The British empire in India has a long textual pedigree that seems to inspire some of those who study it with the strange historical hubris that by discovering a small piece of imperial history, they are recovering the long lost key for understanding the whole. And indeed, why not? The British encounter with India is like the blind man's elephant, changing shape and identity depending on where and when one touches it. For some readers who know it from the cheerful rapacity of the early eighteenth century, the empire was an adventurer's holiday, a place of raucous encounters between racketeers and local rulers, a time of lavish feasts, accompanied by dance and debauchery, each side entertaining the other memorably. The English discovered a cuisine to relish, and many found more than chutney for their pleasures. Hosts of adventurers fell in love with Indian maidens; they established opulent households with their bibis and offspring, preserving these unions for posterity in splendid English-style family portraits. However, for those who came to study empire a century later, this social intercourse had largely disappeared from public view, forbidden by authorities of the John Company. The once-cherished bibi was reduced in the Englishman's purview to the nautch girl and, after the 1857 Mutiny, to the lowly, but utterly necessary prostitute. The offspring who had once proudly—and publicly—borne the names of their English fathers were now discarded, reappearing as the Kims and Saleem Sinais of a later century: blue-eyed Urdu speakers who confound today's monoglot undergraduate. Depending on when and where one touched the empire, it was either a place of mutual sexual license, rigid social apartheid, or profound racial and cultural hybridity. Few seem willing to acknowledge it was all these and more. [End Page 777]
In the context of an encounter as complex, contradictory, and constantly evolving as the one between Britain and India, it is no wonder to discover the desire among some later viewers for a single frame within which to fix the cartwheel, if only for a few moments. What I earlier called hubris can now be understood as the response of confounded students who come upon a historical record insensitive to the easy but comforting Manicheanisms of ruler-ruled, colonizer-colonized, victimizer-victim. Indeed, one could argue that empire—so evident in the literature, history, cuisine, material culture, fashion, property, and probate of Britain—was largely excluded from its curricula because it could never be easily fixed for study. As the literary scholar Margery Sabin writes, "my own American education in British literature and history managed to leave my ignorance of the British empire almost entirely undisturbed through both undergraduate and graduate study" (5).
Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993) were revelatory works for Sabin, and she attempts in this collection of essays to fix her understanding of empire on a grid organized around a quest for exceptional figures (the "dissenters and mavericks" of the title) in order to challenge some of the largely unspecified orthodoxies of postcolonial studies. An important aspect of Sabin's "dissent," she writes, is her own practice of reading. Not content with what she calls "[t]he overfamiliar syllabus of canonical colonial and post-colonial texts [that tend] to perpetuate fixed lines of interpretation and debate with scant regard for historical particularity," Sabin is here "on the lookout for something special, something qualitatively better than the norm" so she might exercise her gifts of "evaluative literary distinctions" on a field she finds enervated by jargon and rigid, self-serving pieties (4, 5). With this goal in mind, Sabin's essays range across British and Indian writing and ruminate on some hitherto unlikely "dissenters" of the imperial project: Horace Walpole, Edmund Burke, William Sleeman, Wilkie Collins, Nirad Chaudhuri, the Bombay journal Quest, V. S. Naipaul's Indian travelogues, and the essayist, novelist, and self-declared critic, Pankaj Mishra.
Warmly allied with Sabin's commitment to expanding a historical understanding of empire through sensitive readings of its textual record, this...