Anglo-Indian fiction experienced a widely celebrated renaissance in the 1980s. Pankaj Mishra regrets its failure to reflect India's rich and varied literary cultureby Pankaj Mishra / April 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
In the beginning was Rushdie. The critical and commercial success of Midnight’s Children in 1981 transformed the Anglo-Indian novel. Before Rushdie-and despite the presence of RK Narayan, Anita Desai and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala- India was regarded as a source of good second-division fiction, much of it produced by British writers such as Paul Scott and JG Farrell. Midnight’s Children changed all that. The novel was not only unlike anything ever written by an Indian writer; it was then the only novel of its kind in the English language: boldly multicultural, rooted in India and Indian storytelling traditions, but soaked in a generous unselfconscious cosmopolitanism that came naturally to an upper middle class Bombay dweller in the 1950s. Rushdie himself was a radically new presence in the world of English letters: intensely political, encyclopaedically informed, formidably urbane.
In India it was quickly recognised that Rushdie had redefined the parameters of the Indian novel in English. For many Indians struggling to find an authentic literary voice, he had the same revelatory effect that reading Kafka had on the young Garcia Marquez. Indian writing in English thus experienced an unexpected renaissance in the 1980s, whose real nature and limitations are more visible now than when the books were being hastily written and published. Suddenly, a host of Indian writers sprouted into view, most of them affected at birth by Rushdie-itis, the now familiar literary condition that has claimed Rushdie himself in his later works.
Rushdie’s imitators of the last decade quickly came and went; their work survives mostly in academia where it is part of the revised canon for South Asian studies and commonwealth literature. More recently, there has been Vikram Seth, whose rejection of Rushdie’s style resulted in a book that was several times longer than Rushdie’s longest -and not half as engaging. Vikram Chandra scored an unexpected success last year with Red Earth and Pouring Rain. Rohinton Mistry has weighed in with two interesting novels, one of which was nominated for the Booker prize last year. These are the bigwigs; there are also innumerable also-rans, one-novel wonders, and ambitious academics.
There is little doubt that Indian writing in English has come a long way since Graham Greene persuaded Bodley Head to publish RK Narayan more than six decades ago. Anglo-Indian fiction is on its way to becoming a literary phenomenon in the same way that Latin American fiction was in the 1980s. It has acquired a certain cachet in London and, to a lesser extent, New York. Books by Indian writers are not only likely to win prestigious literary prizes but can also make a lot of money-as the success of Seth’s A Suitable Boy proved.
This ballyhoo will probably gather strength during the 50th year of India’s independence. But what it will underline is how publishers and reviewers in Europe and the US are not only arbiters of literary taste in non-western literature, but have come to redefine national literature in the third world. Few of them know that what in the west is taken as representative of Indian fiction as a whole is in fact a very small sample of the rich fare available in India itself, much of it in languages other than English. Vigorous literary cultures exist in more than half of the 16 official languages in India. The circulation figures for certain literary magazines in Marathi and Bengali would be the envy of Granta. The names of OV Vijayan, UR Ananthmurthy and Paul Zacharia may mean nothing to readers of Indian fiction in the west, but in India they have more readers than Rushdie. And books in Malayalam outsell books in English by as much as ten times.
It is true that the recent proliferation in India of magazines and television channels wholly devoted to westernised lifestyles has led to writers in English acquiring a nationwide presence quite disproportionate to the size and quality of their work. A colonial complex is to blame here: for many west-smitten Indians whatever is published in the UK or the US is axiomatically better than anything produced at home.
But there is a widening gap between regional literary cultures and the small number of readers in English in the five metropolitan cities who do not yet add up to a cohesive literary culture. Writers in regional languages often express a contempt for Indian writing in English, which is a combination of envy and a real sense of superiority in all aspects of fiction writing. This superiority is not easily demonstrable before the larger world: only a handful of people in India possess the complex bilingual skills requi-red to render into English the brilliance of Indian prose fiction in regional languages. But there is little doubt who the bilingual reader in India would prefer given a choice between Vikram Seth and the great chronicler of North Indian life in Hindi, Suryakant Tripathi Nirala, a name destined to remain unknown in the west.
The comparison with Latin America has definite limits. The fact that much of what we know as Latin American fiction was originally written in Spanish, with a Spanish-speaking readership in mind, seems to escape those who see the handful of west-based Indian writers in English as representative of Indian writing as a whole. Unlike Indian writers known to western readers, writers such as Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, have always written in their first language, and came to address international audiences only later in their careers. But the Indian writer in English is from his very first book trapped in a colonial bind, dependent on the patronage of publishers in the west and on a cosmopolitan readership in Europe and the US.
Readers of books in English are a small minority in India; so writers in English are almost forced to address a global readership. And here they reap certain advantages of background and education. Writers in English belong without exception to the haute bourgeoisie; are educated at British-style public schools before being sent to Oxford or Cambridge where they acquire membership in a cosmopolitan third world elite. Many of them choose to live abroad, such as Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Chandra and Rohinton Mistry.
Fifty years after independence, English remains the language of power and privilege in India. The most frequently translated writer in Hindi, although far from the best, is Nirmal Verma, who owes his minor international reputation to his knowledge of English and the few years he spent in England. A mediocre first novel in English is likely to receive more attention in the national and international media than an infinitely more talented writer in a regional language can expect for his entire corpus.
If the transnational mobility of Indian writers in English makes for a certain kind of cosmopolitanism, it also leads to a sameness of vision: a slickly exilic version of India, suffused with nostalgia, interwoven with myth, and often weighed down with a kind of intellectual simplicity foreign readers are rarely equipped to notice. This is partly because Indian writers in the west fall into the trap of representing their home country in their works-often reducing India to an accessible, homogeneous totality, full of familiar markers for non-Indian readers. This peculiar syndrome is easier to understand if you can imagine an English writer in India trying to represent England to Indian readers by reproducing all the features of English life he supposes are familiar to them.
Such ambitions feed into western expectations: that a novel by an Indian writer has to be, if not the great Indian novel, then the novel about India-India, as opposed to the many Indias that exist in reality. Reviewers of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance insisted on treating it as a political treatise on modern India rather than a novel that happens to be set in the emergency years. Art alone rarely suffices; the writer must articulate some final truth about contemporary India. The writers themselves seem happy to fulfill these expectations, with results that are often artistically flawed. A novel such as A Suitable Boy, self-consciously panoramic, and ostentatiously modelled on the great 19th century realist narratives, is content to skate merrily over the surfaces of its subject; to describe lovingly over 1,300 pages, without recourse to critical irony, the shallowness of the north Indian provincial elite (ideal material for a true Flaubert or Balzac).
Writers moulding themselves on Rushdie follow a different, if no less risky, trajectory. Many go for broke and produce sprawling shapeless narratives where all the traditional ingredients of the novel-irony, style, sense of economy and structure-have been abandoned in an effort to arrive at spicier concoctions. An example is the popular Indian novel of last year, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, which managed to pack within its 400-plus pages as much exotic data about India as can be endured by western palates.
Other writers turn Rushdie’s political and intellectual concerns into pedantic pursuits. Thus, the emphasis on archival research, and the increased tendency among sociologists and historians such as Amitav Ghosh and Mukul Kesavan to turn their research work into thinly disguised fictions, where a soft western-style liberalism helps reinvent India as a large, slightly perturbed semi-anglicised family (full of affectionate cousins and wise matriarchs) which would be fine again once Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs learn to live together in peace. It is left to their mentor, Rushdie, to evoke more complex, and darker, visions of India in novels which, although inferior to Midnight’s Children, are still several rungs above their imitations.
Among younger writers, Amit Chaudhuri stands out as an admirable example of a writer indifferent to the task of redrawing the literary map of India. Initial reports about The God of Small Things, the forthcoming novel by Arundhati Roy, suggest that the author is equally disinclined to take on the role of the philosopher, sociologist, historian or seismographer of social upheavals. Perhaps her success will inspire more originality in writers of the next generation. Or, it may result, as with Rushdie, in a set of defective clones. Certainly, Indian writing in English could do with some diversity-odd as it may seem to say so about literature from a country as vast and diverse as India.