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A Happy Atheistic Deepavali (aka Diwali) to Each and Every One of You!

I’m an atheist. There was a time—a green adolescent time of stumbling discovery—when because of my atheism I refused to enter temples, choosing rather to wait outside while my family disappeared inside for a while. I remember very well an old and beautiful temple in Thirunelveli, quiet and dignified and redolent with the incense smoke of centuries. To the shock of relatives we were visiting I refused to enter it. Later, there were arguments about superstition and casteism and the dead weight of tradition that seemed—and actually were—urgent and unavoidable to me and my emergent atheism.

There was a time when I refused religious festivals too. I grew up with the annual wonder of Deepavali (which this year falls in the middle of next week). Waking up early; oil bath in the dark of pre-dawn to “cool” your body; new clothes; firecrackers; playing cards; endless feasting through the day; visiting friends and relatives. Festive sociality. Escape from routine. All this I gave up at a certain point. How can an atheist, I thought to myself, celebrate Deepavali?

I am different now. I enter temples. And in my own way I mark Deepavali. I understand now that people do not live by reason alone and that great things can sometimes be found hidden in (oppressive) tradition, including temples and festivals. I have learned the reverse of Walter Benjamin’s great dictum that a document of civilization is also a document of barbarism: I know now that many (certainly not all) examples of barbarism and oppression also have suppressed within them their own negation, their own more optimistic opposite. Mined in the right way they might very well be made to yield up egalitarian nuggets from within their dark barbaric depths.

And so, in that spirit, I wish each and every one of you (an advance) happy atheistic Deepavali. After all, the core of Deepavali, unlike many other Hindu festivals, is not caste-ridden ritual but sociality—the celebration of community, of relationships of friendship and kinship. The variety of stories associated with Deepavali shows that the festival has its origins as much in the folk and “lower” caste “little” traditions of India as the classical and “upper” caste great ones. What, then, is to stop us from taking the festival, with its festive lights and firecrackers and food and bonhomie, and making of it not a celebration of Rama or Krishna (as often done) but of our idea of community, of our notion of our connection to each other as human beings?

Yes, a very happy atheistic Deepavali to each and every one of you!

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Srinivasa Ramanujan and G. H. Hardy: Notes on the 100th Anniversary of their Friendship at the Height of Empire

Sometimes communion is harder to parse than antagonism. What leads people to take risks and violate taboos to express solidarity and friendship? This is a central question for E. M. Forster in Passage to India, which I am teaching right now. It is also the central question in the fascinating real-life story of the friendship between the British mathematician G. H. Hardy and his Indian counterpart Srinivasa Ramanujan, who went to England to collaborate with Hardy a few short years before Forster wrote Passage to India. (An Indian film about Ramanujan in Tamil and English has been released this year to mixed reviews.)

Srinivasa Ramanujan was, I am told, one of the great mathematicians of the twentieth century—I have no expertise in mathematics, and so I rely on the testimony of others here. But, mathematics aside, how do we evaluate the personal dimension—not to be understood as separate from the ideological—in Ramanujan’s relationship with Hardy? For five years following his arrival in England in 1914, Ramanujan formed an unlikely friendship with Hardy—one that Hardy called “the one romantic incident in my life.” Against all odds in that great age of empire and racism, Ramanujan and Hardy, so different in backgrounds, managed to regard each other with respect.

It might be tempting to conclude that in the Ramanujan-Hardy episode we have evidence of the objectivity of science—of the capacity of scientists to recognize worth regardless of background. But Hardy was not the first British mathematician to whom Ramanujan wrote. E. W. Hobson and H. F. Baker, also renowned Oxbridge mathematicians, had already rejected Ramanujan by the time Ramanujan’s famous letter introducing himself reached Hardy. Ramanujan’s biographer Robert Kanigel recounts too the prejudice that got in the way of Ramanujan’s success once he was in Cambridge.

How then do we account for the Ramanujan-Hardy relationship, so contrary to its times? Kanigel in his biography emphasizes how much at a tangent Hardy’s character was to the mainstream. He was a militant atheist, a pacifist, possibly homosexual, who routinely espoused sympathy for unions and labor agitations. In short, Hardy was all at the same time a feted insider to British privilege and a queer fellow at the margins of this privilege. Is it that privilege enabled his successful advocacy of Ramanujan, while queerness impelled him to attempt the advocacy in the first place? And what about Ramanujan? Was there anything more than ambition in the way he searched out Hardy and formed a friendship with him? We can only speculate about some of this. The paucity of the archive when it comes to Ramanujan ensures that some of the answers in the Ramanujan-Hardy relationship will never be known to us.

Because of trends in scholarship since Edward Said’s Orientalism (published in 1978), we know much about the antagonisms of colonialism. But what of the unlikely and romantic—to echo Hardy’s language—solidarities? A fuller understanding of how these came to be sustained despite contrary ideological currents remains an ongoing scholarly project, one that presents us with the knotty theoretical problem of having to read against, and often without, the public record. History is not only little help in this regard, it is a formidable obstacle.

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Teaching and Learning from Nadine Gordimer

Inarguably, Nadine Gordimer, who died recently, is one of the great writers of the twentieth century. She is not an easy writer to read. I should know since I teach her books often. Most of my students, undergraduate and graduate, have to be taught to appreciate novels like Burger’s Daughter—brilliant, dense, formally and politically challenging novels that demand the reader work to comprehend (for in Gordimer comprehending cannot be separated from working).

Gordimer, to my mind, is a writer’s writer. You could do worse than read her to learn the craft of writing. No doubt, in the school of Gordimer you would not learn “workshop” prose—none of that apolitical realism written in smooth prose taught in creative writing workshops. Alongside stunning feats of technical virtuosity, you would find a certain kind of didacticism. You would learn about being didactic in all the right ways, in ways we have ceased to expect of our “literary fiction,” which we have exiled to professionalized creative writing programs.

Gordimer’s unfamiliar marriage of ethics and aesthetics, earnestness and nuance, is part of her toughness. In Gordimer, didacticism is not the enemy of art. On the contrary, unlike the bad variety, Gordimer’s didacticism is internal to her aesthetic vision. I think this is what she means when she says in interviews that her writing took her to politics rather than the other way round. If your artistic vision helps you produce richly imagined political characters or, for that matter, apolitical characters confronted by deeply political situations, politics will necessarily enter your novel. And then you as a novelist have no need to be didactic, for your characters are didactic for you. This is what I try to get my students to see with a novel like July’s People, beginning with that didactic epigraph from the great Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci.

Gordimer often said that she did not set out to be political. Rather, politics entered her work because of the nature of her preeminent subject matter—life in apartheid South Africa. She is an unusual postcolonial writer—a white writer fully deserving of the term. This too provides great opportunities in the classroom. It is instructive to teach her alongside her peers Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ousmane Sembene—extraordinary African contemporaries who too in very different ways struggle with the tension between art and politics.

Wherever the art of the word is honored as a challenging and deeply ethical practice, Nadine Gordimer will continue to be read.

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Learning Soccer in Nigeria: Reflections, Prompted by the World Cup, on the Beauty and the Morality of Sports

I learned my soccer in Nigeria, at St. Gregory’s, the school I attended in Lagos in the 1970s. I remember one game in particular in which I scored from a half-back position, bursting uncharacteristically through opposing defensive lines to score a goal. It was an exhilarating moment of pure physical exertion. As the teams trudged back to their respective halves for kick-off, a rival player ran up and demanded, “What? You’re scoring nuclear goals now?” It was only after the game that I found out India had detonated an atomic device at Pokhran, thereby announcing its nuclear ambitions to the world. My Nigerian schoolmate, clearly more aware of world news, was alluding to this event in his irate challenge to me.

I confess I later, oblivious to the immorality of nuclear weaponization, swelled with pride at this acknowledgement of my prowess on the field. I was a postcolonial Indian boy in postcolonial Nigeria, not at all a simple thing to be, united with as well as separated from my Nigerian schoolmate in myriad ways by a global colonial history (subject for a future blog). Let us just say that the encounter on that Nigerian soccer field was overdetermined.

By now, you might be thinking I want to draw conclusions about sports and geopolitics but, no, this is a blog that heads in another direction. We know the intimate links sports has with identity—the ways in which, for example, nationalistic decolonizing movements were and are intertwined with sports. Global sports events, such as the cricket or soccer world cups, can hardly be free of these entanglements—indeed, they might very well be primary modes of establishing and advancing identitarian claims.

We know all this. As the soccer world cup in Brazil concludes, as a fan I want to ask rather about the converse—about what might be called the aesthetics of sports. What does it take to isolate the utter beauty of a great sporting event from its political connotations? What does it take to isolate my enjoyment of my own humble goal decades ago on a soccer field in Lagos from the postcolonial context in which it was scored? And what form might a defense of such aesthetic value take? Students of literary criticism will recognize the familiarity of these questions.

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Namaste: a contrary reading in which, with advance apologies to lovers of yoga, thoughts are offered about Walter Benjamin, caste, untouchability, civilization, barbarism, and radical politics (all in the space of a brief blog)

The German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin famously observed, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Namaste, linked inextricably to the hands-pressed-together gesture that accompanies it, might be an excellent illustration of this thesis. Of course, to enter with me into an exploration of what I mean here you first have to consent to an expanded definition of “document,” where the term refers not just to something written, or even to a text in the way a film is a text, but rather to any unit in any system of signification or meaning-making. Thus, to arrange your body in a particular manner (as in placing your hands together in the gesture of namaste) is to produce a “text” full of meaning that must then be “read” by your interlocutor (the addressee of your greeting). It is in this way that I term namaste a “document.”

So much for a breezy review of cultural theory. The verbal text of namaste is generally translated as “I bow to you,” and in this sense, accompanied by the aforementioned pressed hands placed before the heart, is indeed a wonderful Indian greeting of humility, vulnerability, and open-ness to the other. But is that all it is? Let me play the provocateur here. Consider this. Europeans shake hands in greeting, Arabs embrace each other, Maori touch foreheads and let their breath mingle. And then we have Hindus, who namaste each other from a safe distance.

What’s going on here? How do we “read” this discrepancy? Is it possible there is an aversion to physical contact in namaste? To cut to the chase: can we separate this long-distance civility that Hindus engage in from the culture of untouchability that pervades India?

As is well known, untouchability, or rather strict rules about who may touch whom under what circumstances, is a fundamental feature of caste. It is associated with notions of impurity and is one of the most obnoxious features of caste prejudice. Is it not perfectly reasonable, then, to speculate that namaste is exactly the kind of greeting that a culture of untouchability would produce? Is it not probable that the civilized document of namaste hides within itself the barbaric code of caste prejudice?

Civilization and barbarism—scratch the surface of one and find the dark depths of the other. How tragically fitting that a man who died fleeing the horrors of Nazism should have (perhaps much too presciently) provided us with such potent insight into the relationship between the two.

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” wrote Benjamin. What barbarism do you find in your cherished documents of civilization? Confronting that question might be the first step in a radical politics.

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Fathers and Fatherhood: A Report

This is what I have discovered about fatherhood as a son.

A father is a person that you know well, sometimes too well. Perhaps a father is even that person you helplessly grow into. That way in which you hold the newspaper when you read it? Yes, it’s true, that’s the way your father read his newspaper. You have decided never to worry about money (even as the unpaid bills rise ever higher on your desk)? That, as you no doubt know even if you won’t think about it, is exactly what your father would never have done. In this way, a father is never a complete mystery, for your father is in you. Pride or shame or indifference—whatever your assessment of your father, you move inexorably towards a knowledge of him.

But that is not the whole truth, is it? For your movement into knowledge over the years is asymptotical—you are that curved line that approaches the straight line of your father without ever touching except, as the mathematicians say, at infinity. At a certain point, if events proceed in a natural order, a father dies (as mine did a few years ago), and you recognize what you should have always known, that your curving knowledge, ever bending towards your father, will never make its ordained connection. So you will never know your father after all. Your father will always be an unavoidable mystery.

So much for what I know as a son. And then there is that which I have discovered as a father myself.

To be a father is to encounter a mystery that rivals the mystery that is your father—and that mystery is yourself. There is no handbook on how to be a father. You figure it out yourself, whether well or poorly or indifferently, as the case might be. At some point, your son will become eighteen (as my son will in a few weeks). He will become his own person. You have managed to get him there, to the threshold of adulthood. How did you manage it? There is no final answer to that question. But there are many small answers along the way—answers that amount to knowing yourself just a little bit more.

All life is a bending towards a knowledge of yourself. And you will know yourself, as you will know your father, at infinity.