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  • All India Becoming Tranquil: Wiring the Raj
  • Aaron Worth

In an early, comic scene from Mangal Pandey: The Rising, Bollywood’s recent epic-melodrama of the 1857 “mutiny,” a group of Indian men, pointedly seated amid a stand of hookahs (indices of “tradition”), express disbelief at a report of the “taelly garaffe” allegedly now “connect[ing] the entire country through wires.” This new expression of “Company” power only becomes comprehensible to them when it is suggested that the “white men have mastered black magic”—perhaps employing, as one opines, “witch’s hair” for wire. Later, when the rebellion has broken out, we learn from an anxious British officer that the natives have “torched the telegraph office”; in a short span of cinematic time, bemused ignorance of the technology has blossomed into a focused act of violence against it. What is particularly striking about these moments in this product of modern Hindi cinema is, it seems to me, precisely their venerability as proairetic atoms in traditional, British narratives of the rebellion. Indeed, despite the ostensible reversal of values represented by the film—the Company is evil, the sepoys heroic—it conjures with a set of codes (a widow rescued from the pyre by a British officer, the momentous parade-ground standoff over the greased cartridges1) very like those to be found in classic histories by the likes of Kaye and Malleson. In invoking the topos of Indian hostility to the British wire, construed as an innate suspicion or incomprehension finding release, in the bloody hour of mutiny, in the network’s attempted destruction, the makers of Mangal Pandey are in fact rehearsing a similarly durable theme to be found in a host of nineteenth-century mutiny narratives, as the native assault on imperial communications systems serves as a seemingly indispensable component of numerous works of fiction, history, and memoir.

The threat of the “mutinous” Indian is certainly present, too, in the world of Rudyard Kipling’s fiction—erupting at least once in an Alamo-like attack on a telegraph office. But the picture is complicated somewhat by the concomitant proliferation in his work of a seemingly contrapuntal figure, an interesting foil to the figure of the telegraph-smashing sepoy, who reappears in a variety of incarnations: namely, the Indian information worker. In The Naulahka, to choose one of seemingly numberless examples, a novel roughly contemporaneous with a number of classic mutiny fictions and histories, the American protagonist enters a telegraph office whose “sleepy” native operator is able to adopt a tone of faintly pitying superiority in addressing him (he is, as it happens, himself adept at signaling):

“Most gentlemen bring their own forms,” he said with a distant note of reproach in his bland manner. “But here is form. Have you got pencil?”

“Oh, see here, don’t let me strain this office…I’ll tap the message off myself. What’s your signal for Calcutta?”

“You, sir, not understanding this instrument.”

Don’t I? You ought to see me milk the wires at election-time.”

“This instrument require most judeecious handling, sir. You write message. I send. That is proper division of labour. Ha, ha!”

(89–90)

The Indian signaler radiates proprietary entitlement, a sense of pride and importance in his position, and a good-natured condescension, along with (unsurprisingly from the author of “White Man’s Burden,” with its overtly recapitulationist premise)2 an irrepressibly infantile nature: “‘Denver is in the United States America,’ said the native, looking up at Tarvin with childish glee in the sense of knowledge” (91). Here, as throughout Kipling’s India, the “native” has entered the network, not only having undergone a sea change from mutinous luddite to docile telegraphist (though the former figure is, again, by no means extinct in his world) but, in this case at least, “gleefully” enacting an idealized colonial relationship, “looking up” at the sahib to whom he appears as a child and remarking, “You write message. I send. That is proper division of labour.” The note of racial superiority is sounded in the signaler’s “childish” performance, certainly; but the specificity of setting is crucial as well: in the language factory of the telegraph office we are...

Additional Information

ISSN
1532-5768
Launched on MUSE
2008-04-04
Open Access
No
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