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Thursday, April 25, 2013

A serene evening with a philosophy professor in Chitwan

Chitwan is famous for many things but notorious for quite a few things. One is its usually hostile weather, particularly in the spring and summer months. Yesterday was an exception: the weather was close to optimally comfortable. The heavy downpour in the morning was followed by the cloudy day and the evening was as pleasant as it could be during any part of the year. To engage in literary activity in such weather is a real privilege.

After an open invitation by LB Chhetri sir, nearly two dozen people gathered at his residence at around 5 pm for an interaction with Prof. Leonard Harris, professor of Philosophy at Purdue University in US. Named ‘White Corner’ at the southern part of Bharatpur, LB sir’s residence appears to have been serving as one of the important literary centers in Chitwan.

Prof Harris (Photo: Directory
of Purdue University. Published
under fair use policy.)
Starting with the introduction, Prof Harris imperceptibly started his talk. The relationship between literature and philosophy featured in the beginning because many of the participants were related to literature. To clarify the doubts of some of the participants, Harris had to explicitly tell that he was not representative of the US but that of himself.

Eventually, the talk focused on the issue of philosophy of oppression/segregation or discrimination and Harris gave some impressive details of how white supremacy does thrive at every level even to date. When the Europeans reached the African hinterlands, they placed themselves at the center of the universe and defined everything else with their own standards. The white color of skin, for example, became the absolute criteria to define ‘us’ and the ‘others’. While Christianity belonging to ‘us’ got the category of religion, the erstwhile religions of the African people became mere ‘mythologies’ devoid of knowledge. The ‘others’ were also presumed to be resistant to learning and hence there was no possibility of these people making any progress without following the footsteps of ‘us’.

He then gave the evolution of the ‘African-American’ identity in the US citing that his grandfather was a mere ‘colored’ man while his father a ‘negro’ and nothing more. He also contrasted the prevalent systems of categorizing people in US and Mexico: while in the census in the US it is mandatory to classify oneself as ‘black’ or ‘white’, same is not true in Mexico.

Coming to the question of colonialism, Harris told a harrowing tale of loss of African heritage during the process of colonization: between 1787 and 1865, 26 different languages and cultures were exterminated in favor of a handful of European languages (Portuguese, English, Spanish and French). One of the methods of such systemic extermination was this: once subjugated, the African people were given two choices, either keep your religion/language and remain a slave or renounce them and become free.

The question then evolved into cosmopolitanism and its relationship with the instruments of colonialism including the European languages. Harris elaborated that, as you recede away from your den to cross boundaries, to interact with more people and construct new relationships, the old ones get severed at the same time and you lose your nativeness. That is a price to be paid to transform oneself into a global citizen. On use of English language, he said sarcastically: “I am serving colonialism by speaking in English, in a sense”.

When questioned about ‘African philosophy’, Harris was amusingly dismissive and said that there is no all-encompassing or overarching single philosophy that can be attributed to Africa. Rather there are multiple vibrant philosophical thoughts and strands in different parts of the continent.

On interactive part, LB sir posed a difficult philosophical question to the participants: why not a single philosophy for a category; for example, why not a single philosophy of religion, that of politics, that of love, that of struggle and so on? He said he was puzzled by the question and most of us were too. Clarifying doubts of some of the participants, LB sir recapitulated Harris’ views on philosophy: while philosophy teaches you to pose questions and dwell on arguments, it does not dictate anything like how to live a life. While you can study the views of a hundred philosophers, you are the one who chooses the principles guiding your life.

The program was organized by a relatively new organization named VIEW or Village of English Writers which plans to hold such programs on more or less regular basis. The participants were further impressed by the hospitality at Kabidanda.

You may also be interested in:
Understanding South Asia through fiction: Sea of poppies, Book review
Metamorphosis, a short story
Combating stress and seeking happiness: a monologue, Reflection

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