Meena Alexander in conversation with Prem Poddar
PP: You’ve described yourself as a no-nation woman in your last collection The Shock of Arrival, and to talk about location in your case is sometimes difficult, often meaningless. What I´m interested in knowing is: where do you write from? How do you locate yourself—if at all? And how does your writing work—given that location is so intractable, given that you seem to be striving towards borderline identifications?
MA: It is so difficult but it is also terribly important—I’m very aware of it. Writing is a physical act and it is labour and it becomes very important to me, you know, just the immediate location where I´m able to write. I write in all sorts of places: I´ve often written in moving vehicles, I´ve written in the subway for instance… I also write in transit lounges or I write when I´m in between places, because somehow that seems to open up something for me. And yet, at the same time, I think location is terribly important to me, which is perhaps why I spoke about memory today; it´s as if there was a palimpsest of place, layer upon layer.
In a way I try, not consciously perhaps, but I construct what I write in terms of the memories that places bring and the kinds of correspondences or associations that may exist between geographically distant places but which can cohere or fuse together in the imagination which then is attached to a place in the mind—a place that both is and isn´t. For instance that poem called ”Passion”—I wrote it in a room in Manhattan by a window on 103rd street and Broadway—I started writing in there, and I wrote some of it in an apartment on the Upper West Side. But as I was writing I was really translating into a totally different scene and the scene was a mud hut on a road in my childhood in Kerala. So the act of writing was also for me an act of translating across zones. But that doesn´t enter into the poem. That is part of what allowed me to make this poem but it doesn´t come into the poem. So in that sense, there is a way in which location for me has… it´s almost as if it has to attain the condition of music because it has to exist in time.
Time and again I do return to the landscape of Kerala which is also the landscape of my childhood. And I don´t really think of it as nostalgic because I think that what I write is always bound by the present in some way, wherever that present or whatever that present is made up of, and the kinds of pressures it brings.
PP: A lot of questions emerge from what you just said, but I´ll just pick one thread. It seems to me that, among other things, you´re gesturing to the physicality of memory. I´m interested in getting a sense of how you actually grasp memory, how a writer can narrate the violence of our pasts. In this connection I´m thinking of the various struggles for land rights round the world, the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa; of some German architects grappling with the Holocaust through the idea of an anti-monument to the genocide, and so on. This relationship between body and violence and memory seems to be very, very central in your thinking about memory.
MA: Well, for the past two years now I´ve been really thinking about trauma and memory. I think that Freud says in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that trauma is really “a wound in the mind´s experience of time”. I´m not sure if that is the exact phrasing. But, as I said earlier, violent events culturally, politically in our real lives often leave us at a loss for words because it is an excess almost of what the nervous system can grasp—I mean nervous system both of the individual and of a culture. So it becomes a kind of hole, a black hole that people don´t really talk about and if they are able to talk about it they stop it—which doesn´t mean that it doesn´t exist, it´s there. I think particularly of some of the issues and questions that have come up 50 years after Partition in India, also the oral narratives of women who are still alive from after Partition—people like Ritu Menon, Urvashi Butalia, Veena Das who have worked on Partition.
It´s very moving to me because often those are also places of cultural silencing. So, I think, when you look at questions of the female body (it doesn´t have to be female, but for me it is) and the kind of interface between cultural violence in terms of the construction of, say, gender and events of historical violence… this is very interesting because it´s also a place where language doesn´t reach very easily.
If I actually had more time today, I would have read a poem called “Illiterate Heart” which has a number of lines of Malayalam in it. It´s about a child learning language, this child runs away and she says “I´ll never be caught in that cage of script”. So, I´m actually fascinated by what it might mean to write out of a place of radical illiteracy. In Sweden, two days ago, I said something about not learning how to read or write, and there was this big… quiet in the room, you know what I meant? It doesn´t mean that you don´t learn how to read or write, but that there are places, I think, in our experience where the linearity of a given syntax doesn´t work, and, for me at least, that´s where a lyric poem or a piece of prose that is constructed in a certain way can perhaps move. Now, is that a location? What is the location of such an utterance? So, in a sense, we come back to the question of the physicality of location because this whole issue of what it means to be in place is so critical for us and what the indices of place mean.
PP: So, in a sense, memory or re-membering is a kind of painful reworking, a kind of putting together of the sundered fragments of a dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present.
MA: That’s right.
PP: Is that how you really think of your writing?
MA: It is, I agree absolutely. I think dismembered past but also a past that in some measure has to be invented. You see it´s not as if… I mean, when a body is broken up into pieces you can´t really necessarily pick up all the parts because bits would have gone into decomposition, or there are parts that you simply can´t tolerate remembering. And this is the other piece of it, because I thínk that traumatic memory very often can occur in flashes, and a flash is necessarily fragmentary. I think of this line “when the light of sense goes out in flashes” (it´s not my line, it´s a line by a gentleman who I will not name) What does that mean? And it´s very interesting because I think it is where the light of sense goes out in flashes that we actually stop to see. Now whether we can put that scene into language is another question, but I think it´s an enormous challenge.
PP: Can I pick up on two issues that you´ve touched on? You keep on returning to this idea of location and my question is a very straight-forward one. I mean, obviously, conven-tionally location is thought of in spatial terms—it´s a kind of spatial metaphor. But it seems to me that you are also thinking in temporal terms…
PP: Location is very much in that sense….
MA: I think but location is a temporal index. You know, in my very early years, when I was 18, I went off to England to do a Ph.D and started reading Husserl’s Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness—a very interesting text, made from Heidegger´s lecture notes. That clarified something for me: that memory is spatial, and the other piece of it is, that location is temporal… The present doesn´t exist for us, except in so far as we are able to have a horizon of remembrance. I think the two things are like body and shadow, just together.
I´ve been recently looking at something again from the Milindapanha, The Questions of King Menander, this dialogue between Nageshan and Melinda. It´s quite amazing because the king asks something like, “Am I the same being as I was?” And the sage says, “What do you mean?” And the king says, “Well, was I, am I the baby?” This dialogue continues and in a sense the point being made is there are different selves. And then the king says, “Well, does one man commit a crime and another man suffer mutilation for it?” Which I think is an extraordinary question because if you take temporal passage in that fashion and talk about the continual changing self, you know, there is a baby then there is a man that gets married and then does one man commit a crime and another suffer mutilation? Which interests me greatly. It´s actually a long dialogue which ends up with this marvellous image of different stages of a lamp and the sensuous continuity of the body in time. So it seems to me that we perhaps don´t as yet, in certain kinds of categorical thinking, have a rich enough sense of what the body is. I think we have it in art, I think we have it in our experience, but a sense really of the way in which temporality as it comes to us is always bound up with sensuous experience, in the sense of bodily experience. I think that it is out of that that we can make a frame for aesthetic production, I mean that it is out of that in a sense that we travel.
PP: It seems to me that you locate postcolonial memory in the ruptured time of the metropolis, if I may say that, especially in poetry where you bring in these descriptions of New York. Maybe you would like to say something about that.
MA: Well, it´s very strange, I arrived in New York 20 years ago now, and, it´s not like I´ve lived there for 20 years—I´ve lived in India in between. It was completely a kind of gut-feeling for me that I needed a great city, and by great city I mean a crowded, densed, dense crosshatch of the metropolis. This is somebody who has never lived in a big city before. I was kind of shocked when I came to New York, because I know Kerala, I know Khartoum, I’ve been in the Midlands, you know, Nottingham, bits of Europe, but never something quite like this. For me it´s almost like a compression chamber, that I will come across something in this city that really kind of flips me back or forwards, so it´s almost like a kind of time-travel, which is also why I think that speed releases something for me. It´s very strange. I´m working on this new book and I had a very hard time at certain points writing. We actually live near a park but it´s very close to a subway. As soon as I thought of going out of my room…as soon as I start to get up I want to write something and it was very strange. So I´d take my pen and pencil and I would go down to the subway and I´d write sitting in the subway… the subway goes very fast. Actually it became a very safe place for me to write, what with all this speed and transit under ground. When I came up I´d stop writing and I thought … how will I ever do this book? But then of course gradually I got into it. But you know what it is? It´s those difficult moments when you have to enter another life, which is what this book has made me do. I think I needed that… What does speed do? What is speed? I´m not sure but it´s… there´s something about it. Maybe it is the idea of not being in a place.
I remember, as I was coming to Sweden for this symposium, and I was a bit nervous about coming because I´d never been so far north, you know, I thought I’d die of cold and so on. So I got an old friend to see me off at the bus station (I was taking a bus) and he said, “You´re a bit nervous, you know it´s a big trip”. And I said, “yes it is a big trip and I´m feeling kind of, you know…” Then I was in the transit lounge of the airport in New York, and suddenly I felt this enormous sense of release. It was fabulous, it was really almost like a mystical feeling because I could see the plane wings and then suddenly this marvellous light, and I thought, now it´s all right. So there´s something in the going out and the coming in… maybe it allows for composition…
A long time ago I did this thesis in Nottingham and it was all about memory and the body and place—in a sense I haven´t really gone very far, I just sort of have one idea, right? I remember thinking about what it might mean to have a romantic poet´s composed self in the poems, and how far does one go with memory. When I was 16 I had bronchitis in the Sudan and I was in bed for about two weeks or more—in and out of bed really—and I got to read the whole of Proust’s A la Recherche de Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) and I was in bed for a week and I read—very carefully— and got very excited because it was this enormous architectonics of memory. In a way, as somebody who does not have a very stable place, memory maybe affords the possibility of a shelter. But it is one that really is quite precarious and it´s fitful, but still it is nevertheless there, almost as a realm of correspondences, I mean correspondence in the sense of echoes.
I was talking at this symposium at the BildMuseet to a curator who is based in Paris and does these international shows. I said, “You know, there is this line in Baudelaire”, and he happened to know it because he was doing something on cities. So I said, it´s actually in Le Cygne, “le city changé en á l’hâce plus vite que le coeur des mortelles”—the city changes even quicker than the human heart.
I sometimes think that New York is like this animal, you know. So I have to go away and come back, it is very, very important to me. Would I write if I weren´t there? Of course I would, but somehow it is there and I have a job there and so forth…
PP: You´ve been talking about the city in terms of travelling in and out, largely…
MA: But I also travel within the city…I will travel, say, from home to work and back, to Chinatown or something, and I come up, and it´s like I´m in a different world. So it is as if even within the city it allows me to play out this business… Because I think that when you´re a writer you do carry a world inside you and you have to sort of keep setting it down—I mean, literally setting it down. I think that the city in which I am at this moment… I think it allows me… you know, a species of perpetual discovery, which is very exciting for me, because I grew up in very beautiful places, but they were small places with clearly marked thresholds that a girl was not supposed to step over.
PP: I´m wondering if you see the migrant make-up of the city, with all its disjunctive spaces and temporalities, as being productive for at least the inventive imagination of memory, as enabling the release of postcolonial memory.
MA: I think so and I think part of it is that any language that I will use in this particular city, I mean language literally in terms of English or Malayalam or French or whatever, but also in terms of any particular grammar that I seek to use, will have to border on another. Because New York is filled with language, certainly English and Spanish, but there are immigrants from all over the world. It really is very unusual in that it really is a place made up of layers of immigrants and of multiple discrepant kinds of languages. Even who one is, is up for grabs. I mean, if I wear a sari—otherwise I could be from Guyana or Puerto Rico. I think it´s very interesting the way these sorts of ethnic confusions and densities arise. I suspect that if I had lived somewhere, say, if I´d lived in Watertown, Massa-chusetts for instance, it would be a very different kind of experience.
PP: But Meena, given your present location in New York, I mean the act of writing or the process of memorialising or whatever, wouldn´t that necessarily involve some level of indulgence in nostalgia. I mean of course you could turn it around and say, the way you see nostalgia is different or whatever. What are your thoughts on this?
MA: No tell me, Prem, what you mean by nostalgia?
PP: I´ll give you my own take: in the sense that, you know, there is this conventional understanding of nostalgia, longing and desire for home, a recovery of a certain kind of selected past in some ways, necessarily selective memories…
MA: That´s right, it is selective.
PP: …and it´s usually for something that you had. In that sense it’s a luxury. But for a lot of people, especially those who don´t come from a rich background, nostalgia can be different. It’s more like nostalgia for things you never had as it were. Somewhat like Jimmy Porter’s rage in Look Back in Anger.
MA: It can be there, it can be there. I completely agree with you. There is nostalgia, but I would also like to say that there is also trauma, you see, if nostalgia is a selection of only the beautiful things or lovely or whatever, trauma is not speaking about the things that are terrible. So that I think there is nostalgic memory, there is also traumatic memory. In other words, I think the invention of memory… that´s why, when I said to you I have a whole other layer of work to do, I mean these are some of the questions I need to think about. What does it mean to invent a past or to write, to fabricate? The other piece, which is very important, is that certainly there is nostalgia but in my work there is also the edge of the present which is always pressing, and it’s political, and it’s kind of dense. Certainly memory is an escape but it has to also allow you to make a bridge of return—because otherwise you wouldn´t keep sane, right, you´d just sort of float around.
Somehow the question that you asked me reminded me of talking to Raman, A.K.Ramanujan, many years ago. In fact, it was a sort of a poignant moment for me because he had come to New York for a memorial for Barbara Stoler-Miller—I was going with my daughter into a little bookstore and she was licking this ice-cream cone and suddenly Raman appears, you know, he´d come for Barbara´s memorial. So we had this long chat and he said he wanted some ice-cream and he was trying to get her to give him some ice-cream, she said no, I don´t think she wanted to give up her cone.
And then he said to me, “Well, Meena, send me some poems, you know, what you´re writing”. I said, “Raman actually I´ve just put together a manuscript, are you sure you want to see it?” And he said, “Yes, yes, absolutely. Send it to me right away so it will be there for me when I go back and I will read it immediately”. And that manuscript was River and Bridge, you know, the book that came out a few years ago and, so, the next day I photocopied it and sent it to Raman. I think he died about 10 days after that, you know, after we met on the sidewalk, ´cause he said: “I´m going in for an operation—I´ll read it before that”. And he died under anaesthesia during the operation. I felt terribly sad, you know, it was like, I felt like unfinished business for me, I mean it was very, very…painful that he lost his life.
And the other time that remains in my mind I met him in between, (often—not frequently, ´cause I was never in Chicago, but at that time we were—and they both have to do with the composition of poems—it´s interesting) because that time must have been, you know, 18-19 years ago and we were all having dinner…Raman and Molly had come over… And I had this new baby, who was an enormous child, very fat—this is the one who is 19—and Raman said to me: “Meena I just saw some new poems of yours in Chandrabhaga” (Jayanta Mahapatra’s journal) and “will you recite them for us, will you read them”?
I didn´t have the magazine but Naim did. And I think there was a poem about the baby in it. So then, the magazine was on the table and everybody was around the table and Raman said: “Please read”. And then suddenly this baby started crying, so I had to pick him up. He didn´t want to sit on his father’s lap, he wanted to sit on my lap. And it was quite extraordinary because I could not read the poems with the baby on my lap. I simply could not do it.
Why couldn´t I do it? It wasn´t that his head was blocking. It was just that emotionally, you know what, it was as if it was the same space. I just couldn´t, I could not do both at the same time. And it was kind of painful for me because, you know, Raman is much senior to me and I admired him, you know; but to recite the poem—I simply couldn´t. And I think he understood, I mean, you know, everybody sort of laughed and sort of understood, but it was like both times something was unfinished, and I thought, some day I should make a poem about it.
I felt very sad because… not sad, but it was a complicated moment, you know. But it was as if—“being a mother” is not what I wanted to say, but having that child physically on my lap, I could not recite the poems; which doesn´t mean that having a child I can´t compose the poetry, or I can´t be a poet. I´m not saying any of that, I´m talking about something else—and then this last time, you see, I sent the poems and, you know, maybe they reached him. There is a strange kind of sadness about it. And I didn´t know how we got onto this topic at all.
MA: Nostalgia. How was this, what was this unfinished business…
PP: In some ways I suppose I´m referring to some of your critics, who say “Wait a minute, you live in New York and what you write becomes a function of your location there”. I mean there is, of course, a suspicion in India, in South Asia, of writers or critics, who live in the metropolis and can easily be seen as privileged spokespersons for the Third world position.
MA: I know what I wanted to say. Raman had this story that he tells (which I think is in the introduction to his folk tales, but I’ve heard him tell it) where one of the emperors in the Moghul times was travelling, and he´s talking about his home. He said his home was in his memory, and it is a bush and there is a bird in the bush that sings, “and I carry the scent of that bush and the sound of the bird and that´s my home”.
That story that he told is very, very interesting to me, because I remember when I was in India in my early twenties I would read Raman’s poems and I loved some of them, and I would think ‘How is he sitting in Chicago and writing these poems? What is this?’ I mean, as someone of a different generation, you know… I love his poems but I kind of looked at them like this… ‘like this’, meaning, at an angle. But then people often say to me, “What would you have written if you were in India?” Of course I would have been a writer but I would have been a different writer. I do believe that in the end if we do get to make the work that we´re meant to do, it falls into certain kinds of patterns, which in some measure is beyond our control because they come out of materials that are the materials of our biography, which you don´t have much control over. It so happens that my biography is of a certain kind, I mean… you know, I don´t write in Malayalam, I write in English, as many people do.
PP: Connected to what you´re saying, this recent, you know, fashion, almost, for South Asian writing in the metropolis, writing for a readership in the West….
MA: Yeah, I don´t quite trust it.
PP: You don´t trust it? But do you have any kind of sense of why there is this interest?
MA: I´m not quite sure, to tell you the truth. I suspect that in the West at this moment there is an enormous sense of anxiety. And there is a realisation after the ethnic struggles in Bosnia—and stuff that happened there—the break-up of the Soviet empire…there really is a sense that the world is shifting and changing, so that places that were defined as ‘other lands’ carry with them a charge. Now, what happens to those texts when they´re read is yet another question. Or even stuff that I produce, I mean there is this whole multicultural wave of American writing, of which my work is also a part. That´s also another sort of lens through which I understand. I mean, you cannot deny that the material reality in which you live does to some extent mould your writing. It has to, it cannot be otherwise. So that what I write in New York is not what I would write in a Kerala village. Now, how that relates to the structures of memories is a very interesting question. I´m not completely sure, I mean I don´t have an answer for it in terms of just talking.
PP: Why this particular fascination with South Asia? Indian writing or Sri Lankan writing specifically enjoy so much attention, especially in England.
MA: What do you think? You probably have a better answer for it than I do.
PP: I don´t have an answer. Why Anglophone Asia and not to the same degree writing from the African ex-colonies?
MA: I actually don´t know. I mean why Indian, as opposed to Nigerian, for instance, right?
MA: My concern is that in all that hoopla they shouldn´t forget the very rich traditions of Indian writing, which are not in English. Because when they say Indian writing they mean Indian writing in English, which is a very small part of what Indian writing is. There is an extraordinary tradition of Indian writing, which is not in English. You have to acknowledge that.
PP: So you think that contemporary Indian writing in English is serving as some kind of an interface, it is bringing areas of writing or experience which are not accessible, or have not been available to the West?
MA: Well, maybe. I hadn´t quite put it in those words, but perhaps… But what´s very important is that that part should not serve as the whole in the imaginary. That, I think, is very important. In a sense, as a writer, one is always grateful for readers but you never know what somebody is going to make of your writing—all the uses… You simply don´t know. I remember once I was invited in the States somewhere for a festival, I was going to read a particular poem, it was a very grand occasion, and the lady said, “Do you mind if someone dances while you are reading?”
“What do you mean, someone dances?” I was a bit shocked. And she said, “Oh, you know, she is a dancer and she has choreographed this whole dance to your poem and she is expecting to dance as you read.” So how could I say no? I actually read the poem and it was fine, it was a short poem so it was okay, but I was kind of stunned, right?
PP: You know, there is a fascinating video of Grace Nichols´s poem called “I is a long memoried woman”…
MA: Someone´s dancing to it? She is reading and someone´s dancing?
PP: The poem is used as a kind of voice-over. Nichols reads from it while the historical experience of the middle passage is represented in a stunning choreography.
MA: There is a very interesting choreographer in the States called Ananya Chatterjee and she has choreographed a whole section of my novel Nampally Road and there is a dance that comes out of it.
PP: Connected to what you were saying, again South Asian writing versus African writing, or whatever—what sense of the modern do you have, I mean, as a South Asian?
MA: What do you mean modern?
PP: Modern, as in what is your take on the idea of modernity?
MA: I don´t have any. I don´t have a take on it.
PP: Can one really?
MA: Yeah, I really don´t, I promise. So explain, because every time someone says modernity, I don´t understand, so you just have to explain what do you mean, you have to sort of pretend that I´m quite illiterate in these matters and just tell me. Rephrase the question or explain.
PP: I mean, what I´m asking is: how do you situate yourself vis-a-vis modernism?
MA: I don´t.
PP: You don´t. So it´s a kind of…
MA: By modernism, what do you mean? Do you mean T. S. Eliot, high modernist writing or do you mean something else?
PP: A certain kind of writing, of course. But I am more concerned about the lure that modernism has held for many who migrated from the colonies to the cultural capitals in the centre but were unwelcome in the international modernist movement. Thus, I´m also of course referring to a paradoxical phenomenon, i.e. the ethnocentricity of the bastions of modernity…
MA: Which is what?
PP: The questionable internationalism of modernity. By which I mean the collection of values and ideas associated with enlightenment thinking.
MA: Goodness gracious me. Why would I do something like that? Why would I situate myself vis-à-vis the Enlightenment project?
PP: I mean, of course you talk about identity and we can´t talk about identity unless, we, in a sense, try to unpack the Cartesian notion of identity and the questioning of that notion by various theorists. We keep on talking about the postmodern subject, the postcolonial subject, and so on and so forth, sometimes ignoring the narratives of historicism. Obviously, it´s very central in our talk about the sovereignity of the ‘rational’ subject, the ethics of indivi-dualism, our unpacking of the idea of the modern, right?
MA: That´s, I suppose, true.
PP: So I´m just trying to draw you into this…
MA: Into a spiral.
PP: No, no, no. I mean, how do you relate to it? I mean, are you oppositional? If so, how? In some ways you´re saying that you don´t care.
MA: I´m fascinated by Descartes. If you want to talk about Descartes that´s one thing. If you want to talk about the modern, I simply don´t know what to say, nee? Because our mother would say, “Oh, this is very modern, it´s terrible,” and so on. That´s obviously not what you mean. Maybe it is?
PP: Well, in some ways, I mean…
MA: “These modern ideas,” my mother will say. In Malayalam she will use the word modern, which is very interesting. She says “Meena, it´s the modern ideas…What are you doing? These are all modern ideas.” (She doesn´t say that to me anymore, I think she has kind of lost hope.)
If you want to talk about Descartes, I´m actually fascinated by the idea of Descartes and the fact that he dreamt up his… I think it was his meditations, right, inside this great stove, and he was a recruit in the Dutch army. The cogito had it´s inception in this very warm, womb-like place. I do teach Blake, I teach the English Romantic poets who were terrified of the idea of Descartes—whatever that meant. Coleridge talks about the Cartesian world as all these tiny atoms, which are just racing and all these bits and pieces broken up. But, I think, what is fascinating about the Cartesian project, at least fascinating from the end of the 20th century when we look back, is the constraints that were put on any possible epistemology that started its course off from where he led it .
I don´t know if you remember when I read earlier I talked about this gap in imagined reality, which is where I start writing. In other words, the decallage, the gap between what is outside and what I know from my life, which has to do with migrancy. So it is in that gap of invented time that I start to write, I start to make up. I never actually said this in so many words before, but I think the entire breakdown of the Cartesian project comes because the poor, wretched man, who was also extraordinary brilliant, could not conceive of how the thinking substance and the physical substance could in any way unite, could in any way be one. In other words, how the human being could be a person. So there is always either these animal spirits or the existence of a just, benign God. There is always in his thinking this gap, which is already there and cannot be reconciled without another machine. It´s also for me perhaps the gap in the idea of the modern. Ah, there, I´ve answered your question.
PP: Okay, so in a sense you see modernity as a kind of already fractured modernity?
MA: Absolutely. I prefer not to use that word.
PP: As you would not want to use the word postmodern, I suppose?
MA: That´s right. If you want to use it, it´s fine. But, I think, if you want to use a word like identity then I could say yes, but a word like modern—I simply don´t know what to do with it. Maybe because my mother always had such a problem with it, modern being someone who wore chiffon saris when she shouldn´t… So it´s not a positive word. Now, of course, I´m also deliberately not responding to your question because I think that the word has so many layers, and there are so many takes on the idea of the modern—particularly in cultural studies—and what it means and what tradition means. It´s very hard unless we have a very specific context to talk about, because it´s a complicated set of ideas.
PP: Well, I was giving you a context in the sense…
MA: You spoke about Descartes and I responded about Descartes.
PP: … There seems to be a particular kind of modernity which is maybe obtainable in South Asia, which makes it different…
MA: But do you think that´s why, to return to your earlier question, in some way, Indian writing in English partakes of it? Is that what you´re getting at?
PP: Yeah, in a sense I´m saying that there is a kind of… a questioning of the modern, there is a use or a utility of the fractured modern that you talk about, which maybe, people in South Asia or intellectuals in South Asia are able to access…
MA: Maybe. That is actually very interesting, I mean that is entirely possible. In part because if you grow up in India you have to have more than one language, it´s sort of taken for granted, so you learn to think in the interstices of these languages. You know, when I was a child I had Malayalam but I was born in Allahabad, so Hindi was in some ways, as well as Malayalam, my first language—and everybody has to learn English. Then we moved to Pune, so I had some Marathi, then we went abroad and I had to learn Arabic and French. Is that postmodern, is that modern? Is that a life after decolonisa-tion? What is it? How do we locate it? Certainly the project of modernity has created these metropolises in which some of us live. There is a very interesting connection between the way a city functions and a certain take on what modernity might be.
PP: Well, I´ll leave that for the time being. But a connected question: the process of writing as framed by a world, of course a world in my understanding of it profoundly impacted by the structures and the strictures of colonialism. How do you forge, how do you reinvent? Or fashion, whatever the word might be, the intimate language that I some times encounter in your poems? I mean, given that history?
MA: I really don´t know how to answer that question, because it is an intimate language. I wrote an elegy several years ago for Uma Shankar Joshi. It´s a poem called “Paper filled with Light” and it begins in Noguchi’s garden on Long Island City, but then it sort of moves to Sabermati Ashram. It´s a piece about Partition, a meditative poem I wrote during the Gulf War and it ends with a question, “How could I dream of paper filled with light?”
This is after an evocation of certain kinds of violence. It´s after talking about the Gulf War and the barbed wire, it says:
the packed cars of new immigrants,
the barbed wires of Meerut, Bensonhurst, Baghdad,
strung in my brain. How could I sing of a plum tree,
a stone that weeps water?
How could I dream of paper filled with light?
So you´re saying to me, “How can you have this intimate language…”—which it has to be, the language of poetry has to be, “…in such a place?’” It´s almost like saying, “How can you write lyric poetry at a moment like this?” And yet, I would like to respond, it is precisely at a moment like this that one needs the lyric poem, not the grand piece of prose or not just rhetoric, you need the lyric because it cannot be bought and sold, it has no commer-cial value, it´s not like a novel. And it´s very small and you could memorise it, you could write it on toilet paper. I mean it.
It´s very important to have those moments of our existence that really make us human that, in a sense, cannot be controlled. But, of course, they can be controlled, you can starve a poet, they are only human beings; also you can burn the paper. The small fragile pieces of our existence are very important, and I think lyric is related to them. But you´re right. It may seem very odd that on the one hand there is this woman who theorises in a certain fashion and then writes lyric poetry. It is a bit peculiar, I admit.
PP: In a sense I´m trying to draw you into the idea of, if it is at all possible, thinking about different modernities.
MA: Like what?
PP: What I´m saying is what you already said: that the modern is already fractured and hybrid. And maybe we have appropriate…
MA: But I´m thinking also of, say, the ideas of decolonisation as someone like Sarojini Naidu might have learned—or even Gandhi. Gandhi for me is a fascinating figure. I keep reading Gandhi again and again, and I think he is a great modern.
PP: Modern, but a kind of a contra-modern.
MA: That´s right. He is a great modern in the true sense because he´s radical. Radical in that he goes under the root of what a culture might posit.
PP: I´m trying to ask you a very political question, which is, if we have a different take on the idea of the modern in India or different parts of South Asia, you know…
MA: The idea of secularism could be tied to it also.
PP: Exactly. So, given the growing fundamentalism, if you like, the kind of violence we see in Sri Lanka or Pakistan or India, what is the future of lived multiculturalism in South Asia?
MA: God forbid that one would have modernity rescue one.
PP: Yeah, exactly.
MA: That I don´t accept, because I don´t understand what that would mean. But if we could talk just a little bit more about Gandhi, what fascinates me about his project, because I think that´s the right word to use for it, and if we can think about Fanon, we ought to think about Gandhi at the same time. Living in this day and age I think it´s very important. This perhaps is where postcolonial memory needs to come in, remembering Gandhi. When I went to South Africa, for the first time two years ago, for the Johannesburg Biennale, it was during the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. I watched on television, on Johannesburg TV, they would have the commission hearings on TV. It was actually quite fascinating. Then subsequently I met the person who was in charge of the broadcasting, and recently I was talking to Njabulo Ndebele, who is the lifetime president of the Congress of African Writers, who´s involved in their whole media project. They would show clips from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and then they would actually show scenes of people who were evicted from land, and land not in the cities but in the country: black people going back and saying, “this is my father´s land” or “this is my grandfather´s land and I want it back”. At the same time I was being taken around town by this photographer, who had done an extraordinary series of photos about the razing of Lanasia, which was the whole Asian settlement. It was incredible to see whole areas literally razed and people re-located, and you see these houses half standing, it´s just amazing. He took me through one of them, and said, “I knew this family and this is where they lived”, and “I had tea here,” and you see half of a house. It´s just quite something.
Then on the other hand I´m thinking of the riots in Bombay after the Babri Masjid event. My friend Rumanna Hussain, this wonderful artist (who died last year, she´s exactly my age), she has done work on this, she´s done a series of installations. Her telling me that she and her husband had to suddenly leave because they were looking through all the Muslim names on the apartment call-buttons…they had to move. And I thought, my God, I mean, if…
PP: So the Enlightenment project makes you mad ?
MA: It makes me very mad, which is why when you asked me I would not talk about it.
PP: But we cannot not talk about it.
MA: No, it makes me absolutely furious, the idea of it, because for me that is very, very close, I mean that particular idea of rationality in humanism, which I identify as the Enlightenment project, which of course you could call something else, is for me very closely related to the Papal Bull, for instance, that Christopher Columbus was given. It is part and parcel of that project, it´s not exactly the same era, but it is a project that presupposes a certain carte blanche and at the same time necessitates the body of the ‘other’, so that… How do you read Descartes, if you are an Indian woman? What does it mean for someone like me to read Descartes? The whole idea of a certain kind of rationality for me is enormously suspect.
My father, who I loved very dearly really believed in the idea of rationality. He was born in 1921 in India of a certain generation, he studied in Madras and he went off to Imperial College—he was a scientist. I think for him the idea of the modern was very, very forceful, as it was for scientists in our country of a certain generation: it was the idea of progress, it was the idea of a certain equivalence of all human beings. At the same time, when he went on a British ship to England to study—he went in ‘47 as an Indian student— he said, “Of course, the British officers would never speak to us”. By “us” he means Indians. At the same time they were taken to Buckingham palace for garden parties and so on, because Britain owed India some money for having quartered troops there after Independence. It was very strange, you know.
For someone like my father the idea of modernity was a very important idea. It also meant that women should be educated: he has no sons, I´m the oldest daughter, and he always taught us right from the beginning that just because you´re a girl doesn´t mean that you don´t study—you can do anything a boy can do. That´s a very modern idea. It doesn´t mean that other people in other generations have not had that idea, but it is a modern idea in that sense, an idea of a certain kind of permission.
I´ve just written a preface to a book of short stories by Lalithambika Antherjanam, who is a great Malayalam writer, a feminist. She started writing in the 20s and 30s and she talks about being brought up in a very traditional taravade in Kerala, and how until puberty she was very free—she was allowed to read and write and her father was very enlightened. Then she had these eras where she was more or less confined, she wasn´t permitted to write because she was female. Then she married a man who was quite enlightened. It´s sort of fascinating to me this whole question of a buried voice, which is really the dark side of modernity. It´s a voice that´s buried in a body—I mean it has to do with bodily shape and bodily contingency. Then you have to ask yourself whether the modernist idea or ideal could have existed without presupposing it´s buried side. I wonder.
I don´t know if you´ve seen that prose piece I did, and also there´s a poem that goes with it, which I think speaks to this in perhaps an elliptical form. The poem is called “Indian April”, it´s just been published in the Massachusetts Review. I sort of imagine Mirabai and Ginsberg meeting in Rajasthan and then in Central Park… then I have a prose piece called “Unquiet Borders”, where I re-read Fanon and I imagine what it would be for Fanon to be alive and a female poet. A sort of reincarnation in the metropolis. I bring it together with the idea of Mirabai and migration.
The part of Fanon that fascinates me is—I think it’s chapter 6 in Black Skins, White Masks, I´m not sure—he says, “Look, a Negro!” and the body falls apart and there are all these fragments and you think, ‘What hands will put those fragments together and what shape will they take?’ For me that´s precisely what modernity cannot, because of its historical limitations, cope with. It´s the putting together again of the fragments because, after all, Fanon was raised within the modernist project. He has that language, the formation. Also to be female and read Fanon—what is that? You know it´s very important.
But to return to Gandhi in answer to your question about modernity. We really need to examine Gandhi´s migration. One of the things that we have to really start to look at in our understanding of Gandhi was the place that… Long sojourns away from India, his migratory understandings allowed him to develop the notion of Satyagraha, and really undercut the basis of caste. Had he not been in South Africa and endured the kinds of racial taunts, slurs and markings out that he did, could he really have developed his acute understanding or distaste for the caste system? I wonder.
What does it mean to be rendered ‘other’? You have to leave your place. But the other thing is, people ask me about migration. There was this quite long interview that came out in India on television. They were asking me about migration and exile, and I said, “Look this idea of exile is there very early, if you look at the Mahabharata, Draupadi is in exile much of her life. For God´s sake it´s not a modern idea, it´s not a postmodern idea, it´s not a postcolonial idea…”—God forbid. The idea of migration, the idea of exile are parts of human experience. It´s important to acknowledge that. Not to feel so limited because we are living at the end of the 20th century and we use certain kinds of language. So that returns to your question about the lyric voice, because there is something very small, very fitful in the human experience that the lyric attaches to, and, somehow, the smaller it is, the sharper it is. But I think Gandhi is, for me, a very unexamined figure.
PP: Two questions falling from what you have said. One is of course…
MA: But this also comes back to location.
MA: Because Gandhi’s understanding was developed in this transit between locations.
PP: Precisely, and there is reason enough to make that argument. That he too was a migrant of sorts is clear from his autobiography. England, India, South Africa—and also in India in different places—there is a triangular thing which is fascinating. In that connection, I mean, I´m very interested in your response to, say, Ashis Nandy´s readings and appropriation of Gandhi. I think he styles himself as a neo-Gandhian. I think in his work we get an oppositional stance which does not see the migratory aspect of Gandhi.
MA: Well, because I think that in India for the project of nationalism, we can´t read it. We are all bound. Just as… because of my project, which is migratory, I don’t… I need other readings. But the nationalist project, with all it´s complexities in India, does not permit of seeing the extraordinary scope of Gandhi… A very dear friend of mine, when I went back to India from England, I remember him saying to me, (because I said, “How can I do these poems? I´ve been outside India all this time.”) “Do you know how old Gandhi was when he came back from South Africa?”
He was actually quite old, older than I am now. Of course there were two travels to South Africa. This comes back to the idea of modern, which cannot be taken apart from the idea of the national and the national boundaries. Given Indian history, given the nature of Partition and the extraordinary migration of peoples in conditions of great violence, which we have to understand, it is therefore perhaps all the more important for us to see how Gandhi´s travels, and the length of them, and the complexity of their nature… all the time it´s the same spiritual economy that´s been developed, in terms of a radical critique. It was actually a very interesting, very complicated understanding that was being developed in Gandhi.
PP: In some ways I think Nandy is able to see that, in some ways I think he isn´t.
MA: Well, I think his readings of Gandhi are actually very interesting and he also has an interesting take on violence.
PP: But we have two very well known theorists coming from India: Homi Bhabha and Spivak, of course, and they, in a sense, do not directly talk about Gandhi. Partha Chatterjee, on the other hand, has done this seminal piece on Gandhi which furthers his argument about Third World nationalism not being just a derivative discourse.
MA: Do they refuse, really?
PP: Well, Spivak would see the Indian nation-state as a fabrication of the bourgeoisie and Gandhi’s role in nationalist thought as one putting into place a representational structure that corresponded to the very structure of power it sought to repudiate. Bhabha would bring in the notion of the performative. He does though mention in an interview how Gandhi’s Experiments with Truth is a remarkable project to address the public as private and the private as public.
MA: But he looks at Fanon which is interesting. I was brought up by Gandhians. And Gandhi was like this: I mean, there was Gandhi and Jesus, right. In that sense, I really am postcolonial, whatever that wretched term means. I mean I am, but I´m also a woman. I´m not saying that that in itself is enough, but I think the whole… —and my grandmother was a Gandhian, my mother´s mother. On the one hand the extraordinary declension, the liberation of women for a nationalist project that Gandhi was able to put into place, Madhu Kiswar says he was a feminist at some level—he was. But also, he wasn´t, I mean, what happens to female body? Or the question of sexuality and desire with Gandhi? You know, that instance he talks about it in Satyagraha in South Africa, where he cuts off the hair, that whole scene, which I´ve written about… Gandhi’s relation to the question of the body is very interesting. Have you seen that play Mahatma Versus Gandhi?
PP: I didn´t. So, I mean, it seems to me that you are suggesting that Gandhi is going to make some kind of a comeback.
MA: Has he ever been away?
PP: I mean as a guru.
MA: Oh, I think so. I´ll tell you why: because we´re living in an age of such terrible ethnic violence, the happenings in Bosnia and Rwanda, what the BJP has been doing in India. These cannot be taken lightly. It is incumbent upon us to try and understand, and I think this is where Fanon only goes so far, and Homi´s done… I really admire his work on Fanon, he is quite wonderful. But I think Fanon only goes so far, as a thinker, we really have to think about Gandhi. It´s hard. It´s very painful to think about Gandhi. There is a huge amount at stake. I don´t know if you´ve read that novel Nampally Road, I wrote.
PP: Yes, I have.
MA: That woman is being raped in the police station and there is a picture of Gandhi there. I mean, this is what we grew up with, right? And that´s important.
PP: Connected to this again. Fanon, Gandhi: two figures who talked about violence, non-violence… Two different modes of resistance. A friend of mine in Sussex, an Indian, who lived in New York for some time and then lived in London, suggested to me that we Indians are incapable of anger, real anger. Whereas, Africans seem to marshal this emotion of anger easily. Of course the differential specificities of experience and the constitutive meta-narratives of cultures…
MA: I wonder is that really true?
PP: I don´t know.
MA: It seems to me as a very easy generalisation. First of all there are many kinds of Africans, there are many kinds of Indians.
PP: But there is a certain kind of stereotypical truth about this as well in some ways, in responses.
MA: Maybe, maybe, I don´t know… Oh, so you´re trying to connect this to Gandhi.
PP: Gandhi and Fanon, in a sense: you don´t get anger in Gandhi´s writings, you get anger in Fanon´s writings. In that sense as well.
MA: In that way Fanon is extraordinarily liberating for us, and I think the readings of Fanon, Homi Bhabha writing about him…We have to be able to read Fanon, and reading just means using, inventing a Fanon for ourselves, which doesn’t mean he didn´t write it. But similarly there has to be a project of re-inventing Gandhi. Part of the problem is Gandhi´s relation to Hinduism: with the rise of a certain kind of fascism in India, people are calling into question parts of the nationalist project which took certain levels of Hinduism as a given universal. So it´s a very complicated kind of reading one has to do. And here I think your idea of modernity and so on certainly comes in. But, nevertheless, having said all that, Gandhi is an extraordinarily under examined figure and part of it has been his co-option by the nationalist project. When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated I happened to be in Kerala and there were little auto-rickshaws going around with big loudspeakers. They talked about Rajiv Gandhi´s maranam. (Maranam is death.) So then there was this cry…This is Congress (I) So they had “Mahatma Gandhi…Rajiv Gandhi…” I mean that sort of says everything. So that´s what I meant by the co-option of Gandhi, right?
In terms of the postcolonial project one had to read Fanon first, because it´s like breaking the old wood, or something. But I think now we are ready to look at Gandhi. And maybe there are many people who are about to come out with readings of Gandhi. I think that it´s time—maybe it´s timely.
PP: So, do you kind of sense a different order of rationality, or a vision of the future, or an alternative modernity
MA: That wonderful word. Yeah, I think, yes. But I think it has to be scripted, I don´t think it already exists. I think there ought to be, and I think it´s one in which the question of location will be terribly important. But maybe not in the way in which we understand it yet. You know I would like to suggest that there might be a different way that we´re not yet able to talk about. That piece of Gandhi, which is migratory, really does need to be understood, we haven´t quite laid it out yet.
PP: So in a sense you´re making a case for Gandhi, as a kind of a cosmopolitan figure, who of course departs from the old kind of, Greek notion of cosmopolitanism.
MA: But don´t you remember in his autobiography, he talks…? Actually I´ve written this long elegy for my father in which I talk about him, and I talk about Gandhi standing in front of a mirror. It´s coming out soon. It´s called “Elegy for my Father”. There is a whole piece in it about Gandhi. You know his autobiography talks about taking French lessons and dancing lessons, and learning to eat with a knife and fork, and buying just the right attire. That´s also Gandhi. If he hadn´t done that, God knows if he would have been able to do the whole khadi thing. All these are grand gestures. We can´t forget that, nee? It´s all part of the making of the man.
I´ve written a little essay called “Territory in Text”* about Shelley´s Prometheus Unbound and Gandhi´s use of it in Young India. Gandhi knew Shelley because of the vegetarianism. But we really need to examine and re-read the idea of non-violence. I think we have to in an age of tribal warfare, in massive ethnic violence occurring in different parts of the world.
PP: You´re talking about how we´re all historically bound. And when I was writing this review of your book, I was thinking about how, in your work, how the reality of historical experience and its inscription on the page is both filled with the divisory imagery of borderlines, which carry over spaces where immigrant experience remains largely unwritten, even impossible to write. And you talk about, you know, refugee camps, detention centres, illegal alien transport, border patrols and so on. Now, I was a bit confused: what I was wondering was whether the reality of historical experience that you identify…Is that an excess in the historical experience of migration, which cannot be articulated, or inscribed? Or something which troubles the kind of conventional notions of articulation, inscription?
MA: I´m not very clear as to what you´re suggesting. Is it possible it´s both? I mean I´m not sure if I´m understanding you right. I´m trying to hear your question and there are two pieces of it. One has to do with what you can write and can´t write, and the other has to do with the question of the historical realities of migrations and migratory meanings. Maybe there is a third question you need to ask.
PP: Which is?
MA: Well, having to do with certain zones of understanding and the way our discourses point us. Maybe if I just talk biographically a little bit, we will be able to touch upon it. As a child I lived at the borders of warfare in Sudan, my father worked for the Indian government and he was seconded abroad to Sudan, because at the Bandung Conference, Azhari, the president of Sudan, met Nehru and decided that instead of asking the British for technical help, he decided that he would ask India. So there were lawyers, doctors and scientists, who went from India to Sudan to provide technical help in ´56. I was born in ´51, so I was five on the passage on the boat. That was the time of the Suez Canal and Sudan was in the midst of this terrible civil war, which still continues. And then we would come through Aden, which was in the middle of this whole battle, the British Tommies were there with their guns and there was dynamite. I mean, I was not born during Partition, but I was born close enough to it and travelled enough to see other pieces of that larger problematic—that´s not a good word, but that larger mapping. For instance, when I studied in Khartoum at the university there were students who would come from the south, who had been tortured. The violence of Partition was not spoken about at home. But you would see somebody who has blood coming out of his ears or something and he´s sitting next to you in class, and you think, “what the hell is this?” and you start talking. Then you found that the person couldn´t really talk about it. That´s another whole piece of traumatic experience—which also happens with rape victims, they can´t talk about it.
For me this is the use of art, right? Because I´m not really a theorist, that´s not what I am. I´m a writer, I´m an artist, in that limited use of the term, because I work with sensuous images, and there´s always a hope that by rubbing two images together you can make a little bit of a fire. Within the whole post-Enlightenment idea of Europe there is already implicit, and this is an idea which has persisted up to this moment—I mean, God, you can talk to all sorts of people and realise that very quickly—there has persisted a sense of borders, which are to be policed, and you see that with immigrants coming into Europe, and with borders that are to be policed, discourses which are to be mapped, and here is where the zone of the body politic and the zone of an emergent art come together. So that when I talk about mapping memory, for me it really is the opposite of nostalgia because it´s not very pretty. I wish it were but it´s not. It´s far closer to what Assia Djebar writes about, for instance in her essay “Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound”.
It is much closer to what was mutilated. I wish it would be, it would be actually better for me in some ways if it was, all nostalgia, it would be much easier. But it wouldn´t be my project. Because I´m very interested in memory, which deals with what was cut out, which wasn´t spoken. It doesn´t mean that within the artwork the idea of beauty cannot exist: for me, the notion of beauty is actually very important, it´s very important aesthetically because it has certain functions. I´m not interested anymore in what I was very, very interested in, which was an artwork that was all broken up into pieces. My novel Manhattan Music is all in pieces.
I’m talking about beauty because that´s something modernity didn´t deal with. Well, of course, if you look at Valéry, and so on that´s different, or Elliot, but beauty has been allied to the idea of a tradition. I´m very interested in the notion of what is beautiful because it finds its useful resting ground in the site of art, in the aesthetic, and it does have a purpose that works in the world. It is political in that sense, though not in a very simple way.
PP: You were just talking about the unspeakable. I want to know what you mean by the invention of memory in that context.
MA: I have this poem I´ve just written, called “Illiterate Hearts”, a long five-six page poem, which will be coming out soon in a journal called Ariel. There I do try to deal with that question. So, in a sense, I´m theorising around a poem that you haven´t seen, but it doesn´t matter you can read it. It´s a strange poem, because I start in this poem “Illiterate Heart” with a speaker—I won´t say myself, it´s silly to say that because it´s not me, I mean it is and it´s not—who´s 19 who goes home for the summer holidays and reads Conrad´s Heart of Darkness. I really did read it when I was that age, and something that stuck in my head for a long, long time and is still there is that… Do you remember there is that river and then there is that African woman, she comes out and she´s by the river bank and then she gets kind of mad, like I said I get mad at this idea of rationality or the modernist project. She gets really mad and I think the narrative voice doesn´t quite know what to do with her. And then she sinks back into the darkness, she has some connection with Kurtz, I think… I keep forgetting that novel because I keep re-writing it in my head. I wrote a whole piece in prose, it´s still in my notebook, about her going—or maybe that´s in Conrad. Does she go in and tear up all his clothes? Or am I imagin-ing this?
PP: I think she does.
MA: She does, nee, she tears up his clothes—Gandhi burned up all that stuff, all those clothes, my grandmother threw her saris into the fire—very interesting, so it wasn´t me imagining it, it´s in the book. That´s right, you´re a scholar of Literature Inglés.
It begins with that image and the poem actually travels a certain length, and the length that it travels has to do with the distance between the map that we´re given, and the invention of memory. But to do that I have to go into what it meant for me as a child to learn language and to run away from learning language—languages and scripts. So, in a sense, there is a kind of radical illiteracy. Anyway, that poem ends with lines about a woman combing her hair and so on and the body in parts—
Can this make music in your head
Can you whistle hot tune to educate the barbarians?
The question is, who are the barbarians? I was also thinking of Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”. And this is how the lines go,
These lines took decades to etch free
The heart´s illiterate, the map is torn and this is what I wanted to get to,
Someone I learned to recognise cries out at Kurtz thrust sculls aside lets flood waters pour.
For me, the “flood waters pour, that image is related very much to what happened with the construction of the Aswan High Dam, which when I was a child I saw… I wasn´t right there where the dam was being build but it was very much part of my childhood. It´s a great project of modernity, the construction of the dam. But the whole question of what is being buried, and for me, the question about modernity is also the question of what it is that the idea of modernity buries, or does not permit us to see, or does not permit us to give voice to.
In a very peculiar way, migrations of people such as myself—yourself, you´ve come to Denmark—we´re voluntary migrants, we haven´t been running away from our countries because we would be killed if we remained there. On the other hand, that excision of location, the taken for granted of the everyday, really forces us to think out certain larger issues to undertake a kind of re-mapping. And this is what, I would like to suggest, happened in a very different way to Gandhi: there is this wonderful line in his autobiography, which I´ve actually used in this new thing I´m writing, where he says…—there was a great storm as he was leaving Bombay in this ship and approaching Aden—I can´t quote exactly, but he says that the sea was stormy or turbulent at this time all the way from Bombay to Aden, or something like that, “in this season the water is always turbulent”. We don´t really know what Gandhi did on board these ships, right? In the African American experience people talk about the Middle Passage. In the West Indies, Indians in Fiji etc. Indians were sent as bonded labour to take the place of the African slaves who were freed. Between C.F. Andrews and Gandhi and so on there were enormous conversations about Indian women being used as prostitutes, and there was a lot of stuff up in the air at that point. But I think that we need to understand what it is that happened… —not that we can ever understand it, but even, perhaps, speculate—what happened in his head in between these continents.
What does it mean for the place that you´ve taken for granted to be memory? You see that is where it comes in. What does it mean to translate your home into an idea, or not into an idea because memory is not quite like that, but it forces upon you really a radical re-thinking of the possibilities of temporality. It also forces you to unlearn the script that you´ve learnt, and that is where this idea of radical illiteracy is interesting because it involves…the map is torn, I mean, it involves imagining a place where the kinds of maps that you´ve learnt don´t work any longer. That is very scary, but it´s also in some ways the very exciting possibility of the beginning of a project.
History is not what we can parcel out and set out as a new and wonderful millennium, or whatever. But, really, history as what we cannot remember. So that, in the poem [“Illiterate Heart”], the speaker says, ”someone I learned to recognise”, of course, the speaker doesn´t really know this woman. I remember having to read Heart of Darkness in college and I thought, ‘Why do they give me this horrible book and I hate it, why do I have to study this, haven´t I had enough of this?’ But there’s certain kinds of cogitation, certain kinds of thought, which have been used to define our bodily beings, and I think that it´s very important to learn it. In that way, the imagination is political, not in any other way, perhaps. There´s a lot of work to be done, you know?
PP: But this follows from what you have been saying, which is, “the map is torn”… reflex knee-jerk reaction, you know. Are you saying that there is no future for the map?
MA: But lots of maps are torn. I was carrying this map of Stockholm and it got completely torn, I´m still using it. It was raining it got torn…
PP: Let me inflect it in my own way. My mind goes back to a period during the Kosovo crisis. Americans for some time now have had the capacity to locate a person lost in the Pacific Ocean or the North Pole within, you know, a few feet. They have this remote-sensing satellite technology to do that.
PP: Yeah, within a few feet. Can you imagine?
MA: But they also have the ability to bomb a factory in Khartoum mistakenly.
PP: Yeah, of course it’s a question of choice. But you know, the ability to actually locate things or people with an amazing degree of accuracy. …and you know, in Kosovo there was one day on the news that a hundred—more than a hundred thousand—Kosovars had disappeared in the night. They just disappeared—so many people. And I´m thinking, what´s going on here? In a sense I´m wondering what kind of thoughts do you have? I don´t want to put it in those terms but in a sense I’m asking you the question: what is the future of the map; what is the future for a certain kind of scopic regime, that you´re, in my reading, alluding to?
MA: What do you mean by scopic regime?
PP: Well, when you talk about, say, a regime of perception sustained by unequal power-relations, a disciplinary norm or template, so that certain other, alternative ways of living, ways of thinking become threatened.
MA: You know one of the things that´s very frightening about what happened in Bosnia in the former Yugoslavia, Sarajevo etc. or what happened in Bombay, or what happened during Partition, or what´s happening now in parts of India, is that you can live next door to somebody… I mean I understand and I don´t understand and I have to try to understand. It really cuts to the roots of questions of family and identity—what kind of identity do you claim? You can live next door to somebody for say four decades and suddenly decide you´re their enemy. I mean live in the same village, have kids who are the same age or play together, and suddenly have a kind of barbarism take over. It´s very important for us to think about it because it´s part of being human. It would be wrong to say, “this is so terrible, I don´t want to think about it”. You have to, it´s there. You have to think about it, really draw it in some way. You spoke about Fanon allowing one to unleash a certain rage. But I also think that there are certain conditions of crowds and the gathering of crowds and mass power that can lead to barbarisms.
I watched this wonderful documentary on Primo Levi a while back. I hadn´t realised he was an extraordinary poet, but the man who´s been translating my poems into Italian, he´s also a reader of Primo Levi. He said, ‘Meena go read his poems, because he´s a fantastic poet.’ It was amazing poetry, I had no idea because he is known for his prose and periodic tables and so on. As I saw this documentary he says somewhere, “this barbarism is not elsewhere”, in other words, it´s not in Africa or Asia, it´s in Europe, and it´s at the heart of Europe. And I think it´s precisely that that the modernist project cannot allow us to see, nee? That barbarism is not only at the heart of Europe, it is in some way, or has been a part of the human condition. Particularly in a world that is being so quickly re-invented and I´m thinking about the speed of electronic data, the internet. As someone was saying at the conference in Sweden I’ve just come from, what people don´t realise is that the internet is also a series of spatial points that are connected—that you literally have a wire. So it is space, it is in a sense a re-invention of space and the meaning of location. I don´t go on the Internet, I´m terrified that I will get lost somewhere out there.
The whole issue of violence, which we thought that after decolonisation was over, that we were entering a new era of progress, of ways in which technology and science could ameliorate the human condition, and they have in many ways but those gains are still very much dependent on structures of power. You can have rice in the godown that is rotting or being sold on the black market and people starving on the other side. You know these are very difficult questions, they also cut at the roots of our understanding of family, for instance. I won´t use a big word like patriarchy because I don´t really know what it means, but, I think, family structures, however they are defined, they can be defined and redefined. Even those structures all are dependent upon the idea of a threshold, an interior, those that you will put your life out for and those that you won´t. To raise children you have to have this idea of protection, you can´t do it otherwise—the idea of responsibility. But this kind of ethnic violence comes up when the question of those who you are willing to protect…or the idea of those who you are willing to protect is raised up against those who you think are about to do you in. In fact, every time you look at barbarism of the sort whether it´s rhetoric of the Shiv Sena or any of these rhetoricians, saadvis of the BJP, it´s very, very interesting, they are great orators. And they are always under threat, I mean, that also happened to the Nazis. The majority perceives itself as under threat by the minority. In other words, you can´t really go out and kill so many people or indulge in the kind of barbaric violence that did take place, infants beheaded all sorts of appalling things, and then you speak about the unspeakable, it´s there in our immediate history. What is it that makes a person do that? And not only just make the person, but allows persons, who would otherwise perhaps be fairly law abiding, fairly decent citizens, go out and do that…or even in the Bangladesh war, I mean these things happens in human communities, I don´t think any community has a premium on violence. The kinds of ways in which we are taught to be human are not very easy for us to understand and… What was the number you gave of people who disappeared?
PP: Well, a hundred thousand, I think.
MA: In a sense, if the map is territory that is recognised, then people who are killed, or abducted, or violently disappear are thought not to partake of the map. In other words you shouldn´t be there for that map or a new map to be made. And that “shouldn´t be there” is a very, very strong imperative. You know I have an uncle and he had a job for many years with the foreign ministry in Delhi. Do you know what his job was? His job was to censor the maps that came into India. He´d put a big X on what was not approved of… Kashmir of course but… other things—if there was a map that looked wrong, you know, it shouldn´t be circulated in the atlases, or whatever. Which is fascinating to me because a map becomes very important. It´s a question of recognisable territory. So that if there are people you don´t want inside your territory then…because with them there you can´t really make the map you want.
I haven´t really answered your question, because I don´t really have an answer for it.
PP: Yeah, I mean it´s a difficult one.
MA: It´s very hard, we really don´t know what to say. But maybe that´s good that we don´t know what to say. Maybe that´s the way to leave it.