Who are these women?
EVERY few days there are news reports on the discovery of a unique gene: the one that causes obesity, the one that causes anorexia, the one that causes anxiety about obesity and anorexia. I'm waiting for the day when they discover the precise gene that causes men to be born male chauvinist pigs in cowbelt India not just pigs, but the purest form of pig, also known as swine.
If you live in Delhi, you know for certain that the majority of Indian men possess not just a singular amount of this gene, but a double dose, one each located we know where, even if the scientists don't. When the scientific proof arrives, I hope Parliament enacts legislation, in honour of Sanjay Gandhi and Lorena Bobitt, requiring the surgical removal from every Indian cowbelt male of at least one of these undoubtedly nodular structures, enabling Indian women to feel a bit less sick than they now do of India's swaggering "macho-dom" an excellent double entendre which sums up "Bimaru" India's aggressively male ethos, and a term for something as common in the Gangetic region as "aloo-dom" lower down in Bengal.
Since I too am ornithologically describable as the Common Indian Male, and moreover as I was born in the cowbelt, my inside stuffing is entirely made up of what the geneticists probably call Bad-MCP Genes. My early life was mostly spent combing my hair into an Elvis Presley puff, Bullworkering my non-existent muscles, ogling the girls till my eyes popped, and wondering how I could murder Javed Akhtar and make off with Shabana Azmi. In general, my body rippled with the nice feeling of complete certainty that I was on top of all Womankind.
Then my manhood suffered a tragic setback: I read a lot of English Literature and Ashis Nandy. These drained my bulging self-confidence and replaced it with the awful idea that one needed to be sensitive. This meant being feminised, androgynous, tender, considerate, and sympathetic all those horribly virtuous things that women are so full of, no doubt on account of being genetically well endowed. I felt like one of those Shakespeare tragic heroes who, when a sword has been run through the region below his tummy, exclaims "O, I am undone." In fact, it was not so much Nandy and Eng-Lit as a succession of exceptionally brilliant women literary critics who rammed these rapiers into my nether parts and did my manhood in.
Women literary critics: this phrase encompasses another phenomenon that may have escaped general notice, namely the fact that if there is one professional sector other than nursing and gynaecology within which the Indian woman has clearly overshot the Indian male, it is English Studies. When the Indian Government assembled all the Pravashis and NRIs to listen to its unending flatulence, it missed out inviting a quite spectacular sub-sector: the large number of intellectually dazzling Indian Women Teaching English in the West.
Who are these "Shakespeari(ndia)an Women"? Without a doubt, the most famous and powerfully articulate of them all is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a professor at Columbia University. If the operatic Maria Callas, the operator Lady Macbeth, and the opulent Jackie Kennedy were rolled into one, the combination would still fall well short of Gayatri Spivak. She was a star at Presidency College, Kolkata; a meteor at Cambridge University; a supernova at Cornell; and by all accounts as awesome as a White Dwarf shooting out of a Black Hole in Columbia (or vice-versa). She is the translator of Derrida's French masterwork Of Grammatology into English, and given a few hours she could probably work it up into medieval Bengali too. She was largely responsible for making the "Subaltern School" of Indian history famous in the U.S.. Intellectually, she is in the same superstar league as Stephen Hawking and Amartya Sen.
One of Spivak's colleagues at Columbia is Gauri Vishwanathan, whose official title is "Class of 1933 Professor in the Humanities".
She travels to Chennai as regularly as Spivak to Kolkata and, like many of these global scholars, inhabits something inclusive and unhyphenated that could be called EastWest. Vishwanathan became well known with her first book, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (1989), in which she argued that the Eng-Lit canon in India was an imperial tool, a method by which a collaborating class was brainwashed into accepting the cultural superiority of Britain.
Since then she has published an outstanding work of contemporary relevance titled Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief (1998). This has won several academic awards, including the Ananda K. Coomaraswamy Prize of the Association for Asian Studies.
Another Tamilian who has become prominent in the EastWest is Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, currently Reader in English at Oxford University and Professorial Fellow of Wolfson College. English Studies is now an umbrella category within which scholars study postcolonialism, feminism, culture, legal rights practically anything that can be read as a text and Sunder Rajan's achievement is to have helped expand this brolly into a very large garden umbrella a most apposite thing for an Oxbridge scholar to do. Her forthcoming book is The Scandal of the State: Women, Law, Citizenship in India; an earlier work is Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture and Postcolonialism (1993). Just the titles indicate the huge swathe she has cut. Her low-key and soft-spoken demeanour belies her democratic toughness and uncompromising feminist rectitude.
Sunder Rajan, ironically, made her name abroad because the Delhi college Miranda House denied her a teaching job. (Bill Aitken once described this situation as "getting a divine kick in the ass.") Some years back Jawaharlal Nehru University's English department gave something like the same kick to one of its faculty members, Ania Loomba. Loomba was instantaneously offered jobs in the U.S., and after teaching in various campuses, including Stanford, she now has the Catherine Bryson Chair at the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania. Loomba's achievement, in some senses, is the most considerable of all, because she works mainly in the most prolifically mined and competitive field within English Studies, namely Shakespeare, even while publishing a book titled Colonialism/Postcolonialism, which has been translated into Italian, Turkish, Japanese, Korean and Arabic. Her books on Shakespeare, titled Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism (2002), and Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (1989), have raised questions that have now become central within Shakespeare Studies: for example, did skin colour matter to Shakespeare and his contemporaries? Were religious differences important to them? Loomba has shown how plays like "Othello" and "The Tempest" speak about religion and race to audiences outside the West.
There are many other names that come to mind: Ruth Vanita, who teaches English in Montana, has co-authored a pioneering anthology, Same-sex Love in India; Leela Gandhi in Melbourne has written on postcolonialism; Priya Joshi at Berkeley writes on literature and its audiences in India; Anuradha Dingwaney at Oberlin has written on Third World feminism and the literature of diaspora; the list could go on with another dozen names.
These are some of the most intellectually accomplished Indian women of our time. By showing the deeply political nature of all literature its intricate connections with contemporary issues like nationality, gender, race and legal rights they have changed the ways in which literature is thought about.
They have certainly made thinking people re-think the premises on which men relate to women in both literature and life.
Rukun Advani is the author of Beethoven Among the Cows and runs a publishing company, Permanent Black, based in Ranikhet and New Delhi.
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