Call it Community

As a student of literary and cultural theory, I have been trained to be suspicious of the word “community.” Sure, the term is acceptably used in conversation, but when held up to critical scrutiny, it has little resonance.

Imagine the following scene. A guest lecturer stands at the front of a classroom, delivering a talk on South Asian writers in the post-colonial context. All is well—we students are taking notes, listening attentively—until the lecturer says something like this: “Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize brought pride to her own community.” Or, “female characters in Indian diasporic fiction are subject to their community’s patriarchal values.”

All heads lift from notebooks; our pens drop in dismay. We have found the speaker’s Achilles Heel, the lynchpin that will unravel this painstakingly constructed theoretical elaboration. The lecturer has used one of the most contentious terms of all—”community”—as shorthand for far more complex populations and ideas. After all, who comprises Roy’s “community”? How can anyone attempt to speak for diverse populations, distinct individuals, and multiple forms of alliance with that watered-down, over-used term?

Although I can appreciate the aspiration of the word “community,” I’ve never been satisfied with attempts to define it. But I have doubted my own critical chops as well. For it’s one thing to criticize a hollow term on the basis of how totalizing it aims to be. It’s another thing to call into question the material effects that community, and feelings of community belonging, actually have in our day-to-day lives.

On July 12, Rajan Zed delivered the first Hindu prayer in the U. S. Senate. Did Zed not represent a community of believers; did the protestors not ally with a community of opposition; is there not a community that has rallied behind the Senate’s gesture toward pluralism and inclusion?

For months now, Indians, South Asians, and Americans in different hyphenated combinations have been holding drives for the bone marrow registry. Vinay Chakravarthy’s and Sameer Bhatia’s now familiar faces have come to represent a population in need, and their stories have inspired others to give of themselves in solidarity. When we’re talking about blood, bone marrow, genetics, ostensibly incontrovertible biological ties, how can we doubt the reality of community?

In the past four weeks that I have occupied the editor’s chair at India Currents, I have been thinking a lot about that taboo word. It is clear that a magazine that seeks to address a particular self-defined population aspires to something like community identification. But do we, the ethnic media, serve existing communities? Or are we—in our calendars, in our essays, in our images—creating new communities on every page?

My eyes and ears are open to you, our readers, writers, and subscribers. I’m looking forward to making something together in the coming months. We might even call it a community.



Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan was Editor of India Currents from July 2007-June 2009. 

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