Wayward Internationalisms Across India and Mexico—Update on Summer Research

Hello, everyone:  

In my previous post for the CASI Student Blog, I described the ambit of my dissertation, Land and Revolution: Literatures in India and Latin America. I also outlined a summer research agenda to research and draft a chapter titled “Wayward Internationalisms Across India and Mexico.” This chapter examines the lives, travels, and writings of three historical figures: Octavio Paz, M.N. Roy, Pandurang Khankhoje. I discuss how their autobiographical writings provide a critical view into the political, economic, and literary connections that developed between these two nations from the post-revolutionary period in Mexico to the years immediately following India’s independence.  

Over the course of the summer, I have extensively reviewed the secondary literature on Paz, Roy, and Khankhoje, which has helped me refine and adapt my research goals. Below, I offer a reworked outline for my chapter in the light of my recent discoveries, which I have organized in chapter subsections dedicated to each figure I study. A précis accompanies each subsection; in them, I explain the aim and scope for each subsection and the ways I advanced my initial research objectives.    

Transpacific Racial Imaginations, Mexican Orientalism, and India in Octavio Paz 

This section begins by establishing that state-sponsored post-revolutionary Mexican nationalisms hinged on mestizo elites’ spiritual, historical, and cultural claims to an idea of Asia. Many late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century lettered intellectuals, like José Juan Tablada, Francisco Maduro, and Alfonso Reyes, among others, contemplated the history of Mexico’s transpacific connections with Asia and its role in shaping Mexican national identity. Some cleaved to anthropological theories of the ‘Asiatic origins’ of Mexico’s indigenous peoples via mass migration across a prehistoric land bridge that once connected the two continents, and others presumed self-evident forms of anticolonial geopolitical kinship between Mexico and Asian nations against Anglo American and British imperialisms. These imaginary connections held great import for ideologues in Mexico, as well as for those in parts of Asia. Yet the consensus in contemporary scholarship maintains that historical connections between the two continents were first forged, and sustained, in the crucible of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century Iberian empire, which stretched across the globe. Spanish and Portuguese colonialism brought many parts of Asia and the Americas into contact with one another, especially through the transoceanic commercial trade in silver and the Manila-Acapulco slave market. According to historian Tatiana Seijas in Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico, the Spanish and Portuguese monopolized the slave market at this time and transported countless enslaved peoples from India, the Philippines, China, and other regions in Asia to colonial Mexico via the Manila Galleon. Upon arriving to colonial Mexico from these various parts of Asia, these diverse communities were collectively termed “chinos” in legal, cultural, and political discourse. (The transpacific Iberian slave trade was consolidated alongside its transatlantic counterpart, which forcibly transported millions of enslaved Africans. The historian Herman Bennett expertly explores the latter dynamic in his book Africans in Colonial Mexico, though, as both Bennett and Seijas note, the ideas of bondage and freedom that circumscribed the lives of chinos and enslaved Africans in colonial Mexico took different trajectories in ecclesiastical courts of law). Although the Spanish slave trade was formally abolished in 1642, the dynamic interchanges it had generated between India and Mexico, as well as between other coastal and island nations in the Pacific Rim, like China and Japan, continued to enliven the Mexican cultural imagination well into the twentieth century, especially in poetry, novels, philosophical treatises, visual arts, and other forms. 

Through a critical review of the literary and historiographic scholarship on the practice of Orientalism in Mexico, especially Laura Torres-Rodríguez’s Orientaciones transpacíficas: La modernidad mexicana y el espectro de Asia (Transpacific Orientations: Mexican Modernity and the Specter of Asia) and essays in Orientalism and Identity in Latin America, edited by Erik Camayd-Freixas, I establish that we cannot fully understand the pro-mestizo character of post-revolutionary Mexican nationalism without attention to the repeated invocation of “the Orient,” specifically India, in many of the political, literary, and philosophical tracts produced in this period. Such texts rehearse classic Oriental tropes that populate the 18th and 19th century Anglo and French textual tradition but fuse them with representations of the Iberian transpacific slave trade; the ‘classic’ tropes I refer to are rooted in a European imaginative geography of the East marked by sensuous decadence, riches beyond compare, and mysterious spiritual potency, etc. Torres-Rodríguez, among other scholars, argue that Edward Said’s now-classic study of Orientalism is useful for understanding the European heritage of post-revolutionary Mexican Orientalism. However, there are some key differences between Said’s Ur-version of Orientalism based on British and French textual discourses and the Latin American paradigm:  

First, early modern-colonial Spain generated their own imaginative geographies of the Orient, in which the racialized specters of Islam and Judaism, inseparable from the religious anxieties that shaped the Spanish Inquisition as well as the Conquest into the New World, commingled with representations of the spaces and peoples across Asia. Crónicas (travel chronicles) penned by Spanish conquistadores constructed an imperial, racial, and imaginative geography of the New World and Asia in this way; later texts, like the 1821 picaresque novel El periquillo sarniento (The Mangy Parrot) by José Joaquín Fernandez de Lizardi, also rehearses a racialized transpacific geography, especially in its depiction of travel via the Manila-Acapulco trade routes. Mexican criollos and mestizos in the twentieth century thus did not exclusively draw upon British and French Orientalism, but also revived distinctively transpacific Orientalist and racial vocabularies from the Spanish tradition—Said’s (admittedly, already exhaustive!) study privileged the post-Enlightenment period and did not concentrate on the earlier period of early modern & colonial Spain.  

Secondly, it is reductive to claim that Mexican elites simply recycled or imitated already existing Orientalist tropes abundant in European culture. Rather, it is more accurate to say that they actively adapted such tropes, or even created new visions of the Orient, in the context of the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and, more specifically, in the light of the post-revolutionary state’s interest in forging a new national identity.  

Lastly, Mexico, unlike France, Britain, or Spain, was not a global maritime imperial power. Said wrote that the set of institutions that sustained European conquest—political, economic, sociological, militaristic, scientific, and academic—were necessary historical and geopolitical conditions for the textual production of European visions of the Orient. Mexico, in contrast, was a long-time formal colony until the nineteenth century, and then a postcolonial nation-state subordinated to U.S. economic imperialism, whose institutions have different origins and trajectories. The efflorescence of what Zoila Clark has called “peripheral Orientalisms,” thus, does not indicate that colonial or postcolonial Latin America shared the exact same economic and political infrastructure of 18th and 19th-century imperialist European nation-states. Instead, as Laura Torres-Rodríguez has convincingly argued, the peripheral Orientalism of Mexico had different consequences: it played a key role in fueling an elite racial imagination and in contributing to the ideological foundations of post-revolutionary mestizo nationalism.  

The racial philosophy of mestizaje was a state-sponsored ideology in the years following the Mexican Revolution that valorized the intermixture of peoples of Spanish and Indigenous descent. Mestizo intellectuals touted the multicultural virtues of mestizaje as a template for Mexican national belonging and racial citizenship. It was often contrasted with the colonial-era sistema de castas (system of castas, or castes), which classified mixed peoples based on religious notions of limpieza de sangre (or, purity of blood) and racialized structures of endogamy, exogamy, and lineage. Ultimately, however, mestizaje is an assimilationist racial ideology and program. It operates through the idea that pre-colonial and contemporary indigenous communities will eventually and willingly disappear into a single race of mestizos; further, it allows mestizos to maintain essentialist claims to indigenous identity without ceding economic or political power to living indigenous peoples. As a racial ideal, mestizaje subtly adjudicates long histories of dispossession enacted against indigenous peoples in the Americas, not only by the Spanish Empire, but also by the nineteenth-century pre-revolutionary state under Porfirio Díaz via liberal programs of capitalist land modernization. At bottom, this assimilationist racial philosophy nominally and selectively valorized certain cultural dimensions of pre-Columbian indigeneity; however, in effect, it shored up the hierarchies between Creoles, mestizos, and indigenous peoples. More importantly, for my own research purposes, I learned that the ideological and racial foundations for post-revolutionary mestizo nationalism can be traced back to the Mexican intelligentsia’s deep engagement with philosophies, religions, and textual traditions in India.  

José Vasconcelos was, arguably, the architect of state-sponsored and an official post-revolutionary mestizaje. Vasconcelos was a major political figure in the years following the Mexican Revolution and served as the Secretary of Education for the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Revolutionary Institutional Party), a political party that remained in power for nearly the remainder of the century.  He is best known for his 1925 philosophical treatise, La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race), which promoted a melioristic visions of racial mixture and mestizaje in spiritualized and cosmological idiom. Laura Torres-Rodríguez’s has shown Vasconcelos drew upon an Orientalist archive in order to philosophize La raza cósmica. She turns Vasconcelos’ overlooked and previously published 1920 essay, Estudios indostánicos (Hindustan Studies). She claims that “Vasconcelos perceives a close connection between his vision of India and the intellectual debates of postrevolutionary Mexico,” and that he “postulates India—a country whose social organization is based on a prohibition of mixing by an ancient caste system—as an example that demonstrates the positive qualities of mestizaje” and that “Vasconcelos sees in India racial model more in keeping with his plan of a ‘brown’ utopia for Latin America. His ‘proto-mestizo India’ is thus defined as the civilization that inspired his 1925 essay. ‘The Orient’ becomes the textual origin of the ‘raza cósmica’” (Torres-Rodríguez “Orientalizing Mexico” 81-85). Further, Torres-Rodríguez claims that “Indian intellectuals’ religious discourse—especially that of the nationalist monk Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)–had a decisive influence on La raza cósmica: they allowed Vasconcelos to articulate a racial discourse with the idea of the spirit” (ibid, 85). She builds this argument upon Srinivas Aravamudan’s observations in Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language; namely, that many Bengali reformers sought to promote Hinduism as a modern, cosmopolitan, and universal religion through ideas like Brahmo Samaj, which were circulated through the founding of theosophical institutions. These religious and nationalist idioms in India were deliberately made available for a global audience, and they traveled to Mexico, where Vasconcelos ultimately crafted philosophical writings that merged universalist religious cosmopolitanism, racial essentialism, and spiritualized syncretism as the foundation for his theory of mestizaje.  

This (admittedly, rather long!) critical review provides the context and rationale for my turn to Octavio Paz’s writing, political career, and life. Paz’s autobiographical writing and poetry continually evokes comparisons between Mexican and Indian histories, cultures, and racial formations. In my chapter, I close read selections from Paz’s body of work for the remainder of the section, including the following texts: In Light of India (his 1995 collection of autobiographical essays that reminisce his time as a Mexican diplomat and ambassador to India in 1962-68), The Monkey Grammarian (a 1974 experimental travelogue about his travels in India that combines prose, poetry, and philosophical reflections), and selected poems, including “On the Roads of Mysore,” “Sunday on the Island of Elephanta,” and “A Tale of Two Gardens.” My argument is that Paz’s peripheral Orientalism updates nationalist myths of mestizaje and la raza cósmica by tapping into a transpacific racial imagination that conjoins India and Mexico. He accomplishes this ideological renovation of mestizaje through extended references to Sanskrit epic poetry, Hindu and Buddhist tantric philosophies of sexuality and gender, cosmological understandings of caste in India, and histories of colonization, anti-colonial revolt, and Partition.  

The Question of Mexican and Indian Cultural Nationalisms in M.N. Roy’s Memoirs 

After I analyze the peripheral Orientalism in Paz’s writings and situate them in relation to his political role as a diplomat, I pivot to a discussion of M.N. Roy’s Memoirs. Although Roy’s autobiography reflects on the entirety of his life and political career, the bulk of his reminiscences concentrate on the two years he lived in Mexico City at the end of the Mexican Revolution.

In In Light of India, Paz briefly discusses the trajectory of Roy’s life from radical nationalist, to internationalist communist, to his eventual abandonment of communism and embrace of ‘radical humanism. He also touches on Roy’s time living in post-revolutionary Mexico and role in founding the Communist Party in Mexico in 1919. However, Paz describes his philosophy of “radical humanism” and turn away from socialism as a politically “inadequate” and somberly declares that “the life and work of Roy are an example of the fate of the revolutionary intellectual in the twentieth century” (Paz In Light of India 119-120). Despite Paz’s elegiac view of Roy’s career as a revolutionary, he praises his Memoirs and considers the “description and life in those years are vivid and exact” (ibid). Paz’s familiarity with Roy prompted me to give to a closer look at the Memoirs.  

Then, I give closer attention to Roy’s Memoirs and discuss his encounters with a mestizo-led Theosophical Society in Mexico, which absorbed and promoted globally syndicated versions of Indian spiritual mysticism. This is precisely the kind that Torres-Rodríguez and Aravamudan discuss in relation to José Vasconcelos, a discourse I see manifest across Paz’s oeuvre, and, in a very different way, in Roy’s Memoirs. Roy challenges what he sees as the theosophists’ fantastical views of India—or, in other words, their peripheral Orientalism, though he does not use that phrase—through a public presentation of his work on a Marxist history of India’s economic development, titled India’s Past, Present, and Future. From Roy’s perspective, his quibbles with the Theosophical Society, or what he calls their “cultural nationalism,” contributed to the development of his secular and Marxist political consciousness. I connect such scenes with his continual musings about the forms of cultural nationalism taking shape in India and Mexico in this period. Throughout the entirety of his Memoirs, he remains preoccupied with the possible interactions between “cultural nationalisms” not only between India and Mexico, but also between those in colonies of the British Empire.

I turn to Roy’s Memoirs not simply to reassess Paz’s disappointment with the loss of his revolutionary zeal. Rather, this is my attempt to expand the scholarly discussion on peripheral Orientalism and its entwinement with racial nationalisms in both Mexico and India in the early twentieth-century. The scholarship so far has remained focused on the production, circulation, and maintenance of peripheral Orientalism as a discourse. But, I argue, we must also enlarge our field of vision so that we are equally attentive to the instances when such discourses are contested. Roy’s Memoirs offers a particularly compelling example because he challenges the legitimacy of peripheral Orientalism within the institutional context it was being produced (the Mexican Theosophical Society) and as the nominal “object” of the racial discourse (the ‘spiritual’ Indian). 

Pandurang Khankhoje and the Green Revolution from post-Revolutionary Mexico to Postcolonial India 

Lastly, I pivot from Paz and Roy to discuss biographical writings, periodicals, and letters of Pandurang Khankhoje. To my knowledge, neither Paz or Roy knew of Khankhoje. Khankhoje has only recently begun to receive scholarly attention from historians of Mexican agriculture and historians of South Asian internationalisms in the interwar period. This critical work returns to Khankhoje’s life in order to highlight the forgotten socialist origins of the Green Revolution in Khankhoje’s collaborations with the National School of Agriculture in Mexico during the interwar period; he was a former member of the Ghadar movement, trained as an agronomist in California in the United States, then fled to Mexico as an exile to avoid extradition by the British Empire, and lived in Mexico for nearly forty years until India’s Independence. After India’s independence, Khankhoje returned and partnered with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and transnational multilateral programs to develop capitalistic rural development initiatives, particularly in the trade of high-yielding variety seeds like that Khankhoje pioneered in his research and work in Mexico. These seeds were used in regions in Mexico and India (as well as in other parts of South Asia) in the broad set of agricultural modernization programs called The Green Revolution.    

Truth be told, I am finding it slightly difficult for me to connect this section with the previous two, as it steps away from questions of peripheral Orientalism as a discourse and moves towards telling a very different history of the Green Revolution, particularly in its initial interchanges between India and Mexico and then its appropriation by the American agronomist Norman Borlaug, heads of state in newly independent postcolonial nation-states, and postwar global financial institutions. As I finish up the draft for my project, I will need to revisit some of the primary materials to see if, in Khankhoje’s life, there are also organic connections to the question of racial nationalism that I introduced in the previous two sections.   

As I tried to make sense of Khankhoje’s life in my research process alongside seemingly unrelated questions of peripheral Orientalism, I received incredibly helpful assistance from Penn Libraries. At the start of the summer, I had to accept that I will not be able to directly access various archives in India and Mexico, which contains many primary materials related to Khankhoje and his life. Thankfully, I virtually met with Jef Pierce, the South Asian Studies Librarian at the University of Pennsylvania, who expertly answered my questions and helpfully introduced me to various databases and collections that contain materials relevant to my research. For example, he introduced me to the Godha Ram Channon Papers in the Kislak Special Collections at Van Pelt. Like Khankhoje, Channon was as Ghadar revolutionary implicated in what was nicknamed the “Hindu-German Conspiracy,” and lived in the United States as an exile. Sam Allingham, a Processing Archivist for Kislak, wrote a blog post explaining the materials held in this collection. Interestingly, very little has been written about Godha Ram Channon, and in Maia Ramnath’s impressive book about the Ghadar movement, Haj to Utopia, Channon remains only a footnote. I am sensing the possibility of another project that brings together understudied Ghadar revolutionaries like Khankhoje and Channon and evaluates their return to India after Independence and Partition. But, for now, I am focused on figuring out the best way to integrate the question of peripheral Orientalism and racial nationalism in Paz and Roy’s writings to the work on Khankhoje.  

My plan for the remainder of my time on the summer grant is to complete a full draft of this chapter. I have the following goals in mind as I write:  

I hope to synthesize my evidence into a unified, coherent argument about what these three historical figures’ writings illuminate about transpacific racial formations when they are studied alongside each other. These figures have never been studied together and are usually siloed off into rigid disciplinary frames; my hope is to convincingly challenge that tendency. Further, I wish to make more explicit the methodologies I use to think Indian and Mexican cultural and geopolitical histories together through non-fictional texts. As a literary critic, I am invested in spelling out the formal patterns I observe across these autobiographical texts. Yet, I want to balance those observations about form and language with larger historical claims about the racialized character of South-South political internationalisms from the interwar period to the postwar period. My final post for the CASI Student Blog will provide a more in-depth view into the intersections of these themes.  

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About nicomillman

I am a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania. My dissertation, Land and Revolution: Literatures in India and Latin America 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.