The world is too big for a small man to handle. It is not an elephant we are fighting; it is a world wide web. This web is the network of ideas, ideologies and idealizations. It is a resource base from which individuals draw what is useful and lets alone everything else. No one has the leisure to examine the warehouse of this resource base and therefore, as I said, the world is too big to handle.
I am examining it, though, with the peculiar taste of a researcher today. I can recall an Indian professor I had met in the 1990s. She was a Rhodes Scholar and had returned to India after finishing her doctoral project in Cambridge. In her introductory speech at the university she said she had wanted to work on Shelley but her British supervisor had made her work on the history of McMillan’s distribution of textbooks in English in nineteenth century India.
Did she enjoy doing that kind of research? Prior to that for about 7 years, she had enjoyed reading all the English poets starting from Chaucer to Elliot. For years, even before joining higher education, she had read story books in English, books by Enid Blyton to Charles Dickens, in their order of complexity. Then, obviously the next step would have been to do ‘research’ on one of those authors, someone she enjoyed the most.
But no, it was not allowed. I know what Indians abroad do. In economics, they get funded to find out how businesses in India have been a failure. In sciences they get funded to find out how Indians are exploiting nature. In art, they come to India with a handsome scholarship and study old red buildings. In psychology, Indians get funded to find out how Indians think on certain kind of issues. In literature, it is invariably a translation of some books written in Indian languages.
The driving force in all this is the funding. If an Indian in being paid to work, he’d better work according to the funding agent’s perspective. This labeling of an Indian as an instrument of gathering information about Indian matters only, is a dangerous thing. The funding agency would not want the worker to study them. The British would not want the Indian to study Shelley. The American would not want an Indian to study how unfairly money is distributed in their businesses. The Japanese would not want the Indian to study their psychological expressions. The German would not want the Indian to find out how many gaseous impurities their nation has spewed in the atmosphere. They do not pay you for inspecting their methods. They pay you to give instances of what is wrong with the Indians.
Luckily for me, the professor’s statement became the guiding light. I wanted to work on a German playwright and I did it in India. I did not go to Germany with the project. I was afraid they would insist on something from their perspective and make me unhappy.
Many years later, I came across an article by the Czech writer Milan Kundera, Die Weltliteratur written in 2007 that discusses the same issue in the context of European literature. He focused on Czech issues. He has written that there is a hierarchy of literatures, nothing to call ‘world’ in fact but just some national literatures compared and contrasted and put together, yet again, in a labeled ranking. The commercially dominant nations do this labeling and obviously keep themselves on the top.
Recently, I also came across discriminatory practices in deciding on expertise. An African is a celebrated writer only if one writes – cries out – about the injustices in their lives. The Islamic writer who cries out against Islamic practices is presented with beautiful laurels by Christian nations. The Indians who depict the Hindu as a villain are raised to a podium to voice their opinions. This is exactly when a great Indian thinker suddenly returns to India and settles the scores by writing why he is a Hindu.
I must say on behalf of all the other Indians who have remained uncelebrated but who have quite consciously chosen not to go to the commercially dominant nations in search of dollars, that they have been wiser. They have chosen happiness over fame. They have satisfied themselves with living a simple life in India. Most importantly, they have been wise since their youth, unlike the ones who realize only in their old age that they have been used by the funding agents to sell the prestige of India.
I am a woman. Recently, I was speaking in a forum where I said, I am a woman so I find myself being invited to join women’s groups and present poems on the theme ‘woman’. In my life, I must have written just about 4 or 5 poems that might be labeled as ‘feminist’ or poems on the ‘theme’ of woman. So through these invitations I find myself being reminded that I am a woman and my writings on woman would be widely read. I do not know how to disengage myself with this labeling.
Women in India are quite happy. In my life I have felt that the man in Hindu culture devotes his entire life to the woman in his household. The romanticizing of the husband-wife relationship has actually had adverse effects on families. In seeking overt expressions of love, we miss out on the subtler forms of loving. In Hindu families, the men are tied to the household responsibilities as bindingly as the women and we unnecessarily fall for the Christian ethics and invite unhappiness.
The same is true of Dalit literature. If a member of the working caste cries out against the members of the wealthy castes as rude and snobbish, it becomes a masterpiece of Dalit literature. It is such a celebrated topic that to get readership, even members of wealthier castes also write about it. I have to accept that in fact writers from the working class are encouraged to write on exploitation only. If someone had paid attention to how literature grows, one would have not encouraged dabbling in complaining. Rather, the world could benefit from writings on the many things that the working class do, how productive they are and how purposeful their work is in the society. The prestige of the people would be raised if they stop complaining and show their expertise in any of the branches of economy.
Rankings and labels are manmade. They can be overturned. Parameters for measuring a civilization can be changed. I know India is the greatest civilization in the world because it has survived since the ancient period all the upheavals in climate and human history. If we had been evil or incompetent, we would have gradually diminished and expired. That is not the case. India is the first world. So in my view India ranks on the top.