The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues
FEB 2020 Issue

The Silent (Silenced) Gap: Reading the Urdu Gothic through Foucault


Michel Foucault’s Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique suggests that the definition of deviant psychological profiles is as much about the operation of state power and the tyranny of Enlightenment rationality as about the norms of psychological reality. Foucault’s discursive and institutional history illuminates how two stories from the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto’s 1948 volume Chuǥẖad, “Miss Tin Wālā” (“Miss Tinman”) and “Paṛhiye Kalimā” (“God Save Us from Our Sins”), can be read as allegories of colonial oppression. Ashis Nandy’s history of the psychology of British Indian colonial subjects also speaks to how Manto’s stories are more than pulp fiction. Rather, their violence and terror dredges up the psychological damage incurred from discursive and institutional oppression during colonialism. These unhinged moments of the Unheimlich articulate gothic excess and expose gaps in the discursive and institutional authority of British colonialism.


At the heart of every excess is silence. Or, as Michel Foucault writes in Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, “madness is at work, at the very heart of reason and of truth.”1 Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique can be read as a theoretical companion and paratext to gothic literature. Not only are its themes those of the gothic—norm and excess, reason and madness, text and subtext, violence and passion—but also its historical and textual evidence comes from testimonies at the bounds of psychosomatic experience. In the case of the gothic, a silence intervenes in its characteristic moments that defy reason. A bevy of scholarship explains how these moments of unreason transfer affect from text to reader.2 Its physical and emotional architecture overwhelm the reader with estrangement and violence. But it is also possible that these moments of the Unheimlich express the compression of a type of logic being routed through its narrowest passage. This tension of the Unheimlich, the apparent defeat of reason by the forces of hysteria, brutality, and violence, might be read as the silent gap that when allowed to speak would supply the logic to unite the seemingly irreconcilable.

The gothic is not, however, strictly a European narrative mode. Marshall Brown criticizes the overly parochial thrust of scholarship of the gothic that confines the “international compass” of the Romantic gothic to “national schools.”3 Patrick McGrath likewise argues for the expansiveness of the literature, a “mad dream to be dreamt in a thousand forms.” 4 In fact, the presence of the gothic in South Asian literature and film has not been treated in scholarship aside from one article. 5 This essay, then, responds to Brown and McGrath’s sense of the insufficiency of the breadth in gothic scholarship and to the ways in which the history of sanity that Foucault maps in Europe might also be pertinent for pointing out structural similarities in British colonial India. In particular, two stories from the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto’s 1948 volume Chuǥẖad, “Miss Tin Wālā” (“Miss Tinman”) and “Paṛhiye Kalimā” (“God Save Us from Our Sins”), show how the discursive and institutional structures in Foucault’s investigation help us decode these Urdu stories as gothic allegories of colonial oppression.6 Both “Miss Tin Wālā” and “Paṛhiye Kalimā” involve moments of the uncanny gothic terror of the familiar, that of the Unheimlich, which, as Freud notes, is “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.”7

The uncanny is the estrangement of the familiar, and in this estrangement a heavy silence descends: the unknown of the known, the absent of the present. In these stories, estrangement leads to moments of oblique yet revealing perspective on the ravages of British colonial rule. The gothic contradiction on display in Manto’s stories opens up a gap of silence that can be explained through allegory. Judith Butler claims that allegory is “‘a way of giving a narrative form to something which cannot be directly narrativized.’”8 “Something” is still too new or uncertain for the author to speak directly about it: in the case of these stories, excessive passion, the abjection of colonial psychology, the liberation of the subject from abjection, and the new anxiety of Pakistan. Through their Unheimlich moments, Manto’s stories expose contradictions, prejudices, and injustices embedded in the discursive and institutional constructs upon which British colonialism based its rule.

The histories of the reformed French asylum and British colonialism in India are linked through a series of questions. To what extent does the reformed asylum of France suggest in British India a parallel role for educational institutions where the rules of British colonial society could be inculcated in a receptive population of native children? Against the backdrop of the phlegmatic British administrative state’s grasp on power, how were everyday passions, including sexual ones, codified in moral terms? And, as in Foucault’s argument about the construction of reason in Enlightenment France, did the British justify their authority through denigrating the passion of Indians so as to prove to themselves that Indians were unable to govern themselves and thus were unfit for self-rule? These are questions that Manto’s stories address in telling ways.

“Miss Tin Wālā”: the Libertine Threat to Colonial Education

“Miss Tin Wālā” tells the story of a fictional Manto and Zaidi, a childhood friend from Amritsar now living in Bombay. Zaidi has become obsessed with a cat that comes to his apartment. Zaidi feels as though he knows the cat somehow. The cat has “a big fat head and a white body covered in grime,” and its physical appearance is “really scary.”9 But it is really the fact that it will not leave Zaidi alone that fills him with dread. He repeatedly beats the cat, but its reaction is always one of indifference: “I beat the cat three times—why wasn’t it scared? It didn’t even meow. Why was it so indifferent?”10 Despite the physical abuse to which Zaidi treats the cat, it keeps on coming back. It seems to take some perverse pleasure in the abuse. This makes Zaidi ill. He cannot sleep. He stays up all night because “[a]t the slightest noise, I think it’s the cat.”11 It is clear to Manto that the cat represents something to Zaidi “that was tormenting him.”12 Zaidi admits to have thought the same. Zaidi turns to Manto as to a psychologist, asking him to figure out why the cat haunts him. Eventually Zaidi comes to the conclusion that the cat reminds him of Miss Tinman.

This character was a man who hung around the front gates of the two boys’ school. He was a woebegone character “whose head was usually bruised.” This was because their “principal had had others beat him so that he wouldn’t stand outside the school.” That had no impact, and so “[o]ne boy’s dad had beaten him with a hockey stick so badly that people thought he’d die in the hospital. But the very next day he was outside the school’s gate.” This by itself would be a menacing story, though perhaps yet unclear as to who is menacing whom. Manto then writes, “Miss Tinman had been obsessed with Zaidi, who had been a beautiful boy.”13 The reader knows too little about Miss Tinman to speculate upon his sexuality, but this statement suggests the gothic’s mark of “transgressive sexuality.”14 When Miss Tinman finds Zaidi reading a book in an empty park, he doesn’t molest him. Rather he asks Zaidi to read a letter: “Suddenly Miss Tinman was there. He had a letter in his hand: ‘Babuji, please read this letter!’ he said. I was so scared. There was no one around. Miss Tinman spread the letter out on my thigh. I got up and ran away.”15 The scene is suggestive of pedophilia, yet literally concerned with illiteracy.

This is where the backstory to Zaidi’s obsession with the cat and Miss Tinman’s obsession with Zaidi exposes the colonial school as occupying an ambiguous position in shaping British Indian mores. Gothic allegory links the horror of the two situations. Gary Johnson writes that an allegory “metamorphoses a real (possibly historical) phenomenon into a narrative structure.”16 Step by step, Johnson goes through how the transformation of material reality takes place:

In the first level, the phenomenon exists as the allegory’s main object of “imitation.” […] At the second level, [the writer] constructs a literal narrative […] that illustrates the phenomenon and provides a bridge to the third level. In the third level, the reader infers the figural intent behind the literal narrative. […] That inference, in turn, allows us to move to the fourth level, the recognition of [the writer’s] rhetorical purpose […]17

In Johnson’s model, the success of an allegory is determined by the effectiveness of the bridge that allows the reader to recognize the writer’s rhetorical purpose. Yet the reader’s ability to bridge from the literal to the figural in Johnson’s third step can never be guaranteed. In this gap, the allegory articulates its silent excess, an excess tied to the way in which material reality frustrates language and the intellect.

In Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, Foucault focuses upon how institutions of progress serve to suppress alterity, and this form of discourse analysis finds an example in the British colonial context in the central position of the colonial school and its obsessive policing of the native Indian population. Ashis Nandy writes about the stakes in education for the colonial state. He notes how the surveillance of alterity “to carefully monitor and manage dissent” was a chief strategy of colonialism. For Nandy, colonial education stands at the center of the management and suppression of dissent: “The colonial culture redesigns the entire educational system and the process of socialization to ensure the spread of definitions of sanity, rationality, adulthood and health that automatically stigmatize all unruly dissent as childish, irrational and retrogressive.”18 Now the full extent of Miss Tinman’s threat begins to be clear. He signals multiple forms of alterity. He becomes a regressive, “unBritish” boogeyman—childish, irrational, illiterate, and perhaps homosexual.

These are the very traits read onto the bodies of the natives that the British cited as justification for commandeering political power. The British justified their imperial policy through the imperative of instilling moral order. The annexation of Awadh stands as one such clear example. Michael Fisher writes that even after the first British Resident began living in Lucknow in 1773, and even after the partial annexation of Awadh in 1801, “[t]he [British East Indian] Company continued to view Awadh as a threat to the political and moral order it wanted to establish in India.”19 From 1849 to 1856, the years of William Sleeman’s Residency in Lucknow, Sleeman and other British officials painted a picture of Awadh that practically demanded the outright annexation of the princely state. Sleeman’s judgment against the moral disorder of the nawabs and the Lucknawi urban elite is severe: “[The good of the ruling family] cannot be considered to embrace the privilege of rendering wretched in perpetuity 5 million whose welfare and happiness the British Government is pledged to promote, and whose lives and properties it is bound by solemn treaty to protect.”20 General Outram, the previous Resident, concurs: “[Oudh is] an effete and incapable dynasty.”21This perceived moral degeneracy irked Sleeman into frequent expostulations. One tradition to win his umbrage is that of frequent public celebrations: “In this overgrown city, there is a perpetual turmoil of processions, illuminations, and festivities. The sovereign spends all that he can get in them, and has not the slightest wish to perpetuate his name by the construction of any useful or ornamental work beyond its suburbs.”22 Moral degeneracy in Lucknow was the primary excuse for British expansion in Awadh.

British colonialism was based upon the rhetoric of betterment, whose underlying principle was analogous to that of the French asylum. In Paris, the establishment of l’Hôpital général in 1656 was purported to be an advancement for medicine, but Foucault emphasizes its consolidation of power within the public sphere for the monarchy and for the bourgeoisie: “In its functioning, or in its purpose, the Hôpital général had nothing to do with any medical concept. It was an instance of order, of the monarchical and bourgeois order being organized in French in this period.”23 Writing skeptically about the “reformed” mental institutions of France during the years 1780 to 1793, Foucault states that these institutions were only a new form of incarceration with “regressive measures” moonlighting under the guise of progress.24 Mental institutions were said to operate for the betterment both of the individuals they housed and for society as well, but this public rationale obfuscated how they legitimized reason’s triumph by composing its opposite—a degraded mass of humanity viewed as dangerous, unreasonable, and mad. In Foucault’s reading, the monarchy and the bourgeoisie joined in tacit confederacy to implement this rhetoric for their own ends, while in India the example of the British colonial school serves to exemplify how the British as colonial rulers joined with the civil servant class to consolidate power over the subaltern groups.25

Furthermore, Nandy emphasizes how colonialism created new perspectives on sexual mores and gender stereotyping. He identifies “[t]he denial of psychological bisexuality in men” as helping to justify “dominance, exploitation and cruelty as natural and valid.”26 British colonialism feminized Indian men and retroactively created a hyper-masculine image for British imperial agents to uphold. Nandy writes that imperialism brought into prominence those parts of British political culture which were least tender and humane, de-emphasizing “speculation, intellection and caritas as feminine [and thus] irrelevant to the public sphere.”27 Effete, ineffectual, homeless, jobless, but also immoral and uneducated—these are the worst British stereotypes about the native Indian man. The fact that Miss Tinman lurks in front of the school links these characteristics directly to British colonial education.

The discursive and institutional connection between masculinity, morality, education, and employment was central to British colonialism, which groomed its new administrative class through its schools. Thomas Macauley’s “Minutes” announced this pursuit in unequivocal terms: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern—a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”28 Yet Miss Tinman stands in front of the school as a constant reminder that the colonial system cannot and does not afford opportunities to all. Miss Tinman represents the subaltern excess of the process through which British colonial education selectively created loyal Indian subjects. He represents a nuisance and a covert menace to the British colonial education system where education, morality, and employment operated in concert within the rhetoric of betterment, and yet reality remained somewhat different. His presence is also a reminder that while capitalism uses a teleological discourse of progress (like Foucault’s rationality), it brings about the exclusion and the systematic ghettoization of entire sectors of the population. In the capitalist world-economy, all labor is exploited, and yet some “laborers ‘lose’ a larger proportion of their created surplus-value than other.”29 This is vital for the accumulation of capital within the system.30 Not only does this mean that the periphery suffers, but also within the periphery, exploited labor is located within particular “ethnic” communities.31

This nexus of education, morality, and labor appears prominently in Foucault’s analysis of the reformed insane asylums of the second half of the nineteenth century. Inspired in large part by Daniel Tuke’s Quaker faith, the new asylum placed work at the conceptual center of moral re-education:

Work comes first in “moral treatment” as practiced at the Retreat. In itself, work possesses a constraining power superior to all forms of physical coercion, in that the regularity of the hours, the requirements of attention, the obligation to produce a result detach the sufferer from a liberty of mind [...]32

Moral re-education relied upon the benchmarks of the regularity of schedule, the demands of paying attention, and the obligation to produce a product. These combined to heighten the sense of responsibility in subjects known for their excessively “free” spirit—persons not unlike Miss Tinman.

Miss Tinman represents an alternative form of adulthood—childlike, irrational, and naive. He is the childlike native that early racist anthropological models broadcast as the proof of the primitiveness of colonized peoples. Thus, through this paternalistic, racist logic, as Stephen Jay Gould writes, “The adults of inferior groups must be like the children of superior groups, for the child represents a primitive adult ancestor.”33 Children were children because of their receptivity to moral instruction. Racist anthropology had already castigated all Indians to an inferior rung, never to become equal to the civilized European, and so the education that native children received was not meant to set them on par with the British but rather to make them benign abettors to colonial power. Nandy writes of how British colonial discourse reformed the notion of childhood so that childhood “increasingly looked like a blank state on which adults must write their moral codes—an inferior version of maturity, less productive and ethical, and badly contaminated by the playful, irresponsible and spontaneous aspects of human nature.”34 Miss Tinman is an unreformed adult, unformed in many of the same ways as children. He is threatening because his presence points to how the link between moral instruction and social mobility proposed by the British colonial school is tenuous at best.

The form of sexual alterity that Miss Tinman embodies counters as well the imperatives of masculine British colonial culture and its authority. Foucault’s libertine provides a historical analogy. Foucault’s libertine is an ambiguous figure whose defining trait is his inability to constrain his passions:

What [libertinage] means, then, is neither exactly free thinking nor a lack of cultural inhibitions; but, rather, a state of servitude in which reason is made the slave of desires and the servant of the heart. Nothing is further from this new libertinage than the free choice of a critical reason; rather, everything speaks to the subjugation of reason: to the flesh, to money, to passions; and when Sade, the first of the eighteenth century, would attempt a coherent theory of this libertinage whose existence up till him had rested a half-secret, it would be this enslavement that would be exalted.35

To explain Miss Tinman’s return to the site where he has been violently beaten—in fact, almost to death—is difficult to fathom. But to read him as a libertine under the sway of passions makes him a figure of more complete and incisive alterity: he is the native libertine, a figure who crystallizes all those traits that the British imposed upon Indians as the moral justification for colonialism.

Miss Tinman has “special eyes”36 for the young Zaidi. But in Manto’s view he is not a sexual predator. One last detail remains to clarify exactly what threat Miss Tinman does represent. The story includes an educational history of Manto and his friend. After going to school together as boys, they went to college together. While Manto flunked out after two years, Zaidi earned a BA and an MA—considerable accomplishments for an Indian in colonial times. While Manto moved to Bombay and started writing for the film industry and for film magazines, Zaidi’s education did not mete him immediate employment. Zaidi was unemployed for “four or five years,” and, at the time of the story, had just got a job in a Bombay shipping company. Thus, the threat that Miss Tinman represents to the school is wrapped in situational irony: he is not a sexual predator, but a libertine, excessively given to his passions; as such, he is resistant to the grooming and molding that the colonial school was meant to effect.

That Zaidi links the cat to the man suggests that his failures to accomplish social mobility haunt him—his failure and that of many others subtends the system in which social mobility was promised. Zaidi recounts the aftermath of his childhood encounter with Miss Tinman: “By the time I got home, I had a high fever. For two days I was raving. My mother thought there must have been evil spirits in the tree I sat beneath.”37 Miss Tinman does nothing illegal, nefarious, or contemptible, and yet Zaidi seems infected with a magical poison. Miss Tinman’s crime, if you will, is being a visible sign of difference to the moral and social order that the school represents. His presence is an imaginative goad, and if terror and the failure of reason are the narrative topoi of the gothic, the psychological effects of imagining them are just as central to its aesthetics. The gothic not only “plays with terror and the limits of reason, but [...] imagines them.” 38 Miss Tinman goads the school’s principal, parents, and children—all proxies of British colonial order—to imagine an alternative outcome to the narrative of progress and social mobility promised as the reward of acculturation. He represents a counterexample to the British moral order that linked education, work, sanity, and normalcy.

“Paṛhiye Kalimā”—Abjection, Confession, and Pakistan

“Paṛhiye Kalimā”39 tells the salacious story of Abdul Raheem’s love affair. From his aiding in his lover’s disposal of a murder victim, to his near death at his lover’s hands, his murder of his lover, his murder of a possible witness, and his protracted and unhinged confession to the police, this is a gothic tale of misplaced passion, senseless and extreme violence, and paranoid psychology. Yet at an allegorical level, the story gains meaning through the narrator’s garrulous confession and the curious psychology that it presents: like the narrator in Poe’s “The Black Cat,” Abdul Raheem admits what the police do not know; his confession to his lover’s murder is the only evidence against him. Reread as a comment upon colonial psychology, his confession reveals the tendency of colonized psychology to over-identify with the oppressor. For within the context of the lawlessness that broke out across South Asia during the chaos of Partition the police no longer stood as arbiters of law and order, and yet Abdul Raheem reinscribes that defunct order and so pointlessly subjects himself again to the authority of the colonial power structure.

Abdul Raheem is apprehended in the public restroom where he stabbed Tukaram, a possible witness to his murder of Rukma Bai, his lover—a murder that he committed in self-defense. Yet the murders to which Abdul Raheem confesses far exceed the murder of Tukaram, the only crime for which the police has any evidence. Whereas Poe’s narrator writes, “to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburden my soul,”40 Abdul Raheem sees this death before him and hopes for a reprieve—“If they don’t hang me,” “if I escape hanging,” he keeps burbling, hoping against hope to avoid death.41 A confession is a unique psychological form since it is an acknowledgement of guilt before symbols of authority. It is opening oneself up to punishment. But confessions can be manipulated, and those accused of crimes tortured into admitting falsehoods. False confessions also exist. Not only do torture and manipulation increase the psychological pressure that leads to false confessions, but people can also confess falsely for reasons of their own.

The vulnerability of the subject during confession creates an abject subject. To Jean Baudrillard, abjection is one integral element to the governing ethos of the West, which also includes “humiliation, shame, [and] self-denial.”42 Nandy sees the abjection of the colonial subject as integral to the mechanisms of rule within colonial psychology, focusing upon how “cultural co-optation” creates “identification with the aggressor” and binds “the rulers and the ruled in an unbreakable dyadic relationship.”43 Within the context of British Indian subaltern psychology, Abdul Raheem’s confession is a token of obeisance, of rendering himself abject before one remaining symbol of colonial rule, the police.44

The story begins with Abdul Raheem speaking to a Muslim police officer, prevailing upon the faith that the two share as a reason why the officer must believe that his killing of Tukaram had nothing to do with Hindu-Muslim animosity: “You’re Muslim so believe me. Everything I’m about to tell you is true. [...] Yes, I killed Tukaram, and, like you say, I gutted him with a sharp knife. But it wasn’t because he was Hindu.”45 He claims his actions aren’t “about Pakistan,” though he is “ready to give my life for Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah.” He knows that the police officer is likely to jump to conclusions because, as Abdul Raheem says, “I know you’re busy these days with [communal] riots.” He goes on to admit that he killed three Hindus in communal riots, but he says that shouldn’t prejudice the police’s interpretation of his story of Tukaram’s murder. This framing is at once natural, familiar, and strange. During Partition, Hindus and Muslims killed one another, and indeed the murders to which Abdul Raheem confesses are those of Hindus. Yet, at the same time, the reasons for the crimes would not matter to the police, were they truly impartial arbiters of the state’s justice. Abdul Raheem addresses the police officer as a religious judge.

Abdul Raheem frames the story of his crimes as that of straightforward sexual misadventure and lust-borne madness. He cannot believe that what happened to him actually happened to him. Poe’s narrator in “The Black Cat” says, “I neither expect nor solicit belief.”46 Abdul Raheem, too, emphasizes how rational thought cannot help explain his actions: “Who knew that I was going to get caught up in this mess?”47 The madness of love took hold of him: “I don’t know what overcame me […] I was head over heels in love.”48 Through confessing, Abdul Raheem renounces any possible form of self-defense, and thus he renounces his agency; he renders himself abject before the law. But his confession is also a performance of speaking—an act of enunciation—that saves him from madness. Speaking reassures oneself that one is not mad, and as Jacques Derrida writes, the belief in this truism is “inherent in the essence and very project of all language in general; and even in the language of those who are apparently the maddest [....]”49 The confession also recalls Foucault’s history of the asylum, where sexual profligacy—something from which Abdul Raheem could be said to suffer—was treated as a malady of the soul requiring confession, and “profligates” (patients with STDs) in the Hôpital général were treated through a six-week course of bloodletting, purges, baths, applications of mercury, and “a good and thorough confession.”50 Confessions were necessary to unburden the guilty soul.

To read this story as an allegory, the economic conditions of Abdul Raheem’s life must be considered as well as how these conditions impact his subaltern psychology. Abdul Raheem is a servant at a Bombay housing tenement, a “chāl” (“chawl” in Bombay English). He sleeps underneath the stairs51 and earns 35 rupees a month—a sum so low that he admits that his poverty should not allow him to engage in love affairs.52 Textile mills constructed chawls to house their employees. These buildings represent a chief architectural and industrial feature of the imperial economy: the crowding of these tenements, their lack of running water, and their common lavatories mark the degrading conditions of cheap, manual laborers necessary for the production of cheap finished goods sold in Britain.53 Even within this population of mill workers—the non-fixed wage income earners that Wallerstein mentions as being essential for capitalist exploitation—Abdul Raheem is a subaltern figure. As a laborer, he is among the poorest of the poor. He represents the debauchery, moral disorder, and pitiful living conditions of the modern city from whose “delights and opulence” rise “the tremors of misery [and] the cries of despair and fury.”54 Here, Bombay is the “overgrown” city of excessive misery and joy.

The narrative of exhilarating and yet debilitating moral chaos is as follows. Rukma Bai is married, but her husband is frequently away selling his goods at the market. One day when her husband is gone, Abdul Raheem goes to her room. She invites him inside. There, he gets horny (“mera ḵhun garam ho gayā”); he gets even more horny (“main aur zyādah garam ho gayā”); and then he passionately (“josh se”) declares himself willing to kill her husband for her.55 He repeatedly states that he had never met a woman like her; he refers to her as a “monster” (“ẕālim”), or someone who has the power to oppressively control him.56 He explains that he did not go to the police at once because she had “made him her slave in one night.”57 Ten days later, Rukma Bai kills her husband, and when she demands that Abdul Raheem help her dismember and dispose of the corpse, he does so, finally stuffing it piece by piece beneath a mosque’s gate.58

In the course of their brief relationship, Rukma Bai quickly turns on him. She enlists the neighborhood mango seller, Tukaram, to aid her in killing Abdul Raheem. Thinking that they have successfully strangled him to death, Rukma Bai and Tukaram are making love when he miraculously revives on the floor. Again, Abdul Raheem must be killed. When he realizes what lays in store for him, he feels “a superhuman strength” arise in him.59 Tukaram flees, and when Rukma Bai turns back to murder Abdul Raheem, instead he throws her from her apartment’s third-story window. In the morning, her body has been mysteriously cleared from the back alleyway, and all physical evidence has been effaced. Yet Abdul Raheem becomes obsessed with the notion that Tukaram will say something. He decides to kill him. He follows him into a public restroom and murders him, a crime for which he would have gotten away if he had not stopped to take the dying man’s pulse. This act delays his escape, and he realizes his error in hindsight: “I should have left immediately and called out, ‘911!’ But I was so stupid: instead I went over to check his pulse. I knew there was such a thing as a pulse, but I didn’t know how to take it.”60

It is a story of mad love, of desperate love, of “desperate passion” and “[l]ove disappointed in its excess,” a love “especially deceived by the fatality of death” that results in “madness.”61 It is a gothic tale of romance. But it is also a story set within the historical, religious, and socioeconomic frames mentioned above. That is, it is also a very public story, and a story about how the private lives of individuals are impacted by the public controls to which they are also subject. Abdul Raheem is so poor that he lacks private space—he sleeps beneath a set of stairs. Being constantly in the public sphere, he is—like the homeless Miss Tinman—especially vulnerable to colonial discursive regimes that create the abject colonial subaltern. Without any private sanctuary to bolster any sense of resistance, he over-identifies with the agents of that discourse and confesses too freely. He bears a psychic burden as a colonial subject.

In the context of Indian and Pakistani independence, liberation brought a newly intense phase of discursive and institutional oppression, just as with the advent of the reformed European asylum, repressive mechanisms did not abate but rather doubled and trebled.62 Britain was no longer the oppressor, but forms of self-loathing developed. The shared cultural inheritance of Muslims and Hindus (and others) in South Asia became severed: for the Indian state, Pakistan became the new boogeyman, just as for Pakistan, India became the same. Reading “Paṛhiye Kalimā” as a gothic allegory connects the lust-borne madness of “hot blood” to the more public story of Abdul Raheem’s psychological subjugation and economic enslavement. Subjected to the psychological and economic regimes of British colonialism, the abject Abdul Raheem is hardly able to understand the forces that converge upon him and produce his self-destructive and murderous actions. His dim understanding of the historical conundrum within which he lives can only be expressed obliquely in his unsolicited yet pathologically voluble confession.

Conclusion—Silent No More?

Foucault’s Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique is based upon a desire to read silence, the silence imposed upon madness, the silence at the heart of Enlightenment rationality’s excessive grip on power within Western metaphysics. Excavating silence—textual silence—is also necessary in reading where the reconstruction involves articulating the bridge that unites the real and possibly historical phenomenon to the surface narrative. Interestingly, tracing textual silence was also the stated goal of subaltern studies. In Ranajit Guha’s classic text “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency,”63 the semiotic principles of index and function are the tools used for unearthing the subaltern’s voice within British historiography of South Asia. There, Guha acknowledges the methodological connection between semiotics and subaltern studies, stating his debt to Barthes, and suggesting the pertinence of French epistemological models for South Asia.64

While the global similarities among the methods of Foucauldian discourse analysis, allegorical excavation, structuralism, and subaltern studies remains to be sussed out in its intricacies across the European-South Asian divide, the basic question of how one goes about reading silence was quickly challenged in both spheres. Derrida criticized Foucault’s project from its inception, taking exception to his reading of Descartes’ Meditations. He argues that “madness, folly, dementia, insanity” are only seemingly “dismissed, excluded, and ostracized from the circle of philosophical dignity,” 65 and that Foucault misses their presence due to his avoiding the “historical structure” of the sign and how “[w]hen one attempts, in a general way, to pass from an obvious to a latent language, one must first be rigorously sure of the obvious meaning.”66 Derrida questions Foucault’s reading of the “obvious” meaning present in the “literal” surface narrative—an explanation that recalls Johnson’s idea of “figural intent.” Derrida reads Foucault’s history of rationality and madness so that surface contradictions are rehistoricized to understand the “zero point at which determined meaning and non-meaning come together in their common origin.”67 Needless to say, reading allegory also involves such a process of the unification of meaning. Then, in the case of Guha, Gayatri Spivak points to a similar problematic. The focus of her question is no less than that which dogs the interpretation of allegory, namely, the question of whether it is possible for a text to speak out of silence. As famously stated, the question that she lances at subaltern studies is whether the “epistemic violence of imperialist law and education” results in a textual oppression that is so complete that the premise of subaltern agency is rendered moot: the question of can the subaltern speak?”68 is answered with a general “no.”

These critiques are useful; at the very least, they point both to the general interest in reading through or beyond social and textual silences, and the difficulty of doing so. Here, I argue that Foucault’s history of the silencing of madness in Europe provides a point of reference and a method for excavating silences in the context of South Asia. Derrida’s objection to Foucault’s work is important, too, in that it points back to Manto’s stories, insisting that we locate them first within a strictly contained “historical structure.” From there, an allegorical reading allows us to reapproach the stories’ plots, connecting them to the underlying gothic logic of madness, alterity, and silence in British South Asia. In the case of Spivak’s critique of Guha, one thing must be said: a literary text differs from a historical one in its ability to invoke, or speak, out of silence. Literature’s open-endedness allows types of indirect, slant, associative, or allegorical thinking from which it is possible to imaginatively recover voices from silence in a way that is impossible within the epistemological frame of history conceived as an objective, universal record.

Manto provides us with two subaltern characters, Miss Tinman and Abdul Raheem, whose voices of colonial critique can be heard—or read—by applying the structural principles of allegory in which an author narrates “something which cannot be directly narrativized.” In this case, it is the trauma of colonialism and the aberrant, abject psychology that it can produce in colonial subjects. Foucault’s history of reason and madness serves as a guide for reading how the discourses and institutions of power created silence in British South Asia. The colonial critique latent in Manto’s stories can be accessed through applying the insights of European and Indian historiography; moreover, the unique literary mode of the gothic allegory allows these critical voices to speak as though from out of silence.

  1. Michel Foucault, Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), 25. Translations will generally follow Richard Howard’s translation Madness and Civilization (New York: Norton, 1966). Page numbers, however, refer to the French version listed above. 

  2. The Gothic is a healthy scholarly literature. A cross-section in recent years includes the following: Marshall Brown, The Gothic Text (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005); Andrew Cusack and Barry Murnane, editors, Popular Revenants: The German Gothic and Its International Reception, 1800-2000 (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012); Monika Elbert and Bridget M. Marshall, editors, Transnational Gothic: Literary and Social Exchange in the Long Nineteenth Century (Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2013); Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik, editors, Le Gothic: Influences and Appropriations in Europe and America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); J. Gerald Kennedy and Jerome McGann, editors, Poe and the Remapping of Antebellum Print Culture (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2012); Robert K Martin and Eric Savoy, editors, American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative (Iowa City, IA: U of IA Press, 1998); and Denis Mellier, L’Ecriture de l’excès: fiction fantastique et poétique de la terreur (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1999). This work focuses on the philosophic precursors and legacy of the Gothic; the German Gothic as the first Gothic; the internationalization of the Gothic aesthetic; an argument for the prevalence and importance of Gothic in our the self-image of America; the Gothic in American print; and Gothic literature as welling up from excess. 

  3. Brown, The Gothic Text, 1-2.  

  4. Patrick McGrath, “Afterword,” in Conjunctions: 14 (1989): 244. 

  5. To my knowledge, the only other treatment of the gothic in South Asian cultural production is Rachel Dwyer, “Bombay Gothic: 60 Years of Mahal/The Mansion, dir. Kamal Amrohi, 1949,” in Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood: The Many Forms of Hindi Cinema, edited by Rachel Dwyer and Jerry Pinto (New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2011), pp. 130-55. 

  6. Sa’adat Hasan Manto, “Paṛhiye Kalimā” and “Miss Tin Wālā,” in Chuǥẖad (Bombay: Qutb Publishers, 1948), collected in Mantonama (Lahore: Sang-e-Meel, 2003), 259-67 and 268-75. The first was translated as “God Save Us From Our Sins” by Matt and Aftab Ahmad, Metamorphoses 23.2 (Fall 2015), 167-173. 

  7. Freud, “The Uncanny,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, translated by James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1955), 220.  

  8. Quoted in Gary Johnson, The Vitality of Allegory: Figural Narrative in Modern and Contemporary Fiction (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 2012), 11. 

  9. Manto, “Miss Tin Wālā,” 271. 

  10. Ibid., 270. 

  11. Ibid., 272. 

  12. Ibid., 273. 

  13. Ibid., 284-5. 

  14. McGrath, “Afterword,” 242. 

  15. Manto, “Miss Tin Wālā,” 285. 

  16. Ibid., 10. 

  17. Ibid., 11. 

  18. Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism (New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2010), 118. 

  19. Michael Fisher, The Politics of the British Annexation of India, 1757-1857 (New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1993), 177. 

  20. William Sleeman, “Colonel Sleeman’s Letter Dated December 10, 1851,” Parliamentary Papers: Papers Relating to Oude (London: Harrison and Sons, 1856), 18. 

  21. James Outram, Parliamentary Papers: Papers Relating to Oude (London: Harrison and Sons, 1856), 46. 

  22. William Sleeman, Sleeman in Oudh, An Abridgement of W.H. Sleeman’s A Journey through the Kingdom of Oude in 1849-50, edited by P.D. Reeves (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971), 157-8. 

  23. Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, 61. 

  24. Foucault, Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, 445. 

  25. The composition of the British colonial class was itself uneven historically. Nandy uses the date 1830 to signal the point at which the British ruling class shifted from being feudal in background to bourgeois. See Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, 4. See also Ranajit Guha, Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997). 

  26. Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, 4, 63. 

  27. Ibid., 32. 

  28. Thomas Macauley, “Minute by the Hon’ble T.B. Macauley, dated the 2nd Feb. 1835,” 

  29. Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Construction of Peoplehood: Racism, Nationalism, Ethnicity.” Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, edited by Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein (London: Verso, 1991), 83. 

  30. Wallerstein calls these laborers those of the “household of part-lifetime wage workers” or “non-waged labor.” They “may receive less in hourly wages than what is [...] the cost of the reproduction of labor.” Ibid. 

  31. Ibid. Wallerstein defines these communities as being particular ethnic groups, hence, the “‘ethnicization’ of the work force.” The concept of ‘ethnic group’ is related to the creation of household structures that permit the maintenance of large components of non-waged labor in the accumulation of capital.” Ibid., 78-9. 

  32. Foucault, Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, 505. 

  33. See Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1981), 115. 

  34. Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, 15. 

  35. Foucault, Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, 115. This excerpt is absent from Howard’s translation. 

  36. The text reads “zaidi par […] miss tinwāle ki khas nazar thi.” See, “Miss Tin Wālā,” 284. 

  37. Manto, ““Miss Tin Wālā,” 285. 

  38. Brown, The Gothic Text, 14. 

  39. The kalima is the Muslim profession of faith, “There is no God but God and Muhammad is His Prophet.” 

  40. Poe, “The Black Cat,” 

  41. Manto, “Paṛhiye Kalimā,” 259, 266. 

  42. Jean Baudrillard, The Agony of Power, translated by Ames Hodges (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 113-4. 

  43. Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, 7. 

  44. Richard Delacey writes, “[T]here is something particularly interesting to me about the fact that Manto seeks, often in a very modernist manner in which there is no moral to the tale, to put on display for the consumption of the middle class its own abjection. And there is nothing more abject that taking a perverse pleasure in reading about one’s own abject state.” See the unpublished paper, “Manto and the Perverse Pleasure of Middle Class Abjection” presented at “On Sa’adat Hasan Manto” Conference, NYU, 11 May 2012.  

  45. Manto, “Paṛhiye Kalimā,” 259. 

  46. Poe, “The Black Cat,” 

  47. Manto, “Paṛhiye Kalimā,” 259.  

  48. Ibid. 

  49. Jacques Derrida, “Cogito and the History of Madness,” in Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978; New York: Routledge, 2002), 67. 

  50. Foucault, Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, 99. 

  51. Manto, “Paṛhiye Kalimā,” 262. 

  52. Ibid., 260. 

  53. See Neera Adarkar and Meena Menon, One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices: The Millworkers of Girangaon: An Oral History, introduced by Rajnarayan Chandavarkar (Kolkatta: Seagull, 2004); and Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business strategies and the working classes in Bombay, 1900-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). 

  54. Ibid., 394. Originally, André Matthey, Nouvelles recherches sur les maladies de l’esprit (Paris and Geneva, Paschoud, 1816), 66. 

  55. Manto, “Paṛhiye Kalimā,” 261. 

  56. Ibid., 262.  

  57. Ibid., 263. 

  58. Ibid. 

  59. Ibid., 265. The text reads, “maqāble ke bepanah ṭāqator “a strength from which there is no shelter.” 

  60. Ibid., 267. 

  61. Foucault, Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, 49. 

  62. Ibid., 571-2.  

  63. Ranajit Guha, “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency,” in Selected Subaltern Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). 

  64. Ibid., 54. 

  65. Derrida, “Cogito and the History of Madness,” 37. 

  66. Ibid., 38, 57. 

  67. Ibid., 68, 46. 

  68. Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Reflections on the History of an Idea: Can the Subaltern Speak? (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 252. 

This essay was previously published in Sagar: A South Asia Research Journal 26 (2018): 4-27.


Matt Reeck

Matt Reeck lives in Brooklyn with his family. He's interested in chronicles, translations, reading, promoting the work of Abdlekébir Khatibi and other writers, and poetic forms.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues