, , , , , , ,

Sumana Roy, a professor of literature at Ashoka University near Delhi, wrote a wonderful recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education identifying significant problems with the way Indian literature is taught, in both American and Indian universities. In American universities Indian literature is expected to represent India, to provide a moral or political message about the country and its political life – and, Roy thinks, this American understanding has then been imported into India itself. When Indian universities teach English-language Indian literature, they are asked questions like “Analyze Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines as a critique of the nation-state” and “Write a note on Velutha as a Dalit character in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things”. Yet in the same departments John Donne is studied as “a metaphysical poet”, Virginia Woolf as “a stream-of-consciousness novelist” and so on. European and American writers, Roy thinks, can be appreciated and enjoyed for their aesthetic qualities; Indian writers are supposed to send a message.

What is this message? Roy notes, “Postcolonial texts seem to have two jobs in these syllabi: They either negatively illustrate some form of moral or social misconduct, or they positively represent a ‘marginalized’ culture or geography. Ideally, they do both at once, often in the manner of a Live Aid concert. ” Such a view is suggested by the very term postcolonial, which implicitly takes colonialism and its aftermath as the defining fact in contemporary Indian thought. And while of course colonialism did make massive changes to Indian thought, works like Andrew Nicholson’s remind us that its impact was not as all-encompassing as is sometimes assumed. Roy reminds us in turn that there is a wealth of modern Indian literature that does not suit the postcolonialists’ political project:

What else explains the utter absence of comic novels in the postcolonial course? How else to explain why Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novels, particularly Aranyak, are not taught? Or why Amit Chaudhuri’s novels, with their life-loving energy, do not find a place here? Or why stories and novellas about provincial life, such as we find in the magical writing of R.K. Narayan, have not yet been included? Literature about the moment, about the everyday, is rejected: Comedy, laughter, pleasure — the postcolonial subject must not be seen partaking of these contraband things.

Why is this? Roy claims that in Indian academia “an American understanding of Indian writing has been imported without any skepticism or unease — this despite professors teaching courses on power and imperialism.” There is no doubt in my mind that such an understanding has been prevalent in American academia for many decades, and especially in literature departments: everything should be viewed through lenses of power and oppression, rather than of enjoyment and edification. (Thus Matt Wilkens’s matter-of-fact aside that in the humanities “We long ago gave up the idea that our task was to appreciate and explain a handful of great texts, replacing that goal with a much more important and ambitious one: to understand cultural production as a whole by way of the aesthetic objects it creates.”) And it seems quite plausible for Roy to claim that such an understanding has now been imported wholesale to the former colony by those very professors teaching about power and imperialism.

For Roy reminds us of a very different and indisputably Indian way of understanding literature, one framed many centuries before any European (let alone American) ever set foot on the subcontinent. That is rasa theory, the underappreciated classical Indian aesthetic theory formed with explicit reference to narrative literature, which teaches us to appreciate the emotions that literary texts produce. In the postcolonialist paradigm of literature, Roy notes, the only rasas allowed are raudra (angry), kāruṇya (compassionate) and maybe bibhātsa (disgusted): there is no room for the hāsya (comedic) or adbhūta (wonder). Perhaps, she suggests, Indian literature is better studied through its own indigenous theory than through the standard postcolonial lens.

Turning to areas of philosophy beyond aesthetics: Roy’s article reminds me of the misgivings I had around the famous Garfield-Van Norden article on diversifying philosophy. The APA’s committee for “Asian and Asian-American” philosophy suggests it is structured around a roughly postcolonial lens: that Asian philosophies are there for representation, to have marginalized groups speak as marginalized groups. (In Roy’s words, “Like the soldier fighting for the country, these writers are seen as fighting for their culture.”) Garfield and Van Norden’s article tells us almost nothing about the merits of non-Western philosophers’ ideas: there, too, the philosophers seem to be there to represent their cultures to students, rather than to have students appreciate their ideas. This approach is in sharp contrast to Van Norden’s much superior later book, which takes its readers on a deep dive into Mencius, Fazang and the Milindapañhā and shows us how they can help us understand the world and our place in it, in ways that Western philosophers cannot. In the book, the Asian thinkers are there for their good ideas about the world, not just to represent Asia and Asians. In a very similar vein, it might just turn out that rasa theory is better than postcolonial theory at helping us understand literatures both inside and outside India.

Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.