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Rajeev Balasubramanyam © 2002

 

 
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I

I am often asked about why I set my first novel in India, rather than Britain.

I tend to make decisions intuitively, to understand the logic later, if ever. Now, five years after the event, I think it was because I needed to distance myself, imaginatively, from Britain. I used to be an anglophobe - I hated everything English - and to an extent I still am, though in a more reasoned way. I could, of course, have written about Britain nonetheless, but I chose not to.

In Beautiful Disguises is the story of a young South Indian girl’s loss of innocence. Many first novels are coming of age narratives, though I didn’t know this at the time, and was largely unaware that this was, indeed, what I was writing. It is written in the first person, from the perspective of an unnamed heroine who, in an attempt to evade reality, takes refuge in dreams and in movies. The first line is, "I was born a girl and remained so until I became a woman", establishing, if you like, the distance she has to travel in order to impose subjectivity on objective circumstances determined in spite of her, before her. To do this she has to accept reality, because reality destroys fantasy if unchallenged. All of this mirrored my own condition, though I was only partially aware of this.

Why did I hate England? Because of racism. There is little doubt in my mind that this is at least eighty per cent true. While writing In Beautiful Disguises I didn’t think about racism once, and I didn’t think about England. My narrator says, "…I had developed problems distinguishing between fantasy and reality, or rather, I could make the distinction, but somehow I would invert the significance. I had a habit of trapping myself in that place that lies between dreams and consciousness, and I would stay there until someone pulled me back."

It has been suggested to me that I set In Beautiful Disguises in India because of a longing for my roots, because of a fractured identity. This is largely untrue. It was to liberate my imagination, to impose subjectivity on circumstances, as my heroine does. Like her, I was to find that fantasy can only be a temporary refuge. After finishing the novel I had to write another, and I decided it was time to address the question of England and my relationship to it. It was at this point that I began to implode with hatred and anger.

I began by attempting to write a novel about my childhood, convinced that I was traumatised by my childhood experience of racism and that I had to bring it to the page in order to exorcise its memory. This turned out to be untrue. The novel was bad and I scrapped it. I then decided to write a novel about a man who hates white people, the narrator being a surrogate for me. This also failed, and after two or three attempts, I gave up on the project. Instead, I spent some time reading about the history of racism, without any definite goal in mind.

After weeks of reading I realised that I didn’t hate white people, something I ought to have known earlier. Perhaps there was too much propaganda around me, telling me that I ought to. Trauma and associated psychoses are fashionable. Hatred is encouraged, it seems. I realised instead that I hated the technologies of racism, and the hypocrisy in Britain that leaves its racist legacy and modern day practice unchallenged. It took time to understand this. I was convinced that it was, indeed, white people I hated. This was the easier explanation for an anger that was so intense and unrelenting that, usually, it baffled me. I wanted to justify the anger, to give in to it, and to do this quickly. I didn’t realise that anger is always justified, if it is genuinely felt, but that it empowers demons and not the self. This realisation took a long time.

The irony is that such anger among first generation non-white immigrants is often credited to "crises of identity", another fashionable phrase. This identity crisis is said to stem from torn-out roots, from a loss of history due to migration, to immersion in a new culture, the discontinuity of which is unsettling, baffling. First generation immigrants are said to experience a sense of bewilderment because they do not have an adequate knowledge of "where they came from". This simply wasn’t true, in my case. The problem was that I didn’t have an adequate knowledge of who I was in the eyes of the society I was born into. Hence, there was a crisis of identity, but not as it is usually described.

My earliest memories include racism. From the age of four, when I went to an all-white school, I experienced a lot of it, on a daily basis. I didn’t live amongst Asians of my own age, only white children, and all of them, to some extent, were infected with racial prejudices. They did not know about the history of racism. They didn’t know how old their perceptions were, how and why they had distilled and changed over time. It wasn’t so urgent to them. But to me, at least recently, it was very important. I had to know because my sense of self was radically distorted due to the historically constructed perceptions of others that seemed to bore into my own sense of self, splitting it into pieces, mutilating it from the earliest age. Racism cannot be explained by platitudes. It is not a simple thing. It cannot be reduced to fear or ignorance or stupidity. It wouldn’t be a great exaggeration to say that the British psyche is racist, and this isn’t as essentialist a statement as it appears. It is simply that, over time, certain modes of behaviour become embedded in the subject after centuries of practice. Language changes, symbols change, culture changes. History leaves indelible imprints in the present, transforming the present, transforming culture and action. This is what I mean by the British psyche. To transform this one has to interrogate history, counter its effects.

A great many people in the west are born racist. This is a fact. There is nothing they can do about it. To change requires great effort, almost like spinning the earth backwards on its orbit. Migration is a spatial movement, yes. But it is also a temporal one because suddenly anothers history becomes one’s own, not because of ancestry, but because the migrant is constructed by that history, in the eyes of society at least, and comes to occupy that construction, even if the migrant occupies a position of resistance.
So, to understand myself, I had to understand at least three hundred years of European history, the invention of race, the construction of myself.

II

European racism is a very recent invention compared to, for example, Vedic racism in India, three and a half thousand years ago. Before the eighteenth century, there was little or no systematisation of race in Europe. However, the European voyages of discovery, the crusades and the Atlantic slave trade gave rise to crude practices of racialised imitation and mockery that have left their mark in language and culture. When I was a child I used to go to village fairs where I saw Morris dancing, or enactments of St George, the patron saint of England, slaying the dragon; traditional English customs. Morris dancing is properly called Moorish dancing, and refers to English people blacking up their faces and jumping around in imitation of Moroccan folk dances. The dragon St George slew represented the infidel Turkish opponent. The Harlequin, a traditional figure in European custom, was another representation of "the black man", complete with an enormous phallus. These practices cannot be reduced to racism, but they set an important precedent; the representation of the Other, which became a tool with which to construct myths of racial essences.

By the eighteenth century, race entered the field of enquiry of European science due to the maturing of the Atlantic slave trade, and the related preoccupation with the classification of the natural world, taxonomy. To people like Voltaire, it seemed undeniable that we were not one species but several, with different origins; this was called, polygenism. However, the Christian tradition contradicted this; all humans came from Adam and Eve, a single origin. Advocates of this view were called monogenists, and they opposed the apparently blasphemous polygenists, though many of them still believed that the single human species was divided into races which were biologically different. Hence, the distinction between species and race was largely meaningless in eighteenth century Europe.

This confusion persists today. I recently had dinner with a group of highly educated Italians, one of whom reacted with horror when I suggested that there was no such thing as race. He said, of course there is, in the way that in the animal kingdom we have the hedgehog and the donkey and the tiger, we have the Negro and the Caucasian and the Oriental in the human kingdom. I tried to correct him by telling him that hedgehogs and the donkeys are specie, not races, and I challenged him to define race. One of the other Italians, replied that it is equally impossible to define a species. I suggested the definition that two species cannot mate. He said they can, the donkey and the horse for example, but of course their offspring are sterile. He then sat back with his arms folded, as if to say that he had refuted my argument.

He was an academic, and a biologist, and yet what he was saying had no basis either in logic or fact. And yet he clung to his argument because the idea of the species divided into biologically distinct races still carries so much currency today. To rebut it can have a shock value equal to telling certain sixteenth century Europeans that the earth went round the sun. In 1795 the German taxonomist Blemenbach divided humanity into five races; Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. This system was still used in the fifties by the US Immigration authorities! In Britain the police have their own system of racial classification: IC1, Caucasian; IC2, Mediterranean; IC3, Black; IC4, Asian, etc. It is hard to tell people that their deeply held beliefs were discredited in the nineteenth century, if the world around them still operates according to these principles!

So, by the turn of the century polygenism was no longer respectable in the scientific establishment. First of all, the abolitionist movement gained respectability, with the slogan, "Am I not a man and a brother?" Christian humanism took a more evangelical bent, with the idea of the civilising mission in Africa and Asia. Racialised sentimentality and romanticism replaced strict ideas of inferiority and difference. The black man became to be seen as a primitive version of the European who had retained qualities the cerebral Europeans had lost; physicality, a closeness to the earth, raw sexuality, courage etc. Rousseau’s atavistic idea of the noble savage became popular, along with the idea that Europeans could help the blacks, and could regain what they had lost from them. This was reflected in the literature of the day, the imperial romances of Rider Haggard, for example, but this sentimentality is equally apparent in today’s Europe and America. Hollywood, literally, is full of it: "buddy films", like Lethal Weapon, with the black man as loyal sidekick to the white man, or Seven Years in Tibet where Brad Pitt’s sidekick is none other than the Dalai Lama; or the inter-racial love story; or films like Biko, Hurricane or Amistad (returning to the abolitionist root of it all) which appear to be about black heroes, but turn out to be about white heroes who make black heroism possible. In Britain, East is East was a very successful film, telling the story of a white woman who marries a Pakistani man and successfully integrates into Muslim culture. While she is tolerant and self-sacrificing, he is intolerant, weak, and, ultimately, violent.

Similarly, there is the current vogue in England for all things oriental: Madonna wears bindis and sings in Sanskrit, Hinduism and Buddhism appear to have become the official religions of California and Hampstead. I continually hear white people telling me that they, unlike myself, presumably, have lost their spirituality in the modern age, but found it again in India. Alternatively, take the white fascination with black culture, hip-hop, ebonics, all attempts to recover a lost "physicality" that the cerebral modern age has removed from their personas. Or the attitude of middle-class voyagers to Africa or India, re-enacting Tarzan of the Apes and Kim over and over again. This is not hybridity and it is not multiculturalism. Underpinning it all is the romantic spirit, the positivist naturalisation of European thought in the early nineteenth century, which relies on the celebration of difference, the natural laws which separate us into unique cultural groups which can glance sideways at each other but never truly merge because, at the end of it all, white sentimentality does not truly aim to be black, but merely to dip an ankle in the water, admiring its reflection. Transgressive titillation, again.

Of course it is impossible to draw a strict division between sentimentality and hybridity. To reduce all hybridity to racism would be to embrace the racist idea that members of particular groups are so different that they cannot practice one anothers cultures. This is equivalent to the notion of cultural authenticity. Hybridity is opposed to the celebration of difference, as love is opposed to sentimentality. The danger is to confuse the two.

I once heard a white girl say that she knew when she was watching authentic black comedy - comedy for a black audience, not a white one - because she couldn’t understand the jokes. This is ridiculous. Not only is the notion of an authentic black space false, but the presumption that this must be demarcated by the limits of white understanding is arrogant and foolish.

III

Opposed to the romantics were the rationalists, scientific advocates of monogenism, most importantly, Charles Darwin. By the middle of the eighteenth century, imperialist romanticism was on its way out. Buxton’s evangelical mission up the Niger Delta had failed disastrously in 1834. Abolitionism had become respectable and hackneyed. There was a fear for colonial possessions in the West Indies, a fear that colonialism was becoming a drain on the nation, that the blacks should be made to work rather than receiving hand-outs. The American Civil War had convinced many of this. There was a mood of pessimism and anxiety, and hence a hardening of racial attitudes, and so Darwin’s ideas, in the eighteen fifties and sixties, were received during a latent revival of polygenism, and a time when sentimentality towards blacks was replaced by hatred and loathing. Monogenists, like Darwin, were concerned with loose, descriptive ethnology, whereas the polygenists of his day, like Charles Dickens, were more interested in anthropology, the rigid classification of races according to biological difference.

What Darwin did was to synthesise his monogenism with polygenist attitudes, such that while he refused to accept that humanity was divided into different species, he maintained that, from ancient times, the species had divided into races via sexual selection who, over time, had become so different that they might as well have been different species. He predicated that the Caucasians, the most civilised race culturally and intellectually, would eventually wipe out the lower, savage races. Darwin’s used words like species, sub-species and race interchangeably because, for him, there was no empirical difference, and Darwin was an empiricist, and not a romantic.

So, with Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection, the difference between polygenism and monogenism became irrelevant. The Darwinian world view holds that the human species is divided into different races which are so different that they might as well be separate species, and that the Caucasian race, the most civilised, will wipe out the other, more savage races through the process of natural selection. This is genetic racism, racial theory, biological determinism.

The Victorians began to use the word "race" to classify any group which they wanted to exclude. The working class and the Irish, who were depicted as monkeys in the press, included. Race at this point was not about skin colour but about perceived biological difference. However, by the turn of the century democracy had made it unacceptable to talk about the working class as biologically different, and so race difference gradually came to refer to colour difference, particularly after the scramble for Africa. There is a clear logical progression between the Victorian view of race and Nazism, which classified homosexuals, Jews, blacks, gypsies etc. as biologically different.

Continue to Part II

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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