Here I continue a reading of that old favourite of some readers of Indian English novel, Kanthapura. My previous entry is here where I say that Raja Rao critiques the simple position that the discourse of colonialism instituted a notion of the natural superiority of the colonising race and this was internalised by the colonised.
Kantapura focuses on the barbarism of the British rulers in dealing with the non-violent agitation of the freedom fighters. To begin with, the Sahib of the Skeffington Coffee Estate is the nearest white man that the villagers come across. He is a depraved man who ‘will have this woman and that woman, this daughter and that wife, and every day a new one and never the same two within a week’ (p.59). He also eggs on the coolies of the coffee estate to drink toddy and makes them virtually bonded labourers. The government’s response to the non-violent movement of the villagers is the use of brutal force targeting even women, old men and children. The police, who become the immediate face of the British government, plunder the village after all the men have been arrested and attempts of rape are made. In contrasting Moorthy, the little Gandhi of Kanthapura, with the white owner of Skeffington Coffee Estate, the novel characterises the moral superiority of the colonised over the colonisers.
We do not need a novel written in 1938 to see how the coloniser’s claim of moral superiority is false as Indian nationalist thought had been making this point for some time by then (e.g. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj). But this manoeuvre is only a stepping-stone for us to attend to another interesting picture that emerges in the novel. While the nationalist thought focused on the detrimental effects of colonialism on the Indian society, there were those who saw colonial rule as providing freedom from the clutches of the orthodoxy of Brahminism. This sentiment can hardly be equated with what is called colonial consciousness. In Kantapura, Ratna is a widow who refuses to cut her hair, break her bangles, wear only white, and remain indoors. She questions the rules of the society that requires her to be a widow though she has seen her supposed husband only once and that too at the age of ten. She entertains some romantic hopes in her association with Moorthy. Her behaviour makes her an eyesore in the village with some women calling her ‘boyish’. Ratna’s mother is exasperated with her and attributes Ratna’s attitude to her school education. This education is of course the colonial education. Colonialism has had a liberating effect on Ratna.
Here one notices a conflict between the strongly nationalistic mood in the novel and the not so flattering characterisation of Indian society with its oppressive practices. The structures enabled by colonisation are seen as historically desirable from the point of view of a woman who otherwise would have been consigned to the dark corners of smoky kitchens and hazy interiors of the house. Ratna’s position also calls attention to individualism fostered by colonial modernity. Therefore Ratna’s involvement with the nationalist movement initiated by Moorthy becomes important. Ratna is an individual as she fights the collective to defend her sovereignty. Her liberation from the traditional practices has come about because of the colonial education system. Yet her involvement in nationalist struggle presents her not as a colonised subject but as a modern individual. Ashish Nandy says in The Intimate Enemy : ‘Modern colonialism won its great victories not so much through its military and technological prowess as through its ability to create secular hierarchies incompatible with the traditional order. These hierarchies opened up new vistas for many, particularly for those exploited or cornered within the traditional order.’ This insight has an important bearing on the historiography of colonialism when it is written from the point of view of the subalterns.
If colonial modernity thus bestows individuality and offers avenues of escape from the oppression of orthodoxy, it does not therefore become an easily embraceable phenomenon. Modernity has arrived in Kantapura with capital, with colonial institutions of revenue and police. The tragedy of Kantapura, the village, in one sense begins with the arrival of modernity. Violence is a corollary to the insertion of modernity. Moorthy’s analysis of the economy of colonialism highlights the violence unleashed by the colonial modernity/capitalism. The self-contained, self-sufficient world of Kantapura encounters capitalism with the Skeffington Coffee estate, the imported clothes that impoverish the native weavers, and the mills that impoverish the peasants. In Moorthy’s analysis this is a sure way towards slavery and ultimate destruction of the social fabric of the village. Interestingly Moorthy’s analysis are echoed by Paul Baran in his work The Political Economy of Growth (1957): “By breaking up the age-old patterns of their agricultural economy and by forcing shifts to the production of exportable crops, western capitalism destroyed the self-sufficiency of their rural society that formed the basis of the pre-capitalist order in all countries of its penetration, and rapidly widened and deepened the scope of commodity circulation. By outright seizure of peasant-occupied land for plantation purposes and other uses by foreign enterprise and by exposing their rural handicrafts to the withering competition of its industrial exports, it created a vast pool of pauperised labour. Enlarging thus the area of capitalistic activities it advanced the evolution of legal and property relations attuned to the needs of a market economy and established administrative institutions required for their enforcement”. Every thing said here can be shown as having happened in the novel Kanthapura. Thus the novel problematizes viewing colonial modernity as having had a liberating impact on the Indian society.