The Spectress Project offered me the great opportunity of spending one and a half months on secondment to the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, from November 16 to December 31, 2017. Though I had already travelled to most countries in Europe, this was my first trip to Poland, and it was an unforgettable experience indeed. Fortuitously, and making things even more memorable, the Director of my host Centre, Prof. Tomasz Bilczewski, was returning home from New York the very same day that I was flying in, and we were on the same flight from Frankfurt to Kraków, advancing my welcome to the programme by a couple of hours and easing my entry into a new city and country even before I had set foot there.
I was housed bang in the centre of Kraków, barely a few hundred metres from the historic Old Town, the Wawel Castle, a host of amazing churches and museums, and my host department too, and I made full utilization of this proximity. What made this heady mix of history, culture, and academics even more potent was that I was in the midst of all of this through the festive season of Christmas, and Christmas is huge in Kraków. I foraged around the numerous Christmas markets, ‘milk bars’, and roadside kiosks and gorged on countless helpings of barszcz, pierogi, gołąbki, bigos, and kiełbasa (translating them as beetroot soup, dumplings, cabbage rolls, cabbage and meat stew, and sausages would be sacrilege), and an I-just-lost-count number of glasses of piwo and grzane wino (beer and mulled wine for the uninitiated). I was even invited to a traditional Christmas eve dinner at the family home of a former student and now staff at the university, and had the great fortune of savouring the customary twelve-course ‘wigilia’ meal, ending in poppy seed infused desserts.
Just to dispel the doubt of those who may begin to suspect that all that I did in Kraków was to eat, I was also fortunate to contribute to two academic events of the Centre – an interactive session with its PhD students where I discussed their projects with them and provided suggestions, and a lecture that I delivered on ‘World Literature’. More importantly, I utilised the bulk of the time in accessing the astonishing resources of the university to study for my current research on what I call the ‘polycolonial’ experience in South Asia: or that India was colonized not by the British alone, but by the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and Danish too, with Germans, Italians, and travellers from other European nations, including Poland, playing major roles in it; that the phenomenon of polycoloniality in South Asia was primarily experienced through exercises in translation and publication; and that while the epistemic violence caused by colonial ideological activities is often seen in negative and Manichaean terms, actually the ‘cultural trauma’ thus generated proved to be rather productive in the South Asian context. And what an academically fulfilling one-and-a-half month it was.
Talking of ‘cultural trauma’, this account of my stint at Kraków would be incomplete if I were not to mention the most moving experiences I had during this trip: my visits, within Kraków, to the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, the Nazi-built ghetto of Podgórze to which Jews were forcefully interred and from where they were transported in huge numbers to concentration camps to labour and die, the concentration camp of Płaszów itself, and the enamel factory of Oskar Schindler which saved around a thousand Jews; and my visit to the even more thought-provoking Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camps, around 70 kms from Kraków. Words cannot describe the feeling that these sites elicited in me, and let me end by hoping that the way one experienced the impact of ‘cultural trauma’ at these places would make one all the more resolved to fight the bigotry, sectarianism, and communal fascism that are raising their ugly heads all over the world again, and to work towards ‘re-establishing solid sovereignties’ that would have the capacity to counter the same – the very objectives of Spectress itself, and my greatest takeaway from the secondment under its aegis.