7 minute read

India: Shirley Chew

India has sixteen official languages and, compared to the major literatures which exist in, for example, Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Tamil, and Malayalam, Indian fiction in English is a newcomer to the literary scene. Its beginnings are usually linked to the publication of R. K. Narayan's first novel, Swami and Friends (1935), Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable (1935), and Raja Rao's Kanthapura (1938). The 1930s was also a time when India's struggle for freedom from British rule was gathering momentum under the leadership of Gandhi. The novel as a literary form borrowed from the West was used by these Indian writers and their successors as a vehicle of social and political inquiry. It also served as the means by which the non-native reader could be carried across into the world of the text.

Untouchable describes a day in the life of a teenage latrine cleaner, and the ill-treatment he has to put up with as an outcaste. Kanthapura is an exuberant retelling, at once celebratory and elegiac, of the impact of Gandhi and the freedom movement on a small village in south India. The story-teller, a loquacious grandmother, is the repository of Kanthapura's history; and, woven into her rich account of actual events, legends, and myths are the overwhelming changes brought about through the influence of Moorthy, an educated young villager and a follower of Gandhi. Rao in this novel experiments in lively fashion with form and language, translating the idiom and rhythms of Kannada into English, and oral narrative into scripted fiction.

Unlike Anand and Rao, Narayan's concerns are not overtly political or social. He is best known for Malgudi, his fictional version of a small south Indian town and the setting of all his stories (with the exception of The Grandmother's Tale, 1993); for his bright canvas of nervy, self-conscious, and resourceful characters, and for his humanist vision. As well as sharp and intimate depictions of everyday life, Narayan's novels are imaginative reworkings of Hindu myths and philosophical concepts. The novel The Guide (1958) relates the familiar tale of a con man turned swami. In this particular case, Raju—shopkeeper, tourist guide, impresario, gaolbird—is transformed by the collective will of his simple followers into a holy man who can be expected, through his penance, to bring rain to the drought-stricken land. Along the way, questions are raised regarding the true nature of detachment (is Raju altogether selfless in undergoing the fast or is he indulging in another instance of play-acting?), of free will (should Raju be regarded as the author of his own fate or as merely a participant in lila, the ‘sport’ of the World Soul?), and of dharma or duty (is Raju no more than trickster, or is he, through his several roles, fulfilling his duty in life which is clearly to guide, whether the people he is involved with are tourists or the spiritually helpless?).

On 15 August 1947 India became independent but the nation's triumph was marred by the sectarian violence which attended the Partition of the subcontinent. Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan (1956) recounts the tragedy as it befalls Mano Majra, a tiny village close to the frontier between India and Pakistan. The narrative moves on two levels: first, a realistic account of the rising tensions and hostilities among the Sikh and Muslim villagers who, until that moment, have lived peaceably together; second, a symbolic shadowing forth, through images of the river choked with dead bodies and the silent trains packed with carnage, of the unspeakable horror of the catastrophe.

The 1950s onwards saw the rise to prominence of women novelists: Kamala Markandaya, whose first book, Nectar in a Sieve (1954), treats of the plight of the landless poor in the face of natural disasters and capitalist exploitation; Attia Hosain whose Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961) counterpoints in intricate ways the public demand for swaraj (self-rule) in the 1930s and the private aspirations of Laila, a young Muslim woman, towards self-definition; and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala who, living in India from 1951 to 1976, transmutes her personal dilemmas as an expatriate into ironic comedy and satire. A New Dominion (1973) exposes in incisive ways the complicity of foreign visitors and local gurus in the fabrication of a spiritual India.

A dominant theme in the work of more recent writers is the retrieval of the past through self-conscious revisioning of history and myth. The spur to memory is often an unexpected crisis. This could be domestic, such as the unwelcome arrival of Nanda Kaul's granddaughter at her hilltop retreat in Anita Desai's Fire on the Mountain (1977) and the alleged business malpractices of Jaya's husband in Shashi Deshpande's That Long Silence (1988). Or it could be national in magnitude, such as the Emergency of 1975–7, which led to the reappraisal of the nation state in Nayantara Sahgal's Rich Like Us (1983). The process of preserving, destroying, and re-creating is realized in a most sensitive and complex form in Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day (1980) as the two sisters, Bim and Tara, return again and again to crucial moments in their lives in the old Delhi house, remaking them into patterns different yet complementary; and remaking themselves, too, in ways that extricate them from some of the ghosts of the past, and leave revealed their new-found maturity. Domestic plot mirrors national event in Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines (1988), and to retrace the steps which led up to the death of the narrator's uncle, Tridib, is to uncover along the way the communal riots which overran Calcutta and Dhaka in 1964. It is also to question the divisive force of nationalism, and the invisible yet inexorable lines that such a force lays down between peoples and communities.

Along with Rich Like Us and The Shadow Lines, Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy (1993) seeks to re-imagine the nation. In this voluminous, many stranded, and very readable work, the private life of passion, marriage-making, and family affairs is subject to critical examination along with the national story. The General Election of 1952 returned Congress to power but it is a Congress resting largely on its reputation as a force for freedom from foreign rule, and lacking in the integrity and the vision needed to lead the new India into the second half of the century. What is conceivable in private conduct—for example, the principled manner in which Lata goes about choosing a husband—does not seem possible in the larger sphere of public affairs, given the stranglehold of tradition and vested interests.

Today, a good number of the Indian novelists writing in English live outside India. As an emigrant from India and a newcomer in ‘England, where I live, and Pakistan, to which my family moved against my will’, the condition of migrancy is central to Salman Rushdie's aesthetic. How is it possible, from a distance and straddling so many different cultures, to write about India? Midnight's Children (1981) is an amazing display of the multiplicity of which Saleem, the narrator, is at once the victim and the celebrant. Should he approach his material as autobiography or history? Pursue the tale in realistic fashion or exploit its ‘fantastic heart’? Narrate the story orally to Padma or write it out for the shadowy reader waiting behind her? No sooner has a narrative genre or convention been fixed upon than it is subverted, and the impression is given of Saleem manipulating his multicultural resources with gusto even as they continually threaten to overwhelm him.

A writer who has made her home in the United States, Bharati Mukherjee has in The Middleman and Other Stories (1989) created a full canvas of displaced characters—Indian, Filipino, Sri Lankan, Vietnamese, Italian, Caribbean, Chinese—all seeking in energetic ways to shape life to their own purposes. The familiar cultural baggage is not so easily shaken off, however, and some of the most poignant moments in these stories occur when characters are suspended between different and irreconcilable worlds: the Indian wife, for example, who is startled to see herself standing ‘shameless’ before an image in the mirror of her own nakedness; and the political refugee from Afghanistan who is unable to find the words to speak of the scars on his back.

Indian fiction in English continues to be as diverse and robust as it has been since the 1930s. Among the new and talented writers publishing today, mention has to be made of Githa Hariharan, whose stories in The Art of Dying (1993) are inimitable in combining precise social observation and surreal transformations; Amit Chaudhuri, whose Afternoon Raag (1993) is distinguished for its beautifully distilled prose; and Arundhati Roy, whose The God of Small Things (1997) is wonderfully powerful in its celebration of passion and in its social criticism.

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction