University of Heidelberg
‘Transcreating’ spaces? A review of nineteenth century Indian Writing in English, with a special focus on Toru Dutt.
Early Indian writing in English (of the nineteenth century) suffers the fate of the Gordian knot, as it awaits its Alexandrian sword. The knot has intensified over the years with debates about the paradoxical nature of this literature constantly plaguing it. Writing for/about the nation in the colonizer's tongue has perhaps emerged as the central paradox. In the light of Indian English historiography, one finds a definitive 'defensive nationalist narrative' that has tried to negotiate a truce with the tainted exogenous linguistic heritage. Therefore, the linguistic shared space between the colonizer and the colonized has often emerged as the site of cultural collision.
Literature of the nineteenth century is habitually orphaned by the critics as it bears the uncomfortable stamp of colonial complicity. Therefore, it is no wonder that most criticism has focused on the linguistic dilemma and teased out ‘representations of otherness’ in a reflex defense. While this might have been a historical necessity (although in modern theoretical understanding-‘India’, the nation, is a construct, and a disreputable enterprise!), consciously or unconsciously, it created a linear progressive history of Indian Writing in English. This conceptualization that charted the course of Indian writing in English from ‘imitation to authenticity’, helped accommodate the literature of “a familiar mixture of colonial condescension and drawing-room tact”. Despite reservations, there has been a sustained effort to ‘naturalize’ (Hans Harder) the ‘alien insiders’ (P.Lal). This general defensive ardour has conceivably delivered the opposite result. Impelling measures have just bound this body of work in an ideologically charged linguistic net.
This paper does not propose to valorize the literary merit of the Indian writing in English of the nineteenth century. It merely attempts to survey an interesting aspect of this writing that has largely remained unnoticed. Meenakshi Mukherjee suggests in the Perishable Empire(2000) that in the nineteenth century, the vernacular languages carried the onus of writing the ‘nation’. This colonial bilingual existence perhaps offered the Indian writers in English relative freedom to experiment with the notion of ‘spaces’. At the risk of gross generalization, one might also point to the fact that most authors of this period were part of the first Indian diasporic community (like Madhushudhan Dutt, Manmohan Ghose, Aru Dutt, Toru Dutt etc.). This suddenly exposed them to virgin areas of mind and space, which created novel territorialities. Toru Dutt, a classic example, is at equal ease writing about the legends of her country or narrating the life of Bianca, a Spanish maiden. This unrelenting blurring of parallel territorialities offer a new understanding of the concept of spatial imaginary of the colonial subject writing in the colonizer’s tongue. How does Toru Dutt, a representative figure, reconcile the movement and fluidity of ‘spaces’? This paper promises to probe the problematics of the multiple cusps of territorial imaginaries, caught in a charged linguistic compass.