- Colonial Narratives/Cultural Dialogues: “Discoveries” of India in the Language of Colonialism
“[B]ut how could we be discovered,” queries the Moor’s “distinguished mother” in Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, “when we were not covered before?” This query, with its evocation of an apparent paradox—a discovery that is not a discovery, but, rather, an ideologically interested figuration mobilized to buttress (Portuguese) colonial adventures—could well be used to characterize the ostensible subject of Jyotsna Singh’s book: “The ‘discovery’ of India,” she notes, “serves as the enframing trope” for an analysis about British deployments of this trope to garner “epistemology privilege” that authorized (and mediated) such binarisms as “civilization and barbarism, tradition and modernity, Christianity and heathenism,” which, in turn, underwrote “colonizing enterprises such as civilizing, rescuing, and idealizing and demonizing their Indian subjects as ‘others’” (1–2). “Discovery” as a politically interested figuration, moreover, mediates Singh’s exploration of the “intersection between the ‘real’ and the imagined India” (3). However, “discovery,” though frequently evoked, only loosely ties together the various strands of this book’s argument. It functions as a too capacious and, in the final analysis, imprecise term for a study that is more substantively invested in tracking the binarisms that organize the “civilizing” and “rescue” missions through which colonialism imagined India (and Indians) into being. [End Page 235]
Singh’s argument proceeds chronologically, with individual chapters devoted to the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, with the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries getting double coverage in a chapter on Shakespeare’s reception in colonial Bengal. She concludes with contemporary postcolonial imaginings of India. Thus, despite her disclaimer that she does “not wish to connect these periods in a teleology of empire,” the net effect of this chronological arrangement works against her claim.
Chapter one maps “colonial beginnings” via seventeenth-century travel narratives. It examines, in particular, the letters and journals of Sir Thomas Roe (James I’s emissary to the Mogul court) and Thomas Coryate’s contemporaneous (with Roe) descriptions of his “overland journey and stay in the court of the Great Mogul” (41). In an illuminating move, Singh juxtaposes these accounts with “The Petition and Remonstrance of the Governing Board of the East India Company” to tease out what is only implicit in these travel accounts—“traces of an incipient colonial ideology” (24) with its arsenal of representations about non-Western “others.” For example, despite their self-presentation as eye-witness accounts, Coryate, Roe, and other English travelers, argues Singh, draw upon an “informal repertoire of conventions and methods” already available in other accounts of encounters with non-Western peoples and lands, where the evocation of the strange and marvelous are staple elements and can be keyed into alterities that come to figure so prominently in colonial discourse. Singh rightly points to her “originality” in pursuing these beginnings in seventeenth-century travel narratives. As she herself remarks, usually “it is the nineteenth century that is cast as the definitive moment of imperial power” (24).
Chapter two marks the transition from a period when “the interests of the State and the [East India] Company were closely related” to one when they became dissonant with each other (52). This chapter focuses on two “strands” that go into the “ideological formation of ‘India’” in the late eighteenth century (10). The first, embodied in the figure of the Nabob, himself represented as the stereotypical embodiment of Eastern potentates (nawab), functioned, on one level, as the receptacle for anxieties regarding the immorality and opportunism of “mercantile adventurism,” which, for some, represented the dark underbelly of colonialism itself. On another level, nabobs elicited anxieties regarding class hierarchies, which they threatened on their return to Britain with the wealth and habits of rule acquired from their stay in the colony. Made into the butts of satire, however, their potential threat to “Englishness” was dissipated. The second strand concerns the discourse of Orientalism (whose practitioners included William Jones and H. T. Colebroke), which “converted Indian history and...