I just finished reading Gayatri C. Spivak’s “The Rani of Sirmur.” My supervisor recommended it to me after I struggled through her “Can the Subaltern Speak?” which left me feeling somewhat cynical. “Rani” predates the latter essay, and is not quite as heavy.
I will admit that I struggled with the first chunk of this piece as well, but the further I got into it, and the more Spivak focused in on the Rani, the more I liked it. Actually, “liked” isn’t strong enough. I found it deeply personal, moving. What Spivak essentially admits is her own archive fever – a search for a figure in the past who Spivak wants desperately to find in a tangible way. A name, a picture, something that will let this early nineteenth century woman speak. For although the Rani is, well, just that – a queen – she remains voiceless in the British record, and therefore subaltern.
And here lies the rub: for those who want to do colonial histories, the archive poses a challenge. It is a colonial institution, through and through. What is included in it, where it is housed, whose voices are present in the narratives it provides are all routed in the colonial experience. So Spivak’s search for the Rani remains confounded by the imperial denial of a Self that is Indian. The Rani is only in the record insofar as she aids in the construction of the British Self in India. She must remain nameless, faceless, and voiceless so that the British can be all these things.
What is especially upsetting (I’m actually not sure what emotion it is) to Spivak is that the hills the Rani once ruled – Sirumr – became what we know today as Simla, the most (in)famous of all hill stations on the Indian subcontinent. The erasure of the Rani from that landscape’s history changes the way Spivak, and I, now, think of those hills.
I have never been to those hills. My own class provenance was not such as to allow summer vacations in so fashionable a resort area. This first trip will be an act of private piety. I want to touch the Rani’s picture, some remote substance of her, if it can be unearthed. But the account of her representation is enough for the book. To retrieve her as information will be no disciplinary triumph. Caught between the cracks between the production of the archives and indigenous patriarchy, today distanced by the waves of hegemonic ‘feminism,’ there is no ‘real Rani’ to be found.
– Spivak, “The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives,” 1985 (271)
This leaves me frustrated. But it also makes me incredibly sad.