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review of
picturing south asian culture in english

the elephant has no clothes!
(1,300 words)

a review of ‘picturing south asian Culture in english: textual and visual representations’ (tasleem shakur and karen d’souza, eds.)

This erudite compilation of essays on South Asian culture in English comes out of Edge Hill College of Higher Education, Lancashire. The book progresses through four sections, reflecting a partly chronological, partly thematic narrative progression. It opens (‘Deconstructing History: Canonising Critical Constructions’) with the early colonial period and Samuel Foote’s play, The Nabob (1772), which satirised the nouveau riche, adventurous capitalists of the East India Company in Bengal, but whose critical edge was blunted by the playwright’s need to pander to his paymasters and audience, who both were drawn largely from this same merchant-class. One of the chief dynamics here is the use of farcical humour with its panoply of stereotypes, and Stephen Gregg’s essay demonstrates effectively that ultimately, such works serve simply as a Swiftian glass, “wherein beholders discover everybody’s face but their own”. In Foote’s play, there is also no sense of character development, let alone any sense of conscience, in its treatment of colonial subjects.

The parameters are set. In Claire Spencer-Jones’s clever analysis of the references to the ‘Indian Mutiny’ in James Joyce’s Ulysses, we see that while, in the spirit of anti-imperialist analysis, Joyce invokes India as a political symbol of the Irish nationalist cause, yet again, in spite of the regional individuality of his outlook, there is no real concern or intent on Joyce’s part regarding India itself. The irredeemably biased focus of the colonial novel is exemplified even more strongly by J.G. Farrell’s 1973 Booker-winning, The Siege of Krishnapur, where again, the level of humanity vested in the Indian players remains undeveloped and stereotypical when compared with the subtly-drawn, complex characterisations visited upon their British counterparts.

The next section, ‘Revisiting Colonialism: The Persistence of the Raj’, shifts us to the second half of the twentieth century, but with a incisive, Janus glance at how the historical processes of the first half came to define the nature of post-colonial literature and film. A moving account by John Simons, of the life and work of Gamini Salgado, an immigrant Sri Lankan professor of English at Exeter University, identifies and illuminates an intriguing elison between the bustling, cerebral spheres of English literature and the internalized context of the linguistic rhythms and storytelling tradition of Sri Lanka, and the centrality of this process in forming a new identity as exemplified by the late professor and his work. That such an imaginative and exciting dynamic has seldom been pursued by the (ex-)coloniser is demonstrated highly effectively in the essay by Sylvia Woodhead on the Orientalist novel, The Far Pavilions (M.M. Kaye, 1978) and its powerfully seductive effect on the relatively homogeneous English suburban culture internalized by the essay’s author during her youth. This essay candidly delineates the process by which film/TV versions of such romantic novels become deformed to fulfill the longings of western audiences. The editors themselves analyse this in greater detail in their own essay on the novels, Heat and Dust and In Custody, on the play, East is East and on the film adaptations of all of these three literary works. D’Souza and Shakur examine differences arising from the cultural positioning of authors/directors and their assumed readership or audience and they illustrate the manner in which all of these post-colonial narratives, in very different ways, draw on the colonial past and they also demonstrate the powerful significance of fiction and film in the construction and shaping of individual and collective perceptions.

The next section, ‘Communicating Identity: Language and Popular Cultures’, moves elliptically to examine the relationship between history and myth in the evolution of modern Indian culture, both through the muscular immanence of this interaction in literature in English (Annie Montaut’s ‘Popular Culture of Himalayan Women in English Writing’) and through an analysis of modernist vs. post-modernist architecture, in which Iain D. Jackson depicts the Corbusier-designed Indian Punjabi city of Chandigarh and Nek Chand’s rock garden protest against architectural abstract formalism devoid of both human scale and historico-mythical reference points. Clive Grey takes a detailed look at the changing place and operation of the English language, both within South Asia and in the UK, and its role in the formation of identity and his argument that English is a South Asian language, is a powerful and relevant one, particularly in the context of the various chauvinisms and nationalisms that are operative across the globe which constantly attempt to requisition language and turn it into monolith.

In the final section, ‘Negotiating Postmodernity: Culture, Hybridity and Critique’, E. Anna Claydon deconstructs the film, Bhaji on the Beach as an illustration of the evolution of British cinema from homogeneity to heterogeneity, in terms of both gender relationships and contemporary hybrid Britishness. In Paul Rodaway’s essay, bell hooks’s exciting and liberating concept of “spaces of radical openness’ as critical cultural spaces articulated through ‘hyper-irony’ is explored through the character of Apu, the South Asian shopkeeper in the American cartoon, ‘The Simpsons’ and through this character’s complex, multi-dimensional relationships with the main character, Homer Simpson, with his local town, with South Asian culture and with the North American orbit in general. Finally, and appropriately, we slip into the world of the virtual image, and a lucid exposition of the symbolism, rooted in colonial stereotype, of ‘Taj the elephant genie’ in the contemporary computer-game, Diddy Kong Racing. James Newman and Claire Molloy show how the ‘taming’ of the Indian elephant, and its uses in industry and for hunting, became a prime symbol, during Victorian times and after, of the ‘beneficent’ harnessing and domination of Hindustan as typified by the elephant being the central exhibit in countless zoos and circuses. This mythic signifier, unquestioningly perpetuated into virtuality and thence into deeper and more unsuspecting levels of the consciousness, and whose entrance is heralded always by the playing of the same few, clichéd Indian-esque musical notes, is seen to be passive, controlled, servile, and differs thus from all the other characters in the computer-game.

Picturing South Asian Culture in English is an incisive analysis of the representations of South Asian culture in English-language text and celluloid over the past couple of centuries. Its erudition and formal concerns, as well as the vocational backgrounds of its authors, place it well within the sphere of academic cultural critique, while the popular and topical nature of its subject-matter, and also, in some of the essays, the welcome intrusion of the personal, the subjective, has the refreshing effect of leavening the narrative but also of debunking the pompous claim, barely iterated yet ever-present in much artistic, social and historical critique, of objective immanence. The monochrome photograph, snapped in 1943, that forms the front cover, of a quorum of smiling British servicemen with the backdrop of the Taj Mahal, taken as it is from the private collection of one of the contributing essayists, serves to emphasise that this is no dry, esoteric tome. We are dealing here with live, political issues that form and affect all our lives, not just on this island but also across the great swathe of land known as ‘South Asia’ and more broadly, in the concept of how various, interlinked streams of culture merge and change and deform over time in response to economic and other factors, and the manner in which such historical processes manifest as art and in particular, as literature and film. This book should be required reading on all courses dealing with modern society, and not just those focused on literary or film studies. Above all, in common with much writing on these subjects, Picturing South Asian Culture in English cannot be allowed to be funelled into some dry, academic ghetto, some ‘ethnic’ corner or other, but must be allowed to take its rightful place in the collective bibliothèque of our society.
Suhayl Saadi from the elephant has no clothes!

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