Merging Past and Present: Finding Strength in the Wake of Colonialism

Phoebe Koch, English 27, Brown University, 1997

Jayadev: We should have taken physics, chemistry, microbiology, computer technology -- something scientific, something American. Then we would have had a future.

Deven: We have no future. There is no future. There is only past.

Jayadev: What is all this past-fast stuff? I am sick of it. It is the only thing we know in this country. History teaches us the glorious past of our ancient land. Hindi and Sanskrit teachers teach us the glorious literature of the past. I am sick of that. What about the future? (186)

This conversation between two characters in Anita Desai's In Custody reflects frustrations with the past similar to those voiced by Tom Crick's cheeky student in Swift's Waterland. Jayadev's rejection of the past and Deven's rejection of the future represent their inability to find a happy medium -- a place where past and present meet. The struggles of many such characters in the post-colonial literature we have read paint a picture of confusion, conflict, and contradiction-- nouns that mark their attempts at reclaiming a stolen past and merging this past together with a present reality. A sense of history has become paramount in the lives of individuals, and groups as a whole, in their quest for identity and meaning. However many of the male protagonists about whom we have read have become prisoners of the past -- unable to apply the lessons of history to the modern world. The development of pride and self-worth in the aftermath of colonialism, a structure which often stripped away such capacities, has led to their often-misguided attempts to define strength and power.

In Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors Jake "the Muss" Heke, who equates the Maori with physical prowess, embodies such strength, as is evident in repeated references to his huge hands, fighting skills, and ability to inspire fear in others. In many ways, Jake personifies the glorified Maori warrior culture of the past. However, his physical strength does not provide him with the skills necessary to survive in the modern world: the ability to care for his family, hold a job, or support himself in the present postcolonial era. Furthermore, Jake abuses his strength by beating his wife.

In Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, the character of Stevens the butler presents us with another example of misguided attempts to define strength. Stevens spends his life in the pursuit of greatness, which he defines as "dignity in keeping with his position" (33). Every day of Stevens' existence is geared toward the realization of this goal; as a result, he closes himself off to everything on the periphery of this single objective. Again, like Jake, Stevens' perception of strength turns out to be a weakness, as he realizes toward the end of the book that in pursuing greatness he has closed himself off from all human warmth.

Anita Desai's In Custody presents yet a third example of a misguided protagonist. An unhappy college teacher, Deven is a pathetically hopeless and helpless figure whose only joy comes in the form of Urdu poetry. For Deven, strength lies not in physical prowess or a sense of dignity, but in a revival of the once-great Urdu culture -- a culture which embodies all that is good and beautiful in his life. Unfortunately, Deven fails to see Urdu poetry as anything but a museum piece; a construction of the past. Although the characters of Deven, Stevens, and Jake Heke define strength differently, all appear unable to adapt a glorified history to the reality of the present. Perhaps because Ishiguro's Stevens is located on the postimperial side of this literary genre, he does not experience the hardships suffered by Deven and Jake, nor is he a failure to the same extent that they become. Still, however, Stevens' isolation is just as complete. Like Deven and Jake, Stevens is an outsider. The isolation shared by all these characters comes from their own narrow-minded visions and stubborn refusal of anything that challenges their perceptions.

Overview In Custody Remains of the Day Once Were