Monday, March 25, 2013

India and "India": Critiquing the Centre by Imagining the Colony

I've recently applied for a fellowship which required me to put into words (finally) where my academic research interests are directed. While I've been struggling with trying to "choose a century", I have come to terms with the fact that areas of inquiry do not always correspond precisely with the limitations of the Gregorian calendar, and so I decided to limit my research to the long, or rather, loooooooooong twentieth- century. Within this "period", I am currently invested in examining early (i.e. 1860-1900) discussions of India, the geopolitical entity, as well as "India"*, the constructed idea.
Now for some examples:
During this time period we find figures like Burton (mentioned in the last post) ascribing some works of his own satire like "Vikram and the Vampire" to ancient Indian texts, often vehemently so, but by 1893, reviewers of the second edition of this text note that it is not really a translation of anything Indian, but mostly "Burtonics". (India as an idea)

Around the same time period, we also find an author like Kipling using India not just to talk about "The White Man's Burden", but in "The City of Dreadful Night", using a discussion of the Indian Congress to critique the "fall-out" of England's imperial enterprise. Though Kipling might seem to be reserving his critique for the "colonized" peoples, as one reads through more of Kipling's writing (like "Without the Benefit of the Clergy" and "The Head of the District"), his modern reputation as a die-hard imperialist is complicated, as Kipling seems to have just as much to say about good ol' English practices as he does about Indians.(India both as the colony and the idea)

In addition to these two "literary" figures, we also have lots of "New Women" political activists using the plight of Indian women as a way of arguing for greater consideration of things like marriage and reproductive rights in BOTH the West and the outer reaches of the empire. There are far too many mentions in the British Periodicals Database of rhetorical turns like "our Indian sisters" for me to list here, but one such woman is Kitty Marion. Marion is actually born in Germany, but then takes up residence in England while campaigning for women's rights, and is later naturalized as a citizen of the United States. Talk about a transnational figure.(India as a people as well as an idea)

What all these writers have in common is the colonization or territorialization of the term, "India", for use in arguments largely directed towards their own cultures. Burton's satiric rendering of "Vikram and the Vampire" could be considered greatly offensive in that it claims attribution where there is hardly any, but what is interesting to me is that he found it necessary to distance himself from his critiques of tradition in the face of change, and rather than describing his satire within the terms of his own culture, he chose to locate it in the history of another.
Kipling also engages with this practice, though in somewhat different mediums. Though Kipling critiques the Indian population, his reputation seems to obscure the often harsh critique of British imperial policies that his lesser-known writings contain. At times it seems that Kipling, (Indian-born, English-educated, American resident) is almost overtly bitter towards the "mother" country's policies, as when his Englishman in the Indian Civil Service mourns being transferred from post-to-post away from his female Indian "companion" and mother of his child in "Without the Benefit of the Clergy".

Lastly, we find another international figure like Kipling in Kitty Marion, who is specifically politically engaged but does write her own memoirs. While she argues for the right of women to control their own reproductive capabilities in India, she uses the "trope" of "Indian women" as an example through which to argue the same thing in the West!
While there are many more authors using "India" as a loaded term in this time period, these are three that I am currently involved in researching, specifically because of the ways they adopt a "cloak of Indianness" in order to create a (necessary?) distance between them and their own cultures, thus creating a space where critique is possible.
As I move into considerations of "Indianness" when India begins to "write back" (both through translations and works in English), I would like to look at how this rhetorical strategy gets re-inscribed by figures like W.B. Yeats,  and perhaps even co-opted by authors like Chandhu Menon and Rabinadrath Tagore.

*For future reference, in case I slip up in my pronoun usage throughout this and future postings,  India is a "she", for many reasons that I'm not going to go into right now. Maybe in a later post.

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