The Politics of Representation in A Passage to India
Perhaps the most important task of all would be to undertake studies in contemporary alternatives to Orientalism, to ask how one can study other cultures and peoples from a libertarian, or a non-repressive and non-manipulative perspective. But then one would have to rethink the whole complex problem of knowledge and power. Edward Said, Orientalism (1978) This pose of `seeing India' ... was only a form of ruling India. A Passage to India
The discussion on A Passage to India as a political fiction has for long been dominated by the followers of a mimetic theory of literature, whose quest for empiricism tied to didacticism is achieved when they find the narrative content to be an authentic portrayal of India and a humanist critique of British-Indian relations during the last decades of the Empire. Since the accession of critical methods concerned with representation as an ideological construct, and not a truthful, morally inspired account of reality, however, the politics of the novel have demanded another mode of analysis, where the articulations of the fiction are related to the system of textual practices by which the metropolitan culture exercised its domination over the subordinate periphery; within this theoretical context, A Passage to India can be seen as at once inheriting and interrogating the discourses of the Raj. In common with other writings in the genre, this novel enunciates a strange meeting from a position of political privilege, and it is not difficult to find rhetorical instances where the other is designated within a set of essential and fixed characteristics: `Like most Orientals, Aziz overrated hospitality, mistaking it for intimacy'; `Suspicion in the Oriental is a sort of malignant tumour'; and so on. It is equally possible to demonstrate that while the idiom of Anglo-India is cruelly parodied, the overt criticism of colonialism is phrased in the feeblest of terms: `One touch of regretnot the canny substitute but the true regret from the heartwould have made him a different man, and the British Empire a different institution.' Yet to interpret the fiction as an act of recolonisation which reproduces the dominant colonial discourse would be to ignore egregiouslythe text's heterogeneous modes and its complex dialogic structure. Even the most superficial consideration of the `India' construed by Western texts, an India which was virtually conterminous with the European consciousness of it, will show that this canon of historical, analytical, propagandist and fictional writings (official minutes, political treatises, scholarly studies, geographical surveys, missionary tracts, journalists' copy, memoirs of civil servants and army officers, educational manuals, school text books, adventure stories, children's books, Anglo-Indian romances, the works of Kipling) devised a way of dividing the world which made British rule in India appear a political imperative and a moral duty. The strategy of discrimination and exclusion can be deduced from the series of meanings produced by the word `exotic': dissimilar, unrelated, extraneous, unconformable, untypical, incongruent, eccentric, anomalous, foreign, alien, abnormal, aberrant, deviant, outcaste, monstrous, fantastic, barbarous, grotesque, bizarre, strange, mysterious, unimaginable, wondrous, outlandish. Only by wilfully suppressing its initiation of an oppositional discourse is it possible to insert A Passage to India into the hegemonic tradition of British-Indian literature. Written from within the liberal-humanist ideology, and in its realist aspect using the style of ironic commentary and measured ethical judgement, the fiction does act to legitimate the authorised cultural categories of the English bourgeois world. Indeed, so far as it imitates `the beauty of form ... the harmony between the works of man and the earth that upholds them, the civilization that has escaped muddle, the spirit in a...
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