Postcolonial Remembrance and Amnesia: A Double-Sided View
“Postcolonialism can be seen as a theoretical resistance to the mystifying amnesia to the colonial aftermath. It is a disciplinary project dedicated to the academic task of revisiting, remembering, and, crucially, interrogating the colonial past” (Gandhi, 4). One of the most difficult aspects of a confusing or traumatic experience on the part of the victim is the memory it leaves behind. More often than not just the mention of a word or phrase or place can suddenly all at once bring that victim back to the day or time something happened, forcing them to relive it again. In this case, sometimes the victim has the ability to shut out a painful or difficult memory to protect his or herself from being affected by it further. It is as if it never happened, and they enter a dangerous phase called denial. The question of whether it is healthy to deal with the issues at hand or sweep them under the rug is handled in two works: a novel called Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, “Interpreter of Maladies.” The effect the recurring memories have on the characters from each postcolonial work suggests that neither produces a positive outcome in terms of remembering or forgetting.
In Salman Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, the narrator is Saleem Sinai, who travels back and forth in the past years before he was born to the present, many years later, when his experiences are far behind him. In this case, Rushdie’s entire novel is a form of postcolonial remembrance. Saleem narrates to his fiancée as well as the reader the background of his family, the struggles he has faced in his lifetime and the problems he still faces in the present: the ghosts he cannot leave behind him, but cannot seem to silence. Bhabha wrote: “Remembering is never a quiet act of introspection or retrospection. It is a painful re-membering, a putting together of the dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present” (Gandhi, 9). Saleem’s remembrance of his family’s history, especially when his mother, he learns, was unfaithful to his father, proves particularly painful to Saleem. In the chapter entitled “Revelations,” Saleem finds out his parents are not his, and that he was switched at birth with Shiva, his sometime rival and childhood friend. The truth is revealed by Mary Pereira, who switched the children at birth, who finally breaks her silence after believing to have seen the ghost of Joe D’Costa, her former boyfriend. Her secret comes out as the result of her remembrance of Joe who was a political radical and once planted bombs in a tower. The revelations surrounding Saleem’s life continue to haunt him even more. He describes the major tragedies he has gone through as a chain reaction to something that he did: “If I hadn’t wanted to be a hero, Mr. Zagallo would never have pulled my hair. If my hair had remained intact…Masha Miovic wouldn’t have goaded me into losing my finger. And from my finger flowed the blood that was neither-Alpha-nor-Omega, and sent me into exile, and in exile I was filled with the lust for revenge which led to the murder of Homi Catrack; and if Homi hadn’t died, perhaps my uncle would not have strolled off a roof…and then my grandfather would not have…been broken…” (Rushdie, 319). Saleem has a lot of difficultly in describing his life and keeping his guilt and pain hidden from his fiancée and the readers. He is, obviously from reading this passage, racked with guilt for the things he has done. Even though he may not be directly responsible for these things, it is apparent the act of remembering is making him think so.
Midnight’s Children explores the ways in which history is given meaning through the telling of individual experience. For Saleem, born at the instance of India’s independence from Britain, his life becomes inextricably linked with the political, national, and religious events of his time. Not only does Saleem experience many of the crucial historical events, but he also claims some degree of involvement in them. Saleem expresses his observation that his private life has been remarkably public, from the very moment of his conception. Therefore, his remembrance carries that much more weight than anyone else. Not only was he around during the notable transformation of India, his emotions and experiences shape that time.
In articulating what Saleem views as the relationship between his personal life and the events of the formation of India’s nationhood, he narrates, “It is my firm conviction that the hidden purpose of the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 was nothing more or less than the elimination of my benighted family from the face of the earth” (Rushdie, 386). Saleem places more importance on his own family history than upon the entire nation’s formative events. In addition, on the duality inherent in Pakistani citizenship as a result of divide, Rushdie writes, “I suggest that at the deep foundations of their unease lay the fear of schizophrenia, or splitting, that was buried like an umbilical cord in every Pakistani heart” (399). This “splitting of self” reflects a fragmentation of identity Saleem knows all too well. Raised by who he thought were his parents, only to find at the age of eleven he is not their child, Saleem goes through a period of adjustment. His parents are distant, his sister becomes a peer. Saleem’s fragmented identity is shared on a larger scale with his nation’s fragmented identity. The fragmentation of the large British colonial territory into Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, whose cultural, religious, political, and linguistic traditions differ, presented a complex and intimidating task. Therefore, India’s early days as an independent nation were burdened with division and strife. Rushdie draws a comparison between India’s struggles with its neighboring peoples and Saleem’s struggles with various family members and with the other members of the Midnight Children’s Club. Rushdie also uses metaphorical allusions to fragmentation or disintegration that indicate the loss of a sense of identity. For example, Rushdie describes both Aadam Aziz and Saleem Sinai as possessing a void or a hole in their centers as a result of their uncertainty of God’s existence. In their respective last days, Rushdie describes the “cracking” and eventual disintegration of their exteriors.
At the end of Midnight’s Children, Saleem adopts a particularly pessimistic outlook on the future. Saleem says, “My dream of saving the country was a thing of mirrors and smoke; insubstantial, the maunderings of a fool” (Rushdie, 529). Linked to this sense of hopelessness are both the loss of his silver spittoon and his knowledge that all of midnight’s children have been sterilized. Rushdie does not always accurately recount the events in recent Indian history during the course of Midnight’s Children. At times, he makes mistakes on details or dates, but he makes them intentionally, in order to comment on the unreliability of historical and biographical accounts. For example, Saleem informs the reader that an old lover of his shot him through the heart; however, in the very next chapter he confesses to having fabricated the circumstances of his death. By the end of the novel, Saleem discusses his imminent thirty-first birthday. At the conclusion of the novel, Aadam Aziz, after having remained silent for the first three years of his life, speaks his first word: Abracadabra. The reference to magic refers both to the novel’s genre, magical realism, and to the role of magic in the child’s life. Rushdie writes, “My son, who will have to be a magician to cope with the world I’m leaving him, completes his awesome first word” (528). Saleem, despite the dominant tones of pessimism in these last chapters, also expresses some degree of confidence in his young son and his ability to learn from the mistakes of his father’s generation. Saleem says of his son that “Already, he is stronger, harder, more resolute than I: when he sleeps, his eyeballs are immobile beneath their lids. Aadam Sinai, child of knees-and-nose, does not (as far as I can tell) surrender to dreams” (529). All the way through the novel up until this point, Saleem has given us a history of his family and his experiences, unburying sorrowful memories and experiences that seem to be too fresh or too difficult to deal with. Now he bestows on his son, who actually is not biologically his, the hope for the future. He wishes for him a life unaffected by what his father has left for him and by the painful re-membering Saleem has drawn out.
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, “Interpreter of Maladies,” we follow, for a very brief moment in time, the experiences of an Indian family visiting their motherland. Although spoken in the third person, we gain an astute filtration of the family through the eyes of their tour guide, a man named Mr. Kapasi. When we are given our first description of the family, it is not what one may expect. Indians who have migrated, or even some who were born in America, often do not adopt the American way of dress or manner. They tend to be very sentimental or traditional in these two things. Although Mr. and Mrs. Das were not born in India, but hail rather from New Brunswick, New Jersey, they dress “as foreigners [do]”, their children as well, in “stiff, brightly colored clothing and caps with translucent visors” (Lahiri, 44), and when Mr. Kapasi meets Mr. Das, he “squeezes hands like an American.” Mr. and Mrs. Das are visiting their parents, who have moved back to India, where they were born. Mr. Kapasi pays particular attention to Mrs. Das, with whom he has the most contact with throughout the story. He notices she often becomes annoyed and pays little attention to her three children: Tina, Ronny and Bobby. Their choice of names suggests Mr. and Mrs. Das’s little regard for traditional Indian names and desire for more American names, perhaps so their children can be considered as American as they can be. Mr. Das says little throughout the narrative. He wears an expensive camera around his neck and is portrayed as a tourist, a foreigner, in many ways. At one point he asks Mr. Kapasi to pull over so that he may take a picture of a homeless, emaciated Indian man, which is some ways can be seen as an exploitation of his people and his very little compassion for the state of the people in India.
Mr. and Mrs. Das’s disregard for their culture is shocking and a little unsettling. Everything they embody, from their manner to their way of dress, is hugely American. They place no emphasis on their family, ignoring their children and leaving them to their free will. Even when they visit their home country, which they are doing by the time this short story takes place, they have no interest in participating or at least trying to adapt to the different ways of life. They dress in American clothing, get an English speaking tour guide, and either express little to know interest in the country in Mrs. Das’s case, or act as a reporter in Mr. Das’s case, treating his country as a vacation spot, disconnecting himself from it all together. Lacan’s ironic reversal of the Cartesian cogito “I think therefore I am” to “I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think” (Gandhi, 9) expresses this notion quite well. Their inability, or perhaps their lack of desire, to mesh with their culture turns them into what some stereotype Americans as: the label of the ugly American, who goes to another country as disrespects the culture their by refusing to adapt to their lifestyle, wanting everyone to adapt to him instead. The fact that Mr. and Mrs. Das belong to this culture makes this stubbornness that much more imminent.
What is really happening in this story, if placed in the backdrop of postcolonial remembrance, is Mr. and Mrs. Das’s unwillingness to remember their culture. Postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha announces that “memory is the necessary and sometimes hazardous bridge between colonialism and the question of cultural identity” (Gandhi, 9). This explains that Mr. and Mrs. Das’s education of their cultural identity is either aborted or is never given the chance to form because of their disinterest, or maybe even fear, of remembering where they came from. They were both born in America and raised in an American culture. Although their parents were born in India, they have since moved back, severing their ties to their roots even more, and Mrs. Das explained even still she was never that close to her parents in the first place. It is never explained fully why Mr. and Mrs. Das close their eyes to something that is still a part of them and do not recognize their people as one of them. A particular scene where this is manifested is when Mrs. Das stops to buy something to snack on and the shirtless man behind the counter begins to sing to her a popular Hindi love song. Mrs. Das walks away, appearing to not understand what he is saying, “for she did express irritation, or embarrassment, or react in any other way to the man’s declarations” (Lahiri, 46). Mrs. Das’s reaction to the man, on a much larger scale, conveys her attitude toward the land and the culture and the people in general. Not understanding but not caring to understand, walking away as if it didn’t exist.
As Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das talk, we learn Mr. Kapasi’s second occupation: an interpreter for a doctor. This additional means of work becomes very important. Mr. Kapasi, an interpreter of maladies, acts as an interpreter of the families maladies the more he gets insight to their private lives. Later on, Mrs. Das confuses his occupation after she lets him in on a secret of her infidelity to her husband she had never told anyone until now. When Mr. Kapasi asks her why she has done this, she explains it is because she hopes he can help her. Although he is an interpreter for a doctor, he only is able to identify physical ailments, not psychological ones, yet wishing to please Mrs. Das because of his growing affection for her, he tests out a theory about her anyway. Mrs. Das explains she met her husband very young, a sort of informal arranged marriage between their two parents. Although at first they were madly in love, they fell out of love very quickly. Mrs. Das became overwhelmed very quickly by her premature marriage, and slept with one of her husband’s friends to which Bobby was born. When Mr. Kapasi asks her, “Is it really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?” (66), Mrs. Das becomes enraged and steps out of the car. This entire sequence, the telling of the secret and the failed marriage followed by Mr. Kapasi’s inquisitive but out-of-bounds question, gives us an insight to Mrs. Das’s disenchantment with her past, present and future. Her past is overrun with memories of her failed marriage to her Indian husband, her infidelity with a white man, and her desperation to want to finally confide in someone. Bhabha explains how memories can be harmful: “While some memories are accessible to consciousness, others, which are blocked and banned—sometimes with good reason—perambulate the unconscious in dangerous ways, causing seemingly inexplicable symptoms in everyday life” (Gandhi, 9). The “banned memory” of Mrs. Das’s infidelity which surfaces easily in this scene could have caused her to do a variety of these things Bahbha calls “symptoms.” Either her symptom as a result of her unfaithfulness was then to disregard her culture because she is turned off by it, or, in a sort of paradox, her blocked memory of her culture caused her to commit adultery. Whichever one may be true, this shows Mrs. Das’s rejection of her culture has somewhat of a motive. It surrounds her; it represents a life she does not want anymore, which is very apparent, therefore she has no concern to cement a bond with or “remember” it.
In the story’s final scene, after Mrs. Das leaves the car in a huff to join her family who are exploring the terrain (it might be beneficial to this paper’s thesis to also point out that Mrs. Das initially refused to leave the car and explore with her family, wishing to rest, unconcerned with her relationship to the land) her son Bobby, who is not her husband’s child, gets attacked by monkeys. That this is the story’s climax and the final action suggests a harmful relationship between the Das’ and the land. Although the attack was partly the fault of Mrs. Das, who accidentally drops food on the ground for the monkeys to become excited over, that fact that this negative action even happens is telling of how much the Das’ do not belong and cannot seem to learn how to belong to this country. It all comes in a downward chain reaction. First with Mrs. Das’s revelation followed by Mr. Kapasi’s offensive question, then to Mrs. Das becoming upset, leaving the car, and dropping the food on the ground. All of this relates back to Mrs. Das’s initial action of cheating on her husband, which then inadvertently did harm to the child who was the result of that action. Mrs. Das’s recollection of her past therefore bled over into her present, causing even more harm in the long run. This suggests the action of remembering being detrimental in the case of the Das’. It caused, although in a strange sort of way, but in a clever way nonetheless, a direct harm to a member of their family. As a final note, after Mr. Kapasi saves the child from any more harm, he stands aside as the family tends to Bobby. When Mrs. Das takes out her hairbrush from her bag, the paper on which Mr. Kapasi wrote his name and address flies away with the wind. No one notices but Mr. Kapasi. That final link that would have still connected Mr. Kapasi to the Das’ and the Das’ to the land is lost forever, and Mr. Kapasi realizes that in a short time he too will be forgotten. He looks at the family once more, “knowing that this was the picture of the Das family he would preserve forever in his mind” (Lahiri, 69). This final act of forgetting make up the last lines of the story, and this encounter between the Das’ and Mr. Kapasi will fade away just as everything else does and has.
Salman Rushdie’s novel and Lhumpa Lahiri’s short story, which are chronicles of Indians after colonization, are in a sense very similar yet very different. Whereas “Maladies” is a observation of a family who refuses to recognize their roots or “remember” any part of themselves as being a member of that culture, they remain blissfully ignorant but effected. Mr. and Mrs. Das cannot escape retribution when their son is attacked by monkeys, yet they refuse to identify this unfortunate event as a punishment. If anything, it will perhaps even push them further away from this culture, a culture they cannot seem to find any warmth towards, and a culture they will most likely continue to push themselves away from. Therefore, the act of “amnesia” has produced a harmful result in the form of a direct attack to their life. Midnight’s Children in its entirety is an active work of remembering, and it for the most part makes for a very depressing novel. Saleem’s narrative is downtrodden and self-deprecating. The novel does not end happily, but rather with all the figures, all the ghosts of his past still coming back to haunt him, to remind him, to squash him still. As we can see in the case of Saleem, postcolonial remembrance is painful and can trap oneself into the past as if he or she were reliving it over and over again. However, ignorance in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Das, who refuse to acknowledge their land or play by the rules can prove just as harmful. In a larger scale, this shows colonization’s effects on its victims. In a sense it embodies the saying, “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t,” which does not offer any positive light for the colonized. Lahiri and Rushdie’s stories give us an opportunity to view the options from both sides, and sadly, the view is rather grim.
Gandhi, Leela. Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. New York: Houghton Mufflin Company, 1999.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. New York: Penguin Books, 1980.
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