I am what I am; I will be what I will be.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Awards, Recognitions and Sri Lankan Creative Writing in English

Editor’s Note: The text reproduced below is the longer version of the introductory comments made at the BMICH, Colombo on 27th May 2017 at the announcement of the winner of the Gratiaen Prize 2016. 

About Concerns of Judges

When speaking of the concerns we have as judges with regard to our experiences in judging the entries for the 2016 Gratiaen Prize, I am speaking on behalf of my fellow judges, Chandana Dissanayake and Ruhanie Perera as well. These are our collective thoughts. Over two decades, the Gratiaen Prize scheme has been an important system in providing recognition to writers in Sri Lanka who write in English. And this should continue. We already noted in April when the short list was announced that it would be best to institute separate award schemes for different kinds of creative writing in English on the same model as the H.A.I. Goonetilleke Award for Translations. Though difficult, this is not impossible if there is a willingness to work with other concerned entities and people who may share the same goals and ideals. This is primarily to offset financial burdens. This self-conscious diversification will limit the kind of subjectivity that necessarily seeps in now, as the system is way too open, and judges have to precariously navigate across varied genres of writing to arrive at ‘reasonable’ decisions. And that does not necessarily work too well all the time. The present scheme makes life difficult for both contestants and judges.

Photo courtesy of Daily Mirror, Colombo
Ideally, the broad schemes and criteria for judging works in each category should be formally and clearly defined and publicly available so that contestants would know on what criteria they are being evaluated. But at the same time, there needs to be some leeway and flexibility for judges to be creative when needed, within limits. In other words, there is a need to have a more transparent and robust scheme with built-in possibilities of flexibility.

We also think that the Gratiaen Prize and other similar award schemes in the country need to ask themselves two fundamental questions: That is, should they be looking for the best creative writing in English in the country on par with global writing standards and norms? Or, should they be overtly moved by local conditions? If it is the latter, then, judges might often have to reduce global standards drastically – quite possibly against their better judgment – to deal with perceivably local conditions and idiosyncrasies. This simply cannot be good for the future of creative writing in the country. 

As the Gratiaen Trust begins to celebrate its 25th anniversary while reflexively revisiting its important institutional history, we hope these issues might be thoughtfully explored so that a more reasonable scheme for evaluating creative writing in our country might be evolved.

On Creative Writing in Our Country

Let me take a few moments to reflect on the status of creative writing in Sri Lanka, but with a focus on prose. But I think what I have in mind can be generalised across all genres. These thoughts are based on my reading of Sri Lankan writing in Sinhala and English over the last couple of decades, and not by looking at the entries we received for the 2016 Gratiaen Prize. But these are simply my thoughts, and I do not want to implicate my two young colleagues in whatever politically incorrect I might say today.

I have often wondered why is it that Sri Lanka has not produced in contemporary times writers like Gabriel García Márquez, Umberto Eco, Fernando Pessoa, Pablo Neruda, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie, Elif Şafak, Orhan Pamuk and so on. Admittedly, these choices are based on my own subjective interests and taste. But all these are globally recognized writers of creative fiction from different parts of the world.

When I am asking such a rhetorical question, I am also asking why is it that our creative writing in general – whether short stories, novels, poetry and so on – lag so far behind in terms of global norms, and particularly with regard to recognition? I can answer this question by focusing on four specific and inter-related areas of concern:

1) One is about the time spent on creating a work, and the nature of exposure a writer might have to the expansive world of writing;
2) The second has to do with the use of language;
3) The third concern is what appears to be a limitation of imagination in working out plots and ideas;
4) The fourth is the relative lack of attention to research and a pronounced disinterest in broader domains of knowledge.
All of these are inexorably linked, and inattention to one, would obviously affect the others, and the work as a whole.

On Time Spent in Creating a Work

As I read Sri Lankan fiction and poetry in general, I don’t get the sense that most people have spent as much time as they ideally should in working out the structure and details of what they write. Many seem to be in a mighty hurry to finish, publish, and win awards. And it does not help that we hardly have a professional publishing industry in this country with competent systems for vetting and reviewing. As we know quite well, publishing often depends on the personal connections a writer has with publishing houses, and the commercial interests of these publishers. In this scheme of things, quality of writing is not always a major concern. This means that writings, which have not achieved the necessary quality due to lack of investment in time and effort and have not fulfilled other essential criteria, can easily be published. They might even win local awards.

Unfortunately, many of us – be they writers or not – are also not too keen to broaden our horizons, by reading widely. If one reads, Fernando Pessoa’s work, The Book of Disquiet, how can one miss what Phillip Pullman has called “mysteries, misgivings, tears and dreams and wonderment” within the book’s 260 odd pages? If you read Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain, his first novel, one can see he is a master narrator of stories, moving Adam Thorpe to caustically comment that Chandra’s novel “makes its British counterparts look like apologetic throat-clearings.” Similarly, Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery, convincingly deals with 19th century Europe – from Jesuit plots against Freemasons to Italian republicans strangling Catholic priests with their own intestines, and so on.

All these have become memorable works of fiction primarily due to the time the writers have taken to perfect their art, to fine-tune their narrative styles, do essential research and build the necessary background.

What is stopping us from bringing such well-established global milestones to bear upon what we write locally? In the prevailing circumstances, if we go beyond our islanded frame of mind, and situate some of our hurriedly produced works without any seeming inter-textual sources of inspiration in a global scheme of reckoning, how would they fare? Would they make a mark in a far more competitive environment? But then, why should one even attempt for such greater heights when we can manage with much less, right here?

I leave these questions unanswered for you to think about.

On the Issue of Language

By and large, in much of the Sri Lankan writing I have read, I don’t see a passion or a serious engagement with language or radical experimentation with different forms of writing.

This is not about using correct spelling or grammar. In many cases, language is either economical, fed by an unfortunate limitation in vocabulary, or it’s simply dry. Not much time or effort is taken for essential description, to build up stories, or construct conversations. Or, it is forced, and wordy. By and large, one also cannot see much reflection and thinking when it comes to creatively dealing with various forms of writing as well. There is not much interest to work across genres. All these shortcomings, I think comes when language is merely used as a utilitarian device for the primordial act of communication, and clearly devoid of passion, color, emotion, imagination and feeling. How often do you see passages like the following in Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence in our writing?
“A week after his final refusal, Marco Vespucci hanged himself. His body dangled from the Bridge of Graces, but Alessandra Fiorentina never saw it. She braided her long golden tresses at her window and it was as if Marco, the Fool of Love were an invisible man, because Alessandra Fiorentina had long ago perfected the art of seeing only what she wanted to see, which was an essential accomplishment if you wanted to be one of the world’s masters and not its victim. Her seeing constructed the city. If she did not see you, then you did not exist. Marco Vespucci dying invisibly outside her window died a second death under her erasing gaze.”
I will not over-stress my point. But as fellow readers, I think you can grasp what I am concerned about.

On Limitations in Imagination

When specifically thinking of fiction set in defined historical or mythical epochs, examples that instantly come to my mind are Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Eco’s Prague Cemetery, Elif Şafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice and Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence.

These are simply unconnected references that are stuck in my mind due to the ways in which they have used history, notions of the past or memory to develop their plots with a nuanced sense of imagination to narrate their tales. There are many other examples.

Our written histories are replete with many possible and quite intriguing points of departure, which could ideally allow us to write good historically rooted fiction. But we don’t seem to ask the right kind of questions or allow our imagination to blossom within the realms of possibility. For instance, why shouldn’t one of our novelists ask: Are Dipavamsa, Mahavamasa and Chulawamsa the only preeminent records of historiography?

Within the frame of that question, what about the fictional possibility of a secret, not yet discovered, but possibly existing record of our history which local monks had spirited off to Nalanda for safe keeping in times of local calamity, which was in turn taken to China by the pilgrim monk Xuan-zang during his 18 years of travel across the region from China to India and back, before the ultimate and complete destruction of the Nalanda library and the main complex itself. Xuan-zang’s descriptions of Buddhist sites in ancient South Asia are among the most complete accounts one can find, and he dreamt of coming to Lanka, but could not.

Within these possibilities, what is stopping one of our own from writing a work of fiction in which the story line might suggest that our understanding of local history would radically change if this lost manuscript languishing in some godforsaken Chinese monastery in the Sichuan Province was found? That could be a fascinating journey into history, the intrigues of present day politics, and the world of myth and belief while allowing creative imagination to blossom. When I wonder about these fictional possibilities, I often think about books like Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose or Jostein Gaarder’s Vita Brevis: Letters to St Augustine both of which engaged with history deeply to weave their narratives. But closer to home, it seems to me that Prof Gananath Obeyesekere’s recent book, The Doomed King: A Requiem for Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, which offers a creatively revisionist history of 19th century Lanka with a focus on our last king, presents tremendous possibilities for creative writers interested in historical fiction.

But to ask such questions, and to allow one’s creative imagination to soar, we must be exposed to the broader worlds of global writing and domains of specialised knowledge, such as the historical records that Prof Obeyesekere has consulted in our own context, and Xuan-zang’s detailed travel accounts, all of which are now published and available in English. But above all, to do all this, one must have reservoirs of patience and time.

On the Issue of Research

In my mind, no creative writing is possible without sound background research. As a novel, Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, foregrounding the life of Mumbai’s Parsi community and India’s nationalist politics of the 1970s would not have been possible, if not for the thorough research on Indian politics and demographic transformations undertaken by Mistry. Similarly, Baudalino would not have worked if not for Umberto Eco’s considerable grasp of Christian and European history of the 12th century. Similarly, Eco’s Name of the Rosehas become what is, due to the author’s sound grasp of medieval European history, semiotics, biblical analysis and literary theory.

To reiterate, it is due to sustained research that these novels and many others like them, have been able to successfully create the overall context and mood within which they flow, and have acquired global recognition.

But knowledge of this kind has to be self-consciously sought, and the only method for doing this is through extensive research. There are no short cuts. Such knowledge does not merely come from quotidian experience, by reading the morning newspapers, casual online loafing and certainly not through divine or demonic intervention.

In these times of uncritical and populist nationalism, some of you might say I am being unreasonable, unpatriotic, and we write as well as anyone else. To friends and colleagues with such reservations, my only question is this: how come our writing in English has not become a global presence – barring a very few exceptions? Why was it necessary that many writers with Sri Lankan family connections had to first leave our shores to become globally ‘recognised’? Is it a massive conspiracy against us by the rest of the English-speaking world?

More realistically, I would say, the answer lies in our collective inattention to the four areas of concern I just outlined. But obviously, there are many other issues as well, which I have not discussed today. In any event, without the ability to be self-critical and reflexive of our predicaments, we simply cannot go beyond the often self-defeating systems of reckoning presently in place in our country. No system of evaluating creative writing should be obliged to offer awards annually as a matter of ritual. Let there be dry spells for a year or two or more, if entries that fulfill basic global norms are not received for consideration. As we have already noted, it is a serious mistake to have systems for evaluating creative writing too closely anchored to local conditions and idiosyncrasies. After all, we compete with the world successfully and on an equal footing in areas like visual art, film, architecture, cricket and political violence. So why not writing? The local can inspire us, and it certainly should; but we must necessarily write for the world, particularly if we write in English. My point is if we offer an award to one of our own locally, he or she should also be able to compete with global award schemes with the same entry. If this is not possible, then there is something very wrong in what we do.

Photo courtesy of Daily Mirror, Colombo
I have said all this today for a reason. It is not to dampen your spirits, but to make a plea for our collective future in writing. Including the Gratiaen Prize, we have systems of reckoning focused entirely on the end product of the creative process. That is, the focus is on ‘awards.’ We have almost no regular and institutionalised systems in place to help budding writers to get their craft right; to discuss the kind of things I have outlined, and to offer ways to deal with these. How can we offer awards without first clearing the avenues to get there? This is not something that can be done with irregular efforts by a handful of concerned individuals. I think it is essential that such systems of ‘training’ and exposure be made available to younger and aspiring writers on a regular basis – be it by the Gratiaen Trust or other concerned entities. But it must be done. I am not arguing that workshops will create good writers. But I am saying that such efforts will offer young writers exposure to people who know their craft and may work as regular sources of inspiration. This is what in certain ways, India’s Jaipur Literature Festival has done over the years primarily due to its policy of free access, and Lanka’s Galle Literature Festival has failed to do for precisely the opposite reasons. Given my present location, this is something I can help with, if there is adequate and serious interest.

I think I have said enough for one evening. And I am sure my position is clear enough whether people opt to agree or not.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Gratiaen Prize 2016 Shortlist

(Introductory comments made at the British Council, Colombo on 3rd April 2017 via video at the announcement of the shortlist for the Gratiaen Prize - 2016)

Colleagues and friends,

Good evening. My apologies for not being with you in person today. But I am sure my colleagues, Chandana Dissanayake and Ruhanie Perera who are the other partners in this 'impending crime' would more than adequately make up for my absence. I referred to this process as an impending crime’, because in no competition, judges are ever popular people. Often, they have very few ‘friends’ at the end of a judging process, and are equally as often seen by many as people who have committed a crime. We will not be any different. But we will take all this in a stride, as something that comes naturally with the territory.
Photo courtesy of Chandana Dissanayake, Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka
This message comes to you virtually because technology has made it is possible, cheap and accessible. And more importantly, because my two colleagues thought I should mark some kind of tangible presence this evening despite my long-term displacement beyond our borders. 

I will make some brief comments as a matter of ritual, and let my colleagues from the panel of judges as well as the Gratiaen Trust carry on with the rest of the evening. 

For the record, for this competition, 55 entries were received by the Gratiaen Trust.

Of these, 15 were withdrawn by the Gratiaen Trust for not fulfilling basic criteria. We read the rest.

Among the 40 that we read, there were many genres of writing, either in published or manuscript form. These were:

1) novels, 
2) short stories, 
3) poetry, 
4) poetry and short stories, 
5) poetry and essays 
6) drama and
7) memoirs. 

At a certain level, it shows the kind of variety we had to deal with, and the enthusiasm of those who write in English in our country. Also, I was personally quite touched to see very different kinds of people writing today: retired people with different kinds of professional and personal experience; young professionals; students and established as well as budding writers.

But at the same time, as a group, we also had a number of anxieties, which I think previous judges also might have felt in different ways. I think it is best that we outline these. 

This is an award for the best work of creative writing in English. It is this broad definition and the relative lack of similar schemes in our country along with the reputation the Gratiaen Trust and its scheme have acquired over the last 25 years, which explains why this many people send in their entries each year. And obviously, this is a scheme of reckoning that needs to continue its role in the field of English language writing in our country. 

But in our opinion, this broad definition on writing does not do as much justice as it could to the judges, and more importantly, to the competitors. We recognize that genres of writing do at times defy clear categorization. Biographies can be written like novels, and very short novels can come close to short stories. But this is usually the result of conscious decisions of individual writers. It should not be the result of an accident in time and circumstances, which might nerveless be stylishly post-structuralist – but by accident. 

To consider such a wide variety of writing as we have done, and many other judges before us, under the banner of ‘creative writing in English’ for a single award is extremely difficult – to put it mildly.

As the Gratiaen Trust begins to celebrate its 25th anniversary, it might be a good idea to explore the possibilities of diversifying its award scheme to more specifically include separate awards for poetry, novels, short stories, biographies and memoirs, mixed writing and so on, on the same lines that a separate award has already been instituted for translation – The HAI Gunatliake Award. We know quite well that all this is easier said than done. But this is not impossible if we are willing to make associations with other entities who share similar ideals. Challenging as this may be, it is our collective thinking that this is a worthwhile direction to think about. 

But this is for the future. And for the Gratiaen Trust to consider.

Let us now come back to the present. 

Given these kinds of issues, we have looked at each of the entries within each category separately on their own terms, to come up with the short list. That is, we have looked at short stories on their own, novels on their own, poetry on their own and so on. We believe that we have looked at the material we received in the most rational and reasonable way in which it could be done. In doing so, we had a number of core questions, which guided all of us. We had a table where we entered all the entries and made our notes, our choices and our decisions. We shared this with each other once the process was complete. We worked on our own in our respective locations – in my case across Sri Lanka’s national borders. This was not difficult given the internet and digital-based technologies were easily at our disposal -- making distances in cartographic terms immaterial in what we did. There was remarkable overlap in our thinking and considerations, and minor and negligible deviations. 

The shortlist constitutes of texts over which our consensus was clear and absolute. There were no confusions. There was no debate. This will be read to you by Chandana or Ruhanie in a short while after which, the other performances and rituals of the event will continue as tradition dictates.

We will do our best to come up with the finalist over the next month or so in the same way we have worked so far.

Let me wish all the competitors good luck for the future, and suggest that they continue to write. And let me wish the folks in the short list, the best of luck. 

Thanks for your time. Have a very nice evening.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Thinking of Myth and Folklore in 21st Century

(Valedictory Address delivered at the seminar, ‘Folk Philosophy in South Asia: Exploring Cosmic and Mundane in the Folklore’, organized by Banasthali Vidyapith and South Asian University at Banasthali, Rajasthan, 26 March 2017)

Vice President, Banasthali Vidyapith, Prof Siddharth Shastri; Former Vice Chancellor, V.M. Kota Open University, Prof G.S.L. Devra; Co-convenors of the seminar, Prof Preeti Sharma from Bansthlai and Prof Dev Pathak from South Asian University,

The Venue.  Image courtesy of Kaushalya Kumarasinghe, Department of Sociology, SAU
Let me begin by thanking the organizers for inviting me to deliver this Valedictory Address. I am particularly happy that my own institution, South Asian University and its Department of Sociology collaborated with Banasthali Vidyapit in organizing this seminar. 

Fundamentally, this is a conference on folk philosophy, the cosmic and folklore, over none of which I claim to have any expertise. But as an anthropologist dealing with the contemporary world, sometimes it becomes necessary for me to cross into the past as well. This allows me a certain vantage point to address all the main thematics that constitutes the title of this seminar. But I will do so from my own perspective. 

What I want to do today is to pose a simple question and answer that from my own perspective. My question is, what does folklore mean and how does its study -- including that of folk philosophy -- make sense to us at this time in the 21st century? Or, is the study of folklore a burden on our time?

Ritual Beginnings.  Image courtesy of Kaushalya Kumarasinghe, Department of Sociology, SA
To answer this question, I will travel to two plains of discourse: 

1) The first is the plain in which folklore travels from the past to the present over time, and is consumed within circumstances of the present. 

2) The second is the plain of the present itself in which folklore is given genesis and space for consumption. This has nothing to do with the past. This is about contemporary folklore.

But let me begin with a basic conceptual clarification. Some of our PhD candidates told me a few weeks ago that their abstracts for this seminar had been sent back for reconsideration as they apparently did not contain the words folklore, but instead contained words like myth and mythology. 

I was somewhat intrigued by this observation, and it remained in my mind. I could see that an epistemologically very restrictive understanding of ‘folk’ and ‘folk lore’ could lead to a position like this. But such conceptual reductionism has no place in human sciences in this century. For me, myth and folk lore are terms that are often used interchangeably. At other times, they can differ in their primary meanings too, but are nevertheless located in close proximity to each other. 

SAU Presenters.  Image courtesy of Kaushalya Kumarasinghe, Department of Sociology, SAU
To put it simply, in a broader structure of folklore, a number of mythic narratives might be embedded. I flagged this today for a reason. And that is, in my presentation, I will be using these terms more openly and sometimes interchangeably in the way they are used in contemporary human sciences, and not as closed, airtight, archaic and linear categories. In other words, I cannot talk of folklore without myth, or myth without folklore.

Let me now go back to my initial question, and attempt to unravel it. And that is, what does folklore mean and how does its study make sense to us at this time in the 21st century? And more importantly, what happens to narratives of folklore when they travel from the mythic or the historic past to the present?

There is a widespread assumption that folklore is a matter of the past, a matter of history and of mythic times, a matter of kings and queens, a matter of divine beings and their encounters with other mythic beings as well as humans, and therefore beyond interpretation and analysis. This is particularly the case if such folklore are centrally implicated in the realm of religion or in a nation’s imagination of its past and self-identity. 

This assumption suggests that folklore and its constituent linkages including folk philosophy and ideas of cosmology and so on, are to be recorded, compiled and incessantly narrated as unchanging references to heritage and tradition, but cannot come to the present via forms of reading or analysis. For me, this understanding is intellectually too limiting. But this is certainly one way in which folklore can be seen, as a corpus of knowledge from a different time that should merely be compiled, and be awed by. It seems to me much of what has been presented over the last two days falls within this understanding of folklore. 

SAU Presenters.  Image courtesy of Kaushalya Kumarasinghe, Department of Sociology, SAU
But the question for me is, what can one do with this material, with this knowledge that is not from our time. Folklore cannot be understood merely in the context of the undifferentiated past from where they might have sprung up. How have they been seen over the years, and how are they seen today, and how will they make sense tomorrow? How are they remembered and how are they performed and what aspects of them are forgotten or under-emphasized, and why? These are the kinds of basic questions that interest me when looking at folklore from the perspectives of today and from my own disciplinary vantage points.

When thinking of these issues, I was reminded of Roland Barthes’ essay, Myth Today. While talking of ‘myth as a form of speech,’ Barthes says that “mythical speech is made of a material which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication” (Barthes 1993: 110). He says further, this is because “all the materials of myth (weather pictorial or written) presupposes a signifying consciousness, that one can reason about them while discounting their substance (1993: 110). 

In my mind, Barthes is talking about the obvious possibilities of myth as a transforming discourse in the process of making it intelligible in a given context. And this context would change in terms of politics, temporality, culture and so on making mythic speech also to change. This is not a matter of the basic structure of myth changing even though this also happens at times. It is more a matter of the contexts of its reception and interpretation changing, which also impacts its modes of reference in the present. 

This is what happens when myths and folklore travel from the past to the present. They get embedded in the present, but not as an un-transforming package from the past. Instead, by distorting their initial references, they attempt to make more sense in the new circumstances

Let me clarify this transformative and temporal travel associated with myth and folklore by taking it beyond theory. Lets think of Ramayana, which all of you are well aware of. As I grew up in the 1960s in Sri Lanka, I was familiar with the stories of Ramayana too. 

It was in our textbooks, and elders narrated renditions of it as bedtime stories. But in Sinhala folk traditions, it was never performed as was the case in many Indic and Balinese traditions. It was merely narrated as folk tales and mythic renditions of an undefined mythic past in which the cosmic and the mundane worlds intermingled at different plains. 

SAU Presenters.  Image courtesy of Kaushalya Kumarasinghe, Department of Sociology, SAU
The physical landscape of Sri Lanka is littered with references to places where Ram is supposed to have landed with his army, where he rested in the midst of battle, where Hanuman had dropped a piece of mountain he had plucked from the Himalayas in search of herbal medicines, places where Sita was imprisoned by Rawan and where Rawan’s famed flying machine is supposed to have landed.

But in our stories, which have circulated within the island for hundreds of years, Ram was not the Hero. It was Rawan. Local cultural theorists from the early 20th century right up to the 1960s proclaimed him to be the progenitor of the Sinhala people who supposedly spoke a language called Hela delinked from Sanskrit and Pali influences. In this argument, the Sinhala people were given a more local genesis than the time-tested story of an Indian lineage through yet another cluster of folklore where the hero is an exiled prince called Vijaya.

What does all this mean in the context of the question I had posed earlier? In so far as folk lore goes, it is hardly surprising that the story of Ramayana was known in Sri Lanka beyond the shores of present day India. This is simply because folklore, myths and other ideas circulated extensively within the region we call South Asia today and much beyond that also, as a result of the regular movement of people, sharing of cultural knowledge, collective practices of faith and so on. 

For me, this story is not necessarily a reference to evidence-based history as fact. It is not a matter of ancient international relations between Lanka and Bharat. This is too simplistic. But it is a clear reference to plains of relationships and knowledge, which were, culturally linked and shows the existence of a shared, living landscape embedded with a significant degree of cultural complexity that was known to and acknowledged by different people throughout our region.

That is why for me, the study of Ramayana, if undertaken cautiously might show how cultural knowledge travelled in South Asia at specific times creating a very particular experientially based and mythically informed cartography of the region. But this is hardly done in folklore studies today.

Also, the ways in which Ramayana was and is understood in parts of India will not work in attempting to understand how it was sensed and understood in Sri Lanka at different times. This is because the mythic speech in the sense suggested by Barthes changes over time and in different places. Today, Ramayana is not in our textbooks and most young people would have forgotten that Rawan emerged from the narratives of Ramayan.

But Rawan has reemerged over the last few years. The only way in which these Sri Lankan manifestations can be understood is by situating the original story of Ramayan and its varying and different local emphases in the realm of very contemporary local politics. 

And now, the local stories and places associated with Ramayan have been rearranged across the country’s landscape as part of the country’s tourist discourse mandated by the state. This is part of the process of decision-making within the realms of economics and tourism. Over the last seven years or so, the government has invented something called the ‘Ramayana Trail’ targeting affluent and often naïve middle class Indian tourists. They are taken to see local places supposedly associated with Ramayana. For a long time, they were never taken seriously by local people except as pointers to local stories. 

But now, these mythic references from folklore are defended by local people as historic and archaeological facts because they have been turned into a bread and butter issue. A forgotten folklore has been reinvented as local fact squarely in the midst of economics. 

Let me now refer to the second issue I flagged at the beginning very briefly. 

That is, the plain of the present in which folklore is given both genesis as well as the space for consumption. This has nothing to do with the past. This is about contemporary folklore. So far, I talked about what happens to folklore when they travel from the past and get enmeshed in contemporary conditions. What I have in mind now is folklore that is invented in the present.

Politicians of our time, university students with what they write on the walls of toilets and on library tables are all in the process of creating contemporary folklore. And most of these are rooted in the experiential realities and fantasies of the present, and have nothing much to do with the past.

As many of us interested in the formal study of folklore would know quite well, one of the best known scholars who professionalized the study of folklore was Alan Dundes (1934-2005) at University of California, Berkeley. His book, The Study of Folklore (1965), established widely accepted definitions of folklore, including what is meant by the term ‘the folk.’ 

Prof Dundes was quite aware that the study of folklore could become obsolete, if its practitioners were perennially enamored by a need to link folklore to the past, and be guided by outdated ideas of what constituted “folk.” In his essay, Who Are the Folk, Dundes observed with reference to the United States, “it would be absurd to argue that there is no folklore in the United States and that industrialization stamps out folk groups and folklore --- Industrialization has in fact created new folklore, for example, the folklore of computers” (1980:7). 

As we know, while the affects of industrialization, urbanization and globalization swept across the world, many folklorists throughout the 20th century perceived the introduction of modern technology as the apocalypse for folklore and its study. Dundes’ ideas were in many ways ahead of his times. He said, “Technology isn’t stamping out folklore; rather it is becoming a vital factor in the transmission of folklore and it is providing an exciting source of inspiration for the generation of new folklore. The rise of the computer symbolizes the impact of technology upon the modern world. My point is that there is folklore of and about the computer” (1980:16-17). 

While we lament on the demise of folklore studies in our times and in our region, and lament on our younger generations’ forgetfulness of folklore from our ancient past, how many of us have thought of compiling and interpreting contemporary folklore? As far as I can think of, there is no serious attempt in South Asia to study newer versions of folklore seriously or to study folklore from the past in the newer conditions they find themselves in. And as a result, our attempts in understanding contemporary times are straddled with significant lapses, leading to a situation of intellectual malnourishment. We are shackled by the past and blinded to the present. And in the end, our understanding of both the past and the present is incomplete.

Let me conclude with a suggestion for your consideration. We can take for granted thst folklore from the past as well as the present will always be with us. That is a given.

In that context, while you come to the end of this seminar, the basic question you should ask from yourselves is this: how would you bring the study of folklore to the 21st cetury, and situate folklore in the midst of contemporary times, in the midst of psychoanalysis, in the midst of semiotics and in the midst of historiography but within the realms of reasonable interpretation. 

Thank you for your time.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Liminality of South Asia

Observations made at the plenary session of the conference, 'Reimagining South Asia: Explorations in the History of Ideas' organized by the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi, 17th February 2017:

The Audience. Photo: Romy Ahuja, MA Program in Political Science, University of Delhi
I wondered for quite some time over the last few days what to say in this session which is focussed on ‘Thinking South Asia.’ I don’t think I had much success. But I hope what I have to say would be in the very least minimally coherent. My anxiety and relative confusion comes from the fact that South Asia is such a flippantly used and blatantly abused term like terrorism, fundamentalism, anti-national and health food, all of which have far more discursive meanings linked to them which defy their basic English language sensibilities.

Besides, I am often invited to seemingly South Asian gatherings to offer these events some exotic flavor given the fact that I do not carry an Indian passport or the privileges of Indian citizenship, which invariably offer these events some sort of simple and simplistic plurality of citizenship by virtue of what I lack and in the same sense, what I have – citizenship of another country in South Asia. All this by virtue of my accidental, and in the case of conference organizers, serendipitous and inexpensive presence in Delhi.

Plenary Session. Photo: Romy Ahuja, MA Program in Political Science, University of Delhi
Similarly, the the idea of ‘regional consciousness’ often stressed by my own university, euphemistically called the South Asian University and established by South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, is anything but regional in its outlook or the way in which it works. Besides the name and and the matra-like deployment of the term, it is very much like any other university in the country. 

What is more shocking is the banality with which the words ‘South Asia’ are used by everybody from students to colleagues to administrators and bureaucrats beyond the university. That is why, very recently, in this liminal existence of South Asia that the Board of Studies of the Faculty of Social Sciences insisted that our research should ideally attempt to stay within a South Asian perspective.

So I think, given my institutional and personal locations and the experience which comes from these, I am very well within my rights to be skeptical of what South Asia means in the way it is deployed today in most hegemonic discourses. 

Peter De Souza at the Conference. Photo: Romy Ahuja, MA Program in Political Science, University of Delhi
However, it seems to me, it is precisely this undefined perspective that our Board of Studies was trying to articulate, which I think has considerable potential that one needs to embrace, and take over, if one needs to fathom a kind of South Asia not too closely linked to the shackles of its cartographic imagination mandated by the limiting logic of nation states. But in my mind, this can only be achieved if one has the personal intellectual ability and institutional freedom to be adequately subversive with ideas. 

on 'the liminality of South Asia.' Photo: Romy Ahuja, MA Program in Political Science, University of Delhi
It is in this scheme of things that I was pleasantly surprised when I realized this workshop is organized by a mainstream political science department with a clear International Relations presence as well. The concept note of the workshop says this is an “attempt to find out possibilities for the creation of new episteme in order to understand the idea of South Asia.” It further notes, “The search for new episteme is impelled by our disenchantment with the existing parochial definition of the idea of South Asia which is often confined within the colonial/post-colonial bounds of a cartographically marked region.”

I stress the words, our disenchantment, new episteme and bounds of a cartographically marked region. But if you are serious about what all these lofty ideals mean, then it is necessary to take the venture you might begin today way beyond the confines marked by the traditional understandings and disciplinary domains of political science and international relations, and for that matter sociology as well. In fact, one will need to cultivate closer proximities with cognate disciplines such as anthropology, cultural studies, literature, dance, music, film and theatre studies and so on if one were to embark on this journey more meaningfully. 

This might seem messy, but I think such a seemingly messy beginning is the only option to think South Asia more inclusively and closer to the experiential and historical realities of people as opposed to the anticipations of those who govern nation states and the work of those who simply document such statecraft, which almost clinically remove the messy and muddy realms of what may broadly be called 'culture' from these reckonings. 

To me, in today’s dominant academic discourse, South Asia is often seen as a concrete reality, imagined primarily in geo-physical or cartographic terms, which the conference organizers also readily flag. I think this limitation in thinking is mostly due to our inability to transgress what might be called ‘nationalized’ domains of knowledge production, which hinders the possibility of comprehending the region across both disciplinary and national borders. This is because whatever knowledge we produce, some of which can be serious, tend not to transgress beyond the borders of the nation. 

In general, my concern is, when all of us take South Asia for granted, as does SAARC and much of contemporary academic practice, do we get a fuller and a nuanced perception of the region and its political and socio-cultural complexities? Or in other words, does South Asia as a modern finished entity communicate its latent as well as manifest incomplete personality? Is our knowledge of the Maldives for instance, comparable to that of India? Or, to take a less extreme example, do we know at least as much of Maldives as we do of Sri Lanka? 

Or, does our perception, understanding and knowledge of the region remain merely at the level of rhetoric? 

Despite incessant meetings, cultural events and conferences, where South Asia seems to be clear, why is it so difficult for some of us to imagine it, and even more difficult to achieve? Providing a partial answer to this question, Asish Nandy has described South Asia as the only region in the world where most states prefer to define themselves, “not by what they are, but by what they are not”. According to him, “Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal try desperately not to be India” while Bangladesh “has taken up the more onerous responsibility of avoiding begin both India and Pakistan.”

Despite Nandy’s exaggeration of regional politics, it seems to me that at some level, he is referring to these countries’ established practice of being the antagonistic ‘other’ of each, based on the manner in which contemporary political compulsions of nation states unfold locally, rather than with reference to some of the shared cultural practices that no longer take centre stage in regional or national-local politics. More insidiously, these practices and histories are no longer within recallable collective memory for most people as well. 

In this context, what if we try to take a different route? What does it mean when Bhartha natyam is so popular in Sri Lanka when most young people hardly know anything of Indian history in general or its cultural history more specifically? What does it mean when Bollywood music and cinema touch people in such distant places as Colombo, Dhaka, Katmandu and Lahore despite enmities authored by actors of nation states, which flow across international borders? What is the kind of cartography created by Sri Lankan Buddhist pilgrims who annually come to India? Do they see the Indian nation state as it exists today or the land of the Buddha they have learned of from books, or do these two worlds meet, and if so, how?? 

What is the nature of the cultural cartography that was created when Binaca geetmala broadcast popular Bollywood songs all the way from Non-Hindi speaking Colombo to the Hindi heartland of India from 1952 to 1988? What is the kind of South Asia the well-connected contemporary artists of the region create today in their work? 

These are simple examples of the possibilities that can be opened up if we take sociology, political science, international relations and other disciplines to places where one least expects to find them in our explorations for South Asia.

I think what I have said so far should make it very clear that I prefer to see ‘South Asia’ as an incomplete idea or as a problem we have inherited from the way modernity and its intellectual and political practices have manifested in our region, and from the ways in which the nation states in the region have interacted with each other, rather than as a concrete and coherent reality. 

It should be self-evident however, that this incomplete picture of the region, with its inherent contradictions and uneven play of politics, and the difficulties these situations throw out, are not taken into account whenever South Asia is invoked in both political and academic rituals of our time.

My hope is that this conference might open some space for such obvious, necessary and subversive thinking. But one must have the will to do so. It is in such a context that Nandy has noted, “the more the scholars, artists and writers talk of the common heritage of the region, the more the functionaries in the region nervously eye their neighbours as enemies planning to wipe out their distinctive identities.” 

My conviction is, much of these limitations in understanding South Asia are conditioned by modern cartographic strategies, as I have already suggested. Some effort to broaden the discusrive framework by factoring in the not so obvious realms of culture, which may not be conducive to dominant academic practice could bring about the possibility of starting a discussion of a different sense of contemporary South Asia. 

For me, what is important is this sense of embedded subversiveness in the acts of people like all of us. But I am not sure if many of us have invested as much time in these possibilities as we could and should. In fact, when it comes to the issue of South Asia, I have very little confidence left in my own generation of scholars barring a few exceptions like Imtiaz Ahmed, Shiv Vishvanathan, Ashish Nandy, Kanak Dixit and so on. That is because we are satisfied merely with intellectual output as opposed to intellectual output tempered by a passion, an imagination and a sincere ideological and intellectual commitment to South Asia.

I hope the next generation such as the young people who are presenting their ideas today have better sense and much more entrenched passion than their predecessors.

Thank you for your time.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

From 'On Uncertain Ground' to Research Across South Asia

Photo: Joyashree Sarma, Department of Sociology, South Asian University 
The forum offered by the launch of my colleague, Ankur Datta’s book, On Uncertain Ground: A Study of Displaced Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu and Kashmir (Oxford University Press, 2016) on 24th February 2017 and sponsored by the Department of Sociology, South Asian University, Society and Culture in South Asia, India International Centre and Oxford University Press saw the exchange of crucial ideas which were addressed in the book. These are perhaps the first formal commentaries on the book as it enters the world of intellectual circulation. Personally, it was good to see a book written by one of my own colleagues getting into the public discourse. It was not simply a matter of personal credit for himself alone but also a matter of further establishing our intellectual presence in the city as a department in a very new university.

For those with an interest in research in South Asia,the following are some of the brief comments I made in the evening of 24th February 2017:

Photo: Joyashree Sarma, Department of Sociology, South Asian University
--- Though I will say nothing about Ankur’s book today, as I read it over the last two weeks, I also re-read Prof TN Madan’s classic ethnography, Family and Kinship: a Study of the Pandits of Rural Kashmir. I could not help but feel that both books indicate the two ends of a very sad story, which has unravelled over fifty years or so. That story would make additional sense if one were to read Agha Shahid Ali poems such as his collection, The Country Without a Post Office rather than regular sociology on the region. In fact, this is what I did.

But I must confess I am a reluctant chair as I am exterior to both Kashmir and the sociology of India as well as to India, the nation state and Delhi itself. But Ankur did not seem to see it that way. I guess his point was if one comes from a place wracked by violence and has worked on violence and its consequences in one messy place in our region, that should be good enough to handle a discussion on yet another place currently consumed by violence and displacement.

Photo: Joyashree Sarma, Department of Sociology, South Asian University 
In this specific context, I want to make one final comment, not about Ankur’s book, but about what these kinds of texts suggest for scholarship in our part of the world. Ankur, Prof Roma Chatterji and other colleagues have produced serious scholarship on violence and its consequences in India. All of us are familiar with this textual tradition. 

Others have done the same for other places ranging from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh and Pakistan. That is, in our own 

comfort zones demarcated by the borders of nation states, we have narrated quite well the stories of our collective unhappiness. And I think the study of violence and its consequences is one of the most obvious contributions to global scholarship, particularly in anthropology from South Asia. And there are many other similar themes.

But almost none of us, including myself, have moved beyond the comfort zone of the nation to see how thematics such as violence, migration, displacement, nationalism, being anti-national and so on might seem and mean across these borders. Intriguingly, even those amongst us very critical of the nation state as a specific formation due to its own limitations, have opted not to go beyond its borders in their work. By itself, this is not a problem. But for me, it is a missed opportunity. I hope Ankur’s generation might be more adventurous in the possibilities of this scheme of research, of the possibilities of coming up with a theoretical and methodological framework for research across South Asia than my generation has been ---

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Climate Terror: A Critical Geopolitics of Climate Change

Sanjay Chaturvedi and Timothy Doyle; Climate Terror: A Critical Geopolitics of Climate Change. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Pp. xvi; 247. ISBN 978-0-230-24961-5 (hardback); ISBN 978-0-230-24962-2 (paperback)

When I started reading Sanjay Chaturvedi’s and Timothy Doyle’s book, Climate Terror: A Critical Geopolitics of Climate Change, the discourse the book generates immediately took me to a specific set of discomforting memories and my present circumstances on the planet, both of which are enmeshed in issues of climate change. On one hand, the authors’ lucid and sometimes apocalyptic prose reminded me of the climate-change-related haunting images that are crystalized in my mind ever since watching Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth and Jeff Orlowski’s 2012 documentary, Chasing Ice. On the other hand, the second location this reading took me is the suffocating and poisonous environment of Delhi, its citizens, its industrialists and politicians have collectively created for themselves and have thereby ushered in a kind of grey, unhealthy and environmentally compromised present, of which I have become an unwilling prisoner.  

These kinds of unpleasant realities documented in the book as well as what was circulating in my own mind are amply captured by book’s haunting cover of a temporally frozen moment of stillness devoid of life, which offers a kind of visual indication of what is to be expected in the book. Obviously, this is not a pleasant theme, and it is certainly not of the future. It is about the potential lack of a future, where all of us are centrally implicated.

In intellectual terms, the book is located squarely in the midst of the relatively new disciplinary domain, ‘critical geopolitics’ which emerged in the post-1980s period. But self-consciously, the authors are offering a perspective on and from the global south (2015: 5-7). In doing so, they are actively pushing the convectional boundaries of their own disciplines, Political Science and International Studies, which in my mind is clearly a necessity in the context of 21st century academic practice. Early in their text, Chaturvedi and Doyle suggest, “critical geopolitics needs to pay far more serious and systematic attention to how imaginative geographies, anchored in fear, are deployed at the service of objectification, embodiment and instrumentalization of abstract risks, threats and dangers” (2015: 10). What they urge is for the systematic scrutiny of the strategies used for this abstraction, and the politics embedded in them. Partly, it is in this discourse and the system of camouflage it throws up much of the crucial issues of climate change are often made invisible and exiled from public collective consciousness. 

Through the eight chapters of their book, Chaturvedi and Doyle have weaved a master narrative on how climate change transpires in the wake of global warming and where these processes and politics might lead, without the rhetoric and the noise of fear, but with evidence as available and theoretical postulation as necessary. Their emphases vary from ‘Terrorizing Climate Territories and Marginalized Geographies of the Post-Political’ to ‘Violence of Climate Markets’ and ‘Climate Security and Militarization: Geo-economics and Geo-Securities of Climate Change’, which specifically captured my attention.

For me, the eight chapters in the book work as stand-alone explorations of specific and often under-discussed issues of global warming in our part of the world. Through these chapters, the authors explain the highly charged politics in the context of which global warming actually works across various geographies. Their investigation presents illustrations of the unsettling conditions upon which we sit at present and not too often seeing what the future holds in the midst of global warming and resultant climate change. The image of the world they create is truly disheartening. But at the same time, Chaturvedi and Doyle warn quite earnestly that fear itself has catastrophic possibilities as fear-driven discourses on climate change can easily lead to new kinds of dependencies and new forms of domination. Above all, they bring to our attention the ways in which understandings of 'climate security' could become militarized, which itself creates multiple scenarios for global insecurity. 

Particularly in the global south and more so in South Asia, issues of environmental security and climate change are hardly core concerns of public discourse. In this context, the two authors present some of the most significant environmental issues people face in the global south by bringing to the stage of discourse specific cases, where they acquire performative value, which narrate stories that can affect large populations. Precisely due to their exploration of specific cases, which after all affects real people, the book at times employs a clear register of ‘anger.’ But how else can one discuss climate change without a sense of anger, angst and urgency on one hand, but also in the backdrop of rational theoretically informed thinking, all of which the two authors employ in weaving their text.

What is crucial in any discussion on climate change today is to understand how a vocabulary of terror is often used to address issues of climate change as a quotidian practice. This is most obvious in discourses of politics and media practice. The authors deal with this issue in considerable detail referring to how technologies of control, systems of regulation and domination comfortably existing within the present global system dominated by a neoliberal and post-political sensibility, which end up reproducing untenable asymmetries with regard to economic growth and human development within which people in the global south often become unwitting victims. 

As they progress in their narrative, what Chatuvedi and Doyle basically ask is weather the dominant discourse on climate change and global warming could be re-configured in such a way as to formulate a more legitimate and responsible forum where issues of environmental justice and sovereignty would be taken more seriously as they deserve, rather than eclipsing them in the din of neoliberal political arguments on both climate and nature, which are necessarily lineally bound to a reductionally perceived idiom of simple profit. In this context, they also pose the question if the discourse on climate change could somehow provide an audible voice to global peripheries, which includes our own region, and in this new configuration, if this idealized forum could offer more nuanced and reasonable avenues for emancipation. 

The propositions they make as concerned academics and the hope these propositions offer make sense to me at the level of both ideology/idealism and necessity/survival. But core issues in this discussion should also revolve around how receptive the global periphery itself is to these concerns. After all, the poisonous air that I breathe today in my treelined suburb of Delhi is not necessarily merely a product of neoliberal profit-making from the global north. More realistically, it is the result of unbridled and unregulated industrialisation and urbanization, which the Indian nation state itself has allowed within its own discourses of nationalism and as by-products of fantasies in becoming an industrially-enabled regional supper power. And two of the most obvious casualties in this state of affairs are the people within the boundaries of the nation state and the natural environment in which they live. In this context, I wish the book paid more attention to the enhanced ‘messiness’ of climate change and environmental degradation authored by states in the global south itself within their own parameters and concerns of nationalism and regional contestations of hegemony and profit.

Overall, the picture of global warming and climate change that Chaturvedi and Doyle paint is not a pleasant one. It is is fearful and truly unpleasant. But it is also real. But they are not in the business of generating fear and rhetoric. In the midst of the tragedy of human-made climate change the two authors have presented, they also offer possibilities of hope arguing for an increased and more reasonable understanding of the environment, not simply as an entity that could be changed at will as power politics and profit ventures might perceive, but as a multilayered system of living which includes people as well as other living beings which together construct our bio-system. For them, that ideal place should have the ability to provide secure access to global citizens irrespective of their national location to basic nutrition, reasonable health-care and shelter, and the necessary security to practice their livelihoods, which are not detrimental to themeless or the planet in which they live.

For me, what Chaturvedui and Doyle have attempted to do is to provide a script for both the history of climate change as we understand it now and possibilities for the future if reasonable people might be able to capture the momentum. As the sun refuses to shine upon my garden due to a smelly layer of fog and as the flowers in my garden are reluctant to blossom, their script metaphorically offer a moment of hope amidst hopelessness. But I am not sure if the time for hope has already eluded us.

Sasanka Perera
Department of Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi

(Initially published in India Quarterly 72(4) 423–430, December 2016)