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Books and Documents ( 1 Sept 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Historian Duo Shreds Cultural Myths, But Overeggs The Pudding

By Aishwarya Subramanian

2 September, 2012

No culture has ever been pure, no tradition self-enclosed, no identity monolithic." This is the argument of Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow in Confluences: Forgotten Histories from East and West. Itself the product of a collaborative effort across continents (Hoskote is Indian, Trojanow German) the book traces a history of the world in which cultures reach out to, influence and bleed into (sometimes literally) one another. This constant merging of traditions, Hoskote and Trojanow suggest, is the "lifeblood" of culture. The metaphor of a river runs through the book. By the time the river meets the ocean it hardly matters where it originated; its identity is far more a product of the tributaries that have fed it along the way. Fittingly, it's in the great harbour city of Alexandria that the book locates the high point of this historical melding, as well as the region of Al-Andalus and the Kushan Empire.

As with any work of history, this can never be an apolitical project. Confluences positions itself explicitly as a corrective to specific myths of purity. In "The Making of Europe", the longest section of the book, the authors set out to undermine an idea of Western civilisation as originating with the Greeks and passing on from there via Rome to Christianity and enlightened rationalism. Instead, we're forced to acknowledge the presence of other influences; the Akkadian and Sumerian myths upon those of the Greeks, Arab literature upon the European troubadour tradition as well as much of its secular literature, digambara Jains in Alexandria upon the ideas of Plotinus, the cultural vitality of Islam (Confluences is very much a post-9/11 book). At times Confluences falls into the trap of attempting to supplant one origin myth with another – as in a section which first traces a story in Boccaccio's Decameron back to an incident in the Ramayana, then suggests that this is the origin of the 'Virgin and the Unicorn' topos within Christian iconography. Often the book is scathing about Europe's conviction of its centrality to the world; in one section it is dismissed as "a self-satisfied fortress at the land's end of Asia". Even if one believes this dismissal to be performative (as I do) it does occasionally trigger protest – I was momentarily startled by the dismissal of Dante, and often felt compelled to defend Western Europe before remembering that it did not really need my help.

At times Confluences falls into the trap of attempting to supplant one origin myth with another. Unfortunately it’s hard to imagine anyone being converted to Hoskote and Trojanow’s views by references to “Sri Adolf Bhagavan”.

Late in the book Hoskote and Trojanow turn their attention to India and to the myth of a pure and unchanging Hinduism; if Confluences situates itself in a post-9/11 world it also locates itself after Godhra and the Gujarat riots. This is done through the figure of a time-travelling VHP member who, journeying to 1500 BC, is alarmed to find himself among people who call Krishna a cattle-stealer, drink Soma, and worship far less stylised phalluses than those he is used to. He is even more alarmed to discover that the elements of his religion that he does recognise are foreign imports. This is the least successful section of the book (or perhaps readers are more likely to be opinionated about this than the history of Al-Andalus) and it is followed soon after by an angry section on political Hindutva. Unfortunately it's hard to imagine anyone being converted to Hoskote and Trojanow's views by references to "Sri Adolf Bhagavan".

But then, it's not clear that Confluences is trying to convince anybody. It's not clear what the book is trying to do -- for a collaborative book with an extensive bibliography, it mysteriously chooses not to provide an introduction. At its best, Confluences is a joyous celebration of cultural hybridity – and if the constant barrage of facts early on is a little overwhelming, the sheer enthusiasm behind them makes the whole enjoyable. At its worst, it's rather off-puttingly aggressive.