“I am black, but my soul is white”: the Christian Neophyte and his Alienation in 19th Century Anti-conversion Anglo-Indian novels

Ayusman Chakraborty, Jadavpur University, India


This article studies how the Christian convert is represented in three nineteenth century Anglo-Indian novels. On the basis of their attitude towards conversion, Anglo-Indian novels can be classified as pro-conversion or anti-conversion. In pro-conversion novels, conversion to Christianity is presented as a smooth transition. Anti-conversion novels, in contrast, portray conversion as a harrowing experience that shatters the mental stability of the convert. Alienation and isolation inevitably follow conversion. The three texts discussed here show how the authors highlight the alienation of the Christian neophyte to discourage proselytization. The alienation of the convert is thus strategically articulated in these texts.

[Keywords: Christianity, Conversion, alienation, Hinduism, Caste, The Missionary, Sydney Owenson, Seeta, Philip Meadows Taylor, The Old Missionary, William Wilson Hunter.]

The issue of conversion became very important in nineteenth century Anglo-Indian literature. This was not an isolated occurrence, unrelated to mainstream English literature. As Gauri Viswanathan shows, conversion became a popular subject of discussion in nineteenth century Britain. The nineteenth century witnessed progressive secularization and liberalization of British society and state. This was not a smooth passage. There was a heated debate on whether to incorporate the religious minorities like the Jews, the Catholics and the Nonconformists into the wider concept of nation. The orthodox groups like the Evangelicals insisted on the conversion of the minorities to Anglican faith before they could be incorporated. At the same time, they also called for the Christianization of the colonies. On the other side, there were those who wished to preserve religious differences. Their goal was to Anglicize the minority groups without tampering with their religious identities – to convert a Jew to a non-Jewish Jew, in the words of Viswanathan. In such an atmosphere of conflicting ideas, novels on conversion acquired added importance. Viswanathan states, “It is no accident that novels about the conversion of Hindus and Muslims to Christianity had wide popular appeal in nineteenth century England, not merely as wishful testimony to the efficacy of missionary ideology but more compellingly as exotic displacements of the pressing and often explosive issue of whether to admit Jews, Catholics, and Nonconformists into the English nation state” (Viswanathan 27).

The Novel, as Viswanathan’s study suggests, became a battleground where the pro-conversion and anti-conversion ideologies confronted each other. Indeed, on the basis of their attitudes towards conversion, novels can be classified as pro-conversion or anti-conversion. In the pro-conversion Anglo-Indian novels, conversion generally becomes, to quote Viswanathan again, “a straightforward, overdetermined spiritual movement to Christianity” (Viswanathan 28). That is, in such novels conversion to Christianity is portrayed as smooth and unproblematic. In contrast, anti-conversion novels problematize conversion. Such novels focus on the alienation of the neophyte to tacitly discourage conversion to Christianity.

This article aims to examine how three anti-conversion Anglo-Indian novels strategically describe the alienation of the Christian neophytes. In such novels a neophyte always appears as a tragic figure. Rejected by the Hindu society, he does not find place among his new co-religionists. His attempts to mingle with the Europeans always meet with rebuff. The anti-conversionist authors do not portray conversion as a joyous rebirth. Rather they portray it as a painful experience involving isolation and separation.

It is necessary to understand at the very outset why some colonial authors were so much against conversion. The stated aims of colonialism were the three ‘Gs’ – God, Gold and Glory – or the three “Cs’ – Christianity, Civilization, and Commerce. However, the conversion of the natives always induced an anxiety in the colonizers. In so far as the neophyte proclaimed the triumph of Christianity, he or she was seen as the “reformed, recognizable Other”, to use a phrase by Bhabha (Bhabha 122). However, much like Bhabha’s ‘mimic man’, the neophyte also acted as a menacing presence. This is because, united to the colonizers by a common religion (Christianity), he/she claimed like Blake’s “little Black Boy” – “And I am black, but O! my soul is white” (Blake 45). This claim challenged the colonial signifying practice by partly obliterating the barrier between the self and the other. The only way colonial authors could render the neophytes innocuous was by presenting them as failed converts. Their attitude towards the neophyte was therefore ambivalent; it oscillated between compassion and contempt. This in turn influenced the way they portrayed the neophyte and his alienation.

A few words on the concept of alienation is necessary here. The word ‘alienation’ has become so much saturated with meanings that it is difficult to arrive at a concrete definition. At best, one can provide only a working definition of the term. For the purpose of this study, we will accept the very basic definition of alienation. As Irving Louis Horowitz points out, “At its source the word ‘alienation’ implies an intense separation first from objects in a world, second from other people, third from ideas about the world held by other people. It might be said that the synonym of alienation is separation, while the precise antonym of the word alienation is integration” (Horowitz 231). Alienation, as Horowitz shows, can have both positive and negative effects – that is, can be “constructive as well as destructive” (Horowitz 233). However, as long as it is imposed from without, it generally has a destructive effect on individuals. It produces only negative feelings–the feelings of “powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, isolation and self-estrangement” as recognized by Seeman (Seeman 783).

The ostensible object of colonial authors in portraying the alienation of the Christian neophyte was to condemn the Hindu caste system. In this the pro-conversionist and the anti-conversionist authors were in agreement. It is interesting that the nineteenth century Anglo-Indian writers portrayed mainly Hindu converts in their novels. Despite the fact that the Muslims formed a substantial portion of the Indian population, the novelists rarely portrayed their conversion to Christianity. Now, as polytheists, the Hindus were felt to be more in need of ‘truth’ than the Muslims. After all, the Muslims also worshipped the one true god, while the Hindus were just ‘idolaters’. Islam was certainly an ‘errant faith’; but it was a monotheistic one, sometimes more rigidly monotheistic than Christianity. As T. R. Metcalf argues, “Islam in the end was a religion which commanded respect, even a covert envy, among the British in India” (Metcalf 144). But more importantly, the British were afraid of the Muslims. Unlike the pliant Hindus, the Muslims were ‘zealous’ and ‘fanatical’ in their eyes. The British feared that they had already earned the animosity of the Muslims by ousting them from a position of power. They were not ready to try their patience further. Hence, the British writers put more emphasis on the conversion of the Hindus than the Muslims…Access Full Text of the Article

Unsettling Landscapes: Landscape and the Entelechies of the Alienating Gaze in Kipling’s The City of Dreadful Night

Satarupa Sinha Roy, Calcutta University, India


This paper examines and analyzes Kipling’s representation of colonial Calcutta in his travel sketch, The City of Dreadful Night. It explores the role of the European gaze at length seeking to uncover the ways in which it became complicit in delineating not only the colonial space but also the (hitherto more secure) notion of Englishness. In order to do so, this paper exploits Freud’s play on the concepts of heimlich and unheimlich, shining a light on how the colonial space, in Kipling’s imperial narrative, functioned as a covert force in the formulation of identities.

[Keywords: Kipling, Landscape, Colonial space, Gaze, Alienation, Desire]

Vision seems to adapt itself to its object like the images that one has of a town when one contemplates it from the height of a tower; hearing is analogous to a view taken from outside and on the same level as the town; touch, finally, relates to (the understanding of) whoever comes in contact with a town from close up by wandering through its streets. (Leibniz 1668)

In Kipling’s rendering of the colonial city of Calcutta in The City of the Dreadful Night, the entelechies of the urban colonial space can be grasped through a careful consideration of the senses—primarily, the visual, the aural, the haptic and the olfactory—and the interplay among them. In the specific context of his travel sketches on colonial Calcutta, this sentience is both the locus of his desire as well as its occasion. But before one can delve any deeper into the vectors of such longing, it is imperative to remind oneself that Kipling’s narrative on Calcutta distils the essence of European alienation and the primordial desire for home. Calcutta, for Kipling, both is and is not home and it is this very contradiction that enables one to see desire as an embodiment of two opposed ideas: first, as an entity that one must resist or escape from in order to preserve one’s integrity and second, as an entity symbolizing the human longing (at the moment of desiring, that is) for an ideal state, object or outcome.

Interestingly, the traveller/narrator of The City presents desire as both promise (albeit, elusive) of fulfillment as well as absence or lack—an idea that replicates the essential dichotomy between longing (for the ‘object’ that one lacks at the moment of desiring) and evasion (of the seductive yet, admittedly sinister world of taboos etc.). However, the desiring Subject is not essentially aware of this basic dissonance characterizing the nature of his desire(s) but is, nonetheless, structured through the object(s) of his longing(s). It is on account of this very inevitability that it is useful to apprehend the traveller/narrator of The City (and concomitantly, the narrative he produces) as the function of his desire(s) for the Orient as well as for all that it (the Orient) lacks. While the European’s desire for the Orient (the promise of adventure, discovery, power etc.) can be easily explained, his longing for what the Orient lacks warrants a more conscientious speculation. In this particular instance, what the Orient lacks and the traveller/narrator desires can be summed up (not too imprecisely, so to speak) as “some portion of [my] heritage” (Kipling 7). It is no doubt an abstract idea but, also one that reasonably embodies the European’s anxiety, his longing for the heimlich in the midst of an alien world and the ultimate unattainability of his desire(s). For although “Calcutta holds out false hopes of some return” (Kipling 6), the materiality of the claustrophobia it invokes automatically cancels the immaterial reprieve afforded by an illusionistic idea of ‘homecoming’. The desire for the heimlich London within the unheimlich domain of colonial Calcutta culminates into the febrile crescendo of the (ironically self-fashioned) “backwoodsman” and “barbarian”: ““Why, this is London! This is the docks. This is Imperial. This is worth coming across India to see!” Then a distinctly wicked idea takes possession of the mind: “What a divine—what a heavenly place to loot!”” (Kipling 8; emphases added). While Calcutta in its being the specular reflection of Dickensian London excites the desiring Subject (the traveller/narrator of The City) into asserting the malleability of forms and models (London, in this instance, is the model not only of Calcutta but also of all metropoleis), it is also the locus of the European’s desire to appropriate the Other for himself (“What a heavenly place to loot!” (Kipling 8)). However, this should not be confused with anti-desire or the desire to annihilate or destroy; on the contrary, it traces the trajectory of colonial desire to a longing that manifests itself as (latent) power of the Occident over the Orient.

As indicated earlier, Kipling’s representation of colonial Calcutta derives, to a great extent, from his sensory experience of colonial space. Like the royal palace in Italo Calvino’s “A King Listens” (Under the Jaguar Sun 2009 [1983]) which is “all whorls, lobes: [it is] a great ear” (Calvino 38), the colonial metropolis of Calcutta for Kipling is a sprawling sensory map—a vast network of sensory signals concretizing emotion, affect and memory. He repeatedly makes reference to the great “Calcutta stink” which he variously describes as the “essence of corruption” (9) and “the clammy odour of blue slime” (9)—notably fusing the haptic, olfactory and the visual. That the experience of the colonial space (and the subsequent representation of the same in writing) is informed by sensory perception in The City need hardly be over-emphasized, given its conspicuousness. Rather, it is the deployment of sensory perception to convey a sense of anxious alienation from the notion of home or the heimlich in and through language that is likely to strike one as particularly intriguing. The speaking Subject of Kipling’s narrative—a stand-in for the European colonial—is alienated in ways more than one, for he not only typifies the Self in exile condemned to dwell “in the outer darkness of the Mofussil” (Kipling 5) but also problematizes the gaze of the European surveying the colony in a more or less unambiguous acknowledgement of the blurring boundary between the familiar and the foreign. At the heart of Kipling’s representation of colonial India lies this central paradox: India is both familiar as well as foreign; both home as well as abroad; both heimlich as well as its terrifying Other. It might be noted that the relation between the (German) words heimlich meaning familiar, homely, tame etc. and unheimlich (the prefix un- indicating inversion) meaning unfamiliar, strange, uncanny etc. is not free from ambiguity; they do and do not—well, at the same time—seem to suggest the same conventional relationship as that shared by two unequivocally antithetical terms. As Freud writes, “Heimlich thus becomes increasingly ambivalent, until it finally merges with its antonym unheimlich. The uncanny (das Unheimliche, ‘the unhomely’) is in some way a species of the familiar (das Heimliche, ‘the homely’)” (Freud 134)…Access Full Text of the Article

“I was not certain where I belonged”: Integration and Alienation in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Avirup Ghosh, Bhairab Ganguly College, Kolkata

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The article will focus on the contrary impulses of alienation and integration in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist that the central character and narrator Changez goes through in America while working as an employee at Underwood Samson, a “valuation” firm and his subsequent return to his native Pakistan where he assumes what appears to be an ultra-nationalistic political stance. This is to argue that Changez’s desperate attempt at assuming this stance has its roots not only in the cultural alienation and racism that he is subjected to in America, especially in a post-9/11 America, but also in his futile effort to naturally integrate with a Pakistani way of life.  By uncovering certain ambiguities in Changez’s ideological rhetoric, the paper tries show how Changez’s critique of American corporate fundamentalism stems from his lack of a sense of belonging and from a feeling of problematized identity.