IS THERE SUCH A THING as modern Indian literature? Outside the Government of India model, it is not obvious what the answer to this question is. This model renders literature no different from any other resource—something to be correctly tabulated and evenly distributed. The earnestness with which the scope of literature—the number of languages in which we write, say, or the extent to which we write in each language—is measured via this approach is matched only by its dullness. For, once it has been reckoned in these deeply material terms, literature loses its shine and, as importantly, its edge. The immense goal of giving fair representation to multilingual literary production overwhelms the possibility of reading through lenses other than those of language, race and geography. In the shadow of this model, literature becomes bureaucratic, not personal; literal rather than subtle; momentous, because it symbolises the nation; and subservient, ultimately, to a dream of justice rather than an idea of truth.
Neither is it easy to find answers to my opening question in the daily commerce of the literary world. One usually feels let down by the either celebratory or peremptory tone in which literature is discussed in this country. It is by now well established that we are either conquering the world as Indian writers or betraying the nation by writing in English. A third, equally dead-end stance, which has percolated down from the academy, tends to see literature as illustrative of theory rather than seeing theory as a status quo that fiction might seek to subvert or question. Each new creative work, in this scheme, only confirms an already verified, even jaded, truth to do with our postcolonial history, our cultural identity, or our choice of language.
Reinforcing this milieu is not just an uncritical use of language but a licentiousness with it that allows us to wield words and use terms without taking responsibility for the ideas underlying them. These terms are often strangely moralist; readers try to determine the value of Indian English fiction not, for instance, by asking how this fiction communicates its meanings to them, but by asking whether it has been written to please specific privileged audiences, to exoticise India, or to depict worlds of which the writers are not certified members. Representation is another idea that bedevils us—not curiosity about how one represents a particular social world, but anxiety over whether our writing does justice to the poor, the lower castes, women, the neglected regions of the country, and so on.
There are important critics who defy these trends: Adil Jussawalla, whose landmark introduction to the anthology New Writing in India, published almost 40 years ago, remains a refreshingly down-to-earth way of approaching Indian literature; Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, with his uniquely acerbic critical writings on poetry; AK Ramanujan, for his many-sided approach to the Indian way, or ways, of thinking; and Alok Rai, well-known for his sardonic, outspoken takes on contemporary literature—to name just four examples.
But perhaps the most consistently probing of Indian critics is Amit Chaudhuri. Into our noisy but shadowy literary realm, his book of essays Clearing a Space: Reflections on India, Literature and Culture (2008) has shone a powerful blaze of light. The book’s two sections—‘Towards a Poetics of the Indian Modern’ and ‘Alternative Traditions, Alternative Readings’—epitomise the nature of Chaudhuri’s project. Its vital significance lies in going beyond the established ways of looking at Indian literature—as colonial versus postcolonial, or written in English versus produced in other Indian languages. Instead, its author presents to us a newer, more complex and more engaging idea of Indian modernity. This modernity is an ongoing, dynamic negotiation between the writer and the world. In this conception, there is no pristine Indian self to be irrevocably sullied by its encounter with the West. Nor is there one-way traffic from the Western canon to the outposts of Empire, for we have had writers strikingly modern in thought even before they received instruction in this canon, or those, like VS Naipaul and Nirad C Chaudhuri, who present fascinating examples of Indian modernity precisely because they have so deeply internalised the idea of the West.
Clearing a Space is not, however, a polemic—or not a polemic alone. It offers, not prescriptions for curing Indian—more specifically Indian English—literature’s afflictions, so much as a way of doing literature; Chaudhuri gives us approaches rather than remedies. As a practitioner and a critic, he is using his resources as the latter to clear a space that will allow him to function as the former.
Despite the uniqueness of this approach and the richness of the insights that follow from it, Clearing a Space has not received in the Indian press even a fraction of the attention it deserves. To start a conversation about it; to uncover more productive ways of reading Indian literature; and to examine, elaborate on, or disagree with Chaudhuri’s vision, I invited three writers to share, in the following pages, their reflections on Clearing a Space.
The title of this feature is a riff on ‘The Metropolitan Critic’, the British critic Clive James’s high-spirited tribute to that impeccable and solitary American thinker, Edmund Wilson. In his essay, James suggests that Wilson’s genius consisted in his possessing a “mental style”. By this, he refers not just to Wilson’s excellent prose but also to the seriousness of his purpose as expressed in that prose, his—in the words of another Wilson admirer, Pankaj Mishra—“insistence on relating literature to the urgent questions of life”. Chaudhuri, too, possesses a mental style. As remarkable as the diversity of his talents as a writer is the extraordinary consistency of his project, and his ability to make questions about literature questions about the larger culture and, ultimately, about what concerns us all: the question of what has value.
The three writers below are interested in this question in different and not always compatible ways. In ‘Tradition and the Indian Writer’, Nakul Krishna shows how tradition, in Chaudhuri’s understanding, acquires value not when it is claimed in a reactionary spirit but when it is reclaimed in a resourceful one. Amongst the traditions that Chaudhuri seeks to reclaim is that of humanism, which has been discredited, because of its association with the ideology of domination, by the postmodernist thinking of the past few decades. In ‘Return to Humanism’, Saikat Majumdar writes about the creative potential of Chaudhuri’s humanist aesthetic and the space it creates both for the sensuous qualities of literature and for the thinking and feeling self who can apprehend these qualities. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, while taking delight in this aesthetic in his ‘The Burdens of Excess?’, wonders if the aesthetic can indeed encapsulate the bewildering variety of contexts from which Indian literature emerges. Is it at all possible to talk of a single Indian modernity?
What all three writers seem to agree on is the powerfully unorthodox and scrupulously attentive nature of Chaudhuri’s style. The most distinctive aspect of his space-clearing and illumination-seeking project is his personal method. His singular experience of the world is the axis on which the book turns. Accounts of a visit to a temple in Calcutta, classroom discussions at Columbia University, or a conversation from his student days in London are all the result of deliberate, I would even say political, choices made to highlight personal experience and the autobiographical as sources of meaning. Such an attitude leads not to a closing-in—the personal does not become an absolute measure of things—but to an opening out: Chaudhuri is seeking his place in the world rather than assuming that, as an Indian writer, this place has already been defined for him.
This focus on the personal allows Chaudhuri to understand how the most important moments in the history of Indian literature are located within the biographies, the selves, of writers, rather than in public debates about history and tradition. He finds in the trajectories of several writers, from Michael Madhusudan Dutt to OV Vijayan, a curious disavowal or neglect of Indian tradition, a turning away from their roots, followed by a crucial moment of rediscovery, which allows them to access this tradition in a secular way—as creative source rather than cultural orthodoxy. This interest in interiority—or, more specifically, in the internal tussle between self and self and the manifestation of this tussle in writing and art—leads Chaudhuri to explore easily overlooked complexities in many writers. Rabindranath Tagore, for instance, has a hidden side as a poet quite distinct from his nationalist image; Sunil Khilnani, ardent defender of a textbook understanding of Indian secularism, actually represents, because of his sense of “inner exile”, a much subtler, more personal vision of secularism; and Salman Rushdie combines within himself a startling contradiction by subscribing both to rationalist, Enlightenment values like free speech and democracy, as well as—as evident in his fiction—to the ‘anything goes’ philosophy of postmodernism, to “a world of upbeat multiculturalism, and its new aggressive post modern celebration…of a popular culture”.
Chaudhuri is interested in this “self-division” as something that goes to the very heart of modern literature, that is foundational to and emblematic of it. He shows us how the selves that inhabit the fictions of UR Ananthamurthy or James Joyce are interesting to readers only because they elude them, because they are fragmented, contradictory selves in a troubled relationship with themselves, with each other, and with the readers who comprise their audience. Thus, the modern influence in literature renders it highly immediate, sensuous and experiential, as well as shot through with disjunctions.
Why, then, have we fought shy of this idea of criticism as first of all self-criticism? Why has our literature become national edifice rather than personal quest? Chaudhuri searches through the course of his book for answers. One of the most wonderful is the Heideggerian notion of literature as habitation, a dwelling place for the self, whose texture can be highly everyday and local, and yet transcend the specific, so that the landscape of Eudora Welty’s stories, say, becomes a place of the mind rather than a geographical corner of the American South. Yet this notion of literature as habitation has, partly for historical reasons to do with colonialism, remained alien to the Indian imagination. “All those literatures and cultures that have…been excluded from that Heideggerean dwelling become, in some senses, varieties of national or popular literature; the everyday and the particular become signs of, at once, nationality and the exotic…”
Quoting Alfred Kazin in his essay on Edmund Wilson, Clive James describes Wilson as one of those “literary artists driven by historical imaginations”. Many critics would say that in the enormous range of his critical references and his honest and acute readings of American literature from the 1920s onwards, Edmund Wilson helped to create this literature. Chaudhuri’s book potentially stands in a similar relation to Indian literature. In reading this literature with such perspicuity and thereby uncovering an Indian lifeworld—the nature of how we not just read and write, but feel, see and hear—he raises questions that are inexhaustible.
Clearing a Space has been recently reissued by Penguin India, stoking the hope that Chaudhuri’s ideas will remain in circulation for a very long time. Hopefully, this feature, too, will contribute in a small way to making that happen.
Tradition and the Indian Writer
THE CAMBRIDGE CRITIC FR Leavis once observed of TS Eliot that his “best criticism, directed for the most part on the poetry of the past, [was] immediately related to his own problems as a poet confronted with the task of inventing the new ways of using words that were necessary if there was to be a contemporary poetry”. The past, on this view of things, is not an inert object of theoretical contemplation, but a resource for the living. One of the many pleasures of Amit Chaudhuri’s Clearing a Space is the intelligence and ingenuity with which it puts the past to use.
A gratifying feature of Chaudhuri’s introductory essay is the sly ease with which he appropriates an old-fashioned vocabulary—genealogies, lineages, forebears, conventions, orthodoxies, practice and, most often of all, traditions—to devise a novel way of talking about a literary past. To someone bred on the scepticism that comes with a certain kind of university education, tradition is a suspect notion, tainted by its association with reactionary politics and creative stagnation. On this view, claims about tradition are almost invariably spurious, for most supposed traditions are retrospective political inventions. Taken naïvely, this implies that a concern with tradition is simply incompatible with artistic innovation and intelligent history.
Chaudhuri does not deny that traditions are constructed at least partly in response to political considerations. Nor does he think traditions a necessarily reactionary notion. In his hands, tradition is neither simply out there to be discovered nor a matter of arbitrarily projecting our contemporary concerns on to the past. To look to the past as he does is rather like shining a torch in a dark room to see who might be behind us, and finding that what the beam illuminates depends both on where we stand and where we point the torch.
Chaudhuri’s education has left him incapable of putting a naïve sentence to paper, every utterance judged perfectly to evade some anticipated—Marxist, nationalist, theoretical, Romantic—objection. All this makes for demanding reading but exhilarating rereading, each rift (in Keats’s phrase) more loaded with ore than a single reading can quarry. Chaudhuri has evidently learned much from academic theory without having had his soul, or his prose, crushed by it. The impulse behind Chaudhuri’s talk of tradition is not a reactionary harrumph but a sense that writers need an awareness of the history of their practice, an awareness that it is the business of literary criticism to provide.
Chaudhuri’s project in Clearing a Space—one that he has continued in his book On Tagore (2012) and in a recent essay on Indian literary traditions published in these pages (September 2012)—adds an unexpected inflection to Eliot’s remarks about how “Tradition...cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.” Chaudhuri is alert to the almost exactly parallel remarks of the poet-scholar AK Ramanujan; of his serendipitous discovery, in the basement of a Chicago library, of a corpus of Tamil literature of which he had known next to nothing, Ramanujan wrote: “Even one’s own tradition is not one’s birthright; it has to be earned, repossessed.”
For Ramanujan, this culminated in The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology (1967), his influential English translations of Tamil poetry from the early Christian era and before. In his afterword, he declared with a quite remarkable critical confidence how, in the poems he translated, “passion is balanced by courtesy, transparency by ironies and nuances of design, impersonality by vivid detail, austerity of line by richness of implication”. This was a reclamation of tradition that also constituted an aesthetic manifesto. Moreover, it was a decisive answer to the colonial charge that Indian literature exemplified the defects James Mill thought he saw in the Sanskrit epics: “metaphors perpetual, and these the most violent and strained… repetition; verbosity; confusion, incoherence.”
Rather than seek to make virtues of verbosity and confusion, as critics after Rushdie have been wont to do, Chaudhuri, by looking to the mischievous inversion in Tagore’s remarks on the nature poetry of Kalidasa, uses a defence strikingly like Ramanujan’s:
Tagore, audaciously, not so much critiques the Western Enlightenment and humanism, and the idea of ‘civilisation’ itself, but snatches them away from their expected location and gives to them another source and lineage, in India and its antiquity; cheekily, he implies this lineage might be the more authentic one.
In other words, subtlety is not, and has never been, un-Indian.
In a similar vein, Chaudhuri discusses the shrewd self-assurance of Jorge Luis Borges—like the many Indian writers who interest Chaudhuri, Borges was multilingual and fluent in English—in his celebrated essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”: “I believe our tradition is all of Western culture, and I also believe we have a right to this tradition, greater than that which the inhabitants of one or another Western nation might have.” Chaudhuri also explores the Bombay poet Arun Kolatkar’s even bolder articulation of this theme: “I want to reclaim everything I consider my tradition.” In Kolatkar’s remark, the political import of which is deflected by the blithe, offhand manner of its delivery, Chaudhuri perceives a yet more profound liberation: the reclaiming of tradition must always be political, but Kolatkar makes it look like fun.
What others have thought a matter of discovery, Chaudhuri sees as a conscious exercise of the human will on materials at least in part of its own choosing. The writer’s tradition is what she takes it to be. The Indian writer, like the Argentine, has a claim to all the literatures of the East and the West; the thing is to lay claim to them. But this needn’t suppose, implausibly, that the writer’s freedom in this respect is limitless. Quite the contrary; the act of reclamation supposes a prior act of recognition, of coming to see whom one might credibly, meaningfully, claim for a precursor, and of accepting, rather than repudiating, this legacy.
The project of recognition is in part a project of self-knowledge. To know herself, the writer must ask how she came to be who she is. This calls on her to take on a project of inquiry about her formation, an intellectual-sentimental biography. But the project, properly carried out, will take her further back, into the province of political, intellectual and cultural history. Literary criticism can be a vehicle of such self-knowledge, but to perform that function, literary criticism must be more than literary.
One way in which criticism might prove of use to the writer is to offer her a measure of self-consciousness, a heightened awareness of the world in and about which she writes. But the purpose of such self-consciousness is, in the deepest sense, practical. For a mere awareness of history can be stifling and some good writers have managed perfectly well without it. But such naïveté is a rare feat; RK Narayan may have been among the few to pull it off successfully. For minds disposed to dwell on the theoretical questions Narayan managed to sidestep—questions about modernity, about colonialism, and about the English language—an awareness of history can be liberating in the artistic possibilities it reveals and thereby makes available to the contemporary reader and writer.
The liberating quality of Chaudhuri’s essays depends in part on their theoretical arguments, which show that many of the implicit assumptions of modern critical discourse—say, that books about India must be, like the country they are set in, large and chaotic—are fatuous, pernicious and false. But they depend equally on their ability to marshal just the right examples. His account of the novella, the lyric poem and the short story as formal vehicles of Indian writing in the 19th century are more than a piece of literary history: they amount to a constructive argument against the contemporary primacy of the long novel as the default mode of serious literary expression.
It might be helpful to think of Clearing a Space as a series of annotated case studies in modern Indian literary theory and practice. In Rabindranath Tagore, AK Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar, and many others, we are shown writers wrestling earnestly with the problem of how to be a modern Indian writer. There is more than one possible response to the problem, and the Indian writer today can learn something from a tradition of reflection on the question.
One such lesson—among the many Chaudhuri discusses—has to do with the relationship between literature and politics. The Tagore in Chaudhuri’s essays is not—or not in any simple way—a political Tagore. He is, rather, a man who, “in a letter in 1894 to his niece, would demand, not political freedom…but ‘more light, more space’”. Light and space, Chaudhuri informs us, were, by “the second half of the nineteenth century...both metaphors of, and habitations for, the human self”. There is something both artful and guileless, perhaps even defiant, about Chaudhuri’s invocation of these metaphors, drawn from a 19th-century tradition of Bengali humanism intimately involved in his own formation as a writer. Some have thought tradition inimical to the writerly imagination. Chaudhuri urges us to reject this false choice. For the writer craving light and space, there is no better place to look to than the past.
Return to Humanism
FORMS OF POWER are a bit like viruses: they mutate nimbly to dodge forces of resistance. In their sensational book, Empire (2000), Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri analysed the power structure of the flat, globalised McWorld that for some observers had begun to take distinct shape in the 1990s. The new system of power, “Empire” in their formulation, was very different from the territorial model of imperialism that had enabled Western European nations to exploit most of Asia, Africa and the Americas in the past. Territorial imperialism was eventually overthrown by anti-colonial struggle, through which various colonised peoples gained political independence. But in the long run this victory was more symbolic than real. Western capitalism quickly changed its DNA to become a more insidious and formidable adversary in the next round of the battle, that of neo-colonial domination over the newly-liberated world. Empire is Hardt and Negri’s shorthand for this domination. The new engine of empire possesses none of the old imperialism’s territorial greed, none of its direct designs on the sovereignty of other nations, and none of the racialised oppositions of white and black, master and slave that shaped the ideological project of post-Renaissance European colonialism. Most deceptively, the new empire celebrates diversity and difference—exactly those things for which people once struggled against the colonial racism of a bygone age.
Amit Chaudhuri has consistently reminded us that the novel is the default literary genre of this late-capitalist culture. More than 10 years ago, as editor of an important anthology, The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature (2001), he described the giddy literary liberties offered by this culture. The apparently disruptive hybridity of the new, globalised novel, he argued provocatively, is a smart vehicle of global consumerism. The chutnification of the language, for instance, in the postcolonial Indian novel, “with a scattering of untranslated Indian words and phrases and odd sentence constructions” is a mark of such diversity. While loudly flaunted—“worn like a national costume”—this diversity is usually far less subversive than it claims to be. Under its guise as a disruptive force, it is actually enabled by the commodified hybridity sleekly branded in the global market. It abandons the binary of the literary and the popular and legitimises a single, easily marketable type of literature; its deceptive dissolution of the local and the global is its way of privileging the homogenised space of the new flat world.
What was once resistance has now become celebration. For Chaudhuri, this is not so much an occasion to celebrate as to ask some hard questions. Does this giddy celebration of racial and cultural diversity mean that the resistance has finally triumphed? Or does it imply that the old structures of power have radically mutated? The answer is tricky, as this resistance enjoyed significant political and intellectual legitimacy long before it came to earn wide currency in the free market.
The attack on binary values—such as centre and periphery, self and the Other, and master and slave—that were erected by older powers energised the new, liberating wave that swept the humanities from the 1970s onwards. The intellectual revolution that stormed this bastion was suspicious of the old verities, of claims of authenticity or truth, or a stable selfhood. Put bluntly: beware of truth-claims, since truth is what the powerful make you believe. Realism, the dominant narrative mode of this modernity, is untrustworthy, as the relation between language and the real world is not organic or natural, but arbitrary and artificial.
But the material reality of the world has taught us time and again that truth refuses to vanish meekly into the ideology of domination. On the contrary, Hardt and Negri remind us that truth itself can become a precious form of resistance, as when nations seek to reconstruct themselves in the wake of the terror and mystification of dictatorial regimes. Truth, in other words, can be just as deeply valued by the dispossessed as by those who wield power. Suspicion of truth, then, is situated most appropriately in the timely self-doubt of Western rationality. But there are cultures outside the metropolitan West where truth or realism never made up a scaffolding of repression in quite the same way.
Chaudhuri’s bold claim is that India is such a culture. Hence his discontent with the way in which the postmodern scepticism of truth, reason and realism has been transplanted into the Indian English novel since Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. The “apparent non-linearity” of these novels, as well as their propensity towards “magic, fairy tale and fantasy”, foreground this very scepticism. But truth, authenticity and the real have not had the politically suspect and ethically bankrupt place in the Indian aesthetic imagination that they have had in modern Western history:
Realism—the relationship that modes of representation have to the seasons, human life and the universe—has been a fundamental and unquestioned component of Indian art, from classical dance to the epics of Valmiki and Vyasa, the court poetry of Kalidasa, and the modern lyrics of Tagore; on the other hand, in Western culture, realist art, with its special claims to renovate our perception of the world, has always resided somewhat uneasily at the centre, repeatedly called on, like an immigrant, to justify the legitimacy of its existence.
Once upon a time, postmodernism was truly revolutionary; now it is the cultural norm of the free market. Here, Chaudhuri dares to appear politically counterintuitive: “Faced with the engulfing, all-embracing, narrative-like movement and proclivities of globalization, is it time to recuperate the binary, and give it back a measure of polemical strength and moral dignity?” Now that the dissolution of the binary—of the high and the low, the popular and the commercial—has been smoothly co-opted by late capitalism, it looks just a bit suspicious the way this dissolution is realised across the globe. “The dismantling of binaries,” Chaudhuri writes, “was one of the primary moral functions of the post-structuralist, postmodernist moment, because of the hierarchies of power that, historically, they at once concealed and expressed.” As the most visible cultural artefact of globalisation, the novel has smoothly taken on this moral function. “The rise of narrativity,” he suggests, “has been intriguingly continuous, or concomitant, with decline of the binary.” Poised against the reactionary elitism of traditional literary study, cultural studies attacked such binaries in a sweeping gesture of liberation. Today, the free market is in happy agreement with the rejection of any distinction between the popular and the commercial: “For the larger narrative of the globalized free market in which the smaller one, the novel, is located, that dichotomy is a nuisance and an inconvenience.”
Over the past decade, Chaudhuri has deepened this provocative voice, sometimes astringently but never without a touch of humour. This voice comes strongly, even restlessly, alive in Clearing a Space. In probably the most revealingly titled of the essays, “Notes on the Novel after Globalization”, he writes:
The novel’s been around for a long time, but only in the last thirty years has it achieved a curious sort of pre-eminence, in that it’s the one literary genre in which certain convergences possible only after globalization—between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ culture, between theoretical or intellectual validation and free-market or material investment—take place. The reception of the novel reminds us that there are no real oppositions and dichotomies in the globalized world, and that the celebration of narrative is also a confirmation of the intolerance of oppositionality.
Political legitimacy and marketing potential have struck a golden deal with each other, manufacturing consent in the most seamless way possible. Chaudhuri’s warning is a strange echo of Hardt and Negri’s mistrust of the postmodernist celebration of difference. Here, if anywhere, is the diversity of the flat world—in this very cultural climate that seeks to unite the serious and the popular, the artistic and the commercial on a single plane.
Through his poetry, music, fiction and criticism, Chaudhuri has long embodied an aesthetic that appears out of joint with the heady liberties offered by the global postmodern culture energised by the economy of late capitalism. It is an aesthetic shaped by the instincts of high modernism and its central convictions: that it is possible to make sense of the world and one’s own self through rational thinking; that one can trust the narrative and descriptive powers of language; that realism is potentially a narrative mode through which we can tell stories about the world. Like the early-20th century modernist authors he so admires, from Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay to DH Lawrence, this aesthetic is deeply grounded in a localised realism that refuses to blend with the euphoric cosmopolitanism of the flat world. His sensual evocations remain deeply rooted in the immediacy of local spaces, be it Calcutta, Bombay or Oxford, which seem idiosyncratically transformed by, but never reducible to, the narrative of sameness promoted by the culture of globalisation. In a world where the linguistic sign is lost in the pastiche of neon-lit billboards and HDTV displays, or at best the closed-circuit rhetoric of commodification, Chaudhuri pulls back from the disembodied language of postmodernist fiction to write sentences that are tactile, olfactory, aural. Well after the poststructuralist onslaught on signification, his faith in the mimetic power of art to evoke and renew reality remains striking and tangible in his writing.
Chaudhuri’s credo is more than simply provocative; to many it smacks of a reactionary elitism that theorists and practitioners of the arts have struggled hard to dismantle worldwide. At first glance, he seems to hark back to an older world of liberal humanism that postmodernism dethroned and the diversity of the free market rendered obsolete, miraculously around the same time. Still, to call him elitist is easy; it is easy to see in his humanism a return to the reactionary. It is much harder to see this humanism as a critical resource. Aesthetic humanism celebrates the old-fashioned narrative value of realism. It remains sensually besotted by the immediate and the local, and it entrusts the articulation of this love to language. It believes that language can conjure a real world that we can see, touch and smell. It is willing to embrace the artifice of language and not dismiss it as a social construct with no organic connection to the sensory.
What Chaudhuri is championing today is no longer a central and privileged aesthetic conviction. Today, humanism is a critical resource precisely because its true location, as Chaudhuri reminds us, is peripheral and ambiguous. In this incarnation, humanism is revolutionary, not reactionary, as Edward Said asserted in his posthumously published book Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2004). And inasmuch as Clearing a Space is a plea for a postlapsarian “return” to humanism, it is also an appeal to question easy and linear notions of historicity. Like some of the more adventurous historians he admires, Chaudhuri shows us that the past is more knottily wound up with the present and the future than a smooth narrative of historical progress would like to claim. And by refusing to allow this narrative to be easily globalised, he makes for the idiosyncratically local a case that runs counter to the homogenous, empty space of the flat world.
The Burdens of Excess?
I BELONG TO A SET OF DISCIPLINES—political theory and politics—that are in many subtle ways targets of Clearing a Space. The book is a poignant expression of the anxiety that ways of thinking associated with these disciplines has colonised our imagination of the secular. The question of secularism, even in literary discussions, has largely been reduced to a question of constitutional norms, or the realm of political performance and power. While important in their own right, these questions have foreclosed other important aspects of the emergence of the “secular”. Chaudhuri powerfully argues that the “secular” is not just a question of norms or power: it is also a mode of interpreting the world, a way of shaping the self, and finding a new teleology of daily life.
Secularism, in this sense, is both more quotidian and more profound. It is quotidian because it requires a habit of attentiveness that transforms the meaning of ordinary objects. It is profounder in that it calls for a reorientation of the self that goes far beyond a commitment to an ideological credo. Secularism is not just about obeying the law; it is about inhabiting the world differently. In literature this means inventing new meanings for objects. Chaudhuri is particularly good at showing how secularism requires a radical reorientation of our experience of time and nature. It means a transition from a geography centred on sacred spaces to a material construction of space. It means a world where relationships are not submerged by identities, but are trying to struggle against them. It means moving from a world where objects have intrinsic significance to a world where human beings endow them with meaning. Quite how we endow the world of objects with meaning remains a large and open question. A lot of Chaudhuri’s work explores this question. He does not hesitate to point out that the demise of sacredness is often not replaced by a new sense of freedom. It can also just as easily be replaced by pure instrumentalism, where meaning is enslaved to commercial value.
Clearing a Space is also particularly concerned with rescuing the specifically literary from the over-determinations of politics and history. For one thing, Chaudhuri has, it seems to me, always insisted on the autonomy of the literary form as a value in its own right. Or, to put it less strongly, he has always insisted that form matters. In that sense, he has been close to Henry James’s claim that “Form alone takes, and holds and preserves substance—saves it from the welter of helpless verbiage that we swim in as in a sea of tasteless tepid pudding, and that makes one ashamed of an art capable of such degradation.” For James, the requirement in exactitude of form was so strenuous that almost no writer, not even Dostoevsky, could meet it. Chaudhuri is not quite so presumptuous. Part of the intricate task of his book is to show how attention to form reveals much more about authors like Rabindranath Tagore and Arun Kolatkar, than do the usual readings of their substance.
What makes Chaudhuri’s book distinctive as a work of literary criticism is the claim that modernity is not just a set of values; nor is modernity simply a series of aesthetic gestures. The normative and aesthetic are in a sense produced simultaneously: the sense and the sensibility are of a piece. The ways in which writers organise the world of everyday objects is as much a part of the reality they produce. Therefore, attention to small details in the text, from the positioning of objects to the rhythms of daily life, are all necessary to understanding how modes of experience, such as modernity and the secular, are produced. To put it somewhat epigrammatically, Chaudhuri takes secularism from the realm of a normative idea and makes it into a tactile and sensory experience. His claim is that this is part of what so many major writers are doing, and what most literary criticism misses entirely.
This allows Chaudhuri to wonderfully show how literature, cinema and painting organise time and space. His brilliant reading of Bollywood as a strange juxtaposition of two elements—a powerful grammar of the emotions on the one hand, and an attunement to the fundamental causal irrationality of the world, on the other—is a great illustration of this technique. The strange visual juxtapositions in any scene from a typical Bollywood movie, or the catalogue of coincidences that run through these films, are not, as it were, peripheral deficiencies of plot or form as judged from an idealised narrative of value. They are essential vehicles for expressing the fact that the world is indeed somewhat disjointed and not in the business of wholly making sense to us. It is precisely this attention to form that allows Chaudhuri to notice how in certain texts, Tagore is trying to create a sense of time that follows the interior rhythms of a psychological being rather than a cosmic cycle.
Chaudhuri’s other abiding concern in this work is the creation of a context for Indian literary criticism. Indian literature, with all the complications associated with the term, has not had a commensurate critical tradition associated with it. This is not just the prosaic matter of having few attentive readers. It is a larger conceptual issue about how one assesses the significance of the work if there is no context in which to place it. Such contexts as are there in critical writing are also over-determined by politics and history, leaving little room for things like form, technique and craft.
It seems to me that Chaudhuri’s claims in this respect are caught between two different ideas. One is the idea that there is actually very little critical context. The second is the idea that a unified sense of modern Indian literature is possible, and that this literature is a place where a distinctive sense of modernity comes into being. Chaudhuri does a valiant job of trying to identify the contours of such modernity. But the project seems hostage to his own scrupulousness. The reader cannot help thinking that the challenge to Chaudhuri’s idea of the Indian modern comes from something he is himself good at negotiating. This is the thought that Indian literature has suffered from the fate of being simultaneously judged by too many critical contexts, which tear it apart and make its achievements appear unstable.
Vernacular literature emerges out of a particular historical and imaginative experience. But it is then judged according to several discordant standards: Western literary criticism, traditional aesthetic forms, folk rhythms and the sheer weight of references they all carry. These incommensurable juxtapositions make it hard to stabilise any critical context; you get a sense of a literature fragmented by too many competing pulls and pressures.
In some ways, though Chaudhuri does not quite like the term, this is the burden of post-coloniality. Suppose you were to construct for Western literary works a critical context that takes into account canons and protocols of form drawn from several cultures, what would its critical context look like? What would happen to a literature if it internalised too many discordant standards of judgment? Would it, in some ways, disable that literature? Even as heroic an attempt as Chaudhuri’s at recovering an Indian modernity threatens to be overwhelmed by this overabundance of critical contexts.
This perhaps partly explains why so much of our criticism is hijacked by questions of politics and history. These seem to be disciplines from within which we can frame some common questions, even if we disagree. But as soon as one enters the realm of the aesthetic, the ghost of too many incommensurable standards begins to haunt a work. I am not defending aesthetic incommensurability as a philosophical claim. But there is a sense in which there is no sensus communis of judgement in Indian literary criticism. What is the community to which the writer imagines himself answerable? What is the tradition against which individuality emerges?
Chaudhuri is deeply aware that no modern Indian writer can give an easy or singular answer to these questions. But is it possible then to construct an Indian modernity at all? Or does it descend into a kind of heteroglossia? These questions evoke two kinds of responses. One is a hyper self-consciousness of the kind you find in Hindi writers like Agyeya, which gives their art a certain contrived form, an air of trying to assimilate all possible influences. The other is a kind of feigned naïveté about any critical context. In either case, it is difficult to construct a critical tradition. Chaudhuri himself is remarkably dexterous in handling so many discordant traditions of criticism, from postcoloniality to Sanskrit studies. But you can see why anyone trying to construct a critical context for Indian literature comes away unnerved.
Chaudhuri as a reader and a writer is hyper-attentive. The experience of reading him is not one of plunging into someone’s stream of consciousness. It is, rather, like a yogic exercise of immense concentration where each word and syllable, metre and object, is carefully unpacked. The world may be full of accidents, but there is rarely anything unconscious or accidental about a text. He is a master at teaching you how to read.
But in a strange way, Chaudhuri’s great analytical prowess seems to provoke a question to which Clearing a Space does not quite give an answer. A canon of criticism is often constituted by larger philosophical developments. Symbolists, for example, have an implicit theory of meaning; Chhayawad has a story about how language functions. It seems to me that Clearing A Space hints at, but ultimately avoids, two questions. The first is: to what extent does literary criticism depend upon larger philosophical claims about the nature of language, the nature of representation and so forth—and can we imagine a critical context without that engagement? The second is: In the realm of aesthetic value, how does one deal with the challenge of incommensurability that Chaudhuri so poignantly poses? Despite Chaudhuri’s brilliant efforts, it is our privilege and our burden to be heirs to so many communities of judgment that it now seems impossible to tell a single story about ourselves as readers or, indeed, any story at all.
Nakul Krishna has published reviews and features in the New Statesman, Sunday Guardian, Indian Express and Tehelka. He lives in Oxford, England, where he is working on a doctoral thesis in moral philosophy.
Saikat Majumdar, the author of Silverfish and Prose of the World, is an assistant professor of English at Stanford University.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta is President, Center for Policy Research, New Delhi. A winner of the 2011 Infosys Prize for Political Science, he writes on political theory and society and politics in India.