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. Gone are the days when printed knowledge used to travel at snail’s pace and cover geographical distances in a world with frontiers and checks and restraints. Today, the dissemination of knowledge occurs at the speed of light through the World Wide Web in a world sans frontiers and nearly sans any kind of check or restraint on its movement or speed of dissemination. In a span of less than a hundred years, the world and kind of literature it produces have undergone a sea change. The central factor behind such a huge change is globalization. The present paper is an attempt to look at the forces acting on the generation of a specific form of literature : fiction, that too, created by somebody who shares the collective trauma of colonial exploitation. Postcolonialism enters the scene as a specific means for widening one’s intellectual horizon. The intellectual horizon of an average individual in the postcolonial anti-bias and anti-prejudice age has limits imposed only by the individual’s own thirst for knowledge. Postcolonialism can not be given an all inclusive definition because the process has been perceived in various ways by different people. Yet, an attempt can be made to understand it better:
Postcolonialism names a politics and philosophy of activism that contests that disparity, and so continues in a new way the anti-colonial struggles of the past. It asserts not just the right of African, Asian, and Latin American peoples to access resources and material well-being, but also the dynamic power of their cultures, cultures that are now intervening inandtransforming the societies of the west. Postcolonial cultural analysis has been concerned with the elaboration of theoretical structures that contest the previous dominant western ways of seeing things.(Young 4)
Moreover, its positive and negative effects too have been weighed against each other to make pronouncements ranging from rapturous optimism to uninhibited ranting. Taking the goldenmean may prove to be the most fruitful. When one looks at the phenomenon of postcolonialism, one finds that there is a lot that
remains hidden and whatever is visible is only the tip of the iceberg. Equality is one of its
desired objectives but the Gulf Wars and the post Afghanistan scenario have shorn the world of any kind of faith in humanity. The new Empire has replaced thje old one and rules the world more subtly. “The cases of Afghanistan, Cuba, Iran, and Iraq, make it clear that any country that has the nerve to resist its former imperial masters does so at its peril. All governments of these countries that have positioned themselves politically against western control have suffered military interventions by the west against them” (Young 3).
The post-postmodern world of the twenty-first century is characterized by the absence of any
kind of faith. It doesn’t believe naively in the “invisible hand” of market. Neither does it trust the “innate goodness” of those in power to think for the welfare of others. Theories try to find out the dynamics that evolves out of the interactions between various nations and bodies that are definitely unequal in power and pursue diametrically opposite goals and conflicting interests at times. In many ways, neocolonaialism is a continuation of the scourges of colonialism and imperialism. It is seen as a means of exploitation of the poor and powerless by the rich and powerful, e.g. the apathy shown by corporate giants towards the extent of exploitation and living standards in the sub Saharan Africa is not very different in comparison to that shown by the imperialist and colonial powers till the mid-twentieth century. It has also been seen as a menace that threatens cultures, languages, and ways of life of the peoples away from the centre of the power discourse.
Income, information and education gaps between the rich and the poor are widening not narrowing; economic crises, trade imbalances and structural adjustments have precipitated a moral crisis in many countries, tearing the basic social and cultural fabric of many families and communities apart… (Chinnammai)
They are being marginalized and finally their culture, languages and ways of life are eliminated effectively through substitution by their counterparts in the dominant force. The corporate giants that function at trans-national levels have become immensely powerful in the present age and they have exploited human and natural resources equally dangerously and irresponsibly, without any concern for sustainability. Gutenberg brought the first revolution in the world of written words by inventing the printing press. He made it possible for the words to be reproduced with accuracy and with a speed resembling that of lightening, as compared to the speed at which hand-written books were produced before the invention of the printing press. The printed books could be produced very fast and in much larger numbers. This change in the means of production played a very significant part in bringing about the Renaissance of learning. With the increase in the speed
of the modes of transport, the rate of dissemination of printed words increased and it brought
about a very significant change in production, dissemination and reception of works seen as
literature. The man who wrote in the medieval ages had in his mind people of his city, region
or nation as readers. The Renaissance and post Renaissance writer wrote for that part of the
known civilized world that spoke the same set of languages. The modern writer wrote keeping that part of the world in mind with which he had socio-political, cultural or linguistic affinities. The writer in the age of globalization writes keeping the global village in mind. Thus he produces a world literature. Al-Azm points out that Goethe was the first person who gave the idea of a world literature or Weltliteratur, “transcending national limits, cultural boundaries and provincial traditions”, and globalization has produced something akin to Weltliteratur, at least partially, if not wholly or substantially. It is written for a market
that comprises real and virtual players and networks and whose forces determine the shape the writing will take. Decisions are determined by the market that has to be catered to and by the kind of reception a work will get. As Paul Jay asserts, globalization ensures that the
“contemporary production and consumption [of literature] no longer take place within discrete national borders but unfold in a complex system of transnational economic and cultural exchanges characterized by the global flow of cultural products and commodities”.
To begin at the beginning of the life cycle of the creative production, a writer conceives the
idea of writing a piece of literary work with certain considerations in mind. Today’s
professional writers are market driven – they have to be, as their survival depends on the
circulation, reception and reach of what they write. They do not write in isolation from the
society without thinking anything about the fate of their writing as did their counterparts
not more than a hundred years ago. For them, market is the taskmaster and even their God. What happens to their writing career after their books hit the stands depends on who talks about them and what kinds of awards they get. As a result of rapidly accelerating globalization we are moving toward a world market for literature.
There is a growing sense that for an author to be considered “great,” he or she
must be an international rather than a national phenomenon … the arbiters of taste are no longer one’s own compatriots—they are less easily knowable, not a group the author himself is part of (Park).
As an author is in the process of creating a work, most of the times even before he starts
working on it, he has to look into the matters like the prospective publishers and promotional
campaign that the publishers will run before the launch of the book. The book has to be talked about in the right circles by the people who matter and must get the media’s spotlight, and if possible, a Booker or a Nobel. The audience an author targets is neither homogeneous nor fully known or predictable. It is an international audience whose tastes the author has to cater to, and such a heterogeneous set of people is not pleased easily. In addition to buying the book from various bookstores, the buyers also have access to the sites viz. Amazon.com, fromwhere they can very easily order and purchase the book. Rushdie 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). Existing in a veritable pot-pourri of socio-cultural influences and especially
exposed to them as their work demands it, a writer is always absorbing new ideas bombarded
from all types of media. Being dependent on the successful and artistic synthesis of ideas
assimilated in the course of life, their work is thus firmly shaped by the kind of exposure
theyhad. There are many writers, e.g. Soyinka and Achebe from the continent of Africa, who react against the forced homogenization of literature that globalization has brought about. These writers go back to their roots and revive the traditional forms of the literature of their
respective countries or tribes. This countercurrent in literature is a part of the larger
postcolonial 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). Amitav Ghosh’s mind shows an interesting melding together of the opposites. So des his fiction. In it one can witness a world’s citizen looking at the world with exclusively postcolonial eyes. Here the term postcolonial has nothing to do with the specific geographical location or the point of origin of a specific thought. It is related more to the nature and orientation of a thought or an idea. It is a paradigm shift, comparable to the post quantum theory shift in the paradigm of the hitherto Newtonian Physics. From a west centric approach to world history, the spread of democracy resulted into a more diffused and decentralized approach to history. Thus dominant discourses were challenged effectively and even replaced by strategically developed mini or local narratives in the countries that had been exploited in the past. The literature taking birth in these various nations is very diverse in nature, yet it has something that becomes visible occasionally, and runs as a subterranean stream at other times. That thingis its response to its colonial past. It is this past that joins the peoples and experiences of these countries, and their literature too. Ghosh inherited his colonial past. Although he repudiated it in his own way by withdrawing The Glass Palace from the final list of Regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2001, declaring:
As a grouping of nations collected from the remains of the British Empire, the Commonwealth serves as an umbrella forum in global politics. As a literary or cultural groupinghowever,it seems to me that ‘the Commonwealth’ can only be a misnomer so long as it excludes the many languages that sustain the cultural and literary lives of these countries (it is surely inconceivable, for example, that athletes would have to be fluent in English in order to qualify for the Commonwealth Games). (qtd. in Roy Chowdhury)
He does benefit from the legacy of India’s colonial past. Ghosh’s assertion on the pride of language and nation arises out of his intellectual constitution that was built in a postcolonial India: a part of the Commonwealth. It gives him a dual advantage of a local-postcolonial and, at the same time, a global perspective. He is a commonwealth writer whose fiction curiously, strongly and predictably enough, abounds in postcolonial themes “of cultural translation, of braided temporality, of marginality itself” (Boehmer and Chaudhuri 3). His Ibis trilogy promises to be his most thoroughgoing take on postcolonialism; a backward glance at the infamous opium trade cycle that finally lead to the Anglo-china Opium War and China’s subjugation to the omnipotent “free trade”. Sea of Poppies, the first part of the trilogy starts a cycle of stories that is continued in the next book: River of Smoke. History seeps into the stories of the characters in so many ways that they become histories of colonial exploitation.
Histories… take the form of narratives, and the ways in which the events described are portrayed, linked and made sense of are themselves susceptible to critical interrogation… historical events do not mean things in themselves but, rather, their meanings are generated by the ways in which they are described and linked together to form a historical narrative, and the resonances produced by that narrative depend on the recognition by its audience of the familiar story-telling devices it employs. …a specifically historical inquiry is born less of the necessity to establish that certain events occurred than of the desire to determine what certain events might mean for a given group, society, or culture’s conception of its present tasks and further prospects (Malpas 98).
When a particular position becomes precarious and untenable reason is utilized to buttress it.
Repeated falsification of truth and invention of facts becomes essential when an unnatural
imposition has to be shown as the natural order of the things. History is white washed,
revised, reread and re-presented in various ways to support otherwise unsupportable claims and to hold hitherto untenable positions. An element of narration had always been present in
history because of one simple reason: even a simple collation of facts has to be made on the
basis of some conscious decisions and has to pass through the human medium that invariably
alters the content. In Sea of Poppies racialization and rationalization of history are shown
at work through dialogues and narrative accounts. Raja Neel Rattan’s accidental stumbling upon a theme that would keep Mr. Burnham’s mind fully and enthusiastically occupied – Free Trade” – also serves to expose things unsaid. He gives a white man a chance to show his superiority – personal and racial – over a brown zamindar. He is happy to announce “When the doors of freedom were close to the African, the Lord opened them to tribe that was yet more needful of it – the Asiatick” (Ghosh 118). The black/brown/yellow races were the subject races to be marginalized and silenced effectively and to be effectively written out of the power discourse. After the slave trade was made illegal merchants like Mr. Burnham quickly shifted to other lucrative areas. Only one similarity remained between their old and new trades – profit generated out of shameless and inhuman exploitation of the colonies. The Africans were sold as slaves for profit and then the Indians were transported as indentured immigrants to generate capital to be used for supplying opium and finally subjugate the Chinese. Physical, physiological, mental, socio-political and economic subjugation of the native populations was the sole aim of the strongest class in the whole Empire: the merchant class. They had made it appear very natural that the Chinese consumed opium, so much so, that Neel was astonished to hear that the kind of history he knew was totally untrue. Here, the narrator’s subtle intervention must be acknowledged. In his own attempt at revisiting history, he tries to expose the wrongs of the past in his novel. Reason is shown working devilish schemes very transparently in Sea of Poppies.
The pseudoscientific racial theory of the colonizers had been carefully propounded and
propagated in order to make the subjection and subjugation appear natural and according to the “binary typology of advanced and backward (subject) races” (Said 206). The legitimation of exploitation was facilitated “by anthropological theories which
increasingly portrayed the peoples of the colonized world as inferior, childlike,
or feminine, incapable of looking after themselves… and requiring the paternal
rule of the west for their own interests (today they are deemed to require
‘development’)” (Young 2). The white man had to shoulder his sacred burden. It was a sacrifice that he had to make. He had to colonize, control, exploit, tyrannize and even kill the
black/brown/yellow peoples of the world, in order to civilize them. The white man’s arrogance is reflected unconsciously in the smallest of things. During Neel’s trial, the judge declared that India had been “opened to the benefits of civilization… [the Englishmen were] chosen to burden with the welfare of such races as were still in the infancy of civilization”(Ghosh 349). By the time Neel’s trial ended, it was very clear to him “that in this system of justice it was the English themselves – Mr Burnham and his ilk – who were exempt from the law as it applied to others: it was they who had become the world’s new Brahmins”(Ghosh 353). Money was the main motive behind the exploitation of the Indian farmer. The same was true in the case of the Chinaman too. He was drowned in the river of smoke, while the white suppliers of opium glibly produced altruistic justifications all the time: “Indeed, humanity demands it. We need only think of the poor Indian peasant – what will become of him if his opium can’t be sold in in China? Bloody hurremzads can hardly eat now: they’ll perish by the crore” (Ghosh 385). The very idealistic Mr. Burnham, the devotee of Free Trade, surprisingly happens to be a very forceful supporter of the English merchant’s right to supply opium to china, even if the Chinese are against it. He sees the Chinese emperor’s edict against opium as halting the “march of human freedom” and, ironically, explains it to a racially mixed Zachary that freedom meant “mastery of the white man” (Ghosh 117). He very happily and confidently expresses his joy at America’s being the last bastion of liberty: because slavery is legal there! The postcolonial revisiting and revision of history started since the time when the colonized subject, silenced and marginalized, started asserting his own identity instead of one that was purely constructed by his colonial masters, during the process of decolonization or at the end of the socio-political decolonization when, intellectually, their nation was still in the clutches of the intellectual and cultural hegemony of their erstwhile rulers. The postcolonial writers of fiction wove their narratives intricately, patterned with the themes that appealed to or were infused into them. Their work took roots in the land that had been liberated recently from the pernicious foreign control. They reacted against exploitation of the powerless- theirs and, in general, anybody’s.
The industrial revolution in many European countries was facilitated, expedited, made possible with the capital accumulated due to the exploitation of the so called backward races. The advanced races imposed their will and culture on those who had no say in the process. Then they presented their mission of all pervading and shameless exploitation as one of cultural and religious salvation of the barbarians and pagans. They had the power. The power to speak, write, reason and prove: all were theirs. So, they created the narrative of a history from their perspective and objectivised the objectification of the natives. As the postmodern
historiography points out, “historical inquiry is born less of the necessity to establish that certain events occurred than of the desire to determine what certain events might mean for a given group, society, or culture’s conception of its present tasks and further prospects”
(Malpas 98). The history of the Empire was meant for the consumption at two levels: by the white man and by the black/brown/yellow one too. Therefore, it had to be convincing. It
turned out to be so convincing that the anti and postcolonial discourses had to use all their powers to dispel the myths created by the colonial histories. The process of de-mythization has not been completed till now, and the postcolonial discourse continues to perform its task even today. Such being the case, Sea of Poppies can be seen as an attempt to narrate a specific history from a particular perspective. The narrative is of interlinked lives of
various brown and white characters, and the narrative perspective is the critical one. The “anti colonial freedom movements had fought for political self-determination, the ‘post-colonialists’ inspired by Said fought for the intellectual and spiritual self-determination of
the people who had been subjected to colonial rule” (Rothemund 31) unmistakably postcolonial. Ghosh revisits the past with a very critical eye. His fiction curiously, strongly and predictably enough, abounds in postcolonial themes “of cultural translation, of braided
temporality, of marginality itself” (Boehmer and Chaudhuri 3). He has his own version of it –
that arises out of the consensus among the postcolonial intelligentsia – and he makes the
narration of his fiction his tool to propound his thesis. Of course, like all previous
histories, his story that is intermeshed with history, can be critically interrogated. Yet,
the fact remains that the “desire” to determine what the colonial rule meant to those
colonized cannot be denied to the hitherto voiceless and marginalized subject, written out of
the discourse structurally. It is this very desire that is behind the creation of Ibis
Systemic and systematic exploitation of the inferior “races”, as the white man looked down
upon the “Asiatick” and the “African”, originated in the racialist doctrine that Todorov very
pithily summarizes in his statement of its five basic propositions. The first proposition is
the simplest. It obviously consists in affirming that there are such things as races. The next
one posits that there is continuity between physical type and character; but races are not
simply groups of individuals who look alike (if this had been the case, the stakes would have
been trivial). The racialist postulates, in the second place, that physical and moral
characteristics are interdependent; in other words, the segmentation of the world along racial
lines has as its corollary an equally definitive segmentation along cultural lines. To be
sure, a single race may possess more than one culture; but as soon as there is racial
variation there is cultural change. The solidarity between race and culture is evoked to
explain why the races tend to go to war with one another. In the third postulate same
determinist principle comes into play in another sense: the behavior of the individual
depends, to a very large extent, on the racio-cultural (or “ethnic”) group to which he or she
belongs. This leads to a unique hierarchy of values as the racialist is not content to assert
that races differ; he also believes that some are superior to others, which implies that he
possesses a unitary hierarchy of values, an evaluative framework with respect to which he can make universal judgments. The final point is the conclusion arrived at:
There is a need to embark upon a political course that brings the world into harmony with the
description provided. Having established the “facts,” the racialist draws from them a moral
judgment and a political ideal. Thus, the subordination of inferior races or even their
elimination can be justified by accumulated knowledge on the subject of race. Here is where
racialism rejoins racism: the theory is put into practice (Todorov 66).
Ghosh is clearly critiquing the racialist doctrine through his work. Coming from a person
whose people were colonized and exploited for centuries, it does not seem totally
disproportionate or unnatural. This fact notwithstanding, the critique itself can be critiqued
for a certain degree of either honest oversimplification or purposeful collusion that results
into overlooking certain important facts. The driving force behind the Empire was lussion and for the accumulation of wealth. The lust for wealth was not at all limited to the upper ranks of the racial hierarchy. It was present in the colonizer and in the colonized as well,
although the extent to which it could be satisfied depended on the power of the person or of
the people in question. The colonial rulers were powerful, hence they exploited the colonized, but they could never have succeeded in doing so without an active, voluntary and complete collaboration of the colonized e.g. Baboo Nob Kissin, Raja Neel Rattan’s father and he himself. These collaborators were used by the colonialists but also made use of their rulers to serve their own interests. The advocates of the excentric view hold that the periphery did not accept passively what the centre imposed on it but shaped the imperial impact to a large
extent. Ronald Robinson, the pioneer of ‘excentrism’, even claims that this theory can explain the rise and fall of colonialism through the reversal of a single model… Colonialism thrives on recruiting collaborators and when it can no longer do so, decolonization becomes
inevitable. (Rothermund 23)
Malpas makes it clear in his, Jean-Francois Lyotard that history is the narration of the story
of a nation or people. It intends to explain the existence of a human entity in terms of its
being shaped in continuation with the past, and the cycle leading to future. The tale is
“presented according to the rules of the narrative genre and, like literary narrative, can
take a number of different forms” (Malpas 74). Ghosh shiftS the point of focus of his history-
as-story very uncomfortably for the prototypically constituted western eyes, to the filth the
West had created and its mechanism of generating it. Opium and coolies were exported from
India. As is pointed out in Sea of Poppies: “In the good old days people used to say there
were only two things to be exported from Calcutta: thugs and drugs or opium and coolies as
some would have it” (113). It generated profit that sustained the Empire. In fact,
“trafficking in opium tilted the balance of global trade to benefit the west”( Brook 3). The
extent of exploitation in the country that produced the human and material produce was
limitless. Opium ruined lives. It ruined the lives of the poor Indian farmers whose very
lifestyle. Sea of Poppies very clearly and poignantly brings forth one of the main and
recurring motifs of the commonwealth fiction: the mechanism of exploitation, in its full
detail. It shows how the farmer was exploited and how the agricultural timetable of a nation
and the sustainable lifestyle of its people were altered with devastating effects on the
economy. Deeti remembers the good old days when the fields “would be heavy with wheat in the winter… now, with the sahibs forcing everyone to grow poppy, no one had thatch to spare… poppy had been luxury then, grown in small clusters between the fields that bore the main winter crop” (Ghosh 42). The vicious cycle of debt that the farmers of the opium belt entered, made any idea of escape impossible. The grain crops and vegetables were not grown. There was only a sea of poppies in all the fields. To feed their families they took more debt and thus they became more confirmed in their state. Opium broke the very fabric of the society, as was the case when Deeti and Kalua came across the impoverished transients in Chhapra, “driven from their villages by the flood of flowers that had washed over the countryside” (Ghosh 298). Hunger pressed them so much that they were ready to forget all bindings of caste, religion and concern for life and it safety. They only had one thing in their minds: survival. That’swhy they signed agreements to work on the farms in some unknown lands, evenhazarding to cross “black waters”. If money was the main motive behind the exploitation of the Indian farmer, the same was true in the case of the Chinaman too. He was drowned in the river of smoke, while the white suppliers of opium glibly produced altruistic justifications all the time: “Indeed, humanity demands it. We need only think of the poor Indian peasant – what will become of him if his opium can’t be sold in in China? Bloody hurremzads can hardly eat now: they’ll perish by the crore” (Ghosh 385). The very idealistic Mr. Burnham, the devotee of Free Trade, surprisingly happens to be a very forceful supporter of the English merchant’s right to supply opium to china, even if the Chinese are against it. He sees the Chinese emperor’s edict against opium as halting the “march of human freedom” and, ironically, explains it to a racially mixed Zachary that freedom meant “mastery of the white man” (Ghosh 117). He very happily and confidently expresses his joy at America’s being the last bastion of liberty: because slavery is legal there!
Sea of Poppies is a tale of the effects of racialization and rationalization of history on the subject races: colonized, tormented and exploited.
“Postcolonialism is in effect a metamorphosed version of postmodernism in relation to the
anti-colonialist and decolonizing practice in Oriental and Third World countries” (Ning 233).
Sea of Poppies is Ghosh’s response to the collective past of Asia, and he takes a postcolonial
stance. He presents human condition, at the levels of individuals and of the nations as
players in the international arena. The novel’s unobtrusive but definite agenda is to
challenges the grand narrative of capitalism: capital accumulation through free trade, leading
to overall well being through the trickle down effect, and the whole nation’s developing due
to the way in which the invisible hand directs the market. The novel challenges these grand
narratives of the colonial era effectively and offers an alternative point of view very
strongly and convincingly. In this, it is successful. It is successful in catching the
interest of an average reader, and, surprisingly, of an average critic or reviewer too. Thus
Ghosh succeeds in catering to the demands of the world market, his origins, his craft and also to the river of history in which float both past and present.
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