Ian Almond, Professor of World Literature at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, headed a CIRS Faculty Research Workshop on “Dissecting the Native Informant: A Case Study of Nirad C. Chaudhuri” on November 16, 2014. The workshop was held to discuss his latest work examining the related ideas of melancholy, political conservatism, and native informancy. It takes the figure of a twentieth century Indian thinker, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, and considers his oeuvre under the changing optics of a number of different topics—all in an attempt to understand how an Indian intellectual such as Chaudhuri was able to defend passionately the legacy of the British Empire, and even slander the culture and mentality of his fellow Indians. Almond also extended this to present-day “native informants” such as Fareed Zakaria, Fouad Ajami, and Enrique Krauze.
Almond’s book initially began as a straightforward monograph on the Indian writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri (1897-1999), but soon developed—over the four years it took to write it—into a much more nuanced project: the study of how conservative, pro-Western intellectuals are formed in postcolonial environments. What started out as just another book on an infamously Anglophile Bengali writer began to reveal implications for the whole type of the “native informant.” Under the rubric of four different approaches—Islam, the archive, melancholy, and Empire—he not only enters into the intricacies of Chaudhuri’s intellectual constitution, but also develops insights into the internalization and reproduction of ideology. Each chapter tries to articulate the Indian context of the investigation—what Chaudhuri’s peers in the Bengali and wider Indian tradition had to say about Muslims, or sadness, or libraries—but also brings in a strong comparative dimension. In one chapter, for example, the book considers the year 1947 in three different cities—Calcutta, Mexico City, and Istanbul—and examines three melancholy texts that were being written in those cities that year (Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, El Laberinto de la Soledad, and the Turkish novel Huzur).
Almond tries to show how Chaudhuri’s views on Islam—on its cultures, followers, and faith—reveal a jumbled bag of different voices in Chaudhuri, each of which belonged to a different vocabulary, and drew on a different constellation of beliefs. As a consequence, he takes a look at how Chaudhuri made use of the archive—of libraries, galleries, and museums—which not only throws light on the origin of some of these vocabularies, but also illuminates the process of self-alienation which his extensive reading accentuated. It was a process which fissured and undermined Chaudhuri’s notion of Indianness, dethroning it from the center of his persona and opening him up to a wide variety of foreign registers; amongst the many consequences of this alternative intellectual development was an increasing disdain for the culture of his own community, and a growing empathy for the perspective of the Empire which ruled over it. In the penultimate chapter of Almond’s book, the melancholy which arose from this situation is shown to compose of a number of different elements—not just the inevitable tristesse which accompanies all processes of alienation, but also a sense of loss at the withdrawal of the imperial entity whose presence had taken on such a metaphysically central place in his life. In the final chapter, he considers Chaudhuri’s relationship to empire in the context of similar intellectuals from very different regions—the right-wing Mexican intellectual Enrique Krauze, the Arab journalist Fouad Ajami, and the U.S. educated Indian writer Fareed Zakaria.
The participants who came to speak on Almond’s book were based at universities from a variety of different regions. Mahmut Mutman spoke of the relationship between Empire and Literature, and the way imperialist sensibilities were able to foster (in positive as well as negative ways) literary creation; Kathleen Hewett-Smith saw Chaudhuri as someone who seemed to seek in Empire a form of codified knowledge, and compared Chaudhuri’s love of the library to the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s own interest in the archival. Tariq Mehmood spoke of the need for greater historical context in understanding figures such as Chaudhuri, whilst Sibel Irzik spoke on the Freudian distinction between melancholy and mourning, and asked why some losses for Chaudhuri were necessarily more melancholic than others. “Chaudhuri”, she said, “lost an empire he never had.” Sheetal Majithia alluded briefly to the way World Literature has been promoted as an effort to limit postcolonial studies, and spoke of the ways Chaudhuri could be useful to schools of analysis such as Affect Theory.
Ian Almond received his PhD in English Literature from Edinburgh University in 2000. He is the author of four books, most recently Two Faiths, One Banner (Harvard University Press, 2009) and History of Islam in German Thought (Routledge, 2010), and over forty articles in a variety of journals including PMLA, Radical Philosophy, ELH, and New Literary History. He specializes in comparative world literature, with a tri-continental emphasis on Mexico, Bengal and Turkey. His books have been translated into eight languages, including Arabic, Russian, Turkish, Korean, Serbo-Croat, Persian and Indonesian. He is currently working on a history of Islam in Latin America.
CIRS supported Ian Almond’s book, The Thought of Nirad C. Chaudhuri: Islam, Empire and Loss (Cambridge University Press, 2015), by hosting a research workshop in which selected scholars were invited to the Georgetown University-Qatar campus to discuss the manuscript and to give critical feedback on the book chapters ahead of publication.