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By Barbara Black
English professor Jill Didur has just returned from India, where she gave a paper at a conference in Udaipur. The visit gave her a chance to pursue her research on the debate around secularism in contemporary Indian literature, and refresh her sense of the complexity and immediacy of the issue.
Her paper, “Performing Buddhism: Pankaj Mishra’s Indian Travel Writing,” focused on Mishra’s 2004 book, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, in which he reassesses his admittedly conventional view of the Buddha.
Mishra, like most Indian Hindus, thought of Buddha as “a Hindu god, rather than as a historical figure.” In fact, he lived in South Asia in the period around 400 BCE. As Mishra conducted research and travelled around India and Nepal to places associated with Gautama Buddha’s life, he realized that the Buddha’s concept of subjectivity emerged from a challenge to Brahminical authority in the sixth century BCE.
As Didur says in her paper, Mishra came to see Buddha as “a true contemporary,” relevant to the social, cultural and political upheaval Indians have experienced over the 60 years since they achieved independence from Britain.
The conference was sponsored by the Indian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (IACLALS) and Mohanlal Sukhadia University, in Udaipur.
Didur’s book, Unsettling Partition: Literature, Gender and Memory, first published here by University of Toronto Press in 2006, had just been published by Pearson Longman in Delhi, so she was able to see how well it is being received in India.
The trip was an opportunity to meet with other researchers working in the field of South Asian diasporic literature, including Tarun K. Saint, from the University of Delhi, coeditor of Translating Partition.
She also reconnected with Rita Kothari, who gave a talk at Concordia in October 2006. Kothari’s recent work includes a translation of a Gujarati Dalit novel, The Stepchild, by James Macwan. Members of the Dalit community are considered “untouchable” by certain groups in Indian society.
“The Dalit literary movement began in Maharashtra in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and is now a well established element of South Asian literary studies,” Didur explained. “There were several papers on different aspects of this literature at the conference. It is focused on the day-to-day experiences of this oppressed group, and it challenges caste-based thinking in Indian society as a whole.”
Kothari, who teaches at the Mudra Institute of Communications Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat, took Didur along on a field trip with her own students to the Academy of Tribal Learning. This institution was inaugurated in 2004 by the scholar and activist Ganesh (G.N.) Devy. Once a professor of literature, he gave up his career to work among these dispossessed and exploited people, and set up the Academy to protect their tribal languages and give Dalit youth a humanistic education.
“The Academy was well organized and impressive,” Didur said. “It was interesting to see the reaction of the Indian students, and encouraging to see how traditional attitudes are being challenged by institutions like this. I hope to be able to convey some of the visiting students’ experiences to my own students at Concordia.”