Performing a Sahib

When reading Leonard Woolf’s growing, what stood out especially was the performance element of the sahib as a stock character which everyone is required to play in the same way against the backdrop of imperialism in order to qualify as a good fellow. Mundane things like a game of tennis followed by the routine conversation revolving around banal topics are given an almost religious, ritualistic aspect. This element of performance is seen in texts like Burmese days, Passage to India and Shooting the elephant but not as explicitly as in Growing.

Set in this unreality, it is no wonder the sahibs are able to divorce themselves from their natural and perhaps more humane selves which they have left behind in the real world England and become fully immersed into their roles as the colonizers where aggression and a propensity for violence and even odd behaviors are encouraged. When the protagonist’s dog displays  an uncharacteristic violence toward the native animals, its aggression elevates him in the eyes of the other sahibs and this suggests that a similar attitude from him towards the natives would be encouraged.  Indeed, the native may even be seen as below the rank of the sahib’s dog because when the sahib’s dog vomits on a native, it is treated as nothing offensive or out of the ordinary. 

The effect of living in the performative space is that when one is onstage, one is expected to play one’s role and sustain the illusion. In sustaining the illusion, it does not matter if one is required to play the villian because it is only after all a role which does nothing to change the notion of one’s true self. Thus, the sahibs both have the liberty/ and are compelled to do what they need to do in order to sustain the illusion of empire and that is performing over and over what it means to be a superior sahib in a self- reaffirming lie.

One thought on “Performing a Sahib

  1. very well expressed rebekah. but someone could also say, isn’t there performance in aspects of everyday life? (for example, wouldn’t englishmen also be performing in england?)