August 08, 2020
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Passport Check

Kumar sets out to dismantle the passport, but with Western tools

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Passport Check
Passport Photos
By Amitava Kumar
California University Press Rs : 475; Pages : 276
To be content with a hundred flowers in bloom, when a million mutinies are in the make, is like indulging in ‘sterile' cerebral acrobatics while the Bastille is stormed.
That, briefly, is the moral of the postcolonial script—we are both audience and dramatis personae. And if it's a million mutinies we have to talk about, no single voice can be certified as being the most competent to do so. This means that the atonal monologue—not only of authority but also of subversion—has to be dismantled. It is precisely this impulse that Amitava Kumar's Passport Photos attempts to uphold.

Like a passport, each chapter is a section—'Language', ‘Photograph', ‘Date of Birth', ‘Profession', ‘Nationality' and ‘Identifying Marks'—of the most vital ‘identikit' of our times. But it's a passport meant to "help you enter only the zones of a particular imagination". These "zones" are contrarian spaces that lie outside the elite political structure and often work in complete opposition to it. Their aim is to reconfigure the prevailing order of things.

If the preceding era was an age of revolutions and grand narratives, then ours is an epoch of gerrymandering. Post-colonial theorists like Edward Said and Kumar believe that drawing new maps of geography, cultures, societies and politics is anachronistic. It's time for guerrilla cartography—subtle alterations of the boundaries of experience and knowledge. The post-colonial intention is to challenge and subvert the hegemony of ideas of the ruling class. That's what Kumar sets out to do.

How successful has this new intellectual programme been? Passport Photos lets us investigate whether the much touted polyphony of the post-colonial experience, or "imigritude" as Kumar calls it, really helps in the creation of a pluralist atmosphere.

Kumar's search for cosmopolitan mobility, like most others of his ilk (Rushdie, Naipaul, et al), begins with Indian workers, mostly Sikhs, arriving on the western coast of North America in 1830. He goes on to inform us that by 1910 there were 30,000 Indian immigrants between Vancouver and San Francisco. It clearly indicates that Kumar bases his understanding of the diaspora primarily in Occidental terms—in terms of Westward mobility. Kumar talks at length about the Indian indentured labourers in the British-occupied Caribbeans, their histories and relationships, but never about, say, the indentured labourers from UP and Bihar going to Fiji. He tackles the contrast between the Hindustan Ghaddar Party in North America in 1910 and contemporary Indian immigrants sending their aid to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, but fails to take into account the role of Baba Ramachandra—a one-time indentured labourer to Fiji—in the 1919 peasant movement of Avadh, UP. He also misses the cosmopolitan radicalism of Kabir or the indigenous progressive revolution of Bhagat Singh: such experiences are necessarily excluded by the immigration-oriented western notion of post-colonial mobility.

In ‘Place of Birth', the writer takes up the cpi(ml)-led peasant struggles in Bhojpur, Bihar. It is only here that he emerges as an organic intellectual playing his adversarial role effectively. He writes: "As the cpi(ml) leader Vinod Mishra commented after the collapse of the Soviet Union, ‘There was a time when the spectre of communism haunted Europe and now the spectre of Europe is haunting communism everywhere.' The question that Bihar's struggles force on us is whether the Third World and its peoples have a future different from Europe's." But this argument is like the proverbial plantain peel on which the post-colonial intellectual is programmed to slip, as does the author elsewhere in the book.

Kumar's obsession with westward sojourns will always prevent him from constructing a new history of resistance in which passports were alien and unnecessary documents.
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