Back to Table of Contents

A Wilderness of Mirrors

Always more mirrors, and these the "high textualities" of priesthoods, some of them still recognizably theological. What difference should it make to agree that texts are made in history rather than in that pure and timeless space of spirit? What happens, that is, when we decide our ideas about "textuality" are saturated by the temple rather than the market or the forum? How do we excise "text" from the scriptural and escape the silence, the one-way imaging, of a "wilderness of mirrors"? And precisely what is low textuality?

The "densities" of worlds within worlds–ours in theirs, theirs in ours, and then somehow taking in that each has been taken into the other, repeatedly; the "densities" of productions within reproductions–contexts framing contexts in infinite regress of mirror play. To "disaggregate the densities" means a "delicate" bit of cutting loose from thought habits, means remembering that one cannot reduce to the point of a concept the x-axis of interacting (asymmetric, highly local and specific, asynchronous) elements at any given moment and the y-axis of interacting (construed) pasts, (multiple) presents, and (projected) futures.

"Disaggregate" is such an interesting verb, then, a labor to perform stretching out over time, excavating the layers of historical sedimentation, spreading out in space all that had been tucked invisibly behind the face card of a social moment (whose face? the writer’s? the concept’s? which form of power?). "Sedimentation" reminds us that

Sealing off periods of history (pre-colonial, colonial, postcolonial) misleads us by restricting a work to the definition implied by the label (pre-colonial texts aren’t "pure," don’t transparently voice some authentic wholeness of A Culture, don’t signify a golden age free of the sorts of specific economic interests and conflicts so obvious under colonialism; nor does colonialism doesn’t fill the site of a work but rather interacts with the pre-colonial and the noncolonial).

Non-colonial? For Ahmad, this word might call out the class dynamics of capitalism driving both colonizer and colonized; for others, the word might mean the past, or villages remote from foreign influence, or some probably mystified sense of "Indianness," or the West or the West’s own internal other (as in Ashis Nandy’s essays), or the others with whom one speaks, each of whom exceeds being merely a colonized object, or whatever else is not sufficiently thinkable as a function of colonialism. These particles, spread back out, remind us that the "densities" of what we try to understand are resolved into identity under our microscope of knowledge and theory.

And who (or what) holds Ahmad’s mirrors? I’ve omitted a section about Jameson, Said, and Eagleton that would have worried over the mixture of brilliance and continuing Orientalism, of a sort. Ahmad did far more of it than I could have, reanimating Jameson’s arrested dialectic, reading "class" and its implications back into Said’s work, and explicating the selectivity of the archive (of and about the non-West). "One would have thought," Ahmad observes, "that if some ‘Orientalist’ view of Indian history were in question, one obvious place to start looking for a discussion of that ‘Orientalism’ might well be the writings of precisely those anti-imperialist Indian historians who have been most concerned about the structure of pre-colonial Indian society and its contrasts with Europe at that stage" (223). The principal is a sound general one, hence my pains to study mainly Indian secondary sources. I began this study, in fact, in reaction against endowed chairs opining about the content of postcolonial minds, and turned deliberately to what I could find on the shelves of Asian scholarship.

But this strategy is not without its own hazards, of course, since no Indian writer speaks as "India," whatever that abstraction might be. In another passage questioning Said’s magnum opus, Ahmad observes,

Peculiar disjunctures in a wilderness of mirrors… Perhaps such disjunctures threaten every word-building we make; perhaps it would help to shift the metaphor of structuring a Western textuality away from the statics of buildings, concepts, or even mirror images with their epistemological baggage. If we are opening the temporal and spatial arrays within which our "densities" have their meaning, and if we are repeating that movement by spreading out the "undifferentiated mass" of intelligentsias along their own historical and positional arrays within a specific society–perhaps, then, "structure" should feel less like a building and more like a language. With this metaphor structuring our expectations, we can specify the social and historical pressures on Derrida’s différance; we can restore the particular differentiae of Lacan’s social and semiotic Oedipus; we can first locate and then trace Foucault’s local discourses contending with each other and with the regimes of academics–we can, that is, if we can use the wisdom of someone like Ahmad to prevent the metaphor’s recent history of "aggregation" (in, for one example, High Structuralism, or for another in the advanced word games of the less astute poststructuralisms).

Ahmad’s "most delicate of dialectics" is a richly grounded Marxist practice which serves well his interrogation of Said, Jameson, and efforts within India to relate classes, nations, literatures (his subtitle). His anger quickens against efforts to make a whole theory out of either nation or literature, his targets ranging across the full political and international spectrums. In what we just read from him, we see the beginning of "disaggregating the densities" of colonial intelligentsias. In what follows, we see his belief that omitting class impedes a theory’s ability to talk through the full complexity of a people’s experience:

Ahmad helps me keep my linguistic metaphor less isolationist, more grounded in what determines individuals’ choices in responding to their condition; his pages teach me some ways to pursue interests in the "relation" he names and in "discourse" and "culture" that might otherwise cut my work off from the material conditions of its agents and of its making.

When a theory drops a thread, especially one so necessary as that central to Ahmad, its weaving loses too much of the richness of lived experience. Because, in language, every word necessarily connects to every other word, but also to a whole social history sedimented in each word, and also to the manifold possibilities for combining words (and to the protocols, freighted with social history, governing one’s choices), and also to the archive of texts and usages (and thus, again, to history)–I think its life as a metaphor exceeds any effort to catch it in a mere concept. It would alter fundamentally our very concept of concepts were we able adequately to absorb this metaphor’s most radical implications. That is another essay, but at the very least, language is a useful shorthand for the expectations we have as we infer from complex situations like those lived out in India the evolving interactions of larger social pressures and the particular contexts and codes of a literary work.

Those analysts who have helped me most have followed fully the implications of an open model of structuring their thought. I suspect the bad reputation of "language" as a metaphor comes from the many late modernists who pick up the metaphor and wind up containing it, somehow, thereby creating the point of "disjuncture in the architecture" of their books. Ahmad would have talked about "embourgeoisement," not late modernism, would have found my "late modernist" label insufficient, would think me naïve to have supposed that "poststructuralism" and "postmodernism" must lead one inevitably toward including his terms. But I suspect this junction between our approaches implies my particular sense of late modernism and its enfeeblement of poststructuralism as it passes into the genteel zones of the American academy.

The differences between static and fluid theoretical structures, between those as omnivorously in-weaving as language and those as exclusionary as the lines, fences, and dimensionals of architectural drawings, surface quickly as one looks at the first canonical primer on the general subject of postcolonial literature. The Empire Writes Back indexes the leading taxonomies of the field as of the late 1980s. Such schemes typically rely on binaries (center vs margin or periphery, metropolis vs province or colony, or modern vs tribal). Once in place, these terms obscure the interpenetration of "opposed" realms, repress the local differences within each, and focus attention upon singular and often one-way relations. (To call the West metropolitan attributes an inclusiveness that fits only in the most superficial sense. These "centers" tolerate objects, but not otherness; the relations between their elites and their discards don’t suggest "inclusion" or even engagement. The term really means greed, and thus not only disguises the character of the imperial capital but also forgets how a colony fights back, recoding bits of the imperial culture, living those of its own ways that go on alongside or in spite of colonialism.) Further taxonomic subdivision (as in contrasting settler colonies with invaded territories) helps cultivate details, but can still mute a side of the relationship.

Nor is this monological thinking much helped by other elaborations indexed in The Empire Writes Back. One can make a coherent and reassuring story out of history by laying texts out along a line from imperials’ travels and memoirs, through colonial natives’ imitations of imperial literary genres under official patronage, to postcolonial abrogation and appropriation. Pre-twentieth century Indian writing, however, suggests that resistance occurred before this official narrative authorizes it, and that such resistance aimed as much at traditional Indian problems as at those introduced by the British (see, for example, Ahmad’s third chapter on "Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the National Allegory"). Recent Indian writing suggests that the promised land came with many IOUs due to a world order in which such merely political independence no longer much mattered.

Thematic schema introduce a different version of the same problem: to focus on (foreign) cultural hegemony, language rivalries, or the theme of place and displacement, is to suggest that the imperials are the agents and the colonials are their victims, and that this impact constitutes the one drama of the period. The British are always, or usually, there in colonial writing, but to consider them the sole cause of, say, caste tensions, or even the primary agent behind communal rivalries, is to have supposed that the Indians were incapable of noticing their own social fabric without a monocle of London manufacture.

When the authors of the primer characterize postcolonial theory as one about hegemony, their stocks come from similar shelves; the theories invoke nation (or region), race, the independence struggle, or metonyms for same (the building, the imperial’s journey with a native guide). Confining "hegemony" to Europe’s political domination of distant territory sanitizes such metonyms. It also sanitizes the complex narratives surrounding them for an audience that wants a story (of outside domination) already ended with national independence, rather than one which continues within contemporary economic terms. How can "nation" suffice as an analytical category when it must designate not only the United States, but also the multi-tribal concoctions of African "nations" or the polyglot civilizational mosaic of the Indian subcontinent? The term, moreover, has already been anachronistic for decades, long since replaced as a vital category by the multinational corporation. And how do resistance theories based mainly upon race avoid the counter-essentialism of the négritude movement?

None of these us-them scenarios suffices: there are too many us-es and too many thems, often in the same individual. Clearly each of these elements feed into a larger aggregate, but to base a theory on any of them is to choose one syntactic option as primary, one accent as standard. To browse through Ahmad is to find a thorough critique of almost every kind of such monological theory. But one will also find him equally antagonistic to theories of free-floating difference untied to any historical necessity or particularity, especially those implicated in his bête-noire, postmodernism. He is nervous around theory that lacks social vision and seems to prize difference for its own sake. The primer we’re perusing, for example, cites Wilson Harris’s The Womb of Space with considerable approval: "hybridity in the present is constantly struggling to free itself from a past which stressed ancestry, and which valued the ‘pure’ over its threatening opposite, the ‘composite.’ It replaces a temporal lineality with a spatial plurality" (35-6). In thus preferring the Canadian metaphor of mosaic to the American metaphor of melting pot, the authors valorize, commendably, theory which does not submit difference to any sort of imposed resolution. They conclude their introduction in sight of theoretical deliverance: "recent approaches have recognized that the strength of post-colonial theory may well lie in its inherently comparative methodology and the hybridized and syncretic view of the modern world which this implies" (36-7).

Is "composite" an excuse for depoliticized pluralism, or a close reading of the highly nuanced political realities in which any real activism must take place? If hybridity is mere liberalism, its "syncretic" practice may be the attempt to harmonize or even resolve differences. But if such models of complexity can inspire a detailed inventory of "composite" or "creole" cultures and subjects, then we may gain the knowledge we need to choose wisely among confusing alternatives and to understand something of the mixed feelings and sudden atavisms that rise from within. If they serve to outflank a theory’s strategy of de-selecting certain kinds of cultural activism from the canon, then comparative study is truly something to admire.

Perhaps the whole venture is sounding a bit impossible. I’ve urged "disaggregating" our subject matter along both temporal and (socially) spatial lines; I’ve urged attention to "indigenous" scholarship and to a sociohistorically enriched sense of "language" as the shorthand for our structural expectations for the variability in nature, usage, and even the form of the problem before us. I’ve warned about binary logic and the hasty closure of comforting narratizations, but also about the potentially reductive effects of keyword theories and those that appear to detach culture or discourse from the full complexity of larger social processes and the positioning of their agents.

What do I like, then? That which surprises me, at the time of reading it, with what I hadn’t expected to realize. Hence next to Ahmad I put the work of Ashis Nandy, whom he mentions only in a dismissive note as one of the "neo-Gandhians" (328). Nandy’s work I mean to splice into this study when his voice most helps me think past the sterile binaries in which a piece of writing might be held. Perhaps he lacks Ahmad’s steady gaze upon the socioeconomic, but he has described how colonialism recoded selfhood–for the imperial homeland as much as for the colonizer, and for the colonized in ways that evade the simplicities of victim melodramas, the costume drama of the babu, or the adventure story of the revolutionary. Nandy knows to put Western in quotation marks, that the West has its own counter-traditions (some of which, for example, Gandhi used acutely). He knows that these cinematic plots we use to picture history obscure the subtleties with which resistance can suffuse the apparent compliances of a "native," mixing with all the impurities of reality to make a more complicated whole than theory tends to suggest.

Perhaps Ahmad would worry that the relations Nandy details don’t specify the capitalist engine reproducing the conditions under which those relations take place. But perhaps we can consider that Nandy’s hundred pages are little enough to explore how life in the superstructure feels to individuals contending amidst those conditions. I like Nandy’s assumption that "consciousness" or "identity" is something constructed in a complex intersection of elements and amidst all manner of pressures–and also that this construction is likely to oppress, wound, even deform individuals, but that they maintain some margin for recoding what’s given them, for playing pieces of the superstructural "densities" against each other in a meaningful and significant act of resistance.

As a reader of how individuals have "disaggregated the densities" in their lives, Nandy is superb, whether tracing the partly deformed resistances of nineteenth-century Indian reformers or of Rudyard Kipling, or explicating the wily cross-cultural code-switching of Gandhi. I want to draw Ahmad and Nandy together in a series of discussions in which the special acumen of each can help me articulate the interplay of submission and resistance in the materials I’m looking at. Far more perilous to me than the general problem of a Westerner writing about India is the particular difficulty of anyone mixing "western" and "Indian" elements–knowing neither category to be logically "pure"–in a way that both addresses the mixture of these in post-independence Indian culture and avoids being completely determined by the various theoretical omnivores stalking our mindscapes at this stage of the late twentieth century.

Nowhere am I more struck by the ambivalence we all feel in such a venture than when I compare my own difficulties in prefacing, in writing at all, with those of others who have published before me. In the midst, then, of this wilderness of theoretical mirrors within which I try to see my way, these next words try to say what I want to do.



How to introduce India, how to make all the obligatory assurances of good faith without their becoming a book unto themselves, and a tedious one, another one about Narcissus. Instead, a book not for experts, for almost beginners, best of all for those who have been there, even briefly, possibly even through someone's slides who was really there, if "really" means something (does it, if of a boy glaring from a snack stall, of a man behind the smoke of chapatis, of the beauty of a monsoon pool reflecting shacks?). A book that does not attempt comprehension, that is in the unsteady crossing of an uncertain and shifting river, some of the stones with footprints, some untested and wobbly or wetmossed, that looks about for a way to get a bit closer, upstream downstream, moving. A book of trying for some fluency in a complex weave of "languages" called India.

Not V.S. Naipaul in An Area of Darkness, thinking he had felt a truth he couldn’t express or retain back home in the west, a "truth" about "illusion" conceived in a western light always too naturalized, too ready to see "darkness" elsewhere, confined to an area there. A quarter of a century later he reflects: "I wondered why in 1962 I had asked Aziz so little about himself. Shyness, perhaps; a wish not to intrude; but also perhaps derived from the idea of the writer that I had inherited: the idea of the writer as a man with an internal life, a man drawing it all out of his own entrails, magically reading the externals of things" (1991, 511).

A man. Many Indians hate him for his negativeness in the earlier book; some critique in detail his neocolonial allegiances to western categories; some also are excited simply by how many pages about India he has sold to the world. The fluency I want doesn't come from an "internal life," doesn't come from my entrails, has no magic. It does read, listen, more to Indians than to those "here" who write about it. Perhaps he asked Aziz so little because, in 1962, he was looking for words to fit a viscerally pre-selected title. Perhaps, because even in 1976 he was still talking about "a [wounded] civilization" rather than "a million mutinies now," the 1991 subtitle that sees History in lower case, local moments, not the grand totalities of his western modernism.

The earlier book almost didn't happen. "I had intended to write [a book]," he tells us, "but after my early weeks I had begun to give up the idea. Travel writing was new to me, and I didn't see how I could find a narrative for a book about India: I was too overwhelmed by the distress I saw, I had kept no journal, made few connected notes. But money had been spent, and a book had to be written" (1991, 493). I took longer to "recover," though not because of the distress I saw, though I saw much of it, talked with it, underwent it, watched it hover in my family while we lived there. I took longer because India wrote me while I was there, wrote me on All India Radio, in the stack of newspapers I read most days, in conversations with deep friends and one-time acquaintances. Is it fatuous to say that fifteen months after I returned, I woke up one morning in the lower east side loft of New York writer friends and remembered something–that Americans assume reality is the kind of whole a machine is, that it mostly works, that they plan and execute accordingly, appallingly, productively, at times wonderfully. I, too, had spent money, a lot of it, and a book had to be written. Could I work now, I thought at the time; could I write a different book, I thought later; can I write connecting these different times without any of them "slipping away from me," I think now.

And I also think, now, can I write while slipping away, myself, from this great phallic "I" that lurks behind the prose of mastery, that lurked invisibly and with the imperial insouciance of waxed mustachios in the Orientalist "I," that sharpened to a more worthy critical eye/I in our half-century’s reaction against the misery and devastation and cool machinic slaughter of the imperial modernity machine, that clung at century’s end to the still-phallic form of the "I" though guilt-tripped into confessions of demographic markers and their seismic privileges… Could I render some awareness of the collectiveness of "my" venture which was not at all my own, a family’s rather, a sabbatical professor and a painter wife trying to micromanage a fourteen-month-old’s oral relation to Asia, and with later another baby skirting the rusty jagged edges of aging slides and the unwanted flora on the rim of a glass, the three and then four who ventured repeatedly, were joined by their non-blood "family" from back home, all finding themselves weaving their lives with friends–with contractors and policemen, bureaucrats and painters, antique dealers and writers, professors and con artists and monks and publishers and writers and drivers and street vendors and a very kind doctor who made housecalls when you couldn’t walk. What sort of composite "I" emerges from this encounter? Is internalized as the nomadic multiplicities of a forever changed postmodern interiority as if Deleuze and not Lonely Planet had turned out to be, after the fact, the guidebook? Really to be written by Asia is to begin losing the deeply naturalized bearings on that singular "I" of our older ways of writing the world and to begin playing the harmonies among all these many within, making something of the rhythmic difference they make, a difference that eventually we’ll have to specify in order to appreciate "How [such] Art Works" in this book’s third chapter.

Naipaul goes on, and this is the best part: "A full two to three months after my return, I began to write. In the writing, the Kashmir interlude became what it had been the year before in India: a point of rest. Calling up events day after day, I found a narrative where at the time there had appeared to be none." My point of rest was going everywhere with a painter busily looking and a three-year-old on her own wheels and a baby fatter than any bone-carved Buddha, which is to say not the sort of "rest" Naipaul had in mind, but a "rest" that was the rest of me: that "rest" will always mean for me something about how one lives in conditions, not the "rest" that escapes them, or contains them. Naipaul's narrative came when he recalled events to counter the after-image of distress, to buttress the sort of fastidious aversion he had to India. His descriptions detail the grime, the filth, the rags, the deformities and the disease, the corruption and apathy and fatalism. But here is a sample of what he said in his middle book (India: A Wounded Civilization) of 1976:

Is "system" a word we can really use "the" with? The system is a whole with a central essence which claims every part (claims it with "darkness," with "wound"). We often forget the futile "the" with a word like language. A different kind of system, decentered (where is it to be found?), localized (who speaks, and when, and to whom, why?), various (levels and usages and histories). All these complications multiplied through a rule system that tells you what you can do instead of what you mustn't; and multiplied again because the system relates everything to everything else, any one thing leading everywhere without neutralizing each of those everywheres with one overwhelming meaning, always there from the start. ("What does language mean?" is a sentence that doesn't mean with a "the.") Naipaul's logic is consistent, not heterogeneous. In his thinking, the impurity of his Marxists' purity is total error, not dialectal difference (and certainly not dialectical difference). With "Ramraj" he damns something "they" think they had that persists in a hunger, a desire, shared across otherwise stark divisions among people. Naipaul thinks of something more like "remade," the language of (re)manufacturing lifted from a modernist social engineer. And always "he," always "them," "they," the politics of pronouns haunting syntactic confidence with the unconscious of privilege.

For now, these questions matter less than the difference between the 1991 Naipaul hearing mutinies, the 1976 Naipaul anatomizing "the failure and the cruelties of India," and the repulsed 1962 Naipaul ("It is well that Indians are unable to look at their country directly, for the distress they would see would drive them mad. And it is well that they have no sense of history, for how then would they be able to continue to squat amid their ruins, and which Indian would be able to read the history of his country for the last thousand years without anger and pain? It is better to retreat into fantasy and fatalism, to trust to the stars in which the fortunes of all are written–there are lectures in astrology in some universities–and to regard the progress of the rest of the world with the tired tolerance of one who has been through it all before" (1964, 212). Squalor, ruin, stupefaction, chaos, despair, negation: these are the theme words of 1962.

In 1991, Naipaul almost considers what it means to come "new" to travel writing, what it means to finesse a narrative as a product of recall, to remember a tea with Karan Singh (ex-maharaja and ex-governor of Kashmir) because of the unexpected word "Daddy," to remember a hat 27 years later because he had put it down in words. Perhaps he falls short of his own best insight? "Just as writing, the ordering of events and emotion, made things manageable for me, helped me as it were to clear the decks, so it seemed that putting numbers to things, finding the right numbers, helped Mr. Butt to file things away and put a pattern on events" (1991). Mr. Butt is the hotelier who remembers he had stayed "four months and 15 days" so many years before. Naipaul knows this Other works in a different language; does he think it back onto himself, this oddness of how writing can "clear the decks" of what doesn't fit into the "ordering [from which menu?] of events and emotion"? Managing still means order, and order is a privilege in this world. Order also marks a divide between how I woke up partly American again in New York one morning and how we woke up in the middle of the night in Delhi, the concrete floor of a concrete four-story in waves like the ones you feel in a boat lapping in a wake (an earthquake, uncounted dead at its Afghani ground zero).

Perhaps reading Naipaul is like overhearing what you imagine to be the typical next-table conversation in the classy restaurant you're just visiting, whereas they belong. He does stay in five-star hotels, after all, even if he carries the memory of the Trinidadian sugar-workers among whom he grew up ("poor," "thatched huts," "poverty," "a kind of prison"). We missed Naipaul's extremes: didn't stay in those hotels, though we could go eat in them sometimes and peruse their air-conditioned shops; we’re not from the workers either, but, again, the unwary American middle class. Which makes me nervous about recalling, writing, the ordering by genres, language games, and the general fastidiousness of the thought-boxes we put things in.

I never quite like what Naipaul does with his stories, but I listen to how he tells them, and I am greedy for the details he includes, for they all resonate with the stories I tell. If I can learn to say what it is writers do with their details, and why they noticed the ones they include, then this book will have taught me something. It has already made me pay a different kind of attention.

Prefacing the collection of articles from her remarkable Manushi, Madhu Kishwar writes that "we have made a concerted effort to look at more than this small group of [‘urban, educated middle class’] women, not because their struggles and achievements are unimportant in themselves, but because their struggles and achievements have dominated social and political thinking while the reality of the lives of the vast majority of Indian women has been largely ignored" (1). Her magazine's writers represent the previously unrepresented, and in a number of pieces the representing is done by those who have been, in effect, the untouchables of formal research and knowledge about India. Sumitra Bhave prefaces a collection of eight Dalit (literally "oppressed," but in current usage, the untouchables of the classic caste system) autobiographies by pointing out that "most theories in the social sciences, religion, philosophy, and even in the arts and physical sciences, have been based on and built up within the male social universe, largely male-directed and male controlled" (xi).

Bhave says some interesting things about how one might evade the direction and control of the weight of theory upon our thinking. "A particular objective of this study has been to listen, understand, discuss and record, as faithfully as possible, these women's experiences in their own words, idiom, style, flow of thought and expression." She's quite wise about what "as faithfully as possible" might mean–one needs a "literary ear," the translation from the original Marathi to English "is itself a creative work," Bhave's method is "creative, non-traditional," and the researcher "was in the ebb and flow of the wave itself." Her volume of life stories is collaborative and social, not an "internal life" or authorial "entrails." "The distance between researcher and participant often fused; change in both through this process was seen, valued and recorded" (xii).

The volume is dialogic, social, the actual pages a recording of an event, a performance, not "history" itself, however problematic we try to think such a concept. Perhaps it's too reductive just to call the whole process writing. When she is being formal, she says it in proper intellectual terms: "This study differs also from traditional research in that theory emerges at the end from understanding, dialoguing, analysis and interpretation of the actual data itself, and not from some hypothesis, surveys of literature in the field, or a theoretical framework postulated before the research begins." Perilous, to think "theory" suspended and contingent upon "actual data." But also brave, as Naipaul with all his fallibilities is brave, to attempt to use "dialoguing" as one's method and to face "interpretation" as the nature of what one does. In the coolness of theory, this means thinking intertextually (about things made, about oneself, about "otherness"), and it means thinking of thinking as construction. In my recent work, all this means listening instead of solving, dialoguing (or better yet collaborating) more than being a He "drawing it out of his entrails," trying to say what words are doing, seeing the "I" and "myself" as part of the question, sensing the "ebb and flow" from within it, valuing "change in both."

Pupul Jayakar has mused about the rice flour drawings women make at festivals and exhibitions; she has made me think about "the belief that desire, when visualized and made concrete through mandala and activized through spell and ritual gesture, generates an energy that ensures its own fulfillment. The diagrams are symbols through which the memories of the race are abstracted and preserved, to be communicated in group participation as visual statements of thousands of years of man's history" (117). I had stopped here at paragraph's end to think about the spells of academic discourse, the ritual gestures of citation, acknowledgment, critique; they generate a kind of energy that insures a desire of mastery. I was just wondering whether all writing had to be this way when I noticed what Jayakar does in her next paragraph: "Strangely enough, the making of these diagrams is referred to as writing and never as drawing or painting."

And so I try to work out what this usage might mean, that deep in the practice of the objects of our study (or perhaps even beneath our notice of them as legitimate objects of enquiry), there is an understanding of all things made as a collaborative performance that depends upon (and condenses) thousands of years of complex history, that this is how we should understand writing, and that the "group" rather than the "I" is its site. Beyond, one might put it, the either/or between reading (or interpreting) and historicizing. The distribution and interrelations among visual, aural, movement, performance, and the grammatological are contingent within their histories: we were glad to have been in a place where the contingencies have a genealogy quite different from what we grew up thinking was "mankind's." To understand such an understanding has less to do with mastery than with fluency, less with "passing" as a native speaker than with translation, less with knowing than with listening and asking questions. If this book works, it will because the first of these word-sets paused long enough for the second to develop, because the abstractions of theory somehow confound their machinic cool amidst the bustle of concrete conflicts, and because these pages have learned through more of the cultural forms Jayakar studies in the vrata tradition than traditional literary criticism is usually permitted.



For me to write these reflections is, of course, to come upon this fiction from its outside. But no, that is not it exactly, either. For the Novel was itself an outside to the Indian subcontinent, is less so now, has followed the trajectory of something Other inward until that inwardness could hardly, in the same old logic to which we are accustomed, be said to be itself any more. So my own outsideness is of a piece with what it is that Indian writers have taken into themselves. When I hold myself up against this writing, I find images of myself. I find images of difference as well, for the cultural fabric of which I am woven not only includes differences of "its own," but has also entered a different history (one that perhaps only seems to be more complex than my own).

And so for me to write these reflections is to come upon these narratives as neither their outside nor their inside, as nothing so simple as its inward identity or its exteriority. As if that could ever be, if one thinks upon the drama by which the organism is colonized by language and by the whole material micromesh of structuring agents in culture. The victim in that drama never has a chance, is always already a "native" over and against a collective "bwana" who is nowhere, everywhere, most of all within. A chance? Has just a chance, in fact, of making something out of the unchosen subjectivity in which it finds itself. But so Indian writers find themselves always already colonized by all those millennia of invaders and their invasive culture, and always therefore both invader and invaded once the medium of their being has been constituted in the violent script of the historical drama.

And if I know myself as invader and invaded, both as subject of these pages and subject to their marginalizations, so too must the Indian writers I've encountered feel themselves taking the reins of the war machine that swept their subcontinent and lashing into audibility the layered cries of both sides, all sides, in conflicts that are never resolved. Perhaps all these roiling historical waters are not so totally unlike the experience in American writing. In a culture that was itself "only" colonial (though different, a "settler" colony), geopolitically marginal, until rather recently; that is populated with noteworthy heterogeneity of race and religion and national origins; that had already profoundly alienated its writers before its imperial era; that bent the forms of an alien Europe to its ends, and often an alien (English) tongue besides: in such a culture, narrative is often, as is Indian fiction, layered deeply and contradictorily with voices, classes, genders, cultural pockets, vectors of force, manifold material contradictions, and hybrid genres. Outside and inside, invader and invaded, self and other, past and present, difference and identity, all are set into motion so energetically as to keep such terms dialogically engaged rather than allowing them to distill into separable logical (let alone historical or existential) categories. In both literatures we need a very nuanced sense of the complexities, the mixedness, of any voice, any gesture, any trope–let alone of the large categories of Nation, class, ethnicity, or gender.

But if some shared structural traits enable scenes of recognition, such scenes are always skewed with irony by the ineradicable historical particularities that drive each nation's culture along its own path. "Irony" is a saving term here because it will not let go of the substitutions, displacements, and disruptions (of mastery, completeness, essence) at work in this encounter. History and Rhetoric, in ceaseless engagement, keep this venture from either dissolving into trivial play or rigidifying into dogma. They are also the tools by which a generation of Indian writers has used an originally alien form to give voice to the otherness always mixing in with the ongoing subjectivity/subjection that has been India's history. But also to what receives that otherness in its own persisting difference and to what emerges from each turn of history through this mix.

Sudhir Kakar's hopeful words in my third epigraph wish insight upon both participants in the cross-cultural encounter, and he speaks from the privileged position of one who is deeply immersed in more than one culture. For his life is Indian in origin and residence, western in training and intellectual debts to psychologists Freud and Erickson. At least one prominent literary critic wants to dismiss him as a neocolonial, his own professional colleagues as an overly defensive colonial–the former for treating Indian themes within western terms, the latter for refusing the valorizations in Western models of development and for insisting upon the "Indianness" of his patients' psyches. To talk with him in his South Delhi study, lined with books by John Updike as well as by Hindi novelist Mridula Garg, is to admire his comfort within the doublebind–he is a person who has seen the mixing of cultural mirrors in his thinking not as a contradiction but as an inevitability.

Perhaps it is both, finally, but to experience more keenly the latter is to have opened oneself to contradiction's possibilities of productive interplay. It is to have chosen against being muted and paralyzed by the grim austerities of the absolutizing logic most in the West have naturalized and universalized (the originary colonial act, no doubt). Under the latter logic, there could be no stable, secure, "whole" subject position from which an Indian might act; there could be no political platform to enact without contradiction; there could be no utopian future not utterly compromised by the dominance of advanced capital. Across a broad spectrum of Indian writers one finds such forms of logic transformed from blockage to strategy, wielded from a (however variously conceived) subaltern position, practicing a complicated resistance to Baudrillard’s disaster script for the West. Such a resistance is not easily conceived within the aggregate of western thought. Our metaphysical heritage cooperates with a history of empire and capitalism’s energies of assimilation to make it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a westerner to conceive identity, agency, culture, history (and so on) in the global, discontinuous, unbalanced, and sharp-edged world of postmodernity. Few of us have fully confronted our own mixture of privilege and subjection, the point being to sidestep the paralyzing, absolutist judgments of simplistic "morality," perhaps noting along the way the complicity of the "religious" right with capitalist pragmatism. How might one conceive that mixture and then mobilize its contradictions? Paradise is a less usable model for contemporary subjectivity and politics than it is for surviving and recovering from colonialism.



We began this project by attempting a very modest version of Kakar's cultural doubling–by transplanting ourselves, if only for a year, to India and by studying what India's writers have claimed to be the "Indian" way. They are as ironic and as earnest as one needs to be in such a project, and modern political independence seems to have been a productive catalyst to a conceptual and cultural independence in rethinking the ancient and the modern. My family and I have spent the year talking on the lawns of Delhi's parks with Indian families and singing each other songs in our flats, explaining ourselves and counter-questioning with rickshaw drivers and restaurateurs and publishers and street vendors and social activists and professors and Kashmiri refugees and policemen and businessmen and out and out hustlers. And of course interviewing writers and reading and thrashing out together what we've read. There's a knowledge that comes unofficially, informally, and slowly, that I'm glad to have had in the making of this book, because it keeps the fine mesh of theory and concept from becoming too regular and mathematical a weave. Gujarat embroidery always manages a productive, revealing, and healthy asymmetry somewhere in the design ("O, that's handmade?" queried my most suburbanized American friend, fingering the "irregular." "O, well, that's all right." Better, far better, than just all right.) For in that asymmetry is the insistence that an "x" shape be inserted in a row of lotus, that one stretch of border break suddenly from yellow thread to blossom in turquoise. India celebrates its self-difference as exuberantly as America exults in its all too predictable (and mainly celluloid) image repertoire; and India indulges in every bit as intense an illicit affair with its alter ego of authoritarian orthodoxy as America continues with its other selves of heterogeneity and counter-tradition.

Which is a way of saying that to live in India and to sit inside a mud and rock house in Rajasthan, careen around Madhya Pradesh with a partly recovered Bhopal survivor, or eat chappatis with a village family now squeezed into an extemporized jhuggi settlement in Delhi, is to have all one's voices of identity and difference arise in the same polyvocal press that constitutes the mental life of Indians as well, if the testimony of individuals, writers, and their books are to be believed. And so, far from the absurdity of a comprehensive study or one which presumes to select and present the "best" writing, this book pursues the lessons of mirroring from one culture to another, from one language–one of the many regional languages in which many of these narratives were first written–into English, from the narrative to the discursive modes. Those who write in India's regional languages–the term bhashas is often used to avoid the unwanted implication of a center with its regional peripheries–work one step closer to its oral and folk traditions, squarely in the historical particularities of one region's daily life, and hence one step further from the homogenizing effects of the nation's center and of the neocolonial ambiance of the novel form and the English language.

Some of these writers, of course, do write in English, not too surprising for a nation in which the upper reaches of the society can be educated and live their professional lives almost entirely in English. But for English to be an (almost) first language is only a bit more discomfiting than for any of India's other languages to be "native," for each carries a social and political history with its own narratives of struggle and hegemony. My failure to have learned all the bhashas in order to deal with the texts "in the original" disappoints the most obsessive-compulsive criteria of literary scholarship, perhaps. But it also makes my perspective more parallel to that of Indian writers, all of whom must read many of the nation's novels in translation. Perhaps Indians have less innocence than Americans do about there ever being "an original language." I suspect the omnipresence of translation keeps everyone here mindful that language is always already translation (and that one is therefore always already a "translated (wo)man"). At the same time, of course, one must not forget how English is used to forge a canon acceptable to the (international) class that uses English, nor how English came to function in India as a language of administration and technology. It seems to be the case that English translation is beginning to exceed its narrowest use as a tool of implicit cultural politics; but it is also true that a number of my best "finds" were English translations not distributed outside India, and a few of them unpublished even inside India.

If the fact of translation discourages one from making much of an issue of prose style, it often still manages to convey the experiential texture of different life worlds. India provides its writers so many cultural mirrors, each translating to the others at all the stages of perception, conception, presentation, that one finally becomes as interested in the density of intertextualities as in the literal experiences being conveyed. But that interest is not simply an obscurantist intellectual preoccupation, for these cultural mirrors are themselves not only concretely material facts of life for both writers and protagonists, but quite often the subliminal or even explicit subject of the fiction. This writing teaches us a great deal about how the process goes of writers turning the thinking machine of colonial masters (the novel propagated in the schools by the British) into a means for liberating self-analysis. That analysis does not have the form of western problem-solution thinking, but of psychoanalysis, the talking cure that seeks not resolution so much as conversancy with self-difference, with memory and desire, with times of various kinds. That diversity in self-narratizing is the heart of the matter. Our "familiar faces" and "our disavowed selves" both come before us, as Kakar remarks, when we pause in our own cultural narrative long enough to examine with some care the elements by which the mirages of cultural identity are mirrored into being before our very eye.

Half a decade after that year’s stay in India, after shorter trips back to India and to Nepal, I returned for a year to Sri Lanka on a second Fulbright. A nation at war, the phrase goes, battling the quintessential postcolonial war–one framed as ethnicity, as regional, in a nation that thought itself urbanely cosmopolitan, tolerant, sophisticated, its hatreds safely banished to fringe politics and remote villages. Like most illusions of purity and homogeneity, this bubble of illusion exploded with devastating force as religious, linguistic, social, and economic strands wove a noose for the illusion of Nationhood. I prowled the margins of that conflict, a witness to the passions and sadness stirred by each episode of the long gruelling AP/Reuters news summaries and the far more sensationalized oral tradition concerning the conflict. Never more intensely was I aware of the interpenetration of all those social and cultural strands I’d been taught to keep separate. My describing such conflicts as a symptom of the forced integration of local identity into global economic structures split my Sri Lankan audiences, but I hope by the end of this book to have fleshed out what I mean by seeing so much of this fiction as one region’s response to the globalizing effects of postmodernity.

And so a dusting of works from outside India settles of the Indian scenery of this book whenever the cultural traditions inflected across borders allows a differently accented version of things to supplement or reinforce the discussion. Even more so than in the case of the Indian fiction I discuss, any sort of "thorough" or even "representative" treatment of the other literatures of South Asia is far beyond the scope of this book. Mirror to Mirror is neither history nor coverage; it is instead about how we might think out our readings of this region’s fiction.

The plan of this book is a function of the problems I sought to understand. The second chapter worries over the bones of various attempts to clarify what it means to "understand" another culture. Mirror of method reflecting innumerable mirrors of both foreign and domestic manufacture, each of them in turn pretending–or sometimes not–to reflect "the Indian reality." I hope readers less familiar with India will learn some of the rudimentary perspectival shifts a newcomer experiences, without ever losing sight of the utter insufficiency of simple schemes of distinguishing, nor defining, or mastering.

Confronting one’s orientalizing, exoticizing, even neo-imperial prejudices, may be the phase of this study most difficult to get just right, however vital and continuous the process must be for a "foreigner." Chapter Three sketches an early version of "How Art Works" on the assumption that some of the methods and aesthetic principles naturalized in many westerners may disorient them in their first encounters with how India’s art works. "Tradition and Modernity" alters our binary mapping of that pair of terms, discovering the extent to which such western modernist mappings distort our efforts to read out the cultural politics of recent decades. Even knowing what we mean by tradition and what we might expect it to do for us has become a problematic topic for most westerners.

Chapter Five fits together the macropolitics of India’s negotiations between egalitarian socialism and the market economy with the micropolitics of communal identities. Fiction is a surprisingly revealing site at which to study this distressingly violent intersection, and it takes us to an opening at which the apparent conflict between individual identity and social theory may be fruitfully negotiated. Chapter Six follows this opening through a study of women writing on women, reading closely the construction of gender and its effects on daily lives, and expecting to find in that reading many of the deepest conflicts between the macro issues of politics and the micro realities of daily survival. Ultimately, I will argue in Chapter Seven’s "Mirror to Mirage" that the open forms and fluidities of India’s most innovative writing resonate with a conception of political policies and activism that may teach us the most about resisting what we dislike in the global order of postmodernity. The book concludes with an effort to make explicit the book’s underlying knitting together of those issues conventionally called postcolonialism and postmodernism. Readers who want to see precisely how I use these terms, particularly the latter in all its vexing ambiguities, might do well to start at the end.




My debts in this project are many. I owe a great deal to my friend Sivaraj, who sent me all over Delhi with his business cards duly inscribed with the magical phrase, "Mr Robert is my friend–please do the necessary." My year in Sri Lanka was greatly eased by Tissa Jayatilaka and Walter Perera, skilled adjustors of multiple realities to allow more than the necessary to happen. Waruna Jayasinghe would arrive on occasion to "kidnap" us on some adventure to a stunning unvisited vihara, tea factory, silk loom or brick kiln. Painters Rahju and Rasika invited us into their ashram, fed us, showed how their eyes had translated this world. My family managed the flexibility of spirit to take Uzi checkpoints in stride, leap into the gray almost-morning of yet another rail station with much too little notice, order up yet another new kind of meal unfamiliar to young palates. Best of all, they caught to good kind of Asian virus–that need to keep returning. And many people–scholars, critics, publishers, writers, acquaintances–spent valuable time talking with me, their words and insights enlivening and educating the discussions which follow. My thanks, of course, to the Fulbright program and to the governments of India and Sri Lanka for sponsoring my stays at a time when the U.S. Congress is allowing the program to melt away. Both the English Department and the College of Arts and Sciences at Virginia Tech also helped with funding and a base from which to set out. And finally, of course, the many writers who kept making these books we read even though they scarcely recover the costs of paper and photocopying from their sales, let alone earn a living–some have earned family strife, even a slot on the terrorists' hit list, for speaking out. To them we all owe a debt unpayable, even by our admiration of their work.

–New Delhi, Kandy (Sri Lanka), & Blacksburg between and since