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Yes, I do know that Tom Alter, the gifted film and television actor and theater artist who died in Mumbai

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Tom Alter.  Source:  Indian Express.

a little more than two weeks ago, was not an Englishman but rather an American.  I doubt, however, that most people in India knew that he was an American:  he was a firangi (“foreigner”, of foreign origins), and the firangi, when all is said and done, is an Englishman—at least in India.  Jawaharlal Nehru once described himself in a conversation with John Kenneth Galbraith, the American Ambassador to India—and others too have said this of him—as the “last Englishman” in India.  He had not reckoned with Tom Alter, who, in his love for cricket, was thoroughly English—and Indian.

Tom Alter was born in India to American parents.  He attended Woodstock School in Mussoorie, and I suspect that his attachment to Mussoorie remained throughout his life.  His parents moved to Rajpur, a small town which is 25 kilometers from Mussoorie on the road to Dehradun, when he was 14 years old, but it is in Landour, which is but a few kilometers from Mussoorie and can be reached by foot in a little more than half an hour to those who are familiar with the terrain, that he chose to get married to a fellow Woodstock student, Carol Evans.  They were married at St. Paul’s Church in Char Dukan, literally “Four Shops”, which is more than a charming little place where many people engage in guftagoo.  And “guftagoo”, the art of conversation, is something of which Tom Alter, from what I have heard, was a keen and admirable exponent.

I never had the good fortune of meeting Tom Alter.   I wish it had been otherwise.  He had a few hundred roles in Indian films and was the actor of choice for those Indian film directors, working mainly though not exclusively in Hindi, who were looking to cast a role for a white man.  But Tom, let it be clear, did not take on only the role of a firangi, or white man; he could easily pass himself off as Indian.  In a long interview that he gave recently for Rajya Sabha TV, Alter described how he came to love Indian cinema.  The films of Rajesh Khanna got him hooked to mainstream Hindi movies; as he put it in an interview in 2009, “I still dream of being Rajesh Khanna. For me, in the early 1970s, he was the only hero — romantic to the core, not larger than life, so Indian and real — he was my hero; the reason I came into films and he still is.”  This may be thought of as an unusual confession:  of course, Rajesh Khanna had an extraordinarily large following, particularly in his heyday, and the stories of young Indian women swooning over him are legion.  I have some recollection of his visit to Indonesia in the early 1970s when I was living there and of the absolute crush of young women who had gathered at the airport to receive him.  Where Khanna went, pandemonium followed.  Rajesh Khanna not Amitabh Bachchan was the first superstar of Bollywood, even if that is not known to those in the present generation.

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Rajesh Khanna serenading his lady love, in Aradhana.

Rajesh Khanna’s following, however, was overwhelmingly young women—or at least that is the impression one received from television, newspapers, and popular film magazines.  The popular film magazine Stardust had been launched in 1971, and scandal and gossip, always a characteristic feature of Bollywood and Hollywood, received a new boost.  One early Stardust cover had this headline, “Is Rajesh Khanna married?”  Now Alter may not have thought of himself as an intellectual, but in some circles it would be something of an embarrassment to admit that one had a weakness for Rajesh Khanna, that “evergreen” star who, with his trademark tilt of the head and cherubic countenance, seemed positively silly; when he ran around trees in the gentle pursuit of women, he looked, even more so than other actors, hilariously comical. Rajesh Khanna’s following seemed to be comprised largely of those very women who entertained ideas of romance derived entirely from Mills & Boon novels, if perhaps a notch below in their class background.  So there is something unquestionably something charming, even disarming, in hearing Alter speak of his unbound affection for Rajesh Khanna.

Alter’s first role in a Hindi film was in 1976; the following year, in one of his most memorable roles, he played Captain Weston, the aide-de-camp to General Outram, the British Resident at the court of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh, in Satyajit Ray’s film, Shatranj ke Khilari (“The Chess Players”, 1977), itself based on a short story by Munshi Premchand.  I saw the film a year later, in late 1978, and the scene is memorably etched in my mind.  Weston is summoned by Outram, who in his own fashion attempts to fathom the mind of the inscrutable Oriental Despot.  Outram has heard that Wajid Ali Shah is a poet—well, whoever heard of a king who fancied himself a poet.  “Tell me, Weston, you know the language, you know the people here—I mean, what kind of poet is the King? Is he any good, or is it simply because he’s the King they say he’s good?”  “I think he’s rather good, sir.” “You do, eh?”  So Weston is asked to recite a poem; he complies with the request, if reluctantly.  When he’s done, and has rendered the poem in translation as well, Outram—who has pronounced himself not much of a “poetry man”—pompously declares, “Doesn’t strike me a great flight of fancy.”

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Tom Alter as Capt. Weston, aide-de-camp to General Outram, Resident of Lucknow, in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khilari (“The Chess Players”), 1977.

Alter was known to aficionados of Indian cinema and theater lovers as someone with an enviable command over both Hindi and Urdu.  He delivers the lines in Shatranj ke Khilari, as well as in other films where he appeared, with absolute ease and comfort; indeed, it was pointed out that his interlocutors, many of them native speakers of Hindustani, often resorted to English words when Alter didn’t. In his love for Hindustani, for Hindi and Urdu alike, for Urdu literature and the everydayness of Indian life, Alter showed that it was possible to repudiate the idea of exclusive loyalties.  Perhaps, as an Englishman born of American parents in India, he could be singularly free of the virulent disease of nationalism.

It is no surprise that in recent years Tom Alter was called upon to play the role of Maulana Azad more than once, most recently in a TV series on the Indian Constitution (“Samvidhaan”), and that he did so with brilliance. In fact, it could not be otherwise in many respects.  If Alter was celebrated for his chaste Urdu, much more so was the case with Maulana Azad, whose mastery of Urdu has been commented upon by those who are familiar with the language.  But we may say that Tom Alter stands in for the figure of Maulana Azad in yet more touching ways.  Though Alter was born in India three years after partition, it is his American grandparents who had first made their way to India in November 1916, settling down in Lahore.  Alter’s father was born in Sialkot; at the time of partition, Tom’s grandparents elected to stay in what became Pakistan, while his parents opted for India.  One doesn’t ever think of English families in undivided India that were divided by the partition:  that is another story in the making.  Maulana Azad famously stayed behind in India, and he remained firmly committed as a secular and practicing nationalist Muslim to the idea of India.  Maulana Azad was too fine a match—as a thinker, writer, scholar, and principled man—for Muhammad Ali Jinnah, but that, too, is another story.

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Tom Alter as Maulana Azad.  YouTube Screen Grab.

Alter’s life is interesting and salutary, above all else, not only for his affection for India and his understanding of the country, but because as an “Englishman” he had the liberty of putting forth views which Indian secularists and liberals have eschewed and often vigorously attacked.  Over a decade ago I published a very long scholarly article on the trajectory of the word ‘tolerance’ in contemporary Indian political discourse.  The Hindu nationalists no longer want to hear anything about the much-touted “Hindu tolerance”, since in their view “Hindu tolerance” has over the centuries made Hindus vulnerable to rapacious foreigners and especially Muslim conquerors.  The idea of Hindu tolerance, on this reading, has been the graveyard of Hinduism.  The left, however, repudiates the idea of Hindu tolerance for altogether different reasons.  Some argue that it is a complete fiction; others find it a mockery, pointing, for instance, to centuries of caste oppression.  The idea of “Hindu tolerance”, they argue, is nothing but a frightful and bloated conceit.  This is what I termed “intolerance for ‘Hindu tolerance’”.

Alter had a different reading of what India has stood for and, notwithstanding the tremendous assaults on Indian pluralism of the last few years, still embodies to those who can recognize India for what it is.  In the aforementioned hour-long interview that he gave to Rajya Sabha TV in August 2016, he speaks about the time of partition and the aftermath [start at 58:30].  The killings and the bitterness would not preclude the Constitution of India from stating that every Indian had every right to be a Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian, or the practitioner of any other faith.  Alter speaks of his father who unhesitatingly described himself and other Christians as living in a land between the Ganga and the Yamuna:  it is a Christian father who recognizes that to Hindus this land is holy, pure (“pak”).  This is a Christian father saying this; for Christians these are not holy rivers; but “crores” (tens of millions) of people believe that they are holy rivers, and there is a force in that belief.  That, to the mind of Tom Alter, was secularism in practice.  In India, Alter noted, there has never been a point of view which dictated, ‘My path alone is right, yours is wrong’.  It is doubtful, Alter said, that there is anywhere in the world another country where such a worldview, such a sensibility of tolerance, has prevailed for such a lengthy stretch of time.

Alter feared that this delicate fabric which has been stitched over time is beginning to tear apart.  But he had no difficulty in characterizing what he saw as a wondrously unique culture of tolerance that had defined India.  Alter, in his interview, appears with a bandaged thumb.  His thumb had to be amputated, as melanoma tore into his body.  The cancerous rise of militant Hindu nationalism, if Indians are not watchful, will lead to the amputation of India.

Alter’s grandparents had come to India as Christian missionaries.  It is fitting that Tom Alter should have departed this life as a missionary for an unheralded India.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Journeys in the Deep South IV:  The Murder of M L King, Jr. and Medgar Evers

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics VII

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is indisputably a world-historical figure.  One cannot say what would have become of him had he not been assassinated in Memphis on the evening of April 4, 1968.  His peer, the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, is far from being a household name in the United States.  The airport in Jackson, Mississippi, is now named after Medgar Evers, but even in his native Mississippi I found that many did not recognize his name; to the rest of the world, he is all but an unknown entity.  Yet one might still reasonably call Evers an “icon”, since in the histories of the civil rights movement he is justly a celebrated figure.

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Statue of Medgar Wiley Evers, outside the Medgar Evars Public Library at 4215 Medgar Evers Boulevard, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Martin Luther King was 39 years old when he was silenced: I would not say ‘forever silenced’, because he speaks to us still; or, as a cartoonist from the Chicago Sun-Times put it more arrestingly, men such as him have to be assassinated repeatedly. This is something of which assassins are profoundly unaware.  Medgar Evers was not quite 38, yet almost there, when a sniper took his life outside his own home as he returned home around midnight after another day of work organizing his people to equip them to resist racism and oppression.  Evers, born in 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi, had a stint in the US army before he earned a degree in business administration from Alcorn A&M College.  As an insurance salesman working for Magnolia Mutual Life, moving from one house to another, he came to see first-hand what he already knew by virtue of being a black in Mississippi, namely the deep poverty that afflicted most black homes in his native state.  In 1954, he applied, without success, to Mississippi Law School and at once moved to accept the position, which had been offered to him on the basis of ad hoc work that he had already been doing on behalf of the NAACP, of regional field secretary for the same organization.

The murder of Emmett Till the following year would draw Medgar Evers deeper into civil rights work.  His voice was loud and clear in insisting on a civil rights investigation into Till’s murder and Evers was relentless in seeking to bring the murderers to justice.  As Medgar’s wife, Myrlie, recalled decades after, “Looking back, I know that from that time on [that is, after he had resolved to track down Till’s killers,] I never lost the fear that Medgar himself would be killed.”[i] Only months later, Martin Luther King, then a young preacher of little renown, was cast into the limelight when he accepted the call of black leaders in Montgomery and agreed to take leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  King’s rapid rise to fame has been documented in hundreds of books:  he would go on to become a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and in the early 1960s a series of interventions and engagements —the Albany Campaign, the Birmingham Campaign, the March on Washington—made him indisputably into the public face of the Civil Rights movement.  The conferral of the Nobel Peace Prize was, some reckoned, the crowning glory.

Meanwhile, Medgar Evers, perhaps the epitome of a grass-roots organizer, worked incessantly to bring black voter registration to every hamlet and town in Mississippi.  Such work, in much of the Deep South, was an invitation to an assassination.  In June 1963, shortly after SCLC had commenced a campaign against economic injustice and racial segregation in Birmingham, the situation in neighboring Mississippi had become tense.  White-owned businesses had been targeted for boycott by black leaders; and students from Tougaloo College had initiated sit-ins at Woolworth’s.  On the evening of June 11, President Kennedy gave a televised address to the nation billed as a “Report to the American People on Civil Rights.”  The President affirmed that the “nation was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”  Several hours after President Kennedy delivered his address, Medgar Evers pulled up in the driveway to his home and slid the car under the car port.  He opened the trunk to his car to take out a stack of t-shirts bearing the logo, “JIM CROW MUST GO”—t-shirts that were to be used in a demonstration in the morning in downtown Jackson. Just then, he was felled by a bullet in his back which tore through his chest, shattering the living room window and passing through the kitchen wall before ricocheting off the refrigerator.

 

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The driveway of the Medgar Evers home where Evers was killed in the very early hours of 12 June 1963.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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Medgar Evers had pulled up in his car and parked behind the family station wagon. Site:  Medgar Evers Home, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

The bullet hole in the kitchen wall can still be seen in what was then the family home of Medgar and Myrlie Evers and their children.

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The hole in the kitchen wall created by the trajectory of the bullet after it had ripped apart Medgar Evers.  Site:  Medgar Evers Home, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

The white t-shirts were stained with Medgar Evers’ blood.

The country, too, was indelibly stained—except that the country was never white, not white in fact, in color, in purity, or in nobleness of intent.

Medgar Evers’ killer was a sniper, a former army man by the name of Byron de la Beckwith who served with the Marine Corps in the Pacific theater of the war. He responded to the Supreme Court decision that held segregation in schools unconstitutional by becoming a member of the Citizens’ Council, a white supremacist organization; he also attended Ku Klux Klan rallies.  Twice he was tried for Evers’ killing; on both occasions, an all-white male jury acquitted him.  In Mississippi then, though to what degree this is substantially different now is an open question, the possibility that a white man would be convicted for the death of a black man was impossibly remote.  Not until 1994 was Beckwith, who had over the years openly boasted of killing Evers at KKK rallies, finally convicted.  To the end of his days, Beckwith remained not merely unrepentant:  he described himself as disgusted and repulsed by the touch of a black person, and he tried to ensure that no black doctor or nurse would attend to him at the University of Mississippi Medical Center where he passed on, not a moment too soon, on 21 January 2001.

Beckwith had scouted the neighborhood where Evers lived for days before he finally took his life, shooting him from a home that was set further back diagonally across the street with an Enfield .30-06 caliber rifle equipped with a telescope.  I wonder whether he inspired James Earl Ray, the supposed assassin of Martin Luther King, who also shot the civil rights leader from a building across the street from the Lorraine Hotel, where King had been staying when he was called to Memphis by Reverend James M. Lawson to help with the sanitation workers’ strike.  Ray apparently used a Remington Model 760 rifle with a telescope, and positioned himself in a bathroom on the top floor of the rooming house diagonally across from the hotel:  when King stepped out onto the balcony outside Room 306, he was a sitting duck.  A .30-06 bullet entered his right cheek and ripped apart several vertebrae as it traveled down the spinal cord.

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The bullet that killed Medgar Evers was fired by Beckwith, who had positioned himself in the house, here in the background, diagonally across from the Evers family home.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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James Earl Ray, or whoever the assassin of King may have been, fired from a bathroom adjoining this window on the top floor of the rooming house across from the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis; the spot where King was standing when he was felled by a bullet is marked by the wreath.  The assassin had a clear view of his target.   Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

Both King and Evers were tireless workers for the cause:  they went into the trenches and soldiered on, whatever the setbacks, disappointments, obstacles, and threats.  Evers was almost 38 years old at the time of his murder, and King was just a little older than him when he was felled by an assassin’s bullet.  Neither reached the ripe old age of 40.  There is no controversy as such over Evers’ assassination; the facts of it are well-established.  The same cannot be said of the assassination of King, about which doubts linger on and will surely never be dispelled.  But the modus operandi of the assassinations seems to have been remarkably similar in many respects.  And yet, as I commenced this piece, Medgar Evers is now little known outside his native Mississippi, except to students of the Civil Rights movement, while Martin Luther King, Jr has taken his place among the immortals and has been adjudged alongside Gandhi as one of the supreme exponents of nonviolent resistance.

The contrasting trajectories of Evers and King in the aftermath of their assassination say something perhaps about the vicissitudes of fame. King wanted to be remembered only as a “drum major” for the cause; he didn’t know that he would be credited as the orchestrator, conductor, and drum major of a movement.  Is it King’s oratory that his endeared him to history, or are there accidents of history that pushed him to the fore?  Perhaps we would be better served spending less time trying to probe the conspiracy theories that swirl around King’s assassination and reflecting rather more on how some people enter into history and others in rather similar circumstances become relegated to footnotes. And yet a foonote, as Anthony Grafton reminds us in his marvelous book, The Footnote: A Curious History, is no small thing.  Sometimes it endures when the text it is meant to embellish, illuminate, or explicate has all but vanished.

 

[i] Myrlie Evers with William Peters, “Mississippi Murders”, Civil Rights since 1787, eds. Jonathan Birnbaum and Clarence Taylor (New York:  New York University Press, 2000), 355-57.

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A meeting at Penang in autumn 2010 of like-minded intellectuals and activists from the Global South committed to a radical decolonization of knowledge commenced with a screening of the late Howard Zinn’s documentary, We the People.  A few years ago, the World Social Forum in Mumbai opened with a screening, before thousands of people, of the documentary, Manufacturing Consent, focused on the ideas and work of Noam Chomsky, the most well known American voice of dissent at home and abroad.  In either case, most people would be justified in thinking that the choice was sound.  Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States — a work attentive to the voices of the marginalized, critical of mainstream narratives, sensitive to histories of labor and the working class, and so on — has sold over a million copies in various editions; moreover, Zinn’s life, marked by an ethical impulse to do, in common parlance, what is right and stand by what is just, is one that many might seek to emulate.  Chomsky, for his part, has been the most relentless and forthright critic of American foreign policy:  if there is one liberal voice which to the world represents the ability of the United States to tolerate its own critics, it is surely the voice of Chomsky.  Critical as Chomsky is of the United States, one suspects that he can also be trumpeted by his adversaries as the supreme instance of America’s adherence to notions of free speech.  Chomsky is simultaneously one of America’s principal intellectual liabilities and assets.

 

I am animated, however, by a different set of considerations in this discussion of Zinn and Chomsky.  Why, we should ask, did the organizers settle for Zinn and Chomsky, both American scholars – and that, too, at meetings, especially the Multiversity conference in Penang, committed at least partly to the idea of intellectual autonomy, self-reliance, greater equity between the global North and the global South, and so on.  An ethical case might reasonably be made for the gestures encountered at Penang and Mumbai.  No less a person than Gandhi sought alliances, throughout his life, with the ‘other West’.  Holding firmly to the principle that freedom is indivisible, and that it is not only India that needed to be free of colonial rule, but also England itself that had to be liberated from its own worst tendencies, Gandhi sought out those writers, intellectuals, and activists in the West who had themselves been reduced to the margins.  His tract of 1909, Hind Swaraj, which is intensely critical of the modern West, lists ‘eminent authorities’ whose works Gandhi consulted, and the bulk of them are figures such as Tolstoy, Thoreau, Edward Carpenter, and Ruskin.  Those who rightly recall this critical aspect of Gandhi’s life conveniently forget that Gandhi, on more than one occasion, also described the West as “Satanic”.  If he accepted English, America, and European friends as allies in the struggle for Indian independence, he also never wavered from his firm belief that ultimately Indians had to fight their own battles.  Thus, following  him, some difficult questions that come to mind should not be brushed aside.  Is the Global South so colonized that it must borrow even its models of dissent from the West?  If the theorists of global import, from Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Adorno, Heidegger and Althusser to Lacan, Habermas, Levinas, Judith Butler, and Agamben all hail from the West, are the ultimate dissenters also from the West?

 

What begins in people’s minds can only end in people’s minds.  All over the colonized world in the nineteenth century, Locke, John Stuart Mill, and Tocqueville were held up as the torchbearers of freedom.  Almost no one recognized Tocqueville, even today a sacrosanct figure in the United States, as the holder of the most virulently racist ideas about Arabs and Muslims.  Mill’s ideas about representative government extended only to people he conceived of as free, mature, and possessed of rational faculties.  The habits of simulation in the global South are so deeply engrained that Americans become the ultimate and only genuine dissenters.  The rebellions of the dispossessed, oppressed, and marginalized are generally dismissed as luxuries possible only in permissive democracies, as the last rants of people opposed to development and progress.  However, the problem of dissent is far from being confined to the global South:  it is, if anything, more acute in the United States, where the dissenters have all been neatly accommodated, whether in women’s studies, ethnic studies, or gay studies departments at universities, or in officially-sanctioned programs of multiculturalism, or in pious-sounding policies affirming the values of diversity and cultural pluralism.  The dictators of tomorrow will also, we can be certain, have had “diversity training”.  Is there any dissent beyond what now passes for dissent?   How will we recognize the dissent of those who do not speak in one of the prescribed languages of dissent?  The United Nations has officially recognized languages, but the world at large has something much more insidious, namely officially recognized and prescribed modes of dissent.  Those who do not dissent in the languages of dissent will never even receive the dignity of recognition, not even as much as a mass memorial to ‘the unknown soldier’.

CONCLUDED

See also the previous posts in this series:

Thesis Eight: Postcolonial Thought and Religion in the Public Sphere

Thesis Seven: The Geography and Psychogeography of Home

Thesis Six: In incommensurability is the promise of more democratic futures

Thesis Five: The Moral and Political Imperative of South-South Dialogues

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)

 

 

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Proposition:  A more ecumenical conception of the future must contend with the question of religion in the public sphere

I do not think it can be doubted that postcolonial thought has displayed a stern reluctance to engage with the question of religion or, more broadly, the language of transcendence.  Let us acknowledge, in the first instance, that the very template of ‘religion’ comes from the canon of Western thought; more precisely, ‘religion’ the world over was sought to be remade in the template of Protestant Christianity.  The nineteenth century also saw the establishment of an hierarchy of religions; even the notion of world religions, as the work of Tomoko Masuzawa [The Invention of World ReligionsOr, how European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (2005)] suggests, served to enforce the idea of European modernity in the guise of pluralism.  Though a “religion” such as Hinduism could be accommodated within the Aryan-Semitic divide, it posed distinct problems for many of its adherents, many of whom unwittingly or tacitly accepted the notion of Protestant Christianity as representing the acme of an authentic and proper religion.  To become a proper religion, and be viewed as one, having, that is, the notion of a singular savior, a single book, and a clear and unambiguous theology, became the aspiration of many modernizing Hindus as well.

 

To admit all this is only to say that we must begin with a deep recognition of the limitations attached to the idea of ‘religion’.  Moreover, in speaking of religion, one is already severely compromised into using a language that cannot fully describe the various modes in which peoples experience the divine, the transcendent, the notion of the after-life, or, even, the ethical life.  But once we are past this admission, the problem persists:  it is all but clear that postcolonial theory had almost nothing to say about the place of religion in the public sphere, and that too at a time when the world over religion was making inroads into politics and the everyday life of communities.  If there is a larger and entirely legitimate question about how postcolonial thought was positioned in the public sphere, it is in the realm of religion that postcolonial thought proved to be wholly inadequate.  This lacuna is most evident in the work of Said himself:  insofar as he engaged with the question of religion, he did so by talking about the representations of Muslims in the western world, whether in the media or in works of scholarship.  He adverted, as well, to the rise of religious fundamentalism or rather we should say extremism; to the extent that he acknowledged religious belief, it is only the perversion of such religious belief that came to his attention.  Said’s critical scholarship is equally an illustration of his steadfast indifference to religious works, theological treatises, the religious life, the nature of religious practices and rituals, or even the philosophy of religion.

 

This indifference to religion, in Said and many other postcolonial thinkers, can be described in part as stemming from their fear that religion claims dominion over “universal ideas”.  The postcolonial scholar has always found it easier to engage with works that fall under the rubric of ‘reason’ (in all its registers, from ethical reason to the brute instrumentalization of reason).  Said’s response was to put into place a critical humanism that he hoped would serve, in the manner of religion, as a template to generate competing universal ideas.  It is in this rather odd fashion that we can think of Said as a religious thinker.  But, more to the point, the consequences on the part of secular and postcolonial scholars of abandoning the public sphere are there to be seen – in, to take three examples, the dramatic rise of Christian evangelicals and their forging of a worldwide network, the ascendancy of the Hindu right and its heady if often inadvertent embrace of what were once colonial conceptions of Hinduism, and the numerous manifestations of violence in Islam.  Postcolonial secular scholars never had anything that can remotely be described as an adequate response; and they never even contemplated the possibility that perhaps the greater ethical response from a committed non-believer is to come to the defense of religious belief.

See also the previous posts in this series:

Thesis Seven: The Geography and Psychogeography of Home

Thesis Six: In incommensurability is the promise of more democratic futures

Thesis Five: The Moral and Political Imperative of South-South Dialogues

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)

 

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In a trenchant and famous critique of Edward Said to which I have previously alluded, the Marxist scholar Aijaz Ahmad drew attention to what he described as postcolonialism’s fetish with the idea of exile.  Ahmad had in mind the fact that the most compelling figures in Said’s intellectual landscape – among them Conrad, Adorno, Auerbach, Mahmud Darwish, C L R James, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz — lived as exiles.  Said placed himself squarely in that lineage, but went much further in his claim that modern Western culture was fundamentally a creation of exiles.  Said advanced this claim in yet another,  perhaps more compelling, language:  modern culture, he wrote, could be described as the product of a conflict between the ‘housed’ and the ‘unhoused’.  Ahmad’s criticism that Said and postcolonial intellectuals who have fetishized the idea of exile are quite oblivious to their own positions of immense privilege is not without some merit, but can we locate a different and less acrimonious point of entry into this question?  There are obvious and pertinent considerations that remain tacit in Ahmad’s critique.  We are living in an era characterized not only by the mobility of émigrés and exiles, but by nearly unprecedented movements of masses, such as domestic and sex workers, political and economic refugees, stateless persons, immigrants, and so-called undocumented aliens.  The intellectual émigré is surely member of a miniscule minority, but does such an admission suffice as a basis on which Said might be critiqued?

To the extent that the ‘nation’ remained, if only as the subject of critique, the fundamental operative category in postcolonial writings, the idea of home went unexamined.  Just what is this thing we call home, and does the geography of the landscape that might be called ‘home’ correspond to the psychogeography of home?  That little-noticed passage in Said, where he characterizes the problem of modern culture as the conflict “between the unhoused and housed”, helps to push his insights further.  The death, less than two years ago, of Samuel Hallegua, a Jew whose family had been resident in the coastal city of Cochin for a little more than four centuries, brought home to me the problem of ‘home’ in modern thought.  Every scholar of global Jewish history admits that, in India at least, Jews never encountered the slightest trace of anti-Semitism. Nathan Katz, author of Who Are the Jews of India?, writes candidly that “Jews navigated the eddies and shoals of Indian culture very well.  They never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination.” He goes on to describe in what respect India could have served as a model for the world:  “Indians Jews lived as all Jews should have been allowed to live:  free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country.”  Yet, in the aftermath of the creation of Israel, there was an exodus of Indian Jews to the new Jewish state. How and why their numbers dwindled will seem no mystery to those who, citing the horrendous experience of European Jews, the long history of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world, and the passage of the Law of Return, deem it but natural that India’s Jews also sought to migrate to Israel.  But is it really all that ‘natural’ that the modern nation-state should be construed as the only entity capable of commanding the loyalties of human beings, and should we effortlessly concede that primordial ties, of blood and religion for instance, reign supreme in human affairs?

In their passage from India to Israel, many Indian Jews may have gained much – solidarity with other Jews, perhaps new employment prospects, and the sense of freeing themselves from their hitherto eternal diasporic condition.  Some of them, it is certain, would also have experienced a sense of loss – not just a feeling of nostalgia, but even discrimination as they found themselves representing strands of Judaism all but foreign to other Jews.  Their children and grandchildren will perhaps not be privy to such sentiments.  But what of Mr. Hallegua’s contemporaries?  If they desired the comfort of numbers, what enabled Mr. Hallegua, who never left Cochin, to resist that easy temptation?  Should we conclude that he was less enterprising than his peers and less willing to take the risk of dislocation?  Or should we entertain the possibility that Mr. Hallegua, in his own quiet manner, was registering a dissent against the ethos of modern political and social identity?  The Hindu, in reporting the death of Mr. Hallegua, quoted him as saying of India, “It has been more than tolerant.  The Santa Cruz High School I went to was run by Jesuit priests.  My sister studied in a school which was managed by Italian nuns.  But we were never under pressure to shun Judaism.  The country accepted us as we have been.  I’m a proud Indian.  I’m also a Hindu in an apolitical sense.”  With the decimation of Cochin’s Jewish community in the aftermath of Indian independence and the creation of Israel, we might say that the logic of the nation-state prevailed over the possibilities of civilization, and that the modern political arithmetic of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ triumphed – as it has so often in our times.

I do not wish to say that Mr. Hallegua heroically mounted a resistance to the arithmetic of modern politics; but he nevertheless refused to give this arithmetic his endorsement.  He did not speak the language of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’, and he refused to be drawn into thinking that identity is reducible to some primordial markers of religion, ethnicity, and the like.  Or, let us put it this way, Mr. Hallegua had an expansive conception of the politics of home.  He may even have recognized Israel as the longed-for home, but perhaps it was the home to which he could not or would not return.  He may have refused to idealize Israel; or, if he did, he could have thought that it would be best to hold up the idea of Israel and yet have no truck with the reality of a nation-state predicated on the notion of religious identity.  What is  certain to my mind is that new paradigms in the aftermath of postcolonialism will have to help us resist the debilitating arithmetic of modern politics.

See also previous posts in this series:

Thesis Six: In incommensurability is the promise of more democratic futures

Thesis Five: The Moral and Political Imperative of South-South Dialogues

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)

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One narrative of colonialism insists that, however adverse the consequences of colonialism for the peoples of the Americas, Asia, Africa, Latin America, Polynesia, and so on, it opened up these worlds to the modern West and its scientific, technological, intellectual and political advancements.  This argument has seen an extraordinary resurgence over the last two decades, and its advocates point sometimes to the ‘failed states’ of Africa, and at other times to the rise of militant Islam, to suggest that the colonial powers let down their subjects by pulling out too early.  Some commentators insist only on the supposed ‘fact’ that the colonized subjects have repeatedly shown themselves incapable of (good) governance; others advance the view that colonialism can productively be understood and condoned as the narrative of provincial and insular cultures being opened up, even if forcibly, to the salutary and progressive influence of the West in all domains of life.  Some historians of empire continue to indulge in a similarly puerile exercise, weighing the ‘good’ that colonialism wrought for the darker races against the ‘bad’ that, mostly ‘inadvertently’, was done by a few rotten specimens of the white ruling elites in the colonies.  Paul Johnson, Niall Ferguson, and Dennis Judd are among the many commentators and academic dons who have never been in doubt that the ‘good’ easily outweighed the ‘bad’; they have been joined by politicians such as Gordon Brown, who declared on an official visit to Britain’s former East African colonies in 1995 that Britain no longer needed to apologize for colonialism since it had contributed many ‘positive’ values to the lives of its colonial subjects. (Engulfed as we are by apologies, it is for the better that Gordon Brown decided not to contribute to the epidemic.)

We know what the ‘opening up’ of Australia and the Americas, to take two obvious and gruesome examples, meant for indigenous peoples.  It is barely necessary to rehearse the histories of genocide, the devastation of lifestyles and cultural inheritances, and destruction of ecosystems that must be understood in their most expansive sense as encompassing complicated relationships between humans, animals, plants, the soil, and the elements.  Scholars engaged in postcolonial criticism scarcely need to be reminded of the manner in which histories of European expansion and genocide are inextricably intertwined.  The question before us, rather, is whether the theoretical trajectories of the last few decades have not, inadvertently or otherwise, also opened up formerly colonized subjects to the knowledge systems of the West and thereby paved the way for the extinction of the little cultural and intellectual autonomy that might have remained in colonized societies.  There is a legitimate question to be asked whether there are ever any ‘pure’ categories of thought, and it may even be that the scientific methods and categories of the West have themselves been deployed to stake arguments about the history and authenticity of a local knowledge tradition (as, some would argue, is true of Ayurveda).  Nevertheless, what cannot be doubted is the massive inequilibrium between modern knowledge systems and knowledge systems that remain local, indigenous, suppressed, or marginal.  On the liberal view, to take one instance, the West has shown itself to be increasingly accommodating to alternative knowledge systems, and in medicine liberals will point to the growing acceptance of homeopathy, acupuncture, Ayurveda, traditional Tibetan medicine, and naturopathy in the US and Europe.  But are these merely viewed as complementary systems, or do practitioners of allopathy permit their assumptions about medical care to be seriously put into question by practitioners of other medical knowledge systems?

Let us consider an analogy:  Foucault’s History of Sexuality has had a seminal place not only in recent understandings of sexuality in Europe and the Americas but also in the attention being lavished on sexuality in Indian variants of cultural studies.  As in economics and anthropology, the assumption persists that Foucault has furnished a universal template for the study of sexuality, even if notions of femininity, masculinity, sexual conduct, the care and practices of the body in India may not be amenable to his cultural histories.  Fortuitously, another bespectacled bald man, this one in India, had an abiding interest in sexual practices.  I have in mind, quite surprisingly, Mohandas Gandhi.  Unlike the two bald men fighting over a comb, Jorges Luis Borges’s memorable description of the squabble between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland Islands, Gandhi and Foucault would, I suspect, have disagreed over much that is truly substantive for our understanding of human sexuality.  I wonder when the history of sexuality in Europe will be opened up to the penetrating gaze of the sexual practices of Gandhi, who had firm and deeply rooted ideas about the public and the private, masculinity and femininity, the violence of sex and the sex of violence, and the joys of sexuality without sex.

Though it is now an axiom of modern thought and sensibility that the moral imperative of the day is to enhance cultural cooperation and comprehend the various ways in which the world is shrinking, it is rather the case that conditions for even remotely equal exchanges and flows do not exist.  In the present state of affairs, keeping in mind the enormous iniquities in the world system, little diminished by the alleged erosion of American power or the ascendancy of China, and nowhere better manifested than in the fact that modern knowledge systems are generally derived in toto from the West, there can be no more desirable outcome than to reduce certain contacts, for instance between the Global North and the Global South, and repudiate certain conversations.  In the totalizing conditions of modern knowledge, we have the intellectual, political and moral obligation, at least from the standpoint of those living in the Global South, to increase incommensurability.  To deny the South this choice, to compel it to enter to the stream of world history the teleological center of which remains the Euro-American world – Fukuyama’s bland “end of history” being a case in point — notwithstanding all the critiques of recent decades, would be the clearest sign of surrender to a resurgent colonialism masquerading as the harbinger of the familiar universalisms of freedom, progress, development, and the like.

See also previous posts in this series:

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)

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