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Book Review: Dr. R. K. SINGH

Rita Nath Keshari. THE POSTCOLONIAL ENCOUNTER: INDIA IN THE BRITISH IMAGINATION. Pondicherry: Busy Bee Books, 2005, Pages 223, Price Rs. 250/-, Euro 15/-. ISBN 81-87619-11-2

Rita Nath Keshari is a creative genius—poet, historian, critic, journalist, and teacher—with over 700 publications to her credit. The Postcolonial Encounter: India in the British Imagination is a critique of novels about India written by British and other Western writers during 1939-1989. Keshari re-visits the Raj with a sense of history and contemporaneity, scrutinizing “certain metaphors and symbols” that recur in India-centric fiction of Rudyard Kipling, E.M. Forster, John Masters, Paul Scott, J.G. Farrell, Edward Thompson, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and others. With a view to seeing how postcolonial India appears to the British literary imagination, Keshari chooses five different aspects for a detailed study.

In the first chapter, ‘Postcolonial British Fiction About India,’ she seeks to explore the “continuation and mutation” of colonialism during and after the eclipse of the British empire a la Edward Said’s ironic note on correction/penalization of the Orient “for lying outside the boundaries of European society.” With a deeper perspective than mere sociopolitical ethos or relationship, Keshari dwells on the discourse of power, hegemony, culture, and identity, and points out how the West has penetrated the consciousness of the non-West. To quote Ashis Nandy, “The West has not merely produced colonialism, it informs most interpretations of colonialism.”

The literary discourse as she examines ranges from Eurocentric values, or myth of racial superiority to celebration of imperialism as a liberal, democratic critique of the colonial system. Authors such as Paul Scott, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Deborah Moggach, Rumer Godden, H.E. Bates, and Valerie Anand fictionalize the postcolonial encounter between Britain and India, “infusing into their texts not only the spirit of a shared past stretching into the present but also a creative energy that transmutes the topicality of their subject matter into enduring human concerns.”

Keshari’s literary and critical survey highlights how Forster tries to negotiate the elusive Indian reality in its social, geographical, and metaphysical dimensions; how Orwell denigrates the myth of British supremacy; how Thompson is critical of the attitude—arrogant, ignorant, indifferent-- of the British rulers; how Rumer Godden exposes the personality problems of the Europeans; and how John Masters reveals the Eurasians’ predicament that lay in their social alienation from both Indians and theWhites.

In the highly readable chapter, ‘Passages to India after A Passage to India,’ Keshari traces the influence that Forster’s novel has exerted at various levels on some post-1947 novels such as The Jewel in the Crown, A Division of the Spoils, Heat and Dust, Hot Water Man etc. These novels deal with the British and the Indian encounter in India, expressing a deep-seated fear in the white race through gender and racial subordination, seclusion and superiority, craving for power, cross-cultural/interracial relation, and attitudes and values that condition relationship. She seeks to parallel the shifting dynamics of ‘us versus them’ attitudes and identity in India (and Britain) after the collapse of the British Raj.

Keshari critiques the post-Forster British imagination vis-à-vis interracial gender/sexual relations and class barriers at a time when the very idea of being ‘British’ is increasingly become problematic, as evident from the well publicized Jade Goody’s behaviour with Shilpa Shetty in the ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ Reality Show. In fact there is no dearthof racially motivated crimes, including verbal abuse and violence, in today’s socalled tolerant, multicultural British society. It has yet to come to terms with some of the darker manifestations of its past.

Rita Nath Keshari’s reflection on man-woman relationship of differing races is further strengthened in the third chapter,‘Marriage Across Boundaries,’ which seeks to analyze the theme of interracial marriages in postcolonial fiction of Hallam Tennyson, Paul Scott, Rumer Godden, Valerie Anand, and Ruth P. Jhabvala. She points to different types of cultural and historical tensions in the marital life of English women and Indian men.She also refers to Indian fictioneers such as Anita Desai and Kamala Markandaya who have realistically dealt with the theme of mixed marriage “as a new paradigm of racial relation outside the power hierarchy that existed during the Raj.” In most of the cases, however, the narrative centres on “a gloomy atmosphere and sad choices” as the individuals involved experience shortlived happiness and unforeseen problems, pointing to the fragility of relationship.

The fourth chapter, ‘Verities of Exile’, focuses on the English men and women who chose to stay on in India after Independence but soon discovered they neither belonged to the changed India nor could find any new identity. They had become “victims of forces unleashed by shifting political equations.” Their fictional representation by Harold Geach, Paul Scott, Gerald Hanley, Deborah Moggach, Ruth P. Jhabvala, and Nayantara Sahgal is “sad and pathetic” whatever their roles to manifest power and hegemony. With a marginalized existence, they simply “offer important footnotes to a crucial chapter of Indo-British history.”

Keshari logically moves in the next chapter, ‘The Historian in the Historical Novel’, to a discussion of some of the novelists who “create in their novels a fictional historian” to be self-reflexive and multi-layered. Besides blending facts with fiction, the novelist’s strategy facilitates diverse interpretations of actual historical events. Here she concentrates on novels such as The Jewel in the Crown, A Division of the Spoils, Staying On, A New Dominion, A Situation in New Delhi, and a story from A Strong Climate. The readers of these novels and short story negotiate two voices “creating a meaningful dialogue about Indo-British history.”

The focus of the sixth chapter the British missionaries who have suffered “untold hardships in India because they were neither supported nor protected by the government machinery.” Their privations, loneliness, neurosis and even suicide indicate their marginal status just as their portrayal as corollary to the imperialists’ mission was in keeping with many Indians’ perception. They also portray the new breed of seekers and questers, for example, the hippies of the 1960s that turned to India for peace and spiritual regeneration. In fact Keshari develops her text comparing the committed missionaries and the deviant questers on the one hand, and growth of neo-Hinduism like the ISKCON on the other. But I suspect here she is not as sound, organized and confident as in the previous four chapters of the book.

On the whole, Rita Nath Keshari’s approach is eclectic, even as she seeks to interpret history with an understanding of crosscultural issues such as race, identity, ethnicity, hybridity, tradition, alienation, or emotional, social, and cultural isolation, search for self and authentic life. In her postcolonial perspective, she is clear, complete and critical, with flashes of insight, in evaluating the Western imagination drawn to India for its rich life and landscape. Her book brings into focus several less known writers just as it documents the contributions of some well-known British and Indian English fictioneers to the chronicling of an important historical phase affecting the Indian subcontinent for generations. Keshari’s book is a significant research document, interesting and absorbing, on Indo-British relationship both before and after India’s independence and proves that the past still stays with us in more than one way.

Professor R.K.Singh
Head, Dept of Humanities & Social Sciences
Indian School of Mines
Dhanbad 826004 Jharkhand