Sumana Roy’s ‘Provincials’: Fifty shades of provincial grey : The Tribune India

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Sumana Roy’s ‘Provincials’: Fifty shades of provincial grey

Sumana Roy’s ‘Provincials’: Fifty shades of provincial grey

Book Title: Provincials: Postcards from the Peripheries

Author: Sumana Roy

Rajesh Sharma

These “postcards from the peripheries” are meant to “free people from stereotypes” by helping them imagine “an emotional and intellectual map” that will showcase the provincials’ great contribution to modern culture. Tagore, Shakespeare, the Bhakti poets, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Premchand, TS Eliot, Heidegger, Raymond Williams, Rahul Sankrityayan were, after all, provincials actually, Sumana Roy says.

Written in English (surely not a dialect), relying mostly on translations and bolstered with a quotation in every other paragraph, the book carries 527 notes and 10 pages of index to help readers navigate their way through this sprawling work of ‘non-fiction’: a word that has come to flaunt a classifier’s despair as a triumph of insight. So you have memoir, social commentary, biography, literary journalism, criticism, cultural history, literary cartography, scholarly treatise, a college textbook, and then some. But nothing done quite whole-heartedly. And the genres don’t melt. They have been mixed, forcibly.

Which raises the question: who is the book for? For a professional, an amateur, a dilettante, a college student? For a foreign reader? A metropolitan? The pages on Bhakti poets and the New Critics read like textbook stuff. Those on Shakespeare’s sources awakened memories of my background reading on the Bard during my Bachelor’s in a provincial college. The redundant phrases introducing well-known writers and familiar places seem aimed at readers who have no “cultural capital”, nor access to the Internet. Roy over-explains as often as she under-interprets.

But the writing is simply brilliant in many places, as when Roy describes her parents’ courtship, or reads Bhuwaneshwar’s stories, or holds a conversation (something I wish she did more often) with some book or writer. The form is probing, tentative, always emerging, often surprising. The structure is kind of dialectical but veiled, pinging between the provincial and the metropolitan. Roy can be at once garrulous and elliptical, poetic and polemical. She can laugh at herself. And she doesn’t scream, even at those she could have. She just politely admonishes those who ruin the taste of literature with their ill-cooked, scrambled theory.

When genre-mixing is not a formal requirement, it can be a chancy bait to draw assorted readers. But the book lacks coherence also because it is vaguely conceptualised and hurriedly executed. Incoherence is not ambiguity, the property some literary works famously possess.

Apparently, the paradoxical centre of the writer’s periphery is Siliguri, from which she measures the distance or proximity to other places. The real centre is metaphysical: it is the toxic romance of places and roots. It seduces the writer to read Heathcliff as “an expression of becoming one’s place” and to naively admire Heidegger’s enchantment with “rootedness in the soil”, with “organic life”, with “authentic dwelling”. Does Roy really not know of Heidegger’s deep involvement with the Nazis and their ideology of “blood and soil”?

Her loaded binarism overlooks the historic contribution of great cities. Of Athens, Rome, Florence, Kashi, Prayag, Patna, Paris, New York, London, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Lahore, for instance. She doesn’t even pause to reflect on a New Yorker’s confessed provincialism that she herself mentions, which mirrors its probable opposite — a town dweller’s metropolitanism. She forgets that the Khandwa-born Kishore Kumar’s singing likely owed something to Hank Williams, Chuck Berry and James Brown. The truth is Roy’s famous provincials are those who overcame the stifling embrace of the place and transcended its narrow conversation. Some cultivated cosmopolitanism, some walked into universality without any metropolitan stop-over. They didn’t let roots become chains. They defied the stereotypes.

But Roy is unable to, in spite of her aspiration. Perhaps there’s a tearing hurry to publish. Even the fact-checking is poor: the iPhone came two decades after she thinks it did, the Naxalbari movement was not an urban-rural war but an imported ideology of class war, and provincials do not make a class.

Provincialism is a state of mind, an attitude, a space and style of thinking. Not the actual fact of having grown up in the provinces. Roy wades into the question, yet wouldn’t go all the way in.