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India and world literature

Print edition : Aug 09, 1997 T+T-

On the map of world literature, India has been undersized for too long; that age of obscurity is coming to an end.

I ONCE gave a reading to a gathering of university students in Delhi and when I'd finished a young woman put up her hand. "Mr. Rushdie, I read through your novel, Midnight's Children," she said. "It is a very long book, but never mind, I read it through. And the question I want to ask you is this: fundamentally, what's your point?"

Before I could attempt an answer, she spoke again. "Oh, I know what you're going to say. You're going to say that the whole effort - from cover to cover - that is the point of the exercise. Isn't that what you were going to say?"

"Something like that, perhaps..." I got out.She snorted. "It won't do."

"Please," I begged, "do I have to have just one point?"

"Fundamentally," she said, with impressive firmness, "yes."

SO here, once again, is a very long book; and though it is not a novel, but an anthology selected from the best Indian writing of the half-century since the country's Independence, still one could easily say of the work contained in the next 600-odd pages that the whole collective effort, from cover to cover, is the point of the exercise. Fifty years of work, by four generations of writers, is impossible to summarise, especially when it hails from that huge crowd of a country (close to a billion people at the last count), that vast, metamorphic, continent-sized culture that feels, to Indians and visitors alike, like a non-stop assault on the senses, the emotions, the imagination and the spirit. Put India in the Atlantic Ocean and it would reach from Europe to America; put India and China together and you've got almost half the population of the world. It's high time Indian literature got itself noticed, and it's started happening. New writers seem to emerge every few weeks. Their work is as multiform as the place, and readers who care about the vitality of literature will find at least some of these voices saying something they want to hear. However, my Delhi interrogator may be pleased to hear that this large and various survey turns out to be making, fundamentally, just one - perhaps rather surprising - point.

This is it: the prose writing - both fiction and non-fiction - created in this period by Indian writers working in English, is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 16 "official languages" of India, the so-called "vernacular languages", during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, "Indo-Anglian" literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books.

It is a large claim, and while it may be easy for Western readers to accept it (after all, few non-English-language Indian writers, other than the Nobel laureate Tagore, have ever made much of an impact on world literature), it runs counter to much of the received critical wisdom within India itself. It is also not a claim which, when we set out on the enormous and rewarding task of doing the reading for this book, we ever expected to make. The task we set ourselves was simply to make the best possible selection from what is presently available in the English language, including, obviously, work in translation. To our considerable astonishment, only one translated text - S. H. Manto's masterpiece, the short story "Toba Tek Singh" - made the final cut.

Two qualifications should be made at once. First, there has long been a genuine problem of translation in India - not only into English but between the vernacular languages - and it is possible that good writers have been excluded by reason of their translators' inadequacies rather than their own. Nowadays, however, such bodies as the Indian Sahitya Akademi and UNESCO have been putting their resources into the creation of better translations, and the problem, while not eradicated, is certainly much diminished. And second: while it was impossible, for reasons of space, to include a representative selection of modern Indian poetry, it was evident to us that the rich poetic traditions of India continued to flourish in many of the sub-continent's languages, whereas the English-language poets, with a few distinguished exceptions (Arun Kolatkar, A. K. Ramanujan, Jayanta Mahapatra, to name just three), did not match the quality of their counterparts in prose.

Those who wish to argue with the conclusion we have drawn may suspect that we did not read enough. But we have read as widely and deeply as we could. Others may feel that, as one of the editors is English and the other a practising English-language writer of Indian origin, we are simply betraying our own cultural and linguistic prejudices, or defending our turf or - even worse - gracelessly blowing our own trumpet. It is of course true that any anthology worth its salt will reflect the judgments and tastes of its editors. I can only say that our tastes are pretty catholic and our minds, I hope, have been open. We have made our choices, and stand by them.

(As to the inclusion here of work by one S. Rushdie, the decision was taken with some unease; but Midnight's Children is undeniably a part of the story of these 50 years, and we decided, in the end, that leaving it out would be a weirder decision than putting it in. After its publication, I learned that the idea of a long saga-novel about a child born at the exact moment of Independence - midnight, August 14-15, 1947, had occurred to other writers, too. A Goan poet showed me the first chapter of an abandoned novel in which the "midnight child" was born not in Bombay, but in Goa. And as I travelled round India, I heard of at least two other aborted projects, one in Bengali, the other in Kannada, with pretty similar themes. I just had the good fortune to finish my book first.)

The lack of first-rate writing in translation can only be a matter for regret. However, to speak more positively, it is a delight to be able to showcase the quality of a growing collective oeuvre whose status has long been argued over, but which has, in the last 20 years or so, begun to merit a place alongside the most flourishing literatures in the world.

For some, English-language Indian writing will never be more than a post-colonial anomaly, the bastard child of Empire, sired on India by the departing British; its continuing use of the old colonial tongue is seen as a fatal flaw that renders it forever inauthentic. "Indo-Anglian" literature evokes, in these critics, the kind of prejudiced reaction shown by some Indians towards the country's community of "Anglo-Indians" - that is, Eurasians.

In the half-century since Jawaharlal Nehru spoke, in English, the great "freedom at midnight" speech that marked the moment of Independence, the role of English itself has often been disputed in India. Attempts in India's continental shelf of languages to coin medical, scientific, technological and everyday neologisms to replace the commonly-used English words sometimes succeeded, but more often comically failed. And when the Marxist Government of West Bengal announced in the mid-1980s that the supposedly elitist, colonialist teaching of English would be discontinued in government-run primary schools, many on the Left denounced the decision itself as elitist, as it would deprive the masses of the many economic and social advantages of speaking the world's language; only the affluent private-school elite would henceforth have that privilege. A well-known Calcutta graffito complained, My son won't learn English. Your son won't learn English. But Jyoti Basu (the Chief Minister) will send his son abroad to learn English. One man's ghetto of privilege is another's road to freedom.

Like the Greek god Dionysos, who was dismembered and afterwards reassembled - and who, according to the myths, was one of India's earliest conquerors - Indian writing in English has been called "twice-born" (by the critic Meenakshi Mukherjee) to suggest its double parentage. While I am, I must admit, attracted by the Dionysian resonances of this supposedly double birth, it seems to me to rest on the false premise that English, having arrived from outside India, is and must necessarily remain an alien there. But my own mother-tongue, Urdu, the camp-argot of the country's earlier Muslim conquerors, became a naturalised sub-continental language long ago; and by now that has happened to English, too. English has become an Indian language. Its colonial origins mean that, like Urdu and unlike all other Indian languages, it has no regional base; but in all other ways, it has emphatically come to stay.

(In many parts of South India, people will prefer to converse with visiting North Indians in English rather than Hindi, which feels, ironically, more like a colonial language to speakers of Tamil, Kannada or Malayalam than does English, which has acquired, in the South, an aura of lingua franca cultural neutrality. The new Silicon Valley-style boom in computer technology that is transforming the economies of Bangalore and Madras has made English, in those cities, an even more important language than before.)

Indian English, sometimes unattractively called "Hinglish", is not "English" English, to be sure, any more than Irish or American or Caribbean English is. And it is a part of the achievement of the writers in this volume to have found literary voices as distinctively Indian, and also as suitable for any and all of the purposes of art, as those other Englishes forged in Ireland, Africa, the West Indies and the United States.

However, Indian critical assaults on this new literature continue. Its practitioners are denigrated for being too upper-middle-class; for lacking diversity in their choice of themes and techniques; for being less popular in India than outside India; for possessing inflated reputations on account of the international power of the English language, and of the ability of Western critics and publishers to impose their cultural standards on the East; for living, in many cases, outside India; for being deracinated to the point that their work lacks the spiritual dimension essential for a "true" understanding of the soul of India; for being insufficiently grounded in the ancient literary traditions of India; for being the literary equivalent of MTV culture, of globalising Coca-Colonisation; even, I'm sorry to report, for suffering from a condition that one sprightly recent commentator, Pankaj Mishra, calls "Rushdie-itis ... (a) condition that has claimed Rushdie himself in his later works."

It is interesting that so few of these criticisms are literary in the pure sense of the word. For the most part they do not deal with language, voice, psychological or social insight, imagination or talent. Rather, they are about class, power and belief. There is a whiff of political correctness about them: the ironical 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. It ought not to be true, and so must not be permitted to be true. (That many of the attacks on English-language Indian writing are made in English by writers who are themselves members of the college-educated, English-speaking elite is a further irony.)

Let us quickly concede what must be conceded. It is true that most of these writers come from the educated classes of India; but in a country still bedevilled by high illiteracy levels, how could it be otherwise? It does not follow, however - unless one holds to a rigid, class-war view of the world - that writers with the privilege of a good education will automatically write novels that seek only to portray the lives of the bourgeoisie. It is true that there tends to be a bias towards metropolitan and cosmopolitan fiction, but, as this volume will demonstrate, there has been, during this half-century, a genuine attempt to encompass as many Indian realities as possible, rural as well as urban, sacred as well as profane. This is also, let us remember, a young literature. It is still pushing out the frontiers of the possible.

The point about the power of the English language, and of the Western publishing and critical fraternities, also contains some truth. Perhaps it does seem, to some "home" commentators, that a canon is being foisted on them from outside. The perspective from the West is rather different. Here, what seems to be the case is that Western publishers and critics have been growing gradually more and more excited by the voices emerging from India; in England at least, British writers are often chastised by reviewers for their lack of Indian-style ambition and verve. It feels as if the East is imposing itself on the West, rather than the other way around. And, yes, English is the most powerful medium of communication in the world; should we not then rejoice at these artists' mastery of it, and their growing influence? To criticise writers for their success at "breaking out" is no more than parochialism (and parochialism is perhaps the main vice of the vernacular literatures). One important dimension of literature is that it is a means of holding a conversation with the world. These writers are ensuring that India, or rather, Indian voices (for they are too good to fall into the trap of writing nationalistically), will henceforth be confident, indispensable participants in that literary conversation.

Granted, many of these writers do have homes outside India. Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Doris Lessing, Mavis Gallant, James Baldwin, Henry James, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Muriel Spark, were or are wanderers, too. Muriel Spark, accepting the British Literature Prize for a lifetime's achievement in March 1997, went so far as to say that travel to other countries was essential for all writers. Literature has little or nothing to do with a writer's home address.

The question of religious faith, both as a subject and an approach to a subject, is clearly important when we speak of a country as bursting with devotions as India; but it is surely excessive to use it, as does one leading academic, the redoubtable Professor C. D. Narasimhaiah, as a touchstone, so that Mulk Raj Anand is praised for his "daring" merely because, as a leftist writer, he allows a character to be moved by deep faith, while Arun Kolatkar's poetry is denigrated for "throwing away tradition and creating a vacuum" and so "losing relevance", because in Jejuri, a cycle of poems about a visit to a temple town, he sceptically likens the stone gods in the temples to the stones on the hillsides nearby ("and every other stone/is god or his cousin"). I hope readers of this anthology will agree that many of the writers gathered here have profound knowledge of the "soul of India"; many have deeply spiritual concerns, while others are radically secular, but the need to engage with, to make a reckoning with, India's religious self is everywhere to be found.

In the end, the writing gathered here will either justify, or fail to justify, our claims for it. What is unquestionable is that the cheapening of artistic response implied by the allegations of deracination and Westernisation is notably absent from these writers' work. As to the claims of excessive Rushdie-itis, I can't deny that I've on occasion felt something of the sort myself. On the whole, however, it seems to be a short-lived virus, and those whom it affects soon shake it off and find their own, true voices.

In my own case, and I suspected in the case of every writer in this volume as well, knowing and loving the Indian languages in which I was raised has remained of vital importance. As an individual, Hindi-Urdu, the "Hindustani" of North India, remains an essential aspect of my sense of self: as a writer, I have been partly formed by the presence, in my head, of that other music, the rhythms, patterns and habits of thought and metaphor of my Indian tongues. What I am saying is that there is not, need not be, should not be, an adversarial relationship between English-language literature and the other literatures of India. We drink from the same well. India, that inexhaustible horn of plenty, nourishes us all.

IRONICALLY, the century before Independence contains many vernacular language writers who would merit a place in any anthology: Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, Mirza Ghalib, Bibhutibhushan Banerjee (the author of Pather Panchali, on which Satyajit Ray based his celebrated Apu Trilogy of films), and Premchand, the prolific (and therefore rather variable) Hindi author of, among many others, the famous novel of rural life Godaan, or The Gift of a Cow. Those who wish to seek out their leading present-day successors should try, for example, O. V. Vijayan (Malayalam), Suryakant Tripathi Nirala (Hindi), Nirmal Verma (Hindi), U. R. Ananthamurthy (Kannada), Suresh Joshi (Gujarati), Amrita Pritam (Punjabi), Qurratulain Haider (Urdu) or Ismat Chughtai (Urdu), and make their own assessments.

The first Indian novel in English was a dud. Rajmohan's Wife (1864) is a poor melodramatic thing. The writer, Bankim, reverted to Bengali and immediately achieved great renown. For 70 years or so there was no English-language fiction of any quality. It was the generation of Independence, "midnight's parents", one might call them, who were the true architects of this new tradition (Jawaharlal Nehru himself was a fine writer.) Of these, Mulk Raj Anand was influenced by both Joyce and Marx but most of all, perhaps, by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. Raja Rao, a scholarly Sanskritist, wrote determinedly of the need to make an Indian English for himself, but even his much-praised portrait of village life, Kanthapura, seems dated, its approach at once grandiloquent and archaic. The autobiographer Nirad C. Chaudhuri has been, throughout his long life, an erudite, contrary and mischievous presence. His view, if I may paraphrase and summarise it, is that India has no culture of its own, and that whatever we now call Indian culture was brought in from outside by the successive waves of conquerors. This view, polemically and brilliantly expressed, has not endeared him to many of his fellow-Indians. That he has always swum so strongly against the current has not, however, prevented The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian from being recognised as the masterpiece it is.

The most significant writers of this first generation, R. K. Narayan and G. V. Desani, have had opposite careers. Narayan's books fill a good-sized shelf; Desani is the author of a single work of fiction, All About H. Hatterr, and that singleton volume is already fifty years old. Desani is almost unknown, while R. K. Narayan is, of course, a figure of world stature, for his creation of the imaginary town of Malgudi, so lovingly made that it has become more vividly real to us than most real places. (But Narayan's realism is leavened by touches of legend; the river Sarayu, on whose shores the town sits, is one of the great rivers of Hindu mythology. It is as if William Faulkner had set his Yoknapatawpha County on the banks of the Styx.)

Narayan shows us, over and over again, the quarrel between traditional, static India on the one hand, and modernity and progress, on the other; represented, in many of his stories and novels, by a confrontation between a "wimp" and a "bully" - The Painter of Signs and his aggressive beloved with her birth control campaign; The Vendor of Sweets and the emancipated American daughter-in-law with the absurd "novel writing machine"; the mild-mannered printer and the extrovert taxidermist in The Man-Eater of Malgudi. In his gentle, lightly funny art, he goes to the heart of the Indian condition, and beyond it, into the human condition itself.

The writer I have placed alongside Narayan, G. V. Desani, has fallen so far from favour that the extraordinary All About H. Hatterr is presently out of print everywhere, even in India. Milan Kundera once said that all modern literature descends from either Richardson's Clarissa or Sterne's Tristram Shandy, and if Narayan is India's Richardson then Desani is his Shandean other. Hatterr's dazzling, puzzling, leaping prose is the first genuine effort to go beyond the Englishness of the English language. His central figure, "fifty-fifty of the species", the half-breed as unabashed anti-hero, leaps and capers behind many of the texts in this book. Hard to imagine I. Allan Sealy's Trotter-Nama without Desani. My own writing, too, learned a trick or two from him.

The beauty of Nayantara Sahgal's memoir Prison and Chocolate Cake is paralleled by the liveliness and grace of her fiction; while Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve is a justly renowned study of village life.

Ved Mehta is represented here by a part of Vedi, his memoir of a blind boyhood that describes cruelties and kindnesses with equal dispassion and great effect. (More recently, Firdaus Kanga, in his autobiographical fiction, has also transcended physical affliction with high style and genuine comic brio.)

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has written so many fine short stories that it has been hard to choose just one. As a writer, she is sometimes under-rated in India because, I think, the voice of the rootless intellectual (so quintessentially her voice) is such an unfamiliar one in that country where people's self-definitions are so rooted in their regional identities. That Ruth Jhabvala has a second career as an award-winning screenwriter is well known. But not many people realise that India's greatest film director, the late Satyajit Ray, was also an accomplished author of short stories. His father edited a famous Bengali children's magazine, Sandesh, and Ray's biting little fables, such as our selection, "Big Bill", are made more potent by their childlike charm.

Anita Desai is one of India's major living authors. Her novel In Custody, perhaps her best to date, finely uses English to depict the decay of another language, Urdu, and the high literary culture which lived in it. Here the poet, the last, boozing, decrepit custodian of the dying tradition, is (in a reversal of Narayan) the "bully"; and the novel's central character, the poet's young admirer Deven, is the "wimp". The dying past, the old world, Desai tells us, can be as much of a burden as the awkward, sometimes wrong-headed present. Her story in this anthology, Games at Twilight, is, like the Ved Mehta memoir, exceptional for the acuteness, poignancy and unsentimental humour with which the world of childhood is entered, and revealed.

One of the most important voices in the story of modern literature, V. S. Naipaul, is regrettably absent from this book, not by our choice, but by his own. His three non-fiction books on India, An Area of Darkness, A Wounded Civilisation and India: A Million Mutinies Now are key texts, and not only because of the hackles they have raised. Many Indian critics have taken issue with the harshness of his responses. Some have fair-mindedly conceded that he does attack things worth attacking. "I'm anti-Naipaul when I visit the West," one leading South Indian novelist told me, "but I'm often pro-Naipaul back home."

Some of Naipaul's targets, like - this is from A Wounded Civilisation - the intermediate-technology institute that invents "reaping boots" (with blades attached) for Indian peasants to use to harvest grain, merit the full weight of his scorn. At other times he appears merely supercilious. India, his migrant ancestors' lost paradise, cannot stop disappointing him. By the third volume of the series, however, he seems more cheerful about the country's condition. He speaks approvingly of the emergence of "a central will, a central intellect, a national idea", and disarmingly, even movingly, confesses to the atavistic edginess of mood in which he had made his first trip almost 30 years earlier: "The India of my fantasy and heart was something lost and irrecoverable... On that first journey, I was a fearful traveller."

In An Area of Darkness, Naipaul's comments on Indian writers elicit in this reader a characteristic mixture of agreement and dissent. When he writes,

... the feeling is widespread that, whatever English might have done for Tolstoy, it can never do justice to the Indian "language" writers. This is possible; what I read of them in translation did not encourage me to read more. Premchand... turned out to be a minor fabulist... Other writers quickly fatigued me with their assertions that poverty was sad, that death was sad... many of the "modern" short stories were only refurbished folk tales...

then he is expressing, in his emphatic, unafraid way, what I have also felt. (Though I think more highly of Premchand than he.) When he goes on to say,

The novel is part of that Western concern with the condition of men, a response to the here and now. In India, thoughtful men have preferred to turn their backs on the here and now and to satisfy what President Radhakrishnan calls "the basic human hunger for the unseen." It is not a good qualification for the writing and reading of novels,

then I can go only some of the way with him. It is true that many learned Indians go in for a sonorously impenetrable form of critico-mysticism. I once heard an Indian writer of some renown, and much interest in India's ancient wisdoms, expounding his theory of what one might call Motionism. "Consider Water," he advised us. "Water without Motion is - what? Is a lake. Very well. Now, Water plus Motion is - what? Is a river. You see? The Water is still the same Water. Only Motion has been added. By the same token," he continued, making a breathtaking intellectual leap, "Language is Silence, to which Motion has been added."

(A fine Indian poet, who was sitting beside me in the great man's audience, murmured in my ear: "Bowel without Motion is - what? Is constipation! Bowel plus Motion is - what? Is shit!")

So I agree with Naipaul that mysticism is bad for novelists. But in the India I know, for every obfuscating Motionist, there is a debunking Bowelist whispering in one's ear. For every unworldly seeker for the ancient wisdoms of the East, there is a clear-eyed witness responding to the here and now in precisely that fashion which Naipaul inaccurately calls uniquely Western. And when Naipaul concludes by saying that in the aftermath of the "abortive" Indo-British encounter, India is little more than a very Naipaulian community of mimic men - that the country's artistic life has stagnated, "the creative urge" has "failed" - that "Shiva has ceased to dance" - then I fear we part company altogether. An Area of Darkness was written as long ago as 1964, a mere 17 years after Independence, and a little early for an obituary notice. The growing quality of Indian writing in English may yet change his mind.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the flow of that good writing has become a flood. Bapsi Sidhwa is technically Pakistani, but this anthology has no need of Partitions, particularly as Sidhwa's novel Ice-Candy Man, extracted here, in one of the finest responses to the horror of the division of the subcontinent. Gita Mehta's A River Sutra is an important attempt by a thoroughly modern Indian to make her reckoning with the Hindu culture from which she emerged. Padma Perera, Anjana Appachana and Githa Hariharan, less well-known than Sidhwa and Mehta, confirm the quality of contemporary writing by Indian women.

A number of different styles of work are evolving: the Stendhalian realism of a writer like Rohinton Mistry, the equally naturalistic but lighter, more readily charming prose of Vikram Seth (there is, admittedly, a kind of perversity in invoking lightness in the context of a book boasting as much sheer avoirdupois as A Suitable Boy), and the elegant social observation of Upamanyu Chatterjee can be set against the more flamboyant manner of Vikram Chandra, the linguistic play of Allan Sealy and Shashi Tharoor and the touches of fabulism in Mukul Kesavan. Amitav Ghosh's most impressive achievement to date is the non-fiction study of India and Egypt, In an Antique Land. It may be (or it may not) that his greatest strength will turn out to be as an essayist of this sort. Sara Suleri, whose memoir Meatless Days is, like Bapsi Sidhwa's Ice-Candy Man, a visitor from across the Pakistani frontier, is a non-fiction writer of immense originality and grace. And Amit Chaudhuri's languorous, elliptic, beautiful prose is impressively impossible to place in any category at all.

Most encouragingly, yet another talented generation has begun to emerge. The Keralan writer Arundhati Roy has arrived to the accompaniment of a loud fanfare. Her novel, The God of Small Things, is full of ambition and sparkle, and written in a highly-wrought and utterly personal style. Equally impressive are the debuts of two other first novelists. Ardashir Vakil's Beach Boy and Kiran Desai's Strange Happenings in the Guava Orchard are, in their very unalike ways, highly original books. The Vakil book is sharp, funny and fast; the Kiran Desai, lush and intensely imagined. Kiran Desai is the daughter of Anita: her arrival establishes the first dynasty of modern Indian fiction. But she is very much her own writer, the newest of all these voices, and welcome proof that India's encounter with the English language, far from proving abortive, continues to give birth to new children, endowed with lavish gifts.

THE map of the world, in the standard Mercator projection, is not kind to India, making it look substantially smaller than, say, Greenland. On the map of world literature, too, India has been undersized for too long. This anthology celebrates the writers who are ensuring that, 50 years after India's Independence, that age of obscurity is coming to an end.

Salman Rushdie, March 1997

This is the text of Salman Rushdie's Introduction to The Vintage Book of Indian Writing: 1947-1997, edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage, London, 1997.

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