Updated: October 10, 2011 23:13 IST

Indian literature and cross-cultural comparison

Sanjay Kumar
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COLONIALISM, MODERNITY AND LITERATURE — A View from India: Edited by Satya P. Mohanty; Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd., 1/24, Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 695.
COLONIALISM, MODERNITY AND LITERATURE — A View from India: Edited by Satya P. Mohanty; Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd., 1/24, Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 695.

Is literature a valid discourse of knowledge? Does it enlarge the understanding of the world we inhabit? Should literary discourse be considered alongside other discourses of knowledge, say, scientific, philosophical or historical? These are questions that have intrigued critics and philosophers alike since the time of Plato.

Colonialism, Modernity and Literature makes a case for literature as knowledge in the face of skepticism fostered by post-structuralism. While insisting on “reading literature… as continuous with social, moral and epistemological theory,” it also stresses cross-cultural comparison.

Satya Mohanty, editor of this book of critical essays, calls the method “critical comparatism.” This approach, he argues, enables us to talk about “world literature” which stresses cross-national compact even as it resists the flattening of national/regional content. At the same time, it helps us develop an inclusive notion of Indian literature, neither as a singular and homogenous conception nor as an aggregate of parallel chronologies, but as a dynamic interacting model of multiple regional/vernacular literary traditions. Furthermore, it could help bring into sharp focus shared themes of identity and issues of social justice, which otherwise remain marginalised.

Comparative perspective

This comparative perspective is tried out in the book, in part, on a major 19th century Oriya novel Six Acres and a Third by Fakir Mohan Senapati, by juxtaposing it with a range of texts, both from India and abroad. Such a perspective allows us a grasp of “the tangled relationship between colonialism and socio-cultural modernity in the colonised world” and the nature of subaltern agency. In the process, it advances the agenda of the book, which is to contest the notion of a singular European modernity by “revealing the alternative and non-dominant layers of modernity” present in the non-western societies.

Pointing to the strategic political value of comparison in literary study and its broader implications, Mohanty suggests that it leads to “both greater specification as well as more expansive understanding of the contexts” of literary works. Many of the essays use this approach to look at the forms in which social critique is articulated in literature.

While showing how a subaltern perspective is represented in Senapati's novel by employing indigenous narrative forms, they advance the thesis that social critique and narrative forms through which it is constituted are inextricably interwoven; the narrative forms shape the nature and content of this critique.

For instance, Paul Sawyer and Himansu Mohapatra, who compare Senapati with Geroge Eliot and Premchand respectively, argue that Eliot and Premchand, despite their genuine sympathy for the underclass, do not adequately represent their lives primarily because of the narrative conventions they use. On the other hand, Senapati succeeds in this endeavour by drawing on traditions and conventions of indigenous folk culture, especially in modelling his ironic and unreliable narrator after them.

Similarly, Jennifer Harford Vargas, in comparing Senapati's novel with Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, shows how “the forms of narrative realism and socio-political critique complexly overlap and even interact in novels from the global South.” Tilottama Misra and Velcheru Narayana Rao read Senapati in the Indian context, and compare his novel with two 19th century texts — an Assamese satirical prose sketch, Fair Without and Foul Within by Hemchandra Barua and a Telugu play Kanyasulkam by Gurajada Apparao respectively. They argue that indigenous forms of modernity prevalent in pre-colonial India, especially the ones preserved in popular oral traditions, inform the writings of Senapati, Barua and Apparao, thus enabling them to offer a critique of colonial structures of power, on the one hand, and orthodox society, on the other.

Ulka Anjaria and Claire Horan look at Senapati's narrative forms from a feminist perspective. Comparing Senapati's novel with Premchand's Nirmala and Monica Ali's Brick Lane, Anjaria explores the narrative politics of silence, showing how it can be used to “represent injustice as a social and textual problem.” Horan shows how Senapati “presents vivid, complex and non-sexist portraits of rural women.”

Socio-historical context

The last two essays place Senapati's novel in a socio-historical context. Gagendra Nath Dash reads in it a “critique of the land-tenure system introduced by the colonial government” which led to a cruelly exploitative regime in terms of the emergence of a new money-lending-cum-zamindar class. Debendra Dash and Dipti R. Pattanaik argue that Senapati, who is opposed to the hegemonic dimension of colonial modernity and to a homogenised fictional past — and not to modernity or to tradition as such — visualises the possibility of a genuine synthesis of the two in the vibrant vernacular tradition.

Breaking new ground by its advocacy of a de-canonised reading, the book goes to the margins of both culture and society, to the folk, oral cultural traditions and vernacular literary traditions and then seeks to mine them for modern ideas and values through a cross-cultural analysis.

Critical comparatism is especially valuable in our Indian context where an exclusive focus on one literary tradition often contributes to ignorance of texts in other traditions, leading to myopia and chauvinism. This book suggests a way out.

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