Two seminal novels of colonial India, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora, were published within a decade of each other just over a century ago. To place these novels side by side, as I do in this essay, is in some ways to compare apples and oranges. Kim is the great artifact of late-Victorian colonialism, with its fragile hubris and sexless machismo, its not-so-deeply-buried terrors and doubts, and its irresistible desire for the objects of its own contempt. Gora is a drawing-room novel with echoes of Jane Austen and Tolstoy, obsessed with interiors and marriage prospects. Its protagonists are colonized Indians staking out a nation behind domestic walls and stepping tentatively into the street. Yet at the heart of each novel is a hero who is not what he appears to be: an Irish orphan loose in Nativistan, who stands to be revealed, captured, absorbed or outcast. These orphans show us the liberating possibilities of an otherwise oppressive political reality. In British India, the Irishman was free.
Long regarded as an uncomplicated celebration of empire, Kim is probably the most misunderstood of colonial novels. Fortunately, the complications have been pointed out by Ashis Nandy in The Intimate Enemy and need not be regurgitated. It will suffice to note that the eponymous protagonist of the story, snatched from the bazaar by soldiers and packed off to St. Xavier’s School and a future in imperial service, never fully resolves the question he keeps asking himself: who is Kim? This lack of resolution is ultimately not a curse but a blessing, allowing the boy to become what might be described as alternatively white, endowed with the powers of the ruling race but not burdened with its grisly self-assigned destiny. The Irishman – Catholic, alcoholic, savage-next-door, original native as well as subaltern colonizer – provided Kipling with a ready-made mold of this dubious whiteness. In becoming a native and then reverting uncertainly to sahibdom, Kim remains Irish: an endlessly manipulable, interpretable and useful plastic in a colonial world that openly needed natives and sahibs but nursed a secret need for racially uninscribed children who could function as bridges between Us and Them. Such children could not be allowed to have living parents. Parents laid claim, and the derelict Irish child’s utility lay in his unclaimed – and hence claimable – condition. Kim could be adopted by the British and their empire precisely because the Irish parent, having supplied the twin possibilities of whiteness and nativeness, had conveniently died.
Written some years after Kim, Gora reads oddly like the older of the two novels. Its hero – also eponymous – is entirely too sure of who and what he is, so sure that it stifles him even as it fills him with political purpose. Such certainty can only end in disillusionment and bewilderment followed by either disaster or freedom. Gora is conservative but hardly traditional; he is a cricket-playing, English-literate nationalist whose nation is still almost entirely an act of imagination, and he is besieged by its impossible demands for purity. The novel is endlessly didactic: spoken passages and unspoken ruminations become long discourses on society and morality, nation and redemption. Burdened by nationhood even more than Kim is burdened by empire, the central characters can be insufferable. (The fringe players are lighter, more agile, more attractive, and more willing to let the author indulge his sense of mischief.) Poetic habits invade the prose but without generating the gorgeousness and wild, melancholy power of Rabindranath's actual poems. The narrative is choked by a runaway excess of similes: voices are inevitably like thunder, faces resemble overcast moons all too often, hearts shake like houses in an earthquake or join like rivers at a confluence. To some extent, this is an effusion of Brahmo/Rabindrik earnestness. That earnestness and its associated misplaced poetry are essentially the literary version of the phenomenon referenced in the Bengali joke that when a resident of Santiniketan (Rabindranath’s university town) finds his way blocked by a cow, he simpers, ‘Ai goru, shor-na bhai goru, na shorle phul chhure marbo.’ (‘Hey, brother cow, please move, or I might have to throw a flower at you.’)
It is also reflective of a cultural moment that has passed in more than one sense. That moment coincides with a time when middle-class Indian society was riven by debates about westernization, reform and tradition, and it is conceivable that men and women in those days actually talked like Gora, Binoy and Sucharita. But that is not its defining quality, because while the fear of losing caste and the significance of the line between Brahmos and Hindus appear quaint today, debates about cultural authenticity are far from over. Gora’s time, rather, was a moment when it was possible for middle-class people to hold forth on morality with a total lack of irony and embarrassment, and when it was possible for novelists to use their characters as didactic mouthpieces without fear of critical retribution. It lasted longer in India than it did in England, where it was snuffed out by the First World War; Rabindranath’s was probably the last generation of Indian writers who could take that narrative tone. Kipling’s empire would, of course, also become rhetorically obsolete after the war. But even in 1900, Kipling was writing in and about a political space that was also a public space to which his protagonist could lay claim. Kim’s inhabited geography was all of India, and its horizons were England, Russia, Tibet and Afghanistan. This fits our modern conception of ‘the world’ much better than Rabindranath’s claustrophobic interiors, although writing about interiors was itself quite new to Bengali fiction in the early twentieth century.
Both authors, interestingly, send their protagonists out on the road, and the same road at that. Kim and Gora, fittingly enough, go walkabout from opposite ends of the Grand Trunk Road, the ancient artery that has recently been absorbed into a national expressway. (It might be more accurate to say that the expressway has been absorbed into the Grand Trunk Road; the roadside world constantly encroaches upon the new road in the shape of cattle, pedestrians, vendors, tractors, milkmen on bicycles, five peasants on a motorcycle going the wrong way. It is not the Autobahn.) They are both in search of an elusive country, but their experiences could not be more different. For Kim, the highway is a rich vein of excitement and pleasure: as he encounters India on the road, he switches back and forth effortlessly between ownership and membership. For Gora, the GT Road is full of anxiety: at no other time in the novel is he more conscious of having left home, of being vulnerable, of being lost. He wants desperately to identify with the people he meets and to claim them as compatriots; he is mainly unsuccessful. His brief adventure ends with a spell in a colonial prison, followed by a retreat to the confines of domesticity. Kim is, in that sense, more ‘like’ modern Indians than Gora is until the very end of Rabindranath’s novel, underlining a point that Salman Rushdie made in the days when he was still worth reading: Kipling, strapped into his imperial straitjacket, was still astonishingly capable of slipping into the insider’s chair when he wrote about India. For Rabindranath in the first decade of the twentieth century, Indianness was both more axiomatic and more anxious.
But like Kipling, and it might be added, like Vivekananda with Margaret Noble (‘Sister Nivedita’), Rabindranath found his Indian in the Irish. Much as Kim freed his author from the white straitjacket, Gora – the adopted Mutiny orphan – freed his creator from its brown/saffron counterpart. The context is critical. In 1907, when Gora was conceived, Rabindranath was emerging from the Hindu-revivalist enthusiasm that is evident in his writing from the previous six years. The transition was not complete; there is in Gora a moment when the tolerant, wisely paternal Paresh Babu begins to ramble about Muslims outbreeding Hindus. This might be seen as a residual anxiety, reflecting the shock of Bengali Hindus faced with the political implications of minority status, but not unmixed with admiration for the presumed egalitarianism of Islam. Rabindranath would voice it again as late as 1927, in a letter to Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis written during his travels in Malaya and the East Indies. Nonetheless, as Sumit Sarkar has shown in his seminal (and thoughtfully republished) history of that era in Bengal, Rabindranath in 1907 was entering the political non-conformism that marked his mature outlook on the swadeshi movement, shaped his next novel (Ghare Baire, 1916) and eventually moved him to the margins of Indian nationalism. Rabindranath personally knew Margaret Noble, who was still alive and young when Gora was published in 1910. Even as Rabindranath was writing Gora, Viceroy Lord Minto was writing Secretary of State John Morley about a similarity between swadeshi insurgency and "our Irish difficulties." Minto was hardly original in making the connection: Aurobindo Ghosh was eulogizing Parnell as early as 1891. But Kipling’s ambivalence about an empire founded on racial purity was matched by Rabindranath’s ambivalence about a nationhood premised on purity and segregation, and once again, the Irishman was the preferred solution: Bengali Brahmin but not quite, British but not quite, adoptible fellow-rebel but also a window into a wider modern world, the manifested suggestion of forbidden intimacies, and as such, a liberated Indian who stumbles out of an apparently old-fashioned novel.
There is a third ‘orphan’ worth picking out of this literary-historical crowd, although not in colonial India. I refer to Saleem Sinai, the boy/man at the center of Midnight’s Children. Like Kim, this is a novel much written about, and it has of course been noted that Saleem has a problem with his parents: he has too many of them. His biological father – not Irish, for once – is a fraudulent (bald and bewigged) Englishman who vanishes at the moment of Indian independence. Why does Rushdie resort to the tired gimmick of the baby swtched at birth? Aside from the obvious answer that modern India is partly of British origin, and the ironic-cinematic melodrama of a story set in Bombay, we might note that Rushdie attempts to occupy, simultaneously, the locations of the outsider and the insider. So he writes ironically about earnest melodrama. He has left the building but relinquished neither his memory of the interior nor his right to view it from the outside. Rushdie has been, among other things, a fairly consistent critic of purity and an advocate for mongrels. Himself mongrelized by the migrations that began in his childhood, he has sought out (like Kipling and Rabindranath, both of whom also ‘left behind' a country or an ideology) mongrel Indias and Britains. Like Kim and Gora, Saleem – even the disintegrating wreck at the end of Midnight’s Children – is free.
It is perhaps ironic that a staidly formal novel like Gora should have something vital in common with one of the definitive works of postmodern literature, not to mention a work of imperial boys’ fiction. It indicates an uneven recognition by three widely separated authors that modern Indians and their colonial cousins, rather like Americans, are most ‘themselves’ – and most accurately described – when they do not cling tightly to their ancestors. In a world where certainty of lineage and pedigree has generally meant racism, fascism and their associated burdens, misplaced children who accept the inventedness of their parents – and in the process, reinvent themselves – are something exhilarating and, well, novel.