|Raja Rao Annual Award 2008|
Citation for the Raja Rao Award of the Samvad India Foundation for the Year 2008
Professor Vijay Chandra Mishra, recipient for the year 2008 of the Raja Rao Award, given for an outstanding contribution to the Literature and Culture of the South Asian Diaspora, is probably the foremost theoretician and cultural critic of the Indian diaspora among our contemporaries. He was himself born of diasporic Indian parents and grandparents in Fiji in 1946,and he thus not only describes and analyzes the Indian diasporic condition with exceptional insight but in fact embodies it.
After school education in Fiji, Vijay Mishra received his higher education at universities in New Zealand and Australia, obtaining a Ph. D. from the Australian National University in Canberra in 1981. He then went on to earn a D. Phil. degree in 1989 from the University of Oxford. His brahminically austere and single-minded devotion to learning and scholarship was reflected in his intense experience at Oxford. “I went into the Bodleian Library,” he recalls, “and came out two years later, an old man, with my hair gone grey or just gone.”
Still resplendent in that white wig of wisdom, he is currently Professor of English at the Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, and has held visiting appointments in Cardiff, California, Canada and New Zealand. Professor Mishra has over the years published half a dozen major books which reflect a wide range of the cultural experience of girmitiyas (or migrant bonded labourers) as well as a profound understanding of the Mother Country, India. These works include Devotional Poetics and the Indian Sublime (the State University of New York Press, 1998), Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), in which he discusses among other things the reception of Indian cinema by diasporic Indian communities and, most recently and definitively, The Literature of the Indian Diaspora: Theorizing the Diasporic Imaginary (London and New York: Routledge, 2007).
Another book of his which is of special significance to the diasporic theme is titled Rama's Banishment: A Centenary Tribute to the Fiji Indians 1879-1979, which he edited with an Introduction and Epilogue (London and Auckland: Heinemann, 1979). To go with the deeply evocative and emotive title of the volume, he chose for its apt epigraph a chaupai from that foundational text of Hindi culture, the Ramayana of Tulsi Das (or the Ramcharitmanas), which has remained the vade mecum of Indians of the nineteenth century diaspora all across the world, from Trinidad to Fiji. Providing some metaphoric and mythic consolation to them, this epigraph runs:
Tapas bhes bises udasi
Chaudah baras Ram banabasi.
[Dressed as a mendicant and detached from the world,
Let Ram be banished for fourteen years to the forest.]
This may be the moment to mention that as it happens, Vijay Mishra can sing the Tulsi Ramayana in four different tunes, and what is more, he often in fact does so. He also sings the songs of K.L. Sehgal’s era, the golden age of Hindi film music, with equal virtuosity and devotion. This provides a fascinating contrast with his pucca Oxford-accented English which he wields to superb effect. One of the pleasures of going to a conference with him is that one gets two Vijay Mishras in one: the highly erudite and sophisticated academic by day, and the nostalgically melodious singer by night. Few professors anywhere, whether diasporic or Indian, can match this hybrid postcolonial repertoire. Despite the one hundred years of diaspora experienced by his forefathers and himself, Vijay Mishra is still deeply embedded in the Indian cultural traditions, both classical and contemporary, and has retained Indian samskaras.
Indeed, in a non-essentialist and wholly complimentary sense, this son of the diaspora is more Indian than most Indians. He has a remarkably extensive knowledge not only of literatures written in English but, in addition, of literatures written in several indigenous languages, including Sanskrit, Hindi and Fijian Hindi. He possesses a truly multilingual and multicultural sensibility, in which Nanak coexists with Naipaul, and the Dhvanyaloka with Derrida. He is an academic of outstanding intellectual calibre who combines exhilarating theoretical sophistication with unfailing lucidity and liveliness, and who lightens abstruse theoretical formulations with flashes of wit and humour. But, unlike in some current overly cerebral or playfully postmodernist discourse, he does not make light of the physical and spiritual travails and the psychological burden of those exiled from home. He knows their predicament only too well from the inside so that he feels with and for them. Diaspora for him is no mere academic matter.
This may explain how right at the beginning of his most recent book, The Literature of the Indian Diaspora: Theorizing the Diasporic Imaginary, Vijay Mishra makes a statement that goes against the grain of postcolonial critical orthodoxy, according to which migrancy and diaspora are highly desirable and beneficial conditions. On the contrary, Professor Mishra, rephrasing a famous sentence by Tolstoy, here says: “All diasporas are unhappy, but every diaspora is unhappy in its own way.” He insists on maintaining a distinction between the “old” diaspora of the nineteenth century, which was “early modern, classic capitalist,” and sponsored and promoted by our colonial masters, and the “new” diaspora of the twentieth century, which is late capitalist, voluntary and presented in idealized terms by academics whom Mishra has scathingly termed “romantic practitioners of diasporic theory.” On the other hand, Mishra himself speaks of diaspora in terms of trauma, melancholy and mourning.
In broader terms too, Vijay Mishra has articulated a more complex and subtly nuanced idiom of speaking about colonial and postcolonial matters. An article he co-authored with Bob Hodge in 1991, “What is Post(-)colonialism?” arbitrated between the many shades of meaning which could be signified by the use, or the omission, of the hyphen in the word “Postcolonialism.” This article has been widely circulated and acclaimed, and Mishra has gone on recently to lay down what he has called “the law of the hyphen.” He has recently published, in 2005, another article, now titled, “What was Postcolonialism?”, this time spelt without a hyphen. Similarly, after publishing extensive regular surveys of the discourse on multiculturalism, he has also published recently an article titled “What was Multiculturalism?”
What this seems to indicate is not that Vijay Mishra’s own critical interest in these matters is exhausted, but that, in his acute opinion, the radical urgency behind these discourses has now spent itself. Throughout his scholarly career, Professor Mishra has shown an instinctive ability to spot new trends, and to discern equally when such trends should give way to something even newer. Like a true diasporic, he likes to move on, and he has done so from one subject to another in each of his successive books. His next book seeks to offer an annotation of Salman Rushdie’s work, but we can be sure that it would not be as innocuous an exercise as the word “annotate” suggests; let Rushdie beware! And we hope that there will be many more books to follow, and many more conferences too, so that there may be further opportunities for all of us to enjoy the multifaceted contribution of this gifted scholar, and to learn about our world and indeed ourselves from this prodigious diasporic son of the Indian soil.
Citation by Harish Trivedi
Professor of English, University of Delhi