Postcolonial literature refers to writing from regions of the world that were once colonies of European powers. The term refers to a very broad swath of writing in many languages, but the emphasis in this class (in an English department) is on writing in English. The writers in this course come from quite different backgrounds, including Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean, but they struggle with some similar issues, chief among them being the legacy of colonialism – of European dominance.
Postcolonial literature is of particular importance partly because much of it is stylistically original and different from earlier European literature, (one thinks of the number of postcolonial writers who have received prestigious literary prizes in recent years). But postcolonial writing is also important because the texts – as literature – have the potential provide perspectives on the world that are unavailable from textbooks and the newsmedia. The best postcolonial literature aims to tell good, entertaining stories while seriously attempting to represent some of the most troubling conflicts and injustices imaginable.
Postcolonial writers attempt to develop their own literary voices in regions of the world that may have been described in the colonial era as “primitive” or “savage” – where literature and culture were considered absent or somehow illegitimate. The larger project of moving past this colonial legacy, what we might call the “decolonization” of writing, brings up a wide array of themes, each of which we will address in turn. To begin with, there are issues that affect writing itself, such as choice of language. Many postcolonial writers choose to write in the languages of the former colonial power (i.e., English, French, Spanish, Portuguese), though this can be a source of serious disagreement. Moreover, much postcolonial writing is highly sensitive to how language is used, and by whom. There is a serious consideration of the role of dialects, patois – the intentional, potentially liberatory use of what one African writer calls “rotten English.”
Relatedly, postcolonial writers are compelled to find suitable and original shapes in which to represent their particular cultural experiences and historical perspectives. The novel-form is a European construct – is it malleable enough to tell the story of villagers in Zimbabwe, Punjab, or Trinidad? One answer to this problem, a mode of writing known as magical realism, blends traditional storytelling practices (some of which may be oral) with western modes of narration. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is one of the best examples of the deployment of the magical realist style. We will discuss each of these issues of form as we progress; we will also refer to some critical and theoretical texts that map out these and other formal concerns.
In this course literature, politics, and social theory will be inextricable for the simple reason that the texts themselves are intensely concerned with social and political problems. The postcolonial experience has been extremely violent and complex, with new forms of oppression and violence often replacing the old structures. The past 50 odd years have seen innumerable conflicts around the definition of the nation in the postcolonial world. Other conflicts have circulated around issues such as ethnicity, race, religion,and cultural difference. And nearly everywhere are negotiations of gender and sexuality, which are in the foreground in virtually everything we will read. Responding to these problems requires a good deal of particular historical and cultural knowledge relevant to given issues or struggles, and I will encourage members of the class to pursue and develop knowledge related to given texts (for example, Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days might provoke research on the history of Pakistan).
Finally, we will talk quite often about diasporization and displacement. Because they often express ideas that are controversial in their home countries, many postcolonial writers find themselves in exile, sometimes in the capitals of the former Imperial regime (a surprising number of the writers in this course currently live in London). Others are members of immigrant populations who have moved from postcolonial locales to European and American metropolitan centers, in search of economic opportunity. Yet others (especially Caribbean writers like Naipaul and Phillips) are descendents of people who were displaced against their will – slaves and indentured laborers. As a result of all of these factors, displacement and exile are central themes in postcolonial writing.
Novels Based on Partition
A number of novels in the Indian sub-continent have been written on the theme of the Partition of India. This unforgettable historical moment has been captured as horrifying by the novelists like Khushwant Singh in Train to Pakistan (1956), A Bend in the Ganges (1964) by Manohar Malgaonkar, Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961) , Rajan’s The Dark Dancer, Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy-Man, Chaman Nahal’s Azadi and Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas. These novels examine the inexorable logic of Partition as an offshoot of fundamentalism and fanaticism sparked by hardening communal attitudes. These novels belong to t;he genre of the partition novel. These novels effectively and realistically depict the “vulnerability of human understanding and life, caused by the throes of Partition which relentlessly divided friends,” as Novy Kapadia observes. She opines that throughout history, fanatics as well as ideologies, pushed to the emotional brink of daring their lives, have taken the plunge, which has triggered off a chain reaction of rigid mental fixations and attitudes. Bapsi Sidhwa’s novels are narratives of political and moral upheaval resulting in a masstrauma which continues to haunt the minds of generations. Generally, in the novels of Sidhwa, there are people from all walks of life and from all communities. They are Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Parsis. The event of Partition has been depicted through the painful experiences of these ethnic groups. Novy Kapadia explicitly explains the situation as: “With a morbid sense of humour, Bapsi Sidhwa reveals how the violence of Partition has serrated the roots of people of different communities, irrespective of ideology, friendship and rational ideas. In such a depiction, Bapsi Sidhwa resembles the horror portrayed by William Golding in The Lord of the Flies (1954). Golding indicated that there is a thin line between good and evil in human beings and it is only the structures of civilizations which prevent the lurking evil from being rampant. At the end of the novel The Lord of the Flies boys of Jack’s tribe like barbarians got a sadistic delight in hunting Ralph. The situation is saved as a naval officer reaches the island to stop brutality … Lenny’s destruction of the doll also has allegorical significance. It shows how even a young girl is powerless to stem the tide of surging violence within, thereby implying that grown up fanatics enmeshed in communal frenzy are similarly trapped into brutal violence.’ It becomes obvious that there is no solution to communal holocausts except struggle and resistance to communalism in a collective effort. There are no winners in these riots and the communal holocaust devours everything that supports life-sustaining principles. It presents a scene of Holi, not of colours but of blood in the living inferno. The Partition of India proved to be the greatest communal divide in the Indian sub-continent. In fact, the novel Ice-Candy-Man is a Pakistani version of the Partition just like Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan.
In the fictional world of Ice-Candy-Man, the readers are introduced to a plethora of characters from different communities and different walks of life. “Sidhwa’s novel written at a period of history when communal and ethnic violence threaten disintegration of the sub-continent, is an apt warning of the dangers of communal frenzy. Bapsi Sidhwa shows thatduring communal strife, sanity and human feelings are forgotten.” In fact, riots anywhere in the world follow the common pattern where distrust and rumour reign everywhere which leads to bloodshed and terror. Novy Kapadia rightly observes:
With a sprinkling of humour, parody and allegory Bapsi Sidhwa conveys a sinister warning of the dangers of compromising with religious obscurantism and fundamentalism of all categories. Otherwise a certain historical inevitability marks this historical process. Though her novel is about the traumas of Partition, Bapsi Sidhwa like Amitav Ghosh reveals that communal riots are contemporaneous and that ‘those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.’
Similar messages have been forwarded by novelists like Bhisham Sahni, Khushwant Singh, Manohar Malgaonkar, Amitav Ghosh, Rajan in their novels based on the theme of Partition. While depicting the heart-rending saga of Partition, these novelists have also tried to adhere to its historical background. In The Shadow lines, Amitav Ghosh depicts Hindu-Muslim riots in Bengal in 1964 which soon spread to erstwhile East Pakistan. Amitav Ghosh shows “how different cultures and communities are becoming antagonistic to a point of no return. Hence in The Shadow Lines he effectively uses political allegory to stress the need for a syncretic civilization to avoid a communal holocaust.”
Attia Hosain’s novel Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961) is another novel about the communal divide and riots. Attia Hosain depicts the trauma of the Partition and communal riots through her narrator-heroine Laila.The action of the novel is revealed through the memories of her Taluqdar family disintegrating. Laila does not glorify her Muslim past or traditional customs. Attia shows her heroine Laila making a departure from tradition and customs. She rejects dogmatism and epicureanism. The opening pages of the novel show Lailain an environment which is conservative. Laila’s cousin married in Pakistan returns to Hasanpur. They are engaged in a hot discussion on Muslim culture and traditions. It turns out to be a serious difference of opinion. Laila later recalls this experience with a sigh: “In the end, inevitably we querrelled, and though we made up before we parted I realized that the ties which had kept families together for centuries had been loosened beyond repair.” After the violence of the Partition, Laila moves around her plundered home. Later, she vividly recalls those shocking sights with a pang in her heart. She walks and strolls through the rooms of her ancestral home ‘Ashiana’, but she does not want to return. She has been fed up with the feudal order and now she wants to be Ameer’s wife. She experiences the expansion of her limited self after discovering her new identity. Novy Kapadia compares the experience of trauma of Partition of Laila with Lenny (Ice-Candy-Man): “She comes to detest dogmatism, either in the name of religion or radicalism. Her views and perspective of life developed after intense personal struggle enable Laila to tackle the loss of her husband Ameer and the trauma of Partition. So both narrator-heroines, Lenny and Laila react against communal responses and the horrors of violence. The mature Laila rationalizes against communal tension whereas the young Lenny instinctively reacts against the horrors of communal violence.”
All the novelists writing about, communal violence agree that it is no easy job to find out a solution to the problem of “communal holocaust except intense struggle againt dogmatism”. In Ice-Candy-Man, Sidhwa shows how friends and neighbours turn out to be enemies overnight. A Muslim village Pir Pindo is attacked by Sikhs and Muslim men and women are killed. Sikh families in Lahore are attacked in Lahore and the chain reaction continues. People like Hari and Moti become converts to save their lives. Ayah’s lover Masseur is killed. Bapsi Sidhwa shows that the communal frenzy has a distorting effect on the masses and leads to feelings of distrust and frenzy. In such an atmosphere of communal frenzy and hatred, simple people like Ice-Candy man lose their temper when he sees the mutilated bodies of Muslims. Revenge becomes the only motivation in his life. Friendships and personal relations are forgotten. The atmosphere becomes malicious and Ice-Candy man joins the frenzied mob which abdicates Ayah and keeps her in the brothels of Hira Mandi. Later in the novel, Ice-Candy man tries to mend his ways and forcibly marries Ayah and changes her name as Mumtaz. But she finds this disgusting and with the help of Lenny’s Godmother she reaches a relief camp in Amritsar. Ice-Candy-Man tries to get her but in vain. The novel conveys a serious warning of the dangers of communalism and religious obscurantism.
Issues of Gender in Literature and Theory
Early South Asian literature has been dominated largely by male writers people like R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Nirad Chaudhuri and, more recently, V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie. Early women writers include Anita Desai, Nayantara Sahgal, Attia Hosain, and the emigré, Ruth Prawar Jhabvala. Since the 1980s a number of new writers have come up, who are often included, for example, in publications like the
New Yorker special issue or in Rushdie’s recent anthology.More recent women writers from South Asia have been put into two kinds of “camps,” if one can call it that: one, “indigenous” writers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and two, South Asian-American writers, immigrant writers, of whom Bharati Mukherjee and Chitra Divakaruni, who has published a collection of stories called Arranged Marriage, are the best known. Of course, currently the best-known Indian woman writer is Arundhati Roy, whose book The God of Small Things received the Booker Prize in 1997.This and also Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days, pose extremely important questions. Both are also good teaching texts, linguistically brilliant and very innovative, with wonderful prose, and I will discuss both of them a little later. There are many, many others. There are also, of course, many second- and third-generation South Asian women writers from Britain such as Meera Syal. So what we have is not only a national phenomenon, but also a diasporic phenomenon. What comes out of all this, then, is a combination of concerns that have to do with postcolonialism and the history of colonization, but also its consequences, migration and diaspora.
One of the questions is: how is it that women writers, or even male writers approach feminism or express an ambivalent kind of feminism? We can talk about gender with regard to male writers, too, most certainly, but with women writers, a whole different set of concerns emerges. With regard to feminism and nationalism, one of the classic problems is that for women writers, and for feminists as well, if you criticize traditional forms of cultural practice, including patriarchal societies, or religious and ethnic groupings, you are often attacked for not fitting into the colonial nationalist project. This is something Arundhati Roy takes up in her book. But the whole question of setting up a gender critique of patriarchal systems is something that becomes very problematic for women writers, particularly when they are seen as allying themselves with so-called white feminism. This has certainly been the problem for African women writers too.
Recently, in the work of postcolonial critics like Lata Mani and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, a new or at least a slightly different issue that comes up is the question of colonial legacies for women in postcolonial national discourse. Take the example of sati: how is to be understood in a postcolonial context? How is it a consequence of a kind of postcolonial resurgence of traditionalism, or what is constructed as traditionalism? In what ways are women used as icons within this neo- nationalist, often very fundamentalist project? So the role of women in nationalism becomes a really big question. The critic Ann McClintock, for example, in her book
Imperial Leather, talks about how nationalism itself is gendered and gendered in all kinds of ways and also how women in different class positions, as well as racial formations, are positioned differently, with regard to feminism and nationalism. So she, for example, in talking about South Africa and the Afrikaans project, speaks of how white women in South Africa were positioned very differently from black women, who also were first seen as only mothers, and who then used that positioning of maternity as a kind of political tool. These are the sorts of questions that come out of the larger question of feminism and its relationship to nationalism, especially for indigenous women writers.
With regard to diasporic literature, a whole new set of questions arises. The diasporic writers we’re looking at often describe very new problems and circumstances. They often talk about how enabling it can be for women to be in a different kind of community. For example, Bharati Mukherjee describes women emigrating to the U.S. or Canada and being able to construct a new self self-invention. But at the same time, that separation from community can also be very disabling, so that’s another dynamic that gets played out. There are a couple of very good recent films that are good to talk about and to teach. One of them, which is very much concerned with diasporic issues, is
Bhaji on the Beach. It’s a British film about second-generation South Asian women in Britain, and it very skillfully dramatizes these questions of identity and cultural belonging.
A third big issue in this area is the question of transnationalism, which is becoming an increasingly important project for many feminists. It has to do with the problem of making cross-cultural comparisons between woman writers, from, say, South Africa or Africa or India, or different parts of the world, without erasing the specificities of history and geographic location. How do you do that without falling into essentialisms and, at the same time, how do you actually make useful comparisons? I think a big issue that begins to emerge in all these writings, especially more recently, is the question of sexuality. Sexuality, that is, not so much in terms of thinking of gender as a category, but sexuality as questioning heteronormative frameworks of thinking about gender, either within patriarchies or not. Another recent film,
Fire, by Deepa Mehta, deals very directly with that issue.It’s about lesbian sexuality developing in a middle-class family in Delhi. Arundhati Roy also deals with this issue, and so does Sara Suleri and, to some extent writers like Suniti Namjoshi and Kamala Das. Pakistani Literature in American context
Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days, Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things, and Chitra Divakaruni’s Arranged Marriage. Meatless Days is an autobiography, and yet it’s quite bizarre, in that, as a memoir, it remains extremely impersonal; the subject of the writing is completely absent in some sense. Yet it’s very exquisitely crafted and it takes on issues such as the question of history and revision how is it that women can rewrite history, particularly nationalist history? In Meatless Days Suleri talks about her father, who was a journalist in Pakistan and very involved in the creation of the nation in 1947, and about her gradually developing understanding that history does not have to be only a father’s history, but is also the history of several women, women in her family intertwined with the history of the nation. The problem in teaching a text like that is, How does one position such a text in an American context? Actually, Suleri takes that up in the memoir, in talking about being the so-called horse’s mouth, or the “Otherness Machine,” as she calls it. That is, how does the subaltern speak? How is it possible to present an autobiography without becoming the icon of the Other? I think it is a very useful text and a very rich text to teach in all kinds of courses, because it works simultaneously as a way of questioning history, a way of thinking about gender, and a way of thinking about autobiography what is autobiography, how can one think about autobiography as the story of the self, as opposed to communal histories, and so on. Sara Suleri, Salman Rushdie, and Post-Colonialism
Suleri has explicitly stated that her novel covers a history as it is a function of post-colonialism: “There is a post colonial inextricability between Indian history and the characters. They can’t be separated; it is a shared condition”. The novel weds public and private histories to such a degree that the two cannot be differentiated in an absolute sense. Perhaps for this reason Suleri often is compared to Rushdie, who writes from a similar background: an Indian of her generation displaced to London. Both writers’ prose evokes the rhythm, syntax, and diction of Urdu, but Suleri says Rushdie’s writing is much more grounded in the blending of the two languages. Suleri adds that any further fiction that she may write inevitably will be about Pakistan via the West or vice versa. In any case, Suleri says her work sits “between genres,” at once neither fiction nor non-fiction. “There’s a lot of fiction in it. Some of the characters I invented, some of the incidents I invented. Minor things, when it was necessary,” she says. Lest the reader assume entire key passages were fabricated, Suleri admits she changed mostly temporal elements such as chronology. For example, she is not sure that when her mother was teaching Emma that she was involved in the theater: “I compressed time, brought it closer together” so that the scene would work.