- Introduction:Locating South Asia
The inside flap on a 1971 U.S. edition of Bharati Mukherjee's The Tiger's Daughter compares her writing to "the silk lining of a raja's pocket." A blurb on a 1988 U.S. edition of Mukherjee's The Middleman and Other Stories congratulates her for "kidnapping our culture and returning it to us with a ruby in its ear, cardamom on its breath, golden threads of syncretism woven through its fabric." Before looking more closely at these descriptions, let me say, first, that they reveal more about the blurbists than about Mukherjee, for though Mukherjee is sometimes accused of marketing her writing to the west, she can really not be said to share the Raj nostalgia of her blurbists. Second, the particular location of the self and non-self in these blurbs might have been originally posited in the west, but it is potentially reproducible in the many third world zones that are well within the ideological reach of the first. Consequently, any discussion of the blurbs must turn on the distinction of self/non-self, and not western/non-western.
Blurbs are self-caricaturing, and any indignation they cause academic expatriate South Asians such as I is sometimes accompanied by the uneasy sense of how welcome indignation is as the least complicated and most self-absolving impetus for our critical profession. But I open this special issue with the blurbs to suggest that they can raise important questions about the location of the South Asian literary text in the western(ized) imaginary, academy, and journal. To turn to the first blurb: leaving aside the matter of whether [End Page 1] raja's "coats" had pockets, we still need to investigate the techniques through which the self dresses itself in the very moment that it castrates and undresses the raja's body so as to reach into its most hidden recesses: the linings of the pockets of its coats. How does this dressing of the self release it from the self-consciousness that usually gets in the way of admitting to the pleasures of stroking the intimate and hidden recesses of the other? And since the raja's body was presumably screened from the gaze as well as touch of ordinary voyeurs, is his coat supposed to be on this body, or does it hang in more accessible spaces, such as the Smithsonian or the back room of a Merchant-Ivory cinematic production of South Asia?
In the nearly twenty years that separate the second blurb from the first, the non-self seems to have shifted its location, for there is an apparent difference between letting the raja's coat hang in a museum that one visits on occasion, and moving the costume party that we sometimes mean by "multiculturalism" into one's house. But the difference is not radical. After the party comes the ritual of undressing, of plucking the ruby from one's ear, and removing cardamom-breath with toothpaste and mouthwash. Uniting both blurbs, then, is the belief that the non-self can be put on and off with equal ease, that it does not inhabit the most hidden and intimate recesses of the self.
In this sense, the blurbs allocate a special location, and a special issue status, to the third world literary text. One must of course ask how this concept of special issues impinges upon the special issue status of this present volume on the Indian subcontinent. In this connection, it helps to remember the pun in the title of the third chapter of Trinh T. Minh-ha's Woman, Native, Other. The title is "Difference: 'A Special Third World Women's Issue,'" and the chapter is reprinted from a special issue of Discourse ("She, the (In)appropriated Other"). Trinh's pun points to the ease with which a special issue on Difference and Third World Women can posit difference as the exclusive concern of third world women. At this point I should say that the good faith of MFS is not in question, for it has allocated third world literature more space than have journals with comparably large and general first world readerships. This...