Pramod K. Nayar, a senior lecturer in English literature at the University of Hyderabad, India, has written a thorough, engaging, and accessible primer to the growing discipline of postcolonial theory. In his 15 years of scholarly writing, Nayar has written and published in the area of literary theory. A number of his scholarly essays and books focus on cultural theory, cultural studies, and postcolonial studies. Since postcolonial studies first emerged as a form of literary criticism half a century ago, there is no one better than Nayar to guide the neophyte through the vast and often bewildering field of postcolonial studies given his expertise in literary theory and criticism.
For anyone who is curious and interested in understanding postcolonial studies, attempting to wade through the burgeoning number of postcolonial theorists and authors is daunting. In addition, the conceptual framework of postcolonial discourse is not always readily discernable given the wide spectrum of theorists and authors writing on this subject. In what it may seem a Herculean feat, Nayar simplifies the subject of postcolonial studies without losing the complexity of this discipline into one concise volume. Nayar’s Postcolonialism: A Guide for the Perplexed is also part of Continuum’s series to provide easy to read introductions on a wide area of academic subjects to lay readers.
In the first chapter of Postcolonialism: A Guide for the Perplexed, Nayar begins by defining and describing various terms and concepts in postcolonial studies. The first and foremost description Nayar provides is the term postcolonialism: “Postcolonialism is the academic, intellectual, ideological and ideational scaffolding of the condition of decolonization” and “the theoretical and intellectual arm of the postcolonial condition, refers to a mode of reading, political analysis and cultural resistance that negotiates with the native’s colonial history and neocolonial present” (1, 4). Postcolonial theory, as applied to and practiced in postcolonial conditions is therefore “a complex analytical strategy that foregrounds racial difference in the relationship – political, social, economic and cultural – between First/Western and Third/Eastern worlds” (4). Nayar goes on to say that postcolonial theory is a way of analysis and critique that examines the binary relationship between the “First/Western” worlds. In the rest of the chapter, Nayar briefly presents and summarizes the writings of postcolonial theorists and authors who are considered to be the fountainheads of postcolonial studies. Nayar discusses major postcolonial theorists such as Mahatma Gandhi, Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, and Edward Said. Nayar also locates the source of postcolonial studies in cultural theory and race studies. In discussing these sources, Nayar notes postcolonial theorists such as Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Paul Gilroy, and Arif Dirlik were thus able to tease out their postcolonial discourse based on the work of earlier postcolonial theorists and activists.
For the rest of the book, Nayar examines five major areas of discourse in which postcolonial sets to critique and analyze the postcolonial condition. Beginning in chapter 2, the realm of culture is discussed. Since “colonialism had its impact not only in political and economic arena but [also] in the cultural domain,” postcolonial theory therefore critiques how colonialism dominated this domain. This domain is wide and covers literature and the arts, architecture, law, education, religion, historiography, and social sciences. Postcolonial theory’s main analysis is that the ideology of Empire and its concomitants of dominance, conquest, benevolence all were expressed and disseminated through the arts, education, and religion. And it is because of this intentional dissemination of empire, that imperialism becomes acceptable. Nayar notes that this is especially true in the Empire’s use of language in which European languages (English, French, German, etc.) were deemed as the administrative language in the colonies. Because of this, Western languages became the language of the elite, and thus for any “native” to even function in colonial society, one must learn the language of the Westerner. Similarly, in the realm of religion, the Empire saw itself as the “civilizing” agent of the natives. Postcolonial theory examines and critiques how colonial education, religion, historiography “codifies” the practices of the natives and thereby categorizes and homogenizes them and reduces the complexity of location conditions (67). In this chapter, Nayar examines a number of primary sources such as ethnographies, historical accounts, and missionary writings to illustrate the colonial condition.
In chapter 3, Nayar moves on to discuss the concept of nationhood and the nation state after colonialism. In this realm, postcolonial discourse is very much interested in questioning the European construction of native past in order to retrieve history. In this arena, postcolonial discourse views European historiography as problematic since it marginalized non-Western histories and therefore limits epistemology itself. Postcolonial strategy, then, reacts by writing local histories as “counter histories” to challenge the hegemony of imperialism. These constructions of the past by postcolonial activists, therefore, allow locals to reclaim the past and a sense of identity (77). This reclamation of the past often takes on the form of examining alternative and hybridized cultural practices. One danger the postcolonial activist may face, as Nayar notes, is that postcolonial historiography is also selective and could be selective in its drive to reclaim the past, and thereby exclude minorities and further the colonial project (83).
Next, in the arena of gender and sexuality, postcolonial theory has been an effective analytical tool in examining how both gender and sexuality are constructed, maintained, and deconstructed as those in postcolonial conditions further wrestle with their identity. Nayar points out that gender themes in postcolonial discourse often center on critique of identity, marriage, sexuality, the body, and patriarchy. In colonial conditions, women are double marginalized, and the imperial enterprise is always delineated as a masculine project. Western travelers often described “foreign” lands in which they were traveling as exotic and feminine needing to be conquered. Though imperialism has long been the domain of men, Nayar notes that Western women also contributed to the enterprise of Empire, implicitly or not. Citing a number of European female writers, Nayar observes that these women saw themselves as the “repository” of their culture’s morals and values. Thus, the men of Empire believed that for Empire to retain its purity, their women must remain in certain roles (104). This was also true for the “native.” In a sense, women, Western or non-Western, became “boundary markers” in that “colonial conquest relies upon a conquest of the native woman, and concomitantly, for the natives, the ‘preservation’ of the purity of their women becomes a metaphor for the preservation of their culture itself” (107). In this chapter, Nayar also briefly notes the influence that postcolonial discourse has had on queer theory, that it has indeed contributed to queer studies and assisted queer theory in itscritique of normative heterosexuality.
In chapters 5 and 6, Nayar discusses how postcolonial interrogates the notion of land and issues of identity, displacement, and disaporic communities. Here I will focus on chapter 6 which Nayar titles “Cosmopolitans” since this chapter is the most constructive examination of postcolonial discourse. It isn’t until toward the end of this chapter that Nayar actually defines the term cosmopolitan. Nayar defines this concept as “the intellectual project whereby the writer seeks to assimilate ‘foreign’ cultures and not stayed embedded in her/his ‘original’ cultures” (178). This idea leads directly to hybridity since even in the period of colonialism, “the native is already a hybrid because of the colonial past and its inheritance” (174). Racial categories are not absolute categories, and thus personal identity is always in construction. Hybridity, therefore, in postcolonial theory, is an important theme and lens through which one can understand identity. Nayar also notes there are two key themes in cosmopolitanism: displacement and nostalgia for one’s homeland. Nayar points out since the 1970s, various Asian American authors like Monica Ali, Pico Iyer, V. S. Naipaul, Jhumpa Lahiri as authors have been writing with this sensibility and a penchant for exploring identity, displacement, and longing for home. These writings often explore the themes of a sense of loss of home and estrangement from one’s current culture. For these authors, identity is always dually situated and “polycentered” (166).
In the final chapter of the book, Nayar aptly examines the future of postcolonial discourse and issues that challenge its methodology and theoretical framework. Nayar notes that postcolonial theory “has had to grapple… with colonial legacies in the intellectual thought and culture even as it sought to craft a new agenda for inquiry into the present state of postcolonial nations” (191). Issues such as globalization and the rise of terrorism and nativism in the last 20th and early 21st century poses challenges to postcolonial studies as postcolonial discourse continues to understand, analyze, and critique these phenomena. Furthermore, as international borders becoming more porous and notions of self become more fluid, many postcolonial theorists, authors, and activists must continue to call to attention the rights of the poor and “foreigners.” As Nayar puts it, “the task of postcolonialism within contexts of global migration, increasing refugee populations and globalized capitalism is to inquire into how the refugee is constructed…. Postcolonialism must, therefore, examine the conditions under which the Third World refugee is ‘evaluated’ as a possible citizen” (199). As the body of postcolonial literature continue to grow, the challenge for any theorist, author, and activist writing and thinking in the vein of postcolonial discourse must continue to critique and to call to attention the binary of colonialism that exists even today.
Nayar’s introductory volume to postcolonialism certainly provides a concise guide for anyone wanting to explore and understand postcolonial issues. In interacting with the issues Nayar speaks of in each chapter, Nayar provides ample primary sources for his discussion. Since Nayar’s specialty is literature, Nayar draws from many postcolonial novelists in discussing postcolonial themes and issues. As mentioned before, this body of literature is growing exponentially, and Nayar does an admirable job in bringing these texts to the reader’s attention. The bibliography at the back of the volume serves as an excellent guide for those who desire to explore specific postcolonial themes Nayar discussed. While Nayar should be applauded for this valuable volume, one small flaw about the book should be noted. There are numerous spelling errors and stylistic inconsistencies in the book and they do at times detract from the readability of the book. Beyond that, Nayar’s volume is a valuable contribution to the growing body of postcolonial literature.