Report by Mohammad Shahrukh, Research Intern at CSPS
The CSPS Internship comprises a series of virtual talks and lectures featuring prominent thinkers, scholars and writers, to speak on pressing themes related to the field of pluralism. The first session hosted Dr. Tabish Khair, who gave a talk to our interns about the “Post-Colonial Notion of Centre and Periphery Work in Indian Literature”. The session included an introductory lecture following an interactive question and answer session between Dr. Khair and the interns at CSPS.
About the speaker
Professor Tabish Khair is an internationally renowned novelist and poet. He started his career as a district reporter for the Times of India in Patna, his hometown. He then moved to New Delhi to continue with the Times of India as a Staff Reporter, where he worked for four years, before moving to Copenhagen, Denmark. At Copenhagen University he completed his PhD, which was later published with the title “Babu Fictions: Alienation in Indian English Novels” by the Oxford University Press 2001. It is regarded as a seminal piece of work on Indian English fiction.
Since then Professor Khair has authored over a dozen books and novels as well as poetry collections. His literary work has been nominated for over 16 prestigious prizes including the Man Asia Literary Prize, the DSC Prize, the Encore award and the Sahitya Akademi Award. He is the recipient of the All India Poetry Prize (awarded by the Poetry Society and the British Council). He is a Professor at the Department of English at the Arhaus University, Denmark.
Prof. Khair began his lecture quoting the first four stanzas of Louisa Bennett’s “Colonization in Reverse” (1966), which are as follows:
Wat a joyful news, miss Mattie,
I feel like me heart gwine burs
Jamaica people colonizin
Englan in reverse.
By de hundred, by de tousan
From country and from town,
By de ship-load, by de plane-load
Jamaica is Englan boun.
Dem a pour out a Jamaica
Everybody future plan
Is fe get a big-time job
An settle in de mother lan.
(Louisa Bennett, “Colonization in Reverse, 1966)
He focused on Bennett’s usage of the word ‘Motherland’ for England, as a reference to the colonizer, as the cultural center of civilization for the colonized. He compared this perceptual attitude in writing to Rudyard Kipling in India, who treated England as the socio-cultural center in his writings while residing in India. The Centre-Periphery model emerged in the 1990s as a post-colonial concept, where the ‘center’ encompassed the colonizers as the cultural, political and civilizational center for an imperial project and the colonies referred to the ‘periphery’. One of the earliest mentions of this terminology can be found in “The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures” by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin.
However, Prof. Khair carefully highlighted the obsoletion or inappropriateness of using this terminology as a historically misleading method of viewing literature. He explained this using the example of Rabindranath Tagore, who was viewed as a peripheral writer by the English colonizers, but lives on in Indian literature as a writer from the eyes of their ‘center’. This example was also supported by the Centre’s Director, Dr. Omair Anas, who drew from his experience in working on Ottoman archives. Rabindranath Tagore, as he highlighted, apart from being a central writer for the land of India, was also viewed as a symbol of Asian scholarly revival by the Ottomans. This example underlines the inaccuracy of the ‘center-periphery’ demarcation in contemporary literature.
A more accurate replacement for this discourse, as per Prof. Khair, is to be found in the vocabulary of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. “In colonial discourses, the other is a dustbin, or something that cannot be comprehended”, he said, to explain the construction of the ‘other’ as a concept by the ‘self’ and how the self is usually defined against the ‘other’. He did so while reminding the listeners of the malleability of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, and to not make the mistake of forgetting that “the ‘other’, is just another ‘self”. It is thus that he approached the topic of using this vocabulary, while introducing us to the sensitivity of how it must be used.
In his explication of the dynamic between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ Prof. Khair drew from the works of French-Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas states the ‘self’ is faced with the responsibility of having to face the ‘other’. This responsibility is experienced in such a way that the ‘self’ must then define and express itself. Thus the need for the ‘self’ to express itself does not arise until and unless it encounters the ‘other’, in that the other, is a difference- cultural, linguistic, religious or of any other kind.
Making a mention of his own work, ‘The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness’ (2009) he follows Levinas and other contemporary thinkers in saying that “the ‘self’ can never, not engage with the ‘other’, and at the same time, not, not know the ‘other’”. He pointed at an inevitable friction between the two elements of society and their unavoidable reconciliation with each other’s existence. In the tussle between these two elements what becomes the defining factor, is control over knowledge, whether through language or through other means, control over knowledge and narratives is important for the ‘self’ to have a claim to power.
He also issued a warning, that one cannot claim to be the ‘other’ in the same manner as with being the ‘self’. Because one is always talking of themselves as the ‘self’ and it is thus inherent in their expression: that whatever action they engage in is one they do as a ‘self’.
Professor Khair closed his statements by stating how the discourse of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ is grounded in how frightening an alien ‘other’ can be and that it can be experienced both as a threat or a possibility. But that it is the choice that the self must make for itself, to decide how it interacts with the ‘other’.
Following this the session broke into an interactive Q&A with the virtual audience who were both, inductees of the CSPS Internship programme and research staff from the centre.
The session was a unique opportunity for our interns to discuss their areas of interest and research, within the fold of understanding the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, with Professor Tabish Khair. A lot of interesting points were raised and some very complex topics were addressed by Prof. Khair while taking questions. Some of these are discussed below.
In some questions entertained, he highlighted the problem of simplification of identities and how it is used to manufacture the ‘other’ in contemporary times. This simplification creates a divide between communities that may have earlier lived together in harmony, through ill-informed, biased and propagandist claims and fictitious accounts of collective memory.
The discussions also covered breaking out of the binaries of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. A question followed Gayatri C. Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (2008), and her stance that when the subaltern speak they bypass the binary between the elite ‘self’ and the subaltern ‘other’, a stance that was validated by Prof. Khair, who went on to add that whether or not the subaltern speak is redundant. For to be given the permission or authority to speak is to be permitted to speak the elite’s language. However, whether or not the subaltern is given the space to express themselves or ‘scream’ is still a point of contention among contemporary societies. To this he added, “in order to fight for human rights you have to fight for the other person’s rights”.
Within the same theme, he also expanded upon how one individual can in fact encompass multiple ‘selfs’. The relationship between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ is purely situational and any attempt to transcend the same will bring us back to some equation of power and an imposition of a certain way of being. It is thus that varying socio-political conditions determine and shape the ‘self-other’ relationship.
The session then saw questions based on the commodification of identities and cultures in a globalized world as well as the interplay between a digital society and its identity politics. Prof. Khair noted how speed and technology have taken language and the creation of the ‘self-other’ further. He mentioned Byung-Chul Han’s work on how internet communication affects our idea of contemplation, the need to pay deep attention to discourses on the internet. He also mentioned how we often end up creating ideological silos for ourselves on social media platforms as opposed to settling differences with our ideological opponents in person. The advancement of technology requires us to salvage some traditional practices while forging newer methods to communicate digitally.
The session also tapped into the Global South/North discourse. Prof. Khair emphasized on the shift in understanding the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ from an economic perspective, one that is created by the forces of capitalism and how they have created vast economic disparities within the Global North and South respectively. This distinction helps us understand the fluidity that the concept has acquired in the contemporary era. The divide between the rich and the poor is also often used to fuel ‘otherism’ against migrants and refugees in a particular country, taking away from the actual crux of the issue.
On questions raised about evaluating historic events from a postcolonial lens, Prof. Khair shared the importance of learning the practice of bridging narratives. He emphasized the need to create one’s original stance on a historical event, and to both challenge and defend it to arrive at a fair evaluation of the same.
The session concluded with closing remarks between Director Omair Anas and Prof. Khair, on the absence of Indian diversity from fictional literature. “If the self can be commodified, the self can be sold” said Prof. Khair while highlighting how the process of literary commodification requires heavy curation to ensure that it is sold. Opinion makers on literature come from some very specific parts of the world, and so they inevitably bring their idea of literature to understanding subaltern or diverse representations.
The first session thus concluded, with a vote of thanks by Saad Ahmed, Research Assistant at CSPS.