Power relations in Shooting an Elephant

Reading “Shooting an Elephant”, I think my responses to it were quite..’schizophrenic’ might be a good word. I was rather conflicted about how I felt, especially regarding the way power was portrayed. On one hand, it was quite a breath of fresh air to be reading a piece of writing where we see the coloniser from an entirely different point of view. The narrator himself admits that “every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at”—he is basically ‘powerless’ to the people’s demands, in that he must shoot the elephant or be humiliated. The subversion of the typical coloniser-colonised relationship is very interesting, because while other texts have shown us the ‘human’ side of colonialism, they’re still always untouchaby dignified and in control (think Passage to India). It’s almost as if there’s an invisible barrier that prevents that last ‘façade’ from being removed. Here, we’re shown this nervous policeman who hates his job because he knows just how tenuous the colonial control over the people is, which is really quite a different perspective from the way colonial power is shown in Passage to India.

Yet, on the other hand, I couldn’t help but be suspicious of the way colonial power was portrayed. It struck me as, well, too sympathetic to the colonisers. At this point, I’m probably veering into angry, chest-beating anti/post-colonial area, but still, I think it bears thinking about. I’m sure the narrator’s perspective is a valid one, and colonialism most likely didn’t have the all-powerful, absolute control it portrays in many colonial texts, but nonetheless, the fact is that the natives were evidently unhappy about colonial rule, a fact the colonisers were aware of. Furthermore, they were unable to manifest their anti-colonial feelings in any way other than passive aggressive jeering, tripping or betel juice-spitting. This to me reflected the utter  power that the coloniser wielded—and if the point is only alluded to at the beginning of the story, it is made quite unmistakable by the end. The narrator kills the elephant to avoid looking a fool, but British law makes it legal for him to do so, because a coolie had been killed, and the owner is helpless to do anything because “he was only an Indian”.

The coloniser-colonised power relations is quite completely complicated in this story—where does real power lie? In the hands of the colonised or the coloniser? I really have no idea.

Power relations in A Passage to India

What struck me most when I started reading A Passage to India were the complex power relations that underpinned most of the text. Everyone in the text is in relatively more or less power than everyone else, whether it is between the two broad camps of ‘natives’ and ‘English’, or within the two groups. The relationship between Major Callendar and Aziz, and Aziz and Dr. Panna Lal is just one example of this: Callendar resents Aziz’s superior skills, and expects Aziz to come immediately when “summoned” (p.48), not even considering that he may be otherwise occupied in his free time. In the same way, Aziz thinks about his quarrel with Panna Lal in terms of whether or not Panna Lal is a person of importance, and whether it was “wise to have quarrelled even with him” (p.54). There seems to be at all times an unspoken but constantly-referenced hierarchy that governs all relationships that is present but only in a rather unobtrusive way—it is a default lens through which all interactions are viewed.

All this later changes with Adela’s accusation of Aziz—the underlying power relations burst to the forefront, with the clear—and symbolic—split between the British and the Indians, in which power rests clearly with the British. The fact that Aziz is arrested simply based on Adela’s accusation and later set free based on her admission of her mistake illustrates this quite clearly, as do the closing lines of the novel.

For me, this was all complicated by the issue of which side I as a reader stand on: Forster is clearly sympathetic to the Indians, which for me added a whole new complicated dimension to the issue of power relations in the novel. If the author is so clearly on one side of the issue, is it the British or the Indians who are really disempowered in the novel?