A Palaver over Nuffin’

Rewriting History in Post Colonial Literature

In Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, there are different versions of a part of Indian history. Mangal Pande, Samad’s role model and great grandfather, is either “An unrecognised hero”, or “A palaver over nuffin'”. This dichotomy epitomises a central debate about history in post colonial literature. Subscribers to the first view of Pande are Samad himself and an Indian historian, AS Misra. Those adhering to the ‘palaver’ opinion are several characters in the novel, ‘Mickey, Magid and Millat, Alsana, Archie, Irie, Clarence and Denzel’ and, finally, ‘British scholarship from 1857 to the present day’.

While this is one of Smith’s characteristic jokes in the text, the ridicule cuts both ways. The formally, almost pompously stated view ‘unrecognised hero’ has only two supporters and is opposed by a long list (even more apparent on the page where they are presented as columns) culminating in the weight of British academe. On the one hand, this suggests that Samad and Misra are deeply misguided. However, ‘British scholarship’, again with that tone of formal pomposity, is listed with a number of dubious characters supporting the casual, informal ‘palaver over nuffin”. Is it Samad or British scholarship which is being ridiculed?

Researching Magal Pande

Though Samad and, as far as I can gather, Misra, are fictional, Mangal Pande is a real historical figure, a Bengali soldier serving under the British, who did attempt an attack on a British officer in 1857. Smith also presents the reader with the definition of Pandy from the Oxford English Dictionary, that revered tome of lexical scholarship, which is very revealing. The term Pandy is described as ‘colloq. (now Hist.)’; the adaptation of the unrecognised hero’s name is now an obsolete colloquialism. Pande himself is only present as a tentative piece of etymology: ‘Perh. f. the surname of the first mutineer…’ The three definitions take us further and further from the man himself, and show an increasing scale of denigration: ‘1. Any sepoy… 2. Any mutineer… 3. Any fool or coward in a military situation.’ Samad wants history to recognise Pande’s heroism, but an adaptation of his name has entered the English language as a casual synonym for military cowardice.

Samad’s friend Archie remembers the version of the story he learnt in school, which refers to ‘a confused mass of sepoys… all fermenting with excitement.’ Mangal Pande himself ‘is half drunk with bhang, and wholly drunk with religious fanaticism.’ After shooting at, and missing the lieutenant, he ‘cowardly lunged’ his sword ‘while his lieutenant’s back was turned’. The Captain and his son who ride to the rescue are ‘both armed and honourable and prepared to die for their country.’ The choices of details and language clearly work to denigrate Pande and promote the honour of the British. The unidentifiable ‘mass’ of Indian soldiers is ‘confused’, lacking clear direction. The ‘fermenting excitement’ already hints at alcoholic excess, and religious feeling is dismissed as ‘fanaticism’, a word often used to distance ourselves from fervour we do not share or understand. A version of the story to be found on the internet today describes it as ‘an isolated act of mutiny’ by ‘a zealot’ (not much better than a fanatic), and describes the British ‘commanding general’ who ‘dashed onto the parade ground and faced Pande’.[1] The path of linguistic development from these versions of the story to the OED’s third definition is clear, showing language formed by cultural attitudes and usage.

Smith also presents another version of the story, that by AS Misra, located in the library of a Cambridge college by his nephew. Significantly we are told that it is the ‘only surviving copy’ and it is ‘covered in the light dust that denotes something incredibly precious, something rarely touched.’ Again Smith’s language is double-edged. What denotes preciousness to Samad might suggest neglect to the reader; his perception of the book fulfils what he needs to experience. In the heart of academia, this last book is ignored. This might one the one hand suggest that English academics have no interest in an Indian version of Indian history. It might also suggest that the book is worthless.

The language of Misra’s version makes an interesting comparison with the language of the ones previously cited.  The vocabulary is stirringly emotive, elevating Pande’s action: “His self-sacrifice gave the siren to the nation to take up arms against an alien ruler, culminating in a mass-uprising with no parallel in modern history.” Not only is his action presented as a martyrdom, but a rallying beacon for oppressed peoples throughout history. However, this sentence is immediately followed by the information that “the effort failed” and that “Independence was won in 1947”. It does not take a skilled mathematician to work out that the interval between his action and independence is a matter of ninety years. Misra adds that “until his last breath he refused to disclose the names” of his collaborators. Heroic perhaps, but this also veils the distinct possibility that he could not reveal the names of collaborators who did not exist.

The flaws in this version of the story are clear, but, as Smith points out, so are the flaws in the English version. Bhang turns out to be “a hemp drink taken… for medicinal purposes” and is “extremely unlikely to cause intoxication”. In addition, it is pointed out that as a strict Hindu, Pande was “extremely unlikely to drink it.” What becomes apparent in these two Mangal Pandes, one cowardly and one heroic, is that the histories are written that are needed, they are stories for an audience. Ninety years before Indian independence, one can see why the British would want a drunken cowardly sepoy rather than a clear indication of revolt and growing discontent with colonial exploitation and abuse of indigenous customs. Equally, one can see why, for both Samad and Misra, it is important to be able to point to a long struggle for independence under the yoke of the oppressor, rather than passive acceptance of subjugation for over a hundred years. Here are two versions of history, disproving the truism that history is written by the victors. The victors’ histories, though, are the ones which gain credence and authenticity. What we do find, however, is that history is far from objective; in this example, the truth about Mangal Pande seems to fall somewhere between Misra and Archie’s history lessons. Though Samad claims that the discovery of Misra’s text is “a great day for the truth“, Smith suggests that in historical accounts we find “the truth mutating, bending, receding” like a Chinese whisper.

India: Kanthapura

Pande’s gunshot is one half-forgotten historical incident which Smith hauls from obscurity in White Teeth to question the ways in which history is written. Another version of India’s struggle for independence is found in Raja Rao’s Kanthapura, first published in 1938, nine years before that independence was gained. The narrative voice is that of an old woman, who reminisces about the first political whisperings about independence, the rise of Gandhi and the brutal treatment meted out to peaceful protesters. Samad’s hero is a Bengali soldier; what is remarkable about Kanthapura is the depiction of women at the heart of protest and civil disobedience, organising themselves to face beating and death for their political beliefs:

…but the soldiers have seen us, and one of them rushes towards us, and we are felled and twisted we are felled and we are kicked, we are felled and the bayonets waved in our faces — and a long time passes before we wake and we find Satamma fainted beside us, and Madamma and I, who were soaking in a ditch, crawl past her.

This breathless narration, with long sentences, multiple clauses and repetitions, is characteristic of the style of Kanthapura. It is at once gossipy and reminiscent of the Hindu epic myths. In this way it makes this slice of Indian history both personal and a part of Indian culture, the first person narration creating a vivid impression of the turmoil and conflict, not only between the protestors and the colonial regime, but between the protestors and religious conservatives. In this way the Indian perspective gives the reader a fuller understanding of the effects of these events. Gandhi is a distant figure in the novel — he never appears — but his influence is pervasive and his precepts frequently quoted, while the cry of “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!” is constantly on the characters’ lips as they are beaten and spat upon.

Rao’s choice of an elderly woman narrator distances the narrative point of view from the overtly political, but her account gives a vivid picture of the confusion of the time, beginning quietly with small challenges to caste taboos, and escalating to violence, death and the virtual destruction of the village of Kanthapura. The gossipy narrative voice portrays the village and its inhabitants, but also describes key historical events, such as Gandhi’s cotton-weaving campaign, the transportation of workers to the agricultural estates, the toddy protests, forced evictions, the challenges to the caste system, the imprisonment of protestors and police violence. She shows the shock of Gandhi’s preaching against caste divisions, at first appalled herself when her nephew visits Untouchable neighbours: “I closed by ears when I heard that he went to the Pariah quarter”. Though she and her friends change their views, others argue that Gandhi is “meddling with… the writ laws of the ancient sages”. What develops, without it ever being made explicit, is an account of how the British saw Gandhi’s aim of an undivided society in India as a threat to their control, and therefore bolstered the influential conservative religious leaders while asserting their authority with systematic arrests, imprisonment and police brutality.

It is completely an Indian perspective; as one character comments, “Judges are not for the Truth, but for the Law, and the English are not for the brown skin but for the white, and the Government is not with the people but with the police.” English characters do appear, but they are never given a voice. However, Kanthapura is an Indian perspective of the nation’s history in a much more interesting way, and that is in its style. As Rao says in his introduction, it is a challenge “to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own”, and that “We can write only as Indians.” His Indian English, a hybrid of English vocabulary, Indian terminology and Hindi syntax and pace is what makes Kanthapura remarkable. “The tempo of Indian life,” he says, ” must be infused into our English expression”. The rolling sentences, the repeated references to the gods and the local goddess Kenchamma, the songs and prayers, move history into the realm of myth, not to distance it from reality, but to deal with pain, loss and change by making it a meaningful part of a society’s great story.

Kenya: A Grain of Wheat

Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat also examines the history of a fight for independence from the local perspective. Britain relinquished control of Kenya after a bloody guerrilla campaign in 1963. Ngugi’s novel focuses on Uhuru, the day of independence itself, but repeatedly steps back into the past to explore the pain of the struggle. This is personalised in the lives of the characters, but it is clear that they are representative of the Kenyan population as a whole. This is particularly apparent with his choice of names for the central female character, Mumbi, who bears the name of the founder of Kenya in Kikuyu mythology.

On the one hand, A Grain of Wheat is a polemic, recounting the vicious suppression of Kenya under the State of Emergency, but unlike Rao, Ngugi does include a white perspective. Certainly the white characters are unattractive, but Ngugi suggests some understanding of the ideals behind colonialism, and the disillusionment with its failure, in the character of John Thompson. The ideals are flawed and based on presumptions of racial superiority, outlined in his notebook for Prospero in Africa, itself a significant title. In his notes, Thompson raises a crucial question in the novel’s view of history: “What’s this thing called Mau Mau?” To the British, Mau Mau was a band of rebel insurgents, terrorists who threatened the stability of Kenya in their bid for independence. At its peak, it is estimated that there were about 15,000 Mau Mau guerrillas. They attacked some white settlers as well as soldiers and police, but also Kenyans loyal to the British regime and those who refused to join them. These latter victims, numbering according to historical estimates about 2000, comfortably outnumber the victims among the authority’s forces (63) and white settlers (68). On the other hand, approximately 77,000 Kikuyu were imprisoned in detention camps and well over a million were forcibly resettled. It is estimated that 20,000 rebels were killed; certainly over 1,000 were hung. It is not surprising, therefore, that Ngugi, a Kikuyu writer, concentrates on the plight of the Kenyan population during these troubles. In A Grain of Wheat, Mau Mau is a band of freedom fighters and Kihika, the local leader, (perhaps based on Dedan Kimathi, the real Mau Mau leader) a betrayed hero. Karanja, an attractive, playboy-like character at the beginning of the novel, becomes an empty, brutal and despised traitor when he joins the homeguards and works alongside the British. There may be something of Samad’s and Misra’s views of Mangal Pande in White Teeth here. A nationalist Kenyan writer will want to promote a perception of a noble cause against oppression rather than a brutal terrorising campaign.

One event in the novel, the Mau Mau murder of the colonial administrator, Colonel Robson, neatly illustrates the different versions of events. Quite early on in the text, we learn from John Thompson that “Colonel Robson, a Senior District Officer in Rung’ei, Kiambu, was savagely murdered.” As the novel progresses there are further references to Robson. We discover his fearsome reputation among the Kenyans as “Tom, the Terror”, a man responsible for scores of summary arrests and executions. According to the Kenyans, “He was a man-eater… He was Death.” Towards the end of the novel the killing of Robson is finally narrated. He is assassinated by Kihika, disguised as an old man; on the roadside Robson teases “a lone man… [whose] knees seemed to be knocking together”. Nearing Robson’s jeep, Kihika pulls out a gun and fires “two quick shots” before fleeing. This is the event which is reported as “a District Officer… senselessly murdered by Mau Mau thugs.” The gulf between the two versions is reminiscent of the story of Mangal Pande. Ngugi’s narrative describes a local hero acting independently, risking his own life to purge the community of a brutal, unjust colonial oppressor. The narrative’s British version cannot admit oppression. For the British, such a murder is “senseless”, and an officer of the crown could only have been brought down by several assailants, so the “lone man” becomes a band of “thugs”. Unlike Pande, Kihika and Robson are fictional characters, but in them Ngugi characterises his perception of the State of Emergency in Kenya.

At another point in the novel, Ngugi creates the style of historical objectivity to lend credence to his account of events. The narrative describes Thompson’s response to the prisoners’ hunger strike in the Rira detention camp as part of the developing story, when suddenly he shifts tone and style, bringing the reader up short with a crisp, short paragraph in the unadorned style of a newspaper or history book:

What occurred next is known to the world. The men were rounded up and locked in their cells. The now famous beatings went on day and night. Eleven men died.

The short sentences, devoid of description, and the acknowledgement that the events are already known and acknowledged, seems to place this event firmly within history. In this way it becomes a shocking fact, unchallengeable.

However, as we have seen, no version of history is unchallengeable. Each version has its own agenda and audience, and the truth may fall somewhere in between. As Arundhati Roy has said, “There can never be a single story. There are only ways of seeing.”[2]


Zadie Smith, White Teeth, Penguin 2001
Raja Rao, Kanthapura, OUP 2005
Ngugi, A Grain of Wheat, Heinemann 1986

[1] http://www.historynet.com/ page now deleted
[2] The Guardian, 30th September 2002

A shorter version of this article appeared in emag issue 33, September 2006, published by the English and Media Centre