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Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019


Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

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S Satish Kumar: Gaurav Desai. Commerce with the Universe: Africa, India and the Afrasian Imagination. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Pp. 291. ISBN: 9780231364559.

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Gaurav Desai. Commerce with the Universe: Africa, India and the Afrasian Imagination. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Pp. 291. ISBN: 9780231364559.

“Whatever our view of what we do, we are made by the forces of people moving about the world.”

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (3)

Such a statement, one might argue, calls for taking stock of the various ways in which one perceives global (or planetary) collectivities and one’s place within them. On an ideational (one might even say ideological) level, such collectivities function as what is often described as an “imaginary.” The idea of the social as imaginary, could be traced back to Sartre’s “Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination” and Lacan’s subsequent response to the same, wherein he postulates the intersecting realms of the “Imaginary,” the “Symbolic” and the “Real.” Within the Humanities academy, particularly in Euro-American contexts, contemporary discourses arguing for “imaginaries” as the basis for social collectivities can be predominantly attributed to the reception of Benedict Anderson’s 1983 book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Anderson acknowledges an indebtedness to the scholarship of historians such as Eric Hobsbawm and proposes extending a modernist historicist approach to understanding the processes by which nations come to define a sense of nationhood and citizenry (Anderson 2). The book itself, one might argue, explores the complex ideational and ideological relationships between modernity and nationhood, as the sovereignty of the nation state in contemporary history derives its force from modern structures of governmentality. Anderson’s work in Imagined Communities was particularly impactful in that it not only sought to explain the operationalities, both discursive and otherwise, underlying ←269 | 270→a nation state, but it also furthered robust critiques of nationalism. However, as comparatists, we know from the history of our own field and disciplinary praxes, that a critique of nationalism often opens up possibilities for an imagination of the “Supra-National” (Guillén 3). However, such an opening of the “imaginary” happens almost in tandem, as we see in a work such as Edward Said’s The World, the Text and the Critic published in the very same year as Anderson’s Imagined Communities. By the time we arrive in the 1990s and gradually approach the turn of the millennium, the “imaginary” as a conceptual and ideational notion becomes irrevocably attached to an understanding of the “Global,” as can be observed in works such as Arjun Appadurai’s 1996 book Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization.

The purpose of such a brief history of “imagination” as a category within humanist scholarship over the past three decades or so, is to perhaps provide a better appreciation of the work Gaurav Desai attempts to present to his readers in Commerce with the Universe: Africa, India and the Afrasian Imagination. Globality, as understood within a contemporary humanist discursive context, is most often tied to a postmodern postcolonial epoch, in quite the similar fashion that “modernity at large” is often tied to a colonial epoch. However, as Appadurai eloquently sums it up, “We cannot simplify matters by imagining that the global is to space what the modern is to time” (Appadurai 9). Arguing that in many societies, globality, like modernity, lies “elsewhere,” he posits a variety of cultural examples of such ‘elsewheres.’ One in particular stands out in relation to Desai’s book, Mira Nair’s 1991 film, Mississippi Masala, one of the several examples of an “Afrasian Imagination” cited in Commerce with the Universe. The reference to Nair’s film figures in the last chapter of the book where Desai discusses Mahmood Mamdani’s From Citizen to Refugee in the context of the aftermath of Idi Amin’s historic 1972 directive mandating the evacuation of Asian (particularly South Asian) peoples from Uganda. The expulsion order was, however, unclear regarding Ugandan citizens of Asian/South Asian descent. One might argue that Amin’s imagination of a Ugandan nation extended only to an ethnically Ugandan citizenry. However, his concerns, as Amin admitted on several occasions, were focused on the almost monopolistic position held by historical entrepreneurial South Asian families within the economies of the newly independent East African countries – families such as the Mehtas or the Madhvani of the Mehta and Madhvani groups of companies respectively that currently have investments and operations ←270 | 271→across the globe in India, Kenya, Rawanda, Tanzania, Uganda, West-Asian countries and North America (Jørgensen 288, 290).

The military coup that overthrew Apollo Milton Obote, the second democratically elected President of independent Uganda and Idi Amin’s subsequent rise to power, arguably was a truly “post” colonial crisis. Amin’s directive mandating the expulsion of South Asian peoples from Uganda, almost a decade after the country’s independence from Britain, could justifiably be understood as negotiations towards the defining of a sovereign citizenry. However, as Jørgensen explains in his history of modern Uganda, the chain of events leading up to the anti-Asian directives of 1972 were a complex combination of cultural and economic factors (186). It is precisely such a complex intermeshing of the cultural and the economic, in the context of new national sovereignties in Eastern Africa, that Desai’s book seeks to explore. In such a sense, the book seems to address processes of cultural transferences, of resonances and dissonances, and of residuals and emergents in a passage from the colonial past to a postcolonial present. Therefore, though a discussion of anti-Asian sentiments in East African countries comes only towards the end of the book, one might see such a historical moment as a useful entry-point into Desai’s project in Commerce with the Universe. He presents the reader with a broad historical context for contacts between the South Asian peninsula and East Africa starting in the early colonial period, leading up to conflicting sentiments regarding the Asian “presence” in postcolonial East African countries. Therefore, the frame that Desai poses, of commerce as both “romance” and “conflict,” is effective in understanding a history of colonially mediated contacts between South Asia and East Africa. The stereotypical image of Indians in East Africa has been that of the “dukawala” or the shopkeeper, a characterization that, as Desai explains, authors such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o problematize in works such as Weep Not Child and Wizard of the Crow (3–6). Such a problematizing of Asian stereotypes in the region, he argues, indicates a critique of “racially and ethnically” based nationalisms. However, before one can begin to understand the value of “forging” ethnically plural and racially diverse nationhoods, it becomes important to understand the underlying forces operational within such histories (3–6). Therefore, the large historical grand narrative that Desai engages with in this book is not merely the movement and presence of South Asians in East Africa, but rather the entire “imaginaire” that forms the basis of fields of inquiry such as Indian Ocean studies.

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Beginning his study with a reading of Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, Desai offers a possible cartography for Indian Ocean historiographies differing from dominant occidental frames. His reading of Ghosh’s work from such a perspective forms the central argument of the first full chapter in the book. The unique genre defying form of Ghosh’s narrative allows for an exploration into the vast plural worlds that came into existence through contacts facilitated by sea-routes across the Indian ocean dating farther back than the twelfth century. Despite having its flaws and its implicit favoring of “free-market economics and the market-oriented state,” Desai argues that Ghosh’s narrative provides an imagination of trade and commerce that defined the narratives of many twentieth-century Indian travelers to East Africa (45). He explores such accounts in subsequent chapters. Before launching into his readings of narratives and texts from such twentieth-century Indian travelers, Desai sets up working frames for reading “Asian Texts and Lives” in a context of colonially mediated contact. In chapter three, titled “Post-Manichean Aesthetics,” he explores the extents to which such contacts between Indian travelers and the peoples of East Africa were shaped by a shared colonial history, one that was of course experienced in vastly different ways by the two. In the two following chapters, Desai explores the lives of South Asian travelers and entrepreneurs in East Africa, starting with two early twentieth-century Parsi travelers, Ebrahamji Adamji and Sorabji Darookhanawala. Chapter four reflects and analyses the impressions of East Africa we receive through the eyes of Adamji and Darookhanawala, as indicated in accounts of their travels. Chapter five, on the other hand, focuses on the early entrepreneurial triumphs of Indians in regions such as Kenya, Uganda, the Congo, and Southern Sudan. In this chapter, Desai focuses on the lives of the founders of some of the largest business empires operating out of Eastern Africa today. The stories of Nanji Kalidas Mehta (1887–1969), Manubhai Madhvani (1894–1958) and Madatally Manji (1918–2006) form the core of Desai’s understanding of commerce as romance and conflict (139). In Mehta’s autobiography, he observes, we find “a remarkable account of the life and travels of a man who came of age in the era of colonially mediated mercantile expansion” (121). Across these three autobiographical narratives we move from such an “era of colonially mediated mercantile expansion” (121) to the later apprehensions and reservations regarding the vast economic influence wielded by entrepreneurs of South Asian descent in postcolonial East African countries. The mercantile romance ←272 | 273→that started with early twentieth-century Indian travelers, as Desai states, soon became a fraught nightmare for the first generation of Indian entrepreneurs born in colonial East Africa (150). Subsequently, independence from colonial rule and the rise of ethnic nationalisms in nascently sovereign East African countries, called into question the loyalties and citizenships of peoples of Indian descent in countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Chapter six provides a brief history of the Indian presence in Nyerere’s Tanzania and the somewhat different tracks followed by Tanzania and Uganda in addressing questions of a plural and integrated citizenry. It is precisely such a question of a location within East African citizenries that chapter seven returns to, in presenting a reading of M.G. Vassanji’s The Gunny Sack. Comparing The Gunny Sack to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Desai argues that Vassanji’s narrative served an “inaugural role” in introducing a history of South Asians in East Africa to an anglophone literary readership (173). While directly engaging Julius Nyerere’s vision of a socialist Tanzania, it also captures the everyday lived realities of South Asian immigrant communities in countries that were struggling with defining national and nationalist sovereignties in the context of a postcolonial nation state. The final chapter rounds off the discussion on postcolonial nationhoods with a reading of Mahmood Mamdani’s From Citizen to Refugee (205). Mamdani’s book documents his own experiences of life in the Kensington refugee camp in England along with several other Indians who had been expelled from Uganda by Amin’s regime. The book maps a historical trajectory whereby Mamdani and several Ugandans of South Asian descent were expelled from their country of either birth or citizenship. In conclusion, Desai restates an earlier response to the “Naipaul brothers” who has suggested that East African Asians had been “uninterested in the life of the imagination,” while invoking Paul Gilroy’s hope of “imagining political culture beyond the color line” (215).

As Desai expresses in his concluding chapter, Commerce with the Universe is not a book that seeks to reify a sense of Asian exceptionalism. In positing an “Afrasian Imagination,” it becomes a book not only about imaginaries or imagined communities, but more importantly about imaginations in and of the Afro-eurasiatic landmass as a whole, and the historical forces of people moving about it across time. However, in positing Afrasia as its primary concern, Desai’s work is of particular significance within growing concerns regarding the complex nature of dialogues across Southern globalities both within the academy and ←273 | 274→beyond. As an early-career comparatist working in both the literatures and cultures of Africa and South Asia, Desai’s work is particularly encouraging to me. The question I have often found myself asking is whether it would be possible to envision a South-South dialogue that is not mediated through Western Euro-American epistemes. In my humble estimation, Desai’s work in Commerce with the Universe begins to point towards possible avenues for such dialogues. I am not saying that the history of contacts between Africa and South Asia has not been fraught. However, through their somewhat shared histories of coloniality and postcoloniality, the two regions of the world share in many of the same struggles of decolonization. They are also engaged in similar struggles in negotiating competing global neocolonialisms.

In a recent conversation with a Nigerian colleague, I was surprised to learn of the immense popularity of Indian soap operas in Nigeria. I always knew Bollywood films had a global circulation. However, I found it hard to understand that serialized television melodramas that more often than not choose domestic skirmishes between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law as major plot-lines had much cultural carry-over. As Desai’s effectively does in Commerce with the Universe, I wish to emphasize that there have always been imaginations of the Other. The latter often do not function on the macrocosmic levels of imaginaries that define a nation or a citizenry. They are, however, indicative of the forces of movements about the world on the level of microcosmic contacts between cultural alterities. In such a sense, any project that seeks to understand a relationship with otherness fails in part if it cannot account for such microcosmic acts of imagination. Given the subject of the book, and the author’s own dexterity in navigating such imaginations of otherness, the René Wellek Prize it received from the American Comparative Literature Association was most fitting. While interrogating fundamental premises of locationality and directionality within fields such as postcolonial studies, subaltern studies and Indian Ocean studies, Desai’s work also echoes Wellek’s own vision of literary scholarship becoming an “act of the imagination” (Wellek 171).


S Satish Kumar

University of Georgia (USA)

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Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1996.

Chakravorty Spivak, Gayatri. Death of a Discipline. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2004.

Guillén, Claudio. The Challenge of Comparative Literature. Trans. Cola Franzen. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Jørgensen, Jan Jelmert. Uganda: A Modern History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981.

Said, Edward W. The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Wellek, René. “The Crisis of Comparative Literature.” The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature. Eds. David Damrosch, Natalie Melas & Mbongiseni Buthelezi. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. 161–72.

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