Across the board, the Indian novel had its more spectacular start in the bhashas – Malayalam, Odia, Marathi, Bengali – than in English. English was of course a colonial language, brought to India by colonial education and instituted by means of a deliberate policy, as articulated most famously by Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1835, “to form a class who may be interpreters between [the British] 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 intellect.” With literacy rates in any language at 3.5 percent in 1881, and even lower in English, one can see how tracing the rise of the English novel might simply offer a highly selective genealogy of India’s native elite.
Yet in fact, although Governor-General Lord Bentinck did largely adopt Macaulay’s policy as outlined in his Minute on Indian Education, the actual process of forming this class was not as seamless as he might have imagined it. For one, the question of whether or not to structure education in English or the vernacular languages was not one that all colonial officials agreed on. Although English was seen as a means to wrench native elites out of what were seen as their inherent cultural limitations, some officials saw vernacular education as better equipped to transmit the moral learning that was part of the civilising mission.
Indeed, India’s modern written bhashas emerged in the very crucible of colonial modernity, and thus the opposition between India’s “authentic” or untouched bhashas and the colonial language of English is in fact overstated.
In this way, both English and the vernaculars were the site of the consolidation of colonial power – and the site of potential resistance as well. An 1887 Minute from the governor-general warned that “the general extension in India of secular education has, in some measure, resulted in the growth of tendencies unfavourable to discipline and favourable to irreverence in the rising generation”; the Christian Vernacular Education Society for India used this as evidence that English education was potentially dangerous to British interests.
However, the bhashas were the site of significant projects of reform and dissent as well. In fact, what we see across nineteenth-century bhasha writings is a profound sense of literary experiment, evident in the writings of Bengali author Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, whom Sudipta Kaviraj reads as reflective of the “unhappy consciousness” characteristic of colonial modernity, and in the epistemic experiments of Fakir Mohan Senapati in his Odia novel Chha Mana Atha Guntha, to name only two.
Bilingual writers characterise these ambivalences more literally in their movements between languages, as seen with bilingual poets Michael Madhusadan Dutt and Henry Derozio and in the embattled writings of Toru Dutt, Krupabai Satthianadan, and Rabindranath Tagore. As the range of these early authors shows, neither writing in English nor in the vernaculars expressed straightforward political or ideological alliance with colonialism but rather evinced a complex interrogation of the contradictions of colonial modernity itself.
Thus early English fiction did not emerge in a distinct sphere of its own but rather in relation to and in dialogue with innovations in the bhashas that were taking place at the same time. Often, individual authors wrote in both English and one of the bhashas. Thus, less than a decade after publishing his one and only novel in English, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay founded a Bengali magazine, Bangadarshan, in which he hoped to invigorate the Bengali language in public life, where English had largely found sway.
Likewise, Toru Dutt and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain wrote both in Bengali and English – and, in the case of Dutt, in French as well. These examples show how the modernity that emerged in India was always already polyglossic. Thus we not only dispel associations of foreignness attached to the nineteenth-century Anglophone novel in India but also see how an analysis of the English novel cannot be separated from accounts of colonial modernity across languages.
Interchange among the various linguistic traditions continued beyond the nineteenth century.
While early twentieth-century Anglophone writers Mulk Raj Anand, Ahmed Ali, and Raja Rao are often lumped together as nationalist /socialist writers who wrote in English, this grouping provides only a partial understanding of the richness of literary cultures in this period. Anand and Ali were both affiliated with the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association (AIPWA), which brought together authors writing in a range of languages, including Sajjad Zaheer in Urdu and Premchand in Hindi.
Ahmed Ali wrote in both Urdu and English and was involved equally in literary debates with his fellow Urdu writers as he was with other English writers. Raja Rao, too, wrote in Kannada and French along with English. Seeing these authors as essentially linked just because they wrote in English overlooks the richness of engagement of both figures in their respective languages.
In the postcolonial decades as well, the existentialist writer Nirmal Varma spent much of his life abroad, often set his works in Europe, and has admitted significant influence from western literature. Kiran Nagarkar’s first novel, Saat Sakkam Trechalis (Seven Sixes are
Forty-Three, 1974) was written in Marathi, and only later did he switch to English. Partition literature also crossed linguistic boundaries; a novelist such as Qurratulain Hyder crafted her own English translation of her Urdu novel Aag ka darya, demonstrating engagement in the literary and public spheres of both languages’.
These myriad, interlingual histories tend to get obscured in contemporary literary criticism, which often privileges English as a distinct and more cosmopolitan language than any of the bhashas.
This is part because of the slippage between English and cosmopolitanism advanced by many English-language novels themselves: for instance, in the “altered vision” with which Aadam Aziz returns to Kashmir in the first pages of Midnight’s Children, a perspective that makes him “[resolve] never again to kiss earth for any god or man.”
From this moment onward in the Indian novel, travel (and English) is cast as broadening and perspective-changing, constructing, in turn, staying home (and, consequently, writing in the bhashas) as myopic and provincial. Rushdie stated this view more directly in his Foreword to Mirrorwork, an anthology of writing from India from 1947-1997 that he edited, in which he included only one piece – out of thirty-two – in translation; the others were all originally written in English:
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.
While celebrating English over the bhashas, Rushdie simultaneously asserts its marginality, as by putting the phrase “official languages” in quotes, he suggests at least to the book’s non-Indian readership that English is only recogniseds “unofficially” by the Indian state and thus that writing in English carries an inherently non-nationalist or cosmopolitan imaginary. From this perspective, English is not only global but inherently progressive; this is not the progressivism of social realism but a righteous refusal of the narrowness of nationalist belonging.
The backlash to comments like Rushdie’s from academics in India “defending” the vernaculars led to a further entrenchment of the national-cosmopolitan agon. Path-breaking literary critic Meenakshi Mukherjee – who worked at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and then at the University of Hyderabad until her death in 2009 – suggested that “in the English texts of India there may be a greater pull towards a homogenisation of reality, an essentialising of India, a certain flattening out of the complicated and conflicting contours, the ambiguous and shifting relations that exist between individuals and groups in a plural community.” Yet those are precisely the authors that are more widely read, “interviewed . . . [and] invited for readings.”
In response, several English authors took increasingly entrenched positions in defense of English. Vikram Chandra, for instance, argued that Indian critics such as Mukherjee, whom he dubbed “commissars” and “self-proclaimed guardians of purity and Indianness,” have constructed a “cult of authenticity” around a nationalist fantasy of Indianness.
Through this type of polarising debate, the stakes of the question rose dramatically, crescendoing into rigid – and ultimately useless – binaries: authentic versus traitorous; desi versus pardesi.
Backed by the very material realities of market inequality and access to international celebrity-status, English writers “won” the debates by framing their position in such a way that increasingly, any call for attention to vernacular writing was cast as backward, provincial, and an expression of a knee-jerk nationalism.
This valuation of Indian English writers over bhasha writing was only strengthened by an increasing interest in the west – the place where, until very recently, literary fortunes were made – in a certain type of writing coming from India, often marked by an easily digestible blend of exotic difference and legibility (in short, different but not too different). This is what Meenakshi Mukherjee called “otherness [that] is validated only if it fits into certain pre-established paradigms of expectation: a magic realist ambience, mystical spice women, small town eccentrics, the saga of women’s suffering, folk tale elements blended into contemporary narrative, so on and so forth.”
This contradictory desire was encapsulated in a June 1997 issue of The New Yorker that featured eleven of “India’s leading novelists” – all writing in English – who, the article’s author reported, represented, “in a hopeful, even exhilarating way: the shape of a future Indian literature.” In the photograph of the eleven writers, they are all dressed in shades of black, suggesting a kind of staged hipness; yet despite this well-meaning attempt to convey the modernity and futurity of the Indian novel, the cover of the issue still relied on tired, Orientalist imagery for representing India, showing the surprise on the intrepid, white explorers’ faces when they find a statue of Ganesh not staring ahead with his usual composure but reading – and reading fiction, to boot.
English – in particular the “Indian English” celebrated so enthusiastically by the article – provides precisely that mix of difference and legibility that makes Indian writing marketable to an audience unfamiliar with India. This is not, in Francesca Orsini’s words, the “small-town tedium, frustrated youth, couples incapable of communicating with each other, the impossible gulfs between aspiration and reality” of the Hindi novel Raag Darbari – the “India that the West does not like to think about for too long” – but “the florid, sensuous, inclusive, multicultural world of the post-Rushdie , postcolonial novel,” through which “the West can settle down to contemplate, not India, but its latest reinterpretation of itself.”
One might say that Chinua Achebe’s determination that the African writer “should aim at fashioning an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience” was commodified and neatly assimilated in this period into a particularly American multiculturalism that values the exotic only when it appears in faintly familiar garb.
And yet, although the ripple-effect of these debates continues to influence not only what gets published but what authors write in the first place, it appears that the relationship of English to the vernaculars in contemporary writing has begun to shift in the last decade or so.
For one, today’s authors seem to be more attentive to the politics of language, now that the euphoria surrounding cosmopolitanism’s children has somewhat died down.
Thus, for instance, although Booker-winning author Aravind Adiga writes his novels in English, he has published articles celebrating regional writing and has professed that when he is in Bangalore, he only reads the Kannada-language press. His second and least globally known work, the interconnected short stories Between the Assassinations (2009), is considered by many Indian readers to have a particular regional quality that distinguishes it from his other novels.
Likewise, Chetan Bhagat writes a weekly column in both The Times of India and Dainik Bhaskar. All Bhagat’s books are translated into Hindi and other bhashas; and the settings of some of the recent ones in Tier-II cities like Ahmedabad, Varanasi and Patna (rather than the more cosmopolitan Kolkata and Mumbai) speak to his desire to reach a wider audience within India rather than outside of it.
This is something we see in the works of bestselling contemporary author Anuja Chauhan as well, who brings a notable Punjabi inflection to her light, “rom-com” novels resonant of the Punjabi idiom of many popular Hindi romance films. Although at times they appear similar, I suggest that these examples constitute a phenomenon different from Rushdie’s “chutnification” because the intended audience is not the cosmopolitan elite but precisely those Indian readers who might potentially read in English and one of the bhashas.
Thus, today’s texts no longer ask their readers to be versed in the hybrid history of Moorish Spain or the Jallianwala Bagh massacre but in Facebook, Premier League cricket, and Bollywood gossip. They carve out a new space where English and the bhashas can meet again.
In Bhagat and Chauhan, we also see a closer tie between literature and India’s most significant mass cultural product: Hindi popular film, also known as Bollywood. Although connections between literature and popular film have existed in the past, with notable Hindi and Urdu writers such as Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Krishan Chandar, KA Abbas, Javed Akhtar, and Gulzar working in both domains, in English, the divide has been historically greater. Although Rushdie includes many filmic references in his novels, his true interest lies in auteur filmmaking, and he uses Bollywood as a cultural source mostly generative of parody.
Moreover, today’s English fiction actively rejects the westward orientation that was clear – if not necessary (for publishing purposes) – among the earlier generation.
Bestselling novelists such as Anuja Chauhan, Chetan Bhagat, Ashok Banker, Amish Tripathi, and others do not market their books to the west; many of them have not even been published outside of India – something unthinkable for an earlier generation.
Likewise, notably absent in these books are glossaries or other attempts at translating food or other cultural items to a western reader. The assumption, then, that writing in English means a western orientation or foreign intended audience is no longer valid; in consequence, the terms of the earlier debate – the sense of English as a “foreign” language on one hand and a cosmopolitan one on the other – have largely dissolved.
This shift corresponds with a larger change in urban Indians’ self-perception vis-a-vis their own national history as well as the west that has largely grown out of the liberalization of the Indian economy in the early 1990s. This has resulted in, for one, a de-fetishization of the diaspora, as the lifestyle for the wealthy in India’s big cities is no longer radically different from how emigrants might live abroad.
The changes in urban India’s consumer economy, in addition to new multinational companies hiring both Indians and foreigners, means that there is more back-and-forth movement between India and its diaspora. The wide availability of imported products and a new “global” urban aesthetics (such as malls, multiplex cinemas, coffee shops, and so on) have further reduced this gap. The image at the beginning of The Satanic Verses of diaspora as a moment of utter freedom – a space where “anything becomes possible” – repeated in various ways in more recent novels, such as Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (2013) – has now been reevaluated.
It is not that the allure of diaspora no longer exists, but its experience is no longer represented as a sea change. In Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008), Ashok, Balram’s boss, has lived in the United States; therefore, unlike the rest of his family, he wears different clothes, knows the correct pronunciation of “pizza,” and is slightly more liberal than his brothers in his treatment of his driver. But the novel simultaneously suggests that (westernised) liberal condescension is just as bad as (homegrown) feudal hegemony; thus, it is Ashok who becomes Balram’s eventual victim.
Aesthetically as well, in a graphic novel such as Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor (2004), New Delhi’s streetscapes elicit the same feeling of alienation that might arise in any modern city and thus counter stereotypes of the third-world city as particularly depraved or unlivable. It is thus not that contemporary novels efface the cultural differences between “east” and “west,” but they de-fetishise them; they render them banal.
Today’s authors also not only move but move back: Chetan Bhagat and Aravind Adiga lived abroad for many years and then moved back to India. This kind of movement complicates the one-way trajectory that was true for most of the New Yorker-featured writers such as Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh.
But at the same time, contemporary writing cannot be reduced to these sociological trends. These new itineraries are accompanied by new literary concerns and new literary forms which have emerged in relation to these changes. It is the imperative of a new generation of readers and critics to understand this changing and complex relationship between English and the bhashas in the twenty-first century.
Excerpted with permission from Introduction: Literary Pasts, Presents and Futures – A History of the Indian Novel in English, edited by Ulka Anjaria, Cambridge University Press.