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Equity and Commodity,
Identity and Beyond: Politics

It is not easy any longer to say what politics is. The intellectuals' war over it pits a constructivist enlargement of the term championed by Gramsci's hegemony and Althusser's interpellation against the pragmatist calculus of vote banks and World Banks. As a result, such red herrings as Agency and Legitimation have preoccupied debaters while those who lack all cushioning against hard daily realities know very well that agency is real but limited, that legitimacy is a shifting matter of tactics steered by the remote ideals of freedom and equity. There is a kind of contradiction between the apparently polar opposites of agency and interpellation, for example, but those ends are twisted and join in the moment to moment suturing that gives daily life the structure of a Moebius strip. They may speak against each other (as contradiction’s etymology suggests), but this is the stormy primal scene of a contemporary form of subjectivity that is floating clear of the kind linked to the state. The allusion is to Foucault's much quoted, sometimes ridiculed prose poem in the middle of "The Subject and Power."

When Foucault writes of "the type of individualism that is linked to the state," he takes aim at the masterful imperial ego ruling over the body, the emotions, the unconscious. Such an ego is useful to capitalism because it will validate itself through what it consumes and how it performs on the job, and it will increasingly "forget" its older codes as an ethnic, a believer, a provincial, or any sort of other "local" political animal. Such an ego is also a microcosm of the western nation state, itself equally useful to capitalism for regulating populations, absorbing unrest, providing capital, and so forth–and equally adept at suppressing tribal or religious alternatives to the nation state that are less amenable to capitalist priorities. Perhaps it is banal to make the analogy so bluntly, but consider how fundamental to a "postcolonial project" it is to be explicit about how culture organizes interiority, creating a subject as a consciousness out of change and flux, an internal colonization upon which every history depends in its own way.

To "recover" from colonialism only to discover one is amidst postmodernity is to realize that liberation leads not to liberty, but to continuous resistance to both the external, economizing force of postmodernity and the internal subject-formation that comes along with it. I link "identity" with "commodity" because I’ve found American postmodern fiction focusing upon how to mobilize the multiple consumers within us against such channeling of our primary energies, and at the same time, to re-envision social relations in terms other than the competition among professionals and the exploitation of consumers. One large reason for my interest in South Asian fiction is what it has taught me about its complicated mission to contest the after effects of colonialism at the same time as it contests the explosion of postmodernity across its cultural landscape.

We have passed out the far side of the period of the gospel of intentional selfhood, an imperialism of the ego. We became such believers, buoyed by Wordsworth and Whitman and Dickens and Eliot and Lawrence and all, such believers that this "contradiction" between agency and interpellation felt more like a brick wall than a doorway. That feeling persists as long as the only type of individualization we could conceive is what I’ve called this imperial ego, that singular, essential identity modeled upon the semitic god and the royal sovereign. These days we make admixtures of old and new wherever we go, in what ever we write, jumbling together moments of insight with regressions into familiar comforts, losing our way in the resonances of memory to be found in continuing traditions, stumbling into clearings where, for a moment, we have a sudden new sense of ourselves that feels austere, or stern, in the absence of old metaphysical master narratives. Full of contradictions, confusions, and relapses, we play around with the fluidities released when postmodernity decodes tradition, again in the sense of stripping values out rather than interpreting them, and we play around rearranging the pieces of ourselves released from hierarchical sovereignty into the pure relationality of our "new" metaphor of network. Along the way, every "private" or "moral" or "artistic" issue passes into politics where everything, ultimately, is decided, even if not in the literal sense of electoral politics. Hence rights and welfare for the Private, abortion, say, for the Moral, and community standards of decency for the Artistic, all invoke the confusion and contradiction of living in a liminal zone between neatly definable eras.

The details of this political debate often appear in one trope or another of a conflict between equity and commodity, or between socialism and free enterprise. They affect the ability of the Indian government to nudge gas prices up a little closer to their actual cost, they inflect the increasing skepticism about IMF/World Bank development policy, they infect the third world with incurable AIDS and the first world with a virus susceptible to arrest by "cocktails" of $15,000 drugs, they inflict increasing suffering on the 20% of the world that lives on less than $1/day. Hence my terms for the macro level on which political economy takes place.

On the micro level of daily living, political economy manifests itself as the flipside of my ungainly title, namely the struggle over identity and beyond–hence my reliance upon what I call Foucault's prose poem as an epigraph. The novel and the short story are thinking machines encoded with the expectation of producing a western subjectivity linked to the state. As we see in "Mirror to Mirage," breaking that code produces different results, however mixed with residual western state-linked forms. As we'll see in this chapter, feeding South Asian lives into those thinking machines produces contradictions and stress within the machinery.

Another trait of narrative realism is its secret heart of romance, a will to romance, if you like, that wishes reality into the form desired by the "collective assemblage of enunciation." Deleuze's barbarous phrase is meant to irritate us, to insult the sleek style within which our shared myths are naturalized, and to refuse the related cult of the Author as something magically more than a participant in those myths. Feeding into this machinery the explosive material of a South Asia dragged into postmodernity, the fiction in this chapter extends the machinery beyond its breaking point and then, sometimes quite exquisitely, captures the shattering process.

Both these paragraphs about the fate of the great narrative machine describe processes framed by the macro level some call "real" politics. Sometimes the frame is visible, sometimes subtextual, sometimes unrecognized (or, as they say, misrecognized). Its pressure is always the force that drives these products of narrative back upon their own myths of origin.

We will follow first the romance of memory, a nostalgia for the myth of a benign collectiveness. This myth is embodied sometimes as the form of romance itself, exercised elsewhere as nostalgic reconstructions of the sort of "lost" past that never exactly was, and modulated in Indian fiction through the continuing trauma of partition. Next we will turn to the romance of the identity flowing out of the abortive foundation experienced in partition narratives, floundering in the Dalit movement, scarified by a few writers who push Identity and its support structures far past their tensile strength. We end with a very recent novel that explores the "small things" of identity against the large forces of traditional social forms and postmodern economic forces.

The Romance of Memory

When I talked with the Tamil writer Vasaanthi, I realized I had met one of those rare members of the privileged set who expend their energies for the good of us all. Having studied carefully the effect of village cinemas upon those who had lived relatively traditional lives, she was acutely aware of the force of the media in shaping not just consciousness of given attitudes and values, but consciousness itself; her comments upon SATV must be especially choice... In any case, her intervention in the bloody feuds that make Indian political issues so lethal, and that eliminate the categories of "noncombatants" and "bystanders" and, ultimately, the "innocent"–her intervention in these bloody headlines is to humanize the conflicts. She seeks out a Juliet and weds her to a Romeo, teaching us along the way the human side of the Capulets and Montagues. Marriage models the consummation of the Indian romance of the secular state, the prevailing mythos prior to the rise of the BJP. When Bamboo Blossoms and The Silent Storm are readable romances slipped into the stream of popular fiction and intended to counter the hypermasculinity of Bollywood and the inflamed passions of the proliferating NLFs and PLAs.

As a rhetoric of persuasion inducing readers to soften their attitudes and reconsider the art of negotiation, her romances have some degree of effect upon their readers. As a rhetoric of tropes for history, on the other hand, they are unlikely to convince any who consider so conventional a vehicle fit for travel. The name of this trope becomes not metaphor, but catachresis, the application of the trope of marriage to an experience so absolute in its discontinuity and incommensurability that only the most starry-eyed could construe it within the fairy tale of the trope.

In less hopeful, optimistic hands, the romance form is enlisted for service, but turned on the rack a bit by the history it attempts to contain. Though economic liberalization, as it is somewhat curiously called, is a recent phenomenon in India–the economic policies began in earnest in 1991, the media presence via SATV in 1993–one shape of things to come is in fearful evidence in nearby Sri Lanka. The wealthy young entrepeneurials are dropping up to $1200 a weekend at the clubs, their teenaged children have, the feature pages tell us in the Sunday papers, turned the Colombo mall into a catwalk for the "American look," as it is called somewhat misleadingly (anything meaningfully called "American" having long since become assimilated by global postmodernity as the industrially processed and media-marked style markers transforming working class trousers into Genuine Levis™). The papers are the seismometer of Sri Lanka's troubled transformation from tea-producing tropical paradise to predictable satellite in the heavens of multinational capitalism. Feature articles document the vanishing elephants (not for nothing have they been made the logo of the Tourism Ministry), vanishing Veddahs (the island's aborigines), vanishing tree cover, vanishing morality, vanishing water and electricity supplies, and at least during these days of bombs in puja plates, vanishing tourists.

All during the year as the monthly Poya Day (full moon) holidays come round, the papers must explain to a population drifting away from the peeling, leaking, and pillaged local temples just what Vesak and other such holidays are supposed to be about. Meanwhile, Presidential Commissions unearth astonishing corruption, torture, and assassination by the former regime; that party's newspaper makes the most out of the wrong guesses, character flaws, and procedural irregularities they see in the current government; the Marxist movement in the jobless South, twice suppressed through methods said to include the deaths of forty to sixty thousand youth, stirs to life again; and the Tamil Tiger separatists are blowing up generals and bankers, hacking up Sinhalese villagers, and executing "collaborators" like the hapless Tamil who raised the government flag over recaptured Jaffna or the Tiger deserter walking down his village street (not to mention the constable bicycling home from work and the check-point police).

In the wake of the litany of the vanished comes the violence, corruption, and conspicuous consumption of postmodernity at its postcolonial worst. Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict is as much its product as the backpacks, leather duffles, canvas shirts, and push-button umbrellas joining tea and rubber on the export manifests. Behind this narrative is the history of how 1950s Sinhalese nationalism struck out at the departed British through their surrogate Tamils, felt to have been favored by the colonial administration almost as much as the Burghers (descendents of the earlier Dutch masters). Parliament established Sinhala as the national language, university quotas to scale back Tamil prevalence, and similar efforts to redress what felt like historical imbalances. The resulting Tamil Tiger backlash proved the catalyst to a vast stockpile of Sinhalese anger built up during the long colonial rule of the Portughese, Dutch, and British, then exponentiated for both ethnic communities by the economics of postmodernity. As would happen with increasing rapidity in neighboring India, those economies eroded traditional social and economic roles and structures. The urban boom, the Burgher exodus, the ethnic war, the class war in the South–Sri Lanka became the unfortunate paradigm of postcolonialism in the era of postmodernity, complete with a major tourism industry (when the headlines die down a bit).

Ethnicity is a tool used to rescue a sense of identity from the dislocations of historical change, even if that sense is highly reductive, like the BJP's cartoon sketch of Hindu complexity. In the wake of the vanished actuality of an integral ethnic communal life, the confection must be made to serve, no matter how astonishing the confectioner's results might be (a newspaper columnist has recently realized that the ancient Sinhalese and the Egyptians are mystically related since both built larger towering structures–pyramids and dagobas–to honor their ideals: there are other such "parallels" similarly bracing).

The idea that such ethnic romance contains a seed of authenticity to plant in one's current existential desert is an easy sell. In the letters to the editor the fervency of the Sinhalese Story is rampant–the more extreme its mythology of an origin in divine essentiality and monumental prowess, the more satisfying for the readers. Even among its most accomplished artists, Lankan culture (though one should use the plural, of course) contests its twilight by redeploying itself while the memory of tradition is still alive.

When Jean Arasanayagam recovers Tamil village life in Peacocks and Dreams and when Shyam Selvadurai documents in Funny Boy the 1983 collapse of Tamil confidence in a multi-ethnic Sri Lanka, or when Carl Muller and expatriate Michael Ondaatje reconstruct fables of Burgher culture, we see some of the more obviously symptomatic responses to Postmodernity. The need for the "authentic" past expressed in these works and the intensely personal responses the authors have received from their readers together signify how lost these histories seem. Even when characters are at their breeziest, one senses the seismic resonance to the lostness of tradition. In K. Jayatilaka's Sinhala The Death of Punchirala, for example, Renuka is quite surprised when a friend just returned from a year in England recites folk poems and tales. "We are Sinhala village women! Whether we go to England or America can we forget our culture? The poems and stories that I learnt then on my grand-mother's lap I remember better than the ones I learnt yesterday. What a time it was then!" (112). Global citizens cruising in their new Benz, they still idealize that strand of lost tradition and weave it through their up country tour; their children are another matter, refusing to stay at a circuit bungalow unless the plumbing is functioning and toilet paper is provided. Traditional folk culture seems to have been replaced for these children by hygiene and dependable mechanics.

Also telling as to the intensity of this need to embalm tradition with the fluids of prose is the sheer distance across which these writers reach. Jean Arasanayagam, for example, is married to a Tamil but not herself one; this Tamil past is, as she calls it in her rich opening chapter, "mythologies of childhood," since, one realizes, any contemporary narrative of village life is necessary an act of myth-making. At the same time, Carl Muller is just recently home from the Middle East expatriate community on the force of his childhood memories of the now dispersed Burgher communities of his childhood. Lushly and explicitly nostalgic, his trilogy (beginning with 1993’s The Jam-Fruit Tree) draws its intensity from the sharp-eyed, keen-eared young Carloboy on whom nothing was lost. Michael Ondaatje reconstructs his family through interviews and papers from the cultural distance of a Canadian life, and Shyam Selvadurai mixes the sharp memories of an adolescent to render his own pre-expatriate world among Colombo’s Tamil elite. I make these obvious statements to harp on a less obvious kind of distance: writers approach something that contrasts with their current sense of isolation and marginalization–something that feels real enough and vital enough to serve as the material for serious fiction, a project that exerts a powerful moral imperative to "save" the daily textures of these past lives before they are forever lost in the Present.

Funny Boy (New Delhi: Penguin, 1994) shows a gay Tamil boy coming of age in Sri Lanka on the eve of the horrendous 1983 riots. His sexuality costs him his family, his ethnicity costs him his home, burned during the riots, and his country, from which the family emigrates in the uncertain months following the riots. Without formal innovation, the book capitalizes on its young protagonist’s point of view to illustrate his generation’s shock at the rise of Sinhalese racism and the murderous form it takes. Radha Aunty’s train from Jaffna is ambushed by Sinhalese mobs and she survives only because her Tamil escort speaks Sinhala so fluently. His mother’s Burgher lover, on assignment from his Australian newspaper, is murdered for his investigation into police torture of Jaffna Tamils. His corporate father places him in Sinhalese rather than Tamil classes because he knows that "Sinhalese is the language of the future," even if he does not know that all his effort to cultivate invisibility and to appear utterly submission to the Sinhalese will fail to protect his family–the house is burnt in the riots, his parents burned alive in their car. Though among the elders there is a memory of the 50s riots, in which his mother’s grandfather was cut to pieces, two generations since had come to believe that economic progress and democracy were making ethnic divides a thing of the past. As schoolkids duplicate race riots in their classrooms, amateur theater productions divide along ethnic lines, and hotel and office staffs bristle at any authority exercised by Tamils, both personal and social issues (sex tourism, the rural/urban divide) fade into the background. The members of this very privileged clan buy an illusory bubble that explodes disastrously when riots become political instruments.

Ondaatje’s Running in the Family (New York: Vintage International, 1982) and Muller’s Burgher Trilogy–from Penguin in New Delhi: The Jam Fruit Tree (1993), Yakada Yaka (1994), and Once Upon a Tender Time (1995)–all look back into the vanished subculture of the wealthy Burgher managers of colonial Sri Lanka in Ondaatje’s book and the working class strata personified by Carloboy’s train engineering family in Muller’s. Each celebrates the alcoholic and sexual excesses of the energetic Burgher culture of old Sri Lanka. Intense, heightened, even extravagant, the narratives are suffused with nostalgia for the collective warmth, zest, and sense of belonging since lost in the historical turns after Independence. From a generation before Selvadurai’s, Ondaatje and Muller produce family chronicles with enough manic decadence to suggest, symptomatically, the cost of occupying the margin between British power and wealth and Sinhalese disfranchisement: neither the fully empowered conqueror nor the native with roots, despite a family history in Sri Lanka that can go back a century or more. These families also have enough privilege to indulge their manic tastes for various consumables, human and otherwise. This middle level between the ruler and the ruled, the foreigner and the native, does not always exist in colonialism, is sometimes occupied, as in Africa, by Indians or Arabs, but has rarely been evoked with the care and detail lavished by these two writers. What they do share with Selvadurai is the clear sense that the present–whether the Canada of Ondaatje and Selvadurai or the contemporary Sri Lanka of Muller–lacks the intensity of the material that has drawn repeatedly from each his best writing.

In fact, it's an interesting exercise to compare these projects recovering ethnic identity with others by the same writers–Jean Arasanayagam's All is Burning, for example, or Carl Muller's Colombo. In these novels of (mostly) present life we see the opposing register of Postmodernity all too clearly laid out in narratives capturing the dislocation and disruptions of recent history. In Carl Muller's accounts of the sexual abuse and murder of poor children in Colombo, or in Jean Arasanayagam's bitter-edged portrait of the fat-walleted antique dealer prowling the homestead hoping to merchandise memories and family identity, one finds the critical complement to the mad Burger vitality and deeply interwoven traditional lives of proverbial South Asian village life.

Consider this pair of passages from Arasanayagam's work, for example. Peacocks and Dreams rescues her husband's Tamil childhood from oblivion. She writes, in its evocative opening, "He comes from the grove of his childhood, tucking the sleepy birds into his ears, his hair alight with the coloured beetles, the golden ponwandu settling like jewels into midnight; the millipedes are striped with crimson and argent glittering where his feet scuttle and in his brain little pockets of resonance catch the echoes that travel from the village across the fields" (2). Paragraph after paragraph evokes, lyrically, the intensities of "his childhood" before the prose subtly shifts the pronoun to "you." Perhaps the pronoun is meant to address the "T.A." in the chapter's dedicatory title, but it also calls the reader into empathetic identity with an increasingly nostalgic and pained elegy for lost glories. "You remember the table spread with red hot porials and the fresh keerai leaves piled up for cutting," as even the lexicon slices like an "arnwharl" through the learned English to his natal Tamil. "[B]ut the years passed and the pettagams hissed with emptiness, the starving weevils creeping about in the residual dust left behind from the harvested years, the fields sold off, one by one" (4), the land changed and gone literally out of possession. Perhaps the intensity of this remembrance compensates for the lack of foresight with which childhood is received by the young Arjuna, and given by his parents, for Arasanayagam makes explicit those forces more ruthless even than Time: "No one in that then childhood, traversing the veedhi peers into time to see slaughter in the fields or groves, the landmines going off, the flesh showering like dragonfly wings aflame, then cindered, skimming the air" (5).

The same paragraph connects the present Tiger insurgency to the women of Arjuna's boyhood whose eyes are "glittering with greed, sharp, flamelike," the folds of their sarees concealing their thefts of temple offerings. Arjuna saw that theft, at least, for what it was, but it is Arasanayagam's book that sees the theft of village life by the ethnic conflicts of postmodernity. That is, her next paragraph shifts the "you" suddenly from rich boy to impoverished old man: "Where, oh man, are those silver trays now and what are the offerings you have for the pooja, so meagre is the small change clinking in your pockets" (5). The simple faith, the reassuring rituals, and by extension the bounty of the lost golden age, are all now "as distant as a madman's mutter wandering through its own confusions as shells fly cracking the roofs, skullblows smashing the bone into smithereens" (6). It is noteworthy that fading memory, insanity, shattered roofs and smashed skulls should so economically concatenate four different causes for the loss of this village idyll. It is painful enough in the great South Asian village myth for the citizen of the world to feel his or her own change from exuberant child to jaded sophisticate. But then to add this erasure of the village–for even the village to have changed as history is fired into its compounds–this is the new chapter of the village idyll inscribed by postmodernity.

This "chapter" recurs–in Jayatilaka's The Death of Punchirala Nandana wants to engineer his return to his childhood village properly, but his Sinhalese neighbors have burned to death the Tamil doctor who was Nandana's great contribution to village development, and returning domestics from Dubai have the cash to buy him out of his ancestral home. There's nothing for it but to use the money to finish building the new house in the new workplace. And Muller's Burghers have moved to Australia and Britain, stretching the Lankan Burgher community so thin that only the crusty narrator, it seems, remains to create the record.

In her collection of stories set resolutely in the present, All is Burning, Jean Arasanayagam sets against her luxuriant Tamil village idyll the troubled, frenetic, devalued life of contemporary Sri Lanka. The title story heads a cluster about the war, another cluster details the consequences of the Sri Lankan diaspora, another cluster makes explicit the postcolonial theme, but most of the stories are relatively quiet moments in which the fracture lines of contemporary life come into focus. "A Fistful of Wind," for example, shows a mother and daughter shopping, but it also shows the insight that emerges from jostling on the pavement, undergoing the gaze of the wealthy passing by in their cars, encountering former students now much richer in the age of enterprise than the teacher who narrates the story and is angling for an affordable bit of cloth–for her Christmas outfit–from the sidewalk discounters. The title comes from the crowds gazing at shopwindows full of imported consumer goods, "overcome by a powerful urge to possess at least a few of them. But what can they do if their pockets are empty–only grab at fistfuls of wind" (265). The fist is formed though sublimated. Add to this economic pressure the dislocations of a changed economy and work world and you have Sudhir Kakar’s three causes for the longing for collective identities that can lead all too suddenly to The Colours of Violence.

She passes a newly-wed young student "without the slightest knowledge of what will please [his bride]. All he has is the money to purchase whatever she wants" (266), as if he were the real incarnation of the neocolonial Santa Claus perched on the sidewalk. She is haunted by how changed the social grammar has become in response to the reconfigured economy. When a former student tells her, "Teacher, I am grateful to you. I am what I am because of you," she recoils and spots the change: "I too had spoken like this to my old teachers, but in a different context. I meant that they had helped me to learn. But my students mean something different. I have helped them to become successful. This is of much greater importance to them. I have never thought of success in this way" (266-7). But she must consider it now that she feels that "I remain behind" while they venture out into the cash flow of managerial positions.

She begins to explain the "something else that was keeping me back [from immigration]–roots, the deep roots that stretched and snaked their way through the corridors and classrooms, through the acres beside the river" to the wilderness beyond (276), but the paragraph breaks apart as the dream of "roots" dissipates in the harsh sunlight. A steady drumming of small scale economic humiliations wears away her reserve as she hunts for cut pieces of cloth to stitch together, eyes the used clothing piles, watches the vendor Shariff contend with the crowd tossing his cloth about, and finally begins laughing at the "revelation of utter futility"–"We are all so serious about things that do not merit any seriousness" (288), and she compares her behavior to "laughing beside a newly-dug grave" (287). I suspect this grave is that of her unwary complicity in the great conspiracy of consumer capitalism, the channeling of desires toward commodities and the individual's assimilation to "the masses of humanity" (287).

Her laughter embarrasses her daughter because it is both socially inappropriate and uncontrollable–it is thus a symptom of what can be understood but not very usefully said. The laughter deflates the "different language" that separates her from those masses of which she truly is one before her laughter. Its content veers between the religious overtones that hover at the edges of these pages and what gets the last word in this story, namely her daughter's witty irony, that trope which alone is capable of holding together both awareness and complicity as the precise diagnosis of life in postmodernity: "Beneath a tree sits a thin young beggar woman with a newly born infant in her arms. We bend down to give her our gifts. 'Gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Hope of the World,' my daughter utters as we count out the coins" (289). And a merry Christmas to all.

All is, indeed, burning, including the connection to "roots" and "vocation" and any sense of self that is not driven to so intense a weave of postmodern ironies. The story's last line leaves little "Hope of the World," though one can base some hope on the pure energy seen in recording events and in shedding one's own nascent recoding as a target market. It does not at all surprise me that the collection ends with a story ("Fear: Meditations in a Camp") that plays against this Christmas irony. A teacher is interned in a camp following communal violence and is pursued by nightmares of ruined houses and pursuers, and ultimately with the implications of his recognition that "all time is a reconstruction of events" (388), fictions constructed as the bubbles of belief and ideology shielding us from history's deadly bacteria. The story's final paragraph quotes Buddha's definition of Asamkhata, Absolute Truth as the "extinction of desire, extinction of hatred, extinction of illusion."

But since the context is a camp where one is rendered a "non-person," struggling to be content within the territory of a cell, perhaps even this most Buddhist of conclusions is menaced by the ironic possibility of suicide being the meaning of the final lines: "Here, in this camp, within its narrow confines, it was perhaps possible to take the path that would lead to the end of all illusion, craving, pain and sorrow" (417). The narrator loses agency as she is hustled about by the police, she loses personal space as she is denied all privacy in the large group with which she is imprisoned, she loses "humanity" when she "turned to stone," and even the nirvana she speaks of seems negative, a scene of history encroaching upon her space rather than of the expansion of spirit into the deep resonance of Buddhist Emptiness. The strain on the reader is unbearable. This struggle between affirmation and its negation by history's context is precisely that which the narrator describes in the story's final pages. I am fascinated by the suspension of closure by a writer skilled in the mastery of form, obviously drawn to powerful centers of traditional belief, but a sensitive seismometer to the interior shifts set off by historical upheaval.

To demystify nostalgia in the act of its practice achieves at least the sense of current history as a process which has pushed the past into anthropology and memory into an analgesic strategy. Desublimating the quotidian economic frustrations forces to the surface the assimilation of being and desire to the lifestyle of what Kenyans call the "Wabenzi tribe" (of Benz drivers and overachieving hyper-consumers). And perhaps the unleashing of irony against absolute truth and narrative closure–including the deceptive closure of irony which functions only to keep itself forever open–perhaps this use of irony serves to denaturalize the machinery of religious and aesthetic Answers. Perhaps it serves to decamp from the simplistic forms of their appeal marketed by the all too postmodern gurus and politicos whose engagement with contemporary history lacks the rich resonance of all these writers and artists.

We would be wrong to separate Peacocks and Dreams from All is Burning, for both clearly mark their formal affinity with mythologies, reconstructions, the profoundly reflexive fiction whose most concise form is the ironic trope. Irony is that turn which simultaneously animates its rhetorical world and emphasizes its rhetorical rather than ontological standing. It knows it both isn't the world (because it is myth, reconstruction, fiction) and is (we have no access to one any more foundational, especially in the increasingly brief halflifes of Media's representational isotopes). These fictions don't pretend to "solve" the problem(s) of history. They do restore the viability of fiction as a sufficiently resonant and ironic medium for keeping one line ahead of Postmodernity's omnivorous appetite for whatever pauses. Irony, by suspending closure, keeps the nomad moving just ahead of those enclosures that all too readily serve as postmodernity's detention camps. These movements and transformations are the Lankan version of a specifically postmodern response to Postmodernity, a response that brings us close to history's steadily turning wheel.

The very structure of Peacocks and Dreams is instructive in ways that can expedite our thinking about that most traumatic seed in Indian fiction, namely stories of the Partition. The opening chapter is the poetic reverie from which I've quoted heavily. Roughly the first half of what follows are factual evocations of festivals and regularities both sacred and secular. The second half, on the other hand, restages stories of aging, sickness, betrayals, and accidents and espouse a distinctive tonal coloring for the mix of sweet remembrance and sorrowful recollection. "The horse carriage went back to Manipay, never to return. But this time the streets were empty, the husband sitting alone, bereft, travelling a lonely and desolate road to his village" (81): thus ends "Wedding in Navaly." "Myths and Heroes" ends with the boy Arjuna lamenting the loss of his story-teller: "The corner where Sathiah spread his mat, was empty" (92). "Karmam" ends by telling us the character "will continue until the end of his days to expiate that guilt, to do penance for that wrong which he had committed and which he can never forget, the taking of a life, as he dances through the temple veedhi in his trance, carrying the plumes of the peacock..." (118). "The Cry of the Kite" ends with the bittersweet declaration of independence by the servant caste to the now absentee head of The Family: "Who can now tell us we should do this, we should do that? We obeyed your father. My father obeyed your grandparents. We have lived here for centuries. Where else are we to go? Who are we to serve now that your father and his sons are no longer here?" (143). The "remembrance" of the childhood evoked by the encounter is, "The Cry of the Kite" tells us in its final line, "now bitter on his tongue" (144).

The recurrence of emptied spaces, the sense of guilt that suffuses the trance, the erasure of the sense of "place" when social traditions unravel, and the poisoning even of the paradisiacal nectar of the palmyrah blossom–these are all tropes which mount in their resonance from individual loss to the loss of an entire mode of individuality. The protagonist, Arjuna, has no blue god for a charioteer to chart his path through the complexities of history to immortality.

The Romance of Identity

For Arasanayagam, such pathways through history seem foreclosed by the current apocalyptic chapter in Sinhalese-Tamil relations. For many Indians of a certain generation, such a path has long felt foreclosed by the experience of the riots during the 1947 partitioning of the subcontinent into Pakistan and India. Even now, if you meet a seventy-year old man walking alone in a New Delhi park, he will leap within moments of first making your acquaintance into a glazed reverie on the horrors, his eyes not returning to yours until he tells you he could not sleep for six months after making it to "the other side." His eyes now (having witnessed gang rapes and breast mutilations and fury on both "sides") are moist and intense, his lips turned in that bit of a smile which means something like "there, I've told that story again, and you know, now–but the telling does no good." Necessary to say, but without efficacy. Partition made it impossible to repress what it revealed about South Asian consciousness; it was the counterpoint to Nehru’s stirring Independence speech at old Delhi's Red Fort and Jinnah's in Islamabad; it emerged from the history that produced both the Mahatma and his assassin; it both inaugurated the world's largest and most heterogeneous democracy and crazed its sun-baked heart with a thousand cracks.

And, it seems, no writer who lived through its flames and horrific cries in the night can shirk from writing the times: I believe there are as many partition stories as there are writers of that generation. There are Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and expatriate versions. Some emerged quickly, the way Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan did, a novelist's dispatches from the field. Others waited, are still waiting no doubt. The one from the shelf I want to take down is neither the best known, the best seller, or even perhaps the best or most revealing, though I would not try to judge among these narratives that are intense even when their "literary" merit is not. Krishna Baldev Vaid's is a strong and well-considered exemplar of such fiction. First published in Hindi as Guzara Hua Zamana in 1981, it has recently been translated as The Broken Mirror (New Delhi: Penguin, 1994). Before its blurbs even get to his degrees and distinguished literary career, we’re told he considers his 1947 "transplantation" to the Indian side "as his most traumatic and central experience to date." And that, I suspect, is true for all those writers who, like Vaid, have finally sat down (in his case publishing 34 years after the fact) to make words about those times.

The most remarkable thing about his account is not, I think, the fact that the only people in the novel who evidence a clear understanding of the rioting before it occurs are the town's mentally disturbed and, or, deeply wounded. Lord Legless with his quivering stumps, the Emperor on his white stallion, In-Other-Words whose long discourses are stitched together with the verbal disjunction that becomes his "name," weaveress Phalo whose barrenness makes her the consort of many, it seems, are joined by a number of other marginalized characters dying of TB, or uniformed in torn underwear and baffled by irony and allusions, or keeping high on sayings of the Mahatma. All of them know what's coming, form a Peace Committee to attempt heading it off, and fail. The truth does not make them free but dead.

These characters are all striking creations, but not so striking to me as the fact that The Broken Mirror requires almost 300 pages before it can allow itself to represent the shattering of the mirror it has been holding up to the rich weave of lives in a small city in the western Punjab some miles from Lahore. After a brief "Prologue" that shows us a dysfunctional family that nonetheless survives together, we read of a boyhood in the "Lanes" in which the narrator "often delved into the memories of my receding childhood–as if it was some golden age of hundreds of years ago, or as if I was already uneasy about the stirring inside me to transform it into a heart-rending story of universal application" (66). From a boy with tremulous crushes upon lovely married ladies, he becomes witness to the exposure of the extramarital liaisons that crack open a world he had not known.

Hence the next section, "Bazaar" widens his scope beyond that of the local lanes as he makes a wide circle through the market area of the town. Almost tedious at times in its cataloguing of the daily routines of the various merchants and money-lenders, Beero fills our ears with the epic catalog of town gossip. "I take pleasure," he tells us, "in very few things. I take interest in stupid things, or pretend to, just to kill time. Also to keep away from home and to keep home out of my mind .... I admire and respect people who don't have to make any special effort to pass time" (133). All the gossip and compulsive walking and talking about more than some readers care to hear is, we come to understand, avoidance or distraction behavior from unhappy home life, frustrated adolescent sexuality, and a growing anxiety about the increasingly active Muslim League and the idea of an independent Pakistan (Beero is Hindu). He comments at one point,

The shivers he begins to feel come from recalling his family's early days in a Muslim lane and his mother's belief that some Muslim woman "must have suckled me on the sly," infecting him with a fondness for Muslims–his best friend is one, in fact. Going back in time only reinforces the long-standing mixture of intimacy and taboos coexisting across religious divides. "I'm afraid," he tells us, "I have a stranger hiding inside me these days. He doesn't let me rest at all or talk naturally with anyone" (77). He is at that moment wrestling with his boyhood desire for neighboring women, but the "stranger hiding inside" becomes a frightening motif when communal violence transforms the town's best healer into the commander-in-chief of the Muslim death squads. Knowing "he" is in there may explain what puzzles Beero late in the novel: "As for me, I'm surprised at the absence of hatred and anger toward those who are killing and raping all over town. I don't have the desire to fight them" (301). This recurrent question goes unanswered by Beero, but I think it has to do with an instinctive refusal to allow the stranger within to participate in the transformation of their native Zindabad from a town full of colorful names to one in which there are only Muslas and kaffirs.

Indeed, shortly before the end of "The Bazaar," Beero turns his attention to the Emperor's house in the distance:

It's a splendid dream of self-begetting and of transforming his body, formed in a poor Hindu home, into one formed by "another world" in which colorful rags are not what you wear, but a banner proclaiming utter difference. Beero lives in history where one must "disentangle" reality from utopia, but the pleasurable confusion of the myth of transformation is a sustaining one that allies him with those who, like the nuttier characters, have passed over into another well-imagined one.

After "The Bazaar" comes "Lahore," where Beero goes to college and lives with his sister who has been married to the lover of a wealthy enough woman who wants Devi as a servant. Devi lives in denial, Beero slices through it, but is still tangled in confusions that begin to target religion specifically:

The "or" between God and his phantom is a turning point for Beero who later decides, hiding out in the butcher's shed, "I'm not a lunatic, but I'm anti-religion. If I ever get out alive, this attitude will grow even stronger in me. But will I survive this? At the least, I'll be mutilated" (308). His mutilation is psychological, as it turns out, but the anti-religious sentiment is achieved partly by noticing that "the venom spewing forth from [a rioter's] mouth matches the fire of his religious fervor" (308). And, partly, by what is signified by yet another of Beero's dreams: "I got locked in a mysterious argument with a dense cloud, my insides all tied up in knots with anxiety that at any moment the cloud would change into a decrepit God" (233). The cloud of religious delusion is indeed dense, but his greatest worry is that, at its middle, is a "decrepit God" too weak to exert sufficient moral sway over believers but real enough to require Beero to undertake his religious identity in a world gone mad with rioting.

"Lahore," then, takes us further down the slope from the energy and liveliness–of all kinds, some of them unhealthy–of boyhood toward the horrible end of his adolescence. "Borderland," the final section, is divided in half between before and after the rioting begins. The border in question is not just that between India and Pakistan, but between the last effort to stop the madness and their long hours of uneasy refuge in the butcher's shack. What is striking about the Peace committee's public meeting is the hatred and anger, on both sides, that is scarcely touched by the various rhetorics of the peacemakers, some of whom get perhaps a bit too vigorous criticizing the Muslim majority. What is striking about their refuge with Bakka is that, for all the hundreds of pages of details about life in the town, we have never seen Bakka and Beero's father in any scene of friendship that would explain why Bakka took so great a risk as to shelter them, an act made even more inexplicable once we learn that he has raped one of Beero's childhood love objects and brought her sobbing to the refuge–after hacking to death her rich father-in-law.

Hatred is as inscrutable as friendship, their coexistence even in the nightmare of the riots part of the cutting edge of this broken mirror. There are meditations on the limits of narration itself–one can never get it all down (299), recollection is always inaccurate (111), and we like stories even if they're untrue because they explain an order to things (101). And so he has a last bubble of nostalgia, remembering the "innocent" version of the town and wishing he could turn its present into so idealized a past (328-9), but the bulk of these last forty pages are his rambling reveries in which "I want to explain it to all of them–all the things that I haven't understood myself yet, not really, but that I understand enough to know they are in the wrong" (338). But these are the times not "for understandings and explanations ... only endurance" (338). And the issues are not for the crystalline explanations that could answer his lifelong quandary, "what do you want?" but that remain as densely cloudy as theology:

Who is not to blame.... Questions and issues are too deeply rooted in history for there to be simple answers to the question of what you want, or what is to be done; sometimes one can feel a thing to be wrong, sometimes one can only endure. This novel leaves its protagonist crying beside a baby he has just watched die, and perhaps it is not too grotesque an over-reading to take that child as the hope of a utopian postcolonial identity for the New India, the New Pakistan. So pure a being lives only hours, terrible hours, in a world shaped by hundreds of old animosities and memories.

There is, then, almost a compulsion to return to the idea of an innocent village life, an innocent childhood, an innocent ideal, and to draw the strength to endure from that idea of innocence. But however distorting memory may be as it reconstructs what is deep in everyone's heart, it finds in these cases of Sri Lankan and Indian excavations beneath the headlines a tale of terror and of the loss of what might never have actually existed in the form in which we need to believe. Devastatingly demystifying, such a turn of narrative around nostalgia lane leads it out of the [word for ethnic neighborhood] and out into the bazaar of raw tough history. The hunger for an Answer in the lost village or in pre-Partition innocence tells more about what’s missing now than what existed then.

Vaid’s narrator must have thought that so careful a tracing of his story would produce a pattern, insight, or identity to replace the confusion and lostness he feels. Linear history must give you a line on things? But mostly it demystifies the illusion of community and warmth, and it takes up the threads of religious feeling in that inter-communal childhood and staggers backwards as he discovers how deeply entwined they are with the malice, covetousness, and anger arising from the proximity of another’s wealth, position, or (forbidden) sexuality.

Nor is Vaid’s narrative unique, as attested by the anthologies of stories and shelves of novels in virtually every language of the subcontinent. To pick just one other example, Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Ice-Candy Man (London: Heinemann, 1988) shows Parsis in Lahore discovering themselves as a Minority. Told from the point of view of a child, History happens around the edges of a young girl managing sibling rivalry, a foot affected by polio, and her preadolescent sense of inadequacy. For a long time, she doesn’t get it, taking in the aromas and sounds of her Hindu Ayah moaning to the gropings of her multi-ethnic admirers, misconstruing her mother’s petrol smuggling and the shelter for rape victims next door. The events of Partition rioting intrude, however; she senses the newness of having a religious identity as Partition becomes reality, she catches the anxiety among the adults as Lahore erupts, she remembers news of Muslim fire brigades spraying Hindu buildings with petrol, she cannot escape the wild eyes of the Ice-Candy Man talking of the train of dead and mutilated Muslims coming in from the Indian Punjab and of his own enraged bombing of Hindus and Sikhs he’d known all his life. Always it is these bits of memories that fall onto the floor like abstract tiles ("’Oh God, she is the mullah’s daughter!’ The men covered their ears–and the boys’ ears–sobbing unaffectedly like little children." 200). Those who experienced events directly have no more sophisticated a frame for understanding the horrors than the child recording their tales for future retelling. These narratives achieve no closure, they just stop. In this case, after being tricked into giving up her Ayah to a mob of rapists, the narrator meets her again as the prisoner-wife of the Muslim Ice-Candy Man once his rivals are dead and the riots are done; ad a skilled operator of a Parsi aunt repatriates her to her family across the border "to her family in Amritsar. … And Ice-candy-man, too, disappears across the Wagah border into India" (277), as crazed and cracked as any of them, pursuing his beloved across the borders of ethnicity, nationality, History itself.

A history without resolution, it seems, as one can tell by juxtaposing to these novels Taslima Nasrin’s Lajja (English translation, New Delhi: Penguin, 1994). An immediate best-seller on the streets of Dhaka, Lajja (the title means "shame") was banned within months of its publication and a fatwa (call for her death) was issued. Why? For weighing down the plot with long catalogs of specific outrages during the 1993 post-Ayodhya riots in Bangladesh. Nasrin’s portrayal of the riots from the perspective of a Hindu family in Dhaka, and her lengthy lists of murders and burnings of the Hindu minority, make the book more of a chronicle than a Novel. The horror gradually erodes the father-and-son denial of just how bad things have gotten, and the gradual ethnic war of economic attrition (we hear many examples of non-Muslims losing property and promotions) when the daughter-sister is kidnapped and "lost." Each of these narratives shows in its characters an eerie willful denial persisting amidst mounting evidence of impending violence, as if they are unable to grasp what Independence has released against their dreams of local harmonies and at-homeness. Considering that Lajja’s riots take place almost a half-century after Partition, Nasrin’s book suggests that the shame of ethnic difference as a channel for social anger persists in both narratives and history and exceeds the capacity of narrative to finesse these social fissures. Nasrin’s sketchy narrative and obtrusive catalogs of rapes, killings, and burnings is only the most obvious "failure" of the Novel as a strategy for containing these issues. There are no idylls to return to: the fatal tension is always already there. No "identity" emerges in the wake of a so intensely labeled set of subpopulations: these narrators and protagonists and, let us venture, these authors, have all experienced history as a raw mass of contradictions, vectors of interest and force running in every direction through each body caught in the historical crossfire. The Novel functioned well enough in bourgeois England to create middle class identities for those subject to its reading. But when that formal power is directed against the rude force of densely aggregated historical contradictions fissioning out from shattered social myths, the Novel becomes something else entirely. It becomes the explosion of belief in identity itself. Broken Mirror indeed.

Equity and Identity

In these narratives, Partition serves mythological and ideological functions, smothering under the lurid realities of the Hindu-Muslim binary whole sets and subsets of splinterings among and within, maintaining the local past of a colonial legacy and troping medieval history (of Mogul incursions) as the misdirected focus of explanation. Saadat Hasan Manto, the short story master, writing of his last days in Bombay before leaving for newly created Pakistan, saw clearly how the rhetoric of 1947 used the violence, in a memoir quoted at length in an Introduction to his collection, Kingdom’s End and Other Stories (New Delhi: Penguin, 1989). "Where," he asked, "were they going to inter the bones which had been stripped of the flesh of religion by vultures and birds of prey?" Habitué of the demimonde, Manto pierced the religious binary: "Now that we were free, had subjection ceased to exist? Who would be our slaves?" He goes on in the same passage to diagram the rhetorical moves that finesse the issue of subjection:

He finds that potential in his friend, himself, and his stories, and it is a reading of history fully aware that history’s enslavement of consciousness is the most crucial impediment to understanding clearly its crises and their real causes.

For example, "Toba Tek Singh," a dark comedy of asylum inmates relocated to their "appropriate" countries, arrays tropes of the period’s history in the "lunatic" responses to the news. The title character ends the story on his face, after fifteen years of standing and muttering, dead in a no man’s land between the two new countries, a metaphor of the incurable madness of being caught between states, national or psychological. "The Dog of Titwal" dies as Indian and Pakistani officers fire away in an effort to herd him to the other’s lines. In "The Last Salute" veteran Subedar Rab Nawaz tends his dying Indian friend Ram Singha, shot when he stood, amidst their bantering on the field, having forgotten "this was a war…" (34). Perhaps his most notorious story of partition is "The Return," in which a Pakistani girl is rescued from the roadside between Amritsar and Lahore by Muslim youth, but raped and left for dead instead of returned to her father (Manto beat the resulting obscenity charge on appeal). "Doing God’s Work" (a story about a Muslim who sets out to help hundreds of the poor achieve "martyrdom") and "The Return" show lust and violence under communal cover. "Subjection" remains, and the intentionally collapsing buildings managed by the sleazy contractor of "Doing God’s Work" are a devastating metaphor of nation-building with economic and social disparities untouched.

Freedom, partition, religion–they are all rhetorical gestures of misdirection in Manto’s stories. The humanistic frameworks of these stories–Manto’s, Vaid’s, Arasanayagam’s–explain little more than what is revealed in the more raw political rhetorics they disparage or in the nostalgia for pure identity fossilized in those rhetorics. Mogul violations of equity, colonial violations of equity, retrospective constructions of pre-Mogul inequity–these have a certain kinship with humanistic displacements of violence into Human Nature (leaving us only the role of lamentation). There’s a weirdness in partition narratives, an unresolved tension between on the one hand astonishment at the eruption of passions from within and the extremity of actions without, and, on the other hand, the inadequacy of apparent explanations–the little jealousies of daily disparities, the dislocation of having to move, the hangover of past abuses of power, the arguments over boundary lines. These and other adduced causes like them are necessary but not sufficient explanations.

Sudhir Kakar’s The Colours of Violence (New Delhi: Viking Penguin, 1995) is among those books arguing that "revivalism or fundamentalism," the apparent petrol in the riot flames, "is an attempt to reformulate the project of modernity" (184). Migration, shifting economic status of various groups, "urban conglomerations, the "obsolescence of traditional roles and skills" impacting upon self-esteem, the "loss of ancestral ideals and values" (185-7)–all these are indices of Modernity keeping individuals "in a state of permanent psychic mobilization and heightened nervous arousal." Noting the overwhelming power of "the enlightenment values of universal equality, liberty, and fraternity, of the pre-eminence of reason and moral autonomy of the individual," Kakar has no illusions that "local culture" can stand against it–he is much less optimistic than Nandy about the powers of Tradition to inflect history. As Kakar puts it,

Cast in a psychologist’s terms, Kakar’s take on communalism sees it as the dark side of Nehru’s utopian modernity. Color Tradition rosy, consider pathological the intensity of these competing discourses for warranting identity, "religion" among the foremost, and regard both enlightenment and violence as symptoms of an effort to respond to Modernity’s radical decoding or value-stripping of Tradition. Manto and Kakar, each in his own way, extends the argument a step past the atrophied "answers" opened outward by the romances of memory and identity, these case histories of partition, with Kakar’s analysis in particular bluntly naming the mutual determination of modernity and violence. Each of these oppositional engines of identity–then vs now, Hindu vs Muslim–reminds us of Nandy’s exclusive parts obscuring a grasp of the inclusive whole by their passionate grip on a part. The furies were pent up under colonial rule and driven mad by the enormous dislocations wrought by the great global money machine. On the wrong day, at street level, these furies seize the terrible vehicles of communal slurs and sudden knifings.

Among the other case histories of the engine of capital at work is Caste, as embattled by the "homogenizing and hegemonizing" forces of Modernity as any other supporting structure to identity. Manto’s characters are worked upon by gibes that disparage caste and profession, but perhaps nowhere does one find the intersection between Modernity and traditional inequities so acute as in the case of the untouchables. It is only a year since I heard, even in New Delhi, an old woman calling out to warn those "above" her of the walking pollutant–herself–in caste-defined tradition. The local names include the Mahatma’s harijans (Children of God) infantilized by the paternal noblesse oblige of Gandhi and the state guardianship of the Nehrus, the instant Buddhists of Baba Sahib Ambedkar (who "converted" in mass to avoid caste persecution), the Dalits (the term means "oppressed") of both the Dalit Panthers and the increasingly well-organized movements politicizing this group within the weary votebank politics of a newly refragmented body politic.

This group has figured prominently in the rhetoric of equity for many years. My edition of Mulk Raj Anand’s epochal Untouchable is a Rs 30 hardback from Arnold-Heinemann’s "Mayfair" imprint, a 1981 printing of the 1970 revision of the 1935 original. The cover shows a flower, the title, the author’s name, and "International Bestseller available in 38 languages of the world." That line signifies pride and perhaps still some surprise at the global reception to this slender novel: the cover "knows" the book as Event. The back cover carries a summary and collects the key descriptors of Anand’s success: "sensitive portrayal," "penetrating thought," "humane attitude." It’s very conventional to think those three zones together–emotional, intellectual, and sacramental.

My third adjective is necessarily dodgy, of course, because sacramental means "only" that religious investment of the mundane with transcendent values. In this case, they are the "humane" values of a secular modernity mobilized by Anand over his long and generous career of aiding both political causes and the arts in India–a lifelong campaign for Equity. In the 1930s, Untouchable was a "rude" intrusion into the genteel conservatism of traditional Indian society. That society was just coming alive in the Gandhi campaign to the cultural and political benefits of turning British liberal principles against the Imperial side of the British psyche. Anand extended the reach of liberalism to the dark side of the Indian tradition.

The back cover also marks the filial relation of Anand’s attitude to British liberalism by quoting E.M. Forster’s very English, restrained endorsement ("It is an excellent work and I am delighted it is being reprinted. I hope it will again be favorably received"). Forster is not about to overdo his affirmation of Anand; nonetheless, his legitimating signature signifies. His Preface is, as they say, "a piece of work." It shows much of what you would expect from the colonial era:

Eurocentrism, classism, elitism; let’s go ahead and add individualism ("No wonder that the dirt enters into his soul, and that he feels himself at moments to be what he is supposed to be"), for individualism can function every bit as effectively as our other "exclusive parts" to sanitize discussions of social and political values. Next, Forster manfully enumerates the novel’s three solutions to the Untouchable’s dilemma–transcending Indianness to Christianity, following the Mahatma’s synthesis of western equity and tradition, or embracing the global commodity machine in the form of flush toilets… a mechanism we can think of as a metaphor of technology being the necessary precondition for the flashfire of postmodernity. This list, each of its items, has doubled valence, serving individually and collectively as a powerful position from which to critique long-standing abuses, but at the same time a position which displaces indigenous critical faculties. That doubleness will shadow the crusade for equity, along with a parallel double valence, one that shadows the compassionate intensities of Anand’s cause with the aura of paternalism inherited from the British lineage of liberal rhetoric… There is no simple line across this territory.

In Untouchable, Anand describes a day in which Bakha, an Untouchable who has worked for a British regiment, comes to a certain level of consciousness about casteism. That element of westernization is a necessary precondition for Bakha–he is already set apart by the bits of British clothing he wears, he plays hockey (his joining other players unaware of his untouchability is an important gear in the narrative mechanism), he has been treated differently by the regiment than by those who know him "back home," he has acquired more desires than he can pay for, he has westernized shame over the spitting and hawking in Indian ablutions–he has, we read, invented a new world out of these traces of a different order:

This imagined world does not mesh seamlessly with that of the town, and the novel works by giving us the interior responses of Bakha to scenes which dramatize the gap between Bakha’s worlds.

Anand takes no chances with readers’ sympathies: the novel operates a simple binary mechanism pitting a favorably marked Bakha against all others’ defects or brutality. Not only is Bakha dramatized as a "lion" (105), but many passages mark his strength, nobility, and inherent dignity (18, 24, 61, 73, 94). Moreover, many incidental traces of caste walls explain daily life from his perspective (caste-bound wells, his regret over exclusion from education, the "sin" of an untouchable presuming to smoke, the difficulty of shopping when you can’t touch or be touched, his ignorance even of religion because of being banned from temples, the taking up by many Brits of caste prejudices, the difficulty of moving along a street without touching or being touched). We witness extreme examples of prejudice–high caste jokes at Bakha’s clothes and cleanliness, women’s abuse of untouchables at a well, venomous language over untouchables’ request for a raise or simply for walking normally instead of skulking, blame and abuse for defiling a hurt boy he carries home from the hockey field.

By taking us inside Bakha’s emotional life, we are invited to identify with a type of whom Anand’s first readers had no deep knowledge. We have, for example, the story of the regimental hat all the Indian boys covet. "The spirit of modernity had worked havoc among the youth of the regiment" (113), particularly the "desire to wear western dress." For Bakhu, it has always been the hat, so intensely so that he had once, as a boy, asked for it, but in his maturity could not bring himself to. "‘Why is it,’ he had often asked himself, ‘that I can’t go and ask now but dared to do so when I was a child?’ He couldn’t find the answer to this. He didn’t know that with the growth of years he had lost the freedom, the wild, careless, dauntless freedom of the child, that he had lost his courage, that he was afraid" (114). This brief passage is a microcosm of the contradictions Bakha experiences among youth and age, westernized and untouchable, emergent and constrained, and it shows as well how dependent Anand is upon the powerful engine of individualism to enlist sympathies and arouse passion. Anand juxtaposes a westernized self–a utopian ideal even in the west, one free of all markers of class, gender, ethnicity–with the constructed Indian self of an untouchable.

The juxtaposition is not without its difficulties. Note for example this description of his neighbors whom Bakha considers "inferiors" from his westernized perspective:

The tone is menaced by the difficulty of showing the degrading effects of housing without being tinctured by the superiority Bakha feels as he walks into the settlement.

A similar danger surfaces in the depiction of Bakha listening to the speeches of Christians, Gandhians, and the poet of technology. The Christians are simply skewered, when the Colonel seeks paternally to save "the souls of the heathen" or we see the blunt racism ("these blackies") of his wife. But Bakha’s limitations are also made explicit, presumably to register the extent to which his intellectuality has been stunted, but in terms that risk even more than the description of the "lazy, lousy" outcastes: Bakha "followed willingly," we read, "listening to each word that the Colonel spoke, but not understanding a word" (140). Listening to the Gandhians, Bakha is befuddled by the unknown word "harijan" (157), he "looked not unlike an ape as he sat" watching the procession (159), and he "didn’t understand these words" of Gandhi (words like moral, religious, conscience, 163). And the anti-Brahminical poet who rants after the Mahatma’s speech fares no better, for though he advances technology as the cure to the untouchables’ dilemma and urges Indians to pick and choose among western traits (171), Bakha "felt that the poet would have been answering the most intimate questions in his soul, if he had not used such big words" (174). Anand marks the most thoroughly failed sense of solidarity with the masses by having Mr Bashir, a Jinnah-like aristocrat paired with the poet, flourish his "silken handkerchief" as he detaches them from a crowd that has "suffocated" him.

Perhaps Anand is not entirely immune to the list of sins we laid at Forster’s feet, but it is the containment within a westernized individualist ethic that is most worrisome. We see Bakha register bodily the anxiety produced by these alternative conceptions of his group, flushed, fast-pulsed, and confused (158), and we leave him "torn between his enthusiasm for Gandhi and the difficulties in his own awkward, naive self" (175). Anand’s book is to set an agenda, it seems, in which treatments of the untouchables risk eviscerating the need for structural change with the emphasis upon the individual psyches of their protagonists, re-introducing, along the way, trace elements of the privileged position from which the writing comes.

But let us fast-forward to a novel published a few years after the revised edition of Anand’s Untouchable, when the Gandhian term, harijan, becomes the title of Shanta Rameshwar Rao’s Children of God (Bombay: Sangam Books, 1976). Perhaps the most striking thing about this South Indian narrative is how continuously its key points parallel not only Anand’s 1935/1970 novel, but also a 1991 journalistic report on "The Awful Truth: Continuing Oppression of Harijans in Tamil Nadu" (in Aside: The Magazine of Madras, 15 March 1991), and the 1988 Pan on Fire: Eight Dalit Women Tell Their Story (New Delhi: Indian Social Institute). Perhaps only western readers would notice this continuity, expecting otherwise given the rapid changes in our own social surfaces over the last few decades. But a century is a short stretch of time in which to touch this bottom line of caste with a magic wand of Equity. As if to buttress the point of continuity despite agitations for change, many of Rao’s sociological moments occur also in these other narratives–the rude mores at the village (caste) well, male alcoholism and domestic violence, child-raising attitudes, extortionary lending rates, the persistence of caste prejudice among liberals when it comes to issues of (e.g.) marriage, and a general multitude of restraints upon Dalit dress, demeanor, and movement in a traditional village. The Madras magazinist, Janaki Venkataraman, concludes that "if you are a Harijan and you live in a Tamil Nadu (or any Indian) village, you do not, in reality, possess the same fundamental rights that an average Indian citizen possesses" (12).

That verdict casts a shadow across the century’s rhetoric of equality under the law. "Right through the trip undertaken by Aside reporters in Tamil Nadu it was noticed that the law of the land stops at the panchayat tree in every village (where the most local of councils meets). There the law of the village (oor kattuppadu) takes over" (12). That oor kattuppadu is not enforced by formal edict. Full of anecdotes about panchayat presidents pocketing half the loan money obtained under uplift schemes, land distribution scandals, the suffusion of caste lines even into the Christian churches, let alone the terms of address in the villages, the Aside account makes clear the diffuse mechanics by which old normalizing conditioning is applied:

Indeed, Bihar, for example, is notorious for its private armies of landowner goondas who patrol the countryside despite the importance of SCs (Scheduled Castes in legal parlance) when votes are counted.

And so both Rao and the journalists tell anecdotes of old SC women removing their sandals because they aren’t permitted to wear them on village streets, laws notwithstanding. All these accounts share retellings of abuse at the well, being forced to wash laundry only downstream and at night, scoldings for making eye contact or speaking directly to a caste Hindu, beatings for inadvertently touching a caste Hindu, outrage when SCs use forbidden routes in daylight, and stonings for wearing a full sari or flowers in the hair. The novel’s narrator alternates between narrating her community’s lifestyle and lamenting her dead son Kittu, beaten and burnt to death for entering a temple more than 25 years after Independence era legislation. All of the accounts juxtapose the rhetoric of equity with the abusive outrage of onlookers and the weary cynicism of a character like Soma: "Make no mistake! Words are like the husk of grain–empty, useless and plentiful. People give words, and that is all they have to give you" (96).

Among those words are the arguments swirling around caste reform issues, carefully parsed by Rao during the narrator’s flashbacks to the heady days of Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign against untouchability. We hear angry outbursts from reactionary crowds, bus-riding Brahmins trapping reformers in classic arguments from karma and rebirth, conservative Dalits worried about the impiety of polluting the better-born, verbal assaults on foreign missionaries backing the egalitarian cause. As for the narrator, she falls in love with Acharya Harishchandra (who, perhaps caste-bound himself, doesn’t even notice); The Teacher’s angry denunciation of the caste bar is equitably distributed between the defenders of caste privilege and those who submit to it:

We hear a middle class edge (patronizing, paternal, and viscerally attuned to markers of relative sophistication) in phrases like "crass ignorance and simplicity," a quite middle class ethos (of self-sufficient upward mobility) impacted in the verb "allowed," and an utterly (post?)modernist critique lacing through the trope of repeating a lie to impose "truth."

The splicing of narrative time in the novel is perhaps its most telling argument about equity and reality in caste politics. All the arguments about equity and equality are placed 25 years in the past; the most devastating examples of caste prejudice (brother Boda’s discovery that urban liberals still harbor prejudice, Kittu’s murder) take place in the present. "Chhaya," in Pan on Fire, mentions a modus operandi by which members of her family negotiate the difference between tradition and modernity: "my uncle says, at home he listens to his mother and outside he listens to his heart" (26). The maxim applies to equity in caste matters, it would seem, with many of the protagonists of these fictional and nonfictional accounts listening to a heart of equity and principle "outside" in the public realm of rhetoric, but to the "mother" of traditional bars and prejudice in the "home" of marriage and friendship. Boda, for example, discovers this principle when his wish to marry the sister of his "friend," a liberal labor organizer, meets with silence, then outrage: "you are a fool, Boda, if you do not understand that marriage is another thing altogether. … Marriage is a bond by which a man secures himself to his family and ancestors; to the roots out of which he was created. Marriage is different. Are you so stupid as not to know that?" (139).

A bit of this sixty-year continuity erodes if one turns to writing by Dalits, speaking of, as, and for themselves. Even Pan on Fire is a curious project in which participants were first trained in techniques of autobiographical recall, and then their transcripts edited, and a final selection made and rendered into English–multiple levels of structuring and selection that fairly obtrusively construct the personnae and their narratives. One can sense these participants (in a Christian-sponsored social outreach project) striving to "perform" for the workshop leaders, to foreground attitudes and events that "fit" the ethos of social services (to the point of the younger ones aspiring to become social workers themselves). The Introduction to the volume notes that role rather than individual ability shapes behavior and that, therefore, "it is the roles that shape the life experience and personality and not vice versa" as in the middle class, one might add, where a sufficient economic buffer can often vary the possibilities a bit. But one of the roles these women play is as interlocutor in a social services program that treats them as honored guests, offers some help with various life crises, and generally lifts the self-esteem of participants by making them more like the questioners than like those whose narratives were not chosen for the book.

Perhaps the Dalit writers collected in a series of anthologies by Arjun Dangle, one of the Dalit Panthers from the 1970s, are similarly constructed by their participation in literary forms that "modernize" the individuality of protagonists and writers. But a volume like Homeless In My Land (Bombay: Disha Books, 1992), the short story component of a series that also includes poetry and autobiography, nonetheless offers several vantage points upon Dalit life, including urban (like Boda’s story in Children of God, or most of the participants in Pan on Fire’s project), rural (like Bakha’s story in Untouchable or Laxmi’s in Children of God or the cases in the Madras magazine), and even a bit of the Dalit middle class, all of them reliant upon social realism to detail the situation of Dalits in this half of the century. In the urban stories, for example, we see Beehma driven to stealing "Gold from the Grave" when his quarry job disappears in a downturn (and losing his fingers in the clench of a corpse’s mouth as he fights off jackals to steal rings and jewels, on the de Maupassant eve of the quarry rehiring the able-bodied). We also see a mother ostracized, even by her own son, for her liaison with the overseer (though the son’s moralistic fastidiousness contrasts sharply with women’s envy of his mother and men’s lust for her, as if the mob that works on the boy is mostly angry that sexual property is passing outside the community). We see a child so deformed it becomes the "Livelihood" of a woman until its father gets out of prison and exercises a father’s "ownership" of children.

In each of these urban stories, the writers take pains to dramatize the collusion of other Dalits in the suffering of protagonists, an indication that these writers believe collective action is more effective than internalizing social inequity and economic disparity and venting such anger within the Dalit community. The rural stories remind one of the narratives we’ve discussed–stories of "Poisoned Bread" tossed to the Dalits as their traditional portion, an urban retiree’s "Storeyed House" burnt (with him inside) to punish such uppitiness, a gentle boy pathetically inept at struggling for a good share in "The Cull" (when Dalits share out a dead buffalo as their compensation for disposing of a polluting dead carcass), an educated Dalit boy who cannot find employment and must return to outcaste trades to support his family. The egalitarian reform rhetoric in the plot of "Poisoned Bread" turns ironic given the 12-year retrospective narration from an unchanged present. The middle class story recounts the gap between the father’s "Promotion" in the regulated hierarchy of a government department and the insolence of Godbole or with the son’s wounded knee (and pride) from being pushed and beaten for drinking water in a caste house. "Waghmare’s mind is filled with the image of Godbole. His newly-sprung wings of promotion fall off and a mere mortal named Pandurang Satwa Waghmare crashes helplessly into the abyss below" (26).

That abyss is an historical past, internalized within all these characters, into which all rhetoric of liberty, fraternity, and equality must pass. Waghmare has "risen," but so insecurely that he fears any contact between his family and their relations in the chawls ("what will our neighbors say," he actually asks when his wife mentions running into her slum-dwelling aunt). That instability signifies the multiplicity of roles he must play without any warranties, manipulating the laws to rise economically, but also contending with the persistent realities of caste lines and bars fissuring the social body. Changes being brought by contemporary economic patterns open the abscess of caste feelings–in the same way that ethnic identities are more tightly held and keenly felt as media homogenization and global pricing and sourcing undermine their social texture. Impatience, even militance, is bred by relative have-nots seeing evidence of the sheer amount of stuff people have in societies with more equity (which may well only mean differently distributed inequities). While these disparities have always existed, they had been tied to partially soothing Brahminical doctrines of "one’s destiny" accrued from past lives (see Rao 64f–"partially soothing" because the flipside of suffering in this life for past sins is faring better next time for suffering dutifully in the present). MTV broadcasts continuous reminders that anyone can rise when equity floods out the caste lines and its supporting religious and social institutions. Intercaste rioting (prominent in both Tamil Nadu and Bihar recently) is only the extrovert form of the introverted venom evidenced in the stories Dangle collects.

It is not any easier, that is, to be a Dalit than a caste Hindu when the structures and rules begin to flow. Rao’s caste Hindus can mutter that "If we do not have a care, these people will become our equals and we will have no position left," a lostness that mirrors Boda’s when he arrives in Bombay:

And this from a man who had been contemptuous of religion, who had defied caste lines in his village, and who had left so that the weight of unjust history would no longer be upon him. The "prison" is within as his core identity, and it comes with the "torment" of its externalized forms (in this case, religious law) and the striation of social hierarchy ("heinous" derives, appropriately in this context, from "hate"). Its discipline is the more keenly felt as he enters the City, a zone in which the daily pressure of traditional caste norms seems suspended. The persistence of its memory haunts equally the government officer in Arjun Dangle’s "Promotion," who keenly feels the risk to their new position of continuing any connections with Dalits still in the chawls–as if the new structure of class and meritocracy were a veil of illusion cast over the hard realities of karma and destiny.

Keshav Meshram’s "The Barriers" (in Dangle’s anthology) dramatizes the endgame of caste barriers, centering on a Mahar boy sent to school in another town who becomes a pawn in the contest between a prejudiced master and a Dalit activist. The activist stirs the Dalit villagers with abuse of things Brahminical, and the response epitomizes the quicksand of equity politics in the villages:

The names are changed, but not history, not ritual, not identity. What are we to make of this series of narratives exploring caste and equity? The lesson from this recurrent kind of scene is that equity politics are not sufficient to recode identity and the social institutions that are its externalization. Postmodernity, on the other hand, that seditious combination of media imaging and economic incentive, wreaks havoc.

Identity politics, in other words, are not a solution but a symptom of a more complex sedimentation of discontinuous and asymmetrical formations that mix social, cultural, political, and above all economic modes. Th content of the Dalit case history is not invalid, but it provides an inadequate, even simplistic model for "solving" the problem. India is not a Modern problem to be socially engineered with a totalizing modernist purism. It is a postmodernist pastiche with manifold mutually symptomatic structures already partially decomposed and floating in the rivers of time like a post-festival Ganapati image. "Dalit" identity, in fact any such singular identity, names too small a part of the whole of each protagonist, just as caste, religion, language, or even class names too singular a version of the social whole. Contradictory composites, they elude the monological conceptuality of modern social theory or narrative form and require a far more inclusive and mobile logic.

The Novel, as Mukherjee reminds us in the historical chapters of Realism and Reality, does stagger a bit as a genre when setting its formal encoding of individualism in relation to a communally defined social body like Indian society. We’ve seen the effects of three distinct waves in which this tension was articulated. In the colonial past, communities were strategically manipulated factions of a potentially mutinous colonized population, the lower orders dosed with liberally inspired aspirations that set them against a traditional elite itself dosed with carefully measured degrees of partial authority and moderate material rewards. Anand’s Untouchable and Coolie exemplify such a phase. In the nationalist past, this taking of an exclusive part as a focal whole–"India" is your caste, it is Brahmanical Hinduism, it is the emerging middle class, it is the target audience of the political day–gave way, relatively and not ever altogether, to secularism’s modernist dream of a single national identity, a totalizing fiction always easier to maintain from a position of privilege than from one of caste and economic subjection. Partition narratives? Surprise at the intensity of communal violence expresses their shock that this supposed nationalist homogeneity had in fact failed to wash out old boundary lines of communal ontology.

As novels begin appearing in the post-Nationalist era of postmodernity, we begin to see these categories undergo yet another level of stress and strategic repositioning as the new economy and its international media shocktroops break up and empty fundamental social structures and equally fundamental "modern" frames of reference like individuality and nation. In the violent flareups of communal anachronism, the backlash of an increasingly displaced social logic, it can be difficult to imagine how thoroughly mixed the identities of individual Indians have become: we have seen narrative after narrative unravel any simplicity to the question of "identity," sometimes in relief at the liberation from its restrictions, sometimes with nostalgia at the sense of something lost, sometimes with grim recognition of the kind of being one must assume in its place. The formula narrative that Bollywood began, SATV accelerates; the progress that Nehru preached, Rupert Murdoch has commodified; the professional class that the British initiated as a managerial strata for a colonial regime, global capitalism has exponentiated as software development, engineering, and any number of other such technical exports. Each individual in these going concerns bears within what I’ve called a romance of memory, a romance of identity, while negotiating the generic postmodernity of Hyatt-Regency meetings and Amex gold card mobility.

We turn next to a novel in which this third scenario is in full and tragic evidence, opening out for us to a chapter on women writing about women in which we see some of the most compelling and detailed close readings of the social and personal effects of postmodernity. Postmodernity’s deracination of social logics sorely tests the resources of both individuals and tradition itself, flexible as we have found it to be, to accommodate themselves to the drastically changed life world produced by the global economic order’s wildfire spread across the social and historical landscape of India.

The God of Small Things…

… is 1997’s Publishing Event in the OverHere. NPR interviews ("it took me four and a half years to work out the book’s structure," "Kerala is a place where four religions live together–Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Marxism"), slipcased advanced readers’ copies, Big Apple signings, a page on, a full page review from Time, ads in the Times and the New Yorker–it’s enough to make you assume the book must be hopelessly homogenized, another episode in the international warmed-over modernism that makes it through the multiple sieves separating American readers from "Indian" writing. There are signs of this, perhaps, in the "anglophile" family the novel portrays, the wry dismissal of Marxism in the form of a particularly petty local politician, the fervor of its caste and cops exposé, the intensity of its individualism harbored against all the forces of History and Rubbish in the final chapter’s passionate, long-deferred love scene.

My list is accurate but unfair, its items suspended but not dissolved in a narratology Arundhati Roy works hard to keep open, pliable, honest to its complexities. She is a traitor to the genteel class represented by her characters, most of them from an upper caste family distinguished for its high government servant from distant New Delhi and its very Kerala pickle factory, a local employer of note. Their personal foibles are consistently related to their positioning within the ancient caste structure, the newer class structure of the modestly Marxist Kerala of her pages, and the unrelenting gender binary that passes through unaltered as the old order changeth, yielding place to new. Like many late modernist narratives in American fiction, this novel’s characters are contorted and traumatized by the effects of history on their personal lives. But there is this difference, that History is named and faced throughout these pages, not masked as zany friends, as partially metaphorical institutions standing (if only vaguely) for the political domain, as personal manias awaiting the right moment for the light of self-healing. Perhaps only in Baby Kochamma, the aging wattled villainness of the piece, does Roy come close to a merely individual character, but even she is a member of a clearly enough identified species, the distillate of generations of frustration under the constrictions of patriarchy in its various forms.

What makes the book work is not simply the magical language of the telling, but the architecture of the work–Roy is an architect, so the word is more than a metaphor. Her nonlinear narrative relates episodes spiced with foretastes of "The Terror," the consequences of History inflected in individual lives, of choices among doomed alternatives, of nonchoices, of History’s rules of hierarchy crossing with Culture’s rules of love to mark an x where dead souls leave no footprints–except those of this narrative. Finally we see what the hints have told us, bit by bit, like flashes of memory fighting through repression, ours, perhaps, of the constraints within which our supposed liberties are experienced. Reading through the chapters sounds out a dialogue between foreshadowing and belated showing. This dialogue is a narrative trope of that between a knowledge of the pressures of Biology, History, Culture and, we might say, an individual’s persistence to desire the evasion of those pressures, to (self-destructively) repress the Big Things and immerse in the Small Things pressing against the senses, to give oneself to the actions that mean "things can change in a day" (183, 193). The Big Things all happen in the last 10% of the book, though they’ve been flashing across, ominously, all along.

We are led to those Big Things through a floorplan that takes us past any number of historical exhibits interspersed with others I’ll label anthropological, sociological, and, well, the sensory detail of a travelogue. We see India’s political history pervading the private spaces of characters directly and indirectly; but Roy also takes us back to "the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much" (33). Even Incest, the scandal of anthropology’s Nature/Culture binary, is a function in these equations. The sociological exhibits walk us through the microtexture of caste relations as they morph under the incursion of modernity’s class-structuring economic forms, daily signifiers of traditional caste lines, verses of dialog in which caste and class sound their half-rhymes, the surprised expectations jolted by abrogations of varying kinds. But don’t discount the travelogue, because part of the point is Biology, the natural world, the impress of light and fragrance and taste, form and color, the sheen and smoothness of skin, the mouldering clamminess of crumbling walls, the sounds and creatures that are everywhere when one’s attention shifts to the Small Things, the surges that come when "History was wrong-footed, caught off guard. Sloughed off like an old snakeskin…. In its absence it left an aura, a palpable shimmering that was as plain to see as the water in a river or the sun in the sky. As plain to feel as the heat on a hot day, or the tug of a fish on a taut line" (168).

We are not allowed to think of this as a story of doomed love, even though the novel ends with the passionate scene of soon-to-be-doomed love, as if teasing us to believe in Individualism as a gospel despite the evidence, as if tempting us to make the same move the characters did. In Roy’s case, then, nonlinearity is not a signifier for the fragmented consciousness of modern humanity; it is not the means to achieving what used to be called the "panoramic" novel; it is not a simulacrum of an oral culture’s repertoire of tales. It is, rather, something more postmodern, a prolonging of the intensities of a melodrama until, as if staging that word’s etymology, we trace its manifest music down to the latencies of its limbs from culture’s family tree. I’ve named those limbs with the language of the sciences of "man"–history, anthropology, sociology, travelogue.

Chacko, in one of his flights of Oxfordian rhetoric, makes history explicit enough, with his metaphor of history as "an old house at night. With all the lamps lit. And ancestors whispering inside" (51). The metaphor turns ironic since "the History House," the children’s name for the abandoned house of an English pedophilic suicide, is where the Untouchable Velutha is beaten by the police in front of the seven-year-old twins. "To understand history," Chacko continues, "we have to go inside and listen to what they’re saying. And look at the books and the pictures on the wall. And smell the smells" (51). Appropriately sensory in his attentiveness to details, Chacko is still no positivist. "But we can’t go in … because we are locked out," can see only "shadows," hear only "whispering," and cannot understand either "because our minds have been invaded by a war. A war that we have won and lost. The very worst sort of war. A war that captures dreams and re-dreams them. A war that has made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves" (51).

Chacko is eloquent, then, about the "war" that is colonialism internalized, won only in the sense of sending the British home, lost in the psychological havoc of being another culture’s dream. In their own land, they are not so unlike "The Black Sahib. The Englishman who had ‘gone native.’ Who spoke Malayalam and wore mundus. Ayemenem’s own Kurtz. Ayemenem his private Heart of Darkness" (51): they are the boys he kept, the parents who took the boys back and sent them away, the Brits with a swagger stick and the babus who emulated them and the dark sultry others of all that was repressed by Anglo-hypermasculinity. All at once. Postmoderns.

"We’re Prisoners of War" he goes on, "Our dreams have been doctored. We belong nowhere. We sail unanchored on troubled seas. We may never be allowed ashore. Our sorrows will never be sad enough. Our joys never happy enough. Our dreams never big enough. Our lives never important enough. To matter" (52). The length of the quotation allows its clichés, its sheer borrowed-ness, to twine around its deeply felt sense of displacement and devaluing. Chacko’s dreams became Oxfordian, his libido focused upon an English shopkeeper’s daughter, his life "unanchored" when she told him to leave her and his infant daughter, and his return was to Paradise Pickles and projects that "were never important enough." "To matter," one must somehow undream a long history and return not just to the pre-British era, but hopelessly before in the eternal present of a precultural past:

We get ahead of ourselves, for everything in this novel is kept related to everything else, and History displaces, it is the irresistible force pushing from behind, it is the cultural and political colonial heritage, it is the "before" even of the pre-western Zamorin et al, it is the caste structure brought by the Aryans in Vedic times, it is the Love Laws that "capture dreams," converting the polymorphous into the isomorphic and inserting it like a parade-ground baton into the wunder-klammer of normalizing mechanisms.

Even at the most explicit level, the narrative is "about" the pieces of this meaning of History. Sex between the untouchable Velutha and the high caste Ammu fuses what the novel does with caste and the Love Laws. Because of Velutha, we see inside a rural untouchable’s home, we hear the family history of pinched economics and untreated disease, we hear the history of untouchables retreating backwards sweeping away their footprints lest any caste Hindu become polluted, we watch fingers washed that may have touched one, we read about how recently they "were not allowed to walk on public roads, not allowed to cover their upper bodies, not allowed to carry umbrellas. They had to put their hands over their mouths when they spoke, to divert their polluted breath away from those whom they addressed" (71). We hear about "their smell," we see the sexual climax almost wrecked for Velutha:

She leads sexually, he stutters, paralyzed by the high caste eyes he has internalized and arranged all through the bushes of desires and vines of caste rivalry and rich dark earth of individual economic opportunity. There is no inner space not filled by the gritty realities of caste persisting twenty years after Independence and the constitutionalizing of Equity politics. Roy makes us read these all in and around the "personal" stories of Velutha and the children until the external/internal boundary is gone.

Caste intersects disastrously with class, since Velutha’s skills raise him in the factory’s wage hierarchy but his caste rouses the resentment of the "Touchable" workers. The factory’s only communist party member, he "gave Comrade Pillai [the local leader] an ally he would rather have done without… Comrade Pillai stepped carefully around this wrinkle, waiting for a suitable opportunity to iron it out" (115), one offered by Velutha’s love affair. Pillai deserts Velutha rather than helping him, effectively making him a martyr who is better dead than a living red.

Class intersects with gender. Comrade Pillai’s sexism is carefully documented in his grammatical differentiation in addressing males and females (256) and his protocol of greeting Chacko but not his own wife or mother when he returns to the house (258). Chacko, both factory owner and coffee table marxist (who goes so far as to take his workers to organizing workshops), nonetheless uses his employer’s power to force sex upon female employees (62).

And Ammu’s fatal role is prepared for her by the chain of gender as she is victimized by a duplicitous father (who performs the Genial Patriarch for company and savages his women in private); she is refused a college education, left unmarried because of inadequate dowry, proved unlucky in a desperate and impulsive "love" marriage, and then stuck at home as a pariah divorcee with children increasingly vulnerable to a last chance fling. She sees clearly enough her position; the absurdity of dressing up for marriage is "like polishing firewood" (43), the bleak recognition "that Life had been Lived. That her cup was full of dust. That the air, the sky, the trees, the sun, the rain, the light and darkness were all slowly turning to sand. That sand would fill her nostrils, her lungs, her mouth. Would pull her down, leaving on the surface a spinning swirl like crabs leave when they burrow downwards on a beach" (212). That "downwards" is the answer to an equation: time + gender + caste -husband - wealth = dust. The same recognition perverts Baby Kochamma, her aunt, whose frustrated love for Father Mulligan is the catalyst transforming her from an "attractive young girl … with a trembling, kissable mouth and blazing, coal-black eyes" into the vicious obese manipulator who insures the utter destruction of her family and ends the novel as a SATV addict.

The novel is marked, too, by the vise of postmodernity upon Kerala, with the flow of western consumer vehicles (satellite television, western music, commodities, western movies like The Sound of Music beloved and memorized by the family) and the stiff terms for gaining entry to that commodity world…

• we see the returning gulf-workers (132),

• we hear about the "pesticides bought with World Bank loans,"

• we glimpse the lives of Kathakali dancers condemned to "truncated" performances for the "small attention spans" of tourists and the slashing of "classics" to "cameos" (121), and we see the dancer whose "body is his soul … left dangling somewhere between heaven and earth," "unviable. Unfeasible. Condemned goods," and that "his Children deride him. They long to be everything he is not" (219),

• we discover that the river is killed to give more rice paddies to rich farmers in return for political support (118),

• we read about the History House converted into a luxury hotel with "artificial canals and connecting bridges. Small boats bobbed in the water. The old colonial bungalow, with its deep verandah and Doric columns, was surrounded by smaller, older, wooden houses–ancestral homes–that the hotel chain had bought from old families and transplanted in the Heart of Darkness. Toy Histories for rich tourists to play in" (120); the oldest of these had been the home of Comrade E.M.S. Namboodiripad, "Kerala’s Mao Tse-tung," the Hotel People boast–the new Heart of Darkness exterminates the brutes through confectionery versions of Kerala, of History, of classics, of art; it reduces "old communists" to "fawning bearers in colorful ethnic clothes," it pays low wages while western "fathers played sublimated sexual games with their nubile teenaged daughters" in the pools and dining rooms.

The kathakali dancers are extreme versions of the effort to avoid "starvation" in a sea of global capital; one might as well cite the cops creeping up on a sleeping Velutha, ready to pound him senseless, a Touchable posse fanning out and crouching and creeping "like Film-policemen" (291), or tragi-comic versions of Estha with his "beige and pointy shoes and his Elvis puff, … strumming a badminton racquet, curling his lip like Elvis," and crooning 1969 imitations of what the influx of western movies was bringing in however belatedly (SATV would eliminate that time gap by the novel’s 1993 end). Into an interior already crowded with Kurtz and his natives, caste, gender, class, and clan, comes this powerful mix of media saturation and commodity confection. Even Ammu, shimmering on the verge of acceding to an affair with Velutha, is paced by pop songs, one from a movie embodying Bollywood’s version of the musical film (concocted from the mix between folk theater and Busby Berkeley), another a western tune urging her to "Cash your dreams before / They slip away / Dying all the time /Lose your dreams and you / Will lose your mind" (314). "She couldn’t believe it. The cheap coincidence of those words," but "cheap" only in England where the song comes from, not according to "The Cost of Living" (this final chapter title) that kills for trying to live by "a pact … forged between her Dream and the World" (210).

Which brings us to that pact, to the Love Laws, and to the Twins. The latter are a special case, fraternal twins, yet as closely attuned as any identicals–Rahel awakens laughing at Estha’s dream, in her imagination she undergoes his molestation, and they "thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities" (4-5). Their experiences become the points of condensation for the bad sap rising in the limbs of culture we’ve been studying. They’re victims, first of all, in the collapse of the innovative love match attempted by their parents; they have no contact with their father ("D’you think he may have lost our address?" Rahel asks, a bit pathetically, 211). As a result, "their wide-eyed vulnerability and their willingness to love people who didn’t really love them" exasperates their mother: "It was as though the window through which their father disappeared had been kept open for anyone to walk in and be welcomed" (42).

In the distorted patriarchy of their home, they, fatherless children, are "millstones" to both Chacko (82) and, more disastrously since it precipitates their running away across the river, their mother (239-40). Moreover, they are taught some unsettling lessons about the Love Rules. Ammu, having told them the story of Julius Caesar slain by his best friend, summarizes: "It just goes to show … that you can’t trust anybody. Mother, father, brother, husband, bestfriend. Nobody" (79). Estha is taught by the soft drink man at the movies to compound the confusion of being made to rub him to orgasm with the "bottomless-bottomful feeling: The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man knew where to find him" (134). Ammu has disciplined Rahel with the terrible burden of hearing "When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less" (107). That love you a little less echoes in her mind for years, turns a relation into a dependency upon another for sustaining identity and well-being, makes love into power.

Pappachi’s violent temper, blamed upon his failure as an entomologist to get the moth he discovered named after him (it’s less silly in context), is a patrimony signaled repeatedly during the novel by the image of that moth: "a cold moth with unusually dense dorsal tufts landed lightly on Rahel’s heart. Where its icy legs touched her, she got goosebumps. Six goosebumps on her careless heart. A little less her Ammu loved her" (107). We often see "its predatory wings" unfold (189, e.g.) as injuries compound each time Love and Rules become stone and flint, a chilled heart and a violent power making small bodies a battlefield. Power, violence, and physical psychological intimacy generate Intensities that at least temporarily flood out all these mappings we have tabulated, all these kinds of relations. And so, twenty-three years after The Terror, "Rahel watched Estha with the curiosity of a mother watching her wet child. A sister a brother. A woman a man. A twin a twin. She flew these several kites at once" (89).

Placed only a quarter of the way through the novel, this passage asks us to consider these kites as her strategy to counter the emptiness otherwise allotted her. After what they experienced in their daily lives as children, after the incident at the movies and the much worse Terror in the History House, after being separated for nearly a quarter century, after becoming Quietness (Estha stops speaking) and Emptiness (Rahel stops feeling), after the lonely death of their mother only four years after The Terror, after punishments "that were so big they were like cupboards with built-in bedrooms. You could spend your whole life in them, wandering through dark shelving" (109)–after all of this, when the contradictions have erased any (what they hear as) "Locusts stand I," then they cancel the last line between Nature and Culture, Lévi-Straus’s "scandal" of the incest taboo. An event beyond clarifying, we discover: "Nothing that (in Mammachi’s book) would separate Sex from Love. Or Needs from Feelings" (310). What was there to say?

And, so, "strangers who had met in a chance encounter," who "had known each other before Life began," leave "a semicircle of teethmarks" instead of quietness, banish the "Watcher" from Rahel’s eyes–that childself frozen in the emptiness of witnessing History’s pure violence. The pure grief of knowing what normalization was designed to repress: that is the product of a moment of pure present, a moment transpiring in that substratum alien to any book, any laws, any knowing or thinking, and that experiences Order as "hideous," as much as Order finds it so.

Which is not to say the book is a Rousseauistic argument advancing a pure hedonism of incestuous disregard of social grammars and taxonomies. But molested in a panopticon, violated before Watchers, left dangling between impossible "Locusts stand I," they have experienced both the originary and the continuous violence of Culture, until its ultimate forbidden zone is their only remaining space. Rahel, her mouth touched by the silent Estha after she whispers his childname ("Esthapappychachen Kuttapen Peter Mon"), takes his hand, kisses it, holds it against her teary cheek. As hers is "their beautiful mother’s mouth" (310), so too is her decisive gesture of drawing him down beside her also their mother’s, years before, on the river bank the first time she makes love with Velutha, having "walked out of her world like a witch" (314).

"To a better, happier place," we read, even if it is a place of thirteen nights only, terrorized by the sensation of watchers gathered from both History and the Present. For both Ammu and Velutha, sex is a window out of their small place. Ammu glimpses first a displaced form of it in her daughter’s play with Velutha:

The very idea of subworlds, of shifting boundaries, of a tactile world, of smiles: such intimacy unrelated to maternity begins to name what it is that keeps her sulking on riverbanks, listening to a transistor radio bringing her film songs and western pop.

When they catch each others’ eyes, "he saw that Rahel’s mother was a woman.… He saw that when he gave her gifts they need no longer be offered flat on the palms of his hands so that she wouldn’t have to touch him.… He saw too that he was not necessarily the only giver of gifts. That she had gifts to give him, too" (168). Halfway through the novel, when we’ve only glimpsed their primal scene, we have this passage that secures romance as the apparent resolution of their claustrophobic lives. They turn away once each knows the other knows. "History’s fiends returned to claim them. To re-wrap them in its old, scarred pelt and drag them back to where they really lived" (168). They "really lived" where there were Love Laws, Caste Laws, Class Laws, Gender Laws, and a long History winding back through the Brits to the Patriarch of Antioch and beyond, always beyond.

And yet they meet, for fourteen nights, despite History’s fiends. What do you talk about when you meet by the river, at night, to lie together under the mangosteen tree? Small Things:

He is, like the one-armed man she dreams, "The God of Loss. The God of Small Things. The God of Goosebumps and Sudden Smiles." But, also like the one-armed man, he is disabled in the face of those fiends: "If he touched her, he couldn’t talk to her, if he loved her he couldn’t leave, if he spoke he couldn’t listen, if he fought he couldn’t win" (italics are Roy’s, 312, but also 207 where she dreams him). He can mark but not master Loss; he can enable Small Things, but cannot effect the Big ones; his realm is sensation–powerful, but ineffectual with the rest of it all. Unlike the incest scene, their sex is fully rendered, a final chapter whose last word translates (for us, clearly, since they don’t need it) her "‘Naaley.’ Tomorrow" (321). As if tomorrow, in its pace, could be expected always to come.

It doesn’t, as we hear constantly throughout the narrative in nearly two dozen passages anticipating bits and flashes of the debacle, a foreshadowing that ought to inoculate us against the libidinal force of the ending, but which doesn’t, its loveliness and its power making us repeat their constriction of focus to the climax of passion, hoping for a future nowhere allowed, just as their focus is restricted to each other, to the present moment, and to Small Things like Lord Rubbish, a spider they watch nightly disguising himself with bits of rubbish (though spurning their offered onion peel), thinking his frailty an image of theirs (though Lord Rubbish outlives them and fathers "future generations," 320-1). Small Things remain small until they are caught in the sticky strands of history’s contradictions: then, they figure largely. They become Big Things, the way Velutha does when he becomes the focus of Baby Kochamma’s resentment of the Marxist marchers who humiliate her, of Mammachi’s outrage that Ammu would defile "generations of breeding" (244), of Inspector Thomas Mathew trying "to instill order into a world gone wrong" (246), of his father Vellya Paapen terrorized by his son’s disregard for ancient bars and the hierarchical order they sustain (241ff), of Comrade Pillai’s opportunistic readiness to iron out "this wrinkle" (115), of the policemen to "square [History’s] books" (190).

Yes, the policemen, that stiff and starched "cartoonplatoon": "brown millipedes slept in the soles of their steel-tipped Touchable boots" (288, 289). They find Velutha in the History house, unknowingly sleeping not far from the runaways, Estha and Rahel. The children see the beating: "screams died in them and floated belly up, like dead fish" (292). The paragraph describing the beating is chilling enough; what follows is more so, shifting from the twins to the police as it connects Small Things to Big ones:

We have started a long, dense passage for which the novel was written, all these details, narrative turns, luminescent prose, all of it, in order to say these next paragraphs. They are about the "abyss" the policemen share with Estha’s Quietness, Rahel’s Emptiness… something about the chilling efficiency by which even the "human" mechanisms of normalization carry out their task. They are about postmodernity:

Primal, impersonal, fearful, destructive–these are Roy’s adjectives for the passions aroused when people affiliate with their culture, cathect in its norms.

But we are not done. Roy goes on, and we will follow:

Not "performance" just in the sense of following the script, though that is not untrue, but also in the sense of the performative, creating the order, the structure, the ascendancy at the expense of "any kinship, any connection between themselves and him." The metaphor of "imprinting" is literal in the trauma caused the children, figurative in its rendering of how the performative enacts social preconditions fossilized in the language and ritual motions of the act. Not the pure Event of the affair, its temporary separation from History willed by the lovers, but the pure flow of the complex History anatomized in the novel, a flow in the form of the present inflection of "primal" ascendancies.

To the novel again:

This vital paragraph differentiates culture’s primary, foundational violence–the policemen, here, cleaning up a toxic spill as a bit of social engineering–from violence symptomatic of culture’s hierarchies and structures–what mobs and armies do because of how lives are structured, hierarchized, and inflamed by daily economic pressures. An extreme form, clearly, but of a routine maintenance function that throughout this novel has more typically taken place in (relatively) more subtle ways, however devastatingly in the long, cumulative run.

Economy. The structure by which value circulates in a society and thereby binds that society in a common culture. We see this underside of normalization before we read the concluding scene of passion. Like the lovers, we know beforehand the "cost of living." But, again like them, we cannot negotiate the conflict either within or between the seductions and violence of order on the one hand, and, on the other, the instinctual desires and internalized Watchers of individuality. And it’s not simply the widening gap between order and individuality in postmodernity, it is the deeply conflicted, multiple, and relentless strata of order itself, of individuality itself. To think these two simultaneously is one of this novel’s great strengths.

Classic social economies and postmodernity’s omnivorous media-driven commodity economy are no more commensurate than the classic kathakali epics of the Pandavas are with the tourist cameos that pollute the dancers’ sense of themselves, their generation, their culture. When Estha and Rahel witness, in 1993, the dancers going all night in the old classic way, a genuine "madness" arises in Bhima’s frenzied killing of Dushasana to avenge Draupadi’s dishonor. Despairing because the new alien economy drives them to tourism’s sell-out, the dancers embody an old Order’s performative re-articulation of an ancient Present. The hotel’s introduction of postmodernity’s economic muscle is like the "outbreak" the policemen try to stamp out, except that postmodernity is the Big Thing itself, the epidemic, and the latter is, well, a case, though one overdetermined by both what culture makes into Necessity and by the intensity fueled by the economic dislocations just beginning around then and later to climax in the conversion of the History House into tourism’s Heart of Otherness. All night the dancers try to expiate their complicity–but in the morning, "the Kathakali Men took off their makeup and went home to beat their wives" (224), reporting for duty at showtime to the Heritage Hotel. Neither the dancers nor the watching twins can translate between any two of the many competing orders in these narratives. They have experienced the brute force of the inner "beast" that is "Man" (225)–a passage in which Roy risks demonizing humanity rather than staying focused upon the pathology of some of its structures and ascendencies, bestial enough when embodied by any of Eric Hoffer’s True Believers.

Man is neither asura nor deva, demon nor god, only a being made in and by history, but for the most part standing outside history’s mansion, like Chacko, a bit befuddled by how partial any view of the whole can be, a bit confused in the mix of actions, allegiances, and unconscious investments in the very structures whose oppressiveness may offend one’s more conscious or rational principles. We cannot finally look to any of Ray’s characters as a norm, an exemplary counter argument to the pincers of tradition and postmodernity that close in upon the generations of this family. We may, perhaps, begin to learn from the narrative’s architect, however, who manages in this complicated narrative to keep all the operative forces visible and all of the theoretical caveats operative. Through a brilliant redeployment of the very machinery of cultural manufacturing, she establishes a therapeutic relation to readers who find their cynicism melted a bit, their sense of narratives (both political and fictional) extended, their senses awakened, their willingness to rejoin the game–more shrewd and energetic–much renewed.

I do call all of this Politics, because what South Asian politicians must cope with, what South Asian citizens must live out, is precisely Roy’s inextricably related tangle of mutually transforming relations. This tangle confounds rational policy values like equity with the simultaneous, imperious, and contradictory claims of History, Culture, Society, and the Bodily–each of which Claims, it must be said, claim all. And claims all from each individual, even as Tradition dwindles to a trickle like the river in this novel and is overbuilt by the Hotel Postmodernity, even as the indigenous becomes a saleable "Regional Flavor" (219), even as society becomes the mass of Merchandizing rather than of Marxism, even as the generations are hopelessly sundered like "Quietness and Emptiness" (224), even as the postcolonial is recolonized by postmodernity, its cultural nostalgia too quickly ignited as communal violence and its heritage stacked up as a commodity pyre upon which any widowed values flare up in a cultural sati. That patriarch is in some ways well-dead, perhaps–untouchables don’t walk backwards sweeping away their footprints through Time–but replacing Him is a cultural and political task that is being performed by media culture, not, it seems, by a visionary capable of countering the boot with millipede curled in its sole.

Velutha is one case, however telling. "He left no ripples in the water. No footprints on the shore" (274). But texts like this one do, along with the real events that inspire them, along with thinkers bringing to bear on this issue an increasingly global library of references (the way Roy refers to Faulkner’s epics of Southern collapse by distributing the pieces of Ike McCaslin’s name to this family’s progenitor and its last, baffled husband). Politics has become the need to invent some different kind of order, structure, both "inside my body" (as my Acker epigraph puts it), and in refusal of what Love Laws, and all the others, have linked to the state (as per my Foucault epigraph). Premised as it is on increasingly anachronistic communal structures, the present form of Indian politics stands no better chance than postmodernity’s telegenic media politics. Are such efforts like "polishing firewood"? Are we doomed to the Quietness of Estha, "its stealthy, suckered tentacles inching along the insides of his skull, hoovering the knolls and dells of his memory, dislodging old sentences, whisking them off the tip of his tongue. It stripped his thoughts of the words that described them and left them pared in naked. Unspeakable. Numb" (13). Such political atrophy would be produced by total acquiescence in the ontology of spectacle offered by a media culture.

But too many words are offered in this book and others for that to be the end, I think. It may be we are only now learning "words that described" the lives and thoughts that have been piling up as postmodernity takes global shape. It may be that, like the twins reading things backwards, we need to read our own intertext backward to the determinants lurking behind melodramas like this book’s final chapter. For Foucault that involved archaeological and genealogical projects; for Acker, and now for Roy, it has required a carefully wrought architecture re-experiencing narrative for the cupboards it can open more than for the closures to which its classic linearity tends. Or such is the hope, at least.

The humanistic fervor extending all the way from Anand to Roy can be rendered, like ghee, to produce the value implicit in both the content and architecture of The God of Small Things–namely, the value embedded in the challenging word, Open, the opposite of all those claustrophobic rooms and cupboards. Open economy, open culture, open "identity," open narrative as opposed to that nightmare list from the police scene ("ascendancy. Structure. Order. Complete monopoly"–293). The monopolistic structure sought through the romance of nostalgia (in however soft a focus) or of identity (by the riot’s red glare) is like the "answer" oversimplified by party rhetorics of either Hindutva or socialist equity. Each is self-marginalizing–nostalgia by reality, Nehruvite centralization by globalizing postmodernity–and each seizes upon a fossil of the past (the essentialist selfhood, confections of religious fundamentals, or modernist totalizations).

As we’ve seen here and there already, tradition is more open and fluid than dogmatists know, and if opened will inflect. Individuality is more multiple and fluid than paranoid identity-mongerers can tolerate, if left open to mobilize its own fragmentations productively. And the sheer extensibility of postmodernity’s free trade and technological infrastructures have more distributive power than central bureaucracies, if opened to a vision more extensive than the myopic greed of its billionaire barons. The art is to articulate the values romanticized by nostalgists in forms that can be lived in this new era; the craft is to develop the civil mechanisms that distribute the values of equity politics beyond their corruption in cynical campaign rhetoric or their imprisonment within New Delhi’s Rashtrapati Bhavan corridors and modernist Nehruvian utopias. Capital, economic capital, "captures dreams and re-dreams them," will re-dream South Asians, if allowed to do so. But its dystopia of SATV and Malls and ruthless dislocations and devaluations need not be the only inflection of Asian culture in the age of postmodernity. The art and craft of the requisite political machinery for the subcontinent has become fairly clearly anticipated in its fiction. Nowhere is that vision more apparent or its costs and obstacles more clear than in the writing of women upon women.