AbstractsGeography &GIS

Old stories, new authors: orientalism, cosmopolitanism and India

by David Neil Geraghty

Institution: Monash University
Department: School of Social Sciences
Year: 2015
Keywords: Orientalism; Cosmopolitanism; South Asia studies; Postcolonial studies; Subaltern studies; Literary theory; Cultural studies; Essentialism
Record ID: 1056060
Full text PDF: http://arrow.monash.edu.au/hdl/1959.1/1176470


This study explores the theory underpinning Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and applies it to a selection of India-focused texts – including some by Indian authors – with a view towards establishing whether or not Said’s model would allow for Orientalism by “Orientals”. Orientalism, Said’s landmark postcolonial study, described an epistemological sequence in which the West had articulated, codified and – ultimately – politically determined the East through a hegemonic discourse that compared and contrasted Eastern “Otherness” with assumed Western normalcy. Racial and cultural essentialism was the animating dynamic for this process, and Said’s model was predicated upon an ontological binary between a colonizing white subject (the British, French and American imperial powers) and a colonized brown object (the Orient). Said’s particular focus in Orientalism was the Arab “Near East”; India was mostly absent from his account (as indeed were South Asia in general, Southeast Asia, and Northeast Asia). Beyond Said’s work, moreover, there has been limited scholarly engagement with Orientalism as it pertains to India. Discussion of Orientalism has been dominated by the Near East. Despite the relative absence of India from debate around Orientalism, a number of India-focused texts (travel narratives and such) seem to present features that Said described as typical of Orientalism. Some of the more recent of these texts, moreover, have been written by expatriate Indians or people of Indic descent. These latter texts pose a conundrum: given the racial binary Said determined for Orientalism, how can Indian authors produce Orientalism? This study applies Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism to a selection of key India-focused texts, including two examples of “classic” Orientalism by white authors – James Mill’s The History of British India (1817) and Katharine Mayo’s polemic Mother India (1927) – and two examples of cosmopolitan Orientalism by Indic authors – V. S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness (1964) and Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City (2004). Through these case studies, and others, this thesis seeks to: a) address the relative absence of India from critical writing about Orientalism; and b) test the effectiveness and relevance of Said’s theory for contemporary postcolonial and cosmopolitan contexts, where the racial binaries of the colonial era are no longer so dominant. What would it mean for Said’s model if Indian writers cannot be Orientalists? What would it mean if they can?