By Pavan Kumar Malreddy
“This is truly the age when the joota is Japani, the patloon Englistani, the topi Roosi. But the dil — the dil is and always will remain Hindustani.” — Mahasweta Devi
THESE words, first immortalised by the Indian film legend Raj Kapoor, and poignantly recaptured by Mahasweta Devi, are a glaring reminder of postcolonialism’s paradoxical (dis)location between nationalism and cosmopolitanism.
The dil (heart) is there, apparently masked by foreign accessories, which are neither undesirable nor particularly unavoidable, but it is there, and it beats for a Hindustani drum even if the dance features Russian topis and British patloons (trousers).
Consider, then, the average man from Malgudi (a semi-agrarian, semi-urban settlement set in South India, which is featured in most of R.K. Narayan’s writings) who often “preferred to dress like a permanent tourist”: a striped business blazer over a draping kurta; a South Indian dhoti or Singaporean (ready ) made lungi over a pair of slip on shoes; a plastic wrist watch on his left hand and a gaudy umbrella in the right, with the round rimmed Gandhi glasses resting peacefully on his nose tip. Of course, if the striped blazer and Singapore lungi reveal the deceptively foreign/hybrid facet of the average Malgudian, not to mention the leisurely air and the bourgeois gait with which he wandered like a permanent tourist, the slip-on shoes, the draping kurta, the South Indian dhoti and the round rimmed Gandhi glasses are in fact more deceptive than the simple minded localism they countervail. The dhoti is symbolic of the neighboring Kannada and Andhra cultures; the kurta is distinctly North Indian, of Afghan/Muslim origin; the slip on shoes are as nawabi (Hyderabadi) as they are a mismatch for a dhoti; the symbolism of round rim glasses may be an oversight, but Gandhi is perhaps more foreign to Malgudi than Sir Frederick Lawley who stands mortified on the market road. It is only the lungi which seems to be distinctly Tamil (when it is not Singapore made).
Despite this vernacular diversity, and the (proto)cosmopolitan quality with which Malgudi’s central characters are tinctured, the image of Malgudi remains more or less complicit with ethnocentrism, nativism, agrarianism, Hinduism, or nationalism, among other essentialist readings of Narayan at large. A prominent figure within the Indian English literary circles, Narayan was inducted to the postcolonial pantheon of nationalist writers who inspired the Commonwealth Literature Movement in the 1960s. Accordingly, Narayan’s work came to be associated with traditional, rural/agrarian tropes, as with the other leading Indian novelists of the time who featured village India as the locus of nation and nationalist politics: Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve (1954), Raja Rao’s Kanthapura (1938), and Mulk Raj Anand’s The Village (1939). Yet, the perceived images of Malgudi as an Indian “metaphor” — a macrocosm and microcosm — India as a collection of village communities, and the village as its “organic unit” where caste represents its genetic/generic boundary, have had their ideological adherents in the early Orientalist scholarship from Maine to Marx, and from Munro to Dumont.
Within this, the notion of “microcosm” not only falls prey to essentialist readings of both Malgudi and India, but to the depiction of the Orient in general as an “organic community”, an overwhelmingly agrarian, rural, pastoral space — a living museum of the West’s past — one that was central to the earlier fostering of colonial relations as expressed in the metonymical binary of metropolis and colony. Conceivably, as the economic and cultural dominance of the European metropolis became central to the ensuing cosmopolitan imagination, Euro humanist discourses further relegated the (post)colony to local geographies that are yet to be modernised, urbanised, and even metropolitanised if they are to breed cosmopolitan imagination at all.
A number of critics have challenged this view by uncovering the hidden sites of “alternative”, “our”, and “provincialised” modernities within the postcolony, paving the way for postcolonial critiques of metropolitan centrism in cosmopolitan theory in the late 1990s.
While rejecting the liberal cosmopolitan doctrine that each person is “a citizen of the world” who needs to “transcend parochial interests for the collective good”, the postcolonial view asserts that “cosmopolitanism might paradoxically emerge through an embrace of domesticity and kinship” and that it “should be less invested in a traditional idea of feeling ‘at home’ in the world and more committed to recognising ‘the world’ through the home”.
Postcolonial cosmopolitanism, thus, entails the recognition that local cultures are active producers of place and geography rather than mere extensions of the metropolis; what constitutes the local serves as the site of cosmopolitan imagination by virtue of the colonial encounter: that is, resistance and inheritance. As Mike Featherstone observes:
“While cosmopolitanism may well be a Western project and projection, how far have varieties of cosmopolitanism avant la lettre been present outside the West? What equivalent forms of cosmopolitan experiences, practices, representations and carrier groups developed, for example, in China, Japan, India and the Islamic world? What were the characteristic forms of civility and civic virtues, urbanity and urbane conduct, and how were notions of travel, exploration and cultural innovation valued?” Despite the validity of these assumptions, or for the very reason(s) they remain assumptions, cosmopolitanism in general “lacks empirical currency in its failure to impose restrictions upon the political sovereignty of individual nations [which] ironically provides the very conceptual basis for the development of a cosmopolitan vision”. If the weak presence of “local” (as national/regional) in the global is taken as a free pass for the existence of a cosmopolitan condition, it then accounts for the unclaimed failures of the postcolonial critic in delineating the “local” from the “global” and the “transnational” including the “liberal” humanist facade(s) of cosmopolitan theory.
By and large, the existing approaches to cosmopolitanism emphasise “tastes”, “openness”, “adaptation”, “flexibility”, and “acceptance” as the consumption of “world music genre”, “Bollywood films”, “tourism”, or “Spanish pop rock”, which are routinely dubbed as the signifiers of cosmopolitan lifestyles. Accordingly, “exiles”, “migrant minorities”, “illegal workers”, “refugees”, “travellers”, and “postcolonial writers” are depicted as active producers (and consumers) of this cosmopolitan experience. For critics, however, this is an “elite” and “boastful” cosmopolitanism of “Third World metropolitan celebrities” which is often celebrated at the expense of “the domestic or indigenous artist”.
The above excerpt is taken from the chapter ‘Cosmopolitanism Within: The Case of R.K. Narayan’s Fictional Malgudi’
Excerpted with permission from:
Orientalism, Terrorism, Indigenism: South Asian Readings in Postcolonialism
By Pavan Kumar Malreddy
Researcher, Institute for English and
American Studies, Goethe University Frankfurt