Tuesday, December 25, 2007
In Conversation with Radha Chakravarty
Ahmede: How do you see English in South Asia, a place where the language has once been forced upon its people?
Radha Chakravarty: English may today be counted as one of the South Asian languages. It was indeed extraneous to our culture once, and introduced for political reasons, but today it has been appropriated and adapted to our contemporary needs in ways that have given it a new character and I think a new lease of life.
The relationship between English and other South Asian languages was not a one-way street. It was transactional, and remains so to this date. The influence of English language and literature challenged but also gave a great impetus to the modernization of our indigenous languages. In turn, these languages also enriched English with a vocabulary and range of expression that continues to grow, as recent versions of the OED acknowledge. Today the best writing in English comes from regions where English is not the people’s mothertongue. And we have reshaped the language in creative ways. To borrow the title of a well-known book, “The Empire Writes back,” as it were!
So English has now acquired these extraordinary regional flavours, but it also remains an international language, and in some important ways, our link with the non-South Asian world. In a multilingual society such as India where I belong, English, and translation into English, also provides an important common platform for people of diverse languages to know and understand each other better.
The politics of language are of course linked to larger issues and it may be argued that the privileging of English perpetuates the colonial mindset. The solution I believe is not to do away with English, but to treat it on par with other languages in our region, as one more facet of our multilingualism. That calls for a change of attitude for which many South Asians don’t seem ready yet.
Whether English is perceived as an asset or a stumbling block depends on how we make it instrumental to our specific regional needs. If it is merely a matter of aping “the West” and losing our cultural independence, which is what upholders of “pure” identity seem to fear, the language and the culture it is taken to purvey may indeed continue to enslave us. But if it empowers us to be effective citizens of the world without surrendering our distinctiveness as South Asians, English is a language to be embraced without embarrassment.
Ahmede: Does South Asian fiction really exist as a genre or is it merely the place and people one is writing about that defines it?
Radha Chakravarty: Genres and their definitions are not fixed. They change according to context and consensus. “South Asia” itself is not an obvious or absolute category. It is an idea, a concept collectively imagined into being, that needs to be constantly re-invented according to shifting contemporary realities. When we speak of the places and the people of South Asia, aren’t we also taking history, geography, myth, lifestyles and politics into account? And aren’t these factors changeable, varying not only with time and circumstance but also according to the perspective or viewpoint from with “South Asia” is perceived? A Bangladeshi or Nepali idea of “South Asia” for instance may not coincide with the way an Indian may perceive the same geopolitical/sociocultural configuration, because of the asymmetries in our respective contexts.
The same holds true for the literature of this loose-knit region. Imagining a “South Asian” literature involves some gains and some losses. It entails a sacrifice of some local nuances, to accomplish the formation of transnational linkages and alliances. It takes us beyond the local and national, yet remains potentially outside those versions of internationalism that privilege “western” models in the name of the “global.” A difficult yet valuable manouevre, and literature is an important arena for such endeavours.
To reinvent a genre then, we must consciously recognize overlaps and shared concerns that would justify an overarching label like “South Asian literature”, even while remaining conscious of our differences. To ignore the heterogeneity and internal contradictions implicit in the term “South Asian fiction” is to risk oversimplification and erasure of the diversity that remains so vital a characteristic of South Asia.
Ahmede: Do you think the way female writers handle narratives or a particular theme is different from the way a male author would?
Radha Chakravarty: It is hard to generalize about women’w writing when the field is so vast and varied. I can’t think of any strategy a woman writer would use that we may not also find in a male writer’s work. It is more pertinent I think to speak of feminist writing, which is easier to identify, even though that too is context-specific and therefore diverse. Feminism is not based on the biological fact of being a woman, but an attitude of resistance. It is a position from which gender imbalances in society may be interrogated, and seen in this way, may be a stance adopted by men and women alike.
Such writing questions the subjection of women and is premised upon the idea that gender roles are not inborn but man-made and therefore open to change. In this lies the emancipatory potential of feminism. In feminist narratives we do often find certain shared tendencies, for instance, treating the personal as the political, seeking indirection where direct assertion doesn’t work, affirming the importance of female identity by resorting to confessional or autobiographical modes, and combining a critique of existing social conditions with a visionary conception of altered possibilities. Feminism after all looks ahead to an ideal world of gender equity where feminism itself will no longer be necessary, where writers can go beyond anger and write without being aware of being a man or woman. The best writing, Virginia Woolf said, is androgynous.
Ahmede: Do you feel comfortable being associated with the term Post-colonialism?
Radha Chakravarty: Yes, if the term is used with care. If it is merely a chronological marker implying the demise of the colonial, then we ought to have moved beyond it long since, considering our region became Independent of colonial rule half a century ago. Also, if the term is taken to imply that colonialism and its aftermath constitute the only past or present we can refer to in our attempt to define ourselves, then of course it betrays a very narrow perspective, a deliberate blindness to other elements that determine our situation. I don’t think of “Post-colonialism” as an all-embracing concept that totally defines my identity and critical/creative practice. It remains one of the significant factors in my social and intellectual existence, but there are others.
But if “post-colonialism” signals a continued questioning of unequal power relations between nations and cultures, in ways that extend the meaning of the term beyond the narrow contours of territorial control – if it takes into account economic and cultural domination, and also acknowledges “internal colonization” where hierarchies and exclusions operate within a culture instead of being always imposed from without – then the term I think retains a certain value, until we invent a better one. “Postcolonial literature” is certainly a better term than “Commonwealth literature” for instance, for the latter covertly acknowledges the Commonwealth even as it ostensibly challenges the continued validity of the idea of the Commonwealth.
Ahmede: How free do you feel as a woman and a literary person?
Radha Chakravarty: Freedom is a complex word, for it goes hand in hand with responsibility. It is interesting you should ask me this question, for a book I am co-editing with Selina Hossain is titled “Writing Freedom: South Asian Voices.” It is a compilation of contemporary South Asian creative writings on diverse facets of freedom. While working on it, I developed fascinating insights on what freedom can mean in relation to issues of gender, nation, class, language, religion, culture, environment, politics and a host of other factors. It also brought home to me the fundamental principle of democracy: that my own freedom lies in recognizing also the freedom of others who may differ from me.
As a woman I have claimed my freedom socially, professionally, and in the private sphere. The process has empowered me and altered my self-image. Of course the world around me does not always recognize my claim, and that is where the struggle lies.
As an academic/translator/editor/teacher, I also assert the freedom – and thereby acknowledge my responsibility – to involve myself with what I consider to be of significance in Indian, Bangladeshi, South Asian writing and in women’s writing across cultures. This includes choices that may be potentially controversial because they sometimes entail the reinterpretation of well-entrenched ideas or established cultural icons. In this I have received immense support from my publishers who are liberal and progressive in their thinking, and also from my readers, whose response has been overwhelmingly encouraging. To be a woman and a scholar/translator/editor is not easy even in today’s world, but as my experience has shown, there is reason for optimism.
© Ahmede Hussain