The Provincial Reader




A CHARACTER IN one of my favorite novels is a provincial reader. George Eliot gives him a name that is difficult to forget: Casaubon, and dedicated to a cause he certainly is. He is working toward developing “The Key to All Mythologies,” a book that will reveal the confluence among all major belief systems. His scholarship — or at least his show of dedication to it — wins him the admiration of the novel’s heroine, Dorothea. A little more than 100 years after Middlemarch (1871–’72), Kiran Desai, in her novel The Inheritance of Loss (2006), gives us another male provincial reader. He is older than Casaubon, a retired Indian judge, and he lives in a time warp, hoarding old copies of National Geographic. Apart from this fetish for research, there is something else that connects the two characters — their social origins: Middlemarch is subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life,” while Desai’s novel is set in Kalimpong, a provincial town in the eastern Himalayas in India.

I grew up in a small town not far from Kalimpong. In pre-liberalization India, everything arrived late: not just material things but also ideas. Deconstruction, for instance, arrived in Siliguri in the first years of this century, tired and exhausted after its long travel, and therefore pretty useless. Magazines — old copies of Reader’s Digest and National Geographic — arrived late too, after the news had become stale by months or, often, years. This temporal gap turned journalism into literature, news into legend, and historical events into something akin to plotless stories. But like those who knew no other life, we accepted this as the norm.

The dearth of reading material in towns and villages in socialist India is hard to imagine, and it produced two categories of people: those who stopped reading after school or college, and those — including children — who read anything they could find. I read road signs with the enthusiasm that attaches to reading thrillers. When the iterant kabadiwala, collector of papers, magazines, and rejected things, visited our neighborhood, I rushed to the house where he was doing business. He bought things at unimaginably low prices from those who’d stopped having any use for them, and I rummaged through his sacks of old magazines. Sometimes, on days when business was good, he allowed me a couple of copies of Sportsworld magazine for free. I’d run home and, ignoring my mother’s scolding, plunge right in — consuming news about India’s victory in the Benson and Hedges Cup, about Daley Thompson and the decathlon, about the rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. I knew all of these topics from TV, and so I read about them not to gather information or even confirm what I already knew. Perhaps it was the delight of interpretation — someone telling me what I knew, but in their words — or else it was language I was seeking, simply to take pleasure in it, hoping it would make everything new again.

Two takeaways from these experiences have marked my understanding of the provincial reader’s life: the sense of belatedness, of everything coming late, and the desire for pleasure in language. We waited for writers not just to bring other worlds to our small lives but also to give beauty to lives similar to ours. Finding people like ourselves in the pages of books might give our lives some dignity, perhaps even grace.

Speaking of belatedness, the awareness of having been born at the wrong time in history, of inventing things that had already been discovered elsewhere, far away, without our knowledge or cooperation, is a moment of epiphany and deep sadness. I remember a professor’s choked voice, narrating to me how all the arguments he’d made in his doctoral dissertation, written over many, many years of hard work (for there indeed was a time when PhDs were written over decades), had suddenly come to naught after he’d discovered the work of C. W. E. Bigsby. This, I realized as I grew older, was one of the characteristics of provincial life: that they (usually males) were saying trite things with the confidence of someone declaring them for the first time. I, therefore, grew up surrounded by would-be Newtons who claimed to have discovered gravity (again). There’s a deep sense of tragedy attending this sort of thing — the sad embarrassment of always arriving after the party is over. And there’s a harsh word for that sense of belatedness: “dated.” What rescues it is the unpredictability of these anachronistic “discoveries” — the randomness and haphazardness involved in mapping connections among thoughts and ideas, in a way that hasn’t yet been professionalized.

I say “not yet” because all of this would change, suddenly.

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At some point in time, with the growing inexpensiveness of travel overseas (to England and America in particular), the prestige of achievement that attended a Bangla phrase like bilet pherot, literally “foreign-returned,” became a transferred epithet. And the provincial reader’s life changed. They had read so much about these places; to experience them in person seemed as natural a desire as the child’s for adulthood. Apu, in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), holds the globe in his hands with longing, touching the proper names on it. In such intimate moments, the provincial longing for elsewhere is stoked and, oddly, also satisfied.

Like Apu, and Nirad C. Chaudhuri and V. S. Naipaul and many others before them, the older provincial reader knew the names of these places, particularly those in England, by heart. Aspiring writers, they were also aware of the other locations of power and desire — magazines and publishers. Now that it was possible to travel to London, the new provincial’s desire shifted from the material to the cultural. Indian corporate houses had begun donating large sums of money to wealthy educational institutions in the West, particularly the United States. The journey of the provincial reader’s desire was analogical: from a desire to be a tourist in these places, they now wanted to be cultural participants.

Something else had begun happening from the late 1990s. Literary culture had changed in the provinces — the “common” reader was beginning to disappear, and reading was turning into a professional activity. The move toward a utilitarian society that demanded measurement and instrumentalization meant that the pleasure that came from an experience like reading began to seem outdated and useless. Reading ought to produce real rewards rather than invisible ones, and a natural corollary of this assumption compelled the reader to become a writer.Only then could reading be given some value — thus precipitating, within academia, the use of the word “reading” (and, soon after, “rereading,” as in “Re-reading ABC as a Postcolonial Novel”) to mean, actually, “writing.”

The old-world provincial was seemingly content with the perimeter of his influence — a conversation with friends, a small social gathering, that was enough. Yet, not content to be a lamppost with a finite reach, the new provincial wanted to be the sun. That desire immediately changed the hierarchy of cultural production. Adda, oral conversations and discussions about literary culture, were local and, being the product of an unexpected moment, naturally had no archive. The scale, in space and time, now needed to be amplified: what was important were the new institutions — often English-language institutions — that fostered cultural exchange; what was actually being said was almost redundant. (Contrast this with the old provincial who read and wrote in obscure little magazines in their own languages.)

The provincial reader, whose difficult physical journey had once been expressed in the old-world phrase saat shomudro tyaro nodir paar (literally “crossing seven seas and 13 rivers”), now just wanted to be heard. In this new world, with its cacophony, one voice drowning out another, what became important was the site from which they all were speaking. The love for the faraway, for wonder and daydreaming, now transferred itself to venues of cultural power — to “prestigious” journals in America and England. That word was a new addition to the provincial’s imagination — no adda, no informal gathering, had ever been annotated as “prestigious.” But now, suddenly, this prestige was all that mattered: not what was being said but where it was said. In purporting to dismantle one kind of hierarchy, the elitism and entitlement of those born beyond the confines of the provincial town, provincial readers were now subscribing to a gross new kind of elitism. The colonialism inherent in such a ready acceptance of sites of publication like “prestigious” journals or university presses in England and America changed reading techniques drastically. The loss of local specificity in the new reverence for an “international” literary culture meant that there was nothing unique to the provincial reader’s experience anymore — it was like the ATM machine reading our debit cards.

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By the time I started going to school, the cultivation of uselessness, particularly useless information, had long been institutionalized in a subject called General Knowledge. The last incarnation of this comprised the proliferation of quiz competitions, on evening television and in towns and districts, with the popular quizmaster Siddhartha Basu and the sponsor, the children’s health drink Bournvita, becoming synonymous with this thirst for knowledge. The gratuitous display of spurious erudition, of inconsequential information and namedropping (a tendency Satyajit Ray depicted in his 1991 film Agantuk), became a kind of mental gymnastics. Nothing here that could lead to moral action or patriotism or philanthropy, but simply information for information’s sake, details about the faraway and the quixotic, details that, because they came from elsewhere, seemed to invigorate the mundanity of provincial life. Journalist and cultural commentator Ian Jack has described how Nirad Chaudhuri recited

extracts from Ronsard, Tagore and the Ramayana in their appropriate languages […] [,] enumerated the piano sonatas of Beethoven, then his quartets, then the number composed in the minor key. It was as though some celestial cigarette-card collection had been emptied over our heads. How could he retain so much information on so many disparate things?

Bengal’s modernist writers and filmmakers would repeatedly invoke this figure of the provincial reading books as if they were a collection of the world’s telegrams: Apu, in the 1928 novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay on which Ray’s Pather Panchali was based, reads books and pores over maps and globes, with wonder and longing. Imagination was the only means of travel available to the poor modern. And so, books were given as wedding gifts, the equivalent of paid honeymoons today.

Participating in an inter-school quiz competition at the age of 14 in Siliguri, the provincial town in sub-Himalayan Bengal where I spent the first 25 years of my life, I suddenly became aware of the inadequacy of this bookish information when a quizmaster from Calcutta asked us to identify the different kinds of Bengali sweets that he had brought with him. All the quizbooks we’d read and all the newspapers and magazines we’d scratched through for knowledge had not prepared us for this moment — we had ignored the local, the close-at-hand; we had proved ourselves to be provincials by living the Bengali adage Geyo jogi bheekh paaye na, the village gives no alms to its own beggar. This is the provincial’s fate — to gaze out of the window at the cost of neglecting the inhabitants in the room. Three decades later, I am able to connect that moment of self-recognition with the continuing inability of the new provincial reader to pay attention to the immediate, both in space and time. The provincial reader today knows more about French and Anglo-American critical theorists than the work of writers in his or her own town. I find myself thinking of the young protagonist in Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss:

Burrowing the shelves, Sai had not only located herself but read My Vanishing Tribe, revealing to her that she meanwhile knew nothing of the people who had belonged here first. Lepchas, the Rong pa, people of the ravine who followed Bon and believed the original Lepchas, Fodongthing, and Nuzongnyue were created from sacred Kanchenjunga snow.

While provincial readers rue the lack of an archive of their own history, they seem to have no self-awareness of their own complicity in this absence, their refusal to be mindful of their immediate neighborhood of thoughts and ideas, writing and writers, art and artists. The word “local” is thrown about like salt over the shoulder, but it has no clear meaning for — or even effect on — the provincial reader. My 14-year-old self’s ignorance about the sweet labango lotika is a metaphor for the provincial reader’s neglect of his own. Trying to speak in the style of their heroes from Europe and America, they forget their own language. And, gradually, a dialect of thought and experience is lost. This too, I think, is the provincial’s destiny — to lose a record of the history that produced them, even while ruing its lack, in an ironic cycle of which they are both authors and victims.

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There are significant structures of power embedded in this process of looking outward at the cost of one’s immediate surroundings, of turning history into “background.” It is natural for the eye to seek light and those in the light. The creatures of the unlit world yearn for a life in the light, and hence they imitate the behavior of those in power. The result of this process, in provinces and former colonies, has been disastrous. Like a tourist collecting curios, each a citation of a culture or place visited, the provincial reader’s knowledge has increasingly become an assemblage of phrases acquired from reading Anglophone critical theory. This would not be a problem if it involved conscious devotion to a particular tradition of thought. But what we get instead is a pastiche of voices divorced from their contexts, smuggled into the space of a sentence or a paragraph, without attribution. The forced manner of this discourse has the character of Esperanto, an artificial language that no one actually uses. This is a performance of language rather than language itself; it is performing “scholarship,” as Casaubon was wont to do.

Here, for example, is an excerpt from a research paper by a scholar in Bengal:

We have at hand two contrary and mutually diverse tropes of modern subjectivity. The self-sufficient, temporally relevant and assertive agency, construed as an unconditionally faithful subject of the present, is curiously poised/(dis)harmonised by the self-negating, critical self of ambiguity, who experiences the limits of certitude in the perpetual anxiety of the ontic. The happened contours of history evolve as the possible double that is either rejected/denied by the modern subject in its cathexis for the now, or it is taken into consideration by the evolving ontic, which in its own way increasingly jeopardizes the possibilities of a transcendental culmination of an unproblematised agency.

This is the language of bricolage, a practice that has always been characteristic of the provincial autodidact. For the old-school provincial, cobbling things together was a way to respond to the reality of deprivation; it was an aesthetic necessitated by poverty. Collecting things from anywhere they could get them, putting them together, like a patchwork quilt, the collage of these provincials had a history and, because of that, a dignity. Among the few things that connect the old-school provincial to the newly professionalized provincial is this aesthetic, and yet it has also been wildly transformed. The old provincials operated almost in the mode of a hunter-gatherer in the forest — theirs was a language of exploration and curiosity, urged on by hunger. It was an extension of what Indians call jugaad — a difficult to translate term, its closest English meanings being “hack” or “DIY,” an innovative means of getting around a problem or difficult situation. Said to derive from the Sanskrit yukti, meaning “solution,” it is premised on the ethic of compromise, adjustment, and accommodation. The old-school provincial created this ad hoc language for survival — it had no ideological purpose beyond this commitment. Moreover, it had a beauty and humor that came from its very deprivation. Yet now, with the free-flowing tap of reading material available on the internet, there is only excess, cacophony, a bricolage of ugly fragments divorced from their contexts. How did this happen?

In Amitav Ghosh’s 1998 essay “The Testimony of My Grandfather’s Bookcase,” we meet a Calcutta metropolitan with an old-style provincial temperament whose reading habits were evidently formed by the cultural power of literary prizes:

For a long time I was at a loss to account for my uncle’s odd assortment of books. I knew their eclecticism couldn’t really be ascribed to personal idiosyncrasies of taste. My uncle was a keen reader but he was not, I suspect, the kind of person who allows his own taste to steer him through libraries and bookshops. On the contrary he was a reader of the kind whose taste is guided largely by prevalent opinion. This uncle, I might add, was a writer himself, in a modest way. He wrote plays in an epic vein with characters borrowed from the Sanskrit classics. He never left India and indeed rarely ventured out of his home state of West Bengal.

The principles that guided my uncle’s taste would have been much clearer to me had I ever had an interest in trivia. To the quiz-show adept the link between Grazia Deledda, Gorky, Hamsun, Sholokhov, Sienkiewicz and Andric will be clear at once: it is the Nobel Prize for Literature.

This is innocently prescient of a later moment of transition, one that would be marked, in the ’90s, by the emergence of a new kind of power, the power of extratextual and international forces. The emergence of longlists and shortlists, end-of-year booklists, and other shortcuts to guide the reader’s attention was a natural consequence of the complete indifference of provincials to their own literature.

Something else happened, too. Both Amitav Ghosh and Nirad Chaudhuri remind us that the provincial reader in the former colonies had encountered the world through the novel. “[W]ithout a doubt it was the novel that weighed most heavily on the floors of my grandfather’s house,” Ghosh writes. “To this day I am unable to place a textbook or a computer manual upon a bookshelf without a twinge of embarrassment.” He then quotes from Chaudhuri:

It has to be pointed out that in the latter half of the nineteenth century Bengali life and Bengali literature had become very closely connected and literature was bringing into the life of educated Bengalis something which they could not get from any other source. Whether in the cities and towns or in the villages, where the Bengali gentry still had the permanent base of their life, it was the mainstay of their life of feeling, sentiment and passion. Both emotional capacity and idealism were sustained by it. […] [W]hen my sister was married in 1916, a college friend of mine presented her with fifteen of the latest novels by the foremost writers and my sister certainly did not prize them less than her far more costly clothes and jewellery. In fact, sales of fiction and poetry as wedding presents were a sure standby of their publishers.

There is little fiction or poetry on the bookshelves of the professional provincial reader now. These are all “minor” forms compared to the books on critical theory they consume. The language of the novel was the language of life — it gave the provincial’s own language charm, feeling, and energy. The bloodless jargon of critical theory often seems to be to the language of cold storage: dissociated from the actual life of the provincial, it is the language of parody without self-awareness; everything seems couched in invisible quotation marks.

In his 1998 essay “Edmund Wilson in Benares,” Pankaj Mishra gives us a moving record of his life as a provincial reader, confessing that he tried “to write […] in the way an American or European writer would have.” This is a late version of the urge we see in most old-world provincials: not only to write as a “European writer would have,” but to be in dialogue with all that “literature” encompasses. Writing about the four months he spent in Benares consuming everything by Edmund Wilson and then trying to write about him, Mishra’s essay comes to us in a language that is no different from the language of the novel — which is why the essay could so readily be transformed into his first novel, The Romantics (1999). That language seems to be of no use to the new provincial; indeed, the substitution of critical theory for the novel has created the incongruous situation where “Creative Writing” is now a “minor” in English and Comparative Literature departments, because only the voice and language of the “scholar” is considered to be of value.

The result is not unlike the fable of the crow trying to be a peacock. The “scholarship” performed through this strange new language seems always to be on the verge of breakdown, a desperate and distorted mimicry of the new colonizer’s language of “seriousness.” It is perhaps this kind of language Kader Khan, in an act of prescience, meant to spoof when he made a character in the 1977 Hindi film Amar Akbar Anthony say these words while emerging out of a giant Easter egg: “You see the whole country of this system is just a position by the haemoglobin in the atmosphere because you are a sophisticated rhetorician intoxicated by the exuberance of your own verbosity.”

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Like Dorothea, deprived of what Eliot calls an “epic life,” the provincial reader finds — or creates — heroes out of those they imagine have access to that life. The “epic life” is Eliot’s shorthand for the expectations the provincial has associated with the role of “scholar.” It is related to the Bengali word pandit, used for centuries to describe the learned Brahmin. Derrida, Foucault, Agamben, Gadamer, Barthes — these names are uttered with the same kind of respect and call for help that characterized Sanskrit prayer chants, the mantras that invoked Shiva, Indra, Varuna, Agni, and other members of the Hindu pantheon.

We are all Dorotheas and Casaubons because we suffer from the same cultural anxiety, the same desire to know everything — except, increasingly, the immediate. It’s a natural need of the deprived, this voracious appetite, but when it plays out in the intellectual sphere, the results can be damaging. Only writers who feed this desire for the “epic life” are valorized, and only forms that are seen to express this “epic life” are considered important — which perhaps explains the exaggerated appeal, in the former colonies, of the historical novel, with its magisterial display of the archive. “It’s not a great novel, but one can see the great amount of research that went into it” — this is a statement I have encountered in book reviews and conversations. The man with whom the young protagonist falls in love in Desai’s novel is called “Gyan” — the word means “knowledge.” Historical novels satisfy the provincial reader’s gluttonous appetite for repletion, for a surfeit of spurious knowledge, while the poet and the essayist, artists of the fragmentary, are relegated to the status of minor artists.

The provincial needs “scholarship” the way the depressive needs Prozac, and in similarly regular installments. Two writers record this urge in different ways. Nirad Chaudhuri, scholar of unnecessary information, acknowledges with self-irony in his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1952): “I never became a scholar. But every true scholar will forgive me, for he knows it as well as I do that the greater part of his métier is the capacity for experiencing the emotion of scholarship.” The other is the quiet Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, who identifies this desire for knowledge for what it really is — he calls it khyala, play. Pawra pawra khyala — reading as make-believe, a sport, a pretend game; the same fantasy as the quiz competition.

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It is significant that Chaudhuri sees his memoir as the autobiography of an unknown Indian. Hidden inside the word “provincial,” not very subtly, is a sense of deprivation, of a history of neglect, of a life lived out of the spotlight. To be a provincial is to be on the margins, always viewing, never seen. The psychological result is a difficult kind of waiting that exacerbates the provincial’s sense of inadequacy.

In his 2019 essay “In the Shadow of the Archive,” Tom Lutz compares his own life with Pankaj Mishra’s:

My own provincialism at the age of eighteen was intense, despite how physically close I was to the center of empire, growing up an hour outside New York City. Pankaj, 8,000 miles away, was reading the TLS, Partisan Review, and New York Review of Books, none of which I had ever heard of, even though the latter two were published within thirty miles of my house. The shadow of empire is cast very close to its center, cast there perhaps not dissimilarly to the way it shades its outposts. […] We both read compulsively, both felt our provincial stain, both consorted with desperate and criminal characters in our reading and our lives, both craved an arrival that was textual — we weren’t looking for money (except to eat) or careers, we were looking for some transcendence we had endowed literature with the power to bestow. […] “The dream of cosmopolitanism conceived in the provincial periphery”? Yes, that was my dream, the offstage prize I fumbled toward, marooned in my own ignorance on the suburban periphery, then on the Midwestern periphery, working with my hands at building sites, at farms, at restaurants — Mishra’s cosmopolitanism was my dream, the achievement of it promising to lift me not out of my socioeconomic position, but out of my witlessness.

The effect of feeling out of the spotlight causes an etiolation of the self, a permanent sense of inadequacy. And so Lutz, who now teaches at the University of California, Riverside and is the founding editor and publisher of LARB, continues to feel the same “stain” of provinciality:

But in my story, I remained unschooled, and being inside did nothing to alleviate the feeling of being outside. Even those many years later, officially a Distinguished Professor, I still feel like I don’t belong, that I am not like the other Distinguished Professors, that I am an autodidactic, undereducated, not-very-well-brought-up, etiquette-challenged, insufficiently professionalized poseur, an imposter in academic regalia.

Feeling a “poseur,” an “imposter” — this is the logical endpoint of the provincial autodidact’s imitation of “professionalized” language.

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Last night, just to check, to perform my “research” as it were (for “research” no longer seems to be about oneself but always about something outside us), I looked at a few journals from India, America, and the United Kingdom. If their titles had been hidden from me, I wouldn’t have been able to identify where they were published or the geographical locations of their contributors. I went to sleep thinking that one of two things had happened: either the provincial reader has become extinct, or everyone has become a provincial reader.

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Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree (2017), Missing: A Novel (2018),  Out of Syllabus: Poems (2019), and My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories (2019). She teaches at Ashoka University in Haryana, India.

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Banner image: “Kalimpong” by Prateek Rungta is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

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