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Can Spivak listen? Reflections on the Spivak-Kumar Fracas

Can Spivak listen? Reflections on the Spivak-Kumar Fracas

Anshul Kumar

…It was about: when the subaltern speaks there is not enough infrastructure for people to recognize it as resistant speech. That’s what it means.

– Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, (In Conversation: Speaking to Spivak, February 05, 2011 06:50 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 10:49 pm IST )

Ever since I have uploaded the video recording of me posing a question to Spivak at her lecture on the microblogging website X (formerly Twitter), it has garnered enough views that the entire academic world from Calcutta to California is pinning to ride the bandwagon.

What seems interesting is that so many news portals have written articles about my interaction with Spivak and have even given a space and platform to Spivak to respond and give her account of that interaction. But no one has contacted me or given me any opportunity to express what has transpired in those five minutes. That again makes me ask what Gayatri Spivak asked in her paper published in 1988, “Can the Subaltern Speak”, or only the Oppressor will keep speaking on their behalf.

I would like to take this opportunity to delineate what has happened in those five humiliating minutes.

I arrived at the lecture about a few minutes late and was there up till I walked out of the SAA Auditorium on being disrespected.

As soon as Spivak was done with her lecture and moderators opened the house for questions, I raised my hand with the usual academic zest I have for posing questions as I was told JNU stands for debate, dissent and discussion. I have been visiting JNU since my school days as a young student who had a penchant for social justice and an appreciation for the student politics here in which shapes the politics of entire India. I still remember that I used to be part of protest demonstrations at Sabarmati Dhaba and various rallies against the unjust policies of the establishment. Once during a protest demonstration in front of the MHRD office, I even had the privilege of being detained in the Parliament Street Police station along with firebrand student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, who is now contesting for Lok Sabha elections.

This was around 2015-16 and we were released late at night by the police staff.

My parents always used to scold me for indulging myself too much in Politics but I knew my hunger for academic theory that believed in praxis.

All my dreams of being at JNU, my wishes of engaging academically to bring out the scholar within myself were shattered when Spivak humiliated me in front of a densely packed auditorium.

As soon as I raised my hand in the auditorium I could see around that there was nobody who have raised their hand and still the moderator waited and chose to pick up a student from Azim Premji University to be given a chance to ask the question, despite the fact that he raised his hand after me. I felt really insulted but I held back myself and patiently listened to his question and Spivak’s response.

As soon as Spivak was done, I again raised my hand and this time there was no one other than me who has raised their hand, so the moderator was unwillingly forced to let me go ahead with my question.

I directly started asking my question as I always do because I am passionate about engaging academically with scholars and academicians.

But I guess I was wrong I was expecting too much from the academic world of JNU for which I have immense respect.

And indeed I was wrong As was proved when I heard Spivak very rudely ignoring my question midway and asking me “Who are you”.

Those words still ring in my ears. Who am I? This question in Indian society is a very grave philosophical and sociological question. “Who are you?”

This question is not an innocent objective way of seeking one’s introduction but a subtle way of knowing one’s Caste in modern India.

Say for example, what does it mean when someone asks “Who are you?” And I reply, “I am Pranab Mukherjee”. The very moment I reply with that my caste location is known and the treatment and respect this meted out to me will be based on this revelation of my caste identity which is inherent in my surname.

Spivak on the other hand didn’t even ask me my name, she asked me “Who are you?”

What should I have told her ? Who am I?

Pranab Mukherjee? Or Anshul Kumar?

When I responded to her that I am Anshul Kumar she was not content and went on to ask me “and what do you do?”

Although these questions might seem to one to be innocent imploration on Spivak’s part to seek my introduction but I want to ask you all why does introduction matters in a publicly funded University built with public money?

And why does my introduction and my identity take a centre stage and not my academic scholarship and the quest for knowledge?

This has already angered me a lot and made me feel worthless and repetitively asking the question as to Anshul, who are you?

In a fit of rage, I contemplated that I will now make my point in a philosophical manner and let’s see what happens.

To Spivak’s question on what do I do, I responded that I am a Professor at Centre for Brahmin Studies.

I would like you all to not forget that I was the one who was an audience member at her lecture and had every right to ask her questions and when I questioned what happened was that I was questioned back twice!

On hearing me respond that I am a professor at Centre for Brahmin Studies, Spivak seemed rattled and somewhat uncomfortable, It was visible in her spectacles drooping on to her nose and her gaze fixated upon me.

So thanks to Spivak for allowing me to question her by herself questioning me twice, I finally started putting up my question as soon as I mentioned Du Bois, she shouted at me in a very rudely manner that it’s not “Du Bwaah”, it’s “Du Boys”.

I was startled that why is she shouting at me. It reminded me of my Bengali Brahmin teacher in my school days who had made fun of me for choosing Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shallot for an elocution competition. This Bengali Brahmin Teacher of mine made fun of me and mocked me for not knowing English Literature enough and if I was a dimwit that I had chosen Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot.

I was just a kid who has just finished his primary schooling and mind you it was in Hindi medium as at that time even though my school was a Jesuit institution it followed the mandate of Supreme Court that primary education must be in vernacular language.

The horrors of that scolding I got from her still haunt me and makes me wonder what Becket has said, that Anshul we all are waiting for something that will never arrive, Anshul you will remain an untouchable your whole life, there is but no escape.

So that was what was running in my mind when Spivak was showing me my place by repeatedly making fun of my pronunciation of Du Bois.

She interrupted me thrice.

I must tell you all that I have read Du Bois already in my undergraduate at St Xavier’s Mumbai and I still remember one of his quote which has remained with me for life, “emancipation of man is the emancipation of labour”.

My teacher who taught me, a nice and understanding young Lady Miss Ankita Gujar was conversant with the French language as well and maybe that’s why she used to pronounce Du Bois as Du Bwaah as well and Picked it up from her.

So much so that It was stuck on my tongue and has almost become a habitus in as much as if anyone will wake me up from my sleep and as me to pronounce Du Bois I will pronounce it as Du Bwaah.

Spivak Madam instead of paying heed to my question, deliberately corrected me thrice and disrespected me.

On seeing myself being humiliated to such an extent by an esteemed doyen of Subaltern studies, I could not hold myself and I staged a walk out as a mark of my protest against this humiliation.

What was more troubling was the entire crowd present there was giggling and laughing while I was being humiliated by Spivak Madam.

No, they were not laughing at me. They were laughing at my Father who used to shave without shaving gel in order to save enough money to give me quality English education. They were laughing at my grandmother who as widow brought up my father on a meagre pension.

They were laughing at Muthu Krishnan, a dalit student at JNU from Tamil Nadu who committed suicide. They were laughing at myriads of Dalit students who come to This University with a hope of becoming Professors but all they are given are a Zero in the Viva Voce.

They were laughing at Rohith Vemula, for whom they now rally (ironic right?)

They were laughing at all those brilliant dalit minds forced to do manual labour instead of heading the centres of Academic excellences in Universities across the world.

I wish I could have plucked their teeth out of their mouth with my bare hands and punched them so hard in their face.

That’s all I have to say for now for I can’t write anymore as I am teary eyed right now.

Jai Bhim!



Anshul Kumar is currently pursuing MA in Sociology at JNU.

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