- Reviewed by
When Borne Across is Bishnupriya Ghosh's first monograph, though her work on Indian writing and Indian film may already be familiar to scholars working in the field from her published essays. Students and critics of Salman Rushdie's fiction, in particular, might recall her finely argued essay on Rushdie's use of English in The Moor's Last Sigh from M. Keith Booker's 1999 collection Critical Essays on Salman Rushdie. In this earlier piece, which appears in When Borne Across in slightly modified form, Ghosh showed herself willing to tackle critical on dits about Rushdie's fiction by resisting the now familiar argument that Rushdie's use of English has served to detach his work from contemporary subcontinental linguistic and political realities. Ghosh argues instead that Rushdie, in The Moor's Last Sigh, is deploying a "localized or regionalized urban (Bombayite) . . . English" that "far from being the antithesis" of an Indian vernacular language "lives in memory of it" (130). This argument requires Ghosh to reject the received view of Rushdie's representation of India, which holds that Rushdie writes India for the West and so "translates most of the 'Eastern' cultural signs for his Western audience" (136). On the contrary, Ghosh insists, there is in Rushdie's fiction a wealth of local referencing and situated language use the significance of which Western readers will not always understand and the importance of which Rushdie does not necessarily flag for his Western audience. The presence of this situated contextual knowledge ("historical, popular cultural, linguistic and so forth"), for Ghosh, means that Rushdie's work is "inextricably harnessed to its space of enunciation," and therefore constitutes "an act of vernacular resistance that prevents his work being sold merely as a global commodity disengaged from the milieu of which it speaks" (129, 142). [End Page 703]
In When Borne Across Ghosh extends this argument to make a more sustained response to critics such as Timothy Brennan and Revathi Krishnaswamy who weigh the global reach and privileged metropolitan locations of "cosmopolitan" writers against any claim they might have to be politically enabling for the third world. Too often, Ghosh argues, "there is a metonymic slide where all cosmopolitans come to be either purveyors of the global market or nostalgia nomads. Hence the commercial success of South Asian writing in English is too quickly understood as a canny play to global demand: a scene where bourgeois cosmopolitan writers market India for an increasingly mobile and dispersed Indian bourgeoisie" (61). There is, Ghosh concedes, some "overlap in lifestyles and location" between economic globalists and cosmopolitan writers, but it does not follow that the two groups "necessarily share . . . ideological frameworks" (61). The former may shore up their economic appeal to the world by making India and its economic produce marketable in all cultural contexts, but there is a category of the latter— literary cosmopoliticals— who create works (fictions, in this instance) that have social and linguistic specificity and that cannot, therefore, be marketed to the world without requiring from the world some act of cultural translation—or without requiring, as the title has it, that the reader (or critic) be borne across. This category of writers includes the Indian authors that are Ghosh's principal subjects: Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Chandra, and Upamanyu Chatterjee (though as Ghosh indicates, there are a number of other writers, such as Rohinton Mistry, who might also have been included). In all cases, Ghosh suggests, these writers "privilege situated local performances of linguistic identity over any homogenized articulation of Indian English" and, in so doing, seek to challenge "nationalizing and globalizing agendas for local and subaltern communities threatened by economic violence and cultural erasure" (68, 18).
Ghosh's approach makes this study one that will be of particular use to readers who are not immediately familiar with the linguistic and cultural backgrounds of the writers (or novels) in question since it requires her to explicate many of the nuances and context-specific references that might otherwise be missed. For instance, Ghosh teases out...