Common Ground: Filth as an Idiom of Critique in Two South Asian Communities
- Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East
- Duke University Press
- Volume 36, Number 1, May 2016
- pp. 134-151
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Kantor’s article examines the way that two distinct communities—rural villagers and the writers who represent them in fiction—marshal filth as an ethical term in the discussion of the same problem: dys-function and socioeconomic stagnation in rural South Asia. Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, and Moshin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia all link soiling substances with larger critiques of rural life. These critiques echo, but do not always neatly overlap with, the discourses of actual rural people. In these novels, filth is characterized by its ability to cling and to spread, such that the only solution seems to be the creation of physical distance between the novel’s protagonists and the rural sphere. Ethnographic fieldwork in rural Bihar, however, complicates this view. Villagers express ambivalence about filth: bemoaning the dirtiness of their everyday lives but also deploring others’ emotional distancing as filthy. In order to unpack their divergent perspectives, this article brings together several fields of scholarship: social science debates about filth in public space in postcolonial India; literary theories of irony and the sublime; and philosophical writings on the relationship between aesthetics and ethics.