Nikhil Govind. 2019.
Inlays of Subjectivity: Affect and Action in Modern Indian Literature
New Delhi: Oxford University Press
What are the different kinds of discursive possibilities that emerge the moment one wishes to steer clear of genre and chronology while reading a huge corpus of literary texts that ostensibly offers no other alternative of organization and structure? How is one supposed to sift through the linguistic diversity and regional idiosyncrasies that constitute an integral component of the literature that is produced within the Indian subcontinent? Is there something which is even more fundamental and deceptively conspicuous than the usual categories of language, class, caste and gender that one often finds too convenient while conducting an in-depth analysis of fictional works by Indian authors?
Nikhil Govind’s book is an original, innovative and rigorous foray into the diverse and bewilderingly complex world of subcontinental fiction in the last hundred years. It provides a spirited rejoinder to the aforementioned questions that have largely plagued literary critics when it comes to identifying the right kind of organizing principles for studying modern Indian literature. Dexterously oscillating between victimhood, reflexivity, and individual conflict, it draws attention to the circuitous and labyrinthine formations of selfhood that undergirds Indian literary texts.
Between the Historical and the Contemporary
The book begins with B. R. Ambedkar’s Waiting for a Visa (1935-6) in order to demonstrate how subjectivity in its varied and contradictory negotiations with the world can be exposed to such avenues and vistas of experience as can challenge one’s own sense of self through anticlimactic moments of humiliation. As a member of a government committee charged with investigating grievances against untouchables in a village called Chalisgaon, Ambedkar finds himself fallen into a river at the end of the ride. This leads to a reflective articulation of suffering; something that constitutes the analytical framework of Govind’s work for the prominent novelists (novelists such as Tagore, Sarat, Agyeya, Chughtai, Krishna Sobti, Urmila Pawar and K. R. Meera) that he examines in his monograph.
Presented as five ‘studies’, the author looks at K. R. Meera’s Hangwoman (2014) and argues how perceived injustice can result in a reflexive and agential relationship with the world as Chetna the principled protagonist makes a virtue of her macabre celebrity status as a female, underprivileged hangwoman. This is followed by a penetrating interpretation of Urmila Pawar’s evocative memoir Aaydan (Weave of Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs, 2008) where Govind demonstrates Pawar’s extraordinarily introspective engagement with the world in general and the process of writing in particular. A lifelong self-reflexivity and restraint precipitates a moral/meaningful action (externalized through writing) and animates Pawar’s caste and gender advocacy.
From the moment of the contemporary, the book takes a necessary turn toward the historical in an attempt to chart out the ancestry of the developmental novel that Indian writers such as Pawar become heir to. By juxtaposing Agyeya’s Shekhar: Ek Jivani (Shekhar: A Life), a popular novel from the 1940s, with Ismat Chughtai’s Terhi Lakir (The Crooked Line, 1944), the third study seeks to underscore the myriad ways in which excessively damaging affects (affects such as neglect, prejudice, and deception) are thrashed out in these works as an unavoidable precondition for self-growth. So, if in Agyeya’s novel, the dissolution of self leads to writing and eventually a reconfigured subjectivity, The Crooked Line posits financial autonomy and behavioral forthrightness as crucial aspects for rising above oppression and confinement in genteel society.
Of Quietude and Boldness of Speech
This comparative framework is meticulously maintained even in the succeeding chapter where Saratchandra’s Srikanta (1937) is read in conjunction with Tagore’s Malancha (Garden, 1934). In Srikanta’s case, the ability to listen to others and be passionately involved as well as detached implies true learning and maturation as opposed to the physical movement entailed in the idea of travel. Govind contrasts this with Neerja’s extreme negative affects in Tagore’s novelette (affects such as shame, hatred and bitterness) and points out how debilitating experiences of immobility can only yield strong emotions of helplessness and vulnerability.
The final study is a protracted engagement with Krishna Sobti’s major works such as Mitro Marjani (To Hell with You, Mitro, 1966), Surajmukhi Andhere Ke (Sunflowers in the Dark, 1972), and Dil-o-Danish (The Heart Has Its Reasons, 1993) to highlight the writer’s ability to conjure extreme ends of voice and silence, and courage and peace-making. Both these recourses are strategically employed by the women characters in Sobti’s fiction to stake a claim for individual freedom and subvert existing power structures.
The book follows a circular trajectory as it returns to the contemporary moment concerning Perumal Murugan’s controversial novel One Part Woman (2015). Govind shows how it is only by underlining the sweeping affect of the novel, namely sympathy and affection for the couple represented and their limited world of choices that Murugan and his associates were able to make a case for free speech and render insignificant the question of location in Tamil Nadu or Hinduism. This relates to the central point of the book that is fleshed out through the earlier chapters as well, that is, pain, suffering or humiliation has no quick fix. Rather, it is through an agential and self-reflexive engagement with the world that one arrives at a desirable reconstitution of subjectivity and a determined effort toward ethical action.
The scholarly relevance of the book cannot be emphasized enough. This is because it provides a novel entry point into the vast ambit of modern Indian literature without being too mechanical about it. The eloquent and erudite discussion of literary texts is ideal even for those readers who may not be familiar with all these writers and their literary backgrounds. The overarching Levinasian framework vis-à-vis self and subjectivity that undergirds Govind’s chef-d'œuvre is an immaculate example of how Indian texts can be analysed through Western theoretical paradigms without reading odd or awkward. Inlays of Subjectivity is thus a welcome addition to the hitherto existing parameters for evaluating the richness and heterogeneity of modern Indian literature.