Margit Köves






”Twice Born” FictionVariations on Reincarnation

I joined the exchange about centre and periphery only at the second run-up; I was happy about the invitation because of my experience of growing up in Hungary - considered by West-Europeans the periphery of Europe - and then again because of the experience of living in India, which, though somewhat differently, is also considered the periphery. My article Twice Born Fiction, based on an interview given by the critic Péter Balassa in ”Kétezer” argues that the centre actually shifted to the North/South divide. My article discusses this issue in terms of Indian literature and postcolonial theory. In the last fifty years Indian English literature has become a part of world literature and an important example of postmodernism at a time when the question of centre/periphery was going through enormous change. The title of my article ”Twice Born” Fiction is a reference to the title of Meenakshi Mukherjee's book ”The Twice Born Fiction” (1971).

The revaluation of Indian English literature is connected with the theory of orientalism and postcolonial discourse. The publication of ”The Empire Writes Back” in 1987 signals the rebirth of Indian English literature that questions the relationship between centre and periphery, the norms that govern literary language, objectivity, the norms of gender hierarchy. The transformation of the social and aesthetic value system, genres, narrative identities, the influence of art and film are characteristics of the new Indian novel in English. I will introduce some of these and suggest that the Indian subcontinent formulates its extreme contrasts on new bases. My past reading of Örkény, Margit Kaffka, Hrabal and Esterházy provided analogies and interfered with my interpretation and reception of Indian writers Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and V.S. Naipaul, Manto, Anita Desai and Rushdie. I could say that my reception of these writers is a specific case of Central European minority reading as Zoltán Gátai has pointed out in the context of Croatian literature. (Zoltán GÁTAI P/C 1, 73)

In the first part of ”Twice Born Fiction” I interpreted the work of a writer I was socialized on in India, Ruth Jhabvala. Jhabvala's prose describes the periphery with the traditional attributes of orientalism, with the metaphors of ”heat” and ”dust”. This is the era of Nehru (1947󈞬), when the Indian upper middle class took over the role of the colonial middle class. Her characters, poor Europeans who come to India from various parts of Europe, England, Germany, or Poland, are physically present in India, but actually have a sense of absence. It is not clear whether their sense of absence is directed to the missing centre, their European homeland, or India. I interpreted two short stories by Jhabvala - My First Marriage (1957) and The Interview (1963) published in this context. Reality and authenticity are important angles in Jhabvala's work.

Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas (1961) reflects a sense of transitoriness, uncertainty and linguistic insecurity, a sense of being alien that Biswas feels among the Tulsis, his wife's relations. The main theme of this work is disappointment after political liberation. I have also considered his essays entitled An Area of Darkness, (1964) and India: A Wounded Civilization (1977) recall Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902). The metaphorical darkness of the African forest in Conrad's novel is transformed into the darkness of India after Independence in Naipaul's An Area of Darkness. Naipaul has an abundant sense of humour and irony describing everyday scenes of life in Delhi and elsewhere.

In the essay India: a Wounded Civilization written after the Emergency (1975󈞹) Naipaul explores India after Independence in the context of identity, politics, and history. Naipaul describes the breakdown of institutions with the metaphor of the ”wound”. Ancient civilization is identified with the Hindu cultural and philosophical system, with the memories of Hindu rites of the Naipaul family in Trinidad.

Political freedom after Independence is connected by Naipaul with armed struggle as in the case of the Naxalite movement, and with right-wing political formations like the Shiv Sena or BJP. The writings of both Naipaul and Jhabwala relate to history, they portray Indian institutions with disappointment and despair and use a number of stereotypes, which are characteristic of orientalism. As Edward Said formulated it:

”Orientalism as a western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”

Said ascribed special importance to literature, to Jane Austen, Albert Camus, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, to the texts and music of modernism where the aesthetic reflection of the colonial system and its effect on European modernism and cultural self-definition could be examined. The reception of Indian modernism meant the Indian cult of the divided personality that some individuals understood as belonging nowhere and some accepted as belonging to English and local cultures at the same time. This created the double view of insider and outsider at the same time. The cultural turn of the eighties and the theorisation of orientalist discourse influenced the canon of Indian departments of English literature and their textual analyses. Accepted texts of the canon, like Kipling's Kim (1901) and Jungle Book (1894); Forster's Passage to India (1924), and classics like Shakespeare's The Tempest were interpreted in a new way. The cultural turn provided the opportunity for interdisciplinary work on texts in history, politics, and literature.

In the context of postcolonial theory and Indian English literature it is evident that the direction of the current from centre to periphery is reversed; or, as Edit GILBERT (P/C 1, 8) has formulated, the dichotomy between the concepts of centre and periphery is multiplied.

In the second part of my paper I dealt with the interconnection between postcolonial theory and the Indian English novel in the 1990s, when the cultural characteristics of Orientalism were extended by postcolonial theory to local-specific features, like the concept of class to the notion of the subaltern. This meant the revaluation of periphery, of social exploitation, marginal groups and positions, aspects which became part of critical strategy in the nineties. The authors of The Empire Writes Back (Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin) emphasize the continuity of colonial and postcolonial studies while authors like Harish Trivedi and Pankaj Mishra (both based in India) stress the fracture between the two.

The novels of Amitav Ghosh, The Glass Palace (2000) and The Hungry Tide (2004); Mukul Kesavan's Looking Through Glass (1995), Geeta Hariharan's In Times of Siege (2003) rely on the multiple visions of history and self-reflection. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's interpretation of Mahasveta Devi's short stories and other writers analyse the point of view of women on the periphery. The approach of postcolonialism increased interest in the work of writers in local languages and their texts on Partition, the tragic division of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan at the time of Independence in 1947.

Salman Rushdie's novels, Midnight's Children (1981) and The Moor's Last Sigh (1995), deal with Independence and the developments after 1947 in plural narratives. In both his novels Rushdie utilises the metaphor of nationalist history-writing, the nation as a family. The metaphor of the perforated bed sheet in Midnight's Children, connected to 1915, the beginning of the story is the ”talisman” of Salim, the grandchild of the liberal Muslim doctor, Adam Aziz. The genealogy of Salim (fictional and not genetic) is a possible alternative to the role of family dynasties in politics.

In the Moor's Last Sigh Rushdie connects alternative history to the alliance of the Spanish-Jewish Zogoiby and the Portuguese da Gama family. Rushdie reverses the relationship of Europe, Great Britain and Portugal and makes Bombay – the upper layer of the palimpsest. Mother India, the key image of Indian nationalism is undercut by the character of Aurora ”who loved and betrayed and ate and destroyed and again loved her children”. In my reading of the novel Rushdie does not write off the ethical dilemmas of modernity and the concept of universality (which is raised in connection with Imre Kertész in C/P 1,108 by Tamás Zoltán KISS), but his brand of postmodernism is about finding different definitions for them.


For my recent paper Variations on Reincarnation I selected two Indian English novels, Arun Joshi's The Strange Case of Billy Biswas (1971) and Amitav Ghosh's Calcutta Chromosome, A Novel of Fevers, Delirium and Discovery (1996) to examine the poetics of crossing spiritual boundaries. Both novels begin in New York and continue in India. Arun Joshi's existentialist novel contrasts the technological, ethical, cognitive consciousness of the urban Indian middle class with the world, rites, life style of tribals in the Maikal hills, while Calcutta Chromosome enters the subreal world of interpersonal relations and shows through the history of malaria research the complex interpenetration of rational and mythical thought.

The protagonist of the novel The Strange Case of Billy Biswas is a split personality, divided between his urban ”civilized” and his ”tribal”, ”timeless”, ”uncivilizedSelf. The opposition and contrast between Biswas and his family, the tribe and the urban middle class can be demarcated in geographical and spatial terms. Biswas feels that his surroundings in the city restrict his ”natural” sense of space and time while his ”tribal” Self is directed to the timeless, universal essence. The construction of Self and Other in The Strange Case of Billy Biswas corresponds to E. M. Forster's A Passage to India where the boundary between the profane and sacred is crossed in the Malabar Caves. In the novel of the Russian writer Ludmilla Ulitskaya, Kukotsky's Case (2001) also different concepts of space and time clash; historical realistic time controls the life of the of the Kukotsky family and Yelena; in The Strange Case of Billy Biswas the Biswas family and Romi, the collector-narrator of the novel live in a realistic space and time, while the clearing in the forest under the Chandtola rock is a sacred space where mythic time belongs.

Calcutta Chromosome (1996) avails of one of the powerful metaphors of postcolonial writing, the building in the process of construction or demolition. Three buildings play important roles in the novel:

1. Antar, the narrator of Calcutta Chromosome lives in New York in a ”bleak, cold building, encaged in its scaffolding of rusty, steel, fire-escapes”. Long ago the building was full with ”noisy, festive” Middle Eastern and Central Asian families who died or moved or were killed. This is where Antar gets involved in the story through his computer Ava.

2. The bungalow in Secunderabad where Ross lives with two other officers follows the style of colonial architecture and its contrast to the servants' quarters:

”sprawling colonial bungalow; white-washed walls, mile high ceilings, cool, dark interiors, elephants parked in the driveway”

”Then there are the servants' quarters, way out back where you can hardly see them: a long, low, line of rooms. The rooms are pretty small, but some of them have six or seven people living inside and some have whole families in residence.”

3. Number three Robinson Street where Ross once lived is purchased and renovated by Romen Haldar. At the time of the events Nepali construction workers live in the gutted shell of the building. This is where a magic-gnostic séance takes place by a group of gnostics on 21st August.

The last two buildings are connected to the official history of malaria research and taken over by erstwhile colonial subjects. By presenting the contrast between the façade and ”the gutted shell”, the façade and the backrooms, the novel deconstructs the official history of malaria research and shows how the local gnostics, counter-scientists control Ross's and his rivals' (Cunningham's and Farley's) lives and arrange Ross's academic success.

The local counter-scientists who work in Cunningham's laboratory in the last decade of the nineteenth century live on the margins of society. Mangala, the woman cleaning the lab is described by Cunningham as somebody ”a little touched in the head”. But for Farley, the young scientist, it is clear that she is in charge. Farley also witnesses when Mangala treats patients suffering in ”syphilitic dementia” with the blood of pigeons. Mangala uses the specific feature of malaria carriers that enables genetic recombination. The chromosome carries and stores information and Calcutta Chromosome engages with the issue of gathering, ordering, and storing information. Knowledge offered up and stored in notes and articles forms the dominant discourse of official science. Ross, Griegson, Farley and Murugan note down, gather and catalogue all information. To counter this, the mode of resistance used by the counter-scientists is silence. Gnostic knowledge cannot be verbally conveyed. The cult of Silence is the theme in the work of Phulmoni, the celebrated Bengali writer, and silence is also the technology of interpersonal communication among the spiritualists. Countess Pongrácz, the Hungarian secretary of the spiritualists discovers the early remains of the Valentine Cult, the temples of Chaos and Silence. According to the gnostics, silence is the original state and consciousness of God. Lutchman and Mangala communicate through silence and body language.

With its specific treatment of space and time and the role of the imaginary element, Calcutta Chromosome ascribes a big role to the reader who is part of unraveling the plot, identifying the warps, the identity of characters, location, and time. In Calcutta Chromosome the recurrence of the events, the circular structure suggests cyclical time, which leads the reader back to the initial situation of the novel. (Edit V. GILBERT The sky is still vacant, 2005. 12. 07.).

Antar is uncertain whether he controls the computer or the computer controls him. Tara and Lucky, the reincarnations of Lutchman and Mangala in New York shift next door, appear, and are heard in unexpected situations. Cyclical time and recurrent events in the novel undercut the notion of teleological historical time associated with the European concept of history.

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Kiadványunk felsőoktatási segédanyag, mely A Pécs / Sopiane Örökség Kht,a Pro Renovanda Cultura Hungariae AlapítványKlebelsberg Kunó Emlékére” Szakalapítványa,valamint A Pécs2010 Programtanács „Európa Kulturális Fővárosa - 2010” cím elérésére kiírt pályázatán megítélt Nívódíj segítségével, a kiadványhoz kötődő konferencia pedig a Pécsi Tudományegyetem Rektora, a Pécsi Tudományegyetem Bölcsészettudományi Karának Dékánja, a Modern Irodalomtörténeti és Irodalomelméleti Tanszék, a magyar szakos levelező képzés és a Liber-Arte Alapítvány által nyújtott támogatásokkal jöhetett csak létre. Segítségükért ezúton is köszönetet mondunk.