Friday, 10 February 2012

Off to Dubai

I am going to Dubai tomorrow, to present at the Gujarat Studies Association's 4th Biennial Conference. The conference is to be on "The Gujarati Community: Globalisation, Mobility and Belonging." Needless to say, I'm super excited. I'm excited about visiting Dubai for the first time. I am also excited about meeting scholars from around the world who work on Gujarat and Gujarati issues. I am also looking forward to getting a couple of days with my cousin's family there. Apart from the usual places, I want to check out local second hand booksellers, and try Persian zafrani tea there. Vipul is probably as excited as I am, at the thought that I shall be away a week!

Here's a copy of my abstract:
Telling Tales of Globalisation: Gujarati and British Narratives

In 1866 two texts England Maan Pravaas (Travels in England) by Karsandas Mulji and Up the Country: Letters Written to her Sister from the Upper Provinces of India by the Hon. Emily Eden were published. Mulji was a Gujarati social crusader on his way to England, ‘the great and glorious land of commerce, learning and benevolence’. Eden, on the other hand, was the sister of a previous Governor-General of India, and her letters indicate a desperate desire to be back home and a strong sense of exile. The difference in tone between Mulji’ excitement and Eden’s sense of exile also brings into clear focus the idea of the colonising world as the strong Centre, attractive to the colonised peripheral regions. Both these writers were subjects of and subject to the same overall political entity, the British Empire, though they were on different sides of the race and gender barrier, privileged in one but restricted in the other. These two gendered, colonised subjects negotiate and construct England and India in different ways. Mulji accepts subordinate colonial condition as natural. His tone is earnest and enumerative, whereas Eden’s tone is ironic and playful. My paper attempts to examine the ways in which their framing of the ‘foreign land’ is constituted by their subject positions, vectored by factors of class, gender and coloniality. These two texts illustrate the ways in which questions of belonging and longing are played out in the context of the hierarchy of the West and the non-West, nation and empire and hegemony and subalternity.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Govinda at the Oscars

Picture Clint Eastwood applauding loudly at Govinda's eclectic dance moves. Picture Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart smiling approvingly at the same dance.

This scene is not a product of my overactive imagination. It is a part of a film called Censor, a film that tops my list of "Bollywood movies that are so bad that they are good". If you have not had the pleasure and the privilege of watching Censor, here is an outline.

As the name suggests, the film is a satire on the Censor Board of India. Dev Anand plays a director who makes a revolutionary film about "Indian youth", that truly maligned group that all kinds of filmmakers make all kinds of assumptions about! The Censor Board of India refuses to pass the film because of its inclusion of sex and violence, not realizing that this is a profound film about "reality". I've forgotten most of the film within the film, because I was switching between Censor and something else. Yes, till that point in the film, I was still able to tear myself away from it.

The Indian Censor board declares that this film within the film cannot be released in India. One of the producers, Archana Puran Singh, decides to release it in America, where it is a runaway success and is nominated for the Academy Awards. From this point on, the film had me: there was no way I was changing the channel. Dev Anand used footage from actual Oscar telecasts in the film, and put it together with his narrative.

Naturally, the film wins the Oscar for Best Film, for which various Hollywood stars, including Clint Eastwood, applaud heartily. Not just that, in true Indian style, before the next award is announced, there is going to be a dance performance. And this is how Govinda gyrates on a stage, while various Hollywood stars look on approvingly. After Govinda's performance, Dev Anand wins the Oscar for Best Director, making a speech wherein he thanks his wife, and takes pot shots at the Indian Censor board. And Hollywood dutifully goes on applauding.

At that time, I couldn't stop laughing at how ridiculous this was. Today, I remember that hyperbolic moment most fondly. It was part of the fantasy of excess that made Dev Anand who he was, that makes Rajnikant who he is. More realistic cinema is all very well, but there are moods when I'd rather see something visually or imaginatively "over the top". It is soul food, but is definitely an acquired taste.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Arab Spring: Too radical or not radical enough?

To most people, the idea that Mahatma Gandhi was more violent than Adolf Hitler would seem preposterous. When you’re reading Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, however, such a suggestion is par for the course, as you can read here. Zizek argues that Gandhi led a movement that challenged imperial hegemony and articulated an alternative to it, whereas Hitler’s violence was oriented towards refining and protecting the system rather than altering it in any way.
Similarly, the Arab Spring is often understood and analysed in terms of its potential for radicalism. This test of being, or not being, radical forces it on the defensive. As opposed to the idea that the Arab Spring may become too radical, I would like to advance the proposition that it is not radical enough. It aims at more widespread participation in the system rather than any change in the system itself. An examination of the discursive frameworks within which the Arab Spring has been understood will help clarify this position.
People in different countries, in different socio-political conditions, some Arabs and some not, came together to protest the everyday conditions imposed on them and effect regime change.
The movement was termed the ‘Arab Spring’ and the initial international reaction to it was surprise. After all, these popular uprisings were happening in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya – places and people ‘without history’, as Eric Wolf termed it, not expected to have a political identity or consciousness. These were places and people who were always represented within western democracies through orientalist tropes: either indifferent to democracy or a threat to it. To an orientalist sensibility, the fact that these citizens had opinions or the courage to act on those opinions seemed in itself revolutionary.
Surprise soon gave way to other feelings. In large sections of other parts of the world, there is admiration for the movement, and it is credited with being the inspiration behind the Occupy Wall Street protests and other Occupy movements around the world. Orientalist fears are not too far behind. Variations of ‘the Muslim brotherhood will now take over Egypt’ appear from time to time, raising spectres of visible Muslim populations and visibly Muslim governments haunting the ‘secular’ West. If one of the consequences of the movement is that it allows religion greater sway in political processes, the revolution shall be retrospectively identified as ‘too radical’. If the Arab Spring were to put any system in place that is not western democracy the way the West defines it, rather than practises it, it would be deemed too radical. A too radical governing apparatus needs correction, through sanctions, invasion and so on; as the West still remains the arbiter of what is religious, what is radical and what is secular.
Speaking of secularism, how secular is the West? If the secular is taken to mean that religion is immaterial to political processes, American democracy would not count as secular. Fox News, which berated Obama for not mentioning God in his Thanksgiving address to the nation here, does not have the moral right to tell others to ‘separate religion and politics’. Religion is as much a part of political debate in western democracies as it is in other parts of the world, and sometimes more so. Emotionally charged and hotly contested debates for and against abortion and/or homosexuality are rooted in alternative readings of religious strictures.
The liberal ideal of a secular separation of religion from political life is used frequently by the West to demonstrate its superiority to other parts of the world. It is somewhat similar to the use of feminism by western governments – an ideal of equality is set up in the developed world and then constructed as universal. If one were to examine the application of this ideal carefully, it would soon be seen that feminist projects in the western world are as incomplete as those in the non-western world. But this ideal is accepted as universally true and valid for all other nations and peoples, who are then judged and ranked on the basis of this ideal. Thus, non-western nations ‘fail’ the tests of democracy, of feminism and so on.
A similar failure on the altar of radicalism and secularism awaits the Arab Spring. It is radical in terms of what it achieved, but it has not been revolutionary enough in the sense that in many of these countries the emerging alternatives to deposed dictators are not very different or alternative. It is when the Arab Spring is not judged on the basis of how secular it is, when it is accepted that the people currently homogenously identified as ‘Arab’ have the right not only to write their own history but to write it in whichever way they want, that the movement will have achieved a revolutionary end.

N.B. The above blog post first appeared as a commentary on the MnM website, and can be accessed in that form on this page.