Aatish Taseer Is Full of Shit

Having seen Aatish Taseer's article "How English Ruined Indian Literature" reshared yet again as making heed-worthy points, I feel the need to make a few points of my own.

Let me start with Sanskrit. That's a good place to start. People always love to seek beginnings in Sanskrit.


There is modern Sanskrit poetry. A lot of it. Sanskrit still has people who speak, write and versify in it. Actually a couple thousand Indians are native Sanskritophones, and not all Sanskrit literary figures are Hindu either. The Kristubhāgavatam is a Christian epic about the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ by P.C. Devassia.


Cause if you think that's weird, you will really be weirded out by the fact that it is actually not that weird. India has a history of epic verse in local languages about Christian figures. Mostly by Indians like P.C. Devassia, but a small few by non-Indians like the Jesuit missionary Constanzo Beschi, whose masterpiece was a Tamil-language epic about St. Joseph.

Even there, there's more where that came from.

There have been quite a few Europeans throughout history who composed literature in Indian languages, mostly in Urdu and Persian, but also a handful in Tamil, Sanskrit, Telugu and others. A fraction of them actually became accomplished artists in their adopted linguistic medium, and a couple were instrumental in the literature's development.

Roberto de Nobili, another Jesuit missionary of the same era as Beschi, mastered Tamil, Sanskrit and Telugu and composed over 40 volumes of poetry and prose, including theological and philosophical discourses, in these languages. History judged him inferior as a poet to Beschi (whose Tembavani greatly impressed native Tamilians and, I am told, still does. Tho sadly it remains untranslated), but De Nobili's influential stylistic achievements in prose earned him the title of "the father of Tamil prose" from Devanesan Rajarigam in his "History of Tamil Christian Literature." And D. Rajarigam isn't the only one to hold that opinion.

Beschi and De Nobili are as far as I can determine well-known and well-studied. They are also singular in that their apparently foundational roles in the development of a modern literature ensure that they do get acknowledged, at least by specialists and scholars who aren't grinding an axe. But as I'll get to later they seem not to come up in discussions where you'd think they ought to. And most others were never widely circulated at all, and so easily forgotten as they were never much remembered to begin with.

The true extent of literary activity by Europeans in Indian languages in the past few centuries appears to be impossible to assess. This is most true of lyric poems like ghazals which often circulated privately among a limited audience of acquaintances, and not always in written form. The famous E.H. Palmer's output of poetry in Urdu and Persian was not only much more artistically accomplished than his English verse but also was clearly far more extensive than what survives now. Moreover a lot of the work produced by more obscure Europeans, many of whom went completely native and settled in India with local spouses, probably remains in manuscripts that never left the possession of individual families, who over time may have lost them or, in some cases at least, intentionally destroyed them as an embarrassment. Some also probably lies buried somewhere in India, in the lethean library of archives from the colonial period.

Of the material of this kind that has been uncovered, less still has been published and made easily available as far as I can tell. Ram Babu Saksena, in his extremely valuable anthology "European and Indo-European Poets of Urdu and Persian" mentions the enormous amount of material some poets had produced, from which he selected the best work to include. And though a few such books exist they are rare and hard to obtain. Rare too, as far as I know, have been the scholars with both the means and the motive to explore this forgotten field. These ill-known and ill-preserved writers - chiefly but not exclusively poets - seem doomed to be forgotten.

In a way, they are part of the collateral damage wreaked as much by the circumstances of time and place, as by developments of the late colonial and subsequent postcolonial eras, such as retrograde nationalism, reactionary religious fundamentalism, and the brainless fetishism of authenticity. Not to mention the guilt-ridden epistemological masturbation passed off as solidarity by irresponsible theorists and their epigones, which was easily redeployed in repurposed form by the precursors to today's tightassed Vedas-thumping Modi-toadies.


So it is ironic that Aatish Taseer's pitiable article in the New York Times "How English Ruined Indian Literature" is both so at pains to give mention and attention to non-English Indian writers past and present, and yet is apparently unaware that Indian literature in Indian languages has not entirely been the preserve of Indians. Granted that only a couple would appear to have played truly pivotal roles. But then, why does he also write as if he were unaware not only of Beschi and De Nobili, but of the entirety of Tamil literature?

The fellow apparently shares the common north Indian prejudice against all things south Indian. He writes about Indian-language literature as if it consisted exclusively of literature in Indo-Aryan and northern languages like Bengali, Hindi, Sanskrit and Urdu. One would think that someone who so bloviates about the relationship between power and language-choice might take a moment to note the irony of treating Tamil literature as irrelevant. Just listen to this bit of unintentional self-incrimination
India, if it is to speak to itself, will always need a lingua franca. But English, which re-enacts the colonial relationship, placing certain Indians in a position the British once occupied, does more than that. It has created a linguistic line as unbreachable as the color line once was in the United States.
By "a lingua franca" Aatish Taseer implicitly means Hindi. This is an old idea. The reason why India still has English as its lingua franca is because they already tried Hindi. Repeatedly. It didn't work. Actually, people died as a result. South Indians - Tamils especially - reacted with protests and riots to any policy that made Hindi mandatory, seeing in it a means by which northerners were imposing their will on the south. Indeed it was actually under the British that the first mandatory Hindi policies were attempted in the south only to be withdrawn in the face of fierce and violent popular upset. The prejudice against Hindi as a lingua franca, and concomitant preference for English, continues among Tamils to this day. So Aatish here is not only full of shit but, in talking about a lingua franca that creates and reinforces disparities of this kind without any sense of irony, he has produced a specimen of sincerity that, out of context, would be indistinguishable from a masterpiece of parody. O sing to me, sweet teapot, about how ugly that black kettle is!

Why has this rant meandered so? Partly, I'm just in a mood. Partly I felt the need to illustrate how easily and how profoundly we all (yes, me too) are prone in various ways to forget how fucking big the world is. But also, the layered cake of irony traced above is the kind of thing that makes it impossible at this point to have any respect for the politics of representation in literary discussion anymore than elsewhere.

Yes, many are slighted and forgotten unjustly because the scales of circumstance were tilted unfavorably. The European writers and poets discussed above are one example among many. Chinese women's literature from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Persian-language poetry produced by Hindus in the Mughal courts. Arabic poetry by Subsaharan African Muslims. Modern literature written in Latin. Modern poetry written in Classical Chinese. Romani literature written by anybody at all. And of course I am all for reading more widely and more diversely in such a way as to include the slighted and the less accessible, so as to miss out on less.

But that isn't what "representation of other voices" has come to mean. It has come to mean not honestly diversifying one's exposure and thereby broadening one's frame of reference, but rather treating the commonplace of Dead White Men as if it meant more than it really does, and the rest of the world as smaller than it really is. In this case it also leads to the ineluctable snafu of all representational multiculturalism in which claims are given more or less weight depending on the ethnic or demographic category of the person making them.

When you take self-serving, self-appointed manipulators at their word simply because they belong to the same ascriptive category as those they claim to speak for, you are liable to let someone else not merely make recommendations but actually do your thinking for you. Most Americans don't grasp that India was never a unified political entity until British rule, let alone the importance of the millennia of cleavage between North and South India. They will not be savvy about the exploitation of misconceptions they don't know they have, and cannot notice the absence of something whose existence they are unaware of. Ignorance of these points is what allows Aatish Taseer to sound like he's making sense. Moreover, because he frames his argument, and is himself well-positioned, to manipulate the ascriptive categories which Americans are keyed to look for, he can get away with uncomputably high levels of nonsense which I don't even feel like fully delving into. I truly doubt that this hooplah would ever have been taken this seriously (or even seen the light of day in the New York fucking Times) had it been written by a non-Indian.

Not only does the ethic of representational multiculturalism often fail even to offer a vague approximation of the representative product advertised, but it also runs interference for commission of the very sin it chastises, silencing and effacing a great deal of humanity - artistic, cultural and historical - under ever deeper embedded layers of bias. The surviving remainder need only be processed into a convenient commodity, like a chicken into a McNugget, for the many who are ready and willing to swallow diversity in homogenized form.

Meanwhile anything that isn't the least bit generic even on the surface, anything truly defying facile categorization, anything that refuses to behave as expected, remains liable to be neglected as it ever was. By this I do not just mean Europeans who composed still-untranslated epic poetry in a South Indian language. I also mean Palestinians who choose to write fiction and poetry in Hebrew rather than their native Arabic - almost all of whom wrote at the margins of their own literary culture and whose achievements are too underappreciated for much translation to even be hoped for. I also mean Esperanto literature, which remains untranslated almost in its entirety, and whose existence itself is often met with confusion or incredulity. And many others, including all the stuff that I myself just don't know about and don't have the means to discover.

No comments:

Post a Comment