Interview: Dr Anindya Raychaudhuri
Anindya, lecturer in English at the University of St. Andrews, is working on the way nostalgia is used by diasporic communities to create imaginary and real homes. He has written about the Spanish Civil War and the India/Pakistan partition and the cultural legacies of these wars. He co-hosts a podcast show, State of the Theory, and explores the issues raised by his research in stand-up comedy.
AH: When you pitched to become one of the New Generation Thinkers you focused on the impact of partition and civil war. Can you explain more about this interest in the cultural legacy of the Spanish Civil War and the partition of India and Pakistan and why you decided to research more about it?
AR: I arrived at the Spanish Civil War through a slightly circuitous route. My first plan for a PhD project was to work on a man called Christopher Caudwell. (I’m still hoping to write about him one day!) He was a British Marxist thinker from the 1930s who fought and died in the Spanish Civil War. This was a unique event – a war which featured more than 20000 volunteers from more than 50 different countries – there’s been nothing else like it. While reading about Caudwell, I got more and more interested in Spain and how that war is remembered today – eventually I changed focus completely to the legacy of the Spanish Civil War and Caudwell got left behind!
Partition, on the other hand, was always there in the background – our family originate from what is now Bangladesh and moved to India in 1947. I grew up with stories of the lost home, and the struggle to re-establish oneself as a refugee. When it came to choosing an area for research, I decided to return to these stories, in order to try to understand how and why 1947 is remembered today.
I guess the thing that links these different projects is memory. I am fascinated by the way we remember the past as individuals and communities – the process that goes into taking memories and turning them into stories. Too often we think of people who have lived through traumatic events as victims of trauma, whereas I think sometimes memory can be a more active, creative thing.
AH: Was there a Eureka moment when you knew that you wanted to become an academic?
AR: I’m not sure there was a single moment as such. As an undergraduate student, we had to research and write an essay every two weeks. My tutors always allowed me to pick my own titles, so I felt like I was choosing my own mini research projects from very early on. Being a student in London and being able to work in the British Library and Senate House was amazing as well – I just felt at home on the university campus and decided I never really wanted to leave!
AH: Can you tell me about a key area of research that you’re working on at the moment that really excites you?
AR: My current project focuses on the south Asian diaspora and the role played by nostalgia. Nostalgia has been typically thought of as a conservative, backward-looking impulse. I am trying to think about it as a creative, even radical force that allows people to imagine all sorts of alternative worlds through which we can challenge established hierarchies. This project has taken me from a cemetery in a Perthshire village via Bollywood movies and the streets of Leicester to the BBC archives in Reading. As a diasporic south Asian myself, working on this area has made me re-examine the way I, and thousands of others like me have made our homes in new, faraway places.
AH: Do you have a favourite book that has inspired your passion for collective memory of war and conflict?
AR: It is not a book that looks at war and conflict specifically, but the book that has influenced my work on memory is The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories by Alessandro Portelli. Portelli has this amazing line about how mistaken memories allow us to go beyond facts to their meanings. Portelli’s argument resonates with me a lot, and informs my work on partition to a great extent.
AH: Is there a historical figure that you particularly identify with?
AR: This one is tricky! I think it might be Christopher Caudwell. He left school at 15, worked as a jobbing journalist, and then, in the 1930s, discovered politics and Marxism, and then decided to volunteer to fight Fascism in Spain. He was a young man who read widely, was interested in many things, and wrote detective fiction, as well as books on aviation, quantum physics, poetry and literature. He died before he was thirty, and much of his work bears the marks of his youth and inexperience, but they are also full of the potential that he did not have the chance to fulfil.
AH: What advice would you give to someone thinking of following an academic career path?
AR: In many ways, there is no better job in the world. I still can’t quite believe that I am being paid to read books and think – it is such a huge privilege. If you love ideas, if you love being challenged, if you love meeting and working with some of the cleverest people around, then this might just be perfect for you. Having said that, it is a very difficult world to get into. Every year more and more new PhD graduates enter the job market, and many of them struggle for years to get permanent employment. But if you work very hard, and are very lucky, it can all fall into place. So, I guess the best advice would be to keep at it – keep going for as long as you possibly can, as hard as you possibly can. It will be very difficult, but the end-result is more than worth it.
AH: What role do you see for academics in helping us to understand the lessons of history and meet the challenges of the future?
AR: The French writer Roland Barthes has a collection of essays called Mythologies. In the preface to this book, he describes what he is doing through his writing. He says, ‘I wanted to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in my view, is hidden there.’ This remains, for me, the best description of what we should be doing as academics. We should challenge the assumptions that are all too often accepted as self-evidently, naturally true. We should interrogate these assumptions, and expose the problems they might have. Whose version of the truth is accepted as correct, and whose voices are ignored and forgotten?
AH: If you could travel back in time to a particular period of history, where would you go?
AR: I would say Russia in 1917, or maybe the Paris Communes of 1871. I would love to experience the optimism that goes into trying to create a new form of human society – the sort of thinking that does not just believe that another world is possible, but is able to fight to bring it into existence. I feel that today we are in desperate need of more of the kind of imagination that is able to conjure up alternative futures.
AH: Do you have any top tips for early career researchers that want to get into radio and TV?
AR: It might sound obvious, but if you want to write for radio or TV, then make sure you practise reading out loud. What I have found hardest is to adjust my writing style when writing for radio, as opposed to writing to be read. I had to force myself to shorten my sentences and be more accessible without overly simplifying the argument. My guess is that this would be the same for most early career researchers.
AH: How have your found finding your voice when talking and being interviewed on Radio 3?
AR: This may be a paradox but one of the things that surprised me was how many of the skills needed to be an effective communicator on Radio are also skills that are needed in academia. I think I am now a better lecturer than I used to be, thanks to my BBC experience, for example. It was one of the most nerve-wracking things I have ever done, but it was so worth it.
If you have been inspired by the stories of our 2016 New Generation Thinkers and are an Early Career Researcher yourself, why not apply for the 2017 New Generation Thinkers scheme.