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Mirror to Mirror

"Why there cows on the road, mama?"

With an almost-three year old’s typical insight, our daughter needed only a week in India to recognize its great challenge to the Western mind and to articulate the great cliché of western travelers. Traffic in New Delhi does not comply with the rule-bound behavior Americans have naturalized as the essence of the polity. Cows mix with holy men walking along with their stainless steel food-begging buckets, slow-flowing bicycle rickshaws, big-wheeled carts tugged and pushed over the arching bridges by their dhoti-clad underclass owners, camel carts, elephants (even in Delhi, though sometimes just decked with banners advertising toothpaste), three-wheel lawnmower-engine-powered rickshaws, the motorcycles of the middle class, taxis, cars, buses, produce trucks, police jeeps, trucks with riot-geared troops, ponies heading off in ornate regalia to tote a groom into his wedding, and of course the beatific cows who wander with little interest in the traffic regime around them. All these signifiers move at different speeds, heedless of the Western logic of lanes, directional flow, or traffic signals. The traffic’s behavior, that is, is not bound by external rule legitimated by the writ of law, but is negotiated on a moment by moment basis by drivers constantly tooting their intentions and accommodating each other, much of the time, with usually much more grace than one sees on America’s snarling air-conditioned freeway lanes.

When protesting students burn a bus into a barricade or boycotting farmers turn their trucks across the highways to starve the Delhiites a bit, things work less well. The carnage is fairly frequent even at 25 mph, and when violence erupts it is sensational enough to headline the tourists’ postcards to the folks back home wondering about what they only half heard from the semiannual sound bite about India on the television news. Rajmohan Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson, writes in the newspapers these days about "our tradition of violence" (Hindustan Times, 30 September 1990), a line of psychic traffic that runs alongside his grandfather’s march to the sea and the export trade in TM. Indians negotiate these lanes with relative dexterity, most of the time. What one has in India, and the reason I began using its fiction as the material through which to think the problems of postcolonial culture, is the living flow of what in the West would be seen as contradictions, incompatibilities, or some such nod to the Aristotelian in us all. These "elements"–though let us think of them more as assemblages than as essences–are bound up with all their asymmetrically disposed others; it is both these internal and external dialogic relations, in a hyper-enriched Bakhtinian sense of ongoing and unresolvable difference and collective engagement, that fascinates those of us bitten by the India bug. I’d like to think this is what our daughter wanted to hear when she asked her question.

If we can take as a metaphor for self-difference the traffic’s motley nature and the cows’ lack of interest in progressing "normally" along the highway, we can also and as easily learn something about Indian rule systems. One comic touch on the roadsides are signs urging drivers to mind the lanes and obey the traffic regulations; in practice, lines of traffic merge and multiply as need arises, with unofficial passing lanes carved out of the other roadway’s territory and its drivers’ good will, and with the traffic police sometimes heeded and sometimes not. The practice looks chaotic, feels a bit scary to the uninitiated, but no doubt evinces what poet A.K. Ramanujan describes as the "context-sensitive" thinking of Indians (as opposed to the West’s emphasis upon "context-free" rule systems). Walkers and drivers respond more to each other in a given day and mood than to the rules of the road. Ramanujan gathers rules of caste and region that fail the universality of Western Deuteronomy-born rigidities, and grows eloquent as he chips away at the absolutist block:

By the time he has done with "our" conceptual machinery, oppositions become continua that are concentrically nested: "what is contained mirrors the container; the microcosm is both within and like the macrocosm, and paradoxically also contains it" (21). Moreover, he continues, "even space and time, the universal contexts, the Kantian imperatives, are in India not uniform and neutral, but have properties, varying specific densities, that affect those who dwell in them" (21). Indian thought suggests not spirituality, Ramanujan argues, but a "materialism" sensitive to the "specific densities" of an ecology larger than individual or race and more fluid and organic than our usual conceptual machinery.

Our usual cartoon of Indian social life fixes upon rigid caste orders and elaborate rituals governing purity and spirituality. The reality is that every Indian’s context is sensitive not to a few simple eternal verities but to an embroidery of semi-autonomous designs as complexly assembled as the most amazing of the quilted bedspreads along Janpath Lane in Delhi, the street where old saris meet new tourists. Extended or nuclear family, or vocational guild, or religion, or regional loyalty, or political affiliation, or, for many, the West’s commodity life-world–each of these might suffice as a sufficient frame around experience. But each is instead part of the multiple and often contradictory allegiances in the individual unconscious. More than a matter of life choices being freed of the unequivocal prescriptions that insure a capitalized Rightness, these multiple contexts mean that any action is always a translation from one of several possible ethical dialects, and the diction and grammar is rarely completely standardized. Indian fiction often quotes or transliterates this difficult language of being, even when to do so means that the formal and thematic unities prized in Western fiction give way to diversities responsive to these contexts.

To this context-sensitive mode of thought, we must add another turnabout to our habits of thought. It comes near the end of a slim pair of essays by Ashis Nandy The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983), and it follows his final list of oppositions that play through the last century of writing on the East:

As a non-Indologist, I can easily disavow attempting "a scholarly understanding of a civilization" with its Orientalist connotations and turn instead to the movement of its narrative traffic, cows and all. That is, to the effort in current Indian fiction to resist and cope with the internalized colonialism that Nandy addresses so perceptively.

The contradictions we might observe at the levels of content, form or theme are often the points most symptomatic of the complex and ambiguous process of contesting the effects of colonialism. Context-sensitivity helps Delhi’s drivers make it from Chandni Chowk to Connaught Place and helps individuals retain the specificity of their afternoons against the homogenizing forces of modernity–one of which is the hyper-rationalistic logic of absolutes with its dark sides of utilitarianism, social engineering, and so-called market economies. An alternative conception of "contradiction" is a vital strategy in Indian culture, and not just because inefficiencies jam the machinery of Empire. When "the two ends of these polarities meet," a zone of relative disorder results in which one may with enough creativity act with relative independence and resist the neocolonialism of westernization.

The insight that comes out of resisting rather than defining colonialism, as Nandy argues, is partly a critique of the Western logic monopolizing our definition and partly a sense of the profoundly different character of a culture that "is neither pre-modern nor anti-modern but only non-modern" (Nandy 74). The relation between British colonialism and Indian civilization is not that of the parent to the child, nor that of Western-styled political rivals, but something else altogether:

Nandy not only heats up the frozen binary on the explosive burners of the liberation struggle, but he reconnects its twin terms in a larger and more complex context repressed when those terms monopolize thought and action. When our own "war between the sexes" began to turn into something like the denaturalizing of gender, we felt a bit of the revolutionary force of Nandy’s formulation. The reverse movement is to be seen among the regressive Hindu extremists who retreat from a secular vision of redressing economic inequities within the inclusive whole to a religious vision of sectarian rivalry (us real Hindus against Muslims and apostates). Rule by the neocolonial elite has continued the imperialists’ rulebook for dividing and conquering. Indian fiction constantly struggles with the antinomies that channel discussion of social issues–the writers struggle to perform Nandy’s trumping of the binary trick.

As we invoke these shifts in our normal ways of thinking, our conceptual geography for postcoloniality also begins to change, a point argued in The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature (London: Routledge, 1989). Its authorial collective–Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin–suggest that "all post-colonial societies realize their identity in difference rather than essence" (167). To do this without lapsing back into the kind of opponent defined by Western groundrules requires a radicalized sense of "difference." Nandy emphasizes how the post-colonial mind includes not only both the colonial West and the West’s own repressed critical tradition, but also both the colony’s collaborationist and its resistant elements. What the Empire writes, the authorial trio argues, is something like écriture–an inclusive "syncretic" cultural practice:

Homogenization is a force with energy as powerful as reification in the West, but the resilience of what Foucault might call "local" knowledges, the patent daily texture of heterogeneity, and the intricate weave of all manner of demands upon the individual–of caste and class, of region and religion, of language and politics, of self and family–creates a resonant chamber of cultural difference. Without a center, a "margin" is a leading edge of engagement among elements, a zone of mutual profit among dimensions, whether social or internalized.

This kind of cultural space can produce a wide range of effects, some quite negative (as upheavals across the southern hemisphere attest), but it is important to mark its sheer productive force as it affects individuals, groups, and creative works. If it seems that I am beginning to think of India as the womb within which contrary zygotes transform into a miracle of life, it may be that we are approaching another major difference in cultural logic mandated by our thinking about India. We began with our daughter’s intuition that the functioning heterogeneity of Delhi’s traffic meant something–that the aloof intelligence in the eye of an Indian cow meant something important in contrast to the doomed bovinity of the American production model. In learning how to think about the culture for which that traffic is a metaphor, we found our rule-governed thought challenged to become context-sensitive, our binary logic of definition challenged to move from exclusive parts to inclusive whole, and our static conceptual geometry of center and margin challenged to experiment with the productive potential in a more nomadic ranging through to the culture’s more fertile belts of climate and nurture.

As helpful as these devices can be, they are well supplemented by another, one that opens upon the question one Indian posed in the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Said Natwar Singh, a former deputy in Gandhi’s cabinet: "What has this country of Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi come to? We were an example to the world. Now we are a warning" (Time, June 3 1991, 28). The answer is what Sudhir Kakar was telling me as we talked about the Hindu extremism of the BJP party and its allies: at the core of his characterization of the BJP as a Western style of thinking–imposing unity and monological signs upon the world’s most various religion–was Kakar’s lament over "the onslaught of the Father."

In that poignant phrase is the contemporary Indian’s fear that the model of culture western feminists can meaningfully call "patriarchal" may triumph over a more bisexual Indian model. It is fashionable both inside and outside of India to think of it as a very patriarchal society, a reading borne out in the astounding difficulties facing Indian women (and about which we will think in a later chapter). But it is also true that India retains one of the clearest memories of the ancient Earth Mother religious vision, however vestigial that memory may at times seem. Perhaps this is a large case of Nandy’s exclusive part and inclusive whole, the shift from the conflict between matriarchy and patriarchy to a sense of the world as the womb of us all. We in the West have become accustomed to expecting a cultural mainstream with perhaps an occasional shortlived deviation. We can speak, glibly it seems, of a cultural logic.

To read a book like Pupul Jayakar’s The Earth Mother (Delhi: Penguin Books, 1989), however, is be reminded that Westerners mainly know the Brahminical or Vedic India, one that is dominated by the male, empowered by the caste hierarchy, and sustained by the hegemony of urban over rural culture. But simultaneous with this orthodoxy has been what Jayakar calls a "people’s culture based on the primacy of the female principle [which] survived in secret woman’s rites and fertility rituals" (34) despite the Aryan invaders’ efforts to eradicate it. This Vrata tradition has functioned quite differently from Brahminical orthodoxy. Unlike the Brahmanic, the Vrata observances were open "to the woman, to the non-Brahmin, to the Sudra and the tribal" (35). Vernacular and localized rather than canonical, they also integrated a number of aesthetic forms including "song, dance, the visual arts of picture and image-making, magical formulae of incantation and gesture" (35).

The observance as event, then, was a different kind of experience from our own word-bound rituals, a sensory intensity from which we have more fully drawn back. Essentially performative, lived rather than interpreted, the dance and the pictures, even the images of the Mother made small in handmolded clay rather than carved momumentally and permanently in stone like the male gods, were temporary props to a group event rather than themselves timeless. They provide "a living storehouse of the archaic past continually transformed into the contemporary moment, through group action" (35). I think the relationship between past and present–the primary relation constantly remade rather than the fixed entity obediently tended–is as significant as the classless, collective, and multi-sensory traits of the Vrata. If our sense of time swings between the relentlessly driven march of linearity and eternity as a fixed beacon of divinity or truth, the Vrata tradition mediates between the cyclic time of the seasons and the transactional or metamorphic relation between archaic past and a collectively enacted present. We are driven from and towards an Ultimate; the Vrata’s observers attune themselves to the contexts of natural energy and their ancestral relations with that energy. It requires a fair bit of meditation for us to grasp what is involved in an effort to move in our thinking from time as a sense of progression to a sense of time as a context, place, or structure of energies.

In her chapter on the Vrata Mandalas, Jayakar talks about the kind of "writing" (as they are called, rather than "art") women draw on the floors and walls as visual liturgy. I quote at length because these comments convey well the kind of consciousness induced by the Vrata:

This other tradition conceives our lives within a complex weave of energies, both natural and cultural, immediate and historical, personal and collective.

Were the relation between these two great traditions, the Brahminical and the Vrata, our subject, we would now begin to sift through the complex flow between them as each was affected by the other, and the implications of the historical upheavals when they most mixed because of urban Brahmanic intelligentsia retreating to the village strongholds of the Vrata. Suffice it to say the two traditions are not utterly autonomous and distinct. Nonetheless, to think about the critical cruxes in Indian fiction is to find at least some of them turning upon the relation between these two cultural genders of India’s history. To think of what we learn about ourselves from Indian culture goes beyond our moralistic fervor against that for which sati–bride-burning–has become the sign. It is to realize how much of our own cultural unrest is a desire for the vision of life that rides with Durga upon her leograph and flashes from the sword and fangs of her offspring Kali. In their myth, they restore a nurturing order distorted by demons and beyond the power of mere male gods to achieve on their own (the latter only grudgingly calling upon Durga for help when they were fast losing the battle between form and formlessness, consciousness and obliteration). If in our own day the male gods of rationalism and political economy seem helpless before the manifold demons of world disorder, we are perhaps confirming the Indian sense that in this fallen age of Kali we are awaiting the turn from a patriarchal to a more bisexually gendered cultural logic.

I have aspired in this section to suggest some of the differences required in our own fundamental habits of thought if we are to be reasonably adequate readers of Indian fiction. Some such reinventing of our minds seems necessary if we are to avoid falling prey to old ways of containing the threat India poses to our preconceptions. To imagine India either as the oriental other of the first world "center" or as a failed, defective, or emergent clone of the "center" is to live the prejudicial halflife of colonial era logic, and to miss what we might otherwise discover. In fact, if one were going to think one culture by its other, the Westerner might learn a great deal by taking India as a norm against which to study the West’s compulsive repression of its own self-difference, its desire to neutralize the ethical implications of contextual particularities, and its struggle to homogenize and to erase the history of its marginalized elements–to see, that is, India as Nandy’s inclusive whole versus the exclusive part of ourselves we select as our self-image (or the exclusive part of India we choose to celebrate). That experiment is a project for a different book.

But the possibility underscores the importance of approaching some examples of recent Indian fiction with the sort of questions I want to ask. What happens when a marginal figure like a writer of fiction takes up a form left behind by the colonial power and seeks through it to resist colonial hangovers, as well as to represent his or her society, and to explore beyond the overly neat cultural programming that comes along with narrative form? In her groundbreaking Realism and Reality, Meenakshi Mukherjee argues that

Her study looks at Christian missionary publishing’s incitement to moral tales, nationalism’s inspiration in heroic historical romances of Hindu chieftains, and the tension between women protagonists and the tight net of social restrictions to which they were subject.

In each of these tributaries and the later blends that resulted, the ideological diagram of English realism shifts and is overlaid in Indian writing with the conflict between tradition-bound society and the new entrepeneurial existentialism of the westernized elite, particularly those serving in the relatively meritocratic colonial civil services. As she concludes,

Dialectical forces in this case are especially resistant to quick and simple sublations into some neat synthesis. Mukherjee’s enormous contribution to our collective thinking about Indian writing has not been simply to have placed it at the top of the literary critics’ agenda at a time when British Literature still dominated academic circles. That would have been enough in itself. But she went further to so frame the field that we are all led to think of the extensive and delicate web of interrelated forces, factors, concerns, affiliations, allegiances, and world views that cohabit the literary imagination of recent writers. The passage of the Novel into Indian practice is at every point a mix rather than a resolution into a simple identity.

The multiple vectors of cross-cultural passage here raise many issues about the nature of writing, of knowledge, and of acculturation; they also turn to one very remarkable culture as ancient as it is new and find within it questions, paradoxes, and constant surprises to our often unconscious preconceptions. Answers and definitions may well elude us, but perhaps we can hope for a fluency in a narrative and cultural logic that is and is not native to the Anglo-American scholar. It is not what he or she is taught in graduate school or in the periodic hazings of peer review. But it is what we all know in some form or another from having contacted a contrary cultural tradition in the West, one that has staged its most spectacular outburst in the last thirty-some years since Johns Hopkins University smuggled poststructuralism past the intellectual customs agents under the guise of an innocent enough sounding conference on "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man." We’ll need to make good use of this contemporary version of what Ashis Nandy calls the "other west," a critical tradition at odds with its imperial alter ego.

Beyond the Two Indias

In whatever genre it may be attempted, the project of explaining India often leads to "two Indias" played against each other, developed with the logic of antonyms we have seen critiqued already, even though the particular antonyms involved change far more than their logical relation. As Nandy argues, "the two Indias become two ideologies competing for the minds of men, instead of two strains within the same life style, dialectically interrelated and complementary" (82). By the time we are finished, we should have some sense of the "dialectically interrelated" binaries that Ahmad called "densities," but for now let us try to approach four "mythic" Indias–"mythic" because they function in the political unconscious as forces as elemental as any other historical realities. All those photo books, all those pop-anthropology summaries, all the travelers’ accounts (of which this book is in part one example)… to what binaries do they reduce? As one leaves the bookshelves of the urban hotels, stocked with the guides and the memoirs and the coffee table books, what too-simply-posed pairs does one take out on the road, ready to be complicated by talk in the market stalls and restaurant booths and parks?

The kinds of forces one might name in American society–gender, race, class–are far from irrelevant in India. An active feminist movement has solid achievements in the arts and in grassroots organization, its presence felt as much in the central government as in the lives of village women lucky enough to live close to a project like some of those described in Anees Jung’s Unveiling India: A Woman’s Journey (New Delhi: Penguin, 1987). Race flickers in the Polish jokes Tamils and Punjabis tell about each other and in the marriage ads where fairness of complexion–"wheat"–is often one of the key factors. And class increasingly complicates the classic picture of India’s sedimentary social geology of castes, as 1990-91’s strikes and self-immolations over affirmative action attest, and as the communal party politics of the mid-nineties confirms. But these categories organize our thinking about Western affiliational patterns more efficiently than they help us map the crucial determinants in India’s post-colonial era.

I find virtually all moments of the lives of literate India, and of those who must live within its sphere of principal influence, subject to at least four irresistible forces. My shorthand for their respective complexities is to call them Tradition, Modernity, Third World Socialism, and Commodity Politics. By "tradition" I include much of what attracts many westerners to India and supplies the ambience marketed by social scientists, India’s Tourism Development Authority, and the gurus catering to Euro-American soul searchers–but also of course much more. At one point village India preserved–in some places still does, almost–a traditional agrarian texture of caste relations and the social, gender, economic, and political roles they meted out. As a sign, "rural India" still represents the stabilities and assurances, and to an extent the potent ideologies, of that texture, but even there, as we’ll see in looking at novels of village life, the power of this traditional world either to present itself as natural or to rule the moments of individual lives has weakened. So much so that it has become a sign of a lost order felt neither as a feasible utopia nor as quite to be abandoned. I suspect it is in part the sheer nostalgia for a Hindu India–one that never quite was, especially in anything like the fundamentalist portrayal of it–that explains the recent success of the BJP party and its allies in destabilizing the secularist consensus: 1990 saw a sensationalized motorcade across northern India, mobilizing support for the Ayodhya temple movement, touching off a wave of riots, and triggering the collapse of V.P. Singh’s coalition government, and the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1993 set off rioting and soul-searching throughout South Asia and the diaspora.

Anees Jung’s account of her interviews with women across India is insistent upon the role the idea of traditional village life plays in the psychic economy of even the most urbanized of contemporary Indians. She pauses in her account of "City Women" to make the point at length with only the journalist’s measure of overstatement:

Perhaps "the return" is more imaginary or metaphorical than existential or literal, but I suspect there are very few Indians indeed for whom Tradition is not many voices still talking in their minds and hearts. Only an obsessive-compulsive would relish cataloguing these many voices: the major obvious divisions of language, region, religion, and caste explode into infinite subcategories that defeat any logical schematics. One of the debates, for example, over the profoundly controversial Mandal Commission recommendations for affirmative action hinges on whether the number of (socially and economically) "backward classes and communities" is around 1000 or the 3743 listed in the Commission’s report. Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) field workers, reports the Indian Express (October 2, 1990, p. 4), "discovered that, in a number of cases, the synonyms of communities had been listed separately, the same community had been mentioned more than once in the State lists, and in many instances, the same community had been mentioned again with different spellings." To imagine listing along with these all groups not "backward" is to suggest the diversity of the experiential reality behind the catchword of "tradition."

We’ll leave to the ASI the task of sorting out the 120 volumes of data assembled and computerized in their survey, and try instead to recognize just what characterizes as a psychological force the kind of tradition to which Indians have access. First, one’s "community" is not readily subsumed under larger labels of religion or caste. This means most of all that particularity complicates generalization, that local resistances impede homogenization of whatever kind. Second, one’s community coexists with a host of alternative or even rival communities none of which can manage credibly to universalize its experience as the nature of humankind. This makes "tradition" very plural and perspectivalism–what you see depends upon where you stand at a given moment–mundane. Third, the identity of one’s community is as much a function of its daily material relations with other communal groupings as of efforts to codify its defining traits. This means that the diacritical and essentialist meanings of a community coexist, perhaps uneasily. Finally, both its essence and a community’s position within the society’s network of relations are increasingly fluid. (Dr. K.S. Singh, Director General of ASI, finds "a great dynamism in the backward communities and with the members of these communities taking up non-traditional occupations, inter-linkages with the mainstream automatically result.")

If even the most "backward" of India’s social segments find themselves "automatically" interlinked with the mainstream, then we are perhaps justified in risking the pitfalls of antonymical thought by naming Modernity as the second irresistible force in Indian life. By "modernity" I mean all that comes with an increasingly advanced capitalist economy and the corporate culture of consumerism and Westernization it fuels. After the term "modern" is bandied about a few times, a student panelist at an orientation for American Fulbrights in India says, pressed to define it, "Well, western." Western dress, western courtship, western individualism, even western careers. Anees Jung remarks that villagers beginning to earn an urban income buy first a transistor radio (whence comes a flood of manufactured desires and pop culture socialization), a bicycle (to facilitate a day increasingly more complicated than that of the farmer or village craftsman), and a wristwatch (to subject the wearer to the rule of an external and abstract and precise measure). And the women she studies whose lives change through various collectives and projects are a record of expanding consumer desires. The "modernization" of India’s political and social institutions is the story of the Nehru clan’s post-Independence spin on the British colonializing momentum. A series of national plans transformed India from a village culture toward an increasingly homogenized–if only in terms of the commodities desired–target market, from a decentralized pointillist composition of distinct and unique life worlds to a nation strung together by railways and garrisoned by ministries and national institutes and data gatherers. The process, as we shall see, has been rocketed into qualitative shifts by the so-called "liberalization" economics of post-Gandhi governments, the dawning of SATV and multinational corporate investment in the nineties.

That this corporately flavored turn of modernity should wind itself around the brainstem of the second and third generation of urban India–the near 20% that is middle class–produces a more than complex "inter-linkage" with the village memory of this increasingly decisive class-based segment of Indian society. The Indian form is as divided in its manifestations as Western modernism (both left and right, both futurist and neopastoral, both secular nationalist and ethnic revivalist). But more important, like its Western uncle its libidinal and conceptual machinery represents experience along vectors and within categories highly susceptible to a corporate agenda.

But village memory is not the only sore spot in the inclusive whole that seeks to condition Modernist against the multinationals’ neocolonialism. The continued vitality of the socialist ideal, its roots partly Western and partly indigenous, also keeps the corporate modernist agenda from becoming too monumental a bogeyman. Though Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s 1991 economic reform package may make it seem otherwise, socialism, understood broadly, remains an active agent in India–a part of its constitution in the form of mandatory equal participation in the mainstream, an instinct of its founding prime minister dating back to an early Nehru trip to Europe that included Moscow, a longtime national policy in India’s "notorious" (to the U.S. State Department) tilt to Russia, its own nationalized segments of banking and industry ("A Government of India Undertaking" is as ubiquitous as politicians’ faces and slogans in less politically fortunate corners of the third world), and its energetic subsidies and soles of basic foodstuffs.

Socialist impulses contest corporate modernism for the soul of egalitarian sentiments, envisioning a society of equal subjects rather than of the equally subjected. The argument between socialism and modernity rages also over the priortizing of distributing versus generating wealth, and over the (in)decency of Nehru’s patience with a trickle-down theory of economic development. For Nehru to be a sign for both Modernity and Socialism is the law of the semiotic jungle in India, I suspect, but the relations between Socialism and Tradition are no more simple. Some parts of that tradition, in some areas, are a bit socialist in, for example, the vagueness of private ownership within the village-run agriculture of pre-British Bengal. Most of the traditions, of course, most notoriously in their caste and gender hierarchies, are anything but socialist in spirit.

What keeps this "functioning anarchy" (the phrase is that of Nehru’s friend and former U.S. Ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith) functioning is what can only be called India’s commodity politics. My term for the fourth force is partly literal–India’s newspapers are big business and both their headlines and backpages follow politics and politicians with an attentiveness Americans pay only to sports, celebrities, and the top ten prime time television shows. Indeed, politics comes to be understood within the terms of TV aesthetics when a serious article about the Rajiv Gandhi assassination can enthuse that the probe has "acquired all the trappings of a chilling thriller" and that "the case of the Rajiv Gandhi killing may join the league of many prominent political assassinations like John F. Kennedy’s, Olaf Palme’s or even Indira Gandhi’s where the conspiracy will forever remain a mystery," keeping its place in the popular imagination as a top video rental like the Kennedy cassettes on every shopkeeper’s shelf. And the numerous "Bollywood" stars (slang term for film capital Bombay, now Mumbai) who are not just campaigners but candidates for major offices keep the concourse between "product" and "political" a busy one.

"Commodity" is also a descriptive label, however, because, like goods in commodity capitalism, parties and candidates and platforms and processions are produced to preserve the status quo, and made over cosmetically to appeal to a media-manufactured sign that displaces voters’ more profound desires and anxieties from their political unconscious. L.K. Advani of the BJP drove a Rose Bowl float makeover of a Toyota pickup (it looked like a Bollywood version of the epic Ramayana hero’s chariot) across northern India to stir up anger over the Ayodhya temple controversy. Advani was linking persistent (1947) partition nightmares with economic insecurity, frustration with the failures of post-Independence opposition parties, and fairly crude Muslim-scapegoating in order to sell the BJP. When his kar sevak legions finally razed the Muslim hall in 1993, Indians around the world were shocked that a western-styled denouement had leaked from their linear cinema into their diacritical politics.

So it is that parties and parliamentary seats are marketed with remarkable and at times cynical care to their assemblage of "vote banks," as the (social and religious) communal groupings are called. The signs of Tradition, Modernity, and Socialism must be mediated by every candidate with more dexterity than their realities could be managed by any actual psyche in India. Hence it appears at times that the function of politics in India is to exclude a genuine confrontation between government power and real issues, and so to induce voters to allow the unofficial machineries of the corporate and traditional worlds to function.

When politics becomes narrative, whether in Khushwant Singh’s classic Train to Pakistan or Nina Sibal’s more recent Yatra, the particularizing of mass phenomena in the suffering of individuals strives to humanize political issues, to protest the gap between the politicians’ manipulation of signs and the people’s need to manage the contradictions behind those signs. The fiction has no more success than the politicians in resolving India’s problems, and often strains as visibly to achieve narrative closure as candidates strive to reach the Lok Sabha seat they spend so much to win. But like the politicians, the novelists can never quite spring free the protagonists of their narratives from the dialogic–multi-voiced, ongoing, unending–into the apodictic. Life, and certainly life in India, doesn’t allow that. And if Bakhtin is right that the dialogism of the novel takes us into the social laboratory where "ideologemes" are invented, it is no accident that the politicians should suddenly have turned for us into the novelist’s avatar: both are notorious as practitioners of modernity’s master narrative(s).

Perhaps a final anecdote may serve to sum up the volatility of forces we have been considering, one that becomes a fable not simply of the importance of the "ancestral village," but also of its immersion in much more raw and chaotic reality than either the sentimentalist or the traditionalist would prefer. India offers no immunity for even the most national and urban of figures, a truth evident in the attention paid by both the press and the militants to Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s home village of Vangara. Naxalites (communist insurgents) forbade villagers to work for the Rao family and attacked a farm hand who did, occasioning publications even so far afield as India Abroad (published in New York, Toronto, Chicago, Los Angeles, and London) to include a three column article about the (then) new national epicenter of village memory:

But of course neither they nor the land are quite safe since the Naxalites planted their flag and announced plans to redistribute some of Rao’s land to the homeless. For Rao, the house is the sign of his continuity with a very personal tradition; for India Abroad’s diasporic readers, the cart and the dung-washed floor are signs of the fidelity of a new prime minister to the old home ways of their own increasingly tenuous memories of India; for the Naxalites and the military, the place is a sign for which radical socialism and the well-armed modernity of private ownership must contest; for Rao’s Congress party, Vangara is the sign of an apparently defunct model village project sunk under the strain of electoral vicissitudes and Naxalite impatience with meliorist measures. Tradition is a specific point in space, but like a point in plane geometry it marks the intersection of an infinite number of planes contending to be the page upon which we read it.

Mirror to Mirror

The task of this study has become two-fold: (1) to investigate the complex nonwestern logic of postcolonial fiction, and (2) to study the particular dynamics of Indian fiction as it deals with the shifting demands of forces at work in Indian life. To look closely for a moment at the brief short story from which this study takes its title is to begin engaging with the difficulties of such a project. For if the first task tempts our universalizing yen for "a scholarly understanding of a civilization" rather than noting the cross-hatched battle lines of postcolonial resistance, the latter as easily tempts us to overlook the hosts of faces herded under the four banners just described, hosts as various and as incongruent as the parties to a coalition in Indian politics.

At considerable distance from the Western notion of selfhood promulgated in our fiction are Hindu conceptions, a distance we must understand if we are to see clearly Indian fiction moving often somewhere between them. Or perhaps we might conceive the differences more richly within Ashis Nandy’s logical schema. The drama which dominates Anglo-American fiction–the individual’s quest for self-identity–would be the "exclusive part," while the larger cultural, social, and, if you will, spiritual ecospheres, along with a Deleuzian schizophrenic egosphere, suggest Nandy’s "inclusive whole." Western selfhood, in other words, is part of the illusion or maya of "ego-oriented reality," as Sudhir Kakar puts it in The Inner World: A Psychoanalytic Study of Childhood and Society in India (Second Edition. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981; p. 20). Not false, that is, just misleadingly limited. Escaping our selfhood’s conceptual and existential boundaries is the point of the Hindu spiritual discipline so attractive to (and so frequently misunderstood by) Westerners chafing under the burdens of their culturally generated interiorities.

Kakar is helpful on this point particularly as he is sorting out the concepts of samadhi (attainment of oneness) and moksha (ultimate enlightenment and fusion of self with other). It’s a difficult point because our sense of these terms is turned rancid by the junkfood spiritualists or compromised by the omnivorous capacity of our own semitic tradition to assimilate. Speaking of moksha, Kakar writes:

The image of a bucket in a well helps us sense the flooding of the logic of inside and outside, of self and other, while moksha’s irreversibility–the "exclusive part" we call the self has become "harmless"–is nicely rendered as a form not susceptible to the sociopolitical usages of tying. Avidya, false consciousness, is living without this kind of awareness, while vidya, true consciousness, sees the "composite self" of the "I" including all our "experienced situations" and "possible selves," whether "bodily," "personal," "social" or what have you (Kakar 19). The self doesn’t stop being a form, but is only a form rather than the essence of being; the river’s water is still water, just contiguous with a larger ontological sphere, itself context-sensitive in the profoundest sense of existential grammar.

Given the heterogeneousness of "self" and the shift of emphasis from autonomous individuality to continuousness with all being "outside" the self, these traditional understandings are oddly resonant as the positive sine curves of often negational poststructural conceptions of self. Jameson’s myth of individuality as the ideological construct fragmenting an originary collective, Deleuze’s body without organs colonized and organized for high performance in capitalist culture, postmodern portrayals of consciousness as the patchwork of internalized cultural codings, the Lacanian scene of a semiotic and psychosocial Oedipus, the Althusserian discussion of individuality "interpellated" as ideology’s primal function–all of these are ways of rethinking the West’s traditionally transcendental form for selfhood into a potentially more "harmless" category outside a rigid and naturalized logic of inside and outside, self and other. Which is to suspect that if we are pulled in one direction by our tradition to read Indian fiction as if it were western rather than westernized, we are also pulled in another direction to read its spiritual moments as if they were emergent postmodernity rather than persistent "non-modernity," to recall Nandy’s polemic.

These difficulties for the western reader are shared in some form by the always at least partly westernized Indian writer. But writing, for the Indian, may be more enabling than the westerner’s problematic act of reading cross-culturally. For an Indian writer to turn sideways the cultural mirror within which a restricting life is tied is always at least residually a recognition of avidya in the vale of maya. Tradition, that is, has always already begun the critical task of denaturalizing any given cultural frame, a task that in the West sometimes seems to require the elaborate maneuvers of a poststructural guru. The compositeness of "I," of society as a set of castes with their different subcultural worlds, of Hinduism or of Indian ethnology, all may be truisms about Indian culture, but they also mark the omnipresent analogs of an understanding of selfhood that cues Indian writers to the multiple selves within and to the fluidities of internalization only our postmoderns have begun really to consider.

Indian culture is full of images for the multiplicity that challenges any single awareness and, more severely, the monaural track of western thinking about god and self. The Mughul’s favorite symbol, the peacock, is in India a common, scruffy, scavenging bird hurrying along rail tracks whose nevertheless spectacular fan opens as a panoply of eyes. The Ashoka wheel implanted on the national flag evokes not only Gandhi’s homespun cotton campaign, but the centrality of Delhi’s national government in dialogic relation with the regional state governments, not to mention Buddhism’s spin on the Real. The third eye of Shiva gives him a vision that exceeds the partial view of mortal man. And Brahma, at once the creator-God and the infinite itself, is often represented as an accordion of multiple faces turned at many more Cubist angles than Picasso ever imagined. Rather than the Romans’ many-breasted mother deity, the many-eyed figure of Hinduism emphasizes not comforting sustenance or colossal substance but the infinite complexity of perceiving, as if no one view into any one culturally circumscribed mirror could ever pretend to suffice, as if each pair of our eyes that peered into that mirror would see differently, as if every possible mirror would reflect yet another part of the whole.

This dialogic relation between one and many is sufficiently pervasive in Indian culture that what surprises is the ease with which one can read much of its fiction as if it were western. Most novels and stories are written by the most westernized sector of Indian society, to be sure, and there are plenty of bratty little narratives about protagonists seeking the very kind of self western culture shows some signs of abandoning. Even in this most westernized fiction, however, there are significant silences we must honor at the point where the exclusivity appropriated from the western self fails to comprehend a greater whole at times quite beyond the narrator’s conscious perception, or to perceive and cope with the multiplicity of pressures of its context, or to resist the lure of a centrifugal conception with a neocolonial center. Even more interesting is the fiction that moves directly into an ethnology of the impasse captured in the brief short story from which my study appropriates its title.



Madhu Rye’s "Mirror to Mirror" is not an arresting piece for those steeped in traditional realism, easily the dominant mode in Indian writing: nothing much happens in its three and a half pages except a wife looking at her husband, supposing he’s not looking at her, though he is, sort of (the story is found in New Writing in India, ed. Adil Jussawala [Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1974]). No movement, no speech; but mirrors within mirrors, real and metaphoric, holding surfaces which mean differently to Rama, Atul, and the reader. The prose insists upon something akin to Gertrude Stein’s continuous present: "Rama thinks Atul isn’t looking at her, isn’t looking at her," a recurrent device in a story without past tense. As if significant action had become precluded, Stein’s mode is thus attenuated to thinking and perceiving as a constant act framed by preconceptions, not to mention by the reflective surfaces in which husband and wife watch each other. Those surfaces also index the planes signifying the upper middle class impasse they have reached–the diamond and watches and other imported goods connoting economic power and cultural hipness give them a westernization without substance, one that frames but does not fill their living. This extreme modernization is the significance of the continuous present and a bracketed past: it explains why the daughter (otherwise a signifier of Time) is packed off to her maternal uncle’s for the day; and it attests to a potency expected of this gleaming assemblage of surfaces that instead produces nothing but the contentless faces of consumers:

Homogenized by commodification, pointlessly multiple in the repetition of their faces upon their possessions, they are silenced inverses of the richly resonant composite self in Kakar’s perhaps nostalgic account of Hinduism. Wanting the consumerist validation of becoming an object worthy of being looked at, they parody a corporate modernity that organized value and perception in so hyperreal a way.

But the story does convey more than this general vitiation of lives. Rama "has let her sari fan out on the florid linoleum, Atul’s dull reflection trapped in its shine" (270); one is tempted to make something of her display affronted by his dulled and secondary presence. More primary, however, is the tension signalled by the difference of opinion between them:

More is at stake than the frustrated narcissism of a spoiled beauty or the arrogant assurance of a privileged male:

The story here ends by linking the continuous present of perceiving and the prison house of mirrors within which that perceiving is trapped. Atul’s preoccupation is with his seeing–Rama in fact does know that it is not her that Atul wonders about but perception itself and the lens of its refraction. Atul cannot imagine seeing her otherness rather than himself in her. Hence he must wonder about without resolving the epistemological impasse of cross-cultural framing (his to hers, theirs to the West’s), a precondition for resolving the existential impasse between two discrete entities reified as hard gemlike rocks (rather than being Paterian flames comfortable with their Heraclitian qualities). Their incommensurate understandings of the impasse say something about the misalignments wrought by personality, especially by gender, and by family, though a long paragraph cataloguing all the possible ways of naming the Doshis by family relation (son of, daughter of, etc) makes clear that mastering these mirrors would bring us no closer to reality. Hence the story’s social referents include modernization and the class and (nuclear) family structures it entails, while its ontological focus is upon the kind of subjectivity that predominates as a function and precondition of the same modernization.

By straining the tolerances of realist narrative, Rye evokes a liminal threshold of samadhi, perhaps, in that we can see the hard shells of individual buckets in the cultural well. But just as samadhi is a transitory sensation rather than an achieved state, so life in the realm of maya winds its separate narrative threads inexorably weaving consciousness into history rather than vidya, truth. The characters, that is, exist for us in a continuous present that to them is clearly in the process of narratization–for her into one about Atul’s difficulties seeing her as herself, for him into one about Rama’s inability to value properly his way of focusing upon parts and concepts. The connections between them, and among them and even their immediate domestic environment, are both specular and fragmented–just specks of reflection. They do not achieve either the tactility of "context-sensitive" contiguousness or the decentering of the ego in favor of the "syncretic," or ecological awareness of an inclusive whole. They are themselves products, not, as Nandy would have them, resistors.

For domestic stasis to be a sign for profounder cultural problems is not surprising. But Rye’s insistent mirrors suggest also, through the ellipses infinitely extending the mirror play, that these problems have to be thought within the same cultural frames that are creating the problems–the story allows no access to a standard of truth or wholeness from which we could definitively resolve its impressive agenda of cultural contradictions. By typographically mirroring a line or two of his own text, Rye includes language itself within the mirroring agencies at work in these problems, and thus makes this brief story an epitome of the fiction and the issues we must consider. Indian issues, ontological issues, problems in cross-cultural theory, the continuous present of Writing’s crisis–these categories of inquiry intersect in both this story and in the study it inspires. If the way I read the prose of India’s novelists, psychologists, journalists, and social scientists comes to sound a great deal like elaborations of Rye’s eight paragraphs, no doubt it is because the mirror(s) in my hands (or pupils?) find their imagery in his.

For that surely is another of the resonances of Rye’s tale, that within the terms of the thoroughly modern analytical machinery by which we read fiction, there are no wheels quite geared to turn the whole toward a hermeneutic moksha. The ideal of that extensive a wisdom may well be the final referent of the silence that marks Rye’s story as distinctively as its mirror imagery. If so, it is tempting to ascribe its persistence to the "Hindu world image" Kakar so painstakingly recreates for those of us who come from a culture that has relentlessly demystified its own religious past–as well as for those Indians, perhaps including Kakar himself, who have discovered themselves westernized enough to have seen Hinduism receding from the cosmic into the mirrored depths of a complex social history. In just this nuanced way the mirrors competing to frame Indian life constitute much of the action and interest of this fiction. It is often silent about what might be excluded from the play of images, and just as often anxious when it supposes it has voiced itself beyond that play. Such silence and anxiety provide the keenest sense of the gap between the echoes of cultural memories and the daily sights these observers offer us.