Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Redefinition of IWE - Indian Writing in English

In his book, The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, Salman Rushdie wrote, “the ironic proposition that India's best writing since independence may have been done in the language of the departed imperialists is simply too much for some folks to bear.” And Amit Chaudhury replied to that statement in his book Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, “Can it be true that Indian writing, that endlessly rich, complex and problematic entity, is to be represented by a handful of writers who write in English, who live in England or America and whom one might have met at a party?”

I choose this debate as a core theme for this essay and will try to analyze the past and future of Indian Writing in English (IWE) with all its pros and cons. I will not only try to compare the writings of past and contemporary writers of IWE but I will also compare their writings with the regional writers of their time and will try to find out the status of IWE and whether it could be able to represent Indian writings abroad. Some of my thoughts may create debate and some readers who are scholars might disagree with my views, but what I have found and realised in my heart will be penned down. And my motto is not to hurt or disfigure anyone’s sentiment.

In The Beginning...

The first English writing by any Indian as it has been appeared so far is Sake Dean Mahomet’s travelogue Travels of Dean Mahomet. This book was published in 1793 from England. Sake Dean Mahomet (Shaikh Din Muhammad) was an Indian soldier from Bihar in the British Army and was carried to Britain by his chief Captain Godfrey Evan Baker after his retirement, as Din Mohammad was a good cook. Dean later learnt English academically and wrote his memoirs in Britain.

But it is exceptional Indian writing as the British colonial rulers were not interested in English education rather they were stressing importance to educate natives in their native ’vernacular’ language. It was actually Raja Ram Mohan Ray (1774-1833) and other social activists of that time who made British colonial Rulers introduce English into the schools as a medium of learning with vernaculars.

Michael Madhusudan Dutt and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee were two prominent writers of that time who started to write in English. Dutt wrote epic verse in English while Chatterjee wrote his debut novel Rajmohan’s Wife. The novel was started in serialized form in a magazine from 1864 but did not appear as a book until 1935. It is interesting to note that neither Dutt nor Chatterjee returned back to English writing again and they established themselves as prominent personalities in native Bengali literature.

Toru Dutt, another good example of that time, was a very young (teen) girl when she wrote her poems and novels in French and English. She died at the age of 22 and at the time of her death, she left behind two unpublished novels— Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers (thought to be the first novel in French by an Indian writer) and Bianca, or the Young Spanish Maiden (thought to be the first novel in English by an Indian woman writer) In addition, she had also written two unfinished volumes of original poems in English entitled Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan.

The Mid-Section...

English writing became more popular with the rise of Nationalism in the later period of the nineteenth century into the early period of twentieth century. The English Language became a sharp and strong instrument with which to express intimate feelings to British rulers. Dada Bhai Naroji wrote Poverty and Un-British Rule in India where he brought attention to the draining of India's wealth into Britain and Surendra Nath Banerjee started to publish an English newspaper called the Bengali through which he spread liberal ideas and nationalistic messages to the people. Later the freedom struggle resulted in a revolutionary brand of writing by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Ray, Mahatma Gandhi , Aurobindo Ghose, Kasturi Rnaga Iyer, T. Prakasham, and Sarojini Naidu. Besides writing in their ‘vernacular native’ languages, they also adopted the English language to express their sentiment and agony.

These personalities not only expressed their ideas through critical essays, but developed in other literary forms as well. Tagore introduced his Bengali poems to English readers by translation while Naidu’s romanticism charmed English readers through her poems. Mahatma Gandhi’s An Experiment withTruth and Jawahar lal and Nehru’s Glimpses of Indian History and The Discovery of India were all established as jewels of Indian English writings. These writings were not meant for the British readers at all. Rather, they were written for the Indian readers who felt comfortable with English because the English language had taken a position to communicating different native languages and it was no more with any colonial characteristics. English thus became an Indian language and a fluent and easy media in which to express one’s ideas to a greater mass.

Later in the 1930s, R.K.Narayan, Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand played a significant role in English writing with their fiction. They three were regarded as the “founding fathers” of the Indian English novel.

Mulk Raj Anand’s novel Untouchable (1935) proves itself as a premier of ‘dalit writings’ in Indian literature. It is the story of a single day in the life of Bakha, a toilet-cleaner, who accidentally bumps into a member of a higher caste. Prominent among his novels are The Village (1939), Across the Black Waters (1940), The Sword and the Sickle (1942), which all were written in England, and Coolie (1945), and The Private Life of an Indian Prince (1953) which were written in India. He was among the first writers to render Punjabi and Hindustani idioms into English.

Raja Rao was considered a Nationalist novelist. His novel Kanthapura (1938) was an account of the impact of Gandhi's teaching on non-violent resistance against the British. His other novel The Serpent and the Rope is a work dramatising the relationships between Indian and Western culture. The serpent in the title refers to illusion and the rope to reality. Cat and Shakespeare (1965) was a metaphysical comedy that answered philosophical questions posed in earlier novels. Rao borrows the style and structure from Indian vernacular tales and folk epics.

R.K. Narayan (full name Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, (1906-2001)) is one of the most famous and widely read Indian novelists even in recent days. He wrote numerous novels like Swami and Friends (1935), The Bachelor of Arts (1937), The Dark Room (1938), The English Teacher (1944), Mr. Sampath-The Printer of Malgudi (1949), The Financial Expert (1952), The Vendor of Sweets (1967), The Painter of Signs (1976), A Tiger for Malgudi (1983), Talkative Man (1986) and The World Of Nagaraj (1990). In addition, he wrote a few short stories about Malgudi, a fictitious semi-urban town in southern India. He was awarded by Sahity Academi for his novel The Guide (1958). In 1980, R. K. Narayan was awarded the A.C. Benson award by the Royal Society of Literature and was made an Honorary Member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His style is more descriptive, less analytical, and rooted in a detached spirit, providing for a more authentic and realistic narration where he successfully employed the use of nuanced dialogic prose with gentle Tamil overtones based on the nature of his characters.

In the post-colonial period, a tremendous change in the characteristics of IWE has been observed. The ‘societal subjects’ have been diminished and an ‘individual’ has emerged in the writings. Kamala Markanday, Vikram Seth, Bharati Mukherjee, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Arundhati Roy, Gita Mehta, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Raj Kamal Jha, Jhumpa Lahiri, Bharti Kirchner, Khushwant Singh, Vijay Singh, Tarun Tejpal, Amit Chaudhuri, Amitav Ghosh, Vikas Swarup, Rohinton Mistry, Suketu Mehta, Kiran Nagarkar, Dr. Birbal Jha ,and C. R. Krishnan have been some notable writers of the post-colonial period who have made IWE more popular in abroad than in India. But they subject IWE to a debate whether or not their writings are totally Indian?

Some of writers like Kamala Markanday, Salman Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai have moved themselves abroad and away from the country. Hence a question is raised as to whether their writings can be treated as authentic Indian writings? Rajendra Yadav, a noted Hindi writer once complained, “The IWE take a touristy look at India, like Pankaj Mishra's The Romantics, where he's simply a tourist who doesn't know the inner psyche of the people or the more clever device Vikram Seth uses in A Suitable Boy, the pretext of looking for a bridegroom, which takes him to different locales and professions. It's a creatively written traveler's guide. They travel into our culture, describe a bit of our geography; their total approach is to westerners: a third-rate serpent-and-rope trick."

Nobel Prize winner and one of India’s Diaspora writers, V.S.Naipal once alleged that IWE writers are responsible for creating a body of literature in exile mainly written by writers and read by readers living abroad. Altaf Tyrewala, the author of No God In Sight, also criticizes these NRI writers, who place themselves as front liners in the eyes of Western readers and Western media and that these writers live in the First World and write about the Third, traveling for a month or so to India to gather material on which to base their writings.

There were a few western writers starting from Rudyard Kipling to Mark Tully, Dominique Lapierre and William Dalrymple who have remained the major time of their lives in India, wrote their texts on India and Indian people, but our critics never assimilated them with IWE writers as their race was different. Hari Kunzru, author of The Impressionist and Transmission asked a serious question if we deny these writings as Indian writings, how and why we include the writings of Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Hari Kunzru and the Desais as India writings, while the first group came to India and the second group moved away from India? Is Indian writing a form of racial identity? Kunzru claims that he is not an Indian writer but a British one, thus categorically denying any claim that Indians may make of him being an IWE.

Amit Chaudhuri, who judged the Man Booker Literary Prize for fiction in 2009 along with Andrey Kurkov and Jane Smiley, says, “For me, the position of the outsider is of great importance to the health of any society. My anxiety is that in the last 20 years, India, typically for a globalizing country, hasn't theorized a position for the outsider or for the misfit or for failure. Its rhetoric is concerned with success in various ways. In India, everybody is some way in some kind of nexus of power. We need to regain that space for the irresponsible.” And what better way to seek that elusive vantage point than to move away from the nexus and observe it with a dispassionate eye.


Today, writers from Russia, France, Italy, and even Latin America, any day, write in English, but their writings are considered as masterpieces of global writings. Their writings are abundantly available through English translation and have been labeled as Russian writing or French writing or Italian writing, or Latin American writing. But when the question of Indian writing arises, critics run for Rushdie or Vikram Seth, forgetting that Indian writing has a long tradition.

At a reception organized at Santiniketan to pay homage to Rabindranath Tagore's literary genius after he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Tagore said, “The insult and infamy that was my lot to suffer at the hands of my country were not inconsiderable in quantity and so long I had borne them with patience. In this context, I have not been able to understand clearly why I received honor from outside. I did not know that God, whom I had offered homage sitting on the Eastern shore, would extend his right arm in the western shore to accept the same...Europe has given me the garland of honor. If it carries any value, it lies in the aesthetic sense of the men of culture of that country. That has no connection with our country.”

It can be understood easily, how our authentic Indian writings are being ignored by ‘we the people’ who placed ourselves in the chair to judge what is Indian writing and what is not. Our misjudgment not only make the actual writings ignored but also represents the mask as Indian Literature beneath which India remains invisible to global readers. When we read Garcia, we could encounter Latin America, with all its essence, cultural milieu, lives and tradition. But in bestsellers, IWE in western countries basically portray the lives of Indian Diaspora and their alien culture.

Post-colonial literature cannot be intended by neglecting literary works in the original languages of nations. The post-colonial literature has been termed on many connotations. Common questions frequently asked are, what is the new cultural identity of the country after independence has been achieved? Who really is in power here? Why and how does an independence day really mean independence? And where does an individual fit in this condition of the country and how does he/she make a living? In fact, actual Indian post-colonial writings that are accessible with regional writings and English writings get, in some extent, alienated from the people and country.

So, this seems hard to skirt, when Nirmal Verma, the noted Hindi writer, gives a cautious thump on the back to the IWE big league, saying, “My language links me to a tradition of 5,000 years, to the medieval writers, the Bhakti poets, to the Sanskrit classics, and it also connects me to the philosophical texts of Indian culture. But English writers are deprived of all this unless they are very sensitive. Only one percent of IWE are able to link themselves to the culture of their region, its real life, its metaphors, and images.”

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie, Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, Past Continuous by Neel Mukherjee and Escape by Manjula Padmanabhan were shortlisted for the Vodafone-Crossword Book Awards 2008 and the award was given jointly to Amitav Ghosh and Neel Mukherjee. Ghosh had to share the award with Mukherjee because, it is told, the debut novel of Mukherjee is the first attempt in Indian writing to explore alternate sexuality, though Vikram Seth has been discreet but not secretive about his views on gay and bisexual orientation, depicting this alternative sexuality in his novels The Golden Gate and A Suitable Boy in very obscure way. Similarly, Jhumpa Lahiri’s attempt to portray the complexity of one’s identity concerning with one’s name opens a new door for Indian literature through her novel The Nameshake .

But these trends prevailed in other Indian writings earlier than Seth or Lahiri or Mukherjee. From the 1950s, one can discern a change in the style of Indian writing. The Indian writers became bolder and stronger in expressing their emotional needs. Marxism, Existentialism, Magic Realism and all modern trends of global literature are not untouched in Indian writings and in comparison to English writings, these Indian Literatures are not lagging behind any more.

Jagadish Mohanty is a prominent personality in Oriya Literature and is considered a trendsetter in Oriya fiction. He has also been regarded as the prime figure in the introduction of existentialism to Literature. His novel Nija Nija Panipathwas, published in eighties, where the protagonist, a Brahmin young boy from coastal Orissa, flies to the plateau region of Western Orissa and purchases a job card of a fake tribal name Samaru Khadia from a job provider mafia group and is employed at the coal fields there. The protagonist begins to find everything regarding his identity seems to be in crisis as he is not ‘he’ but another person with a total different identity. This novel was serialized and was published in book form much earlier than the publication of Lahiri’s The Name Shake. It is only because Mohanty has not been translated that his credit had been limited to Oriya people only.

Similarly in 1927, a Hindi writer, Pandey Bechan Sharma, better known by his pen name Ugra (extreme) had published a book, an anthology of ten short stories entitled Chocolate. These stories are on gay sexuality. The book provided a nationalist construction of Indian identity, especially in relation to ideas of India’s past, gender, masculinity and sexuality, and of Hindu-Muslim, and India-foreign relations. Recently the English translation of this book has been published by Oxford University Press. So, it is only our critic’s ignorance to declare Vikram Seth or Neel Mukherjee as premier writers of gay sexuality in literature. These are only two instances.

Bringing It All Together...

This essay does not aim to prove the superiority or inferiority of either English writings or regional writings. Rather, it aims to assimilate English writing into the mainstream of Indian writing with a status of Indian identity. ‘Indian-ness’ should be a theme constructed only for detecting Indian writings.

So for R.K. Narayan’s time, IWE could never be considered alien from Indian writings. Neither Tagore nor Amrita Pritam were treated as vernacular writers. Kamla Das successfully managed to write both in English and Malayalam. Nobody asked what language a writer was writing; either he was Krishna Chandra or Sadat Hassan Monto. They were writing in Urdu but their writings were available easily in Hindi and English as well. IWE at that time was not termed with lingua franca but with the characteristics of Indian-ness. But recently, Indian writings in other languages, which are available in English, are held off, keeping in mind that they are not written in English.

English enjoys the status of the link language to the outer world and also is a necessary instrumental media to communicate. Presently and after globalization, it has remarkably placed its significance and never anyone today could define its tenure as colonial or outsider. While speaking about Indian writings, how can anyone omit the writings of Fakir Mohan Senapati, Premchand, Amrita Pritam, T. Shivshankar Pillai, N.T Vasudevan Nair, or Mahashweta Devi when their writings are all available in English?

However, another view prevails in the mind of some intellectuals that the English language alienates a text from its culture of origin. Once the Indian author Shashi Deshpande expressed her ideas that the English language is in some ways harmful to Indian culture not because it is the language of the ex-colonizers, but because it has become the language of the privileged, elite classes in India. She admits that when she writes in English she is aware that her work will reach out to only a few English-speaking readers, most of whom will be thinking the way she does. The problem is that if an author writes in English with the purpose of changing social traditions, the language excludes the poor and down-trodden whose involvement is most needed, and English has no place in the daily lives of those people

Another problem is the fact that writing in English also means using a language in which most, or at least many, of its characters do not speak. However, for many Indian authors, English is no more than the medium through which they express themselves and through which they can reach an international audience. But it is worth noting that English is the only source where a link can be made with global literary fields; although in India, the readability of literature in English shows a minuscule acceptance despite the rapid growth of literacy in English and in incomes of urban Indians.

So, it should be a wise decision to term IWE not as Indian English Writing, but as its original form of Indian Writings (available) in English.


  1. good one .. mind blowing ....

  2. I think the best post Indian prose in Post Independence India is Srilal Shukla's ' Raag Darbari'. And Sahir Ludhyanavi's Poetry is just out of the world.

  3. You have done a good job. Wish you had also reflected on Indian English poetry which seems to have died with the creative and critical contributions of a cuple of Ezekiels, Ramanujans, and Parthasarathys. I would like to quote Niranjan Mohanty's view: "At times I feel that the colonial, deconstructionist and post-colonial discourses have elusively alluded to the construction of a passion for empire-building, for erecting boundaries, for perpetuating the dialectical, often subversive relationship between the centre and the periphery, between the privileged and the marginalised."
    Academic critics, researchers and media have ignored so many new poets writing regularly in English and yet not mentioned.

  4. Dear Professor,
    Once again Hats Off to you!
    It is amrvelous because that IWE essay is debateable. I am thinking of the same as your brilliant essay unmasked so many innovative aspects in IW[s]E. Thanks a lot for opening up the new venture which would definitely open the eyes towards it.

  5. the ironic proposition that India's best writing since independence may have been done in the language of the departed imperialists is simply too much for some folks to bear.”.....Is a very subjective statement by Rushdie....No matter what the medium..most of the writers would have a native, personal and very very indigenous expression, thought and story-telling...again, no matter what the medium of expression....English or any other foreign or alien language...

  6. We're off to a good start! And yet another side of your expertise and talents will surface and help others world-wide to see themselves in a better light and to improve themselves and the lives around them! Congratulations and best of luck to you!

  7. Very interesting!

  8. You have given an excellent summary of Indian writers in English. While some of them can be written off as tourist writings, they nevertheless have some value. For outsiders, they open a window to the minds of Indians.

    But all the writings in English by Indians are only the proverbial tip of an ice-burg in comparison with the quantity and quality of writings by vernacular writers of India. It is unfortunate that these wonderful writings are not accessible due to lack of translations to English and other Indian languages. It has been discovered recently that some ancient Tamil epics predates early Greek literature. One hopes that such masterpieces from all Indian languages are made accessible by translations.

  9. I have become aware within my own experience as an Australian and in the recent media about aus /Indian relations that there is an embarrassing lack of attention paid in our education system to the wealth of writing and factual data about India This needs addressing for the sake of good fellowship here in Australia with ethnic Indians(who just this weekend fielded an entire Indian Aus Rules football team for harmony day!) For this purpose I follow you and attempt to become more informed with Indian writing in particular her poets...

  10. I just visited your blog and read the essay. Fine
    My immediate reaction

    One. To me all those who left the homeland and crossed the seas and adopted a foreign country ARE NO MORE INDIANS. I am not proud of them as Indians. The media and some Indian writers extolled them and esteemed them high. Bullshit

    Two. I write in English, my English is Indian English different from any English of any country – British, Canadian, American, Jamaican, or any. Indian British English is dead, its dead body could be found in the archives of Indian administration and also in the pockets of certain IAS, IPS, IFS officers who are not dead and gone

    Three. Honestly I hate to hear the word in literature ‘post-colonialism. It is the product of archaic academicians. now common heritage of mankind. Indians write ABCD in Indian ink.

    Four. IWE. Why not that be IEW Indian English Writing. When you say Indian writing available in English is just like Indian made foreign liquor

    All the best

    I wish to publish your essay ‘scent of own ink
    J Kaval

    Editor - Publisher
    ║ Post Box 9705, Vidayaranyapura Post, Bangalore, Karnataka, India - 560097 ║ Ph. +91-80-23649154 ║ eMail: ║

  11. Amazingly narcissistic, Rushdie! All India's best writers live abroad!!!

    Could it have something to do with the publishing world that supports them there (and forces them to tune their writing for an audience that is not Indian at all) ???

    Who shouts loudest over the airwaves is the one who exists ;P

  12. Very interesting article. It's so informative. Definitely information worth filing for future reference.
    Looking forward to more from you.

  13. Prof. K. V. DominicMarch 25, 2010 at 6:30 AM

    Well done dear friend, Dr. Sarojini. It is a very relevant topic which every Indian English writer should ponder on. Literatures in the regional languages of India have always an upper hand over Indian English literature. But Indian English literature—literature created in one’s second language—should be encouraged and honoured rather than censured. The governments and publishers should promote this literature because only through this medium India can speak to the world; share her ideas, philosophies, traditions, ethos, cultures, emotions, dreams and beauties. Indian English literature deserves more encomium and consideration than English translations of Indian literature in regional languages because translations are thrice removed from the reality and beauty.
    --Prof. K. V. Dominic

  14. Congrats Dr Sarojini ji.
    As one involved in critically evaluating Indian writing in English I share many of your views.I co-edited a book with my good friend Jaydeep Sarangi' Indian Women's writing in English.'
    I follow your blog regularly.You energise essential Indian views.Thanks for your wonderful service.
    Prof.T.S.Chandra Mouli.

  15. IWE is essentially about Indians " thinking " in English. Those who do that are no different from the ones writing English worldwide.
    A good analysis here, I must say .
    I love your writings Dr Sarojini and look forward to seeing more of you in literary world.
    God Bless.

  16. Thank you for this essay; it opened a new perspective for me on Indian writers in English. My reading thus far is very limited but I have found each writer distinct. As an outsider, I do think their novels and plays do give me some sense of the complexity of Indian cultual traditions and history.

    There is one area that perhaps could also be explored--the form of giving different voices (characters) to move the novel along. I am thinking of "Sea of Poppies" and I think all the other books I have read. I noted that this is also a form used by Chinese Americans and other outsiders in the U.S. I had thought that it was a way to give voice to other members of the culture and to look at the complexity of the author's identity--both here and there and there and there.

  17. i am agree with J kaval and inspire her personilaty.

  18. Mam,I completely endorse all you have written about diasporic writers from Indian origin.
    The Indian subcontinent has been a focus of many diasporic writers all over the world. The nostalgia and a feeling of rootlessness bring them back to India in search of their past and roots. Many NRI’s have written about how they feel about India in their fiction and non fictional works .To name a few: V.S Naipaul, Sulman Rushdie, Bharti Mukherji, Anita Desai , Kiran Desai, Jumpa Lahiri and many others have written about India from either abroad or when they revisited India.
    There are critics who believe that these diasporic visions of India are more objective since they are not biased as they view it from a distance. It is very difficult to give an objective view of things when one is in middle of it. But on the contrary there is a diatribe of critics who are of the view that in order to truly depict India or for that matter any place there is a need to understand the very social fabric. One should be breathing in the apparatus of the whole cultural set up to be able to write about it most truthfully. This divide in the authenticity is further complicated when the diasporic writers are given a place of pride in world market either through the awards conferred on them or the wider audience they have.
    There appears to be a tension in the characters depicted in novels of diasporic writers. At one level the characters are struggling to be accepted in their new location ready to sever their previous ties on the other side there is an unconscious pull from what has been a part of their earlier foundation. This struggle doesn’t let them live complete lives. Their lives become fragmented. Taking a hint from the characters depicted in the diasporic novels it can be said that the India depicted in these novels is not complete. Only those aspects of India are highlighted which are in sharp contrast from the new place of location. The diasporic vision foregrounds the multitude, vibrancy, squalor, diversity and the ability of Indian people to live amidst all the chaos and still find a meaningful existence. India represents many worlds in one but their vision is only limited. A diasporic writer is unable to unfold a profound insight into the eternal India. And thus, the work of a diasporic writer stands in sharp contrast to the Indian novelist who sees India in terms of its spirituality as opposed to its reality. The diasporic writers who are informed by the western ways of life try to focus on the great developmental divide that they experience in the West. The primary concern in their novels seems to be about the exoticising India and its people. However they do not write with any contempt about India. But they still remain short of presenting its vastness and spiritual essence. Salman Rushdie is not able to relate to the true Indian sensibility of taking everything in its fold and is found making fun of the Indian culture.
    Limitations in depicting India notwithstanding the diasporic writers have tried to reinterpret India for the world.