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Post-Colonial Reading of R. Parthasarathy’s Poem ‘Exile’

The most reassuring thing about the past is that it happened. (From “Exile”, 75)

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 to India with 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 in India. 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 for India. 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 represented 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 India that 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 colonies. Thus, Parthasarathy confirm the image of the other constructed by the Orientalists: “A grey sky oppresses the eyes: porters, rickshaw-pullers, barbers, hawkers, fortune-tellers, loungers compose the scene (from “Exile”, 76).

34923eb5a4232663364f5097b65852e9.jpgSaid 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 spoonful’s 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 un-designed in their own un-chaotic 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 succulent 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 islandalone, 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.

Parthasarathy feels like a fish out of water in a foreign land and a sense of loneliness overwhelms him. The confidence he enjoyed with his Tamil language is gone. An introspective study makes him realise the futility of his dreams about england and that brings the disenchantment with his early English Utopia. There is something to be said for exile:

“you learnt roots are deep,
The language is tree, loses colour
Under another sky.” ……………………………………….

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 of Africa, 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 counter current 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).

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.

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 stubs, 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

Anzaldua, Gloria. “Borderlands/La Frontera ”. Literary Theory: an Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan.Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998. Print.
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 14901797.London:Methuen, 1986. Print.
King, Bruce. Modern Indian Poetry in English. O.U.P.:New Delhi, 1987. 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.

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Categories: Indian Writing in English, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Poetry, Postcolonialism, Realism

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