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Salims Fearful (A)Symmetry: Bhabhian Mimicry, Ambivalence and In-Betweeness in V.S.


Naipauls A Bend in the River, by Ral J. Vzquez Vlez
The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow
themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.
Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, A Bend in the River.

In his essay Bhabhas Notion of Mimicry and Ambivalence in V.S. Naipauls A Bend
in the River, Sanjiv Kumar reads the titular novel from a perspective influenced by Homi
Bhabhas The Location of Culture, a seminal study of the transformations and interpolations that
postcolonial subjects undergo within their societies and epochs. Having defined mimicry as the
imitation of one species by another, Kumar elaborates by adding definitions borrowed from
English dictionaries: mimicry consists of a close resemblance, in colour, form, or behaviour of
one organism to another or to some object in its environment, which is used to disguise or
conceal the organism from predators (Kumar 119). Kumar also links practices of modern
warfare to this concept: to practice mimicry means to disguise troops, ships, guns, etc., to
conceal them from the enemy by using paints, nets, or leaves arranged in patterns that allow
the camouflaged person to merge with his or her background (Kumar 119).
Mimicry permits weaker organisms to become lost in their immediate backdrop to
escape stronger or faster predators; moreover, it allows the camouflaged organism to become
practically invisible. The mimicking subject not only avoids being devoured by more powerful
persons, institutions, circumstances, etc., by merging into an amorphous scenery: shielded from
the sight of others, the subject can approach those who threaten his life, status or progress and
attack them by surprise, crippling or killing them in the literal and figurative sense of the words.
This applies to postcolonial subjects to the extent that the former wish to thrive rather than
merely survive within their adoptive societies, and might explain why Salim, the protagonist and
narrator of ABR, left his East Indian Muslim familys compound to take possession of a small

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shop within a newly independent African country. Salim wants more than to simply escape the
uncontrollable waves of violent change that are sure to swallow relatively wealthy migrs
following independence and postcolonization of many African nations: he desires to free himself
of unpredictable social transformations, arbitrary exercises of political power (colonial or
otherwise) and his familys centurial tendency of creating small, closed societies within larger,
more diverse societies. Salim wishes to be trapped by nothing and no one, so he merges with his
immediate societal landscape to escape the destruction visited upon his fellow expatriates by
African rebels, and to carve a niche for himself by securing positions of wealth and power
outside of his familys influence.
Bhabha indicates one way Salim could accomplish this by establishing a connection
between mimicry and camouflage made by Jacques Lacan in The Line and the Light:
Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called an
itself that is behind. The effect of mimicry is camouflage... it is not a question of
harmonizing with the background, but against a mottled background, of becoming
mottled---exactly like the technique of camouflage practiced in human warfare (Lacan
99; quot. in Bhabha 85).
In postcolonial contexts, the practice of mimicry does not entail becoming one with a
background or disappearing into a mishmash of peoples, cultures, histories, stories, etc. Here,
mimicry becomes a series of personal and generalized conceits which allow postcolonial subjects
to permeate or seep through societies and social contexts which have more or less broken away
from an older order of things. Doing this, however, leaves the subject open to be permeated and
seeped through himself by the very society within which he struggles to survive and get ahead;
politics, institutions, structures and other people infiltrate the subject and compromise his ability
to root himself in a particular culture, societal or familial background. This happens in

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accordance to the degree in which the subject is influenced (willingly or otherwise) by society
and other people within it and the former has severed all ties with past and self.
According to Bhabha, this mimicry and camouflage result in colonial ambivalence;
Kumar adds that the colonizer becomes a snake in the grass who speaks in a forked tongue and
produces mimetic representations that are little more than unsettling imitations stemming from
a desire on the part of postcolonial subjects to severe the ties with self in order to move
towards other (Kumar 119). These imitations are unsettling because they are neither one thing
nor the other; postcolonial subjects engage in mimicry and transform into someone and
something that is no longer a native, a person belonging to a people or nation which exercises
sovereignty over itself with relatively little to no intervention of stronger foreign powers. These
men, women and children are not perfect replicas of the colonizer, regardless of whether they
wish to be so or not: similar to what occurs to Ferdinand in ABR, postcolonial subjects may
assume the clothing, styles and tastes of the metropolis, but can never become full equals of
the role models they choose as paradigms. Such situations create disjunctives that split these
subjects not in two, but in three: they have veered so much from their birth cultures and practices
that they become unable to fully reincorporate into them; they are also not one with the ruling
powers because they cannot iron out that essential otherness that makes them different from the
colonizer and their fellow colonized. The end result is a displaced subject that does not know
who or what he is, being the synthesis of a clash between several theses and antitheses, which
yields everything but the desired result.
This ambivalence gives birth to postcolonial in-betweenness, a state of remaining stuck in
a threshold or liminal way of being one can never fully abandon. Such in-betweenness affects
the discourse, ethos and ontology of colonizers and colonized alike, as evinced by Salims

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consciousness of being different from his African customers and fellow expatriates: I was
[called] mister because I was a foreigner, someone from the far-off coast, and an Englishspeaker; and I was mister in order to be distinguished from the other resident foreigners, who
were monsieur (Naipaul I, 6). The character expresses knowledge of being something that is
not quite the same as postcolonial natives and migrs who seemed to know no English, the
language which Salim employs to narrate the novel and render his exchanges with characters that
use other linguae francae (such as the mixed river language he employs in his dealings with
Zabeth and other Africans). Salim also uses English to comment on the flimsiness and
mutability of these arrangements:
That was, of course, before the Big Man came along and made us all citoyens
and citoyennes. Which was alright for a while, until the lies he started making us all
live made the people confused and frightened, and when a fetish stronger than his was
found, made them decide to put an end to it all and go back again to the beginning
(Naipaul I, 6).
Unfortunately for Salim, Ferdinand and other characters, there is no return. The
processes they have undergone to adapt themselves to a mingling of peoples connected by
slippery bounds of union have made them too fluid to ever regain their original cohesion.
Moreover, Salims inability and unwillingness to settle in one place and create his own bonds
with people inside and outside his immediate family make it highly unlikely that he will ever be
anything other than a wandering subject forever unable to root himself anywhere. Similar to the
snake-like colonizer, Salim speaks (and is spoken to) in a forked tongue that disrupts his ways of
living, thinking and acting; this serpentine speech tears him apart into too many pieces for him to
ever reassemble himself, allowing him to truly come to know who he is and to love others along
with himself. Unlike other characters, Salim has no bush to call his own and no Mecca worth

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making a pilgrimage to, a ambivalence that according to Kumar destabilizes its claim for
narcissistic authority through... repetitious slippage, excess or difference (Kumar 119).
In ABR, colonizer and colonized alike turn into amphisbaenas, monsters that go both
ways and thus never become one thing or the other. These hybrids are eternally cut in half;
their divided pieces keep tearing themselves into more parts until there is next to nothing left of
them. Postcolonial subjects risk turning far too mottled for their own good: their minds and
bodies become mingled and watery to excess, and so they can never learn to assume forms
they might be comfortable with. Having lost all shape and direction, they earn the wrath of both
the Roman and African God, denied that solid liquidness that characterizes the slippery snake.
Monday, November 3rd, 2014

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Works Cited
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. 4. Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of
Colonial Discourse. London: Routledge, 1994. 85-92.
Kumar, Sanjiv. Bhabhas Notion of Mimicry and Ambivalence in V.S. Naipauls A Bend in
the River. Researchers World: Journal of Arts, Science & Commerce 2.4. October 2011. 118122 [Online].
Naipaul, V.S. A Bend in the River. One: The Second Rebellion. New York: Vintage, 1989. 184.