28 September 2007

Phallacies of the Empire

An Indian surgeon assumes a white voice to send up the Empire and some of its brown denizens.

Perineum: Nether Parts of the Empire
By Ambrish Satwik
Penguin Books India
Pages 160
Rs 200

The last time serious literature took cognisance, subtly, or shall we say furtively, of the physical aspect of the Empire and its bodily urges, was in J R Ackerley’s 1932 comic-risque classic Hindoo Holiday, where the author, a gay Englishman, goes around stealing kisses from young, dark-skinned male flunkies of his employer-benefactor, a bored pederast maharaja.

Hindoo Holiday does not fit easy descriptions and hence discourages spins that could have made a case of Ackerley being symbolic of the rapacious, sex-obsessed Empire, whose second nature (if we take sex as the first) was to repatriate funds and raw materials back home. Ackerley, anyway no Kipling, could hardly be considered a representative of the Empire. The book ends up showing the limited reach the Empire had into the real India, which was largely left to its own devices.

All this postcolonial studies jargon has reduced the Empire to such abstract, ethereal terms that historians like Niall Ferguson are revisiting the notion of Empire as a force for good. A sense of the incongruity and the unfairness of the Empire, that real flesh and blood men from a different race ruled over India, seems lost to reasonable minds.

Satwik, a New Delhi-based surgeon and an exceptionally skilled writer, makes amends. Perineum, a collection of anecdotes written in a clipped, precise, dated style, catches the agents and the victims of the Empire at their most vulnerable -- with their pants down. And, curiously, or perhaps, naturally, they were not always down for sex.

Satwik is not into prurience. And even if he has written a nerdishly well-researched historical fiction around the British in India from Clive to Wavell, drudgery is the last thing that comes to mind. What we have instead is a surgeon’s take on the genital pathology of the Empire builders and breakers.

Medical jargon transforms the sordid into the recherch√© as Clive’s infected ‘frigsome foreskin’ (‘The effects of whoredom’) is dealt with and the founder of the British Empire in India is made ‘a Moor’ after a complicated surgical intervention by Dr John Rae, whose ‘principal recreation’ was ‘restoring ye genital parts of ye company curs.’ The account, even half understood, nauseates as much as it regales.

More set-pieces follow to prove the literalness of 'spreading the seed', the bromide used to describe the activities of the soldiers of the Empire, and that scatology of the Empire is key to getting the big picture. Honoria, the wife of the chief commissioner of Oudh, Henry Lawrence complains about his ‘carnal polymathy and strange sequelae of perversions’; a young company officer observes the ‘comely’ young wife administers an enema to her exiled husband Bahadur Shah Zafar in a Rangoon jail; Savarkar, the author of the Hindutva credo, chases conveniently undefined feelings for a frosty compatriot bluestocking-turned-anti-conversion-activist he met in London; George V on his famous Durbar-visit to India, almost fails to attend it, thanks to a twisted testicle and an apparition in his bathroom; a distracted Ambedkar; a vision of Ruttie, M.A. Jinnah’s Parsi wife, rides the dying, hallucinating consumptive founder of Pakistan.

This remarkable first attempt at fiction is impressive not just for the insights into history the author delivers with wit and lip smacking irony, or the assured way he has mastered and manipulated his material to combine his passion for letters and science. One can even quibble with the formulaic nature of too many historical twists and turns effected by sore or over-eager penises.

What makes Perineum a deliriously good read is the teasingly enigmatic persona of the narrator, a brown man assuming an antiquated white voice to send up the Empire. We partake of the cheesiness of this enterprise, along with the shared self-deprecating admission that we Indians are still enthralled by a white voice authoritatively narrating Indian history. We are ashamed and amused at our desire and the need to mimic a civilisation whose victims we claim to be.

We are dealing with a professional here: a surgeon; a polymath, a polyglot who spews jargons, most obscure facts about the most well-known events and people from our colonial past, and alternates between English, Hindustani, and Urdu with baffling ease; someone either too shrewd or intelligent enough to know that when sitting in judgement on history, perching on the fence is not to wimp out but to occupy a vantage point. In short, a horrendously clever penis.

If Satwik could write another book as inventive and as assured, Perineum, one could say at a later date, heralded a major literary find. And if he falls silent like a one-book-wonder, we will still be awe-struck with his capacity to create literature in 160 pages. Despite the fact that we had to lug the Shorter Oxford to make sense of it all.

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