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Other worlds, other texts: teaching Anita Desai's 'Clear Light of Day' to Canadian students.
Postcolonial theory tends to overlook the wide diversity of Third World societies in its effort to unite writers from various regions through the use of the colonizer colonized paradigm. In doing so, this theory enhances such Third World commonalities as the loss of traditions and the search for a new identity, while diminishing the role of issues such as ethnic and religious friction and economic exploitation. The better way to approach postcolonial literature may be to emphasize the allusive nature of literary texts. This approach is illustrated using Anita Desai's 'Clear Light of Day.'

Indian literature (Criticism and interpretation)
Women authors (Criticism and interpretation)
Mukherjee, Arun P.
Pub Date:
Name: College Literature Publisher: West Chester University Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Literature/writing Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1995 West Chester University ISSN: 0093-3139
Date: Feb, 1995 Source Volume: v22 Source Issue: n1
Named Person: Desai, Anita
Accession Number:
Full Text:
My teaching of Commonwealth/Third World/Postcolonial/South Asian/Indian literature is deeply influenced by my consciousness of my cultural and linguistic differences from the host society, Canada.(1) These differences structure my consciousness and make me aware of the culture-specific meanings that often escape cultural outsiders.(2) As a South Asian Canadian who received her first graduate degree in English literature from an Indian university, I became acutely conscious of the contribution of commonplace allusions to the texture of meanings in a literary text since I had to learn these meanings by going to encyclopedias and other "extra-literary" sources. I will never forget being stymied by the word "barbecue" that I encountered for the very first time in Gone With the Wind, read during my undergraduate days in India. The short, and several, explanations in my Shorter Oxford Dictionary didn't help since it was such an alien concept for me, a teenager growing up in a vegetarian family in a small central Indian town where vegetarians formed such an overwhelming majority that the one and only market lacked a meat store.(3) My father, who had earned a Master's degree in English in the mid-30s, was also unaware of the word as well as the ritualistic nature of the activity it denotes for those familiar with North American culture.

He told me not to bother to decode such cruxes when I read English language texts but to move on with the text. His theoretical advice was that everything in the text was not understandable, or worth understanding. He also advised me to skip the narratorial comments and long descriptions of any kind, things that, according to him, slowed down the unfolding of the plot. I suppose that must have been the pedagogical ideology that he was subjected to at Forman Christian College in Lahore in the mid-30s.

My encounter with such enigmas in the text made me aware very early on in my study of literature how important culturally coded meanings are. This awareness has made me wary of theories that speak of "universality" and "autonomy" of literature. For, as several Third World writers and critics have suggested, "universality" in such theoretical exercises has really come down to a demand that the literary work not contain any references to the local or regional, since the New York- or London-based critic cannot be bothered to waste time acquainting him/herself with Yoruba myths or Indian scriptures (Mukherjee, "Vocabulary").

One result of this lack of desire on the part of the majority of Euro-American critics writing on non-Western texts has been a paucity of readings that bring out the culture-specific meanings of these texts. What we have, instead, are readings and theorizations that focus on a homogenized "postcolonial" text whose postcoloniality remains constant across cultural and geographic distances. In the name of "postcolonial" texts and "postcolonial" theories, current critical work brings out the "resisting," "parodic," and "allegorical" aspects of the "postcolonial" text, but only in relation to the imperial "center." Fredric Jameson's "Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism" and Ashcroft's, Griffiths', and Tiffin's The Empire Writes Back provide quintessential examples of such an approach.

Such universalizing frameworks are beginning to be questioned after almost a decade of academic hegemony enjoyed by them. Recent critiques have focused on postcolonial theory's "ahistorical and universalizing deployments, and [its] potentially depoliticizing implications" (Shohat 99). If there is a common thread in these writings, it is their assertion that a single theory, whatever its pedigree, is incapable of coming to terms with the multiplicity and heterogeneity of the world's cultural and social formations (Ahmad; Mukherjee, "Exclusions"; McClintock; Shohat). As McClintock suggests, what we need is not yet another single term to substitute for "post-colonialism" and its variants but "rethinking the global situation as a multiplicity of powers and histories which cannot be marshalled obediently under the flag of a single theoretical term, be that feminism, Marxism, or post-colonialism" (97).

Moving from singularity towards multiplicity would mean dismantling the current canon of "Postcolonial literature" and the rubric under which it is taught. It seems to me that monolithic theories proposed by Jameson or Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin are determining what texts will be selected for teaching and how they will be taught. One does not have to go further than to check a few Departmental calendars and recent issues of journals in the field to discover that a canon of "Postcolonial literature" has evolved that is heavily androcentric and biased in favor of texts that can give back the analysis based on proving "parody" and "nationalist allegory." The critical work being published on this canon is predictably concerned with demonstrating intertexuality or the search of the "colonized" for authentic identity and lost history.

My problem with this canon and its interpretation is that in its desire to establish the parodic intertexuality of non-European texts with European ones, it overlooks the parodic and nonparodic functions that the text may be performing in the place of its origin. On the other hand, in their focus on the colonizer/colonized binary, such interpretations fail to notice that the "colonized" may also be an internal colonizer. Thus, Raja Rao's valorization of Brahminical culture in The Serpent and the Rope has remained unproblematic for critics who have seen the work as an assertion of "Indian" culture and "Indian" identity. Similarly, the androcentrism of Achebe's or Soyinka's texts is a topic one seldom hears about (a graduate student of mine recently encountered much harsh criticism when she read a feminist paper on the absence of the mother in Achebe's novels).

My subject position as an Indo-Canadian makes me very sensitive to the homogenizing tendencies of literary and critical discourses. India, as I have known it, is a multicultural, multiracial, and unequal society and Indian texts are marked by the tensions that are produced when multiple discourses compete for domination. My consciousness of India's plurality also means that I am generally suspicious of all a priori homogenizations.

I have felt that postcolonial theory, the dominant critical theory in the field at the moment, overlooks the diversities within any society on the one hand, and, on the other, the diversities across postcolonial societies when it tries to speak of them all in terms of the colonizer/colonized binaries. In terms of pedagogy, postcolonial theory allows teachers and critics to speak about "Postcolonial literature(s)" in the singular and design and teach omnibus courses called "Postcolonial literature" that incorporate works of authors from far-flung regions of the world. Bringing together these works is justified in terms of their use of a common language, English, and a "common" experience of colonialism. Such a stance, in its privileging of commonalities, deemphasizes differences or erases them outright. The commonalities, which have been identified as loss of identity in the form of lost history, lost languages, and lost traditions, internalization of the colonizer's values, search for authenticity, forging of new identity, and cursing the colonizer, to name the more prominent ones, are highlighted at the expense of differences as well as other possible commonalities such as ethnic and religious tensions, gender oppression, poverty, and economic exploitation. The choice of commonalities, I am suggesting, is arbitrary as well as unconvincing.

This omnibus Commonwealth/Postcolonial course militates against my desire to teach in ways that bring out the text's affiliation with the literary tradition it is a part of on the one hand, and, on the other, its engagements with the discourses and ideologies of the society it emerged from. For, the moment one tries to teach individual texts in terms of cultural and literary traditions and specific social realities, the rationale of a unitary Postcolonial/Commonwealth course that brings together what are called "five regions" by Canadian Departments of English is called into question. The rationale, whether stated or unstated, is based on the premise that the literatures of all these five "regions" harbor commonalities and that these commonalities will be brought out as we study their texts in contiguity. The moment one wants to explore a text in terms of its engagement with and representation of "a" social reality, one begins to swim against the predefined directions that a priori constitute "the postcolonial" as undifferentiated.

In my pedagogical practice, I have tried to move away from the omnibus Commonwealth/Postcolonial course that packs the "five regions" into one and design courses that focus on a single region, or, at most, two. I feel that the rationale that supports the omnibus course is based on two apriori assumptions that haven't been analysed rigorously. The first is that postcolonial societies are similar because of their "shared" experience of colonialism (Mukherjee, "Exclusions"). The second piggybacks on the first, and implies that because the societies are similar their literatures are as well. Since I believe that the social formation of each postcolonial society is unique and has to be studied on its own terms, I am opposed in principle to the omnibus course that preempts an inquiry into individual social formations and individual literary traditions. Unfortunately, it is the omnibus course that is entrenched in the majority of Western universities and it is very difficult to argue for space for five or more separate courses under the Postcolonial/Commonwealth rubric when even the one or two omnibus courses are resented by the protectors of the canon.

While it may not be possible for teachers of Postcolonial/Commonwealth/Third World literatures to demand more space, given our marginalized position in English Departments focused heavily on the study of British literature, it is necessary that the hidden assumptions of the omnibus course be brought out in the open. Its single-minded focus on commonalities among postcolonial societies and literatures and its strategies of reading, which privilege parodic intertextuality of some postcolonial texts with Western texts, necessarily prevent an engagement with the cultural apparatus - the totality of the symbolic resources of a culture - that informs a literary text. And its silent exclusion of texts that may not be about the anticolonial struggle or may not employ parody of Western texts reinforces the assumption that all postcolonial societies have similar concerns and similar mindsets.

I believe that the kind of attention I want to pay to a literary text is not possible in the format of the omnibus course that flits from region to region, leaving little time or room to explore intracultural intertextualities and linkages of other kinds than works from one social formation have. I have come to believe strongly that the cultural context is an integral aspect of the literary text and neither its form nor its content can be grasped without paying attention to the former. When postcolonial critics focus on comparisons and commonalities, they overlook the fact that the postcolonial texts do not speak only to the empire but that they are also in conversation with those on the home territory. That is, as "strategic [and] stylized answers" they participate in all the other discourses of their society and situate their own discourse by taking a position against or for these oppositional or friendly discourses (Burke 1). I believe that the omnibus course, first through its selection and exclusion of texts and then through the kind of themes and formal strategies it chooses to highlight, forecloses the possibilities of inquiry into the engagement of the text with local realities.

For example, how are we to find commonalities for unique Indian institutions such as sati and untouchability? Conversely, how is our understanding of the temple-mosque dispute that is currently raging in India and threatens its dissolution enhanced by our comparative studies based on the premise of colonial domination? As Anne McClintock has suggested, postcolonial theory leads to "an entranced suspension of history, as if definitive historical events have preceded us, and are not now in the making" (86).

Since history is not a closed book, and since it neither began nor ended with the era of colonialism, I feel that there is no substitute for studying a literary text in its own socio-historical context. When several literary texts from the same area and tradition are studied together, the recurrence of socially shared narratives and shared cultural assumptions links them for us in various interesting ways.

Such a pedagogical and interpretational ideology implies that a critic must bring to the text an extratextual knowledge about the multiple discourses circulating in a society rather than rely solely on the text. In pedagogical terms, this stance means that the text should be situated on an ideological spectrum - not universally, but in the context of the cultural ideologies operating in the place of its production.

I find that a good number of my Canadian students have very little knowledge about the geographic region known as the Indian sub-continent, except for some well-worn stereotypes learned from high school text books and Hollywood movies. Most of them do not know anything about ancient or modern Indian history, religions, or cultural traditions and customs. Such lack of basic knowledge on their part demands that I contextualize the text for them by talking in detail about things such as the epics Mahabharata and the Ramayana, independence and partition, contemporary social, political and cultural trends and films and other popular media. As Gerald Graft has noted:

What a teacher is to say about a literary work [is] something that hinges on matters of purpose, context, and situation that are not pregiven either in literary works themselves or our experience of them. If works of literature "speak for themselves," they do so only up to a point, for their authors were not aware, and could not have been aware, of the kinds of situations in which their works would later be read and taught and the different problems of comprehension and appreciation these situations might occasion. (255)

I have already engaged with the "purpose . . . and situation" of my teaching in my earlier discussion of my problems with the purpose of the omnibus Commonwealth/Postcolonial course and the premises that support it. The "context" of teaching, I think, has to do with taking into account the fact that an Indian text taught in India will need a different pedagogical and interpretive strategy than when it is taught in a different land and to a different body of students.

Since my Canadian students know very little about Indian history, literatures, religions, gender relations, and construction of the self in India, I become a narrator myself, recounting the shared narratives of India that are embedded in the literary text. This tale telling is educational both for me and my students. It makes me conscious of the unconscious interpretive activity that I bring to bear on texts from India whereas my students learn about the culture-specific nature of literary language. The point is brought home to them when we discuss that what to them is the crystal clear textuality of a Canadian work becomes opaque to readers uninitiated in Canadian history, literature, and culture when they come across expressions such as "two solitudes," "the maple leaf," "the great white north," "survival," "the garrison mentality," and many others like these.

My aim as a teacher, then, is to acquaint my students with the allusive nature of the text. These allusions are not just to literary texts but, as I have said elsewhere, also to "collectively shared knowledge and experiences of a society: experience of colonialism, legends of heroes and villains, deeply-held belief systems, rhetorical pronouncements of local elite such as politicians, businessmen, and movie stars" ("Vocabulary" 13). I try to steer my students away from their deeply entrenched habit of focusing solely on the character(s) in isolation by bringing to their attention the fact that such an isolationist move is ethnocentric insofar as they impose their own cultural values on the behavior and motivation of the character(s). Instead, I focus on acquainting them with the total web of significations that structure the narrative.

I would now like to focus on one particular fictional text, Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day, and elaborate on my pedagogical strategies as well as my students' responses. I have chosen this text since it is widely taught and has also received considerable critical attention. However, few of the research articles in journals and books - focusing on aspects such as intertextuality of the text with British literature and American pop music, "universal" themes such as quest, search for identity, loss of innocence, and, more recently, post-colonial "resistance" to the colonizer's impositions - provide much help to my students in coming to grips with the cultural premises that are embedded in the text and account for its "Indianness."

It is these cultural premises that I am interested in exploring and explaining to my students so that they may become aware of the dependence of the literary text on the totality of the symbolic resources of the culture the text emanates from. Often, it is the questions or the interpretations of my students that alert me to the culture-specific aspect of these symbolic codes as I had passed over them in my own reading, unaware of my own special knowledge as a "cultural insider" in my encounter with the text. For instance, if the text were being taught in India to Indian students, the teacher would not have to inform the students that the white sari of Mira Masi signifies her widowhood. However, the Canadian students need to be informed of this symbolism. Such realizations on our part make me and my students aware how culture-specific literary texts are and how important it is to know the social text if we really want to understand the literary text.

The growth of such an awareness, I believe, ought to be the end result of my teaching. As a teacher, my aim is to move students away from the fake "universality" that denies differences only because it projects its own ethnocentrism on the "other." Polly Young-Eisendrath has defined this imperialist universalism very well:

Our ethnocentrism, as North Americans, frequently enters into our discussions about self-constructs of other cultures. We tend to believe that individuality, individual freedom, and self-reflectiveness are the truest, most valuable and least contestable aspects of sell In other words, we universalize the aspects of selfhood that suggest personal uniqueness and separateness. (158)

It is the "self-constructs of other cultures" - what is worth telling, how it is to be told, what is considered a good life - that I focus on in my classroom, in the hope that my students will become critically conscious of their own ethnocentrism. Much of the learning, and laughter, in my classroom, in fact, is born out of cross-cultural encounters since my classes at York University are increasingly multicultural and multiracial, which was not the case even five years ago. One of the recent encounters, for instance, was on the institution of arranged marriage. Whereas a white student admitted to considering the institution "weird" and "funny," a South Asian student accused her of applying a "Judaeo-Christian framework." The point I wish to make is that the multicultural Canadian classroom of the nineties is a deeply contested space and the pedagogical strategies I adopt are tailored to the realities of my classroom and may not be relevant to a monocultural, monoracial classroom, such as the classrooms that I encountered in Canada in the seventies and eighties, both as a graduate student and as a teacher, where I would often be the only nonwhite.

Having said that, perhaps one insight that I can share with other teachers of cross-cultural texts is the need to tell stories that are only partially referred to in the text because they are the common property of a culture. There are many such stories in The Clear Light of Day, and they require explaining to readers who are not acquainted with Indian culture and literature. One cluster of such stories, perhaps the most important since it resonates throughout the text, is woven around the Jumna river and its importance as a holy river as well as the playground of Krishna. It begins very early on in the text. In response to Tara's disappointment at seeing the summer-shrunk Jumna, Bim says:

"Nothing?" she repeated Tara's judgment. "The holy river Jumna? On whose banks Krishna played his flute and Radha danced?"

"Oh Bim, it is nothing of the sort," Tara dared to say, sure she was being teased. "It's a little trickle of mud with banks of dust on either side."

"It's where my ashes will be thrown after I'm dead and burnt," Bim said unexpectedly and abruptly. It is where Mira-masi's ashes were thrown." (24)

There are two major cultural narratives here, and they convey deeply charged messages to a reader familiar with Hinduism and Hindu Indian culture. One refers to the rituals of a Hindu death, the other to Krishna's dancing and flute-playing by the banks of the Jumna and his flirtations with the cowgirls of Vrindavan. The reference to Krishna's and Radha's dancing and adulterous love-making by the banks of Jumna recalls a ubiquitous theme in Hindu Indian culture, which encompasses medieval lyrics by Surdas and Mira, idols of Radha and Krishna in Hindu temples, Indian sculpture and painting, Indian classical and folk music, and, finally, Indian films and film music. The theme, when presented straight, suggests religious ecstasy, sexual freedom, equality of women, pastoral harmony, and an overall feeling of plenitude. As Sudhir Kakar puts it, "In psychological terms, he [Krishna] encourages the individual to identify with an ideal primal self, released from all social and superego constraints. Krishna's promise, like that of Dionysus in ancient Greece, is one of utter freedom and instinctual exhilaration" (142).

Although my students have some idea of Krishna's association with ecstatic dancing and singing, thanks to the popularity of the Hare Krishna cult, in order for them to grasp the novel's utilization of the theme, I have to tell them stories about Krishna's days as a cowherd in Mathura and Vrindavan, particularly the stories about Krishna's dancing and flute-playing and how Radha and the other cowgirls were so mesmerized by them that the moment they heard the flute beckoning them, they left whatever they were doing to join him in his dancing, even at midnight. I cannot, of course, tell them all the stories, given the constraints of class time, but the point I wish to impress on them is the text's utilization of, and its dependence on, the socially-shared narratives.

The text, however, inverts these narratives of joyous adulterous love by pointing out their patriarchal underpinnings. While these narratives idealize the explicit sexuality of the Krishna-Radha legend as the allegorical rendering of the pining of a devotee for the incarnate God, Desai's use of the legends brings out their total irrelevance to the lived experience of Indian women. She suggests that dancing and teaching these stylized dances celebrating the love of Radha and Krishna is no exhilarating experience for Jaya and Sarla, the Misra sisters:

Walking up the Misras' driveway, they [Bim and Tara] could hear instead the sounds of the music and dance lessons that the Misra sisters gave in the evenings after their little nursery school had closed for the day, for it seemed that they never ceased to toil and the pursuit of a living was unending. . . . Bim stood apart, feeling a half-malicious desire to go into the house and watch the two grey-haired, spectacled, middle-aged women - once married but both rejected by their husbands soon after their marriage - giving themselves up to demonstrations of ecstatic song and dance, the songs always Radha's in praise of Krishna, the dance always of Radha pining for Krishna. She hadn't the heart after all. . . . After a while, the teachers, too, emerged on the veranda. They too drooped and perspired and were grey with fatigue. There was nothing remotely amusing about them. (30)

The emphasis on "always" in "the songs always Radha's in praise of Krishna, the dance always of Radha pining for Krishna," brings out the selectiveness and repetitiveness of the thematizations utilized by the classical schools of Indian dancing, which are all heavily focused on the theme of Radha's and Krishna's lovemaking, carried out "always" in terms of Krishna's flirtations and ultimate abandonment of Radha. Desai's questioning of this art form pokes holes in the vocabulary of high seriousness that Indian dance critics employ. Her vocabulary seems to parody the mystical-formalistic mode of dance critics like Ananda Coomaraswamy, Sunil Kothari, and Kapila Vatsyayan whose studies of Indian classical dance have been published in expensive, lavishly illustrated books: "The poor Misra girls, so grey and bony and needle-faced, still prancing through their Radha-Krishna dances and impersonating lovelorn maidens in order to earn their living. . . . Bim shook her head."

As the term "always" had emphasized the frozen-in-time quality of the form, the term "prancing" mocks those who speak of it only in terms like "fluidity," "ecstasy," and "gracefulness." It asks us whether watching and enacting the same theme over and over again does not risk boredom. And it asks us to question the disjunction between the "lovelorn maidens" and the aging Misra sisters who must "impersonate" them in order to make their living. The novel, by giving voice to the plight of these aging and abandoned sisters, sets itself up in antithesis to the art form they must practise despite the fact that it obliterates their own sad realities. Unlike the novel, the dance has no room for women other than "lovelorn maidens."

One can only understand the boldness of this attack if one knows about the discursive idealizations of this dance form in the official cultural discourses of India that occurred under the nationalist project of manufacturing a new cultural identity. Beginning in the 40s, nationalist cultural critics sanitized the history of India's classical dance forms by renaming the dance as well as writing out of its history the prostitutes and temple dancers (Devdasis) who made their living by performing these dances for the entertainment of their rich clients. In fact, temple dancing by Devdasis was outlawed by the passage of a Bill in the Madras legislative assembly in 1947 in the name of morality and national honor. The dance was then "revived" under the aegis of "nationalization of Indian art and life and its almost 'religious' idealization . . . was in no small measure itself an effect of westernisation" (Srinivasan 196).

Supported by huge subsidies from the government and business patrons, India's classical dances were given a new cultural script. Nowadays, India's classical dancers present the eternal love play of Krishna and Radha in opulent concert halls, both at home and abroad. Indian dance critics comment on the "spirituality" of these dances in expensively produced and subsidized hard-cover volumes. Their exalted language hides the inability of the exponents of the dance form to connect and expand their art to encompass the lives of flesh and blood women. Desai's narrative, by bringing out the repetitiveness and frozen-in-time aspect of these dance forms creates a dissonance in the discursive consensus around India's high culture, which speaks of such things as "the attainment of the Infinite," and "absolute bliss in the Brahman" (Vatsyayan 5) etc., but not about the plane of day-to-day life and its iniquities.

This idealized view of classical Indian art is further critiqued in the novel in an exchange between Bakul and Bim that occurs only a few paragraphs after the passages quoted earlier:

Elegantly holding his cigarette in its holder at arm's length, Bakul told them in his ripest, roundest tones, "What I feel is my duty, my vocation, when I am abroad, is to be my country's ambassador. . . . I refuse to talk about famine or drought or caste wars or - or political disputes. . . . I choose to show them and inform them only of the best, the finest."

"The Taj/Mahal?" asked Bim.

"Yes, exactly," said Bakul promptly. "The Taj Mahal - the Bhagvad Gita - Indian philosophy - music - art - the great, immortal values of ancient India." (35)

I tell my students that Bakul's view presents the officially sanctioned view of Indian culture - the culture Indian government exhibits at great cost at Indian fairs held in New York and Moscow. It is a view of culture frozen in the past and unable to encompass "famine or drought or caste wars." And it is highly selective. In Susie Tharu's words, this nationalist construction has produced "an almost unbearably tasteful past and an exquisite tradition." In it, "Women are no longer people, but goddess spirits. And as such, not alive or growing, but sculpted by the requirement of the emerging power" (262-63).

Desai's ironic uncovering of this "exquisite tradition" is, for me, the achievement of her text. Against the conflictless high culture's promotion by Bakul, who is appropriately a high-ranking civil servant, the novel uncovers the anguished history of fratricide, of partition, of religious bigotry, of treatment and representation of women, and finally, of the destruction of Islamic Indian culture. Raja's inability to go to Jamia Milia to pursue a degree in Islamic studies and the inability of his sisters to read his verses written in Urdu thematize the deliberate erasure of Islamic culture and Urdu literature in modern India. The Hindu bias in post-independence Indian historiography and Indian literary history are themes that are now being written about in oppositional terms by Muslim writers like Rahi Masoom Raza and Manzoor Ehtesham. Anita Desai's contribution to this oppositional discourse is indeed a gesture of tremendous integrity.

However, this oppositional aspect of the novel will remain inaccessible to my students unless I acquaint them with the politics of language and culture in modern India. Part of my work is done by Attia Hosain's powerful novel Sunlight on a Broken Column, which I teach before teaching Clear Light of Day. It describes vividly to them the partition of the country on the basis of religion and prepares them for the events and politics narrated in Clear Light of Day. Some stories still need to be told by me, however. I tell them about my father's education in English, Persian, and Urdu whereas my mother was educated, like Bim and Tara, in English, Hindi, and Punjabi. I tell them that this was so because of the combined impact of gender and religion. And, finally, I tell them of my own lack of education in Urdu and of the gap it leaves in my knowledge of my past. I tell them of major Indian writers like Prem Chand who wrote in both Hindi and Urdu, and how their Urdu writings have been forgotten.

The text's radical questioning of this forgetting and its intertextualizing of such famous Urdu poets as Zauq, Ghalib, Daag, Hali, and Iqbal can only be appreciated if we know the politics of language in contemporary India. For Canadian students, these aspects of the text, once explained, become illuminative of their own country's struggles around language and culture.

The text in my classroom thus is read as a contested site, as a "dialogic" gesture that supports or opposes the discourses that share the social-cultural space with it. Its language, I insist, is contextualized and its narrative weaves in several other narratives. To read the text, then, is to read the culture, and there is no short cut around it.

Perhaps the best description, for me, of the pedagogical process has been given by Alice Walker in her novel Meridian. Meridian, the protagonist, says, "I imagine good teaching as a circle of earnest people sitting down to ask each other meaningful questions. I don't see it as a handing down of answers" (188). Walker's and Paulo Freire's "Pedagogy of the Question" gave me the idea of asking my students to prepare their seminar presentations around questions that they would ask the class. I tell them that they must take it for granted that many things in the text will not make sense to them and they must question me and the class about those aspects of the text. These questions evoke multiple answers in the form of "perhaps" or "may be" from the class and often end up with my recounting a story, which is really my life history as part of the history of my people.

I will end with one more passage from the novel that appears quite transparent on the surface but is really a deconstructive intertextualization with one of the grand themes of Bengali literature and culture. Dr. Biswas, the Bengali doctor who has been trying to court Bim, unsuccessfully, thinks that her reluctance to marry him is caused by her responsibility for looking after Mira-masi, Raja, and Baba:

"Now I understand why you do not wish to marry. You have dedicated your life to others - to your sick brother and your aged aunt and your little brother who will be dependent on you all his life. You have sacrificed your own life for them." (97)

Desai's heroine, Bim, is shocked "at being so misunderstood, so totally misread" (97). Desai's use of the term "misread" once again reminds us of the power of social texts. For Dr. Biswas's "misreading" of Bim is informed by scores of Bengali novels and films. The rejection of marriage and love on the part of a young woman for the sake of providing for her family is a perennial theme in Bengali literature and has also been rendered on screen by such talented filmmakers as Ritvik Ghatak in his classic film Meghe Dhaka Tara.

On the surface, Bim's predicament appears quite similar to these sacrificing heroines of Indian fiction and Indian cinema who abjure marriage because of family responsibilities, and it is because of the cultural ubiquity of this theme that Dr. Biswas so confidently "misreads" Bim. By making Bim "reject" Dr. Biswas because she considers him a wimp and not because she is burdened by dependent family members, Desai parodies the sacrificial, sentimental heroine popularized by the stalwarts of Bengali fiction and cinema. By creating a heroine who wants autonomy rather than domestic bliss, and having her turn down the Bengali doctor, Desai creates a new script for Indian women at the same time that she mocks the earlier ones. There is perhaps no other heroine in Indian literature(s) who utters words such as Bim's with such emotional force:

She was looking down, across the lighted, bustling garden to her own house, dark and smouldering with a few dim lights behind the trees, and raised her hands to her hair, lifting it up and letting it fall with a luxuriant, abundant motion. "I shall work - I shall do things," she went on, "I shall earn my own living - and look after Mira-masi and Baba and - and be independent. There'll be so many things to do - when we are grown up - when all this is over -" and she swept an arm out over the garden party, dismissing it. "When we are grown up at last - then - then -" but she couldn't finish for emotion, and her eyes shone in the dusk. (141)

While the emotional charge of these words is not hard for my students to understand, surrounded and influenced as they are by feminist theories and feminist activism, they appreciate the text's radical stance even better when they learn about its oppositional intertextuality with the Bengali and Hindi texts about the sacrificing spinster who remains unappreciated by her ungrateful family members and ends up in a sanatorium. By creating a spinster heroine who refuses to be "read" in the framework of these discourses and by refusing to render her, as they do, as the object of pity and guilt, Desai's text engages in a discursive battle with the texts about sentimentalized femininity that continue to be churned out in great numbers in India. The terms of its battle are specific, not universal, just as the constructions of gender and femininity are culture-specific.

My classroom, then, is a place to explore the kind of meanings that a text generates in its place of production. Such an exploration presupposes that human beings, both the author and her/his characters, are social and historical beings, and their subjectivity is formed by their response to their concrete historical situation. To the extent that I focus on the text's relationship with the other discourses and material realities of a society, I steer my students away from the notions of universality as they operate in literary criticism, both in terms of technique and themes. I see my goal as a teacher to be to wean my students away from the ethnocentric universality that unproblematically applies the thought and behavior patterns of a critic's own culture to the rest of humanity, refusing to acknowledge and/or value difference. If I succeed in making my students aware of the universalizing tendencies of Western literary theory, I consider my teaching to have attained its desired goal.


1 "Commonwealth/Postcolonial literature" until 1992-93. The 1993-94 calendar has quietly dropped the dual label and adopted the term "Postcolonial literature."

2 "Cultural outsider" and "Cultural insider" are not biological or ascriptive categories for me. To paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir's famous sentence about the process of becoming a woman, one can say that "One is not born a cultural insider but becomes one." Thus; Bash Davidson's work on Africa amply demonstrates his cultural insider status. Having worked for more than twenty years on U. S. and Canadian cultures, I consider myself a cultural insider although I have been denied jobs to teach American Studies because I am not American. From my perspective, anyone, born in whatever cultural or racial group, has the capacity to become a cultural insider. The tragedy, however, is that there are few scholars working on "Postcolonial literatures" who can claim that status. As Aijaz Ahmad says, "[R]are would be . . . a major literary theorist in Europe or the United States who has ever bothered with an Asian or African language" (5). Michael Sprinker also comments on "our general and shameful ignorance of the native languages themselves - not to mention the cultural, social, and political histories attendant upon specific texts" (59).

3 Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1991) has thematized the subterfuges a meat eater in India has to resort to because of the vegetarians' intolerance towards the meat eaters.


Ahmad, Aijaz. "Jameson's Rhetoric of Otherness and the 'National Allegory.'" Social Text 17 (Fall 1987): 3-25.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back. Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.

Burke, Kenneth, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Baton Rouge: Louisiana SUP, 1967.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda. The Dance of Shiva: Fourteen Indian Essays. Introductory Pref. Romain Rolland. Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1948.

Desai, Anita. Clear Light of Day. London: Penguin, 1980.

Freire, Paulo. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder, 1970.

Graff, Gerald. Professing Literature. An Institutional History. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Jameson, Fredric. "Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism." Social Text 15 (1986): 65-88.

Kakar, Sudhir. The Inner World: A Psycho-analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India. 2nd ed. Delhi: Oxford UP, 1981.

Kothari, Sunil, ed. Bharatnatyam: Indian Classical Dance Art. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1982.

McClintock, Anne. "The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term 'Post-Colonialism.'" Social Text 31/32 (1992): 84-98.

Mukherjee, Arun. "The Exclusions of Postcolonial Theory and Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable A Case Study." Ariel 22.3 (July 1991): 27-48.

-----. "The Vocabulary of the 'Universal': The Cultural Imperialism of the Universalist Criteria of Western Literary Criticism." Towards an Aesthetic of Opposition: Essays on Literature, Criticism and Cultural Imperialism. Stratford, Ontario: Williams-Wallace, 1988. 10-20.

Shohat, Ella. "Notes on the 'Post-Colonial.'" Social Text 31/32 (1992): 99-113.

Sprinker, Michael. "Marxism and Nationalism: Ideology and Class Straggle in Premchand's Godan." Social Text 23 (Fall/Winter 1989): 59-82.

Srinivasan, Amrit. "Reform or Conformity? Temple 'Prostitution' and the Community in Madras Presidency." Structures of Patriarchy: State, Community and Household in Modernising Asia. Ed. Bina Agarwal. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1988. 175-98.

Tharu, Susie. "Tracing Savitri's Pedigree: Victorian Racism and the Image of Women in Indo-Anglian Literature." Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History. Ed. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989. 254-68.

Vatsyayan, Kapila. Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts. New Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1977.

Walker, Alice. Meridian. New York: Pocket, 1976.

Young-Eisendrath, Polly. "The Female Person and How We Talk about Her." Feminist Thought and the Structure of Knowledge. Ed. Mary McCanney Gergen. New York: New York UP, 1988. 152-72.

Mukherjee, an associate professor of English at York University in North York, Ontario, is the author of The Gospel of Wealth in the American Novel: The Rhetoric of Theodore Dreiser and His Contemporaries (1987) and Towards an Aesthetic of Opposition: Essays on Literature, Criticism and Cultural Imperialism (1988). She recently finished editing Sharing Our Experience: An Anthology of Letters by Aboriginal Women and Women of Colour for the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women. She has also published articles on Indian and African literatures.
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