Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Colonial Mimicry and One More Quote from 'Sea of Poppies'

I might have some mild form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), but I normally try not to stay too neurotically fixated on certain things-- not even ex-lovers who were outstanding in bed. (I know you could possibly argue that all fixations are neurotic, which is why they are called fixations.) I have posted quotes from Amitav Ghosh's masterpiece of a novel Sea of Poppies twice before: here and here. What I am about to post here is a tad different in tone, for I find it hilarious, but besides the comic element, this has a certain theoretical undertone that is of importance for post- (possibly anti-) colonial thinking. 

I should probably give some context first. This scene unfolds in colonial India in the 1830s. Raja Neel Rattan is a king who has been trained in English letters. Mr Doughty is a rowdy colonizer who clearly does not like a native who reads British poetry and he looks down upon such colonized subjects who try to imitate the colonizers' wit by appropriating their language. This interaction takes place as Mr Doughty and other members of his party are visiting Raja Neel Rattan's sluggish boat:

"None of the visitors had been on the Rashkali budgerow before, so they accepted readily when Neel offered them a tour of the public parts of the barge. On the upper deck they came upon Raj Rattan, who was flying kites by the moonlight. Mr Doughty made a harrumphing sound when the boy was introduced: 'Is this little Rascal your Upper-Roger, Raja Nil-Rotten?'
'The upa-raja, yes' Neel nodded. 'My sole issue and heir. The tender fruit of my loin, as your poets might say.'
'Ah! Your littles green mango!' Mr Doughty shot a wink in Zacahary's direction. 'And if I may be so bold to ask-- would you describe your loin at the stem or the branch?'
Neel gave him a frosty glare. 'Why, sir,' he said coldly, 'it is the tree itself.'"
[Page 112]

Of course, the interaction is hilarious and Neel's wit is excruciatingly funny. Besides the comic element, however, the outwitting the colonizer by a colonized subject, in the colonizer's own language is pertinent to say the least. As theorized by Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture, colonial mimicry involves the colonizer's need to educate the colonized in such a way as to render them more 'civilized' and 'educated'. However, this process demands that the colonized peoples be kept 'barbaric' enough and 'ignorant' enough such that they do not question the authority of the colonizing power. In other words, the stakes lie in making the colonized subject almost the same, but not quite.

In this particular narrative, we learn that "the old Raja [Neel's father] had always got on well with Englishmen, even though he spoke their language imperfectly and had no interest in their books. As if to compensate for his own limitations, the Raja had hired a British tutor for his son, to make sure that he had a thorough schooling in English. (...) But far from putting him at ease in the society of Calcutta's Englishmen, Neel's education had served exactly the opposite. (...) [T]he British colonials of the city, who tended to regard refinements of taste with suspicion, and even derision-- and never more so than when they were evinced by native gentlemen." [Page 91] Or as Mr Doughty himself had put it earlier, "see, if there's one thing I can't abide it's a bookish native." [Page 50]

I see this moment not one of fantastic hilarity, but also as something of a witty victory of the Indian native over the colonizer: sheer brilliance!

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