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Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Meetings of East and West

  • Harish Trivedi (Author)
    Colonial Transactions: English Literature and India. Manchester University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Teresa Hubel (Author)
    Whose India? The Independence Struggle in British and Indian Fiction and History. Duke University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Bart Moore-Gilbert (Editor)
    Writing India 1757-1990: The Literature of British India. Manchester University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Don Randall

These three new works strive, predominantly through the study of literary texts, to sort out the cultural ramifications of British imperialism in India. What most immediately engages me about Writing India 1757-1990: The Literature of British India (the best of the three, in my view) is the tension between title and subtitle: concerning the last forty-two years of the title’s proposed temporal range, what is the status of this "British India" to which the subtitle ascribes a particular "literature"? Certainly, seven of the nine articles position themselves squarely within a British India sphere, examining Anglo-Indian writing, both well and little known, on a variety of topics—Black Hole infamies, thug tales, and harem fascinations, among others. Even Danny Colwell’s article on Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet isn’t unduly strained by the title tension I have indicated. Scott, after all, applies himself to the later decades of the Raj, and Colwell to the "dissolution" of imperial identity, or more precisely, to the breaking down, in Scott’s work, ofthat identity’s sustaining binary oppositions— English/Indian, masculine/feminine, intellectual/emotional, among others. However, the final article in the collection, by Tim Parnell, focuses on Rushdie’s novels and uses them as the basis for a more general evaluation of postcolonial writing’s contemporary possibilities. Happily, Parnell does think that to read Rushdie is, at least in part, to read Rushdie’s ambivalent and unsettling participation in the discursive formations of British India.

Bart Moore-Gilbert, in his excellent introduction to the volume, clearly outlines its critical project, making a case for the extended life ascribed to "the literature of British India": the collection, as a whole, aims to elucidate "the complex relation of continuity as well as conflict between colonial and postcolonial constructions of India". As Moore-Gilbert makes clear, the book responds and contributes to contemporary developments in colonial discourse analysis. But rather than gnawing at the too broad, too vague category of discourse-in-general, the articles all seek, in different ways, to discover what is distinct about literary discourse. Manifesting a sure and subtle grasp of recent postcolonial theory, notably that of Homi Bhabha, Moore-Gilbert articulates a cogent critique and revaluation of Saidian thinking. Literary discourse of India, he argues, evidences "a greater variation and struggle within imperial discourse than Said allows." The chapters that make his case particularly well are Kate Teltscher’s lead text on Black Hole (of Calcutta) mythmaking, his own chapter on Kipling and Bhabha, Alison Sainsbury’s contribution on the Anglo-Indian domestic novel, and Parnell’s previously mentioned discussion of Rushdie. Although informative, Nigel Leask’s chapter on Anglo-Indian poetry is not nearly so intellectually impressive as the work in his recent British Romantic Writers and the East. Christopher Lane’s piece on Forster is, oddly, an alternative version of a text already published in his own 1995 monograph The Ruling Passion. Unfortunately, Lane’s analysis of Forster reads more compellingly in that context, though the prose in the Writing India chapter is often clearer, more precise.

Harish Trivedi professes, right from the start, his critical commitment to "transaction," for him a "quintessentially English word" connoting among other things "an interactive, dialogic, two-way process ... involving complex negotiation and exchange." The first two of his book’s three parts are devoted to the study of "reception" (of English literature in India) and "representation" (of India in English literature). "Reception" begins with Shakespeare and ends with T. S. Eliot. "Representation" begins with Byron, whose musings on the East are made to contrast, in a quite illuminating way, with those of Southey and Moore. Eliot and Tagore, both subjects for part one, are discussed again in part two, along with the lesser known but noteworthy Edward Thompson and finally Forster. With respect to critical models familiar to Western academic readers, Trivedi is most concerned with responding to Said and contesting his notion of the elaborate and irresistible power of Orientalist discourse. Salutarily, Trivedi finds that English literature did not make its way into Indian culture like a hot knife through butter; and that India, in English letters, is submitted at times to a quite multifaceted treatment and not merely to the strategic simplifications and stereotypes of a discourse of domination. As regards style and critical orientation, the book is something of a curiosity for a Western academic reader. As the author anticipates, this work (which first appeared in India in 1993 then acquired an English publisher in 1995) seems "at odds with the hegemonic academic discourse of the metropolis." Its critical perspective is confidently humanist. Poststructuralism, when nodded to, is invariably ironized. The importance of feminist critique and gender studies goes unacknowledged. (Not one woman writer, I should note, is examined in this work.) "Post-colonialism" appears in circumspect quotations, as do various critical terms associated with this burgeoning field of academic endeavor. Trivedi’s prose style, however, is more interestingly, and perhaps more productively, at odds with contemporary norms of Western crili cal practice: it is unflaggingly, often impiously, witty, and offers on occasion some quite rarified critical-reading thrills, such as the characterization of T. S. Eliot as "a latter-day fag-end Orientalist." But the most intriguing and impressive aspect of the style is the writer’s apparently willful forging of a hybrid critical prose (already liminally evident in "fag-end Orientalist"), which effectively figures forth the cross-cultural transaction Trivedi wants to stress. Trivedi puts forward a considerable stock of Indian vocabulary, insisting on the conceptual specificities and nuances that must not be lost. Yet at the same time he favors a fair number of excessively English figures of speech. While discussing, for example, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, who translated Fitzgerald’s (in)famous Rubaiyat into Hindi and composed, virtually at the same time, his own Omar-Khayyamesque verse sequence, Trivedi writes, "That translation Bachchan had called Umar Khayyam ki Madhushala as distinct from the plain Madhushala he had produced off his own bat." This figure of the productive bat (which recalls that Indians take to cricket as avidly as Britons take to polo) brings an appropriate stylistic touch to Trivedi’s scholarship.

I should note, however, that the book’s third and final part, "Reorientation: A post-colonial agenda," does not take the argument where academic readers in Britain and North America would likely want and expect it to go—that is, to a thoughtful revaluation of literary studies (prominently represented by "English") as a core formation of the contemporary humanities. The new British and Anglo-American readers of this book very probably will have some (worried or avid) awareness of the rise of "cultural studies," a scholarly formation that tends not only to reorient the reading and teaching of literature but also to ask whether the contemporary humanities should continue to privilege the study of literary artifacts. Unlike Moore-Gilbert’s collection, which makes a case for the specific value of literary studies, Trivedi’s book seems to assume, too easily, that the value of literary study is beyond question or challenge. Although he is clearly aware of the Macaulayan legacy (that is, the elaboration of English literary education as a method of colonial domination), Trivedi trusts himself to literary studies, merely proposing a diversification of literatures as the solution for the problems inhering in the old model of English studies in India. He thus fails to acknowledge adequately that some abiding notions about what literature is and does, about why and how we should study it, were initially forged during the colonial English-in-India experiment.

Hubel’s Whose India? examines political and imaginative constructions of India in British and Indian writings from the later nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Certainly, the book deserves at the outset a few appreciative nods. It strives to read literary texts in relation to historically specific, socio-political situations and, more crucially perhaps, sets out to challenge "the separate canons" that isolate Indian writing in English from modern British literature. This work also commits itself seriously to a feminist critical perspective, repeatedly teasing out the implications of gender politics for literary scholarship and offering extensive address to critical and creative works by women, both British and Indian.

The book suffers, however, from the questionable choice of "ownership" as its ordering concept, calling it the stake for which various writers and writings supposedly play. One must wonder how Hubel’s will to complex, multifaceted, critical evaluation is served by her statement that "Rudyard Kipling and Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, stake their claim to the ownership of India by the very act of writing about it," and her immediately subsequent, grounding assertion "that writing can possess ... the power to establish ownership." Hubel’s analysis, considered in its entirety, manifests her awareness that the working out of a writerly relationship with India invariably will entail position-taking with respect to various issues—representation and identification, personal and public histories, the often interlinked politics of gender, class, and race. The book does deliver, I think, a more varied and interesting assembly of perspectives than its ownership-oriented introduction announces. Even so, the analysis of Kipling and Forster is not as engaging or incisive as other recent treatments of these authors, such as those that appear in Writing India. Hubel does provide, on the other hand, a good deal of information and some useful criticism on less amply documented participants in the debates that shape modern India’s sociopolitical development—among others, Mary Frances Billington, Jenny Fuller, Pandita Ramabai, Swarnakumari Devi, and B. R. Ambedkar.

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MLA: Randall, Don. Meetings of East and West. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 Dec. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #164 (Spring 2000), (Atwood, Davis, Klein & Multiculturalism). (pg. 168 - 170)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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