Sunday, May 28th, 2023

Never enough for Mom in “Colonies of the Heart”

Colonies of the Heart

by Jeremy Seabrook

Published by Gay Men’s Press (England)

Published September 1, 1998
224 pgs. • Find on Amazon.comWorldCat

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

June 25, 2006.

The two constituents of Colonies of the Heart each had to (and did) overcome misgivings on my part.

Roughly two-thirds of the volume is occupied by “Dilraj: Empire of the Heart,” a novel about Prakash, a poor boy in Dehra Dun (below the Himalayas where he was born) India whose sprinting success gets him first a scholarship and then a sinecure in the army. Prakash has a sexual relationship with an Englishman visiting Delhi on an aid mission, who is unable to understand that the necessity for an only son to marry and reproduce has nothing to do with desire or preference (or sexual orientation either).

The last third of the book features another close mother-son relationship in which the mother raised the son, but one in which the son is considerably more ambivalent (and less grateful) than Prakash is for the sacrifices his mother and sister made so that he could go to school and avoid being a tenant farmer.

The son in “A Mother’s Life” is the author, Jeremy Seabrook. It is clearly (though one would not say “unabashedly”) a memoir. Seabrook avers that “Dilraj” is not autobiographical, that it is a work of fiction [that] draws upon elements from the lives of people I have known, especially in the portraits of the social and physical setting.”

Obviously, Prakash is not based on Seabrook’s life or statuses. One may hope that Seabrook is wiser than Frank, not least in that he has laid out Frank’s fundamental incomprehension of the life and society of Frank’s beloved (along with Prakash’s of Frank’s).

Dilraj: Empire of the Heart

The first half of Dilraj is the story of Prakash’s adolescence. His mother and sister have sacrificed their own lives so that he can go to school. Prakash is seduced by a teacher (who has a son the same age as Prakash).

Although I have misgivings about abuse of authority in student-teacher relations (as does the teacher), my primary misgiving is about whether an Englishman, even one who has spent many years in India, knows that it is like to be a very poor Indian. There is nothing in particular that rings false to me (knowing far less about life in India than Seabrook!). It is more a general suspicion about a (comparatively) affluent alien being able to speak “as” someone with a very different background. (Though the narrative is not in the first person, it frequently presents what Prakash thinks and feels.)

I have similar doubts about male writers manufacturing women’s subjectivities. (I have fewer doubts about some women capturing men’s subjectivities and of subalterns, who have to try to understand superiors who control their life chances, though I still have doubts…) The problem may be mine (and the zeitgeist of tribalism and pessimism about understanding perspectives of other kinds of people).

Prakash’s unawareness (not just incomprehension) of what Frank feels and thinks is “natural” (and right) is quite plausible to me. Frank has no doubt that Prakash, so ardent in bed and devoted, is “gay.” There is no sociocultural space for Prakash to be “gay” in the modern/western sense. (This is not to say that India has no enclaves of those living a modern gay lifestyle; it is not one that Prakash has the social capital or understanding to find or join.)

The extent of Frank’s ethnocentric incomprehension seems a bit excessive to me. He is supposed to be a sociologist, and there is an extensive literature on patron-client relations that he should be aware of, even if it is not a subject he studied or in which he specialized.

Frank is oblivious of the responsibilities of the patron and the limits of obligations to a patron. He is continually suspicious that he is being used or bilked. He fails to understand how devoted to him Prakash is, that Prakash wants to keep Frank in his life, that there are socially acceptable ways this could be accomplished. And, most of all, that marriage is not a choice for Prakash. To quote Trig Tarazi (from my book Islamic Homosexualities—though Prakash is Hindu, the familialism extends areally):

Everyone is very much into the family unit and men must fulfill their family role. But as long as they do that, they are free to do whatever they want and this is not questioned. And since nobody talks about homosexuality, they don’t have to fear somebody is going to say this—or even think this about them. It’s very strange to have men come up to you in bars and show you pictures of their kids and then say, “OK, let’s go [have sex] now.” To them, being gay is a sexual thing. It’s not emotional. And the tiny minority who do see themselves as gay in the Western sense—as loving men—are frustrated; they feel oppressed the most. The rest of the men are very comfortable. They think it’s the best of all possible worlds. Since nobody recognized homosexuality as even existing, they can get away with things we cannot get away with here [in the U.S.]. But if you start talking about homosexuality, they get very uncomfortable.

Or to borrow a formula from Mexico, where my own observations of patron-client relations is primarily based: “Hecho todos, dicho nada” (Do whatever, say nothing).

Frank wants Prakash to come out to his bride (and everyone else). Prakash is very sad that Frank throws away their special relationship and Prakash’s devotion (beyond gratitude) to Frank. Sigh!

A Woman’s Life

“My relationship with my mother had little to do with love: it was inevitable, necessary, an inescapable bonding by sensibility, a kinship of character; desolating, emancipating, crippling and enhancing. It took its course like any other natural phenomenon.”

Just as I wonder if Seabrook entirely understands/captures/produces the subjectivity of a young Indian, I have some doubts about his knowing what his mother felt, though it seems she talked about things with him that an Anglo parent would usually not tell her son (maybe a Latina mother might tell a gay son, but an English one?)

“A Woman’s Life” is another sad story. Like Prakash, Jeremy Seabrook can not give his mother what she wants and flees her pervasive influence (to India). Moreover, the woman who kept a butcher shop running after the desertion of her husband, in her latter days, becomes psychologically enfeebled, totally given over to hypochondria, and unable to go out.

A real disease stalks the pages of “A Woman’s Life” (as the prefatory note reveals, so that if there is plot spoiling it is done by Seabrook). It is not AIDS, but syphilis. The account is also sad in that Seabrook’s mother was in intense competition with her (widowed) sister with whom she lived for decades, while her sister was not in competition with her. Seabrook’s mother was a resilient woman who refused to be a victim and gradually slipped into embracing victimhood (at least in Seabrook’s presentation).


Despite my doubts about entering into the subjectivity of an Other, I found Seabrook’s portraits at the very least interesting and insightful. I should probably be more skeptical about his presentation of his own younger self than I am. While I was attending to representations of Others, he may have slipped through some stuff about himself that I should have questioned (nothing in particular—this is a reflection on the widespread current skepticism of accurately representing Others that I don’t fully credit but at least partly assumed.)

I intended only to read the novel and not read another story about a gay boy and his mother. (There is plenty of mother-love in “Dilraj”!). In large part because I was reading the book in-flight, and it was easier to continue than to get up and take down another book, I read “A Woman’s Life.” Although it is a painful story of a pain-filled life, it is compellingly written with great sympathy for the mother and very little self-justification (a quality abundantly present in most memoirs).

Seabrook feels he should have done more and knows that no amount would have been enough for his mother.

© 25 June 2006, Stephen O. Murray


About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.