Mourning Past Glories, Colonialism, and Indian Fiction

Anita Desai's In Custody apparently follows a well established path when its characters mourn past glories, particularly those of a once-dominant culture's poetry. Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi (1st ed 1940), which is set in the same city and which may have influenced Desai, offers several particularly poignant instances of such sense of loss. In 1912, when New Delhi is being constructed outside the old city, Mir Nihal, the book's protagonist, finds himself disturbed by the newcomers, "strange people . . . from other provinces of India and especially from the Punjab," who brought

new customs and new ways. The old culture, which had been preserved within the walls of the ancient town, was in danger of annihilation. Her language, on which Delhi had prided herself, would become adulterated and impure, and would loses its beauty and uniqueness of idiom. She would become the city of the dead, inhabited by people who have no love for her nor any associations with her history and ancient splendour. But who could cry against the ravages of time which has destroyed Nineveh and Babylon, Carthage as well as Rome? (205-206).

One can point to several important points about this passage in addition to the fact that the inhabitants of old Delhi resent people from other areas of the subcontinent, rather than the British. For example, the novelist, who certainly sympathizes with Mir Nihal and his fellows, himself writes in English -- Twilight in Delhi was first published in London. More important, his closing lines here refer allude specifically to Old Testament prophecy and almost certainly to its use in the writings of John Ruskin's Stones of Venice and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The Burden of Nineveh." Ali, in other words, here adopts British literary and religious tradition, thereby simultaneously deconstructing his own argument and indicating that his audience lies more with the English and the Anglicized Indian than with those like his own protagonist.

Some years later, after the Home Rule movement had begun (1917), the now aged and discouraged protagonist dreads the "hybrid culture which had nothing in it of the past [which] was forcing itself upon Hindustan, a hodge-podge of Indian and Western ways which he failed to understand" [251]. Mourning the "glory" and "richness of life" -- particularly "that relation which existed between the society and its poets" [251] -- Nihal sounds almost exactly like the pagan Roman speaker in Swinburne's "Hymn to Proserpine," who mourns the way Christianity has destroyed earthly pleasures and the poet's glory. Where in Desai, Rushdie, Suleri, and other Postcolonial authors do you find similar ambivalence about the effects of European cultures upon indigenous ones? Do the authors from India that you have read take the same basic position as those from Africa?

[Arif Diwan, former Programming Support Specialist at Computer and Information Services, Brown University, provided me with a copy of Twilight in Delhi, one of the earliest Indian novels in English to make an impression in the U. K. The Karachi branch of Oxford University Press published this new edition in 1985, 45 years after the first London publication. GPL. ]

[Postcolonial] [Indian Subcontinent] India OV Politics

Last Modified: 15 March, 2002