I woke up last Saturday morning to find Prashant Keshavmurthy’s pointed response to my recent essay, “Dreaming of a Hindu Left.” It gave me pause, and not only because the fact that Keshavmurthy is an established scholar of religious studies. As I read his article, my engagement deepened into one of respect.
Here was an expert on the subject who had read my articulations with care, and had formulated scholarly scaffoldings from which to fire his cannons. As someone with a genuine intellectual investment in the idea (and practice) of the Hindu Left, he highlights historic markers of “Hindu socialism”, notably in a vernacular language that, he rightly points out, has largely been out of my reach. Appropriately, he holds up Ruth Vanita’s formulation of the lost history of the Hindu Left as the one most easily available to the English-language thinker – one that, in his argument, has serious blind spots of its own. In his road-mapping of the lost history (and reality) of the Hindu Left, his essay moves from being one-time critique to something far more powerful, a revisionist intervention.
I also realised that my story had set itself up for this kind of tough love.
I had used some of the scaffolding of intellectual history to basically tell the emotional story of a moment. One’s freezing at it. At its core was the desire to see the moral ambivalence of Hinduism as holding the blueprint of a kind of affective liberation, pointedly away from the strategically sanitised version of the religion that holds its vicelike grip on mass and national politics in India today. Wrong move.
But it was a moment of freezing. A frieze indeed, a marginal decorative moment that had me honestly iced. What do you do before the massive historiographic sweep of the temple guide, indeed, a powerfully fictional one, who tells you that absurd positions of sexual congress sculpted on the walls, often as a series of friezes, were just that – absurd! Quoting the scholar Daud Ali, Keshavmurthy gives us what is no doubt the right answer: that the placement of sexual art before the entrance of a shrine is meant to mock the worldly desire one is supposed to shed as one enters god.
But the story told by my guide – that they were done by the sculptors because they were missing their wives back home – is too, just that, a story, and a kicking one at that. Not just the tale either, but his whispering voice, his hesitant body language, the gesture of asking me to step aside as if he was about to roll me a joint.
Keshavmurthy, no doubt, has done the right thing: revealed the flaw in the argument. I was just besotted by the story. Does the story offer anything for art even if inaccurate? I think it does. Does this artistic inaccuracy offer a possibility of political liberation? I must say it does.
It is not that I celebrate being in a post-truth world. The last few years of my life have been divided between a triumphant America and a modified India. But in this age of re-enchantment, affect moves far larger mountains than fact and reason. That is devastating news for the legacy of the Enlightenment as Immanuel Kant dreamt it: the use of reason in public life. But the rational model of scholarship may not be the only way to stem the rot. We may have a powerful ally we might be neglecting, powerful precisely because it is just likely to be irrational, wild and politically ambivalent. Art. The story. Fiction.
This is not just to set up a cheap binary of art and reason.
That one is likely to fail, even more sadly than the usual pathetic binary. This is merely to recognise that even is the most scathing of dystopias, there is no such called the post-art world. Harnessing the affective power of the aesthetic may not be such a bad idea in this demonic post-truth age of ours. Especially since there is already a seductive, swaying bridge between religion and art that the Enlightenment and its legacy has often bypassed, with a large measure of embarrassment.
In that misty twilight of Konark, the guide was for me, a character in a novel. The event was real, none of it was made up. Hence, I was the reader, living in reality outside the book. Keshavmurthy asks why I assume I was the liberal one here and not the guide? My response to that is the gendered nature of the guide’s behaviour. If he had to share what to him was a historic fact about the temple, he had to pull out his male client to do so, depriving his female clients of that nugget of knowledge. The unease with sexuality might betray a bourgeois habit, but a truly liberal person would not play fast and loose between the sexes.
Why indeed, Keshavmurthy asks me, “should the normative viewer of such temple erotica be liberal, bourgeois and urban?” Absolutely not. But there is a peculiar burden of response on the privileged BUL, a bourgeois, urban and liberal viewer, not to the erotica itself, but of the stories sculpted around them. Especially when the stories are illiberal fictions of such disturbingly mesmeric power. At least to me they were, and I own up to being a BUL subject, albeit with a kissing temptation to illiberal fictions.
The affective currents of storytelling, often fictional, purely apocryphal ones, have, over the centuries, enriched the vast river of Hinduism.
The point where Keshavmurthy thinks we differ most emphatically from each other is also the point where we share philosophical affinity of the most troubling kind. Does techno-modernity unleash a period of disenchantment or re-enchantment? Any answer is a winner here. It is impossible to deny the disenchanted experience of the modern rational bourgeois subject, captured in the realism of print culture. But as Adorno and Horkheimer already anticipated on the eve of the holocaust, techno-modernity would soon carve space for a mass culture that would recreate an enchantment which is (post)modern in body but pre-modern in spirit. Television as religion. The holy ritual of the soap opera.
Does Keshavmurthy elide responsible scholarship here and stretch the metaphoricity of language over the meaning of enchantment? Perhaps, and he is my better friend for that. He asks, “Are these not massive cases of the enchantment through capitalist technology of spaces and objects that were not enchanted to begin with?” But it’s not just a case of the stretched metaphor. Television is indeed a kind of a religion and the Instagram-poet merely picks up the performative career of the medieval minstrel after the brief interruption by print culture. Chetan Bhagat, we’ve known for some time now, is the cultural logic of Narendra Modi.
In a deadly prophecy, Michael Moore had written in the summer of 2016, that if you want to counter Trump, send Bernie Sanders; Hillary is no match for him.
Invoking truth to counter post-truth has proved ineffectual. What we need is affect. There is a ready storehouse of it called art. Another one, usually forgotten by left-liberals, called religion. And yes, they overlap uncannily with each other, usually against the spirit of the Enlightenment.
The ills of religion must be cured by religion itself. Secularism is no answer to it.
Keshavmurthy foregrounds the key question at the heart of my project: “Majumdar writes: ‘Is it possible today for literature and the arts to engage with religious aesthetic without celebrating the repressive dimensions of religion?’” Keshavmurthy’s response is nuanced, scholarly, and politically conscientious. Much depends, he says, on how we define “religion” or “religious.” “Does a “religious aesthetic” refer to,” he asks, “the egalitarian bhakti content of the Tamil and Telugu texts sung in Carnatic performances? Or to the Brahmanised upper caste identities of most of its practitioners? Or to the non-sectarian aesthetics of its performance?” Absolutely.
Moreover, here Keshavmurthy touches the raw point of my own guilty conscience, which is why this question appears, a dark and inevitable shadow, towards the end of “Dreaming of a Hindu Left”. It is all very well to celebrate the beauty of religion as a privileged BUL subject, a conscious inheritor of a movement as the Bengal Renaissance. The romance of religion can be a mesmeric one for the secular individual; it’s the romance of the other side.
I’m not a Brahmin but the upper caste second in rank, a Kayastha, the social group which engineered the social reform movement in 19th century Bengal more than the Brahmins who initially sided with the Orientalists. Which makes me give the final and lasting priority in that article to Kancha Eliah Shepherd’s critique of Shashi Tharoor’s celebration of Hinduism blindly past its sharp caste inequities. This is where Wendy Doniger’s subaltern history of Hinduism is a life-saver for me. But that, as I’ve noted in a forthcoming essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, is not only a deeply political debt but also a stunningly aesthetic one.
Yes, on this one, Dr Keshavmurthy, I stand guilty as charged.
Which is why Arun Kolatkar’s suburban flanerie in the sacred site of Jejuri draws me so. With full acknowledgement to Kolatkar’s longstanding “musical-textual engagement” with Tukaram, as Keshavmurthy reminds us via Laetitia Zecchini, I cannot but note the narrative cast of the poem cycle, and the character of its strangely shady but sincere, dissembling but intense, tourist guides to the temples – dreaming of the puran poli the urban tourist will bring on his plate. He reminds me of the guide I met in Konark. Kolatkar’s guides sallied in the daylight of bantering verse – the tourist there is there from Bombay on a day trip. My guide did dwell in the “eerie twilight of ancient temples.” But the flesh differs when the spirit comes together.
Taking apart the amateur scholarship sprouting under the arches of ancient temples is a worthwhile scholarly project. But to respond to it with banter – or simply a stunned silence – is, I’d say, also an essential gesture of art. The latter may sprout the seed of an unexpected political liberation.