Monthly Archives: September 2006

Working Class and Modernity


I want to contradict in this post the common belief that the elites in our society modernized themselves first and only later did the poor and the working classes follow the path of modernism. I want to suggest that it is the poor and the working classes who opened up to modernity first and the modernism of the elite is merely novelty and not modern.

When did modernity come to the working classes is a question that raises some interesting issues. Even as the debate on the nature and origins of modernity continues, the experience of modernity by different social groups becomes an issue that refracts that debate interestingly. Arjun Appadurai has pointed out in his book Modernity at Large (1997), that “Modernity now seems more practical and less pedagogic, more experiential and less disciplinary than in the fifties and sixties when it was mostly experienced through the propaganda apparatus of the nation-states and their great leaders.” He goes on to argue that for the working classes and the poor the experience of modernity is more recent and made available through cultural modes like film, television, music etc. I like the point about the difference between the way modernity is accessed by the elite and the poor: one mainly through high discourses the other through mass media.

In Appadurai’s thesis there lurks an old issue about modernity: the time lag, i.e. the gap between the fifties and sixties when elite access modernity and the 80s and 90s when the working classes do. In other words, by the time the poor arrive to modernity the elite have gone ahead or have milked modernity; when the poor are accessing modernity, in the 80s and 90s therefore elite are elsewhere (postmodernity?). Now this poses a question about the efficacy of thinking in such a chronology. I think the time lag that informs this thesis is problematic. While the elite themselves are ‘late-entrants’ to modernity in relation to the ‘West’, the working classes in India would be placed further back and thus within the nation-state the subjects are seen living in different time zones and multiple backwardness.

This time lag haunts many areas. For example technology, knowledge systems, health care etc. Leaving it at that, let me attend to the issue of lateness and what view of working class agency we find in Appadurai’s thesis. He seems to view the lateness as an absolute and in this book doesn’t enquire into the question of agency. I would like to wonder why the working classes / the poor / those travelers in the third class compartments and the mass that produce the great leaders, chose not to access modernity earlier. Has it got something to do with anti-modern political strategy? And what of those who did access modernity earlier and chose to access a certain sense of it. I am thinking of the great many Dalits who chose to follow Ambedkar and chose to convert along with him. In this we see an experience of modernity that is less tuned to economical and technological modernism but to a social theory. Here we see a notion of the modern as the moment of equality and the breakdown of the feudal hierarchical social stratification. The rejection of the social apparatus that is committed to stratification is one determinant of modernity.

Seen thus, we can say that experience of modernity is different for different people. Considered as a sociological phenomenon, modernity has to be seen with respect to a society’s commitment to reorganizing its internal relations, according greater stress on values that give impetus to movement and freedom rather than to sterility and submission.

The working class and the poor in fact were the first to stake claim on modernity in this sense. The elite modernism is a mechanical one and hence not a fundamental break from the earlier regimes of social organization. In fact, in as far as the elite society transformed the modern apparatus only to entrench the age-old rigidities; they hardly represent the ‘modern’.    

The proposition here is a bit polemical. There are many strands of historical and political inflections that it has to address for any serious negotiation of the issues touched upon. Here I only wish to state an extreme viewpoint and hope to move towards a more nuanced approach in further engagements.

English Education in India: Cannon Fodder


It was in the 1970s that in Indian universities the English departments began to be opened up. What was a shamefully colonial institution – the English department and its syllabi – began to break out into other streams of literary studies. !970s was way too late for this ‘reformation’. If we consider the changed world order, 70s certainly is a couple of decades late into the arrival of US into the superpower status. Hence, for Indian universities to look beyond ENGLISH literature in the 70s is already a sign of time lag. Secondly, becoming independent in 47, if we could not wake up to the need to come out of our awe of ENGLIT for two decades, it is again a sign of a mind shackled to colonialism. But let us leave the bygones and ask what is happening now.

In the 1990s there was a lot of talk about the crisis in English Studies in India. The funny thing is that even our ‘crisis’ was borrowed! The advent of poststructuralism had put the US English academy under pressure to move out of its humanist framework and this was generally referred to as the crisis in the academy. And, bingo, there it was in India, the crisis, albeit a decade later.

Now this crisis in India led to a lot of reviews and revisions of the way English studies was structured those days. There was intensification in the effort to make the English syllabi to include wider areas on the one hand and also to overhaul the manner in which literature gets taught in the classrooms. I am not going into that part of the debate here. But regarding the nature of the syllabi, this crisis led to a wider acceptance of the idea that there should be lot more than the staple diet of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Eliot in English syllabi even at undergraduate level. I guess most universities now have implemented this logic and have a spattering of American lit, African lit, Indian English lit, European lit, and even Indian language lit in translation. The choices here are not very radical, most simply stick to the established canon; but it is a bit of an improvement nevertheless.

This is the situation that I want to consider in this post. My experience as a student, researcher and teacher of English literature has been that exceptions apart, the western-canon, be it in British, American, African, etc., of literature is hardly suitable to us in India. I have noticed for example that teaching Conrad, Hardy, or Joyce is a sure shot way of benumbing the students. The same students who progressively show less and less enthusiasm for the text being discussed in the class wake to vigorousness if they are reading a Premchand, Kamala Das, or Khushwant Singh. This is of course no new discovery, all of us know this and people have written scholarly tomes on these issues. (I have noticed that students respond better to works by female writers than many male writers, except I think to Jane Austen).

Now what I want to share here is about the irrelevance of English Studies. I think we need to realize that literature is no more merely print lit, and hence we need to find ways of bringing in more relevant literary studies into our syllabi. This I believe applies, to a lesser degree, to all arts departments, not only English departments. One of the ways to negotiate the students’ familiarity is to bring in film and TV studies, along with our present study of narratives of any kind; bring film and pop songs, including advt jingles along with the study of poetry; bring in journalistic writing along with prose writing; and these have to be done seriously.

Sure, some of the institutions and departments are up to this already. But that is usually in places where studying Homer may also work! An elite place having radical syllabi is neither news nor radical. We need the number-rich, mass-ive state universities to do these at all levels.    

Teaching Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, William Thackeray and suchlike, not excluding Shakespeare, in a classroom today serves little purpose in terms of what the students learn about novel or narrative, or language or discourse. They would understand the mechanics of narrative and its social effect better if their familiar world of narratives is roped in during the learning process. Or else, it remains, nothing more than a disciplinary clinic – making learners passively pick up whatever rubbish that the (often incompetent) teachers throw at them. By squeezing out all relevancies from their classrooms we are successful of course in making them less and less independent and more and more submissive. But that we should not any more continue to do.

Art education in India is presently the last resort of a student; often it is the lot of the poor and rejected students to do arts. Is that why this field of education is in bad shape and receives such little attention? For art education to become meaningful it has to engage with the contemporary modes of art and entertainment; contemporary practices of texts and languages. Past and distant literatures are very useful; but definitely not enough. Got to cross the stupid colonial framework (whether of the old or the new variety) and begin to revise and devise frameworks of study that is historically and socially relevant to us.  

Education System: Alive yet Dead


Being involved with higher education, like all else, I am often confronted with the question what is wrong with education. Now, if we believe that in becoming a lecturer / teacher we have done well, and if we are the products of the same educational system, then we should conclude that nothing is wrong. But, this is as bad as our assessment of the situation on the basis of various statistics. One of the areas where we are facing a severe crisis is in terms of the issue of equity in education. The policy reformulation exercise regarding this, the Moily committee for example, has to consider the fundamental malice in our system that has not only caused under-education, but also willfully dishes out substandard education. This can be seen in the disparity between the education that the haves get and what the have-nots get.

Our primary education where the state is the main provider of access to education to millions of lower class / caste population is in such bad shape that it is a shame it exists. Ditto in secondary and higher education. Let us not be carried away by all the hoo-haa about the IIMs and IITs, and the IIMS. Their health or lack of it is relatively speaking of less importance as the numbers they churn out is miniscule compared to the millions of under-educated, and hence disabled, youth that our general education system spawns. It is these youth who form the unemployed and largely unemployable army that end up as the malleable contents that politicians can use for their devious purposes.

It is not as if the Indian state is so dumb that it is unaware of the ills besetting the education system. It is not as if Indian state is so insensitive that it does not to care about the education system. It is not as if the Indian state is so stupid that it can’t find solutions to the problems it perceives to be haunting the education sector. I am sure there are enough intelligence within the state machinery and the public sphere in
India to find and operationalise solutions that time to time amend the systemic evils. But, let me say this loudly, our society (including the state and the public) does not want to solve the problems. Our society does not want all sections to get the kind of education that ensures improved standard of life. Our society does not want the lower classes and castes to ever become transformed into something other than lower classes / castes. Our society hence perpetuates a system of education that sucks the youth into the vicious circle of educated unemployables.

Don’t dismiss this as mere cynicism. We all know that education is an instrument of consent production, disciplining, homogenization, pacification, and indoctrination for social and cultural mores. Our system does all of these by providing rubbish quality education.

This can only be addressed if the larger public sphere including the employers see that quality education at all levels is an effective medicine for a number of evils that consume our society today. Quality education can increase skills, positive social climate, lessen social resentment and strife, and certainly help ‘productivity’. Our corporate moguls who are quick to wax eloquent on merit should realize that with a larger pool of skilled workforce they will get a better deal. The abominable situation that exists today of a small minority from a particular class and caste forming the primary supplier of skilled labor in most of the areas of economy, especially in the new economy, is a recipe for not only constrained productivity in the long run, but also civil unrest.         

Right now the state as well as the elite society is keen on keeping our education system alive yet dead. 

The vicious circle of language politics


India is the only country where no social science journal is published in any of the Indian languages. All “eminent” historians write their histories of
India in English. All “eminent” sociologists publish their micro and macro level studies of Indian society in English. For those who are not well trained in handling the English language, all the new knowledge being generated about the past and present of Indian society is inaccessible.
There are no serious books or journals available to them in the subjects they study or teach.

This is whar Madhu Kishwar says in her articleDeprivation’s real language” in Express (Read). Makes me wonder how many Indian languages she knows and how much research has gone into this statement. It sounds a bit like that famous Macaulay-ean statement by Salman Rushdie about the worth of post
Independence literature in Indian languages other than English.

She makes a valid point in the article about the advantage that students emerging from English medium schools have over those from non-English medium schools. But, I wonder if her point is well served by such exaggerated, half informed statements about social science journals. For example, in Marathi there is Samaj Prabodhana Patrika. Quite a few of Gautam Bhadra’s (a prominent subaltern historian) articles are in Bengali. I here take only two example, half because I don’t have enough information about the scene in all Indian languages.

Madhu Kishwar’s general point is ill-served by these statements is only my secondary grouse. I think she displays here a kind of complacent arrogance that is often seen in those who operate exclusively within the English media and academia. Their intellectual laziness coupled with snobbery makes them look down on whatever is published in Indian languages, and then they begin to complain that there is nothing in these languages, and to boot it they criticize such a situation where all that is valuable is in English. Excuse me, if you have no access, or don’t want access, to the quality work done in Indian languages, might as well keep your judgment to yourself.   

Let me clarify that I am not saying everything is rosy as far as resources in our languages for modern knowledge is concerned. I am aware of the big gap in terms of the diversity of approaches and opinions available, between English and other Indian languages. It is lamentable that so little work is done in Indian languages in precisely those areas that are much sought after in educational institutions. One of the reasons perhaps is that those who do study these subjects in English, once they have had success, find it demeaning to do work in their own languages. May be. But it must not be assumed that paucity is absence.

There is much room for improvement, long distance to go in creating an atmosphere wherein both equipping the language to accommodate all aspects of modern knowledge and life and creating resources in Indian languages.

Her argument that reservation policy doesn’t factor in the contribution of the lack of knowledge of English in the deprivation that the policy aims at correcting is well taken. It is also true that availability of quality education in Indian languages even when realized substantially, may not offer a solution to this problem. But let us give the credit where it is due.

Saying things like “All “eminent” historians” write only in English is like saying your estimation of all those who write in other languages is that they are short of any eminence. Now, isn’t this a vicious circle? First you confer the eminence to those who write in English, and then you say no eminent writer writes  in other languages.  

Memory, Narrative and Radical Politics in South Asia


A narrative is an arrangement of memory – personal or impersonal in relation to the narrating individual. As an arrangement of memory, that a narrative betrays attitudes to past goes without saying. What is also true is that it betrays the attitude towards the present and future.

The selection of memory and its valuation within the narrative reveals on the one hand, the desire for retaining something of the past and on the other, a desire for changing something of the past. These two desires that drive the narrativising are contingent upon the nature of future desired. Seen thus, a narrative may be said to hanker after the bygones in a nostalgic manner or to want a violent revision of things so as the past is not repeated. In our reading of the narratives we might be able to distinguish between these two forms of desires. Now, when we see a narrative as a desire image, the question to ask would be about the nature of the memory.

On this issue, two kinds of politics may be easily noticed. One may be seen in narratives belonging to feminist, dalit, queer and such literary categories. The other may be seen in what is usually called the ‘mainstream’. In the former one hardly ever comes across a hankering for the past, except a particular type among them that recreate originary myths. In the latter category, we often come across nostalgia of an implicit or explicit kind. The former belongs to the genre of future-generation (in the sense of generating, producing the future), the latter to the past-regeneration. I mean to say, that feminist, dalit, queer and such narratives usually project a desire for change not only of the present (that may be common across these two types), but a rejection of the past too. In the mainstream narratives though the desire for changing the present may be found, it is likely that the alternative is seen in what was. Thus, these are two opposite tendencies: searching for a future of the present creation, and searching for a future that is a recreation of the past.     

In assessing the radicality of ‘mainstream’ narratives, we may examine its structure of memory to determine what tendency towards future is contained therein. A ‘mainstream’ narrative that calls for future-generation as against past re-generation, I think is radical as against the one that seeks to re-create past in the future.

This framework might be relevant in studying South Asian narratives, given the specific nature of its oppressive social structure. The past and the continuing oppressive apparatus of brahminical patriarchy in
South Asia renders memory being valued differently for the different social groups. In this context, the future-generation possesses greater significance than past re-creation. The politics of recovery is especially problematic in the South Asian context and its difference with the radical politics of future-generation is linked to the way past is approached.

Note that what I am trying to say here is purely speculative. I am aware that it is foolish to make such sweeping generalizations. It is better to make the kind of statements I have made here with reference to particular texts and also refer to particular discourses of past. However, I am only trying to think of a framework within which I can study how memory is approached in narratives in two distinct ways, and how their politics would be different.   

Bird Discovered!


Amazing! Another discovery of new species! This time closer homefor me, in Arunachal Pradesh. The Hindu report: 

bungun.jpg Bugun liocichla


In a significant ornithological discovery, a new bird species, Bugun liocichla, has been identified in Arunachal Pradesh.

Strikingly coloured, its overall plumage has various shades of olive. It has a black cap, a bright yellow patch in front of the eyes, and golden yellow, crimson, black and white patches on the wings. The red-tipped tail feathers are flame coloured on the underside.

Read the full report here.

Was Irwin a Cheap TV star?


Let me confess as an idiot in front of the box I did get glued to Irwin’s shows. But many denounce him for his tricks. People say he gave wrong message to the kids by imposing the human company on the wild animals. PETA have been blunt in saying that he was a cheap TV star. An excerpt: 

While fans all over the world have been mourning the tragic death of Steve Irwin, the animal lovers at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals aren’t shedding even ‘crocodile tears’ for the naturalist.

The animal rights group’s Dan Mathews has slammed the Crocodile  Hunter, saying it’s “no shock at all” that Irwin died the way he did. He also branded the 44-year-old Aussie presenter a “cheap reality TV star”.

“His death is no shock at all. He made his career out of antagonising frightened wild animals. That’s a very dangerous message to send to children,” quoted Mathews as saying.

Read more.

‘Twain shall never meet’


For a laugh, read Jug Suraiya at Times.


Back from Britain, I can report that the clash of civilisations is very much in evidence there. There is an unbridgeable divide between the locals and the visitor from the Indian subcontinent. And the schism has nothing to do with being Islamic or not… It’s far more fundamental, in the strict sense of the term: it’s the irreconcilable difference between those who wipe and those who wash. To paraphrase Kipling: East is lota, and West is TP/ And never the twain shall meet/ Not even when both stand presently/ At God’s great toilet seat… For the subcontinental knows, as an article of faith, that you can wipe and wipe till — to mix metaphors and anatomy — you are blue in the face but you’ll still be a dirty bum…

The other 9/11


I did not know, shame on me, that satyagraha was founded on 11 September. I know of course that 11 of September is 9/11. Now, that is I guess the might of the mighty. But it seems that there are more co-incidences between these two symbolic events that share the same date. B. R. Nanda in his article in Express tells us about it.

 Soon after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing in 1945, the Mahatma had questioned Nehru on the atom bomb. In Nehru’s words, “with deep human compassion loading his gentle eyes,” he remarked that this wanton destruction had confirmed his faith in God and non-violence, and that “now he realised the full significance of the holy mission for which God had created him and armed him with the mantra of non-violence”. Nehru recalled later that, as Gandhi uttered these words, he had resolved then and there to make it his mission to fight and outlaw the bomb.(Ironic that his daughter should be the one to contradict such a mission.)

When Nehru visited the US he related his conversation with Gandhi to Albert Einstein. With a twinkle in his eyes, Einstein wrote down a number of dates on one side, and events on the other, to show the parallel evolution of the nuclear bomb and Gandhi’s satyagraha respectively — almost from decade to decade since the beginning of the 20th century. It turned out that by a strange coincidence that while Einstein and his fellow scientists were engaged in work which made the fission of the atom possible, Gandhi was embarking on his experiments in peaceful, non-violent satyagraha in South Africa.

“Peace will not come out of a clash of arms, but out of justice lived and done by unarmed nations in the face of odds”. — Mahatma Gandhi

Now we should take sides between the two. Rather, we should review on which side we are.

Issue of Identity in Literary Categorizations


Are all works of dalit literature about being dalit? Or women’s literature about being woman? These questions have often been raised and answered in varying tones. What is at issue, as I see it, is the very validity of these questions. Of course we are familiar with how these categories are at once enabling and traps. They are enabling as long as the category of dalit / women offers a space for assertive mode of representation. They are a trap as the denomination perpetuates a ghettoizing attitude and remains condescending. So we say Mr. Dhasal is a dalit writer and then wrap him up in the velvet title so as not to allow his poetry to have any bearing on the ‘Marathi’ or ‘Indian’ poetry.

Aniket Jaaware has argued somewhere that Dhasal is preeminently a modernist poet. He would say that he is modern as well as modernist unlike many of the ‘mainstream’ modernist writers. The crux of his argument is that being modern requires not only a poetics but also a politics that holds onto and asserts modern values like equality and fraternity. Now, I believe, Aniket here is offering a valid reason for breaking open the shell of categories and bring Dhasal (for example) onto the stage to upstage establishment appropriation of modernism that simultaneously would keep Dhasal (and such) out.

Thus the politics of categories of dalit and women in literary discourses is one that aims at restriction; further such categorizations also allow the ‘mainstream’ from remaining unaffected by what is happening in these ‘categorized’ discourses.

There is however one more reason why these categorizations are unproductive: unlike such literary categorizations as progressivist, modernist, expressionist etc. dalit and women are categories based on identity. Here, the literary discourse ‘names’, on the basis of identity, a form of discourse that ideally aims to dismantle the logic behind such identities.

Now, if we take into account the problematization of the discrete notions of gender, caste, class etc. then too we would head in the direction of dismissing these categories as unproductive. It is therefore important to see that dalit literature / women’s literature / queer literature are modes of altering the very status of the condition of the literary discourses. That is, ones which put the established modes of literary discourses under duress to make them more political.

It is in the way these set up a negotiating relation with the so called ‘mainstream’ discourses that their politics is most explosive, and not in being just and realistic representations of their ‘supposed’ identities.   

‘Political Imperative of the African Writer’


Sometime back I was elated to see a poem by Wole Soyinka in the undergrad syllabi of an Indian university. My elation was cut short when I glimpsed at the annotation attached to it. The editors made no reference to racism, or even faintly hinted at the political undertone in the poem. I only laughed at the sense of decorum the editor’s must have observed. The poem was “Telephone Conversation”. It is significant that in certain societies at certain times, literary representation cannot keep the political in between the lines. There are times when a writer is necessarily a politician of sorts. In 19th and early 20th centuries, in the Indian subcontinent, while the poets were prone to lyricising personal responses to mother nature and stuff, most of the novelists took their vocation to be social-political commentators. Dalit literature including poetry as well as women’s writings show similar trends – personal is the political and all that. But about the African writers there is one more important aspect that Olabode Ibironke brings out well in his article “Chinua Achebe and the Political Imperative of the African Writer” (Journal of Commonwealth Literature). The African writer is not only an intellectual but also a champion of political struggle. Let us not forget the years Soyinka spent in jail. Or Achebe’s No Longer at Ease anticipating the coup. (I dont mean this is true only of the African writer).

Here is an excerpt:

The major African novels have portrayed serious concern for and deep understanding of the political situation in contemporary
Africa. This penchant for political representation is because, unlike his/her first-world counterpart, the African writer occupies the unique position of not only cultivating an intellectual and aesthetic tradition, but also bearing the burden of being actively engaged in the championing of a political struggle, which is deemed absolutely important if literary production is to bear any semblance of relevance to the life of the society.

As for the imperative of the writer Achebe had once said:

The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writer’s duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost. There is a saying in Ibo that a man who can’t tell where the rain began to beat him cannot know where he dried his body. The writer can tell the people where the rain began to beat them.


While Achebe’s point has the colonial condition as its context, there is no reason to believe that this responsibility ends with self-rule and that the writer’s role in raising political consciousness becomes any less important. If at all, it deepens further, I would say. That is why, while Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart focuses on the conflict with the colonizer, his second novel No Longer at Ease talks of the corruption of the indigenous. So, the imperative to tell the people where the rain began to beat them continues.


Democracy and Inequality


What ails democracy in
India? As a question this is cliché. But if one looks around for answers, not too many answers would be counted as sane. One is either a eulogist or a cynic. Or a balancer without insight.
The argument offered by Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen has the advantage of concrete categories that admit statistics and at the same time attends to contemporary conditions. We see that in
India democracy as a political form is rendered lame by the socio-cultural situation that perpetuates all barbaric forms of social existence even as modernization takes place. As Ambedkar said, until social equity is not achieved, political equity becomes not only meaningless, but potentially dangerous. The various separatist movements in
India are related to the iniquitous conditions. Surely the simmering anger against social inequity gets articulated as a desire to break the surface peace. This is only one of the elements that feed the million disturbances in
India. But this is also an ancient one and has the power therefore to wage the most resilient of battles. Lest we listen and change.
Dreze and Sen from: Journal of Asian and African Studies, 37(2):6-37 ( 


The main limitations of Indian democracy do not relate so much to democratic institutions as to democratic practice. The performance of democratic institutions is contingent on a wide range of social conditions, from educational levels and political traditions to the nature of social inequalities and popular organizations. Democratic practice in
India has often been deeply compromised by a variety of social limitations inherited from the past. To illustrate, consider one of the most basic democratic freedoms
the right to vote.
India has an impressive electoral system (monitored by an independent Election Commission), which has proved its credibility and resilience on numerous occasions since independence. Voter turnouts in
India are also quite respectable by international standards, especially among underprivileged groups. However, the
right to vote is not a momentous freedom when voters are so poorly informed that they are unable to distinguish between different political parties, as is still the case in some areas today. Similarly, while Indian elections are formally “free and fair” in most cases, their effective fairness has been compromised by nepotism, the criminalization of politics, and pervasive inequalities in electoral opportunities as a result of disparities in economic wealth and social privileges.Another example concerns the legal system. An impartial and efficient judiciary is indispensable for genuine democracy.
India’s legal system has sound institutional foundations, which incorporate basic democratic principles such as impartiality, secularism, and equality before the law. In practice, however, its functioning is, in many ways, at variance with democratic ideals. For one thing, the legal system is virtually paralyzed by a backlog of millions of “pending cases”
about 30 million according to one estimate (Debroy 2000). Legal proceedings can take years (if not decades) to be completed, and are often far from intelligible for the average citizen. For this and other reasons, legal protection tends to remain beyond the effective reach of most, especially the poor. In fact, the legal system can also be used as an instrument of harassment (rather than as an efficient means of dispensing justice). Those at the receiving end of the system
can end up suffering terrible injustice. For instance, undertrial prisoners (there are some 250,000 of them in
India at this time, according to the Home Ministry) often languish in prison for years without any legal recourse.