an international
peer-reviewed journal
ISSN 2041-3254

“We destroyed it undiscovered”: Slow Violence, the Gothic, and Neocolonialism in Mahasweta Devi’s Imaginary Maps

by Baron Haber
2 Apr 2016 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: NeoColonial Politics of Sustainability [13] | Article

I. Representing the Victims of “Sustainable Development”

Mary caresses Tehsildar’s face, gives him love bites on the lips. There’s fire in Tehsildar’s eyes, his mouth is open, his lips wet with spittle, his teeth glistening. Mary is watching, watching, the face changes and changes into? Now? Yes, becomes an animal.

– Now take me?

Mary laughed and held him, laid him on the ground. Tehsildar is laughing, Mary lifts the machete, lowers it, lifts, lowers.

A few million moons pass. Mary stands up. Blood? On the clothes? She’ll wash in the cut.[1]

Thus reads the climax of Mahasweta Devi’s “The Hunt”, the first story in her collection Imaginary Maps. Mary Oraon, an eighteen year-old girl from a tribal village in West Bengal, hacks to death her would-be rapist Tehsildar Singh, a contractor come to the village to extract the precious wood of the surrounding Sal forest. Devi’s representation of this murder, distinguished by the hallucinogenic transformation of the contractor into an animal and the sense of disembodiment in the description of Mary’s blows, recalls many of the tropes of Gothic fiction, a genre that capitalizes on horror and violence as part of the aesthetic thrill it sells. In an interview with her translator, Gayatri Spivak, Devi insists, “People say that in the story I have gone for too much bloodshed, but I think as far as the tribals or the oppressed are concerned, violence is justified. When the system fails in – justice, violence is justified.”[2] “The Hunt” reorients us towards this violence; any explanation for this murder requires that we think of the political and material context surrounding the act. Mary’s act must be historicized – we must trace cause-and-effect back “a few million moons” – and framed against an ongoing project of neocolonial[3] resource extraction in order to understand Devi’s sense of justice for the exploited and neglected tribes of India.

But how can narrative trace a mostly invisible network of cause-and-effect that is widely dispersed across both time and space? To help answer this question, I turn to the ecocritic Rob Nixon’s recent study, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor.[4] Nixon takes on dominant notions of violence as “a highly visible act that is newsworthy because it is event focused, time focused, and body bound”[5] and opposes it to the slow violence of environmental destruction caused by chemicals or radioactive material, which “occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space.”[6] Slow violence is invisible and accretive; oftentimes the perpetrators of such violence are temporally and spatially remote from the victim. The perpetrators might not even recognize their role in such violence, partly because it operates through diffuse and invisible networks, and partly because the public of modernized[7] countries and regions are subject to the misinformation of “bewilderers” who are paid to keep the public in ignorance.[8] The ecological devastation wrought by slow violence unequally impacts poor communities, both within national boundaries and, increasingly, on a global scale, as neoliberal international financial organizations such as the World Bank compel vulnerable countries or districts in the so-called “global South” to accept toxic substances or polluting industries from richer countries.[9]

Reading “The Hunt” in light of Nixon’s “slow violence” resituates the “justified” murder of Tehsildar. The scenes leading up to Mary’s lashing machete expose the systemic exploitation of tribal lands and people. By positioning her readers as witnesses to these injustices, Devi implores her audience to measure Mary’s act of “fast” violence against the slow violence of neocolonialism, which depletes and poisons the ecosystems upon which tribal life depends. The story opens on the abandoned Kuruda train depot. The train now stops down the track at Tohri, a larger station where it collects coal and timber from the trucks that are now the only visitants of the rural tribal area. From the first paragraph, it is clear that transportation infrastructure has been organized for resource extraction. As the story progresses, we witness Tehsildar’s maneuverings to secure an illegal “tree felling monopoly” in this “virgin area”, although this “virginity” is debatable, since the trees were planted by the British during colonialism.[10] The trees are supposed to belong to the government, but this “belonging” only authorizes the extraction of those trees through a network of bribes. These extremely poor communities figure as a regional resource in the contractor’s mind, since their starving members can be counted on to provide labor at slave wages. Tehsildar’s thirst for “virgin” trees parallels his desire for tribal women, as he imagines “Mary can make his stay profitable in the other sense as well.”[11] That he expresses his predatory sexual desire in market language indicates the ideological entanglements of capitalism and patriarchy. Tehsildar embodies these invisible neocolonial networks; while many of the perpetrators of the slow violence against the tribal community are remote, Mary recognizes the contractor’s culpability against tribal lands and bodies, and delivers his sentence. The blows of her machete avenge both the immediate violence Tehsildar has threatened against her body and the slow violence that the system he embodies continues to commit against her community.

This essay interprets representations of neocolonial “slow violence” in Devi’s short stories to show how the Gothic genre/mode[12] can give form to those threats that are otherwise invisible or ineffable. The Gothic, a genre whose primary affective product is a sensational, often titillating fear, has been recently praised by both eco- and postcolonial critics for its capacity to resist the totalizing, hegemonic histories and ontologies of modernity. Following several of these trajectories, I show how the postcolonial environmental Gothic can frame the neocolonial encounter as one of competing temporal paradigms, as the short-term temporality of resource-extraction confronts the long-term temporality of sustenance farming and ancestor worship. The genre dramatizes the uncanny return of a history that has been repressed in the name of progress. In Devi’s Gothic stories, the long and violent history of exploitation of Indian tribals – or, as some refer to themselves, adivasis (adi=“oldest”, vasi=inhabitant)[13] – returns to haunt the neocolonial project by making monstrously visible the suffering of the abject underclass that has been created by such a history. These stories document the conversion of adivasi bodies to slave labor via the kamiya (bond-slavery) system, the poisoning of tribal water supply, and the ecological dispossession resulting from cash-cropping and resource-extraction. Monstrous deformations of tribal land and flesh give form to these invisible and violent processes of neocolonial slow violence. Being confronted with such monsters challenges the modern reader to invert her perspective and recognize that sources of horror in Devi’s stories aren’t ancient, vengeful spirits, but rather the tools of modernity come to destroy what remains of the adivasis’ culture. Devi’s postcolonial environmental Gothic reveals that “sustainable development,” for Indian tribal people, is a euphemism for neocolonial slow violence.

Devi’s work as an investigative journalist and social activist deeply informs her fiction. “I think a creative writer should have a social conscience,” she tells Spivak, “I have a duty towards society.”[14] Since her first visit to the tribal areas of the Palamu district in 1965, she has gained notoriety among government officials for her exposés documenting widespread corruption and tribal exploitation. She also helped develop several organizations that fight for tribal autonomy.[15] These organizations worked on a variety of fronts; they set in motion a literacy initiative that employed both adivasis and “untouchables” as teachers, organized resistance against the kamiya system, and helped women from such communities access markets without middle-men to sell their handicrafts. In addition to supporting these social programs, Devi’s affiliated organizations also led initiatives to protect and rehabilitate tribal land, including a community-led reforestation program and the conversion to lift irrigation, which helped mitigate well depletion.[16]

Because of her work as a journalist and activist, Devi harbors an anxiety about the representation of tribals, or lack thereof, in both Western and “mainstream” Indian media networks. Getting attention from global media networks, or even foreign academics, can in fact put indigenous people at risk, as their culture can quickly become “museumized,” a process that projects a facade of cultural sustainability while masking a larger economic and ecosystemic program of neocolonial exploitation.[17] In her “Translator’s Preface”, Spivak says Devi’s fiction, when translated from Bengali to English, “faces in two directions, encounters two readerships,”[18] one in the West and one in India. This insight reminds us that India needs to be seen not as a monolithic unity, “the East” that stands against “the West”, but rather as a dynamic, diverse, and diffuse amalgam of different races, classes, religions, cultures, and world views. The tribal communities in Devi’s stories are often invisible even within India’s own borders, and as such her tribal characters might strike her middle-class Indian readers as more “other” than their U.S. or European counterparts. As Subha Dasgupta puts it, “[Devi] is the mediator between two worlds separated by time gaps of thousands and thousands of years as it were and yet living side-by-side.”[19]

Tribal invisibility is fundamental to the crisis of representation haunting Imaginary Maps. In the stories, Devi challenges the language we use to describe the encounter between the “developed” and “developing” world. Such terminology works to create a hegemonic and linear sense of history that marks any alternative social organization as “premodern”, a marking that sets off the destructive modernization process. To be modernized means for adivasi communities the degradation of the forest ecosystem that sustains their culture. It means to fall further and further into debt because of the brutal kamiya system.[20] It means to starve while harvesting cash crops on land that used to grow food.[21] The language of modernization, which runs rampant in discourses of “sustainable development,” enables neocolonial amnesia, which seeks to efface such a history. Devi’s use of the postcolonial Gothic forces any centrally-administered plan advertising itself as bringing greater “security” or “sustainability” to indigenous peoples to reckon with the long, violent history of colonial and neocolonial exploitation of tribal lands and people, a history that could otherwise be swept away by the progressive myth of “development”.

This critique of development must be paired with a larger project of reconceiving the ethical and affective relationship between tribal people and the modernized world. Devi tells Spivak, “Our double task is to resist ‘development’ actively and to learn to love.”[22] Spivak defines this “love” as “the slow, attentive, mind-changing (on both sides), ethical singularity” which “supplement[s] necessary collective efforts to change laws, modes of production, systems of education and health care.” Ethical singularity, for Spivak, strives towards “an impossible social justice” which attends to the specificity of local language, custom, and history while at the same time engaging with the forms and concepts of hegemonic global discourse.[23] This “love” requires an intimacy not afforded by the distancing mechanisms of mass media; as one of Devi’s protagonists, the journalist Puran, learns from his time living with the tribals, “it is improper to pass judgment quickly and from a safe distance.”[24] Instead of simply reacting to spectacular violence (like Mary’s murder of Tehsildar) with shock, disgust, or horror, the modern reader must slow down and have the humility, patience, and compassion to open herself up to alternative histories. Devi’s Gothic stories strive towards this impossible ethical singularity, challenging her readers from the modernized world to invert their perspectives and empathize across the colonial binaries that divide East from West, modern from primitive. By broadcasting the unjust history of the tribal areas of West Bengal, while at the same time acknowledging the impossibility of telling such a history without resorting to colonial language, concepts, and structures, these stories enact a crisis of representation. “Slow violence” addresses this crisis by negotiating between short-term and long-term temporalities, as well as between local and global spatialities. The paradoxical task of giving form to invisible slow violence requires artists attempt the same impossible syntheses of the local and the global, the historical and the contemporary, the seen and the unseen, which Devi and Spivak call for in their discussion of love-as-ethical-singularity. The acknowledgement that the synthesis of these binaries is impossible calls not for resignation but a kind of self-vigilance and humility on the part of the modernized world as we seek to learn from and relate to these cultures without repeating the abuses of the (neo)colonial past. In my conclusion, I turn to the concept of “the sacred” as one that stands in the middle space between the image and the ineffable, and which suggests an ethical, singular, and truly sustainable stance for the modernized world to take with regard to endangered adivasi communities and the environments on which such communities depend.

II. The Monstrous Return of Neocolonial Slow Violence

In Slow Violence, Nixon describes the neocolonial encounter as a meeting of opposing temporalities: the “short-term” temporality of the neocolonial agents who “arrive (with their official landscape maps) to extract, despoil, and depart”, versus the “long-term” temporality of those who depend on regional resources for their survival.[25] The intrusion of this extraction-based temporal order commonly results in what Nixon refers to as “displacement without moving”, as extraction leaves indigenous groups stranded on a land stripped of the resources that made it habitable.[26] The effects of such temporal disruptions are particularly acute when a community is more subject to ecosystemic cycles such as seasonal rains, tides, and migration patterns. Nixon resists the urge to romanticize such an “organic community” by emphasizing how integration with such cycles subjects these “ecosystem people” to greater risks.[27] To be “closer to nature” does not mean one transcends into the romantic sublime, or returns to the breast of Gaia, but rather that one is more vulnerable to the environmental degradation that results from slow violence.

Officially, the colonial and commercial appropriation of the Bengali forest where Devi sets her stories began 1865 when the occupying British government passed the Indian Forest Act, but the practice had in fact begun more than one hundred years earlier during the natal stages of the East India Company.[28] This “scientific” method of forest management, a colonial mechanism which “displaces indigenous knowledge about and management of the forests,” actually intensified after Independence as the Forest Department seized control, declaring the trees that tribals depended on for their day-to-day survival to be government property.[29] Despite several attempts to strike a more just balance between local, national, and international claims to this wood, the extraction of the forest resources of India continues, and tribal life becomes more and more precarious. As one adivasi man tells Devi, “When these forests disappear, we will also disappear.”[30] This comment reminds us that the “displacement” effected by slow violence needs to be seen not only as the depletion of an area’s material wealth, but also of its cultural and spiritual wealth. Neocolonial geographies impose official, “pitilessly instrumental” maps over what Nixon calls the “vernacular landscape”, a non-hegemonic landscape which is “shaped by the affective, historically textured maps that communities have devised over generations, maps replete with names and routes, maps alive to significant ecological and surface geological features.”[31] The loss of these vernacular landscapes signifies the loss of the indigenous cultural meanings and histories that the land has accumulated over many generations. Ironically, this loss of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is often effected through programs of “environmental science” or “ecology,” which “comes to be defined within a tradition of WMS [Western Modern science/white male science] through active denial of ‘real science’ to dominated people’s knowledge claims and practices.”[32] This sense of cultural loss, which is inseparable from ecological loss, is at the heart of Devi’s collection. The title, Imaginary Maps, resonates ambiguously with this clash of differing geographies. It could refer to the resource-extraction maps of neocolonialism, which are “imaginary” in that they are administrative fantasies that become all too real as they are imposed on these remote lands from afar.[33] Alternately, it could refer to those vernacular landscapes, which are imaginary insofar as cartographers have never charted them, or they are opaque to the modern reader. This ambiguity emphasizes how the geographical logic of neocolonialism makes the destruction of indigenous ontologies seem rational and inevitable, a victory of science over superstition. As Puran, one of Devi’s protagonists, puts it, “On the survey map too Pirtha is between two jaws. How can there be no bite?”[34]

Official geography maintains its authority in part by repressing the local, unofficial histories of indigenous communities, including and especially those memories of violence (slow or fast) that has helped shape the present ecological and socio-economic landscape. It is here, in resisting such modes of collective repression, that the political agency of the subaltern or abject becomes legible. Nixon turns to the literary genre of the picaresque to describe this agency. He uses Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject[35] to interpret the picaro, a social outcast that uses her wits to survive on society’s margins; this figure embodies the history neocolonialism systematically represses.[36] One of the key ways the abject picaro critiques the neocolonial order is by pointing out the sexism and racism inherent in in its criminal law system by “contrasting the narrator’s peccadillos with the weightier crimes that society’s overlords commit and from which they are structurally exonerated.”[37] The picaresque suggests one rhetorical mode of linking up cause-and-effect to identify guilty parties within an increasingly globalized and integrated system. By connecting the dots across many different spaces and times, the picaresque may uncover a non-hegemonic history that reveals the institutional and global mechanics of slow violence.

Following Nixon, I submit the Gothic as another genre that resists neocolonial amnesia. Recently, both eco- and postcolonial critics have resituated this genre. The Gothic has been discussed by ecocritics as early as 1998, when Lawrence Buell identifies the mode as one of the constitutive elements of “toxic discourse” (more on this later).[38] In a 2009 essay, Tom Hillard lauds the Gothic’s ability to counter the romantic strain of ecocriticism because the genre marks the return of “ecophobia”, the “premodern” fear of nature that gets repressed in its idealization. Hillard revises Roderick Nash’s[39] claim that the supernatural or monstrous “nature” represented in folk traditions has been replaced by romantic notions of nature, arguing that these anxieties have found other means of cultural expression in the Gothic.[40] He interprets disaster movies as the latest mutation of the Gothic mode, demonstrating the insolubility of these “premodern” fears. In the tradition of Bruno Latour, the ecocritical Gothic is there to remind us We Have Never Been Modern.[41] Hillard’s interest in disaster movies shows a preference to look at ecological violence in accordance with spectacular eco-catastrophes; my interpretation of the Gothic puts more emphasis on the invisible slow violence that can be given form using the resources of this literary mode. My approach moves away from Hillard’s analysis of the American environmental tradition, with its emphasis on wilderness and eco-phenomenology. In turning to a postcolonial author such as Devi, I locate the genre within the environmental justice vein of ecocriticism.

Several critics of postcolonial literature have analyzed the Gothic to see how the theoretical resonances between these two critical fields might unearth new concepts and methodologies.  Andrew Hock Soon Ng identifies loss and transgression, two dominant themes of Invisible Maps, as key areas of overlap between postcolonial and Gothic literature. Instead of emphasizing trauma, Ng argues, the Gothic mode captures “the lingering presence of a loss which refuses to dissolve.”[42] Remembering the decades-long half-life of many pesticides and industrial chemicals, this refusal to dissolve should be taken literally. Alison Rudd lists many conventions that appear in the literary and critical canon of both traditions, and highlights two particularly rich points of intersection – the uncanny and the abject.[43] These two affects underpin the aesthetic strategy of “writing back” against empire because they unlock the dialectical logic of the postcolonial and the Gothic. These modes enable authors to perversely invert the language and tropes of “rational” hegemonic discourse in order to disrupt such discourse by revealing that this rationality is a result of repression, not mastery.[44] Rudd’s formulation of the postcolonial Gothic highlights the way both postcolonial and Gothic fiction frequently dramatize the return of a “traumatic and often unspeakable history”;[45] they both paradoxically seek to confront and resolve an evasive and irresolvable past. Nixon’s concept of “slow violence” helps extend Rudd’s insights to show how the “unspeakable history” that returns to haunt the postcolonial space is always also an environmental history. Any history of a culture lost to imperialism should include the history of a land lost to extraction, toxicity, and colonial agriculture.

My formulation of the postcolonial environmental Gothic thus advances discussions of the environmental Gothic to address the postcolonial turn in ecocriticism, while also expanding theories of the postcolonial Gothic to account for the role of the nonhuman in colonial processes.[46] Bringing together Hillard’s notion of the Gothic as the return of a repressed “premodern” nature with Rudd’s emphasis on the uncanny and abject in the postcolonial Gothic allows us to reconsider the central figure of the monster. “Monster”, Rudd reminds us, comes from the Latin monstrare (to demonstrate) and monere (to warn). This capacity to demonstrate or warn “is located in the body, traditionally, through a lack of, or an excess of, or an ill-assorted assemblage of body parts, or through ‘abnormal’ behavior.”[47] She argues that the monster “functions to demonstrate a flaw in the social fabric.”[48] The body of the grotesque monster becomes a theatre for the toxic materials and ideas of modernity; by apprehending the processes that lead to the (de)formation of this figure, we give form to slow violence. Slow violence should be seen as the process of creating monsters – itself a monstrous process. As Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein reminds us, it is often the creators of monsters, not their creations, that best embody inhumanity and injustice.

We can observe the theatricality of a monstrously deformed body in the final, climactic moment of the second story of Devi’s collection, “Douloti the Beautiful.” This narrative follows Douloti, who gets sold into sex-slavery because of debts her family accumulated through the kamiya system. As the residents of Tohri rise for Independence Day celebrations, they encounter the eponymous character’s dead body atop a chalk map of India:

Filling the entire Indian peninsula from the oceans to the Himalayas, here lies bonded labor spread-eagled, kamiya-whore Douloti Nagesia’s tormented corpse, putrefied with venereal diseases, having vomited up all the blood in its desiccated lungs.

Today, on the fifteenth of August, Douloti has left no room at all in the India of people like Mohan for planting the standard of the Independence flag. What will Mohan do now? Douloti is all over India.[49]

Douloti’s monstrous, abject body gives form to the exploitation of tribals across India; it is the “vernacular landscape” disgorged over the nation’s official geography. In her spectacular death, Douloti warns of the unspectacular but still-destructive slow violence that has poisoned and disfigured her body. This “demonstration” stands against the pomp of Independence Day, annihilating idealized notions of an independent and cohesive India.[50] The monstrosity of this body results from the (literal) pathogens that have infected her body through this patriarchal, capitalist, and colonialist network of exploitation. Her “monstrosity” acts out the depravity of a dispersed and mostly invisible network. To Devi’s readers, who have witnessed the many acts of neocolonial exploitation that riddle Douloti’s past, as well as her community’s, her body is not simply spectacle, but narrative; we are able to look beyond the immediacy of her monstrosity to the monstrous processes of slow violence that created this “tormented corpse.”

The abjection of Douloti’s body parallels the degradation of the land throughout the collection, in that both are diseased and exhausted in the name of profit. As the haunting verse of the kamiya-whores laments, “The boss has turned them into land.”[51] This monstrous metamorphosis recalls my earlier point that for tribals being “closer to nature” actually means being more subject to slow violence; this vulnerability becomes especially acute for tribal women, who are intersectionally associated with nature across the ontological fields of race and gender. Patriarchy would have us see this conflation as ennobling, but it is an illusion covering exploitation and violence, justifying the treatment of indigenous people (especially women) as “natural” resources to be used at will. For Douloti, being marked as “fertile” or “natural” frames her as ripe for abuse. Paramandara, the owner of the brothel, and Ramipyari, his madame, subject the bodies of Douloti and the rest of the women to the tightest of biopolitical regimens, including forcing them to have abortions, as well as the coldest of economic calculations, as they are only given proper food in preparation for particularly important clients. These abuses become even more taxing when Paramandara dies and passes ownership on to his merciless son Bajinath, who declares, “The feeding money will go down more, the number of clients will go up more. Body! Kamiya woman’s body! If the body dries up she’ll depart. Famine’s on the way, is there any shortage of harijan kamiya women?”[52] The corrupt patriarchal order reduces adivasi women to expendable matter, an abundant resource to be harvested. These women who “own nothing: not the means to their livelihood, nor their own bodies,” are, in Spivak’s terms, “the super-exploited”; they are subject to an interlocking system of sexual and economic oppression that their male counterparts are not.[53]

Super-exploitation turns out to be super-profitable for those who keep such kamiya women in bondage. Shortly before Douloti’s death, a group of men finally comes to close down the brothel for keeping kamiya. One of the party, Father Bomfuller, who is compiling data to document tribal exploitation, calculates how much money has been made off her body over the course of her bond-slavery – over forty thousand rupees.[54] The steady pace of the abuse against her body parallels the steady pace of slow violence against the land, an issue that comes more into focus in the final, most contemporaneously set story of the collection, “Pterodactyl, Puran Sahay, and Pirtha”, which I turn to in the essay’s final two sections.

The results of Bomfuller’s survey end up “imprisoned in a file.”[55] This phrasing links the Gothic with bureaucracy and information networks such as mass media and academia. The political structures and public discourses of the modernized world fail to addresses injustices such as the ones that led to Douloti’s demise; rather, they repress such injustices by reducing them to data. The Gothic elements of this text mark the excess that such abstractions fail to harness; the Gothic, then, functions ontologically to bring to the surface histories and processes that remain otherwise trapped and formless within modernity’s troubled unconscious. Douloti vomiting blood over the map of India enacts the monstrous return of colonial and neocolonial practices that have poisoned tribal bodies and lands alike. As I will show in the next section, confronting these abject monsters challenges modern readers to invert their perspective and to empathize across the abstract binaries separating the modern from the indigenous world.

III. Slow Movement, Gothic inversion

In her interview with Spivak, Devi emphasizes how her first-hand relationship with these tribal spaces informed her political awakening. One of her aesthetic goals is to carry her audience through a similar landscape and to inspire a similar insight: “The Palamu district I have depicted in my stories […] is a mirror of tribal India. I have covered all of the district on foot. I walked miles, stayed somewhere overnight, went from place to place. Thus the bonded labor system, in all its naked savagery and its bloody exploitation of women, became clear to me.”[56] Devi emphasizes how her intimacy with tribal lands and peoples, developed during her pedestrian travels, qualifies her to serve as our tour guide. Her slow movement contrasts with the velocity of the train at the beginning of “The Hunt.” In his recent study On Slowness, Lutz Koepnick describes the relationship between speed and perception:

Slowness demonstrates a special receptivity to the copresence of various memories and anticipations, narratives and untold stories, beats and rhythms in our temporally and spatially expanded movements. It not only stresses the open-ended and unpredictable but also the need to unfetter notions of mobility and movement from a peculiarly modern privileging of the temporal over the spatial.[57]

Slowness fits into an ethics of perception that insists on a more sustained, horizontal relationship with the land, one that resists the annihilation of spatial singularity that is so typical of modern ontologies. Today’s “information superhighway” favors speed above all else, converting particular places into raw data that can be fed into global media networks. Slow movement, on the other hand, enables Devi to see the land not in the abstract and totalizing terms set forth by modernity, but rather as a contested space composed by a diversity of histories and many ongoing processes, some ancient and some modern, some familiar and some foreign, some material and some spiritual, some “natural” and some manmade. The critic Rekha describes space in Devi as a “value-loaded entity” and a “protean presence”;[58] in guiding us through these mutating landscapes, Devi instructs us on the contingency, hybridity, and fluidity of space itself. She seeks to create a sense of spatial singularity that resists modernity’s flattening abstractions and strives towards a (perhaps impossible) ethical singularity. This ethical singularity respects and provides space for the specific histories and cultural practices of indigenous communities without falling back on idealized or primitive notions of “the indigenous.” In order develop an ethical, singular stance toward the adivasi, we must discover new, slower ways to perceive the land upon which they depend for their survival. This is precisely what Devi sets to accomplish as she leads her reader into the forests of tribal India.

This narrative “tour guide” is another trope of Gothic fiction, one Buell identifies as a constitutive element of what he terms “toxic discourse,” a mode of activist writing that draws attention to the threat of a poisoned world. The Gothic element of toxic discourse, according to Buell, operates in “the Virgilian mode,” where a better-informed but not quite native guide conducts readers through scenes of environmental degradation.[59] But while this mode of toxic discourse can make visible the violence of neocolonial development, there is also the danger of reinscribing “the polarization of saved versus damned [with] the guide being so much wiser, so much more like us, than the hapless, hardly human victims.”[60] Devi attempts to negotiate this ambiguous inheritance and to awaken her readers without falling back on binary distinctions that frame interactions between “developed”/saved and “developing”/damned societies. Through use of the Gothic inversion – similar to the one Shelley affects regarding Dr. Frankenstein’s unfortunate creature – the author encourages her reader to empathize across these ideological binaries.

This radical empathy requires stepping outside of dominant ideas about indigenous people and their relationship to the nonhuman environment that inhere within neocolonial ideology. These ideas hold that tribal people, like the adivasi, possess a primitive, intimate knowledge of particular ecosystems, but also that this localized knowledge is insufficient to address global environmental issues such as climate change and resource scarcity; therefore, these local knowledges should give way to “top-down” strategies of environmental management. In Imaginary Maps, Devi disrupts this modern, hegemonic view by taking her battle against neocolonialism to the level of language to show the limits of WMS. “Pterodactyl” follows Puran, an investigative journalist with sympathies similar to Devi’s, on his travels into the Pirtha region after he hears that the image of a pterodactyl has been mysteriously carved into a cave wall by a tribal boy who is “illiterate, never having read a book, with no knowledge of the history of the evolution of the planet.”[61] After making contact with the adivasi, Puran discovers that pesticide poisoning, food shortage, and widespread corruption has ravaged their community, but he is unsure of how to ethically alert the public to this crisis. Like Devi, Puran understands the political and perceptual consequences of the descriptions of tribals in official discourse. Much of the plot of “Pterodactyl” has to do with what designation government bureaucrats will place on the Pirtha district: is it experiencing drought, which is “natural”, or famine which is “man-made” as a result of food policy?[62] The first can be written off as the whim of an indifferent Nature; the second indicates that India’s much-celebrated “green revolution” is in many cases a failure. In his interactions with the adivasi, Puran comes to understand that neither distinction, drought nor famine, captures the complex history of the region, a history that is simultaneously “natural” and “man-made.” The very division between these two categories effaces the codependency and co-constitution of nature and culture, as well as the fact that in a postcolonial society local ecosystems are deeply implicated in global politics. Puran’s (and Devi’s) challenge is to disrupt bureaucratic semantics, and the ideologies underpinning such discourse, by discovering new “bottom-up” languages and ontologies that can link tribal suffering with its global causes.

To counter this official discourse – which, as Nixon puts it, “abstracts to extract”[63] – Devi smashes bureaucratic jargon against a heteroglossia drawing omnivorously from Eastern and Western literature, philosophy, myth, and slang. Minoli Salgado writes of Devi’s style, “the language used is itself unfixed, incorporating a mixture of folk dialects and urbane Bengali, slang and Shakespeare.”[64] In her translation, Spivak italicizes the English words that Devi incorporates in the original Bengali manuscript, justifying her decision in her “Translator’s Note”: “Mahasweta’s stories are postcolonial. They must operate with the resources of a history shaped by colonization against the legacy of colonialism. […] By contrast, the culturalist intellectual […] and the State can affect a ‘pure’ idiom, which disguises neocolonialist collaboration.”[65] The effect of Spivak’s stylistic choice can be seen when Puran reflects on the ethical difficulty of properly representing Bikhia, the adivasi boy who has carved the pterodactyl: “No ratio has ever been calculated from the position of people like Bikhia. The position from which computer, information ministry, and media see the situation depends on the will of the current social and state systems.”[66] Remembering Ng’s description of the postcolonial Gothic, the infusion of English words marks a cultural loss that “refuses to dissolve”; the instrumentalist knowledge circulating within these media systems fits nicely into plans for sustainable development, but it does so by imposing a totalizing view that expunges the singularity of the adivasi people and their environment. With this “contaminated” language, Devi shows us how WMS’s modes of creating and dispensing knowledge will always be haunted by the abstract and totalizing ontologies of mass media and colonial administration; this neocolonial science enables the haunting of tribal lands by the toxins, trucks, and debts of the modernized world. She calls for an alternative science, formed from “the position of people like Bikhia” which respects and empowers traditional indigenous knowledges of ecosystems and social organization. This “bottom-up” knowledge production works according to observations that are grounded in particular places. At the same time, Devi’s use of hybridized language demonstrates how these “bottom-up” ontologies insistently connect local phenomenon with the global processes, thus dispelling the neocolonial argument that such knowledges are hopelessly prehistoric or pastoral.

Devi opposes “top-down” colonial ontologies by drawing on the Gothic theme of the supernatural. To define the supernatural is to observe the bounds of a culture’s construction of nature. When read within the western literary tradition, the supernatural has a dialectical and transgressive logic related to that which inheres in both the Gothic and the postcolonial. However, if we consider the supernatural from the tribal perspective, as “Pterodactyl” encourages us, a different configuration emerges. What appears from a modernized perspective as a supernatural belief held by tribal people (such as ancestor worship, animism, or magic) is in fact “natural” to such people (though the term “natural” is too ideologically loaded to accurately capture this alternate perspective). The supernatural from a tribal perspective is not projected imaginatively into the past as a premodern conception of nature that has been overcome via Enlightened thought. Rather, the supernatural emerges when indigenous ontologies come into contact with the toxins and technologies of the modernized world. Observing the tribal supernatural interrupts modern ontologies by demonstrating that the conflict between “primitive” and “modern” ways of knowing is not just history but an ongoing part of the present.

In “Pterodactyl”, the supernatural surfaces because of the tribal community’s dependence on a land that is haunted by the toxins, debts, and ideologies of the colonial past; the disruptions caused by these mechanisms of slow violence confound the super/natural distinction. This story stages Nixon’s assertion, “For the majority of our planet’s people, the two kingdoms of toxic threat and spiritual threat interpenetrate and blend, creating a hybrid world of techno-numinous fears.”[67] We can observe these hybrid threats in the tribals’ reaction to the poisoning of their food supply. Insecticides applied by government agents to tribal lands as part of the region’s agricultural plan poison the tubers the adivasis subsist on. Harishan, the region’s well-intentioned but ultimately ineffectual administrative officer, bemoans the fact that the tribals continue to eat poisoned tubers. Nonetheless, he identifies an alternative ontology within tribal discourse that seems to understand the nature of this chemical threat. “Even the doctors can’t come to grips with all the diseases here. The tribal understands somewhat, they have their own healers as well. […] We have not brought scientific health care to the tribals. If something happens beyond the limit of their knowledge they think of mysterious reasons, divine rage, the witch’s glance, and so on.”[68] That the doctors are also partly ignorant of the causes the diseases that plague this area suggests that health care methods of WMS are as just as ontologically limited as their tribal counterparts, if not more so. Those “mysterious” beliefs by the tribals might contain insights that Harishan misses because he does not bother to question the opacity of the cultural divide. Just because the tribal understanding of the situation might include elements that appear supernatural to modern eyes does not mean that this perception of reality is fundamentally flawed or inferior. The story thus challenges its reader to venture forth to discover what Harishan fails to recognize: the tribals’ insights into the slow violence plaguing their bodies and lands.

Devi similarly incorporates a Gothic sense of the supernatural when she describes the adivasis’ reaction to the new roads that are being built in Pirtha. They perceive the road, an essential infrastructural tool for resource extraction, as a predatory force come to devour what remains of their land and culture. One of the tribals, Shankar, “falls into a trance” (another Gothic trope) as he seethes,

Our land vanished like dust before a storm, our fields, our homes, all disappeared. The ones who came were not human beings. Oh, we climb hills and build homes, the road comes chasing us. The forest disappears, they make the four corners unclean. Oh, we had our ancestors’ graves! They were ground underfoot to build roads, houses, schools, hospitals. We wanted none of this, and anyway they didn’t do it for us. […] Can you move far away? Very far? Very, very far?[69]

In Devi’s inversion of Gothic temporality, it is the modern that haunts the premodern; this also inverts our perspective as readers. Shankar’s narrative compels the reader to imagine the experience of a profound cultural loss, but not in order to idealize this lost “innocence” before the adivasis were “damned” by the “original sin” of contact with the “unclean” outside world. Instead, we see how these “ancient” fears continue today. This personification (or, perhaps better, “monsterification”) of the road, which “chases” the adivasi off their land, shows that while those advocating for infrastructural development claim that such investments would improve the area’s education, health care, and/or food security, such projects can actually accelerate the destruction of tribal lands, cultures, and peoples. Unless indigenous people are given a true voice in the administration of their homeland, and unless recent movements in global sustainability are willing to value ecological, cultural, and social indigenous knowledges, we are doomed to repeat a one-way process of domination and indoctrination, only under new euphemisms like “sustainable development.” In order for adivasis to have any agency or autonomy, we must allow our perspective to be inverted and see that actions which appear to those in the modernized world as benevolent can appear to tribals as monstrous.

This inversion entails interrogating, and perhaps abandoning, colonial notions of both history and nature. As discussed above, postcolonial Gothic literature makes monstrously visible the continued presence of history that has been repressed through the material and cultural processes of neocolonialism. In order to represent this history, the postcolonial Gothic subverts or inverts totalizing ideas of “the natural” that inhere within the ideology of modernity, revealing through the embodiment of the supernatural the limits of modernity’s ontologies. In showing us and exceeding these limits, the postcolonial Gothic calls on modern readers to give space to indigenous peoples and to become spectators of these communities’ alternative ways of perceiving the interaction between the human and nonhuman world. To become spectators in an ethical way requires us to step outside of dominant views of indigenous communities that circulate within mainstream global media networks and to discover new, slower ways to understand tribal culture – which is precisely what Devi hopes to accomplish in her story collection. In the concluding paragraphs of this essay, I advance the notion of “the sacred” as a model for a more ethical orientation for the modernized world to take with regard to adivasi peoples and cultures.

IV. Conclusion: Spectating the Sacred

Sacredness might seem like a reactionary notion, one that is unsustainable in the acid-bath ideological environment of neoliberalism and postmodernism. Because the sacred is often bound up within institutional religion, it runs the risk of getting tied to moralist or pastoral cultural programs that do more to police adivasi people than they do to empower or liberate them. However, several recent studies on the sacred in postcolonial literature have suggested that the concept can be productively politicized to resist neocolonial forces. Asha Sen argues that the rather arbitrary sacred/secular division is itself “a by-product of colonialism,” and seeks to “challenge any easy consumption of ‘third-world difference’ in the interests of multinational capitalism” by creating “a language and symbology that crosses sacred/secular boundaries to further the cause of social justice.”[70] Jamie S. Scott claims, “Contemporary international literatures representing the interplay between the religious and the geographical thus offer concrete opportunities for us to discover in ourselves and in our neighbors that simultaneous presence of the seen and unseen, the material and the mysterious, which animates [Mircea] Eliade’s sense of sacred space.”[71] Both Sen and Scott’s theorization of the sacred attest to the way that this concept works to resist neocolonialism’s tendency to view all space in the abstracted terms of resource extraction. Because the sacred points to the limits of modernity’s understanding, those agents, processes, and histories – like slow violence – that slip out of or exceed the totalizing view of global media, it provides a key point of resistance for postcolonial politics.

The prehistoric monster embedded at the center of Devi’s story, the pterodactyl, presents the challenge of the sacred to Puran, and by extension to the reader, because it refuses to be contained by the abstractions, ontologies, and temporalities of the modernized world. The reporter, having earned Bikhia’s trust, joins in the boy’s ritual worship of this “ancestral soul”[72] that mysteriously manifests itself before him. Puran perceives the pterodactyl as a “body made of the grey dusk or this liquid darkness” and as an “unfamiliar smell, sometimes sharp and sometimes mild”[73]; he does not apprehend this creature according to objective taxonomical description, but as a series of sensory impressions. This sacred monster slips between the embodied and the ephemeral, the real and unreal. In recognizing this mysterious presence, he immediately recognizes its supernatural power, but also its delicacy and vulnerability before the onrushing forces of neocolonial modernization. He laments that this “first and last living messenger of a prehistoric world” will be subject to the “implacable and cruel truth that time will advance, that the wheels of time will destroy much as they advance.”[74] In terms of my earlier discussion of the Gothic, the pterodactyl is uncanny because it is a figure that has been subsumed into a history (in this case, geological history) that makes its return, and also abject because it is outside the authorized symbolic order.

Puran’s concern extends to Bikhia; both the tribal boy and the monster are beings from an world thought to be extinct, and thus their very existence must be hidden from a voracious modernity to protect them from being swept into the seemingly inevitable torrent of history:

The world of today cannot be informed about you [the pterodactyl]. ‘Today’ does not know the ‘past,’ the ‘ancient.’ ‘Today,’ ‘the present times,’ ‘civilization,’ becomes most barbaric by the demands of getting ahead. Yet he doesn’t know that ‘today’ desecrates the ancient people’s burial-grounds by building roads and bridges, cutting down forests. They won’t let you go if they know of your existence, this is why he [Bikhia] is protecting your visit like the sacred ashes of a funeral pyre or the bones of the dead. He has found some contact. He is a tribal, an aboriginal, you are much more ancient, more originary than his experience, both your existences are greatly endangered.[75]

The repeated use of scare quotes at the beginning of this passage insists that the language used by the West and modernized India to describe tribal spaces such as Pirtha builds upon a colonial notion of history as diachronically progressive.  In an ironic inversion, “civilization” becomes “barbaric”; barbarism no longer appears as the threat of the foreigner, that backward other that must be defeated and modernized, but rather as civilization’s violent subconscious. In performing this deconstruction, Devi disrupts the linear history of colonialism, showing that for every victory of “civilization” over “barbarism”, there was another “barbaric” story of violence and suffering that the history of the victors has repressed in order to create this semblance of progress. Despite this history of domination, these indigenous ways of knowing and surviving persist. The adivasi should not be seen as beings from an extinct world; they survive today because they possess cultural resources of dynamism and adaptability. However, it is important to acknowledge that these resources, like the ecosystemic resources of the region, are delicate. Unless these people and ecosystems are given space and acknowledged as sacred, we run the risk of dealing a death-blow under euphemisms of progress and sustainability.

The sacred, like the Gothic, inverts agency. We become, like Puran, “merely a spectator”[76] standing before the pterodactyl, pondering its prophetic meaning: “The collective being of the ancient nations is being crushed. Like nature, like the sustaining earth, their sustaining ancient cultures received no honor, they remained unknown, they were only destroyed, they are being destroyed, is that what you are telling us? The dusky lidless eyes remain unresponsive.”[77] This opacity, this sense that, while there might be some message contained in this animal, there is “No point of communication [, n]othing can be said or written,”[78] demands respect, even reverence, not mastery. It requires we slow down and open ourselves to new perceptions that modernity has foreclosed with its totalizing ontologies. The “monstrosity” of this figure, which emerges from its exceeding the bounds of Western science, is precisely what should be protected as sacred.

This sacredness cannot be ethically communicated through mainstream global media networks; such channels, Puran knows, are key actors in the “abstract to extract” process, in that they annihilate difference in pursuit of rational, profitable knowledge:

You [ambiguously Bikhia and the pterodactyl] will be shown on television and the soul’s warning message, the terrifying news of the tribal being of Pirtha, will all lose their perspective, by many analyses the rodent and the rhododendron will be proven the same. And who can tell, all the countries of the world will conduct investigations out of Pirtha everywhere, into the last forest, the last cave, to see what prehistoric time and creature are still hidden. The invasion will be inevitable.[79]

Puran learns from his encounter with the pterodactyl, this ancestor spirit, the impossibility of fully understanding and occupying the adivasi perspective. He learns to pause, to give space, and to resist any discourse that “proves” every cultural, spiritual, or biological entity to be “the same”. This respect for difference and spatial singularity is precisely what any plan for global sustainability needs to develop as a first step towards a more just and sustainable earth. If this respect is not cultivated, sustainability will be just another term justifying neocolonial invasion and dispossession.

The Gothic and the postcolonial, two modes that seem at first glance to be preoccupied with the injustices of the past, need to be interpreted for the messages they have regarding the future. Presently, such a future seems to have no place for tribal people except for the further appropriation of their lands, the “museumization” of their culture, and the exploitation of their bodies. As our Virgilian guide Puran prophesizes:

Too little can be known, we have destroyed a continent that we kept unknown and undiscovered. The tribal wants human recognition, respect, because he or she is the child of an ancient civilization. In what a death farce we are enthralled as we turn them into beggars, who are nowhere implicated in Indian education, development, science, industry, agriculture, technology. They remain spectators. India marches on toward the twenty-first century.[80]

Within the onrush of neocolonial development, the adivasi must find a way to become visible in global discourse that allows them to advocate for social and environmental justice. Such visibility allows them to have a hand in creating their own future, instead of being relegated once again to the role of “spectator.” The Gothic genre, like Nixon’s picaresque, provides the rhetorical and aesthetic resources to disrupt the neocolonial language of denial by giving form to the usually invisible suffering slow violence inflicts on tribal communities. In providing a dark mirror, it makes us aware that the “damnation” of these tribes is actually a reflection of our own society’s “death farce.” If there is any hope to break the modernized world out of its thrall, it must heed the warnings of the monsters that it has created. We of the modernized world must call these “premodern” monsters sacred, not because they are pure and free, but because they are contaminated by our toxins and imprisoned by our debts.


1.  Mahasweta Devi, Imaginary Maps. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (London, Routledge, 1995), 16.  [↑]

2.  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “The Author in Conversation,” in Imaginary Maps by Mahasweta Devi, Trans. Spivak. (London, Routledge, 1995), xviii.  [↑]

3.  Nagesh Rao, “ ‘Neocolonialism’ or ‘Globalization’? Postcolonial Theory and the Demands of Political Economy,” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 1.2 (2000), 165-84. Rao claims the primary difficulty with the term “neocolonialism” is that, in emphasizing how the nation-based colonial powers of high-imperialism still exert political, economic, cultural, and environmental control over the nations that formed from their former colonial holdings, neocolonial theorists don’t adequately account for “the death of the nation state” (169) that has resulted from globalization. I resolve Rao’s critique in this essay by emphasizing how, in Devi’s stories, the “colonizers” are not only foreign or international powers that come to extract resources from tribal lands but also the privileged, modernized classes within India who manipulate the laws of the nation-state to exert control of and profit off of such spaces.  [↑]

4.  Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2011).  [↑]

5.  Nixon, 3.  [↑]

6.  Nixon, 2.  [↑]

7.  I use the term “modernized” to describe both Western countries and societies, and also to refer to those urban, middle-class regions of India, the two primary audiences for Spivak’s translation. I select “modernized” instead of “developed” because I want to describe modernization as a particular kind of development that has been taken by Western societies to be both inevitable and totalizing. As my later discussion of the “modern” versus the “premodern” in these stories indicates, I use the term “modernized” with a certain amount of irony. See footnote 41 for more on this.  [↑]

8.  Nixon, 40. Nixon borrows the term “bewilderers” from Frantz Fanon.  [↑]

9.  Nixon, 1-2.  [↑]

10.  Devi, 7. In her translation, Spivak italicizes words that are in English in Devi’s original manuscript.  [↑]

11.  Devi, 9.  [↑]

12.  Tom J. Hillard, “‘Deep Into That Darkness Peering’: An Essay on Gothic Nature,” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 16.4 (2009): 685-95. Tom Hillard, discussed later in this essay, prefers the term “mode” to “genre” because this terminology “enables readers to observe the Gothic elements” of a work of literature without having to assign the work the limiting taxonomy of “the Gothic novel” (689). Acknowledging Hillard’s assertion, I contend that the distinction between “genre” and “mode” to be more fluid than he describes, and as such I will use both terms. Generally, I use “genre” when I want to talk about a particular literary canon, and “mode” when I want to talk about particular aesthetic or rhetorical strategies associated with the Gothic.  [↑]

13.  Gabrielle Collu, “Adivasis and the Myth of Independence: Mahasweta Devi’s ‘Douloti the Beautiful’”, 45.  [↑]

14.  Spivak, “The Author in Conversation,” xvi.  [↑]

15.  Spivak, “The Author in Conversation,” xvi.

The Adim Jati Aikya Parishad, or Tribal Unity Forum, is the most notable of these organizations.  [↑]

16.  Spivak, “The Author in Conversation,” xiii-xiv.  [↑]

17.  “Mueseumized” from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Translators Preface,” in Imaginary Maps by Mahasweta Devi, Trans. Spivak. (London, Routledge, 1995), xxiv.  [↑]

18.  Spivak, “Translator’s Preface,” xxiii.  [↑]

19.  Subha Chakraborty Dasgupta, “Contesting Polarities: Creating Spaces – Reading Myths in Mahasweta Devi’s Stories,” Indian Literature 20.2 (2003), 202.  [↑]

20.  Devi, 87. Devi dramatizes several times how difficult it is to get out of the kamiya system once in it, because often these bond-slaves will have to borrow more money in order to survive, which compounds their debt. As her heroine Douloti puts it, “Bondslavery loan is never repaid. A three hundred rupee loan becomes infinite in eight years. The boss has raised more than fourty thousand rupees wringing this body of mine. Still I owe.” Siddharth Kara describes bonded labor as “the most extensive form of slavery in the world today” (3). A 2011 study estimates that more than 80% of the world’s 20.5 million bonded laborers are in South Asia (3). These laborers are severely exploited and are often forced to pay interests rates north of 20%, with “money lent for future medicine, clothes or basic sustenance” constantly adding to the debt, thus creating a vicious “ongoing cycle of debt bondage” (4). Kara sets the continued evolution of bonded within “an ancient history of slavery dating back to Vedic times, up to and including the British colonial period” (16) Though he insists that European colonizers did not introduce slavery to India, he also identifies two expansions of the slavery system that can be linked to British colonial rule: the expansion of the slave trade throughout the British empire and the “solidification of debt as the primary means of securing slave labor” (23). Siddharth Kara, Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia, (New York, Columbia UP, 2012).   [↑]

21.  Devi, 108-09. While reading about the history of the region in order to “[look] at the villages on both sides,” Puran wonders, “Who controls the fertile black soil for producing cotton in the Malwa area? So-called main crops are jawar, wheat, and rice. Who eats this? So called ‘lesser food grains’ such as kodo, kutki, and soma are also grown. This states agri-products for trade are oilseed, cotton, and sugar-cane. The other day a Bhil tribal and six members of his family killed themselves for reasons of poverty, although, in the unwritten Adivasi lexicon, suicide is a dreadful sin. Central India will soon make news in soybean cultivation. Is it the soybean revolution after the green revolution? Who will consume this soybean power, nutri-nuggets, oil, the whole seed?”  [↑]

22.  Spivak, “The Author in Conversation,” xxii.  [↑]

23.  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Afterward,” in Imaginary Maps by Mahasweta Devi, Trans. Spivak. (London, Routledge, 1995), 197. Spivak acknowledges her debt to Jacques Derrida in this discussion of ethical singularity.  [↑]

24.  Devi, 116.  [↑]

25.  Nixon, 16.  [↑]

26.  Nixon, 19.  [↑]

27.  Nixon, 61. Nixon borrows the term “ecosystem people” from Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martinez-Alier.  [↑]

28.  Gabrielle Collu, “Adivasis and the Myth of Independence: Mahasweta Devi’s ‘Douloti the Beautiful’,” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 30.1 (1999), 46.  [↑]

29.  Jennifer Wenzel, “Epic Struggles over India’s Forests in Mahasweta Devi’s Short Fiction,” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 18 (1998), 129.  [↑]

30.  Wenzel, 127.  [↑]

31.  Nixon, 17.  [↑]

32.  Khan, Richard. “Chapter Four: Organizational Transformation as Ecopedagogy: Traditional Ecocological Knowledge as Real and New Science,” Counterpoints 359 (2010), 105.  [↑]

33.  Spivak, “Afterward,” 198. Spivak suggests such a reading of the title: “Upon the body of this North-South world, and to sustain the imaginary map making of the World Bank, yet another kind of unification is being practiced as the barriers between international capital and the fragile national economics of the South are being removed.”  [↑]

34.  Devi, 170.  [↑]

35.  Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 1-2. Kristeva develops her concept of the abject as a “jettisoned object,” created by but excluded from the symbolic order: “The abject has only one quality of the object – that of being opposed to I. If the object, however, through its opposition, settles me within the fragile texture of a desire for meaning, which, as a matter of fact, makes me ceaselessly and infinitely homologous to it, what is abject, on the contrary, the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses. A certain ‘ego’ that merged with its master, a superego, has flatly driven it away. It lies outside, beyond the set, and does not seem to agree to the latter’s rules of the game. And yet, from its place of banishment, the abject does not cease challenging its master.”  [↑]

36.  Nixon gives the example of Animal of Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, a victim of the Bhopal chemical disaster who has to walk on all fours because of a genetic mutation.   [↑]

37.  Nixon, 55.  [↑]

38.  Lawrence Buell, “Toxic Discourse,” Critical Inquiry 24.3 (1998), 653.  [↑]

39.  Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 3rd Ed, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967).  [↑]

40.  Hillard, 691.  [↑]

41.  Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 10-11. For Latour, “The adjective ‘modern’ designates a new regime, an acceleration, a rupture, a revolution in time. When the word ‘modern’, or ‘modernization’, or ‘modernity’ appears we are defining, by contrast, an archaic and stable past. Furthermore, the word is always being thrown in the middle of a fight, in a quarrel where there are winners and losers, Ancients and Moderns. ‘Modern’ is thus doubly asymmetrical: it designates a break in the regular passage of time, and it designates a combat where there are victors and vanquished.” The modern also “[establishes] a partition between the natural world that has always been there, a society with predictable and stable interests and stakes, and a discourse that is independent of both reference and society.” Latour’s claims are especially useful in destabilizing the authority of WMS (Western Modern/white male science) over TEK (traditional ecological knowledge).  [↑]

42.  Andrew Hock Soon Ng, Interrogating Interstices: Gothic Aesthetics in Postcolonial Asian and Asian American Literature, (Bern: Peter Lang, 2007), 18.  [↑]

43.  Alison Rudd, Postcolonial Gothic Fictions from the Caribbean, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010), 3. Rudd also identifies the following as other points of overlap between postcolonial and Gothic fiction: “the undermining of binary oppositions through an engagement with hybridity; the doubling and splitting of schizophrenic subjectivities; the desire for the impossible recovery of lost origins; the reinscription of hidden, or fragmented histories; the ethics of memory and forgetting; the uncovering of contradictions in the colonial project; the challenge to the hegemony of western thought; and the foregrounding of the notion that past systems continue into the present, as well as the themes of loss and transgression as outlined by Ng.” These interconnections all emerge within Devi’s stories, which are interested in unearthing repressed histories, challenging western hegemony, and marking moments of loss and transgression.  [↑]

44.  Rudd, 12.  [↑]

45.  Rudd, 2.  [↑]

46.  David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capital: A Theory of Uneven Geographical Development (London, Verso Books, 2006), 86; and Vandana Shiva, Biopiracy, (Brooklyn: South End Press, 1999), 2. Harvey describes “how the accumulation of capital works through ecosystemic processes, re-shaping them and disturbing them as it goes.” Shiva argues, “The duty to incorporate savages into Christianity has been replaced by the duty to incorporate local and national economies into the global marketplace, and incorporate non-Western systems of knowledge into the reductionism of commercialized Western science and technology.”  [↑]

47.  Rudd, 21.  [↑]

48.  Rudd, 23.  [↑]

49.  Devi, 93.  [↑]

50.  Wetzel, 150-51.

The history that Douloti’s death brings to bear on the present reaches back to before colonialism, all the way to India’s mythic roots. Wenzel reads Douloti’s obstruction of the Independence Day celebration as paralleling the story from the Ramayana where “Sita prevents Rama from ritually recognizing his consolidation of power.” Wenzel argues that Devi’s use of such epic traditions “turns those great epics strategically against themselves – or, more precisely, against those tellings and invocations employed in the service of a divinely justified oppression.” Devi’s stories thus condemn not only neocolonial actors coming from the West, but also those Indian agents who seek to continue “the great struggle to tame the forest, to domesticate those outside of the Hindu tradition.” The Gothic here functions as a hybrid genre, showing a capaciousness to take on a diversity of intellectual and social traditions.  [↑]

51.  Devi, 59.  [↑]

52.  Devi, 79.  [↑]

53.  Collu, 49.  [↑]

54.  Devi, 85.  [↑]

55.  Devi, 89.  [↑]

56.  Spivak, “The Author in Conversation,” xii.  [↑]

57.  Lutz Koepnick, On Slowness, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 6.  [↑]

58.  Rekha, “The Poetics and Politics of Space: A Reading of Mahasweta Devi’s Subaltern Stories,” Indian Literature 54.6 (2010), 144.  [↑]

59.  Buell, 654.

Buell borrows “Virgilian mode” from Eric Homberger. He cites Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Rachel Carson’s environmental classic Silent Spring as examples of the Virgilian Gothic mode of toxic discourse.  [↑]

60.  Buell, 655.  [↑]

61.  Devi, 155.  [↑]

62.  Devi, 160.  [↑]

63.  Nixon, 41.  [↑]

64.  Minoli Salgado, “Tribal Stories, Scribal Worlds: Mahasweta Devi and the Unreliable Translator”, 132.  [↑]

65.  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Translator’s Note,” in Imaginary Maps by Mahasweta Devi, Trans. Spivak. (London, Routledge, 1995), xxxi.  [↑]

66.  Devi, 161-62.  [↑]

67.  Nixon, 62-63.  [↑]

68.  Devi, 123.  [↑]

69.  Devi, 119-20.  [↑]

70.  Sen, 9, 5  [↑]

71.  Scott xxviii  [↑]

72.  Devi, 166.  [↑]

73.  Devi, 157.  [↑]

74.  Devi, 156.  [↑]

75.  Devi, 156.  [↑]

76.  Devi, 181.  [↑]

77.  Devi, 157.  [↑]

78.  Devi, 158.  [↑]

79.  Devi, 162.  [↑]

80.  Devi, 177  [↑]


Baron Haber is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he is working on a dissertation interpreting the metamorphic body in twentieth century Anglophone literature through the lenses of queer theory and ecocriticism. He also holds his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
All posts by: Baron Haber | Email

Share Post:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Technorati
  • StumbleUpon
  • MySpace
  • FriendFeed
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Netvibes
  • SphereIt
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Yahoo! Bookmarks
  • Live
  • RSS

One Response »

External links to Post (Trackbacks/Pingbacks)

Comments are now closed.