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Images of Indian Women in Rudyard Kipling: A Case of Doubling Discourse
Every intellectual enterprise is marked as much by what it excludes as by what it includes. In Orientalism Edward Said defines, regretfully, a significant absence in his own project:
Why the Orient seems still to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat), untiring sensuality, unlimited desire, deep generative energies, is something on which one could speculate: it is not the province of my analysis here, alas, despite its frequently noted appearance.
In my own work (which is heavily indebted to Said), I have been led gradually to a sense of how glaring this absence indeed is, not only in Said but in much related work on colonialism. In this paper, I would like to suggest a way in which feminist studies and the study of colonialism might be fruitfully combined.
I take, as perhaps the most obvious point of intersection between these two fields, the figure--and the figuring--of "colonized women"-- that is, of those women who were members of a colonized ethnic group, people, or nation. If, as Said asserts, we must examine the representation of the Asian "other" to understand the discourse of Western Orientalism, then we need to look at the depiction of the colonized woman in this same discourse to uncover how Orientalist and masculinist writings work together and to what end. I cannot hope to survey, in Said's manner, the vast archive of representations of colonized women throughout the centuries. Instead, I will concentrate, in the first part of this paper, on the writings of Rudyard Kipling, examining the ways in which several of his works depict Indian women. In the second part, I will explore several general issues that arise from my study of Kipling's particular case, issues involving not only the relation between feminist and colonialist interpretations of literature but also the nature of gendered readings.
Why study Kipling? The answer, it seems to me, is clear. The British literature about India constitutes a major strand in the West's discourse about the Orient. Within this tradition, Kipling--if not a "founder of language" in Roland Barthes' sense of the word-is nonetheless a powerful producer of Orientalist tropes about India. He is also the first major Anglo-Indian writer to explore the theme of miscegenation with any thoroughness. Although he refrained from writing about liaisons between Indian men and British women (the subject was for him taboo), he did write many works dealing with interracial love between Indian women and British men. Indeed, it is in relation to British boys or men that Indian women--as mothers, lovers, or wives--chiefly figure in Kipling.
Before analyzing his images of Indian women, it is first necessary to place Kipling briefly in his historical context. Born in India, raised in the "Family Square" of a staunch Anglo-India family, and guided in his choice of career by a father who worked as an official artist and administrator for the government of India, the young writer was himself hired as a journalist by two official Anglo-Indian newspapers. Although his imaginative writings sometimes show a maverick streak, he was fundamentally an Anglo-Indian writer who wrote for an Anglo-Indian audience: the British men and women whom he interviewed as a journalist, whom he met in the official clubs to which he belonged, and to whom he addressed his short stories and verse. The prefactory poem to "Departmental Ditties and Other Verses" (1890) points up the strong bond between him and his first and formative readership:
I HAVE eaten your bread and salt,
Unlike the audience in England, the Britons in India caught the sober meaning behind the tale's jesting guise. They read properly, in James Clifford's term, the "allegories" whose surface gaiety masked a moral imperative: the British "duty," despite grim suffering, to hold the Indian subcontinent, for their own and the Indians' putative good. Mindful of the consequences of the Mutiny of 1857, anxious about both Russian expansion and incipient Indian nationalism (the Indian National Congress was established in 1885), British official and military readers found Kipling's didacticism compelling.
I have drunk your water and wine,
The deaths ye died I have watched beside,
And the lives that ye led were mine.
Was there aught that I did not share
In vigil or toil or ease,--
One joy or woe that I did not know,
Dear hearts across the seas?
I have written the tale of our life
For a sheltered people's mirth,
In jesting guise--but ye are wise,
And ye know what the jest is worth.
In these allegories of empire, Indian women are represented in ways that underscore the tales' hortatory meanings. These women are commonly portrayed under three signs: the sign of dangerous hybridization, the sign of epistemological limits, and finally the chief sign of the Indian as "other." Of course, at any point in these narratives the Indian woman may embody all three signs, but in this discussion it will be helpful to address them separately. To understand the Indian woman under the first sign, we must first come to grips with her complex relationship both to the indigenous community from which she springs and to the Anglo-Indian society toward which her love for an Englishman impels her. Kipling often depicts her as confined, even immured, within her home. This is particularly true of the urban woman in full or semi-purdah. In this constriction, she is not completely constrained by the Indian powers (often patriarchal and invariably inimical to the white man) that seek to dictate her life. In fact, her physical immobilization often focuses her desire and amplifies her will to subvert the indigenous forces that hem her in. However, as much as she seems to rebel against the Indian powers that be by loving the anathematized Englishman, she is, in the end, aligned with them, as either their metonymy, expression, or instrument. This association is reinforced by her final corporality, her reduction to a body caught within an Indian space. "The City of Dreadful Night" ends with the image of a woman's corpse being carried through the figurative charnel house of Lahore. In "Beyond the Pale," Bisesa, in being walled up inside her uncle's house to keep her from her English lover, Trejago, is for all intents and purposes buried alive. The dead Ameera in "Without Benefit of Clergy" is taken by undertakers from her English husband, Holden, and buried in an unknown Muslim graveyard. All these works end in a Chinese box of doom. The ineluctably material Indian woman suggests the Indian house in which she lives, in turn the city of her residence, and finally a malevolent Indian world. Or, to reverse the flow of this symbolic economy--for the metaphorical energies flow in both directions--the body of the Indian woman powerfully condenses and concretizes what Kipling calls "the powers of darkness"--that general enveloping menace, that abstract threat, to British imperial prestige.
The analogy between civil and somatic space makes clear the Indian woman's status as the sign of threatening hybridization. In physically penetrating an Indian urban space, the Englishman performs what is tantamount to a sexual piercing. Indeed, in both "Beyond the Pale" and "Without Benefit of Clergy," Trejago and Holden, respectively, make the metaphor literal. In accordance with the imperial allegory, Trejago's punishment is poetically just: Bisesa's uncle stabs him in the groin. Bisesa's ghastly maiming--her hands are cut off at the wrist--underscores, at a gender's remove, her uncle's intent to castrate. In "Without Benefit of Clergy," neither Holden nor Ameera is the victim of such crude revenge but in time, the Indian gods exact their revenge, killing both their son, Tota, and Ameera herself by cholera. Unlike Trejago, Holden is not physically harmed, but he loses nearly everything from his married life and suffers deeply.
In both these tales, the narrator would have us believe that native powers destroy the lovers. But a reading of the parables' sub-text reveals that the author--and, by extension, the Anglo-Indian community--is really the nemesis. It is Kipling himself who projects his fears of miscegenation onto the Indian and maims or kills by proxy. Not surprisingly, the chief victim is the Indian woman, for she is, as "Without Benefit of Clergy" reveals, the potential bearer of the greatest danger to British prestige: the Eurasian child. The culturally hybridized Indian landlord, Durga Dass, who appears before Holden to announce the razing of his and Ameera's former home, is alarming, but the child of mixed blood is doubly disturbing, for he threatens to blur both culturally and biologically the difference between ruler and ruled upon which the British Raj depends.
The Indian mother is not unambiguously menacing. In fact, she can be quite beneficial to the British cause. The native wet-nurse in "The Son of His Father" and Sahiba, Kin's foster-mother, are valued for their capacity to nurse or feed the British hero. In fact, both these women figure more prominently than either hero's natural, British mother, for through the Indian "mother," the protagonist imbibes a native milk that grounds him instinctually in an Indian world-a grounding that serves him well in his future as a spy. However, as soon as the Indian woman bids to join a Briton in procreating a child, she threatens the genetic encoding that assures Anglo-Saxon racial purity. It is no accident that none of Kipling's tales of interracial love results in the birth of a child who survives.
The limited sphere within which the Indian woman is allowed to flourish implies the second sign under which she is depicted: the sign of epistemological boundaries. In "Beyond the Pale," Trejago is called a man who "knew too much." His dangerous knowledge is two-fold both intellectual and, as the Biblical connotation suggests, sexual; but clearly, in his case, the sexual meaning is determinative. Indeed, the sexual serves as the point of reference from which all forms of knowledge, intimacy, and exchange--whether social, cultural, or political--are gauged.
Trejago, like many of Kipling's picaros, is much like an ethnographer. He meets Bisesa by cracking the code of her object-letter in fine Geertzian fashion. However, whereas both Kim (Kipling's most famous amateur ethnographer) and the model policeman Strickland steer clear of native women when they venture into the bazaar, Trejago ignores the ethnographer's customary prohibition against "going native" by falling in love with and loving an Indian woman. Where Kim and Strickland venture into the bazaar in disguise, ever conscious of the difference between persona and self, Trejago collapses the distinction. In the case of all these real or would-be anthropologists, the body of the Indian woman represents, literally and figuratively, the boundary beyond which the British official, conscious of his prestige, may not transgress. The safe world of his station duty may be dull and routine compared to the realm of the Indian and female "other," but it is nonetheless his proper place. The Englishman's aberrant journey "beyond the pale" ends by confirming the world of the "normal." Indeed, the norm requires an occasional act of vagrancy to bolster itself against the demoralizing other. It is these ritual cycles of boundaries being violated and then redrawn that Kipling's allegories enact.
In Kipling's writings about India, Indian women are seen, finally as the sign of the "other," the marker of what is different from (and therefore both inferior and yet threatening to) the British. This is not to suggest that the "other" is not represented in alternative forms--male Indian character, for example, can also evoke both the fascination and the horror of the alterior. However, Indian women are seen as the primary figures of a realm defined by its difference from that of the Anglo-Indian official and soldier. Some women, like the Eurasian fiancee in "Kidnapped," are summarily marginalized. Others, like the gypsy queen, Sitabhai, in Naulahka: A Story of West and East, are depicted as vamps. Those who are portrayed as alluring (Bisesa in "Beyond the Pale") are fetishized. And even those who escape the anatomizing male gaze, who are presented as whole and sympathetic (Lispeth in "Lispeth" or Ameera in "Without Benefit of Clergy"), are ultimately seen uneasily as "other" (Lispeth turning suddenly into a hag and Ameera into a corpse). In fact, the fate of the attractive Indian lover or wife often obeys a compelling narrative logic: she who is initially strongly attractive, strongly repels in the end. Although traces of pathos sometimes cling to her, the oxymoronic Indian woman is usually simplified in the course of her tale to the monstrous: a cripple, a corpse, or a hag.
Why are Indian women depicted in Kipling in the ways that I've described? Why are they rather than Indian men, for example--seen as the primary mark of the "other"? The answer lies in their condition of being both Indian and female, of being doubly "other." In this doubleness, they represent the point at which two parallel discourses--one masculinist and the other Orientalist--are spliced together. This knitting renders the point of union highly charged. Although the force of the two discourses cannot be added in any simple-minded way, the threat that the Indian evoked in Kipling's Anglo-Indian reader was undoubtedly intensified when that Indian was also a woman.
This point needs elucidation. In being doubly "other," the Indian woman was, to the Anglo-Indian, potentially a two-fold impediment to British rule. The ideology of this rule put a man's work, the white man's burden in India, above all else; and this work--both in the cooperation among Anglo-Indian males--was, in Eve Sedgwick's phrase, "between men." Women in Kipling, whether English or Indian, are powerfully distracting; and for men to do their best work, they must be shifted to the periphery of men's vision. The English wife constitutes a kind of menace, for she can and, in Kipling's eyes, often does domesticate male energies better spent on government. But the danger which she presents sexually is effectively canceled by her racial and national identity with the Englishman. On the other hand, the Indian woman, because she is both Indian and female, presents the direst possible threat to the homosocial solidarity of district officer, soldier, and intelligence agent.
In comparison to her, the Indian man is seen as tractable. Because of the bond of gender, British men in Kipling's world can more successfully befriend Indian men without sacrificing their relative position of superiority. Kipling's work features several instances of meetings of East and West where "strong men" from both races remain putatively steady friends. Any such syncretism involving Indian women, however, is never allowed to survive its early promise.
At this point, I'd like to move to the more general issues which my analysis of Kipling has raised. Any endeavor to study the overlapping between race, gender, generation, and class must, by definition, concern itself with their area of intersection. I have chosen to study the figure who stands in the center of the discursive field defined by an Orientalist discourse and a masculinist rhetoric. However, I have by no means exhausted study of the field. The phrase "colonized woman" has a suggestive ambiguity. It can mean what I have taken it most literally to mean. But it has other implications. Aren't all women who are dominated by men in some sense colonized--that is, treated by men as sites of exploitation? Aren't colonial women--the wives, lovers, sisters, and colleagues of the male colonizer--as much colonized as the colonized themselves? Isn't, for example, the English woman married to an English colonel in the Indian Army finally as much subject to a colonial ideology not of her own making as the Indian servant whom she employs? (The absence of any brown-man-white-woman relations in Kipling's work implies this equivalence, for the stereotype of the brown man as a potential rapist of the white woman depends for its full force on the equally rigid stereotype of the white woman as unmoved and untouched by the Indian man's desire.) The phrase has yet a third implication. Isn't the colonized, whether man or woman, often seen as woman--in other words, as feminized? All of these ramifications need further scrutiny.
The overlapping between Orientalist and masculinist discourses also suggests the possibility of cross-analogies with related intersections between race and class, race and generation, and so forth. Michel Foucault and others have noted how widely and systematically difference was forged on the anvil of the variously figured human body in post-Enlightenment writings. One might, for example, link Kipling's use of the Indian woman's body as a discursive nexus with doublings in European scientific, medical, economic, and political documents of the 19th century. Londa Scheibinger has begun work in this direction with her study of 19th-century European medical literature--a literature that continually saw the child, the woman, and the primitive as analogies of each other. Kipling's cross-analogizing of the Indian and the woman could be seen then, as a displaced, "exotic" variation on a larger, domestic European theme.
However, analyses of twin, entwining discourses present certain pitfalls. First, there is the danger of over-generalizing--of tracing the similarities between, for example, Kipling and European medical writers to the point of eliding the differences. It seems to me imperative that we always see these doublings within a particular historical moment to ascertain precisely which power relations, with which pressure, and to which degree of synergy they cooperate in constructing the represented "object." When we generalize beyond the moment, we should be wary of essentializing the language about the "other," of creating a master discourse into which one kind of "other" or another can be interchangeably plugged.
Second, there is the impulse to exploit the tension of even the opposition implied by the mingling of two discourses. In any study of doubling discourse, one can become embroiled in questions of priority--to ask, in the case of Kipling, which discourse came first? Did Kipling seize upon the Indian woman as a powerful sign of the "other" because the European male discourse about women lay ready to hand? Or did the language of racial difference precede and thus fuel men's invidious language about women? If these questions about origins seem naive, another is not so easily dismissed: which discourse should be foregrounded? Should Orientalist writings be studied within the context of a feminist critique, or the other way around?
These questions raise vexed political issues inside and outside our universities. In a recent article, Barbara Christian has lamented the persuasiveness with which interdisciplinary studies of race, gender, and class have become fractured along disciplinary lines. This divisiveness leads not only to the narrow pursuit of special interests but to the undermining of those very scholars who can best shed light on the relations among these interests: women of color. Arguing that the study of one discourse takes precedence over that of another leads to the internecine battles that Christian describes.
Unfortunately, this privileging is, as I have found out in writing this paper, all too inevitable. From the beginning, I have approached the figure of the Indian woman in Kipling from an Orientalist angle. This predisposition most directly evolves from my current doctoral work in British imperial literature, a predilection that, in turn, grows out of my service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand in the late 1970s. Less directly, and in ways I find difficult to trace, my gender has also determined my approach. Although I have come to realize that issues about women are intimately connected with issues of colonialism, and although I have attended closely to the consequences of colonialism for women, I will, at least for the foreseeable future, remain frankly more interested in matters of colonialism than feminism. In short, I will continue to focus on the British Raj instead of (and as some feminist critics will doubtless complain, at the expense of) Indian women.
Still, the ate of privileging that I have implicitly performed does not rule out its counterpart: feminist approaches to the colonized woman. Indeed, I would very much want to read critiques based on such approaches. Perhaps, we need to distinguish here between "priority" and "privilege." Granting priority in any interdisciplinary enterprise will technically always imply the simultaneous granting of privilege. But practically, the tyranny of privilege can be curtailed, and the injury it causes--measured in terms of articles rejected, tenure denied, funds directed elsewhere, and lively minds ignored??can be ameliorated. A constructive interdisciplinary practice would encourage related studies, particularly those which are fledgling and marginalized, to speak to each in their emphatically different accents without talking past each other or shouting each other down. Although strain will continue to exist among the converging languages of race, class, generation, and gender, we should not allow these tensions to weaken the incipient community--in Paul Rabinow's word, the "federation"--of scholars and critics interested in these studies. Ideally, we would both project our individual voices and act as a sounding-board for others'. In these ways, we might promote those resonances that sound among disciplines, that need to be amplified in order to survive.
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Last modified: Dec 7, 1998 by Megan O'Patry.
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