The Locations of Indian English Novel


Following is an extract from my article published in The Journal of  Contemporary Literature. Vol. 2, No. 1. January 2010. pp. 34-49.

Many Worlds of Indian English Novel

This paper surveys the field of Indian English Novel in order to arrive at an understanding of the major areas of concern for any study of the field. This survey is conducted by examining certain prevalent assumptions, both positive and negative, regarding the field. The examination takes into account the implications of the naming of the field itself and explores various subject positions from which a fruitful negotiation of the field is possible. The paper begins with an exploration of the sociological status of the field of Indian English novel by attending to such characterisations of the field as elitism, alienated, inauthentic and ambivalent. Then I go on to examine issues related to the stability of terms that name this discourse by way of which I set out to identify the problematic of constituting the field. The paper further takes issues of nation, nationalism and how these frame a study of Indian English novel. And finally it examines the postcolonial interventions and suggests that the issues of language, modes of production, circulation and consumption lead us to characterise Indian English Novel as a fuzzy discourse.

There is a tendency to view Indian Writing in English as an ambivalent discourse. This characterisation reduces the complexity to a binary of indigenous and alien and asserts that English being an ‘alien’ language for Indians, it should not be used for creative expressions. The objection does not include usually such writings as journalistic, personal, administrative or professional. However, the reductionism in this objection becomes clear if we step across the colonialism/nationalism binary and attend to the deployment of English for various purposes by Indians.

While the English language is a social marker of privilege in India, it would be erroneous to restrict elitism to having access to English language or to assume that access to it is the final barrier for the subaltern. Elite and subaltern are contingently produced social relations. In fact, the context of social relations is the only site where elitism/subalternity can be discerned. Caution is needed against unproblematically bracketing literature written in English as being elite and thereby implying that what is not in English and is in modern Indian languages as not being elite. Speaking of the literary field, we may notice that novelists who write in the modern Indian languages and those who write in English occupy similar terrain of social status, as against the multiple layers of economic and cultural hierarchy that exist in Indian society. There are situations when the relation of English to any of the modern Indian languages is characterised by privilege. However, the modern Indian languages (even the ones that are officially ‘recognised’) do not in themselves form a level field. The relation between the various Indian languages is also characterised by privilege and underprivilege, something that might be seen operating behind the many language riots. Further, even within a language group social relation is characterised by hierarchisation at various levels. This applies to literary texts as well, and it is not necessarily the English texts that are privileged always and everywhere. More pertinently, an antagonistic view of Indian Writing in English as an alien discourse misses the rich and resonant interaction between Indian languages and English on the one hand, and on the other, the intertextual discourse that Indian English literature develops out of its being housed within the tradition of literatures in India. As Vinay Dharwadkar says,

[…] after nearly two centuries of continuous aesthetic refinement, the highly crafted ‘English’ of Indian-English literature is full of the long shadows of the Indian languages. The indigenous languages are among the social, political, and aesthetic elements that have penetrated the English language in its alien environment on the subcontinent… To the great distinction of Indian-English writers and their collective creativity, this shadowy interspersion constitutes a pervasive, internal ‘decolonization’ of English at the level of language itself.

The increased currency of the Indian English novels within the global postcolonial knowledge industry in the present juncture has definitely privileged the novels written in English. But the fact that this was not always the case and that this privilege is true only of novels (of a particular kind) suggests that our reading of elitism/subalternity with respect to the field of Indian English literature should be more nuanced. For example, right now, poetry written in English has few takers and the poets struggle to find publishers.

The unqualified branding of Indian English literature as elite has little purchase if made in dissociation from material conditions and the issues of reception and dissemination. Such a belief is the outcome of a commonsensical idea that English is an elite language. This is based on the reading of the socio-cultural scenario wherein residues of colonial consciousness hold English as a superior language. Another reason is the economic and social opportunities, especially in the new economy, that are available to those who speak English. Imagining the exceptions will better explain the issue. One, a person in India without ever knowing/learning English can live an elite life in many socio-cultural situations. On the contrary, a girl, proficient in English, working in a call centre (with all her American accent) might be subjected to several layers of subordination. This, however, is not an exercise in denying the fact that in India English is a privileged language and the language of the privileged, but to indicate that the terms ‘elite’ and ‘subaltern’ need to be understood in the context of social relations. Meenakshi Mukherjee locates this issue in the larger political and economic context:

The demands of economy, both national and global, create a thrust towards a homogenisation of culture, and in India the language that can most effectively achieve this is English, which is also the language of upward mobility… It is logical that reading habits should also follow this trend. Whether it is desirable or not, seen from this point of view, the growing visibility of English as the preferred language of literature in India seems to be an irreversible process.

The beginning, development and the contemporary practice of Indian Writing in English evidences its deployment in diverse ideological and cultural contingencies. In his excellent essay on Indian Writing in English, Vinay Dharwadkar identifies four ‘subject-positions’ that writers of Indian Writing in English come to occupy. He traces the complex inter-relations and interactions between these and the development of the various genres in Indian writing in English. The four subject positions Dharwadkar discusses are: collaboration, provincialism, nationalism and cosmopolitanism. He associates ‘collaboration’ with the imitative discourses wherein approximation with the metropolitan colonial culture is deemed a positive value and hence the attempt results in valorising the imperialist discourse. The second subject position, provincialism, is associated with the spirit of reviving the indigenous traditions with the village as the metaphorical locale of such discursive articulation. Ideologically this position presents a strong critique of the colonial power and situates itself as a resistant discourse to both the metropolitan as well as the Indian urban culture. The third subject position in Dharwadkar’s scheme is nationalist, which sets itself up as the inclusive counter discourse to colonialism, aspiring to resist the ‘foreign’ and representing the solidarity of the ‘national’. The fourth subject position identified by Dharwadkar is cosmopolitanism which does not ideologically align completely with any of the three subject positions, but negotiates with the metropolitan, national, and provincial culture to produce a discourse of modernity. Dharwadkar develops a much-nuanced reading of the historical processes under which the many discursive forms developed in relation to socio-cultural and historical conditions:

Each of the four subject-positions that appeared in the Indian cultural sphere and in print in the nineteenth century was constituted dynamically in its differentiation from the other three positions, with which it interacted conflictually, continuously and untrancendably. Each position was a condensation point for a historical process, a geographical location, an ideology, a cultural identity, a corresponding political strategy, and a characteristic mode of representation and style of writing.

It may be safely used as the framework to understand the positions within Indian English Novel. If at all, the complexity has increased and it may be possible to find a couple of more subject positions in the contemporary historical condition. I would add globalisation, modern conservativism, and emancipatory modernisation. The first of this relates to Indian writings in English (much of it in mass media) that situate themselves in a postnational condition of globality with nation as having no claim on identity or affiliation. The second subject position is ideologically conservative and is like the revivalist category mentioned by Dharwadkar, but materially it locates itself in modernity even as it ideologically rejects it. The third valorises modernisation as a means of empowerment and deploys English language for that purpose. Here, the resistance is to the indigenous orthodoxy and the metropolitan culture of late capitalism is a strategic means of militating against the discursive structures that perpetuate traditional dispossession. This is mainly found in anti-caste discourses. Thus, Indian Writing in English is a discourse of many dimensions that at once addresses a number of complex, accrued, and multi-sourced socio-cultural tangles, and issues of political economy in India. The demand often made against the Indians’ use of English for creative purposes becomes a hopeless romantic objection which views language use in a simple identity binary of self and other. Therefore, questions of validity of Indian Writings in English are largely irrelevant considering the various ideological, cultural and social locations of this discourse and its deployment for different purposes by different people.

Constituting the Indian English Novel

Constituting the field of Indian English Novel presents a peculiar problem as the term suggests solidity to notions such as India, Indian English and novel. For example, nation has come to be seen as a construct and the processes of formation of a nation are considered to be never complete. This constructivist view of nation holds that a discrete identity of nation is not readily available; that is always discursively staged. From this standpoint, each of the three words here throws up tangled issues. How does one interpret the term ‘Indian’ when used in naming the field of ‘Indian English Novel’? Can one, contrary to the indeterminate notion of nation and identity, claim it to be a stable pointer to the inside and the outside of the field? Naming is an act of delimiting and structuring. The nomenclature assigned to this field is reductive and shows up many cracks under close scrutiny. The name it bears can only feebly contain the many contending issues that beset any claim of coherence within. For example there is the well-known gender question: that women writers had for long received less attention or that female life is inadequately represented in literary traditions. This debate alerts us to how the name ‘Indian’ might act as a mechanism of appropriation of a large cultural and societal space while glossing over the muted voices within. Thus, the question of naming a field in terms of national identity is deeply problematic. The case of V.S. Naipaul is an interesting one because, though he is a Trinidadian, who never held Indian citizenship or lived in India, his works were included for long in the syllabi of Indian English Writing courses in many Universities in India. In fact, in a book published as recently as 2001, Tabish Khair discusses Naipaul within the canon of Indian English Fiction. (Ch. 11) So does Vinay Dharwadkar in his 2003 essay on the formation of Indian English Literature. (252) Diasporic novelists bring to the fore another problem by rendering it impossible to claim that any novel on India or any novel by a writer of Indian origin can unproblematically belong to Indian English literature. The diasporic writing also challenges any easy notion of ‘Indian’ as well as the kind of Indias appearing in their works considering that they deal with the memory of homeland. In many cases the representation of homeland is keyed more to the conditions of diasporic existence in the host country. The challenges that diasporic writings throw at categorisation of literature on national basis are discussed by Arif Dirlik:

As literature has been placed at the service of exploring ethnic and transnational (or diasporic) identities, the construction of identities in literary work has been confounded with the ethnography of culture, subjecting the writer to pressures that subvert the autonomy of creative work. Compounding this confusion is the question of the cultural belonging of literature as it is divorced from earlier associations with nations and national languages.

The emergence of Indian English novels into prominence in metropolitan academic spaces in the era of globalisation has raised questions about the relation between the diasporic and the India-based writers and their works. There is an asymmetrical relationship between the two in terms of the reception and dissemination of their work within as well as outside India. The former by now are well established in the canons of postcolonial cultural studies with the latter receiving comparatively less attention. R. Raj Rao points out this schism and notes bitterly:

The current hype surrounding the Indian English novel has nothing to do with [the] writers based in India. These are serious writers but they have none of the benefits of those writers based abroad… Those who write only in English and are based in India are nowhere men and nowhere women.

This phenomenon has serious consequences in the way literary representation of India takes place as well as literary discourses are shaped. The development also needs to be studied in terms of the nature of ‘India’ portrayed and how this participates in the generation and normalisation of a particular kind of representation. In other words ever since the international market, academy and readership have valorised such writers as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Rohinton Mistry and Bharati Mukherjee, the representation of India by non-diasporic writers also has come to be influenced by the success of these writers. This may be seen as a kind of orientalisation and Vinay Dharwadkar in fact makes exactly the same point when he says, “it leads to a renewed exoticization – practically a re-Orientalization – of India in diasporic writing.” (257) Anis Shivani (2006) discusses this with reference to four diasporic novelists, Amit Chaudhuri, Pankaj Mishra and Manil Suri.

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