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Saturday, March 26, 2011

* Lecture and Anecdote!

At the Mohini Mohan Bhattacharyya Memorial Lecture 2011

On 24th March 2011 at Darbhanga Hall, Calcutta University, I attended the Mohini Mohan Bhattacharyya Memorial Lecture delivered by Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty on “The Human in Postcolonial Criticism”. Prof. Chakrabarty teaches History in the University of Chicago and is the founder member of the Subaltern Studies Collective. Among his important works are the essay “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?” and the book Provincializing Europe.  Prof. Chakrabarty said that in preparing for this lecture he read about the person in whose memory this lecture is instituted. Mohini Mohan Bhattacharyya was the first Gooroodas Banerjee Professor of English in Calcutta University and his doctoral thesis was on the influence of Plato on Edmund Spenser. The British rule in India made many Indians fall in love with English Literature. Although there is some truth in the statement that English education was used by the Britishers to colonize the Indian mind, it does not explain the concept of love. When Mohini Mohan Bhattacharyya visited John Keats’s lodging in Rome he saw bright flowers of varied colours growing outside the window of the room where Keats breathed his last. When he visited the Protestant cemetery, where Keats was buried, he saw the flowers as pale. Such perceptions cannot be inculcated by colonizing the mind.

Prof. Chakrabarty then went on to his area of specialization and said that history is the study of human affairs where the shadow always falls between theory and performance. It is quite ironical that humanity is no longer a political candidate because in the wake of globalization and global warming the world has come to acknowledge that we all are affected. This is the postcolonial condition, the theorizing of which had begun in the departments of English studies and has brought diverse people like Homi Bhabha and Stuart Hall together. Earlier there was a simple-minded assumption that humans as a subject can exercise rights and the subaltern will one day claim their rights through a revolution. Then there was the advent of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak with her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” It was only then that the history departments belatedly started investigating postcolonialism. Moreover there is the newly emergent subaltern – no longer just the peasants – the illegal, unrecognized migrants. There is this widening gap between the two categories – the barely human illegal immigrant whose cheap labour force is exploited and the ideal of civic citizen. And there is the grim reality of the impossibility of the former category for civic recognition. No doubt, Europe is littered with detention camps. Prof. Chakrabarty narrated an anecdote about one of his visit to Delhi. It is sometimes seen that when highrises are built the labourers who work in its construction mark their passage by writing obscenities on the walls of the building. In Delhi once when he entered an under-construction building he was surprised to find the writing on the wall in Bengali. He was later informed that Delhi is filled with illegal Bangladeshi migrant workers.

The last part of the lecture dealt with how humans, who are always marked by difference, have now become the new agent of geological change. After the initial phase of denial about global warming brought by human agency, there has appeared three ironical twists to it. The first defence is that the results were unthinkable when the use of fossil fuel started. Secondly, the impetus given to productivity by the use of fossil fuel helped in the creation of free labour. And thirdly, human beings will have to adapt to climate change, which implies that many people will die inevitably. The time of Mohini Mohan Bhattacharyya was when the world was perceived as commensurable but the human in the postcolony is faced with an incommensurable world. 
An anecdote from school:
Sunetra Gupta has added the link of my interview with her published in Muse India (Issue 31, 2010) in her website -
I am now a member of Pegasus Journal. Visit my page in the journal's website -


Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing !

amit said...

You are welcome.
I mailed my blog link to Prof. Dipesh Chakrabarty and he replied that this was a very good summary of many of the main points he was trying to make in his lecture.