Sometime in the late 1920s, in what seems now a significant moment in the history of modern Indian literature, the novelist Mulk Raj Anand showed a first draft of his novel Untouchable to Mahatma Gandhi. Anand was one of the many Indian writers inspired by Gandhi. While he was in England as a student at Cambridge and University College, London, he had begun to rewrite Untouchable after reading Gandhi’s essay on a sweeper boy published in the magazine Young India. He had been struck by the simplicity and austerity of Gandhi’s writing, and had come to see his own novel as artificially concocted.
Gandhi wasn’t a reader of novels, and he had plenty of other things to do. But he dutifully made his way through Anand’s manuscript and gave his verdict. The book was, he said, written in the language of Bloomsbury, not the language of an untouchable. He advised Anand to cut more than a hundred pages. He also told Anand that he would find his subject once he found his language.
In retrospect, Gandhi appears to have been more severe with Anand than he may have wished to be. The reference to Bloomsbury was certainly deliberate: before he came to live with Gandhi at the latter’s ash-ram in Central India, Anand had been one of the many groupies hanging around Bloomsbury (E.M. Forster later wrote an enthusiastic preface to Untouchable). Even after Anand stopped fancying himself a Bloomsbury aesthete, there was no tradition or model to support his attempts to write a novel in English about India.1 For one thing, the European idea of prose fiction as a means of social and political inquiry, the awareness that the novel in particular could be a truthful portrait of society, was new even to writers in Indian languages who had just begun to move away from their apprenticeship to Walter Scott, the Romantic poets, and such minor Victorian novelists as Marie Corelli, Wilkie Collins, G.W.M. Reynolds, and Benjamin Disraeli.
More discouragingly, few Indian writers before the 1930s had ever attempted prose fiction in English. The fledgling efforts of Anand, R.K. Narayan, and Raja Rao—the three major writers in English of the time—could not bear comparison with writers in Indian languages, such as Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote in Bengali, and the North Indian writer Premchand, who wrote in both Hindi and Urdu.
Anand was especially vulnerable to the awkwardness attached to writing in English, the colonizers’ language, about Indian untouchables and coolies. The pragmatism of Gandhi, who had told him to say his say in any language that comes to hand, couldn’t have overcome the other problems—problems summed up by Raja Rao, who was also inspired by Gandhi and by the anticolonial passions of the freedom struggle, in the foreword to his novel Kanthapura (1938): “One has to convey,” Rao wrote, “in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own.” Anand himself spoke of “the double burden on my shoulders, the Alps of the European tradition and the Himalaya of my Indian past.” This may sound self-dramatizing; but in many ways the story of modern Indian writing is the story of how successive writers dealt with that double burden.
Anand himself, although fluent in Punjabi and Urdu, kept writing in English. Untouchable, published in 1935, was the first in a series of social protest novels he was to publish over the next many decades. His politics changed: he joined the International Brigade in Spain, and then, after independence, he became a Gandhian-Socialist of sorts. The rural-urban, traditional-modern dichotomies of India became his theme in later books. The most remarkable of these was a trilogy of novels—The Village (1939), Across the Black Waters (1940), and The Sword and the Sickle (1942)—that followed the long journey of a Sikh from rural Punjab to the trenches of Flanders and back. Long out of print, these novels remain important in having been the first to incorporate Punjabi and Hindi words in English prose. Anand made his characters speak a kind of pidgin English in his attempt to capture the flavor and rhythm of North Indian dialects:
Why bey salé, illegally begotten! What is this plot you have been hatching, sons of Gandhi!
In his early nineties now, Anand lives, almost forgotten, near Bombay. Occasionally, you see an agonized essay by him on sectarian politics; he no longer writes novels. India—his great and complicated subject—has changed beyond recognition since the time he went to live with Gandhi. Among other things, his literary instrument, the English language, has experienced a complex fate. It now has a broadly utilitarian purpose in India: it is indispensable for several kinds of vocational and technical training; more people can read it now—an estimated 5 percent of the population. However, the overall quality of primary education has declined so much since independence that a better than working knowledge of English can only be acquired at elite public schools and universities, and is thus limited to a miniscule number of Indians.
This tiny minority, belonging to the small upper level of the Indian intelligentsia, now has a global presence. Yet most of the Indian intelligentsia lives in India and speaks and writes in Indian languages. It is one reason among many why writing in English hasn’t yet fully established itself as a tradition in India even as it assumes, in Europe and America, the exaggerated dimensions of a literary fashion.2 Even though Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things sold more than 100,000 copies in India, as many as a John Grisham or Sidney Sheldon best seller, the market for writing in English hasn’t opened up radically: for instance, Amit Chaudhuri’s newest novel, Freedom Song, sold 4,000 copies in hardback and paperback and was considered successful. This has to be contrasted with the tens of thousands of copies a literary novel in Malayalam or Marathi could sell. From the time Graham Greene arranged the publication of R.K. Narayan’s first novel in the mid-1930s, most readers of Indian writing in English have been in the West.
The more recent popular success of Indian writers in the West has managed to obscure the diversity and range of the literatures that exist in India. India has sixteen official languages, and major literatures have and continue to exist in most of them. In fact, it is only since Arundhati Roy’s success that writing in English has become less of a slightly freakish presence in India, more of an identifiable, if not fully developed, branch of Indian literature.3
It is indeed difficult to speak of such a heterogeneous entity as Indian literature, which refers—when Indianness itself is very strictly defined—to a bewildering continent-wide range of oral and literary works in languages of which few are connected to any of the others except through a broad notion of a unified civilization. In Europe, networks of universities and publishing make possible comparative readings; there is a great deal of movement of literary texts from one language to another. This isn’t the case in India, where modern scholarship has a long way to go before it can systematize Indian literatures. It is only beginning to be clear how modern Indian literatures developed out of the new civilization that arrived in India by way of colonialism, and how those literatures derived from the general intellectual ferment of India in the nineteenth century when the first Indian universities were established and a tiny literate bourgeoisie began to emerge in urban centers of trade and industry.
The recent publication of an annotated translation from Hindi into English of Nirmala (1928), one of Premchand’s most successful novels, is valuable in its attempt to explore the connections between modern Indian literature and the rise of a nationalist consciousness. Premchand spent most of his life in the region around Benares and was one of the writers in early-twentieth-century India who belonged to the conservative upper caste of Hindu society, and to whom modern education and liberal ideas had given new ways of looking at their world. In the previous century, Indian writers had been drawn to blank verse, allegories, sonnets, and romantic fiction. But as writers grew increasingly aware of the political and cultural abjectness of the society they belonged to, prose fiction supplanted verse and the preferred literary form came to be social realism, of which Premchand was one of the earliest and greatest Indian practitioners.4 Child marriage, caste and religious animosities, feudal cruelties, and the degraded position of women—these themes, so obvious now to the liberal imagination, were actually discovered for India by Premchand and explored in his fiction, which is full of the reformist passions released by the freedom struggle.
Nirmala, which was first serialized in a Hindi women’s magazine, recounts the story of a dowryless adolescent girl who is married off to an ageing widower. The girl drifts into an emotionally intense relationship with one of her stepsons; the young man dies after being sent away from home by his jealous father, and the ending shows Nirmala overwhelmed with guilt and remorse. The novel is not particularly skillful; there is no mistaking its high emotional pitch, its melodramatic excess, its many concessions to serial-fiction readers’ expectations. Nirmala herself is an unsatisfactorily passive character throughout the many traumas inflicted on her, the exact opposite of the self-assured feminist heroine we want her to be. In this, the novel is typical of Premchand’s and other fiction of the period, which, as the translator, Alok Rai, writes in an engaging afterword, is likely to bewilder many readers with its “curious mix of progressive yearnings and conservative inertias.”
Rai goes on to make the point that Premchand, who discovered and dramatized contemporary evils, such as child marriage, that few writers had noticed previously, couldn’t have pushed his readers much beyond a threshold of moral unease. Melodrama was his chosen, and quite effective, medium—melodrama as the “tragedy of the weak and ineffectual”—which made his novels accessible to a wide readership. It is through Nirmala’s passivity that he exposes the cruelty of social arrangements that, as Rai points out, have made it impossible for her to even “perceive the ways in which she has been wronged.”
Just two decades after Premchand, Ismat Chugtai displayed the boldness of theme and treatment that Premchand couldn’t afford to show in his time. Chugtai, writing in Urdu, was born into an aristocratic Muslim family, but turned into a card-carrying Communist along with many other North Indian writers in the 1930s and 1940s. Her life and work is part of the experiment and diversity that came to characterize Indian literatures after independence in 1947. She belonged to a literary movement that favored the kind of engagé literature made fashionable by Brecht, Sartre, and the Hungarian Marxist critic Georg Lukács. The ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Britain had not been lifted when Chugtai wrote “The Quilt,” her famous story about sexual inversion in a Muslim household. For a story with so heavy a theme, it was touched throughout with light comedy and thus escaped the notice of the moral police that has grown more zealous in recent years.
A young, impressionable girl is Chugtai’s first-person narrator, and we see through her eyes the decadent aristocrat with a taste for young boys, his neglected wife, and her attendant, with whom she drifts into a lesbian relationship. We become aware of the strange goings-on under the lihaf (the quilt of the title), which, much to her own shock and horror, she lifts one night to catch the lesbian pair in flagrante delicto.
Qurratulain Hyder, who shares Chugtai’s North Indian Muslim background, wrote, while she was still a teenager, what is considered one of the best novels about the partition of India. A later best-selling novel, Aag Ka Dariya (originally published in Urdu in 1959, and recently translated by the author as River of Fire), has a magisterial ambition and technical resourcefulness rarely seen before in Urdu fiction. River of Fire traces the history of India from the achievements of the classical age in the fourth century BC through the Muslim- and British-dominated centuries to the tragedy of the post-partition years. The two main characters, Gautam and Kamal, whose names don’t change but who play different roles, live through these historical periods as Buddhist monk and Central Asian conqueror, North Indian aristocrat and Bengali intellectual. Hyder employs diverse genres—letters, chronicles, parables, journals—to present her melancholy vision of the corrosions of time.
In confidently writing about India’s Buddhist and Hindu past, Hyder, a Muslim by birth, also provides an example of the secular literary culture of the subcontinent that has largely remained untainted by sectarian tensions.5
Her slightly younger contemporary, U.R. Anantha Murthy, who writes in the South Indian language of Kannada, came of age during the 1950s at the time of the earliest land reform movements in rural India and went on to become a leading figure of the Kannada cultural movement, which grew out of the increasing disillusionment with the Nehruvian quest for modernization. Anantha Murthy’s most controversial and celebrated work, Samskara, is a novel about a decaying Brahmin colony. The idea for the novel first came to Anantha Murthy when he was a young boy in a village school in South India, but he wrote the novel in England, as remote as possible from the language he used and the world he describes.
Anantha Murthy is not untypical of writers in regional languages, most of whom have grown up in rural or small-town worlds rooted in local traditions of oral storytelling. Their later acquaintance with Western literature and cinema often serves as a refining principle in their work. Anantha Murthy claims his early ideas about Samskara crystallized after watching Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. But Samskara also offers an instance among many of an Indian reality that may seem light years away from the modern metropolises in which Indian writing in English is bought and read. The novel, published in 1965, is set in a rural Brahmin enclave in South India. An apostate Brahmin, who sleeps with a low-caste prostitute, drinks alcohol, and consorts with Muslims, suddenly dies. The spiritual leader of the Brahmin community, a man of conspicuous virtue, is faced with the problem of dealing with his corpse. Does the dead man deserve the final rites due to a Brahmin despite his apostasies? Would there be a danger of pollution? Debating these questions, the old community, full of weak men and grasping women, begins to crack open.
Not a human soul there felt a pang at Naranappa’s death, not even women and children. Still in everyone’s heart an obscure fear, an unclean anxiety. Alive, Naranappa was an enemy; dead, a preventer of meals; as a corpse, a problem, a nuisance.
Meanwhile, events pile up fast: the plague comes to the enclave; the spiritual leader, a celibate husband nursing his invalid wife, ends up sleeping with the low-caste mistress of the dead man; people begin to die. Finally, the leader’s wife dies, and he is plunged into the biggest spiritual crisis he has faced so far in his life, overcome with guilt and remorse over his dereliction of ancestral duty, and yet unable to wholly reject the possibility of personal freedom that has come to him after his encounter with the low-caste woman.
Throughout the novel, Anantha Murthy builds extraordinary tension and atmosphere: rats dying, vultures hovering over the village; the stench of corpses wafting across the humid air; the low-caste huts burning at night; the anguished Brahmin leader wandering aimlessly through forest and village fair, slowly awakening to a new sense of the self and the world.
Skillfully, in fewer than 150 pages, Anantha Murthy creates a wholly convincing fictional world, in which the physical setting of the narrative and its larger metaphysical themes of duty and individual choice are played off against each other, and in turn are unselfconsciously connected to a complex cultural past. Samskara is full of references to philosophical concepts and legends from classical Indian texts. The India it evokes is, as V.S. Naipaul put it in an admiring appraisal of the English translation, not “over-explained or dressed-up or simplified.” It is an India that is instantly recognizable to its Indian readers.
To make India instantly recognizable: that was the problem novelists in English faced right from the 1930s, writing in a language that by its very use created a chasm between them and the ordinary Indian lives they sought to describe.6
The tiny minority of Westernized Indians was then much smaller than it is now, and more unsure of its identity: indeed, the few writers attempting to write about it invited derision. In 1964, V.S. Naipaul was dismissive of the younger writers in English: “In those novels,” he wrote, “which tell of the difficulties of the Europe-returned student, they are still only expressing a personal bewilderment; the novels themselves are documents of the Indian confusion.”
As things turned out, Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children was to seek rich material in that very confusion of Westernized India. “I was mild-mannered Clark Kent protecting my secret identity,” writes the novel’s long-nosed narrator, Saleem Sinai,
but what on earth was that? “Hey, Snotnose!” Glandy Keith yelled, “Hey, whaddya suppose our sniffer’ll grow up to be?” And the answering yell from Fat Perce Fishwalla, “Pinocchio!” And the rest, joining in, sing a raucous chorus of “There are no strings on me!”
Rushdie has been commonly credited with chutney-fying English, for discovering a new linguistic resource: the eccentricities of Anglo-Indian English. But the creative bilinguality that Kipling so effectively exploited in his fiction had long been a stock in trade of older writers using English, like Anand himself, G.V. Desani, the author of the Anglo-Indian romp All About H. Hatterr, and the Bombay-based poet Arun Kolatkar. Still, much more credit is due Rushdie for his brilliantly productive mining in Midnight’s Children of the chaotically multicultural sensibility common among the Westernized upper-middle classes of India, the compound of British-American and Indian-metropolitan middle-class cultures.
It was after the publication in 1981 of Midnight’s Children that the prob-lem of cultural translatability seemingly began to dissolve. 7 Rushdie’s achievement gave the necessary self-confidence to a later generation of writers in English who came from upper-middle-class backgrounds—some of them had gone to Indian versions of Eton and Westminster schools before moving on to English and American universities—and were, to use Naipaul’s word, “Europe-returned,” when not Europe-resident. The rural and small-town worlds of Narayan and Anand were as far from them as they were from an occasional English or American visitor to India; these writers did not, and indeed could not, participate in old-fashioned idealistic quests for quintessentially Indian themes. The moral concerns of the freedom struggle that made an earlier generation of writers look toward India’s villages and small towns for their themes and subjects could not be theirs. Instead, their work expressed a sensibility that in the decades since independence had been primarily shaped by exposure to the modern West.
An interesting example is The Golden Gate (1986), a novel in verse by Vikram Seth, which deals with the love lives of some sophisticated residents of the Bay Area:
Around them arias from Rossini
Resound from wall to wall. A bum
Unsoberly demands Puccini
Cups clink. Aficionados hum
And sing along with Pavarotti,
Expatiate upon the knotty
Dilemmas of the world, peruse
The Examiner for sports or news
Or, best of all, the funny pages,
Where Garfield, that egregious cat,
Grows daily lazier and more fat,
And voluble polemic rages,
While praise by one and all’s expressed
For the black brew of the Trieste….
The ease of cultural reference, the intimate but casual knowingness, the light irony—we have moved very far from the untouchables and coolies of Mulk Raj Anand and the small-town drifters of R.K. Narayan. “One has to describe,” Raja Rao had written in 1938, “in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own.” In The Golden Gate Seth had not only made the language entirely his own, but also assumed with extraordinary confidence a spirit that Rao and Anand, after all their experience of the West, could have only felt as alien.
The new cosmopolitanism of the writer in English who, in Salman Rushdie’s words, has put India on the literary map of the world, is celebrated in his recent anthology, Mirrorwork: Fifty Years of Indian Writing, 1947-1997. “Literature has little or nothing to do with a writer’s home address,” Rushdie asserts in his polemical introduction (a version of which appeared in The New Yorker under the title: “Damme, This is the Oriental scene for You!”). Accordingly, most of the living writers included in the anthology are expatriates. There are some familiar names from the past—R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Nirad C. Chaudhuri—but the biggest part of the book is taken up by writers published in the West in the wake of Rushdie’s success. Almost all of their novels owe their bilingual virtuosity, self-assured tone, epic-historical scale, or magic realist devices in some degree to Rushdie’s work. Often referred to in India as “Midnight’s Grandchildren,” they include Amitav Ghosh, I. Allan Sealy, Firdaus Kanga, Mukul Kesavan, Shashi Tharoor, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Ardeshir Vakil, and Kiran Desai.
But while the anthology claims to represent Indian writing in sixteen languages, Rushdie has included mostly writers you can find at a local Borders or Barnes and Noble, and excluded all except one of the greatest writers in Indian languages. Only Saadat Hasan Manto, who wrote some searing short stories about the Partition, makes it from among a potentially very long list that includes Nirmal Verma and O.V. Vijayan, two of the greatest writers in Hindi and Malayalam respectively, as well as U.R. Anantha Murthy, Ismat Chugtai, and Qurratulain Hyder.8
In fact, what Rushdie calls a conversation with the world (which really means a conversation with Europe and America) suffers from the simplifications and prolixity that are inevitable when you address a reader little acquainted with your subject—the disadvantages that would face Philip Roth, for example, if the audience for his novels existed primarily in India.
It is more fruitful to examine the way recent writing in English has dealt with that double burden Mulk Raj Anand spoke about: the Alps of the European tradition and the Himalaya of the Indian past. It is not a burden that Indian novelists who deal with exclusively Western themes and subjects have had to carry. They can shrug off the Himalaya of the Indian past altogether, as in The Golden Gate (described by Gore Vidal as the great California novel), which has no Indian characters in it, and which borrowed its form from Charles Johnston’s verse translation of Eugene Onegin.
Seth’s prose novel, A Suitable Boy, published in 1993, deals with this burden, and is itself in its mountain of realistic detail a veritable Himalaya of the Indian past. And it shows how complicated a task it is to accommodate contemporary India into an artistic form imported from Europe—especially now that the writer is no longer supported by the moral certainties of the freedom struggle. Many years ago, reviewing a novel by R.K. Narayan, John Updike had wondered if there would be a “Tolstoy or Cervantes who could render India more fully, without the touch of complacence and insubstantiality that Narayan’s Hindu sensibility bestows.” Seth’s novel, with its careful realism, the pages upon pages of period detail, certainly attempts to render India more fully: it is Tolstoyan in scope, if not in vision.
A Suitable Boy is set in the years just after independence, in North India, politically and socially the region most damaged by colonialism. The raw material—narrow-minded provincial elites with pretensions ruling over a cruelly abject peasantry—looks Flaubertian. But Seth dramatizes it with the unironical optimism of Monsieur Homais: the bourgeois faith in things slowly progressing and turning out well in the end. For all its self-consciously broad canvas—which includes low-caste peasants, the besieged feudal gentry, the flourishing colonial middle class—it sticks close to a basic Jane Austenish dilemma. Who will Lata Mehra marry? The beau monde poet-idler from Calcutta, the decent Muslim boyfriend disapproved of by her mother, or the England-returned executive with good prospects? In the end, it is the latter she chooses, stressing predictability and conformity over risky romance. The adaptation of Jane Austen to upper-caste Indian marriages doesn’t work here: Seth lacks her irony, and his characters lack the inner freedom her characters so strikingly possess.
In its celebration of Indian middle-class life, A Suitable Boy expresses the complacent faith in India that R.K. Narayan has been criticized for in the past except that the faith, in this instance, is not Hindu, but an accessory of the nineteenth-century realist tradition: something almost unconsciously inherited from Jane Austen and George Eliot. However, Austen and Eliot wrote out of the relative security of their imperial societies; their works express some of the general optimism of the English novel that Henry James rather cattily pointed out, in an essay on Maupassant, was the “optimism of women and spinsters,” “of ignorance as well as of delicacy.” When encountered in A Suitable Boy the same optimism cannot but appear incongruous; and to enter it requires suppressing everything you know about the dereliction of North India.
The limitations of a borrowed form, which can make a realist novel sound fantastical, are more striking in the case of magic realism, which is by far the most popular and commercially successful form used by third-world writers in the West. A tilt toward the fantastic and exotic, toward big all-inclusive metafictional narratives and broad philosophizing about India, has remained conspicuous in Indian writing in English since the publication of Midnight’s Children.
Magic realism’s vocabulary of exotica and stylized literary devices has been a special boon to young writers whose initial success in the West has partly depended on assuming the voice of a well-known older author. Consider the titles of three novels recently published by expatriate Indian writers in America: The Snake Charmer, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, The Mistress of Spices. The intrinsic strangeness of India provides easy fodder for colorful tall tales; and these novels, along with much other writing in English, abound in freaks and freakish incidents. They play up the most exotic imaginings of India in the West, and they work, for their predominantly Western readership, at a simple level of escapist fantasy.
What’s missing here—and the lack almost demotes Indian writing in English to a minor tradition of Romantic fiction-writing—are those strivings toward psychological realism that, in the nineteenth century, made the portrait of society of the European novel a more sophisticated art form. The recourse to often formulaic fantasy and exotica—which in effect means covering the unknown world with another patina of unreality—dispenses with the writer’s need to arrive at an individual vision, or to examine freshly, as Anand was compelled to do in the 1930s, the world around him.9 For instance, the private life of the middle classes, the raw material for the great novels of England, Russia, and France, hasn’t turned out to be a fruitful subject for Indian writers in English. This is odd when you consider how well this theme—so full of rich ambiguities in a postcolonial third-world country like India—has been exploited by many writers in Indian languages, as well as by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who has transmuted her years as an expatriate in Delhi and Bombay into some brilliantly insightful portraits of middle-class India.
Jhabvala has the perspective of an outsider, a perspective that is also useful, though in a more limited way, for Rohinton Mistry, whose three books, Swimming Lessons, Such a Long Journey, and A Fine Balance, give a credible account of middle-class life in Bombay during the 1960s and the 1970s. Born in Bombay, and resident in Canada since 1975, Mistry is unique among Indian expatriate writers in employing fiction as a mode of social and political inquiry. He focuses on the diminishing fortunes of the Parsi community, and he succeeds in making the fate of this once important and now marginalized minority yield larger readings of life elsewhere in the city and the country. The pathos of a colonial elite at odds with postcolonial India is captured in Swimming Lessons, a collection of stories set in a Parsi enclave in Bombay. Such a Long Journey evokes well the creeping sense of general malaise—rising prices, corruption, crime—in India just before Mrs. Gandhi went to war with Pakistan in 1971. A Fine Balance describes the lives of rural migrants in Bombay against the backdrop of Mrs. Gandhi’s Emergency of 1975-1977.
However, when Mistry turns to describing, even briefly, the great teeming life of India outside Bombay, he becomes somewhat unconvincing. The pages in A Fine Balance describing oppressed low-caste village lives too often descend into archness or caricature. Here, for instance, is the local Brahmin, Pandit Lalluram (the implausible name itself—Lalluram is a pejorative for ridiculous or fatuous men—is a warning):
He pivoted on one buttock and broke wind. Dukhi leaned back to allow it free passage, wondering what penalty might adhere to the offence of interfering with the waft of brahmanical flatus.
The peculiar inadequacies of the novelist in English—for whom the Alps can often seem to dominate the Himalayas—are not shared by writers in Indian languages, people working with more individual and introspective forms, unconcerned with rendering India fully or in any ambitious detail. The work of, for instance, Anantha Murthy is read by people whose identities are rooted in their regions, and who for that very reason are alert to the fine discriminations and nuances of their subject in a way a reader in the West would find difficult. The awareness of a knowledgeable readership, however small, is a large consolation to writers as they go about their lonely task, attempting to deepen and share their experience of the world. In this sense, parochialism—which Rushdie calls the “main vice” of literatures in Indian languages—is not such a bad thing.
One of the few Indian writers who works well within—while at the same time highlighting—the innate limitations of writing in English is Amit Chaudhuri, whose three novels, published separately in England in 1991, 1993, and 1998, have been brought together in a handsome omnibus edition by Knopf. Chaudhuri doesn’t have much use for psychological or social realism in his fiction, which, at its best, conveys the peculiar poignancies rather than the harsh ironies of a sheltered upper-middle-class existence in India. But his very measured, almost poetic prose, which evokes more than it narrates, and the austere economy of his novels, which are one fourth the size of an average Indian novel, make him distinctive: here is a painter not of large and garish Indian murals, but of portraits in miniature of everyday life.
A characteristic sentence from his first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, is:
She would collect the dust in a corner, and here there would be an accumulation of unlikely treasures that had blown in from outside or had gathered, unnoticed, inside: a single elegant pigeon’s feather, a page lost from a book, a dead spider which ants had forgotten to carry off, the long, black, tender loops of Mamima’s and Sandeep’s mother’s hair.
Compiling such unlikely treasures seems Chaudhuri’s task in this very fine first novel, which, along with his other two novels, reminds one again and again of the little aesthetic coda tucked away in Pale Fire, a piece of light verse that lists the “setting sun that lights the tips of the TVs giant paper clips” and the “shadow of a doorknob that resembles a baseball bat” and the “empty little swing that swings under the tree,” and then concludes with:
…these are the things
That break my heart.
The author’s note to Chaudhuri’s books suggests that he has spent most of his adult life either studying or teaching at English universities: University College, London, Oxford, and Cambridge. But he was born in Calcutta in 1962 and brought up in Bombay, and a fiercely sensuous nostalgia informs his evocations of both cities, particularly in A Strange and Sublime Address, where Calcutta’s “web of sound, smells, and colors” is unraveled tenderly by a visiting boy from Bombay, the daydreaming narrator Sandeep, living the “shadowy, secret life of the holidays.” Chaudhuri’s sensitivity to the peculiarly monotonous rhythm of an Indian day is reminiscent of Satyajit Ray: Sandeep monitoring the street life in A Strange and Sublime Address recalls exactly the famous scene in Ray’s Charulata of the bored housewife peering through window shutters at the vendors and hawkers passing through the empty lane.
In A Strange and Sublime Address, we see Calcutta through the child’s tenderly solipsistic eye (even the near death of his host is an occasion for childish excitement). Through his rapt gaze we see large gregarious families with playful cousins and affectionate but remote grown-ups (who all seem alike to the child, and whose complicated ways seem slightly mad). We watch the evenings in narrow lanes (“Smoke hung over the lane, delicately bandaging the decaying walls of the house”); we follow Sandeep on his quietly exuberant forays into bazaars, driving with his family in a battered, unreliable car.
The adult writer, refining and annotating old impressions, keeps showing through the child’s vision of things. On a visit to a slumlike suburb, Sandeep sees “hundreds of insects in the twin funnels of the car’s headlights, rushing forward in an obsessive stream, an agitated Milky Way of tiny, mindless, winged life.” Later, at the house of a lower-middle-class relative, the bareness and order of the room he is in moves him to a mature reflection:
It made one remember that poverty meant displacement as well as lack, while austerity meant being poor in a rooted way, within a tradition and culture of sparseness, which transformed even the lack, the paucity, into a kind of being.
Chaudhuri’s newest novel, Freedom Song, is also set in Calcutta and covers the interconnected lives of two Bengali households during the winter of 1992-1993. There is no first-person narrator here, offering a steady point of view and thus simplifying the reader’s task; and Chaudhuri’s lyrical mode, most explicitly influenced in this novel by Virginia Woolf, offers few clues, social or psychological, to the identities of, and connections between, his characters, Khuku, Mini, Shib, Bhola, Bhaskar, Piyu, Manik, and others, who drift in and out of the pages without leaving a distinct impression.
The Knopf edition contains summaries at the beginning of each novel, a useful strategy since you can spend quite a lot of time figuring out and then trying to remember who is who and does what. Chaudhuri too often assumes in his readers a prior intimacy with his characters and themes that, say, Virginia Woolf, living in and writing about a stable and coherent social class, could have rightly assumed. You have to make your own connections to see that the characters in Freedom Song resemble the people we have already encountered in A Strange and Sublime Address: the old business elite, a creation of British-controlled Calcutta, is in retreat, the older members close to retirement or death, the younger ones migrating to Europe and America as soon as they can.
As in Chaudhuri’s previous novel about Calcutta, nothing much actually happens in Freedom Song, whose real subject is the melancholy vacancies of the eventless day, what Virginia Woolf called moments of being. Throughout the novel, Chaudhuri’s prose remains a mute camera, tracking each of his characters through their private zones of solitude and stillness.
On and on one goes, gradually to become a stranger to oneself, but never completely, and never knowing what it is that pushes us in one direction and not another…
This is Khuku remembering an old love whom she didn’t marry; but it could be Mrs. Dalloway or Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. The result of this “incessant, unmethodical pacing” that Virginia Woolf preferred over linear narratives is that Chaudhuri’s characters do not change or develop in any noticeable way; they also sound the same. Settling into old age and its infirmities, Mini and Khuku and Shib and Bhola worry about their jobs and health, and reminisce at length about old happinesses and regrets. It is only when Bhaskar, Bhola’s son, whose Communist affiliations had everyone slightly worried, settles down in an arranged marriage that life seems to start afresh:
Where Bhaskar’s and Manik’s and Piyu’s childhood had begun and evolved and come to a conclusion, where they’d slept together on the bed in often anarchic and filial positions, played between and under their beds and bruised themselves, another existence began at last.
Chaudhuri’s prose in Freedom Song is more conscious of itself than in his previous novels; and it can wander off into portentousness.
And the change was probably only a phase, a development as short-lived as anything else; while what seemed to be in a condition of stasis might actually be shimmering with uncertainty and on the brink of extinction.
But there are also a number of beautiful passages:
Then, when the train had gone, the air was cleansed, and the room was as quiet as its reflection in the dressing-table mirror, with Oil of Olay, Lactocalamine, Vaseline, Pond’s Dream Flower Talc, and two lipsticks arranged carefully, with all devotion and seriousness, on the shelf before it.
These lovingly catalogued things have the effect of Proust’s madeleines on anyone who grew up in a middle-class home in India in the Seventies and early Eighties.
Chaudhuri’s impressionistic prose is less effective in his second novel, Afternoon Raag, which, though very short, has a wider range. The narrator is, one guesses, the same child encountered in A Strange and Sublime Address, now grown up and entering the larger world, but still living, even as an Indian student at Oxford, a self-absorbed, peripheral existence. Reading Afternoon Raag, about the “prelapsarian background of lectures, bookshops, friends, lives spent generously and routinely like rain-showers, stopping and starting again,” you have the sense that the rhythm of the Indian day has found a perfect counterpart in the dreaminess of Oxford.
Once again, not much happens, even though there are more narrative possibilities here: the nameless narrator is simultaneously involved with two women. But the women are evoked, not described; their attractiveness to the narrator remains a mystery to the reader, who stays in a drizzle of nostalgia-tinted impressions of Oxford and India:
There were times when I escaped to London, and as people fell asleep on the coach, their heads nodding and chiming in unison, I had occasion to think of my parents speaking to each other in Sylheti, or the sensation of standing on a verandah on a hot day.
In a parallel narrative, the narrator remembers the life he has left behind in India, particularly his music lessons (he also provides explanatory notes on Indian classical music):
On some mornings we would sing raag Bhairav together, our two voices and styles mingling closely and floating over the other sounds of the house—pigeons, and the distracted noises of servants—his voice sometimes carrying my hesitant voice, and negotiating the pathways of the raag, as a boat carries a bewildered passenger.
He remembers the house and lane in Bombay he lived in, the servants that clean the house every morning, his own parents living out quiet upper-middle-class lives in suburban Bombay, his mother reading the evening papers while his father, a corporate executive, is “clipping his nails fastidiously, letting them fall on to an old, spread-out copy of the Times of India, till he sneezes explosively, as he customarily does, sending the crescent-shaped nail-clippings flying into the universe.”
The overall effect of these elegantly recalled memories is rather similar to the one created by Sharma, the narrator’s friend, reading an English translation of Mandelstam in a strong Indian accent. When Chaudhuri describes the effect as “odd, cubist, harmlessly egotistical, and atmospheric” he could be speaking of his own novels, their shifting perspectives, fragmented prose, word pictures, and wistful moods.
Still, the lack of narrative remains a flaw, notwithstanding the local pleasures and satisfactions of Chaudhuri’s prose. The serenity of Chaudhuri’s poet’s gaze imposes limits on his fiction; it keeps him away from that other novelistic task: the exploration of individual character and background, and, through them, the creation of narrative suspense. The stream of impressions in Afternoon Raag turns out to be far too much like the “fine, persistent, baby-like drizzle” of the narrator’s first day in Oxford, the drizzle “in which no one gets wet.”
At one point in A Strange and Sublime Address, Chaudhuri has his budding-writer protagonist take a walk through his neighborhood in Calcutta and wonder about the story that a writer might weave around the different lives that inhabit it. “And yet,” he adds, “the story would never be a satisfying one, because the writer, like Sandeep, would be too caught up in jotting down the irrelevances and digressions that make up lives, and the life of a city, rather than a good story—till the reader would shout, ‘Come to the point!”‘
You don’t often say that as the irrelevances and digressions pile up in Chaudhuri’s novels; you are usually content to follow him in his search for what Nabokov called aesthetic bliss. But the greatness of Nabokov lay in making the poet and novelist in him work together, as F.W. Dupee once pointed out in these pages.10 The poet and novelist remain separate beings within Chaudhuri; and their different, often conflicting, impulses are nowhere more evident than in the latest novel, Freedom Song, where the childlike and adolescent self-absorption of the two early novels is replaced by an adult vision that cannot but acknowledge the turbulent larger world. The demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 and the subsequent riots are often referred to. “It was no bad thing that they toppled that mosque,” says Mini, the middle-aged arthritic friend of Khukhu, who wants to vote for the Hindu nationalist BJP. Chaudhuri writes about, in passing, the larger changes in India after the demolition, the country altering, “gradually and almost imperceptibly.” We can also infer from one of the characters, Shib, who works in a sick state-owned industry and anxiously talks about economic liberalization, that the entrepreneurial dynamism and vulgar energy of the new middle class hasn’t reached Calcutta yet.
The decline of Calcutta, the steady disappearance of an old middle class, the rise of Hindu nationalism—you can sense these broad themes in Freedom Song, but they lack urgency and drama, partly because the camera, despite all its incessant, unmethodical pacing, records only tranquil surfaces. Chaudhuri’s oblique Virginia Woolf- Katherine Mansfield-haunted form comes equipped with a built-in vision, excluding virtually everything that lies below those tranquil surfaces.
You also wonder in Freedom Song why Bhaskar’s sympathies for the ruling Communist Party are never once troubled by the criminals and lumpens that now control the Party’s suburban network in Calcutta. The Communist milieu evoked by Chaudhuri—the high-minded discussions, the agitprop plays and songs—really belongs to a more idealistic period in Calcutta’s history, the Sixties and early Seventies, when the Communists, out of power, offered hope to the city’s youth. In the same novel, such words as dust, grime, and stench hardly occur in his evocations of Calcutta, the city where, or so the joke goes, a visiting American was once heard wondering: It smells of shit all right, but what do they do to it?
By evading Indian realities that in Calcutta at least are overwhelming—social and physical wretchedness, dirt, disease, extreme poverty, crime, and random violence—by evading all this, Chaudhuri’s fiction risks falling into the Romantic mode of fantasy: in this case, the expatriate’s nostalgic fantasy about an ideal and irredeemably lost time. A contradiction emerges between the self-conscious artistry and lyricism of Chaudhuri’s prose and the darker, unexamined dimensions of his subject that he himself cannot be unaware of.
The contradiction is not unique to Chaudhuri: it was what Mulk Raj Anand confronted at the beginning of his writing and eventually resolved by renouncing the Bloomsbury aestheticism he had adopted in England. Six decades later, Chaudhuri can be seen as having made a reverse journey. Born and brought up in India, he is unavoidably aware of his country’s peculiarly third-world character and destiny. Living in England and writing about India, he has discovered a congenial aesthetic in Bloomsbury.
Such rediscoveries and roundabout journeys are part of the complicated situation of the writer in English. That said, every fiction, no matter what its provenance, must create an illusion of reality; and Chaudhuri’s novels succeed in doing so to an impressive degree. He has such a tender intimacy with his world and the people who inhabit it that all the evasions implicit in his conversion to Bloomsbury can begin to appear natural and just. Chaudhuri’s success is no mean thing, even if you ignore its paradox: the paradox of a globalized literary sensibility—the writer in English—whose fluency and skill in holding a conversation with the world is usually achieved at the cost of excluding significant aspects of human experience from its purview.
May 20, 1999
Later, Anand wrote dismissively of the Bloomsbury preoccupation with the “imperceptible stirrings of sensibilities of noble ladies,” and Virginia Woolf’s scathing rejection letters to aspiring Indian novelists prompted G.V. Desani to caricature her as “Betty Bloomsbohemia, the Virtuosa with knobs-on” in the semifictional preface to his novel All About H. Hatterr (1951). ↩
Like all fashions this one has its commercial side. After a brief spell in the 1960s, India is back on the cultural charts. (See Alex Kuczynski, “This Year, the Jet Set Is Seeking Nirvana,” The New York Times, June 7, 1998.) There seems to be renewed interest in Indian spirituality, religion, literature—or whatever versions of them are currently available in the West. ↩
A lot of recent celebrations of writing in English share the innocent assumption that it is the only kind of Indian literature that exists. To this innocence, Amit Chaudhuri provided a useful comparison in the Times Literary Supplement (August 8, 1997): it was, he said, rather like readers in India remaining unaware of Dickens and Lawrence and thinking that the great figures of English literature were to be found in the list periodically compiled by Granta of young, up-and-coming British writers. ↩
English was then mostly the language of administration; the new upper-caste educated elite, which was struggling to find a modern identity for itself, was paradoxically more rooted in the vernacular; literary magazines and the book trade relied on Indian languages in a way that might surprise us now. ↩
For instance, the Pakistani writer Intizar Husain, who writes in Urdu, continues to draw inspiration from Hindu and Buddhist epics. ↩
The exception was R.K. Narayan, whose seemingly effortless prose, lightness of touch, and humanist vision more than compensated for the lack of verisimilitude that Naipaul found so troubling on his first visit to India. ↩
The same problem made Satyajit Ray, easily the greatest artist India has produced in the last fifty years, eschew English almost completely in his work. He made almost all of his films in Bengali, based most of them on Bengali works of fiction, and always thought—he insisted to interviewers—of Bengalis as his primary audience. ↩
An earlier, and still the best, anthology of Indian writing, Penguin’s New Writing in India (1974), edited by Adil Jussawalla, had excluded the more prominent writers in English on the valid grounds that they were available in the West. Your confidence in Rushdie’s judgment is not enhanced when you find that Satyajit Ray is assumed to have written his stories in English—he wrote them in Bengali—or when Rushdie includes a literary figure of the 1930s and 1940s who died in 1961—Surya Kant Tripathi, Nirala—in a short list of the “present-day” writers in Indian languages (a blunder unchecked even by the tenacious fact-checkers of The New Yorker). ↩
A greater confidence and talent became evident in the works of Amitav Ghosh, Allan Sealy, and Vikram Chandra only when they moved away from the magic realist form of their first novels. ↩