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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .


Indian Traffic: Identities in Question in Colonial and Postcolonial India
Parama Roy

(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998)
236pp. Index. Bibl. 35.00; ISBN 0-520 20486-7. Pb.: 12.50; ISBN 0-520-20487-5.



She reconstructs Indian colonial and post colonial identities via case studies that focus on impersonation, mimicry, and gender analyses. 'Traffic', the title of the book, is the cross-over from one identity to another, involves different points in time, and a variety of political, social and gender constructions. Parama's first set of case studies probe the British colonial period.

Richard Burton assumes the identities of 'natives' in his many impersonation. But he stops short of 'going native' as he hones his skills in India, beginning in Sind in the 1840s, and then the middle east. The purpose of assuming many identities is not really made clear. Confusing language and analysis still leaves the purpose of these 'exchanges' vague. Thus, Burton has an "understanding of the fact that identity is the result of one's mastery over particular systems of signification." (p. 29). These enable the impersonator to learn about "systems of information, behavior, and belief" or in plainer language, to live in the shoes of another being or group. Certainly, the mastery of mimicry and ability to assume different identities can be useful for intelligence purposes, but the author attributes a deeper significance. Thus, the first chapter ends with: "Burton must remember an Arab past in order to imagine a British imperial future." (p. 40).

A separate chapter devoted to the Thuggee criminal group provides a counterpoint to the Britisher who mimics Indians. Thugs on the one hand include many castes and other religions. On the other, they are presented as a distinctive caste and as worshippers of Kali engaged in demonic religious ritual. Economic motivations and a subaltern reaction to colonial rule also are attributed to them.

Parama's exploration of Kipling focuses on his experiments in impersonation starting with Strictland the policeman and culminating with Kim and the "Great Game" in which identities are "continually in flux" (p. 78). It involves an almost stream of consciousness discourse on what is a nation, culminating in "a nation is an 'imagined community' that can mean whatever its members want it to mean" (p. 81).

"Western Women & Hindu Nationalism" leaps to the nationalist movement and feminist discourse via Ramakrishna the guru of Vivekananda and their respective followers and disciples. Ramakrishna literally becomes other identities, and manifests feminist characteristics. His even more famous disciple, Vivekananda, by contrast is extolled for his masculinity. Nonetheless, he "was significantly dependent upon the west, especially western women (e.g. Nivedita) for validation as nationalist, masculine, heterosexual" (p. 121).

Hindu masculinity could have been explored further in terms of contemporary political movements in India such as the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the support groups to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Instead, the poetess Sarojina Naidu is compared to Mahatma Gandhi in terms of feminist characteristics; not quite Mother India, a "trouble for nationalism...that will not go away" (p. 151).






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