Last week, I attended a conference organized by the university and partook of the intellectual pleasure involved in basking in scholarly ideas propounded by a line of talented academicians. Although several papers presented at the conference unequivocally deserved an elevated seat, there were others which were not only inferior, but also downright pitiable in their academic capability. Ambiguous, self-contradictory and lacking in intellectual depth, these papers presented at the conference failed to struck a right chord and abraded the mind generally mollified by unembellished intellectualism.
While the conference offered the way to composing a well-edited and well-documented research paper bolstered by arguments; on the other, the contrapuntal exposition of dismal writing was only too evident to ignore. As I sit at my desk on this early spring morning of the first day of the week imbibing the cacophony of mechanized quadrupeds and millipedes, my mind wanders and settles itself on thoughts of the conference and the papers that struck me by their merits and demerits.
A talk on the importance of literature and how literature is never neutral despite an artist’s apolitical, asocial stance was an important, albeit hackneyed, premise that began the academic proceedings for me. The speaker of the early session, a noted academician, spoke at length about literature being imbricated with elements of social realism. According to him even the most esoteric tokens of a creative mind are an effort to consciously manipulate language and artistry so as to communicate a certain ideology directly or indirectly to a reader. The modernist texts, the transcripts laden with abstractions, the works of Joyce, Chomsky and Eco, all share a similar purpose: they all strive to communicate with a reader. And in this process of communication, an author’s latent ideology, her frame of mind, her intellectual propensities all evident or hidden under layers of conscious or unconscious literary mysticism find expression in the text she composes. A denizen and an integral element of her society, the society’s fictional refraction or non-fictional reflection inevitably occupies a fundamental space in the writer’s work. The scholar noted that neutrality in a creative work is unequivocally the most undesirable element, since it’s a departure from the embryonic purpose of literature: to heighten human consciousness and to sensitize it by unleashing the tidal wave of catharsis.
Another paper that touched base with one of the leading talking points in Indian English literature: the importance of incorporating the Bhasa texts in the study of Indian English was exceptionally well-presented and was intellectually invigorating. The paper incorporated the critical imperative to canonize the tokens of Indian literature into a significant and compacted category. It proposed that the nuances of Indian writing, the myriad contrapuntal tonalities of Indian English, the social scenario that daubs the writer’s psyche, the elemental influence of the spatial-temporal element in a writer’s work all need to be considered from an indigenous point of view when critiquing a work of Indian English literature. Here, the hybridized tropes of western literary criticism falls short of adequately deracinating the qualities of a literary work psychologically and socially ingrained in the ethnic soil; hence, a distinct categorization of Indian English writing is indispensable.
On the second day, I savored the flavorful mulligatawny of children’s lit, young adult literature, the absurd nous of nonsense poetry, eco-criticism, and post-colonialism, etcetera. Having surmounted the acclivity of enthrallment, aversion, torpor, insouciance and finally, illumination, I came back home my head full of ideas and my mind filled with newfound admiration for the art of literary communication. An initial discourse on the popular fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood talked about the overt sensual cues impleached within the thread work of the story. The implications of the color red, its intrinsic association with sexuality, and the primeval suggestiveness of the leitmotif of the big bad wolf in fairy tales were some of the interesting points discussed.
A critical study of the story of Snow White through the psychoanalytic lens of Carl Jung was the central thesis of an excellent paper presented by a research scholar from IIT Roorkie. The intrinsic merit of her work, coupled with her excellent presentational skills abridged time for me. I sat in awe of her subject wondering how the seemingly innocuous genre of children’s literature is thickly laden with inner meaning. Another presentation by a graduate student from Viswa Bharati, the intellectual ryokan of the East of India, was illuminating as well. Her work featuring popular fairy tales in Bangla talked about gender, readership, the idea of male impotence as a recurrent theme in several of the stories and the motif of the “antur ghar” (in-home labor room) as a gendered space that held in abeyance the laws of patriarchy governing a feudalistic Bengali household were interesting points of conversation.
The intellectual bouillabaisse was further flavored by a talk on Thoreou’s Walden, a favorite text I often go back to when the need to connect with the inner self suggests itself. The Transcendentalist’s deliberations on solitude, thrift, the honing of the skill of self-sufficiency, the need to conserve nature were all part of the paper. Though mediocre in content and lacking in originality, the speaker’s attempt to play a beautiful video of Nature speaking to her children smoothed the irregularities of her presentation for me. Here, I couldn’t help but wonder why nurturing is still regarded in popular culture as the domain of the materfamilias. Although it’s time we deconstruct the trite impression of the nurturing mother and consider her as a human being imbued with several other characteristics apart from her tendency to nurture, we must agree that attempts by Feminist scholars alone cannot invoke a tectonic shift in the outlook of the all and sundry. Change is never a linear process.
Having convinced myself as to the overall intellectual impact of the papers presented at the conference, I found myself wholly unprepared for the consternation I was destined to receive in the guise of a paper that dealt with the Harry Potter series and the Twilight saga. Full to the brim with enthusiasm as to the intellectual treat I thought I was to receive, I found myself shell-shocked when the self-contradictory arguments of the research scholar hounded me like time’s running chariot. An uncompromising aficionado of Rowling’s Harry Potter series, a self-confessed magic loving muggle, I have spent many a happy hour gloating in Rowling’s world of fantasy, conjuring charms, wondering what my Patronus would look like. The glamour of the presentation topic weighed heavily on me as I listened to the content proposed by the scholar. Arrhythmia set in with unusual severity the more I sat and listened to the presentation. The scholar made it a point to malign my favorite series by blatantly declaring that many adults in her country (she came from a neighboring nation) look down upon the Harry Potter series. She further defaced it by saying that it is read specifically by teenagers and young adults since it lacks any link with reality. Here, I wonder, if it isn’t an erroneous gesture to cast aspersions at fantasy literature because of its apparent disconnection with reality. Can we be so audacious as to disdain such mighty tokens of literary merits like the Narnia series, the Discworld saga, the Alice Stories, Harry Potter and many more as artless works of fiction unfit to occupy the bookshelves of our kakotopia? Aren’t they the measures to provide respite from the pains hurled by political bludgers (READ: Sedition, dissent, nationalism-anti-nationalism debate: I hate you all) in our dystopic reality? I think they are. Also, I believe, any student of literature who adopts the monotheistic attitude of accepting a book by its face value without interrogating its intrinsic assets and disadvantages, once who could easily relegate a text based on its genre is a simpleton clearly unfit to study and appreciate the depth that humanities offers. I never got a chance to question the presenter as to why, being an agnostic, she chose to work on popular tales of fantasy. Can you really progress with your research work if you are convinced by your topic’s latent solemnity? A line of vociferous arguments disarmed our young scholar and she found herself utterly baffled when confronting the questions of several teachers and students. I did not add to her woe.
A subsequent presentation on the nonsense literature composed by Sukumar Ray began with a list of interesting arguments. The author of the paper, in spite of his serious lack of presentation skills and a paper that traversed a belabored path, pointed out with great incisiveness how Sukumar Ray’s poetic renderings were in reality acerbic criticisms directed at the imperial masters and their loyal servants, the Bengali Bharolok, indigenous gentlemanly characters imperial in spirit. The author’s critical investigation of several of Ray’s poems was insightful in rekindling a renewed respect for an author every Bengali girl indisputably adores.
The fascinating final note of the day was provided by the presentation on the orientalist cartoons published in the Punch magazine. The penultimate paper, the award winning submission of the year, was an excellent intellectual document that studied a series of cartoons featuring in the Punch magazine and pointed how they propelled the imperialist cause, propagated the orientalist myth of a regressive and uncivilized orient that needs the masterful occidental potentate to survive, thrive and lead attain the basics of a civilized life.
The proceedings of the day concluded with a lecture on the postcolonial novels pf our day, their nuances and their unique creative focus. The academician presenting the paper talked about the postcolonial tomes as conscious raising artistic attempts focusing on the composite postcolonial environment for its creative prompts and often deconstructing the orientalist myths propagated by the imperial gaze during the protracted period of colonial incubation.
As I came home that day with mind filled with thoughts and ideas, I couldn’t but congratulate myself for being a perennial scholar of the humanities and for having the leisure and the opportunity to allow myself to marinate in the intellectual juice of academia and imbibing some its creative and critical insights in the process.