The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This PagePrint This Page
- Misapprehended connections between the nation and the novel

Early Novels In India Edited by Meenakshi Mukherjee, Sahitya Akademi, Rs 140

Early Novels in India is dedicated to overturning, through a representation of the complex totality of the moment of the novel’s inception in India, the thesis of its predecessors — for instance, T.W. Clark’s The Novel in India — that the novel was a genre directly imported from the West. Meenakshi Mukherjee, in her introduction to this volume, remarks that the reasons why these early novels continue to be interesting “go far beyond their professed interest in mimetic representations of contemporary life in the manner of nineteenth-century British realist fiction”. Their real value lies instead, she suggests, in their absorption and reflection of “traits unique to their historical moment and cultural memory.” That historical moment has certainly been richly represented in this compilation of essays detailing the emergence of the hugely popular new literary genre of the 19th century, the novel. The picture built up here leaves the reader, in the end, with the sense of a complex and remarkable development that transformed the Indian sensibility forever.

All Sahitya Akademi publications, perhaps because of the nature of such governmental enterprises, have tried in the past to be earnestly inclusive; in the case of anthologies, for instance, which they have specialized in producing, the safe option of one representation from every state in the country has often worked to the detriment of the quality of the selection on offer. The contents of the volume under review might easily give a similar impression, ranging as they do from Tilottama Mishra’s “Early Asamiya Novels” and Saroj Bandopadhyay’s “The Novel in Bangla” to A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s “Fiction and the Tamil Reading Public” and M. Asaduddin’s “First Urdu Novel”. But these essays bristle with facts and figures, with speculations on which was the first novel in that language (which, in one instance, follows a disclaimer that any such attempt on origins can be made after having read Nietzsche and Foucault), and with brief analyses of the various prose works under consideration in each region. This is work invaluable to the researcher, the scholar, and the student of literary history in search of material, but where the volume proves notable is in the nuanced deliberations of certain essays, such as Udaya Kumar’s “The Early Malayalam Novel”, Dilip Menon’s “Lower Caste Malayam Novels of the Nineteenth Century”, or Aniket Jaaware’s “Two Sentences: Speculation on Genre in Early Marathi Novels”, although the inexplicably untranslated second sentence in Marathi in this last essay detracts from a full enjoyment of the arguments presented in it. Makarand Paranjpe’s “The Allegory of Rajmohan’s Wife” and Sukrita Paul Kumar’s “Narration and Reality in Umrao Jan Ada” also stay with the reader, as does A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s piece on the reception of popular Tamil novels in the early 20th century.

Namwar Singh, in the first piece in this book, “Reformulating the Questions”, introduces the most frequently repeated assertion in this volume: “The idea of India as a country begins with 1857, even though it did not become a sovereign state at that time, and we need to remember that novels in India came to be written only after that crucial year.” Singh would do well to also recollect that 1857 had simultaneously witnessed both the Revolt and the foundation of the first Indian university — the University of Calcutta. Certainly, the formal inauguration of the Western degree system in India could, on the whole and in the long run, claim to have had an equal and commensurate impact on the nation and its imagination. Dilip M. Menon, in one of the most intelligently thought out pieces in this volume, takes up this issue of the “misapprehension of a connectedness between the nation and the novel”. Menon refutes the “reduction of the space of the novel to the space of the nation” propagated most powerfully, he believes, in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, with arguments which, while they are persuasive, still remain within the constraints of a discourse located in the over-familiar paradigms of contemporary theory. It is, perhaps, the relatively recent obsession with that most commercially successful, most fashionable, and most talked about of genres today, the novel, that has led even the most historically-minded to a state of temporary amnesia regarding the pre-eminence of poetry and drama in the 19th-century world.

If the nation could be said to have been imagined into existence through literary work, that work, undeniably, happened in verse first, and arguably even more affectingly in drama; in the case of Bengal, the names of Derozio and Girishchandra Ghosh come immediately to mind. These facts are important even in a volume devoted to the novel, as they help to recreate and re-contextualize the historical background from within which the seed of the novel came to germination.

Email This PagePrint This Page