Decentring the Centre-Periphery Concept
The postcolonial theory includes the study of unbalanced power relations, which emphatically produced the binary conception of centre and periphery, where the centre is often regarded as hegemonic and progressive, but by contrast, the periphery is assigned the negative qualities of barbarism, oppression, and exploitation. This unbalanced power hierarchy created geographical, cultural, and economic peripheries by limiting the power to the centre, thus creating a colonised space, or ‘Binarism’, which has a distinctive meaning in post-colonial studies that analyse the oppressive mentality of the coloniser that through imperialistic force, subjugated the native indigenous culture. The French linguist Ferdinand De Saussure used the concept of ‘Binarism’ in Structuralism to establish a Eurocentric perspective of defining a meaning to an object, not in reference to the real object but that of the opposite sign (ironically, assigning the quality of ‘dualism’ or ‘Binarism’ is absent in Asian or Middle Eastern languages, which were mostly colonies of European power, especially Great Britain). This idea of arbitrariness is employed in defining postcolonial countries that were colonised and oppressed with manipulated histories and cultures by the coloniser. This definition is evident in the power construction between the colonised and the coloniser that alienates the native identities and disintegrates them to establish superiority over the colonies by stating a monocentric perspective on language and culture, thus associating European and Anglo-European morals over natives (colonised).
But this construct is neither absolute nor neutral; it is neither essential nor entirely matters to geographical location; it gains its meaning with relation to one another through cultural and social genealogy. Since the relationship between truth and modalities of power is understood by examining the system created by the centre, as Foucaultian Genealogy suggests, it analyses the hegemony of power through colonial discourses, which would define the relationship of colonial power on the colonised. As factual histories are influenced by the subjective interference of the occident to establish the ‘homogenised world history’, Edward Said, in Orientalism, defines Eurocentrism by analysing the political and social struggles by examining literature and culture using a Foucaultian approach that bases the mutual relation of power and knowledge. The formulation of peripheries regarding the centre might define the marginality of identities produced in non-hegemonic cultural, economic, and geopolitical spaces. The manipulated identities raise the question of multiple identities within the dispute of the binaries as they are relative, and ‘what is peripheral in one context may be central in another, or the centres may constitute peripheries within them.
The decolonisation and neo-colonisation process as a corollary to postmodernism and capitalism has an impact on defining the periphery as it reflects mainly on economically deprived sections or those provinces that are ‘abodes of spiritual or moral wealth’ or else commonly a corrupted metropolis that succeeded in controlling a province or periphery to marginalise.
Since most of the postcolonial or Third World nations such as Asia, Africa, the Caribbean Islands, and South America, whose history, culture, and literature are subjected to discourse, are internally divided into centre and periphery based on cultural, economic, or geographical distinctions, The decolonisation and neo-colonisation process as a corollary to postmodernism and capitalism has an impact on defining the periphery as it reflects mainly on economically deprived sections or those provinces that are ‘abodes of spiritual or moral wealth’ or else commonly a corrupted metropolis that succeeded in controlling a province or periphery to marginalise. As peripheries are constructed in or with reference to the centre, the marginalisation by power and the identities perceived are important, as the centre may commonly prompt inflicting negative stereotypical selves.
But postcolonial studies try to decentre the centre/periphery binary concept by analysing the similarities between the conflicting ideas, the construction of selves or identities, and, moreover, the geographical, cultural, and hegemonic power struggles. The concept of language is important in the analysis, as a construct of language and its implications encompass the understanding of postcolonial nations. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy explores the hidden power dynamics that underlie language, which is subjective and used to manipulate the perspectives of individuals to accept the hierarchy established by the dominant force. As the moral concepts and historical values are distorted, it leads the colonised to experience ‘double consciousness’ or ‘double identity’, which, according to Homi K Bhabha is the influence on the individual perspective of the colonisers’ consciousness and of their native ideology. Thus, languages can disrupt or resist the binary concepts by reclaiming the pre-colonial past or decolonising the colonial concept of morality and tradition by asserting the cultural identity or interdependence of the coloniser and colonised (Mimicry, Hybridity, and Ambivalence). This deconstruction poses questions to the notion of singularity with a series of responses that possibly render knowledge on different texts to congregate ideas on plurality. Multilingualism or multiculturalism locates the plurality of culture by disturbing the centring of power, which thus disassociates the concept of centre and periphery through transculturation or hybridity. In Moving the Center, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o argues that to achieve pluralism, equality of language plays an important role. He delineates the importance of language by emphasising multilingualism, and knowledge being globalistic, he advocates that translation works to traverse the boundaries, thus transfiguring the multivocal or polyphony of voices without cultural dominance. The ideology of pluralism is advocated by negating hierarchy and hegemony; Ngugi reiterates the primary idea of decolonising the mind by reaffirming the past or pre-colonial culture by realigning the Eurocentric loci to the native cultural context.
Deconstructing the internal division of the social system in postcolonial countries, decipher the pluralistic identity shadowed by Eurocentric loci. Nevertheless, this intolerance is a form of double marginalisation, causing further division among provinces, thus shattering the identity of our created selves. Contesting the visible characteristic of this division renders the frame of understanding on the reading of literature, which associates peripheral space with the author’s creation.
This essay attempts to explore the question of Binarism in Indian postcolonial literature using S. Hareesh’s Meesa (Moustache, 2018), which transcends geographical boundaries in a cultural and linguistic context that can be read in the contemporary literary tradition. By deconstructing the notion of centre, multiple periphery identities are explored in geographical and symbolic lexicons.
This essay attempts to explore the question of Binarism in Indian postcolonial literature using S. Hareesh’s Meesa (Moustache, 2018), which transcends geographical boundaries in a cultural and linguistic context that can be read in the contemporary literary tradition. By deconstructing the notion of centre, multiple periphery identities are explored in geographical and symbolic lexicons. Articulating language and mythology embody contemporary cultural notions with the traditional concept of centre and periphery (internal and external division in postcolonial nations). In Meesa (Moustache), S. Hareesh approaches the Indian periphery in the context of caste, culture, and language by emphasising the resistance through literature and language. The reading of the novel reflects on the comprehension of the lives of people in a feudalist, casteist community and the discrimination of people as untouchables; the period of the novel can be traced to traditional (Caste System) India by analysing the geographical, socio-political, and cultural background of the text. The scenarios shift from time prior to the world war to the contemporary period, i.e., the novel moves fluidly from past to present, contemplating the relationship between individuals and nature.
The Text and its Context: Meesa-The Centre and Periphery
The representation of entangled identities; and the title signifies both social and political commentaries; the mythological figure ‘Meesa (Vavachan)’ is a ‘pulayan’- an untouchable- who is marginalised due to his caste, but his decision to grow a moustache after a musical drama (as a police officer) resonates with the history of the kingdom of Travancore. The action of refusing to shave off his moustache can be regarded as resistance against feudalism, casteism and even against hunger and starvation. Even when, Vavachan became a mythological figure, his only intention was to find the path to Malaya to escape from starvation and meet the women he loves. His unconscious act of resistance (the dark man with a moustache) threatened feudal lords, authorities, and the abusive society.
The plot revolves around Kuttanad- Kerala, India- a delta region formed of five rivers originating in the Western Ghats and hundreds of tributaries flowing into the longest lake in India, ‘Vembanad Kayal’. As in other parts of India, a caste-based internal division of society existed in Kerala. This classification within the nation indicates categorisation or marginalisation, reflecting the impact of casteism in the lives of individuals and their use of language to form identities to revolt against discrimination. Caste rules not only discriminated against people but questioned their dignity, and identity and determined gender roles of masculinity and femininity. Even though the narration includes the conscious and unconscious resistance of Vavachan/Meesa, who is a pulayan- a converted Christian- the story features characters from other castes (Brahmins, Namboothiris, Pattan/Pattar (settlers from Tamil Nadu), Kshatriyas, Nairs, Chovan, Marar, Asari (carpenters), Kollan (blacksmith), Thattan (goldsmiths), Vaniyaan (oil makers and sellers), Vaathi, Parayan, etc.).
Portraying the life of Dalits, the novel describes North Kuttanad in Kerala framing tales of myth and folklore. Local myths and folklore depicted blur the boundary of reality and fiction; the folksongs about Meesa were created in various contexts and was widely sung by women while working in the field, men spinning yarns remembering imaginary fights they witnessed, quietly observing Meesa’s strength; nevertheless, people from ‘Kainadakar’ were the only ones who satirised Meesa in their stories as Ittichan defeated Meesa.
The use of convincing magic realism is evident in the novel; the story of the trickster, the spirit of Chovan (Caste) toddy tapper who was killed by a clever ‘chemballi’ fish plays tricks making the passing people forget all sense of time and direction, the spirit of a Nair (caste) who died of starvation that haunted people both hungry and well-fed, but the later will be surfeited with foods whereas the former will be astray, wandering for food around the world, there were also stories about the elderly old man who abused unmarried women, and tales that were popular among the people of Kuttanad; narration loses the sense of time, connexion between past and present resonates in the dialogues and languages used by characters. Analysing the cultural dogma of a period, the contemporary archetype of depletion of natural heritage symbolises industrialisation and endangerment or extinction of species.
The novel Meesa draws inspiration from Ramayana and local native folktales. Vavachan, who had played a role in a musical drama with no dialogues but scary roaring, is described as Ravana, a demon king; etymologically, the word ‘Ravana’ means ‘roaring’ in Sanskrit. Compared with Ravana, Meesa was a dark, scary figure with a massive body that scared everyone.
Since modernist literature considers mythopoeia or myth-making literary, philosophical, and psychological; F.W.J. Schelling in System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) argued that rather than requiring mythical material, literature itself is mythopoetic. The novel Meesa draws inspiration from Ramayana and local native folktales. Vavachan, who had played a role in a musical drama with no dialogues but scary roaring, is described as Ravana, a demon king; etymologically, the word ‘Ravana’ means ‘roaring’ in Sanskrit. Compared with Ravana, Meesa was a dark, scary figure with a massive body that scared everyone. But Meesa was searching for Seetha, whereas Ravana abducted Seetha from Rama with a desire for marriage. The major association to this comparison is the appearance of a character ‘Ezhuthachan’ in the novel as the Epic, Ramayana was recomposed in Malayalam as AdhyathmaramayanamKilippattu by Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan in the early 17th century, which is a classic.
The myth of women having a weak and adulterous nature is stated in ancient classic scripts that advocated men to protect women by subversion of their rights, controlling with power and violence over sexuality.
The traditional texts like Bhagavad Gita, Dharmashastras, including the Manusmriti, Mahabharata, Ramayana, consider women as subordinates to men, who are, in turn, responsible for conserving the purity of women, as caste or religious norms are associated with the sexuality of women, but describes women as sinful and corrupt from the very beginning of the creation of men and women. The myth of women having a weak and adulterous nature is stated in ancient classic scripts that advocated men to protect women by subversion of their rights, controlling with power and violence over sexuality. Thus, the evidence affirm that violence was an intrinsic practice of patriarchy for the establishment of the caste system and dominance, which was discussed through the character representation of females in the novel.
Violence against Seetha and Kadeeja constitutes the general idea of normalising sexual exploitation, especially with the illustration of the perspective of those who witnessed the crime; the underlying violence in the caste system perpetuates a severely hierarchical and unequal society that controls female sexuality to oppress women to maintain caste system
In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Sigmund Freud stated that ‘many of today’s accounts on sexuality are the theorisations of relations between the body, sex, and pleasure’. The language used to address women in the novel is sexualising; this is a product of a feudalistic society that extremely objectifies women. The novel presents encroachment on women’s space, the abuses, and the question of sexuality. Violence against Seetha and Kadeeja constitutes the general idea of normalising sexual exploitation, especially with the illustration of the perspective of those who witnessed the crime; the underlying violence in the caste system perpetuates a severely hierarchical and unequal society that controls female sexuality to oppress women to maintain caste system.
Languages represent both resistance and revolution against feudalistic, casteist society that appear as dialogues among characters or to the readers. Bakhtin’s concept of ‘polyphony’ or ‘many voices’ draws attention to the dialogues reflecting on multiple, independent voices that reflect liberation and revolution against the hegemonic hierarchy. Since the register of language is different, the concept of politics of language helped to analyse the social and political stand in casteist society; the geographical illustration of places prior to the world war and contemporary era picturised the changing or depleting natural resources, both flora and fauna. The effect of industrialisation is evident in the picture of the last hiding crocodile, the intensity of the destruction can be examined by the parallel reading of the tales elucidating the relationship between natives and nature. Ecological sustainability has been challenged with the advent of modernism, where industrialisation has caused multiple damages to human life and ecology. The character Meesa can be compared with this depletion of natural heritage, as the symbolism of nature is expressed in narratives of the tales on Meesa/Vavachan. His fall to nothingness and death without his legendary moustache configures the symbolic link to nature and wilderness.
The consequence of modernity has both desirable and destructive effects. The cultural oppression was questioned when the knowledge became accessible; resisted caste rules and sexualising dogmas. The novel urges the readers to comprehend the cultural diversity and ethnicity of a race not in the context of Binarism but in relation to nature, culture, and identity, but it is impossible as the periphery is yet again marginalised.
The consequence of modernity has both desirable and destructive effects. The cultural oppression was questioned when the knowledge became accessible; resisted caste rules and sexualising dogmas. The novel urges the readers to comprehend the cultural diversity and ethnicity of a race not in the context of Binarism but in relation to nature, culture, and identity, but it is impossible as the periphery is yet again marginalised. As India was colonised, the canonisation of culture, literature and language is manipulated by the coloniser aimed to stereotype the natives with identities of barbarism and uncivilised. The whites relegated and disregarded a nation rich in oral literature, folklore, and mythologies, thus claiming to civilise the barbaric browns (racial discrimination). But the division in a post-colonialised country indeed divides the people into extreme deprivation and marginalisation, which might become a reason for revolution and resistance.
Analysis and Discussion
Analysing the concept of centre and periphery in Indian literature, internal discrimination provides amiable evidence in evaluating the cultural segregation experienced in a caste-based society. But, considering the position of Kerala, where Malayalam is the mother tongue, on the periphery, the central areas should be in power in politics and literature. The literary tradition of Kerala is rich, be it oral, written, theatrical, dance, or musical. They epitomise the cultural and literary traditions of Kerala.
In the novel, the appearance of historical, political, and spiritual leader Sree Narayana Guru or Guruswamy, belonging to the Ezhava (Chovan) community, who engaged in the social reformation movement in Kerala; the revolutionary social reformer and anti-caste leader Ayyankali (born in the Pulayan community) were also mentioned, which suggests the idea of racial dissatisfaction with the caste-based division.
Channar Revolt, or Maru Marakkal Samaram (1813-1859), is another revolutionary riot demanding equality among the casteist communities to cover the bare chests of lower caste women. Since lower caste men and women were forbidden from wearing breast clothes in the presence of the higher caste community, the revolt by Nadar women against ‘Brahminical Patriarchy (feminist scholars termed the upper-class violence against women as Brahmanical patriarchy) tried to defy the diktats imposed by the upper castes on not to clothe their upper bodies.
The rejection of Kerala’s tableau for Republic Day in 2019 and 2020, especially that on Vaikom Satyagraha intended to be performed in 2019, was a Renaissance movement against untouchability and equality in temple access. These modernist power dynamics divulged the power structure, which demarcated centre and periphery, whereas the literature tried to read the power hierarchy that shadowed further into the social system. Channar Revolt, or Maru Marakkal Samaram (1813-1859), is another revolutionary riot demanding equality among the casteist communities to cover the bare chests of lower caste women. Since lower caste men and women were forbidden from wearing breast clothes in the presence of the higher caste community, the revolt by Nadar women against ‘Brahminical Patriarchy (feminist scholars termed the upper-class violence against women as Brahmanical patriarchy) tried to defy the diktats imposed by the upper castes on not to clothe their upper bodies. But the decision of the Indian Government was controversial as a potential move to alter and hide the struggles of lower-caste women against caste oppression.
India being a multilingual and multicultural country with a vast history of colonialisation and freedom struggles, the pluralistic ideology can impact both the aesthetics and development of the country. Experiencing cultural diversity enriches the intellectual understanding of an individual because of the pluralistic nature of identity and the common history of struggle and literature. Reading Meesa under postcolonial premises postulates the political, social, and cultural domination of the centre in creating a periphery that is deprived of an identity but to devise a non-hegemonic, marginalised identity without an idiosyncratic or subjective characteristic. The question of centre and periphery in Indian literature revolves around the contradictory places of caste, religion, or gender, which thematically introduces multiple derogatory forms of power hierarchy, both in colonialism and patriarchy. To understand the hypothesis, the use of language with the placement of women is analysed to study misogyny and marginality. The use of multiple languages to disturb the constitutionalising of the centre needs to be addressed, which abolishes the existence of peripheries that marginalised communities and literature.
- Hareesh, S. Meesa. 12th, D C Books, 2021.
- Moustache. trans. Jayasree Kalathil, HarperCollins, 2020
- Chakravarti, Uma. Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens (Theorizing Feminism). Sage Publications Pvt, 2018.
- Chatterjee, Sreya. “Dialectics and Caste: Rethinking Dalit Life-Writings in the Vernacular, Comparing Dalit Narratives.” Comparative Literature Studies, Special Issue of Beyond the Anglophone—Comparative South Asian Literatures, Vol. 53, No. 2, 2016, pp. 377-399. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/complitstudies.53.2.0377
- “Confirmed: Centre rejects Kerala’s Vaikom Sathyagraha tableau for Republic Day.” The Week, 10 January 2018, https://google.com/amp/s/www.theweek.in/news/india/2019/01/10/confirmed-centre-rejects-kerala-vaikom-satyagraha-tableau-republic-day.amp.html
- Gupta, Sharu, et.al. “Literary Sentiments in the Vernacular: Gender and Genre in Modern South Asia.” Journal of South Asian Studies, VOL. 43, NO. 5, 2020, pp. 803–816. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00856401.2020.1786788
- Hamadi, Lutfi. “Edward Said: The Postcolonial Theory and The Literature Of Decolonization.” European Scientific Journal, vol.2, 2014.
- Hauthal, Janine, et.al. “European peripheries in the postcolonial literary imagination.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, VOL. 57, NO. 3, 2021, pp. 291–301. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17449855.2021.1921955
- Lal, Amrith. “Travancore parallel: the fight to wear an upper garment.” The Indian Express, 18 October 2018, https://www.google.com/amp/s/indianexpress.com/article/explained/sabarimala-row-travancore-parallel-the-fight-to-wrar-an-upper-garment-5406642/lite/
- Literary Theory and Criticism. Patricia Waugh, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 288-318, 427-433, 340-350.
- McLaren, Joseph. “Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Moving the Center and Its Relevance to Afrocentericity.” Journal of Black Studies, 28, no.3, 1998, pp. 386-97. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2784740.
- Mambrol, Nasrullah. “Post colonial (Cultural) Studies.” org, 2020. https://literariness.org/202/11/14/postcolonial-cultural-studies/
- “Homi Bhabha’s Concept of Hybridity.” org, 2016. https://literariness.org/2016/04/08/homi-bhabhas-concept-of-hybridity/
- “Bakhtin’s Impact on Postmodern Sensibility.” org, 2016.
- Prasad, Devi. “Caste Identities and communities feast among Yadavs: an interpretation.” Caste and Gender in Contemporary India: Power, Privilege and Politics, Supurna Banerjee, Nandini Ghosh, Routledge, 2019, pp 113.
- Rao, Pallavi. “The Five-Point Indian: Caste, Masculinity, and English Language in the Paratexts of Chetan Bhagat.” Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol.42, no.1, 2017, pp. 91-113. DOI: 10.1177/0196859917736391
- Trivedi, Harish. “Colonial Influence, Postcolonial Intertextuality: Western Literature and Indian Literature.” Forum for Modern Language Studies, Volume 43, Issue 2, APRIL 2007, pp. 121–133. https://academic.oup.com/fmls/article/43/2/121/529353
- Voices from the Periphery Subalternity and Empowerment in India, ed. Marine Carrin, Lidia Guzy, Routledge, 2020.
Sithara Shahanas Rahim is a Research Intern at CSPS