Rogues in the Postcolony: Narrating Extraction and Itinerancy in India

12 Min Read

June 1, 2023

Stacey Balkan is an Associate Professor of English and environmental humanities at Florida Atlantic University. She is coeditor, with Dr. Swaralipi Nandi, of Oil Fictions: World Literature and our Contemporary Petrosphere. Rogues in the Postcolony: Narrating Extraction and Itinerancy in India is available now from West Virginia University Press.

Upon encountering the title of my new book, colleagues often ask how one “narrates extraction,” which is to say: what do stories have to do with an economic and ecological process like resource extraction? This is a question with which I often grapple in the classroom. Perhaps a better, if more complicated version, would be something that I ask my graduate students: how do we understand the role of aesthetic expression in the manufacture and reinforcement of energopolitical desire—a desire, often fueled by fossilized carbon, to achieve something like “freedom” or “progress,” or any of a number of developmentalist euphemisms for a commoditized form of prosperity born of extractivist violence? In a similar vein: are there narratives that contest what have been called the “enabling fictions” of “economic development”?  

The word “itinerancy” invites similar responses, particularly in the United States where unhoused communities are criminalized as wantonly indigent. This is so even though itinerancy is often a direct byproduct of extractivist qua developmentalist violence. Indeed, the criminalization of the poor, whether on the streets of San Francisco or in the poppy fields of eighteenth-century Bengal, stinks of the same economic logic—a logic which eschews consideration of historical patterns of uneven development that have effectively dispossessed the working poor. In the case of Bengal, the displaced peasantry emerged as a “vagrant class” in the wake of British occupation and the capitalization of the countryside—e.g., in the poppy fields, which form the narrative terrain of Amitav Ghosh’s novel Sea of Poppies

Rogues in the Postcolony: Narrating Extraction and Itinerancy in India, which is the inaugural title in the “Histories of Capitalism and the Environment Series” for West Virginia University Press, rejects developmentalist narratives that champion such industries as were initiated by the English East India Company, and which effectively dispossessed millions of Indian farmers; and it does this through an examination of Anglophone Indian picaresque novels, or “rogue” tales. Looking to novels by writers such as Amitav Ghosh, Indra Sinha, and Aravind Adiga, my book examines the connections between landscape ideology, agricultural improvement, extractive capitalism, and aesthetic expression in British-occupied Bengal, 1980s Bhopal, and the coal-soaked terrain of contemporary Dhanbad. 

The rogue figure, however, as a literary anti-hero and social criminal has a long and complicated history and one not unique to India. The origin of the rogue is often situated in early modern Spain with the tradition of the picarescos. These were tales that illustrated the material exigencies of extreme poverty amongst what Marxian critics would characterize as an emergent vagrant class. The English rogue figure, popularized in the “cony-catching” tales of the same period, is another example of this so-called vagrant class. They would likewise, rather belatedly, be made legible in classic works like E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, which included dispossessed tradespeople in sixteenth century London, newly landless farmers contesting the enclosure of commonly held land across several centuries, and a host of otherwise invisible characters. 

The commoner-cum-rogue thus became a literary symbol of an outmoded form of political economy—one replaced by Lockean notions of private property that would also rely on the Malthusian logic of the latter nineteenth century. I refer, of course, to a fallacious understanding of usufruct rights to common land combined with a racialized/colonialist perspective on reproduction: it was their putatively soaring populations, and correlative lack of industriousness, that could account for the poverty of these landless “anachronisms” and which could also serve as justification for the continued seizure of commonly held land whether in the English countryside or in Victorian India.

Such a Lockean understanding of property was also central to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency” in the 1970s when, per Vijay Prashad, she essentially “handed over the keys to the kingdom” to companies like Union Carbide. Following their expulsion from the countryside, farmworkers from Bhopal and elsewhere were then systematically removed from city centers in the name of “beautification”--a process that would continue well into the twenty-first century. Late-capitalist India actually presents a concise praxis for thinking through the continued removal of peasant labour in the interest of (extractive) capital accumulation.

Late-capitalist India actually presents a concise praxis for thinking through the continued removal of peasant labour in the interest of (extractive) capital accumulation.

When I began thinking about narrating extraction and forced itinerancy, however, I was not thinking about India; I would come to think more squarely about the subcontinent after encountering, in rather quick succession, the novels by Sinha and Ghosh—published in 2007 and 2008 respectively. I had previously been focused more squarely on petroleum, and on such familiar sites of petroleum extraction as the Niger Delta, where the Shell corporation—also a vestige of the imperial trading companies who would lay claim to the subcontinent—would effectively enclose tens of thousands of hectares of Indigenous land in the interest of drilling for oil. Chris Abani’s 2004 picaresque novel GraceLand, which I have elsewhere called a “petro-picaresque,” is a wonderful rogue tale whose central character moves between a no longer viable interior economy and the make-shift housing communities adjacent to Lagos. Significantly, GraceLand is one of a number of postcolonial picaresque novels that engage this irreverent form in the service of anti-extractivist critique. 

The Indian novels that form my book’s archive are similarly anti-extractivist in nature. They are nonlinear and thus strikingly non-teleological in their refusal of a conventional conclusion. The rogues featured in the novels by Ghosh, Sinha, and Adiga, owing to their forced itinerancy, must simply survive. These rogue tales also dramatize three stages of development—beginning in Ghosh’s fictional Bihar, moving through the nation’s disastrous “green revolution,” and culminating in the vast coal fields of Dhanbad. Dhanbad, in the state of Jharkhand, is the third largest coal-producing region in the world; and it is a legacy of the longest operating coal seam at Raniganj where the fires that have burned for over a century continue to illuminate the night sky. 

Critically, the coal to be found here is metallurgical coal, which serves the nation’s demand for steel and thus supports India’s image as a champion of clean hydropower: India’s notorious megadams, long protested by local communities who are literally being drowned in the interest of the capitalist class, are a central feature of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clean energy plan. Tata Power, formerly Tata Steel and later Tata Solar, continues to manufacture new extractive frontiers under the banner of renewable energy; it has also managed to refine conventional mechanisms of dispossession, from the drowning of communities adjacent to new dam construction to the violent seizure of peasant lands now in the interest of corporate solar parks.

As Modi now endeavours to censor Indian history—with a sleight of hand literally erasing the Muslim community from textbooks, and thus fanning the flames of Hindu Nationalist violence against a largely-Muslim working poor—prospects for justice become ever dimmer. To narrate extraction, as I have endeavoured to explain here and as is embodied in my book, thus ought to mean narrating extractivist violence, economic dispossession, and environmental catastrophe, in addition to acknowledging those enabling fictions which effectively conceal the impacts of extractive capitalism’s voracious maw. 

Nonetheless, I have lately been thinking more about how one narrates a return to the commons, which is something that I write about in the book’s conclusion on “solarity” in India’s sunshine state of Rajasthan, home to the nation’s largest corporate solar park. Although, rather than “imagine otherwise”—a term that once conjured great promise and is now rightfully derided in its conscious ignorance of actually-existing projects devoted to planetary justice—I am interested in examining literary figurations of just futures, however flawed some may be, in order to conceive of more concrete forms of revolution. Local communities adjacent to the solar fields of Rajasthan are navigating—legislatively speaking—their way back to their ancestral lands. Perhaps the local Maldhari community, who continue to contest the enclosure of their land in the face of Modi’s solar fascism (not unlike communities from Puerto Rico to the midwestern United States) may just serve as a model for the kind of radical infrastructural revolution required for planetary survival.

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