Musings Post Colonies, Edited by Maswood Akhter

Contributors

Ipsita Sengupta currently heads the Department of English at South Calcutta Girl’s College, Calcutta University. She is in final stages of her PhD, and is going to submit her doctoral thesis shortly at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. In 2009 she was awarded the Australia-India Council Fellowship and pursued research in different Australian universities. Ipsita has interest in Indian English Writing as well as in Australian Studies, especially Australian literary encounters with India, and in these areas she has published a number of papers in several reputed journals. Besides, Ipsita had been a student of music for five years, and the degree of Sangeet Bisharad was conferred on her. She is also well-versed in Bangla Literature.

 Md. Mominul Islam is Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Rajshahi University, Bangladesh. He earned his BA (Hons.)  and MA in English Literature from the same University. He is currently pursuing his doctoral research on the works of Amitav Ghosh and Orhan Pamuk. His areas of interest include British Romantic Poetry, Indian English Fiction, Comparative Literature and Literary Theory. Mominul has published papers on John Keats and Amitav Ghosh.

 Md. Sakhawat Hossain is currently an assistant professor at the Department of English, Rajshahi University. He obtained his BA (Hons.)  and MA in English Literature from the same University. His areas of interest include Modern English Fiction and Drama, Critical Theory, Cultural Studies and Postcolonial Writings. Sakhawat has an extensive reading on Joseph Conrad.

Fahmida Rahman completed her BA (Hons.) and MA in English Literature from Rajshahi University. She taught English at the Southern University and worked as an instructor for TOT Programme of the American Embassy in Bangladesh. Now she teaches at the Department of English, Begum Rokeya University, Bangladesh. Her areas of interest include Twentieth Century British Literature and American Poetry, Indian English Fiction, Western Philosophy and the Classics. Fahmida is currently pursuing her MPhil research on the representation of marginality in Anita Desai’s fiction.

Najnin Islam has completed her MA and MPhil in English Literature from Jadavpur University, India. She is currently a PhD Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences of the same university. Diaspora Studies, Australian Literature, Literary Theory, Gender Studies and Ethnography are some of her interest areas. Najnin teaches English at Prafulla Chandra College, Calcutta University. Besides teaching and research, she writes poetry, and has recited her poems at the Writers’ Meet.

Murimi Gaita attended Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya for his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees where he got Bachelor of Education in English and Kiswahili, and Master of Arts in Literature. He earned his PhD from the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.  He presently works in the Literature Department of Kenyatta University. Murimi has been involved extensively in drama productions, and has special interest in postcolonial studies, folklore and storytelling performance.

Namrata Jain earned her bachelor and masters in English Literature from University of Delhi and has submitted her PhD thesis on Contemporary Indian Theatre at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.  She is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Miranda House, Delhi University.  Namrata is a poet, painter and script-writer. She is associated with Pandies’ Theatre, an activist theatre group. She paints and does the artwork for Pandies’. She has recently read her poetry at Kurukshetra University, India at the Writers’ Meet.

Abdullah Al Mamun is Associate Professor of English at Rajshahi University. He had graduated from the same University. He has specialised in Literary Theory and Translation Studies, and has published a number of articles in these areas both in Bangla and English. For his doctoral research he is dealing with the issues of culture, politics and authenticity in the theory and practice of Translation. Mamun has a vast reading in Bangla literature, and he writes poems in Bangla some of which have appeared in different literary magazines.

Muhammad Tariq-ul-Islam is Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Rajshahi University. He completed her BA (Hons.) and MA in English Literature from the same University. He is particularly interested in Cultural Studies, and in fictional narratives from the British and American canons as well as writings in other Englishes. Besides, Tariq has expertise in Translation Theory and Practice.

Maswood Akhter is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of English, Rajshahi University.  He graduated from the University of Dhaka, and completed his doctoral research at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is interested in New Literatures in English, especially fictional narratives from the South Asian Diaspora, on which he has published several papers in reputed journals. At present he is working on an anthology of Bangladeshi Writings in English.

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English in Bangladesh: An Interview with Professor Aali Areefur Rehman

Professor Aali Areefur Rehman has been teaching at the Rajshahi University of Bangladesh since 1976, and today, he is one of the most respected English professors of the country. He is one of those rare few who would, with nonchalance, resist the lure of  an “international career” that he could have very well built up for himself at least at a par with his (less capable) contemporaries. He refused to tread the usual track.

Professor Aali had joined the undergraduate programme in the Department of English at Rajshahi University in 1969. After his graduation from the same university, he went on a Commonwealth scholarship for another Masters in Shakespeare Studies from the University of Birmingham, UK. For his doctoral thesis Professor Aali prepared a Critical Edition of Jeremy Tailor’s Holy Living (1650) which he submitted at the University of British Columbia, Canada in 1984. He was a Fulbright research fellow at Maryland University, USA in 1989.

Professor Aali’s outstanding scholarship and analytical ability is well-evidenced in his PhD thesis as well as in the research papers he has produced. His literary pieces, short fiction in particular, reveal that he has good hands at creative writing too. However, he has not written much. While he attributes this to his “natural” laziness, those who know him would tell that this immensely capable writer has a deep-rooted reluctance to enter the aggressively publicised coterie of (English) professionals. In his own individual scholarly way he resisted this intellectual superficiality; he refused to fit in with this core culture in the current academia: the publication-obsession.

This reluctant writer, however, is an “indiscriminate” reader, a real thinker and philosopher. He is interested in diverse branches of knowledge: history, philosophy, comparative religion and so on. He is also a keen observer of contemporary life and society, culture and politics, and is uncannily update on the recent developments in literary writings and critical scholarship. But then, he is not Browning’s Grammarian; he still has a child’s curiosity in diverse things he sees and feels around him, one being latest technological gadgets; he often talks about their impacts on and implications for different generations. However, though he is well conversant in the new technologies, he is not really their loyal enthusiast; he rather pre-empts that, even for us, the “backward” third-worldians, time is not very far when the idea of luxury will not be to have a laptop, rather a fresh roti on a breakfast table.

As part of the generation of the 1940s and 50s, and having been brought up and educated in “the dying but not yet dead glow of Empire,” he seems to find his belonging, his identity in a twilight zone: he is perhaps “the last of the colonials rather than the first of the post-colonials.” Regarding English curricula and pedagogy Professor Aali seems to hold rather a classical position: while he acknowledges the necessity of broadening and popularising what he anticipates to be an increasingly waning discipline through newer courses like media and cultural studies, translation studies and so on, he, nevertheless, insists on retaining a core curriculum of the classic English canon, which, he thinks, should be mandatory for undergraduate students in all English studies departments. In this interview, he has made some predictions regarding what course this field may take in future, and has also suggested some directions regarding what course it should take.

               For the interviewers this was clearly a hard-earned success when they were finally able to make this complete unwilling-to-be-published English professor succumb to interview-injuries for the first time in his more than four-decade long career as a scholar-writer.

M.A. & T. I. : English has been among us for centuries and it is going to be with us for obvious reasons. With this presence of English in perspective how would you describe English Studies (ES) in Bangladesh –as “studying English” or as “English ways of study”?

Prof. Aali: May I begin by saying, first of all, that I’ve never been interviewed before and I feel terribly uncomfortable with interviews?  I think interviews make you feel more important than you really are, and in trying to live up to that importance you let your tongue run away with you and slip into inconsistencies and platitudes and affectation and what not – into infidelities, in short, to fact and reason that may come back to haunt you or blast your public image or, worse, prick the ego that you have spent years in nurturing.  But since I’ve been persuaded into answering questions, I suppose I must.

            English studies is “studying English” or “English ways of study?”  Well, studying English, obviously I would say, and English Literature specifically and things connected to it.  Though of course we can think of not just English studies but our whole system of education as basically an English (i.e., British) way of study. Our schools and universities, the subjects we study in them, the titles of the degrees we get from them, have been inherited from the British. I think we are only now beginning to emerge from these western ways, changing to newer ways – though I rather think that most educators of my age would see this not so much as simple change but as a regression or fall in standards.  The perception is that when we were more English or western in our ways of study, we had more rigorous standards.  But of course, to think like this is to be too simplistic as well as looking back to “the good old days;” for while there certainly has been a fall in standards, it cannot be ascribed to “ways” of doing things, western and eastern, foreign and native and so on. Most people of my generation will probably agree at the same time that there has been a very palpable decline in educational standards all over the world, even in western nations, and not just in our country.

I don’t know if it’s so very obvious that English is going to be with us for the foreseeable future.  I think it is possible that English might very well NOT be with us as an international and commercial language.  Western countries are already beginning to learn some Chinese.  Where we are concerned, we sell to the West – our exports go mostly to the US and to the EU – but buy, like the rest of the world, from China.  Our businessmen are soon going to be demanding Chinese language courses.  And they will be quite right to do so. China will soon be the new super power in all sorts of ways and we might be impelled to learn Chinese for the same reason that we learn English now.  But yes, joking aside, the English language in some form – though perhaps not as English studies – will indeed be with us for a considerable time into the future. For English has infiltrated, in bits and pieces, into Bangladeshi life and language to such an extent that it will be hard to reverse the process.  Almost all levels of society in our country use English words without being really conscious that they are using a foreign tongue.  In fact, there is so much English in modern colloquial Bangla that it is needless to give examples.  One of my favourite examples, nevertheless, of how English has been retained in Bangladesh is the names and sign-boards of Bangladeshi small shops and businesses and various kinds of offices.  By far the majority among them are written in Bangla script that is actually transliterated English.  “Sunshine Medical Hall” is 100 percent English while “Uttara Shopping Centre” is two thirds English, others may be English in various other proportions, but they are all in Bangla script and very, very few people think this mixture of languages odd.  Many other descriptive phrases in the language we speak today are unalterably English.  I don’t believe, for example, that I have ever heard anyone refer to an apartment or a flat as anything other than an apartment or a flat.  Imports and borrowings from English have actually grown since independence, although code-switching – using two languages together – is actually declining. Fewer people these days, it seems to me, begin a sentence in Bangla and end it in English, or vice versa, as used to be common when I was a student.  Code switching has declined, while the integration of English into Bangla in bits and pieces or words and phrases has grown, I think, because it is really English that has declined.  It is easier and more natural today to pick up single words than use a whole grammatically correct English sentence in one’s discourse.  It would be interesting to conduct research on this linguistic and cultural phenomenon, and I am sure someone somewhere is already doing it.

M.A. & T. I. : Can ES claim any significant position against the linguicism – the almost absolute political and cultural dominance – of Bangla? Could you differentiate your experience as an individual user of this language, we mean English, from that of an academic practitioner dealing in it?

 Prof. Aali: I don’t think English Studies can claim a significant position of any kind in relation to the dominance of Bangla.  Bangla and Bengali culture dominate because this country is after all Bangladesh, almost a mono-cultural and certainly a mono-linguistic country.  We do not, in Bangladesh, have a number of languages competing for ascendancy, as once was the case when we were part of Pakistan.  English – the language as well as the study of its ancillaries – is of course subordinate to Bangla and the national culture. What I mean is, for everyone in the Bangladesh academy, it is the study of everything else relating to Bangladesh that is far more important than the study of English.  If English is at all important in the academy then it is as the language for the study of a host of other things and subjects, and I rather think it is more important in the sciences than in the humanities.  In the other disciplines it is of course a mere instrument, a tool, and not much else.  No scientist or economist, that is, need ever bother to read Shakespeare or Milton or attempt to develop a superior prose style for the purposes of his/her profession.  And indeed that is how most of our academics use English; they learn the language only far enough to be able to research their topics and to produce a learned paper on the topic.  What we call English Studies (and I am here excluding language learning) does not enter into any consideration at all. And I might add, perhaps, that a very little English is sufficient to produce a learned paper on other subjects.  I would think that the only place or profession in which you need considerably higher levels of English is diplomacy or the foreign service, for obvious reasons – although I’ve often noticed (from news broadcasts and the very occasional personal contact) that most of our diplomats do get by excellently well on very little English.

How would I differentiate between using the English language as an individual and as a professional?  Well, I suppose I do use English rather a lot.  Most of my reading is in English, I write personal letters in English and enjoy doing so, I think I speak best in English (I mean communicate, of course, and not my fluency), I switch to English whenever I am stuck for an appropriate word or expression, and I do a variety of other things in English.  Think, dream, curse and abuse, for example.  Some part, though not all, of my prayers are in English.  And oh yes, I can sing too – untunefully but bravely – in English.  Clearly, as this short list shows, I have carried English a little too far in my individual or private life.  The matter, however, as both Sherlock Holmes and Jeeves would have said, is susceptible of a ready explanation.  My excessive dependence, let me call it, on English is due to the fact that my early education was in English medium schools.  Moreover, my educational career before my SSC was an interrupted one and somewhat unsystematic.  I only attended school for around five years of my life, including a year of kindergarten, and as a result studied mostly at home, and mostly by myself without a teacher or tutor before taking my SSC as a private candidate.  English became the language of the education I gave myself in my at-home studies and self-selected reading. It was also the language that I picked up automatically from life around me: during my boyhood and youth English was heard and seen to a much greater degree than it is today, in public as well as in private. Thus it happened that much of my mental life, so to speak, is even now in English. In this, of course, I am not alone; many thousands of my contemporaries across all the countries of South Asia I would say are much the same.  As part of the generation of the nineteen-forties and fifties, we are perhaps the last of the colonials rather than the first of the post-colonials, brought up and educated in the dying but not yet dead glow of Empire.

My use of the language in my professional field is as I described academic English earlier; it is a tool or an instrument in a particular discipline as well as part of the requirements of my employment as a university teacher.  It is also, of course, a particular kind of English: literary English, lit-crit English, a university seminar, classroom or public-lecture argot which I was once eager to emulate but am not particularly fond of today.  I had to learn and even master this English, needless to say, in order to gain formal qualifications like the MA and PhD, but I no longer enjoy either reading it or writing it.  Though I realise, at the same time, that I must have put in so much effort in learning that kind of idiom, or jargon, if you will, that it has become extremely difficult to unlearn, to shed it, and cultivate instead a simpler, more natural style of writing and class-room speech. I haven’t yet managed to do so but still keep trying!

But the relationship between the individual’s English and professional English?  Let me just say that it’s a great help for the professional if his personal English is well developed.  If this is not the case then a gap opens up between the language you have to use in your profession and the language you habitually think in, which is not a comfortable thing to live with.

M.A. & T. I.: How would you contextualise English studies in Bangladesh, in other words, how it relates to the mainstream culture and way of life? How would you assess the dichotomy between academic study and realpolitik?

Prof. Aali: English Studies anyone would say has very little to do with the Bangladeshi way of life.  There was once a time when you would occasionally meet well-educated people who were steeped in the literature (and the humanities generally) of English and who attempted to live by the ideas they thought they found in it – who were, to adapt a description once used of both Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, deshi nationalists and English gentlemen at one and the same time.  To attempt an impromptu and incomplete categorisation, they were sceptics in religion, secular in politics, earnest in their attitudes, unbending in their social morals, believers in material advancement and the superiority of western civilisation.  But some were quite possibly, deep down, insecure in their beliefs.  I say insecure because many such people I have known in my life (and often admired), including some of my own relatives, the majority of whom had grown up in colonial times, usually threw off their acquired habits and returned in the end to the culture in which they were born, quite often with a sense of guilt and repentance, and wishing to atone for their earlier indulgence in foreign ways.  A very few trod, unsteadily and sometimes erratically it seemed to me, a middle path between the values of their westernised education and the ideals of their native culture.  I don’t know yet if I am myself more than a little like them!

If in the case of English studies there is a dichotomy between academic study and real life it is one that cannot be removed.  English studies is a profession, a job, a livelihood (or, for a student, just a subject to be studied) that relates minimally to the life one lives – like the paleontologist’s study of dinosaurs.

M.A. & T. I. : Has this field of study been in any formation or buildup of any kind, say, like national consciousness or any ideology of its own?

 Prof. Aali: In the nineteenth century, perhaps.  “English” became an academic discipline for the first time ever in British territories in India. It was once a historical commonplace, fostered by British and Indian historians alike, that the introduction of English studies or “English education” in the mid-nineteenth century led to the infusion of all sorts of new ideas that reinvigorated the moribund Indian cultures of the time. Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s writings, The Bengal Renaissance, Young Bengal, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s Aligarh movement, the emergence of the Indian National Congress and its rival the Muslim League, among other developments, all were said to have derived from the “new learning” of English education which resulted eventually in the awakening of nationalism, democracy, self-government and ultimately the demand for and attainment of political independence.   Traditional, “Oriental” education, based on the dead classical languages, was declared to be backward while education in English was seen as ushering in confidence, prosperity, modernity and freedom.  But the post-colonial perspective in cultural studies, developed in the second half of the twentieth century, showed how English education, like the other “great gifts” that the British had given to the subcontinent such as the civil service, the railways and the legal code, was not without its darker side in intention and had eclipsed and destroyed much that was good in the native system that it had usurped.  Today, nationalists and ultra-nationalists alike deplore both the passive helplessness and the ignorant enthusiasm with which our ancestors accepted English education – although they do not, it is true, seriously attempt to sweep away the existing remnants of the system and some of them even speak from within it, in English against English.

In Bangladesh, a post post-colonial state built by linguistic nationalism, we have I think used English as one of the things, like Urdu or the Pakistani two-nation theory, that we can define ourselves against: we have, that is, tried to build our national consciousness in opposition to it.  English studies has always been foreign while we have tried, especially in the last sixty or so years, to be unambiguously native.  Or at least that is how most of us try to see ourselves. What you call our linguicism, a single dominant national language and almost all-pervading culture, has helped in strengthening this perspective and establishing its legitimacy.

M.A. & T. I. : English is now described as having been successfully appropriated by writers from diverse locations and proliferation of writings in English by non- English writers has given rise to the concept of world Englishes. Where do we stand in this scenario? In other words, how or where does ES locate us in world Englishes?

 

Prof. Aali: Although efforts are being made, by enthusiasts at home and wellwishers overseas, to put us in the map of world Englishes, I think we are in a decided backwater.  English is read here, it is true, we have departments of English in our universities, we hold conferences on English Studies, we have a small English press, we publish a few English titles, we occasionally use English as an official language, but this is all on a really teeny-tiny scale.  I may be wrong, but I don’t think any English publication, imported or locally published, would make a profit of any commercially substantial level – not even if it’s the remarkable adventures of someone like Harry Potter or his successors.  It is true again, that we do have one or two novelists and writers in the likes of Adib Khan and Tahmima Anam, but I would be willing to wager a small sum that they have been read by more people abroad than here in their own country.  English in South Asia is very much an Indian operation; Bangladesh is not a consumer yet, nor much of a producer.  At present, it seems to me, all that we can say about English in our country is that we have lots of students willing to study it as a subject, primarily to learn the language for its career prospects (jobs as teachers) and secondly for its snob value – which arise precisely because there is so little of it in the country.  This is not to say that English learning has gone down in the country – there are many, many young people around today (graduates of the new English medium schools perhaps) who write and speak the language far better than I did when I was their age in the “good old days.”  What the future holds for aspiring Bangladeshi English writers is a little difficult to say at present, perhaps they will find fit audience though few in their own country, or perhaps have their names blown back from the lips of fame far overseas.  The latter, I think, is more probable than the former just at present.

M.A. & T. I. : To what extent does this field lend itself to the concerns or contestations of postcolonialism? Specially as we are a former colony?

Prof. Aali: Not being very well up in postcolonialist theory, I don’t know if I can knowledgably answer this question. But one of the things with which postcolonialism concerns itself is vestiges of colonialism, in the ex-coloniser’s country or that of the colonised. The ways in which the English language has survived in Bangladesh after the departure of the British, even in a minuscule part of the population, its quite undeserved prestige as an academic subject, among other things, are what postcolonialists can come to grips with in this part of the world.

M.A. & T. I.: How would you respond to the thrust given on ELT in the arena of ES in Bangladesh?

Prof. Aali: Well, I suppose it’s a sensible thing to teach the English language rather than its literature for the simple reason that the language is still of some use to us while literature isn’t.  Reading English literature is pure self-indulgence while learning language has at least some practical value. I was myself once, after an initial period of aloofness from the idea and averse to its entry to our departments of English, an advocate of ELT.  This was back in the late nineteen-eighties and early nineties when students were entering university with very limited skills in English and I and many of my colleagues were wondering at the rationality of attempting to teach literature to students who couldn’t really read and understand the language in which it was written.   It seemed to me at the time that teaching language might be a more fulfilling and rewarding experience for both ourselves and our students than the kind of literature teaching we were doing.  If students actually emerged from the university with a skill that they had not possessed when they entered it, the ability to read, speak and write in acceptable, useable English, it would be a most satisfying achievement for teachers and students alike.  And if we could, at the same time also make them read the literature of the language and teach them how to use their analytical and critical faculties, develop their innate intellectual abilities, we would come close to offering real education rather than what I have called self-indulgence.  For it would have been the skills that they learned in university – ways of learning a language, ways of analysing and evaluating a cultural product, the skill of applying one’s mind to the external phenomena that is a literary text – that would have stood them in good stead in their future careers and their lives than the mere pleasure of reading Shelley or Tennyson.

But the ELT programmes which all of our Departments of English took up as early as the mid-nineteen seventies and which are still continuing – the degrees, projects, conference and training junkets, for example – have not, it seems to me, made much of a difference so far. Our students aren’t being taught English more efficiently, nor are they learning it through better pedagogical ways, than formerly – at least, that is my impression; language teachers outside the university may have different opinions.  Moreover, the discipline, if it can be called that, of ELT seems to have become not a means to an end, but an end in itself.  Instead of studying ELT to become language teachers and then going on to teach language courses, our students seem to be studying ELT in order to teach ELT in their turn; i.e., they are training to train more trainers.  Programmes and courses in ELT seem to be proliferating, but not many language courses.  I hope I’m wrong about this, I hope there is a good deal of just plain English language teaching also going on and it’s just that I don’t see much of it or its results.  And I hope too that the time will come when our present-day young graduates will give all this good hard think and set things to rights.

M.A. & T. I.: Many English departments in the post colonies are increasingly challenging the centrality of the British and American canons and the syllabuses of the present day English departments, in India for example, are putting more emphasis on accommodating literatures in English produced in different non-English countries. What is your personal take on this? And what would you like to suggest for English Departments of Bangladesh in this regard?

Prof. Aali:  Well, what you describe is certainly happening, and not just in India.  Even Britain and the United States have been teaching “other English literatures” for a long time now– but, to begin with, I don’t know how much of this kind of literature is “produced,” as you said, in non-English countries.  The pattern for such literature seems to be that writers produce maybe their first works in their own non-English country but look for a publisher elsewhere.  Writers in our South Asian countries still don’t “arrive” until they are published in some authentically English country – usually England.  This was the pattern in the days of Empire (even in places like Australia and Canada) and still is to some extent – though maybe the Indian publishing industry and the English-reading public there may be on the verge of changing it in the next few years. This was how the first greats in Indian English literature became famous, R.K Narayan, for example, or Nirad Chaudhuri, and this is the pattern that most of the rest have followed (though of course today the pattern has been added to in that the writer follows the book as well, once it is published, by migrating to London, New York or Sydney).  By pointing this out I don’t mean to say that this is a bad thing. After all, good writers always want to find good publishers, and even today publishers with the largest and widest reach are western ones and it makes sense to go and live in a place where you are nearer to publishers and literary agents and so on.  But it is partly the place, the publisher and the reception by the literary establishment of foreign countries that determines what is studied seriously in the universities whether there or here.  Other countries’ literature in English is therefore not entirely non-English but is profoundly affected by the literature and publication mores of English-speaking countries.

It has been many years since I last visited a British or US university and I can’t claim very close personal knowledge about what’s being done there in recent times, but judging principally from examples of what gets published, I rather think that in the US “other English literatures” are actually read and studied under the category of ethnic  literature  – for example, a novel by a Chinese-American woman about her Chinese  background or one by an Indian-American with a South Asian theme and setting and so on.  This is true about the UK too: Monica Ali is actually a native of the UK but had come to know Bangladeshi immigrant ways from her father’s experiences as an immigrant there, which is what she wrote about in her first book.  Nadeem Aslam – to take another name at random – has been a Pakistani immigrant in England for more than two-thirds of his life. Some time ago I read a comment by a Pakistani writer – I seem to remember it was Mohammad Hanif – who, on a visit to Pakistan from the UK where he now lives, said very candidly that Asian writers based in the West must not forget that they are only read because of the exoticity they purvey about their homelands and, therefore, in order to continue writing with local knowledge they should come back  periodically to their former homes to prime themselves on what is happening and what is changing in the country they left so that their work can be felt to be more authoritative and authentic.  Not all ethnic writers are so honest about their work, but what he said is obviously very true.  Think about the best known of all such writers – V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie – who have all made their homes in the West but whose best known works are almost always about their own original homelands.  What they do is, once again, by no means a bad thing – literature too after all a business and no one can overlook the economics of writing and bookselling. All professional writers, native or immigrant wish to write about what will be read, what will sell – war and cruelty in Afghanistan and Iraq, women standing up to mullahs in Iran, and things like that seem to be the current favourites, just as some time ago Gandhi’s India used to be.  They provide writers with a living, and publishers too look at much the same things when they decide to put their money on an aspiring author, and these writers are no different.  Maybe I’m generalising a little too much, but the point I’m trying to get to, in this rather long winded way, is that not all “ethnic,” or “Commonwealth ,” or “other English literature” produced by non-English people are all that much “other.”  The language and the ways in which this literature is produced is still English (or western) enough to justify its inclusion in Departments and even canons of English.

What do I think about it all personally?  Well, I think if an English studies department of a university wishes to be a real English studies department it will not challenge the centrality of the British canon.  Nothing in an English studies programme should challenge the core classics of British literature – by which I mean the better known and read works produced by English writers from the Renaissance down to the end of the nineteenth century.  The entire extent of this canon need not be taught of course, but representative works and authors from this period should always remain in the curriculum of any English studies programme. And the reason is simple – Other Englishes exist because of the original English and what is produced in Other English owes some debt or other, in form or rhetoric, overtly or reflexively, to what has gone before.  The common reader may pick up an Other English book and start reading, and like it, and may know little or nothing of what lies behind it, but the English student should always be conscious of the tradition, the history, the influences that have gone into the book’s production.

Maybe there’s another point, or should I call it just a thought, that I could express here, though it actually needs much more space and time than you or I have right now.  This point is that Other English works of any genre are read – I can’t really say they’re popular–in our country because, in reality, students and scholars are moving away from the cultivation and the privileging of English literature, away from the reverence and respect that they paid to it formerly.  Just as most things western today – cultural, artistic, social – are losing the prestige they once had, the esteem in which English Literature was once held is diminishing.  Yes, some contemporary pot-boilers and bestsellers in English may have flashes of popularity and may be sold on the streets of Dhaka in pirated editions and translations, but the proportion of their readership, and of books published in English, is not what it once was in relation to Bangla bestsellers of the time. The fact that most foreign books like these get translated immediately is another indication that the English readership is on a steep decline; it shows that most people would rather read the Bangla versions than the originals, even though the translation may be unauthorised, inaccurate or incomplete.  On our campuses and in our classes Dickens and Trolloppe and Wordsworth and Shelley, and the others of what in yesteryears was the busy train of English classics, fail to please and are a bore to read compared to the great as well as emerging names of Bangla literature.  Most students who enter the English Department with a love of literature – not necessarily English literature – actually read English in translation (when they are reading for pleasure and not cramming for an exam). And when these same students become English teachers or professionals they engage in the activity of translation because that is the next best thing to actually working in Bangla.  South Asian literature in English, or literature in other Englishes, comes next to translation because this is still – to stretch things a bit – by and about “ourselves” and not foreign bores (though it has been my experience that many of our students, especially those who are well up in Bangla, consider English by Bangladeshi writers to be something of a faux or pseudo literature). The popularity (or perhaps I should call it the toleration) of other Englishes on local themes and local subjects therefore is a reflection, in a way, of the typical reader’s love of his or her own literature and own culture and they look upon it with sometimes a jaundiced and sometimes merely an amused eye.  The point I’m trying to make here is that the sun is at last beginning to set on English literature as a prestigious, popular subject. This is probably true in England and the United States as well: I remember reading, some time ago, an article by an American academic on the decline of the humanities in America and especially that of English.  Some part of the cause of this decline, if I remember correctly, he traced to the new generation of immigrants of non-European origins who are now entering university and to whom the cultural centrality of English and American literary works was questionable.  In the subcontinent too it is the new generation that is making its own value judgements rather than accepting that of its elders.  English departments in the immediate future will continue to be filled, but that will simply be due to the paucity of seats and places in our universities—places in any subject will be filled – but the level of students’ interest in and enjoyment of classic English literature will continue to fall. English may be presented as, and seem to be, popular and prestigious but students will be more interested in a marketable English degree, somehow acquired, and not in English itself. I wonder if it is this attitude, this phenomenon that is true post-coloniality?  For it is, after all, a final shaking off of the effects and aftereffects of colonialism.  With reference to what we were talking about earlier, the possibility of Bangladeshi writing in English, it is perhaps easier to imagine (for me, at any rate) the withering away of writing in English in our country.  Which will, of course, as some could argue, not be a bad thing at all, neither a cultural nor an artistic loss; what English will lose Bengali will gain and we will get to see, instead of the inauthentic, pseudo literature of BWE, a flowering and a burgeoning of Bangla literature.  But to return to what I was trying to argue: I wonder if the inclusion of Other Englishes into English curricula (whether here, in South Asia generally, or in America) is a kind of reaction by the departments to their students’ loss of interest in classic English studies, an attempt to show that there is more to “English” than the tired old classics – in the same way as theory, sociological and political approaches were invented in 1970s and 80s for the sake of variety and renewal. If so, I think the idea works in a country like India – and even then, I think, more in some regions of India than in others – because India has itself become a producer of a vigorous Other English literature.  I’m not sure if it will work here in Bangladesh to the same extent.

However, having said all this, I will still say that, for our country, I would always argue that if English departments do continue to exist and function in our universities they should insist on retaining a core curriculum of the classic English canon, which should be mandatory for undergraduate students.  At the same time, Other Englishes shouldn’t be treated with disdain simply because they are Other; they should be given the courtesy, if not the respect, of a place in the curriculum as an option for students.

M.A. & T. I. : What direction in future, do you think, ES in general and English Departments in particular, will take in Bangladesh?

Prof. Aali: I think I may have provided an answer to this question in my rambles just now.  It’s quite possible that the English Department and what is taught in it may become less and less relevant in Bangladesh and may ultimately find itself something like the classics, the Departments of Arabic or Persian or Pali and so on.  Or it may be merged with say something like the Department of Modern Languages, and its professionals may simply teach the language rather than everything associated with the language as now. If you react with horror and dismay at this prospect perhaps, as young English professionals yourselves, you may like to try a broadening, deepening and popularising of the discipline in much the same way as professionals in other countries did with the inclusion of theory and all the other fads.  One of the ways, that I toy with sometimes in my mind, which can broaden it to suit our own interests is to bring within the frontiers of English Studies everything that has been written in the language in our country, or in South Asia generally.  English in that sense will become a study of the past and the present of our country through the texts that have been produced in it since the coming of the Europeans.  Instead of confining ourselves only to the canon of English literature, whether the classic British and American or the present world Englishes, we would then be studying, and perhaps translating, all kinds of English texts – and I mean all kinds of texts – that have ever been produced with serious intentions in this country or its neighborhood. Sounds awfully like post-colonialism, I know, but postcolonialism could actually be only one of the many other approaches possible, the most obvious one, being the simple historical one, unearthing and bringing to light texts and documents buried for four hundred years. I mention this as a possibility, but perhaps the future will chart its own course, or the discipline perhaps will be guided into fruitful waters under the guiding hands of a new generation of earnest young professionals like you. (Maswood Akhter and Muhammad Tariq-ul-Islam )

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Anita Desai’s Voices in the City: A Critical Study

In a 1979 interview with Yashodhara Dalmia, Desai observed that she seeks to construct “characters who are not average but have been driven into some extremity of despair and so turned against or made a stand against the general current.”[1]  This statement provides an apt synopsis of the dominant theme of Desai’s novel Voices in the City. However, it is only the latter part of this statement that seems to have drawn the attention of critics while discussing this novel. Critical discussion of Voices in the City generally focuses on the alienation of the major characters of the novel from the “general current” and attribute their “despair” to this phenomenon but do not pay much attention to the unusualness of the characters. Thus we come to the commonly held view that Voices in the City is about “traditional beliefs and customs enfeebled by modernity and the effect on three young people of life in a great city.”[2] Doubtless, the city of Calcutta is a powerful presence in the novel. It acts as a catalyst in the process of disintegration that the characters undergo. But to attribute the depersonalisation[3] of the characters solely to the influence of the city in its period of transition is to give in to the superficial. A careful reading of the novel reveals that the real source of the predicament of these characters is their own psyche. They are individuals who seem to be in the thrall of some life-denying forces. As Jit, one of the minor characters of the novel, points out: “I don’t understand it– this terrible destructiveness in all of you. You seem to worship it, shelter it inside yourself as though it were essential to you. Nothing will persuade you forgo it.”[4] And while this inherent destructiveness may be said to have been triggered by the spirit of the city, it is “driven to [its] extremity” by their “dark ways of thinking and feeling through life towards death” (175). The plight of the protagonists is, ultimately, “tragedies of [their] own making” (176).

Nirode, Monisha and Amla, the three major characters of Voices in the City, are afflicted with the overriding sense of ennui, stagnation and sorrow. All of them are highly educated, intellectually gifted and ambitious individuals. Yet, their extra-refined sensibility, nihilistic proclivity and ego-centricism leave them maladjusted and isolated like three remote and obscure islands in the vast ocean of Calcutta populace.

Nirode, “the anonymous and shabby clerk in a newspaper,” is a “rootless nihilist,” a “psychic outlaw.” He is on a restless quest for identity. But his quest is thwarted by his own nature. His life consists of “one rejection following another.” Cynical about and acrimonious to everything in life, he wants to live in “shadows, silence, stillness.” He is “proud to the point of being a fanatic” and nurses his bitterness against all the normal, well-to-do persons around him. Pursuit of material goals like money, success or reputation arouses his contempt. But neither is he interested in the pursuit of happiness:

‘Oh, I am quite happy,’ David said vaguely.

‘Happy? Then you are done for, you fool. What worse death than at the hands of happiness? Anyone who feels happy deserves to die’…

‘There is a point in happiness, I think.’

‘I don’t believe in points. I believe only in the lines that radiates from them, and the longer and vaguer and crookeder, the better.’ (94-95)

The consciousness of his own insignificance in and irrelevance to the scheme of life draws from him only absolute negativism: “I want to move from failure to failure, step by step to rock bottom. I want to explore that depth. When you climb a ladder, all you find at the top is space, all you can do is leap off– fall to bottom. I want to get there without that meaningless climbing. I want to descend quickly” (40).

The novelist also records his penchant for self annihilation: “Better to leap out of the window and end it all instead of smearing this endless sticky glue of senselessness over the world. Better not to live” (18). In his negativity Nirode even spurns meaningful human relationships. For him “aloneness alone was the sole natural condition” (24). And as he “grew more and more wary of contact” with the people around him, “the intricacies of relationship–  approach, recompense, obligation– these aroused in him violent distaste and kept him hovering on the fringe of the world” (62). Nirode’s attitude towards life and its challenges is hardly a healthy one. Ultimately it leads him to a state of “blank impassiveness” in which “silence and solitude… are the two most powerful things” (185).

Monisha too is a psychically imbalanced individual with a hyperactive sensitivity and rather great expectations from life. Her relationship with her husband is characterised by “loneliness.” Married to a “blind moralist,” a “rotund, minute-minded and limited” government official who is given to the habit of quoting complacently and indiscriminately authorities such as Burke, Wordsworth, Gandhi and Tagore, she finds her life a virtual imprisonment. She is always haunted by a sense of “a life dedicated to nothing” (122), a life teeming with “these trivialities, these pettinesses, of our mean existence” (121). “Is this what life is then, my life?” she asks, “Only a conundrum that I shall brood over forever with passion and pain, never to arrive at a solution?” (124). In her despair she becomes increasingly obsessed with thoughts of being “totally empty, totally alone” (129). And in her growing detachment her “heart stays perfectly quiet, enclosed in a sheath of such darkness as none of them would ever dare to touch” (139). A self inflicted death is only the inevitable end of such a life.

Amla shares with her brother and sister an exceptionally sharp sensitivity. Unlike them, however, she decides to lead a happy life in the city of Calcutta and even tries to find the meaning of life in her love for Dharma. But her joy is short-lived and she soon begins to realise the hollowness and futility of her life:

Despite all the stimulation of new experiences, new occupations, new acquaintances, and the mild sweet winter air, this sense of hollowness and futility persisted. Daily it pursued her to the office, hid quietly under the black mouthpiece of her telephone, shook–  even so slightly–  the tip of her pencil as she traced the severe lines of a well draped sari, then engulfed her in the evenings when she attended parties at which she still knew no one well, and at night when she tried to compose her unsteady thoughts for sleep. (157-158)

Throughout the novel the predicament and sufferings of the Ray siblings are attributed to various sources. Nirode blames his disenchantment, failure and restlessness on his mother, his mechanical job at the newspaper office and on what he sees as the commercialism/ materialism of the people around him. Amla sees the depersonalisation of her siblings and her own sense of meaninglessness as the result of the influence of the city: “…this monster city that lived no normal, healthy, red-blooded life but one that was subterranean, underlit, stealthy and odorous of mortality, had captured and enchanted–  or disenchanted – both her sister and brother” (150). It is only Monisha, however, who comes closest to the discovery of the root of the trouble:

I discover in this unattached, drifting bird creature [David] that vital element that is missing from Nirode and myself–  the element of love. And I discover that it is the absence of it that makes us, brother and sister, such abject rebels, such craven tragedians. In place of this love that suffuses the white face of this mystic waif, we posses a darker, fiercer element–  fear.(135)

While Nirode’s artistic sensibility quite understandably rebels against the routine of a mechanical job, his conversation with Bose reveals that it is not a fulfilling career that he is searching for:

‘…And many men have vocations, are happy Nirode. It is only a matter of finding one, that is all.’

‘Like my brother, I suppose…… I don’t think I can, or want to.(18; emphasis mine)

Nirode’s alienation from his mother is also the result of his own cynicism and self-pitying nature. Monisha thinks of the years when “he so inexplicably turned against [mother], just after father’s death” (127). Apart from the fact that she does not conform to the traditional Indian image of the self-effacing widow/mother and moves from a failed marriage to find comfort in a sensual companion, thus hurting Nirode’s oedipal feelings, Otima does not appear to be that self-engrossed, pleasure seeking vamp-like woman that emerges from Nirode’s depiction. On the contrary, she seems to be “warm-hearted” and full of care for the well-being of her children. It is Nirode’s own “depraved” pessimism that impels him to fight off the affection and help that his mother is so willing to give him.

In a similar way Nirode seems to turn away from the possibility of a life alleviated by human relationships that even a city like Calcutta offers him. In his ego-centrism, he disparages the help and goodwill of friends like Bose and Sonny. He shuns the affection and care of his sister Amla.  He even rejects the companionship, love and promise of a good life that David offers:

‘I feel as if I was born with my heart emptied out’.

‘Then I would fill it!’

‘What, with ceramic designs?’ Nirode laughed. (40)

Monisha is even less influenced by the life of the city. Her apparent problem seems to be the lack of love and understanding in her life. But this lack is by no means inflicted on her by the constrictions of a traditional Hindu family. It existed in her early life, even before she got married. Monisha is estranged from her mother. She does not seem to have been close to her brother and sister either. Amla remembers her as a “subtly uncaring” sister. She talks about their childhood days when Monisha did not show any interest in the “reciprocation” of feelings with their school friends. And Aunt Lila describes her as “morbid.”

When living in the confinement of her in-law’s house, Monisha thinks about her early conjugal life. But the key note of the lost world that she becomes nostalgic about is not any life-affirming quality but silence and solitude:

 Almost as often as I catch myself thinking about Kalimpong, I find myself thinking about Jiban’s last posting, out in a district, away from the city and the family. The solitude of the jungles there, the aqueous shadows of the bamboo groves and the earth laid with great fallen leaves. The bell-like dignity of the elephant on whom we rode through the jungles. Jiban away on tour, I alone with myself, no visitors at all. Our house which we had to ourselves, its rooms almost bare of furniture, its squares of empty space and silence–  friends to me, and I’ve had to leave them behind. (116; emphasis mine)

Like her brother Monisha is drawn towards ideas of non-involvement, silence and solitude. As in the case of Nirode, Monisha’s dark attraction leads her to an inclination to “stand back, apart, in the shadows, and watch the fire and the flames [of love and life], the sacrifices that are flung into it, the celebration, the mourning, and… not to take part” (136). Unlike Nirode, however, she realises that such an existence is tantamount to death: “Traceless, meaningless, uninvolved– does this not amount to non-existence, please?” (140).

Monisha’s alienation is not the result of a communication gap peculiar to her city life. Nor is her existential angst the result of the conflict between her westernised education and the traditional environment in which she finds herself. For while Nirode’s troubled consciousness finds some solace in the philosophy of Camus, Monisha is seduced with the idea of an Indian styled spiritual liberation. And ultimately it is not the banality of the life surrounding her, but her inability “to experience desire, to experience feeling” (240), her realisation that her life has been a “waste”, enclosed within the locked container of the self, that she has “[given] up the quest for [meaning] too soon, never seriously believed in it, abandoned it before it began” (239), that drives Monisha to put an end to her life.

Similarly, Amla’s sudden transformation from a gay extrovert to a brooding melancholy individual springs not from her interaction with the city but from her unrequited love for Dharma and from her awareness of the death-in-life existence of her brother and sister. When she arrived in Calcutta, the “sad spirit” had seemed “to have no concern whatsoever with the bright streets through which she had driven” (149).  But as soon as she comes under the shadow of her siblings’ life, “mortality seem[s] to creep into her bones” (150) and “in the vicinity of her strange brother and ghostly sister, there was no sun at all, only the darkness of a rainy winter evening and the indifference of an ancient river” (157). Nirode’s presence at Jit’s house turns her good humours into anxiety and after a visit to Monisha’s in-law’s she even loses interest in her work. She becomes increasingly afflicted with restlessness and fits of depression. Her intrinsic vitality asserts itself when she meets Dharma. Her resilient instincts tell her that “the dust [settles], and the clouds break up, and everything straighten and simplify itself –into love” (190). But Nirode’s disgust and Monisha’s cold, condescending attitude to her feelings overwhelm her and make her wonder if such a thing as love could be found in a city like Calcutta: “Amla watched… to see what else there was besides this want of care, this want of will. She saw no glimmer, no shade, no sound of love. Did love exist here at all? Was it only a bitter farce of extortion, like the willed mutilation of his hand by the desperate, mocking beggar?” (193). In her confusion, Amla “overlook[s] the flaw in her own love” (194), and therefore, when she is faced with the inevitable disenchantment, the pessimistic side of her nature gets the upper hand: she “accept[s] at last that [darkness] is the true colour of Calcutta” (220), and that in this city “love could be born, could exist, but only in the form of a little sweet, short anaesthesia” (193).

The Ray siblings seem to be in the grip of some destructive psychic forces that prevent them from forming a healthy perception of life or from an active participation in it. And these forces fit into the Freudian concept of Thanatos, or the death drive[5]. From Nirode’s repetition of his traumatic experience in his dreams,[6] his “hostility and hate, blind anger”[7] towards his fellow human beings, to the siblings’ apathy or indifference to sexual desire,[8], from Monisha’s thrill in self torment to Amla’s near-masochistic attitude in her relation with Dharma,[9] the siblings perfectly mirrors the outward manifestations of the death drive. Viewed from this perspective, the novel becomes a haunting tale of the conflict in the individual psyche between Eros and Thanatos, between the forces of life and the forces of death. In Monisha and Nirode the death drive is too powerful and they succumb to it. In Amla it is deflected by conscious effort and by the presence in her unconscious of an urge to live.

As has been pointed out, the characters themselves remain unaware, at least until the end, of the danger within and direct their energy in fighting outside forces, the most important of which being the city itself. But given their “dark ways of thinking and feeling,” one wonders whether it is the influence of the city that has wrought destruction on the consciousnesses of these characters or it is the destructive unconscious of the characters that has painted the city in such total darkness. This is hinted at early in the novel. Pretending to persuade Dharma about the glories of city life Nirode says: ‘I defy you to hear funeral drums anywhere!’ To this Dharma replies: ‘That is because there are none in your own heart, young Nirode’ (53).The subjective analysis of their situation makes them perceive the city as a destructive spirit conspiring against their youth and joy and thus brings forth a classic example of projection.[10]

            This brings us to the question of the myth. That Desai intends the life history of these three persons to be viewed against the myth of Kali is evident. Yet, if we view the negative portrayal of the city and the obsessive emphasis on its decaying aspect as a product of the protagonists’ fanciful thinking, the use of the Kali myth in relation to the city becomes forced. Equally misleading seems the comparison of Nirode’s mother with Kali (since blaming his mother for their plight is just another act of projection on Nirode’s part). The myth, however, becomes potent from another perspective– that is, if we want to view it as an allegory about the nature of the human psyche.

In Hindu metaphysics, Divinity or the Ultimate Reality in Its manifest aspect (Saguna Brahman) is conceived of as being the inseparable fusion of two principles: Shiva (Divine Consciousness or Pure Self) and Shakti (Divine Energy). Shiva is static, beyond all names, forms and activities. Shakti on the other hand, represents the creative energy responsible for all names, forms and activities. Creation arises out of the union of these two principles. This happens over a period of time beginning with the manifestation of higher and subtler planes and then proceeding to the manifestation of the lower and grosser planes. In the creation of higher worlds and their beings Shiva and Shakti are interchangeable and almost indistinguishable. These are the planes of supernatural gods, whose consciousness and will/energy work together in perfect harmony. In the lower worlds or planes, the distinction between Shiva and Shakti becomes more pronounced. In these worlds Shiva and Shakti operate asynchronously, almost as independent entities, although in reality they are the same. In human beings Divine Consciousness (Shiva) manifests itself as the soul (atman) or the non-material self, which never changes. Whereas the external body, the mind, the various constituents that go into their making and the life force itself fall into the domain of Shakti. Most of the schools of Hinduism equate Godhead (Brahman) with Shiva and regard Shakti as His power and relegate it to an auxiliary status. Thus for them it is the soul (atman) which is the true self of man and all the other facets of their existence (physical, mental, intellectual) are “unreal.” The Shakta sect of Hindus, however, holds that Shakti represents the dominant power in the universe over and above that of Shiva. For them Shakti is responsible for all creation while Shiva remains in the background established in her like a witness consciousness. They do not deny the inner truth of Brahman, but does not dwell there much. They give life more credence and focuses attention there. They take the manifest universe to be the ultimate authority in life due to the omnipotence of life. Shakti doctrine tends to emphasise the non-difference between matter and spirit, and looks to the creative impetus of matter rather than its ability to delude and entangle (maya). Unlike the other sects of Hinduism, liberation for the Shakta does not mean seeking the transcendent God (Shiva-Shakti) but the realisation of and merging with the immanent God which for them is the primordial cosmic energy (Pure Shakti).  It seems, however, that the primordial cosmic energy (Supreme Shakti or Ishwara) is characterised by some sort of duality in unity. Shaktas believe in the evolutionary process of the descent of the Supreme Shakti and the retrogressive process of its ascent. Each being that comes into existence into the manifest world is in a state of evolution whose ultimate aim would be to return to its original cause. Ishwara or Godhead, in other words, divides Himself into many, in order to become one again. Evolution and involution, creation and destruction are thus the two sides of the same reality.

The Goddess Kali is one of the various manifestations of Shakti and the contradictions in her character traits[11] seem to reflect this coexistence of contradictory qualities that characterises Creation. And it is not her paradoxical nature only; even worship of goddess can be on two levels: worship of Kali as the sovereign of the material world can bring prosperity and happiness, guarantee a good rebirth, and in this way perpetuate man’s involvement in maya.  On the other hand, worship as an act of seeking moksha can liberate man from maya. This has bearing on man’s nature also; since the Hindu scriptures describe each human being as a microscopic aspect of the macrocosm, man is bound to reflect the same duality of impulses. Shakti is the essence of the material phenomena, including the identity of man’s true self. Therefore it is only natural that man must also show a tension between a desire for the perpetuation of maya and a yearning for liberation. Interestingly enough, perpetuation of maya is also a perpetuation of life in the ordinary sense and spiritual moksha is coterminous with the destruction of the ego. This fundamental contradiction of human life is what Nirode seems to become aware of after Monisha’s death:

‘Mother, mother- Kali is the mother of Bengal, she is the mother of us all. Don’t you see, Amla, how once she has given birth to us, she must also deal us our deaths? …I see now that she is everything we have been fighting against… and she is also everything we have fought for. She is our consciousness and our unconsciousness, she is al that is manifest and all that is unmanifest… She is not merely good, not merely evil–  she is good and she is evil. She is our knowledge and our ignorance. She is everything to which we are attached, she is everything from which we will always be detached… Don’t you see, in her face, in her beauty, Amla, don’t you see, the amalgamation of death and life?’ (256)

It is interesting to see how the Shakta doctrine of creation, with its emphasis on the primal energy as the source of all existence, and Nirode’s realisation of the ultimate nature of that existence reflect Freud’s insight into human psyche: Freudian psychology regards living organisms as dynamic systems and according to it “there is no reason to believe that the energy which runs the [human] organism is essentially any different from the energy which runs the universe.”[12] Moreover, Freud perceives in the human organism two opposing forces at work. Indeed, in his later works he comes to view life as the play of two conflicting instincts. And he expresses his views on the source and workings of these instincts in theories that read very much like a scientific explication of the Shakta ontology:

Freud speculated that the death instincts were built into living matter at a time in the evolution of the earth when cosmic forces acting upon inorganic matter transmuted it into living forms. These first living things probably lived only a very short time and then returned (regressed) to their former inorganic state. Life consisted essentially of a disturbed state produced by external stimulation. When the disturbance quieted down, the spark of life went out. As a result of these conditions surrounding the creation of life, a regression to the inorganic became an aim of the organic.

With the continuing evolution of the world, new forms of energy created disturbances that were longer lasting so that the span of life increased. Eventually living things acquired the power to reproduce themselves. At that point in evolution the creation of life became independent of external stimulation. Although the instinct of reproduction insured the continuity of life, the presence of a death instinct meant that no particular living thing could live forever. Its ultimately destiny was always to return to the inorganic.[13]

We are reminded of the view held by archetypal psychology that the “ancient myths, legends, sagas, and religions mimicked some of the broad impulses and drives in the psyche.”[14] But what is more important in the context of this novel is  that this juxtaposition of the myth with Freud’s theory does not so much represent a conflict between East and West as it does the essential sameness underlying cultural differences. In Desai’s own words: “no matter where you travel, you come across the same emotional hungers and needs. What is different is our ways of satisfying them.”[15]

In Voices in the City Desai focuses on a number of issues –many of which are conventional –like the oppressive environment of a traditional extended family, the oedipal bond between mother and son, the transition of India from a traditional past to a postcolonial present, and above all life in a city under transition. But her main concern remains psychological. Desai is not in favour of the novel being analysed in terms of a conflict between society and “aloneness,” but as a conflict between Yes and No,[16] or, between a complete rejection of life and an attempt for accommodation. For Desai the founding and nurturing of individuality is important. But when the struggle for individuality becomes “neurotic subjective self indulgence”[17] and ultimately leads one to the inevitable calamity, the worth of such individuality becomes dubious. This seems to be the message that Desai wants to convey[18] in Voices in the City. In the remarkable image of the race-course that tellingly precedes the scene of Monisha’s death, Desai “underlines” the “true significance” of the situation of her protagonists.  Like the horses in the race-course, the three siblings had “stumbled upon this obstacle of conflicting instincts– to turn? To fly? What?” Monisha “tripped on this invisible web of conflict, slid, fell, and rolled” while Nirode “hesitated, dipped, stopped short.” But surely to fall was to become the prey of “the birds [of death]…who waited” and then to be “hidden by a thick dark screen” from the world. Monisha’s death gives Amla “a glimpse of what lay on the other side of [the] stark, uncompromising margin.” And we are left to assume that, urged by this new insight, she will “[resume] the race and [fly] on.” (Fahmida Rahman)


[1] Yashodhara Dalmia, “An Interview with Anita Desai’, Times of India 29 Apr. 1979:13; emphasis mine.

[2] William Walsh, Indian Literature in English (London and New York: Longman, 1990), 111.

[3] I have not used the term “depersonalisation” from any philosophical or theoretical standpoint. In this context the term simply refers to the psychological process in which the characters gradually lose their hold over an organised personality.

[4] Anita Desai, Voices in the City (New Delhi: Orient, 1965), 175. Further references to the text are from this edition, and indicated by page number/s within brackets.

[5] In classical Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the death drive is the drive towards death, self-destruction and the return to the inorganic. The hypothesis of a death instinct, the task of which is to lead organic life back into the inanimate state, was originally proposed by Sigmund Freud in 1920 in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where he wrote of the “opposition between the ego or death instincts and the sexual or life instincts.” The death drive opposes Eros, the tendency toward survival, propagation, sex, and other creative, life-producing drives.

[6] Repetition of traumatic or distressing experience by individuals, especially in dreams, was the phenomenon that led Freud to postulate the existence of the death drive. In the novel, Nirode not only repeatedly harps on his mother’s affair with Major Chada but also has dreams about it.

[7] “The destructive urge activates hostility and hate, blind anger, and the uncanny pleasures of cruelty and decay” (Eric Berne from his A Layman’s Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis, qtd. in the entry on “Mortido” in Wikipedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mortido>).

[8] “Shiva and Parvati locked together in an upright embrace that pulsed with so grand a desire, so rich a satisfaction, that soon the girls, too, looked away from that inscrutable smile on Shiva’s face and… [from Parvati’s] delight, inexplicable to both the girls” (Voices in the City, 147).

[9] “She was the lover again, quivering from one blow yet unable to forgo the next” (Voices in the City, 230).

[10] Another Freudian term; Projection is the act of attributing to other people impulses, traits and unconscious desires which a person himself has but cannot accept it.

[11] In mythology the goddess is portrayed both as vengeful and wrathful and as lovable, kind and motherly.

[12] Calvin S. Hall, A Primer of Freudian Psychology (New York: Mentor Books, 1954), 36.

[13] ibid. 58.

[14] For details see the entry on “Archetypal psychology” in Wikipedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Archetypal_psychology&oldid=436769306>.

[15]Magda Costa, “Interview with Anita Desai”, SAWNET 27 Oct. 2009. <http://www.sawnet.org/books/writing/desai_interview.html>.

[16] qtd. in R.K. Dhawan (ed.), The Fiction of Anita Desai (New Delhi: Bahri Publication, 1989), 52.

[17] ibid. 52.

[18] “I think of the world as an iceberg– the one-tenth visible above the surface of the water is what we call reality, but the nine-tenths that are submerged make up the truth, and that is what one is trying to explore. Writing is an effort to discover and then to underline, and finally to convey the true significance of things” (Desai remarked in an interview with Yashodhara Dalmia, op.cit).

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Whither the Nation-State? the Debate on Nationalism and its Alternatives in Amitav Ghosh’s Fiction

The Beginning of the Trail, or When and Why did Amitav Ghosh’s Fiction Appeal:

The axiom seemed to be that, any contemporary author of Indian Writing in English (IWE) could be primly packed into the queer holdall of postcolonialism. That is, he would inevitably turn out to be a lover of hyphens, hybrids and multiculturalism. His works would stage the “exit-ential” [1]  dilemma of the diaspora who would mostly, if not inevitably, feature among his protagonists. Angst of the diaspora seemed to be the theme looming large in much of IWE, whether it be Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies or Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey.

I looked up the word “diaspora” in the dictionary, before I even began reading In an Antique Land. The Oxford Dictionary of English traces the origin of the word to Greek “diaspeirein” meaning “disperse” or “be scattered.” The term was used in the Septuagint (Deuteronomy 28:25) in the sentence “ese diaspora en pasais basileis tes ges,” which, when translated into English, roughly means, “thou shalt be a dispersion in all kingdoms of the earth.” This is said to the Jews and, of course, till today, the primary meaning of “diaspora” (as cited in ODE), is “the dispersion of the Jews beyond Israel.” “Diaspora” thus remains a taboo in Judeo-Hebraic thought, and its sting survives all IWE attempts at septic cleansing of the word with the panacea of post-colonialism. The disapproval of the prefix “dis”/ “dias” infects all celebration of hyphens. “Exit-ential dilemma” often becomes the freshest avatar of “existential crisis,” the theme of much modernist European and American literatures.

That is why In an Antique Land jolted me. It is all about dispersion, but without either complying with or writing back to the disdain of the “dias-” of diaspora. It forges autonomous notions of nations, in which they thrive through dispersion, as they did in the twelfth century, when the slave Bomma from Tulunad (Mangalore), Ben Yiju, the young Jewish-Egyptian merchant from Aden and the (possibly) beautiful Ashu from Mangalore crossed ways and cohabited for nearly two decades in Mangalore, in a non-exclusive  subcontinental culture inspiring co-existence and compromise. As Ghosh says in an interview: “In the twelfth century, people developed a much more sophisticated language of cultural negotiation than we know today. They were able to include different cultures in their lives, while maintaining what was distinct about themselves.” [2]

So, I thought, this author does not respond to the nation as a cartographic impulse/project at all. For him, the “sacred geography”[3] of India is more an academic/trade-based identity rather than a cartographic or territorial reality. For example, the term “al Hind” used by the Arab-speaking world since medieval times refers more to an “academic geography,”[4] beginning at the eastern border of Sind and extending as far as Assam and even beyond, rather than to a single politically unified empire. This geography is united by its non-anxiety about dispersion or “contamination” by other cultures. It endorses a common worldview or knowledge-system in which traveling/migrancy is the human condition. It is indifferent to a nationalism midwived by violence and the terror of transgressing cartographic borders. In other words, In an Antique Land is indifferent to diaspora, for there was no non-diasporic state to begin with. Ghosh won me over.

After that, I started reading, one after another, The Shadow Lines, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Glass Palace, The Hungry Tide, Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke. They are all about Indias dispersed. However, in these texts, he does not conjure up India as a virtual “-scape”[5] spawned by mass fantasy, as Rushdie does in his Imaginary Homelands. Neither is he moved by the post-colonial fancy question “Does India Exist?”[6] For him, India is real experience/s, knowledge/s and people/s that travel. As he said in a 2006 interview to The Hindu:

For me, having travelled abroad, one of the most instructive things about India is the realization that India is really not a place located within India as it were; for two hundred years now, it’s also been an experience of the world you know; it’s been an experience of Mauritius, or Malayasia, or Burma. And this is what interests me most now; the ways in which India came to be, as it were, dispersed. [7]

This interests me as well.  For, though I have heard similar poetics being professed, I have hardly read such examples in praxis. It is daringly different to think of a nation, not fashionably conceived as an “imaginary homeland” nor written off as a recent colonial conspiracy, but rather defined as an intellectual/philosophical entity always already in travel and amused, like Bomma, at the modern migrancy-phobic nations which insist on (often coloniser-determined) boundaries. Since then, non-/fiction by Amitav Ghosh has been high in my list of passions. His more recent Sea of Poppies (2009) and River of Smoke (2011)—first two books of Ghosh’s “Ibis trilogy” ( the third one not yet published) also shed light on the issue of nationalism as they revisit some of the concerns of the earlier novels in  new and compelling ways. River of Smoke appearing last has not yet attracted much critical investments. Writings on Sea of Poppies are also very few. One recent casebook edited by Bibhash Choudhury[8] contains an essay by the editor himself titled “Fraught with a Background: Identity and Cultural Legacy in Sea of Poppies” which focuses on historical and cultural issues of the book. But the book and its sequel are at one level meditation on the debate of nationalism in the guise of a historical tale of opium war and migration. Cut off from their roots, characters with diverse ranks and nationalities form polyglot communities on board the ship “Ibis” and travel from Calcutta to Mauritius Islands and at last settle on the shores of China. In their displacement and dispersion though they call themselves “jahaj-bhais” (ship brothers) in newly formed identity, they carry within them their root nationalities as Indians and Europeans. The idea of land in nation formation does not appear in their consciousness. The Ibis is a former slave ship refitted to carry indentured labourers from Calcutta to Mauritius islands apparently for sugar plantation in Sea of Poppies. Characters from diverse castes, communities, religions and nationalities gather on the ship with various purposes against the background of opium trade and war between Britain and China. They have nothing in common except the sea and their unique predicaments through which they realise themselves. People dispersed by East India Company involved in opium trade eventually join aboard the Ibis to form an “unknown” association. They leave their old ties behind and form new ones .The village widow Deeti Singh marries a lower- caste man named Kalua who has earlier saved her. She could not think of even talking to him in a conventional setting. The deposed Raja Neel Raton takes a Chinese cellmate as his friend. The pious gomusta discovers his Lord Krishna in the American mulatto sailor who blows whistle of the ship. Thus, with the progress of the story, they alter not only their personal boundaries, but also the boundaries of their countries of origin—and finally the history of the world. They transcend fixed boundaries and create ever-growing ones. To these characters, who are mostly Indian, India extends beyond geographical setting— in their mind and on the sea/ship. As the shipmates forge a small new world by forming relationships of empathy, the sea or ship becomes the metaphor for “new” nation. The Ibis, in a way, resembles Calcutta, the teeming city of different faiths and creeds existing together. The imaginary characters and plots on board the ship further anticipate the concept of globalisation in modern times in terms of sea trade and cultural exchange.

Introducing the Debate:

What is Amitav Ghosh’s take on nation and nationalism in his fiction? Does he critique the concept? If so, does he have an alternative model of the nation to offer or does he reject the idea altogether? This is the debate I have chosen and we shall see what different critics have to say on the issue. But, before that, why do I locate this at all as a major debate? Is there nothing else to speak of in Ghosh?

Of course, there are. Indeed, if we flip through a recent casebook on Amitav Ghosh, Amitav Ghosh: A Critical Companion (2003), edited by Tabish Khair [9] nationalism hardly features as a topic. Travelling (or its indicators like “road” and “Des Kothay?”) occurs in five of the essay-titles; history (in its different forms) occurs in four, and issues of hegemony are also debated. Many contributors have read Ghosh from the perspective of subaltern studies. For example, his trail of the slave of MS. H.6 [10] could be a classic example of this discipline. Moreover, as the editor mentions in the Preface to this book, “There is a certain presence of words relating to ‘mystery,’ ‘discovery’ and related issues of knowing the unknown or ‘unknowing’ the known.”[11] That is, Ghosh’s fiction is even being read as an epistemic upheaval aiming to turn the post-Enlightenment projects of History and Reason on their heads; they must give way to microhistories and counter-reason, as they do in The Shadow Lines and The Calcutta Chromosome and in many of his other fiction. As Tabish Khair’s edition seems to suggest, nationalism in Ghosh has now become a dead issue. There is only one desolate article on this in the entire volume, Anjali Gera’s “Des Kothay?: Amitav Ghosh Tells Old Wives’ Tales.”[12]  Why then, in the jostle of these post-colonially viable topics, does one choose the apparently over-discussed concept of nationalism in this author? I think that the corpse of the theme of nationalism in Ghosh’s fiction has sprouted into all these other issues. In other words, the core axiom that Ghosh has rejected the “imagined community”[13] of the nation leads to the critical quest for other communities he might have invested in, e.g. those of hybrids or subalterns.

In its absence, then, the issue of nationalism casts its shadow even in this edition, for all other topics are inspired by a search for its alternative. If the author has not located the healing space in the nation, then in which discourse does he house his characters? This seems to have become one of the core questions in Ghosh studies. “Nation” thus remains the locus of the ur-debate in Amitav Ghosh. Here I shall take up nationalism and its alternatives in Ghosh’s fiction as debated by critics; but there is a wry twist to this suave plot. For, the author, through his interviews and non-fiction, gives his stance on the topic. I shall include the authorspeak as well among competing voices on the nation, before all too simplistically rubbishing the idea as a vestigial relic of colonialism.

Genesis; or in the Beginning was The Shadow Lines:

Indeed, the debate on nationalism in Amitav Ghosh is as old as The Shadow Lines itself. The novel explicitly takes up the futility of cartographic lines slicing up the subcontinent and shows how “going away” and “coming back” must get muddled if one’s home and nationality are partitioned. Essays on nationalism accompany the text of the novel published by OUP in 1995. These include Meenakshi Mukherjee’s “Maps and Mirrors: Co-ordinates of Meaning in The Shadow Lines” and Suvir Kaul’s “Separation Anxiety: Growing up Inter/National in The Shadow Lines.” Engagement with nation in Amitav Ghosh and this novel seems to have become almost synonymous in the critical circle, so that even when the universities set essays like “Nation in Narration” in their students’ examinations, Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines remains one of the must-touchables.

Even in two other editions on the fiction of Amitav Ghosh which I have studied, one edited by Brinda Bose[14] and the other jointly by Indira Bhatt and Indira Nityanandam, most of the essays discuss at length, if not exclusively, The Shadow Lines. For example, in the former edition we have essays like “‘No Home But in Memory’: Migrant Bodies and Belongings, Globalisation and Nationalism in The Circle of Reason and The Shadow Lines” by Kavita Daiya, or Vinita Chandra’s “Suppressed Memory and Forgetting: History and Nationalism in The Shadow Lines,” or Neelam Srivastava’s “Fictions of Nationhood in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines.” Again, in the edition by the Indira duet, we have essays like “The Shadow Lines and the Questioning of Nationalism” by Rahul Sapra or Novy Kapadia’s “Political Freedom and Communal Tension in The Shadow Lines.” Even in the Tabish Khair edited volume containing refreshingly different takes on Amitav Ghosh’s fiction, the one essay “Des Kothay?” on nationalism engages all too predictably with The Shadow Lines.

This sheer focus on a single novel when it comes to nationalism in Amitav Ghosh’s works has its consequences. From its very genesis, the issue of nationalism in Ghosh was trapped into an automatic metonym of The Shadow Lines. Most critics forget to mention, let alone debate, the concept of dispersed, porous and cross-fertilised nations of the medieval Arabic-speaking world and al-Hind in In An Antique Land, or of Malayasia, Burma and India in The Glass Palace. Hamilton’s dream to build in the Sunderbans a radical “new kind of country” without exploitation, as a post-colonial model for reality and society, has been rendered in The Hungry Tide in great detail. I have not come across any critic recognising this.

This tidal landscape, the truly hybrid site where life is lived out in transformation, where nature’s dynamics are accelerated and rivers change their courses in days, seems to be Ghosh’s perfect metaphor for his alternative dreamspace of a nation. Here, differences are not hierarchised, but rather cohabit in an accomodating, horizontal space, where even the driven and ambitious Kanai and Moyna learn to respect post-literate Fokir’s knowledge and insight into the river, and are finally relieved of the colonial obsession with the script. I have not read an essay which deals with the nation-question in The Hungry Tide, the utopian “dalit nation” which immigrants from East Bengal dreamt of building in Morichjhapi, an island of Sunderbans. The dream was soon dismembered by the communist government of West Bengal, then in power.

In the very genesis of the debate, then, a shadow fell between the issue of nationalism in Ghosh and the inadequately selective example/s mostly foregrounded by critics. An over-exposure of The Shadow Lines was one fall-out of this tendency and a quick hackneying of the nation-question in Ghosh, another. The debate thus tends to be lop-sided and often based on a quick dismissal of the nation-question in favour of other viable discourses in Ghosh’s fiction.

Key Actors in the Debate:

Amitav Ghosh is a conveniently canonical author and thus attracts much critical and academic investment. Even before mentioning the key actors I have chosen to discuss in this debate, I should explain my methodology in choosing them. Inspired yet again by Amitav Ghosh, I have concentrated mostly on standard Indian publications or articles by South Asians when it came to online journals. This is my minute intervention in the politics of citation. The methodology is based on the assumption that a subcontinental author will not be incompetently discussed by regional critical publications. Also, the Permanent Black publication edited by Tabish Khair has metropolitan as well as sub continental university teachers, so that there is no exclusive nationalism/regionalism and one travels in the West while staying in the East, in Amitav style.

I shall begin by stating some key positions in nationalism and/or its alternatives with Meenakshi Mukherjee’s take on maps and nationalism midwived by violence in The Shadow Lines.[15]We shall then see how critics compete over what could be a viable alternative as home or healing-space, if any. Some would suggest it to be pre/post-national communities, e.g. Kavita Daiya[16]; others would locate it in memory e.g. Vinita Chandra[17], or self and narration e.g. G.J.V. Prasad.[18] Yet others would vouch for microhistories as the only redemptive gesture e.g. Anjali Gera. Many, like Gera, would hail Ghosh as a post-nationalist or a true multicultural, while some like Daiya would suggest that he critiques both nationalism and globalisation, the twin tributes of capitalism. Some would locate this post-nationalism in travelling, as Robert Dixon does.[19] Others would see through these a ploy to seduce the audience to a transcendental fantasy of the nation, as Amit Chowdhuri and Anjana Sircar do. Finally, we shall see Ghosh’s own take on the issue, on how his alternative to the pre-scripted notion of the state is an autonomous vision of it.

Magi/Questers for Models; or, Key Positions in the Debate:

Meenakshi Mukherjee, in the essay “Maps and Mirrors: Co-ordinates of Meaning in The Shadow Lines,” shows how the notion of nationalism that rests on the metaphor of violence and western colonial cartography, is outright rejected in the novel. Grandmother’s notion of militant nationalism might have thrived during anti-colonial resistance, but it only adds to the insanity of riots in a subcontinent already torn asunder by its bewildered attempt to believe in borders. This exclusive mode of nationalism, “consolidated through the baptism of wars or coercive state apparatus,”[20] has become sinister. It inflicts fresh wounds, by provoking such riots that kill Tridib, the chronicler of memory. Whither, then, solace and redemption?

Kavita Daiya in her essay “No Home But in Memory” locates this redemption in pre/postnational communities which transgress arbitrarily dictated boundaries. Communities, whether they be religious, e.g. Muslim communities of Khulna and Srinagar, or regional/linguistic e.g. the Bengali hub of Dhaka which makes Thamma nostalgic of the now vanished city of her childhood, are often formed of bonds and fantasies which have nothing to do with nationalism. These collective imaginings other than the nationalist self-definition forge local identities and locally-rooted communities. In a way, these alternative transnational micro-communities and their fantasies are the only way to challenge the aggressive macro-fantasy of nationhood that thrives on dis(re)membering the other, while rigidly drawing boundaries through war and bloodshed. This is mass-scale insanity to which Thamma hysterically subscribes: “We have to kill them before they kill us; we have to wipe them out.”[21]

The second healing-space that is offered is memory: of course, it is one of the main reserves on which transnational imagined communities are built. There are many subscribers to this view, Kavita Daiya being one, complemented by critics like Vinita Chandra in her essay “Suppressed Memory and Forgetting,” or Anjali Gera in her article “Des Kothay?”. Here too nationalism, in its dominant mainstream avatar of Gandhianism in the Indian context, is chosen as the easy villain. It suppresses and thereby marginalises memories of other parallel movements e.g. that of militant nationalism in which Thamma had wanted to participate in her youth. As Gera says, only memory can “engage with the silences and amnesia of the dominant patriarchal nationalism.”[22] The only way to salvage some dignity after the trauma and dispossession of partition and the drawing of boundaries, is to reclaim one’s home in memory and imagination.

One can do this only by articulating silences, gaps and disjunctures in official documents and newspapers. Silences are the aporia through which living memories of people dissolve and are disowned. Tridib’s death, for example, is not reported in any newspaper. It is, however, remembered by his family and retrieved by the narrator in spite of the absence of written documents. “The novel transcribes speech,” as Gera would suggest, and stories in The Shadow Lines rely solely on memory. She thus calls it a “novel of memory” which vouches for “memory’s truth.”[23] Only memory can unsettle the scripted discourse of nationhood and expose the myth of the nation as a bounded territorial space that polices its citizens into a monolithic state-sponsored fantasy.

Memory as against recorded history, then, could be the antidote to heal the cartographic wound that is the nation. It gives the license to create and disseminate one’s own imaginary homelands and private fantasies, no less real than those circulated by the state. This entails writing the self into being and visibility, when narration itself becomes the house/healing space that the nation had promised but failed to be. Narrativising the self through re-membering shredded histories is thus the third redemptive possibility, vouched for by G.J.V. Prasad in the essay “Re-Writing the World: The Circle of Reason as the Beginning of the Quest,” in a refreshing release from the critical monomania with The Shadow Lines. Constructing one’s own narrative, role and significance is seen as the only way to escape somebody else’s imaginative diktat: “All these borders are constructs and meant for crossing. Perception is all-imagination and articulation can enable you to cross all such shadow lines, to ‘colonise’ other spaces, to find your place in your story.”[24] That is why most characters in this novel, from Zindi to Abu Fahl, tell stories. Narration invests their lives with meaning by shaping and connecting events.

If narration is redemption, can history be far behind? Narrativising the self is to write a story and thus, in an often invisible and yet subversive intervention, to re-write the world and its official histories. It “challenges the smugness of accepted narratives and points of view and the certainties of post-colonial borders,” as G.J.V. Prasad puts it.[25] History, as the dominant discourse often complicit with the master-narrative of nationalism, is embarrassed by these microhistories, the alternate dispersed stories narrated from the most unexpected nooks.

Thus this alternative historiography, very much a part of subaltern studies, becomes yet another possible cure from the colonial notion of the nation, as is evident in In An Antique Land. It is through connecting, guessing and articulating suppressed histories of the medieval Arab world and its trade-relations with India that a forgotten, parallel history of accommodation and interaction is recovered. The text relives the world of Bomma, the slave of MS. H.6, where differences were welcome and accommodation was the equation, as opposed to the modern violent idiom of “tanks and guns and bombs.”[26] Ultimately, history is a matter of choices. By choosing one set of stories over another, one might refuse to accept the partitioning of histories and make even the story of the slave of MS. H.6 part of academic shelves and maps of the western metropolis. Such microhistories expose the Enlightenment project of Knowledge and Reason (and tanks and guns and bombs) for what it is. Many critics like Nirzari Pandit in her essay “Subversion of History in/through Fiction,”[27] think Amitav Ghosh offers this perspective in his fiction. History no longer remains a privileged discourse. It becomes multiple stories of the masses.

The subaltern, at last, are entitled to their own discourses which often give the lie to “official facts” i.e. what the nation-state would have us believe. For example, as Anjali Gera points out, the grand narrative of the ahimsa brand of middle-class nationalism has conveniently appropriated and forgotten subaltern militancy.[28] Microhistories, often relying on spoken discourse of “word-of-mouth genealogy,”[29] as does the “story” of Tridib’s murder in a riot, explore alternative means of documenting events where elite, recorded historiography chooses to remain silent.

If Ghosh’s use of microhistorical methods–  imperfect memory and obscure characters mentioned casually in medieval manuscripts – in order to recover banished local histories from ruthless erasures of official documents have been hailed by some critics as showing the power of non-national memory and imaginings, there are others who accuse him of promoting project transcendentalism, a masternarrative more sinister than nationalism. As Ajanta Sircar complains in her essay “Individualising History,”[30] Ghosh rewrites/re-interprets history “through the ahistorical quality of ‘real desire.’”[31]

Thus, if cross-fertilisation, hybridity and the impossible fantasy of union across every boundary are Ghosh’s vision, then sex becomes his recurrent metaphor for them. May becomes the common object of fantasy of both Tridib and his nephew the narrator, who are fascinated by the Tristan-Isolde myth. Then, he guesses that Ben Yiju, the Egyptian merchant who had come to Mangalore from Aden, could have married Ashu, a slave-girl from the region, simply because he had given her early manumission in In An Antique Land. Poetically, the author defends himself for this concocted connection in his microhistory:  “Yet, since Ben Yiju chose, despite the obvious alternative, to marry a woman born outside his faith, it can only have been because of another overriding and more important consideration. If I hesitate to call it love it is only because the documents offer no certain proof.”[32]

Again, Dinu and Alison in The Glass Palace have an intense relationship, symbolic of the marriage of exiles and of a release from territorial nationalism, he being half-Burmese, half-Indian and she being half-Chinese and half-American. In The Hungry Tide, the deluge of the tide grants the Sunderban boatman Fokir and American cetologist Piya the consummation that life could not. By the sweeping wave, at last, they are “fused together and made one.”

Is transcendentalism, couched as sex between apparently impossible partners, being offered as the option besides, or rather, as a smart disguise of nationalism? Amit Choudhuri, another IWE author, seems to hold the latter opinion. Referring to Amitav Ghosh, he says in an interview with Krishna Sen:[33]

The ‘creation’ myths of modern India for them [the 1980’s IWE authors] were the freedom and partition of India. These were the creation myths that were dealt with, almost mystically…Take the mystical perception of that grand narrative of partition in The Shadow Lines, which involves the apotheosis of a creation myth. I think we are, now, going to get away from.[34]

The seduction quotient of nationalism, according to both Sircar and Amit Chowdhuri, is increased by investing it with the mystique of redemptive sex, as it were.

Most critics however hail Ghosh as a post-nationalist who celebrates local spaces rather than the imagined “-scape” of the nation–a relic of someone else’s imagination. At least he struggles against “the universal, irresistible metaphysic”[35] of violence that poses as meaning in any discourse on nationalism, the idiom of guns and tanks and bombs being the only one in which people today negotiate differences. Critics like Rakhee Moral in her essay “ ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’: The Glass Palace as Postcolonial Narrative,”[36] argues that Ghosh celebrates hybridity and globalisation. She even charts how post-modern nations are born and connected through dispersal and scattering of people. He, as Robert Dixon thinks, is the true maker of syncretic civilisations, at least in the textual space.

Many, however, take this apparently haloed discourse of globalisation with a pinch of salt. Internet, folklore/counterscience and disease connecting people across space and time in the virtual webbed world of The Calcutta Chromosome may seem inspiring when identities are increasingly becoming a function of difference. So might the Tridib-May affair. But as Rahul Sapra contests in “The Shadow Lines and the Questioning of Nationalism,” such globalism is naïve and fantastic–“by ignoring to deal with the complexities of globalism, it fails in suggesting any alternative.” [37] Kavita Daiya  reads into The Circle of Reason a critique of both nationalism and globalisation, for in this novel women like Karthamma are exported to West Asia only to serve as migrant sexual workers; they have a home neither here nor there. Rejection and uncertainty are the options they have to choose from. And, in The Hungry Tide, glimpses of the trauma of exodus lurk in the background, as in the case of Morichjhapi massacre or in Piya’s reluctant memories of her dying, defeated mother who could not survive the dislocation to the United States. Ghosh is not unaware of the grimmer sides of globalisation which often amounts to imposition of the culture/politics of powers that be.

Following the mode of “neti neti,” the most recent criticism on Amitav Ghosh seems to be left with one last saving grace as alternative to such residual, colonial categories as nationalism–the non-suspect category of travel. Travel becomes metonymic of all kinds of transference and exchange. The web/fantasy world of The Calcutta Chromosome[38] is the ultimate model of surreal/virtual travel across time, space and even bodies. Not only is movement the natural human condition–as evident in the constant crossovers throughout Ghosh’s fiction–even documents, knowledge-systems and epistemologies travel, e.g. the Geniza documents of Egypt , a collection of Jewish papers dispersed all over the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There was a mass exodus of these manuscripts to major European libraries in Vienna, Frankfurt, Oxford, Cambridge and so on. Egypt was not even left with a scrap of these papers, remnants of another world with an alternative outlook and priorities, thanks to the orientalist project of academic swindling and the latter-day Egyptian choice of projecting the strand of High Islamic culture as its only History.

Amitav Ghosh, when he travels to Philadelphia for his research, wonders at how documents tracing Bomma, “the toddy-loving fisherman from Tulunad,”[39] are protected by the American police and cared for by the spin-offs of mega-serials like Dallas and Dynasty, custodians of an intolerant, consumerist and modernist culture very different from what Bomma and Ben Yiju shared in the twelfth century. Ghosh quips, “Bomma, I cannot help feeling, would have been hugely amused.”[40]

Here, traveling becomes a radically subversive category. The archive is a synecdoche of postmodernism and postmodern theoretical practice, with its globalising tendency and its complicity with the most imperialistic aspects of the modern American state. It is ironical that it has become the custodian of Bomma, the nostalgic signifier of an exterminated world. Bomma’s laughter, spawned by a curious travel from the Egyptian geniza to the Annenberg Research Institute of Philadelphia, turns the conventionally orientalist discipline of cultural anthropology on its head. For, here the gaze is returned and ends in ridicule from the other, challenging the culture of monoliths and binaries. As Robert Dixon writes in the above-mentioned essay, “In Philadelphia, Amitav Ghosh might be travelling in the West, but his sly civility ensures that he is not travelling with the West.”[41]

Indeed, Bomma and Ghosh both travel–inadvertently or deliberately–to reconfigure the shelves of arrogant metropolitan academy. Ghosh’s research in In An Antique Land is “a challenging model to literary critics in the western academy whose critical practice involves the application of high theory to third world texts–we might call that ‘travelling in the East.’”[42] It is based on an autonomous epistemology where, instead of affiliating his text with high theory, he has spent years reading ancient manuscripts and talking to Egyptian peasants and arrived at his own conclusions about the twelfth century culture of Asian traders in the Indian Ocean route, so fabulously distorted/disowned by post-Enlightenment History. Bomma’s laughter remains the concluding gesture of the novel. He might still remain a mere footnote, the slave of MS. H.6 i.e. of textuality. But at least he has inserted himself into that degree of visibility. Ghosh has recovered the presence of the subaltern, and travel becomes a potentially radical, alternative mode of re-search into vanished histories and erased choices.

The Hitch:

The alternatives presented have a bewildering range, covering almost all that post-modernism has to offer. The debate with its competing voices would have remained happily open-ended ever after, arriving only at this consensus that “nationalism,” especially in Ghosh, is a dirty word. But through his interviews, Ghosh once again steals (and startles) the show with his own take on the issue. In an interview to Neluka Silva and Alex Tickell, he concedes that the term “post-colonial” rattles him[43]: “Colonialism is not what interests me. What is postcolonial? When I look at the work of critics, such as Homi Bhabha, I think they have somehow invented this world…They’ve retreated into a world of magic mirrors and I don’t think anyone can write from that sort of position.” Critics might be aghast, but Ghosh does not seem to be much concerned about this much hyped brand.

Ghosh is not against states. He has his own brand of multiethnic nationalism to flaunt. Much to the chagrin of his critics, Ghosh makes his unfashionably non-postmodernist stance amply clear in an interview to The Hindu in 3 September 2006:

It’s only when you’ve been in places where the nation-state doesn’t exist that you begin to see the advantages of the nation state. Especially the time I spent in Burma was very instructive to me because you see large swathes of the countryside where the nation state has ceased to exist. And you know what’s taken its place? Not freedom and liberty you know. What takes its place are warlords. And I see today that there is really a desperate struggle between forms of political order and essentially what is warlordism …

What I would want for the world is a world of secular and equal nation states. And I see that under absolute attack from two sides; from the empire on the one hand and from religious fundamentalism…And I think we have been very lucky here in India that somehow in some strange way our nation state has more or less survived and more or less made something possible…it seems to me what really needs to be preserved is the model of secular democracy such as ours. (emphasis mine)

Who would call Ghosh a post-nationalist after this? Also, unlike many other “post-national” authors of IWE, Ghosh has stuck to the Indian publishing houses Ravi Dayal and Permanent Black (recently Indian Penguin), though he could have commanded fairy-tale advances and huge royalties from neo-colonial publishing tycoons. This is creditable on the part of both author and publishing house, for Indian publishing industry has seen a steady boom in the last few years.

Ghosh does believe in nation, but with porous borders, unpartitioned and intertwined histories and as more of an intellectual/philosophical entity rather than a cartographic one. His model is closer to the vanquished older imaginings where nations were defined by centres (which often in themselves became metaphoric) and not territories. Arab travellers and geographers used the term al-Hind to roughly denote the area corresponding to the modern Indian subcontinent, though they knew very well that Hind was not a single political entity. They instead believed that it had a centre in the domain of the king of Ballahra, whose capital lay in Mankir. Amitav Ghosh interprets both Ballahra and Mankir as metaphors representing “India’s idiosyncratic ways of giving shape to its luxuriant diversity.”[44] Al-Hind is defined by its multiethnicity, resilience and flexibility, quite contrary to the imposed colonial model festering with partition and riots.

 

Implications of the Debate:

Post-colonialism is a convenient and queer hold-all. This ambiguity or, politically incorrectly value-confusion implicit in the word, is currently glamorous in the western academic industry, and has won a whole tribe of followers across both metropolitan and non-metropolitan academia. These complicit scholars suffer a strange angst about nationalism, especially when it comes to India. “India” for them is a redundant fantasy, not worth clutching onto when one has the mantra of “migrant ontology” that soon transforms one into a “free-floating, deracinated, nation-less intellectual, responsible to none” but himself and his desire. [45] Amitav Ghosh has his aura in IWE; this ideology would gain a lot by enlisting him in its club of converts. But Ghosh does not fit into the holdall. His texts resist such easy translation of data into the mould of pre-scripted theory. He engages with his own non-western, non-colonial, autonomous and constantly evolving version/s of the nation in novel after novel. Most scholars, in a classic instance of inverting Ghosh’s own methods of re-search in novels like In An Antique Land or The Glass Palace blindly appropriate his texts to suit the readymade theories of post-colonialism/post-modernism. The Shadow Lines apparently best invites such dissection. Hence the legion of essays on it.

Once erasure of the nation could be proved to be Ghosh’s primary mission, the rest becomes easy, only showcasing the casual alternatives now on offer in post-colonial discourse e.g. hybridity, migrancy and multiple memories. The debate about these alternatives stems from the axiomatic consensus about the “dead” nation. The author’s autonomous model of the nation is carefully ignored by keeping most of these discourses confined to a study of a few aspects of some extremely selective Amitav novels, except in Hind Wassef and Ajanta Sircar’s essays. It implies the power of global/metropolitan academia which refuses to tolerate defiance of or even variance from its prescribed models. Independent theories exploring alternative examples, like Bomma’s laughter, are quirky reminders of non-complicit survivors even in this age of aggressive academic surveillance/uniformity.

The debate, if titled campwise, could be branded “Ghosh vesus his Critics.” The stakes are huge. Is it possible for alterity to survive and compete outside the ghetto of contained subalternity? Can Ghosh resist critics from using his texts as models of US globalisation, a globalisation that refuses to understand or respect multiplicity in the first place?

A Critique on Critics, or a Metatheoretical Performance:

A blanket rejection of nationalism as a viable discourse has been read by most critics into Ghosh’s fiction. The alternatives they offer–whether memories, microhistories, multiculturalism or migrancy– tend to partition the subcontinent into fragments based on local identities, in an intellectual mission corresponding to the Balkanisation of India. Memories e.g. those of Thamma are essentially communal (the community here being the residents of Dhaka in her childhood); microhistories are claimed by subalterns as their exclusive privilege. Multiculturalism nowadays flaunts its centrifugality, and without projecting migrancy, how would IWE be chic and fashionable? If this represents one extreme range of attempts to claim Ghosh to the cause of the “glocal,”[46] the other end is similarly hysterical. It accuses Ghosh of transcendentalism (and thus of betraying the post-colonial Cause) and of offering a non-viable, since contemplative (and not activist), vision of the nation.

I think we need to take a fresh look at nationalism and/or its alternatives in Ghosh’s fiction, without the anxiety to use it as raw material in order to justify metropolitan theory. Fragmentation and transcendentalism are two extremes. Ghosh’s take on nationalism could be somewhere in between this binary or, given that most characters in his fiction suffer neither existential nor “exit-ential” dilemma, maybe he does not speak in terms of these binaries at all. When critics respond to Ghosh in terms of post-colonialism, colonialism remains the water-shed event in their gaze at history and nations. But to me Ghosh never seems to write back. He writes autonomously. Taking cue from his fiction and interviews, I think he is in quest of a home which becomes a version of dispersed India in each of his texts. This version is often neither pre- nor post-colonial. It refuses to play to binaries, just as it refuses to accept western classifications of history.

Ghosh’s is an alternative way of looking at history where folklore, geography and research documents combine and all narratives become strands of one great story, the sanatani “itihasa” which means “and thus it happened.” Thus MS. H.6, the Geniza documents in Philadelphia and the myths around Abu-Hasira intertwine with the Bhuta cult of Mangalore to produce the “history” that is In An Antique Land; the fantasy of counter-science and Mangala bibi, together with the research documents of Ronald Ross, produce the fictionalised history of The Calcutta Chromosome. The “history” of Sunderbans rendered in The Hungry Tide derives as much from Bernier’s text as from Mangalkavya, a medieval mode of religious composition, which describes local dolphins as Bonbibi’s messengers. Each of his texts becomes a dispersed India, with its loci as diverse as memory, vast cross-cultural geographies, folklores and forgotten manuscripts. Instead of choosing particular texts to prove pre-decided points, I think one could try doing a Ghosh on Ghosh, i.e. use his methodology of independent research, thinking and formulating one’s own theories and conclusions in order to study his works, before they dump the nation as a vestigial/sinister concept in his fiction.

Epilogue, or the Moral of the Narrative:

Is nation such a bad thing? The moral seems to be that one needs not grow hysteric whenever one encounters a western concept/model, especially of colonial origin. We need to cultivate a mature response to these (western) ideas, neither disowning them nor writing back to them in the victim mode. We could instead fashion our own models under the same brandname, as Amitav Ghosh seems to have done. “Dispersed India” is the Amitavian shade to the debate on nations. In his Plenary Lecture on the Ethnography of International Peacekeeping,[47] based on a set of notes on the functioning of UNTAC (United Nations’ Transitional Authority in Cambodia), Ghosh suggests that International peacekeeping could grow into a central political model besides the nation in this century in Asia, Africa and Central America, thanks to the constant tensions and low intensity conflicts in these areas.

In order to engage with such bold ideas, critics could constantly update themselves with creative criticism. They could forge new terms and ideas for critical currency in the field of IWE, terms which could adequately cope with resistant authors like Ghosh and their neo-notions in a less predictable mode. But for that, they should first try becoming self-respecting and independent thinkers, giving notions beyond metropolitan postal theories a chance. They could well exist in the metropolitan academic industry, without a total exit from the other, equally challenging paradigms of thought. (Ipsita Sengupta)


[1] To use Rukmini Bhaya Nair’s phrase from “The Road from Mandalay: Reflections on Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace”, Ed. Tabish Khair, Amitav Ghosh: A Critical Companion (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003), 162-74, 173.

[2] qtd. in Hind Wassef, “Beyond the Divide: History and National Boundaries in the Work of Amitav Ghosh”, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 18 (1998):75-95, 77.

[3] See Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak’s famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grosserg, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1988).

[4] Amitav Ghosh, In An Antique Land  (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal and Permanent Black, 1992), 282.

[5] “-scape” could be defined as virtual space which is infinitely flexible in its contours of representation, unlike the normativity of a pre-scripted and naturalised “space.”

[6] Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-91 (London: Granta, 1991), 26.

[7] Amitav Ghosh, Interview, “India and its Locations”, The Hindu Literary Review 3 Sept. 2006: 1.

[8] Bibhash Choudhury (ed), Amitav Ghosh :Critical Essays (New Delhi: PHI Learning,2009).

[9]  Tabih Khair (ed), Amitav Ghosh: A Critical Companion (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003).

[10] Amitav Ghosh has written an article titled “The Slave of MS. H.6” which was published in Subaltern Studies in 1992, and later anthologised in  The Imam and the Indian (Delhi: Ravi Dayal , 2002),168-245.

[11] Tabih Khair (ed), Amitav Ghosh: A Critical Companion, op. cit. vii.

[12] Anjali Gera, “Des Kothay? Amitav Ghosh Tells Old Wives Tales”, Ed. Tabish Khair, Amitav Ghosh: A Critical Companion., op.cit. 109-127.

[13] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread Of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1987), 13-15.

[14] Brinda Bose (ed), Amitav Ghosh: Critical Perspectives (New Delhi: Pencraft, 2003).

 

[15] Meenakshi Mukherjee, “Maps and Mirrors: Co-ordinates of Meaning in The Shadow Lines”, Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: OUP, 1995), 255-267.

[16] Kavita Daiya, “‘No Home But in Memory’: Migrant Bodies and Belongings, Globalization and Nationalism in The Circle of Reason and The Shadow Lines.” Ed. Brinda Bose, Amitav Ghosh: Critical Perspectives (New Delhi: Pencraft, 2003), 36-55.

[17] Vinita Chandra, “Suppressed Memory and Forgetting: History and Nationalism in The Shadow Lines”, Ed. Brinda Bose, Amitav Ghosh: Critical Perspectives, op.cit.  67-78.

[18] G.J.V. Prasad, “Re-Writing the World: The Circle of Reason as the Beginning of the Quest”, Ed. Brinda Bose, Amitav Ghosh: Critical Perspectives, op.cit. 56-66.

[19] Robert Dixon, “‘Travelling in the West’: The Writing of Amitav Ghosh”, Ed. Tabish Khair, Amitav Ghosh: A Critical Companion (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003), 9-35.

[20] Meenakshi Mukherjee, “Maps and Mirrors: Co-ordinates of Meaning in The Shadow Lines”, op.cit. 265.

[21] Amitav Ghosh, Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal, 1988), 237.

[22] Anjali Gera, “Des Kothay? Amitav Ghosh Tells Old Wives Tales”, op.cit. 121.

[23] ibid. 122.

[24] G.J.V. Prasad, “Re-Writing the World: The Circle of Reason as the Beginning of the Quest”, op.cit. 58.

[25]  ibid. 56.

[26] In An Antique Land, op.cit. 236.

[27] Nirzari Pandit, “Subversion of History in/through Fiction: A Study of The Shadow Lines and In An Antique Land”, Eds. Indira Bhatt and Indira Nityanandam, The Fiction of Amitav Ghosh (New Delhi: Creative Books, 2001), 133-141.

[28]Anjali Gera, op.cit. 121

[29] ibid.122

[30] Ajanta Sircar, “Individualising History: The Real Self in The Shadow Lines”, Social Scientist 19.12 (Dec. 1991): 33-46.

[31] ibid. 42; my italics.

[32] In An Antique Land, op.cit. 230.

[33] Amit Chaudhuri, Interview, Indian Writing in English: Proceedings of the First Harendralal Basak Lecture and Seminar (Kolkata: Department of English, Presidency College, 2003), 83-97.

[34] ibid. 93.

[35] This phrase occurs in In An Antique Land, op.cit. 237.

[36] Rakhee Moral, “‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’: The Glass Palace as Postcolonial Narrative”, Ed. Brinda Bose, Amitav Ghosh: Critical Perspectives, op.cit. 139-154.

[37] Rahul Sapra, “The Shadow Lines and the Questioning of Nationalism”, Eds. Indira Bhatt and Indira Nityanandam, The Fiction of Amitav Ghosh, op.cit. 57-66, 66.

[38] Amitav Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal and Permanent Black, 1992).

[39] In An Antique Land, op.cit. 348-49.

[40] ibid. 349.

[41] Robert Dixon, op.cit. 34

[42] ibid. 34.

[43] “An Interview with Amitav Ghosh”, Ed.  Brinda Bose, Amitav Ghosh: Critical Perspectives, op.cit. 214-221, 215.

[44] In An Antique Land, op.cit. 283.

[45] Makarand Paranjape, Towards a Poetics of the Indian English Novel (Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2000), 82; emphasis mine.

[46] The term “glocal” is a cross between “global” and “local,” suggesting how these two forces are often in sinister alliance. “Glocalisation” was first used by Roland Robertson in his exposure of this unity. Qtd. in Zygmunt Bauman, “After The Nation State–What?”, Eds. John Beynon and David Dunkerley, Globalization: The Reader (London: The Athlone Press, 2000), 250-60.

[47] Amitav Ghosh, “The Global Reservation: Notes towards an Ethnography of Peacekeeping”, Cultural Anthropology 9.3 (Aug. 1994): 412-422.

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A Personal Note on Diaspora

“Diaspora is the order of things.”

In the discourse of postcolonial cosmopolitanism or “glocal” celebration of metropolis postcoloniality, diaspora, as a metaphor, has accumulated three specific and interrelated meanings:

First, a portion of the people who have migrated/immigrated/been exiled from the so called third world countries to the developed ones (neo-colonial centres), more specifically to US and its satellites – the focus of this definition is on the word “portion” which is primarily represented by people like Homi K. Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Edward Said.

Second, the space, real or imagined or imaginary, that holds and nurtures the above mentioned portion/group/segment/class of people and enables them to come up with discourses of resistance and negotiation to create a third space. This third space exists within (and gets its nourishments from) the centres but posits itself to be outside of the inside and more important than both the centres and the peripheral “homelands” which are supposed to be brought by the third space to the centres in order to be appropriated.

Third, the sum total of all the discourses (specially written, and written in the language of the centre and the local/third world/vernacular/unknown-to-the-centre language must not enter) that contribute/subscribe/supplement to the growth and flow of “diaspora” from the centre to the peripheries, that means, diaspora becomes an exotic and esoteric commodity to be dispersed to the third world countries for consumption.

Diaspora, as a metaphor, is supposed to get the umbilical supply from its “homelands” and hold the “third space” as a forced stay in Babylon by the waters of which they sit down and weep and remember Zion. But, because of the acquirement of these meanings, this state of diaspora loses even a tangential relation with the meaning of “diaspeirein” (to scatter or sow the seeds) and all its metaphoric implications, and being devoid of the dialectical and dialogical relations, posits to be a space of “privilege” and maneuvers to use the umbilical cord as a means to supply back – the attempt that inevitably disrupts all the necessary properties of diaspora as a functioning metaphor.

The metaphor might not function well or it might cease to function at all; that is not a serious issue. What is alarming is the fact that diaspora welcomes and celebrates this dysfunctioning and insists on recognising and accepting it for something it is not, and thus creates epistemological and ontological aporia. And this aporia itself becomes “aporiac” when we think of the Bengali diaspora or, more specifically, Bangladeshi diaspora. Does Bangladeshi diaspora consist only of people like Adib Khan or Monica Ali whose diasporic state, as far as I know, is their own free choice? Or do the people who desperately go out to other countries to sell their physical labour, and face a fate that is worse than the indentured labourers, have something to the making of this diaspora? What about the Bangladeshi sex workers? Obviously, they do not count because they fail to generate and uphold the subversion of the metaphor, to transform a carefully chosen “exile” into a privileged position to speak back, to develop the dialogue of duality and deception that attempts to make the hell a heaven and heaven a hell (how should, as George Steiner laments, the word “spritzen” recover a sane meaning after having signified to millions the “spurting” of Jewish blood from knife points?) How can diaspora recover its history of agony and dream of thousands of years from the petty celebratory euphoria of deliberate subversion?

That diaspora privileges its dysfunctioning is exposed when it starts talking about regional diasporas or intra/internal diasporas. The contrastive use of these adjectives/adages (“regional”, “intra”, “internal”) necessitates the universal nature and status of the diaspora and exposes the implied play of binary relation of the diaspora with other diasporas. Do the “Bangals” (Bengalis who have, at different times, migrated to West Bengal from the eastern part of Bengal region or from Bangladesh and specially the Hindu Bengalis who left East Pakistan and came to West Bengal to accept this unknown country as their homeland) live in a state of diaspora? What about the Muslim Bengalis of West Bengal who were forced to migrate to East Pakistan (present Bangladesh)? Some of these people and their children and grandchildren have settled in and around Rajshahi city where they are still called “ghottee” or “chora” – these are very derogatory terms one of the points of which is that they are still outsiders. What about the Punjabis of both East and West? What about the Kashmiris in Pakistan and India? What about the Rohingyas? The Parsis? The communists of Iran? Of  US McCarthy Regime? We can attempt an endless list but these are not the diaspora. They lack the privileging and the necessary positioning in the total scheme of power relations. Only this diaspora deserves the prestige of being compared with the Diaspora, and of course, in a way, that disturbs/disrupts/subverts almost all the necessary associations which make the Diaspora such a handy metaphor for the present one.

One of the possible causes of this deliberate subversion and celebration is that diaspora has become a very effective tool, it does not matter whether willingly or under compulsion, for globalisation propaganda and has accommodated all the dualities that globalisation manipulates for its working.  Sometimes I wonder, whether this diaspora should be considered as a continuation of the European Orientalism or as a separate system that  has its own unique properties to accommodate, and simultaneously, serve the neocolonial world-order called globalisation. And perhaps, this unholy umbilical relation with the most powerful and rapacious one-eyed monster that human intelligence/stupidity has ever created gives diaspora such a sense of privilege and growing prestige that it disrupts/denies its originary relation with the homelands and propagates ideas/texts/commodities which cater the light of civilisation to the “homelands” and thus, carries the diasporic man’s burden.

This transformation of the umbilical life-giving feeding line into a commercial supply line essentialises the assertion of the third space as a privileged centric virtual reality which sometimes makes us wonder whether the Jewish community in USA is a diaspora or Israel itself has attained the diasporic state. This also reminds us of the state of Bangladeshi diaspora living/staying/settling in the centres and the Bangladeshi writers/poets/intellectuals/academicians who are writing in English in Bangladesh where we do not, fortunately/unfortunately, have even one percent of the population whose first language is English. Weiser’s or Castells’ proposition about “real virtuality” has, for a long time, disturbed me with confusing and self-contradictory assertions, but the state of this “postcolonial” diaspora enormously helps me understand the meaning of Castells’ phrase. This diasporic third space enables and ushers in the ultimate age of real virtuality.

But, in the meantime, the third world countries fail to reach the state of postcoloniality and this is their own failing because the rabbits always cause the trouble. The rise of interactive networks of free market, global economy, the machines of multinational enterprises, strategies of using food as weapons, manipulation of war situations for arms trafficking and the free flow of the produces of the diaspora into the “homelands” entails endless ordeals for the postcolonial/neocolonial/eternally colonised countries. This real life horror-show, this everyday simple but terrible struggle to survive, this enduring state of suffering humanity endlessly fail to rise to the level of virtual reality which would be the limbo to the ultimate truth of real virtuality. (Abdullah Al Mamun)

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Bangladesh Revisited: A Monograph on Adib Khan’s Fiction

 “RIGHT and WRONG are woefully inadequate words to describe the greyness of the worlds I traverse”  (Adib Khan, Spiral Road, 229)

Adib Khan, a Bangladeshi author based in Australia, attracted an international readership when his debut novel Seasonal Adjustments (1994) bagged a number of prestigious awards, including the 1995 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. After this impressive arrival Khan added four more novels to his credit: Solitude of Illusions (1996), The Storyteller (2000), Homecoming (2003) and Spiral Road (2007). Although Khan may go on to add to this number, it is at present a large enough oeuvre for the application of an “engaged” analysis. This monograph aims to offer such an analysis, while dealing primarily with the texts that are centred on Bangladesh.

In this study I have a number of different yet overlapping engagements: first, I situate Khan in the context of the South Asian, more particularly, Indian and Bengali, diaspora[1] and show how his “home narratives” participate, either voluntarily or unconsciously, in the contemporary hegemonic politics of the publishing industry in the West that thrives on exoticisation and commodification of (ethnic) culture. Secondly, I demonstrate how Khan’s fiction, ideologically, posits itself against the all-pervasive operation of reductive stereotyping, homogenisation, and binary polarities intrinsic to the dominant discourses of race, religion, nationalism and identity formation.  Finally, I probe Khan’s fictional intervention in the contemporary history, politics, and socio-religious milieu of his country of origin.

For convenience of discussion, I have divided this monograph into four sections. The first section discusses a set of theoretical issues concerning the politics of home and diaspora, and attempts to discern how the writer’s present diasporic location has shaped his representation of “home,” in other words, how his own perspectives and world-view are influenced by the event of migrancy and its attendant anxieties. The second part deals with his revisit to the country’s history especially his fictional delineation of the liberation war, and compares his treatment of the event with the dominant literary-political perception of the same, with the huge literary-political industry in Bangladesh which takes its inspiration from the cataclysm of 1971. The next section attempts a critique of Khan’s representation of the social, cultural and economic condition of the country while the final section analyses his depiction of  issues relating to religion and terrorism which is of course one of the major concerns in Khan-narratives, particularly his latest novel Spiral Road.

Setting the scene: the migrant author’s musings on home, his oeuvre and worldview

Adib Khan’s writings are unmistakably coloured by his own status and experience as a migrant. Khan, however, believes that his “splintered life is not entirely the result of migration. It was a natural consequence of an upbringing that was strongly influenced by history.”[2] In his tellingly titled personal essay “In Janus’ Footsteps” he offers an account of his upbringing in the 1950s and 60s postcolonial subcontinent which was strongly affected by the cultural and institutional legacy inherited from the British. The author is aware of the diverse nature of influences that have shaped him: his early education in an English medium school in Dhaka, his exposure to Christian and Islamic texts, his peripatetic life through continents– all instilled in him a broad understanding of humanity where xenophobia was never even a glimmering possibility. But then the cost of this enriching vision is nothing less: it sets him eternally on the path to cultural fragmentation. In his own words, “on the one side there were Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare and Milton. On the other there were the influences of The Ramayana, Mahabharata, the Moghul poets, Iqbal and Tagore. The two sides met, not in combat, but in a synthesis of ideas out of which I emerged considerably enriched in thought and feeling,” but only at the cost of a secured identity, a “clearly defined sense of belonging to a monocultural society.”[3]

Despite this gnawing sense of insecurity and non-belonging, Khan’s plural identity gives him an ability to look at other territories and points of view, and recreate them in fiction. An immigrant, the issue of identity and belonging, naturally, assumes centrality in his life, so much so that even the return home means risking another migration. Yet memories of Bengal live, and travel with him, and he says he wishes to return to his roots: “I would like to end up in Bangladesh. Complete the circle.”[4]

Khan is only too aware that for a diasporic being, home often resides in memory. He quotes from Rousseau’s Confessions for his Epigraph to Solitude of Illusions, his second novel: “Memory often failed me or furnished but imperfect recollections, and I filled up space by details supplied by imagination to supplement those recollections.” Memories play a pivotal role in the Khan-texts; they are intensely subjective, and an alloy of dreams, desires and contrary possibilities in a migrant’s life. Home becomes once-upon-a-time and space, banished from real geographies to dreamscapes, where desolation is the human condition. For Khan Diaspora is an odyssey of pain, angst and the unpeace of non-belonging, where Memory may masquerade as threat, guilt or self-surveillance, and history becomes an archive of fragile stories narrated from varied points of view. For transnational writers like him, shards of memory may not have the assurance of linearity or wholeness, but they are, nonetheless, fountainheads of creative reconstruction of home. Rushdie describes this vision as fragmentary in a productive sense : “he[the expatriate] is obliged to deal in broken mirrors … but  the broken mirror may actually be as valuable as the one which is supposedly unflawed … fragmentation made trivial things seem like symbols, and the mundane acquired numinous qualities.”[5] Finally, Khan’s own words in his essay “Writing Homeland” aptly describe his notion of home:

It is an amalgamation of remembrances, half-truths, fragmented images, gaunt shadows, snatches of conversations and yearnings, structured into a shimmering mirage by an imagination that feeds itself uneasily on an awareness of the discrepancy between the way it was and the way it possibly is.[6]

Seasonal Adjustments, Khan’s debut novel, is set in contemporary Dhaka, and an imaginary village called Shopnogonj. The village is almost mythical; it is without connection with the world outside:  “a replica of the thousands of villages which confirm the rural primitivism of Bangladesh.”[7] The subsequent three Khan novels –Solitude of Illusions, The Storyteller, Homecoming – however reveal only a tangential concern with Bengal or the displacement experienced by migrants. But with his latest, his fifth novel, Spiral Road Khan is back yet again to Dhaka and rural Bangladesh to re-explore, albeit through his trademark family saga, the rise of terrorism in his native land. Seasonal Adjustments and Spiral Road are thus the texts which are primary for this monograph.

While Khan’s fictional treatment of “home” is detailed and inclusive, it does not really succeed in projecting an insider’s engagement. In fact, many diaspora writers are criticised on the ground of their having lost touch with the objective everyday reality back home; it is often argued that their home narratives are essentially framed by memory and distance and that the world they take their readers into is, consequently, filled with fragmentations and distorted images. However, in opposition to this, an equally noticeable tendency among writers and theorists is to regard dislocation/distance as an enabling condition. Monica Ali, for example, states metaphorically in an interview with Dhaka’s Daily Star, “Standing neither behind a closed door, nor in the thick of things but rather in the shadow of a doorway is a good place from which to observe.”[8] Then, to follow Rushdie’s logic,the very partial nature of his (an expatriate author’s) memory and imagining would rather make his text the more evocative as trivial things in this context transform into symbols, just as for the archeologist mere potsherds lead to a vivid and exciting, but not always factually accurate, reconstruction of the past.[9]

The point then remains that, diasporic spaces, rather than leading to a senseless pastiche, actually provide such writers with a double vision; that is, a unique perspective as outsider-insiders, from which certain significant critical perceptions about homeland become possible.[10]In The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (1990), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak remarks that she is “not at home in either of the places” she inhabits (Bengal and the USA), yet she views this as an advantage, since she feels “it’s important for people not to feel rooted in one place.”[11] While talking about her debut novel, A Golden Age (2007) Tahmima Anam reiterates that her “slight outsider’s perspective” only made her novel “slightly more acceptable to a wider audience.” [12]  Likewise, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni also feels that the expatriate condition, though painful as experience, has been good for her as a writer. “It made me realise,” she reflects, “what immigrants go through, placed in unfamiliar situations, visually a minority, their extended family, close neighbourhood, people they grew up with, all gone … But there’s also growth, excitement, challenges. An immigrant learns to adjust, to balance paradoxes.”[13]

Nevertheless, this diasporic position, however fruitful, is problematic as well, especially from the perspective of reception where the culture of adoption wishes to see through the text the culture of the “other,” while the culture of origin wants to assess the authenticity of self-reflection, and very often the writer is assailed either for misrepresenting a reality, or catering to hegemonic market forces.[14] As Jasbir Jain explains, the work of a diasporic writer attracts the attention of two different sets of readers – the West looks for familiar landmarks, a West-centric vision, while the reader at home seeks his own validity – and the writer is trapped between the two.[15]

True, “sometimes distance brings perspective and it becomes easier to dwell on issues in isolation and detachment,”[16] but then, as Rushdie opines, “too much distance can remove one from knowing the place altogether. It’s about striking the right balance between the imagined, invented memory and the real thing.”[17] To what extent this balance is maintained in Khan’s narratives is, of course, one of the topics of discussion here.

Khan tries to bring within the fold of his narratives almost everything that he comes across in Bangladesh: street scenes, urban as well as rural lives, social and religious rituals, intellectual and cultural life, impressions of family, friends and others. His fiction thus becomes chronicles of socio-cultural, economic, and political condition of his motherland, but as is already mentioned, it does not really succeed in providing the impression of a first-hand observation of the issues it claims to represent. The repetitive appearance of the similar set of socio-cultural aspects/icons rather embodies the author’s almost futile attempt at verisimilitude, that is, at evocation of the Bengali life and ethos, and an insider’s view of Bangladesh’s “heat and dust, smells and colours,” and thereby betrays his anxiety about authenticity too.[18]

Because Khan is writing his native land and humanscape from abroad, it is only pertinent to probe how his present location outside of Bengal shapes his attitudes towards home and affects his representation of the same. Understandably, the uncertainties with which a writer who has left his homeland speaks about it can hardly be the same as those of one located securely within it; the act of leaving home and settling elsewhere shapes the writer’s sensibility and consequently, his text in a unique way. While he gains first hand knowledge of immigrant experience, he loses touch with home reality. This may turn his representation of the economic, social and political scenario back home either exaggerated/under-rated or mere prefabricated generalisations. Moreover, as most such writers belong to the “new” diaspora,[19] that is, those who left homeland largely to better their material prospects, these depictions often become the act of justifying homeleaving.

The expatriate writers’ identity remains at once plural and partial, a “half-life” as Naipaul would say, and their narratives usually record paradoxical personal realities: “Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.”[20] Thus, they remain at best informed and critical outsiders, but never total insiders; and ultimately, there is bound to be a difference in the way in which the diaspora writes the mother country and the mother country writes itself. As an Indian critic argues, citing Naipaul and Rushdie as examples, these diasporic authors are not addressing India or Indians, they are addressing the West; their primary allegiance is to the West.[21]  Thus they appropriate space at home, as Jasbir Jain argues, only “for self-sustenance abroad.”[22] In fact, for some diaspora writers, home remains largely a canvas for magical interpretations to spoon-feed western readers information about race and migration. Indeed, the diasporic projection of homeland, as it is conceived from a marginal position, differs from a resident people’s reality who can afford to forget the western pressure if they so desire.

To counter the much repeated accusation of lack of authenticity and legitimacy of representation, the diasporic writers, of course, insist on their freedom to write on whatever they choose, however they choose to. Indeed, these writers strive to retrieve individual experiences and memories imaginatively and put them together to constitute a meaningful narrative. This monograph therefore studies the texts as they are, that is, as works of fiction, and is aware that fiction, being a “simultaneously honourable and suspect”[23] category, always has a tenuous relationship with reality, and therefore, one should not expect a “think-tank report” or “news” or for that matter a “normative” historical record of a people, place and culture from them. Interestingly, this corresponds well to the inevitable, perhaps intrinsic, fictionality of all homes: “A place does not merely exist, it has to be invented in one’s imagination”;[24] and so we have Amitav Ghosh declaring confidently that “the more complicated the world becomes, the greater is the need for it [fiction]. Fiction explains the world, gives a shape to the world, represents it, makes it understandable.”[25]

Adib Khan’s fiction does not indulge in a “chest-beating exercise about a community’s superior virtue”; [26] rather, his is an obviously pessimistic documentation of a country and its people; he projects the country’s history as a grim catalogue of chaos, army coups and political agitations, of poverty, hunger, insurmountable corruption and “the fragile semblance of democracy” (Seasonal 31). With “tourist brochure thoroughness” [27] his protagonist deals with well-known varieties of “Third World iniquity and grotesquerie” which justifies his decision to become a migrant. The writerly freedom to envision this sort of “wasteland” – remember Khan’s claim, “the only authenticity I am concerned about is how honest I am to my imagination”[28] – cannot be denied, but then a critic, of course, has the discretion to point out implications of the writer’s choice. The present study thus attempts to examine in detail Khan’s picture of Bangladesh in his fiction, and question the poetics/politics of his representation of various socio-economic, political, religious and cultural issues. It probes into the accusation of his portrait’s being in line with orientalist stereotyping or having to do with his own anxiety, as a migrant, of loyalty and betrayal to the native culture and tradition. This study also examines Khan’s treatment of the dilemmas the carriers of dual histories face in their attempt to negotiate two conflicting worlds one the one hand, and the ambivalent native perception about probashi Bengalis on the other. The monograph also discusses how Khan-texts present the dialectics between orthodox/fanatic and liberal/syncretic Islamic traditions within Bengali society and how Catholicism, racial bigotry and hatred in Australia parallel the existence of the similar set of evils back home in Bangladesh.

In Seasonal Adjustments Chaudhary’s yearning for home is fraught with the realisation that this is no longer a matter of simple identification: “Eighteen years is a very long time; long enough to realise that for a migrant the word home is fraught with ambiguities” (Seasonal 61). Spiral Road also explores the issues of home and migration, identity and loyalty through the shifting and fractured identity of the protagonist Masud Alam who was born and brought up in Bangladesh and now works as a librarian in Melbourne. When Masud’s elder brother expresses his displeasure about his not having “any intention of coming back home permanently,” Masud retorts, “Home? It’s not a physical location anymore. More like several places in the mind. I like the flexibility of such an arrangement.”[29] Yet, once being back in the city where he was born fifty-three years ago, he is overwhelmed with mixed emotion – “Regret, nostalgia, dread and curiosity.” He reflects: “I doubt if I’ll ever come back to live here again, and yet there’s an elusive being within me that wants to redefine belonging, and whispers about homecoming and mortality. About ending where I began. About a completion to the circle of life” (170). However, on his return, he realises only too quickly that it is almost impossible to adjust to “the new reality here,” as it not only requires tackling the changes in people around him but also confronting the “foreignness” of a city that he once called his own. Wherever he goes the land elicits his “migrant guilt” as he finds bits of him scattered all over the places. He is aware he can not be an Australian either: “I can never be an Australian the way you are … for example I don’t feel as strongly about certain iconic events like Anzac Day, I comprehend its significance in the country’s history, but without any depth of personal feeling” (240), he once told Steven Mills, the Australian spy in Bangladesh. Where, then, does Masud belong to? His loyalty, as he answers, does not lie with any religion or race of people, neither does he believe in making a virtue out of patriotism; in fact, he considers himself “neither a traitor nor a blind patriot.” According to him: “Splinters of loyalty are scattered across my life, but I don’t have the skill to reconstruct them into a unified whole and place it permanently in any one country. It’s not necessarily a satisfactory state of being, but then neither is an insular view of the world based on limited experiences” (241).

Masud Alam reminds readers much of Iqbal Chaudhary of Seasonal Adjustments. While it was only Masud who fought in the country’s independence war, both of them suffered from post-war disillusionments and abandoned Bangladesh for Australia soon after the war. Both came from the Bengali landowning class, and were trained in the bastion of English-medium education in Dhaka. Both returned home after a prolonged absence to pick up threads where they were left off; but of course, as Salman Rushdie so aptly puts it, they “will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost.”[30] Iqbal Chaudhary finally returns to Australia dejected, while Masud’s intentions are left more ambiguous.

It is obvious that one common factor of alienation, for expatriates, stems from emotionally dwelling on what once was; Khan’s protagonists, as we find, experience alienation first from their native land, next from their adopted home, and finally from what the former has become during the years they have been away.  Khan himself reveals:

The notion of home for a migrant is a very peculiar one. Physically I am home. I have lived in the same house in Ballarat for twenty three years, and yet in an emotional sense, as I grow older, I still look back to the house where I grew up – and it’s not there anymore, and that’s a traumatic experience … and people say if you are that bloody ungrateful, then why don’t you go back. It’s not as simple as that.[31]

“As a first-generation migrant you probably sacrificed the right to belong” (117), Iqbal was reminded by his Dhakaite friend Iftiqar. In Australia, Iqbal feels, he has nothing to hang on to with conviction, nothing he can really call his own; but then, it is still “a very livable country,” and the seduction of “the common [Australian] dream of a brick-veneer house on a quarter of an acre of land” (122) has been irresistible. At the end of the novel, during his last visit to his ancestral village Shopnogonj, Iqbal craves for “the security he once knew,” but in vain: “the womb” is there alright, but he could not fit into it anymore; he prepares therefore to endure, for life, “the lonely burden” of a migrant’s dissatisfaction which no one else will understand.

For characters in the texts of many South Asian diaspora writers, home remains an intriguing, even elusive concept: often it is a lonely escape to an alternative reality from a defeated present, sometimes a bundle of betraying memories and longings, sometimes a wholly imagined idyllic hub, and, very rarely, a practically existing, cartographic space ready for return. In fact, when home becomes a series of mental images or a mythic space of desire, it automatically ceases to be a place of any real return. Agha Shahid Ali’s poem, “Postcard from Kashmir” describes how nostalgia purifies the poet’s memory to fit the postcard image of the absent landscape so that home becomes no longer a topographical space but an arrested, idealised photographic moment, or in Sudesh Mishra’s words, “an unattainable possibility.”[32] The Bengali diasporic authors and most of their characters do not seek a physical home back in Bengal; they have moved on from overwhelming nostalgia for a geographical site to making homes in their minds and memories. In Sunetra Gupta’s Memories of Rain the now-Londoner protagonist Moni, however, can be cited as an apt foil for Iqbal Chaudhary in Seasonal Adjustments: while Chaudhary feels relieved at the thought that he no longer has to inhabit his country’s embarrassing poverty, hunger and chaos, Moni decides to return to her Kolkata, “the city, whose tired blistered nipples she had pushed aside with disdainful lips,”[33] with a desire of regaining lost intimacy and attending to her sores and thus expiating her sin of “betrayal.”  In her unmistakable rootedness and insiderness, in her owning of her city and its culture, however deficient it might presently be, Gupta’s Moni embodies a response, a form of resolution and agency which is distinctly different from the responses of any of those critical outsiders like Chaudharys who crowd many a diaspora narrative.

In this connection, it can also be noted that the sketches of Bengal and Bengalis in Monica Ali or Adib Khan appear to be rather fragmentary, clichéd and superficial/simplistic at times; and both Seasonal Adjustments and Brick Lane are based on an apparent resolution of the home/diaspora crisis – they seem to write off the old country either in favour of an immigrant status in Australia or with an alternative, tightly-knit, newly discovered home in Banglatown. Khan’s representation of “home,” in addition, is particularly guilt-ridden; the authorial perspective remains loaded with an anxiety of justifying homeleaving that negatively impacts the portrayal of Bangladesh.

Khan’s protagonists, to a significant extent, retrace their author’s own trajectory of life.  There are parallels between the author and his characters in age, ethnicity and background. It seems that Khan uses his own experiences of cultural fragmentation to deal with betrayals and inconsistencies, with the idealism and the bigotry that infest “nationalism,” and also to illustrate the lack of secure identity of those who are alienated from their country of birth.  Khan has been (physically) back to Bangladesh several times, most recently in 1999, but he says he can no longer find his way around his hometown Dhaka: “the familiar landmarks have disappeared,” he reveals to Carol Middleton.[34] Bangladesh could no longer anchor him; he has no family left to visit in Bangladesh, everyone dispersed around the world after the “horror” of 1971. For Khan, the communication with his native land has thus become faint over the years, but he creates characters who still have family ties that bind them to Bangladesh. In Spiral Road Masud Alam returns home, though he finds that the changes in the landscapes, people and family members happen to be more than he can cope with. Moreover, the returning son has “dark corners” of his memory and prefers to recall his past selectively, in particular his time as freedom fighter. His choice of an inconspicuous life abroad is deliberate, influenced particularly by the events in 1971 that saw him hailed as a hero and yet left him damaged in soul.  Having participated in this war as a dedicated and idealistic nationalist, he ends up being branded by the national army as an insurgent/miscreant. The story opens thirty years after Masud’s departure from Bangladesh and twelve years after his last visit to it. His entry into Bangladesh with an Australian passport and the lengthy interrogation that it entails, emphasises the outsider persona into which Bangladeshi airport officials force him. Ironically, it is when they recall his “heroic” activities in the war that he is permitted to enter Dhaka. This belated national recognition of his past, however, further antagonises Masud against its earlier “betrayal” of him, and he continues to express the desire to escape to Melbourne. But, in the final pages of the novel, Masud makes an impulsive decision not to return. He has come to recognise an essential part of himself that he has tried so deliberately to deny: that his connections to his family, with all their chaos and emotional charging, are more who and what he is, than his unchallenged routine and soulless life in Melbourne.

Melbourne is “soulless,” but then, Bangladesh is also never idealised in Spiral Road; it is no utopia in Masud’s imaginary. Nor does Khan reflect a transnational or global identity that moves easily from nation to nation, and culture to culture, absorbing the best of both, but a dichotomous fissured subjectivity, constantly renegotiating the self within the homeland and the hostland. The significance of being and its place in the shifting, multiple subjectivities as one fumbles through the diasporic journey are reiterated in the novel by its protagonist: “Fragmentation has grown in me here. I feel emotionally torn. All these landscapes are too diverse to unify my thinking. The wandering migrant…. The roaming atheist. The sense of loss is maddening because I’m unable to pinpoint the reasons for the regret I feel” (170).

 

 

 

Plunge into macro-history: war for independence, and the discourse of sanctification 

Khan’s fourth novel Homecoming is set in Australia and about a Caucasian Vietnam veteran, Martin Godwin, who is troubled by guilt because of his silence at the atrocities he witnessed in the jungles of Vietnam. Godwin tries to achieve peace of mind through many different routes: arts, philosophy, psychotherapy, relationships and so on. The moral, personal price for that silence, the terrible alienation that besets its survivors, emerges gradually and forcefully. The fictional delineation of the Vietnam War and the associated moral issues in Homecoming embody its author’s philosophical and ethical position in regard to wars in general, and is continuous with the kind of depiction that Seasonal Adjustments and Spiral Road offer on the Bangladesh War of 1971. In his interview with Chris Beck, Khan reminisces: “In 1971 I was one of those helpless civilians caught in the war between what was East Pakistan and West Pakistan. That left an indelible scar in the sense that you realise what a horrible, vicious thing war is, that there is absolutely no glory in it.”  In this connection he refers to Konrad Lorenz who, back in the 1960s, prophesied that there would always be war: “It’s almost like a ritual. It is a form of camaraderie, in a perverse way.” According to Lorenz, “the communal form of letting out your aggression is war,” and that it is a genetic thing that we somehow need aggression for survival as primates and we have never really got over that. [35]

While his fictional narratives, of course, do not intend to give the reader a history lesson, and they remain, indeed, primarily individual/family stories, nevertheless, the war for independence of Bangladesh in 1971 has come to occupy a significant space in both the novels; this war was formative as well as catastrophic for his heroes. And it is significant that Khan’s fictional resistance to the attempts of absolute glorification or mythicisation of the event by the Bengalis has made his books distinctive as well as “provocative.” Khan’s 1971 narrative appears to challenge the dominant, nationalist historiographies that construe this war as a linear narrative. While the normative paradigm revolves around a rather romanticised, one-sided interpretation of the subject in the Bengali academic/literary discourses, Khan seems to problematise the prevailing monolithic national discourse of Liberation mainly in two ways: first, by situating it in the broader spectrum of war happening since the beginning of human civilisation which only manifests the perennial presence of violence within human nature. He philosophises that war in general, whatever be its objective, is “a horrible, vicious thing”[36] and “Nothing is worth the loss of lives” (Spiral 301). Second, through a more empirical study, by juxtaposing, for example, the Pakistani genocidal rampage in Dhaka in the midnight of March 25, 1971 with the after-war indiscriminate slaughter of Biharis by “victorious” Bengalis in “the hysteria of revenge” (Seasonal 117). The term “Bihari,” as we find, is used to conflate all Urdu-speaking people from India into one group, no matter whether they come from Bihar or from Lucknow and Delhi; [37]  they reside in their makeshift homes in Karachi or in their camps in Dhaka. Many Urdu-speaking Biharis turned against the movement for Bangladesh, and even acted as auxiliary forces to the Pakistan army during the war of 1971, and they continue to be punished for the choice. Khan seems to suggest that the fashion of treating Bengali and Bihari as antonyms in the study of Bangladesh war is an obstacle to proper understanding of the event as it tends to turn a highly complex narrative into something far too simplistic.

The Khan-texts thus appear to be attempting at least a semblance of balance: when Pakistan Army is, undoubtedly, ruthlessly savage, Bengali freedom fighters are not without blemishes too, precisely because both the parties are entangled in war that inevitably involves killing and counter-killing, as every war does. Khan has indicated here essential limitations, or “evils,” embedded in any idealism, be it political, religious or nationalist; and also documented the essential violence and savagery that characterises any war. This is clearly a dispassionate, humanist and philosophical standpoint that acknowledges the right to existence for contending points of view, and is averse to the waste of human lives, no matter whichever camp a particular individual/community belongs to. His narratives, therefore, refuse to script epics on war heroes, and to accept the winner’s version of history. He neither defends Pakistani atrocities nor attempts to lighten their crime; and at the same time, he does not accept each and every action of the Bengali freedom fighters, although they happen to belong to his own race, uncritically. Khan, like his protagonists, thus falls short in fulfilling terms of the strict nationalistic definition of a patriot. His narratives point fingers at the manipulative silences– it is, we know, easier to write off than to come to terms with– in the official/dominant narratives of liberation in Bangladesh forged in the country’s media, literature, government-records and academic research, and thereby stresses the need to break out of the intellectual insularity and distortions in the existing practices of historiography of the 1971 Liberation War.

In a way, the alternative micro-histories articulated through individual memories and fictional recordings come to pose an important challenge to the aggressive macro-fantasy of nationhood that thrives on dis(re)membering the other, while rigidly drawing boundaries through war and bloodshed.  Memory can unsettle the scripted discourse of nationhood and expose the myth of the nation as a bounded territorial space that polices its citizens into a monolithic state-sponsored fantasy. Memory as against recorded history, then, could be the antidote to heal the wound that is the national history, the one circulated by the state. History, as the dominant discourse often complicit with the master-narrative of nationalism, is embarrassed by these microhistories, the alternate dispersed stories narrated often from the unexpected nooks. Right from the outset of the narrative in Seasonal Adjustments there is a personalised mapping of the political upheavals of late 1960s Pakistan which culminated in the liberation of Bangladesh, and also of its aftermath – post-war Bangladesh. The novel describes those tumultuous days of early 1971: Sheikh Mujib’s 7th March speech in Dhaka; General Yahya’s demonic wrath; the magnetic unity of Bengalis and their chant of Joi Bangla in processions; the army crackdown on March 25 when “Dhaka had closed its eyes like a weary Duncan, unaware of stealthy footsteps of treachery” (111); the atrocities of Pakistani soldiers, their “genocidal rampage” (181); and the “callous indifference of Punjabi civilians fed on propaganda and lies” (162). Then, what the protagonist of the novel, Iqbal Chaudhary left behind is a newly created Bangladesh just recovering from a bloody war, anxious to establish its identity as an independent nation.

It would perhaps be pertinent, at this point, to note that there is a point of convergence between the novels of Adib Khan and his younger contemporary, Tahmima Anam; both of them place individuals’ stories at the centre, not national or patriotic metamyths, which are, of course, always present in the background. Anam’s debut, A Golden Age (2007) – hailed by a critic as “the defining Bangladeshi novel of 1971,” [38] the fictional equivalent of Jahanara Imam’s Ekattarer Dingulo or Mayedul Islam’s Muldhara, two major non-fictional narratives of 1971 – closely spans the war-torn months of 1971. In the tumultuous landscape that was then East Pakistan, Anam “lays bare a mother’s ordeal in the gulf between the two Pakistans.”[39] It is significant that the protagonist Rehana Haque is not Bengali, but “Urdu-speaking,” and is drawn almost reluctantly into the resistance.”[40] As the author herself says, “Rehana is an unintentional hero. The war is going on, but she’s just in it to protect her children.”[41] Anam thus presents her protagonist as a woman who is not an automatic and passionate nationalist, but rather as one who detests the filth and the poverty of refugee camps, and who becomes enamoured with the idea of “Shonar Bangla” only because that is what her children’s lives revolve around.[42] In A Golden Age, parallel to the story of the tortured road to national independence, runs the equally touching tale of Rehana’s own liberation from her previous small, constricted life, and her transformation into a quiet “hero.” Both Anam and Khan are highly sensitive artists who are more touched by these human stories/tragedies of the war than the actual war. I recall here Bangladesh’s noted film director Tanvir Mokammel’s words that he recently communicated to Dhaka’s Bangla Daily Prothom Alo when asked about his documentary on the liberation war: “1971 is to be understood not as a mere armed fight, but more as a time of deep human tragedy; massive, heart-rending tragedies befell millions of families and the lives of innumerable individuals during the war.”[43]

Khan’s narratives do not fail to expose the incorrigible colonial mentality of West Pakistan; for Bengalis in East Pakistan this was indeed yet another colonial regime. The derogatory and discriminatory treatment of Bengalis as a race at the hands of West Pakistanis is reminiscent of “the operative British imperialist classification.”[44] This history of discrimination was the major theme in Bengali resistance literature of the 1950s and 60s.[45] But, along with the West Pakistani oppression, both prior to and during the war, Khan brings into his narratives the other side of the picture, the not-so-noble acts of Bengali “patriots,” especially their indiscriminate killing, after their victory in December 1971, of Biharis across the country, whom they considered as collaborators of the Pakistan Army. The narrator of Seasonal Adjustments recounts:

Once I fled in fear and shame. I have never been intensely patriotic. That was a moral failing, I was sternly reprimanded during the war. I remember expressing my distaste for a photograph depicting a Bengali patriot proudly displaying the severed head of a Pakistani soldier. I was made to feel like a traitor. They began it. We must do the same to them. Our dignity must be restored. Our acetylene hatred ignited a frenzy of self-righteous revenge against the Pakistanis and later became a volatile catalyst to activate the slaughter of their Bihari supporters. I turned my back on a nation born in agony, its soul deformed by loathing.  (8)

The references to “a frenzy of self-righteous revenge” and the tortured birth of a nation whose soul is “deformed by loathing” signify Khan’s self-conscious striving not to romanticise this resistance movement or for that matter, the aftermath of it, very much unlike of what one generally finds in the historical records, fiction and films based on the theme of liberation. [46] Nonetheless, as the Sri Lankan academic-critic, Neluka Silva points out, despite this “acuity” there are “slippages” in the text where the author too falls into the trap of sanctifying the liberation war. The novel’s rendition of the freedom struggle, she argues, fluctuates between sensationalising Mujibur Rahman’s rhetoric and his charismatic hold over the nation, while grappling to present the alternative – a sober recognition of the unseemly side of liberation.[47]  The protagonist reminisces how on 7 March 1971 in the vast ground of Ramna Racecourse in Dhaka, Sheikh Mujib appeared “like an angel of redemption, the messiah” to address more than one hundred thousand Bengalis who were waiting eagerly to listen to his speech:

In the dark and chilly corridors of Bengal’s history, Sheikh Mujib was a brief respite, an ephemeral flash of light … He kindled hope in a battered race …  Above everything else, he deprogrammed our servile acceptance of the military yoke and made us believe in our ability to be free. (Seasonal 110)

This “idolisation” of Bongobandhu meaning “friend of Bengal” – as Sheikh Mujib is known in Bangladesh– is immediately balanced by this ironic observation: “He [Mujib] smirks with grim satisfaction. His arsenal of willing Bengalis is stocked to full capacity. The young are willing to die for him. No one has told them about the infinitely dark magnitude of death. They covet posthumous glory. They wish to be Shaheeds” (110). Khan thus problematises the popular, linear narrative of the war of liberation and exposes its problematic reliance on notions like sacrifice and martyrdom, polarisation and revenge, and also the post-war domestic politics. As their common mobilising strategies, freedom movements across the world depend upon promoting concepts like sacrifice in the name of patriotism; they create “for” and “against” polarisation, and those who do not align themselves with this mainstream patriotic discourse become automatic suspects.

As Silva argues, when the label of “sacrifice” is attached to actions –whether these are prompted by Gandhi’s concept of “self-denial” or a Bengali youth who wished to be a shaheed –it is valorised, even if it involves oppression and killing, for cumulatively contributing to securing this illusive notion of freedom.[48] We confront practices of this ideological politics of “sacrifice” through Iftiqar’s recounting of his own experiences of the 1971 war. On one occasion, he describes how a Pakistani soldier reacted after being captured: “The poor fool! He began to recite from the Koran. Something about having faith in Allah and fighting His cause” (Seasonal 272). What is to be noticed here too is that, since, in most cases, “political” sacrifice eludes comprehension, it is co-opted into religious discourse: remember that the Pakistan Army had perpetrated its atrocities in the name of so-called sublime sentiments such as one’s loyalty to and love of one’s country and religion.

Martyrdom, dying for one’s country, according to Benedict Anderson, is an act which assumes moral grandeur as it is felt to be something fundamentally “pure.”[49] In the collective consciousness, it draws popular appeal and arouses “patriotic” sentiments, and eventually, occupies the space of the sacred. Cherishing a vision of a nation and sharing the sense of deep camaraderie with an “imagined community” account for the possibility of killing “the enemies” as well as willingly dying for the cause. In Seasonal Adjustments, Iqbal, however, consciously exempts himself from identifying with such a cause by renouncing responsibility to a new Bangladesh, and thus acknowledging his “lack of patriotism.” He thus violates the pre-scripted condition of good citizenship, that is, the unequivocal devotion to one’s nation, and of course, he has to suffer the consequences.

Against the backdrop of the post-war hysteria of revenge, Khan’s protagonist in Seasonal Adjustments leaves the newly-born Bangladesh. Dismayed and disillusioned by the barbarity of the war in 1971 and its cruel aftermath, Iqbal Chaudhary emigrated to Australia, abandoning the life of wealth and social standing he used to enjoy as member of the Bengali landowning class. Significantly, this is a move that he shares with his author[50] and indeed, it opens the ground for some serious/sensitive points of debate: does his narrative question, implicitly, the justification of that particular war? Or is it merely a guilt-ridden response/gesture on the part of the narrator/author who, haunted by his own sense of betrayal to his land and people– as he abandoned them, apparently, for absolute self-interest– has indulged desperately into self-justification?

In the united Pakistan, the state policy was heavily weighted in favour of the West wing; the Bengalis in East Pakistan, naturally therefore, felt that they were marginalised by the centre. It was not unlike a colonialist power structure, as the western part engendered an attitude of ethno-cultural and linguistic superiority towards its eastern counterpart, consolidating thereby the disparity between the two wings. The espousal of a “Muslim Bengal” was only tokenistic and unsubstantiated by practical policy. For the centre, East Pakistan existed largely as an ideological concept; in decision-making spheres its representation was negligible, if not non-existent. In addition, the unequal distribution of economic resources was one of the crucial factors that engendered widespread detachment among East Pakistanis. As Nasir Islam has noted:

Bengali nationalism grew in response to the changing nature of ethnic-group inter-relations in Pakistan. It originated as ethnic conflict aimed at changing the “dominant-subordinate” relationship between East and West and the distribution of power within the society. It began as demands for language rights and economic equality as a reaction to the central government’s policies to impose Urdu on Bengalis, to reduce Bengali representation (both political and administrative) in the central government, and to increase economic disparity.[51]

Religion and language were two of the principal imperatives that triggered the socio-political contentions in East and West Pakistan since the Partition in 1947. G. W. Chowdhury in his The Last Days of United Pakistan (1993) describes the history of united Pakistan from 1947 to 1971 as one of constant conflicts between Pakistani nationalism which could barely acquire a definitive shape or identity and the Bengali (sub-)nationalism which was gradually emerging. He argues that apart from the religious bond of Islam, there was no scope for Bengalis to develop any common national feeling with the West wing.[52] The unity of the two wings was thus more imagined than real: the language in the eastern part was different, and there was very little in common culturally; and then geographically, it was separated by a thousand miles of India and very unlikely to be held together only by an idea of a Muslim unity. In fact, religious idealism failed to establish a cohesive national identity: at the provinces, regional identities took precedence over the Muslim identity, and at the national level, the religious political parties faced rejection whenever elections of any sort were held.

Nationalism in the East wing was contingent upon a composite identity defined by the shared experiences and by the language and literature of all Bengalis irrespective of religious orientation. Indeed, West Pakistan’s suspicion that the Bengalis were neither good Muslims nor loyal Pakistanis was premised on and underscored by East Pakistan’s adherence to the Bengali language; the executive and military establishments felt that the continued currency of Bangla allowed contacts to be maintained between East Pakistan and the Bengalis in West Bengal of India, thus posing a real threat to the ideological unity of Pakistan. In order to counteract the ties between the Bengalis of India and those of East Pakistan, stringent measures were enforced soon after the creation of Pakistan which ultimately proved to be fatal to the already fraught unity of that nation state. After the language movement in 1952 a latent cultural nationalism was fused into a political cause which paved the way for promoting the constitutional demand for provincial autonomy leading ultimately to the declaration of complete independence.

The cultural and linguistic identity thus set the people of East Pakistan apart from the West, and they desired to create a nation that would be liberated from the shackles of a tyrannical and alien regime. Kaiser Haq states, “East Pakistan’s agitation against what was perceived as an unequal partnership in the newly formed Islamic Republic was reinforced by lingual nationalism….”[53] The chanting of Jai Bangla at public rallies and demonstrations signified an urgent need for the creation of an independent nation for Bengalis under the leadership of Sheikh Mujib.[54] Seasonal Adjustments reiterates that for the people of the East wing, cultural and linguistic identity supplanted religious identity, and this was the predominant divisive factor. [55] The narrator’s tone of sarcasm illustrates the attitude of West Pakistan towards the people of the East wing: “How dare the Bangoos complain of maltreatment? Ungrateful wretches! Had they not been saved from the Hindus? And what was all this clamouring about recognising Bangla as a national language? Had not Jinnah himself settled the issue?” (209). Urdu, of course, was considered to be a “Muslim” language as opposed to “Hindu” Bangla.

As in Seasonal Adjustments so in Spiral Road, the 1971 war remains a recurrent subtext, a continuous leitmotif. Spiral Road too maps the history that led to the war: the Awami League won the 1970 national election in Pakistan by a sizeable majority, but, “the western part of the country was to rule all of Pakistan forever” (Spiral 228). The military government refused to oblige the popular mandate and hand over power to the Bengalis as they did not feel it safe for the integrity of Pakistan as an “Islamic” state: “the Muslims in the east were tainted by Hindu culture” (Spiral 226). The separation became inevitable.

As Khan illustrates in Seasonal Adjustments, there are efforts to construct a heroic image of the Bengali on the premise of his “valorous” participation in the liberation war; Khan’s delineation of the same, however, is devoid of any such glory about it. His moral revulsion for “the indiscriminate slaughter” during and after the war is registered through the reaction of his protagonist. Moreover, in the post-war Bangladesh the narrator’s idealistic, freedom fighter friends – Iftiqar, Zafar and others– are embittered and disillusioned. From the experience of guerrilla warfare for nine long months with the Mukti Bahini Iftiqar realises that

war is the disease of the soul. You never quite trust yourself after you have finished because you have done the worst. You know that evil is a reality, that it is you. You are forever aware that there is a very dangerous force lurking inside you, capable of resurfacing again with an uncontrollable savagery. (Seasonal 270)

He recalls in particular the act of his own savagery in an encounter in December 1971 across Jessore border where he caught a young Pakistani soldier and continued pumping bullets into the latter’s body even after that Pakistani was dead. Now he cannot justify his participation in that “desperate rampage”; he cannot bring himself to share “their tales of heroism” (273). His association with 1971 thus results in a serious moral and philosophical introspection rather than smug self-satisfaction.

Similarly, in Spiral Road, we find the narrator-protagonist Masud Alam – throbbing with patriotism –on the Jessore road by the middle of August 1971to cross the border: “Destination, Kolkata – A crash course on guerilla warfare” (88). The idealism and conviction, however, began to dwindle soon. Masud recollects one guerilla fight against an army patrol which caused him a lot of emotional pangs, and almost ruined his life; the innocent Bengali civilians trying to get across the border of West Bengal had been caught in the crossfire and massacred, an incident that culminated in the propaganda triumph for the Pakistani army: the army-controlled newspapers from Dhaka circulated a tale of innocent citizens being butchered by the guerillas for co-operating with the military. The Bengalis, which included the narrator himself, who launched that guerilla operation fell under the suspicion of their fellow freedom fighters, and for the time being, were treated like prisoners of war. The narrator recollects too the incident of suicide of a fellow freedom fighter: as the fight headed towards its climax during the early days of December 1971, the narrator led a guerilla attack on a border outpost. Jalal Farat, a shy and gentle university student, who loved Nazrul geeti and read Tagore, had been in the team. They caught a Punjabi soldier in the attack and began interrogating him in their camp. The Punjabi was arrogant and abusive; all of a sudden, Jalal, to everyone’s surprise, whipped out a knife, grabbed a handful of the Punjabi’s hair with his left hand and slit the throat. Sometime later he walked away alone towards a nearby creek gazing vacantly into the distance; then he drew a revolver calmly from a side holster and shot himself in the head: “the private hell that he managed to hide from us until it couldn’t be contained any longer” (248). The narrator’s reminiscence of this fellow freedom fighter underscores the moral and philosophical framework in which the author perceives this war or for that matter the history of warfare itself: that nobody wins in war; that war ultimately destroys both the winner and the loser; that it wrecks even those who return alive as heroes. So he refuses to script the incidents of the 1971 war in the absolutist, monopolised vocabulary of the Bengali nationalist. Investigation into history is not meant to be a search for desired narrative; it is to be a search for truth.

After Pakistan’s surrender in the month of December 1971, Iftiqar, the freedom fighter, protested the desperate, merciless retaliation against the Bihari population in the newly independent country, and he had to pay a hefty price for speaking up; he was dubbed “traitor” by his fellow freedom fighters and even had to go into hiding. His recollections offer snapshots of the savagery perpetrated on the Biharis, just after the Bengalis won the war: “One evening I saw some thugs beating up an old Bihari … a man was stabbed to death in front of an approving mob. His crime was that he spoke Urdu … there is nothing worse than spiteful victors. The hysteria of revenge made us a very unforgiving people” (Seasonal 117). Iftiqar describes the early post-independence days as “a time for patriotic opportunism”; according to him,

there were some in the Mukti Bahini with plenty of money and a leisurely life in Kolkata. During the war they disappeared. They turned up in Dhaka for the victory celebrations with heroic tales and loud voices to demonstrate their fanatical patriotism. They demanded death penalty for collaborators and repatriation for the Biharis. There were ample rewards for the zealots. (118).

The spectre of 1971 was repeatedly invoked, whenever needed, by those “opportunists” as a convenient rhetorical device; there were attempts to “use” history for political gains. So, the end of the war, unfortunately, did not bring the much-craved peace and justice, stability and “freedom” in the newly-freed country. There were sporadic reprisals, as is mentioned above, against Bihari settlers who were said to have collaborated with the Pakistan Army, and the protagonist’s decision to emigrate was prompted by an outrage at such barbarity.

In her memoir, “Leaving Bangladesh,” Aquila Ismail, a Pakistani academic-writer who was raised during the 1960s in the suburbs of Dhaka where her father was posted in the government Telephone Department, reminisces, “more with pain than anger”, about the nightmarish experiences she and her family along with thousands of their Bihari neighbours had to undergo after the surrender of the Pakistan Army in Dhaka in 16 December, 1971:

We were left to the mercy of a people who, having borne the atrocities inflicted on a subjugated race by the conqueror for months, were looking for revenge … Peaceful, simple souls had been turned into beasts … The capacity to hate that came to the fore was shocking. For them, it was an expression of freedom from the power, which had choked their identity for years. For us, it was the surrender of ours to utter desolation.[56]

In a particularly emotion-charged description, Ismail relives the post-war fateful days in Dhaka where “terror ruled everywhere”: they were holed up in their house; and the familiar landscape– the city, the streets, and the neighbourhood– all became alien, “surreal”. An eye-witness, Ismail records the rampant killing and the cruel manner of deportation of “non-Bengalis,” in the process of which the old, sick and disabled, children, pregnant women were simply left behind by the wayside, and thousand others simply vanished without trace. She is shocked by the neglectful silence of all quarters about that barbarity, and the omission of it in (official) historical records and archives: “No one has ever written about them. There are no records.” When Ismail concludes with the words that “We were targeted because the rulers of that time chose to dismember a country rather than give in to the verdict of the ballot” and that “we did not deserve to be treated in the manner that we were,”[57] she indeed speaks in behalf of many a Bihari who became the inevitable “cannon-fodder” at that critical juncture of subcontinental history. In a 1994 article in Asian Survey Rashiduzzaman too touches upon the issue of post-1971 retaliation against numerous individuals for their “presumed guilt of not supporting the Bangladesh movement or being Islamically oriented.” He notes that “those who had been suspected of collaboration with Pakistan’s military in the 1971 crackdown were punished indiscriminately without due process of law.” [58]

In the introduction to Fault Lines: Stories of 1971, a recent collection of short stories based on the theme of 1971, edited jointly by the Bangladeshi author Niaz Zaman and her Pakistani counterpart Asif Farrukhi, the latter talks about his realisation of 1971 as “a double-edged story.”[59] Farrukhi tells us the story of one Shabana (not her real name) who now works as physician in his community-based project in Karachi. The trauma of 1971 transformed this bright young woman into a fragile, insecure creature who just did not have a grip on herself. She was the daughter of a (West) Pakistani manager, a man apparently very popular with the staff, in an industrial unit in Narayanganj. When the “trouble” started many of the staff members found shelter with Shabana’s father. When the Pakistani Army took “action,” the house became a flash-point as a possible hiding place for the “enemy.” Shabana’s father had eventually been gunned down in the army attack and her mother ran through the night with her two young children till they reached the home of a relative in Dhaka. Even a greater trauma was reaching Karachi in an almost destitute condition, completely dependant upon the kindness of the extended family members there. Later on, the Army apologised to the family for the “mistake” and the Bangladesh authorities named a road after the dead man. “How simple it seems for the same person to be a ‘mistake’ in Pakistan and ‘hero’ in Bangladesh. Can the two accounts ever be reconciled, except perhaps in fiction?”, wonders Farrukhi.[60]

In one of his recent documentaries called Swapnabhumi or The Promised Land (2007), Tanvir Mokammel too investigates the usually suppressed Bihari issue, involving those who were in the midst of it all, or rather on the sidelines in Bangladesh and Pakistan, and the stranded Pakistanis left behind in Dhaka’s Geneva Camp. Forgotten and unwanted by the “pure land” they had opted for in 1947, and then by the “Bangla land” which saw them as traitors and collaborators, they too have their stories. Both Zaman and Farrukhi agree that the stories that emerged from the cataclysm of 1971 are often brutal, and painful, and that there are good people on every side of a fault line, but the bad people, sadly, are often stronger. “While the Pakistani must acknowledge the truth of what happened, the Bangladeshi too must understand that all west Pakistanis were not responsible for what happened,” they conclude.[61]

Bangladeshi academic-critic Kaiser Haq–a freedom fighter himself – takes Adib Khan’s treatment of the issue of reprisals against Biharis in the novel with a pinch of salt. While Haq admits  that the mention of it is in itself commendable “since there is a tendency among Bangladeshis to elide them, as if they were negated by the fact that the Pakistan Army and its collaborators had perpetrated much greater atrocities,” he however suspects that the narrator’s “laudable moral outrage” is not only aimed at a particular phase of history, one that lasted a few weeks, rather it links up with the “other negative observations” aimed at justifying his decision to be a migrant. Moreover, Haq reminds us that these words of moral assertion are coming from a man who himself is tainted with dubious morality: “While it [the war] raged Chaudhary was carrying on with the girl friend of a friend who had gone to fight against the Pakistanis.”[62] Thus he suggests that the narrator’s personal moral weakness/sense of guilt makes him an unreliable point of reference; in other words, the protagonist’s “dubious morality” essentially disqualifies his judgement on that particular event.

There is point in Haq’s argument, so, let us consider the issue at hand in some detail. If Khan is really serious in bringing the issue of the Bengali retaliation against the Bihari in his fiction as an integral part in an objective understanding of the complex nature of the history of the liberation war, then why does he choose to present it through a character whose credibility is questionable? In Brick Lane, we see, through intermittent historical references, Monica Ali touches upon the neo-colonialist injustice in the Muslim world, and also, the British colonialist presence and the attendant injustices in the Indian subcontinent, but then, all these are overshadowed by the fact that these are voiced by Chanu and Karim who themselves are satirically/comically portrayed by the author, which renders them unreliable reference points. Most of the praises about Bangladesh are mouthed through “the frog-faced” Chanu (12), a character which invites irreverence and such laurels, therefore, cannot be taken seriously. This narrative strategy problematises her politics of representation. Is it then intended to be a similar ploy for Khan, in line with that of Ali, to present a tainted character so that what s/he narrates will automatically be undermined? But this does not appear to be the case. Not only for the reason that his protagonist, as I have already pointed out, shares his worldview and even life-trajectory, exemplified in the act of migrating after the war for instance, but also for the fact that there are suggestions in the text that by nature his protagonist has an aversion to aggression, extremism and bloodshed, and it is only natural that he will react the way he does both in the case of killings of Bengalis as well as of Biharis. Even as a child Iqbal used to be horrified by the ritual of slaughtering animals as a part of the Eid-ul-Azha festival; it did not seem right to him that such an auspiciously happy occasion should revolve around “an act of such inexplicable brutality” (183). On one such Eid morning, he had clung to one of the animals and wept profusely, his head leaning against his sister Nafisa’s palpitating chest (184).

For Khan and Khan’s protagonists, no political idealism or religious belief can be a justification for cruelty and bloodshed. And also, they have learnt to belong in different ways–it is not that one could be only the one or the other; they are tolerant, and accept heterogeneity in perspectives and are able to see both sides of a coin, the psychologies of the conflicting forces– of those who support a particular issue and those who oppose the same. This is reflective of their objective, secular and humanist worldview. In Spiral Road, we see, even when Masud portrays Mullah Hakim as a “charlatan” who “uses belief to get them [the villagers] to do what he wants” (153), he does not forget to mention that the same Mullah provides money and shelter to abused wives and children in the village. Khan accommodates in his fiction opposing viewpoints about the war of 1971; we see while Masud was preparing himself to join the armed resistance, his older brother Zia staunchly supported the military government for, as he sees it, “maintaining the rule of law” in the country. Zia’s rationale for anti-liberation stand may remind one of Rehana’s strained conversations in A Golden Age with her brother-in-law Faiz, a wartime collaborator, who believes that it is he who is to be regarded as the real freedom fighter: “The integrity of Pakistan is at stake … National integrity, religious integrity, this is what we are fighting for. We are the freedom fighters” (179). Anam also mentions one of the neighbours of Rehana, Mrs. Chowdhury’s daughter Silvi, who thinks, “this war – all this fighting – is a pointless waste of human life” (248).

It is really intriguing, and important that, throughout Spiral Road, the protagonist’s concern and anxiety over his nephew’s involvement in a suspected terror organisation always bring into his mind his own involvement in the 1971 war. Even, both Omar and the leader of that jihadist group, Amin Haider, refer to his participation in the independence movement in their efforts to persuade him to join yet again another “great cause,” this time against “the oppressors” of Muslims. It is also significant that, when, towards the end of the novel, the narrator fails to convince his nephew that the latter is pursuing the wrong path by joining the jihadis, he recalls his own fierce rejection of his father’s plea not to join the armed fight back in March 1971:

My father had pleaded with me just before I headed out to that March night after the tanks had rumbled along the streets of Dhaka. ‘Think of what it’s doing to the family’. I remember my vitriol and scorn, as I brushed aside such myopic concerns. I wanted to be enmeshed in the grand design of one of the subcontinent’s great upheavals … After everything was over and a country born that I realized how broken up I was inside. (308)

What are the implications of drawing an implicit parallel here between his own feelings of despair for his nephew’s terror-involvement in the present and his father’s anxiety and despair in the past for his participation in the 1971 war? The hero’s reminiscences raise a host of such queries, and also underline how easily individuals get sacrificed on the altar of the so-called greater, patriotic/national cause; how all relationships, human intimacies are simply pushed behind in the face of those larger, “sacred” considerations.

Khan’s narrative, in a way, aspires to be a dispassionate revisit to the national myths surrounding the Independence War of Bangladesh and the confusions around the forging of Bengali Muslims’ national identity. But then, the point still remains, the Bengalis, especially those who suffered the Pakistani atrocities more directly and lost their near ones during the war, would find it really difficult to afford such dispassionate and “humanist” standpoint that Khan’s narratives seem to uphold. For many of them grief for their loved ones is still deep, their rage still sharp. And they are certainly not in the philosophical state of mind. Besides, Khan’s disillusioned protagonists never mention what Bengalis could have done instead of putting up armed resistance– which they did and which inevitably involved bloodshed – if they were to free their homeland from the iron-clutch of the oppressor, when every other “peaceful” alternative seemed to have been closed. One may, therefore, feel that Khan’s characters tend to withdraw themselves merely with convenient, even illusory, moral and philosophical musings, instead of offering practical, context-specific directions in this regard.

 

Post-war crisis, and the stereotypical third-world iniquity and grotesquerie

Seasonal Adjustments carries a profound sense of physical and emotional dislocation experienced by its lonely, troubled hero, Iqbal Chaudhary; his marriage to his Australian wife Michelle is on the verge of breaking down and he comes back to Bangladesh after eighteen years of living in Australia accompanied by his only child, Nadine. The novel recounts his subsequent failure to rekindle the ties he has severed:  his relatives are indignant when he reveals to them his daughter’s lack of religious conformity and his own agnosticism; and then, when the ancestral lands are sold to pay off family debts and the village of Shopnogonj is to be the site of a refinery, Iqbal realises that the hope of home he had carried within him back to Bangladesh is lost forever. At the end of the novel Iqbal decides to return to Australia with plans to settle there for the rest of his life despite his marginalised existence there.

Iqbal Chaudhary thought if he could have just sent a message before his arrival at his ancestral village, there would have been a grand welcome befitting a Chaudhary – “dancing girls sprinkling me with rose-scented water and scattering flowers at my feet” (7) and so on. Such notions, for the 1990s’ Bangladeshi village, as Kaiser Haq sees it, is nothing but a “pure Orientalist fantasy.”[63] Chaudhary’s portrayal of his village appears to be in line with Orientalist stereotyping; he could not see any signs of modernisation there in almost two decades that he was abroad: “I can discern no changes in the years I have been away” (Seasonal 7), to which Haq responds: “Bangladeshi villages have probably undergone more changes during this period than in the previous two centuries!”[64] Maybe he does not want to see any change, lest the change challenges his static fantasy of home; he wants to archive home as a romantic trope frozen in dreams and time, an anachronistic, context-robbed relic in the older regime. His depiction of home thus largely remains an omission-prone touristic allusion, curiously depending on a gaze into the fictionalised past. In Spiral Road too, on the way home from the airport in Dhaka, when Masud is told by his elder brother Zia that only a few landmarks of the city of his youth remain, he is not happy: “I don’t enjoy surprises that compel me to negotiate my relationship with the past” (8). Later in the novel, Aleya – a woman entrepreneur and a social worker in Dhaka whom Masud came to know through his sister Nasreen and developed a kind of friendship – tells him that people who settle overseas criticise changes they see upon their return. “Is it because their remembrance of the past is threatened? Or do you lean on memory to keep away the guilt of leaving your native land?” (127), she asks him.

As we find, Diasporic Writing often “encashes on the marketability of the homeland.” [65] The promotion of diasporic writers by the neo-colonial publishing industry is integral to the hegemonic market politics thriving on fiction that reinforces the western gaze of an East untouched by modernities: globalisation, feminism, individualism and so on. The western born/educated diasporic is thus picked up as the local expert on his ethnic culture; and his version of realities are marketed as more acceptable than those of the stay-at-home writers.[66] In Khan’s writings, of course, the “exotic” factor is bound to be there as he is writing about people from a particular ethnic background not very familiar to a wide section of his readership. As a devalued, abused East is more marketable in the West, the subcontinental English writings often project the subcontinent as an area of darkness inflicted by poverty, chaos and corruption; it automatically becomes a problem, one solution to which is the departure to greener pastures, that is, emigration to the West. As in Manzurul Islam’s novel Burrow (2004), we see, many of the Bangladeshi immigrant community–  composed of ship-jumpers, bauls, spiritualists and streetwise spivs– have come to Britain not for any other reason but simply to eat. The fugitive protagonist Tapan, in a peculiar idiom literally translated from Bangla, discusses how bad things are back in Bangladesh to permit one to lead a normal life; and therefore, pressures of life in a hostile environment are preferable to problems in the mother country.[67] In Seasonal Adjustments, Khan’s Chaudhary moves on from the village of Shopnogonj to deal with stereotypical third-world iniquity and grotesquerie: a charlatan of a Pir, guests at a feast gorging themselves with “Yahoo-like abandon,” the oppression of military rule, the hideousness of lepers who are said to infest Dhaka in their hundreds, aggressive beggars who promptly mug Chaudhary, and so on.[68] Wandering around various urban locales the narrator feels “like a superior being,” grateful that he does not have to live amidst such squalor (100). He can only see Bangladesh in terms of prefabricated generalisations, stereotypes and caricatures. One purpose of his observation being self-aggrandisement, Bangladesh becomes a hideous background against which he can admire himself: “From the air-conditioned comfort of the car, I view the third world with the critical eye of an intolerant alien … I’m relieved I do not live here anymore” (40). The country’s embarrassing poverty, described with a fanfare of clichés, becomes a source of moral satisfaction as he looks beyond himself, “at the bleeding rawness of bare existence.” For him, “it is an expansive experience, a forced act of selflessness to be able to reach out and feel a pulse of suffering not my own” (Seasonal 10, emphasis mine).

The author has used in Seasonal Adjustments Bangla words/phrases and idioms, often in their original. In their dialogues and conversations the characters frequently throw Bengali exclamations like “Eish! Shorbonash! (96); Bajey katha, akdum chup, Che che key shorom! (95); even full sentences in Bangla: “ami tomai bhalo bashee,” “Key Khobor? Kemun Accho? (138), for example. Then there is the mixture of Bangla and English – or “Banglish,” if you like – which Bengalis frequently use in their everyday code-switching conversations, for example, “besh upper class” (75) or “Aarey Baba, we are not that unthoughtful” (47). Besides linguistic variations, the novel also relishes traditional items of food like popular Bengali snacks, e.g. samosaa, nimki and shondesh, “tea from the garden in Sylhet,” and then there are traditional Bengali items of crockery, relics of aristocracy, like Paandaan by the Dhakaiya silversmith, the Hookah made of solid silver (78), which the narrator describes as visible reminders of the old indulgent ways of extravagance of his zamindar ancestors. All these linguistic and cultural symbols can be read as adding to the Bengali flavour/anthropological glamour, serving as a “device” in order to woo (non-Bengali) audiences with exotica, which entangle Khan-narratives inevitably in the politics of exoticisation, and authenticity of representation. He resorts to chutneyfied[69] – as Rushdie might say – narrativisation of the desh. In the international literary industry, as we know, there has always been a niche market for fictional representation of exotic ethnicity. Sunetra Gupta believes that a large bulk of what the members in the “aggressively publicised coterie” of Indian Writing in English produce is catering to a particular market which she derogatorily labels as “travel market” –a very big market for traveling to the East, to “exotic” places.[70] However, one may argue, if representation of ethnicity is automatically exotic, it is then impossible for a writer to break free from this politics; I would think, therefore, that what should be of real concern regarding this whole exotica discourse is to look at the intention of using ethnic materials in a particular piece of writing.

What if one still inquires, how real is the reality depicted about Bengal in the texts like those of Khan, or wonders what right do these Bengali expatriates have to speak about homeland at all? To approach it from outside? Rushdie, of course, has a simple answer to such queries: don’t we know that Reality, after all, “is built on our own prejudices, misconceptions and ignorance as well as on our own perceptiveness and knowledge”?[71] And that Literature is self-validating: “a book is not justified by its author’s worthiness to write it, but by the quality of what has been written … Literature is not the business of copyrighting certain themes for certain groups.”[72] In fact, without the anthropological value which one automatically associates with minority-representations in the West, the authenticity question would not have been so important or recurrent. And indeed, there are difficulties in insisting upon a standard for authentic representation of a particular socio-cultural milieu; how would we, for example, specify what constitutes an accurate representation of Bengal and Bengalis? In any study of diaspora literature, therefore, instead of insisting too much on determining accuracy of ethnic representation, we should focus instead on how the complex, intertwined dynamics inherent in diasporic existence work behind the author’s unique vision of looking at himself and his community in the home context and in the diasporic condition. Of course, the unique vision of an individual artist and the unique representation he or she provides of a community, though often challenged by readers from both within and outside the community, has its own value. So, if Bengali diasporic projection of home may appear limited and superficial/clichéd at times or if it tends to correspond to the “treadmill exotic outpourings” of the subcontinental Diasporic Writing in English in general, then, we must remember that the expatriate Bengali writes his/her own version of Bengal which is of course one of many possible versions of the same, and that one of the reasons behind the writer’s being accused of tarnishing the image of home must be that home always wishes to look good to foreigners, and so, exposure of anything negative about it, whether real or fabricated, enrages it unfailingly.

As is indicated in the earlier part of this monograph, the South Asian expatriate writers too[73]often utilise their matribhumi (motherland), mainly to increase the marketability of their narratives, but many of them do not possess an adequate grasp of the actual contemporary condition of their original home and thus tend to recreate it through the lens of nostalgia. For M.K. Naik and Shyamala Narayan, this distance explains why some of Lahiri’s stories, for instance, ring “a false note when describing the Indian milieu.”[74]Compared to the first-generation diaspora writers like Bharati Mukherjee or Sunetra Gupta, the next-generation writers like Jhumpa Lahiri or Monica Ali are more frequently accused of their supposed lack of “the cultural ambidexterity” to write about native life and characters in an “authentic way.”[75] When Monica Ali left war-torn Dhaka with her British mother in 1971 for Britain, she was barely four years old, and although she was fluent in Bangla when she boarded the plane, she said she began to lose the language while growing up in the northern mill town of Bolton.[76] She is thus remote from the reality of either Brick Lane or Bengal which she claims to represent in her novel. As for Tahmima Anam (she was born in Dhaka in 1975 and is currently domiciled in London), her international upbringing thanks to her father’s peripatetic UN career and her education at Harvard has made her birth country essentially a distant site. In her own words, “It’s like a long-distance relationship: I don’t experience Bangladesh on a daily basis, which lets me have a more romantic view of my country.”[77] This distance from and inadequate knowledge and experience of original geographical and cultural scapes results in their inability to look at “home” in real terms. Thus their narratives often turn into creative elaborations of the pre-existing white stereotypes of eastern idiosyncrasies and fetishised symbols of the eastern culture. This ensures their entry, voluntary or unconscious, in the hegemonic niche market in the West that thrives on the commodification of an exoticised, abused East.[78]No wonder, for Ali’s second-generation women in Brick Lane who aggressively try to adopt British customs, Bangladesh is deemed as nightmares to be eternally avoided: this is where girls are forced into marriage in their early teens, where one brushes one’s teeth with a neem twig and has to do without toilet paper. Along similar lines, Adib Khan’s Seasonal Adjustments paints a dystopic Bengal. We may, however, note here a significant exception: in its similar bleak picture of Calcutta as a chaotic and unmanageable metropolis inflicted by hunger, squalor and decadence, Sunetra Gupta in her Memories of Rain might at first appear to be back to square one, perpetuating the same negative stereotypes that the average Briton has of Indian life and culture; but then, while Gupta’s protagonist talks about the underside of “home,” she does this with unmistakable compassion: she is only a critical insider, not, unlike Khan’s Chaudhary, an intolerant alien looking at it from a safe distance.

Now to return to the issues of history and politics, Khan’s novels demonstrate that the kind of neo-colonialist structures that emerge from the post-war politics in Bangladesh are no different from the networks of power that preceded and triggered the liberation struggle itself, and that the Bengalis are left with merely a reinvention of the same structures of domination. In the newly independent Bangladesh, in what was akin to a “neo-colonial phase,” the army, the bureaucracy, the elite and political opportunists combined to forge a vicious nexus of power to rule the country according to their selfish whims.  Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s insight on the role of what he calls the “comprador bourgeoisie” is pertinent here. Thiong’o argues that after Independence of the colonies, the elites who assumed political ascendancy in the newly liberated nations continued to function in a way analogous to colonial dominance.[79]

Distancing himself from the war, and then coming back after several years of staying abroad, facilitate Khan’s protagonist of Seasonal Adjustments in discerning the complexities of nationalistic politics and the process of nation-formation in Bangladesh. He unveils the ravages of the aftermath of war, the economic and social exigencies of a new nation, and the euphoria of national liberation that tends to gloss over day-to-day realities of post-war reconstruction and corruption. The erosion of post-war euphoria is mapped through the fate of the national newspaper The Voice, run by Iftiqar, Zafar and others, all war-returned “heroes.” Because The Voice continued to voice its disillusionment with the Mujib government and later protested the increasing interference of the military in state affairs, it was targeted by both. The worst, however, came after Mujib’s murder: Iftiqar and Zafar were arrested by the military for their alleged “leftist sentiments” and “provocative” comments about the armed forces and bundled off to the cantonment. The narrative thus encapsulates the trajectory of “the burning energy to create a new social order” to “a mood of smug self-satisfaction” to “military government” (Seasonal 262).

Khan is suspicious of the idea of “tradition” and the evil perpetrated in the name of upholding it, and also, the way it is integrated into the politics of nationalism. One of nationalism’s “obligations,” to quote Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, “is developing an idiom which equates its discourses with a valorisation of the traditional…”[80] In Seasonal Adjustments Iqbal’s Australian father-in-law, Keith, is zealous about preserving his country’s tradition. With his parochial sense of “Australian nationalism,” Keith views all Asians as enemy aliens teeming with potentials to destroy Eurocentric cultural values. Keith’s “nationalism” relies, essentially, on upholding a tradition that privileges the dominant, and discards others. Bringing the issue closer home, Khan critiques, through the gendered positioning of the protagonist’s sister Nafisa, the sexism nurtured by cultural traditions which work to compound the oppression of women and impact woman’s autonomous identity. It is not only the traditional institution of arranged marriage that limits the free will of women, but tradition also impedes their choice in education, employment and sexuality. In such a regressive, tradition-bound societal structure, gender demarcations govern male and female behaviour since childhood; the “male” narrator reveals: “I was brought up with the implicit belief that women cried and men consoled them” (184), and even the childhood games in this patriarchal structure are determined by “an unshakable belief in our masculine toughness which made no allowance for girls and their silly toys” (24). Societal and gender codes are internalised to such an extent that even Iqbal, who regards himself “progressive,” cannot ultimately escape the collective prejudice. The issue has been powerfully rendered in the episode where Nafisa reveals her lesbian identity to her brother; having internalised the “traditional” notion that for a woman marriage is inevitable, Iqbal too misreads, at least initially, her sister’s diffidence when he confronts her about her reluctance to get married. Nafisa’s familial and social networks thus disavow her space for articulating any position outside what is legitimised by the Bengali Muslim society. Rosemary George’s thesis, [81] that the dynamics of gender, yoked to other ideologies such as class and religion, complicates the relationship between the home and the self, seems quite relevant to an understanding of the gender codes and the dynamics of the particular socio-cultural milieu in which Nafisas live. In a subtle way, the isolation Nafisa experiences at home corresponds to the migrant Iqbal’s own unease at home; for both of them, home is fraught with feelings of marginalisation; neither of them can find fulfillment there. This individual anxiety epitomises too a larger conflict within the then East Pakistan-population who found that their concept of homeland did not match with the geo-political space they had to inhabit.

The resistance movement, from the beginning, emphasised a Bengali identity as separate from a common Pakistani identity; but, after independence, because the East Pakistanis were linguistically and culturally close to West Bengal, a section of Bengali Muslim felt that these discursive formations had to be reinvented or made different from West Bengal, so that they could be the primary ideological means of promulgating a distinct “Bangladeshi” identity.[82] It is this anxiety for distinct identity that continues to haunt the newly born Bangladesh. In Spiral Road the character of Sami, who “fought in the Bangladesh war, and prospered since liberation,” links up, in a  sarcastic tone, the issue of alleged growth of religious fundamentalism in the country with the still prevailing anxiety among the Bengali Muslim population in regard to the definition of their national identity:

Being Bengalis no longer gives us the same satisfaction of identity that we fought for … There are also Bengalis across the border in India. We owe a great deal of our culture to them. The main difference is that most of them are Hindus. We need something more distinctive and independent. Something to define the sui generis nature of our people. (Spiral 103)

Interestingly, in his essay “The Liberals and the Religious Right in Bangladesh,” Rashiduzzaman  describes the emergence of Islamic sentiments in the country’s political arena as “a cultural protest”; he notes that after the tragic end of the Mujib regime in 1975 there had been a drift toward the redefinition of Bangladeshi national identity: “With Islamic symbolism banished from public life by a secular government and a sustained liberal campaign against Muslim identity in politics, many Bangladeshi Muslims suffered the psychology of a neglected faith. And there is a new trend of assimilating Islamic values in the upper/middle class.”[83] Indeed, there still prevails a fundamental confusion in regard to conceiving a clear-cut/well defined national identity. The contradictions in identity which individuals have to confront in their personal lives are grounded in the contested notions of nationhood in the political arena: one based on the Bengali language and culture, the other on the Islamic belief and values and yet another on territorial boundary. This is why, the present day Bangladesh has still been a site for contestation between rival nationalisms: Bengali, Muslim and Bangladeshi.

Kaiser Haq’s contention that Seasonal Adjustment’s protagonist’s negative observations about “home” and his moral assertions regarding the Bihari issue are connected with the migrant guilt leads us to the questions of loyalty and betrayal to the “original” homeland and native tradition. The protagonist’s acquaintances, Zafar, Taufiq, Haroon and others– all war-returned heroes, now self-complacent civil servants based in Dhaka – consider his migration as an act of greed and escapism, as well as of disloyalty to the nation: “To their eyes I am a traitor to the Bengali cause, an opportunist who turned away from his country in its time of particular need” (140). Iqbal, on his part, is aghast at what he considers to be the “self-righteous insularity” of these Dhakaites, blinded by their pride in a singularly blinkered tradition which, he believes, only fertilises grounds of bigotry. The diasporic condition, despite creating insoluble existential crisis for him– “There is consciousness of a permanent loss. You can never call anything your own” (143) – has at least enabled him to overcome such limitations, and appreciate “the homogeneous blueprint of human life”: “behind the trappings of cultural differences, human strengths and failures are global constants … A Bengali can be just as indifferent, mean, egotistical, loving, creative, heroic, generous, humane, cruel and greedy as an Australian” (Seasonal 143, emphasis mine).

The ambivalent native perception about probashi Bengalis is exposed through the narrator’s realisation that despite the stigma of betrayal and selfishness attached to people who have left the country, their living abroad adds to their social standing: “I come from a family of landowners. Zamindars … The fact that I live overseas gives me additional prestige. I live among white shahebs and memshahebs. That in itself is a laudable achievement” (Seasonal 9). The narrator also exposes his contemporary Bengali youths’ self-contradictory attitude towards the West, their eagerness to enter “the land of hope and glory” they pretend to hate:

Publicly we were vociferous about our denouncement of British imperialism and its redundant offspring, the Commonwealth. At the same time there were those who hung around the British Council, filling in forms and appearing for interviews in the hope of a bursary or a scholarship … The sun may have set on the empire, but the aura of dusk lingered long enough to create the illusions of a utopia for those of us born immediately after the territorial divisions of the subcontinent. (234, emphasis mine)

The contrast between urban and rural Bengal emerge starkly from the geo-cultural-economic sketches of various locations. The childhood memory of school vacations of the protagonist of Seasonal Adjustments recalls idyllic Bengali evenings spent at their ancestral village, Shopnogonj during the 1960s: “when the hot evening crept across the river and engulfed the house, the family assembled in lantern-lit front veranda to eat a huge meal and listen to Lipu Chacha singing Rabindro Shongeet and Nazrul Geeti” (Seasonal 23). We have descriptions of the six seasons of Bengal, each with their distinctive flavour and colour, the monsoon rains, the bright tropical greenness of the paddy fields, huge water lilies crowding the water surface of a small pond, wild ducks gliding in the pond (130-31). But against the “damning marks of abject poverty that plagues the country” (31), the marvellous natural beauty of Bangladesh can only image “a bad-tempered step-parent showering moments of guilt-ridden generosity on a maltreated child” (31). The landscapes and human images of the country’s capital city teem with all the urban menace. Wari is described as “a sprawling suburb of sinewy lanes choked with a conglomeration of two-storied buildings” (100); Banani is another of “Dhaka’s most affluent suburbs” where “the signs of prosperity show only in the glimpses of the houses behind high walls … the streets themselves don’t indicate the people who live here, except by the new imported cars that negotiate their ways among cycle rickshaws, three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, trucks, carts, cows and stray dogs, bicycles and pedestrians” (Spiral 46). On his way home from the airport Masud Alam has to face not only clamouring beggars, but a  huge traffic jam caused by demonstrations in the streets which happen routinely either by students or mullahs, political activists or labourers: “I suppose without chaos, it would be a dull country,” quips Zia, his elder brother. The condition of various other areas of the “new” Dhaka like Eskaton, Dhanmondi etc also contributes to this shabby picture. “Old Dhaka” too looms large with its dark, smelly lanes.

The description of various locales of the city of Dhaka and its suburbs and rural areas allows Khan to engage with some fundamental socio-economic aspects of contemporary Bangladesh.  While urban Bengal is portrayed as unsuccessfully trying to hide real poverty through a few superficial modern developments–  evidenced by the glossy billboards from under which the truth is exposed through a message in Bangla scribbled in charcoal “WE ONLY WANT RICE” (Seasonal 257) – rural Bengal emerges as starkly primitive: “Travelling beyond Dhaka is like taking a giant leap back in time … The pucca roads radiating from the city like the arms of a starfish, are the only enduring symbols of a marginally successful invasion of modernity into the otherwise impenetrable depths of an ancient way of life” (Seasonal 10). The disparity between the large pucca houses and the tin and bamboo shackles underlines the glaring inequalities pervading a third-world nation. Not only in terms of modern infrastructure and facilities like transportation or supply of electricity but also in regard to the mores of life the rural population is shown to be unimaginably backward: “the countryside is steeped in superstition and quaint customs” (10). Seeing all this – the embarrassing poverty, primitivism and subhuman condition of living of the majority of the population –Iqbal becomes apprehensive of Bengalis’ survival as a race: “Are Bengalis in some ways naturally deficient? Do those deplorable conditions reflect a racial limitation which condemns us to perpetual abjection? As a race, are we destined to survive a technologically aggressive 21st century?” (42, emphasis mine).

Khan’s protagonists are thus not ready to buy myths of the once-affluent, glorious Bengal concocted by nostalgic Bengalis. The truth for Iqbal remains that Bengal, since ancient times, has always been treated as the step-child of history, suffering accumulated neglect of the past: “History has treated Bengal with supreme disdain,” he reflects, “right from ancient Sanskrit texts, where Bengal is mentioned as backward, hostile land of ignorance, to the rule of the Senas and Palas through to the Mughal period” (208).  Even after the liberation of Bangladesh from the clutches of the oppressive Pakistan, those who predicted good days ahead for Bengalis became disillusioned soon when Mujib’s “brief romance with the nation was brutally terminated” (262) and the military government camouflaged itself behind a civilian visage. There are “militant students and food shortages, pompous ministerial statements and news on overseas aids to the country”; in addition, voluntary censorship has been “the media’s contribution to the fragile semblance of democracy here” (31). The corruption among the traders and business communities too is hinted at by the mention of rampant manufacturing and marketing of fraudulent products at Zinjira across the river Buriganga. The novel also exposes opportunistic practices and moral bankruptcy of civil servants who thrive unfailingly on this dictum: “a good civil servant never worries because he is his own boss. Pretend to serve and continue to rule” (140).

“Little food means more religion,” wrote the bilingual author Syed Waliullah in his much acclaimed novel Lal Shalu.[84] No wonder, in the streets of Dhaka, beggars listen with rapt attention to “well-fed” speakers elaborating, alluding to lengthy quotes from the Koran, on the Islamic imperatives of equality and justice; the beggars’ sloganeering, “seeking alms should be encouraged by the government as a means of self-employment” (Seasonal 189), soon culminates into a scuffle between agitated beggars and the police. This elaborate caricature of the band of beggars verges on melodrama. Like Monica Ali’s description of Bangladeshi students’ demonstrations in Brick Lane for the right to copying in examinations, this is also too ludicrous to be true. Begging and copying do happen in Bangladesh, but the story of public demands for legalising them must be a bit fictional as these practices are still looked down upon by the people here. The truth, however, remains that very little is being done either from the governmental side or from the non-government organisations and the civil society to address issues of poverty, hunger and lack of basic human needs that plague the country’s population; only the Imams in jumma prayers across the country, as the narrator describes sarcastically, seem to zealously preach about the Islamic solution through zakat – the mandatory donation by rich Muslims– as sure means for eradicating poverty and establishing social justice.

The narrative thus presents an image of Bangladesh as a country where day-to-day life is full of problems; there is almost every recipe for a dysfunctional state: an economy debilitated by political agitation, insecurity of life, deplorable condition of women, population explosion, huge unemployment, massive corruption, the unequal distribution of development, and enormous gap between the rich and the poor. Its democratic institutions have withered in a climate of intolerance, opportunism, and inefficiency of governmental machinery, self-seeking and indifferent politicians and bureaucrats. And finally, the growth of terrorism/Islamic fundamentalism has brought Bangladesh perilously close to being a “failed state.” The fact is, Khan articulates these home thoughts from abroad, and thus whether these should be regarded as essentially a stereotypical representation of Bengal and Bengalis can of course be debated, but perhaps his “home truths” can outright be denied, if only the Bengalis choose to indulge in smug self-complacency.

By the time Khan’s latest novel appears– in 2007– we have already been a functioning democracy for the last one and a half decade after a prolonged, tumultuous period of martial law and army rule. Maybe therefore, Spiral Road is not as dark as Seasonal Adjustments. Signs of positive changes are hinted at through the hourly initiatives taken by individuals like Aleya, an enthusiastic industrial entrepreneur committed to creating opportunities for employment of rural women. Masud Alam’s ancestral village Manikpur can well be considered a contemporary case study of a typical Bangladeshi village and its way of life at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Many of the recent developments in the village are conveyed through Masud’s conversation with Aleya; she runs a chain of handicraft factories in Manikpur as well as in other rural/semi-urban areas where a major chunk of workforce is women. The economic independence of women of the rural areas of the country, she believes, will be able to eradicate the prevailing gender inequity in society, and challenge “the feudal system and the mullahs” (64). Aleya’s efforts in the story reminds me of the story of Rainbow over Padma [85] that presents a picture of Bangladesh which is reborn out of its contemporary decadence, and thus offers a strikingly different perspective from that of Seasonal Adjustments which incidentally came out in the same year. Set against the grim economic and political condition in the country in the late 1980s – similar to that in Khan – Rainbow over Padma fictionalises the struggle of a group of people determined to create a new future for their country, under the guidance of a Bangladeshi writer Rafique Anwar, the protagonist of the novel, who has returned home, like Khan’s hero, after an absence of two decades. Rainbow over Padma makes a case for the kind of progress that seeks to promote grassroots rural development, heralding new hopes for poverty-stricken farmers and landless labourers. In one instance, villagers turn to apiculture and discover a new source of income to attain self-sufficiency; in another, in a small town in southern Bangladesh, two hundred rickshaw-pullers set up their own co-operative society and eventually own the vehicles which they once used to hire on a daily basis. Rainbow over Padma does not attempt to hide facts which, of course, are far from satisfactory, yet, contrary to Khan’s impressions, the readers could see rainbows smiling all along across the clouded sky of Bangladesh. In the novel, the young, enthusiastic entrepreneur Shameem who represents the confident present generation of Bangladesh lists one area of progress after another: “the slow but steady growth of the manufacturing industries, the rise in the country’s export earning, the employment of a quarter of a million women from villages, young and old, in the garment factories in and around Dhaka, with the number rising all the time.”[86]

Bangladesh, in Seasonal Adjustments, is represented also through the eyes of Iqbals’ daughter Nadine who exemplifies the distance of the second generation diasporic Bengalis from their parents’ homeland and culture; this distance, naturally, widens further when the children come from mixed marriages, as in her case. The novel describes Nadine’s bewilderment at cultural expectations completely foreign to her: “the cultural pulse of her life… is tuned to a different rhythm. She simply does not belong here” (161). Her perception of Bengalis has been filtered and distorted by her cocooned contact with an affluent minority. So, when she was made to travel by a crowded local bus – where a passenger insists that his goat is his luggage – to visit Shopnogonj, it was quite a culture shock to her. Exposed to “the unpredictability of public transportation and a raw slice of life experienced by ordinary Bengalis,” she is overwhelmed by “the glaring contradiction between her comfortable living conditions and the abject poverty she confronts when she steps outside the house” (281).

To get back to Aleya’s story in Spiral Road again, for her latest venture, which is to found a school, Aleya is facing opposition from Mullah Hakim who complains that she wants to change “how our women think” and that the family life in the village is being affected in a “dangerous way” as women are now “earning more than their husbands and becoming independent” (132). The Mullah does not feel the need of any new school as there is already a madrassa in the village.  But interestingly, when the prospect of the local landowner, Musa Alam selling his property for the school and leaving the village is suggested to him, the mullah could not hide his glee at the prospective collapse of the zamidar family, the Alams in Manikpur. For readers, here is an insight into the prevalent power structure in rural Bengal: the landowners and religious mullahs are still influential, but there are anxieties among themselves to maintain their respective dominance over the people.

To note another interesting point about the Bengali’s individual and social life, the novel captures, with a slice of humour, the hypocrisy underlying the conservative Bengali sexual mores which tend to operate through developing “many trite symbols and coy gestures to signal amorous intentions” (137). Iqbal’s mother’s insistence on his marriage, and her offering of Aleya – a sullen, fair-complexioned girl, with a round face and full lips epitomising Bengali beauty (74) – as a prospective bride for him prompts him to reflect on the institution of marriage as it operates in upper class Bengali families like the Chaudharys:

Our family view of marriage is a very functional one, cleansed of all the nonsensical notions of romance. By all means fall in love and have a fling before and during your married life. Needless to say, that unstated precept applies to males only. The only stringent requirement is discretion so that the family’s honour and the sacredness of the institution are not publicly damaged. Marriage is a family obligation. A young Chaudhary male has a duty to ensure the continuation of the family. (238)

Similarly in Spiral Road, the protagonist learns, from the secret notebook of his father, about the latter’s extramarital affair with a woman in Kolkata. His parents were children of wealthy patriarchal families, where the talk of love was forbidden, and matrimony was intended to retain/enhance social status and wealth. There were unwritten codes of behaviour for a married couple: “As long as the institution of marriage was seen to promote the virtues of family life, a degree of fallibility was acceptable in men. Successful procreation and family fortunes more than made up for fleshly indiscretions” (Spiral 166). Maintaining such “tolerance” was possible by accommodating wives who were aware of their own lack of education and limited opportunity outside marital lives. Ironically, the married women themselves, though they apparently lacked dignity or power in such an absolutely male-dominated family environ, were very much aware of their respective positioning among within the women members of the family. The narrator discovers that his uncle’s latest marriage, apart from being an utter violation of the expected code of conduct for the Alams, has other implications; for her mother, it means giving way to a seventeen-year-old girl: “After the death of Uncle Musa’s each wife, Ma commanded obeisant treatment for a short period of time as the female head of the family. But the patriarch is to wed again. Ma’s pride must suffer a serious blow” (347).

The other episodes in Spiral Road– though less consequential to the terror plot –such as secret love affairs, honour-killings, decadent rural aristocrats or the ongoing saga of the octogenarian Uncle Musa’s profligacy and so on offer insights into various socio-cultural aspects. One of the issues concerns the disintegration of old fangled values of the zamindari era when challenged by the more egalitarian concepts of the post-zamindari period. Before the Partition of India, local landowners, as allies of the British colonial masters, enjoyed ranks of power and influence in rural Bengal: “The Alams had been among the de facto administrators of rural India, highly effective in establishing a dictatorial order in the countryside without being a financial imposition on the white shahibs” (33). August 1947 was therefore an “ill-fated month” for them when they were relegated to the ranks of commoners. The Alams eventually moved to Dhaka, but, at Manikpur, they still continued to be “the dispensers of justice and the upholders of the five primary tenets of Islam” (31). Even after the decline of their wealth and power, they still retain “a supercilious pride about the generosity” of their family. The narrator is repeatedly reminded by his older brother Zia: “We belong to the Zamindari tradition …we have a responsibility in order to justify our prerogatives. Our public behaviour must characterize us as an exemplary family” (30). Zia hates Uncle Musa because the latter refuses to submit to what the Alams have designated as acceptable behaviour for them. Uncle Musa, on the other hand, holds his brother Ibrahim Alam, Masud’s father, who is a physician, to be responsible for the family’s demise as landowners, as the latter neglected the land and chose “a profession for a living” (213).

At the very outset of the novel Spiral Road, the reader learns that the narrator’s young, beautiful great-grandmother Hasina – who was discovered to be in an affair with the Nawab of Dhaka– was secretly killed, in a bid to safeguard “Izzat. Family honour” (23). Later in the novel, Aleya reports that honour-killings happen “too often, mostly in uneducated village communities” (137).  She mentions the case of Farida who, however, could fortunately escape death, and now works in Aleya’s cottage-industry at Manikpur. Farida’s father had forced her to marry a much older man; she ran away but was tracked down by her husband who tried to kill her. Aleya reports to the narrator, “Too many rural women have lives like Farida’s and others, perhaps not quite as bad, are regularly beaten by their husbands” (137). And it is against this backdrop that Aleya decided to do something for them. Khan’s representation of the Bengali women, as it appears, serves to perpetuate rather than challenge the negative stereotypes of women in postcolonial Islamic societies.

Tryst with religion and (Islamic) terrorism, fashionably

In both Seasonal Adjustments and Spiral Road “religion,” in its varied forms and facets, and in its profound influence on individuals, society and politics, constitutes a major theme.[87]The author exposes various contemporary facets of religious bigotry, conservatism and fanaticism either in the name of Islam or Catholicism in Bengal and beyond. The hostility of white Australians towards Iqbal, exhibited mainly by his in-laws, Keith or Judy, and a similar and reverse hostility from his own side, characterise each group’s self-righteousness or insularity in dealing with issues of race and religion.

The author shows how the common cultural legacy the Bengali Muslim shares with the Bengali Hindu has made him an automatic suspect in the eyes of the self-proclaimed “true believers” within his own religious community. The West Pakistan establishment treated Bengalis in East Pakistan as impure Muslims, “the naapak half-Hindu” (Seasonal 157) and could not imagine Bengalis to be ruling “Islamic Pakistan.” Although Bengalis got majority of parliamentary seats in the 1970 general election in Pakistan, they were not allowed to form the government: not only was the winning party’s relationship with the “arch enemy,” that is India,  a threat, but also, it was common knowledge in West Pakistan that “the swamp dwellers” in the East were of “base Dravidian stock. Lousy fish eaters. No wonder they were physically and intellectually inferior. Rice bloated them and made them lazy. They observed despicable Hindu customs. Their major poet [Tagore] is a Brahmin. How could they be given charge of the country?” (209). Then, the narrator of Seasonal Adjustments recounts how, in his first visit to a mosque in Australia, he received a cold welcome by a group of Arabs who swallowed the fabricated tale of religious betrayal and treachery: “The Bengalis had been in cahoots with the Hindus. An Islamic state has been dismembered and weakened” (196).

The satirical portrait of Moulana[88] Khwaja Rahmatullah Azad in Seasonal Adjustments exposes the prevalent practice of religious opportunism and superstition in the society. The Moulana is a fake pir who exploits people’s faith/superstition for his fortune-hunting; in a way, he resembles the character of Majeed, the sly impostor of Lal Shalu, [89] who transforms into a shrine the hitherto neglected grave of an unknown person about whose identity he knows nothing, but who he declares to be a saint that has visited Majeed in a dream. And yet, while Majeed is causing harm to others not out of any ill will but because of “the harrowing necessity of eking out a living,”[90] Khwaja’s place is frequented by the murids (devotees) that include high profile politicians and overseas dignitaries who appreciate his “hot-line to Allah” (43); the photographs on the walls of the drawing room proudly announce the “enlightened” Holiness’ local influence as well as his impressive international standing.  Iqbal felt disgusted – he was forced to visit his place on his mother’s insistence – by people’s blind devotion to this charlatan, and his flow of “holy bullshit.” Besides Khawja, there is caricature of another Moulana, who awaited the children with “the Koran and a waxed cane” during Iqbal’s childhood. Then there is Khuda Buksh with his “neat, compartmental view of good and evil” who reiterates his belief in jihad – “a holy war against infidels” (37). In his teens, Iqbal used to hear passionate accounts of Hindu atrocities against Muslims during the 1947 Partition from this Buksh, a family elder. In another brief episode in the novel, Iqbal’s cousin Mateen insists that his wife should touch Iqbal’s feet in the established manner of greeting an older relative – a gesture that a section of conservative Muslims consider to be “a Hindu custom grafted into some Bengali Muslim families” (18). Mateen is otherwise a very devout sort who is even disgusted at the idea of the family planning programme of the government to be implemented in the village as he considers it un-Islamic. When Iqbal expresses his indifference to religion, Mateen insists on the Muslim identity as being fundamental: “You do not have a choice … you cannot shake off your heritage. A tradition of 1300 years has shaped you” (249). Mateen himself, however, would not pay heed to the principles of Islamic egalitarianism as that would threaten the social privilege he enjoys from his zamindari legacy. Iqbal’s own brother Hashim, who has lately turned religious, tells him with the zeal of the new convert, “Belief is integral to you … you cannot escape from your religion any more than you can run away from your shadow” (198). No wonder, Iqbal gets the feeling that for his parents and relatives he is already a misguided family member “corrupted by the hedonistic ways of the West” (16).

In Spiral Road, Aleya informs that women have begun to enjoy freedom: “women hold important government posts now, and the private sector employs them more readily” (63); yet, “too much ignorance and gender bias” still prevails, particularly in rural life which is heavily influenced by “fundamentalist mullahs” (63). One can get a similar picture in the account of Shelley Feldman who researched female garment workers in Dhaka in the 1980s; she had seen streams of female garment workers in the streets of the city which belied her typically western assumption of Bangladeshi women as being dominated by purdah. Ironically however, as Feldman observes, women’s increased participation in the job market since the early 1980s coincided with the Islamisation process which was increasingly gaining legitimacy in the country.[91]

One may however discover some factual problems with Khan’s Manikpur-narration, which implies that rural opinions in Bangladesh – which it describes as being majorly dominated by the mullahs – are against spreading education. One may find this to be an exaggeration, or instance of prefabricated generalisation and stereotyping, considering the fact that the literacy rate is steadily increasing in rural areas since the 1990s. In the last twenty years or so, the government has invested heavily in girls’ education. And then, honour-killings do not happen “too often” as is reported by Aleya; local dailies and other media reports as well as Human Rights statistics will testify to this. Again, as we notice in the story, Mullah Hakim opposes Aleya’s move to establish a school in his village with the plea that there is already a madrasa there, and also, Uncle Rafiq believes that the present generation of Muslims, through their secular education, are becoming “enervated by materialism selling their souls to Western interests” (58), and he admonishes the narrator’s parents for not sending their children to the  madrasa: “We are Muslims first, Ibrahim,” he reminds the narrator’s father. The implication here is that, in the present day Bangladesh, there is a kind of proliferation of “Islamic” teachings provided by the madrasas as apposed to the schools which provide “secular” education; this is a rather distorted picture of the country’s education system.  How many parents are actually interested in sending their children to madrasas in today’s Bangladesh? Of course there is a group of people like Rafiq who would send their children to madrasas for strictly “religious” reasons, but still majority of Bengali Muslims want their children to be educated in more formal schools and colleges as they promise better social and economic opportunities. The reality is that madrasa students mostly come from economically and socially backward strata of the population, obviously not so much for religious reasons, but because madrasas at least provide food and accommodation for free. As far as madrasas are concerned the situation is far more complicated than the novel seems to suggest. There are many madrasas which are practically orphanages, not always doctrinally-oriented brainwashing factories, as is generally projected in the media. Madrasa education has never been the mainstream; it is popularly perceived as inferior and much less prospective for jobs and social status. In fact, the education system in Bangladesh is still predominantly secular; even the madrasas at present, apart from their mandatory religious courses, teach Bangla, English and other subjects of general importance, like any other educational institutions in the country.

Khan deals with the overlapping/intertwined subject of politics, religion and terrorism in the context of Bangladesh more elaborately in Spiral Road. Born in a Muslim family but educated in a school run by Christians, Masud Alam, like his creator, is unable to convince himself to abide by any religion. As a “lapsed Muslim” he is disliked by the more conservative members of his community. Yet, he sees Bangladesh as the most tolerant of countries, influenced as it is by its Hindu neighbour, the Indian state of West Bengal. Personally for Khan too, this influence, as he revealed to Carol Middleton, is strength rather than religious impurity.[92] In Spiral Road we encounter Mullahs, delivering fiery speeches about making Bangladesh an Islamic republic and helping fellow Muslims around the world. However, mullahs are not the only variety; there are members in the Bengali Muslim community like Zia who pray five times a day like any other devout follower of Islam, but takes alcohol that is forbidden in Islam; according to him, religion needs to be “accommodating.” Khan’s fiction thus gives us insights into the dialectics between various strands within Islam –orthodox/ fanatic as well as liberal/syncretistic.

People with religious as well as nationalistic or patriotic zeal are objects of sustained ridicule and caricature in Khan’s novels. In Seasonal Adjustments Khuda Buksh, in his laborious pidgin English, tries to explain to Nadine that young girls should never bare their arms and legs as it is prohibited in Islam. Iqbal’s father too insists that Nadine must be taught basic principles of Islam as it is “her religion.” When the son tried to argue in favour of individual choice regarding Faith, he is fiercely reprimanded: “You are speaking to your father! Living in the West does not give you the right to be so brash and bold” (251). In Australia, on the other hand, Iqbal’s father-in-law Keith insisted on his granddaughter’s baptism, because, he believes, “This is a Christian society” and “If she lives here, it is only right that she be brought up in the mainstream of Australian life” (85). Back home, his own mother insists on her granddaughter’s aqeeqa – Islamic rites of naming – in a grand ceremony befitting the Chaudhurys’ izzat, in a problematic reversal of the unfair demand that the Christian Australian maternal grandfather had earlier made of this child of inter-religious parentage. Iqbal also faces his mother’s racial intolerance and prejudice against his Australian wife. His brother Hashim’s Punjabi wife Farhana, because of her identical religion/colour, fares better in his mother’s eye than Michelle.

Iqbal feels bad at the racism and the fundamentalist Catholicism in Australia, but, he is equally disillusioned with the Bengalis: back home, questions like “How do you put up with the racism and the misconceptions against Muslims [in Australia]?”(139) are asked by persons like Toufiq who are equally fanatic. As the narrator describes, after the war of 1971, this Toufiq was instrumental in whipping up “a frenzied mood of patriotism,” which was, nothing but another facet of intolerance and fanaticism: “Under the catchcry, Bangladesh for Bangalis, he and his group of nationalists terrorised the Biharis” (139). In one way, Khan’s texts appear to be firmly critical of closed minds, which may emanate, as Tareq Masud[93] has pointed out, “not necessarily from religious dogmatism but…also from rigid political philosophy, and which, always, whatever may it emerge from, create misery and violence.”[94] Any kind of extremism is challenged here, no matter whether operating in the name of patriotic/nationalistic idealism or religious Puritanism.

The aggressive nature of nationalism that often embodies itself in the exclusivist or “purist” notion of identity worries Khan.  For him one such case is present-day Australia where, against the backdrop of increased immigration from the East, there is a “resurgence” of a myopic and aggressive nationalism encouraging a somewhat naïve and illusory view of a heroic, “pure” identity; according to Khan, there are strong and potentially dangerous martial components in such racial pride which is akin to an “advanced tribal mentality.” [95] Keith represents religious bigotry and racial prejudice in a professed secular and multicultural society like Australia; he is intolerant of the influx of migrants from underdeveloped parts of the globe which, for him, has been casting “sinister shadows to blight the country he claims to be God’s gift to Christians” (Seasonal 86-7). For him Asians are forbidden outsiders who have trickled into the Australian landscape and national psyche. Khan on the other hand emphasises the value of tolerance and peaceful co-existence of diverse humans and ideologies.

While Khan’s fiction deals with larger issues, the sub-text of localised home, and personalised history remains equally important, and complementary; he uses personal struggles to illustrate broader issues. Masud relives his nationalist militant activity, then his escape from Bangladesh in disillusionment, and his inability to engage with anyone in his family on his return to Bangladesh. Family anecdotes blend with the macro-history of the nation and the discourse of nationalism. Khan, however, insists that he has written about “the corrosive effects of terrorism on a family instead of focusing on the violence perpetrated by terrorists.”[96] Spiral Road thus revolves around the lives of the Alams, a proud aristocratic Bengali family, one of young members of which, Omar, is involved with a terrorist group based in the hilly region in southeastern Bangladesh. Curiously, the publication of Spiral Road, which fictionalises a concern over the increase in racial and religious intolerance across the globe and reveals the existence of a stronghold of terrorist activism in Bangladesh itself, coincided with the arrest of a group of Islamic militant leaders – that included the iconic Bangla Bhai and his close associates– in the country and the quick implementation of their capital punishment.

As we are aware, the issue of Islamic fundamentalism has emerged as a fashionable topic in the contemporary postcolonial literary scene, [97] perhaps because it is deemed to be a viable means for many a writer to render a piece of work readily provoking, and thus market-friendly: after all, (Islamic) terrorism sells. Tahmima Anam can be cited as one of the latest entrants to have climbed this bandwagon: in The Good Muslim, the second book of her Bengal Trilogy[98] which debuted last year (2011), Anam shifts her focus from Rehana Haque to the Haque children: Sohail returns to Dhaka from nine months of fighting in 1972, while Maya works for seven years as a “crusading” doctor in a northern village of the country after her return from the war. Since his return from the war, Sohail transforms into a fiercely devout spiritual leader immersed in a puritanical brand of reformist Islam which involves a shunning of the joyful pre-war life filled with friends, music and Marxism. He felt he needed desperately to cling to the certainty of a faith from which he could seek redemption not just for the savagery he has witnessed in the war, but also the savagery he himself has perpetrated: “His religious fundamentalism is a result of the guilt of war, and that he needs it as a means to survive its psychological after-effects.”[99] Maya was unable to bear her brother’s conversion; she refuses to acknowledge the solace that religion gives to Sohail, and then, when Sohail decides to send his young son Zaid to madrasa, the conflict between the siblings reaches a devastating climax. The ideological and emotional schism that mounts up between brother and sister is the central conflict in The Good Muslim, and it represents opposing ways of moving forward in the shadow of the horrors of that brutal war. Maya’s way of being a good Muslim is at odds with her older brother’s methods. Wendy Smith in Washington Post comments, “Anam works hard to be fair to both siblings, though her portrait of Sohail’s conversion is more conscientious than deeply felt. Melodramatic developments at the madrassa to which Sohail sends his ungovernable son also hint that Maya’s negative view of fundamentalist Islam is shared by the author.”[100] While the post-war disillusionment made Anam’s character a “fundamentalist,” it made Khan’s characters migrants.

Khan’s choice of Chittagong Hill Tracts for the setting of the terror base in the country is indeed significant, as the area has a volatile history of its own: this hilly region is inhabited by indigenous tribes who have long been involved in armed conflict with the Bangladesh military. The situation has its roots in the forced settlement of Bengalis in the hill tracts after the end of British colonial rule in the subcontinent in 1947. While talking on this issue to the Star Weekend Magazine in Dhaka, the author revealed that

It is precisely because Chittagong Hill Tracts has a volatile history that I chose to use it as a setting for a terrorist base … I figured that indigenous people would not be too concerned about subversive activities around them since they have a long history of grievance against the governments of both Pakistan and Bangladesh. I know the region fairly well and I had several Bangladeshi friends who were immensely helpful with their knowledge of the Hill Tracts.[101]

Near the end of the novel, Omar, while he leads his uncle Masud Alam through hills and forests of “Bandarban, a sleepy town, untouched by the twenty-first century,” reveals that the tribal people help them maintain anonymity as there is “a history of bad relationship between the government and the tribes.” “It’s all about autonomy and cultural identity,” he further clarifies. During the liberation war, the Chakma king supported the Pakistan military, and things never improved after independence (297-98). The political issues, however, remain in the background; most of the action takes place in Dhaka and the Alams’ ancestral village, Manikpur.

As is mentioned above, Khan embeds the terrorist plot into a family saga; the extended Alam family, now mostly housed under the elder brother Zia’s roof, has lost most of its former vast holdings of land and jewels. With the decline of the family fortunes, nothing is certain any more; the past begins to reveal itself as secrets unfold, some confided to Alam, others discovered by him after being alluded to by his father in moments of Alzheimer-induced indiscretion. Compared to Seasonal Adjustments, this time Adib Khan tackles a much broader canvas, and certainly a more ambitious one, that ties together the issues of identity and belonging, family and homeland to the rise of terrorism in home and abroad. Omar has returned home from America after the 9/11 cataclysm, leaving his lucrative IT job behind to become a key member of an armed Muslim group operating from Chittagong Hill Tracts. Out of his sense of family loyalty, Masud Alam decides to rescue his nephew from terrorist activities: “Omar is not an isolated entity, free to do as he pleases. He too must bear the myth of our collective honour” (256); “Blood ties. I have to be involved” (328).

Sue Green observes that the terror plot reads somewhat like an artificial construct amid all these identity issues and unresolved family tensions.[102] Geordie Williamson, on the other hand, complains that Spiral Road has addressed inadequately subjects already broached with grim authority by V.S. Naipaul, whose novel Magic Seeds (2004) describes the experience of an individual’s reluctant involvement with a terrorist group. According to him, Naipaul captures “perfectly” the sense of panic felt by a man who, torn between East and West, makes a decision based on a flabby and suspect idealism, and ends up indentured to murderers; but Khan falls short in this regard. A better version of Khan’s book, Williamson suggests, would “explore in greater detail Masud’s own time in such a group. It would also use character and plot to drive the novel forward, instead of shunting it along by resorting to bare explication.” In Naipaul, he adds, the confusion is part of a larger insight into mass political movements whereas in Spiral Road, we only stumble, blindly, within Masud’s personal murk.[103]

A university student in 1960s’ East Pakistan, Masud Alam had been rather a fashionable activist of left-wing student politics and eventually became a freedom fighter. His experience during the struggle for independence shook him out of uncertainty however: he is deeply convinced now that no political or religious programme is worth the deaths of innocents. After the 1971 war, Masud Alam had fled to Australia, abandoning his patriotic idealism and his large, grand family. Now the news that his father has been diagnosed with a fatal disease draws him to a country and a family at once familiar and alien. The ailing father’s condition in a way symbolises the breaking down of the old colonial coherence for this zamindar family in modern-day Bangladesh, and Masud Alam’s fractured identity as well. The Alam family’s wealth and social standing have diminished in the intervening years. Alam’s wastrel uncle is cut off from the extended family for contemplating a socially unsuitable fourth marriage. His mother, querulous at the decline of a more certain world, clings to traditional domesticity, and his sister, now divorced, lives a shrunken life of public disapproval. Others in the family have also changed in more disturbing ways. His brother Zia – an American-educated professional, now the family anchor – has become more radical: he provides clandestine shipments of medical supplies to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.  When Masud Alam queries his brother about this, he is reprimanded: “Don’t be paranoid! Stop looking at the world with Western lenses” (104); and yet, Zia has only dipped a toe compared to his son, Omar, who has returned from the US to join a domestic terror cell. Omar even seeks to draw his freedom fighter uncle into the jihadist orbit.

Thus Masud Alam who comes to visit Dhaka to see his ill father diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, to reconnect with a family with whom he had virtually no contact for years, soon finds himself entangled in larger issues of terrorism/counter-terrorism. His return to a terror-stricken country, in a way, recalls Michael Ondaatje’s fictionalising in Anil’s Ghost (2000) the experience of a Sri Lankan expatriate female forensic pathologist who returns to her country on an assignment only to find the island riven by violence. However, in the case of Spiral Road, the authorial intent appears to place more emphasis on the corrosive effects of terrorism on a family rather than the politics of terrorism itself; nonetheless, the movement does often seem to tower over the more personal stories. Several Islamic political parties – a number of which are reported to be maintaining trans-border terrorist links – are identified in the book as well as individuals, including the much-dreaded Bangla Bhai who was brought under custody and later hanged. As soon as he reached Dhaka, Masud was updated on the local political scenario by his Dhakaite brother Zia: “In the north, there’s a fellow trying to establish an Islamic state. Then there’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Ahle Hadith Andolon Bangladesh, Islami Oikyo Jote, Jamaat-e-Islami, Jagrata Muslim Janata … A new political party crops up every week. And no matter what, a revolution is always on the agenda” (40).

International espionage encroaches in the novel in the guise of Steven Mills, whom Masud first encountered as rather an intrusive co-passenger on his flight to Dhaka. Later it turns out that Mills is an Australian secret service agent working in cahoots with a CIA operative and that he already has a profile on Masud, on account of his being the uncle of a terror-suspect. Also, while in Australia, the fact that Masud was sent a missive by a Muslim group to join their majlis does not help matters in his profiling. Once in Bangladesh, despite his firm belief that the country does not host a terrorist base, Masud is gradually disproved when he discovers that a journalist named Shabir Jamal, who published a series of investigative articles on the growth of Islamic fundamentalism and the suspect (Taliban) terrorist base in the country as well as corruption in the government, gets killed; and he himself is cautioned and then offered by Mills a counter spying position, which he declines. The narrator comes to know later that Jamal might have been killed because of his link with people who were spying – Peter Nicholas of CIA, Steven Mills of ASIO et al – on terrorist cells and training facilities in the country. “Bangladesh is potentially a problem area,” the spies inform Masud: “There are disturbing stories, about Bengali fundamentalists being trained here with the aid of foreigners” (197). They claim to have gathered substantial information about training camps and terrorist cells in different parts of the country and warn, “if there’s anything definite, the Americans will put pressure on the Bangladeshi government to act decisively. Otherwise all sorts of aid programs will be at risk. And Bangladesh can ill-afford to miss out American assistance” (239). They also warn him about his older brother Zia, informing him about the latter’s supplying medical accessories to Islamic militants at the Pak-Afghan border and having some former ISI members as business associates. Masud himself too is taunted by them because of his being a Muslim from Bangladesh; it does not help when he tells Mills that his current status “wavers between atheism and agnosticism,” rather, this enrages Mills even more as he cannot fit Masud into “the framed image” of his western gaze. For Mills, “it is only conceivable that there could be terrorist centres here” (238) as the majority of the population in Bangladesh follows Islam. This line of argumentation, in fact, reflects the post-9/11 reductive binary polarity: “you are either with us or against us”; it exposes “the pitfalls of excessive and sometimes blind prejudicial loyalty that is evident in the polarisation between the West and the Islamic world.” [104] In opposition to this binary that imposes a kind of essential homogeneity about Islam, the novel strives to show that  there is a wide range of perspective/interpretation of Faith within the community about who is a good Muslim: there are Muslims who completely reject their religion; some embrace it but do not make it part of their political life. Since the issue of terrorism and Islam is often used for political purposes and sensationalised by media, there is, sadly, little room left now for the voice of the majority ordinary Muslims–  in popular vocabulary, “moderates” – to engage with the debates within the community as well as with others, instead of falling into the aforesaid flawed binary.

Khan makes an attempt to probe into factors that prompt young Muslims go the “fanatic” way: “How could that considerate and timid boy not particularly devoted to religion, living in a capitalist society be so radically transformed,” Alam wonders as his nephew guides him to “spiral road,” deep into the forest of the Hill Tracts (280). The narrative underlines the truth that the war against terrorism is no better than the very terrorism it attempts to counter. That a man who can die for an ideal, can, in turn, kill another for the same.  It is a vicious cycle never likely to end as both sides are convinced about the justifiability of the respective “terror” they unleash at each other: “Victim becomes aggressor in the vengeful and ever widening cycle of a life for a life. Spiral Road” (292). The narrator, instead of being judgmental, tries rather to decipher the disillusionment that his nephew goes through. The fact that Masud himself had his own grand rhetoric of patriotic duties disintegrated, and his past credential– “Once I was among those classified as freedom fighters. Terrorist to some … insurgent to others. Miscreants to the Pakistani soldiers” (27) – facilitates his understanding of Omar’s transformation. In Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, we see, Karim, a second-generation immigrant founds a radical group called “Bengal Tigers,” centred on the Islamic identity of the Bangladeshi diaspora, which would resist white racist attacks. He finds his identity, dignity and even home in the global ummah, though he wears jeans, stammers in Bengali and is almost a prototype of the Bengali youth who aggressively try to adopt British customs. With a salaat (routine prayer for practicing Muslims, five times a day) alert on his mobile, he is irretrievably hybridised in spite of the desperate bid for a purely Islamic identity through his post 9/11 dress-makeover of punjabi-pyjama and skullcap. Like Karim, Omar has his reasons for seeking “justice” by joining hands with “like-minded brothers.” Well-educated and well-employed in the US, he was picked up, after the cataclysm of 9/11, for interrogation, because, “he was born into the same religion as the people who piloted those aircraft.” Omar narrates to his uncle the moral and physical damage it caused: “You’re intended to feel inferior. It crushes your ego with the force of a hammer hitting an egg. You shrink into a cowering mess, covered in sweat, blood and piss. Two broken ribs, bruised chest, legs and arms. A crushed finger” (288). The nightmare led to a larger solidarity with the oppressed people belonging to the same religious faith, transcending national borders. Leaving the US Omar eventually landed in the training camps of Afghanistan where he stayed for five months before retuning to Bangladesh.

Omar thus believes that his group is fighting in order to rid the world of “civilized exploitation” and “recycled colonialism” and of course, to restore “Muslim dignity” (300). Through Omar, Alam meets the group leader, Amin Hider, born and raised in Britain to parents who migrated from Chittagong in the 1960s. Hider argues: “What else can young men, born and bred in refugee camps, know besides anger and violence? We tap their emotional resources, release their frustrations. Life is a price they will pay, to strike out at a world that pretends to be just and caring” (301). Considering that he would be a very useful addition to the team because of his expertise in explosives, earned through 1971, both Hider and Omar attempt to persuade Masud Alam to join hands with them for the “greater cause,” like the way he joined the war for freedom of his country; Alam refuses to join: “Nothing is worth the loss of lives” (301) was his reply. With hindsight, thus he reflects on his joining the war in 1971: “back then I knew nothing about the insidiousness of war, the way it can slowly wreck those who return, even as heroes” (191).

It is not that the author has any such agenda so as to vilify, or even lessen, the significance of 1971 in the life and history of the Bengalis; he is perhaps more engrossed in the deep human tragedy in general, staged at that time than in the more immediate political implications and local interests. He is clearly critical of that kind of nationalist discourses that underpin smug self-complacency, aggressive communal pride and hatred for others.  In his fiction he has not sought to present any nostalgic recollection of the mythicised glorious past of Bengal or simple parochial romanticisation of this particular land and humanscape, rather his narratives remain, at their best, useful interrogations into Bengali life and culture, and Bengali identity in contemporary Bangladesh.

However, through this detailed study of Khan’s revisit into his country’s history, politics and socio-cultural milieu, it may be inferred that Khan’s fiction operates, to a considerable extent, within the (western) paradigm of negative stereotyping and clichéd generalisations, and that an outsiderness can be discerned from his writings on contemporary realities of Bangladeshi life and culture, and that this “outsiderness” is one factor that contributes to render his portrayal of terrorism in the country seem unrealistic; in fact, the “terror subplot” does not really blend, rather hangs loosely, with the main plot of family narrative in Spiral Road. Yet, perhaps one would not just dismiss this author’s homethoughts as utterly inauthentic and rather absurd musings of a distant, guilt-ridden mind. Perhaps the chief value of Khan’s oeuvre lies in the way his writings uphold the need for tolerance and co-existence, the way his writings offer a timely caution against the xenophobic potential/ martial components inherent in the usually valorised nationalistic politics and orthodox religiosity. Indeed, a dispassionate, secular humanist perspective that emphasises tolerance and peaceful co-existence of people from different backgrounds and affiliations appears to have informed Adib Khan’s dealing with his staple issues: diasporic anxiety and identity, inter-racial conflicts and dialogues, the politics of nationalism, terrorism and so on. Khan-narratives stress on the need for an introspective, inclusive and objective approach while dealing with these highly contentious issues. (Maswood Akhter)      


[1] Let me note three things at the outset which are intrinsic to this discussion:

First, there is nothing called “undivided Bengal” any longer: the western part of what was earlier known as Bengal forms the Indian state of West Bengal today; its eastern part is now Bangladesh. However, while Bengalis are presently distributed among various geopolitical boundaries casting them into different citizenships or awarding them hyphenated identities, they are nevertheless “one” through the Bengali language and culture, as well as through a long shared history which transcends those borders.

Second, this study rejects the homogenisation of people from the subcontinent into a monolithic category called “Indian,” a homogenisation that results from the inability to recognise cultural differences, as Adib Khan’s Bengali protagonist in Seasonal Adjustments complains: “Everything from language to food, religion and accent has been moulded into a composition to fit a uniform view about an Indian” (144).

Third, people of Bengali origin are now widely spread across the world; the 1960s witnessed the first massive surge of Bengali dispersion to different western metropolises. Not only do Bengalis comprise a sizeable diasporic group at present, but amid the wider phenomenon of English language writing by people of South Asian origin, a discernable subset of fiction now –marked by both the general traits it shares with the rest of the subcontinental literary diaspora as well as its peculiarly Bengali qualities– is from probashi (“one who lives away from home”) Bengalis. This subset, to name only some obvious figures, includes Bharati Mukherjee, Amitav Ghosh, Sunetra Gupta, Adib Khan, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri, Monica Ali, Manzurul Islam, Tahmima Anam and others.

[2] Adib Khan, “In Janus’ Footsteps”, Australian Humanities Review 22 (June2001): 26-28, 27.

[3] ibid. 28.

[4] qtd. in Carol Middleton, “Strength on Parallel Roads”, Canberra Times 28 April 2007. See also Rebecca Sultana, “Adib Khan”, South Asian Writers in English, Ed. Fakrul Alam (Farmington Hills: Thomson Gale, 2006), 194-97, 197.

[5] Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands (London: Granta, 1991), 11.

[6] Adib Khan, “Writing Homeland”, Australian Book Review 170 (May 1995): 24-25, 24.

[7] Adib Khan, Seasonal Adjustments (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1994), 11. All subsequent references to the text are from this edition and indicated in the paper only by respective page numbers within brackets along with shortened title, if necessary.

[8]  Kaiser Haq, Interview with Monica Ali, Daily Star (Dhaka) 31 May 2003, 5 Nov. 2009, <http://www.thedailystar.net/ 2003/05/31/d30531210188.html>.

[9] Salman Rushdie, op. cit. 12.

              [10] “What was initially felt to be a curse,” as Gilroy has written, “the cause of homelessness or the cause of enforced exile—gets repossessed as a privileged standpoint from which certain useful and critical perceptions about the modern world become more likely” (Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000,  111). Rushdie too believes that “however ambiguous and shifting this ground may be, it is not an infertile territory for a writer to occupy. If literature is in part the business of finding new angles at which to enter reality, then once again our distance, our long geographical perspective, may provide us with such angles” (Imaginary Homelands, op. cit. 15).

              [11] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (London: Routledge, 1990), 83.

[12] Tahmima Anam  qtd. in  Nona Walia, “The Rootless Outsider”,  Times of India 7 July 2007: 11; emphasis mine.

[13] qtd. in Gowri Ramnarayan, “In conversation with Divakaruni: Of gains and Losses”, The Hindu Literary Magazine 5 Nov. 2006: 3.

    [14] Jasbir Jain, “The New Parochialism: Homeland in the Writing of the Indian Diaspora”, Ed. Makarand Paranjape, In Diaspora: Theories, Histories, Texts (New Delhi: Indialog, 2001), 79-92, 85.

[15] ibid.

    [16] Tahmima Anam  qtd. in Walia.

    [17] Rushdie is quoted as saying so in Indrajit Hazra, “I’m Really Keen on Exploring India”, Interview with Rushdie, Hindustan Times 12 Apr. 2008: 12.

[18] The authenticity debate is an old and recurrent one, and of course, has not spared even the latest Booker prize winner from India, Aravind Adiga’s debut novel, The White Tiger (2008). Its depiction of a filthy, greedy and poverty-stricken life in the Bihari hinterland of India has been criticised by novelist-critics like Amitava Kumar, who accuses it of being “curiously inauthentic,” “a novel from one more outsider, presenting cynical anthropologies to an audience that is not Indian” (“On Adiga’s The White Tiger”, The Hindu Literary Review 2 Nov. 2008: 7).

[19] In Vijay Mishra’s words, this “new” diaspora is comprised not of indentured labourers but “economic migrants and refugees entering the metropolitan centres of the ex-Empire as well as the New World and Australasia” (“Diasporas and the Art of Impossible Mourning”, Ed. Makarand Paranjape, In Diaspora: Theories, Histories, Texts op.cit. 24-51, 26.) The classic definition of diaspora, based on the Jewish model, presumes that dispersal is due to forced exile from a homeland to which people essentially desire to return. The “new” post-1960s South Asian diasporic author returns either imaginatively (in his/her creative work) or physically to his/her homeland in search of self-knowledge.

[20]  Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, op.cit. 15.

[21] Makarand Paranjape, Towards A Poetics of the Indian English Novel (Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2000), 122.

[22] Jasbir Jain, “The New Parochialism”, op. cit. 87.

[23] Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, op.cit.10

[24] Ernest Gellner qtd. in Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983), 6.

[25] See <http://prufrockspage.blogspot.com/2005/08pro-fiction-anti naipaul.html>.

[26] To borrow Adib Khan’s phrase from “In Janus’ Footsteps”, op. cit. 27.

[27] To borrow Kaiser Haq’s phrase from “Jumping ship: Three Bangladeshi Diaspora Novels in English”, Daily Star 5 Feb. 2005, 27 Nov. 2008, <http://www.thedailystar.net/2005/02/05/d50205210 2119.htm>.

[28] Adib Khan, “What I’ve learnt”, Interview with Chris Beck, Age 6 Dec. 2003, 23 Sept. 2007, <http://www theage.com.au/articles/2003/12/03/1070351646166.html>.

[29] Adib Khan, Spiral Road (Sydney: Harper Collins, 2007), 37. All subsequent references to this text are from this edition and indicated in the paper only by respective page numbers, and shortened title whenever necessary, within brackets.

[30] Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, op. cit. 10.

[31] Adib Khan, “What I’ve learnt”, op. cit.

[32] See Sudesh Mishra, “From Sugar to Masala: Writing by the Indian Diaspora”, Ed. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003), 276-294, 293.

               [33] Sunetra Gupta, Memories of Rain (New Delhi: Penguin, 1992), 112.

[34] See Carol Middleton, op. cit.

[35] Adib Khan, “What I’ve learnt”, op.cit.

[36] ibid.

[37] See Niaz Zaman and Asif Farrukhi, Introduction, Fault Lines: Stories of 1971 (Dhaka: UPL, 2008), ix-xxxii, xxxi.

[38] Khademul Islam, “The Definitive 1971 Novel”, Review of A Golden Age, Daily Star 31 March 2007.

[39] See Clemency Burton-Hill, Review of A Golden Age, The Observer 22 April 2007, 17 Jan. 2009, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/apr/22/fiction.features>.

[40] Niaz Zaman and Asif Farrukhi, Introduction, Fault Lines: Stories of 1971, op.cit.  xx.

[41] Terry Hong, Interview with Tahmima Anam, July 2011, <http://www.bookslut.com/features/2011_07_017958.php>.    

[42] Indrajit Hazra, “Review of A Golden Age”, Hindustan Times 15 July 2007: 18.

[43] Tanvir Mokammel Interviewed by Mehedi Masud, “Tanvir er Ekattor”,  Prothom Alo (Dhaka ) 22 Mar. 2012, Entertainment supplement “Anondo”, 1; translation mine.

[44] Neluka Silva, The Gendered Nation: Contemporary Writings from South Asia (New Delhi: Sage, 2004),

161.

[45] Sikandar Abu Jafar’s poetry or the plays like Kabara by Munir Chowdhury, for example. Neluka Silva, however, argues that in their writings, there has been a tendency to “oversimplify the complexity of the crisis through the polarisation of the ‘evil’ and ‘repressive’ West wing against the ‘good’ and ‘innocent’, simple East wing” (Silva, op.cit.157).

[46] As Professor Kabir Cowdhury notes in his essay “The Liberation War and Creative Writing”, the event of 1971 has formed a major theme for all Bengali writers; all have contributed their share to create a vast body of work inspired by 1971 in all genres: songs, poems, novels, plays, short stories (qtd. in Zaman and Farrukhi, op.cit. x). Some of these works were written even as the war was going on. Perhaps the first novel to be written about 1971 was Anwar Pasha’s Rifle, Roti, Aurat, translated by Kabir Chaudhury as Rifle, Bread and Women, which the author began writing in April 1971, but which was published posthumously in 1974. There are many other novels about 1971, with almost  every major Bangladeshi novelist having written at least one novel, if not more, on it: Selina Hossain’s Hangor Nadi Grenade, translated by Abedin Quader as The Shark, the River and the Grenades, Shaukat Osman’s Jahannam Hoite Bidai, Nekre Aranya, Dui Sainik, Syed Shamsul Haq’s Nil Damshan and Nishidhwa Liban, Rabeya Khatun’s Ferari Surya, Rizia Rahman’s Ekti Phuler Janya, Rashid Haider’s Andha Kathamala, Nashto Jyotsnaye E kon Aranya, Ahmed Safa’s Omkar and so on. Tahmima Anam’s novel A Golden Age is, however, the first Bangladeshi novel written in English on 1971. There are, in addition, numerous anthologies of short stories in Bangla on the liberation war; among them Muktijuddher Golpo published by the Bangladesh Lekhika Sangha and Husne Ara Shahed-edited Muktijuddher Shatagalpa, a two-volume collection of a hundred short stories, published on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the liberation war are to be noted. The liberation war has figured as theme in a number of films too: Stop Genocide by Zahir Raihan (1971), Ora Egarojan or Those Eleven Freedom Fighters (1972) by Masud Parvez, Orunodayer Ognisakkhy or Witness to Sunrising by Subhas Dutta, Dhire Bahe Meghna or Quiet Flows the Meghna (1973) by Alamgir Kabir, Abar Tora Manush Ha or Be Humane Again (1973) by Khan Ataur Rahman and Matir Moina or The Clay Bird (2002) by Tareq Masud, just to name a few.

[47] Silva, op.cit. 162.

[48] ibid.

[49] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983), 144.

[50] Adib Khan was born in Dhaka which was the provincial capital of the then East Pakistan in 1949. After his graduation in English Literature at Dhaka University, Khan went to Australia in 1973, shortly after his country became independent, for post graduate studies at Monash. Later, he took Australian citizenship and started teaching at Damascus College in Ballarat.

[51] Nasir Islam, “Islam and National Identity: The Case of Pakistan and Bangladesh”, International Journal of Middle East Studies 13.1(Feb 1981): 55-72, 62.

[52] G. W. Chowdhury, The Last Days of United Pakistan (Karachi: Oxford UP, 1993), xv.

[53] Kaiser Haq, “Jumping ship: Three Bangladeshi Diaspora Novels in English”, op.cit.

[54] Mohammad Ayub, Bangladesh: A Struggle for Nationhood (New Delhi: Vikas, 1971), 60-61.

[55] For a detailed study of the impact of language in East Pakistan’s demand for autonomy see, for example, Niaz Zaman, “Poetry and Politics in Bangladesh”, Unpublished Paper presented at the Poetry and History Conference organised by the University of Stirling, 27-31 July 1996; Ramakrishnan Mukherjee, “Nation-Building and State-Formation in Bangladesh”, Eds. S.P. Verma and V. Narain, Pakistan Political System in Crisis: The Emergence of Bangladesh (Jaipur: South Asia Studies Centre, 1972); Ashis Nandy, Poems from Bangladesh: The Voice of a New Nation (London: Lyrebird, 1972); Mohammad Ayub, Bangladesh: A Struggle for Nationhood (New Delhi: Vikas, 1971);and G.W. Chowdhury,  op. cit.

   [56] Aquila Ismail, “Leaving Bangladesh”, Ed. Muneeza Shamsie, Leaving Home: Towards a New Millennium (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001), 135-140, 136.

   [57] ibid. 140.

  [58] M. Rashiduzzaman, “The Liberals and the Religious Right in Bangladesh”, Asian Survey 34.11 (Nov. 1994): 974-990, 978.

[59] Asif Farrukhi, Introduction, In Fault Lines: Stories of 1971, op.cit. xxiv.

[60] Niaz Zaman and Asif Farrukhi, Introduction, Fault Lines: Stories of 1971, op.cit. xxxi.

[61] ibid. xxxii.

    [62] Kaiser Haq, “Jumping ship: Three Bangladeshi Diaspora Novels in English”, op.cit.

[63] Kaiser Haq, “Jumping ship: Three Bangladeshi Diaspora Novels in English”, op.cit.

[64] ibid.

[65] Sudesh Mishra, “From Sugar to Masala: Writing by the Indian Diaspora”, op.cit. 284.

[66] Uma Parameswaran says, “… supported by neither the ethno-centric community nor the larger community, literary efforts of the Diaspora are stifled at birth while the publishers, of course, prefer the marketability of negative stereotypes.” See her essay, “Home is Where Your Feet are and May your Heart be There Too!” Ed. Jasbir Jain, Writers of the Indian Diaspora (Jaipur: Rawat, 1998), 32-39, 38.

[67] For a brief but illuminating discussion on Burrow see Kaiser Haq,  “Jumping ship: Three Bangladeshi Diaspora Novels in English”, op.cit.

[68] ibid.

[69] Salman Rushdie qtd. in Sudesh Mishra, “From Sugar to Masala: Writing by the Indian Diaspora”, op.cit. 284.

              [70]  Ranjan Ghosh and Christiane Scholte. “… nobody likes to be bracketed”, Interview with Sunetra Gupta, Critical Practice 11.2 (2004): 117-24,120.

[71] Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, op.cit. 25.

[72] ibid. 14.

[73] Addressing her fellow expatriate authors, Uma Parameswaran writes from Canada: “Home is where your feet are, and may your heart be there too, and I would hope that we write about the world around us and not about the world we have left behind” (“Contextualising Diasporic Locations in Deepa Mehta’s Fire and Srinibas Krishna’s Masala”, Ed. Makarand Paranjape, In Diaspora: Theories, Histories, Texts, op.cit. 290-300, 291). Her colleagues however seem to continue writing– compulsively and consistently– both about their present reality as well as their homeland, perhaps because these are overlapping, intertwined territories for the diasporics like them. Thus from Naipaul to Rushdie, Mistry to Vassanji, almost all of the South Asian diaspora writers have attempted writing home although many of them are now far removed from the actual contemporary conditions of their motherlands and tend to recreate rather “imaginary homelands.”

[74] M. K. Naik and Shyamala A. Narayan, Indian English Literature 1980-2000: A Critical Survey (Delhi: Pencraft International, 2001)106, 139.

[75] Jhumpa Lahiri, “My Intimate Alien”, Stree (Woman), Spec. issue of Outlook (2000):116-20, 118.

[76] Kaiser Haq, “Interview”, op.cit.

[77] Terry Hong, Interview with Tahmima Anam, op.cit.

[78] Another London-based Bengali author, Neel Mukherjee recalls his experience with one UK publisher (he approached her for his debut novel, Past Continuous, 2008), who wanted him to turn the novel “into a fluffy, romantic, weepy Exotica Fest”; she desired that he include more of India’s “heat and dust,” “smells and colours” (Aditya Sudarshan, “Exile as a Choice”, Interview with Neel Mukherjee, Hindu Literary Review 6 Sept. 2009:1).

[79] Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (London: Heinemann, 1986), 210.

[80] Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Real and Imagined Women (London: Routledge, 1993), 134.

[81] Rosemary Marangoly George, The Politics of Home: Postcolonial Relocation and Twentieth-Century Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996), 170.

[82] Neluka Silva, op. cit. 145.

[83] M. Rashiduzzaman, op.cit. 984.

[84] Serajul Islam Choudhury, Introduction, Ed. Niaz Zaman, Tree Without Roots (Dhaka: writers.ink., 2005), ix-xiii, ix.

[85] Rainbow over Padma (Dhaka: UPL, 1994)  is a novel by the Bangladeshi journalist-writer S.M. Ali (1928-1993).

[86] ibid. 40.

[87] In an interview with Chris Beck, Khan has talked about his personal “curiosity” about religion: “It has done too much for civilisation in the negative and the positive … Look at the artistic achievements and at the same time the hatred it has perpetrated. You can’t just ignore it” (“What I’ve learnt”, op. cit).

[88] An appellation used for experts in Islamic religious teachings.

[89] A much acclaimed novel by the Bengali bilingual novelist Syed Waliullah which has been translated into English as Tree without Roots, op.cit.

[90] Serajul Islam Choudhury, op.cit. xi.

[91] Shelley Feldman, “Exploring Theories of Patriarchy: A Perspective from Contemporary Bangladesh”, Globalization and Gender, Spec. issue of Signs 26.4 (Summer 2001): 1097-1127, 1098-99.

[92] Carol Middleton, op.cit.

[93] The director of the much-acclaimed Bangladeshi film Matir Moina (The Clay Bird) set against the backdrop of the war of 1971. Tareq Masud died in a tragic road accident on the 13 of August 2011.

[94] Tareq Masud while talking to The Times of India on his film Matir Moina (The Clay Bird). See “Islamic Narrative”, The Times of India 28 Jan.2004, 20.

[95] Adib Khan, “In Janus’ Footsteps”, op. cit. 27.

[96] Adib Khan qtd. in Carol Middleton, op. cit. and see also Sultana, “Adib Khan”, op. cit. 197.

[97]As the titles like The Good Muslim of Jackson Heights (2011) by Jaysinh Birjepatil, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) by Mohsin Hamid, or The Good Muslim (2011) by Tahmima Anam would very well testify.

[98] The second part of a projected trilogy that began with Tahmima Anam’s acclaimed first novel, A Golden Age.

[99] Arifa Akbar, Review The Good Muslim, 20May 2011, <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/the-good-muslim-by-tahmina-anam-2286451.html>.

[101] Rebecca Sultana, “On Bangladeshi-Australian writer Adib Khan’s new novel Spiral Road”,  Daily Star 7 July 2007, 31 Mar. 2008, <http://www.thedailystar.net/2007/07/07/d707072102133.htm>.

[102] See Sue Green, “Adib Khan’s Spiral Road”, 23 Feb. 2009, <http://www.Theaustralian.news.com.au/ story/0, 20867, 21497418-5003900, 00html>.

[103] Geordie Williamson, “Masud’s Murk”, 15 Feb. 2009, <http://home.vicnet.net.au/~abr/Current/ WilliamsonreviewApril07.htm>.

[104] Adib Khan, “In Janus’ Footsteps”, op. cit. 27.

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Transcendence in Bondage: Dynamics of Master-slave Relation in Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land and Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle                                         

The institution of slavery, a common trope in human and social sciences, has made its recurrent appearance in works of literature in diverse forms. Many images and metaphors are derived from the concept of slavery. The meanings of master and slave shaped in one cultural-historical context may not entirely apply to another. In fiction these meanings are often delimited within the cultural structure that serves as the background of a particular text. Amitav Ghosh[1] in In an Antique Land (1992) and Orhan Pamuk[2] in The White Castle (1990) have articulated the relation of master and slave in special frames of meanings, and a comparison between their frames is the focus of this study.

Amitav Ghosh is an Indian-born diasporic writer whose third novel In an Antique Land grew out of his experiences during his stay in the remote Egyptian villages for doctoral fieldwork, and his study of archival woks in different libraries. Considering the novelistic techniques used in the book and relying on the judgment of Bhaba,[3] In an Antique Land will be considered a novel in this study though it is variously treated– as history, ethnography, travelogue and non fiction. On the other hand, Orhan Pamuk is the Nobel Laureate and the most translated-into-English Turkish novelist. He is rooted in his beloved city Istanbul and divides his time between this city and New York to teach at Columbia University where Amitav Ghosh too has a teaching position. The White Castle is his third novel written in detective vein and the first to be translated into English. In these two slave fictions[4] slavery is not treated strictly as historical phenomenon. The approaches of the writers towards the subject are more anthropological and philosophical than historical. The ambiguous and overlapping identity moves the slaves of their narratives to blur, question and even alter the demarcation between the master and the slave. The image of bondage as conceived by them is “the paradoxical embodiment of perfect freedom; the image that represented the very notion of relationship, of human bonds, as well as the possibility of their transcendence” (Antique 214). Their thought provoking rendition of the theme confounds the general understanding of the concept of slavery, as the process of transcendence in different forms and degrees works behind the relationship. Slavery as reconceptualised by them covers material, spiritual and psychological bonds. In a sense, the two stories can be taken as counter-narratives to the dominant understanding of the concept of slavery.  Through their own paradigm of dealing with master-slave relationship they, in effect, shed light on a number of concerns: intercultural communication, civilisational clashes, identity issues, notion of boundaries, power-knowledge nexus, and finally, the liberating power of narrative. In dealing with these features of the two texts the present article will take into account relevant theoretical articulations as a supporting framework.

Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land has received wide critical attention, but no substantial critical study, to the best of my knowledge, has been done exclusively on the master-slave issue. The subject has got partial treatment in many scholarly essays which mainly focus on cultural, anthropological and Jewish questions presented in the book. Similarly, a few full length studies of Pamuk’s The White Castle are found, and they mainly treat East-West entanglement as the book’s major theme. But it is hardly treated as slave fiction showing multiple dimensions of relations. And comparative studies of these two writers are rarely found let alone any between the two novels under this study. I have chosen this unexplored area of comparative study to have a fresh insight into these two novelists, and into the otherwise much-trodden subject of master-slave relation. The novels are built on very different styles and contexts, but in their treatment of the traditional subject of master-slave relation they share many similar pressing concerns of the modern time. The purpose of this comparison can better be expressed by quoting Edward Said:

For the trained scholar of comparative literature, a field whose origin and purpose is to move beyond insularity and provincialism and to see several cultures and literatures together, contrapuntally…to [reduce] nationalism and uncritical dogma…to get a perspective beyond one’s own nation, to see some sort of whole instead of the defensive little patch offered by one’s own culture, literature and history.[5]

The comparison, by going beyond one culture and literature, will provide a wider perspective to look at the theme of human relationship in the form of master and slave.

Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land   develops two seemingly different narrative strands. The first strand – the bulk of the text – concerns the events related to the novelist’s field work as an anthropologist in two Egyptian remote villages. The second strand which I choose for study in this paper involves the novelist’s historical and imaginative reconstruction of the lives of 12th century Indian slave Bomma and his Tunisian-born Jewish master Abraham Ben Yiju. The characters themselves do not actively appear in the story as they do in In an Antique Land. Hence, quotations directly related to the characters’ words and views will not appear in this paper. The materials of this master-slave relationship are found in some business and personal letters preserved in Cairo Geniza,[6] world’s largest archive of the Middle Eastern documents of the medieval period. Ghosh also elaborately analyses the source and context of the story in a historical article titled “The Slave of MS. H.6.”[7] Abraham Ben Yiju, a Tunisian-born Jewish merchant based in Cairo has passed eighteen years or more of his life in Mangalore in India for business and personal reasons. He owns an Indian slave named Bomma who represents his master in business and travels back and forth between Mangalore and Eden. The terms and conditions under which Bomma serves Ben Yiju are different from those generally used in slavery. In their relationship the idea of slavery gradually blurs the boundary of bondage and freedom. Beginning as master and slave they end up as patron and agent. The slave gradually permeates the boundaries of his master’s household and becomes an alternative family member. The slave becomes indistinguishable from the master. Their belonging to two different religions, cultures and countries does not hinder the evolution of the relationship.

Orhan  Pamuk’s slave story in The White Castle set in 17th century shares some features with the story of Ghosh, though they have different historical and geographical settings. In Ghosh, slavery is introduced in the form of recruitment in the business management while in Pamuk it is introduced in the form of forced captivity. One straddling India and the Middle East and the other straddling Asia and Europe explore the notions of boundary, identity, power and culture. The source of Pamuk’s story, as it is given in the Preface of the book by the fictional historian, is the archive in governor’s office in Gebze, an industrial city in the Cocaeli Province of Turkey. The manuscript of the story is found among bureaucratic papers. It is reported that manuscripts like this are available in old houses of the city and are left venerated and unread as they are often considered old scriptures. This source of story has similarity with letters found in the chamber of the Synagogue of Ben Ezra, later known as the Cairo Geniza – the source of Ghosh’s story.

In The White Castle a young Italian scholar who is also the narrator is in the position of the slave. He en route from Venice to Naples is abducted by the Turkish seamen. To save himself from having to do manual labour he manages to apply his western knowledge to cure general illnesses. As a captive he is taken to Istanbul, the centre of the Ottoman Empire. He draws the attention of a Pasha who presents him as a slave to his scholar friend Hoja (meaning “master”).To the wonder of both, the master and the slave reveal uncanny physical resemblance to each other and therefore cannot behave like master and slave in the strict sense. The master decides to learn all he can about western scientific advances from his slave who, in return, is promised to be set free once he has accomplished his assignment. The tale of piracy and slavery turns into an intellectual journey where the master and slave become the tutor and the apprentice. The master as apprentice reluctantly embraces his subordinate position for his own long-term gain. As intellectual twins they carry out scientific experiments like making fire work display, inventing remedy for plague and manufacturing weaponry for the Sultan. The master being despaired of intellectual improvement even after more than ten years of efforts repeatedly ask the deceptively simple question “Why am I what I am?” (48). The Italian Scholar is asked to help him explore the answer to the perplexing question for his master and for himself. Through joint efforts to this end their identities become conflated and the answer remains elusive. In the end it is difficult to say who is who or who is on top. Trading places and positions, the Turk becomes a real scholar and leaves for Italy, and the Italian scholar abandons science and lives in the luxury of the Sultan’s court.

The master-slave relation in the two stories can be expressed in terms of the Sufi allegory about the quest for the hidden self. According to Ghosh, the term bondage, usually used in negative sense, can generate “metaphors of perfect devotion and love strung together in an intensely charged […] spiritual imagery” (215). Bondage for Bomma and Ben Yiju gives birth to a mystical longing for each other’s self. At one level the relation of them takes on paradoxical turn. The master appears to be “the slave of his slave.” To make the point clear the novelist tells the 11th century legend of Sultan Mahmud’s faithful soldier cum slave Ayaz who, instead of chasing the mythical bird Huma, hid himself in the shadow of his master though he knew the kingdom-conferring power of Huma’s shadow. For him the bird could not confer better kingdom than the one presented by Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni. Such unequivocal devotion of slave “works a miraculous spiritual transformation and the world-conquering Mahmud becomes the slave of his slave” (215). Transformation like this is likely in the master-slave relation in In an Antique Land because  the slave “would certainly have been intimately acquainted with some of that great range of popular traditions and folk beliefs which upturn and invert the categories of  Sanskritic Hinduism” and the master, “for his part, as a man of wide education , would probably have read something of the Sufis”( 215).Their familiarity with counter beliefs and traditions outside the orthodox religions help them eventually come on “ a small patch of level ground between them [and they] would otherwise seem to stand on different sides of an unbridgeable  chasm”( 216). This “unbridgeable chasm” between master and slave is bridged more in psychological and philosophical terms than in mystical in Pamuk’s The White Castle. The Italian slave and Hoja listen to each other and come closer, “making [themselves] uneasy while bringing [themselves] together with an unaccountable feeling of brotherhood” (69). The slave “ began to believe that [his] personality had split itself off from [him] and united with Hoja’s, and vice versa, without [their] perceiving it” (102). In the last chapter of the novel he waxes lyrical about his love for Hoja and uses capitalised “Him” for Hoja. He says “I loved Him with the stupid revulsion and stupid joy of knowing myself; my love for Him resembled the way … I understood the thoughts which everyday echoed the walls of my mind and died away, the way I recognized the unique smell of sweat from my wretched body” (140). The similar urged is created in the master but he does not articulate it. As they exchange places and positions, the slave speaks for both himself and his master.

Both the narratives highlight the issue of cultural relativism, civilisational conflicts and contacts. According to Samuel Huntington, “The great division among mankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.” [8] To resolve or minimise the conflict and to repair the cultural or civilisational “fault lines” a changed world perspective is needed:

It will also however require the West to develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations and the ways in which people in those civilizations see their interest. It will require an effort to identify elements of commonality between Western and other civilizations. For the relevant future, there will be no universal civilization but instead a world of different civilizations, each of which will have to learn to coexist with the others.[9]

Though Huntington talks about potential antagonism between the West and the others it can be between non-western civilisations also. Ghosh’s narrative concerns two non-western civilisations and Pamuk’s story concerns the West and the non-West. These two texts identify “elements of commonality” in diversity. They present two cultural meeting places or, in the words of Mary Louise Pratt,[10] “contact zone[s]”– Indian Ocean in Ghosh and Istanbul in Pamuk. Indian Ocean was a site where many superseded civilisations interacted for many centuries in the form of trade and travel. And Istanbul was a cultural hub with influences and inheritances of many civilisations.  In Bomma-Ben Yiju story the tie of two ancient civilisations – Indian and Egyptian – is shown. Unlike the story of Pamuk their relationship does not show any initial shock. Bomma is easily acculturated in the Middle East and Ben Yiju easily adapts to the culture of India in Mangalore. In their merging of selves religious, cultural and geographical barriers disappear. In the primary strand of the novel, the anthropologist-novelist as an Indian represents Bomma in Egyptian villages where he has a field work stint. He declares an affinity with the character in the Prologue of the book: “I knew nothing then about the slave of MS. H.6 except that he had given me right to be there, a sense of entitlement” (8). To quote Shirley Chew, “We can assume that the attraction of the Slave for Ghosh is his probable racial identity.”[11]The novelist as a character becomes the main link between two strands of the story. The Egyptian villagers represent Ben Yiju as they cultivate intimate relation with the novelist as researcher. Thus the slave story transcends temporal barrier and involves the authorial self in the process. The tale of quest moves between the past and the present, between the slave’s self and the author’s. Though the villagers and Ben Yiju belonged to different religions, Medieval Egypt showed cultural overlapping between Judaism and Islam. At that time, though the Jews were “strongly aware of their distinctive religious identity,” as “part of the Arabic-speaking world …they shared …the everyday language of their religious life” (214), common greetings and invocations in Arabic forms with the Muslims of the Middle East. The case of this overlapping is illustrated by the novelist’s visit to the shrine of Sidi Abu-Hasira, a holy site of cultural and religious syncretism visited equally by Jews and Muslims as the saint was a Jew turned Muslim. This tale of religious and cultural syncretism extends to Ben Yiju’s stay in Mangalore where he takes a Hindu wife named Ashu and embraces Tulu culture.[12] Besides, Bomma is also incorporated into Ben Yiju’s household and cultural affiliation. So the story displays the interlacing of different times, places and religions having reciprocal impact on one another. To have a clear sight into human history, such a vision is indispensable. In this context Edward Said says that we must speak of “overlapping territories, intertwined histories common to men and women, whites and non-whites, dwellers in the metropolis and on the peripheries, past as well as present and future. These territories and histories can only be seen from the perspective of whole of human history.”[13] Ghosh comments that in the present world things are falling apart because of the lack of proper narrative to show intertwined histories in cultural discourse: “Here I was writing a book about Hindu, Muslims, and Jews. I have come to be convinced that behind the conflicts lay not just a failure of imagination but also an inadequacy of narrative.”[14] To Ghosh imagination used in proper narrative or in the words of his character Tridib in The Shadow Lines “imagination with precision” (26) can be a liberating force to overcome different types of shadowy lines and boundaries imposed on people by the newly aligned  world-order of nationalism.

Pamuk’s story deals with the East -West and Muslim -Christian conflicts and explores the possibilities of bridging the historical gap. John Updike writes in The New Yorker in this regard that the story is about the “interplay of East and West – of fantastic faith versus aggressive science – and at a deeper level the question of identity.” [15] The Italian slave and Turkish master by exchanging identities blur the boundary between East and West. This conflation of identities reflects Pamuk’s firm conviction about the equality of East and West and the shadowy boundary between the two. Pamuk says in an interview:

I think I get my energy from this traditional wall that still exists in Turkey between East and West, between modernity and tradition. All the artists and the intellectuals of previous generations have had an idea of Turkey, which would be either Eastern, or totally Western, totally traditional or modern. My little trick is to see these two spirits of Turkey as one and see this eternal fight between East and West, that takes place in Turkey’s spirit, not as a weakness but as strength, and to try to dramatize that force by making something literary out of it.[16]

The master-slave story in The White Castle is one of his attempts to dramatise the eternal East – West entanglement in a historical setting. The slave represents modernity and the master represents tradition. The master tries to match his intellectual level against the European standard of the slave and comes up short. He becomes haunted by what Benedict Anderson in his observations on Southeast Asian nations has called the “spectre of comparisons.”[17] Initially the Italian slave assumes superiority over his Turkish master for his advanced scientific knowledge. The master on the other hand tries to assume superiority over his slave by ridiculing his past faults and weaknesses. The models of the heliocentric and geocentric universes are also used to represent their opposite views of the world. This conflict tends to be resolved when, sitting across a table, they share their intimate knowledge by exploring each other’s pasts for hours together. In order to realise their relative positions they start writing stories about each other with the figment of imagination. The narrator thus visualises the experience with the help of a simile: “Like two bachelors telling each other’s fortunes to pass the time on endless winter nights, we sat at the table face to face, scratching out something or other on the empty pages before us” (66). They tend to live in the space used in their stories. In a similar situation the narrator of Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines is told by his mentor Tridib: “Everyone lives in a story… my grandmother, my father, his father, Lenin, Einstein, and lots of other names I hadn’t heard of; they all lived in stories, because stories are all there are to live in, it was just a question of which one you chose …” (201). Choosing and stringing together the facts and features of one’s life in narration indicates processes of identity formation. The master and the slave become fascinated with this process of identity formation and discuss “how  the ideal story should begin innocently like a fairytale, be frightening like a nightmare in the middle, conclude sadly like a love story ending in separation” (82).  This pattern of story telling aptly describes their relationship. They can exchange identities only through appropriating each other’s stories. Like lovers they have separate physical existence but common mental world. They combine, as in a love story, union and separation.

Thus by the power of imagination in narrative, as Ghosh has pointed out in the quotations I have cited earlier, they resolve the question of superiority or inferiority and get out of the politics of East -West entanglement. Pamuk also echoes the same point in a conversation: “Other peoples in other continents and civilizations are actually exactly like you and you can learn this through literature.”[18] Through stories the two characters ultimately play out the role of interpreters in the dialogue between civilisations. In the dramatisation of the dialogue, Pamuk, like Ghosh, partakes of the characteristics of these interpreters. He appears as representative of the “Turkish Divided Character.” In his interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth, Pamuk refers to this role as novelist when he says, “I want to be a bridge in the sense that a bridge doesn’t belong to any continent, doesn’t belong to any civilization and a bridge has the unique opportunity to see both civilizations.”[19] Besides, the perplexing question of the master and the slave “Why am I what I am?” has echo in the author’s statement about his own fate as a novelist at the beginning of Istanbul: Memories and the City: “this city… has made me who I am” (6). He identifies himself with the city or the water way of the Bosphorus straddling Asia and Europe. This authorial projection through characters first begins when the author in the Preface hides himself behind the imaginary Turkish historian Faruk Darvinoglu who is supposed to discover the manuscript of the story behind the governor’s archive. Then the Italian slave appears to be the author of the book. At last this assumption is overturned in the last chapter to establish Hoja as the actual author of the manuscript. In fact, Pamuk means to consider these personae as different authorial projections.

The master-slave relationship of the two novels also relates to the articulation of subaltern voice. Bomma in In an Antique Land is the subaltern who lived in the margins of history. Ghosh the novelist as subaltern ethnographer unearths the life of Bomma, as Guttman says: “That Ben Yiju’s letters both reveal and conceal Bomma, the Indian subaltern whom Ghosh yearns to make the centre of his narrative, makes Ben Yiju an ambivalent subject.”[20] I would contend that Ben Yiju’s letters do not conceal Bomma, and Ben Yiju is not “an ambivalent subject.” For Bomma’s inclusion in the annals of history the first credit goes to his master as he has provided the researcher with the clue. Had he not mentioned Bomma frequently in his letters he would have never come into light. Therefore Ben Yiju cannot remain as “ambivalent subject” when his slave goes to the centre. Through the imaginative reconstruction of his life in the hands of Ghosh,  Bomma sheds his subalternity and occupies a position in the centre of history. The repressed subaltern consciousness is released through imagination of the novelist as he regrets that the story of the slave “happens to come to us from a time when the only people for whom we can even begin to imagine a properly individual human existence are the literate and the consequential: those who have the means to inscribe themselves upon history. The slave of M.S. H. 6 was none of those things.” [21] History often deals with the rich and educated who impact on time by changing its course. But there are “Others” who are also an inseparable part of history and therefore have claims to adequate space in the historical records. This realisation impels the novelist to reconstruct the slave story by piecing together shreds gathered from the margins of Ben Yiju and his friends’ correspondences. His name, religion and place of birth are worked out through ethnographical research and inference. He thinks that as a business agent Bomma may have taken part in many historical moments on the Indian Ocean and in the Middle Eastern trade centres. His reconstructed slave story is an attempt to revive those moments with the marks of the marginalised. In Pamuk’s narrative Hoja initially appears as an exotic “Other” to the Italian slave whose country has immense curiosity about “the Turkish people, [their] customs at court and at war,[a] curiosity about the exotic Orient … among aristocrats and especially well-bred ladies” (142). Through long conversations, study and writing of their pasts they swap identities leading to equal standing. Through Hoja’s leaving Turkey for Italy the periphery goes to the centre. The Italian remaining in Turkish court makes the centre come to periphery.  In the European tradition of thinking Turkey is often considered a periphery or the “Muslim Other” unworthy of being assimilated into Europe. The relationship of the Italian slave and the Turkish master mimics and subverts this thought-pattern.

The dynamics of master-slave in the two novels can be explained through the idea of Hegelian master-slave dialectic. Hegel in Phenomenology of Spirit explains his famous dialectic of master and the slave as a process where self-consciousness of the master depends on the slave’s recognition, and which ultimately subverts the essentially antagonistic perception of the master-slave relation. The slave is a recognising self and the master is a recognised self. The master possesses his own being and the being of the slave because the existence of the master depends on the existence of the slave. If the slave does nothing for the master the master ceases to exist as a master. Therefore, it is the slave who enables the master to have a higher position. And the master is bound to recognise the slave as an inextricable part of his existence. In the process, the division between the master and the slave becomes blurry. They become equally in need of each other. That is why Ben Yiju’s friend Madmun’s complaints about Bomma’s drunken revelries and other excesses do not appear to have excited an excess of wrath in Ben Yiju. Rather, these two friends in their later letters were “always careful to include a word of friendly greeting for Bomma” (218). Ghosh further mentions that “as Bomma’s role as business agent grew in importance, Ben Yiju’s  friends in Egypt came to regard him with increasing respect, and [some] even began to prefix his name with the title of ‘Shaikh’ ”(218). Thus, in their relationship the centre of authority ceases to exist. It is in this context that Ghosh calls the relationship between Ben Yiju and Bomma as a paradoxical one. Bomma becomes an alter ego of Ben Yiju and runs business independently for his master in Eden. Ben Yiju on the other hand fills up the gap created by Bomma’s absence in Mangalore. A kind of exchange takes place through the need of mutual dependence and recognition. Ghosh views such exchange from material and spiritual perspectives while Hegel views it from social and psychological perspectives.

This dialectic of relationship operates differently in Pamuk’s narrative. Here it is related to the interaction of knowledge and power. The superiority of the western scholar depends on the recognition by the “Other.” Unless he is used as a point of reference in the assessment of other’s knowledge he fails to enjoy his supremacy. On the other side, the Turkish scholar must gain acceptance from his western tutor or slave. As a result of this mutual dependence they work together on scientific projects. Both sides seek recognition which primarily involves conflict and then recognition. The resolution of conflict is reached through exchanging of two selves – eastern and western. This equation relates to Foucauldian power/knowledge dyad.[22] According to this model, any group can impose their worldview on the other if they posses superior knowledge. Knowledge always functions as a form of power and can be used to regulate the behaviour of others as is done by the Italian. Hoja fails to shape his slave’s conduct because his knowledge is not up to date and produces no real power. While the Italian is concerned with modern technology, Hoja is concerned with confused “cosmography, producing theories for a new system: perhaps the moon revolved around the Earth, and the Earth around the sun; perhaps the centre was Venus” (24). His position-generated power is coercive and the slave’s knowledge-generated power is non-coercive. Again, this non-coercive power through knowledge cannot be exercised without knowing those upon whom it will be exercised. Knowledge is a source of power and at the same time it is a means of using power. Therefore, the Turkish and the Italian overlooking their positions as master and slave sit at the two ends of the table and try to know each other regularly by observation. Observation will produce new knowledge to be used by the master. Thus a balance between the two persons will be established. It is reflected in the narrator’s words: “Hoja gradually ceased to use the word ‘teach’: we were going to search together, discover together, progress together” (23).

Both the stories in the guise of master – slave relation reflect the global politics of identity. Identity as a topical issue bears different implications for the East and the West. The major social and economic development of Europe in the decades immediately before the publication of Pamuk’s  The White Castle in 1985 (the original Turkish version) led to a concept of coherent identity which also entailed suppressed contrary tendencies, as Kobena Mercer puts it, “when something assumed to be fixed, coherent, and stable, is displaced by doubt and uncertainty.”[23] This reflects Turkish position in European identity formation. In Pamuk’s story set in the quasi-western context, physical resemblance of the master and the slave is emphasised, because, “The image of human identity… deep within Western Culture [is] inscribed in the sign of resemblance.”[24] The visionary character Blue in Pamuk’s Snow asks a pertinent question about the possibility of the West’s approval without “resemblance”: “Can the West endure any democracy achieved by enemies who in no way resemble them?”(233). Physical and geographical resemblances are the basis of identification of selves in the West. So the Italian slave and the Turkish master resemble each other. And they meet in a place like Istanbul which straddles the East and the West. But Ghosh’s story set in the East does not require him to show any physical point of resemblance as a condition for identification. Though geographically Ben Yiju and Bomma are born in two distinct places – India and the Middle East, they belong to the Orient and share mental resemblance. In the Orient, anxieties of identity are largely absent or relaxed. So the coming together of two persons like Bomma and Ben Yiju has been easier.

The identity issue in the texts involves anthropological and philosophical approaches. According to Bhabha, there are two familiar traditions in the discourse of identity: “the philosophical tradition of identity as the process of self reflection in the mirror of (human) nature; and the anthropological view of the difference of human identity as located in the division of Nature/Culture.”[25] Looked at from anthropological perspective, the masters and slaves in Ghosh’s and Pamuk’s stories show national and cultural differences. But the differences disappear when considered philosophically. They show the interaction of bondage and freedom giving birth to new identities. These new identities may relate to the Bhabhaesque “Third Space” as he explains it as the “in-between space – that carries the burden of the meaning of culture… And by exploring the meaning of this Third Space, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves.”[26] People belonging to this identity display a kind of “hybridity” which offers a syncretic worldview. According to this view, no fixity or essentiality of identity exists in the true sense of the term because borrowing and interpenetration are in the very nature of culture. As Edward Said aptly puts it: “all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic.”[27] The syncretism of Bomma and Ben Yiju accommodates differences of colour, race, religion and economic standing. The Italian scholar slave and Hoja experiment for long time to acquire this worldview. In both cases syncretism and assimilation or acculturation co-exists; according to James Clifford, syncretism does not disappear when assimilation takes place.[28] Bomma and Ben Yiju or the Italian and Hoja merge and at the same time remain individualised.

          The foregoing analysis studies the way the two slave stories, written in two very different styles and contexts, posit the multiple possibilities and intricacies of the master-slave relation. They work as objective correlatives to various historical and cultural issues which are widely discussed in human and social sciences. The fictional rendition of these widely discussed issues calls for a “paradigm shift”[29] to review human and cultural relationships. The master-slave relationships in both the texts show the possibilities of transcendence in various forms and degrees and highlight mutual respect, dependence, negotiation and recognition .The characters of the stories ultimately appear as pseudo masters and pseudo slaves. They challenge the fixity of positions in any relationship. They create in each other their alter egos. They turn into split selves having dialogues with their mirrored selves. The Italian and his master’s self study on the mirror show their mutual reflection. Bomma in Eden and other Middle Eastern business centers works independently for Ben Yiju as if the two were the same person. In Ghosh, bondage brings transcendence through different cultures coming in contact with each other, while in Pamuk, the process of transcendence results from conflict, negotiation and recognition. And the power of narrative functions in the process of transcendence; this power is implicit in the text of Ghosh, because, here the ethnographer-novelist, relying on archival information and inference on the lives of the master and slave, performs the act of narrating on behalf of the character. In Pamuk’s story, on the other hand, the characters themselves are involved in imaginative reconstruction of their pasts to overcome the predicament of the present.  Indeed, slavery has myriad and changeable layers of meanings. Though both the writers have explored the layers according to their individual contexts and choices, their treatment of the subject shows many common thematic and theoretical leanings. (Md. Mominul Islam)  


[1] I have used here the following editions of the Ghosh texts: In an Antique Land (New Delhi: Penguin, 2009); The Imam and the Indian (New Delhi: Penguin, 2010) The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Penguin, 2008). All the textual quotations in the paper are from these editions and are provided with page numbers along with the shortened titles within brackets.

[2] For Pamuk the following editions have been used: Istanbul: Memories and the City, trans. Maureen Freely (London: Faber and Faber, 2005); Snow, trans. Maureen Freely (London: Faber and Faber, 2004); The White Castle, Trans. Victoria Holbrook (London: Faber and Faber, 2009). References to these texts are in the paper by their respective page numbers along with the shortened titles within brackets.

[3]Amitav  Ghosh comments on the generic nature of In an Antique Land in his interview with Claire Chambers , “The Absolute Essentialness of Conversation”, Journal of Postcolonial Writing 41.1 (May 2005): 26-29, 28. Ghosh categorically says that it is not a novel while simultaneously referring to Homi Bhabha who considers it as a novel.

[4] Slave fiction is used here in a broad sense to mean any fiction involving slavery in any form – pretended or real, indentured or consensual.

[5] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1994), 49.

[6] A “Geniza” is a special vault where discarded writings having the name of God were deposited to be protected from accidental desecration. They were to be disposed of later with rituals. But the Geniza of the Synagogue of Ben Ezra was never cleared out. Ghosh finds materials for his story in letters preserved in this Geniza and mostly relies on S.D. Goitein’s translation of the letters.

[7] MS.  H.6 is the catalogue number of the letter in which Bomma appears first.

[8] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs 72. 3 (Summer 1993): 22-36, 22.

[9] ibid. 36.

[10] Mary Louise Pratt defines the phrase as “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other.” See her Arts of Contact Zone”, Profession (New York: MLA, 1991):33-40, 34.

[11] Shirley Chew, “Texts and Worlds in In an Antique Land”, Ed. Brinda Bose, Amtav Ghosh: Critical Perspectives (New Delhi: Pencraft International, 2005), 103-116,109.

[12] A local culture of Tulunad, a place in Mangalore where Bomma was born. In this culture the devotees worship spirits called Bhuttas who share many features with Sanskritic deities.

[13] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1994), 72.

[14] As quoted by Michele Alperin in “Ghosh on the Geniza Documents”, The Jewish State (The Newspaper for Central New Jersey’s Jewish Communities), 11Apr. 2008.

[15] John Updike, Review in The New Yorker, Interview with Orhan Pamuk,  24 June 2011,

< http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/pamuk.htm> .

[16] Michael Skafidas, “Turkish Divided Character”, New Perspectives Quarterly 17.2 (2000): 20-22, 20.

[17] Anderson in The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World (New York: Verso Books, 1998) talks about the effects of comparisons when nations, moved into excessive self-awareness, match themselves against others and constitute their identities through the exercise of imagination. The phrase was used by Filipino nationalist and novelist Jose Rizal (1861-96).

[18] Elizabeth Fransworth, “Bridging Two Worlds”, Interview with Orhan Pamuk, The News Hour (Macneil/Lehrer Productions, 2002), 1-6, 1 July 20011, <http://www.pbs.org/newshour/conversation/july-o2/pamuk_11-20.html>.

[19]Alfred A. Knopf, “Conversation with Orhan Pamuk”, The Borzoi Reader Online, 31 July 2011, <http://www.randomhouse.com/knopf/authors/pamuk/qna.html>.

[20] Anna Guttman, “The Jew in the Archive: Textualizations of (Jewish?) History in Contemporary South Asian Literature”, Contemporary Literature 51.3 (Fall 2010): 503-531,510.

[21] Amitav Ghosh, “The Slave of M.S. H. 6”, The Imam and the Indian (New Delhi: Penguin, 2010), 169.

[22] I have drawn upon Shelley Walia’s discussion of Foucault’s power/knowledge reciprocity in Edward Said and the Writing of History (Cambridge: Icon Books, 2001), 23-31. Foucault has propounded the theory in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings (1972-1977), trans. Colin Gordon et al (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980) and The Archeology of Knowledge, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith (London: Tavistock, 1972).

[23] Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle (London: Routledge, 1994), 259.

[24] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 70.

[25] ibid.  66.

[26]  ibid. 56.

[27] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, op.cit. xxix.

 [28] James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988), 14-15.

[29] Thomas Kuhn, as we know, uses this scientific terminology in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962) to mean the radical change of scientific view. The term in the present context is, of course, used to mean a major change in world’s critical thought-pattern.

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From Spotting Fissures and Cracks to Sporting Excesses: Of Storytelling and Virtual Nation

 

Introduction

A schoolboy in one of the local churches was retelling the Biblical story of Christmas  about the Magi who brought to Christ child the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but instead,  he explained that  the wise men brought “gold, Frankenstein and mirth.” On another occasion, a man retold the story insisting that the gifts must have been “nomination certificate for parliamentary seat, car keys for a Lexus model, and Master Card.”[1]These retellings are unique not just in expressing “inculturation” but also in affirmation that “folklore is always in a flux, always changing,”[2] congruent with history and changing values of society. The agglutinative effect of stories (according to Mark Anderson and Irene Blayer, “Stories are sticky. They adhere to many surfaces, such as when you cannot get one out of your head; but more fundamentally they bond all manner of things”[3]) is responsible for defining, imagining and engendering culture as “retelling” takes place. Evidently, this is the rationale behind the perpetuation of contemporary storytelling in Kenya.

Contemporary storytelling has gained currency in Kenya since the end of the last century. Unlike the traditional oral narratives recounted in local languages, contemporary storytelling performance uses English (and Kiswahili to a lesser extent), and is concentrated around urban centres to a cosmopolitan audience. In the education arena, it is positioned within the annual National Drama Festival for schools and colleges, and its patronage is drawn from the government and the corporate world like the media, banking, and industrial sector, who are engaged in an open battle for monopoly that might seemingly compromise artistic standards. On the other hand, there are wananchis, [4] open fora conducted by freelance performers such as Zamaleo ACT, Maarifa Afrika, TIED NET, Magnet Theatre, The Story Tellers, and other groups affiliated to NGOs concerned with family health.  Such bodies are also invited to “authenticate” commercial and political activities through story telling. The commercial angle of their art is just incidental, the reason for their existence lies in helping Kenyans come to terms with their contemporary world through stories drawn from their cultural background. Their effectiveness of these public performances enables the listeners to connect the past with the present, create an oneness of various cultures, and gain insight into the motives and patterns of human behaviour.[5]

Traditional verbal performance, however, is fundamentally complicit with hegemonic control for its socialising mission, as Wanjiku Kabira and Karega Mutahi attest to its role in perpetuating the traditional,[6] or as Lusweti observes its legitimating voice in society.[7] As the transmitter of the official discourse towards “normalisation” of society, performance of verbal arts equates to the “open transcript” of consenting to the dominant discourse.  Sites of cultural production in contemporary storytelling are availed within traditional adult-controlled structures and institutions such as school, media, religious and political forums, which afford limited expression for the youth. Such forums, then, become enmeshed in hegemonisation as “ideological state apparatus” (ISA), thus benumbing overt defiance; yet the possibility of a “hidden transcript” alongside is inescapable. James Scott’s “hidden transcript” challenges Gramsci’s over estimation of hegemony that the subaltern always consents while on the contrary, he states, “they have learned to clothe their resistance in ritualism of subordination that provide them with a ready route of retreat that may soften the consequences of possible failure.[8]

Positioning storytelling within Kenya National Drama Festival institutionalises this verbal art and stamps it with a mark of “authenticity,” officialdom and aura of “high culture” permissible in society. Participating in the Festival is construed as a legitimating act and implies a proscription of other varieties. Drama festival aspires to inject ethics, patriotism, compliance to established institutions, and opportunities for self-expression to the youth so that they can “participate actively in national development.”[9] Hegemonisation is clearly explicit in the common adjectives used in the adjudication: there is recognition for “disciplined production,” caution against bawdy words and raunchy suggestions, insistence on decorum in dressing, refinement in speech and “disciplined message.” Though designed as an ideological strategy of control, Drama Festival has been “hijacked” by the youth and other marginalised groups to advance a “hidden transcript” of resistance and, deconstruct prevailing national policies while at the same time possibilitising alternative ways. Mshai Mwangola observes that the site of intervention through the Kenya National Drama Festival,[10] as a sanitised forum for cultural expression, has become a vibrant expression of political agenda to the utter dismay of organisers. Hence, state patronage of national festival does not dull the potency of performance in resistance; rather it awards it with greater reach especially through the rotational method of traversing the whole nation. Arguably, any form of domination is ineffective in suppressing artistic expression completely. It must be noted that these narratives are performed in public forums that not only constitute interactions between a wide spectrum of nationals but also openly discourse upon power relations among them and within the nation. On one hand, the school-based performances especially constitute a strategy of cultural nationalism whose objective is to construct parameters of national identity. On the other, in professional storytelling, there is an assertion of artistic liberties within democratic societies to articulate alternative views and strategies of negotiating identities beyond state patronage, and especially as forms of resistance and defiance to hegemonic strategies.

The present article explores the opportunities that contemporary storytelling affords the Kenyan youth in reconstructing their identities within the confines of limited space that marginalises them by giving pre-eminence to adult institutionalised structures and discourses. Specific examination is made on the objective possibilities that exist within the content and context of storytelling performances as the youth appropriate this genre to negotiate their identity and position in constraining circumstances. Reference will be made from a corpus of contemporary oral narrative performances collected by the researchers in Kenya.[11] Storytelling is seen to be actively engaged in the strategic agenda of exploiting the performance process as a site for resistance to hegemonic discourses, and of contesting, through its reworking and recuperation of history, the warped up notions of nationalism and patriotism often used for the sustenance of the hegemonic class.

 

Of Fissures, Cracks and Excesses

The performance of a narrative entitled Fumo Liyongo is one such example. The eponymous legendary figure in the Kenyan epic narrative is remembered mainly for his extraordinary feats like bursting an animal horn when he blows it and causing an earthquake; in fighting a thousand men by handling nine spears and spraying them on his enemies; loading ten arrows and releasing them all at once, and in running faster than lightning. However, when internally threatened by authoritarianism, the one apparently “innocuous” act that he does is in composing the song “Popo.” One of the narrators recounts:

He composed the song Popo

And led the people into singing it.

(She sings solo as music accompanies, the other narrator dances)

Solo: Po po po po

Response: Alewa lewa Alewa lewa

All:       Huyu ndiyee popo

Ala maembe pekee

Amebaki kutubwagia koko

The other narrator explains its meaning as Liyongo does to the King:

                        Popo

This creature that has not decided if it is an animal or bird.

Like a bird jumps from one tree to another,

While up the tree, feeds on juicy mangos

And only drops down seeds!

Seeds that are not food to anybody.

Fumo Liyongo shows that the performed word is an apt deterrent to hegemonic repression since it is free from spatial temporal constraints. Cognisant of the consequences of sedition in autocratic regimes, Liyongo feigns subordination but camouflages his contempt and resistance to authority in artistic discourse. As an accomplished poet, he uses poetry as a tool for struggle against all forms of injustices, and his song Popo acquired phenomenal success: “But after Fumo Liyongo composed this song/ And led the people in singing it/Things were never to be the same again!”

The song recounts the ambivalent nature of Popo (Kiswahili word for “bat”), a character who lives on the margins as neither beast nor bird but fully exploits this position for his own personal enrichment. This typifies the feudal ruler whom Liyongo challenges for masquerading as a public protector yet bent on self-aggrandisement. The song of Popo satirises the myopic leadership of this tyrannical ruler. Liyongo projects himself as the spokesperson of the underprivileged but subtly eschewing the limits of sedition, and only when pressured does he reveal the meaning and implication of the song.  He knowledgeably expounds to the King as illustrated above, but also adds: “Your people are crying about hunger, your majesty/ Your people are hungry!” Double signification may be accrued from the song; first, to typify Liyongo’s ambivalence for his renunciation of royal ancestry in order to identify with the poor and politically marginalised. Secondly, his performance of this “public transcript” denotes his compliance and subordination to tyranny but ironically, it belies his inner tension of anger against all forms of oppression and injustices.

Only when the limits of “open transcript” are violated, the dominant resorts to the usage of repressive state apparatus (RSA). The feudal King Mringwari, upon realising the damaging influence of the song, orders the arrest and detention of Fumo Liyongo. One sees amazing similarities with youth performers in contemporary Kenyan society who project an assuming personality, yet through these performances unequivocally register their resistance to the dominant discourse that undermines equity and inclusiveness. While their ambivalence ensures the survival of contemporary storytelling, these performances negate the presence of a shared commonality and assert equity and inclusiveness.

Rulers in post-colonial societies ostensibly adopt the role of the patron of arts and hence organise annual arts festivals to be entertained. However, their intention is to muzzle its subversive potential and whip it into political conformity,[12] but, as Fibian Kavulani Lukalo has noted, in no way do they “zombify” the participants, instead “such ceremonies can and often do have mutually beneficial and empowering effects ….”[13] Liyongo’s encounter with the King Mringwari parallels how cultural performances construct public spheres where the ruler and subjects are forced into a communicative interaction meant to rethink the shared values and construct national culture and identity. Representation of national culture in contemporary storytelling is thus disruptive and disturbing, for it shifts the focus from the dominant perception of “all is well” to the reality of injustice and poverty as the hallmark of the nation. Over time, the subaltern has always subverted the conventional norms to express their “hidden transcript,” and push their agenda covertly (sometimes boldly) within the accepted parameters. The strategy adopted is primarily sporting fissures and cracks within the dominant discourse and then harping on its excesses.

Semi-professionals perform the narrative Fumo Liyongo, but this does not give them singular understanding of politics in society. Looking at the corpus of contemporary stories at our disposal, we find an active engagement in politics that points to the creation of space for youth, which shows that youth (mainly students) storytellers are both expressly aware of the forestated strategy, and are consequently vocal and articulate in engaging in national issues. Storytelling performances thus actively plunge in issues of nationalism, leadership and governance, and their objectives include identifying the crises in leadership, re-writing history to create national myths, defining national ethos like hard work and injecting morality, and desire to build national cohesion by initiating new axis of identity where ethnicity takes backseat. From ethnographic finding, a lot of empathetic understandings solicited among the youth performers show their knowledge of the potential in storytelling as an expressive form due to its critical edge. Evidently, every performance offers an interesting perspective in creating spaces for political negotiation. One subjective experience solicited from professional artist, Kennedy Otukho, affirms it as the only space available where you can criticise the president loudly and get away with it.[14]

Among the most popular criticism by these young performers is the indictment of presidency for setting up of numerous and useless commissions and for abuse of political offices. In one narrative entitled Magdalina, when the nation is assailed by a vicious ecological catastrophe, numerous commissions of inquiry were set up only to complicate the matter more; what best the leader does is “form another commission of inquiry to look into the other commission of inquiry that will look into the other commission of inquiry to look into the matter.” In yet another narrative, Mlima wa Mawe (Rocky Mountain), ethnic diversity, often blamed for national conflicts in Africa, is not perceived as antagonistic to national unity but quite the contrary; the blame is on exterior (post-colonial and global) forces as disruptive to national cohesion. The narratives states that prior to external ravages in the form of a drought, all the animals lived together as one: “They had plenty of everything near the foot of the mountain… The cats and rats lived in harmony, without quarrelling, even fighting. The other animals would go near the snake without expecting to be bitten.” The narrative pits the “national” leader, Rao Radianja Hippopotamus the Road Master against the equally popular “people’s” leader, Kwach the Leopard as they engage themselves in whipping support from like-minded animals. Interestingly, their subjects are perceptibly focused on achieving national vision but are derailed by myopic leadership, which situate them on precipitous edges triggering untold fatalities that sweep the nation like a tsunami. Disunity arises when these “national leaders” engage in creating and sustaining “vote-bank politics” by marshalling ethnic identities to whip support on socio-political issues even when such activities are inimical to national interests.

Though overly didactic in fulfilment of pedagogic qualities of the festival, the achievement of the performance lies in effectively historicising the predicament of nationals. Similarly, though expected to conform and exhibit submission to the hegemonic, the narrative blames the national tragedy on the leader while the people are depicted as overly desirous of the unity and harmonious relationship with all.  The narrative exudes optimism of a bright future in that all national crises can easily be tackled if leadership accepts its shortcoming. Eventually, Rao Radianja the Road Master swallows his pride and rejoins the other animals as would be expected in a democracy.

The juxtaposition of national leader Rao Radianja the Hippopotamus against the oppositional leader, Kwach the Leopard point to the trope of resistance and change. Rao Radianja Hippopotamus the Road Master depicts a slow and gluttonous animal that has weathered a long stormy life. One the other hand, Kwach the Leopard paints the picture of swift, vibrant and dynamic attitude of youthfulness antagonistic to the hegemonic. He easily rides on the desires of the masses due to his intuitive interpretation of their needs. The narrative dramatises the myopic perspective of leaders in Africa who in times of crisis whip ethnic nationalism to fight against each other.  Rao Radianja and his antagonist, Kwach are no different in doing this, though, the latter does it by whipping majority support, and the catastrophic result of their struggle must be blamed on him as well.[15]

The image of the tsunami recurs in another oral narrative performance entitled Kimbunga cha Kaskasi (The Terrible Typhoon); this is about the people’s project of purging the nation of “mijizee yenye mijitumbo,” meaning “octogenarian and corrupt leadership.” The narrative depicts the dominant narrative in Kenya (fanned in formal and informal forums) of rampant corruption and mis-governance of leaders whose preoccupation is maintaining the status quo.[16] For this, the leaders harp on their mantra: “Ili tubakia pale-pale” meaning “in order to remain at the same-same place.” And as evident in a number of performances, national identity among leaders is thus framed in terms of personal entitlement to the national cake and their narcissistic agenda is graphically stated as that of: “Kusitawisha Kuimarisha na Kuboresha Vijitambi yaani KKKV” meaning “Broadening, Burgeoning and Blossoming of Stomachs.”[17]

Contemporary oral performers find it incumbent to retell the story of the nation consigned to a vicious circle of poverty as implied by the name of the fictional setting of this narrative, namely “Lokesheni ya Zunguruka Zungurupitu” in contrast to its self-serving leadership. Angered by these political excesses of the leaders, the mass consciousness is awakened to the point where peoples initiate a “purge” that sweeps away these corrupt leaders in the form of a raging Kimbunga cha Kaskasi (Terrible Typhoon). That the self-serving leadership is also responsible for the tattered national visage has graphically been illustrated in another oral narrative performance entitled Turbulent Voyage, through its symbolic portrayal of MV BUKENYA, a ship that is so battered that none could recall its original face. The national course devoid of desired destiny has been one “turbulent journey” owing to incompetence of leaders and political expediency.

These youthful performers dare political leadership to clean up its act if it expects to remain in power, but at the same time warn the public about the sensitivity of any purge. Political leaders are known for their subtlety when their survival is threatened; they camouflage into transformed beings appealing for humane treatment from the populace. This narrative contests the human face of any revolution by posing the dilemma to the audience: “Wakiomba msamaha watu hawa, mtawasamehe?” (“Should these leaders plead for clemency, will you grant them?”), which has in fact become the national malady in Africa. Lack of a “shared commonality” in Kenya is blamed on the “culture of impunity” crafted after independence through Kenyatta’s passionate call of “Tusahau yaliyopita” meaning “Let’s forget the past.” This implies the need to trash the violent Mau Mau struggle for decolonisation since colonial masters bequeathed leadership to the anti-nationalists, the collaborators. Therefore, a retelling of the nationalists’ history would certainly expose gross injustice and deep wounds caused by the incumbent.

Another narrative, Napukhulu, graphically and starkly exposes the rape of the nation by elected leaders, who, while seeking to retain power, resort to whipping ethnic animosity. The narrative blames the attractive benefits and the authority inherent in the electoral office (especially parliamentary seats), as contributing to the culture of impunity and lack of accountability. Attaining parliamentary position is equated to winning the hand of the coveted and most beautiful woman, who every man drools over, and electioneering is seen as the adventurous process of wooing and courtship. Ironically, once the person acquires the position, it becomes his personal and individual entitlement; there is no accountability attached.  Once the men succeed in possessing Napukhulu, they completely abandon her and make no pretence at fulfilling the promises made. Moreover, as political awareness increases among the electorate to challenge incumbency, the leaders resort to ethnic polarisation, chaos and civil strife in order to protect their positions. The youthful performer of this narrative forcefully argues for youth intervention as the only panacea to save the nation. The ending of the narrative depicts a situation where the youth say “no” and raise an advocacy campaign to sensitise the masses against exploitation by such leaders. Agency in political issues rests squarely on the masses (majority of whom are youth). As illustrated in the narrative, The Turbulent Voyage, agency is in possession of the ultimate weapon called VOTIOMIC BOMB capable of cultivating right leadership. Performing such a narrative inscribes the ravages of this vice into the national consciousness and demands concerted action to rid their society of such. These youthful performers, thus, thoroughly exploit the trope of resistance and change to the hegemonic, and points to the anxiety of the majority in overcoming the hegemonic.

Professional oral narrative performers express resistance subtly through performance of trickster narratives of the category Ropo Sekoni calls “tales of negation of domination.”[18] Broadly speaking, they engage the dominant in all main spheres: politically, economically as well as culturally, as evident in a number of performances such as Ananse Kaka Bui Bui, the Grinding Stone, and Encounter with Lion.  Cognisant of the fact that power is not wholly exercised by repression and coercion, but through subtle ways of ideological control and manipulation,[19] oral narrative performance encroaches on discourse as a means of wrestling power from the dominant in order to perpetuate resistance. The mode through which such control can be exercised is by the “organic intellectual” appropriating discourse to create a political consciousness among the masses enabling them to resist domination. Like all colonial and postcolonial societies, the narrative Ananse Kaka Bui Bui, portrays hegemonic control at its height; here, Mr. Leopard, the strongest animal among all, has inscribed his name in all national institutions: “We have Leopard Rivers, Leopard Mountains, and Leopard Trees. We also have Leopard Forests, Leopard Children, and even Leopard Ladies.” Such parallel was replayed in Kenya after the 1982 attempted coup in Kenya, Daniel Moi, then President, demanded total loyalty.[20] Consequently, his sycophants stumbled over each other renaming virtually everything: airports, military bases, hospitals, schools, universities, farms, roads, stadiums, national holidays, crops, etc, in his name or his pet name Nyayo as a means of pledging their loyalty.  National identity thus becomes imbedded in personal idiosyncrasies of the dictator, and as patriotism is conflated with worship of demigods, the masses recede to total marginalisation. Such a socio-political milieu informs the one in which the marginalised Ananse Kaka Bui Bui finds himself.

As narrativisation is the purveyor of discourse and the only means through which the subaltern can find space to negotiate with the dominant, the subaltern must claim control over it as a means of acquiring voice. Parallel to the dominant exercising power through naming and imposing its identity, Ananse Kaka Bui Bui seeks to have narratives named after him. Aware of the implication, Leopard resists, and demands that Ananse Kaka Bui Bui must legitimise himself by showing his political alignment;[21] Leopard tactfully employs Ananse Kaka Bui Bui to eliminate his archrival Mr. Snake by capturing him alive. That Ananse eventually succeeds after a long trial possibilitises the subaltern getting voice, and reiterates their optimism in overturning status quo eventually. The conclusion harps on this idea: “And they (animals) agreed to respect him (Ananse Kaka Bui Bui)/and until today/all the stories in the forest are known as Ananse stories/ That is Kaka Bui Bui stories.” Contemporary storytelling operates in circumstances where the marginalised seize up the artistic spaces, or simply act as “organic intellectuals” in social cultural spaces.

Alternatively, rather than encroaching on discourse, Kaka Sungura the East African trickster, plays “a source of discourse,” and thus critiques and undercuts hegemony head on; Kaka Sungura boldly dares Lion, the king of the jungle, to a duel as challenge to his autocratic leadership. Reminiscent of political intolerance and repression in colonial and postcolonial Africa, Lion bullies the smaller animals, an act equated to mental aberration: “Lion has gone mad. He is chasing any animal he comes across…Lion is in frenzy. He is tearing at tree and animals… destroying anything in its way with his sharp claws!  He has killed many animals and those still surviving are running away for their lives.” [22]

The duel, symbolic of contestation of power between marginalised groups in society and figures of authority, is enacted in dialectical terms; besides the juxtaposition of physical characteristics of the protagonists, their discourse underlines their oppositional representation.  Sekoni has categorised such type of narrative as a “metatale” for its self-reflexive function in that the trickster is explicitly aware of his role as trickster and a symbol of “underdog resistance to domination as well as the embodiment of the dialectic of domination and liberation.”[23] Hegemonic dominance is undercut by the political consciousness of Kaka Sungura of his role and position, and by his defiant and confident unruffled attitude amidst the terror spread by Lion. From the outset, he spells out clearly, that Lion, the “big hairy cat,” should seek help from his distinct class of “big ugly friends.” Likewise, Lion denigrates Kaka Sungura as “the tiny meatless boneless hairless little animal,” and on the day of the contest, Kaka Sungura gathers his colleagues, “the small animals” to battle, but by their sheer numerical advantage, their resilience and ability to adapt to the fiercest opposition, they elude being vanquished and eventually emerge victorious. The performer concludes the narrative with the words: “Truly, he who laughs best laughs last and loudest.” In so doing, he underscores its “metacritical” essence of teaching Lion a lesson. Coupled with the closing song “Popo,” it intensifies the desire and anxiety of the marginalised not only to expose the “alterability” of social reality, but also to “rearrange the social and moral order.”[24]

The subjective moment of the narrative in terms of its receptivity among the audience affirms its resistance thrust. Performed to seventeen and eighteen year old high school students, a liminal and interstitial generation in the threshold of identity crisis, the song “Popo” became a signature tune during sport competitions.[25] Identification with the trickster has a symbolic import concerning their social context of antagonistic relationship in their hierarchical society with authority figures (from teachers, administrators, elders to overbearing parents), and graphically illustrates their agenda of resistance to hegemonic domination. The image patterning in the performance of trickster narrative solidifies the characteristic ambivalences resulting in the simultaneous embracing of contradictory processes of identification and abhorrence in the articulations of responses to relationships among postcolonial subjects. The performances are manifestations of a rising political consciousness among the marginalised subjects about sinister projects paraded as national development strategies, and hence call for a national culture of “inclusion and realism.”[26] Contemporary storytelling appropriates the trickster image as apt metaphor of resistance and negotiation of identity by placing great stress on the size of the trickster, his marginality, and wily ways of survival as attested in the performances.

Contemporary storytelling has not been reluctant in elucidating alternative strategies of building national consciousness by rethinking national ethos. This has been done by raising the bar for enthusiasm among postcolonial subjects by contesting abhorrent ways of creating dependency (as in a number of narratives like The Magical Drum, and Grinding Stone) as well as by mapping expansive spaces for social, political and economic participation of all, especially youth. The Magical Drum is an indictment of the “culture of handouts” and dependency on aids from external sources. It calls for a shift from monocular gaze of dependency to binocular gaze of self-reliance and determination. The performer couches the lesson in proverbial language to underline reliance on indigenous knowledge for survival, an affirmation of a national identity delinked from colonial paradigms. Forging sustainable identities and culture demand participatory approach, something that contemporary storytelling is conscious of. The narrator interrogates the audience, and forces it to retrospect on their communal repertoire of knowledge by giving the propositional part of the proverb and expecting them to complete it the way as is characteristic of African proverbs. Of the four proverbs, the first two are instructive for their balance and symmetry: “Mgaagaa na upwa, hali wali mkavu” meaning “He who strolls by the sea shore daily never goes hungry,” and its oppositional counterpart: “Mtegemea cha nduguye, hufa maskini” meaning “He who depends on his neighbour dies poor”.

The understanding that national culture and identity is indispensably yoked with historical consciousness informs not only hegemonic tendencies but also equally those of resistance. Colonialism is heavily attributed to the “origins” of history whereby prominence of dominant discourses thrives on understating the other’s history and privileging their own perspective. Such ability, derived from the institutionalisation of history through writing, enabled colonial historiography to wipe clean the indigenous slate and rewrite their history or “replace[d] the local indigenous histories with Eurocentric account of the past.”[27] The colony’s history is hence tied to the beginnings of colonialism, and its narrative is continually designed to denigrate the colonised protest and resistance as anti-civilisational, while colonial repression and atrocities pass, of course, as humanistic achievements. Colonial historiographies in Africa exclude the oral versions of history and dismiss them as mythical and fictitious, and alternatively make “a single narrative truth” of interpretation prominent and representative. This hegemonic practice inherited by independent African nations now forms one fundamental issue in the discourse of national culture. Hayden White authoritatively informs us that the prominence of “historical truths” is closely tied to “rhetoric” which highlights significance of choices in discourse, or what may be described as “awareness of the variety of ways of configuring a past which itself only exists as a chaos of forms.”[28] Thus, from White, we find two fundamental points that inform post-colonial discourse on identity: indeterminacy of history as construed in western historiography, and the invaluable significance of “oral history” as an alternative perspective. The post-colonial task, then, as underlined in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, is: “not simply to contest the message of history, which has so often relegated individual post-colonial societies to footnotes to the march of progress, but also to engage the medium of narrativity itself, to re-inscribe the ‘rhetoric’, the heterogeneity of historical representation as White describes it.”[29]

Over time Kenyan history has neglected pre-contact history except restating the restlessness of the indigenous people, and crediting colonialism with stabilising them from their “aimless” migrations. Rarely does it envisage any heroism back then except concerning colonial contact and often then, the collaborators than resistors are endowed with heroism.  Present historiography breaks ground by the proliferation of writing about pre-colonial heroes; mostly from oral sources, for example, Wangu wa Makeri, Nabongo Mumia, Koitaleel and others. Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins have correctly argued that “[a] specific strategy of revisionist histories in both settler and occupation colonies has been the reclamation of subversive figures to make them into heroes.”[30]

Rather than looking for a homogenising narrative in giving an aura of nationalism, contemporary storytelling endeavours to engage the audience in re-writing their history by performance of legends. This is done in order to expose the blurred and fuzzy boundaries and intense hostilities often overlooked by hegemonic discourses. Besides serving as iconographic representation of subaltern history, the performances of Fumo Liyongo, The Mighty Rock, and Mlima wa Mawe (The Rocky Mountain) also whip up nationalism through reclamation of anti-colonial heroes, and account for Kenyan history through the three historical phases: pre-contact, contact and post-colonial, finally to critique essentialising tendencies. In the archaeological unearthing of lost heroes, there is admission of an inglorious past but which can be appropriated as inspiration against marginalisation. It must be noted that looking back does not recover full memory but only an imaginary one, but this is deemed to be adequate for identity construction. The Mighty Rock celebrates the tragic heroism of “a man of stone,” named Magere, a historical warrior among the Luo people of Kenya who restored his people’s honour from their marauding neighbours, the Lang’o, by leading them victoriously into battle since it was believed he possessed mysterious power that made him invisible in battle. Parallel to the Biblical character Samson, his hubris lay in his love for a foreign woman against the advice of his first wife. He is consequently betrayed by this foreign wife when she reveals to her people that the secret of his invincibility lies in his shadow. Eventually, he is killed but resists humiliation by turning himself into a huge rock, “Lwanda”, which is believed to be still there today.

Though dying a rather ignoble death, Lwanda’s indomitable spirit of resisting “colonialism” becomes a great inspiration to contemporary society. The Rock that he transforms himself into, houses his spirit that can be appropriated by warriors and school candidates sharpening their spears and pencils on it respectively, or by mere visitation to the premises by the needy, be they politicians or lovers; all are guaranteed success. The Rock, though a symbol of shame, becomes emblematic of historical pride and overwhelming evidence of national heritage and identity. The performance too serves as platform to celebrate local contemporary heroes like Raila Amolo “Tinga Tinga” or Anyang Nyong’o, Gidi Gidi Maji Maji[31] as exemplified in accompanying songs and music. Alternatively, the performances mock the “glorious past” of pre-colonial days by dramatising hostilities, jealousies, and ethnic strifes seen through the perpetual conflict between the Luo and Lang’o (Kalenjin) neighbours. In fact, Lwanda Magere’s character-flaw is amplified in the performance as arising from his male chauvinism. Presently, all this is replayed through ethnicising politics and development in post-colonial Kenya, which impedes national cohesion. The performance of this narrative is then a deliberate articulation of the attempt to reposition focus from domineering discourses to indigenous paragons of resistance, and affirmation of their dignity and honour.

 

Conclusion

From the forgoing discussion, it is evident that contemporary storytelling in Kenya utilises Performance as a domain of celebrating the process of “being and becoming” by rejecting, affirming and consolidating identities and culture. The ubiquity of oral storytelling in this era of technology of writing arises from both the inefficacy of “official” version of national culture (as advocated by the dominant) and the inaccessibility of written literature in our society. Due to its nexus with both popular culture and traditional techniques, as well as with its interface with writing, contemporary storytelling exhibits an eclecticism that enables it to spot fissures and cracks in the dominant discourse. Apparently, it is such fissures and cracks discernible in dominant discourses that render them alterable as expressed clearly in the foregoing. By its nature of encompassing all manners of lying in-between, contemporary storytelling vouches for aesthetic and cultural syncretism that resists both fixity and “affirmation” of discourses as well as commoditisation, hence remains at proximity with the masses. (Murimi Gaita )


[1] Adapted from numerous other stories about Biblical inculturation  in Akio Johnson Mutek and Joseph Healey’s Retelling the Magi Story Around the World, 19 July 2009, <http://afriprov.org>.

[2] Alan Dundes, Holy Writ as Oral Lit: Bible as Folklore (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 2.

[3] Mark Cronlund Anderson and Irene Maria F. Blayer,  “Introduction”, Eds. Anderson and Blayer, Interdisplinary and Cross- Cultural Narratives in North America (New York: Peter Lang Publishers, 2005), 1-6, 1.

[4] Wananchi is a Kiswahili word meaning common citizen, at times a subtle reference to the underprivileged in society.

[5] Mwenda Micheni and Ogova Ondego, “Story Telling Grows in Kenya”, Art Matters: Online Journal of Culture for East Africa (2004), 26 Mar. 2006, <htp://www.artmatters.info/theatre/greedy.htm>.

[6] Wanjiku Mukabi Kabira and Karega Mutahi, Gikuyu Oral Literature (Nairobi: Heinemann , 1988),14.

[7] B.M. Lusweti,  The Hyena and the Rock: A Handbook of Oral Literature for Schools (Nairobi: Macmillan, 1984), 11.

[8] James Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990),96.

[9] Kenya National Drama Festival: Revised Rules and Regulations (Nairobi: Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, 2000), 2.

[10] Mshai S. Mwangola, “Leaders of Tommorow? The Youth and Democratisation in Kenya”, Eds. Godwin R. Murunga and Shadrack Wanjala Nasong’o, Kenya The Struggle for Democracy (London: Codesria Books, 2007), 129-163, 153.

 

[11] This collection of narratives is available online at  <http://mbiahiu.wordpress.com/oral-storytelling-from-kenya>.

 

[12] The climax of National Drama Festival is a state concert to entertain the President, the national patron of the festival. Though touted as winners’ concert, criteria for participation depend on how sycophantic the concerned item is, and those deemed politically subversive are denied entry.

[13] Fibian Kavulani Lukalo, “Extended Hand or Wrestling Match? Youth and Urban Celebrating Politics in Kenya”, Discussion paper presented at Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2006), 7.

[14] Kennedy Otukho, “ Experience as a Professional Storyteller”, Researcher 28 June 2007.

 

[15] Close parallel can be drawn from the Kenyan political situation where President Kibaki chose to back one side in the political divide, against majority of the people, led by Raila Odinga who opposed the draft constitution especially the contentious issue of imperial presidency and centralised government replacing a parliamentary system and devolved representation.

[16] Numerous corruption scandals have bedevilled Kenyan nation, the recent major ones being, Goldenberg (1990-1993) that cost the country over $850 million; Anglo Leasing (2003-2005) where the government lost about $600million; Grand Regency (2008) cost the nation $60 million; and in 2009, the multimillion maize scam.

[17] In Kenyan political discourse, paunchy men, characteristic of politicians, symbolise affluence and authority that come with such positions, hence it is called “Public Opinion” meaning that they are revered and people seek their influence.

[18] Ropo Sekoni, Folk Poetics A Sociological Study of Yoruba Trickster Tales (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994), 32.

[19] Antonio Gramsci argues that the major way of exercising domination is mainly through education system where both the repressive and hegemonic control is evident: repressive control in the compulsory curriculum and subtle control through the hidden curriculum, which unwittingly urge the citizen to consent to domination. Oral narrative belongs to the latter category, but its performance continually undermines the same.

[20] President’s speech on 13 September, 1984, sourced from  Galia Saber-Friedman, “Politics and Power in the Kenyan Public Discourse and Recent Events”, Canadian Journal of African Studies 29.3 (1995), 432, states: “I call upon all ministers, assistant minister and every other person to sing like parrots…you ought to sing the song I sing. If I put a full stop, you should also put a full stop. This is how this country will move forward.”

[21] In a dictatorial regime, the demand for legitimacy for any political act is a marginalising tool whereby sycophancy becomes the barometer for loyalty.

[22] African leadership has been tainted by rulers exhibiting acts bordering on derangement ever since the time of Idd Amin Dada of Uganda, Emperor Bokassa of Central Africa, Mobutu Seseseko of Zaire, and presently Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who is famously described as “mad dictator who has no sense of reality.” See Yahoo News (from Reuter), 22 Dec. 2008.

[23] Ropo Sekoni, Folk Poetics A Sociological Study of Yoruba Trickster Tales, op.cit. 34.

[24] ibid. 46.

[25] The researcher experienced this in the course of performance of the narrative, and from interview with students of Precious Blood Secondary School, Riruta, Nairobi.

[26] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994),157.

[27] Gilbert Helen and Joanne Tompkins, Post-colonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics (London and New York: Routledge, 1996),106.

[28] See the exposition on Hayden White in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (eds.),  The Postcolonial Reader (London: Routledge, 1995), 355-356.   In addition, James A. Ogunde introduces White’s notion of interpretative nature of history as having a symbiotic relationship with politics, and the intrinsic relationship between history and literature. See James A. Ogude,  “Ngugi’s Concept of History and the Post-Colonial Discourses in Kenya “, Canadian Journal of African Studies 31.1 (1997): 86-112, 87.

[29] Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (eds), The Postcolonial Reader , op.cit. 356.

[30] Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins, Post-colonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics, op.cit. 106.

[31] The first is the current Kenyan Prime Minister while the second a prominent Minister and a renowned musician.

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“The two worlds collided/In anger and fear…”: Reading Inter-Racial Conflict and the Question of Belonging through Select Australian Fictional and Non-fictional Texts

    The two worlds collided
In anger and fear
As it has always been –
Gun against spear…

  (Jack Davis, “Laverton Incident” in The First-born and Other Poems)

 The two worlds – the “black” and the “white”; the “primitive” and the “enlightened”; the “savage” and the “civilised”– collided along with their different worldviews, epistemologies and belief systems giving rise to tremors that ran through the veins of the land through centuries. The history of Australia’s “colonisation,” like most postcolonial nations is deeply fraught with tensions and open conflicts between the indigenous and settler population. However this is a history that till the recent past went totally unacknowledged. One of the most contentious issues in the field of postcolonial studies has been that of history and its necessary adjunct, representation.  In the case of settler colonies like Australia and Canada, it assumes special import with the ever-widening gap (more often than not claimed as non-existent) between “official” versions of the past and lived experiences of older “native” communities belonging to the land. History thus becomes a battleground in itself: one that is pushed into the service of the colonisers to justify their presence on foreign soil (hence the assumption of the role of messianic harbingers of enlightenment) and conversely, used by the colonised native writers to counter such representations and reclaim what they feel truly belongs to them. In its restorative mode, then, history has to counter the “white”-washed narratives of settlement, representations of the people of the land and its lurid past. It enables indigenous writers to speak from a position of cultural integrity about themselves in a manner that they are able to blast the denigrating stereotypes that have become part of the circulating field of images. It is history as mythology, as heritage, as lived experience more often than not transgressing the self congratulatory limits of Western “rationality.”

Pressing into service an entire gamut of notions regarding racial superiority, blood quantum as also conscious erasure of native practices, Australia was made “home” to white settlers. Indigenous Australian writers, in their bid to record that which had been elided in official versions of Australian history, have engaged with the moment of encounter in their works. However, it needs to be said at the very beginning that this alternative-history is propelled not just by the desire to counter pre-existent versions, but also to locate the figure of the native individual at the centre of the narrative, to present him as the subject of his own history and not some fringe character trying to gain entry into the hallowed halls of historical narratives. It is this textual retelling of the actual experience of conflict, the continuing effects of it as also the positionality of the text within the arena of representation that I would like to look at in the first part of this paper.  Consequently, I would also be commenting upon the conflict of ideas, modes of living and epistemologies that surface through a close reading of the texts. The two texts I wish to discuss at first are Kullark by Jack Davis and The Keepers by Bob Maza. Written by indigenous Australian playwrights, both the texts speak of the early phase of white settlement, racial conflicts and attempts at resisting the change that suddenly swept over their lives. Both might be seen as attempts at recounting history, the way it survives in aboriginal memory as well as in contemporary life. In the second part I shall look at a collection of interviews, Black Chicks Talking in a bid to understand how the present generation of aboriginal people deals with their aboriginality and life within an urban “white” context. Crucial here is the question of cultural transmission and the nature of aboriginal belonging to the land. I have corroborated some of Peter Read’s findings with regard to the nature of “white”/European belonging to Australia delineated in Belonging, for they add critical insights to the discussion at hand.

           Kullark is crucial as it makes a conscious effort at breaking stereotypes. Representation of the indigenous “other” and their “culture” have been circulated by ostensibly enlightened white colonisers from the early 1700s. Not only have they taken it upon themselves to describe the aboriginals as lazy, treacherous, or drunkards, but also passed judgments upon their culture and ritual practices as being “primitive” and incapable of surviving beyond a point. Kullark itself occupies a conflicted zone, telling a story so far glossed over by mainstream writers/media, thereby strategically commenting upon the surreptitious silence, normativity and invisibility of whiteness and its power within the realm of knowledge production. The history of the text is interesting in this regard. In the lead-up to the celebration of the 150th anniversary of European occupation of Western Australia, there was no theater work planned for production that considered aboriginal issues and perspectives. The promotional material and orientation of the celebration focused on the “discovery” of Western Australia as an empty land with no history prior to Captain James Stirling proclaiming it a colony on 18 June 1829. Some official government advertising boldly stated that “man first came to Western Australia in 1829.”[1] Davis felt very strongly about the situation: “Not only was the Aboriginal contribution to the State’s development being neglected; there was not even an acknowledgement of the Aborigine’s existence.”[2] It is against this backdrop of erasure that Kullark is framed. It is an attempt to provide the truth against the construction of the “passive aboriginal” so necessary for the projection of the process of colonisation as essentially peaceful. As a white school teacher in 1911 described it:

The story of our winning Australia is a peaceful one. It is the story of fine colonization. In this case there were no powerful tribes to oppose our settling in the land: the original inhabitants were very few in number and a very low order of civilization. Their occupation of the country was of such a sort as to strike no roots in the soil.[3]

Kullark, it may be argued then, was an attempt at challenging the hegemony of one particular version of history, at “setting the record straight,”[4] as Davis himself puts it. It confronted colonial framings of indigenous people at the most basic levels. For many it was the first time they saw aboriginal people as any ordinary person on stage and not as “examples of archaic forms and traditional dancers.”[5] Framed primarily around three episodes, the play spans a wide temporal frame compressing a massive amount of Nyoongar experience into a single work. It re-enacts the moment of encounter between the Europeans and Indigenous people and takes the audience/readers through a wide-ranging historical continuum dotted with the conflicts between the two groups in the distant as well as immediate past, life under “protection” legislation, life in the modern urban context. The narrative constantly shifts back and forth, jumping across centuries and timescapes, thus consciously subverting western linearity as also conceptually replicating the pattern of the Dreamtime where the past, present and the future blend together into a continuous flow.

              Deeply intertwined with the idea of telling aboriginal history is the way it is told, and Kullark becomes an exercise in trying to recreate that form as well. It is interesting how the text inhabits an almost schizophrenic space where it slips in and out of two contradictory forms. Written in the white man’s form of the dramatic play, Kullark is equally an exercise in the aboriginal mode of story-telling. The play-text is constituted not just by the written words but songs, dances, didgeridoo music as also the impromptu improvisations by actors based on audience reaction to particular episodes and yarns. It is these very aspects that make it a new or different kind of engagement with history. The comment made by the Aboriginal working party for the Bicentennial History Project is of particular import here:

When the cues, the repetition, the language, the distinctively Aboriginal evocations of our experience are removed from the recitals of our people, the truth is lost for us. The form and structure will not be passed on to others and they are denied the right to look after the heritage and in turn to pass it on.[6]

The first encounter between Yagan, the chief of the Nyoongar tribe, Captain Stirling and Charles Fraser is deeply symbolic and enacts a moment of incomprehension. Yagan’s entry on stage is marked by a ceremonial dance and a song that recounts the aboriginal myth of creation as also the arrival of the white settler. With this as the starting point Davis goes on to show in great detail the repercussions it has on the Nyoongar community at large. Yagan is completely baffled, unable to comprehend the workings of the “white” law that constitutes a contrast to the simple notion of vendetta with which he seems to work.

          That there has been a substantial shift from the notion of unhindered access to nature’s gift to one where the native has to acknowledge white ownership is made apparent in the text through Yagaan’s travails. It would be fallacious to argue for the presence of a pristine pre-colonial past which gets disrupted with the coming of the Europeans. Surely there were inter-tribal interactions, conflicts and the like (so wonderfully captured in the biography Mama Kuma by Deborah Carlyon) and yet within these there were certain shared notions pertaining to land and nature which undergo severe change during the post-contact period. European settlement in Australia brings with it a plethora of terms, concepts, ideas, cultural baggage, legal and juridical paradigms alien to the aboriginal way of life thereby leading to conflicts both physical and psychological. Notions of fencing, private property and so on were completely alien to them. This sentiment is beautifully captured in Mama Kuma. Says the biographer: “Working with the mangare gage always brought the novelty of cargo (material goods) and the oddity of ‘private wealth’. Many shook their heads in confusion, surprised that these shiny things were not intended for everyone to share.”[7]

It is precisely disregard for these that brings down the heavy hand of censure on Yagan. Yagan is killed, his head hacked off and skinned to souvenir his tribal marking. From an active agent exercising his will in his own land, Yagan is reduced to a curio for display and an object of potential phrenological interest. It is not just a matter of territorial occupation but a systematic erasure of all aberrations, be it human or non-human. In fact one of the constitutive features of modernity was the development of humanness as universal. Consequently, a necessary corollary of this process was the universalisation and normalisation of whiteness as the representation of humanity, which, in turn, worked to locate the racialised other in the liminal space between the human/animal distinction. Natives can thus be museumised or their body parts “read into” for scientific knowledge about the lower order of beings.

           The act of unwarranted territorial appropriation of aboriginal lands comes out clearly in Captain Stirling’s words when he reads out from his journal: “By the authority vested in me by His Majesty the King I do hereby authorize William Patrick O’ Flaherty to take up a selection of one thousand acres on the Upper Swan River with the provision that the river frontage does not exceed one quarter mile.”[8] This declaration becomes a way of indicating the larger territorial occupation at work. Interestingly, it is not a matter of conquest but simply laying claim, designating to this place the attribute of being “Terra Nullius.”[9] The continuing effect of this is seen later in the play especially when Davis deals with the aboriginal populations in the urban context. Jamie’s guitar plastered with land rights stickers becomes shorthand for representing the continuing repercussions of this act of appropriation.

           Davis is particularly scathing in his depiction of life on the reserves. The reserve, I would argue, becomes a synecdoche for a whole range of transformative changes that come over the aboriginal way of life. Uprooted from their traditional grounds and made to live in lands that might be of ritual significance to them or forbidden to them by their belief system, many die due to sheer psychological trauma while those who survive must lead a regimented life under abysmal conditions. Davis evokes the tragedy of a whole generation of half castes. Life on the reserves completely disrupts the aboriginal rhythm of life rooted in community ethics where festivals, daily chores as also motherhood are shared. It is not just festivals that serve as occasions for the community to gather together. On the contrary, the daily act of living is a communitarian activity. This pattern completely changes. Put on reserves, made to live under heavy surveillance and restrictions, community life becomes nearly impossible or an occasional luxury. It is ironical that Rosie can only think of funerals as the time when she can meet her own people whom she has not met in a long time. The disruption comes out palpably in Rosie and Alec’s conversation:

Alec: They can’t do that. Wetjalas have their friends visitin ‘em so we can do the same.

 Rosie: No we can’t. Wetjalas look at us as being different and we can’t get away with things the way they can.[10]

Davis’ tale is definitely one of destruction and decimation brought about by the conflict arising out of a basic incommensurability between two cultures, but it is simultaneously also a tale of survival against all odds. Despite alcoholism, unemployment and dispossession, aboriginal communities are still surviving. Bob Maza, I would argue, takes up a similar strand from more or less the same premise as Davis’. His text too begins at the moment of encounter between the colonisers and the Boandik people and then traverses a temporal span to transpose the action onto a white middleclass urban context. It is interspersed with episodes that scoff at the colonisers’ myth of peaceful colonisation. Perhaps one of the most poignant episodes in the play is when Danny discovers in some old official files in the hospital where he works how the colonial masters had orchestrated a mass epidemic among the aboriginal people just to weed them out! Danny calls it “a sneaky sniveling war,” “a war of worms that slither around and poison poor gentle people” as he refers to reports of poisoned bodies of Aboriginal people and traces of strychnine that were found in flour and water holes.

              Maza, in a sense, also shows the difficulties of adjusting within a white urban context. True, the aboriginals have survived but this survival can come only at the cost of subsuming/erasing their own aboriginality.[11] Danny cannot but keep attempting to mix in the right circles and “play at being a bloody white golliwog”[12] as Michael puts it. Having grown up in a predominantly white neighborhood with the Campbells, Danny has come to absorb some of the aspirations of the high life that he can never have access to. As Lillipa puts it: “I understand my poor brother Danny…He’s lost in this land. One minute he want to be a blackfella…next he want to be whitefella …very sad.”[13]

            Maza’s depiction of Michael, the “white” man, is rather interesting. Having grown up among the Boandik people for the first few years of his life, he has come to develop a deep sense of attachment as also respect for a culture that is thousands of years old and is now under threat because of his own (read “white”) people. As a representational device Michael comes to assume a deeply fraught terrain within the canvas of the text. In a sense he occupies a kind of nowhere space. His overt identification with the Boandik people is scoffed at by an enraged Danny as also by other white people, as he himself puts it at the moment of his death: “The one thing colonials hate worse than a nigger is a nigger lover.”[14]

His reaction to the old hospital reports that had elicited such impassioned words of disgust from Danny is equally significant. Shocked at the possibility of such a thing ever having come to pass, Michael tells his mother:

Mother, I can’t promise this sort of thing isn’t happening. I’ve heard rumours of such things, but…I didn’t believe…No, I chose not to believe that this was happening. We are cultured men…We aren’t animals…We couldn’t act like savages…yet my eyes and ears tell me different. I see hungry…beings feeding on the weak of this land, daily growing fat and bloated from the misfortune of simple, genteel people. Yes we are to blame, we learned, cultured men who brought this scourge to the Boandik people. Yes, we are to blame.[15]

             Conceptually then, the text throws up multiple issues, allowing us to take a more nuanced view of the question of racial conflict. With the West becoming a kind of semantic, a priori, the major thrust of much of literature of resistance has been to read racial conflict in terms of white domination over black. Historically this is undeniable as are the injustices suffered by the indigenous populations at the hands of the colonisers/settlers. And yet within this rubric there are spaces, instances that tell a different story– story of friendship, of loyalty as also of love. In Kullark it is Will and Alice who befriend Yagaan and try to plead with the government in order to save him, it is the Campbells in The Keepers who try to protect Mirnat and Koonowar. It is Michael who tries to make the world aware of the Boandik culture through his book, who resists blatant commodification of Boandik culture and who finally lays down his life trying to protect Danny. In many ways it is such balanced depictions that make these texts stand out, but the larger issue at stake here the need to take cognisance of the fact that transculturation as a process does not leave the so called master text intact.[16] Once again one needs to caution against any assumption of easy traffic or even equivalence in terms of the injustices suffered. Surely, such an idea does run the risk of leveling out a lot of the politics that informs literature of resistance, and yet at the same time, it also hints at the possibility of a more nuanced understanding of conflictual situations. It is interesting then to try and see how the moment of encounter as also the subsequent act of settling in Australia affected and continued to inform the lives of several white-Australians. There is a substantial body of creative literature that speaks of the early phase of white settlement in Australia, the anxieties engendered by the alien space as also the sheer strain of trying to survive in the rugged and hostile setting of Australia. I am particularly interested in the question of belonging from the perspective of the settlers, more so the present generation among them. I see it as a deeply fraught terrain having serious implications for the way one defines oneself and one’s place both topologically as well as ontologically. This part of my study would focus primarily on Peter Read’s Belonging and Leah Purcells’ set of interviews titled Black Chicks Talking. Peter Read’s self-questioning is of particular import here. In his book Belonging, he asks: “How can we non Indigenous Australians justify our continuous presence and love for this country while the Indigenous people remain dispossessed and their history unacknowledged?”[17]

            Read’s discomfort is shared by historian Cassandra Pybus, who in her book Community Thieves puts it rather interestingly:

             It seems to me that the stories contained in the landscape I love so inordinately are critical to my self definition; to my pride in being an Australian and a fifth generation of White immigrants born into this benign and lovely place. We are shaped by the past…and we need to know about it. We need to know how it is that we white Australians call this country home.[18]

However, there are others who feel no need to address the past and find confidence in the multicultural image of Australia, as one interviewee puts it: “Our multiculturalism is our identity. Mistakes in the past? We’re here now.”[19]

            Yet this is not how everyone feels. Peter Read cautions us to the fact that people like the one quoted here are mostly well placed in society. Their sense of attachment is rooted in their perceptions of their own moral worth and that of their families, which flows from the land and the lifestyle and in truth, of historical and contemporary ignorance of Aboriginality.

              Guilt however seems to be one of the most recurrent tropes. The burden of historical guilt finds several manifestations. In some, it creates the sense of being in a no-man’s land. Says Veronica Brady:

It seems to me, then, that being a non-Aboriginal Australian means being somehow cut off from where we belong. We no longer belong in the place from which our ancestors came to this land, but we do not quite belong here… this gap comes from the rivers of blood and tears which have flowed between us.[20]

Conversely, there are several others who are able to disentangle dispossession from feelings of guilt. Interviewed by Peter Read, a young girl named Monica opines, “I cant understand why this generation should feel guilty, as if they’ve done something.” [21]She is troubled by the implications of the “firstness” claims of the Aboriginals. She comes up with a curious response about the “ethics of competition.” Brushing aside the importance of such a claim she simply equates it with “a sort of trend in society” that values “firstness.”

           Sometimes even deep personal attachment and memory become potent means of laying one’s emotional claim to the land. White country and western songwriters rejoice and belong in the “bush” through their appreciation of its beauty, their pride in achievement after years of battling. Attachments grow from their tragedies, their intense experiences, long residence, the almost mystical bond between land and hard labour. These become a kind of emotional armour and also a counter perspective to Aboriginal belonging premised on ancient spirituality.

           It is the same kind of uncertainty about one’s identity and position in society that continues to inform the lives of several aboriginal Australians now, almost as a legacy of the conflict that started centuries ago. Echoing Danny’s conscious attempt at escaping his aboriginality, AFI winner Deborah Mailman speaks of her father as someone who denied her, her aboriginality. Purcell, the interviewer comments:

Leah: Every black person has dealt with that circumstance of denial to some degree, or knows of a circumstance where some of our old people thought it best not to say that you were black. Or they chose not to pass on culture because when they were removed from traditional lands to government-or missionary-run settlements, they were told our culture was wrong or that our cultural practices were witchcraft. They were harshly punished for being proud of their Aboriginality and practicing their cultural ways, and so they thought that the future generations   didn’t need that pressure in life –it was better to deny it.[22]

Against this kind of self fashioning, contemporary aboriginals show greater awareness and desire to know one’s own culture. In all the interviews, there is a deep sense of seeking one’s roots, taking it on not only as a political but also a deeply personal project. Interestingly, the move is also towards a certain sense of reconciliation premised on the belief that Aboriginal culture is not just for the first nations but also for all those who choose to inhabit this land and that it is possible for all to live in peace and harmony. As Liza Fraser Gooda puts it: “We should just be one big happy family and respect each other.”[23]

            The need for a basic attitudinal change is also expressed in Purcell’s words when she says:

Leah: …let the truth and understanding of the past be a release for young people so we can focus on being positive, not on the negative. Only then can our anger subside, and maybe then we can move on and take advantage of what the white man brought to our society and bring our mob into the future.[24]

Conflicts remain and continue to inform the daily lives of individuals irrespective of skin colour. And yet in all this one does discern glimpses of efforts at reconciliation, at finding a middle ground, often by taking on oneself the role of the bricoleur. [25] Belonging has many hues and perhaps it is mutual recognition of all these shades that can pull people out of the debilitating cycle of accusations and further conflicts. One of the reasons behind introducing this collection of interviews in this discussion is to try and hint at the various ways in which the aboriginal population at present negotiates its position within a predominantly “white” space. By presenting a picture of a set of educated, enterprising aboriginal women in the community, I feel the text alerts us to the need to recognise the counterproductivity of being stuck up with the representation of aboriginal people as continuously struggling, eternally oppressed. If nothing else it only leads to a stasis: history becomes a narrative incapable of registering growth and change, and thereby loses its strategic importance.

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Najnin Islam


[1] “Jack Davis and Noongar Theatre 1978-1986” in Maryrose Casey, Creating Frames:  Contemporary

   Indigenous Theatre (Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 2004), 128-164, 134.

[2] Keith Chesson, Jack Davis: A Life Story (Melbourne: Dent, 1988), 190-191.

[3] “Jack Davis and Noongar Theatre 1978-1986”  in Maryrose Casey, op. cit. 138.

[4] ibid. 140.

[5] ibid.

[6] Krim Benterrak, Stephen Muecke and Paddy Roe, Reading the Country (Western Australia: Freemantle Arts Centre Press,  1996),144.

[7] Deborah Carlyon, Mama Kuma: One Woman, Two Cultures (Queensland: UQP, 2002), 121-22.

[8] Jack Davis, Kullark (Sydney: Currency Press, 1982), 18.

[9] Meaning “Empty Land.” Conceptually this is almost some kind of a masterstroke that achieves the aim of denying aboriginal presence on the land and by extension their culture, heritage and history. It also becomes a handy tool in propagating the myth of peaceful settlement and subsequent acts of land acquisition, fencing and naming.

[10] Jack Davis, Kullark. op.cit. 10.

[11] It is perhaps crucial to note here that aboriginality is compromised not just by the pressures to fit in, but also the very manner in which aboriginals continue to be represented within literature and visual media. Depicting aboriginal people in a theme-park like fashion where they become tokens of a timeless, never-changing past in the name of allowing them visibility can be extremely counterproductive, an issue I shall take up shortly.

[12] Bob Maza, “The Keepers” in Plays from Black Australia ( Sydney: Currency Press,1989), 207.

[13] ibid. 222.

[14] ibid. 225.

[15] ibid. 218.

[16] I am particularly reminded of Achille Mbembe’s notion of “mutual zombification” that he discusses in “The Banality of Power and the Aesthetics of Vulgarity” in On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). Albeit he speaks for and about a different context altogether, what is worth noting is the acknowledgement of the fact that cultural encounter leaves its mark on both the contending parties. It is perhaps somewhat reductive to look at conflict-situations always in terms of who suffers and who does not.

[17]Peter Read, Belonging (Australia: Cambridge University Press, 2000),1.

[18] ibid.14.

[19] ibid.57.

[20] ibid.19.

[21] ibid. 53.

[22] Leah Purcell, Black Chicks Talking (Sidney: Hodder Headline, 2004), 4.

[23] ibid.130.

[24] ibid. 131.

[25] Here I am referring to Levi-Strauss’ idea of the bricoleur as someone who uses “the means at hand,”

Changes, and adapts it in accordance with one’s needs. By extension the notion of bricolage is defined by

Stephen Muecke as “the activity of roaming in the ruins of culture, picking up useful bits and pieces to

keep things going or even make them function better” (Krim Benterrak, Stephen Muecke and  Paddy Roe,

Reading the Country, op.cit.168).

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Folk-Urban, Mythic-Contemporary Continuum on the Indian Proscenium: A study of Girish Karnad’s Naga Mandala

…folklore, the so called Little (or as we say in India, the ‘little little’) Tradition…[1]

            Diminutives are the only expletives for folklore as it belongs to the “untutored”, “illiterate” and “uncivilised” lower strata. “Little” lends it the status of the “other” as opposed to the “Great tradition” for the “elite.” Under the aegis of this dichotomy, A. K. Ramanujan exposes the social and economic hierarchy through the “upstairs/downstairs view of India.”[2] However, the appendage “Tradition” makes it an oxymoron, thereby confounding the stringency of Tradition with the variability of folklore. Tradition suggests a legacy which lends it an elevated status. Therefore, folklore and tradition in a conjunction create discomfiture. Ironically, the origin of the Great Sanskrit Tradition and the Little Folk Tradition is contemporaneous in time. Thus the greatness is not owing to the precedence. The greatness assumes itself on the written/oral divide between the Great and Little which further reflects the position of the “folks” in society. As Alan Dundes puts it, “The folk were understood to be a group of people who constitute the lower stratum, the so-called ‘vulgus in populo’ in contrast to the upper stratum or elite of that society… folk as an old fashioned segment living on the margins of civilization….”[3] Quoting Redfield, Ramanujan discusses the two traditions:

In a civilization, there is a great tradition of the reflective few and there is a little tradition of the largely unreflective many. Traditionally Indians also make a distinction between marga, ‘the high road’ and desi, ‘the byway, the country road’. The ‘Great Tradition’ with capitals and in the singular, said to be carried by Sanskrit is pan Indian, prestigious, ancient, authorized by texts, cultivated and carried by what Redfield calls ‘the reflective few’. The ‘Little Tradition’, or traditions in plural, are local, mostly oral, and by the illiterate (the liberal would call them non-literate) and the anonymous ‘unreflective many.’[4]

The great/elite tradition in India received patronage from the court and royal families whereas folk tradition thrived on the familiarity and popularity with the masses. Sisir Kumar Das in A History of Indian Literature cites the tenth and eleventh centuries as the twilight period of Indian Literature when the popular (Little) rises and the classical (Great) is seen to stagnate.

The decline of the Sanskrit drama was mainly due to its inherent nature, its almost total identification with the aristocracy. Contrary to the general belief that the Sanskrit drama declined because of the Muslim rule, it began to lose power from the tenth century onwards when the effect of the Muslim rule on the dramatic art was yet to be felt. Many Muslims rulers had shown great appreciation for Sanskrit. But there was hardly any popular base to sustain Sanskrit theatre. It had taken refuge in those areas where patronage to Sanskrit drama was still available.[5]

Patronage led to the status quo. As the masses did not know the language or the rhyme-meter craft, Sanskrit literature was confined to the coterie. Also, the performance space – the court, did not allow the common man to participate in the great tradition. This reflected upon the social structure of society, resulting in a reflection of a tiered set-up, in its literature as well. Sanskrit drama retained and further ossified the class and caste based hierarchy in India.

Sanskrit Drama assumed a specific social setting, a steady, well ordered universe in which everyone from the gods to the meanest mortals was in his or her allotted slot. Even in its heyday it was an elitist phenomenon, confined to a restricted group of wealthy and educated courtiers, remote from the general populace. [6]

The Sanskrit Tradition saw its manifestation in Drama which became popular in the fourth and fifth centuries, utilising epic stories and tales. Folk theatre also drew its content from the same source but the space of performance changed the perspective and presentation. The theatre on the “margins of civilisation” used this existence outside court as the “carnival space” and questioned the veracity of the preached values and morality. It acquired the liberty of an outsider-onlooker with a spirit to mock and comment. Girish Karnad in the “Author’s Introduction” to his Three Plays comments on the politics of this very space:

The energy of folk theatre comes from the fact that although it seems to uphold traditional values, it also has the means of questioning these values, of making them literally stand on their head. The various conventions – the chorus, the masks, the seemingly unrelated comic episodes, the mixing of human and non human worlds – permit the simultaneous presentation of alternative points of view, of later native attitudes to the central problem.[7]

Karnad shifts the very same politics on the modern day proscenium. In other words, a permutation – combination of “margin”, “other”, “folk”, “popular”, “vulgar”, in totality the “little” tradition – displays the dialectics of folklore through folk theatre techniques on the urban stage. For Karnad, folktale is not only a potent vehicle of the “carnivalesque space” but also a rendition of history. It thus becomes a combination of the “little” tradition and history, thereby jeopardising the supremacy of recorded history. As the recorded/oral dichotomy plays out, history through this genre becomes a continuum and therefore mythic. Embarking on this journey, Karnad operates in this contemporaneity of time, wherein the “… historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence….”[8]

Negating a chronological study of the past, the “little tradition” weaves a history of precedence, presence and continuation to follow in the proscenium mode. The legends, customs, beliefs, stories, songs, usage of myths fraternity comprise folklore. As opposed to dates and recorded time, this allows a free space to time and events of the past. In other words, folklore by being handed down from one generation to the other becomes the history of experience and knowledge. Though it lacks the rationale of causality, the beliefs, myths and customs mirror a past which belongs to the “race memory” and “race unconscious.” It then offers a platform for “Tradition” and an inquiry into it through a continuous appropriation by the generations to follow. Such an appropriation converts the unfamiliar into familiar, enabling an interpretation of the present time, the exotic myths, beliefs and stories. The wheel of time and such appropriations, thus, continue to add to the existing continuum of history. This is Karnad’s formula for using folklore and presenting it on the urban stage.

With two folk beliefs and a folktale Karnad puts Naga-Mandala on the proscenium. He incorporates some of the folk theatre techniques such as songs, dances, metamorphosis of the animal into human and so on. Folklore reflects traits of the people, the impact of the environment, the means of amusement, customs, rituals, mannerisms, social structure, pattern of life of a particular folk group and collective memory. Assimilating these elements into Naga Mandala, Girish Karnad indulges in a certain mythopoeic act. While the social reality of the modern man is harnessed into the appropriation of a certain belief or myth, the myth becomes the reflector. As Roland Barthes puts it,

…. myth is the most appropriate instrument for ideological inversion which defines this society…. What the world supplies to myth is an historical reality, defined, even if this goes back quite a while, the way in which men have produced or used it, and what myth gives in return is a natural image of this reality.[9]

The methodology is one to show the reality of the modern man on the urban stage through a myth or lore, through a belief of the past, of the tradition. This then becomes the other aspect of the historical continuum. For instance, the dilemmas of the modern man get reflected on stage through mythological rendering of the social reality. Thus, the existential crisis suffered by the urban man finds a ground in folklore, annulling the frigidity of time. In the present, Girish Karnad establishes the “whole” and places the modern man in it, to grapple with the current reality through its reflection in the past. However, the goal is not to preach, which is further justified by the use of the genre/folklore and the presentation technique.

            Owing to the orality, folklore offers a certain openness which enables the playwright to experiment and interpret. The function which renders it “little,” is exploited by Karnad to point out the existing loopholes in the social schema despite urbanisation and modernisation. Using the proscenium, catering to a learned audience, Karnad gives them rural ideas, beliefs, myths and rituals. Unrelated as it may seem, the play points out the “pathetic-ness” of patriarchy and the frivolity of social setup. At the outset, by discussing the technique and genre, I want to highlight the methodology of the playwright. A popular proverb in Hindi explains it the best, he has tried touching the ear from the other side. By double mirrors of myth/folklore and introducing a temporal distance, Karnad puts forth an image of reality before the audience. The flip side, however remains, whether the modern audience is ready to participate in this “mythopoeic act” or not. Or, Is this the relevant route to reality? Is the “historical continuum” a viable substitute for recorded history or is it a “hijacking of popular oral traditions” for “ethnic decorum” or as a “cultural commodity?”[10] In an attempt to answer these questions, I will dwell upon the structure of the play, whereby Girish Karnad opens the proscenium to “folkloristic audience participation.”

II

Trusting the “collective unconscious,” Karnad ropes in a folktale for the proscenium. As the product belongs to a distant past, it appears exotic even to the modern Indian audience. For it to not become a “cultural commodity,” the playwright uses a “frame,” a technique which allows the audience to enter the inner sanctums of that very distant past, thus making it a part of the continuum. Once this historical thread runs from the stage to the audience, Karnad gets an entry point into his tale as well as the discourse of folklore and the proscenium. The past-present amalgamation or parallel provides the ground for Karnad’s theatre. Concordantly, the shift from the rural stage to the proscenium sees adjustments and experimentation with the form and content of the play.

Until the nineteenth century with the myth-based story line already familiar to the audience, the shape and the success of the performance depended on how actions improvised with the given narrative material each time they came on stage…. The principle here is same as in the North Indian classical music, where the musician aims to reveal unexpected delights even within the strictly regulated contours of a raga, by continual improvisation.[11]

In sharp contrast to this, the present day audience is unfamiliar. The “blame” rests on the evolution of modern Indian drama, whereby the audience participation fell as the stage became a commercial space. Instead of improvisation, there are rehearsals and the common pool of tales/stories is substituted by “realistic” plots. Karnad calls this new situation a “cultural amnesia.” The impact of British theatre led to the “separation of the audience from the stage by the proscenium, underscoring the fact that what was being presented was a spectacle free of any ritualistic associations and which therefore expected no direct participation by the audience in it….”[12] To bridge this very gap, Karnad uses on the same space a frame to open the folktale to the audience.

            Frame, mandala, concentrics – all operate as the structural and thematic entry points and lead the audience to the loric past.

Man:     I may be dead within the next few hours.

(Long pause)

I am not talking of ‘acting’ dead. Actually dead.

                        I might die right in front of your eyes….[13]

The play opens with the playwright on stage, awaiting his death in lieu of all his stories/plays that “caused so many good people, who came trusting [him], to fall asleep twisted in miserable chairs” (22-23). The Man’s plight is defined in the “frame.” It points at the tradition of frame narratives. Epics like The Mahabharata and The Ramayana have frame narratives to bind the plot and sub-plots. The Man’s story creates an immediate “interactive space” on the proscenium with the audience. In other words, the playwright/Man’s fate and presence on stage is itself a story which further becomes the reason for the staging of the tale.

The curse is the reason for the Man to stay awake, which leads to the nested story. Therefore, the frame acts as an opening out of the mythic world to the audience. Here we transition from a mythic belief into the modern playwright’s dilemma. The mythic/modern binary collapses as the Man believes that staying awake will not be difficult, instead of questioning the belief. He also expects the audience to empathise with him. It, thus, becomes an overlapping of the two worlds and the temporal distance is easily forgotten in this new relationship between the teller of tales and the audience. The relationship is established on a middle path. At this juncture, the audience drifts into the mythic time yet retaining its existence in the present time. As L.S. Gill puts it, “Upon the mythological canvas, he [Karnad] draws the contour of contemporary reality.”[14] Such a canvas or a link between the spectator and the performer is essential for the telos of a theatrical show. Also, to carve out an identity within the historical continuum, Karnad puts myth and folk genre to use. As the modern man tries to see myth and reality as opposites, the playwright negates this binary and fuses it in the proscenium space.

Myths are generally dateless … The ‘unhistorical-ness’ of myths finds affinity with the mind of man which, according to Jung is also unhistorical as far as his ‘racial memory’ is concerned. It needs to be pointed out, however, that this ‘unhistorical-ness’ does not mean rootless-ness. Nor do myths become irrelevant to contemporary sensibilities.[15]

Thus the fusion of the contemporary and the mythic starts with the frame narrative. This fusion becomes a part of the “whole” and gets an extension into the mandala metaphor. “Mandala” in Sanskrit stands for circle, polygon, community, connection. In other words, the cyclical – historical time gets a representation through the Mandala. Just as the man’s fate invites the audience into his own world, the titular Mandala opens the thematic inroad into the main tale. In discussing the structure of the play, Mandala becomes an instrument of showcasing dynamics of the tale and the relations among the characters. In other words, the shape and structure of the Mandala reflects the triangle of relations in the main story. V. Rangan in the essay “Myth and Romance in Naga Mandala” explains the Mandala’s structure and its mathematics as worked out by Karnad in the theme and the stage setting.

A “Mandala” consists of a triangle and a square: a triangle within a square. The zeitgeist of the play is the mandala. The three points of the triangle are Rani, Appanna and Naga, thus illustrating the eternal triangle of an adulterous situation presenting the wife, the husband and the lover. The four sides of the square provide the dramatic framing and stand for the Flames (the Tellers), the tale, the man (the listener) and the audience (the perpetuator).[16]

            The coil like shape of a Mandala also reflects the tradition of frame narratives and a trend of “story about story.”       On the one hand, Mandala makes clear the stage setup and, on the other, it introduces the geography of the play through the concentrics. Concentrics clearly display the story within story within story scheme of the playwright. The Man’s story holds the flame’s narrative which nests Rani’s story. This concentricity is forced upon the play, owing to a mythic belief that a story bears upon a person’s character, implying that a person is secretive. The Man’s dilemma about his death is played out in a “ruined temple” with a “broken idol,” enmeshed with another “belief” of flames gathering at a temple in the night, to gossip. It thus becomes a part of the frame story. However, the flames introduce the character “Story” which plays at the second layer of the concentric. The story’s life span depends upon its telling. As A.K. Ramanujan interprets the belief,

That story tells us why stories should be told, according to domestic tellers. Stories must be told because they are crying out to be told. For without transmission they suffocate, they die. Untold stories transform themselves and take revenge. They fester, create an atmosphere of rancour and suspicion, as they did between husband and wife of this story. Furthermore, neither flames nor stories are ever put out. The Hindu Law of the conservation of matter seems to read, not ‘when a candle burns, nothing is lost’, but when a candle is put out, it goes to the temple – for a gossip session.[17]

The trope of concentric narratives plays out the tradition, thereby manipulating the proscenium for a folkloric representation. Also, Karnad uses the modern technique, of lights on stage to play out the light/dark, night/day binary of the loric world onto the urban stage. The idea is to converse with the spectators without the oddity of a generation gap or modernity of the mind.

            The structural and surfacial analysis of the play opens out another dimension of the characters of the opening scene or the frame story. Karnad’s confession of western theatre’s influence brings to mind Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Even though Karnad does not mention Pirandello, his style and technique is quite reflective of the latter. The playwright/Man on stage and the Story as a character narrating itself, suggests a certain closeness in form when read in the light of Six Characters in Search of an Author. Pirandello wrote a play about a play. Karnad weaves a story about a story. The playwright on the stage becomes the connecting corridor and the technique is laid threadbare. However, Karnad goes back to his own ‘roots’ and historical continuum to give us a story about a story about a story:

Man: … So you know why this play is being done. I have no choice. Bear with me, please. As you can see, it is a matter of life and death for me. (26)

III

Karnad’s dramaturgy displays a fine balance between form and content. The former works through the folk theatre/folklore/proscenium triad to enter into a social dialectics and the latter itself becomes the instrument of subversion. In total, Karnad’s theatre manipulates both form and content to show a mirror to the spectator by appealing to collective racial memory. The idea is to subvert and question the “comfort zones” of existence. Also, the juxtaposition of present and past enables an inquiry into the dynamics of the “modern.” As Karnad said at a Meet the Author programme organised by the Sahitya Akademi and the India International Centre on 16 November 1988, which was later published under the title “Acrobating between the Traditional and the Modern”:

I turn not only to myths, legends and history, but also to folklore. In fact, what attracts me most is the archetypal folktale … I find in it all the scope of flirting with ideas. I find the great advantage of being able to subvert the traditional, even classical beliefs. Since folktales make fun of everybody – rulers, priests, even gods, everything is taken in good humour.[18]

“Good humor” continues to unmask social inequalities and economic disparities perpetrated by class and caste rigidities. At this juncture, the historical continuum punctures the façade of modernity. Along with the simultaneity of past and present, it brings to fore certain orthodox and stagnant beliefs which continue to be the modern man’s miasma. Concomitantly, Karnad ruptures the myth of “enlightenment” and brings the urban man face to face with his dogmatic self. Caste, class, status of women, and patriarchy, all come in the umbrage of critique as Karnad explores the “present” through the “past.”

            While listing the names of the characters, Karnad adds ambiguity to them: Rani (which means queen), Appanna (which means any man), Kurudavva (which means the blind one), Kappanna (which means the dark one) and Naga (which means the Cobra). The explanatory phrases open the floor for identification. As the characters lose fixity, Rani, Appanna, Kurudavva, Kappanna and Naga behave like the signifiers of a myth. Anyone from the audience could be Rani or Appanna or Naga. This is the final stroke to complete the continuum. The modern man’s identification with the characters on stage not only makes him a part of the historical “whole” but also enables him to reflect on the “self.”

            Karnad specifies that “Appanna and Naga are played by the same actor,”[19] thus throwing light on the split schizophrenic selves. The husband and the lover become a perpetual binary, conveyed by this doubling. In other words, in the Indian family set-up, as per the social “norms,” the man plays the husband by the day and lover at night. As Ramanujan explains,

The split in the male figure between the sullen husband by the day and passionate lover seems also to hint at a common phenomenon in a joint family. When a couple lives in an extended family, the man is usually forbidden to show open affection to his wife during the day, with his mother and other relatives watching; sometimes the mother may explicitly frown on or mock the wife for encouraging public demonstrations of amorousness. But at night, in the privacy of the bedroom, or at least in the dark, the husband may change into an amorous and passionate lover.[20]

Hence, the metamorphosis does not hide the essential nature of the “husband” empowered by patriarchy. The power politics creeps into marriage and the husband becomes the lord and the wife his slave. Karnad explores multiple binaries such as day/night, lover/husband, nonhuman/human, light/dark to highlight the hollowness of patriarchy. Here, the use of lights on the proscenium aids to flesh out the light/dark dichotomy in the Naga-Appanna metamorphosis. The politics of this binary is inverted on stage. In other words, the “bad” Appanna is seen in day/light and the “good” Naga at night/dark. Once the audience enters into the world of curses and boons, human and nonhuman, it follows the metamorphosis as well as the inversion. The Naga, then is understood as the husband’s double at one level and at another level from another world, one distinct from the human one. As Karnad shows, “It gets brighter. Appanna comes” (36), or “When it is totally dark, the Cobra moves towards the house” (38).

The audience is made to see the change in the characters against the light which is in opposition to their essential natures. This in turn lays bare the hypocrisy of the institution of marriage. A husband uses the house in day time for his chores and leaves by night to be in the company of his concubine. A wife, on the other hand, is bereft of any pleasure or security. Kurudavva’s love potion, meant to act on the husband, wins Rani a “snake lover.” A mistake decides the fate of a woman locked up in her own house.

 The “mythic” world promises “fantastic” solutions to real problems. The real woman faces real dilemmas and insecurities, concerning the patriarchal “gifts” given to her in marriage or at the time of birth itself. But Rani’s world is folkloristic and all the enterprise is mythic. This creates a distance which enables the playwright to combat Appanna’s anger with his “promiscuity” and a lover for Rani. This acts as a double edged sword as it finds patriarchy to be the locus of all the maladies. The audience sees through the façade of “chastity” and “honour.”

            The same story has other versions as well, Vijay Dan Detha’s “Duvidha,” filmed by Shah Rukh Khan as Paheli and Ramanujan’s “The Serpent Lover.” In both the cases, the identity of the lover is known to the female protagonist but she makes a choice against the strictures of society. The lover and beloved nest themselves in the loopholes of patriarchy. The Ghost and the Snake in Detha’s and Ramanujan’s stories, respectively, take the form of the “husband” and play lovers. However, Karnad, in his experiment with the folktale, hides the real identity of the “lover” from Rani. Hence, the onus of the “crime,” adultery, does not lie on Rani. At this point, the audience, just as the village elders, is made to preside over Rani’s fate. However, the story’s conjecture, “No two men make love alike,” gives us insight into the female psyche, a victim of patriarchal hegemony. As, a Rani decides to lie low on her “knowledge” of her lover’s identity, she finds “happiness” within the matrix of the real and unreal.

            The question of chastity, truth and morality hinges on the “snake ordeal.” The chastity test then becomes the proclaimer of truth and restorer of morality. The politics of the chastity test rests on the way definitions of chastity, truth and morality are determined: “Chastity in the Hindu sense is not celibacy, absence of sex, but sex within marriage; it is synonymous with fidelity, as well as with an endurance of ordeals to prove it. It is a vrata, a vow, an observance that requires character….”[21] This, however, remains a definition by and for patriarchy, applicable only to women. Men are not obliged to any vows of celibacy or chastity. An adulterous Appanna accuses Rani of being “unchaste.” The balance in the institution of marriage is disrupted from the first day, when Appanna locks her indoors to go to his concubine. On this platform, morality and truth, which are otherwise “relative,” are forced to play universal. In other words, chastity, morality and truth, abstractions which govern the “norms” and “social codes,” are taken to be static and same for all. This seems to make our cultural foundation. But at the same time, these are the very zones of conflict as well. The mythic tale, through supernatural elements such as magical roots and metamorphosis of the snake into man and the snake ordeal, subverts authority. However, the present scenario accepts chastity, truth, morality, fraternity and so on as abstractions and therefore relative or equivocal.

Naga: ….Only, you must tell the truth.

Rani:     What truth?

Naga:    The truth. Tell the truth while you are holding the cobra.

Rani:     What truth? Shall I say my husband forgets his nights by next morning? Shall I say my husband brought a dog and a mongoose to kill this cobra, and yet suddenly he seems to know all about what the cobra will do or not do?

Naga:    Say anything. But you must speak the truth.

Rani:     And if I lie?

Naga:    It will bite you.

Rani:     God!

(and then gently, almost menacingly)

And suppose what I think is the truth turns out to be false?

Naga:    I’m afraid it will have to bite you. What you think is not of any consequence. It must be the truth. (53-54)

Naga provides the “play within the structure,” the structure of patriarchy, through this rather annoying insistence on truth. In other words, Naga uses the snake ordeal as “play” which allows a certain manipulation of the truth and sweeps the “crime” under the carpet.

Rani:     Since coming to this village, I have held by this hand, only two … My husband and … And this cobra (Suddenly words pour out) Yes, my husband and this King Cobra. Except for these two, nor have I allowed any other male to touch me. If I lie, let the cobra bite me. (58)

The lie/truth binary is confounded in the snake ordeal. What Rani says is not the truth, and not a lie either. The rigid boundaries dissolve to proclaim Rani a goddess. Sudha Shastri and Amith Kumar in “Locating Bakhtinian Carnival in Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana and Naga-Mandala” comment upon this “play”/ordeal as a carnivalesque space exploited by Karnad through a riddle like answer given by Rani:

Truth is monologic and absolute, it allows for no alternative interpretation. By creating two shades of meaning around her utterance, one prima facie and another a contradictory subtext, Rani succeeds in striping the face of truth with two layers. This double voiced utterance becomes intelligible as an equivocating one only to the audience, whereby the play creates a divide between the characters on stage and those in the audience, the latter being the only ones who guess at the equivocation behind Rani’s claim.[22]

Such an equivocation becomes mandatory for daily existence. Rani understands the riddle only later. The story’s advice “You sweep such headaches under the pillow and then press your head firmly down on them” (60) becomes mandatory as Rani wants to “live happily ever after.” The ordeal becoming, on the one hand, the “play within the structure,” puts patriarchy in the spotlight. On the other hand, Appanna’s dilemma is real: “Let the world say what it likes. Let any miracle declare her a goddess. But I know!”( 60). On being cuckolded Appanna complains to the village elders, but the ritual and belief ridden society undercuts its own strictures through the ordeal. Rani comes through the ordeal of holding the cobra, only because that very cobra is her lover – it is the very “infidelity” that is used to prove that she is a faithful wife. Hence, chastity, truth and morality become flexible tools, manipulated for survival.

            Within this flexibility lies another discourse. Even though Rani is hailed as a goddess, her happiness and freedom once again are dependent on the cynicism of patriarchy. An ordeal to prove chastity, Karnad uses this very ordeal to mock the classic chastity test, the test of truth and pungent morality. The ordeal is presented in an elaborate spectacle which enthralls the audience into believing its veracity. The playwright, through folk theatre element, stresses on a certain alienation through the spectacle. The spectator then gains objectivity to question the dominance of patriarchy in society. Karnad further adds to the complexity through the sub-plot of Kurudavva and Kappanna. Kappanna is also enchanted by a sorceress. The transgression from the human to nonhuman for Kappanna is easy. The bindings of celibacy or truth or morality are not for him. Karnad thus explains the use of sub-plot in an Interview by Kirtinath Kurkoti:

What happens in the main plot is Rani’s – a woman’s – search for a man who is her lover and not her husband. But it is not a problem of adultery since the lover is a serpent. This situation adds a nonhuman dimension to the problem. In the sub-plot the son leaves his mother and the girl, like the serpent lover, comes from some other world – she is a Yakshini. The blindness of Rani is ambiguous. She is deliberately blind to her infidelity. [23]

The deliberate blindness is given to Rani by Karnad himself and it becomes that marginal space where she finds her pleasures and happiness despite the over-arching patriarchal norms. The chastity rule is furthered by the two ends of the story. Girish Karnad, once again plays with the storyline to befuddle the modern man. The Man on the stage worries about the lover’s fate. The lover, Kurudavva, and the magical roots become the agents of subversion. After an over-hauling of the story, the form and the audience, the institution of marriage is saved. Apparently, with the ordeal and Rani’s new status as a goddess, sanctity is restored. The story has come to a full circle, from the “broken idol” to a “goddess.” However, the “good” man/snake/lover pines as the Naga’s fate is yet undecided. The story decides to kill the Naga for a marriage cannot accommodate three. If Rani’s life has to be happy ever after, the Naga must die. The Man, however, looks for Naga’s happiness, and jeopardises the structure of marriage in the second end.

            Rani: ….Quick now. Get in. Are you safely there?

Good, Now stay there and lie still. You don’t know how heavy you are. Let me get used to you, will you? … This hair is the symbol of my wedded bliss. Live in there happily for ever. (64)

            Why does the man force a “happy” end to an otherwise “normal” story? Whose happiness is he wishing for? Does the modern audience accept this happy closure? At this juncture, happiness also acquires multiple facets and the spectators are forced to meet the question. Simply put, Karnad’s experiment shakes the drowsy, sleepy Modern Man into facing himself and reasoning his own complexities. The layers of the concentric have all been played, the final closure is with the man stretching himself, restored to life. The play ends, as it began, with a play. As all the leaves of the lotus close, the playwright opens many a debate before the modern audience. Along with the efforts to make them a part of the historical continuum, the playwright has awakened the sleepy masses to their own reality by forcing them to see a reflection of their own crises played out in mythic time.

IV

To conclude, theatrical performance becomes a synecdoche of society. Evolving from the “collective unconscious” or the “racial memory” the play presents social reality from the mythic to the present time. Class, caste, patriarchy, beliefs and rituals, all find representation through the “story within story within story” structure. Moving from the outermost layer to the kernel, the dialectics between folklore, folk theatre and proscenium in the play provide a base for the edifice of historical continuum. Time is the thread that Karnad pulls, stretches and weaves. As a mythic tale or folklore does not follow the unity of time and place, it lends an openness to the theme as well. As a result, Naga-Mandala also displays a certain liberty from the constraints of locating the narrative in a particular time frame or place. This allows it the freedom to coalesce present, past and future time; thereby making a “continuum” or gaining the “historical sense of time.” The orality of folklore and the adaptability of folk theatre become the foundation for such a play.

The existential crises and moral dilemmas of the modern man find precedence in the mythic-loric life. Interestingly, this similarity undercuts “modernity” and questions the urban idea of “enlightenment.” The rituals, beliefs, charms, potions, curses, all become real as Appanna becomes “any man.” The essential “hollowness” of the loric characters allows identification and appropriation. Karnad stops one step short of catharsis, so as not to let the modern man break the continuum. He theorises about his technique in an interview with Chaman Ahuja, “Distancing is pivotal if one wants to look at the present critically, it helps the audience experience something and, at the same time, think about the problem dispassionately.”[24] This complements the orality and openness of the content and the form respectively. Karnad uses elements of folklore and folk theatre on the proscenium. The frame, mandala and the concentrics help the contemporary playwright in reaching the core of drama. As the audience belongs to the present and the story to the past, the technique helps in bridging the quintessential gap. At this juncture Karnad rightly expresses, “…the story may be from the past. But the play must be about the present. Plays must be contemporary.”[25]

Beginning with the curse of death on the Man, to the congregation of the flames, the story narrating itself, the magical roots, the blind but insightful Kurudavva, the effect of the roots on Naga, the physical transgression of a snake into a man’s form, the snake ordeal, Rani being hailed as a goddess, to the restoration of Man to life– all the features are put against a foreign backdrop, that is, the proscenium. As is stated by a critic,

Traditional Indian theatre has certain characteristics that modern avant-garde or experimental theatre shares. For instance, there is a flexible concept of time and space and the ability to transform one space into many places – in traditional theatre through the skills of the performer and in modern theatre through stage design and technology; transformational characteristics of the characters; seeming mobility between spheres of realities; connectedness with the audience.[26]

The product displays a fine assimilation of oral tradition and western technique. Thus, in not becoming a “cultural commodity,” it continues to address the modern man by giving him replicas and examples of his state of being from the traditional/mythic whole. In return, in the process of understanding or identifying, the modern man does not feel the rupture or alienation from his own past and finds solutions from within the whole. Though Karnad’s theatre is not overtly didactic, it aims at highlighting the fractures of the structure of society. One of the pillars, the institution of marriage is critiqued from a woman’s position and perspective. A victim’s eyes expose the “drama” of patriarchy and its endless efforts to maintain supremacy. The apparent “protectors” become the perpetrators of debauchery and infidelity. Truth, chastity, morality and honour, the otherwise governing principles of society which can be easily meddled with the help of “potions” and “ordeals” then remain mere discourses, If Kurudavva’s roots could win Rani an illicit lover, the ordeal could protect her “honour.” It reflects on the mere fancy of patriarchy to have concepts such as chastity working on women and not on the men, also the need to keep their “property” – the woman – under a strict vigil of the “lock”, ‘dog’, “mongoose” or the “chastity tests.” Hence, the duplicity of patriarchy comes to the fore. Within the realms of the male, the phallic symbol, “snake” ruptures the sanctimonious matrimony, thereby undercutting its might against polygamy. The status of woman in marriage is carefully worked out. Either a slave or a goddess, “normalcy” is denied to a woman. In either of the cases, a woman’s happiness becomes a dependent variable.

The motive of the playwright, then, is not to preach or dictate but to show a mirror to society. Abstract as it may seem, reality itself acquires relativity when seen from different aspects. Shying away from a mimesis-catharsis trip, Karnad evolves his dramaturgy on the lines of “traditional” theatre and lore. On the one hand, it does away with the problem of imitation of reality as it is “timeless.” On the other, it shows a reflection of the modern times.

The tables are turned when Rani becomes a “goddess” and Appanna is cuckolded before the urban audience. In not being judgmental lies the trick of understanding the present through the past. The urgency is not to locate the victim or the culprit in the schema of the story, but to find a place for oneself in the very rigmarole; the then found identification could be with any character or event on stage. Ultimately, the drama of Indian family and society offers such places for all to fit/squeeze or reflect. At this juncture, the aforementioned loric tools come handy to control the mimesis and push forward the mythopoeic act from the stage to the seats. This enables Karnad to add Brechtian alienation to his theatrical exercise. This tight rope arrangement of historical continuum through the genre, structure and content of the play lends authenticity to this experiment and experience. Thus a hybrid theatre evolves out of Indian and western inputs. B.T. Seetha in “Quest for Completeness in Hayavadana and Nagamandala” provides an apt summing up of Karnad’s endeavour:

In Karnad’s plays, essence of human thought and action as drama and performance, revolves around the concept of ‘shared experience’ primarily as myths and folk tales that draw upon collective cultural memory; and/or as history that communicates across ages; and as performance that serves as the means to explore, understand and develop a thought, an individual, an identity, psyche, even a culture.[27]

(Namrata Jain)


[1] Vinay Dharwadker (ed.), The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan (Delhi: OUP, 2004), 7.

[2] ibid. 8.

[3] Alan Dundes,  Essays in Folkloristics (Meerut: Ved Prakash Vatuk Folklore Institute, 1978), 2.

[4] Dharwadker, op.cit. 535.

[5] Sisir Kumar Das,  A History of Indian Literature (500-1399:) from the Courtly to the Popular (Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2005), 68.

[6] Girish Karnad, “Author’s Introduction”, Naga Mandala in Three Plays: Naga Mandala, Hayavadana, Tughlaq (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994), 11.

[7] ibid.14.

[8] T.S. Eliot, Selected Essays (Delhi: Doaba Publications, 2000), 2.

 

[9] Roland Barthes, trans. Annette Lavers, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1957), 142.

[10] Guy Poitevin, “Popular Traditions, Strategic Assets”, Indian Folklore Research Journal 1.2 (2002): 81-109, 81.

[11] Karnad, op. cit. 5.

[12] Karnad, op.cit. 4.

[13] Girish Karnad,  Naga Mandala in Three Plays: Naga Mandala, Hayavadana, Tughlaq (New Delhi:

OUP, 1994), 22. italics mine. The subsequent references from Naga Mandala are to this edition and indicated by page numbers only.

[14] L.S. Gill (ed.), Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana: A Critical Study (New Delhi: Asia Book Club, 2005),

22.

[15] See “Chaman Ahuja interviews Girish Karnad”, Eds. Urmil Talwar and Bandana Chakrabarty, Contemporary Indian Drama: Astride Two Traditions (New Delhi: Rawat Publications, 2005), 173-182,181-82.

[16] V. Rangan in the essay “Myth and Romance in Naga Mandala or their Subversion?”, Ed. Tutun Mukherjee, Girish Karnad’s Plays: Performance and Critical Perspectives (Delhi: Pencraft International, 2006),199-207, 201.

[17] Dharwadker, op.cit. 439.

[18] qtd. in Gill, op. cit. 18 .

[19] Karnad, op.cit. 21.

[20] Dharwadker, op.cit. 445.

[21] Dharwadker, op.cit.  371.

[22] Sudha Shastri and Amith Kumar, “Locating Bakhtinian Carnival in Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana and Naga-Mandala”, Eds. Urmil Talwar and Bandana Chakrabarty, Contemporary Indian Drama: Astride Two Traditions, op.cit.144-156, 151.

[23] “Girish Karnad: An Interview by Kirtinath Kurtkoti”, Contemporary Indian Theatre: Interviews with Playwrights and Directors (New Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1989), 79-83.

 

[24] Karnad theorises about his technique in an interview with Chaman Ahuja, op.cit. 177.

[25] qtd. in Gill, op.cit. 19.

[26] Tutun Mukherjee (ed),  Girish Karnad’s Plays: Performance and Critical Perspectives (Delhi: Pencraft International, 2006),  21.

[27] B.T. Seetha,“Quest for Completeness in Hayavadana and Nagamandala”, Ed. Tutun Mukherjee,  Girish Karnad’s Plays: Performance and Critical Perspectives, op.cit. 189.

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“Pre-musings”: On Doing Postcolonialism

It is not that the official departure of the colonial machine, by default, has engineered the architecture of a new world-order, rather, while the Colonies do not exist anymore (of course, we take colony as implying a country under direct administrative set-up or structure of governance of another, more powerful, country), Colonialism– which indicates both an idea and a condition– happens to continue, albeit without its more obvious signs; hence “Post Colonies,” rather than “Post Colonialism,” in the title. That is, the musings that are captured through this book have originated in some of the minds from different former colonies. The quasi-formal attitude embedded in the word musings is also to be noted; this allows Musings Post Colonies to accommodate write-ups of diverse formats and tones ranging from strictly-organised regular research paper and monograph to highly personalised essay and even conversation between scholars.

This modest collection is thus premised on a flexible structure: its content, rather unusually, if not awkwardly, is heterogeneous; it brings together a select bunch of articles, a personal essay, a monograph and an interview– all hitherto unpublished. This flexibility, in a way, challenges the much-obeyed system of value-judgement and standardisation of different critical genres (and the emphasis on retaining purity/uniformity in this regard), where the likes of interviews or personal essays are often denied scholarly agency and are allocated inferior position as critical tools. Musings Post Colonies proposes that these so-called “less-formal” critical genres have every potential of a viable discursive mode at a par with “proper” or more formal critical discourses: Professor Aali Areefur Rehman’s interview where he reflects on the state of English Studies in his country or Abdullah Al Mamun’s personal note which launches a formidable attack on the diaspora will testify to that.

Musings Post Colonies showcases musings on various issues, either directly entangled with colonial memory or relatively autonomous of that defining “interlude” called colonialism, and from individuals who locate themselves in places which are no longer “colonies.” As the writers in this volume hail from erstwhile colonies, their one major interest here is to explore the various facets–textual, cultural, historical, political and so on–of the colonial encounter and the ways in which this encounter has shaped the ex-colonies, to see how their concerns are determined and perspectives influenced as inhabitants of former colonies. But then there is Namrata Jain’s article that is built upon art-productions which are apparently “independent” of the colonial entanglement, though, of course, point to a kind of experimental “hybrid theatre” evolving out of Indian and western inputs, that is, the genre, structure and content of the play. Together, the writings in this collection present some individual insights into the colonies’ distinctive history and modern identity as reflected in diverse literary genre and performance art: fiction, theatre, story-telling and so on. The thematic and structural range suggests a mutual quest for deeper knowledge.

Now, as the book explores a number of issues that fall within the discourse that has been functioning in the name of postcolonialism for several decades, it would perhaps not be out of place to preface this collection with a brief mapping of this already huge literary-academic industry. I wish to offer a short hand, if not underhand, narrative of how this field has developed in the last thirty years or so, and I shall also talk about our expectation of the birth of a different kind of discourse and material reality in the former colonies. In other words, my attempt will be to show the kind of postcolonialism we are doing now and the kind of postcolonialism we want to do. But before I embark on this venture, I would like to introduce the authors of this collection, and the issues they have dealt with. Fahmida Rahman deals with one of the most published women writers in the contemporary scene of Indian English Writing: Anita Desai. She analyses Desai’s Voices in the City from the apparently incongruous standpoints of Freudian psychology and the Indian Kali myth to argue that the novel does not so much bring out the conflict between the East and the West as it reveals the convergence of these two thought-traditions. Sakhawat Hossain, on the other hand, deals with Arundhati Roy’s Booker-winning The God of Small Things to see how it represents cross-cultural tensions in the post-independence India. For him the novel is a classic postcolonial text that registers the influences of modern western culture – which arrived here along with British rule – on the Indian sensibility, and consequently, its dominance in every class of society.

Mominul Islam takes up Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land and Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle to examine how the delineation of the master-slave relationship in these two novels is entangled with larger issues of culture and identity, reciprocity of knowledge and power. According to him, the dynamics of master-slave relation is reconceptualised in their narratives to include the dimensions of material, spiritual and psychological bonds within it; and as such their reconceptualisation questions the normative “relational demarcation” and highlights the process of “transcendence in bondage.” To elaborate on the issue, Mominul embarks on a comparative study and brings out the areas of convergence as well as divergence between the works of two famous living novelists hailing from apparently incompatible literary-cultural backgrounds. Ipsita Sengupta focuses singularly on Amitav Ghosh; in fact, her paper is a “metatheoretical performance,” a critique of the critics who take up the debate on nation/nationalism and its alternatives in Ghosh’s fiction. Ghosh, according to Ipsita, engages with his own non-western, non-colonial and constantly evolving version/s of the nation in novel after novel. Besides a critical survey of the Ghosh-criticism, Ipsita also considers Ghosh’s interviews and essays, which give his more personal stance on the topic and show how his alternative to the pre-scripted notion of the state is an autonomous vision of it, in which people thrive through and are united by its non-anxiety about dispersion or “contamination” by other cultures.  Ipsita points out that because of the sheer focus on a single novel, that is, The Shadow Lines, when it comes to the nation-question in Amitav Ghosh’s works, the concept of dispersed, “cross-fertilised” nations fictionalised in The Hungry Tide or in In An Antique Land has eluded most critics. Ipsita argues that Ghosh does believe in nation, but with porous borders, and intertwined histories, quite contrary to the imposed colonial model festering with partition and riots; and in fact, he wants a world of secular and equal nation states characterised by their multiethnicity, resilience and flexibility, where differences are not hierarchised, but rather cohabit in an accommodating, horizontal space. Ipsita deplores the fact that most scholars blindly appropriate his texts to suit the readymade theories of postcolonialism or postmodernism, and thus they read in Ghosh’s fiction a blanket rejection of nationalism as a viable discourse; and that the debate about the alternatives in Ghosh– whether they be memories, microhistories, multiculturalism or migrancy– stems from the axiomatic consensus about the dead nation. Ipsita concludes that we need to take a fresh look at nationalism and its alternatives in Ghosh’s fiction, without the anxiety to use it as raw material in order to justify metropolitan theory.

Taking Girish Karnad’s use of Kannada folklore and mythic tales for Naga Mandala as a case in point, Namrata Jain probes into the intention of modern Indian playwrights’ “play” with myths, folklore, rustic customs and folk performance styles on the urban stage; she comes up with several possible interpretations in this regard: perhaps it helps the latter cross the rural/urban divide, though in the process the secular and free space of folk theatre become jeopardised on the urban stage; it may also be that the urban stage tries to “contain” folk theatre, the way a dominant culture tends to subsume a sub-culture, or, maybe the urban theatre desires to liberate itself from the stringency of structures through its voluntary fusion with the folk/mythic. Namrata thinks that the adaptability of the lore or mythic tale allows itself to be conveniently appropriated according to the contemporary scenario, thereby bridging the gap of temporal distance. Murimi Gaita deals with another performance art in his essay, “From Spotting Fissures and Cracks to Sporting Excesses: Of Storytelling and Virtual Nation.” Using ethnographic data in the form of performed narratives and subjective experiences, he argues that contemporary storytelling in Kenya is actively engaged in the strategic agenda of exploiting the performance process as a site for resistance against hegemonic discourses regarding representation of the postcolonial subject. Murimi argues that due to its nexus with both popular culture and traditional techniques, as well as its interface with writing, contemporary storytelling exhibits an eclecticism that enables it to spot “fissures and cracks” in the dominant discourse sponsored by the state. From his essay we can see how, in postcolonial Kenya, performance of legends critiques essentialising tendencies of the “official” version of national culture and upholds significance of oral history as an alternative perspective, and thus engages the audience in rethinking history.

In the discourse of postcoloniality Australia has remained a unique example. Though geographically close to Asia, the white settlers of Australia were overwhelmed for a long time by the deep-rooted antipodean psychology that depends on the sacred home back in England for authentication of being and consequently by the threat of Australia falling to coloured Asian hordes from without and coloured aboriginals from within. Najnin Islam looks at some fictional and nonfictional Australian texts to explore the politics of representation of inter-racial conflict, the question of belonging and resistance that characterises the encounter between the indigenous population of Australia and the European settlers. She captures the textual retelling of the moment of encounter by aboriginal writers, which challenges the official versions of Australian history with a plethora of alternative narratives. She tries to understand the continuing repercussions of this contact, the kind of changes it has brought to the aboriginal rhythm of life, and how the present generation of indigenous people deal with their aboriginality, their life in an urban “white” context and their notions of belonging to the land. Najnin problematises the notion of racial conflict itself by not seeing it invariably in terms of unapologetic white domination over black; rather, she draws our attention too to the multifarious ways in which the settler themselves still try to forge their own webs of belonging to Australia.

The issue of diaspora has been a major area of concern in postcolonial literature, theory and criticism as well as in the field of Cultural Studies. The classical diaspora, as we know, refers to the Jews who, after being banished from their homeland, were dispersed into different “unaccustomed earths.” In the postcolonial “new” diaspora – as if the colonised people are in a reverse move to the metropolitan centre – it is not a forced exile like the old one of the Jews or of indentured labourers in early colonial plantations; instead, it is composed of educated professionals, whose relocation in metropolitan centres is motivated largely by the “lure of the lucre.” In his personal note on diaspora Abdullah Al Mamun brands this much-hyped category as just an opportunistic ghetto of some writers and critics of third-world origin, now comfortably settled in different western metropolises. For furthering their career and material gains, they have turned Diaspora, Mamun says, into an exotic commodity for the consumption of the West as well as for the third-world countries. As such these so-called diasporics can only pretend to write resistant narratives, because, their opposition itself is a form of compromise. He opines that this state of diaspora loses even a tangential relation with the meaning of “diaspeirein” and disrupts all the necessary properties of diaspora as a functioning metaphor, and has created “epistemological and ontological aporia” by insisting on accepting it for something it is not. This diaspora has practically monopolised and hijacked the entire discourse of diaspora by ousting others, perhaps the more legitimate members, because the latter have failed, Mamun argues, to take part in the subversion.

The Postcolonial diaspora writings, however, talk about the “diasporic anxieties”; they tend to portray diasporans as Janus-faced or as Trishanku, their identity being wrapped around transnational hyphenation, living in-between. They deal with migrant guilt, issues of loyalty and betrayal, negotiations with multiple homes that involve acculturation, assimilation as well as generational conflict and cultural clash. Sometimes diaspora writings are nothing but creative elaboration of pre-existing white stereotypes –as their home-texts not only describe home but justify why it has to be left behind– along the ways the West used to script a degenerate, abused East to justify their “civilisade” project and legitimise the act of colonising. Living at a distance from home, the diaspora often comes up with distorted images and “chutneyfied” narratives of “imaginary homelands.” They encash the charm of the unfamiliar and commodify their homeland as they can see a wide market out there for fictional representation of exotic ethnicity, for an Exotic East that is “safely different,” an interesting site for fantasy, offering no threat of resistance. The promotion of diaspora writers, picked up as local experts for their respective ethnicities, is integral to the intriguing market politics in which the hegemonic publishing industry in the West along with the grinding U.S.-U.K. review machine (of The New York Times, The Guardian and so on) has a decisive role to play. While it is believed by many that rather than leading to a senseless pastiche, diasporic spaces actually provide such writers with a double perspective—that is, a unique point of view as outsider-insiders, from which certain significant critical perceptions about homeland become possible, there are others who argue that the diaspora does not have the right to write home as too much distance removes it altogether from knowing realities. Thus diaspora writers attract attention of two different sets of audience: the West looks for familiar landmarks, a West-centric vision, while the reader at home seeks his own validity – and the writer is trapped between the two. In his monograph on Adib Khan, Maswood Akhter offers an “engaged” analysis of this diasporic writer’s texts that are centred on Bangladesh. This study situates Khan in a larger context of the South Asian diaspora, and shows how his “home narratives” participate in the contemporary hegemonic politics of the publishing industry in the West that thrives, as is mentioned above, on exoticisation and commodification of (ethnic) culture. There is a discussion regarding Khan’s fictional delineation of Bangladesh’s liberation war through migrants’ retrospection, which apparently does not conform to the country’s dominant literary and political perceptions of the event. According to Maswood, Khan operates largely within the (western) paradigm of negative stereotyping and clichéd generalisations, and a distinct outsiderness can be discerned from his depiction of contemporary realities of Bangladeshi life and culture. He, however, notes that a dispassionate, secular humanist perspective that emphasises tolerance and peaceful co-existence of people from diverse backgrounds inform Khan’s representation of issues relating to culture and nationalism, religion and terrorism in the context of Bangladesh and beyond.

The English departments in the former colonies have increasingly been challenging the centrality of the classical English canons, and have introduced courses on new literatures in English, perhaps in an anxiety to relate literature to the native context, to their own cultural and intellectual traditions, and thereby achieving a modern native methodology and an independent mode of critical engagement with what is predominantly a Eurocentric discipline and academy. This mood of introspection is reflected in repeated revisions of curricula, accommodating “homegrown” resources– either originally in English or in English translation– for study. Against this backdrop, Aali Areefur Rehman, a respected Bangladeshi professor of English, reflects on the current state and future prospects of the discipline in Bangladesh in his interview with Maswood Akhter and Tariq-ul-Islam. This interview provides an insight into the invaluable experience, thoughts and ideas of a senior professional who has closely witnessed the growth and development of the field of “English Studies” in his country for almost four decades. Regarding English curricula and pedagogy Professor Aali seems to hold a rather “classical” position: if an English studies department of a university wishes to be a real English studies department, it will not challenge the centrality of the British canon; rather, the core classics of British literature, by which he means the better known works produced by English writers from the Renaissance down to the end of the nineteenth century, should be mandatory for its undergraduate students.  At the same time, literature in Other Englishes –which is actually not that much “other” in his opinion, as it is profoundly affected by the literature and publication mores of English-speaking countries– should be there in the curriculum as an option for students. While commenting on the ELT programme which entered local English departments in the mid-1970s, he says that it becomes not a means to an end, but an end in itself: our students seem to be studying ELT in order to teach ELT in their turn. He suggests that in the courses in ELT there should be a good deal of just plain English language teaching. Professor Aali raises the apprehension whether English as discipline is destined for an embarrassed marginal existence in the local academia.  English departments in the immediate future, he anticipates, will continue to be filled as there is a paucity of places in our universities, but the level of students’ enjoyment of classic English literature will continue to fall. Students will be more interested in a marketable English degree, and not in English itself. The fact that most foreign books get translated immediately is one clear indication for him of a steep decline in the English readership. Literature in other Englishes, though looked upon sometimes with a jaundiced and sometimes merely an amused eye by the home-readership, comes next to translation because this is still by and about “ourselves.” The sun is at last beginning to set on English literature as a prestigious, popular subject, quips Professor Aali, and predicts that the English Department and what is taught in it may increasingly become less relevant in Bangladesh and may ultimately find itself merged with something like the Department of Modern Languages and its professionals may simply teach the language. He encourages the young English professionals, who may react with horror at this prospect, to try a broadening and popularising of the discipline: one of the ways, he proposes, which can broaden it to suit our own interests is to bring within the frontiers of English Studies everything that has been written in the language with serious intentions in our country, or in South Asia generally.

So, there are critical, theoretically informed write-ups here that address different issues emerging largely from examining works of individual writers through inter-disciplinary approach, and from a range of postcolonial perspectives. Colonialism, obviously, is an extremely resilient, powerful and varied system, having diverse manifestations in different parts of the world; naturally the responses it has engendered are also diverse and complex. Moreover, the colonised societies have their own set of internal agendas and forces that continue to interact with and modify the direct response to the colonial incursion. The retreat of the British after the Second World War occasioned the start of political independence for its colonies, but colonialism was not to end with the end of colonial occupation. The obvious signs began to disappear, but the population did not really gain freedom as colonial encounters impacted powerfully on the culture, literature, and politics of the non-West. Postcolonialism, in its literary/theoretical/critical engagement with this intricate postcolonial reality, turns out to be a layered trope containing and subsuming various strands, some of which are hugely paradoxical and deeply ironic. It has become the site of numerous investigations from many disciplines, as well as a theoretical perspective from which to view a variety of concerns including the interface between the postcolonial writing and the economic forces of production of the modern global era which increasingly commodify cultures, the reality of the deterritorialised nationalisms, the new ethnic-architectures that intersect with and cut across national boundaries and so on. Now, what are those writings that can be categorised as postcolonial literature? Do they include literatures written only after the formal colonial rule? Again, what are the concerns that inform the writing of postcolonials? Is it all about writing back? To put up resistance? In fact, there is a wide range of writings and concerns to which the label can be applied.

It would not be wise to reduce everything in the interface between the colonisers and the colonised simply as a matter of dominance and subordination.  This is, of course, the broad parameter of this encounter, but a closer observation reveals that there are many different nuances to this broader equation; there are numerous complications, many pockets of resistance, and various contrary impulses. The native leaders and scholars, who eventually produced some kind of counter-discourse, were also products of that very system of colonialism. As Aali Rehman reminds us in his interview, “English education” in the mid-nineteenth century led to the infusion of all sorts of new ideas that reinvigorated the “moribund Indian cultures” of the time: Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s writings, the Bengal Renaissance, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s Aligarh movement, among other developments, all were said to have derived from the “new learning” of English education which resulted eventually in the awakening of nationalism, democracy, and ultimately the demand for and attainment of political independence. The postcolonial perspective in cultural studies, developed in the second half of the twentieth century, however, showed how English education was not without its darker side in intention and had eclipsed much that was good in the native system.

The issues and elements, that comprised postcolonialism later, were being discussed for quite a long period, but the term as such became popular around the time the book The Empire Writes Back (1989) by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffith, Helen Tiffin came out. The earlier landmark in this regard was Said’s Orientalism (1978) in which the key word, of course, was “Orientalism,” the discursive corpus and academic discipline whereby the West studied its Others.  In this intervening decade, postcolonialism, the term and field of study, attained prominence, and Orientalism itself came to be subsumed by postcolonialism. The actual term “postcolonial” was not employed in the early studies of Edward Said, Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak or Homi K Bhabha. Spivak perhaps first used the term in 1990 in The Post-Colonial Critic.  In 1991 Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge published an essay by this title, “What is post-colonialism?” where they distinguished between a continuation of colonialism, and a resistance to it, a distinction that is of crucial importance; and the distinction is predicated upon the presence or absence of the hyphen between “post” and “colonialism.”  While the distinction in spelling still exists, the term is now used in wide and diverse ways to include the study and analysis of European territorial conquests and the differing responses to such incursions, the various institutions and discursive operations of European colonialism, the political, linguistic and cultural experience of societies that were former colonies, the politics of identity formation and the resistance to the colonial legacies in post-independence nations.

The colonies attempted to rebuild their cultural and political structures after collisions with the imperialist West; they began to map out new identities of their own, and slowly began to raise their own voices. So, the end of formal, direct colonial mechanism gave them an opportunity to articulate resistance to the dominant; however, the question still remains whether they are better off with or without the discourse called postcolonialism when it comes to studying and foregrounding themselves: after all, how can one rely on the capacity of the subject in a postcolonial society to resist imperialism, and thus to intervene in the condition which appears to construct subjectivity itself? Indeed, one requires to probe into the ways a Britain without its colonies still maintains cultural authority in postcolonial societies and how Eurocentric assumptions about race, nationality and literature time and again haunt the production of postcolonial writing. Indeed, nobody in an ex-colonised society can ever fully avoid the effects of colonial and neocolonial cultural powers. Neocolonialism is even more difficult to detect and resist as it reinforces a wider hegemony.

When surveying the field, it is imperative to recognise the inherent contradictions, ambivalences, ambiguities of the term “postcolonialism.”  Not only is it a heterogeneous terrain encompassing a vast body of people and their cultures, thus essentially varied and diverse in its contents, but also hides two contrary impulses, and therefore, maintains an internal contradiction:  in one sense, one may substitute “neo” for post, as the word “postcolonial,” in several cases and contexts, means “neocolonial”; simultaneously, the other impulse in the word “postcolonial” is “anticolonial.”  “Post” intends to project itself to be celebratory, taking attention away from the continuity of neocolonial operations. In reality however, “post” does not signal the end, as colonialism is always present, in one part or another in the world, in divergent forms. Domination of colonial powers still continues through international monetary bodies, multinational corporations and a variety of educational and cultural institutions. In fact, an easy dismantling of its own oppressive system is almost impossible for the West; try as it might, the taint of imperialism is hard to wash off.  Despite its impressive fund of emancipating theories and philosophies, the West still remains so deeply imperialistic, because it is grounded in a peculiarly complex and self-sustaining system which has the resilience, the capacity to absorb, co-opt and contain its Other. As we know only too well, counter-cultures in the West are hooked to the dominant culture and are totally dependent on it, because the dominant culture provides, as it were, an outlet to all those forces of discontent it engenders.  Counter-cultures use the same technologies of dissemination that the dominant culture does. The marketing of Postcolonialism differs little from the way some other trendy academic products, say, poststructuralism or postmodernism, are also being marketed. Capitalistic imperialism is, thus, built into the western academy, and there is no easy way out of it even for those among them who wish to change things.  On the other side, the new elites – the Macaulayan class, indigenous in blood and colour but western in education, training and taste– are dominant in the former-colonies, although they are unrepresentative of the native people and act as unconscious, even willing agents for the ex-masters. If these compradors are still there in the administration of former colonies to continue the colonial set-up, then do anticolonial nationalisms differ significantly from the western nationalism?

Some critics, as we know, invoke the hyphenated form (post-colonialism) as implying a chronological separation between two “ages”: colonial and postcolonial, a decisive temporal marker of the decolonising process, but others argue for the unbroken term on the ground that the postcolonial condition is inaugurated with the onset rather than the end of colonial occupation, and accordingly, the unbroken term is more sensitive to the long history of colonial consequences, and the reality of its continuation. There are other problems in definition. Does the term refer to texts or to practices or to psychological condition or to concrete historical processes? Perhaps it refers to interaction of all these; it has diverse and interdisciplinary usage, and seems to lack a coherent methodology. In literary contexts, postcolonialism means reading texts from former colonies and diaspora as well as re-reading western canonical texts, that is, a “contrapuntal” reading that unmasks, through its subversive critical engagement, how deeply the ideology and practices of imperialism are embedded in western society and culture. Indeed, postcolonialism is a very convenient blanket word, which allows for a lot of different types of things, and perhaps it is this inconsistency/imprecision/ambiguity that has contributed, ironically, to its prevalence.

Thus postcolonialism, as we define it, does not mean after colonialism, for this would be to falsely ascribe an end to the colonial process. There is nothing post about colonialism, and so, postcolonialism must aspire for a sustained examination of the continuing imperial processes and strategies in “neocolonial” societies. But the thing is, it uses the tools– modes of thought and argument, forms of literature, film and theatre–of western origin in resisting the (neo-)imperialist control. The dominant language and its discursive forms are appropriated to express widely differing cultural experiences, to reach the widest possible audience, to intervene more readily/effectively which the texts in indigenous languages are deemed incapable of doing. This means using tools of dominant discourse to resist the same: instead of unlearning English, one learns how to curse in the master’s tongue. Appropriating this Caliban paradigm, however, creates a host of creative anxieties among anticolonial literary practitioners. These writers “appropriate” English so that it might become a medium of authentic native expression, but it still remains a haunting question as to how it can adequately voice the concerns of the postcolonials. Likewise, would it not be too simplistic to use indigenous cultural traditions as the way of asserting identity in opposition to the colonial culture or to see postcolonial writings only in terms of a rejection of the culture of the coloniser in favour of indigenous? Does not it mean bracketing our history between colonialism and its aftermath? Would we accept that our history begins and ends with colonialism? Colonialism, of course, is an important, even defining “interlude” in our history, but we cannot let it be the sole determinant of our destiny for all times to come. Our understanding of history cannot be centred entirely on colonialism.

Colonialism is about economic exploitation, about epistemological and cultural violence; colonisers created a particular way of seeing the world for the colonised, establishing forever the white superiority in the mind of the ex-colonised and making the latter indulge in self-pity. This becomes evident in the fact that we still need western recognition to be assured of ourselves. Colonialism colonises the mind; therefore, it does not end with the end of colonial occupation. Does postcolonialism inspire dismantling of this worldview and applying autonomous ideas to reading literature in the perspective of our specific geo-historical and cultural location? Does the discourse challenge universalism, Eurocentricism, West’s essentialist, narcissistic desire to always see the world in its own self-image, and unmask ideological disguises of imperialism? Indeed, Postcolonialism claims to have inspired a reading away from texts’ universal and timeless value towards a more politicised approach where local concerns are important, but we are aware at the same time of the processes whereby postcolonial studies ironically coopt and rehearse neocolonial imperatives of political domination, economic exploitations and cultural hegemony. Thus Postcolonialism, in a way, appears to be a privileged academic/institutionalised discourse that classifies and surveys the East almost in the same manner as the actual modes of colonial dominance it professes to dismantle. Again, the fact that postcolonial literature has its audience largely outside the ex-colonies makes one wonder: for whom do these postcolonial writers write?

For many a critic, colonialism becomes determining marker of history (which hinders the possibility of alternative organisations of historical epochs), and their assumption is that all writing from postcolonial countries will be primarily concerned with colonial history or decolonising the mind. This collection accommodates papers that challenge this essentialist assumption. As Ipsita has pointed out in her essay, instead of becoming entangled in antagonism and oppositional historiography, we need to rethink the encounter along independent lines, and look for spaces of autonomy and resistance. Taking debate on “nation” in Ghosh as a case in point, she says, when critics respond to Ghosh in terms of postcolonialism, colonialism remains the “water-shed event” in their gaze at history and nations; but Ghosh’s version of home is neither pre nor post colonial: it refuses to play to binaries, to western classifications of history. Ipsita thinks that instead of growing hysteric whenever we encounter a western concept/model, especially of colonial origin, we need to cultivate a mature response to these ideas, neither disowning them nor writing back to them in the victim mode. We can instead fashion our own model under the same brandname, as Amitav Ghosh seems to have done, and thus “Dispersed India,” with its loci as diverse as memory, vast cross-cultural geographies, folklores and forgotten manuscripts, is the “Amitavian shade” to the debate on nations and history.

As I have already indicated, Postcolonialism aims at supplying the academic world with the ethical paradigm for systematic critique of institutional suffering, but the discourse itself stands on a slippery foundation, and is full of problems and paradoxes, ironies and self-contradictions. It was only in the 1990s that the discussion of postcolonialism, as a sort of a more respectable replacement to Commonwealth or World Literature in English, started seriously in our part of the world. We were a late entry into this discourse as we continued to speak of commonwealth literature and so on, and then we happened to discover that the new name for who we are is “postcolonial.” There remains, however, basic questions regarding the ability of this new discourse in conceiving “proper” resistant narratives, as the monopoly of the English language and western epistemology inform this discourse. Moreover, on closer observation, we detect a discrepancy between postcolonial discourse and postcolonial condition. It is a paradox that our entrance into the (privileged) discourse of postcolonialism, in one sense, means an automatic exit from the condition of postcoloniality; thus, there are no “untainted” postcolonials in the discourse of postcolonialism.  Postcolonialism, in a way, is about privileged people in metropolises discussing underprivileged people elsewhere; but what makes this less obvious is that these privileged people are often non-white, and originally from locations which are former-colonies.

Let us look briefly at the creation of the category itself as a supposed improvement upon commonwealth literature. The Commonwealth manifests colonial nostalgia, as it claims to be an association of equal and mutually cooperating nations constituted by countries with a shared colonial legacy. The situation is paradoxical: there is a professed philanthropic impulse on the part of the colonials to the postcolonials, when the relationship is practically built on inequity and exploitation, however translated these may be into the idiom of freedom and progress. Commonwealth was an attempt at tending to the sores, relieving the pain the Empire inflicted, but it was also about continuing a kind of its moral authority. Postcolonialism, in its attempts at revisiting and interrogating colonial past, in its proclaimed resistance and exposition of exploitations, reveals its anxiety to avoid ideological deception and moral ambivalence of the Commonwealth project, but ultimately its similarity with the latter gets exposed in its West-centredness, its operating within western epistemology and critical paradigm. This underlines the unlikelihood of “postcolonial” being a real improvement over “commonwealth,” rather than merely a change in nomenclature. Postcolonialism thus does not herald a radically new era, a new world where ills of colonialism are ended; in fact, “post” implies both historical continuity and change.

Postcolonialism claims itself to be a disciplinary project devoted to the task of examining the processes and effects of, and responses, resistant or otherwise, to European colonialism from the sixteenth century upto the neo or covert colonialism of the present day. If we look at the academic and intellectual background of postcolonialism, we notice that the discipline is not unique methodologically or conceptually; it is, in fact, indebted to a variety of both earlier and more recent western theories. Over the years it has come to represent a certain a holdall, if you like, of different theoretical perspectives, attitudes, and styles, besides signifying a huge academic industry the centre of which remains primarily in the West.  The term “postcolonialism” migrated from social sciences, particularly History and Political Studies, to the discourse of literary criticism in the late 1970s, and flourished in the 1980s and 90s in the hands of Spivak, Bhabha, Aijaz Ahmad, Fanon and others. Orientalism is commonly regarded as the principal catalyst and reference point for postcolonial theory. The literary repackaging of this discourse has something to do with the retreat of the organised Left and the rise of postmodernity.  It is left to postcolonialism and its likes to put up whatever resistance they could to the ongoing triumph of capitalism. But as Marxist interrogation of Empire is limited, one may find theoretical and political incompatibility between Marxist and postcolonial positions. The Marxist approach is that we should not speak so much of colonialism or postcolonialism as of capitalist modernity which takes colonial form in particular places at particular times. Marxism has failed to direct a comprehensive critique against colonial history and ideology: for reasons of its own very specific reading of the developments of capitalism in the late nineteenth century Marxism has been unable to theorise colonialism as an exploitative relationship between the West and its others, and to accommodate the specific political needs and experience of the colonised world. The fact of cultural inadequacy of Marxist theory can be understood by the inattention of Marx himself to the world outside Europe. Again, Postcolonialism has inherited a very specific understanding of western domination as the symptom of an unwholesome alliance between power and knowledge. Derrida and Foucault have identified European knowledge and rationality with economic domination and political hegemony, and though they do not directly address the problems of colonialism, they theorise that there is a reciprocal relationship between colonial knowledge and colonial power, and that the very structure of western rationality is racist and imperialist. They challenge the universal validity of western culture and epistemology, and it is in this challenge that postcolonial thought could find its desired moorings. Postmodernism and postcolonialism share similar theoretical trajectory: the de-centering of the subject, incredulity towards metanarratives, and replacement of unitary power axes by a plurality of power/discourse formations, by demonstrating multiple possible readings of a particular text. Both Postcolonialism and postmodernism are sceptical of explanations which claim to be viable/valid for all groups, cultures, traditions or races, instead, they focus on the relative truths of each individual/community, and they parallel postructuralism in that all forms of cultural discourse are manifestations of the relations and constructions of power in contemporary society.

In a shift from predominantly economic paradigm of Marxist thoughts, postcolonialism has learnt through its poststructuralist parentage to diagnose the material effects and implications of colonialism as an epistemological malaise at the heart of western rationality. It has learnt to be suspicious of universalism/ Eurocentricism that was inherent in Marxist or for that matter liberal thought itself. It was the recognition of this problem which led some postcolonialist historians to engage themselves with subaltern studies. Subaltern Studies attempts at seeing colonial history from the perspective of the subaltern; it challenges the claims of elite historiography that indigenous nationalism was primarily an idealist venture where the native elite led the people from subjugation to freedom, and recognises that the subaltern is denied access to power and system of representation, and has always been mediated. While postcolonial discourse was what the metropolitan academic institutions had invented to understand, categorise, and “control” the literatures and subjectivities of the postcolonial subalterns, the latter were more or less excluded from it.  Most postcolonial people are still so colonised/ marginalised that they are voiceless within their own societies, let alone in the international world-system.  Those who endowed them with the label “postcolonial”–the intellectuals located in the advanced West with their latest technologies of knowledge– attempted to define and represent the realities of a vast number of people.

Colonialism has wrought an epistemic violence upon the postcolonial subalterns, making them incapacitated to control their own representation; in order to be heard they must adopt western thought and reasoning. No act of dissent or resistance occurs on behalf of an essential subaltern subject entirely separate from the dominant discourse that provides the language and the conceptual categories with which the subaltern voice speaks. Indeed, the existence of postcolonial discourse itself is one example of such speaking, an important aspect of its being conveying experience in a language foreign to a writer’s own culture.  As indigenous “postcolonial” intellectuals, our moral burden here is really huge: instead of merely playing cynical professionals, interested primarily in furthering our own careers, and thus edging closer and closer to centres of power, we should aim to live up to representing the interests and welfare of the people of former-colonies, most of whom cannot even read and write. But then, to truly engage with representing the subaltern we would need first to decentre ourselves as experts.

But how would we decentre? One may argue, our mind will not be decolonised as long as we continue to use the coloniser’s language and “critical toolbox”: the books, the idiom, the methods and structure of argument, the rhetorical style and so on. This line of argument indicates that a “true” Postcolonialism should be proclaimed in different languages, and originated from within the colonised peoples in order to foreground their autonomy. But if that happens, others may argue, will it not be “enfeebled and fragmented” a discourse? And is there any common language that may speak to all formerly colonised people? The point is, a “new” postcolonialism, which aspires to be more inclusive and more representative of peoples and cultures of former colonies than the old one, can build itself upon the foundations of the English language. In fact, we can use this language in whatever way we think fit. There is no point in making a case for any such radical discourse that would involve forsaking even the language of English, because, a “true postocolonialist” writer/critic can “appropriate” the oppressor’s language and turn it against the oppressor, or use it for a purpose ulterior to that of the colonial enterprise. In fact, one viable solution to the violence of western unilateral production of knowledge is to use it to subversively reread and reinform, instead of going for wholesale rejection in an equally violent manner.  However, at the same time, we need to encourage translations between the languages used in the various former colonies that would include translation of indigenous language into English as well as into other indigenous languages; and it is equally important to insist on the need for metropolitan institutions and cultural practices to open themselves up to indigenous texts by encouraging the learning and use of these languages by metropolitan scholars.

Colonies are similar as well as dissimilar spaces; forms and dynamics of realities    are not same in all the colonies. The experience of colonialism varies in terms of gender, class and ethnicity, and even within the same class and gender. As such, any attempt to grant any group a collective speech invariably will encounter the problem of assuming cultural solidarity among a heterogeneous people. If we look at Bengalis for instance, we shall understand that there are internal similarities as well as differences which testify to the heterogeneity within the category of Bengali itself. Postcolonial writings nullify the idea that national and cultural identities can easily be defined and individuals fit neatly into such categories, because, colonialism inevitably leads to hybridisation of culture: no one is “purely one thing.” Indeed, it is no longer possible to return to an absolutely precolonial cultural “purity” – which is again illusive– and to regain precolonial subjectivities.

Postcolonialism aspires towards a more comprehensive critique on colonialism, by uncovering its all pervasive, long-lasting, multiple violences; yet, it remains predominantly a monolingual as well as a patriarchal discourse in its present avatar. The recognition of the fact that colonialism affected men and women in different ways will facilitate a more “authentic” examination of colonial domination. Indeed, it can be argued that our women became somewhat liberated, educated and empowered through the colonial intervention, and still those among them who now locate themselves in different western metropolises do not want to return from their diasporic home that seems to provide the space denied them in their motherland. Again, the anticolonial nationalist trepidation about the “westernisation” of indigenous women reflects the extent to which postcolonial nations authenticate their distinct cultural identity through their (subjugation of) women.

Although Postcolonialism and feminism are apparently disciplinary siblings in the sense that both struggle against repressive structures of domination and try to endow margins with the adequate system of representation, yet the fact remains that postcolonial feminists themselves are rooted in Eurocentric prejudices; they assume all women to be a homogenous group, and they are also patronising in approach, a fact which problematises the relationship between third world women and their representation through first world scholarship. The “gendered subaltern” thus exists as unrepresentable in discourse, a shadowy figure on margins. It is not that she cannot speak as such, rather, even when she utters words she is still interpreted through such conceptual and methodological procedures which are unable to understand her intervention with accuracy, the way it truly is. She is assigned no position of enunciation, and is written continuously as the object of patriarchy and imperialism as well as of western liberal feminism and the anticolonial nationalist narratives. Whenever she speaks, she speaks through such dominant discourses, so, her point is always lost.

“True” postcolonialism, I would argue, needs to focus on divergent forms of social inequality – or discriminations against peripheral population, that is, minorities in terms of religion, region, race, class, caste, gender and so on – within former-colonies themselves.  In this connection, I would like to claim my readers’ attention for a moment to the location where this book was produced. The academic community and people in general who inhabit such a peripheral location as Rajshahi might claim an agency to authentically speak about the issue of internal colonisation/ marginalisation which is often ignored in the commonplace understanding of the centre/periphery binary. Let us not operate blindly within the politics of reductive homogeneity and the usual metabinaries such as East versus West or Coloniser versus Colonised, precisely because the system which colonialism works through is very subtle and intricate. As is already noted, the experience of colonialism or decolonisation is not similar at all places, and there are marginal and peripheral groups within the colonies themselves. In India, various language groups prefer English – which deviates, especially in its oral form, from the standard British English – as a lingua franca to combat internal colonialist presence of Hindi. Such “internal colonial” issues are significant part of the contemporary postcolonial scene. Besides, we do have internal issues independent of colonialism. Postcolonialism should aspire to bring into its fold this multiplicity of experiences and histories of the postcolonials.  Here in Bangladesh, the academic/intellectual community of Dhaka dominates those of other places in the country, not necessarily because the members of the former are of higher intellectual calibre but, more often than not, simply because of the privilege of being located appropriately, in the capital city-centred country like Bangladesh, thus having all the access to the means of power and representation. So if we agree that the story of colonial encounter and articulating resistance to it is a linear agenda, it would be far too simplistic an understanding of a highly complex phenomenon.

The present postcolonialism, therefore, cannot serve us beyond a point; it has its own limitations and inherent ambiguities; the question thus is how to articulate a more useful postcolonialism, how to shape it to suit our own specific purposes, how to forge adequate technologies of a meaningful dissent. Our desired kind of postcolonialism will address facets of internal colonialism equally seriously, more so because there is danger that we may overlook the issue. One may argue that these are instances of merely social injustice rather than problems informed by postcoloniality, that locals/ natives exercising power over non-natives/ outsiders, for example, is not really a colonial paradigm. This is true, no doubt; but then, considering the fact that oppression, domination, and discrimination are some of the core characteristics of colonialism, perhaps we need to understand colonialism as having diverse faces along with the classic Prospero-Caliban tableau; perhaps we need to identify different forms of social marginalisation within the ex-colonies as forms of “internal” colonialist operation. For a more inclusive and informed postcolonial discourse, perhaps it is necessary to look at internal colonialist forces like the hegemony perpetrated by the comprador class or the violence of “linguicism”; perhaps it is necessary to look at how the cities dominate rural areas, big metropolitans the lesser cities, the towns mofussils, the capital city of the country other city centres; perhaps it is necessary to look at how even within a district, the “locals” abuse peoples from other regions of the same country. It is important to probe into the politics of these diverse forms of colonisation operating within the former-colonies themselves, and formulate effective resistance against it to derive a meaningful discourse out of postcolonialism.

However, if we take the question of postcolonialism as part of a broader civilisational interaction between us and the West, we find that the relationship is unequal, and in an unequal world, academic exchanges too are bound to be unequal.  Examining this inequality, becoming aware of its various consequences and intricacies is the beginning of any effective, meaningful action on the part of the postcolonial. For finding our own brand of postcolonialism, we need to understand the nature and extent of our subordination, the all-pervasive impact of imperialism on our lives. The very disciplinary structures within which we function and the content of much of what exists as our academic discourse– various poststructuralist and postmodernist theories such as feminism, deconstruction, new historicism, and so on– are almost totally derived from the West. So we must confront the question as to the scope and efficacy of any possible dissent. When most of the available means and methods of dissent, when both the notion of postcolonial literature and much of the theoretical discourse developed to interpret it apparently come to us from the West, one may even consider postcolonialism to be the product of an imperialistic cultural system as commonwealth studies before it was. Hence we need to debate the entire workings of the present discourse, instead of passively accepting its validity.

However, it is not that no dissent is possible, that we are so compromised that whatever we do is already tainted by our collusion with imperialism (these and other similarly defeatist attitudes are, of course, all too easy; everyday we see people practising them), rather, even in its present form, Postcolonialism, does have its utility/“serviceability.” Therefore, while we must have the knowledge of its hegemony, while we must have introspections about our own self-contradictions, we should not be bitter, contentious, or be engulfed with negative emotion, rather, we should use its available advantages for working towards a kind of greater self-autonomy. It is imperative for us to define the practical scope of dissent, and also, to identify the people who might undertake the task of formulating such dissent. Edward Said, Sara Suleri, Gayatri Spivak or Homi Bhabha have published in the West, and their oeuvre has provoked enormous self-criticism within the thinking West, but their stake in India, Pakistan or Palestine and in the health of the academic cultures of those countries is minimal: in fact, one would hardly come across an essay by Spivak or Bhabha in any Indian publication. Said has written passionately about Palestine, and indeed, his works have immortalised him as one of the founding fathers of the discipline of postcolonial studies, but at the same time, it is true that his was a highly westernised upbringing that alienated him from the very people the cause of whom he grew up to champion.  Correcting western attitudes towards its Others is one thing, and for these Others to understand and represent themselves according to their own self-fashioning is a different task; this we will have to do for ourselves. Now, who among us will undertake the task?  There are those to whom this unequal relationship with the West is just “natural,” so they choose not to question it but merely seek whatever benefit is possible from within it, and they are even eager to cooperate with “the authority.” Many of our old English Professors, still swearing by Carlyle and Ruskin, Newman and Arnold, quite untouched by modernism let alone postmodernism, would belong to this category. They were the only ones in the university in suits and ties; they spoke the King’s or Queen’s English; they told us we needed English literature to teach us the value of the European renaissance. Today, these obvious assenters are regarded as simpletons, as misguided old models, because, it is now fashionable to pretend that anyone who is innocent of Foucault and Said, Derrida and Kristeva is irrelevant. Dissenters, riding high on poststructuralism and postmodernism, have all but conquered the establishment. But is there any real distinction between that obsolete “organised assent” and this trendier “organised dissent,” considering that just as the technologies of assent were imported, the technologies of dissent are also largely imported?  Is not Postcolonialism used as yet another such machine with which the traders of the new jargons have geared their way towards selfish academic advantage? But then, somewhere in between these two camps there are those who, regardless of where they might have lived or studied, are now residents of “home,” reasonably committed to trying to improve the indigenous system, however flawed it might presently be. It is they who can make up the catalytic intellectual constituency that will try to work out alternatives to the hegemonic dominance of the West in our academic lives.  They may forge alliances with international/metropolitan academics, but will ensure that the native scholarship would not have to be denativised, before it finds a place in the international academic discourse. To avoid being locked into a relationship of continuing subservience, we need to develop our own alternative systems according to our own needs.  The question is, whether we are willing to face this challenge or not.

Also, we shall have to fracture the imagined continuity that we, especially in English studies in former-colonies, have mistakenly assumed with the West. It is not that an international academic system does not exist; of course it does, but the fact is that it seems difficult to attain member-status without affecting certain distortions of our subjectivities.  Instead of looking for a place in a ready-made community over there, it is here that a sense of academic community needs to be formed and nurtured. Let us redefine our priorities, and change our agenda: we will no longer be obliged to debate their problems; instead, we shall focus on our own, immediate requirements. We should not look to others to help us, whether they are sympathetic westerners or celebrity diasporics.  Instead, we must help ourselves. One possible way to begin interrogating current postcolonialism is not by pretending that we are the masters of our own academic destinies but by admitting, paradoxically, how deeply compromised we are in our efforts to fight academic imperialism, how profoundly implicated we are into this international academic system, by a complex web of relationships of dependence and subordination. We cannot afford to continue blaming the West solely for our sorry state of subjection, rather we need to believe that the dignity of the black/brown(-skinned) scholarship depends more than ever before on how we view ourselves, rather than how others view us.  There are no easy solutions or alternatives; no impassioned outbursts of radicalism will instantly empower us.  Rather, the path to greater sovereignty and selfhood requires great perseverance, years of planning, concerted action, investments in institutions and systems, constant upgradation of the technologies of knowledge, wider publishing opportunities, greater scope for a proper domestic utilisation of our existing reserves of talent, and of course, a renewed emphasis on recognising and rewarding native excellence.

The truth is that “real” postcoloniality is not fully contained in the present discourse of postcolonialism; a large part of our lives, experiences, and subjectivities has always remained outside its purview.  Postcolonialism, then, in its current shape, can neither be rejected nor accepted fully. We have to work out our own adjustment and compromise with it, while endeavouring to safeguard ourselves from its distorting, hegemonic tendencies.  While I underline the incapacity of postcolonial discourse to deal with the “lived reality” of the people it theorises about, I want to note too the hollowness and futility of any simplistic revolt against the West, as we have our numerous and even unknown ties with it.  Although indigenous culture does offer an alternative to the West, it is important to realise that it is not autonomous and self-sufficient. Similarly, our national cultures which we inhabit as postcolonials may be deemed an effective refuge; yet, perhaps, we are not entirely at home here too. Therefore, we need to develop a modus vivendi, an ability to be familiar with more than one culture, and to be functional in more than one “cultural market”; there must be an arrangement allowing conflicting parties to exist peacefully; coexistence, extension, accumulation are crucial rather than substitution, rejection, or suppression: one adds on cultures instead of seeking conversion from one to the other. We shall, then, no longer be torn between two cultures and the attendant crises of identity, which has been a frequent condition of mind of English-educated postcolonials – Aali Rehman in his interview refers to them as “deshi nationalists and English gentlemen at one and the same time” – for almost two hundred years.

To wind up my arguments, the discourse of postcolonialism, in one sense, is itself controlled, directed, even “created” by the very imperial culture which it seeks to resist and replace, and the ongoing process of cooptation, collusion, or compromise poses a serious challenge to postcolonial academics in general and to criticism in particular.  To achieve clarity about these confusions and hegemonic operations, being aware of these intricacies, having a clear sense of our own self-interest, locating ourselves in our own narratives, is the beginning of our emergence as “true” postcolonials. That is, the first step towards meaningful dissent for us lies in recognising the extent to which we are already compromised.  As is noted above, colonialism, being a complex phenomenon, did not develop in a uniform or unilinear fashion; it did not merely dominate everywhere; it also engendered pockets of resistance. Similarly, its retreat will also be multiform and diverse; while some of us will be more staunchly anticolonial, a number of us will persist in our neocolonial ways of thinking and being. That is why it is important for us to fracture the imagined wholeness or availability of any universal discourse of postcolonialism.  We need to be aware that what emanates from the metropolis and goes by the name of postcolonialism is not the only kind of stance. Also, we need to distinguish between the “ism” that is postcolonial and our condition or reality as postcolonial people.  If we remain oblivious of this distinction, the theoretical postulation of our own condition will remain permanently the exclusive preserve of those located in the metropolitan centres.

Notwithstanding the active collaboration of scholars from the colonised world, postcolonial theory, as it has come to be canonised, was generated and developed in the metropolitan academy, and then exported to us.  As such, postcolonialism, as an academic discipline, is (neo) imperialist.  If we aspire to be “real” postcolonials we have to come to terms with this fact, and finally to construct our own postcolonialism.  It is true that any such venture cannot exist in a realm that is autonomous or untouched by the larger forces of global capital, but it is crucial to develop our own indigenous market rather than exist only as raw data in the processing units of the metropolitan mills of theory.  This will entail some vital changes in the way we currently conduct ourselves:  we must come out of our attitude of subservience with the western academy, and perhaps one way to show it is our (indigenous scholars’) reading and citing each other rather than being locked into a one-way academic traffic with the West.

Postcolonialism begins, as a critic has put it intelligently, when third world intellectuals arrive in first world academies, which implies that postcolonialism as a discourse is a form of contained opposition, and  even, at its worst, little more than a career move.  As I have noted, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a lot of the left-leaning academics sought refuge under the umbrella of postcolonialism, and got absorbed into the western academy; the purpose of the opposition was actually assimilation. It is as if you oppose something only to join it. The flip side is that, barring a few exceptions, postcolonials are also victims of what we may call an academic apartheid. While mainstream areas of western culture continue under the control of the “white folk,” peripheral subjects are handed over to the “brown folk” to cultivate. Postcolonialism is thus a mixed bag:  while it allows a kind of academic upward mobility or possibilitises a presence for people and things of the third world in the first world academy, it also reinforces western hegemony, entailing a different kind of stereotyping or intellectual ghettoisation whereby coloured peoples are expected to confine themselves to a specific set of issues:  Monica Ali can only be a writer of Brick Lane, and she should not aspire to author Alentejo Blue. Besides, as Aali Rehman points out in his interview, writers in our South Asian countries still do not “arrive” until they are published in some authentically English country; and even, it is partly the place, the publisher and the reception by the literary establishment of the West that determines what is studied seriously in our universities.

While postcolonialism has contributed in opening up spaces within the West not just for matters non-western, but also for non-western academics, it cannot serve the non-West beyond a point in the latter’s own self-realisation and self-assertion. For that we shall have to cultivate our own creative and critical traditions.  Bangladeshi diaspora writers have brought some attention to things Bengali in the West, but then, we have an existence and significance of our own apart from how we are perceived by the West. And interpreting ourselves to ourselves is perhaps more important than interpreting ourselves to the West. It is not that the present postcolonialism is useless, but it is, as we can see, not useful enough for our purposes; it does not take postcolonials far enough on the path to their own self-recovery as autonomous subjects. We may continue to participate in a limited, critical way, using it perhaps as a way to engage with the West, but the major portion of our energies should be invested in studying and celebrating our own narrative and aesthetic traditions. The point is, without going for an outright dismissing of this postcolonialism, we should rather make judicious use of the opportunities it presents, and gradually move along the line of more independent thinking. Postcolonialism in its existing form has things in common with this; indeed, at its best, it may merge with this; but in so far as it hides a neocolonialist agenda it is necessary at times to oppose this postcolonialism, if we are to form a discourse where we shall be able to study our selves, our literature, culture, and society on our own. Because postcolonialism in its current shape as a discourse postpones decolonisation, we need therefore to frame our own alternative postcolonialism which will be more inclusive and more autonomous in character.

In studying ourselves, the current postcolonialism is obviously inadequate. Much of what postcolonialism deals with is in the English language; it simply does not have the width or length to cover the postcolonial reality in all its linguistic, creative and cultural plurality and vitality. Postcolonialism, in its present form, is just incapable of accommodating anything more than the “English fraction” of the postcolonial reality, and is, therefore, not useful enough for our larger purposes. It has equated works of a few, mainly diasporic writers, with the entirety of postcolonial literature, as if literatures in other languages are not worth counting. Besides, one of postcolonialism’s many disadvantages is that its focus, by definition, is on contemporary literature though some of the finest literatures from such societies were produced during and before colonialism. The present academic structures and disciplinary formations which are being perpetuated by our universities are also grossly insufficient to reflect and foreground our ownness. That is why we shall have to evolve a new way of studying our literatures/cultures: this way must not be just multilingual, but translingual; this way will not represent merely the “English fraction,” but the heterogeneity of postcolonial reality.

Decolonisation processes, as we know, involve decolonising the code/mentality in the individual as well as institutional level. The real change requires not just ideas, but the will to change, supported by the sufficient utilisation of material resources– institutions, universities, journals, academics and students, texts and so on –in an autonomous way. We need to remain critical, vigilant, or protective of the indigenous, but in doing this we need not condemn the globalisation itself or opt out of it and close our doors; this is perhaps not the way forward. What is required, instead, is a certain kind of critical engagement that will help not lose our identity and subjectivity while at the same time save us from being cocooned. We need to keep ourselves in a meaningful and enriching contact with others, with what is going on in different parts of the world. We need to think what kind of research we are capable of doing, what kind of Departments we are capable of forming, what kind of journals and books we are capable of producing, and so on.  Behind all these there must be a passion for a new way of thinking, a new way of being, a new way of expressing who we are.  That is what will lead towards self-autonomy, which is larger and grander and more meaningful than anything postcolonialism in its current form has been able to offer.  We need to attain self-autonomy in our thought and ideas, in our social, cultural and political arrangements; and of course, in our transaction with others. The aim is not to dominate anybody; it is to safeguard one’s own autonomy and selfhood, where one is neither a victim nor a victimiser, neither an oppressed nor an oppressor.

We do not want to achieve a triumphal sense of “eastern revenge” against several centuries’ imperial slights; but then, while we do not wish to dominate others, we are also unwilling to be subordinate to any one, to be “adjuncts” in somebody else’s story. We shall introspect and find out how we can do better than ourselves.  The aim of self-autonomy or decolonisation is to get on with our own stories, to express ourselves in a manner that fulfils us. This can only happen through a more affirmative, future-oriented postcolonialism, not the one which happens to remain a part of standard academic currency for more than thirty years now. For this new order to come into being, we shall have to conceptualise a certain kind of autonomous postcolonialism which is able to leap beyond notions of cultural inferiority of the postcolonials so as to express truly its inner worth and spirit. It is only by doing so that we, as inhabitants of former colonies, can play a meaningful role, contributing to the much-needed equilibrium in the world that would possibilitise an equitable survival of the humanity as a whole.

Instead of harping on the guilt of the West, and scripting elegies for eternity, we have to take confident steps towards a new era, by developing self-assurance and by increasing our efficiency and productivity. If we desire to become truly independent/decolonised we have to prove ourselves strong, resourceful survivors, capable of conceiving and translating a different kind of world-order. Instead of a postcolonialism which is essentially backward looking, in fact a form of lamentation and little more than a demand for greater attention from our erstwhile masters, we need to move ahead towards self-autonomy, to make possible a world no longer ruled/controlled by the West, a world post western hegemony.

So, instead of being completely negative in our approach to the history of colonialism and complaining continuously about what the colonisers did, and instead of trying to invite some charity in return for injustices done to us, we have to prove what we can do with the degree of autonomy, and the amount of resources that we already have.  We have to strengthen ourselves economically, politically, culturally to secure our respectful position and enriching interaction with Others in the present world-order; we have to put our sustained effort towards eradicating our poverty and backwardness, and creating institutional safeguards that will protect the interests of those who are marginalised among us.  With the means that we have at our disposal and the will to exact an optimum deployment of native resources, we can very well endeavour to shape our present and future in our own way. Even if it may sound impossible or utopian, still such an ideal may inform our doing postcolonialism.  The present situation, in fact, poses both challenge and opportunity for us to stand on our own. With this, I think, I may end this brief “pre-musings” on the reality and the possibility of postcolonialism, and invite you to a series of actual “musings.”

 

Note: A host of “postcolonial” scholars and their literatures have left considerable imprint on my mind, and have conscious or unconscious influence on any reflection of mine regarding “postcolonialism.” I would particularly acknowledge here my debts to the following: Edward Said’s  Orientalism (New York:  Pantheon, 1978) , Culture and Imperialism ((New York: Vintage, 1993) and Out of Place: A Memoir (New York:  Knopf, 1999);  Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin’s  The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London:  Routledge, 1989) ; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (London: Routledge, 1990); Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge’s “What is Post(-) colonialism?”, Textual Practice 5.3 (1991):  399-414 and “What was Postcolonialism”,  New Literary History 36.3 (Summer 2005):375-402; Arif Dirlik’s “The Postcolonial Aura:  Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism”,  Critical Inquiry (Winter 1994):  328-56; Aijaz Ahmad’s “The Politics of Literary Postcoloniality”,  Race and Class  36.3 (1995): 1-20; Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean-edited The Spivak Reader (New York: Routledge, 1995); Harish Trivedi and Meenakshi Mukherjee-edited Interrogating Postcolonialism: Theory, Text and Context (Shimla:IIAS,1996); Leela Gandhi’s Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction (St. Leonards, N.S.W: Allen&Unwin,1998);  Makarand Paranjape-edited English Studies: Indian Perspectives (New Delhi: Mantra, 2005) and Fakrul Alam’s  Imperial Entanglements and Literature in English (Dhaka: writers.ink, 2007).       (Maswood Akhter)

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Cross-Cultural Encounter in The God of Small Things

The God of Small Things revolves around a postcolonial Kerala reeling with effects of cross-cultural encounters. It captures the essential postcolonial tension – the desire to forsake colonial values and a reluctant acceptance of inevitable intrusion of the colonial culture culminating in the amalgamation of the two where cultural hegemony perpetuates itself.  Kerala is a place where the Hindus, the Christians and the Muslims and other minor ethnic/religious groups live together for ages with their respective cultures and influences. In the novel, the cross-cultural encounter involves the Indians and the settlers, the Hindus and the Christians, the latter being largely a legacy of the British Empire. Both the natives and the settlers live with the consciousness of being once colonised and colonisers respectively. The shadow of the British Empire and the colonial values still loom large in the former colonies.

Postcolonial writers inhabit a very complicated, intriguing space. They could neither dissociate themselves completely from the colonial set-up, nor could fully embrace that, as they lived in the colonial period and grew up through western education system and western literature. Edward Chaney remarked at Melvyn Bragg’s Radio 4 discussion programme, “one of the great tributes to the British Empire, and to the intrinsic quality of our literature, which obviously needed an empire to spread it, was that Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is written in English.” Minnete Marrin[1] writes in The Telegraph in response to Roy’s anger to Edward Chaney that “there is something shameful about being forced to identify with a conqueror, especially with a departed conqueror, which a child would quickly understand.” She quotes Roy from Bragg’s Radio 4 discussion programme “It is like being the child of a raped mother.”[2]

The way Roy is attacked by both Chaney and Marrin is really one of the toughest ironical realities for those writers who write in a language other than his/her mother-tongue. These writers, being exposed to a dominant culture and a dominant language or having acquired the English language as their first language, have developed a vision – the vision of making a future society where the indigenous culture and tradition will blend with the modern western life, and of a society free from domination. The process has been initiated by challenging the colonial values and appropriating the English language. Despite the objections many critics have raised against using the colonial language and applying western literary/critical tools, these writers are voicing themselves to reach a wider readership and have found ample deconstructive tools in these. Therefore, they have accepted it like the way people of all cultures and religions accept the boon of scientific invention, medicines, great philosophical ideas, or literatures keeping them outside the question of who or which nation or culture originally produced those. This is like Roland Barthe’s “The Death of the Author.”[3] We have got the text, the creation and our concern is with these. These are produced in a particular culture but they do not remain confined there. However, by developing a postcolonial paradigm, writers like V S Naipaul, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Arundhati Roy and others have tried to obstruct the neo-colonial setup in literature. Thus, the postcolonial writers are trying to find a space of cultural co-existence  –  a new culture born of fusions where they can find a sense of belonging – where they would not have to grope for identity.

             The God of Small Things contains a postcolonial society in miniature where Roy presents cross-cultural and cross-class encounters in a symbolic capitalistic empire.  The failings of such empire – the political failings, the common class-prejudices, the individual caprices, the discrimination within the family and outside, the age-old problems of cross-cultural and cross-class marriages and the failed attempts of friendship between the colonised and the colonisers, between the rich and the poor are some of the major issues Roy deals with in a postcolonial situation. When India was under the British Empire, there were cross-cultural encounters; when India is an independent state, there are the same encounters, only in a different mould: “The Empire has interfered with my deepest thoughts, with everything about me.”[4] In the novel, “Paradise Pickles and Preserves” is a symbolic empire in the post-independent India. Every empire professes to bring paradise to the colonies, making material prosperity, effecting a change in the people’s life and removing all forms of discrimination. “Paradise Pickles & Preserves” promises the same to its owner and the workers. Navarro-Tejero says:

‘Paradise’ implies that industrialization and modernization are supposed to transform the state into a paradise. However, the factory is not such a paradise for the powerless; in fact it is the setting of oppression and exploitation as much for women as for Dalits. The factory lies in the fact that the feudal self-proclaimed owner- Chako – is also a self-proclaimed communist. And with the excuse of his ideology, he alienates his workers, especially those who are in a powerless position. [5]

The workers inside the factory are the colonised natives: regulated, disciplined and fed by the company. The colonial power here is Mammachi, and then Chako, as they are outsiders, being Syrian Christians.  Frantz Fanon says: “The governing race is first and foremost, those who come from elsewhere, those who are unlike the original inhabitants, ‘the others.’” [6] Ammu’s family being Syrian Christian falls into this category. Fanon further says: “The church in the colonies is the white people’s church, the foreigner’s church. She does not call the natives to God’s ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, of the oppressor.”[7] The Christians came to convert the people to God’s ways but they themselves did not follow the path and they helped foster the domination of the westerners. In this connection, Memmi sheds light: “To be sure, the church has greatly assisted the colonialist; backing his ventures, helping his conscience, contributing to the acceptance of colonization–even by the colonized.” [8]  From this perspective, the Christians were once the patronisers of colonialism. The narrator remarks:

When the Bristish came to Malabar, a number of Paravans, Pelayas and Pulayas converted to Christianity and joined the Anglican Church to escape the scourge of Untouchabality. As added incentive they were given little food and money. They were known as the Rice-Christians. It didn’t take them long to realize that they had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. They were made to have separate churches, with separate services, and separate priests.”[9]

So racism and class-prejudice were also strong in the Christians and it reminds one the white people’s deep rooted racial attitude based on colour, caste and religion.

Pappachi and Mammachi are the “settlers” and their next generation[10] is living an anglicised life in a hybrid culture. “Chako told the twins that though he hated to admit it, they were all Anglophiles. They were a family of Anglophiles. Pointed in the wrong direction, trapped inside their own history, and unable to retrace their steps because their footprints had been swept away” (52).  They bear the imprint of the colonial values, and suffer from identity crisis as do the writers of the ex-colonies who are writing in English. Chako says, “our dreams have been doctored. We belong nowhere. We sail unanchored on troubled seas” (53). The postcolonial people are living with the burden of colonial history. Their life is conditioned, not only materially but also psychologically, by the colonial history. They have become what Macaulay wanted them to be through introducing English education in India: “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”[11]  That is what the British imperialism enacted by conditioning their colonies through education, which Said talks about in his Orientalism [12]and which Gramsci describes as cultural hegemony. The ex-colonised people who live in the colonial countries suffer terribly like Chako from this identity crisis, from this lack of belongingness. The Indian middleclass whose taste has become English upholds the western culture in the name of modern life – going to watch English movies, sending children to English medium schools and to England (as Chako is called an Oxford Avatar), singing English songs and rhymes, having what the colonisers had.  Sophie Mol, though “hybrid,” is referred to as English. Her English identity is highlighted by her Indian relatives. She is not referred to as hybrid whereas Rahel and Esthta are. This is the desired identity projected and imposed by the dominant culture.

Another symbol of the continuation of the Empire is the Car Plymouth which is not only used for transport but also as advertisement– the capitalist venture into forging people’s taste and choice for buying products. The Car Plymouth, bought by the Imperial Entomologist from an old Englishman in Munnar, which, on its way to receive Sophie Mol, gets stuck in the midst of a procession. Chako, a self-proclaimed Marxist, is inside the car, in the driver’s seat but still fears the procession of his own party. A capitalist is a Marxist, a communist! Roy describes the car:

On the Plymouth roof rack there was a four-sided tin-lined, plywood billboard that said, on all four sides, in elaborate writing, Paradise Pickles & Preserves. Below the writing there were painted bottles of mixed-fruit jam hot-lime pickle in edible oil, with labels that said, in elaborate writing Paradise Pickles & Preserves. Next to the bottles there was a list of all the Paradise products and a kathakali dancer with his face green and skirts swirling. Along the bottom of the S-shaped swirl of his bellowing skirt, it said, in an S-shaped swirl, Emperors of the Realm of Taste – which was Comrade K.N.M. Pillai’s unsolicited contribution. (46)

The car, in this context, upholds the colonialist culture. The English people cannot move without their own car; so are the Anglicised Pappachhi and Chako. The car also carries on its body the advertisements of the Paradise Pickles & Preserves products with a local colouring of Kathakali dancers. The important aspect of the business/capitalistic world is a label or a logo. It is the western label which gets stuck with the products, and therefore, they will sell like hotcake.  Alex Tickell observes:

…the family group confined in the foreign social contained space of the blue-sky Plymouth could be seen as a fitting analogy for the creative situation of the postcolonial author, as s/he relates the transcultural preoccupations of an anglicized, often elite Indian middle-class, and couches these within the appropriated form of the novel.[13]

Quest for sexuality is integral to colonial intervention as is shown by Said in his Orientalism. The body of discourse about the eastern people formulated by the western writers greatly helped imperialism flourish in diverse shapes in which sexual colonisation is one. During the 18th and 19th centuries, there was no free sex in the West; therefore, the East became a place of sexual fantasy and gratification for the westerners. Said says:

Just as the various colonial possessions – quite apart from their economic benefit to metropolitan Europe – were useful as places to send wayward sons … so the Orient was a place where one could look for sexual experience unobtainable in Europe. Virtually no European writer who wrote on or traveled to the Orient in the period after 1800 exempted himself or herself from this quest….[14]

Sexual exploitation of the factory women and the teapickers by Chako and Mr. Holick respectively is a testimony to continuity of colonial sexual quest into postcolonial era. No other finer illustration can be cited than Mr Hollic’s proposal to Rahel’s father which ultimately disintegrates Ammu’s family:

Mr Hollick proposed that Baba go away for a while. For a holiday. To a clinic perhaps, for treatment. For as long as it took him to get better. And for the period of time that he was away, Mr Hollick suggested that Ammu be sent to his bungalow to be ‘looked after’.

Already there were a number of ragged, lightskinned children on the estate that Hollick had bequeathed on tea-pickers whom he fancied. This was his first incursion into management circles. (2)

The superior white Englishman is coveting his subordinate’s wife; it is a coloniser’s coveting. Before this, he coveted the poor tea-pickers and became successful. The tea-pickers did not protest; neither did Ammu’s husband. It is the silence of the colonised as is Velutha’s in front of Mammachi and Chako. Worse than this is that Pappachhi would not believe his own daughter: “Pappachi would not believe her story – not because he thought well of her husband, but simply because he didn’t believe that an Englishman, any Englishman, would covet another man’s wife” (42).

English people are deemed so absolutely “moral” that it is inconceivable that any English or Anglicised person would believe Ammus’ story. We see the same in the case of Dr. Aziz in A Passage to India. [15] The Inspector Thomas Mathew’s tapping on the breast of Ammu with his police baton is a postcolonial perversion in sex perpetuated by an English man – a coloniser. Mr. Hollic does it with the Indian native women; Chako the Anglophile does it with the Factory women and the Inspector Thomas with Ammu. They are the superior in position in the society and they are anglicised and products of the history of colonisation. They are the dominant class, the influence of which on the natives and the subordinates is far-reaching. They are operating through the misrule, exploitation of the poor, and sexual perversion, which will be carried forward to the later generation, but which will not gel properly culturally as this is not the West.

One of the constant remains in both colonial and postcolonial period alike is the question of relation between the coloniser and the colonised. Although some characters attempt to form friendship and good relation, as we see in the cases of Dr. Aziz and Fielding, Adela and Dr. Aziz and Sophie Mol and Estha/Rahel, they invariably fail. One of the reasons for this is the coloniser’s act of marginalising the general mass. The colonisers had relations only with the dominant class among the natives. They treated the colonised as their subjects and so, the relationship between a coloniser and a colonised remained like that of a master and a servant. Although some individuals tried to befriend the common natives, some forces obstructed the friendly relationship. The Marabar Cave episode and Sophie Moll’s sudden unfortunate death testify to this. Both come to India to meet their relations and tried to make friends with the natives, but both encounter irresistible resistance, experience mysterious phenomena not rationally cognisable. The friendship they try to generate did not last long. It was impossible in colonial era, and is impossible too in postcolonial India: “A friendship that, unfortunately, would be left dangling. Incomplete. Flailing in the air with no foothold. A friendship that never circled around into a story, which is why, far more quickly than ever should have happened. Sophie Mol became a memory” (267). Sophie Mol just started to develop friendship with Rahel and Estha. But death thwarted her attempt.  In Heart of Darkness “anything can happen to anybody.” This Conradian reference likens Ayemenem to the Congo. [16] The colonial Congo was a place where anything could happen. That was the summit of European colonialism. But Ayemenem is a free state, yet anything can happen to anybody. The colonial oppression continues in another form. With this foreboding Margarate Cochamma comes with Sophie Mol to Ayemenem, Kerala’s Heart of Darkness.  Her fear, her western imaging of the East, the so-long-established oriental view of India as exotic and irrational, becomes palpable at the hands of the author.

When Sophie Mol’s friendship with Estha and Rahel just began to sprout, the former’s sudden unfortunate death resisted it. Here it is the second generation that attempted friendship in the postcolonial India. The relationship between Chako and Margaret fails, as does Ammu and her Hindu husband’s relation. The marriage across the culture fails. The cross-cultural hybridity has a tremendous impact on Ammu’s life and her parents’ family. Divorce or living away from the husband is not that easy for a woman in India as it is in England or Europe. Chako is left by Margaret because she found another good husband. Ammu left her husband without any prospect or thought of having another husband. Circumstances forced her to leave her husband. This is the difference in cultural values between an Indian and an English woman.

The treatment of women in the postcolonial India is patriarchal. Ammu’s cross-cultual marriage is objected when Chako’s not. Hybrid culture is there, but “hybrid marriage” is not acceptable. Ammu’s relation with Velutha is another failed attempt of relationship. Western or colonial values are imported, but they cannot operate smoothly in India. The enlightenment values of the colonial period seem attractive to Ammu and Velutha; they romanticise their relation, and break the love-laws. But they do not know that it will not flourish even in secret. It is not Europe; it is India. The rise of the working class and the colonised has to be checked in both a capitalist country and an empire. Any possible relation between the working class and the rich, between the colonised and the coloniser can shake their long-established foundation of remaining as the master. This has to be maintained at any cost by the repressive tools of the Empire or of any postcolonial state. Velutha has been stopped, controlled, checked by the institution of security and peace, the police. This state security creates terror in the minds of the common people so that they may never think of protesting. The police torture Velutha to death in front of Rahel and Estha. Both the children and the untouchables like Velutha do not really know that they are actually victim to the postcolonial repressive apparatus of the state.

The residues of the colonial setup, however, do not function properly in India. Exploitation of the poor and the workers is perennial, but, in India, the situation is perhaps worse as caste consideration is also prominent even among the working class people. There is the Brahmin domination, fostered and patronised by the colonial powers. This is “Brahmanic-hegemonic” India.[17] Exploitation in the colonies continues as Mammachi and Chako pay the workers less than they should. Even some workers like Velutha who are better than others in skills, are paid less than the other workers on the ground of caste. In the postcolonial communist Kerala this should not have been the case. In Paradise Pickles & Preserves, the workers are made to dream that one day the factory would change their lot, their unequal status; or they, through their communism, their organisation (which is not yet formed in Paradise Pickles & Preserves) will bring in equalities. Their dream of an organisation is a form of refuge that keeps them in euphoria the way most of the modern modes of entertainment specially TV, Cinema and the virtual world, which are all the capitalist-patronised produces, keep the exploited, the poor satisfied so that they would not think of any revolution or change in the state.

Communism, one of the supposed safe havens for the working class, does not work to materialise their dreams. The comrades like Pillai, do not work to remove caste prejudice because this benefits their class– the politicians. The Christians came, but they also did not give effort to eradicate caste. Ammu’s family, though Syrian Christians, believe in that. Velutha, before facing the false charge of murder and abduction, went to comrade Pillai and was betrayed for his being a low caste. He cannot even plead innocence before Mammachi. Mamachhi spits on him; and the abusive language Mamchhi uses is the colonial master’s language:

‘Out!’ She had screamed, eventually. ‘If I find you on my property tomorrow I’ll have you castrated like the pariah dog that you are! I’ll have you killed! …’

Mammachi spat into Velutha’s face. Thick spit. It spattered across his skin. His mouth and eyes.

He just stood there. Stunned. (284)

The language used by Mammachi cannot come from any “civilised” creature, which the colonialists claim to have produced. The insults, the abuse and the spit, nothing makes Velutha reply even for self-defense. This is the triumph of empire. The other should not have voice even if they are killed. They are taught stoicism. It is like the cannibals in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness who die of hunger but do not think of eating those white oppressors who are in front of them. This is also masochism on the part of the colonised people. The silence of Velutha and Estha is an indication of their internalised slave-like colonial mentality. The poor and the colonised people often become silent like Velutha and Estha. It is the torture, the incorporated fear and the traumatic shock that they received from their British masters and their agents in India, that make them so.

Rahel, on the other hand, becomes resistant enough to take her own decision alone, to take care of her brother. It is also the liberal spirit of the West. She is a postcolonial subject torn between the identities of the colonial and the postcolonial. Her return to India from the West is the rejection of the West as a dreamland. The West is a dreamland to the Thirld World, to the Asians, but it never becomes a dream-come-true land for them. Rahel’s failed attempt to live with a foreign husband and Chako’s with a foreign wife portrays the tension and the disillusionment in the encounter between cultures. Disillusionment in the marriage between a European and an Indian/Eastern is one of the common phenomena in both colonial and postcolonial societies. Margaret divorces Chako. Rahel’s husband becomes weary of her. In both cases, the Europeans easily get tired of their spouses. It is perhaps the western temperament, and possible only in the West. Ammu did not marry; nor did Rahel, nor did Chako. This is the East. People are more sensitive and emotional about their relationship with others.

Ammu is poised between these two. The spirit of liberty, which is manifested in her attempt to flee the Aymenem house and marry a Hindu, is a resistant gesture to colonial structures. She represents a resistant postcolonial spirit; she sometimes seems to be the spokesperson of the author herself. Her breaking of love-law, her resistance challenges the foundation of her own society. She revolted against her own family, but could not gain independence.  She had to come back to the colony, her father’s house, her brother’s house only to live like a subaltern, like a colonised slave, unwanted, as an exile in her own land – a Palestinian. [18] Her parent’s house, in which she was born and brought up, is a prison house to her, yet it is the last resort, her permanent address, which is claustrophobic for her. There is nobody who would really feel for her. She is unwanted there, yet is bound to be with two more dependents, and with the social disgrace of being a divorced, man-less woman. So being a woman, she is doubly colonised in postcolonial India. Her relation with Velutha is rebellion against the society, against the empire. Her paternal empire could not fulfill her needs, nor could Paradise Pickles & Preserves; it was not apparently beyond their ability to provide her with a respectable position in her own family as well outside though. She is driven out of her own parents’ house although she should have a right to her share. What is Chako’s is Chako’s, and what is hers is Chako’s. Whatever there was in India– the land, the gold, the people –belonged to the British Empire.  It was their created law to serve their interest; it is the British law, the European law. It is the right of might, of power, of superior, of white European, of European Christians, of European secular. It is their birthright as Hitlar’s was.[19] Ammu should follow these laws. Her will has to be subject to the will of the society, which nurtures the values set by the colonialists, the capitalists and the powerful. Power is America. The way they contributed to the rise of Saddam and Osama and the way they brought them to ruins because the latter wanted to be like America, as the colonised often want to be like the colonisers, want to have what the colonisers have: power/dominance over the other. Baby Cochama’s fear of losing her furniture is the colonialist’s fear of the other and the capitalist’s fear of the poor. Whoever sympathises with the colonised – with the other– is also a threat to the colonisers as well as to the capitalists or the rich; and whoever tries to put resistance is considered anti-social or terrorist. The other exists as a threat to the self, to the coloniser. Therefore, either they have to be annihilated or tamed or suppressed. They should not have mind or power of reasoning; they should not have any voice. If they want to speak, they have to speak in the language of a faithful servant, in the prescripted colonial language. They have to believe that their survival is possible because of their master’s benevolence and generosity. Ammu lived in her master’s house, her own brother Chako’s house. Ammu is a threat to Chako, to the family, because Ammu tries to befriend Velutha, because the children befriend Velutha, the other, the imagined rapist or abductor, the Dr. Aziz in A Passage to India.  Fanon writes: “…the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil. …The native is declared insensitive to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values. He is, let us dare to admit, the enemy of values, and in this sense he is the absolute evil.”[20]

The other creates all the “mysterious” problems. That is why, not fate, not chance, nor is an accident held responsible by Margaret Cochamma for her daughter’s death by drowning. She holds Estha and Rahel responsible for Sophie Mols’s death while the family suspects Velutha. The final blow that results in Ammu’s forced expulsion from the home and separation from the children is expressive of the demonic nature of power relations in the postcolonial society, which was the same in the colonial era. Chako could expel Ammu because of his power. The family, the society, the state endow Chako with this power. Power does not work only in the state level. It is in the different smaller organisations, in the family, in the friendship and in the individual mind. The nature of power is colonial. Anybody or anything that happens to come across it gets colonised. India’s foreign policy to the neighbouring small countries sometimes echoes this colonial paradigm. India which was a colony once wants to have colonies now, wants to have political and cultural control over its neighbours. And America which was a British colony has now appeared as neo-coloniser.

Roy, though in her personal life a leftist, is critical about Communist rule in Kerala; Aijaz Ahmad, however, charges Roy with lack of proper understanding of Communism:

The relatively more serious failing is in the way the book panders to the prevailing anti-Communist sentiment, which damages it both ideologically and formally….Her ideological opposition to Communism is not in itself surprising; it is very much a sign of the times, in the sense that hostility toward a communist movement is now fairly common among the radical sections of the cosmopolitan intelligentsia, in India and abroad.” [21]

But the thing is, what Roy does here is self-criticism. She is not a blind devotee. Rather, she is a critic. Roy attacks Pillai, his hypocrisy and self-interest. Pillai’s role in betraying Velutha and his personal relation with Chako, the owner of Paradise Pickles & Preserves is a proof of this, and it also reminds us of Orwell’s Animal Farm[22]: “All ANIMALS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.”  Finally, his contribution to the Marxist Party siege of the Paradise Pickles & Preserves shows that ideas themselves can do nothing since ideas are implemented by men who are not infallible.  Everything is shattered by self-interest. Navarro-Tejero in “Power Relations in The God of Small Things” shows the failings of Communism because of Chako and Pillai: “…some male characters’ Marxist ideology allies itself with capitalism….”[23] Roy targets the man, not Communism. Democracy is failing, religion is failing and secularism is failing because of weaknesses of their respective followers. It is the general failing or the limitation of human beings, and Roy is realistic.

The failure of the empire manifests in the shutting down of Paradise Pickles & Preserves and Chako’s departure from India to Canada. “The Paradise Pickles & Preserves signboard rotted and fell inwards like a collapsed crown” (295). When there was the empire, it did not succeed in spreading peace to the colonies. The postcolonial empire in the form of new colonialism or new imperialism is also failing. The legacy of the empire and its influence is all pervasive. It has established a cultural hegemony. In the colonies, there is the linguistic imperialism. English language reigns there. Here also Mammachi’s attempt to make Rahel and Estha learn the right pronunciation of English words is an evidence of this. Sophie Moll’s English is better than that of Rahel and Estha. Baby Cochama prevents the latter’s speaking Malayalam in a bid to make their English fluent:

That whole week Baby Cochamma eavesdropped relentlessly on the twins’ private conversations, and whenever she caught them speaking in Malayalam, she levied a small fine which was deducted at source. From their pocket money. She made them write lines –‘impositions’ she called them – I will always speak in English, I will always speak in English. A hundred times each. She had made them practice an English car song for the way back. They had to form the words properly and be particularly careful about their pronunciation. (36)

So, Rahel and Estha have to try to pronounce like Sophie Mol. The colonisers have done what they wanted to. Rahel and Estha are born in Kerala but speak English instead of Malayalam as if Ayemenem village were an English village. Malayalam is assimilated into English, not English into Malayalam. Thus happens the Anglicisation of Ayemenem, of Kerala, of India. Robert Philipson writes in Linguistic Imperialism[24] that in India two or three percent of the population is literate in English and 35 per cent is literate in Indian languages, yet 42 per cent of the books published in India in 1982 were in English. India is thus the third largest publisher of books in English, just next to the USA and Britain.

Practice of a foreign language in a community has a tremendous impact on its culture and thought. The use of the English language in India is increasing day by day. Therefore, the local languages have started to fall into the margins and are likely to face the fate of Sanskrit in their competition with English in future. The competition is unequal. Homi Bhabha writes: “Postcolonial criticism bears witness to the unequal and uneven forces of cultural representation involved in the contest for political and social authority within the modern world order.” [25] The unequal and uneven contest between the English language and the native languages compels one to think of a mono-linguistic world, which started with the inception of colonial enterprise and which is intervening in all the socio-economic fields. To quote Philipson again: “The relationship between English and other languages is an unequal one, and this has important consequences in all spheres of life.”[26] The present Indian films and TV serials bear stamp of this. The short dresses, the frankness in matters relating to sex, marriage and love, all borrowed from the West, are the marks of that legacy.

Another significant aspect of the postcolonial society, which is sketched negatively in The God of Small Things, is the repressive apparatuses of the state, specially the police department, which is an imperial legacy and which has a tremendous bearing on the common people’s life as we find in the case of Velutha, Ammu and Estha. General people and the people in power know the brutality of the police. This oppressive tool of the state was first enforced by the colonisers in India. Interestingly, the role of police in the colonies is different from that of the colonialist countries. When in the latter’s case it was to ensure and enhance the security and happiness of the common people and it did accordingly to a large scale, and it is doing the same there at present, in the case of the former it exercised the coercive measure to foster more profit and to ensure the rule of the colonisers, and it is continuing at present in the same fashion. Yumna Siddiqi’s reflections in “Police and Postcolonial Rationality in Amitav Ghosh’s The Circle of Reason” on this policing activity in postcolonial India are illuminating in this context:

In Europe’s colonies, where power and profit, not the population’s happiness, were the chief objectives of colonial administration, the rational regulation of the population from the outset implied the prevention and suppression of challenges to the power of the regime rather than the enhancement of public well-being. Several of the subaltern studies historians have traced the unhappy effects of colonial administration on the population of India. [27]

The common people know this dark side of state terrorism. The police and law protect the privileged from the other, the have-nots, from the worries of being hijacked of their comfort and vanity.  The perpetuity of injustice in this postcolonial nation is one of the impacts of colonial rule. Yumna Siddiqi writes again:

The nation-state form is energetically vested in newly decolonized countries with the promise of liberation from oppressive rule. It holds out the assurance of true equality and true fraternity. Yet, the newly liberated nation inherits the repressive apparatuses of the colonial state, apparatuses that are freshly deployed against a “free” citizenry. [28]

And as Partha Chatterjee puts it with reference to independent India, “the new state chose to retain in a virtually unaltered form the basic structure of the civil service, the police administration, the judicial system, including the codes of civil and criminal law, and the armed forces as they existed in the colonial period.”[29]

So, the British left, but their set-up has been working.  British law is still the dominant law. People go to England to become barristers, the “best-qualified” lawyers. The colonial powers themselves enjoy, to a certain degree, the fruits of democracy and social security, but they do not like to see the same in the once-colonised countries. That is why they would like to keep us in turmoil and like to see injustice prevail so that they could justify that the only capable rulers were the British or the European. Said says in Culture and Imperialism:

…imperialism permanently scarred and distorted Indian life, so that even after decades of independence, the Indian economy, bled by British needs and practices, continues to suffer. Conversely, there are British intellectuals, political figures, and historians who believe that giving up the empire – whose symbols were Suez, Aden, and India – was bad for Britain and bad for ‘the natives.’[30]

People like Mr Hollick, Matthew and others stayed to perpetuate the misrule, and insinuate the pleasure of misrule and abuse of power in the Indian minds. Death of Velutha in the police custody on false charge is a proof of this.  And India is one of the largest democratic countries in the world!  This is, however, not mere accident. This is one outcome of the nexus between the colonial oppression and the postcolonial corruption. This is the subconscious fear of the other, an “unacknowledged fear – civilization’s fear of nature, men’s fear of women, power’s fear of powerlessness. Man’s subliminal urge to destroy what he could neither subdue nor defy” (308).

The traumatic effect of the police torture has far-reaching consequences in a society. It creates insecurity in the people’s mind and has a dehumanising effect on the children as is the case with Estha. The world becomes a suffocating one for him; he lives alone in the midst of “mortal millions.”[31] Both Estha and Rahel become alienated and they commit the incest, which is not just a moment of blunders but an emotional protest to the merciless world where misrule and exploitation of the poor, women, children and the powerless are the norms. No respite, no solace, no peace can prevail in a sensible mind in such a society. There is no outlet outside one’s own self. There was not any in the relatives, not any in the society. They were burning with suppressed desire and rage, “the reckless rage of a suicide bomber” (44) like their Ammu. They broke the love laws but with “hideous grief”: “Only that they held each other close, long after it was over. Only that what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief” (328). As sex is private and secret, traumatised people can protest through sexual violation. In “Heart of Darkness,” there is no outlet other than sexual pleasure, which is the final bait to cause catastrophe. The postcolonial India is suffocating with this frustration-balm borrowed from the West. The frank description of the meeting between Ammu and Velutha aptly represents this. The romance between the working class Velutha and middle class Ammu is described graphically. Is it to break the sexual taboos to liberate women from the yoke of restraints? Chako’s mother feels Chako’s necessity – her son’s necessity, but not her daughter’s, and the society approves of this double standard. Woman’s need is not considerable. It is unspeakable. This is deep-rooted in India and in many religious communities. Or, is it to show that an Indian writer too can write freely about sex like those in the West? The twin’s incest is hinted, not described in detail. But the description between Ammu and Velutha is disharmonious with the traditional Indian culture. This scene seems to have succumbed to the demand of globalisation. The progressive defined by the West demand so. In order to be a great artist, one should keep in mind the western canon and their present popular taste. The setting is Indian but the scene seems to be western. This post-independent India has incorporated western value-structures. The sexual relationships which are usually objected in any culture include sex-relations outside marriage: fornication, adultery, homosexuality, masturbation and incest. In The God of Small Things many of these are present, but not in detail except that of Velutha and Ammu. A middle class Syrian Christian and an untouchable Paravan Velutha. Does the description intend to attack the deep-rooted caste-system for which the couple cannot marry legally? Could one think that Roy wants India to be a free-sex country based on western models? Perhaps by this she has stirred a need for rethinking of those laws. Peoples need to wake up to reflect on the age-long principles of the love laws, of their causes and effects, and to decide whether they are good for them at present. Here Velutha and Ammu are caught between the European liberal creed and the Indian social sensibility. Ipshita Chanda points out in “The Tortoise and the Leopard, or the Postcolonial Muse”:

Velutha had traversed the divide between Touchable and Untouchable, which is seen quintessentially Indian …This was what the independence of India had achieved – it had industrialized these imported structures in the name of democracy without ensuring or even caring whether they could function. In our experience, independence in a colonized state is actually a colonially defined concept, copied from the colonizer’s system almost without adaptation. It taught Velutha his natural rights, but it did not engineer a society that would recognize them. [32]

These characters are Indian with western feminist-orientation, but, in this regard, the western setup fails in Indian setting; Ammu and Velutha cannot survive in Indian setting.

Alex Tickel, in “The God of Small Things: Arundhati Roy’s Postcolonial Cosmopolitanism,” thinks that while Roy’s postcolonial vision is cosmopolitan, she is very much local at the same time, and addresses the problems that underlie imperial systems of governance, educational, social and economic organisations, and cultural domination.  The God of Small Things raises these issues, but it does not attempt to offer any solution. The postmodern cannot be free from tension and confusions, and therefore, cannot find any “real” possible solution; and the author knows that there is actually none from the humanistic point of view. Cultural coexistence is a must in a postcolonial society, but there should be a cautious safeguard from any lopsided relation. Roy seems to be politically aware of this, since there is no pretension on her part to be impervious either to western influences or to internal politics of power in a former colony. She is indeed very much “realistic” in her depiction of postcolonial reality in India in The God of Small Things. Roy is, finally, I would say, a “realist” political critic as well as an idealist, a liberal humanist author.[33] (  d. Sakhawat Hossain)


[1] Minnete Marrin, “The English Empire”, The Telegraph 18 June 1998, <www.minettemarrin.com/minettemarin/1998/06/the_english_em p.html>.

[2] ibid.

[3] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (New York: Norton, 2001), 1466-1470.

 

 

[4] Minnete Marrin, op.cit.

[5] Antonia Navarro-Tejero, “Power Relations in The God of Small Things”, Ed. Murari Prasad, Arundhati Roy (Delhi: Pencraft, 2006), 101-109, 103.

[6] Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (London: Penguin, 2001), 31.

[7]  ibid. 32

[8] Albert Memmi, The colonizer and the colonized (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), 72.

[9] Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (New Delhi: India Ink, 1997), 74. The subsequent textual quotations are from this edition and indicated by page numbers only.

[10] Chako and his family are here supposed to represent the next generation.

[11] Thomas Macaulay, “Minute on Indian Education”, The Norton Anthology of English Literature (8th edition, 2006), 1610-1612, 1612.

[12] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978).  Said in his Orientalism shows how this body of Oriental study depicted the East as the other which functioned to insinuate the superiority of the western/colonial culture in the Eastern minds; and he quotes Gramsci to take the latter’s idea of cultural hegemony which is established by the ruling class through general consent.

[13] Alex Tickell, “The God of Small Things: Arundhati Roy’s Postcolonial Cosmopolitanism”, Ed. Murari Prasad, op.cit. 59-76, 60.

[14] Said, Orientalism , op.cit.190.

[15] E.M. Forster, A Passage to India (London: Penguin, 1979).

[16] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (London: Penguin, 1983). The Congo is referred to as “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad. Roy uses the phrase at several places to indicate that the common natives of Kerala are also in a somewhat similar position like the natives of the Congo in Heart of Darkness.

[17] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, 11 Sept. 2010, < www.mcgill.ca/files/crclaw-discourse/Can_the_subaltern_speak.pdf >. Spivak shows in the following lines from “Can the Subaltern Speak?” how the English people supported Brahmanic hegemony for their self-interest: “I locate here the founding of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784, the Indian Institute at Oxford in 1883, and the analytic and taxonomic work of scholars like Arthur Macdonnel and Arthur Berriedale Keith, who were both colonial administrators and organizers of the matter of Sanskrit. From their confident utilitarian-hegemonic plans for students and scholars of Sanskrit, it is impossible to guess at either the aggressive repression of Sanskrit in the general educational framework or the increasing ‘feudalization’ of the performative use of Sanskrit in the everyday life of Brahmanic-hegemonic India. A version of history was gradually established in which the Brahmins were shown to have the same intensions as the codifying British: in order to preserve Hindu society intact successor had to reduce everything to writing and make them more and more rigid.”

[18] As the Palestinians are not free in their own lands and many of them have been driven out of their homes, so is the case with Ammu.

[19] Hitlar wanted to rule the whole world as he believed that it was the birthright of the Germans to do so. Some German political thinkers spread those nationalist ideas before the Second World War. The Europeans also thought that it was their duty/prerogative to establish colonies and rule over the rest of the world.

[20] Fanon, op.cit. 32.

[21] Aijaz Ahmad, “Reading Arundhati Roy Politically”, Ed.Murari Prasad, op.cit. 32-43, 33.

[22] George Orwell, Animal Farm (London, Penguin:  1951), 90.

[23] Navarro-Tejero, “Power Relations in The God of Small Things”, op.cit. 102.

[24] Robert Philipson, Linguistic Imperialism (Oxford: OUP, 1992), 30.

[25] Homi K Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York, Routledge:  1994), 245.

[26] Robert Philipson, op.cit. 30

[27] Yumna Siddiqi, “Police and Postcolonial Rationality in Amitav Ghosh’s The Circle of Reason”, Cultural Critique 50 (Winter 2002), 175-211,178.

[28] ibid. 179.

[29] qtd. in Yumna Siddiqi, op.cit. 179.

[30] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994),163.

[31] Matthew Arnold, “To Marguerite – Continued”, The Norton Anthology of English Literature (Vol.2, 6th Edition), 1353.

[32] Ipshita Chanda, “The Tortoise and the Leopard, or the Postcolonial Muse”, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 23.1&2 (2003): 128-140, 130.

[33]I use the term liberal humanist in the sense that Roy criticises the malcontents and the evil or negative forces of life not bitterly but ironically; thus she seems to have a humane attitude to everything. She seems to be “moral” but does not attempt to moralise.