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Rashna B. Singh. The Imperishable Empire: A Study of British Fiction on India. Washington: Three Continents, 1988. 287 pp. $28.00 cloth; pb. $14.00.

The Imperishable Empire is a thoroughly researched and scholarly work. Singh's analysis covers fiction by "Anglo-Indians in its original sense," that is, "the English who colonized India"—a category separate from contemporary Anglo-Indian (or Indo-Anglian) writers, so named because they write in English. The book discusses five of the "minor" authors (William Delafield Arnold, Sir Henry Cunningham, Philip Meadows Taylor, Maud Diver, Edward Thompson) and all the "major" Anglo-Indian writers (Rudyard Kipling, E. M. Forster, George Orwell) in the period before independence, because these writers represent "major types of Anglo-Indian fiction," and together they encompass the entire period of British Raj. The aim, however, is not to undertake detailed analysis of any particular writer but rather to examine "the interfusion of forces in the formation of this fiction and its influence on its reading public."

Singh analyzes several novels by "apparently minor novelists," although, as she remarks, in terms of "appeal and influence" the distinction between major and minor novelists would have to be inverted. One structural flaw of the entire study is present incipiently in the very categorization of works as major and minor. The book is divided into nine chapters, with headings like "The Imaginative Appeal of India," "The Role and Significance of India," "Perception and Depiction of Reality"—compartmentalizing concepts that in fact necessarily overlap. This leads to repetition, taking away, at times, from the overall argument. Given such categorization, the rationale for including certain texts in one chapter rather than another is not clear.

Among the major writers that Singh covers, she follows a useful method—literary productions of E. M. Forster, George Orwell, and Paul Scott are read in conjunction with memoirs, journals, letters, and critical reviews, hence revealing several contradictions between their alleged aims and literary representations. Singh also demystifies the "greatness" of these writers by placing them as part of a dialectic between writer and reader and, further, by locating them within an arena of social responsibility in creating and sustaining certain images of India for their largely, in this case, British readers. The impact on the British reading public (both in India and in Britain) of literary images powerfully presented in such cultural productions is an especially fascinating aspect of Singh's project.

Singh's historicist approach analyzes British writers in relation to such larger political configurations as race, class, and Empire. She raises several conceptual issues: orientalist representations and their impact on readers' and writers' imaginations and interpretations; configurations of Empire and the sharing of "a common consciousness" by writers and readers, mutually reinforcing several stereotypes. This validates the equivocation of historical material through the use of "coded terms" that describe Indian characters in dangerously generalizable terms. [End Page 283]

Singh suggests that women writers, some of whom after retirement and return to Britain could not quite forget India, seemed particularly susceptible to such generalizations. The titles of some of their novels—The Romance of a Nautch Girl, A Mixed Marriage, Love by an Indian River—tell the tale. For their audiences, stories of love and adventure reveling in "mystery and exoticism," remarks Singh, "remained a far more appealing aspect of the country than its history or politics." "A story about India is not necessarily a story of India." Even some of the better known women writers such as Maud Diver describe India as "an uncomfortable reality." The romances are more about English life in India than about India itself. Diver depicts characters who were "watchdogs and builders of the Empire," sometimes continuing a family tradition of service and civilization, fulfilling the White Man's Burden.

Singh also discovers in Diver the image of India as gendered—feminine, submissive, embodying inexplicable and mysterious charms. "England always as husband of India," writes Diver. At other times, the country is described as "a passion," as "seducer," as "goddess." Such mystification ensured that India appealed "to the heart rather than to the mind." Singh adds that this is true even in Forster's A Passage to India: "How...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 283-285
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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