Marginalized Communities, Poetic Transcendence, and the Guardianship of Literature in Desai's India and Wordsworth's Scotland

By Wehrs, Donald R. | ARIEL, July-October 2002 | Go to article overview

Marginalized Communities, Poetic Transcendence, and the Guardianship of Literature in Desai's India and Wordsworth's Scotland


Wehrs, Donald R., ARIEL


By choosing as an epigraph for her 1984 novel In Custody a passage from Wordsworth's "Rob Roy's Grave," itself part of his Memorials of a Tour in Scotland, 1803, Anita Desai affiliates Wordsworth's verses about the Highland "Robin Hood" with her account of the efforts of an adjunct Hindi lecturer at a regional university to turn his career into something of significance through interviewing the greatest living Urdu poet, the "custodian" of a language radically marginalized within postcolonial India. If Desai had not called attention to her novel's connection to Wordsworth's poetry, it is unlikely that any one would associate these writers' works with one another. In several novels over the past three decades, Desai depicts postcolonial Indian middle-class life in an eloquent but spare modernist prose that would seem to owe much to E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Ford Maddox Ford, but to be far from the declamatory lyricism of Wordsworth and his contemporaries. Writing from the heart of an ascendant empire, spokesman for an ascendant middle class, a male writer consciously affiliating himself with the "great tradition" of Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton while formulating a "new poetry" meant to reform but also revitalize the national literature of the world's dominant power, Wordsworth would seem to speak from a position radically distinct from Desai. She writes in subtle, allusive English from the postcolonial periphery of the former empire, speaking to an educated Indian middle-class readership increasingly disempowered by global capitalism, mass media popular culture, and religio-political fanaticism, a woman addressing the patriarchal legacies of classical Indian literature and culture as well as Indian and Western modes of middle-class gender formation, a half-Bengali, half-German writer addressing a nation internally divided and (unlike Wordsworth's England) given to profound doubt about its identity, direction, and mission in the world. The most obvious connection between Wordsworth and Desai is that, in memorializing Rob Roy, Wordsworth pays homage to his resistance to English cultural and economic colonization. Going beyond the common observation that English colonization of Scotland served as a "dress rehearsal" for British colonialism's worldwide expansion, however, Desai suggests that devotion to literature, the impracticality of which is highlighted by its marginality within university politics, is ultimately, if paradoxically, a powerfully anticolonialistic force.

In Desai's novel, Urdu serves in part as a metaphor for all literary discourse, whose effacement within postindustrial global society resembles the effacement of ethnic, regional cultures (such as that of Rob Roy's Highlanders) and languages (such as Urdu) within modern nation-states. (1) Urdu evokes a peculiar imperial history. After the Mughal emperor Akbar (1556-1605) unified northern India by winning the allegiance of both Hindu and Islamic nobles, creating a social order marked by material splendor, religious tolerance, and cultural syncretism, Akbar's system was unravelled by Aurangzeb (or Alamgir), who reigned from 1658 to 1707. (2) Aurangzeb re-imposed a specific tax on non-Muslims, sought to create a "pure" Sunni Islamic society, and pursued a ruinous conquest of the Hindu kingdoms of the Deccan plateau (Wolpert 156-86; Hintze). Persian was the administrative language of the Mughal empire. Urdu, "the lingua franca of the Muslim elites in those areas of India which were under their direct rule both before and after the British established their rule in India," developed alongside Hindi in northern India, for "until the development of modern Urdu and Hindi literature and until the rise of the movement for the spread of Hindi in the nineteenth century, the terms Urdu, Hindi, and Hindustani equally described the standard, spoken, urban language of the north. Even today, as a spoken language, Hindi and Urdu cannot be distinguished for purposes of ordinary discourse" (Brass, Language 127, 128-29). …

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