Purna Banerjee

Associate Professor

In the summer of 2003(August), on the eve of the 25th anniversary of his path-breaking book Orientalism (1978), Edward Said published the article “Worldly Humanism Vs Empire Builder.” In this, one of his last pieces of scholarship, a deeply self-reflexive Said mentions how today the often-fashionable homage to the idea of western and eastern literary, cultural, social, and political syncretism is not enough. He calls on current teachers and scholars of the humanities to not only to make the dependence and continued exchanges between eastern and western cultures clear, but also “to widen the field of discussion.” As a product of both the Orient and the Occident, having been reared in the academic circles of both, I find myself answering Said’s call in both my research interests and projects and the courses that I have designed to teach. I am a Victorianist-Modernist by training and a passionate Humanist by conviction.

Over the years, in my research interests and publications, I “widen(ed) the field of discussion” by juxtaposing and analyzing different literary genres and by recovering, largely through archival research, forgotten texts by women authors. I have specialised in Victorian and Modernist Novels, Periodicals, and Travel Literatures and in the Postcolonial Anglophone traditions. Feminist, postcolonial, and subaltern theories are the terministic screens through which I critique the cultural and literary texts. My literary research contends that Victorian constructions of the female subject are integral to understanding and re-evaluating the culture of exchange between Britain and India during the Victorian and Modernist period. My research serves as both a prequel and a sequel to scholars, such as, Priya Joshi.  The dual roles of being a feminist literary historian and analyst help me work both “within” and “without” the literary and cultural texts. Through my archival research I look “without” as I help expand the scope of the literary tradition, while through close textual analysis I look “within” to interpret the complex messages enshrined in these texts. My textual analysis can be termed as a feminist “reading against the grain.” However, I passionately defend the assertion that a “ ‘reading against the grain’ must forever remain strategic, it can never claim to have established the authoritative truth of a text, it must forever remain dependent upon practical exigencies, never legitimately lead a theoretical orthodoxy” (Spivak).

My quest for expanding the “field of discussion” began with my doctoral dissertation, “Incidental Occurrences: Exchanges between British and Indian Women Writers (1840-1940),” I claimed that in the late 19th and early 20th century there existed a subaltern female transnational, transactional, and subaltern public sphere between British and Indian women. My formulation of the female public sphere is a reworking of Habermas’ bourgeois European Public Sphere. The female transnational public sphere, that I theorized and critiqued, is a discursive space that is the repository of what Reina Lewis calls as the “partial, fragmented, and contradictory narratives” of women. As Gramsci, the man who first gave us the theory of the subaltern, affirms, the history of the subaltern is almost always episodic, fragmentary and contradictory. Knowledge of these fragmentary and contradictory responses by women, that studies in my dissertation, thus prevents us from accepting and perpetuating the previously tempting and easy misconception that all literary texts dealing with the complex issues and clotted history of empire are in fact examples of what has been described as “the disarming simplicity of the ruler-ruled, colonizer-colonized” category. Instead, I assert that in any cultural contact between diverse communities each encounter illuminates the other in multiple and irrefutable ways.


Presidency University,
86/1 College Street, Kolkata - 700073,
West Bengal, India

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Email: purna.eng at presiuniv.ac.in
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