English language entered the Indian sub-continent along with its original masters, the British, almost three centuries ago. Restricted to the administrative sphere of the East India Company and used solely as a means of communication between the White traders, English existed in India for many years as the lingua franca of a handful of people.
It was only when the British decided to extend their power from mere trade to political control of the sub-continent, that is, from Company to Crown, that English language seeped into the minds and use of the larger Indian masses. Macaulay’s ‘Minute on Education’ enforced compulsory English education in Universities with his much criticised remarks about the ‘entire works in Sanskrit and Arabic being insignificant in comparison to a single good shelf of English literature.’
Even before forced English education strived to create a class of individuals Indian in blood but English in minds and deeds, (with “black skin and white mask”, echoing the African postcolonial writer Frantz Fanon), Indian intellectuals educated abroad imbibed with a modern outlook towards life had begun writing exemplary prose works in English, like the Bengali activist Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee became the first Indian writer to publish an English novel Rajmohan’s Wife. Michael Madhusudan Dutt and Derozio made a significant impact on the consciousness of the English educated youth through their poetry. Political enterprises like the Brahmo Samaj and Swadeshi Movement brought out gems like Rabindranath Tagore who spread the brilliance of Indian literature across the oceans with his Nobel winning Gitanjali.
The 1930s marked the first Enlightenment phase in Indian literary history with other famed authors like Aurobindo, Vivekananda, Sarojini Naidu and Nissim Ezekiel who wrote about topics ranging from spirituality to nationalism. These writings were no doubt influenced by the Western movements like Modernism, Enlightenment and Romanticism. As the Independence struggle infused the spirits of even children with the thirst for a free India, the writings that came out during the next 30 years largely mirrored the Nation’s frustrations and desires during that time. Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India and Gandhiji’s My Experiments with Truth reinforced love and respect for the country.
In 1980, almost 40 years after India achieved freedom and rose out of the arduous task of nation-building, there came out Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. In many ways, Rushdie’s book marked a watershed event in Indian Writing in English. The period after 80s became known as the second enlightenment, stronger and more wholesome than its predecessor. While earlier writers were writing to further a particular cause like nationalism or spirituality, the writers post 1980s began to seriously grapple with issues of Indian identity-what it means to be Indian in the present ‘global village’, and the position of the “foreign” English language amidst the many indigenous regional languages of India. Questions about who and what can be classified within the domain of IWE were considered. Earlier, any Indian living in India and writing in English about India was automatically labelled as an Indian English writer. Authors like Rushdie, Anita Desai, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri are all Indians living outside India, writing about India in English. Their writings were also grouped under the emerging canon of Diasporic literature.
The founding fathers of IWE, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao and R.K Narayan, wrote during the 1940s and 50s about Indian villages, political theories of ahimsa and the evils of caste system. Their writing style was largely influenced by western notions of the Novel. their stories always had a single hero (usually a male protagonist) who viewed the world around him through the lens of current social issues like non-violence (Raja Rao), untouchability (Mulk Raj Anand) and a merging of mythology and reality (R.K Narayan). Their writing was linear and the narratorial voice was omnipresent.
Rushdie, however, changed this trend by creating Saleem Sinai, his protagonist, a human corollary of India herself. Born on the same day as India became independent, he opines the views and troubles of a newly born nation. Issues of partition and the fluid ideas of nation, nationality and nationhood become central themes in Ghosh’s Shadow Lines. These writers tried to project the image of India as not one that is yearning to reach back to its faded pre-Colonial past; but one that actively endeavours to reconcile with its Colonial experiences and look forward to a challenging future that amalgamates a modern outlook and respect for the rich cultural traditions and diversity of India. The problematic idea of English being the language of our oppressors is quickly fading away. The present IWE is “chutnifying” history; preserving the tang of Indian culture while transforming it in the process.
Critics allege that many of these writers cater to the taste and sentiments of the NRI readers; that they write solely for a lucrative diasporic niche. Ravi Dayal’s publishing house in Delhi has become an important location for many of these writers who produce their works mainly for the NRI readers. Their detailed descriptions about making dal, or describing the song of a cuckoo to an obviously international audience have often invited the ire of the so-called “purist” Indian regional writers. These, according to them, are merely exotic narrations about an enchanting East, not very different from the Orientalist views about Asia that were prevalent during the Colonial era. It is true that writers like Chumpa Lahiri in her Interpreter of Maladies and Kiran Desai in her Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard offer a brilliant display of many things Indian. They focus on the tiny details of a particular Indian society, like the intricate details in a rangoli design, or the lush green landscape of the lower Himalayas. Similarly, Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel suffered huge criticism for the irreverent treatment of the Mahabharata epic . However, authors always write in such a way that their words create a deep impact upon the reader, and real life is seldom as colourful and exciting as depicted in fiction. Efforts have been made to reinvent the style of writing, from a linear plot with a single fixed view-point, to one that crisscrosses timelines and chronology and functions as a melting pot of voices and views.
In spite of these criticisms, we should remember that authors, from time immemorial, have written according to market demands. Consumerism and readership will definitely influence the trends in writing, and IWE is no exception to this force. It is indeed a matter of joy that canons are being reworked upon; the earlier meagre Commonwealth Literature has given way to the ever broadening sphere of IWE that includes translated works from regional languages and the perspective of the outsider Indian. IWE has made a mark for itself in the global literary world with its unique style, narration, themes and influential authors.