- Mapping the Networks of India in Britain
THIS NOTABLE MONOGRAPH from Elleke Boehmer should be of great interest to readers of ELT, if only as the forty-five-year timespan of its focus comes so close to matching that of the forty-year timeframe with which the journal is concerned. But chronological coincidence aside, Boehmer’s book represents an important revisioning of the still [End Page 542] underexamined colonial encounters on British soil, rather than the Indian subcontinent, between Eastern visitors and their Western hosts. This study should be of equal interest to scholars working in British and/or South Asian late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature, and to historians of the period as well. What is more, Indian Arrivals promises to suggest new possibilities for further work in this increasingly significant area.
Boehmer’s tracing of the tracks left by the cross-cultural contact set in motion by the increasing presence of Indian arrivants in England is beautifully bookended by two particularly compelling moments from, respectively, the beginning and the end of this crucial period of transition. She sets the stage for her argument with a short opening section on what she suggests is “probably the first poem in the English language to represent a British-Indian encounter on British soil,” Toru Dutt’s “Near Hastings,” using it to suggest the “trading of recognitions” and “negotiated respect” between its “proximate strangers.” Nearly 250 pages later, she closes her Coda with the moving story of how Susan Owen wrote to Rabindranath Tagore in the wake of her son Wilfred’s death during the Great War, since the solider-poet not only had copied lines from the Nobel laureate’s Gitanjali into his pocket-book while away in France, but actually recited the lines to her on the last day of his final visit home while on leave. Together, these two instances aptly encapsulate the “harmonies and counterpoint” to the “complicated dialogic lineaments” of the interconnected cultural terrains within the diasporic space she refers to as “India-in-Britain.”
In between Boehmer lays out her case for her reframing of empire as “multilayered and interconnected, as well as divided and dichotomous,” as featuring both “racism and cultural misrecognition” and more facilitatory “circulation and exchange.” Her first chapter is her strongest. Cleverly titled “Passages to England,” it provides a fascinating survey of how traveling through the Suez Canal informed the overall experience of Indian arrivals in an absolutely fundamental way. She contextualizes this process through an opening section on Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, and then samples accounts of the pathway through the “magnificent ditch” both from British travelers (primarily Edwin Arnold, E. M. Forster, and Leonard Woolf) and Indian arrivants. The range of her sampling of the latter is quite impressive, including [End Page 543] Lala Baijnath, N. L. Doss, Romesh Chunder Dutt, B. M. Malabari, T. N. Mukharji, T. B. Pandian, Raja-i-Rajgan Jagatjit Singh, and Cornelia Sorabji. Throughout, Boehmer persuasively presents the extent to which these arrivants “began on their shipboard journeys to take possession, as Indians, of the mobile, cross-border experience of travel.”
In the second chapter, she develops the previously mentioned notion of India-in-Britain through a delineation of the various “networks, institutions, groupings, and partnerships by way of which Indian visitors and their British hosts and mentors drew closer together” during the early decades of this exchange in particular. Part of Boehmer’s purpose here is to show how Indians are “out-of-the-ordinary and yet in the thick of public life,” which she suggests through short readings of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, Charles Dickens’s Edwin Drood, Anthony Trollope’s Eustace Diamonds, and George Meredith’s One of Our Conquerors. As its title, “The Spasm of the Familiar,” might indicate, however, the chapter’s primary emphasis is to remind her readers that these travelers “did not tend to see themselves as secondary or belated” relative to their new British surroundings, for London was “comprehensible and readable,” even familiar to them owing to their colonial...