About the Book
Indian writing in English: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry Selections covers the syllabus for Discipline Course1, Semester 1 for students of English under the four Year Undergraduate Programme of the University of Delhi, Beginning with the poetry of H.L.V. Derozio, and closing with a short story by Aravind Adiga, the book also includes readings by noted commentators on the development of Indian writing in English. It carries comprehensive introductions to the history of the development of Indian Literature in English spanning over one hundred years, as also extensive headnotes to introduce the individual poetry and prose selection.
This course attempts to include a large cross-section of Indian poets and authors who have made their mark on the literary map. The texts and the authors have been chosen carefully to represent various geographical and cultural variations in terms of caste, class, linguistic background, and domicile. The writers featured in this text are: Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, Robin S. Ngangom, Mulk raj Anand, Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, Aravind Adiga, Raja Rao, Meenakshi Mukherjee and Bruce King.
Indian Literature in English has come a long way since its inception. Though it is difficult to trace its genesis, one thing is certain that it was a product of the colonial rule. When English was introduced in India following Lord Macaulay’s Minute way back in 1835, the educated Indians of that time could have hardly imagined that a hundred years down the line their progeny would have a literature of their own in English. Of course, they continued to agonize over the use of a foreign language for creative expression, a few (like Michael Madhusudan Dutt and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay in the nineteenth century) starting their writing career in English and abandoning it in favour of their mother tongue. Yet, many more wrote nothing except in English and, at least one of them (Raja Rao) famously justifying the need for suitable adjustment in the idiom.
Be that as it may, having been a subject-race of the British Empire, the more Indians were exposed to the English language and literature, the more they chose to express their creative imaginations in English. Needless to say, today Indian Literature in English is a well established domain, appreciated the world over for its varieties and qualities.
This textbook for the First Year students of the University of Delhi opens up several dimensions of Indian Literature in English to both students and teachers of English Literature. Beginning with Derozio and closing with Aravind Adiga, the selection covers more than one hundred years of creative output in English. The texts and the authors have been chosen carefully so as to represent the geographic and cultural variations in terms of caste, class, linguistic background, and domicile. The course attempts to include a large cross section of India’s significant poets and writers by choosing from three major literary genres: poetry, the short story and the novel. Unfortunately, no play could be included due to the paucity of space. The volume comes with a detailed introduction and extensive headnotes for each of the individual selections, put together by scholars who have many years experience of teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. We hope that students and teachers will find this volume useful in appreciating the richness and diversity of this course.
Indian Writing in English: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry Selections introduces the reader to a selection of poetry and short stories written in English by Indians over the last 200 years. The creative writers, who embarked on the challenging task of narrating the Indian nation in prose and verse, both before and after Independence, were faced with many challenges. The key words were ‘exile’, ‘alienation’, ‘authenticity’ and ‘Indianness’, while the hidden agenda was nationhood and citizenship and the search for an essentially Indian mode of perception and thought, in whatever language it was expressed. Satchidanandan (1999) points out that in this writing, paradigms are tried and given up; communities are imagined and dissolved; traditions are constructed and deconstructed; the principle of unity and of difference are alternately tried out; and the West’s presence is acknowledge and negated; radical European concepts and models are alternated with a return to indigenous roots. Our creativity, he adds, has thus been dialogic, and our literary discourse marked by a negotiation of a necessary heterogeneity, by a conception of identity that lives through difference and hybridity.
An added dimension is given to the negotiations by the creative writers, by expatriate writing which introduces the idea of the nation that is not contingent upon domicile or constricted by the demands of geographical territory. Diaspora epistemology locates itself, as Mishra (1996) points out, in the realm of the hybrid, in the domains of the cross- cultural, and in contaminated social and cultural regimes. In a progressively multi-ethnic conception of the nation-state, it is ‘diaspora theory’ that bears testimony to the fact that nation within the minds of writers are as real as those on the map. Vijayasree (1966) identifies expatriation as operating in a space permeated by perpetually shifting ‘alter-nativities’. She also addresses the question of self-definition as an urgent imperative in expatriate consciousness and sees the issue of identity at the heart of creative expressions by expatriate writers. There is a continuous attempt, she believes, to turn one’s liminality into strength, to question notions of belonging, to celebrate unbelonging and above all, to prove oneself. These writers oppose concepts of centrality, and their dominant discourse is one of difference. Rushdie (1991), while talking about Indian writers, both those who live away from India and those who live in India but write in English, mentions that they inhabit separate spaces in life and in literature, both in geographical and literary terms. He says that these writers create, ‘not actual cities and villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind. This kind of writing also questions the premise that ‘a people must have a land [or a specific language] in order to be a people. He then suggests that the writer who is ‘out-of-country’ and even ‘out-of-language’ may experience alienation in an intensified form. What some critics see as a fallout of the expatriate condition, can also be understood as a central predicament of the Indian English writer who, while writing about the state of the nation, is actually endeavouring to write him/herself into being.
We will begin with an introduction to Indian English poetry and narrate a brief history of the critical paradigms that have been used to critique it. We will then go on to discuss the life and writings of the four poets included in this anthology, to provide their writing a context and a framework.
Indian English Poetry
An important site of the criticism of Indian English poetry is its perceived ‘inauthenticity’ by critics who question whether this poetry can claim to be called Indian at all, since it does not conform to their notion of what constitutes Indianness. An early response to Indian English poetry had come from Buddhadev Bose who called it ‘a blind alley, lined with curio shops, leading nowhere’ (quoted in Lall, 1983), and Mukherjee (1971) wrote that Indian English poetry can lay claim to an independence from English poetry only when it is firmly rooted in the social and cultural ethos of India. In his introduction to an anthology of Indian English poetry, Sarang (1989, 1994), attempts to understand why it has been difficult to accept this literary genre as legitimate and ‘authentic’. He locates the problems of Indian poetry in English in its allegedly derivative nature; its restricted focus on a particular social stratum; and its lack of a homogeneous geographically compact literary culture. For Sarang, Indian English poetry needs the dynamic play of forces and counter- forces, groups and movements, the fuel of rebellion and a return to tradition. He suggests that Indianness is exploited by these writers for its exotic appeal to the non-Indian reader and denies that this commonly invoked criterion of merit can be a true measure of aesthetic value. Finally, for Sarang, it is only by being himself that the poet can contribute to a definition of Indianness, for Indianness can only be defined, after all, in terms of who Indians are.
While its detractors are legion, Indian English poetry also has its share of champions who interrogate the idea of a monolithic notion of Indianness as a legitimate stick with which to beat the poets. Narasimhaiah (1968, 1999) argues that it is the operative sensibility that makes a writer an Indian and not the language s/he uses. An early advocate of Indian English poetry, Narasimhaiah uses inwardness with the English language and the expression of a distinct identifiable sensibility as the yardsticks to judge such writing. In a spirited defence of its belonging within the larger family of Indian literature, Gokak (1970, 1998) calls Indian English poetry Indian first and everything else afterwards. His defence is based on his belief that it has voiced the aspirations, the joys and sorrows of the Indian people and been sensitive to the changes it the national climate and striven increasingly to express the soul of India. On the question of identity, Char (1988) suggests that Indian English poetry can lay claim to being part of Indian literature by virtue of its rootedness in the Indian cultural milieu. He locates the ironic keenness of the writing of Indian English poets in the simultaneous exercise of their individual talents trained in and tempered by the study of English poets, along with their awareness of indigenous traditions.
The second issue at the forefront of the study of Indian English poetry is language. Since English originally came to India as a colonial legacy, the language itself has become an arena for critical debate and contest. Iyengar (1962, 1984), who inaugurated the language debate in the criticism of Indian English writing, praises it as a novel experiment in creative mutation, in so far as it is Indian in thought and feeling and emotion, yet courting the graces and submitting to the discipline of English for expression. He credits this literature with the unique distinction of deriving from and promoting an all-India consciousness—a total vision of Mother India—to the outside world and also before the diverse linguistic groups of the country. Iyengar also comments on the challenges faced by the writers as they walk on the razor’s edge in an attempt to render in English the rhythms, idiosyncrasies, images, idioms and proverbs of the Indian language. This concern had already been raised by Raja Rao three decades earlier in his preface to Kanthapura (1938) and continued to be at the centre of Parthasarathy’s discussion about this genre, in the following decade. Iyengar also points out that since spatially in India, English is a ‘nowhere language’, it has to work even harder to adapt to the Indian climate. Another predicament of this writing is its constant endeavour to simultaneously assert itself as Indian and measure itself against the best Western standards. For Parthasarathy (1976: 3) an important characteristic of Indian verse in English in the mid-twentieth century has been its ‘emergence from the mainstream of English literature and its appearance as part of Indian literature’. He sees Indian English literature as ‘rooted in and stemming from an Indian environment and reflecting its mores, often ironically’. For him, these writers face two kinds of problems—the quality of experience to be expressed in English and the quality of the idiom to be used. For Parthasarathy, the question of ‘national identity bedevils Indian English poetry’ and the search for an ‘individual voice’ is an enduring concern. Locating Indian English poetry in the context of an Indian search for self-definition, Nandy (1983, 1991) views this poetry as impelled by a quest for roots and an interrogation of older forms of poetry. He sees this enterprise as marked by the efforts of some poets to consciously reject the rain/peacock/lotus image nexus and the attitudes of renunciation, resignation and detachment, in favour of a more individual and modern idiom, trying to make English a living language that Indians could create in.
As we have seen, on one side of the debate are Iyengar and others, and on the other, an equally strong set of arguments against the use of English by India English poets. The issue of the medium of expression engages the attention of Vatsyayan (in Poddar, 1969), and he bemoans the fact that a whole generation of writers ‘is living in translation, rather than the original’. Parthasarathy who gives us both sides of the picture, also feels that English in India rarely approaches the liveliness and idiosyncrasy one finds in African and West Indian writing. According to Parthasarathy, Indian poets have not extended the resources of English, or Indianized it, and hence have been unable to find an adequate and personal language. Adding to the chorus of detractors, Singh (1992) alleges that ‘the spirit that we seek to exorcise has infiltrated the very mantra through which we seek to exorcise it’ and in Perry’s (1994) opinion, Indian English poets stretch their linguistic resources far beyond their milieu of everyday life. Perry hypothesizes that most of the poets have undergone supplemental saturation experiences with English through extensive stays in Britain and America. At the same time, he also feels that Indian English verse smells of the lamp, is academic and exaggeratedly intra-literary and imitative. He believes that the academic reverence that the poets have for T.S. Eliot’s poetics results in their valorizing tradition, myth and legend, while minimizing individual creativity and personal consciousness. Perry asserts that it is incumbent upon Indian English poetry to develop its capacities for cultural criticism by going beyond preserving cultural values, building national consciousness and offering visionary alternatives. This is particularly important, Perry feels, given the rapid changes in Indian society that are threatening both its diversity and unity. On a lighter note, as a practitioner, Daruwalla (1998) has attempted to bring this debate to a close by objecting to what he calls the ‘lactatory school of literary criticism’ which claims that you can ‘only write in a language you imbibed with your mother’s milk’!
The introduction to Bruce King’s Modern Indian Poetry in English (1987, 2005), included in this anthology, intervenes in this debate and suggests a context within which this gene can be read. He historicizes the development of this genre from the 1950s onwards and provides a framework for its analysis. While King’s book spans only three decades of writing by Indian poets in English and is selective in its inclusion of the poets, chosen for detailed analysis, it is nevertheless a very useful starting point for the study of poetry being written by Indians, both resident in India and those who have settled in different parts of the world. King would perhaps agree with Parthasarathy who says, ‘In the context of Indian verse as whole, the contribution of poets writing in English is only marginal, and is likely to remain so. But it can, today, be unreservedly said that it is a significant contribution in that it is a legitimate expression of universal, human experience’ (Parthasarathy, 1976: 11).
The foremost among the poets included in this anthology is Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809-31). Derozio is one of the earliest Indian poets to use English as the medium of creative expression. Born in Calcutta into the Eurasian community, he attended Drummond’s Academy and after leaving school in 1823, worked with his father in the office of J. Scott and Company for two years. He then went to Bhagalpur to work for his uncle Johnson (married to his mother’s sister) who was an indigo planter. It is here that the muse of poetry is believed to have blessed him, as he attributes this sojourn to being the inspiration for his The Fakeer of Jungheera: A Metrical Tale (1828). In his own words, ‘it struck me as a place where achievements in love and war might well take place and the double character I had heard of the Fakeer together with some acquaintance with the scenery induced me to form a tale upon both these circumstances’ (quoted in Mehrotra 2003: 47). A more controversial sub-theme of the poem is sati. At the centre of the debate among both the British and the Indians at the time, issues relating to the rights of women especially sati, was a site for the conflict between tradition and Western progressive ideas that were finding their way into the classroom and the pulpit, as well as other public arenas such as the newspaper.
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