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Sarah Anne Pfitzer  

Dr. Charmion Gustke  

ENL 4370: Fictions of Empire  

6 December 2018  

Indigenous Representation in David Malouf’s ​Remembering Babylon​ and Arundhati Roy’s ​The God of 

Small Things 

In his landmark text ​The Postcolonial Exotic​, theorist Graham Huggan frames the imperial 

project as an exercise in cultural perversion– a project that casts the subaltern as a hollow spectacle 

of difference, an exotic “other” among the civilized (422). In spite of a claimed consciousness and 

appreciation of indigenous epistemologies– systems of knowledge that value the land as an “intrinsic 

part of human ‘being’” (Ashcroft et al. 491)– European colonialism, along with its neo-colonial 

legacies, transforms the subaltern into the inert vehicle of ideological and material profit-making.  

In the following paper, I will examine two postcolonial novels– David Malouf’s ​Remembering 

Babylon a​ nd Arundhati Roy’s ​The God of Small Things–​ casting my analysis in light of Huggan’s central 

inquiry: “Is it possible to account for cultural difference without at the same time mystifying it? To 

locate and praise the other without also privileging the self? To promote the cultural margins 

without ministering to the needs of the mainstream? To construct an object of study that resists, and 

possibly forestalls, its own commodification?” (423). Since ​Remembering Babylon ​and ​The God of Small 

Things a​ re extensively complex novels, I will center my argument on just two characters who 

exemplify the subaltern worldview: Gemmy Fairley in ​Remembering Babylon a​ nd The Kathakali dancer 

in ​The God of Small Things​. Though I will certainly incorporate other characters and contexts into my 

discussion, I am aware that several threads of analysis will go unexamined.  


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Admittedly, David Malouf and Arundhati Roy compose under vastly different styles, 

contend with vastly different historical periods, discuss vastly different geographical locations. 

Remembering Babylon​ addresses burgeoning colonial settlements in nineteenth-century Australia, 

whereas ​The God of Small Things​ addresses the newly-independent state of India, both in 1969 and 

1993. While Malouf works in the realm of the personal and interpersonal, Roy concerns herself with 

the “politics of ‘largeness’” (Mukherjee 96), a largeness that reflects emergent neo-colonial channels 

of communication and control. Both novels, however, condemn the distorting, objectifying, 

silencing power of imperial exoticism– a practice that reduces the subaltern to a mere tool on the 

path to material and ideological dominance, a practice that takes indigenous epistemology and 

renders it malleable, commodifiable, and Western in character.  

Remembering Babylon​ recounts the tragic narrative of Gemmy Fairley, a Londoner who, 

shipwrecked off the coast of Queensland, becomes absorbed in a society of Aborigines. When white 

settlers enter the region (consistent with the mass migration of Europeans to temperate zones in the 

mid-nineteenth century [Crosby 495]), Gemmy attempts a re-entrance into “civilization.” With his 

capacity for English gone (replaced by the savage grunts of Aboriginal language), the settlers degrade 

Gemmy to the status of hybrid, “white black man,” animal (Malouf 69). Though settlers Janet 

McIvor and Mr. Fraser seem to recognize Gemmy’s hybridity as a vision of Aboriginal-European 

harmony, this recognition proves self-serving– an iteration of hegemony. Gemmy’s sole purpose, 

then, is that of a vehicle– a savage spectacle who provokes the settlers into a fuller understanding of 

themselves.​ As he disappears wholly from the novel (as if in parentheses), Janet and Mr. Fraser emerge 

seemingly heightened to a sense of oneness with the natural world. Reduced to an idealized 

representation of the indigene, a representation lacking depth, Gemmy functions as a mere conduit 
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for European self-revelation, a cog in the machinery of Imperial systems of representation. After all, 

the Europeans are to be the transcribers and prophets, while the indigenous are to remain rigidly 

defined specimens.  

Before discussing this process of silencing, it is imperative to first explicate Gemmy’s 

positioning as an indigene – a position later distorted by his re-absorption into European 

civilization. According to theorists Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra, Australian Aboriginal cultures 

hewed identities so connected to the land as to render both inseparable (359). Thus, as Gemmy 

digests the Aboriginal worldview– beliefs and behaviors antithetical to the nature/culture 

separatisms of the West– his language “becomes not the site of represented reality, but the 

convergence of a forming selfhood and place” (Archer-Lean 1). Rather than define his dominion 

over the natural world, as in European methodologies, Gemmy’s articulation of nature fuses with his 

material presence. For instance, as Gemmy exits the borders of the settlement, he recovers his 

capacity to unite language and land: “A drop of moisture sizzled on his tongue: the word—he had 

found it. Water’ (Malouf 181). Here, Gemmy does not idealize nature, does not attempt 

transcendence, does not force nature into a contrived mold. Instead, he undergoes full collapse ​into 

nature (Byron 85). Indeed, no gap exists between word and experience: “water” is not so much 

spoken as it is ​felt.​   

Additionally, this sense of collapse manifests itself in Gemmy’s embodiment as animal, 

complicating the European species boundary. Consider, for example, the settlers’ first encounter 

with Gemmy: “The creature, almost upon them now… , came to a halt, gave a kind of squawk, and 

leaping up onto the top rail of the fence, hung there, its arms outflung as if preparing for flight’ 

(Malouf 3). Exemplified by his liminal position– both literal (on the fence) and symbolic (on the 
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border between the wilderness and civilization)– Gemmy “threatens the stability of the 

animal-human-spirit hierarchy,” posits an existence in which human and nonhuman exist on a level 

plane– in an equal, integral state of being (Byron 85). Nature, then, need not be bordered, need not 

be separate from language or culture. After all, when the Aborigines visit Gemmy, they do not 

“create hostilities or establish boundaries”; rather, “they had come to reclaim him; but lightly, 

bringing what would feed his spirit” (Malouf 118). In other words, the Aborigines re-establish for 

Gemmy a sense of space-time epistemology, thereby undermining European strategies of 

“[imposing] a cultural grid” onto the subaltern (Daly 16). 

Though Mr. Fraser advocates for an Australia that celebrates a newfound focus on 

indigenous life, his actions nevertheless confirm the colonial power’s capacity to dominate and 

authenticate rather than understand and commune. Admittedly, Mr. Fraser demonstrates an 

unparalleled fascination with Gemmy’s tribal existence, performing the role of the “sympathetic 

‘researcher’” (Archer-Lean 1). In fact, as Bill Ashcroft observes, “Mr. Fraser is taken to the edges of 

an imperial consciousness, a place constructed in the imperial language, to a vision of what Australia 

might become’ (58). However, this epiphany, viewed in light of Fraser’s prior actions, becomes 

profoundly problematic. Recall, for instance, Gemmy’s first day on the settlement. Frustrated by an 

insurmountable communication barrier, Fraser resolves to speak for Gemmy:  

Mr. Fraser, all his body hunched and drawn forward till he was practically breathing into the 

man’s mouth, would offer syllables, words, anything to relieve the distress he felt at 

Gemmy’s distress…. “Yes sir, yes, that’s it,” Gemmy would splutter, delighted, since the 

minister was, at having done so well, and Mr. Fraser, another fierce struggle ended, would 

look relieved and say, “Good, I thought that might be it.” (Malouf 17)  
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How can Fraser understand the nuances of indigenous epistemology if he himself imposes words 

onto Gemmy? And what are the implications of this supposed omniscience? As long as Fraser 

functions as the authenticator– the speaker– he erases the subaltern’s claims to his own 

representation, and by extension, his systems of belief.  

Furthermore, when Fraser writes of the infinite potential of the Australian land, when he 

talks about Gemmy to his fellow settlers, he does so with an air of sustained difference and 

superiority. In other words, though Fraser remains sympathetic to Gemmy’s indigenous existence, 

he nevertheless sustains a definable distance between Gemmy and himself– an assumption that 

Gemmy, and the land that Gemmy represents, subordinates to colonial interests. For instance, Mr. 

Fraser's justification of Gemmy's “native” features resonates with the self-assured “crypto-eugenic 

and phrenological theories which dominated racial discourse of the nineteenth-century” (Daly 14): 

“The white man's facial structure came from the different and finer diet. It was the grinding down of 

[Gemmy’s] teeth, and the consequent broadening of the jaw that gave him what they called a native 

look” (Malouf 40). Fraser’s presumptions about Gemmy and the Aborigines, then, “exemplify the 

Victorian notion of the ‘arrested humanity’ of the savage”: as an inferior species incapable of raising 

himself above natural dependency, above atavism, Gemmy merits the derision of the civilized man, 

who, “thanks to science, industry, Christianity, and racial excellence, had finally (and definitively) 

raised himself" (White 34). Therefore, though Gemmy may represent a vision of the future in 

Fraser’s eyes, this future bears connotations of sustained hierarchy, suppositions of the European’s 

relative enlightenment.  

Janet, too, reaches an epiphany contingent on an imposed understanding of Gemmy. In a 

metaphysical encounter with a swarm of bees, Janet “[surrenders] herself to a unity of consciousness 
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with [their] ‘single mind,’” miraculously emerging unharmed (Malouf 142). Admittedly, several 

literary theorists argue that such an intimate encounter with the non-human indicates an embrace of 

the animal realm– translates to a newfound embrace of Gemmy and indigenous epistemology. After 

all, Janet sees her newfound self “through Gemmy’s eyes” (Malouf 144). However, notice the use of 

preposition here – “through” – denoting a channel of communication, a tool. Because it is ​through 

Gemmy that Janet grasps “the power of her own belief,” her understanding of the animal realm 

sustains a species boundary. Gemmy is nothing more than a means, then– a means by which Janet 

reaches a colonized awareness of nature. Though Janet’s fleeting communion with the swarm may 

be interpreted as an example of “becoming” nature (Murphy 83), nature, here, remains tamed, 

contained in the constructed hives of Mrs. Hutchence’s house, imported from Europe, extolled for 

its “pure geometry” (Malouf 199). Indeed, without the imposed borders of the European mind, the 

insect ​threatens​ the imperial viewpoint, as exemplified by the settlers’ collective fears of losing their 

capacity for reason:  

What you fix your gaze on is the little hard-backed flies that are crawling about in the corner 

of its bloodshot eyes and hopping down at intervals to drink the sweat of its lip. And the 

horror it carries to you is not just the smell…. you meet at last in a terrifying equality that 

strips the last rags from your soul and leaves you so far out on the edge of yourself that your 

fear now is that you may never get back. (Malouf 42-43) 

Janet, no different than the settlers as a whole, yearns to impose reason onto Australia’s otherwise 

unexplainable landscape. And though she continues her lifelong “apian devotion” into adulthood 

(Murphy 84), her fascination plays out in the realm of institution, within the borders of a nunnery. 
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Such confines contradict the uncultivated wildness of indigenous epistemology, demonstrating her 

lingering attachment to culture and her fear of the encroaching “other.”  

As Sathyabhama Daly observes, “although ​Remembering Babylon​ ends on a spiritual note: ‘As 

we approach prayer. As we approach knowledge. As we approach one another’ (200), the silence 

that echoes is one of despair” (17). No reconciliation occurs between the Aboriginal inhabitants and 

the white settlers, between their opposing views of natural value. Indeed, this sense of 

incompatibility resonates with the same weight as the novel’s ​opening​ lines: “Whether this is 

Jerusalem or Babylon we know not.” Because European revelation occurs at the expense of 

Gemmy’s silencing, scholars cannot claim any sense of harmony between nature and culture. After 

all, how can harmony be achieved if Gemmy himself– the Aborigines, too– are left dispersed, exiled, 

discarded in the branches of trees (Malouf 196)? 

Unlike David Malouf’s text, Arundhati Roy’s ​The God of Small Things​ deals with the legacies of 

colonialism rather than colonialism itself– specifically the era of globalization. The plot of the novel 

hinges on twins Estha and Rahel, who reunite in Kerala after a long separation and remain haunted 

by a series of childhood traumas. The narrative, composed in a series of flashbacks and 

flashforwards, spans three decades, bearing witness to a burgeoning global market governed by 

neo-colonial policies. Because neo-colonialism concerns itself with European domination on an 

ideological level, Roy does not concern herself so much with Europeans as a people, but with 

signifiers of past occupation– houses, factories, the land itself (Comfort 16). By containing the 

trauma and oppression of the colonial project within physical places (particularly Chacko’s pickle 

factory the “History House”), Roy demonstrates that the appropriation of indigenous space and the 
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oppression of the subaltern are intimately tied and inseparable concepts– concepts that objectify, 

subsume, and commodify indigenous epistemologies and rituals.  

Within this framework, the Kathakali Man symbolizes not an archaic Kerala culture, but a an 

insertion into a garish global market. The Kathakali Man, then, reveals the vast dangers of the 

Western imperial project– a project that commodifies natural India, a project that “renders oblivious 

an awareness of history and social interdependency” (Comfort 7). Ultimately, Roy’s novel shows 

how deeply Kerala – “God’s own country,” according to its tourism advertisements – is scarred by 

the pursuit of neo-colonial profit, both in 1969 and 1993. More specifically, the image of the 

Kathakali dancer, both at Paradise Pickles and the Heritage Hotel, exemplifies an appropriation of 

the natural and indigenous, a reduction of culture to​ ​“inert, dead and manipulable matter” (qtd. in 

Comfort 14). The Kathakali Man, like Gemmy, functions as a means to end– the end, in this case, 

being profit.  

Before discussing neo-colonial perversions of the Kathakali tradition, it is vital to first define 

this custom within its original context. Kathakali, based largely on Hindu religious epics, is a classical 

dance-drama native to Kerala. Enacted outdoors, the presentation often extends through the night– 

rife with chanting, storytelling, and drum beats (“Kathakali”). It is important to note, here, the 

particular importance of Hinduism to this tradition– a religion with a pantheistic view of the natural 

world. Rather than attribute earthly creation to a single, patriarchal ruler (the patriarchal ruler 

implicit in the term “God’s Own Country”), Hindus instead envision a nature that contains divine 

multiplicities. Like the Aboriginals of Malouf’s novel, “Hindus see the surrounding world as a 

“Thou” of which they are an interdependent part” (Coward 411). Humans, then, do not merely trod 

on the land; rather, their every action occurs in continuity with the universe. Thus, according to the 
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Kathakali dancer, body, soul, and environment unite in the act of dance, transcending the binaries of 

body and cosmos.   

However, in relation to Chacko’s pickle factory, The Kathakali Man represents a shift from 

patterns of native subsistence to patterns of mass factory labor, from native appreciation to “the 

super-exploitation of subaltern groups” (Comfort 6). In other words, as local enterprise yields to 

global enterprise, the subaltern experiences a profound disconnection, a profound marginalization, 

from a labor that was once integral to the formation of identity and community: “Up to the time 

Chacko arrived, the factory had been a small but profitable enterprise. Mammachi just ran it like a 

large kitchen. Chacko had it registered as a partnership and informed Mammachi that she was the 

Sleeping Partner. He invested in equipment (canning machines, cauldrons, cookers) and expanded 

the labor force” (Roy 55-56). Exemplified by its rebranding as Paradise Pickles, by the crudely 

painted Kathakali dancer with the slogan “emperors of the realm of taste” inscribed beside it, 

Chacko’s products “represent the commodification of exotic regional flavours for international 

markets, and as such … constitutes itself as the latest avatar of the old colonial logic of wealth 

circulation” (Mukherjee 96). In other words, the Kathakali logo, though seemingly insignificant, 

signifies a much deeper problem: that of false representation. Indeed, the workers at Paradise Pickles 

are, according to Susan Comfort, “subjectless passive-tense constructions,” a community divested of 

claims to its own identity (6): “Chopping knives were put down . . . Pickled hands were washed and 

wiped on cobalt-blue aprons” (163). Reduced to two-dimensional proportions like the Kathakali 

dancer, Chacko’s laborers form the inert background upon which “Paradise” is built.  

The Kathakali dancer also appears at the heritage hotel, formerly and aptly coined “The 

History House” by Estha and Rahel. Originally “built for the colonial profit-making exercise that 
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was the nineteenth-century rubber cultivation in Kerala,” The History House morphs into a five-star 

hotel complete with artificial decor, signifying a transition from colonialism to neo-colonialism, from 

direct exploitation to indirect “human and cultural degradation.” (Mukherjee 94, 99).“Thrust 

towards the logic of apartheid,” foreign visitors experience not the “real” India, but an India of 

shallow simulation; in fact, they “arrive not through Ayemenem, but are ferried straight from Cochin 

on speedboats along a route that is carefully designed to deny them a glimpse of the people who live 

there” (Mukherjee 99). It is here that the Kathakali materializes again: “ancient stories were collapsed 

and amputated. Six-hour classics were slashed to twenty-minute cameos” (Roy 121). Like labels on a 

can of exotic pickles, the Kathakali dancer bows to his constructed image– an image that deprives 

him of depth, removes his cultural dignity.  

After acknowledging their complicity in this materialistic ploy, their blatant anabasement of a 

sacred tradition, the dancers travel back to their temple to atone for their wrongs, “to ask the pardon 

of their gods. To apologize for corrupting their stories. For encashing their identities. 

Misappropriating their lives” (Roy 218). According to Makerjee, “Unlike the hotel, the temple is not 

a part of the global circuit of commodified regional exotica” (102); rather, it is a reversion to the 

natural– white-walled, moss-tiled, moonlit, rain-scented (Roy 217). It is here that “the dancers… 

stage their counter-performance, one that does not cater to the tourist’s short attention span, that 

cannot be exchanged for dollars, that tells the ancient epics and great stories through the idiom of 

twitching muscles, impossible leaps and blurs of movement” (Mukherjee 102). In other words, 

hidden from the imposing definitions of globalization, the dancers experience a reconnection to 

their own epistemology– an epistemology of unfathomable intricacy and depth. As the dancers 

inhabit the multitudinous cosmos of the Hindu tradition, they enter into transcendent oneness with 
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the movement of their bodies, with their stories: “The Kathakai Man is the most beautiful of men. 

​ is soul. His only instrument…. He has magic in him, this man within the 
Because his body ​is h

painted mask and swirling skirts” (Roy 219). Here, in the temple abandoned “by the touch of global 

development” (Mukherjee 103), the dancer glimpses his inherent dignity. Thus, the derelict temple 

poses the potential for redemption– albeit a redemption that is physically crumbing. Indeed, Roy 

depicts subversion as a fleeting notion.  

Both​ Remembering Babylon a​ nd​ The God of Small Things d​ emonstrate the replacement of the real, 

the natural, the indigenous, with that of empty spectacle. The settlers’ fascination with Gemmy is no 

more than a means to achieve a self-congratulatory ownership of his thoughts, his words, and his 

beliefs. The Kathakali dancers degrade themselves in service of the incontrovertible pursuit of global 

profit and “Regional Flavor” (Roy 219). Indeed, as Julia Emberley argues, “The society of 

spectacle… has displaced questions of political economy into a postcolonial discourse in which 

images, representations, ‘authenticities,’ and ‘the experience of marginality’ circulate as the currency 

of exchange” (qtd. In Huggan 422). Though Malouf and Roy allow us to glimpse instances of 

unhindered indigenous belief– Gemmy’s lingual ties to the land, the Kathakali dancers’ retreat to 

their private temple– these instances are no more than fading glimpses. Malouf and Roy seem to 

suggest that the subaltern may only exist in his fullness through private, marginal 

experience– experience beyond the European’s signification. No mutual understanding exists, only 

imposed representation; no “accounts or illustrations of different peoples and societies, but a 

projection of European fears and desires masquerading as [objective knowledge]” (Ashcroft et al. 

93). After all, as Edward Said warns us, the line between representation and ownership is all but 

indistinguishable.   
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Works Cited 

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pp. 1-12, http://www.nla.gov.au/openpublish/index.php/jasal/article/view/3310/4040.  

Ashcroft, Bill. “The Return of the Native.” ​Commonwealth​, vol. 16, no. 2, 1993, pp. 51-60. 

Ashcroft. Bill, et al. “Part Eighteen: Environment.” ​The Post-Colonial Studies Reader,​ edited by Bill 

Ashcroft et al., Routledge, 2006, pp. 491-493.  

Ashcroft. Bill, et al. “Part Three: Representation and Resistance.” ​The Post-Colonial Studies Reader​, 

edited by Bill Ashcroft et al., Routledge, 2006, pp. 491-493.  

Byron, Mark. “Crossing Borders of the Self in the Fiction of David Malouf.” ​Sydney Studies in English,​  

vol. 31, 2005, pp. 76-93. 

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no. 4, 2008, pp. 1-27.   

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Hodge, Bob, and Vijay Mishra. “Aboriginal Place.” ​The Post-Colonial Studies Reader​, edited by Bill 

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https://www.britannica.com/art/kathakali.  

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