South Asian Long Fiction Analysis


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The Indian subcontinent, or what geographers call South Asia, includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan. Though world leaders can change borders and create new political entities, they cannot persuade men and women of letters to observe such artificial boundaries. Thus, even though she is not an Indian in the narrow sense of the word but “technically Pakistani,” a writer such as Bapsi Sidhwa is included in Mirrorwork: Fifty Years of Indian Writing, 1947-1997 (1997). As coeditor Salman Rushdie explains, “This anthology has no need of Partitions”; indeed, he recognizes Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy-Man (1988), published in the United States as Cracking India (1991), as a valuable re-creation of “the horror of the division of the subcontinent.”

Even if political divisions are disregarded, however, there are other issues confronting any student of South Asian long fiction. One is how to deal with the many worthwhile novels and short stories written in the vernacular. Since there are fourteen major languages in the state of India alone, it is obvious that if these works are to receive the general recognition they deserve, they must be translated into English. Though there are objections to the use of a colonial language for such purposes, they are outweighed by practical considerations and even broad social benefits. In their introduction to The Penguin New Writing in India (1995), editors Aditya Behl and David Nicholls express their belief that such translations will enable people long separated by language to come to a better understanding of other cultures, thus enabling them to interact more successfully in what has always been a multicultural and multilingual society.

The fact that so many South Asians are choosing English as the language in which they express themselves has also dismayed some critics. However, these writers evidently feel more comfortable in English than in the vernacular, and they are well aware that works written in English will be more likely to reach readers throughout the world. They may also point out literary precedents early in the nineteenth century.

English in India

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Two years before Thomas Babington Macaulay introduced his famous “Minute” on English education in India (1835), Raja Rammohan Ray, one of several Indian writers who were using the English language successfully even before compulsory English education was officially introduced to India, died in Bristol. It was Macaulay who insisted that all funds appropriated for education in India be set aside for English education alone. In insisting on English education in India, Macaulay was recognizing that Indians could use English advantageously. In fact, he praised the linguistic competence of the people he knew, describing the town natives as “quite competent to discuss political or scientific questions with fluency and precision in the English language.” Macaulay also recognized that the use of English opened up a vast information source and audience to the Indians. Thus, an empire was built not only for the British but also for modern Indian writers, providing them with both a form and an audience.

Before Macaulay, Christian missionaries had been teaching English in schools and colleges around the country. Indians, for their part, were eager to obtain a Western education and link people in their nation with the changing world. By the early part of the nineteenth century, Indian literary activity in English had already begun. Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1807-1831), Kasiprasad Ghose (1809-1873), Michael Madhusudhan Dutt (1824-1873), and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-1894) were some of the early Indians to use English for their creative and social purposes. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, educated Indians were using English for all purposes, from mundane government work to poetry.

Today, English has become a naturalized member of the citizenry of Indian languages. Along with Hindi, it is used throughout India, unlike other Indian languages. Jawaharlal Nehru, in...

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The Indian tradition

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Ancient Indian manuscripts written on bhurjapatra, or palm leaves, are for the most part lost, extant only in Chinese and Tibetan translations that testify to their previous existence. Excluding well-known works—such as the epic poetry of the Rmyana (c. 350 b.c.e.), Mahbhrata (c. fifth century b.c.e.), and Bhagavad Gita (c. fifth century b.c.e.) and the Sanskrit drama of Kalidasa and the critical work on drama Ntya-stra (c. 100 c.e.)—a whole body of short works of fiction exists. Their origins can be dated to the Jtakas (birth stories), the Buddhist tales that describe the cultural encounter between the indigenous Dravidians and the Aryans. In the popular Sanskrit literature, drama reigned supreme.

The tales from the epics were dramatized on festival days. This was so until the Muslim invasion of the twelfth century c.e., and under the Moguls, Persian literature was dominant. An Indian critical tradition, however, remained significant in the shaping of the literary tradition. Drawing upon the critical theory in the Ntya-stra of the concepts of rasa (meaning) and dhwani (undertones or poetic language), Indian literature has always been preoccupied with poetic expression to the detriment of the development of prose and prose fiction. Tracing the growth of Indian literature from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, Nehru noted in his Discovery of India (1946) that popular literatures in Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Urdu, Tamil, and Telugu were developing an oral tradition. With the use of the printing press, some of these orally transmitted epics and collections were documented. Nehru notes, however, that these works were in the form of memorizable songs and collections of poems. Hence, it was not until the early Christian missionaries brought English and English education to India that a canon of fiction developed.

The Indian novel

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By the 1920’s, English education in India was all-pervasive, and by the end of the nineteenth century, English literature held sway over the Indian imagination. Nevertheless, the Indians trained under Rammohan Ray’s system of English education in India were not simply to remain Baboos and clerks in British government offices. Their newly acquired language found expression in creativity in a newly learned form. The ancient traditions of the oral epic tales came together with Scott’s serialized, romantic Waverley: Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since (1814) to found the annals of a new Rama Katha (epic of Rama). The traditional story of the adventures of the Hindu deity Rama, told night after night by the village elder at the local temple, was transformed, in the nineteenth century Indian literary tradition, into nationalist Indian novels written sometimes in English and sometimes in the vernacular, largely about the oppression of the poor by the middle class and the British. These novels sometimes described situations related to tyrannical customs, sati, arranged marriages, and child marriages; sometimes, however, as in the work of Tagore, they merely evoked sentimentality for Indian mysticism.

Because Bengal was the first geographic region to come in contact with the British, the first Indian novel was written in Bengali—a distinction customarily granted to Bhudeva Chandra Mukherjee’s Anguriya Binimoy (1857). Chatterjee’s Raj Mohan’s Wife was serialized in 1864 in the fashion of Scott’s novels. Lal Behari Day’s Govinda Samantha (1874) is a documentary of peasant life in Bengal. The zamindar professed interest in the lives of the peasants; Day described his novel as a “plain and unvarnished tale of a plain peasant living in the plain country of Bengaltold in a plain manner.” The story of the peasant Govinda and his exploits with a moneylender, Govinda Samantha is the first in a long tradition, culminating in Munshi Prem Chand’s social-realist Godn (1936; Gift of a Cow, 1968), to describe the oppression of peasants by feudal lords. Govinda and his relative Kalamanik attempt to pay off a debt to the zamindar, who responds by levying a new tax against them and falsely charging them with having borrowed money, in order to keep them indebted to him. When they refuse to pay him, their homes are burned. In the midst of this story of oppression, Day describes the famine of 1873, thus depicting the poverty and the uncertainty that characterize Indian agriculture to this day.

In fin de siècle Indian...

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The development of the Indo-English novel

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The tradition of the Indo-English novel took deep root during the early twentieth century. K. S. Venkatramani (1892-1952), whose long poem On the Sand Dunes (1923) was highly derivative of Tagore’s Gitanjali (Song Offerings), was more original as a novelist. His Murugan, the Tiller (1927) and Kandan, the Patriot(1932) were harbingers of the realism that was to mark Indian literature during what in Indian history is called the Gandhian era (1920-1947). World War I had replaced fin de siècle Romanticism and Georgian effusions with a new idiom and new role models that the Indian writers were soon to imitate. The war also brought to India an awareness of socioeconomic problems and of the British...

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“Indianizing” English

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At the same time, mindful of the nationalism at home and of the general call to abandon English from their daily lives, most Indian writers, whose only medium of expression in some cases may have been English, responded with efforts to “Indianize” the English language. In 1938, Raja Rao’s preface to Kanthapura expressed the problem of conveying through English the speech and thought patterns of a people whose language was not English. In Kanthapura, an oral tale of the coming of Gandhism told by an old crone to her village, Rao (1908-2006) attempted to capture the rhythms of Indian speech in English. Told in the lyric, lilting voice of the village crone, Kanthapura gave the English language a new...

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Dual perspectives

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The same prejudices that motivated the attacks on Narayan and other writers of his generation are evident in the critical response to later writers. Typical is the case of Kamala Markandaya (1924-2004), who wrote with a solid command of the English language. Could this be a sign of alienation? Markandaya’s situation was particularly disconcerting to the critics. Married to an Englishman, she wrote about India from abroad, with a perspective identified as Western. Her fiction often depicts the difference between the Eastern and Western views of life, as in Nectar in a Sieve (1954), Some Inner Fury (1955), A Handful of Rice (1966), The Coffer Dams (1969), Two Virgins (1973), and...

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Style and subject

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Because of the critical emphasis on theme and subject matter, the question among the new generation of Indian novelists of the 1960’s and the 1970’s was not, Should we use English? or How can we Indianize English? but rather, How best can we use the English language to reflect our society and culture? Manohar Malgonkar (born 1913) and Nayantara Sahgal (born 1927), for example, both experimented in form and structure, but they did not do so at the expense of their subject matter. Many of Malgonkar’s novels, including Distant Drum (1960), Combat of Shadows (1962), The Princes (1963), and A Bend in the Ganges (1964), deal with the transition from British colonialism to Indian nationalism. Life...

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Fiction in the vernacular

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The development of fiction in the vernacular most clearly demonstrates the imitative tendency among Indian writers. There has been a continual imitation of European trends from the social realism of the 1930’s in Munshi Prem Chand’s writing to the self-consciously modernist idiom, not only in English but also in its translated forms in the vernacular and the self-consciously experimental forms of fiction such as that published in Matrubhumi (Malayalam), Dharmayug (Hindi), and similar literary magazines.

Like Anand, Prem Chand (1880-1936), the best-known and one of the most respected Hindi writers, began with the romanticized socialist themes of the previous generation of European writers. His...

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Gandhi and Gandhism

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Ironically, the best and perhaps the only Indian nationalist fiction appeared in English. Rao celebrated Gandhi in Kanthapura, while Narayan dealt with him in the lighthearted, humorous Waiting for the Mahatma. Anand’s trilogy The Sword and the Sickle depicts the turbulence of the Quit India movement, and Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan (1955) documents the immense violence of the partition of India and Pakistan. A well-known Marathi writer, Prabhakar Machwe, however, notes that Gandhi seems to have failed to provide inspiration for those writing in the vernacular. In his Four Decades of Indian Literature: A Critical Evaluation (1976), Machwe recalls, Gandhi’s non-violent and...

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Vernacular fiction after independence

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It was after independence and the call to abandon the “imperialist” yoke of English that fiction in the vernaculars began to struggle to make some advancements. In its nationalist impulse, however, it quickly turned to European models. P. Lal, in his review “Contemporary Hindi Fiction” (in The Concept of an Indian Literature, 1968), notes the influences of Jean-Paul Sartre, Søren Kierkegaard, and particularly Sigmund Freud. Freudian themes, symbols, and impulses permeate Hindi fiction, particularly of the magazines—Lal recalls the celebration of the sesquicentennial of Kierkegaard’s birth by a popular Hindi literary magazine. The impulse toward European modernism rather than toward an experimental idiom that...

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Trends at the end of the twentieth century

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At the end of the twentieth century, the fiction of the Indian subcontinent had not yet found a voice and a method of its own. Critics and authors alike seemed uncertain as to how they might rekindle the techniques and values of India’s ancient tradition, how to come to terms with its mixture of cultures and languages without allowing one of them to become dominant, and how to move away from Eurocentric models and criticism while still aiming at high standards and at the communication of universal values. One fact was obvious: The only literary works that could reach an audience throughout the entire subcontinent were those either written in English or translated into English. It was also evident that the English language alone...

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Women writers, women’s lives

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Intolerance and injustice based on ethnic and religious differences were not the only targets of postindependence South Asian fiction. There had been hints of a demand for women’s rights in Indian literature as early as the 1930’s. For example, in his atypical novel The Dark Room, R. K. Narayan told the story of a devoted Hindu wife driven into rebellion by her husband’s infidelity but helpless to make good her escape. In the second half of the twentieth century, the drive for Indian independence, the worldwide feminist movement, and the proliferation of women writers combined to make women’s issues one of the dominant subjects in South Asian fiction. It is significant that the protagonists of five of the novels...

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The diaspora

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Twentieth and twenty-first century South Asian fiction also reflects the effects of the diaspora from the Indian subcontinent, usually motivated by the hope of a better life but often resulting in a profound sense of alienation. In an early novel, Wife (1975), Bharati Mukherjee (born 1940) shows the tragic results when a young Indian woman is married to a stranger and transported to the United States, where she is supposed to act the part of an obedient Indian wife, ignoring the fascinating world around her. It is hardly surprising that she retreats into a fantasy world and eventually explodes into madness. Mukherjee’s novel Desirable Daughters (2002) and its sequel, The Tree Bride (2004), are narrated...

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A new cosmopolitanism

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South Asian writers, too, are involved in the diaspora from their subcontinent. For years, promising students have attended universities in Great Britain or the United States, but more and more writers have either made their homes outside of the subcontinent or divided their time among various countries. Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Anjana Appachana, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and Bapsi Sidhwa moved to the United States, while Kamala Markandaya and Salman Rushdie relocated to Great Britain. Gita Mehta moves among the United States, England, and India; Anita Desai moves between the United States and the United Kingdom; and Vikram Seth (born 1952), author of the monumental work A Suitable Boy (1993) and An...

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Arya, Sushma, and Shalini Sikka, eds. New Concerns: Voices in Indian Writing. New Delhi: Macmillan India, 2006. Collection of critical papers explores the opportunities and challenges presented to Indian authors who write in English. Includes discussion of both resident and expatriate writers.

Behl, Aditya, and David Nicholls, eds. The Penguin New Writing in India. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. Anthology of poetry and prose originally written in thirteen different languages, including English, features new and relatively unknown Indian writers. Published originally in 1992 as a special issue of the Chicago Review....

(The entire section is 499 words.)