What Indian writers talk about in Paris: Akeel Bilgrami, Vishakha Desai, Urvashi Butalia

By Supriya Nair | 21 September 2014
“When did novelists first start to write for people living more than 200 kilometres around him or her?” the philosopher and academic Akeel Bilgrami asked, in his opening remarks at a panel discussing globalisation and literature on Saturday evening, at the Writers of India festival in Paris. Bilgrami had, he said, only “instincts on the answer to this question, but he ventured that the particular global outlook that many readers now think of when they think of “world” writing is a sensibility that emerged only in the late twentieth century, with writers such as Orhan Pamuk and Salman Rushdie. 
 
The panel’s moderator, Damien Aubel, an editor of the French magazine Transfuge, began by conjuring up the ghost of an idea that annoys, if not outright exasperates, many postcolonialists: the concept of Weltliteratur, a “world literature” that transcended national borders, popularised by Goethe at the height of German Romanticism. “I am convinced that a world literature is in process of formation, that the nations are in favour of it,” he wrote once. In another letter he said, “What I call world literature develops in the first place when the differences that prevail within one nation are resolved through the understanding and judgment of the rest.”) Given this history, Aubel proposed, it might be right to say that globalisation was not born today, even if the form it takes now is different from what it was earlier.
 
“What is different today is three things: scale, scope and speed,” the scholar of Asian art, Vishakha Desai, said. “The way we are connected, in each of these categories, is different from the way they have previously functioned.” The question of an imbalance of power, in all these categories, came up almost immediately. Goethe’s worldview, Desai said, belonged in a world where a few people made deep connections. “Globalisation today is about the movement of people as much as of ideas,” she pointed out. 
 
Bilgrami said he was interested in the question of globalisation as it applied to the visual arts, a medium in which crossovers—my paraphrase—had become thinkable on a large scale much before they had been so in writing and literature, “I’m thinking of the Biennale, which began in the 1890s, a hundred years before Rushdie and Pamuk,” he said. “What is it about the visual arts that can be translated without needing the apparatus of translation?”
 
Desai argued that the biennale was not global so much as what she called “ultra-national”; a way for hosting nations, most prominently Italy—biennales originated with the Venice biennale in 1895—to promote their own ideas of nationhood on their stage, as well as constructing their own nationalism as encompassing this. 
 
The publisher Urvashi Butalia took up the question of power imbalances in her own response, in a sort of parable centred around the book written by an American journalist, Elisabeth Bumiller, called May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons. Butalia said that Bumiller had spent a month in a village in India; Butalia calculated that of that time, she had spent a total of 28 hours talking to the women of that village. Out of that experience came the 1991 book that was considered the definitive account of Indian motherhood and its aspirations in the West. “Can you imagine an Indian woman standing outside a supermarket in the United States, interviewing the women who came out, and producing the definitive book on American motherhood?” Butalia asked. 
 
Desai brought up the question of translation, which interests the metropole of the world arguably less than it should—the calculation accepted at the panel was that only about one percent of the books translated in the United States were translations. Butalia pointed out that every book market was parochial and locally-oriented (and this is certainly true of India); but that if a large market such as the US was not interested in work coming out of France, Germany or Italy—all societies where translation is published and read to a much greater extent than in North America—it was clear that Indian work would have a much harder time breaking through on to the American stage. 
 
“Why are there no Pakistanis at this festival?” an audience member demanded. Pakistanis could say at least as much, if not more, about the stresses of globalisation and what it might do to the writing and the culture of a country. The work of writers such as HM Naqvi were world literature, that said at least as much about America as about Pakistan. Why then, the underlying question was, did a festival and discussion such as this privilege the Indian viewpoint?
 
The panelists concurred on this front. Of course, there are more logical and categorical reasons for why the festival is one and not the other. But the question brought me back to a point Bilgrami had brought up in the conversation, about the difficulties—and the necessities—of being able to translate the “conceptual vernacular” between languages and societies; to be able to represent, say, human rights, or Islam, in the way it was understood by the “translated” society—again, my paraphrase—rather than the translating one. 
 
While an Indo-Pakistani, or South Asian literature festival would undoubtedly multiply the fun of the whole enterprise, I also thought that we would run the risk of losing the “conceptual vernacular” of the neighbourhood, if we took our cultural positions at face value here, in the continent that originated the concept of Weltliteratur. The “South Asian” at an Indian or Pakistani literature festival is shorthand—admittedly not always nuanced—for all the things in the neighbourhood’s cultures and languages that make it easy for people from adjacent but separate nations to talk to each other. It would be a challenge to make that micro-language explicit in a French town; its complexities would undoubtedly go beyond the question of the differences in our viewpoints on globalisation.
 

Supriya Nair is an associate editor at The Caravan.

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