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TRIALS BY ERROR - Bureaucracy exercises control by ignoring achievement

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By Telling Tales - Amit Chaudhuri
  • Published 5.01.09

Ancient wisdom proclaims that it’s better not to respond to reviews. This might need to be considered afresh in a context such as Calcutta and, for that matter, India, where non-response is both endemic and a strategy for survival. How can you encourage debate and a multiplicity of opinion if the terse bureaucratic put-down becomes an acceptable ingredient in life, where you gratefully accept the rap on the knuckles and move on? Argument dries up in the public domain; gossip abounds in the private sphere; opinion itself becomes subsumed under a special language — to do with the demarcation of territories, loyalties — with which all who are attuned to the realm of bureaucracy, and its mode of exercising power, will be familiar.

Bureaucracy exercises control by ignoring achievement, and ascribing a mysterious significance to information. The bureaucrat needn’t be your superior or even your equal to sit in judgment upon you; in fact, he or she might, quite often, be a nameless functionary who, crucially, has access to information that you may not. An incorrect answer negates who you are and all that you have done; the nuclear physicist applying for American citizenship might have to recall, at the appointed moment, the birthplace of Robert Oppenheimer; if his mind goes blank, he’s erred irrevocably; not all his contributions to nuclear physics will rescue him.

The way to be immune to this contingency, especially when it comes to criticism (because there’s been for too long a form of criticism prevalent in India that’s akin to bureaucratic practice), is not necessarily to learn up more facts; because there will always be some facts you’ve got wrong, errors that are bound to creep in. The best option is to join the metaphorical bureaucracy yourself; the safest place, in India, is one from which you can exercise control. Here, it’s worth asking: how important are errors, or elisions, of information in the realm of criticism, and how important a part of critical activity is the pointing out of such errors or omissions?

Before going any further, I should point out that these thoughts arise in the context of recent reviews of two of my works, of Clearing a Space by Sukanta Chaudhuri in the Bengali weekly Desh, and a very short unsigned notice of the anthology, Memory’s Gold, in these pages. Chaudhuri’s review, I should add, is as generally thoughtful and generous (for which I am grateful) as the Telegraph notice is cursory. But both spend time on factual errors or omissions (the latter expends almost the entirety of its small space on these) in a way that’s reminiscent of a great deal of reviewing in this country. Are our reviewers just more meticulous in these matters than their counterparts elsewhere? What is the hidden, life-and-death, clinching import of information?

I believe, as do most sane people, that it’s deeply desirable to have an error-free text, and also that the error-free text is a utopian idea. At least four people or sets of individuals sift through a critical text before it reaches publication: the author, most directly accountable for its lapses; the editor; the copy-editor; and the readers, experts in the field. But that is no guarantee against some errors remaining, such as, for instance, my apparent suggestion that Pathuriaghata is outside Calcutta, and I’m thankful at least some were spotted (mainly, it seems, in two essays on Tagore; but we’re assured the list could be extended) by Chaudhuri’s eagle eye. The one about Pathuriaghata was quoted portentously from Chaudhuri’s review, for no good reason, in the Telegraph notice (it’s always refreshing to have a paper you contribute to so keen to improve your knowledge); surely there were more useful lessons the reviewer might have learnt from the professor?

I do think correcting errors is important, and inevitable (since every major project will have errors), and that it’s also worth acknowledging, as Chaudhuri does in his Desh review, that the critic’s task lies, substantially, elsewhere, in engaging with the argumentation within the book. With any anthology of merit, structure, the relationships set up between the texts selected and the challenge posed to the reader thereby are questions that must be dealt with. Errata can’t take up too much review space, or be made to look more significant than they are; errata are errata and, contrary to what many of our reviewers think, not criticism; unless, of course, facts that were central to the book’s argument were misrepresented, in which case the argument itself falls apart. One of the best-known instances of error-finding as criticism involves the reception of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, a study which sought to demonstrate, through research and polemic, that a great deal of ‘Western’ civilization had its sources in Africa and Asia. Here, fact and polemic were inextricable; and the uncovering of every erroneous piece of information was a blow struck against tendentious interpretation. A more recent example is the historian Robert Irwin’s long diatribe last year against the late Edward Said in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement, an essay comprising almost entirely of a catalogue of errors in Said’s work, and casting doubt on his knowledge of Arabic (an aspersion discredited by his widow) and German. Though I have fundamental disagreements with Said’s writings, I found Irwin’s approach dispiriting. Facts were certainly key to Said’s argument, but so was the close-reading of certain texts, and a basic philosophical insight about knowledge and power. Irwin wasn’t interested in refuting these ideas, but in delegitimizing the work; but it isn’t easy to disable a powerful polemic through fact-checking alone. Nevertheless, Irwin’s piece is a reminder that error-finding, even where it’s justified, often has less to do with exploring the intellectual provenances of ideological differences than with the translation of those differences into anxieties to do with authenticity and territoriality. In India, usually, there are few serious ideological differences (which is why it’s so easy, here, to forge alliances with former enemies, and why so much debate seems ornamental); but the demarcation of territory and the issue of authenticity are fundamental; so, the bureaucratic test of getting all your facts right — and having your legitimacy stripped from you should you get a fact wrong — is ubiquitous.

Chaudhuri, too, is haunted by the spectre of authenticity. He notes, in his review, that, as a writer in English, I should be particularly careful that all my facts are correct, especially as Bengali culture is now disseminated in the West through figures like myself; more than once, he mentions the problematic, ‘distanced’ position of the Indian English writer. (Here, Chaudhuri, a Renaissance scholar himself, is inadvertently echoing and inverting a prejudice once common in sections of English academia, that Indians could not possibly write authentically on Shakespeare or D.H. Lawrence.) The role of disseminator is certainly not one I’ve assigned myself; moreover, I’m not sure how much the Western — or any — reader’s understanding of, say, my interpretation of Tagore’s relationship with Kalidasa is seriously threatened by the bibliographical and minor factual errors cited, regrettable though those are. I’m more concerned that Chaudhuri himself, as the general editor of the Oxford Tagore and translator of Chhelebhulano Chhara does not mention anywhere in the volume carrying the translation (or elsewhere, to the best of my knowledge) that Tagore’s “nityaprabahita chetanar madhye” (from that essay) is an almost literal version of ‘stream of consciousness’, nor point out the striking proximity between the publication date of the essay (1894) and of William James’s Psychology (1892), in which the influential phrase first occurs. This is not a factual error; it’s a curious critical oversight; it neglects, upon the first major English-language publication of this essay, to map a line of intellectual contact, or concordance, that tells us a great deal about the construction of Bengaliness, and its relationship to modernism. I’m not interrogating Chaudhuri’s legitimacy here; I’m drawing the reader’s attention to what the function of criticism is.

Authenticity has been a bogey in Bengal, and India, ever since modern ‘literature’ came into existence. Buddhadeva Bose claiming Madhusudan Dutt (picture) “didn’t know Bengali”; Tagore saying much the same thing in an interview to E.J. Thompson; Dineshchandra Sen’s opinion that Tagore’s “mode of thinking is essentially English”; Bankimchandra announcing there was no “authentic (khaanti)” Bengali poet after Iswar Gupta — the list goes back to the source itself. This is fine; except that the fundamental business of cultural reciprocity has got bogged down repeatedly in the issue of the authentic. Authenticity, and its unfriendly local incarnation, territoriality, have killed off a great deal of Indian criticism; they’ve often transformed criticism into bureaucratese; for which, as it happens, error-finding is an indispensable instrument. For the bureaucrat, with his emphasis on the correct information holding the key to identity, the fact that I haven’t mentioned (as The Telegraph points out) that Kaliprasanna Singha translated the Mahabharat or that Samar Sen edited Now puts the legitimacy of the five hundred-odd pages of Memory’s Gold and years’ work into question. But then the bureaucrat’s universe is very different from the critic’s.