Journal of Arts & Ideas, no. 25-26 (Dec 1993) p. 87.


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Chowringhee : Modernity and Popular Fiction

n Sibaji Bandy opadhy ay

'They say—Esplanade. We say—Chowringhee' [Ora bole—Esplanade. Amra Boli— Chowringhee.] 'Ora'—They'; 'Amra'—'We'. Thus begins Shankar's Chowringhee (1962), a tale of initiation of an inexperienced mofussil youth into the subtleties and crudities of high city life. An immediate success on publication, the novel has remained a best-seller all through the last three decades—its steady sale has been one constant feature of a period otherwise marked by incessant political turmoil and broad cultural changes. This account of the moral decrepitude of modem times has so far successfully negotiated the vicissitudes of Bengali middle-class life, and that too without much critical attention, for or against. The canon-conscious critics have, without any compunction, consigned it to the rubbish heap named 'popular fiction', relegated it to that sub-terrain of literary production from which, as if by a natural law, nothing can ever issue forth that measures up to the marvels of 'Literature', spelt with a capital L. To the votaries of canonized tradition, 'popular fiction' is no more than an aberration or even a negation of literature'; it can only be articulated in and by a system of difference; as a signifying practice it is merely 'expressive' of an absence, a lack of what is 'really' significant. Popular fiction's peripheral status secures and sanctifies the centre, the centre being the vantage-point from which distant low-lying lands can occasionally be surveyed and sneered at. As an object of disgust, popular fiction functions as a perfect counterfoil to 'Literature proper', the sense of outrage being a necessary psychological correlate of the need to be assuaged and reassured. It is usual in literary criticism to select, classify and arrange texts into a graded series, but 'Literature' as a category implies much more than a particular body of texts—it is, in fact, the coordinating principle that transforms literary criticism into a deeply unified discursive formation.1 Texts, duly regimented and consecrated as cultural insignia, can then be invoked to testify to the presence of an overarching subject. The routine near-transcendental claim made regarding the haloed corpus contributes to the production and re-production of a particular notion of selfhood, shielding it, as it were,

Numbers 25-26


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