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'What Gives Me Hope About India Is...'

Last updated on: August 24, 2023 18:55 IST
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'Our civil society here is vibrant, and courageous, although it is beaten up and beaten down, repeatedly.'

IMAGE: A Tiranga walkathon on the eve of Independence Day in Mumbai, August 14, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

They are just two years apart.

Scholar, Padma Bhushan awardee, author, cultural theorist, and Harvard Professor Homi K Bhabha and India are a little more than two years apart in age.

Professor Bhabha, who grew up in the elegant sea-facing Bhabha family building, that has the ambience of a yesteryear bungalow, on Cuffe Parade, was born in then Bombay Presidency in an independent India, not even two months before the young country gained her Constitution.

He attained adulthood in the environs of charming, unhurried 1950s Colaba, where the air was once rent with the euphonious sounds of trams plying, studying at St Mary's, a Jesuit school in Mazgaon, and then earning a BA in English literature from Elphinstone College.

At around 21, he went off to study at Christ Church at Oxford, putting an MA in English literature and a few much more impressive degrees on his glowing resume.

He started teaching literature, joining the faculty, first at the University of Sussex and later migrated to the US to teach at Princeton, then University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, University of Chicago and back to England at University College London, but finally becoming the Anne F Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities, Departments of English and American Literature and Comparative literature at Harvard in 2001 and settling near Boston, in the town of Cambridge.

He is world renowned for his postulates or rather ideas on hybridisation ('the creation of new transcultural forms within the contact zone produced by colonisation') and transformative contributions to post-colonial studies and has written 10 books, the most well-known being The Location of Culture.

Oxford, Brighton, Cambridge (Massachusetts), London, Philadelphia, Princeton, whichever side of the pond Professor Bhabha was located on, always being on the 'crossroads' meant he faithfully gravitated home to Bombay frequently, if not annually, with his Mumbai-born, German-origin wife Jacqueline Strimpel Bhabha, who is an attorney and lecture in law at Harvard Law School, and children Satya, Leah, Ishan, to renew his emotional kinship with his childhood contemporary -- India.

It was a wonderful, enigmatic India, that the professor noticed, was changing all the time, yet, unfathomably -- its banyan-like roots in some much earlier bygone century -- staying also exactly the same, quite like the Bhabha clan home, at 49 Cuffe Parade, which he says is a metaphor for India.

The Bhabha residence, where's Vaihayasi Pande Daniel interviewed Professor Bhabha, is dotted with tasteful brass and wood Indian masterpieces and embellished with plenty of solid or carved teak and there's marble flooring.

The coffee tables are weighed down by an eclectic selection of books and the windows look out onto the dense greenery of the next-door mansion.

Bhabha -- in kurta-cords attire, hospitably offering coffee and a snack -- spoke genially, in his, it would seem characteristic, over-enunciated professorial manner about how India appears to him on this trip back to the motherland.

One of his activities on visits home is his involvement -- which he finds deeply enjoyable -- with contemporary Indian arts, especially with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Dehi (he sits on the advisory board of the museum).


You and India are very close in age. Would you describe your relationship with India? What strikes you every time you come home?

My relationship with India has very little to do with the age of the country or mine.

It's very, obviously, a close familial relationship -- many members of my family live here; my mother is 98 and she lives here.

It's also a deep cultural relationship. When I was growing up in and living in Bombay, as a young adult, yes, in this house, in this city, at Elphinstone College -- these were my various locations while I was here -- I was very impressed, and continue to be shaped by the free exchange of views, cultures and languages, between the various Indian communities.

It struck me -- and strikes me still -- as potentially a very remarkable mix of possibilities - cultural, social possibilities.

IMAGE: School students get their face painted with the Tri-colour ahead of Independence Day celebrations, in Mumbai. Photograph: ANI Photo

How has this relationship (with India) moved on since?

I have the renewal of it each time I come.

There is a familial renewal. This apartment bears the traces of many changes, but at the same time, of many things that have a continuity.

You're sitting on a sofa that was has been here in this very room since the early 1950s, when we moved into this apartment.

The handiwork of my mother's imagination -- of what an aesthetic and familial space should look like -- is written all over this apartment.

Each time I come there are those reminders, but, of course -- to use this as a metaphor (for India) -- we also restructured the apartment, to keep in step with changes in our lives, my children coming back and forth from England and the United States.

Just to talk spatially this room, in which we are sitting, there's exactly the kind of attractions that I feel.

There's a long history, and then there are signs of change and transformation.

And I think that also reflects my own view. I come back here (to India) because it's a deep resource for me of memory and the past.

It's also a place where I see so much change -- some good, some less good. But Bombay is a very creative space for me...

(My involvement with art) makes its own connections for me. That is one lens through which I see the country. (His role with the Nadar museum) unites two of my very important affiliations with India, which is the rich cultural diversity and the inherent pluralism of this country, and certainly, this city, which I know better than I know anywhere else.

At the same time, there's the aesthetic creativity that flourishes and has flourished in this country for hundreds of years.

IMAGE: The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus building illuminated in Tri-colours. Photograph: ANI Photo

You use the word inherent pluralism. Where is India's pluralism headed?

Just look at this morning's newspaper...

I don't pretend to have a deep structural experience, or an argument culled from my own encounters in India, because I'm not here long enough.

I am in and out - that's very important to me and it's a very good way of looking at a country.

But I've never spoken about India, as if I had the answers, or as if I had a special insight because I haven't devoted my life here (to India).

There are people who have devoted their lives to the transformation and the stewardship of this very rich, diverse plural society.

So, when you ask me this question, it has to be a rhetorical question. You know exactly where it's going.

I was just reading the papers before you came. It's written all over, from the headlines about Manipur and the abuse of tribal people.

From what I read in the papers -- and I read across the range of opinion; I read about seven or eight newspapers a day here, I don't read the Marathi press or I don't read the Hindi press, but I read everything other than that -- and it's very clear that on the frontlines there is horrific abuse in Manipur and the delay it has taken to arrest people for rape and humiliation of women on the basis of their tribal affiliation, when videos exist showing the men who were involved in both the stripping of these women and gang rape.

This happened in May, and the arrests are only just being made.

There was only one person arrested. Now there are more.

The Supreme Court has intervened and said that unless the government does something, it's going to have to enter into this and take, as it were, the law into their own hands. That's on page one.

If you go further, there is again the whole story of these women wrestlers, who have (allegedly) traditionally been sexually harassed by male wrestlers, who are the dominant body of wrestling here.

And, of course, when you put it in the language of the law, which is very, very important, these offences are not only legal offenses, they are offences of people's everyday lives.

They are deep humiliations and, in a way, the humiliating of people is an impolite or violent, but veiled way of saying, 'You are not one of us. You do not belong here. You may not even be human, which is why we can parade you naked in the streets and rape you and have the whole dastardly and barbaric act filmed'.

You have that and then you have the Teesta (Setalvad) settlement case, which has been going on forever, although the Supreme Court has now intervened positively in that case, whereas the Gujarat high court still refuses to discharge her.

So, I'm just saying that you read the papers.

Then, of course, there are also stories about the prime minister hectoring his ministers and the country, saying this (Manipur violence) should not have happened, women should not be abused, there should not be violence.

But despite his hectoring it continues. It's a very mixed bag.

IMAGE: School students run through a field while holding National Flags in South Dinajpur. Photograph: ANI Photo

But is there hope?

I suppose for some sections of the society, it is a very happy place.

This morning's story, which also absolutely horrified me, was about the son of the Ahmedabad industrialist who ran into a crowd killing nine instantly and another four or five were in the intensive care, struggling for their lives.

For some people, (like) for this 19-year-old boy, driving a Jaguar SUV at a speed of 120-130 km, when the speed limit is 40, and then having his father, who is a major industrialist, come onto the scene to defend him, it's a happy place.

This may be a very human story, but it is an appalling story. It is a happy place for a 19 year old, who is given a Jaguar, which is only given to him because he's a legacy child.

There's no other reason why he would be driving this car.

He's driving at the speed so beyond the speed limit, that he clearly feels he is beyond the law, he is beyond any civic regulation, and that he sets the terms.

That to me is the really dispiriting thing.

(Hearing of) the people who feel, because they're in places of power and influence, or because they have economic success and resources thousands of times more than (for instance) the people, who were walking on the streets (in Ahmedabad), while they're driving in their Jaguars. They really set the terms of the society.

This happens everywhere, to some extent. And I think that there was no better spokesman for that kind of disregard of law regulation, the people's heritage, people's oppression, than (Donald J) Trump.

I mean, I think he validated something globally.

But that is not to say that these things have not been happening, both in the United States, and in a different way, in India for the longest time.

IMAGE: Artists perform a patriotic dance in Lucknow. Photograph: ANI Photo

There isn't hope then? Isn't there hope visible to you?

Mine is a kind of muted hope, that a German philosopher after the Second World War, described as disappointed hopes, not saying that his hopes were disappointed.

But that, to hope is also to have to deal with disappointment. It is part of the cycle of hope; it is part of the landscape of hope.

I think what gives me hope is the fact that our civil society here is vibrant, and courageous, although it is beaten up and beaten down, repeatedly.

That certainly gives me hope.

I feel hopeful, because I think this is a highly imaginative and innovative society.

Its writers, its artists and its scientists, despite structural limitations in, say, universities, and so on, really rise above their problems and rise to a kind of international authority.

Authority to me is much more important than fame. They have an international authority.

Contemporary art in India (for instance) now has a place, it has an authority, a shaping authority in the world.

It may not be as much as others, but it has found its place. So that's the second thing that gives me hope.

And the third thing, in which I have hope, is that -- as in the past, as with the Emergency moment -- there will be a stirring of extra-parliamentary and extra-party politics.

Now, as you know, the Opposition (in India) is trying to organise such a front, so that when there is a ruling party candidate, they will be opposed by a single party candidate (put forward by the united Opposition). That must be hopeful.

But also more generally, I think, that there are times when, after decades of oppression or disadvantage (I say, not for all sectors of society, but for the majority) there is an awareness that it is the people who have to keep the government honest, and it is not the government that keeps the people honest.

Of course, I take hope, in these -- in my view -- rather dark and troubled times, from various cultural and political movements.

I take hope from Me Too. I take hope from Black Lives Matter, which now, of course, even has an organisation in Israel called Palestinian Lives Matter; I'm sure other parts of the world do too.

I take hope from the Arab Spring.

I take hope from a number of such movements.

Now there is a new participant in everyday politics and party politics, which is clearly the social media. Of course, that's not something we can discuss today...

But social media has a very specific effect on political issues. Partly because -- just to give you two recent examples, one is the Manipur video, which can circulate (much further), and the other is the global circulation of the George Floyd video -- there is something about these visual, mobile moments -- they're not just press photographs, they're videos -- there is something about these videos, these movements, literally the moving of the image that seems to rouse people and rouse within them anger and rage, but it also raises within them a certain ethical and moral affiliation.

In a way, I think that that these movements, which are usually nonparty political, seem to me a symptom of the times in which we live, where political parties across the world, not everywhere, but in many places have used democratic institutions for undemocratic purposes.

We have seen the election refusers, in the United States, they have taken up almost positions of paranoia and fantasy, for which for which there is no actual basis in reality.

But they have given these allegations, a kind of quasi legal status, by filing cases.

Once you file a case, there is an assumption that there is something in these allegations.

But when the cases have been thrown out or thrown back, they have not desisted, they have not moved (back from their position).

IMAGE: Homi K Bhabha at his residence. Photograph: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/

We're in a very complex situation, also created by social media, where you can disseminate a message without much regulation.

Sometimes it's a convening of people who have no other form of social authority, or publicity.

At other times, it is a convergence of people who believe in some quite unsubstantiated reality, but simply by repeating it amongst a cadre of people, it gets a reality.

So, this is my third point: To summarise this, we live very much in a culture where allegations piled on allegations piled on allegations, have gained a certain kind of discursive reality which cannot be easily disproved.

Why do I feel that in this very depressing scenario, a possible form of hope?

Because I think, people break through that, at some point, or could be made to break through that illusion of what I have called a combination of paranoia, violence and the culture of empty allegations.

It's very dangerous, but I think, at some point, people, given the right kind of (direction), will see that the emperor has no clothes on.

And I think that's another thing that gives me hope.

One instance of it is the contemporary situation in Israel. The movement in Israel may not be entirely transformative.

It may have, all of a sudden, limitations because it is a solidarity movement, and it is a joint front of a number of parties and forms of opinion.

And those are always fragile, in some ways, but it is the people trying to keep the government honest...

I was recently, in the last three or four months, invited to speak at the Vatican, at the Academy (Pontifical Academy of Sciences) there at a conference on decolonisation and climate change.

And there were four of us there asked to give keynotes.

I was asked to speak on the whole decolonisation issue.

In that process, I read the encyclicals (circular letters sent to all churches) of Pope Francis.

And I was hugely positive. You asked me about optimism -- it made me really optimistic.

IMAGE: The Bhabha residence in Mumbai. Photograph: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/

This kind of hope has the understanding that you have to work through disappointment, and you cannot simply be hopeful in a Utopian way.

And what gave me great hope was just reading those encyclicals -- one was largely on climate change.

The other was called Fratelli tutti, or brotherhood or sisterhood of solidarity (and how) we should all get together in that way.

There were very considered but searing critiques of globalisation systems in the world today.

About disrespect, about dishonouring. About humiliation and the problems of humiliation, which are different from the problems of inequality, although they may be connected to it.

Humiliation is a different kind of ethical denigration of somebody -- it's not only because they're poor, but because they're poor, or because they're uneducated, they do not belong, they are beyond the pale.

And humiliation is the daily act of displacing somebody, not from the point of view of authority, but from the point of view of the displaced.

It's the daily act of denigration that just wears you away, layer by layer.

We live in tumultuous times. But to answer your question, the hope must come from seeing small acts, but very significant acts of possible transformations in the world order.

But if you're looking for a major figure, or a major set of figures, who are setting out a new vision, that has immediate hopes of being supported or followed or if you're looking for that kind of transformation, writ large, I think it's difficult to find it today.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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