Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Note on Contemporary Indian Fiction in English

In a recent essay Tzvetan Todorov, one of the founding fathers of structuralist poetics, rues the predominance of three trends in contemporary French literature. He says that nearly all French literature today displays, singly or in mixture, the three trends of formalism, nihilism and solipsism. He sees them as the logical consequence of overdoing theory-bloated literary studies at the cost of teaching literature as representation of the human condition. This has not happened overnight, he points out, but over decades. The generations that have gone to French schools and universities since the upheaval of the sixties have been trained to overvalue the means at the cost of the meaning.

I suspect that one can notice the beginnings of a somewhat comparable situation in India also, although the situation here cannot be described as a fully-fledged trend. For one thing, theory has not really struck widespread root in the Indian academic soil as our romance with it has been only half-hearted. Also, it would be unfair to trace the genesis of the current situation of literary studies here to pedagogic practices and apparatuses only: at least equally significant are other factors, including the impact of the global-neocolonial modes and relations of cultural production. Implied in the dynamics of cultural production, obviously, is the question of validation, of what gets counted as literary writing worth discussing at a certain point of time. In such a situation, what does not attain a certain degree of visibility may fail to be validated as literature. (That is not really fair, you may say. And you will be right. But that is how things really are. You and I are not always wrong in suspecting a reviewer’s intentions or judgement when she describes a book rather too readily as literary.)

Notwithstanding the aforementioned qualifications, I think it can still be suggested about the situation here that theoretically over-informed pedagogic practices are contaminating the writing not only of criticism but of literature too. The contemporary Indian literary imaginary, especially as manifested in the writing in English, seems to have suffered a rather egregious infiltration by theory with the result that we are often witness to the birth of a kind of monstrous writing which is the child of an incestuous relationship between literature and theory. Not that literature and literary theory have been entirely separate in the past, but theory previously used to be –and still is in the best of practices– so assimilated in literature as to be an intrinsic part of it.

One can understand a situation in which a reader well-grounded in theory finds in a text several illustrations of the insights afforded or sharpened by theory. Such a reader, however, also finds, if she is alert, that these illustrations problematize theory in unpredictable ways so that the text finally remains richer than any theory in its potential for insights. Moreover, in really good literature, theory does not glint and shimmer like a lot of tacky frills.

And one can also understand the much celebrated (postmodernist?) erasure of the conventional boundaries between literature and other writing, including theory. In such instances, representation is at issue in the sense that all writing implies theory and all theory, writing.

In the present situation, however, this is not always the case. One often finds that the once-upon-a-time subversive theory has been gradually neutralized into a set of politically correct positions and, as such, has begun to inform literary writing so deeply and extensively that it often appears to have almost become part of the writer’s agenda.

Among the recently published novels that promptly come to mind are Amita Kanekar’s A Spoke in the Wheel (2005) and Anita Rao Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? (2006).

A Spoke in the Wheel is a powerful, part meta-fictional novel that tells two parallel stories, one of the Buddha and the other of Ashoka. Kanekar is rewriting history from below and from the margins, and that too reflexively as the founding silences of conventional historiography are brought to articulation. Two great periods of the Indian subcontinent’s history are relived through the imaginatively reconstructed experiences of tribal women, the displaced men and women of Kalinga, the low caste people, monks and nuns. It is an excellent project as far as historical fiction is concerned. The Buddha is marvellously realized as a human being in a historical, human setting, without an inch of his great stature being lost on account of humanization. But Ashoka and his famed project are both overdone in a spirit of ideological critique and hence come undone in an attempt to redo them in the frameworks of postcolonial and subaltern theories. At a time when critique of the nation is the in thing in academic circles, Ashoka’s once-upon-a-time benevolent despotism gets scrupulously overwritten as a desi variant of Nazism.

Anita Rao Badami’s novel, too, has great force but its potential remains unrealized. It is as if she refuses to meet head on the demands of the narrative and is content, instead, to satisfy the requirements of formulaic diasporic writing meant to cater to the tastes of a particular readership, the flight-chasing NRI-type. The result is recipe fiction that has the more or less expected ingredients of stereotype, caricature, sex, sentimentalism, intellectualist jargon, and culturalist images and symbols. In fact, you would even find words in the text that seem to ironically capture the novel’s character as recipe fiction.

What aborts the promise of this novel is the overweening ambition to position it favourably as a diasporic commodity in the postcolonial global marketplace. One sad consequences of this is the failure to probe those obscure areas of human experience which the narrative throws up and which have the potential of tragic unfolding but which the novelist would not touch for fear of offending the standard expectations of its assumed readership. On the other hand, she is not averse to using the jargon of theory in manifestly improbable situations.

Both these novels engage with history and the present in a way that seeks to clarify each with the help of the other, but the engagement remains extremely limited because history and the present are conceived rather narrowly. The novels fall short of a comprehensive and intense contemporary engagement with reality as they fail to apprehend reality with a vision of global span that is also alive with deep historical memory. Kiran Desai’s second novel, The Inheritance of Loss ( 2006), is sometimes seen as an attempt to grasp the contemporary world in its defiant complexity, but the tremendous potential of fiction as realized time and again by the novelists in the West remains yet to be equalled by the Indian novelists in English. No one’s work comes any close to the nuanced historical sweep of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or to the philosophical and psychological subtlety of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or to the conceptual audacity of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. There are interesting attempts, like Altaf Tyrewala’s No God in Sight (2005), Raj Kamal Jha’s The Blue Bedspread (1999), Navtej Sarna’s We Were Not Lovers Like That (2003), and Pankaj Mishra’s The Romantics (2000), but in none of them has the literary writing yet come into its own. The umbilical cord with journalism, with personal memoir, with learning through imitation, or with tentative experimentation, whether narrative or linguistic, has yet to be snapped.

Tyrewala’s novel evokes a sense of moral depletion and of an ongoing low-degree violence in a narrative that is paced like a passenger train, with the chapters flitting past the mind’s eye like so many coaches, each a world in itself. The metropolitan middle-class existence, with the simmering suspicion between the Hindus and the Muslims, is captured with sardonic wit. The chapters, like the sentences, are short and crisp. It is a narrative composed of brief, passing impressions but, ironically, of a world that seems to have entered a stasis. There lurks, behind the novel’s visible world, the possibility of a profounder fictional world in which the stasis would either be breached or become overwhelming and unbreachable. But it is neither breached nor allowed to become overwhelming. Perhaps the form and style of the novel do not let the novel run, and run away, on its own force with its potential realized.

As for Jha’s novel, it kickstarts with a good deal of power but quickly begins to sink. Literary writing cannot run on mere sensationalism and syntactical fireworks. Journalistic writing may easily gain something from literary styling, but literary writing cannot easily absorb the styles of journalistic writing.

In Navtej Sarna’s hands, language achieves the ease and sophistication of the finest literary writing. The narrative has an excellent pace, with rhythmically dispersed pauses. Nostalgia, passion and impotent rage blend perfectly to communicate the humanity of the characters. But the novel flounders in the grasp of its present as historical. The protagonist moves in the world like a blind man, knocking against others and against situations, unable to make out the sources of his torment. Nor indeed does the novelist suggest in any way that the poor soul’s sorrows are the results of a certain historical situation which he, however, little understands. Hea misses, thus, the opportunity to ground his work in history which the work demands and which would have made it both significant and more profoundly alive.

Pankaj Mishra’s The Romantics, too, impresses with its elegance of language. The urge to emulate Flaubert is palpable. But somewhere along the way the narrative dissipates. Mishra just does not have Flaubert’s capacity to quietly and suddenly zoom in on an ostensibly trifling detail in order to unlock the secrets of a world and its muted histories. He has a remarkably, even enviably, keen eye for the spectacle but almost none for the process.

One wonders if the Indian novelist writing in English has not already fallen irredeemably behind in the race, for elsewhere writing, including fiction, has moved far ahead and in so many directions. For instance, a significant absence from the Indian writing space is of a whole kind of writing that has emerged in cyberspace from the West. It is an indisputable fact that with all the noise about India having long since arrived on the IT bandwagon, we still do not have any recognizable electronic literature. Out there on the other side of the globe, cyberspace is awash with bursts of literary and artistic creativity. The list of writers, artists and theorists is long and is getting longer every day: Mark Amerika, Gregory Ulmer, Alan Sondheim, Sue Thomas, Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Katherine Hayles, Alan Liu, Joe Amato, Robert Coover, and even J. Hillis Miller. Do we have any list? Our so-called national priorities in educational planning do not encourage this sort of ‘useless’ creativity. For instance, when you give away laptops you keep out humanities teachers. It is these priorities that need to be interrogated for producing only -what probably is Harish Trivedi’s brilliant term- “cyber coolies”. Why are we afraid of cyber creators? Are we afraid of unprogrammed, excessive, transgressive knowledges? Our official idea of “knowledge economy” cannot protect itself for very long against the invasion of other knowledges because along with control, subversion is the stuff that globalization is made of.

Before I conclude, I should mention another thing that is becoming increasingly scarce in Indian English fiction. This is the presence of what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh very earnestly refers to as the “common man’” (Aam Aadmi). This invisible protagonist of the absurd tragedy of history reappears, after Bharatendu Harishchandra’s Andher Nagari Chaupat Raja, in Anand’s Malayalam novel Govardhan’s Travels, recently hade available in English translation. He bears witness, literally bears it by suffering, to the cruel farce of justice.

He is neither of the middle class, nor an NRI, nor indeed a PIO. This poor chap is an ordinary Indian, full of innocent amazement, like the cartoonist R. K. Laxman’s common man: a witness, and as a witness, a sufferer. This mute protagonist of history faces extinction today in the landscape of Indian English fiction probably because nobody seems to have an “interest” in him, because nothing might be gained by bothering about him.

In fact, the reception of Anand’s novel, if indeed it can be honoured with that word (howsoever vacuously), is any indication, there is little space and fewer good words in review columns for the works of fiction that deal with truths of the common people’s lives.

We have really moved ahead. In this fast lane, the untouchables and coolies of a Mulk Raj Anand are not allowed. They would slow down the traffic. But cyber coolies? Well, they are welcome.

Works Cited

Todorov, Tzvetan. “What Is Literature For?” New Literary History 38.1 (2007): 13-32.

Cite as:
Sharma, Rajesh Kumar. "A Note on Contemporary Indian Fiction in English". URL: Accessed: 2008-05-21. (Archived by WebCite® at

Rajesh Kumar Sharma


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