Sunday, October 17, 2010

Understanding Post-colonial literature

In Twentieth Century literature has been attacked rigorously for containing hegemonic tendencies. Critics have vehemently opposed the subjective tendencies in literature. Critical tools have put literature under a microscope and have tried to find out if there are any real truths without politics in it. Literature is under suspicion now. We have begun to doubt the virtue of literature. Its healing powers are forgotten and its political values are now taken into analysis.

The modern responses to these past experiences have been equally away from objectivity, though we still have to keep it as our noble ideal guiding our academic approaches to life. Though the academic world is craving for objective thought, thoughts and their critiques are always found within some emotional center. Post-colonialism is also a subjective response to western dominance. It questions western literature for its hegemonic tendencies. The problem with Indian post-colonialism is that it has negated its native colonial tendencies. It questions the other's faults without bringing into picture its own issues of domination. Even criticism has to have some ethical balance in its questions. When Indian scholarship has not questioned India's colonial attitudes, it has no moral right to question others. To acquire credibility, Indian post-colonialism has to do some self-critique.

Indian post-colonialism has borrowed heavily from the critical model of Edward Said. Orientalism is studied by Said as a mechanism, which constructed the orient in a political, sociological, ideological and scientific sense . Said suggests that justice should be practiced in academic research, instead of making partial judgments based on prejudices. He proves that ideologies are created by humanity to promote the self of man. Orientalism cannot stand the test of rationalism. To prove his point Said uses not only political issues, but also literature, treating works of art as pieces of political documents containing agendas and inner meanings.
Said uses the same method in his book Culture and Imperialism. When students try to do similar analysis for book after book in the name of research, we are encouraging a pessimistic and negative interpretation of literature. Precious time is spent in the name of research finding out the politics in every work of art. This kind of criticism will not encourage young readers to read literature. They will be more interested in tearing it apart to prove their superiority over the literary work itself and will ultimately lead to depression in society, as all value systems will be deconstructed one by one.
If Indian post-colonial thought believes in this method it should also expose the hegemonic tendencies in Indian literature too. Lectures in post-colonialism spend hours together speaking about the greatness of Sanskrit and the second-rate quality of other Indian languages while trying to decry English. If deconstruction is used for such academic practices, there is no point in talking about critical rationalism. Our intellectual energies are wasted in becoming anti-colonials all the while openly welcoming globalization. We don't want to accept this double quality in our thought, but are keenly interested in finding out the westerner's double standards.
To Said, a poet has to be basically a human being and should have the ability and the sensitivity to feel the pain of the loser also. In short, in his views, literature should not be hegemonic, but humanistic. But the literary form he is discussing here is an epic. It needed heroes and villains. All oral traditions and origin stories are the same. In Ramayana, Valmiki treats the Srilankan king as a villain. That does not make Ravanan a villain as is portrayed. A political reading of Ramayana will make Southerners hate North Indians. When Valmiki wrote he did not intend this end. During his times, the concept of the world would not have been as large as this. The unknown guy becomes the enemy in epics. To the Greeks, Asians must have been like the aliens. In Mahabharatha, Vyasar makes the sons of Dhirithrashtran as villains. Without a clear-cut definition of villains and heroes epic writing is not possible. With modern concept of the world we cannot read the classics. Five thousand years ago the concept of world must have been quite small. We have to take into account of the movement of time and the shift in politics from monarchy to democracy. Aeschylus would not have been a bad man that he would have hated Asians. He is writing not to please millions of readers, but to please his king and the other elites in his society. Quite naturally he would want to exaggerate certain factors.
If Said had tried to find out what Asian thoughts have felt about Europe then his criticism would have been impartial and humanistic. How does the Indian mind take western culture and tradition? Does it accept western attitudes and the colonial presence with total submissiveness? Could European tendencies really succeed in quenching the spirit of India? Is the Indian really against the westerner? What is the politics in Indian literature? Is it against east and west or Indian north and Indian south? Does India acknowledge the presence of Europe in its literature?
In Culture and Imperialism, Said reinterprets a few 19 century English novels. Of all the novels, the novels of Kipling and Jane Austen, obviously considered the canon texts, receive maximum attention from him. His interpretation of
Kim by Kipling reveals the imperialistic tendencies and models of colonialism, which the writer has not negated. Said refers to Kim, as a successfully sustained and mature piece and accepts his literary position as a master stylist, one who acquired a large audience. The question he asks is: Does Kipling portray the Indians as inferior or as somehow equal but different? This question is contemporary as Kipling lived in a modern era used to democracy and mass publication different from the world Aeschylus lived. Why did Kipling encourage a portrayal of Indians as inferior people?
Britain recognized the attitudes of Kipling as he became popular. Or, he wrote what the public wanted.
Said goes ahead and gives a short summary of the novel followed by an extensive and detailed discourse analysis looking at the novel from a political angle. Suitable passages are selected which can easily give in to such readings. All the while the artistic achievement and workmanship of Kipling are not questioned.
Kipling refuses to recognize Indian nationalism, and thus he fails to accept reality, and instead constructs his own sense of reality. A writer of the stature like Kipling himself has not arisen above the immediacies of life. He has only catered to his readership. Races have dreams of geographical extensions and writers are people drawn from a society caught by such dreams. Visions of writers become realities and thus the power of thought and word is very high. Subhramaniya Bharathi in Tamil strongly visualizes a free India.
How can we expect Bharathi to sing in support of the British, while his voice is the voice of the people? The poet cannot stand alone, distinct from his people. Right or wrong, the voice of people is the voice of the poet. After hundred years or thousand years or even now, can we blame Bharathi for encouraging fanaticism? What comes first? Writing or social thought? Can writing exist without social thought? Could Kipling have consciously moved himself away from the current social thought? Is it possible for Jane Austen to have separated her thought processes from her society? Can criticism expect a phenomenon that is not possible at all from writers? When we deal with the subject that deals with human emotions, passions and thoughts can we expect it to practice impartiality?

There is no drama in human life if every one practices impartiality. Impartiality in writing is possible only when people become impartial. Writing reflects life and not the other way. No writer can influence society if the society does not share his views. The power of the pen is itself the power of social thought. When the writer expresses and stamps the thought, he becomes successful. Writers become popular even among critics, only if highbrow thinking identifies its thought in them.

Literature should maintain a philosophical distance from actualities and identify with it is the message of Said in his books. What was the real purpose behind orientalism? Was it
Europe's dream of becoming rich and powerful? Similarly, what is the dream of India now? What is going to be the future of India? Why is it encouraging globalization? Do all the writers from Asia keep themselves philosophically distant from geographical and political issues? As orientalism of the west is only one side of the story, what is the other side of the story? Even if the east did not construct a west, what is the reason?

How did Mulk Raj Anand or Manohar Malgonkar or even Tagore or Bharathi represent the white man, Said never bothers to find out. Said's criticism encourages leftist writing and calls right wing writing as hegemonic. To what extent can
India portray or present England to Indian audience with neutrality? To whom will the author write, if not for his people? When Indian public is in favour of something, can the writer negate it?

When Kipling writes about
India he concentrates in the problems westerners faced in India. Can we negate the pain the English man also went through in this alien land, if we have to practice the tenets of scientific principles in criticism?

To find fault with western imperialism we can directly use political policies of the government instead of using novels. When we read
Kim, we do not look at it as an English novel against
India, till we read Said. Deconstruction has politicized the novel that after reading Culture and Imperialism, we cannot enjoy the novel any more. If every work of art is going to be dehistoricised like this, finally there will be nothing left for our students who opt for literature. Which epic or novel or movie can withstand the test of politics? It is time to review our stand in post colonialism and establish an objective stand in interpreting literature.

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