Dr. Somjyoti Mridha teaches at the Department of English, North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong, Meghalaya. His areas of interest are Post-Colonial Studies, Ideas of Nation and Nationalism, Indian English Literature.
The paper proposes to engage with two post-war British novels Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953) by Rumer Godden and The Kashmir Shawl (2011) by Rosie Thomas and explore the politics of representing colonialism and its demise in the context of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Though Kashmir wasn’t a part of the British territories in India, it came within the ambit of British hegemony under the Dogra regime and its representation is marked by typical colonial mindset since the mid-nineteenth century. The primary objective of the paper is to provide a postcolonial reading of these two novels in order to deconstruct their inherent colonial bias and decode the cultural politics of the ‘persistence of Empire’ in post-war British literature. The paper will focus on the cultural politics of representing Kashmir and its people within the larger narrative of Empire and its imminent dissolution. It is evident from these narratives that in spite of their ‘good intentions’, all the British characters expose their sense of superiority and social one-upmanship in their interaction with Kashmiris. These narratives written in the aftermath of the Second World War and the dismemberment of the British Empire in South Asia play a crucial role by evoking nostalgia for the Raj during a period when British influence in the international arena was on the wane. This paper will also explore the cultural politics of nostalgia for the Raj in the context of these two novels.
Keywords: Kashmir, End of Empire, Decolonization, Nostalgia, Cultural Politics
Colonialism has been one of the major influences in the political and cultural life of not only the colonies but also Great Britain since the nineteenth century. There has been a steady production of fictional narratives about the colonies creating an ideological consensus for British presence in the colonies since the onset of colonialism. Writers like Rudyard Kipling and E.M. Forster wrote masterpieces like Kim and A Passage to India respectively, which were immensely popular in Britain as well as the colonies. Narrativizing colonialism was a fairly popular theme for British writers since the mid-nineteenth century. It continued even after the political system of colonization was dismantled and erstwhile colonies gained political independence. The memory of the British raj was glorified in the cultural life of Britain and assumed centre stage through literary and cinematic productions that narrativised the Raj long after the major colonies got political independence. Some of these literary and cultural productions remain the mainstay of post-colonial British culture. Since the political dominance of Great Britain waned during the Cold War era, Britain strived for political validation by culturally producing nostalgia for the Raj. These cultural productions were curiously much relished by the literati and the glitterati of the erstwhile colonies as well. Novels such as The Jewel in the Crown (1966) by Paul Scott, The Far Pavilions (1978) by M. M. Kaye, The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) by J.G. Farrell created a sense of nostalgia for the Raj and were immensely popular in Britain. TV series was made on The Jewel in the Crown and The Far Pavilions, while The Siege of Krishnapur went on to win the Booker prize in 1973.
The phrase ‘end of the empire’ generally refers to the moment of decolonization for most countries of Asia, Africa and South America after centuries of colonial yoke. Even in academic discourse “end of the empire’ is primarily considered from the perspective of the colonized because of the popularity of Postcolonial studies since the 1990s. During the colonial period and thereafter, it was commonly understood that colonizing European nations influenced the colonies in myriad ways while the influence of the colonies was negated in the metropole. Recently, the academic gaze has turned towards Europe which was grappling with the loss of colonies in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. The socio-political and cultural ramifications were widespread though ignored until recently. According to Berny Sebe and Matthew G. Standard,
…decolonization was a fundamentally fluid process of fluxes and refluxes involving not only transfers of populations, ideas and sociocultural practices across continents but also complex intra-European dynamics at a time of convergence following the Treaty of Rome. Decolonization was neither a process of sudden, rapid changes to European cultures nor one of cultural inertia, but a development marked by fluidity, movement and dynamism (Sebe and Standard 2).
This paper deals with two post-war British novels writing about Kashmir and the empire in its death throes.
This paper will focus on two novels, Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953) by Rumer Godden and The Kashmir Shawl (2011) by Rosie Thomas which re-created nostalgia for the Raj in the context of Kashmir. Godden’s Kingfishers Catch Fire is a bildungsroman of the character named Sophie and The Kashmir Shawl is a novel about love, longing and self-attainment of itinerant female characters separated by generations with the Raj as the political context. These novels are diverse in their motifs, linguistic manoeuvres, themes and are published over a gap of half a century. The common thread that binds them is the colonial fascination for Kashmir as well as their effort at narrativizing the end of British rule in the Indian subcontinent. Deriving from Frederic Jameson’s theorization of third world texts, especially novels as “national allegories” in “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism”[i], this paper argues that all novels of colonial encounters are allegories of empire narartivizing structures of colonial exploitation and domination in order to bolster the claims of colonial hegemony. This paper intends to provide a postcolonial reading of these novels with a singular focus on their representation of Kashmir and its populace.
Kashmir has generated a lot of academic interest in recent times primarily because of armed resistance against the Indian state since the 1990s. It has remained a perpetual topic of national importance since its inclusion in the Union of India because of various reasons. The most recent political development, that is, the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A and the subsequent internet shut down has generated renewed controversy surrounding the Kashmir issue. Kashmir remained crucial to the Indian nation state and ideas of Indianness since its inception in 1947. It also had seminal political presence in the imaginary of the British Raj. Primarily owing to the fact, that the state of Jammu and Kashmir was the largest princely state in terms of territory within British Indian Empire whose relationship with the colonial state was guided by the treaty of Subsidiary alliance. Outside the direct control of the colonial state, the Kashmir valley experienced something like secondary colonialism for lack of a better term. It generated a lot of interest among the Britishers residing in India. Numerous literary narrative and travelogues testify to the fact. The novels dealt with in this paper refer to itinerant Britishers travelling to Kashmir in order to explore the pleasure potential inherent in the beautiful valley and the city of Srinagar.
The state of Jammu and Kashmir in general and the Kashmir valley in particular, though not central to the colonial project in India remained a cherished location to retreat from the murky business of Empire and a travel hotspot since the mid-nineteenth century. The high demand for Kashmiri property among British colonials forced the Dogra monarch to promulgate the State Subject Act in 1927[ii] which restricted property ownership for anyone who is not a state subject. It was primarily promulgated in order to thwart settler colonial aspirations of the colonial British citizens. The State Subject Act of 1927 is the precursor of Article 35A of the Indian constitution which empowers the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly to determine permanent residents of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and was abrogated along with Article 370. In both the novels the narratives revolve around British presence in Kashmir, their desire for property ownership and their rented property. Both Sophie in Kingfishers Catch Fire and Myrtle in The Kashmir Shawl express their desires to own property but are thwarted by restrictions and hence resort to renting property in Kashmir valley. Within discourses of desire generated by colonialism, a system that institutionalized hierarchical relationships between the colonizer and the colonized, this desire for a home in Kashmir among British colonials becomes a metonymic representation of the colonial states’ expansionist political ambitions. Thus, when Sophie exclaims that, “I am…homesick for them…Homesick!” for the valley of Kashmir, it is more political than personal nostalgia about her experiences in Dilkhusha (Godden 2). In pure simple terms, it is an expression of collective British nostalgia for the empire once it was lost. It is crucial to note that Kingfishers Catch Fire was published after the British Indian empire achieved political independence with the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir as a constituent part in 1947.
In curious ways, the supremacy of the colonizer in all spheres of social and political life stands reversed, though in a much mitigated manner, in the context of Kashmir since the Maharaja is at the helm of affairs. Sophie’s nostalgia for Kashmir and the wistful language employed to describe Kashmir in the prologue of Kingfishers Catch Fire may be politically read as the desire of the settler colonial for a territory/space lost. The recollection of good memories from Kashmir also has her innate desire to control the narrative about the bad turn of events in Kashmir. The narrative of Kingfishers Catch Fire and that of its protagonist Sophie is loosely based on Godden’s personal experiences in Kashmir, including the disturbing one where her cook tried to poison her with glass particles mixed with her food. Kingfishers Catch Fire does not devolve into a murder mystery or a colonial gothic like M.M. Kaye’s Death in Kashmir. In the context of British fictional treatment of colonial spaces so succinctly theorized by Alan Sinfleld, Godden resorts to “enthusiastic myth-making that is the obverse of hostile stereotyping” (Sinfield 127). Though Kashmir was practically sold to the Dogra chieftain Gulab Singh for 7.5 lakhs both as a reward for his loyalty to the British during the Anglo-Sikh wars and the British reluctance to engage with the ever expanding Russian empire, in the heyday of British colonial presence Kashmir signified lost possibility for the British colonials. In these narratives, written after the British Raj was dismantled from the Indian subcontinent, a characteristic nostalgia is generated about the Raj. In both the novels, the Raj has been imagined as a perfect political arrangement vis-à-vis the impoverished, ill-managed and pre-modern Dogra state. There are repeated references to ethnic and communal disturbances in these novels. The primary political motive is to showcase the inefficiency of the Dogra state in maintaining law and order and present it as a contrast to the orderly British territories in India. Poverty and communal tension were highlighted in order to create a discourse in defense of British colonial presence in other parts of the Indian sub-continent. This is not to say that communal disturbances were not happening. Since 1931, militant anti-Dogra state agitations by Sheikh Abdullah’s Muslim Conference which was later on named as National Conference, took the form of violent attack against members of the Kashmiri Pandit community.
Kashmir was constructed as the delectable spot created for the pleasure seeking British colonials within European exclusive clubs outside the hubbub of the city of Srinagar. This conceptualization of Kashmir as the pleasure ground of British colonizers enjoying their vacation found continuity in the post-Independence imaginary which reduces the valley as a space devoid of human habitation and aspirations of its own. Repeated references to the beauty of the landscape and the poetry of existence in Kashmir coupled with vivid description of poverty create a fertile ground for colonial intervention yet the authors are painfully aware of the imminent departure of the British from the sub-continent. Kashmir is conceptualized as both pre-modern and delectable. Occasionally, it is delectable because it is pre-modern which concomitantly produces the desire to bring in the signposts of modernity. These contradictory impulses generated by colonialism which on the one hand promises the fruits of colonial modernity yet deprives the colonized equivalence on grounds of race and class because it is only in the deference that power may be realized, herein lay the continuation of colonization. In the context of Kashmir, discourses generated by colonization, including the novels dealt here tend to put the onus of delayed modernity on the Dogra princely state. For instance, Godden’s chief protagonist, Sophie imagines Kashmir as “Russia in the Eastern sense, like its old name Scythia; the sweet green tea they drink here is made in a samowar which is much the same as a samovar. Russia of the old days” (Godden 13). The description of Kashmir in these novels is characterized with contradictions. Poverty and underdevelopment are vividly described along with a characteristic desire to possess and settle in this land of unparalleled beauty. A curious sense of nostalgia is also generated through the language of desire in both Godden and Thomas. Rumer Godden begins her novel with a visual description of Kashmir equating the territory with its natural beauty and artisanal treasures. In the prologue, Godden writes, “…her eyes were tender as her fingers traced the bright birds on the lamp; Kingfishers always made her think of Kashmir; with the bulbul, the lotus, the iris, vine and chenar leaf, they are the symbols of the country; over and over again they appear in carvings and embroideries and are woven in Kashmiri silk and carpets (Godden 2). Thomas’ approach is more direct and describes the valley of Kashmir as “the most beautiful place Nerys had ever seen” ( 89). The iterative reference to delectable scenic beauty of Kashmir not only represents colonial desire for territory but also projects Kashmir, to be a land untouched by industrial modernity.
Nerys and Sophie, both belonging to rural England, considers Kashmir as a replica of their native place complicating the discourse of desire, power and nostalgia generated in the novels. For British imperialists, a Kashmiri Village is the locus of unchangeability since “nothing much had changed here in centuries” (Thomas 209). Orientalist imperial gaze became the dominant mode of representing Kashmir since the early period of colonialism in India which in a way paved the way for entrenched British control over the largest princely state in the Indian sub-continent. As Vanessa Chishti writes, “The colonial engagement with Kashmir was marked by contradictory impulses: the desire to preserve Kashmir as an untainted paradise on the one hand and the desire to bring colonial ‘order’ to it on the other. While the former impulse dominated early accounts, the latter was not entirely absent. A British influence over the valley became more direct in the last quarter of the nineteenth century; the colonial desire to transform Kashmir became more pronounced” (Chishti 276). In fact, the novels portray colonial intervention in a direct fashion. British characters portrayed in these novels are mostly missionaries, soldiers, colonial government servants and their spouses. The very reason for their existence in Kashmir is primarily to safeguard British interests in the Indian sub-continent. The omnipresence of soldiers signify war time society in far flung areas of the British empire as well as imminent social unrest due to the impending transfer of political power in India which subsequently brought about the violent episode of partition of the Indian sub-continent. Yet, their omnipresence clearly exposes the violent nature of colonial occupation belying the rhetorical significance accorded to civilizing mission undertaken by the empire. In fact, the civilizing mission is purely interventionist and primarily undertaken in order to protect and perpetuate the interest of the colonizers at the expense of the colonized.
The furtive and futile presence of the Mission in Kingfishers Catch Fire and Evans’ personal zeal for proselytization is politically significant. There is a characteristic ironical treatment of Christian missionary zeal in both the novels. Both Nerys in The Kashmir Shawl and Sophie in Kingfishers Catch Fire are aware of the futile intervention of the missionaries in religious landscape of Kashmir. Yet both these characters intervene in the life of local Kashmiris without any hesitation. Nerys’ intervention in the life of a female Kashmiri shawl weaver and her children brings about positive changes in their life. She also strives to teach English language, another colonial pedagogical intervention in the sub-continent, to hapless Kashmiri and Ladakhi children without any avenues for improving their lot. Sophie’s intervention in the Dar versus Sheikh conflict in the village destroys social harmony. While Sophie conveniently leaves the scene as she returns to Toby and England, the villagers are left to live with the consequences of disturbed peace much like the fractured sub-continent bequeathed by the British once the empire was dismantled.
Colonization is a system maintained by both military and structural violence. It creates an artificial hierarchy in the colonized territories where the colonizer is accorded a certain degree of primacy denied to the colonized in their native land. In the words of Fanon,
A world compartmentalized, Manichaean and petrified, a world of statues: the statue of the general who led the conquest, the statue of the engineer who built the bridge. A world cocksure of itself, crushing with its stoniness the backbones of those scarred by the whip. That is the colonial world…The first thing the colonial subject learns is to remain in his place and not overstep its limits (Fanon 15).
Racial and social superiority claimed by the colonizer cuts across class boundaries and is supported by racist discourses which gained the status of popular science in Britain since the nineteenth century. The claims of racial and social superiority by the colonizer were assisted by the subterranean threat of violence bolstered by the military might of the empire. These racial supremacist discourses have currency even after political decolonization of the erstwhile colonies with the elite subscribing to such views in a more or less uncritical fashion. Rosie Thomas writing after half a century of decolonization tends to uncritically narrate instances of superior claims of the British without so much as a critical remark. As narrators of the Raj, both Godden and Thomas subscribes to discourses of racial superiority of the British bolstering the legacy of writers of the Raj like Rudyard Kipling. As Alan Sinfield has rightly pointed out,
Societies have to reproduce themselves culturally as well as materially, and this is done in great part by putting into circulation stories of how the world goes. Diverse institutions are involved in this (the media, religions, political parties, education), and the texts designated literary, and the processes of that designation, contribute. They present the attempt of literary intellectuals, in the changing conditions of their medium and society generally, to make persuasive sense of the world (Sinfield 2).
Colonial domination over vast swathes of the empire was primarily possible through discourses of racial and cultural superiority. These discourses helped camouflage the real purpose of colonial domination, that is, political subjugation and exploitation of resources in the colony. The exceptional deference and courtesy meted out to the not so privileged Britishers like Nerys, Caroline, Evan in The Kashmir Shawl and Sophie and her children in Kingfishers Catch Fire is a testament to the social one-upmanship accorded to the colonizers within a colonial space. In fact, most of the British characters depicted in both the novels belong to the middle class and some like Sophie is practically a destitute widow. In spite of all her problems, Sophie constantly enjoys a feeling of one-upmanship due to the stark poverty of the villagers. While she says, “ ‘We shall be poor like the Kashmiris…we shall be poor and frugal. We shall toil’ ” (Godden 35), she is also constantly reminded that she is not a Kashmiri but a British woman residing in the British dominated Indian subcontinent. In spite of her poverty, her exceptional importance is brought home through words of caution uttered by well-wishers like Sister Locke, who reminds her, “ ‘You should be what you are—British” (56).
The narration in both the novels is permeated through a female imperialist gaze comfortably aware of their superior racial and social position vis a vis their Kashmiri counterparts. While analyzing racism in Literature, Culture and Politics in Post War Britain, Alan Sinfield distinguishes between two different kinds of racism in the novels representing colonialism. They are structural racism and phobic racism. He writes,
Structural racism helps to legitimate the social order, but it may be relatively unimportant to the individuals who manifest it. Phobic racism, on the other hand, seeks to secure not just the economic, political and general psychic well-being of the European; the racial other is invoked, also, as a way of handling profound personal inadequacy (Sinfield 121).
While none of the fictional characters in these two novels suffer from what Alan Sinfield terms as “phobic racist” both these narratives expose structural racism of the colonial world. Fictional characters in both the novels are aware of their superior racial/social position vis-a-vis any Indians in their vicinity. Archie McMinn depicted as a devoted husband and perfect gentleman throughout The Kashmir Shawl have no compunctions about “commandeering the places regardless of who might have arrived ahead of them. As a British sahib and a proper daughter of the Raj, Archie and Myrtle automatically took the precedence they saw their due. They felt no compunctions in ousting Ladakhi or Kashmiri travelers from the shelters…” (Thomas 82). The obsequious behavior of elderly Kashmiri men towards these middle class British women characters are depicted in order to drive home the exceptional importance of being British in colonial India.
In fact, Kingfishers Catch Fire and the colonial episode of The Kashmir Shawl reduce Kashmiris as little more than caricatures, nuisance makers, servants and ill-mannered beggars. The servants in these two novels have a muted presence apart from Nabir Dar while none apart from Sultan exercises any agency in their actions. These novels abound in racial stereo-typing, ideologically concomitant with colonization. The stereotypes employed are Janus-faced, simultaneously orientalizing Kashmir and Kashmiris in order to invoke desire and nostalgia as well as elicit horror and pity. Sophie’s insistence on Sultan’s infantilization and exoneration in spite of definite criminal intent is characteristic of colonial attitude towards colonized native where they are subjected to varied stereotypes, occasionally contradictory ones but never considered fellow humans on an equal footing. The only exception in the representation of Kashmiri characters is in the references to the Maharaja and his charming but sexually dissipated cousin, Ravi Singh. This is primarily because of their status as royalty. They are spared the imperialist female gaze through which everything Indian is presented in both the novels. These novels (though published much later) guided by the social mores of Victorian and Edwardian England tend to be more generous towards the aristocracy. Ravi Singh, though portrayed in a seamier light, is not projected as an outright villain in spite of his sexual dalliance and transgressing the sexual boundaries made sacrosanct by the Raj in order to maintain racial and social hierarchy in colonial India.
Both the novels intermittently refer to the imminent end of the empire. Sophie’s final departure from Dilkhusha, as a consequence of her thwarted attempts at “civilizing’ the Kashmiri villagers anticipates the departure of the British from the sub-continent. Myrtle in The Kashmir Shawl described as the offspring of the Raj is at a loss to understand the incipient nationalist fervor across the length and breadth of the British Indian Empire. She anticipates the departure of the British from the Indian sub-continent in no uncertain terms as she voices her anxiety, “I don’t understand India any more. It’s all I know, but I can hardly recognize the country I grew up, or understand what’s happening to beautiful Kashmir. They want us to leave, and we will do, but what will happen after that? There’ll be nothing left, nothing but blood and destruction” (Thomas 307). Her concern is as much for Kashmir as for her irrelevance in the land of her birth. As a member of the colonizing race and accustomed to commanding in all spheres of life, the British community in India were at a loss to understand the new reality of not legitimately belonging to the Indian sub-continent for political reasons. With the dismantling of the British Empire and loss of Britain’s preeminence in the international arena, the colonial elite found themselves disenfranchised and rootless, returning back to the so called mother country where they had tenuous ties. Myrtle and Archie McMinn represents that cross section of the colonial elite who experienced political and social upheavals with the end of the empire. The prospect of repatriation looms large in their minds. The most poignant moment about the end of the Empire in The Kashmir Shawl is when Archie McMinn refers to the prospect of winning the war. For the war battered McMinn, the end of the war brings forth possibility of renewed life and he states, “… then there will be a life again. A New world”(Thomas 342). Yet, he ignores the possibility of the loss of Empire in the aftermath of the war and the ensuing changes bound to unfold due to political exigencies. The ever perceptive Nerys “marveled at Archie’s spirit in genuinely counting himself as fortunate, and in looking forward to a new world in which the British India the McMinns had known all their lives would almost certainly no longer exist” (342). The new world envisioned by McMinn and Nerys is that of decolonization and the loss of exclusive privileges of the British in a newly independent India and their subsequent departure to Britain. It is a moment of supreme irony when colonial officials envision the incumbent new world order without British hegemony as something to look forward to. For the The Kashmir Shawl published as recent as 2012, it would have been grossly politically incorrect to refer to decolonization as anything other than a novel way of life full of possibilities for the greater good. That the primacy of the British is a thing of the past in the Indian sub-continent is evident from the treatment meted out to Mair, Nerys’ granddaughter, during her travels in post-colonial era Leh and Kashmir valley.
For the McMinn family depicted in The Kashmir Shawl, the end of the empire signifies the end of privileges and home while Sophie’s tribulations in Kingfishers Catch Fire are far easier since she is well ensconced within English polite society and was linked with the empire only through her marriage with Denzil. She manages to escape Kashmir before the political upheavals began. Of course, her departure signifies the imminent departure of the British from the Indian sub-continent in the aftermath of the Second World War. These two novels represent different cross section of the colonial elite including Indian aristocracy created by the Raj and their predicament with the end of colonial era. Indian Nationalist agitations and the anti-Dogra Monarchy agitations in Kashmir led to the dismantling of the empire and its political structures which in turn led to the downfall of the Dogra monarchy. So in some ways, the end of the British Empire in the Indian sub-continent is also the end of the old feudal Kashmir under Dogra dominance. Both these novels tend not only to aestheticize the Raj but also unwittingly narrativize its downfall along with all the allied political structures that it propped. The immediate victims of dismantling of the Empire were the colonial elite situated in India ensconced as they were in the privileges that came from belonging to the ruling class and race.
[i] This is a reference to Frederic Jameson’s controversial assertion that, “All third-world texts are necessarily, I want to argue, allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories, even when, or perhaps I should say, particularly when their forms develop out of predominantly western machineries of representation, such as the novel.” This assertion led to a controversy and in response eminent South Asian scholar, Aijaz Ahmad wrote the essay, “Jameson’s rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory” anthologized in his book, In Theory: Classes, Nations Literatures. Though the paper derives its premise from Jameson’s assertion in order to subvert its logic, it is not uncritical about the remark.
[ii] There are frequent references to the history of Kashmir in the paper, especially of the nineteenth century. The books consulted are Mridu Rai’s Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights and the History of Kashmir, Chitralekha Zutshi’s Languages of Belonging: Islam, Regional identity and the Making of Kashmir. These books have not been included in the list of works cited since the paper does not cite from these books but they were crucial for understanding of Kashmiri history.
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