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Provincials, Light and Grass

Sumana Roy—

I’d sometimes wonder whether I’d still be a provincial if I were the only person on this planet. The next immediate thought is—are there provinces on other planets? Are there provincial planets? Is the earth one such province? It has taken so many decades of my life to understand that my first unconscious understanding of the provinceand the provincial and provincialitywas its distance from light. I was still uneducated in the politics of light, that, even if it travelled in straight lines, its pathways were not straight, that it bended, like knees do, when in the presence of power. The words and their reservoirs would come later: ‘enlightenment’ and ‘in the dark’, ‘spotlight’ and ‘in the wings’, and I would, from my own history, gradually come to recognize what a life in the penumbra meant. There were more of us there than those in the ‘limelight’.

My understanding of life has come to me from the natural worldnot uncommon, as I’ve come to see, for those who, because of the lack of books and allied institutions of scholasticism, came to be educated by their immediate surroundings. I have also turned to plants from time to time, since my ethics might have been formed by plant life. Where are the provinces in the body of a tree? Its roots, the far ends of branches, or flowers that fall off? Grass, though, has no provincesthere is equal distribution of attention or neglect in its form. Imagining an ideal world as rhizomatic is to do away with the imbalances of power, of light, of the capital of attention. Will there be provinces in this imagined equitable world?

All of these thoughts come late, after experience. I was born with a congenital cataract in my right eye. That knowledge, it’s actually only a piece of information, doesn’t annotate my vision, the way I have been able to see the world. Not like the 6/6 of those with perfect vision have been able to, I suppose. But I’ve never felt like a victim, never felt deprived of seeing less than others. And so with being a provincialI took this experience of belatedness and waiting, of the reading and artistic habits of those like me to be common, even universal; like we are able to see the contours of our family only after we have come out of the house or from the retreat of our bathroom, I could see this only after I had been able to see the shape of my shadow. I began to see my relatives, those scattered all across the world, some dead but also alive. In books and letters, in their films and songs. The upstart crow in borrowed feathers who had moved from Stratford-upon-Avon to London, Rabindranath Tagore moving from the city to the provinces, two poets who had given their literatures direction, blood and geniusthe directions of their journeys might have been different, but the subsoil of their writing had come from the provinces. Those mocked for their rustic accent, the fathers, Annie Ernaux’s and mine; those writing letters urgently to the far away, returning ‘literature’ to its etymological instinct ‘litterata’; and those whose faith had liberated god by turning him into a provincial.

Race, class, caste, gender, the human and its others. These categories, intellectual as much as they are emotional, have directed our political consciousness and the investigative energy of the humanities for decades now. Why not the provincial? Why hadn’t provincial experience been studied as an intellectual category in any culture? I come to it not with a fault-finding apparatus, not as a victim, but with joy and gratitude for the unique character of life that has been given to provincials.

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree, a work of nonfiction; Missing: A NovelMy Mother’s Lover and Other Stories; and two poetry collections, Out of Syllabus and V.I.P.: Very Important Plant. She teaches at Ashoka University. Provincials: Postcards from the Peripheries is her most recent book with Yale University Press.

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