The Indian Novel in England

By Wong, Nicholas | Contemporary Review, April 1996 | Go to article overview

The Indian Novel in England


Wong, Nicholas, Contemporary Review


The 'deep association' that Rabindranath Tagore welcomed between India and the West as far back as 1916 has by today gone far beyond anything the imperial encounter could have anticipated.

In a world routinely described in terms of the prefix 'post' (as in post-modern, post-colonial etc.) cultures are seen in the images of pyramids and cities as melting pots full of sociological chop suey. Given those new circumstances the very title of Salman Rushdie's East, West (published last year) catches the mongrel spirit of our times definitively; with the matter-of-factness of the Rudyard Kipling line, 'East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet', which, in another era, indicated the exact opposite.

What puts such a psychological distance between 'East is East etc.' and East, West is, of course, historical time. The presence of the British Raj in India as described in Kipling's Kim, Plain Tales from the Hills, Wee Willie Winkie etc. and even E. M. Forster's A Passage to India brought into being a literary terrain called Anglo-India. The point of view from that place was implicitly that of the colonial expatriate. In that world it was not pukka to mix overtly with the locals.

Since Indian independence in 1947 and the migrations from the subcontinent into Britain which followed, new possibilities - socially, culturally, artistically - had to emerge. For reasons such as these English literature was becoming a literature in English. When Rushdie's Midnight's Children won the Booker Prize in Britain in 1982 this seemed confirmed, at least in the eyes of a certain reading public. As a former advertising copywriter and ever keen to (re-)coin a phrase, Rushdie heralded the discovery of a new fictional land: Indo-Anglia.

In an influential article in The Times that year he continued to clear the ground, escalating the tone with playful effrontery:

English, no longer an English language, now grows from many roots; and those whom it once colonized are carving out large territories for themselves. The Empire is striking back.

The battle over English is not new, and neither is the struggle to belong within the canon of English studies. The growth of literary criticism this century can be seen as a kind of postal sorting of great from good writing. F. R. Leavis' The Great Tradition which appeared in 1948, among other things helped to fasten Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad onto an English readers' royal family tree. The first stirrings of activity in Indo-Anglia began, curiously enough, at around this time.

V. S. Naipaul, of Indian extraction but from Trinidad, arrived in Britain in 1950. Eight years later he claimed despondently that the Americans didn't want him because he was too British, and that the British public didn't want him because he was too foreign. 'It is an odd situation', he wrote, 'an Indian writer writing in English for an English audience about non-English characters who talk their own sort of English.'

What established Naipaul into what might be considered today a pantheon of world writers was the publication in 1961 of his novel, A House for Mr. Biswas. The central tension of a man caught between his desire for independence and the irresistible pull of the Hindu family structure - all within a post-colonial Trinidad setting - was unique in its local flavour; yet, like much great literature, universal in its portents.

Critics rushed to make hay out of Biswas and apportioned him a plethora of literary forbears; comparisons with characters out of Dickens, Dostoyevsky and even Beckett abounded. The forging of possible links between texts is for readers and scholars alike always interesting. All the more if they are from culturally if not linguistically different sources.

And yet, the text that reverberates most influentially at the heart of A House for Mr. Biswas is not from the Western tradition. It is, instead, the Ramayana, one of the two sacred Hindu texts, the Mahabharata being the other. …

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