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Anglo-Indian literature


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Present‐day India boasts an English language literature of energy and diversity, and has spawned a striking literary diaspora. Some writers of Indian descent (V. S. Naipaul, Bharati Mukherjee) now reject the ethnic label of ‘Indian writers’. Mukherjee sees herself as American, while Naipaul would perhaps prefer to be read as an artist from nowhere and everywhere. For some Indian critics, English‐language Indian writing is a post‐colonial anomaly; others have argued that English became a naturalized sub‐continental language long ago.

The first Indian novel in English was Rajmohan's Wife (1864), a poor melodramatic piece. The writer, Chandra Chatterjee, reverted to Bengali and immediately achieved great renown. For 70 years there was no English‐language fiction of quality. It was the generation of Independence which provided the true architects of the new tradition. Nehru's niece, Nayantara Sahgal (1927– ), whose early memoir, Prison and Chocolate Cake (1954), contains perhaps the finest evocation of the heady time of independence, became a major novelist. Mulk Raj Anand was influenced by Joyce, Marx, and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. Raja Rao, a scholarly Sanskritist, wrote determinedly of the need to make an Indian English for himself, and his Kanthapura (1938) has been much praised. Nirad C. Chaudhuri (1897–1999), whose The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951) is recognized as a masterpiece, held the view that Indian culture was brought in from outside by successive waves of conquerors.

The most significant writers of this first generation are opposites: R. K. Narayan and G. V. Desani. Narayan's books fill a good‐sized shelf; Desani produced one work of fiction. Naryan offers a gently comic realism leavened by touches of legend; Desani, a rowdy, linguistically pyrotechnic comedy. Ved Mehta is best known for his volumes of autobiography including Vedi (1982), a dispassionate memoir of a blind boyhood. More recently, Firdaus Kanga (1959– ), in his autobiographical fiction Trying to Grow (1990), also transcends physical affliction with high style and comic brio.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, author of Heat and Dust (1975, Booker Prize), is a fine short‐story writer and successful screenwriter with Merchant–Ivory; Anita Desai is a novelist of Austen‐like subtlety and bite. Though V. S. Naipaul approaches India as an outsider, his engagement with it has been intense, and his three non‐fiction books on India, An Area of Darkness (1964), A Wounded Civilization (1977), and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), are key texts, and not only because of the hackles they have raised.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a second literary generation established itself, the most influential member being Salman Rushdie, who gave Indian writing a much wider currency. Bapsi Sidhwa is technically Pakistani, but her novel Ice‐Candy‐Man: Cracking India (1989) is one of the finest responses to the horror of the division of the sub‐continent. Gita Mehta's A River Sutra (1993) is a serious attempt by a thoroughly modern Indian to make her reckoning with the Hindu culture from which she emerged. Padma Perera, Anjana Appachana, and Githa Hariharan confirm the quality of contemporary writing by Indian women.

A number of different manners are evolving: the Stendhalian realism of Rohinton Mistry, the more readily charming prose of Vikram Seth, the elegant social observation of Upamanyu Chatterjee (1959– ) (English August, 1988), the more flamboyant manner of Vikram Chandra (1961– ) (Love and Longing in Bombay, 1997). Amitav Gosh (1956– ) has written novels as well as non‐fiction (In an Antique Land, 1992). Sara Suleri's memoir of Pakistan, Meatless Days (1990), is a work of originality and grace, and Amit Chaudhuri's languorous elliptical prose is impressively impossible to categorize.

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Subjects: Literature.


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