Ruskin Bond's "Whispering in the Dark": a fantastic quest for identity.
Ruskin Bond, who is popularly known as a children's writer, was born in a Himalayan hill station called Kasauli on 19 May 1934 of such Anglo-Indian lineage. (1) An exponent of the literary genre of semi-autobiographical fantasy, Bond recasts his experiences of living through the anxieties and pleasures of cultural hybridity in India during the Nationalist Freedom movement and afterwards. Most of his novellas and short stories hide a fervent quest for identity, the concerns of which are historically and culturally inflected. The appeal of the Indian atmosphere, especially that of the cultural and ecological space of small towns, was so fervent that Bond felt the conditions of staying in England from 1951 to 1955 quite alienating. This brief sojourn, however, was fruitful in that the nostalgic memory of his Indian life triggered his first novella, a Bildungsroman, entitled The Room on the Roof. The title fetched its seventeen-year-old author the prestigious John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. Back in India, Bond continued to submit freelance stories and essays to English-language papers and journals published from India. In 1980 the Indian division of Penguin Publishers responded to the increasing demand of Bond stories by bringing out organized and authentic versions of this widely published author. (2)
The psychological anxiety that engendered the Anglo-Indian mind due to the sociopolitical consequences of hybridity is little represented in contemporary fiction. Those who do represent Anglo-Indians, such as John Masters and Manohar Malgonkar, tend to push their characters into a binary choice, an either/or situation in which the subject has to identify either with the Anglo side of the divide or with the Indian side. Only in Bond can we identify the anxiety of a double bind, the problematics of a liminal situation of psychological belonging to both sides simultaneously. (3) Bond combines this theme with other formal and thematic concerns. The ecological aspect in his works is similar to that of the Indian English writer R. K. Narayan, while his expertise in fantasy, especially the supernatural subgenre, reminds one of Rudyard Kipling and Lafcadio Hearn. (4) In the 1989 introduction to the Penguin India publication of "Time Stops at Shamli" and Other Stories, Bond cites Hearn to complement his own idea of the supernatural: "The ghostly always represents some shadow of truth. The ghost story has always happened in our dreams and reminds us of forgotten experiences, imaginative and emotional" (10). The ghost story in the dream is a sort of postcolonial analysis of the psyche deluded by the misjudged idea of the purity of the self. What Bond means by "some shadow of truth" is actually a dynamic psychological interplay of different states of the mind. The genre of supernatural fantasy is one medium through which he relives this truth in his search for identity. Bond's stories are informed by the author's psychological experiences of negotiating with the repressed trauma of hybridity.
To Bond, the supernatural is the paranormal extension of consciousness. In "The Past Unearthed," I show how Bond, like Kipling, "uses the supernatural [device] to a metacritical end" (64), and how he subverts claims of the colonizer's rational critique of a "savage" space from the perspective of a personal dilemma he suffered in the Anglo-Indian context. Kipling was born in India and grew up largely an Indian child, but he wasn't Indian; nor could he call himself--such was his integrity--English. Yet he belonged to the British Empire. Although Kipling is looked upon as a colonialist, a close analysis of his Indian tales, like the supernatural fantasy "The Phantom Rickshaw," reveals the author's critical realization of the absurdities and ill effects of the colonial enterprise. In Kipling's story, Jack Pansay, who works for the British colonial machinery in India, undergoes treatment in Dr. Heatherlegh's hospital in Shimla for what the English medic diagnoses as damage of body and mind caused by the stress of the tropical weather and the colonial system of overwork. "Overwork started his illness, kept it alight, and killed him, poor devil. Write him off to the System that uses one man to do the work of two and a half men" (127). Pansay succumbs to this stress. However, before death he writes his own account of the illness in 1885. A British woman Agnes Wessington takes Pansay's flirtation with her seriously and dies of an accident pursuing him on a rickshaw, unable to accept what she considers a rebuff from the man who is actually engaged to another lady Kitty Mannering. Thereafter Agnes, her rickshaw (palanquin), and the jhampanies (palanquin bearers) together form a spooky Gestalt and continues to haunt Pansay in eerie visitations. Pansay suffers from dementia and, in spite of Heatherlegh's treatment, dies in Shimla. The revenge that Kipling hinted the hot and humid Indian atmosphere wreaked on the Empire is a counteraction or a counter-castration, so to speak. Any colonized space in the form of the Other has the potency to overwhelm the colonizing self, a symptom that I would call reflexive postcoloniality. Francis Hutchins has described the late nineteenth-century attempt by British imperial discourse to represent English rule over India as natural or "orientalized rule" (69). If British rule is natural, anything like the supernatural, which contravenes or transcends nature, consequently calls into question the power and permanence of that rule. In this way the supernatural stands as a surrogate Other, a form of allegorical subversion. The counteraction then might legitimately be represented as supernatural. In "The Phantom Rickshaw," Dr. Heatherlegh ascribes Jack Pansay's madness to the consequences of overwork that the Raj imposed on the Britons in India. This being an unfavorable critique of the Empire from within at a time when native revolts against domination threatened imperial designs, Pansay tries to make a mystique of his insanity by tracing the cause of it to the visitations of the phantom rickshaw and its deathly pale rider. Kipling employs the supernatural as a trope for the subversive device in a metacritical way. The metaphor acquires the central position. Political imperative mystifies Pansay's suffering and foists on him a position that he has no choice but to accept. But in the spinning of an outlandish yarn can be deciphered "a coding of the breakdown of that rationalism on which imperial power is based" (Morey 15).
Bond's impression of Kipling's story and its Shimla setting goes back to the most sensitive and nostalgic time of his childhood. At Bishop Cotton School in Shimla, Bond's life was punctuated by the short and delightful meetings with his father. During one such meeting, as they walked around Jakko Hill, the tale's main setting, Bond's father told him Kipling's story. Immediately after this meeting, Bond suffered the saddest loss in his life at age ten. He was in school waiting for his father to accompany him during the ensuing vacation, when the news of his father's death reached him. This agonizing childhood memory, associated with the episodes and images of the period, determined much of his later thought. Particularly significant was "The Phantom Rickshaw," the memory of which is undeniably associated with his father's death. To his mind, Aubrey (Bond's father) suffered in the same way as Jack Pansay in Kipling's story: both of them put to death by the colonial system and by the vengeful ire it sowed in the colonized atmosphere but kept insufferably veiled due to political reasons.
A perception of the same contextual paradox is also relevant to a reading of Bond's supernatural tale "Whispering in the Dark," the subject of our present analysis. Bond's attitude to the Anglo-Indian community was motivated by his resentment at the duplicity practiced by Anglo-Indians in an attempted refutation of their Indian link. A desperate wish to demonstrate a purity of belonging to the mythical construct of a superior race engendered the psychic patterns of many Anglo-Indians during decolonization. Frank Anthony points out that the British offered indirect support to this tendency by exploiting the psychologically volatile racial sensibility of the Anglo-Indians. White Anglo-Indians--even if they had mixed blood in them--and those of color often received differential treatments: the former were inducted into respectable posts in the government reserved for pure Europeans while the latter were deprived of such privileges (Anthony 5). In order to clarify the anomalous position of the Anglo-Indians, Sir Henry Gidney, who headed the All India Anglo-Indian Association led a deputation to Lord Birkenhead, Secretary of State for India, in London in 1925. One of the members of the deputation explained: "If you have two brothers employed on the railway, sometimes the fair one will be employed as a European and the darker one as a Statutory Native of India, and the latter will not get the same privileges as the former" (Blunt 43-44). Color acted as a decisive index for secret discriminations that British snobbery of racial purity discreetly employed. Bond's critical attitude to such chicanery lends a postcolonial dimension to his identity-seeking concerns. In "Whispering in the Dark" (a summary of which is provided below), the blonde girl in the mirror is a seductive object who symbolizes the snobbish and convenient temptation of embodying the purity myth. But her second appearance with the phallic pillow that inflicts a throttling sensation on the subject poses a castration threat and thereby exposes the fatalistic content of the myth.
Bond's sympathetic notion of the Anglo-Indian is inclusive enough to project his sensibilities into the white boy Rusty in The Room on the Roof. Rusty's British guardian John Harrison grudgingly guards Rusty against the influences of Indianization. When Rusty comes to know that he is half-caste, he finds psychological support for his prevalent inclination towards Indian life and culture. Harrison's indignant tirade against the boy, calling him a half-caste "mongrel" (571) in desperate rage over his own failure to circumscribe the boy's identity in a "superior" racial bracket, is a self-reflexive critique of the British practice and the Anglo-Indian myth.
Throughout his literary life, Bond followed a psychological course of dialogic relationship between his British and Indian inheritances whether of mixed or allegedly of unmixed blood. When in 2008 the All India Anglo-Indian Association--the Indian chapter of the consortium for racially mixed people--sought the author's permission to enter his name in the catalogue of distinguished people of the community, he readily consented. An autobiographical writer who depended upon the memory of his past life for grist, Bond's subjectivity was constantly informed by an unconscious play of dynamic alterity. It is the same anxiety that propelled him to write: "Race did not make me an Indian. Religion did not make me an Indian. But history did. And in the long run, it's history that counts" (Delhi 42). This tongue-in-cheek comment issues from a desire to circumvent the controversies of racial and religious politics by foregrounding the importance of time and space in the formation of identity. The memories of socio-political discrimination that he suffered in India for being an Anglo-Indian underwrite his repressed concerns. He wishes to allay his anxieties by trying to signify defiance of the functional agencies of those parameters which become ironically active the more he attempts a symptomatic mastery of their inductive energies.
In a similar vein, Patrick Taylor, the Anglo-Indian railwayman in John Masters's Bhowani Junction, says: "[W]e couldn't go Home. We couldn't become English because we were half Indian. We couldn't become Indian, because we were half English. We could only stay where we were and be what we were" (27-28). Taylor's frustration stems from socio-economic insecurity and cultural liminality. In order to placate such discontent among the Anglo-Indians, another idea of "Home" was envisioned by the Colonization Society of India. Whitefield, in suburban Bangalore, and McCluskieganj in Bihar (now in Jharkhand) came into existence as an Anglo-Indian ghetto. Settlement in these places "was promoted in terms of a nostalgic desire for home that was rooted in both Britain and India and sought to liberate Anglo-Indians both from British patronage and from Indianization" (Blunt 82).
Creation of such havens to satisfy Anglo-Indian desire for home was looked upon as colonization, because many residents of these colonies "imagined themselves as part of a European--and often a British--community living within a wider imperial diaspora" (Blunt 105). Bond did not wish to belong to these diasporas; his sense of being Indian is projected in Rusty's violent breach with his guardian's communal designs and is demonstrated in his own life by his adopting a burgeoning Garhwali family and making a living independent of the socio-economic privileges of ghettoized existence. For Rusty, "Home" is India. Bond replaces Taylor's stoic apathy with a sense of willful participation. The unconscious, which is shaped by the impressions of the experiences of negotiation between double inheritances, exerts a problematic influence on a nostalgic writer like Bond. The first subject in "Whispering" plays out a symptomatic journey to that Anglo-Indian world order, demonstrating a critical commitment to the community to which a part of the author's hyphenated self owes allegiance. He enacts the drive, lives it through in the "old-world house," in the "mustiness of a long-closed room" (337) in the company of the weird representatives of that world, and finally in the present conditions of his "Home." The socio-cultural anxiety of the Anglo-Indian community in India combines with the author's colonial trauma in a narrative of symptomatic fantasy. In her summary of Tzvetan Todorov's division of the different kinds of fantasy, Rosemary Jackson looks upon the generic form of the fantasy as lying between the mimetic and the marvelous (35). Unlike a "Pure Marvellous" story, whose narrated events fail to engage "reader participation" (33), it is possible for the reader of the fantastic to structure the experiential content invested in the formation of subjectivity in this genre. Brian Attebery's suggestion for reading the primacy of the "immediate experience over the abstract" (32) in a work of fantasy broadens the horizons of Jackson's prescription by referring to the imperative of perceiving the emotional commitment to the subject's community.
A careful consideration of the structure of the story "Whispering" will show how the temporally embedded intertexts lead thematically to the biographical, psychological, and sociological contexts of Anglo-Indian subjectivity. A fantastic story of uncanny nature, it was conceived and written in the early 1970s when Bond was suffering from loneliness and melancholy. It is a curious example of how fantasy can be employed in a self-reflexive manner in demonstrating the play of desires and their defenses in the formation of a liminal identity. The plurality of the textualized subject like polyvalent intertexts creates a metafictional parody of the historiographic self by both enshrining the past and questioning it simultaneously.
The first person narrator of "Whispering" has lost his way in the thick mist that shrouded the hill he is walking on a "wild night" (337). A frenzied desire for a companion amidst physical and emotional loneliness is supplied by the nature around him. He is trying to recall the mountain path when a flash of lightning provides him with a glimpse of a barren hillside and a limestone house "cradled in mist" (337). "It was an old-world house [...] on the outskirts of a crumbling hill station" (337). He gets into the house and finds signs of care and tending all around, unusual for a long-closed house. The room is neatly furnished with antique furniture, vases on the mantelpiece, and portraits, painted in oil and watercolors, hanging on the wall. He imagines somebody there, for that would be natural for a house maintained so well. But no one answers his call. In the bedroom, he finds himself confronted by his own image in a full-length mirror. He thinks he also sees the reflection of a pale oval face with burning eyes and golden tresses in it. Taking off his soggy clothes, he feels as though prurient gazes ogled at his nakedness. Sliding under the bedclothes of a neatly made four-poster bed, he discovers there is no pillow. Whispering begins in the darkness with one voice sometimes being cut off:
"Mine, mine, he is all mine..."
"He is ours, dear, ours."
"You're late for supper..."
"He lost his way in the mist."
"Do you think he has any money?"
"To kill a turtle you must first tie its legs to two posts."
"We could tie him to the bed and pour boiling water down his throat."
"No, it's simpler this way." (339)
As he sits up and lights the candle, the whispering stops. He sees himself in the mirror again, but this time his image is superimposed on that of a girl with golden hair and shining eyes holding a pillow in her hands. As a young boy, he heard of a popular myth of two spinster sisters who lured rich men to their boarding house and smothered them to death at night. He tries to allay his fears thinking that it is the memory of this story that appears to him as a dream now. But hardly has he gone back to sleep when he feels a suffocating embrace and a phantom kiss on his face. His hands move reflexively to clutch at the thing on top of him, but it is only a pillow that has somehow fallen over him. Frightened to stay in the "tortured house" (340) any longer, he relights the candle and moves into the front room to discover that one of the portraits on the wall, unnoticed before, is that of the girl who appeared with him in the mirror and kissed him in his sleep. He opens the door to encounter a wizened old hag, who sweeps past him into the house. He takes to his heels. Outside, the real world of rain and leeches on the mountain paths is preferable to the torments inside the house. He feels relieved to have escaped the fearful company of the dead.
In this story, the author fantasizes the past in a self-reflexive manner. He constantly demands that the readers suspend disbelief in the eerie conjurations, yet at the same time provides logical clues to rationalize what was happening. Like a self-conscious interpretation of the imagoes ("eerie conjurations") at the Symbolic level, the effect is that of a conscious rewriting of subjective desire. Fredric Jameson explains how in literary works opposition between individual psychology and social norms is mediated by a generic structure capable of functioning both on the level of individual gratification and on that of social structuration: "Repression of the private or individual relevance of the fantasy, or in other words, its universalization, on the one hand; and the substitution of a formal play for the immediate gratification of wish-fulfilling content on the other--these two 'methods' as Freud calls them correspond to a dual interpretive system that runs through all of his reading of texts" (341). Categories of individual experiences fall between the subject's "actual" relationship with his or her historical situation and its projection in a "psychobiographical form" (344). The level of the generic form--here fantasy--in its cultural and social transference passes through individual case histories. Jane Gallop refers to Jameson in her attempt to explain how the Symbolic register in the Lacanian schema is reached through the Imaginary: "The symbolic can be reached only by not trying to avoid the imaginary, by knowingly being in the imaginary" (60). In Lacanian epistemology, according to Jameson, acts of consciousness "imply a structural coordination between the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real" (349). Extreme psychic conditions in which either the Symbolic loses its reference value or an overemphasis of the Symbolic at the expense of the Imaginary are considered pathological by Jameson. The symbol is an imaginary figure in which man's truth is alienated. "The intellectual elaboration of the symbol cannot disalienate it. Only the analysis of its imaginary elements, taken individually, reveals the meaning and the desire that the subject had hidden within it" (Rifflet-Lemaire 138). Conjuration of the "old-world house" in Bond's story works on the Symbolic level. But inherent in the signifiers "limestone rock" (337) and "old-world" can be read imagoes which stem from the author's actual experiences of living in Mussoorie in the "old" days when a limestone hill existed with Anglo-Indian houses upon it. The nostalgic memory of the subject's experience becomes the Imaginary which in the generic form of the narrative is transferred into the Symbolic of the "house" enveloped in "mist." The Real itself being absent works virtually through the "structural coordination" of the Imaginary and the Symbolic. The historical self lives its wish-fulfilling desire through a "psychobiographical form."
The Symbolic register is not entirely external to the self; the subject's manipulation of it is a conscious attempt to veil the imaginary elements inherent in it. Gallop rightly calls the subject's formal act of symbolic structuration (the generic form of the fantasy, for example) a condition of "knowingly being in the imaginary" (60; emphasis in original). It is like falling prey to illusions only to achieve mastery of illusions. The symbolic structure of the fantasy works self-reflexively ("knowingly") in providing the subject a critique of or defense against the imagoes of which its imaginary is made up. Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis define "imago" as an unconscious image "which preferentially orients the way in which the subject apprehends other people" (196). Psychoanalysis is an attempt to understand the effect the subject's imagoes have on the subject's attitude to his social, cultural, and historical relationships. The formative effect of imagoes in recognizing subjectivity is similar to what George Lakoff and Mark Johnson call metaphors, which shape an individual's conceptual system and govern his/her belief and behavior, his/her perception of the world, and the motivations behind his/her actions (25-26). In fact, the metaphoric system of Lakoff and Johnson speaks of a collective formulation. The individual as a part of the collective becomes steeped in the metaphor. Bond's nostalgia for the Anglo-Indian past, for example, constitutes that part of the subject's imagoes which share the group experience and orientates the subject's attitude to the community.
In the process of transference, the Symbolic register in Lacan and the metaphors in Lakoff and Johnson help readers to recognize the psychobiographical experiences that shape the fictional world of the subject in fantasy narratives. Also at stake in transference is the self-reflexive character of the symbol in the generic form. (5) The self-reflexive nature of the Symbolic register does not entail rejection of the imagoes but confirms understanding of the imagoes as structuring projections, which for the sake of convenience I would call defense against or mastery of the imagoes. A "knowing" acknowledgment of the (de)/ formative imagoes at the Symbolic level influences concerns of identity in the subject. Psychoanalytic treatment of fantasy, therefore, does not deviate from Stephen R. Donaldson's contemporary view of the genre as "an inner journey through a psychic landscape" (qtd. in Mains 229) and Ursula K. Le Guin's notion of fantasy as a metaphoric quest for identity or a journey "toward true community, and self-knowledge, and creativity" (65). In Bond's story, the subject's journey to the interior of the "old-world house" is a metaphor for the subject's desire to relive his past. The return journey therefore metaphorizes the dismantling of the past. In the metaphoric construction and deconstruction of the Imaginary through the Symbolic, the subject confirms the return of the repressed imagoes in an attempt to understand and master them. Here I will analyze the mastering process.
When Jacques Lacan posits psychoanalytic interpretation in the domain of language, he appears to identify with the Barthesian notion of the text as a decentered conglomeration of intertexts devoid of any specific "hypostases" (Barthes 54). (6) Granted, Lacan subscribes to the notion of intertexts, but as regards the impossibility of any thematic content in psychoanalytic reading, Lacan is indecisive. According to Lacan, the "temporal dialectic" in the Mirror Stage "projects the formation of the individual into history" (97). The reader's structuration of meaning through intertexts certainly has a historical basis inasmuch as the texts in intertextual relationship do privilege disciplinarian specificities before transcending them. For example, a psychoanalytic domain might focus on the "unconscious" just as a philosophical domain might focus on "logic" or "truth" before the unconscious fusion of disciplines gives birth to what Barthes suggests is a dynamic of intertexts or "multiple writings" (54). The textual subject is recognized as located at the crossroads of such temporally inflected intertexts. Attempts to understand the formative symptoms of the subject inside the Symbolic stage in a fantastic text bring to conscious recognition the imagoes of the Mirror Stage that have developed historically in the subject. The structuration of "Whispering in the Dark" can be read as a metaphor of the multiple temporal positionalities of the subject taken up by virtue of his location at the crossroads. For interpretive convenience, the dynamic will be treated as intersubjective dialogue. The gap between the past and present is simultaneously bridged and broadened in an intersubjective and intertextual play of references.
In "Whispering," we see the narrator in his relation with the signifier of the phantom house and its content shifting among several subjective locations: a subject outside his dream, the dreamer; the transitory subject inside the dream house but conscious of being an outsider; and the reflected subject in the mirror. Outside the dream, the subject has suffered from loneliness of heart and flesh, a state of melancholia in which the diminutive ego connects instincts with desirous objects of a presently desolate Anglo-Indian past. In the squally weather and enveloping mist, the narrator has "groped" in his mind "for the memory of a mountain path, some remembered rock or ancient deodar" (338). The absence of any becomes clear in a flash of blue lightning. Instead, a limestone house covered in mist stands upon the barren hillside.
Just across from Bond's present dwelling--the Ivy Cottage--in Landour, Mussoorie, stands a lonely limestone hill, denuded of its flora and burnt by lightning. In his history of Anglo-Indian Mussoorie--Mussoorie and Landour: Days of Wine and Roses--Bond refers to this hill as "Pari Tibba" (Hill of Fairies) (16), which some seventy or eighty years ago was well forested with deodars and pines. Anglo-Indian families lived in beautiful cottages on it. One of them was inhabited by two spinster sisters--femmes fatales of a sort, who seduced rich men to their pleasurable doom. Indiscriminate felling of trees denuded the hill of its thick undergrowth and exposed its limestone rocks which attracted electricity during lightning. The population started moving away, and with Independence and large-scale exodus of Anglo-Indians to English-speaking countries, the houses fell into ruin. It is this historical past that constitutes the object of our narrator's dream now.
A reader familiar with Bond's oeuvre is able to make the intertextual connection between the subject's dream signifier and its historical referent in the author's Mussoorie and Landour. The subject searches ("gropes") his memory for a familiar sign of a mountain path, a rock, or a deodar: a sign indicating metonymic trace of a historical past through the substitutive signifiers of intertexts. Invested in the story is a trace of the author's racial anxiety molded by history. The girl with golden hair and burning eyes alludes to the racial motif that problematized the concerns of Anglo-Indian identity during the Freedom Movement in India. I will refer to that later. The very fact that the setting is a "hill station" refers to Anglo-Indian life in a colonial context. But then it is set at a historical distance by the use of the word "crumbling" and by the requirement for the first subject to excavate his memory to conjure up imagoes of an "old-world house" and the "mustiness of a long-closed room" (338). The latter phrase bears connotations of a psychic archive that remains closed to inhibit rebirth of repressed identities. Bond, as the subject outside the dream of the present story, was in the process of establishing connection with the subject of his dream, his narrated self, who also became a subject of anticipated allusion when viewed retrospectively from his subjective recreation of the past in a text situated a posteriori in objective time. Mussoorie and Landour was written in 1992, almost twenty years after "Whispering in the Dark." The images were there in the subject's unconscious memory, the literalization of which as fantastic desire prior to their documentary representation anticipates a subjective stake in history.
When the narrator in the present story discovers his reflection in the full-length mirror of the haunted house, he describes the following feeling: "My reflection stared back at me as though I were a stranger, as though my reflection belonged to the house, while I was only an outsider" (337). The relation between the self and Other--the subject inside the dream and his mirror image--was actually an intersubjective dialogue located in time whose ontological bearing was frayed by the unconscious intervention of the narrating subject--the dreamer--in his quest for a desired selfhood identified in intertexts. If the subject in the dream espied the object of his desire in the mirror image, from the point of view of the image staring at him, he was objectified as well. The anticipatory/retroactive dialectic of the intersubjective formulation of the metaphoric mirror stage found its copy in the embedding of subjective dialogues across intertexts.
According to Lacan, the imaginary in the infant or in the repressed unconscious of the adult is made up of imagoes. Psychoanalysis attempts to recognize how the subject's imagoes inform his relationships. In the imaginary stage, the infant in fragmentary helplessness identifies with the specular completeness of his mirror image. Gallop notes the importance of the "temporal dialectic" of this moment which is "at once anticipatory and retroactive" (81). The infant jubilantly identifies with the wholeness of his mirror image and thinks he has already become what he will only later become. And it is only from the point of view of this completeness that his past appears fragmentary, albeit that past is his present in the same way as the future of his imaginary completeness is also his present. The present and the future inhere in the past. "Only by an effect of retroaction from the anticipated identifications do we understand that what happens in the mirror stage is the formation of a 'rootstock'. What thus occurs in the mirror stage is the formation of what in the future will be an antecedent, what grammatically can be called a 'future perfect', the formation of what will have been a rootstock" (Gallop 81). In Bond's story, the subject himself becomes textualized history through decomposition into multiple selves located in intersubjective positions of the temporal dialectic. For the author, history becomes self-reflexive.
Was Bond writing history in the story? He was writing his self, which was not different from writing history when the self identifies the Other (one of the decomposed selves in an intersubjective position) in the company of historical personages who suffered loneliness the way he did then. By referring to the subject as textualized history, I do not indicate the possibility of any singular originary source of fixed and fetishized meaning of the past. Such a closure is impossible because the subject's status, far from being totalizing and unitary, is dispersed in refractive intersubjectivity: the Others take turns in being the subject as much as the self.
In Bond's tale, the dreaming subject recreates the past out of the mist of the wild night and locates a limestone house. The subject who has lost his way in wind and rain then separates his Other, another subject of the decomposed self, and places him inside the house as a subject of his dream who is conscious of the outside in the intimations of wind and rain playing through the shattered glass of the window. This subject is further divided into the reflected subject in the mirror who is a member of the house like the girl who accompanies him in the reflection. It is this third subject who enjoys the "phantom kiss" and hears the spinster sisters arguing about their new possession: a subject belonging to the darkness of the past. The second subject in the intersubjective chain acts as the mediator among the outside world of wind, rain, and leeches; the archival space metaphorized in the antiques and portraits of the limestone house; and the space of the pure dream inhabited by the reflected image of the self in the mirror. It is the mediating subject that continues to question the self's relation with the recreated past by alluding to intertexts like stories of the two spinster sisters and portraits on the wall.
Bond's historical treatise, Mussoorie and Landour, not only offers a literal documentation of the Anglo-Indian settlement on Pari Tibba but also provides an album of photos of Anglo-Indians and their houses taken by his friend Ganesh Saili. Some of these photos, like that of elderly Miss Edith Garlah on the cover and inside (6-7), depict elaborate Victorian furniture and antiques that decorated the interior of the houses. Description of the furniture and antiques of the limestone house in our story is a verbal representation of the visual representation of these photos that postmodern narratology would have us call "ekphrase" (Hutcheon 121). The mediator subject of "Whispering," that is to say the implied author within the story, has been successfully hinting at the self-reflexive character of the dream by intertextual allusions. The hints he provides for the identification of the parodic nature of the fantasy subsume such allusions within a rational framework of the events that take place in the house. From his point of view, the third subject's encounter with the ghostly boarders of the house is a symbolic codification of the self's desires in emotional and physical loneliness. The pillow, for example, symbolizes the houri face of the girl in the mirror. She was always there in her portrait hanging from the wall, which the subject missed in his cursory glance at first. It was not unnatural for the picture on the wall, hanging in such a manner, to cast a reflection in the bedroom mirror when the subject saw himself in it. The pillow, which was probably stowed away in some loft, hangs loose in the wind that rushes in through the shattered glass of the window. When the subject sees himself in the mirror the second time, the displaced pillow is reflected in the mirror in a manner that creates the illusion that the girl carries it in her hand. The pillow falls upon the sleeping subject and creates the choking sensation. The reader's ability to rationalize the seemingly unnatural phenomena derives from the clues that the narrator has self-consciously dispersed in storytelling. All can be explained.
Yet intertextual reading questions the very presence of the house in the first place. Such houses filled with Anglo-Indian boarders existed on Pari Tibba in the past; their absence now causes a feeling of desolation in the narrator, who finds in the trace a metonymic correlative for his loneliness. Bond, the biographical self, dislikes old things and old places falling into ruin. His yearning for the past that no longer exists in reality informs his desire for it, which we saw the first subject in the story enacting by creating the limestone house in thin air, the first stage in the process of inventing company in solitude.
His parents' divorce, lack of maternal care, loss of his father when he was a child, nationalist rejection during India's Freedom Movement, a critical sense of belonging, and an imagined kinship with the suffering Anglo-Indians, all instilled a keen sense of abjection in Bond, the repressed energy of which was stirred during his lonely days in Maplewood Lodge in Mussoorie when the present story was conceived. The way the first subject entered the fantastic house, by shattering the glass pane of the window and unlatching the door, reminds the reader of a similar process adopted by Rusty--the protagonist of Bond's second Bildungsroman, Vagrants in the Valley--to enter the defunct St. Paul's Church (669). Intertext intervenes in parodying the wishful recreation of history. The authorial drives and defenses coincide in the narration of every act from the beginning of the story. Desires are projected upon the signifiers only to demonstrate the virtual lack that constituted them. The self's relation with the signifiers of the house and its content changes in a metafictional manner. The very process of change is elucidated by the narrator through the self's intersubjective movement back and forth along the signifying chain. The third subject stares at the second from the mirror so that the latter feels himself a stranger in relation to the signifier of the house and is therefore none else but the first subject. However, the first subject's desire for emotional and physical company, which is accentuated in the second subject, is placed in provocative relationship with the signifier of the girl's portrait on the wall, culminating in the third subject's sharing a companionable belonging with the girl in the mirror. If the third subject in the mirror is the second's objet petit a, (7) the latter's anticipated fulfillment of desire in it is barred from himself not only by a sense of narcissistic deflation ("I was only an outsider") but also by a regressive displacement of the girl's signifier from the position in the mirror to that on the wall. The retroactive rupture of the little object from itself in the company of the girl in the mirror in the second subject's discovery of his fragmented relationship with the displaced signifier (the girl's portrait) on the wall is a symbolic deflection of desire. Such a deflection, which could be considered a defense against the Oedipal drive, has benign implications if regarded in light of the castration threat that the subject hears whispered between the two girls: (8)
"We could tie him on the bed and pour boiling water down his throat." "No, it's simpler this way." I sat up. Most of the whispering had been distant, impersonal, but this last remark had sounded horribly near. (339)
The threat is already symbolized in the image of the girl carrying the phallic pillow, which drops on the subject to create the smothering sensation. On the verge of jouissance, (9) the self realizes the ineffectuality of it because the promise of the desire's erotic satisfaction in the company of historical women who symbolize desolation is fatalistic. The self's desire is a death instinct whose fulfillment in the third subject requires dismissal of the first and the second. In defensive recoil, therefore, the third subject folds in the second, and the second folds in the first--a move to rescue the self from the castrating influence of instincts. The insubstantiality of the object of the self's desire is symbolized by the final displacement of the signifier when the girl with the golden hair and shining eyes morphs into a "wizened old hag" with no eyes, longing to be rescued from the world of desires (symbolized by the wind, rain, and fog of the "wild night") and be shut up in the repressed unconscious of the archive.
"Structuration" (Barthes 54) of the psychobiographical implications of the analysis inherently alludes to other intertexts. A brief reference to those would certainly be imperative here. Bond's memories of parental quarrels between his parents and their ultimate estrangement preyed on him. While his father lived, Bond was brought up "British." When his father died, Bond was alone and insecure, leaving him toggling between an adolescent life in the 1940s of small town India and an Anglo-Indian milieu. Allied to this insecurity was his sensitivity to the suffering of his father, who fell victim to the cultural and political turmoil of colonial India.
Bond's parents came together in the course of a nightclub bash in a Mussoorie ghetto, but his mother's hedonistic dissipations later in life drove a wedge between the parents and sent shock waves through the child's mind, from which he never recovered: "That early feeling of insecurity was never to leave me, and in adult life, when I witnessed quarrels between people who were close to me, I was always deeply disturbed--more for the children, whose lives were bound to be affected by such emotional discord" (Scenes 3). Reminiscing over his mother's self-centered sensuality that prevented her from caring for the child's emotional needs, Bond mourns as late as 1993, "My mother's sensuality was, I think, stronger than her intelligence" (Rain 245). His mother continued to be prodigal, indulging in late-night drunken binges which his father did not like. Bond thinks this emotional trauma was compounded by the colonial overwork in the sultry Indian plains in taking a heavy toll on his father's health. (10) After repeated bouts of jaundice, he died of cerebral malaria in Calcutta.
Bond passed the most impressionable days of his childhood and youth trying to come to terms with the ironic nature of his position. His attachment to his father makes him abhor the painful Other (insofar as it is constituted of the tropical weather), while remaining conscious of the fatal desire of the self to dominate the Other. This split is further problematized by his residual Oedipality. His mother's depravity was the cause of separation from her husband. When she chose to live with another man (Mr. Hari, Bond's stepfather, was a Punjabi businessman), Bond unconsciously saw himself in the role of his father, repudiated and transplanted in the sexual game plan. In their attempt to negotiate a heterogeneous situation constituted of a "deviant" culture--and failing to come to terms with the empirical contingencies of colonial (over)work, which in reality contravened the "core doctrine" (Kedourie 2) of Western nationalism/rationalism--the Britons in India were psychologically lost to the professed values of "high culture." Bond ascribed his mother's degeneration to the effect of colonialism and considered it to be another cause of his father's suffering. He began to dislike the idea of colonialism and the doctrine on which it was founded. This is how desire for and abhorrence of the Other endangered his self in a state of "dis-ease." In our story, Bond's Oedipal dilemma is reconstructed through the imago of the blonde girl in the mirror carrying the phallic pillow. It is a palimpsestic construction born out of Bond's perception of his own mother and the sociological myth that surrounded Anglo-Indian behavior in the context of racial and cultural anxieties in postcolonial India. Symptoms of the Oedipal drive, informed both by libidinal and racial concerns of identity, are literalized in the first subject's entry into the Imaginary of a bio-historical past and emerge out of it loaded with the ominous consequences of its prohibitive threats (the pillow falls on the subject to asphyxiate him). Governed by the principle of repetition compulsion, (11) the first subject lives the colonial trauma once more. Writing is the means and fantasy the generic device through which transference of the psychic habit is effected. Fantasy becomes a psychobiographical form for Bond.
Anthony, Frank. Britain's Betrayal in India: The Story of the Anglo-Indian Community. Bombay: Allied, 1969. Print.
Attebery, Brian. Strategies of Fantasy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992. Print. Bandyopadhyay, Debashis. "The Past Unearthed: New Reading of Ruskin Bond's Supernatural Tales." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 30.1 (2005): 53-71. Print.
Barthes, Roland. The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill, 1986. Print.
Blunt, Alison. Domicile and Diaspora: Anglo-Indian Women and the Spatial Politics of Home. Malden: Blackwell, 2005. Print.
Bond, Ruskin. Collected Fiction. New Delhi: Penguin, 1999. Print.
--. Delhi Is Not Far: The Best of Ruskin Bond. New Delhi: Penguin, 1994. Print.
--. A Flight of Pigeons. Collected Fiction 823-98.
--. "The Man Who Was Kipling." Collected Fiction 21-24.
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--. "Time Stops at Shamli" and Other Stories. New Delhi: Penguin, 1989. Print.
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--. "Whispering in the Dark." Collected Fiction 337-41.
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(1.) Bond's father, Aubrey Alexander Bond, who worked for the Raj in the Royal Air Force in India, was British. His mother, Edith Dorothy, however, was thought to be Anglo-Indian, both in terms of racial and cultural identity, by the son. Fair skin and blue eyes made his Anglo-Indian descent so obvious that he was literally exposed to Nationalist ire during the Freedom Movement in India.
(2.) Between Penguin and Rupa, at least fifty Bond titles are already published in the form of collected fiction, individual works, and other anthologies. Among notable Bond publishers in the West are Julia MacRae and Hamish Hamilton in England and Caroline House in the USA.
(3.) The word "liminal" is used to mean a consciousness of identity or being which is problematic. Bond's search for identity does not end up in situating the self in either of the two binary spaces, Indian and British, but in between them. A continuous yet uncertain dialogue between the two parts determines the psychological pattern of the subject who assumes a liminal position.
(4.) Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was born of Greek parentage in Lefkada, one of the Greek Ionian islands; went to the USA at the age of nineteen; and lived as a freelance writer before migrating to Japan in 1890. He embraced Zen Buddhism, became a Japanese citizen after marrying a Samurai woman, became a great interpreter, and found recognition for writing superb stories of the supernatural. He is known for such works as In Ghostly Japan (1899), Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1903), and Karma and other Stories and Essays (published posthumously in 1921).
(5.) This supplements Ann Swinfen's repudiation of the charges leveled against the genre of fantasy by "some critics and academics [who] condemn the whole genre with a passion which seems to have its roots in emotion rather than objective critical standards" (1).
(6.) By "hypostases" Barthes means context as opposed to text. By context we should mean the author's society, history, psyche--anything that reaffirms the author's presence rather than absence.
(7.) Objet petit a or "the little other" is, according to Lacan, the object of desire and the cause of desire. It is the demand or desire of the other, as taken up by the subject. Examples of the little object include the voice and gaze of the other. The subject's desire for the desire of the other is here fulfilled by the little object's (the mirror image's) desirous gaze on the subject.
(8.) The voice of the other, which is the little object for the subject, now conveys a castration threat and makes it imperative that the subject develops a defense against the desire for the other.
(9.) The French term originally meant sexual pleasure. Lacan's usage of it in the sense of alternative satisfaction to compensate for the repressed potential for psycho sexual enjoyment is now popular as a blanket term in psychoanalytic hermeneutics.
(10.) During the colonial days in India, Anglo-Indians were looked upon as pariah by the Indian nationalists for the former's excessive allegiance to the British. Examples of dissipation in Anglo-Indian men and women, especially in the latter, were not rare. Political imperative and socio-cultural bearings combined to create the myth of Anglo-Indian fallenness. Bond criticized the hedonism practiced by his community, especially his mother's behavior that caused him psychological distress. He embraced the notion of an ideal Anglo-Indian mother in the fictional creation of Mrs. Labadoor in his historical novella A Flight of Pigeons.
(11.) A psychoanalytic term first used by Sigmund Freud in his essay "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" (61). Movement from pain to pleasure increases the value of pleasure. It is a psychic compulsion for human beings to repeat an action, although unpleasurable, to master the repressed trauma associated with it. Through mastery, economy of pleasure is attained.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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