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Tracing The Development Of Indian English Writing English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5586 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Indian writing in English is primarily a result of the English colonial rule in India spanning almost two centuries. There is an undeniable relation between the literary work and the historical background out of which it arises. In spite of the western imperialism and colonialism the Indian culture has grown incredibly over the past two hundred years. It is a well known fact that the Englishmen came to India on the pretext of trade and immediately realized that a stable political control would substantially increase their profits. The Industrial Revolution in England could only sustain itself through the capital made in the Indian territories in the form of revenue collection. They then commenced to annex different territories in and around India and set up a colonial empire. The British rule completely ruined the agricultural self-sufficiency of the farmers and the trade of silk cloth saw a downslide due to the English factory produced cloth more easily and cheaply available. The weavers and artisans lost their job and had to sustain themselves by working in cotton plantations. The old existing order underwent a complete and systematic destruction and overhaul bringing misery, poverty and death to millions of Indians.

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After a few years of colonial rule and consolidation, the English empire got embroiled in a hotly debated and discussed issue of introduction of the English language in educational institutes. In a watershed decision English was introduced in the Indian education system, and was understood to be a different epistemological template in which not only the language but lifestyle and culture was imposed. Many reformers especially Raja Rammohun Roy, the founder of the Brahmo Samaj, vociferously supported the teaching of the move to bring about economic reforms that would provide new employment opportunities in the administration that required the knowledge of the English language. A systematic enterprise detailed by Macaulay, a member of colonial Indian parliament, than began in which “mimic men” were produced through the education system in India, who were “a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions who we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” [1] The old methods of teaching were made redundant and died a slow death as the earlier system of education was insufficient to cope with the changing social, economic and political circumstances. As it is apparent with scorn and despise towards Indian languages, the sole purpose regarding English was to strengthen their rule and brainwash the colonized; and not to empower or produce scholars.

Moreover, the colonizers only had contempt and disdain for the established languages, knowledge, beliefs, religion and educational institutes, labeling them as being irrational, pagan, barbaric, unscientific and immoral. Macaulay articulated the sense of superiority that the westerners felt regarding their culture and knowledge by making a very derogatory and biased statement that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature India and Arabia”. [2] He believed that an educated minority would gradually educate the others, this concept came to be known as the ‘filtration effect’ but it remained flawed and unsuccessful. With the introduction of the English language the missionaries got a better hold on the country and political the empire established the notions that it is a benevolent authority and has now taken the responsibility of bringing light in the form of knowledge to the ignorant population. As a result of English education a few writers and poets converted to Christianity and imitated a style of writing prose and poetry like the English Romantics and classics. The first phase of Indian English literature roughly comprises the half century before the Great Revolt of 1857. This was a period when English education and Western ideas had begun to act as a great liberating force in a country which had been suffering from political instability for about a century. Henry Derozio’s ‘Poems’ written in 1827, reflect his reformist idealism and iconoclastic zeal and he along with a few other visionary writers, poets and artistes worked for the eradication of social evils and called themselves the ‘young Bengal’. In fact his contemporaries like Michael Madhusudan Dutt had great technical competence and wrote a long poem on the Christian theme of the original sin, ‘Visions of the Past’ (1849). Krishna Mohan Banerjea’s play The Persecuted (1831) showcased the religious orthodoxies plaguing the Hindu society.

The colonizers were initially largely successful in creating ‘a class’ of interpreters between them and the masses. Education as a tool in the hands of the English proved to a great ideological weapon to legitimize their authority in the colonies. Evidently a hierarchy is created in which the western education model encompasses wisdom and knowledge as against the colonized people who are imbeciles. The education introduced was naturally lopsided and it not only valorized English traditions and way of life, it also provided the newly urban English educated a very limited and constricted space for liberal thought. The Indians began to believe that the colonizers had a moral responsibility to fulfill as the country was depicted to be infected by depravity, bestiality and religious bigotry. The evangelists propagated Christianity in schools indirectly by teaching biblical scriptures rather than English grammar. The “weaving together of morality with a specifically English literature had important ideological consequences” [3] , which would mean that English behaviour leads to a moral behaviour and ultimately the colonizing country ostensibly projected itself as being a guiding light to civilize the colonies. Though the English always had their propaganda and selfish intention intact, a positive consequence was that the “Indians had mastered the coloniser’s language […] and further, had by the 1820s begun to adopt it as their chosen medium of expression. These pioneering works of poetry, fiction, drama, travel, and belles-lettres are little read today except by specialists, but when they were published they were, by the mere fact of being in English, audacious acts of mimicry and self-assertion. More than this, the themes they touched on and the kinds of social issues they engaged with would only be explored by other Indian literatures several decades later.” [4] 

The middle class Indian intelligentsia created by the English for their convenience was never considered as an equal by the colonizers as they were inherently racists. The British “defined themselves as the efficient, ethical, hardworking, courageous and masculine rulers of India, they came to characterize Indians increasingly as slothful, deceitful and immoral.” [5] The English deemed Indians unfit for self-governance and never gave them any important positions in the administration. The partition of Bengal in 1905 falsely done in the name of administrative convenience broke the powerful intelligentsia that had formed in Bengal. The Swadeshi movement that followed brought in a lot of cultural changes and a revival of old Indian traditions of celebration of festivals, theatres and folk songs focusing on national pride and patriotism.

The entry of Indian English writing in the English canon is often debated as some of the critics are of the opinion that this genre got an acceptance only in the late 1950’s when the Indian writers decided to establish it as a discipline, while others regard the works initially written by Indians in the English language as the real formation of this literary genre. The first novel by an Indian in English Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Rajmohan’s Wife appeared quite late in 1864 and is his only novel in English, the rest fourteen successful novels he wrote in Bengali. Kylas Chunder Dutt’s A Journal of Forty-Eight Hours of the Year 1945 (1835) preceding Bankim’s novel is about an imaginary armed uprising against the British but cannot be classified as the first novel as it came out in a journal. Mehrotra elucidates on Kylas Chunder Dutt’s work that:

Insurrections seems a commonplace idea, until we realise that the idea is

being expressed for the first time in Indian literature, and would next find

expression only in folk songs inspired by the events of 1857. It is uncanny

that the year of the uprising in Dutt’s imagination comes within two years

of India’s actual year of independence; uncanny, too, the coincidence that

the work should have been published in the same year that Macaulay

delivered his ‘Minute’. In a double irony, the insurgents are all urbanized

middle-class Indians with the best education colonialism could offer, the

very class Macaulay had intended as ‘interpreters between us and the millions

whom we govern.

Thus, ‘the ‘language of command’ is stood on its head and turned into the language of subversion, suggests itself as the imaginative beginnings of a nation.’ [6] The revolt of 1857 was a turning point and India became an empire under the British rule, represented by the viceroy. The revolt saw a unification of the warring Indian states against a common enemy. The heroism, valour and courage demonstrated by Indians inspired a lot of folk songs, poems and literature detailing the battle and brutality with which it was suppressed. The possibility of toppling the British rule looked viable but it took a century for Indians to attain independence. The British formulated numerous rules and regulations to stipulate the authority of Indian princely states and other autonomous bodies and gained complete control over India. Censorship of literature increased many folds as the colonizers strictly monitored any writing that was seditious to the British policies, government or laws. Political themes were now discussed through literature in the guise of historical novels or romances which glorified the past rulers. Ironically Shakespeare’s poetry rings true when placed in the context of Indian English writing, in his play The Tempest………..says “You taught me language and my profit in it / Is I know how to curse.” [7] 

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Meenakshi Mukherjee in her detailed and informative essay ‘Beginning of the Novel’ [8] traces the rise of the early English novel in India that was primarily aimed at an English audience and usually began with titles that would pull the attention of the English towards the orients as “unlike novelists in the Indian languages who were confident about a sizeable readership within their specific region, the writer in English suffered from uncertainty about his audience.” The earlier tracts written by Kylas Chunder Dutt, Shoshee Chunder Dutt among others did not strictly adhere to the demands of novelistic traditions. The later novels written in the century were more obsequious and tolerant of the British rule and many writers wrote praising the empire and paid homage to the Queen through their writings. The only woman writer who wrote in English during that period has now become an obscure figure. Women in that era were not encouraged to get any education and were scarcely taught the English language. Krupabai Satthianadhan’s Kamala, A Story of Hindu Life (1894) and Saguna, A Story of Native Christian life (1895) detail topical issues concerning gender, caste, religion and other social issues. To the critic Mennakshi Mukherjee the greatest achievement of the canonical Indian English writing is not the awards or critical acclaim won by the writers now, rather the breaking free from “The tentativeness of nineteenth century novelists, not only about writing in an acquired colonial language but also about their readership, has been replaced by an overwhelming confidence among post colonial writers that the English language belongs to them as much as to anyone else.”

The novels of the nineteenth century brought to limelight the social injustices, superstition and the abominable conditions of the peasants and workers that plagued the Indian society. Women’s emancipation, education and widow remarriage also became common themes in the novels and this phase is dubbed as the ‘renaissance’ of Indian writing in English. [9] The tradition of novel writing in India is an imitation of a western phenomenon and thus different from most of the earlier writings that engaged in a quest of metaphysical and transcendental knowledge, where the present world is depicted and painted to be a mere appearance. Another luminary figure is that of Tagore who wrote an expansive body of prose fiction, poetry, and songs. His creative ingenuity is unparalleled in either Bengali or English. He conceptualized and started a democratic, artistic and cultural revolution by training young minds in the university founded by him, Shantiniketan, which attracted teachers and students from all over the world. Tagore’s Gitanjali (1912) is a great lyrical achievement and his prose fiction deals with human condition and emotions, societal norms and also revolution. His works inspired an entire generation of writers, artists, singers, and the common man. Most of his work is in Bengali and is present to us in translation. Besides, the dangerous of considering English Indian writing as national literature especially in western universities is manifold, primarily because it is written by a minority that is upwardly mobile. Text written in English language should not be the only source of highlighting Indian culture and way of life; this would marginalize the importance of the texts produced in regional languages that have their own values and narratives.

The accommodation of Indian writing in English in the English canon is a momentous achievement because it provides autonomy to this genre as it is not merged with Commonwealth writing or is merely labeled as an imitation. The polemics of criticism in earlier days refused to accept it as an area of academic scrutiny as it did not proliferate to the degree it has now. Indian writing in English belongs to a particular class of people who are of Indian origin and have learnt the language well to be writers of that language, and those who are able to read the English language and are to an extent more proficient and comfortable in English than in their mother tongues. These conditioning does not makes them less of a writer rather they are experts in explicating the thoughts and lives of Indian characters living in India but not speaking, thinking or living an English life. It requires great talent, insight and exceptional grasp of bilingualism to express in English the lives of people who do not speak that language. Thus we have Raja Rao in his foreword [10] to the novel Kanthapura debating:

English is not really an alien language to us. It is the language of our intellectual make-up – like Sanskrit or Persian was before – but not of our emotional make-up. We are all instinctively bilingual, many of us in our own language and in English. We cannot write like the English. We should not. We can only write as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as a part of us. Our method of expression therefore has to be a dialect which will some day prove to be as distinctive and colourful as the Irish or the American. Time alone will justify it.

One of the major reasons for the proliferation of Indian writing in English is the Indian’s assertion of autonomy in writing their own histories. Bamkinchandra’s call “We have no History! We must have a History!” highlights the need for self representation and expression. The mere act of writing and narrating one’s past hints at an inherent power struggle because the mode of recalling the past relies on who has the authority to re-create and re-tell the past. The colonizer’s perspective would naturally differ from that of the colonized. James Mill’s History of British India (1817) is only one sided and prejudiced attempt at detailing India’s past. To wrench authority and power from the colonizers one has to narrate one’s own stories. Thus, the primary novels written by Indians seemed to be historical fiction which went on to be read and gradually merged with the aspirations of budding nationalist struggle.

Likewise, the theme in earlier novel was nation and nationalism and it was developed as historical romances depicting the life of a historical figure in a romantic alliance that showcased the glorious past of the Indian nation, for instance, T. Ramakrishna Pillai’s Padmini: An Indian Romance (1903). By 1930, Indian English literature became a century old yet failed to produce a single novelist who had a plethora of work to his credit. Then three novelists known as the ‘Big Three’ wrote and published their works that proved to be an epoch making enterprise. Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand and N.K.Narayan revolutionized Indian novel writing on an unprecedented scale and brought to fore not only the views and idealism of Gandhiji but also provided a poignant, realistic picture of fellow Indians under the colonial rule suffering acute poverty, social discrimination, unemployment and illiteracy. Further, Raja Rao’s Kanthapura (1938); Mulk Raj Anand’s The Sword and the Sickle (1942) and R.K.Narayan’s Waiting for the Mahatma (1955) deal with nationalism and impact of Gandhism in lives of Indians. Regarding the works of Narayan both western and Indian scholars opine that his novels are deeply traditional, apolitical and humanist, yet at the same time his work is highly representatively “Indian” in their spirituality. His theme and form has enabled him to explore the minutiae and subtleties of human emotions and feelings and to his ironic vision towards human life is aptly universal. Although, the importance of Hinduism in Narayan’s work is identified by many, a number of his novels probe the limitations and contradictions inherent in Hindu worldview and identity. In Meenakshi Mukherjee’s assessment R.K.Narayan falls in that category of novelists who do not “indulge in any generalizations about what is Indian and what is western. Their characters are a curious blend of the East and the West which all Indians are but they refuse to sift the elements.” [11] Natural to the writer of post independence, Kamala Markandaya’s novels focus on the changing socio-economic scene. Her preoccupation with the theme of hunger in Nectar in a Sieve (1955) and ‘Handful of Rice’ (1966) and her picture of uprootedness of Indian villagers on account of the menacing growth of industrial civilization derive their vigour from Gandhi’s pleading for village economy. The process of modernization is satirized in her later novels like ‘The Coffer Dams’ (1969) and ‘The Pleasure City’ (1984).

Patriotism, freedom struggles, exploitation of the factory workers and the relationship between the colonizer and the condition of the colonized formed the corpus of Indian writing in English. Gandhiji inspired and influenced the writers and poets immensely and this fact is clear in the way activism and courage was liberated from aggressiveness and violence. The tumultuous political situation of the nineteen thirties due to the civil disobedience movement under the leadership of freedom fighters created a readership that wished to explore and get information about their country’s rapacious plunder and the miserable, starving plight of its citizens. The prevailing nationalistic fervor and political situation witnessed a portrayal in the literature produced at that time. Some writers advocated the Gandhian method of non-violence to attain freedom while the others wanted independence through any means whether it involved violence or not remained immaterial to them. The partition of the subcontinent had a prolonged disturbing and traumatic effect on the psyche of millions of Indians and became one of the most discussed, debated and analyzed theme in numerous novels. For instance Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan (1956) lead to a significant contribution to the genre namely Partition literature in the canon of English Indian writing. The events portrayed in the novel revolve around the depiction of unprecedented violence, brutality and desperation. The novel captures the mindlessness of communal violence and provides a protest against the Indian bureaucracy. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) and Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines (1988) deal with the theme of partition in a very different perspective. After independence, the era of hope and certitude got sidelined by an age of self scrutiny, skepticism and an attempt to deal with the one’s sense of identity exposed to divergent cultures, Indian and Western. Post independence fiction reflected an anxious reality “On one hand freedom had been won; ostensibly the exploiter had been expelled and the forces of evil were no longer in the land. But on the other hand, writers and intellectuals generally felt that the only change effected by independence was the change in the colour of the exploiters’ skin.” [12] Political satire and a growing disillusionment with the current state of affairs were highlighted in numerous novels by writers of different vernacular. Moreover, the theme of partition and the consecutive wars with China and Pakistan created a sense of despair in the literary arena and greatly affected the works of writers.

Caste and communalism have become major issues in Indian English writing Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable is read as a remarkable and revolutionary novel by both critics and readers, and in this novel he illustrates the pitfalls of a parasitic casteist Hindu society. The concept of ‘marginalization’ is a common leitmotif in the novels depicting lower caste people and women. Meenakshi Mukherjee says that “A huge social divide exists between those have proficiency in English and those who do not. Given the fact that English today is the language not only of upward social mobility and outward geographical mobility, but also a major tool for accessing knowledge at the higher level.” [13] One cannot remain blind to the major characteristic feature of Indian English literature, both linguistic and cultural, that its influence extends beyond the limits of any elitist paradigm. Along with ‘marginality’ a sense of alienation is an underlining concern in numerous novels. Anita Desai’s Cry, the Peacock (1963) focuses on the female sensibility at odds with the male dominated society. Her later novels like Fire on the Mountain (1977) describe the isolation and alienation of man from family and society. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English August dissects and beautifully expresses the estrangement felt by the characters in the novels.

Iyengar’s pioneering work in the creation of a history of Indian writing in English opened up new avenues of criticism and “these studies have done much to establish the parameters of a discussion of the nature and role of Indian writing in English including its form, its audience and its effectiveness.” [14] The readership and production of numerous writings both in quality and quantity in vernacular languages in India is by far larger than the English counterpart. One has to assess the readership of Indian English writing which is at best nominal in India, the target thus, seem to be the widely English speaking western world. A few popular novels by Kipling, Kim and The Jungle book became extremely popular but the perspective remained of the white man. E.M.Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ provides an imperial writer’s ambivalent attitude towards the ‘other’, non- Eurocentric culture and the distrust is palpable.

One can argue that the earlier writers of English did write to a Christian western world, explaining almost apologetically India’s pluralism and trying to fit in the constraints demanded by English literature and are accused of “exoticisng” India to the foreign readers. The readership issue of Indian English literature has assumed dimensions more varied than just simple publishing politics. Even now the debate continues and those who choose to write in English argue that English is also an Indian language and they know this language the best. They are accused by those writing in vernacular of not being in touch with the masses and aiming only for self aggrandizement. Interestingly, a new generation of writers has slowly emerged that does not feel the need to provide a glossary for Indian vernacular terms or the Indian way of life. Desai reiterates the fact that “a new generation of Indian writes, addressing Indian subjects and items in a language taken from Indian streets newspapers, journals, and films, and a class of enterprising business who decided they were worth publishing – marked the ’80s and ’90s.” [15] 

Now a new emergent prototype of writers known as being the ‘diasporic writers’ have established themselves. Due to colonialism a lot of people from England settled in different parts of the world and a lot of people belonging to numerous places from each and every corner of the word made Britain and other colonizing countries their home; some of them came as indentured labours or as slaves. Britain and other colonizing countries witnessed a spurt in immigration as they needed labourers to work in their factories or healthcare systems, besides many people came looking for better employment opportunities, income and for studies. Therefore, Diaspora can be defined by emphasizing a sense of ‘collective community’ that one feels while “living in one country and looking across time and space for another.” It should be noted that the generation born to the migrants who are now settled in another country, might not have the same emotional and sentimental attachment to the old country. Also the journey from one’s old country to the adopted country “creates a sense of shared history” and the difference in language, generation, religion and culture make “diaspora spaces dynamic and shifting, open to repeated construction and reconstruction.” [16] The reason for the inception of diasporic writer can be explained as “the massive migrations that have defined this century- from the late colonial period through the decolonization era into the twenty first century.” [17] 

Naipaul’s work on Trinidad did not find readership in America because the critics found it stylistically too British. In England Naipaul was rejected because he was too ‘foreign’. In more recent times, however, the conference of the Nobel Prize on Naipaul celebrates the acceptance of the author outside Trinidad. For that matter, R.K.Narayan’s first novel, Swami and Friends, portraying life in a small south Indian village, enjoyed considerable readership in England when first published in 1935. Ruskin Bond’s semi-autobiographical reminiscences of living in and out of Dehra Dun bazaar among Indian urchins appeared in a book form – The Room on the Roof (1952), it was crowned the prestigious John Lellwyn Rhys Memorial Prize. Bond made India his permanent home unlike other Anglo-Indians who chose to return back. The recognition awarded to the books coming from different places and elucidating the diverse upheaval, lifestyle and attitude towards life we can assess the fact that readership pattern of foreign literature has seen a tremendous change due to the growing socio-cultural influences of globalization. The linguistic effects of Ruskin Bond’s minimalist approach or Raja Rao’s attempts at making English seem to be natural easily acceptable are positive in the sense that they have gained wider popularity outside the realm of ‘colonial modernity’.

A common thread binds the variant diasporic writers together they are marked by their “hybridity and heterogeneity – cultural, linguistic, ethnic, national – and these subjects are defined by a traversal of boundaries demarcating nations and diaspora.” [18] A diasporic writer’s constant struggle with the past that stressed on one’s ancestry and valued the ‘pure’ over the ‘hybrid’ or the ‘composite’ is a highly discussed concept in postcolonial literature. [19] These writers have transformed the meaning and dimension of Indian writing in English and have made it more dynamic, accommodating and expansive. Indian writers, like Rushdie and Naipaul, Anita Desai, Shashi Tharoor, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth et al have carved a niche for themselves while residing abroad and writing about the sense of rootlessness and displacement that is experienced because of geographical causes and the problems faced by those who are immigrants, refugees or exiled. Their identity is neither lost nor submerged by overlapping of multiplicity and diversity. The Indian diasporic writer “born and brought up in a post-colonial world […] have had no reason to feel self-conscious in handling the English language, which carries no colonial baggage for them.” [20] Most of these writers write about Indian subcontinent and present the vastness, pluralism and celebration of multiculturalism that is now associated with India. Rushdie’s incisive comment on the migrant sensibility is “one of the central themes of the displaced person… the effect …has been the creation of new types of human being… people in whose deepest selves strange fusion occur, unprecedented unions between what they were and where they find themselves …migrants must of necessity make a new imaginative relation with the world.” [21] 

The psycho-social predicaments of the self under colonialism and its dispensation of a new worldview bridging the east-west divide after independence are investigated. Amitav Ghosh problematizes and delineates a sense of rootlessness in the character of Ila in The Shadow Lines. Her father is a diplomat and she has been brought up in western countries. As a result, she is reduced to th


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