In his youth, Robert went to Paris after school which brought a big change in his life. It was the time of the May 1968 uprising when the western world was concerned with the Vietnam War, especially the plight of South Asia. ‘I was very much aware of the whole issue of Western involvement in non-western countries. After my experiences in Paris, I got very interested in Marxist theory, but I found the non-western world
was always missing.When I read Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), I saw why that was so – but Said also offered a way of reconnecting the west to the rest of the world. Many of my friends, especially at graduate school, came from that other world. Homi K Bhabha, my very close friend, influenced me a lot as he gave a critical mass to the idea of working on these issues. After these experiences, there was no going back for me to a singular English culture – rather, I have found myself spontaneously empathising and putting myself in the position of being outside my own culture.’
For Robert, postcolonial literature, though a recent phenomenon, has a wide scope in western academia: it is very popular among young students, many of whom want to do PhDs in this area. However, he is aware of the general tendency to consider modern literature not as respectable as classical literature. He reveals that until 1969, in Oxford, students studied literature only to 1900. Even now modern literature is taught only
in the first year. At Oxford, until very recently, no postcolonial literature was included in the course. Since then, he has been involved in transforming ‘English literature’ into ‘Literatures in English’. ‘In the twentieth century, you have to reconceptualise the subject itself. The biggest weakness of writing about postcolonial literatures is that little historical knowledge about these countries exists.’ Robert impressed me both for his profound
knowledge of colonised cultures, and for voicing the hidden injuries inflicted on them by colonisers in his writings. His most prolific work, the vast Postcolonialism: An historical introduction, enunciates postcolonial theory through case-studies of the freedom struggles in Latin America, Africa and India. Commenting on the western subjugation of third world cultures in general, and Pakistani culture in particular, he said, ‘As my wife belongs to the Ahmadi community, many in
her family have migrated from Pakistan to escape persecution… All over the world power structures exist in one way or another, whether it is the first or third world, and postcolonial theory provides an opportunity to challenge these power structures and to think outside (western) dominant culture.’ In discussing the role of religion in shaping societies, Robert argues that a major weakness in postcolonial theory is a lack of concern with Islamic cultures. ‘Even in Orientalism,
while Said sympathises with Islamic cultures, in the end, as a Christian, he goes back to the great Christian humanist tradition. Ideas within the postcolonial field may not necessarily fit in with Islamic belief. The Rushdie affair points to these differences.. In my own work, I try to address these missing connections with the Islamic world. My last book, for example, emphasises the cultures of the Middle East and the Maghreb. I try to push into the domains that the postcolonial has
Robert has lectured on postcolonial questions in countries all over the world. In spite of reaching the apex of his career, he is a man of mild and humble disposition.. ‘I like to spend my time with my family, especially, at the weekends… I spend many afternoons on the football field with my son!’ Though an icon of scholarship, he does not consider himself a typical
university man.. ‘Neither of my parents went to university, though it was they who enabled and encouraged me to go myself. Perhaps for this reason, university is still not quite me. I do not come from such a background... I was the first person in my family to go to university. That is one reason why I sympathise with those who do not have all the advantages in this world. I am very lucky and feel privileged to have had the chance to work in a university – but I constantly think of those whose situation is so very different. These are the people I feel closest to.’
Robert’s contributions in the area of postcolonial theory are an important step in helping us to perceive the ambivalent divisions of culture and its Other. He believes that postcolonialism, viewed positively, opens a dialogue between opposing cultures – which is a must, not only to make sense of human history but also of our constantly changing world.
Nadia Butt wrote this article exclusively for TFT from Germany.