Revisioning history: Shashi Tharoor's 'Great Indian Novel.'
Political independence for the former colonies has not translated into economic or cultural freedom. Contemporary efforts to articulate an "authentic" postcolonial voice are often mapped within the terms of past power relations. It is quite apparent, for instance, that the unequal relationship between the metropolitan centers (London, New York, and Paris) and their former colonies still exists. A glance at the abundant Euro-American critical discourse on postcolonial writing, for example, generally shows some recurring patterns. On the one hand, there is the complete absence of the postcolonial subject in the postmodern narrative. Gayatri Spivak, analyzing Gilles Deleuze's comments on a universalized workers' struggle, points out that such statements constitute a "disavowal"; they disregard "the international division of labor, a gesture that often marks poststructuralist political theory" (272). The postcolonial subject is also absent in the work of such critics as Jean-Francois Lyotard, who have been quick to point out the theoretical contradictions of the Western master narrative. However, unlike other theorists from the West and from the former colonies, Lyotard does not acknowledge the specific reasons for its diminished influence. He does not attempt to theorize the postwar anti-imperial stance of the former colonies and its effect on that narrative. The Western narrative, according to Lyotard, has been replaced only by "petits recits" or smaller local narratives.
The other, more insidious trend in contemporary theories of postcolonial literature is the assumption by Western critics that postcolonial cultural production operates fundamentally and inevitably as a form of resistance to Western cultural hegemony. Such a critical stance allows Western critics, however unwittingly, the privilege of universalizing postcolonial cultural production and excluding those that do not conform to their definitions. This act of cultural appropriation, which has been encouraged by institutional and pedagogic practices, results in the recolonization of postcolonial literatures and thereby negates their rich cultural and political diversity.
These scholarly views are undoubtedly damaging, but they are further reinforced by Western capital's control over marketing techniques which preclude the "normal" circulation of any text written originally in or translated into a European language. The postcolonial writer is therefore faced with the metropolitan center's attempts to control her discourse and regulate her production. The writer has to break out of a limiting universe with its own discursive rules in order to produce any oppositional discourse. Indeed, as Michel Foucault has shown, these discursive rules are characterized by the fixing of terms for the elaboration of concepts and theories. Only certain "speaking subjects ... may enter into discourse on a specific subject.... More exactly, not all areas of discourse are open and penetrable; some are forbidden territory while others are ... open to all" (225).
In this essay I would like to examine the efforts of a contemporary Indian writer, Shashi Tharoor, to break out of Western discursive constrictions in order to recover and rearticulate events on the sub-continent in this century. My comments on Tharoor's work are largely restricted to the condition of the middle-class Indian writer who has a specific tradition to draw upon and are not designed to be pronouncements on the efforts made by writers from the Caribbean or the African continent. It is important to recognize that literary texts emerge from a complex set of historical circumstances and "competing ideological and cultural clusters" (Armed, 23). Any claims about postcolonial texts must be negotiated through an intricate mapping of specific social and cultural conditions that accompany the production of a particular text. An analysis of the historical legacy of colonialism, however, does display a certain degree of uniformity in the postcolonial condition. A common history of economic and cultural bondage results in similar political and cultural expressions. Thus Tharoor's project may well be close to other rewritings in the postcolonial tradition and may subsequently contribute to a broader understanding of writers for whom "the rereading and rewriting of the European historical and fictional record [remains] a vital and inescapable task, [a task which is] at the heart of the post-colonial enterprise" (Ashcroft, 196).
This essay, however, will not deal only with salvaging Tharoor as a representative postcolonial writer. In the first section I will demonstrate that postcolonial writers, such as Tharoor, are themselves the victims of divided allegiances and ambivalent loyalties: their class position among largely illiterate populations, the material and discursive attractions of metropolitan centers, and the lure of recognition and publication offers from London and New York, among other factors, contribute to their unavoidable involvement in Western cultural systems. Said, Fanon, and Ashcroft, in their urgency to celebrate the recovery of the "national" or "native" voice, avoid highlighting the inevitable contradictions that must accompany any process of cultural recovery. An attempt to recover a "national" past is necessarily exclusive and can only succeed by eliminating other oppositional voices. I examine Tharoor's own, perhaps somewhat deficient, acknowledgment of the historical inconsistencies of his project. Ultimately, it is my contention that any effort to establish, define, or locate a historical past is never only a project for "re-managing and re-figuring ... local histories, geographies, and communities," but also a creative cultural act fraught with its own contradictions (Said, "Figurations," 1).
WRITING BACK TO THE EMPIRE: A DIALOGUE WITH THE PAST. In The Political Unconscious Fredric Jameson suggests an interpretive move which would effectively (re)cover the political subtext of a work and would perhaps subvert the dominant narrative:
[One must rewrite] the literary text in such a way that the latter may itself be seen as the rewriting or restructuration of a prior historical or ideological sub-text, it being always understood that "subtext" is not immediately present as such, not some common-sense external reality, nor even the conventional narratives of history manuals, but rather must itself always be (re)structured after the fact.(81)
While Jameson's comments are related to the analysis of literary texts, they also include the actual process of rewriting any prior historical or ideological text. In this context, Tharoor's work is an attempt to recover a subtext by breaking away from the dominant European narrative. Tharoor's "restructuration" of the events preceding Indian Independence and after defies the "conventional narratives of history manuals." His appropriation of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, in order to rewrite Indian history and to restore groups to their historical being is what Homi Bhabha would perhaps call "sly civility," where the "native refuses to satisfy the colonizer's narrative demand" (78).
According to Bhabha, the writer, in this instance, occupies a position which is neither openly rebellious nor apparently compliant. A portion of this "sly civility" is Tharoor's use of an alien language to give shape to past events. The language question is complicated, since theoretically Tharoor has three choices: he can write in Sanskrit, the original language of the epic; alternatively, he can write in Hindi or any other regional language; finally, he can write in English, a language of preference for writers from his class.(1) Tharoor, unlike the ancient scribes, has too many options. His ultimate linguistic choice is not merely dictated by his familiarity with English, but also situates his audience, which is composed primarily of westernized Indians and the international bourgeoisie. His decision, then, is drastically different from a writer like Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who feels that "the real language that one is looking for is the language of struggle, the language of the transformation of our various societies. And eventually this language can only be found in the actions and feeling and thoughts and experiences of the working people" (150). However, Ngugi's idealistic statement belies the fact that his choice to write in Kikuyu excludes a large number of Kenyan "working people" who speak either Luo or Maasai.
Neither Tharoor nor Ngugi, despite their ideological differences, can claim to have found the "correct" formula for liberating the so-called working people. Obviously, Tharoor's literary objectives are far less clear. Perhaps he realizes the impossibility of making a sharp and violent break with the dominant culture of the metropolitan center. Any such attempt would have to erase two hundred years of history and also deny that both the colonizer and the colonized have been permanently changed through their encounter. The alternative, however, is not simply to accept the master's language but to decolonize it, as the British dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson has so effectively done.(2) Tharoor's recourse is to "begin by co-opting the entire properties of that [alien] language as correspondences to properties in [his] matrix of thought and expression" (Soyinka, quoted in Gates, 40). His counterhegemonic strategy, then, is to adapt a compelling and popular Indian epic so that he may "negate the prior European negation of [his] culture and adopt and creative(ly) modif(y) . . . western languages and artistic forms in conjunction with indigenous languages and forms" (JanMohamed, 103). According to Mikhail Bakhtin, such a move at the linguistic level is particularly relevant and applicable to the genre of the novel.
Language upon entering the novel establishes its own special order within it, and becomes a unique artistic system, which orchestrates the intentional theme of the author. [The author] can make use of language without wholly giving himself up to it, he may treat it as semi alien or completely alien to himself while compelling language ultimately to serve all his own intentions. (299)
The prose writer, in Bakhtin's words, distances himself from the language of his work and speaks "through" language. Such a writer draws from other languages, creating a heteroglot novelistic language. Of course, according to Bakhtin, the choice here is not so much between available distinct languages, but between the specific sociolects within a "given" language.
However, despite Tharoor's creative use of the master's language, he does not and cannot reverse the course of history. He cannot create a new master narrative, a legitimizing monolithic discourse. His history has to differ from those "official, orthodox, authoritatively national and institutional versions [which] tend principally to designate provisional and highly contestable attempts to freeze these versions of history into identities for use" (Said, "Figurations," 12). Tharoor's narrator, Ved Vyas, who is also the narrator of the Mahabharata, aptly sums up his views on such nationalist versions of history: "Some of our more Manichean historians tend to depict the British villains as supremely accomplished - the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent manipulators of the destiny of India. Stuff and nonsense, of course" (116). Tharoor/Vyas's rejection of Manichean dualities also suggests that the Mahabharata cannot be used as a vehicle to look back nostalgically at a "pure" precolonial past. This would be an ahistorical move, since it would deny the last few centuries of historical involvement. The Mahabharata itself must pass through the filter of colonial experience. The text, as Ved Vyas tells Ganapati, like India, like history, is constantly changing.
History, Ganapati - indeed the world, the universe, all human life, and so, too, every institution under which we live - is in a constant state of evolution. The world and everything in it is being created and re-created even as I speak ... going through the unending process of birth and rebirth which has made us all. India has been born and reborn scores of times, and it will be reborn again. India is forever; and India is forever being made. (245)
Tharoor's (dis)claimer of nationalist histories does not, however, imply that his version is a disinterested one. The India to which Tharoor refers is seen through his eyes - narrow eyes that largely ignore the plight of the vast underclass for whom independence merely suggested a ceremonial shift in power. In a sense, Tharoor's project of writing back to the center sadly enacts the erasure of the subaltern or the underclass. Jenny Sharpe, in a perceptive analysis of figures of colonial resistance, points out the inherent contradictions of a middle-class "liberating" discourse such as Tharoor's: "To think of the relation between the discourse centering on the production of the colonial subject and what it occludes as an eclipse is to see that the subaltern classes are not situated outside the civilizing project but are caught in the path of its trajectory.... For the colonized subject who can answer the colonizers back is the product of the same vast ideological machinery that silences the subaltern" (143). Tharoor's effort to answer the colonizer is dependent upon the material and discursive tools that are provided by the colonizer. The same ideological apparatus that provides him with a voice is inevitably caught up in silencing those who are less fortunate than Tharoor.
Clearly, Tharoor's work is not "resistance literature" in the way Barbara Harlow describes it. The Great Indian Novel does not call "attention to itself as a political and politicized activity . . . [nor is it] immediately and directly involved in a struggle against ascendant or dominant forms of ideological and cultural production" (Harlow, 29). The choice of a single narrator who recounts the deeds of great men denies that the "struggling oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge" (Benjamin, 260). Tharoor's epic historical perspective is necessarily exclusive and detracts from the liberatory potential of what is otherwise a notable act of cultural recovery. His narrative is not the testimony of a whole people. The historical version he offers concerns great men and is fashioned by a grand moral and ethical design: "In my epic I shall tell of past, present and future, of existence and passing, of efflorescence and decay, of death and rebirth; of what is and of what was, of what should have been" (18). Such declarations are made in order to capture the mood of the epic, not to pose as counterhegemonic challenges.
But perhaps it is Tharoor's historical selection which makes any attempt to recover the struggles of the subaltern finally irrelevant. The banality of everyday life does not interest Tharoor or his narrator. Their India is the India of great men, of Gandhis and Nehrus. Tharoor, in his emphasis on Gandhi and Nehru, ignores one fact: "That such and such a man and precisely that man arises at a particular time in a particular country is, of course, pure chance" (Marx, 767-68). The all-pervasive figure of Gandhi/Gangaji, the so-called enigmatic individual genius, is a diversion from the collective social forces that shape any age. His omnipresence is also juxtaposed, somewhat contradictorily, against mass spontaneous revolution. In this instance Tharoor presents a falsified notion of a spontaneous movement detached from a conscious leadership. Such beliefs only perpetuate historical myths and give the "masses a 'theoretical' consciousness of being creators of historical and institutional values, of being founders of a state" (Gramsci, 198).
Tharoor's revisionist history, a history from a privileged vantage point, thus ultimately remains "traditional," for he fails to recover the history of the silenced voices, the voices which made the national struggle possible. "Traditional" historiography has been dominated by this elitism, "colonialist elitism and bourgeois-nationalist elitism. . . . Both these varieties of elitism share the prejudice that the making of the Indian nation and the development of the consciousness - nationalism - which informed this process were exclusively or predominantly elite achievements" (Guha, "On Some Aspects," 1). Such historical versions further the "great men" myth of history and erase the politics of the people. Indeed, as Partha Chatterjee has pointed out, the "unique achievement of Gandhism [was] the political appropriation of the subaltern classes by a bourgeoisie aspiring for hegemony in a new nation state" (176). The struggle for national independence, as in so many other dependent nations, saw the national bourgeoisie begin to organize itself to slip into the ranks soon to be vacated by the British. The national bourgeoisie with its incomplete version of a war of independence assured a qualified independence: a transference of power without a transference of autonomy. India remained dependent upon the West while the native ruling class used the existing state apparatus to maintain their dominance. Meanwhile, the Indian peasants and the urban workers remained disempowered by the machinations of the national bourgeoisie. These subaltern groups were "always subject to the activity of the ruling groups, even when they rebel[led]. . . . Only 'permanent' victory breaks their subordination, and that not immediately" (Gramsci, 55).
As in the Mahabharata, where we learn nothing about the slaughtered soldiers on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, so in Tharoor's India we learn very little about the underprivileged foot soldier. Tharoor the novelist/historian cannot "rescue from out the colonial history the suppressed native voice, attempting also to derive new historiographical insights not only for comprehending the past but also for discussing . . . the weaknesses in native societies" (Said, "Third World," 39). He can only make a feeble attempt at recognizing the unreliability of his historical knowledge: "There is no story and too many stories; there are no heroes and too many heroes. What is left out matters almost as much as what is said" (Tharoor, 411). But it is not enough to legitimize exclusion by claiming that the "political and governmental process in our country has always been distant from the vast mass of the people [and that] this has been sanctified by tradition and reinforced by colonialism" (370). These words diffuse the nature of the problem within a vortex of "traditions" and sustain oppression.
Ultimately, Tharoor is bound by his ideological position in modern India. As a westernized, middle-class Hindu, he is unable to get beyond the habitual preoccupations of his class. His nostalgia for the past, a past when India was the "land of Rama, . . . the land where truth and honour and valour and dharma were worshipper as the cardinal principles of existence" (411), is juxtaposed against his distaste for postindependence failures. Tharoor's longing for a return to past glories, however, is based on a created, static notion of "tradition."
In the following section I would like to demonstrate that Tharoor's romantic, monolithic "land of Rama" is a contradiction to his otherwise skeptical approach to the past and his acknowledgments about the impossibility of recovering that past. I also intend to point out that in his skepticism, Tharoor does depart from "traditional" historiography. He generally has an "ironic" (Hayden White's term) distance from the past and displays elements of both "documentary objectivism" and "relativist subjectivism" (Dominique LaCapra's terms).
THAROOR'S MAHA/GREAT BHARATA/INDIA. In a recent interview Tharoor quite clearly states his reasons for using the Mahabharata to fore/background events in modern India:
[The Mahabharata] struck me as a work of such contemporary resonance, it helped crystallize my own inchoate ideas about issues. I wanted a vehicle to transmit some of my political and historical interests in the evolution of modern India. I saw the recasting of the Mahabharata as a perfect vehicle for the two Indias. ("Interview," 18)
Tharoor's choice is a significant one, because the Mahabharata has been and remains embedded in the Hindu national consciousness as the great epic. Even in the West, viewers have been exposed to its depth and scope through versions such as Peter Brook's theatrical production and his six-hour film. However, a text as complex and as "foreign" as the Mahabharata can only be given limited exposure in the West; Brook's film, for example, was shown in the United States only in so-called art houses and on viewer-supported television. It is exactly the reverse in India. The world of the Mahabharata is "the national heroic past: it is the world of 'beginnings' and 'peak times' in the national history, a world of fathers and of founders of families, a world of 'firsts' and 'bests'" (Bakhtin, 13). Bakhtin's characterization of the epic is undoubtedly true of the Mahabharata, but his somewhat imperious dismissal of the epic form is in complete contradiction to the fluidity of the great Indian epic. According to Bakhtin, the epic is marked by its "closedness" and "conclusiveness": "Because it is walled off from all subsequent times, the epic past is absolute and complete. It is as closed as a circle; inside it everything is finished, already over. There is no place in the epic world for any openendedness, indecision, indeterminacy. . . . It suffices unto itself, neither supposing any continuation nor requiting it" (16). Bakhtin's generalizations about the epic form, of course, should be understood within the context of his discussion of the novel. He valorizes the latter form, since he claims that it is "determined by experience, knowledge, and practice (the future)" (15). The novel also, because of its polyglossia, is open and continuous; the epic, on the other hand, has "absolute conclusiveness and closedness" (16).
The Mahabharata, however, has not existed merely as a "closed" text. It has undergone numerous forms of revisions; its "meanings" have been constantly reinterpreted and revised. Its primary battle, the battle of Kurukshetra, is marked by its inconclusiveness. Throughout generations the epic has been translated and transformed in different versions. Part of the "inconclusiveness" of the Mahabharata is thus celebrated through its numerous translations and transcreations in various regional languages. One of the more recent "transformations" of the epic has been a highly successful presentation for a mass television audience. The obscurities of the epic have been rewritten within the framework of a popular narrative mode, and the result has enthralled television audiences in India. Anil Chopra's Mahabharata, made for Doordarshan India, uses narrative styles from popular cinema to convert a complicated tale into a spicy treat for viewers. However, it is not the mere trappings of a Bombay melodrama which captivate the viewer: the characters in the Mahabharata exist as symbols of virtue; the concept of "dharma" informs the text and is an important part of Hindu religious/philosophical doctrine; filmmakers and playwrights often use characters and events from the epic (Shyam Benegal's Kalyug is a good example of this tradition); and perhaps more important for Tharoor, "There's hardly a political controversy where there isn't somebody making some allusion to characters of the Mahabharata and describing a politician as Karna, or as Duryodhana" ("Interview," 25).
Tharoor's fascinating combination of history, mythology, and politics thus remains close to an indigenous living tradition; but perhaps it is Tharoor's anecdotal recounting of events in all their farcical and tragic tones that separates the novel from other historical accounts. His narrative methodology is that of the carnivalesque historians, and he uses Bakhtinian festive laughter to disrupt and displace colonial hierarchies; neither the English nor the Indians are spared as objects of ridicule. Like the traditional Indian clown-narrator (the "Viduksha"), Tharoor can take all kinds of narrative liberties as long as he adheres to the core of his tale.
But perhaps the most significant manner in which Tharoor parts company with traditional histories of India is his recognition of the difficulty of translating past events into an "objective" narrative. Vyas/Tharoor confesses that perhaps the "true" history of India can never be suitably recovered; all one has are biases and distortions.
Every tale I have told you, every perception I have conveyed, there are a hundred equally valid alternatives I have omitted and of which you are unaware. . . . This is my story of the India I know, with its biases, selections, omissions, distortions, all mine. . . . Every Indian must for ever carry with him, in his own head and heart, his own history of India. (373)
Here Tharoor almost completely echoes the words of Hayden White:
There is no such thing as a single correct view of any object under study but . . . many correct views, each requiting its own style of representation. . . . The historian operating under such a conception could thus be one who, like the modern artist and scientist, seeks to exploit a certain perspective on the world that does not pretend to exhaust description or analysis. (Tropics of Discourse, 46-47)
Any attempt to describe historical events always includes ordering and arranging certain narrative strategies, which then aid in fulfilling the historian's intentions. White suggests an apparent alternative to this manipulative strategy and argues that an "ironic" view of history enables historians to take a skeptical view of the past, since they have distance. Such "irony presupposes the occupation of a 'realistic' perspective on reality [i.e., the historian's], from which a non-figurative representation of the past might be provided" (Metahistory, 38). Ironic distance provides perspective and avoids romanticizing. It is quite clear, however, that "irony" also gives the historian a certain sense of superiority over his so-called naive counterparts. And in Tharoor's case, as we have seen, "irony" does not preclude romantic essentializing. The "ironic" narrative strategy can even consolidate such essentializing by ignoring contesting "historical" voices which accompany any form of "presupposition."
In many ways, Tharoor the novelist/historian is performing what is primarily a creative act. He reinterprets and re-presents "popular" stories about the past and, like a historian, gives shape to the unknown. Hayden White makes a similar point in his essay "The Historical Text as Literary Artifact."
History - the real world as it evolves in time - is made sense of in the same way that the poet or novelist tries to make sense of it, i.e., by endowing what originally appears to be problematical and mysterious with the aspect of a recognizable, because it is a familiar, form. It does not matter whether the world is conceived to be real or only imagined; the manner of making sense of it remains the same. (Tropics of Discourse, 98)
This process of making familiar is a creative way of reinterpreting selected moments of the past and ordering history.(3) Tharoor's narrator, Ved Vyas, is also conscious about such artificial methods of recounting history - a history which is always imposed and ordered: "We tend, Ganapati, to look back on history as if it were a stage play, with scene building upon scene, our hero moving from one action to the next in his remorseless stride to the climax. Yet life is never like that . . . and so the recounting of history is only the order we artificially impose upon life to permit its lessons to be more clearly understood" (101).
The tendency to "order" events or produce meanings is what LaCapra has referred to as "relativistic subjectivism." According to LaCapra, the relativist historian "places himself or herself in the position of 'transcendental signifier' that 'produces' or 'makes' the meanings of the past" (138). The objectivist, on the other hand, "places the past in the 'logocentric' position of . . . 'transcendental signified.' It is simply there in its sheer reality, and the task of the historian is to use sources as documents to reconstruct past reality as objectively as he or she can" (137). Clearly, both positions are equally prone to a "misreading" of past events. Any effort to recover the past is mediated by the ideological position of the historian. Tharoor himself alternates between the subjectivist and the objectivist roles. He attempts to order the random events in history by contextualizing them through the language of an epic tradition, but ultimately even he recognizes the impossibility of organizing the past. He then claims to report only "facts." His narrator takes care to emphasize, "Facts, that is all I intend to record, facts and names. This is history" (86), but then concedes that these supposed facts are equally unreliable.
As Tharoor and Vyas order history, so too do they fashion the characters and events from the Mahabharata. It is not important for Tharoor to have an "authentic" rendering of the epic. Tharoor's characters do not so much reflect or imitate the "real" figures; they act as symbolic personalities and present the reader with associative images, which then must be decoded through apparently shared cultural experiences. It therefore becomes unnecessary to question Tharoor's choice of characters or to decide whether Subhas Chandra Bose's role in the Indian national movement is as important as Pandu's role in the epic, or if the absence of Abhimanyu (Arjuna's son) is significant. As Vyas puts it, the point of the story is in the telling: "I did not begin the story in order to end it; the essence of the tale is in the telling. . . . There is no end to the story of life. There are merely pauses" (162-63).
Clearly, for Tharoor, "faithfulness to [the] idea" is far more important than "faithfulness to the novelistic depiction of characters" ("Interview," 19), and a significant part of Tharoor's "faithfulness to the idea" is to show the idealism and the hope of the years preceding independence. Bhisma/Ganga Dutta/Gandhi dominates the narrative, but his deeds, in postcolonial India, have been reduced to the realm of textual experience.
It is in the history books now, and today's equivalent of the snot-nosed brats of Motihari have to study it for their examinations on the nationalist movement. But what can the dull black-on-white of their textbooks tell them of the heady excitement of those days? (50)
Tharoor, as a student in postcolonial India, has also been presented with textual versions of the independence struggle and its moments of heady idealism. For many writers of his generation, therefore, the failure of independence becomes the greatest tragedy of modern India. India, like the majority of colonized nations, overestimated the emancipatory potential of independence. The misplaced priorities of its leaders created a state which "was well on the way to becoming the seventh largest industrial power in the world, whatever that may mean, while 80% of her people continued to lack electricity and clean drinking water" (Tharoor, 293). The "blind" Dhritarashtra/Nehru led the country toward a form of "progress" but was incapable of providing housing, food, or employment for the vast majority of his people.
The greatest postindependence betrayal, however, comes when Dhritarashtra/Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi/Priya Duryadhoni, declares a state of emergency. The subsequent struggle for democracy then becomes, for Tharoor, the battle of Kurukshetra or the great Bharata war. Tharoor's choice for the modern analogy to the ancient war is a revealing one. The 1977 parliamentary elections which saw the defeat of the authoritarian Indira Gandhi were undoubtedly a triumphant moment for Indian democracy, but as Tharoor knows, the electoral victory achieved very little. Within three years the opposition to Gandhi had collapsed and she was returned to her previous position. Certainly, in terms of human suffering, the partition of the sub-continent remains the most tragic event in modern Indian history, and the scars of that separation still remain on both sides of the divide. Thus, Tharoor's choice for the great contemporary battle is problematic; however, Tharoor/Vyas does concede that the 1977 election following the emergency is not meant to be the single most important event in recent times.
Life is Kurukshetra. History is Kurukshetra. The struggle between Dharma and adharma is a struggle our nation, and each one in it, engages in on every single day of our existence. That struggle, that baffle, took place before this election; it will continue after it. (391)
Indeed, as anyone who is familiar with the current political violence in India knows, "battles" have become part of our daily existence. The various religio-ethnic schisms have made the turmoils of the emergency recede in the national imagination. Tharoor, however, is surprisingly cavalier about these struggles. Perhaps a failure to revive a "politics of the people" makes Tharoor blind to other political factors in his homogenized Maha/Great Bharata/India. On 4 April 1990 some 300,000 Hindus affiliated to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a militant Hindu organization, gathered on the lawns of the Delhi Boat Club to pledge their electoral support to the Bharatiya Janata Party.(4) Such a spectacle can only be terrifying to the Muslims and other minorities in India. And the recent gains of that same party in the parliamentary elections of 1991 aggravated the already existing tensions between the majority Hindus and other minority communities.(5) Thus, to say "I have been on the whole a good hindu in my story" (412) or to regret "how far we have travelled from the glory and splendour of our adventurous mythological heroes" (411) has a somewhat frightening resonance in contemporary Indian politics. Also, given the various regional crises in India, with secessionist movements breaking out in Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, and Punjab, it is simply naive to claim that "the regionalists and autonomists and separatists and secessionists . . . are of no consequence in the story of India" (412).(6) Can the lessons of the Mahabharata give shape to the chaos that is modern India? Is it enough to slip into a mindless idealism where the only goal is a hopelessly intangible one? "Let each man live by his own code of conduct, so long as he has one. Derive your standards from the world around you and not from a heritage whose relevance must be constantly tested" (418).
Notwithstanding these serious inconsistencies, The Great Indian Novel is still a notable example of a postcolonial writer's attempting to break free of the restraints of a metropolitan culture. Through his innovative use of the English language and in his effort to recover an indigenous epic "tradition," Tharoor effectively recovers a version of India for a portion of its people. His revisioned History provides a "site of intersection" (Said, "Narrative," 83) where the postcolonial writer can refigure dominant European narratives. It must be remembered that traditional European historiography, both before and after independence, consisted of "colonialist knowledge . . . its function was to erect that past as a pedestal on which the triumphs and glories of the colonizers and their instrument, the colonial state, could be displayed to best advantage" (Guha, "Dominance," 211).
In the light of these years of imposed colonialist "knowledge," Tharoor's work, despite all its contradictions and failures, creates a postcolonial space which celebrates the possibilities of revisioning colonialist knowledge. The battle between the center's imposition of discursive restrictions on the postcolonial writer and the writer's creative efforts to break free from this imposition will continue. And writers such as Shashi Tharoor will be caught between the contradictions of their class position and their efforts to "redraw" frontiers and rewrite histories. They are trapped in an inevitable predicament: even as they attempt to challenge the hegemonic entailments of metropolitan culture, they simultaneously renew their cultural contract with the metropolis. However, despite their inevitable complicity in past and contemporary systems of colonialist knowledge, writers like Tharoor succeed insofar as they provide a corrective for the epistemic violence of the European colonizers. Perhaps Chinua Achebe's thoughts on the "novelist as teacher" sum up what Tharoor at best can hope to achieve from his work: "I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past - with all its imperfections - was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them" (45).
University of St. Thomas (Mn.)
1 Sanskrit, of course, is not a realistic choice for Tharoor. For writers such as he, who have been educated in westernized institutions, Sanskrit remains largely an alien language. As far as Tharoor is concerned, the English language remains the most practical, though necessarily limiting, option.
2 Linton Kwesi Johnson's distinctive style is best seen in his many albums and in such poetry collections as Inglan Is a Bitch.
3 Tony Bennett makes a similar point in Outside Literature: "The past, in so far as the historian is concerned with it, is never the past as such - not everything that may be said of it - but only the past as a product of the specific protocols of investigation which characterize the discipline of history in its concern to establish, classify and order the relations between events pertinent to the inquiry in hand" (56).
4 The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has attained national recognition since the 1991 elections. Smaller militant Hindu organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Jana Sangh, and the Shiv Sena have aligned themselves to the BJP in order to attain some degree of political clout. The BJP now walks the fine line between being a mainstream party and appeasing these smaller militant groups.
5 Since I wrote this essay, events in India have taken a turn for the worse. The destruction of the Ayodha mosque by Hindu militants and the consequent riots across the country have forever shattered the confidence of millions of India's citizens, both Hindu and Muslim.
6 Tharoor's response to the 1992 riots is characteristic of his faith in a democratic, secular India: "The raging battle is for India's soul. For my sons, the only possible idea of India is the one their parents grew up with, that of a nation greater than a sum of its parts. That is the only India that will allow them to continue to call themselves Indians" (A21).
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KANISHKA CHOWDHURY is Assistant Professor of English at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he teaches multicultural literature and postcolonial literature and theory. He has published articles in such journals as College Literature, Mediations, and Modern Fiction Studies. Currently he is engaged in research on postcolonial popular culture.
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|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1995|
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