Export Duties

A dark fable of global cultural circulation...

We tend to have a basically cheerful vision of the circulation of ideas across borders. Literature, the Humanities, and the World! as it says on the Arcade masthead. But sometimes those who participate in that circulation take a grimmer view. I've been working on the Indian, or rather, Kenyan-Indian-English-American, writer G.V. Desani (1909–2000). One of Desani’s recurring themes, in his single novel All About H. Hatterr and his other English-language writings, is the injuries of public circulation. Often this is painfully literal: Hatterr, in the picaresque novel that sends him around India, frequently ends his adventures stripped of clothing as well as cash and dignity. (Amardeep Singh, who is, by the bye, an exemplary academic blogger, analyzes Hatterr’s disrobing in his recent essay on the novel.)

Desani develops his most chilling version of the circulation theme in a short story first published late in Desani’s life, called “Since a Nation Must Export, Smithers!” (in “Hali” and Collected Stories [New York: McPherson, 1991]). Like many of Desani’s stories, it is a dream narrative. In this dream, the anonymous narrator finds himself walking the streets of Delhi when he comes across a disturbing commercial venture:

All around me were stacks of cardboard boxes, millions of them, piled one upon another, and I asked a lady official, who was stamping them, what might be inside them, and she replied, “Mahātmās.” The boxes were intended for export, she said, to help overseas trade. “Some of us must die,” she added, “so that others might live.” (136)

The dreamer then looks in the boxes and discovers shrunken, mummified corpses of mahatmas, which are, says the official, India’s most important national export. By the end of the story, the dreamer and his diabolical English companion Smithers will find themselves, after transgressing some unspoken law, boxed mahatmas as well. It is hard not to see Desani in his own story, since he was himself sort of an Indian export: he first made his literary fame in England and spent the last three decades of his life in the U.S., where he taught Eastern philosophy and religion at the University of Texas. The exportation of Indian spirituality becomes a terrifying prospect of shrinkage, loss of control, and commodification. It's also an atmosphere in which everyone seems to be guilty: the creepily colonial Englishman, the hapless Desanian narrator, the Indian bureaucracy, and, invisible though they are, the willing buyers of the spiritual commodity.

There appears to be no way out. So it’s rather unexpected to find the narrator, at the end of the story, defiantly triumphant in his miniature mahatma-coffin:

“Having lived dangerously, and receded dangerously, I feel staunchly and unaccountably optimistic!” Addressing the fuming ghost standing next to me, I cried, “IO TRIUMPHE, SMITHERS! ONE LIFE, ONE death! So these are the agonies of death! Rigor mortis, eh? We have joined the choir invisible, Smithers! And England expects every man will do his duty! Excuse me laughing, but …ha! ha!” (142)

It is perhaps germane to add that every English-speaking first-year Sanskrit student gets a chuckle on learning that hā hā is the conventional interjection of pain in classical texts. Desani is in fact rather a master of the ambiguous effect. Like most of his writing, in “Smithers!” all of the elements of satire are present but the target is frustratingly hard to pin down. It may be that the ultimate aim is simply to provoke laughter out of the absurd situation.

I certainly don’t want to force an analogy between Desani’s narrator and Desani, but I am fascinated by the attempt to overcome the dire humiliations of embodying an exported idea with diabolical laughter. And I like very much the notion that even a much-beset, symbolically dominated intellectual should enjoy the Monty Pythonesque triumph of living on, in his writings, as a member of the “choir invisible.” The satirical, disturbing vision of the relations of power in the global perambulations of Indian culture has been as it were smuggled in the box along with the diminutive, easily consumed mahatma.

A self-reflexive note

I was spurred to write this up as a blog post after reading and participating in the very interesting discussion, over in the editors' blogs, about the challenges of writing publicly on Arcade. See Natalia Cecire: How Public Like a Frog (and, from earlier, Meredith Ramirez Talusan: Do Women Play Less on Arcade?). Now the main reason I was so spurred is simply that both editors want to see more blogging and more discussion—so I offer my strange, tangential contribution.

Without wanting to push it too hard, I also see an oblique connection between the terrors of cultural circulation as represented in “Since a Nation Must Export, Smithers!” and our own recurrent struggles with the fears of publicity. Some kinds of writing, especially the writing of those who are in one way or another disempowered (e.g., non-metropolitans, non-native-speakers, non-whites, and non-males, and, indeed, non-tenured and non-tenure-track academic faculty), are constantly hounded by an awareness of the threats and inequities of the public world they aspire to circulate in. As for Desani, everyone wishes he had written another novel after Hatterr, but he never did, and the book of collected stories was thirty years in the making. Still, he leaves us with that concluding note of gleeful, even spiteful triumph. In facing the fears that attend the public circulation of ideas, Desani's madly exultant laughter helps carry at least this writer forward. Ha ha! or anyway हा हा ।

[Edited 5/3/11]

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