When a white author writes about colonialism: J. G. Farrell’s ‘The Siege of Krishnapur’

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I’ve been meaning to get back into reading for a while, but college has instilled in me an over-reliance on external structure to support any and all activities I engage in. So I decided to find myself a reading list. Over the second half of 2020, I will be attempting to read one book a week from a list the Strategist curated by asking upcoming authors to recommend a book they have turned to for solace during the present pandemic. 

The second novel I picked up was J. G. Farrell’s award-winning “The Siege of Krishnapur,” which boasts of an aesthetic quality that I rarely encounter in works of historical fiction. His descriptions blend abstraction with detail the way only a well-researched work can. First published in 1973, the book is set in 19th century colonial India and draws on an array of archival accounts that aid in immersive world-building. Through third person accounts of the intersecting lives of English dignitaries, officials, their servants and family members, the book creates a realistic portrait of the lives of the Britishers living in India back in the day. It represents a range of political and religious beliefs, as I imagine the people of that time did, and brings to life the highs and lows of the average colonizer’s lifestyle. This assortment of characters finds themselves holed up in the ‘Residency,’ a government building in the fictional town of Krishnapur, and the central target of a sepoy rebellion that takes over the city. 

Farrell combines the action of warfare with a discussion of intellectual ideas — religious beliefs,  artistic critique and controversies around medicinal practices to name a few — through the musings of and conversation between his characters. 

One of the most striking scenes in the book embodies this exact juxtaposition of action and ideation when a progressive, young man, Fleury, argues about morality and Christianity with Padre, a Church official, while the two work hard at digging a grave for a European that has recently passed as a consequence of the mutiny. Farrell writes, “‘But if it seems clear that certain parts of the Bible are not, hm, moral according to our latest nineteenth-century conceptions of morality…’

‘Fallen man is not able to understand the purposes of God,’ interrupted the Padre, who had thrown away his spade and was trying to ram the small, shrouded corpse into the hole he had dug in such a way that the feet would not stick up into the air. ‘Human conceptions of morality must be fallible like all human ideas!’”

Much of the book relies on dialogue between characters to reveal the inner workings of the minds of Victorian-era colonizers. Farrell builds up characters that serve as satirical figures and exaggerates their quirks in a critical fashion. The book’s critique of colonialism, however, stops there. It never goes beyond a generic sense of ‘colonialism is wrong.’ 

For instance, in chapter nine Farrell shows an Indian prince defecting to the British and buying into their romanticized ideas of ‘civilization.’ Farrell writes, “Hari, firmly on the side of Progress, had insisted on leading the Palace army to their [the Britishers’] defense. But the Maharaja had declined to let him do any such thing […] He did not want Progress… he wanted money, jewels and naked girls.” 

By capitalising the word ‘Progress,’ Farrell clearly questions the Euro-centric conception of that word. However, the only possible character in the book that could have opposed this conception, the Maharaja, has been shown as a shallow, unintelligent man. The book similarly questions the superiority of Western ideas around ‘civilization’ many times but neither the narrator nor any of the characters provide concrete, well-formed arguments in favor of the natives. Farrell never tells us why the Western way shouldn’t be thought of as inherently better. His work relies on the reader to figure that out for themselves. 

Farrell’s erasure goes even further when one notes the fact that the only Indians in the entire story that are referred to as anything other than ‘native’ or ‘sepoy,’ or some demeaning nickname, are the aforementioned Maharaja and his son, Hari, who are among the most privileged and powerful natives in the country. I don’t see how this kind of an absence of the voices of the victims can be called anything other than erasure.

In my quest to see how others had felt about the same dynamic, I came across a blog post in the Guardian which argued, “The fact that Indians (with the rule-proving exception of a westernised maharajah’s son) are so peripheral to the action speaks volumes about the attitude of the British colonialists squirming and struggling under Farrell’s microscope, not to mention the way colonialism dehumanises and brutalises the oppressor and the oppressed.”

On the one hand, I appreciate the value in providing the reader an immersive view into the lives of the British outpost. Farrell brilliantly portrays the way Englishmen viewed natives in colonies around the world, and occasionally juxtaposed colonial beliefs that brought out the hypocrisy in the average colonizer’s mindset. An example of this is when he shows how Europeans undermine native religious beliefs by calling them less ‘rational’ and ‘civilized,’ while simultaneously prescribing to the often equally-illogical Christian faith.

It scares me that this kind of a book could win the Booker Prize because I imagine for many outside my country, this book may be one of a handful of narratives they come across in their entire lifetimes on British colonialism in India. And it isn’t so hard for me to imagine a less politically-aware European reading this today and finding no fault in the Collector’s argument that colonialism is beneficial for India because it lifts India into the world of science, civilization and Western conceptions of ‘enlightenment.’ These beliefs prevail in Western society years after the disbanding of most European colonies. It was only five years ago that The Oxford Union hosted a debate on the motion “This house believes Britain owes reparations to her former colonies.” While we live in a world where British academics actively work to justify colonialism, I am unable to look at this book that assumes a mild exaggeration of colonial views and think its satirical tendencies do enough.

I’d like to think this argument has value beyond being my personal view that carries the obvious bias in favor of the colonized, but as we’ve already seen, several book reviews of this piece on the internet celebrate it, with several reviewers calling it the best Booker Prize novel they have ever read. A literary analysis I found seems to suggest these two perspectives may not necessarily be mutually exclusive. 

It reads, “The Siege adopts postmodern playfulness, irony and preference for the fragmentary over the ‘coherence of the collection’ (Boccardi 52) but does not really engage with postcolonial ethical concerns like granting subaltern voices a literary space or reflecting on power imbalances in a colonial context.” It suggests satire may be enough to free the author of blame, but that it may fall short of being post-colonial, as such texts are often characterized by the active amplification of native voices.

This seems like a reasonable middle ground. Satire serves to prove that Farrell himself did not hold colonial views. However, it doesn’t do enough to lend his work the postcolonial label that we bestow on so many other novels that create productive dialogue around the issue. 

On a personal note, I don’t think I can ever not see this book as actively colonial. It’s in the small things. It’s in the way Farrell anglicises ‘Kaptanganj’ to spell it as ‘Captainganj,’ thus contributing to a long history of Europeans renaming Indian cities for their convenience, that this book feels alienating and hurtful to me as an Indian reader. The author does not fail to accomplish his self-set objective. I just wish he had stretched himself more in the definition of his objective. I wish there was a native-sympathizer among the party of people holed up at the Residency during the Siege or that the Indian Maharaja was allowed to make intelligent arguments for himself instead of blending into the background or being dismissed as being solely interested in money and sex. And if nothing else, I wish critics were able to appreciate, if not agree with, the way I as an Indian in the 21st century was angered over and over again by the way this book portrayed the people of my country.

I won’t deny, though, that this book was a very pleasant read. If you somehow manage to look past its stance on colonialism, the Booker prize does make sense. Farrell’s writing is descriptive and brings to life a world far removed from our own. The time spent by the Britishers confined during the days of the Siege often reads like a description of quarantine. The women fight over ingredients with which they may bake, young adults pursue romantic interests and doctors argue over the true mechanisms of spread and ways of treatment for Cholera, which makes a timely and relevant appearance towards the end of the book, demonstrating the true extent of Farrell’s research.

I chose this diverse book-list because I wanted to be challenged to read and critically think about stories that I wouldn’t usually choose to read myself. It’s inevitable that I won’t like or agree with every book I read, and this story brought out the critic in me in a way a classic like the “Decameron” (which I reviewed last week) never could. I appreciate that I was able to engage, and hope my writing can provide a future reader another way of looking at one in the long list of Booker prize novels.

Contact Smiti Mittal at smiti06 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Smiti Mittal, originally from New Delhi, India, contributes to News, Satire, and Podcasts. Contact her at smiti06 'at' stanford.edu.