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Modern Fiction Studies 46.2 (2000) 379-426



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Border Work, Border Trouble: Postcolonial Feminism and the Ayah in Bapsi Sidhwa's Cracking India

Ambreen Hai


Borderlands [. . .] may feed growth and exploration or [. . .] conceal a minefield.

--Margaret Higonnet, Borderwork: Feminist Engagements with Comparative Literature

It is the intersections of the various systemic networks of class, race, (hetero)sexuality, and nation, then, that position us as "women."

--Chandra Mohanty, "Cartographies"

In Rudyard Kipling's short story "On the City Wall," the border between city and country, between British control and Indian resistance, and between colonizer and colonized is occupied by the fantastical figure of Lalun, the "exquisite" courtesan, entertainer, and artist, on whose hospitable grounds men of all races and religions amicably meet. 1 Literally [End Page 379] located on the border of Lahore (now a border city of Pakistan), Lalun's house and body function emblematically as border spaces, sites on the "city wall" where sexual, political, and cultural capital is traded and lines of division crossed. This border status is, however, unexpectedly subversive, for it is Lalun's ingenious deployment of her seemingly non-aligned position in between many camps that enables her to hoodwink the narrator into helping a captive Indian revolutionary escape from British guards. Kipling, as the narrator, ruefully concludes: "I had become Lalun's Vizier after all" (243). While hybrid figures--such as interracial "Eurasians" or western-educated "Babus" in British India--were habitually derided in colonial discourse, this atypical colonial moment in "On the City Wall" seems more knowing of the strategic doubleness of borderhood, and of the radical potential of the in-between, or the unbelonging. As such, it might be read as a beginning, from which, more recently, postcolonial literary and theoretical writings have altogether re-valorized hybridity and begun to consider the paradoxical powers--despite difficulties--of many kinds of border crossers and border inhabitants.

In recent years, the problems and possibilities of borders and boundaries--of questioning, crossing, transgressing, reconfiguring, dismantling, and indeed inhabiting borders and border spaces--have become an increasing preoccupation for theoretical discourses in a wide variety of fields. 2 In such emergent fields as feminist, queer, race, postmodern, and postcolonial theories (as well as cultural and canon studies), examining the configurations of difference and the related task of rethinking disciplinarity provide the impulses for activating boundaries as lines of demarcation. In recent postcolonial work a focus has emerged that considers not only boundary crossing (which takes the border to be a signifier of division, constraint, or limitation), but also border inhabitation--on the "interstices" between, or the spaces of overlap--which regards the border itself (and the subjectivity of those positioned on the border) as a critical if ambiguous site of vital reconstruction, a position replete with contradictions and difficulty, but also with regenerative promise. Thus Homi Bhabha describes the border space as the productive "tenebrousness" of the "interstitial," or the in-between: "These in-between spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood--singular or communal--that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative [End Page 380] sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself" (1-2). "It is the space of intervention emerging in the cultural interstices," he continues, "that introduces creative invention into existence" (9). Border work, then, as undertaken by the in-betweens, by those who both belong and unbelong, who can offer crucial perspectival shifts, can have liberatory potential, because it can undo binaristic and hierarchical categories of opposition, offering useful critique and reconceptualization of either side of an opposition--be it cultural, political, or intellectual. Abdul JanMohamed, for instance, describes Edward Said as such a border intellectual, enabled precisely by his doubleness of belonging and not-belonging, and his ability to question as an insider/outsider in, for example, both "East" and "West" (97-118). Thus his "homelessness" (defined as a courageous refusal to ally oneself with a dominant ideological or political position) is useful as a form of Socratic challenge to either side.

Analogously, Emily Hicks...

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