Monday, 4 April 2022

The Illuminated, by Anindita Ghose.

The Illuminated, by Anindita Ghose.
In a departure from the usual content of this blog, we review a recent Indian novel with a frustrated Hegel-scholar as a lead character: Anindita Ghose's The Illuminated (New Delhi, 2021).

The Illuminated, by Anindita Ghose. 

New Delhi: Fourth Estate, 2021.

This recent Indian novel came to our attention because one of its leading characters is a frustrated Hegel scholar and because it was partly written in Scotland. It draws a picture of contemporary India through the interweaved stories of a mother and daughter from a well-to-do Indian family. 

The mother, Shashi Mallick, is a scholar of Hegel and Sri Aurobindi. She is the most rounded and sympathetic character in the book. Having abandoned her studies on marriage, new possibilities open up for her later in life, complicated by protective attitudes to widows. As the novel begins, she is grieving the loss of her modernist architect husband Robi.

Her daughter Tara (Nayantara) Mallick is a student of Sanskrit literature reminiscent of such “post-modern” Indian figures as Gayatri Spivak. We learn a little in passing of the heritage of Sanskrit literature, whose epics it appears have been rewritten over the centuries and used in drama. It is represented as earthy and direct rather than mystical, much as was said of early Irish literature at the time of the Celtic revival. Tara finds little moral compass in her education and is apparently left to her own devices by her parents, soon finding herself reliant on a university complaints procedure to rescue her career and reputation. The legal concept of seduction is not deployed in the book.  The male characters – save perhaps that of the villainous academic seducer - are underdeveloped and we rarely inhabit their thoughts. 

The many less developed characters – Poornima the live-in domestic help, Bibek the mystic and family friend, Noor the Muslim student, Asha the young wife of a sevak (Hindu activist) – paint a picture of the class and caste structure and tensions of Indian society. Their stories indicate that those from less wealthy or esteemed families fare worse than the well-to-do. The language of the book is Indian English enriched with various words for local food, clothing, buildings and so forth that create a sense of place and familiarity. 

The book is interspersed by full-page placards attributed to a Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) group that is presented as a rival to the westernised modernity of the main characters. The nationalist sevaks are introduced in a confrontation with Shashi, as characters offering solidarity, but with a hint of menace about them. 

The title of the novel tells a story in itself. The “illuminated” are both those on whom the novel shines its light and those subjected to the withering secularism of the European Enlightenment, as NRIs (non-resident Indians) or by reflecting the prestige of international academia back to their kinsfolk. 

The limits of the secular version of the Enlightenment were noted in Scotland by Professor John Robison in his work on the "illuminati", Evidences of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe (1796) around the same time as interest in India was awoken by novelist Elizabeth Hamilton’s once widely-read Memoirs of a Hindoo Rajah (1800) and the trial of Warren Hastings. Shortly thereafter in Germany, Hegel offered a rationalist theory of religion to underpin a universal moral and religious consciousness, influenced by James Mill’s History of British India (1817), Wilhelm von Humboldt’s German translation of the Bhagavad Gita and other available texts

Indian edition of Hegel's review of the Bhagavad Gita.
A number of Indian writers developed the theme in the era of the British Empire and philosophical idealism – the Bengali monotheist Rajah Ramohun Roy perhaps began this, while Rhadakrishnan’s Indian Philosophy (1923-27), Hiralal Haldar’s Neo-Hegelianism (1927) and Surendranath Dasgupta’s History of Indian Philosophy (1922-52) broadened the tradition. We have had recently a collected edition of Hegel’s writings on India (Eds. Rathore, Mohapatra, 2017). I make no claim to completeness here: please add any omissions below.

Hegel's India. Eds. Rathore, Mohapatra. Oxford: UP, 2017.

The novel might be read as endorsing, despite itself, Hegel's positive view of marriage and the family, albeit with various twists and reservations. A relevant collection of Feminist Interpretations of Hegel (Ed. Patricia Mills) is available. Recent conservative, new right and Catholic discussions of the family include Roger Scruton's Sexual Desire, Hegel/Kojève scholar F. Roger Devlin's Sexual Utopia in Power and Libido Dominandi by E. Michael Jones. The account of "my station and its duties" in F.H. Bradley's Ethical Studies (1876) remains an outstanding English expression of Hegelian ethics. In my view, the experience of family life teaches more than reading on this topic; it is rather like piano-playing or learning to skate.

The India of the novel is one torn internally by religious tensions and by the infiltration of the mores of Western modernity. I left it feeling that Hegel’s theories provided a vocabulary that Indians could draw on in these socio-religious struggles, contemptuous neither of religion, reason nor economic change. The price of hearkening to it would be a louder voice for the Gospel alongside the piety that currently appeals to national feeling. This to my mind would place the Indian sub-continent again at the centre of the religious future of humanity. 

It should be said that the explicitly Hegelian content of the novel is minimal. It is one of several recent topical novels to shed light on modern India. One hopes the author will return to the subject, perhaps on a larger canvas, as her experience and thoughts develop. 

1 comment:

  1. The collection "Philosophy in Colonial India: 11" has been suggested to me as worthwhile reading: