Knowing Subjects or, Reading as a Tourist

This article arose from a Master’s in Comparative Literature class, for which students were asked to read R. K. Narayan’s novel The Guide alongside Gayatri Spivak’s essay ‘How to Read a “Culturally Different” Book’.1, Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ was added to the mix as a further text through which to read both the novel and the critical essay. The class kept returning to questions of cultural ownership and legitimacy: who can read what well, and how? Spivak’s prescriptiveness clashed with the – predominantly white, Western – students’ desire to tread their own paths and read their own way. In the classroom setting, I was divided between emphasising decolonisation of minds and syllabuses and validating creative exploratory readings. My own reading turned to the figure of the guide, common to all three works of fiction and signalled in Spivak’s ‘How to’ title.

As a comparatist and interdisciplinarian, I believe in challenging excessive academic territoriality. I am not a postcolonial scholar. In what follows I am reading as a tourist in that field, albeit one who has prepared for the journey. Like their literal counterparts, figurative tourist-readers should be respectful of local custom and sensitive to hierarchies of power, but we should not ignore the fact that such travellers can also bring new ways of seeing which cannot necessarily be apprehended by designated tour guides. For researchers, this can mean claiming the right to visit other disciplinary fields, while always being mindful of the ethical as well as epistemological implications of such figurative voyages. As teachers in the classroom, it means being aware of, and perhaps in some cases articulating, both the guide–guided pairing – which rarely maps directly and unequivocally onto teacher–students and which, as I will suggest, is premised on a static conception of cultural ‘translation’ – and the relationship between different forms of knowing and power which are mobilised whenever we read. Finally, as both teachers and researchers it means paying scrupulous heed to the metaphors we use: ‘paths’, ‘field’, ‘journey’, ‘tourist’, ‘territoriality’ – more of which later.

Starting from a Guiding Genealogy

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ (1999), tour guide Mr Kapasi finds himself increasingly attracted to Mrs Das, who is visiting the sites with her husband and children. While her family head off to explore the caves of Udayagiro and Khandagiri, Mrs Das solicits the guide’s advice on a personal matter. Published some four decades earlier, R. K. Narayan’s The Guide (1958) sees Raju, another fictional tourist guide, become involved with a dysfunctional couple, seducing Rosie while her husband studies ancient friezes in a local cave system. By the end of the novel, Raju has expanded his guiding repertoire to include a stint as impresario as he helps Rosie launch a career in classical dance, before finally becoming the reluctant spiritual guide or swami to an entire village. A further and final step back in time takes us to E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) and another couple, Adela Quested and Ronny Heaslop, whose already faltering engagement disintegrates definitively after a sightseeing trip to the Marabar caves organised by Aziz, ‘the oriental guide’.

This literary lineage of guides has been recognised by few commentators, with connections tending to be identified only across pairings of texts – most often A Passage to India and ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ – with the focus falling squarely on postcolonial relations. To take just a handful of examples, Simon Lewis describes ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ as a ‘postcolonial rewrite’ of A Passage to India (Lewis, 219–21), while Susanna Ghazvinizadeh focuses on the theme of second-generation ‘return’ to South Asia, comparing the responses of Lahiri’s ‘Westernized’ characters and those of Forster to the ‘inscrutable’ nature of India (Ghazvinizadeh, 92). Paul Brians suggests that Lahiri’s story ‘resembles in plot the episode in Narayan’s Guide in which a tour guide is drawn to the Westernized wife of an Indian traveller’, a comment that he does not choose to develop (Brians, 198). In his ‘Introduction’ to the 2005 Penguin Classic edition of Narayan’s The Guide, Michael Gorra refers to the protagonist Raju as ‘an interpreter of maladies’, but neither identifies the source of this expression nor reflects further on its significance (Narayan, 2006, viii). Although herself an admirer of Narayan (the ‘master’, as she dubs him), Lahiri does not single out The Guide as a source of inspiration for ‘Interpreter of Maladies’, explaining that the title of her short story and the notion of medical interpreting came from an anecdote recounted by an acquaintance (Lahiri, 2006).2

Fictional guides Aziz, Raju and Mr Kapasi all appear in texts that have misunderstanding at their core. All do their guiding in India, though they do so in very different contexts. Forster’s novel is set before Indian Independence and probes the tensions and relations amongst British, British-Indian and Indian characters. The Guide was written after Independence, and though it appears to span a period that ranges from pre- to post-Independence,3 it is primarily characterised by a paucity of historical or political markers. In spite of the inclusion of some anglicised names, Narayan’s protagonists in The Guide are all Indian, as the narrator’s rhetorical question reminds us: ‘Why did she call herself Rosie? She did not come from a foreign land. She was just an Indian’ (4).4 If Narayan’s Rosie is ‘just an Indian’, Lahiri’s Das family, whom we are told ‘looked Indian but dressed as foreigners did’ (44), are all American born. Such historical-political differences and the issues arising from them are important. My aim in what follows, however, is not to produce another postcolonial reading of these three texts but rather to interweave three critical strands, with three related objectives. First, new perspectives on the works in question are generated by examining the literal guides and those whom they guide, especially, though not only, with a focus on the guided as tourists. A second strand links these diegetic figures to extradiegetic subjects – author, reader and critic – with a view to exploring some of the ways in which these subjects may function as figurative guides and guided. Critical reflection on the use of figurative language, in the form not just of guiding but also tourism and translation, constitutes the third critical strand. Finally, the article as a whole sets out to perform and validate the concept of reading as a tourist.

‘“Perhaps it was the guide. […] Let us call it the guide”’ (A Passage to India)

Aziz, the ‘oriental guide’ – a designation to which I will return – is the first character to appear in A Passage to India, in the context of a discussion about whether an Indian can establish a genuine friendship with an Englishman. By the final page of the novel, Aziz is proclaiming that ‘“India shall be a nation! No foreigners of any sort!”.’ This shift in attitude is precipitated by a trial that sees him accused of sexually assaulting Adela Quested during the sightseeing trip to the Marabar caves which he organises. Aziz’s short-lived role as tour guide is apparently a failure: rather than being part of an attempt at cultural bridging – what Lahiri’s guide might refer to as ‘serving as an interpreter between nations’ (Lahiri, 59) – the guiding process ends up highlighting and exacerbating existing tensions and misunderstandings.

Of course Aziz is not a tour guide by trade, but rather a doctor, who takes Adela Quested and Mrs Moore, mother of Adela’s fiancé, to see the sights of the Marabar caves partly to avoid having to show the English visitors his own modest home and partly out of what the narrator suggests is a misplaced conflation of hospitality and intimacy. The potential shortcomings of guides are made explicit in Forster’s novel, which draws attention to Aziz’s lack of local knowledge during the sightseeing trip, albeit in a humorously phlegmatic manner: ‘His ignorance became evident, and was really rather a drawback’ (132); ‘Aziz was “pretty sure they should come on some interesting old carvings soon”, but only meant he wished there were some carvings’ (141). During an earlier conversation at headmaster Fielding’s garden-house this lack of knowledge is linked to false epistemological assumptions based on the metonymic attribution of a role; Aziz is regarded as the subject who knows, and represents, India:

As for Miss Quested, she accepted everything Aziz said as true verbally. In her ignorance, she regarded him as ‘India’, and never surmised that his outlook was limited and his method inaccurate, and that no one is India. (65)

This observation is emphasised when it is later recalled in the context of the sightseeing trip, when Aziz talks history to Adela and Mrs Moore:

‘However, I mustn’t delay you [Aziz speaks]. I see you are ready to start’.

‘Not at all’, she [Adela] said, sitting down by Mrs Moore again. ‘We enjoy talk like this very much’. For at last he was talking about what he knew and felt, talking as he had in Fielding’s garden-house; he was again the oriental guide whom they appreciated. (134, my emphasis)

Two issues are worth considering here. First, who designates – constructs – the guide as guide? In the above quotation, the final sentence is most likely to be read as a representation of the omniscient narrator’s point of view. Reading slightly against the grain, however, but still within syntactic possibilities, the statement could also be a representation of Adela’s point of view or even Aziz’s own knowing, ironic insight. In each case, the status of the ‘oriental guide’ is necessarily inflected differently – the role of knowing subject variously imposed and assumed. Those being guided, too, may be perceived differently. During the trip to the Marabar caves, for instance, Adela is well aware of Aziz’s lack of local knowledge: we are informed that she and Mrs Moore wish they were visiting a site that their guide ‘would have appreciated and explained’ (132). Adela may play the role of the interested tourist, but her thoughts suggest otherwise: ‘“Sightseeing bores me”’ (143). From Aziz’s point of view, Adela’s is the colonial gaze of desired mastery: ‘This pose of “seeing India” […] was only a form of ruling India; no sympathy lay behind it’ (291–2). As will become apparent in this and following sections, consideration of the ambiguous and shifting constructions of fictional guide and guided can open the way to a figurative reading implicating critics, authors and readers.

When it comes to knowing guides it is important to note that Forster’s Aziz is not the only such figure in the text, and the manner in which the other guide is represented – or rather not represented – is significant. When Adela goes missing during the trip to the Marabar caves and a guide recruited from a local village explains to Aziz that she had entered one of the caves, Aziz strikes him in the face. The guide runs off, vanishing thereafter from the text. The missing guide, I suggest, can be read as a symbol of the epistemological aporia at the centre of the novel – what, if anything, happened in the cave? – since Forster famously withdraws the insights of his omniscient narrator at this point.5 The absence of authority, of the author-as-guide, gives readers free rein to explore the terrain, and interpretations surrounding the cave episode abound. Forster seems almost to toy with his readers, self-reflexively raising the spectre of the missing guide on several occasions: ‘Who was the guide, and had he been found yet?’ (178), ponders Fielding, later raising the issue of the guide’s putative guilt with Adela and eliciting a very curious response: ‘“Perhaps it was the guide,” she said quietly; the question had lost interest for her suddenly’ (227). And again, when Fielding asks once more who, if anyone, followed her into cave: ‘“Let us call it the guide,” she said indifferently. “It will never be known”’ (248).

Paying attention to the figure of the missing guide when reading Forster alongside Lahiri, whose tour guide also works as an interpreter, leads to reflection about language. As Franz Pöchhacker notes: ‘The role of interpreters […] has been closely linked with such intermediary functions as messenger, guide, and negotiator’ (Pöchhacker, 2016, 169). Interpreters, as Michael Cronin reminds us, ‘generally function as native informants’ (Cronin, 54). When Aziz tells Mrs Moore and Fielding of Adela’s abrupt withdrawal from the cave expedition, he states (untruthfully): ‘“We were having an interesting talk with our guide, then the car was seen, so she decided to go down to her friend”’ (148, my emphasis). We are not told if the local villager recruited as a guide speaks English or not, but it is unlikely that such a figure would. The first-person plural here both aligns Aziz with his English sightseers and masks the fact that his services as interpreter would most probably have been required in such a situation. Even if we assume that this fictional local guide did speak English, would he and Aziz not have conversed in the vernacular? A sleight of hand in the form of reported speech masks the language question: ‘When he [Aziz] returned, he found the guide, alone, with his head on one side. He had heard a noise, he said’; ‘The guide explained that she had gone into a cave’ (144). Interpreters – and indeed the word itself – are written out of Forster’s text.

Cronin includes amongst the epistemological issues surrounding the ‘native informant/interpreter’ the extent to which ‘their familiarity with Western languages sets them apart from their own people’ (Cronin, 54). Aziz, we know, speaks good English: Fielding is impressed by his mastery of a ‘foreign tongue’ (60). From Ronny’s hostile perspective, he is ‘the spoilt westernized’ ‘type’ of Indian (70). The presence of two guides in A Passage to India highlights an epistemological tension or paradox: the missing local guide may be the bearer of local knowledge but cannot communicate it as he (let us assume) speaks only the vernacular; Aziz, the ‘oriental guide’, fails to assume a metonymic function, to represent India, not (just) because he is a Muslim, as some early critics suggested, but because he is ‘set apart’, to use Cronin’s phrase, by his speaking of the coloniser’s language. As we will see, tensions surrounding language choice and perceived guiding competence – who and how to represent India? – are at the heart of criticism directed at authors Narayan and Lahiri.

‘“What is the use of your calling yourself a guide if you do not know…?”’ (The Guide)

Narayan recalls Forster inscribing a (second-hand) copy of A Passage to India for him, before handing it over with the observation: ‘“You will find it amusing, but don’t read too much into it…”’ (Narayan, 1984). How much he did or did not read into it is not recorded, but features common to both texts are clear to see – most obviously in the form of a guide who shows visitors local caves and is involved in some manner of triangular relationship with a dysfunctional couple. Closer consideration of Forster’s Aziz as guide emphasised the constructed nature of both guide and guided and the importance of language via the elision of the figure of the interpreter. Narayan’s text opens up further possibilities. Raju, like Aziz, is playing a part – in fact three, as the novel’s title embraces the character’s role as tourist guide, impresario and swami, each representing modulations of possible guide–guided relations. Where I suggested that the missing guide in A Passage to India might be read as a symbol of Forster’s (knowing) withdrawal of guidance, focus on Narayan’s fictional guide allows me both to read The Guide as a highly self-reflexive work and to extend my discussion of extratextual guides and guided: authors, readers, but also critics.

My focus with respect to ‘the critic’ is on Spivak’s ‘How to Read a “Culturally Different” Book’, whose critical infrastructure reflects its author’s feminism, her embeddedness in Subaltern and Cultural Studies and her commitment to decolonisation. Spivak’s essay was selected for a number of reasons. First, and most obviously, it focuses on Narayan’s novel. Second, my decision to write this article arose from a classroom discussion, and ‘How to Read’ offers pedagogic advice, setting out ‘to walk a conscientious teacher through’ The Guide, ensuring that the teacher (and presumably the students) have sufficient knowledge ‘to take the text[s] historically and/or politically’ (Spivak, 1994, 126). Third, I believe that the essay’s didactic, highly critical stance can productively be read alongside fictional representations of guide and guided in Narayan’s novel. Finally, the prescriptive nature of Spivak’s essay, especially its emphasis on writing as an act of cultural/political representation, and correct reading as an informed decoding of this representation, is not uncommon in works of postcolonial criticism. My reading of Spivak’s essay through the figures of guides and guided can, in other words, be extended to other critical responses that make prescriptive or insistently didactic claims about authors or readers.6

Setting herself up as guide, Spivak tells her readers how Narayan’s novel should be read, criticising both the author and (some of) his readers.7 Just like Forster’s guide Aziz, Narayan is castigated by Spivak for his metonymic shortcomings; he is deemed a poor guide to India. His failings, moreover, like those of Forster’s guide, are in part tied to language – specifically, to his decision to write in English.8 For Spivak, Narayan can only ever be an ‘Indo-Anglian’ novelist of ‘the nation as local colour’ (Spivak, 1994, 129).9 Spivak’s metonymic insistence that the author represent(s) India raises an obvious question: what if Narayan rejects the role of representative or cultural guide to India in which Spivak casts him? He is, after all, a self-confessed ‘Reluctant Guru’, who, when told by his hosts during a visiting professorship in the United States that a class wanted to hear him speak about Indian mysticism, pointed out ‘“I know nothing about it”’. His host’s reply – ‘“That shouldn’t matter at all”’ – placed Narayan in the same situation as his fictional guide Raju (Narayan, 1988, 102).10 Thanks to the first-person narrative segments of The Guide, the reader knows that Raju is no holy man proffering words of wisdom, at least initially. Crucially, however, what he knows or intends, or indeed wishes to be, is neither here nor there; his status as spiritual guide is bestowed upon him by the villagers, contingent on their needs and desires: ‘They interpreted his words and applied them now to the present situation’ (84). As with Forster and his missing guide, Narayan creates an epistemological aporia at a key point in his text by withdrawing his fictional guide’s point of view: does Raju become a genuine guru? The absence of first-person narrative towards the close of the text has provoked as much interpretive zest as Forster’s removal of the local guide’s and omniscient narrator’s insights into what took place in the Marabar cave.11 Both authors, in fact, stressed their own refusal to act as all-knowing guides: Narayan, when asked if Raju dies a holy man, replied that he did not know (Lowe, 1993, 181); Forster stated that what happened to Adela in the cave was ‘either a man, or the supernatural, or an illusion’, adding ‘And even if I know!’12 Pursuing the analogy between guides and authors, and guided and readers, I suggest that while Spivak, like Narayan’s villagers, is entitled, contingent on her own ‘needs and desires’, to construct Narayan as a guide (representing India) against his will, to both confer the role upon him and then accuse him of failing in it seems altogether more problematic.

‘How to Read a “Culturally Different” Book’ criticises not only Narayan but also ‘the metropolitan reader […] reading Commonwealth literature’. For this deficient reader, Spivak suggests, Narayan’s ‘limpid local colour prose’ will be deemed satisfactory, as it will be for an Indian reader of Indian-Anglian fiction (129). The reader of ‘high’ vernacular literature, however, will see Narayan’s style for what it actually is (pace Spivak): ‘a tourist’s convenience directed towards a casual unmoored international audience’ (130). Spivak’s critique of the metropolitan reader is largely premised on the assumption that such a reader lacks historical-cultural knowledge – in this case, knowledge relating to the subaltern devadasi figure, ‘our implausible Rosie’ (Spivak, 1994, 133). Teachers and readers of The Guide have a great deal to learn from Spivak’s pedagogic essay, but they might also look to diegetic guides and guided in Narayan’s novel for a different approach. Although both Forster’s Aziz and Narayan’s Raju lack local knowledge, the latter is content rather than uncomfortable in his bluffing, and consciously tailors his guiding spiel to suit the type of tourist client before him. If faced with ‘the academic type’ (43), Raju avoids all factual data, opting instead merely to describe the sights and allow his client to do all the talking – something the ‘academic type’ usually relishes. If the client is rather ‘an innocent man’, the guide has no qualms about fabricating his entire talk according to his mood (43), and the client goes away happy. Raju’s view of guiding is a limited one at this point in the text, as his simple division of clients into knowing (academic)/not knowing (innocent) reveals. If we equate tourist clients and readers, Raju’s classification nonetheless reminds us that different readers may seek, and be content with, different things: both ‘facts and figures’ (43) but also pleasure are important considerations. Extending this dynamic to a classroom situation might mean discussing with students the implications of their own status as ‘academic’ or ‘innocent’ as well as the ideal role for their teacher, positioned, one might hope, somewhere other than the extremes of fabricating guide or silent observer.

Paying attention to the literal (diegetic guides/guided) and the figurative (extradiegetic guides/guided) extends naturally to reflection on tourism itself as a trope. Spivak’s critical deployment of the latter – for instance decrying Narayan’s style as a ‘tourist’s convenience’ – can be found elsewhere in her work. It is, for example, even more evident in ‘The Burden of English’, where, in the context of a discussion of the teaching of English literature in India, Spivak criticises Narayan in the following terms: ‘It is from this base that R. K. Narayan can speak of “English in India” as if it were a jolly safari arranged by some better-bred version of the India Tourist Board’ (Spivak, 1993, 135). V. S. Naipaul looks to the same field for his metaphors: ‘In life as in literature, we received tourists. Subjection flattened, made dissimilar places alike. Narayan’s India […] was oddly like the Trinidad of my childhood’ (Naipaul, 21). Although writing decades later, Lahiri is being criticised in similar metaphorical manner: failing adequately to represent India she produces ‘tour-guiding works’, examples of ‘arm-chair tourism’; she misrepresents India by offering something edulcorated, ‘not too spicy’ (Shankar). Whether or not we subscribe to Lakoff and Johnson’s conceptual metaphor theory and believe in the capacity of metaphors to structure our very grasp of experience, there can be little doubt that metaphors direct and channel our understanding, nor that they are products of their time. Turning again to the classroom, it may be useful to question the genealogy and use of a trope such as tourism in critical works, especially when reading fictional texts that represent tourism. A sustained and self-reflexive use, such as can be found in Graham Huggan’s study of the commodification of cultural difference, can be compared to more meme-like mentions elsewhere. More thought can be given to just how the vehicles ‘tourism’ and ‘tourists’ potentially circumscribe our view of the tenor, and to how the field (another spatial metaphor) from which these are drawn has evolved. By the 1970s critics such as Dean MacCannell were already challenging negative conceptualisations of the tourist.13 Today, Tourism Studies explores a wide range of tourist types and experiences, from the simple pleasure-seeker to those who ‘know that there is no authentic tourist experience, that there are merely a series of games of texts that can be played’ (Urry and Larsen, 9).

My reading of Spivak as guide has so far been tied to the fictional representation of Aziz and Raju as tour guides as well as to the latter as reluctant swami. ‘How to Read’ can also be considered in the light of Raju as he appears in another of his guide roles: that of impresario. As part of her critique, Spivak chastises Narayan for his apparent side-lining and instrumentalising of Rosie in the interest of the male protagonist.14 But there is another reading. Although Rosie is initially described in passive terms – ‘My guidance was enough. She accepted it in absolutely unquestioning faith and ignored everything else completely’ (131–2) – her erstwhile guide soon recognises that he cannot proceed in his role unaided. In terms that hark back to his tour guiding days, Raju notes that while it might be possible to ‘bluff one’s way through and trust to luck’, learning the ‘jargon’ and ‘idiom’ of dance is a better course of action. In teaching him the terminology of classical dance, Rosie too becomes a guide, in sharp contrast to her husband, Marco, whose discourse and attitude leave Raju feeling inadequate and wishing he ‘had been schooled in a jargon-picking institution’ (100). Rosie may be written out of the last section of the text, but by then, we are told (in interesting metaphorical manner), ‘the mastery had passed to her’ (173); ‘Her empire was expanding rather than shrinking’ (182). Raju’s lesson valorises collaboration and shared competence over didacticism and potentially alienating ‘jargon’.

One final, but crucial reading of Spivak’s guidance remains. The critic’s claim that Rosie and Marco share ‘a bond’ based on ‘their passion for their cultural labour’ (Spivak, 1994, 132) can be reappraised in the light of Marco’s refusal, or inability, to see a link between his work and Rosie’s dance. From Marco’s point of view, a frieze of ancient musical notations which he uncovers on a cave wall simply has no connection to Rosie’s living classical dance (115). In his eyes the written text, in the form of both the frieze and the academic monograph (‘Cultural History of South India’) that he produces as a result of his fieldwork, has value where performance does not. Knowing subjects and ways of knowing are once more at stake here. Rosie’s is a performative interpretation, an affective embodiment and bodying forth of knowledge which finds an echo in A Passage to India, both in the splitting implied in the phrase cited above describing what guide Aziz ‘knew and felt’ (Forster, 134, my emphasis) and in Adela’s realisation that married life with Ronny would inevitably mean that ‘She would see India always as a frieze, never as a spirit’ (43). I will return to this differentiation between performance and stasis, the affective and the cognitive, at the close of this article, where I suggest once more that this diegetic guidance can be extended to extradiegetic subjects.

‘“But we do not face a language barrier. What need is there for an interpreter?”’ (Interpreter of Maladies)

Unlike Forster’s Aziz or Narayan’s Raju, Lahiri’s Mr Kapasi is an entirely reliable guide when it comes to imparting local knowledge to his tourist customers; there is no suggestion here of bluffing. As we have seen, however, those being guided may have their own agenda and approach. As the Das family arrives at the Konarak Sun Temple, Mr Kapasi begins his talk in just the sort of manner that Narayan’s Raju avoided when faced with anything but ‘an innocent man’. Not for him the eschewal of ‘all mention of facts and figures’ (The Guide, 43):

Mr Kapasi explained that the temple had been built between A.D. 1243 and 1255, with the efforts of twelve hundred artisans, by the great ruler of the Ganga dynasty, King Narasimhadeva the First, to commemorate his victory against the Muslim army. (56)

One member of the audience, however, looks elsewhere for guidance. Mr Das is extremely attached to his guidebook, which is mentioned on several occasions:15 ‘He [Mr Das] glanced up from his paperback tour book, which said “INDIA” in yellow letters’ (44); ‘Mr Das was absorbed by his tour book’ (54). Although Mr Kapasi perseveres, his client soon interrupts the tour talk: ‘“It says the temple occupies about a hundred and seventy acres of land,” Mr Das said, reading from his book’ (56). Cronin points to the link between the advent of the guidebook and the use of local guides: ‘the presence of the guide/interpreter was not always welcome. Karl Baedeker, indeed, saw the advent of the guidebook as a step on the road to freedom from interpreting’ (Cronin, 393–4). Ignoring local guide and interpreter Mr Kapasi, Mr Das, an academic (in this case a schoolteacher) like Narayan’s Marco, privileges the fixed written text over the embodied performance.

The tension set up between modes of guidance and knowledge extends to a questioning of geopolitical source: Mr Das’s guidebook, we are told, ‘looked as if it had been published abroad’ (44). Although A Passage to India does not feature guidebooks,16 several critics have commented on the author’s description of the landscape at the start of the text’s first two parts (‘Mosque’ and ‘Caves’) as ‘deceptively guide-bookish’ (Bradbury, 236–7); ‘with the touch of the guide-book’ (Kermode, 218); each beginning ‘Baedeker-like, in the present tense’ (Dowling, 257). For Simon Featherstone these passages are parodic, both evoking and undermining guidebook discourse, and serving thereby to signal the limits of knowledge.17 Forster’s guidebook parody, in other words, can be said to represent the author’s questioning of his own role as guide to India. Narayan, for his part, operates via gentle irony. When an American film crew is introduced at the close of The Guide, the fictional director, keen to show his audience this representative (in fact, stereotypical) Indian guru, expresses his intentions in terms ominously reminiscent of both big game trophy hunting and museum collecting: ‘I have come to shoot this subject, take it back to our country, and show it to our people there’ (192). As teachers and readers of texts, we may wish to compare our responsibilities to those of Narayan’s director, who we are informed, with a gentle touch of irony, had ‘briefed himself on all the local manners’ (192). Although we learn that Narayan’s American film director ‘had picked up an interpreter in Madras’ (192), no further reference is made to this shadowy figure, and at the very close of the text, it is revealed that Raju ‘knows English’ (192).

‘Interpreter of Maladies’ restores the missing figure of the interpreter – Mr Kapasi is explicitly both a tour guide and an interpreter – but the roles are kept distinct: tour guiding takes place on Fridays and Saturdays, with the rest of the time given over to community interpreting in a doctor’s surgery, where he translates patients’ symptoms from Gujarati (into Hindi, one might think, as this is the official language of the state, but it is not specified). A fascinating exchange is staged between Mr Kapasi and Mrs Das. In what follows Mrs Das has just informed the interpreter-guide that one of her sons is illegitimate, and now seeks his advice:

‘Mr Kapasi, don’t you have anything to say? I thought that was your job.’
‘My job is to give tours, Mrs Das.’
‘Not that. Your other job. As an interpreter.’
‘But we do not face a language barrier. What need is there for an interpreter?’ (65)

This ostensibly simple but actually rather knotty exchange takes us back to the familiar territory of the reluctant guide and misunderstanding. Significantly, it also serves to foreground the play of literal and metaphorical translation, or ‘translation’. Although Mr Kapasi and Mrs Das both speak English, the impersonal question ‘What need is there for an interpreter?’ does not necessarily follow from the assertion ‘We do not face a language barrier’.18 Mr Kapasi and Mrs Das may literally speak the same language, but they do not do so figuratively. In fact, Mrs Das’s disclosure of her infidelity and her request for guidance discomfits Mr Kapasi as greatly as does Adela’s questioning of Aziz on marital matters, levering open the cultural differences between them. Paradoxically, the very exchange, carried out ‘in the same language’, performs a negation of Mr Kapasi’s suggestion that no mediating figure is required.

This tension between figurative and literal acts of translation returns us to authors and critics. As Susan Bassnett notes: ‘By the mid-1990s, translation had come to acquire a broad-based metaphoric significance in postcolonial writing’ (Bassnett, 342) – a move, as Anthony Pym puts it, towards ‘translation without translations (Pym, 144). Lahiri, just like her fictional interpreter, slips easily from the literal to the figurative: what appears to be a reference to the interlinguistic may morph, mid-sentence, into the intercultural.19 ‘Almost all of my characters are translators’, she asserts, before continuing, ‘inasmuch as they must make sense of the foreign to survive’, earning the contempt of Harish Trivedi for the ‘gratuitous trope’ (Trivedi, 285).20

‘Making sense of the foreign’ is represented as something of a failure in A Passage to India, The Guide and ‘Interpreter of Maladies’. Spivak’s ‘How to Read a “Culturally Different” Book’, for its part, met with resistance in the classroom, its didacticism both jarring and seeming to do metaphorical violence to the integrity of what the text has to say. The three works of fiction can, however, offer another way forward. In what has preceded I have suggested that stasis – the spatial and the written – is set against movement and embodied performance, and that knowing may be associated with affect, passion and ‘spirit’. Need, desire and the contingent are also foregrounded, whether in the form of Narayan’s villagers making a reluctant guide of Aziz, or Mrs Das’s search for moral guidance from Mr Kapasi. In Postcolonial Poetics, Elleke Boehmer calls for a poetics conceptualised as ‘score, as in music or dance’, with the reader as ‘the interpreter of that score, even as its performer’ (Boehmer, 9).21 I would like to end by considering a slightly different interpreting metaphor.

Interpret, v.

1. a. transitive. To expound the meaning of […].

1. c. In recent use: To bring out the meaning of (a dramatic or musical composition, a landscape, etc.) by artistic representation or performance […].

3. Absol. or intransitive. […] spec. to act as an interpreter or dragoman.

‘Almost all of my characters are translators’, Lahiri asserts, and once again the figure of the interpreter is erased. To interpret, in its intransitive sense (above), however, is not the same as to translate. Although it may suggest movement, a carrying across, the metaphor of ‘translating’ cultural difference relies conceptually on fixed terms and on the spatial – just as literal translation involves a fixed written text rendered into another.22 This spatial insistence and the presence of fixed terms are be found in the ‘passage’ to India or Forster’s humorously named Bridge Party (‘a party to bridge the gulf between East and West’, A Passage, p. 24), but also in Spivak’s static construction of her ‘metropolitan’ reader and inadequate author, and in her figuratively leading those she seeks to guide from a place of ignorance to one of correct understanding. My reading of Forster, Narayan, Lahiri and Spivak, however, points to a valorisation of the dialectical over the didactic. With the missing interpreter in mind, I suggest that metaphors relating to cultural difference which are drawn from ‘translation’ might be complemented by those drawn from Interpreting Studies, a field that has recently experienced its own cultural turn, and which is ready for (benign) co-option by other disciplines.

I offer the following characteristics of interpreting (primarily, though not exclusively, community or bilateral interpreting, since I am thinking of Mr Kapasi) as potential metaphoric conceptual ‘tools’ that might be used when working with ‘culturally different’ texts (and are not all texts culturally different, depending on where you are coming from?). Interpreting is oral, temporal and performative, non-iterative and evanescent (each rendition is both first and final). The parties involved are usually present to each other, their performance embodied: they read each other as well as speak; their emotions matter. The situation is dynamic; it unfolds in unexpected ways: the interpreter listens, then speaks, before listening again, but interruptions are possible, too. Voices may overlap and clash; the interpreter may need to intervene.

Returning to the classroom, since that is where this all began, it is worth considering who is best placed to occupy the figurative role of interpreter and between which or what culturally and linguistically embedded entities – students, teacher, texts – that interpreter is mediating. It means recognising that meaning(s) may be shape-shifting and evanescent but no less important for that, and recognising also how contingencies, needs and desires might affect the production of meaning. Finally, in the words of Cronin, it means remembering that ‘power is everywhere in the definition, context and practice of interpreting’ (Cronin, 46).