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Indian writing in English

From Academic Kids

Indian the writing in English (IWE) is the body of work of writers in India who write in the English language and whose mother tongue is usually one of the numerous languages of India. It is also associated with the works of members of the Indian diaspora, especially people like Salman Rushdie who were born in India. As a category, this production comes under the broader realm of postcolonial literature- the production from previously colonised countries such as India.

IWE has a relatively recent history, it is only one and a half centuries old. In its early stages it was influenced by the Western art form of the novel. Early Indian writers used English unadulterated by Indian words to convey an experience which was essentially Indian. Raja Rao's Kanthapura is Indian in terms of its storytelling qualities. Nirad C. Chaudhuri, a writer of non-fiction, is best known for his The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian where he relates his life experiences and influences. He was a self-confessed Anglophile.

R.K. Narayan is a writer who contributed over many decades and who continued to write till his death recently. He was discovered by Graham Greene in the sense that the latter helped him find a publisher in England. Graham Greene and Narayan remained close friends till the end. Similar to Thomas Hardy's Wessex, Narayan created the fictitious town of Malgudi where he set his novels. Some criticise Narayan for the parochial, detached and closed world that he created in the face of the changing conditions in India at the times in which the stories are set. Others, such as Graham Greene, however, feel that through Malgudi they could vividly understand the Indian experience. Narayan's evocation of small town life and its experiences through the eyes of the endearing child protagonist Swaminathan in Swami and Friends is a good sample of his writing style.

Among the later writers, the most notable is Salman Rushdie, born in India, now living in the United States. Rushdie with his famous work Midnight's Children (Booker Prize 1981, Booker of Bookers 1992) ushered in a new trend of writing. He used a hybrid language - English generously peppered with Indian terms - to convey a theme that could be seen as representing the vast canvas of India. He is usually categorised under the magic realism mode of writing most famously associated with Gabriel García Márquez.

Vikram Seth, author of A Suitable Boy (1994) is a writer who uses a purer English and more realistic themes. Being a self-confessed fan of Jane Austen, his attention is on the story, its details and its twists and turns.

Subsequent to Rushdie's entry, many writers started using similar means/ themes in their works. Shashi Tharoor, in his The Great Indian Novel (1989), follows a story-telling (though in a satirical) mode as in the Mahabharata drawing his ideas by going back and forth in time. His work as UN official living outside India has given him a vantage point that helps construct an objective Indianness.

It would be useful at this point to bring in the recent debates on IWE.

One of the key issues raised in this context is the superiority/ inferiority of IWE as opposed to the literary production in the various languages of India. Key polar concepts bandied in this context are superficial/authentic, imitative/creative, shallow/deep, critical/uncritical, elitist/parochial and so on.

The views of Rushdie and Amit Chaudhuri expressed through their books The Vintage Book of Indian Writing and The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature respectively essentialise this battle.

Rushdie's statement in his book - "the ironical proposition that India's best writing since independence may have been done in the language of the departed imperialists is simply too much for some folks to bear" - created a lot of resentment among many writers, including writers in English. In his book, Amit Chaudhuri questions - "Can it be true that Indian writing, that endlessly rich, complex and problematic entity, is to be represented by a handful of writers who write in English, who live in England or America and whom one might have met at a party?"

Chaudhuri feels that after Rushdie, IWE started employing magical realism, bagginess, non-linear narrative and hybrid language to sustain themes seen as microcosms of India and supposedly reflecting Indian conditions. He contrasts this with the works of earlier writers such as Narayan where the use of English is pure, but the deciphering of meaning needs cultural familiarity. He also feels that Indianness is a theme constructed only in IWE and does not articulate itself in the vernacular literatures. (It is probable that the level of Indianness constructed is directly proportional to the distance between the writer and India.) He further adds "the post-colonial novel, becomes a trope for an ideal hybridity by which the West celebrates not so much Indianness, whatever that infinitely complex thing is, but its own historical quest, its reinterpretation of itself".

Some of these arguments form an integral part of what is called postcolonial theory. The very categorisation of IWE- as IWE or under post-colonial literature - is seen by some as limiting. Amitav Ghosh made his views on this very clear by refusing to accept the Eurasian Commonwealth Writers Prize for his book The Glass Palace in 2001 and withdrawing it from the subsequent stage.

The renowned writer V.S. Naipaul, a third generation Indian from Trinidad and Tobago and a Nobel prize laureate, is a person who belongs to the world and usually not classified under IWE. Naipaul evokes ideas of homeland, rootlessness and his own personal feelings towards India in many of his books.

Jhumpa Lahiri, a Pulitzer prize winner from the US, is a writer uncomfortable under the label of IWE.

Recent writers in India such as Arundhati Roy and David Davidar show a direction towards contextuality and rootedness in their works. Arundhati Roy, a trained architect and the 1997 Booker prize winner for her The God of Small Things, calls herself a "home grown" writer. Her award winning book is set in the immensely physical landscape of Kerala. Davidar sets his The House of Blue Mangoes in Southern Tamil Nadu. In both the books, geography and politics are integral to the narrative.

As the number of Indian writers in English keeps increasing, with everyone with a story to tell trying to tell a story, and as publishing houses in India vie among themselves to discover the next new whiz-kid who will land up with world fame, it could become increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Research, debates and seminars on IWE continue with increasing frequency. However,it might be too early a stage in the history of Indian writing in English to pass any final judgement.

A much over-looked category of Indian writing in English is poetry. Tagore wrote in English and Bengali and was responsible for the translations of his own work into English. Other early notable poets in English include Derozio, Michael Madhsudhan Dutt, Joseph Furtado, Armando Menezes, Toru Dutt, Romesh Chandra Dutt, Sarojini Naidu and her brother Harendranath Chattopadhyaya.

In modern times, Indian poetry in English was typified by two very different poets. Dom Moraes, winner of the Hawthornden Prize at the precocious age of 19 for his first book of poems "A Beginning" went on to occupy a pre-eminent position among Indian poets writing in English. Nissim Ezekiel, who came from India's tiny Jewish community, created a voice and place for Indian poets writing in English and championed their work.

Their contemporaries in English poetry in India were Arvind Mehrotra, Jayanta Mahapatra, Gieve Patel, AK Ramanujan, Parthasarathy, Keki Daruwala, Adil Jussawala, Arun Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre, Eunice De Souza, Kersi Katrak and Kamala Das among several others.

A generation of exiles also sprang from the Indian diaspora. Among these are names like Agha Shahid Ali, Sujata Bhatt and Vikram Seth.

The current generation of Indian poets writing in English includes Ranjit Hoskote, Jeet Thayil, Tabish Khair, Vijay Nambisan, H. Masud Taj, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, C.P. Surendran, Moniza Alvi, Imtiaz Dharker, Chitra Bannerjee Divarkuni, Gayatri Mazumdar, Vivek Narayanan, Gavin Barrett, Anjum Hasan, Jerry Pinto, Smita Agarwal, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Anand Thakore, Meena Alexander, Gayatri Majumdar, Mary Anne Mohanraj and Reetika Vazirani.

Sources: BOOKS Reasons for Belonging : Fourteen Contemporary Indian Poets/edited by Ranjit Hoskote. New Delhi, Viking, 2002, xiv, 148 p., ISBN 0-67-089094-4.

Modern Indian Poetry in English: Revised Edition by Bruce King; hardback, Oxford University Press, 428 pages, May 2001, ISBN 0195656164

Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets (New poetry in India) by R. Parthasarathy, Hardcover: 114 pages, Publisher: Oxford Univ Pr (January 1, 1977), ISBN 0195606655

WEBSITES http://www.thepoetryhouse.org/Petryrooms/Indiansub.html

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