The Contradictions of Irawati Karve: A Conversation

Thiago Pinto Barbosa and Urmilla Deshpande

An excerpt:

Thiago: Umi, how did your interest in writing about Karve come about?

Umi: Iru died when I was seven. The idea of a novel based on Irawati’s time as a young woman in (Weimar) Berlin is irresistible. But, how to be clear-eyed about a woman who is part of me? When I started research, like you, I felt ambiguous and conflicted about what I encountered. I think we have the same underpinnings to our quite different projects: we want to be, as you said, at once critical and empathic.

Thiago: I often find myself oscillating between being overly critical and overly empathic towards Karve, depending on who I’m talking to (she has left many fans and a few sharp critics) and which of her texts I’m reading read. I admire the proto-feminist voice in her brilliant book about the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, Yuganta, but, as someone who researches critically the idea of “race” in science, I was troubled by her assertions on “racial elements” of castes and so-called tribes, and by her anti-Muslim utterances in 1947 (the year of the Partition of India). However, as Simone Lässig reminds us, each life is fragmented, and when we write a biography, we might not be able (or want) to create a coherent whole by putting together the heterogenous fragments of a person’s life and personality.2 And although Karve, who even had a museum named after her, might be seen as a heroine, I have to think of what Levke Harders, for example, describes as a post-heroic approach in biography writing, when biographies take up figures known as heroes and present more nuanced insights about their lives and work.3 Umi, how do you deal with balancing these different, sometimes conflicting fragments in your practice of research and writing? Is the Karve you’re describing a character afflicted by contradictions?

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