An Encounter with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Photo: Melville House Books

By Sriparna Datta

It was 2018. I was in the first year, new in college. In a seminar that was held in a local university, I heard my school friend Sayani talking to her teacher about someone’s visit to the university for a special lecture. The teacher was grieving over the fact that she would not be able to attend the lecture because she was going on her sabbatical leave. I was very curious to know about the speaker. Out of the suppressed hullaballoo in the seminar hall, the name emerged: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

I immediately Googled the name. I got her bio and saw her picture which was totally different from the one I had imagined before I Googled. But the terms – deconstruction, postcolonialism, subaltern studies – meant nothing to me. I could only stare at them without processing. I could feel it that I was going to be an alien in the hall. I gathered the information and waited for a month or so. When the day finally arrived, I reached Bidhan Manch, the hall where the program was organized, at 3 pm, while it was going to start at 6 pm. It was partly because I had to fill up a form and follow other procedures to enter the hall and partly because of our worn out public transportation system.

Around 5.30 pm, my friend Neha joined me. We sat in the middle of the hall. The entire room teemed with students and scholars. When Spivak appeared on stage, I could clearly see her dazzling eyes and hear her robust voice, such as I had never heard before. She was requested to speak in Bengali. She went on telling how the readers had misinterpreted her polemical statement: “The subaltern cannot speak.” She narrated the story of her grandmother’s sister who had committed suicide and explained the difference between ‘speak’ and ‘talk’. I was there, sitting in the dark, actively gulping down her stories. She also shared her memories of childhood. I remembered her clearly saying how she had edited a magazine when she was only thirteen. My girlhood memories slowly started to descend on me. I was trying to figure out what I did at the age of 13 and found myself lost amidst my village trees, ponds and open fields. I had hardly heard the word ‘magazine’ at that time.

Later that year, a professor from a prominent university in Malda delivered a talk in my college. There he shared his troublesome experience of teaching. Once he had asked one of his students to write down the name ‘Khitish’ in Bengali. The student could not do it. On the basis of that experience, he tried to compare himself with his student and said, “I am carrying the piece of paper in my bag on which the student wrote the wrong spelling of ‘Khitish’. This is the condition of students nowadays. We were far better.” He never said a single word about how we students could make ourselves better. I really wanted to ask him, “Whose failure you are bearing with you? Is it the failure of the student or the educational system? And what made you feel proud that you were not like the student? Were you not better because you got a better education?” But I could not ask these questions. Actually I am not as brave as I would like to be.

After her speech, I did not make any futile attempt to introduce myself to Spivak like the one fourth of her visitors. I made my way out of the hall quietly. I was immersed in the words that were left unspoken in the hall. When I came out, it was almost 9 pm. The school road was entirely empty and the shops were closed. Perhaps it was a Saturday, a holiday in Raiganj. My thoughts were swallowed up by the piercing guffaws of four middle aged men who were sitting in the facade of a closed shop. I could not think anymore. I had to grapple with the fear of being a woman. The evening ended there, on the road. But the story started. After that evening I began to think where the problem was.

In my village there are four primary schools and we have quite a handful of high schools in Raiganj. But the education is in dire need of improvement. The problem lies in the way we are being taught. When asked about the process of teaching literacy in her school Spivak said, “…I mean literacy and numeracy by themselves are not much, especially when the education that’s available is a very bad education” (Critical Intimacy: An Interview with Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, LARB, JULY 29, 2016). The problem is that we are the children of a bad education and it is simply not our fault. It is this educational system which makes India a seedbed of foul political games. Today, being a student who is badly affected by a bad education, I am asking for ‘quality education’, quality education for all. And I am claiming this on the behalf of those who have never felt the need for quality education; for those who are made to think education is just for exams; also on the behalf of those who are not taught to pose questions to the powerful.

Why it is so?

Sriparna Datta is an undergraduate student studying English Literature at Raiganj Surendranath Mahavidyalaya, Raiganj, West Bengal.


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3 thoughts

  1. “What is the different between Speaks and talks ” explained Sriparna the voice of Gayatri Chakravorty nicely. And I never thought the wards like this way. Very simple subject explained beautiful by Sriparna.


    1. There are a few teachers who are just educational executives, and there are those who recognise and bring out the silent self-unaware potentials from the most mischievous ones, hiding at the last benches.

      I was fortunate to know Adris Biswas who taught me Life beyond classrooms. Couple of months before he hanged himself and left us, he introduced me to the works of Gayatri Chakravorty. And maybe beacuse of that I am more connected with her thoughts and theories.

      Your writing reminded me of all the struggles that a small-town college-goer faces, how desperately our education system requires a repair, and how childishly I was depressed that I couldn’t witness the living legend at my hometown talking about things I care most.


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