Amit Chaudhri wrote an essay, dedicated to Stan Swamy, titled 'the eternity of Return'.
WHEN I WAS A CHILD, my parents sometimes used a Bengali term, ‘bilet pherot’,
The title of the first big Bengali 'rom-com' film hit from 1921. The foreign returned boy spends a lot of time French kissing his g.f greatly to the discomfiture of his upper middle class family.
to categorise a certain kind of person: the returnee from England. It translated literally into ‘England-returned’.
but deracinated and likely to stick his tongue down the throat of whichever nympho happened to be in the vicinity.
They used it with an ironical inflection, to invoke the glamour of a lost world.
One where Indians returned to India from 'phoren' so as to get rich or to achieve great things. For West Bengal, that world had been lost indeed.
The term was out of date. Its glamour had been created in the crucible of colonial India, possibly in the late 19th century.Nonsense! Nitin Chandra Laharry's 'Bilat Ferat' was a satire in the tradition of Madhusudhan Dutt's Ekei Ki Boley Sabyata (1860) which attacked the 'radical' Hindu youth (some of whom converted to Christianity) who had briefly flourished some thirty or forty years previously. Dutt qualified as a barrister in England in the early 1860's.
Bengalis from the educated middle and upper classes began going to England from then onwards to pursue the ‘professions’— law and medicine, to which Bengalis added engineering.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy had gone to England in the early 1830s as the Ambassador of the Grand Moghul. Some ten years later, 'Prince' Dwarkanath had been lionised by British Society- and received by the British as well as the French monarch.
In contrast to Gandhi, who was bilet pherot too, there seemed to have been relatively little anxiety among Bengalis by the end of the 19th century about the loss of caste that transcontinental travel entailed.
Lots of Bengalis were Sanskrit scholars. The 'Prayaschitham' (expiation) ceremony was really no big deal.
I’m not sure why this is so—partly it could have to do with the fact that groups like Young Bengal had already flirted, in the 1830s-1840s, with losing caste at home.
But 'Shuddhi' was easy. 'Young Bengal' had helped H.H Wilson translate the Vedas. They kicked ass at Sanskrit- which also helped them make lots of money as lawyers expert in Hindu inheritance law.
The young medical students who’d travelled to Britain as stowaways
did not exist. At a later point some hunted Revolutionaries 'stowed-away'- in the sense of not being on the passenger list- but they were respectable middle class people who paid their passage with alacrity. Niradh Chaudhuri had an elder brother who fits this description.
However, a lot of such 'medical students' did not return to India because they had married Left wing women- e.g. the father of Rajni Palme Dutt. Bernard Shaw took notice of this phenomenon in his play 'The Millionairess' which was turned into a movie with Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers.
in the same period had outlived the acuity of their caste anxieties.
They had none. If you know Sanskrit, you know you can easily do 'Prayaschitham' even for fucking a dude, let alone crossing the Black Water to fuck White Tarts.
Tagore, who went to London to study in 1878, anyway belonged to an outcaste branch of the Tagore family.
Only because some members had been forcibly converted to Islam- to their own great financial advantage.
His unhappiness in London—where he never completed his degree—
he was attending lectures in English literature at UCL. The trouble was, he was a good-looking dude. Daddy called him home before he could marry some Christian heiress.
came from homesickness and what Naipaul called the “colonial’s raw nerves”.
Naipaul's 'raw nerves' derived from the fact that his Dad was from the lowest class in Trinidad- viz. rural, Hindu, agriculturists. His Mum was higher class which is why he didn't see her for many decades. A Muslim journalist showing Naipaul around Lucknow in the mid Eighties was astonished that Naipaul did not know that his Mum had visited that City, as part of a 'diaspora tour' just a few years previously.
Tagore had no such raw nerve.
The alienation of life in the colonial centre
It was silly that one branch of the family had become alienated from another just because they had espoused a different creed.
and the stupidity of colonialism
like his eldest brother- who protested Brits conciliatory attitude to the 'Pabna Rebellion' because if affected his own rent-roll- Tagore understood that his own way of life depended on the Brits redoubling on that sort of stupidity. But this grandfather had made this point more effectively.
troubled the young Tagore more sharply than any loss of caste might have.
There was no question of losing caste. Tagore's Daddy was the head of an autocephalous sect.
So he came back—but not, strictly speaking, as a bilet pherot, because, to be a bilet pherot you needed not only to return from England, but with something: a degree. According to those conditions, Tagore’s journey was a wasted one.
Not if you had a big Landed Estate. Tagore's position was analogous to a Prince who might spend a year or two touring Europe.
My father went to England in 1949, and my mother joined him in 1955. They were already émigrés of a sort, having lost their homes with Partition.
They were refugees.
After spending several years doing nothing in London, my father, pushed by my mother, finally acquired professional qualifications in accountancy and company law. They returned in 1961, a year before my birth.
Anti-immigrant sentiment was mounting in the UK. Still, the 1962 Act should have given Amit and his parents a right of domicile because they had been 'ordinarily resident' at some point between 1960 and 1962.
My father took up a job in Bombay; my mother conceived. She moved temporarily to her brother’s house just before my birth. So, by chance and through luck, I was born in Calcutta. When I look back on this series of events and movements, I feel happy that Calcutta and I came together when we did.
West Bengal had the highest per capita Income of any State in India at that time. Its relentless decline coincides with Amit's life. Who knows? By the time Amit pops his clog, Hindus may have to flee Calcutta.
It’s not that I don’t like Bombay, the city in which I grew up, or that I look down on those who are born in London. It’s just that India seems to have been an inevitability before I was born, and that Calcutta was meant to be my first port of call.
This is because Amit writes in Bengali and is an expert in Bengali literature- right?
The decisions involved in our arrival—by our parents and maybe even ourselves—exceed our conscious attempts to plan our lives.
We can't plan stuff that happened before our birth. But Amit could have chosen to write in Bengali and to teach Bengali literature. He had done no such thing.
Why take the trouble to be born at all, asks Jibanananda Das in his poem ‘Suchetana’, when life is—to go back to a definition an uncle of mine used—such a “mixed blessing”?
Amit does not understand that babies don't choose to be born. It is Mummy who takes the trouble of carrying a foetus in her womb. On the other hand, we must salute Amit's magnanimity and commitment to Feminism in so far as he permitted his Mother to be present on no less auspicious an occasion as his own birth.
For Jibanananda, the return to existence was half-justified by what only the experience of existence could give access to: the touch of early-morning dew.
You can touch such dew. It can't touch you unless you are a fucking flower or plant of some sort. Even if you sleep outdoors, dew does not form on your body because you belong to a warm blooded species.
Jibananda ought to have been really miffed he hadn't been reborn as a plant.
Arriving at some point in the house of
birth, drawn to earth and the world,
Knowing it might have been better
not to come;
Having arrived, I’ve grasped the
In touching the body of dew in the
luminous dawn …
Or porking a dewy pussy belonging to somebody named Usha or Poornisha or some other such Hindu hottie who might cook you a slap-up breakfast and, nine months later, present you with a baby son who is soon able to beat you up and bite your nose and throw away your glasses while crowing with delight.
Actually, the porking thing is too much work and, anyway, Hindu women don't want to cook me breakfast or have my babies because I'm poor and as ugly and stupid as shit. Still, I think all Bengalis should pair off and produce at least one beautiful babbie coz I like looking at them and making faces at them and... well, that's about all I can do. The trouble with Bengali babies is that they very rapidly become way smarter and more knowledgable than me. There is no possible world where I could be a teacher to, or just hang out with, such tykes.
In my case too, it seemed I’d decided that, if I should take the trouble to be born, I might as well be born in India.
And then high-tail it for Britain. I suppose Amit is making the point that he is superior to people like Rishi coz he is 'asli desi'.
But why India? Why arrive here?
India is a great country. Indian citizenship is valuable- more particularly if you own agricultural land or are Hindu and can become the 'kartar' of a HUF. Also, for Academics or Artists, retaining Indian citizenship gives you a leg up for getting a Nobel or other such prize.
I can’t recall the logic of that pre-natal bit of the decision-making.
I can't recall Amit ever saying anything which wasn't illogical and ignorant.
The Chinese used to say, probably expressing some Buddhist prerequisite: “To be free of existence, you have to be born in India.”
This is the notion of India, that is Bharat, or Aryavarta, as 'karmabhoomi'. Your final birth has to be in Jambudvipa because a Boddhisattva or Tirthankara etc will be preaching there.
According to this view, it’s not easy— at least if you’re in the relatively small queue for nirvana—for the soul to get a passport and visa to this place. The puzzling presence of a billion people in this country makes you wonder if they were all granted entry here because of their soul’s desire for liberation.
This is silly. Amit should know that one get's higher births as a Brahmin/Shraman and then attains Moksha when a Universal Preceptor is working his mojo.
But Jibanananda makes no mention of mukti; it’s the pain and inevitability of return
He was from Barisal. He couldn't return there. The Muslims might kill him.
that concern him, and what he’s interested in is the ‘deep compensation’ (‘gobhiratara laabh’) that India, or Bengal,
West Bengal. That could change. Demographics matter more than dew or its 'deep compensations'.
comprises: a physical immediacy, for which dew is a metaphor. It’s the physicality of life—or of India, or of Bengal—that makes it, against better sense, desirable.
Says a guy whose 'physicality of life' has mainly been located in England.
I have conflated ‘life’ with ‘India’. I may come back to the conflation later. For now, let me return briefly to what it was that caused people like my parents to make their way back—a journey their descendants today would find, counter-intuitively, astonishing.
Not really. You can get very rich in India and then buy mansions in Mayfair while sending your kids to Harrow or Eton.
Why return to India when you’re in Britain?
Servants. Lots and lots of Servants. Air-conditioning, as Lord Linlithgow said, was the game changer. If you have it in your car and your house and your office and your gym, India is sweet as pie.
(To me, of course, the opposite question is the valid one: why stay in Britain when you can return to India? Replace ‘Britain’ with whichever Western nation is appropriate.)
Amit isn't a billionaire. Also, Indians think he is stupid and shit at writing. He needs 'aesthetic affirmative action'.
The obvious reason, for my parents, was homesickness. The other reason was the pride that generation felt, a pride with little room to breathe in Europe.
Darkies in Britain back then had genuine reasons to fear 'forcible repatriation'. Also, unless you were tall and well built, there was always the danger of what would come to be known as 'Paki bashing'. But, thanks to demographic replacement, Whites had to run scared in parts of London by the mid Eighties.
The third was that they had, ostensibly, succeeded in what they’d set out to do.
Daddy had good professional British credentials and was employed by the sadly declining British or Anglophone Corporate sector.
This legitimised their return.
No. The fact that they were Hindus, not Muslims, legitimised their presence in India. What made it viable was Daddy getting a Corporate job.
Besides, they had no future in Britain.
Nonsense! They could have taken up a Post Mastership or set up a tandoori restaurant or Daddy could just have joined an Accountancy firm. They would have done well.
A contemporary of my father’s said to me that he realised after he’d completed his doctorate in history at the School of Oriental and African Studies that he’d be able to do no more with his degree in England than get a job as a clerk in the railways.
Niradh Chaudhuri's son was immediately made a lecturer and embarked on a stellar academic career. However, Niradh and Ranajit Guha, neither of whom had a PhD, did even better for themselves in Blighty.
Those who completed their projects returned; it was rumoured that those who didn’t hadn’t finished theirs, and fear of disgrace—of perceived unfulfillment—kept them from going home.
Amit is partially right. Some older, status conscious, Indians would make fun of people like Sir Raghavan Pillai (who had joined a British commercial concern after retirement from the ICS) or, indeed, Amartya Sen, having to iron their own shirts in servant-less, Socialist, London. Indeed, this is a theme in Eric Linklater's Mr. Byculla where the ex-ICS officer lives in a boarding house and is strangled by an Indian 'thuggee'. But it was misleading. People like Ravi Tikkoo and Swaraj Paul showed that London could be a punctum Archimedis with respect to India's Corporate Sector. Rajiv Gandhi defended his Dosco chum from Paul's hostile takeover, but he was killed soon enough.
They became clerks in the railways. In the hierarchy of that system (generally; not always), those who went back home had succeeded;
Fuck off! They were useless. Their kids got the fuck out of India.
those who didn’t had failed.
Yeah right! By the Nineties, diasporas were pulling the strings back home one way or another. Bollywood recovered solvency through the 'NRI Movie'.
It’s the obverse of our world today.
No it isn't. Purnendu Chatterjee is investing big in India. Look around the world. Where do you have a prospect of faster, sustainable, growth? Kolkata has the biggest low-wage hinterland of any City in the world. Mamta is bound to go down the Sheikh Hasina path sooner or later.
SOMETHING CHANGED IN the 1970s
The Americans had lifted racist immigration restrictions in 1965
to turn migration to, and settlement in, the West into a plausible ambition.
But Gayatri Spivak had emigrated already.
It was the discovery, by Indians, of America: a belated consequence of Columbus’ misdirected journey. The US claimed to be a free country besides being a rich one; the word was out that Indians didn’t face racism there. I once heard a South Asian novelist—an innocent—say at a reading that Indians were considered ‘white’ in America.
The earlier immigrants had not been considered white. They tended to marry Mexicans in California. But, from the Fifties onward, they were marrying Whites. Indeed, the US Ambassador's daughter married the Pakistani President's son.
I thought of Wole Soyinka’s poem ‘Telephone Conversation’, where the potential job interviewee explains to the white woman who’s about to disconnect when she realises he’s black that he is actually, in part, fairly pale: ‘Palm of my hand, soles of my feet/ Are a peroxide blonde.’
Indians have darker soles of the feet and darker palms of the hand than West Africans. Why is Amit bringing this up. Soyinka knew that his people's beauty and utility was so great that this own ancestors had made lots of money selling them for top dollar to Whitey.
I heard that desperation in the South Asian novelist’s placid declaration.
Fuck off! The fact is 'South Asian novelists'- whether male or female- had married into good bourgeois families in Europe or America- if, that is, that is where their hearts led them.
However, by this time, 1996, Indian middle-class migration was already a success,
No. The election of Dilip Singh Saund to Congress in 1957 was the game changer.
the notion of ‘pherot’ had been thrown out of the window, and elite Indian settlements were coming into place in America. It was clear that Indians with PhDs needn’t be clerks in the railways in the US; they could ‘rise to the top’.
There were Indian tech-millionaires in the US by 1960. Amit is simply ignorant. What could be more American than 'Chippendales'? A Bengali Brahmin created it in 1979.
There’s a historic opportunism to the Indian migration
All migration is either 'opportunistic or forced.
from the 1970s onwards to America that makes it unique, and different from other migrations outwards from this country:
Fuck off! It is exactly similar to every type of non-coerced emigration or re-location.
a self-focused embrace of the privileges that the new country offered
False! Indians were emigrating even when they got no fucking privileges whatsoever.
and a denial of its politics, unless politics presented itself to the brown man as yet another privilege and route to ‘the top’.
Why are brown peeps not seeking 'routes to the bottom'? Is it because they haven't studied whatever shite Amit teaches?
In certain ways, it made that migrant class conservative and apolitical, unlike its counterpart in Britain or Africa.
Amit wrote this at a time when half the fucking Tory Cabinet in Blighty was from Asia or Africa.
Perhaps all migration to America had been historically opportunistic.
If your choice set comprises opportunities, your choice is opportunistic.
The only groups that missed out on the opportunism and its wide-eyed mythology comprised those who inhabited America indigenously,
Some did well. Others didn't.
and those who went there without choosing to: slave labour abducted from Africa
Some of whom did well. Incidentally, there were some Indian origin slaves.
It could be for this reason that African Americans have had an even more abject history
their history and culture is resplendent. Bengal has an abject history. Ram Mohan Roy and Dwarkanath spent their own money lobbying Westminster to send out more White Colonists- to protect rich Hindus from 'rapacious' Muslims. The 'Pabna Rebellion' is what motivated them to join, the Vedantin, A.O Hume's 'Indian National Congress' .
than Black South Africans under apartheid: in South Africa, other ethnic groups, not least the Indians, were integral to the fight for equality, just as white English activists contributed so decisively to anti-racist movements in Britain.
They were irrelevant. Economic forces alone matter.
In America, all racial constituencies except the African Americans and American Indians were migrants,
Just as, in South Africa, all non Khoe-San are immigrants. That is 99 per cent of the population
and all migrants embraced the opportunism of the idea of a ‘free country’ in preference to solidarity.
Solidarity means everybody starving to death together. Sadly, our species aint as stupid as Amit asks us to believe he himself is.
This was the background, too, to the romance of Indian migration in the 1980s, the coming into being of the ‘diaspora’,
That diaspora existed in Gandhi's time. 'Ghaddar' and the Indo-German 'conspiracy' were 'diaspora' based.
its success, and its literature and preferred genres.
Fuck is wrong with this cretin? In his own discipline, Gayatri Spivak was a shining star. He himself is a fucking turd. She was 'diaspora'. He was just a very special little boy for whom his Mum arranged special education at a second rate British University.
The Bengali language was my mother’s way— besides the sari she was wearing—of reasserting everything about herself that was at once modern, culturally and intellectually unique, and universal:
Fuck off! She shouted at me and my friends in good Indian English when our partying disturbed the slumber of her ladli beta.
seemingly incompatible registers that the English unconsciously believed it was only their privilege to possess—that you had to be a European to be both culturally particular and a prototype of the universal
This may be true of ignorant Bengali origin buddhivis like Amit. It isn't true of England. This is because the fucking Scots and the Welsh and the Irish keep doing the intellectual or aesthetic equivalent of kicking us in the slats.
Around this time—the time of the emergence of this romance
Nonsense! Bengalis knew Calcutta was doomed after 'Ashok Kumar Nite' in 1968. But they had been running away from there even forty years previously.
—I was in London as an undergraduate.
Mummy kept house for him. This was unusual. Most of us stayed at the YMCA in Warren Street and only rented a flat from the amiable Punjabi owner of 'Divan e Khas' after graduating. But this was so as to shack up with out girl friends, rather than to have Mum cook for us.
Although Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, and, as prime minister, part of an irrevocable change that was coming over Britain and the world, London was a dour city with large areas of inner-city deprivation and racism permeating not only institutional policies but everyday lives.
No. It was a place where you could make a lot of money by buying Real Estate cheap. Lots of Bangladeshis did so and laughed all the way to the Bank. Educated buddhijivis like Amit started making mega-bucks after 'Big Bang'.
I was deeply unhappy.
Living with Mummy instead of a hot chick does have that effect.
The unhappiness had to do with the obliteration of my history that being in London entailed.
What fucking history did this cretin have?
Once, when my mother and I were walking up Tottenham Court Road towards Tesco’s (she’d come from India to be with me), I said something to her in English, and she smiled and said in Bangla, “Let’s speak to each other in Bangla, otherwise these people”—a man had just walked past—“will think we don’t have a language of our own.”
I was there at the time. The fact is, there were plenty of people using that Tesco (come to think of it, one lady cashiers was a 'Roychoudhri') who understood Bengali better than English. Amit's Mummy didn't want to come across as a fucking 'Chutney Mary' or, worse yet, Gujarati speaking 'Ugandan'.
She pointed this out maternally, without defensiveness or prickliness.
She was saying 'Amit, you are a fucking retard. You don't get that everybody understands that all ethnicities have languages of their own. The Brits didn't really think Indians could only communicate by flinging their own faeces at each other. On the contrary, the Brits ensured their Civil Servants learned Bengali and Tamil and so on. Moreover, they insisted that Indians develop vernacular literature.'
The Bengali language was her way—besides the sari she was wearing—of reasserting everything about herself that was at once modern, culturally and intellectually unique, and universal: seemingly incompatible registers that the English unconsciously believed it was only their privilege to possess
English peeps think furriners don't have no furrin language to talk to each other. Fuck you, English peeps! Did you know that French peeps speak French? This important fact was discovered by Professor Gayatri Spivak in 1964.
—that you had to be a European to be both culturally particular and a prototype of the universal. To speak in Bangla was my mother’s way of refuting this;
She had lived in England in the Fifties. Her English had actually become more 'Indian' because she wanted to underline the fact that her husband was a big man in 'Brittania Industries' which made biscuits back home. She was a good lady. But she knew her son was a fucking cretin. Still, 'Ugandan' Gujaratis must be made to acknowledge that he mattered because he was 'Indian' and from Mumbai's 'purple of Commerce'- i.e. deeply 'embedded' in the Licence-Permit Raj- in a way that they would never be- till they became billionaires.
it was also meant to send out a challenge to passing English pedestrians,
Absolutely not! The Bengali bhadralok have no quarrel with 'English pedestrians'. Still, the mother hen did need to protect her little chick from predatory blondes from Sweden or other such places. Look what happened to Rajiv Gandhi! These White girls are utterly shameless. They take advantage of the innocence of our Hindu boys to do SEX to them. This ruins them for proper arranged marriage.
to prick their bubble of universality,
Mummy didn't want Amit's prick to get anywhere near a Mleccha pussy. She got her wish. Amit is married to a smart lady of his own class.
to trouble them not only with the incursion of difference,
The Brits could have kept Darkies out. They didn't bother. The fact is African people possess great beauty and utility. Sadly, the ginormous dicks of African origin men represent a clear and present danger to all our assholes which is why I iz totes Nazi.
which is easy enough to compartmentalise, but with the possibility that there were other legatees of the universal (with all its accessory inheritances, such as language and conversation) than themselves.
The 'Universal' can't have 'legatees'. It is everybody's inheritance. Amit is as stupid as shit. Still, his Daddy studied Law or Accountancy or some such stuff. Sad, his son was too stupid to do any such thing.
This is the pride I referred to earlier: not a pride in difference, but in one’s place and history in the world.
But if you have a place in space and time, difference exists. 'Identity of indiscernibles' is defeated.
It’s in this sense that Achille Mbembe invokes Fanon:
Fanon's Martinique is still French territory. Mbembe's Cameroon is not.
“I am not Black, Fanon declares, any more than I am a Black Man. Black is neither my first name nor my Last name, even less my essence or my identity. I am a human being, that is all… .”
Is Amit a Black Man? No. Is he a human being? No. He's a fucking buddhijivi.
To be white, or Black, or Indian is not to be an essence;
Because being is not an essence. There is a possible world where it does not exist.
it’s to have that rare privilege-
one which everybody has. Talent is a different matter.
the privilege of a vantage-point unique to your history,
Bob Marley had that. I seem to recall he did very well for himself.
a vantage-point that makes available certain things while shutting out others. What vantage-point did being Black offer, for instance?
Are you fucking kidding? White kids in London started speaking 'Black' back in the Nineties. Incidentally, I invented my own 'Rude Boy' patois which kids started to accept coz my advanced age meant I might actually have spent the Seventies in a Borstal.
In a 1970 documentary, James Baldwin reminded his English interviewer standing before the Place de la Bastille in Paris: “None of you know yet who this dark stranger is… I’m not at all what you think I am.”
He was a homosexual. Some Black Leaders aint cool with that at all.
Coming from Baldwin, one of the implications of this is: “You see, I know your culture as well as you do, while you don’t know mine.”
Nor did Baldwin. On the other hand, plenty of Musicians were making mega-bucks coz they made it their business to find out about innovations made by Afro-American or Afro-Caribbean musicians. But the genuine article soon commanded an equally remunerative market.
It’s only at moments such as this that we excavate our awareness of our power,
Amit has none. His Mum did. She had a commanding personality. She got her very special boy to marry a highly 'suitable' girl and you can bet your bottom dollar the kids will do very well indeed- if that is what they want to do.
of the histories of cosmopolitanism we belong to, or in what sense we’re inheritors and creators of the ‘universal’.
No we aren't. We're inheritors of the 'ideographic', not the nomothetic or universal save in so far as we enter the mass-market and do very well on a globalised market.
Baldwin’s observation reminded me of something my mother said to me in Bombay on hearing an English colleague of my father’s mispronounce an Indian word (I was a child then), a remark prescient of what she told me on Tottenham Court Road: “See, we know their language so well, but they can hardly speak ours. We know both ours and theirs.”
We don't. Brits ruled India and many of them knew 'our' languages better than we knew theirs. That was still the case in the Seventies and Eighties. When I needed a good Hindi dictionary to earn a bit of money as a translation I had to buy one compiled by, if memory serves, Rupert Snell whom I had previously mocked coz all the hot chicks at SOAS lusted after him.
This points to the number of vantage-points that being Indian affords at least some of us: something that I can’t dream of exchanging for the reliability and the safeness of being English, or French, or European American, however desirable and wondrous those identities may be. I can’t imagine exchanging my vantage-point of the world for another.
But Amit is as stupid as shit. His vantage point was ignorance and a Mummy who steered him towards a safe career as an 'immigrant' teaching Inglis whose ignorance and stupidity could not be called out coz the dude was a darkie.
To me, being an Indian citizen means nothing (I’m not a citizen when I write or sing) and a great deal, because I know (though it was granted to me inadvertently for being born here) it’s a privilege which is hard to come by
if you are Muslim from East Bengal, sure. Otherwise, the thing is automatic though, no doubt, 'untouchable immigrants' might be massacred at Marichjhapi.
ONE WAY MY parents located their memories of England—treasured memories
one's they could renew easily enough. Daddy was well paid and probably got a First Class ticket a couple of times of year to Blighty.
—after returning to India was to situate them in a critical awareness
of British fiscal and monetary policy?
without sacrificing any of the memories’ dimensions of spontaneity and wonder;
Memory's have no such dimensions. Confabulations- sure. Memories- not so much.
to, in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s sense, ‘provincialise’ them.
Marxism was an Eurasian disease which had given up the ghost by then.
This made any number of local and universal histories come into being simultaneously:
a history comes into being only when a historian publishes
as mortals become immortals and immortals mortals,
which is how come Edward Gibbon is still alive though Count Dracula is dead.
Europeans became local and Bengalis universal and vice versa.
America became and remained 'universal'. Europe had no such ambition.
The ‘provincialising’ expressed itself through jokes, prejudices (sometimes unnecessarily harsh ones) and observations.
So 'provincializing' is like homophobia.
The prejudices didn’t translate to racism because
there was no economic motive for the thing.
they circulated privately, making, paradoxically, human beings of both the English and the Indians through acts of stereotyping and mockery.
This was very important because prior to such acts of stereotyping all those involved were potted plants and not human beings at all.
Some of this distancing vocabulary of mockery has faded away as we’ve succumbed increasingly to a single world order,
Sadly, as the Ukrainians know, no such beastie exists.
but some of it survives in the memory: the histrionic horror at the European use of toilet paper;
Europeans had bidets. Japanese smart toilets which squirt water up your bum are selling like hot cakes.
concern at the intermittent nature of English washing habits and personal hygiene;
That had ended by the Eighties. The British Council House building program had given almost everybody an indoor toilet and the chance to take hot baths or showers.
puzzlement over the smell ‘their’ overcoats gave off in the winter months;
Smoking was allowed on trains back then. Commuters ended up smelling like an ash-tray.
exaggerated dismay over the quality of English food.
Which had started to improve.
My parents’ generation also admitted there was much to admire in the English; but, contextualised in the private discourse about toilet paper and food, the admiration articulated itself as an expression of a discovery, of an assessment that went against the grain, rather than an acknowledgement of a prefabricated notion of superiority.
Indians in the Fifties could see that the Brits were making a success of their National Health Service and Council House building program. Still, a lot of the market for rental accommodation was pretty dire.
The jokes were an act of provincialising; the admiration was an assessment by equals of equals. Of course, the English didn’t know about these jokes.
They were aware that much of their working class had poor housing conditions. But plenty of Country Houses had appalling plumbing and heating. Many Britishers were emigrating to Australia or South Africa or other such places.
The jokes were part of the worlds, languages and vantage-points Baldwin and my mother claimed were unavailable to the European or white person.
It is foolish to compare the middle class Indian with the African American at a time when Jim Crow prevailed in many American States.
On the other hand, ‘we’ knew all ‘their’ prejudices about ‘us’. This knowledge gave ‘us’ the advantage in fashioning a truer sense of universal history.
Nonsense! No Indian produced any such work.
Within this discourse I place anecdotes related by my mother about her years in London. How, for instance, she and her brother, sitting in the Tube, couldn’t stop laughing because the man opposite looked like Stalin;
Stalin had visited London. He was a randy bugger. The bloke might have been descended from him.
my father saying to my mother, when they encountered rudeness on a trip to Europe, that “Continentals” were slightly rustic—the Bengali word he used was ‘gainyya’—in comparison with the more urbane English;
England, back then, was more developed economically. Sadly, it fell behind.
my mother’s ingenuous question to an English colleague in the India Office, who was showing off a cauliflower to adoring Indian colleagues, “But Mrs Jones—what will you do with it?” and her dismissive reply, “Why, boil it, of course!” All these are unmalicious, pointed acts of provincialisation.
Mrs. Beeton had a recipe for cauliflower cheese in 1861. Indian cauliflowers are descended from a Cornish import.
It’s moot whether to be Indian means to be especially able to access an unusual number of vantage-points.
No it isn't. Nobody thinks 1.4 billion Indians have some extraordinary ability in that respect.
What is the history of ‘being an Indian’?
For Hindus, it is the history of being a Hindu.
The ‘diaspora’ has made our sense of it fade as, in the last five decades, we’ve tried, or have been forced, to assimilate and succeed in a unipolar world.
Which one can do while remaining a Hindu- look at Rishi.
Our modernity, going back to the late 18th century, comprises a rich awareness of it, of knowing, despite, or even through, our political losses, what our colonising conquerors didn’t; of knowing more richly, deeply and heterogeneously than them.
Nonsense! India paid John Company to take over the 'Diwani'- i.e. the administration of more and more of the country. But few Indians had any great curiosity about England. Anyway, by 1910, Indians realized America was better in every where. Tagore sent his son to study Agronomy in America.
But the awareness goes back much further, at least to, and possibly beyond, Amir Khusrau in the 13th century: Khusrau, who chose to call himself Turk e Hindustani precisely because
Turks were ruling much of the country.
the multitude of vantage-points which that self-proclaimed identity encompassed required a new coinage or definition.
No. Indians already had the word 'Turuka' for martial, conquering, tribes from the North West. Muslims born in India referred to themselves as Hindustani. Khusrau, like Ghalib, was proud of his paternal Turkic ancestry.
Still, it is true that the 'Anglo-Indian' class as represented by people like A.O Hume did have greater knowledge of India than almost all Indians.
INDIA EXCITES NOT because of its national history, but because
it is growing rapidly in wealth and strength.
of the kind of text it is.
It isn't a text. For Amit, it is a pretext for writing vacuous shite.
This is evident in Khusrau’s ebullient approach to Hindustan as bricolage.
Khusrau's approach is pious and expresses itself in ecstatic musical verse celebrating the Sufi Preceptor.
It is, primarily, a text without clear demarcations between the inscribed and the uninscribed,
in which case it is not a text
the literate and the unlettered, the musical and the non-musical. It challenges itself at any given point of time, as when the authors of the Gita warn worshippers against thinking that studying the Vedas can guarantee spiritual knowledge,
But the Upanishads- which are part of the Vedas- do the same thing! Amit is as ignorant as shit.
or when Dalit poets criticise another Dalit poet for
being more successful
accepting an award named after Saraswati.
or getting a scholarship or teaching gig in Capitalist Amrika
It’s not easy to reduce a text to a national category.
It is easy but pointless to do stupid shit.
To have had anything to do with this text, this work is a privilege—to have been brought into being by it; to be among those, living and non-living, human and animal (woman, man, insect, crow, mountain, building), who bring it into being. I largely live here
because wifey lives here and is doing well in her career
to be part of this ‘work’. It’s not because India, or Calcutta, has helped me ‘succeed’, or taken pleasure in whatever ‘success’ I have. I’d say the opposite; that the India I know and have lived in has been as opportunistic in its interests—personal, political and cultural—at home as it is abroad. If I’m invited to give a talk here, it’s because a few people who didn’t know me personally in the West, in Britain in particular, gave me recognition at a certain point in my life.
This was 'aesthetic affirmative action'. But British Asians did not find Amit interesting. Still, Bengalis will promote their own on condition of not having to read the shite such buddhijivis write.
I would say much of the attention you get in India, as well as the indifference, is governed by self-interest. Yet I live here, and devised ways of spending most of my time here even after going abroad to study in 1983, to the extent that, not only have I never had any intention of getting citizenship from the countries that gave me recognition, I don’t qualify for permanent residency anywhere else. I failed to fulfil the necessary obligations.
His parents were 'ordinarily resident' in the UK in 1960. Thus he could have inherited his mother's status. Perhaps he didn't bother. Still, if you have right to abode you don't need to be a permanent resident. You can come and go as you please. This can make a difference for tax purposes.
To me, being an Indian citizen means nothing (I’m not a citizen when I write or sing) and a great deal, because I know (though it was granted to me inadvertently for being born here) it’s a privilege which is hard to come by.
Not if you are a non-Muslim whose ancestors were from what is now Bangladesh
I don’t give it much thought because I didn’t have to earn it. Maybe its value was overt to my parents because they were born in the age of empire;
i.e. were safe from Muslims. That changed.
it was in colonial India itself that they and their contemporaries converted subjecthood to a powerful sense of citizenship of an India that had been and was to come.
Unless they were killed for being of the wrong religion.
I respect Indians who have earned, and for various reasons were compelled to earn, their citizenship abroad. For me, my constant return journeys to India
only a deracinated Indian would speak of 'return journeys' rather than 'trips abroad'.
and my resumption of life here is like a replay (undertaken hundreds of times by now) of the moment of my birth.
I don't get this. He was born in India and remained there till he went to College in England. Then he returned but took frequent trips abroad. This is true of lots of Indians who work in Software or Finance or the Merchant Marine. Amit isn't really very special at all. His 'vantage point' is of no intrinsic interest because he writes badly, sings badly and teaches worthless shite.
Borges said 'India is larger than the world'. Amit's ego is larger than even Borges's India. But that is because he has no inkling of, or interest in, what India has signified through the ages to the rest of the world.
In a sense, I had no choice in the matter; yet, as with the poet of ‘Suchetana’, it was desire that made me return.
In which case, Amit had a choice. Jibanananda's poem 'Suchetana' was written after 'Direct Action Day' when Hindus killed more Muslims though the latter had started the violence, thus assuring that Calcutta would remain Indian. The poet says that he and his compatriots would work hard to rebuild their City and their Country. It would take centuries, but the work would be done. Sadly, Bengalis thought that writing poems was itself some type of productive work. It wasn't. Still, thanks to demographic replacement, Calcutta may accede to Bangladesh and begin to prosper. Fewer poems will be written but material prosperity may rise.