Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 36, September 2014

Anupama Mohan

Utopia and the Village in South Asian Literatures

London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-230-35498-2, (hdb); vii + 234 pp

reviewed by Nida Sajid

  1. With the increasing visibility of India in the global market economy during the last couple of decades, the South Asian urban cityscape has emerged as a central motif in both fictional and academic explorations of postcolonial identity. In contrast to this extensive body of writing entrenched in cosmopolitan concerns, Anupama Mohan, in Utopia and the Village in South Asian Literatures, offers an innovative reading of the representations of rural village life in the literatures of South Asia. Through a detailed analysis of twentieth-century writings from the Indian subcontinent, Mohan refocuses our attention on the significance of the trope of the rural in shaping the post-colonial imaginary. With its provocative conceptualisation of the village as a critical site for the articulation of an agential subject, the book offers a refreshing perspective on contemporary debates about the transformative potential of envisaging postcolonial subjectivities in the plural.
  2. Mohan brings together many disparate texts in a single analytical field to present a cogent commentary on the multifarious uses of the trope of the rural in literatures from India and Sri Lanka. The book has a broad chronological spread, covering writers from both the colonial and post-colonial periods, in order to highlight the departures and continuities in the representations of village life in South Asian literatures. Mohan analyses texts written in both English and regional languages to argue how the literature from the subcontinent exhibits the propensity to capture the complex dynamics of rural life within the 'dichotomous paradigms of utopia and dystopia' (p. 3). By productively engaging with Michel Foucault's conceptualisation of alterity in spatial terms, Mohan further theorises the village in the South Asian imaginary as a 'rural heterotopia,' an interstitial space for negotiating both individual and collective identities. Rather than conceding the rural to the realm of otherness, the book introduces a refreshing theoretical model for analysing cathected agrarian relations in literature and unpacks their ideological underpinnings.
  3. Utopia and the Village begins with a close reading of Mohandas Gandhi's influential political treatise Hind Swaraj. While Gandhi's utopian ideal of the village played a vital role in the anti-colonial freedom struggle, his ideas continue to influence writers of the subcontinent on issues pertaining to nationalism and sovereignty. Given the centrality of agrarian economy in Gandhian thought, this pivotal text sets the critical framework for reading counter narratives against the hegemony of global capital. Mohan illustrates how Gandhi created a revolutionary antithesis to colonial modernity by yoking his conception of swaraj (self rule) with rural organisation and, in the process, recalibrated the idea of civil society through an idyllic vision of village collectivity.
  4. Mohan methodically builds upon her nuanced analysis of Hind Swaraj in subsequent chapters to show how a range of writers engage with the village as a literary trope to represent South Asian collectivities. In Chapter Two she looks at the dystopic representation of a Ceylonese village in Leonard Woolf's The Village in the Jungle. Steeped in the contradictions of metropolitan modernist literature, Woolf's novel draws the reader into a world of contesting voices that underscore the writer's own complicity with the colonial order. Chapter Three revisits Gandhian thought through the quasi-fictional villages in Raja Rao's Kanthapuraand O.V. Vijayan's Legends of Khasak. Experimenting with realist and avant-garde writing styles respectively, these novels rework the utopian promise of the Gandhian village through contrasting representational schemas and complicate the neat politico-aesthetic binary between a rural utopia and an urban dystopia. Using the parodic inversions of Vijayan's Legends of Khasak as a point of departure, Mohan provides an exciting re-reading of the villages in Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide and Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost as 'rural heterotopias' in Chapter Five. Identifying these novels as significant discursive spaces for articulating alternate histories and identities, Mohan demonstrates the affinities between the two novels as they attempt to instill social change and redefine the contours of nationalism in the postcolonial era.
  5. In addition to questions of national identity, the book traces the complex trajectory of evolving gender relations and the possibilities for women's agency in the cultural clash between tradition and modernity. In so doing, it addresses the broader trends in South Asian writing which frequently use gender roles to allegorise the binaries instituted during the anti-colonial freedom struggles. Chapter Four, for instance, specifically looks at the writings of Martin Wickramasinghe and Punyakante Wijenaike to highlight the intersections of gender, religion, caste and ethnicity in the nationalist discourses from Sri Lanka. Mohan reads the pastoral aesthetics of Wickramasinghe's novel, Gamperaliya, as a return to an imagined pre-colonial Buddhist utopia and shows how the novel's central dichotomy of the public and the private is mapped through the policing of women's sexual and social lives in a universe of ideal rural morality. Mohan further contrasts Wickramasinghe's novel with another work intimately linked with Sinhala nationalism, Wijenaike's The Waiting Earth. Set during the period of peasant resettlement in Ceylon, the novel examines the symbolic mapping of the nation onto a woman's body and the demarcation of their boundaries through ownership. Mohan argues how Wijenaike, the only woman writer in this book, constructs a tacit critique of nationalist utopias through her woman-centric approach to the ecological economy of the village.
  6. Anupama Mohan adeptly addresses the complexity of collective imaginaries and the multiplicity of issues that animate literary production in postcolonial spaces. By revisiting the spatial as well as the temporal binaries between the local and the national, Mohan also alerts us to the multifaceted role of rural life in shaping the political and aesthetic imagination of the Indian subcontinent. Utopia and the Village draws our attention not only to the important fact that a large part of the South Asian population still lives in rural or semi-urban areas, it also underscores the fallacy of imagining a globalised world with urbanity as the sole marker of economic growth and development. Rather than celebrating or valorising the rural as a counterpoint to modernity, Mohan urges us to witness how the village in South Asia does not inhabit one side of the rural/urban divide, but actually works towards 'an interstitial zone of contact and cohabitation and negotiation' (p. 185).
  7. Utopia and the Village is a significant scholarly work since it competently traverses two neglected areas in the field of postcolonial literary criticism: utopian studies and rural studies. Mohan uses the trope of the rural to rethink utopia, dystopia and heterotopia outside the western modernist paradigm and, through an engaging analysis, recuperates the theoretical potential of these concepts for studying South Asian and other postcolonial literatures. Since Mohan's analysis of literary texts cuts across disciplinary boundaries, this book will be useful to anyone interested in the intersections as well as the divergences in the historical and literary developments of India and Sri Lanka during the twentieth century.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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