White mythologies
Rumina Sethi

Colonial Studies 1880-1947: Special Issue of South Asian Review.
Vol 25, No. 1. ed. K. D. Verma. Pages 390. Price not stated.

Colonial Studies 1880-1947 focuses on representations of India worked out in the fantasies of both the coloniser and the colonial subject. In the years of colonialism, India became the tabula rasa for varied manifestations emerging out of both the imperial and the colonial psyche.

The editor, K. D. Verma, articulates the argument in his introductory essay The Structure of Colonial Fantasy, where he discusses James Mill’s now discredited History of British India and the subsequent indulgences of Hegel, who was inspired by Mill. Both the empiricist and the rationalist claimed India to be female and unable to combat the masculine force of an aggressive Britain. It was this peculiar prejudice that found its way in Macaulay when he sealed the anglicist victory over William Jones and Thomas Colebrook, who, in spite of their keen appreciation of Indian culture, could not keep their doubts about India’s capacity for self-governance at bay.

Verma goes through the entire range of Anglican attitudes towards India: he cites Tennyson, Thackeray, Dickens, Carlyle, Matthew Arnold and Marx to show how the Leviathan called India became a "top heavy" structure, which the British ultimately found difficult to maintain. Further, he cites Conrad, Kipling and Forster to reveal the jingoism of British imperialist ideology, which points inexorably towards the logic of imperialism, despite their ostensible sympathies.

If Verma summons British authors, then Meenakshi Mukherjee invokes Romeshchandra Dutt to interrogate the fortuitous connection between the nation and the novel, both of which emerged in India at about the same time. Dutt celebrates a chauvinistic, masculine Bengali past as his particular fantasy, but his responses to the nation and its women are ambiguous and contradictory, particularly owing to the dialogic nature of the novel form.

Anita Desai traces a similar trajectory in Tagore’s The Home and the World pursuing the contradiction between the "old" and the "new". There are, in fact, many essays on Bengali writing: my own contribution on the historical and romantic aspects of Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s Anandamath falls within the genre. Bankim is here seen to construct the factual world of history through the modes of the fabulous and the fantastic to show that history writing in the period of nation-building is largely a self-representation in which western forms of writing mingle with indigenous themes.

Another thematic cluster is discovered in the essays on England and Englishness. Meenakshi Sharma poses the question about "true" and "ideal" Englishness in contrast to the colonial variety in "Indian Accounts of Travel to England". Many Indians travelled to England to discover this difference. The literature of travel, autobiography, anthropological inquiry and reminiscence also provides historical information as narrative and builds up the positions of coloniser and colonised.

Sharma skillfully uncovers the moods, dilemmas and yearnings of the British in India and the Indians in Britain, which have scarcely ever been treated as a literary corpus by historians of Britain and India. The complexity of responses and reactions, the parallelism of reportage as well as the contrast, the repugnance and the bonds of sympathy are daunting to say the least.

The British-Indian contact also led to interracial romance and miscegenation: Loretta M. Mijares’s essay on "A Romance of England and India" dismisses the idealised possibility of the blending of the East and the West and suggests a denial of their very existence in her treatment of such themes in Maud Diver’s novel Far to Seek.

Their existence can only be acceptable if it is raised to an artistic level, which includes a harmonious blend of two cultures again reduced to the level of fantastic stereotypes, the spirituality of the east and the knowledge of the west. This may be an instance of literary representation taking on the task of easing away the complexities of mixed-race communities during colonial rule, albeit unwittingly.

K. D. Verma, as an editor, has put together a historically rich account of colonialism by examining its history, language and theory, and explicating its political significance. It is a timely and thoughtful volume produced with historical sensitivity and, above all, an appreciation of the need to place the question of postcolonialism at the centre of an engagement with the colonial paradigm which acquires an urgency even today as cultural, racial, and moral differences established by imperialism still persist.