Semicolonial   Leave a comment

This week I’ve had my mind on Joyce’s, “Gentes and laitymen, fullstoppers and semicolonials, hybreds and lubberds!” [1:6 152.16]

Joyce’s writing explores his semicolonial literary heritage. And as I read FW, I’m reminded of own semicolonial Indian roots. Five generations ago my Dad’s maternal family emigrated from Calcutta. They sailed from India to Trinidad as indentured laborers in 1877, contracted to work for five years on a sugar plantation called La Fortune. After their indenture they took land in San Fernando, Trinidad, rather than returning to their native village near Varanasi. By the time my Grandmother was born, my ancestors had become shopkeepers in San Fernando and were part of the local Trinidadian Muslim community.

I grew up in the Lake District: My Dad liked the Romantics. He taught psychology in a teacher training college. Indo-Caribbean culture was remote. There was one Indian boy at my primary school. But he got called Rajesh Soggy Banana, so the young Rachel Hafiza Hosein wasn’t rushing to embrace anything more Oriental than a Girl Guide Commonwealth Award: First person in Cumbria to get that badge too!

In fact it was only last year that I finally travelled to India, driven by a desire to understand the heritage of my chutney family, and perhaps find a better religion than Muslim/Methodist. We flew to Calcutta, where my husband and I volunteered on a street children project at Sealdah railway station. Perhaps these people were indentureship material, like my ancestors? The set up was grim, even from our point of view. Our hotel was full of cockroaches. I bought rubbing alcohol to clean the bathroom tiles. The communal hacking-up-your-phlegm-at-5am room was next to our hotel room. At 6 am we were to teach maths and English sitting on a tarpaulin on the pavement to kids who’d slept rough, before they got fed breakfast. Colonialism! Was what my head trilled, suddenly outraged as much by this curriculum as by the roaches.

So, I asked an excellent local tourist guide if they knew of anyone who gave Bengali lessons. Nope. So we tried the University, hoping that a student might be interested in teaching us to speak and write a little Bengali script to share with the kids.

The secretary at the front desk of Calcutta University waved us through to the office of the head of Modern Languages; who sent us down a flight of stairs to the office of the Bengali Department. There a woman made a brief phone call and we were asked to return in 45 minutes. Hey Presto: After a quick coffee at the Indian Coffee House “Ancient lieu de rencontre des indépendantistes, bohèmes et revolutionaries” according to our copy of the Lonely Planet, we returned to the University to meet our teacher.

Dr Adhya introduced himself as a Mr Bean fan, then seated himself at a lectern and quietly stated that,

“You would have been called Britishers in the past.”

I bit my tongue.  Sitting on low wooden benches, we learnt how to write our names phonetically in Bengali script.

Would this ever happen if a Bengali tourist rocked up at an English University?

Most evenings we visited Calcutta University. We hopped between free classrooms. It was always very noisy. Horns blared in the rush hour traffic. Towards the end of our first week we were guided into a room signed Urdu Class. It was a small space, positioned on the wing of the building furthest from the road. But, Dr Adhya set the air conditioning fan whirring. And my emotions started to spin.

Urdu. I never met my paternal Grandmother, Hafiza Hosein. Apparently, she was a plump, illiterate Muslim woman who made great sacrifices to bring up her seven children once she was widowed. I knew little more. And yet, perhaps fifty years after she had passed on, I was sitting in a Calcutta University Urdu classroom, where on that very same day texts written in my Grandmother’s language had been read, spoken, discussed!

“My Grandmother spoke Urdu.” I said to Dr Adhya. By this time, I’d replaced my floral dress (mistaken for a nightdress by a local volunteer) for a cotton Salwar Kameez. I silently begged Dr Adyha to see my Grandmother in me.

Dr Adhya paused before commenting, “You should visit the English Cemetery. You will find it very interesting”. I didn’t follow him – later I understood he was making an Anglo-Indian connection. He then proceeded to introduce my husband and I to Parashuram “the pen name of Rajshekhar Basu (1880-1960), probably the greatest twentieth-century humorist in Bengali (“Parashuram” by Amit Chaudhuri; Words Without Borders, 64).

In fact Dr Adhya kindly gave us a live translation of one of Parashuram’s short stories. The following extract from Words Without Borders illustrates Parashuram’s tone and style:

The Scripture Read Backward

Scene: The Richmond Bengalo-Anglisan Pathshala. Mr. Cram, pundit in charge. Tom, Dick, Harry, and other boys.

Cram. Hurry up now, it’s four o’clock. Dick, read out the last bit of the history lesson.

Dick. (Reads from his textbook in Bengali) ‘Europe’s days of woe are over. All hatred, violence, and conflict between its races are at end. Under the soothing influence of the dordanda rule of the mighty Indian Government’… What does dordanda mean, Pandit Mashai?

Cram. Don’t you know? The big rod. Under the soothing influence of the big rod.

Dick… ‘the big rod with its cool sheltering shade, all Europe is now basking thankfully in a blessed state… Austria and Italy have ceased to fight over possession of the Meti pond.’ Where’s the Meti Pond, Pandit Mashai?

Cram. Why don’t you look at that map in front of you? It’s that sea near Italy. It used to be called the Mediterranean. The Indians couldn’t pronounce the name, so they started calling it Meti Pond – just as they call Ulster Belestera, Switzerland  Chhachhurabad, Bordeaux Booze-shop, Manchester Nimta. Get on with your reading.”

After translating one such similar satire, Dr Adyha taught us an onomatopoeia that I think would have tickled James Joyce’s linguistic fancy: The Bengali for “ouch!” is……. “ooooooffffffffffff!”

Before we visited the English Cemetery in Calcutta, my husband and I took the metro to checked out the Seagull Bookshop. Here, we discovered some of the great Alumni of Bengal: Rabindrath Tagore, Amartya Sen, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. I bought:

Uma Das Gupta. Rabindranath Tagore: A biography (2004).

Amartya Sen. The Argumentative Indian (2005).

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Conversations with Gayatri Chakravorty (2007).

All three of these academics write about the vital role of education in eliminating poverty, and the importance of allying social development with theory.

Sen quotes Tagore regarding colonial education, “circumstances almost compel us to learn English, and this lucky accident has given us the opportunity of access into the richest of all poetical literatures of the world” (119). Joyce would have agreed. My paternal Grandfather too. He was a schoolteacher in the British colony of Trinidad. When he died young, my Grandmother opted not to receive any pension, but rather to put all of her children through primary and secondary schooling. (I now find this choice quite incredible, knowing that even in 1980’s India “two-thirds of Indian women remain(ed) unable to read and write” (116). In colonial Trinidad my Dad and his siblings learnt about British geography, history, Shakespeare and the Romantics, algebra … A similar curriculum as that listed in the “Nightlessons” chapter of Finnegans Wake “grammar, history, letter writing, mathematics, invasion of Ireland”.

Schooling. Last year in Calcutta I accepted that education is has its own semicolonial history, caught a bus to Calcutta’s New Market, and bought crochet needles, cotton, wrapping paper and pens to sign up:

1 Eek

2 Dui

3 Tin

4 Char

5 Pausch

6 Choi

7 Shat

8 Alt

9 Noi

10 Dosh

While I demonstrated a choi single cross-stitch pattern and started to make scarves (which the street-women volunteers loved) my husband, unsure of what to share with kids if it wasn’t something to do with electrical engineering or imaginary numbers, saw his body claimed as a mobile climbing frame.

Schooling. Now, when I’m finished reading Finnegans Wake, I want to have a look at Mahon’s Imagining Joyce and Derrida: Between Finnegans Wake and Glas… And then link from Derrida to Spivak writing about her Grandmother’s sister in CTSaS and also re-listen to Spivak’s Joycean Youtube, The SubAltern and the Popular, especially at 37 minutes (fragmentary lexicalisation and excessive permeability of the subaltern) and at 47 minutes (where Spivak talks about the fetisisation of Reason/European Institutional learning as Master; as opposed to abstract structures of secularization and the state at 61 minutes).

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Posted December 6, 2010 by R.H.H. Nisbet in Finnegans Wake Audio Recording

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