METRO PLUS

The empire writes back

Shashi Deshpande

Shashi Deshpande  

HISTORY'S MOST grandiose accomplishments sometimes can have the most trivial origins. Five miserable shillings had set Great Britain on the road to a great colonial adventure. It represented the increase in the price of a pound of pepper proclaimed by the Dutch privateers who controlled the spice trade. Incensed at what they considered a wholly unwarranted price rise, 24 merchants from the city of London met in a decrepit building to found the East India Company, which as it expanded and transformed became the most flamboyant creation of the age of imperialism - what we in the subcontinent call the British Raj.

Nearly 300 pieces of the earth's real estate from entities as small and unknown as Bird Island, Bramble Cay and Wreck Reef to great populous stretches of Africa and Asia were held in sway giving credence to Britain's proudest boast that every time Big Ben's chimes tolled out over London, somewhere in the British empire at sunrise, a Union Jack was riding up a flagstaff. No Caesar had presided over a comparable realm and for three centuries its scarlet stains had spread over the maps of the world. But the latter half of the 20th century saw an explosion in the number of territories and countries becoming nations through decolonisation and over 50 of them went on to join a voluntary but still hegemonic Commonwealth of nations in a continuing historical alignment which was literally speaking postcolonial.

Hoshang Merchant

Hoshang Merchant  

Nation and narration

Nations are perhaps not just narrated into existence as fictive allegories but are often `forged in the smithy of blood, sweat and tears.' They are now often under siege from without and fragmented and subverted from within by various sub-nations. `Nation and Imagination: The Changing Commonwealth' is an invitation to writers, academics, scholars and critics from the Commonwealth to debate the idea, history and politics of the nation. The Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) organised 13th International Triennial Conference returns to India after 27 years and Hyderabad joins other cities around the world such as Canberra, Colombo and Canterbury to play host to this prestigious meet that will link scholars and writers from across the Commonwealth. According to the ACLALS Chair, Prof. Meenakshi Mukherjee, the conference to be held at the Taj Residency from August 4 to 9, has "received tremendous response. New Delhi for long has been in the literary circuit and now its Hyderabad's chance. It was also a question of statistics. Three of the members - Prof. Mukherjee, Prof. C. Vijayshree (Vice-chair and Secretary) and Dr. T. Vijay Kumar (Treasurer) - with the exception of Prof. Harish Trivedi (Vice-Chair) hail from Hyderabad."

Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth  

`Nation' is a political and cartographical entity but also an imaginative construct. "Is it boundaries or your sense of belonging?" asks Mukherjee. With globalisation redefining identities the conference examines the impact of these changes on creative imagination and cultural production. "How long do we apply the term post-colonial," says Mukherjee. "It continues to be used for lack of a suitable term to describe a non-western discourse. The plenary on the future of the nation will address this issue."

Literary jamboree

The biggest ever conference on literature that is funded by the Commonwealth Foundation among others will see the golden boy of Indian writing in English, Vikram Seth, deliver the keynote address. The outstanding literary event will also see a significant contribution by Commonwealth writers who are native to the regions and cultures they write about. The six plenary sessions have Helen Tiffin from Australia speaking on Realigned Communities, Homi Bhabha from Harvard on Scrambled Eggs and A Dish of Rice, Aijaz Ahmad on Nation in the Age of Empire, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak from Columbia University on Nationalism and Comparative Literature, Austin Clarke from Canada, winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2003, and Ashis Nandy, Susie Tharu and Jayadeva Uyangoda. The daily schema of six parallel sessions and four panel discussions will witness the presentation of interesting papers on topics as varied as film and media, queer nation, class/caste: writing from the margins, classroom as nation, linguistic nationalisms, 12 o' clock: the problem with the representation of the Sikh in independent India, partition and displacement, diaspora, translation, sport, gender, human rights and environment. Besides leading critics there are also a feast of creative writers who will read from their works - Keki Daruwalla, Shashi Deshpande, Girish Karnad, Jayanta Mahapatra, Suniti Namjoshi, Drew Hayden Taylor, David Dabydeen and Jean Arasanayagam.

Keki Daruwalla

Keki Daruwalla  

Between book readings, book launches and exhibitions hosted by leading publishing houses and scholars always looking at the `allegory of the nation', the erudite and lucid get-together of some of the best minds from the English speaking world, may over the next week remap the terrain of cultural theory.

Girish Karnad

Girish Karnad  

The empire may be long gone but long live the written word.

DEEPA ALEXANDER

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