Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Feet of Clay: Amitav Ghosh and the Imperial Indian Gaze

A couple of days ago, an interview, of the part-time Goa resident author Amitav Ghosh, with Lila Azam Zanganeh for the magazine Guernica created something of a storm of outrage. Ghosh had suggested in the course of conversation, that ‘one of the wonderfully liberating things about India; [is that] it lets you be exactly who you want to be.’ One can see why this statement would generate a furor; a Dalit activist friend responded to this particular line by saying ‘say this to a Dalit, dear writer’. How can one forget that in various parts of India, on a daily basis, people (and not just Dalits) are not allowed to be who they want to be. They are not allowed to marry who they want, or wear the clothes that they would like, nor live where they want. In very many of these cases, when these people dare to be who they want to be, they are killed.

This sentiment of ‘freedom’ could easily be pulled out as the leitmotif of Ghosh’s responses to Zanganeh. A little later in the conversation, Ghosh suggests that the freedom of constant movement between continents and nation-states is ‘true of almost everyone I know.’ The problem with this assertion, even more laughable than the first, is that the freedom of movement between countries is not as easy as Ghosh presents it to be. Given that international travel is premised on procuring a visa, it is an extremely exclusive process, and even for those who manage to travel, a humiliating process. It is only a select group of people that are allowed the constant back and forth travel that Ghosh asserts for the populations of the world, even as he draws this ‘truth’ from the context of his own circle of the privileged global elite.

I was first introduced to the gossamer prose of Amitav Ghosh via his book In an Antique Land. Having subsequently gifted copies of the book to friends and family, I tracked down his other works, devoured post-colonial theoretical reflections based on his work, and recommended some of these works for courses I have taught. Ghosh’s narrative voice was a critical voice emerging from India. It transcended the national boundaries that seek to confine the Indian’s imagination, and re-introduced us to the multiple strands, ranging from Egypt, Bangladesh, Burma and farther afield to America, Britain and ‘Indo-China’, that comprise our intimate histories. In the Guernica however, Ghosh seemed to demonstrate a more fettered imagination, one chained to the contours of the Indian nationalist project.

Ghosh spoke frequently of a ‘we’ in the course of the interview. This ‘we’ were multiple groups he was speaking for; for those of the colonized, the people from the south, the people now emerging from ‘the long night of colonialism’. As should already be painfully obvious however, while encompassing this multitude, Ghosh is particularly representing, the ambitious, and grasping elites of these formerly colonized spaces, and definitely those from India. Their project, as is Ghosh’s, is ‘to claim the world from a point of view other than that which has been handed down from the West.’ He is, Ghosh informs us, 'looking at the world as an Indian.' His narratives then, as beautiful and complex as they may be, are the narratives of a group that now presumes to speak for the multitude. The stories comprise multiple strands, not only because this is the story of the subcontinent, but because they are part of the project where the Indian will speak for the (formerly colonised) world.

Ghosh suggested his perspective was informed by the fact of being ‘from a … large, increasingly self-confident country.’ Self-confidence however would involve drawing attention to the serious problems that continue to rack India, even as one burnishes the image of India Shining. Ghosh’s singular failure to do so, places him in the same position as the rest of the, in reality, deeply insecure Indian elite.

Deeply insecure of their place in the world, it is a group that revels in its own freedoms and its accomplishments. Thanks to its insecurity, this group is particularly deprecating of others, and almost completely self-involved. Consider Ghosh’s reflection that ‘What we see today in that nation-state is fading to be replaced by these enormous diasporic civilizations. India is one, China is one, England is one, France is one. Today it’s in fact those countries which are more and more tied to the model of the nation-state that seem more and more parochial—like America.’

America is the bad guy primarily because it is the imperial center that India aspires to be, and because the Indian desperately desires American recognition of its place in the world. Indeed, run through the latter part of the interview and one gets the distinct impression that Ghosh is in fact obsessed by a desire for American recognition. Representative of this desire for recognition is the embarrassingly insecure assertion that ‘People always think of Asians as being just involved in addressing science. Actually what you see is that this whole Asian diaspora is very profoundly involved in the production of ideas, in literary production, cultural criticism.’

Britain (and indeed France) may prove to be less of a problem, since these are now largely powers that while significant, maintain their power through association with America. While America may have its problems, and it does, it is hardly more parochial than India and its diasporic populations. Can we forget that a good amount of the funding for the hate campaigns in India come from India’s diasporic communities abroad? India may provide its diaspora with the benefits of Overseas Citizenship and forge this mirage of becoming a ‘diasporic civilisation’. However, let us also not forget that it is partly a diasporic imagination that ensures that the presence of the Indian nation-state is viscerally and violently present in Kashmir. And it is precisely India’s imperial ambitions that ensure similar situations in the North East and in the forests of Central India. For those outside of the charmed circle of international cocktail elites, the nation-state is not going anywhere, and the diaspora is a part of the problem, not the solution.

It is also the Indian elite's imperial aspirations that allow them to use the word Indian when they should in fact, be using the word South Asian. What the continued use of this imperial term for the subcontinent represents is the Indian elite's continued attempts to grasp the umbrella of paramountcy that the British Raj refused to devolve to 'India that is Bharat'. Ghosh is not innocent of this attempt, he has used the word Indian when others have markedly used the word South Asian.

So insecure is this Indian elite, that they need to assert that the origins of global culture in India. Ghosh mercifully restricts his claims for India to being the original font to Aesop’s fables, and the Arabian Nights. The more extreme are known to go to even more ridiculous lengths to establish primacy in intellectual production. How different really is this from the old tired claims of the European colonizers that sought to civilize the coloured person? If one is indeed interested in speaking for the colonized world, would it not have made sense to assert a commonality and shared production of a global culture, rather than asserting this claim of primacy in cultural production?

The point of these reflections is not to discredit Ghosh’s work. His work is important and beautiful. It can be read for meaning beyond the opinions that Ghosh demonstrated in his interview with Guernica. Furthermore, Ghosh is careful to abjure the more problematic tendencies that colonize the minds of the Indian elite. His rejection of the nasty prejudices about Muslims that populate the work of Naipaul, would be one example. Nevertheless, his writings do contain an ambiguous position on the figure of the Muslim. However, the interview demonstrates a couple of critical factors. First, that the writing of these new Indian voices is not innocent. As liberating as they may be, they are nevertheless the softer, liberal voices of an Imperium waiting in the wings. This is not just an Imperium of the Indian, but also of those dominant powers within the former colonized world. We have everything to fear from the elites of these proto-Imperia. Secondly, the interview demonstrates a point made in an earlier edition of this column, that the assumedly secular elites of this country, present their own challenges to the successful achievement of a secular polity. Their secularism, is not necessarily a commitment to a space where difference can thrive. This secularism is one more marker in the long term game being played for dominance both within and outside of the boundaries of the Indian nation-state.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 25 May 2011)


Anonymous said...

France maintains its 'power through association with America'.

This is a ridiculous statement and shows a profound and radical misunderstanding of the country you refer to. Its quite typical at times of these moralistic sweeping statements and tones you adopt which can well impress the 'common man' on the street but not by any stretch any serious social scientist.

We all have to earn our bread but you could apply your intelligence in a far more productive and impressive manner than these self-satisfied rants of yours.

A partial secret admirer!

Jason said...

Dear Partial Secret Admirer,

Thank you for your comment.

By France's association, I did not mean to suggest that they act in concert. Rather that in a unipolar world, power comes from both toeing the line, as well as rebuffing positions.

I do not claim expertise on all matters, but I think this formulation of power is a safe enough proposition, that could no doubt be nuanced. The French position, is however not the thrust of my argument.

P.S. I would LOVE to be able to abandon the 'moralistic sweeping statements and tones'. Help me!

Anonymous said...

You attack Ghosh because what he says is not what you'd like to hear. Is that right? I find a lot of your other views also misplaced. Jason, clearly you hate certain things very strongly, in particular any kind of bullying. What we HATE so strongly, we end up becoming. You my friend have started passionately hating a certain kind of hatred, or your perception of it. I don't know what in the past has lead to this. I can only pray that you will wake up soon. Know that ailments of society have never been cured by hatred, but by compassion.

Jason said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for your 'compassionate' message. May i point out though that compassion requires a certain bond between individuals which your anonymity prevents. But then that is your choice.

I don't know about hate. There are some things I will not tolerate silence on. Especially because this silence will allow for the injustice that this 'thing' stands for to be perpetrated.

I do know however, that however strong my views, I am open to hear the other's side of it. I know to recognise how a person has gotten to that position and to understand it (read my response to the pain Karmali encountered as a young man).

Finally, I do not attack Ghosh because what is says is not what I would like to hear. I critique him because what he says is dangerous.

Ajit said...

Some crazy comments here!

Not every discussion about India needs to be turned into its disregard (admittedly total as it is) for the downtrodden, the Dalits. That those with agencies and voices usually ignore the 80% of the population is surely an issue. But to infer that "the elite" (as you call them) are insecure defies logic. I happen to think Ghosh is actually drunk with his Indian-ness here. Such self-aggrandization ultimately doesn't usually bode well; however, I don't see even a trace of insecurity.

Jason said...

Thank you for your comment Ajit.

Let me first begin by acknowledging that perhaps there is too much being twined under the rather large term of 'elite'. I often feel uncomfortable with the term, even though I use it, because it does not feel precise enough.

I do speak of how the Dalit is ignored, and perhaps it get tedious. But I'd like to believe I do it, from different perspectives, so one is constantly seeing a new form of how this disregard operates. And even if it does get repeated, surely there is cause enough to speak about it! :-)

Besides, in this particular essay, I touch upon the Dalit once, and then move on.

Finally, the insecurity I bring in, is only a reference to other works that speak of the elite (there I go again!) Indian's insecurity stemming from a colonial humiliation. The pride in this (non-existent) golden age of pre-colonial India, is in fact the response to the colonial humiliation the upper caste and class elites felt during the British colonial period. What I am doing is not innovating, but only bringing a frame already used, to prove its point.

Anu Ramdas said...

very nice jason, i like the focus on the insecurity of the elites, though, i find the term' insecurity ' too mild a term. this fear and anxiety of the elites world over propels the mega processes, we need a whole battery of analytical tools and vocabulary to talk about this massive negative force within these small powerful groups of people.

Bene Nightchild said...

It is unfortunate that Ghosh continues to disappoint, following on his acceptance of the Dan David Prize: http://electronicintifada.net/content/groups-amitav-ghosh-dont-accept-dan-david-prize/1053.

Amita said...

Good article! I read the interview, and he even speaks of how 'all Bengalis' learnt Persian in the 19th c. and everyone also knew Sanskrit. Bizarrely elitist!

Anonymous said...

More on India's contributions to the world: http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?214549

Anonymous said...

"Insecurity of the Indian elite"? more like arrogance towards the weak and servility towards the strong

Jamie said...

Speaking from someone living in Diaspora, I kind of have to agree that funding and money coming from diaspora communities are proving dangerous to India's unresolved issues, such as Kashmir and the North East. But, I reckon that allowing Oversees Indians, like myself, to be oversees citizens of India will help to bridge the gap between what we know and hear (presumably from the government or 'elite' population) and what is actually happening, an access that we cannot be granted without visiting and living in India. Maybe this would allow those with the finance to use it for a good cause.
Also, I don't actually think you (writer of this article) hates Ghosh, or indeed the Indian 'elite'.
Further interesting, is that we begin to explore Ghosh's comments through the idea that the 'elite' are insecure because of colonial humiliation which made them also create a 'golden age', but I just feel that this idea is now outdated, and I think we can come up with new ideas and theories for why the contemporary 2011 Indian elite appears to be 'insecure' (if that is what they are). If they are arrogant, why are they? And the reason why I say that the colonial humiliation and golden age theories are outdated is that we can now clearly see that every society has an 'elite' or arrogant set of members, and this could also help to understand why India's elite appears to be what it is.

Rahul Banerjee said...

ghosh's statements do reflect a disconnect with the sordid reality that prevails in India though it is not clear whether it is a deliberate attempt on his part to mask that reality out of insecurity as you imply. that is a hunch on your part which can be as good or as bad as the hunch that he is a CIA agent!

Samia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Samia said...

Darling Jason!

Its a beautiful and thought provoking article you have written. It would seem that Ghosh is a clear example of how the South Asian elite - to which we both belong - are forever trying to find the way to be elite in the best way possible. Ghosh's comment that 'all' Bengalis in the 19th century learnt persian betrays this desire he has to be elite in way that British imperialism forced us to forget. He aspires to a sophisticated, humane, elitism - undoubtedly a project tied to the rise of Imperial 'india.' All I want to know is why you put so much energy into taking down Ghosh, when there are lots of other elite individuals and organisations who are the agents of ACTUAL indian imperialism; who make, invent and propagate institutions that further entrench and separate the elite from majority lived reality in South Asia. My point is Ghosh operates in the realm of ideas and representation. He is less responsible for the uglyness of gross inequalities of 'India' then many other elites. After all, all he does is 'Gaze' upon the multitudes. What i want to see you do critique a moment when a corporation, individual or a nation-state directly changes the material reality of non-elite South Asia. It would ultimately be a more meaningful attack on South Asian elitism. The point of my comment is not to discredit your work. Your writing is important and increasingly beautiful. But then so is Ghosh's! Ultimately I guess I just think there are better use of your talents, more biting ways to expose Indian elitism, then having a go at Ghosh.

Yours forevermore