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«Author- Michel Renouard Chapter XXXIV Indo-English literature Since the end of the 16th century, even before the arrival of the first East India ...»

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Author- Michel Renouard

Chapter XXXIV

Indo-English literature

Since the end of the 16th century, even before the arrival of the first East India Company steamer in 1608,

there were traders and English missionaries in India. Some missionaries got into the study of the country’s

languages. Some of them like Father Thomas Stevens, an English Jesuit who had come to India in 1579,

became vernacular writers. One must wait until the beginning of the 19th century to see Indian intellectuals

take the opposite direction: they decided to abandon their mother tongue and express themselves in English, which was the language of the colonizer. Thus a new kind of literature was born, the Indo-English literature.

This term was thrust upon them since the 1960s for obvious reasons. But some authors continued to speak of Anglo-Indian literature believing that there was no big difference between literature on India written by the British and that written by Indians in English. Indeed, Anglo-Indian literature in the strict sense did not die in 1947, because even Indians began to write novels on the epoch of the Raj. The term "Anglo-Indian" is more readily linked to the colonial period. Therefore, we will concern ourselves above all with the literature written in the English language since independence, by writers born in the subcontinent, or by the diaspora.

To establish subcategories a priori would be tempting. There are, in effect, Indians of " pure blood " as R.K. Narayan, of “half-breeds” like Ruskin Bond and Anita Desai, British men like John Masters, Europeans who became Indian by marriage like Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Indians who left their natal country like Salman Rushdie or V.S. Naipaul who was born faraway from India, but is attracted to it in order to find his roots. We prefer to stick with the aspect which unites all these writers: their choice of the English language. Their personal history, their religion, their caste, the colour of their passport or their skin does not prevent them from being more or less of Indian writers.

Our study, let us specify, cannot follow actual borders of the subcontinent. Certain writers from Pakistan like Ahmed Ali, were born in India. Some Indians like Chaudhuri, Anand or Khushwant Singh were born in the land which is presently Bangladesh or Pakistan. Should Rushdie, who was born in Bombay, but whose family settled down in Pakistan be considered an Indian or a Pakistani writer? Where does one categorize authors such as G.V. Desani or V.S. Naipaul, born in Kenya and Trinidad respectively?

It is necessary however to determine it: for numerous reasons, the largest number of writers in English is actually from India. It is certainly due to the size of the country and the privileged cultural links maintained with England, but also because of an increasing fascination for The U.S.A and Canada. Indian authors, unlike Pakistani authors, enjoy a complete freedom of expression being from a secular country which does not have a state religion. After Partition, the elite Pakistanis, prisoners of a very rigid political-religious yoke had to live in a vacuum in a newly born country in search of an identity. Undoubtedly, they were in a hurry to express themselves in the vernacular, especially in Urdu and Bengali.

Indo-English literature is anyway a happy synthesis, which would have been impossible without some factors: extreme adaptability of the Indian languages and the suppleness of English. Writing in English hardly poses psychological problems in a country like India, where even the illiterates are polyglot and where the intelligentsia has always adapted, by switching to the language of the invader (Persian and subsequently English). European presence lasted several centuries and the struggle for independence had been difficult, but in spite of some very local tragedies, such as the Sepoy Revolt in 1857 and the massacre of Amritsar in 1919, British colonization left no major trauma. Despite the promises of the politicians, the English language was not dispelled from schools or the administration. For the elite, even today if not the “maternal” language in the strict sense, it is at least the language learnt from early childhood.

Even if spoken English in the subcontinent constitutes, by its phonetics and grammar, or even by its lexicon, a dialectal variety in the same capacity as the American, most of the authors write in a literary and standard language, the one that opens the doors of the global market to them. European literature in general and English literature in particular influenced all of them. In this respect, there was no break between the Anglo–Indians like Kipling and Indians like Khushwant Singh, as they all write in the same tradition. It is especially true for the novel, a western genre par excellence, whereas poetry and theatre are genres respected in India for centuries.

The pioneers of Indo-English literature did not wait for the famous Minute 1 of Macaulay (1835) in order to start writing in English. Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833), a stupendous Bengali linguist, has left behind numerous essays in this language. Later, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) also became famous for his prose. His contemporary, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 (six years after Kipling), but was however more comfortable in Bengali than in English. One of the Pakistani inspirations, Muhammad Iqbal (1873-1938) wrote in Urdu, Persian and English.


The first novels in English language published by Indians appear just after the Sepoy Revolt. It is, for instance, Rajmohan' s Wife (1864) by Bankim Chandra Chatterji, renowned Bengali writer, The Hindu Wife (1876) by Raj Lakshmi Devi and Bianca (1878) by the Bengali linguist prodigy Toru Dutt, who also published, a novel in French in Paris, Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers (Didier, 1879). The interest in these writings is more historical than literary. In fact, the first five big Indo-English novelists were all born in the first decade of this century: Mulk Raj Anand, Bhabani Battacharya, R.K. Narayan, G.V. Desani and Raja Rao. They were all between the ages of thirty eight and forty-two years during the freedom struggle.

We observe that most of them lived to a ripe old age.

Anand, like many of his contemporaries, chooses to base his fiction in social reality, mostly that of the most deprived. Anand belonging to a modest social origin but of superior caste– in India it is not contradictory– was born in Peshawar in 1905 and died in 2004, did his higher education in philosophy in London and in Cambridge, and spent about twenty years in England. Influenced by Marxism, he decided to set down his ideology in writing. He even took part in the Spanish War and met George Orwell there, who was also born in India at the beginning of the century. His political commitment is evident in Untouchable (1935), Coolie (1936), Two Leaves and a Bud (1937) and The Village (1939). However his depiction of India of the villages transcends through its poignant truth, the ideological stand taken. Although less appreciated by critics, The Private Life of an Indian Prince (1953,) wherein Anand leaves the pariah in favour of the princes, is more a novel than his previous works.

1. Minute on Indian Education. This document (the original of which is lost) was written at the request of the governor-general Bentick, by Thomas Babington Macaulay, top civil servant in India from 1834 till

1838. In this text, Macaulay recommended the westernization of India and intensive use of the English language.

So Many Hungers! (1947) of Bengali author Bhabhani Bhattacharya (born in Bihar in 1906, died in 1988) appeared a few weeks after Independence. He also wrote Music for Mohini (1952), He Who Rides a Tiger (1954) and Shadow from Ladakh (1966). In the first book that is about a village suffering under famine, one discovers the recurrent theme of Indo-English literature – the village. The second book is about the town and countryside, whilst the third one deals with poverty in Calcutta. In Shadow from Ladakh, the subject of the novel is the invasion of India by China. Bhattacharya, a globe trotter like most of the Indian intellectuals, is a prolific author, specializing in political science. But his first books seem closer to sociology than fiction.

It is the same with the only novel of G.V Desani (born in Kenya in 1910, died in Texas in 2001), All About H. Hatterr (1948). This funny story is one of the big successes, incidentally atypical, of Indo-English literature. All critics recalled the works of Rabelais, Joyce or Wodehouse. Such talent leaves Desani’s readers – USA immigrants -indeed horrified, regretting that he published practically nothing since, except for some news pieces and articles and a play that is forgotten today.

R.K. Narayan (1907-2001) is the opposite of Anand, Bhattacharya and Desani. This Brahmin from the South did not leave his native land until much later. He did not have any ideological views even though he apparently preferred Gandhian principles to Nehru’s, which according to him were too westernized. Narayan is part of those writers whose simplicity of purpose and superb clarity of prose reveal real depth. Like Balzac, Narayan casts his characters, always endearing, often of a ruddy complexion, in a human comedy in the imaginary city of Malgudi, somewhere in South India. The poor people and the rich men are of little interest to the writer, who favours the middle classes. Therefore, the reader, delightfully enchanted, follows the transformation of Malgudi over decades. After his first novel, Swami & Friends (1935), Narayan published a dozen novelsBachelor of Arts (1937), The English Teacher (1945), Waiting for the Mahatma (1955), The Guide (1958), The Man-Eater of Malgudi (1961), The Vendor of Sweets (1967), A Tiger for Malgudi (1983) and The World of Nagaraj (1990).To this rich romantic corpus, it is necessary to add some short stories which also form a part of the Malgudi tome. Narayan is a great writer, an exceptional storyteller and rarer still- a humorist.

The fifth great successful author of the decade, Raja Rao (born in 1908), was also from the South.

Like many others, he allowed himself to be enticed by the dim lamps, those of France in this case, since he studied in Montpellier and in the Sorbonne. He lived for a long time in France, then in the USA where he taught philosophy. His most known novels are Kanthapura (1938), The Serpent and the Rope (1960) and The Cat and Shakespeare (1965). Here again, we are close to Gandhian thought: Kanthapura is a village in the south-west of India transformed by the Mahatma’s ideas. It is above all, the frame of one of the best novels ever written on an Indian village. The Serpent and the Rope is about Indians in Europe, a topic which is found, for example, in Across the Black Waters by Anand and The Ravi Lancers of Masters. High flying intellectual, a philosopher by profession, a man of few writings, Raja Rao loads his works with too many learned characters, yet, is one of the big names of Indo-English literature.

Ahmed Ali (1908-1994) published Twilight in Delhi, in 1940, which was a novel of great force, dedicated to the life of a Muslim family. It is also a revolutionary work against the British. His other novels, Ocean of Night (1964) and Rats and Diplomats (1986), did not meet with the same success. Born in Delhi, but settled in Pakistan after independence, Ali found himself confronted with censure. He taught for a while in the USA.

Manohar Malgonkar (born in Bombay in 1913) is sometimes compared to his contemporary John Masters who was an officer like himself. His novels are indeed about courage and bravery, half way leading from history to fiction. (Distant Drum (1960), on the Indian army; Battle of Shadows (1962), a love story in an Assam tea plantation; Bend in the Ganges (1964), dedicated to Partition;

Spy in Amber (1971), a spy fiction located in the Himalayas).

Despite their common taste for action, Malgonkar and Masters are very different writers. John Masters (1914-1983) was British, born in India in a family that had settled in this country since five generations. He, like many Indians was enticed by the fascination for America and ended up settling there. All his novels were written after Independence and out of twenty-one, ten are dedicated to India. Old officer, Masters places the action in an incomplete saga dedicated to the family Savage, who lived in India from 1627 till 1950. Certainly, the colonial discourse shows through between the lines, but the series of novels – of unequal value – denotes real love for the country, if not for its inhabitants. The best titles are undoubtedly Nightrunners of Bengal (1951, in the Sepoy Revolt), The Deceivers (1953, on struggle against thugs) and Bhowani Junction (1954, on independence and Eurasians). The Ravi Lancers (1972) dedicated to the Indians who struggled in France during the First World War, includes a psychological analysis of an Indian, and is much richer than his previous novels.

Two Englishwomen were never able to separate themselves from their Indian origins. The first one, Rumer Godden (1907-1998), who lived thirteen years in India, wrote several books on this country, Black Narcissus (1939), located in the Himalayas, and The River (1946), a novel of adolescence in Bengal which is going to be made into a film by Jean Renoir. The other one, M.M.

Kaye, born in India in 1909 in an Anglo-Indian family, published some detective stories (Night on the Island, 1960, located in the Andaman islands), a rich autobiography in several volumes (Enchanted Evening, 1999) and, especially, a large historical fresco, The Far Pavilions (1978), an emotional but efficient story. During the same era, Paul Scott (1920-1978) who had lived for two years in India, published his famous tetra-logy The Raj Quartet (1966-1975) which is a kind of farewell song to the English in the subcontinent. Staying On (1977) a Booker Prize winner, is very impressive and describes the tragedy of an old Englishwoman who had remained in India after Independence. Francis King (1923) published many sensual and spellbinding novels some of which are linked to the India of his childhood (Act of Darkness, 1983; Frozen Music, 1987).

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