Literary Review

Novel way of writing a history

A History of the Indian Novel in English; ed: Ulka Anjaria, Cambridge University Press, Price not mentioned.  

Indian fiction in English exploded in the mid-80s, elevating itself to a global phenomenon, spurred by nominations to international award lists. Statistics say that India is currently the third-largest publisher of English-language books. And A History of the Indian Novel in English, published this year by Cambridge University Press, traces the phenomenon , right from Rajmohan’s Wife to Bollywood fiction. Ulka Anjaria, the editor, is joined by 27 academics, all leading scholars, from eight countries across four continents. They write an introduction and 25 chapters between them and in the process challenge the conventional accounts of linear literary history.

The introduction to the book apologises for the volume being a “not truly comprehensive history of the Indian novel in English.” In fact, the format they have adopted is thematically organised text placed within “larger historical, political and aesthetic trends,” on how “English was made Indian by writers who used the language to address specifically Indian concerns.” The editor mentions in her introduction that the thematic organisation was deliberate, and the book, in its individual chapters, hoped to fit together in “their engagement across literary traditions, their refusal of English’s distinctions, and in their specific attention to form and genre.”

The introduction also apologises for specific omissions, quoting the limitations of the volume. The particular absences that the introduction admits to are writings from Kashmir and the Northeast, post-colonial science fiction, literature and environment, and queer/ satirical/ cricket/ crime/ noir/ terrorist/ “theory” fiction, among others. The reader also notes that women’s writing in modern India is a notable omission; chick lit on the other hand has a whole chapter devoted to it. Amrita Pritam, Mahasweta Devi and Ismat Chugtai, as well as Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande and Jhumpa Lahiri appear across discussions, but other names such as Asha Poorna Debi’s are conspicuously absent Translated fiction is discussed in just one chapter, and the dialogue is limited to three texts, Gora, Samskara and Joothan. The introduction also mentions the repeated appearance of some authors and texts in more chapters than one. The editor attributes this phenomenon to the significance of the writer or book, “for whom there is not yet a canon.” A quick flip through the index to see who hogs most space revealed this: Rushdie leads, with both his name and his iconic Midnight’s Children running into several pages of reference, the latter almost seems a totem around which this volume is built. Chetan Bhagat is present in discussions everywhere, while Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, A.K. Ramanujan, R.K. Narayan, Rohinton Mistry, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Arundhati Roy lag far behind. Does that mean Bhagat is within a canon now? He has a chapter all to himself, like Mistry and Rushdie.

It was interesting to note the fluidity of some definitions; for instance, ‘Indian’ includes writers such as Bapsi Sidhwa, Ahmed Ali Lahiri or Rushdie; “Indian” is thus extended to include the Indian sub-continent or the diaspora. The colonial, progressive, and modernist novel in India as well as the partition, emergency, Gandhian, contemporary, dystopian, post-humanitarian, millennial, fantasy and graphic novels are important sub-headings in the book. The emergence of Bollywood as an extension of contemporary trends in commercial fiction has been discussed thoroughly, especially new popular names whose works tend to visualise rather than tell a story, potential scripts-in-waiting.

The final chapter examines how caste does not disappear with modernity but assumes new forms. This is one point where one wishes for a broader approach — of the various forms of Dalit fiction discussed in its diverse forms and structures. Translated fiction and a discussion of oral literature would have covered this part well. I was surprised to find many prominent names on the contemporary scene missing: Kiran Nagarkar, for instance, is mentioned only in the introduction. Perhaps this is why the title of the book is misleading. This volume is a well-resourced and academic discussion of Indian English fiction, but does not tell its comprehensive history.

A History of the Indian Novel in English; ed: Ulka Anjaria, Cambridge University Press, Price not mentioned.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 8:22:22 PM |

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