Tanika sarkar’s writings on woman, religion, and nationhood in the context of colonial Bengal have been pathbreaking. In this book, she gives new direction to the same themes, this time by focusing on some of key historical texts within which these identities were given shape.
The colonial universe outlined in this book centers around woman as both defiled and deified (woman as widow, woman as goddess); the nation as woman-goddess within a country comprising plural traditions; male reformers battling Hindu conservatives; a Hindu novelist idealizing nationalism as the demolition of Muslim symbols; male-dominant social norms threatening principles of softness and femininity; theatre and censorship; the sometimes contrasting worldviews of Bankim and Rabindranath.
While this is at one level a book of discrete essays, it is simultaneously a book about the structure of the early colonial universe in India, a world of linked coherences and incoherences, of arguments, protests, and rebellion.
This book will consolidate Tanika Sarkar’s reputation as one of Indian’s foremost historians of woman, power, and the colonial universe.
Tanika Sarkar is Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her several books include Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, and Cultural Nationalism (Permanent Blank and Indiana University Press, 2001).
Some of the essays in this collection are radically revised versions of old ones; others are new. At first glance there may appear to be no clear logic or single unifying thread holding them all together. They move from early to late colonial times; and they range across gender, faith, theatre, novels, polemic, children's literature, and a tribal insurrection. They look like disparate entities without a clearly defined course. Only the physical space of Bengal, and the temporal unity of colonial times, seem to connect them loosely.
I hope, however, that there is a certain method in the madness. The very absence of a single connecting theme gestures at the impossibility of shovelling the entire experience of colonial times under a single signpost. Each essay not only pursues a different theme-which the other essays on occasion may pursue along a different trajectory-but the questions each raises are also widely divergent. I hope, thereby, to escape the risks of sameness, seamlessness, and teleology that a number of postcolonial studies run: by assuming that what is established in one instance of history can work for all others. The apparent randomness, even the disconnect among themes that I place here, tries to retrieve the element of mutual incommensurability among plural histories, even as it shows the interpenetrations.
I need, therefore, to explain some of the critical coordinates of post-colonial scholarship, in India and outside. Some have been influential for my own thinking about colonial histories, but there are other aspects that I find deeply problematic. The scholarship, as a whole, has made us aware, in new and important ways, of the extent of Western hegemony on modern Indian moral, cultural, and discursive worlds: especially of what Nicholas B. Dirks calls colonial 'cultural technologies'. I contend, nonetheless, that there is very often an exaggerated account of this impact within postcolonial studies which denies any substantive autonomy or authenticity to modern Indian discourses. This preoccupation with the presumed Western origins of Indian modernity stages a return-on a much higher plane, of course-to a dated and rather simple impact-response form of Indian historiography, to the ‘England's work in India' variety of official colonial histories, albeit with radically opposed value judgements. Even in their immensely more sophisticated versions, the problem of reductiveness remains. In their effort to establish and identify the locations and degree of Western influence, the substantive content of the object that is supposedly so influenced gets somewhat overlooked. Indian history becomes rather too strongly a site for the work of the West rather than for the activities of Indian people.
Let me elaborate on a few of these frameworks.
Edward Said's notion that the West produced the Orient has been long recognized as crucially formative for much subsequent postcolonial thinking. His Orientalism is deeply sceptical about any real exchange on equal terms between the West and the non-West. Said's point about asymmetrical exchanges may well contain a strong measure of the truth because imperial insularity foreclosed Western attention to other cultures-the caveat being that there were some very significant exceptions to this inattention, to which Orientalism is blind. What is more problematic about Said's proposition is that it implies an equal scepticism about the Orient making itself in any real way. (Said's failure to ascribe agency to the non-West, however, holds good only for Orientalism. In his later work, especially on Palestine, he shows a far more complex understanding of the question.) In similar vein, Henry Louis Gates Jr warned against the risks of imagining a universalist literary canon that may unify writings across racial power lines. Identities, he argues, must be founded on difference. And in his work a particular difference-race-is privileged over all others. In Said the West and the non-West, and in Gates Jr the white and the non-white, look like monoliths with great internal coherence.
Several of the Indian variants on this scholarship have been interesting. Ashis Nandy was the first to generalize the notion of a modern Indian selfhood founded on loss, inauthenticiry, and a lapse from pre-modern virtue that came about because of the Orient's Western connection. Of course, Nandy also identifies modern Indian subjects, such as Gandhi, who successfully insulated themselves from Western contamination, remaining anchored in a more authentic and non- modern cultural universe. From Nandy’s perspective the West is loaded with a destructive power that is a feature of its innate character; whereas, he argues, Indian pre-modern traditions are far more life-affirming. Nandy initiated a mode of thinking wherein the pre-modern and the non-modern appear as the natural habitat of Indian authenticity, while modernity becomes the habitation of the West alone. Time and place mingle curiously here: the West is the repository of modern times and the non-West is a relatively idealized place outside that time.
Nandy's value judgements about Western and Indian traditions are absent in Partha Chatterjee's account of Western discursive functions within Indian modernity. Yet Chatterjee's histories of colonial times are similarly preoccupied with the relationships of a variety of Indians with Enlightenment discourse, which he reads as singular rather than internally differentiated. In an early work, Chatterjee very interestingly underlines the substantial impact of Western political norms on Indian nationalist discourses which politically challenged colonial rule: the very keywords of anti-colonial nationalism, he suggests, were derived from Western terms. In a later version Chatterjee allows for an uncolonized space in the Indian imagination, especially among subaltern groups which embody difference from coloniality. Both these influential works by Chatterjee concern themselves centrally with a search for origins and influence-which are taken to be fully determining. The world of modern Indians in both is neatly split into binaries, between those who were influenced by Western discourses and those who were not, each clear and distinct from the other. The West remains the axis, and historical enquiry is meant to establish the precise degree of Indian closeness or distance from it.
Ronald Inden and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak configure Western cultural dominion as something that forced an epistemic violence and clear break within Indian self-thinking. This was a disjuncture of such proportions that it became impossible to conceive of Indian history in Indian terms thereafter. We can only have histories that are Western misreadings of India. Even if non-modernized subalterns can speak, modern historians have lost the ability to hear them, mortgaged as they are to Western reason. In this somewhat monistic version of modernity it is the West that reigns supreme as the sole historical subject, the lone 'real', with the rest of the world its mere shadow. Homi Bhabha provides, I think, the most nuanced and complex account of the colonial encounter. He configures it as something that developed interstitially between cultures, representing a hybridity that flourishes within an in-between space. This view avoids the simpler conceptualizations of the power of Western discourses; and it does not characterize Indian modernity as an effect of acculturation. But it still takes for granted the solidly monolithic nature of two cultures, the Western and the non-Western. In between the two monoliths a certain transaction does develop, but the stable and perfectly coherent unity of each remains in place. Bhabha also envisions the encounter as a 'gaze' which is neither one of absolute imperial power nor one of entire native submission. The colonized, ironically, return the gaze of the colonizers as a form of mimicry; this then raises an unsettling question-the possibility of the sameness of colonizer and colonized. The return of the gaze by the colonized disconcerts the colonizer. This gaze, however, is something that happens across histories: it is frozen in time, a gesture without a process. Hence, the possibility of other, less clear-cut or stable forms of encounter in lived histories does not really arise.
What is interesting about all these perspectives deployed for analysing India's encounter with the West is the common effort to fix the experiences of colonialism into one single form, a unifying image, a frame-work of singularity for understanding all moments in all colonial histories-be these derivative discourses, or the notion of colonial difference, or the idea of hybridity. The effect of this emphasis on, as it were, the singularity of a binary, then limits the historian's possible engagement with the shifts, mutations, complications, changes, and contradictions that inhere in every historical situation. The preference, from these frameworks of singular binaries, is predominantly to use each historical instance, event, or situation as merely illustrative matter, its 'essential' truth standing in for some larger truth about Indian modernity. These frameworks do not engage with what may lie outside the colonial encounter.
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