Origin and Development of Indian English Fiction

Also Read

       In the transition from the nationalist to the post Independence phase, Indian English Fiction evolved a great deal, alongside non-fictional prose. M.K. Naik in his A History of Indian English Literature (New Delhi: Sahitya Academy, 1982) has chosen to entitle an entire chapter "The Gandhian Whirlwind - 1920-1947". The withdrawal from the political sphere of both Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Sri Aurobindo, in the first decade of the twentieth century set the arena ready for the entry of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi fresh from his satyagraha triumph in South Africa. Political writing drew immense strength from the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence and soul-force, and Gandhi himself wrote in a deceptively simple English which had begun by then to achieve a national character.

The much acclaimed Indian trio - Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao - were and continue to be, hard-core Gandhians, while they trace, each in his own individualistic manner, the graph of Indian 15 fiction in English.
English Fiction

      What I shall do here would be to briefly site a comparison between the writing of Gandhi and Nehru-both unique instances of an Indian English style. It would be worthwhile to remember that both Gandhi and Nehru had their tremendous political images and hence 14 their influence lay far beyond the mere literary. The men themselves were the influence.

      Their message was embedded in their life styles. We read in Gandhi's introduction to My Experiments with Truth (1940): The seeker after truth should be humble than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will we have a glimpse of truth. (xi) This is a kind of humility that the Mahatma practiced in his own life. Nehru on the other hand was a pragmatist and towards the end of his The Discovery of India, we read: Every Culture has certain values attached to it, limited and conditioned by that culture. The people governed by that culture takes these values for granted and attribute a permanent validity to them. So the values of our present day culture may not be permanent and final; nevertheless they have an essential importance for us for they represent the thought and spirit of the age we live in. A few seers and geniuses, looking into the future, may have a completer vision of humanity and the universe; they are of the vital stuff out of which all real advance comes. The vast majority of people do not even catch up to the present-day values, though they may talk about them in the jargon of the day, and they live imprisoned in the past.

      Suffice it to say that it is the combined vision of both these men that engineered the emergent post-colonial India. They were not literary in their writings and neither attempted the creative variety of writing, but their influence in the imagination of a people was so overpowering and far-reaching. More specially the influence of Gandhi reached deep down into the psyche, so much so that the greatest period of Indian fiction in English falls under his shadow. The much acclaimed Indian trio - Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao - were and continue to be, hard-core Gandhians, while they trace, each in his own individualistic manner, the graph of Indian 15 fiction in English. Anand's fiction has been shaped by what he himself calls, "the double burden on my shoulders, the Alps of the European tradition and the Himalayas of the Indian past." His fiction drawn from the dregs of life, of Dostoevskian scale, of the insulted and the humiliated. Among the three, Anand's style is direct and less embellished, and his influence on regional literatures has been deep. For R.K. Narayan his fictional Malgudi affords a locale to explore and create variations on an indigenous scale; his characters are life-like, and many, like Swami, most refreshingly endearing. Narayan's narratives are like "the boy's will," fresh and free. Of the trio, Raja Rao is more philosophically and theoretically sophisticated. His concerns are also deeper and more intense than the other two. In his forward to Kanthapura (1938), Raja Rao writes: We cannot write like the English. We should not.

      We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us. Our method of expression therefore has to be a dialect which will someday prove as distinctive and colourful as the Irish or the American. Time alone will justify it. Raja Rao gives utterance to the self-reflexivity of the Indian writer of English when he says that: "One has to convey in a language that is not one's own the spirit that is one's own." This self-consciousness distinguishes his style and narrative. His passionate attachment to the Indian soil has been sharpened by his long self-chosen exile. Perhaps it is the distance that has emboldened his vision. Very much like the sensibility that shaped these writers, the form and style of their work, although couched in "a language that is not their own," thoroughly impinges on the Indian.

      The writers who followed in the trail of the trio succeeded in keeping up the momentum of the Gandhian whirlwind. Bhabani Bhattacharya, Manohar Malgoker, Kamala Markhandaya, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Nayantara Sahgal, Anita Desai, Bharati Mukherjee... the list of successful writers is endless. Perceptibly enough the woman's voice in Indian writing is most striking.

      The work of Anita Desai and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala especially ushers in a fresh sensibility to the sphere of Indians writing in English. The thematic and stylistic contours of this field are broadening day by day. During the last three decades there has been a wild spate of publishing fiction in this country and so much of it has been marketed successfully overseas. After the phenomenal success of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, many Indian critics and columnists have taken upon themselves the role of investigators keying up to seek out the reason why Indian writers in English draw raving reviews and are quite successful in UK and the US while at home they hardly get noticed and often enough are severely discredited and derided. The reason, many Indian critics maintain, is precisely because much of the recent Indian English fiction fits in well with the west's preconceived notions of India, that so much praise is lavished on it by western critics. Either way, whether it is seemingly because of the big money involved in book business or whether there is a tremendous lack of knowledge about India in the West, the successful Indian writers in English often get the cold shoulder from their regional counterparts.

      Added to that is the sort of scalding remark regarding regional writing that a successful writer of the stature of Salman Rushdie makes in his now famous (or infamous?) Introduction to the Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997 ( edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, London: Vintage, 1997), that "the prose writing - both fiction and non-fiction - created in this period 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, the so called vernacular languages, during the same time, and indeed, this new and still burgeoning, Indo-Anglian literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books." Such a claim, at the outset, certainly would go to the extent of proving only Rushdie's own ignorance of the rest of India, however, the fact that such a claim could be made for a literature that has such a short history is something worthy of consideration. The Indian writer in English is not a creature from Mars or Jupiter, but just another writer using a different Indian language!

      Because of the vagaries of India's colonial history, English has developed to such an immeasurable magnitude in our country that we have to realise that we have given rise to a whole generation of men and women who speak in English, dream in English and write in English. How could we call them anything other than Indians like the rest of us? As a unique instance of the post-colonial self-reflexive use of the languages shall but site the dedication that Arundhati Roy has given at the beginning of her book: "To my mother who grew me up"! Suffice it to say that this English is something that has been abrogated and appropriated to suit to the Indian say! We indeed come a long way from Matthew Arnold in a Sari. Look, we have come through!

      The new generation of writers who were born in the 1950-s and who followed Salman Rushdie, have ushered in a new phase of Indian fiction. What marks off these writers - Amitabh Ghose with his Circle of Reason and The Shadow Lines, Allan Sealey with his Trotter Nama, Upamanyu Chatterjee with his English, August, Shashi Tharoor with his The Great Indian Novel, and Vikram Seth with his Golden Gate and The Suitable Boy, is their peculiarity and distinctive otherness from all others and from each other as well. In our post technological world, the writer has long proclaimed her/his freedom and the political boundaries of state and country are simply privileged to survive on account of economic and administrative purposes. The sources of literature could never be kept at bay from any writer of any nationality, creed or culture. Now more than ever this process of reaching across cultures seems to prevail. Myth, legend, region, religion, symbol and image - all are ready for appropriation and marketing. Region and language proffer no disadvantage for the contemporary writer. In this phase of the Indian English writer the problems of the East-West encounter that so agitated earlier generations just do not exist. Such problems, according to a present day academic, "were constructed, the differences lay in peoples perceptions, and this generation belongs to the united urban world - moving with ease from hamburgers at the Golden Gate to ice-cream at the India Gate."

      We sure have come a long way from the first generation of Indian writers in English who had found it quite hard to distinguish between Anglo-Indian and Indo-Anglian. The post-colonial Indian is confronted with a vast library of books in English, published by Indians-books better in appearance, editing, proof reading, production, marketing and publicity. There has been an unbroken tradition of poetic productivity in the English language in India for more than a hundred years now, and quite a lot has withstood and would easily stand the test of time still. The post-Independence phase which came too soon to supplant the earner generation came on the wings irony and equivocation. The sublime was lost sight of too soon and the ordinary and the commonplace became the objects of poetic quest. When Nissim Ezekiel sharpened his wits against the jagged edges of self-doubt and self-exile, calling out for a "time to change," P. Lal translated the great Indian epics and established the Writers Workshop for new Indian writing. His Modern Indo-Anglian Poetry: An Anthology and a Credo, that he edited along with Raghavendra Rao, came out in 1959.

      However, ambitious in scope and possibility it was, the anthology set the tone and temper of post Independence poetry. While R. Parthsarathy sought rough passage from England to India, to his root, A.K. Ramanujan sought to interpret the interior landscape of Tamil and Kannada Poetry and frame a newer poetics from those. Ramanujan's Speaking of Siva, Hymns for the Drowning, and Poems of Love and War, are in many ways reflective of the process of his coming to terms with his racial burden. Professionally trained as a linguist, Ramanujan's insight into Indian folk and poetic narrative combined with his skill at translating from the Indian languages remains yet unmatched.

      Adil Jussawala, Dom Moraes, Gieve Patel, Keki N. Daruwalla, Aru Kolatkar and Jayanta Mahapatra are among the many successful poets of our times. Freed from the colonial burden as well as any compulsive need to build upon an existing and alien culture or even to counter any such oppressive tradition, these poets show no anxiety of influence. The English they use is riddled with its Indianness, the images they create are built on the strong edifice of a multitongued culture.

      In his Introduction to his New Writing in India, (Penguin, 1974) Adil Jussawala wrote: ...it is one of India's linguistic ironies that although the influence of the English language cannot be denied, and although a number of writers who write n the Indian languages teach, or have taught English literature at various colleges in India, contemporary writing in Britain has ceased to have much meaning for them.... Perhaps the reason for the move away from British writing is not political. Indians will respond to a Writer like William Golding but not to Allan Sillitoe. Still attracted to literature with a metaphysical or philosophical content, the Indian gravitates naturally to such European and Latin American writers as Voznesensku Neruda, Borges, and Gunter Grass...lt is no accident that the most potent foreign influences on Indian writing today a Camus, Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Sartre.

      The Indian poet in English cohabits the same world of his contemporaries who write in the regional languages, and shares their anguish and anxieties. In the history of Indian English poetry, as I have pointed out earlier, there exists two major modes-one of the sublime as in the poetry of Sri Aurobindo and the other of the equivocal and conversational as in the poetry of Ezekiel and P. Lal. It is in Jayanta Mahapatra - the Physics professor turned poet from the state of Orissa that these two contrary modes cease to be separate and opposing and integrate into one wholesome Indian poetic mode.

      Mahapatra's Orissa, the Kalings of yore, the Mahanadi, the Jagannatha Temple and the Sun Temple at Konark, all speak through his verses. One is unsure whether his lines are couched in the English that Yeats and Eliot wrote in, or in his native tongue. He is undeniably the harbinger of the most fecund, holistic and integral phase of Indian writing. The great tradition of Indian writing in English has in its evolutionary process, revealed the unconscious pulsations of the Indian creative psyche, in a remarkable degree of cohesiveness and integrity. That has certainly been its greatest achievement and value.

      It now remains for the newer generation of poets to find their own voice. In this short analysis of the origins, growth and development of Indian Writing in English I have been for the most guided by my own personal leanings, bias and of Course, availability of sources. I have taken care to highlight the major writers, their prominence adjudged solely from their publications and popularity. But then, is one justified in making value-judgements based solely on success at publishing and marketing alone? What about the less fortunate who do have great potential talent but who do not have the clout to get into the limelight? Perhaps when newer anthologies are brought out greater care would go into the excavation of such marginalised and silenced. Or at least newer publishers will dare take a chance with lesser known writers. If my introductions instigate sufficient interest in the field then I guess this modest effort will be justified.

Previous Post Next Post