Literary Yard

Search for meaning

Literary criticism

By: Sai Diwan


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACurtain. The colonizer has bowed out, and India remains the last man standing. The spectators gather their coats, and cheer their appreciation of the long struggle for independence one last time. And yet, Indian remains the last man standing. A decade rolls by, and then another. The exuberance of a free state is replaced by the predicament regarding its fate. Its writers throw themselves into the past, and grope the darkness for echoes of the colonizer. What they churn out of the darkness is called post colonial literature. A quest for identity, the assertion of power: anachronisms in their whirlwind of the past. And India waits, remains the last man standing. Perhaps it’s time for another play?

While post colonial literature served in reflecting the chaos of a free state in the initial years, it has been more than sixty years since. Somewhere along the way burgeoned writing that learned to bloom without being grafted with the coloniser. Unnamed, yet a clear distinction from its precursor, it is this genre that has marked the transition from Indo-Anglian to Indian Literature in English. The former term implies severed identities clipped into a portmanteau term. The latter rejects this sense of dependence, and gives a nation the right to voice itself in a language that is not its own.

As literature prepares for the emergence of a new voice, the colonizer’s echo is conspicuous by its absence. And the diasporic cord, strangely out of tune. Diasporic literature focuses on the post-colonial dilemma exacerbated by the migration problem. For a generation that has its roots in unaccustomed earth, their literature is perpetually in that state of limbo. The forces have withdrawn, and time has passed but the diasporic author’s identity is the hyphenated remains of an undefined abyss. Thus, for Kiran Desai of the 1.5 generation, her diasporic status justifies the post-colonial novel, Inheritance of Loss seeing the light of the day as late as 2006. However, the macrocosm of Indian Literature in English sees it as a misfit for a class of writing that has transcended the genre. Given the concerns of diasporic literature, it has been carved right out of the post colonial niche, and thus cannot be expected to circumvent it.

The paradox lies in the fact that it was a diasporic work, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children that heralded the new era. Foreign in nationality but Indian in authorship, Rushdie set the ball rolling in the 1980’s. It must have been this pronounced diasporic recognition that overshadowed the marked shift in traits. From the strife to imitate the colonizer’s language to the street realism of Indian English, from the donned pretence of the anglophile attitude to a distinct Indian culture, and from controlled expression to unfazed exploration of restricted avenues, it was the dawning of a new sensibility. If the early 21st century is considered the matured stage of the Unnamed Genre, its sweeping characteristics have been building the gradient for a well established genre for over 30 years now.

English that was the post colonial focus in Hybridity began to shed its ‘foreign’ quality and assimilate in the folds on Indian literature. It was no longer about perfecting the Queen’s English, but gaining the confidence to showcase the real Indian English. As early as the 1960’s, Kamala Das had asserted her right to find expression in the language of her choice.  ‘The language I speak/ Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses/ All mine, mine alone.’ Twenty years later, Upamanyu Chatterjee took her up on that claim to outline the intricacies of his characters in English, August. The protagonist, Agastya has been named after a mythological Indian saint, but acquires the nickname ‘August’ and then simply ‘English’ for his proficiency in the language. When this metropolitan bred IAS officer is posted in the rural town of Madna, the street realism of Indian English breaks loose.

Chatterjee lines the novel with classic Indian words ladled onto English phrases. ‘Oof, this weather.’ (Chatterjee 30). ‘Oho you’re IAS’ (Chatterjee 29) ‘Arrey, I shall be honoured bhai, honoured.’ (Chatterjee 41). English words are removed from their traditional meaning to suit their Indian usage. ‘Myself, Shankar.’ (Chatterjee 27). ‘Bets! You have bets with me on this!’ (Chatterjee 220). There are lines that underline the Indian tendency to wheedle meaningful sentences out of disparate words with just the twist of the Indian tone of voice. ‘So, Shiv, happy?’ (Chatterjee 30). And then there is the consolidation of the author’s efforts in the very words of the protagonist, ‘I’m sure nowhere else could languages be mixed and spoken with such ease.’ (Chatterjee 1)

The interpretation of the novel can be extended to read the redundancy of post colonialism in the context of matured Indian literature in English. The protagonist, Agastya can be read as the metaphor of post colonialism who is a misfit in the Madna of Indian literature in English of the 1980’s. Although he has never set step into a foreign land, Agastya is no less than a tourist in his own homeland. He boils his water for ‘five minutes after the water has begun to boil’ (Chatterjee 244), he isn’t inclined to learn the language of the town, and has an apathetic attitude towards the town. He has been posted in Madna because of his obligation as an IAS officer, and not of his own free will. Much the same, regardless of its relevance, the post colonial theory is slapped onto all Indian literature in English. As Agastya drifts from one town to another, there is nothing that he can hold on to. Not even his old room in the Rest House.

Chatterjee’s novel is also an assertion of the ability to craft characters without having to reflect the macrocosm of the nation. Salman Rushdie’s Saleem, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Hema and Kaushik, Kiran Desai’s Sai: all seem to be obligated to mirror the fate of their nation in the development of their own character. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s Agastya, however, is as far removed from his surroundings as can be. His unnerving lack of self importance, the multiplicity of conflicting identities, the blurring of the real world and his lies -all present a self so obfuscated, that it may be unfolded only in the privacy of his own mind. Symbolised by his room, the mind unravels its rambling of mysteries and establishes a clear disconnect with the outside world. ‘Outside the room, its passage was wearisome, but in his secret life Agastya was to savour the seconds.’ (Chatterjee 27).

What unravels is no profound revelation of the forte of his character, but the entanglement of base desires. His secret life is a muddle of marijuana and masturbation. The room thus becomes an expression of indulgences that are considered a taboo by society. This breaking of boundaries is further propagated by Shashi Deshpande. Her novel, The Binding Vine is written in an unabashed manner of sexual frankness. It deals with the subject of rape, both within and outside the supposed sanctity of marriage. While Kalpana is abused by her own uncle, the unwilling Meera is battered by her husband. Taboos, thus, are no longer restricted territory for Indian authors. It is thus brazen outlook that led them to take the road not taken.

The clear distinctiveness is not only defined by these marked features, but also the awakening of an Indian sensibility. Beyond the frontier of post-colonialism lays an India that boasts Indianness. Its writers wake up to chronicle the new light. What they have narrated is yet unnamed.

A new stage is set. The Unnamed Genre stands ready for his role as the Conductor. He has been training the actors of the old stage for quite a while now. Three decades later, it’s finally his turn to conduct the orchestra. Will the baton be passed, please?


Works Cited

  1. Chatterjee Upamanyu. English, August. Noida: Faber and Faber, 2002.
  2. Deshpande Shashi. The Binding Vine. New Delhi: Penguin Group, 1993.
  3. Naik M. K. Studies in Indian English Literature. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1987.
  4. Nanavati U. M., Kar Prafulla C. eds. Rethinking Indian English Literature. Delhi: Pencraft International, 2000.
  5. Natarajan Nalini, ed. Twentieth-Century Literatures of India. USA: Greenwood Press, 1996.

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