The Postcolonial Global Village and R. Parthasarathy’s Poems

the most reassuring thing

about the past is that it happened. (from “Exile”, 75)

Had the same been the case, life would have been much simpler. Past has ingenious and insidious ways of reaching present and future through its invisible yet powerful tentacles. It resists fading away without leaving traces. It is these traces of the colonial era that make the past of the colonies touch their present – their language being one of the most important traces. English came toIndiawith the East India Company and stayed when they left, as it had taken roots in the soil of the country. Moreover, it remained a privileged language. In fact, it is not just a language inIndia. For the powerless it is their passport to power – a guarantee of better job prospects and upward social mobility. This is not the case just forIndia. Phillipson states that English is promoted as a panacea for economic and social problems at both the nation-state and individual level (27). Thus, after decolonization became a reality from being just a remote possibility, English was welcomed as a positive force that democratized the nations and empowered the powerless. But then, the coin has two faces.

Said’s fusion of Foucault’s discourse theory and Antonio Gramsci’s thoughts on hegemony have heavily theorized the area of thoughts related to the effects of the colonial domination over the socio-cultural structure of the peoples who were colonized and hegemonically controlled through the colonial discourse, defined as a coordinated set of practices, primarily linguistic, that aimed at the “management of colonial relationships”(Hulme, 2). Moreover, it also became the presenter and representer of the non-European world to Europe. Gone are the days when orientalism held the sway. Neo-orientalism rose from its ashes. The stance is present in even the native writers and poets, either consciously or unconsciously. The images of Indiathat Rajagopal Parthasarathy’s poems present are not unilaterally flattering. They also have the rampant poverty and filth in them that orientalism loved to show as a dominant trait of the coloies. Thus, Parthasarathy confirm the image of the other constructed by the Orientalists: “A grey sky oppresses the eyes: │porters, rikshaw-pullers, barbers, hawkers, │fortune-tellers, loungers compose the scene (from “Exile”, 76). [Note: All the lines from “Exile”, “Trial” and “Homecoming” have been taken from Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets.]

Said had pointed out how socio-cultural programming is embedded insidiously and invisibly and how it is maintained with the application of “power political… power intellectual, power cultural [and] power moral” (874). Gramsci states that the “whole fabric of society” (276) is imbued with the hues of social programming through coercion or hegemonic ideological control. Postcolonial theory sees colonial discourse’s main propagating force – its culture, e.g. literature and philosophy – as means to social programming. This programming is severely questioned in the scenario arising out of the development of the postcolonial discourse that squarely posits itself against its predecessor – the dominant discourse of colonialism that left its permanent marks on the modern, postcolonial societies. “One significant aspect of the modern world has been the impact and legacy of imperialism, colonial territorial acquisition and control” (Low and Wolfreys, 200). The societies, under the power of their imperial masters, made transition to some form of modernity in a hybridized manner, while they retained their ancient traditions to some extent. Language was a key area of contest where various forces contend to gain cultural ascendancy. Using a language which is not one’s mother tongue is not very conducive for the flourishing of one’s creative faculties and for truly quenching one’s thirst for knowledge, argues Parthasarathy obliquely when he writes: “School was a pretty kettle of fish: │the spoonfuls of English │brew never quite slaked your thirst” (from “Trial”, 78). Here he tries to make a statement, not only about a language, but also about the futility of any attempt at coercive imposition of language use as it is sure to fail. The natural processes of social growth and acquisition of linguistic competence are very unstructured and undesigned in their own unchaotic manner. One’s natural choice happens to be the path of least resistance that is taken by any individual acquiring language skills and getting socialized: “Hand on chin, you grew up, │all agog, on the cook’s succlulent │folklore” (from “Trial”, 78).

One’s roots are deep. That’s why transplanting takes a long time and a lot of effort on the part of the transplanter of cultures: in this case, the colonial powers and their successors. Hegemony is perpetuated through ideology that is culture dependent. Gloria Anzaldua asserts that culture is the reason why we perceive reality as we do. “Dominant paradigms, predefined concepts that exist as unquestionable, unchallengeable, are transmitted to us through the culture” (888). An obvious question arises in response to this: If our perceptions and intellectual processes are heavily determined by our respective cultures, from where comes socio-cultural interrogation? Descartes had the answer when he had asserted cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). The doubting part of the mind is actually that part of human existence which proves that one actually exists. It is this doubting part of mind that questions the obvious and attempts to look beyond it towards the limpid pool of truth. The colonial discourse provided an array of control factors that could be targeted for opposition after the hegemony of the colonial power was done away with. This explains the propensity and predominance of the interrogating attitude in the postcolonial discourses. Socio-cultural interrogation finds a place of pride in the postcolonial discourse and Parthasarathy’s poems strike home with their apt observations and valid inferences drawn about the master-subject power play: “It’s no use trying │to change people. They’ll be what they are” (from “Exile”, 75). He presents the crumbled empire, the state of the erstwhile powers and the aftermath of decolonization with accuracy when he asserts that “An empire’s last words are heard│on the hot sands of Africa. │The da Gamas, Clives, Dupleixs are back” (from “Exile”, 76). His irreverence seeps out of the membrane of his poem, intentionally or unintentionally. It may also be the proverbial postcolonial reaction, an expression of angst or simply what goes on in a desolate exile’s mind when Parthasarathy observes the finality of impotence of our colonial master race: “Victoria sleeps on her island│alone, an old hag, │shaking her invincible locks” (from “Exile”, 76). This image of the Empress is incongruent with what the tradition of the colonial discourses had firmly established in more than two centuries of domination. Although the right to interrogate such socio-cultural constructs was hotly contested but the actual process had always been acting, albeit unnoticed or silenced. After a long colonial domination and the resultant marginalization, with power concentrated in the hands of the colonial powers and directed upon the colonial subject all the while, the subject was in a very knowledgeable position to take an interrogating stance on things projected as naturalized through practice and our poet does the same. The coin has two sides to it. The counter discourse to the resistance of the subject race’s assertion of national identity is present in his own poems as the question an exile is asked:

If you love your country, he said, why are you here?
Say, you are tired of hearing about
all that wonder-that-was-India crap.
It is tea that’s gone cold: time to brew a fresh pot. (“Remembered Village”)

There are no honest answers to the question that can satisfy rationally, but there are many things in the world of emotions that logic has never heard of. Therefore, the reply is characteristically illogical, yet sound: “But what wouldn’t you give for one or two places in it?” (“Remembered Village”).
The postcolonial discourse addresses the relationship between the erstwhile subject population and the culture and language of the countries that were their colonial masters whose traces remain even after they left. Kolkata is presented as “the city Job Charnock built” (from “Exile”, 77). The problem for a modern creative writer who is using the language of their masters is not a very simple one. Parthasarathy too, faced the situation.

Two of Parthasarthy’s concerns have been what he feels to be the lack of an Indian English and the lack of a tradition in which to write whereas most writers depend on tone and the various social and cultural associations of words. Indian English poets may feel they are working in a foreign language cut off from such roots. (King, 234)

As a solution to this problem, he chose Tamil over English for his original work and as a source language from which to translate into English. Thus he became a part of the long running tradition of Indian English poets that began with Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the IE poet who abandoned English to write in his own language – Bengali. Parthasarathy “initiate[d] a dialogue between himself and the Tamil past” (King, 234). Doing thus, he became a part of the larger debate of regionalism versus assertion of the postcolonial national identity. “In its specific regionalism Parthasarathy’s poetry might be said to express Tamil rather than Indian nationalism” (King, 234). Even then, in the context of the postcolonial discourse, his assertion forms a part of the range of reactions available to the erstwhile subject nation. His poems are indicative of that stage in the life cycle of the postcolonial discourse when the subject successfully asserts his identity and his claims to the master’s language and literature. Parthasarathy himself explains in his preface: “In attempting to formulate my own situation, perhaps I stumbled upon the horns of dilemma. From the beginning I saw my task as one of acclimatizing the English language to an indigenous tradition (9).” The poet is conscious of the hiatus between the soil of the language he uses and his own roots. Parthasarathy admits in his Preface to Rough Passage; “Even though I am Tamil specking and yet write in English, there is the over whelming difficulty of using image in a linguistic tradition that is quite other than that of my own (9).” He advises Indian English Poets to return to their respective linguistic traditions. In this he is similar to the writers like Soyinka and Achebe from the continent ofAfrica, who react against the forced homogenization brought about by the hegemonic control of the forces of globalization and seek to go back to the oral indigenous tradition. This countercurrent in literature is a part of the larger post-colonial discourse. English being the language of the colonialist forces from whom their countries had won freedom painfully, these writers passed through three stages: unquestioned acceptance and imitation, partial questioning and alteration and rejection and creation of new forms of literature that they had inherited from their colonial masters. They are not the sole representatives of their countrymen or culture. They only represent a set that has chosen one way. The other set with different choices has writers that are “de-rooted and have to cure this handicap through ‘a cultural imagery,’ trying to overcome their fear of not belonging anywhere and nowhere. The writer adopts a caricatured identity…as ‘World’s Citizen,’” (Boneza).

Parthasarathy has a very acute sensibility and he is fully aware of his individual past and that of his nation’s collective consciousness when he exclaims about himself: “He had spent his youth whoring │after English gods” (from “Exile”, 75). His position is special because he had lived among his people and also among those who see him and his people as others – “‘coloureds’ is what they call us” (from “Exile”, 75). English is the language in which he has been intellectually active and comfortable but Tamil is his mother tongue, his root, the language of his emotional structure. He has to return. The question is – when? He faces the classic dilemma of a postcolonial bilingual poet in which a choice has to be made between English and his mother tongue. For him English is not a neutral entity. It is not just a language as it belonged to the master race once, and his mother tongue definitely has the first claim over his creative faculties. Moreover, it suffuses his mind and being in such a manner that it affects his whole creative output immensely. The loss of identity and the logistics of returning to one’s roots is a common phenomenon that is also present in Parthasarathy’s poems. Despite all his difficulties he did return to his mother tongue: “My tongue in English chains,│I return, after a generation, to you” (from “Homecoming”, 80). Yet what he found on his return did not conform to what he had expected on his return. The pristine and puissant Tamil of classical antiquity that the poet yearns for will never be his. His language has been contaminated and “tired”. It is “hooked on celluloid” and is “Wrenched from its sleep in the Kural,│teeth, palate, lips still new │to its agglutinative touch” (from “Homecoming”, 80).

Art, in all its forms, has always been a product of human mind processes, and the mind processes aren’t totally independent of the effects of the stimuli coming from the world out there. Human actions are affected by their milieu − social, political, economic and cultural − and affect the milieu in their turn. Thus, literature has a reciprocal relationship with the people and systems of its own time and before and after it. The degree and extent of the circles of influence in which the production, dissemination and reception of literature fall have been changing in types and radii with the changing times. In a span of less than a hundred years, the world and kind of literature it produces have undergone a sea change. Parthasarathy’s journey from English to Tamil and then towards an assimilation that can house both symbiotically is indicative of a globalized world that is coming out of the shadow of its colonial past, giving birth to an international literature. Rushdie had put forth in his article entitled “In Defense of the Novel Yet Again,” published in the special issue of The New Yorker that the kind of novel that globalization has given birth to is  “postcolonial … decentered, transnational, interlingual, [and]cross-cultural” (qtd. in Al-Azm, 47) Leevi Lehto writes about such poetry’s having:

independence vis-à-vis National Literatures, including institutionally […]; mixing of languages; borrowing of structures – rhythmical, syntactical – from other languages; writing in one’s non-native languages; inventing new, ad hoc languages; conscious attempts to write for more heterogeneous, non-predetermined audiences… (qtd. in Vriezen).

A close look at Partasarathy’s poems will reveal the assimilation of heterogeneous cultural indicators at work. Past and present cultural impacts fuse to generate a future that has a place for both. In the life of an exile the cultural indicator of India, Ravi Shankar, shares space with the products of the western civilization: “cigarette stubbs, empty bottles of stout │and crisps” (from “Exile”, 75). Although it is not a synthesis and the co-habitation is uneasy and short-lived in this specific instance, yet, it directs one towards a solution of sorts. It conceals in itself one of the many dimensions of a possible future of the erstwhile subject in the postcolonial era.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Al-Azm, Sadik J. “The Satanic Verses Post Festum: The Global, The Local, The Literary”. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. vol. XX Nos. 1&2 (2000). n.d. cssaame.com. Web. 15 March 2011.

Anzaldua, Gloria. “Borderlands/La Frontera ”. Literary Theory: an Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan.Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998. Print.

Boneza, Rais Neza. “Ghettoization or Globalization Of African Literature”. author-me.com . 2006. Web. 15 March 2011.

Gramsci, Antonio. “Hegemony”. Literary Theory: an Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan.Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998. Print.

Hulme, Peter. Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Carribbean 1490-1797.London:Methuen, 1986. Print.

King, Bruce. Modern Indian Poetry in English. O.U.P.:New Delhi, 1987. Print.

Low, Gail Ching-Liang and Julian Wolfreys. “Postcolonialism and the difficulty of difference”. Introducing Literary Theory: A Guide and Glossary. Ed. Julian Wolffreys.New Delhi: Atlantic, 2005. Print.

Parthasarathy, R. “Remembered Village”. n.d. drunkenboat.com. Web. 14 April 2011.

—.  Rough Passage. O.U.P:New Delhi, 1977. Print.

—. Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets. Ed. R. Parthasarathy. New Delhi:Oxford, 1977. Print.

Phillipson, R. “Linguistic Imperialism”. Dunford Seminar Report. London, British Council. 1991. Print.

Said, Edward. “Orientalism”. Literary Theory: an Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan.Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998. Print.

Vriezen, Samuel. “Globalization in Literature – Vierde Column Voor Vooys”. Vooys. issue 27-4, December 2009. Web. 15 March 2011.

 

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