Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jennifer Dubrow reviews The Visceral Logics of Decolonization

Neetu Khanna. The Visceral Logics of Decolonization (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2020). 200 pp.

Review by Jennifer Dubrow

23 June 2021

What does it mean to “feel new feelings,” asked Mulk Raj Anand in his 1935 novel Untouchable, “to be aware with a new awareness”?[1] The Visceral Logics of Decolonization explores this question by focusing on “a dense and knotted set of relations between embodied experience and political feeling”––what the author calls “the visceral”––in the work of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, a group that sought social and political progress through literature (p. 1). Visceral Logics investigates “how the psychological trauma of colonial subjugation can become the resource and engine of a collective liberation” (p. 3). Locating a more subtle and understated level of affect in Progressive fiction, Khanna mines this fiction to uncover how the somatic, preconscious life of the body contains within it the possibility for the emotional and mental transformations key to individual and social emancipation.

Visceral Logics presents new readings of fiction by Indian writers Khvaja Ahmad Abbas, Mulk Raj Anand, Ismat Chughtai, Rashid Jahan, and Ahmed Ali. Its four main chapters offer persuasive readings of both canonical and little-known work and bring Jahan to the attention of English-language scholarship. Reassessing Untouchable, Khanna explores how the latent heat in Bakha’s body transforms into revolutionary anger through his tactile experience of touch. In Chughtai and Jahan’s works, Khanna pairs together desire and disgust to show how they exceed colonial disciplinary regimes. Khanna’s focus on the visceral is helpful in approaching other contemporary progressive and modernist texts. When I returned to Chughtai’s “Of Fists and Rubs” (“Muthi Malish”), for example, I noted that it concludes with the narrator declaring, “Don’t give me morphine to dull my senses. . . . Let me be awake.”[2] This emotional awakening leads the narrator to change her vote. Visceral Logics reveals the connection between visceral feeling and political action usually obscured in the scholarship on Chughtai, which focuses on sexuality, obscenity, and the female body.

Visceral Logics asks, “How do we study affect in a way that is attentive to geopolitical difference?” (p. 26). On the one hand, it establishes the visceral as “a crucial node of Marxist aesthetics and politics,” situating Progressive interventions within the internationalist moment of the 1930s to the 1960s (p. 31). Yet, by focusing predominantly on the Anglophone, the book overlooks the key geopolitical difference of language, as most Progressive writing from this period was produced in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, and Telugu. The work of Anand and Ali was not nearly as widely read or as influential as work by Urdu writers such as Saadat Hasan Manto and Krishan Chander, who receive much less scholarly attention.

Visceral Logics aims to reinscribe gender in postcolonial theory, in particular the work of Frantz Fanon. Perhaps its most provocative finding is that Progressive fiction explores a “temporality of anticipation” that surpasses Fanon’s tethered relationship between colonizer and colonized (p. 149). Despite the book’s limited archive, its invocation of feeling anew extends Fanon’s call in The Wretched of the Earth to “try to set afoot a new man”––a dream that South Asian writers would have celebrated and shared.[3]


[1] Mulk Raj Anand, Untouchable, ed. Nandini Bhattacharya (New Delhi, 2009), p. 144.

[2] Ismat Chughtai, “Of Fists and Rubs,” trans. Muhammad Umar Memon, Words without Borders, Sept. 2010,

[3] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York, 1963), p. 316.