I usually shun ambassadorial roles or aspirations. But in trying to prepare lizzie b* for our trip to Kolkata in December, I’ve been searching for short readings and films that may ready her for what's in store and help her appreciate the history embedded in the city we'll be wandering around.
This morning, I finally got around to reading a wonderful little essay I've had bookmarked over at Himal Southasian. It’s an evocative piece by Rangan Chakravarti on history, the local and the global, nationalisms and internationalisms. Here’s a lengthy excerpt, though you really should read the whole thing:
I am writing the history of my nation, Bejoygarh. It is a nation that developed in a colony established by my forefathers and my foremothers…I mean it. Read the rest of the essay. It's funny, smart and an amazing condensed history in the form of "found fiction."
What defines a nation? And let me give the answer: Bejoygarh had it all. We had a boundary. To the west was Arabinda Nagar, to the south Pallisree, to the east Bidyasagar Colony – these were all colonies like us, but they were not us. We had our own territory and our own community. It was not imagined like some new thinkers seem to think. In fact, I am nobody, but I would still like to make this point. These big nations are a conspiracy of the big states. In our Nation of Bejoygarh, everyone knew every other member of the community. And that is how nations should be. Who needs a big state? Who needs a big nation? Nobody. Only people who make bombs, and those who want to wield power with police and soldiers. My own history will prove that to you. And I shall be coming to that very soon.
In our nation we also had wars with other nations. But all of them were on the football ground. Do not come to tell me that football patriotism began with the televising of World Cups. Nor should it be traced to Brazil alone. I still clearly remember the patriotic passion that each match between the Bejoygarh Cultural Association and Pallisree Nabarun would generate. We, the nationals of Bejoygarh, would cheer our team, and the nationals of Pallisree would cheer theirs. This is how we defined national supremacy. Not by bombing Iraq or occupying Czech territory.
Today, much is being said about the global and the local. They say that the local is getting directly linked to the global, through global media; they say the borders have vanished. I listen and I laugh. Where were these people when Valentina Tereskova, the woman astronaut from the USSR, and Yuri Gagarin came to Bejoygarh? How was the local then distant from the global if we had Hillary Vila from Ghana coming and giving lectures in our maidan? How is it then that the first film I ever saw was Nanook of the North? I think I saw it in 1964.
My god, this reminds me of the time my father organised some celebrations for Africa Day. We had called Hilary Vila, who was then a student at Calcutta University. In those days, lots of African students used to come from socialist-bloc countries to study here. Now only footballers come, I think. Anyway, the function was organised and we were all tense with excitement. I had memorised Tagore’s famous poem, “Africa”...
For lizzie b (and anyone else interested), I’m also suggesting Dipesh Chakrabarty’s essay “Adda: A History of Sociality” from Provincializing Europe and I’m ordering a collection of Amitav Ghosh’s essays, mainly because I’ve wanted to finish his article “The March of the Novel Through History” for some time now after I started reading it in a bookstore this summer. We've also just watched Satyajit Ray’s Nayak earlier this month.
But what do I know? I’ve been to Kolkata only once in the past decade, I grew up in the States and I’m an Americanist by training. They really shouldn't even let me outside, the odor of my putrid provincialism is so disgusting.
So who’s got better ideas? Think short things to read between a full-time job and grad school at night. Or things to watch that are stimulating enough that one won’t zonk out since one's making due on five-six hours of sleep.
*Full disclosure/Confession: The request is partially for lizzie b, but also for me. I’m always game for some good pre-trip prep reading.
Postscript: Read Vijay Prashad's essay on McCain/Palin's odious attempt to smear Rashid Khalidi. This blatant appeal to racism and stupidity by the Republican Party, along with others, is pathetic.