Ruth Prawer Jhabvala | Critical Essay by Judie Newman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 20 pages of analysis & critique of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
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Critical Essay by Judie Newman

SOURCE: "Postcolonial Gothic: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and the Sobhraj Case," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 40, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 85-100.

Newman is a British educator, editor, and critic. In the following essay, she discusses the Gothic elements of Three Continents and its main character, the multi-national murderer Crishi, who resembles the real-life serial killer Charles Sobhraj.

Gothic motifs are exceptionally prevalent in postcolonial fiction, even from very different locations. Classic post-colonial transformations of Gothic emanate from the Caribbean (Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea), Africa (Bessie Head's A Question of Power) and India (Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust). In Canada, Gothic is almost the norm, whether in Margaret Atwood's comic Lady Oracle, or Anne Hébert's Héloise (the Québecois tale of a vampire who haunts the Paris Metro), or Bharati Mukherjee's Asian-Canadian Jasmine. Not surprisingly, when the heroine of Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women thinks of writing about Jubilee, Ontario, she promptly chooses to begin a Gothic novel. Nearer home, ghosts wander the pages of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, and J. G. Farrell begins his Empire Trilogy in a decaying Great House, complete with mysteriously fading heroine, demonic cats, and an ever-widening crack in the external wall. Further afield, what is Isak Dinesen doing on a coffee farm in Kenya in 1931 but writing Seven Gothic Tales?

It is Dinesen's activity which first raises the question of the ideological consequences of the transfer of a European genre to a colonial environment. Gothic does not always travel well. As Eric O. Johannesson was swift to note, Dinesen creates a fictional Africa which is the counterpart of the eighteenth-century European feudal world of her tales. Setting out into an African forest, she writes: "You ride out into the depths of an old tapestry, in places faded and in others darkened with age, but marvelously rich in green shades" [Out of Africa, 1937]. One suspects the Kikuyu did not share her view of a leopard as "a tapestry animal." Dinesen exemplifies here the tendency of the West to textualize the colonial, to transform the Other into a set of codes and discourses which can be recuperated into its own system of recognition, as hegemonic discourse accomplishes its project of endlessly replicating itself. The consequences of generic transfer suggest, then, the difficulty implicit in any counter-discourse—the danger of reinscribing the norms of the dominant discourse within its own apparent contestation, as (to quote Richard Terdiman), "the contesters discover that the authority they sought to undermine is reinforced by the very fact of its having been chosen, as dominant discourse, for opposition" [in Discourse/Counter-Discourse: The Theory and Practice of Symbolic Resistance in Nineteenth Century France, 1985].

Rewritings, counter-texts, run the risk of slippage from oppositional to surreptitiously collusive positions. Post-colonial Gothic is therefore Janus-faced. At its heart lies the unresolved conflict between the imperial power and the former colony, which the mystery at the center of its plot both figures and conceals. Its discourse therefore establishes a dynamic between the unspoken and the "spoken for"—on the one hand the silenced colonial subject rendered inadmissible to discourse, on the other that discourse itself which keeps telling the story again and again on its own terms. As a European genre, Gothic cannot unbind all its historical ties to the West. Conversely, its ability to retrace the unseen and unsaid of culture renders it peculiarly well-adapted to articulating the untold stories of the colonial experience. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has analyzed the Gothic emphasis on the "unspeakable," both in the intensificatory sense of "nameless horrors," and in the play of the narrative structure itself, with its illegible manuscripts, stories within stories, secret confessions, and general difficulty in getting the story told at all. As Sedgwick puts it, Gothic novels are "like Watergate transcripts. The story does get through, but in a muffled form, with a distorted time sense, and accompanied by a kind of despair about any direct use of language" [in The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, 1986].

In her analysis a central privation of Gothic is that of language. When the linguistic safety valve between inside and outside is closed off, all knowledge becomes solitary, furtive and explosive. As a result dire knowledge may be shared, but it cannot be acknowledged to be shared, and is therefore "shared separately," as the barrier of unspeakableness separates those who know the same thing. This Gothic apartheid is almost a classic definition of Imperialism's hidden discourse—the collaboration in a surreptitious relationship, never openly articulated, which is that of colonizer and colonized.

It is possible, however, for a novel to exploit both strategies—to politicize Gothic by overcoming the taboo on speaking, without slipping into the dominant discourse. A symptomatic reading of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Three Continents is instructive. Three Continents is situated at the sharp end of the Gothic generic transfer, both because of its Indian subject matter, and because of its relation to one of the West's more recent horror stories: the Sobhraj case. Jhabvala indicates the relationship of the "unspoken" of Gothic with the activity of "speaking for" of culture by firmly connecting the "unspeakable" nature of events (dark hints, half-told stories) to a story which has already been told so often as to be recognizably a product of Western hegemonic discourse. In modeling her central protagonist, Crishi, upon Charles Sobhraj, the Asian serial killer, Jhabvala contests a dominant cultural narrative while she avoids buying into the cultural stereotype of the exotic Gothic villain. Rather than shifting the problem of violence onto universal grounds (Gothic evil), Jhabvala emphasizes the mutual implication of literary, cultural and political texts in its production. Social dislocation and socioeconomic dispossession in the wake of the end of Empire become determining factors in the representation of the Gothic protagonist.

A strong strain of Gothic has been identified in the works of Jhabvala, which feature demon lovers, mysterious Indian palaces with intricately concealed secrets, ruined forts, poison, willing victims, and the eroticization of spirituality, with gurus standing in for sinister monks and ashrams for convents. Jhabvala is, of course, influenced by eighteenth-century European literature. Her London University M.A. thesis concerned "The Short-Story in England 1700–1753," and among other topics discussed are the Oriental tale and the falseness of its "East," which was based on preconceived literary notions. Jhabvala also lamented the prevalence of the tale of the "unfortunate maiden fallen into the hands of a dusky seducer." This is nonetheless precisely the plot of Three Continents, in which Harriet Wishwell, the scion of a wealthy, if now declining, American clan, stands to inherit a fortune with her twin, Michael, on their twenty-first birthday. When the pair fall under the spell of the mysterious Rawul, one of Jhabvala's ambivalent guru figures, the possibility looms that their legacy will pass swiftly through his hands and into those of his charismatic second-in-command, Crishi, Harriet's husband, whose sexual favors she shares with homosexual Michael and the Rawul's mistress, Rani. In the novel Jhabvala conflates historical Gothic with the plot of modern Gothic. As defined by Joanna Russ [in The Female Gothic, edited by Juliann, E. Fleenor, 1983], the latter involves a young, shy, passive heroine, with absent or ineffectual parents and a friend or ally in the pale, bloodless "Shadow Male." She travels to an exotic setting, forms a connection with a dark, magnetic "Supermale," finds herself up against "Another Woman," and has to solve a "Buried Ominous Secret," usually in modern Gothic a criminal activity centered on money. The plot generally ends in attempted murder. In Three Continents the exotic area is India; the persecuted Harriet is totally passive and after an initial ambivalence towards dark, super-phallic Crishi, becomes his sexual slave, disregarding sinister rumors. (There was, of course, a first wife with a nameless fate.) Rani features as the other woman. Harriet's family includes a conventionally vapid mother and a pathologically spendthrift father, neither of whom is much help to her. The pallid Michael fulfills the textbook role of the Shadow Male, apparently representing the security of childhood, but actually inducting Harriet into the Rawul's "Sixth World" movement. The Buried Ominous Secret turns out to be an international smuggling ring, masterminded by Crishi who transports jewels and objects d'art across borders under cover of the movement. Throughout the novel the reader is afforded glimpses of the real situation, with recurrent dark hints and a veritable anthology of half-told stories and half-heard conversations in the wings, creating an atmosphere of sustained menace. Elements of historical Gothic are self-consciously introduced, often in a fashion which suggests the conditioning force of the literary genre on Harriet. Her first encounter with Crishi in her brother's room is presented as an erotic shock, "as of a live wire suddenly coming in contact with an innermost part of one's being," though the demon-lover has appeared only to borrow some shaving cream. Later he succeeds in binding Harriet to him, forcing her body to move in unison with his "as if my body obeyed him more than it did me" until she makes good her escape and flees, in true Gothic heroine mode: "I didn't stop running till I was in the house." The scene is somewhat undercut by the fact that what Crishi was enjoying was a three-legged race at a Fourth of July party. Nonetheless, Harriet soon awakens in the night "suddenly as if someone had called me." As a matter of fact, somebody has—Crishi—who is standing by her bed (no Jane Eyre long-distance telepathy here). The couple repair to the emblematic locale of the ruined Linton house, where, after peering through the windows at its ruined splendors (Cathy and Heathcliff), Crishi seduces Harriet. Later, exulting in passion, Harriet describes herself as "a woman savage running to her mate" when in fact she has been dispatched to fetch Crishi's trousers. Quite clearly Jhabvala is consciously exploiting Gothic conventions while underlining the distinction between the conditioning force of literary genre and the resistant fact of Crishi. A group of "bhais," the Rawul's henchmen, rival any eighteenth-century group of banditti, and Rani takes to haunting Harriet's bedroom by night, "her reflection ghostlike in the mirror", like some madwoman in the attic. After a journey through "uncharted regions" sealed in a small chamber lit by a ghostly blue light (the sleeping coupe of an Indian train—an interesting variation on the Gothic image of live burial), the novel ends with the ascent of a winding stair to a crenellated roof terrace, reminiscent of Thornfield Hall, where all is revealed by the villain. The twist in the tale lies in Harriet's transition from victimhood to complicity. At the close, Harriet joins with her demon-lover to conceal Michael's murder and to forge the suicide note which will ensure that his fortune passes to them.

As a smuggler of art objects, Crishi is explicitly connected to the cynical and exploitative transfer of art from one culture to another, in his case via the plundering of the East to the benefit of the West. The questions raised by generic transfer are therefore thematized within the action itself. Artistic transfer is nonetheless a two-way traffic, as Jhabvala's exploitation of European conventions in a post-colonial environment demonstrates. Is this use of "Asian Gothic" merely a Eurocentric, Orientalist strategy, to adopt Edward Said's terminology? Or does it offer the postcolonial writer opportunities to criticize European textual and ideological practices by strategies unavailable to the realist novel? Does it merely contribute to the already abundant literature of India as horror story? Or can it illuminate the roots of violence in the postcolonial situation?

The answer to these questions depends upon an informed awareness of the other story within the novel. Sobhraj's early life stands as emblematic of all those who have been displaced, whether by war, the redrawing of territorial boundaries, changes in cultural sovereignty, political oppression or economic dispossession: all are factors which interact in the production of his story. As the illegitimate offspring of a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father, born in Saigon when it was under Japanese occupation administered by the Vichy French regime, Sobhraj's early experiences included capture by the Vietminh, rescue by the British, abandonment by his mother who married a French lieutenant, and life on the streets of Saigon. When French defensive activity reintensified and the lieutenant returned, his mother reclaimed him, only to move to Dhakar, French West Africa, then France. Sobhraj ran away by ship to Saigon, only to be promptly sent to Bombay by his father in a vain attempt to gain Indian citizenship. Stateless, institutionalized at various points, Sobhraj shuttled between countries until adulthood, excluded from the dream of nationality, economic security or family identity.

In the 1970s Sobhraj left a trail of bodies across India, Thailand and Nepal; he specialized in smuggling gems for which he needed a constant supply of fresh passports, bought or stolen from overlanders on the hippie trail. He then graduated to the modus operandi of a "drug and rob" man, first surreptitiously administering laxatives and other drugs, then "medicines" which reduced his victims to helplessness. Many of his targets, like Harriet and Michael, were seeking mystic enlightenment in the East. While planning to rob the jewelry store in Delhi's Imperial Hotel in 1976, Sobhraj was finally caught when he drugged an entire package tour of sixty French graduate engineers, whose instantaneous and simultaneous collapses in their hotel lobby finally aroused suspicion. Sobhraj was at various points arrested and jailed in Kabul, Teheran, Greece and Paris, and made several daring escapes, notably following an unnecessary appendectomy, from which he bore identifying scars. A man of considerable charisma, he often gained the sympathy of his victims and accomplices by tales of his awful youth (as Crishi does with Harriet). His main female accomplice, a young Canadian, appears to have been kept in total sexual thrall to him. Other parallels with the fictitious Crishi are legion. Both men spend part of their youth in Bombay, live by jewel smuggling and participate in murder. The hotel jewelry shop is the locus of mystery in Three Continents. Crishi goes in for martial exercises (for Sobhraj, it was karate), has abdominal scars, prison sentences in Teheran and elsewhere and has carried out jailbreaks. Both Sobhraj and Crishi relish media exposure, the former after his arrest, the latter in connection with the "Sixth World" movement. For both, mobility is all. Harriet tends to assume that Crishi is somewhere around the house, only to receive phone calls from New York or Zurich. (Sobhraj once walked out saying that he would be back in an hour, then sent a telegram from Iran.) At the close, when Harriet is looking for Michael, she encounters Paul, one of the Westerners, who is clearly very unwell. Like others in the group, he has given Crishi his passport and is begging for its return. It is an exact replication of the means by which Sobhraj surrounded himself with couriers, targets and accomplices. Paul came to India "to get away from home, from his family, from himself … not to be bound by anything." Boundless freedom has left him, however, without the means to move on, in a position of statelessness.

Charles Sobhraj's story has already been told several times, in two works of "faction," one since revised and updated, in a T. V. mini-series, and in various newspapers and magazines, quite sufficient to suggest that the Sobhraj case is one of those "Orientalist" horror stories which the West likes to repeat. From the first, the story served ideological purposes. In India it broke at an opportune moment during the Emergency Rule powers of Indira Gandhi, when the Maintenance of Internal Security Act meant that anyone suspected of "subversion" could be jailed indefinitely. In India the international dimension of the story was insisted upon: "India's newspapers, subdued and fearful under Indira Gandhi's dictatorial powers, relished a story that had no political overtones. The 'notorious gang' and 'international killers' were profiled endlessly, mug shots decorating Sunday feature pages" [Thomas Thompson, Serpentine, 1980].

In the West the evolution of the story was classically hegemonic, its political complexities steadily watered down in favor of a stereotypically Orientalist tale. One of the first in the field, Thomas Thompson, in his "faction," Serpentine, drew explicit parallels between the events of Sobhraj's life and the dismantling of the French colonial Empire. Thompson's portrayal of him as a casualty of colonialism, lacking roots, security and identity, ends on a note that appears to have offered Jhabvala the cue for the American opening of her novel. In jail in India Sobhraj was apparently considering his future:

He required a country in which he was neither known nor wanted by police, one in which riches abounded, one whose boundaries were easy to traverse illegally, one whose residents were generous with attention and applause. At last report, the serpentine roads of destiny—he believed—would lead him to the United States.

Thompson's implicit recourse, here, to the "invasion scare" model of Gothic is very much the emphasis of other works, which have tended to minimize the post-colonial background. In Bad Blood Richard Neville and Julie Clarke read Sobhraj in terms of a paradigm of early deprivation. Neville went to Delhi to interview Sobhraj with a theory "of Charles as a child of colonialism, revenging himself on the counterculture" [in Shadow of the Cabra: The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj]. He concluded, however, that Sobhraj's claims to anti-lmperialist motivation were groundless, and read his story in terms of individual psychological rejection. Updating the book ten years later for a television mini-series, Neville revealed that his relationship with his co-author had been severely threatened by his involvement in the case, and that the pair had come close to being polarized into victim and accomplice. Julie Clarke's sympathies had remained with the killer's victims; Neville however admitted that when interviewing Sobhraj he came to feel "like a conspirator." The mini-series, Shadow of the Cobra, developed the hint, focusing its plot on the threat to one romantic relationship (two young journalists) and transforming Sobhraj from child of colonialism to diabolical villain. In an artistic trajectory which says much for the extent to which the rage for the Raj has been transformed into the redemonization of the East, the role of Sobhraj was taken by Art Malik, veteran of The Jewel in the Crown, The Far Pavillions and Passage to India. The blurb to the reissued tie-in said it all: "An audience with psychopathic mass murderer Charles Sobhraj. It was like having supper with the devil." Reviewers concurred that Sobhraj was a "plausible, Bruce Lee style, Asian flend" operating in the "dangerous jungle" of Asia. There, this "diabolically charismatic" villain took his victim on a "descent into hell." The evolution of the various accounts shows the West writing and rewriting Sobhraj into the norms of the snaky Oriental villain, with socio-economic readings excised in favor of (at best) popular psychoanalysis, and (at worst) elements of Vathek, Milton's Satan and Fu Man Chu.

In contrast, Jhabvala's understanding of the socioeconomic dimension of the story is already evident in her first attempt at the theme. In her short story "Expiation," the plot centers upon a nouveau riche Indian family who have made a fortune in textiles, and their son's fatal involvement with Sachu, a criminal from a deprived background. Sachu's target for kidnap, ransom and murder is the child of an Indian military family, described as light-skinned educated gentry who speak Hindi with an accent "like Sahibs." Arrested, Sachu boasts of his philosophy to the press, much as Sobhraj did. In "Expiation," the crime is less the product of a fiendish Oriental torturer than a revenge across both class and race, against the preceding Imperial norms (the Sahibs) and their replication in a newly industrialized India.

The account chimes with recent research on the serial killer, which contextualizes his motivation in socio-economic terms. Anthropologist Elliott Leyton has argued that serial killers are intensely class conscious and obsessed with status [in Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer, 1986]. The majority are adopted, illegitimate or institutionalized in youth, and seek a sense of identity in international celebrity. Typically their victims are drawn from a social category above that of the killer, and the prime mission is to wreak revenge on the established order. (Ted Bundy, for example, took the most valuable "possessions" of the American middle class, their beautiful and talented university women.) In "Expiation" the fictitious Sachu wreaks revenge simultaneously on the Eurocentric army officers and the new entrepreneurial class via the deaths of both their offspring. For Layton, as for Jhabvala, serial killers are the dark consequences of the social and economic formations that pattern our lives. Killings of this nature are a protest against a perceived exclusion from social discourse, and constitute a form of utterance on the part of those who have looked at their lives and pronounced them unlivable:

The killings are thus also a form of suicide note (literally so with most mass murderers, who expect to die before the day or week is out; metaphorically so for most serial murderers, who sacrifice the remainder of their lives to the "cause"), in which the killer states clearly which social category has excluded him.

The act itself is therefore the "note," an unspeakable crime which is nonetheless a message that society must learn to read. Unlike mass murderers, serial killers tend to want to live to tell their stories and bask in fame. Once society has read the message, the story will be retold by press and media, and become a means to identity. Two other factors cited by Leyton in the formation of the serial killer have a bearing on Three Continents: firstly the inculcation of a dream or ambition which society betrays, and secondly the necessary existence of cultural forms that can mediate killer and victim in a special sense, ridding victims of humanity and killer of responsibility. (Leyton cites the social validation of violent identity in modern films, television and fiction. Jhabvala employs a totalitarian political movement.)

In recasting events in the Gothic mold Jhabvala is able to re-politicize the story, revealing its horrors without stereotypical demonization by insisting on the interrelationship of the Gothic "unspeakable" and the "spoken for" of culture, the discourse from which the postcolonial is excluded, the discourse into which the Other can break only by violence.

Where the Sobhraj case was used in India as a diversion from the increasingly dictatorial nature of the political settlement, Jhabvala supplies a public political dimension by the introduction of the Rawul's militaristic "Sixth World" movement, which dehumanizes its followers and legitimizes brutality on the basis of a vaguely transcendental cult. Ostensibly devoted to the unification of the globe by "Transcendental Internationalism," the Rawul plans its transformation into a "stateless, casteless, countryless" world by transcending not so much spiritual as national and political bounds, and with them "the tiny concepts, geographical or other, of an earlier humanity." Linda Bayer-Berenbaum has connected the resurgence of twentieth-century Gothic with the waning of Sixties cults, arguing that both movements were motivated by the search for an expanded and intensified consciousness. She therefore likened the Gothic revival to "a variety of religious cults that have grown in popularity, be they Christian fundamentalist, Hari Krishna, the Sufis, or most recently, the Moonies. Unlike these movements though, Gothicism asserts that transcendence is primarily evil."

In Three Continents the Gothic "secret" provides an ironic revelation of the real import of the Rawul's transcendental activities in the political world and the extent to which they operate as a legitimizing cover for Crishi, the excluded. Natural and political boundaries are crossed, but for criminal reasons. The movement towards being citizens of the world depends heavily for its day to day activities upon stolen passports. The plan to unite the best of all civilizations translates into the pillaging of material artifacts. Harriet and Michael throw off Western materialism, only for it to come back to haunt them from the Third World. Mobility is the mark of both the Western truth-seeker—and the serial killer. Just as the latter links the culturally spoken and the unspeakable, so Crishi reveals in his actions the revenge of the excluded. Sobhraj, the stateless exile, killed those whose willful deracination parodied his own state, just as Crishi, who has had disinheritance forced upon him, sees to it that his condition is shared.

In addition to reflecting the Rawul's project in a dark mirror, so the Gothic structure dramatizes Harriet's surreptitious slippage from a countercultural to a collusive position, from victim to accomplice, and implicitly from a readerly to a writerly role. At the beginning of the novel Harriet's stunned silence as the Rawul takes over is such as to make her almost a voyeur, watching her story unfold and guessing its outcome from the same hints available to the reader. Again and again the text tells us that Harriet can get no explanations from the men: "What was it all about? Who were they, and why had they come? I waited for Michael to tell me, but he had no time to tell me anything. 'You'll find out,' was all he said." The reader is thus brought into close affective proximity to events, while being simultaneously warned off from any uncritical suspension of disbelief. Originally Harriet and Michael communicate wordlessly, the one often completing the other's thoughts. Crishi, however, appropriates their private language (specifically the term "neti" meaning "phony") and deprives them of it. Though each is enjoying Crishi's sexual favors, neither feels able to discuss the matter, converting their former spiritual communion into a shared secret, separately held. When Harriet shares her bed with Rani as well as Crishi, she feels Michael "willing me not to speak" so that the act remains "unmentioned, rather than unmentionable." The prohibition on speech even extends to Crishi's marriage proposal. He manages to propose by proxy, through Rani, so that Harriet becomes "spoken for" without ever being spoken to.

The secret engagement and muffling of events is in strong contrast to the ever more publicity conscious Movement, which develops to the point at which "interviews became the central activity of the house." The Rawul has a tendency to convert all his utterances into speeches for public consumption, even those delivered to his small daughters. Linguistic and political structures evolve together. A chat with the Rawul becomes "more in the nature of an audience. Everything around the Rawul was taking on more formality." The movement to transcend all boundaries begins to use security guards and checkpoints and to beat up intruders. Even Michael's speech patterns change so that instead of groping for thoughts he becomes brisk and unreflective: "he no longer had to think…. It was all there, all formulated." Where Gothic mystery preserves the possibility of unvoiced stories, the Sixth World movement accretes everything to one public formulation, assisted by Anna Sultan, a journalist who provides their first "major media exposure." Harriet's difficulty in getting at her story contrasts with Anna's ease. Harriet notes that "Everything I had only guessed at Anna seemed to know for sure." Anna's account nonetheless includes a highly fanciful tale of the Rawul's initial encounter with Crishi, first in his dreams, then promptly discovered asleep in a poet's tomb. Over the others' protests, Rani and Crishi endorse the story: "'[I]t's what the common reader wants,' Crishi said. 'Ask Harriet…. Harriet liked it and she's a very common reader. You have to give them these sort of stories.'" The incident provides an explicit comment on the way in which cultural formations function to legitimize exploitation. Anna Sultan herself turns the personal into the public, making her reputation with a daring profile of a Lebanese leader: "daring because she had recorded his private along with his public activities, and had not drawn back from chronicling her own affair with him."

For Anna any assignment involves a love affair, which is speedily terminated when her story is finished. In Crishi, however, she meets her match, as the postcolonial subject refuses textualization except on his own terms. Crishi's only interest is the book which will publicize, authenticate and create his identity, whereas Anna becomes personally attached and exploited in her turn—the fate which threatened Richard Neville at Sobhraj's hands. It is a telling image of the revenge of the excluded subject, who turns his own exploitation against his exploiters to write his own social message.

It is not for nothing that the group is compared to a movie company; their lives are being swallowed up by public performance. The Rawul even stages appropriate public ceremonies to authenticate the movement. Harriet's wedding is briskly converted into a symbol of the synthesis of East and West, so symbolic that Crishi spends the wedding night with Rani. From perceiving herself with Michael as "blank pages no one had ever written on," Harriet is being steadily scripted into a public role. A second ceremony which involves the public weighing of the Rawul against a pile of books, supposedly representing the wisdom of the ages, reveals both the totalizing project of the movement, and its amorality. Like Crishi, the Rawul intends to textualize himself on his own terms. Michael had wanted to buy bound sets of volumes as counterweights, but Crishi exercises a financial veto so that the Rawul is actually outweighed by a motley collection of tattered secondhand copies of the Bible, Plato, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Carlos Castaneda and Kierkegaard. The form of this attempt to appropriate all cultures to one universal meaning is ludicrously parodic; several volumes have to be removed from the scales to balance the Rawul. Significantly "it was at Kierkegaard that the Rawul started to swing up"—appropriately, given Kierkegaard's separation of the religious and the ethical spheres. The twins, however, react uncritically. For Michael the event is a summation of "everything he had thought and read and experienced…. It was all summed up for him in the pile of books on the one hand … and the Rawul on the other." Meanwhile Harriet uses the mythologizing process in order to put a high gloss on Crishi's activities, reflecting that "it doesn't seem to matter that sometimes these gods don't behave too well, Venus running off with Mars, Krishna cheating on Radha—they still remain gods."

Once on Indian soil however, Crishi lives up to Krishna, his trickily elusive namesake, and naked power emerges from behind the myths and legends as the Rawul's movement swiftly modulates into a conventional political party. Harriet and Michael are now linguistically isolated—they speak no Indian languages. Michael's death is the direct result of the clash between the spoken and the unspoken. Impatiently he demands that the Rawul make a religious oration, rather than merely entertaining influential politicos: "'When's he going to speak? He's got to speak,' he insists." Michael is slow to realize that: "everyone knows that real power, whether political, economic, social, psychological or even mystical, functions silently and has no need of the semblance of speech, even though it never ceases to use that semblance to persuade that we participate" [in A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic, by Christine Brooke-Rose, 1983]. Secure in his power base, the Rawul dispenses with the mediating forms which had previously legitimized him. Instead, his wife speaks, giving secret instructions in her own language to her henchmen who promptly remove Michael. The power to which Michael contributed by his rhetorical formulations is unleashed to silence him, and to consign him to the unspoken of Gothic.

In contrast, Harriet's movement into collusion with crime is rendered as a progression from the unspoken to the fully discursive, as Jhabvala demonstrates that the final horror is equally located in the process of "speaking for." Harriet's collusion is dramatized at the close in the suicide note which she co-authors with the presumed killer. Harriet knows very well that Crishi's account of Michael's suicide is a lie (the supposed suicide note is too badly spelled to be his). She collaborates nonetheless in rewriting the note in more convincing fashion, revising a visibly false story to make it more believable. Revision becomes replication-as-falsity. Harriet would have been truer to the facts of murder if she had allowed the gaps and absences in the original to speak for themselves. No longer a common reader, Harriet has progressed to writing as complicity and betrayal. She writes "with ease," almost with enjoyment, as if becoming Michael, speaking for him, constructing a fiction of defeated dreams as his motive:

I said that I—that is, I, Michael—was going away because there was nothing in this world that was good enough for me…. I said that if once you have these expectations—that is, of Beauty, Truth, and Justice—then you feel cheated by everything that falls short of them; and everything here—that is, here, in this world—does fall short of them. It is all neti, neti.

As that last word indicates, Harriet uses their private language to authenticate a public document. Spiritual communion has become the unspeakable. Framed to meet legal requirements, the note is multiply authored—ostensibly by Michael, actually by Harriet, partly at Crishi's dictation. It is the product of multiple silencing: that of the postcolonial subject, of the woman excluded from knowledge and, fatally, of the representative of the society which excluded them. At the close Crishi has carried out the action which communicates a social message of defeated hopes, while Harriet, writing as a male and at the same time "writing off" a male, has produced a socially legitimizing text. The note therefore conceals—and sanctions—an act of violence.

This essay began with a question—whether the Gothic novel is an accomplice in the process of Eurocentric textualization of the East, or whether it may serve to reveal the sources of violence in the colonial encounter. In counter-cultural Harriet, who slips into the position of accomplice, Jhabvala provides a searching investigation of the psychopathology of power, the process of domination and its relation to mediating cultural forms. The complicity of the writer in generic manipulation and transfer may indeed amount to collusion in violence and exploitation, but may also reveal the bases of such violence in silencing and exclusion. The duplicity of Gothic—its propensity for crossing boundaries, violating taboos, transgressing limits, together with its sense of blockage, privation and prohibition against utterance—makes it the perfect means to dramatize the horrors of the relationship between the social group which sanctions its actions by cultural forms, and the excluded from discourse who speak by deeds. The Gothic undermines the Rawul's pretensions to one-ness and totalization at the same time as it preserves the unspeakable quality of the killer's actions. By its intertextual nature, its ability to translate from one text to another and back, it prevents the univocal from holding sway. At the close, therefore, Jhabvala offers a multiple text, a piece of writing which conceals a secret and reveals a silenced story, which demonstrates the writer's complicity and—by highlighting issues of fictionality—separates the reader from affective collusion. As the original suicide note showed, truth for the postcolonial writer may be measured as much by its failure to represent itself as by its social production. What the Gothic does not say, its half-told stories, constitute the evidence of a contrary project undermining public formulations. By preserving the unspoken within the text, Jhabvala remains true to the events of both political and social history.

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Literature Criticism Series
Critical Essay by Judie Newman from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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