Remember Phallocentrism? Remember Postcolonialism?: Bob Dylan’s Nobel Clichés and the Diminishment of Literature

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)]

The Word Is Resistance: A Personal Remembrance of Barbara Harlow and Her Legacy

“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.

Welcome to the Inauguration of the Banana Empire: Pablo Neruda and Donald Trump

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.

Theses on Trump (With No Apologies to Karl Marx, On Whose Indispensable Text This Blog Is Based)

[You may read the Marx text here.]

I

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.

II

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.

III

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.

IV

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.

V

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.

VI

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.

VII

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!

VIII

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.

IX

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.

X

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.

XI

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.

Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Why Bob Dylan Should Have Been Refused Admittance to the Nobel Prize for Literature)

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.”

Pariah and Pundit: Postcolonial Philology and the Caste History of English Words

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.

The Broken Buddha Statues of Bamiyan, or Bringing Back the Political Buddha

I learn from my friend Bishnupriya Ghosh’s Facebook post that the shattered Buddha statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan have been temporarily resurrected. The Taliban destroyed these statues in 2001. And now they have been revived as light images projected onto exactly the spot the statues occupied. I wonder what the Buddha would have thought of this resurrection of his purported stone likeness—this temporary revival of the likeness of a likeness.

The Buddha is famous for asking the woman who begged him to revive her dead son for a grain of rice from a house that had never experienced death—if she brought him such a grain he would perform the miracle of raising her son from the dead. The mother failed but I doubt her success in procuring a magical grain of rice was ever the point. The Buddha knew a thing or two about personal sorrow, or the cessation of it.

Today this Buddha—the Buddha of personal redemption—is the most prevalent. He is the Teacher who can lead you, without regard for the world at large, to a state of diminished sorrow. What a travesty—this is not the Buddha of history. Through their destructive acts the Taliban unintentionally remind us of a more complete picture of the Buddha. They are right to regard the statues of the Buddha as a threat, for the Buddha represents the antithesis of everything for which they stand.

The Taliban recognize the political force of the Buddha and so should we. If the broken Buddha statues of Bamiyan lead us to rescue the political Buddha from the clutches of the Buddha as lifestyle guru it would be an outcome well worth the loss of the statues.

Great Literature Should Refuse the Hegemony of Its Times: On Komal Swaminathan’s Tamil play Thaneer, Thaneer and the Need to Resist Anti-Poor Sentiments

Just in the last few days two people have written to me about Komal Swaminathan’s great Tamil play Thaneer, Thaneer, proving that thirty-five years after it was first staged the play continues to resonate across the world. The play, which I translated into English as Water!, deals with themes of poverty, drought and crises of democratic governance. The news from everywhere suggests, unfortunately, that these are not issues of the past—the setting is a humble village in South India, the real drama far more general.

From Chennai Pennathur Ramakrishna of Madras Players, the oldest still active English language theater group in India, writes that they are planning to revive my English translation on the stage in November. Madras Players staged my English translation for the first time in Chennai’s historic Museum Theatre in 2012. Mr. Ramakrishna had stumbled across my translation in a bookstore in Chennai. He was familiar with the celebrated performances in 1981 of the original Tamil version, directed by Komal Swaminathan himself, and was moved to attempt the play in English. So successful was that attempt that now they are reviving it “by popular demand” (as Mr. Ramakrishna puts it).

A few days after Mr. Ramakrishna wrote to me a message arrived asking whether I had access to the original Tamil text of Swaminathan’s play—a South Asian theater company in California is exploring the possibility of staging the play in the original Tamil. Bonded laborer Vellaisamy, Swaminathan’s heroic protagonist, had to murder his cruel master just to escape the village of his birth. But now it appears he might be traveling all the way to California!

It is terrific to see Thaneer, Thaneer receive this kind of attention. The play is legendary in Tamil theater circles and deserves to be known widely. There is also a personal reason why this attention is gratifying. When I translated the play I first contacted a reputed editor in New Delhi about publishing it—this was before Naveen Kishore and Seagull Books in Kolkata, really the best home for the play because of their distinguished drama list, understood the true value of the play and put my translation in print. I got a reply from the New Delhi editor, who will remain nameless, deeming the play dated and out-of-step with the times.

It was 1999 and no doubt the play was then, as it is now, out of sync with the shocking and facile anti-poor sentiments that surround us. In his play, Swaminathan shows that the poor must not be regarded as objects of our or the state’s largesse but rather as (potential) agents of their own destiny. The play, about which I have written in a scholarly vein in several places, is not without its blindnesses but it stakes out with great passion and art uncomfortable truths about the plight of the poor. That is what makes the play so relevant—more relevant than ever with every passing year. The play is great literature because it resists the hegemony of its times—such resistance is not a sufficient condition of literary greatness but it is, I would think, a necessary one.

Being Hindu in America: An Atheist’s Perspective on the California Textbook Controversy

Once again California public school textbooks are at the center of furious public debate. Groups that have declared themselves guardians of Hinduism are engaged in a campaign to rid California textbooks of what they consider grave, even discriminatory, errors.

Some of the controversy has concerned the use of the term South Asia instead of India—the aforementioned guardians of Hinduism abhor the use of South Asia to refer to what they regard as the historic area of India as a whole (that is India before partition in 1947). As a co-founder of SAMAR (South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection), I am familiar with this terminological debate. When we dreamed up SAMAR in 1992 in Austin, Texas, we deliberately chose the term South Asia to signal an inclusive and anti-nationalist perspective—we wanted to address not just Indians but also people who traced their origins to other parts of South Asia like Pakistan and Bangladesh. In a small way, SAMAR contributed to the spread of South Asia as a widely employed term in the US.

It was clear to me then that South Asia and India had different and differently valid uses based on what one was trying to say. Nothing has happened to change my opinion. The use of the term India by Hindu nationalist groups to refer to a geographical area that today includes several countries other than India is patently absurd. What might be less clear to those not steeped in these recondite debates is that this is also an attempt to advance a militantly expansionist idea of India. Hindu nationalists dream of an Akhand Bharat or Unified India—an India unified that is under Hindu ideals—and to substitute India for South Asia wherever possible represents their desire to smuggle in this idea of Akhand Bharat through a series of displacements that it would take me too long to explain here.

Another part of the California textbook controversy concerns caste or rather, to use the term I usually prefer, the varna-jati complex. The same Hindu nationalists launching covert campaigns for Akhand Bharat work ceaselessly to minimize the role of caste discrimination in India. Caste is not just Hindu, they say; caste is not the rigid system that Orientalists make it out to be, they declare; caste is not the sole reality of India, they argue—all of which is true, as I have noted in my own writings on this subject, especially in my book Flesh and Fish Blood. What the Hindu nationalists fail to add is that caste is nevertheless more Hindu than not, that caste and the discriminations associated with it have proven stubbornly resistant to eradication, and that caste is certainly one of the most significant aspects of the reality of India.

Hidden in the California controversy lie other important questions: Who speaks for Hindus in America today? Who should speak for them? Are practicing Hindus alone permitted to weigh in on questions regarding Hinduism? What about an atheist like me, who was raised in Hindu traditions? And what about someone who is neither a practicing Hindu nor was raised in a Hindu family but who has studied Hinduism deeply in a scholarly way?

I have an anti-identitarian perspective on these questions—which is to say, I believe anyone can speak on these matters but no one, Hindu or non-Hindu, can be exempted from being knowledgeable and balanced.

I am an atheist from a reasonably devout Hindu family who has raised an Indian American son in the US. I know from personal experience and from the experience of my son that there is much ignorant stereotyping of India and Hinduism in the US. Putting my atheism aside for a moment, I think it is worth insisting that textbooks appraise Hinduism with the same evenhandedness that they might other religions (for example, by noting that Hinduism is not devoid of democratic impulses), and that they be aware of the ways in which misconceptions about Hinduism might be used to bully Indian American children from Hindu families.

On the other hand, Hinduism has certainly been the basis for the abjection and rank oppression of large groups of people including Dalits—which is one of the reasons I am an atheist. Surely Dalit American children in California deserve the same right to a truthful assessment of their historical reality that Hindu American students do? Given the enormity of historical crimes done to Dalits and others regarded as “low caste” there can be no compromise here, no sentimentalism about tradition.

In the final analysis, Hinduism is as much a social phenomenon and cultural tradition as it is a religion; and in this context I have as much right to speak of it—as well as, if necessary, against it—as a devout Hindu.

Rohith Vemula, Researching My Forthcoming Novel, and the Startling Persistences of Caste

Several years ago I went to India on a research trip for my now forthcoming novel Ghost in the Tamarind. The novel is set against the background of anti-caste politics in South India, and I was interested in visiting some of the places in which I meant to locate the story. Amongst these places was my mother’s ancestral village in Thirunelveli. I know this village well because I have been visiting it since I was a child. Just across the border from Kerala, the village nestles under the peaks of the Western Ghats and is surrounded by verdant rice fields. This is prosperous country, with the kind of settled beauty filled with history that represents the best kind of riposte to the crude truths of Orientalism—the kind of truths that are all about the “timelessness” and “stagnation” of the Indian village. (You can see the pictures from that research trip here on my website.)

It would be easy to get sentimental about my mother’s ancestral village, especially for someone like me, who has never lived there but has been raised to think of it as “home.” The seductions of roots are more real than one imagines; at the same time, as an incident during my research trip conveyed to me unmistakably, when it comes to history there is nothing more dangerous than sentimentality.

The incident occurred on the second day of my visit, as I wandered my way through the village to the sandy bend of the river that flows past. Arriving at the bend, I encountered the village’s washerman—a small lean man who with his wife was laundering clothes in the flowing river. Drying garments were spread out on the sand. A little distance away his donkey—the beast of burden on which he carried clothes back and forth—was tethered to a bush.

I stopped to talk to this man, and soon learned that he had inherited his job from his father, and that it was becoming less and less feasible for him to continue in his trade. My sons, he said, no longer do what I do. They have moved away from here, this village. I will be the last man to serve as washerman in this village.

I nodded, thinking to myself, yes, a modernizing society shatters traditional caste roles. I asked, wondering about his sons, What do they do?

And then he said the thing that to me encapsulates beautifully—horrifically—the conundrums of caste. The answer was startling, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been startled. One of the sons, it turned out, worked in the laundry room of a naval base in Kerala; and the other in a similar facility in a hospital in Chennai! They worked, my friend the washerman told me with pride, in a modern workplace with washing machines and driers.

You can leave your caste profession, I observed to myself, amending my previous thought. But your caste profession it seems won’t leave you.

What should one make of this? Of course, in one sense both my first and subsequent responses to what the washerman said to me are equally flawed. It would be a mistake to draw grand conclusions from one brief encounter. Still, this episode from years ago has always stuck in my mind. I was reminded of it again when I read the recent sad news from Hyderabad regarding Rohith Vemula, the Dalit PhD student who committed suicide because of the discrimination he experienced. In both Vemula’s tragic death and in the story of the washerman’s sons there is something worth thinking about, unsentimentally, regarding the tenacity of caste identities—the washerman’s two sons avail themselves of the opportunities of a modernizing society to travel far away, only to end up in the same profession as their father; Rohith Vemula embraces higher education as a pathway to a better life, only to find, as he writes devastatingly in his suicide note, that “the value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.”

Rohith Vemula’s suicide note is enough to break your heart. I am tempted to say that in it, just as in the story of the washerman and his sons, we see the unstoppable force of a modernizing society encountering the immovable rock of caste—but of course that is only a smart sounding half-truth. There are no unstoppable forces or immovable rocks in history. India may have its deeply rooted structures, but it cannot be reduced to the timeless fantasy of Orientalism.

When it comes to caste, there are only heartbreakingly difficult realities; and the unavoidable, unsentimental truth that India’s future depends on a sincere, democratic, inclusive—indeed, revolutionary—solution to the conundrum of caste. That solution is possible but it will be hard fought.