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Book Review: ‘In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures’ Examines the Political Impetuses Of Literature

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First published in 1992 immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, ‘In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures‘ by Aizaj Ahmad takes up the national question at a historic moment wherein governments negotiate at the cusp of a global geopolitical reordering of allegiances. The political impetus provided by the establishment of state socialism, first in erstwhile USSR and then in China provided the crucial reinforcement needed for the spine of a global anti-imperialist wave that witnessed the liberation of Vietnam. Furthermore, the spread of revolutionary energies into Cuba, the decolonisation of much of Africa, and the cementing of Eastern Europe into a Socialist bastion, largely enabled by economic, military and technological aid from the first two countries, seem to have harbored proletarian revolutions.

In such a scene, which unmistakably bears the grief of what appears to be the failure of what we now call 20th-century socialism, Ahmad takes up the properly Leninist task, to begin from the beginning again! It is a beginning which is located immanently within the political and institutional moorings of criticism and literature produced in the sub-continent. In his inquiry into the literature of the sub-continent, Ahmad painstakingly traces the deployment and function of the English language which was introduced by the Colonial Raj in its drive to create a class of intermediary officials between its offices and the masses. To be sure, this was its prime administrative function at the beginning. What this created, however, was the possibility of the professionalisation of English as a language that granted access to the knowledge of scientific advancements made in the rest of the world. Ahmad does register the alienation of a language used for professional purposes, but did not, at least initially, embody the emotive lives of its speakers. These observations are drawn from the establishment of Literature departments that taught English in the early years of India’s nation formation.

From such stunted origins, Ahmad attempts to bring forth some of the ways in which it may be possible to periodise these changes within the broader historiography of the Nationalist struggle. He also highlights the forms of inter-cultural transmission made possible by the work of translation, which was internationally blending into the body of literature available in English. From our perspective, this period is intimately marked by what we in a post-colonial world, call ‘orientalism‘. It was conceptually popularised by Edward Said and infamously remembered in the adages of Macaulay’s minute, which no longer requires recounting. Contrary to expectations, what is acutely picked up is the very opposite movement, of the immense translations into European languages of Indian texts by scholars from the ‘first world’. The extensive investigations in Indology, were also initiated in this period, which harbored the translation of the Upanishads.

Politically, the renowned American Marxist literary critic, Fredric Jameson had suggested that ‘national allegory‘ is the predominant form of narrative produced in the third world, and this being their narratorial signature which distinguishes it from other narratives. Here Ahmad tries to point out the largely polemical content of the category ‘third world’ and seeks to reintroduce the gap between the schemata of narratorial structure and the order in which different parts of the globe were industrialised.

Along the way, he takes up the cause of Rushdie and the politics of his persecution and investigates the political dramaturgy of Nehru in his address at the Bandung conference. A negotiation which apart from its international stage at the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, was also directed to his own party, the Congress which way wary of Nehru’s socialist leanings, and to the Communist movement in India too, which had not yet been elected to power in Kerala.

The model of such a mediatory address within the nation was delivered at an international summit, and Ahmad uses this as an analogy to describe how centrist forces such as Nehru, Nasser, and Sukarno negotiated with the communist and socialist movements in their own countries while steering the Non-Aligned movement.

I’d highly recommend it for literature, history and philosophy students, and even for scholars investigating the period in question from sociology or political science. It is also perhaps the most comprehensive account of the political impetuses of the literature produced in that time for a casually interested reader.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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