Subramanian Shankar. Flesh and Fish Blood: Postcolonialism, Translation, and the Vernacular. Berkeley. U of California P, 2012. Pp. xi, 185. US$39.95.
In a very thoughtful, timely, and perceptive book, Subramanian Shankar reexamines the status and value of postcolonial studies from the perspective of comparatism, translation, and the vernacular. At a time when the future (and possible demise) of postcolonialism is being passionately debated, Shankar suggests that the real problem might not be that postcolonialism has run its course but rather that it has consistently ignored aspects of postcolonial discourse that could have nourished and strengthened the field.
In some ways, Shankar's argument is not entirely new. Many years ago Ngugt waThiong'o advanced a major critique of writing in English within the postcolonial project. More recently scholars and authors (including Amitav Ghosh, who chose not to let his novel be nominated for the Commonwealth Prize on the grounds that non-English texts were not eligible to participate) have, in very different ways, expressed the need to expand the boundaries of postcolonial literature to include "vernacular" literatures. Shankar takes this argument further by advancing a complex and rigorous argument about what is lost in the process of excluding vernacular literatures.
The role of comparatism enters the discussion only in the conclusion. The major chapters of Flesh and Fish Blood are concerned with deconstructing the self-congratulatory positioning of Anglophone writing and establishing a powerful and very persuasive argument for moving beyond the limits and limitations of English writing. Clearly very competent in the broad reach of contemporary Tamil writing from South India, Shankar is also a translator, in addition to being a professor of English. He is thus ideally placed to discuss in great detail the nuances of Tamil writing and demonstrate the extent to which it differs sharply from Anglophone writing. As a point of comparison, he focuses on R. K. Narayan, a major Indian writer who also happens to be a Tamil from South India. Using caste as a touchstone for analysis, Shankar offers a lively discussion of The Guide--both the novel and the Hindi film version--to show how both very carefully avoid the multiplicity of what he calls the "varna-jati" complex. The author quite rightly argues that "varna" as a four-fold caste division is embraced by writers who choose not to engage with the typology of "jati" that both nuances and complicates "varna" through its manifold subdivisions within the four-fold hierarchical system. For readers who are used to the idea that to read Narayan is to understand India, the discussion is a salutary reminder that Narayan excludes much that is crucial to the lived experience of Indians.
Shankar's discussion of several Dalit texts, together with his own translation of Thanneer by Komal Swaminathan, are central to his overall argument that vernacular literature can include trauma, grief, and oppression without necessarily becoming tendentious "tractor" art. Salman Rushdie is dismissive of vernacular literature because it is predictable in its evocation of stock characters and situations. Shankar challenges this stance with his close analysis of Dalit texts, which, for the most part, adopt a referential mode to tell deeply personal stories. In fact, as with Bama's Karukku, the novels can be almost autobiographical. …