Chai Lit is a carefully crafted space for a non-hierarchic engagement with thought, creativity and narratives, indeed a crucible to encourage silences to be overcome in order to transform despair into hope through affirmative action. Words and silences, each in their own ways, create inflexibilities and traps as we are often lost in the labyrinth of influence, repression, fear or self-censorship or at the other end of the spectrum, the certainties of dogmas and prejudices. The stultification of the mind often inhibits the full realization of creativity, critical consciousness, inclusive sensitivities and humane insights.
On an invitation from Dr. Richa and Dr. Yogesh Pratap Shekhar, the organizers and co-founders of Chai Lit, I travelled to Gaya with two young minds I have had the privilege to have taught: Amritendu Ghoshal and Prabhat Jha. The introduction to the seminar did not follow institutional patterns: no prayer song, no lighting of the ceremonial lamp, no bouquets, no formal introduction to the speakers and contributors. The content was more important than the trappings, the seriousness of the matter was accorded the highest value, the façade did not exist. The windows were open for the ideas to flow.
Amritendu spoke of the necessity to develop a rational critical sense and engage with political issues that invariably affect our lives. The necessity to oppose injustices comes from being able to identify them and their operative modes through a developed critical political consciousness. Later during the interactive session, political activism on campus with its manipulative strategies and being a seminary for public political careers were set over and against the understanding of politics and its expression through debate and dissent. Billed as Knowledge Kitchen, the seminar became the microcosm of an ideal university campus.
Prabhat had two poems to offer. They were incisively satirical exposing the cynical quest of power using rhetorical and divisive strategies acted upon by vigilante groups following thew master’s voice: beef ban, book ban, film ban, we are inhabitants of Ban de land. Prabhat’s excellently scripted play Sawaal par Bawaal was read by the playwright himself and Dr. Richa with a vitality that comes from convictions about an inclusive idea of India where free speech and comity are threatened with violence into silence and where participatory democracy is extinguished to facilitate the birth of demagogues. In a short address that followed. The same points were reemphasized and the need for organic intellectuals stressed. As interludes between thought sharing, poems were recited, notably Shilpa’s reading of Kedar Nath Singh’s poem Vigyan aur Neend.
I spoke in the defense of the humanities, framing its decline within the growth of later capitalism and social utility of disciplines whose worth may be quantitatively measured. I attempted to locate the disquiet in the formation of knowledge in colonial models both exogenous and endogenous and drew upon the coercive and divisive implications of Aristotle’s Law of Identity. I tried to show how STEM disciplines with their accompanying examination patterns have reduced problem posing cooperative teaching-learning as dialogue to an uncritical junk-food pedagogy. During the course of the discussions, I pointed out how nothing is innocently neutral as the tool to construct the world, language, is nearly always political. Dr. Pranav Kumar spoke of furthering the process of decolonization drawing upon indigenous resources rather than on western models. No model however is the exclusive monopoly of a specifically identifiable community; these may be incorporated, transformed and mediated within indigenous contents. Gandhi fashioned an indigenous anti-colonial movement bring together disparate influences as wide as Tolstoy, Ruskin, Edwin Arnold and Thoreau on the one hand and Raichandbhai, Gokhale,, Buddha,his mother, wife, maid and scriptural sources of the east. Exclusionary readings have negative implications because the totality of insights remain inadequate.
Personal narratives were cited by a number of participants to indicate the toxic politics of exclusion and the problems of correcting perceived historical injustices. The nationalism debate, an inevitable staple of the public sphere was energetically pursued. It seemed on occasions that many institutions are refurbishing the idea of a university and the idea of India in a strategic manner in which being a liberal and a free thinker has little legitimacy. During the course of the debate, Professor Yogesh Pratap Shekhar defined nationalism as derivative that homogenizes an imagined community through perceived commonality of aspirations. However, the process of homogenization may exclude a number of social formations as is the mobilized political practice today. Who belongs to a nation? A participant suggested that all those for whom India is the matribhumi which is commonly understood as homeland. But this notion is problematic and arbitrary because nations are not fixed entities and one’s nationality may be at variance with one’s homeland.
The discussions would have continued had time not been the final arbiter. Knowledge Kitchen had succeeded in creating a possibility to think otherwise.