Deconstruct this: The date is 26 January, Republic Day in an India celebrating 75 years of freedom from colonial rule. I am in Kolkata, the hometown of Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, renowned “post-colonial” scholar, who lies in bed in a New York City hospital, where she is recovering from knee replacement surgery.
We interface through a computer screen. Over the standard blue (global) hospital gown is draped a beige hand embroidered (very local) shawl gifted to her by the Block Development Officer, Rajnagar district, on the border of Jharkhand, where the schools she works with are located. Behind her, erasing the generic banality of the hospital backdrop, is imposed a digital image of one of those very school buildings, her chosen location of desire.
In this dramatic setting layered with signifiers she prepares to mark her imminent 80th birthday with, as she says, the first of many celebrations, this conversation. “You are the first person with whom I’m celebrating that I’m turning 80! Basically,” she says, “what makes me very, very happy is that I have lasted this long. You know, normally I don’t like birthday parties. But this time I’m giving myself a birthday party, and I think that’s appropriate: 80, I think, is a nice round age. So that’s where I am.”
We decide to meander virtually, side by side, down the long and winding road of a life fully lived, following its twists and turns and unexpected detours, pausing at milestones marking experiences and memories. As she says, “I think we can be free and easy, you know – you move me along and I’ll move you along”; and that’s how it goes.
I was just thinking, this is being done on Republic Day, fortuitously enough, and you are five years older than our Independent India. A pre-Midnight’s Child, as it were...shall we start there? With your childhood?
My childhood, I now realise, looking back, was really perfect in every way. A very loving family. My parents were so devoted to their children. Bernard Williams has this concept called Moral Luck. I really feel that having such parents was my Moral Luck. Anything that I achieved in my life was a result of being so beloved in my childhood.
My childhood was also the end of the extended family, right? My mama bari (Jnan Majumdar’s house) was really also our house. I was born in Boro Mama Pratul Majumdar’s house, 6 Ironside Road, which is now Jnan Majumdar Sarani. My grandmother, Dudun, Rasheshwari Devi, was there, as the head of the family. It was really quite a wonderful thing.
The other day, Christmas day, I called my sister and I sang to her – “God rest you merry gentlemen” – because both of us needed comfort and joy. After that we fell into a song which my grandmother, who went to Christchurch school, learnt, and that we sang a lot, which was kind of changing us into children who were under the guidance of a fearsome god, very different from the way our family was.
Ours was not a religious family, at all. I mean we had pujas here and there but it wasn’t a religious family. But here was this song – “Sabodhaan, chhoto haath, ja dhoro” [Be careful what you grasp, little hands]. And my sister and I, on Christmas day, she in Delhi, I in New York, start singing this song, which goes back 100 years. In a sense, all of this is my childhood.
And then, of course, came Independence which, for us, was riots and the end of the famine. The famine was technically over, but the technical end of a famine is not really the end of a famine. Unfortunately, my experience of Independence is riots and famine. They were so vivid and violent...
I remember you saying that your father, who was a doctor, had helped out during the riots – is that an accurate recollection?
Yes, it is. My father flung open the gates so that all of the Muslims from what is now called low income housing but was really a bustee, came into our house. It was quite a small house, so I remember being absolutely crowded, the women and children downstairs and the men upstairs on the terrace.
My father was a completely nonviolent man, who had never shot a gun. But for some reason a double-barrelled rifle belonging to Hadu Mama (Rajen Majumdar, later the Mayor of Calcutta), was lying in our house. And my father was upstairs with this rifle, which he didn’t know how to shoot, saying, “As long as Pares Chakravorty is alive, no one will touch you.” This was more of a symbolic gesture –
But very important.
We wander on to the formative experience of school. First there was Diocesan Girls’ School, “a fantastic experience.” It’s only natural that, as a dedicated teacher herself, it is the women teachers, whom she recalls with fond respect and admiration, who have stayed in her memory.
I was just reading a piece which is really about Binoy Majumdar, but talks a little about me. And it keeps describing me as a “convent girl”, which is completely different from being a Dio girl. It was not a convent. All our teachers were Bengalis, Christianised subalterns.
I think my parents were very smart in acknowledging that these folks would be extraordinary teachers. As they were. For them, to be teaching these upper caste Hindus and well placed elite Muslims was an unusual thing, and they taught like there was no tomorrow.
When I look back – I have been, after all, a teacher now for many decades – I recognise how extraordinary they were as teachers, how much of their life depended on teaching well. And Miss Charubala Das, who was our Principal, becomes more and more my role model, with her huge whistle at her waist, with which she would call the school together. She was just amazing. Diocesan was an experience that went a long way towards making me what I am. I say, often – Dio made me.
And then, Lady Brabourne College. We couldn’t get into Presidency in our first year, it had to be third year. After our lot graduated it became open to women from the first year. Brabourne was also a fantastic experience for me because all the teachers were inspired women teachers. But the one who really stood out for me was Sukumari Bhattacharjee. She taught us English. Later in life she taught Sanskrit.
You know, she couldn’t be awarded the Ishan scholarship in Sanskrit, because she was Christian, Seventh Day Adventist. And so, as a kind of gesture of scorn, she got a second Ishan scholarship, this time in English! I will never forget the experience of learning English from a woman who, first of all, was a great, confident, and completely uncaring beauty. Her beauty was absolutely striking but what was even more striking was that she didn’t give a damn. You could tell that she was completely uncaring about her exterior. It was all about the interior life.
And it was Sukumari-di who sent me off to debate, in 1956. She said, I don’t know if she can debate, but she speaks English very well; send her. And so I went to Presidency College and to everyone’s surprise, I won. I was 14. I remember winning this huge coffee table book. And I remember hugging it. And I remember getting off the bus at Ballygunge Phari, and talking to myself, saying, “Hee hee! First hoyechhi! I came first!”
Later I was told that someone who had followed me, because he wanted to find out where I lived, saw me hugging my book and muttering to myself in great joy (laughs). Those were such beautiful days.
Her experience, as a teenager, of the premium educational institute of the time, Presidency College, was mixed. Serendipity and happenstance, as we shall see, recur often along the road of her life, inflecting the path taken. Studying English at Presidency is one of these instances.
I was a science student, I wanted Physics honours. I passed the Physics entry exam, but failed the Math. So I couldn’t get in. Well, I thought, I’ve come first in English in Intermediate. They can’t refuse to take me in English. So English, which stood in for Sukumari-di, also stood in for me! I got into English Honours and realised, just two weeks into class, that it really was my subject.
Who are the teachers you remember from then?
Well, of course, Taraknath Sen. I have just written something about him. Everybody adored him. But the fact of his having nothing but scorn for that Cold War ideology of Intentional Fallacy, so that no one actually stood for what they were writing – I don’t think we understood it. I’ve just re-read some of his writings, and I realise what an unusual man he was. He really taught us to read, in many ways.
And then there was Subodh babu, Subodh Chandra Sengupta, an intellectual who drew in Sanskrit stuff with his Bernard Shaw and so on. And there was Amal babu – Amal Kumar Bhattacharji – we didn’t call them dada then, they were all babu. And Tarapada babu – Tarapada Mukherjee – who taught Shakespeare extraordinarily well.
Yet, the warming memory of these excellent teachers is marred by another aspect of that otherwise great institution, where she was enrolled from 1957 to 1961, from the age of 16 to 19. A teenager from a loving family and nurturing schools, she found herself facing the negative implications of being female.
Presidency College was very important for me, but unfortunately it was also a place that brought in, for the first time, gender contempt. Over and over again I was made to feel that the teachers loved me because I was good looking, but the really brilliant person was SS, another student, male. I had never encountered this at home. My mother herself was a thorough going intellectual.
But Presidency College made me so intellectually insecure – and I still have that insecurity. It’s absurd – whether I’m good or bad I can’t say, but there’s no reason for me to be insecure! Yet I am. I haven’t been able to get over that one.
I am curious about her college years in the US, starting in 1961. What was campus life like for this young woman from Calcutta? It was a compelling time: John F Kennedy had just become President. The Civil Rights movement was gathering momentum, and school and college campuses were at the heart of the struggle over racial de-segregation.
International tension was rife: The Berlin Wall was being erected, the Bay of Pigs incident occurred that year, American military presence in Vietnam was building. All in all, one would have thought, it must have been quite a stirring period for a bright young woman like her. But – “You know, it wasn’t,” she says.
It was four years before Lyndon Johnson opened up the immigrant quota and alien registration, etc. There was no tradition of so-called cultural difference. There were no novels beautifully written by immigrants about how they suffered etc. Novels, after all, establish structures of feeling, as Raymond Williams would say. And so I went in thinking I knew everything. I’d read Time Magazine! I had no problems at all. I was all of 19 years old.
More happenstance – or, if you prefer, Moral Luck – follows, steering her in the direction of what is to become her scholastic future, leading to her formidable academic reputation. This is her move to Comparative Literature, and thence to the translation, from the original French, of Jacques Derrida.
I was at Cornell, only 20 years old, and I was not given any financial aid or teaching assistantship, because I was not a native speaker of English. Paul de Man had just been appointed Director of the new Comparative Literature programme. He had filled all of the financial aid slots that he had been allotted, but for one. He was new, and it would not be to his credit if he couldn’t fill all the financial aid positions; also, he would lose the funds, you know.
And so, thinking, no doubt, that I was a good risk, that if I didn’t work out it could always be put down to cultural difference, he asked me if I wanted it. And I said yes, of course! I had no work permit, I had no money, I was about to be deported, so I said yes. And that’s how I went into Comp Lit!
He asked me what my foreign languages were and I said, English, and he said no, that won’t count as a foreign language. Well, I said I had taken one semester of French at the Alliance Francaise in Calcutta, and I had three months of German with Mrs Bhaduri, the German wife of a Bengali freedom fighter...
And here comes happenstance again, as, now better versed in French, she accidentally stumbles upon a book with an intriguing title by a total stranger...
I was an Assistant Professor at the University of Iowa when by chance, noticing that it was a book with a very attractive title, De la grammatologie, and that the author seemed to be very strange, I bought this book on impulse.
This was in 1967. I was just 25 years old. It was very difficult French. And I don’t know how, but I realised that it was a very good book. And I wanted to write something on it. But I knew that an unknown Assistant Professor writing on an unknown man’s book – I knew nothing about Derrida – would not fly, so I was wondering what to do.
Then I heard that the University of Massachussetts Press was publishing translations. I thought, Okay, let me offer to translate this and I will say to them that I will only translate if they will let me write a monograph-style introduction. So I did, and they were very amused by this query, and gave me a chance. That’s how it began. I didn’t know who he was, and no one knew that I was going to be translating him.
And right away my introduction was seen to be a classic. I myself don’t think it is. I think that I missed a good deal of the resistance in the book. I also missed quite a good deal of his argument about Informatics, which was very important. But most of the English reading public did not see that, obviously, since I was introducing him. So I feel that the introduction was unfortunate; but it’s become iconic. It has its own life. And I believe – I’m not sure – that it has been translated into French (chuckles).
And when did you meet the author? Do you remember your first meeting?
Yes, I met him four years after, in 1971. He was 41 and I was 29. We met at Johns Hopkins University. Hillis Miller invited me to give a talk. He said, Gayatri, you should meet this man. I said, Yes of course, I’d love to. So Hillis invited me to give a talk, and Derrida came to it. I had no idea that he was in my audience. I didn’t recognise him, because I’d never seen him. I only found out that it was he when we met at the party that Hillis threw for me after.
What was that like? Meeting him face to face?
I think he was quite taken by me. He couldn’t imagine that his translator was indeed so exotic. In those days sari-wearing women were not global intellectuals, if you know what I mean. On the other hand, once we met it was clear that I was not an exotic person. He was very nice, and we became good friends.
And then came your rise to academic stardom. “One of the most cited scholars in the world...”
Oh that was Derrida, that was not me (laughs). I became famous because of translating Derrida and writing that introduction.
I think that’s an oversimplification. If your work had not been good, it could also have misfired badly. I know what a rigorous scholar you are. Your work is at the highest level of integrity.
Yes, I think I can absolutely claim integrity. I am not much of a scholar but in what I do there’s nothing false, in the biggest sense. That I can claim, after all these years.
Not much of a scholar? Is this her insecurity talking? She is held to be one of the foremost intellectuals in the humanities, a reputation that rests on a solid body of work. If anything, people find her a little too intellectual: obtuse, dense, impenetrable .
But this candid and critical appraisal is characteristic of her; it resurfaces as she muses over the next phase of her scholarly journey, the two pieces – Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism and Can the Subaltern Speak? – which gave her a reputation “which was not just derived from my work on Derrida”.
They have their limitations. They were typical crisis points for a Metropolitan diasporic critic who was having a crisis (I am still an Indian citizen, but a person is not made diasporic by paperwork; a citizen is not just paperwork, either). My crisis was that I was becoming an expert in foreign things.
Three Women’s Texts was about discovering, in texts that I had read many times before, the mark of colonialism. What I missed, what I did not notice, was the mark of slavery. In Jane Eyre, which was the central text, Rochester owns sugar plantations in Jamaica, and thousands of slaves, and if I had looked carefully into the history of Britain at that point I would have seen that mark and not just the mark of colonialism.
I feel a great pity now that the study of colonialism became completely separated from the study of enslavement; but that text became famous because it was possible not to see one’s own complicity and just to say “they’re bad, we’re good”. It’s still cited so much that I have to acknowledge that that’s what catapulted me into the Subaltern Studies circuit and also brought me a reputation that went beyond my work on Derrida.
Can the Subaltern Speak was much more the crisis of: how is it that I have become an expert on French theory and deconstruction. I wanted to get out of it, and I got out of it by choosing a family member, Bhubaneswari Bhaduri, my grandmother’s sister. And I sent it – this is a story I have told many, many times – to my editor, saying this is too long, this is too difficult, please help me cut it, and they didn’t do anything, they just published it as it was, and people complained that it was too long, and too difficult!
That was really a complete abdication of editorial obligations. Although it is tremendously misunderstood – because it is too long and too difficult and people don’t understand what I’m trying to say in it – it did, along with the other text, push me into a kind of reputation which was not necessarily Derrida-related. And at the same time, of course, the Derrideans, the “deconstruction entourage”, did not particularly like the fact that I was among them, because I was not a French PhD, I was strange, and so they tried to make me as “Third World” as they could.
So here she was, a “strange” deconstructionist, an evolving post-colonial critic, and also – a translator of Mahasweta Devi’s Bengali fiction. How does she feel about translating? Did she want to do more of it?
Translation is such a labour. For this occasion, my 80th birthday, they’ve put together a book on translations by me, essays, and I say again and again: it’s the most intimate act of reading. It’s not something you can just do. So after Derrida I translated Mahasweta Devi’s work, but that was because Ranajit Guha asked me to translate Draupadi.
So would you say that translating Mahasweta was the next milestone in your career?
Not really, not in terms of my career internationally. I certainly enjoyed translating Mahasweta but it was not central in my work. I went on more with Derrida’s work, trying to understand it, developing an approach towards philosophy and literature – and the world in general – which came out of his thinking.
I had seen a closeness, a bond, develop between these two unusual women, so different in many ways and yet with so many traits in common, not least a hard won, tough defence against the slings and arrows of patriarchal disapproval. And I had seen, too, a distance grow. I wondered if she would talk about it. She did.
I remember meeting you at the Seagull office when your trips here had a lot to do with your work with Mahasweta di, and of course your schools...
My relationship with Mahasweta di was a tormented one. And this is something I have not been able to come to terms with. I’m very glad I met her, but it was a peculiar relationship. In many ways Mahasweta di also was a product of a very loving childhood, with parents who were very gifted.
But at the same time our upbringings were very, very different. Because Mahasweta di remained to the end Manish Ghatak’s adorer meye [precious girl], while I had just blown clear out of my family’s boundaries. And I was really not someone who worshipped people. There was a great circle of people around her who worshipped her, and I never fit in there. So it was a peculiar relationship. And in the end she was not – and I quite understand why – she was not able to support my schools.
Her schools. Born of a deep belief in true education, the growing of an independent mind and a person, which has nothing to do with marks and ranks and passing examinations. Again, something that came from the core of her, the teacher she could not help being.
The schools actually happened because Prashanta Rakshit, who was a young activist in that area, noticed that when I went there all by myself, I would teach people; that was my way. I would say, “Eh, Sharathi! Why are you spelling your name like that? You must use this ‘i’.” Or I would take a twig and in the dust I would solve a simple problem with numbers.
So he wrote to me, saying, Didi, why don’t you establish a couple of schools here instead of just giving money? And so the schools developed on their own, as I worked there. But they were closed down for various political reasons, and I was obliged to leave Purulia and accept the loss of 20 years of work.
I’m very grateful to Mahasweta for introducing me to them – I could not have entered the area if I hadn’t known Mahasweta. But the schools were not something that she had either thought of or really even supported. She certainly built some of the little school buildings – collecting money, raising funds, from various areas. But as far as I remember she had never been inside a school. And Mahasweta di did not come forward in my support.
But I totally understood that. It was not possible for her to give up an associate located in the rural area so easily for the sake of me, and so she could not help me. And therefore ours was a curious relationship.
I have just written again on her Pterodactyl which I certainly think is an exquisite piece of work. The essay is coming out in a Routledge collection edited by Radha Chakravarty. You should read it to see how much I have grown through reading this piece and how much it has grown on me. There’s another piece which I have never translated. Jagomohaner Mrityu [The Death of Jagomohan], about an elephant. Oof! I cannot imagine a piece like that. There are certain texts that she wrote that are totally fantastic.
She was in many ways a tragic figure, a vulnerable figure, but this is not perceived by most people. They see her as a heroic figure of a different sort. I think one of these days people will begin to think of Mahasweta’s reality in a somewhat different way. But my relationship with her was, as I say, a tormented one.
It seems natural from here to move on to speaking about her as a feminist, an activist. And this being a conversation with Gayatri di, we begin unexpectedly with learning Cantonese in Hong Kong. Of course. Why not?
In those days, from 1984 on, I went a lot to Hong Kong. At one point I taught there at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and inevitably I learnt Cantonese. There was another reason. I have always been an activist without making of it something to... well, sell, as an image. And so I was always focused on that side which later I began to call imaginative activism.
There were Korean women workers there, “permanent casuals”, never members of unions, and they had managed to resist and wrest some benefits from a company which, in the United States, gave lots of scholarships and so on. So the underbelly was all this incredible oppression of the Korean women workers, and on top it was about “helping young people”. And this was fairly typical.
I was at that time teaching in Hong Kong and in Kowloon was located the office of a fantastic journal, Asia Labour Monitor. I went to their office and said that I really wanted to find out how it was possible, for women who got it from both ends, to resist as women.
And one of the workers there said to me, Professor Spivak, nobody asks this question. Nobody wants to know what it is in the spirit of these women that can make them work in this way. If you really want to get in with them, you must learn some Cantonese. Because, first of all, you will be speaking to them in the language of their heart; and second, they will know something better than you do, because you will never know Cantonese as well as they do. And this will turn the relationship.
Think what they did for me, those women in the office of the Asia Labour Monitor! From where does one learn things! I really learnt something very, very important that I still work with, for example, in my schools. To turn the agency into the hands of the subaltern. It’s a very important thing.
You have also been friends with some of the most amazing feminist and activist women of our time. You know Alice Walker well, you know Judith Butler. There are so many others...
”‘Feminism” – the word is a kind of shorthand which people use without having a real reference for it. Because feminism is without a leader. Marxism – there’s Marx. Feminism – there’s nobody (chuckles).
There’s one line in feminism which was in me from the beginning. Because my mother always acted on her own. She told me when I was 15, and I had just entered Presidency College – I was a big girl, good looking, good family, and my father had died two years earlier, and my mother was a Bengali widow of 43 at that point, right? She was 28 when she had me.
She told me, you know Gayatri, arranged marriages are not all bad. My mother was an MA in Bengali and she was capable of speaking pretty high Bengali when she was serious, and so when I translate the words she used as “libidinal choice” it’s appropriate with the level of Bengali she was speaking.
She said: One’s libidinal impulses, to fall in love (so-called), that choice is not necessarily a choice. In the good arranged marriages, she said, the parents are so careful to find out what will be good for the future of their child – so much investigation is done, it is after all a social contract. But the only way in which arranged marriages can succeed is if the parents know their children well enough to know what will make them happy.
But you already have such a life outside the family that I don’t know what will make you happy. I can’t arrange a marriage. Imagine that. My mother would also tell me that I should look after my body – swimming, exercise – and that was pretty unusual in those days. When people criticised me to her, saying that I had really made her unhappy – you know, I had no husband, no children – my mother would say, as she said to me: First earn the right to talk about Gayatri, then speak to me. The touch of feminism.
And also, I must say, my father was able to acknowledge that she was an intellectual, my father was able to acknowledge, although of course such comparisons can’t be made, that it was possible that she was smarter than he, without feeling any kind of... That’s the sort of proto-feminist situation that I inherited. And I told you what happened at Presidency.
But then I became part of the first generation of academic feminists, was friends with Judith Butler, with Betty Friedan, with Jane Marcus, Gloria Steinem – great figures and, generally speaking, liberal feminists. And when I was with them we were all equals. I mean, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, are much more famous, for good reason, but when I was with them, I was equal. That feeling was something that very much marked my feminism.
And the other kind of feminism was in Bangladesh. Farida Akhtar – With Farida I remember going to the first NGO forum at the UN, in 1994 in Cairo, as a member of their NGO Prabartana. It was a very different kind of experience. With Farida I became very active in Bengali feminism of a certain sort. Then I realised that I didn’t know very much about West Bengal feminism. So I walked all the way from South 24 Parganas through Madhyamgram and so on, with the aunt of a journalist, Somini Sengupta, who works with the New York Times. And that was also a fantastic experience.
I do not have much credit with Indian feminism – there is a very strong feminist, women’s movement in India, but I don’t have very much to do with that particular phenomenon. I admire it, I join it when I can. But my two sides are, firstly, global through Bangladesh, and the second generation or first generation of academic feminism in the United States. It’s a peculiar combination.
She is tired now. Time to wind down, although there is so much more we could talk – and laugh – about. So I ask, And now that you’re turning 80, what are the things you’re looking forward to?
I’m trying to finish my book on Du Bois. I’ve put it on hold for longer than I like. But I must finish it. I’ve tried and tried to understand him. I don’t know if I have. But the title now is a very strange one, it’s My Brother Burghardt. W E B Du Bois, right? William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. And the way in which he came to the name Burghardt is very, very interesting. So that’s what it’s called.
We are also trying desperately to move ahead with the Bengali bilingual editions, still engaged in making it financially secure. That’s a very exciting project. I look forward to that.
And then there’s the project of Radiating Globality (prehistories of so-called globalisation in Senegambia and French India) in which Lakshmi Subramanian, myself and others are joined together, as was the late Hari Vasudevan.
And there are my schools. They are taking off. I have learnt from trying to see how cognitively damaged intellects can perhaps be made generalisable, and how the largest sector of the electorate can become aware of how to vote; how we can make them understand that in the current times of great climate disaster they are the ones who have been harmed most and yet they are the ones who have perhaps done the least to deserve it. And change is happening. It really is.
I couldn’t have imagined that it would change so much. As I say to them, I don’t know how to touch you, because of the way we have treated you. On the other hand, I’m not romanticising you, because, as Freire has said – and I tell them everything – the oppressed want to become sub-oppressors; so you are as full of greed as are we, but we feel morally outraged because we have money. You, now that you’re making money, can’t control yourselves in greed etc etc. I mean, we talk about such things.
These kinds of projects are so important to me that I still go there as often as I can. I can still sit on the back of a motorbike, and now that I am so old I bought a belt for an obese person, online, 73 inches (chuckles) so when I get on the back of a motorbike I’m bound with this belt to the person who’s driving and I don’t fall off.
Because of course I’m incredibly jet-lagged, I just dump my luggage in Kolkata and go off, and I sing at the top of my voice in order not to fall asleep, but even that doesn’t often help. However, with this belt the motorbike driver Sunil Lohar, who, as they say around there, “heavy motorcycle chalay” (laughs), says, This is good, I am always worried that Didi is falling off the back but now that I’m tied to her with this belt, no problem.
Now I’m turning 80, and therefore thinking of death. I want to stay alive. I love the world, but on the other hand one has to be realistic. The feeling that there isn’t much time, gives to these projects a certain kind of importance, and also fills my life. I’m a happy old girl (chuckles). Trying to be useful has made me happy.
And just like that, we have our closing line. I hold the image of her on the back of a motorbike, strapped firmly to the driver, singing away at the top of her voice as she roars off into the unknown. Happy birthday, you octogenarian rockstar you. Long may you stay “a happy old girl”.