A number of scholars born in India in the 1940s and later saw the rise of the US as an open and an inviting destination for serious work and rigorous academics, offering a unique blend of teaching and research. A history of academic institutions in India and America would have to consider the work of these high priests and claim it with equal zest, because these men and women not only helped define the relevant, immediate concerns surrounding questions of what ought to be studied and how, but also impacted the research aspirations of those who did not go out there.
Almost all the scholars of Indian origin who went on to become theorists and critics of international repute had postcolonial leanings. They entered the American academics when conventional literature studies were going through a transformative phase, and these young Indian voices – in the 1960s and 1970s onwards – witnessed and caused the remaking of the study of literature into something different: an area steeped in cultural critique with a heavy borrowing of critical theory. Theirs were among the voices questioning the canon, the Western gaze and hegemony, placing new literatures on the maps of departments of literatures, and even thinking of how to read these in their own terms.
Homi K Bhabha
Several names come to mind while thinking of examples of people who continue to produce new insights and arguments in the study of literature and culture. Homi K Bhabha (Harvard University) is the first of them. He is chiefly known for his The Location of Culture and the volume of seminal essays he edited, Nation and Narration. He has written considerably more after these milestones in postcolonial studies, but these are still considered go-to resources for classic problems of nation and culture as constructs.
Bhabha is known for talking about hybridity and related concepts of the in-between and the third space. Something that is now familiar when someone asks you if you are with them or with terrorists. He theorised this idea of the in-between, through the ways in which he studied literature and culture. His criticism, in the research-oriented sense of the term, is a political act, as seen in his defence of Salman Rushdie in the aftermath of The Satanic Verses.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Along with Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Columbia University) is a part of the holy trinity of some sorts of the postcolonial theory (the third one being the Palestine-born scholar Edward W Said). Her name is synonymous with writings on the subaltern – the marginalised and the voiceless. In her most famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” she explores how the project of the scholars claiming to represent the subaltern voice is very condescending because that very subaltern voice does not get to speak for itself. One has to be extremely careful while representing someone, because that process could add to silencing the so-called represented.
Amidst the heavy theory that is often feared and dismissed as jargon, Dipesh Chakrabarty (University of Chicago) is a gentle breeze of storytelling and wisdom. His Provincializing Europe and Habitations of Modernity are read for their histories of the working classes and of subaltern studies, for instance, but the best introduction to his work is possibly his essay on the Bengali adda: “Adda, Calcutta: Dwelling in Modernity.”
It is a cultural history of the word and the institution of the adda, which to an outsider may look only like idling, gossiping, meaningless club culture. Chakrabarty examines it in the light of the European coffee houses, its gendered nature, and its fading away with the onset of capitalist work ethic. He takes something perceived as plebeian and creates an intellectual space around it.
There are many more brilliant minds whose works have been seminal to the framing of several research projects even today. Arjun Appadurai, and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (both from New York University), Kumkum Sangari (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), Gauri Vishwanathan (Columbia University) and R Radhakrishnan (University of California at Irvine) are fascinating figures in contemporary thought.
Appadurai’s Modernity at Large attempts to understand modernity in the light of media and migration – as two phenomena that are synonymous with globalisation, updating the conventional understanding that equated modernity with machines. Sunder Rajan’s work on what it means to be a woman in the postcolonial location and time, Sangari’s work on a theory of the novel and Vishwanathan’s examination of the use of English as a weapon and a mask of conquest of India are all detailed narratives of their subjects. Radharkrishnan’s Theory in an Uneven World is a delightfully flowing conversation on unevenness, differences and the condition of theory and its potential to theorise despite such irregularities.
All these scholars have many more interests and continue to write in the light of current events and issues. The works mentioned here are the ones that are the most famous because they help rethink one’s training in literature, and have become new ways of doing research. This short list is biased towards theorists working in the US, but there are many more interesting minds working all over the world – Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. There are several who returned to India after their higher studies abroad. All of these continue to enrich the academic culture in India.
The researcher figure so sensitively put to use in Amitav Ghosh’s novels is also a storyteller and a medium for the story. Luminaries like Spivak and Bhabha are storytellers in their own ways when it comes to telling us about injustice, violence and ways of being in the world. They keep the world of ideas alive and the need for debates kicking.