Thursday, October 4, 2012

Imaginary Maps of Unknown Territories: Food Chain and Indian Poetry

(From “Imaginary Maps of Unknown Territories: Food Chain and Indian Poetry” On the Fringes: Marginalized Voices in English Literature, Eds. Capt. Dr. Arvind M. Nawale, Dr. Sheeba Rakesh, New Delhi: Authorspress, New Delhi, 2012, ISBN 978-81-7273-657-6). The paper was presented at " Marginality and Indian Poetry, Kavi Bharati-5, organized by Vagarth, Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal. 20 March 2010

When I was asked to make a presentation on ' Marginality and Indian Poetry’, I was wonder-struck at the sheer quantity of my ignorance on the topic. Frankly, the three terms in the title ' marginality’, `Indian’ and ` poetry’ are marvelously abstract and vague and I have a feeling that all the three are, like most of the terms used in intellectual and non-intellectual discourses, metaphorical. The utility of these terms, in spite of their abstract and metaphorical nature, is similar to that of maps. Maps may not be territories, but it is better to venture with some, however inaccurate, than with none. But that does not mean we should not modify the maps as new knowledge and information comes up. Though maps create an illusion of fixity, they are remarkably unfixed. No sailor these days uses the maps used by Marco Polo or Columbus- except, of course, in literary studies.

Northrop Frye expresses his bafflement about the lack of word for a work of literary art similar to Aristotle’s use of the word ` poem’ (1957:71). Bhamaha (6th cent) uses the term ` Kavya’ to talk about all literary art including prose, verse, dance and drama of all kinds. Kavya is not poetry because somehow the term poetry is still fixated with the notion of verse. However, the distinction between the artistic use of language and non-artistic use of language is fuzzy rather than binary. Consequently, the map of poetry does not have clearly defined borders.

In the post-global world, one might have to consider the works of the visual artists and poets like Eduardo Kac, with his experiments with `holo-poetry’, ` space poetry’, `biopoetry’, `nano-poetry’ and `transgenic poetry’ seriously within the expanding domains of poetry.

I ask myself what territory does the term ` India’ or ` Indian’ map? Does it cover Sindhi, Bangla or Urdu literature written outside the present day political map of India? What about literature written in today’s Pakistan or Bangladesh before 1947? Does the term ` Indian literature’ cover the oral literatures and folklore of hundreds of `minor’ languages on the subcontinent? Is English an Indian language? What makes people like Salman Rushdie or Jhumpa Lahiri or VS Naipaul ` Indian’? Is Manto or Faiz Indian? Can you classify the Bhakti poetry as religious literature? Can you term the Vedic literature as `poetry’? It seems that the political maps, geographical maps, cultural maps, linguistic maps, civilizational maps and historical maps just don’t coincide and because they don’t coincide it is impossible to make a homogenous and unity category called ` Indian’. The problem with the ` unity in diversity theory’ of Indian Literature is that it is sufficiently abstract to include all literature in the world and not just Indian literature.

In spite of differences, all literatures in the world will have some sameness at some level of abstraction. Borges’s celebrated short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” suggests that all literature in the world can be seen as being composed by a single anonymous author.  In spite of all politics of difference, there is always a possibility of imagining this single anonymous author.

However, the dynamics of the histories, poetics and politics which govern most of the literatures on the Indian sub-continent are amazingly different. The languages I work with: Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi and English  have such startling differences in terms of aesthetics, sociology, histories and geographies that I have wondered whether they are comparable sets at all.

For instance, the significance of the term of ` Dalit’ literature in Marathi and Gujarati is entirely different. For some reasons, I am more comfortable with the term ` Ambedkarite’ literature, than the Dalit literature.  In Marathi, a writer who does not belong to the castes classified as Dalit does not get classified as a Dalit writer, whereas, in Gujarati, the writers from communities which are not Dalit are included in the Dalit literary canon. I deliberately speak of Dalit `Canon’ because there seem to be rules of inclusion and exclusion (euphemisms for discrimination) functioning within the Dalit category, and the politics of discrimination within the Dalit literary canon is also on the basis of caste identity and caste hierarchy. This means one can think of `more equals’ and `less equals’ among Dalits. The Vankar community in Gujarat and the Mahars in Maharashtra has occupied a dominant place in the cluster of communities labeled as the Dalits. Though all subalterns are equal, some seem to be more equal than others.

This brings me to the problematic notion of ` marginality’. The term ` margin’ is a spatial metaphor. And it seems to me that the metaphor of ` centre’ and ` margin’ is built on two dimensional model of space. It is high time we point out relativism within this model and notice that what is central and what is marginal depends entirely on the position of the observer. If the observer is placed closer to point A, then the point B will automatically be seen as further away from A and hence marginal. If one positions oneself closer, to say, Indian Writing in English, the Mahabharata composed in a Bhili language will be seen as marginal. What most of people forget that when they classify a certain literature as `marginal’ they are still speaking from the point of view of the central. They are speaking from the point A.  There is an implicit recognition of a particular tradition as central in classifying something as marginal. Here in lies the paradox of political correctness: when you are recognizing certain discourse as marginal you are reinforcing the centrality of the other discourse.

Consider the duality between ` the mainstream’ and ` the Dalit literature.’ When one considers the Dalit literature as marginal, one is agreeing implicitly to the idea that other forms of discourses are central, when the whole idea of centrality and marginality is actually a relative one. `Mainstream’ for whom? `Dalit’ for whom? Are the questions not pursued to their logical conclusion.  When you classify something as marginal, you are automatically classifying something as central. When one is culturally closer to the oral performer performing the Bhili Mahabharata, Shashi Tharoor’s Great Indian Novel becomes marginal and even irrelevant. It is only when one implicitly accepts Tharoor’s Great Indian Novel as dominant text; one can consider its other as marginal. Which means this perception is actually reinforcing the marginality and secondary status of the text.  Condescending nature of glorification of the Dalit literature in English studies today can seen as an example of backdoor Brahmanism because the Dalit literature is seen as `marginal’ from what English studies recognize as the central discourse, which means the English studies still decides what is central and what is peripheral .

I would also like to draw attention to relativism implicit in other congenital metaphors like ` subalternity’ or `minority’. While the languages like Marathi would be seen as subaltern vis-à-vis English or French, a tribal language in Maharashtra would be seen as subaltern vis-à-vis Marathi and a smaller tribal language would be seen as subaltern vis-à-vis larger tribal languages. Once we recognize that all points on the sphere are both central and marginal at the same time, we will notice that some points will always appear peripheral from any point, we will rethink the politics based on this metaphor. Most of the so called radical discourses which seek out to interrogate the dominant discourses circuitously reinforce the dominant status of the discourses by assuming that the particular discourses are central and particular discourses are marginal. We all know that though subalterns speak in various languages, the subaltern historians always speak in English and that too right from the top of the social, cultural and economic food chain. The food-chain, thus, is not only conserved, but also reinforced by the so-called radical discourses.


Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton University Press, Princeton: New Jersey, 1957, p.71
Kac, Eduardo. Ed. Media Poetry: An International Anthology. Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 2007
_____________, Space Poetry, on Kac’s website URL:
_____________,     Biopoetry.
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