Modern Man in the Postcolonial World: A New World

Amit Chaudhuri’s A New World is novel about a modern (rather, postmodern) man and his life, or a slice of his life that he spent in his native city of Kolkata in one of his vacations. Minute details are used to underscore big issues. Language, as a means of sharing one’s life with one’s dear ones versus language as a well sterilized set of surgical instruments to be used in social operations with those relatively far away, is very cleverly brought out in the very beginning of the novel. On the very first page of the novel one witnesses that Joyajit’s son uses the Bangla term for father to call him. It indicates not only that the father, who is a modern man, accepts his mother tongue’s claim to a special position through its partial acceptance in private spheres: a language he rarely uses in his public sphere in the US of A. Later, Thamma switches over from her natural outburst of joy in Bangla to a more composed strain of English. The Admiral too uses English to create a sort of formality in his relationship with his son “that excluded the tenderness of the mother-son relationship – the latter finding expression in the mother’s homely, slightly irritating Bengali” (7). This is the predicament of the modern man. The two spheres of existence between which he scuttles – public and private – also necessitate the scuttling between various sets of behaviour, so much so, that he appears to be using masks or playing some kind of a game. The effortlessness with which Joyajit and his parents shift in language use, with the changing patterns of behaviour, is a case to score the point. The mother uses Bangla and the father English with the son, who, spoke to his wife in English but “had decided to retain, as far as their son was concerned, the Bengali … ‘ma’ and ‘baba’” (3). Bangla, then, is the language of the private sphere at Kolkata house of theirs and is paid respect through its signal use in the US. English happens to be the language used both public and private spheres, yet inclined more towards the formality of the public sphere.

The modern man slides between the two languages according to the need of the hour. The use of the key word modern is very crucial and central here. It’s directly linked with the injection of English into an otherwise Bengali heartland of Kolkata way back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Bangla itself had taken generations to finally grow up to its modern form and to acquire the position of the language of the soil of Bengal. Once it was established through, it was undoubtedly and unchallengeably the language used in the public and private spheres. English arrived with the East India Company’s buying the villages on which they established their fort later on. First of all, commerce was a the reason behind their arrival to India and later to Kolkata. It remained the sole reason for some time, after which the politics of the country sucked them in. moreover, the missionaries had also started their activities (without any encouragement from the Company) from Serampore etc. the first Bengalis to be exposed to English language must have been those with whom the Englishmen needed to interact in the public sphere. They’d have picked up the language for nearly exclusive use in the same sphere. They’d have taken up smatterings of English in the beginning, and later on, the elite of the Bengali society may have utilized their resources to learn the one language that had a definite advantage in the future expansion of their trade with the Englishmen, yet it had not entered the larger public sphere of the majority of their transactions, especially with their countrymen. Ram Mohan Roy and Macaulay, both represented the streams of thought that merged in support of English language and the Western education. Gradually, English had entered the larger public sphere, and in some cases, even the private one, e.g. in the hpmes of Anglicized Indians of Bengal, to a large extent, as is proven by their command over a hitherto alien language. The Dutt family may be taken as an instance that was not very rare.

The Mughal Empire favoured Persian and the British Raj, naturally favoured English. Macaulay’s plan had succeeded in producing the generation of interpreters – the mimic men – Indian by their brown skin and Western through their white masks. These were the people lampooned in the popular art and literature. The desi babu had arrived loudly and conspicuously in the public sphere and he acted as if to shame even the Englishmen through his Englishness. Yet, in the more private sphere of his house, in the core of his being and in handling over the responsibility of raising children to his traditional wife, he kept himself brown at heart despite his white mask in public. Like Thamma with Bonny and with her own son, the lady of the house was the one who gave love and care to her husband, children and grandchildren, and to the elderly of the family. Thus, she was the heart of the house and the heart hadn’t started wearing the white mask yet. In fact, the heart remained more or less the traditional brown forever due to various socioeconomic factors. Despite the Western and Brahmo influences, the Bengali male preferred his females to remain protected and free of the Western bad influences and the new corrupted versions of Hinduism, i.e. all attempts were made to “protect” them from the aftermath of the Bengal Renaissance and of the Imperial control over their public sphere. Joyajit’s father was the westernized Indian, the relic from the British past, who’d surrendered his house to his wife and had taken the public sphere as his sole domain. This polarity had resulted into his inept handling of his personal relations and ease with his son, wife, or even his grandson. But then, this special kind of the division of labour is quite common in South Asia where fathers remain distant and aloof figures and mothers act as buffers and go-betweens in households, especially in joint families of the traditional types.

India’s getting independence was of central importance to the whole British imperial machinery – for both the British and Indian parts. It came close on the heels of the second world war, i.e. the postmodern and postcolonial set of factors converged on those linked with the Indian subcontinent – those who left, those who chose to stay, and those for whom there were no alternatives to choose from. The Admiral was one of those left behind. He could never come at terms with the fact that the kind of system the Raj had created, maintained and handed over to Macaulay’s class of interpreters – Indian in descent yet intellectually western – was defunct long before the British decided to leave. The racial superiority that the British wanted to assert over th brown man was substituted with the positional superiority that the brown babus of India wanted to assert over the masses. Reminiscent of the way the British had used employment opportunities in public sector to create a system of checks and balances through their divide and rule policy, the new native Indian government continued doing the same. The few privileged ones got the much coveted public sector jobs, especially in the army and the bureaucracy. These were the attendants and aides of the new rulers of India. The colonist’s racial superiority theory was replaced with the internal colonist’s social/positional superiority theory – with adverse effects both upon the strong and the weak. Taking cue from Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks, it can be shown that this belief in the divide that translated into a definite sense of differential/preferential positioning in the social ladder may be linked historically to the Indian’s love for a secure government job that Hindus and Muslims coveted for in the colonial era and that was used by the government to control and manipulate the people. The kind of inherent superiority that the white man felt and the power that emanated from it, were transferred and translated into the brown sahib’s power and sense of superiority over the lesser mortals. Conversely, the brown man’s sense of inferiority (real or expected/projected) was translated into the lesser mortal’s sense of inadequacy, insecurity and powerlessness.

The Admiral, Joyajit’s father, had a double advantage over others: he had had the fortune of securing a government job, that too in the armed forces. He had the natural advantage that he had acquired in the gradual process of having a life lived in the circle of definiteness – a universe in which each unit had its exact place and was related in a well defined chain of command with others. It was a universe in which he had nearly the topmost rank and had enjoyed the sense of security impossible to be found as a civilian. Moreover, the brown sahib’s arrogance with which he used to expect and get a preferential treatment from the masses was not to be had anymore. The system had failed him and he couldn’t do anything about it. While in his universe – that centred at him – he was the master who dominated and controlled everything. He was a sahib and expected his wife to be a mem sahib. Her failure in it brought him disappointment. “He was one of those men who, after independence, had inherited the colonial’s authority and position, his club cuisine and table manners, his board meetings and discipline” (7), and in no way did he show even the slightest reluctance in accepting a privileged position. There were two factors involved in the new relationship between the brown sahib and the other brown people under his authority. The first one was the nature of power itself, and the second one , the kind of power according to its source. The brown man was perpetuating the old colonial hierarchical structure of the society – as was institutionalized in the more than century long Raj. Moreover, the hierarchical structure itself was a neutral product of the social transactions whose currency is power.

The voluntary give and take of power in exchange of some tangible or intangible thing is quite “natural” in all the societies (at least, in all human societies). There is one, or a set of individuals who are recognized by the other members of the social organization as special due to some due to some inherited or acquired trait. These persons are then handed over, officially or unofficially, the running of the society. They control the external affairs, resource allocation, finance, defense etc. even in democracies in which points had to be proven on an open platform, like in the ancient Greece, there were few who were given the power to run the whole system. The same is true of the mahajanpada of the ancient India. Some kind of quality decided that the set of rulers would have some such people who’d not inherited their position but acquired it. Ideally speaking, in such a system, everybody would have an equal opportunity, but practically, after the pattern had been set, it became more and more difficult for those who’d been kept out of power for long to enter the power structure. Human beings, being greedy and manipulative, corrupted the functioning of the systems that were sound fundamentally.

The Newtonian law of inertia apparently governed social institutions too. Once a system started running in a corrupt manner, its inertia of corruption made it imperative for the system’s units to keep it functioning ion the same way. Any change, small or big, necessitated a change that could only happen if there was enough force applied on the system, so that its inertia may be effectively challenged and finally altered. Moreover, many a time, the efforts of that external force are mistakenly directed at changing the dominating-exploiting active top. They fail, in general and in cases of most of the revolutions and rebellions, including the struggle for our country’s independence, to see that power itself corrupts and that any concentration of power in the hands of few – howsoever it began, will eventually corrupt the fresh new system that comes into power. The post 1947 India, with its basically colonizing administrative system, only saw perpetuation of the process of colonization, not its substitution with a better system. The narrator comments that in relation to the rich people, those who had power, muscle and money, “Independence, the subsequent changes of history, did not seem to matter” (54).

Reference:

Chaudhuri, Amit. A New World. New Delhi: Picador, 2001. Print.

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