The Deconstruction of Colonial Stereotypes in Contemporary English Fiction

Thesis (M.A.), 2009

91 Pages, Grade: 1,15




2.2.1 Victorian Stereotypes of the Indian Subordinate
2.3.1 Stereotypes as Symptoms of an ‘ Imperialism of the Mind ’

3.2.1 Sexuality, Spirituality and the Question of Supremacy Bridging the Culture Gap? The Depiction of Sexual Encounters and Gender Role Models. Losing One’s Senses: The Characters’ Search of the Sublime
3.3.1 What is the ‘ Real ’ India? The First World Traveller ’ s Longing for Truth and Authenticity



1 Stereotypes of the Other: Can Contemporary English Fiction Reverse Colonial Traditions? - Introduction

We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception (Lippmann: 90).

In defining the nature of stereotypes Walter Lippmann in 1922 explained one of the governing principles of human perception and human relationships. Although his theory on Public Opinion did not exclusively allude to the relationship between coloniser and colonised, his work laid the foundation of the historical, cultural and literary investigation and understanding of the mechanisms of colonial control through the power of stereotyping. By shaping the world they perceived according to their beliefs, moral codes and attitudes, including those concerning the people and lands they occupied, colonisers have ever since dominated their colonies not only through military strength and physical violence but also through their views. Limited to things which fitted their own status and that of the prefixed image of the people they wanted to govern, these views, or rather these prejudices, developed a sort of ‘survival’ mechanism which has rarely been so well investigated as in the case of the British Raj1. Hence, today many researchers agree that the development and consolidation of certain images concerning the Indian character or ‘type’ have, to varying degrees and with sometimes surprising contradictions, been one of the major governing strategies of the British Empire. Although it will not be my task to prove that this was part of an official policy, as previous works like K.M. Panikkar’s Asia and Western Dominance have suggested, it can be said that many documents of the eighteenth- and nineteenth century, whether they are governmental, scientific or artistic, show traces of colonial stereotyping, which, above all its contrary forms, have a common core: the confrontation of supposed European supremacy and Indian inferiority.

The aim of my work will partly be to demonstrate the major tropes of colonial stereotypes and their functioning in some selected literary pieces of High Imperialism, which approximately stretches from the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) to the end of the First World War (1918). As the “jewel in the crown” (Laisram: vii), India has long caught the most attention of all the British colonies, and even fascinated politicians, writers, and philosophers of other European nations. Due to this fact, I have chosen to focus on literary pieces that refer to this richest colony of the British Empire only. This, of course, is not to say that India can unrestrictedly be considered as representative of all nations under former European dominance. However, one reason for choosing India instead of any other former European colony is the great quantity and availability of works written on its account: no other nation has found a more frequent entry in colonial and postcolonial literature and thus allows for a better insight into the functioning of stereotypes than the works referring to India. In favour of a better traceability of the stereotype formation in colonial situations, it hence becomes possible to follow up the development of these stereotypes on the basis of literary pieces that refer to only one instead of many nations under former colonial control.

However, the main part of my work will concentrate on the aftermath of colonialism, i.e. the dealings of colonial stereotypes in contemporary English fiction. In order to preserve the compatibility between colonial and postcolonial works, the centre of my paper will therefore also focus on pieces that are both set in India and voice encounters with Indian culture and people. The basic question will thereby be whether the selected writers William Sutcliffe, Pankaj Mishra, Ruth Jhabvala and Anita Desai succeed in questioning and finally reversing colonial stereotypes in their narratives of East-West encounters - or whether they fall back on the images of the colonial legacy. Are Orient and Occident still two opposite poles in the perception of today’s world? Is there still an East-West divide between those formerly colonised and those formerly colonising as Edward W. Said stated in his 1978 published and highly influential theory on Orientalism ?

The contemporary novelists Anita Desai, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, William Sutcliffe and Mishra Pankaj approach these questions in their stories of travel and search - a search not only of an authentic postcolonial India but also that of the Euro- American characters’ true selves. While being brought up safely in the western hemisphere, they turn to an eastern country which seems to imply many things their home countries lack - and which thus represents mostly a counter-image of the West they left. Whether to find a new home or to experience a holiday trip, they all come to India with certain expectations - expectations that have undoubtedly been preformed by the environment they have lived in. The difficulty, however, will be to discuss how their expectations are met with the literary realities of the novels. Can their vision of the East be seen as a continuation of the coloniser’s scrutinising gaze on the mysteries of the territory they are still to explore? Or is the legacy of the western adventurer who comes to the East for his own enrichment, be it financial, social or spiritual, rather deconstructed by its ironic exaggeration and conspicuous repetition?

As indicated before, in order to answer these questions, it will firstly be necessary to detect and define major tropes of colonial stereotypes in the fiction of the Empire. In a second step, I will then examine if, and to what extent, these stereotypes can be seen as universal or common western clichés, i.e. whether they were spread as ‘universal knowledge’ across the borders of the English Empire and were finally adopted by other European countries. The question of their dissemination is important because it may hint at the duration of an East-West divide which I will discuss on the basis of Said’s already mentioned Orientalism. However, my main aim will not only be to prove that these stereotypes still play a role in our present environment but also to find out in what functions they re- appear in today’s English fiction.

The multicultural writers Ruth Jhabvala and Anita Desai have long been praised for their critical approaches to post-independence India as well as their equally critical view on Britain’s former dominance over it. With their German backgrounds, British educations and Indian homes, Jhabvala and Desai both share an experience which can be best described as an ‘inside-outsider’ or ‘outside-insider’, meaning that “[f]rom a European literary vantage point [they] may seem an ‘outside- insider’, while from the Indian artistic point of view [they] see[m] an ‘inside- outsider’” (Shahane: 46).2 As representatives of the ‘in-between’ writers they build a link between the British satirical writer William Sutcliffe and the Indian novelist Pankaj Mishra whom I have also chosen for my research. With this selection of international writers in English who all embrace more or less the same topic - the meetings of westerners with Indian characters in a postcolonial Indian setting - I hope to throw light on the literary processing of these intercultural encounters from four different perspectives. However, this does not mean that I will try to ascribe a special attitude towards stereotyping or a particular dealing with stereotypes to the authors’ heritage. On the contrary, the mixture of cultural backgrounds on the authors’ side should prevent a one-sided view and a too hasty analysis of the handlings of colonial stereotypes in contemporary English fiction. In questioning their novel’s character constellations and portrayals of intercultural meetings, I will try to find out whether and to which extend colonial stereotypes play a role. One of the central questions thereby will be in which way these authors use colonial stereotypes, and what the function of their usage may be. Thus, it will also be my aim to find out whether they adopt them unconsciously as elements of an ‘eternal and unchangeable truth’ about India and the West or whether they intentionally or even provocatively employ them in order to oppose the continuation of colonial prejudices. Finally, I will compare the novelists’ modes of stereotype processing with regard to their difference of style as well as their degree of inversion or, if applicable, their degree of manifestation of stereotypical notions.

2 Stereotypes in Sociological and Literary Contexts

Although today’s experts assume that stereotypes belong without fail to our everyday life, regardless of our personal attitude, lifestyle, education or character, the term is frequently still connected with a multitude of negative connotations. Some of them, for example, the notion of discrimination and narrow-mindedness prove themselves to be true when it comes to prejudice, a variation of the stereotype. However, stereotypes are rarely willingly, nor maliciously applied. On the contrary, most studies show that they are initially used rather unconsciously as strategies of orientation and identity finding; and only in a second step exploited for other purposes as, for instance, the consolidation of power in imperial structures. How this propagation works in the context of colonial relations or East- West relations, respectively, I will show after a brief introduction about the nature of the stereotype and its scion, prejudice. It will be important to bear in mind that both terms designate two different (but nonetheless often confounded) phenomena - whose distinction I will explain in detail in chapter 2.1. On the basis of their workings in sociological contexts, I will then demonstrate how socially established stereotypes were processed in colonial English literature and finally codified as distinction markers between Euro-American nations on the one side, and Asian nations on the other side. The pointing out of prevalent colonial stereotypes with respect to Indians in chapter 2.2.1 will be necessary for my investigation of today’s employment of these stereotypes in contemporary English fiction: in order to find out to what extent colonial images are repeated or reconverted in the works of Jhabvala, Desai, Mishra and Sutcliffe, I will firstly have to find out what they contained - and moreover what they aimed at. Secondly I will then investigate their development, i.e. whether they must be considered as tools of British colonial rule or rather as by-products of the dealings between two different civilisations. The results, I hope, will help to explain why certain images survive while others are reversed or ridiculed in contemporary English fiction.

2.1 Stereotyping as Mode of Orientation and Identity Finding

Stereotypes arise when self-integration is threatened. They are therefore part of our own way of dealing with the instabilities of our perception of the world. This is not to say that they are good, only that they are necessary (Gilman: 18).

Like many researchers in the field of literary and cultural stereotype processing, Sander Gilman ascribes the purpose of stereotypes to the human need of security and control. Thus, stereotypes are particularly triggered in situations where one’s self-perception and worldview are threatened. The peculiar thing is, however, that the process of stereotyping usually involves a group dynamic which produces “crude representations of differences to localize our anxiety, to prove to ourselves that what we fear does not lie within” (Gilman: 240). This basic fear of the disintegration of one’s own group through the intrusion of an outsider is, however, something which is not only exposed in racist and propagandistic texts, as Gilman’s study has shown, but also in everyday human relations. Thus, Gilman follows the assumptions of many sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists who have, since Walter Lippmann’s groundbreaking work Public Opinion in 1922, long defined group membership and the desire of belonging to a certain group as a major catalyst for stereotyping (Worchel and Rothgerber: 74).

Although stereotypes are not exclusively created in group contexts, most experts agree that they are particularly promoted by people who define themselves as members of a certain group in order to align themselves against people who are outside this group. According to the commonly concurred thesis that “Selbstbilder nur im Kontrast mit Fremdbildern möglich sind” (Hofstätter: 17), it becomes necessary to define one’ group, i.e. what it is and what it stands for, its values, philosophy and attitude, in terms of what it is not - or, to put it differently, one always also defines what the ‘other’, i.e. the outsider, is. As the group one belongs to or is willing to enter, is usually defined in positive terms, or even idealised, it is essential to create a counter-image which does not grasp the ‘other’ with all its different facets but only highlights those aspects which the own self or own group lacks or rejects. Consequently, this deficiency of full information, or rather the blanking out of certain characteristics in favour of others, leads to an often extreme (in negative as well as positive terms) estimation of the other group (Bergmann: 6). However, this form of reducing the world to one’s own expectations, further called stereotyping, does not unconditionally mean that this is intentionally done to upgrade or devaluate individuals in or outside one’s own group but rather has to be regarded as a foremost unconsciously used tool of orientation in an environment that provides various and often contradicting information. Therefore, most texts on this subject imply that the reduction and binding together of information within some basic parameters in the form of stereotypes is necessary since these stereotypes fulfil “eine wichtige Orientierungshilfe […], weil sie die Komplexität der erfahrbaren Wirklichkeit reduzieren“ (Florack: 39). In this sense, stereotypes cannot only be seen as shared beliefs that “establish a common bond between group members” (Worchel and Rothgerber: 80) but also as signs which alleviate the processing of new information: “In untrained observation we pick recognizable signs out of the environment. The signs stand for ideas, and these ideas we fill out with our stock of images” (Lippmann: 88). Nevertheless, according to Lippmann and others, these generalisations, however innocently they may be implemented, are not neutral since they do not only “save time in a busy life” (Ibid: 114) but also build “a defense of our position in society” (Ibid: 114). In essence, this means that stereotypes can be transformed into prejudices whenever the group order is threatened by the ‘other’ or polar group. In contrast to stereotypes, which function predominantly as an aid to orientation, prejudices are thus created to prescribe not only external factors of otherness to the outside group but attribute also internal and unchangeable reasons for their otherness:

Vorurteile entstehen in diesem Zusammenhang also, weil für Unterschiede zwischen Gruppen nicht äußere Unterschiede in ihren Lebensbedingungen und Chancen verantwortlich gemacht werden, sondern innere, unveränderliche Ursachen, etwa ‘Rasse’ oder Volkscharakter. Damit wird die Verantwortlichkeit ganz auf die betreffende Gruppe abgewälzt: Dann sind nicht die schlechten sozialen Verhältnisse oder verwehrte Chancengleichheit an fortdauernder Kriminalitätsrate und mangelnden Leistungen schuld, sondern die Zugehörigkeit zu einer Minderheit, einer Religion oder einer Nation (Bergmann: 6).

In a similar way to stereotypes, prejudices thus function as safeguards which ensure the insistence of dichotomies between the outside and the inside group. However, when following Bergmann’s thesis, prejudices differ from stereotypes not only because they assign inert and thus immutable reasons for the otherness of the outside group but because they can be characterised as “stabile und konsistent negative Einstellungen gegenüber einer anderen Gruppe bzw. einem anderen Individuum, weil es zu dieser Gruppe gehört” (Ibid: 3-4; emphasis: mine). When taking into account that the tendency to depict others in a negative light is likely to “stem from a desire to gain from, or maintain the tangible rewards associated with, power over other groups” (Hippel and Fein: 718; Vol. 3), as some psychologists have stated, then what Bergmann has explained in the context of prejudices against immigrants is very likely to functions as well, or even particularly, in colonial relations. In the case of the British Raj, however, most critics are reluctant to confirm ‘prejudices’ as the defining factor of the relationships between coloniser and colonised, although most of them identify stereotyping as “crucial in the colonial system” (Cheng: 136). This indecision, however, is surprising, as my further investigation will show that the stereotypical images nineteenth century British writers, officials and scientists have held, are often both negative as well as frequently transcribed to the unchangeable nature, class or race of the Indians and other colonised people. As a consequence, this must either mean that the term ‘prejudice’ is frequently confused with the term ‘stereotype’ or that it was prevalently replaced in favour of the more neutral and broader term ‘stereotype’. It will therefore be important to bear in mind that in my further investigation the term ‘stereotype’ will not necessarily appear as “a form of perception [which] imposes a certain character on the data of our senses before the data reach the intelligence” (Lippmann: 98) as originally defined by Lippmann but in a much more wide- ranging sense, including the subspecies of prejudice.

2.2 Stereotypes in Colonial Relations

The character of the Hindoo religion is to deify every passion, every propensity, every moral sin, and every physical abomination (Shaftesbury, The Times).

This statement, taken from a speech by Lord Shaftesbury before an English audience in 1857 reveals itself not only to be a clear example of prejudice in the sense already discussed; in fact it also offers a useful sample of the purpose and mechanisms of stereotyping in colonial relations: after having lost many English Company officers and their families in the battles against Indian sepoys, an event that later became known as the Indian Mutiny or the First War of Independence, respectively3, the English for the first time during their occupation in India had to face the possibility of a failure of their colonial venture. The creation and assertion of a dark counter-image by which they could distinguish themselves from those who threatened the established order of a colonial system now became imperative. This is not to say that stereotypes did not occur before 1857 but that these stereotypes had up to then not necessarily been used to mark a specific group as essentially evil. Rather, these stereotypes had created a binary between coloniser and colonised stating a difference that could be read in both negative as well as positive terms. Taking this into account, it becomes plausible that some Europeans, like the early Orientalist Friedrich Max Müller4, believed in a historically shared Aryan background of Europeans and Indians, but at the same time stated that the contemporary condition of Indians was a backward, i.e. a very different one from Europeans:

Indians and Europeans shared a common heritage, but for Max Müller their contemporary position was fundamentally different. He believed that Europeans had continued to build upon the high achievements of their Aryan ancestors, while Indian culture had become stagnant, even degenerate (Ballantyne: 43).

Provided that its dangerous potential with respect to a questioning of European supremacy was kept in check by stressing Asia’s insurmountable backlog, this theory made a selection of some positive features of Indian culture possible. Thus, Indian apparent backwardness was sometimes read in a rather charming light, for example when stating that their stagnation in time had preserved a vivid imagination, a love for leisure and a naturalness that Europeans had lost during their course of progress - an assumption that was, for example, proclaimed by William Jones, one of the most popular British advocates of India’s cultural richness: “[W]hatever be the cause, it has always been remarked, that the Asiaticks excel the inhabitants of our colder regions in the liveliness of their fancy, and the richness of their invention” (Jones in Franklin: 324; italics: Jones).5

The selection of admirable features against the background of an overall rather depreciative perception of colonised peoples becomes explicit when considering Victorian female role models: Although the Victorian woman was set as a glowing example against the supposedly libidinous and seductive Oriental woman, she missed some qualities of ideal female behaviour that were felt to be grossly embodied by the Oriental woman - for instance, the ‘wifely devotion’ Indian women exposed when committing sati6 (Sen: 62). Despite its suggested barbarism, Hindu spirituality thus also “encodes colonial fantasies of the perfect feminine behaviour […] in many ways worthy of emulation by English women” (Loomba: 157). However, it must be kept in mind that the outline of naturalness or mysticism in Indian cultures, often called ‘romantic Orientalism’, which can primarily be traced in documents written before the Indian Mutiny, after all, agrees with the prevailing view that India is the mirror-opposite of Europe; it continues to postulate cultural ‘essences’ and thus perpetuates the same (or at least similar) cultural stereotypes about the East. The romantic view of the Orient, then, is still a distortion, even if motivated at times by a respect for the Orient. As such, it participates in the projection of stereotypical forms that allows for a domestication and control of the East (King: 92).

The form of stereotyping Richard King described is thus, despite its recognition of some positive aspects in the East, a mechanism by which Eastern cultures and people were ‘kept in place’, i.e. branded as inferior to European societies who could thus legitimate their imperial ventures as welfare missions, bringing education and order to supposedly chaotic but on the whole, manageable colonial ‘children’. In stigmatising the colonised subject as “half-devil and half-child” (Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden”, l. 8), as it is suggested in a late, but most pro-imperialistic poem of the British Empire, the colonisers could convince themselves both of the difference as well as the common ground between them and their subjects: on the whole they appeared as alien devils, but on a deeper level they could be seen as eternal children who were caught in less advanced stages of the civilisation progress - an assumption which ultimately led to the conclusion that they were unable to care for themselves and therefore in constant need of European aid and guiding (Dodson: 67). However, this relatively mild doctrine which regarded the colonised as infants who “are particularly receptive to the examples of their elders” (Phillips: 26) changed when the imperial order was seriously threatened. While their colonial system in India had before been a comparatively liberal undertaking under the wings of the East India Company whose officials did only marginally interfere with the local Indian authorities, the upheavals of 1857 caused a psychological crisis to the English in India which ultimately challenged previous concepts of the colonised: for the first time, it was widely felt that Indians had not reacted according to the stereotypes they had been branded with. On the contrary, they had broken up the categories the English had invented of the ‘docile’ Hindu and the ‘effeminate’ Bengali who was physically and mentally not fit to combat with the so called ‘fighting races’ of the Muslim or Punjab7 - let alone the ‘manly virtues’ of the British (Sinha: vii). As a result, existing stereotypes had to be adjusted to the present situation - an undertaking which frequently led not only to the conversion of stereotypes into prejudices, as the above given quote of Lord Shaftesbury indicates but also to the coexistence of contradictory stereotypes and prejudices: “The depravity and backwardness of the Orient thus appeared to sit side by side with its blossoming spirituality and cultural richness” (King: 97-98).

But what at first sight seems rather surprising, if not illogical, can be explained when one considers the stereotype as a “form of splitting and multiple belief” (Bhabha, The Location of Culture: 77) which “requires, for its successful signification, a continual and repetitive chain of other stereotypes” (Ibid: 77). For Homi Bhabha, stereotypes are to be regarded as ‘impossible objects’ (Ibid: 81) which represent both the demand to expel and the desire to explore the unknown, and thus functioning both as phobia and fetish with respect to the colonisers (Ibid: 72-73).8 In other words, the Indian can be both a coward and a ruthless killer, an innocent child and a brutal rapist; Indian culture and religion at the same time a source of deep spirituality and moral depravity since “in each case what is being dramatized is a separation - between races, cultures, histories, within histories - a separation between before and after that repeats obsessively the mythical moment of disjunction” (Ibid: 82; emphasis: Bhabha). In conclusion, one can therefore say that stereotypes and prejudices are again and again newly triggered “when people are in conflict with each other” (Fein and Hippel, Vol. 4: 234) - a situation very likely to arise in colonial contexts. However, the creation of new stereotypes during a crisis does not automatically lead to the deletion but rather to an ongoing struggle with older clichés. In fact, the process of stereotyping can be described as a layering of new images over old ones without fully hiding those older pictures - a phenomenon that may produce contradictory images while serving the same purpose: the ‘othering’ of intruders. The stereotyped ‘other’ in colonial discourses is therefore never a uniform entity but a “historical palimpsest […] which combined different and changing ways of characterizing the alien condition” (Boehmer: 83). Naturally, it must be added that colonial stereotyping or ‘othering’ did not only occur in one direction but was a mutual process between both parties, as critics like Christine Bolt have already stated (Bolt: 221). However, it will go beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the development of Indian counter- images as a reaction to colonial prejudices. Instead, I will concentrate from now on the stereotypes that can be found in western colonial literature - a discussion which will naturally also include the topic of European self-perception.

2.2.1 Victorian Stereotypes of the Indian Subordinate

You cannot explain things to the Oriental. You must show (Kipling, “ Georgie Porgie ” : 315).

As one of the most popular and at the same time most controversial colonial Anglo-Indian writers, Kipling took up several of the circulating stereotypes of his time in his literary accounts on Indian life. While many literary critics of the mid- and late twentieth century regarded Kipling rather one-sidedly as the “Bard of the Empire” (Lewis: 59) who continuously celebrated English superiority, some recent scholars have tended to see Kipling and his attitude to Britain’s imperial agenda in a more complex light (David: 7). But despite the sometimes quite ironic undertone of Kipling’s works, most critics agree that particularly his early short stories mirror many of the recurrent images held about Indians that could also be found in political speeches, newspaper articles and personal accounts of English Victorians. One of the most persistent tropes is that of the uneducated Indian who is, in contrast to the western individual, unable to broaden his mind by the didactical imparting of theoretical knowledge but only through the sensual experience of things. Sensuality, and more explicitly, sexual sensuality or “Oriental passion and impulsiveness” (Kipling, “Beyond the Pale”: 8) were consequently not only seen as a decisive distinction marker between British colonisers and Indian subordinates but also as a source of all sorts of Indian shortcomings - and thus ultimately as justification for dominance (Prakash: 231-232). Moreover, overt sexuality and political chaos were sometimes brought into a chain of cause and effect that demanded strict colonial control as one example of Katharine Mayo’s bestseller Mother India shows:

Bengal is the seat of bitterest political unrest - the producer of India’s main crop of anarchists, bomb-throwers and assassins. Bengal is also among the most sexually exaggerated regions of India; and medical and police authorities in any country observe the link between that quality and ‘queer’ criminal minds - the exhaustion of normal avenues of excitement creating a thirst and a search in the abnormal for gratification (Mayo: 122).

It is no surprise, however, that Mayo depicts the province of Bengal as major place of Indian vices. Bengalis have long since appeared in English literature as troublemakers. Remarkably, they did so not because they cared only about physical pleasure and were hopelessly ignorant of the achievements of European civilisation but because they acted against the common stereotype of the Indian, i.e. they were not only willing but also proved to be quite competent in learning the English language and holding government posts. However, their functioning as a connecting link between British officials and Indian subjects, which had been requested by such English politicians as Thomas Barbington Macaulay9, caused not only a better mutual understanding but also a thread to the exiting order: what Macaulay demanded, namely a “class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (Macaulay: 61), meant also that a specific group of Indians was allowed to act like British officials or, to use Bhabha’s term, mimic them - and thus erode the borders between rulers and subjects. The drastic depreciation of Bengalis in Mayo’s account thus echoes the attempts of some late Victorian fiction writers who struggled to re-establish old borders by re-defining the stereotype of the Bengali in a more ruthless way.10 One of these attempts can be traced when analysing Rudyard Kipling’s “The City of Dreadful Night”11, a reportage-like narrative on Calcutta’s hovels and deplorable political conditions. On the one hand, Kipling concedes to the intelligence of the Bengalis when voicing a (fictional) policeman who states that a “‘Bengali criminal […] is about the cleverest soul you could wish for. He gives us cases a year long to unravel’” (Kipling, “The City of Dreadful Night”: 55). On the other hand this statement emphasises that flashes of good characteristics, for instance cleverness, are always overshadowed by more weighty negative features, for example criminality. This technique can also be traced when Kipling takes up the topic of Bengali education:

Western education is an exotic plant. It is the upas tree, and it is all our fault. We brought out the ink-bottles and the patterns for the chairs. We planted it and it grew - monstrous as a banian. Now we are choked by the roots of it spreading so thickly in this fat soil of Bengal. (Ibid: 32-33).

In a similar way to many of his contemporaries, Kipling’s implied narrator is startled when he realises that western education was indeed not only easily adopted by Bengalis but flourished in a sense that had not been expected. As a consequence, educated people, among them many Bengali ‘babus’ as the contemptuous term for a ‘westernised’ Bengali was12, demanded more rights, including a share of political power - “a shock to which the British officials could not easily adjust” (Parry: 51). In order to overcome this partly self-indebted trauma, which temporarily resulted in the ruling over major Bengali cities by Indian municipalities, it became necessary to deflate Bengali qualities by emphasising their evil outcomes. Kipling does this by stating that something so immanently alien or ‘exotic’ to the Indian mind as western education must ultimately get out of control when given to a people so untrained in any form of rational thinking. In comparing the dissemination of western education among Indians to the unhealthy growth of a toxic plant, he makes clear that it may be true that Bengalis are capable of learning, but not of processing their knowledge into something useful. In order to prevent the ruin of Calcutta - a city “adorned, docked, wharfed, fronted, and reclaimed by Englishmen, existing only because England lives, and dependent for its life on England” (Kipling. “The City of Dreadful Night”: 14) - Kipling suggests a retraction of Indian municipality, i.e. the Indians’ retreat from “matters which they cannot, by the nature of their birth, understand” (Ibid: 16). His depiction of the “anglicised Bengali as almost-the-same-but-not-quite-English” (Low: 173), hence, joins the long list of colonial narratives which fix Indian otherness as birth-given and thus almost unchangeable.

But, as already indicated, an innate lack of rationality is not the only feature that dominated stereotypes about Bengalis, and Indians in general. On the contrary, their supposed alienation to a western way of thinking was taken as a proof for a whole range of other stereotypes. An image that can, despite all political and social changes, be found in all stages of European colonisation in India is that of the sensual Indian: developed as a counter-image of the Englishman, who is most frequently described as a rational as well as both mentally and physically strong being who displays the most honourable virtues of the European race, the Hindu Indian is described in terms of weakness. It is crucial, however, that this weakness was bound, according to colonial interpretations, to both moral depravity - characterised for instance in the lack of sexual restraint - as well as an effeminate nature, which sometimes was also read in terms of mental disorders (Loomba: 137- 138). However, it must be stated that in the case of Muslim Indian males, the trope of this stereotype was adjusted to the theory of the martial and non-martial Indian races: while sexual exaggeration - mirrored for example in the persistence of polygamy - was also highlighted as a factor of degeneracy, physical weakness could not as easily be detected in the martial Muslims. However, their apparent strength was reversed when depicting them, in contrast to the British, not as fair fighters but as cruel despots who massacred and tortured. An often quoted example for this stereotypical image is G.A. Henty’s description of the sultan Tippu in The Tiger of Mysore: A Story of the War with Tippoo Saib, a local Muslim ruler who, according to Henty, was a “human tiger; he delights in torturing his victims, and slays his prisoners from pure love of bloodshed” (Henty: 40).13 Despite its different designs, the otherness of both Indian Hindus and Muslims was thus in any case manifested against a controlled and reasonable English nature that was supposed to be neither soft nor brutal. Moreover, both Indian groups were united in the shared stereotype of sexual abnormity: while the Hindu was up to the middle of the nineteenth century often described as effeminate, homosexual, or sexually disorientated, the Muslim was seen as sadist who shut up female sex-slaves in his harem. With the Mutiny, however, Muslim (sexual) aggressiveness was also transferred to other Indian groups, including that of the formerly ‘mild’ Bengali Hindus. Rape of white British females by dark Indian men became one of the main issues of British colonial literature in the last decades of the nineteenth century and thereafter.

There was a whisper among us, but only a whisper that past:

‘Children and wives - if the tigers leap into the fold unawares - Every man die at his post - and the foe may outlive us at last - Better to fall by the hands that they love, than to fall into theirs!’ (Tennyson, “The Defence of Lucknow”, l. 50-53).

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s (1809-1892) famous poem “The Defence of Lucknow” (1879) describes the over four months lasting hold out of English officials and civilians in Lucknow against mutinying rebels who tried to storm the city. Apart from the depiction of their miserable situation, which is characterised by death, dirt and hunger, two other elements stand out: one is the heroic behaviour of those who resist Indian attacks despite their almost hopeless situation, the other is the fear of what may be worse than death: the rape of their women by Indian men. Both decisive elements are combined in the resolute exclamation “Every man die at his post - and the foe may outlive us at last - / Better to fall by the hands that they love, than to fall into theirs!” (Ibid: l. 52-53). The effect of these lines is clear: On the one hand, Indians (Tennyson makes no distinction between religious or social classes but speaks of “the foe”) are generalised to an evil mass, on the other hand, the English are even more so dramatised as noble protectors of honour and justice. By repeating the motif of the human tiger who knows neither moral sin nor mercy, the Indians are dehumanised - an effect which in turn enables a more ruthless procedure of one group against the other (as it could be seen, for instance, in the denial of court trials for Indian rebels as well as the burning of Indian villages by revenging Britons)14 than it would have been the case in individual conflicts.

The Mutiny, hence, urged the transformation of stereotypes, although it must be said that it did not lead to a total invention of new stereotypes. Instead, some features (for example aggressiveness) that had before been ascribed to a specific group of Indians were now simply applied to more or less all Indian groups, and what had before the Mutiny been regarded as slightly odd, was now increasingly interpreted as totally absurd and perverse. In the case of Bengalis, a class of Indians that had long before caught much attention, this transformation becomes particularly evidential: had they before been described as ‘mild’, a feature that according to Greenberger was anyhow not interpreted as virtue since “it carried with it the implication that they lacked the characteristics of force and action which were most highly esteemed” (Greenberger: 48), this quality was now seen as a masque that made the real characteristics that lay behind it so much the worse. The treacherous Indian who displayed friendliness and respect in order to hide his deceitful nature became one of the stock characters of the Mutiny narrative. One example of this is Charles Dickens’ short story “The Perils of Certain English Prisoners” (1910). Although set in the West Indies somewhat before the actual events of the Mutiny, it clearly refers to the battles between the English and their disloyal subjects in India. Supposedly like the English in Cawnpore and Lucknow, the English characters in Dickens’ short story are first dazzled by the kindness of the inhabitants of the island they control and then caught in a trap. Thus, Christian George King, the ‘Sambo’ and native leader of the mutineers on the island, first disguises himself as “infantine and sweetly beautiful” (Dickens: 163), but then reveals himself to be a part of the “swarms of devils” (Ibid: 176) who fall over the English men, women and children of the settlement. However, the moral depravity of the rebels seems to strengthen the virtues of the Englishmen: Not only do they “beat down their illness […] like Saint George beating down the Dragon” (Ibid: 165), they moreover risk their lives to ensure the continued existence and purity of their group: “‘Look at these ladies and children, Sir!’ says Charker. ‘I’d sooner light myself, than not to try any chance to save them. We gave him a Hurrah!” (Ibid: 173; emphasis: Dickens). What is indicated in this passage becomes more explicit in the dialogue of Dickens’ main characters, Miss Maryon and Gill Davis:

‘I want you to make me a promise.’ ‘What is it, Miss? ‘That if we were defeated, and you are absolutely sure of my being taken, you will kill me.’ ‘I shall not be alive to do it, Miss. I shall have died in your defence before it comes to that. They must step across my body to lay a hand on you.’ ‘But if you are alive, you brave soldier.’ […] ‘And if you cannot save me from the Pirates, living, you will save me, dead. Tell me so.’(Ibid: 171-172)

By choosing death over rape, Miss Maryon is stylised as the prototype of a heroine - not only because her personal integrity is preserved by doing so but because she sets an example for the rest of her race. In contrast to death, rape (as well as sexual seduction) did endanger the unity of the English and thus in turn also their superiority. Although the theme of miscegenation had haunted the European imagination from the beginning of their colonial venture, it became the more present, the more the colonial undertaking was challenged. The notion of race and race purity which can be found in many mutiny narratives was further supported by the application of Darwin’s major evolutionary thesis about “the survival of the fittest” to human races towards the end of the nineteenth century: if, in the discourse of Social Darwinism, the colonial success of Europeans was ascribed to their racial purity, then the continuation of this success was endangered by the existence of so called Eurasians, the children of European and Asian parents. As a 18 result, Eurasians were often stigmatised as lazy and poor, as well as socially alienated (D’Cruz: 36-38). Particularly the Eurasian woman was depicted as seductive vamp who is constantly “in want of a white man, for the white man represents a ticket into the ‘legitimate’ world of the coloniser” (Ibid: 33) – a motif that was also taken up by Kipling in “The City of Dreadful Night”:


1 The term British Raj refers to the colonial rule of the subcontinent 1858-1947. Before 1858 Indian territories were controlled by the East India Company but not directly by the English Crown. The Raj extended over the area of present-day India as well as Pakistan and Bangladesh.

2 Shahane’s original discussion of this phenomenon relates only to Ruth Jhabvala. The application to both Jhabvala and Anita Desai is mine.

3 The Indian Mutiny started as a rebellion of Indian soldiers, called sepoys, in the East India Company’s Bengal Army in the Meerut. Although the underlying reasons were probably multiple, including a poor payment and unfair treatment in comparison to British officers, what triggered it were rumors about the greasing of cartridges with pig- and cowfat - a custom that offended both Hindu and Muslim beliefs. After some sepoys were arrested for rejecting to use cartridges, the news spread quickly to other provinces in which the mutineers were supported by civilians and local Indian rulers. Main battle grounds were Delhi, Cawnpore and Lucknow. After the final defeat of the rebels in 1858 the government of India was transferred to the Crown and the Army built up with British soldiers. Whereas the rebellion in Europe became mostly known as the Indian Mutiny, some Indian historians have come to interpret the events of 1857-1859 as the First War of Independence. For a more detailed survey confer Rosie Llewellyn-Jones. The Great Uprising in India, 1857-58. Untold Stories, Indian and British. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2007.

4 Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900), mainly known as Max Müller, was a German scholar of Sanskrit who translated many Indian religious texts into English by the order of the East India Company. He was the first to introduce the Sanskrit word “Aryan” into Indo-European lexis - where it became a synonym for white Nordic supremacy.

5 Sir William Jones (1747-1794) was the founder of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal (1784). With his translations of Sanskrit texts into English Jones made Indian literature for the first time accessible to a European audience. His belief in a common background of Indian and European cultures, indicated by the similarities between their languages, was later taken up and verified by Max Müller. Although Jones depicted Asia in a much more glorious light than his follower Müller, both agreed in the assumed stagnation of Asian cultures caused by a less favourable, hotter climate in comparison to European conditions.

6 Sati or Suttee is a Hindu religious rite that demands the burning of the widow on the funeral pyre of her husband. Although sati was abolished in the territories under British control since 1832, it finds ongoing entries in British colonial literature, exposing both the British condemnation of this ‘barbaric custom’ as well as their fascination with it.

7 According to some scholars like K.M. Panikkar, the British invented the concept of martial and non-martial races in order to ensure their power. Thus, races which were believed to have a marked sense of nationalism and were therefore seen as potential danger to the Empire, were declared to be “non-martial”, i.e. they were excluded from military service (Panikkar: 146).

8 When discussing the stereotype as fetish, Homi Bhabha reflects on the works of Siegmund Freud (1856-1939) and Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) who applied basic principles of the psychoanalysis to colonial relations.

9 Thomas Barbington Macaulay (1800-1859) was a member of the Supreme Council of India 1834- 1838. His “Minute on Indian Education“ (1835), a speech pleading for the introduction of the English language as official language in British controlled India, today is mostly discussed for its clear representation of a superior English self-perception.

10 Katherine Mayo (1867-1940) was an American writer and thus no integral part of the British Empire. Yet, she mirrored common colonial views such as the idea of a western supremacy and the right to impose western standards on supposedly backward peoples of the East. Her work can thus be seen as a proof of the spreading of British colonial stereotypes to other western nations - which hints at the construction of a mental East-West divide, a thesis I will discuss later.

11 Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) wrote two sketches called the “City of Dreadful Night”, both published in 1888. While the one discussed here, refers to the city of Calcutta, Kipling’s second work is set in Lahore. The title, however, goes back to a poem of the Scottish writer James B.V. Thomas, published in the early 1870s, which reveals a dark and eerie view of London.

12 In its original meaning the term ‘babu’ or ‘baboo’ was a title of honour that was usually addressed to littérateurs and higher civil servants. However, among the English in India it was “often used with a slight savour of disparagement, as characterizing a superficially cultivated, but too often effeminate, Bengali” (Yule and Burnell: 44).

13 Tippoo or Tipu Sultan (1750-1799) ruled over the Indian state of Mysore from 1782 to his demise in 1799. Between 1767 and the time of his death he was involved in a series of wars with the East India Company. After several battles Mysore lost the fight for independence and was finally subjugated in 1799 by the Company. However, Tipu’s reign stayed a recurrent theme in English literature throughout the whole colonial period. Henty’s work, written supposedly during the last decade of the nineteenth century, was only one of the many narratives that depicted him as cruel and blood-thirsty despot.

14 Llewellyn-Jones confirms this dehumanising effect when describing English revenge practices not only as brutal but as a blood sport. “Many were killed in the most brutal manner - burnt alive in their villages, mown down by grapeshot fired from a steamer on the Jumna, […] or simply shot like wild animals as they broke cover. Killing Indians became a blood sport and was described in sporting language” (Llewellyn-Jones: 156).

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The Deconstruction of Colonial Stereotypes in Contemporary English Fiction
University of Göttingen
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British Empire, India, History of Colonisation, East-West Encounter, Ruth Jhabvala, Anita Desai, Pankaj Mishra, William Sutcliffe, Edward Said
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Julia Krause (Author), 2009, The Deconstruction of Colonial Stereotypes in Contemporary English Fiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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