The representation of British India in literary from 1772 to 1976. A comparison of "The Painter of Sign" and "Untouchable"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2005 16 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Comparative Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Said’s East and West in The Land Storm and The Painter of Sign

3. The romanticized India

4. The representation of the British

5 The representation of the Indians

6. Conclusion

Bibliography / Webliography

1. Introduction

The legacy of British colonialism in India is not only of economic or social nature, but also of highly literary interest. What makes the literature of British India so fascinating is first and foremost its depiction of the ‘other’, the exotic and unknown.

On the basis of selected representative texts by both British and Indian writers, this essay attempts to set out visible similarities and differences in Anglophone literature on India. To this end, Anand’s Untouchable and Narayan’s The Painter of Signs shall serve as core texts around which the comparisons will be centred.

It must be noted that representations of India do not embrace people alone, even though this is one of them most interesting and exhaustive aspects. Elements I will also elaborate on are the representations of landscapes and stereotypical images of India. As far as the British are concerned, it is the colonizers that are of primary interest here.

The literary material we will be discussing covers a period of more than 200 years – from 1772 to 1976. But it was only in 1978 when Edward Said published his most influential book Orientalism which studies the East through Western eyes. His vies will be used as a starting point for our investigation.

2. Said’s East and West in The Land Storm and The Painter of Signs

The literature of British India can primarily be regarded as a literature of cultural difference and power relations. ‘The identification of cultural differences and the making of a set of unequal power relations (Baldwin 1999: 168) find its manifestation in Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism. His model offers a useful tool for our discussion. An issue to be raised in this chapter is to what extent does Said’s perspective of the East and the West correspond to Emma Roberts’ poem The Land Storm and R.K. Narayan’s novel The Painter of Signs.

Said argues that differences between the East and the West, in our case India and Britain, is based on power and knowledge. As the West is apparently more powerful and more knowledgeable, the East is, according to Said, often regarded as primitive, backward, passive, weak, dark and inferior, but also as feminine, silent, sensual, cruel and corrupt – whereas the West is considered to be progressive, civilized, active strong, bright, superior, but also as masculine, articulate and mature (cf. Baldwin 1999: 168).

Admittedly, Said’s Orientalism is a very broad and one-sided approach to the literary material we will be examining because his way of thinking is based on two fundamental distinctions only: East and West. Thus his representation largely ignores individual categories like class, caste or gender. Moreover, it is the ‘Western eye’ that sees and interprets the cultural dissimilarities. Nevertheless, for a start his ideas will be very helpful to identify particular features of the Orient and the Occident.

A prime example for confirming Said’s view is Emma Roberts’ poem The Land Storm (1832). Not only does she present an image of India that fits almost perfectly into the model of Orientalism, it also reinforces the British stereotypical perception of the East. The reason why I have come to this conclusion is above all the three-part division of the poem: part one (II. 1-22) describes the calm before the storm, part two (ll. 23-54) portrays the storm itself, and in part three the previous order is restored (II. 55-66). This division could be read as a metaphor for British colonialism: pre-colonial India, colonized India and post-colonial India. Within this division, we can discern a number of interesting trinaries that fully correspond to Said’s categories of the East and the West:

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It is noticeable that part II is full of movement – comparable with the British presence in India and their ‘intervention’ in all spheres of Indian life: ‘Yet one small cloud of darkest blue alone / Appears above the distant horizon’ (ll. 32-33) … ‘And now in wrathful guise the sable clouds / Come rolling on …’ (ll. 38-39). The chaos that the storm brings about could stand for the British disruption of the traditional Indian social order.

However, some inconsistencies can be observed. It is not the Indians that are seen as dark and cruel, but the British colonizers:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

In like manner, one way of reading Narayan’s The Painter of Signs (1976) is to look at the text as a metaphor for colonialism in general: Raman’s inner balance and his world – that of sign-painting (‘pre-colonial state’) – is unexpectedly upset by Daisy’s sudden appearance (‘colonizer’) that brings confusion, unrest and trouble into Raman’s calm life, until the previous order is being restored at the end of the novel (‘decolonization’).

However, the striking difference to Roberts’ poem is that the ‘intruder’ is Indian and female, and the male protagonist gradually turns into her subject. The ordinary view of seeing Indians and females as weak is partly dismissed in Narayan’s work. It is Raman who gets weak, irrational, passive, and emotional. I would argue that he becomes a ‘feminine man’.

However, we have to make a slight restriction here because ‘colonialism’ takes place among and between Indians. There is a reversal of gender roles rather than a change in colonial power relations. If Raman had been British, Said’s model could have been wholly contradicted. Notwithstanding, I regard Narayan’s text as an ideal example for challenging the notion of Orientalism because we can no longer equal the West’s superiority over the East with a ‘power-laden dichotomy between male and female’ (Baldwin 1999: 174). In other words, we may question whether the Orient can solely be regarded as feminine and the Occident as masculine.

Texts on the British experience of India like that of Emma Roberts make stimulating reading because they tend to depict an imaginary world full of exoticism. Unlike Narayan, her (mis)representation of India is highly romanticized, and therefore simplified. In the following chapter, I will elaborate on this observation.

3. The romanticized India

‘Men get used to a place, become familiar with it, and then comes a stage when the fascination of the unknown, the exotic, dominates them.’ (Untouchable, 78)

The exotic and picturesque is an integral part of British writing on the East because ‘[r]epresentations of the romantic, mystical Orient … act as a container for Western desires and fantasies which cannot be accommodated within the boundaries of what is normal in the west’ (Cloke 1999: 49). Apart from the prospect of wealth and power, it was chiefly adventurism that drove the British away from their home-country to distant places like India.

In literature, it was initially the representation of the Indian landscape that became the dominant subject of romanticization and sentimentaliziation. It may seem paradoxical, but also Anand’s ‘dim novel’ Untouchable (1935) contains a number of idyllic and romantic moments. In his text, it is first and foremost the sun and the sky that are elevated to the picturesque: ‘the white-blue lower sky was defined into a lovely pattern by the golden domes of the temples’ (99). Portrayals of the ‘ugliness and the noise of the outcastes’ streets’ are followed by descriptions of a beautiful transcend blue sky (cf. 93). Now and then, Bakha – the protagonist – stops for a while and looks up skywards because ‘[n]ecessity had forced him to the contemplation of the charms of nature’ (94). As he is well aware that ‘darkness’ prevails in his life (and in the novel as a whole), he is the more sensitive towards the natural beauty: ‘The contrast of the tremulous life of foliage …, the green, green mango orchards and the marshlands which surrounded his home was a stark one’. Despite his unlucky fate as an outcaste, he nevertheless feels attached to his country.

A fully romanticized version of India is offered by Roberts’ poem The Land Storm. Alongside with Timothy Touchstone’s Tea and Sugar and Gerald’s Havelock’s March, she approaches India lyrically. The picture she portrayals is overall positive and exotic. With the eye of a photographer and using descriptive language she presents and image that resembles an almost ideal place. Palm trees, mango groves, straw-thatched huts and the overabundance of warm, bright colours make the place appear a paradise in which ugly details do not outcrop. Moreover, the land offers a great potential for future exploitation. It is rich in natural resources, fertile and very well farmed: ‘Its fleecy crops of cotton, corn, and oil / And all the myriad plants that gem the soil’.

What influenced Roberts’ writing was undoubtedly English Romanticism. Her poem can therefore be considered an experiment to transfer English Romantic writing to an Indian setting, which was fundamentally different from, and therefore more exotic than Britain’s countryside. As the European view of India was already formed by the Arabian Nights, a lot of English writers may have approached the unknown Indian subcontinent with this kind of expectation and stereotypical image in mind. Furthermore, as Emma Roberts was an English observer writing for an English audience, it would not have been in her interest to shed a negative light on British imperial policy and depict a negative picture of India.

We can conclude that the poem – especially the first and third part – presents India as a timeless, peaceful and picturesque place that is weak, harmless and passive. The landscape is gendered (‘fertile tracts’) – feminized – and waits to be ‘penetrated’, or colonized. Interestingly, in comparison to all the other works we will be discussing, Roberts’ poem lacks something pivotal: the description of people. Consequently, there is no description of social or economic reality. In the next two chapters, I will expand upon the representations of the British and the Indians in particular.

4. The representation of the British

‘The luxury and magnificence [of a nabob’s life] was often beyond the wildest imaginings of ordinary Englishmen. And it bred dissipation and arrogance.’ (Juneja 1992: 185)

Although the portrayal of the British is not as diverse as that of the Indians, the texts under scrutiny offer a fascinating insight into the nature of their identity – ranging from exploiters, victims, avengers to exotic figures.

For instance, the British in Untouchable, who are seen as Christians, are considered to be outcastes by the Hindus. For Bakha, however, this is irrelevant as the ‘Tommies’ offer him a different model of looking at the world. Their ‘Britishness’ stands for prestige, social mobility, and access to power. That is why Bakha tries to imitate the sahibs’ fashions because he ‘had been caught by the glamour of the “white man’s” life. The Tommies had treated him as a human being and he had learnt to think of himself as superior to his fellow-outcastes’ (9). But ‘except for his English clothes, there was nothing English in his life’ (12).

At this point, an inner conflict arises. It is difficult for Bakha to identify his self-belonging. He seems to be neither British nor Indian: to the British, he is a native and an ‘object of pity’ (123); to the Indians, he is an outcaste, at the bottom of the social hierarchy. His race stops him being British, his castelessness being a ‘genuine’ Indian.

Also, there is an interesting reversal of roles. It is not the British who explore India, but an Indian who studies the British. As he has ‘obtained glimpses of another world, strange and beautiful’ (78), in the British Bakha sees strikingly unusual, exciting, and exotic figures. Exoticism seen from an Indian view may appear uncommon to us because the term also implies qualities such as ‘outlandish, barbarous, strange, uncouth’ (OED 2a) – qualities that we usually attach to ‘uncivilized’ peoples.

Nevertheless, the overall picture of the British in the novel is by no means positive. Apart from being objects of mimicry, the British become figures of mockery and disdain. Although ‘every child longed for possessing something European’ (101), ‘playmates make fun of Bakha’s clothes and call him derisively “imitation sahib” (12). What even Bakha finds disgraceful was ‘the sight of Tommies running naked to their tub baths … They were, however, sahibs. Whatever they did was ‘fashun’ (18f.).

To some extent, the Colonel and his wife are presented in a ridiculous manner. She married him because of his moustache, and although he has largely incorporated Indian customs, ‘the edge of his tongue was like a pair of scissors which cut the pattern of Hindustani into smithereens as a parrot snips his food into bits’ (122). Partly because the Colonel is unable to tell Bakha who Jesus Christ was, he fails to convert him to Christianity. Furtermore, ‘Bakha dreaded that he should be reborn as a donkey or a dog’ (130).

An interesting point should also be made concerning the narrative. Although there is a lot of mimicry of the British, the ‘Tommies’ themselves largely remain silent and passive throughout the book. There is – except for the Colonel – no active genuine British character. Their absence and silence may be explained by Anand’s design to make the Indian speak, and the British listen. As British readers should serve as targets for Anand’s criticism of the class and caste system, the novel can therefore be read as an intervention in the dialogue between the Indians and the British.



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University of Nottingham – English Studies
British’ Narayan’s Painter Sign Anand’s Untouchable British India Literature



Title: The representation of British India in literary from 1772 to 1976. A comparison of "The Painter of Sign" and "Untouchable"