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Learning a Different Language: Reading Shubhangi Swarup’s ‘The Latitudes of Longing’ and Aimee Liu’s ‘Glorious Boy’ in the Context of Anthropological Documentation and the Consolidation of the Indian Nation State (European NetIAS Lecture Series)

Thursday, November 19, 2020, 5:00 pm – 6:30 pm

In this talk I aim to read two contemporary novels The Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup and Glorious Boy by Aimee Liu set in the Andaman Islands, on the Bay of Bengal, in relation to the official anthropological documentation and interpretation of the complex socio-ecology of these islands, particularly in the context of post-independence consolidation of the Indian nation state.

The 1940’s was an exceptional decade in Indian sub-continental politics. It is during this decade that the Anthropological Survey of India evolved into a stand-alone body in 1945. Anthropology was used as a tool to ‘scientifically’ document and interpret the Indian subcontinent. Such institutional inquiry and knowledge assimilation were extended into classifying the local environment and relations between human settlements and the ecologies that sustained or confronted them. It was an institution dedicated to document the People of India by assimilating the country’s diversity within categories that broadly contributed to the idea of a consolidated Indian nation state.

The Andaman islands has a unique history of sustaining ancient forest tribes in their native environment secluded and yet in close proximity of the penal colonies set up by the British government and migrant communities from the eastern coast of India, particularly Bengal and Burma. It also was invaded and occupied by Japanese forces during the second world war and finally handed over to the Indian government post-independence. Looking at the settlement in the 1940s sets this place up as a distinctive piece in the puzzle of setting up the Indian nation state. This paper investigates how the island communities speak to mainland India through an archipelago politics of existence and seclusion in contrast of the connectedness of mainland mobility networks. It uses fiction as a mediator to investigate this phenomenal period through the form of a novel that allows for protraction and convergence of different timescales. Swarup’s novel, The Latitudes of Longing delves into deep time and a geological history of the subcontinent to trace the development of these fringe communities and their social co-existence through specific nodes of the region’s history. Aimee Liu’s Glorious Boy uses direct reference to anthropological methods of documenting experience of a different way of life, a protagonist compares it to, ‘entering a time capsule’. The novel form offers the exploration of the themes of community, migration and rehabilitation related to British empire and the later nation building processes through the spectrum of differently placed narratives.

The lecture is a ZOOM on-line event and can be accessed: European NetIAS Lecture ZOOM