Feet of Clay: Amitav Ghosh and the Imperial Indian Gaze

-- Jason Keith Fernandes

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. Jason Keith Fernandes blogs here. )

July 29, 2011.

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