‘Event, Metaphor, Memory’ Or A Tale of Two Disciplines

On April 10, 2014 by admin

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Brinda Bose

 

Event I: At the Social Sciences Building, DU, on an April afternoon

Shahid Amin has about a year to go for his retirement from the History department at Delhi University, a base from which he has long been a (hi)story-teller to reckon with. To mark this momentous ‘event’ with a fitting scholarly ‘event’ – ironically putting cart before (retiring) horse, mocking history perhaps – his department colleagues, led by Sunil Kumar, organized a singularly uplifting session on a memorable Wednesday afternoon  ‘at home’ – in a packed lecture hall in the Social Sciences building on campus, brimming as much with teachers and scholars and friends and students of history and the university at large as with a precious intellectual sparkle otherwise fast fading at DU in these our dismal times.

Partha Chatterjee (Columbia University/CSSS, Kolkata), Neeladri Bhattacharya (JNU) Sunil Kumar (DU) – Amin’s fellow-redoubtable-social-scientists of a particular generation, the likes of which we may not see again soon given the direction which India’s public universities have now been set upon – spoke (seriously and playfully, both) of and to Amin’s oeuvre of work (and play) through his significant intellectual career. The event was chaired by Ravi Kant, social and cultural historian of Sarai-CSDS and ex-student of the department, who was introduced by Sunil Kumar and frequently referred to by Amin with a generosity of spirit that clearly sets the History department apart, still, from the quagmire the rest of DU has willingly sunk into. Indeed, this springfest of nostalgia, laughter, camaraderie and effortless yet cutting-edge scholarship that a quartet of historians displayed on this April afternoon for a scintillating three hours was showcasing the best that DU still – surprisingly enough – has to offer, a space where sharpest scholarship fences with a laconic wit (the latter inspired, as each recalled, by a long history of much partaking together, including post-sundowners, through many a waxing and waning moon).

I doubt whether anyone in that overflowing room was left unmoved and uninspired by such a display of a joyous shared-and-interrogated scholarship, if for different reasons. I would think that the increasingly-demoralized host department received a fervent shot in the arm: a reminder that a department that has the gumption to make a point by bringing these incisive fearless historians to gather and speak in an ordinary large room on campus to a gratifyingly-huge university audience, despite the administration’s relentlessly-fascist warfare on intellectual thought, is not moribund yet. (It discarded an option to have these academic ‘stars’ ‘perform’ for Delhi’s gluttonous glutinous culturati at the IIC, one heard). For the shamefully-miniscule number of us who were there from the English department, teachers or students – and I cannot speak for all of the few there either, of course – it was a doleful reminder that there was once a time when we had aspired to be, along with the History department, bravely the ‘last departments standing’ in the very warfare referred to above. But English retreated, while History has – even if momentarily – resurrected itself. Why should we be surprised? In the history of DU, English has been consistently an erudite but tame department, priding itself on goode olde Englishe ‘good form’, that self-righteous ‘stiff upper lip and all that’, as Bertie Wooster might have said, in the face of grievous alarm. And prided itself for being that most apathetic thing, ‘non-political’. (Is literature ‘ethical’ and apolitical? What a laugh. Of course we are going to write ourselves out of any history of reckoning, then.) While History, as history has it, has been fragmented but always fomenting. And such intellectual effervescence as this event is its proof and reward.

 

Event II: De-touring via the Arts Faculty, this ‘cruellest month’

The English department, in contrast, has wilted and withdrawn, folded over into its own sense of ethically-outraged hurt. When one of its most academically-acute faculty members, Rochelle Pinto, in a brave but grim gesture of protest handed in her resignation a few days ago, the department collectively greeted it with what has become its most potently ineffectual message: a shifty silence. A teacher so popular and revered, a colleague so precious and dedicated, has not deserved even a collective formal request from her own departmental fraternity to reconsider her decision. (And consider this, instead, from a few minutes away and the same imaginative training: an English faculty member’s resignation at Hindu College some weeks ago was received with such an outpouring of shock and concern that it resulted in the combined forces of the college’s teaching and non-teaching staff lining up to convince her, Suroopa Mukherjee, to withdraw it. A retired administrative officer of the college came in to campus especially to explain to her what she would lose financially upon resigning, the one argument that he knew best.) But the most respected scholars in our department, so many of whom the world outside Delhi looks up to, appear paralyzed at a moment when leadership is needed most. The non-teaching staff, of course, is possibly merely miffed at having one less teacher to be habitually rude to. We are all coiled in our own cocoons, some agonizing, some uncaring, some deliberately distanced. And those who sit pretty with the administration smile harshly into crevices and corners like April’s sunlight, and have the last crafty laugh.

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Metaphor I

And so life in the English department carries on desultorily: students creep in and out of classes warily; there are hardly decent numbers of listening heads at talks and workshops any more (that once not so very long ago overflowed just as much as the History lecture hall at the Amin event); meetings are hijacked by self-important new recruits who are clearly empowered by the vice-regal lodge to pass judgment on meticulously worked-out departmental activities and procedures (and no doubt, to pass on vital statistics about who resisted what diktat at what moment of which discussion). Classrooms are the only havens to disappear into to forget what we were and what we could have been, but those are ephemeral, fading into examinations and semester breaks and the spectre of a new order in the new year with truncated and disappearing programmes like the MA and MPhil, much like witches’ brew in a boiling cauldron, hissing and spitting with promise negated. Enough for us to exclaim befitting lines from our discipline, in spirit if not in context:

MILTON! thou shouldst be living at this hour:

England hath need of thee: she is a fen

Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,

Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,

Have forfeited their ancient English dower

Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;

O raise us up, return to us again,

And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power!

Where is our Milton? Or, where our Shahid Amin-Sunil Kumar-Neeladri Bhattacharya-Partha Chatterjee-Ravi Kant nexus, all who have the guts to stand up and be heard and counted and to show ways forward, through inimitable scholarship and shooting-from-the-hip, to register protest and resist cooptation? To not be sullenly, helplessly, silent as we ‘the English people’ have become at a crucial crossroads of our university’s history, when silence and retreat are no longer heroic ways?

 

Metaphor II

At the Amin event, Neeladri Bhattacharya succinctly distinguished between two subalternist modes of reading history: in Amin’s Chauri Chaura, a slow and definite narrating of events through counterpoints of tales and songs and satire to unfurl a subversive counter-history of alternative truths; in Chatterjee’s Princely Imposter the truth that emerges in each chapter only to recede in the next, mocking a reader’s penchant to search for and find a ‘truth’ when the key figure of the text is an imposter. A number of takeaways emerged for the rapt audience from their interwoven presentations. That counter-narratives are the ‘real’ histories have, of course, been the ‘original’ lesson of the subalternists. That those counter-narratives themselves are shifting, contingent ‘truths’ that fade or turn at next and future tellings is far more moot, as was Bhattacharya’s immaculate point that if we do not recognize this then we are always in danger of allowing counter-narratives to become hegemonic and ultimately, ironically enough, powerless as resistant narratives.

This chain of inferences, as I understood it, is what these star academics have demonstrated in their lives and work in a continuum. They are inspiring institution-builders as much as institutions in themselves. They are not callow idealists, tilting at windmills of transient heroisms: they have known the games implicit in institutional politics and surely played them astutely, neither retreating into solipsistic scholarly pursuits when the institution turned adverse nor refusing to engage with unfolding horrors nor conceding ground to the advancing enemy in the name of keeping the peace and doing one’s duty. Amin and company may or may not have been exemplary revolutionaries at all moments of the long and ongoing warfare in public universities – one is not privy to everyday battles within disciplines and departments after all – but the overriding sense one took away from the deliberations and interactions we witnessed was that they have performed the larger idea of subalternism (whether formally belonging to that group or not) in their scholarship as much as in their lives: risky, contingent, interventionist, carefully conscious of small victories and large losses but tenacious, energized, immersed, and always, always, critically self-reflexive – holding on, letting go, moving on, breaking apart, resurrecting.

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Memory I

Memory is always in process: a remembering and an archiving that we are participating in even as we listen or speak (or write). The history, geography, philosophy, politics, economics and the imaginary of these, our two spacious and intertwined disciplines – the social sciences and the humanities – continue to be lived and documented through our palpable throbbing present, the best of times and the worst of times. The public university system in India has been dragged through the wringer in the last decade and the wrenching and tearing and pulling and pushing are nowhere near over. The big histories have been showcased and tomtommed, sometimes at Delhi University from atop elephants whose trunks are adorned with pink lotuses inscribed in chalkdust. The small tales whisper and ferret in the corridors of musty buildings on campus, slipping and sliding uneasily between faculty and students as we all try to make sense of new diabolic ‘codes of conduct’ that stalk us, codes fashioned by those both fearful (of insubordination) and fearsome (thereby spreading silence). DU, the largest public university, is where the stakes are highest – and so, the flaying of limbs that are in power, the wildest and strongest. We in the English department have a bunch of the Amin-ian variety of anecdotes too from the past few years that might have made for vital resistant histories of our times, but any foreboding that those may have become hegemonic was destroyed by us before such trepidation could even stand upright for a reasonably-impactful stretch of time. We are the memories we make, and become those we live and are. If we were conscious of the ways in which we will be evaluated in the archives referencing DU tomorrow, we would perhaps be a little more critically aware of the paths we are taking (and not taking) today.

 

Memory II

And this is why the memory-metaphor ‘event’ that the History department created for us this balmy April afternoon around the work of Shahid Amin is significant. Towering teachers and writers and thinkers and molders of minds as Chatterjee, Bhattacharya, Kumar and Amin have been to many generations, they lived up to the inspiration that everyone venerates them for.

Anyone who has ever come into Neeladri Bhattacharya’s contact has spoken of a razor sharp mind at play, a mind ever trying to push the limits of scholarship and life itself. As he spoke, a passion and hunger for life came to renaissance, what we can call an ‘examined life’. And it was evident that he will continue to instill that in students who will pass through his orbit. Bhattacharya’s is not strictly and politically any ideological position but there is a hallmark putting of things under the scanner mercilessly and with an equal empathy. There is evidence of a particularly democratic equality in such personalities: ruthless and generous at the same time; capable of playing the game big and instilling that sense in others; not prevaricating, not retreating into ethical distancing; ever engaged.

Those who know Partha Chatterjee know what a great communicator he has been among the staff and archivists and librarians and canteenwalas – the cogs of an institution. They also speak of his share of idiosyncrasies and biases, of course, though he is more often seen as a figure of sanity and responsibility rather than impassioned fervor. But he has an investment not only to deepening and strengthening institutions but also the spaces to which he belongs. And so communication, it always appears, is absolutely central to his dynamic, reaching out as a senior scholar even if he disagrees with you, with a wry sense of humour that undercuts self-absorption in both and levels the playing field. And then there is the investment in the local.  It is where he began at the Amin event: that Shahid Amin’s success as a scholar is indebted to the fact that he spent some crucial years of his adolescence in Deoria district of UP, and as a vernacular scholar, as a sharp observer of happenings and through the imbibing of his surroundings, he nurtured an ethnographic eye that is also that of an insider. That is what, Chatterjee inferred, gives Amin a solid base – from which he then builds up his analytical structures. This groundedness differentiates him from others who may be great scholars but are detached and merely philological or work in small coteries. They are unable to reach out. Over and again, one imbibed a sense of how these men reached out, to each other, to their junior colleagues in the audience – praising and referencing their academic work – and to the audience of a vast number of students along with teachers and researchers. The bane of English studies in India has perhaps been this inability to reach out to each other within the community.

And Shahid Amin was the epitome of this generosity in a room where so many had gathered to fête  him: repeatedly, deeply generous to his colleagues about scholarship; admirably conscious of a sense of performance at a show where he had star billing – primus inter pares – but employing charming restraint; yet never restrained enough to dissemble about the real state of the academic system he has been an integral part of, however: critiquing the administration with an abandon that very few senior academics in DU have been witnessed to do in recent times. In Amin there is a sense of ease and naturalness, of carrying his scholarship passionately, yet lightly. After a splendid story from his work on the Muslim warrior saint Ghazi Miyan (and then mainly about Guga and the idea of infertility and the male-child–a brand new story!), about which manuscript-in-progress there was much banter among the scholar-friends, we came away not weighed down by scholarship or by the mere vanity of comprehensiveness, but feeling rather the lightness of history in the minutiae of tales.

There is little doubt that here was a group of scholars talking about a particular mode of work intrinsic to them and their discipline.  And yet it was conveyed as if they were constantly reaching out, inviting in and welcoming others to nuances of the game and exposing them to the warm excesses of scholarly generosity – both at once. Not fleeing, not retreating, not threatened or threatening. Aware, it seemed, of one’s limitations as researchers and writers, but also trying to instill another sort of accountability that senior scholars in the trade still clearly have in some disciplines.

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Event, Metaphor and the Making of Memory

Sunil Kumar started by introducing Ravi Kant as a prized ex-student whom DU had failed to give a job to, thus depriving the university of someone who would have continued a legacy of sparkling scholarship and pedagogy. Shahid Amin ended with a carefully-careless quip: “Ab tum log department chalao. Jo appointments ho rahen hai woh toh dhoke ke tatti hai. Kuch karke-dhakkam dhakki karke–RAC mein bhi aap sahi logon ko laiye andar….Aur ek jo expert bhaisaab the, unhe toh prize mila, VC ban gaye. samhaliye aap log ab.

[Now you all carry on in the department. Recent appointments are shit. See if you can push some decent folk onto the train, RAC-style. And one expert brother on the selection committee has even been rewarded with a VC-ship somewhere. Now you people figure out how to manage this department.]

Ravi Kant, further unmooring his chances of ever securing a DU appointment, spoke repeatedly of Amin’s principled (op)positions in the dark times of the present. Consistently, impressively, memorably, what we heard in the course of an afternoon were voices speaking up against what they saw as threats to the kind of academic space they want to be in, risking perhaps midnight show-cause notices as some of us received in the English department in 2011 for questioning diktats that we felt were regressive and restrictive. I wager that we in English would no longer parlay on another set of show-cause notices – and almost certainly not in a formidable pack of eleven faculty members, a showing of solidarity that then had worried even the most megalomaniac administrative heads in the university.

Interestingly enough, I recently received a call from another historian, Tanika Sarkar (JNU), to express her concern about the state of our university in general and our department in particular. In a worried, tentative tone she asked if they – naming some fellow historians – could add/raise their voices in solidarity against all that was happening in DU, because they felt they just could not remain silent on the sidelines. I could not think of what they could do, but that someone had reached out from the History department of another university across the city to commiserate about a recent resignation in the English department at DU surprised and touched me. The spirit displayed by the historians and political scientists of two or three venerable institutions of the country at the Shahid Amin afternoon event somehow made the pieces of that puzzle fall into place a little.

Our salute to the History department of DU for rising to stand and fight another day.

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Brinda Bose teaches in the Department of English, University of Delhi.

3 Responses to “‘Event, Metaphor, Memory’ Or A Tale of Two Disciplines”

  • Amitranjan Basu

    Fascinating writing Brinda – congrats!

  • Mithilesh Kumar Jha

    I could not attend the session that day…felt that I really missed something very important and ‘memorable’…so read this piece with great enthusiasm…and it was worth it…thanks for writing all this…really sad to experience this all in a liberated space called university and particularly ‘our’ Delhi University.

  • Pankaj Jha

    Your piece has both assuaged and intensified my regret at not being there. Your impassioned account of the event, especially the way you set the event so Aminesquely onto the larger and yet untold history of our times is very moving. Thank you, Thank You.

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