I remember Independence—I was very young, but I was precocious—and it was an incredible event. But my earliest memories are of famine: skeletal bodies dying in the streets, crawling to the back door begging for starch.
Kolkata was evacuated at the time of my birth. My mother, however, refused to leave. She said, ‘I will have my child in Kolkata’. I was four years old, and these are my first memories. The cries would go up, celebrating the divine in a Hindu or a Muslim way. Even we children knew that each cry meant a knife thrust, a machete blow. (Those riots were not fought with guns.) It was the working-class people, the underclass people who were mobilized, because the British and the upper-class folks had made a pact to separate the land. There was blood on the streets and I don’t mean that metaphorically.These are my earliest memories: famine and blood on the streets.
By contrast, Independence was a polite affair. Elation in the conversation of the elders, interminable political discussions. Remember, we were 300 years under the Islamic empire and then 200 years under the British. So it was big. Marching along, wearing white and blue, waving flags, singing the inevitable songs by Tagore. The important event was partition, the division of the country. Mother was out at dawn, at the minor railway station as the trains came in from the East, busy with refugee relief and rehabilitation, coming home battered in the middle of the evening. Overnight, Kolkata became a burdened city; even its speech patterns changed. If these were the recollections of Independence, the nationalist message in the streets created schizophrenia.
As I was growing up, then, I realized that nationalism was related to reproductive heteronormativity as a source of legitimacy. As I moved to the United States and became active around the world, I realized that the alibi for transnational agencies was nationalism in the developing world. Gender was an alibi here, even for military intervention in the name of humanitarian intervention. I believe with Eric Hobsbawm that there is no nation before nationalism.
When and how does the love of mother tongue, the love of my little corner of ground become the nation thing? I say nation thing rather than nationalism because something like nations, collectivities bound by birth, that allowed in strangers gingerly, has been in existence long before nationalism came around.
I think Hannah Arendt was altogether perceptive in suggesting that the putting together of nationalism with the abstract structure of the state was an experiment or a happening that has a limited history and a limited future. We are living, as Jürgen Habermas says, in postnational situations. The nationalism I have been describing operates in the public sphere. But the subaltern affect where it finds its mobilizing is private, though this possibility of the private is not derived from a sense of the public. I have here offered a reading of nationalism that allows us to see why, although it is the condition and effect of the public sphere, nationalisms are not able to work with the founding logic of the public sphere: that all reason is one. They are secured by the private conviction of special birth and hop right from the underived private comfort which is just a thereness in one’s corner.
To return to my question: when and how does the love of mother tongue change like this? Let us revise. Pared down, when and how does the love of mother tongue, the love of my little corner of ground, become the nation thing? Pared down, this love or attachment is more like comfort. It is not really the declared love of country, full-blown nationalism. Let us revise: when and how does the comfort felt in one’s mother tongue and the comfort felt in one’s corner of the sidewalk, a patch of ground—and as a New Yorker I will add a fire hydrant or a church door—transform itself into the nation thing?
Literature and the arts belong neither to reason nor to unreason. That literature and the arts can support an advanced nationalism is no secret. They join in the task of a massive rememoration project, saying ‘we all suffered this way, you remember, this is what happened, you remember,’ so that history is turned into cultural memory. Literature takes it further by suggesting that we have all passed through the same glorious past, the same grand national liberation battles, the same religious tolerance and so on. I am going to suggest by the end of this, because sometimes I am misunderstood, that the literary imagination can impact on de-transcendentalizing nationalism.
Language has a history; it is public before our births and will continue so after our deaths. Yet every infant invents it and makes it the most private thing, touching the very interiority of the heart. On a more superficial level, it is this underived private that nationalism appropriates. I recall Marx’s very well-known words: ‘the beginner who has learned a new language always re-translates it into his mother tongue. He can only be said to have appropriated the spirit of the new language and to be able to produce in it freely when he can manipulate it without reference to the old and when he forgets the language planted in him while using the new one.’
As for me, I am altogether utopian. I look towards a re-imagined world that is a cluster in the global South, a cluster of regions. Of course it can only happen gradually. But as we make small structural adjustments, we should keep this goal in mind. It may produce imaginative folk who are not only going on about cultural identity (read ‘nationalism’), but turning around the adverse effects of the adjustment of economic structures. The state, as Arendt says, is an abstract structure. And you may have noticed that everything I say turns around learning and teaching. One of the many tasks of the teacher of the humanities is to keep the abstract and reasonable civic structures of the state free of the burden of cultural nationalism. To repeat: an imagination trained in the play of language(s) may undo the truth-claims of national identity, thus unmooring the cultural nationalism that disguises the workings of the state—disguises the loss of civil liberties, for example, in the name of the American ‘nation’ threatened by terror. Again, ‘may’. I will never be foolish enough to claim that a humanities education alone (especially given the state of humanities education today) can save the world! or that anything can, once and for all. Or, even, that such a phrase or idea as ‘save the world’ can be meaningful.
Nationalism negotiates with the most private in the interest of controlling the public sphere. I learn the lesson of equivalence rather than nationalist identitarianism from the oral-formulaic. Higher education in the humanities should be strengthened so that the literary imagination can continue to de-transcendentalize the nation and shore up the redistributive powers of the regionalist state in the face of global priorities. Imagine this, please, for a new world around the corner.