22 September 2010

Blogging Milton from India, introduction

Besides a Hindi-English dictionary, I brought one very heavy book with me to India: John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose Works. Most people know Milton as the author of Paradise Lost but he wrote a lot more during a career that came to define sixteenth-century English letters. He was both a popular poet and deeply intellectual, rather like Shakespeare, whose plays appealed both to the noblemen in the VIP seats and the commoners standing below them.

Why am I reading Milton in India? There are two reasons, the first of which is just that my eleven months here are a circumscribed chapter in my life and I need a project to lead me through them. The system is closed: I am in India for the first time as a professional scholar, and the rules of my Fulbright grant literally do not allow me to leave the country without putting my funding in jeopardy. Despite a steady stream of cameo appearances by friends and family from my American life, that life has been paused so I can have this one. Because this period stands apart, I thought I should have a project, and it can't be my dissertation since writing it will last at least a year after I return from India. So I'm going to blog, maybe once a week or every two weeks, about what I've read in Milton.

The second reason is my awe for the great tradition of Europeans coming to India and using literature to pretend they're somewhere else entirely. Thomas Babington Macaulay, who made his mark on the Subcontinent by writing the Penal Code that is still mostly in force today and by imposing English in his famous Minute on Education, spent the 1820s and 30s reading the Latin and Greek classics in Calcutta. It goes without saying that I am not a colonialist in any sense, but it is still odd to be laughed at for walking into a local market where foreigners rarely go or--I'm pretty certain I'm reading the situation right--when I almost caused a car accident because someone riding a motorcycle gawked at my unusual whiteness for a little too long and took his eyes off the road. Even if I reject it, I need to get in touch with my otherness here. Even though I speak Hindi, I don't how much anything should cost or a number of other very basic facts of life. It makes me feel child-like, which is both demeaning and magical.

I know my readers were hoping for my first impressions and some funny anecdotes. Those will come in good time. Some of them may even be Miltonian, because in projects like this life and art often intersect in surprising ways. But lest you feel entirely cheated, here is a picture of cows in the road around the corner from where I live in Chittaranjan Park in south Delhi:

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