Campus & Community

Telling tales out of, and in, class

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Bhabha studies culture and genre with a moral squint

Homi Bhabha
‘For both of them [Joseph Conrad and V.S. Naipaul], the actual telling of the tale constitutes a sort of moral conduct. Telling a tale is an action.’ (Staff photo by Jon Chase)
Homi Bhabha was born in India, but he is quick to add that he is a Parsi, a member of an Indian minority with a population of only about 160,000 worldwide. The Parsis are Zoroastrians who migrated from Persia in the eighth century to avoid persecution by the Muslims.

The assertion is more than simple ethnic pride. His mother’s maiden name, he explains, is Dubash, which means a provisioner of ships. It is common for Parsis, who are known for their professional and business attainments, to have occupational surnames, and in the case of Bhabha’s mother, the occupation and the name were congruent.

“My mother’s family were called Dubash – that was their surname – and they were dubashes; that’s what they did.”

But there is more to the story, which becomes clear as Bhabha explains the name’s etymology.

“Dubash comes from the Indian word ‘dobasha,’ someone who can speak two languages. And Parsis, who were known for being multilingual, often negotiated between the British, the Hindus, and the Muslims.”

Bhabha may have left the family business behind, but he has remained true to the family tradition. As a native of Bombay who has earned advanced degrees from Oxford University and as a scholar of English and American literature who has written extensively on the literature of the postcolonial world, he maintains the role of negotiator between cultures.

Bhabha became a member of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences last semester. He now holds the title of Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature. Among his colleagues the appointment has been a popular one.

“Homi Bhabha is one of the world’s most prominent and influential figures in the fields of postcolonial studies and cultural theory,” says Lawrence Buell, chair of the Department of English and American Literature. “Not only does he bring our department unique and greatly needed strengths in these areas; we view the appointment of Professor Bhabha as having a University-wide significance in strengthening humanistic inquiry in the areas of cultural migration, globalization, and human rights. More specifically, Professor Bhabha will strengthen our department’s ties to African-American and South Asian Studies. He is also steeped in and committed to literary studies of a more traditional kind and is certain to make a significant impact as a teacher among both undergraduate and graduate students. Altogether, we are delighted that he has joined us.”

The perspective that Bhabha brings to the department represents a departure from the traditional study of literature – one in which literary canons are defined by nationality with only an occasional acknowledgement that artistic influences may seep beyond borders. Bhabha’s view of the literary universe is one in which borders are extremely porous and national identities may be exceedingly ambiguous. This view reflects a world in which air travel, the media, the Internet, and globalization have created a greater degree of cultural contact than ever before.

Bhabha’s career has reflected this trend. At Oxford, he was one of the first graduate students to write a doctoral dissertation on the work of V.S. Naipaul, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001. A British-educated Indian who grew up on the Caribbean Island of Trinidad, Naipaul is known for his trenchant, uncompromising portrayals of postcolonial societies. Naipaul’s sense of rootlessness was to have a decisive effect on Bhabha’s ideas of cosmopolitanism.

“One of the great things that modern literature does is to show you how the human imagination ranges across countries and cultures to extend its inspiration and imagination, so that, while we tend to study history or literature in national frames, writers and artists tend to consider themselves imaginatively to be citizens of the world. So I’m very interested in that aspect of literary culture and the cosmopolitan imagination – what would a global culture be?”

One of Bhabha’s current projects is a comparative study of Naipaul and another cosmopolitan of an earlier time, Joseph Conrad. Conrad, the author of such novels as “Lord Jim,” “Nostromo,” and “The Secret Agent,” was born in Poland but became an English writer and an English citizen after a career as a sea captain.

“I think they are writers who explore the same sort of literary and ethical territory. The question both Naipaul and Conrad ask of their characters and of the reader is this: How would you act in keeping with ethical and moral standards in a world in which you feel psychologically, politically, and spiritually disoriented?”

It is not simply the beliefs of both authors that interest him, but the way those beliefs are manifested in the act of narration.

“For both of them, the actual telling of the tale constitutes a sort of moral conduct. Telling a tale is an action. It’s not merely the reflection of an event happening in the world outside which then comes to be reflected in literature. The very act of narrative raises questions of identity, location, action, forms of conduct, and acts of judgment.”

Bhabha’s interest in narrative as a moral phenomenon extends into areas not usually thought of as literary, such as committees of truth and reconciliation that have been convened in the aftermath of traumatic national events in countries such as Bosnia and South Africa.

“I’m very interested in the way in which narrative, which is such a literary or cultural enterprise, has become so important now with truth commissions or the international criminal courts where an individual’s narrative or story is of such great significance.”

This interest in the role of narrative in legal proceedings is one that he shares with his wife, Jacqueline Bhabha, a lawyer who is executive director of Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Committee.

Bhabha was on leave for the fall semester, but he will begin the spring term with two courses; one on Conrad and Naipaul and another on literary theory.

“In the theory course, there will also be one or two major literary works which we will read again and again. So it’s a course that requires patient reading of theory and slow and careful reading of literature.”

Bhabha earned a B.A. degree from Elphinstone College, University of Bombay, and M.A., M.Phil., and D.Phil. degrees from Christ Church, Oxford. He has taught at Oxford, the University of Warwick, Sussex University, the University of Chicago, and University College, London.

His books include “Nation and Narration” (editor with introduction and essay, 1990) and “The Location of Culture” (1993). He has also published numerous articles.

A popular speaker, he has been invited to deliver lectures around the world, including the Clarendon Lectures at the University of London, 2001-2002; the Presidential Lecture at Stanford University, 2000; the W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard, 1999; the Annual Interdisciplinary Lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1995; and the Richard Wright lecture series at the Center for Black Literature and Culture, University of Pennsylvania, 1991.

He is also one of the few humanists participating in the World Economic Forum at Davos, which is being held in New York City this weekend.