A Quest for Uncertain Selves

The prime task before us is to step out of autistic comfort zones and accept the challenge to explore the vast Indian semiotic network through its complex history and contexts

A critical look at contemporary Gujarati literary culture could reveal a fascinating, if frightening, contestation. Two very different tendencies are claiming the same space: One is a tendency towards a certain kind of multi-centred cultural autism; it tends to lead towards zones of comfortable isolation – producing a large archipelago without any boats. Contesting this, there is a tendency towards a certain kind of inter-textuality, a hybridisation; it could be viewed as a zone of danger by some.

Kathleen Raine, well known British poet has used the phrase, ‘our uncertain selves’ to describe personae in the poems of a largely neglected but quietly courageous Indian poet, Keshav Malik. That phrase describes quite well a future to which this alternate discourse could lead in literary culture in any of the Indian languages: It leads to our own uncertain selves emerging our own space, but with a negotiable border, internal and external. Those who propose this know quite well that it would be a dangerous space, but it could also bring out the best in the Gujarati speaking people. Comfort zones are usually sterile, or over-productive, multiplying worthless texts – physical and metaphysical.

The second and perhaps a more significant point I would like to present here is this: In spite of the serious contestation pointed out above in Gujarati thought space today, no spectacular ‘civil war’ has erupted in Gujarati culture; only a series of tenacious ‘Satyagrahas’ continue, tenacious, unyielding but quiet. This is why perhaps, in these times of instant and spectacular image production on massive scales, Gujarati literary culture has not received a good national gaze yet! If so, the observers are missing out on something quite significant and interesting for all. This could be likened with the general apathy in India of 1893 towards the significance of a man named Gandhi being thrown off a train at the South African railway station named Maritzburg. My present note is towards producing a semiotic for a few of the many largely unnoticed contestations, struggles that are being quietly carried out in contemporary Gujarati literature.

Semiotic Satyagraha: A Question of Identities

Though not noisy, the contestations are ceaseless on both the sides. To cite one of these, you could point to the struggle of Gujarati writers, readers and literary organisations like Gujarati Sahitya Parishad, for democratic functioning of literary organisations in Gujarat. Initiated by such major authors as Umashankar Joshi, Narayan Mahadevbhai Desai and Niranjan Bhagat, Gujarati Sahitya Parishad (founded in 1906) resolved unanimously several years back that literary organisations in Gujarat, like the State-run ‘Gujarati Sahitya Academy’, should be allowed to work as per their own Constitutions which provide for election of their Presidents and not by direct appointment by the State. As Gujarati Sahitya Parishad’s current, elected President, I know first-hand how unyielding and determined, if non-noisy, most of contemporary Gujarati authors and readers are in this struggle for autonomy of literary institutions in Gujarat.

I would describe that manner of contestation as a ‘Semiotic Satyagraha’, a contestation meaningful not for ‘size’ but for ‘significance’. Those literary cultural activities that are subservient to certain political, religious and economic interests have, through generous help from these forces, tried to occupy a large space in public life of Gujarat. But those Gujarati writers, readers and organisations that contest this have, on their own, tried to enhance the significance of their space in public life of Gujarat through imaginative and selflessly planned activities. It is important to remember that there were no crowds on the cold railroad platform of Pietermaritzburg, on a very cold night of June 7, 1893 there was just a lone Gujarati writer with a determination and a dream!

The difference between spectacular and poster-colour contestations in any literary culture on the one hand, and tenacious but quieter and long-lasting counter-discourses on the other, derives from many factors. One of them is temporal: how does a contemporary event relate to the past and the future? In other words, what is the nature and the strength of relationship between Contemporaneity and Historicity of an event?

One of the main consequences, if not the most significant, concerns the question of Identity and Self-identity of a cultural entity. A strident emphasis on the relationship between the Contemporary and the Historical is evident today in, for example, Maharashtra and Bengal. It has its own semiotic significance not only for Marathi and Bangla literary cultures, but also for ‘Identity’ and ‘Self-identity’ of Indian literature and civilisation. What kind of relationship is available in Gujarati space (local, national and the large diasporic) between contemporaneity and historicity of its literary activity?1

‘Contemporary’-ness of any culture, if it is not to lead that culture to a loss of its identity, has to maintain its historicity. An organic and living relationship between these two forms the very substratum and foundation for cultural self-identity of a people and a society. The choice before any linguistic space or political space is in the nature of that relationship: the choice ranges widely between many polarities including the strident-violent pole and firm-nonviolent pole; or, metaphorically, a relationship that produces self-image plastered in glaring poster colours and one painted in subtle water colours. Has Indian literary culture and popular culture opted for Posters rather than Poetry?

No self-identity which is not dynamic could last long. A culture would fail to recognise one’s own self over a span of time, unless it learns to grow and also learns to know itself throughout the long process of change.

Interactions with Other Literary Spaces

A culture that has lost its capacity to historicise its present, is least likely to produce its own future. It would then be forced to accept somebody else’s future for its own and substitute self-identity with an imposed identity. This is a factor that needs to be considered carefully in any study of a given literature’s interactions with or reception of other literatures, from its neighbourhood or from distant locations. Gujarati literature, in its contemporary phase as in the past, has had a lively and vast interaction with other Indian literatures, and with world literature. Gujarati literary culture has always been prompt and productive in its translation activity, though mainly as an ‘importer’ rather than an ‘exporter’! This has its consequences.

The central and crucial discourse of contemporary Gujarati literary culture derives from such a problemata of self-identity and imposed identity. This is the flip side of hybridisation, which has not been lost to contemporary Gujarati literary culture. The dual challenge it faces is: how not to become autistic; and yet, how not to lose self-identity and be forced into an alien and imposed future.

Such a necessary linkage of Contemporaneity and Historicity of Gujarati literary culture involves a reference to creative-critical discourses of three generations of writers of its immediate past. These could be represented, by Umashankar Joshi (1911-1988), Suresh Joshi (1921-1986) and Chandrakant Topiwala (1936), each a pioneer in critical discourse on creative literature of his time. Their writings present literary critical dynamics of three historical periods of Gujarati literature: Gandhian period, Modern period and Post-modern period, 1920s-1940s; 1960s-1980s; 1990s on, respectively. In each period Gujarati literature has given an active reception to a very wide range of literary and cultural works from all over.

If one knows that works by relatively lesser known dissident thinkers like Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin were introduced in Gujarati space in 1932 (See Vijayaray Vaidya Ek Krantikarani Atmakatha, Vols I and II, 1932, 1933.), and, much earlier, in 1865, Homer’s Iliad (See Narmdashankar Dave, Iliad-no Saar, 1865), and even before than, in the 15th century, Bana Bhatta’s Kadambari, a Sanskrit text hard to read even in the original, (which was translated into lucid Gujarati by Bhalan, a Gujarati poet who first used the name ‘Gujar Bhaka’ for the ‘local’ literary language) – — if one knows all this and a bit more about Gujarati cultural space, then one could infer the range and depth of its interactions with rest of Indian languages and with literatures in other parts of the world.

To focus on the present times, Gujarat’s interests have ranged from European, American, Russian, African, Japanese, Persian literatures to literatures in almost all Indian languages, including Sanskrit, Prakrits and Apabhramsha, and Tamil, Kannada, Bengali, Assamese and others. Early attention on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Marx and Freud, Baudelaire and Mallarme, Basho and Buson, Camus and Sartre, Kafka and Mann, Rilke and Brecht, to mention but a few, grew into Gujarati engagements with Saussure, Bakhtin, Althusser, Foucault and Derrida; Benjamin, Arendt and Adorno; Levi-Strauss, Frazer and Bourdieu; Lyotard, Zizek, Laclau, and Butler; Milosz and others.

I have given this information here, barely, because in contemporary Indian literary culture hardly anything is known by us about each other across our own nearly autistic comfort zones of separate language spaces. Many of my contemporaries from other Indian languages, (as a tweet on ‘culturally backward Gujarat’ by the renowned Dr. Ramchandra Guha would indicate) have found it possible to formulate their opinions and pronouncement before sufficient research and fact-finding, if any. At various pan-Indian meetings, several of my contemporaries from other Indian languages would, with a superior smile, refrain from bringing up topics like structuralism, deconstruction, post-structuralism, post-modernism, historicism and post colonialism, with me. Surfaces of Feminism and Nativism would be touch cautiously in polite conversation by them, while on a visit to Ahmadabad, fearing a lack of knowledge even on those topics! – So much for our mutual isolations!

However, the hard fact is that debates, disputes and lively conversations on these and related issues have been going on in contemporary Gujarati literature for some decades. Chandrakant Topiwala, Labhasahankar Thakar, Babu Suthar, Bhagwandas Patel, Shirish Panchal, Haresh Jhaveri, Suman Shah, Dilip Jhaveri, Hemant Dave, Narottam Palan, Bhimji Khacahariya, Mahesh Champaklal, Mehli Bhandupwala, Virchand Dharamsi, Hemant Shah and several other writers have produced a lively conversation and contestation in these areas of thought in their books, articles and talks, during the recent decades.

An equally strong engagement with Sanskrit Sahitya Mimamsa and all the Darshanas, includingthe dissident Jain darshana, has engaged Gujarati scholarship over several generations and over ten centuries now. Major works in Indian poetics from Bharata and Bhamaha and Dandin (6th century CE) to Jagannatha Panditaraj in the 17th century, have been translated and commented upon in Gujarati space. (My own first Doctorate from the USA focused on Bharata, and second from Mumbai on Jagannatha.)

Contemporary Gujarati Literature and Social Concerns

Focusing on the contemporary scene in Gujarati literary culture, the areas of current Gujarati engagement with the various streams of thought mentioned above, it could be seen to fall under three main concerns: 1. Concerns with ‘the Past’, with Historiography and Narratology. 2. Concerns with the margins of contemporary society, prompting emergence of engagement with realties of the Adivasi, the Dalit and the Nari. 3. Concerns with all sorts of ‘Signs’, verbal icons, Myths (dovetailing with the concerns of the Past), and structures of significations, both linguistic and non-verbal, extending to a fascination with Popular Culture and Commercial use of Culture2.

Critical conversation engaging Gujarati literary culture today both continues and disrupts these earlier conversations. In the decades that preceded, there was a major debate between the Gandhian understanding of what is literary and the Modern challenge to it. Umashankar Joshi and Suresh Joshi represented the best on both sides. ‘Samajik Nisbat’ or ‘Social Concern’ and ‘Roop Rachana’ or ‘Creation of Form’ were key words. ‘Antas-tattva’ and ‘Aakar’ were also ‘short hands’ used then. Growing from this, today lively discourses on Narivadi Sahitya, Desivadi Sahitya, Dalit Sahitya occupy Gujarati space. Most authentic and articulate expressions of this is in works of writers like Himanshi Shelat, Kanji Patel and Nirav Patel.

It is interesting to observe that contemporary Gujarati ‘literature of social engagement’ shows a keen concern for experiments with literary form, and employs a varied register of linguistic expressions. Writers engaged with the plight and struggles of Women, Adivasis and Dalits not only bring in relevant new themes but also craft their work quite carefully. The old ‘non-violent’ contestation between ‘Jeevan Vadi’ Gandhian period (1920-50 c.) and ‘Roop Rachana Vadi’ Modern period (1960-90 c.), has opened up a nuanced space for contemporary Gujarati writers in the 21st century. Similarly, ‘Modern’ literary texts of the 1960s to 1980s have grown into ‘Post-modern’ ones in the 21st century.

In all these cases, it has been a gradual process of growth, not a gaudy jump of grafting. It was understood, somewhat intuitively at the time, that art form was not a prison house and that social concern did not demand shabbiness of expression.

The older debate between ‘antas-tattva’ and ‘aakaar,’ ‘content’ and ‘form’ have not been given up, they have led to a deeper understanding of both.

Search for a deeper understanding of epistemological and ontological processes from which art form arises has been spearheaded by some of the best thinkers in contemporary Gujarati culture. Critical conversations now include not only eminent literatures like Niranjan Bhagat and Prakash Shah but also globally renowned Gujarati thinkers and artists like Bhikhu Parekh and Ela Bhatt, Atul Dodiya and G.M. Sheikh, Madhusudan Dhanki, Jyotindra Jain and Sunil Kothari.

This larger conversation has led to a productive cross-fertilisation in Gujarati literary space. Critical theories ranging from multiculturalism and post modernism to post-structuralism and new historicism have been widely discussed in groups that include these thinkers, authors, critical theorists, painters, and new readers of new Gujarati literature. Recent Jnana Satras or Annual Literary Cultural Meets organised by Gujarati Sahitya Parishad in January 2019 and December 2019, at Surat and Palanpur (both known for their Diamond Industries, among other things, both old centres of Modern and Popular literary cultures, respectively) were distinguished by participation of many of the world-renowned Gujarati thinkers named above. An intense three day meet at both the Jnana Satras took up many of the issues and ideas mentioned above.

Gujarati literary culture, of the period 1920-50, was greatly enriched by the Gandhian engagement with the marginal areas of society and with Gandhian confrontation with injustice and hegemonies. This was expressed in writings of writers like folklorist Jhaverchand Meghanai, poet ‘Sundaram,’ matchless Umashankar Joshi and novelist Pannalal Patel. ‘Mansai-na Deeva’ (literally ‘Lamps of Humane Concerns’) by Meghani presents graphic narrative of work of Ravishankar Maharaj, who worked tirelessly for the tribal community of Gujarat (and who was invited to inaugurate the present State of Gujarat, upon bifurcation of the bilingual State of Bombay, in 1961). Pannalal Patel’s novel, Manavini Bhavai, is an iconic presentation of the terrible famine of 1899-1900.

One can discern a similar engagement in Gujarati literature of the past few decades. Rise of Dalit literature in Gujarati, through writings of authors like the fiction writers Joseph Macwan (1936 – 2010) and Mohan Parmar (1948-), poets Neerav Patel (1950 – 2019) and Jayant Parmar (1954-) and theoreticians, editors and writers like Harish Mangalam (1952-) and B N Vankar (1942-), have given a new turn to the old engagement. The 1981 anti-reservation agitation in Gujarat brought Gujarati Dalit consciousness to a focus in Gujarati literature. Gujarati Dalit writing is founded in Babasaheb Ambedkar’s philosophy. Dr Ambedkar’s connection with Gujarat’s native State of Baroda (Vadodara) provides this a larger frame of reference. Young Ambedkar was sponsored by Baroda’s ruler, Sir Sayajirao Gaekwad for higher studies in England.

Gujarati Dalit literature indicates, by and large, how the literature of the marginalia could weave the spirit of both Gandhi and Ambedkar together on a handloom of contemporary Gujarati literary culture.

Bilinguality of writers like Neerav Patel (who wrote in Gujarati and English) and Jayant Parmar (Urdu and Gujarati) resonates with polyphonic voice of Gujarati Dalit literature that could celebrate Ambedkar’s leadership and acknowledge Gandhi’s commitment.

Intertextuality as the Way Forward

While this note on contemporary Gujarati literary culture has focused on its ongoing struggles, commitments and achievements, it is important to observe any lacks, gaps and lacunae in it.

The gaps that ought to be observed in ideas and discourses in contemporary Indian literary culture should not have an obligatory reference to advancements in Western critical theories. That advancement has its own context. Indian literatures are not subsets of any alien Master Narratives, including those of any Neo-colonial power, either Western or Eastern. Real gaps in discourses in any Indian literature could be observed and addressed only when the interconnectivity of Indian literatures in many languages is observed and understood adequately.

Also, gaps in discourse in any one of the contemporary literary-linguistic spaces (like Gujarati or Bengali) could be noticed and grasped not by ‘a close textual study’ but only by a perspective in inter-textuality.

The major and most glaring gaps in discourses in Indian language today derive from our collective failure to know, understand and enjoy literary work in Indian languages other than our own. Sahitya Akademi, National Book Trust, Raza Foundation and some enlightened publishers like Rajkamal, Vani and Popular Publications, to name some, are doing good work in translation from literatures in Indian languages. However, it would be a great mistake not to acknowledge contributions of several literary cultural organisations in different Indian languages, all over India, not only in megapolis cities but also in a large number of towns and small cities in all regions. That too is a vast archipelago, but with many boats available to go from one island to another. A continent of South Asian literatures, as envisioned by Sheldon Pollock in recent years and by many others earlier, would, hopefully be constructed by our collective and countless efforts, like the present one. We all are in search of a methodology.

Yet major gaps remain to be filled. These gaps are not just quantitative. Because texts without contexts, even when translated, do not come to life in a new language. They remain inert objects, lovely and admirable, but no more. For texts from other Indian languages to become living parts of literary culture of any single Indian language, it is necessary to alert and equip readers in that language to the (similar but different) root-context of that translated text.

The primary obstacle in building an authentic and engaging collaborative discourse among linguistic spaces in India is a nearly total absence or a strongly distorted presence of the discipline of Comparative Literature. How Comparative Literature as a discipline could be nurtured in India has been shown at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, led by Prof Amiya Dev, Prof Manabendra Bandopadhyay and others. But sham Comparative Literature, focusing on mere parallels in different languages, is worse than pure ignorance of the others. Epic and Other Higher Narratives: Essays in Intercultural Studies (2010) by Prof. Amiya Dev and Steven Shankman could help a reader understand both rigour and subtlety of the discipline of Comparative Literature and see how it could help one in tracing semiotic links that relate a literature to areas beyond its rigid linguistic boundaries. It could also enable Indian readers understand how narratology need not necessarily be based on Western genre of the Novel. It is not sufficient to read literary works in languages other than one’s mother tongue; it is equally important, not more, to learn to produce a poetics, a critical theory of contemporary Indian literature(s) in our many languages and dialects.

Equally important and urgent is to look closely at the paradigm produced by Prof. Sheldon Pollock in his landmark books, Literary Cultures in History: reconstructions from South Asia (2003) and The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India (2006). The only way to understand contemporary Indian literary cultures, the ideas, issues and discourses that circulate among them, is to look closely not only at its texts but also its contexts, and to understand historicity of it all, not in terms of our present predicaments and requirements but in terms of their own historical contexts, and then follow the flow of historical time to our own times.

My main plea at this Conclave is that efforts should be made collectively to introduce elements of Comparative Literature in Indian education system at primary and secondary school level, and it should be nurtured at higher levels of study not only in the Faculty of Arts but comprehensively in the entire system. Graded anthologies for this could give a feel of texts and contexts from the many and various linguistic locations, the ‘signifying sites’, in the large semiotic network that we know as Indian Literature. This would help our centres of study of culture (organised not at the order of any present day Government or by the State, but allowed to evolve autonomously) inculcate a sense of historical perspective in young scholars and authors, enabling them to observe all the ‘others’ ( ‘texts’ removed from one, in terms of either time -the past-, or space -the alien-).

This would enable us to do our own ‘satyagraha’ for our right to produce our own future Literary Culture, a tomorrow which does not come from a borrowed dawn.

The prime task before us is to step out of the autistic comfort zones and accept the challenge to explore the vast Indian semiotic network spread in its long history and vast geography. This alone could equip us to move towards a larger global conversation in which we are not mere listeners and enthusiastic followers. It is both fruitful and good to understand and interact, on terms of our own voluntary ‘uncertain selves’, with similar ‘uncertain selves’ in other human cultures around the globe.

This essay is part of a larger series by Inter-Actions on the discourses and ideas emerging out of the different languages of India. As a growing number of ecological, environmental and humanitarian crises confront our society, we see a range of emotional and pragmatic responses in the public space. The one crucial element that remains missing, and which may be the key to effectively addressing and sustainably solving these problems, is the intellectual one. This series aims to understand the thoughts emerging from different languages of India, and situate where this thought may lead us. To read the other essays, click here.

1 I have discussed this in some detail and in some aspects in a chapter (“FromHemchandra to Hind Swaraj: Region and Power in Gujarati Literary Culture”) in the book Literary Culture in History: Reconstructions from South Asia, ed. Sheldon Pollock, UCLA, 2003. Pp. 567 611.)

2 Chandrakant Topiwala has coined the word “Panya Kavita” i.e “Literature on Sale” for certain kind of very popular literary activities in Gujarat today, mainly in popular poetry but also in Gujarati theatre and fiction.

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