Neo-Victorian Review – Neo-Victorianism’s overlooked authors 4: Kunal Basu

Daný van Dam submitted her PhD on postcolonial neo-Victorianism in July 2016, at Cardiff University. She is co-editor of a special issue of the online, peer-reviewed journal Assuming Gender on the topic of ‘Consuming Gender’, see here (if you’re interested: the proposal deadline is 16 October 2016). She’s also one of BAVS ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’ conference organisers. Daný is currently setting up a new research project on non-English-language neo-Victorian writing. More information on her work can be found at her academia page.

In the previous blogs of this series, I looked at authors M.M. Kaye, Joan Aiken, Philippa Pearce and Barbara Ewing. While some of their texts overtly reference the British Empire – Kaye’s novels, obviously, and Ewing’s book The Trespass when it talks about emigration – they all clearly have a Western flavour. This points us to a statement by Elizabeth Ho. In Neo-Victorianism and the Memory of Empire (2012), Ho contends that “the return to the Victorian in the present offers a highly visible, highly aestheticized code for confronting the empire again and anew”.[i] Neo-Victorianism, we can thus argue, cannot escape its engagement with the Victorian imperial past, even when the topic is not explicitly raised within the text.

No 4.1

One way of broadening our view on the Victorian empire and neo-Victorianism’s (indirect) representation of it, is by attempting to find alternatives to neo-Victorian fiction’s often overtly Western viewpoint. An obvious example here, also mentioned by Ho, is Booker-prize winning author Amitav Ghosh, whose Ibis Trilogy highlights a productive mix of numerous different cultures and backgrounds. Ghosh’s success, however, means that he and his work are at risk of coming to represent the non-Western, or at least Indian, neo-Victorian viewpoint on the Victorian imperial period. In this week’s blog, I therefore want to highlight another, lesser-known author from India: Kunal Basu.

Basu was born in Calcutta in 1956 to what he describes on his website as “unorthodox parents, both litterateurs and political activists”. Basu studied in India and abroad and went on to teach in Canada (McGill University) and the U.K. (Saïd Business School, University of Oxford), with a few stints at other (mostly Indian) universities. Basu has written five novels to date, as well as several short stories and story-collections. One of his stories has been turned into a film (The Japanese Wife, 2010). In this blog, however, I want to draw attention to his two neo-Victorian novels: The Opium Clerk (2001) and Racists (2006).

No. 4.2

The Opium Clerk is Basu’s first published work. The protagonist is a Brahmin boy, Hiranyagarbha (nicknamed Hiran). He comes into the world only hours after his father left it, an unlucky posthumous child. Hiran is born in 1857, the year of the Indian Mutiny (or, from another viewpoint, the First War of Independence). He isn’t a very talented child and his only peculiar skill is being able to read a man’s fate in his palms. The narrative doesn’t develop according to a linear structure, but meanders between the different people who in some way influence Hiran’s life and his choices. More than simply telling a story, the book engulfs the reader into Hiran’s world – that of a clerk at an opium house. This is both a strength and a weakness of the novel. There are numerous richly detailed scenes about the ways in which colonial India is influenced by the Victorian Empire’s wishes and demands. However, because they are not easily placed in a recognisable context for many readers of neo-Victorian novels, the book can also be confusing.

The lack of ‘recognisability’ relates to what Astrid Erll describes in the article “Remembering Across Time, Space, and Cultures” (2009). According to Erll, there are two concepts that contribute to the way we remember important points in history. On the one hand, there is premediation: the ways in which “existent media which circulate in a given society provide schemata for new experience and its representation”.[ii] Remediation, conversely, refers to how events are “represented again and again, over decades and centuries, in different media”. What is known about such an event “seems to refer not so much to what one might cautiously call the ‘actual event’, but instead to a canon of existent medial construction, to the narratives, images and myths circulating in a memory culture”.[iii] While Erll uses the ‘Indian Mutiny’ as an example for this, the same is true for the Victorian period more generally. We as readers have certain expectations as to the ways in which the Victorian era is (or ‘should be’) represented. When an author like Basu challenges these assumptions, the effect can be alienating. At the same time, this is also what makes the text interesting: it confronts us with our own stereotypical assumptions.

No.4.3

The second book I want to mention is Basu’s other neo-Victorian novel Racists. This text is very different from The Opium Clerk and, in many ways, more recognisable. The premise of the narrative is as follows: two scientists, one French, one English, want to confirm the superiority of the white race, but each argues for a different way of proving it. As a test, they place two infants on an island off the coast of Africa, accompanied only by a mute nurse. One child is white, the other black. The nurse is to ensure they survive, but is forbidden to teach them or provide further care. It is now 1855; the experiment is to run for twelve years. While the scientists’ question is “what will they find?”, the novel soon raises numerous other questions for the reader, not the least about the (in)humanity of the experiment and the (non)existence of ‘racial superiority’. And what will happen when Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) gains a following?

Racists raises numerous interesting points, but I can’t help but think it fails to live up to its potential. The ending is especially disturbing and I’m not sure whether Basu continues to challenge his readers with it, or instead simply falls back on existing stereotypes. I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

This blog on Kunal Basu is the fourth and, for now, last one in this series on neo-Victorianism’s overlooked authors. Keep an eye out for future additions, though, as there are several other writers who in my view deserve more attention in the neo-Victorian field than they currently get. Also, if you have any further suggestions of authors who are overlooked by neo-Victorian readers and critics, please leave a message in the comments section below or on my facebook or twitter accounts.

See here for earlier blogs in this series:

Neo-Victorianism’s overlooked authors 1: M.M. Kaye

Neo-Victorianism’s overlooked authors 2: Joan Aiken & Philippa Pearce

Neo-Victorianism’s overlooked authors 3: Barbara Ewing

Neo-Victorianism’s overlooked authors 4: Kunal Basu

[i] Elizabeth Ho, Neo-Victorianism and the Memory of Empire (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), p. 5.

[ii] Astrid Erll, “Remembering Across Time, Space, and Cultures: Premediation, Remediation and the ‘Indian Mutiny’”, in Mediation, Remediation, and the Dynamics of Cultural Memory (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), pp. 109-138 (p. 111).

[iii] Erll, “Remembering Across Time, Space, and Cultures”, p. 111.

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