Continental Drift: Essays

Today’s Mundane By Amit Chaudhuri and Writing in the Time of Globalization By Geetanjali Shree.

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Today’s Mundane

By Amit Chaudhuri

By the end of the last millennium, I’d begun to become anxious about what globalization was doing to my writing. As a novelist, I was concerned with the mundane. Even the word’s meaning and etymology contain a tension that speaks to my imagination. On the one hand, ‘mundane’ denotes what’s inconsequential, even tedious; a kindly interpretation would suggest that the mundane is what’s incarnated in the quotidian, in detail. On the other hand, the word derives from the Latin mundus, or ‘world’: from the small, the boring, the humdrum, we make, suddenly, a leap towards the encompassing – the planet on which we live. And so, that which is unnoticed (for who would notice what’s tedious and ordinary, given it comprises what’s under our very noses?) and, therefore, secret turns out to have a world inside it, or at least embody it in some way. ‘World’ prefigures ‘global’, but its connotations are quite different. There are no secrets about the global, it would seem: for globalisation’s métier is determined by the constant availability of information. My assumption that nothing goes unnoticed in globalisation (how can it, when the free market converts all it knows about you via your credit card or your internet surfing habits into data?) interrupted my embrace of the mundane, and gave me, temporarily, writer’s block.

The world, until forty years ago, contained the same paradox that the word ‘mundane’ does. The world, on the face of it, appeared to be divided by a dichotomy: the international and the local. And yet much of what was international and cosmopolitan in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was dreamt up and invented in small towns the world over. In this way, the dichotomy unravels, just as the word ‘mundane’ does, and the local and the international become impossible to disentangle from each other. What’s international and what’s local is open to question in the epoch preceding globalisation. The latter levels out both – everything, from 1989 onwards, is global, and the paradoxes that were crucial to modernity go out of the window. Or so it seems.

Early in the 21st century, I began to travel around Europe. One of the things I gradually began to realise was that the assumption I’d made about globalization and its absolute dominance had to do with the ubiquity of its Anglophone incarnation – the way India too had been transformed by it (call centres, IT) had a distinct Anglophone bent. In Europe, I began to confront what was on the periphery of this particular version of globalization. The confrontation took place in a sequence of events and moments, of which I’ll give only one example. Standing near the Zoologishcher Garten in Berlin, I listened to two men talking as they walked past me, and noted inadvertently, the thought suddenly and indistinctly formulated: ‘Oh, they do speak in languages other than English in the Western world.’ Through comparable moments of dislocation, I began to discover a new margin – and become aware that Europe had imperceptibly become newly, and indubitably, provincial. The word ‘provincial’ is a pejorative: but, here, I use it positively, to mean that the Kurfurstandamm had a secret, little-known, marginal ethos, despite it being a major avenue in a major city: an ehos I thought had been banished by globalization. Here, then, was that paradox again, in a new form. And Europe was suddenly unknown. What did Europe and its languages signify? Surely they signified the same thing the Indian languages (like Kannada or Bengali) did: modernity and its vanquished projects. The provinces reminded us of much that globalization had rendered irrelevant – avant garde experimentation; difficulty; street politics. This is what characterises the new provincialism – the difficult age of modernity, which we thought had segued into the seamlessness of the global, with its comforting assertion that history had ended. On the one side, then, we have the provincialism of Europe and of the great, cosmopolitan Indian languages and even, maybe, of Tehran and its cinematic tradition; on the other, the ‘globalised’ world. On the one side, the mundane, as it exists in some depleted, Moroccan-filled Parisian suburb, or in Bhowanipore; on the other, emblems and evidence of how the world today is – or attempts to be – one world. And this is the great and, in a profound, subterranean way, enlivening opposition and overlap that once again informs our experience of the present day: not between East and West, or the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’, but between the new provinces, often visited and little understood, with its secret, unintelligible languages, its revival of the humdrum and the quotidian, and the global, which is where everything happens. Our reality is shaped by this tension.  


Writing in the Time of Globalization

By Geetanjali Shree

Globalization – the much touted  reality of today which is about the opening up of all borders, and uniting the world into a single stage on a scale and at a speed unsurpassed, with the market and communication and technology googling on everyone and everything  and creating overnight icons and overnight oblivions, and ….

That’s a sweeping overview and tiring. The thought of venturing into the layers and folds within, tires me even more.  I hardly wish to carry on and on about overarching generalisations in the midst of my creativity. Me. A writer. As it happens, in Hindi, which is my mother tongue. Writing in the time of globalization.

Sounds like writing is the love and globalization the cholera. Love in the Time of Cholera! Are they anathema to each other? Will love triumph? Will cholera be contained?

A few thoughts come to mind.

Surely – surely! – love will always survive. Even when it doesn’t!  Because still we work for it and believe in it and breathe off it.  Even detachment or cynicism and the like are loves a writer flourishes on.

And cholera? Is it going to swallow us all? Or give us, by permeating us so, a new immunity to keep free of it? At least be tweaked, moulded, turned.

The writer, ideally, swims against the current, the mainstream, even as the powerful waters buffet her about or suck her back into the main flow. But other currents, under that main one, secretly flow on another way, sometimes forming whirlpools of a different energy, and sometimes joining up together to gorge out another channel, another direction, by and by another mainstream, or an island.

I live in a world given to me, rake up worlds buried in me, try and invent other worlds to live in, and be creatively free to understand, challenge, surmount. Ignore, adapt, crush. It’s some kind of battle which I’m not giving up because of something called globalization, just as I didn’t when it was colonialism or slavery. Even my refusal to gear my writing explicitly for or against it, is my battle to churn other waters in me.

I like to stick close to my earth and start with a little detail there and follow its course in real or the imagination. But seemingly unconnected things – the giant magma flexing its muscles in Iceland, the groundnut farming in Senegal and the egoistic roars of different gods up in the sky, all affect my anti-path. It is globalization! One moment I am happy, as now when the Columbia University and the Bibliotheque Nationale de France have joined to get to Paris South Asian writers from different parts of the globe. The gathering is the more pleasing for not being a one-off happening. Writers from all over are beginning to meet with increasing frequency. Interacting with new people, hearing new narratives, learning and teaching. Cacophony, polyphony, enriching, energizing.

But, I am told, much of this is hype. An unnatural burst of adrenalin. The rhetoric of globalization. Behind the call for greater liberalization, humanity, equality, conversation, it is ever more the old game of politics, power, conquest. Those who have for long been dominant turn the global ‘handle’ to flatten out others. Hegemonizing peoples, beings, languages, narratives, markets. Giving undue visibility to some and undue invisibility to others. Multiligualism recedes, even as difference is celebrated. Monolingualism and inequality loom larger than ever.

A very disturbing phenomenon it is, to wander out in the open and have the powerful look unseeingly at you. So close. Right in your face. It’s globalization.  Different from when one was invisible because of being in a remote place, unheard, unseen.

I see this happen in the world of language and literature, especially to that which is not of English. To Icelandic, to Hindi, even to French. Without recognizing this fact, it would be puerile to celebrate this festival as heralding the better forces of globalization.

Of course there has always been among human beings an outward impulse, a reaching out, imbuing them with an infinite globalizing potential. This is illustrated in the ancient Indian conception of the entire earth as one family – vasudhaiva kutumbakam – and in Christ’s command to ‘go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.’ That Indians stayed home while Christ’s command was literally followed does not change the underlying similarity of the two. The real difference emerged when Christ’s command was followed in un-Christ like ways. If the globalizing drive got aggressive even in matters religious, it got worse when channeled into empire-building, relying heavily on violence, naked or veiled. 

Literature truly reaches out without succumbing to the impulse to dominate. A Vyasa can audaciously declare that his epic, the Mahabharat, has in it what the world has, and what is not in it is not in the world. Or, believing his work to have not received due recognition, a Bhavabhuti can confidently indicate that the earth is vast and time limitless. Do we not see here the dream of all writers – past, present and future – who take their writing seriously? 

A hundred years ago, Tagore needed a Nobel Prize to become internationally known and be invited around the world. Today many, really many, lesser South Asian writers get to be published, read and known internationally. That this reach is largely confined to the West is mostly a function of the Market and the imbalance built into globalization. 

However, this spectacular growth in visibility relates mostly to the South Asians writing in English. Until his nomination for the Man Booker International Prize last year, the 90-year old literary legend, Intizar Hussain, was little known outside South Asia. That he needed this nomination, not to mention his longevity, to get his due says much about literary consumption in the age of globalization. Another 90-year old living legend, Krishna Sobti, remains even more unknown internationally, for want of a glance towards her work by the global Market. These two examples illustrate the global near non-consumption of quality literature from South Asia.

But when was the world ever all fair and balanced, even if its unfairness and imbalance lacked the scale of today? I really don’t want to fritter too much care into that. I have a love – writing – which I must nurture and protect from all extraneous pressures and influences. I must create and preserve as many identities as can be, subverting the voice of the powerful and overturning the language of the mighty. Uniquely! My unique must appeal to the universal, not the other way round. Swimming against the current! Loving in the time of cholera!

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