Postcolonial Indian Novels

A review of Speaking Voices in Postcolonial Indian Novels from Orientalism to Outsourcing, by Barbara J. Gardner.

This timely dissertation argues that while Orientalism was about silencing of the Orient,  several postcolonial Indian texts written in English challenge Orientalism’s hegemony, effectively “resisting the silence” (p. 5). In the postcolonial era, rather than maintaining silence, the Orient is expected not just to speak, but to speak for the West as well. But what is the Orient (in this case, India) to say? Barbara Gardner examines select Indian texts to consider this breaking of silence through the tropes of abjection, magic realism, (dis)assimilation, and recovery of lost history through a voice “speaking history.” These four topics provide the thematic unity for each of the chapters discussed below.

In Chapter 1, Gardner deploys abjection theory vis-à-vis Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Here, Gardner employs Julia Kristeva’s notion of abjection as caused by what disturbs the signifying process, “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, position” [Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982, p. 4]. Gardner astutely locates and recounts instances of hopelessness, desolation, and despondence not only in the various characters in the novel , but also in Roy’s language and her decision to focus her work on the socio-economic turmoil in a post-independence India. Gardner analyzes the “gaps” in Roy’s language, arguing that the author employs a vocabulary of fear and despair (employing words such as “ridiculous,” “insane,” and “infeasible”) that tells a larger story about India’s abjection during the colonial and neo-colonial eras (pp. 12-13). Gardner engages with the stories of all the characters inhabiting Roy’s novel (Ammu, Estha, and Rahel, for instance), but her unique contribution lies in the highlighting of the ways in which the voice of the untouchable and the abject Velutha, the arch oriental, who supposedly has been silent, is heard and echoed throughout the story.

Chapter 2, after outlining the characteristics of magical realism, defines Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as a novel that locates several “speaking voices” as a “reaction to trauma, the trauma of the betrayal of the promise of independence, a trauma that can only be discussed through subversive forms of writing such as magical realism” (p. 51). Gardner’s thesis focuses on the protagonist, Saleem Sinai, and how he, unable to face the trauma of multiple failures to which the country is subjected, turns “inward to the magic of his very own M.C.C.” (Midnight’s Children’s Conference), where the children born at the midnight of Independence acquire a voice of their own to tackle the issues affecting the country (p.74). In Rushdie’s narrative, the voices of “midnight’s children” are not unilaterally equated with a breaking of silence and empowerment. Instead, Gardner reveals that through “the story of the miracles and failures of the children of potential, the children of midnight, Rushdie is indicting the Indian people’s lack of vision for the future” (p.75).

Chapter 3 deals with history of the subcontinent through a reading of four novels, namely, Ice-Candy Man, A Train to Pakistan, A Fine Balance, and Such a Long Journey, all of which deal with the after-effects of the partition of India, as well as Indira Gandhi’s declaration of emergency provisions (1975-77). According to Gardner, Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man explores the speaking voice of history. Here, Gardner reveals the possibility of overcoming the unsavory through the continuing agency of women helping women (p.118). Gardner’s emphasis on women’s solidarity in Ice Candy Man is sure to get feminist scholars excited about her work. On the other hand, as she points out, Khushwant Singh’s A Train to Pakistan treats India’s downslide into violence through a not-so-singular focus on women. The novel enjoys a somewhat iconic status in Partition literature for its evocative and yet grim portrayal of Partition on the lives of people, but is less about women’s agency and more about protecting women’s “honor” and proving one’s manhood (pp. 104-107). Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Such a Long Journey also deal with Partition, the declaration of the Emergency by Indira Gandhi, and an apparent loss of voice for the common people of the country. However, in Such a Long Journey, the character Billimoria’s telling of the truth reverses the trend of silence; here, he represents a “speaking voice” for the millions of silent victims of Indira Gandhi’s machinations. Gardner’s analysis of the A Fine Balance follows the novel’s characters along a familiar trajectory, from an analysis of ignorance and innocence to a gradual recognition of truth, and finally to the acquisition of a voice of their own in the end.

Gardner’s final chapter uses Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake, Lahiri’s short story, “Mrs. Sen’s,” and Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth to explore the concept of (dis)assimilation. While earlier texts were situated in the subcontinent, Gardner emphasizes that the later narratives produced by Lahiri and Smith cover the global and the diasporic, and yet remain connected to the earlier texts in their exploration of the theme of acquiring a voice for the so-called Oriental. She understands (dis)assimilation as an acknowledgement of the problematics of assimilation, especially for identity formation for Indian migrants abroad, many of which appear through the simple yet complex mechanics of food preparation. In searching White Teeth for an immigrant voice, Gardner argues that the text “is important in the discussion of cultural (dis)assimilation as it speaks bluntly and clearly of the deepest fears of people left to the mercy of another culture through immigration, even to the point of fears of total loss of self” (p.191). Her analysis ends with a celebration of “cross-pollination” as an apt metaphor for not only the future of Britain, realized through this key fact in Smith’s novel, but also how the voice of the subaltern and the immigrant could be heard now due to the consequences of the “randomness of English imperialism” in the past (pp. 211-12). While Gardner is quick to point to the British anxiety over its own idea of Britishness in the face of recent immigration, she argues that the British need to “move beyond the mind-set of boundaries between the colonizer and the colonized and look to a future of ethnic diversity instead of limiting themselves” to the same race (p. 211). The postcolonial writer becomes a chronicler that succinctly captures this shifting landscape and the shifting boundaries of identity formation.

Gardner’s work concludes with an important rumination on a body of work that systematically and cumulatively resists a stable representation and equation of Orientalism with silence and unequivocal oppression. Gardner’s dissertation illustrates the multiplicity of voices that can be discerned with a close examination of the leading works of postcolonial literature. Gardner challenges the resistance to Western hegemony and a control of narrative typologies by highlighting the postcolonial voices that refuse to be silenced and instead speak for themselves and the community around them. Her opportune suggestion of examining the polyphony of indigenous voices from various angles and historical moments in India advances Edward Said’s important thesis that the Orient has always been spoken for and therefore there exists a need to hear and simultaneously uncover the suppressed voices. Tantalizingly, Gardner equates the acquisition of a voice with the attainment of agency, an analysis that surely sets the stage for future work in this area. Gardner’s dissertation is bright and engaging, and will capture the interest of scholars in the field of postcolonial studies, globalization, (post)Orientalism/Saidian studies, Partition studies, literary theory, feminist studies, and women’s history.

Navneet Kumar
Department of English
Medicine Hat College
nkumar@mhc.ab.ca

Primary Sources

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. “Mrs. Sen’s.” Interpreter of Maladies. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999. 111-35.
Mistry, Rohinton. A Fine Balance. New York: Vintage International, 1995.
Roy, Arundhati. God of Small Things. New York: Random House, 1997.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. New York: Penguin, 1980.
Sidhwa, Bapsi. Ice-Candy-Man. New Delhi: Penguin, 1988.
Singh, Khushwant, Train to Pakistan. New York: Grove Publishing, 1956.
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. New York: Random House, 2001.

Dissertation Information

Georgia State University. 2012. 229 pp. Primary Advisor: Randy Malamud.

Image: Photo by Author.

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