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Multiplicity of Voices in Indian English Novels: a Postcolonial Study

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A foundational text in the discussion of postcoloniality is Edward Said’s Orientalism. Said identifies how the western world “spoke” for and represented the Orient, while the Orient was kept silent to maintain and allow this position of power for the westerner. In Said’s Orientalism, he gives a brief history of these phenomena he identifies and describes. He says, [t]aking the late eighteenth century as a very roughly defined starting point Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it; in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.

An important point of Said’s concept of Orientalism is that in the western literature written about the Orient, the west “spoke for” the Orient, thus controlling/containing by negating the Orient’s own voice. He says of Flaubert’s Egyptian courtesan that “she never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence, or history. He spoke for and represented her”. The courtesan was silent. Because of the ethnocentricism of Europeans, “Orientals were rarely seen or looked at; they were seen through, analyzed not as citizens, or even people, but as problems to be solved or confined”, as “silent shadows to be animated by the Orientalist” . “The Orient” was a consistent, static entity of study. Within a quotation by Gertrude Bell (“in all the centuries the Arab has bought no wisdom from experience”), Said recognizes denegation with the use of “the Arab” “such as to wipe out any traces of individual Arabs with narratable life histories”. Instead, according to Said, what was absent in contemporary Western culture was “the Orient as a genuinely felt and experienced force”.

Against this static view of the Orient, Said recognizes the pressure of narrative: “Narrative asserts the power of men to be born, develop, and die, the tendency of institutions and actualities to change” Said identifies the “complex dynamics of human life” as what he calls “history as narrative.”. Speaking of literature, Said says, one of the striking aspects of the new American social-science attention to the Orient is its singular avoidance of literature. What seem to matter far more to the regional expert are “facts,” of which a literary text is perhaps a disturber. The net effect of this remarkable omission . . . is to keep the region and its people conceptually emasculated, reduced to “attitudes,” “trends,” statistics; in short, dehumanized. Since an Arab poet or novelist [. . .] writes of his experiences, of his values, of his humanity , he effectively disrupts the various patterns by which the Orient is represented. A literary text speaks more or less directly of a living reality.

Said ends his study of Orientalism by saying “Orientalism failed to identify with human experience, failed also to see it as human experience” and that he desires to see a challenge to the worldwide hegemony of Orientalism with his book as a contribution to this challenge.

Said assuredly proves his thesis, but today there is a very ironic situation in terms of the country of India and the thesis of Said’s book. Today, instead of desiring silence on the part of the Orient, the western world seems to be rushing to the doors of the Orient—to India in particular— to have the Orient now speak for them. Today, in the United States, when you call about a problem with some business account, instead of speaking to someone in the United States, you will most likely be speaking to someone in any number of eastern (Oriental) call-centers. According to a 2006 CNN news report, 85% of all outsourcing contracts are with India . Also in 2006 Reuters published results of a survey that indicted that New Delhi is the “most attractive city in the world” for outsourcing. The next six slots were also filled by Indian cities— Bangladore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, and Kolkata. So, when “Megan” answers your call from the United States about a credit card bill, you very likely could be speaking to “Nalini” in Pune.

Also, in the publishing business, after the phenomenal success of Arundhati Roy’s first novel The God of Small Things (and her phenomenal million-dollar advance), publishers “descended on India” in what William Dalrymple writing in The Observer called “a major publishing feeding-frenzy” seeking new Indian authors . One of the reasons for this “feeding-frenzy” is that today Indian novels seem to dominate bestseller lists, and, in particular, the esteemed Man Booker Prize list. (Roy won the award in1997.) The prize was awarded to Salman Rushdie in 1981 for Midnight’s Children, which in 1993 was designated the “Booker of Bookers” as the best novel to win in the first twenty-five years of the award and then “The Best of the Booker” in 2008 for the best novel to win in the forty-year history of the award. Several Indian writers have been on the short-list of potential winners, and in 2006 Karim Desai, the daughter of Anita Desai, an Indian writer who previously had two of her own books on the short list for the BookerPrize, won the esteemed award. The most recent Indian winner (2008) was Aravind Adiga for his novel The White Tiger.

Indian movies also seem to garner strong interest to the extent that the Indian-written, India- filmed Slumdog Millionaire was nominated for ten academy awards in 2009 and won eight the most for any movie of 2008, including the prestigious award for Best Picture of the year.Other Indian-made movies also have won great viewer coverage. Mark Lorenzen, in his study of “Bollywood,” made up of film and media companies in Mumbai, India, writes, “Producing roughly 1100 films annually, double that produced by USA, India is the world’s largest film producer. Bollywood, with an estimated 3.6 billion tickets sold globally in 2001 (compared to Hollywood’s 2.6 billion), is arguably one of the world’s most prolific cultural clusters”.

Based on this proliferation of Indian outsourcing call centers and the success of Indian novels and movies, it seems that, instead of silence, the West is now expecting something quite different from the East. Instead of silence, the West now desires speaking. But what does this speaking really mean? Does this speaking carry the same power that Said identifies as the westerner’s when he spoke for the Orient? Are the hearers of these voices hearing truth and an honest portrayal of the Indian voice? Within this speaking, is there any residual of what Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’O calls the “colonization of the mind”? Peter Morey says that “in relation to our central concern with narrative and power, the issue once again becomes one of narrative as resistance” . Where Orientalism failed to identify with human experience by silencing the Oriental, the many Indian texts today represent personal narratives, challenges to the hegemony of Orientalism, thus giving “voice” to human experiences of Indian people. .

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