India in a world of English Literature

by Samreen Jawed 

(Image : Mulk Raj Anand (at right) is seen with his friends, R.K. Narayan and K. Natwar Singh, at Narayan's Chennai home in September 1995.)

India, the inexhaustible horn of plenty, encompassing multitudes of heterogeneity and affording divergent utterance, thus sustaining the indiscriminate genus of literature stands to be judged awry for we still have to devise a way to approach the massive body of Indian literature. The problem with India is that it is a multi lingual country and hence literature in any one of its vernacular languages will be condensed as Indian literature, English, being one among the many. Thus talking about Indian literature allows us to peep into the Indian English literature which is making a tremendous leap, of late. Where English still remains to be a language of dispute, India has been benevolent with regard to its contribution to the common pool of world writing in English. English literature in India, although has not yet reached its acme but is no doubt enjoying a distinct place among the world literature. Through the contribution of regional and national writers it has unleashed the stereotype of being hegemonic and is emerging as something metamorphic surpassing and threatening the existence of what is referred to as local by robbing it of its sobriety. New writers writing in English seem to emerge every few weeks. But where does this stands in terms of globalized literature.

Around 1990 India witnessed an acute jump of writers writing in English, and for better this was not a spasmodic rush save the idea of the nation was too inherent in such writings. The globalization which originated during the 19th century had started permeating itself to literature as well. Thus there emerged a sort of globalized writing. European writers visited foreign places and communicated their experiences about the native people, through writing which was perceived by the ethnic community as an onslaught on their cultures. Things were manifested not from perspective of the native group but in the orientation of the one who was creating. This was something alien to the local people, they viewed this as a sort of othering done to them through writing by misrepresenting their individuality. So there arose in the native countries a kind a literature firmly carrying the idea of nation. This took the shape of nationality and they started asserting their national identity through arts, writing being one, in response to the violence done to them through the written words.

At around the same time India marked its presence in the field of English literature with “The travels of dean Mahomet(1794)” written by Dean Mahomed, a native of Patna. However the “Travels of dean Mahomet” is dismissed altogether as being regarded as a novel because of the autobiographical content it carried, this place is taken by Bankimchandra chaterjee’s novel “Rajmohan’s wife” published in 1864. Rajmohan’s wife came only to emphasize that surge of national culture opening with itself the implications and consequences of writing in English as opposed to the native languages, which was still a preferable and more realistic mode of representation in literature. While critics view Rajmohan’s wife as a wrong cultural leap only to cause Bankim Chandra to revert to Bengali three years later and getting renown. And to some Rajmohan’s wife may suggest that English failed to portray the firmness, gravity, elegance and vigour of the vernacular, but that it brought with itself issues concerning language, culture, colonization and representation, on the front is indisputable. And Bankim may appear to critics as someone who failed to fashion an alien language by switching back to Bangla, thus making the accusation sound genuine, he will still be counted among the progenitors of Indian nationalism. And although he might have failed in his experiment with a language so foreign but he didn’t fail in bringing the idea encompassing India as a nation in the first row for the first time. Bankim indeed set in motion the idea of modern India. Therefore having gained the first kick there followed the long series of writers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, R K Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and many others, all worthy, celebrating the birth of modern India through their writing.

By this time Indian English Literature has come a long way since then, and has established itself with more confidence than literary critics might have expected. Books from India had started to be read outside. And it only glorified the Indian tradition of English literature when V.S. Naipaul, being the first Indian received the Booker prize in 1971 for his book, “In a Free State,” followed by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala receiving the Booker prize in 1975 for her novel “Heat and Dust”. However the true realization of Indian English literature came only with Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”, which went to win the Booker prize in 1981. The book opened with itself new vistas, both linguistically and culturally. It once again rejuvenated the dying market of Indian English literature in countries like Europe and America. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things in 1997, Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss in 2006, and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger in 2008, followed suit, donating to/ giving away the complex and signifying literature written in English.

By this time Indian English literature has matured enough and was expected to be free from criticism concerning the authenticity or Indianness of this particular genre. Nevertheless it is yet not free from irony, the critics never tire from chiding what seems to be still burgeoning each day, by saying that though it is appreciated in countries outside India, it has killed the authentic voices by usurping the cultural space of the nation by succumbing to the export market.

 Indian English literature appears too upper middle class incapable of successfully capturing the life and culture of India, because it will always appear as an alien language, because the disjuncture between language and culture will never cease, because it is portraying something which by no means is native so there is this tendency for writers to stray away from society but no, there exists a chunk of people who believe that the Indian English novel has been a den for sentiments local in origin, as manifested in Anita Desai’s work. 

However despite all claim in its favour, Indian English literature, by and large, still remains something shrouded in mystery, very often sounding abstruse and perplexing. The critics themselves are confused about what they are aiming at: is it Indian English literature taken in its whole, or whether it is Indian English which seems illegitimate or is it Indian literature which is at the hem of problem. This scepticism is answered by Arvind Adiga, in his Booker-winning debut novel “The White Tiger”, which explains away this “alienating clash between the medium and the culture”.

India, no doubt is a nation too ridden with boundaries- boundaries of caste, community, class and most importantly languages. There are multitudes of languages in India and literature in one of them will be thoroughly alien to other, so in the absence of Indian English Literature – Indian literature in a language that is equally foreign to all Indians – there is no Indian literature. Hence for the survival of India as a nation, Indian English is a need too inevitable to escape. The issue is Indian English literature has been acknowledged outside not due to some compulsion but because it is capable then why is India shying away to claim what justly belongs to itself?

Samreen Jawaid


About Writer


 Samreen is budding writer and currently She is doing masters from Jawaharlal Nehru University.


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