Letter from Kolkata: ‘The Great Derangement’ and a recent storm

Chrestomather | August 21, 2016 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

I am Deeptesh Sen, pursuing my M.Phil. in the Department of English, Jadavpur University. I have always been fascinated by your novels — every character and situation you create has stayed with me over the years. In our department, we have often discussed your books in class. For our course on postcolonial literatures in our MA class, we discussed The Shadow Lines and In an Antique Land. More recently, we discussed in detail The Sea of Poppies while studying narratives of migration and the South Asian diaspora. I have always wanted to talk to you about your books but never had the opportunity during the few times we have met briefly after your book launches in the city.

But your most recent book The Great Derangement appealed to me in the most unique possible way. It is indeed harrowing to think that we as a generation, despite the advancements in science and technology that we have achieved, have chosen to be in denial about climate change. But The Great Derangement is about many more things, not the least being the irruption of the non-human and the sense of uncanny that lurks within the spaces of the everyday.

Your description of the tornado that hit Delhi in 1978 and how you had stared at the eye of the storm left a strong, lasting impression in me. But what stood out for me was the relationship you established between our denial to accept climate change and our inability to imagine situations of extreme improbability that can invade the everyday at any moment. This is precisely where your reference to the Freudian umhiemlich becomes even more relevant. Not only do the spaces we inhabit have a potential to surprise us at the unlikeliest of moments, we can safely assume that these spaces that we claim to know well carry within them the germs of the unknown. I have always read and re-read Freud’s essay on the uncanny with profound interest but as someone working on Lacanian theory, I feel it’s Jacques Lacan who pushes the theory of the uncanny to an interesting end. Since the repressed and the return of the repressed are two sides of the same coin in Lacan, in keeping with his idea of the unconscious(or the Subject as he calls it) being always on the other side of language of the speaking being, it is not difficult to re-affirm the idea that the spaces of the everyday simply carry/conceal the uncanny on the other side. I must thank you for making me think in this fashion.

I was in Shantiniketan last week when I was reading The Great Derangement and thinking along these lines. Little did I know that something extraordinary would happen in my life very shortly that would re-affirm my belief in the ideas expressed in your book. This is also the reason why I decided that I would write to you and share with you the incident as it happened.

A couple of days ago, I was returning from Jadavpur University late in the evening. I was in a state bus travelling down the Southern Avenue from Golpark when the sudden cyclone hit the city. All the vehicles were stranded and in front of our bus, a huge tree collapsed in the storm. The bus quickly tried to take the other lane to go back towards Golpark but such was the fury of the storm that another tree along with a light-post were brought hurtling down. As the traffic was completely stranded in both the lanes by now, I decided to walk till Kalighat. But that is when I saw one of the strangest sights in my life and was continuously reminded of your book. The Southern Avenue, one of the last remaining beautiful boulevards in the city, had by then transformed into an unknown, dangerous place. The trees lining the lanes which make it so beautiful had turned the avenue into a virtual death-trap — the huge trunks were collapsing like a pack of cards on both sides of the road. They were also bringing down with them walls or light-posts and the fallen overhead wires left people in the danger of being electrocuted. To all the people walking down the Southern Avenue in the storm, or the line of makeshift roadside stalls, the familiar space they knew and loved had suddenly transformed into something monstrous and unimaginable. Even in the Jadavpur University campus, quite a few trees fell in the storm including a huge tree that collapsed opposite gate three causing the death of a couple of people. My friends who had stayed back on campus later described the storm and the destruction it caused as incredible. The spaces we loved had chosen to unleash their uncanny side at the most unimaginable of moments. Interestingly, as I came back home and logged on to Facebook, my newsfeed was filled with people discussing how unprecedented the storm was during the monsoon. Everyone was reflecting on the strange weather patterns that the city had been experiencing recently and talking about The Great Derangement.

I would like to ask you what you think about this cyclone. There was forecast of rain in the city because of a depression that had formed over the Bay of Bengal but the storm, in all its fury, seemed more like a nor’wester when it hit the city. About 120 trees fell in the storm causing unprecedented loss to life and property. But man-made interference seems to be responsible for the destruction once again — according to a report in The Telegraph today, it was the laying of concrete and injudicious pruning that loosened the top-soil and weakened the roots of some of these trees. Any storm can now cause grievous damage to people in the city.

I can very much relate to your idea of how the bourgeois world view banishes any form of improbability from the everyday. I thought it was very insightful to link it with why realist fiction has largely struggled to accommodate the issue of climate change. I was slightly surprised you did not mention your novel The Calcutta Chromosome at that juncture because it is one novel, I think, which pushes the narrative possibilities of the genre to its limits. The 20th century indeed witnessed what Weber calls ‘rationalization’ as you mentioned and there is a valorisation of the everyday in modernist literature. There was, as you pointed out, an intense focus on the personal, instead of the collective, in modernist literature with the rise of psychoanalysis in early 1900 partly being responsible for this. When Virginia Woolf wrote about trying to capture the incessant shower of atoms on the human mind, she was in a way laying out the essence of the direction that modernist literature would take.

Interestingly, I first experienced this bourgeois sense of complacency and hubris when I first took admission in Jadavpur University about seven years ago. I came from a modest background and was a part of a class and generation that worked its way into affluence due to the economic liberalization in the 90s. For me, to find myself among friends who have belonged to an elite, educated class for generations and possessed a great degree of social and economic capital was profoundly unsettling. As I slowly began to adopt to a more liberal, bourgeois culture, I learned that there was very little space for fear or doubt within their world view. The tiniest of things that I had seen my parents be anxious about were done with a great degree of confidence and nonchalance by the bourgeoisie. It was almost as if, in their world view, nothing could go wrong. I developed a great deal of admiration for this aspect of bourgeois culture until years of reading and experience made me re-visit my ideas. The valorisation of a certain laid-back attitude (an euphemism for indolence?) came from, I learnt much later, the socio-economic realities of the leisure class. And things did go wrong — a friend of ours lost his life in an unprecedented way in a personal tragedy. People I admired stooped to perform the basest of acts which I deemed to be unbecoming of the culture I had so admired. All these unprecedented moments brought back the possibility of the improbable in our lives until I understood that the banishing of the unpredictable was nothing but a great bourgeois hubris stemming from years of entitlement and anthropocentrism.

I am sorry if this has been too long. But your book made me think and it was the cyclone a couple of days ago that made me decide to share these things in detail with you. I will be very glad if you could find time to respond to this.  Also, I was looking forward to the book launch at Jadavpur University. Both Samantak-da and Professor Sugata Hazra are people I know and admire and I was looking forward to the session at Vivekanada Hall. But a bout of viral fever made me stay at home at the last minute and I was terribly disappointed to miss the launch. I hope there will be a more opportune moment for me to meet with you in person and discuss in detail about your books the next time you are here in the city.

Thanks,

Deeptesh Sen


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