Indian Ink: Literary Insights into Colonialism and Identity

I am excerpting an article from my personal blog.

I originally wrote this essay in May 2009 and it was published on The South Asian Idea. It’s interesting to me how long I have been thinking about some of the same issues.  I have always been fascinated by the Raj.  In fact, in my Directing class as part of my Dramatic Literature major, I directed a scene from “Indian Ink”. This play has been with me throughout much of my life.

Flora: You are an Indian artist, aren’t you? Stick up for yourself. Why do you like everything English?

Das: I do not like everything English.

Flora: Yes, you do. You’re enthralled. Chelsea, Bloomsbury, Oliver Twist, Goldflake cigarettes, Winsor and Newton… even painting in oils, that’s not Indian. You’re trying to paint me from my point of view instead of yours—what you think is my point of view. You deserve the bloody Empire!

(Tom Stoppard, Indian Ink, pg. 43)

Great works of art often reveal insights about history in ways that are more accessible than academic historical accounts.  One work that was especially powerful in doing so for me is Tom Stoppard’s play Indian Ink. Ever since I first read this play some years ago, it has provoked me to think about the colonial experience in India as well as issues of identity and nationalism more generally.

In the tradition of Forster’s A Passage to India and Scott’s The Raj Quartet, Indian Ink examines the colonial experience through focusing on the relationship between one particular couple.   Set in two time periods (1930s India and 1980s England), the play tells the story of Flora Crewe, an English poet visiting India, and Nirad Das, an Indian artist who is painting her portrait.   Over the course of the play, Flora and Nirad’s relationship changes from a formal, distant one to a more intimate one. However, their relationship also reveals major points of tension and of culture clash.  Nirad constantly feels the need to impress Flora with his knowledge of England and of English culture, while Flora wants him to be himself. As the quote that I started this post with shows, she wants him to paint her from his own point of view.  He eventually does so, painting a nude portrait of her in the style of a Rajput miniature. Flora recognizes that he is working in his own tradition and has stopped trying to ape the English.  She tells him “This one is for yourself… I’m pleased. It has rasa” (74).

The play also makes interesting points about the reinterpretation of history, something that is a part of national and ethnic conflicts even today, both in South Asia and in other parts of the world. For example, in the modern portion of the play, Anish (Nirad’s son) and Mrs. Swan (Flora’s sister) discuss the events of 1857, which Anish refers to as “the first War of Independence” and Mrs. Swan insists on calling the Mutiny (17). History is written by the victors and later reinterpreted by various political groups to suit their own agendas. For example, in modern India, the BJP reinterprets the Mughals as a foreign occupying force, religiously motivated by their negative feelings towards Hinduism. Other historians argue that this perspective is not an appropriate way to view the Mughals, many of whom assimilated and became “Indian.” History remains a powerful force that can be used for various politically motivated ends. Stoppard’s play forces the audience to question the truth of any of these interpretations….

More here

 

 

0

A Golden Age: Literature and Nationalism

I am cross-posting my review of Tahmima Anam’s novel “A Golden Age” from my personal blog.  This review was originally published on The South Asian Idea in 2010.

She spoke, with fluency, the Urdu of the enemy. She was unable to pretend, as she saw so many others doing, that she could replace her mixed tongue with a pure Bengali one, so that the Muslim salutation, As-Salaam Alaikum, was replaced by the neutral Adaab, or even Nomoshkar, the Hindu greeting. Rehana’s tongue was too confused for these changes. She could not give up her love of Urdu, its lyrical lilts, its double meanings, its furrowed beat.

—Tahmima Anam, A Golden Age, pg. 47

Literature often yields insights into political events in ways that traditional historical accounts cannot. History tells us of war, rebellion, the process of state formation, but the medium’s strength does not lie in describing the complex human emotions that lie behind such events.

As a Pakistani-American, reading Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age, a novel set during the 1971 war between East and West Pakistan that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, was an enlightening and somewhat disturbing experience. 1971 is rarely discussed in Pakistan, and when it is, it is always in the context of the “dismemberment” of the country and the treacherous role played by India in this process.  For decades, Pakistani history textbooks referred to Bengalis as traitors and the “enemy within” (a point discussed by the eminent Pakistani social scientist Rubina Saigol). We never discuss the reasons why the Eastern wing of the country wanted to declare independence. Neither do we critically assess our own role in this second Partition of the subcontinent.

Obviously, the historical narrative is very different in Bangladesh. There, 1971 is celebrated as a war of independence, leading up to the formation of a new state.  It is a victory against occupation and oppression, similar to the American Revolution or indeed of India’s winning of independence from the British.  In this version of the narrative, Pakistanis are seen as the villains and the Bengali freedom fighters as heroes.

While this is the basic narrative backdrop of A Golden Age, what makes the book worth reading is Anam’s complex psychological characterization, particularly of her protagonist Rehana Haque, a middle-aged widow and mother of two teenage children. Rehana is from Calcutta and is Urdu-speaking, having moved to Dhaka after her marriage.  She is a reluctant revolutionary, being drawn into the battle for Bangladeshi independence mostly against her will, through her two college-going children. It is through Rehana’s character and her ambiguous and divided feelings about the events around her that Anam expresses the complex personal ramifications of political events.

Language is a particularly powerful marker of identity and during times of conflict the language one speaks often takes on huge significance. Today sixty years after the Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan, there is still conflict over whether Hindi and Urdu are two registers of the same language or two completely distinct tongues.  In Pakistan, Urdu has become increasingly “Arabized” and “Persianized” while Hindi in India has became “Sanskritized”. Similarly during 1971, an individual’s decision to use Urdu or Bengali became a marker of his or her political position.  Urdu, Pakistan’s official language, was seen as the language of the occupier, while Bengali became a symbol for the distinct identity of “East Pakistanis” and their fight for their own state.  But what of people like Rehana, those who were Urdu-speaking Bengalis? In order to show loyalty to the national cause, they were expected to give up their language.

What effect does this dilemma have on the individual?  Anam depicts Rehana as a lover of Urdu poetry, especially of the Ghazal. Even her son, Sohail, who is politically very engaged with the Bengali cause, writes love letters to his girlfriend in which he extensively quotes Urdu poets.  When he leaves to join the resistance, one of the only books he takes with him is the Ghazals of Mirza Ghalib. Clearly then, even someone so politically committed to a free Bangladesh could not abandon his love of Urdu, the language of the “enemy.”

A Golden Age is a powerful story of a nation’s violent birth. More importantly, it is the story of the harrowing choices individuals are forced to make in times of conflict. Which comes first, one’s ethnicity, language, or nationality?  Reading this book has caused me to continue to ponder the fascinating questions of identity, both national and personal.

0

Leela’s Book: A Review

[So I have returned to BP and will be posting here occasionally (though my personal blog is going to be my focus). Let’s just let the drama of the past week go.

I am cross-posting a book review I did of Alice Albinia’s novel “Leela’s Book”– a modern reworking of The Mahabharata.  This review was originally published on The South Asian Idea in April 2012. ]

According to Hindu mythology, The Mahabharata was dictated by the sage Vyasa to Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed god.  However, some scholars believe that the sections of the epic that deal with Ganesh’s scripting are later interpolations. Vyasa himself appears as a character in the epic. Vyasa’s brother Vichitravirya died without issue, so Vyasa’s mother asked him to impregnate his brother’s wives, the sisters Ambika and Ambalika.  Ambika was the first to come to Vyasa’s bed, but out of fear and shyness, she closed her eyes.  Vyasa cursed her and told her that her child would be born blind.  The next night, it was Ambalika’s turn.  She had been warned to remain calm, but her face turned pale due to fear.  Again Vyasa cursed her and told her that her son would be be anemic and not be fit enough to rule the kingdom.  These two brothers would end up being the ancestors of the two warring clans, the Kauravas and the Pandavas.

It is this mythological background that Alice Albinia draws upon in her novel Leela’s Book (originally published in January 2012).  The story revolves around Ved Vyasa Chaturvedi, an eminent professor of Sanskrit and his relationships with two sisters, Meera and Leela.  Twenty-two years before the novel begins, Vyasa had seduced Meera, who died after bearing him a pair of twins, a boy and a girl.  After falling out with her sister regarding her relationship with Vyasa, Leela had gone into exile in New York, making a vow never to return to India.  Now, two decades later, Leela is forced to return because her husband’s niece is marrying Vyasa’s son.  Although the family thinks that they have arranged the wedding for their own selfish purposes, events are really being directed by Lord Ganesha, who is trying to save Leela, his beloved heroine, from Vyasa.

Many sections of Albinia’s novel are actually narrated by Ganesh.  The god wants to correct the belief that Vyasa was the author of the Mahabharata.  As he tells the reader, “I freely admit that my sworn enemy is Vyasa, pedestrian  composer of India’s too-long epic, a poem called the Mahabharata, every word of which I wrote” (Albinia 26). Ganesh also wants to reveal Vyasa’s true character. He says:

Now, in the Mahabharata, Vyasa portrays himself as a holy sage, with matted hair and an otherworldly air, an expert teacher, the counsellor of kings, the wise old grandfather of his characters. He builds up a fabulous portrait: comforting yet aloof, clever yet alluring. I have only one problem with this benign vision: it is totally untrue. In these pages of mine, I will correct the misapprehension under which mortals have languished for so long. I will show how Vyasa disrespected ladies, failed to dissuade his descendants from mutual carnage, gave students of literature headaches with his prose (29).

Ganesh also confesses that he added his own original characters into Vyasa’s story.  Two of these were Leela and Meera.  Ganesh tells the reader: “Without mentioning a word of it to anyone, I simply dropped [Leela] into Vyasa’s tale, at one of the few places in the epic where a character didn’t have a name – Vyasa’s own bed, as it happened – as the amorous slave-girl he impregnated by mistake (after his late brother’s widows had had enough of him)” (31).  Leela and Meera have been together through eight avatars, and the present story (their ninth avatar) is Ganesh’s last chance to get things right and save Leela from Vyasa. Continue reading “Leela’s Book: A Review”

0