War of words over post-colonial space

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | KORAL DASGUPTA
Published Feb 19, 2018, 12:56 am IST
Updated Feb 19, 2018, 12:56 am IST
In due course, the independent nation built up its own robust political system and successfully developed its own identity.
The world still nurtures pre-conceived notions of under-development when it comes to looking at ‘native’ Africans with a liberal mindset
 The world still nurtures pre-conceived notions of under-development when it comes to looking at ‘native’ Africans with a liberal mindset

Post-colonialism in the Indian context began around the middle of the 20th century. In due course, the independent nation built up its own robust political system and successfully developed its own identity. Today, aspects of post-colonialism manifest themselves in seeing history and politics & culture and identity from the Indian perspective.

Humour goes haywire

 

Chimamanda Adichie's remark deriding post-Colonialism was supposed to be sarcastic but lacked the sense of occassion, which got Shailja Patel all riled up and furious

Humour has always been a great tool to draw audiences. But when carelessly employed, it can boomerang into an outrage where sensitivity, emotions and gratitude are ruthlessly questioned. This is what happened with feminist author and poet, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s interview at The Night of Ideas event in France, on January 25, when she dismissed post-colonial studies as a “scholarly section created by professors in need of jobs”. The immediate reaction was a stream of protests, fuming at Adichie’s arrogance and ignorance of her country’s deepest scars, and of the immense struggles to create the path and provision that allowed someone like Adichie to rise.

Shailja Patel, Kenyan poet and author, was quick to express her disappointment, even anger and indignation, through a series of 14 tweets, which have been noticed and appreciated in the context of Adichie’s casual shrug towards post-colonial theory. Expectedly and rightly, so! For the uninitiated, post-colonial theory is the study of colonial domination and its aftermaths. Theorists specialised in the field draw from a range of disciplines such as history, literature, political theory, economics, and cultural studies to understand the ins and outs of that powerful global enterprise called colonialism and the ways in which it continues to define our lives today.

The modern State of Nigeria has emerged from British colonial rule (1800-1960), leaving behind stories of cruelty and humiliation. Those battles aren’t over, yet. Often, global media and public attitudes, and even the arts, across the world, reflect these prejudices, passed off as a ‘harmless’ reference to the Africa of yesteryear. That’s exactly where Shailja Patel’s outrage stems from. In her tweets, she points out how the academic feminists and post-colonial theorists of Nigeria had worked relentlessly to furnish a platform that allows great talents like Adichie to educate, breed, and grow. With a carelessly placed statement, the famous author argued that the protests against prejudices were “nothing but academic muse of African intellectual groups”.

The world still nurtures pre-conceived notions of under-development when it comes to looking at ‘native’ Africans with a liberal mindset. The same was reflected brutally when accomplished French journalist, Caroline Broué asked Adichie before a house-full audience at the Night of Ideas, a cross-continental cultural event held by the Institut Francais at the Quai d’Orsay, “Are there bookshops in Nigeria?” Sensing that the positioning of the question had gone terribly wrong, Broué tried to ‘explain’, but the damage was already done.

More than the journalist’s question, though, Patel seems to be disheartened by Adichie’s response which was vague and inconclusive, other than the sarcasm of “I think it reflects very poorly on the French people that you have to ask me that kind of question.” In her tweets Patel suggested a rather blunt and hard-hitting reply: ‘Yes, but they lack books and journals because the World Bank and IMF forced Nigeria to de-fund public education’, which she feels Adichie would have come out with had she understood and respected the contribution of post-colonial theorists in her own upbringing.

It was later discussed that Broué’s question was meant to be ironical, and Adichie’s “Post-Colonial studies” statement just an extension of her funny side. Unwilling to let go of it as a momentary slip, Shailja pointed out that the celebrated author shouldn’t have trivialised such questions with casual humour since it is reflective of poor taste, especially because even her negligence becomes headlines...” Patel’s hurt is relevant and relatable.

India’s Own Fight

India has its own history of colonial rules, and for years the country has been molested by invaders, the largest interface being with the British. The Indian struggle for Independence against 200 years of British rule has gone through savage means as the war was between those who wanted to sabotage the original voice of the country and those who tried to protect it. Common people across age and disciplines had picked up arms to revive the right to live in their own country with respect and dignity.

On the other hand, arts and literature played a potent role in and after such gory times, fearlessly and unapologetically creating moments of fiction and non-fiction that can influence and inspire mindsets. The thinkers and scholars, literary personalities, intellectuals and journalists, who attempted to envision an independent country, had survived or succumbed to social brutalities. Each Indian is sensitive to those stories of loss. The twitter wars will die down eventually. Sooner or later, her world will forgive Adichie as well. It is heartening, though, that scholars like Patel resonated so perfectly, the combined outburst of a larger population, her discomfort echoing in every heart with a similar history.

POST-COLONIAL THEORY

It deals with cultural legacy of colonialism with focus on the effects of the exploitation of colonised people and their lands. The theory represents an ideological response to colonialist thought more than the system that comes after the colonial period. It attempts to study colonial life from the point of view of colonised people with the idea that colonial rulers are unreliable narrators of events.

THE SETTING

Celebrated Nigerian novelist and feminist writer Chimamanda Adichie was at a cross-cultural event 'The Night of Ideas' in Paris on January 25. She was one of the many acclaimed intellectuals and authors from all over invited to talk on their works and issues on feminism, gender et al. At one of the sessions, French journalist Caroline Broué was interviewing Adichie. The talk went fine until Broué asked Adichie an unexpected question that struck a blow at the root of all she was about - what she stood, fought and wrote against all along. The interviewer may have been naive in not knowing why she should not have asked that, but her query was earnest nonetheless given how she saw things. 

TRIGGER

Adichie said wryly: “Post-colonial theory? I don’t know what it means. I think it’s something that professors made up because they needed to get jobs.” This incensed Shailja Patel no end and provoked her enough to shoot off 14 sharply-worded tweets slamming Adichie for casually shrugging off post-colonial theory.

BOOKS on 
BRITISH IN INDIA

Shashi Tharoor's Inglorious Empire
It is about what the British did to India. Shashi talks about Britain's exploitative, racist imperial project in India was awesome in its savagery and vindictiveness, what he calls a "long and shameless record of rapacity".

Jon Wilson's India Conquered: Britain's Raj and the Chaos of Empire
Wilson underlines how the British view of themselves as conquerors generated a racist delusion of "victor's sovereignty", an argument still fuelled by the current wave of empire nostalgia.

Koral Dasgupta is an author, entrepreneur, professor and content consultant based in Mumbai.





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