, God of Small Things) all have transnational dimensions at the thematic level: individuals travel from India to other countries and/or vice-versa, Indians and non-Indians interact to play out dramas, India and Indian identities are interrogated vis-à-vis a wider world of cultures and values.  And the other 4 texts certainly reveal identities which are Indian in origin, but which have been much transformed over time into Indo-Caribbean, Indo-British, Indo-Canadian etc.

d.   Indian and other Ethnicities in the Global: all the above means that we will inevitably be considering Indian diasporic writing as one of many varieties of ethnic writing/culture in the global world.  This is not to suggest Indian diasporic writing/culture is exactly the same as (say) Chinese diasporic writing/culture, or Iranian, or Jewish, or Sri Lankan etc.  Different histories/diachronic developments mean different intersections with the global, in each case.  But the global acts in similar ways on these dissimilar ethnicities/cultures, so in a sense we are exploring one particular case as a revelation of a universalizing set of global cultural forces.  This means that comparisons and contrasts between Indian diasporic writing/culture and those of other (especially Asian) ethnicities would be interesting and fruitful, rather than pointless or out-of-bounds.


II.   Representing India: while it would be scholarly hubris to think that we can grasp and understand India within a semestral module (much less in a couple of introductory seminars within a module), what we can do by way of approaching India is to consider some of the major recurring tropes in the representation of India in literature, but also public discourses, media etc.  While this may not give us the “real” India (if there is such a thing), and will of course miss some nuances and complexities, it will at least give us a sense of the main concerns and issues that writers, thinkers and concerned individuals have of India, which will hopefully prompt critical thinking about how those particular concerns and issues have arisen and how they are dealt with.

a.   Religion and spirituality: India is a highly spiritualized culture with a remarkably high rate of religious adherence: in the 2000 census, only 0.07 percent of the population failed to declare a religious affiliation, an unimaginable statistic in the context of secularizing trends in the West and even in rapidly developing Asian societies like Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan.  The Hindu-Muslim split, which featured so prominently in the partition of Indian in 1947 and the consequent creation of the nation of Pakistan (and the subsequent creation of Bangladesh) continues to trouble Indian society to this day, in the form of political tensions with Pakistan, communal tensions and violence between Hindus and Muslims, and cultures of suspicion and discrimination in everyday life.  While Sikhs form a much smaller religious constituency, they also feature as a source of historical tension and trauma (the Golden Temple assault, the death of Indira Gandhi and the Delhi riots).  Christians are another minority religion, but also feature in the social landscape through communal violence and discrimination. 

             It is important to realize that Indian religion cannot be seen through the lenses of organized, “cephalous” religious culture of the European legacy (Popes and Bishops, canons and liturgies) or even semitic religious traditions (the Qabah, the Quran, the Aga Khan, a MUIS, the Torah and Levitical hierarchy).  Partly because of the size and (linguistic/cultural) heterogeneity of India (exacerbated by the relative difficulty of transport and communications in many rural/remote areas), and partly because of the “acephalous”  tendency of the majority religion Hinduism (and related religions of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) – a tendency which has even influenced Indian Christianity and Islam in some ways – Indian religion is more about individual praxis than orthodoxy, about perceived spiritual values than received/standard theologies or beliefs.

             The result is that Indian religion is deeply-felt and pervasive in society, the multi-religious make-up of that society, and despite the fact that each religion is not exactly a unified orthodoxy governed by a single religious authority or canon.  The labels “Hindu” and “Hinduism” cover the worship of a wide range of deities, with their own rituals and pageants.  Indian Muslims may be Sunni, Shi’ite, Ismaili, and may owe much more allegiance to local shrines and holy places than to Mecca.  Indian Christianity in some regions may come close to the forms of Western evangelical Christianity, while elsewhere (e.g. Goa, Pondicherry) it is a deeply-rooted Catholicism, and yet elsewhere (Kerala) it belongs to a unique Orthodox church. 

             Instead of making the familiar colonialist conclusion that religion in India is a “muddle,” and without pretending to know all its intricacies and details (a task far beyond a single literature module like this), we can focus on some of the themes that emerge in Indian Anglophone writing:

i.   Common-practice Hinduism: vegetarianism and diet, pujahs as binding/constitutive rituals (of one’s identity), Hinduism as not-Muslim, not-Christian, not-Other.

ii.  Religious fervor, religious politics: communalism and communal violence

iii. Religion and/as traditionalism: religion becomes a proxy for normative cultural politics, of the family, gender relations, generational relations, cultural identity.  Thus, conversion and secularism become proxies for modernity, change, the abandonment of tradition. 

iv.  As always, caste as an inescapable and unquestioned part of Indian life.

b.   Caste:  A perennial theme and concern.  While some of the novels (especially those set in India, like Calcutta Chromosome, God of Small Things, White Tiger – note that religion, in many ways, is irrelevant to caste concerns) are directly concerned with caste, even the other novels are at least indirectly concerned with caste.  Caste in the latter cases, and as a socio-cultural theme overall, can thus be seen as an issue, not just of Hinduism and Hindu society, but of abjection and hierarchic organization as it is practiced in India.

In this more general conceptualization, caste can be seen as the Indian version of abjecting mechanisms such as race/colour, notions of rusticity (the bumpkin or redneck), cultural incivility, as practiced in countries like America, Italy, the UK, Thailand, Singapore etc.  Can a black inner-city American, white Southerner (US), Sicilian (Italy), Muslim Southerner (Thailand and Philippines), Malay or Indian or Foreign Worker (Singapore) ever fully escape the net of prejudices and discriminatory practices, whether major or minor?  There are certainly differences between Indian caste and these systems – yet all bear some comparison as perpetuating systems of social abjection and discrimination.

c.   Family Values: A distinctive feature of Indian Anglophone fiction, whether set in India or elsewhere, and certainly compared to the majority of Western (liberal individualist ethos) writing, is the centrality of family issues and family relations.  (This bears comparison with Chinese diasporic writing?).  On our list, The Body probably seems the most Western-like in its general disregard for the family, followed possibly by Calcutta ChromosomeWhite Tiger ironicises the Indian family, like it ironicises everything about Indian society – a scathing rejection of the pull and bonds of family, caste, values etc.  Yet even this ironic rejection is to acknowledge the pull and centrality of family in the first place.  The other four novels certainly focus on family dynamics, and explore personal identity as very much involved with family expectations, background etc. 

             We might thus have to identify the Indian family as a literary archetype or monomyth in similar ways to how we consider tropes like the journey, the reversal of fortune, the trial/agon, as central to Western literature.  The key question asked by Indian Anglophone narratives of the family seems to be: how does one deal with modernity in the context of one’s family?  Can one be a modern, global citizen with one’s familial attachments?  An alternative way of reading the Indian family (and the family home) might be borrowed from gothic literature: the deep secret, ancestral voices or ghosts, the individual’s journey to uncover the secret and put the voices/ghosts to rest, etc. 

d.   Corruption and crime: Surely one of the most prominent and discussed aspects of Indian society.  Corruption is hardly unique to India of course – yet looking at literary and public discourses, we can sense the outrage and anger that a country that is poised to make so much progress, and to become a major global power, is in many ways held back by epidemic corruption.  (The contrast with China is instructive, as several Indian writers repeatedly point out; while there is corruption in China, nevertheless things generally happen/work, and China’s global position and influence continue to rise steadily). 

             The prevalence of crime – gangsters and gangs, violence, perverting the cause of justice, gritty street life – is on the one hand just a kind of social realism of Indian social conditions, like Zola’s “Naturalism” or film noir and the detective.  But is it also a subversion of law and order, a naturalization of the disordered?  Is there a kind of argument or assumption of Indian exceptionalism, that India (of all countries in the developing world) is unique in not being able to shake off corruption and greed, and is thus not going to be a candidate for Asian modernization the way that countries like China, Singapore, Russia are? 

e.   Social transformation, or modernity vs tradition: we discussed this in the context of religion and the family already (above).  But it is also about infrastructure and economy, the practices of everyday life (bicycles, sharing cramped apartments with extended family members, the rupee and payments therein, broken plumbing/wiring) vs the promise of transformation that money or living overseas can bring.

             We might usefully think about this in terms of the contrast between rough and smooth surfaces, between the make-shift (“Jugat,” in Hindi) and the flawless, the scarred/marked/coloured native body, and the cosmetic international body.  Seen in this way, it no longer becomes a seemingly pointless tension between old and new, or inferior and superior technologies: it is also about the known, the familiar, the accepted and recognized body we touch and see in the mirror – and how difficult it is to give this up, even for something which appears flawless and superior.

f.   India and/against the rest of the world (especially China, England, the U.S. – the old enemy, and the “gorah” world).  See point d.  Is there a kind of Indian exceptionalism at work in the way India and Indians view the rest of the world?  Certainly we can speak (in the most simplistic way) of a “love-hate” relationship between India and countries like America and England.  On the one hand, they represent hope for individual Indians, the holy grail of an overseas degree and experience, payment in dollars rather than rupees, meritocracy rather than caste or connections.  On the other hand, these other places and cultures are also threateningly other – the overseas Indian who loses caste/religion, who no longer seems to have any resemblance to “real” Indians, who seems fake or hollow.  (Note the trope of returns, the call of the village even after one has left India, the crisis of the body or of identity).  The ultimate symbol of this seems to be whiteness (“gorah,” in Hindi) – the white body, white food (perceived as bland and tasteless), white culture (smooth, efficient, but also deficient and lacking).


If we were to try to sum up the overarching themes and concerns of Indian Anglophone literature, we might call it a literature very much of transitions.  Critically understanding those transitions help us understand some of the pains of globalization and global capitalism – pains which middle-class readers, and perhaps especially middle-class Singaporean (or American, or British) readers, might otherwise just gloss over as irrelevant to our more comfortably globalised existences.  Indian literature is about transition pains, globalisation’s discomforts, the persistence of ethnicity and local culture against the grain of McDonaldisation.


III.  The Local and the Global: issues and contentions

We are perhaps accustomed to seeing (with theorists like Marshall McLuhan) globalization ride roughshod over the local, bringing anodyne uniformity in the form of McDonald’s, Starbucks and Borders replacing smaller agencies with local character.  Likewise, cosmopolitanism has often been seen only from the point of view of “cosmopolitanism from above,” the free and borderless multiple-identity cosmopolitanism of well-educated and upper-middle-class professionals (see for example the work of James Holston and Arjun Appadurai). 

             Literary and cultural documents which depict painless border crossings and smooth multi-sited lives, or gesture at “token” non-white peoples seemingly fitting in comfortably in white settings, contribute to this sense (what we might call the ideology of the “fait accompli of smooth globalization).  Financial Fiction (Michael Ridpath, Christopher Reich, some of the novels of Iain Banks), and the more recent (Daniel Craig) James Bond films, embody this approach: the universalizing and homogenizing effects of money and power appearing to transcend race and culture.  (In contrast, the original Fleming novels, and earlier Bond films, were quite the opposite, orientalising ethnicity and local colour, particularly in the depiction of the other-race woman.  In a way Tan Hwee Hwee’s Mammon Inc also plays with this ideology, although the ending is ambiguous enough that we cannot be sure whether she endorses it, or whether the novel can be read as a problematization of seamless transnationalism. 

             Another version of the narrative of seamless globalization is the quasi-existentialist narrative, in which the protagonist moves in endlessly circular ways (and without seeming social cause or explanation) through a bland and depersonalized landscape.  Some of Haruki Murakami’s novels (e.g. Wind-up Bird Chronicle), Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby, Kazuo Ishiguro’s transplanting of his Japanese characters’ ethos in his first two novels across boundaries into England (Remains of the Day) and Eastern Europe (The Unconsoled), seem to fit this bill. 

             Other forms of globally-homogenizing narratives?  Some more contentious and less clear-cut candidates might include: certain types of speculative fiction novels, the type where a central technological feature overrides differences in race/culture/locality – Ian McDonald’s Terminal Café?  Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon?  (Both are concerned with technologies of immortality, which may be the most obvious case of a technology so strongly overriding the body that racial and cultural differences tend to disappear).   Some types of fantasy/horror, where “powers” (vampirism, eternal life, magic, time/space manipulation) take centre stage and create a globally-mobile elite regardless of race and locality (the Doug Liman dir. movie Jumper? Dan Simmons’ The Hollow Man or the Hyperion series?). 

             Where do Orientalizing fantasies fit in?  On the one hand, they are concerned with local features, but on the other, these often appear merely as splashes of colour or backdrops to facilitate the adventures of the central (white, middle-class, cosmopolitan) perspective.  Or they come across as caricature or exaggeration, again to emphasis white adventure or “insight.”  These might include certain types of travel/self-discovery narratives (Eat Pray Love?  Jonathan Kaplan dir Brokedown Palace?), poverty/underworld/drugs/sex porn which seems to delight in outrageous depictions of the squalor and degradation of the Other (the pseudo-autobiographical novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts?  “Hood”  and “Gangsta” films and novels?).  The problem here is that it is hard to draw the line between accurate reporting of difference, and caricature or orientalisation, especially when we ourselves are outsiders and have no authentic lived experience in those locales.  Nevertheless, as a category and cultural phenomenon, Orientalizing fantasies have long existing and continue to be produced, and should be considered as one form of denying the local.

             The globally-homogenizing narrative is basically the manifestation of globalization’s tendency to erase or marginalize history, particularity, difference, locality and culture, replacing them with an ideological ethos of “sameness” – whether this be evoked through the trope of borderlessness, universalizing existentialism, universalizing technology/power, or (in the most ideologically-naked form) corporate/financial mobility.  If orientalism and poverty porn or development porn function to sensationalise and exaggerate difference, they might conceivably be considered as a parallel phenomenon to global homogenization, as a form of desensitizing difference.

             This is opposed or resisted by a number of cultural phenomenon, of course: any discourse which is interested in social realism, in accurate and critical understanding of location and difference (which should include academic and critical study); ethnic and immigrant literature, voices which document the lived experience and plight of the Others; historical discourses; locality/particularity narratives (Narayan’s Malgudi series?  H. G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights and the film based on the book?).


             Where do Indian Anglophone novels sit?  On the one hand, they do contain elements which resemble features of poverty porn (White Tiger? Calcutta Chromosome?), orientalism (God of Small Things?), universalizing technologies (Calcutta Chromosome?  The Body?), etc.  We need to consider the economy of the Indian Anglophone novel, the audience it seeks to attract, and how this might influence narrative form and theme.  On the other hand, given the themes and concerns of these novels, their concern with “Indianness,” they are arguably also resisting global homogenization.

             This is precisely why it is important to understand the extent to which novels like these are actually driven by a notion of “Indianness” – to the extent that we think they are, that is the extent to which we can consider them rooted in the “local” as opposed to the “global.”  The truth is likely to be somewhere in-between – i.e. that they are local to a certain extent in theme, understanding, perspective, details, but also part of a global Anglophone literary/publishing economy that uses elements of universalizing, motility, orientalism. 

             However, this general conclusion of their being “in-between” is not necessarily the end of the matter – the exact nature of that in-betweenness, the ways in which these novels structure the tensions of local and global, can also be interesting.  Is there an “Indian” perspective to technology and speculative fiction, and if so, what is it?  Are their variations or genres of “money” – i.e. are Indian business and money seen in the same ways as global corporate or financial agencies?  What are the typical patterns of mobility in Indian novels, and how do they compare with or contrast to tropes of cosmopolitan motility?  Are the depictions of everyday life in many of these novels “poverty porn,” or are they something else, and trying to do something else?