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Serving sahibs with pony and pen: the discursive uses of 'Native authenticity'

Pion Ltd
Publication Date
  • Linguistics
  • Literature
  • Political Science


In 1923 W Heffer & Sons Ltd published Servant of Sahibs: A Book to be Read Aloud, an autobiographical account of Ghulam Rassul Galwan's service, from 1890 to 1901, with English and American adventurers traveling through Kashmir and Central Asia. The focus of the book on Rassul Galwan's growth through colonial labor, combined with the authenticity imposed on him and his account through a number of textual and editorial devices, allows the book to be read credibly as a text that aids the colonial establishment in utilizing a discourse of Native authenticity in support of a somewhat discredited discourse of benevolent colonial labor relations. We begin by introducing the sociopolitical context within which it was useful for such a book to be published, sponsored and described as authoritative by the colonial establishment. In the second main section, we describe the ways it was a useful authenticating text, arguing that the interplay between Rassul Galwan's narrative and the introductory and editorial comments fulfils three attributes of a convincing piece of 'Native authenticity': to identify what the text is meant to authenticate, to establish the author's authenticity as a Native voice in terms acceptable to a Western audience, and to tell the appropriate story in a way that sounds authentic to a Western ear. In the third section we demonstrate that Servant of Sahibs cannot be understood as unproblematically accommodative either to colonial constructions of transcultural labor relations or to the notion of Native authenticity. Without necessarily crediting Rassul Galwan with intent to resist, we argue that the accommodative text he helped create contains within it a tactical alternative to the very discourses it ostensibly naturalizes. This, we suggest, is characteristic of cultural products of transcultural contact zones, as well as of public transcripts of accommodation more generally. We end the paper by examining briefly (a) the possibility that Rassul Galwan's major theme of growth through colonial labor is informed less by satisfaction with his subservience to colonial masters than by interests only tangentially related to the field of domination which he is ostensibly addressing, and (b) the editor's apparent willingness to include Rassul Galwan's tactical disruptions and thus potentially recuperate those disruptions into colonial discourse.

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