India, an Idea

2014-Grbac-PeterBy Peter Grbac

No guidebook, no first-hand narratives, no newspaper reports, nothing really can prepare you for an experience in India. I say India but having spent the past four months wandering the streets of Kolkata, sipping tea in Darjeeling, seeing the dead float down the Ganges, drifting through temples scattered around the North, and sitting through traffic (lots of traffic), there really is no such thing called India. This so-called nation is as diverse as it is large as it is old. It is the cultures, the languages, the foods, the clothing, the religious beliefs, the superstitions. For me, India is, above all, an idea. This is a country that, in so many ways, really shouldn’t work. Yet it does.

There is, of course, the real risk that the Westerner, in his or her immersion in this land exoticizes, even fetishizes, India. I think that for every visitor to India who has “found” himself or herself, there is a visitor who leaves the country more confused, more unsettled, more restless. As I get set to leave this country, I find myself identifying with the latter. This is a place that has, all at once, proved to be as overwhelming as it is calm, as ugly as it is beautiful, as miserable as it is happy. In the middle of my archival research, I came upon the following editorial in The Statesman written by James Cameron on May 31, 1971. This is what he had to say about Calcutta and India more generally:

When I finally came to India it took about thirty seconds flat to put me in my place, and there I have remained. Every time I return to Calcutta I feel it must be surely impossible that it can continue much longer like this; yet it always does. An interval of a year makes the visual impact more painful, the squalor more squalid, the poverty more militant, the despair more desperate. There is no way of rationalizing Calcutta. It is Indian acceptance, which may be torpor; Indian resilience, which may be opportunism; Indian philosophy, which may be indifference; Indian ingenuity, the instinct for survival. I find Calcutta an intimidating and even infernal city, unredeemed, and probably doomed. In a month or so I shall probably be back, to eat my words, as I always do, and find, as one always finds, a flash of redemption in the company of a friend, and the remembrance, more humbling now than ever, that India has gone on for a very long time.

I have to admit that like Cameron, I too have eaten my words more than once. Calcutta is a city, as I pointed out in my first blog post, of extremes where the drama over justice, equality, and fairness envelops you like the sweltering heat. You can’t avoid it and it usually leaves you feeling powerless, vulnerable, and weak. You sense it when you read about the rape cases, or when you hear firsthand testimony about the unequal power dynamics within the court system, or when you study changes in the law that have re-written the rules to favour developers over the poor farmers. These experiences can leave you on the margins, forced to observe what I described as the “daily festival of human existence with all the good and bad that that existence entails.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. My experience at the CRG – listening, reading, writing, asking questions, debating – has highlighted the place and role of academic research in the framing, structuring, and influencing of this drama. Working at the CRG was certainly more than visiting archives, producing original research, and publishing a paper. It was an experience with and of ideas – ideas that extended far beyond the law and refugee rights. These were ideas encompassing topics as diverse as class and culture, economics and equality, bollywood and hollywood. Instead of describing these ideas, I’d like to invite you to join in the conversation. I conclude my last blog post with a mock syllabus (what some might call a summer reading list) that I’ve organized around some of the key themes that have sustained my thinking this summer. There are no papers, no finals, no quizzes. I look forward to carrying on this summer of ideas back in Montreal.

India 1971: Between the Camp and the City

Week 1: India at the (geopolitical) crossroads
(Book) India After Independence: 1947-2000 (2000) Bipan Chandra
(Book) The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (2013) Gary J. Bass
(Films) The Apu Trilogy – Pather Panchali, Aparajuto, and Apur Sansar (1955, 1956, 1959) Directed by Satyajit Ray
(Novel) A Golden Age (2012) Tahmima Anam
(Novel) Such a Long Journey (1991) Rohinton Mistry

Week 2: Theorizing borders, boundaries, and spaces of difference
(Article) The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences (2002 – The Annual Review of Sociology) M Lamont, V Molnar
(Book) Borders, Histories, Existences: Gender and Beyond (2010) Paula Banerjee
(Book) Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality (1992) M Lamont, M Fournier
(Book) Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics (1997) B.J. Moore-Gilbert
(Book) Understanding Postcolonialism (2012) Jane Hiddleston

Week 3: Building the urban spaces of India
(Book) Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi (2014) Rana Dasgupta
(Book) City of Djinns (1993) William Dalrymple
(Book) Maximum City (2004) Suketu Mehta
(Book) Violence in Urban India: Identity Politics, ‘Mumbai’, and the Postcolonial City (2005) Thomas Blom Hansen
(Film) Slumdog Millionaire (2008) Directed by Danny Boyle
(Press) The Slumdog Millionaire Architect (June 19, 2014) Daniel Brook, New York Times Magazine [Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/22/magazine/the-slumdog-millionaire-architect.html?_r=]
(Press) Mumbai Land Grab (October 24, 2012) Faiza Ahmed Khan [Link: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/activate/2012/10/20121014113746742151.html]

Week 4: Modernity and the Urban
(Book) Calcutta Requiem: Gender and the Politics of Poverty (2007) Ananya Roy
(Book) Cultures of Servitude: Modernity, Domesticity, and Class in India (2009) Raka Ray
(Book) Places on the Margin (1991) Rob Shields
(Book) The Global City (1991) Saskia Sassen
(Book) The Urban Sociology Reader (2012) J Lin, C Mele
(Novel) Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (2012) Katherine Boo
(Film) Mahanagar/The Big City (1963) Directed by Satyajit Ray

Week 5: Violent streets, Violent cities
(Article) Urban Violence and Insecurity: An Introductory Roadmap (October 2004 – Environment and Urbanization Volume 16 Number 2) Caroline Moser
(Book) Calcutta: Two Years in the City (2013) Amit Chaudhuri
(Book) Cities and Citizenship (1999) James Holston
(Book) The Naxalite Movement in India (1995) Prakash Singh
(Book) Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (2013) Loic Wacquant
(Film) Calcutta Trilogy – Pratidwandi (The Adversary), Seemabaddha (Company Limited), and Jana Aranya (The Middleman) (1970, 1971, 1976) Directed by Satyajit Ray
(Novel) The White Tiger (2008) Aravind Adiga

Week 6: Managing displacement
(Article) Conceptualizing Forced Migration (2003 – Refugee Studies Centre) David Turton
(Book) Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism (2000) Jennifer Hyndman
(Book) Refugees and the State: Practices of Asylum and Care in India, 1947-2000 (2003) Ranabir Samaddar
(Book) Rights in Exile: Janus-Faced Humanitarianism (2005) Barbara Harrell-Bond
(Book) The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path (2001) G Loescher, DR Baldwin, H Rothstein

Week 7: (International) law and (international) institutions
(Article) The Geopolitics of Refugee Studies: A View from the South (1998 – Journal of Refugee Studies) BS Chimni
(Article) International Refugee Protection (1986 – Human Rights Quarterly) David Kennedy
(Document) 1948 Declaration of Human Rights [Link: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/]
(Document) 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees [Link: http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html]
(Book) From Resettlement to Involuntary Repatriation: Towards a Critical History of Durable Solutions to Refugee Problems (1999) BS Chimni
(Book) Governing Refugees: Justice, Order and Legal Pluralism (2014) Kirsten McConnachie
(Book) The Refugee in International Law (1996) GS Goodwin-Gill, J McAdam

Week 8: War as humanitarian intervention?
(Article) A Few Words on Mill, Walzer, and Nonintervention (2010 – Ethics and International Affairs) Michael W. Doyle
(Article) After Bangladesh: The Law of Humanitarian Intervention by Military Force (1973 – American Journal of International Law) Thomas M. Franck and Nigel S. Rodley
(Article) Bad Neighbors, Bad Neighborhoods: An Inquiry Into the Causes of Refugee Flows (1996 – International Security) Myron Weiner
(Article) On Humanitarianism: Is Helping Others Charity, or Duty, or Both? (2011 – Foreign Affairs) Michael Walzer
(Article) The Externalities of Civil Strife: Refugees as a Source of International Conflict (2008 – American Journal of Political Science) Idean Salehyan
(Book) Pakistan: Failure in National Integration (1995) Rounaq Jahan

Week 9: Repatriation, Rehabilitation, and Reconstruction
(Article) Dilemmas of Diaspora: Partition, Refugees, and the Politics of “Home” (2006 – Refuge) Pablo Bose
(Article) Refugees in Diaspora From Durable Solutions to Transnational Relations (2006 – Refuge) N Van Hear
(Article) Refugees, Return and Reconstruction of ‘Post-conflict’ Societies: A Critical Perspective (2002 – International Peacekeeping) BS Chimni
(Book) UNHCR and Voluntary Repatriation of Refugees: A Legal Analysis (1997) Marjoleine Zieck
(Book) The End of the Refugee Cycle? Refugee Repatriation and Reconstruction (1999) Richard Black, Khalid Koser

Week 10: Conclusion – “…the proper use of verbs of movement”
(Novel) The Shadow Lines (1988) Amitav Ghosh

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