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Nation in Post-colonial Literature

The Nation across the World: Postcolonial Literary Representations edited by Harish Trivedi, Meenakshi Mukherjee,


Nation in Post-colonial Literature
held in Hyderabad in August 2004. The diverse essays in the volume raise, from the outset, a constitutive irony: that the destabilisation of the nation as a critical Ulka anjaria category in postcolonial studies continues

he “nation” has, in recent decades, become the prime target of the post-colonial critic’s pen. In a word, it is seen to represent all that is wrong about contemporary political life, to which the persistent problems of racism, violence, patriarchy and underdevelopment can at some level all be attributed. Indeed, though at times slightly redundant, this critique is ever important, as it runs counter to the realities of political arrangement in the contemporary world, which stubbornly refuses to think itself out of the nation state paradigm. Moreover, it accurately marks the shift from the triumphant phase of decolonisation to the current context, when the new nations of the formerly colonised

Economic & Political Weekly

may 24, 2008

The Nation across the World: Postcolonial Literary Representations edited by Harish Trivedi, Meenakshi Mukherjee, C Vijayasree, T Vijay Kumar;

Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2007; pp xxxii + 312, Rs 650.

world have proven equally complicit in the repression of diversity, difference and democracy as their imperial predecessors, despite the fact that their existence was justified on those very principles.

Into this discussion we have the publication of the first in three volumes to emerge from the 13th International Triennial Conference of the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) on the theme ‘Nation and Imagination: The Changing Commonwealth’, to require writing about literature as national literature. In this way, the articles in this volume continue to be based “in Australia”, “in South Africa”, “in Fiji”, etc, even while they work, intellectually, to undermine the boundedness of these units. This is not a criticism, but in fact, a nod to the deep imbrication of the nation in the modern episteme (which in turn underlies the always- embedded critical endeavour) and, in this way, an attempt to underline the profound intellectual and political stakes of the project of which this book is a part.

Perceptive Views

The volume begins with an extended introduction written by Harish Trivedi, which is characteristically clear and insightful


and sets the stage for the papers to follow. Indeed, it is an introduction, more detailed and assiduous than most examples of the genre. Trivedi situates the book within the work of important theorists of the nation such as Benedict Anderson, Partha Chatterjee and Homi Bhabha, and adds to these analyses a discussion of the novel and its relation to the nationalist project from the post-colonial perspective. In what might represent a pointed jab at particular strands of “anti-nationalism” taking place in the metropolitan academy, Trivedi argues that theoretical attention to diaspora as a means of contesting the authority of the nation has (inadvertently?) privileged the third world intellectual migrating to the first and, in doing so, has ignored “the much larger and wider subaltern diaspora of indigent labourers and farm-workers” (p xxiii) who are, in a sense, more deeply marked by the stigma of diaspora than their elite, migratory counterparts.

At the same time, Trivedi perhaps too hastily dismisses Eric Hobsbawm’s important observation of the paradox that nationalism in the colonised world had at its core an internationalist outlook. For it is this very paradox that to Hobsbawm’s mind questions the dichotomy between the national and the international. This is, I think, in the same spirit as the volume’s title, “nation across the world”, which also recognises the salience of the nation, while at the same time, seeing it as a means to accessing a truer cosmopolitanism that extends far beyond the borders of the nation state. It is this instability of the term that makes the nation such a crucial site from which to examine the epistemic constructs of both politics and the self, despite its increasing theoretical depletion.

Creative Writings

Following Trivedi’s introduction, the volume is divided into four parts. The first, ‘Nation and Creation’ – in this case referring to creative writing – includes a conversation between novelist Vikram Seth and noted literary critic Meenakshi Mukherjee, who is also one of the co-editors of the volume. As Mukherjee points out in her introductory remarks, Seth is an interesting writer through which to approach the question of the nation because his “three novels are located in three different parts of the world” (p 6). And indeed, as Seth responds, “it is not that I do not have roots – but I feel multirooted. I feel at home in many places” (p 8). Notable in this interview are Mukherjee’s questions concerning Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which bring out especially insightful responses of the author. A downside inherent to reading a conversation, which is an aural genre: the continuity is impeded as it starts and stops, a quality which when listening is refreshing, but when reading can get slightly tiresome. Also in preparing the volume, the audience questions should have been cut out: most repeat what Seth has already discussed (for instance, regarding genre) and they add nothing to the interview in terms of new insight. The deep lyricism of Austin Clarke’s piece, the other in Part One, is also worth a close read.

Part Two – somewhat arbitrarily titled ‘Nations in Black and White’ – begins with Homi Bhabha’s uncharacteristically lucid account of the politics of anti-colonial, international nationalism (in a brilliant elaboration on the Hobsbawmian moment mentioned above) in W E B DuBois’ novel Dark Princess. Through a fascinating discussion of the relations between DuBois and Indian freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai, and of the elusive figure of the “dark princess” who might or might not have referred to the Parsi internationalist Madame Cama, Bhabha shows how “[b]y casting the shadow of the colour-line within the colour-line and providing a tantalisingly contradictory version of the Universal Races Congress [...], DuBois performs both the passion and the problems of spontaneous solidarity amongst the anti-Imperialist Council of Darker Peoples” (pp 52-53). DuBois in this way develops what Bhabha terms the “rule of juxtaposition”, which recognises “the ‘contiguous’ and contingent nature of the making of minorities, where solidarity depends on surpassing autonomy or sovereignty in favour of an intercultural articulation of differences” (p 57). While Bhabha is always known for his theoretical interventions, which occasionally verge on the ludic, this article reveals him at his best: always theoretically precise, but also committed to a positive vision for international solidarity rather than a persistent deconstruction of it.

In the rest of Part Two, which includes a discussion of the problematic, provisional internationalism of the 1919 League of Nations, an analysis of the travels of the leftist German journalist Egon Erwin Kisch, and a reading of David Dabydeen’s powerful novel Disappearance, Gerald Gaylard’s essay on Coetzee’s Disgrace stands out for its cogency and its brilliant

National Seminar-Call for Papers

‘Social Exclusion, Poverty and Livelihood of Marginalised groups in India-Need for Effective Inclusive Strategies’

The Centre for study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy (CSEIP) in Mangalore University is organizing a national seminar on 24th and 25th of September 2008 at the university campus. Sub themes of the seminar includes 1) Perpetuation of social exclusion and poverty in the contemporary India; evolving conceptual frameworks 2) Economic reforms and changing livelihood patterns of Dalits, 3) Tribal rights and livelihood questions; the emerging scenario, 4) Framing inclusive strategies for the marginalized; exploring possibilities within state and civil society, 5) Equality of access to markets and assets, 6) Changing process of caste based social exclusion and evaluating constitutional rights and affirmative action in India. The deadline for abstract submission is June 30th 2008 and full papers should reach the following address on or before 20th August 2008. Authors of selected papers will be provided II/III tier A/C train fare, boarding and lodging facilities on the campus. For registrations and other details, please visit Address for communication: Prof. Vishwanatha, Director, Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy (CSEIP), Mangalore University, Mangalagangothri – 574199. E-mail: or or

Phone: Mobile: 09448503417/09449612993. Office: 0824-2287205

may 24, 2008


argument regarding the much-discussed, post-apartheid novel. Gaylard argues that Disgrace is profoundly metafictional, and as such meditates on the role of creativity in the unfolding of an individual life. Intertextuality is thus not only a narrative device, but a mode of habitation for the protagonist Lurie, who despite his impulses towards Romanticism, with its emphasis on “enculturation”, comes to see “its axioms [as] far too luridly melodramatic to be appropriate metaphors for post-apartheid South Africa which requires an altogether more steely stoicism in order to survive its vicissitudes” (p 98). Beautifully written and persuasively argued, this essay stands out as one of the best in the volume.

International Writings

Part Three, ‘Nations and Empires’, unfortunately lacks a unifying theme, which is partially a result of the editors’ wellintentioned effort to select essays from different parts of the world in addition to the most obviously post-colonial south Asia. Thus along with Sukeshi Kamra’s essay on ‘Reading 1857’ and Priyamvada Gopal’s important retrieval of the Progressive Writers’ Association from the proverbial doghouse of cultural theory (as the staid Marxism it is seen to represent is decidedly out of fashion), we have Chelva Kanaganayakam’s wonderful essay on Sri Lankan literature, Bruce Bennett’s discussion of the essayist Clive James and Eddie Tay on national identity in Singapore. Of these, Kanaganayakam’s stands out for its detailed yet concise explication of the crises of nationalism, ethnicity and literature in contemporary Sri Lanka, a nation state “unique in that two national imaginaries make up one nation, and the government has sovereignty over the entire island but does not control all the territory” (p 189). Kanaganayakam argues that the crisis of nationality in Sri Lanka has resulted in a restructuring of family, caste and other personal relations, which has made a significant impact on literary production in both English and Tamil. She also demonstrates how diasporic writers such as Gunesekera and Ondaadtje often avoid directly addressing the political context and resort to allegory instead. Tay brings up similar

Economic & Political Weekly

may 24, 2008

issues regarding Singapore, which is also marked for its cultural plurality. Discussing Edwin Thumboo’s poem “Ulysses by the Merlion” and several contemporary responses to it, Tay argues that texts in general play a crucial role in “plac[ing] nationalism and the nation under critique, [and] reminding us of the ambivalence, anxieties, and tensions of identity formation” (p 227).

Essays on Other Entertainments

The final section, ‘Nations and Play’, includes essays on various forms of entertainment and leisure, including theatre, comedy and minstrelsy, film, film on cricket and, finally, cricket itself. Again coming from a range of cultural contexts, these essays are more convincingly bound by their attention to those elements of cultural production – with, perhaps, the exception of theatre – that remain outside the elite echelons of “high art”, and in this way serve as more powerful instruments in the ideological work of empire. Especially fascinating is Poonam Trivedi’s riveting account of Dave Carson, an American, black-faced minstrel performer who toured around India in the 1860s and 1870s to packed houses and intense adulation from not only English audiences, but Indian ones as well. By focusing on the context-specific improvisations undertaken by Carson and his group in Bombay and Calcutta, in particular Carson’s hilarious impersonations of the Bengali ‘babu’ and the Parsi ‘mashr’ (the latter named, ridiculously, Davejee Carsonbhoy)

– Trivedi argues that along with the obvious racialisation and stereotyping, Carson also opens up a space of indeterminacy, where counterimages and an element of defiance can emerge to subvert, rather than merely sustain, imperial power. Paradoxically, she argues, “this regular playing of ‘native’ character types by a white entertainer [...] bestow[ed] a public respectability on them even as they were being satirised” (p 261).

The volume’s final two essays are also very interesting: Isabel Santaolalla’s articulate discussion of new notions of European identity in nations formerly on the margins of Europe, such as Spain, and Kathleen Firth’s study of C L R James and cricket in 20th century Trinidad. While Santaolalla submits a compelling analysis of the Spanish film Flores de otro mundo in the context of immigration from Latin America, Firth investigates the ways in which James saw cricket to both be “a ‘metaphor for colonialism’ ” (p 294) and to contain a powerful “ethical code” (p 295). As Firth quotes Caryl Phillips to summate, echoing James’s view and perhaps Firth’s own: despite its colonial origins, cricket is “ ‘much more than a sport: it exemplifie[d] all that is decent and positive in human achievement’ ” (p 296).

It is fitting that the volume ends here; what began with a classic poststructuralist critic reinfusing his theoretical machine with the very real groundwork for international solidarity, at the moment when the dark princess meets the African-American intellectual, has now made several journeys and finally reappeared across the ocean, on a small island where some boys play cricket, and one among them grows up to affirm humanity in a radically different, but at the same time not dissimilar, way as DuBois and his interlocutors. No other affirmation better sums up the promise embedded in this title, this “nation across the world”, which marks both the condition of the present and the cosmopolitan utopia of the future.


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may 24, 2008

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