Sunday, May 21, 2006

Sunday, May 21, 2006 11:58 am by M.   No comments
The Telegraph (in its Calcutta edition) publishes an interesting article written by Indian writer Githa Hariharan about, in the writer's words, How do I use my writing — and my reading, which takes up more of my life than writing — to resist the various essentialisms that besiege our lives?

She uses her own experience as reader of Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea to provide an answer to the question:

For instance, I think of myself as a ten-year-old girl in Bombay (or what was then Bombay), picking up my elder sister’s “English” textbook, and being seduced into entering Jane Eyre’s life. Here I was, a middle-class child in an unselfconscious South Indian Brahmin family, speaking a hodgepodge of Tamil and Malayalam at home, and a recent, reluctant speaker of English — since my parents had moved from one part of the city to another and I had been dispatched to an “English-medium” school.

I was a product of middle-class aspirations and dominant caste mobility, early post-colonial education, to say nothing of the spectacular cultural kicchdi of the Indian metropolis. The distance between this somewhat hybrid creature and Jane Eyre (or Mr Rochester) is nothing short of staggering. Obviously, I had no articulated awareness of this distance. What I do recall is the almost secretive pleasure of the discovery of the far-away, the Other. And the secret of the pleasure was that while I got an inside view of other people in other places, other times, I also got — again, without being aware of it, obviously — a closer view of myself. Getting to know Jane and Mr Rochester opened, as it were, one little window. But at that time, as reader, what use that open window, that view of the Other, if it didn’t also mean that a window — behind me in childhood, a window I would learn to turn to in time — did not also open to provide a view of myself?

Many years later, I read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Antoinette’s home was as foreign to me as Jane’s England. Perhaps, in terms of “general knowledge”, more foreign, since our official literary education was so firmly trained on England and its views. But already I knew that Antoinette was closer to me than Jane — if Jane was a relation by a marriage (or a forced marriage), Antoinette was a second cousin. With this awareness, the two windows I have referred to opened a little more. The views of the Other, of myself, grew just that much more detailed, complex. It was as if the screen, in response to improved technology, grew wider.
Suppose I write a story about this girl and Jane and Antoinette; a girl in Bombay with baggage of her own, Jane’s and Rochester’s England with the offstage India of missionaries and the lush uncivilized islands of Rochester’s first wife; and Antoinette’s world, again with its layers of race, gender, power. What is the window, the vantage point, I should set my writing table at? My suspicion is that I would do best to keep all the windows wide open. That if I pretend it’s all a question of exploring the colonial experience, I will lose out; and so would I, for instance, if I made it an exclusively “women’s” story.


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