chapter  6
20 Pages

Non-western narrative resources in postcolonial life-writing

Given constraints of space, this is not the appropriate place to debate in detail whether the genres considered in the last chapter have long-established, independent equivalents in the non-West. In any case, the texts under consideration in this monograph show little evidence of drawing on such putative equivalents, for example, the fiction of Murasaki Shikubu (The Tale of Genji), the historiography of Ibn Khaldun (The Book of Evidence) or the travel-writing of Ibn Battuta (The Journey). A more immediately productive approach to defining the formal distinctiveness of postcolonial life-writing may lie instead in attention to other aspects of its narrative articulation. It has long been observed of postcolonial literature generally that when it uses genres – and even languages – which clearly derive from the West, it can nonetheless often be distinguished from its metropolitan counterparts by virtue of a consistent deployment of non-western narrative resources and linguistic elements within those imposed/inherited cultural forms.1

The same phenomenon of hybridisation will now be explored within postcolonial life-writing more specifically. The more this process can be demonstrated to be at work, the more difficult it is to sustain Gusdorf ’s argument about the simply imitative and secondary nature of non-western auto/biographical writing. Equally, it should allow clear water to emerge at last between postcolonial lifewriting and western women’s auto/biography at the level of form. While it has long been claimed both that western women use language in specific ways and that they have – or aspire to – writing styles which are sui generis,2 at present, they enjoy neither a language, nor – pace critics like Elaine Showalter – a repertoire of cultural texts entirely of their own in the way that aspects of the language and narrative traditions drawn on by Soyinka, for example, are the property of the Yoruba people to which he belongs. Some critical work has already been done from this angle, both on life-writing

considered in this book and elsewhere. One important example is Gandhi’s Autobiography which, as was seen in the Introduction, Gusdorf adduces as prime evidence of the ‘mimic’ nature of non-western autobiographical writing. Both Pilar Casamada and Javed Majeed demonstrate the influence on Gandhi’s writing of a range of indigenous Indian texts, notably the Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana; these, Majeed argues, provide ‘regulative psychobiographies’ in terms of which Gandhi constructs autobiographical Selfhood. Indeed, he concludes that ‘Indian-derived

notions of text and performance’ outweigh the influence of western templates in An Autobiography (as he argues they also do in comparable work by Nehru and Iqbal).3 Drawing on such analysis, one might even infer that the ‘experiments’ to which Gandhi’s sub-title alludes extend from abstruse philosophical issues of ‘truth’ to exploration of the possibilities of culturally-specific conceptions of autobiographical form. This would certainly account for the author’s explicit disavowal that he is using the genre as conventionally understood in the West. Indian autobiography in English has proved an equally rich field of investiga-

tion in this respect, squarely contradicting G.N. Devy’s splenetic claim that it ‘has not inherited anything from the rich Indian heritage’.4 As the last chapter argued, Chaudhuri argues that ‘synthesis’ is emblematic of Indian tradition. Further, as suggested in the Introduction, Shirley Lim makes a similar case to Majeed in respect of Kamala Das’s My Story (1976), arguing that the author’s Self-conception is plotted in terms of the contrastive psychobiographic models represented in Hindu tradition by Kali and Krishna respectively. To this extent, Das demonstrates ‘the ideological interpenetrations of the Hindu worldview with a feminist, although not necessarily wholly Westernized text’.5 Secular forms of traditional narrative have proved equally productive as a template for life-writing in the subcontinent. For example, Ganeswar Mishra claims of Prafulla Mohanti’s My Village, My Life (1973), that the author ‘retains in his work much of the folk narrative form’ typical of his region of India.6