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boundary 2 31.3 (2004) 1-46

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Meera's Medieval Lyric Poetry in Postcolonial India:

The Rhetorics of Women's Writing in Dialect as a Secular Practice of Subaltern Coauthorship and Dissent

The debate around secularism, and what constitutes secular practice both intellectually and politically, is one of the most significant sites in postcolonial theory. Given the contemporary political climate of postcolonial societies, as religious fundamentalism becomes more and more entrenched and reinvents itself through alliances with the forces of globalism, on the one hand, and nationalism, on the other, it is crucial that an open and wide-ranging debate take place about the heterogeneous meanings that are assigned to the term secularism. In what follows, we explore the secular practices and ideas that have historically accumulated and been formulated around the figure of Meera, the sixteenth-century Indian woman poet (1498–1546).

Edward Said's important contribution to the secular debate explores the notion and practice of what he calls secular criticism. His term secular [End Page 1] interpretation derives from his commitment to secularism, his location as an oppositional metropolitan academic in the humanities, and his situatedness as an exiled Palestinian intellectual actively involved in the Palestinian struggle. In this essay, we honor his political commitment to secularism even as we scrutinize the binary of religious/secular in his definition of the term: "secular interpretation . . . argues for historical discrimination and for a certain kind of deliberate scholarship. It implies a certain interpretive sophistication. Above all, it argues, and this is the point, for the potential of a community that is political, cultural, intellectual, and is not geographically and homogeneously defined. . . . The politics of secular interpretation proposes . . . a way of avoiding the pitfalls of nationalism I have just outlined, by discriminating between the different 'Easts' and 'Wests,' how differently they were made, maintained, and so on."1 Said's location allows him to correctly note and critique the inter-imbrication of religion with nationalism within the "larger Islamic context" of the place of Palestinians, Jews, Armenians, Kurds, Christians, and Egyptian Copts within the Middle East. According to Said, this geopolitical context produces a kind of "desperate religious sentiment."2 Our own point of incision in Said's definition of secular interpretation is the binary of secular/religious. This binary functions such that secular interpretation stands for all that is "deliberate," "historical," and has "interpretive sophistication" in addressing the "political, cultural, and intellectual" aspects of the "dense fabric of secular life."3 Said's implication is that, generally speaking, religious interpretation is ahistorical; it reconstructs a simplistic and imaginary past that is impossible to prove and disrupts community rather than brings it together. Commitment to the politics of resistance and opposition to the globalizing tendency of capital in cultural work seem to become, in this academic discourse, a natural commitment to the politics of secularism.

In marking the binary of religious/secular interpretation in Said's thought, we oppose religious fundamentalism in historiography and cultural production of the Hindutva movement in postcolonial India: they are politically exclusionary and cause historical amnesia. In effect, we do not bind ourselves to either side of Said's binary. There is a certain repression implicit in the notion that to be at odds with secular interpretation is automatically to be aligned with religious fundamentalism. Metropolitan academic discourse [End Page 2] and political commitment to the politics of secular interpretation render certain modes and religio-folk idioms of subaltern resistance opaque. The religious/secular binary does not make room for the oppositional religious interpretation in the religio-folk idioms deployed by resistance movements and subaltern communities.

This is a problem that cannot be remedied by simply adding a qualification for oppositional religio-folk idioms. There is a need to theorize the differences between communal and racialist religious interpretations, on the one hand, and oppositional religio-folk idioms, on the other. We need to reexamine our working definition of religious...


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