Wayward Internationalisms Across India and Mexico – Introduction to Summer 2021 Research

Hello, everyone! My name is Nico Millman, and I am a PhD Candidate in the English Department. My areas of interest include twentieth-century South Asian and Latin American literature, theories of the novel, postcolonial studies, and critical development studies. In Spring 2020, I designed and taught a Junior Research Seminar called “Global Detective Narratives,” which focused on the intersections across fiction, crime, and the British & American empires in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For the 2019-2020 academic year, I was awarded a Foreign Area and Language Scholarship (FLAS) to study Hindi. Before beginning my studies at Penn, I was a bilingual instructor (English/Spanish) for the Adult Education Center in Urbana, Illinois.

My doctoral dissertation, tentatively titled Land and Revolution: Literatures in India and Latin America, investigates land dispossession and peasant politics in the literary imagination and Left discourse across rural India, Mexico, and the Andes. I examine cultural production in the shared context of anti-colonial struggle and national liberation in the early-to-mid twentieth century, the period of revolutionary upheaval in the global 1960s, and the present moment of neoliberal enclosures and anti-systemic, counter-globalization movements. I integrate my analysis of literature with a range of scholarly conversations, including those between South Asian and Latin American Subaltern Studies, theories of the world-system and the novel, and studies of caste, indigeneity, and race. Some of the authors whose novels I analyze include Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay and the tradition of regionalist literature in Bengal as well as José María Arguedas and indigenismo (a literary movement that portrayed rural peasant and indigenous communities) in Peru. More recently, I have turned to non-fiction to study memoirs by Manikuntala Sen, Somnath Hore, and Godavari Parulekar, as well as oral histories recounting the experiences of peasant women in the Telangana, Tebhaga, and Warli rebellions in India, with the hopes of placing them in a dialogue with diaries and testimonios by Che Guevara, Hugo Blanco, and Domitila Barrios de Chúngara in Latin America.

This summer, supported by a CASI research grant, my goal is to draft a chapter presently titled “Wayward Internationalisms Across India and Mexico.” This chapter brings together three historical figures whose writings, lives, and travels across India and Mexico offer a critical view into the larger connections that brought these two continents into contact in the twentieth century. Part One of my dissertation attempts to devise a literary method for comparing novelistic fiction from far-flung regions of the world, specifically rural Bengal and the Peruvian Andes, which were not historically connected by patterns of migration or trade but whose literatures representing land enclosure bear many striking resemblances in both content and form. This chapter shifts gears and turns to non-fiction to explore when political, economic, and literary connections between India and Mexico began to deepen, from the interwar period to the years following India’s independence from Britain. I do so through a focus on the memoirs, letters, periodicals, and literary works by M.N. Roy, Pandurang Khankhoje, and Octavio Paz.

A radical nationalist turned internationalist revolutionary, Roy co-founded the Communist Party of Mexico in 1919 as an exile, and then, in 1920, co-founded the Communist Party in India upon his return. Roy’s Memoirs retrospectively detail his transformative experiences in Mexico and the ways they shaped his famous disagreements with Vladimir Lenin’s “Theses on the National and Colonial Question.” A lesser-known Indian anticolonial rebel, Pandurang Khankhoje, a member of the international Ghadar movement that sought to end British rule in India, lived in exile in Mexico, became an agronomist, and developed hybrid, high-yielding variety seeds, which were later used in the global rural development programs, broadly referred to as the ‘Green Revolution,’ across Latin America and South Asia following World War II. During his time in Mexico, Khankhoje befriended the famous muralist Diego Rivera, who painted a mural that celebrated Khankhoje’s agricultural advancements, as well as Tina Modotti, a revolutionary part of the Comintern, who photographed Khankhoje’s activities in Mexico’s Free Schools of Agriculture. Octavio Paz, a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, was a Mexican poet who served as ambassador to India from 1962-1968, and produced several literary works remarking upon the similarities between India and Mexico (these texts include In Light of India, The Monkey Grammarian, and the poem, “Eastern Slope”). By bringing the separate trajectories of Roy, Khankhoje, and Paz together, and their complex legacies in the Third Communist International, global anti-colonial movements, postwar multilateral rural development institutions, and inter-state diplomatic affairs, I hope to theorize the unexpected, elite alliances that emerged in this period between India and Mexico as a style of “wayward internationalism.”

I believe one of the external challenges I will face is the lack of access to the archival resources that would otherwise strengthen my project. Although I have procured versions of the primary and secondary texts I wish to analyze for this chapter, the archives containing relevant materials pertaining to Roy, Khankhoje, and Paz are in Mexico and India. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is still difficult to access them or consult with archivists abroad, even remotely. One of the internal challenges I will face is my own internally oscillating sense of scarcity (there is far too little written or available on this topic to support my argument!) and of abundance (there is far too much material to possibly include in a single chapter!) that hits me whenever I begin a new research project. So, confronting that peculiarly twinned sensation of ‘research scarcity’ and ‘research abundance’ will likely be my own special obstacle that I work through while beginning the chapter.

I plan share excerpts from my research in future blog posts for CASI, so stay tuned and follow along!  

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About nicomillman

I am a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania. My dissertation, The Agrarian Question in Literature and Politics across South Asia and Latin America, 1910s - Present, studies dispossession and radical politics in the literary imagination and Left discourse across rural India, Mexico, and Peru. I examine fiction and non-fiction produced from the era of anti-colonial struggle and national liberation in the early-to-mid twentieth century, to the period of revolutionary upheaval in the global 1960s, and to the present moment of neoliberal enclosures and anti-systemic, counter-globalization movements.