& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee - 1

Gladstone Hotel

Colonial mindsets and in postcolonial times

Recently, I was with a group of writers at Gladstone’s Melody Bar, waiting for a book launch event to commence. Although all of us now live in Toronto (or in the GTA) none of us at the table had been born here. All but I had vivid memories of the city – during their visits as children, as adolescents, as young adults – of its architecture and the people.

Then one of them said something that struck a chord: these were memories of a colonial city. I could relate to that instantly. My memories of Bombay – of its architecture and its people – are largely memories of a colonial city.

That evening, I brought home a business card of Gladstone’s sale person. I was planning to hold a small get together for friends later this month, but have since abandoned that plan. The business card is beautifully designed and has a two-tone image of the hotel’s edifice; the blue backdrop gives its an old-world, ammonia-print look and feel to it.

Gladstone’s architecture in many ways reminds me of so many buildings in Bombay’s Fort along the Hornby Road between Flora Fountain and Victoria Terminus (Dadabhai Noroji Road from Hutatma Chowk to Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus).

My son who has been forced to accompany his parents on their meaningless meanderings both in Bombay and in Toronto, picked up the card and exclaimed, “This looks like some place in India;” when I asked him why, he said, “India has such buildings, too.”

Despite valiant efforts of heritage conservationists, the turn-of-the century (19th -20th) architecture in Bombay is crumbling into oblivion, as I’d imagine it is in Toronto, too. But even as colonial architecture gives way to freer forms of design, I often wonder whether colonial way of thinking has changed, or indeed, can change.

The eager and unabashed celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 60 years of ascension to the throne, with full participation of the state, clearly shows that in Canada, where the British monarch has a constitutional presence, there is little evidence – or even a perceived need – to move away from the elaborate and antediluvian constructs of colonialism.

Despite centuries of struggle against the British rule, has Indian thinking succeeded in casting away the colonial constructs, especially in fiction. There are many examples of the residual colonialism in Indian writing in English.

In India, there has always been a general consensus (even if it isn’t articulated often nowadays) that this is because an alien language forces an alien idiom that doesn’t – cannot – describe the Indian sensibility in all its nuances, even if it succeeds in depicting the quintessence.

But how true is that?

V.S. Naipaul wryly notes in An Area of Darkness, “The feeling is widespread that, whatever English might have done for Tolstoy, it can never do justice to the Indian “language” writers. This is possible; what I read of them in translation did not encourage me to read more.” (quote taken from Salman Rushdie’s “Damme, This is the Oriental scene for you!” 1997).

The two novels that are the two sides of this discussion of the colonial and the postcolonial narratives are Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children succeeded in pulling Indian writing in English out of the miasma of colonial thinking by twisting, turning, bending and maiming the English language to an Indian idiom, an Indian way of thinking. Equally, it also substantially altered Indian sensibilities.

I’m reproducing passages from two critical studies of Rushdie and Kipling that give a deeper insight and a different perspective to our understanding of these concepts.

(continued in the post below)

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