restricted access Imagining Otherwise: Comparative South Asian Literatures and the MLA
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Imagining Otherwise:
Comparative South Asian Literatures and the MLA

As someone who entered the United States as a foreign student in the late 1980s, my academic career was intensely shaped by the then burgeoning discourses on colonialism and postcolonialism.1 The triumvirate of Said, Spivak, and Bhabha functioned like a citation machine; and despite Said's Orientalism, South Asia, especially India, dominated as the colonial/ postcolonial site par excellence. Much of this had to do not just with the presence of many a South Asian scholar studying, writing, and teaching in U.S. universities but also with the fact that some of the most brilliant work was being undertaken on India: Lata Mani's work on the discourses on sati, the work of the Subaltern Studies historians, Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?" and her famous essays on the Rani of Sirmur, and of course Bhabha's legendary essays "Sly Civility" and "Signs Taken for Wonders." The outpouring of anglophone fiction from South Asia, topped off by the publication of Rushdie's Midnight's Children, made certain that there would be no dearth of work on South Asian (read Indian) postcolonial fiction, and even today, despite a fairer distribution of attention to other parts of the ex-colonial worlds, works on South Asia continue to dominate the scene. Much has been written about this privileging of South Asia (again, read India) and its incarnation as the quintessential postcolonial site, and I am not going to rehearse the debates here. But suffice it to say that while my teaching spans continents, my first book was part and parcel of the work on the discourse of gender and nationalism in colonial and postcolonial literary representations by British, Bengali, and anglophone South Asian writers. But, in another sense the book was comparative because it brought into play writers working in different languages, and I remember getting a report from Cambridge University Press asking me why there was no chapter on Rushdie. [End Page 236] It was Ken Wissoker's insightfulness that led to the publication of my book, En-gendering India: Woman and Nation in Colonial and Postcolonial Narratives, by Duke University Press in 2000.

I wanted to preface this short piece with these personal remarks because my background helps clarify my position in taking up the subject of the comparative analysis of South Asian literature within the structure of the MLA. I do not think of myself as a South Asianist or an Indianist or Indologist or an expert in Indian literature. I am, for better or worse, a postcolonialist and my personal location within the MLA structure is as a postcolonialist, especially since I was one of the key people to initiate and ultimately get the MLA to approve the Postcolonial Discussion Group that eventually attained division status. So, I know the many pitfalls, negotiations, and compromises that attend working within the MLA structure. On a side note, I was also part of a working group that has tried to rethink the unwieldy organizational rubric of another division: English Literature Other Than British and American (or, as I think of it, "A Division by Any Other Name: Other Anglophone Literatures as World Literature?"). I say all of this to suggest the enormity of even broaching what it would mean (1) to think about modern world literatures, (2) to think about the role of South Asian literature within that, (3) to think about the discipline of comparative literature, and (4) the relationship of these three issues to the MLA.

In a crucial way, the question proposed by this forum resonates with recent debates about world literature—how do we account for the subject? how do we teach it? how do we anthologize it? And so on. There is a flourishing Facebook discussion group called Rethinking World Literature (discussions around the topic of what constitutes "world literature") with, at last count, 1,664 members and as many divergent opinions.2 What often strikes me about these discussions is the manner in which debates that were hashed out under the rubric of what is postcolonial literature (discussions around the topic of what constitutes "postcolonial literature") constantly resurface under the guise of...