“For any given observer,” David Damrosch argued in What is World Literature?, “even a genuinely global perspective remains a perspective from somewhere, and global patterns of the circulation of world literature take shape in their local manifestations.” Within world-system approaches that fix centres, peripheries and semiperipheries, or with approaches that consider world literature only that which circulates transnationally or “globally,” the relativizing import of this important insight remains inert or gets forgotten. As Indian editors and writers in the early decades of the twentieth century undertook more translations of foreign works and discussed the relationship between India and the world, overlapping understandings of world literature emerged in the Indian literary field. This essay explores three different visions of world literature from the same region and period but in different languages – English, Hindi, and Urdu – highlighting their different impulses, contexts, approaches, and outcomes in order to refine our notion of location. And whereas much of the recent debate and activities around world literature has revolved around the curriculum or around publishers’ series and anthologies, in the Indian case exposure to and discussion of literature from other parts of the world took largely place in the pages of periodicals.
If we agree with the basic assumption that ordinary people and not only “professional” intellectuals have thought and discussed ideas and produced and exchanged knowledge, where in South Asian archives can we find examples of non-elite figures and their discourses like the sixteenth-century miller Menocchio, immortalised by Carlo Ginzburg in The Cheese and the Worms? If we want to look beyond the high languages of Persian, Sanskrit, and Tamil, with their established protocols and vocabularies of knowledge, where do we look, and what and who are we likely to find? Should we look only at individual “great thinkers,” systematic philosophies or genres that are recognizable as “philosophy” or as śāstra? Or, for Indian as for African languages, should we look for ideas in the languages themselves and in genres in which ideas have been discussed, be they proverbs (as repositories of received, often contrasting, ideas), or song-poems, sermons, anecdotes, fictional narratives, letters, records of conversations like Sufi malfūẓāt, and so on—whether “philosophical ideas” are expressed explicitly or are implicit in their arrangement? This essay offers four initial suggestions about what the appropriate and available genres for an intellectual history in Indian languages may be.
One of the problems with current theories of world literature is that the term “world” is insufficiently probed and theorized. As a category, “world” is too generic and suggests a continuity and seamlessness that are both deceptive and self-fulfilling. Easy invocations of “world” and “global” (novel, literary marketplace) replicate the blindspots that Sanjay Krishnan identified when he called the global an instituted perspective, with macro-theories drawing unproblematically on theories of globalization elaborated in the social sciences. Instead, in our comparative project Multilingual Locals and Significant Geographies we argue that to theorize world literature taking on board the complexities, layers and multiplicity of “literatures in the world” (as S. Shankar prefers to call it), we need a richer spatial imagination of the “world.” Here we propose the notion of “significant geographies” as the conceptual, imaginative, and real geographies that texts, authors, and language communities inhabit, produce, and reach out to.