A world turned upside down
by Rumina Sethi

Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction
by Robert J. C. Young. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Pages 180. £ 6.99.

Postcolonialism: A Very Short IntroductionSeveral years ago, in his book Colonial Desire, Robert Young presented an interestingly engineered contrast between the East and the West in his description of the zero degree GMT Meridian that runs arbitrarily through the Old Royal Observatory in London.

Tourists almost always straddle the narrow brass strip and have themselves photographed with each foot in a different hemisphere. This is a narrative technique by which the author connects image with theory, a method he uses to advantage in Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction.

Young’s engagement with theories of (post)colonialism began with White Mythologies, a landmark achievement in postcolonial criticism; the book under review is a neat summation of his ideas about postcolonialism intended for the beginner but also, one might add, equally useful for the expert.

Postcolonialism is full of conversational directness and makes early ingress into a style of writing completely at variance with the perplexity of many books on the subject. Unlike his other book Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction, it acquaints the unfamiliar reader with the ideas of domination, the exploitation of the marginalised, inferiority and so on, linking them up with the terminology of postcolonial studies such as subalternity, hybridity, and gender. Since theory developed with the intention of dissolving the master narratives, postcolonialism also grew as a system of interrogative practices much like feminism, often contradictory but always supportive of a balance between the West and the non-West, black and white, men and women, elite and "subaltern".

Through a series of images, Robert Young defines the term "postcolonial" as in that postcolonial gesture when Langston Hughes flings the books of western knowledge far, far into the sea as he sails from New York to Africa or that postcolonial challenge thrown by Che Guevara to the western world at the Tricontinental Conference in Havana in 1966 when he said: "The contribution that falls to us, the exploited and backward of the world, is to eliminate the foundations sustaining imperialism."

But western imperialism has not been easy to overthrow. From the 1920s, Iraq has been waiting for freedom from the West’s "right to bomb". Right from the earliest days of the western arrival into the "new world", the natives have been exterminated to make way for new nations. And while the new entrants celebrate the condition of "diasporic" migrancy in literature and theory, those forcibly given refugee status can hardly become part of this jamboree.

Almost poetic in conception with echoes of Eliot, the book sometimes reads like a travelogue and sometimes like the narrative of an orientalist (ironically?) as Young traverses between Kabul and Cuba. The narrative of the disempowered world is as horrific in its imagery as "The Burial of the Dead" with its accounts of refugees from Somalia, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Algeria, Mexico or the West Bank who may be lucky to get out of refugee camps within months. We are shown photographs of displaced families without homes and of women consigned to invisibility. Side by side, we are provoked into discovering the vital difference between pictorial objectification and the reality of its subject. Young creates an immediate gap between the "out of place", walled-out refugee and the settled westerner, the probable reader of his book, when he writes: "One thing that you would be unlikely to do in the Jalozai camp is to read this book, even if you were literate, and it had been translated into Pushto."

If there are "minority" groups, there also exist nationally constituted communities and "democratically" elected governments which continue to serve the self-constructed core cultures such as the Hindutva in India or the exclusionary Sinhala movement in Sri Lanka. These imagined "nations" are, furthermore, aided and abetted, paradoxically, by people outside the nation like the US charity, the India Development and Relief Fund, which pours money to keep Hindutva afloat. The nation thus becomes an entity which is constructed by those outside it when it should ideally belong to all its members.

Part of the cultural politics of such ethnic groups involves the veiling of women which may be a sign of Islamification or a symbol of oppression. Young pushes aside Edward Said’s essentialistic categories and calls it "a fluid, ambivalent garment", one which Islamic women living in European societies such as Spain or France want to wear passionately. It may surprise the western woman that many "liberated" Hindu and Sikh women of the Indian upper class occasionally wear the hijab instead of an evening dress to make a fashion statement. Interestingly, whatever the way this garment is known as — abaya, burqa, chador, dupatta, hijab, or niquaab — it has a different meaning when men wear it. For men, it becomes the mask of Zorro, that ultimate romantic masculine symbol of the outlaw; it is also a means of hiding identity and protection from authority. But the question remains: why is the veil considered to be oppressive for women but macho when men wear it?

If I may call Young’s earlier work "theoretical" in its contemporary implication, that is, sometimes a little difficult for the first-time reader of "theory", Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction, in its very familiarity with non-western cultures, music, writing and way of living, and its lively narrative style, is an extremely accessible and impressively researched book. Each reader of the Third World (who will read it when it is translated into Pushto or Tamil) will find his or her culture-specific items here — the rebellious Algerian ra`EF or the Indian chipko — and be reassured that for once a book coming out of the western academy has scarcely any place for the western white reader.