Return of the native writers

Handbook of Twentieth-Century Literatures of India
December 26, 1997

In a double issue of The New Yorker published last June, Salman Rushdie posited that Indian literature written in English since independence, was "proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 18 'recognised' languages of India". At such a time, Nalini Natarajan's Handbook of Twentieth Century Literatures of India brings encouraging news for regional-language literatures. In 16 alphabetically arranged chapters from "Assamese literature" to "Indian literature in English" and including "Parsi Literature" and "Bengali Literature and Film", in addition to a chapter on Bengali literature, the contributors to this edited volume survey 20th-century developments in the regional-language literatures and most of the literary/artistic production of post-independence India.

There is a wealth of information here which could be useful to researchers and students embarking on new areas of Indian literatures. Early literature such as that of the Maharashtrian Saint Poets, Dnyaneshwari, Namdev and Eknath, the Sangam literature of Kerala, the 12th-century literature of Telugu are all covered.

However, the format is not uniform. The Punjabi writers Baba Farid (15th century) and Madho Lal Hussein (who wrote Punjabi in the Persian script), are not mentioned. The chapters on Marathi, Gujarati, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada rely on scholarship on the early classical writers, thus fulfilling Rushdie's claim that "the true Indian literature of the first post-colonial half century has been made in the language the British left behind".

Urdu and Punjabi writers of the late 19th and 20th centuries are nicely contextualised in social and literary movements such as the Aligarh movement, the Khilafat movement, and the Singh Sabha movement. Iqbal is linked with Hali and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Major writers who receive substantial treatment include Vijay Tendulkar and his play in Marathi, Silence! The Court is in Session, the Hindi writers Balraj Sahni, Bhisam Sahni whose work Tamas (about the 1947 partition) created a furore in India when televised, K. A. Abbas, Kannada writer Girish Karnad, and the Parsi and Gujarati-language dramatists Faredoon and Jehangir Marazaban. These are all writers who remain in the shadow of the very few regional-language writers known in the West - Tagore, Prem Chand and Mahasweta Devi.

The chapter on "Indian literature in English" troubled me the most, with its familiar names, dates and quotations and its reference to "twice-born" writers and to the current generation of Indian-English writers as "midnight's children". Indian literary critics need to break out of such repetitious, mantric incantations.

The new twice-told tale is that of "binary oppositions" of English versus regional-language literatures and their "historical trajectories", theorised by Aijaz Ahmed and invoked by Natarajan and Nandi Bhatia.

The complaint about colonialism is particularly ironic as each chapter mentions the contribution of westerners to developing or printing the regional literatures. Christian missionaries helped create an Assamese grammar and journal. Alexander Forbes began the Gujerat Vernacular Society. J. B. Gilchrist started a group of Hindi writers at Fort William College, Calcutta. Thomas Penn inspired the Dalit writer Phule.

Overall, the book fills a gap in contemporary Indian criticism. But consistent citation of all sources would have made it more useful, as would the listing of works available in the West.

Feroza Jussawalla is professor of English, University of Texas at El Paso, United States.

Handbook of Twentieth-Century Literatures of India

Editor - Nalini Natarajan
ISBN - 0 313 28778 3
Publisher - Greenwood Press
Price - £67.95
Pages - 440

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