Meet the Future JAS Editor: A Q&A with Vinayak Chaturvedi

Earlier this year, the Association for Asian Studies began the search for a new Journal of Asian Studies editor, as current editor Jeff Wasserstrom’s second five-year term will conclude in June 2018. The search committee interviewed several applicants and from the finalists selected Vinayak Chaturvedi, associate professor of South Asian history at the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Chaturvedi earned his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in 2001. He is the author of Peasant Pasts: History and Memory in Western India (University of California Press, 2007), as well as numerous academic articles, and editor of Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial (Verso, 2012). He is currently finishing a book on a history of ideas of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar—the intellectual founder of Hindu nationalism. 

Dr. Chaturvedi will become “JAS editor-in-training” in early 2018 and will officially take the reins of the journal on July 1, 2018. A week later, he will chair a special JAS roundtable on Forgotten Geographies at the 2018 AAS-in-Asia conference hosted by Ashoka University in New Delhi, which is currently accepting panel proposals.

The following interview was conducted via email.

MEC: First of all, how did you develop an interest in Asian Studies?

VC: My initial interest in Asian Studies was largely derived out of Marxist debates on capitalism, nationalism, revolution, and peasant resistance. As a first-year graduate student, I was taking classes with Robert Brenner at UCLA on the comparative histories of capitalist development. His insistence on anti-determinism in historical analysis meant that it was important to read widely as a way to compare the differential histories of agrarian change and capitalism. I was already interested in thinking about a project on agrarian history in India. When Partha Chatterjee came to give a lecture on campus, I was particularly struck by the ways that he engaged with Brenner’s arguments for thinking about the links between social property relations under colonialism and peasant movements in South Asia, but also their implications for the rest of Asia and Africa. But this was also the period when Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities was being widely discussed as a way to rethink the conceptualization of nationalism. The idea of peasant nationalism was being debated in a number of fields, as was the conceptualization of peasants as intellectuals. My interest in agrarian studies further drew me to the writings of figures like James Scott and Ranajit Guha. For my Ph.D., I ended up moving to Cambridge to work with Chris Bayly, who was also committed to comparative history. Bayly was not a Marxist, but he reminded his students that historical materialism offered the best explanation for historical change on a global scale. For this reason he also encouraged his students to read beyond regional, national, and temporal boundaries. In many ways, my early work tried to bring together a diverse range of ideas emerging out of the debates within the field of Asian Studies. The fact that I was exposed to the writings of so many Asianists probably had more to do with teachers who were committed to historical materialism than a specific commitment to area studies as such.

MEC: Why did you decide to pursue a career in academia?

VC: The decision to pursue a career in academia was made easier by the fact that several people in my extended family were teachers or academics. My grandmother’s sister completed a Ph.D. in Hindi literature and taught at Delhi University. Her brother had a Ph.D. in Chemistry. My father taught in medical schools in India and the U.S. However, I did not start as a student of history. I studied biology for three years as an undergraduate, before switching to history. While I enjoyed organic chemistry and biochemistry, I disliked my biology classes. Spending an entire summer working in a laboratory convinced me that I preferred the rigor of a different kind of disciplinary work. What a career in academia offered was the time and space to do research. As a result, I read a lot on historical methodology, and I was particularly drawn to the writings of Carlo Ginzburg. There is a lot that he says about the craft of archival research, but what has stayed with me is his argument about the importance of imagination while reading documents. I did not fully understand what this meant until a few years later when I was sitting in the Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai. I found the entire process of research very fulfilling on multiple levels. I suppose that there was a moment in the archive that I decided that this is what I wanted to do as a career.

MEC: Serving as JAS editor is a big job. What about it appealed to you and led you to apply for the position?

VC: I have always considered editorial work as central to being in the academy. This has probably something to do with the fact that the academics whose work has influenced my thinking over the years have served as editors of journals or had an important role in a journal at some point in their careers.  Here I am thinking of individuals like Perry Anderson, Carlo Ginzburg, Ken Pomeranz, Ranajit Guha, and Geoff Eley. The fact that my first publication was my edited volume on the Subaltern Studies project, which was published in association with the New Left Review, helped me to think about the collaborative nature of the work involved in putting together edited volumes and journals. But it also provided me an opportunity to read outside of my areas of research, thereby allowing me to rethink my understanding about theory, methodology, and historiography. This experience has been extremely beneficial for my own intellectual development. I was also fortunate to have been a member of the editorial board of Social History for a number of years. What I learned from the founding editors Keith Nield and Janet Blackman was the importance of beating the boundaries of disciplinary norms, a commitment to intellectual rigor and diversity, and the necessity of encouraging early career scholars. To build on this experience, I was excited about the opportunity to serve as the editor of JAS, a journal that I have been reading since I was a student. I thought it was a great chance to collaborate with scholars working in diverse disciplines. Perhaps most important, it would provide me the chance to learn a lot from my colleagues.

MEC: Although the basic structure of an academic journal is fairly standard—research articles, book reviews, the occasional broad “state of the field” essay—each editor has the opportunity to put his or her personal stamp on the publication. Do you have any ideas about how the JAS might evolve under your watch?

VC:  I am committed to publishing high-quality research across the multiple areas, disciplines, and methodological approaches that make up Asian Studies. I think it is important that JAS continue in its tradition of embracing diversity of thought. There are, of course, challenges to JAS as an area journal that is committed to pluralism of ideas, rather than a journal that is about a specific theory, method, politics, or discipline. What is interesting to me are the possibilities of bringing together scholars who may not be in conversation with each other, despite the fact that they may work on similar themes or issues. Here I have benefitted from having been at UC Irvine, where my former colleagues Bin Wong and Ken Pomeranz were instrumental in bringing together scholars working on India and China to have discussions about wide-ranging topics. Jeff Wasserstrom has continued to encourage these debates more recently. The outcome of these discussions was quite productive in allowing the scholars to learn from each other. I would like to think that a regular forum around texts, keywords, theories, and events would be a step towards building greater engagement within Asian Studies. On a more practical level, I am also committed to encouraging early career scholars to publish in JAS. But this also means that there has to be a commitment within the field to review quickly, so that articles may be published quickly, especially for those colleagues who are concerned about tenure.

MEC: Finally, what’s one piece of advice—JAS-specific or not—that you would give to a young scholar thinking about a career in Asian Studies or just starting graduate school?

VC: I have found that the spirit of intellectual pluralism is what is most appealing about the academy. As a result, I think it is really important to read beyond one’s own specialization of time and space—and methodology. Further, there is something to be said about actually reading authors with whom you disagree—or with whom you think you disagree. In the best-case scenario, there will be an unintended outcome that opens directions for studying new ideas. The worst that will happen is that you will be certain that you were right in the first place.