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Issue 10

The Viability of Utopia Today

In a world experiencing a pandemic, ongoing economic recessions, political upheaval, and impending ecological collapse, what does it mean to think about utopia? Projects focused on outer space by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk seem to think that humanity can find its way out the hole it has dug for itself by founding utopian societies on other planets. Politicians have longed promised utopian programs of social renewal. As a researcher of utopia as a genre and a theory, the question I have in reading about such hopes is not can we achieve utopia on earth or in space—such questions are well beyond my capacity and training to answer. Instead, I’m interested in whether it is useful to think about utopia at all. Does imagining perfect worlds serve our present or our future, or do utopias simply set us up for disappointment and failure? 

To think about the viability of utopian thought today, it is useful to return to utopia’s origins. The idea of a perfect place has existed for as long as humans have been thinking and writing. Works like Plato’s Republic and Ravidas’s “Begumpura” offer visions of worlds that improve upon the ones in which their authors lived. The term utopia, however, was not coined until the early sixteenth century by English humanist Thomas More. Formed by combining the Greek “ou” (no) with “topas” (place) and punning on “eu” (good), utopia etymologically means “a good place that is nowhere.” This should tell us something. Utopia, as it was originally conceived, was not understood as a real place. It was, by its very definition, a contradiction. 

More’s Utopia (1516) itself is full of puns and paradoxes. Raphael Hythloday, who claims to have discovered an ideal island where people’s needs are met and all live in peace and harmony, seems honest enough in his narration. However, his name, Hythloday, means “speaker of nonsense” in Greek. This name itself calls into question the veracity of his narrative. The world that Hythloday describes is equally replete with contradiction: though it has a democratic government in which everyone is free, the island also has slaves and is quick to colonize other lands. Indeed, the birth of utopia as an early modern literary genre is closely tied to the beginnings of European colonization. The justifications for colonization used by Europeans eerily echo those of the Utopia when Hythloday says that many of the Utopians’ independent neighbors, who were “liberated by them from tyranny,” admired Utopian virtues so much that they “requested” magistrates from Utopia to come to their lands and govern them. Giving these colonizing impulses, this seemingly perfect island is not as idyllic as it seems. 

The difference between dystopia and utopia is a matter of perspective. As students in my class last spring used to say, “whose utopia is it?” For the rulers of Utopia, the island’s life may have appeared equitable and democratic, but not so for its slaves. This same ambiguity pervades many other works in the genre. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella Herland (1915), for instance, depicts a feminist world run by women that also has racist undertones. Ursula K. LeGuin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973) dramatizes the contradiction inherent to utopia by portraying the city Omelas, whose prosperity depends on the misery of a child in the basement. The effort to achieve perfect harmony, it seems, often necessities homogenization, which, in turn, leads to the oppression and erasure of those who are different. 

So where does this inevitable failure of the utopian leave us? Do we throw up our hands and forsake the hope that things might get better? To answer this question, we need first to reframe our notions of the utopian itself. I suggest (as do many scholars of utopia) that utopias were never meant to be read as templates or blueprints. To understand literary utopias or utopian political visions in this way is bound to lead us astray.

If we don’t see them as guides to the perfect life, what use might utopias have? Instead of understanding utopia as a perfect homogenous society, we might more usefully read it as a mode of cognitive estrangement. Utopia helps us view the world critically, producing wonder and disorientation, not as ends unto themselves but rather to unsettle the assumptions of the here-and-now with the suggestion that things could be different. Hence, Paul Ricouer aptly describes utopia as “a progressive counterblast to the essential conservatism of ideology.” If we understand utopia in this more capacious way—as a mechanism of transformation rather than as a perfect place—, we can more clearly see its value. Utopian visions, despite or even because of their flaws, promote reform in self-critical ways that foreground the tensions and contradictions inherent in reform itself.

A practical example of this type of utopian thinking is Chantal Mouffe’s notion of agonism, a philosophical outlook that emphasizes the importance of conflicting positions. Taking issue with John Rawl’s notion of liberal pluralism, Mouffe argues that in place of a morality that seeks to neutralize difference, we should understand politics as based in conflict between adversaries who may disagree but who respect each other. Agonism might seem a far cry from utopia, but I argue that it is a vital example of utopianism as it can be exercised today: this is a form of thought that unsettles what we take for granted—that the end goal of a liberal democracy should be agreement—and helps us see that there might be different ways of envisioning the political. 

Mouffe’s political theory is one example of contemporary utopianism, but utopia does not need to be confined to the ‘real’ world. Fiction is a valuable and often unrecognized bridge between the utopian and the political. Whether a Netflix series that unsettles our assumptions about the future or a novel that gives glimpses of a world that could be different, narrative fiction offers pathways for critique, a mode as vital to our world as to More’s. It’s tempting as a literature professor to use this as a chance to make a case for the value of the humanities, but this is not so much my point, at least not here. Rather, fiction is one of many possible vehicles for a utopianism that charts lines of flight to other worlds of possibility. These worlds do not have to be on Mars but instead can consist of smaller acts of reimagining what we take for granted and efforts towards change with the understanding that perfection will never be possible.

References: 

Mouffe, Chantal. Agonistics: Thinking The World Politically. London: Verso Books, 2013.

Ricoeur, Paul. Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, ed. George H. Taylor. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Alexandra Verini is a professor of medieval literature at Ashoka University. Her research interests include medieval and early modern gender, religion and utopia. She is currently completing a book that explores utopian thought developed in women’s devotional communities.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 8

The Midnight Library

The Midnight Library starts with a 35-year-old Nora Seed having the worst day of her life. She gets mugged, she loses her job at the music store, her only piano student decides to quit, and to top it all, her cat – the only companion in her life – dies in a car crash.

She could have been a glaciologist (as she used to tell her school librarian: Mrs Elm), a famous musician, or she could have married the surgeon Ash who asked her out for coffee once. Instead, she finds herself alone in her battered room, regretting all the choices she didn’t make. So, she decides to kill herself at midnight but finds herself caught in the middle of life and death in the midnight library with her school librarian Mrs Elm. This is no ordinary place; it is a magical library that gives Nora a passage to transport back into life. The Midnight Library offers Nora Seed a second chance in life.

It took me back in life (as it did Nora) to my school days when during the exam seasons, I used to finish preparing for it early to have enough time to read “The Famous Five” novels. There was a kind of silence in my head that amplified my inner voice and made me think more clearly about my life. About how if I get a chance to reset my life, what would I do differently? Then I started to think about if I can anything do anything to change for the better now. Matt Haig’s simple writing flows throughout the book filled with otherwise complex thoughts. I think more people should experience the silence in their heads that amplifies their inner voice.

Categories
Issue 8

Translation As Preservation: Understanding the Worlds Within Languages

Translation, for both of us has been an act of transgression. In our pristine Anglophone academic life, it has been a way to discuss and express in other languages, and marvel at the art of expression. We therefore talk about the process and politics of translation between Bangla and English, and think about the idea of preservation in various ways. What is lost in translation? What is gained?

Through months of trying to transport emotions, idioms and punctuation from Bangla to English, we’ve grown closer to our mother language than we’ve ever been. Alongside that familiarity has come the sense of inhabiting a world held only within the cadences and curlicues of this language. But this isn’t a sensation peculiar to Bangla. In every translation session, our classmates have brought metaphors and phrases from their languages that pose annoying, yet delightful, problems of translation. Working through those doubts has always felt like dipping our toes into the waters of a separate, thriving world. Something about these colourful phrases feels very private and intimate. Yet we’re pursued by the need to share the wonderful literature in the languages of the Indian subcontinent; to share the array of emotions each one of these narrative worlds make you feel.

Each language has its own perspective of time and place. These aspects come together to knit the sense of inhabiting a separate world. Both of us have primarily translated from Bangla into English, and can, therefore, only speak of Bangla. It is an experience that comes with doubts at every turn. By the end, we’re always left with two questions: have we done justice to the source text? Does it sound well in English? It’s always hard to reconcile both of them. The conflict mainly comes from the differing nature of both languages. English comes from a family of languages quite different from those spoken in the Indian subcontinent. Naturally, the rules of its grammar, its idioms and banter provide a distinctive way of understanding time and space, which might not always be compatible with those of Indian languages. Underlying this conflict is a colonial history that makes English widely accessible, but also necessitates promoting indigenuous languages. How then do we convey to a wider population what inhabiting the worlds of Indian languages feels like?

One can argue that after several years of being spoken and written in the subcontinent, English has become an Indian language, where the grammar is tweaked and several Indian catchphrases are fondly used in English sentences. This liberty to mould an imported language into something homegrown might simplify the problems of translation. But if this form of English is indeed an Indian version, how wide will be the readership that can understand it? It is a question we’ve argued over to no end.. Often, we’ve stubbornly wanted to retain the roughness and peculiarities of our source languages in our translated texts, protesting that some words are untranslatable, and English readers must work through the difficulties to enter this new world. But does that practice make the text more accessible, or does it further obscure its essence by producing puzzling sentences? 

Along the way, we’ve arrived at a compromise for Bangla. We try to make the translated text sound like a naturally English one, but use sentences that are the closest options for the source text. But the sense of time and space are located further within the structure of Bangla. The time the text is located in is denoted by the tense of the narration. In English, there is a clear demarcation between present and past tense however, in Bangla there is a slippage between both. Narratives are often written in between past and present, and jumps between these two time frames are not uncommon. The sense of time is, therefore, one that we carefully thread as translators of Bangla-English-Bangla.

But time and place aren’t just located in the tense of a text. They are embodied by the characters who live in that environment, and in some ways, that environment lives within them. How, for example, can we translate the banter of two boys living in an ashram in ancient India? Which is the more important question—preserving the archaism of their context, or making them sound like young and defiant adolescents?  

The act of translation is also an act of historical preservation. Translating Bangla texts into English opens up new audiences and new possibilities. A new kind of readership emerges. Translating texts whose publication dates back several decades helps revive its readership, and foster conversations between the changing tastes of readers. But with these possibilities comes the responsibility of representation. A work of literature can become the voice of a people through its language. It is always intimately twined with the emotions and experiences of a community which might be as mundane as lone words and phrases, but hold political undercurrents and the history of a language within them.

The seamless juxtaposition of both is fairly easy to glean for us as Bangalis. But the task of its reproduction inevitably becomes a personal one. Dissatisfaction over translated works probably arises from the intersection of the personal and the political. As translators starting out, we’re far from mastering the rules of the game. But for now, we rely on this intersection to guide us, to help us preserve what the work of literature makes us feel. While we fear losing much along the way, the gains have often been insightful. It is a long process, and often a frustrating one, but one that is exhilarating, leading us down new avenues.

Pratiti and Ipsa are members of Sandhi, an ever-evolving society at Ashoka engaging with language both academically and  otherwise. We are not dedicated to any specific language(s), or only to tangible languages at all. We think about language at various levels— the idea of language itself, the interplay between languages, the nuances within a language and much more. Currently, they are holding the 2021 edition of their flagship event, Bhasha Mash.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 7

This One Summer

This One Summer, by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki is a gorgeously illustrated graphic novel that tells a coming-of-age of two ordinary friends. The book explores the ups and downs of adolescence in this sweet summer novel, set in a lazy beachside town. What really captured my attention was the art style that exquisitely revives the bittersweet nostalgia of summer, heightened by the monochromatic moody blue color palate used throughout. 

The prose that accompanied the illustration is warm enough to bring out all the little things that happen over the summer. The story of this graphic novel follows a young girl Rose, who goes to a beach town for a summer break with her parents and befriends another girl from the town named Windy. As the story progresses, we see Rose go through struggles of growing up as a girl and keeping up with the changes in her life that this vacation brings in the form of troubles in her parents’ marriage, and her own life.  The language used in the book is rather interesting as it very well captures the dilemma through the eyes of Rose, who is old enough to understand what is going around her but not mature enough to care or significantly contribute or even comprehend the troubles and trauma she is going through. 

The attention to detail in the illustrations, coupled with the delicate prose makes this combination of panels a beautiful story that weaves together a story of two girls who try to navigate their way through a repulsive adult world filled with domestic drama with teenage troubles, in what is an otherwise languid summer. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 3

Louise Glück Wins a Prize She Never Needed

I don’t know why I picked up The Wild Iris but I did. Maybe it was the shiny stamp that read “Pulitzer Prize Winner” adorning its cover. I’ve always been a sucker for awards of all shapes and sizes. Even awards that I hate. Actually, especially, awards that I hate.

The Nobel Prize in Literature, arguably the ‘O.G.’ (Original Gangster) literary prize, has heard its fair share of criticism— fuel for the flame of my growing disdain for awards of its ilk. The Nobel Committee has been accused of ignoring authors for extra-literary reasons, being too Eurocentric, and being too male-oriented. In the last couple of years alone, we’ve seen controversies surrounding the 2016 prize which was the first to be awarded to a songwriter, Bob Dylan; the 2018 prize which was cancelled due to a sexual assault scandal surrounding an Academy member; and the 2019 prize which was awarded to a prominent genocide-denier, Peter Handke. I bring up these criticisms and controversies because it is important to remember that the Nobel Committee is, at the end of the day, an organisation, like any other, comprised of ordinary humans. They care about their brand.

It is this logic that led many pundits and commentators to expect the 2020 prize to go to a ‘safe’ choice. Now that Louise Glück has won the prize, the reactions, alongside many of celebration and joy, include a sizeable number of folk who believe the Swedish Academy has simply done the expected. She’s a white, American writer who has been perceived as not overtly political; the statement given by the Swedish Academy about her is as bland and vague as it gets, praising Louise for “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”.  As much as I would like to agree with these cynics and naysayers – walk as I do amongst their ranks too often – perhaps it is my love for Glück, borne solely of the one collection of her poetry that I have read in its entirety, that compels me to pen a defence of her win (although, it goes without saying, it’s not like she, nor the literary community at large, are waiting for me, of all people, to come to her aid).

Let’s start with a common misconception. The charge that she isn’t ‘political’ enough. I think those who bring up this accusation often forget that politics isn’t just the flashy flairs of identity politics laced revolution that permeates a generation of young, slam poets. Politics exist within every relationship of power. And where Glück excels, often, is in using simplicity, wit and vulnerability to interrogate the politics, or the relationships of power, within marriages and love, within loss and grief, and, within our innermost lives. Here’s just an excerpt of one line which illuminates the best of all her biting qualities:

“But nakedness in women is always a pose.”

Who would dare to call this apolitical? A glaring flaw in our evaluation of Glück is the retrospective, ’20/20’ vision which we use, all too often, to judge work being created and published more than half a century ago. Her ability to assert the inner lives of women, the banalities of family and personal tragedy as subject matter worthy of the forefront of the page are political achievements in and of themselves. However, this is not to say that the effect of her poetry is lost on us today. In fact, Glück’s work, old and new, will always be remembered for its seamless, effortless and, almost invisible, quality in its approach to a myriad of thematic concerns. If anything, these qualities make it stand out more today. Reconsider the line presented above with the knowledge that Louise Glück suffered from debilitating anorexia in her youth— to the point of it almost killing her. A poet today would, arguably, waste no time in confronting their suffering on the page. I certainly don’t mean to shame them for doing so, yet, I must appreciate Glück’s restraint. Read the line again:

“But nakedness in women is always a pose.”

How much more tragic is it now? She presents what one can only imagine is a startlingly intimate confession without being confessional. She makes an astute, insightful observation without being observational. She waxes her intelligent, poetic craft into a universal, political statement— without being intellectual or political. Is this not magic?

Louise Glück has spoken about not wanting to be “somebody easy to understand, easy to like, the kind of diluted experience available to many”. Unfortunately for her, or rather, fortunately for us, she is accessible: understandable, likeable and available. But is any of this easy? No. The experience of reading Glück’s work is far from diluted. It requires an immersion, an imagination and an empathy that will elude not just the instant, clingy, Instagram poets but also many casual readers of all ages who aren’t ready to reckon with the full force of all her meaning. This doesn’t mean Glück writes in riddle or code. She writes, like all the best poets, arguments of the heart. The real question is if you’re willing to engage.

This piece is short and, suffice to say, there is much more to explore about Glück’s work which could not be covered here. In particular, her manipulation of the mythological and the natural are precious, winning parts of the entire Louise Glück phenomena. I would not be able to forgive myself, however, if I didn’t include at least a few lines from The Wild Iris. The premise of this collection, to give proper context, is that each poem is written from the perspective of a flower or a plant. Glück inflicts their inner lives with a devastating level of detail, the closest one can get to granting them a soul. In the following passage, she flips the usual human concern with the transient nature of life and the preoccupation with symbolic immortality – as Shakespeare put it in Sonnet 55, “You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes” – into nature’s tale of literal immortality:

“I don’t need your praise

to survive. I was here first,

before you were here, before

you ever planted a garden.

And I’ll be here when only the sun and moon

are left, and the sea, and the wide field.

I will constitute the field.”

This haunting verse reminds us, or me at least, that Louise Glück, no stranger to awards, – having won the Pulitzer Prize, National Humanities Medal, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, poet Laureate of the United States and many more – does not need another one. Her poetry existed before me, and it will exist long after I am gone. Of course, the Nobel prize will bring her a lot more attention, and that’s a great thing, but I truly hope that it is not the Nobel prize for which she is remembered.

Kanishk, an aspiring writer and filmmaker, is a graduate in political science from Ashoka University. His first collection of poetry, ‘Please Glue This Book Together’ was published by Shubhi Publications in 2016.  He is the founder of the humour and satire publication, ‘Kalinga’, and Ashoka University’s filmmaking society, ‘Navrang’. Along with award-winning short films posted on YouTube, he has co-written his first professional short film, ‘Suttabaazi’, set to release on Disney+ Hotstar.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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Issue 2

Girl in White Cotton: An ‘Unusual’ Depiction of Mother-Daughter Relationship

Girl in White Cotton by Avni Doshi, just like cotton, flows through one’s hands. Released as Burnt Sugar in the United Kingdom, it is one of those rare novels which make you question its motive, the selection of words used to depict a scene or an emotion, the intentions behind acts and dialogues. It proceeds in such a way that by the time one is done reading, it feels like it’s time to read it again. There is so much to understand and so much to take away that one reading would never be enough. It is not surprising at all that this debut is shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020.

The novel is about issues and relationships of everyday life. It deals with the mundane in the ways of the profane. On the face of it, it’s an ordinary tale of failed relationships. In fact, the story revels in its ordinariness. In it, there are a lot of characters who have complicated relationships with each other. However, as the story progresses, the reader realises that in its entirety, it is about Tara in the voice of her daughter Antara. Tara has always been a woman who has broken convention, be it in her life as a daughter, a wife, or a mother. She has risked the ‘normal’ upbringing of her daughter for the pursuits of her heart. Never having really gotten along with her parents, in-laws, or her child, she is now at the stage where old age has crept in and dependency cannot be avoided. Antara narrates her trail of difficulties which she faced as a caregiver at the expense of a person she never really cared for. 

Antara talks about her mother’s hatred for herself. She delves into how her mother wanted her to be everything she wasn’t because she loathed herself so much. Even her name, which means intimacy, wasn’t chosen because Tara liked it, but because it was unlike Tara.

‘Antara was really Un-Tara – Antara would be unlike her mother. But in the process of separating us, we were pitted against each other.’ 

Written in first person, Doshi presents a very crude and crucial picture of motherhood. It seems as if all the martyred depictions of motherhood that women are made to consume, and one day embody, fall apart. The story takes us through Antara’s life with Tara, going back and forth; her years at the Ashram in Pune where her Tara was a disciple, her convent boarding school, her college (which she never finished), and her married life. Throughout her journey we see her consciously attempting to separate herself from her mother. And yet, she gets reduced to being Tara’s caretaker, the caretaker of a mother who could never take care of herself or her daughter.

Doshi presents a very South Asian representation of motherhood, where being experimental and adventurous after marriage and after birthing children, isn’t appreciated.  It is the reason why this story hits so close to home. The entire episode of Antara’s pregnancy is a journal towards becoming a mother. It gives a glimpse into the apprehensions a mother might have — doubts, insecurities and fears — about how dreams might never turn into reality after her child is born. Such limitations might not be as perceptible elsewhere. I couldn’t help but draw a contrast between the mothers in Girl in White Cotton and Hideous Kinky, a novel by Esther Freud, in which the mother is celebrated for being carefree.  

The last chapter of Doshi’s book is a lost puzzle in some ways. Tara’s intentions become unclear to the reader — is she pretending to be someone she is not? Is she pretending to forget? Does she want to eliminate the traces of her daughter like she’s always done? No one knows. The only thing obvious here is to empathise with Antara. 
Girl in White Cotton is also about mobility; it shows how men move and are mobile while women stay. It raises a lot of uncomfortable questions about who gets to move and who doesn’t. What does mobility mean and how is it exercised? More than that, it is about how flexible romance is. It makes one wonder as to how much freedom one has in a codependent relationship. It also raises questions alluding to ethics but does not answer them. If that is a statement on Doshi’s idea of ethics, then she has wonderfully proven her point. All in all, it is not a story you might have never heard before; one of its elemental subplots resembles Orhan Pamuk’s The Red Haired Woman. But the uniqueness and the beauty of this novel lies particularly in its how.

Ananya is a postgraduate student studying English Literature at St. Stephen’s College and a researcher with Zubaan.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).