Let me begin with a series of recent conversations, snatches from larger discussions, in which the subjects of cosmopolitanism and modernity—in their locations both in and out of Europe—were broached, explored and argued over. In one of them (the venue was a bookshop in Oxford), I was trying to articulate my unease with the term ‘postcolonial writer’; not only as a description of myself, but as a description of a generic figure. Both the affiliations and the oppositionality of the ‘postcolonial writer’ seemed too clearly defined; while, for most of the more interesting canonical writers of twentieth-century India, the complexity of their oppositionality took their affiliations to unexpected territory—for the Urdu writer Qurratulain Hyder, therefore, there was Elizabeth Bowen; for the Bengali poet, novelist and critic Buddhadeva Bose, who adored both Tagore and Eliot, there were also the compensatory, contrary figures of the poet Jibanananda Das, a contemporary he did much to champion, and of D. H. Lawrence and Whitman.
The richness of the various power struggles to define the literary within India in the time of modernity, and the robust, often contradictory creative opportunism that took place in the interests of that struggle, are considerably reduced and simplified by the terms ‘colonial’ or ‘postcolonial’. If one were to map the strategic affinities of these writers, those terms would gradually lose their conceptual integrity; what might begin to appear (almost accidentally, as not every point of the map would be known to the other) is a sort of trade route of vernacular experimentation, a patois of the concrete, an effervescent cherishing of the idiosyncratic. If we were to trace the lines radiating from one writer or location to another on this map, we might, for instance, find that, often, a high degree of attention and erudition had been brought to bear upon the commonplace.
Of course, no such map exists. But the fact that these forms of ‘commerce’ (Pound’s word for his curious relationship with Whitman) did characterize literary activity in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries comes back to us even today, in unpremeditated instants. One of them occurred at the end of the discussion in that bookshop in Oxford, when a young Bangladeshi graduate student said: ‘I’ve spoken to Indian writers who write in Bengali’—and here he mentioned Sunil Ganguly, the leading poet, novelist and aging enfant terrible who lives in Calcutta, and Ketaki Kushari Dyson, poet, translator of Tagore, erstwhile star student, who lives in Oxford, where she was once an undergraduate, and was in that audience—‘I’ve spoken to these people, and they are not happy with the term “postcolonial”.’ He suggested this might be because of the sort of transverse mappings and affiliations I had mentioned, and which these writers had pursued in the interests of arriving at their recognizable tone and métier; lines of contact that could not be contained by the orthodox demarcations of the ‘postcolonial’.
But it was, still, chastening and something of a salutary shock to be reminded of actual, specific individuals, and to become conscious of them in a new way, as I began to become aware of Dyson that evening, sitting not a great distance away from me, in her seventies now. In constructing my argument, I had thought about myself, about history and the great canonical writers of the Indian past, and even, in general terms, of writers like Dyson; but I had not thought of her in particular, and, for whatever reason, it had never occurred to me to speak to her, or to query her, about the subject. I knew her opinions on a range of things; but, on this, there had been an inadvertent silence. Now, to hear from another source, during a public conversation (she, wordless, as if she had some of the sphinx-like instructiveness of history or the archive), that she was unhappy at being termed a ‘postcolonial’ was at once vindicating and disconcerting.
In attempting to think about the alien face of cosmopolitanism, I have had to have recourse to moments such as this one, to impressions rather than hard historical fact. Something not spoken of, a question not asked, something you thought you had forgotten, and remembered later in a different way: these are almost all that are left of the residual cosmopolitanisms of the world—an odd sense of discomfiture, and, in lieu of a definitive language, personal reminiscences that appear to have implications, but remain isolated and arbitrary. Perhaps these moments—essentially afterthoughts from itineraries that have almost been erased—may serve to mark the beginnings of an admittedly desultory enquiry, as much as the assignation of an actual historical date might; a date such as the Indian art historian Partha Mitter fixes, for instance, when he argues that the Bauhaus exhibition in Calcutta in 1922 led to the formation of an artistic avant-garde in India. The exchange that evening in Oxford, and my failure to follow up with Dyson, who disappeared quickly after the event, have made me alert to the conversations I have had since with writers in, for want of a better term, the Indian vernaculars—they being, often without quite knowing it, the sole remnants in our country of those vanished cosmopolitanisms. But there are remnants adrift everywhere; so, overheard remarks and incomplete confessions from people in various parts of the world, especially writers and scholars, also shape my interpretation. How does one think of the cosmopolitan in the global world?
A second conversation, the most recent in fact, took place over dinner with C. S. Lakshmi, who was visiting Calcutta from Bombay, where she lives; Lakshmi is better known by her pseudonym ‘Ambai’, and is one of the most sensuous and experimental short-story writers in the Tamil language. My wife had begun to talk about a little, comical altercation Salman Rushdie had initiated with me recently in print, while I, without irony, protested my admiration for Midnight’s Children. ‘But you can’t just bring in these forms by force,’ said Lakshmi, scolding an invisible third party. ‘Firstly, you have to see if there’s any such thing as “magic realism” in your tradition or not.’ She had clearly decided this was doubtful. She confided, perturbed, scandalized: ‘Do you know, it’s begun in the languages as well.’ By ‘languages’ she meant the Indian ones. ‘Even Tamil and Kannada writers are now trying to be “magic realist”.’
Another conversation had taken place over the telephone, again in Calcutta, with Utpal Kumar Basu; probably the most accomplished and—if I might use that word—interesting living poet in the Bengali language. We were discussing, in passing, the nature of the achievement of Subimal Misra, one of the short-story writing avant-garde in 1960s Bengal. ‘He set aside the conventional Western short story with its idea of time; he was more true to our Indian sensibilities; he set aside narrative’, said Basu. ‘That’s interesting’, I observed. ‘You know, of course, that, in the last twenty years or so, it is we Indians and postcolonials who are supposed to be the storytellers, emerging as we do from our oral traditions and our millennial fairy tales’. ‘Our fairy tales are very different from theirs’, said Basu, unmoved. ‘We don’t start with, “Once upon a time”.’