Book Review: An attempt to capture the Ephemeral

Inlays of Subjectivity: Affect and Action in Modern Indian Literature, by Nikhil Govind published by Oxford University Press.

Perhaps a more productive way to read Nikhil Govind’s new monograph Inlays of Subjectivity: Affect, and Action in Modern Indian literature is to read it in connection with his first book, Between Love and Freedom: The Revolutionary in Hindi Novel (2014). While completely capable of a joyful read on its own, the book, if read in connection with its predecessor, provides an insight into how the author has further explored the notion of ‘subjectivity’ in previously unexplored terrains, and how he has managed to upgrade himself by correcting certain downsides of the first book.

For instance, Between love and freedom argued for a notion of ‘freedom’ that was not much related to the realms of nationalist politics but was located in the intimate spaces of love, desire, home, and family. The trope of the revolutionary, the book suggested, could not be fully appreciated and analysed without exploring these subjective and affective spheres. Govind takes up novels by canonical Bengali and Hindi authors, all of them male and upper-caste, as his archival corpus.

The analysis remains focused on the formal inventiveness of the novels and the transgression of love and the incest taboo, and largely ignores social realities like caste that might have played a role in forming the interiority of these revolutionary figures. It is also mentioned, without emphasis, how women revolutionaries bore the brunt of such transgressions and eventually ended up giving their lives for the sake of their male counterparts. In Inlays of Subjectivity, the archival corpus is expanded to include not only male, upper-caste authors, but also women and Dalit writers. Demonstrating breath-taking range, the book analyses works by authors like Ambedkar, Urmila Pawar, KR Meera, Agyeya, Ismat Chugtai, Rabindranath Tagore, Krishna Sobti and Perumal Murugan, among others. The previous book lauded Agyeya for his lyricism and elevated affect demonstrated in his celebrated novel Shekhar: A biography. This book, apart from doing that, mentions the effect caste politics had on the protagonist and how it shaped his interiority. It also heavily critiques Agyeya’s construction of the trope of a ‘noblewoman’ who takes the fall for the protagonist’s survival and provides a productive counter-point in the analysis of Chugtai’s The Crooked Line which constructs a female subject whose ‘moral politics is decidedly more credible and worldly’ (pp. 80).

For several years now, critics and academics have bemoaned the dearth of literary analysis, especially with Bhasha literatures, that take into account the influences and super-impositions they have on each other vis-à-vis form, language, tropes and so on. While most of them agree on such a need, what hampered scholars to undertake a project like this was a methodological problem. How to analyse works in several different languages, written in different periods, only tenuously linked with each other, without making it scattered and unorganised? Govind’s book takes up this challenge and provides one possible direction in which this methodological issue can be tackled. Focusing entirely on the ‘subjectivity’ of characters, Govind draws connections between authors that are separated from each other in terms of language, time-period, and genre. The theme of ‘subjectivity’ acts as a thread that makes a beautiful chain with each chapter acting as a bead. Or rather, to change the metaphor, it acts as an underlying musical motif, with each chapter acting as a beat (the music metaphor seems apt since the book hints at it by using chapter-titles like ‘Prelude’ and ‘Coda’ instead of using conventional titles like ‘Introduction’ and ‘Conclusion’).

The book begins with an epigraph by Emmanuel Levinas, the French philosopher. Soon, one realises that he is heavily quoted throughout the book, mostly from Levinas’s Totality and Infinity, and not without reason. The book owes much to Levinas’s idea of ethics, instead of metaphysics or Ontology, as ‘first philosophy’. Simply put, one’s responsibility towards the ‘Other’ takes precedence over any ‘objective’ quest for ‘truth’. Such a responsibility, at the very least, requires Humility, empathy, and a willingness to understand. These qualities are palpably felt in Govind’s writing and are quite explicitly visible in his analysis of writers like Urmila Pawar. The book achieves that fine balance where the prose reveals confidence without arrogance, appreciation without romanticising, and criticality without the loss of empathy. Perhaps it is possible because Govind approaches texts without any pre-conceived frameworks, without analysing books through this or that perspective. Rather, he is interested in close textual analysis, in knowing what the text reveals on its own as opposed to how it fits one’s theoretical frame.

This centrifugal approach gives him a scope to examine affects which are so ephemeral and fleeting: Shame (K.R. Meera), Pain (Agyeya), Humiliation (Ambedkar and Perumal Murugan), Levity (Ismat Chugtai), Nomadicism (Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay) and Voice and Silence (Krishna Sobti).

The book is focused not only on the ‘Affect’ but also in the ‘Action’ that the subjects take after experiencing intense emotions. One of the major themes in the book is the act of writing as healing, as revealed in the analysis of Anjum Habib, Urmila Pawar, Agyeya, and Perumal Murugan. While the idea itself is not new and has been explored before in different contexts, Govind digs it deeper by showing how the act of writing as healing has different connotations when applied to writers in starkly different situations. When writings are different, so are the healings. Agyeya’s lyricism and high affective tone has something to do with the grief still not completely processed and understood. On the other hand, Urmila Pawar’s dry and distant narrative voice reveals a more mature approach towards grief and suffering and owes a literary and stylistic debt to Ambedkar’s writings.

The book ends with a very powerful image of a wound whose shoreline ‘breaches the notions of inner and outer, individuation and sociality, self and cosmos, the other and the state’ (pp. 153). If anything, it hints at the open-endedness of the method and approach of the book, foreclosing any sense of finality. It is an index of further potential explorations of various writers from different languages writing at different historical moments. In this respect, the literary critic Nikhil Govind mirrors the protagonist of Sharat Chandra’s eponymous Srikanto, a nomad and a wanderer looking for and listening to stories without any sense of possession, but ultimately aggrandising several histories, memories, and consolidation. Nomadicism, the book suggests, becomes this ‘complex play of renunciation and consolidation’ (pp. 107), just like sophisticated literary criticism.

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