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“Why are you so suspicious of pleasure and delight?” I asked the students on Google Meet. I later wondered whether that sounded like a moral question, but a few of them volunteered responses. Their answers told me that they didn’t quite understand whether I was scolding them good-naturedly or praising them.
It wasn’t really their fault. In most — almost all — of the literature courses they take, the texts they study are supposed to be illustrative: They are used to critique some kind of -ism that is being scolded or praised by the course instructor. I remind myself, and my students, that when the discipline began life in the 19th century, the first professors of English literature often had backgrounds in rhetoric and theology, and were concerned primarily with the transmission of moral and religious values. Only decades later did the discipline become predominantly concerned with directing our attention to beauty and its backstory, as well as to stylistic and aesthetic questions that had previously been considered extraneous to academic study. Initially, it was possible to see this as an addition to the territory covered by literary studies: not only law and morality but also beauty and form. But we are often left with the impression that beauty (I’m using it as shorthand) must exist in stark opposition to morality, even as, living from moment to moment, we are made aware that they coexist, without disharmony.
Today, there is a welcome movement among some North American scholars to emphasize enchantment and attachment as responses to literature that are as valid as moral analysis. Still, I know of no literature department in any culture — and certainly not in any of the Indian languages — that suffers from a surfeit of pleasure.
I offer these summaries as an outsider. I wasn’t born in America or England, and I wasn’t a participant in, or even a contemporary observer of, Anglophone literature departments. I am a postcolonial citizen reading the white world reading.
I am a postcolonial citizen reading the white world reading.
I notice what has been well-documented: How the creation of “area studies,” its support coming from espionage funds of the American government, led to the incorporation of literatures from these unknown cultures into white literature departments. I use “white” in the most matter-of-fact, self-evident way, without anger. That was what it was, a crowd of white writers, primarily male, squatting on syllabi for decades. They had written about things that struck their fancy: elephants, women, mountains, wars, a cup of tea, a day in the life of an unremarkable person. The syllabus-makers had legitimized their wandering. It was all right, the white writer could write about anything.
The expectation of the nonwhite writers was different. They were to be tour guides to their cultures, burdened with satisfying the intellectual curiosity of the white world. As Amit Chaudhuri wrote in his essay “I Am Ramu,” published in n+1, “The important European novelist makes innovations in the form; the important Indian novelist writes about India. This is a generalization, and not one that I believe. But it represents an unexpressed attitude that governs some of the ways we think of literature today. … The American writer has succeeded the European writer. The rest of us write of where we come from.”
In India — where I now teach in the English and creative-writing department at Ashoka University, about 45 kilometers from the capital city of New Delhi — what began with Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth performing their roles as researchers for this new reader soon turned into a habit. Rushdie had tried to bring the linguistic energy of a whole culture into his representation of the Indian nation; Ghosh a Stephen Greenblatt-influenced understanding of history into the historical novel; Seth a sentimental appraisal of an India that had now disappeared. They were ambassadors of the Indian nation, often thought to be “representing” India just as artists and performers represented it in Festival of India programs abroad.
This wasn’t, of course, what Seth and Ghosh and Rushdie had set out to do; it was just how their work had been appropriated by this new and foreign readership. At the same time, any writer — or any text — that did not fulfill the purpose of national ambassador risked being ignored or rejected by the academics — whether in India or abroad — who were designing courses about postcolonial Indian literature.
The consequences of this are far-reaching. I looked at a sampling of English-literature question papers in Indian universities, primarily in the country’s provinces, where an American understanding of Indian writing has been imported without any skepticism or unease — this despite professors teaching courses on power and imperialism. Courses have titles like “Indian Writing in English,” “Postcolonial Literature,” “Indian Literature in Translation,” “Commonwealth Literature.” The questions asked of the students are revealing. “Analyze Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines as a critique of the nation-state”; “Write a note on Velutha as a Dalit character in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things”; “Discuss Things Fall Apart as a postcolonial novel.”
By contrast, in the same departments, William Blake was being studied as “a precursor to the Romantics,” W.B. Yeats as “the last Romantic,” John Donne as “a metaphysical poet,” Virginia Woolf as “a stream-of-consciousness novelist,” and so on. If the contrast in the pedagogical approaches to the “third world” literatures and Euro-American literatures is still not evident, one can just jog down to the early British literature paper, and then to the Renaissance.
Postcolonial texts seem to have two jobs in these syllabi: They either negatively illustrate some form of moral or social misconduct, or they positively represent a “marginalized” culture or geography. Ideally, they do both at once, often in the manner of a Live Aid concert. The genre chosen for such illustrative purposes is most often the Indian English novel and, occasionally, the Indian novel in English translation.
Even a casual glance at these reading lists will reveal the priority given to literature that resembles a Republic Day parade. Like those tableaux representing the different states of the Union of India, the Indian English novel must always speak for a culture, either geographical or moral. This is a burden of nationalism that seems to have escaped even the nationalism-skeptics in academia, so much so that it gradually solidified into a requirement of the genre.
While academics often see themselves as correcting the oversights of mainstream publishing, in this case, the two have colluded, even if unconsciously. Just as Indian professors feel a responsibility to assign “representative” texts, so within Indian English publishing, editors and publishers — beneficiaries of various kinds of privilege — have felt a moral responsibility to present and represent those they considered left out of their understanding of literature. That category included the Dalit, the Adivasi tribes, occasionally women. To publish these “unknown” and “unheard stories” — phrases that attend many of the blurbs of books about these cultures and people — is their version of affirmative action, almost akin to wearing hand-loom textiles to register their support for the poor weaver.
This enterprise has had consequences besides the intended ones. The “Adivasi” and “Dalit” writers these publishers championed became just that to the reading public: one picked up a book by such a writer to become a better person. Juries giving prizes followed the same path: By giving a literary prize to someone they had identified as a subaltern, they were in fact trying to give the prize to the community the writer came from. This is the neoliberal’s version of the subaltern-studies project.
I have heard from some of these writers about their dissatisfaction in being read as Dalit writers alone. Manoranjan Byapari, for instance, tells me that, although he has benefited from the largess of intent, he and others want to be read as writers, like upper-class and upper-caste writers are — not given attention solely because of their status as disadvantaged. It is not difficult to see that this was a mimicry of what had happened in the West: the Indian writers’ responsibility to represent their nation had metamorphosed, here, into “marginalized” writers’ responsibility to represent their “local culture.”
Like the soldier fighting for the country, these writers are seen as fighting for their culture.
Like the soldier fighting for the country, these writers are seen as fighting for their culture. (This attitude also explains why translation, a field ignored for decades, has suddenly become a moral mission — we must bring the “underrepresented” into the range of vision, even if it is only the range of vision of the English-reading world.) Meanwhile, choosing what books to read becomes itself a moralistic enterprise, a form of atonement. One must read postcolonial literatures to pay the guilt tax. It is a reading toll that the student of the white-literature syllabus is not asked to pay.
But the proliferation of readers who seem to have become addicted to paying this tax has created a new kind of marginalized literature: literature that does not serve the didactic purposes of the postcolonial survey course. For one thing, the postcolonial-literature syllabus continues to remain parasitic on the novel — it is as if our histories could only be held in the form of the novel, usually a fat novel, its girth approximately proportionate to the size of the country. The poem and the essay have been rendered minor forms here. Fragmentary and whimsical in nature, personal and private in style, they offer no assistance in the information-supplying service that the postcolonial syllabus is expected to perform. The few poets who are studied, if at all, have been given a place on the syllabus for their founding-father status. Unlike the novel, where new work is regularly called for duty on the syllabus, contemporary poetry (say, Indian English poetry) might be imagined to have gone extinct.
Even when we limit ourselves to novels, only the delight of being a morally conscious reader is considered nutritious. Kiran Manral, an Indian writer of several novels in a genre that the snootiness of academia and publishing calls “commercial fiction,” once asked this question in a Facebook post: “Why am I unable to enjoy or finish any of these books that are on long lists and short lists of literary prizes?” Manral is an honest reader. Her expectation from literature as an adult is consistent with the one she had as a child: It is to experience the independence of her emotions, including the ability to feel pleasure without being judged or grudged.
The same question should be asked of the postcolonial syllabus. While the moralizing mission might appear admirable, these courses ignore all literature that does not fit its agenda. What else explains the utter absence of comic novels in the postcolonial course? How else to explain why Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novels, particularly Aranyak, are not taught? Or why Amit Chaudhuri’s novels, with their life-loving energy, do not find a place here? Or why stories and novellas about provincial life, such as we find in the magical writing of R.K. Narayan, have not yet been included? Literature about the moment, about the everyday, is rejected: Comedy, laughter, pleasure — the postcolonial subject must not be seen partaking of these contraband things. The syllabus often reminds me of what our hostel matron used to say: Don’t smile and show your teeth when praying.
Here is the space where the syllabus remains to be decolonized — not through substitution, but addition. A course on British modernism will include a novel or two about a day in the life of a white man or woman, such as we find in James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. But a young Indian student’s life on a day in July — masturbating, thinking of becoming a “famous poet,” walking around London with his uncle, eating at a restaurant and fighting with him, as we find in Amit Chaudhuri’s comic novel Odysseus Abroad — is judged too self-indulgent for a postcolonial course, even as it is not hard to see that this life in the novel, if anything, is the postcolonial subject’s condition.
What I am seeking is for the postcolonial-literature reading list to be liberated from its current status as “minor literature.” I do not use this term like Deleuze does, but rather to describe the sense within English-literature departments that these are to be studied as Ur-manifestos and histories of repression and suffering, and that all other kinds of writing are to suffer the same fate as banned literature: to remain ignored and unread. A course on Modernism, for instance, should include writing and art from non-Western cultures, where books exist side by side, related by temperament, aesthetic, or form, and not because of a United Nations idea of representation.
In Bengali literature, for instance, Rabindranath Tagore constructs a cosmology of ananda in his poems, songs, and prose. Visva-Bharati, the university that he founded 96 years ago, was built around the pedagogy of ananda: Whether in the sciences (particularly the botanical and zoological sciences), literature, arts, or mathematics, the curriculum was structured around discovery and the pleasure that comes from triggering and sating curiosity. Writers who followed him, as different in temperament and aesthetic as the novelist Bandyopadhyay and the poet Jibanananda Das, added to the same tradition — writing of the moment and the momentary, evincing a belief in the fragment that was naturally opposed to the idea of the epic, of the monumental, of national literature, of moral instruction and didacticism.
Next semester, I’ll be teaching a course on the rasas, an aesthetic philosophy that goes back to the first millennium in the Indian subcontinent. Rasa means “juice, taste, essence.” The original rasas are: bhayanak (fear)
, hasya (laughter), raudra (anger), adbhuta (wonder), bibhatsa (disgust), shringar (love, romance, attractiveness), veera (heroism) and karuna (sadness). Santam (peace) was added to the list later by the Kashmiri philosopher and aesthetician Abhinavagupta in the 10th century. The theory of rasa is a theory of affect: emotions, or bhaavas, are “produced” as a response to the text. The rasa theorists in the Indian subcontinent added rasas to the old list created by the ancient Indian theoretician Bharata Muni (between 200 BC and 200 AD) in Nātya Śāstra, a text as central to Indic culture as Aristotle’s Poetics is to the European. There haven’t been new additions for nearly a millennium. I have only recently noticed that except for three of them — raudra, karuna, and possibly bibhatsa — all the other rasas, particularly hasya and adbhuta, have been ignored in the syllabi of the postcolonialists.
The theory of rasa is a theory of pleasure that tries to understand the individual, not the collective. Does that explain its exclusion from the postcolonial syllabus, where individuals are most often studied only as representatives of a group or social condition? Looking at postcolonial-literature syllabi, I feel the need, as a postcolonial citizen and subject, for our literatures to be read for more reasons than the guilt rasa. I’ve decided to begin my next semester by teaching a comedy, the hasya rasa. I hope for my students to laugh without guilt.
A version of this essay first appeared in The Point.