Saturday, July 28, 2007

He and His Men

“At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this, made all signs to me of subjection, servitude and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me as long as he lived; I understood him in many things and let him know I was very pleased with him; in a little time I began to speak to him and teach him to speak to me; and first, I made him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life; I taught him to say "Master," and then let him know that was to be my name…”

Robinson Crusoe
Daniel Defoe

Imperial Entanglements and Literature in English
Fakrul Alam
pp 402; Tk 600

The island on which Crusoe got stranded was Tobago, next to the Spanish (later British) settlement of Trinidad. But unlike what Defoe (He was born Daniel Foe) claims , Robinson Crusoe was the story of an English sailor John Segar of Burie in Suffolke “who was let there eighteene months before by Abraham Kendall (the Captain). ” Friday, most obviously, has been a man-eating Carib , a small ethnic group of Amerindians. The question that Defoe’s novel throws at history is a curious one: On an island as uninhibited at Crusoe’s, why does Friday opt for slavery? Why doesn’t he lift a stone to hit Crusoe while he is sleeping or engrossed in Bible? The question of power, who holds it and against whom, comes into play. Friedrich Engels thinks, “ If Crusoe could procure a sword for himself, we are equally entitled to assume that one fine morning Friday might appear with a loaded revolver in his hand, and then the whole "force" relationship is inverted. Friday commands, and it is Crusoe who has to drudge.”
While Fridays did take up guns as Engles suggested (giving birth to a flurry of National Democratic revolutions, which eventually ended in chaos), some others used the language of the colonisers to “write back to the centre” (which has given birth to Post-Colonial literature). The later is the subject of Fakrul Alam, Bangladesh’s leading Post-Colonial (Po-Co) critic. His new book (his first in a long time) minutely covers Po-Co writers as wide in variety as Rudyard Kipling and RK Narayan. But the most interesting aspect of it is his tribute to Edward Said, founder of Orientalism, who also happened to be Alam’s teacher. “One aspect of ‘writing back' for the Post Colonial intellectual,” Alam writes in his essay ‘Edward Said and the Counter-Discourse of Postcolonial’, “then, involves demystification and deconstruction and aggressive pursuit of projects undertaken by ‘area experts’ in bad faith, the better to expose them. In the sense, writing back upholds critique as a model of intellectual activity. Another, not negative notion, of ‘writing back’ involves affirming the tradition of resistance of colonial societies."
The history of colonisation and the resistance that comes along with it and its aftermath have been the primary focus of Said and Alam’s world-view. But it is somewhat problematic when one considers the colonies within newly found independent countries/ colonies. To make it even more complex, if not confusing, comes different multinational and transnational corporations, who are gradually replacing the Imperialism in world politics. The national bourgeoisie that the National Democratic Revolutions so feverishly sought for never existed; Said so rightly talked about transfer of technology and Power, but the obsession with identity that eventually Orientalism leads us to a murky area: “in places like Iraq and Jordan, leaders of the new state were brought in from the outside, tailored to suit colonial interests and commitments. Likewise, most states in the Persian Gulf were handed over to those who could protect and safeguard imperial interests in the post-withdrawal phase” “… like its colonial predecessor, postcolonial identity owes its existence to force”.
“Writing back to the centre” in the former colonisers’ language is also questioned. The situation is stranger in former Asiatic societies where the new colonisers themselves have a master, the US imperialism. A Baloch in modern-day independent Pakistan is colonised by the Punjabi-Sindhi bourgeoisie state, but at the same time, the state and its runners themselves are mere stooges of big international money. The question, now, is, can a slave, himself a slave, keep a slave? Why does one need write in say English to write back to the centre? Why can Bangla or Pashto not be used to fight back, against the Empire? Alam’s book raises these issues and, at times, he tries to find an answer to these questions that have been dogging Po-Co Literature since its birth.
Then there is the more unpleasant issue of belonging. In a region like South Asia, where hundreds and thousands of people live in abject poverty, where a majority of them do not even know how to write in their own language, writing in English threatens to become a replacement of the babu culture of the eighteen and early nineteen centuries. The White are gone, and are replaced by an isolated group of arrivistes who send their children to the US (fondly called the states) or the UK. Dhaka or Delhi's posh clubs are full of such lumpen bourgeoisies who talk about revolution over a glass of champagne, who find it difficult to sleep without their bedroom properly air-conditioned. English in the South Asian subcontinent has remained the language of a certain class. Some have already migrated to the west, remotely in touch with the land whose people they write about. It is interesting though that most of the work that the Po-Co writers produce are not non-bourgeois in nature, and, it at times fails (to a dangerous extent) to touch the life of the Proletariats of its own land. One reason for this can be that most of them live faraway from the place they are writing about, another reason is their class, which refuses to leave them when they are writing. Writers of South Asian Diaspora ceased to exist as an interpreter of reality they become mere translator "glancing over their shoulder all the time they write, at the foreigners who will read them" .
Alam is our leading literary theorist, and his new book, however, will remain a milestone when a true Po-Co history of our region will be written.

Works cited:

1.“I Robinson Crusoe, do affirm that the story though allegorical, is also historical…Further, that there is a man alive, well known too, the actions of whose life are the just subject of these three volumes, and to whom all or most part of the story most directly alludes…and to this I set my name.” (Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe).
“And with a bravado worthy of Cervantes he signs his name: Robinson Crusoe,” writes JM Coetzee. Stranger Shores essays 1986-1999, JM Coetzee (Great Britain: Secker & Warburg, 2001).

2.See The Voyages of Sir James Lancaster 1591-1603, ed. Sir William Foster (London: Hakluyt Society, 1940).

3. “About 100 years before the Spanish invasion, the Taínos were challenged by an invading South American tribe - the Caribs . Fierce, warlike, sadistic, and adept at using poison-tipped arrows, they raided Taíno settlements for slaves (especially females) and bodies for the completion of their rites of cannibalism. Some ethnologists argue that the preeminence of the Taínos, shaken by the attacks of the Caribs, was already jeopardized by the time of the Spanish occupation. In fact, it was Caribs who fought the most effectively against the Europeans, their behavior probably led the Europeans to unfairly attribute warlike tendencies to all of the island's tribes. A dynamic tension between the Taínos and the Caribs certainly existed when the Christopher Columbus landed on Puerto Rico.”
For more see The Indigenous People of the Caribbean. ed. Samuel M. Wilson (Gainesville, Florida: University of Florida). pp. 180–185.

4. “And then there is the mystery of your submission. Why, during all those years alone with Cruso, did you submit to his rule, when you might easily have slain him, or blinded him and made him into your slave in turn? Is there something in the condition of slavehood that invades the heart and makes a slave a slave for life, as the whiff of ink clings forever to a schoolmaster?”
Foe, JM Coetzee (London: Penguin, 1986). p. 85.
Coetzee here deconstruct Defoe’s work and sees the Crusoe’s colonial project from the point of view of an Englishwoman Susan Barton.
For further reading: ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (ed.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (United States: University of Illinois, 1988). The essay is written by Gayatri Spivak .

5. Anti-Dühring, Part II: Political Economy, III. Theory of Force (Continuation), Frederick Engels (1877)

6. Imperial Entanglements and Literature in English, Fakrul Alam (Dhaka:, 2007). p. 242.

7.“Who am I?: The Identity Crisis in the Middle East” by P, R Kumaraswamy, The Middle East Review of International Affairs (March 2006) Volume 10, No. 1, Article 5, p 1.

8. The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses, Larbi Sadiki (India: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd, 2004). p, 122.
9. Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, JM Coetzee (Great Britain: Secker & Warburg, 2003). p. 51.
"Whether they like it or not they have accepted the role of interpreter, interpreting Africa to their reader. Yet how can you explore a world in all its depth if at the same time if you are having to explain it to outsiders? It is like a scientist trying to give full, creative attention to its investigations while at the same time explaining what he is doing to a class of ignorant students…" Coetzee's protagonist says.

This article was first published in the Daily Star on July 13, 2007