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Disposition Of Indian Readers Towards Indian English Fiction History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

“Language is more than a tool for expressing ourselves. It acts as a mirror to our world, reflecting back to us the way we live.” So says John Humphrys in his book on the use and misuse of the English language, Beyond Words.

There is truth in these words and more so when we examine them in the context of the birth and evolution of English in India. It entered India through the East India Company and slowly found a place for itself among the social elite of the country. Even now, though English is spoken and understood by only a fraction of the country’s population, it has become an indispensable cog in the wheel of the social, political and economic structure of India. Even though English has permeated the very fabric of our nation it has not been able to alienate itself from the all-inclusive multilingual identity of India. One of the reasons for its acceptance into the Indian cultural and lingual context is its malleable and permissive nature that has resulted in a large number of additions to the language, the origins of which are attributable to India. Words like ‘jungle’, ‘khaki’, jodhpurs’, ‘guru’, ‘avatar’, etc. along with hundreds others have been derived from their Indian counterparts and have enriched the Queen’s language along with making it more accessible to the average Indian.

When it comes to expressing ourselves, I might be able to count myself among the few who can read, write and dream in English. It has never been a foreign language for me. In fact, being the medium of instruction throughout my school and college days it has become ingrained in my consciousness as something that I have grown up with, which is an intrinsic part of me and without which I would feel incapacitated when it comes to communicating. But communication is the barest of needs that knowledge of this language aims to satisfy. English is more than just a language; it is an accessory to flaunt. The way one uses it speaks volumes about her. A few sentences and one can claim to ascertain the speaker’s birthplace, background, level of erudition, social status and profession; although the accuracy of all these details is a topic for another debate. Whether it is the breezy, sing-song intonation of the chick-lit reading social butterfly, the rich esoteric vocabulary of an Arts major or the rustic, heavily accented “official” English of a Government employee, English makes its presence felt in various forms and figures across social strata, ethnic backgrounds and professions.

Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore it. Although a major part of our daily lives, English has not been free from its share of protests and threats of banishment from the country due to its integral connections with colonial times. Many political and social leaders have viewed English as a remnant of British imperialism left behind to bind Indians to their erstwhile colonial masters through a mentality that extols the virtues of the West while viewing anything of Indian origin with disdain and prejudice. But this resentment is also coupled with a sense of needing English to get ahead. The number of English language teaching institutions, particularly in smaller towns, bears testimony to the fact that English-speaking is regarded as a ticket to social and economic advancement. India’s biggest global advantage has been its information technology competent, English-speaking population-a segment that our famous youth demographic clearly aspires to.

English, being an intrinsic part of our social and cultural life has seen and continues to see a growing body of literature being developed by Indians and people of Indian origin. With its evolution from the strictly Western political writing format during colonial times to its urban, middle-class, cosmopolitan “Indianness” of the 1980s and 90s to its pedestrian mass-appeal of today, Indian English fiction has undergone a sea-change, changing itself to reflect the changing India. It is in this background that I wish to introduce the topic for my dissertation. It deals with the disposition of Indian readers to Indian English fiction – an overview of the industry along with a study of the attitudes, preferences and perceptions of readers towards this segment of literature.

The Context

Compared to Western literature in English or Indian literature in regional languages, Indian writing in English is still in its nascent stages, having been around for only a century and a half. It dates back to the 1830s, to Kashiprasad Ghosh, who many consider to be the first Indian poet writing in English with Sochee Chunder Dutt as the first writer of fiction. One of the clear indications that the English language was here to stay in India was through acts of translation. Translations from Indian languages into English are products of the special context eighteenth and nineteenth century British India (Mukherjee, 1997). Earlier most translations were done by the British themselves but later a complete body of literature evolved from translations done by Indians into English known as Indian Literature in English Translation (ILET). Translations in India continued to be few and far between till almost the middle of the 1960s. After India’s political independence in 1947, the ambiguous and controversial position of English did not provide an atmosphere conducive for either original or translated works in English (Kothari, 2003). The first gesture of appreciation in this regard was made by the Indian government in 1965 when R.K. Narayan received the Sahitya Akademi Award for creative writing in English.

However, many attribute the actual boom of Indian English fiction to Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s Booker Prize winning novel in 1981, Midnight’s Children, paved the way for a new style of writing that used a mixed language, generously sprinkled with Indian terms to convey his representation of India. Rushdie’s style is usually categorized under the magical realism mode of writing comparable to that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is supposedly after Rushdie, that Indian writers began to experiment with the use of language and styles, as compared to Narayan’s more pure form and expression. Authors like Gita Hariharan, feel that Rushdie’s impact on Indian writers was quite decisive as his use of language and Indian themes and settings paved the way for postcolonial writers around the world. What followed was a cascade of writers of Indian origin flooding the English fiction scene with Amitav Ghosh’s Circle of Reason (1985), Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate (1986), Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines (1988), Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August (1988), Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey (1990), Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (1992).

Later writings have included those of the Diaspora such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Kiran Desai, both Booker Prize awardees. Of late, a number of young writers have represented India through the eyes of the students studying in some of its elite institutions and dealt with urban, youth-related storylines centered on academics, relationships, careers, etc. Most prominent among these has been Chetan Bhagat whose Five Point Someone brought more fame to the IIT Delhi culture than its exalted academic status ever could.

The above is a bird’s eye view of the birth and growth of Indian writing in English. It is essentially a background which suggests the kind of changes that this segment of writing has undergone ever since its introduction in colonial India. The popularity that Indian English literature has achieved in just more than a century is commendable when one compares it with the long history of English literature in the West and regional language writing in India.

Literature Review

The literature has been reviewed under three subheadings, namely Translations, Indian Fiction in English in the 18th and early 19th Centuries and Modern Times.

Translations (ILET): As the British undertook the task of knowing the Orient, they decided to translate Indian religious, legal and literary texts into their own language. This was not just meant for the greater understanding of India for Europeans but also as Warren Hastings believed that Indians should be ruled according to their own principles and institutions, there should be texts in English that can be used to convince the British of this Indian way of administration. The result was an English translation of a legal text, Vivadarnavsetu (Across the Sea of Litigation) as A Code of Gentoo Laws or Ordinations of the Pundits (1776), by Nathaniel B. Halhed. The book was originally meant to be a private edition published by the East India Company. In another two years, translated versions of the Code had appeared in French and German along with pirated editions of the English text. There were doubts regarding the authenticity of a text translated from Sanskrit and then translated over and over again but this did not stop the book from meeting with immediate dissemination and sales across Europe. The reception to this book was far from uniform. To theoretical jurists and historians of civilization, the Code became the fundamental source on Hindu laws and customs (Rocher, 1983). On the other hand, practitioners in courts found the Code full of inconsistencies. Whatever the response may have been to the Code, it reflects the seriousness with which the first ever translation of an Indian text into English was taken. Apart from a few, it became the true picture of Indian society and its legal system. It also led to the opening up of the field of translations into English of Sanskrit texts on various themes like travel writing, surveys, religion, etc. Thus the Code can be said to have initiated this discourse.

Charles Wilkins’ consolidation of Sanskrit grammar into Grammar of Sanskrit Language was a landmark event in the history of translations as this was the first time that a European translator had translated directly from Sanskrit. This book became a fixture for all civil servants coming to India. Wilkins’ translation of the Hindu religious text Geeta into The Bhagvat Geeta in 1784 was in William Jones’ opinion, “an event that made it possible for the first time to have a reliable impression of Indian literature” (Drew, 1987), this reliability stemming from the absence of mediators in the translation.

However not all translations in this period were undertaken for administrative or political reasons, some acquired a political slant in their use (Kothari, 2003). Jones’ translation of Kalidasa’s Abhigyanshakuntalam was borne out of the need to translate any Indian ancient text that could provide a deeper look at Indian society. It appeared in 1789 and a startled Europe opened its eyes to the East (Kothari, 2003). The response to the play from the West was mixed but its impact on the Western mindset could not be neglected. Though it garnered a lot of attention, both positive and negative from the viewers and critics alike, the fact to be noted here is the circulation of idyllic and pastoral images, severed from their social context that contributed to what Niranjana expresses as the “textualized India to Europe” (Kothari, 2003). In spite of all the drawbacks, Abhigyanshakuntalam became the text that symbolized Indian cultural pride and was one of the major texts in Indian consciousness. In the following century it was translated into ten Indian languages.

Jones’ Abhigyanshakuntalam was the last text to have been translated by a European into English. Slowly as the colonizers gained ground in India, the most contested topics among them and the Indian intellectuals became the issue of India’s historic past and the British view of Indian society. In the nineteenth century many Indian intellectuals, especially the Bengali elite were trying to correct the British version of Indian history, culture and society. Also after the advent of printing during the 1800s, writing became a mode of self-expression for many Indians. It is in this context that the first English translation by an Indian was made – the translation of Sankara’s Vedanta by the leading reformist, Raja Ram Mohan Roy. According to Roy, it was supposed to dispel “populist misconceptions about India” by establishing the fundamental unity of Hinduism and show polytheism to be an encrustation over time (Kothari, 2003).

While the volume of translations into English continued to be thin for all the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, one singular text Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore in 1912 became a text of great consequence (Kothari, 2003). In its impact on the West, it matches the phenomenon of Jones’ Shakuntalam. The translation had in it the “constant adjustment to suit the poetics of the colonizer” which brought with it staggering success but quiet embarrassment (Sengupta, 1996). In post-colonial India the situation changed and a reconfigured relationship took place between some Indian languages and the English language, locating the context for accommodating translation. We see in this period both the “strengthening of a regional literary and linguistic tradition” and “the rise of English as an Indian language” (Kothari, 2003). The constant strife of Indian writers in trying to absorb and assimilate English has been aimed at the dissemination of an Indian identity through a language that was comprehensible across the world but still had a distinct ethnic character to it. This is what has resulted in Indo-English, not a separate language but rather a more wholesome medium for the propagation of Indian uniqueness and cultural identity in the West. One can claim that this is arguably the beginning of Indian writing in English.

Indian Fiction in English in the 18th and early 19th Centuries: The literary-historical connections between Indian mass-nationalism and the Indian – English novel have always been qualified in critical studies, by an awareness of a substantial body of Indian writing in English stretching back to the 1860s, a largely overlooked tradition that was well-established by the turn of the century (Tickell, 2005). Before the development of modes of humanist social-realism and new experimental narrative techniques in the 1920s and 1930s, a major generic template for Indian – English novelists was the historical romance. In striking contrast to the interest in rural settings and village-life of many later nationalist novelists, earlier romance writers also used the ‘princely’ kingdom as the setting of their fictions, mostly to focus on British India which was not ‘directly ruled’ and also to quote direct descent of heroes from a mythical Hindu past (Tickell, 2005). Sarath Kumar Ghosh’s novel, The Prince of Destiny, or the New Krishna, which appeared in colonial and domestic editions and ran to a second impression within six months of its publication in October 1909, is perhaps the most sophisticated early Indian – English presentation of the princely state as a singularly political space. Written while Ghosh was still a student, this heavily symbolic work tells the story of Prince Bharat of Bharatpur, whose role as a messianic national leader is hinted at throughout the text. Published in London in the same year, similar but less accomplished novels such as SM Mitra’s Hindupore: a Peep behind the Indian Unrest also feature idealized aristocratic figures that operate, like Ghosh’s Prince Bharat, as transcultural representatives of Indian opinion.

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s model of political emancipation, ‘a project of national-cultural regeneration in which the intelligentsia leads and the nation follows’, is marked by an inherent elitism, and this is repeated in the presentation of feudal (and messianic) figures of proto-national leadership in The Prince of Destiny (Chatterjee, 1986). In Mitra’s novel the major threat to British sovereignty in India comes not from the Swadeshi movement for ”Hind Swaraj”’, but from a network of politicized priests and sanyassis who form a Pan-Hindu fraternity throughout the subcontinent. Mitra’s vision of a Pan-Hindu brotherhood pledged to the Motherland owes much to Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s plot of a sanyassi rebellion in Anandamath, but both authors also mobilize Puranic narratives (especially forms of bhakti devotionalism) in their fiction (Tickell, 2005).

Early Indian – English novelists such as Ghosh did not depend solely on forms of Bengali cultural nationalism for inspiration. Because the Indian – English writers of the 1910s engaged so closely-and ambivalently-with a spectrum of contemporary nationalist discourses, their work reveals the extent to which an early Indian nationalist intelligentsia excavated Hinduism’s religious pre-history, rediscovering a classical South-Asian civilization already made available in Orientalist scholarship. Among literary works published at the turn of the century, KK Sinha’s historical romance Sanjogita or the Princess of Aryavarta emphasizes on the linkages between an illustrious Aryan ancestry and a promise for nationalist rejuvenation (Tickell, 2005).

While early twentieth-century Indian – English novelists rely on a functionalist terminology of racial ‘vitalism, evolution, telos, palingenesis, survival and degeneration’ in their writing, and return, repeatedly, to ancient Hindu civilization as the basis of their political aesthetics, their work is still distinctively ‘pre-national’ in its unwillingness to engage with the cultures of the Indian masses (Bhatt, 2001).

Modern Times: Fiction, being the most powerful form of literary expression today, has acquired a prestigious position in Indian English literature. It is generally agreed that the novel is the most suitable literary form for the exploration of experiences and ideas in the context of our time, and Indian English fiction occupies its proper place in the field of literature. There are critics and commentators in England and America who appreciate Indian English novels.

Following the journey of the Indian English novel through the early half of the 19th century one must give due credence to the fact that it was during this time that the Gandhian whirlwind blew across the country during 1920-1947. Under the dynamic leadership of Mahatma Gandhi established political notions started vanishing from the scene and in turn new ideas and methods appeared, not only in the political field but in almost every walk of Indian life. The inevitable impact of the Gandhian movement on Indian English literature was the sudden flowering of realistic novels during the nineteen thirties. Novelists turned their attention away from the past to concentrate on contemporary issues. In their novels prevailing social and political problems that Indians found themselves in were given prominence. The nation-wide movement of Gandhi not only inspired Indian English novelists but also provided them with some of their prominent themes, such as the struggle for freedom, the East-West encounter, the communal problem and the miserable condition of the untouchables, the landless poor, the downtrodden, the economically exploited and the oppressed.

The impact of the far-reaching change on the Indian social and political scene caused by the Gandhian movement can be perceived in K. S. Venkatramani’s Murugan, the Tiller (1927) and Kandan, the Patriot: A Novel of New India in the Making (1932). The former reflects Gandhian economics while the latter reflects his politics. Then came A. S. P. Ayyer, whose novels like Baladitya (1930) and Three Men of Destiny (1939), although untouched by the twentieth century models and set in ancient Indian history are Gandhian in spirit. These novelists and their novels paved the way for the great trinity: Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan and Raja Rao whose emergence was the most remarkable event in the realm of Indian English fiction. They were the harbingers of the true Indo-English novel. These novelists began writing around the mid 1930s. Bhabani Bhattacharya was also a contemporary of these novelists by birth, but he started writing fiction just after Indian independence.

After the 1960s Indian English fiction, like its Western counterpart, shifted its focus from the public to the private sphere. The mass destruction caused by the atom bomb in World War II brought unrest and anxiety all over the world. The situation gave rise to psychological disorders and loss of moral values, and profoundly disturbed man’s mental peace and harmony. World literature, responding to the new era, started to deal with the different gloomy faces of modern society. Indian novelists could not remain aloof from these currents and henceforth they were not exclusively concerned with the exploration and interpretation of a social milieu, but dealt with new subjects of human existence and man’s quest for self in all its complicated situations. This shift of focus in Indian English fiction becomes clearer particularly with Anita Desai and Arun Joshi who explore the agonized existence of modern man in their writing which has arguably changed the landscape of the Indian English novel.

After 1980 began the period of what is called new fiction. In this period a breed of new novelists emerged. It includes Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Upmanyu Chatterjee, Shashi Deshpande, Shashi Tharoor, Shobha De, Amitav Ghose, Amit Choudhary, and Arundhati Roy. The current crop of writers have a worldview that is distinctly urban, metropolitan, middle-class and deals with day to day lives of people, a pedestrian mass look at city life.

Eimona by GB Prabhat is ‘anomie’ in the reverse and is ‘a tale of the future that is already happening in India’. The characters live in a dystopic world and comprise an urban dysfunctional family. Eimona has been said to belong to those urban professionals who are confused about the world they have conquered. Rupa Gulab’s Chip of the Old Blockhead stands out because of how it deals with teenage angst. It is sensitive to the urban Indian youth and the realities of divorce, single parents, working moms, use of foul language etc. It has been called a ‘racy and witty write’, and while the plot is predictable, the lively character sketches make the book a compelling read. Séance on a Sunday Afternoon by Shinie Antony is a collection of fictional short stories ‘describing how, in the solitude of skyscrapers, modern man has begun to redefine his need for society. The agony, loneliness and the burden of past memories manifest themselves into a string of fascinating short stories that are macabre, wistful, profound, witty and curiously sad.’ Keeping with this dark theme is the third book from Chetan Bhagat, the investment banker turned biggest-selling Indian novelist writing in English. The Three Mistakes of My Life is based on the actual events relating to the riots in Gujarat in 2002. The ‘three’ in the title refers to three main issues that most Indians obsess over- cricket, religion and business and how these issues collide against the backdrop of Ahmedabad.

Other topics that Indian English authors have explored are women empowerment, social awakening and international issues of contemporary importance. Thus this segment of writing is flourishing with newer contexts adding greater depth and meaning to this body of literature.

Research Problem

The research problem is to gauge the disposition of Indian readers towards Indian English fiction and understand their attitudes, preferences and perceptions regarding the same.

Research Objectives

To understand the market for Indian English fiction in India

To segment the current readers of English fiction and understand their psyche regarding Indian English fiction

To identify current trends and predict the future of the Indian English novel from a reader’s perspective


The methodology to be followed will consist of descriptive and exploratory research consisting of the following:

Secondary research – A thorough secondary research will be conducted to understand the industry, the writing styles that are dominant, the highest-selling and critically acclaimed writers and the past, present and future trends in writing.

Primary research – In-depth interviews of English fiction readers in the age group of 18 – 55 of both Indian and non-Indian writing will be conducted. About 100 in depth interviews of readers across age groups will be taken to understand age wise preferences of readers along with a detailed comprehension of what makes a certain style more/less preferable over the other.

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