MULOSIGE (Multilingual Locals and Significant Geographies) is a fabulous project at the School of Oriental and African Studies aimed at rethinking the literatures of the world. Led by Francesca Orsini, the project sets out to present alternative views of literary traditions. Recently the MULOSIGE group—which includes Karima Laachir and Sara Marzagora–asked me to write a blog on something I’ve been thinking about (and occasionally writing about) for a while: “postcolonial philology.” This is what resulted:
Journalist Gauri Lankesh has been shot dead in India.
The simple fact of the matter is that no democracy thrives by stamping out speech that challenges power. I am not a free speech fundamentalist (I leave it to right-wing ideologues in America to self-servingly use a narrow and formalistic understanding of free-speech rights in order to advance their agenda). At the same time, I certainly value free speech–not only as a writer and teacher, but as a citizen of the world.
The murder of Gauri Lankesh underscores the continued relevance of what I wrote in Words without Borders nearly two years ago in the aftermath of similar murders in India:
What is routinely under threat these days is not only the word but imagination and alternative understandings of traditions, including Hindu traditions.
I guess, in today’s world, it’s never too early or too late to register your opinion regarding the murder of writers.
The Mumbai film industry is finally making a film about Thugs. Starring Aamir Khan the film, Thugs of Hindostan, is slated to be released around Diwali (November), 2018.
As I and others have written, the British invented—yes, that’s the right word— a group of people called “Thugs” as they were completing their conquest of India (the Hindostan, complete with archaic spelling, of the film title). In that time of war and tremendous social chaos (the 1830s), robber gangs roamed parts of Central, Northern and Western India. Out of the actual depredations of these gangs and the folklore surrounding them, the British, starting with an ambitious young officer named William Henry Sleeman, fashioned a vast and complex discourse asserting that these “Thugs” were conspiratorial members of a secret and ancient cult of Kali worshippers called “Thuggee.” Never mind that the evidence for these assertions was weak and circumstantial—the claim was crucial in allowing the British to justify an authoritarian colonial state in India focused on violent “pacification” of brutal and evil “natives.”
A key text in this process of invention and justification—later the word thug itself moved into the English language in the form we now know it—was the bestselling 1839 novel Confessions of a Thug by Philip Meadows Taylor. Taylor claims in a preface that the novel is based on true people and events. This is the novel that the Mumbai masala film industry is planning to adapt as Thugs of Hindostan.
Of course, Thugs of Hindostan will not be the first appearance of Thugs on the screen. Famously, they are depicted in Stephen Spielberg’s deplorable Indiana Jones and the Temple Doom, where they present a formidable but demonic challenge to the ever-virtuous whip-wielding Jones (who of course triumphs at the end). Before Spielberg came Nicholas Meyer’s The Deceivers (1988), itself based on John Masters’ Christianly motivated 1952 novel of the same name. The cinematic adaptation departs from Masters’ ultimate expression of confidence in a Christian god without abandoning his colonialist perspective. At the end of the movie, we are shown William Savage flinging away his wooden cross. Christianity may be questioned in such a film, however, but not the civilizing mission of the West. The movie ends with the following text on the screen—“It took 20 years to eradicate thuggee. 400 thugs strangled themselves rather than betray the cult. Thuggee over time had caused almost 2 million murders.”
Two million murders? Really? Sounds like fake news to me. Or rather, colonialist discourse. Not surprisingly, the movie was protested even as it was being filmed in India.
I suspect Thugs of Hindostan, though adapted from the Taylor novel, will not reproduce the sensationalist fakery of Spielberg and Meyer. I would not be surprised however if it engages in its own form of mythologizing and fabrication. Early press indicates the Thugs of the film are now nationalist heroes fighting the British. Never mind that the evidence for this assertion is also as weak and circumstantial as the evidence for the British narrative of a bloodthirsty, human sacrificing cult.
Why is it so hard to narrate filmically what is likely the simple truth about the so-called Thugs—that they were in all likelihood robber gangs drawn from social groups facing economic decline and destitution that targeted whoever had money, whether British soldiers or Indian seths? The turn to crime to feed oneself and one’s family—haven’t countless films told that story in the past? Would that be such a hard story for the Mumbai film industry, which has made classics in this vein like Mother India and Deewaar, to tell?
I look forward to reviewing Thugs of Hindostan here in my blog a little over a year from now. Who knows, I might be proven wrong about the film despite the early press. In the meantime, we are left to consider the overwhelming power of binaries (colonialism vs nationalism)—and to contemplate how much easier it is to flip the narrative than tell the real, nuanced story.
[For more extended analyses see my essay Thugs and Bandits: Life and Law in Colonial and Epicolonial India and chapter 1 of my book Textual Traffic: Colonialism, Modernity and the Economy of the Text.]
Sometimes friends and colleagues outside India who know of my recent and forthcoming work relating to caste ask me to recommend contemporary novels or movies that might serve as an introduction to the subject. Unfortunately, there are still too few novels in English that do full justice to such a difficult topic. (I know, I am begging the question—will my forthcoming novel GHOST IN THE TAMARIND? We’ll have to see.)
However, Fandry (2013, in Marathi, dir. by Nagraj Manjule) and Masaan (2016, in Hindi, dir. by Neeraj Ghaywan) are two films currently available on Netflix (at least, in the US) that I usually mention without hesitation in response to such queries. Both films are of course subtitled (they are also available unsubtitled on YouTube). I share the criticisms of subtitling that many film studies scholars as well as cinephiles make. Nevertheless, Fandry and Masaan are worth watching.
I recommend Fandry and Masaan not only for the ease with which they can be accessed on Netflix but because of the quality of their filmic storytelling, the sensitivity as well as boldness of their treatment of caste, and their ability to tell stories that let in viewers from across India and across the world without pandering to them. This last feature of the films—a broad appeal that is combined with a strong sense of location—is not easy to achieve. The films manage this balance I think by placing at their core narratives that have a certain universality to them.
Fandry’s core narrative is about a boy (Jabya) at the cusp of adulthood who chafes against his “low” (caste-defined) station in life. The film is in a sense a coming-of-age narrative, though it is open to question whether at the end of the film Jabya has been given the space to mature in any positive sense. Jabya goes through various experiences in the film. He is attracted to a “high-caste” girl and repeatedly quarrels with his father. With a friend, he fruitlessly pursues a fabled black sparrow. This pursuit becomes a metaphor for his life. Fandry is set in a small village in Western India, and this setting allows the social relationships that hold Jabya in their grip to be portrayed with a clarity that would have been more difficult if the film had been set, say, in a city.
[Click Image for Official Trailer]
Masaan is less easy to summarize. It has more characters—and more fully developed characters—than Fandry. Like Fandry it focuses attention on young people just beginning to make their way in a world constrained by caste—though the four characters I have in mind here are young adults rather than teenagers like Jabya. Masaan’s approach to issues of caste is more layered and complex or, alternatively, more baggy. I suspect there are many aspects of the film that will remain opaque to uninformed viewers. Nevertheless, the core narrative of the film manages a rare psychological complexity about questions of caste without becoming inaccessible.
[Click Image for Official Trailer]
Both Fandry (Nagraj Manjule’s similarly themed 2016 film Sairat is also available on Netflix) and Masaan bring out the horrors of caste (or the varna-jati complex) with some subtlety and a considerable sense of outrage. In other ways, they are quite different. Fandry is darkly comic in parts though its overall anger is unmistakable. In contrast, Masaan is suffused by an atmosphere of tragedy and despair. The films are not an ethnographic introduction to caste—for a basic overview the uninitiated viewer will have to go elsewhere—but together they do capture effectively even for viewers who have not studied caste or grown up with its reality in their lives the moral and emotional quandaries at the heart of the varna-jati complex.
Oh, for the heydays of literary theory!
Earlier this month, Bob Dylan, winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, delivered the required lecture just in time for him to collect the nearly $1 million cash award associated with the prize. Speaking in his trademark gravelly voice, Bob Dylan gave the Nobel Prize Committee what they no doubt wanted. Dylan thanked the committee for considering the question whether his songs are literature and answering in the affirmative. Dylan’s lecture was declared “extraordinary and, as one might expect, eloquent” by Secretary Sara Danius of the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize. By co-opting the sung into the idea of literature, it seems, Dylan had given the Committee the relevance it craved.
Then again, you should be careful what you ask for. No sooner was the audio recording of the lecture released than charges of plagiarism descended upon Dylan. An essay by Andrea Pitzer in Slate argued that parts of the lecture are eerily similar to what is found on website SparkNotes crib sheets (consulted by countless students taking short cuts in their college education).
I recently had to deal with a student who did pretty much what Dylan seems to have as demonstrated in the Pitzer essay. When I called her in for questioning, it became amply clear that she had in fact plagiarized and had no first-hand knowledge of the works she was commenting on. I suspect nobody’s going to call Dylan in for questioning.
With regard to Dylan’s Nobel lecture, though, plagiarism is only the half of it—the other half is cliché.
Dylan constructs a venerable—and perfectly unimaginative—list of literary works and authors in his lecture. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of Two Cities. Kipling, Shaw, Camus, Hemingway, Shakespeare.
And especially Moby Dick and the Odyssey and All Quiet on the Western Front, about all three of which Dylan speaks extensively (and unoriginally and plagiaristically, it seems) in his lecture.
Bob Dylan is a transcendent musical genius—a voracious student and reinventor of musical form. It might even be argued that his songs can and should be considered literature—after all, as Dylan himself suggests, the exclusion of songs from literature when plays are readily admitted makes no reasonable sense.
Nevertheless, if the committee for the Nobel Prize for Literature was trying for relevance by awarding Bob Dylan, its gambit has badly backfired. The Nobel Prize for Literature, and indeed literature as such, has been diminished by the award to Dylan. The problem is not just the plagiarism. Rather, it is the very idea of literature that Dylan constructs in his lecture.
Taken individually, I can’t argue with Dylan’s list of literary works and luminaries—it has titles and names I have read and loved. Certainly, each of the works on Dylan’s list can be and has been considered “great” (whatever that means); taken together, however, the list induces nothing so much as a yawn. It is the reading list of a frighteningly conventional high school curriculum—one constructed in perfect ignorance of developments in the study of literature, indeed of “literature” itself understood in any meaningful sense today.
The list is perfectly conventional—and perfectly Eurocentric and patriarchal. There is not a single non-white or non-European or non-North American figure or text—no Frederick Douglass or the Ramayana or the Arabian Nights. There is not a single woman—no Sappho or Jane Austen or Mirabai (talk about song as literature). There is not even Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the greatest of Nobel laureates.
But here’s the thing: just because Dylan hasn’t read the West African Epic of Sonjara doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And just because he doesn’t know anything about the critiques of phallocentrism and Eurocentrism made decades ago in the best iterations of literary theory doesn’t mean a richer and more adequate idea of literature isn’t available should you want to find it.
Surely, the predicament of literature—assaulted from different sides by celebrity culture, commodification, more popular arts (music!), superficiality and a myriad other challenges—is dire. Irrelevance doubtless threatens. However, the path to relevance does not lie through plagiarism and cliché.
Bob Dylan is bigger than the Nobel Prize for Literature. The award has enhanced him but literature itself has been diminished.
[See also an earlier companion blog–KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCKIN’ ON HEAVEN’S DOOR (WHY BOB DYLAN SHOULD HAVE BEEN REFUSED ADMITTANCE TO THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE)]
“Where’s the next chapter?!”
That’s what Barbara Harlow wrote in my copy of Resistance Literature. I had graduated with my Ph.D. in 1993 and was no longer her student but, boy, were those words, down to that concluding exclamation point, seared into my mind! For two years I had heard them at regular intervals. They had helped keep me—as they had other doctoral students who had gathered around Barbara—on track to completion. Barbara inscribed those words in 1994, on a trip to New York, where I was then living. I had owned a copy of her book for years but, I guess, never bothered to have it signed by her.
Barbara’s gone now and it is time, sadly, to speak of legacies. One extraordinary legacy—hard to quantify but vital—is her work with graduate students. Barbara leaves behind generations of doctoral students she trained and helped secure academic positions. These students continue to develop and expand the work of the E3W (Ethnic and Third World Literature) concentration that Barbara helped found at University of Texas-Austin, albeit sometimes in ways quite different from her. In later years Barbara grew critical of many of the directions in which “postcolonial literature” went, but what she achieved for the literatures of formerly colonized places through her teaching and research cannot be overstated.
Resistance Literature, a lucid little gem of a book, remains to me the indispensible Barbara Harlow book. In it Barbara delineated a trans-genre category of literature in a manner that succeeding generations of scholars have found endlessly productive. If we speak routinely now of resistance literature it is because Barbara did so much to bring the term into critical fashion.
I teach Resistance Literature often (it teaches well at both the undergraduate and graduate levels) and when I do I emphasize the manner in which that book embodies what I consider to be quintessential Barbara Harlow critical traits—the attention to neglected archives; an undoing of received notions of what counts as literature; a productively tense (sometimes outright skeptical) relationship to theory; an acute recognition of the “theory” immanent within literary texts; a robust sense of what one might call practical politics (the politics of institutions, parties and movements) in whose context literature could be read in novel ways; and, above all, an unswerving commitment to the wretched of the earth. It is worth remembering that most of these critical tendencies were somewhat anomalous when Resistance Literature was published in 1987, a time of high intellection in the American academy. Into the hot sauna of hybridity theory, Resistance Literature poured like a cold shower of reality.
Barbara wrote a lot and edited a lot. There is much in her work that repays sustained study. Whether it is Barred, her book on prison literature by women, or the collections of primary documents she co-edited with Mia Carter, Barbara’s work carved out new terrain, staked out polemical positions, recovered forgotten voices. In Resistance Literature, Barbara wrote, “the emphasis in the literature of resistance is on the political as the power to change the world. The theory of resistance literature is in its politics.” Resistance, that’s the word for Barbara—an interest in and emphasis on resistance, it seems to me, is to be found everywhere in Barbara’s work.
I met Barbara for the first time within a couple of years of arriving in the United States, when I moved to Austin in 1989 to study with her. Austin was still a hippy-ish place then. Volkswagens and tie-dye shirts abounded. Barbara was no hippy but like the hippies sometimes glimpsed in the neighborhoods around campus she was at a tangent to hegemonic American culture.
At the same time, it has always seemed to me that there was a bit of American pragmatism in Barbara’s politics, that her desire to judge ideas and values by their practical consequences in the world owed something to radical American traditions. Barbara traveled widely in the world, spending time in France and Egypt and South Africa, and learned from everywhere she went. At the same time, she remained to my mind unmistakably American. In 2017, when Trump is working so hard to sully everything that America might stand for, it is good to remember that Barbara Harlow too was an American.
For all her American-ness, Barbara had a universal quality that I value more and more as I get older—persistence in struggle. Life’s default setting is to wear you down, to file away your contrary edges. If it doesn’t break you, life will fatigue you with its thousand cuts. Or else it will tempt you with the hundred comforts of compromise (of looking away, of keeping quiet, of taking the well-worn road of convenience). There was nothing convenient about Barbara. She was hard, as more than one person can attest. She was indefatigable in her commitment to inconvenient truths. She remained committed till the end to her values.
Barbara, I’ll miss you in all your hardness.
Here’s my next chapter.
Here are a few thoughts on the big event of this week…
Not so long ago, banana republic was a term used to describe countries in Central America run as family dictatorships. These were countries under the thrall of US imperialism. They were also oligarchic tyrannies subjugated to one family and to one (maybe two) industries. Aside from serving US economic and foreign policy interests, the point of these countries—the reason for their existence—was (had been made into) the aggrandizement and enrichment of a ruthless strong man, his family and his cronies. Forget serving the common people of the country.
Pablo Neruda, possibly Latin America’s greatest poet of the twentieth century, wrote a poem about banana republics entitled “The United Fruit Company.” Here are a few memorable lines describing the United Fruit Company of the poem’s title:
it abolished free will,
gave out imperial crowns,
encouraged envy, attracted
… flies sticky with
submissive blood and marmalade,
drunken flies that buzz over
the tombs of the people,
circus flies, wise flies
expert at tyranny.
That was 1950 and Central America. Fast forward to 2017 and the inauguration of President Trump later this week.
Do the lines feel newly relevant?
Can you hear the drunken flies buzzing?
True, the United States is no vassal state, neoimperialized into submission. It is a global power, the most powerful on earth. Still, surely, there is no need for me to connect the dots regarding the reality that is slowly coming into being (everything is a process, and fortunately nothing is irreversible).
No, the United States is no Banana Republic.
Welcome to the Banana Empire.
[You may read the Marx text here.]
The chief defect of all hitherto existing Presidents of the United States—and now inclusive of newly elected Trump—is that they are the creations/creatures of a deeply flawed political system that is democratic only in name.
Today democracy is a global idea. As we understand it, democracy—based on universal adult suffrage and elections through the ballot box—is a product of the twentieth century, the culmination of a longer historical process in which popular, even revolutionary, movements (the suffragette movement; decolonization) spread the utopian promise of a true equality through the idea of democracy.
When the suffragettes won in the United States, every American, man or woman, was deemed equal at least within the political system. When the British left India, the new republic granted political equality to every one of its adult citizens through the vote. This is the promise of democracy: Dear Citizens, you are all equal, and ultimately through the ballot box you are more powerful than those who rule you.
What a promise! Alas, the promise was twinned from its inception by its implacable enemy—revolution shackled to reaction from the beginning! Even as it was conceived in the most unlikely of places and times (for example, in eighteenth-century Haiti with leader of slaves Toussaint L’Ouverture) and came slowly to fruition in the twentieth century, the democratic promise was attacked, aborted, curtailed, sometimes KILLED (see Gandhi; see Martin Luther King; see Patrice Lumumba). Segregation, machine politics and an electoral college that has its roots in the 3/5ths compromise over slavery (United States); religious/casteist manipulation and patronage politics (India)—these are examples from just two countries of the counter-democratic reaction that everywhere shadowed the democratic revolution as its insidious twin.
Such is the history of struggle we must now pore over without despair. Such is the past that we must now diligently remember as we analyze the ascendancy of Not-My-President Trump to the most powerful office in the world. Let us state the matter bluntly. For some time now, the forces of counter-democratic reaction have been winning. American democracy is broken—though, of course, American democracy was always broken.
The evidence for this conclusion is everywhere if you will only look—the 46.9 % of the American electorate that did not vote in the just concluded election (why should they? what did they have to gain?); the 6.8 billion dollars spent (yes, that’s billion); the never-ending stories of a rigged primary contest within the Democratic Party that led to a flawed insider candidate being anointed the nominee; the cozy collusion between virtually all politicians and Wall Street and lobbyists. All the evidence points to a rigged system that is democratic only in name.
Not-My-Candidate Clinton is not, and never was, the solution. She—she of the unreleased Wall Street transcripts and a thousand shady transgressions—was always part of the problem. Here’s the truth: she and the Democratic Party elite enabled the rise of Trump by ruthlessly quashing the most progressive elements of their own party, by rigging the system so that the small sliver of hope named Bernie Sanders could not get the nomination. Can you say it? Counter-democratic reaction!
Materialist doctrine—a way of thinking and acting that does its homework by being attentive to circumstances of history and society—requires us to insist that Trump is not an anomaly, an outlier, of a system that is otherwise just and fair. No, the system is broken and it would not have been any less broken with Clinton as President.
I know. Clinton and Trump are not exactly the same. I understand. I get it. I really do (how could I not given who I am, given the color of my skin?). I have no doubt that the election of Clinton rather than Trump would have kept in check some of the worst hate we are now going to see.
I have no interest in posturing with a holier-than-thou righteous radicalism. Real lives are going to be affected because of the just-concluded election. Immigrants, Muslims, women—all the targets of Trump’s invective filled campaign are newly vulnerable. The crazies have a new bullhorn. And no amount of “correct analysis” uncovering “the conditions of possibility of reaction” and “the socio-economic roots of white rage” can erase the need to act now—NOW!—in material ways that protect the most vulnerable among us.
False democrats have only mouthed the platitudes, in various ways; the point, however, is to achieve true democracy. To that end let us recognize both the slow, hard work of understanding the deep past of the democratic struggle and the urgent task of defending those over whom the sword of repression newly hovers. Yes, this double task is hard—whoever said true democracy is easy? The road ahead is cloaked in darkness and filled with many impossible forks. But, dear fellow citizens, we are not entirely without rules of navigation. Practice compassion (see: the Buddha) and when at a fork, friends, go left, always left.
This is a blog that tilts at windmills.
No, Bob Dylan does not deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The dust has settled, the hoax articles about Dylan refusing the Prize have all been written and debunked, and still I haven’t changed my mind—I don’t think Dylan deserves this most widely acclaimed (the Nobel!) of literary awards.
It’s not about Dylan, who’s a great songwriter and maybe even a poet. Not just Dylan, but no writer who writes in a European language deserved the Prize this year. Or last year. Or will deserve it next year.
Let’s keep it short and not sweet. Let’s just say no one writing in a European language deserves the prize more than once every five years. Let us say that for four years authors writing in Tamil, Gikuyu, Arabic, Hawaiian and other such languages should receive the Nobel. And in the fifth year, maybe, someone writing in a European language—but preferably from somewhere outside Europe and North America—should be considered.
Follow this practice for thirty years, or even just twenty, and you might begin to redress the grave poetic injustice perpetrated by the Nobel—I mean the grave injustice of giving the prize year after year to writers who not only write in European languages, but are from Europe or North America, as if only these writers and these places count. Follow this practice rigorously and you might begin to change the notion that only literature written in European languages and carrying aesthetic values produced and nourished in the soil of these languages is worth recognition.
Let me be clear—this is not identity politics. It is not about every nation or race getting its due. Forget nations, forget races. Knock, knock, knock on the door that leads you to the materiality of languages, literatures and histories. This is a door that Mr. Nobel Prize knows nothing about.
My point is ultimately about languages dying across the globe, and along with them literatures—in the plural—too. My point is about literary traditions and cultures being lost, replaced by the monoculture of English and of the world literature idea (as if all cultures have or should have only one idea of literature, the world literature idea). My point is about the literary monoculture for which Mr. Nobel Prize, blissful in his ignorance, stands.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing inherently wrong with English (or any other European language). Indeed, English is the language in which I work primarily, whether I am writing fiction or criticism. I have read my Shakespeare and loved him. I have read and loved my Toni Morrison and my R. K. Narayan and my Nadine Gordimer too.
I am not arguing for the inferiority and inadequacy of English. Rather, my concern is (for example and only as example) that the language of Tamil will become extinct; and even more so, for the language is currently thriving, that associated Tamil aesthetic sensibilities and literary cultures will go the way of the much-mourned dodo. Even if the language survives, what guarantee that the literary culture nurtured by it for millennia too will? No doubt some of this literary culture—the patriarchal, casteist part—should die; but does that mean that the literary culture as a whole should be replaced by a sad imitation of the metropolitan literary culture of English and Mr. Nobel Prize?
No, Mr. Dylan does not deserve his Nobel. And in point of fact Mr. Nobel Prize does not deserve his outsized influence either. After all, Mr. Nobel Prize does not care a whit about Eurocentrism. He is both (it is complicated) the master and the servant of power, and will not change until the global currents of cultural power do.
So, forget petitions and pleadings and fulminations. This is a blog that tilts. Begin with the daily work of writing, thinking, teaching, arguing, alternative institution building and, yes, tilting, albeit at windmills. The tilting at windmills, you see, is just practice. As the so-called European Aristotle noted, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
Can there be such a thing as postcolonial philology? I am prompted to pose this question by the impending workshop on Caste and Life Narratives at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa. The workshop is related to a forthcoming special issue of Biography edited by Charu Gupta of Delhi University and me (side bar: much gratitude to the journal for responding enthusiastically to our proposal).
The workshop, which will be held next week, has me thinking of the subterranean travels of caste into the English language. Given the centuries-long British colonial presence in India, and the even longer presence there of English, it is hardly surprising that words of Indian origin have found their way into the language. Interesting in this context are the translations the words have undergone—especially those words that remain marked in unacknowledged ways by the social history of India, including the history of caste (or, to use the term I prefer, of the varna-jati complex). I believe a postcolonial philology can provide novel insights into this social history.
Pariah is one word that illustrates the rich philological possibilities I am alluding to here. I and others have written at length about the history of exclusion that remains overt in the word—indeed, isn’t the English word quite simply definitive of such exclusion?—even as the true and atrocious etymology remains buried (see my Flesh and Fish Blood). Pariah is an Anglicization of Paraiyar, a caste name (more precisely a jati name). Paraiyar refers to one of the erstwhile so-called “untouchable” jatis to be found in South India (Tamil Nadu and Kerala). (I say erstwhile in recognition of the abolition of untouchability in law in independent India. It is true there is a gap between the legal framework and reality but I would be a poor student of history if I did not recognize the heroic efforts that led to the creation of laws targeting jati discrimination.)
Native speakers of English know they don’t want to be pariahs, but how many of them are aware that the word has its origins as an appellation for a group of people who suffered horrific shunning within a highly structured social system with a deep history? Considering it inescapably tainted by the whiff of degradation, many intellectuals and leaders of this social group have long since discarded the use of the word Paraiyar in referring to themselves. Meanwhile, native speakers of English continue to be blithely unaware of the anglicized version pariah’s association with the terrible history of an actual community of people.
Another English word that a postcolonial philology might explore from a “caste” perspective is pundit. The word, meaning a learned or wise person (though now, increasingly, used sarcastically), comes from the opposite end of the varna-jati spectrum from pariah. Pundit is borrowed from Sanskrit, probably via Hindi. It is not at first view a jati name—it does not refer to or name a particular jati community in the way in which Paraiyar does. Pundit is simply a title and as such can be donned by anyone (indeed the Adi Dravidar, or so-called “untouchable,” Tamil scholar and activist Iyothee Thass is often honorifically identified with the title Pundit). Nevertheless, the word has a definite patrician, even Brahminical, air about it since it is most commonly used to refer to Brahmin priests. How many native speakers of English in other parts of the world, or for that matter in India, reflect on the possibility that they are reinforcing casteist ideas of knowledge and wisdom—ideas of the innate wisdom of certain groups of people—by using the word pundit?
Obviously, by posing these questions I don’t intend to suggest that native speakers who are unaware of the etymology of words such as pariah or pundit become casteist simply by using them. At the same time, as philology teaches us, languages and language use are consequential. Languages commit us to certain perspectives on the world, though not in a deterministic way—I am enough of a writer to believe in the possibilities of imaginative transcendence inherent in all languages, in language as such.
The point of a postcolonial philology would be to explore languages as repositories of the social history of colonial encounters and of postcolonial societies—and then after exploring, where necessary, adjust language use. It is in this context a postcolonial philology can be useful in providing us with a method to trace and assess the transmission of ideas and values across cultural and linguistic divides.