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Indian Literature: Notes towards the Definition of a Category

Aijaz Ahmad 1 Aijaz Ahmad is a well known literary critic and political commentator working in the tradition of Marxist literary criticism. He was born in India before his parent migrated to Pakistan after the Partition. He received his education in Pakistan, and subsequently lectured in various universities inthe US and Canada. At present he is the Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. He is also a visiting Professor of Political Science at York University, Toronto. He has authored many books, among which are In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures; Lineages of the Present: Ideological and Political Genealogies of Contemporary South Asia ; Iraq, Afghanistan and the Imperialism of Our Time; On Communalism and Globalization - Offensives of the Far Right . His most recent book is In Our Time: Empire, Politics, Culture which has published by Verso, London, in 2012. He is a consultant editor of the magazine Frontline and is a regular contributor to journals like the Socialist Register. The essay under study was published in his book In Theory. In this essay, Indian Literature: Notes towards the Definition of a Category, Aijaz Ahmad examines the theoretical category called India Literature by questioning its ability to capture and explain the varied multilingual literatures of India. He argues that the concept of nationalism, as it appeared with the rise of the modern nation-state in the West, cannot be easily applied to the cultural production of non-Western societies since that would homogenize the radical diversity of Indias fluid geographical and cultural formations which, in turn, embody many diverse public aspirations. The problem is that the concept of nationalism imposes the unitary logic of nation on the multifarious character of these societies. Aijaz also brings under scrutiny the category of Third World Literature. It is very difficult, he observes, to consider together the literary and cultural productions of such rather diverse geographical spaces. The aim of the essay, thus, is to examine some of the most fundamental difficulties that we face whenever we make an attempt to posit a coherent unity called such as that implied in the category of Indian literature in face of overlapping yet discrete histories of its major language-literatures.

Aijaz Ahmad believes that an entity called national literature has to be more than the sum of the constituent regional parts of a nation if it is to have any cultural or literary efficacy in explaining the shared aspirations and dreams of the people who belong to the geographical territory of that nation. The existence of literature as a theoretical object, he further says, can only be established if it is examined in relation to the objective historical determinations of the development of a particular culture. This is so because such an approach alone may enable us to base our periodization of a particular literature on the material shifts through which the various generic forms, dominant during a particular period of historical time, give way to other, newer forms. One has to look beyond mere chronological breaks. To trace such objective determinations in the material development of a culture, we need to go beyond the historically given boundaries of languages and the state. The sphere of culture and literature, and its dynamics of development and growth, Ahmad says, cannot be just superimposed on the formation of linguistic or state boundaries. This is so because both these spheres of human activity and creativity were in existence prior to the emergence of the bourgeois nation-state. In the case of India, this should be an important consideration since the growth of print capitalism in this country was a very unstable determinant, rather than a concrete and invariable determinant as was the case in the western hemisphere. Ahmad scrutinizes the various ways in which the literary history of India has been organized hitherto and points out the problems associated with each one of them. He argues that the theoretically inefficient category of Indian Literature should not be confused with the category of Indian history as such. That is to say, there is something called the Indian history which very much exists and which is a concrete movement across cultures, rulers, their kingdoms and empires and that exists beyond discrete developments in different regional entities which all come under the category of India. It was the Marxist historians who, working very hard, initiated the practice of this kind of history writing and opened manifold possibilities for future work in historiography and history. In comparison to this, the tradition of Indian literary history ostensibly lacks such theoretical insights as can shed light on the nature of the literary in the Indian subcontinent. He also brings to notice some of the most overlooked and generally unrecognized positions which bundle the diverse literary histories together while pointing out other troublesome practices associated with the writing of Indian literary history.

2 The first part of the essay (consisting of the first, second and third sections) deals with the dearth of institutional sites which undertake the task of studying, analyzing and critically reading the various language-clusters in India in a comparative framework to construct a comprehensive understanding of what could be called Indian Literature. Although the object of study under this umbrella category has to be multilingual, yet it needs to be acknowledged that a coherent and unified understanding of Indian Literature can only be built through hard and rigorous labour. Such work has been done by individual scholars but their tradition has not been carried taken forward by institutions which should have consolidated and disseminated these traditions among the students and scholars. This has happened partly because, Ahmad further argues, there has been no tradition of sharing and circulation among the different linguistic communities of India. No tradition of mutual translations of different language-literatures of India exists. As a result, the works of a particular language-literature hardly reach the readers of other languages. Moreover, there has been no sustained effort to produce a systematic study of various language-literatures on the basis of their mutual relations underpinned by the overlapping socio-cultural patterns of living and the crisscrossing historical realities. We do keep talking about Indian literature as a rule but the required academic efficiency of the category rarely receives with the scholarship required to construct a coherent and systematic understanding of its history. The difficulty also lies in the concrete historical fact that the various languages of India have a more complex and overlapping relationship with each other than, say, the kind that obtains between English and French or between Italian and Spanish. The points of differentiation are less clearly marked. Moreover, the problems and difficulties in the availability of correct information regarding texts, authors, genres, modes of transmission and circulation, and the nature of the audience/readership are a major handicap with reference to the formative periods of our modern languages which, as we all know now, have emerged through a long process of mutual interaction and sharing. The history of such mutual influences is quite varied and uneven. For example, we have a very little reliable information about the development of most of our languages, like Tamil, Kannada and Sanskrit. It is not very clear what historical conjunctures endowed on these crisscrossing and interpenetrating languages their differentiated identities and the forms in which we find and understand them now. Another problem which emerges from the

lack of reliable information concerns the nature of what Ahmad calls the linguistic-literary: how, for instance, the Sanskrit language affected our understanding of the linguistic-literary in the case of Tamil; this is something about which we hardly have any clear-cut literary and historiographic data. The problem of tracing the movement of varied language-clusters and the effects they had on other languages, in moulding and transforming the sense of the linguisticliterary across the geographical space, is a point of serious contention. There is, thus, only sporadic evidence available to help us see how the Northern forms of Bhakti (including style, vocabulary, themes and innovations) affected the Southern or how in the process of geographical movement these Northern forms themselves got transformed into something entirely new. For instance, even in the North, we have only uneven bodies of information regarding various regional languages, their overlapping vocabulary and their historical differentiations into concrete linguistic-clusters suiting the needs of respective peoples located in varied geographical regions of the North. We only know that the process of differentiation did take place around the tenth and twelfth centuries; the vicissitudes of the transformation are little known, and these ambiguities have persisted to the present times. There are a few skeletal instances which shed some light on the differentiation of a few formerly overlapping languages, but the overall picture of the process (which conferred the concrete distinctions on the relationship between various language-clusters of India) has been very little developed. There are large gaps in the available information; as a result, it becomes very difficult for anyone who undertakes the challenge to talk concretely about the historical formation of Indian Literature as a composite body. The severe lack of historical documentation makes impossible to carry out even a descriptive analysis of its unities, its generic forms circulating in a given period, and the relationship between various works in a given period across an array of interacting linguistic clusters. And if there have been some attempts, they remain underworked, uncertain and fluid. The multilingual, polyglot nature of these clusters has been a serious hurdle in the development of a coherent and composite body of literary-historical knowledge. The situation is further complicated by the fact that many writers and scholars have written in more than one language. Ahmad quotes Mohan Singh Diwana to highlight this multilinguality of the literary traditions of India. Such things also make it very difficult for a modern scholar to do a systematic study of the development of Indian literature, because it is not easy for an individual scholar to master many languages, although there have been scholars who knew many Indian

languages and some of whom also made tentative attempt to chalk out the specific vicissitudes of Indian literary history. In this context, it is useful to also remember that the modern practices of literary criticism and critical literary history came to the fore in institutional academic knowledge production only in the nineteenth century, particularly with the emergence of print capitalism. Hence, although there did exist something called Indian Literature prior to the modern age, its nature was very fluid and amorphous. For a scholar groomed in the tradition of modern literary criticism, it is a Herculean task to capture such fluidity and amorphousness in the modern context because the differentiations and boundaries between various regional languages have become increasingly sharp and clear-cut after the colonial intervention. This has worsened the situation arising out of the serious gaps that mark the available historical knowledge and documentation. With this Ahmad moves on to concrete examples of overlapping genres and multilinguality from the complex and rich literary history of India, even as he traces the problems associated with the writing of a comprehensive and coherent Indian literary history. For the benefit of a scholar who is game for this challenge, Ahmad points out the flaws in the available frameworks for understanding what is loosely called Indian Literature, before indicating the possible ways to avoid falling into traps. There is a need to be alert to these realities also because the universal paradigm of literary criticism in the Departments of English in India has been borrowed from the tradition of New Criticism. Since New Criticism is based on a more print-centric understanding of the literary artifact, it inevitably gives the literary critic an entirely different orientation to start with. However, most of the canonical texts in Indian literary tradition have strong roots in the oral-performative literary structure. This further problematizes the literary object under study since its authorship and even its exact text are not available as it has been edited and re-edited by the later collectors to suit particular historical needs of the times. Ahmad says that he isnot arguing that it is impossible to construct a composite Indian literary history. That history exists at the level of civilizational continuities, historical experiences and the cultural ethos. There are shared fundamental structures of feeling in spite of the fact that the literary-linguistic forms they took (in the shape of beliefs, rituals and utterances) were diverse. The thing, he adds, we need to be critical aware of is that mere literary-critical abilities will not help. The work of the construction of a comprehensive and coherent Indian literary history has to acknowledge the hard but inevitable challenges of going

beyond disciplinary boundaries and beyond the literary itself towards those in-between historical and cultural spaces where literature nurtures itself in the actual lives of the people and articulates their collective aspirations and historical dreams. In other words, the very category of literature has to be posed and understood in a manner quite different from our current understanding of it which is heavily determined by the print-centric traditions of knowledge. Secondly, the modern understanding of the category of Indian Literature is heavily mediated by the Orientalist understandings and conceptualizations, and their methods of reading, selecting, interrogating and classifying the diverse mass of works which exist in varied language-clusters of India. 3 In the second part of the essay (the fourth, fifth and sixth sections), Ahmad deals with the second way of theorizing Indian Literature which proceeds by juxtaposing the independent histories of various language-literatures of India. The word Indian here imposes a kind of unity on diverse texts in different languages. Though this method of theorizing Indian literature does make sense, it simultaneously makes the category of Indian literature merely an effect of solidification of geographical boundaries and the formation of the nation-state. Ahmad reiterates that in this case also, the comparative method of examining the relationship between diverse languages-literatures will really enhance our understanding of their composite character. This will add up to a unified sense of literary history by means of detailed explorations of the overlapping and interactions of constituent parts. Ahmad cites the example of the growth of the theoretical category of European Literature which has been historically the product of various institutions, including the universities, of Europe and based on the development of learning of many European languages by a scholar. The scholar was thus prepared to move through a complex array of linguistic and textual challenges. The growth of translations also played a significant role in the formation of literary scholarship in the European context. The European model cannot be replicated in the Indian context for many reasons but, Ahmad argues, it may yet give us a clue to the way to follow in our situation. In addition, it should be noted that the development of literary cultures in India under colonialism was in no way free from the influences of the French, British and Russian literary traditions. The boundaries of these influences have been very fluid and indeterminate.

Ahmad laments the lack of institutional support for undertaking the required critical scholarly studies. It is not that there have been no attempts; the problem is that there has been no way of systematizing those attempts and channelizing their fruits. The dearth of institutional space which could groom scholars to carry the tradition forward into contemporary times seriously hampers our understanding of Indian literary history. Ahmad refers to the work of Sisir Kumar Das as an exemplary case in this regard: his scholarship is unmatched when it comes to the history of Indian literature. Das also observes that the pre-modern literary history is an extremely difficult subject not because we lack any coherent and shared spaces, but because there are too many gaps in the empirical historical knowledge of the languages, genres, works, authors and modes of production and transmission. As such, there could never be confident theorization when it comes to Indian Literature, other than broad generalizations and creative speculations on its nature, history, growth, transformation and contemporary state. Another problem that needs to be accounted for, Ahmad rightly says, relates to the residual effects of imperialist scholarship. One of the most deleterios effects of imperialist scholarship has been on the periodization of Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods. This fact is quite well known to the scholars working in the historiography of modern India. The literary history has also been prone to its bad effects as is clear from the classification of Vedic and Sanskrit texts (Hindu) as classical, Persian texts (Muslim) as Medieval and literary productions under the British/colonial as modern, thereby greatly reducing the rich multiplicity of literary production in many languages to certain selected historical dominants. This is also evident from the history of early printing presses and the pattern of colonial education in India. Although the two early printing presses at Serampore and Fort William came into existence for the production of material in Indian regional languages, and most of the education at that point of time in history was primarily in regional languages with English becoming the medium of instruction only at higher level of education, it is nonetheless clear that the development of a key sector of intelligentsia quite far removed from any creative relationship with the Indian regional languages was also taking place. The level of literacy at the time of independence was very low - barely 15 percent. These 15 percent later became the elite because of their education and the freedom their education provided to move in the spheres of colonial power. Most of the literate population came from college and schools which nurtured the colonial educational patterns, combing

instruction in indigenous languages for the common people with proficiency in English for those higher up the ladder. This kind of educational pattern suited perfectly the needs of colonial administration in which English was needed at the higher levels whereas the lower strata communicated everything in the regional languages. The most significant aspect this complex colonial educational discourse was the fact that the English language was never viewed as being alien by our scholars, reformers, writers, artists and professionals. The attitude of Rammohun Roy, Vivekanand, Sir Syed, Tilak and Gandhi towards the English language was always one of friendliness. This was also because most of the then technical and scientific knowledge then was available only in English: it was the language of the modern scientific and technological establishment. It never became a point of cultural criticism among any section of the educated elite, even those who were actively engaged in the anti-colonial movement. The British imposition of English was primarily limited to the issues of administration and management of the government. The teaching of English was the same both for the Indian and the British children. To learn the English language, both were supposed to study the poems of Milton and Wordsworth. And nobody became a Christian, Ahmad rightly notes, by merely learning the rhyme schemes used by these poets. It was only later that the secondary strata of the intelligentsia emerged who came to believe in the intrinsic literary merits of the English language, and they did so largely because they experienced new literary genres and forms through the availability of world literature in the English language. Ahmad states that it is also in this broad framework of history that any understanding of Indian literature should be situated. The contradictions in the pattern of colonial education facilitated the growth of classbased divisions of the Indian intelligentsia. However, the patterns of growth of these divisions are still far from clear and uneven because of the absence of historical empirical studies which would take into account the schooling patterns, caste backgrounds, class affiliations, religious inclinations and linguistic capabilities of this variegated mass. Most of these persons appropriated English as the public and professional language along with Sanskrit or Persian as the languages of culture and arts, and the indigenous languages were reserved for household communication. The rise of the petty bourgeoisie was a concomitant development, which was assembled together from different areas of the Indian polity. Most of the people who subsequently formed this stratum came from upper caste backgrounds with proficiency in

English as well as a regional language. The gradual establishment of printing presses across the country aided literary and cultural production so that new kinds of reading publics were formed through the print revolution. English became the language which bridged regional and linguistic boundaries except in one or two cases where the regional language made ample use of the possibilities opened up by the printing press. It was the petty bourgeoisie who was torn apart by the opposing forces of professional and cultural pressures which were making their position precarious. It was the contradiction between what Ahmad calls the language of administrative command and the language of felt life that was seriously hampering the process of their formation. It was thus neither the patterns of colonial education nor the Orientalist conceptualizations that facilitated the growth of print literature in India; rather, it was through the petty bourgeoisies ambivalences and ambiguities that literatures in the modern period started on their trajectories of multilingual and polyglot histories in the corpus of Indias pre-modern languages. The growth of literary cultures in the regional languages was shaped by those strata of the society which were left behind as others moved closer to the power apparatuses of the colonial administration. These were the people who had traditionally played the role of intellectuals in pre-colonial India in the courts during the medieval times. These people did not belong to the traditional land-owning classes, as a result of which they were in alliance with the forces of democratization that were making inroads into the frozen layers of traditional social formations. This stratum attempted to negotiate the regional specificities with our collective civilizational unity against the colonizer in all kinds of religious and mystificatory forms of narrative. (It was therefore only with the rise of the Communist movement during the early part of the twentieth century that a more secular and non-religious narrativization of Indian history started taking root in the collective sensibility of the people.) It is because of these reasons that most of the scholars of the times showed a keen interest in the Bhakti movement. This was a medieval socio-cultural and artistic movement that spanned the entire geographical range of India, from the North to the South, and it questioned the many-layered hierarchies embedded in the socio-cultural structures of the traditional Indian society. In the process, the movement symbolized a cross-cultural and inter-religious synthesis of the aspirations, moorings, ethos and dreams beyond geographical boundaries and linguistic differences in spite of the fact that the form of the movement remained heavily tinged with religious discouse. Bhakti movement has attracted the attention of all kinds

of modern intellectual traditions in the subcontinent and many see it as bridge between modernity and tradition. 4 The last part of the essay (the seventh, eighth and ninth sections) starts with an analysis of the complex relationship between reform movements, which were mainly religious in nature, and more broadly the movements for reforms in education. The reform movements (like Arya Samaj, Sanatan Dharm, Dar-ul-Ulum and Nadwat-ul-Ulema) were mainly concerned with the revival of religious traditions of India which could only have been done by revitalizing the learning of indigenous languages. A significant fact that needs to be acknowledged is that the reform movements greatly participated in the education of local masses through their own private institutions beyond the public and government institutions meant to impart literacy to the general public. Consequently, the educational reform movement got entangled with these movements as they were actively participating in the process of mass education and in building anti-colonial sentiment in the languages of the people. The negative aspect of this intermingling was the subsequent institutionalization of hierarchies in these historical sites itself, which culminated in the prioritization of the purity of the religious texts beyond all critical and secular enquiries. These developments severely hampered the processes of democratization and secularization of literary production. Even the modern intelligentsia, groomed in the traditions of modern critical and rational scholarship, succumbed to the temptations of their regional languages and the piousness of their religious texts beyond all critical engagement. On the other hand, there was the national movement which, in its own way, attempted to forge national unity against the colonizer. In the national movement also the regional languages played a crucial role by enabling peoples mass participation. There were strands of revivalism in the national movement but the emphasis was more on culture than religion. However, the secular movements often made spirituality the essential aspect of the everyday Indian life and the newly emerging nation-state was given the task of leading the world in spiritual affairs. This led, Ahmad remarks, to a sort of negotiation between the secular and religious tendencies in which the secular was free to achieve whatever it wanted to achieve as long as it never questioned the authority of some of the fundamental scriptures of Indian spirituality. A kind of, we could say, secularism without the secular impulse, which later on got morphed into

Indian-style secularism in the post-colonial India. However, the progressive writers movement of the 1930s was radically secular in every sense of the word and remained quite free of the corrupted influences of such bargaining tendencies prevalent in India. Another major handicap in the development of Indian literature was the emergence of the English language as an independent force in higher education. The departments of English literature were set up throughout the country and the study of the English literature (which is to say the texts not written in English in India but imported from elsewhere) became the only standardized literature with its own methods of analysis, reading tools and textual criticism all over India. There were departments of Hindi or other languages also but none of them got the status of an English department. Moreover, the study of regional language-literatures remained confined to their own specific geographical locations without ever seeing the light of the national stage. This was surely an achievement, as Ahmad says, but the problem was the lack of any attempt to systematically relate the varied histories of the development of different languageliteratures into a comprehensive composite history without actually neglecting the contributions of any one of them. The main reason for this, he further argues, was the lack of any national language which could have provided a common linguistic platform to frame such a composite history of Indian literature. All these contradictory and complex developments played a crucial role in the formation of the social role of an English teacher whose situation was, as a result, particularly complex. Ahmad writes that there were very few pressures of professionalization (such as acquisition of PhDs, academic hierarchies, publications) and even fewer institutional challenges. The profession was thus relatively less professionalized considering the demands and opportunities in the modern times. But it was also important that the teachers of English came mainly from progressive backgrounds and belonged to secular nationalist or communist parties, or were active crusaders for civic reform. As such they nurtured their creative potential in their regional languages and never questioned the literary merits of the Indian regional languages. So there was a given bilinguality which enabled them to confront the split within themselves. But this is no longer the situation as the demands of the professionalization (and Americanization) of education have created a new kind of academic bureaucracy which values those professional credentials which can be profitable (both personally and professionally) in the academic market of journals, publications, book trade, conferences and seminars. He argues that the fate of Indian

Literature does not seem very bright within the existing social context unless there is an arduous effort on the part scholars and institutions to support the study of such a difficult, diverse and complex object of study. Moreover, the domain of the examination of Indian Literature demands an intentional effort to go beyond disciplinary boundaries since Indian literature as the object of study actually exists in a larger area, much of which is overlapping or indeterminate. It is only through such an effort that any significant understanding of Indian Literature may be articulated. 5 Ahmad ends his essay by articulating his own vision of scholarship in literary studies: the literary studies should be undertaken under a broader discipline of Historical and Cultural Studies. He defends the teaching of the English language and English literature from historical and political perspectives, and also because English has become firmly embedded in the basic socio-cultural dynamics of post-colonial India, in addition to its position at the international level as the preferred language of commerce, communication and technology. The study of English literature is also important because England was the country where the problems of modern industrial and capitalist societies first manifested themselves and where people launched multifarious struggles against the brutality of capitalist industrialization. Ahmad cites the exemplary case of Professor Kosambi whose unmatched scholarship and integrity should be our guiding model in the departments of literature. The discipline of Indian Literature needs to do what Professor Kosambi did for Indian historiography.