Anil Ramdas (1958–2012) was a Dutch-Surinamese writer of Hindustani descent. He migrated to Amsterdam at the age of nineteen, becoming one of the most respected commentators and essayists in the Netherlands. In his work – appearing on television as well as writing for the intellectual magazine De Groene Amsterdammer and the newspaper NRC Handelsblad – he showed himself to be a keen thinker on culture and identity. He committed suicide on his fifty-fourth birthday in 2012. His short life can be read as the restless journey of a writer in search of an all-encompassing answer to questions about civilisation and identity.
The beginning of Ramdas’s career was marked by his unique and unscrupulous views on his own Surinamese and Hindustani culture, and by his unapologetic rejection of antiracism movements. Later, when he scrutinised Dutch society for not resisting strongly enough the rise of populist far-right politics, his work was met with considerably less agreement, and he gradually fell out of fashion. Even though he had always admired western civilisation for its ability to be self-critical, he detected a paradigm shift in 2012 that he could not agree with: ‘During the Rushdie affair a class of intellectuals arose who no longer knew what to do and therefore became very vulnerable to the concept of western superiority.’
Ramdas’s views on multicultural societies were seen more and more, and by a growing section of the intellectual elite, as ‘politically correct complaining’ that was long past its sell-by date. Today, we are seeing how the shifts in the public debate that Ramdas had been identifying since the early nineties have led to an even more hardened political climate and to increased criticism of multicultural societies.
After his death, it was said that the Netherlands, ‘the country that he had loved, and that had rewarded him for that love, now turned its back to him’¹. It was suggested that at a certain point he had fallen ‘outside the spirit of the times’. In an in memoriam in De Groene Amsterdammer, the editor-in-chief, Xandra Schutte, said that Ramdas ‘was stranded in reality’.
It is this ‘reality’ to which Schutte refers that I am particularly curious about. What constitutes this specific reality? What about it made Ramdas shift from hope to despair? Some have said it was a matter of failed ambition combined with alcoholism. However, I’m interested in a different reality from the one depicted by Ramdas’s contemporaries. A reality that is more nuanced and more difficult to measure. A reality, more specifically, that to an extent is shaped by the fact that Ramdas was one of very few people of colour in a predominantly white environment – something that seems to be characteristic of the Netherlands.
When the Black Lives Matters activist Patrisse Cullors visited the Netherlands in 2016, she stated in an interview that she was glad not be living in Holland because ‘Black people here [in the Netherlands] cannot easily escape whiteness’. It’s an issue that Dutch scholars such as Gloria Wekker and Philomena Essed have been researching for a long time. It might be interesting to extend that research and find out how texts like Ramdas’s, which are specifically critical of the Dutch, are read and interpreted in a nation that is undergoing a profound political transformation and that has always been uneasy about racial issues – that has even shown an unwillingness to consider race as a matter of any real significance².
I wonder if it’s true what Cullors said; is it more difficult to escape the dominant gaze and views of the white man in the Netherlands? And if so, what does that mean for the way a black writer like Ramdas unfolds his world to the white public?
Those who read Ramdas’s essays today are struck by the topicality of his words. In his Socrates Foundation lecture of 1997 he wrote: ‘In the past five centuries, it has always been the whites who went into the world. Now the coloured people come to the white world, and few can get used to it. The nervousness of a community like this can silently turn into panic, tension and fear’³.
In his work, Ramdas drew attention to this fear and panic in Dutch society. His own anxiety, however, was kept private. It is the goal of the biographer to unveil the inner world of one’s subject – yet that goal is nearly impossible in the writing of Anil Ramdas’s biography. The challenge in this particular case is to see how the journeys of postcolonial Dutch writers such as Anil Ramdas, develop from an optimistic, humanist and hopeful start, to anxiety and, in the end, to despair. Writing such a biography is ultimately an attempt to depict reality in the way that Ramdas himself would have expected, from any form of literature: to show the world in all its complexity and in all its painful and impossible nuances.
By Karin Amatmoekrim
Karin Amatmoekrim is working on PhD research on the life and work of Anil Ramdas. Her thesis is due to be published in 2021.
(2) Zie o.m. D. Hondius; ‘Race and the Dutch: On the Uneasiness Surrounding Racial Issues in the Netherlands’ in Paradoxes of Cultural Recognition, Sharam Alghasi et al, Ashgate, 2009.