Inspiration from the Banks of the Indus River: A Conversation with Nibir K. Ghosh
tags: literature,cultural history
It’s been a season of uncertainty and dread in the United States as we contend with a deadly global pandemic, a reckoning with centuries of racism, bitter political divisions, historic environmental disasters, political corruption, and an unraveling of national institutions, among other challenges.
For another perspective on history and for words of encouragement, I consulted distinguished Indian author, scholar, editor, and public intellectual Professor Nibir K. Ghosh, a recognized and reliable source for knowledge, wisdom, and inspiration.
In a lively dialogue by email, we recently discussed Professor Ghosh’s background, his literary study and works, and his thoughts on history and current events. He generously shared his views on the situation in India and its history as that huge nation now struggles with COVID-19 and approaches the number of cases and deaths that the US grimly has attained. With his background in American studies and his academic work in the US, his insights on our history and culture are particularly astute and timely.
Beyond the sweep of history and this fraught moment, Professor Ghosh shares insights on the writers and thinkers he studies. His new collection of essays and other writing, Mirror from the Indus, is a treasure trove of his words and wisdom with timeless relevance. For instance, note the resonance now of his comments on the lives and work of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And, Professor’s Ghosh’s vision of the interconnectedness of all people in One World without discrimination is particularly instructive and inspiring today as both of our nations face the future with anxiety, ambivalence, and guarded hope.
Dr. Ghosh, D.Litt., is a UGC [University Grants Commission] Emeritus Professor and former Head, Department of English Studies & Research, Agra College, Agra, India. An eminent scholar and critic of American, British and Post-Colonial literatures, he has published over 180 articles and scholarly essays on various political, socio-cultural and feminist issues in reputed national and international journals.
Professor Ghosh is also the founder and chief editor of Re-Markings (www.re-markings.com), an international biannual journal of research in English. Besides Mirror from the Indus, Professor Ghosh is the author of 14 other acclaimed books including Gandhi and His Soulforce Mission; Charles Johnson: Embracing the World; Multicultural America: Conversations with Contemporary Authors; Calculus of Power: Modern American Political Novel; Shaping Minds: Multicultural Literature; W.H. Auden: Therapeutic Fountain; and Perspectives on Legends of American Theatre.
Professor Ghosh was awarded the prestigious Senior Fulbright Fellow at the University of Washington, Seattle during 2003-04. He is currently on the Review Panel of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS) published by the University of Connecticut, and the African American Review, the Quarterly International Journal on Black American Literature and Culture of the Modern Language Association. During 1992-96, he was the Executive Member of the Board of Directors for the American Studies Research Centre (ASRC) in Hyderabad. Funded by the US government, the Centre was one of the most important institution for American Studies outside of the United States. For two consecutive terms, Professor Ghosh was elected to the ASRC Board with an overwhelming majority, an unprecedent achievement in the history of the organization.
In 2018, The Osmania University Centre for International Programmes, Hyderabad, conferred upon Professor the Lifetime Achievement Award during the Centennial celebrations of Osmania University.
Robin Lindley: It’s a pleasure to hear from you Professor Ghosh. Congratulations on your fascinating new book Mirror from the Indus. You’re a distinguished professor and scholar of literature and history as well as a public intellectual in India. Did your family and early schooling lead you to your career pursuits? Did you have some especially influential teachers and professors?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: Thank you for your keen interest in my work, especially in Mirror from the Indus.
When I look back from the vantage point of the present moment at my early childhood, I can easily recall how fond I have always been of reading for pleasure and wisdom. To my father, who served in the Indian Air Force, I truly owe the incessant urge to fall in love with words and ideas that came from reading fairy tales, illustrated comics, classical tales of adventure, stories of revolutionary heroes, pictorial books on Indian History etc. that I would receive from him as gifts. From my mother’s zeal in performing her pujas (worship), I developed an early interest in spiritual stories. As a student my favorite subjects were English, Science and Mathematics. I had my initial schooling in Air Force School in Delhi before the family moved to Agra where I joined the Air Force Central School.
In those days it was customary for bright students to have either Engineering or Medicine as appropriate career options. I fondly remember how my English teachers would always encourage me to participate and represent my school in debate, essay writing and elocution contests. When I stood first in V class, our principal, Mrs. I. Montes, gifted me King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table retold by Phyliss Briggs, a story that impressed me a great deal. However, you will be surprised to know that teaching as a career never figured in my wildest imagination. After my schooling, I did my graduation in Science from Agra College, Agra (founded in 1823 during the British rule). While doing my graduation I joined the Coca Cola company as a Chemist for a while.
It was after my graduation that I was in dilemma whether to go in for M.Sc. in Physics or for M.A. in English literature. After a good deal of deliberate reflection, I finally opted for the latter. Though I had been reading literature for enjoyment for years, the post-graduation course opened a completely new universe because I was able to see in what I read the inevitable connection between literature, history, society and polity of numerous nations and cultures. When my name appeared in the merit list of the University, I began to receive offers of appointment as a Lecturer in English. That is how I entered the teaching profession. I had no regrets of not going for more lucrative jobs because the opportunity to teach literature gave me the happy satisfaction of being able to combine my vocation and avocation.
Robin Lindley: That sounds like the ideal career choice. What was the subject of your doctoral dissertation and what did you learn from that study?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: The topic of my Ph.D. work was “W. H. Auden: From Communism to Christianity.” My doctoral work was a very exciting experience. It gave me access to a totally new way of looking at events, ideas and personalities beyond the limited confines of what I had been hitherto reading. It introduced to me the importance of interdisciplinary perspectives.
In connection with my work I visited on a regular basis the British Council and American Center libraries in New Delhi and had long periods of stay at the American Studies Research Center at Hyderabad. The study of Auden’s poems made me delve into the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression of 1929, the Weimar Republic in Germany and the emergence of Hitler, the Spanish Civil War culminating in World War II, Existentialism as a philosophy, Psychology from Freud and Jung to Langland, besides various nuances of Christianity, all of which seemed necessary to get the right perspective to studying the writings of Auden.
Robin Lindley: How do you see the arc of your career from professor and author and now to chief editor of your ambitious and lively journal of the arts and culture, Re-Markings?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: I see a natural evolution in the ‘arc’ of my career from a teacher to author to the Chief Editor of Re-Markings.
As a teacher I enjoyed interacting with my students and in motivating them to see how the narratives they read were relevant to the lives they lived. My participation in seminars and conferences on a regular basis brought me into close contact with scholars and academicians from different parts of India and abroad.
Right from the time I joined the teaching profession, I got many opportunities for publishing my work in magazines and periodicals of repute. On many occasions it had struck me that I should do something in return for all the valuable space that my writings got in prestigious publications. That is how Re-Markings was born in March 2002 as an International biannual Journal of English Letters. I felt happy to provide a forum to aspiring scholars, academics, poets and critics to express their concerns.
It is difficult to believe how time flies as in March 2021 Re-Markings is slated to complete 20 years of its publication. As for the international outreach and the prestige the journal enjoys, you are in a better position to judge. In starting and continuing the publication from Agra, I must acknowledge the ideational and graphic support and guidance I have constantly received from its Executive editor, Sandeep Arora.
Robin Lindley: Much of your writing and research concerns British and American literature and history. What sparked this focus?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: My writings and research in British literature began with the study of authors and works prescribed in the master’s program and continued unabated to the study of Auden and beyond. In my M.A. course we had a special paper on Modern American Literature that introduced me to writers like Emerson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neil and others.
My knowledge of American History largely evolved from a course I attended at the American Studies Research Center, Hyderabad in 1978. The one-month long course was titled “Looking for America.” The faculty comprised distinguished professors from American universities in the domain of Literature, History and Culture. One professor, John G. Cawelti from Chicago University and author of The Six Gun Mystique, became a close friend. The discussions I had with him, when he visited Agra, and later through correspondence, proved very valuable in my enhancement of the knowledge of American literature and history.
Robin Lindley: What’s it been like for you to live and work in the romantic city of Agra, home of the Taj Mahal—a tribute to love? You rhapsodize about the remarkable city in your writing about the literary giant Rabindranath Tagore and in other work.
Professor Nibir Ghosh: Living, studying and teaching in Agra has been an enriching experience. Agra, having been the center of Mughal rule, is steeped in History. The monuments like the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, Fatehpur Sikri etc. make you feel a part of a bygone era. It is from Fatehpur Sikri that Emperor Akbar preached his philosophy of Sulaha Kul or the essential oneness of all religions. I used Rabindranath Tagore’s poem on Shajahan to say that if a poet could give eternal life to a monument made in alabaster, how greater must be his ability to give vibrancy to the nameless toiler and tiller of the land.
Robin Lindley: In addition to your writing on literature, you have an excellent grasp of history and the context of the works you study. How do you see the role of history in your research and writing?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: I have always believed that no matter how much we talk about art for arts’ sake kind of writings, literature isolated from history and culture cannot exist on its own. An extensive study of the relationship between American history, literature and politics became the focus of my book Calculus of Power: Modern American Political Novel published 1997. In this book I have examined American literature from the perspectives of Economics, War, Women Empowerment, Race, and American Justice on Trial. While engaged in this expansive project, I made an in-depth foray into the history of the foundation and subsequent making of America into a super power.
Robin Lindley: Your new book, Mirror from the Indus, presents a collection of your essays, tributes and memoirs. How would you like to introduce this remarkable collection to new readers?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: That’s an interesting question. The endorsements on the beautiful cover by celebrities like Ethelbert Miller, Dr. Tijan M. Salah and professor Jonah Raskin are bound to evoke great expectations in new readers. I would like to say that they will most likely find in my select writings a wide-ranging variety of themes, personalities and concerns.
By exploring and examining the life and work of a very eclectic list of writers, poets, social reformers, spiritual giants, revolutionaries, freedom fighters, monarchs, statesmen, artists, and intellectuals, I have tried to show that compassion and sensitivity to human concerns, the ability of individuals to be the change they wish to see in the world, the courage and the grit to challenge the status quo, defending the right of individuals to exist as individuals, the ordinariness of the extraordinary pursuits of enlightened humans in the terrain of all the temporal as well as universal, are bound to keep them riveted to the collection.
Robin Lindley: The book is a gift to readers. I enjoyed especially enjoyed your introductions to several writers and scholars who were new to me. A subtitle for Mirror could be something like Writing Without Borders.
In the introduction, you describe this anxious time during a deadly global pandemic, and conclude that section with this inspiring sentence: “Let us all come together as members of One World to fight and defeat the forces of pestilences and usher in a glorious Republic of peace, prosperity and happiness without any discrimination.” It’s obvious that transcending boundaries is important to you. How can the humanities, the arts, help do this?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: Thank you for enjoying reading through Mirror. Yes, I agree that in keeping with the contents of the book, ‘Writing Without Borders’ could very well be taken as a subtitle.
I have always believed from my own experience of interface with people from different communities, religions, nations, cultures and the like, that innately there is in all of us a craving for a world without borders. It is only when we begin to get out of what Robert Frost calls the “Mending Wall” syndrome that real communication takes place in a spirit of easy give and take. I may cite from my own life as a case in point. I was born in Poona (now Pune), the land of the Maratha ruler Shivaji, into a Bengali household. My mother tongue is Bengali. I have lived in the Hindi heartland most of my life. My wife (to whom I have dedicated the book) is a Punjabi. I have felt hugely enriched by not restricting myself to particular climes and regions be it national or international. I have loved and enjoyed reading Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway as much as Anton Chekhov, Albert Camus or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. If you look at the titles – “Beyond Boundaries.” “Embracing the World,” “Shaping Minds,” “Erasing Barricades,” Multicultural America” etc. – of many of the books that I have authored and edited, you may notice that harmony and oneness constitute the essence of my creative and critical endeavors.
As an instance of my approach to overcoming prejudices and stereotypes, I would like to share an experience with a Pakistani gentleman. On my return home from the Fulbright tenure at the University of Washington, Seattle, I received a call from one Zeeshan-ul-hassan Usmani requesting me to edit a collection of essays written by Fulbrighters from India to America and from America to India. Considering the enormity of the task and constraints of time, I said no. In the next minute, Zeeshan said that could I reconsider my decision in the light of the fact that his mother hails from Agra. I had no alternative. I named the collection Beyond Boundaries. The arts and the humanities can go a long way to create bridges between cultures. In 2017, Re-Markings brought out A World Assembly of Poets as its signature Special Number, guest-edited by Dr. Tijan M. Sallah. The contributors included poets from all the five continents and over sixty countries. Even a cursory glance at the volume will convince you how only in the true Republic of Poets all demarcations separating one individual from the other can disappear.
If you look at the list of contents in Mirror from the Indus, you may notice that the figures taken into account are from various communities, religion and culture: Hindu, Brahmin, Dalit, Muslim, Sikh, Jew, Christian, Anglo-Indian, French, Canadian, British and what have you.
Robin Lindley: Your work brings light and pulses with your love of humanity and justice. Do you consider yourself a humanist?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: Yes, obviously. It is not a crime, I guess, to profess the love of humanity and justice.
In our own era, from a pragmatic point of view, it may be gainful to avoid clichés like justice and human values because the majority always tends to remain in the mainstream and go with the flow of the current but I strongly agree with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that “our life begins to lose meaning the day we become silent about things that matter.” I learnt very early from my experiences in several roles, that if one decides to fight for justice at any level one must learn to conquer both ‘temptation’ and ‘fear.’ I have always tried to portray this through my own actions and through all my writings, talks and lectures.
Robin Lindley: Your writing reflects those values. And, in your writing and well researched articles, you make me want to read and learn more, particularly from the authors and books you cite. Is it fair to call you a literary activist?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: If activists are not identified with any flag-carrying activities, I would not mind being called a literary activist. Each issue of Re-Markings in its 20-year journey has remained committed to its manifesto of highlighting broad socio-political and cultural issues of human import so as to promote harmony through healthy interactive discussions and debates. Even when I am lecturing or delivering a talk to audiences comprising the youth, I remain focused on what each of us can do in our individual capacities to reduce discrimination, disparity and prejudice that create yawning gulfs among one individual or group and another.
Robin Lindley: Bridging gulfs between people is a noble goal in today’s world. In your tribute to Mahatma Gandhi and his relevance now, you note how he influenced the likes of President Barack Obama and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who called Gandhi’s influence “inescapable.” What do you think Dr. King meant?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: Please allow me to cite the words of Barack Obama on Gandhi that I have used in my tribute to Gandhi in Mirror: “He (Gandhi) inspired Dr. Martin Luther King. . . if it hadn't been for the non-violent movement in India, you might not have seen the same non-violent movement for civil rights here in the United States. . . He was able to help people who thought they had no power realize that they had power, and then help people who had a lot of power realize that if all they're doing is oppressing people, then that's not a really good exercise of power."
Dr. King had reiterated that Gandhi had “lived, thought, and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore him at our own risk.”
In a world torn by conflict and violence, Gandhi’s ideals of “truth and non-violence” may seem at times quite anachronistic but there is much logic in his simple observation that “an eye for an eye would make the whole world blind.” As a politician, Gandhi may have made mistakes but as a mortal he continued to perform his experiments with truth till the very end of his life.
Robin Lindley: You’re well acquainted with the lives of Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi and others who have worked for social justice. To help readers understand their strategy in working for justice, how do you think nonviolent resistance now might advance the dismantling of systemic racism in the US—and perhaps quell the political and religious friction in India?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: That’s a complex question. In order to dismantle the solid structures of systemic racism in US and political and religious friction in India on the lines of Martin Luther King and Gandhi, it is necessary that leadership must spring from the youth who will be able to project and guard the interests and concerns of their respective communities without bothering about promoting their own vested self-interests.
Mindsets cannot be changed with speeches and slogans; they can be broken only through sterling acts of self-sacrifice. Gandhi was forthright in pointing out in the “Introduction” to his Autobiography that “My experiments have not been conducted in the closet, but in the open…. My purpose is to describe experiments in the science of Satyagraha, not to say how good I am. In judging myself I shall try to be as harsh as truth, as I want others also to be.” What is relevant to caste/race applies equally to religion.
Robin Lindley: You comment on many literary giants in your new book with sensitivity and understanding. I loved the jungle stories and other writing of Rudyard Kipling when I was young but later came to see him, as George Orwell did, as a hidebound British jingoist and imperialist and thus came to ignore his writing. You have a more thoughtful and nuanced view. How do you see Kipling’s writing?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: I do not wish to contest your dislike of Kipling and his writings but do allow me to point out that George Orwell, in the same remark that you allude to, admitted that “During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there.”
In my view, in spite of Kipling’s jingoistic imperialism, he commands admiration of readers by his sensitive approach to human problems. For over a century now, Rudyard Kipling’s poetic utterance, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” has been used time and again, both in and out of context, by all and sundry to define visible boundaries that demarcate civilizations characterized by the East and the West. Consequently, I thought of doing a bit of research to find out what led Kipling to draw such an inference.
It is indeed ironical that Kipling’s most misunderstood statement is generally used by those who have probably not read the poem at all. Through a single line, they are quick to conclude that there exists an unbridgeable gulf between the two civilizations – one supposedly ultramodern and the other gradually rising out of a relatively primitive past. Endowed by the bliss of ignorance, they tend to ignore, perhaps deliberately, the true import of Kipling’s observation that does not end with the line mentioned above but goes on to the length of a full quatrain that reaffirms human belief in synthesis and synchronicity by cutting across cultural barriers. The quatrain with which Kipling’s 1892 poem, “Ballad of East and West,” begins and ends reads thus:
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.
In my piece on Kipling in Mirror I have shared my inference that Kipling sees the relationship between the ruler and ruled not permanently confined to master/slave binaries but one that can, through courage and daring, meet on the level ground of equality.
In both spirit and flesh Kipling’s poetic statement ought to transform those who espouse the idea that civilizations should never mix and that cultural barriers are insurmountable. In the present era of communication and satellite revolutions it may be futile and superfluous to imagine that “mortal millions” should remain isolated and “alone” in inviolable cultural isles of their own. Also, you may have noticed from your reading of The Jungle Book how Kipling draws our attention to ways and means to deal with the environmental crises that we are now facing.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for those comments on Kipling’s still relevant words. In discussing the work of Somerset Maugham, you state: “Above all, Maugham has succeeded in demonstrating through The Moon and Sixpence that masterpieces are eternal contemporaries of mankind and have value and significance beyond the immediate confines of a particular moment in history.” How do you see “the confines of history”?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: Frankly speaking, what drew me to The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham was my deep interest in the life of Paul Gauguin. In school, I had read somewhere that when Gauguin had gone nearly bankrupt after quitting his job as a stock-broker in Paris, and his wife had scorned him saying that if his paintings couldn’t even buy some medicines and a glass of milk for their ailing son, they were really worth nothing. Gauguin had calmly accepted that, though she was right then, yet his paintings would someday adorn the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Somerset Maugham’s fictional biography reminds us that though, striving for the ‘Moon’, Paul Gauguin may have landed himself with only ‘Sixpence’ in his lifetime, but what is significant is how posterity has acknowledged his immortal creations.
My reference to “the confines of history” suggests that immortality of an artist can never be judged by contemporary appraisal of art but must await the continuous assessment of time beyond the immediate moment in history.
Robin Lindley: I enjoyed your tribute to the renowned English poet W. H. Auden, the subject of your dissertation. You write that Auden, though not a church-going Christian, saw the teachings of Jesus as “a strong reaction against the evil and absurdity of class and racial prejudice.” What did Auden see in the words of Jesus?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: Thanks for your appreciation of my tribute to W. H. Auden in Mirror from the Indus. Auden’s views and his interpretations of Christianity are both descriptive and prescriptive. His prose pieces are as elaborately concerned with Christianity as his poetic outpourings.
In numerous essays, Auden explores the theme of Christianity in its essence and tries to relate its relevance to man’s needs in contemporary society. For Auden, even a bleak post-war landscape attains significance when viewed through the perspectives of a Christian world. Though the chaotic conditions exist yet there is an undercurrent of hope that the situation is redeemable.
Auden considers God to be “the cause and sustainer of the universe” and says that “our real desire is to be one with Him. . . Ultimately that is the purpose of all our actions.” He demands that God should be invoked to restore order and meaning to the universe: “Let us praise our Maker, with true passion extol Him/ For, united by His word, cognition and power, / System and Order, are a single glory.”
Auden affirms the value of faith and what it can achieve. He extols the idea of faith in a world devoid of spiritual values. In his personal life too, Auden was wholly devoid of self-importance or pretentiousness, and he often revealed a humility that was both deep and genuine. Kindness and generosity were traits of his individual behavior.
On the basis of faith in God, Auden is able to assess the nature of ‘Love’ in a deeper and more precise manner. It is my strong assumption that Auden believed in the solitary and silent mode of praying and not in prayer as a spiritual exercise. He criticized the sectarian spirit displayed by the churches but honestly believed in the quintessence of Christianity. Christianity, for him, stood for something more profound than the celebration of empty ceremonials.
Robin Lindley: You’re a friend of award-winning author, professor, public intellectual, and all-around brilliant scholar and artist Charles Johnson, a University of Washington professor emeritus. You wrote a book about his work, Charles Johnson: Embracing the World, with American poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller. You also worked with Professor Johnson at the UW. How did you come to work with him and how do you see his place in the pantheon of American literary figures?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: Many years ago, when the Public Affairs Section of U.S. Embassy, New Delhi, informed me that Charles Johnson—author of Middle Passage, Oxherding Tale, Dreamer etc., a MacArthur Fellow and winner of the National Book Award—was visiting India on a lecture tour, and that I was to accompany him in India, I was thrilled by the prospect of interviewing him against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal. My enthusiasm did not last long as his visit did not ultimately materialize on account of the Iraq war. Perhaps Fate had ordained that we would meet not in Agra but at the University of Washington, Seattle.
Initially, when I was awarded the prestigious Senior Fulbright Fellowship, my choice as the place of work was City University New York with Professor Morris Dickstein as my faculty associate. When I was given an additional option by CIE in Washington, DC., I decided to join the University of Washington as my project was on contemporary African American Writings, with Charles Johnson as my faculty associate.
Two days after settling down at an apartment at Furman Avenue (thanks to the kind courtesy of professor Richard Dunn, HOD English), we were pleasantly surprised to see at our dwelling none but the famed Charles Johnson himself who, accompanied by his daughter Elizabeth, came to visit us. I warmly welcomed him by wrapping a shawl around him as we honor scholars in India. Guess how he reciprocated! He gave me a huge packet he had brought for us. When I untied the fancy ribbons and opened the packet, there lay in front of us over two score books—novels, essays, interviews, photo-autobiography, and so much more—all of which he had authored. His endearing inscription on each one of them made them all the more valuable. I instantly realized the extent of his magnanimity and goodness that I had hitherto seen in his correspondence. I may also mention here that Dr. Sunita’s project, as a Visiting Scholar at the School of Asian Languages, UOW under the guidance of professor Michael Shapiro, was translating Johnson’s novel Dreamer into Hindi.
My frequent long conversations with him contributed significantly to my understanding of the nuances and complexities of certain basic issues confronting contemporary America and also inspired me to engage in fruitful conversations many other celebrities within and beyond Afro-America.
We were truly privileged to be introduced by Charles to August Wilson who invited us to dinner at the Broadway Grill. The animated exchanges that I had with authors like August Wilson, David Guterson, Octavia Butler, Jonah Raskin, Ethelbert Miller, Kathleen Alcala and others besides Charles Johnson, flowered into a precious collection titled Multicultural America: Conversations with Contemporary Authors (2005).
Before meeting Charles Johnson, I was very much familiar with the works of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin and many other African American writers, poets, philosophers and critics. In my view Johnson has created an enviable niche for himself in the pantheon of African American writings.
Robin Lindley: How would you describe Professor Johnson’s style and voice as a writer of fiction and nonfiction?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: As you may be aware, Johnson’s work, especially his fictional output, is firmly grounded in Philosophy. I truly admire his non-fiction where his voice is most pronounced and impactful. His Buddhist leanings have not only added to the glory of his writings but also contributed a great deal to his abiding generosity and compassion that one can instantly recognize on meeting and talking to him.
I had interviewed him for my book, Multicultural America: Conversations with Contemporary Authors and also for Re-Markings. It is very significant that hinting at the danger of living in a parochial cultural fishbowl, he lyrically resonates the need for a completely new outlook that makes some narrow race-centered complaints irrelevant in an increasingly complex multicultural and global economy. He not only loves to address the symptoms of change in terms of acute identity crisis but also tries to prepare the aesthetic ground for such a change. Our mutual bonds of friendship brought him to Agra where I enjoyed his and Sharyn’s loving company with the Taj as a backdrop in February 2018.
Robin Lindley: You’re a sensitive reader with innovative views of the literature you consider. I was struck by an essay you wrote on Joseph Heller’s classic satirical and painful war novel, Catch-22. You mentioned Wilfred Owens’ famous words on “the pity of war.” How did you come to write about Heller’s book? Are there other works on war you’d suggest for readers?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: As I have mentioned earlier in this conversation, a chapter of my book Calculus of Power: Modern American Political Novel is titled “In the Theatre of War” where I have taken up for discussion four war novels: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, The Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Heller’s novel Catch-22 has always fascinated me for its unique approach to war and all that it involves. The central problem before the novel’s protagonist is to find means and devise a strategy to survive in the hostile bureaucratic system. It is through Yossarian’s inner conflict mainly that one gets a fairly good idea of what it means to be trapped in such a system. Heller exposes the hypocrisy of the bureaucratic enterprise based on the purely vested interests of those who are at the top of the hierarchy and who want the war to go on irrespective of the need for a motive. He is decidedly against the capricious self-seekers who are either making money or having fun at the expense of performing heroic deeds in order to win honor and worship for he feels he can easily be replaced by any of the ‘ten million people in uniform.’
Unlike Fortinbras (in Shakespeare’s Hamlet) who was prepared to risk the lives of twenty thousand men for an egg shell, Yossarian has only one passion: to stay alive and fight those in power who were about to get him. He lives in perpetual dread of everything he could possibly imagine.
In a carnivalesque spirit Heller exposes the hypocrisy of the military bureaucracy without undermining, of course, the military strength and superiority of the United States of America. Through the use of unconventional mode of aesthetic expression, blending pungent humour with the horrifying spectacle of war, Heller succeeds in conveying that the conventional heroics associated with war are no longer tenable in the modern era.
Robin Lindley: I appreciated the introduction in your new book to the work of Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal. Decades ago, we were taught in my public school that the Indian caste system was extremely rigid and that Untouchables or Dalits were outcasts doomed to lives of drudgery and brutal discrimination without hope of social mobility. What is the reality of the caste system now and the situation of Dalits today?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: What you were taught decades ago about Indian caste system being extremely rigid has been in resonance with ground reality even in contemporary times.
As the ambivalence of the “American Dilemma” continues to haunt the conscience of the most powerful democracy in the world, the USA, no less problematic is the issue of Caste for the world’s largest democracy, India. During elections it can be seen how important a role caste plays in determining the suitability of a contestant fielded by any political party.
According to many noted Dalit writers, it is true that oppression and humiliation of the Dalits have not ceased. They exist still in subtler variations in many segments of society and polity despite sweeping changes in legislations and legal sanctions.
I have specifically mentioned in my essay on Namdeo Dhasal in Mirror from the Indus that. though India can take pride in upholding its democratic credentials by installing two Dalit Presidents in the Rashtrapati Bhavan and electing a Dalit woman chief minister four times in the largest state in India besides numerous ministers to the union and state cabinets, it cannot be denied that Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s dream of liberty, equality and fraternity continues to elude the Dalit community in India.
My view is that the Dalits in India and the African Americans in the US who come from poor economic backgrounds must be made to understand the importance of upward mobility through education and work skills despite all the challenges that may threaten such initiatives. Also, the ones who have reached the higher echelons of power through affirmative action/reservation must take the initiative to encourage their less fortunate brethren to rise and shine in a grossly unequal world.
A large measure of hope for the Dalits lies in the fact that they are getting increasingly articulate in projecting their rights and responsibilities through their writings in print and social media.
Robin Lindley: When Dr. King visited India in 1959, a school principal referred to him as an American “Untouchable.” King was stunned but, on reflection, agreed with that assessment. A big question, but from what you know of America and our history, is the view of Black people in the US comparable how Dalits or “Untouchables” are seen and treated in India?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: Dr. King may have been surprised to be seen as a “Black Untouchable” in 1959 because he may not have been aware of the fact that Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the Dalit icon, had first brought to light the similarities between the predicament of the African Americans in the US and the Dalits in India in terms of oppression, discrimination and inequality.
W. E. B. Dubois had written a letter to Dr. Ambedkar lauding his leadership in the Dalit cause. Dr. Ambedkar had inspired and encouraged several Dalit scholars to go to the U.S. to study African American literature and to interact with activists in the field. African American literature, consequently, served as a model for Dalits in India who wanted to give expression to their suffering and agony on account of centuries of exploitation and discrimination. Time and again, Dr. Ambedkar pointed out to his devout followers that they could learn from their African American counterparts how to articulate their emotions with boldness and daring. Using the activist model provided by the Black Panther movement, the Dalit Panther movement was created in Maharashtra.
There are close parallels where race in the US and caste in India are concerned though some, like Lama Rangdrol, may argue that the Dalits live in greater misery than the average black in America.
Though atrocities against Dalits continue to be seen in India, it cannot be denied that changes in attitude are also visible in Dalit writings. New ways of thinking, the outlook of the new generation, scientific and technological advancement, the IT revolution etc. have affected a paradigm shift in peoples’ consciousness.
The discriminatory modes too have undergone changes. The social media and the internet provide the opportunity to connect with everyone on earth without the prejudice of caste, creed, color, religion or nationality.
Robin Lindley: Like me, many readers may be puzzled by the ongoing religious tensions and eruptions of violence on the south Asian subcontinent. Did the tensions today originate with the partition and independence in 1947, or was there always violence between the two primary religions, Hindu and Muslim? This topic is worthy of many books, but what’s your sense?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: It would not be correct to conclude that religious tensions and eruptions of violence between the Hindu and Muslim communities in India originated as a result of the partition of the nation in 1947. Of course, the partition drew a permanent wedge in the two communities and those who had lived in peace and harmony for ages turned foes overnight and participated in orgies of violence that remain unparalleled in the history of the sub-continent.
In my opinion the Hindu-Muslim discord is a legacy of the divide-and-rule policy of the British Government. The First War of Independence (which the British designate as a mutiny), that took place in 1857 and literally shook the citadel of English rule in India, was fought with the Hindus joining hands with the Muslims to drive away the British. Consequently, after the failure of the combined forces, the British power realized that in order to consolidate their Empire, it was necessary to pit one community against the other. In fact, the English succeeded in their sinister design by creating pressure groups who advocated the partition of the country. It is, however, relevant to note that the Indian National Army (INA) under the leadership of the revolutionary leader Subhas Chandra Bose offers a unique example of Hindu-Muslim amity and brotherhood.
Even today, the legacy of creating communal discord under the divide-and-rule policy seems to be a convenient tool in the hands of politicians to sustain their political existence.
Robin Lindley: Our current president Donald Trump and India’s Prime Minister Modi are seen by some commentators as similar in that they both use fear and division to appeal to their political bases. Our countries are very different, but do you agree with that view of the two leaders? How do you see them?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: History bears evidence to the fact that be it democracy or dictatorship, the leaders do resort to the use of fear and division to keep themselves in power. The strategy of the two leaders you mention may be quite similar when it comes to consolidating their respective political bases. But what makes Modi different is that he enjoys the admiration of people from the lower economic strata on account of his ability to connect with them on one-to-one basis through his emotional speeches and seemingly genuine concern.
Robin Lindley: Indian writing in English is gaining popularity in the United States. Who are a few Indian writers you’d recommend to American readers?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: Since most American readers are already aware of the much-hyped works of Booker and Pulitzer Prize recipients who are immigrant US citizens, I would recommend writers like R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, U. R. Ananthamurthy, Mahashweta Devi, Munshi Premchand, Nissim Ezekiel, Jayanta Mahapatra among numerous others.
Robin Lindley: You thoughtfully consider this era of the COVID 19 pandemic in the introduction to Mirror from the Indus and in your recent blog entries. The United States now leads the world in COVID cases and deaths. What is the situation in India with the pandemic?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: India is closely following on the heels of the United States in the domain of rising COVID 19 pandemic cases. Population density is a major cause for worry in India. Poverty, unemployment, lack of health care and infrastructure facilities add to the challenge. In fact, the onus of protection from the Corona virus largely rests on individuals in terms of social distancing and sanitization. Ayurvedic medicine and herbs seem to provide some hope for increasing immunity to check the effect of the virus.
Robin Lindley: You offer many encouraging and wise words at this time of peril for the entire globe. Where do you find hope at this challenging time?
Professor Nibir Ghosh: I have elaborately stated in the Preface to Mirror from the Indus that what we need most in this time of peril is to heed the voices of philosophers, poet-prophets, writers and intellectuals who have warned us time and again to bring in a revolutionary change in our attitude and approach to halt our onerous march toward doom.
Like mindless robots we have often refused to listen to the voices of sanity. In 1762, at the very beginning of The Social Contract Jean-Jacques Rousseau had asserted that “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains” and had suggested that the only way we could break the fetters was to “return to nature.” Following Rousseau, William Wordsworth warned us to refrain from entering the whirlpool of the endless cycle of getting and spending. Rather than enter into a “Social Contract” to breach the unsurmountable gulf between affluence and poverty, mankind moved on, unmindful of impending catastrophes, presuming that the powerful, the wealthy and the affluent would always remain untouched by such storms of adversity.
We are bound to feel pessimistic when we are reminded about the recent happening in Minneapolis where four white policemen attempted, in the manner of the deadly virus, to create respiratory problems leading to the death of George Floyd, a black American. The event clearly demonstrates the human resolve to continue with the status quo of the powerful asserting their dominance over the oppressed and powerless wings of society.
However, it can certainly be hoped now that the day is not too far away when one could assuage the accumulated guilt of centuries by inculcating the feelings of compassion and universal brotherhood toward the downtrodden and helpless masses. We must learn to accept the paradigm shift from the emphasis on integration and inter-connectivity of a globalized world to the new norms of social distancing, isolation and quarantine. COVID 19 has come with numerous lessons for mankind, the most prominent being the need for compassion, fellow-feeling of love and brotherhood for one and all.
If we join our hands and hearts in this hour of grave global crisis, curb our own immediate self-interests, and work in communion for a society where individual happiness can coexist in harmony with the general good of all, there is enough room for hope and optimism.
Robin Lindley: Thank you Professor Ghosh for your illuminating comments and congratulations on your compelling new book Mirror of the Indus. It’s sure to be a resource for many years to come. And, as renowned American poet and a past University of Washington professor Theodore Roethke said, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” At this anxious time, I find your words and your writing reassuring, and I know other readers too will appreciate the light you cast at this dark time.
Professor Nibir Ghosh: Thanks Robin for your deep interest in my work. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. I shall be happy if the light of my book illumines even a little corner of a heart in despair.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is features editor for the History News Network (hnn.us), and his work also has appeared in Re-Markings, Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Documentary, Huffington Post, Bill Moyers.com, Salon.com, NW Lawyer, ABA Journal, Real Change, and more. He has a special interest in the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, and art. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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