Wednesday, December 2 at 4:30pm MST
Part of the Sound and Noise in Asia Speaker Series.
with Madhumita Lahiri from the University of Michigan.
How can print serve the needs of a largely illiterate and famously multilingual nation? For nationalist writers in nineteenth- and twentieth-century India, answering that question meant emphasizing the sonic functions of printed texts. India’s diverse vernaculars were extensively textualized only in the nineteenth century, when British-led vernacularization projects inscribed a noisy and interwoven multilingualism as a collection of visually distinguishable forms: that is, as distinct languages with different phonetic scripts. Yet that early emphasis on linguistic differentiation was soon rivaled by a desire for inclusion, as anticolonial writers at the turn of the twentieth century sought to cohere a multilingual nation both in politics and in print. In this talk, I argue that these writers approached the literary text as a sound recording technology by analyzing the 1926 Bengali novel Pather Dabi (“The Right of Way”) by Saratchandra Chatterjee. Set in British Burma and famously banned in British India, this novel has often been discussed for its radical anticolonialism. I show that its political content is inseparable from its sonic operations, for Pather Dabi uses its Burmese setting to dramatize how linguistic communities are interwoven with national ones. Studies of Bollywood cinema have revealed its early positioning as a technology that could unify India across the divides of Urdu and Hindi; my talk will engage the ostensibly quieter medium of print, and in particular the novel, to show its operation as a nationalist technology of sound reproduction. I show, too, how the novel served as a pedagogical apparatus for anticolonial listening. Situating Pather Dabi within the trajectory of twentieth-century Indian literature in Bengali, Hindi, and English, I invite us to listen for the emergence of the noisy Indian novel: one that taught readers how to listen across languages and that sought to influence their politics in the process.