Jamaica Kincaid – I forget exactly where – wrote about the sad fate of the non-western writer educated primarily in Western literature. The sadness lay in her creation of a world filled with white, unblemished snow that she never saw in real life; in the evocation of the delight of biting into ripe strawberries she never experienced outside of literature. The sadness of the fact that she will not bat an eyelid while describing palm trees as “exotic” even if they are all around her, because palm trees are exotic in the literary diet that has nourished her but pine trees are not. And it is only natural that pine and fir would crowd her literary world, evoking only the echo of the exotic palm from “distant” tropical climes!

When I came across this evocative statement of imprisonment, I think while in graduate school in the US, it jolted me to back to the experience I had passed through earlier, as a student in high school, trying to write fiction in English. In my adolescent short stories, all my characters lived in cocktail parties, drank scotch, and drove cars of a kind. They only listened to American music and often even had names like Max, or at the most Nina, somehow universal (western) and yet somehow acceptably Indian.

And then...

Then I came across a novel that opened with this sentence:

“In 1939, thirteen years before I was born, my father’s aunt, Mayadebi, went to England with her husband and her son, Tridib.”

The incredulous excitement feels quite juvenile now, even for a teenager. But the 21st century and the new India were still a few years away, and so were call centres and novels inspired by them that would make English demotic and provincial in a wholly different way. This was still a world where you went from Dickens for school to John Grisham for sinful reading, with nothing but Anglo-America in sight on the literary horizon. Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, in the 1990s already secure in the postcolonial canon, and therefore arrived to us as a major novel, suddenly broke apart the old world and created a brave new one.

There was England in the opening sentence, but so was Mayadebi. Mayadebi belonged to 19th century Bangla literature – maybe in the world of Ashapurna Devi. And to write debi not devi – wasn’t that a bit too Bangla to appear in an English novel? Tridib not Tridiv? Come on, we still call Ashapurna and Mahasweta Devi not Debi, right? The acceptable Anglicisation that coincides richly with the alibi of the Sanskritic, away from the rounded softening of the consonants so redolent of Bangla provincialism?

And The Shadow Lines went on, like the cast shadow of a Bangla upanyas re-imagined in English with disarming honesty, candour and craft (an unusual trinity of qualities whose rarity did not hit me till much later). Quickly, it moved from the enunciation of Bangla names and words, going from Mayadebi to Maya-thakuma, to habits and values so deeply local that I marvelled at their appearance in an acclaimed book written in English.

The weak bowel

Deeply memorable, and funnily so, was Tridib’s “Gastric”, the character’s messed up digestion, “ruined by the rivers of hard-boiled tea he had drunk at roadside stalls all over south Calcutta.” A habit and an aliment as deeply entrenched in the Bengali body as the fish and rice that supposedly find their way there, and with the same unmistakable regularity. The petroga – weak-bowelled – Bengali trapped in the web of bodily needs and social expectations, who is caught unaware by “a rumble in his bowels” so that “he would have to sprint for the nearest clean lavatory” in the house of the relative closest on the way.

At the door, he would have to make an acceptable amount of small talk with the family elders about how everyone was doing – all the while wriggling and writhing under his strained bowels – and only “when it had been established to everyone’s satisfaction that he had come on a Family Visit, he would shoot through the door straight into the lavatory.” Composure would return after he stepped out, and the continued enquires about family and home would also include questions about his “Gastric” and its welfare. “And how is Gastric?” “Is Gastric better now?” “Gastric” was always referred to as a proper noun, and naturally the narrator grew to believe “that ‘Gastric’ was the name of an organ peculiar to Tridib – a kind of aching tooth that grew out of his belly button.”

Hope for an Indian writer

I read The Shadow Lines a few years after reading another novel that actually came out a few years after it – reading in reverse order, that is – A Strange and Sublime Address by Amit Chaudhuri. It had initiated this era of disbelief, right in the third sentence of the book: “Chhotomama’s house had a pomelo tree in its tiny courtyard and madhavi creepers by its windows.” Chhotomama and madhavi creepers had entered the universe of English fiction, and English fiction would never be the same again.

The Shadow Lines had the same effect, giving me hope as an Indian writer writing in English, in the promise held by the most local and provincial, a promise transformed into something dreamy and tantalising when produced in English. Initially it was like watching a beautiful film about one’s own life in a foreign language, before homecoming to the realisation that that very life already nestled – and naturalised – a kind of linguistic hybridity to render it invisible.

The Shadow Lines depicts a hybridised world that sprouts hybridised memories and traumas. It travels to London, to undivided Bengal and to Bangladesh, to the world of Englishmen in remote colonial outposts in India, to inter-racial relationships, to all the hybridities that has gone into the making of that reality we now call provincial in postcolonial India. But at each moment, it evokes its time, place and context with sensory power and honesty, and translates into the English idiom a world that I had once thought was not worthy of narration in that language.

I know this is not the first time this question has haunted an Indian writer – Raja Rao famously grappled with it in his introduction to Kanthapura in 1937. Neither is it the last. The relationship of English and local realities will forever continue to be contested one, and productively so. And yet I do believe the last decade of the 20th century was a crucial one in this regard, the closing of a bygone era, immediately before the larger liberation and prosperity of a provincial India in the English language. It made our micro-liberation as English language writers all the more special.

Personally for me, it created the confidence to evoke a local and vernacular world in my own novels, and eventually carve my own path through that evocation. It is a confidence that is now, happily plentiful in Indian-English fiction. I look around to see Anuradha Roy’s yearning universe etched out of late-colonial India, especially the unforgettable rural Bengal in An Atlas of Impossible Longings, the deeply vernacular Punjab of Rupa Bajwa’s The Sari Shop, the radically unfolded tribal universe in Hansda Sowvendra Sekhar’s fiction, and perhaps most directly, the fictional chroniclers of the city of contemporary Calcutta, such as Sandip Roy and Rajat Chaudhuri.

For many of us, I’m sure, the unexpected, almost illicit appearance of Mayadebi in the opening sentence of a major English novel jolted us to radically new possibilities, whether or not we were conscious of such a jolt.

Saikat Majumdar’s novels include The Firebird (2015) and the forthcoming The Scent of God (2019).