Marie Sophie Hingst: TCD SPECTRESS Fellow in Delhi

Namasté! I was seconded to the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharhal Nehru University in New Delhi during the summer months of what would turn out to be the hottest year since 1994. The JNU campus is even in the midst of a scorching hot summer beautiful, lush and green. The campus is a paradise for bird-spotters and even antilopes are passing by occasionally. The JNU community is a thriving and political active one. The graduate student community is a most welcoming and friendly one and over a cup of chai more than one afternoon was spent with inspiring discussions and shared interests that reached far beyond historiographical topics. I would particularly like to thank Anandaroop Sen, Akshay Joshi and Naveena Naqvi for their warm welcome, their patience and their open doors.

My stay in New-Delhi offered me the possibility to explore the work of Franz Kafka and his inherent dealings with different traumatic contexts with students from a wide range of the Faculty of History and Humanities. I was encouraged by Professor Rekha Rajan to set up a reading group that would meet weekly to discuss texts of Franz Kafka. The name Franz Kafka invokes the familiar portrait of a neurotic, hypochondriac writer, who was able to make a problem out of absolutely everything and died shortly before his forty-first birthday. He left an oeuvre that resembles rather a large jigsaw puzzle, open for manifold forms of interpretation. Some claim all has been said already, other find nothing has been said at all about this world-famous author. I intended to meet in the middle and wanted to look at a selection of well-known and unknown texts of Kafka to discuss the role of the “national” and “trauma” in his work and contrast them with other writers. The group that met every Wednesday included students from the Department of History, the Centre for German Studies, Latin-American, English and Gender Studies. All of us being shy and uncomfortable at first, our reading of Kafka turned out to be a mesmerizing experience. The texts we read included Kafka’s letters to Milena Jesenská, Abstracts from “The Castle” and various short stories among them: “A Hunger Artist” and “The Great Wall of China”. The questions raised in the discussions connected the world of the early twentieth century Prague with the twenty-first century New-Delhi. We contrasted Kafka’s search for identity with our very own examination of individuality in a post-colonial society .Kafka’s texts soon became the fundament to discuss political issues. We approached with the texts in our hands one of the most challenging subjects of the Indian society; the status of women. Kafka, the most subtle author of violence provided us with a vocabulary to approach the traumatic experience of the body. Gestures such as shaking hands with members of the opposite sex, clapping or whistling, kissing in public or not, were interpreted in political terms. Alienation, peer pressure and the questions of religion, caste, gender and class were connected directly with literature. The categories themselves were attached to everyday life experience. Especially after the infamous 2012 “bus rape” our discussions were challenged by questions of gender-based violence and the visibility of women in everyday Indian life. There was something both in Kafka’s fiction and in his biography that we instinctively related to our own backgrounds. But reading was not enough. A modern dance performance “A male ant has straight antennae” created by the performance artist Mandeep Raikhy took place at the Goethe Institute in New-Delhi and offered for our group the opportunity to connect with the outside world. The piece seemed to put on stage the topics of our discussions. It explored in the form of modern dance notions of masculinity and the relation between men and women on the street. The Gati Dance Company created an intense artwork that explored notions of masculinity through stereotypes and variable perspectives. Being confronted with the strong physical presence and exposition, we sat together in the garden of the Goethe-Institute after the performance grasping for words to describe the emotions the piece had unlocked. With great openness all participants shared their own views on the artwork but also on their perception of Indian and Western values and art concepts, of female and male role- models and the various shapes and shades of society. In some way the evening became a turning point. We as a group were united in our sense that literary and artistic works did neither belong to a certain culture nor was connected to political ideologies. Quite in opposite it belonged to us and defined our search for an understanding of reality’s fickleness and frailty. I am still deeply moved and grateful to all participants, who read, argued, discussed and shared their notions on Kafka and the world with me. Reading Franz Kafka was a challenging and most fruitful undertaking. I learnt not only to read Kafka with new eyes but was able to gain deep insights in the historical contexts and contemporary debates taking place in the Indian society. I met so many interesting, brave and wonderful men and women, who taught me to ask new questions and never to trust old answers

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About Jennifer Edmond

Dr Jennifer Edmond, is the Director of Strategic Projects in the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. Trained as a scholar of German literature, Jennifer is mostly engaged professionally with the investigation of knowledge exchange and collaboration in Humanities research and in particular the impact of technology on these processes.
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