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The Many Crimes Of Professor Harish Trivedi

05/09/2015 8:32 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Harish Trivedi

The title has plenty of gravitas: India and the World: Postcolonialism, Translation and Indian Literature -- Essays in Honour of Professor Harish Trivedi. The cover, though, is a cutesy pink with a timid looking greyish-blue globe graphic. Ruth Vanita, a formidable scholar and the editor of this book, has kept the packaging of this tribute to her teacher and former colleague simple.

This simplicity is Prof Trivedi's foremost crime, turning even strangers into accomplices in no time. Ruth Vanita follows in his footsteps and gives readers a comprehensive and comprehensible introduction in less than 20 paragraphs. Cry snobbish academia, cry!

I have known Prof Trivedi for only a decade and yet I can bear testimony to his various crimes. He had the audacity to challenge the supremacy of canonical English literature. He brought his Hindi heartland sensibilities to classrooms and the curricula-deciding committees of the University of Delhi. His irreverent wit spared nobody, including himself, and he remains incorrigible to date. His resistance to allowing "theory" to bask in glory at the expense of the poor literary text outraged academia. He baffled his peers and students alike by refusing to lace his speech with jargon. Much to the chagrin of the Arts Faculty watchman, his weekly M Phil seminars went on till 9.30pm. But all this pales when one learns that he allowed his students unprecedented academic freedom even when their respective intellectual sensibilities were at loggerheads. His students were never in danger of being censured for their ideas, although committing a grammatical error was blasphemous.

"His resistance to allowing "theory" to bask in glory at the expense of the poor literary text outraged academia."

As Ruth Vanita observes in her introduction, Prof Trivedi's confidence in establishing an Indian point of view within the ambit of English Literature studies is contagious. It has managed to corrupt many of his peers and students. The crutch of western theories to interpret even the most indigenous works of Indian literature has been getting abandoned at an alarming rate. Prof Trivedi posed a serious threat to the English canon through his pioneering work Colonial Transactions: English Literature and India in 1993. This threat has been growing ever since, duly aided and abetted by other postcolonial and translation studies scholars.

The coming together of a bevy of the who's who of postcolonialism and translation studies to acknowledge Prof Trivedi's contribution two decades later in Ruth Vanita's festschrift is an ocular proof of what he unleashed upon the world of letters. He abandoned Virginia Woolf after PhD and courted Indian literature and his ties with the latter have caused much consternation in the Anglo-American literary criticism circuit.

Predictably, not everyone likes Prof Trivedi. Even festschrift's contributors, spread across the globe, have had serious disagreements with him. My favourite academic anecdote is about a conference where Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a contributor to the festschrift, accosted him saying, "Is it not enough that you attack me? Now your friends have also begun attacking me." The identity of the said "friend" is not to be revealed.

Lecturing at the Arts Faculty of Delhi University, he polarised the MA English students better than any politician could. The full house on his first The Tempest lecture of the new academic session would invariably dwindle to a deserted village the very next week. By the third week only a handful of students would remain. And they stuck with him until their graduation. They connived to enrol for his two courses at MPhil: Translation Studies and Indian Literature in Translation. They burnt the apocryphal midnight oil for good grades only to be able to choose him as their dissertation supervisor. They never complained during those marathon seminars. They stopped regurgitating "critics" in their papers and submitted some without even a single reference. They made the texts their own while Prof Trivedi sat there revelling in the excitement around him. From letting one student present a paper emulating the form of Plato's Dialogues to encouraging others to come up with practical translation pieces in lieu of theoretical course papers, he made his students frighteningly independent.

Independence is a dangerous thing. It is a double-edged sword, twice cursed. Not only does it threaten the old calcified structures, it also endangers the soul that embraces it. Prof Trivedi's students continue to get corrupted even via technology for he has set "Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya, har fiqr ko dhuein mein udata chala gaya" as his mobile caller tune. Such is the extent of his influence that despite the fear of being ridiculed for being non-academic, this student has decided to write a personal tribute instead of a traditional book review for the festschrift.

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