Postcolonial Literature – Historical, Political and Cultural contexts

Published 14 Feb 2017

Generally, ideologies of nation and nationalism together with theories of modernity and postcoloniality are explained through the recordings of history in all their political, economic, cultural, historical, and archeological implications. It is the analyses of these implications that postcolonial scholars find useful in holding empire accountable, if not for anything else, at least for querying history. Romila Thapar in “The Past and the Prejudice” foregrounds the intellectual impetus behind the colonial method of writing history. She begins by saying:

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There is a qualitative change between the traditional writing of history and history as we know it today. The modern writing of history was influenced in its manner of handling the evidence by two factors. One was the intellectual influence of the scientific revolution, which resulted in an emphasis on the systematic uncovering of the past and on checking the authenticity of historical facts. The other was the impact on the motivation of history by the new ideology of nationalism, with stress on the notion of a common language, culture and history of a group. Indeed, historical studies the world over have assumed special significance in proving the background of nationalism.

Thapar also acknowledges that the Enlightenment agenda and the European mode of writing the nation in tracing nationalist trajectories were structurally manipulated to fashion the history of the colonized peoples. Going beyond such an overtly fictive telling, the Subaltern Studies Group argues that there is another layer of colonial domination by showing that historiography of newly emergent nations (as in the writing of nation/nationalist struggles) borrows heavily from pejorative, imperial methods to often ignore, even delete subaltern historiography in order to privilege elitist, official versions. In fact, this argument echoes one of Frantz Fanon’s most brilliant insights, wherein he excavated and scrutinized the damaged psyche of the colonized people to show how the native mirrors the desires of the colonizer.

Recently, in “Absences in History” Aloka Parasher has foregrounded that debate by posing a challenge to scholarship which relies on poststructural vocabulary to decode colonization and re-encode a new historiography. She says that in our new post-modern consciousness we apparently privilege the margins of the past by constructing a new difference of the other “other” which has all the elements of heterogeneity, multivocality, and open-endedness, but the space and item where these margins of the past meet are the center of history… In a study of pre-modern society [colonized nations] then, where history as we understand it today was an alien concept, we privilege a modern notion of history [that of a de-colonized nation] and all that it entails so that it becomes central, and the object of study to remain distant and marginal.

Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses presents a cacophony of voices, most of them “unfamiliar,” a polyphonic babble contesting the right to speak. Far from valorizing “verse” and its ideology, The Satanic Verses demonizes it. This text asserts the centrality of the margins, transgressing and interrogating boundaries of genre, class, time, traditions, geography. If Vikram Seth Golden Gate is Barthes’ comfortable “text of pleasure,” The Satanic Verses is Barthes’ “text of bliss”:

Text of pleasure: the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading. Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with pleasure. Rushdie’s text is indeed discomforting. The loss it imposes is the loss of familiar aesthetic pleasures: truth is neither beauty, nor beauty necessarily truth, and you need to know much, much more than that in this life. Indeed, if we are to trust this novel, truth and beauty and being are all provisional and precarious. It is not surprising, then, that Rushdie’s work has become more a historical icon than an aesthetic artifact. As he writes of a character in Midnight’s Children, he is “handcuffed to history” (a fine phrase later used by Uma Parameswaran in titling an essay about Rushdie work).

When the furor over The Satanic Verses and the Ayatollah’s fatwah was at its height, it was commonly said that The Satanic Verses was the most talked-about novel that was never read. The implications of this statement are double: first, that it is primarily a political, not an aesthetic, document; and second, that it is, as some critics stated at the time, unreadable, perhaps even not a “good” book. That is, it does not deliver pleasure in the comfortable and comforting aesthetic codes we know and to which we respond. Indeed, the novel may refuse to allow the kinds of pleasure that The Golden Gate provides.

But Verses has embedded within it other semiotic codes of pleasure: the codes of literary realism, as we can see in the multiplicity of detail, as well as in the insistence on history. In addition, many critics have commented on Rushdie’s work as embodying magical realism, or as being postmodernist in its metafictionality. Still other critics have demonstrated the literary and linguistic playfulness with which Rushdie entertains, teases, and pleases the reader. My point in bringing up such well-known literary categories as “literary realism,” “magical realism,” and “postmodernism” is again to ask us to focus on the uses of the aesthetic in the genre of the postcolonial. Rushdie’s politics, his particularity of place, ethnicity, race, his evocation of the frightening “Other reader,” do not come exclusive of aesthetic technique. Nor is that aesthetic merely a matter of ornamental decoration. Rushdie’s text makes enormous claims to the experience and the discourse of the aesthetic, in order to claim its power and its moral force for itself.

Rushdie’s text, no less than Seth’s, sets out to give pleasure. But the nature of those pleasures are different. One way of expressing that difference is in Barthes’ terms, the comforting text of pleasure and the discomforting text of bliss. But this structure has an in-built hierarchical ranking–pleasure as lesser than bliss–with which I’m uneasy. Another way, perhaps, of expressing the difference of pleasure might lie in the difference between two of the definitions of the aesthetic that I used at the beginning of this paper: pleasure as evoked by formal expression, and the pleasure evoked by the expression of being of a particular social identity.

I would reverse the categories of “minor” and “major” as Jameson uses them in his essay. While Seth’s novel makes claims to being major by drawing upon the familiar pleasures of the aesthetic, it is, finally, “minor” because, in making an aesthetic claim to pleasure on primarily literary, formal grounds, it reinscribes the traditional separation of art and politics as forever separate. This is a fairly small, exclusive stage for the operation of the aesthetic experience.

In some sense, Rushdie’s novel, too, could be called “minor,” but in a different sense, and a political sense. JanMohamed and Lloyd speak, not of being minor, but of becoming minor, that is of deliberately choosing to ally oneself with the groups of those who are historically disenfranchised, racial and ethnic minorities, women of all races and ethnicities, all the groups characterized by “difference” from the dominant classes:

“‘Becoming minor’ is not a question of essence . . . but a question of position: a subject-position that in the final analysis can be defined only in ‘political’ terms–that is, in terms of the effects of economic exploitation, political disenfranchisement, social manipulation, and ideological domination on the cultural formation of minority subjects and discourses”.

To use this definition of “minor” for Rushdie’s work is to follow Jameson’s separation of the aesthetic and the political, to perceive the formal properties of Rushdie’s text as “flaws” that detract from its provision of pleasure, and, finally, to see it as primarily political rather than aesthetic.

But Rushdie’s work makes forceful claims for its own aesthetic status. Unlike Seth’s, it does not make a singular claim to the pleasures of aesthetic form. Rather, it makes plural aesthetic claims: it chooses to “become minor,” in JanMohamed and Lloyd’s sense, discomforting us with the expression of “minor” identities, with its “political” identity. But it simultaneously assaults us with formal, aesthetic demands on our attention; that is, it insists on its “artistic” identity. In doing so, it refuses to allow us, as readers, to safely separate art from politics, private from public, experience from knowledge, our private selves from the body politic.

This gives it a more expansive, more inclusive stage to operate as a verbal artifact, as a piece of literary artifice: both art and politics, both aesthetics and history, both personal and collective. Here, the pistol shots neither replace nor compete with the concert: they are an integral part of the music. In other words, Rushdie Satanic Verses forces us to reformulate Jameson “Freud versus Marx” as “Freud is Marx”–and this may make it a “major” work, after all.

Rushdie’s work also suggests the ways in which history has perpetually undermined that dream of wholeness, leaving behind a “deep disorder,” a legacy of cultural violation and dependency. The fully autonomous identity for which his characters yearn remains impossible; and the mimicry of other peoples and other values becomes inevitable. Rushdie’s work stands as a later moment in both the literature and the historical process of decolonization; he takes what Bhabha describes as that “separation from origins and essences” as his starting point. In attempting to define an independent India’s “national longing for form,” he uses what: he terms a “historically validated eclecticism” to mount an attack on “the confining myth of authenticity” itself—an attack located in the very ground of his work’s language.

The most important writer that Anglophone South Asia has yet produced, Rushdie remakes English into a new Indian language called “Angrezi,” in a move that at once destabilizes the imperial idea of a standard English to which one must conform and challenges the nativist assumption that there’s only one “good, right way” to be Indian.

For Paul Scott India provided the mausoleum for “the last two great senses of public duty we [British] had as a people . . . the sense of duty that was part and parcel of having an empire”–the duty, once having taken possession of India, to govern it responsibly and well–“and the sense of duty so many of us felt that to get rid of it was the liberal human thing to do.” In literary terms the first approximates to Kipling and the second to Forster. Yet the dichotomy between them no longer seems so clear. They disagree as to what ought to be done about imperialism, but the rhetoric through which each writer depicts India is many ways the same.

Both, for example, see the Raj as outside history; both are subject to what the historian Francis Hutchins calls “the illusion of permanence” on which the Raj depended. Nevertheless, Scott’s distinction between those “two great senses of public duty” remains a good one, and his own achievement in The Raj Quartet ( 1966- 1975) lay in synthesizing the work of his predecessors to show how those duties came inevitably into conflict.

From Scott the rhetoric of English India leads to the work of the two major novelists of the Indian diaspora, Rushdie and the Trinidadian Hindu V. S. Naipaul; a brief comparison of their work will provide this chapter’s conclusion. Other important novels have of course emerged from England’s engagement with empire in other parts of the globe. One thinks especially of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea ( 1966), and Timothy Mo’s historical novel about the founding of Hong Kong, An Insular Possession ( 1986), not to mention the national literatures of Australia or Nigeria or South Africa.

Yet nowhere was the British literary encounter with imperialism so complex, or of so sustained a quality, as in India, the oldest and most important of Britain’s conquered territories; hence this chapter’s emphasis. But the British novel of Africa is also important, and its terms differ in interesting ways from those in which the British saw India. Before turning to Naipaul and Rushdie, we will therefore pause to examine some of its major motifs.

According to Ahmad, postcolonial theory subsequently favors the work of the migrant intelligentsia of Third World origin based in the West. Said and his followers are taken to task for assuming that writers like Salman Rushdie (to whom Ahmad is consistently hostile) represent the authentic voice of their countries of origin. Instead, Ahmad locates them within the politically dominant class fraction of their host society, to which texts like Shame, like postcolonial theory itself, are in the first instance deemed to be addressed.

Ultimately, Ahmad implies, a lot of such work needs to be placed within metropolitan discursive traditions such as Orientalism and Ahmad takes Said severely to task for failing to see how a text like Satanic Verses belongs to a long tradition of anti-Islamic sentiment in the West. When Third World culture ‘proper’ is addressed in postcolonial theory, Ahmad argues, most attention is given to those texts which ‘answer back’ to imperial and neo-colonial culture–for instance, the fictional ripostes to Heart of Darkness by figures as diverse as Chinua Achebe, Wilson Harris and Tayib Salih.

According to In Theory, this attention to work that has been, in a crucial sense, interpellated by Western culture simply reinforces the traditional relationship between centre and periphery which underlay all discourse, political and cultural, of the colonial period. There is thus a damaging tendency ‘to view the products of the English-writing intelligentsia of the cosmopolitan cities as the central documents’ of the national literature of the country in question. In the process those aspects of Third World culture which are most genuinely independent of metropolitan influences and of allegiance to the national bourgeoisie, such as literatures written in regional Indian languages, are either neglected or ignored.


  • Ahmad, “Literary Theory and Third World Literature: Some Contexts”, In Theory, pp. 68-9.
  • Procter, J. (ed.) (2000) Writing Black Britain 1948-1998: An Interdisciplinary Anthology,Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Rushdie, S. (1988) The Satanic Verses, London: Viking Penguin.
  • Rushdie, S. (1991) Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, London: Granta/ Penguin.
  • Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1978.
  • Thapar, Romila. “The Past and the Prejudice.” New Delhi: National Book Trust of India, 1980.
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