- The Postcolonial City and its Subjects: London, Nairobi, Bombay by Rashmi Varma
The title of The Postcolonial City and its Subjects: London, Nairobi, Bombay suggests it could be a book about many things—development studies, the urban poor, slums and informal settlements, migration, cinema, media, to list just a few. It was somewhat surprising, then, to learn that it focuses on literary representations of the postcolonial city and its female subjects through case studies of specific works of fiction. This was a pleasant surprise for this reviewer, but one feels that the publishers could have given it a better, more fitting, title, as undoubtedly other (potential) readers will be as misled as I was. Given Rashmi Varma’s commitment to feminist modes of literary criticism, something that becomes clear throughout the book, the rather generic and all-encompassing title runs the danger of fooling some who pick this up, and not attracting many others who may be interested in it. This criticism aside, which probably should not be directed at the author herself, The Postcolonial City and its Subjects is a richly detailed, eminently readable, and appealing work of feminist literary criticism that would appeal to scholars interested in postcolonial literature, the postcolonial city more generally, and the literatures of each of the three sites of inquiry specifically. Though the three case studies work together as a coherent whole, each chapter could be comfortably isolated from the others if a reader’s interest was drawn to just one of the locations.
The Postcolonial City and its Subjects, after the introduction, is divided into four chapters: “Eccentric Routes,” focusing on London; “Different Belongings,” on Nairobi; “Uncivil Lines,” on Bombay; and “Situated Solidarities,” a return to London. The first chapter on London looks at the city during World War I through readings of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark. The chapter on Nairobi centers on the city during Kenya’s anticolonial struggle in the mid-twentieth century. As Varma shows through a discussion [End Page 219] of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s Coming to Birth, “independence is representable only as an ‘unreal’ thing, a ‘gigantic deception’“ (96). Particularly appealing in this chapter is Varma’s use of Ngugi’s work to illustrate her feminist argument. Ngugi is a self-professed male feminist. Feminist literary criticism often overlooks male feminist writers, so Varma’s recognition of the validity of this standpoint is refreshing. The chapter on Bombay examines the city in the wake of the communal riots of 1992–3, specifically analyzing Shashi Deshpande’s That Long Silence, Vikram Chandra’s short story “Shakti” from his collection Love and Longing in Bombay, and Thrity Umrigar’s novel The Space Between Us. It is significant that Varma uses the city’s old but still commonly used name Bombay (rather than Mumbai, a change made under the right-wing Shiv Sena’s rule) as this feeds into her conceptualization of the city as a site of tension between the cosmopolitanism and parochial ethnic chauvinism—a symbol of the city’s “decosmopolitanization” and “provincialization” (131). The final chapter on London situates that particular postcolonial city in contemporary times as a place needing to redefine itself through reaching out to those places that were once its periphery. She identifies the 2012 London Olympics as “a significant part of the project to secure the city’s place in the new global imaginary” (161). In this chapter she looks at the work of South Asian women from London, particularly Monica Ali’s Brick Lane.
As well as being linked through their global and postcolonial city status, Varma connects London, Bombay, and Nairobi by focusing on the figure of the “unhomely woman . . . to elaborate new forms of political identity and to disarticulate the city as the site of masculinist and colonial publics” (2). She particularly looks at the way women’s labor has underpinned the formation of the modern city. Each of three sites, and the four chapters, pivots around an event that was...