It's 2015, near the end of it, a proper 151 years since Bankimchandra's debut novel Rajmohan's Wife was serialised. The anniversary of that moment in 1864, that is now increasingly being viewed as the moment of the birth of Indian writing in English, was not, to the best of my knowledge, commemorated last year, and a possible reason for this omission suggested itself to me earlier this week in the course of a session entitled "Is Indian Writing in English Getting Desified?"

Bankim desified himself the year after the first appearance of Rajmohan's Wife, publishing the enormously successful Durgeshnandini in Bangla and then continuing to publish in Bangla. Success can sometimes prevent you from taking risks, as Tim Parks has argued in a recent piece. We can only conjecture what road the history of Indian writing in English would have taken if Durgeshnandini had bombed.

Earlier this week, I was seated next to the poet and novelist CP Surendran who revealed that in an English novel he wrote he was forced, in the 21st  draft no less, to deprive a Malayalam-speaking character of his speech. This character spoke, in English no doubt, through 20 drafts and in the 21st draft he was rendered mute. This, Surendran explained, was because for an Indian to write in English is for an Indian to be in the grips of a false consciousness.

Unpacking 'False Consciousness'

Now the term "false consciousness" is a technical term that comes to us from the Marxist lexicon, and so to unpack it a little background is necessary. In his work On Historical Materialism, Franz Mehring explains that historical materialism, as developed by Marx and others, posits that "man only reaches consciousness through his social relations with other men, and that accordingly, his consciousness is determined through his social being, and not the reverse, his social being through his consciousness."

In his response to this work, Engels takes this forward by saying “Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process.” In brief, it appears that Engels is agreeing with Mehring and pointing out that the socially determined consciousness can lead a thinker into taking positions in ignorance. The concept of false consciousness has been subsequently used to explain why oppressed groups, women for example, sometimes support ideologies whose central preoccupation appears to be the continued oppression of these groups.

The argument that Surendran is putting forward then becomes this: By writing in English an Indian reproduces a dominant ideology that has led to oppression of Indians. I am filling in the blanks on Surendran's behalf by saying that the oppressed category is "Indians" because that term was in the title of the session.

Having written in English all my writing career, and being well aware that I may never be able to write something – to my own satisfaction at least – in Hindi or any other Indian language, and being Indian by birth, nationality and residence, I am clearly, by Surendran's definition, in the grips of a false consciousness. And so, from this personally compromised (and hence subjective) position let me try and see how well the charge sticks.

Why the charge is incorrect

The technical objections first. Surendran's deployment of the term “false consciousness” assumes that all worthwhile literary production exists only to stand in opposition to dominant ideologies. By extension, every work of literature can be judged as either reactionary or progressive. This sounds reductive to me. Secondly, by saying that any Indian who writes in English has a false consciousness, we are working with a large, fuzzy and contested category: Indian. Here's a general rule about generalisations: The larger the category, the less true the generalisation.

Now the ideological, in inverted commas, objections. In my view the charge of native informant laid at the door of Indian English writers needs to be re-examined. At our session Surendran said that there could be no RK Narayan without Graham Greene, a reference to the well-established historical fact that Greene's patronage led to Narayan's success in the West and, by way of the West, in India. In his essay on Narayan that appeared on the novelist's passing, Pankaj Mishra wrote:

"For colonial writers who become expatriates in the West, the temptation is to play to the metropolitan culture’s bewildered and exaggerated perception of their native societies, and become retailers of exoticism... But for writers like Narayan who stay back, immersed in, and often tossed around by, their fast-moving world, and who have no other world or audience, the problems of finding a personal literary voice and tone are much greater."

Mishra further goes on to evoke the image of Narayan nibbling at his pen and finding Malgudi appearing readymade in his mind, and, moved by this image, says "there are moments when a writer ceases to be a performer to himself and others, and enters into an honest relationship with his experience, when he feels he is on his way, finds his characters and settings already prepared for him, when he doesn’t have to find his subjects, they find him."

Mishra, eager to create a distinction between the expatriate Indian writer and the writer who retains not just his Indian passport but also his residency in India, invokes a concept that does not carry much cache in a world of sophisticated theory: honesty.

Amit Chaudhuri ups the ante in another piece that appeared soon after Mishra's in 2001, saying, “The subject of Narayan’s fiction is, if anything, the fictionality of ‘timeless India’, which, it tells us, is a thoroughly modern invention, a figment of the contemporary imagination.” Chaudhuri is going beyond saying that Narayan is honest; he is saying that Narayan is a subversive out to undermine the processes that Edward Said would later label “Orientalist”.

But my aim is not to rescue Narayan from Surendran's innuendo. The point is illustrative. Narayan can be read in many different ways. His writing is rich enough to yield meanings that do not buttress the edifice of colonial dominance, nor does it valorise the exploits of an indigenous elite. It is firmly embedded in the bourgeios world of small town South India, and, in some sense, that is just about what it is.

It is not my contention that there are no Indian writers working in English whose works, in part or whole, do not answer to the charge of exoticisation or, at the very least, oversimplification or cherry-picking. There are several such, in my opinion, including some who are highly venerated. There are others whose subject is Indian but whose sources of inspiration are not, leading to a curious, even interesting, hybridity that is, eventually, sterile. And then there are those who just don't get it.

New imaginings

But there is a space for Indian writers who, working in English, are attempting to reach a specificity of experience and building bridges between that specificity and the multitude of sources of tradition that we subcontinentals are blessed with, including the literatures created in English outside the subcontinent. An example is I Allan Sealy who, in his intensely satisfying recent work The Small Wild Goose Pagoda, talks about the influence of the Pahari miniature on Indian English writing, referring no doubt to his profusely filigreed masterpiece The Trotternama.

The foreclosure of a space that allows the elite Indian who writes in English (and, let's face it, even those widely read contemporary writers who write in execrable English do satisfy any economic criterion of elite that one can reasonably impose) to build new understandings and new imaginings of the past and present of our shared experience cannot be allowed just because of a (contested but not unreasonable) claim that English is a language of an elite. There has to be a way for English writing to live along with writing in other Indian languages. This will require greater humility on the part of those of us who write in English, and on the part of the complex of publishers and retailers who support the process.

Achieving this humility is difficult enough, convincing the larger world that we have achieved this humility is even harder, hamstrung as we are by Salman Rushdie's scurrilous remarks claiming the superiority of English writing from India over writing in all other languages, echoing as they do in form and content Macaulay's infamous minute. Should we then resort to the kind of self-hatred that Surendran is prescribing?

But, as Engels said to Mehring at the end of the letter in which he first used the term “false consciousness”, I have allowed myself to drift into all kinds of extraneous matters. What I really wanted to say was that at the end of the session I was left wondering what Surendran's character who was made mute in the 21st draft had been saying in the previous 20.

Amitabha Bagchi is the author of three novels, Above Average, The Householder, and This Place.