On an Errand of Faith: Portrayal of the Pilgrims on the Patna

In the spirit of Ramadan, I thought I’d have a look at the passage in which the Muslim pilgrims board the Patna, headed for Mecca. One of the concerns of Lord Jim is the “one of us” attitude that Marlow takes when relating Jim’s story. Apart from the practical uses in making a connection with the reader by situating himself and his “hero” Jim on the same side as the reader, this attitude also highlights the presence of the colonial mindset present in the context of Marlow’s tale.

When the 800 pilgrims board the Patna, the captain remarks, “Look at dese cattle” (11). Although one might think of the sea of white-linen-clad pilgrims moving in unison as reminiscent of cattle, the actual description Conrad gives appears to give the pilgrims some sense of purpose (in other words, a sense of humanity, distinguishing them from the skipper’s “cattle”).  That is not to say that he does not posit them as inferior: they “stream” on board from their jungles and campongs, covered in dust, sweat, grime and rags (11). However, the pilgrims’ strong “faith and hope of paradise” makes them relatable, understandable and harmless.

The way in which the pilgrims board the ship, filling it up like water, and are said to have come from all walks of life (from “their prosperity, their poverty”) captures them not as a savage people or as an isolated other. These Muslims are captured instead as an indifferent “them” with the allowances of humanity that are allowed of “us.”

Marlow’s account (technically, Jim’s account) of the “human cargo” of the Patna proved a refreshing change (improvement?) from some of the previous “others” we have come across in our readings.

Modernism and Anti-colonialism

 

What struck me in the novel is how modernism in theory (multiple perspectives and lack of an objective “Truth) seems quite compatible with anti-colonial sentiments. For example, even at the end of the novel, it is still unclear exactly what happened to Adela in the caves. As the episode was seen from Aziz’s point of view, the reader only knows that Aziz did not do it which only illustrates the “truth” as what it is “not” as opposed to what it “is”.

 

The lack of clarity on exactly what happened makes every opinion invalid, because they are simply speculation. In fact, I think what becomes important through this episode is not what really happened to Adela but how the multiple perspectives illustrate the underlying distrust the Indians and British have for each other. However, in order to continue to present a voice for the “Other”, there must be an “Other” to begin with. Through claims like “Suspicion in the Oriental is a sort of malignant tumour… in a way the Westerner cannot comprehend” (263), Forster clearly defines Indians as inherently different to the British. Moreover, he seems to focus on the “primitive” nature of India, like in his description of the “incredible antiquity of these hills” (115), how “India is really far older” (115), which defines it as “Other” to relatively modern Britian. Even though this is not necessarily a negative portrayal, nonetheless, his text still positions India as primitive and exotic, incomprehensible even to sympathetic British characters like Fielding.

Modernism and Perception

Both Auerbach and Gikandi” raise the idea of perception, how modernist artists wished to use their works to provide a different (or many differing) perspective on issues (including art) by using unconventional forms and themes. There seems to be a focus on the “Other”, what is “Other” to the standards and values of conventional art and fiction. Thus, it could be understood why modernist writers might turn to the portrayal of “Other” races (i.e. non-white races) as a way of showing a different perspective on issues like colonialism.

However, there is the possibility of the “Other” being reduced to a tool, of being silenced by the artists even as he is represented in their works. As in Heart of Darkness, the “Other” is viewed through the eyes of the narrator or other characters (eg. Marlow), but never given a chance to speak for himself. Thus, it might be possible to argue that to modernist texts, it is not important to show what the “Other” is but how the “Other” is perceived by other characters. The focus is then not on changing the representation of the “Other”, but on changing the perception of perceiving. On that note, given the focus on multiple perspectives in the modernist texts, what then is the role of the author or artist? Does the author’s shaping of the text so it provides multiple perspectives undermine the modernist impulse towards multiple perspectives because it reinforces the perspective of the author, that there should be multiple perspectives?