Book Review : Muniba Sami

Texts rarely embody just one view.  The comic vision, reminiscent of the combined humour of R.K. Narayan and P.G. Wodehouse in Rear Entrance (2010), the first novel by David Barun Kumar Thomas, brings into play different ways of seeing without always deciding which is the true or most appropriate.  The narrative reveals the manner in which self-identities can operate in many different ways in different circumstances.  They are presented in their multiple, mobile forms accompanied with their own inner tensions often with comic results.  But the indulgent ironic perspective makes the reader aware of the complexities and fluidity of identity formations when the cultures of two countries, namely India and Britain, are by the nature of circumstances, made to interact with each other in a third country – Belgium.  This post-colonial encounter operates at multiple levels in terms of race, class, caste and gender in the post 9/11 time frame.  But the narrative weaves simultaneously yet another form of encounter revealing the problematics of inter-personal relationships defined by class, religion, region, caste and gender of the four main characters, who apart from being Indians have very little common in terms of their culture and backgrounds.  Through these four characters the novel presents a federal democratic perspective of a polyphonic India, representing a mosaic of cultures, attitudes and world views.

The narrative reveals the self-identity of post-colonial Indians being deeply affected in complex ways by the power and dominance of colonial cultures and their forms of thought and classification.  Four Indians, strangers to one another from different strata of society, from different regions of India, (north, south, east and west) without the remotest possibility of their respective circles ever intersecting in their homeland, are brought together at the British Embassy in unfriendly cold Brussels by circumstances and their common need to procure visas to U.K.  The front door of the Embassy carries a small sign which reads, ‘Visa Section, please use the rear entrance on Rue du President.’  One cannot miss the plural significations of the words ‘rear entrance’ from which the novel takes its eyebrow-raising title.  Designated as the visa section the rear of the Embassy is meant for visa applicants who are obviously not from the First World.  Further, the ironic overtones are generated by the manipulation of bureaucratic protocol that often grants visas to the most unlikely applicants, implying back-door entry.

Twenty eight year old Seetha Subramaniam, an English-speaking, middle class Tamil Brahmin and a bright confident systems analyst – software professional, is sent to Brussels by her company commissioned to develop a new software application for a company in Brussels.  Brought up in ‘steamy’ Madras, six months in dreary cold Brussels and no headway with her handsome colleague Luc, convinces Seetha that she must move on.  With the help and manoeuverings of a distant uncle, Mr. Iyer, who had immigrated to the U.K. forty years earlier and for whom over the years getting ‘Iyers into Britain had become exciting games of chess’ (RE 28) she hatches an audacious plan to get into England by pretending to be a writer.  While British government’s immigration laws are extremely prohibitive, they for some reason allowed only writers and artists to be granted visas even if they had no job.  Seetha’s real motive, possibly to migrate to the U.K. is not made clear in the book, financial necessity being the least of her reasons given the kind of handsome salary her current Indian employers were giving her and job opportunities a person of her qualifications could have had for the asking.

Having escaped the slums of India Harish Rawat from Hissar  in Haryana, an Indian passport holder runs a small all night grocery store in Brussels with his Pakistani business partner, Zulfikar.  He has slogged hard in Belgium on a work permit for the past twelve years.  In spite of having to support a brood of relatives in India he has finally managed to save enough money to fulfill a life-long dream: watch a cricket match at Lords in London.

The third character, Amit Trehan, a rich man from a wealthy business family, fresh out of Harvard B School and the nephew of the Indian minister for external affairs, needs to prove his business acumen to his over-bearing father and win his approval by forging lucrative connections in Europe and at the same time find a way to launder and siphon back to India the two million dollars his father had stashed abroad decades earlier ‘in the bad restrictive years of Nehruvian Socialism.’ (RE 31)

Ratnesh, the fourth Indian character is from the margins of the Indian society.  He is a poorly-educated but street-smart, foul-mouthed Berhaiya – a backward community – from Bihar.  With former underworld links and having served a jail term in Patna, he had come to Europe five months earlier with just fifty Euros. For the past three months he has been moving around Europe relentlessly probing for opportunities, weaving exotic stories about himself and hoodwinking the less well-off first generation immigrants settled in every country in the Schengen zone.  His lonely poverty in Bihar made him develop a jaunty walk as armour which had preserved him through fifteen years of hardship and which still keeps him going.  But his cocky, alley-cat style, blustering, crude insolent behaviour makes him appear thoroughly unpleasant to those whom he interacts with.  He plans to pose as a Dalit, the untouchable, who is lower than Berhaiya in the caste hierarchy and is the beneficiary of the Indian government’s reservation policies in terms of all kinds of benefits, jobs, loans, education including a law that protects  the caste from being abused – a benefit that Berhaiyas are deprived of.  He even uses the good-natured Harish to play the caste-conflict card to seek asylum in U.K.  He manages to get a refugee status attestation from the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees with the help of Mabel, a white woman who happened to cross his path.  Having bought his heart- wrenching story and being a great champion of the underdog, she had stormed into the deputy commissioner’s office accusing him of being a racist and demanding quick action when the papers just would not move.    The making of the scene worked.  Of course, had he (a non-white) made a scene the Belgian authorities would have had him deported.

Although Seetha and Amit belong to totally different worlds and class, what they have in common is their Anglicized education which helps them to occupy position of privilege and in Amit’s case, power as well.  Their self-interests conflict with those of people who are less privileged, like Ratnesh and Harish, replicating the attitudes of the former colonial ruling class.  Also we see how even Indian English as a language with its cultural hybridity can still be used as a medium through which a hierarchical structure of power can be perpetuated.  Its use certainly indicates a sense of difference and tends to be exclusivist for a language carries its culture.  When Harish with hardly any knowledge of English asks Seetha in Hindi to help him fill up the English visa form she resents his assumption that being an Indian she must know the Hindi language.  Although she has some knowledge of Hindi she snubs him in English pretending not to understand him because she is Tamil.  Multiple factors interact here to account for Seetha’s sense of superiority in her rude response: difference of class, region (the north-south divide) and her English education.  But she has the social conscience, the sensitivity and the grace to chide herself and regret her ‘unpardonable bit of callous, uptight behaviour’ (RE 15)

On the other hand Amit, , driven by market forces is too hard-headed a businessman to have any such social or moral compunction.  The novel shows not only how self-identities are perceived but also how power-relations create and construct the identities of the ‘other’ within a given society.  Amit uses English as a weapon to keep the irrepressible ‘subaltern’ Ratnesh in his place in his effort to retain the hierarchical power structure of his country even in a foreign land with different value systems when the latter naturally gravitates towards one’s own countryman in a foreign location.  But Ratnesh who knows just a little more English than Harish, continually resists the imposition of the ‘subaltern’ identity by refusing to remain in the periphery, determined to centralize his position.  And so the use of the two languages – English and Hindi by Amit and Ratnesh respectively, subtly represents power struggle between the two as each skillfully negotiates the details of the dubious money-laundering transaction in chapter 10.

In his book Identity and Violence Amartya Sen says, ‘When we shift our attention from the notion of being identical to oneself to that of sharing an identity with others of a particular group (which is the form the idea of social identity very often takes), the complexity increases further.  Indeed, many contemporary political and social issues revolve around conflicting claims of disparate identities involving different groups, since the conception of identity influences, in many different ways, our thoughts and actions.’ (Sen  xii).  This is the case with the four above-mentioned characters.  They share their identities with one another by virtue of the fact that they are all Indians but their differences are also conspicuously striking as they are equally ‘robustly plural’ (Sen 19).  So while Amit may share his national identity with the others he does not share their class or region.  But he ‘shares’ a western educational background with only Seetha and not with the other two men.  Yet again Amit shares his identity as an Indian businessman with Harish but not his class.  All three men share their identity as North Indians while Seetha is a South Indian.  Harish and Ratnesh share class identity and non-western educational background.  Thus we see how the conflicting claims of disparate identities increase the complexities in the ways of thinking and shaping one’s world view.  This combination of shared as well as disparate identities resulting in shifting identities reveals the author’s dexterous handling of character contrasts and complex relationships.

While dealing with the idea of weighing the relative importance of and prioritizing identities Sen says, ‘Also, not all identities need have durable importance.  Indeed, sometimes an identity group may have a very fleeting and highly contingent existence.’ (Sen 25)  This observation can hold good in the case of individual identity as well. Identities can never be fixed, for they can change or adapt according to changing social contexts or circumstances.  In the novel Amit’s self-identity is a case in point.  In India probably he would never have found the need for the likes of Ratnesh who would have been dismissed ‘as a petty Paharganj broker’ (RE 57) or even Harish whom he thinks of disparagingly because he is a petty shop-keeper.  But in foreign Brussels, deprived of his inherited support system back home, Amit is compelled to foreground his Indian identity and allow his privileged status to take a back seat.  Although even in Brussels through his uncle’s contact Amit is provided with some support in the person of Promod Khera , the Commercial Attache in Brussels, it turns out to be a notional one.  Promod Khera fails to facilitate business worth a single Euro to or from India.  As Amit had neither the inclination not the ability to scout business on his own Amit is inclined to turn to Ratnesh for two reasons.  After weighing the pros and cons he finds that in business acumen Ratnesh contrasted favourably with Promod Khera.  And secondly, Ratnesh might just enable him to make that ‘critical business foray into Europe.’ (RE 58)  Later on he could always ‘jettison’ him.  When  Ratnesh after his first interview with Doug, the British visa officer, suggests having lunch to Amit , Seetha  finds ‘that in Ratnesh’s presence, Amit developed quite another persona and seemed to alternate between imitating and patronizing Ratnesh, and in the process became equally unlikable.’ (RE 89)  This example serves to illustrate the point as to how expediency can compel one to prioritize one identity over another.  It also shows how Ratnesh is able to exploit Amit’s situation to subvert both the capitalist ideology (of which Amit is a beneficiary) to his advantage and his ‘marginal’ identity in positioning himself at par with the Indian industrialist.

Ratnesh’s self-identity is fraught perhaps with greater inner tension than that experienced by Seetha who juggles between her cultural, anglicized and professional identities, each competing for attention and priority over the others.  But the difference is that while his identity in the European context makes him doubly marginalized, Seetha’s self-perceived inferiority as an Indian in the white man’s land is a colonial hangover from her country’s past history.  Ratnesh  belligerently resists his ‘marginal’ identity by not only subverting his inherited position in the hierarchical power structure of his home country but his Third World identity as well, especially in two sets of situations in Brussels.  One is his encounter with the British visa officer in the course of his two interviews using the very rules of the white man as tools to subvert bureaucratic red tape; and the other is when he uses his Third World identity and the racial construct of his coloured identity as a weapon to thwart white authority by having fun at their expense, deliberately indulging in a suspicious behaviour (even though he had no intentions of shop lifting), playing a cat and mouse game with the security guard in a departmental store equipped with elaborate security measures.

The manner in which the English language is used by the Indian characters provides an index to the attitudes and self-image of the speakers.  Although fluent in spoken French, Harish’s body language betrays his timidity and deferential (very Third World) attitude to Doug, especially as he is unable to communicate in English and needs a French speaking Belgian staff to interpret for him to help him communicate with the British visa officer in .  Ratnesh insolently flaunts his ethnicity in broken English before Doug by insisting on using Indian numerical terminology like the words ‘crore’ and ‘lakhs’ – terms incomprehensible to  Doug, thereby centralizing the dominance of the Indian perspective, secure in the knowledge that his visa form has been flawlessly filled.  Both Amit and Seetha, because they can speak the English language fluently and well, tend to see the world through colonial lenses which replicates the colonial attitude to marginalize those who cannot.  But the difference between them is that Amit by virtue of his wealth and superior contacts acquires a global identity and Seetha while ‘global’ in her thinking is very conscious of her cultural identity reflected in her pride and preoccupation with Indian philosophy.  While the English language may have morphed into Indian English in post-colonial India it continues to carry with it its colonialist’s values albeit now in its hybrid form.  As John McLeod in his book Beginning Postcolonialism says, ‘It is by no means safe to assume that colonization conveniently stops when a colony formally achieves its independence…it is crucial to realize that colonial values do not simply evaporate on the first day of independence.’ (32)  Colonialism’s representations and values are not so easily dislodged.  Stuart Hall in his essay ‘When was “the Post-Colonial”? Thinking at the Limit’ in the book The Post-Colonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons,   argues that life after independence in many ways ‘is characterized by the persistence of many effects of colonization.’ (248)

In the novel, Seetha’s sartorial preference for wearing a sari for the interview with the British visa officer reflects her need to prioritize her cultural identity over her professional one for two reasons.  One is to convince the British visa officer that she is ‘a timid Indian, reluctant to change in any way, one who would never dream of immigrating to the West.’ (RE  3), and the other is to assert the superiority of her spiritual inheritance.  The two reasons reflect ambivalence, an inner tension within her cultural identity.  While the first reason is a matter of strategy which is a reflection of her intellectual confidence, the second betrays a sense of inferiority in what Partha Chatterjee refers to ‘the material domain’ of the West.  In the context of the emergence of the self-perception of Indian identity during the anti-colonial independence movement Chatterjee analyses how the national movement created its own domain of sovereignty within colonial society well before the political struggle by ‘dividing the world of social institutions and practice into two domains – the material and the spiritual.  The material is the domain of the “outside”, of the economy and of state-craft, of science and technology, a domain where the West had proved its superiority and the East had succumbed.  In this domain, then, Western superiority had to be acknowledged and its accomplishments carefully studied and replicated.  The spiritual, on the other hand, is an “inner” domain bearing the “essential” marks of cultural identity:  ‘The greater one’s success in imitating Western skills in the material domain, therefore, the greater the need to preserve the distinctiveness of one’s spiritual culture.’ (Chatterjee  6)

This is the reactive self-identity that Seetha appears to have inherited from India’s colonial past.  The colonial undermining of self-confidence had the effect of driving many Indians to look for sources of dignity and pride.  She exhibits a penchant for Indian philosophy as (with genuine pride) she expounds on it during the course of her interview with Doug to assert the superiority of the ‘spiritual domain’.  But one also needs to take into account the context in which she does so.  Her eligibility for being granted a visa is her (false) claim to be a philosophical writer.  But Seetha’s self-perception alternates between confidence and lack of it depending on the context; for instance, her turning away from the ‘Thirdness’ of Harish’s identity, or her anxiety in dressing ‘right’ for the interview.  Yet she chides herself for seeing herself as the ‘other’.

Both Amit and Seetha may be seen as examples of what Bhabha in his essay “Of Mimicry and Man” describes as “mimic men” who may be anglicized but emphatically are not English.  But differing from both V.S. Naipaul and Fanon in their notion of mimicry, Bhabha argues that these “mimic men” are not disempowered slavish individuals required  by the British in India but are invested with the power to menace the colonizers they are faced with the worrying threat of resemblance between colonizer and colonized.  This threatens to collapse the Orientalist structure of knowledge in which oppositional distinctions are made.  The ambivalent position of the colonized mimic men in relation to the colonizer – ‘almost the same but not quite’ in Bhaha’s view is a source of anti-colonial resistance.  By speaking English, the colonized have not succumbed to the power of the colonizer.  On the contrary, they challenge the representations which through colonial stereotyping attempt to fix and define the colonized.

(Works cited- Chatterjee, Partha.  The Nation and Its Fragments.  Delhi, OUP, 1994)

[ Muniba sami taught engLish Literature at Patna University.  She can be contacted at ]

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