Indian Literature in English

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       Indian Literature in English might as yet appear as a conundrum. India is of course, India, and English the language of England. English in India still reflects the stereotypical colonial hangover. But without resorting to such platitudes like English being an international language, and writing in English in India being one major way of getting noticed overseas etc. I might state that there is as yet little need for pleading the case for the existence and flourishing of Indian writings in English. But in festivals like this one where we are celebrating poetry from India under several sections like women's writing and Dalit Writing and writing in the regional languages, how do we envisage the situation of the writer in English? A fish out of water?


All Indian writer who contribute their work in Indian English literature
Indian English Writers


      Or a sore thumb? Barring the specific curio aspect of the language the experience of the Indian writer can unarguably be evidenced through this chunk of the Indian literary spectrum-this usually gets noticed in the west but sometimes for the wrong reasons. It is my argument in the following that the Indian writer in English is not a species apart but very much an integral part of the Indian literary scene. There is this feeling that writing in English from India is substandard, and middle class, barring of course a few exceptional cases. This might be true primarily because the language itself is currently in use in living situations only among the educated upper middle class. the working class do not have easy access to this nor do they require it, and in the case of the upper class there is virtually very little self-reflexivity nor commitment to the literary India is a land of violent contrasts - while the sweltering heat of summer blisters the Indo-Gangetic plains, perennial snow showers quietly on the calm heights of the Himalayas in the north; while the monsoon racks violently in the deep-south, the northwest regions reel under severe droughts. Similarly, there yet survives the fabled rich image of the India with turbaned Maharajah's riding on bedecked elephants, of snake charmers, sadhus, curry and carpets - of unimaginable riches, ease and wealth, of promiscuity and extravagance, while alongside there exists the contradictory image of heat and dust, of brutalising want and agonizing poverty, of inhuman exploitation and barbaric ignorance. For the most - a wounded civilization, with a glorious heritage. (See Naipaul, A Wounded Civilization, and A.L Basham, The Wonder that was India) Here is at once the sublime and the grotesque coexisting in one plane. Perhaps, this could also account for the multiplicity of voices in Indian writing. Of course, India is like any other country in the world with its own history of battles and conquests, of treachery and turbulence.


      Indian literature is like the literature of everywhere else, and yet it is like the literature of nowhere else. In its indigenous diversity of paradox and unpredictability, of reception and acquiescence, of adaptation and assimilation, it survives and prevails in its own identity. It is different and it is Indian. Multiplicity of languages is among the fundamental experience of being an Indian, and a plurality of cultural experience constitutes its underpinnings. There is this oft expressed view that Indian Literature is one though written in many languages - Ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti (truth is one the sages express it differently). Here are nearly two dozen language that have official status, and living literatures of their own, with equally highly evolved vocabulary and scripts!


      Small wonder then that English has been adapted with such skill and dexterity as in the present, so much so that the Indian writer in English is as much international as any other writer in that language. I believe that the Indian writer in English is just another Indian - just like the Indian writer in Bengali or Malayalam, in Gujarati or Tamil. And yet there is something exotic and strange in the manner in which such writing is received in the West.


      Granted, Salman Rushdie and now Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy and even Chetan Bhagat are household names, but still there are more than a few frills attached to the brown person who wields the English quill. Though slightly on this side of poetic exaggeration and humour, I would like to draw your attention to this one instance: John Updike has a poem called "I Missed His Book, But I read His Name," with this epigraph: The Silver Pilgrimage, by M. Anantanarayanan...160 pages:


Though authors are a dreadful clan

To be avoided if you can,

I'd like to meet the Indian,

M.Anantanarayanan.

I picture him as short and tan.

We'd meet perhaps, in Hindustan.

I'd say,with admirable elan,

"Ah, Anantanarayanan

I've heard of you. The Times once ran

A notice on your novel, an

Unusual tale of God and Man."

And Anantanarayanan

Would seat me on a lush divan

And read his name - that sumptuous span

Of "a's" and "n's" more lovely than

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan"-

Aloud to me all day. I plan

Henceforth to be an ardent fan

Of Anantanarayanan

M. Anantanarayanan


      We have the diametrically opposite reaction in the unceremonious references to Indian English poets in the posthumously published letters of Philip Larkin. Either way whether he/she is received in the west with a mixture of exaggerated exoticism and awe or dismissed with racial derision and ethnic contempt - the Indian writer in English continues to create an international readership or, most certainly, a market overseas, as the phenomenal success of The God of Small Things would reveal. The only question that often has bothered me is, who the Indian writer is writing for? And because this occasion does not needlessly warrant a critical perspective, I do not propose to struggle with such sociopolitical issues related to class, economy, production, publicity and marketing. I shall now proceed, albeit in a rudimentary manner, to outline the growth and development of Indian Writing in English.


      The end of the British Raj did not signal the end of English in India; on the other hand, the language had by then very much seeped into the Indian creative psyche. By the time Prof. K.R. Sreenivasa Iyengar's comprehensive and detailed survey Indian Writing in English came out in 1962, there was no longer any necessity to debate the existence of a parallel literature in the English language arguably similar in more than one way to the various regional literatures. In the last four decades, the number of Indians writing in English has increased considerably so much so that a pressing need for creative appraisal and evaluation in terms of a pan - Indian aesthetic surfaced of necessity. There has also been a similar rise in the percentage of readership as the huge number of publishers and distributors of books and periodicals in English that have emerged of late would reveal.


      The language has not died out in India but survived and prevailed in indigenous artistry. In the context of Indians writing in English, as with many others in their regional language as well, the process of coming to terms with tradition and the contemporary towards developing an indigenous sensibility has indeed been a large and complex historical arocess, which has evolved through a variety of phases. I have been able to discern four major phases in this trajectory, that are obvious and, for the main, largely accepted: the first phase is one of complete subservience and intellectual slavery, the second one of total defiance and a falling back on desperate nativity and national identity, the third a sort of internationalism and universalisation (sadharanikarana), and the last, almost concurrent with the third, one of creative integration.


      These are of course, generalized views and as such are not strict compartments; there are overlappings, anticipations, and retrospective movements as well. However, this way of mapping out the geography of Indian Writing in English, I believe, certainly has its advantages, especially when one approaches the terrain for the first time. In the history of this literature as with any other, there have also been phases of experimentation with content as well as form.


      For a language that has been implanted from a different locale and culture, and that which has been absorbed and assimilated by a once-colonized mind, writing in the English language in India exhibits a dramatic and dynamic history. It has also generated a whole new tradition fully immersed 6 in indigenous values and culture. Writers of the stature of Gandhi and Nehru with their clear-cut prose, R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao with their sheer individualized imaginative recreations of characters, locale and territory, Kamala Das and Nissim Ezekiel with their poetic voices, as well as the new generations of post-colonial like Arundhati Roy who has been able to carve out a nativised idiom and language, have in their own individualized ways grappled with a living tradition while constantly renewing their tryst with modernity.


      In many ways too writers in the English language have concurrently struggled with their generative roots and inborn tensions similar to the ones confronted by their contemporaries writing in the regional languages. Perhaps, English language. terms literature in India does have an edge over the others in terms of its comparatively easy marketability and reach overseas. I shall deal with this issue later.


      "Indian Writing in English," wrote M.K. Naik, "began as an interesting by - product of an eventful encounter in the late eighteenth century between a vigorous and enterprising Britain and a stagnant and chaotic India. The important words here are vigorous and enterprising, which imply a sense of ordered action or progress, and stagnant and chaotic, which in turn imply disorder and inaction. Post-colonial critics like Homi Bhabha and others have drawn attention to the colonizing strategy of dividing "colonial space" into binary opposites - that of nature and culture, chaos and civility etc. The colonizing enterprise of the British subsumed the Indian sub-continent through its strategic deployment of such culture shocks.


      As we gather from Naik's generalized statement, playing the Indian's distorted psyche against its own self-styled superior order and culture, the British, unconsciously though at first, set in motion a new literature of the 7 subject race. The birth of Indian writing in English could be traced to this paradox of subjectivity and reclamation of the self. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in his, An Autobiography (1947) I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. Perhaps my thoughts and approach to life are more akin to what is called Western than Eastern, but India clings to me as she does to all her children, in innumerable ways... I cannot get rid of that past inheritance or my recent acquisitions.. I am a stranger and an alien in the West.


      I cannot be of it. But in my own country also, sometimes, I have an exile's feeling. But much before Nehru felt this sort of alienation in terms of a national identity, Indian intellectuals of the early part of the nineteenth century were compelled by the pressures of the colonial propulsion to subject their own selves to the superior civilizing culture of their colonial masters. They were branded with the need to de-school themselves and build up a newer Western identity. Thus the reformist zeal of a Raja Ram Mohan Roy or a Vidya Sagar could be accounted for by this compulsive colonial ideology. Alongside Macaulay's celebrated Minutes that drastically waved aside everything Indian as hardly of any worth, while simultaneously highlighting the civilizing force of everything English, Raja Ram Mohun Roy, gave a highhanded call to Indians to learn and master the English language.


      The need of the hour was felt to be a collective purging of the ill effects of a dormant and static culture coupled with a grafting of the Western culture and value systems on to the thus uncontaminated tree of Indian life. Of course the coloniser's intent remained distinct from the colonial's in this regard. K.N. Panikkar points out The nineteenth century intellectuals were firm believers in the efficacy of enlightenment as a panacea.


      They traced the source of all ills in Indian society, 8 including religious superstition and social obscurantism, to the general ignorance of the people. The dissemination of knowledge, therefore, occupied a central place in their programme of reform. Their ideas on education were different both in purpose and detail from the educational policy of the colonial rulers. While dissemination of the colonial ideology and utility for administrative needs were the main objectives of the educational policy of the British government, the educational programme of the Indian intellectuals was oriented to the regeneration of the country.


      As for the creative writers of this formative period, there was but one obvious option - to write in the "more elite" language, and find their continuities in the great English literary tradition. They easily suiccumbed to the prescriptive role played by English literary canons and thus the earliest Indian writers in English were more Anglo that Indian in that Bense, Perhaps for them the second category never existed - for a non-English identity would have necessitated an ejection of a civilized image which was the last thing they wanted. Therefore we have in these writings a double struggle: a still to find a different harmony and a struggle to infuse the English muse to accept and bless. The writers who could represent the first phase of colonial writing would be: Henry Derozio (1809-31) whom lyengar dubs: "the marvelous boy who perished in his prime, Kashiprasad Ghose (1809-73) Toru Dutt (1856-77). Beauty and tragedy and fatality crisscrossed in the life of Toru Dutt, and it is difficult, when talking about her poetry, to make any nice distinction between poetry and Michael Madhusudan Dutta (1824-73). It was natural for them to tune unto the nightingale's throat and gather the sheaves of the great British bards. They let themselves be most profoundly influenced by the nineteenth century Romantics It is certainly one of the noted paradoxes of history that the English language, originally the most powerful weapon of colonization would prove to be the equally powerful weapon of decolonisation in the hands of a few Indian litterateurs. It is now a recognized fact that the study of English literature stimulated literary creations in many Indian languages too. Notably in Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Gujarati. Even newer literary forms like the novel were incorporated into other regional writings. In a similar manner there was the incorporation of Indian narratives into the English language writings. Most ambitious writers moved from the easily accessible lyrical form into the most complex mahakavya. Almost every writer of any consequence has attempted a longer narrative in English. This however brought in a paradigm shift. The transition from the first docile phase to one of violent nationalism and self-willed individual identity is certainly a shift in sensibilities.


      The second discernable phase begins roughly from a point of speculative intersection - a meeting and passing of three phenomenal men of vision - in 1893 Sri Aurobindo set sail for India after his Cambridge exposure, the same year that Vivekananda set forth to preach his gospel of man-making to the Parliament of World's Religions, and Gandhi set off on his South African journey in pursuit of a career in law. Their vessels might have perhaps crossed. Anyway their destinies most certainly crossed. After the fateful First War of Indian Independence in 1857, Indians were undergoing a period of political and cultural fermentation.


      And now a new resurgent nationalism came into being. This forms the hallmark of the second phase of Indian writing English too. In finally managing to free themselves from the cultural smokescreen of British colonialism, the Indian writers in English of this period take up a most ferociously 10 defensive stance rooted in Indianness and Nationality. Condemned to ho tongue-tied in English, the writer seeks a new voice conceived in the rich heritage and tradition of his motherland. Me from her lotus heaven Saraswati Has called to regions of eternal snow And Ganges pacing to the southern sea, Ganges upon whose shores the flowers of Eden blow.


      (Sri Aurobindo, Envoi) Elsewhere Sri Aurobindo remarked that when the educated youth of Bengal bowed their learned heads at the feet of the childlike saint of Dakshineswar, Indian literary renaissance had begun (see The Renaissance in India, 1920). Nationalistic fervour gave more than sufficient impetus to a surge of creative activity-Indian poetry in English had started to breathe and come into its own. Non-fictional prose and fictional narratives underwent drastic political fermentation, and Indian drama in English began to make its presence felt. Although Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) would never have made any claims to be a writer in English, the coveted Nobel prize conferred on him in 1913, for his rough translation of Gitanjali, accord him a significant place among the writers in English.


      Tagore's was a vision founded on individual and universal levels at the same time. His ideal of a 'viswamanava' was rooted in Indian culture and the 'Upanishadic' tradition. Lines like Where the mind is without fear and head is held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; Where words come out from the depth of truth; Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way in to the dreary desert sand of dead habit; Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever widening thought and action - Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake... ushered in a new sensibility that was at the same time not too foreign to the Celtic mind.


      No wonder W.B. Yeats showered praises on these fragments: I have carried the manuscript of these translate with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on top of omnibuses and in restaurants and I have often had to close it lest some stranger should see how much it moved me. These lyrics... display in their thought a world I have dreamt of all my lifelong... As the generations pass, travelers will hum them on the highway and men rowing upon rivers. Lovers, while they await one another, shall find, in murmuring them, this love of God a magic gulf wherein their own bitter passion may bathe and renew its youth.


      At every moment the heart of this poet flows outward to these without derogation or condescension, for it has known that they will understand; and it has filled itself with the circumstances of their lives. ( W.B. Yeats on Tagore's Gitanjali, see lyengar, p.162) Tagore identified himself with his bardic role, wrote primarily in Bengali, and remained an aesthete till his death, quite unlike his contemporary Sri Aurobindo (187201950), who vanished like a meteor in the politically charged air only to reappear in the isolation of Pondicherry The turn of the century produced the most disarmingly nationalistic of writings ever in the English language by Indians, while the long shadow of these two giants fill the literary Scene.


      It may not be out of place here to venture to say that the oppressive burden of the English language together with its retinue of imperialistic cultural devices compelled the Indian psyche to "awaken" and seek total identity with what was considered at best Indian. While Tagore pursued the melodious strain of Baul mysticism, Sri Aurobindo sought the sublime in the Vedic and Tantric sources.


      Tagore's was a movement 12 towards the lyrical while the Aurobindian lean was towards the epic. Sri Aurobindo's Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol, that like Goethe's Faust took about fifty years in the making, needs to be seen as the culmination of the nineteenth century spirit of synthesis and spiritual enterprise. Savitri, running into 23813 lines in three parts with 12 books and 49 cantos is presumably the longest single poem in the English language. I believe that this stupendous epic of multiple-spiritual aimensions, would characteristically reflect the entire epoch's psyche. Taking for its central theme the well known tale of Satyavan and Savitri as narrated in the Mahabharata (Vana Parva) the poem has been transmuted into a modern Indian 'mahakavya' in the line of Vyasa and Valmiki by the poet who made its poetic treatment an integral part of his life.


      However, it is equally unfortunate that the Indian Renaissance set into movement by the great nationalist awakening and pioneered by the spiritual luminaries, who for the most part, chose to write in the coloniser's language, should have been curtailed in midflight and not allowed to flourish the full circle towards its natural culmination. The post independence condition after 1947 was one rather of exuberance and irony in an equal measure than any soul - searching for individual values or national ethos. In fact after the political withdrawal of the British there was felt scanty need for any further nationalising spirit. What was required was an assessment and a looking back at the immediate past. My tongue in English chains, I return, after a generation, to you.


      I am at the end Of my Bengali tether.. The force that woke a nation from two hundred years of lethargy and shook it to its very foundation petered into the mere baseless vainglory of the self confronted by the imported European modernist tropes and a new poetics liberally transplanted from the West. Modernism in Indian literatures did not develop out of any historical necessity but was intellectually incorporated as an aesthetic strategy, and hence lacked in natural vigour and creative energy to sustain itself. As for any nativised experience and indegenousness, the post independence phase was more keen on breaking away barriers of all sorts than on negotiating such vital and crucial questions. For the pressing need for asserting one's cultural integrity was lost and now what appeared as desirable was to reach across to new cultures and continents in one's own right.

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