Baijayanti Mukhopadhyay, Banwarilal Bhalotia College, Asansol
Modhurai Gangopadhyay, Bidhan Chandra College Asansol
Our paper discusses the [mis]representation and the imaginary notions of India constructed through the European gaze in Tasleema Nasreen’s Farashi Premik or The French Lover. As the protagonist Nilanjana Mondal begins her search for love and independence far away from her home, in Paris, she feels herself continuously trapped within a prison-house of European gaze—where her motherland India is simply a barbaric land of beggars, poverty and prostitutes. It doesn’t take her long to realise that the French have a subconscious awareness that the Indian culture and civilisation is in some ways, far better and older than theirs and their gaze is an attempt to mask this schizophrenic fear behind a superiority complex. It is easy to give in to this gaze, like many of Neela’s Indian fellow diasporic Indians in Paris do, but much more difficult to deconstruct it, but that does not mean Neela would not try.
[Keywords: India, French, gaze, Neela, Benoir Dupont, European, oriental]
“They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.”
—Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire
of Louis Bonaparte”
The Europeans’ view of India, Indians and everything associated with the subcontinent can be summed up exactly in the quote above. The tendency of Europeans has always been to speak and write in stereotyped and dehumanizing ways about “The East”, in order to construct an imaginary other and India too has been no exception to this golden rule—as Edward Said’s “Orientalism” makes it clear. According to Said, the “rational west” has to be distinguished from the “irrational” oriental countries like India, simply for the purpose of the construction of an European identity that is superior to non-European cultures like India, which have always been portrayed as inferior, regressive, primitive and irrational— which is amply borne out by Kipling’s portrayal of Indian characters and his unforgettable comment loaded with colonial overtones – “… East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”. India no longer remains a geographical entity, rather it becomes an European invention— a land of “romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes …” ( Said 1). At the same time, India was seen as an oriental land of wish-fulfillment, as Jimmy Porter, the hero of Osborne’s Look Back in Anger points out in his process of “looking back” with longing and nostalgia at the days of India’s colonization:
All home-made cakes and croquet, bright ideas, bright uniforms. Always the same picture: high summer, the long days in the sun, slim volumes of verse, crisp linen, the smell of starch. What a romantic picture. Phoney too, of course. It must have rained sometimes. Still I regret it somehow, phoney or not” (I/6).
It is in the light of this ever pervading desire mixed with disgust that has always framed the European gaze and it has been further incensed by the “us-verses-them” contest that we, in this paper, would analyse the (mis)representation of India in the eyes of the French in Tasleema Nasreen’s Farashi Premik (The French Lover).
The French Lover is the tale of a woman’s search for love and independence in Paris, far away from her home. The plot centres around the protagonist Nilanjana Mondal, a young Bengali woman from Kolkata who moves to Paris after her marriage to Kishanlal, a Punjabi restaurant owner in Paris. After the breaking up of her marriage she meets Benoir Dupont, a blonde, blue-eyed handsome Frenchman, and is swept off her feet. What follows is a passionate and sexually liberating relationship with Benoir which ends with her realisation that they both love the same person—she loved Benoir, Benoir too loved himself and only himself and she was nothing but an exotic taste for him.
During her long stay in Paris, Neela is continuously confronted by the European’s [mis]conception about her motherland—they consider it to be an exotic yet uncultured civilization full of poverty, beggars, hunger and diseases. As Greenblat explains, we define our identities always in relation to what we are not—who must be demonised and objectified as “others” (Selden 164) The “unruly” and the “alien” are internalized “others” who help us consolidate our identities; their existence is allowed only as evidence of the rightness of the established order. That is exactly the reason why the Europeans have always sought to hide their fear of an alien culture behind the mask of a superiority complex. For the French, as Neela comes soon to realise, the poor India is the real India. This attitude of the French towards India surfaces when Neela watches a documentary film on India broadcast by a French channel with some of her French friends. The documentary begins with a close-up shot of an empty broken tin plate which diffuses into the picture of naked and bare-feet starved Indian children begging for alms and returning at the end of the day to a dirty unhygienic slum. It is also interesting to note that before his visit to India, Benoir had got himself vaccinated against almost all diseases known to medical science because, according to him, “We Europeans need it” (162) and in spite of the vaccinations, he says that he considers himself lucky to have come out hale and hearty from a disease-ridden country like India There is a reference to yet another documentary on India in the novel—on the life of prostitutes in India and their agitation for their rights causing Benoir to remark:“Holy Earth! There are so many prostitutes in your country, Neela!!”( 278).
Though the word “gaze” literally means an exchange of looks, in the post colonial perspective, it can be taken to mean a gaze that gives primacy to the European look. Thus, when talking about India in the European “gaze”, the word “gaze” actually is the look which denotes the dominant position of the European who controls the Orient as an object of desire and deceit. Thus India is always the object of the gaze—she can never look back, because she has no subjectivity. On the contrary, India and the Indians are expected to model themselves according to the Occidental gaze. The interesting point is that usually the Indian is co-opted into the occidental point of view.
The European gaze is a kind of whirlpool, into which many Indians, including Kishanlal, Sunil, and Choitali had already been sucked in. Comparing Paris to Kolkata, Kishanlal once says: “Do you think this is your dirty Kolkata that I have to wash my hands and feet every time I come home from outside? Ha Ha!” (30). Again, during her visit to Sunil and Choitali’s house, Neela notices that their baby daughter Tumpa does not respond at all to Bengali words. Choitali and Sunil inform her that Tumpa does not know Bengali, she has only been taught French. Since, according to her parents, two languages might confuse the child, they had stuck to French and had decided to leave out Bengali because “of what use would that language [Bengali] be of to her?”(44). Kishan’s view about the Bengali language is also no better; according to him, Neela shouldn’t be proud that she had been a Bengali major in her graduation, because “What can you do with your degree of Bengali literature? Would you be able to earn a Franc with it? You can’t.… So stop showing me your temper”(55). Actually, in spite of being Indians by birth, the European gaze towards their motherland had been thrust on them and they had begun to see India, Indian culture and Indian languages with the spectacles of disgust that the French had lent them, because, after all, it is far easier to swim with the current than against it…Access Full Text of the Article