this PDF file - Revistes Digitals de la UAB



this PDF file - Revistes Digitals de la UAB
Editor/ Editora
Felicity Hand (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)
Deputy Editors/ Editores adjuntos
E. Guillermo Iglesias Díaz (Universidade de Vigo)
Juan Ignacio Oliva Cruz (Universidad de La Laguna)
Assistant Editors/ Editores de pruebas
Manuel Fernández-Conde (Instituto Cervantes, Belgrade, Serbia)
Eva González de Lucas (Instituto Cervantes, Kraków/Cracovia, Poland/Polonia)
Maurice O’Connor (Universidad de Cádiz)
David Prendergast (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)
Christopher Rollason (Independent Scholar)
Advisory Board/ Comité Científico
Ana Agud Aparicio (Universidad de Salamanca)
Débora Betrisey Nadali (Universidad Complutense)
Elleke Boehmer (University of Oxford, UK)
Devon Campbell-Hall (Southampton Solent University, UK)
Alida Carloni Franca (Universidad de Huelva)
Isabel Carrera Suárez (Universidad de Oviedo)
Pilar Cuder Domínguez (Universidad de Huelva)
Bernd Dietz Guerrero (Universidad de Córdoba)
Shyama Prasad Ganguly (Jawaharlal Nehru University, India)
Taniya Gupta (Universidad de Granada)
Vijay Kumar Tadakamalla (Osmania University, Hyderabad, India)
Somdatta Mandal (Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, India
Belen Martín Lucas (Universidade de Vigo)
Mauricio Martínez (Universidad de Los Andes y Universidad EAFIT, Bogotá, Colombia)
Vijay Mishra (Murdoch University, Perth, Australia)
Alejandra Moreno Álvarez (Universidad de Oviedo)
Aparajita Nanda (University of California at Berkeley, United States)
Jyoti Nandan (Australian National University, Australia)
Antonia Navarro Tejero (Universidad de Córdoba)
Virginia Nieto Sandoval (Universidad Antonio de Nebrija)
Mariam Pirbhai (Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada)
G.J.V. Prasad (Jawaharlal Nehru University, India)
Elizabeth Russell (Universitat Rovira i Virgili)
Dora Sales Salvador (Universidad Jaume I)
Sunny Singh (London Metropolitan University, UK)
Cynthia vanden Driesen (University of Western Australia, Australia)
Aruna Vasudev (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema NETPAC, India)
Layout/ Maquetación
Despatx/ Office B11/144
Departament de Filologia Anglesa i Germanística
Facultat de Lletres
Edifici B
Carrer de la Fortuna
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
08193 Bellaterra
Contact/ Contacto
[email protected]
Tel. +34935811087
Fax +34935812001
Supporting Association: Spanish Association of India Studies/ Asociación Española de Estudios Interdisciplinarios
sobre India
[email protected], Vol. 1, 2014, ISS.: 2339-8523
Table of Contents/ Tabla de Contenidos
Felicity Hand
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Articles/ Artículos
Water, White Tigers and Corrupt eoliberalism: Controversial Entrepreneurs in recent
Fiction from the Subcontinent
Isabel Alonso Breto
Ecology and Religion in India: Challenges, Opportunities, Symmetries and Conclusions
Jon Eric Vicario Martinez-Taboada
Indian Rivers Seen by the Greeks of the Roman Imperial Period: from Geographical
Precision to Exotic Dreams
Claire Muckensturm Poulle
Reposessing Islam: Affective Identity and Islamic Fundamentalism in Hanif Kureishi
Andreas Athanasiades
Bharati Mukherjee’s Struggle against Cultural Balkanization: the Forging of a ew
American Immigrant Writing
Mª Luz González, Juan Ignacio Oliva
India for the Masses: the Typical and the Topical at the Golden Gate International
Exposition of Murals (1939-1940)
Marisa Peiró Márquez
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Miscellanea/ Miscelánea
From Johanne to Janaki: Bringing Vikings to Varanasi
Nilambri Ghai
Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, The Play as Text and Performance: An
Introductory ote
D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke
From Maigania to Malgudi
Satendra Nandan
A Talk with Siddarth Dhanvant Shanghvi
Felicity Hand
[email protected]
Vol 2 2015, pp. 1-3, ISSN: 2339-8523
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
[email protected]
Welcome to Volume 2 of [email protected]: Spanish Journal of India Studies. When we chose
the topic of “Indianness” for the second issue of our journal, we were aware of the
dangers of falling into clichéd images of India as colonial stereotypes do indeed die
hard. However, to our utmost satisfaction, the authors who have contributed articles to
this volume have steered away from the heat and dust, the mysticism, the superstition,
the pressures and passions of community and caste, the fabulous wealth of a few and the
appalling degradation of many. These nostalgic visions of India have slowly receded
into the past to be replaced by the reality of a modern, entrepreneurial economy and a
thriving democracy. Naturally one cannot overlook the existing poverty, corruption,
environmental concerns and gender inequalities that, sadly, bedevil the subcontinent.
However, the articles in this volume have, each in its own specific way, addressed what
it was and is to be Indian, what Indianness entails in the 21st century and, most
importantly, they have done away with any notion of a shared sense of India, despite the
temptation to fall back on this well-worn Orientalist approach.
The first three articles centre around the trope of water, usually associated with purity
and cleanliness in Indian culture, especially as regards Mother Ganga, but which has
become the indirect source of pollution due to current shortages. Isabel Alonso Breto
discusses three contemporary Indian novels, all of which involve the use or abuse of
water, and which feature somewhat unscrupulous characters who succeed in
entrepreneurial India. Despite the critique of bribery and corruption present in these
texts, Alonso Breto suggests that the authors subtly empathize with the dubious but
understandable methods used to escape poverty. This article links up and complements
the work by Eric Vicario, who, from an environmental perspective, argues that the
Indian subcontinent is no stranger to ecology and the belief in the interdependence of all
living beings. The Indian religions all contain notions of “deep ecology” and Vicario
points to the need to promote this traditional understanding as environmental concerns
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------are becoming one of the major problems in contemporary India. Claire Poulle’s article
is also devoted to the theme of water but she goes back to Greek and Roman times in
her analysis of the representations of India and its rivers. Poulle claims that the sea and
rivers with their corresponding flora and fauna played an important role in how space
was defined and understood and how these early texts were in some ways responsible
for the clichéd images of Asian countries that have survived almost to our present days.
The next two articles deal with the South Asian diapora and its writers and how
Indianness and its values survive outside the subcontinent. Andreas Athanasiades
engages directly with a highly controversial topic in recent years: the conflicts
surrounding identity politics among Muslims born and brought up in the West. He
argues that race should no longer feature as the only marker of identity and, instead,
proposes we think in terms of affectivity and desire, which could throw light on how the
nation and ideas of belonging are configured. Athanasiades rereads Hanif Kureish’s The
Black Album and suggests that even after twenty years the choice between Islamic
fundamentalism and sexual liberation faced by the characters of the novel could easily
be applied to third generation British Muslims today. He claims that religion denies
pleasure to its disciples in exchange for a perceived stable sense of identity.
M. Luz
González and Juan Ignacio Oliva examine the writing of the diasporic Indian writer
Bharati Mukherjee, now resident in the United States. Their article analyzes the female
characters in Mukherjee’s work and the writer’s outspoken opinion about living in the
United States and Canada.
The women migrants in Mukherjee’s novels are both
transformed by and take an active role in transforming the host society. The novels
feature characters from various parts of South Asia, but the emphasis is not so much on
the reconstruction of, for example, Indianness but rather on the constant fight against
cultural memory, the need to survive in the new homeland. Mukherjee herself rejects
the use of a hyphenated identity, thus downplaying the balancing act that migrants are
obliged to perform between the roles of nostalgics and battlers.
The last article in this volume offers a detailed analysis of the power of the visual image
in the creation of knowledge about foreign countries. Marisa Peiró Márquez explores
the impact of an art exhibition held in San Francisco in the late 1930s, designed to bring
the reality of what India was and what kind of people inhabited its frontiers to a wide
audience. She suggests that the sight of the murals of Mexican artist Miguel
[email protected], Vol 2 2015, pp.1-3, ISSN 2339-8523
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Covarrubias and the cultural knowledge and anthropological information transmitted
through them was, for many Americans, their first real contact with India. Despite the
fact that many of the murals seem to fall back on stereotypical images, Peiró Márquez
argues that they provide insights on pre-Independent India.
In the Miscellanea section we are honoured to be able to include work by four
outstanding personalities in India studies. Prestigious Sri Lankan scholar, Professor
D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke has contributed a perceptive reading of the theatre performance
of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. He claims that the play projects a visual
representation of India, which underscores the virtual impossibility of taking in India
and seeing it whole. Goonetilleke praises the play although he notes its overall lack of
cohesion. Author and adult educationalist Nilambri Ghai has graciously allowed us to
print an excerpt from the biography of her maternal grandmother, Johanne Nielsen, who
learnt to love her country of adoption, India, as much as her own homeland, Denmark.
Fijian academic and author, Satendra Nandan, has brilliantly combined a review of
Mohan Ramanan’s study of R. K. Narayan with an overview of his own early years in
the University of Delhi in his essay “From Maigania to Malgudi”. Last but not least,
the current volume reproduces part of an interview conducted by the editor with the
writer Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi in which he comments on how he sees
contemporary India.
With these closing remarks, Shanghvi neatly summarises the
issues addressed in the articles of this volume.
We look forward to receiving research articles from scholars in Spain and
abroad as the success of [email protected] depends on the international community of Indian
enthusiasts, of which we know there are many. Our third volume will focus on the
theme of violences which is to be understood in as wide a sense as possible, bearing in
mind that the Gandhian notion of ahimsa should never be far from our minds.
[email protected], Vol 2 2015, pp.1-3, ISSN 2339-8523
[email protected]
Vol 2 2015, pp. 5-22, ISSN: 2339-8523
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------WATER, WHITE TIGERS AD CORRUPT EOLIBERALISM:
Universitat de Barcelona
[email protected]
Received: 18-11-2014
Accepted: 27-01-2015
Water has traditionally held a variety of metaphorical meanings in literature. Mostly, however,
it has been deployed as a purifying element, endowed with the virtues of cleansing and
renewing both persons and situations. Such perception of the substantiating role of water finds
an echo in the main Indian cultures, both Hinduism and Islam. This article argues that the
traditional metaphorical use of water as connected to renovation is very present in contemporary
fiction of South Asian origin, yet its main argument is that this idea of renovation, which has
traditionally been perceived as positive, is not necessarily ridden with celebratory aspects in the
novels under discussion. Rather, water plays in these works controversial if not highly
problematic roles. The works discussed are Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008), Chetan
Baghat’s Revolution 2020 (2011), and Moshin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
(2013), novels whose main characters are fictional representations of the pioneers of their
generation, in all cases moving from rags to riches at the expense of surrendering to immorality
or corruption. Besides entailing a sharp criticism of the indiscriminate neoliberal practices
which are enriching certain sectors of Asian societies, these novels denounce the severe misuse
of water sources, essential for the daily routines of millions of people who, with the changes
brought about by rather abrupt processes of modernization, are deprived of access to their
traditional means of subsistence.
KEYWORDS: Aravind Adiga, Chetan Baghat, Moshin Hamid, water, neoliberalism, corruption
RESUME Agua, Tigres Blancos y eoliberalismo Corrupto:Emprendedores Dudosos en la
ueva Literatura del Subcontinente
En la tradición literaria se ha atribuido al agua una gran variedad de significados. Mayormente,
sin embargo, el elemento líquido se ha significado como un principio purificador, poseedor de
las virtudes de limpieza y renovación de personas y situaciones. Este rol sustancial del agua
encuentra eco en las culturas mayoritarias de la India, Hinduismo e Islam. Este artículo sugiere
que la imagen tradicional del agua como vehículo de renovación está muy presente en la ficción
contemporánea del Subcontinente, pero mientras que la idea de renovación se ha percibido
generalmente como positiva, en las novelas analizadas el agua no se presenta asociada con
aspectos celebratorios sino que, por el contrario, juega un papel controvertido si no abiertamente
negativo. Las novelas exploradas son The White Tiger (2008), de Aravind Adiga, Revolution
This research is part of the project “Relations and Networks in Indian Ocean Writing,” funded by the
Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (FFI2012-32626).
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------2020 (2010), de Chetan Baghat, y How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), de Moshin
Hamid. Los protagonistas de estas novelas son una representación ficticia de los pioneros de su
generación, y en todos los casos se enriquecen a costa de llevar a cabo acciones inmorales o
corruptas. Si por un lado estos trabajos ofrecen una crítica acerada de las prácticas neoliberales
que están enriqueciendo a ciertos sectores de las sociedades en cuestión, también denuncian un
manejo incompetente del agua. Este es un bien esencial para las actividades diarias de millones
de personas, quienes, sin embargo, con los profundos cambios que conllevan estos abruptos
procesos de modernización, se ven privadas de acceso a sus medios de subsistencia
PALABRAS CLAVE: Aravind Adiga, Chetan Baghat, Moshin Hamid, agua, neoliberalismo,
Probably without exception, water has been associated with relevant values in human
societies. As Yves Bonnefoy remarks in his prestigious Dictionary of Mythologies
(2010), in Asian cultures water is connected to myths of origin and of fertility, as well
as to funeral rites.2 Bonnefoy acknowledges, however, that most often water has been
associated with purity. Thus, it has been frequently endowed with the virtues of
cleansing and renewing the world and its people.3 It is precisely for this reason that, in
the cultures he refers to, it was often forbidden to pollute the water, be it washing dirty
clothes in it, defecating, or even bathing oneself in clean waters. In Hindu culture water
is paramount; suffice it to remember the vital –and somewhat clichéd– images of people
washing their clothes and making their morning ablutions alongside the ghats of the
main Indian rivers, most famously Mother Ganga. While water is revered in Indian
cultures, Bonnefoy’s annotation about the traditional directive to avoid the pollution of
water is a productive entry into the images of water as presented in the works I shall
discuss in this article. In these novels the liquid element is dramatically tainted, at both a
symbolic and a material level.
In contemporary South Asian writing, water in different forms is endowed with
complex and varied metaphorical meanings, yet all of them invariably connected to the
idea of transit. The obvious quality of fluidity enables this connection, as it suggests
flow and movement. Yet water can also take the form of stagnant pools where the
possibility of movement, circulation, or transit appears as remote. One can recall the
He refers particularly to the Mongol and Turkish ones.
On the purifying virtues of water, see also Gaston Bachelard’s seminal essay Water and Dreams: An
Essay on the Imagination of Matter.
[email protected], Vol 2 2015, pp.5-22, ISSN 2339-8523
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------image of the dark pond of putrid water in the backyard of the household that Anita
Desai describes in her novel Clear Light of Day (2003), full of metaphorical
implications. Against this stagnant image, in the novels I shall be discussing water
figures as a metaphor of transit.
This transit is one from tradition to modernity. This very idea, like the image of the
Ganga ghats, has become a cliché like the Ganga images, and so it needs qualifying.
The modernity reflected in these works is characterized by several features: its
vertiginous pace; its virtual inescapability; the excessive demands it places on human
beings; and, last but most important, its extreme mercantilist accent. As follows from
the stories I shall be discussing, and others thematically connected to these and set in
various parts of the continent,4 Asian societies are taking a harshly materialistic turn,
where people’s lives are highly influenced (and paradoxically, often deteriorated) by
quickly evolving economies. As the writers of these critical novels expose, young and
not so young individuals have to juggle their choices to the best of their abilities in
order to find their way through a world which increasingly judges them exclusively for
their economic achievements. Indeed, none of these novels’ main characters want to be
left behind on the promising road to economic success, which has become the dominant
ethos in their respective surroundings.
Economic success is demanding and expensive; thus the novels present a state of affairs
where bribery and corruption are paramount: indeed they are seen as the pre-condition
for social success. Escaping the lot of endemic destitution and leaving behind the
anonymous mass, which according to Aravind Adiga’s narrator in The White Tiger
cannot even exercise the basic right to vote in the
“World’s largest
democracy”, seems to demand a certain moral ambiguity, if not complete lack of
scruples. But it is precisely this ethical laxity that eases the way into a social status that
rids the subject from conscripting burdens of the past, fundamentally poverty, but also
Pankaj Mishra (2013) mentions Malaysian Tash Aw’s Five Star Millionaire, Yu Hua’s Brothers, set in
China, and Randy Bodagoya’s Beggar Feast, set in Sri Lanka.
[email protected], Vol 2 2015, pp.5-22, ISSN 2339-8523
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------other drawbacks such as low caste, remote birth-place, or the lack of minimal schooling,
let alone tertiary education.
The careful depiction of the dubious means through which the main characters in each
of these novels amass their fortunes provides a bleak depiction of Asian societies, and
more generally of a globalized world mostly controlled by rampant capitalism. In a
review entitled “Asia: The Explosive Transformation” Pankaj Mishra discusses some
Asian novels which respond to the same narrative and ideological pattern. He claims
indeed that in our time “the literary vision of capitalism red in tooth and claw is likely to
be found mostly in fiction set in contemporary Asia” (Mishra 2013). Mishra’s review is
somewhat comforting, insomuch as he recalls that European and American literature
produced in the nineteenth century was also full of ambitious characters who managed
to rise above the rest and amass amazing fortunes through dubious means, and that this
was only the first part of a story that later on became less carnivorous: “Robber barons
dominated the early phases of American industrial capitalism before the oil, steel, and
railway tycoons, and their family members, descendants, and cronies, gave way to
relatively transparent, shareholder-friendly companies” (Mishra 2013, n.p.n.).
According to Mishra’s view, then, some need to get rich first in order for others to share
their profits later on, and create more democratic systems of wealth distribution. This
seems to suggest that the present situation in Asia, in which society can be rightly
described as “a jungle” divided into two castes, “those who eat vs. those who are eaten
up” (Adiga 2008: 64) as we read in The White Tiger, is only a temporary step towards a
more egalitarian situation. Yet it is difficult to obviate the huge social inequalities which
keep plaguing American and European societies two centuries after the vertiginous
decades of the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath, when the novels Mishra refers to
were written. And in the India of the present day, in spite of the nation’s enrichment
(India being one of the BRICS nations whose economies are evolving dramatically), the
situation is far from improving for the mass of the people. Mishra himself reminds us
that “in “rising” India, … while a handful of Indian billionaires increased their share of
national income from less than 1 percent in 1996 to 22 percent in 2008, … the number
of malnourished children, nearly 50 percent, has barely altered” (Mishra, n.p.n.). It
[email protected], Vol 2 2015, pp.5-22, ISSN 2339-8523
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------appears that any optimism about an impending redistribution of wealth and more
equitable societies in Asia should be moderate.
Many contemporary Asian novels raise important ethical questions about this transit
into modernity-as-wealth or, more accurately, modernity-as-unevenly-distributed
wealth. The critical discussions of these works frequently focus on ethical cum socioeconomic questions, and, more generally, reflect upon the “rising Asia” (Hamid 2013)
scenarios that these novels illustrate. Lena Khor’s analysis in “Can the Subaltern Right
Wrongs? Human Rights and Development in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger”, for
instance, connects the 2008 Man Booker Prize winner to concepts as enlightening as
Spivak’s idea of a “World Class Apartheid” (Khor 2012: 43), that the novel would
denounce, or to social theories like Sankara Krishna’s “Underdevelopment School of
Thought,” inspired by the Dependency Theories which gained currency in the 1960s
and which maintained that the ‘developed’ countries were richer than the ‘Third World’
countries precisely because they developed at their expense (Khor 2012: 45). Indeed,
the main characters in these stories are poor because their families have been robbed,
not only symbolically but quite literally in all cases, and thus it may appear as justifiable
that, when they manage to redress this grievance, these men would do so at the expense
of robbing others. Lena Khor also refers to Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash’s
“One Third World/Two Thirds World” theory, where the old divide between the First
and Third worlds is replaced by another configuration, in which the elites of the former
Third World and the newly impoverished masses in the West have swapped places, and
are filed next to those who either “have” or “do not have” as much as them, regardless
of their geographical location (so that we have pockets of the First World in the Third
World and viceversa). In short, Khor suggests that The White Tiger “captures the
palimpsestic way in which legacies of underdevelopment overlay themselves upon
themselves, individuals, communities and nations” (Khor 2012: 45). Thus, this critic’s
insightful analysis of the criticism of the uneven economic structures in The White Tiger
[email protected], Vol 2 2015, pp.5-22, ISSN 2339-8523
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------could successfully apply to the rest of novels in question, all three of which respond to
what has been labeled as the “condition-of-India-novel” (Detmers 2011).5
The focus of the novels’ critique is on the figure of the successful self-made
entrepreneur. All three protagonists, Aravind Adiga’s Balram Halway, Chetan Bhagat’s
Gopal Mishra and the anonymous narrator of Moshin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich
in Rising Asia, manage to rise from rags to riches through dubious means. And,
interestingly, the three novels present ingenious narrative strategies that allow the use of
the first or second person, and thus present the entrepreneur’s experience from a very
personal perspective: The White Tiger consists of a collection of letters written to the
Chinese (former) Prime Minister, Wen Jia Bao; Revolution 2020 reproduces verbatim a
first-hand confession made to the writer himself -whose real name appears in the
narrative. Somewhat more sophisticated, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
replicates the structure and formal rhetoric of a self-help book, narrating the facts in the
second person in the form of advice, yet still, like the others, from a very close
perspective. Of course this allows the reader a very close glimpse of their many illicit
activities, and therefore it invites harsh judgment and, simultaneously, a degree of
leniency in the final verdict. It is my claim that, while the novels’ criticism of the
system is implacable, the take on these characters is attractively ambivalent: in all cases
the narrative shape aims at not only narrating but also justifying their controversial
achievements. The narrative strategies entail a clear invitation to empathize, if not fully
sympathize, with each of them. In a way, all three are forced to succeed in order to
survive, and the reader can only sanction this. Further, we are induced to admire them,
to share the joy of their achievement with a compromised sense of guilt and lightness.
In different ways, the three narratives parody the image of the successful entrepreneur
as projected by the self-help books that at present are best-sellers in India and elsewhere
(Venugopal 2011). A curious coincidence –or perhaps not quite so coincidental-, is that
one of the world gurus of entrepreneur leadership, Robin Sharma, a Canadian of Indian
ancestry who authored the hugely successful The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari (1997),
published in 2011 his second international hit: Be a Leader without a Title. This title
For further critiques of the pernicious effects of the expansion of neoliberal politics as reflected in The
White Tiger see also Al-Dagamseh 2013, Joseph 2012 and Thoker 2012.
[email protected], Vol 2 2015, pp.5-22, ISSN 2339-8523
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------echoes the condition of these three main characters, none of whom received a university
degree - nor finished their primary school in two cases. The coincidence is remarkable
also because of the fact that when he manages to change his destiny through killing his
master, the white tiger Balram Halway will change his first name to that of his master:
Ashok, choosing, again perhaps by chance, the surname Sharma.
Water accompanies and illustrates these social trajectories, and it is played out through
different tropes, its fluidity always suggesting the continuous evolution of society –its
transit. It some cases, the liquid element features as a highly symbolic testimony of the
situation explored, while in others it is exploited as an instrument of self-improvement.
The novels play on the huge symbolic meaning of water in Hinduism and Islam, and at
the same time bear upon the significant shortage of water that Asian societies are
suffering because of the combined realities of “growing populations, rapid urbanization,
and competing demand for water for agriculture, energy, industrial, and domestic use.”6
Water is a key issue in present Asian politics, and as such it is one of the Focus Areas of
the Asian Development Bank, an institution fully aware of the kind of problems tackled
by these novels:
Annual per capita water supplies have been declining at alarming rates, with some parts
of Asia and the Pacific already below 1,000 cubic meters per capita per year. The gap
between demand and supply is widening. At an aggregate level, it is forecast to get
steadily worse, indicating increasing water shortages. This gap will lead to increased
competition between water users—farmers, energy producers, households, and
Besides reporting on unscrupulous means of self-enrichment, and criticising severe
wealth inequality and corruption in quickly developing Asian societies, the novels
tackle the crucial matter of water shortage and pollution, and the subsequent necessity to
clean and distribute it, a pressing issue at global, Asian and Indian levels.
7 Access 16 October 2014.
[email protected], Vol 2 2015, pp.5-22, ISSN 2339-8523
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008) is organized around a crucial reference to the
river Ganga. Its protagonist, Balram Halway, has a first and decisive epiphany at his
mother’s funeral, which he attends as a child by the waters of the holy river. As he sees
that his mother’s corpse is being devoured by “a giant oozing mound of black mud”
(Adiga 16) in the Ganga riverbank, he becomes suddenly aware that the idea of
circularity that governs Hindu philosophy and life means that he will have to resign
himself to his lot of destitution, since “nothing would be liberated here” (Adiga 2008:
16). This episode marks the beginning of Balram’s road to awareness of and reaction
against the life-long burden of having to be a serf for others. Balram writes the letters
which compound his narrative as an adult from the perspective of his new identity as
Ashok Sharma, which he achieves, as announced above, after the feat of murdering his
master and robbing him of a bag full of money. With that money he became founder
and CEO of a thriving taxi company in Bangalore, specialized in driving the employees
of foreign outsourcing companies to and from their workplaces at untimely hours.
Ashok Sharma thus grows inordinately rich. Crucially, he manages so well because he
hasn’t broken the chain of economic bribery he learnt about when he was a servant for
powerful masters. Indeed he keeps acting in corrupt ways himself, which quickly boosts
his way into affluence. Admittedly, however, he introduces small changes in his
behavior as an employer, which perhaps signal, albeit weakly, the beginning of change,
such as signing work contracts for his employees that he fully respects, and also
responding to his responsibilities, of whatever kind, as head of his taxi company.8
Yet, in spite of his success, Balram/Ashok’s view of the state of affairs in Indian society
is derisive, and his criticism points at Mother Ganga as the great signifier of decadence.
Indeed, to a great extent the great national narrative of India is constructed around the
image and values of the sacred river, a refrain which Balram repeats quite ironically:
“Mother Ganga, daughter of the Vedas, river of illumination, protector of us all, breaker
of the chain of birth and rebirth” (Adiga 2008: 15). Against this received narrative,
Balram/Ashok posits the sordid reality of the river as being “full of faeces, straw, soggy
parts of human bodies, buffalo carrion and seven different kinds of industrial acids”
For instance, when one of his drivers hits a cyclist and kills him, he takes on the responsibility, and
even visits the victim’s family to compensate them economically, whereas as a driver he was induced to
take the responsibility for a hit-and-run caused by one of his masters.
[email protected], Vol 2 2015, pp.5-22, ISSN 2339-8523
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------(Adiga 2008: 15). This image synthesizes the novel’s verdict on India. Yet there is room
for ambivalence, because in spite of the huge critical irony permeating the book, the fact
that this character manages to rise above the rest and succeed in breaking out of “the
Great Indian rooster coop”, the ironic metaphor he finds to refer to the state of
destitution and servitude in which the majority of people of India are forced to subsist is
presented, on the whole, not without sympathy. One of the strengths of The White Tiger
is precisely the way in which Balram/Ashok’s narrative carefully constructs an apology
for his heinous crime. The novel eventually suggests that his is a necessary reaction,
since it appears as the only possibility to escape a fate of rampant exploitation, a feat
that only somebody as exceptional as this character, a true White Tiger which only
appears once in a generation, could achieve. Balram/Ashok’s story of success recalls
Frantz Fanon’s ideas about violence as necessary to advance the anti-colonial struggle
and achieve freedom. Indeed, Balram’s violent transit from serfdom to mastery of self
and his change of identity into Ashok recalls Fanon’s statement that “violence is man
re-creating himself” (Fanon 1963: 40). Also Michel Foucault has been explicit about the
moral obligation humans have to react against the frozen power structures that exploit
and immobilize them:
We have to rise up against all forms of power—but not just power in the narrow sense of
the word, referring to the power of a government or of one social group over another:
these are only a few particular instances of power. Power is anything that tends to render
immobile and untouchable those things that are offered to us as real, as true, as good.
(Foucault 1980, n.p.n.)
As a driver and servant, Balram lives in close contact with the benefits of wealth, and as
such he cannot be indifferent to them. It is difficult to judge his crime without taking
into account the pitiful picture of the homeless or slum-dwellers, as well as the
heartless exploitation of the servants he has presented us with earlier on, and thus the
door to ethical ambiguity is left ajar.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------All in all, Balram’s symbolic and physical transit is one from tradition in “the
Darkness,” a heavily oppressive reference to ancestral India embodied in his mother’s
battered corpse being burned in the Ghats of the sacred/filthy river, to modernity in “the
Light,” a new site of freedom, again both literal and metaphorical, where he can choose
the type of person he wants to be –a world ripe with possibilities symbolically
embodied by his numerous chandeliers.
Mother Ganga features even more prominently in Chetan Baghat’s Revolution 2020.
Love. Corruption. Ambition. (2011). Actually, the novel is dedicated “to the city of
Varanasi” and “to the holy river.” Here we have another “rags to riches” story in which
the main character thrives in spite, or precisely because of his lack of scruples. Born in
Varanasi, Gopal Mishra grows up as a motherless orphan living with his father, who is
affected by tuberculosis, a pattern which reproduces exactly that of Balram
Halwai/Ashok Sharma (the metaphor of the dead mother is actually recurrent in Indian
Writing in English). Gopal has two close friends, Raghav and Aarti, the second of
whom he falls in love with as a teenager. When the time comes to choose a professional
career, he joins the thousands of young Indians attempting to pass the greatly coveted
AIEE (All Indian Engineering Entrance Exam) and IIT JEE (Indian Institute of
Technology Joint Entrance Exam). Failing to get a qualification that would allow him to
enter any Engineering Faculty while Raghav obtains an excellent grade, Gopal sees
himself forced by his father to repeat the attempt, with the sad result that he fails again
while his father has become heavily indebted. Meanwhile, Aarti has got engaged to
Raghav, and Gopal is mortally jealous.
Like Balram, Gopal’s choice of rising to success through means not altogether
transparent is also justified. Not reaching a sufficiently high grade in AIEEE was not his
fault, and while he was willing to enter another faculty so as to get any university
degree even if it was not engineering, and work part time to cover the home expenses,
his father forced him to try a second time, thus fully debasing the boy’s sense of selfesteem. Gopal’s second failure means still bigger distress, but worse for him is his
father’s disillusion. Actually, the father will die soon afterwards, leaving Gopal with the
sad remorse that his failure has contributed to precipitating his father’s demise, rather a
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------heavy burden to live with for a barely twenty-year-old youth. The father’s fixation that
Gopal should become an engineer testifies to India’s present obsession with technology:
in most circles, engineering is seen as the surest, perhaps the only means to find a good
Gopal’s story is set in Varanasi, the spiritual centre of Hinduism. The rampant
corruption that is going to be exposed thus gains deep meaning, symbolically spanning
the subcontinent. As a teenager, Gopal often takes Aarti to row on the river Ganga.
They spend placid hours in a hired boat until sunset, routinely accompanied by the busy
ghats in the near distance, seeing the cremation fires and the aarti lamps at sunset. The
holy river appears as a comfort zone for those who live in Varanasi, and also as a
signifier of possibilities. Soon after his double failure and his father’s death, Gopal
meets Shukla-Ji, a corrupt MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) whose power
to achieve anything through raw bribery seems to have no limits. Shukla-Ji helps Gopal
settle a land dispute his father had maintained with his own brother, who for decades
had swindled him in a callous effort to take over his land portion. The violent means
Shukla-Ji’s men employ to get rid of Gopal’s uncle’s grip on the land are, therefore,
perceived as a variant of poetic justice, and this apologetic tone somewhat applies to the
whole of Gopal’s socio-economic progression. The first person narrative contributes to
this effect. As immediate listeners we sympathise with his misapprehensions as he
becomes the wealthy director of a private Engineering College, built on his land with
irregular funding provided by Shukla-Ji. Gopal’s growing fortune is built both on his
daily work (he toils hard to ensure the success of his college) and on the envelopes he
soon learns to administer right and left in order to get the right permissions to construct,
etc. Gopal is hardly aware that GangaTech, as the college is named, is used by the
mendacious MLA as a trust to distract public attention from a possible scandal around
the Ganga Action Plan, whereby he had diverted to his pocket a huge amount of public
funds that were destined to tidy up the holy river. If real, this fictional plan would have
been part of current policies intended to alleviate the fact that “in large parts of Asia and
the Pacific, more than 80% of the volume of untreated wastewater leaches
accessible freshwaters and coastal waters [with the result that] public health
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------consequences are significantly affecting lives, livelihoods, and productivity.”9 Yet
despite Shukla-Ji’s efforts to keep this blatant robbery hidden, the uncomfortable truth
is disclosed by Raghav, who, ironically, has become a journalist and not an engineer.
Raghav publishes an article with the results of his investigation entitled “MLA makes
money by making holy river filthy” (Baghat 234), whose readers learn that their
political representative’s greed is the reason why the sewage systems around Varanasi
have so completely collapsed that illness is quickly spreading and causing the death of
hundreds of children and elderly people. As Gopal himself formulates it, “a politician
stealing is bad enough, but to rob from the holy river is the worst sin” (Baghat 2011:
Shukla-Ji is forced to resign and is imprisoned. Now, the turning point in Gopal’s life
comes when, given the chance to continue his mentor’s career in politics, he eventually
decides to give up this possibility, as well as his marriage to his beloved Aarti, because
both would be grounded on lies and corruption. With this unexpected twist of events,
Gopal is shown to remain at a distance from Balram/Ashok, not only because he does
not go as far as committing murder, but also because he ends up sacrificing what he
loves most –Aarti– for the sake of sheer honesty. At first sight, this movement is
somewhat difficult to believe, as one could think that Gopal could have given up
politics yet married Aarti, leaving corruption behind from that moment. But this seems
to be an unattainable possibility: The inference of this “moral fable” thus seems to be
that, in India at least, it is impossible to stand outside of corruption if one wants to keep
certain economic standards.
All in all, then, in the end like Balram/Ashok, Gopal does not appear as a truly debased
villain either. On the other hand, a heroic figure is promoted: that of Raghav, founder of
the political pamphlet Revolution 2020, which somewhat naively promotes a revolution
where Indian youth will rise and overturn the corrupt government and unfair system. It
is Raghav who in the end marries Aarti and begins a career in politics, the inference
being that he has more chances to redress a deeply polluted system; as polluted,
according to Revolution 2020 and The White Tiger, as the holy water of the river Ganga.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia takes us to an unnamed city which, given Moshin
Hamid’s origin, we can situate somewhere in Pakistan, but also anywhere in Asia.
There is no holy river this time, but water appears as a crucial resource, getting hold of
which means acquiring money and power. Like the city, the successful entrepreneur
here is unnamed. He shares with Balram/Ashok and Gopal a poor childhood and scarce
possibilities to survive with dignity. Soon orphaned like them, his first employment is
already tainted, as it consists of selling “non-expired-labelled expired goods” (Hamid
2013: 99), that is, stale food. Yet he soon begins his own business, consisting of the
irregular production and sale of bottled water. This is only the beginning of his
economic rise. Devoid here of metaphysical connotations, water appears nonetheless
just as necessary, coveted and contaminated as it does in the other two stories:
Your city’s neglected pipes are cracking, the contents of underground water mains and
sewers mingling, with the result that taps in locales rich and poor alike disgorge liquids
that, while for the most part clear and often odourless, reliably contain trace of faeces and
microorganisms capable of causing diarrhea, hepatitis, dysentery and typhoid. Those less
well off among the citizenry harden their immune systems by drinking freely, sometimes
suffering losses in the process, especially of their young and their frail. (Hamid 2013: 99)
In this uncertain landscape, “Those better-off have switched to bottled water” (Hamid
2013: 99), an entrepreneurship niche that our hero is quick to occupy.
Years later, already a millionaire from selling bottled water, he is contacted by members
of his country’s high spheres and army to be part of a national scheme intended to
provide quality water through the tap. The operation, called phase ten, is paramount,
pinpointing the value of water: “Phase ten is big,” he is told when proposed to be part of
the project, “it is bigger than phases one to five put together. Bigger than seven and
eight combined. Better than six, and six was huge. Ten is a milestone. A flagship. With
ten we are taking it to the next level” (Hamid 2013: 163). As with Shukla Ji’s Ganga
Action Plan, in this operation public profit, corruption and individual accumulation of
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------money are impossible to disentangle. It is difficult to become part of the scheme and not
take as much personal profit as possible. Such an idea would actually be nonsense,
‘When we military-related business advance into a market, the front lines change rapidly.
We get permissions no one else can get. Red tape dissolves effortlessly for us. And
reappears around our competitors. … And in this case we are going ahead whether you
partner with us or not. Better to be close to us that to be yet another incumbent we swat
aside. Besides, at least in the near term, we are simply offering you too much cash for you
to walk away.’
‘Yes.’ You say inevitably, and as expected. (Hamid 2013: 163-164)
However dubious, plan ten responds to a pressing demand for clean water in the
country, which echoes those in other rapidly developing Asian countries. Although it
will also mean the possibility for a chosen few to illicitly grow rich (or richer), and
unless it is fully sabotaged by corruption and greed as happened to the Ganga Action
Plan in Revolution 2020, hopefully its implantation will mean an instrumental
improvement in the lives of millions of people. Ironically, thus, in spite of this sordid
planning scene, which resolves our protagonist’s comfortable future, Plan Ten can be
seen to respond to Brahma Chellaney’s suggestion that
in an era of growing constraints on augmenting the supply of the most essential resource
–water– Asian countries must seek sustainable, cost-effective solutions through
collaborative efforts… Competing demands for scarce water resources pose economic,
social and political threats that can be contained through forward looking policies …
which depend on linking stakeholders together, collecting reliable data on water
resources, and enunciating specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely –
SMART– goals. (Chellaney 2013: 305)
In conclusion, in the three narratives explored here, water figures prominently. Water is
used to signify and criticize a relentless progression towards economic development, yet
one which ignores the well-being of millions of people, for whom the situation is
increasingly worse. Modernization is causing their water to be more polluted and scarce
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------than ever, a result of the quick and indiscriminate processes of construction and
industrialization. In this conjunction, certain individuals manage to make the most of
their also scarce resources and to rise economically, leaving behind those who were like
them. And they do so through very dubious methods. These methods, which apparently
are those operating in the higher spheres of society, are metaphorically mirrored in the
holy waters of the most sacred of the Indian rivers, Mother Ganga. The holy river is
presented in two of the novels as a focus of dirt and infection. This problem, which
applies to Asian water more generally, ironically creates further possibilities for
economic corruption through fake cleaning and purifying schemes. Thus, besides
appearing as a necessary and scarce resource for the people, water is still endowed, as in
traditional accounts, with a strong symbolic function. The shift from perceiving Mother
Ganga as the mythical site of spiritual renewal to realising that it has become the
material site of pollution and infection reads as a warning on the part of these authors,
that the path to modernity demands a heavy toll, and that modernity does not
automatically mean universal inclusion. In the transit from traditional societies, by no
means presented as perfect, to more modern ones, the worst lot falls on those occupying
the lower ranks of society, whose serious difficulties to survive are aggravated by
increasing environmental problems. Only a few chosen individuals –white tigers of their
kind- manage to rise above the mud of poverty, destitution and lack of prospects, and
their rise takes place only through very controversial means.
It is thanks to these pioneering entrepreneurs that “we gain awareness of a lost people
with great potential to change Indian culture” (Waller 2012). Through their engaging
and ethically committed narratives, these “Asian-type Horatio Algers” (Mishra 2013)
appear as the unofficial spokespersons of a large sector of Indian and Asian societies
which is left lagging behind in the vertiginous race of rising Asian economies. These
silent masses slowly begin to be heard through the revealing narratives of pioneering
figures such as those of Gopal, Balram/Ashok and that unnamed entrepreneur who gets
“filthy rich in rising Asia”; that is, those who have managed to rise above the rest and
become vocal. Although largely forgotten in official narratives of national enrichment,
the silent masses are made visible in these novels. We can trace them in the
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------symbolically anonymous hands imprinted on the plaster of Balram’s pigsty in the
basement he shares with other drivers, where he spends the nights proactively planning
the murder and appropriation of his master’s wealth and identity. The masses also
feature in the thousands of country workers who invest all their life savings in enrolling
their elder son in GangaTech so that he may, God willing, become an engineer.
Barely glimpsed through the cracks of these ironic narratives of exceptional success, the
anonymous masses are nonetheless full of possibilities. As Pankaj Mishra formulates it,
though largely mute in these dramas of Asian capitalism, the future really belongs to this
invisible majority of the “filthy poor”—people who can’t even try to enlarge their limits
of possibility, but retain the silent potential of weeds that can overrun the world’s most
zealously maintained gardens. (Mishra 2013, n.p.n.)
As foreseen by Mishra, these silent masses might one day overrun those zealously
maintained gardens, and, as Franz Fanon commends and Michel Foucault subscribes,
rise against their exploiters. They would then fulfil Fanon’s insight that “Decolonization
… transforms spectators crushed with their inessentiality into privileged actors, with the
grandiose glare of history’s floodlights upon them” (Fanon 1963: 36). This
decolonization, which in the 21st century needs to take on an economic rather than a
political accent, has so far been only accomplished by a few daring entrepreneurs, the
white tigers of their generation, some of whom inhabit the pages of the most incisive of
recent Asian fiction.
ADIGA, ARAVIND. 2008. The White Tiger. London: Atlantic Books
AL-DAGAMSEH, ABDULLAH M. 2013. "Adiga's The White Tiger as World Bank
Literature." CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 15.6.
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AW, TASH. 2013. Five Star Millionaire. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
BACHELARD, GASTON. 1983. Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of
Matter. Dallas: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Trans. Edith R.
BHAGAT, CHETAN. 2011. Revolution 2020. Love. Corruption. Ambition. New Delhi:
Rupa Books.
BODAGOYA, RANDY. 2011. Beggar’s Feast. Toronto: Penguin Canada.
BONNEFOY, YVES. 2010 (1981). Diccionario de mitologías. Barcelona: Backlist.
CHELLANEY, BRAHMA. 2013. Water: Asia’s ew Battleground. Washington, D.C.:
Georgetown University Press.
DESAI, ANITA. 2003 (1980). Clear Light of Day. New Delhi: Atlantic.
DETMERS, INES. 2011. “New India? New Metropolis? Reading Aravind Adiga’s The
White Tiger as a ‘condition-of-India novel’.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing
Vol. 47, No. 5, December 2011, 535–545.
FANON, FRANTZ. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press. Trans.
Constance Farrington.
FOUCAULT, MICHEL. 1980. “Power, Morals and the Intellectual.” An interview
conducted by Michael Bes. Access 16/10/2014.
HAMID, MOSHIN. 2013. “How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.” London: Penguin.
HUA, YU. 2009. Brothers. New York: Pantheon.
JOSEPH, BETTY. 2012. “Neoliberalism and Allegory.” Cultural Critique, Volume 82,
Fall 2012, pp. 68-94.
JOSHI, DEEPA & BEN FAWCETT. 2001. “Water, Hindu Mythology and an Unequal Social
Order in India.” Paper presented at the Second Conference of the International
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2001. Access 16/10/2014.
KHOR, LENA. 2012. “Can the Subaltern Right Wrongs?: Human Rights and
Development in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.” South Central Review 29
(1&2) 41-67.
MISHRA, PANKAJ. 2013. “Asia: ‘The Explosive Transformation’.” The ew York Review
Issue. Access 8/10/2014
SCHOTLAND, SARAH D. 2011. “Breaking Out the Rooster Coop: Violent Crime in
Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger and Richard Wright’s ative Son.” Comparative
Literature Studies 48, 1-19.
SHARMA, ROBIN. 2007. The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari: A Fable about Fulfilling your
Deams and Reaching your Destiny. Mumbai, India: Jaico Publishing House.
------------------------------. 2011. The Leader Who Had o Title. Mumbai, India: Jaico
Publishing House.
THOFER, IRFAN. 2012. “Economic Growth: A mirage in India in Aravind Adiga’s The
White Tiger.” Indian Streams Journal. Vol II Iss. IX, p. 1436.
VENUGOPAL, VEENA. 2011. “India’s Imported Enlightenment.” Publishing Perspectives.
WALLER, KATHLEEN. 2012. “Redefinitions of India and Individuality in Adiga’s The
White Tiger.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 14.2.
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[email protected]
Vol 2 2015, pp. 23-40, ISSN: 2339-8523
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ECOLOGÍA Y RELIGIÓ E IDIA: DESAFÍOS, OPORTUIDADES, SIMETRÍAS
Independent Researcher
[email protected]
Recibido: 20-11-2014
Aceptado: 19-01-2015
La ecología y las ciencias de la naturaleza están cambiando la conciencia de la humanidad a
través de una “nueva cosmología” que, por primera vez, determina objetivamente el lugar, el
tiempo, los sujetos, los procesos y las interrelaciones de la realidad. Muchas de las conclusiones
de este nuevo imaginario científico presentan coincidencias con las tradiciones ancestrales de la
humanidad, las cuales libres del antropocentrismo de las religiones abrahámicas consideran la
naturaleza como sujeto de hecho y de derecho. En India, el individuo fue concebido como parte
de un todo interdependiente milenios antes que el estudio de los ecosistemas certificara esta
realidad. Consecuentemente, es en India donde muchos postulados de sus tradiciones religiosas
y filosóficas muestran simetrías conceptuales con la “nueva cosmología”. Este trabajo expone
los proyectos donde ecología y religión funcionan juntos en India, y las simetrías más
importantes entre las visiones tradicionales indias y los argumentos de la ecología moderna,
para sacar conclusiones sobre la relevancia de estas similitudes frente a los desafíos del
problema ecológico y nuestra inoperancia fáctica frente a él.
Ecología, Religión, Simetrías, Movimientos, Proyectos, Agua.
Ecology and Religion in India: Challenges, Opportunities, Symmetries and
Ecology and the discoveries of the sciences of the nature are changing human conscience
through a “new cosmology”. Consequently we see for the first time a new and objective
determination of reality including its place, time, subjects, processes and interrelationships. It is
a fact that many of these conclusions are similar to the ones expressed by the ancestral traditions
of humanity. For these traditions, free from the Abrahamic anthropocentrism, nature was always
a subject of law with its own rights. In India, man was conceived as part of an interdependent
whole, millennia before the study of ecosystems did certify this reality. That is why we find in
India many symmetries in line with this “new cosmology”. This paper will expose the most
important of these symmetries and the projects were ecology and religions do work together in
India to draw conclusions on its relevance regarding the ecological problem and our failure in
addressing it.
Ecology, Religion, Simetries, Movements, Projects, Water
La ecología y las ciencias de la naturaleza y del cosmos están cambiando la conciencia
de la humanidad a través de una “nueva cosmología” (Vigil, 2010)
o “nueva
concepción sistémica” (Capra, 1997: 50) que por primera vez determina objetivamente
la realidad, esto es, el lugar, el tiempo, los sujetos, los procesos y las interrelaciones de
todos ellos. Esta nueva cosmología se nutre de múltiples fuentes, entre las que podemos
destacar el estudio de los ecosistemas y la toma de conciencia de la degradación del
medio natural, que han dado lugar al desarrollo de la conciencia ecológica; y los
descubrimientos de la física y las ciencias del cosmos, que han cambiado nuestro
comprensión sobre el origen del universo, de la materia y del planeta, invalidando los
fabulosos mitos de nuestros antepasados. La imagen de la naturaleza, de la vida, del
hombre, del mundo y del cosmos ha cambiado y tenemos por tanto un nuevo imaginario
igual para todas las tradiciones, “para toda la humanidad, para todos los pueblos del
planeta (…) hemos cambiado de mundo, y con ello, de alguna manera, pasamos a ser
otros, ciudadanos de otro mundo, partes de otra realidad. Esta situación desafía todos
los componentes de nuestra visión.” (Vigil, 2010). Esto genera importantes resistencias
desde los sectores conservadores y críticas por lo que éstos consideran extralimitaciones
de ecologistas y científicos cuando sus descubrimientos y teorías afectan campos del
saber tradicionalmente reservados a la religión y a la filosofía.
Ocurre que, mientras que en el mundo occidental son percibidas como nuevas, muchas
de las conclusiones de este nuevo imaginario científico presentan similitudes, en sus
conceptos y comportamientos, con las tradiciones ancestrales de la humanidad; éstas,
libres del antropocentrismo de las religiones abrahámicas, consideran aún hoy en día la
naturaleza como sujeto de hecho y de derecho. En India, el individuo fue concebido
como parte de un todo interdependiente milenios antes de que el estudio de los
ecosistemas certificara esta realidad. Consecuentemente, es en India donde muchos
postulados de sus tradiciones religiosas y filosóficas muestran similitudes con los
conceptos de esta “nueva cosmología” e incluso con los comportamientos que de estos
se derivan.
Sin embargo, ni los saberes ancestrales ni los descubrimientos y postulados de la ciencia
parecen capaces por sí solos de cambiar la actitud de la humanidad respecto a los
desafíos del problema ecológico, e India dista mucho de ser el ejemplo de buenas
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------prácticas medioambientales que se podría suponer dada la riqueza de su cultura proecológica. Este trabajo pretende exponer las simetrías conceptuales entre la tradición
india y las conclusiones de la ecología moderna, así como exponer casos donde ecología
y religión trabajan juntos en India, para sacar conclusiones a la luz de los desafíos
Ecología y religión en India
Hoy en día, la rápida penetración de tecnologías que permiten y alientan un consumo
exponencial de recursos y una producción siempre mayor de residuos está creando
preocupantes problemas ecológicos en India. La demanda de una población creciente, la
cultura del consumismo y del dinero, se convierten, como en el resto del mundo, en los
imperativos que dictan las normas de desarrollo del país. Las consecuencias son
preocupantes, bien conocidas y manifiestas en todos los ecosistemas.
En el ámbito oficial, se prevé en los próximos años una marcada prioridad a la inversión
y al desarrollo económico del país, que si bien es positivo desde un punto de vista de
desarrollo social, conlleva un importante impacto sobre los intereses medioambientales
que activistas y ecologistas por su parte pretenden suavizar. Ciertas iniciativas
gubernamentales, como el proyecto de “rejuvenecimiento” del Ganges cuentan con un
apoyo mayoritario aunque sus posibilidades de éxito pasen por una muy necesaria
reorganización de prioridades. Otras, sin embargo, han levantado dudas entre los
movimientos ecologistas. En 2014, el cargo de Ministro de Medioambiente ha sido
amalgamado al de Ministro de Telecomunicaciones y al de Asuntos Parlamentarios,
siguiendo la nueva directriz de “Less Government, More Governance”; se han reducido
los controles de los panchayats (gobiernos locales) tribales sobre proyectos en sus
tierras, así como el número de expertos independientes en el ational Board of Wildlife,
eliminado las “trabas” de audiencia pública para el desarrollo de proyectos de minas y
de licencia para proyectos de irrigación, además de levantarse la moratoria para nuevos
proyectos en zonas críticamente contaminadas.
Pero esta familiar relación de colaboración-enfrentamiento entre Gobierno y activistas
tiene en India un tercer factor distintivo que resulta interesante. Las tradiciones y
congregaciones de templos y ashrams son mucho más dinámicas en India que sus
homólogos en el resto del mundo. Su rol como agentes transformadores, mediadores y
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------canalizadores de una popularísima y poderosa masa de fieles de distintas comunidades
es crítico. Por esto, una colaboración eficiente entre religiones, ecologistas, científicos y
ciudadanos puede tener efectos profundos en la sociedad, aunque esta sea una visión no
exenta de dificultad. Las buenas noticias son que esta alianza se ha puesto en marcha,
goza de buena salud y que aunque está todavía en sus primeros pasos, las más
importantes tradiciones y templos indios están participando cada vez más y mejor en el
cuidado del medioambiente.
La reforestación y la protección de los árboles es el movimiento proteccionista más
antiguo y popular en India. Cuenta con el apoyo de numerosos templos y de
movimientos específicos, como el histórico Chipko Movement, que inició sus
actividades en los años setenta inspirándose en la resistencia no violenta de Gandhi. En
el santuario de Tirumala–Tirupati se han hecho importantes esfuerzos de reforestación,
rebasando en 2012 los diez millones de árboles plantados. También se ha empezado a
ofrecer esquejes de árboles como prasada, los regalos bendecidos, habitualmente
dulces, que los peregrinos tradicionalmente reciben del templo y que comparten con
familiares y amigos. Esto es un magnífico ejemplo de cómo los intereses ecológicos
pueden asimilarse a las más antiguas tradiciones religiosas de manera armoniosa y
Los grupos de defensa de los derechos de los animales cuentan en India con un
importante y lógico apoyo que refleja el gran numero de ciudadanos vegetarianos. Esto
ha llevado a que en 2014, India se convirtiese en uno de los primeros países del mundo
en legislar siguiendo la Declaración de los Derechos de los Cetáceos producida en 2010
por el Grupo de Helsinki. Este panel de investigadores internacionales declaró
científicamente probada una individualidad e inteligencia suficientes en los cetáceos
como para justificar una revisión de su estatus legal. Siguiendo estas premisas en India
se ha declarado que los delfines (incluyendo orcas y otras subespecies) son personas nohumanas, lo que les garantiza ciertos derechos, impidiendo su caza, venta o
comercialización, así como su exhibición tanto pública como privada.
Otros de los grupos más populares es el movimiento “Stop Cow Slaughter”
específicamente dedicado a la protección de las famosas vacas sagradas y que promueve
prohibir su sacrificio y limitar o incluso acabar con su consumo. Este movimiento causa
polémica pues si bien las vacas son consideradas sagradas por el hinduismo y son un
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------motivo central en su mitología e iconografía, a la vez son también un alimento común
para otras confesiones. La legislación actual regula el sacrificio pero no su consumo y
aunque sus textos legales fueron refrendados en 2005 por la Corte Suprema India su
aplicación varia de estado a estado. La prohibición y limitación del consumo es práctica
habitual en ciudades sagradas y en ciertos estados como el Gujarat y hay muchas voces
que proponen que debería ser así en toda India. En 2015 el estado de Maharastra ha
adoptado esta política de prohibición lo cual ha suscitado reacciones, a favor y en
contra, en todo el país e incluso enfrentamientos entre activistas y comerciantes. Este
movimiento cuenta con un gran apoyo por motivos religiosos y culturales pero también
desde los grupos de defensa de los derechos de los animales y de ecologistas, que
advierten del impacto de las ganaderías y de los hábitos carnívoros en el entorno.
Respetuosa mención merecen los activistas que han llevado a cabo la más larga
satyagraha (desobediencia civil pacifica) jamás realizada en India. Durante treinta y
tres años un grupo de seguidores del Mahatma Gandhi se ha manifestado diariamente
frente a la entrada del matadero de Deonar en Bombay intentando bloquear el acceso al
recinto de los camiones que transportaban vacas y toros a su sacrificio. Los activistas
eran detenidos a diario por este bloqueo pero en vista del carácter no violento del mismo
las autoridades les dejaban retornar a su centro al rato. Esto les permitía retomar su
protesta al día siguiente. El miércoles 4 de marzo de 2015, tras la aplicación de la
prohibición de sacrificios bovinos en Maharastra, esta satyagraha iniciada en 1982 se ha
dado por concluida y su objetivo, si bien lamentablemente tarde según los satyagrahis,
En términos generales, el “Bhumi Project” es probablemente la más ambiciosa de estas
iniciativas. Concebido en 2010 y presentado ante Ban Ki Moon y el Príncipe Felipe de
Inglaterra en 2012 con el apoyo de las Naciones Unidas, el proyecto presenta un plan de
nueve años sobre tres interesantes ejes:
1. El peregrinaje verde. Esta iniciativa se desarrolla con la ARC (Alliance of
Religions and Conservation). En India, el impacto ambiental de las yatras o
peregrinajes a lugares santos es a menudo importante, especialmente en lugares
naturales como la yatra de la cueva de Amanarth en Cachemira donde recibieron
630 000 yatris en 40 días en 2012.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------2. Los templos verdes. Las ciudades como Varanasi, donde las yatras son picos en
un constante flujo de peregrinos, son igualmente sensibles y se ven cíclica y
ecológicamente desbordadas. Los templos y peregrinajes verdes incluyen varias
medidas para los devotos como: la restricción del uso del agua en botella, la
recogida de la basura propia y ajena, el fomento de agencias de viajes
responsables, la provisión para los fieles de comida orgánica cultivada
localmente y la concienciación y participación del peregrino en los esfuerzos y
actividades de limpieza y mantenimiento del templo.
A día de hoy, los templos de Varanasi, Rishikesh, Vishakapatnam, Bridaban y
Dwarka forman parte de esta iniciativa y se espera que en breve se les unan
Bhubaneswar, Tirupati, Ujjain y Puri. De ser así, la lista incluirá buena parte de
los templos más influyentes e importantes de toda la geografía India.
3. La vida compasiva. Este último punto aglutina una serie de actividades para el
fomento del vegetarianismo, los productos libres de violencia, trucos y prácticas
para celebrar los grandes festivales hindúes de manera “verde”, además de
eventos y premios, como la “Semana Anual de la Ecología Hindú” para
promocionar los comportamientos e iniciativas ecologistas.
El agua es un factor relevante en cualquier país, pero en India es crítico debido a su
dependencia endémica de los monzones. Fueron éstos la principal causa de las
hambrunas por las que India fue famosa hasta las reformas de principios del siglo XX y
la posterior Revolución Verde. Más recientemente se ha calculado que durante el
periodo 2008-09 los escasos monzones redujeron alrededor de tres puntos el
crecimiento de la economía India, mientras que los efectos de la crisis global en el
mismo período fueron mínimos.
Quizás consecuentemente, los ríos en India son vistos como madres protectoras,
temperamentales y nutrientes que conviene aplacar y cuidar. En esta línea, existe en el
sureño estado de Tamil Nadu un festival anual donde se ofrendan antojos a las madresrío. La figura central es la Madre Ganges o “Ganga Ma”, con la cual se identifican, en
mayor o menor medida, los otros ríos sagrados. Los ríos juegan además un rol
primordial como fuente de purificación a través del baño ritual, donde “la suciedad
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------moral es lavada por los ríos, que acuden luego a Ganga Ma, el gran purificador, para
purificarse ellos mismos” (Narayan, 2001: 192).
Por todo esto, el lamentable estado de los ríos en India es quizás uno de los ejemplos
más dolorosos de la disociación de principios y prácticas que viven las sociedades
modernas. La brecha entre lo que sabemos y lo que hacemos hace que ni los estudios
científicos, ni los mandatos directos del dharma puedan prevenir el abuso de los
recursos hidrológicos o los comportamientos anti-ecológicos como la contaminación del
agua de los ríos con vertidos de residuos industriales y su uso extensivo como letrinas.
Pero la contaminación no es siempre el mayor de los problemas. En el caso del sagrado
río Yamuna, el 97% de sus aguas son desviadas para su uso agrícola y urbano poco
después de salir de las montañas. El caudal, al llegar a Matura y a Agra, está compuesto
en su mayoría por los deshechos y aguas residuales de las grandes ciudades, lo que ha
llevado a declararlo como río oficialmente muerto desde un punto de vista ecológico.
Para los devotos, el estado del sagrado “Yamuna Ji” es aún más doloroso, ya que sus
contaminadas aguas son usadas por millones de peregrinos en sus abluciones y en el
ungimiento de los ídolos. La falta de alternativas actuales al uso extensivo de sus aguas
hace que todo proyecto de regeneración o limpieza sea insuficiente. Sin embargo,
existen fuertes alianzas contra este estado de cosas, y varios ejemplos donde ecología y
religión están trabajando juntos eficazmente, movilizando recursos e incluso cambiando
la conciencia y la perspectiva de la sociedad.
En Uttar Pradesh, los seguidores de Iskcon han hecho propia la limpieza de Brindaban,
el mítico hogar de Krishna donde este vivió sus amores con Radha en una juventud
bucólica infinitamente referida por el arte indio. Ambiciosos y con medios, los devotos
intentan restaurar el equilibrio del Yamuna en colaboración con sindicatos de granjeros,
grupos de activistas y la ciudadanía en general. A día de hoy, se han conseguido ciertos
avances en legislación para evitar vertidos contaminantes en sus aguas y se ha lanzado
una campaña para regenerar los Kunds o lagos de Brindaban que, privados de acceso a
los ríos, se habían convertido en marismas y vertederos. Pero sobre todo se ha llevado a
cabo una movilización que en un gran clamor ha elevado la cuestión a problemática
nacional, y se espera que el Yamuna entre oficialmente en el proyecto de
rejuvenecimiento del Ganges al ser su principal afluente.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------En el sur de India, el problema del acceso y calidad del agua es una realidad cada vez
más apremiante que conlleva, desde hace años, cruentas revueltas y disturbios,
especialmente en torno a la distribución de las aguas del río Kavery. Entre las iniciativas
realizadas, destaca, en un ejemplo de los poderosos recursos financieros que los templos
y ashrams pueden reunir, el proyecto que el popular gurú Sai Baba financió en solitario
junto a sus seguidores y que aseguró el acceso a agua potable a 700 pueblos de Andhra
Mención aparte merece el proyecto de protección del tiburón ballena del Gujarat Forest
Department y el WTI. Este proyecto necesitaba comunicar y cambiar la perspectiva y la
actitud de varios grupos sociales, pescadores, empresarios, turistas y ciudadanos, algo
que los grupos ecologistas no habían conseguido por sí solos. En 2004, el proyecto
recibió un impulso definitivo cuando se nombró “embajador espiritual” del mismo a
Morari Bapu, un reconocido líder espiritual gujarati. Este supo “conectar
emocionalmente con las éticas tradicionales y culturales de los locales y de las
comunidades de pescadores (…) la enorme respuesta de los jóvenes y escolares aseguró
un éxito sin precedentes. Desde entonces, se han rescatado 412 tiburones ballena de las
redes” (Menon, 2013). Queda patente, pues, que en India la conciencia religiosa es
capaz de influir y concienciar a grandes tramos de la población, así como de reunir
recursos humanos y financieros para realizar importantes proyectos transformadores.
El origen del campo de la ecologia y religión
En 1967, Lynn White observó que la actitud del ser humano respecto a la ecología
dependía de “la concepción que se tenía de uno mismo en relación al entorno (…) y de
los profundos condicionamientos y creencias sobre nuestra propia naturaleza y destino
último, esto es, de la religión” (White, 1967: 3). White criticó duramente los sistemas
antropocéntricos de las religiones y culturas monoteístas, y sus consecuencias respecto a
la relación de las personas con la naturaleza, haciendo especial hincapié en el
cristianismo y su dogma de transcendencia y dominio sobre la naturaleza. El
antropocentrismo de origen divino o revelado marcaría el desarrollo del mundo
occidental y especialmente la revolución industrial. Estos principios, además, subsisten
y se renuevan con los postulados de Descartes, Bacon y Marx cuando formulan la
necesidad de dominar y conquistar la naturaleza. Esta visión utilitaria de la naturaleza,
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------marca todavía hoy en día los paradigmas de desarrollo industrial y económico a nivel
global, y es especialmente evidente en los países en vías de desarrollo.
En contraposición al antropocentrismo, surgen en la década de los setenta nuevos
conceptos teóricos, que podríamos considerar “de laboratorio”. Entre estos cabe
destacar el biocentrismo, un sistema que propone el respeto a toda forma de vida y cuyo
origen en occidente se remonta a la línea del pensamiento del premio Nobel de la Paz
Albert Schweitzer; o el ecocentrismo cuya prioridad es la conservación de las especies
por encima de los individuos, incluidos los humanos. “El único sistema de creencias
prometedor es el ecocentrismo, definido como un cambio de enfoque y valores del
homo sapiens al planeta tierra” (Rowe, 1994: 106-107).
Estas consideraciones llevaron a que entre 1996 y 1998 se organizaran en Harvard una
serie de diez conferencias con el objetivo de crear un nuevo campo de estudio −sobre
las religiones del mundo y la ecología− que asistiera en la tarea de crear nuevas
políticas medioambientales. A raíz de estas conferencias se creó el Foro sobre Religión
y Ecología de Yale (USA) que daría lugar a la publicación de una colección de ensayos
en la revista Daedalus bajo el nombre “Religion and Ecology: Can the Climate
Change?”, en lo que pasó a ser una de las primeras discusiones sobre las religiones del
mundo y la ética del cambio climático global.
A partir del postulado de White, buena parte de la literatura sobre la ecología y la nueva
cosmología ha versado sobre la superación de la concepción antropocéntrica del
universo (Schweitzer, Rowe, Morín, Vigil, Capra). Sin embargo, para el pensamiento
tradicional indio, no ha sido necesario realizar un giro copernicano para superar los
conceptos antropocéntricos.
La ecología y la concepción india del cosmos
El origen de la historia en India se remonta a la Civilización del Indo. Aunque algunos
de los rasgos característicos de esta civilización se transmitieron tras su desaparición, no
fue así con su carácter marcadamente urbano. Por el contrario, la siguiente etapa de la
historia india, la Civilización Védica, a la cual se remontan los axiomas del pensamiento
indio, se desarrolló ligada a los bosques que poblaban el Punjab y las orillas del Ganges
y del Yamuna en el noroeste del subcontinente. “Rodeada por la vasta vida de la
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------naturaleza, alimentada por ella, vestida por ella, (…) la mente humana comprendió que
no existía la soledad absoluta (…) Constatar esta gran armonía entre el espíritu humano
y el espíritu del mundo fue el empeño de los sabios de los bosques de la antigua India”
(Tagore, 1915:6).
Tras la Revolución Cultural que acaeció en China, solo en India se mantiene una
continuidad histórica y cultural que ha permitido la transmisión, desde la noche de los
tiempos hasta la actualidad, de tradiciones, filosofías e ideales nacidos de una relación
más íntima con la naturaleza. A pesar de que estos postulados y sus evoluciones no han
sido suficiente garantía de comportamientos ecológicos hoy en día, “una vez limpiado el
polvo de los siglos” (Nehru, 1931:15) la tradición india encierra en la actualidad una de
las más interesantes, longevas y profundas reflexiones alternativas al antropocentrismo,
además de constituir una oportunidad para lograr cambios transformadores en el propio
De los bosques que arroparon la Cultura Védica surge la simetría actual más importante
y aparente entre ecología y la mayoría de las tradiciones ancestrales indias; la
concepción del ser humano como parte integrante de un sistema complejo, al cual está
íntimamente ligado, ya sea a través de los ciclos de las reencarnaciones, la universalidad
del sufrimiento o el reconocimiento de la consanguineidad de la vida en la Madre
Jainismo: el cosmos viviente
El jainismo expone una cosmología con un complejo sistema de estratos y un punto en
común a todos ellos: la capacidad de experimentar táctilmente el mundo. Desde la
perspectiva jainista del karma, “toda experiencia vital humana incluye otras formas de
vida anteriores, bajo la forma de microorganismos, animales, elementales e incluso
dioses, resultado del proceso del samsara” (Key Chaple, 2001: 215). Este ciclo, que
solo puede detenerse a través de la liberación espiritual –el objetivo de las prácticas
jainistas— genera además una visión empática e interconectada de la realidad, con
similitudes con la Identidad Planetaria, un concepto moderno que propone una nueva
dimensión humana que incluya la visión de que “todas las partes del mundo necesitan
ser solidarias dado que enfrentan los mismos problemas de vida y muerte” (Morín,
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Esta visión de un “cosmos viviente” jaín que anima el universo, concuerda con la visión
del eco-teólogo cristiano Thomas Berry que propone un universo como “una comunión
de sujetos más que una colección de objetos” (Berry, 1993: 82).
En el contexto del jainismo, esta concepción llevó a la formulación y práctica de la
ahimsa, la “no violencia“, y en consecuencia, a un estrictísimo sistema donde el ideal es
poder llevar a cabo una vida que no cause daño o violencia ni por acción ni por omisión.
Tal y como fue formulado hace más de dos milenios, incluso lanzar una piedra al agua
puede ser contrario a la ahimsa y solo debe hacerse si hay buenas razones que
justifiquen el someter a la piedra y al agua −con la vida que contienen− a la violencia
que infligimos.
El jainismo es, quizás por estas razones, la tradición religiosa más simétrica con los
modernos preceptos científicos y ecológicos de la “nueva cosmología”. Su filosofía ha
sido por esto citada abundantemente, y, sobre todo, sus conclusiones que refieren un
respeto total a toda forma de vida, son compartidas por muchos movimientos y
filosofías ecológicas. Entre estos están los longevos movimientos a favor de los
derechos de los animales, la ética ambiental, la ecología profunda o las citadas visiones
ecocéntricas y biocéntricas.
El premio nobel Albert Schweitzer consideró sobre la ahimsa que “el establecimiento
del mandamiento de no matar y no dañar es uno de los grandes eventos espirituales de
la historia de la humanidad”. En su obra “Civilización y Ética” escribió que en su
opinión “La ética no es otra cosa que la Reverencia por la Vida (…) el principio
fundamental de la moralidad, esto es, que el bien consiste en mantener, asistir y
promocionar la vida y que destruir, dañar o dificultar la vida es el mal” (Schweitzer,
1946: xviii).
Budismo: la red de Indra y la compasión
El budismo llega a la conclusión de la interdependencia de la naturaleza a partir de
razonamientos causales. Todas las criaturas sensibles comparten las condiciones de
nacimiento, sufrimiento, decadencia y muerte. La realización de esta condición
existencial lleva a la conciencia despierta a la compasión por todas las criaturas.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------La mayoría de los expertos están de acuerdo en que fue el budismo el principal motor
para que el vegetarianismo se hiciera popular en India “por puro respeto a las otras
formas de vida”, algo único en la historia de la humanidad. Jayadeva Gosvami, poeta
devocional del siglo trece, hace referencia a esta influencia en un verso del Sri
Dasavatara Strota, “el Canto de las Diez Encarnaciones”, donde el noveno avatar de
Visnú, Buda, es descrito como “…Oh Buda del corazón compasionado, tu que
denuncias el asesinato de inocentes animales según las reglas y rituales del sacrificio
Entre los conceptos usados por el budismo ecologista destaca la “Red de Indra”. La red
se extiende infinitamente y en cada “ojo” de la red encontramos engarzada una sola
piedra preciosa de varias facetas. La imagen en cada piedra refleja todas las otras, que a
su vez contienen los reflejos de todas las demás. Esta metáfora de la red de Indra ofrece
una representación visual de una unidad en la multiplicidad en la cual las partes forman
y a la vez contienen el todo, muy en la línea de la concepción compleja de la realidad de
Edgar Morin y de las visiones de la Teoría General de Sistemas y de la Física moderna
donde “El universo ya no es visto como una maquina y sus partes, sino como un todo
indivisible y dinámico cuyas partes están esencialmente conectadas” (Capra, 1982, 35).
La red de Indra también ha sido usada “como evocación de un mundo de comunidades
ecológicas interconectadas” (Swearer, 1998: 19-22).
Los razonamientos jainistas y budistas, en su forma más temprana, llevaron al ministro
Kautyla y más tarde al emperador Ashoka Maurya a decretar las primeras legislaciones
proteccionistas de las que se tiene noticia. En estas leyes, unos tres siglos antes de la era
cristiana, se penaba la violencia ejercida de manera injustificada sobre los animales, se
protegían arboles y bosques de su uso indiscriminado e incluso se establecían centros de
atención para animales.
Hinduismo y conceptos pro-ecológicos
El hinduismo en sentido amplio hace suyas las visiones nastikas (heterodoxas) de jaines
y budistas pero además cuenta con otras ingentes fuentes de inspiración pro-ecológica
en los antiguos Upanishads, las grandes Épicas, los Puranas y las tradiciones Bhakti.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Respecto a la interdependencia con la naturaleza, podemos destacar la concepción de
Brahman como la realidad suprema subyacente de la cual emanan todas las
manifestaciones de la vida como “de un fuego resplandeciente surgen chispas a
millares” (Mundaka Upanishad, 2nd Mundaka 1:1). La Madre Tierra es concebida como
una manifestación de la Diosa, conocida como Bhumi, Prithvi o Vasudha y es una
deidad por derecho propio, en ocasiones presentada como consorte de Visnú “el
preservador”. El propio Visnú se concibe como ubicuo a la realidad y es por tanto
fuente de respeto por la creación. La creencia en la reencarnación y en los ciclos de renacimiento es también fuente de un sentido de interconexión de la realidad, donde
además las acciones respecto a la naturaleza afectan directamente al karma personal,
esto es, el cumulo de acciones buenas y malas que determinan nuestro destino en
reencarnaciones futuras.
En varias comunidades rurales como los Bishnois, Bhils y Swadhyaya se incluye en el
concepto del dharma –el deber o conducta adecuada— la protección del medio
ambiente como una importante práctica comunal. En estos grupos tradicionales, el
término dharma es visto como una relación indisociable o “una combinación de ética
(en el mundo humano), ecología (en el mundo natural) y teología (en el mundo
espiritual)” (Jain, 2011: 120).
La concepción de un dharma holístico es muy cercana a la “ecología profunda” (Naess,
1973) que se ha convertido en una nueva e interesante rama de la filosofía ecológica.
Esta tiene como puntos centrales el hecho de que el hombre ha de estar en armonía con
el medio, manteniendo la igualdad biocéntrica, esto es, el derecho a existir de todas las
formas de vida, y una ética ecocéntrica donde estos derechos del resto de formas de vida
están a la altura de los derechos de los seres humanos. Queda patente, pues, que
ninguno de estos postulados puede ser considerado como novedoso en India.
Sin embargo, tanto los conceptos pro-ecológicos indios como su impacto real en la
sociedad del subcontinente deben comprenderse desde la realidad sociopolítica de un
país joven, con un pasado de dominación colonial y la consecuente presencia de
sistemas y modelos de desarrollo occidentales. Sin olvidar que hablamos de un país en
vías de desarrollo, con unos imperativos económicos y sociales que pueden ser vistos
tan urgentes o más que el problema ecológico. A esto debemos añadir la famosa
heterogeneidad de la mentalidad india, tanto estructural como conceptual, y su
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------característica capacidad de aceptación de la contradicción. Por ejemplo, aunque Bhumi
sea una “diosa pro-ecológica”, coexiste con Lakshmi, diosa de la riqueza, quién de
hecho goza de mayor jerarquía. También existe la clásica disyuntiva entre dharma “que
trata de los comportamientos correctos en la tierra” y moksha “que alienta el desapego
de los problemas terrenales” (Narayan, 2001: 200-203). Disyuntiva que aunque aparece
zanjada en una fuente tan importante como el sagrado Bhagavad Gita, puede
considerarse todavía abierta si “el inequívoco mensaje del Gita se contempla en el
contexto más amplio del Mahabharatha, del cual es tan solo una pequeña parte” (Sen,
2005: 4-6).
La brecha entre conocimiento y acción
Existe una brecha tan importante entre nuestro conocimiento y nuestras acciones, que la
sociedad moderna es incapaz de salvarla, al menos con las herramientas y
planteamientos actuales. En el caso que nos ocupa, el desafío ecológico, esta brecha se
origina ideológicamente en las concepciones antropocéntricas, cartesianas y utilitaristas
del mundo; las cuales han impuesto políticamente los paradigmas del desarrollo
económico y tecnológico, continuo y sin limites. Frente a esto ninguno de los dos
campos, ni la ecología y ni la religión, se bastan solos para poder abarcar la dimensión
compleja del problema en sus vertientes planetarias, sociales y personales, y son, por
tanto, incapaces individualmente de ser garantes de comportamientos pro-ecológicos.
Esto es así porque “Aunque el problema ecológico nos impulsa a cambiar nuestros
pensamientos, necesitamos asimismo un impulso interior dirigido a modificar los
principios mismos de nuestro pensamiento” (Morin, 2011: 272). Para salvar esta brecha
necesitamos un cambio de perspectiva donde el ser humano se reconozca como
observador objetivo, esto es, científico en el sentido clásico, y a la vez como parte
subjetiva, esto es, interdependiente y compasivo, de una observación que es además
dinámica e interconectada.
El problema del cambio climático a nivel global y los casos locales como el del río
Yamuna guardan una estrecha relación. En ambos se constata un problema de
consecuencias críticas, urgentes y ampliamente reconocidas que lleva a realizar un
diagnóstico de las causas y soluciones posibles. Sin embargo, en ambos casos se dan
elementos económicos, sociales o políticos que imposibilitan no ya la solución del
problema, sino incluso el propio reconocimiento de la amenaza.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------El establecimiento y desarrollo de un campo de estudios sobre ecología y religión –este
ultimo término siempre entendido en su sentido más amplio en India— es
especialmente relevante para lograr este cambio de perspectiva, así como para superar
un contexto donde los escépticos del cambio climático y los sectores más conservadores
de la sociedad están acusando a los científicos y a ecologistas de querer crear una
“nueva religión y teología” en un intento “de secularizar, y mermar la influencia de la
ciencia, (…) como si se pudiera elegir tu creencia científica” (Kearns, 2007: 111).
Pero, como hemos visto, no estamos ante un caso de querer crear una nueva religión,
sino ante un claro ejemplo donde las disciplinas originales, la ecología y la religión, se
han quedado pequeñas para enfrentar una cuestión que desborda sus campos y
dimensiones tradicionales. Pese a las reticencias conservadoras, es alentador comprobar
que, para quienes están inmersos en las problemáticas ecológicas y religiosas, las
fronteras trans-disciplinarias han empezado a desdibujarse. Así, por un lado, estamos
viendo cómo las conclusiones sobre el cambio climático están llevando a la ciencia al
campo de la ética y de la moral, a través de las cuales se están generando impacto y
cambios individuales y sociales, mientras que a la par numerosas congregaciones
religiosas reconocen que “la ciencia que más esta cambiando la conciencia de la
humanidad en la actualidad es la nueva cosmología, las ciencias del cosmos y de la
naturaleza, todas ellas” (Vigil, 2010), así como que “La explosión científica de los
últimos tiempos es, sin duda, una nueva experiencia de revelación” (Berry, 1993).
Hoy en día somos testigos de como los actores religiosos indios están así tomando parte
de manera decisiva en la lucha contra el desafío ecológico haciéndolo suyo, a la vez que
los actores ecológicos a nivel mundial están coincidiendo cada vez más con los
conceptos de estas tradiciones no antropocéntricas, incluso adoptando normas de
comportamiento similares, como el vegetarianismo y el respeto a la naturaleza y a la
vida, frente a una visión puramente utilitaria de la realidad.
Las simetrías entre la ecología moderna y los saberes ancestrales indios se originan en
el hecho de que comparten objeto de estudio desde un axioma no antropocéntrico. Este
objeto de estudio es, por un lado, la naturaleza del ser humano y del cosmos en el que
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------vive, y por otro, la relación entre ambos, para sacar conclusiones sobre los
comportamientos deseables y aquellos que hay que evitar. No es, por tanto, extraño y sí
muy significativo, que los postulados del biocentrismo y el ecocentrismo abunden o
coincidan con la compasión budista y el cosmos viviente jaín respectivamente, o que la
concepción dhármica de las antiguas comunidades rurales de Bishnois, Bhils y
Swadhyaya sea comparable a la visión holística de la moderna “ecología profunda”.
El objeto de estudio común explica, de este modo, las concordancias entre ambos
campos y, a la vez, apunta a la necesidad de una visión conjunta y meta-disciplinaria
para la comprensión y la acción eficiente con el actual desafío ecológico. Esto es, que
para relacionarnos de manera ecológica con nuestro medio ambiente, se deben superar
las viejas fronteras cognitivas, donde los campos del saber no comunicaban entre sí, a
través de una perspectiva integradora y una educación inter-disciplina y multi-disciplina
sobre el ser humano y su entorno. Según Capra “la conciencia ecológica surgirá solo
cuando combinemos nuestro conocimiento racional con la intuición por la naturaleza no
linear de nuestro entorno” (Capra, 1983, 17).
Para lograr esto, la ecología cuenta con dos argumentos que muchas religiones han
pretendido históricamente como propios; a saber, la universalidad de su mensaje, que
afecta irremediable y materialmente a todos los seres humanos y a la vida misma, y por
otro lado la necesaria atención y divulgación que demanda este mensaje. Las tradiciones
religiosas y filosóficas por su parte, y especialmente en India, son capaces aún hoy en
día de movilizar recursos, personas e incluso ir más allá, cambiando la conciencia
individual y la perspectiva social de la propia realidad, a través del crédito y experiencia
que acumulan tradicionalmente en materia ética y moral.
Casi todas las fuentes disponibles sobre Ecología y Religión advierten que existen
límites a este campo y que no es aconsejable sacar de un contexto religioso concreto
ideas o principios morales que sostengan las teorías y modelos ecológicos generales.
Aunque es evidente que “las contribuciones de cada religión en términos de ética
medioambiental tendrán un efecto mayor en su propio contexto y entre sus adherentes”,
no es menos cierto que ciertas tradiciones puedan “encarnar principios y prácticas de
aplicación más general” (Swearer, 2001: 225). Es en este contexto donde el estudio de
las simetrías entre la ecología y los saberes ancestrales puede ser especialmente
relevante como medio para identificar candidatos a esta “aplicación más general”.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Asistimos hoy a un proceso “eco-logizador” y trans-disciplinar que, acelerado por la
globalización cultural y de la información, no debe ser percibido como una amenaza al
derecho a la diversidad cultural -el cual es una de la bases de la “ecología profunda”sino como una metamorfosis de los paradigmas cognitivos. Esto es, una nueva
perspectiva que supera, y a la vez conserva, lo creado por las múltiples disciplinas, para
comprender mejor la complejidad de la naturaleza humana y actuar eficazmente con
nuestro entorno. “Debemos ‘eco-logizar’ las disciplinas, es decir, tener en cuenta todo
lo que forma sus contextos, incluidas las condiciones culturales y sociales” (Morin,
1999: 127). Estamos en proceso de descubrir las implicaciones que este nuevo mundo
dibujado por nuestra historia antigua y nuestra ciencia reciente tiene sobre nosotros a
nivel individual y social. En palabras del ya citado Edgar Morin:
Nuestra autonomía material y espiritual de seres humanos depende de alimentos
culturales, de un lenguaje, de un saber, de mil elementos técnicos y sociales. Cuanto
más nos permita nuestra cultura conocer culturas ajenas y culturas pasadas más
posibilidades tendrá nuestro espíritu de desarrollar su autonomía. (…) En estas
condiciones, puede producirse en nosotros la convergencia de verdades procedentes de
los más diversos horizontes: las ciencias, las humanidades, la fe, la ética o nuestra
conciencia de vivir en la edad de hierro planetaria (Morin, 2011: 270-272).
BERRY, THOMAS (1993). The Great Work, New York: Bell Tower, 1999.
CAPRA, FRITJOF (1996). The Web of Life: A
Systems, New York: Anchor Books.
ew Scientific Understanding of Living
------------------- (1983) The Turning Point; Science, Society and Rising Culture, New
York: Bantam Books.
JAIN, PANKAJ (2011). Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and
Sustenability, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
SWEARER, DONALD K (1998). Buddhism and Ecology: Challenge and Promise. Earth
Ethics 10 © by the Center for respect of Life and Environment. Adapted for
“The ressources of Buddhist Ecology” Daedalus Magazine, American Academy
of Arts and Sciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2001.
KEARNS, LAURA (2007). Ecospirit: Religions and Philosophies for the Earth, New
York: Fordham University Press.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------KEY CHAPPLE, CHRISTOPHER (2001). “The Living Cosmos of Jainism: A Traditional
Science Grounded in Environtmental Ethics” Daedalus Magazine, American
Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
MENON, VIVEK (2013). “Whale Shark Campaign”, Wildlife Trust of India
<> accessed 20 November
MORIN, EDGAR (1999). La tête bien faite. Repenser la Réforme. Réformer la penseé,
Paris, Éditions du Seuil.
NAES, ARNE (1973). The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement,
London, Routledge.
NARAYAN, ASUDHA (2001). “Water, Wood and Wisdom: Ecological Perspectives from
the Hindu Tradition”, Daedalus Magazine, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
NEHRU, JAWARHALAL (1934),“Glimpses of World History”, New Delhi: Penguin, 2004.
ROQUE ALONSE, MARIA ANGELS (2011). “Hacia el pensamiento ecologizado: entrevista
a Edgar Morin”, Barcelona: Instituto Europeo del Mediterráneo, IEMed.
ROWE, STAN J (1994). “Ecocentrism: the Chord that Harmonizes Humans and Earth”,
accessed 6 January 2015.
SÁTIRO, ANGELA (2005). “Pensamiento Complejo y Ecología en acción” Madrid:
Revista Iniciativa Socialista, número 75, primavera.
SEN, AMARTYA (2005). The Argumentative Indian, Noida: Penguin Books.
SCHWEITZER, ALBERT (1946), Civilization and Ethics, London: Adam and Charles
TAGORE, RABINDRANATH (1915). Sadhana the Realization of Life”, New York: The
Macmillian Company.
VIGIL, JOSÉ MARÍA (2010). “Desafío de la Ecología de las Religiones”, artículo parte del
número colectivo de revistas latinoamericanas de teología de 2010, animado por
la Comisión Teológica Latinoamericana de la ASETT/EATWOT.
WHITE, LYNN (1967). “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis”, Ecology and
Religion in History, New York: Harper and Row, 1974.
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[email protected]
Vol 2 2015, pp. 41-54, ISSN: 2339-8523
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------IDIA RIVERS SEE BY THE GREEKS I THE ROMA IMPERIAL PERIOD:
Université de Franche-Comté
[email protected]
Received: 29-11-2014
Accepted: 27-01-2015
The image of Indian rivers given by Greek authors in the Roman imperial period depends on the
literary genre they chose : specialists of geography and history like Strabo or Arrian wonder about the
reliability of the observations formerly made by the companions of Alexander about the Indus and its
tributaries (dimensions, floods, delta, flora and fauna, resemblance to the Nile). A novelist like the
pseudo-Callisthenes, and a polemicist like Palladios try, for their part, to amaze their readers with the
mirabilia found in the Ganges or in the Tiberoboam. They imagine that their paradisiacal banks offer
an ideal living environment to the Brahmans.
Keywords: Indus, Ganges, Tiberoboam, Nile, Alexander, Brahmans, marvels, cartography
RESUME Los ríos indios vistos por los griegos de la época romana imperial: de precisiones
geográficas a sueños exoticos
La imagen de los ríos indios que construyen los autores griegos de época romana imperial depende del
género literario en el que se expresen : los especialistas de geografía y historia como Estrabón o
Arriano se preguntan acerca de la verosimilitud de las antiguas observaciones efectuadas por los
compañeros de Alejandro a propósito del Indo y de sus afluentes (sus dimensiones, crecidas, los
deltas, su fauna y flora, sus similitudes con el Nilo). Por su parte, un escritor de novela (pseudoCalístenes) y un polemista (Paladio) buscan sorprender a sus lectores recurriendo a las mirabilia
relacionadas con el Ganges o el Tiberoboam. Estos ríos paradisíacos son imaginados como el marco
de vida ideal para los Brahmanes.
PALABRAS CLAVE: Indo, Ganges, Tiberoboam, Nilo, Alejandro, Brahmanes, maravillas, cartografía
From the fifth century BC, through the work of the historian Herodotus, the Greeks were
aware that there was in India a river that supplied raw fish for the food of the fishermen who
lived on its banks, gigantic reeds for their boats, and rushes from which they made their
clothes (Histories, 3.98). At the beginning of the fourth century BC, the Greek historian
Ctesias, who was a physician at the court of the Persian king Artaxerxes, recorded in his
Indika all that he had heard about India. He mentions two rivers: the Indus, which
accommodates an immense worm in its waters (Indika, F45.1), and the Hyparchos which
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------carries amber (Indika, F45.36). During the years 326–325 BC, the military expedition of
Alexander in India gave the Greeks the opportunity to know more about the Indus Basin.
Through the testimony of the historians who accompanied Alexander in his oriental
conquests, the Greeks were soon aware that in 326 BC Alexander had crossed successively
the Indus, the Hydaspes (Jhelum), the Acesines (Chenab), and the Hydraotes (Ravi); that he
had reached the banks of Hyphasis (Sutlej) but that his soldiers had forced him to turn back;
that he had crossed the Hydraotes and the Acesines again; that with a fleet of 2000 vessels, he
had sailed down the Hydaspes, the Acesines, and the Indus; that he had reached Pattala
(Hyderabad) in January 325; and that he had decided to go back to Persia in August 325.
However, these testimonies by the companions of Alexander have come to us only as
fragments—edited by Jacoby (1927) and translated into French by Auberger (2005)—or
allusions that we can find in works from the Roman imperial period. Indeed, Alexander’s
adventure in India never stopped fascinating Greek writers in the Roman Empire. Through
four works of that period, the Geography of Strabo, the Anabasis of Arrian, the Alexander
Romance by the pseudo-Callisthenes, and the Letter about the Brahmans by Palladios, all
belonging to various literary genres, I will discuss what they retain from older information
about Indian rivers and how they completed or distorted it.
Let us first look at Strabo's work: this geographer, who lived during the Augustan period (24
BC–14 CE), decided to write a description of the inhabited earth. While he meticulously
describes the lands closest to Rome, he deals more quickly with the borders of the world,
which were of no immediate political interest for the Roman government. However, he
considers that the description of the borders of the world has an intellectual use, because it
brings to the men of culture the knowledge that will make them real philosophers.
That is why he describes India in the first chapter of the fifteenth book of his Geography. To
give a precise idea of this distant country, he prefers not to trust travel accounts by
contemporaries of his who had sailed to India. Although he knows that the maritime trade
between India and the Western World had increased since the Roman conquest of Egypt (see
Geography, 2.5.12 and Young 2001), Strabo is not interested in the practical considerations of
For the merchants who now sail from Aegypt by the Nile and the Arabian Gulf as far as
India, only a small number has sailed as far as the Ganges; and even these are merely private
citizens and of no use as regards the history of the places they have seen. (Geography,
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Instead of quoting guidebooks written by uncultured traders who know only a few coastal
cities of India, Strabo prefers to resort to the older, more learned works by Eratosthenes,
Megasthenes, and the historians who had been companions of Alexander. These authors used
Indian rivers to define the limits of India and to structure their description.
At first, Strabo refers to the geographer Eratosthenes of Cyrene (3rd century BC) to give the
shape of India: it is a parallelogram, the limits of which he can define (see figure 1). Its
northern boundaries are the mountains called Caucasus by the Greeks and the Ganges; its
western ones are the Indus, while its southern and eastern ones are the outer sea that the
Greeks call the Atlantic Ocean. In this simplified view of India, the sea and the rivers play an
important role in the definition of space. On one side, the Indus defines the western limit by
forming a demarcation line with Ariane (a western region which at the time of Alexander was
a part of the Persian Empire); on the other side, the line of the maritime bank serves to clarify
the shape of India; the Southern coast follows the parallel of Meroe, with a gigantic cape in
the East, advancing southward.
To define the Indian space more precisely, Eratosthenes wanted to specify the dimensions of
each of the sides of the parallelogram, allowing that
each of the greater sides exceeds the opposite side by as much as three thousand stadia,
which is the same number of stadia by which the cape common to the eastern and southern
coast [i.e. Cape Comorin] extends equally farther out in either direction than the rest of the
shore. (Geography, 15.1.11)
The western side of India, from the Caucasian Mountains (i. e. the Hindu Kush) to the
southern sea is estimated at 13000 stadia. As a stadium is approximately 180 m, the length of
the Indus, according to Eratosthenes, would be 2340 km, which is well below its actual length
of 3180 km. On the other hand, Eratosthenes is closer to reality when he indicates the southnorth size of the oriental side of India: 16000 stadia, or 2880 km. For its length from west to
east in the North, Eratosthenes gives an approximate dimension: indeed, it was possible for
him to estimate exactly the first segment of this line from the Indus to Palibothra, because
there was a royal road of 10000 stadia (1800 km). The second part, however, from Palibothra
to the mouth of the Ganges, is a matter of guesswork, depending on the voyages made on the
Ganges from the sea to Palibothra; and this would be something like six thousand stadia. So
the total east-west length of India, as a minimum, will be 16000 stadia. As Jacob (1991)
noticed, Strabo does not doubt the exactness of these complex calculations of Eratosthenes,
which he uses to reduce the complexity of the space described by Megasthenes and the
companions of Alexander to a simple geometric form.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Secondly, Strabo describes the Indus Basin and the Ganges Basin. To study the Indus area,
he relies on the Indica written by Alexander’s companions, which help him to find
characteristics common to all the rivers of this basin: they are big and wide, and their waters
are fertile. To characterize them better, Strabo borrows from Alexander’s companions the
comparison which they made between these rivers and the Nile: both rivers have a regime of
big floods. Just as Egypt is “a gift of the Nile” (see Herodotus, Histories 2.5), so the alluvial
plains of the Punjab are fertilized by the floods of the Indus and its tributaries. According to
the historian companions of Alexander, these floods may be explained by the same
meteorological phenomenon of the summer rains that fall on the upstream waters of those
rivers. Furthermore, in Egypt and in India the sun increases the fertility of the air, the water
and the soil. The double action of the floods and the sun create in both countries a very
similar fauna (except for the hippopotamus1). Nevertheless, as the climate of India is wetter
than that of Egypt, Indian animals are bigger than Egyptian animals. The florae produced by
the Nile and the tributaries of the Indus are similar too, particularly the aromatic plants and
the water lenses. That is why Nearchus, the admiral of Alexander’s fleet, states:
when Alexander saw crocodiles in the Hydaspes and Aegyptian beans in the Acesines, he
thought he had found the sources of the Nile and thought of preparing a fleet for an
expedition to Egypt. (Geography, 15.1.25)
As Schneider (2004, 38–9) writes, Artaxerxes Ochos thought before Alexander that the Nile
had an oriental origin. This Persian king had the project of diverting the course of the Indus,
which he thought identical to the upper course of the Nile, with the aim of conquering Egypt
(see Liber de inundatione $ili). Alexander probably wanted to sail down the Indus to the Nile.
But as soon as he learned from Indians that the Indus did not run into Egypt, but emptied
itself into the South Sea by two mouths, he realized his error and gave up his project of a river
expedition to Egypt (Geography, 15.1.25).
After these general observations, Strabo describes in great detail each of the territories
bounded by the rivers of the Punjab. Like the Itineraria navigationis, he enumerates
kingdoms, cities, peoples, plants and animals that the Macedonians discovered as they
progressed eastwards and then southwards.
To spare his readers a boring catalog, Strabo insists on the astonishment of Alexander’s
companions when they realized the strangeness of Indian rivers: their banks accommodate an
The historian companions of Alexander did not agree about the hippopotamus: “Onesicritus was the only one
saying that the hippopotamus is also to be found in India” (Strabo, Geography, 15.1.13)
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------extraordinary flora and fauna, which gives Strabo the opportunity to describe various types of
marvels (thaumata). Some trees are marvels because of their gigantic size:
Aristobulus also, where he mentions the Acesines and its confluence with the Hyarotis,
speaks of the trees that have their branches bent downwards and of such size that fifty
horsemen (according to Onesicritus four hundred!) can pass the noon in shade under one tree
(Geography, 15.1.21).
Such dimensions probably seemed to be unreal to the readers of Strabo. But there are actually
gigantic banyan trees in India. For example, the great banyan, a Ficus benghalensis located in
Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden is the widest tree in the world. The
circumference of the original trunk was 1.7 m, and from the ground it measured 15.7 m. The
area occupied by the tree is about 1.5 hectare or 4 acres. The present crown of the tree has a
circumference of nearly half a kilometer and the highest branch rises to about 25 m.
Animals (dogs, elephants, monkeys) observed by the companions of Alexander were also
extraordinary in size. Furthermore, they behaved in extraordinary ways; for example, the great
apes which the troops of Alexander met between Hydaspes and Acesines behaved like
once the Macedonians, seeing many of these long-tailed apes (cercopitheces) as in front-line
array on some bare hills (for this animal is very human-like in mentality, no less so than the
elephant), got the impression that they were an army of men; and they actually set out to attack
them as human enemies, but on learning the truth from Taxiles (the king of Taxila), they
desisted. (Geography, 15.1.29)
The marvel consists here in a confusion between the world of animals and the world of men.
Like shy animals, the monkeys should have to run away at the approach of the troops of
Alexander. But their physical and intellectual closeness to men inclined them to adopt a
behavior suited to the war situation in which they found themselves.
Another type of marvel consists in the fact that an animal possesses a quality appropriate to its
species to such a degree that it seems to belong to another species. For example, the enormous
dogs that Sopeithes (one of the provincial chiefs of the country between Acesines and
Hyarotis) had offered to Alexander showed themselves as brave as the lion they had to fight:
The match (between the dogs and the lion) having become equal, Sopeithes bade someone to
take one of the dogs by the leg and pull him away, and if the dog did not yield to cut off his
leg… and the dog suffered the cutting of his leg by slow amputation before he let go his grip.
(Geography, 15.1.31)
The people who live in the Indus Basin are also characterized by their excesses: for example,
the Brahmans that Onesicritus, the pilot of Alexander’s ship, met between the Indus and the
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Hydaspes, practice an asceticism more rigorous than Cynics in the Greek world. (Geography,
63-65). The Cathaeens who live between the Hydaspes and the Acesines have developed a
great liking for beauty:
Onesicritus says that they choose the handsomest person as king… and that the men dye
their beards with many most florid colors for the sole reason that they wish to beautify
themselves. (Geography, 15.1.30)
The Greeks, who have beauty and goodness in men (kaloi kagathoi) as an ideal would
appreciate beauty too, but not to the same extent as the Cathaeens. These remarks are not only
decorative: Strabo also wants to incite his readers to adopt a comparative perspective.
When Strabo describes the Ganges Basin, he inevitably has to resort to other sources than the
writings of Alexander’s companions. He uses two writers of the Hellenistic period,
Megasthenes and Artemidorus. Megasthenes was an ambassador of Seleucos the First at the
court of King Sandrocottos (Chandragupta) in Palibothra in the first years of the third century
BC. Strabo refers to him to place Palibothra at the confluence of the Ganges and the
Erranoboas i.e. the Yamuna (see Geography, 15.1.36). The geographer Artemidorus of
Ephesus (who lived at the end of the second century BC) appears to him to be unclear; Strabo
uses him nevertheless to say that the Ganges flows down from the Emoda mountains (the
Himalayas) towards the south; and that one of its tributaries, the Oedanes, breeds both
crocodiles and dolphins. This ecological precision has led historians of geography to think
that the Oedanes is the Brahmaputra, the delta of which is invaded by the sea.
Besides the Indus and the Ganges, Strabo mentions another river, the Silas, which flows in the
extreme north of India. Quoting Megasthenes, he says that the waters of this river may have
the magic property of preventing any body from floating. As Karttunen (1989) noticed, this
assertion coincides with a scholion of $imiJâtaka 541, v. 424-425:
Uttarena nadi sidā gambhirā duratikkamā,
Naḷaggivaṇṇā jotanti sadā kañcanapabbatā.
‘Sîdâ’s a river in the north, unnavigable, deep:
About it, like a fire of reeds, blaze golden mountains steep,
unnavigable, explains the scholiast, “because the water is so delicate, that even a peacock’s
feather will not float, but sinks to the bottom.” (transl. Cowell 2014).
To conclude his description of India, Strabo stresses the wealth of all the rivers of India: they
bring down gold-dust like Iberian rivers (Geography,15.1.69). With this comparison to
Spanish rivers, Strabo makes India an El Dorado, the object of many later projects of
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Arrian of Nicomedia, who lived in the second century AD, was an important general in the
Roman army. In the Anabasis he tells the story of Alexander, from his coming to the throne to
his death. Arrian structured the narrative by making the limits of each book correspond with
the borders that the Conqueror successively crossed. Thus, the fifth book takes Alexander
from Indus to Hyphasis; the sixth book deals with his return to Hydaspes, his descent of it by
boat to the southern sea, and his return to Persepolis. This narrative, a retelling of old events,
is based on the writings of two companions of Alexander, the engineer Aristobulus and the
general Ptolemy. As a good officer who likes the accuracy of military reports, Arrian borrows
from his sources all the indications that give a precise idea of Indian topography, and in
particular the rivers of the Punjab. Every time the narrative requires precision, he indicates the
width of rivers crossed by Alexander and the strength of their current. He also indicates that
the Acesines (Chenab) is 15-stade (2.7 km) wide at the point where Alexander crossed it,
“that his current is very swift, with great, sharp rocks; the water rushes down over them,
billowing and roaring” (Anabasis, 5.20.8). The Hydraotes (Ravi) is as broad as the Acesines
but not so swift in current (Anabasis, 5.21.4). It is much easier to cross.
For the long river journey to the South, Arrian, basing himself on Ptolemy, indicates the
number and shape of the vessels built by Alexander (Anabasis, 6.2.4). He also notes that the
Greek pilots had to adapt their navigation technique to the regime of rivers. For example,
when they reach the turbulent confluence of the Hydaspes and the Acesines,
the steersmen directed the sailors to row as strenuously as possible and get out of the
narrows, so that the ships might not be caught in the whirlpools and be capsized by them, but
that they should master the eddies of the water by their rowing (Anabasis, 6.5.1)
But Arrian does not retain the technical precision of his sources. Furthermore, he is attracted
to the human element in the Greek invaders’ adventure. That is why he tries to reconstitute
the atmosphere of this Indian campaign. Like a filmmaker creating fictitious documentaries,
Arrian describes, for example, the quiet departure for the great sea:
there was nothing like the sound of the rowing, with so many ships rowing at one and the
same moment, and the shouts of the boatswains giving the time for every stroke, and of the
rowers when they struck the foaming water all together and huzza’d. (Anabasis, 6.3.3)
As if making the soundtrack of a documentary, Arrian suggests here a contrast with the
cacophony of the first crossing of the Hydaspes, a few months earlier, “during the night, when
the thunder-claps and the rain counteracted the clatter of the arms and the commotion arising
from the commands” (Anabasis, 5.12.3)
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------However, the experience of the soldiers matters less for Arrian than the character of their
leader. Indeed, the accounts of crossing or sailing on the Indian rivers are especially used to
emphasize the exceptional qualities of Alexander. The conqueror is at first a remarkable
strategist who prepares the crossings of rivers by a meticulous exploration of the topography:
for example, he prepares the first crossing of the Hydaspes, noticing a wooded headland that
faces a wooded island, “both places being suited to hide the attempt at crossing.” (Anabasis,
Furthermore, Alexander does not hesitate to employ stratagems to deceive the enemy. Before
he crossed the Hydaspes, he took the greater part of his cavalry in this and that direction along
the banks, with shouts and war-cries. When this had been going on for some time, the Indian
king Porus stopped following the directions in which the cavalry moved. So the Indian scouts
warned Poros too late when Alexander really crossed the Hydaspes (Anabasis, 5.3.4).
Alexander is also an excellent warrior who gives his soldiers an example of great physical
courage, often leading the most risky operations: thus he is the first to get to the other side of
the Hydaspes (Anabasis, 5.13.2).
Alexander thus takes risks for himself, but on the other hand he knows also how to protect the
lives of his men: he saved the survivors among the sailors who had been shipwrecked in the
confluence of the Hydaspes and the Acesines (Anabasis, 6.5.4). Alexander wants to be on
good terms with his soldiers. He also wants to be on good terms with the gods. That is why he
offers to his gods a propitiatory sacrifice every time the crossing of a river looks dangerous
(before crossing the Indus in Anabasis, 5.3.6.; before crossing the Acesines again in Anabasis,
5.29.5) and a sacrifice of thanksgiving each time he safely arrives on the other bank (for
example in Anabasis, 5.20.1). When he reaches the edge of Hyphasis, the negative judgment
of the soothsayers after examination of the sacrificial entrails corresponds, as if by magic, to
the refusal of the Macedonian soldiers to go further east (Anabasis, 5.28.4). Alexander can
thus order his army to turn back without losing face.
As Bosworth (1995) says in his commentary, Arrian uses the historian companions of
Alexander to make his account credible and lively. He paints the laudatory portrait of a
fearless conqueror who regards the Indian rivers sometimes as obstacles, sometimes as good
ways to travel.
In the third century CE, an anonymous writer called the pseudo-Callisthenes composed in
Alexandria The Life and Deeds of Alexander of Macedon, a fictionalized biography we call
the recensio vetusta of the Greek Alexander Romance. The conquest of India is treated in
eight chapters of the third book, a small space compared with the 126 chapters of the whole
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For the Indian episode, the pseudo-Callisthenes follows approximately the chronological
order, but local or temporal precision does not matter to him. The only Indian river he
mentions by name is the Hydaspes: “It runs into the countries of the East governed by a very
powerful king” (Greek Alexander Romance, 3.4). The novelist mistakes here the Hydaspes, at
the bank of which Alexander defeated Poros, for the Hyphasis, beyond which his troops
refused to follow him; furthermore, the sovereign about whom he speaks seems to be the
powerful king of Maghada who reigned over the high valley of the Ganges, was capable of
mobilizing an immense army, and frightened the Macedonian troops. In spite of the historical
reality, the novelist asserts that Alexander decided to campaign against this powerful king.
But Alexander is wounded when attacking a city, which incites him to give up the conquest.
From that moment, he wants rather to discover the curiosities of India. He writes a long letter
about them to his former teacher Aristotle 2 (Greek Alexander Romance, 3.17 i. e. Supplement
I in the translation of Stoneman 1991). This letter breaks the linearity of the account, but it
allows the novelist to accumulate marvel upon marvel. Alexander says he saw a city built on
stilts of bamboo in the middle of a river. The soldiers wanted to drink the water of the river,
but it was more bitter than hellebore. According to some commentators, this is characteristic
of non-Indian rivers, notably salty rivers of the Touranian plain (see Bounoure, Appendix 1,
note 27). All buildings of the city were made from bamboo. The city itself was hidden by
immense bamboo walls and defended by bamboo dugouts which recalled the dugouts of reeds
already mentioned by Herodotus. A few soldiers of Alexander tried to swim to this
extraordinary city, but hippopotami came and seized the men. Therefore, the pseudoCallisthenes superimposed different images of exotic rivers to invent a strange river, very
protective towards the natives and very hostile towards the foreigners.
But this episode of the forbidden river city is also the result of the crossing of various literary
genres. Historical and real ethnographic data may be the starting point: it may well be that
Alexander really saw on the bank of an Indian river a city of fishermen, built on piles. From
these data, the pseudo-Callisthenes developed a wonderful universe where the river city
becomes a forbidden city defended not only by human sentinels, but also by hippopotami who
are almost as terrible as the monstrous man-eaters of the Homeric epic. This poikilia
(variegation) is typical of the Greek novel.
There were several letters of Alexander to Aristotle in the Greek world; either as independent papers, or
included in the various versions of the Alexander romance.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Palladios, who lived from 363 CE to 431 CE) was a Christian monk, and later the bishop of
Helenopolis in Bythinia, in the North-West of modern Turkey. He wrote at the end of the
fourth century a letter On the Peoples of India and the Brahmans, which under the mask of
exoticism was a way for him to denounce bad Christian monks.
This letter consists of two parts: in the first one, Palladios admits he has not gone personally
to the country of the Brahmans, which he locates not far from India and from China, along the
Ganges. He specifies that the Ganges is a river which is called in the Bible the Phisôn, “one of
the four rivers which were gushing from paradise” (On the Peoples of India and the
Brahmans, 1.1). Palladios probably found this equivalence between the Ganges and the
Phisôn in the Antiquities of the Jews of Josephus. The Jewish historian of the first century CE
actually wrote that “the Phison, which denotes abundance, running into India, makes its exit
into the sea and is by the Greeks called Ganges” (Antiquities of the Jews 1.3). By this biblical
allusion, Palladios suggests that the banks of the Ganges are somehow paradisiacal.
Palladios then describes the country of the Brahmans, using the testimony of a contemporary
lawyer, a native of Thebes in Egypt, who stayed for a long time at Taprobane (Sri Lanka) and
in India. According to this lawyer, the Brahmans live naked near the river. They possess
nothing, spend their time praying, and live on food gathering and fresh water. The male
Brahmans live on the bank of the river which is near the Ocean, the female Brahmans on the
bank which borders on India. Nevertheless, the male Brahmans cross the river in the summer
and stay for forty days with their wives to have children (On the Peoples of India and the
Brahmans, 1.11-13).
The Ganges thus plays an important role in birth control and in the demarcation of the
territories which belong to each gender of Brahmans. To insist on the bordering function of
the river, the Theban lawyer indicates that the Ganges is extremely difficult to cross, because
it is infested with odontotyrannoi, who are monstrous amphibians (perhaps gharials?3)
capable of gobbling up an elephant. But luckily these monsters leave the river when the
Brahmans visit their wives. The banks of the Ganges also accommodate snakes 70 cubits
long, big ants, huge scorpions, and crowds of elephants. Although the Theban lawyer
probably never read the historian companions of Alexander, he resorts to the same clichés
about the harmfulness and hugeness of the Indian fauna.
Palladios organizes the second part of his letter as a dialog between Dandamis, leader of the
Brahmans, and Alexander. This dialog refers to the testimony of Onesicritus, but in a very
The gharial (gavialis Gangeticus) is one of the longest of all living crocodilians, measuring up to 6.25 m, but it
is fish-eating.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------indirect way, being content with recalling that Onesicritus was Alexander's emissary. In the
dialog of Palladius, Dandamis contrasts the unlimited ambition of the Conqueror with the
wisdom of the Brahmans. These wise men know how to content themselves with little, are on
a vegetarian diet, and drink only the pure water of a river which Dandamis calls Tiberoboam.
Tiberoboam is probably a corruption of Erannnoboas, which Megasthenes named as the main
tributary of the Ganges (see Arrian, Indica 4.3 and 10.5). Filliozat (1986) thinks that
Erannoboas is the Tungabena in the Decan. Desantis (1992, 60 n44) suggests identifying this
river with the Ghagra, a tributary on the left side of the Ganges. Dandamis contrasts his
extreme sobriety to the taste for luxury shown by Calanos, the bad Brahman who did not
hesitate to leave the banks of Tiberoboam to follow Alexander to Persia (On the Peoples of
India and the Brahmans, 2.4).
Palladios thus uses the figure of Calanos to chastise the bad monks who give up their vows to
return to the profane world. Dandamis, on the contrary, represents the good monk: by
drinking “the water of wisdom” of the Tiberoboam, he attains the wisdom of a life lived in
sobriety and conformity to nature.
Thus, the Ganges and the Tiberoboam form an exotic and a symbolic decor in the Letter
about the Brahmans: they entertain the reader with their marvelous fauna, but they suggest at
the same time that paradise can only be found in renunciation.
To conclude, the information given by our four writers of the Roman imperial period
obviously depends on their literary project. The geographer Strabo and the historian Arrian
follow closely the companions of Alexander to give precise details on Indian rivers. The
novelist pseudo-Callisthenes and the polemicist Palladios make them an exotic decor and a
reservoir full of marvels. But all insist on the strangeness, the immensity and the
dangerousness of the rivers of the “Far-East”: so they were developing clichés which were to
continue after antiquity.
ARRIAN, Anabasis Alexandri, Books 5-7, transl. by BRUNT, PETER ASTBURY (1983), The Loeb
Classical Library, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, William Heinemann
AUBERGER, YANNICK (2005), Historiens d’Alexandre, collection Fragments, Paris: Les Belles
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------BOSWORTH, ALBERT (1995), Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander, vol.2, Oxford:
Clarendon Press.
COWELL, EDWARD B. (2014), new ed., The Jâtaka or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births,
vol.6, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 55-6.
CTESIAS, La Perse. l’Inde. Autres fragments, ed. and transl. by LENFANT, DOMINIQUE (2004),
Collection des Universités de France, Paris: Les Belles Lettres.
FILLIOZAT, JEAN (1986), L’Inde vue de Rome, Paris: Les Belles Lettres.
HERODOTUS, Histories, vol. 2, transl. by GODLEY, ALFRED DENIS (1921), The Loeb Classical
Library, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, William Heinemann Ltd.
JACOB, CHRISTIAN (1991), Géographie et ethnographie en Grèce ancienne, Paris: Armand
JACOBY, FELIX (1927), Die Fragmente der Griechischen Historiker, II B; II D, Berlin:
JOSEPHUS, The Jewish Antiquities, vol. 1, transl. by THACKERAY, HENRY ST. JOHN (1930),
The Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, William
Heinemann Ltd.
KARTTUNEN, KLAUS (1989), India in early Greek literature, Helsinki: the Finnish Oriental
PALLADIOS, I genti dell’ India e i Brahmani, transl. by DESANTIS, GIOVANNI (1992) Roma:
Città nuova.
PSEUDO-CALLISTHENES, Le Roman d’Alexandre, transl. by BOUNOURE, GILLES (1992), coll.
La roue à livres, Paris: Les Belles Lettres.
--------------------------, The Greek Alexander Romance, transl. by STONEMAN, RICHARD
(1991), London: Penguin Books.
SCHNEIDER, PIERRE (2004), L’Ethiopie et l’Inde. Interférences et confusions aux extrémités du
monde antique,Rome: Ecole française de Rome.
STRABO, Geography, vol. 1 and 7, transl. by JONES, HORACE, LEONARD (1966), The Loeb
Classical Library, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, William Heinemann
YOUNG, GARY KEITH (2001), Rome’s Eastern Trade: International Commerce and Imperial
Policy, 31BC-AD305, London: Routledge.
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[email protected]
Vol 2 2015, pp. 55-71, ISSN: 2339-8523
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------REPOSSESSIG ISLAM: AFFECTIVE IDETITY AD ISLAMIC
University of Cyprus
[email protected]
Received: 28-08-2014
Accepted: 21-12-2014
The present article argues that the processes which seem to have spawned the contemporary
generation of British jihadists started in 1980s Britain, when Thatcherite practices led to the rise
of racism and the suppression of dissident voices, a by-product of which was the disassociation
of Muslim immigrants from the host society. The result was that the next generation of
immigrants was much more prone to religious violence, attracted as it was towards the supposedly- stable sense of identity offered by Islamic fundamentalism. The issue of identity of
British Muslim immigrants is examined by revisiting Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album (1995),
whose narrative representations open up spaces in the British cultural landscape to intentionally
include the marginalised and disenfranchised. The hypothesis is that the essentialist choice
faced by his characters within the conflictual context generated by the clash of Islamic
fundamentalism and sexual liberation is similar to the one diasporic subjects face today. The
argument is that the process of thinking about identity in affective terms, based on the theories
of the likes of Brian Massumi and Deleuze and Guattari, gestures towards a new way of
addressing questions of belonging for diasporic subjects, which can have a profound effect on
the perception of issues such as religious fundamentalism and social integration.
Islamic Fundamentalism; British Muslims; Immigrants; Diasporic Identities;
Affect; Desire
La recuperación del islam: la identidad afectiva y el fundamentalismo islámico en
la obra de Hanif Kureishi
El presente artículo sostiene que los procesos que parecen haber dado origen a la generación
contemporánea de yihadistas británicos se iniciaron en la Gran Bretaña de los años ochenta,
época en la que las prácticas tatcherianas condujeron al incremento del racismo y a la supresión
de las voces disidentes, lo cual dio como resultado la disociación de los inmigrantes
musulmanes de la sociedad que los acogió. En consecuencia, la siguiente generación de
inmigrantes mostró una mayor propensión a la violencia religiosa y al, presuntamente estable,
sentido de identidad que ofrecía el fundamentalismo islámico. El problema de identidad de los
inmigrantes musulmanes británicos se examina mediante una nueva revisión de la obra The
Black Album de Hanif Kureishi (1995), cuyas representaciones narrativas abren espacios en el
ambiente cultural británico para incluir de manera intencional a los marginados y privados de
derechos civiles. La hipótesis consiste en que la elección esencialista a la que se enfrentan los
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------personajes dentro del contexto conflictual generado por el choque del fundamentalismo islámico
con la liberación sexual es similar a aquella a la que los individuos de la diáspora se enfrentan
en la actualidad. El argumento sostiene que el proceso de pensar en la identidad en términos
afectivos, basándose en las teorías de los afectos de Brian Massumi y Deleuze y Guattari,
muestra una nueva manera de abordar los interrogantes sobre la identidad nacional de los
individuos de la diáspora, la cual puede tener un profundo efecto en la percepción de problemas
tales como el fundamentalismo religioso y la integración social.
CLAVE: fundamentalismo
identidades de la diáspora; afecto; deseo
The Affective ature of Identity
It seemed to me that [...] younger kids would be interested in what I was interested in:
Bhangra music, pop culture, all that stuff. But they had completely rejected all of that,
and I was really shocked, because those kids were as English as me. They were born
and raised in England, yet they rejected the West. They hated it. Boys from
Birmingham were burning books by Muslim writers who were making fun of Islam.
This wasn't some ancient tradition. I mean, there are all kinds of liberal ideas in the
Muslim tradition, anyway. Pretending that this fundamentalism was the only Islam was
definitely a modern thing. A kind of repossession of Islam (Hanif Kureishi, in Amitava,
Undeniably, the dynamics of sexual identities in Britain during the last three decades
have not been thoroughly examined, especially since the basic contention for addressing
questions of belonging has been the issue of race. I argue that such a limited scope for
defining identity, especially pertaining to the Muslim South Asian Diaspora in Britain,
has led to violent expressions on both sides, what with the emergence of neo-Nazi
movements such as the National Front in the 1980s and the religious violence in
London in 2005 and today in Syria and Iraq. One of the reasons for such culminations is
the inability or unwillingness of the host society to properly understand the complexity
and polyvalent nature of identity and sense of belonging in second- and third-generation
immigrants in Britain from the 1980s until this very day. It has been argued that the
feelings of alienation and disassociation certain diasporic subjects experience today, a
situation that reflects that of previous generations of immigrants, has led to a longing for
a coherent sense of identity in Islamic fundamentalism, which functions as a refuge for
people (Malik, 2009, From Fatwa to Jihad). If we are to interrogate such hegemonic
discourses on the formation of identities in Britain then, we would have to move away
from seeing race as the only marker for identity, which is the scope of the present
article. Instead, I argue, we can turn towards the affective nature of identity and towards
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------a re-imagining of desire. Such a re-imagining functions as a means of disrupting
ongoing discussions on identity and the nation, which is what the British-born author
Hanif Kureishi -himself a second-generation immigrant from the Indian subcontinentdid in his fiction on the very subject of fundamentalism some 20 years ago. A need to
retrospectively examine his characters’ affective choices arises then (like Shahid in his
1995 novel The Black Album), vis-a-vis fundamentalism and sexual liberation, as their
dilemmas reflect similar ones British Muslims are faced with today. If we manage to do
so, the basic contention becomes that if postcolonial literature becomes more socially
aware, it can gesture towards a new perspective on the complexity of diasporic
identity/ies, one that takes into consideration the unsung affective aspect. At the same
time it would also underline the possibilities of challenging seemingly uniform spaces
by subverting traditional understandings of the nation and ideas of belonging in Britain,
as affective terms are used to re-imagine such concepts. Such an outcome would
underline Kureishi’s significance as a cultural instigator and hence, as still an influential
contributor to contemporary culture, while at the same time providing us with insights
into how the need to define oneself became inextricably linked not with race but with
religion, as the horrible events we bear witness to today in the Middle East illustrate. In
effect, if we are to understand the threat modern-day transnational jihadism and
especially a Western-bred one poses to peace and security, we have to go back to the
beginning. I argue that a more didactic nature of literature then can -and must- have a
significant role in that.
But exactly how can an affective re-imagining of identity in literature have any social
meaning and real-life application? In other words, how can fantasy affect reality?
Jacques Derrida’s notion of desire pertains to a state of lacking (something), so when
one eventually obtains that which one did not have but had longed for, desire ceases to
be a “lack” and therefore, it is not a desire anymore; by its very nature then, desire is
unattainable and unrealisable. It is important to note the connection between desire and
society here, as desire is already invested in social formation, which is what creates that
interest; in turn, that which creates the sense of lacking. Insofar as I am interested in the
way desire actually produces reality, and moving beyond the psychoanalytic view of
desire as “lack”, for the purposes of this article I put forward a different view based on
Deleuze and Guattari’s idea in Anti-Oedipus, that “lack” should not be identified with
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------desire; rather desire constitutes production in the social field. Deleuze and Guattari
analyse the ways in which desire is inextricably intertwined to reality and in particular,
to capitalist society, addressing questions pertaining to history, society and human
psychology: for them desire, in its anarchic state, produces reality. I specifically read
desire then, as a subliminal power that has revolutionary qualities and, therefore, social
and political potential, exactly because of its amorphous nature and, therefore, its
inability to be categorised. Sara Upstone has argued in “A Question of Black or White”
(2008), that if theoretical texts and images such as novels and films, were read in the
wake of their direct social engagement with the real world, then the alienation and
disaffection of certain communities within a host society might have been addressed
earlier; I argue that this can be done specifically if we focus on the affective nature of
that social engagement which pertains to questions of belonging. To move this idea
further, I attempt a coming together of the theories on desire of Deleuze and Guattari
and Brian Massumi; indeed this anarchic state of desire can be explained by bringing
the concept of affect into the discussion. In Parables for the Virtual, Brian Massumi
argues that affect is a non-conscious experience of intensity, a moment of unformed and
unstructured potential which is anarchic and therefore not limited (2002: 30). It is my
belief that not despite, but because of this anarchic state of desire, a space of
possibilities vis-a-vis identity especially for socially marginalised groups, such as
British Muslims, is opened up.
It is true that there is a dialectical process between desire and sexuality in Hanif
Kureishi. Based on such a reading of desire then, I read sexuality as not limited to the
interaction of female and male roles; rather, I put forward –similarly to my reading of
the concept of desire–, a sense of multiplicity that sexuality creates through the
production of reality. Sexuality is not, by any means binary in the sense that it is limited
to the sexual act between heterosexual gender-opposites. On the contrary, as Deleuze
and Guattari argue, “making love is not just becoming as one, or even two, but
becoming as a hundred thousand…we always made love with worlds” (1972: 296). If
we are to contextualise the aftermath of the dialectical processes such issues are
engaged in within historical, societal and political frames, it can be demonstrated that
“there are no desiring machines that exist outside the social machines that they form on
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------a large scale; and no social machines without the desiring machines that inhabit them on
a small scale” (1972: 340). Desire is a machine connected to another machine which is
the object of desire; thus, to the extent that the desiring production can be socially
generated, I attempt to unravel the implications behind its different manifestations
within the social realm, focusing on the issue of identity.
What is made evident today is that the manifestation of Islamic fundamentalism -and
consequently Islamophobia- emphasises the lack of coherence and unity of the idea of a
black community (Desai, 2004: 65) which is why we should examine whether there can
be a sense of diasporic identity that pertains to affective terms, stemming from its
unformed and unstructured matrix. Hanif Kureishi’s preoccupation with issues such as
Islamic fundamentalism points to a social aspect of postcolonial literature which
embodies a post-ethnic reality that no longer solely pertains to race in addressing
questions of belonging. Sara Upstone argues that The Black Album constitutes such “a
central text for a more socially aware, materially concerned, and politically engaged
postcolonialism” (6). Such a revisiting of the aesthetic and social characteristics of
literature based on a retrospective examination of Kureishi’s work can provide useful
insights for the new nature of the relationship between the two, effectively increasing
the importance of desire which rises as a viable alternative to a hitherto largely racially
defined identity, all the while moving religious fundamentalism into the spotlight. We
are then called to understand the notion of contemporary nation and consequently
national identity as a “post-racial space of linkages, synchronicities and equivalences
that far surpasses the solipsism of cultural diversity, racial difference or narrow national
exclusivity” (McLeod 48). In hindsight then, Kureishi’s post-1990 work can be situated
within what McLeod has called “contemporary black writing” (2010: 45), a kind of
writing that no longer pertains exclusively to race.
“From Fatwa to Jihad”
The results of our indifference towards the real-world connotations of imaginative
pieces of writing culminated in the most horrific way, namely in the active participation
of third-generation British immigrants (like, Mohammed Emwazi, the British jihadistexecutioner nicknamed “Jihadi John”) in the most brutal regime of our time, the Islamic
State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Currently, according to the Economist, around 600
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Britons have gone to fight with the Islamic State and most of them are disillusioned or
disturbed when they return. The British government has initiated a de-radicalisation
program called Channel, which aims to divert people from extremism. The same
process is followed in Denmark, where the thinking behind counselling returning
jihadists is that the young men who went to fight in Syria and Iraq were people with few
prospects who did not feel welcome in Danish society, a process Kenan Malik agrees
with and points out that the same happened in Britain (From Fatwa to Jihad, 2009). I
argue that their actions can be attributed -albeit to a point as the process of becoming a
fundamentalist is of course a highly complex one to be attributed to a single cause- to a
social estrangement from their host society, the traces of which we bore witness to in
the early 1990s with the radicalisation in British mosques. It is true that the Thatcher
decade left a lot of people angry, discontented and detached; British Muslims more so
than others. Thus, as they started seeking a stable sense of identity elsewhere, the nature
of a new struggle was underlined and new complexities started to arise. This shift was
noticed by Kureishi after doing research in London mosques, and The Black Album was
the result of his work. However, not only were Kureishi’s new preoccupations not taken
seriously but, on the contrary, because he did not deal with Thatcher anymore, certain
concerns were raised by critics such as Mahmood Jamal and Ruvani Ranasinha who, in
“Dirty Linen” (1988) and Hanif Kureishi (2001) respectively, lamented the aesthetic
decline of the author and challenged his political status. It can be argued, however, that
even though it might be true that Kureishi’s later work did not have the same allure as
the aesthetic levels of My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) or The Buddha of Suburbia
(1990), the addressing of social issues such as religious violence underlines the shifting
importance of religion in questions of belonging in 1990s Britain and indeed, in today’s
world. Thus, the unravelling of the nature behind the interaction between the aesthetic
and the political qualities of a novel, as well as the extent to which this interaction
pertains to society at large, must be the scope of such a revisiting.
Even though one cannot argue that Islamic identity politics started with the Rushdie
affair, it can be said that the fatwa against the author caused the ensuing rage, feelings
of discontent and religious fervour to surface. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie, who
was a close friend of the author, shocked Kureishi:
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------It changed the direction of my writing. Unlike Salman, I had never taken a real interest
in Islam. I come from a Muslim family. But they were middle-class – intellectuals,
journalists, writers– very anti-clerical. I was an atheist, like Salman, like many Asians
of our generation were. I was interested in race, in identity, in mixture, but never in
Islam. The fatwa changed all that. I started researching fundamentalism. I started
visiting mosques, talking to Islamists (In Malik, 2009, “Kureishi on the Rushdie
What he found amazed him. He could not understand why these people, born and raised
in the West, hated their country so much. In an interview to Mick Brown, he expresses
his disgust at what he found, labelling the people there as:
...fascists. Vile. Horrible. You’d want to have a bath afterwards. And the hatred of the
West, unspeakable. I mean I hated the West, too, I hated imperialism and all the bad
things. But this was a vicious hatred and a deep feeling of violence that was
unspeakable. And it’s an attack on everything I love – liberal values, free speech, the
whole thing (Brown, 2011).
It is understandable then that this more concerned Kureishi who started considering
issues that proved to have a tremendous effect on British society in the future. It could
be argued that the strong feelings created by his research that clearly imbued his later
work, the connotations of which are the aims of this retrospective examination. Kureishi
knew that touching upon religious issues was not at all an easy undertaking, but it was a
battle he was prepared to fight. Indeed, he believed that his examination of
fundamentalism in Britain would create tension, but it was an argument worth having. In
an interview with MacCabe, he says:
I don’t like fundamentalists, and fundamentalists don’t like writers. So you know, there
is going to be a kind of animosity between us from the start. But it’s an argument worth
having and it is worth engaging with the fundamentalists. And I would want them to
engage with me too. But it’s difficult. But I try (2004: 43).
Such a preoccupation with the contemporary realities of Britain in the 1990s is what led
Bart Moore-Gilbert to argue that Kureishi’s work can be located particularly within “the
condition of England” genre (2002: 110); this statement is true even more so today
because the British jihadists are a reflection of the condition of England today. It is true
that Kureishi has always been interested in the relationship between the real nature of
people and their ideologies -be it cultural, political or religious-, which are props in the
identity game, as they all require a measure of conformity. Fundamentalism, with its
narrow, monocultural worldview, is nothing if not an extreme ideology. Kureishi looked
into it from a political perspective, underlying that his shift of focus from Thatcherism
to Islamic fundamentalism was not as disparate as some people may have thought:
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------“Islam is rather like Thatcherism. It’s an intoxicating force to test yourself against” (Qtd
in Eberstadt, 1995: 118). This goes on to testify to the fact that Kureishi shifted his
focus after the loss of the political conflict of the 1980s which inspired him and
informed his work, towards this new order that was created in the post-Thatcherite
years, contextualised by religion. In that, a new space was created, in which conflicts
were still created and Kureishi manifested desire in a way so as to compensate for the
limiting perspective of Islamic fundamentalism. It is important to note, however, that
Kureishi’s critique was not directed at religions in general. Rather, he was more
preoccupied with the extreme version of religions, which affected the identity formation
process in Britain. Indeed, even though he believed that religions are, in reality,
illusions, he recognised at the same time their importance:
You can’t ask people to give up their religion; that would be absurd. Religions may be
illusions, but these are important and profound illusions. But they will modify as they
come into contact with other ideas. This is what an effective multiculturalism is: not a
superficial exchange of festivals and food, but a robust and committed exchange of
ideas – a conflict which is worth enduring,rather than a war (2005: 100).
In effect then, Kureishi reads multiculturalism not in the way it has been celebrated but
in a way that is closer to its true nature, as he sees possibilities in religions but only
when they come into contact with other ideas, something that fundamentalism, by
definition, rejects. One such idea is the manifestation of desire and sexuality in his
characters in works such as The Black Album.
During his research for this novel and the short story “My Son the Fanatic” (1994),
Kureishi discovered that, along with sexual pleasure, young British fundamentalists had
also rejected other kinds of pleasures, so familiar to him. So the question becomes: how
can this relationship be transformed by affective terms, so that it does not function
unequally? The answer can be found, I argue, in looking at the possibilities that a sense
of an affective nature of diasporic identities can offer, especially as a way out of the
limits of religious fundamentalism. This is how desire, in the possibilities it offers
because of its anarchic state, can produce reality, in offering a “way out” for those thirdgeneration immigrants who refuse to either be totally assimilated by their host nation which would eradicate their identity- or be totally dissociated from it, which can lead to
violence, either domestic or international.
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Revisiting The Black Album
Kureishi’s The Black Album (1995) engages directly with the Rushdie Affair, even
though Salman Rushdie is not named in the book at all. The issue of Islamic
fundamentalism is looked at through the lens of desire and sexuality, and as we identify
the implications behind their interaction, we realise Kureishi’s significance in keeping
up with –or, some might argue, in being ahead of– the times. Indeed, it is argued that
the dilemma Shahid Hassan (the protagonist) is faced with and the ramifications of his
choice, reflect the choice many third-generation immigrants face today vis-a-vis
questions of belonging and the dangers of being assimilated in the rubric of Islamic
fundamentalism, which inevitably leads to violence. The Black Album follows Shahid’s
oscillating desire for Riaz, the leader of a local Islamist group, and for Deedee Osgood,
his sexually liberated teacher. It narrates an intersection of the social realm and
especially its rising religious fundamentalism and sexual desire. Sex, drugs and
pornography are paraded for the audience through the relationship between Shahid and
Deedee. Their relationship testifies to how Shahid accepts the fluid nature not only of
his own self but of society at large, through his own erotic alteration. The conflict
comes with the juxtaposition of sexual abstinence, in Riaz’s group, and a hedonistic
lifestyle in Deedee, with Shahid caught between them. He is drawn to both of them and
the novel culminates in what is Shahid’s final moment of decision, which comes when
Riaz’s group organises a burning of Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses (albeit not
named) on campus. In this scene, Kureishi shows the final clash of sexual expression
and religious violence, as I maintain that the two are, in fact, much more correlated than
we may have thought. Abstinence from sexual pleasure, advocated by fundamentalists,
can lead the repressed to violence while sexual expression can be seen as an alternative
system to religious, limiting views of the world. And it seems that the burning of the
book is a failure of imagination instead of a triumph of religion in that it is not Islam
that emerges victorious from that scene; rather it is a testimony to the complex nature
between religious violence and desire.
At first, Shahid is torn, trying to find his identity between the pleasures afforded to him
by the culture he lives in, embodied in the sexually adventurous relationship with
Deedee, and the religious fervour and denial of pleasure by the charismatic Riaz. Riaz
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Al-Hussain, the strong leader of the Islamic student group, fascinates Shahid, as he has
a new sense of identity to offer to the troubled young man, much like second- and thirdgeneration Muslim immigrants found a stable sense of identity in religious
fundamentalism, something that can be marked down as a failure of their host society to
offer the same:
These days everyone was insisting on their identity, coming out as a man, woman, gay,
black, Jew – brandishing whichever features they could claim, as if without a tag they
wouldn’t be human. Shahid, too, wanted to belong to his people (1995: 34).
In sharp contrast to the strict Islamic way of life, Kureishi positions the hedonistic and
fetishistic Deedee, whose sexual connection with her student comes into clash with
Islamic beliefs. There are two contrasting definitions of ideology here, a “coherent body
of ideas that legitimates political rule… [and] a form of thought or identity springing
not from the ruling elite, but rather from a section of the populace” (Upstone, 2001).
Sara Upstone argues that what unites them is their need for defining a context within
which individuals locate themselves and their relationship to society. Religion denies
pleasure to its disciples in exchange for a perceived stable sense of identity. However,
Kureishi believed that such a process of “Islamisation”, of re-explaining and
repossessing Islam for selfish purposes, did not build any hospitals, schools, houses, nor
did it clean water and install electricity. But it entailed a sense of direction and identity:
Moral mission[s] and the over-emphasis on dogma and punishment resulted in the kind
of strengthening of the repressive, militaristic and nationalistically aggressive state seen
all over the world in the authoritarian 1980s (2004: 26).
Consequently, this strong sense of identity fundamentalists believed they had found and
the strengthening of the repressive stance of the state collided and led to religious
violence a few years later as much as it started the violent process whose results we
witness today.
The two worlds clash violently by the end of the novel, which also gestures towards the
past burdening on the present. For Kureishi, tradition seems to create a sense of false
I compared the collective hierarchy of the family and the performance of my family’s
circle with my feckless, rather rootless life in London, in what was called the “inner
city”. There I lived alone, and lacked any long connection with anything…People came
and went. There was much false intimacy and forced friendship. People didn’t take
responsibility for each other. Many of my friends…didn’t merely want to reproduce the
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------old patterns of living. The future was to be determined by choice and reason, not by
custom (1996: 38).
Indeed, for him, the burden of the past disguised as tradition can be held responsible for
people’s current view of society, which, in turn, can bring about a new wave of
essentialist choices. In Kenan Malik’s From Fatwa to Jihad, Anandi Ramamurthy
argues that the formation of the Asian Youth Movement in Bradford was an expression
of the failure of “white” left organisations in Britain to effectively address the issues
that affected Asian communities (2009: 52). We see a similar situation in Kureishi’s My
Beautiful Laundrette (1985) where the character of the protagonist’s father, is an
embodiment and a critique of the failed Left, which did not provide a viable alternative
to Thatcherite policies. So, it seems that we can connect those two major events in the
1980s and today, namely the fatwa against Rushdie and the Jihad today with the
alienation that young British Muslims felt, as the past -in the form of “the religion of
our fatherland”- weighted on the present, affecting many of them. At the same time, we
need to note that the failed Left could not offer a solution to right-wing identity policies
which favoured heteronormative masculinity, racism and militancy, excluding thus from
the national rubric people and communities such as homosexuals, Muslims, blacks etc.
Naturally, such processes led to the alienation of these communities which in turn, led
to violence. Kenan Malik reminds us of the Mullah Boys of Beeston, a gang led by two
of the people who would later carry out the London bombings in 2005 (Mohammed
Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer), arguing that those boys were consumed by rage, a
loss of identity and getting caught between “no cultures”, having found the expression
for their personal alienation in the spurious legitimacy of extremism (Gazi, 2009). It
seems then that radical British Muslims got -albeit inadvertently- entangled in a
Manichean position of “us and them” and “good and evil” -a situation that reflects the
contemporary one- where pleasure was banned and the consequences of this were grave.
And this was an issue that troubled Kureishi:
It perplexed me that young people, brought up in secular Britain, would turn to a form
of belief that denied them the pleasures of the society in which they lived…Why did
they wish to maintain such a tantalizing relation to their own enjoyment, keeping it so
fervently in mind, only to deny it? Or was this Puritanism a kind of rebellion, a brave
refusal of the order of the age – an oversexualized but sterile society? (2005: 23).
This relationship between past and present, read within the context of pleasure, seems to
inform the ending of The Black Album. I argue that, just as Shahid, through choosing
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------desire over religion, is able to dictate the path towards his own future, escaping
essentialist choices, the same can be said about the choice British Muslims face today.
Thus, it seems that sexual pleasure and played-out desires within the historical context
created by the clash of past and present, can actually generate reality. After all, the
entire socio-political field can be seen as a product of desire which is historically
determined (Deleuze and Guattari, 1972: 18). It can be argued then that this realitygenerating sense of desire can grant freedom, pointing towards a path which MooreGilbert positions “between apoliticism and militancy” (2002: 115). As he is being
translated from one culture to the other, Shahid wants recognition and acceptance from
South Asians and British alike. In the end it all comes down to a sense of choice of
where to belong. Shahid does not accept the traditional mentality as this would
automatically impose restrictions and limitations to his life, as he would have to adhere
to the essentialist binaries that come with it. This refusal has a twofold meaning, the
first of which is the uneasiness of the members of the South Asian diasporic community
in Britain with succumbing to limitations passed down from their colonial past.
Secondly, it reveals Kureishi’s vision for a future society which comprises all
polycultural aspects of its population, a vision not shared by today’s British
fundamentalists. Desire then enables characters to avoid their entanglement into the ageold either-or position and shows that there is another way in their quest for a place in
society, in that it enables them to escape the burden of tradition. It seems then that
Kureishi rejects the old views in favour of a view of a future for Britain without
imposed limitations and without allowing the past to weigh down the present,
encouraging a cross-communal and transcultural understanding in the process.
In the end, Shahid’s choice is a rejection of traditional thinking based on race or
nationality, in exchange for his sexual life with Deedee. One could argue that Kureishi
does not explore Shahid as such; rather, he re-inscribes him and the sexual
manifestations of his identity, pointing to a new generation of immigrants who could
escape tradition as a burden. He re-inscribes Shahid as someone who, not despite of, but
because of his impossible position between cultures and identities, is able to dictate his
own terms of belonging. Such a choice suggests alternative modes of belonging defined
by cultural diversity rather than cultural (or racial) uniformity. I argue then that it is
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------possible for British Muslims to rethink their sense of belonging today in affective terms
which would offer hope for the future as imagination is not consumed by
fundamentalism anymore:
The antidote to Puritanism isn’t licentiousness, but the recognition of what goes on
inside human beings…Fundamentalism is dictatorship of the mind, but a lived culture is
an exploration, and represents our endless curiosity about our own strangeness and
impossible sexuality: wisdom is more important than doctrine; doubt more important
than certainty. Fundamentalism implies the failure of our most significant attribute, our
imagination (The Black Album 283).
Brian Massumi is brought to mind here, as he reads affect as “a suspension of affectreaction circuits and linear temporality in a sink of what might be called passion” (2002:
29). This suspension constitutes a temporary solution to the impossible position of
having to choose sides, as Shahid finds himself within a temporal and liminal space.
What is more, Marco Abel has argued that affect is not defined as a thought, but rather
as something associated with sentiment and feeling, and as something that lacks
rationality (2007: 11). Thus, Shahid’s sexual, cultural and religious experimentation and
the corresponding relevant aspects of identity, go on to testify to the need of the
individual to choose a fluid identity and an ever-changing self as opposed to the strict
limits Muslim fundamentalists define themselves in, which drives them to fight their
host society and its values. Kureishi’s elucidation is to present identity as a process, as
having an unstable and ever-changing nature, which allows his characters, and by
association himself and the members of the diasporic community, not to choose sides, a
process that Bart Moore-Gilbert has termed a “third way out” (2002: 115), as Shahid
chooses passion over politics. This is a choice, indeed, which people like modern
British fundamentalists fighting in the Middle East clearly did not make. On the
contrary and in hindsight, Riaz can be read as the fictional representation of people like
“Jihadi John” (even though it cannot be said that he represents or symbolises all
fundamentalists) who force people to face harsh choices. In the wake of this clash
between secularism, sexuality and religion, desire functions as a counterbalance to the
political nature of religion, as it is understood by fundamentalism, thus not only being
elevated, but also enabling the characters to escape the essentialist either/or position.
And it is the implications of the violent scene at the end of the book, with the burning of
the book at the university campus, that transcend the primary subject matter, as the true
“practice and pedagogical force” (Abel, 2007: xiv) of literary images is unveiled.
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Attending to the effects provoked by the reality of this violent image in literature, one
has to think of these images in affective terms, as Abel argues, rather than “addressing
them on the level of their representational quality, as is commonly done” (2007: xiv).
Radical Islam and Imagination
Kureishi has said that “Muslim fundamentalism has always seemed to me to be
profoundly wrong, unnecessarily restrictive and frequently cruel. But there are reasons
for its revival…it is...degrading to be a victim in your own country. If you feel
excluded, it might be tempting to exclude others” (1994: xi-xii). This sums up perfectly
the reasons behind what is happening today with ISIL and British fundamentalists.
Because they feel excluded from the western type of life - just like their parents and
their grandparents in the 1990s and 1980s-, they are susceptible to resort to violence in
order to exclude others. However, this article has argued that if we start thinking about
identity in affective terms and, given that such an examination can lead to a generating
of reality, then the very real violent issues associated with the discontents of religion
and questions of belonging in Britain today, can be addressed. It seems then that desire
is transformed into a positive, productive force, especially in terms of subjectivity and
belonging for members of the Muslim South Asian diasporic community in Britain and
British society as a whole, as opposed to the limiting function of Islamic
fundamentalism. Such a reading gestures towards a creation of a space of possibilities
which, in turn, can lead to new ways of imagining identity and subjectivity.
As long as this is not done, imagination and all its trajectories will continue to lose the
battle against fundamentalism. As Faisal Gazi argues in an article in The Guardian, the
Muhammad cartoons scandal and Random House’s decision to retract the publication of
Sherry Jones’s novel The Jewel of Medina after an online thread on a discussion forum
are just two instances of how the grievance of radical Islam is winning the battle against
Enlightenment values (2009). Random House’s statement reads that “not only the
publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also
it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment” (2008). It seems then that
the threat of violence -albeit an indirect one- and fear have damaged imagination. This
alienated “small, radical segment” is exactly the by-product of the processes started in
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------the 1980s and 1990s, as has been argued in the present article. Thus, reading identity in
affective terms can be a solution to that problem, in that it offers a new way of thinking,
pertaining to the social aspect of literature produced in the 1980s, a similar era of
discontents as today, when the seeds of contemporary violence were planted. I argue
that novels such as The Black Album are first and foremost “Zeitgeist” texts, a
characteristic that goes beyond their aesthetic value. Indeed, they are literary works
about the spirit of the times, engaging directly with very serious, contemporary
problems such as Islamic fundamentalism. Had such literary production pertaining to
affective issues been viewed not only in its aesthetic importance, but within a social
context and had it been understood that such works could have had a profound effect
on the grim reality we are facing today, we may have anticipated the alienation of
certain groups that led to religious violence. Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses has
said that “a poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start
arguments, shape the world, and stop it from going to sleep. And if rivers of blood flow
from the cuts his verses inflict, then they will nourish him” (1988: 97). Similarly,
Kureishi, defending such a scope of the text and talking about the role of the artist, asks:
“But don’t writers try to explain genocide and that kind of thing? Novels are like a
picture of life” (1995: 21). It seems then that literature, above and beyond its aesthetic
value, has a very significant role to play in issues such as identity, estrangement and
feelings of discontent especially among members of the Diaspora, as exemplified by its
power to affect reality.
ABEL, MARCO (2007). Violent Affect: Literature, Cinema and Critique after
Representation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska.
AMITAVA, KUMAR (2001). “A Bang and a Whimper: A Conversation with Hanif
Kureishi.” Transition 10:4: 114-131.
BROWN, MICK (2011). “A Life Laid Bare.” Interview with Hanif Kureishi. Telegraph
GUATTARI, FELIX (1972). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and
Schizophrenia. London: Penguin.
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------DESAI, JIGNA (2004). Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of South Asian
Diasporic Film. New York: Routledge.
EBERSTADT, FERNANDA (1995). “Rebel, Rebel.” The 3ew Yorker, 71: 25: 117-120.
GAZI, FAISAL (2009). “Britain Since the Fatwa”. The Guardian, Online version, 14
GIDDA, MIRREN (2014). “No Place Like Home: What to Do When Jihadists
Return”. 18 Nov 2014, BBC News.
KUREISHI, HANIF (1996). “The Rainbow Sign”, in My Beautiful Laundrette and Other
Writings. London: Faber and Faber, 1985.
-------------------- (1990). The Buddha of Suburbia. London: Faber and Faber.
-------------------- (1995). The Black Album. London: Faber and Faber.
-------------------- (1997). My Son the Fanatic. London: Faber and Faber.
-------------------- (2005). The Word and the Bomb. London: Faber and Faber.
MACCABE, COLIN (2004). “Hanif Kureishi on London.” Critical Quarterly 41.3: 37-56.
MAHMOOD, JAMAL (1988). “Dirty Linen.” in Black Film, British Cinema, ICA
Documents, London: British Film Institute, 21-22.
MALIK, KENAN (2009). From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy.
London: Atlantic.
------------------ (2009). “Kureishi on the Rushdie Affair.” In Prospect, April 2009.
MASSUMI, BRIAN (2002). Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation.
Durham: Duke University Press.
MCLEOD, JOHN (2010). “Extra Dimensions, New Routines: Contemporary Black
Writing of Britain.” Wasafiri 25.4: 45-52.
MOORE-GILBERT, BART (2002). Hanif Kureishi. Manchester: Manchester University
RANASINHA, RUVANI (2001). Hanif Kureishi. Tavistock: Northcote House Publishers.
RUSHDIE, SALMAN (1998). The Satanic Verses. London: Vintage Books, 1988.
THE ECONOMIST (2014). “Turning them Around”. In Bridge over Troubled Water. Nov,
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------THE RANDOM HOUSE PUBLISHING GROUP (2008). Statement on the Jewel of Medina.
UPSTONE, SARA (2001). “A Question of Black or White: Returning to Hanif
Kureishi’s The Black Album.” Postcolonial Text 4.1, 2008.
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[email protected]
Vol 2 2015, pp. 72-92, ISSN: 2339-8523
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------BHARATI MUKHERJEE’S STRUGGLE AGAIST CULTURAL BALKAIZATIO:
Universidad de La Laguna
[email protected]; [email protected]
Received: 28-11-2014
Accepted: 21-01-2015
This paper aims at analysing Bharati Mukherjee’s individual positioning as a woman writer by
using the female characters caught between two different worlds, homes and cultures present in her
works. After having undergone several phases in her life: as an exile from India, an Indian
expatriate in Canada, a common immigrant and finally a citizen in the United States, all these
diverse selves have been translated into her literary career. The writer thus envisions herself as a
pioneer of new lands and literatures, initiating a process of re-forming and de-forming American
culture, and redefining diaspora as a process of unhyphenated rehousement in which the cultural
landscape in which one lives is no longer divided into a centre and its peripheries. Mukherjee
celebrates “racial and cultural mongrelisation” but rejects cultural balkanization in its defence of the
local over the national. She is neither ignorant nor insensitive to racism and oppression in the
United States, yet her characters are always tenacious and feisty in their struggle to belong.
Mukherjee stresses their quality as battlers, moved by the instinct to improve their lives. In her
construction of America as the land of opportunity and success Mukherjee rejects homesickness and
in so doing she clearly marks a difference from the Indian diaspora, though we consider that in
defending this posture she goes to extremes, idealizing the “real” to create a personal and literary
migrant cosmos.
KEYWORDS: Bharati Mukherjee, Indian diaspora, Identity, Dehyphenation & Rehousement
RESUME La lucha de Bharati Mukherjee contra la balcanización cultural: la creación de una
nueva escritura inmigrante americana
Este artículo tiene por objeto el estudio de la posición individual de Bharati Mukherjee como
escritora, a través de los personajes femeninos que aparecen en sus obras, a caballo entre dos
mundos, casas y culturas variopintos. Tras pasar por fases vitales diferenciadas: como exiliada de la
India, expatriada en Canadá, emigrante común y lograr, finalmente, la nacionalidad estadounidense,
todas estas identidades se trasladan a su carrera literaria. Así, la autora se concibe a sí misma como
una pionera en tierras y literaturas nuevas, iniciando un proceso de reformulación y deconstrucción
de la cultura americana, y redefiniendo la diáspora como un proceso de rehabitación sin líneas
divisorias en el cual el paisaje cultural vivido no presenta centro ni periferias. Mukherjee festeja una
“bastardización racial y cultural” y rechaza la balcanización cultural en su defensa de lo local sobre
lo nacional. No es, por otra parte, ajena ni insensible al racismo y la opresión de los Estados Unidos,
pero sus personajes se muestran pertinaces en luchar por su sentido de “pertenencia.” Mukherjee
pone el énfasis en su cualidad de batalladores, empeñados en mejorar sus vidas. En su construcción
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------de América como tierra de oportunidades y logros, Mukherjee evita la morriña y, al hacerlo, se
aparta con claridad de la diáspora india, aunque tendemos a pensar que al defender tal postura llega
al extremo e idealiza lo “real” para así crear un cosmos migratorio literario y distintivo.
PALABRAS CLAVE: Bharati Mukherjee, diáspora india, identidad, rehabitación sin líneas divisorias
“In this age of diasporas, one’s biological identity may not be one’s only identity.
Erosions and accretions come with the act of emigration.” (Bharati Mukherjee,
“American Dreamer”)
The Indian born American writer Bharati Mukherjee (b. 1940) migrated to Canada in 1968,
after studying at the University of Iowa, in the United States. She became a Canadian
citizen four years later, in 1972. Mukherjee has described her fourteen years in this country,
in Montreal and Toronto,1 as the hardest of her life, as she felt continuously discriminated
against and treated as a member of the “visible minorities” (Darkness 2). Finally, and tired
of this unhappy situation, the writer and her family, her husband, the American writer of
Canadian descent, Clark Blaise, and her two sons, moved to the United States in 1980,
where they currently live.
Bharati Mukherjee has been described as a writer who has gone through several phases
in her life: as an exile from India, as an Indian expatriate2 in Canada, as a common
immigrant and then as a citizen in the United States. All these lives, selves and
In the introduction to her collection of stories Darkness (1985) Mukherjee writes: “In the years I spent in
Canada ―1966 to 1980― I discovered that the country is hostile to its citizens who had been born in hot,
moist continents like Asia; that the country proudly boasts of its opposition to the whole concept of cultural
assimilation. In the Indian immigrant community I saw a family of shared grievances. The purely “Canadian”
stories in this collection were difficult to write and even more painful to live through. They are uneasy stories
about expatriation” (2). Logically, these kinds of statements were harshly received by the Canadians, but even
before in her essay “An Invisible Woman” (1981), which won the National Magazine Award’s second prize,
Mukherjee had sharply criticized Canada’s treatment of Indians. The writer states that during her stay in
Canada she acquired a “double vision”. Her experience of being an Indian woman in white Canada made life,
on occasions, paradoxical for her. She explains: “the oldest paradox of prejudice is that it renders its victims
simultaneously invisible and overexposed” (38). And it was precisely the difficulty to “keep her twin halves
together” (40) that made her take the decision to leave Canada. In Vignisson’s interview with Mukherjee, the
writer states that though this essay was received in a very hostile way at the beginning, then “it apparently
affected official policy in Canada” (para. 30).
To Bharati Mukherjee there exist essential differences between being an expatriate and being an immigrant:
“An expatriate is someone who is nourished by the old world, whose psychic life is still totally attached to the
discarded world thousands of miles away. An immigrant is someone who in psychological, social, psychic
ways, has made herself or himself over in the new world. Who’s accepting the new world as her own”
(Moyers para. 28).
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------backgrounds have been fused and have materialized, with a rich and playful language, in a
prolific career: eight novels, four short story collections, a memoir, co-authored with her
husband, and several non-fiction books. Her aim has been to create a “new immigrant”
literature. Mukherjee’s ease with discovering her identity as a mainstream American,
becoming an award-winning writer, her constant participation in the dialogues and
incidents of American society, her refusal to be marginalized, and her absolute mastery of
English are not surprising when one learns that she was born in an upper-middle-class
Brahmin family in Calcutta. Her education in India was at a convent school run by Irish
nuns. She was also educated in England and Switzerland. She came to the United States in
1961 to attend the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she received an
M.F.A. in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature. She
currently teaches in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley.
Mukherjee envisions herself as a pioneer of new lands and literatures: “My stories
centre on a new breed and generation of North American pioneers. I am fascinated by
people who have enough gumption, energy, ambition, to pull up their roots….My stories
are about conquests and not about loss” (Hancock 37). The aim of this paper is to analyse
Mukherjee’s female characters caught between two different worlds, homes and cultures,
the social oppression they suffer and the enduring courage to survive, and how they finally
attempt to or become assimilated in the host culture. In addition, this essay will also deal
with the writer’s attitudes towards Canada and the US.
In her imagination, the author experiences the pioneer’s ability to perceive the new
culture with complete new eyes, and in doing so, initiates a process of re-forming and deforming that culture.3 Her aim as a writer is to prove, not only how America has
transformed her, but also how migrants, like her, have also recreated America (Mukherjee,
“A Four-Hundred-Year-Old Woman” 35). This is precisely her re-definition of diaspora as
a process of unhyphenated re-housement that keeps her conception of America open to
continuous expansion and literary invention. Furthermore, Mukherjee claims that “rejecting
hyphenation is my refusal to categorize the cultural landscape into a centre and its
See Tine Chen and S. X. Goudie . “Holders of the Word: An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee,” (1996) in l i l/Bharat.htm. 07/01/2009.
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------peripheries; it is to demand that the American nation deliver the promises of its dream and
its Constitution to all citizens equally” (“American Dreamer” para. 3).
On the contrary, she identifies the UK, and also Canada, with imperialism and
colonization.4 This identification was formed when studying in England as a child, so she
had quite a clear idea that the United States was the place where she would do her
university studies:
I am the first generation of Indians who even thought of going to the United States rather
than automatically to England. For me it was especially exciting to go to America because
England to me connoted colonialism. It was associated with all that I had left behind.
Because I had gone to school in England as a child I was aware of what it felt like to be a
minority, and I knew I didn’t want that. (Vignisson para.18)
There exists, then, an inversely proportional relationship between her construction of
the American Dream, a New World of freedom and democracy, and her detachment from
personal experiences in countries like the two previously mentioned. In fact, all her work is
a literary celebration of her own emotions in which she projects her own dilemmas and
plights. “Like myself,” Mukherjee points out, “my characters are always in between. They
are trying to balance the two [worlds] and sometimes the scales tilt one way, sometimes
another” (Moyers para. 7).5 America, then, presents itself as a generous nation with an
equal opportunity policy for all, including the emigrants. However, it is important to
mention that Mukherjee makes a distinction between The United States and “America”
(written between inverted commas). The former makes reference to the nation with its
official Constitution, “economic and foreign policies, its demarcated, patrolled boundaries”,
while “America,” she explains, “exists as image or idea, as dream or nightmares, as
Mukherjee affirms: “Western Europe, Canada and England treat their non-European immigrants, even if
they have been there for two and three generations, as though they are guest workers. They never really
accept them as real citizens….Whereas America, because of its mythology, allows me to think of myself how long have I been here, you know, since 1961 minus fourteen years in Canada –that if I want to think of
myself as American I am an American and I have an American citizenship. Whereas in England I would not
dare assume that I can be an Englishman unless I was born with a certain kind of name, certain kind of look,
certain kind of accent” (Vignisson para. 35).
On another occasion, Mukherjee also confesses how much she is involved, not only with her characters,
their passions and personalities, but also with the stories told in her novels: “I realize now that each of the
novels is sort of a way station in my personal Americanization…I think that most writers, like actors, have to
dig inside themselves for the passions of their characters….I feel that I am invested, metaphorically, in every
single character in each of the books” (Desai and Barnstone 132).
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------romance or plague, constructed by discrete individual fantasies, and shaded by collective
paranoias and mythologies” (Mukherjee, “Beyond Multiculturalism” 29).
Her work explores the lives of immigrants in North America, with special attention to
the condition of Asian women in the “New World”. She constructs her literary universe
around the concept of “transplantation and psychological metamorphosis” (Mukherjee,
“Imagining Homelands” 70), and this was a result of her move to North America (Canada
and mostly the United States). In fact, “the idea of transformation, of life being a process of
almost constant and radical evolution” (Connell et al. 8) has become the most important
theme in her work. Mukherjee has admitted that she “writes about what obsesses [her] –the
re-housement of individuals and of whole peoples” (Hancock 38). Her characters belong to
different ethnic backgrounds and nationalities: Afghanistan, Uganda, Bangladesh, Calcutta,
Bombay, Nepal, Trinidad, etcetera, but all of them share the experience of diaspora and the
same stage “for the drama of self-transformation.”6 For Mukherjee, the immigrant writer’s
aim is “to transform as well as be transformed by the world I’m re-imagining and recreating through words” (Chen and Goudie para. 70). In other words, she is especially
concerned with foregrounding the positive side of immigration. Thus, while her characters
are conscious of the injustices and brutality that surround them and are presented as victims
of different kinds of social oppression, the writer also draws them as survivors. Sharmani P.
Gabriel explains such a dichotomy as follows:
I would insist that the distinctiveness of [Mukherjee’s] work in the tradition of diaspora
literature in general and American literature in particular lies in Mukherjee’s ability to mine
the tension that holds in balance her awareness of diaspora as a condition of loss or
unhousement, involving a break in that link between cultures, peoples or identities and
places, on the one hand, and her acknowledgement of it as a condition of gain or rehousement, of recreation, re-imagination and regeneration in new social, political, cultural
and geographical landscapes, on the other. (para. 4)
Mukherjee makes allusion to the phrase “cultural balkanization” in her essay
“American Dreamer” (1997). The term “balkanization” was firstly coined in the aftermath
of the First World War to mean the division of a state into smaller often hostile units, but as
For Bharati Mukherjee, America “is the stage for the drama of self-transformation” (Mukherjee, “Beyond
Multiculturalism: Surviving the Nineties” 29).
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------expressed in the British Encyclopaedia,7 it has also contemporary resonance in the light of
ethnic conflict with multiethnic states. In the interesting essay “Cultural Balkanization and
Hybridization in an Era of Globalization,” Brian W. Husted adds that cultural balkanization
“is a term used in the US to describe the tendency to assert local identities over national
identity….a return to the ‘particular’ after a deal of interest in the ‘universal’” (6). The
phenomenon of globalization is opposite to balkanization. However, both, according to
Husted, transcend national boundaries and undermine national identity. For Mukherjee, the
connotations of cultural balkanization are negative; she celebrates “racial and cultural
mongrelisation” (“American Dreamer” para. 5), but, as has already been mentioned and
will be explained later on, she rejects the hyphen: “I am American,” she states, “not an
Asian-American. My rejection of hyphenation has been called race treachery, but it is really
a demand that America deliver the promises of its dream to all its citizens equally”
(“American Dreamer” para. 1).
The writer’s early stories, especially those written during her stay in Canada, are much
more pessimistic than those set in the US. As several critics have pointed out (Gabriel,
Brewster, Esterbauer, among others), Mukherjee’s work can be divided into expatriate and
immigrant phases. In the expatriate phase, in which her two novels, The Tiger’s Daughter
(1972) and Wife (1975) and the four Canadian stories published in her first collection
Darkness (1985) may be placed, moods of unhousement, pessimistic rootlessness and
despair are very frequent among her characters. The second or immigrant phase coincides
with her emigration to the US (1981) up to the present. And curiously enough, this
trajectory from Canada to the United States coincides with the canonisation of her fiction.
She stopped being a relatively anonymous writer without recognition in Canada to have
award-winning success in the US, and it was with the publication of The Middleman and
Other Stories (1988) that Mukherjee seems to have found her true literary identity and
American self. In this respect, this paper will only deal with the writer’s immigrant and
rather more positive phase.8
See full citation in the final bibliography.
For further information about Mukherjee’s different phases along her career, see Sharmani P. Gabriel’s
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Bharati Mukherjee’s characters migrate across land in search of a new self and
definition. They are moved by an intensity of spirit and a strong desire to get on in life. In
fact, Mukherjee herself defines her characters as those who “have shed old identities, taken
on new ones, and learned to hide the scars” (“A Four-Hundred-Year-Old Woman” 35). The
protagonist of Mukherjee’s novel Jasmine (1991) sees herself involved in an odyssey in her
journey from India to America; a journey which is not only cross-cultural but also spiritual.
In her innermost desire to escape from the oppressive environment of Hasnapur, the Indian
village where she lives, Jasmine, throughout the novel, is going to suffer several
transformations, different metamorphoses, each preceded with a new name which also
provides insight into her very complex life. Jasmine’s renaming takes place five times
throughout the novel, all of which start with “J.” The letter “J,” according to the archetypal
symbolism of the Tarot, represents ambition, will, force, action, vision. “J” is equivalent to
number one in numerology, and to Aleph as a Cabbala symbol.9 Every one of the names
represents the arrival at a new place but, primarily, each of them is a symbol of rebirth. All
these transmutations turn Jasmine into the perfect embodiment of flow, movement and
Jasmine’s first name is Jyoti, a name used while she was living in India, which means
“light, brilliance and radiance,” then Jazzy, once she arrives in the US, a name that Mrs.
Gordon, the American woman who takes care of her after she is raped by Half-Face, gives
her. Jazzy learns how to behave and walk as an American. As Rie Koike sustains, “she
needs the flashy name in order to abandon her Hasnapur modesty and transform herself into
a dynamic American” (para. 12). Through this same woman Jasmine meets Taylor, her
final lover, who gives her the names Jase and Jassy. But before that, she lives on a farm in
Iowa for a while with Bud, who names her Jane. Jane, however, is not the common name it
seems to be; at least Jasmine is not “Plain Jane.” In fact, during this period of her life, she
See Irene Gad’s Tarot and Individuation. Correspondences with Cabala and Alchemy. York Beach, Maine:
Nicholas-Hays, 1994.
Bharati Mukherjee has also used the same notion of rebirth when talking about her own transformation as
an immigrant from the East into a country belonging to the West, a rebirth that first of all is preceded by a
process of annihilation of her previous selves: “I have been murdered and reborn at least three times; the
correct young woman I was trained to be, and was very happy being, is very different from the politicised,
shrill, civil rights activist I was in Canada, and from the urgent writer that I have become in the last few years
in the United States. I can’t stop. It’s a compulsive act for me” (M. Connell, J. Grearson, and T. Grimes 19).
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------plays the role of a destroyer, a “tornado,” as Bud’s ex-wife calls her, because of the way in
which she takes everything in her stride. Jasmine, however, is the most important of all her
names, the one which gives its title to the novel, and the most significant one from an
archetypal perspective.
Like the flower associated to her name, Jasmine’s climbing nature talks about her
never-ending ambition to improve in life, and each step forward is marked by a moment of
catastrophic resistance and extreme energy,11 such as when Jyoti leaves India when her
husband is assassinated or when Jasmine kills Half-Face after he rapes her. As Koike points
out “her energy is used to uproot herself from place to place, and even to choose which
routes she will take in ‘the tug of opposing forces’” (para. 17).
Chen and Goudin assert that Mukherjee works like a bricoleur, “parts are used and
reused, shaped and reshaped, much like the character Jasmine’s identity” (para. 9). Jasmine
is the embodiment of all potentialities of existence. As was previously stated, she goes
through several transformations, and one has the impression when finishing the novel that
she is still open to many more transmutations, something the protagonist seems to have
learned in America:
In America, nothing lasts. I can say that now and it doesn’t shock me, but I think it was the
hardest lesson of all for me to learn. We [immigrants] arrive so eager to learn, to adjust, to
participate, only to find the monuments are plastic, agreements are annulled. Nothing is
forever, nothing is so terrible, or so wonderful, that it won’t disintegrate. (Jasmine 181)
America is then the land of possible and multiple transmutations; the New World where
anyone can fulfil his/her dreams, including emigrants, through individual struggle. As Anne
Brewster argues, the writer’s discourse on migration in the US places her characters, not on
the margin of contemporary American culture, but rather as belonging to the mainstream of
a new vision of America.12 In this new vision of America, Mukherjee perceives its culture
as “a culture of dreamers, who believe that material shape (which is not the same as
For further information on this idea and its relationship with Chaos Theory see Rie Koike’s article.
As Brewster also states, Bharati Mukherjee’s characteristic migrant discourse and her insistence in creating
an optimistic vision of America is directly related to her literary success. Moreover, it contributes to her
affiliation with or defense of a particular conception of the US: “Her own literary success places her firmly
within the American literary canon and this success reflects the receptivity of certain constituencies to a
reinvention and revitalisation of American nationalism” (para. 1).
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------materialism) can be given to dreams….They believe in the reversal of omens; early failures
do not spell inevitable disaster. Outsiders can triumph on merit” (“Beyond
Multiculturalism” 29). With this idea in mind, Mukherjee creates Jasmine’s title character.
Jasmine crosses the ocean and transforms her world. In analysing her personality, this
character undoubtedly reminds us of Pablo Picasso’s famous quote: “Every act of creation
is first an act of destruction,”13 and Jasmine destroys her past in order to create a future.
The process, however, is never devoid of pain: “...if you’re going to not remain an
expatriate,” Mukherjee points out, “then there has to be a traumatic, painful kind of break
with the past. After that you might reclaim little bits and pieces of it and fit them into your
change; otherwise, you’re burrowing in nostalgia” (Desai and Barnstone 141). In other
words, the integration of the immigrant into a new culture goes together with the constant
fight against cultural memory; an idea that the author herself also seems to support as
implied by her words: “We need to discourage the retention of cultural memory if the aim
of that retention is cultural balkanization….In this age of diasporas, one’s biological
identity may not be one’s only identity. Erosions and accretions come with the act of
emigration” (“American Dreamer” para. 20).14 Jennifer Drake clarifies an important point
about Mukherjee’s concept of assimilation. For her, assimilation means “cultural looting”
however, this is not simply a question of celebration. “Mukherjee,” Drake points out,
“fabulizes America, Hinduizes assimilation, and represents the real pleasures and violence
of cultural exchange” (61). As was previously explained, the writer rejects the emigrant’s
Bharati Mukherjee is a writer who clearly swims against the tide in the Indian diaspora.
Jasmine celebrates the journey, the departure from the home culture, rather than insisting,
as is normally the case, on an intense nostalgia and a deep sense of isolation. However,
Parameswaran considers that Mukherjee goes to extremes in her different attitude:
“Literary texts have tended to focus more on the underside of this gargantuan experience of
A possible explanation to the existent dichotomy in India between the emigrants’ wish to move to other
places, and his/her simultaneous longing to retain his/her culture when abroad may be found in Uma
Parameswaran’s following affirmation: “Emigration is not a new phenomenon in India. Land of paradox that
India is, the Indian ethos has a tendency to stay ‘rooted in one dear perpetual place,’ as Yeats would say, and
at the same time to promote an attitude of detachment that facilitates travel” (“Ganga in the Assiniboine” 72).
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------expatriation, alienation and transplantation. Perhaps the only literary work that has taken a
celebratory angle, Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine goes overboard in the opposite direction,
validating the American dream while panning all things Indian” (“Home is Where Your
Feet are,” 212).
Mukherjee appropriates the idea that identity in the East, at least in Hindu traditional
families, is a notion completely different from identity in the West:
The concept [of identity crisis] itself – of a person not knowing who she or he was –was
unimaginable in a hierarchical, classification-obsessed society. One’s identity was
absolutely fixed, derived from religion, caste, patrimony, and mother tongue. A Hindu
Indian’s last name was designed to announce his or her forefather’s caste and place of
origin. A Mukherjee could only be a Brahmin from Bengal (Mukherjee, “Beyond
Multiculturalism: Surviving the Nineties” 30).
The aforementioned has gradually become the general norm with many diaspora
writers, and Mukherjee has particularly rejected the phenomenon of hyphenation as a multiethnic label.15 She does not want to be regarded by critics as a South Asian American
writer,16 but just as an American. Neither does she want to be studied within the field of
postcolonial studies. She vehemently declares:
The mission of postcolonial studies as a discipline is to level all of us to our skin color and
ethnic origin whereas as a writer, my job is to open up, to discover and say “we are all
The writer affirms: “For me, hyphenization is a very discomforting situation for two reasons. It makes you
want a way out, a net. You say, All right, so this doesn’t work: I am an Indian for the whites and I am an
American for the Indians −a kind of fence straddling that is almost immoral. I am trying to get white
Americans and African Americans to see how deliberately and cruelly and maliciously marginalizing it is to
apply the hyphen only to Asian Americans, Chicanos, and so on….It’s as though they’re saying there is one
kind of America, and the rest of you because you’re hyphenated − whether you wanted to be or not…are not
really like US.” So that’s why, in order to emphasize the two-way transformation, I’m saying either call
everyone American or make everyone hyphenated” (Desai and Barnstone 143).
And on another occasion she states: “If you insist…that I describe myself in terms of ethno-nationality, I’d
say I’m an American writer of Bengali-Indian origin. In other words, the writer/political activist in me is more
obsessed with addressing the issues of minority discourse in the U.S. and Canada, the two countries I have
lived and worked over the last thirty odd years” (Chen and Goudie para. 6). Uma Parameswaran, on the other
hand, sustains that in a pluralistic society, like that of the United States or Canada, diasporic writers “must go
beyond the hyphen without erasing it….Hyphens have long been subject of controversy in our search for
identity. Do hyphens marginalize us? Many think so….My own resolution to the problem has been that we
have to wear the hyphen with pride in Canada, and that outside Canada we must see and present ourselves as
Canadians, without a hyphen” (“Diaspora Consciousness. Going Beyond the Hyphen without Erasing It”
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------individuals”. In fiction we are writing about individuals; none of them is meant to be a
crude spokesperson for whole groups, whether those groups are based on gender or race or
class. If the story of one individual reveals something about the way in which human nature
works, great, if it doesn’t, then it has failed as art….The mission of postcolonial studies
seems to be to deliberately equate Art and journalism, to reduce novels to specimens for the
confirming of their theories. If an imaginative work doesn’t fit the cultural theories they
approve of, it’s dismissed as defective. (Chen and Goudie para. 58)
“Indianness is now a metaphor,” she affirms elsewhere, “a particular way of partially
comprehending the world” (Introd. Darkness 3). In her construction of a new immigrant
writing in America, Mukherjee confers India with the status of the “old” world, “that kind
of Third World hierarchy where your opportunities are closed by caste, gender, or family”
(as quoted by Anne Brewster para. 3). On the contrary, in the writer’s imagination, that is,
in her reinvention of an immigrant narrative, America represents fluidity and freedom. But
as Drake observes, this freedom also has its price: “American freedom costs her the clarity
and stability of full-Brahmin status, sacrificed when she marries a white French-Canadian
American. In this respect, she exchanges racial invisibility in India for ‘minority’ status in
North America” (65).
To become an immigrant writer, and no longer an expatriate, Mukherjee knew that she
had to shed her old clothes, so to speak, only then she, in her personal mythology, could be
reborn as a true American: “I was [bicultural] when I wrote The Tiger’s Daughter, now I
am no longer so and America is more real to me than India…I realised I was no longer an
expatriate but an immigrant –that my life was more here…I need to belong. America
matters to me. It is not that India failed me – rather America transformed me” (Introd.
Darkness 3).
However simplistic this posture may seem, Mukherjee shows in her works that she is
neither ignorant nor insensitive to racism and oppression in the United States.17 Her
protagonists are always tenacious and feisty, divided between two very different worlds, the
home and host countries, a “fractured” process of belonging, as the author herself states,
The writer argues: “I am aware of the dark side of America as well as the romanticism that America offers
people like me, and I think that both the dark side and the hope comes through….And because this country is
centred around a constitution that promises democracy, promises equal rights, when things don’t work out
right I want to be able to work to make it right” (Vignisson para. 48). This statement confirms Mukerjee’s
construction of a personal mythology in her work.
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------that results in a “whole odyssey of moving, pulling up your roots from your original
country and re-rooting yourself in an adopted country…” (Moyers para. 33).
In Darkness, her first short story collection (1985), the protagonists are often women
who are married or divorced. For instance, in “Hindus,” a story with clear reminiscences of
Mukherjee’s own life, Leela Lahiri, the main character, reveals a fluid identity. On the one
hand, she proudly declares “I am an American citizen,” but she also feels very proud of her
Bengali Brahmin part. She has tried to leave her past behind by marrying a white man.
However, when she is referred to as Maharajah Patwat Singh’s “niece,” Leela feels
offended, since she is too conscious of her caste-superiority in India. She is neither a typical
Indian nor a true American. Another interesting story in the collection is “Visitors.” Vinita,
a beautiful Indian girl who accepts an arranged marriage in India, travels to America just a
few days after the wedding. Encouraged by the promises of “the New World” and the inner
necessity to change, and now that she is in a new country and far from her relatives, she
rebels against a golden rule in Indian society: an Indian wife would never allow any
stranger in her house when her husband is away. Against this cultural dictum she allows an
Indian born American graduate student to come in and take liberty with her. Although she
is very traditionally “Indian” in some aspects - and she is described as “discreet, dutiful,
comfortable with her upper-class status, trained by her mother to stay flexible” (163-164) her duality is clear from the way she enjoys the freedom of America. Vinita is eager for
change, “the slightest possibility of disruption,” as we read in another moment of the story,
“pleases her” (164).
In the collection The Middleman and Other Stories (1988), every story ends on a new
beginning, a new point of departure. The protagonists, men and women immigrants from
different countries, have become sort of “chronic travellers” when moving to the “New
World.” This collection tells the experience of eleven people from different backgrounds
who are forced to leave behind their individual cultures as they struggle to absorb the
American milieu. “Being on the run,” as Jonathan Raban asserts, seems to be “an American
condition. The Americans in The Middleman are constantly being awakened to their own
restlessness and fluidity by the newcomers” (Raban para.12). Moreover, all the characters
are, in one way or another, acting “as barrier and gateway between competing cultural
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------value systems” (Raphael Koster para. 1). They are hybrids who show that these barriers can
indeed be crossed, and that they only exist because the members of each culture want to
mark the difference between cultures. In three stories, each with a female protagonist, “A
Wife’s Story,” “The Tenant,” and “Jasmine” we find a different woman at a different stage
in the complex and often traumatic process of becoming a new person, one who wants to
feel at home in the sometimes “terrifying freedom” of the new American culture (SantWade and Radell 12). In each story, the exhilarating world of possibilities clashes with the
debilitating world of loss, yet the ever present determination of these three women denies
the power of pity and disillusion. In “A Wife’s Story,” for instance, the protagonist, Mrs.
Panna Bhatt, goes to America to take a Ph.D. degree without her husband, who remains in
India. To survive she adapts to the social demands of America, breaking taboos and
abandoning the confines of a traditional Indian wife’s life. An Indian wife can never think
of making a man her friend, because just to have a feeling of affection for someone is a sign
of disloyalty. However, Panna is heavily weighed down by the burdens of the two cultures
and she tries to balance parts of her old life with the best of the new. The same thing
happens to the protagonist of “The Tenant,” Maya Sanyal. Maya is a brave adventuress; she
has been marked as a “loose” woman and as a divorcee, and therefore knows she cannot
ever hope to remarry respectably in the Indian community. Neither is she interested. She
drinks alcohol and is very promiscuous, she “has slept with married men, with nameless
men, with men little more than boys, but never with an Indian man. Never” (103). There is
a moment in the story in which Maya tells how in the mid seventies, when many women in
America were fighting for their liberation, she had problems with some women for being
too “feminine.” Although she tries her best to “belong,” to “adapt” herself to the new
culture, going to extremes on some occasions, there always remains a “but,” the indelible
burden of tradition and education:
Her grandmother had been married off at the age of five in a village now in Bangladesh.
Her great-aunt had been burned to death over a dowry problem. She herself had been
trained to speak softly, arrange flowers, sing, be pliant….She has broken with the past. But.
(Mukherjee, The Middleman and Other Stories 102)
Thus, although she attempts to break with her Indian past, Maya understands that there
exists no such thing as a complete break with her roots. Finally, “Jasmine” is the story of a
Trinidadian woman who has been smuggled illegally into the United States. As Koster
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------argues, her story is that of the person who “attempts to cross the cultural barrier but fails to
grasp the true nature of the discourse….She lacks sufficient knowledge of the culture to
understand what is happening to her in any objective sense” (para. 9). And so when Bill
Moffitt seduces her, clearly with the only intention of having sex with her, she interprets his
proximity and flattery as true love.
In the short story “The Management of Grief,” the closing story of Mukherjee’s
collection The Middleman and Other Stories, the writer uses a tone quite different from the
majority of stories in the collection. It is sombre and melancholy. The story is based on a
real event. On June 23, 1985, an Air India plane left Toronto for London Heathrow, the first
stop on its journey to Bombay. As the airplane prepared to descend into London, it was
blown up, sending the craft into the Irish Sea. All 329 passengers, ninety percent of whom
were Canadians of Indian ancestry, lost their lives in this bomb attack.
“Management of Grief” starts in the aftermath of that horrible incident. Apart from
Mukherjee’s brave criticism of the Canadian government’s attitude at the time – which
considered the crash as an “Indian” event carried out by Sikh extremists, when in fact, as
was previously stated, ninety per cent of the passengers were Canadian – the story is very
interesting from an archetypal perspective. It predominantly focuses on the widows’
reconciliation to absence and mourning. Mukherjee, to support her defence of America’s
melting-pot against Canada’s mosaic, cunningly creates two opposite characters: Kusum,
who succumbs to her culture’s expectations, dedicating the rest of her life to her dead
husband, and Shaila, the main protagonist, who struggles with oppressive cultural demands,
finally rejecting them. In India, three months after the crash, Shaila tries to adapt again to
her home culture. She returns to the role of the only child in a wealthy family. Shaila feels,
at this moment, completely divided between her Indian roots and her newer Canadian life,
“I am trapped,” she says, “between two modes of knowledge. At thirty six, I am too old to
start over and too young to give up. Like my husband’s spirit, I flutter between worlds”
Shaila’s main roles before the crash are that of mother and wife. As is proper of an
upper-class Indian woman, she has never called her husband by his first name or told him
that she loved him. When her husband dies Shaila calls into question her blind obedience to
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Hindu female decorum, and there is a moment in which, instead of throwing some roses in
water to honour death, as is traditionally prescribed in Hindu culture, she prefers to “let fall
into the calm, glassy waters” (187) a poem she wrote for her husband, finally expressing
her feelings for him. At one point in the story, Kusum and Shaila go into the water, hoping
for a miracle, to search for survivors who might be trapped under a rock. According to J. E.
Cirlot, in India, water is generally regarded as “the preserver of life…limitless and
immortal, the waters are the beginning and the end of all things on earth” (364). However,
though Shaila in a moment of total desperation confesses she “could settle in the water”
(185), they return back to earth knowing that this “immersion” has really meant a sense of
death and annihilation, on the one hand, provoked by discouragement and despair but, on
the other, of regeneration as they, each of them, will individually have to start a new life:
“when we leave the water,” Cirlot asserts, “the new man suddenly appears” (365).
The tragedy of the crash makes the confrontation between the two cultures especially
palpable, “an unseen but ubiquitous veil of female oppression, challenging the affected
women to break free.”18 An Indian wife and mother, Shaila is expected to follow mourning
traditions. The Hindu widow cannot remarry, is prohibited from wearing certain hair
decorations and jewellery, and is restricted in her choice of dress. In short, she is meant to
spend the rest of her life despairing over the loss of her husband, denying her social and
sexual needs, and even doing penance as if somehow responsible for her husband’s death.
Shaila’s grandmother has always been an example of such self-sacrifice: she shaves her
head, thereby obliterating any trace of vanity or sexual appeal, and lives in self-imposed
seclusion. She is so devoted to mourning that she forsakes her infant daughter, passing her
upbringing to an “indifferent uncle”(3).19
Fortunately, Shaila’s mother has learned to be progressive and taught Shaila to behave
in a rational and liberal way. Three months after the mourning rituals, Shaila feels the
necessity to return to Canada to “finish” what she and her husband started. In so doing, she
rebels against irrevocable ideas about both gender and culture. She is no longer an “Indian”
woman, but an Indian Canadian. Kusum, on the other hand, returns to India, becoming even
In “The Management of Grief (Themes).” *otes on Short Stories. Answers Corporation, 2006. Web. 20 April 2009. <> .
“The Management of Grief (Themes).” *otes on Short Stories. Answers Corporation, 2006.
Web. 20 April 2009. <> .
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------more Indian than before. Like Shaila’s grandmother, Kusum also abandons her living
daughter to “withdraw from the world” and live like a Hindu widow. Unlike Kusum,
Shaila escapes the boundaries of patriarchal Hindu society. The process, however, as in
other Mukherjee’s characters’ lives, is a complex struggle. Her memories and longing for
the past pursue her for a long time. Actually, there is not much difference between Kusum’s
“mindless mortification” (189) and hers. Only at the end of the story does her final
liberation have effect. She listens to her family’s voices and symbolically discards the
package to finally start a life of her own. Curiously enough, the tragedy is the causal agency
of her final transmutation, which leads her to re-examine her previous patriarchal life. At
this point we might remember William Carlos Williams’ famous statement that
“destruction and creation are simultaneous” (Spring and All 213). At the end of the story, it
can be observed that Shaila is spiritually reborn as a new woman, as is symbolized by her
dropping of a package on a bench:
The voices and the shapes and the nights filled with visions ended up abruptly several
weeks ago. I take it as a sign….Then as I stood in the path looking north to Queen’s Park
and west to the university, I heard voices of my family one last time. Your time has come,
they said. Go, be brave. I do not know where this vogage I have begun will end. I do not
know which direction I will take. I dropped the package on a park bench and started
walking. (196-197)
Also, in “The Management of Grief,” as was previously stated, Mukherjee illustrates
her defence of assimilation. While frequently this concept holds negative connotations, the
writer is here only concerned with the positive aspects of assimilation.20 In other words,
Mukherjee praises the immigrant’s urge for adaptation and resilience in the host culture
A significant nuance to Mukherjee’s defence of cultural assimilation in the US is the one that Sharmani P.
Gabriel offers in the following lines: “…it is not so much the US as precise geo-political territory that
Mukherjee valorises as the site of cultural change and identity transformation in her narratives of diaspora.
Rather, it is the dynamics of fluidity and contingency inherent in the melting pot that are able to offer
Mukherjee what she herself calls the metaphors and symbolic location necessary for reinscribing cultural
citizenship and national belonging in her fiction ( para. 9). Moreover, in 1984, Uma Parameswaran had
already affirmed that the process of assimilation was the natural phenomenon that was taking place in Canada,
specifically in Manitoba, and predominantly, among the younger generations of Indian immigrants: “The
situation is fraught with paradox. On the one hand, the mosaic requires separate ethnocultural identities. On
the other hand, there is an overwhelming urge, especially in the younger generation, to be accepted, and one
of the easiest ways is to assimilate” (“The Why of Manitoba’s Mosaic” 68).
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------rather than stagnating in the cultural, psychological and political ties of the home culture,
discarding, in so doing, the Canadian “mosaic”21 for America’s “melting pot.”
However, an important detail to be taken into account is the prevailing inconsistency
between Mukherjee’s personal history and her building of fictional characters. Most of
them are working class, that is, they are not blessed with Mukherjee’s social privileges and
yet they frequently succeed sooner or later in the host country. As Brewster states, it seems
that “class, racial, and ethnic differences are elided in Mukherjee’s equation of her own
experience with that of immigrants generally” (18). This trend is especially visible in her
immigrant phrase, and it seems it does not even matter where these characters come from.
As was previously mentioned, in this second period of her career, the protagonists of her
work not only come from India, but also from different places of the world, western as well
as eastern: Italy, Afghanistan, Philippines, Iraq, Vietnam, even Africa. In other words, it
seems that Mukherjee generalizes the immigrant’s experience to such a degree that all of
them seem to be equal, and especially similar to herself. The writer then stereotypes the
immigrant experience, reducing it very often to an exotic or romantic adventure: the
individual’s struggle towards the forging of a new cultural self. Having the personality of a
“greedy battler” appears to be the only prerequisite her characters must possess to become
“new pioneers,”22 without taking into consideration, at least in a wholly coherent way,
issues like class, race or ethnicity.23
To conclude, it can be stated that some of Mukherjee’s female characters, especially
those belonging to her later works, migrate across land in search of a new self and
Mukherjee’s discord with the Canadian multicultural mosaic is founded on her belief that it does not confer
the same rights to all of Canada’s citizens. Sharmani P. Gabriel explains: “Mukherjee’s repudiation of the
cultural narrative of the Canadian nation is based on her argument that the terms of liberal multiculturalism,
where cultural difference is acknowledged and accommodated within the mosaic of national culture, are
simply another way of entrenching separateness and marginalizing those not recognized as belonging to the
dominant culture.” In addition to this, Mukherjee suggests that the conception of Canadian multiculturalism
“denies the presence of ambivalence or hybridity through its assertion of superficial pluralism and its belief in
the existence of clear boundaries between cultures. In such a multicultural nation, differences are organized
into neat, virtual grids of distinct ethnic communities, each with its own culture” (qtd. in Gabriel para. 27).
As Mukherjee likes to call her main characters throughout the construction of her personal mythology.
Other names she uses are “conqueror” or “minor hero” (Vignisson para.16).
That’s the reason why we do not totally agree with Mukherjee’s following declaration: “I’m nosey, as a
writer. If I have decided to write about a person from a particular region or class then I will make sure I have
every detail of speech, mannerisms, clothing, of trivia, sociology at my finger tips in order that just the right
detail comes out at the right time” (Vignisson para. 67).
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------definition. Mukherjee stresses their quality as battlers; they are moved by their instinct to
improve their lives. America (understood as the United States) is thus presented as the land
of opportunity and success, where immigrants can gradually abandon their hybrid
condition. Mukherjee redefines the notion of diaspora as a beneficial process for the
immigrant. Instead of giving rise to displacement and dispossession, her immigrant
characters are frequently eager to “cross and recross multiple borders of language, history,
race, time and culture” (Gabriel para. 5). Their transformation becomes “genetic” rather
than hyphenated (Jasmine 222), that is, the emergent American identity resulting from
multiculturalism in Mukherjee’s fiction is genetically distinct, new and unrecognizable
(Gabriel para. 10). Their transformation is, in the main, a transformation of the mind, a
construction of new mindscapes, an invention of new lands, as Mukherjee herself
formulates in the following quotation:
I do want my characters to be seen as inventing their own Americas and Canadas. The
breaking away from rigidly predictable lives frees them to invent more satisfying pasts, and
gives them a chance to make their futures in ways that they could not have in the Old
World. We’re talking, then, about re-location as a positive act. In immigrating, my
characters become creators. By creating they become more real to themselves, instead of
unreal. (Hancock 44)
India is now a distant homeland to which they are sentimentally attached, but there
is no real desire for permanent return (Intro. to Darkness 4). More than a geographical
entity, “it becomes,” as Uma Parameswaran sustains, “a metaphysical reality” (“Diaspora
Consciousness” 205).
However, something to be taken into consideration is the fact that
Mukherjee’s vision of America is, as Brewster suggests, “hyperreal,” her “neo-nationalism
is nostalgic and fills the absence of the real in the current demise and crisis of America’s
global power” (para. 5). In other words, she idealizes the “real” to construct her personal
and literary immigrant cosmos; a “personal mythology of immigration and assimilation”
(Brewster para. 4), created out of her numerous autobiographical or pseudo-biographical
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ACIMAN, ANDRÉ, ed. (1997). Letters of Transit. Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language
and Loss. New York: The New Press.
“BALKANIZATION.” (2010). Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopaedia Britannica
Online. 19 June,
BREWSTER, ANNE (1993). “A Critique of Bharati Mukherjee’s Neo-nationalism”. Vijay
Mishra, ed. Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature
and Language Studies 34-35. Web. 06 Dec. 2008.
CIRLOT, J. E.(2002). A Dictionary of Symbols. Trad. Jack Sage. 1971. New York: Dover
Bharati Mukherjee.” Iowa Review, Fall: 7-32.
CHEN, TINE AND S. X. GOUDIE (1987). “Holders of the Word: An Interview with Bharati
Mukherjee.” n.p. Web 07 Jan. 2009.
DESAI, SHEFALI AND TONY BARNSTONE (1998). “A Usable Past: An Interview with Bharati
Mukherjee.” Manoa 10.2, Winter: 130-147.
DRAKE, JENNIFER (1999). “Looting American Culture: Bharati Mukherjee’s Immigrant
Narratives”, Contemporary Literature 40.1, Spring: 60-84.
ESTERBAUER, VERENA (2008). The Immigrant’s Search for Identity in Bharati Mukherjee’s
Jasmine and Desirable Daughters. Saarbrücken: Verlag Dr. Müller.
GABRIEL, SHARMANI PATRICIA (2005). “’Between Mosaic and Melting Pot’: Negotiating
Multiculturalism and Cultural Citizenship in Bharati Mukherjee’s Narratives of
GAD, IRENE (1994). Tarot and Individuation. Correspondences with Cabala and Alchemy.
York Beach, Maine: Nicholas-Hays.
HANCOCK, GEOFF (1987). “An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee”. Canadian Fiction
Magazine 64: 30-44.
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------HUSTED, BRYAN W. (2001). “Cultural Balkanization and Hybridization in an Era of
Globalization: Implications for International Business Research.” January. Web. 20
KOIKE, RIE (2009). “’Tornado[s]’ with the Initial ‘J’: The Meaning of Chaos Theory in
KOSTER, RAPHAEL (2009). “Insecurities and Hope: Bharati Mukherjee’s Hybrids and the
Role of Divider/Bridge”. Ralph Koster’s Website. Copyright 1998-2008. Web. 20
Apr. 2009.
“THE MANAGEMENT OF GRIEF (THEMES).” (2009). *otes on Short Stories. Answers
Corporation, Web. 20 April 2009.
MOYERS, BILL (2003). “Bill Moyers interviews Bharati Mukherjee.” PBS. 20 Jun. Web. 03
Feb. 2009.
MUKHERJEE, BHARATI (1981). “An Invisible Woman.” Saturday *ight, 96: 36-40.
---------------------------- (1985). Introduction. Darkness. Markham: Penguin: 1-4.
---------------------------- (1988). The Middleman and Other Stories. New York: Grove Press.
---------------------------- (1989). Jasmine. London: Virago Press, 1991.
“A FOUR-HUNDRED-YEAR-OLD WOMAN.” (1991). The Writer on Her Work: *ew Essays in
*ew Territory, ed. Janet Sternburg. Vol 2. New York: W.W. Norton: 33-38.
----------------------------- (1996). “Beyond Multiculturalism: Surviving the Nineties.”
Journal of Modern Literature XX.1, Summer: 29-34.
------------------------------ (1997). “American Dreamer.” MotherJones Magazine, Jan/Feb:
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“Imagining Homelands.” In Letters of Transit.
Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language and Loss. in Aciman, ed: 65-86.
PARAMESWARAN, UMA (2007). “Diaspora Consciousness. Going Beyond the Hyphen
without Erasing It.” In Parameswaran: 204-207.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- (2007). “Ganga in the Assiniboine. Prospects for Indo-Canadian
Literature.” In Parameswaran: 70-91.
----------------------------- (2007). “Home is Where Your Feet are, and May Your Heart be
There Too!” In Parameswaran: 204-217.
----------------------------- (2007).“The Why of Manitoba’s Mosaic” (first offered as a
plenary lecture at Bemidji State University on April 26, 1984). In Parameswaran: 5469.
----------------------------- (2007). “What Price Expatriation.” In Parameswaran: 20-36.
----------------------------- (2007). Writing the Diaspora. Essays on Culture and Identity.
Jaipur: Rawat Publications.
RABAN, JONATHAN (1988). “Savage Boulevards, Easy Streets. Review of Bharati
Mukherjee’s The Middleman and Other Stories. The *ew York Times. *
19 Jun. Web. 04 Dec. 2008.
SANT-WADE ARVINDRA AND KAREN MARGUERITE RADELL (1992). “Refashioning the SelfImmigrant Women in Bharati Mukherjee’s New World.” Studies in Short Fiction
29.1, Winter: 11-17.
VIGNISSON, RUMAR (1993). “Bharati Mukherjee: an Interview.” SPA*. Journal of the
South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. 3435.
WILLIAMS, WILLIAM CARLOS (1923). Spring and All. Paris: Contact Publishing.
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[email protected]
Vol 2 2015, pp. 93-113, ISSN: 2339-8523
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------LA IDIA PARA LAS MASAS: LO TÍPICO Y LO TÓPICO E LOS MURALES DE
Universidad de Zaragoza
[email protected]
Recibido: 31-07-2014
Aceptado: 19-01-2015
Este artículo trata sobre la representación de la India en los murales de la Exposición
Internacional del Golden Gate (1939-1940) de San Francisco y sobre los códigos y ejemplos
que utilizó su autor, Miguel Covarrubias, para presentar al público norteamericano general los
pueblos, el arte, las viviendas y transportes, la flora y la fauna y la economía del subcontinente
PALABRAS CLAVE: mapas, representaciones simbólicas, caricatura, Estados Unidos,
entreguerras, tópicos, exposiciones universales e internacionales, Miguel Covarrubias
ABSTRACT India for the Masses: the Typical and the Topical at the Golden Gate International
Exhibition of Murals (1939-1940)
This paper deals with the representation of India at San Francisco’s Golden Gate International
Exhibition of murals (1939-1940) and the codes and examples used by the author Miguel
Covarrubias to show the massive North American audience the people, the art, the native
dwellings and means of transportation, the flora and the fauna and the economy of the Indian
KEYWORDS: maps, symbolic representations, caricature, United States, Interwar period, topics,
International and Universal Exhibitions, Miguel Covarrubias
La Exposición Internacional del Golden Gate tuvo lugar en San Francisco en 1939 y
1940 (se prolongó debido a su gran éxito), y, a pesar de haber coincidido en el tiempo
con la Exposición General de Nueva York, constituyó uno de los principales eventos de
la historia de la ciudad, siendo también una de las más exitosas de toda la historia de
En la exposición de San Francisco, la India y su representación apenas entraban de
refilón, pues el tema principal de la misma era el “esplendor del Pacífico” (así se ha
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------traducido al español el Pageant of the Pacific original). Se trataba, por lo tanto, de
ofrecer todo un verdadero “desfile” de las bondades y beldades de los pueblos que
habitaban tanto dentro como en los límites de este océano, que se entendía por primera
vez como un nexo de unión –un nexo era igualmente la construcción del Golden Gate,
teóricamente el objeto de celebración original– entre los pueblos del mundo y, lo que es
más importante, entre sus respectivas industrias.1 En el recinto de la exposición, situado
en la isla artificial de Treasure Island, se combinaban exposiciones de carácter artístico
y etnográfico con demostraciones de carácter científico y técnico, las cuales estaban
acompañadas de toda una serie de actividades recreativas y lúdicas que hicieron que el
lugar se considerase durante un tiempo como un colosal parque de atracciones, que
recibió más de diecisiete millones de visitas de durante dos temporadas seguidas.
Fueron muchos los países, regiones, artistas2 y visitantes que acudieron a la llamada de
los organizadores. Junto con la colosal estatua Pacífica de Ralph Stackpole, las obras
más visitadas y recordadas de la exposición fueron los seis murales que bajo el título
“El esplendor del Pacífico”, pintó el artista y antropólogo mexicano Miguel Covarrubias
(1904-1957) entre 1938 y 1939 – asistido en su ejecución por Antonio Ruiz, más
conocido como “El Corcito”. En estos murales, que abarcaban los continentes de Asia,
América y Oceanía, la India tuvo apenas una pequeña pero interesante representación,
constituyendo una rara avis dentro de la exposición, que marginó la inclusión de la India
tanto por su delimitación geográfica – se trataba, no olvidemos, de una exaltación del
Pacífico – como por diversos motivos sociopolíticos. El Asia de Covarrubias terminaba
precisamente en el río Indo, y es esta idea de la India como frontera, como limes, la que
permite comprender mejor el escaso interés por la India del norteamericano medio al
que iba dirigida esta exposición.
El discurso Pan-Pacífico en las exposiciones internacionales había comenzado, de manera decisiva, con
la Exposición Internacional de Seattle de 1909 (la Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition), que presentaba la
cultura de los nuevos territorios adquiridos por los Estados Unidos, como Filipinas, Alaska y Hawái; el
discurso continuaría a través de otras exposiciones, como la Panama-Pacific International Exhibition de
1915 de San Francisco, para culminar de forma apoteósica en la que nos concierne, que hablaría de los
pueblos del Pacífico como motor económico de la costa Oeste. No es casualidad que esta última
coincidiese en el tiempo, oportunamente, tanto con la Política Panamericana del Buen Vecino de
Roosevelt como con los crecientes intereses militares y comerciales de Estados Unidos en el Pacífico ante
el preocupante avance japonés.
Además de Miguel Covarrubias, a cuya intervención dedicamos este artículo, participaron también
artistas como Helen Forbes, Dorothy Puccineli, Poole, Bergman, Hugo Ballin, Millard Sheets, Armin
Hansen, L. Stoll, las hermanas Bruton, Maynard Dixon, Herman Voltz, Lucien Labaudt, Marian Simpson,
Edgar D. Taylor, Hilaire Hiler, Arturo Sotomayor y José Moya del Pino. A partir de 1940 estaría también
presente Diego Rivera. (Anaya Dávila & de María y Campos, 2006: 29-30).
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Sin embargo, estas representaciones revisten un enorme interés, en tanto que
constituyen una serie de iconografías algo arquetípicas pero profundamente estudiadas,
que emanan de un artista cultivado – y con especial sensibilidad por la temática
asiática– y de una serie de prestigiosos colaboradores, realizadas con un claro afán
divulgador, y en tanto que estas mismas constituyen, tanto por su configuración como
por su trascendencia, toda una serie de hitos referenciales en la formación de una idea
mental de la India para gran parte del variado y abundante público que visitó la
Los murales
Cuando Philip N. Youtz, encargado del Pabellón del Pacífico, que habría de albergar los
citados murales, buscaba a un artista competente y apasionado para la realización de los
mapas, rápidamente pensó en Miguel Covarrubias, debido a su “sensibilidad (…) y su
conocimiento apasionado y sensible de las diversas culturas del mundo.” (García
Noriega y Nieto, 1987: 123). En aquellos momentos Covarrubias era uno de los artistas
figurativos más reconocidos y mejor pagados de Norteamérica, especialmente por sus
asiduas colaboraciones para publicaciones como Vogue, The (ew Yorker, Harpers’
Baazar, Collier’s, Time, Life o Fortune y por los libros que había ilustrado para
editoriales tan célebres como Covici-Friede, A. Knopf o la Limited Editions Club de
Heritage Press. Especialmente conocido como caricaturista social y muy implicado en el
Renacimiento de Harlem, Covarrubias vivía en aquellos momentos su época de mayor
fama, pues acababa de publicarse su estudio ilustrado Island of Bali (1937), que había
desatado una auténtica “balimanía” entre los estadounidenses – tres ediciones se
agotaron en pocas semanas, y algunos grandes almacenes vendieron para la ocasión
diseños balineses – y que todavía en la fecha de hoy constituye una de las publicaciones
angulares sobre la isla de Bali. Fue precisamente gracias a esta, financiada por una beca
de la Fundación Guggenheim, cuando la vida y la obra de Covarrubias dieron un giro
definitivo hacia algunas grandes pasiones que culminarían en las últimas décadas de su
vida: la pintura, la cartografía y la antropología/etnología.3
Aunque existen numerosas publicaciones sobre la vida y obra de Covarrubias, la más completa de ellas
es la biografía de Williams (1994), que utilizamos como obra de referencia.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Covarrubias aceptó el encargo en 1938, partiendo en septiembre de ese mismo año a
San Francisco, quizás esperando acumular fama y dinero en la costa Oeste. (Anaya
Dávila & de María y Campos, 2006: 21).4 Fueron Rene d’Harnoncourt y Moisés Saenz,
con quienes mantenía una estrecha relación, quienes le convencieron para participar en
el proyecto; Covarrubias aceptaría el encargo una vez que Sáenz le hiciera ver que los
mapas serían “una instructiva descripción de la verdad sociológica mediante el arte”
(Anaya Dávila & de María y Campos, 2006: 22). En un principio, se pensó en realizar
ocho grandes murales, que finalmente fueron seis,5 ejecutados mediante la innovadora
técnica de “fresco en laca”6 sobre madera, y que se colocarían en el Pabellón del
Pacífico de la exposición: dos de ellos (Los medios de transporte y Las viviendas
nativas, de 274 x 396 cm cada uno) irían en el vestíbulo y cuatro en la planta principal
(Los pueblos, Las manifestaciones de arte, La economía y La fauna y la flora, de 457 x
732 cm cada uno).
El contrato de Covarrubias incluía mil dólares mensuales, alojamiento, transporte,
materiales, ayudantes y todo el equipo cultural necesario (Anaya Dávila & de María y
Campos, 2006: 23), en el que se incluían los colaboradores Walter Goldschmidt, Pardee
Lowe, el doctor A. L. Kroeber, el doctor Carl Sauer, René d’Harnouncourt, Eric
Douglas y Philip N. Youtz (Anaya Dávila & de María y Campos, 2006: 36). Miguel
Covarrubias y “El Corcito”7 invertirían unos tres meses en realizar los murales (Anaya
Dávila & de María y Campos, 2006: 25). Para ello, Covarrubias partía de una
proyección de Van der Grinten proporcionada por Carl Sauer, reproduciendo después el
mapa sobre pequeños bloques de argamasa y realizando las figuras según la ya
mencionada técnica del “fresco en laca”. Utilizando su peculiar estilo cartográfico,8 en
Existe una breve pero bellamente ilustrada publicación dedicada a la estancia de Covarrubias en San
Francisco, fruto de una exposición reciente de los murales (Contreras & Dahlhaus, 2007).
Se fusionaron el de la fauna y la flora y se eliminó el de la historia, que hubiera resultado demasiado
complejo. (Anaya Dávila & de María y Campos, 2006: 24).
“Los murales (…) fueron pintados con una nueva técnica que usaba laca lisa con una base de
nitrocelusosa. El pigmento puro y seco se aplicaba con laca transparente diluida con disolvente. Cada
brochazo hacía penetrar las partículas de color en la base de nitrocelusosa que instantáneamente se
disolvía en una manera similar al fresco; es decir, “un fresco” en laca en vez del típico yeso. El resultado
era una superficie de brillantes colores, transparente, lavable y durable”. (Anaya Dávila & de María y
Campos, 2006: 124).
Antonio M. Ruíz (1892-1964), apodado “El Corcito” en honor a un famoso torero, fue un pintor y
escenógrafo mexicano, del mismo ambiente cultural que Miguel Covarrubias, que desarrolló casi toda su
carrera en México y se especializó en escenas urbanas. También ejerció como docente en la célebre
escuela “La Esmeralda”.
Vinculado desde muy temprana edad a la cartografía (trabajó como cartógrafo en la Secretaría de
Educación Pública) (García Noriega y Nieto, 1987: 120), Covarrubias realizaría a lo largo de su vida más
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------estos seis murales, Covarrubias “proyecta las necesidades socioeconómicas y
espirituales de las comunidades del Pacífico y delinea las necesidades comunales de
todos los grupos humanos por medio de una precisa observación y representaciones
minuciosas de elementos culturales materiales”. (Anaya Dávila & de María y Campos,
2006: 124).
Covarrubias y la India
A pesar de las fuertes vinculaciones que Covarrubias mantuvo con otros lugares del
continente asiático como Bali (Williams y Chong, 2005) o China (Peiró Márquez,
2013), la India no constituyó para el mexicano un gran referente iconográfico ni
personal; sin embargo, no deberíamos olvidarnos de sus vinculaciones con una élite
intelectual mucho más preocupada e implicada en la actualidad india, pues escribió
varios artículos para la revista Asia y mantuvo un estrecho contacto con algunos de sus
colaboradores. Asia, la publicación científica divulgativa – también de contenidos
políticos – de temática asiática con mayor impacto en Norteamérica durante las décadas
de los 20 y los 30, fue una de las pocas que prestó gran atención a la India, contando
entre sus colaboradores con personalidades de la talla de Jawaharlal Nehru o Gertrude
Emerson Sen. En este entorno, Williams (1994: 303) cita la amistad del matrimonio
Covarrubias con Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit – hermana de Nehru y que ocupó importantes
cargos políticos –, a la que sitúa junto a otras celebridades visitando la casa del
matrimonio en Tizapán en la década de los 40 (Williams, 1994: 191); años más tarde,
su hermana Krishna Nehru Hutheesing y su hija Nayantara Sahgal visitarían también a
Rosa Covarrubias, ya viuda (Williams (1994: 303).
Aunque Covarrubias nunca visitó la India y sus habitantes apenas atrajeron su atención
iconográfica hasta la realización de estos murales, sí podemos encontrar entre su obras
algunas excepciones, como las figuras de dos sikhs – un Maharajá (Vanity Fair, 1927:
36) y un Swami (Vanity Fair, 1928b: 60), respectivamente – de corte satírico que
aparecieron en las páginas de Vanity Fair o una caricaturas de líderes políticos como
de una treintena de mapas artísticos, tanto en formato mural (además de los que aquí tratamos, realizó
otros cuatro mapas murales) como sobre papel (realizó mapas para las ilustraciones de al menos ocho
libros, gouaches, folletos, carteles e ilustraciones para revistas). (Anaya Dávila & de María y Campos,
2006: 25-26). Según Azuela de la Cueva (2007, p. 1276), en una opinión que no compartimos, y citando
una conferencia de Fausto Ramírez, el particular estilo de mural cartográfico-didáctico de Covarrubias
habría tenido su origen en el modelo utilizado por Roberto Montenegro en el mural de la Biblioteca
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Mohandas Gandhi (Vanity Fair, 1930: 56) o Subhas Chandra Bose, que apareció en
Collier’s en 1944. Estas imágenes dan idea de la aislada presencia india en el
imaginario de las revistas ilustradas norteamericanas, en el que solo resultan relevantes
en cuanto a que curiosidades exóticas revestidas de cierto lujo y, en menor medida,
como personalidades políticas emergentes.
La India en los mapas murales de Covarrubias
Una vez mencionado el contexto general de creación de los murales y de la, en teoría,
limitada relación de Covarrubias con las representaciones de la India, pasamos a
analizar el contenido referente a las culturas del subcontinente indio en los mismos.
Antes de ello, debemos advertir que existieron dos versiones idénticas de los murales:
las ya mencionadas, realizadas sobre “el fresco en laca” y expuestas en la exposición de
San Francisco, y una edición limitada en papel, realizada al año siguiente y que incluía
un prólogo en el que Covarrubias ofrecía ciertas explicaciones y consideraciones sobre
la leyenda de los mapas y, en ocasiones, sobre los motivos de elección de unos
determinados elementos (Covarrubias, 1940).9 Esta edición, muy apreciada por
coleccionistas por su enorme detalle y calidad, es, por tanto, nuestra fuente primaria de
estudio, tanto por sus representaciones gráficas - especialmente si tenemos en cuenta
que uno de los murales se encuentra en paradero desconocido10 - como por el texto del
propio Covarrubias.
Dichos murales permiten a Covarrubias combinar sus habilidades pictóricas con sus
incipientes inquietudes como antropólogo y museólogo, pues en ellos prima el afán
divulgativo, especialmente claro y compartimentado (a veces incluso de manera
artificiosa). Ybarra-Frausto definió con exactitud la esencia de los mapas de
Entre los cartógrafos modernos, Miguel Covarrubias ha hecho contribuciones especiales
y duraderas. En sus mapas, los datos se embellecen con elementos pictóricos para crear
una topografía expresiva, un terreno tanto científico como imaginativo, añadiendo al
El texto estuvo asesorado por Carl Sauer y Alfred L. Kroeber. El mismo sería traducido al español,
acompañado de un breve estudio sobre el contexto de producción de los murales (Anaya Dávila & de
María y Campos, 2006). La edición original (Covarrubias, 1940) no tiene paginación, lo que puede
dificultar la identificación de las citas. No obstante, el texto puede consultarse en su totalidad en la
Colección de David Rumsey, y está disponible online aquí.
El mural de Las manifestaciones de arte tuvo un destino funesto, pues está en paradero desconocido
desde 1959. La obra pudo perderse en las bodegas del Museo Americano de Historia Natural, cosa que
parece improbable, o en el envío y recepción para ser instalada en el Ferry Building de San Francisco.
(Anaya Dávila & de María y Campos, 2006: 32).
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------aspecto funcional de la cartografía una visión estética personal. Con el rigor y la
exactitud de un etnólogo y la originalidad y sensibilidad de un pintor y artista gráfico,
Covarrubias ofrece nuevas perspectivas y establece una nueva categoría de mapas
pictóricos. (García Noriega y Nieto, 1987: 119-120).
Así, en ellos Covarrubias “incorpora imaginación artística a las necesidades científicas
de la delimitación de espacios” (Anaya Dávila & de María y Campos, 2006: 122) y
“crea un modo de representación usando signos diminutos que proyectan información
cultural” (Anaya Dávila & de María y Campos, 2006: 122). Es precisamente esta
información cultural que se proyecta la que pretendemos reunir en nuestro estudio. En
nuestro análisis nos ocupamos únicamente de los elementos con los que Covarrubias
“proyecta información” sobre la India, aunque por coherencia cultural e histórica
trataremos igualmente las iconografías con las que se representa a la zona limítrofe, las
actuales Paquistán, Bangladesh, Nepal y Sri Lanka.11
Ya en el prólogo de los mismos, Covarrubias advierte sobre la importancia de la
prevalencia de los dibujos sobre la exactitud geográfica y política,12 justificando quizás
con esto sus generalizaciones; no debemos olvidar que estuvieron pensados para que un
público general, esencialmente norteamericano y con poca educación específica al
respecto, pudiera aprender sobre los pueblos de América, Asia y Oceanía. Para una
sociedad que acusaba episodios tanto de indofilia como de indofobia mucho más
relajados que el mundo británico, la inclusión de la India en estos murales resultaba un
punto de inflexión importante, puesto que para muchas personas debieron ser una
primera toma de contacto con la cultura y economía del país, permitiéndoles adquirir
una serie de conocimientos sobre la India y su etnografía, en un momento en el que la
actualidad india gozó de una gran importancia en el panorama internacional.13
Todas las imágenes que aquí utilizamos y reproducimos pertenecen a la colección de mapas de David
Rumsey, y pueden consultarse digitalizadas con gran detalle en el siguiente sitio web:
“Aunque los datos geográficos y políticos se han hecho a un lado para dejar espacio a los dibujos”.
(Covarrubias, 1940).
Coincidiendo con la declaración de guerra de Inglaterra a Alemania que afecta a la India como colonia
de la primera, se trata de un momento de fuertes tensiones y acciones independentistas, muy bien
manifestadas en las elecciones provinciales de 1936 (las primeras realizadas tras la Government of India
Act de 1935), y que concedieron con una aplastante victoria al Congreso Nacional Indio.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Por otra parte, con sus más y sus menos,14 no debemos olvidar que, aunque por lo
general fue un adelantado a su tiempo en muchas de sus teorías, Covarrubias es todavía
un “antropólogo romántico” (Medina, 1976), y que es en el sentido de una antropología
didáctica de cierto tono sentimental – coincidente en el tiempo con sus crecientes
apetencias antropológicas y docentes – en el que debemos entender sus aportaciones al
conocimiento popular etnográfico. Quizás por ello, la verdadera novedad de los murales
no sea únicamente la concreta tipología estética que después sería tan imitada,15 sino las
conciliadoras intenciones de su autor. 16
1. Los Pueblos
Precisamente por su complejidad e implicaciones, el mural que se ocupa de Los Pueblos
es uno de los más controvertidos, debido tanto al uso de una teoría racial algo obsoleta
como a la reiteración de unos clichés iconográficos procedentes del mundo de la
representativos de sus lugares de origen, Covarrubias intenta “mostrar los territorios
ocupados por estos grupos raciales, así como los tipos fisionómicos más representativos
de los pueblos coloridos y variados” (Covarrubias, 1940). Para Covarrubias y sus
asesores, existen en la India representantes de los tres tipos de razas: la mongoloide, la
caucasoide y la negroide.17
En el caso de la primera, el autor comenta que además de los colonizadores “(…) desde
la antigüedad ha habido residentes caucasoides asiáticos en el norte de la India, tales
como los morenos y barbados panjabi, rajput, kashmiri y los sikh” (Covarrubias, 1940).
En la zona ocupada por los caucasoides (el norte de la India y el sur de Sri Lanka),
Covarrubias mantiene una teoría de razas bastante anticuada para la época, aunque sí que utiliza el
emergente concepto de “área cultural”, que toma de Kroeber.
El estilo cartográfico de Covarrubias tuvo una gran trascendencia, especialmente en los Estados Unidos
y en México, donde podemos cuantificar su influencia desde el mundo de la publicidad, el ocio, el cine y
la animación: de los mapas publicitarios de la Hawaiian Pineapple Company a las películas de Disney
Saludos Amigos (1942) y Los Tres Caballeros (1944), son numerosas las manifestaciones culturales que
acusan notables deudas de los planteamientos de Covarrubias. Para una explicación más detallada véase
Peiró Márquez (2013: 85)
“El océano Pacífico se ha considerado, en el imaginario popular (…) como una barrera en vez de lo que
en realidad es: una ruta para que todos los pueblos, culturas y economías nacionales que pertenecen al
área del Pacífico se comuniquen entre sí.” (Covarrubias, 1940).
Covarrubias utiliza en el mural una teoría racial algo obsoleta: aquella que indicaba que en el ser
humano existían únicamente tres razas – la mongoloide, la caucasoide y la negroide– y sus respectivas
mezclas, división que, sin embargo, había sido aprobada por Kroeber. (Anaya Dávila & de María y
Campos, 2006: 27). Términos como “caucasoide”, “negroide” o “raza dravidiana” son empleados en la
traducción al español y los utilizamos por respeto a su autor.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------representada con el color rosa, y sin que coincida con su texto, sitúa respectivamente a
los maratha, los gujarati, los punjabíes, los sindhi, los sikh y los cingaleses, siendo estos
dos últimos los elegidos para una representación icónica. En el caso del sikh, que es el
único al que Covarrubias dedica unas líneas en el texto (“un sacerdote sikh con capa
roja, turbante, rosario y estola característicos de cierta casta (…)”, Covarrubias, 1940),
este sigue la iconografía habitual y es visualmente similar a los ya comentados ejemplos
de la Vanity Fair.18 Más curiosa resulta la representación del cingalés, para la que
Covarrubias elige a un bailarín kandyano, representado con la vestimenta tradicional
para el baile – conocida como “ves”–, compuesta de un tocado elaborado, una red de
cuentas que cubre el pecho, una vistosa falda en color blanco y tobilleras metálicas.
Posiblemente, esta elección esté relacionada con la pasión de Covarrubias por la
danza;19 asimismo, los bailarines kandyanos representaban un tipo etnográfico más que
reconocible, pues fueron durante mucho tiempo la figura cingalesa más conocida por
público general, desde que en el siglo XIX el empresario circense alemán Carl
Hagenbeck los incluyese en sus zoos humanos; a finales del siglo XIX y a principios del
XX se convertirían en un reclamo popular de las “exposiciones etnográficas”
(especialmente, exposiciones internacionales y universales) (de Zoete, 1954).
Dentro de la raza negroide, Covarrubias incluye a los dravidianos del sur de la India,
como los tamiles, a los que cita y representa (Covarrubias, 1940). En el mapa sitúa
también bajo esta misma raza a los habitantes del sur y el este de la India, como los
munda kol, los telugu, los toda y los rond, los citados tamiles y a los bengalíes (de ellos
dice que “son de sangre mixta mongoloide y dravidiana”, Covarrubias, 1940), además
de los vedda del norte de Sri Lanka. Sus elecciones iconográficas corresponden en este
caso a tamiles, bengalíes y vedda.
En las tres ocasiones los personajes aparecen representados con la piel bastante oscura, barbados y
tocados con turbante a la manera tradicional.
Covarrubias fue, durante los años finales de su vida, director de la sección de danza del Instituto
Nacional de Bellas Artes de México, en la época conocida como la “edad de oro de la danza mexicana,” y
bajo cuyo cargo se llevaron a cabo numerosos y célebres ballets como Zapata o Los Cuatro Soles, para
muchos de los cuales diseñó vestuario y escenografía y que llegó a sufragar de su propio bolsillo.
(Navarrete, 1993; Williams, 1994). Además, a lo largo de su obra se encuentran diseminadas ingentes
representaciones de la danza y los bailarines de muy diferentes lugares del mundo, teniendo especial
importancia las afroamericanos, istmeños (de Tehuantepec) y balineses, aunque también representó a
bailarines javaneses, birmanos y camboyanos.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------La más habitual de estas iconografías, la del aguador tamil, sigue los modelos
iconográficos por los que se hicieron conocidos en la fotografía de época colonial
(delgados, rurales, con la piel muy oscura y apenas vestidos), pero en su faceta de
aguador presenta una complejidad: se trata probablemente de un bhisti, figura que no
aparece en la sociedad tamil pero sí representada bajo unos mismos presupuestos
estéticos en diferentes obras del periodo precedente20 y que era relativamente conocida
para el público occidental.21 Para la representación del cazador vedda, es probable que
Covarrubias recogiese información del popular libro The Veddas (Seligmann &
Seligmann, 1911), que incluía numerosas fotografías sobre este pueblo, definido en el
prólogo del libro como “uno de los más primitivos del mundo”, y que en el momento
todavía ocupaba gran parte de las selvas de Sri Lanka. Covarrubias adopta aquí la
iconografía más característica y reconocible, la del cazador selvático de pelo largo y
revuelto, portando un característico arco largo.
Entre las parecidas a la figura representada por Covarrubias, destacamos una fotografía de Scott y Weld
(1862: 320) y una fotografía de India (1876: 48).
Esta figura fue la protagonista de un poema de Rudyard Kipling titulado Gunga Din, que en 1939 dio
lugar a una producción cinematográfica del mismo nombre, protagonizada por Cary Grant.
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Figura I. Detalle de “Los Pueblos”. Colección de David Rumsey.
La representación de un moderno bengalí reviste un mayor interés iconográfico, en
tanto que Covarrubias no presenta un tipo etnográfico recurrente, sino a un ciudadano
moderno, cuya representación plástica no estaba todavía demasiado extendida. El
bengalí, sentado y en actitud pensativa, representa probablemente a un simpatizante del
Movimiento de Independencia Indio, pues además de un panjabi o kurtas sencillo, luce
también la prenda conocida como “gorro Gandhi”, utilizada por los afines al
movimiento; ambas prendas parecen estar realizadas en khadi, tejido reivindicado por
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------los círculos afines a Gandhi como preceptivo por sus implicaciones industriales locales
y como parte del Movimiento Swadeshi (Gonsalves, 2010).
Por último, la raza mongoloide, ocupando un color amarillo oscuro, se sitúa en el
territorio montañoso al norte del Ganges y perteneciente a Nepal, y está representada
por los gurkha, “una tribu guerrera de sangre mixta caucasoide y mongoloide”.
(Covarrubias, 1940). Muy interesante, aunque tradicional, es la figura de la gurkha, pues
aunque los guerreros gurkhas de Nepal eran bastante populares en Occidente debido a
su importante papel en el Raj británico, Covarrubias elige una representación femenina.
A grandes rasgos, su iconografía corresponde a la habitual de muchas postales y
fotografías de estudio que desde mediados del siglo XIX presentaban al público
occidental las “Nepali ladies”, con la cabeza velada y haciendo especial énfasis en las
voluminosas joyas que portaban tanto al cuello (siempre con varios y gruesos collares)
como en muñecas, orejas y otras perforaciones faciales, que tan singulares resultaban.
Los mismos tipos etnográficos continuaban apareciendo en la fotografía postal en la
época en la que se realizaron los murales, por lo que no es extraño que alguna de ellas
pudiera ser la fuente iconográfica directa para el autor; la novedad es que Covarrubias
presenta a la mujer sentada, en actitud relajada, y no posando erguida como solían
solicitar los estudios.
Lo cierto es que, aunque el mexicano olvida mencionar en su discurso a veddas,
cingaleses y no añade descripción alguna sobre la gurkha, el bengalí o el tamil –
únicamente se detiene en la descripción del sikh22 –, sus elecciones representan una
variada selección dentro de los posibles arquetipos,23 representando tanto a figuras
tradicionales dentro de la imaginería colonial como otras de mayor actualidad,
ofreciendo al público diferentes facetas de la multiétnica sociedad del Raj Británico.
Creemos que los motivos de esto no atañen tanto a su singularidad “caucasoide” –como sí le sucede en
la representación del ainu japonés del mismo mural– sino porque posiblemente se tratase de la figura más
reconocida y reconocible por el norteamericano de a pie.
No debemos olvidar la importancia de los libros de compilaciones sobre diferentes tribus y tipos
etnográficos de la India publicados a lo largo de todo el dominio británico. Entre ellos, destacó por su
volumen, minuciosidad y calidad de sus abundantes fotografías el de Watson, Kaye y Taylor (18681875).
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------2. Las manifestaciones del arte
En el desaparecido mural de Las manifestaciones del arte, el más imitado y admirado de
todos ellos,24 se representan, grosso modo, algunas de las manifestaciones artísticas más
características de sus respectivos territorios, tanto antiguas como contemporáneas.
Desgraciadamente, Covarrubias no presta tanto detalle al arte de la India como al de
otras zonas – como la Polinesia o las islas de la actual Indonesia –, probablemente
porque, a pesar de su cuidada y entusiasta formación, no se sentía tan cómodo en su
explicación o representación. En su texto Covarrubias advierte de las generalizaciones
llevadas a cabo en un mapa de tanta complejidad cultural: “existen culturas que han
cambiado de forma considerable y que se han desplazado de manera continua, como
(…) los habitantes de la India” (Covarrubias, 1940).
Figura II. Detalle de “Las manifestaciones del arte”. Colección de David Rumsey.
En el caso que nos atañe, Covarrubias utiliza únicamente un par de representaciones
icónicas, aunque originalmente planteó también establecer una región artística dedicada
al sur de la India, tal y como se aprecia en un mapa preparatorio original (Anaya Dávila
& de María y Campos, 2006: 52). En ese caso, las explicaciones son mucho más parcas
Gracias a la edición de 1940, este mural se convirtió en toda una referencia dentro de la entonces
emergente cultura tiki, debido a sus detalladas y acertadas representaciones del arte polinesio y
melanesio, aunque, tal y como sucede con el resto de murales, incluye las representaciones icónicas
pertenecientes a un territorio mucho más amplio.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------que las cuidadas representaciones, que reproducen obras de arte reales, aunque el artista
no especifica su fuente.
En primer lugar, en la zona septentrional, coloca una miniatura rajputa que representa a
una dama sentada y que define como “del norte de la India”. Esta sigue los modelos
femeninos idealizados habituales de las escuelas de pintura de la India septentrional de
los siglos XVII y XVIII: se presenta a la dama de perfil, llevando un sari tradicional
ricamente decorado y un velo azulado semi-transparente; de piel clara y ojos
almendrados, aparece sujetando una flor en su mano derecha.
Por otra parte, Covarrubias coloca en Sri Lanka una bandera pintada cingalesa, en la que
aparece el dios mono Hanúman (Covarrubias, 1940). En este caso, la bandera se trata
de la reproducción parcial – y algo más achatada - de una bandera real, estandarte del
gremio de los nawandanno.25 La original presenta, enfrentados sobre un fondo de
estrellas, a Vishvákarma – dios de los artesanos y arquitectos – y a Hanúman, pero
Covarrubias reprodujo únicamente la parte derecha, en la que se encuentra el célebre
dios mono sujetando en su mano un arbusto mágico. En la esquina superior izquierda,
se encuentra también una representación solar, símbolo habitual de las banderas
3. Las viviendas nativas
El mural Las viviendas nativas es, en general, el más genérico y parco en detalles del
conjunto, pero muy especialmente en el caso de la India, a la que Covarrubias dota de
un único modelo representativo, del que nos dice que es una casa de techo plano,
generalmente de adobe o lodo, característica del norte de la India y del Tíbet.
(Covarrubias, 1940). Efectivamente, se trata de una casa tradicional de la región
desértica de Thar, en Rajastán, construida en adobe y que tras la techumbre cónica de
paja oculta un techo plano. Sin embargo, debemos señalar que Covarrubias coloca
geográficamente esta casa en una zona que clasifica como “bengalí”, aunque esto parece
obedecer más a una conveniencia espacial que a un error deliberado.
Orfebres, pertenecientes a la casta de los súdras (Upham, 1833: 334).
Una imagen de la bandera original, así como más información sobre el sentido iconográfico general de
la bandera, puede encontrarse en Sunday Observer, 2005.
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Figura III. Detalle de “Las viviendas nativas”. Colección de David Rumsey.
4. La fauna y la flora
El mural dedicado a La fauna y la flora es igualmente parco en detalles, pues se ve
fuertemente complementado por el relativo a la Economía. En él, mediante su habitual
sistema de colores, Covarrubias nos representa a India y sus regiones circundantes en
diferentes tonos que indican los diversos paisajes: utiliza el verde claro para matorrales
y bosques lluviosos, el verde oscuro para los grandes bosques tropicales perennifolios,
el amarillo para las praderas y el ocre para desiertos y zonas de maleza – que sitúa en
Baluchistán (Covarrubias, 1940). Los animales elegidos como característicos de la
India son el elefante (que volverá a aparecer en el mural de Los Medios de Transporte,
dando cuenta de esta manera de lo representativo de este animal en el país), el
rinoceronte asiático (el único que menciona en el texto), la cobra, y el jabalí
(probablemente un Sus scrofa cristatus). Resulta llamativa la ausencia de la vaca, quizás
una forma discreta de eludir – tanto en este como en el mural de La economía – una de
las cuestiones más controvertidas sobre la situación económica de la India, de especial
relevancia en Occidente tras la controvertida publicación de Katherine Mayo (1927).27
El libro Mother India suscitó una gran polémica en los Estados Unidos. Los lectores de Vanity Fair y el
propio Covarrubias estaban familiarizados con el contenido del mismo y con la figura de Mayo, a la que
el mexicano dedicó la caricatura “auntie Mayo” (Vanity Fair, 1928a: 67).
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Figura IV. Detalle de “La fauna y la flora”. Colección de David Rumsey.
5. La economía
La economía es el más complejo de estos murales y quizás de toda la obra de
Covarrubias. En él se perciben dos descripciones: de una parte, se clasifica el color del
suelo según su uso primario, y de otra, se representan los productos más característicos
de cada región (Covarrubias, 1940). Así, presta atención a la alimentación, diciéndonos
que “los habitantes del sur de (…) la India se han alimentado de arroz desde tiempos
inmemoriales” mientras que “los del norte de (…) la India consumen trigo y mijo”
(Covarrubias, 1940).
Figura V. Detalle de “La economía”. Colección de David Rumsey.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Así, sobre el color verde oscuro, que utiliza para pueblos que practican la agricultura de
manera intensiva como medio de subsistencia, aunque con procedimientos de cultivo
tradicionales, representa a “los pueblos cuya economía se basa en el cultivo del arroz,
como (…) los indios de la costa” (Covarrubias, 1940). En color verde oliva señala
“países donde prevalece el sistema de las “plantaciones”, colocando como ejemplo
“algunas regiones de la India” (Covarrubias, 1940). Aunque no las nombra
directamente, incluye también, en color rojo, áreas altamente industrializadas próximas
a grandes ciudades; estas se corresponden con Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Chennai, y zonas
cercanas al Ganges y al Golfo de Bengala. Por último, en color gris, dedicado a
“pueblos que practican el pastoreo nómada por subsistencia” (Covarrubias, 1940)
coloca a los baluk de Baluchistán, mientras que la pesca a gran escala de la bahía de
Bengala se representó mediante el color azul oscuro (Covarrubias, 1940). A pesar de
señalar zonas con una fuerte industria, no incluye como representaciones objetuales
ningún producto industrial, sino que se decide por productos procedentes de la
agricultura (algodón, té, cacao, trigo y mijo) y ganadería (en Baluchistán representa la
cabeza de una res, única alusión mínima a la ya mencionada cuestión de la vaca), la
pesca (mediante un gran atún) u otras explotaciones de los recursos naturales, como el
cáñamo, el caucho, las perlas (al sur de la India) o los zafiros (en Sri Lanka).
6. Los medios de transporte
En el mural Los medios de transporte se representan tanto los transportes tradicionales
como algunas de las más modernas innovaciones, pues junto a todo tipo de
embarcaciones y vehículos de tracción animal y humana Covarrubias sitúa al China
Clipper,28 uno de los primeros aviones comerciales modernos. De hecho, es con su
descripción con la que concluye su descriptivo y singular texto: “La mayor contribución
a la transportación de nuestros tiempos ha sido el gigantesco China Clipper, el cual
representa la cumbre de una época en la navegación y un símbolo de las ambiciones y
sueños que engloba el área del Pacífico: traer Asia a América y América a Asia en cinco
días.” (Covarrubias, 1940).
El China Clipper fue el primer avión comercial que permitió el correo y el comercio aéreo entre
Norteamérica y Asia en octubre de 1936.
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Figura VI. Detalle de “Los medios de transporte”. Colección de David Rumsey.
En lo tocante a la India, son cuatro los transportes que reciben representación gráfica: se
trata de dos transportes terrestres y de dos acuáticos. Así, en el norte de la India,
Covarrubias representa al elefante – quizás uno de los más importantes por su carácter
de icono nacional, del que nos dice que hace todo tipo de trabajos pesados (Covarrubias,
1940); en el centro del país sitúa una carreta de tracción animal tirada por dos cebúes,
que menciona (Covarrubias, 1940).29 En cuanto a las embarcaciones, incluye dos tipos
de barcos de vela: una casa-barco típica en el Golfo de Bengala, y al sur, una oruva, que
define como “lanchas singalesas de los pescadores de perlas” (Covarrubias, 1940).
Tras este análisis, no podemos evitar establecer algunas comparaciones en aras de
resaltar la singularidad de las representaciones de Covarrubias. Si tenemos en cuenta las
informaciones proyectadas por otros mapas pictóricos del momento, especialmente los
cada vez más habituales realizados para diferentes funciones relacionadas con la
creciente industria turística30, veremos cómo si bien Covarrubias recurre a algunos
Este tipo de carretas era en realidad habitual en todo el país, y aparece habitualmente representado en
ilustraciones y fotografías de la zona de Kerala.
Como ejemplos, véanse los numerosos diseños realizados por Lucien Boucher para Air France o por L.
Helguera para PanAm. Por norma general, los mapas de esta época incluyen referencias a edificios
religiosos y palaciegos, a animales como el tigre, el elefante o monos, y junto a los ya mencionados sikhs
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------elementos tópicos y habituales en el imaginario popular sobre la India – el elefante, el
sikh, el tamil, la gurkha, la oruva, el carro de cebúes, al mismo tiempo no solo evita
algunos estereotipos generales (el tigre, el curry, las especias, edificios importantes de
Mumbai o Calcuta31), sino que introduce algunas representaciones muy poco habituales,
ya sea por su carácter coyuntural (el bengalí independentista) como por su exactitud
científica y etnográfica (la vivienda nativa, las obras de arte rajputas y cingalesas…).
Con ello, realiza un acertado, aunque sobremanera limitado, análisis y explicación de
algunos de los rasgos distintivos de la cultura India proyectados hacia el exterior. Estos
mismos, por la particular relación emisor-receptor en la que se concibieron y disfrutaron
estos murales y sus exitosas reproducciones,32 constituyeron todo un hito en la cultura
middlebrow norteamericana y en la concepción que la misma tuvo sobre ese cada vez
menos desconocido subcontinente Indio.
“A Step-son of Mother India’s Aunt Answers”, Vanity Fair, agosto de 1928 : 67, 85,
(2006). Covarrubias:
esplendor del Pacífico. México: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes.
(2007). “Peace by Revolution: una aproximación léxico-
visual al México revolucionario.”, Historia Mexicana : 1263-1307.
Chine. París: Editions Plon.
(2012). Afterimage of empire: photography in nineteenth-century
India. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
(2007). Miguel Covarrubias en México y
San Francisco. México: Instituto Nacional de Arqueología e Historia y Museo
Nacional de Antropología.
y tamiles, aparecen encantadores de serpientes, faquires y conductores de elefantes. Sin embargo, no
debemos olvidar que en tanto que elementos de promoción turística, estos tienen un mayor factor de
persuasión que los realizados por Covarrubias, de un mayor carácter didáctico y conciliador.
El Taj Majal, uno de los elementos más potentes y habituales utilizados en las representaciones
simbólicas y didácticas sobre la India, no predominaría sobre la imaginería colonial hasta la década de los
Recordemos que más de diecisiete millones de personas visitaron el recinto de la exposición, y que la
edición en papel alcanzó una gran fama y es todavía hoy muy admirada y coleccionada.
[email protected], Vol 2 2015, pp.93-113, ISSN 2339-8523
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------COVARRUBIAS, MIGUEL (1940).
Pageant of the Pacific. San Francisco: Pacific House.
(coord) (1987). Miguel Covarrubias: homenaje. México:
Centro Cultural/Arte Contemporáneo.
(2010). Clothing for Liberation: A Communication Analysis of
Gandhi's Swadeshi Revolution. Los Angeles: SAGE.
“How the Lion Flag Evolved”, Sunday Observer, 30 de octubre de 2005. Disponible
online en:
“Imaginary Interviews nº 1”, Vanity Fair, diciembre de 1930: 56.
India (1876). Nueva York: Mead Dodd.
(1927). Mother India. Nueva York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.
(1976). “Miguel Covarrubias y el romanticismo en la antropología”.
(ueva Antropología, vol. I, Nº4: 11-42.
(1993), Miguel Covarrubias - artista y explorador. México:
Ediciones Era.
(2013). Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957) y China: relaciones
artísticas y culturales. Trabajo Fin de Máster, Universidad de Zaragoza.
“Personages of Paris. A Few of the Fancy Foreigners Who Scintillate in the “Ville
Lumière” Vanity Fair, noviembre de 1927: 36.
“Roads to Redemption. A Few Well-Known Reformers and their Contrasting
Methods.”, Vanity Fair, octubre de 1928: 60.
& SELIGMANN, BRENDA Z (1911). The Veddas. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
(1862). Sketches in India; taken at
Hyderabad and Secunderabad, in the Madras Presidency. Londres: Lovell
(1833). The Mahávansi, the Rájá-Ratnácari, and the Rájá-Vali,
forming the Sacred and historical books of Ceylon. Londres: Parbury, Allen &
Co. vol. III.
(1868-1875). The
people of India: a series of photographic illustrations, with descriptive
letterpress, of the races and tribes of Hindustan: originally prepared under the
authority of the Government of India, and reproduced by order of the secretary
of state for India in council. Londres: India Museum. 7 volúmenes.
Covarrubias. Austin: University of Texas Press.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------WILLIAMS, ADRIANA & CHONG, Y (2005).
Covarrubias in Bali. Singapur: Editions Didier
(1954), “An Episode in Kandyan dance-noblesse oblige”, Asiatische
Studien : Zeitschrift der Schweizerischen Asiengesellschaft = Études asiatiques:
revue de la Société Suisse-Asie, nº 8: 178- 183.
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[email protected]
Vol 2 2015, pp. 114-118, ISSN: 2339-8523
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------FROM JOHAE TO JAAKI: BRIGIG VIKIGS TO VARAASI
Independent Scholar
[email protected]
Received: 26-11-2014
Accepted: 30-11-2014
This book is about Johanne Nielsen, who was born on November 27, 1873, and who spent her
childhood and youth in her father’s house in Fiolstraede, a district located in the inner part of old
Copenhagen. It was not common then for parents to educate their
daughters and she was one of the first young women to have
completed the studentereksamen and the first year of a university
program known as Filosofikum that entitled her to sign herself as
a “Candidate in the Subject of Philosophy”. Her parents were
proud of her achievement, and were ready to send her for higher
This all came to an abrupt end when, at the age of 21, Johanne
met Bulaki Rama Chopra, a young barrister from India at a
conference in Stockholm, and fell deeply in love with him. It is
not clear why she was attracted to him. He was shorter than she
was, and did not have the stereotypical physical attributes that
women look for in men. He might have been the very first man
from India that Johanne had ever met. Perhaps it was his brilliance and creativity that attracted her
to him. He was a sculptor, a Sanskrit scholar, an innovative thinker, and a writer. Regardless of the
socio-cultural and linguistic differences that separated them, she felt deeply committed in her love,
and informed her parents of her wish to marry him.
The story goes that Johanne’s parents tried to keep her away from Bulaki Rama by sending her to a
convent from where she was forbidden to leave. Bulaki Rama and his friends quietly sent her a
message to jump over the wall of the convent while they waited below with bed sheets to catch her
when she jumped. Later, after reassuring letters from Bulaki Rama, Johanne’s parents reluctantly
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------agreed to the alliance. However, they would not allow the wedding to take place in Copenhagen,
perhaps to avoid the scandal that such a wedding would have had on their business and social status.
Johanne and Bulaki Rama were thus married very simply in a Sikh Gurudwara in London (UK)
even though neither one of them was Sikh. It happened to be the most convenient form of a
wedding ceremony since it did not require religious conversions. Following their wedding in 1895,
the couple left for India.
It could not have been easy for young Johanne, whose name was changed to “Janaki.” She was in a
country bitterly engaged in moving toward independence from British rule. Many of the people she
knew and admired were repelled by the presence of foreign, white Sahibs who controlled the lives
and careers of the darker “natives”. Johanne was probably viewed as a “pharangi” (foreigner) and a
“gori” (fair complexioned woman) who had ensnared Bulaki Rama by her commandeering, Nordic
appearance that awarded her a seemingly huge advantage over her husband.
Johanne’s journey of love from Copenhagen to Hafizabad, Dehra Dun and Benaras (Varanasi) also
led her into a new world of Theosophy, traditional Hindu caste differences, and Indian nationalism.
Her letters describe close connections with some of the best known thinkers and writers from
Punjab - Bhai Veer Singh, Professor Puran Singh, and Dr. Khudadad - who met regularly to read
from their works, and who planned their struggle to shape a future vision of the country. Due to the
influence of her friends, Bhai Veer Singh and Professor Puran Singh, Johanne was greatly drawn
toward the teachings of Sikhism. Although a combination of multiple beliefs shaped her mind, she
found that Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism could easily co-exist within the parameters of the
principles of Theosophy, a way of thinking that was passed on to her by her friend and mentor,
Annie Besant.
The book is based on letters from Johanne and her family and from interviews with people in
Denmark and India. It describes the impact of World War I and the struggle of people waiting to
gain independence from colonial rule. It is about a European woman adapting to a new culture,
embracing it, and yet maintaining her heritage and the love for the two countries she called home:
Denmark and India. It is about how she finally left Bulaki Rama, and found employment through
the help of her friend Annie Besant, at the Theosophical Society in Benaras (Varanasi). Living
alone with her four children, away from the man for whom she had left her land of origin, was an
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------incredibly courageous decision made by Johanne. The book is a tribute to this courage, and is an
attempt to revisit the Danish identity lost by Johanne’s children growing up in India. The book is
also a search for connections between the life of the author, Nilambri Ghai, who like her
grandmother Johanne, moved from the East to the West – from India to Canada, and who also felt
the loss of her home culture and language. The book draws parallels and seeks to reclaim lost
identities and lost memories.
Dera Ismail Khan: 30 December, 1897:
“Dear Father and Mother: We wish you all a
happy Christmas and ew Year. Wish it may
become a really pleasant year for you, for all
your own and for us here. It is fixed that we
shall now see each other this summer.
Everyone will be in good health. Little
Sakuntala sends ew Year greetings and kiss
to all of you and to cousin, eil. ----Johanne
During her second visit to Denmark, in November 1902, an article on Johanne was published in
Damernes Blad commenting on the unusual story of a young Danish woman who had given up her
family and culture to follow the man she loved to India. Johanne and Bulaki Rama’s daughter,
Sakuntala, was six years old. It was not uncommon for girls to be married at that young age, and
this explains the seemingly strange fact described in the article that Sakuntala had already started to
receive proposals. When a young girl was married, she stayed with her parents until puberty, after
which time, she moved permanently to her husband’s home. Sakuntala would have received
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------proposals only from the warrior or the Kshatriya caste, second after the Brahmins. The caste system
in Indian society was fairly rigid, and led to various forms of discrimination. As mentioned in the
article, Johanne was considered “impure” since she had eaten beef in Denmark. Many of the women
would not eat with her. Some would “not even touch her.”
Translation of the article from Damernes Blad:
“Eight years ago, she followed the man whom her heart had chosen – a man who belonged
to another race, and whose country was thousands of miles from her own country. The man
was a Hindu advocate, and the country was India. As it may be of interest to our readers to
hear about the home and way of living of this woman in the far east, we visited the lady,
who is for the moment on visit here, and we met her in her childhood home, in a cosy oldfashioned flat in Fiolstraede. The fact that Mrs. Chopra has so well integrated in India is
probably due to her will and ability to assimilate with the Hindus in as many ways as
possible. She quickly learned the language, became a vegetarian, wore all Indian women’s
clothing, following all daily life’s details, especially by converting to Hindu beliefs.
Therefore she is also on very good terms with all her husband’s friends.
Their wives, the Hindu women, play such secondary roles that their behaviour is of no
importance. As a curiosity, we ought to mention that since Mrs. Chopra before her marriage
had eaten beef (in India the cow is worshipped through the God Krishna who as a child lived
for a long time with cowherds), the women consider her impure, and none will eat together
with her, yes, some not even touch her. The lady’s husband, whose acquaintance she made
during a trip to Sweden, is, besides being an advocate, a doctor in Sanskrit. After his father’s
death, he has taken over the running of all his important land properties. Their dwelling,
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------from which we bring a picture above, is in Punjab, the five- river country near Lahore. The
villa has a certain European style, as well as some furniture. During summertime when the
heat is the strongest, they go to the Himalayan Mountains. An adorable little girl with the
beautiful name of Sakuntala (songbird) travels together with her mother, and seems to be
happy among her small Danish cousins. With her dark, soft eyes, her fine graceful body, her
multi-coloured gold-sewn clothing, she does seem like a little tropical bird; a bird that can
sing in Hindi, English and Danish. Even though she is very young, she has already had three
proposals of marriage, all belonging to the same caste as their father, namely the warrior
caste. But they have all, to their parents’ grief, received a refusal. This shows that the
Hindus are in no way unfriendly towards European culture. Sakuntala, through her
upbringing and birth, has taken a special stand among Hindu women who normally can
neither read nor write. Immediately after Christmas, Mrs. Chopra will return to her country,
followed by her family and friends. Best wishes for her future happiness. Happiness ought to
follow this woman who, in order to follow her husband, sacrificed all that is of value for an
European woman: country, parents, beliefs, all the environment an educated woman grew up
in and to which she was attached with deep roots.”
“Fru J.B. Fajzada Chopra.” (Sunday, November 30, 1902) Damernes Blad. no. 48, 5th Edition. pp
Note: Credits for photographs, translations and background information: Knud and Jeannette Greiersen
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[email protected]
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-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------SALMA RUSHDIE’S MIDIGHT’S CHILDRE, THE PLAY AS TEXT AD
Emeritus Professor University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka
[email protected]
Received: 26-08-2014
Accepted: 24-10-2014
Salman Rushdie himself wrote a screenplay for a proposed BBC adaptation of Midnight’s
Children. The project collapsed twice because first the Indian Government and then the
Sri Lankan authorities gave in to Muslim objections and refused the BBC permission to
locate the mini-series in these countries. Rushdie’s five-episode, 290-minute television
dramatization was published in 1999 – after its BBC production was finally abandoned.1
But the Royal Shakespeare Company was keen on a dramatization for the theatre by
Rushdie with Tim Supple, with whom he had collaborated on the acclaimed stage version
of Haroun and the Sea of Stories at the Royal National Theatre in 1999. The RSC
originally requested a version of Alice in Wonderland, but Rushdie felt that there was no
special reason why he should be the one doing that and showed the RSC the screenplay
of Midnight’s Children. This led to the adaptation for the theatre of Midnight’s Children
(2002) with Rushdie as author and co-adaptor, Simon Reade as co-adaptor and
dramaturg, Tim Supple as co-adaptor and director.
Supple said: “We are not setting up to try to replicate the book on the stage, we
will try to create something that is like a sibling to the book, and just as multi-layered”
(Gibbons: 11). Rushdie’s own stage experience, minimal though it was, probably was a
useful guide. He was involved in student productions, acted briefly in the fringe theatre
circuit after graduation, occupying a marginal position, and has confessed recently: “I
always loved the theatre” (“Interview”, 2003: 12). His early professional experience in
A new government gave permission for the film version to be shot in Sri Lanka, directed by Deepa Mehta.
It was released in 2013.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------advertising may have come in handy. Advertising is a merciless discipline: it teaches the
writer what is essential and how to manipulate his audience. A man who has written
advertisements will know where the punch must occur. It is amazing that so much of the
verve and width of suggestion in the novel (panoramic, non-linear, tragic-comic,
encompassing history, religion and politics) and its ability to activate the reader’s mind
remains in the compressed and sharply edited version of the play, quarter of a million
words contracted into three hours of theatre. Ultimately, this is only possible because
Rushdie, who conceived the whole, is certain where the stress should fall in every phase
of the novel and can cut with a sure and skilful hand. The galloping of Shivaji’s statue,
effective in the novel as suggesting Hindu militancy, is missing but the dialogue of the
drama brings out the fissures sufficiently; predictably snakes, Dr. Schaepsteker’s Institute
and the Tubriwallah are deleted. The play makes racy reading and retains the best in the
judgment of those familiar with the text, yet may have fared poorly in performance. The
phantasmagoria in the Sundarbans with the temptresses, the charred skeletons, comes out
forcefully, the journey through the jungle being inspired by Apocalypse ow almost
intertextually (the Americans at war in Vietnam, the Pakistanis in Bangladesh). When the
Emergency is taking place, Shiva (the name indicates his propensities since Shiva is the
Destroyer in the Hindu Triad) wants to smash the Midnight’s Children Conference and
takes Saleem into an interrogation room. The disclosure of their identities is dramatically
very effective:
Saleem: He’s really me. I’m really him.
Fat Man: He doesn’t know what he’s saying.
Saleem: Born together. Same place, same time. Then … a mistake.
Shiva is now interested – his face close to Saleem’s.
Shiva: What’s this nonsense? What mistake?
Saleem: The babies. You’re really me. I’m really you.
Thin Man: Are you following this, Major?
Fat Man: It’s some sort of fixation.
Shiva (enraged as it dawns on him): Bastard. Haramzada.
Adapted for the theatre by Rushdie et al., pp.111-12. All subsequent references to the adaptation are from
this edition and the page numbers are incorporated in the text.
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-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------The play departs from the novel at certain points. Since drama is required, more
prominence is given to the Lila Sabarmati and Homi Catrack illegitimate affair; Lila has
lines to speak and is not just a figure in the narrative. The Sabarmati killing, Amina’s
reaction and Hanif’s death, are all splendidly theatrical; what is merely recorded in the
novel gets forcefully foregrounded. In the novel the significance of the birth of Saleem
and Shiva is discovered gradually, but in the play it is focused on at the beginning. The
birth scene is repeated (40) and thus highlighted as a focal point. The switching of the
tags of the babies is surreptitious and reported in the novel, but in the play it is
foregrounded by being performed and witnessed by the multitudinous eyes of the
audience. “The nice white bed” (1) on which Amina Sinai lies, and “the plain metal bed”
(1) of Vanita offer a contrast and underline the class issue. Joe D’Costa’s name suggests a
Eurasian of Portuguese/Goan extraction, marginalized and powerless, unlike the Imperial
English or the natives rooted in the soil for centuries. He is an orderly while Mary, his
girl friend, is a nurse - at Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home where the babies are born. Joe
We have to do it now, Mary. The real revolution. The rich must fall; then we’ll have our
freedom. (42)
Mary switches the tags of the babies and exposes her motivation:
I’m doing this for you, Joseph. Let the poor be rich, and the rich poor. (42)
There is more emphasis on the class struggle in the play (and in the 1999 The Screenplay
of Midnight’s Children) than in the novel. Robert Brustein argues: “Saleem and Shiva,
the switched infants, are forced to represent the artificial division between the entire
Muslim and Hindu nations” (Brustein). I think (like Joe D’Costa) they represent the
division between the Haves and Have-nots. (The racial affiliations of Saleem and Shiva
are complex.) The young Saleem expresses the ideals and aspirations for Midnight’s
What’s all this? High-caste, low-caste – Hindu-Muslim – rich-poor – that’s not for us!
We can find a … a new way. (79)
There is in the play a projection of a visual representation of India – with its contrasts and
cleavages. The audience has time to focus on the screen; the more perceptive will see the
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-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------significance (the less at least the multitudinous confusion), the difficulty of taking in
India and seeing it whole – what Mrs Moore in A Passage to India faces from different
scenes and their intimations as she leaves India is what Rushdie also conveys through the
partial glimpses afforded by the perforated sheet in the novel and in the play. The play is
spare and also stylized: there is hardly any scenery; the props are minimal; banners of
fabric form a backdrop; a ladder suggests stairs; a few actors in uniform represent an
army; characters come on and off the stage without plot motivation. The stage is
dominated by a giant diagonally bisected movie screen. Throughout the play we see
historical film, like that of Nehru announcing India’s Independence, as well as film of the
characters shot specifically for the play. The concurrent use of stage action and
multimedia devices re-enacts the newness, the different levels and mixed genres of
Rushdie’s technique in the novel. The play is a work of art in its own right as well. It has
zing and zest, yet it is not fully successful as theatre. Conflict and tension are the essence
of drama. The play has plenty of conflict, but it is diffuse; it lacks a sense of intense, focal
conflict. It is episodic – deliberately so. Rushdie has explained that the style the
collaborators went was for “a cinematic effect, with a large number of very short scenes.”
(James). But the fact is the play is not sufficiently cohesive, being too diffuse and
centrifugal. Saleem Sinai, the protagonist, does not hang together as a cohesive human
character both in the novel and in the play, though by representing India he does exhibit
the plight of the sub-continent in a human way. Shiva is stick figure. Padma is important
as Saleem’s Muse and the reader’s/theatregoer’s surrogate. She emerges vividly both in
the novel and in the play as a full-bodied character, but she is the only such figure in the
The Royal Shakespeare Company brought its London production to the University of
Michigan at Ann Arbor and, sponsored by Columbia University, to the Apollo Theatre in
Harlem in March 2003. Together, the two universities paid more than $2 million to the
RSC to help commission the play. It is important to observe that the production was
funded by universities, not publishers or theatre magnates. Indeed, Columbia University
held a month-long “Midnight’s Children” Humanities Festival around the same time.
Both universities offered a large number of conversations, roundtables, panels, rehearsals
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-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------and readings related to the play, all open to the public. The play was performed six times
at Michigan and twelve times in New York. All these facts testify to the magnitude of the
book, the author, and also to academic dictates.
However, the performance of the play in London and the US was considered a flop by
critics, though the RSC claimed to be happy that the London version played to 75 percent
capacity and, according to Rushdie, “audiences responded enthusiastically to the play”
(James). The play has its intrinsic flaws, but the performance itself had its shortcomings.
Robert Brustein, for instance, picks out weaknesses in the acting (the cast was mostly
Anglo-Asian and Asian, a significant first for the usually Caucasian RSC, but they were
not among the better players in the London theatre) and the
mostly damp theatrical squibs, signified by over-amplified explosions, laser beams,
shadowgraphs, and tricky lighting effects (among them Richard Foreman’s familiar habit
of focusing blinding lights in the audience’s eyes) (Brustein).
Yet there is hope for a more successful exploitation of the play’s potential, learning from
the first essay by the RSC.
BRUSTEIN, ROBERT (2003). ‘Why Plays Fail’, The ew Republic, 14 April.
GIBBONS, FIACHRA (2002). “RSC to put Rushdie’s jinxed saga on stage”, The Guardian,
22 October.
“INTERVIEW WITH SALMAN RUSHDIE”, (2003). Time Magazine, reprinted in The Sunday
Leader, 26 January.
JAMES, CARYN (2003). “Critic’s Notebook; After the Fatwa, Playwriting and Partygoing”, The ew York Times, 9 March.
Midnight’s Children, New York: Modern Library.
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[email protected]
Nº 2 2015, pp. 124-132, ISSN: 2339-8523
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------FROM MAIGAIA TO MALGUDI
Emeritus Professor, Donald Horne Institute, University of Canberra
[email protected]
Received: 16-01-2015
Accepted: 18-02-2015
‘India will go on’. This is what the Indian novelist RK Narayan said to me in London in
1961, before I had ever been to India.
V.S. Naipaul, India: A Wounded Civilization (1977: 2)
That Naipaulian epigraph contains so much. Just like the first sentence of his classic novel, A
House for Mr Biswas: Ten weeks before he died, Mr Mohun Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim
Street, St James, Port of Spain, was sacked.
This is a sentence of history. In any index of authors you’ll find Naipaul is closely followed by
Narayan. In between, occasionally my name also appears, a small writer from a very small
village, Maigania, in Fiji. But the year 1961 has a special personal resonance for me. I’d just
completed the BA English Hons degree from the University of Delhi: three delightful years,
eight papers in English—from William Shakespeare to Lord Tennyson, three in History, one in
Philosophy. But no Indian writer was ever mentioned by my Professors, especially those
teaching English, at the college; once or twice Rabindranath Tagore’s name and reputation was
dropped by a Bengali lecturer, Mr Mitra. It was ten years later at the University of Leeds, in
1971, that I first began reading a course in Indian Writing in English. Leeds led in several
pioneering areas - it had the first Professor of American Literature in the UK; the first Professor
in Commonwealth Literature in the world; it changed the direction of English teaching in many
university departments all over the world. The course was taught by the redoubtable Professor
CD Narasimhaiah. CDN, as we fondly called him, was moulded in the Great Tradition of F R
Leavis. In his company some of us also met Dr Leavis, his teacher at Cambridge. CDN began
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------with the epics and introduced us to Indian Writers in English. However, there were few takers for
the course. Two of us - Mark Mcwatt from the Caribbean and Satendra Nandan from the Pacific
- became CDN’s devoted students.
It was in this course I discovered that in the early 1960s Nirad C Chaudhuri, not a writer CDN
admired, had lived at Kashmiri Gate a few miles away from my college when I studied in Delhi.
Kashmiri Gate was famous for a couple of restaurants and a tailoring shop owned by a Mr
Khanna who knew, with uncanny precision, when a foreign student arrived in a local hostel: later
I realized he could have been a character from the pages of a Narayan novel. But by then I’d
returned to Fiji without any acquaintance with RK Narayan’s fiction. No-one, not even Mr
Khanna, ever mentioned a writer living in that area, although I’d seen a copy of The
Autobiography of an Unknown Indian in a local bookshop. It remained unsold and unread.
Years later, Mr Chaudhuri visited the University of Leeds - I spent an afternoon listening to him
but couldn’t tell him I had studied close to his home in Old Delhi. Mr Chaudhuri wouldn’t let
anyone else talk, and he was quite petty, I felt, to Indian students studying English literature in
At Delhi University the only living writers who visited our college were Dom Moraes and Ved
Mehta from Oxford, on a visit to India under the auspices of the British Council. We hadn’t read
anything by them either. Decades later, I read two remarkable pieces of autobiographical
writings by Dom Moraes and his collections of poems and travelogues. Ved Mehta’s books on
India I enjoyed immensely: the portrait of his family members; and Portrait of India.
Mehta’s delightful essay on meeting RK Narayan in New York remains in my mind. The article
was written for the "ew Yorker and published in his selections, John Is Easy to Please:
Encounters with the Written and the Spoken Word (1971). Reading it one didn’t realize Ved
Mehta had lost his sight in his childhood. The portrait of Narayan is titled “The Train Had Just
Arrived at Malgudi Station”. It is a subtle introduction of a writer’s personality, mind and art, in
which the "ew Yorker often excels.
Narayan’s train has not stopped moving since and in
Malgudi he created a world very much his own. It’s full of characters in a small town with large
ambitions. However, it’s not a microcosm of India: one aspect of India, yes; but “the vast,
metamorphic, continent-sized culture that feels, to Indians and visitors alike, like a non-stop
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------assault on the senses, the emotions, the imagination and the spirit” remains elusive. No single
writer can do that.
RK Narayan’s world of Malgudi, though, is more real in literature than many a small town that
litter the landscape of this loved and lived land, often the birthplace of bitter harvest of
communal hatred; and at times showing a light to the world. The story of India is particularly
meaningful in 2014 as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World
War. Europe had become the very heart of darkness as India was seeking freedom from the
imprisoning British imperial chain. In a sense this is the extraordinary achievement of Indian
writers using the English language as a weapon of deepest creative endeavours, especially the
generation from Nehru to Narayan. Parliamentary democracy and the English language remain
two of the most enduring gifts of England to a brutally divided British India. The teaching and
writing of literature, too, is part of that that unique encounter between two civilizations.
The story of Narayan’s evolution as an imaginative writer in English is the most fascinating of
all. So much of his writing is autobiographical like Vidia Naipaul’s. Naipaul writes about
Narayan, a favourite of his father’s Seepersad Naipaul who is Vidia’s one unforgettable
The novel, which is a form of social inquiry, and as such outside Indian tradition, had come to
India with the British. By the late nineteenth century it had become established in Bengal, and
had then spread. But it was only towards the end of the British period, in the 1930s, that serious
novelists appeared who wrote in English, for first publication in London. Narayan was one of the
earliest and best of these. He had never been a ‘political’ writer, not even in the explosive 1930s;
and he was unlike many of the writers after independence who seemed to regard the novel, and all
writing, as an opportunity for autobiography and boasting (Naipaul, 1977:18-19)
Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilization was published in 1977. His An Area of Darkness: An
Experience of India, was published in 1964. Both books are important for a reader to understand
Indian Writing in English mainly because they’re written by an outsider-insider whose
grandparents had been taken to Trinidad as indentured labourers in the 1840s. They carried India
in their gathries, hold-alls. Even Gandhi spent his most formative years in England and South
Africa and acquired a knowledge of British subjection of the subcontinent as only an outsider
could. Both loved India - Naipaul as a writer, Gandhi as a political activist. Literature and
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------politics have a lot in common. Ultimately their concern is freedom of the imagination and what it
means to be a human being, so messy and multitudinous, so noble in reason, and yet a mere
quintessence of dust. India is full of deceptive angels and dusty devils. With his gentle genius,
Narayan imagined this community.
The volume, R.K "arayan: An Introduction, by Mohan C Ramanan is a lucidly written critical
introduction to the whole oeuvre of Narayan’s more than six decades of writing. Narayan wrote
prolifically - over 30 works, from Swami and Friends (1935) to The Grandmother’s Tale (1994),
seeped in the stories of the great epics and the life that grew in the heat and dust under his bare
soles. The most creative ground is under one’s feet - and one’s destiny may be written on one’s
dusty soles rather than on the stretched palms of one’s hand.
RK Narayan was born in 1906 and lived almost until hundred. He died in 2001 - missing a
century by a few runs as a cricket-obsessed Indian might say. Cricket, too, is a colonial gift in
which the Indians have produced more individual geniuses than most others. Narayan’s writing
contemporaries were Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao - they formed the trinity of Indian novelists
in English. All three lived for almost a century; and yet in Delhi I’d neither heard nor read any of
these marvellous story tellers.
Today, of course, Indian Writing in English is an industry: from Amitav Ghosh to Vikram Seth,
Anita Desai to Arundhati Roy - a rich harvest of Indian writers who have opened the Indian
realities to the English-speaking world as only writers can do, “a body of literature unsurpassed
in its sustained imagination”. Salman Rushdie, born in India, is an exceptional phenomenon - I
wonder why he hasn’t yet been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. 2013 would have been a
significant year as Tagore was awarded it in 1913. No writer from the subcontinent has been
awarded that prize since. Not that the Nobel - despite its acknowledged prestige - is the ultimate
recognition - Gandhi never got it for Peace; Kissinger did, and Jean Paul Sartre declined it.
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Professor Ramanan’s book is a timely one and the publishers deserve our thanks: the blurb puts it
Contemporary Indian Writers in English (CIWE) is a series that presents critical commentaries of
the best-known names in the genre….The CIWE texts cater to a wide audience - from the student
seeking information and critical material on particular works to the general…Cast in a userfriendly format and written with a high degree of critical and theoretical rigour…CIWE, we hope,
will further strengthen the interest and readership of one of the most significant components of
world literatures in English.
Mohan Ramanan’s introduction is “eminently readable”. Ramanan is both a creative writer and a
critic of distinction. He’s a Professor in the Department of English at the University of
Hyderabad in India. The volume has nine sections: Introduction; Essays; Memoirs and
Travelogues; Short Fiction; Longer Fiction; Thematic Concerns; Caste Class and Gender; Form
and Value; and finally, Conclusion. Interestingly there are “Topics for Discussion”: clearly the
volume is aimed at students and teachers in the colleges and universities. A select bibliography is
judiciously chosen. Each section critically introduces the many genres that make up Narayan’s
stupendous output in English.
Ramanan writes with clarity of style and a deep knowledge of the ethos and environment which
produced both Narayan and his writings and he has read Narayan’s work with empathy and
insight that are integral to Narayan’s own writing. The critic’s observations generally reveal the
nature of Narayan’s many compositions, and not obfuscate his interpretation of life. Sensibly he
avoids the pomposity of postcolonial theoretical prose, although several critics are mentioned
throughout the book and their work for scholars to pursue further afield. The emphasis is very
much on Narayan’s writing and its interest for the reader. Narayan “is a good combination of the
Tamil-Hindu sensibility, married to a progressive Gandhian dream and a bridge between
indigenous and European traditions. This was an enabling fusion” (Ramanan, 2013: 9).
Ramanan’s critical interpretation is particularly salient when he shows the creative connection
between the writer’s life and his writing. In Indian writing one cannot escape the overwhelming
shadows of the two Indian epics.
Indeed this is where the critical issues emerge for writings in English in India. When does one
begin to decolonize the traditions which use a genre that is not indigenous? Narayan, of course,
created a whole world in Malgudi, an integral part of the subcontinent, that is more real than a
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------million other villages and small towns, touched and explored by a non-indigenous language. And
yet, it is a deeply limiting world, like great Gandhi’s vision of Ram Rajya for a modern India.
When Rushdie and his close companion, Elizabeth West, edited the The Vintage Book of Indian
Writing in English, 1947-1997, a paragraph in their introduction seemed to have upset many
critics and readers in India:
the prose writing - both fiction and non-fiction - created in this period by Indian writers working
in English, is proving to be stronger and more important body of work than most of what has
been produced in 16 ‘official languages’ of India, the so-called ‘vernacular languages’, during the
same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, ‘Indo-Anglian’ literature represents
perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books (1997: x)
This is a bold claim but then Rushdie is a daring and dazzling author - Anton Joseph, A Memoir
(2012) tells the story of his survival, courage, and creative strength. At the celebration of India’s
fiftieth anniversary of independence another splendid volume was published: Sunil Khilnani’s
The Idea of India (1997). Both these volumes in English captured the intellectual attention of
readers who read mainly in English. Both give the reader an idea of India that has a lot to do with
the one great encounter of the Indian sub-continent with the world’s supreme maritime colonial
power. This ‘brief encounter’ changed India more dramatically than 5000 years of Indian history
and mythology. I think this is important: the great Indian epics are situated in the sub-continent,
including Sri Lanka. The modern Indian diaspora which began with European colonization of the
past 500 years affected India most radically. While the British colonized the subcontinent most
ruthlessly, as if the bee had found the very source of abundant nectar, it also cross-fertilized the
flower to produce fruits of many kinds.
The art of story-telling is an ancient Indian art - one can scarcely escape the vital influence of the
two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Politicians and pundits are defined by
these two encompassing epic narratives. Homer’s epics do not suffuse western civilization with
the same depth or diversity and contemporary echoes. In Indian writing, hardly any writer is able
to ignore the myth-making imagination of the Aryan mindset. One could say that the Aryan
colonization was complete and the effects of the caste-system in the South more devastating and
permanent. Its political implications are immense - even Gandhi couldn’t escape the impact. The
more he talked of Ram Rajya, the more Pakistan became a possibility. And yet the great text of
India is not the Ramayana or the Mahabharata: it’s really English colonization and that greatest
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------of imperial crimes: the partition of India in 1947. The more you read about it the more history
hurts in the guts of Mother India.
No epic work of fiction has, so far, come out of that unwritten, unimagined tragedy. As if of
what we cannot speak, we must forever remain silent. Even Midnight’s Children (1981) doesn’t
quite confront that overwhelming reality. I went to India to study during my teens, a dozen years
after that cataclysmic event in 1947. Now looking back after more than 50 years, I’m amazed
that no-one talked about it in the class of 61-62 in the national capital’s university. It was, as if,
a deliberate veil of historical amnesia had been dropped as a curtain of silence.
Human beings cannot bear too much reality. And T S Eliot was a popular poet at my college every magazine, published at exam time in April, began with ‘April is the cruellest month….’
The waste land was in Europe, not in India. And yet millions of lives were displaced, killed. The
brutality that the British practised and perpetrated on the sub-continent was lost in the lessons of
English Literature. No-one made the connections between the triumphal tragedy of the European
conquest of more than the sub-continent. And few escaped its lasting impact.
That a
Mahabharata had taken place on real Indian soil was hardly recognized in the Indian
imagination wrapped up in myths and legends. RK Narayan’s writings do not delve in these
profoundly political-human questions. The reader doesn’t get any idea of the dereliction and
distress that was India. After all, Ram Rajya is a kind of royal tyranny, no matter how noble the
king’s ideals expressed by a bandit poet.
A classmate of mine in Delhi, Ramesh Rao, saw Rama’s exile not as a filial obligation
sacrificing his throne, but Sita’s escape from no fewer than three mothers-in-law. Indian movies,
which I saw in Fiji, were full of the mistreatment of daughters-in-law by terrible mothers-in-law.
And my class mate Ramesh Rao, the brightest student in my class, had little sympathy for King
Dashrath who dies grieving for Rama’s exile from the kingdom for fourteen years: what do you
expect when you have three wives at the same time? Even Henry VIII was more careful, if
ruthless, according to Rao, whose father was a Professor of Psychology at the university.
Professor Ramanan comments:
There is in Narayan’s essays the thoughtfulness of the citizen, the satirical eye of a compassionate
observer of the world, the humorous flights of imagination and above all the shrewd appraisal of
men and matters. In his novels Narayan creates a recognisable Indian community, peopled by
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------various human types - astrologers, clerks, criminals, charlatans, spiritual guides, painters, dancers,
hoteliers, pretenders, mystic masseurs, members of joint family, caste characters and mahatmas,
among others (Ramanan, 2013: 67)
This of course is the Dickensian achievement, but unlike Charles Dickens who was really a
reformer of the ills of his society, Narayan accepts the quietism inherent in Indian culture: all is
acceptance - even this shall pass away. It’s really not the Gandhian non-violence which was an
active and demanding philosophy of courage and change and immense compassion and
legislative creativity. It was a revolutionary idea for India when used politically and socially. No
wonder then the mahatma was assassinated by a high-caste Brahmin, a crime for which there’s
no parallel in history or myth. The three bullets were real killers.
Narayan’s world is both limiting and limited. Admittedly, no writer can capture a country or
society in its entirety. What one needed was Ulysses from an Indian writer or a book like The
Satanic Verses from one of a Hindu sensibility: if in English in the first half of the last century
James Joyce’s Ulysses is the great novel; in the second half it’s really Salman Rushdie’s The
Satanic Verses. An Indian writer, one day, may deconstruct and dismantle the protean hold the
Indian epics have had on the Indian psyche for millennia. The newly elected government’s
agenda of Hindutva as a definition of Bharat Mata seems to lead the nation towards another
inner partition, far more terrible, I think, than that unnecessary vivisection in 1947. This time the
Indians won’t have others to blame. Democracy and the idea of a secular nation are two of the
most powerful modern political ideas to penetrate the Indian subcontinent. Both, I think, are gifts
of the ‘other’ world. Indian democracy, the largest but not the oldest, is one great hope of the
world. Its pluralistic, secular vision is important not only in India, with a population of 1.3 billion
but also in places like Fiji, with scarcely a million inhabitants, made up of indigenous and
immigrant people. If a multicultural polity of freedom fails in India, it could have devastating
tsunami-like effects beyond the Indian Ocean.
In this huge enterprise writers and artists are as important as politicians and business men and
women. RK Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao gave us visions of at least three Indias. A
chapter in this book on placing Narayan with his contemporaries would have added more
substance to the critical work but perhaps that was beyond the scope of the volume. The volume
is for the new reader who likes both clarity of thought and style. Ramanan excels in both.
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---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Occasionally, though, even Ramanan lapses:
Narayan modulates from chorology, that is, the science of space, to chronology, that is, the sense
of time. In other words, we have the Bhaktinian chronotope and Foucaultian heterotopia, the
time-space-matrix (Ramanan, 2013: 80)
Sentences such as this detract from the critical insights that Ramanan gives with the intimate and
intense authority of a reader who has read the Narayan oeuvre with deep interest and literary
understanding. He is most satisfying to a reader-writer when he relates Narayan’s writings with
his long journeys of personal life. It was a long, productive life for which a more comprehensive
book is overdue.
RK "arayan, An Introduction is a valuable work of literary interpretation. Professor Mohan
Ramanan’s book may inspire others to attempt a definitive work on this remarkable man and
novelist. My loss is that I never read him when I studied English Literature in India in the 1960s.
Mohan C Ramanan’s Introduction will make me read the works of a fabulous writer of India,
writing in English.
Naipaul, V S (1977). India. A Wounded Civilization, London: Andre Deutsch.
Ramanan, Mohan G. (2013). RK "arayan - An Introduction, Contemporary Indian Writers in
English, New Delhi: Foundation Books.
Rushdie, Salman & Elizabeth West (eds) (1997). The Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947-1997,
London: Vintage.
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[email protected]
Vol 2 2015, pp. 133-137, ISSN: 2339-8523
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------A TALK WITH SIDDHARTH DHAVAT SHAGHVI1
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
[email protected]
Received: 23-01-2015
Accepted: 24-02-2015
FH One of labels used a lot in academia is of course this very unsatisfactory thing
called “postcolonial”. How do we talk about the kind of writing that is coming out of
the former colonized nations. Do we actually have to give it some kind of name?
Teaching in university one is obliged to label writers so can you suggest something
more useful for us?
SDS I hate the phrase “post-colonial”. One thing that is very interesting to me is to
have an entire people defined by a kind of former government so to actually have that
baggage label stuck onto them seventy years on after that culture and that society has
long been dismissed is also a kind of colonialism. Another thing that comes to mind is
that you would never find in other societies people being parcelled together by
governments either past, present or future so writers that wrote during the Bush regime
in America were never classified as “post democracy writers”.
That brings me to another discussion of the phrase “magic realism”. Now what does
magic realism mean to you? Why is it that writers out of India or Africa are always
classified as “magic realists”? When you talk about Kafka or somebody turning into a
cockroach, that’s not classified as magic realism. But if the same story is set in Asia or
South America it is classified as magic realism. Writers coming out of Asia, Africa or
South America are defined as magic realists, which takes away from the strength, the
power of the realism and the imagination of the writing. So all these classifications that
The text is based on the talk given by the author at Casa Asia, Barcelona, 26th May 2014. The editor
wishes to thank Ms. Núria Rota for her kindness in providing the audio of the interview.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------come out of academic life to my mind both acknowledge in the same breath as much as
they they dismiss.
It is important that writers actually take ownership of how they define themselves. One
phrase that stays with me is from Toni Morrison who wrote that definitions don’t lie in
the hands of the defined, they lie in the hands of the definers. So it’s really important
now to wrestle that power back and to say how you want your own fiction to be defined,
if you do at all.
FH Are you happy about being compared to writers such as Salman Rushdie or Vikram
Seth in the sense of being a “Midnight’s Child” if one can use that term?
SDS These are writers that I respect immensely, their fiction has influenced my life and
my imagination but I find categories that lump together people by the colour of their
skin or by geographical or national demarcation very limiting. So I’m very grateful for
these entirely undeserved comparisons with people like Vikram Seth and Salman
Rushdie but it would be far more interesting if if somebody had read a book of mine and
found some ressonance with a Spanish writer or Chilean photographer, this would be
far more interesting and engaging for me.
FH Let’s talk a little about contemporary India. I’d like to hear about your attitude to
ageing, which is a topic that comes up in your novels, and the traditional values of
deference and respect to the elderly. Are you conscious of any significant changes in
this area in recent years?
SDS I will answer not broadly but specifically. I moved back from California to India
to care for my parents. My mother has since passed away and I came back because my
father had cancer. What was important to me was what how he aged. The idea of
actually living on well into the sunset years has lost its patina, has lost its shine for me.
Taking care of my father after he had his cancer made me rethink the importance of
actually accepting medical care in certain situations. So he had brain cancer, he been
treated, he’s completely fine . . . .but the chemotherapy has damaged his brain to a point
where his life for him is not as meaningful as it was. Was it important for him to have
taken the treatment in that case? That was an important takeaway for me. So I can
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------speak about it personally, there was that sense of moving back. How he aged and
whether it is important to get the medical attention available is also a big question.
FH Do the elderly still occupy a central role in families?
SDS That shift has happened so while people are very devoted to their parents they
often move away. This was my case, I lived away from Bombay, my sister lives in
Bangalore. So while we are very devoted to our parents there is also a certain shift, a
certain space….
FH I imagine that would be be class-based.
SDS Oh, sure but then most things are class-based, money-centric, how much you can
do for someone is reliant on how much economic freedom you have.
FH True. The trouble is people in the West have this idea of the authentic India being
found in the villages. They don’t contemplate the idea of the middle class value system
which is not perhaps so different from ours.
SDS People are humans, we are more alike than we are unlike.
FH You have mentioned in one of your essays the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]. I
should add that the news coverage on the elections was rather scanty here in Spain.
Some information about the BJP was of course talked about, but I wondered if you
think there will be any kind of backlash, a return to more traditional roles as far as what
we were talking about, a more open attitude to gender roles.
SDS I’m hestitant to comment on that party because there is an institutionalized hatred
towards Narendra Modi, some of which is entirely deserved, but another thing is not
respecting that fact that he is an incredibly shrewd political operator. He may not choose
to implement the politics of hatred that he exercised in Gujarat when he’s in Delhi
because he knows that he’s playing to a larger audience. The politics of hate that would
have worked in the state [of Gujarat] may not necessarily apply when he’s playing on
the international stage. This is very much the role he is playing. He’s also invited
leaders from countries that India has historically had problems with such as Pakistan.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------He is a man who is operating with a different apparatus so he will be guided by what is
good or bad for tourism – the larger footfall of people, of votes, of international public
perception - so he’ll not do anything that is bad for business. I’m pretty sure that he’ll
be guided by what is acceptable in western societies because that’s what our market is.
In that sense, it might be safe to say he’s not going to rock the boat.
FH So the so-called Muslim minority [172 million people according to the 2011
census] will have nothing to fear?
SDS I’m sure they do. I’m sure they’re watching their backs.
FH Will you give us your views on changes, if there have been any, towards rape and
gender violence. What about people’s attitude that if a woman is out late she is “asking
for it”. I’m thinking of the 2012 Delhi gang rape which was reported extensively in the
Spanish press.
SDS Yes, this is the case of a young woman who was returning on a bus and was
assaulted by several men and gang raped. She was identified in the Indian press as
irbhaya, “the fearless one”, which I find offensive because it is taking away the
heinousness of what happened. This was the most fearful, horrifying, outrageous,
inhuman act - - - so how can you call it fearless? So it was obviously someone who
decided to make it a cause celebre: let’s call her the fearless one. It was some idiot on a
newsdesk in Delhi who decided he was in a position to decide how she was to be looked
at publicly.
I don’t think these attitudes have changed, they don’t change overnight. What is
important is that the language is changing, people insist on calling it by its name: rape.
In due course, wider understandings of sexual violence will come to India. In other parts
of the world they are talking about the rape of men at the hands of women, 42% men
claim to have been sexually assaulted by women. Another important fact is when they
are looking at statistics they fail to look at men in prisons, which is the highest
concentration of rape of a group of people anywhere. And let’s not forget that America
has the highest incidence of reported rapes of women.
[email protected], Vol 2 2015, pp.133-137, ISSN 2339-8523
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------FH In your novels you do break a lot of taboos about sex but there is still an area that
seems to be still a great taboo and almost unthinkable, which is rape in families.
SDS Let me tell you about an incident which involved me personally. It was a case of a
wedding I heard about recently. You can’t imagine how offended I was because there
was a uncle who was found guilty of having assaulted a cousin or a niece, and the
people wanted the wedding to go ahead, which is a typical Indian situation. Their
attitude was let’s not invite him to the wedding because of what he did. But not being
invited to a wedding is not exactly castigation for the kind of crime. He should have
been reported to the cops by the survivor.
FH So it still is a taboo
SDS The reality is that the majority of rape cases are committed by someone who is
known to the family.
Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi (b. 1977) has two bestselling novels to his credit. His
debut novel The Last Song of Dusk (2004) won the Betty Trask Award, one of the best
known prizes for new writers in the United Kingdom and the Italian award Grinzane
Cavour, as well as being nominated to the international IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
His second novel Lost Flamingoes of Bombay, published in 2009, was short-listed for
the Man Asian Literary Prize.
Shanghvi has been voted one of the fifty most powerful young Indian people by India
Today, one of the ten most creative men according to Hindustan Times, as well as “The
Next Big Thing” by The Sunday Times, among others. He currently collaborates with
TIME magazine and he has contributed to the editorial pages of The ew York Times.
[email protected], Vol 2 2015, pp.133-137, ISSN 2339-8523

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