Declarations of Independence

Ami_150 Amitava Kumar in the Minnesota Review:

One of the things that can be said about much of postcolonial criticism is that it is boring, although it'd be more accurate to say that it is often unintelligible and boring. However, when I arrived in this country, in the late eighties, and read postcolonial critics for the first time, I was intrigued. They seemed such a welcome change from my teachers in Delhi. As an undergraduate at Hindu College, I would take a bus to the university. I'd look out of the window, and when we were crossing the gates of Nigambodh Ghat, I'd sometimes see men carrying in their arms little bundles wrapped in white. Each bundle was a child whose corpse was being taken to the river by the father. A small mute procession would follow some men, but often a man would be alone with his enormous burden. I would watch for a few moments from the bus—and then I'd arrive in class. My professors would be delivering lectures on Locke or Rousseau from notes held together with tape—the yellowing paper would flake off in little pieces when shaken in the air.

The pedagogical climate appeared dramatically different when I came to the US. In this country, I suddenly felt that criticism was something that was both fresh and live. My teachers were the critics whose writings one read in academic journals. What I was being taught was original work. In some classes, such work also felt urgent. I had never read Edward Said before, or others whose names brought them somehow closer to me in my imagination, critics like Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. But I didn't share the belief, seemingly dear to the editors of special issues devoted to postcolonial theory, that the 3.2 million poor in Chiapas or the half-million beggars in Calcutta hungered to read debates between the elite of New York and New Delhi in the pages of scholarly journals. My indifferent education in Delhi meant that I hadn't received any real training in writing, academic or non. But it became clear to me, as the years passed, that I wanted the words I wrote on the page to be worldly, sensual, even personal. I was trying to make postcolonial theory look more like what the larger world associated with postcolonials like Salman Rushdie. Couldn't our analyses become more exuberant, imaginative, and even playful? I wanted very badly to be a writer, and any writer needs readers, but it seemed impossible that postcolonial theorists would ever acquire a real audience.