Friday, March 25, 2011

Neeti Nair

Neeti Nair is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Virginia.

Her new book is Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India.

Her reply to my recent query about what she has been reading:
Having spent the last week listening to a variety of visitors expound on the matter of religious and ethnic differences, it was a pleasure to end the week with Siddhartha Deb’s The Point of Return. Set in north-east India in the 1970s and 80s, this lyrical novel introduces the reader to the early beginnings of what became a full-blown insurgency with only the tiniest of signs – the unwritten rules governing the use of a cricket pitch, for instance. As the novel proceeds, the full import of hate crimes directed against those deemed to be ‘foreigners’ becomes apparent. Deb’s narrator moves back and forth in time reminding us of the uneasy and often unbidden presence of the past, but by the end of the novel, it is clear there is no going back. Deb pays attention to little details, and we learn something about the difficulty of choice for ordinary folk – questions that are so often ignored in grand narratives about forced migration and partition.

I returned to Giorgio Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz recently following readings for a seminar on post-1947 South Asia. Agamben writes of the limits of law, and is critical of a distinction increasingly drawn between moral and legal responsibility. Let me quote: ‘In every age, the gesture of assuming a juridical responsibility when one is innocent has been considered noble; the assumption of political or moral responsibility without the assumption of the corresponding legal consequences, on the other hand, has always characterized the arrogance of the mighty … But today in Italy these models have been reversed and the contrite assumption of moral responsibilities is invoked at every occasion as an exemption from the responsibilities demanded by law.’

There are too many reasons to ponder Agamben but I turned to him after reading a remarkable anthology of writings on Delhi edited by Bharati Chaturvedi, Finding Delhi: Loss and Renewal in the Megacity. Finding Delhi includes essays from journalists, environmental activists, domestic servants, washermen (a category unheard of in the United States) and fruit vendors. She traces the contribution of the informal economy to the life of the city, especially as Delhi has acquired the aspirations to be a ‘world-class’ city in recent years. The disjunction between different ministries in the government of India in deeming an act of construction (il)legal and thereby contributing to the displacement of thousands and, always, the disavowal of legal responsibility, led me back to the pointed observation above.

On a somewhat lighter note, I read and loved reading Parvati Sharma’s debut collection The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love. I had heard her at a book launch in Delhi where she had the audience eating out of her hands. On love – sibling, lesbian, straight – and on writing, reading, the play of history and politics with life, hers is a voice to reckon with. She is smart, hilarious, sensitive, and haunting. I have gifted my copy to my dearest friend in Virginia and cannot wait to buy another one on my next visit to India.
Visit Neeti Nair's faculty webpage, and learn more about Changing Homelands at the Harvard University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Changing Homelands.

--Marshal Zeringue