Post-Colonial Notion of Centre and Periphery in Indian Literature: Seminar Lecture by Dr. Tabish Khair

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.

Opening remarks

 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.