Ambika Athreya, Ph.D. Candidate in German Studies at UC Berkeley, reflects on how Ilija Trojanow and Ranjit Hoskote challenge nationalist narratives and cultural essentialism in their co-authored essayistic monograph, Confluences: Forgotten Stories from East and West (2012).
In conversation with Chunjie Zhang at the “Archives of Migration: The Power of Fiction in Times of Fake News” event this fall, Ilija Trojanow spoke of the dramatic confluence of the Rio Solimões and Rio Negro near Manaus. Were he to live far downstream of the point at which the tributaries join, he would, he said, insist that there was in fact one river—who would go upstream to prove that it had emerged from two different ones? As aerial views attest, for some distance after their first node of meeting, they appear to repel one another, a clean ribbon of creamy brown running alongside one of inky blue. Yet later they renounce themselves to the Amazon, a river with a mythic reputation as a single entity, the intermingling reminding us that “everything we conceive of as static was once a confluence.”1
The allegory of the rivers is grand, one of the more poetic manifestations of a theme running through Trojanow’s autobiographical novel Nach der Flucht (2017), and more explicitly, Confluences: Forgotten Histories from East and West (2012), an essayistic monograph co-authored by Trojanow and Ranjit Hoskote, a Bombay-based author and translator. The work, written in English, but published first in 2007 by Karl Blessing Verlag in the German translation Kampfabsage: Kulturen bekämpfen sich nicht, sie fließen zusammen (now available from S. Fischer), offers a compendium of examples that challenge facile categorizations of cultural output. Writing of Dante’s Divina Commedia, the authors remind us that it draws from al-Mir’aj (The Ascent), a “powerful fable throughout the Muslim world since the 8th century,” and that perhaps such a depiction of a tiered afterlife could even be traced back to “vivid celestial and infernal mandalas of Hinduism and later Buddhism” (Hoskote and Trojanow 63). Further along, in a playfully titled section “DJ Boccacio and the Great 14th Century Remix” we are guided on an excursion into comparative folklore, discovering likely influences on both form and content of Bocaccio’s Decamerone in earlier Sanskrit and Arabic works (56). The message is far from a simplistic insistence that all that is West was once East, or that intercultural encounters were always peaceful; the point is rather that all culture is a palimpsest, and that quests for “originality” are a fool’s errand.
The authors emphasize that this movement of texts, ideas and languages was rarely unidirectional. In “Translation is not Treason,” they write of the path of a hypothetical Greek treatise that might zig-zag from Miletus to Abbasid Baghdad to Córdoba, Spain, coming to repose, after manifold translations, in a modern German library (69). The Iberian cities of Córdoba and Toledo feature prominently in this book, serving as a case study in knowledge transfer, wherein teams of translators, of varied confession and linguistic expertise, made possible a circulation of materials without which no conceptions of science as we may understand it would be possible. One of the most prominent of the Toledo translators, Gerard of Cremona (c. 1114-1187), was responsible for bringing Avicenna’s al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine) into Latin, which would transform the practice of medicine in Europe (71).
These sections of Confluences are corroborated by earlier work of historians of science, such as David Lindberg, who, in The Beginnings of Western Science, writes extensively of the profound impact of the Greek-Arabic-Latin trajectory taken by many treatises. In Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler, we are reminded again that ideas are peripatetic. Beginning with Al-Kindi’s eighth-century Arabic commentary on, and critique of, Euclid’s Optika, Lindberg tells another story of symbiosis and mutation across time, language and space, with cameos by Gerard of Cremona, who facilitated so many of these transfers. In a testament to Al-Kindi’s hold on scholars of all generations, both Hoskote and Trojanow, as well as Lindberg, serve their readers the same quote, positioning themselves as heirs to his message: “It is fitting then for us not to be ashamed to acknowledge truth and to assimilate it from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought by former generations and foreign peoples” (Al-Kindi qtd. in Lindberg, Theories, 18).2
It seems particularly apt that Hoskote and Trojanow select this statement, which demonstrates both Al-Kindi’s ecumenical approach, as well as his recognition of the belligerence to outside influence. Neither is this message unrelated to Trojanow’s Nach der Flucht, an exploration of identity and the struggle of a migrant to experience arrival in a host society. Though the ephemeral protagonists of Trojanow’s aphorisms are subject to (and not perpetrators of) tribal pride, there is a common message: in the end, both a person who has fled and inquiry can only then flourish when they are unshackled from narrow demarcations or petty nationalisms (Trojanow 115).
As they dissect the construction of apocryphal national myths, Hoskote and Trojanow turn to the current modern-day example of India. They write of Hindu nationalism and its ludicrous axiom “that the Hindu religion is eternal and unvarying, that it has existed in India for thousands of years (the [Vishwa Hindu Parishad]’s chronological estimates vary between 8,000 and 50,000 years), and that its essence has never been affected by any foreign influence or borrowing” (134). A bit of time-travel would leave a Hindu nationalist bewildered, write the authors, as he would then have to encounter a wild hodge-podge of deities and practices, none bearing resemblance to his own narrow conception of the faith and its iconography (135-136). The section is facetious—and, of course, Hindu nationalism, with its convulsive copycating of German fascists, is worthy only of ridicule. But in 2014, two years after Confluences was published in India, Narendra Modi, who, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, presided over a pogrom of more than 2,000 Muslims, would come to occupy the highest office of the land. Hindu nationalists have a long record in eviscerating India of its pluralist history: from their destruction in 1992 of Babri Masjid, a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya, the putative birthplace of Lord Rama, to more recent tantrums over the use of Perso-Arabic vocabulary in fashion advertising.
Trojanow and Hoskote’s discussion of Hindu nationalism, written before its full consolidation of power, remains a document in the fight against religious fascism in the world’s largest democracy, though in an almost self-referential comment on the idiosyncrasies of textual circulation, the English version appears unavailable for purchase, while the German translation remains in print. As a member of the diaspora who clings to some of India’s syncretic founding principles—problematic, to be sure, in their romance and denial—I find it powerful that two voices outside the anglophile academy have lain bare how unmoored from reality is the majoritarian self-conception. The book exhorts readers to adopt the default hypothesis that most of human history is the fruit of cross-cultural rendezvous; insisting otherwise is as senseless an undertaking as denying that a river has multiple tributaries. It also makes clear that retroactively constructed notions of purity, as in the case of Hindu nationalism in India, lead to state-sanctioned bloodbaths. For its head-on confrontation with such nefarious trends, the book nevertheless remains optimistic in its thrust. There is joy in the authors’ approach to history and literature, and indeed, it is not a passing whim, but the only path to any meaningful erudition and resistance.
- This introduction borrows from Trojanow’s imagery, both in his talk and in fragment 20 of his Nach der Flucht (106).
- In Confluences, this appears in slightly modified wording: “We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign peoples.” In both texts, this line appears embedded in a longer quote of Al-Kindi (Hoskote and Trojanow 44).
- Hoskote, Ranjit, and Ilija Trojanow. Confluences: Forgotten Histories from East and West. Yoda Press, 2012.
- Hoskote, Ranjit, and Ilija Trojanow. Kampfabsage: Kulturen bekämpfen sich nicht, sie fließen zusammen. Karl Blessing Verlag, 2007.
- Hoskote, Ranjit, and Ilija Trojanow. Kampfabsage: Kulturen bekämpfen sich nicht, sie fließen zusammen. S. Fischer Verlag, 2017.
- Lindberg, David. The Beginnings of Western Science. The University of Chicago Press, 1992.
- Lindberg, David. Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler. The University of Chicago Press, 1976.
- Trojanow, Ilija. Nach der Flucht. S. Fischer Verlag, 2017.
1. “Babri Masjid.” Wikipedia, 24 Oct. 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babri_Masjid.
2. Kulkarni Sudheendra. “With His Fabindia Boycott Call, Tejasvi Surya Is Hurting the Soul of
Hinduism.” Scroll, 21 Oct. 2021, https://scroll.in/article/1008194/sudheendra-kulkarni-with-his-fabindia-boycott-call-tejasvi-surya-is-hurting-the-soul-of-hinduism.