Adhira Mangalagiri. States of Disconnect: The China-India Literary Relation in the Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 2023. 296 pp.
Review by Daniel Lapinski
22 November 2023
How does one conduct comparative study under hostile conditions, when (as is now the case across the globe) nation-states retreat inward and sever, reject, or deem undesirable transnational connections? This question, as much an ethical as a methodological one, lies at the heart of Adhira Mangalagiri’s excellent first monograph. Through careful and incisive readings of Hindi- and Mandarin-language literature produced during episodes of disconnect (her term for a “crisis of transnationalism,” when the nation-state turns away from national others [p. 1]) in the relation between India and China over the first six decades of the twentieth century, States of Disconnect presents a compelling case for using the tools of comparative literature to examine these situations and find in them new means of engaging openly and ethically with the other.
Mangalagiri argues that disconnect is not merely the antithesis of connection, but a distinct condition that “gives rise to its own particular logics of relation” (p. 193). It is thus “as much a crisis of aesthetics and hermeneutics as it is one of collective political life,” for which literary texts offer productive sites of engagement (p. 2). This realization permits two important interventions—one disciplinary, the other methodological. The first is to widen the scope of humanistic scholarship. If, as Mangalagiri observes, humanistic disciplines have tended to focus on “‘friendly’” exchanges between states and peoples while relegating “‘unfriendly’” interactions to the social sciences, attention to disconnect in literature brings these conflictual connections into the ambit of humanistic study (p. 19). Her second intervention is in developing critical reading strategies for apprehending disconnect ethically. She argues that “attending to the affordances of literature, the intricacies of imagination and interpretation, makes possible an ethics of transnational relation when none seems at hand” (p. 2). This ethical approach involves reading practices that reaffirm “a commitment to the nation’s others” by directly confronting the challenges disconnect poses to the open ethos of comparative work without “reproducing either the exclusionary logic of the nation-state or the unequal systems of globalization” (p. 22).
To this end, Mangalagiri presents three complexes—the “‘states’” of friction, ellipsis, and contingency—as the beginnings of a critical lexicon for studying disconnect (p. 3). As explicated in her conclusion, “A Comparatist’s Guide to Disconnect” (essential reading for any interested literary scholar), these concepts have a dual nature, describing both different typological conditions of political disconnect and critical practices for engaging them literarily. The five intervening chapters illustrate this approach through case studies of fractious moments in the twentieth-century India-China relation. For example, chapter 1 explores friction through a reading of the Indian policeman as depicted in works from “semicolonial” Shanghai: even as these works’ antagonistic representations of this despised character type cut against discourses of pan-Asian solidarity, his significance for and undesired intimacy with a developing Chinese sense of self permitted, through literature, marginal voices and transnational considerations to participate in pressing debates within Chinese literary and political life (p. 31). Subsequent chapters address similar issues as seen in the evolving meaning of China in the Hindi modernist Agyeya’s prison writings (chapter 2), the complications of India-China cultural diplomacy in the 1950s (chapter 3), reactions to the 1962 Sino-Indian War (chapter 4), and the unrealized correspondences between Lu Xun and Premchand, the respective progenitors of modern Chinese and Hindi literature (chapter 5). Through these investigations, Mangalagiri convincingly displays the interpretive possibilities of her approach while also guiding the reader through texts and historical moments that had previously gone understudied or ignored by Anglophone scholarship.
In this way, States of Disconnect offers a highly original contribution to the study of Indian and Chinese history and literature. Its novel methodological approach to a gravely relevant but previously underexamined topic will make this book of great interest to literary scholars. Mangalagiri’s engaging but often dense prose and more radical textual readings may prove a slight hurdle for nonspecialists, but students of South and East Asian history and culture will nevertheless find much to appreciate in her accounts of neglected histories and personages, as well as her elegant renderings of passages from many formerly untranslated Hindi and Chinese texts into English. Deeply serious in its disciplinary-cum-ethical commitments and confident in the possibilities afforded by critical reading to work through and against tendencies that would undermine the aims of comparison, States of Disconnect is ultimately as inspiring as it is generative.