From Biblio, Mar-Apr 1999, p. 5-6.
Can it be told as a story?
Hybrid Histories: Forests, Frontiers and Wildness in Western India
By Ajay Skaria
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, 234 pp.
But if this is the theme of Hybrid Histories, to my mind it is the book's narrative technique which is more crucial. Especially since it is narrative itself which is the book's problematic. Ajay Skaria admits that the chronologically sequential narrative technique, proper to the discipline of history-in which the colonial follows the pre-colonial, the modern follows [++Page 6] the pre-modern, and the 'civilised' follows the wild-fails to enunciate the existential conditions, where living in and post-colonialism implies at the same time the need and intention of living beyond and irrespective of colonialism as well. That is, it fails to grasp what is perhaps chronologically post-colonial, but cannot be taken to succeed colonialism either logically or temporally. It is these extra-colonial stories that Skaria intends to make his own. This he does, "in accordance with" Dangi narratives--where moglai stands for the times of chut or freedom, approximating the historian's 'pre-colonial' and where mandini stands for the time of demarcation after which chut was lost, approximating the historian's 'colonial' period. Yet it is the difference between this mode of Dangi temporalization and the historian's conventions of periodization that is crucial for Skaria. The Dangi moglai, Skaria suggests, does not always precede mandini-but traverses the latter, such that sites of moglai are actively reclaimed even in times clearly characterized as colonial. That is, through the deployment of memories -memories not just of the past but memories of those presently subalternized and lost--Dangis make the colonial present, in modes of agonism and contravention, at times decisively non-colonial.
To allow this difference between chronological sequence and the Dangi simultaneity of moglai and mandini, Skaria suggests that his readers read the book in at least two ways. In one way the book is chapterized by the sequential numbers, 1,2,3 .... and so on. In another way, the book may he read in the manner 3-10-11-9-16-6 .... and so forth-which he hopes will produce four supplementary, and necessarily patchy and partial narratives and which in turn will dislocate the former successional narrative (of pre-colonial and colonial) and its unavoidable historicism. Skaria hopes that this deliberate hybridization of narratives in a single text will not only demonstrate a possible coming together of the concerns of Dangi narrators and professional historians, but also produce the possibility of a temporal contemporaneity between the colonial and the extra-colonial.
Skaria's narrative experiment is doubtless daring and productive. Yet it seems to me to rest too easily on a foregrounding of the thing called the Narrative. True, his narrative(s) are self-consciously hybridized, punctuated and contaminated threateningly by the sensibility that other stories do exist and work simultaneously upon the story presently being told; that the politics of authorization of narratives is more than the fate of a read and reread text; it is also at the same time the politics of negotiating identities and subalternity. Yet somewhere the phantom-like and shadowy Idea of the Narrative seems to over-determine and bless with unity the contradictions and hybridities which Skaria so lovingly and effectively lays out in his text. This is the haunting and hopeful Narrative which assumes that the world makes sense always already as a narrative, even though it may be different narratives at different times or, as Skaria's argument goes, different narratives at the same time. This is the Narrative which knows that meaning is not merely referentiality but an act of telling to others. So far as that goes, Skaria's text is a beautiful instance of weaving together provisional and variegated meanings-which appear as being produced through narrations rather than as being given. Yet, in so far as Skaria visualizes his own work as singularly "in accordance with" goth or stories, he fails to notice conditions of marginalized lives--including, ironically, the historian's own--where stories have ceased or where stories can appear only as an absence to incorrigible narrators like historians. This is perhaps because to Skaria there is no story-less crevice in the world, which is not a site of explicable and thereby in principle curable amnesia. And this is perhaps because, like a historian, Skaria ends up imagining time itself as a narrative sequence, even as he disavows the conflation of time to the sequentiality of the chronological and numerical mode.
This is a capitalized Narrative which reduces temporalization to itself--as if the laying and living out of time is in itself narrativization and nothing else. True, temporalization may assume the narrative form. After all, however fragmented and contrapuntal a narrative, it is recognised as such in its intention--the temporalizing intention that seeks a resolution at the end, even if the end appears as a surprising and disturbing lack of resolubility. In this, narratives seek to simulate time itself, and that not only in their enunciation of a beginning and a end. Narratives seek to simulate time in their necessary spacing out of moments, which, even when intended as contemporaneous, cannot be simultaneously read or implied but must admit a sequentiality that involves an awaiting, a lag between even simultaneous events. And yet, at the same time, the narrative disowns the irreversibility of time as practised. A narrative can be read from the end, in the way that time cannot appear, despite memories, in the everyday practice of time. In this, there appears a complicity between historicism and the Narrative, even as the latter, as narratives, seeks to explode the unilinearity and singularity of the appropriately Historical Narrative. Because both hold on to the priority of hindsight, to punctuations between simultaneous events and to the idea of a knowledge rather than to practices of time and contemporaneity And because this implicit trust, or shall we say, hope in the Narrative denies possible conditions of existence where time, and practice, appear as non-narrativizable and irrevocably ruptured.
To me, the colonial condition appears as one such moment where narratives become impossible. The construction of a society as an agglomeration of different times--'primitive' and historical, 'tribal' and 'civilisational'--in itself defies the narrative form. For internal temporal mismatches disallow the unity of a narrative, a unity of the kind that hyperreal Europe can assume in modernity. And the colonized seems able to appear only in a visual/spatial montage-like frame, unified by a state (centre) and a territory (substructure) but not by the possibility of narrative or temporal continuity. It is not incorrect to say for the colonized, that the "nation is narrated", but to elevate the Narrative to a singular mode of being is to fall to notice that excess which remains unnarratable--not because a narrative is, or all narratives are, exclusive, but because many pasts, presents and futures become disassociated from all senses of precedents, which makes even the recognition of novelty and novels problematic. After all, colonialism appears as a profound and radical externality to local narratives, as Skaria so effectively shows, as a destiny which is fully undeserved and mexplicable in terms of the colonized's own story. In this, even as the 'primitive' is constructed as a primarily story-telling people in contrast to the reasoning Western mind, it is narrative resolution which is what is denied to her-because the 'primitive' must exist in modernity, in a time not her own.
To see the temporal contradictions produced by colonial modernity as embodied in narratives, even if hybridized, is in a way to understate them. Perhaps it will be more productive to understand the rupturing of worlds-as instanced by colonialism-as creating the impossibility of the narrative form, the impossibility of narrative temporal resolution. This will not make narratives vanish from our reality, but will refigure narrative itself as one kind of practice that engages with many possibilities, including the possibility of the impossibility of the story. I insist on reading narratives as a practice and one amongst many, so that narratives do not appear to us as just another kind of archive, an archive of given and available texts-is what seems to happen so very often in Skaria's work, clearly in spite of himself. Dangi stories appear to offer resources to the historian who writes his own narrative in two modes-one in the simple present of traditional anthropology (e.g. "Imaginary goth are also narrated at casual or spur-of-the moment gatherings, when men and women are relaxing in the evenings ... In contrast ... vadilcha goth posit and intimate connection with time and space..', ) and the other in the simple past of conventional historiography (e.g. "Because the forests were a space of masculine wildness, the ideal forester was ascribed qualities similar to those expected of the Bhil Agent...", ). In both these narrative modes, Dangi story-telling appears not as practices negotiating time and futures but as instances of a body of information which evidence, both the historian, the Dangi past and Dangi identity through time. Skana does not let Dangis act out their own provisional narratives in the way he himself acts out his own.
The historian's narrative-centricity comes through most clearly in the last chapter of Skaria's book, which conceptualizes Dangi resistance and rebellion. Skaria takes his cues from goth in order to go beyond models of opposition and inversion which traditionally frame histories of rebellion. And this he does by calling Dangi resistance "epic resistance"resistance as an act of "exceeding the dominant through local and regional narratives". In making the epic into an adjective of rebellion rather than into a verb in itself, Skaria tends to conflate practice with the narrative form-for he says clearly that to him the term epic characterizes the mode in which Dangi resistance "draw(s), flamboyantly and exultantly, on the tropes of imaginary goth". As if imaginaries are the monopoly of narrative genres. After all, practices for the future are necessarily that which seek to be free from precedents and given 'fact', and therefore must foreground the imaginary. Even science would be nothing without 'science fiction'.To me, goth and rebellion, seem to offer more for the future if read as a matter of enunciating time, rather than as a matter of a narrative genre-the former and the latter may be associated but are different imperatives.
But how can one think if faced with contingencies where narratives appear impossible? What can one do with such radical excesses-not the excess to a narrative, but the unnarratable excess? Skaria himself has an answer when he repeatedly evokes a politics of hope. 1 would like to interpret his principle of hope as an imagination of a possible future which is presently impossible to put into a narrativebecause there is no antecedent which predicts it, no precedent it has to abide by and no past it need be continuous to. Yet it is a possible future, if only because memories of the past too offer the vision of moments which as yet remain in excess of all histories, which exist nevertheless in practice. Such excessive moments of the past must be invoked because they promise and await a future. Perhaps, only in such a future will the unnarratable and surplus moments of our pasts fall into a story.
Back to the top.