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Ashoka’s Research Quest | Understanding English as a language of Global Literature

Professor Saikat Majumdar talks about his work on the emergence of English as an international literary language with the cultural history of the global British Empire.

Saikat Majumdar, HOD, Creative Writing and Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University is a literary scholar and a celebrated novelist. His work has two dimensions – academic research in literature and literary criticism, and artistic practice as a novelist. Over the last few years, a third dimension has developed at the intersection of academic and artistic: a writer and critic of arts, literature and higher education for popular and mainstream media.

Saikat’s central scholarly focus has been the emergence of English as an international literary language.  He studies this in conjunction with the cultural history of the global British Empire, which has enabled the emergence of English as a transnational literary language and the subsequent phases of decolonisation and globalisation. “Certain broad questions have energised my work: how does the hierarchical structure of colonial modernity create cultural categories such as the provincial and the cosmopolitan? How have these categories driven patterns of artistic exchange and migration across the globe and shaped the production of literature?” said Saikat. 

Saikat’s first academic monograph Prose of the World: Modernism and the Banality of Empire examined the emotional consequences of the aforementioned historical and cultural categories, and their subsequent impact on literary form. It also examined the link between boredom and historical marginality as articulated in 20th and 21st Century British and Anglophone fiction. It argued that one of the greatest ideological consequences of the British Empire is the feeling that history is concentrated in the metropolitan heart of the empire, while the colonial periphery is a place where nothing happens, where life is banal, boring and devoid of historical meaning. 

Talking about this, Saikat said, “Drawing on anthropological, historical, and psychological scholarship, I analysed the representation of boredom as an emotional consequence of poverty and marginality, especially under the shadow of imperialism. Modern literature’s revolutionary preoccupation with the ordinary and the banal cannot be fully understood without attending to the colonial anxiety of being left in the backwater of progress and excitement. This is an anxiety which a group of visionary writers have transformed into a vital and innovative narrative force. 

In the process, they have boldly disavowed the aesthetic of the spectacle which has dominated acclaimed national narratives about decolonisation and postliberation progress. By reading such negative aesthetic categories as a central concern of modern and contemporary fiction, this study sought to make sense of an apparent conundrum – namely, that much of the twentieth and twenty-first century’s groundbreaking English-language fiction has come from the provincial backwaters of the British Empire.” 

Presently, Saikat has also been involved in literary criticism. The overarching question regarding this that asks – Is literary criticism a professional act or is it the work of an amateur? 

He continued, “This research examines literary criticism as an activity productively suspended between the professional and the amateur impulse. It continues my analysis of the cultural impact of colonialism on the uneven distribution of sociocultural authority across the globe. The key focus is on a group of South-Asian, Caribbean, and African writers who emerge from their struggle with poor and provincial colonial educational systems as autodidactic and amateur intellectuals of wide public appeal. I examined this trajectory in an article for the journal New Literary History, and an article published in the Publication of the Modern Language Association of America examined a particular figure, the Bengali memoirist Nirad C. Chaudhuri. A collection, The Critic as Amateur, a collection of essays on this subject by leading critics from all over the world, also came out in 2019, co-edited by me and a colleague from Duke University.”  

His work in this area has also brought him closer to literary activism, initiated by the writer Amit Chaudhuri, who is presently a Professor of Creative Writing at Ashoka. 

Saikat said, “The idea is to make an intervention, through a series of lectures, symposia and publications, on behalf of the idea of the literary that now feels embattled in the public as well as the academic sphere, under a range of forces from the commercialisation of publishing spaces to the academic marginalisation of literature in favour of other fields seen as more instrumental and socially relevant.  

I also see myself as a participant in this movement, if you will, through my scholarly championship of important literature that has escaped critical attention, as well through more mainstream journalism, as for instance through my column for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Another Look at India’s Books,” where I discuss Indian books that haven’t received due attention.” 

Saikat is often held as one of the most profound storytellers in contemporary India. Talking about his work, he said,  

“Novels come from a wild and private place, but once you’re done writing, you are often struck to recognise the spirit of the times in the work.” 

His work as a popular critic and columnist has earned him rave reviews. He writes on arts, literature, and higher education, and occasionally reviews books. He writes two regular columns: Cheat Sheet, on academic and campus life, for Outlook, and Another Look at India’s Books, on books from India that haven’t received due attention, for Los Angeles Review of Books. He also contributes articles in Hindustan Times, Hindu, Times Higher Education, Indian Express, Scroll, Telegraph, and Times of India. 

Talking about this, he said, “I like writing for popular media, as it allows me to assume an intimate and personal voice while talking about larger issues in art, literature, and education. Making an argument, in many ways, is like telling a story. It has temporal and spatial aspects, just like the narrative and the descriptive aspects of fiction. But the sensory immediacy of fiction is supplemented by the abstraction of thought, especially conceptual exploration of larger patterns. I enjoy bringing these two together – sometimes the coming together is a jagged conflict, and sometimes a seamless fusion, but it’s always a fun experience.”  

Saikat Majumdar previously taught at Stanford University and was named a Fellow at the Humanities Centre at Wellesley College. His research and teaching interests include Modern and Contemporary World Literature in English, Modernism, Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, the Novel and Narrative Theory, Critical University Studies, the History of Criticism, Fiction and Non-Fiction Writing. Know more about him here. Understand more about his research here


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