Melina Munz, MA, is a research associate and PhD student on Project G4: “Leisure in Contemporary Indian Literature”.
“MußeOrte – weltweit” (Places of Otium – Worldwide): The focus of the CRC 1015’s English studies project is on otium in contemporary Indian literature, especially on otiose scenarios and discussions about otium portrayed in these novels. What makes Indian literature especially interesting regarding the topic of otium?
Melina Munz: First of all, our finding that otium is an important theme in contemporary Indian literature is noteworthy in and of itself. When starting a research project, you never know exactly what kind of reach a particular topic will have in the literature. But after the first couple of months, it became clear that there are a great deal of novels out there that touch on otium, including many kinds of otiose practices and phenomena. This link between otium and otiose practices is in fact always created through the specific characteristics of the experience. These range from spiritual components to aesthetic practices.
“MußeOrte – weltweit”: Since this interview is for the “Places of Otium – Worldwide” project, we’re especially interested in whether the experiences of otium, regardless of their qualities, are also spatially located in the novels? Does the space play a role in these experiences, and if so, what are these places of otium and what are their distinguishing features?
Melina Munz: I can actually identify very well with this “Places of Otium” project, because the most recent focus of my research has been on the spaces in which otium takes place. On the one hand, the space is important for enabling an otiose experience, but on the other hand, sensory perception is what comes to the fore in literary situations relevant to a study of otium. Certain characteristics of the experience are often associated with a certain space. The type of space can vary greatly. There are the rural regions of India (i.e. the stereotype of the idyllic village) as well as supposedly ‘wild’ nature (especially in the Himalayas). Conversely, there’s also urban areas like the megacities of Delhi or Kolkata. It’s important that the novels always deal with spatial constructions; on the one hand, they present traditional (Indian or European colonial–influenced) attributions and ideas; on the other hand, the protagonists re-experience and re-conceptualise these spaces through their otiose experiences.
“MußeOrte – weltweit”: In your previous answer, you hinted at a spiritual component in Indian concepts of otium. Can you elaborate on this and the role it’s playing in your research?
Melina Munz: Religious beliefs are not the central theme of the novels we’re analysing, but they come up in some passages where we can identify references to certain spiritual concepts within a certain type of aesthetic. Of course, the novels also thematise spiritual places and practices, such as monasteries and meditation in both The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra and A River Sutra by Githa Mehta. What’s especially interesting here are contemplative situations in natural environments, as well as fairly quotidian ceremonies like Hindu Puja rituals or regular visits to the family shrine. At the same time, completely different aspects also play a role in the narratives, such as the specific temporal rhythm of big cities and the family life taking place within them, of which religion is only one aspect. You just have to be careful that you don’t overemphasise the spiritual aspect, which seems so obviously conducive to otium. To reduce the plethora of practices of Indian otium to just spirituality would not only be an oversimplification, it also runs the risk of exoticising India.
“MußeOrte – weltweit”: Oriental and Far-Eastern otiose practices are currently trendy in western societies. Do the novels outline concrete ways of understanding and practicing otium as a sort of antidote to (Western) meritocratic society?
Melina Munz: We’ve talked a lot about spaces, but the temporal aspect is also important when it comes to the term meritocracy. In this context, memory and nostalgia have become a common thread throughout our project. Narratives often develop nostalgic memories from childhood or the earlier quality of a space while also casting a critical or pessimistic glance at the present, the time when the text is written. For example, there’s the discourse about the traditional conversational practice called Adda, common mainly in Kolkata and West Bengal. Adda refers to open get-togethers in public spaces (cafés, public squares, etc.) to discuss topics ranging from the totally banal to abstract, philosophical concepts. For many characters in the novels, such practices no longer seem possible thanks to changes in the cityscape, especially those geared towards efficiency. In their opinion, the spaces which are available for this kind of use are increasingly disappearing. Despite this melancholy tone, the past often holds a potential that the protagonists are able to use to shape the present. Though I can’t say whether the reader would explicitly understand this as a possibility for practicing otium.
“MußeOrte – weltweit”: And how are these glimpses into the past assessed in an increasingly globalised world?
Melina Munz: In the novels, not everything is about living in the past. Take Kiran Desai’s well-known book The Inheritance of Loss. In it, the contrast between urban and rural is thematised by negotiating different spaces and the ways in which they are experienced by different people. And one can connect this quite interestingly with Hartmut Rosa’s theory of social acceleration. It is in the Western urban space where this acceleration of the life of the protagonists, or more precisely, of the South Asian immigrant, is depicted. This context raises the question of the relationship between the theory of acceleration and a global perspective. To what extent have developed countries forcibly accelerated the countries of the Global South? How should we view the results of the novel’s analysis from this larger perspective? These are all open questions that will certainly occupy me as I continue my research.
“MußeOrte – weltweit”: Thank you so much for doing this interview with us, Ms Munz!