October 25, 2006

As an Indian who writes in English

Amitav Ghosh New York Feb. 23, 2001
You make the important point that the Indian experience under colonialism was very different from that of the indigenous peoples of Australia and North America. You are absolutely right. To my mind the Indian experience spans a spectrum of analogies. At one end, it is perhaps best compared to the experience of Ashkenazi Jews in 18th and 19th century Europe; at the other extreme it is really not far different from that of the indigenous peoples of Australia and North America. For literate middle class people (such as ourselves) the Jewish-German comparison is full of illuminating lessons: the debates about assimilation for example; also the dawning awareness of the issue of self-hatred in groups that try to assimilate (in Felix Mendelssohn's parents we see a prefiguring of Aurobindo Ghosh's father pace Ashish Nandy's brilliant essay). Similarly many middle-class Indian debates about tradition/reform etc are clearly prefigured by German Jewish debates on the relationship between reformist theology and Hasidism. As an Indian who writes in English, I frequently find myself reflecting on what it must have meant for say, Benjamin or Celan to write in German, a language that was often inflected with a hatred for the traditions that they had been born into.
At the other end of the spectrum were the hundreds of thousands of Indians who lived through the population transfers that were set in motion by colonialism. I wonder if you have ever looked at the (very scant) material on the transportation of Indians to South East Asia? What these people endured is truly horrifying: the truth is that India was to the late 19th century what Africa was to the 18th - a huge pool of expendable labour.

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