Saturday, January 02, 2010

Politics, Power, the History of India and Me

Lately I've been reading "The Jewel in the Crown" by Paul Scott. It's the first novel in a series about the end of the British rule of India, and it was the basis for the Merchant Ivory film production by the same name. Though it's a fictional story, it's set in a very real historic moment, one that I find especially fascinating.

As an undergraduate student at Oberlin College, I was first exposed to the study of India and South Asia by in a two semester history course taught by the amazing Dr. Michael Fisher. This course began with the Indus Valley Civilization, and ended with contemporary South Asia. Though I chose to pursue archaeology as a career, my interest in the the colonial history of South Asia, which was spurred by Dr. Fisher's course hasn't diminished. It is a period in the history of South Asia, and in fact of history generally, which I think has a lot of lessons which can and should be learned and remembered in the modern world. It also provides an interesting model in which to think about past (pre- and proto-historic) episodes of colonialism and imperialism.

My reason for bringing this up here, however, is not to expound upon the academic value of the study of South Asian colonial history. It is to reflect on the impact it has had on me personally. There are many threads that make up this knot, in which I feel I am firmly tied to both India and the United States, and to global history, politics and economy. I am going to attempt to pull apart this knot just a little bit here. And in doing so, first I would like to present an extended quote from the novel "A Jewel in the Crown". It is from a letter written by the character Hari Kumar (Harry Coomer), to his friend Colin Lindsey in England, where Hari/Harry was raised:

"Vidyasagar is a pleasant chap whom I rather like but have a bad conscience about. The first few weeks I worked on the Gazette the editor sent me round with him practically everywhere, and then sacked him. Vidya took it well. He said he guessed what was in the editor's mind when he was detailed to show me the ropes. He said, 'I don't hold it against you, Kumar, because you don't know anything.' He chips me a bit whenever we happen to meet and says that given time I might learn to be a good Indian.

But I'm not sure I know what a good Indian is. Is he the fellow who joins the army (because it is a family tradition to join the army), or the fellow who is rich enough and ambitious enough to contribute money to Government War Funds, or is the rebellious fellow who gets arrested like Moti Lal? Or is the good Indian the Mahatma, whom everyone here calls Gandhiji, and who last month, after Hitler had shown Europe what his army was made of, praised the French for surrendering and wrote to the British cabinet asking them to adopt 'a nobler and braver way of fighting', and let Axis powers walk into Britain. The nobler and braver way means following his prescribed method of non-violent non-co-operation. That sounds like a 'good Indian'. But then there is Nehru, who obviously thinks this attitude is crazy. He seems to want to fight Hitler. He says England's difficulties aren't India's opportunity. But then he adds that India can't, because of that, be stopped from continuing her own struggle for freedom. Perhaps then, the good Indian is that ex-congress fellow, Subhas Chandra Bose who makes freedom first priority and is now in Berlin, toadying to Hitler, and broadcasting to us telling us to break our chains. Or is he Mr. Jinnah who has at last simplified the communal problem by demanding a separate state for Muslims if the Hindu-dominated Congress succeeds in getting rid of the British? Or is he one of the Indian princes who has a treaty with the British Crown that respects his sovereign rights and who doesn't intend to lose them simply because a lot of radical Indian politicians obtain control of British India? This is actually a bigger problem than I ever guessed, because the princes rule almost one-third of the whole of India's territory. And then again, should we forget all those sophisticated aspects of the problem of who is or is not a good Indian and see him as the simple peasant who is only interested in ridding himself of the burden of the local money lender and becoming entitled to the whole of whatever it is he grows? And where do the English stand in all this?

The answer is that I don't really know because out here I don't rank as one. I never meet them, except superficially in my capacity as a member of the press at the kind of public social functions that would make you in beleaguered rationed England scream with range or laughter. And then, if I speak to them, they stare at me in amazement because I talk like them. If one of them (one of the men - never one of the women) asks me how I learned to speak English so well, and I tell him, he looks astonished, almost hurt, as if I was pulling a fast one and expecting him to believe it.

One of the things I gather they can't stand at the moment is the way Americans (who aren't even in the war yet - if ever) are trying to butt in and force them to make concessions to the Indians whom of course the British look upon as their own private property. The British are cock-a-hoop that Churchill has taken over because he's the one Englishman who has always spoken out against any measure of liberal reform in the administration of the Indian Empire. His recent attempt following the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in France to lull Indian ambitions with more vague promises of having a greater say in the running of their own country (which seems not to amount to much more than adding a few safe or acceptable Indians to the Viceroy's council) only makes the radical Indians laugh. They remember (or so my editor tells me) all the promises that were made in the Great War - a war which Congress went all out to help prosecute believing that the Crown was worth standing by because afterward the Crown would reward them by recognizing their claims to a measure of self-government. These were promises that were never fulfilled. Instead even sterner measures were taken to put down agitation and the whole sorry business of Great War promises ended in 1919 with the spectacle of the massacre in the Jallianwallah Bagh at Amritsar, when that chap General Dyer fired on a crowd of un-armed civilians who had no way of escaping and died in the hundreds. The appearance of Churchill as head of the British war cabinet (greeted by the English here with such joy) has depressed the Indians. I expect they are being emotional about it. I'd no idea Churchill's name stank to this extent. The call him the arch-imperialist. Curious how what seems right for England should be the very thing that seems wrong for the part of the Empire that Disraeli once called the brightest jewel in her crown. Liberal Indians, of course, say that Churchill has always been a realist - even an opportunist - and will be astute enough to change coat once again and make liberal concessions. As proof of this they point out the fact that members of the socialist opposition have brought into the cabinet to give the British Government a look of national solidarity.

But I wonder the outcome. I think there's no doubt that in the last twenty years - whether intentionally or not - the English have succeeded in dividing and ruling, and the kind of conversation I hear at these social functions I attend, Guides recruitment, Jumble Sales, mixed cricket matches (usually rained off and ending with a bun-fight in a series of tents invisibly marked Europeans Only and Other Races) - makes me realise the extent to which the English now seem to depend upon the divisions in Indian political opinion perpetuating their own rule at least until after the war, if not for some time beyond it. They are saying openly that it is 'no good leaving the bloody country because there's no Indian party representative enough to hand it over to.' They prefer Muslims to Hindus (because of the closer affinity that exists between God and Allah than exists between God and the Brahma), are constitutionally predisposed to Indian princes, emotionally affected by the thought of untouchables, and mad keen about the peasants who look upon any Raj as God. What they dislike is a black reflection of their own white radicalism which centuries ago led to the Magna Carta. They hate to remember that within Europe they were ever in arms against the feudal status quo, because being in arms against it out here is so very much bad form. They look upon India as a place that the came to and took over when it was disorganized, and therefore think that they can't be blamed for the fact that it is disorganized now.

But isn't two hundred years long enough to unify? They accept credit for all the improvements they've made. But can you claim credit for one without accepting the blame for the other? Who for instance, five years ago, had ever heard of the concept of Pakistan - the separate Muslim state? I can't believe that Pakistan will ever become a reality, but if it does, it will be because the English prevaricated long enough to allow a favoured religious minority to seize a political opportunity.

How this must puzzle you - that such an apparently domestic problem should take precedence in our minds over what has just happened in Europe. The English - since they are at war - call the recognition of that precedence sedition. The Americans look upon the resulting conflict as a storm in an English Teacup which the English would be wise to pacify if they're to go on drinking teak at four o'clock every afternoon (which they only did after they opened up the East commercially). But of course Americans see the closest threat to their security as coming from the Pacific side of their continent. Naturally they want a strong and unified India, so that if their potential enemies (the Japanese) ever get tough, those enemies will have to guard their back door as well as their front door.

Working on this paper has forced me to look at the world and try to make sense out of it. But after I've looked at it I still ask myself where I stand in relation to it and that is what puzzles me to know. Can you understand that, Colin? At the moment there seems to be no one country that I owe an undivided duty to. Perhaps this is really the pattern of the future. I don't know whether that encourages me or alarms me. If there's no country, what else is left but the anthropological distinction of colour? That would be a terrible conflict because the scores that there are to settle at this level are desperate. I'm not sure, though, that the conflict isn't the one that the human race deserves to undergo."

I chose this particular quotation for several reasons. First, because it is an exceptionally good encapsulation of the history of a particular moment. Of that pre-independence moment in Indian history, when the tensions of politics, economy and the struggle for independence were all fomenting, and leading towards what ultimately happened, which is the creation of the independent nation-states of India and Pakistan in 1947. But more than that, and secondly, it places the character, Hari Kumar, inside that history, showing his position in it, and the conflict he feels in allegiance and loyalty, as well as his belonging. In fact, long sections of this book are dedicated to Hari Kumar's sense of belonging or not belonging. Of all the characters in the book, I sympathize most with Hari Kumar.

The character of Hari Kumar/Harry Coomer, (a parallel of many real-life individuals), was born in India, but brought up and educated in England. Upon his father's death in England, and without any inheritance, he is forced to return to India, the country of his birth but not his culture. It is alien to him, at first, and he despises being there. He feels isolated, alone, and especially an acute sense of not belonging. Though he speaks perfect English, with an English public school accent, and was raised in English culture and society, though he feels English, he looks Indian. This disjuncture between his culture and the color of his skin puts Hari Kumar into an exceptionally difficult position in society. He is perpetually marginal. He can never truly or completely fit in with either the English or the Indians. He is explicitly excluded from British society in India, and simultaneously feels separate from and other than the Indian society he hardly knows, and has to struggle to understand.

I hope it is not read wrongly then to say that I feel sometimes like a parallel and sort of mirror of Hari Kumar. I say that I hope it is not read wrongly, for me to say this, because it is an opposite sort of situation. I come from the west going east, I am white skinned living in a brown skinned society. And in many very obvious ways this makes all the difference in the world between me and Hari Kumar. I will get to that point later. Before addressing the differences between the fictional Hari Kumar and myself, I'd like to say something about the similarities. First that, like Hari Kumar, I wish that such things as skin color could be erased. I wish that the color of my skin (which creates a first impression of me here), didn't so thoroughly define my initial interactions with everyone I meet. Though people here are frequently kind and welcoming, I still feel a kind of marginalization. A sense that no matter what I do, including learning Tamil, dressing in appropriate Indian dress, cooking and eating Indian food, I will always be foreign and other; that I can never truly belong.

But why do I seek belonging? Maybe I shouldn't wish for that at all. But the truth is, I feel that India is my country, at least as much as America is. It has been my home for almost 3 years. And, in both a symbolic way, and a real way, India has become a part of me. It is a part of who I am, and the effect it has had on me can never be erased.

As an undergraduate I read the book "Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way" by E. Valentine Daniel. In this anthropological (and semiological) study of Tamil culture, Daniel outlines one of what he considers to be the most important concepts of Tamil personhood, and that is that is the concept of substances. Inherent in this concept is that a person is affected, and even constituted by the substances they take into their body, meaning first mothers' milk, and after that, the substances of food and water, and the air that is breathed, among other things. And tied strongly to the sense of personhood is the sense of place, ones' home town, ones' village or in Tamil ஊர் (ur). A place itself has substance, the dirt, the air etc. Though my ஊர் will always be the place I was born and raised, I have also been substantially changed by this place, I have eaten this food, drank this water, and breathed this air. It has become a part of me, and me of it. And part of me wants to claim this place, especially Tamil Nadu, as my place.

This brings me back to the other problem. I said "claim" this place. By "claim" I do not mean a sense of ownership, as in the colonial or imperial sense. The problem is that I cannot pretend that the colonial history of India does not exist. Though I have no desire to dominate or rule, I am (and always will be) placed in the category of the colonizer. The color of my skin, and the nation of my birth put me into that category. Now America never colonized India, but it was a colony, it was in its own way another outpost of the British Empire.

Because of this history of rule and domination, of dividing and conquering, of manipulating and exploiting, between my (supposed) country/civilization (America/the "West"), and this country/civlization (India/the "East"), I will never truly belong. Though I say my supposed country/civilization, because if I could, I would make it otherwise. If I could choose my belonging, I would rather not count myself amongst the rulers, conquerors, manipulators and exploiters.

I would prefer to count myself among the Hari Kumars, and the Mahatmas, than among the Churchills and Dyers.

I truly and genuinely hate this history of domination and exploitation. At an intellectual level it fascinates me to study it, to read this as history, and to try to understand why and how it came to pass. But at an emotional level, it makes me sick. The arbitrariness and gruesomeness, the cruelty and humiliation, the exercise of power for purely economic gain, all of these things disgust me. So, to the extent that there are good things about American culture, about the society I was raised in, I suppose I don't mind claiming it as my own. But to the extent to which being American/"western" associates me with unjust domination of other people around the globe, historically, and presently, I conscientiously object. I choose another allegiance, another nation, or even better, no nation all.

And though my position is not exactly like that of Hari Kumar, I feel that his (fictional) position in that historical moment, and my not-so-fictional position in this moment, are very much similar. And so I echo Hari Kumar's closing thoughts in the letter to his friend: "At the moment there seems to be no one country that I owe an undivided duty to."

1 comment: said...

Vanankam Gwen,

i dont know about some tamils but tamil welcomes and believes you are a tamil, a proverb in tamil says யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேலிர், tamil in sangam literature was not biased to any particular religion or race, till kamba ramayan was written, which actually brought in much of pagan culture(my thoughts)of north, Tamil came back to life( or towards philosophy and reasoning) after the arrival of the christian preachers like GU pope. I hope you stay back and feel home and help us realize our past ( hope it is glorious) through ur works.
bharathiar wrote a poem for you because he is like you..

.,and also i a dalit(proud) gained education & freedom because of the christian missionaries white skinned humans like your self,,.

please feel at home anything just let us know.... we r here... keep the good work going on... bring more of ur friends from america or wherever...with warm regards-