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Radical History Review 83 (2002) 146-172
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A Correspondence on Provincializing Europe
Amitav Ghosh and Dipesh Chakrabarty
On December 14, 2000, after reading Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, I sent an e-mail message to its author, Dipesh Chakrabarty. I had never met or corresponded with Dipesh before, and I was not aware that he was in Australia at the time. Despite other more pressing concerns, Dipesh was quick to respond, and over the next few days we sent each other a series of e-mail messages centered broadly around Provincializing Europe. Rereading the correspondence later, we agreed that some of the themes and issues we had touched on might be of interest to others.
Amitav to Dipesh 1: December 14, 2000
Although we have never met, I feel I have known you a long time because of the many friends and acquaintances we have in common. Recently I also met Uday Singh Mehta. I'd read his Liberalism and Empire: India in British Liberal Thought (University of Chicago, 1999) this summer in Calcutta and it had made a great impression on me. I felt that it was the most important theoretical work I'd read in many years. It so happened that I was doing a reading at Amherst last month—and who should be in the audience but U.S. Mehta! We had a long talk afterwards and he spoke very highly of you and Provincializing Europe.
I acquired a copy of Provincializing Europe soon afterwards. Reading it was [End Page 146] an experience of such rare pleasure and excitement that I wanted to write to you while it was still fresh in my mind. First I want to congratulate you on your extraordinary achievement. History is never more compelling than when it gives us insights into oneself and the ways in which one's own experience is constituted. I don't think I've ever read anything which does this more consistently than Provincializing Europe. It is truly a wonderful book, brimming with ideas and insights. To take just a few examples: I was deeply impressed by your discussion of the ways in which literature is imbricated in the emergence of modernity in India—particularly in your discussion of the place of Tagore's work in the culture of 20th century Bengal. I felt that it helped me understand an aspect of myself and my past which I had often wondered about and never quite comprehended—and I'd say the same about your discussion of the way in which India produced a wholly idiosyncratic version of the private/public aspect of modernity. The chapter on 'adda' was a particular delight—its insights were at once illuminating and hilarious (I am reminded particularly of the wonderful anecdote about the thwarting of Mahalanobis's attempt to functionalise 'addas'). 1
But Provincializing Europe is so rich in ideas and insights that it has also raised many questions in my mind, both large and small. I hope you will not mind if take the liberty of addressing some of these to you.
First the small questions: I was intrigued by your comment on Tagore's belief in the Goetheian 'idea of world literature' (198). I wonder if you could give me a reference on this?
I was much struck also by your re-configuration of the role of the family in Indian fiction. I agree substantially with your observation that this should not be read as a 'compensatory move'. 2 But as a writer myself I'd like to take this a step farther. Two of my novels (The Shadow Lines, and my most recent, The Glass Palace) are centred on families. I know that for myself this is a way of displacing the 'nation'—I am sure that this is the case also with many Indian writers other than myself. In other words, I'd like to suggest that writing about families is one way of not writing about the nation (or other restrictively imagined collectivities). I think there is a long tradition of...