Postcolonial Biology

Kiran Keshavamurthy

Deepika Bahri’s book, Postcolonial Biology: Psyche and Flesh after Empire focuses on the impact that colonial norms and regulations had on the embodied experience of the colonized subject. Her emphasis on the hybridity of the colonized goes beyond the postcolonial deployment of the term as a challenge to essentialized notions of identity, to draw attention to the colonial reconfigurations of the biological and physiological dimensions of the colonized native. Her primary concern is to recover the embodied biological experience of the colonized, which has been shaped and micromanaged by the ideological mechanisms of colonialism.

In what she calls human bioplasticity, Bahri argues that the civilizing mission of colonialism lay in the material and discursive regulation of the colonized body, which had to conform to the contingent norms and forms of Englishness. This entailed an attempt to disavow and discipline the biological animal being of the human that was imagined to be disruptive of civilized embodiment. However, any attempt to undo the mask of mimicry that informs the assimilation of the colonized body into English culture does not reveal any identity or presence but, what Bahri terms the ‘sclerosed’ or ‘empty’ form of life. The colonized native was thus caught between a repressed animality and a privileged albeit lifeless mentalistic subjectivity. Bahri extends her engagement with the plasticity of the colonized body to the globalized present where the permeable body is still a relevant and fraught site for the battles between capital, corporates and exploited subjects.

English cultural norms and the repression of the animal

The book comprises an introduction that is followed by three chapters and a conclusion. The three chapters are dedicated to the readings of three novels, Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru, and Julian Barnes’ Unofficial Englishmen, Arthur and George. All the three novels share a preoccupation with the colonial hierarchization of the native other within degrees of degradation and assimilation. Hybridity and mimicry operate not only between the colonized and the colonizer but also among the colonized, which has (self-)estranging consequences. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children has an array of characters who are either conferred or assume or aspire for white cultural identities that enable their near perfect assimilation. But the novel is also constituted by an irresolvable anxiety about authenticity and origins that cannot be wished away in a world where white cultural and economic privileges are a function of capitalism. Saleem Sinai’s accidental status as the representative of the nation’s hybridity, as Bahri rightly observes, is haunted by the suppressed history of Anglo-Indians and by a Muslim identity that seeks its own genealogy within the bloody origins of a Hindu majoritarian nation-state. Saladin Chamcha is anxious to give his fellow Indians the impression that he has successfully controlled his animal impulses and completely passed off as an Englishman while Shiva who is supposed to be the real midnight’s child is the violent and undereducated son of poor and disenfranchised parents.

Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist addresses the dilemma of Anglo-Indians who fell short of English forms of bodily comportment and were never an integral part of their native societies. The protagonist of the novel, Pran Nath Razdan, is magically conceived when a wandering English forester is carried away by a flood to the mouth of a cave that is shaped like a woman named Amrita. In a deluge that resembles the Hindu and biblical origin myths of the world that is created from floods, there is nothing that the forester can do to prevent the intermingling of racial fluids to produce the postcolonial subject, Pran. Amar Nath Razdan, a wealthy Kashmiri Pandit, unwittingly raises Pran as his own son, after his marriage with Amrita ends when she dies in childbirth. Pran, being the biological son of an Englishman, seems to have his surrogate father’s fair complexion combined with Indian features. The novel suggests the resurrection of colonial-orientalist myths of a shared Aryan heritage. Amar Nath discovers Pran is not his son through his maid who finds a picture of the English forester in Amrita’s pocket who was found drowned in the Englishman’s clothes. Amar Nath is shocked at the uncanny resemblance between the photograph of the English forester and his son and for Amar Nath the forester symbolizes everything that goes against his pure cow-protectionist Hindu vegetarianism. Pran is cast away after his surrogate father’s death and on his journey to discover his own identity is violently re-formed and broken as he is made to assume different lives and characters. He encounters other Anglo-Indians who share his fair appearance but unlike him, are educated and English in their speech and appearance. Pran proves to be an inadequate rival and threat to those who fear their association with him may threaten the possibility of their own assimilation. Pran is drugged and beaten before he is sold into slavery during his visits to a brothel. He is reincarnated as a cross-dressing hermaphrodite named Rukhsana in the palace of an heirless nawab of Fatehpur. The nawab knows his world will be superseded by that of his younger brother Firoz who is a successful hybrid representative of English cultural identity and politics. He decides to expose a British major general, a representative of the Empire who is looking for a successor, for his weakness for hermaphrodites by offering him Rukhsana. Rukhsana is emasculated and feminized and is later rechristened Clive by the penitent major. Through his successive avatars, Pran and his various avatars embody a set of characters or subject positions that expose the hollowness of race and identity on an episodic journey that ends in Africa. Each of these positions draws new and different boundaries between self and other that are an attempt to conform to English forms of cultural life at the cost of repressing all that characterizes the animal life of the ‘primitive’ other. That the journey ends in Africa suggests that the precursors of today’s migrants were the earliest humans who were nomadic emigrants from Africa.

The last chapter on Julian Barnes’ novel Arthur and George dwells on the appeal that the civilizing mission held for immigrants despite its inherent contradictions. The aim of this mission was to convert sensory impulses (animal-being) into a rigid comportment of civility. The protagonist of the novel, the son of an Anglo-Indian Parsi-turned-Christian immigrant and his British wife, despite his best attempts fails to pass off as an Englishman and becomes the unfortunate scapegoat in a crime involving the mutilation of animals. He is targeted because of his bi-racial inheritance and accused of killing innocent white children. Barnes’ novel, which takes the form of a detective story, is inspired by an early story by Arthur Conan Doyle that imagined the Anglo-Indian as the coincidence of irrational criminality, poor blood and poor aesthetic form. Bahri locates George in Barnes’ novel as a scapegoat within a larger Christian narrative of redemption where George is, despite his attempts to subscribe to English forms of cultural life, the bearer of the collective sins of a violent and repressive civilization. George embodies the contradictions of English cultural identity: on the one hand, his education and social class enables his social mobility and protection in certain instances but in terms of his poor eyesight (eyesight being deemed as the superior sensory organ over smell or touch), physical features and weakness that compromises his masculinity, he is clearly stigmatized and perceived as a potential suspect in crime. He even internalizes racial prejudice when he is complicit in his own suffering and critical of other lower-class white boys.

All the three novels are in some way concerned with the unsuccessful repression of animal being in the process of trying to assimilate into English cultural life. But what is not clear are the stakes of the book. Why is Bahri interested in this question and what are the larger implications of critiquing a violent civilizational impulse to repress animality that perceives the body as mere life in the name of a ‘good life’? Is what she calls animal being another term for nature or a form of embodied culture (squatting, eating with one’s hands, belching, etc.) being repressed by English cultural norms that may enable an ethical life and freedom? Would what is being repressed be a form of culture and not a simple nature/culture binary? How could this life and freedom be imagined by the literary?  I believe that the main claim and the literary stakes of the book could have been complicated and laid out in the introduction, perhaps through a conversation between the literary texts (as well as other literary texts in the larger domain of Indian postcolonial literature) and the theoretical framework that Bahri deploys in the introduction.