How the Indian literati made the English language their very own

A History of Indian Literature in English
June 4, 2004

In the past decade, one writer of Indian descent (V. S. Naipaul) has won the Nobel prize for literature, another (Jhumpa Lahiri) a Pulitzer prize, another (Arundhati Roy) the Booker prize, and yet another (Salman Rushdie) the Booker of Bookers. In addition, the first Onassis prize for literature went to an Indian, while the youngest winner of the Hawthornden prize remains the Indian poet Dom Moraes, who won it at the age of 20. But with a population of more than 1 billion, some are likely to argue that Indians are bound to have more players in any field than most nations. However, English is not the only language that Indians live and work with, or produce literature in. English is just one of the 15 official languages of India, not to mention the countless dialects. And, having worked as an editor in the field of translated Indian literatures, I can confirm that regional Indian literatures thrive.

In coming to the story of Indian literature in English, one perceives how the colonial project in India came full circle: the arrival of the colonisers resulted in English education for the colonised, the repercussions of which led to the departure of the colonisers. If English made the British empire, it also unmade it. It led, too, to the start of a literary tradition that is brilliantly mapped by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and his co-contributors in A History of Indian Literature in English . For while some colonies attempted to do away with English after the departure of the British - such as Sri Lanka, which passed legislation in 1956 leading to its own isolation and, even worse, the civil strife that continues to this day - it was not so with India.

If anything, Gandhi and Nehru, India's first prime minister, are regarded as the most prolific contributors to the English literary tradition in India: combined, their published work exceeds 150 volumes. As Sunil Khilnani says in his exceptional essay on these two: "The erratic rhythms of politics, not writing, defined their lives. Yet no two Indians exemplified so vividly the extent to which politics is words - a way of structuring human relations through the fragile architecture of language... Gandhi and Nehru gave their countrymen the possibility of an equal conversation with their conquerors." When Gandhi was asked by Mulk Raj Anand, one of the pioneering novelists in English, if it was acceptable to write in English, he replied: "The purpose of writing is to communicate, isn't it? If so, say your say in any language that comes to hand." So they did.

Such 20th-century literary achievements grew out of a rich 19th-century literature. Some of the early writers in English were remarkable not merely for their self-assertion in a new language, but for their achievements in several.

The first Indian writer in English, the scholar and reformer Raja Rammohan Ray, also wrote in Bengali, Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic. India's first modern poet in English, Toru Dutt, had published an anthology of 173 French poems in English translation by the time of her death aged 21, besides leaving behind a complete French novel. Rudyard Kipling, who was born in India and of whom it has been said that he not only wrote about India but belonged to it, dreamed in Hindustani and had to be reminded to speak to his parents in English.

Continuing, the Parsi reformer and writer Behramji Malabari was sustained in his reforms for women by the enduring image of his dying mother, a victim of poverty and early widowhood. His greatest achievement was the Age of Consent Act, which he compelled a reluctant bureaucracy to pass. The mystical philosopher Sri Aurobindo was the first Indian to produce a major corpus of work almost entirely in English - not surprising, given that he was educated at St Paul's School, London, and King's College, Cambridge, and was not permitted to learn his mother tongue until much later in life.

And, soon after arriving in London, one early Indian poet lost his attaché case bearing his manuscripts, on the Underground. The case appeared at the left luggage office the next day. He showed his poems to the painter William Rothenstein who, overwhelmed by their quality, passed them on to Yeats. The poet was Tagore, who soon afterwards won the Nobel prize for his English translation of his Gitanjali . Contrary to an early verdict, Indo-Anglian literature was more than "Matthew Arnold in a sari".

Mehrotra's book brings the subject up to the present post-Rushdie generation. There are essays devoted to a single author (Tagore and R. K. Narayan, among others), to a group of authors (the writers of the Indian diaspora), and to a genre ("The beginnings of the Indian novel", "Poetry since independence"). With the editor stipulating that critical jargon be kept to a minimum, we get lucid accounts that translate the knowledge and involvement of the specialist into something interesting and valuable to the non-specialist. The book thereby answers what K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar, a pioneer in the field, called for in the preface to the second edition of his Indian Writing in English : "In a desultory and intermittent activity spread over forty years, II have been engaged in this... garnering of Indian writing in English. I hope some day a team of dedicated scholars, sustained for a long enough period by adequate grants, would be able to produce a truly authoritative history of this literature... mine has been almost exclusively an individualist adventure, with all the incidental drawbacks... but perhaps also with the advantages of a single sensibility (however imperfect) covering the entire field."

Iyengar was right that there are certain advantages to any study that is shaped by one sensibility. A strength of Mehrotra's History is that each contributor reveals a certain a sense of individual involvement, but this also contains a minor drawback: it leads to the repetition at the start of many chapters of the British agenda for English education in India, as well as the repetition of certain anecdotes. Also, the essay on translations fails to mention the leading publisher in the field - Katha. However, these defects might easily be overcome in further editions. For this book is one of the most engaging histories of the field, with its accessibility in no way impaired by its attention to detail.

Almost 50 years ago, an article in The Times Literary Supplement entitled "England is abroad" pointed out that "the centre of gravity" of English literature had shifted and, "while we are busy consolidating", a brand-new English literature would appear "in Johannesburg or Sydney or Vancouver or Madras". A History of Indian Literature in English captures a moment within that shift, marked by linguistic multiplicity and miscegenation, resulting in a literary culture that allows a Bangalore-based playwright in English, Mahesh Dattani, when asked by a journalist why he does not write in his own language, to reply: "I do."

Dipli Saikia holds a PhD in postcolonial literature from Bristol University.

A History of Indian Literature in English

Editor - Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
Publisher - Hurst
Pages - 406
Price - £45.00 and £16.50
ISBN - 1 85065 680 0and 681 9

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