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Stanford Report, March 8, 2000

Bhabha champions 'right to narrate'


As a Parsi follower of the prophet Zoroaster, Homi Bhabha is part of a community of some 100,000 members -- one of the smallest, least known, most hybridized minorities in his native India.

As the Chester D. Tripp Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago and holder of a D.Phil. from Oxford, Bhabha is an academic superstar --- a literary and cultural critic who is recognized internationally for his work in postcolonial cultural studies and identity politics.

Given the tensions of that cultural in-betweenness, it is no wonder Bhabha has a complex story to tell. What is wonderful is the elegance with which he tells it.

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"For me, the English language had, at times, the archaic feel of an antique carved almirah [cabinet] that engulfed you in the faded smell of mothballs and beautiful brittle linens," he told an overflow audience at the Law School on Monday night. "At other times, it had the mix-and-match quality of a moveable feast, like Bombay street food, spicy, cheap, available in all kinds of quantities and combinations, delicious as much for its flavors as for its dangers.

"I went to Oxford to embellish the antique charms of the almirah. I ended up realizing how much I desired street food."

The second speaker in the Winter Quarter series of the Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts, Bhabha spoke about "The Art of Forbearance" and often drew on his own experience as he made an eloquent case for others' "right to narrate."

"The right to narrate is not simply a linguistic act," he said. "It is also a metaphor for the fundamental human interest in freedom itself, the right to be heard, to be recognized and represented.

"I have seen the right to narrate inhabit an artist's hesitant brush stroke, I have glimpsed it in a gesture that fixes a dance movement or caught its presence in a camera angle that stops your heart."

The failure to protect the right to narrate, Bhabha added, puts us all "in danger of filling the silence with sirens, megaphones, hectoring voices carried by loudspeakers from podiums of great height over people who shrink into indistinguishable masses."

Once we allow such "walls of silence" to be built, he said, "we cannot help but live in their shadows long after they have been pulled down."

His early life growing up in Bombay and going to university at Oxford, Bhabha said, was filled with accounts of India's struggle for independence.

"In a very small way, my own life was caught on the crossroads that marked the end of empire with a postcolonial drive toward new horizons of a Third World of free nations and, in the opposite direction, a pull from the influence exerted upon me by the modernist art and literature of Europe that was so much a part of the world of the Indian bourgeoisie."

Years later, he added, "I ask myself what it would be like to live without the unresolved tension between cultures and countries that has become the narrative of my life and the defining characteristic of my work."

In his university study, Bhabha said, he learned a critical lesson -- that "what one expects to find at the very center of life or literature -- as the summation of a great tradition, as the icon of unquestioned quality -- may only be the dream of the deprived or the illusion of the powerless."

What was missing from the traditionalist world of English literary study, he said, were "writers who were just a bit off-center, literary texts that had been passed by, themes in great works of literature that had been overlooked." Those "were the oblique angles of vision and visibility that enchanted me."

Bhabha cited writers V. S. Naipaul and E. M. Forster and poet Adrienne Rich, a professor of English and feminist studies at Stanford from 1986 to 1993, as some of his favorite narrators.

The great lesson of Forster's novel A Passage to India, Bhabha said, was that it teaches "the closeness or proximity of cultural differences, not the vast gaps between nations and people that is the most critical and crisis-laden area of intercultural communication."

When Forster's two protagonists are thrown together in the echoing darkness of the Marabar Caves, Bhabha said, "for a spare moment, the colonial memsahib and the educated native confront each other through a glass darkly . . . not seeking their own reflections, but the possibility of a proximate existence."

As Bhabha looked for his own narrative voice "in between the lines of other people's text," he found a helpful touchstone in the Indo-Caribbean world of V. S. Naipaul, where individuals constantly were "striving for their independence, attempting to establish their autonomy, against all the odds."

What he found particularly intriguing in Naipaul's work, Bhabha added, was "the ability of his characters to forbear their despair, to work through their anxieties and alienations toward a life that is radically incomplete and yet intricately communitarian, busy with activity, noisy with stories, garrulous with grotesquerie, gossip, humor, aspirations and fantasies -- these were at least the signs of a culture of survival that emerges from the other side of the colonial enterprise."

At a time when UNESCO conservatively estimates that more people than ever before are living across or between national borders -- 40 million foreign workers, 20 million refugees, 30 million victims of political upheavals or natural disasters -- Bhabha said those minorities "represent the most tangible and proximate presence of the global or transnational world."

The lesson for the new millennium, he added, "must be to learn to live in a state of cultural translation."

Increasingly, Bhabha said, "we live in between cultural differences where our aesthetic judgments and ethical values are derived from those boundaries between languages, territories and communities that, strictly speaking, belong to no one cultural or national tradition."

Bhabha said he wanted to propose a "process of minoritization," a "kind of global citizenship," in which the members of the minorities would transcend numerical or statistical characterizations to become "part of the culture's poesis."

"It is only when we respect the right to narrate of those cultures and communities of difference that live in our midst that we can begin a process that internationally bridges the hope of the world," he said. "For a world culture is nothing more or less than an act of bridging . . . and such a bridge . . . always begins with the desire to narrate." SR