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Books and Authors

November 18, 2007

ARTICLES: Writing the post-colonial novel

By Haider Javed Warraich

The modern English world is vastly different from the roots of the English language, immortalised by the aristocratic British accent. Much like the colonials themselves, English was seen as an infestation; another baton wielded by the white man in his annihilistic rampage on oriental lands and heritage. It should be noted that though European imperialism was an even greater phenomenon — they controlled 85 per cent of the populated regions in the world at one point or another — the concern of this article is British imperialism, with a specific focus on South Asia.

Note also that not all regions were affected by imperialism in the same way. They were divided along the lines of settler (Australia, Canada, America), non-settler (India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Sri Lanka) and semi-settled (Zimbabwe, South Africa) colonies. The settler colonies rapidly progressed to achieve complete autonomy. While in non-settler regions such as the subcontinent, independence was achieved after a protracted and violent struggle.

And in these regions, where scythes were sharpened and bayonets reversed, very distinct feelings began to rise amongst the populace. Before the advent of the East India Company on its shores, the subcontinent epitomised the Oriental life; perfected in the days of the Mughal Empire. The British came and set things around: the way of thought, the style of schooling, the medium of communication. Suddenly, people who had lived in these lands for centuries became aliens in their own homes.

Following the defeats on the battleground, and the subsequent realisation of scientific and economic inadequateness, therein grew the innate feeling of inferiority amongst the local population with regards to their fair-skinned conquerors. Even today, the effects of colonialism linger on including the essential loss of identity and a weathered look on indigenous culture and history. In fact, one Arab post-colonial author reckoned that it was imperialism that injected a sense of national identity, something that didn’t exist before random lines were drawn on a map somewhere in England, France, Spain or Holland.

This is also true of India and Pakistan, for after the British left what was once one vast expanse of Hindustan was now a blood-tainted minefield. And from there emerges the original post-colonial protagonist: ‘I was born in the city of Bombay… once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date. I was born in Doctor Nalikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more… On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came.’

So starts Salman Rushdie’s seminal novel, Midnight’s Children, the story of two children born in August 1947 who grew up in a world where they didn’t previously exist as distinct entities. The novel is a story the generation of children born after the partition and the forces that connect this generation to each other and to their motherland. Each paragraph of the novel is littered with metaphors and double binds that pull the reader into what it felt like to shadow the birth of a nation torn out of its mother’s womb. The language that these people speak is English, yet unmistakably a Hindustani English. And therein lays the secret of why the book won the Booker Prize in 1981, and the Booker of Bookers on the Prize’s 25th anniversary.

The language that these people speak is English, yet unmistakably a Hindustani English. And therein lay the secret of why Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981, and the Booker of Bookers on the Prize’s 25th anniversary.
In Anita Desai’s Booker Prize-winning work The Inheritance of Loss (2006), the stains of a colonial past are splayed across the themes of the book. There is a rather amusing set of retrospective questions for the reader at the end of the novel, ‘What does it mean to introduce an element of the West into a country that is not of the West… How are their problems… related to problems of statehood and old hatreds that will not die…? How is it that the judge’s father saw that the class system in India would prevent his son from realising his potential but that colonialism offered a chink in the wall?’ In the end this is what the novel is about: people uprooted from their lands, West or East, and transmigrated to the other. This makes the work as good a candidate for the postcolonial category as any other.

Now one may argue that the Booker Prize is not a fair barometer with regards to an objective view of post-colonialism, since it is, significantly, a prize reserved only for authors from Commonwealth countries. However, this should not undermine recent winners such as Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient), Yann Martel (Life of Pi) and Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things). Meanwhile writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee represent post-colonial authors who have been conferred with the Nobel for Literature. The success of popular young writers such as Zadie Smith is another example of this enduring legacy of East-meets-West.

But now I will take a deep breath and ask the question: are we overdoing it? There is the obvious greater critical and popular interest in post-colonial literature in English on the other side of the divide, so on our part is it not but an effort to placate our masters of yore? Is this nothing but more sycophancy — just more voluntary, and hence, more shameful? And secondly, how long will this continue, perhaps another generation or maybe two? These are questions that I put on the table but do not have any answers to them; I merely tease. But noting current trends it seems that authors are busy impressing upon their former masters, who now sit behind the guise of literary criticism, eager to read about their glorious past and glory in the tragedies they helped enact.

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