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.