Rita Kothari

Diggit profile: Rita Kothari

Jan Blommaert

Rita Kothari is Professor of English at Ashoka University, Delhi. She is one of India's most distinguished translation scholars and has translated major literary works into English. Given her background as a Sindhi, she has also written extensively on the India-Pakistan partition and its effects in the present. On this and much more, she spoke to Diggit editor Jan Blommaert.

Who is Rita Kothari?

Jan Blommaert: Rita, you are many things. You’re one of India’s most prominent translation scholars and you have translated some of India’s most amazing literature. While doing that, you focused strongly on what we can call the margins of India: the Dalits, the conflict-ridden border regions, and so forth. You also wrote incisive studies on Bollywood and how it impacts Indian popular culture and social life, including what you called the ‘chutnefication of English’. And you don’t do all of that just in academic publications but also in high-profile magazines and other mainstream outlets, speaking out on issues such as gender violence, ethnic and other forms of inequality, nationalism – name it. You’re a scholar and a public intellectual in India.

Now, all of these topics and modes of addressing them converge in the same person: you. So if we want to see the connections between them, we need to ask you how all of these different kinds of work and public stances tell a story about you.

Rita Kothari: I have often been assailed by self-doubt about these many things I do, and think about. Given the economy of academia; it can make you feel like you have no focus and that you all over the place. Interestingly there are a few people like you who see it all together. To some I pursue only the partition, to some others only Gujarat, and to some I am a translator, not even a translation theorist. My audiences are not as cohesive and consistent as many academics possess who work on only one thing.

And it is precisely this that made me ask a well-known cultural historian of Gujarat, Achyut Yagnik, who was also a mentor in my younger days, this question: who am I? And should I be concerned that I was not able to see patterns myself?! He reminded me that my vehicle (and he used the Gujarati word ‘hodi’, which means boat) is language, regardless of what I do.

I found the answer very reassuring, although eventually I disagreed with the fact that language was only a vehicle. I realize now that what centers these many forays is language-as-person and person-as-language. It is in that relation situated against a sociopolitical network that I anchor my self in. It’s possible that some years later I may have a more elegant and unifying theme than this. The fact is that I am in deep relation with words, they haunt me, they stick to me, I notice their movements, and I follow their journeys as they travel across contexts.

As someone who grew up speaking a very minority and relatively unknown language like Sindhi, I was constantly in a state of inhabiting otherness of languages.

That also makes translation a mode of seeing life. But I am sure your opening observation is coming from an even deeper place than my situatedness as a thinker and academic. And that makes me want to share with you something I have not much talked about. As someone who grew up speaking a very minority and relatively unknown language like Sindhi, I was constantly in a state of inhabiting otherness of languages. Disowning what belonged to me, or rather relegating it to a private world, and using Hindi with school friends, but aspiring to speak English, navigating through Gujarati because I lived in the state of Gujarat. All this made me richer (in retrospect), but back then it slanted a sense of belonging, which has not been completely available to me for several reasons. This combined with experiences of highs and lows in my family left me in a position of not taking education, legacies, knowledge for granted, but rather accumulating it bit by bit through dint of hard work. This background enabled me in my ethnography; where the desire for self-fashioning that I saw in ordinary people who wanted to use English, who mimicked accents, or gave up their own languages found a place in my academic work.

So another unifying feature in my many forays is a strong sense of affect, personal, and poignancy that has driven me to write about what I write about. The associative words for academic work (in my mind) are meaningfulness, engagement, honesty, rather than rigor and distance. 

Language-as-person and person-as-language

Jan Blommaert: There is so much in this answer already Rita. I can strongly identify with the point you make about language-as-person and person-as-language and how you connect that to being a speaker of a relatively small language such as Sindhi. I grew up as a member of the small Dutch-speaking minority in Brussels, in times when language was a real, hard barrier and a categorial, political identifier, a signal of inferiority. That period in my life prevented me for the remainder of it to see language as a simple, straightforward and neutral instrument – something we just happen to ‘have’. For me it became, and remained, a problem that had to be addressed, and communication became a matter of hard and relentless, difficult and tricky work. I sensed very similar things in your work, and I remember you addressing such issues in lectures too.

Can we take this point to contemporary India? Seen from a distance, I observe a rapidly increasing ‘homogeneism’ in which, politically, India is constantly redefined in terms of simple identity diacritics such as Hindu and Hindi. Sociolinguistically, this looks like the recipe for trouble: it must lead to language becoming increasingly more of a problem, given the incredible diversity in the country. Is this a recipe you recognize?

Rita Kothari: The Hindu majoritarian party in India has a set of fantasies and while the jury is still out on the roots of these fantasies; it appears to me like a modular nationalism and "efficient" outlook of both Germany from earlier days and China today. In this vision the singularity of religion and language are strong ideologies. The paranoia about an impending threat from perceived "enemies" has been whipped up quite successfully to make a muscular nationalism seem desirable to most people, the success about Hindi is quite limited.

We feel every day that contemporary India is not the place we grew up in. It’s different, it’s depressing. 

So yes I recognize this as a recipe, but I do not feel that linguistic diversity is easy to kill or diminish in India. Language as a site of self-identification is very strong, and forms of what we may call regional nationalism are experienced through language. The homogenization that you see from a distance is of the kind we see in many parts of the world, a subscription to authoritarian and in this case patriarchal center that infantilizes citizens and generates fears that have no basis in reality - this is a familiar pattern, isn't it? That being said, we feel every day that contemporary India is not the place we grew up in. It’s different, it’s depressing. 

Jan Blommaert: It’s now also a global economic and financial superpower and a giant in the field of cultural production, from software and apps to Bollywood….

Rita Kothari: That's true. And there's so much pride and smugness in the Indian diaspora. In fact some of Modi's cornerstone projects have been formed after talking to the diaspora that constantly complained of two things - lack of cleanliness and infrastructure. In the course of making the neoliberal upper class happy, much superficiality came to attach itself to other projects and people on the ground. But I digress here. Yes, India is a very important actor in the field of cultural globalization and numbers of 'certain kind of Hindi' speakers also swell. Interestingly these are formed by people not only from India but also Pakistan and Bangladesh. 

India's rising stock via its diaspora also made the present government take the position it did on Kashmir, with impunity. As we speak Kashmir is still under a lockdown. Such confidence, impunity is sustained by and rests upon an international community of Indians who celebrate this phenomenon. 

Jan Blommaert: You mention ‘a certain kind of Hindi’. Can you elaborate a bit on that?

Rita Kothari: What I am saying is that the hard lines drawn between Urdu and Hindi in the run up to and wake of partition simply don't seem to matter in certain diasporic situations. Individuals from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal all use a mixture of Hindi/Urdu with English and this has come to characterize a common code mixture of South Asia overseas. I am quite sure that in some enumeration it would appear that 'Hindi' speakers have gone up, which I prefer to see as Hinglish speakers. 

Jan Blommaert: So ‘hard’ divisions at home have become ‘soft’ ones in the diaspora, while they can still be politically recuperated?

Rita Kothari: Hmm. That's interesting what you ask. Let me think this clearly. The 'hard' divisions of Urdu and Hindi, are hardly ever linguistically motivated. They have been community-based claims and are oriented to the focal point of difference in the script. This should also tell you that these divisions were played out among the elite, not the one who went through a spectrum of spoken forms of language without thinking of it as an Urdu or Hindi.

The 'hard' divisions of Urdu and Hindi, are hardly ever linguistically motivated. They have been community-based claims and are oriented to the focal point of difference in the script.

In some sense when I meet drivers and kebab owners in my visits to UAE or UK or US, I find the same phenomenon at work. They all speak a code mixed language that has some Urdu/Hindi/Hindustani – what have you (also what is found in Bollywood), and smatterings of English. These blurred forms are too quotidian to be noticed unless for people like you and I. So they are not politically significant, as such, one way or another. But some differences, in fact, may become sharper in the diaspora. Identity and ethnicity based organizations may even harden some differences.

I think the truth is an in-between one, depending on the nature of imperatives and economic class needs. I know I am not helping much, but it'd require too many examples across different locations. 

#MeToo, lost in translation?

Jan Blommaert: You refer to economic class needs and I suppose that India’s spectacular economic progress doesn’t mean that the new wealth is evenly distributed over the entire population. But this brings me to another issue, one which again figures quite prominently in your work: the voice of women in India.

In our European media, we quite frequently hear horrifying reports of rape and other forms of transgressive behavior towards women in India, and I read articles in which Indian women claim that such forms of gender violence are becoming more frequent. I have no reason whatsoever to doubts such reports, but they raise an evident question. Is gender violence becoming more visible in India due to women – like you – increasingly speaking out on it? Is there a MeToo movement in India? And if so, who is involved in it?

Rita Kothari: There was last year a hectic social media-enabled and social media-covered MeToo movement. Some cases landed in court, some were addressed and some were dismissed. In an essay on gender and translation, I tried to formulate how when MeToo was talked about in Gujarati, for instance (for mind you, the entire discourse was in English) it appeared like an entitlement, ‘I too want attention’, not ‘I was a victim too’. This small instance will tell you that translation of feminist concerns across languages is jagged and protean. And that should also tell us that certain feminist concerns (especially concerns about reparation) tend to acquire, in perception, an elitist coloring. Some of this is valid, but some also motivated by denial and externalization of gender violence, which is to say it happens elsewhere.

To come back to your question: is there more crime against women or more is being reported? I do think there is a rise of urban crime, and there's also some degree of backlash against women, especially when they join workforce, look confident and seemed to know what they want. In patriarchal societies just a confident self-sufficient woman can appear fairly emasculating. Is there an alarming rise then? No, I don't think so, but I do think that the "safety" of women obfuscates for most in India, and abroad, a more slow and stubborn phenomenon - violence of the everyday. It’s easier to deal with riots when it comes to inter-religious strife than to focus on how prejudices are formed colloquially. Similarly the discourse around safety is easier to understand, it invites the middle class to become protective of their "daughters" and "sisters" and there's more acknowledgement around that. In the western media, it fulfills long lasting orientalist needs of urgency and danger in the oriental world. So I don't want to deny but put it in its place. 

I want to say two things very clearly: the story of women in India is marked by both continuity and change. You will find more women as I said in workforce, and in positions that have hitherto been a male reserve. But you will also find medieval views around the role of women in families and societies at large. As India becomes more majoritarian, there is a danger of it becoming more misogynistic, for "Indian" traditions may beckon it so. This is ironically, or perhaps not, accompanied by projects of save girl child, educated girl child. I personally find the female citizen-subject spoken for and about, than heard or spoken to. This is also the all-embracing infantilization and "women and children" have been a category of passive representation. 

Emerging forms of expression in social media enable more opportunities and help bypass the family network of censorship, which is the hardest in India.

You have referred to me, although I think my questions need revamping. My writing so far has been a binary one about men and women, rather than about a spectrum of gender. And this also brings us to the questions of sexuality, which are far more expressive in certain sections than before. Some may argue that we had more fluidity in the precolonial past, but the fact is that we experience illegitimacy of desire in the present. Whether the roots of this lie in Victorian codes of colonial India or are a product of a Hindu conservatism today does not help us in countering the repressive vocabulary that sustains it. But emerging forms of expression in social media enable more opportunities and help bypass the family network of censorship, which is the hardest in India. In summary, gender violence, gender freedom are simultaneous and perhaps connected.

Jan Blommaert: The female citizen-subject in India is “spoken for and about”, you say. No doubt about that and we see it elsewhere too. But where does that leave someone like you, a female public intellectual with a minority background and, to top it all, a translator whose task it is to convert delicate and nuanced words into delicate and nuanced words addressed to other audiences?

Rita Kothari: My being a translator and woman have both enabled me to navigate polarized spheres in India. I insist on listening, regardless of ideological frameworks that inform the speech/text and I insist on carrying across to open up conversations. At times I refuse to translate, or mediate if the message offers no possibility of a reprieve or dialogue. It was something like this that has made me translate (with my husband Abhijit) the trilogy of K.M.Munshi. It is not literature from the margins, it is rather literature of majoritarian thinking in Gujarat. But it has had a formative role, and it has chinks in its armour that have not been addressed.

By doing so, I wanted to understand what made generations respond to this work, and also bring to the intellectual arena the power and dangers of a story. Really, my intellectual engagements have been shaped by my being a member of a large joint family too. You do not get to choose whom you want to live with always; and you also begin to appreciate the indebtedness that characterizes these relations. Does that mean we agree ideologically with those we live with? No, far from it, and I have made my differences very clear, but does that mean that we cannot continue to find ways to mitigate hostility and become inventive in our negotiations?