Last week, I saw ‘A Passage To India‘ with my parents and grandma, it started out as a hilarious exercise in pointing out just how many racist elements could one mesh in a movie — turns out more than we can ever count! — and making cynical notes in my head like, “Not all Indians are always smiling all the time, okay?” and “Not all brown women keep their gaze centered on their feet, no not even always in colonial times!” to the part where my grandma started laughing at the “Silly white women trying to speak Hindi!” and then she started telling us about her school days — some 65 years ago when she was roughly about 12 years old¹ — where she and her friends would race to the Colonial Bungalow near their school in Pune, about running right home whenever they’d hear the horses hooves — for almost always it was the British in their town on horses — and trying to touch the fence of the Bungalow but being too scared to physically try it out, to the time when she and her older sister got caught and were lashed for ‘something’ which she doesn’t tell us. She was laughing at how uneven and rough their Hindi sounded, but didn’t know what the movie was about as her English isn’t as good — partly because of the time she was born in and in part because of her own decision to never ‘learn that tongue’ as an adolescent — and for a bit there, mum was transcribing what was happening on-screen and stripping the dialogue, settings from its inherent racism — pretty ironic for a woman who once protested against the ‘White Imperial Capitalist Hegemony’ in the mid 80’s I thought — and by the time my grandma fully understood why were the White women speaking to the sari-clad-purdah-observing women, it wasn’t funny anymore to her. It took her a couple of days and a few sleeping pills to ‘become’ herself again.
Something like this isn’t a routine occurrence in my household — contrary to popular belief I don’t crumble and break down every time I pass a colonial structure or when I watch English movies or while reading English books — but a movie as specifically racist to Indians as ‘A Passage To India’ or going to the museum, looking at weapons that may have been used on some of my student’s great-grandparent’s are times when I want to re-write history or break away all ties with ‘my’ colonial past — whichever comes first. When faced with historical markers in specific situations, it becomes a tad difficult to view things objectively², to take the position dad took while viewing the film that, “This was an anti-racist book written in the colonial times! Pretty courageous on Forster’s part, no?”, to concede it under the label of This Is How Things Were Back Then. On some level I do understand that Forster like Joseph Conrad was ‘trying to do the right thing’, critiquing colonialism while it was going on — not a terribly popular opinion at that — but I find it very hard to applaud individuals who were more ‘humane’ than others — seeing how both perpetuated harmful and lingering stereotypes of the ‘native’ they were both writing of — to give Shiny Activist Medals™ to Dead White Dudes — a formidable camp on its own — that in no way produced any nuanced critiques of the Empire, not even ‘back then’. While Forster was writing ‘A Passage To India’, talking about Memsahibs and the ‘fascination’ all Brown men must inherently have with White women, we had writers like Premchand³ and Pandey Becan Sharma Ugra writing decidedly postcolonial literature — and many, many Dalit and tribal writers whose accounts live primarily in their specific community’s oral traditions considering they ‘lacked’ Premchand or any other upper-caste Hindu writer of the time’s privilege to education and position in the caste-hierarchy.
This isn’t to say Forster’s work holds no value, rather that teaching Forster without critically engaging with all of the narrative’s faults would be wrong, especially to ‘us’ as subjects of the ‘ex’ Empire; it’s’ interesting’ — where interesting stands for the fact Guari Vishwanathan was right all along — that we as postcolonial subjects are still made to learn many such works and that generally any mentions to ‘postcoloniality’ are kept confined in the upper echelons of academia — as if ‘theory’ and ‘lived reality’ are two different boxes and clear demarcations exist between them at all times. The fact we still go on learning such texts without feeling the need to explain the gaps and silences ‘our bodies’ re-present with absences (in the text) or the fact that when we suggest popular genres such as steampunk should be interrogated via postcolonialism as Jha does in her wonderful post is enough to cause fury and all the whitesplainers to come out of cracks and caves — also in Dusty Land, you need not always be White to be a whitesplainer, it’s that special gift we still have from the neato colonisation thing — is because the easy and popular narrative of history is ‘an event that happened, a long time ago’ and cannot have any possible lingering effects, that ‘somehow filter’ down to our bodies. That we see and face neocolonial attitudes that are loosely disguised as ‘globalisation’ and ‘multicultural exchange’ — when each time it’s the dominant culture that dictates the ‘exchange’, if it takes place at all — and that even in ‘brownspace’ we are still grappling with colonial attitudes and mindsets.
One way to look at history is to see it as a way of narrativising time — maps in turn codify space — but what happens to memories? Or experiences that ‘trickle-down’, we set up hierarchies to which experience — or oppression — is ‘more’ legitimate or ‘deserving’ of ‘attention’, what about second-hand memories that live through generations? Seeing mum leave out racism in her narration of the movie to my grandma — initially — altered her memories of her childhood for her, mum’s intervention at the time was out of kindness I assume, but after a point even this intervention is impossible to make after a point. How do you codify such a situation where words are futile and syllables don’t even fully form — as they didn’t form either for mum or my grandma — what happens then? I’m not suggesting wipe out all traces of the Empire — if it were even possible — rather we have to learn to contextualise our bodies in this mix — if and when we can — intervene when we can and not invalidate one another with claims of Whose Oppression Isn’t Real Enough™ to support and view each other through differences and not as a quest to homogenise and smooth over.
1. India got ‘independence’ in 1947 technically, but it wasn’t until the mid-1950’s that the officers left. Many had settlements and stayed on here — their ranks may have been stripped off or resigned, there still existed an uneven power dichotomy when they lived as residents as per my grandma’s accounts as well as many other oral accounts.
2. Don’t particularly agree with Brecht there, the dichotomy between ‘critical thinking, feeling and objectivity’ doesn’t exist for me. Who said we can’t think, feel and reflect at the same time — if and when we can — does ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ always have to exist in two separate spheres?
3. This is a good paper on Premchand’s experimental depiction of the Subaltern (the wife) in his short story the Shroud — though I disagree with the way the paper posits Ghisu as a ‘subaltern’ when his character fits more with Gramsci’s ‘Organic Intellectual‘.