The last hundred years have arguably been the most prolific in the history of Indian literature. Across the many vernaculars and in English, a rich spectrum of voices has courageously plumbed into the depths of their times to produce an extraordinarily diverse body of work. For literary scholars, though, this eclecticism has been the source of considerable theoretical difficulty.

What are the ways in which these texts speak to one another? What are the different modes of reading that may allow us to productively compare them? The dominant approach has been to read and organise texts around disparities of language and period, and social-historical categories such as caste, religion, class, gender. Implicit to this approach is a view of literature that takes texts to be strongly imbued with the social, political, and moral designs of the particular milieus they emerge from; a view that originates in influential movements in 20th century philosophy that sought to emphasise the historically and culturally contingent nature of human identity and consciousness.

New registers for reading

Nikhil Govind’s new monograph Inlays of Subjectivity: Affect and Action in Modern Indian Literature seeks to gently unsettle these conventions by uncovering fresh linkages across a diverse range of influential voices from the last hundred years – BR Ambedkar, Krishna Sobti, KR Meera, Ismat Chughtai, Agyeya, Urmila Pawar, and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, to name a few. At only 170 pages, the book is eminently readable. It is a timely contribution that will, one hopes, offer the much-needed impetus for newer conversations on the role of literature.

The strikingly imaginative consolidation of these hitherto disparate texts emerges from a position of deep sympathy for the subjective interiorities that undergird literary narratives. Govind pays sustained attention to precisely those registers of the interior that elude the specificity of particular historical and social configurations.

Reading literary narrative at these more fleeting registers is a tricky business, especially when one is simultaneously committed to a project of intertextual mapping. One’s own claims about the irreducibly unique contours of the first-person stance may ultimately undermine any subsequent attempt at forging broader solidarities. That the book manages to live up to its ambitious purport owes much to its mode of presentation.

This quote from the opening epigraph, attributed to Paul Ricœur, is one that Govind takes literally: “Literature is a vast laboratory in which we experiment with estimations, evaluations, and judgments of approval and condemnation through which narrativity serves as a propaedeutic to ethics.” “Experiment” is a fascinating word. Unlike “theory”, which is typically what one associates literary studies with, “experiment” evokes a sense of uncertainty, and wonder. One cannot approach an experiment having already decided what one will discover. Rather, one is permitted only a hunch about the categories that will allow one to describe what may be found.

As Govind tells us, literary texts are best served by an “unwillingness to speak in too authoritarian a tone, but rather through an ethics of listening, silence, patience, attention”. For “however much abstraction spirals, it must not lose its home in the felt pain of a psyche at a given personal and historical moment”.

Pain and suffering

Indeed, the central idea of the book “germinates” in the texts that it reads in the prelude: memoirs by Ambedkar, Anjum Habib, and Reshma Valiappan. These texts are found to embody the overwhelming recognition of pain and suffering in all its affective plurality, and diverse paths of moral action that allow the subjective voice to both aspire towards, and actually accomplish a certain degree of freedom.

For instance, in his reading the Kashmiri political activist Anjum Habib’s Prisoner No. 100, an account of her five year stint in jail, Govind traces the gradual loss of subjecthood, resulting finally in a self stripped bare of its densities. In prison, a space of intense solitude that “breeds both introspection and hallucination”, everything must be relearned, including what pain and humiliation mean in that specific context. It is ultimately in the writing itself that there is both the contemplation of these intensely affective moments and the move towards healing and freedom.

These memoirs, being the expression of most directly felt experience, exemplify an extraordinary degree of both pathos and achievement. They lend themselves more easily to the kind of reading that Govind proposes. In his discussion of these texts, he evokes the Foucauldian notion of parrhesia – “the speech of courage with its insistence on truth”.

However, many of the texts that he reads in the main section – comprising five interlinked studies – constitute more complex and nuanced arrangements of affect and action that are not as easily recognisable as embodying pain, freedom, and truth-telling. For instance, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s four-part masterpiece Srikanta, which follows its protagonist as he aimlessly wanders through various parts of British India might seem, at first, to be an odd selection for a volume that is invested in questions of suffering.

However, in the purposelessness of Srikanta’s flights, Govind reads a certain openness to receiving “the full moral weight” of the more assertive, largely female characters he encounters. In the protagonist’s passivity, Govind discerns the “invention of a new non-judgemental and sensitive masculinity”. Nomadicism itself becomes a powerful mode of moral action.

Moral action

Injustice, filtered through the subjective sensibility, constantly configures and reconfigures the contours of suffering and moral action. It is argued that there is the “inherent risk in a democracy that majoritarianism will keep generating not just more minorities but ever more types of minorities”, along newer axes of “sexuality, mental health, survivors of ecological catastrophes, and so on”. And so, we cannot strongly hold on to particular notions of what constitutes pain or resistance.

What is distinct about literary narratives, in contrast with, say, historical and sociology narratives, is that it is possible to inhabit these markedly different interiors and feel – as opposed to know – what it would be like to be placed in particular arrangements of space-time and culture. This, it appears, is what Govind is quietly hinting at. In a world of overwhelming pain and injustice, literary narratives offer us privileged access to ways of being that negotiate suffering through paths of reflection and action that on the whole resist the impulse for immediate outrage and counter-violence.

By tracing influence, that most mystical of literary categories, at the level of affect, Govind attempts to chart out new ways by which “suffering or injustice can be shared, listened and responded to, and recognised in its fullness, individuality, power, and vulnerability”. Universalising abstraction, be it ethico-legal or even scholarly, “can first create and then nullify whole worlds of human suffering”.

It is by sustained reflection and long-drawn moral action – which literary narratives are argued to embody – that there is the “possibility of rewiring of a psyche...that chooses to meditate on new mythographies of the human”. In these times of social media, where dissent and outrage is all too easily and hastily expressed, this “may be the only way to break the cycle of vengeance and reprisal”.

Inlays of Subjectivity

Inlays of Subjectivity: Affect and Action in Modern Indian Literature, Nikhil Govind. Oxford University Press.