Transcript: “Scarcely English, but British, of Course, by Descent”: Eurocentrism and Orientalism in SM Stirling’s Peshawar Lancers

Posted by 2nd June 2011

I presented this over at SPWF recently for the academic track. Here’s the transcript I was reading off, in all its unpolished glory. It needs more tweaking (thanks, Martha, for your helpful comments to give more background on the novel at the beginning!) but I think I hit my major spots with this one for now.

In an alternate history, comets rained down from the heavens in the 19th century and brought on an ice age onto the Global North. Europeans picked up and moved operations into the southern colonies: Benjamin Disraeli oversaw an exodus from England to British India, Napoleon VI’s France is now centered in Algiers in the midst of the Mediterranean, Japan and China have taken over East Asia, and Russia eats its own colonial subjects in Central Asia. In SM Stirling’s vision of this alternate 21st century, life is very much as we might recognize from reading very old pulp fiction, such as Rudyard Kipling and William Burroughs, which is no surprise, since The Peshawar Lancers was inspired by these writers, among others. And like these old storytellers, within the first few pages, it is clear for whom the text is.
            We are in British India, following the adventures of Captain Athelstane King, who has now been embroiled in an international plot to throw the world into chaos (isn’t that always the case?). He is accompanied by Narayan Singh, a loyal Sikh, companion since childhood and thus the perfect right-hand man for this noble member of the Angrezi ruling class.
            The India that Stirling has created is a British India that has never been freed from British imperialism, to the point where the English are now part of the upper-caste, and according to the text, recognized by most Hindus of this alternate India to be part of the warrior-ruler caste. The India in this text is not an uncivilized wilderness, nor is there a Mysterious Orient. It is not a distant space onto which the civilized Westerners compare themselves to, but are in fact a part of. Moreover, it is an India in which the British have become part of the fabric of society, taking up forms of Indian-ness. How, then, does Stirling construct the new Angrezi identity? Is it truly a syncretic mix of India and Britain, or is it a Britain superimposed onto Indian geography and culture?
            Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, in their book Unthinking Eurocentrism, sum up the tendency of Eurocentrism in media thusly: “Eurocentrism sanitizes Western history while patronizing and demonizing the non-West; it thinks of itself in terms of its noblest achievements—science, progress, humanism—but of the non-West in terms of its deficiencies, real or imagined” (3). In Peshawar Lancers, this country generally recognized as Western have packed and moved operations from the British Isles to India, a country normally recognized as Eastern. The seat of Empire is therefore the British Raj, not Britain. Does this change in physical and political geography somehow de-center the Eurocentrism that “permeates and structures contemporary practices and representations even after the formal end of colonialism” (2)?
            Keeping in mind the contradictions inherent in Eurocentrism, we can still ask whether the Peshawar Lancers, written in the tradition of old adventure stories, is also heir to the imbalanced racial dynamics and Orientalist tropesof the genre. For, although this is clearly intended to be a self-contained world, the fashioning of this world is clearly informed by stereotypes of the Other in our own primary world. We could tell with two relationships: the relationship between text and reader, and the relationship between the various cast members and political entities within the text.
            If we were to begin with the dictionary Hindi, we could see the first cracks in the believability of the setting. The novel is written in English, and even in scenes in which the characters are clearly speaking a different language, the scene is in English, so that the English-language reader can follow the plot. There are several scenes in which any non-English phrases are immediately translated into English, for the reader’s benefit. As the setting is one in which several languages are spoken, this is understandable, until one considers the audience. Who is consuming this novel? Who is the text translated for, and why is it so necessary? And thus, whose perspective is being centered?
            On the very second page, the protagonist, Athelstane King, criticizes an Australian battalion for not knowing Hindi, and though he speaks to Narayan in English, Narayan replies in Hindi. This should hint that within this setting, the Hindi language is as important to everyday living as English. Even in the appendix, the author notes, the Imperial English is “a creolized English-based pidgin, one which would have been barely comprehensible to their Victorian ancestors. It was at least one-third Indian in vocabulary, with major loans from … Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Bihari, Pashtun, and Tamil; syntax had also changed” (475).
            Again, let us consider who the audience of this text is: likely English-educated, English-language speakers, who have little to no understanding of other cultures beyond English-speaking ones. An audience who commands the languages ostensibly spoken in this text is likely to identify the flaws in the stilted, constantly translated Hindi. Yet this alternate British India cleaves to the framework of the familiar: a foreign world that must be translated and made natural to the reader who understands “standard English”. When we consider the history of the English language as the lingua franca of the world, tied to colonialism and continued through economic imperialism today, we can place the innocuous and well-intended translations into a larger context of a White Gaze that must be centered. Thus, in order to be properly consumed, by the right kind of audience, the foreign words must be made comprehensible through their English counterparts.
            The facade of a multicultural, Hindu-influenced British identity is further cracked when we analyse how the non-British-descended characters, speaking languages other than English, are transcribed. The conversation between Angrezi characters flows casually, with grammatical contractions, colloquialisms and other syntactical variations that make dialogue sound as close as possible to our contemporary dialogue, despite the appendix that states that the British characters are speaking a Hindi-influenced pidgin. However, when characters such as Narayan Singh or Ibrahim Khan speak, their sentences are formal, with ‘thee’ and ‘thy,’ echoing Kipling’s translation of his own Indian characters. David Stewart calls this a narrative technique that is “an aural switch between languages” (51), particularly in interactions between English speakers and Hindi speakers.
            Yet compare this narrative technique to scenes in which Ignatieff, the Russian antagonist, consults with two representatives from Dai-Nippon, the East Asian empire, one Japanese and one Chinese; when they speak, their words reflect the syntax used in exclusively English scenes. How, then, do we parse this difference? The only similarity between this Eastern set of characters and the British characters is that they are all members of a colonizing power. Therefore, in the case of Narayan Singh and Ibrahim Khan, the aural shift from contemporary English into a Shakespearean-esque dialect serves to mark their Other-ness within their own context in the land that the British continued to colonize. Although it is historically accurate that native Anglicized Indians were taught through old English literary texts, making their English dialect sound Shakesperean, in an attempt to mimick their betters, this is not a case of mimicry on the part of the colonized; it is a filter from a native language into an English that reflects that native language. Hence, the reader notes them not only as speaking differently, but in a dialect unnatural to English speakers today.
            It is this relationship between the British-descended ruling class and their colonial subjects, the Sikhs and Gurkhas, and the Pathani Muslims who raid their borders, that we see the remnants of traditional Orientalism within the text. The Sikhs and Muslims have long been characterized in Orientalist discourse as violent, needing to be contained. Not only have the Sikhs’ violence have been apprehended in Stirling’s British India to serve the colonizers’ militia, but Narayan Singh compares the Kings’ estate, Rexin Manor, favourably to the Punjab homeland, which is “far too flat and harshly dry for his taste” (109). Ibrahim Khan, despite being a prince of his tribe, is an ornery servant, a “border wolf” and wild, which Athelstane tolerates as he is “familiar with the manners of the Afghan highlands, where insolence was a way of life” (97). This contrast between the difficult Muslim Afghan thief and the tolerant British-descended soldier re-affirms the continued stereotypes of Muslims as demanding and uncivilized versus the civilized Westerner.
            It is also between the various empires that we see traces of Orientalism, or using a foreign space in order to define oneself against: in one scene, the Crown Prince of India, Charles, soothes his sister, Sita, from her anger at an arranged marriage to the prince of France, by saying, “you’ll be queen, there soon enough. And one from the Raj—the Empire—at that. You’ll set the fashion; have ‘em all dressing civilized in saris or shalwar qamiz in no time” to which Sita asks, “are they civilized?” (66). Later, Charles reminds the French envoy, “our two realms are the last of the seed of Europe, of the West” (68), as they discuss an alliance against the Muslim Caliph who rules “from the Danube to Baluchistan” (44). Contrasting self against an uncivilized sister realm, to allying with the sister realm against a Muslim enemy—also a common target of Orientalism that Edward Said pointed to—the British Empire within the pages of the Peshawar Lancers remains an Empire that puts its own interests first, as a Western entity fortifying itself against a Muslim borderland, an “East Asian colossus” (44) and Russian cannibals in Central Asia. Accompanying these relationships are sentiments that reflect the colonizing mindset that sees territory not as regions filled with self-defining peoples, but as prizes “ripe for the plucking” such as the Sultanate of Egypt (45) or a potential new province to add in a generation or two through royal marriages (66).
            What is most obvious of the text’s Eurocentrism is its cast of characters; although it is an ensemble cast, those who are traditional protagonists, moving through arcs that develop their characters, are the British-descended characters (and the one French character). The plot is pushed along by the machinations of the new Oriental threats that would like to see the British Raj in chaos, and all Athelstane and his twin sister Cassandra have to do, according to the clairvoyant Yasmini, is survive, which entails stopping the bad guy, the Russian Ignatieff, with the help of French envoy Henry de Vascogne, political officer Sir Manfred Warburton, Prince Charles and Princess Sita. As they hurtle towards the traditional heteronormative happy ending, Athelstane enlists Ibrahim Khan, and Yasmini joins him, to better humanity’s chances against the cult she has been enslaved by.
            The identities of these characters are clear, even as Stirling attempts to muddy the concept of Britishness: when Henry de Vascogne comments on the English food of “garlic nan, vindaloo, stuffed eggplant … and okra” (43)—food the reader would recognize as culturally Indian, Sir Manfred replies, “we’re scarcely English. British, of course, by descent” (43). Mostly, Athelstane thinks, and the text meanders into an interior dialogue commenting on his genealogy that involved “a Rajput noblewoman” (43) and an Afghan princess in Sir Manfred’s family tree (44). Later, Cassandra and Charles would contemplate their aversion to beef, a cultural and emotional inheritance from being born in India (176), with its “thousands of castes … and each with its own weird complexity of rules about food” (175).
            Yet although the influence is said to have gone both ways—the Angrezi class adopting the mores of the people they have colonized, even as the colonized have adopted the new ruling class into their religious system of belief—the influence is not demonstrated in any of the non-British characters. Narayan Singh is a family retainer, but he does not act nor code as European in any mannerism he exhibits. Hasamurti, Athelstane’s Kashmiri mistress, might have broken this although she spends her days waiting for her lover to return from the front by eating sweets and reading trashy novels (31); the only two lines she speaks are translated into a more colloquial, playful English, to reflect the relationship and her character. However, she dies, serving the role of the Woman in Refrigerator, as Gail Simone identified in many male-centric comics, with a racialized angle besides. Ibrahim Khan is depicted as fairly irredeemable, culturally. The only Anglicized Indian character is the King Emperor’s aide, Lord Pratap Batwa, who speaks with the same inflections that the British characters do, yet his role is minimal. All these characters are attached in some way to aid one of the main Angrezi protagonists; none of them have arcs of their own in which they exhibit an agency that is self-driven. The exchange is for the seed of Europe, growing in the lands of Asia, with little input from the seed of the Indian subcontinent on how it is ruled.
            Thus, Ibrahim Khan is resplendent as a prince of Pashtuns, or close to resplendence, only towards the denouement; Narayan Singh will be wounded and tortured for Athelstane’s sake, and black-haired, strong-featured Hasamurti must die in order to make way for the slender, pale-skinned, pale-haired Yasmini with the “astonishing blue-green eyes” (447). The cannibal Russian and his cronies must be thwarted. The story is not for those who recognize their heritage in the colonized, unless they are willing to ignore the continued history of colonialism and its effects on lived reality; it is, once again, for those who are descended of colonizers, who have the privilege to ignore history for an adventure that recalls all the greatness and none of the pain that Empire wreaked.

Comments

Comments are closed.