On Being Indian, which is author, poet, and musician Amit Chaudhuri’s latest book, can be described as a reflection of an intellectual’s fearful journey through a period in India which has seen dissent being labelled as anti-national. The slim, rather academic work, captures a mood of fear but also shines light on a hope for a secular and diverse India.
Through the book—the second in the Literary Activism series, a collaboration between Ashoka University’s Centre for the Creative and the Critical and the publishing house Westland—likeminded readers can find a sense of camaraderie in Chaudhuri’s words. The essay, which is a mix of cultural history and a critical commentary of our times, especially under the current dispensation, was initially a talk that he had delivered at the Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, in early 2020.
In this interview with Lounge, Chaudhuri, who is also responsible for the origin of this series, talks about the shrinking space for creativity in academia and mainstream publishing, the Indian idea of the secular as different from the Western concept, and why the idea of the religious does not necessarily oppose secularism. Edited excerpts.
Also Read: Two new books that retell history in verse
In the beginning came the idea of an annual symposium, the first of which happened in Calcutta in December 2014 with the support of the University of East Anglia, where I was teaching at the time. The idea was to look beyond certain dominant contexts, because some of us (among my friends and I) felt they were inadequate to the experience of the literary.
(A context of) immense overall significance was the market, and the way it oversaw a religion of success: a belief-system which manifested itself through literary festivals and book launches. Certain kinds of discussion were just not possible in these locations. Finally, there was the problem of an over-professionalised academia, which, in departments of literary studies, had grown increasingly disenchanted with literature and more and more sociological in outlook.
So ‘literary activism’ had to be created: first as a series of discussions in annual symposia; then as a website, literaryactivism.com; and, now, as an imprint that might publish a few books a year that, essentially, don’t entirely fit in. A work “not fitting in” is a huge problem for publishers, because genre and theme are crucial to marketing. However, it’s a plus for the literary activism imprint.
The modern literatures in our various Indian languages are themselves a fundamental component of the secular. They represent a profoundly secular sense of, among other things, the sacredness of the world, a heightened sense of reality which begins to express itself from the late nineteenth century, specifically in poems and stories.
For instance, the writings of Tagore and Manto, to take two examples at random, acknowledge the wonder of life in a way that’s characteristic of the anarchic, poetic sensibility of modernity. This deep wonder is an essential part of our secular experience; it predates, and can’t be addressed by, the Constitution. Let’s look at another example. As Michael Madhusudan Dutt, around 1860, is composing his Meghnadabadhakabya, his epic inversion of the Ramayana, he writes to a friend: ‘I hate Rama and his rabble… I love the grand mythology of our ancestors; it is full of poetry’. Here is a key moment in the emergence of the secular, with its poetic contradictions; the provocative, hostile first sentence, and a second sentence that’s full of adoration. The word ‘poetry’ in that sentence points to the emergence of secular experience, of the journey that Rama is making here towards literary modernity.
Also Read: A retelling of the Ramayana set in the 1990s
Going back in time, our philosophical texts and movements – the Upanishads, Buddhism, nyaya, bhakti, sufism – aren’t, strictly speaking, religious. Bhakti is often anti-religion if by ‘religion’ we mean temples and ritualistic practice. There’s hardly a mention of God in a Judeo-Christian sense in the Upanishads, and there’s a rejection of God in Buddhism. I see these traditions as enriching and deepening our idea of the secular, and also as contributors to the formation of the secular as we understand it today, not just in India, but worldwide – they have been of great interest to poets, and to the creation of secular categories like literature and art.
I mean that ordinary people often have a strong commonsensical, rationalistic aversion to the obfuscations of religion (a faculty that we probably inherit not only from education, but from our rich resources of oppositional religious thought). A woman in a burqa can have a clearer idea than politicians, of the necessary separation between religion and the State: practice your religion at home, and in the mosque (or in a church, temple, or gurdwara) but not through institutions, or through parliament, or the law.
During the anti-CAA-NRC protests, I found it was ordinary people, many of whom were religious, who reminded us of this fact with an immediacy that not even the Constitution has.
When India opted to be a secular country when it became Independent, it reflected the beliefs of a majority of whom most were, by conventional definitions, religious. Religious thought must be, in India (unlike in Europe), an important part of our secular inheritance. I was reminded of this during those protests, which turned many of our liberal assumptions upside down.
Yes, of course. Hope is not a cheap or manufactured thing; it comes only at certain moments, and one of the things it does—as was the case at that time in late 2019/early 2020—is liberate thought and language. The anti-CAA-NRC protests remain a valid reminder, unique in the history of political protest anywhere, of what we are capable of as human beings.
Sharmistha Jha is a writer, editor, and literary agent based in New Delhi.