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The inheritance of flaws: What Indian bildungsromans tell us about our nation

Somewhere in the collective Indian sensibility lives the image of our parents caressing each other while we the children feign sleep. Did it really happen, or was it a book or a film? That is where social class happens. For the comfortably middle-class and above, this may very well be an experience gathered from a telling text, about less-privileged children who fight for space in small rooms.

I’ve often wondered if privacy is a condition of privilege. What does it take for life outside to ram down on our inner space, to make everything private charged with the urgency of the public? The American literary critic Fredric Jameson thought that was true of the entire “third world”. For the good Marxist that he was, this is the heroic insight of the third world that was missing in the rich and spoilt first.

In an influential 1986 essay, ‘Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,’ Jameson argued that private and public lives are fused in the third world, which leads all narratives from this world to become national allegories, no matter how private they appear to be. Many critics pointed out the flaws in this sweeping argument. But the crowning vindication of Jameson’s argument had already appeared. It was Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children. It told the story of Saleem Sinai, who, born on the stroke of midnight on August 15, grew up to make a bildungsroman that wasn’t just his own story but the story of independent India.

Mostly male, always white

The bildungsroman, combining bildung, or education, and roman, the novel, is the novel of personal development. It usually begins in childhood and narrates the growth and development of the key character, sometimes all the way to early adulthood, signalled by the end of formal education, marriage, or getting a job. The genre became popular in 19th century European literature, and novels such as Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship usually featured protagonists who were mostly male, and always white.

The Italian literary critic, Franco Moretti, pointed out that the bildungsroman usually involved the journey of a young man from the provinces to a major city. The journey is not his alone; his desire for development mirrors the aspiration of an entire nation. To leave the village or small town, to arrive at success in the big city: all this echoes the ambition of a community and a nation to become successful and modern.

Several iconic bildungsromans from modern English literature reveal this fusion of the private and the public. At the end of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Paul Morel leaves the poor Nottingham mining village of his origin for a trek to the big city. James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artistas a Young Man is a künstlerroman — the bildungsroman of an artist — and is driven by the anxiety that no artistic success can be obtained in provincial Dublin.

At the end of the novel, the hero, Stephen Dedalus, leaves for Paris, then the cultural capital of Europe.

Condition of privilege

But what about Jameson’s “third world”? What about India? Has the bildungsroman here always reflected the nation and its aspirations? I feel it is a crucial question for the novel in English, running through the years of colonialism, anticolonial resistance, and postcolonial development. Young children, their growth, development and education, have made for compelling and iconic stories. Between R.K. Narayan’s Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, and The English Teacher, Swami, Chandran and Krishna make up the trinity of boys-to-men who grow and flourish among life’s joys and heartbreaks.

But growth is a condition of privilege that is not extended to all in India’s sharply stratified society. Mulk Raj Anand’s Coolie is a tragic anti-bildungsroman where the orphan Munoo makes the proverbial trek from a village to Bombay in search of prosperity, but on account of his poverty and helplessness, suffers mistreatment and misfortunes and dies as a teenager. The promise of personal development is indeed hard to come by in a poor, colonial country.

For the women, it is an even more elusive promise. Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve is the recollections of Rukmani, an old woman, on a long life of hardship beginning at the age of 12. Under poverty, natural disasters and human hostility, it is a life of work without hope, or as Coleridge called it, nectar in a sieve, that reminds us that growth is not just a function of time but also of privilege.

Down the decades, one senses a growing anxiety in the independent nation to tell its story. The 80s deepen the parallels between nation and private lives. Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day chronicles the troubled growth not merely of individuals, but of a family, set in the tumultuous years of Partition and beyond. The crumbling destiny of Old Delhi and the burgeoning trajectory of New Delhi become the pointed edge of what Jameson has called the national allegory. The crowning text in this genre, Midnight’s Children, would appear the following year, in 1981, proving Jameson right like never before.

Amit Chaudhuri, who called Midnight’s Children a “Nehruvian epic” that “coincided, oddly, with the beginning of the end of Nehruvian India,” crafted minute, fractured bildungsromans in his first two novels, A Strange and Sublime Address and Afternoon Raag. His work was followed by other growth stories of delicate and unpredictable kinds, ranging from Rohit Manchanda’s evocative novel In the Light of the Black Sun, set in the coal-districts of Bihar, Sunetra Gupta’s Woolfian fiction of nuanced personal development, and Pankaj Mishra’s The Romantics, the story of a young Brahmin boy in Benaras.

Fled is that dream

The novel about the growing child has long fascinated me. It chronicles the wild and dreamy texture of childhood, its primal pleasures and terrors, and the way it unleashes the violence of education. For a writer in a fascinating, maddening, impossible country like India, I’ve come to feel that the aspiration for growth is more likely to be richly stunted than predictably successful.

Anand etched this tragic arc with Bakha and Munoo early in the century. In Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, set in a Bhopal two decades after the Union Carbide gas tragedy, the young protagonist is called Janwar, or animal, a spirited boy who is born disabled thanks to the toxic aftermath of the tragedy, and can only move on all fours. Tragically, it recalls my favorite anti-bildungsroman from the diaspora, Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, where a freak accident curtails the growth of a boy and throws into ironic relief the bildung of his younger sibling, who grows up next to him, in pain and guilt.

If Rushdie’s iconic book evoked the Nehruvian secular socialist republic, we’ve finally arrived at a nation where we have inherited the loss of that dream. As the aspiration of that fair, tolerant, and peaceful nation slowly dies, our most recent bildungsromans play out the fear and nightmare. Abdullah Khan’s moving novel Patna Blues chronicles the aspiration of a provincial youth from a small town and the way in which it gets entangled in an illicit romance across the darkest religious divide in India today.

And at a time when India has bared itself as no nation for women through an unprecedented wave of sexual violence, the just-published novel Not Just Another Story by Jhimli Mukherjee-Pandey narrates a story of growth that replaces the trajectory of progress with a hopeless, inter-generational cycle of enslaved sexual labour — three generations of female sex workers in Kolkata’s iconic red-light district, Sonagachhi.

At the end of the second decade of the second millennium, is India even ready to imagine the horrors of how deeply we have fallen from the fractured aspirations of 1947? Perhaps only our smothered novels will tell.

The writer is the author of three novels and two books of nonfiction. @_saikatmajumdar

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 8:48:28 AM |

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