Literary Yard

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Indo-English literature in Indian context

By: Ramlal Agarwal

During my undergraduate and postgraduate days in the early 60 s, Indian writing in English was not a subject of academic discussions and seminars as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Individual writers like R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, and Raja Rao were discussed but the eggheads in the department of English showed utter disregard and distrust towards them. In fact, Indian Writing in English has been plagued with disregard and distrust ever since it began to take root in this country. Indians started writing in English around 1857. This coincided with the setting up of three Indian Universities in the country. 1857 was also the year of Indian Mutiny and revival of interest in Indian languages. A minuscule section of Indian society was getting more and more Anglicized, whereas the overwhelming majority was getting fired with patriotic feelings. Madhusudan Dutt, Rameshchandra Dutt, and his poet cousins Tom and Bankimchandra were among the first Indians to start using English for creative purposes.

Madhusudan Dutt dreamt of being an English poet and came out with The Captive Laclie in 1849 and Visions of the Past in 1848, Bankimchandra also wrote poems but eventually came out with Rajmohan’s Wife, the first Indian novel in English in 1864. The British response to the first endeavour of an Indian to write a novel in English is not known. But the Indian response to the poems and the novel was far from being favourable. On the contrary, the attempts were construed as ‘false start’. Later on, Bankim Chandra turned against using English for creative expression and advised his contemporaries to do so. A general opinion in favour of using the mother tongue for creative expression began to settle. Aurobindo Ghosh held that ‘to be original in an acquired language is hardly feasible. An Indian enterprise of writing in English had something unnatural and spurious about it-like speaking with a stone in the mouth or walking with stilts, Yet English continued to fascinate creative talents and a few creative talents persisted in their endeavours to write in English. 

But their work remained mostly unnoticed. Meenakshi Mukherjee retrieves them from the archives and discusses them at length in The Perishable Empire published by oxford. Indian writing in English really struck roots in the thirties. The fiction of Raja Rao, R. K. Narayan, and Mulk Raj Anand won approval abroad and at home. But it was a time when England was passing through a phase of modernism. The novel was subjected to verbal and formal experimentation and such literary giants as Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, and Eliot were dominating the literary scene and hence the quiet traditional novels of R. K. Narayan received acknowledgment but not enough critical attention as to impress the Indian literati to take them seriously.

Still, the writers did inspire some laudatory critical responses from Indian readers as well. But their success again coincided with national fervour and once again questions such as’ “Should Indians write in English?” or “Can Indians write in English?” began to be raised. A Bengali poet and critic Buddhadev Bose observed as late as 1963 that ‘Indo-Anglian poetry is a blind alley, lined with curio shops, leading nowhere. “Ten years later, in a lecture at India International Centre, Dom Moraes observed” English is the language of colonists, Indian literature in English is colonial literature and colonial literature is always provincial literature. “

He also quoted W.B. Yeats’ letter to William Rothstein about Tagore. Yeats wrote “Damn Tagore. We got out three good books, Sturge Moor and I, and then because he thought it more important to see and know English than to be a great poet, he brought out sentimental rubbish and wrecked his reputation. Tagore does not know English. No Indian knows English. Nobody can write music and style in a language not learned in childhood and ever since the language of his thought.” Perhaps Yeats was right. Madhusudan Dutta wrote in English and Bengali. Today his writings in English are hardly known but his writings in Bengali survive. One wonders whether Bankim Chandra could have emerged as a major voice in Indian literature if he had chosen to continue writing in English and whether he could have written the songs that millions of Indians have been singing like a mantra from the Vedas or hymns from the Bible. And yet whether one should write in English or not is a matter of individual choice. The question more important is “Can Indians write in English?” This question is related to the adaptability and acceptability of a language to a culture of which it is not an integral part.

It is also related to the individual talent of the writer who uses it and the historical situation in which he is doing so. During the thirties and the forties, Queen’s English could not be tampered with. As such, critics objected to Mulk- Raj Anand’s literal translation of Punjabi expressions into English. Some writers found themselves hamstrung because they could not find words for describing Indian customs and rituals and the words, they chose to do so were dissatisfactory and could not evoke empathy. The restrictions under which an Indian writer in English has to operate are summed up by Raja Rao in his introduction to Kantha Pura. He says “One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own. One has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought movement that looks maltreated in an alien language. I used the word ‘alien’, yet English is not really an alien language to us. It is the language of our intellectual make-up.”

Some writers and poets disregarded these obstacles and continued using English for creative expression, but such writers and poets have been very small in number and as such the corpus of Indian writing in English has been meagre and beset with problems.”

Then in 1981 came Salman Rushdie’s The Midnight’s Children and the scenario changed. Rushdie’s novel appeared at a time when in England the stable entities of realism began to dissolve and narrative methods multiplied. Fictionality of fiction permeated descriptive and documentary forms —- Journalism, history-writing, and autobiography, or any other narrative forms.

Rushdie bequeathed new fictional freedom to the novelists of the 80s who show a far stronger impulse towards fantasy and imaginative use of historical forms. It was a time when David Lodge suggested an “Aesthetics of Compromise in which the distinctions between ‘realism’ and ‘experiment’ disappeared. It was a time when a supermarket of style seemed freely on offer. It is in this context that various compound terms as ‘magical-realism, ‘ hyper-realism, ‘dirty-realism’ became common, commenting on the fiction of the time, David Lodge called it “Crossover fiction”. Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children suited the mood of the eighties and hence it received a bear hug from English and American critics.

Rushdie’s novel has all the attributes of what David Lodge calls ‘the crossover fiction’ and Martin Amis calls ‘postmodern trickiness’, It deals with the grotesque and the fantastic, and it is written in a_ stylistic promiscuity that results from mixing and merging various styles, genres, and cultural levels. The most appropriate word and the one Rushdie himself uses to illustrate postmodern trickiness in Indian English is “Chutnification.” ‘Midnight’s Children is a model of the process of chutnification. In this novel, Rushdie takes bits of realism, bits of surrealism, bits of fantasy, bits of history, bits of psychology, bits of sociology, bits of narrative techniques of the West and the East, and seasons these with hyperbole. The literary climate of the eighties welcomed the experiment and canonized it. The welcome accorded to Rushdie unleashed a spree of experimentation in India.

Shashi Tharoor made a paste of an ancient Indian epic and post-Independence political history and called it The Great Indian Novel. Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel is an apt example of Rushdie’s “Chutnification”. Shashi tried another trick in another novel The Show Business. He presents the novel as a scenario of a film shooting. One of the bulkiest novels in Indo-English literature is Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Seth turns the novel into a show-window of vulgar display of wealth and inanities.  In another bulky novel Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra yokes English and vernacular slang to carry his story of crime and corruption and the cat and mouse game. Another voluminous novel by Tarun Tejpal, The Alchemy of Desire was praised by none other than V.S. Naipaul, usually acerbic about Indian performance. He said, ” At last a new and brilliantly original novel from India.”  The originality of the novel consists in blurring the thin line between pornography and art.

The much praised and Booker winner novel by Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is about an orthodox Syrian Christian family from Kerala, buffeted by accidents, misfortune, class-struggle, political and economic upheavals and unbridled psychological urges.  Obviously, the material would require a Henry James to do justice to it, but Roy packs it all in one travellers’ bag. Notwithstanding the liberties taken with the established form of the novel, these novels received rave reviews and Indian writing in English began to find a market in the West never dreamt of before. The Indian writers in English also began to get advances and royalties which flabbergasted everyone. It was said that Manil Suri got an advance of a staggering five million dollars for his The Death of Vishnu.

The rave reviews, high voltage publicity, and the rain of dollars created a sense of euphoria in India and everyone started talking about Indian writing in English and Indian novel in English found their way in thousands of libraries.

It was for this reason that Rushdie affirmed “the prose writing both fiction and non-fiction between 1947-97 by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 16 “official languages” of India and that this new and still burgeoning “Indo-Anglian” literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books.” (The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-97), Rushdie’s comment has triggered a   hate campaign against Indian writers in English by Indian writers in Indian languages. ‘Outlook’ announced in bold letters on its cover that ‘Indian English writers are intellectual pygmies.” Prof. B. Nemade said that “there was something suspicious about this business of overnight success.” Other writers thought Indian writing in English lacked the power to enrich the Indian psyche and failed to provide emotional sustenance. It simply doesn’t click with the readers. This is the reason the euphoria created by the Western blitzkrieg in the earlier decades has worn out even in the West and, other than academic interest, there is apathy and indifference towards Indo-English writing. 


Ramlal Agarwal did his M.A. from Mumbai University in 1965 and Ph.D. from Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University in 1977. Taught English and also served as Principal (1995 to 2000), Chairman, Board  of Studies in English, Dean of the faculty of 

Arts, Dr. B.A.M.U., Aurangabad. Reviewed Indian Writing in English for World Literature Today, U.S.A. and contributed articles and reviews to The Times of IndiaIndian ExpressQuest, Youth Times and other national papers and magazines. His work on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was published by Sterling Publishers, Delhi (1990). He currently lives in Jalna ( Maharashtra ) and runs an NGO.


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