The SCHIRN MAG talks to cultural studies expert and author Dr. Mithu Sanyal. Find out in the first installment of this two-part interview what inspired her to write her debut novel “Identitti”, what misconceptions and omissions characterize the German view of India, and what works by Gauri Gill she particularly admires.
In her non-fiction books, cultural studies expert and author Mithu Sanyal addresses sexism, rape and the cultural history of the vagina and in her widely acclaimed debut novel “Identitti”, which in 2021 was shortlisted among other things for the German Book Prize she likewise focuses on feminist subjects. While feminist theory is one influence in “Identitti”, her novel is in fact shaped more by discourses of post-colonialism which she then links to experiences of the Indian diaspora in Germany in a profound manner and with a sense of humor. The starting point for the novel’s plot is a scandal: Professor for Post-Colonialism, Dr. Saraswati, who likes to present herself as a person of color and is at the forefront of the debates on identity policy is revealed to be a white German woman from Düsseldorf – with far-reaching consequences for her students. Artist Gauri Gill also devotes herself in works such as “The Americans” to the topic of the Indian diaspora. In her multi-facetted oeuvre Gill questions forms of representation informed by colonialism and offers women and marginalized groups in particular a new visibility and opportunity for self-expression. We spoke to Mithu Sanyal about the Indian diaspora and Gauri Gill’s exhibition.
Mithu Sanyal, you are perceived as a feminist voice in Germany and at the latest since your book “Identitti” which is critical of post-colonialism also as an important voice of the Indian diaspora in Germany. What exactly does that mean to you and how would you describe the community behind it?
Since feminism is the window through which I have been politicized I feel the description is absolutely spot on. That said, there is of course not just one type of feminism, but many different types of feminism. When I say I am a feminist I don’t mean that gender is the sole or most important category of discrimination but that the way the world treats us is not only connected with what we are like but is linked to many identity markers – be they gender, race or class, income, family of origin or health. I would argue that the biggest category of discrimination in our society is most definitely health, in other words both illness and ableism and so on. And we take that far less into consideration than we do the other categories.
But for a long time, we didn’t consider race either. That’s why I’m really delighted to be described as the “voice of the Indian diaspora“. However, that is also a very diverse experience in the same way that the experience of womanhood can differ: So, the experiences you have because you are a woman are different from mine but also from those of my mother. Everyone has different experiences but in some cases it’s possible to detect similarities. And it’s important to be able to look at that so that you don’t imagine you are strange. And race was an invisible factor in my life for so long. For example, I’ve just given a workshop on my novel at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. A student there told me how much she had identified with Nivedita, the protagonist of “Identitti”, and especially with Nivedita’s wish to feel a sense of belonging. She told me how important it was for her to be appreciated by the Black community so that she could also celebrate a part of herself. That might sound very banal, but that is precisely what was missing in my life for so long. And that is what drives Nivedita – the topic of the book is not as everyone thinks appropriation but rather appreciation! Thus, Nivedita says that she is of course against racism but she would like to be able to enjoy race and she means the sense of belonging in the way the term is used by philosopher bell hooks. hooks describes in her book of the same name what it means for people when there’s no place they can call home. And Nivedita is one of these people. Goethe is cited as saying that the two things parents should give their children are roots and wings – and that’s the theory I also have in my book: If you lack roots, it is more difficult to develop wings. All of Nivedita’s friends attend universities in different cities. But she only manages to get to Düsseldorf – which is so close to her home town of Essen that she could in theory commute. And the reason for being in Düsseldorf is that she feels so rootless and is therefore afraid that if she goes farther afield she will simply be blown away. However, that alters in the course of the book so that in the end she considers going to Oxford. And she would never have managed that before.
Nivedita’s cousin Priti grew up in England, in Birmingham – a city where people from the Indian subcontinent make up the largest group of emigrants. In other words, there is a certain cultural knowledge about us, but there is also a lot more open racism. In England people look at me and think “ah, she’s Asian”, it’s so crazy that English people think of India as part of Asia while for Germans Asia is more about Japan or China. We don’t even agree when it comes to the pigeonholing. Anyway, at least I am somehow recognized in the UK, naturally not recognized as a person, but I am correctly categorized, whereas in Germany I am always asked “Where are you from?”. And then they go through every country in the world before they arrive at India. And it is really fascinating that this feeling of wanting to belong to the Indian diaspora can also be understood in the sense of being properly identified without being pinned down to it. Because of course I am all kinds of other things in my family, for example, my mother comes from Poland and that is also important. And I am a mother and author and and and….
Until now you have mainly written non-fiction, and this is your first novel. What motivated you to write the book now?
Well, the fact is that I’ve always wanted to write novels but the book market didn’t want me (*laughs*). When my agent offered “Identitti” the reaction of the publishers was “That’s super, but unfortunately we won’t be able to sell it”. And then Hanser had the courage to take it on and it was an immediate “Spiegel” bestseller. Which is also interesting because you realize that of course the book market lags behind the readers. On the other hand, for a long time it was of course the case that we didn’t talk about such topics in Germany. Naturally, people at the universities did or anti-racist activist groups did, but it was hardly mentioned in the mainstream. Belonging, post-colonialism, diaspora, really those are topics that have only been broadly discussed in the last five or six years. That also made it difficult for me to talk about it because there was no common language.
The other thing was that originally I had started out by telling the story between Nivedita and her cousin, Priti, who like I said comes from an Indian family in Birmingham and always calls Nivedita “Coconut”. But that didn’t work because it is impossible to prove identity. In other words, the story, the conflict always went round in circles. And then there was this case in America about Rachel Dolezal, the Black civil rights activist and university lecturer where it came out that she is actually White. And I thought: Great! I can take a case like that and transpose it onto Germany – naturally a completely different case, it’s not the story of Rachel Dolezal, not at all but it acted as a catalyst to be able to tell Nivedita’s story! And it worked with this catalyst because she is able to distance herself from Dr. Saraswati in the novel who is based on Dolezal. There is nothing that is essentially identity, rather identity always comes about in communication with the world. You just need a strong communicative counterpart in it. Which is why this marked the point when it (the story about identity) could be told. But it was also fortunate that suddenly everyone was saying: “Oh yes, identity politics!” When I chose “Identitti” as a title I originally thought of the word “Titti”, in other words breasts, that’s interesting and sexy and then I take as a topic something that is really boring and old like identity politics that nobody is interested in and it was the other way round: Everyone jumped onto the identity politics bandwagon!
You have just talked about the fact that until recently we lacked a common language to deal with these identity issues. In “Identitti” we meet authors like bell hooks and get an impression of how important certain authors are for developing such a language. Would you name other authors apart from her that paved the way for you to write this book?
Oh sure, there were so many! Well, Prof. Dr. Saraswati is basically put together from lots of people but the way she presents herself, I mean this kind of “I am glamor and grande dame” that is very much Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak. But also, people like Nivedita Prasad or Nikita Dhawan, both of whom live in Germany and teach at universities, were inspiring. Naturally, they are not fake, not at all, but their research, their texts and the way they speak and present themselves fed into the figure of Saraswati. And then naturally there are entire books: Hanif Kureishi’s novel. “The Buddha of Suburbia” is the book that I read and thought: That’s exactly the kind of thing I want to write! That was the first novel that really resonated with the reality of my life although nothing in it is like it was in my own life – of course not! I didn’t grow up in London, I’m not a bi-sexual man and everything else was different but still I found things in it that I wasn’t able to find in literature written in German. Meaning a lot of different things came together. After all, we don’t invent something new but are just another voice that continues the conversation. Which is why it’s so important that there are different voices because if there are only a few other voices then the conversation you engage in is so small and the more other voices there are, the bigger and more complex your own share can be.
How do you perceive the view of India from abroad, especially in Germany?
That is really fascinating, because on the one hand we have a really positive image of India in Germany. Actually, we have very little knowledge about India, but many positive prejudices, starting with: ayurveda, yoga, Kamasutra; you name it. When Indian Nobel Literature Laureate Rabindranath Tagore came to Germany in the 1920s, he was treated like the wise man from the Orient and carried through Germany on a sedan chair.
At the same time, when it comes to politics we are – to put it mildly – very uncritical. Annalena Baerbock recently visited India and moaned a bit about India’s closeness to Russia, but she made no mention at all about the fact that a Hindu Nationalist party is in power in India that greatly discriminates against the Muslims in the country. I’m always being invited to congresses that say take a comparative view of the sexuality in the various religions. And comparative typically means comparing Christianity, Islam and Judaism. And I often realize: I’m not an expert in comparative religions but somehow I get assigned the role of speaking as the only representative of a non-monotheist religion. And that’s a real shame because more discussion could be so enriching. To start off with, Hinduisms are not book-based religions. You don’t have the Thora, the Bible, the Koran of Hinduism. When the British came to India they asked: What is the book of your faith? And then we said: Okay, let’s decide now that it’s the “Ramayana” and it’s the “Mahabharata”. But these are important texts and there are many other important texts, and they all say different things. Moreover, the Hinduisms are a karmic religion, i.e., there is reincarnation. But that means gender, for example, can be perceived to be much less essentialist if there is reincarnation because you don’t know what will happen in the next life and so on. In addition, already in the Kamasutra and in Ramayana you have three genders and that’s been the case for several thousand years. So, it’s not really a religion whose make up is such that it can be fundamentalist. But sadly, every religion can be just that when the circumstances permit. And that’s crazy because Hindutva ideology, in other words the Hindu nationalism championed by Prime Minister Modi, flies in the face of many ideas in Hinduism: You have so many gods and they don’t only constantly alter their gender, but they also become animals and then they become another aggregate state; then they are suddenly fluid like a river, or they are like a mountain. Transgression is inherent to the concept. This is why I’m interested in how Hindutva could come about, and it will be one of the topics in my next novel. And I was also surprised to find out that it actually has its origins in anti-colonial resistance. It’s the case with many types of fundamentalism that they are modern phenomena, were reactions against certain forms of oppression by the West. Which is why ultimately many of the counter strategies are so counter-productive because they only strengthen the system: Ah, the West wants to undermine us. That is not an excuse but if we want to alter something we need a correct analysis of it to begin with.
Let’s turn our attention to Gauri Gill: in contrast to such a one-sided view of India the Indian photographer portrays a completely different side – less colorful, less patriarchal structures...
True, and that’s why the exhibition really blew me away!
The artist herself describes her collaborative approach to photography as a departure from the colonial pictorial tradition in India. We had the pleasure of taking you on a short tour of the exhibition. What was your first impression of Gauri Gill’s works, is there anything that especially chimed with you?
Everything, but what had a really strong impact on me was the series entitled “Fields of Sight” that was realized in cooperation with the Warli artist Rajesh Vangad. Really together. Not that he’s the artisan and she is the artist. That breaks with so many notions of caste and who has a voice and who doesn’t. Who produces art and culture? I grew up with this story that originally the Kshatriya, in other words the warrior class, was the highest and that the Indians then decided on the caste which makes culture, which makes science, should be the highest caste. And that was then the Brahmans. And naturally it is a beautiful story, but it also shores up the insanely brutal caste system. Naturally, art and culture and science have nothing to do with caste, but with the fact that we are people and these are deeply human forms of expression.
What exactly is caste? As a rule of thumb, we can say caste is class but class is more permeable in some respects. So, Gandhi, who we always think of as having been so committed to fighting for the “untouchables” went on a hunger strike in 1932 to the point of death because he wanted to prevent them from being given special rights as a discriminated group, for example being able to elect their own representatives in elections and so on. That is the other side of Gandi, whom we can and should admire for a great many things but as regards the caste system his is definitely not my role model. Savarkar, by contrast, the father of Hindu Nationalism was very much opposed to the caste system. Nothing is clear cut; you can think people are really awful but they still might say fantastic things and you find others great, but they can still be committed to the wrong things. And what I appreciate is this ambiguity, and all this is so impressively combined in the images by Gauri Gill and Rajesh Vangad.
What’s more it’s not just a matter of – now we’ll go back to this traditional Warli art and look solely at the past. Instead, you see photography AND industrialization AND this specific imagery of the Warli in which there incredibly many forms to depict leaves all combined. It is a visual language that arises from a close relationship with living nature around us. And it’s something we can and should and must learn a great deal in the current situation. When it comes to the climate crisis all we ever think of is this: “Ah, we all have to pull ourselves together so that the world will end a little more slowly.” We don’t have any notions of positive interactions with nature that we can resort to. And there is so much knowledge, let’s call it “indigenous knowledge” – that’s another thing people always fight over – is that the right word or am I reproducing colonial ideas of the world? And what I find so rewarding about these traditions is that they have answers to the question of how we can deal with nature as equals, how can we also be useful for the environment, how can we enter into a different relationship with one another? And these are all things that resonate in these works. It’s so amazing and they are works of art that don’t attempt to point fingers but contain so many levels of meaning. You can probably stand in front of them for a week and always discover something new!