A literary confluence

Published : Sep 10, 2004 00:00 IST

A conference organised in Hyderabad by the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies presents a unique opportunity to blend the practical with the ideal in literary theory and practice.

in Hyderabad

IF a conference is titled `Nation and Imagination: the Changing Commonwealth', and organised by the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS), with speakers from academia across the world, you would probably think of it as an abstruse, heavy-lidded coven. But the ACLALS literary conference held at the Taj Residency Hotel, Hyderabad, from August 4 to 9, happily proved you wrong.

The conference brought together for the first time three world-renowned experts in post-colonialism, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi Bhabha and Aijaz Ahmad besides Helen Tiffin and Bill Ashcroft, collaborators in the authoritarian text The Empire Writes Back. Ralph Crane, Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan, Harish Trivedi and Victor Chang were among the critics who added weight to the proceedings. For the research scholars from India and both sides of the Atlantic, it was a rare experience to see the critics they had studied and taught, ready for exchange, interaction and polemics.

The conference got off to a heart-warming start, honouring veteran C.D. Narasimhaiah, an intrepid teacher and critic of the old school, whose Dhvanyaloka has promoted research through the decades. That he had headed the last ACLALS conference in India (1977) made for poignant memories. Narasimhaiah had his fire intact, flaming in volleys at V.S. Naipaul, for missing the "Absolute in his thirst for the perishable".

Among the plenary speakers, Helen Tiffin's (University of Queensland) `Reimagined Community' dwelt on the constant refrain of naturalists about human survival being dependent on the survival of other life forms. Allegories of human domination over the animal kingdom, animal rights, and threats of crossover from animal to human, fringed the exhaustive deployment of Yann Martel's Life of Pi: adrift on the ocean, the boy could not survive unless his fearful companion, the tiger, did too. On the last day, Barbados-born Canadian writer Austin Clarke used his novel The Polished Hoe as the pivot for spinning out this `slave narrative', cast in a first person account for legitimacy. The protagonist Mary Matilda creates her own landscape, and language, to trace the process of colonisation, until her simmering anger explodes in drastic action. Drew Hayden Taylor (native Canadian writer) brought a stimulating youthfulness and joie de vivre, particularly in the tongue-in-cheek play extracts that made for an engaging evening performance.

The three `stars' lived up to expectations in different ways. Homi Bhabha, author of the seminal texts Nation and Narration and The Location of Culture, acclaimed for reframing the vision of post-colonialism and attacked for recasting European poststructuralist principles in his own theories, also emphasised survival. But this was based on a metaphysical concept. Aspiration - its root `aspirare' (to breathe) reminding us of the breath that carries the word - became a form of positive resistance. "Not a utopian notion," he declared, but the force which enabled human beings to survive oppression, degradation, exclusion, victimisation and historical wounding. With his conviction and clarity, he moved the listener, perspectivising art and criticism as the means of achieving justice and freedom.

"I tremble with excitement at the audacity of an India as a fully modern society speaking in many tongues," said Aijaz Ahmad, author of the controversial text In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures, which critiques several icons, including Edward Said and Salman Rushdie. In the same unfaltering style, he examined the progressive and regressive aspects of nationalism. While it opposed imperialism, fostered nation-building and plurality, the process also led to a fictive unity of the exploited and the exploiter, tribal power blocks, and the curtailing of citizenship rights for the minorities (terrifyingly illustrated in West Asia or the Balkans). Yet India has settled comfortably for a multiplicity of languages, without hankering for a Hindu rashtra or national language. Was not there a clear message of survival here?

"Voluptuous sex is bad/Mother and wife are sacred/The Muslim is the enemy. To arms!" Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak belted out this verse in Bengali - one of the `national songs' that blared out of loudspeakers, radios, and theatre halls in the Kolkata of her childhood. A radical theorist, known for her daring eclecticism, reinterpretations of imperial motifs in metropolitan literature, translations of Jacques Derrida and Mahashweta Devi, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's rivetting performance networked personal reminiscence, socio-economic trends, theoretical discourse, and transcultural/translinguisitic experiences. The focus was on her interactions with tribal women in remote regions. The complex argument used Roman Jakobson's notion of equivalence (stripping it of the elitism of written verse), with the oral formulaic, to talk about the songs of the Adivasi women and their role in perpetuating cultural memory. Urging that the relief map of the Commonwealth - flattened under imperial domination - be restored, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak mooted the need for comparative literatures. Literary critics should gain fluency in at least two languages besides their mother tongue and English, and "work as a fragment in a world like a jigsaw".

The glitz came from the writers. Playwright Girish Karnad was a diligent presence at paper readings, as were poets Hoshang Merchant, Suniti Namjoshi (India/United Kingdom), Satendra Nandan (Australia) and Diana Bridge (New Zealand). When not at lectures, Jean Arasanayagam (Sri Lanka) became a rapt listener for young writers who read their work aloud for her comments and advice. Shashi Deshpande delighted students at an interactive session at Hyderabad University.

Alternating between blase nonchalance and brisk nattiness, Vikram Seth was the matinee idol for fans and scholars alike. Veterans Meenakshi Mukherjee and Shirley Chew treated him with the indulgence of long acquaintance. His keynote address was changed to a conversation as he hated lecturing and liked to be "surprised with questions". But there were few surprises and much bonhomie. When the poet, verse-prose novelist, travel writer and translator, was quizzed about what he would do when he eventually exhausted all genres, Seth replied with a disarming smile that he took courage from Alexander Pushkin's example, and let imagination guide him always. Seth's relish in wordplay was apparent in his description of writing as "elusive, illusive, allusive". However, the conversation could not plunge below the surface into moments of self-forgetful self-revelation.

It is always a privilege to hear authors reading their work. Again, Seth scored with his droll, Beastly Tales, dovetailing sound and sense, music and rhythm - enchanting in rendition. Suniti Namjoshi managed to hold her own though, with sharp images and spirited expression. At another session, a striking range of styles found expression when Keki Daruwallah, Feroza Jussawala, Jan Kemp, Hoshang Merchant, Satendra Nandan and Makarand Paranjape read out their verse, and those of Diana Bridge, mute with a sore throat.

Book launches became special events. Warmth and goodwill marked the release of Shashi Deshpande's new book Moving On (Penguin). Shashi Deshpande's soft, high-pitched voice brought out the sheltered naivety of Jiji, the speaker in the extract from her novel. Earlier, another Penguin author, Jean Arasanayagam, added power and feeling in brief introductions to shocking scenes in verse and prose. Belonging to the minority community of Dutch burghers in the strife-crimsoned Emerald Isle, and married to a Tamil, her double vision is an inevitable hallmark.

Marathi Dalit writer Sharankumar Limbale's Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature: History, Controversies and Considerations (Orient Longman) was released by Girish Karnad, who spoke with an empathic objectivity. There were readings by Karnad and K. Satchidanandan. Poet Jayanta Mahapatra began by saying that he came from Orissa, a region "not as poor as Ethiopia, but quite poor". His soft-spoken verse evoked trauma and grief too deep for tears.

His brilliant interview of Derek Walcott is enough to arouse interest in the British-resident, Guyana-born diasporic Indian writer. David Dabydean's fascination for India was as obvious as his pride in belonging to the Indo-Caribbean community, representing not only the subcontinent's past, but its future. Had it not evolved "a casteless, secular society with a sense of pan-Indian culture"? Dabydean was delighted to receive the Raja Rao Award at the launch of his new book Our Lady of Demerara.

In a panel discussion with Sushiela Nasta, Editor of Wasifiri, Dabydean talked about making creative use of "schizophrenia", and of market pressures that insist on the exotic from non-white writers. "If you are Black, you suffer. They are more interested in the Blackness than in the suffering." Dabydean's forthcoming book will be published in Guyana, not Britain, in a friend's small, new press. Clearly, diasporic writers face responsibilities unknown to mainstream West. Nasta's efforts over 20 years to publish diasporic writings and voices from cultures "beyond the modern nations", made a great story, especially as Wasifiri is now in the mainstream, as are some of its contributors.

THE conference had its share of discord too. Some local and visiting academics protested against the five-star setting, elitism, high registration fee, power blocks, lack of standards in the papers, omission of Hyderabad's Telugu and Urdu (there were sessions on Kannada and Tamil). The main grouse was that the plenary sessions were not open to students and the general public. Others said they were happy with the schedule and organisation, arguing that academic seminars could not be conducted like theatre and film festivals. Many foreign scholars declared that the plenary sessions had been of the highest quality, and that the theorists had come across as human beings.

The time allotted for seminars was devoted mostly to day-long paper readings and the subjects were of an amazing variety. There were forays into films, the "Queer Nation", the cultural significance of cricket and hockey, mountaineering and nation building, lip sewing as performance, protest against state detention of asylum-seekers and even the Devadasi heritage. Geographically too they journeyed across the continents - Australian aboriginal literature, Egyptian women novelists, London's Banglatown, Fiji Hindi, Caledonian and Samoan diasporas, global apartheid, Islamic culture in Malay writers, texts in African languages, colonial travel literature, and the intertexual network of `national autobiographies' of personalities from Jawaharlal Nehru to Nelson Mandela.

The focus was not so much on aesthetics as on social, political and economic depredations and cultural erasures, with perspectives ranging from the anthropological and sociological to the historiographical and the psychoanalytical. The problems of translating language and culture received their share of attention, as did the teachings of Third World texts in metropolitan universities, creating different sets of problems for the white students, and the non-whites born and brought up in the `First World'.

The choice of an interesting theme was no guarantor of quality. Some speakers confined themselves to plays as texts, admitting ignorance of their performative traditions. Others strode through alien cultures with a brash confidence that made listeners squirm. Critical theories were often strung together without original interpretation. Many were unable to present cogent papers within the allotted time, offering chunks edited overnight from longer chapters or theses. But there were presentations, which combined information with insight, opening intriguing frontiers, challenging settled notions with startling disclosures. They justified post-colonialist readings as a means of attaining knowledge, understanding and freedom in our disordered, imbalanced, violence-gashed world.

WHAT made the ACLALS conference significant? Not the arabesques of theory where even the scholars could lose themselves. But certain notions stood out, for they blended the practical with the ideal. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak warned that any failure to nourish the imagination would cause the death of culture. Homi Bhabha sought the ethics of forbearance and Ashish Nandy emphasised the need to accept and tolerate ambiguities, to see the Self as incomplete without the Other.

Stephen Slemon (Canada) and Bruce Bennett (Australia) belong to two different hemispheres. But they are of a mind that the conference provided opportunities for learning about similarities and differences in problems across the globe. Says Slemon: "We have a group of scholars here, with economic and educational privilege, who nonetheless desire a more radically just world, where everybody gets a chance to participate in public debate. We hope to use our classrooms to work towards that goal." Bennett believes that a conference like of this kind "doesn't die as soon as everyone leaves it". He says: "We take the dialogues and ideas back into our lives, they will appear in our books, and influence education and research in our universities." The dream is old, but ambitious: to use knowledge for protest, and equitable progress.

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