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Scent of an old woman

Umar Nizar

Furthermore, it is a commonplace that mistakes or errors are part of

the learning process and thus essential to creativity: as Jung remarked,

“anyone who takes the sure road is as good as dead’, or as Hélène Cixous puts it: ‘our mistakes are our leaps in the night. Error is not lie; it is approximation’.” On the other hand, there is an internal dynamic to the concepts of mistakes and errors, a dynamic that tends to push them to the margins of thought.

-Andrew Michel Roberts,

“Because I say you are killing the very spirit this institution proclaims it instills! What a sham. What kind of a show are you guys puttin’ on here today. I mean, the only class in this act is sittin’ next to me. And I’m here to tell ya this boy’s soul is intact. It’s non-negotiable. You know how I know? Someone here — and I’m not gonna say who — offered to buy it. Only Charlie here wasn’t sellin’. (From `The Scent of a Woman, directed by Martin Brest, 1992)

Al Pacino, known for playing mafia bosses, makes an exception for once in the movie `The Scent of a Woman’ where in the climax scene, as a visually challenged man, he gives a rousing speech to protect a student, unfairly accused of a crime that he did not commit. Gayatri Spivak, a venerable old professor of the humanities, known as one of the eminent scholars of post-colonialism, recently courted controversy over an interaction with a student during the q & a session of a lecture on ‘WEB Du Bois and His Vision for Democracy” that she gave at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. She tried to correct the pronunciation of a student who was pronouncing the name of the legendary American communist leader WEB du Bois, as `du Bwah,’ by insisting that he say `du Boiss’ instead.

Spivak as some kind of a conscience of the third world character, doesn’t care for Hollywood actors playing mob bosses. But she certainly is not the Goodfella in this ugly episode. The moderator, the students and faculty present, and Spivak herself displayed the kind of intellectual and moral decrepitude that only a morally compromised and corrupt society can produce. Nor did the non-godi liberal media that splashed ripostes from Spivak groupies give the student a chance to articulate his point of view, which he so movingly described in a recent `Round Table India’ article. All of the people present there in JNU had the option of trying to protect a young intellectual with verve and a conscience, but they chose not to. This in short is what comprises ‘privilege’.

I was not present at the event. But Spivak trying to remonstrate with a cocky student giving tongue in cheek replies to her shameless insistence, was an image that the magical realist world of JNU alone could have produced. I will come to the shamelessness later.

Apparently, the pathos of Spivak in her old age trying to hold court in JNU as in the days of yore, but not quite pulling it off, was not enough to move the student. He was not moved by her age. There was no empathy or shamefulness on the part of anyone concerned.

Susan Sontag in her magisterial `Regarding the Pain of Others’ remarks: “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do — but who is that ‘we’? — and nothing ‘they’ can do either — and who are ‘they’ — then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic’’. This might sum up what the now controversial exchange entails. (My own teacher in JNU, would often remind me to read the German right wing thinker Peter Sloterdijk’s `Critique of Cynical Reason’. But the question here apparently is not one of cynicism, but that of soullessness).

Spivak, perhaps more than anyone who was present there in the JNU audience, understood the moral dilemma of the student. She has herself spoken about her days in Calcutta as a young student, entering the hallowed portals of French intellectual life at the Alliance Francaise. (The Alliance Francaise itself is a Neo-colonial and French cultural imperialist enterprise with a presence everywhere in India, that even today shows no signs of flagging in evangelical zeal).

Spivak’s translation from the French of one of the greatest philosophical works in that language in the 20th century, `De la Grammatologie’, by Derrida, has been noted for its obvious lack of quality and rigour. Spivak herself has spoken about the setting up of a group of experts, a committee of sorts to look into the matter. Her shaky-at-best knowledge of the French language is thus an Achilles heel for someone so learned as Spivak. She prides herself on her knowledge of modern European languages and dots her presentations with power point slides of grabs from the original manuscripts of Gramsci et al.

The flaunting of conflicting Europhilia is fine for Spivak, but not for a `lowly’ JNU student. This is the typical `holier than thou’ American imperialist logic of `do as I say, and not as I do’. What intrigues anyone who has followed the exchange between Spivak and the student, is the fact that the student himself was trying to pronounce `du Bois’ the right way. It was this intention to pronounce in the correct fashion that apparently irked Spivak. She was correcting the speech of not someone unlearned, but that of someone `over- learned’. That is elitism for you. Mythical analogies would be unnecessary and not to say, fatuous.

For a student of the humanities, pronunciation is almost a matter of moral integrity. Articulation segues into knowledge. The point Spivak ultimately was making is that there is certain kind of Brahmanical knowledge (which applies to moral integrity, as in knowing how to respect your ailing grandmother) which helps you distinguish between the right way to pronounce and the wrong way, and sometimes you have to counter-intuitively pronounce it the wrong and hypercilious way, and that the supreme mistake lies in not knowing how to make that choice in post-colonial `woke’ academia. (Derrida would be turning in his grave, given the antics of his one time protege).

Sometimes even the correct pronunciation can be deemed `wrong’ or as trying to be too correct. You cannot out-Herod Herod. But neither Spivak, nor the moderator in JNU cared to acknowledge that the student was pronouncing a proper noun in the correct French way, which he attributes in his `Round Table India’ article to a teacher at St.Xaviers, Bombay:

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 quotes 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 may be that’s why she used to pronounce Du Bois as Du Bwaah as well and picked it up from her.


The Hobbesian World of contemporary Indian academia

 `Murder might be pardoned, but upsetting the soup is not’.

In the end, even after the charade over pronunciation was over, the student was not allowed to raise his question. This is unacceptable and would happen only in a morally compromised Hobbesian world, where everyone is out to shame everybody else and yet manage to remain shameless themselves. There is only very little dignity to go around in such a place. It is in such short supply that whatever little of it you can afford has to be forcibly taken from the `other’ by shaming them. It is in such a soulless universe where convicted rapists would not only get social acceptance but also get lauded and garlanded.

The logic behind this garlanding of the rapists, which would sound bizarre to anyone, is unfortunately similar to the ongoing adulation of Spivak from sundry worshippers and Spivak-wannabes. The rapists get garlanded not because the `rape’ in itself was a laudatory act, but because the heroism inherent in doing something nasty for the sake of the `greater good’ is. There is no question that the `rape’ itself was a nasty act. But the dystopian logic is that, doing it needed courage.

Doing something morally just, for the sake of the good requires no exegesis or discernment, and is available to everyone. But choosing the wrong pronunciation or doing the wrong act, requires a deeper and greater `understanding’. The correct pronunciation in French was apparently called out as an error in this case.

You need ‘the soul of Chinghiz Khan not only to survive the Delhi summer’ (to paraphrase Sarnath Banerjee, a savarna intellectual and Goldsmiths alumni) but also to pronounce French the wrong way, or to violate. In contemporary India, only the counter-intuitive enunciation of an error can be `garlanded’. They are lauded not because what they did was laudatory, but because what they did was horrible and unspeakable- i.e., a failed attempt to sear a soul.

I don’t know whether Spivak later reached out to the student concerned. Knowing Spivak as someone who reaches out even to strangers via email, there is a decent probability that she might indeed have. Or in the Hobbesian world of all against all which is the state of present-day India, and which closely resembles that of elite academia worldwide, she might have chosen not to.

The Islamic concept of Haŷa vs the art of Shamelessness 

The Islamic concept of Haŷa, loosely translated as `shame’ is a quality that becomes conspicuous in its absence. Pronunciation/articulation such as in this case, is often a wager, or a risk. It is akin to the wager that one often places on telling a joke, which can fall flat and embarrass you. Pronouncing `du Bwah’ in this instance is also a wager, that the listener would respect, and appreciate your articulation. The student in his haŷa , was trying to pronounce in the correct fashion. But he was instead told to be `incorrect-correct’.

What was demanded of him was, to be devoid of `shame’ as a quality, and then that very quality was purportedly elicited from him and he was rebuked for want it it.

Spivak’s absence of haŷa, can be regarded as a form of postcolonial moral tardiness, characterized by a lethargy in cultivating the moral self in a morally vacant space. It is interesting to note that this is happening at a time when the western ethical edifice is falling apart in the ongoing Gazan genocide. Spivak’s apparent lack of refinement in dealing with a student’s question, points at a failure to comprehend and acknowledge techniques of self-refinement and spiritual rejuvenation, such as the `salah’ which students at the Columbia encampment have recently been performing copiously in times of genocide.

Narratives of Haŷa are closely intertwined with the history of life in the Orient and how it was shaped by humans inhabiting that space. Embodiment and the autonomy and sovereignty of the corporeal body are the locii around which the idea of Haŷa has evolved. The autonomy of the body and its agency are conceptually preserved in the terminology of `Haŷa’. It acquires shades of what James Scott defines as `weapons of the weak’.

Haŷa is different from khajul(ﻮل          ), with haŷa being closer to an elevated spiritual experience. As mentioned before, the quality of Haŷa is made palpable mostly in its absence, as in`don’t you have Haŷa?’. Shame is sublated into an ethereal spiritual realm. The absence of Haŷa is lambasted. Haŷa in itself is not derisive. As a result of the opprobrium associated with contexts where Haŷa is deemed lacking, it is generally framed in negative terms. In a romantic context, the feminine Haŷa is deemed `appropriate’ and `attractive’, where as its metonymic bodily manifestation in a male is considered effeminate and therefore `inappropriate’. There is a reverse sense of entitlement towards Haŷa. One should have an entitlement not to have it and not to be picked out for lack of it.

The masculine iteration of Haŷa would be sexist, metaphorical, or connected to non-corporeal ethical notions. (Spivak herself has called the Senegalese filmmaker and writer Sembène Ousmane a `sexist’ writer). Self-referential Haŷa, whether masculine or feminine, evokes laughter at its solipsism and self-centredness. With the acceptance of a wider spectrum of gender, these conventional roles are also undergoing transformation. The novelty of these issues can be addressed vis-à-vis cringe humor sans denigration or judgement.

There is a tradition which says that the prophet in his childhood fell unconscious, when in order to soften the burden of a load placed on his head, an item of his clothing was turned into a turban by another person present. What the story though suggests is that shame makes it impossible for the body to be inhabited. You move beyond the body, thus producing a disembodied experience, that accompanies shame when it is inflicted on bodies. The disembodied experience is often spiritual in nature. It is in a spiritually saturated space like India, that soullessness is practised both in private and public.

Shame can have many provenances-inhabiting one’s own humiliated body, being born as human and not as a machine (as Zizek would put it) etc. There was no embarrassment for anyone present in the present case, but there certainly was quite a lot of cringing for sure. As Christopher Ricks puts in his `Keats and Embarrassment’: “embarrassment is very important in helps in dealing with embarrassment by recognizing, refining, and putting it to good human purposes; art offers a unique kind of human relationship freed from the possibility, which is incident to other human relationships, of an embarrassment that clogs, paralyses, or coarsens. Third, that John Keats as a man and a poet was especially sensitive to, and morally intelligent about, embarrassment. The particular direction of his insight and human concern is to insist upon raising the matter of embarrassability. It is noted that Keats does not manifest sensitivity to embarrassment but insensitivity in the direction of prurience’’. (Christopher Ricks,`Keats and Embarrassment’, Not only Keats, another great poet Geoffrey Hill also has made the point that poetry ultimately is about the fear of upsetting the soup, of making errors in learning.

Appointment in Samarra?

There is an orientalist tale concocted by Somerset Maugham in which a trader in Baghdad tries to protect his servant from death by sending him away to distant Samarra. But ‘death’, personified, later tells the merchant that the servant was in fact supposed to be in Samarra to face his death which he ultimately did. The merchant, in good faith was but sending the servant to his death, which he could not have escaped by the elliptical orientalist logic of this story. The orientalist fable might be facile and ludicrous and even cringe worthy, but gives an analogy to the predicament of Spivak, an elderly professor at Columbia who, after making `woke’ noises, hops over to an academic bastion of righteousness in the third world, only to face the same kind of predicament that she might have been trying to evade at Columbia, despite making grandiose pronouncements in writing.

The ensuing farcical debate which has `broken the internet’ is reminiscent of an old joke which I quote: ”An American was travelling by train in England, on a packed train and there was just enough room for him to stand. Meanwhile an English lady who was seated, with her poodle placed by her side was taking up quite a lot of space. After trying for sometime to draw the attention of the lady towards his predicament, but to no avail, the American finally decides to take drastic action. He picks up and throws the poodle out of the train’s window and sits there instead, whereupon another passenger seated opposite to him quips,` you Americans are strange, you eat with the wrong hand, you spell/pronounce the wrong way, you drive on the wrong side of the road, and you throw/call the wrong bitch out’.



  • Hill, Geoffrey, `Collected Essays
  • Ricks, Christopher, `Keats and Embarrassment’
  • Sontag, Susan, `On Regarding the Pain of Others
  • ~~~

Umar Nizarudeen is at Goldsmiths, University of London. He has a PhD in Bhakti Studies from the Centre for English Studies in JNU, New Delhi. His poems and articles have been published in Round Table India, Vayavya, Muse India, Culture Cafe Journal of the British Library, The Hindu, The New Indian Express, The Bombay Review,  The Madras Courier, FemAsia, Sabrang India,  India Gazette London, Ibex Press Year’s Best Selection etc.

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