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Postcolonial Culture And Literature In South Asian Sub Continent

Photograph via Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet
Written by Kashvi Chandok

In most records of the freedom revolution, history is usually an embellishment of political transformation; a terrain of cultural and socio economic changes that spring overnight and try to adapt to birth of a newly formed territory. South Asia has especially been a witness of such changes since its colonisation. The evolving relationships of the subcontinent with its neighbours, local and international states, military groups, and peace corps have helped shape the coherent nature of the continent.

Culturally, the aftermath of the freedom struggle led to a rise in a complex adaptation of both the features of the former British lords and indigenous practices. There was a wave of amalgamating ‘western’ and ‘local’ traditions in terms of clothes, food and even languages. This cohesiveness led to a major rise in finding a unique ‘identity’ for the newly formed states of subcontinent.

The separation of India and Pakistan as two independent states, and later the division of Bangladesh in 1971 provided these three countries with core established boundaries in terms of geographical features. States of Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka also soon acquired independence whether from direct or indirect colonial rule. But there was an underlying similarity between these lands that birthed an articulated silence of repression and violence that went beyond physical lines.

An impediment of regional culture

Historically, one of the defining features of the region is the relatively easy absorption of people, ideas, and cultural practices from elsewhere. Cultural pluralism has always been the focus of Southeast Asia and presents the founding countries with a unique global perspective.

Post colonisation, Southeast Asian communities modified a framework within which their societies could be integrated and developed. This marriage of Austronesian and other local cultures with Indian traditions has remained a common background.

The Colonial Southeast Asian societies were rooted on racial principles: belonging to the dominant white upper caste provided one with prestige and honour barring their merit or capabilities. In the course of decolonization and modernization, Southeast Asian societies have undergone a process of class formation. Similar fragments of disintegration of traditional values can be traced back to the influence of the Turks and Mughals on the subcontinent.

Traces of Mughal influence on the ancient architecture still persist over the cities of Lahore and New Delhi. Crimson veiled verandahs and marbled minarets provide these cities with a characteristic nostalgia. Thus, adopting new culture and mixing it with an already varied community was never much of a problem for these independent states.

A nation finding its narration

One of the most reprehensible yet striking features of revival is the longing of holding back to the past. After Independence, social scenarios started shifting. Politically, every newly birthed nation wanted to ‘modernise’ their policy frameworks and it was conveniently performed by adopting the legal and founding structures of their former lords. Westernisation of things soon became rampant in the local markets and English became the first language for a lot of countries.

Physical longing of what once was ‘familiar’ soon became a necessity and started outpouring into the literature and art scene. The influence of English literature on Indian literature was seen to be one of the most extensive and profound influences ever exerted by one literature over another. This comprehensively hegemonic oppression of the colonisers led to a birth of new literary writers, including Salman Rushdie, Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, Arundhati Roy, Anita Nair, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

The post colonial literature traced the roots of existing turmoil and shed light on overlooked factors impacting nation building of the continent. Themes of memories, identity, perception of freedom struggles and violence soon became a common thread needling between the realm of collective belonging.

Identity, with reference to a society and its literature, necessitates some kind of unison, some kind of sharedness. Thus, memory plays a pivotal role in times of freedom crisis as it lays ground for one’s own identity.

Lidia Yuknavitch in The Chronology of Water beautifully pens down the malleability of memory. She says, “The more a person recalls a memory, the more they change it. Each time they put it into language, it shifts. The more you describe a memory, the more likely it is that you are making a story that fits your life, resolves the past, creates a fiction you can live with”.

In the book ‘A Train to Pakistan’, Khushwant Singh humanizes Partition by actively straying away from its political narrative. Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day talks about women struggling with the question of identity in the post-independence, patriarchal society. Recently, another book by Aanchal Malhotra called ‘Remnants of a Separation’ talks about the emotional valency of longing and familiarity during the Partition.

Such themes of memory could also easily be found in Amitav Ghosh’s novels especially the Shadow Lines which deals with symbolic references to houses- old and new, maps and mirrors, borders and boundaries. All these symbols, in one way or the other, deal with the theme of man’s search for identity, i.e., his search for roots. The novel demonstrates the eternal suffering of every man torn between the past and the present.

At last, culture and literature often take inspiration from historical trauma. Freedom is a requisite of identity and that quest is a never ending one. So to understand the internal fragments of a land formed out of centuries of grappling slavery, one has to unravel a whole new realm of contemporary researches and artifacts full of authenticism. The cultural ‘eurocentrism’ will only then be dismantled.


  1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259175530_Asia_Sociocultural_Overviews_Southeast_Asia

  2. https://iproxy.inflibnet.ac.in:2096/stable/3180701?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=Sugata&searchText=bose&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3DSugata%2Bbose%26amp%3Bacc%3Don%26amp%3Bwc%3Don%26amp%3Bfc%3Doff%26amp%3Bgroup%3Dnone&ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_SYC-5187%2Ftest&refreqid=search%3A02ea9f6b1f8c991cf9cd0c6c56428633&seq=14#metadata_info_tab_contents

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