Sensitive literature: The canon of post-colonial experience

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Actor Ishaan Khatter

Ever wonder why there are some literary works that strike you more than others. Probably because they relate in a way others might not succeed as much. I have been thinking a lot on literature lately, not because I am nearly completing the greed to empty my book shelf or flirting with the thought of inviting more books onto my shelf. But because as we move in a dramatically engaged and shifting world, I sometimes find myself shy and lost. And just as many others, I too want an escape. 

An escape to find my thoughts more articulate on paper or see characters who resemble similar struggles I have ensued myself. But more so to define the currency of the human condition we reside in and find the relevance in relaying our experiences that will travel on to foreword generations. Which is why many writers believe in investing in creativity to entice the audience in thinking beyond the parameters of normalcy; to discover the paranormal dwellings of what we now come to know as being the product of the post-colonial world. In this piece I will give a low down on some of my all time favorite pieces of literature that have stuck to me and continue to inspire me with their resilience and durability over the ages.

Things Fall Apart

Masculinity, colonialism, tribal pride and paranoia of governance. What best to describe arguably one of the best written novels of the 20th century which continues to top lists in the contemporary era too. Chinua Achebe’s heart wrenching tale of a deeply conflicted protagonist who is a traditional clan chief leaves readers in a pool of unanswered questions. But when tragedy strikes in form of murder, mayhem and violence unfolds to the point of self destruction. 

Achebe paints a painful picture of a once vain and imposing community hindered by its own demons of self determination while being plagued by the impending horrors of lurching imperialism. Give this book a read to discover the wealth of African literature that is centered around the individuated agony of dislocated identity, the pillars of power and toxic misogyny. Even with all the reprimandable vices the protagonist suffers from, we are allured into the world of seeming calm but await the storm. A classic that I would pick any day to ready again…and again!

The Namesake

It is very seldom I can as aptly be empathetic to characters that are so present in character albeit trapped in a literary cover. Jhumpa Lahiri’s sensitive portrayal of Bengali Indian migrants spanning two generations is not only a tearjerker in the Mira Nair adaptation, but in print is one of the finest depictions of the migrant struggle. From the conflict of battling dual identities to embracing the American garb and fully assimilate, Lahiri journeys through the reality of intimacy, failed ambition, loneliness in a foreign land and human needs. I just as much wanted to depart from this novel by asserting that immigrants who are grappling with uncertainty of a finding a home or wanting to evade the hardships of a grim reality can definitely take refuge in knowing that the greatest ride will always take you home, wherever that may be.

To Kill A Mockingbird

Although not really out of the canon of emerging literature from the global south, there is a level of honesty I respect in Harper Lee’s epic. The reason for this pick is the portrayal of racial tensions in the deep south of America which is quite resonant to what we struggle with in this generation. Atticus Finch, the narrator’s morally reliable father and lawyer navigates a prism of racial inequality that is reminiscent of his privilege as a white man with an education. 

However, his daughter, Scout’s coming of age is rocked when she observes Atticus’ difficult journey of defending a black man accused of rape. It may be sobbing read but one of the mighty important ones to remind yourself the genealogy of class and racial divide. I give this book a place on this list because of Lee’s amazing storytelling from the eyes of an innocent and curious six year old who witnesses the dark realities of surviving in the great depression while being on the other side of the line from racial hostility. Scout’s reasoning may be youthful but her narration is what makes this novel still appealing, her voice and visualization of Atticus’ battle with prejudice and violence are the undertones of moral irony and conflict which makes it a must read!

A Suitable Boy

There are very few authors such as Vikram Seth who have become eponymous to the tenets of post-independence Indian literature. Pioneering in the art of innovative storytelling, Seth transports us to post-partition India where nineteen year old Lata Mehra juggles between her own zeal for the discovery of love and the demands of her domineering mother to find a suitable match to marry. Seth is intelligent in how handles social issues such as class segregation in independent India that is ripe from the birth of new communal divides from the raging partition. 

Lata, an independent but stifled young woman resists the urges to be fixated on marriage to secure a fate of bliss but is attracted to the idea of a variety of suitors who unabashedly charm her but suffer in their own perils. A suitable boy is far from being pretentious and over the top with its recurrent themes of self dependence and political liberation. Crucial for the post-colonial literature genre, this novel is a delightful tale of love, expectation, the never ending socio-economic wants to class mobility in times of a budding new India. 

What is more intelligently crafted by Seth is the examination of the early struggles of a new nation which dabbles in political freedom and the several personal narratives that come about from the burdening rigors of society, which becomes a cultural reference point for citizens who face the same dilemma throughout. So start off your 2020 with some of these reads, to revive that curiosity and to visit those parts of the world that need no expense in travelling to.


 Sumona Bose is a MPhil candidate in Justice and Transformation at the University of Cape Town. She has an undergraduate studies in Political Studies.