Haji Mohamed Idris

Claude Alvares

Gustavo Esteva

Anwar Fazal

Ashis Nandy

Vinay Lal

Shilpa Jain

Website created by:
Vinay Lal, Associate Professor of History, UCLA, USA

All material on this site is coyrighted:
Vinay Lal, 2005.

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On Books, Publishing, and Intellectual Independence from the West

by Claude Alvares

Remarks excerpted from the February 2002 Penang meeting

The word 'Multiversity', the patent or the trademark, came from Anwar Fazal. I don't know where he got it from and in having the first discussions here in Penang around six months ago, he suddenly just pulled this out, he must have been thinking about it a little bit earlier, but he is got a facility for all these things like words and phrases and slogans and so on.

But the active proposal that was sent to you, that was sent on the Net and in the printed form ('Recapturing Worlds') was basically drafted seven years ago and for seven years we have not been able to carry out this particular thing.

People like Ashis [Nandy] and so on have been working on this probably for a much longer period. Several people have been thinking about these things because the entire structure of academic knowledge is, when examined closely, so appalling, that it is very difficult to be associated with it. I'm a classic case. I got my certification done at that time almost by accident, but after that I've just not been able to work in any university set-up, because it's just not possible to. University and freedom, they just don't go together, just like school and free-thinking, it's just not possible. Therefore, if you want to do anything, if you want to protect your mind and the way you think about things, you've just got to get out of it. And remain out.

I admire the courage of people like Ashis. Ashis of course created his own niche in the Centre for Developing Societies, which has remained outside the formal university set up. Like him others have created different ways of keeping out of it and still maintaining some relationship with it in some way. But I was not able to relate to it in any way for many years. Instead of facing the problem as it is, both my wife and I, we said, what can we do as two intellectuals living in a state like Goa, that can, in a certain sense, bring out these issues and deal with some of these problems, and it was 1986 when we decided to set up the Other India Bookstore. A few words about this institution that is now more than fifteen years old, surviving on its own steam, without any grants, and purely as a commercial proposition.

When we started in 1986, we started because if you went to any bookshop in the country, you couldn't get books from Africa. You couldn't get any book written by any African intellectual. It was not possible, unless it had been processed as a European-seller or something like that, or came through after having ridden on the backs of the salaries paid to English printers and English publishers. They made more money on it than even the African writers themselves.

And as for books by people in India, for books from Malaysia or from Singapore, or from the Philippines, just forget about it. It was not possible. We went around travelling and talking to people about this. When we went to Indonesia, in the university there, there were two journals, both in English - one was produced by the Indonesians themselves, and one was produced by the Australians, who are the typical colonial masters of Indonesia, they direct their intellectual culture. And after discussing everything and how to get these journals to India and all that, at the end of it all, the faculty tells us, "But you should still use the Australian one", because it's in better English, and better produced and so on.

This was something that we couldn't believe, here were people, intellectuals, university people, who were telling us that we produce this, and the Australians produce this, it's both the same thing, in terms of they are both discussing Indonesian politics, Indonesian society and so on. But when it comes to the crunch, if you really want something of value, you buy the Australian journal. And this is more or less the response we got in several other places. I remember having a conversation with Lat, who is the greatest cartoonist of Malaysia. I said, look, we'd like to publish your two famous books Kampung Boy and Town Boy in India. I remember when our kids were small and we wanted to keep them engaged, because we don't have a TV set even till today, we used to give them a Lat cartoon book, and they would go into a totally different mode altogether. They were Indians, and these are Malaysian cartoons, about, Malaysian life, but it was so extraordinary, that they could be completely engaged, and there were no barriers of any kind and they were able to really interact with those children running around the village with their hair spiked up, those big teeth and so on, that Lat cartoons are famous for.

But when I asked Lat he said that nobody would look at my cartoon books in India. This is something that came out of his own perception. He doesn't know India in that sense, but he had this conception that his books were only good for Malaysia, that it would fail anywhere else because it was a sort of a local product. It was the first time that I was hearing an author who said that I'm not willing to give you my intellectual product because I think that ipso facto it is going to be a failure. And this is something that you couldn't really tolerate after some time, for how long can you go on like this, can you accept this type of an intellectual world.

I was attending a meeting in Singapore, and there was this fellow who had written a big thing on the Malaysian environment and he had about fifty references and all the fifty references were non Malaysian. Then I said, how the hell could you write a paper like this where all your source material is people from outside Malaysia. He said that if he put Malaysian references, nobody would read his paper.

That sort of thing has driven us for sometime. Either we continue this circus, its very pleasant for most of us, it gets many of us reasonable jobs, incomes and so on, you continue this circus in the name of knowledge and freedom and free thinking, or we say at some stage that maybe you take it seriously but I'm not going to take it seriously. I'm going to find a lot of people who don't take it seriously anymore. Or they take it seriously in the way it should be taken but beyond that we said this is something that is not something that we have done, it is not something that we have created and certainly we are not going to keep on being conduits, basically conduits and transmission centres for other outputs from the centre, there's a centre and a periphery and everything just comes from one place and goes in the other direction.

It's a grim reality, I mean if you go to any of the book shops in Penang or any other place, you'll find that by a conservative estimate, about 85-90% of the books printed, written, still are just from either American Presses or UK presses. Not even from France or Sweden. And there's no law why this should be so. There's nothing in the United Nations charter that says that we all have to read only these types of books. Nobody made this type of imposition. India is a community of one billion people and nobody told us what we should teach to our students and how we should teach it and what books are truth and what contains knowledge and so on.

But our immediate practical problem when we used to people was, "you say a lot about African literature, but where is African literature available?" and then we realize that there was a specific problem. If you don't have knowledge about African literature, about African writers, or African sociology, then how do you prescribe it? For university lecturers this is a specific problem, you've got to give some source material and there is no source material available. All your libraries are choc-a-block with only one type of material.

Then we said okay, this is something that we should do because nobody has worked on this area and we're going to try and see whether we can crack it. We then specifically made trips to all these south Asian countries, we went to Sri Lanka, we went to places like Uganda. In Uganda we went to their main bookshop and there were no books on the shelves at all, they had no money to buy books. They had some old journals and magazines, most of them this Christian propaganda and so on because they are heavily dominated by Christian communities in many of these African countries. And there was all dust on it, I can still visually remember it. We went to Zimbabwe book fair where there was a complete domination of the entire publication industry in the whole of Africa by Whites, just as they dominated their dairy farms and so on. The African children, the African public came to the book fair, they went round and they could only collect the brochures because brochures were free. They couldn't afford any of the books. There were no books that any African could buy at the biggest book fair held in Africa. They had no money to buy it because the prices were of that kind, published by English people and so on, with fine paper and so on. But that desire was there, they came for the book fair and then they were just told that this is not for you because if we thought it was for you, we would have taken the damn trouble to see that it was made available for you.

Like in India for example, some trouble is taken, like the national book trust, a huge organization set up by the government of India that really produces extremely cheap books, like the Chinese do. Some of these books are very conventional, but some of them are very good. The children's book trust in India for example produces hundreds of books for children that any person in any small town in India can buy.

But that situation does not exist at all in Africa. So we said, is there some way by which these problems can be addressed. If the problem is making some books available, we'll try and get it done. So we started importing books from Africa, we took all the Malaysian books and I think that it is only as a result of the Other India Bookstore that this entire TWN publications, CAP publications, other publications in Malaysia could get into the Indian mainstream. We've got books from the Philippines, we've got books from Thailand, we've got books from different areas and started making them available.

And the most unusual thing to report is that they all got sold. Whatever stocks we bought from Africa, they were all sold. Of course there are specific problems about getting book consignments there, getting money transactions done and so on. But still whatever books we did manage to import got through and we used to go and make specific deals with the publishing houses saying you give us the books at the African rate because being Indians we can only afford African prices, we can't afford UK prices.

In many cases we couldn't import the books because the rights had been taken by the African Book Collective which is located in London so if you wanted to get a book into India, you had to import it from the London guys and the London guys were quite terrible. They were deciding who were the good African writers and who would be not, who would suit European audiences and what sorts of African themes would suit them so that they would have a market and in the end they would probably maintain many of the old stereotypes of African culture and so on. So, business wise, we found that it was a possibility, it's not that you can't make money out of this, you can't survive on this, it is possible and people in this country were interested in books from these other places as well.

I think the common people sometimes are probably far better off than intellectuals in Universities because intellectuals in Universities have to submit to the prevailing intellectual doctrine of the time. If you go for a conversation and you're not able to mention this Derrida fellow, I thought he was a bull fighter, but I heard that he is a very big name in I don't know whether its in sociological circles or what circles. I've not heard of this guy, don't know what he looks like and have not read a single book of his at all. But if you don't read it I suppose in Delhi or something and if you then write a paper and you don't mention this guy, that's the tyranny I mean the common person on the street is not subjected to that kind of tyranny and he would probably be more liberated and able to read a book about, say Singapore than somebody from a university who would say, I can't quote this in my paper, how can I quote a Singapore intellectual in my paper because it is designed for publication in some European journal or something and they also probably don't consider Singaporean writers to be any good.

So this is the framework in which we had to operate. The result is that in the end we were able to prove several things. We were able to prove that first of all that there was very good intellectual work in these areas, by and large, about eighty to eighty five percent of intellectual work there is as bad as it is in India or as bad as it is in Europe or in the US, 80 to 85% is basically regurgitation and all this sort of thing that goes on most of the time. But there used to be interesting work and you could get that over and you could get it over into the university system for example my own book, through the Other India Bookstore, not that I promoted it, I think is used as a reference for some course work in University Sains Malaysia because they keep ordering every time in bulk and so on.

So there are these sort of things that are happening but certainly through Multiversity we could expand this thing in a more coordinated manner because it's not possible for individuals running a small enterprise like the Bookstore to make a dent on the scale that is required.

I remember I was discussing with African academics in Makerere and all these other places, they told us that in the fifties and sixties, all their English literature courses were only designed on Indian writers. They were not designed on English writers. But now in this period, Indian writers have again gone out of the market because the text that is most easily available, at that time India had a lot of relationship with Africa, now we have gone back to other relationships and the result is that the imposition from the UK and from other places has come back again in full force and so the Africans have only those types of books again on front of them. And the literature that they felt comfortable with, they are no longer having in front of them. And the students of themselves of course, can't even afford these books so most of them just get out of the system.

So if we could work on these sort of things, we could certainly take one of the primary tasks of Multiversity to really look very critically at the problem of books. And that's why one of the main initiatives that we thought in the beginning was can we come out with even a list of five hundred titles. Vinay says that he's got a list of five hundred titles on his own. Can we come up with a list of titles which we can tell people who are bound to ask us you are talking about this, where is the exhibit is you're saying that there is some intellectual work taking place, where is it, where is it available. Show us some book, show us some literature, show us some bibliographies, then we'll probably begin to look at it.

I was showing Uncle Idris a book that has just come out last year in the English market by a guy called Peter Watson. It's about nine hundred pages long, and the entire thesis of the book is that in the entire twentieth century, there was not a single idea that came from any country except the Western countries. This is another Fukuyama type of thing, but it's very big, and if you're not fairly convinced, at least he can throw the book at you and convince you by sheer weight of it. This is the type of book that is sold and read and reinforces stereotype, not only there, but also reinforces things here and the conviction of any intellectual who reads that book is, all the important thinkers and all the people who contributed, Picasso and all that, are all in bold, and there's not a single person from any third world country in bold at all except Spivac, Spivac is a person who has actually worked on themes that were invented by the West, but Watson thinks that that is the best. Mahatma Gandhi is only mentioned in a line, not even in bold. And this was published in the year 2000.

So I'm not saying that we have to go by that. I'm only saying that if you can work on very specific aspects like book lists, interaction, people travelling. I used to have discussions with some of these guys: why can't we go to some of the African universities once in a way, and have discussions with them. Those guys are really waiting for conversations, which they can't have. The only conversation they can get is if they get a free ticket to go to the US or to London or something, otherwise they can't have conversations with Indians at all. They come as students to Indian universities, but beyond that they're treated very badly because they're Black and so on. There's no respect, there's no collaboration of that kind.

But this kind of system was being done some time earlier, it has all gone again, and we'll have to restore it, we'll have to restore these inter-linkages once again. One of the things we found, interestingly, effective in the Bookshop, that's why it's called the Other India Bookstore, was very strict enforcement of the exclusion principle. What about all those people in the West who are very critical of Western society, shouldn't we include them in this process? We had the same discussions in the bookstore when we started, it's only good books published by Zed and some of them by people from India, it's the latest Mecca for publishing in that sense, and they've dominated Third World publishing and so on, and shouldn't we keep their books also in our bookshop.

And we took a very important decision at that time, that at least for the first ten years, we would not keep any book in our bookshop, if it was published, printed and written abroad, meaning basically somewhere in the UK, or the US, we would just not do it, and they said that this would just not be possible. But it became possible, and we had to put in special effort to see that this principle was enforced. And now when people come to our bookshop, they're really amazed, because the books that they find there, they can't find in any other bookshop, so it's become the Other India Bookstore, because when they ask you the name, and then they go into the bookshop, we don't have to do any explaining after that, they realize what we're saying. But we excluded because sometimes it's necessary to exclude.

I remember we had this meeting in Delhi as a prior meeting to this Calicut conference, on this Vasco-da-Gama thing in 1998 and we were discussing who were the people who were going to attend at Calicut and so on and there were a lot of people from Australia, some very lovely people who were all third world people in spirit who had come to fight and so on. And we told them that this meeting was being held but anybody with white skin was not welcome, that would just make problems for the group. So there was a huge uproar, particularly from the Australians who said that you can't do a thing like this, you can't have a meeting without us and so on. I told them that for five hundred years, you've excluded us from everything, excluded us from knowledge, excluded us from place, excluded us from the economies, excluded us from everything. Don't you think you should allow us to have one meeting at which we can exclude you? Just one meeting.

For the bookstore it was a very practical thing, because with the type of intellectual climate that's prevailing in the country and elsewhere, everyone wants to read books still published which are looking fancy, which carry all these themes of construction, deconstruction, all those sort of things, they want to have those types of books. And its very easy for me as a book seller to sell all the literature that's coming out on the third world alone, coming from Zed press, there's a lot of people who would buy it, they'd probably pay 600 to 700 rupees because the pound has gone that high, so they'd pay that price also because people are willing to pay a high price for their tyranny. They would get a steady market, there'd be no problem at all. But if we had not excluded, I remember having conversations with Zed, with Pluto who came to Goa and said, look, you are people who have got the most amazing network for distribution of literature, NGO literature, alternative literature in India and we would like to be part of it. We said no, we can't take any of your books. They said they'd give us a sixty percent discount on all their titles. We said no, we're just under a charter, we just put everything to the charter. We said our charter doesn't allow us to sell any books that are printed and published in the US or UK.

And, have we gone down? No, not at all. In a sense we've survived and even other bookstores are complaining because if you get the same books in every book shop everywhere, then if I'm going from Delhi to Bangalore, why would I visit a Bangalore bookshop because I'll get the same books anywhere in Delhi. It's the same uniformity, if I go to a Filipino bookshop in Manila, I find the same kind of bookshop there except for one bookshop which is different, all the other books are the same.

An English writer, if he gets his book published, he automatically gets it reviewed in all the news papers all over the world, he gets it in all the bookshops all over the world. They never think that reverse courtesy is possible. They don't think it's necessary. So from the point of view of good business, if you have different books, then it's worthwhile for people to come into your bookshop and look at them.

Another thing we found very interesting was, we began with a lot of academic books in 1986. Fifteen years later academic books, and for some reason this gender studies, they have become complete flops in terms of sales for some reason. Either people are losing interest in that kind of work or whether it's got something to do with the quality of the work, I don't know. But we have to follow the "does this book sell or not", we can't keep twenty copies of a book and find that it doesn't sell. And if you look at our catalogues, the catalogues from the first time and the catalogues now, you will find a vast difference between, it sort of reflects on what people at the grass roots are thinking and what are their preferences in terms of the types of books they want and so on. So that's another disturbing thing for academics, as it is academics books don't sell well and if they're going to also be sort of rejected at this stage then I think that……Maybe it's a good thing, maybe we're reaching a stage where people in the end realize that all these institutions, university, courts, parliament and all that is more or less crumbling on its own and so on. So I think that we have to spend some time seriously on what's going to happen. I face it as a personal problem because I have three sons and I think that whatever I do in terms of a person who has been to a University, who has got himself certified and so on is basically what do we do with these three guys and how do they get through schooling without damaging their minds, how do they get to university, do we compel them to do what other parents compel them to do and so on, very specific things, what are the ideals we put before them that what is schooling meant for, what is college meant for. Is it meant to get a degree or is it meant to get a job and what is a job, is a job in the end getting a pair of Levis jeans and Ray Ban glasses and driving about in a car and going to play golf or something. Is that the sort of thing that we want our kids to become.

And we can very easily get them into that system. Parents all the time, you either get them into that system or you tell them you move in that system but you also move out it. We found that our best solution was to while they were in the system, go along the system but don't subject yourself to any pressures at all. Whenever you want to get out of the system, you get out of the system, spend some time outside the system and then go back into it if necessary. We found that in the end the best way of looking after, because we were ourselves not able to spend being heavily involved in lots of activities we were not able to spend, like what most parents would do, in home schooling and so on, really be able to direct those fellows. In the end we just decided to take a chance, nature is good enough, she'll teach these guys how to operate and more or less I think they've come out with their minds largely intact and with non of the conventional objectives that you can get from normal children elsewhere, what they call elsewhere who know exactly that they want to become doctors, engineers, they want to do and MBA, they want to go to this university. At least we were able to get out of it and all our work has been in that direction, to try and even in the publishing house bring out literature which will more or less try and unsettle people's minds and get them to look very seriously at this type of very extensive tyranny, where you're not able to look outside what is given to you. And you've really got to go along with it and if you don't go along with it, well people will not take you seriously or you will not be able to make very profound statements at conferences or meetings and so on.

We've called this meeting so we have people talking, putting things together on how Multiversity should run. Maybe eventually at the end of these three days, we will come out with some very specific things in which we can work out the Multiversity process. But that will again depend on how much we agree on the things that we should do. What is the area that we have to criticise. What is the area we cannot accept, what we feel is contaminated and what we feel is useless and so on. On that sort of consensus we will do all that.

That's why we've prepared a Multiversity Vision Statement that, needless to say, is only a draft. It's drafted by me largely, but it's still a draft and it's only to enable you to have something to work on. It's sometimes easier to modify something that's before you than to work on something entirely afresh. But if there's somebody who wants to draft something entirely afresh, there's perfect freedom to do so, there's no set agenda in that sense. Specifically what we should do in terms of programs, meetings, how do we interact with university traditions, how do we interact with history congresses, how do we interact with university grants commissions, how do we interact with SAARC and Group 77 and so many other things, that is something that will unwind over the next two or three years. But to start with we need to achieve clarity ourselves.

One major question for e.g. is, should we teach history? I don't know. I remember thirty years ago when I was going to St. Xavier's college, the text book said that we were discovered by Vasco da Gama. Thirty years later I was there in Calicut opposing the arrival of Vasco da Gama five hundred years earlier. This is not history, this is garbage, this is toxic poisonous stuff. I mean you are giving people wrong ideas about themselves, their culture, their civilisation. Claude Levi-Strauss said that anthropology is a science that third world people cannot do, it's only to be done by conquerors of victimized societies. So victim societies can't do anthropology, it can only be done by people who have conquered them. So if that is the case, why should we continue to do anthropology, why don't we just chuck the whole damn thing out and say okay, you continue to do it and some balanced people will do some reverse anthropology on you guys, we can initiate some anthropology on them. But right now, should we teach anthropology, should we teach psychology, and if so what do we teach in anthropology or psychology.

So these are very important things because we've got thousands of millions of students, young people like my sons, I always look at them as the antyodaya of Gandhi. You think about them going through this system and if it applies to them and you think of them going to this system, they don't know whether to take Arts or Science or Commerce. If they get into Arts they don't know whether to do political science or sociology, they don't know what to do. Everyone of them is really tasteless, they can't think that they've got to spend three to four years of life on it. I want to see Multiversity trying to get them out of that situation and still maintaining their knowledge of the place where they were born, the surroundings, the traditions in which they were born, the traditions which have been documented orally and which are in danger of being forgotten for other reasons. So these are questions that Multiversity must take up….

At a Glance:
Mulitversity Related

Recapturing Worlds:
The Original Multiversity

Penang 2002: The First Conference on the Deconstruction
of Knowledge

Dissenting Knowledges Pamphlet Series (ed. Vinay Lal)

Radical Essentials Pamphlet Series (ed. Yusef Progler)

Penang 2004: The Second Conference on Redesigning Social Science Curricula

Special issue of Humanscape on Multiversity (April 2005)

Special issue of Third World Resurgence (2005) on Multiversity

The Dissenter's Library
Essays, Articles, Papers
Kamirithu: The Newsletter of Multiversity
Readers in the Disciplines