Escaping postcolonial bind

Chatterjee talks about how Washbrook’s revisionist attempts to recover Indian history for India, by ‘tracing the continuities from precolonial to early colonial processes’ (30) actually in fact serves to exculpate Britain (and France as well, I would add, to a small extent) from their responsibilities as ex-colonisers of India, because the ‘new’ history would see colonialism as resulting from processes that were happening in India already, before the British (and French) came to power.

She suggests that Washbrook inevitably does this this by writing from within the same discursive conditions, in that he does not question the concept of ‘capitalism’ — in her words, ‘assuming the universality of the categories of political economy’ (33) — because his argument depends on fundamentals of western social science.

While I do agree with her, I also think that this is a conundrum that might be impossible to get out of. After all, ‘discursive conditions’ can be interpreted very broadly, and Chatterjee herself is writing, I would suggest, as a social scientist, be it as historian or political scientist. Certainly if she is to be a ‘postcolonial writer’ she cannot escape the postcolonial bind that she claims Washbrook to be bound by. In addition, is she not writing in English?

I agree that Washbrook’s usage of ‘capitalism’ needs to be qualified and critiqued. But I also think that perhaps Washbrook’s attempts is about recovering a denied history, which is itself an endeavour that has greater significance than the actual content of that new history — it signposts to us the futility of writing that which is lost using the tools of the ex-oppressor. Maybe the subaltern (Indian history) cannot be spoken for.

Colonialism and perspectives

I would like to discuss the notion of perspectives in Shooting an Elephant because that seems to jump out when I was reading the short story and by extension, I would like to posit that colonialism was all about perspectives and that the reason why it could sustain itself was due to manipulation of perspectives. In the short story, the narrator draws the reader’s attention to the native’s perspective of the white colonizer, in that while the natives hated the colonizers, they feared them so much so they did not have the “guts to raise a riot”. Similarly, because of the native’s views on the colonizer, the narrator felt that he should uphold the stereotype of the white tyrant for fear of being laughed at. Thus, here the perspective that one has of the other shapes the colonial relationship between colonized and the colonizer.

In Chatterjee’s article, she puts forth the notion that colonialism prevailed because it focused on the differences between the Western and Indian modes of thinking. It seems that if the colonizers had a different perspective of India, not as having a totally different and therefore inferior system, but instead as an alternative system with similar characteristics, the colonial enterprise would have been very different. Instead, by focusing on differences, it provided for justification of colonialism’s hard hand on India and the Indians. Moreover, she mentions that by establishing the fact that they were bringing modernity to India, the colonizers were able to manipulate the perspectives of the natives to view them as “saviors” to make India modern and thereby maintaining their rule over the natives.

Race and the Law in “Shooting an Elephant”

In his article, Partha Chatterjee looked at a certain opinion in Britain that felt that the colonized people, the Indians specifically, were immoral, irrational, ignorant and unfit for taking leadership in a government that is based on rationality. This idea was then used to justify not putting the natives in positions of power. 

 

In “Shooting an Elephant”, I think George Orwell upsets this justification. At the end of the story, the narrator points out that colonial power is enforced through bureaucratic and legal systems. The narrator was “legally” right to have shot the elephant because the law said it was the right thing to do. The owner could do nothing (presumably, he could not take legal action against the narrator) because the law does not value his rights as he “was only an Indian”. In other words, the story seems to highlight that the reason the colonial powers put the natives at a position of inferior power is so they can do as they like in the colonized land without fear of protest from the indigenous people. The narrator’s reason for shooting the elephant, “to avoid looking a fool”, highlights the insecurities and selfishness behind the acts of the colonial powers, where the narrator commits an act of violence simply to maintain his position as a “white man” who “mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives””.

 

Furthermore, I think that the story contradicts the essentialization of race by showing how people grow to fit racial stereotypes. For example, the narrator muses on how the moment a white man becomes a tyrant, he has to spend the rest of his life living up to that expectation of him, and thus grows to fit that stereotype of him. The natives too, seem to degenerate to crude behaviour towards the Europeans, such as in the Buddhist priests who seemed to have nothing “to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans” because they have been ill-treated by the colonial powers. The narrator shows this when he gives a very explicit illustration of the brutal ill-treatment the natives get, such as the “wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups” or the “scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos”. As the natives are treated like animals, so they act like animals towards the Europeans. Hence, I feel that “Shooting an Elephant” destabilizes the essentializing of race and the justification of the exclusion of natives from spaces of power as raised in Chatterjee’s article.