Earlier this year two new novels – one by Salman Rushdie and the other by Vikram Seth – were launched with much fanfare. Nothing significant in that since new books by luminaries are launched all the time. What was notable was the fact that although both writers are Indians, it did not evoke the surprise that it might have earlier.
Even a couple of decades ago it would have been difficult for those born with a ‘foreign’ tongue to find their work accepted as part of the canon of literature written in English. But now, Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Seth’s An Equal Music are matter-of-factly taken as two more additions to the vast corpus of an area of literature now identified as “Indian Writing in English”, which, having gained recognition in the West, has become the subject of numerous Web-sites and English department courses, and continues to generate interest both at home and abroad.
The corpus of Indian writing in English has reached such monumental proportions over the last two decades that it is nearly impossible to recount the names and works of all writers. It was Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997) that took Indian writing to new heights of recognition, but the easy acceptance it received followed those who had been there earlier.
The world of Indo-Anglian writing has continued to thrive since Rushdie’s publication of the Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children in 1981, followed by The Satanic Verses, which, due to the fatwa, in a twisted way immortalised him in the literary world. Some of the titles that stand out are Amitav Ghosh’s The Circle of Reason and The Shadow Lines, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English August: An Indian Story, Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate and A Suitable Boy, Allan Sealy’s Trotter-Nama, and Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey and A Fine Balance.
The novels of Anita Desai, Chitra Devakurni, Anita Rau Badami, Nayantara Sahgal and a host of others provide a significant forum for voicing the personal and political concerns of women. While some are overtly political like Sahgal’s Rich like Us (dealing with Indira Gandhi’s Emergency) and Plans for Departure (which links Western suffragette activism with Indian nationalism at the turn of the century), others self-consciously engage in the task of subverting social structures that attempt to subordinate women in the name of tradition.
Masks of Conquest
Contemporary Indian writing acquires special significance in a world increasingly identified as a “global village” in which, as cultural theorist Arjun Appadarai puts it, movements of “people, technologies, capital, and cultures” constantly establish new transnational links. Even as the rhetoric of globalism debunks nationalist mythologies everywhere, the complex heterogeneity and the multi-locational contexts of this growing body of literature are seen to both cross and subvert the borders erected by narratives of nationalism.
But though globalisation may have fostered its dissemination and impact, the explosion of Indian writing is the result of a number of factors. Chief among these is the growth of an English-speaking post-Independence generation in India. As Gauri Vishwanathan has shown in Masks of Conquest, though the English language was introduced to function as a linguistic tool of sociopolitical control in the service of the British Empire, it did not disappear with the withdrawal of the British in 1947. Instead, the postcolonial period has seen an unparalleled rise in the number of people who identify English as the most effective language of communication.
Expatriate writers such as Mistry and Rushdie may enjoy a large readership in the West, but many of their compatriots identify their audience in India. And they have found outlets through Indian publishing houses that have emerged since the 1980s: Penguin India, Harper Collins, Ravi Dayal, India Ink and Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house.
Besides the impetus provided by the publishing industry and a readership of an expanding English-speaking middle-class, the reception of Indian writing in English as an area of importance is related to the rise of postcolonial studies in the West over the last two decades. As a field that interrogates the relationship between imperialism and culture, postcolonial studies takes literary texts from previously colonised constituencies as cultural artefacts that reveal the complex colonial interrelations and histories and their sociopolitical, ideological, economic and cultural implications in the present.
Postcolonial studies thus created new readers in universities where students discuss Indian writing in English with a degree of comfort that was absent earlier. In the past, knowledge of Indian writing in English would have remained limited to names such as R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, Rabindranath Tagore and Nirad C. Chaudhari. And the inclusion of that generation of writers in English departments often occurred under the rubric of “Commonwealth Literature”, with the intent of analysing the commonalities with the language and literature of Britain rather than identifying differences and points of departure.
All the same, as a corpus of literary writing that has found acceptance in the West, there is often the danger of assuming that the new Indo-Anglian writings represent an “Indian” sensibility. Often the products of multiple experiences facilitated by travel across geographical borders and cultures, the works of many of these authors reflect their “hybrid”contexts. Mediated by the experiences of migration and diasporic locations, their works reveal complex relationships between their protagonists and the political and cultural institutions of dominant urban communities. Thus, one often finds in Rushdie’s novels the intersections of Bombay and Britain.
The Asian-American writer Meena Alexander brings in her own hybrid experience of living in and out of India ever since she was a child, as does Bharati Mukherjee who, because of her own location in the West and the subject matter of her fiction, prefers to be identified as an American writer. The locales of Vikram Seth’s writings veer from China to San Francisco to India to Vienna.
While the ‘borderless’ sensibility has accorded some writers (including those living in India who frequently gravitate to the West) global recognition, it also becomes necessary to be attentive to differences of class and experience. For even as their writings provide several windows to the social, political, personal and feminist concerns, such concerns may be limited to a certain class to which the writers themselves belong. As a language that was introduced by the British to produce an elite class of Indians who would serve as a buffer between the rulers and the rest of the governed, English in India continues to be the domain of the upper and middle classes. Some of the most prominent names for instance – Amitav Ghosh, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Shashi Tharoor and Allan Sealy – are products of the prestigious St Stephen’s College, Delhi. Another Stephenite is Vikram Seth who received his early education from the famous Doon School.
The important women writers, among them Nayantara Sahgal and Anita Desai, often bring into their work upper class settings and politics. In view of the class association of the authors, Arundhati Roy’s identification by some in the West as the ‘subaltern’ Indian woman, therefore, may at best be simplistic and even misleading. Similarly, as Henry Schwarz, professor of English at Georgetown University, says, it is problematic to identify writers like Rushdie “as if they represented the long histories of their colonised societies”. All this is not to minimise the importance of the new writings since there is no doubt that most do exercise tremendous literary and cultural importance as artefacts of the postcolonial condition and its intersection with issues of race, class, and gender.
There are other problems that are overlooked in the euphoric celebrations that have accompanied Indian writing in English and its dominance in the contemporary Indian literary scene. Such as the gap that Indian writing in English, having become synonymous with the novel, imposes at the level of genre. Poetry continues to receive some recognition, as in the case of Meena Alexander, Suniti Namjoshi and Aga Shahid Ali, but dramatic writing for the most part remains to be recognised.
Writers such as Manjula Padmanabhan, whose fascinating play Harvest about the exploitation of poor nations by the rich through the sale of body parts still remain comparatively unknown in the West. Likewise, Mahesh Dattani writes and produces exciting drama on colonialism, gender and religion in postcolonial India, as does the dramatist Cyrus Mistry (Rohinton’s brother), but they rarely receive the attention that their works warrant. Also barely recognised are those playwrights writing from within the West, such as the England-based Harwant Singh Bains, author of several powerful plays.
Even more problematic amidst the adulation of Indian writing in English is that the ‘vernacular literatures’ continue to remain marginalised. Such marginality can be ascribed to the global dominance of the English language, the paucity of works available in translation, and the lack of adequate publishing outlets for those writing in local languages. The contributions of writers such as Mahadevi Verma, Qurratulain Hyder, Mahashweta Devi, Shivani, Mrinal Pande, Sahir Ludhianvi, Amrita Pritam and others can enjoy wider dissemination only if they are translated into English. A few among these, such as Bengali writer Mahashweta Devi, have gained some attention in the West primarily because of the efforts of Gayatri Spivak, professor of English at Columbia University, but most are relegated to obscurity.
If the capitalist concerns of marketing and publishing networks are to be blamed for the invisibility of other Indian voices in the West, to an extent so too are writers such as Rushdie. In his much-controversial comment in the special issue of The New Yorker, celebrating 50 years of Indian Independence, Rushdie wrote: “The prose writing – both fiction and nonfiction – 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 18 ‘recognised’ 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. The true Indian literature of the first postcolonial half of the century has been made in the language the British left behind.”
Notwithstanding Rushdie’s claim about the energy of Indian writing in English, which certainly demands celebration, his insertion of Indo-Anglian literature within a comparative frame that denigrates the vernacular does a disservice to the latter. The antagonistic response that his comment has drawn from several corners is not entirely unwarranted. Of note is Harish Trivedi’s acerbic retort in his article “Bharatiye Angrezi Upanyas: Hindi ki Drishti Mein” (“Indo-English Novel: From the Viewpoint of Hindi”) written for Hans, a leading Hindi language and literature journal published from Delhi. Chastising Rushdie, Trivedi likens his statement to a fatwa and calls it the worst insult to the vernacular since Lord Macaulay’s declaration in 1835 that even a single shelf of European literature is better than the entire literatures in Sanskrit and Arabic.
I will not go as far as comparing Rushdie to Macaulay, whose rhetoric about the superiority of English language and literature was motivated by the imperialist aim of educating the colonised subject. As succinctly specified by Macaulay, the introduction of English would serve “to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect”. Far from being a Macaulayan interpreter, Rushdie has produced a self-consciously innovative style and language that combine popular idioms, vernacular phrases and cultural particularities at a critical postcolonial moment, which, as Vijay Mishra, professor of English at the University of Alberta, says, ruptures the self-evidentiary standards of canonical Standard English.
In Other Words
It is precisely such innovativeness – bringing the particularities of the local to the international English language – that makes Rushdie a remarkable inspiration for postcolonial writers such as Anita Desai. An accomplished writer herself, Desai acknowledges Rushdie as the springboard which put Indian literature in English on the global literary map, as does Gita Hariharan, recipient of the Commonwealth Prize for best first novel, The Thousand Faces of Night.
Problematic as Rushdie’s claim is, what made it really unpalatable was the irony that the success of contemporary Indian writing in English itself can, in large part, be attributed to the incorporation of the vernacular. It is precisely Rushdie’s own interaction with the vernacular that gives, in part, his writing its unique ability to capture and comprehend snapshots of cultural and political realities in what he calls “CinemaScope and glorious Technicolour”. Rushdie’s comment in The New Yorker aside, his own writing and most of contemporary Indian writing itself functions as a reminder of – or, for that matter, the ignoring of – the significance of the vernaculars.
Rushdie’s comment should not lead us to blame all Indo-Anglian writing for being responsible for obscuring the vernacular. As a matter of fact, most writers themselves have self-consciously highlighted the critical importance of the vernacular to a more in-depth understanding of the multilayered sociocultural aspects of India. For instance, Anita Desai’s In Custody, regarded by some as her best novel, does not make the issue of the vernacular merely incidental. Its subject matter carefully deals with the loss of Urdu under the ever-expanding influence of English in India as well as across the globe.
Desai’s preoccupation with Urdu began in the earlier Clear Light of Day, in which she reveals anxieties about the status of Urdu poetry in the wake of the subcontinental partition. Similarly, Vishwapriya Iyengar’s short story, “No Letter from Mother”, published in the collection of short stories, In Other Words, examines the cultural and personal fracture caused by the dominance of English through a mother and daughter’s inability to communicate because of the mother’s lack of English.
Such self-reflexive crossings into the vernaculars in order to discover and recover their significance, then, not only produces a new range of meanings and their social, historical, and linguistic significance: it imparts a socio-political depth to literary works that provides us with yet another reason to celebrate the arrival of Indian writing in English.