Sunday, September 03, 2006

Cosmopolitanism in the time of the Postcolonial: the sneak preview

Suketu Mehta’s racy, documentary-style novel about his return to the city of his youth begins, appropriately enough, with a vignette on house hunting. Yet house hunting is a rather ironic note on which to begin a thesis about cosmopolitanism. After all, Diogenes the Cynic whose apocryphal utterance – ‘I am a citizen of the whole world’ – is credited with ‘inventing’ cosmopolitanism, cared little for where he lived, sleeping out of doors even in cold weather and spending much of his life in a tub. For the Gujaratis of Dariya Mahal, however, this will not do. Home is a temple, its sanctity guarded via an elaborate set of understandings about purity and pollution. Cosmopolitanism at home is a threat. It portends the invasion of all sorts of destructive external influences – ‘the whole world’ – bringing in its wake miscegenation, meat eating and mishmash. The adolescent Mehta is fascinated by this outside world. For him, the ‘cosmopolitan’ girls are ‘up there’, unattainable, a different class. This cosmopolitanism reeks of sophistication and glamour. It is a world of exotic cocktails and magazines with leggy blondes on glossy covers. It is elite, well-travelled, jet-setting. Yet in addition to being all of these things, for the non-Gujaratis (of whatever class) of the world that Mehta describes – for the Bombay that is peopled by the likes of Salman Rushdie’s Everyman Saleem Sinai, or the residents of Rohinton Mistry’s Firozsha Baag, for Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and the last remaining Bene Israel, for non-vegetarians and divorcees – cosmopolitanism is a refuge, an ethic that permits a sense of belonging in a place that they do not fully own. It is an ethic that permits 6.1 million passengers of these different persuasions to travel to work everyday on a hugely over-stretched suburban rail system, packed fourteen to sixteen bodies per square metre. It is an ethic that has broken down with frightening consequences in the past – but even when it has, not completely, so that Hindu householders have still hidden their Muslim friends from marauding Hindu mobs. Sometimes in Bombay, cosmopolitanism has been the difference between life and death.

The term ‘cosmopolitanism’ might best be understood as an instance of what William Connolly has called an ‘essentially contested concept’. Rather than being reducible to a single idea, ‘cosmopolitanism’ is better thought of as comprising a cluster of associations and connotations. Central among these is the notion of universal political community, in which guise cosmopolitanism is usually posited against less-than-universal forms of belonging and attachment – to the nation-state, for example. Only in the most extreme versions of cosmopolitanism does the existence of universal political community entail the disappearance of other communities. Leaving these aside, from the core ideal of universal political community might be derived a number of more specific normative ideas – a vision of how political relations between communities ought to be ordered, or rules about how global resources ought to be divided. Yet another derivative of the notion of universal community might be an ideal of how one might live within a heterogeneous community – an ethic that is commonly referred to as ‘multiculturalism’. Leaving aside the idea of political community altogether, the term ‘cosmopolitan’ also carries the connotation of ‘worldly’, of being worldly-wise, of knowing about the world and being familiar with it even if one lacks an emotional identification with, or attachment to, all of it. In this guise, the term might be attached to the imperial administrator, the frequent-flying business executive or the gap-year backpacker as easily as to the international drug smuggler or the United Nations employee. Tangential to these associations but reacting to them in many ways is a materialist critique that argues that the material preconditions for knowing about the world as a whole or feeling a sense of identification with it are available only to a privileged few. This injects into the cluster of associations, a connotation of elitism, even snobbery.

i will reply to that email about partha chatterjee. i promise. give me a day or two.
ok, thanks!
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