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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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Dorothy Figueira: E.V. Ramakrishnan. Indigenous Imaginaries; Literature, Region, Modernity. Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan, 2017. Pp. 274. ISBN: 97893866689450.

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E.V. Ramakrishnan. Indigenous Imaginaries; Literature, Region, Modernity. Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan, 2017. Pp. 274. ISBN: 97893866689450.

This volume, compiled from a series of lectures presented throughout India and abroad by the eminent Indian comparatist, E. V. Ramakrishnan, takes as its point of departure the fact that India (as well as parts of India) contains multiple worlds made up of a plurality of languages and that Comparative Literature, much more than postcolonial and other postmodern theories of literature, offers a viable means of grappling with Indian literatures in its ability to study cultural mobility. In fact, Ramakrishnan offers a call to arms to Indian Comparative Literature to take on this important task. In this volume, he undertakes to study modernity in India by tracing back the regional variations of its numerous traditions.

Section I begins by looking at the impact of English education and the print medium on Indian culture, particularly in its introduction of the normative practices of reading, writing and translation from oral to written culture. Ramakrishnan first focuses on Malayalam novels, the role the English-knowing elite played in their dissemination, and the impact they had introducing a concept of modernity. He also examines how Indian languages sought accommodation through a rediscovery of native traditions, especially Tamil, and sought distinctions between pure languages and hybrid tongues through the creation of a category of the “folk” tradition.

In Chapter 2, Ramakrishnan looks at the translation practices in the 19th century and in the first decade of the 21st century. Initially, translation served as a strategic attempt to move away from the hegemony of the Sanskrit language. He takes particularly aim at Indologists who refused or were unable to see agency in modern Indian language translations. The author draws then a parallel between Orientalism and modern Indology. Ramakrishnan takes particular issue with the work of the Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock, who by tying his work to recent critical ←277 | 278→theory, carries on the Orientalist tradition by refusing to take account of the multilingual ethos of regional languages and their cosmopolitan traditions. Ramakrishnan compares Indology’s appropriation of postcolonialism’s premises – an inability to take on the ground reality in India, to Comparative Literature’s breadth of inquiry.

Chapter 3 continues this discussion of the gulf between theory and experience by looking at devotional (Bhakti) and Dalit (formerly Untouchable) literatures. Ramakrishnan enlists Bakhtin and Ambedkar to criticize hegemonic systems centered on European rationality and the Indian caste system, respectively, as in the case of how one can resist assimilation into hegemonic discourses. The disconnect between theory and real life is particularly relevant to the situation of Dalits and naturally segues into Chapter 4 which takes on the “nightmarish underbelly” of the globalized world and examines how there is a temptation to withdraw into nativism and nationalism, when a community bereft of the legitimacy of its own discourses, tends to look elsewhere for validation. In particular, he examines how the theory of multiculturalism is ultimately unwilling to engage the Other – an argument that this reviewer has also endorsed in her own work. Chapter 5 further develops this argument by examining the politics of identity formation, particularly the various minority discourses in India today, and especially in the new generation of Keralan Muslim writers and the Dalit community.

Section II opens with an examination of the social imaginary as it related to Tagore and how he helped define the modern Indian subject in his poetry and prose. Here, Ramakrishnan finds another example of how Hinduism has been co-opted (as it is today) in the service of nationalism and its homogenizing effect on the body politic. Succeeding chapters in this section examine other cases of this homogenizing tendency in the work of Basheer, Ghosh, Devi and Anand. While colonization brought new knowledge to authors, it also alienated the people from their roots, as seen in Ramakrishnan’s examination of Nemade’s novel Kosla and its exposition of the philistinism of cultural and educational institutions. Ramakrishnan sees a deepening divide between rural and urban experience in the post-colonial era where minor works in English are celebrated as international literature, when at the same time much more substantial work written in regional languages, even when available in English translation, is ignored. All these tendencies lead Ramakrishnan to question the legitimacy at the core of the notion of the nation and to wonder whether there is a need simply to reimagine it. ←278 | 279→This point is further developed in chapter 10’s interesting comparison of Malayalam fiction and Gabriel García Márquez. Here the author looks at the reception of Latin American fiction, and especially Magic Realism, in Malayalam. Ramakrishnan sees parallels in Kerala’s confrontation with modernity and Magic Realism’s depiction of Latin America’s crisis of authenticity, where narration becomes an act of resistance to reclaim a lost community. Chapter 11 returns to the fraught issue of the fate of the regional literatures that find no place in postcolonial criticism, even when they are available in English. As this reviewer has pointed out elsewhere, this literature is ignored because it counters the master narrative of postcolonial criticism with respect to India that avoids the post-Independence and non-English realities. Ramakrishnan shares my concern with modern criticism’s inability to engage with the continued oppression and displacement of various groups at the hands of South Asians, drawing on the examples of the crisis in Kashmir and the situation of Sri Lankan Tamils.

The final section of the book begins with an examination of the rise of an educated elite in the 19th century and its complicity with oppressive aspects of the Western colonial worldview. The symbolic capital of English was used to critique the aesthetics of neo-classical Sanskrit. So too did the project of modernism employed in the translations of Shakespeare. Orientalists of the past, as well as Indologists of the present, exploit the elitism of the Sanskrit cosmopolis. Just as English was used by the British to displace Sanskrit, so even today it is used to regulate, objectify, and classify Indian languages. The literary then becomes the site of contestation, as in the case of Dalit literature and missionary critiques of caste. With the rise of a collaborative class, translation is enlisted in the process of self-fashioning

Chapter 13 examines orality in the Indian context and its multilingual traditions. Ramakrishnan notes that since regional cultures are not constructed along identical lines across India, histories of Indian literature need to reclaim cultural products that have been relegated to backyards of folk literature and left out of the canon because of the distinction between the folk and mainstream artificially imposed by colonialism and replicated in postcolonial times. We need to get rid of colonialism’s alien codes of representation, as they continue to operate in standardizations and exclusions.

The next two chapters use Lefevere to talk about Kerala/Malayalam literature as refractive rewritings. The author also investigates the role of ←279 | 280→translation in shaping modernist poetic sensibility in Bengal, Malayalam and Marathi. Ramakrishnan shows how Modernism is very different in different modernist Indian traditions. Finally, the author returns to the problem of canonicity using Malayalam literary historiography’s quest for modern cultural identity in Kerala as a case in point. The fraught issue of canonicity was aided and abetted by the Sahitya Akademi’s approach to canon formation (i.e. unity in diversity) that has effectively sidelined Muslim and Christian writers. The reincorporation of Dalits into mainstream Malayalam literature and the redefinition of literary history from the margins has done much to reverse this trend.

The essays collected in this volume, while dealing with a variety of subjects, all point to Ramakrishnan’s main thesis: there are more things in Indian literatures, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your postcolonial criticism.


Dorothy Figueira

University of Georgia