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A conversation with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak speaks about her experience of sexism during her long, illustrious career
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First Published: Sat, Jan 26 2013. 09 22 PM IST
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Professor at Columbia University, New York. Photo: Mahesh Acharya
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Professor at Columbia University, New York. Photo: Mahesh Acharya
Updated: Mon, Jan 28 2013. 04 03 PM IST
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak made a late but memorable appearance at her panel this morning at the Jaipur Literature Festival. University Professor at Columbia University, New York, Spivak is known for her pioneering work in literary theory and translation. She met the press after her session, ‘Rogues, Reviewers and Critics’, with Manu Joseph, Anjum Hasan, Christopher Ricks and Chandrahas Choudhury. “I have never sat in a panel where no one [from the audience] asked me a single question,” was her first reaction. “People were supremely uninterested in questions of class,” she added. The first question, regarding her reaction to the Delhi gang-rape, asked by a German member of the press, was met with this reply: “There was not an iota of interest in this among the Indian audience, so I don’t want to answer a European person on that first. You can write that as an answer.” Thereafter, the conversation went on for a while, touching on topics as diverse as her project of training teachers in rural Bengal to her experience of sexism during her long and illustrious career. Edited excerpts:
You have said somewhere that you are an intellectually insecure person.
I still am. I don’t know why, it’s for other people to say. But I will give you two reasons. First, because I am not a scholar. I have known great scholars and this is what makes me intellectually insecure, and I am not comparing myself with people who like to show off with very little scholarship. Therefore, I am insecure because I don’t know what needs to be known for what I think.
Second, because of the sexism I faced during my student years. My parents were not at all sexist. But at Presidency College, Kolkata, even now, when they talk about me, they mention how I looked—not anything about how I thought. That makes a young person insecure. Implicit was the idea that I was doing well because the professors liked me because I looked good. And this attitude still lasts. In Japan, where I won a prize recently [the Kyoto Prize in November 2012], at the press conference, someone from Asahi Shimbun, a big national newspaper there, said to me, you were so beautiful, it must have been a problem in India. Imagine! That was their first question to someone who has won a prize on ethics.
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I said, you have a peculiar idea about India and that I did not have any idea about sexual harassment until I came to the United States. And why are you using the past tense? On this 70-year-old face are written annals of a lifetime’s interest in social justice. I am still beautiful.
Could you comment on the intertwining of caste and gender in today’s India?
I don’t live in India. It’s a huge problem that people say India today, when they only mean their own little circle. This was the case in our session today as well. So, I would say, where I have my schools, near the Jharkhand border, and I have been doing this for thirty years now, there the idea of postcolonial is absent because those people have never seen white people. Although their lives were certainly deeply influenced by colonialism, they don’t know it. On the other hand, we also talk about globality in a similar way when we write about it. The old structures of caste and gender prejudice are coming back.
Young India did come out in protest after the Delhi gang-rape.
Young India. Once again, you take the part for the whole. Who do you think are the young? It’s not just the urban radical who are young. A few of my students have been going around getting reaction from people on video conferences after the Delhi incident. When I ask them, ‘What do you see?’, they tell me was there has been a lot of panic, but not outrage.
Is brilliance a burden?
How would I know? Ask the brilliant.
The New York Timescalled you famously hard to understand.
That’s their problem, not mine.
Could you talk about the teacher’s training project that you have been running in West Bengal?
I think I am learning from my mistakes. I have learnt that you cannot undo thousands of years of planned cognitive damage by being nice for 30 years. This is the problem with most NGOs. The only generalization I can make is that to be is equal is not to be the same. It sounds like a simple statement—even the New York Times thinks it can understand it—but it is actually tremendously hard to understand. Today, the government is closing down the possibility of the science stream. Most primary school teachers don’t care. Many of them think that the decimal system is an absurdity visited upon them by the ruling class. So I am actually teaching these kids the poetry of the decimal system—I realize that is the most important poetry.
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First Published: Sat, Jan 26 2013. 09 22 PM IST
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