Flesh and Fish Blood: Postcolonialism, Translation, and the Vernacular

Flesh and Fish Blood: Postcolonialism, Translation, and the Vernacular

by Subramanian Shankar

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In Flesh and Fish Blood Subramanian Shankar breaks new ground in postcolonial studies by exploring the rich potential of vernacular literary expressions. Shankar pushes beyond the postcolonial Anglophone canon and works with Indian literature and film in English, Tamil, and Hindi to present one of the first extended explorations of representations of caste, including a critical consideration of Tamil Dalit (so-called untouchable) literature. Shankar shows how these vernacular materials are often unexpectedly politically progressive and feminist, and provides insight on these oft-overlooked—but nonetheless sophisticated—South Asian cultural spaces. With its calls for renewed attention to translation issues and comparative methods in uncovering disregarded aspects of postcolonial societies, and provocative remarks on humanism and cosmopolitanism, Flesh and Fish Blood opens up new horizons of theoretical possibility for postcolonial studies and cultural analysis.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520272521
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/02/2012
Series: FlashPoints , #11
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 204
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Subramanian Shankar is Professor of English at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. He is the author of Textual Traffic: Colonialism, Modernity, and the Economy of the Text” and co-editor of Crossing into America: The New Literature of Immigration.

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Flesh and Fish Blood

Postcolonialism, Translation, and the Vernacular

By S. Shankar


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-27252-1


Midnight's Orphans, or the Postcolonial and the Vernacular

I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic.—But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed both here and at home with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.

—Thomas Babington Macaulay, "Minute on Indian Education" (1835)

In 1997, Salman Rushdie celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of India's independence from British rule by coediting The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947–1997 with Elizabeth West. In the introduction to the anthology, Rushdie claimed that the most interesting literature of post-Independence India was in English. "The prose writing—both fiction and non-fiction—created in this period [the fifty years after Independence] by Indian writers working in English," he wrote, "is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the eighteen 'recognized' languages of India, the so-called 'vernacular languages,' during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, 'Indo-Anglian' literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books. The true Indian literature of the first postcolonial half-century has been made in the language the British left behind" (1997c, 50). It is readily apparent from Rushdie's introduction to the anthology that there are, in substance, two evaluatory parts to his argument regarding contemporary Indian literature. One is Rushdie's high estimation of Indian literature in English, expanded on in an interview given around the time of the anthology's publication in which he claimed that because of literature written in English, "India has finally managed to break through into world literature, into the world's language, and to create this great province inside it" (1997b, 36). There can be little quarrel with the general thrust of this part of Rushdie's argument—that the contributions of Indian writers working in English (not the least of which are some of Rushdie's own works) have been of great value. It is the other part—Rushdie's devaluation of literature written in other Indian languages—that has proven controversial and has met with criticism from various quarters.

There is indeed much to be said in defense of the aesthetic value of literature written in Indian languages other than English. However, I am interested less in asserting this value contra Rushdie than in tracking what I consider certain other symptomatic theoretical and critical emphases of Rushdie's argument. For though I begin with Rushdie's provocative comments on contemporary Indian literature (and along the way will offer an assessment of some aspects of this literature), I intend finally to advance an argument about postcolonialism as a theoretical and literary critical project within the North American academy—that is, about what Hosam Aboul-Ela has felicitously christened "institutional postcolonial theory" (2007, 13). Rushdie is not in fact generally regarded as a critic or a theorist. Nevertheless, there is a certain justice in beginning with him. Commenting on Rushdie's "particular prominence," M. Keith Booker notes in the introduction to a recent anthology of critical essays on Rushdie that his work "has been particularly attractive" to postcolonial critics "for whom cultural hybridity is a crucial critical category" (1999, 2–3). Homi Bhabha, whose work I will discuss later in this chapter, is one such critic identified by Booker.

There is a congruence, then, between Rushdie's fiction and certain strands of commentary on postcolonial literature—a congruence that is instructive in a discussion of postcolonial criticism and theory. Critical overviews of postcolonialism have noted the great influence of these strands. Ania Loomba, for example, writes in Colonialism/ Postcolonialism, "Postcolonial studies have been preoccupied with issues of hybridity, creolisation, mestizaje, in-betweenness, diasporas and liminality, with the mobility and cross-overs of ideas and identities generated by colonialism" (1998, 173). And Leela Gandhi echoes this description when she writes toward the end of Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction, "Postcolonial literary theory, as we have seen, tends to privilege 'appropriation' over 'abrogation' and multicultural 'syncretism' over cultural 'essentialism'" (1998, 153). In this critical context, my turn to Rushdie allows me to demonstrate the widespread nature of the attitudes represented by these emphases and to show that the argument that follows is not relevant only to the domain of criticism and theory narrowly understood as a species of academic knowledge.

Of course, I should also note that the tendencies in postcolonial criticism and theory being identified here exist in dialogue and in contestation with other tendencies, especially the materialist criticism of such scholars as Aijaz Ahmad, Timothy Brennan, Barbara Harlow, Neil Lazarus, Satya Mohanty, Benita Parry, Edward Said, E. San Juan, and Gayatri Spivak. Echoes of my argument can be found in their work, and I will have occasion to draw on their enabling and suggestive commentary. At the same time, I am aware there are differences among these critics—and, indeed, between some of their critical perspectives and my argument. In identifying such a broad interpretive stance as materialist criticism, it is useless to look for consensus, even as there is value in recognizing and learning from congruities in critical aims, interpretive methods, and textual archives. I am guided here by Raymond Williams's rejection of a dogmatic specification in advance of materialism's content in Problems in Materialism and Culture, where he notes "the necessary social processes through which the materialist enterprise defines and redefines its procedures, its findings and its concepts, and in the course of this moves beyond one after another 'materialism'" (1980, 122). Williams by and large approves this self-correcting advancement, and I believe materialist criticism in the current moment of lull—for so it seems to me—between the theoretical flurry of the seventies, eighties, and nineties and what is to come is best served by a similarly catholic approach. In intervening in postcolonial studies here, then, I aim to strike a balance between a careful endorsement of materialist method on the one hand and a deliberately commodious understanding of materialism on the other.

This chapter begins with readings of three works of contemporary Tamil literature: K. N. Subramanyam's poem "Situation" (an example of the formal and thematic experimentation of the New Poetry movement), Komal Swaminathan's full-length socialist realist (though this characterization is in some ways inadequate) play Water!, and Ambai's feminist short story "A Kitchen in a Corner of the House." I have chosen the works to demonstrate adequately both the variety of genres and the diversity of voices within contemporary Tamil literature, deliberately postponing engagement with other developments and movements in Tamil writing, which too are exemplary in this respect, until succeeding chapters. My recourse to these Tamil works is dictated by both my personal biography and the needs of my argument. Literature in Tamil falls among those "vernacular literatures" of India sweepingly dismissed by Rushdie (1997c, xv). Tamil is a modern South Indian language with a tradition of classical literature going back more than two thousand years. Certainly a language marked by a distinguished antiquity, it is also present in a variety of media from film and television to the Web. Nevertheless, as we shall see, because it is seen as a "vernacular language," its very modernity is implicitly questioned in Rushdie's arguments. My main interest in the section that follows is in demonstrating the thematic richness of postcolonial Tamil literature in order to suggest, in the final section of the chapter, the limitations of the present configuration of postcolonialism as a theoretical and critical project within the North American academy as well as aligned institutions elsewhere.


In the introduction to the anthology he coedited, Rushdie asserts, "Parochialism is perhaps the main vice of the vernacular literatures" (1997c, xv). And in the interview, he elaborates further on what he means by this parochialism:

The besetting sin of the vernacular language is parochialism. It's as if the twentieth century hasn't arrived in many of these languages and the range of subjects and the manner of the treatment of them is depressingly familiar: village life is hard, women are badly treated and often commit suicide, landowners are corrupt, peasants are heroic and sometimes feckless, disillusioned and defeated. The language is a kind of Indian equivalent of what, in the Soviet Union, was called "Tractor Art." When the attempts are made to take notice of some of the developments in the rest of the world, the clumsiness is sometimes embarrassing. (1997b, 36)

For Rushdie, then, the parochial and backward nature of "vernacular literatures"—such as Tamil literature—is easily recognizable in their thematic poverty. But how true is this characterization of vernacular literature? I begin an exploration of this question by turning first to K. N. Subramanyam's 1966 poem "Situation" because this poem would seem to offer the clearest and most direct refutation of Rushdie's claim.

In a preface to a collection of Subramanyam's poems entitled Puthu Kavithaikal (New Poems), the well-known Tamil poet Gnanakoothan notes, "The words and ideas of previous poets are recognizable in the poems of Ka Na Su from the beginning. But he has used these words and ideas in such a way that they have acquired new meaning" (1989, v). In poetry, as much as in his criticism and fiction, Ka Na Su (as K. N. Subramanyam was known) struggled with the different claims of innovative movements in literature and of tradition. As a poet, he belonged to the New Poetry movement heralded in 1962 by the influential anthology entitled Puthukurralkal [New Voices], edited by Ci. Cu. Chellappa, in which, in fact, two of his poems were included. As Kamil Zvelebil notes in his essay in The Smile of Murugan, New Poetry shows a "radical break with the past and its traditions, though not a negation of the cultural heritage," an "experimentation with language and form of poetry, based on intellection," a familiarity with European and North American modernist poetry, and a "preoccupation" with very contemporary matters (1973, 313–14). Zvelebil concludes his positive assessment of New Poetry by noting the movement's "conscious attempts to evolve a new Tamil idiom, to write, uninhibitedly, about unconventional or even prohibitive themes, to get rid of fashionable foreign influences and to create a truly modern Tamil poetry" (335).

Many of the features identified by Zvelebil in New Poetry are to be found in "Situation" (the translation is by the poet himself):

Introduced to
the Upanishads
by T. S. Eliot;
and to Tagore
by the early
and to the Indian Tradition
by Max Mueller
(late of the Bhavan);
and to
Indian dance by
and to
Indian art
by what's-his-name;
and to the Tamil classics
by Danielou
(or was it Pope?);
neither flesh
nor fish blood
nor stone totem-pole;
in thoughts
not his own;
eloquent in words
not his own
("The age demanded ...")

Sanskritic (the Upanishads), national (Tagore), and Tamil traditions make up the cultural heritage of the person described in the poem. But ironically, his only access to these roots is through the work ("fashionable foreign influences"?) of Western cultural authorities like Eliot (Anglo-American), Müller (German), and Danielou (French). Thus the poem thematizes the contemporary cultural predicament of a certain segment of the postcolonial intelligentsia in Tamil India. Not of the land ("flesh"), not of the sea ("fish blood"), not a worthy (even if inanimate) emblem of his culture ("stone totem-pole"), filled with "words not his own"—the individual described in the poem is, it would seem, the product of what is often referred to in the postcolonial context as cultural imperialism.

The oblique citation of Ezra Pound once again in the final line of the poem suggests the subtlety, erudition, self-reflection, and irony behind this meditation on the contemporary "situation" of the postcolonial intellectual. "The age demanded ..." is a quotation from Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Contacts and Life)," a long 1920 poem that is, Peter Nicholls notes, "at times a distanced presentation of himself [Pound] and at others a satirical portrait of an ineffectual aesthete" (1995, 190). The phrase makes its appearance in the poem early in the first section, "E. P. Ode pour l'Election de Son Sepulchre," which is a catalog of the various things "demanded" by the age: among other things, "mendacities" rather "than the classics in paraphrase" (Pound 1975, 98–99). Alluding to the just concluded First World War, Pound goes on to note, "There died a myriad, / And of the best, among them, / For an old bitch gone in the teeth, / For a botched civilization" (101). And still later in the poem, the phrase "the age demanded" reappears as the title of a section that continues Pound's ironic and self-deprecating exploration of the relevance of (literary) tradition in the midst of the terrible excesses of modern civilization. This section ends by noting "his final / Exclusion from the world of letters" (110).

"Better mendacities / Than the classics in paraphrase!" and "an old bitch gone in the teeth, / ... a botched civilization." Clearly these phrases find renewed significance by reference to the postcolonial Tamil intellectual at the center of Ka Na Su's poem. If it is possible to read Pound's poem as an ironic meditation on the modern Anglo-American poet's relationship to tradition and classical literature, a similar preoccupation with regard to the modern Tamil intellectual is at the heart of Ka Na Su's poem. As already noted, Ka Na Su was, like other poets of the New Poetry movement in general, deeply familiar with European modernism, whose central figures often find reference in his work. Of course, in his poem, Ka Na Su resituates this modernist preoccupation within a postcolonial context. Western modernity is not the same as postcolonialism, nor is the predicament of the modernist intellectual the same as that of the postcolonial intellectual. But in "Situation," the example of the modernist intellectual is made to inform in a subtle way the predicament of the postcolonial intellectual. While what the postcolonial age ("botched civilization"?) demands is left somewhat undetermined at the end of Ka Na Su's poem, the contemporary "situation" of a certain kind of postcolonial intellectual finds ironic figuration in the poem.

It seems clear to me that Ka Na Su's "Situation" cannot be characterized, even by unsympathetic eyes, as Tractor Art. Its themes even show a certain affinity with the concerns of that species of postcolonial criticism and theory that has been so important in assigning such a high value to the work of Rushdie. I have already cited a passage in which Keith Booker makes the link between this high valuation of Rushdie's work and postcolonialism by noting that his "cultural hybridity is a crucial critical category" for postcolonial critics like Homi Bhabha. "Situation," too, can easily be described as a hybrid text on a hybrid subject. Written originally in Tamil (in which language its irony is even more pointed), it was translated into English by the poet himself. The cultural hybridity of the poem, then, is not just a matter of citation; such hybridity inheres not just in the manner in which "Situation" incorporates Pound's poem within itself but in its being, if one grants that the author's translation of his own work has a different status from other translations, a bilingual poem. It exists in two languages at the same time. The "hybrid" subject of this bilingual poem is a mimic man. Homi Bhabha has written that in colonial discourse "mimicry represents an ironic compromise" between "the synchronic panoptical vision of domination," with its demand for "identity, stasis," and "the diachrony of history," with its demand for "change, difference" (1994, 85–86; italics in original). Thus mimic men and women are called forth by the ambivalence of colonial discourse, but Bhabha goes on to write that "the menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority" (88; italics in original).


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Table of Contents



1. Midnight’s Orphans, or the Postcolonial and the Vernacular
2. Lovers and Renouncers, or Caste and the Vernacular
3. Pariahs, or the Human and the Vernacular
4. The “Problem” of Translation

Conclusion: Postcolonialism and Comparatism

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"[A] well-researched and illuminating argument. . . . The case for the vernacular is argued . . . comprehensively and convincingly."—Translation Studies

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