Tag Archives: Indian English Novel

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.

Rama Mehta’s Inside the Haveli


Below is an extract from my article on Rama Mehta’s novel Inside the Haveli. The article was published in South Asian Review vol. 30. No. 1. September/October 2009. pp. 286–301. It is titled “Emplotment of Aristocratic Nation in Rama Mehta’s Inside the Haveli

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In South Asian debates, the nostalgic mode of cultural memory deploys binary oppositions such as ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ so as to defend the perpetuation of cultural orthodoxy. The terrain of postcolonial debate has witnessed the resurgence of this kind of defence of cultural orthodoxy in the name of critique of modernity often. One of the sites for the assertion of cultural orthodoxy has been the space of ‘nation’. In as far as ‘nation’ is a modern form of sociality in South Asian societies it is fraught with issues of derivation. One familiar trope in the critiques of nationalism is the one based on its ‘alienness’. Such a critique is usually predicated upon a defence of cultural orthodoxy: the brahminical patriarchy. The charge of ‘alienenss’ in such critiques is a reductive examination of the phenomenon of nationalism ignoring the plural conceptions of nation. The labelling of nation as a derivative discourse legitimizes a hegemonic notion of cultural interaction whereby the reconfigurations effected in the concept are devalued. These critiques of nationalism ignore contestations of nation and nationalisms by rendering them as singular. Thus, an important critical engagement evident in past and present mass movements is negated by this critique though it has acquired greater visibility.

Nations are not imagined into being in abstraction but through associations based on shared practices and dissociations based on differentiations. These two processes are never complete or coherent, thereby leading to an unstable production of identity that is forever in the making. This instability in and the continuous production of the collective identity hence characterises nation as a field of contestations. ‘Nation’ as a collective identity is continuously under construction and forever pluralized. Beginning with this constructivist notion of nation, this paper examines the configuration of collective identity in Rama Mehta’s Inside the Haveli. The argument I present here is that the novel valorizes feudal aristocratic patriarchy via a plea for preserving the local tradition by ignoring the class and gender refractions therein.

Inside the Haveli is Rama Mehta’s only novel though she has published academic books and children’s fiction. Her works of fiction for children are Ramu and Life of Keshav. Rama Mehta’s academic books include The Western Educated Indian Woman (1970), The Divorced Hindu Woman (1975), and India: Now and Through Time (co-author) (1971). The novel was published in 1977 and thus 1970s is the period in which Rama Mehta published all her works. Significantly, the novel and the non-fictional books have common concerns as they all circle around the issues of women’s relation to tradition and modernity. The particular intervention that this novel made in the contemporary debates about the conflict/continuity between tradition and modernity was enthusiastically received. This is apparent in its positive reception. The novel won the 1979 Sahitya Academy Award and was heralded by established critics such as Srinivass Iyengar:

Inside the Haveli is a sensitive piece of realistic fiction, even an authentic sociological study, and it is written with a naturalness and poise that are disarming and effective at once. The evocation of scene, character and especially of atmosphere is almost uncanny… The balance between repose and movement is well sustained, there is romance but no cheap sex, there is tension but no violence, and there is a feeling for the values and verities.[i]

Published at a time when in India the desire for modernity was strong even as pride in tradition was fierce, Inside the Haveli is a novel that sets up a face off between tradition and modernity and it is seen as offering the best of both the ‘worlds’.[ii] Its popularity seems to be not so much due to resolving the conflict between tradition and modernity, but for favouring tradition and maintaining a conservative outlook, both in ideological framing of the narrative as well as the style in which it is rendered. That the novel’s ideological framing of modernity can at once gather up pedagogic import is suggested in the praise showered on it by Viney Kirpal:

Rama Mehta’s intentions in writing this novel are to help the western educated Indian reader regain his belief in his own traditions… The resolution of the novel is that Geeta gradually grows away from the westernised perception acquired from her education and learns to appreciate the dignity, solemnity, meaning and worth of indigenous traditions[iii].

This paper proposes to examine closely the deployment of the thematic of tradition and modernity and explore how this stages ‘nation’. The analysis of the novel takes into account the institution of two temporal and spatial categories in the novel, one representing the traditional aristocracy inhabiting the haveli and the other representing the world outside it which is integrated into nationhood. The novel then goes on to valorize the former, defending its socio-cultural practices by glossing over the inherent oppressiveness. Contrary to its initial claim of common bond among the inhabitants of the old city of Udaipur, the novel reveals processes of othering within the old city based on class and gender. It ends up contesting the horizontal life effected by nation on behalf of the aristocracy, the defence of which is made in the novel by defending its traditions. The novel, however, effectually silences the dissent based on class by portraying the generosity of the aristocracy. Thus, in this novel, contestation of nation as a modern collectivity is undertaken from the point of view of the aristocracy. It deploys the thematic smoke screen of the conflict between tradition and modernity only to naturalize the perpetuation of patriarchal hierarchy.

Inside the Haveli demarcates its narrative paradigm by instituting a division between the magical time of traditional community and the flat horizontal time of nation-state. The former derives its enchanting character in its difference from the memory-less domain of the latter. The novel opens with a highly resonant description of Udaipur’s ‘Old City’ in its distinction from the new township: “Udaipur was once the capital of the state of Mewar; now it is only a town like many other towns in Rajasthan.”[iv] (3) The contrast invoked in the words ‘once’ and ‘now’ introduces the nostalgic and rues the levelling of Udaipur with ‘many other towns’ in the time of the nation-state. The insertion of Udaipur into the flat horizontal plane of nation-state is viewed as undermining its magical uniqueness.

The novel characterises this ‘magicality’ as being generated in the now through a memory of the past: “But the change in its status hasn’t diminished its beauty, nor the air of mystery that hangs over what is now known as ‘Old City’.” (3) There is a suggestion that the diminution in the status is occasioned by the integration of the state of Mewar into the Indian nation-state, into becoming one among the many towns of Rajasthan. The likeness to other towns is seen here as a diminution in status. Thus, the coming of the nation-state (the state of Mewar has been dissolved into the Indian nation-state at the time of Indian independence, and the beginning of the novel is twenty-five years from that time) has brought about a reduction in the status of Udaipur.

The change in the status nevertheless is only a limited ‘loss’ because, the novel goes on to assert, its ‘beauty’ is undiminished. The result of this contradiction is the production of magicality: ‘the air of mystery’ that ‘hangs over’ the city. The severance is neither complete, nor is the flattening all-penetrating because this mystery, this nostalgic production of the magicality that sustains the past through remembered practices sets up the ‘old city’ as distinct. Therefore, “the wall still divides Udaipur into two halves. The new township is beyond the old wall and the city within it.” (3) The topographical division also marks a deeper distance as the ‘old city’ and the new township are enveloped in the novel’s narrative prose in distinct zones of time. In two paragraphs of contrasting visions of each other, the novel points to the distance in terms which focus on the continuity with the past for the old city and an absence of collective memory for the new township. (5) In the first of these paragraphs, the view of the township by the people of the old city is presented:

They have seen the rows of neat houses on either side of the broad tarmac road. The air is clean and in it there is no cow dung smoke but there is no soul in the new township. Its people have not memories of what Udaipur was like, they are newcomers, they don’t have common ancestors. They don’t belong to the soil of Mewar. (5)

This view of the township as a body without past, without memory, without soul and without roots is an index of the collective identity invoked in the novel. It is an identity that is specific to Udaipur, issuing from the memory of its glorious past (“No one in the city can forget those days when Udaipur belonged to the people” (5)). Unlike the old city, the new township is a conglomeration of people without collective memory, ancestors, common customs and a sense of belonging. Thus, the old city and the new township occupy different horizons of collectivity, the four hundred years old wall signalling the distance. Though this wall is crumbling, there are big gaps (presumably symptomatic of the ambivalent space where the old city and new township form continuity), it still ‘divides’ Udaipur.

The view of the old city by the people in the new town is less penetrating. While the description of the new township seen by the people of the old city is detailed enough, the description is minimal when the people in the new town see the old city: “They are puzzled by the wall–enclosed havelis… There is no way they can look into the courtyards… The town people leave the old city, without having fathomed what goes on inside men’s and women’s apartments of the haveli.” (5) The differentiated visions of each other, one penetrating while the other puzzled, sets up in the novel a preferred site of narrativization. The old city from now on becomes the closed off horizon of the narrative universe. The narrative dismisses the new township, never to venture into it, though its presence continues to index the ‘crumbling’ wall and the growing gaps in it.

[i] K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, Indian Writing in English. rev. edn., New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1985. p. 753.

[ii] See R.K. Asthana, “Tradition and Modernity in Inside the Haveli”, in R.K. Dhawan, (ed), Indian Women Novelists, vol. IV, New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1991. pp. 193-201.

[iii] Viney Kirpal, “How Traditional can a Modern Indian be: Analysis of Inside the Haveli” in R.K. Dhawan, (ed), Indian Women Novelists, vol. IV, New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1991. p. 176.

[iv] Rama Mehta, Inside the Haveli. (1977), New Delhi: Penguin, 1996.