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- Indian literature in English is not, and has never been, all Rushdie and Roy

An Illustrated History of Indian Literature In English Edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Permanent Black, Rs 1,495

While welcoming every new novel from Amitav Ghosh, or every new translation into English of a work by Mahasweta Devi, Nirmal Verma or U.R. Ananthamurthy, we ought also to be glad, funnily enough, that Thomas Babington Macaulay, in 1835, issued his famous Minute on Education — for that was how the English language was formally gifted to India. Even if Macaulay’s Minute seriously aimed at only creating a class of Indians who would be “English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” — English, that is, in every way. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra reminds us in the introduction to the Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English, Macaulay’s Minute did not stop at creating what a Salman Rushdie character dismisses as “bleddy Macaulay’s minutemen”. It went on to create, over time, an English that became Indian in every way.

The language of the colonizers, when adopted for the creative expression of the colonized, could and did become, as in Kylas Chunder Dutt’s A Journal of Forty-Eight Hours of the Year 1945, a language of subversion. And it was such a language that Gandhi used — bringing to his English, with utmost ease, not only the principles of ahimsa and satyagraha, but also that very powerful slogan, “Quit India”. Indeed, as Sunil Khilnani points out in his essay on Gandhi and Nehru, Gandhi wrote with his characteristic wisdom, in one of his last articles in Harijan (January 25, 1948): “The rule of the English will go because it was corrupt, but the prevalence of English will never go.”

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s welcome new literary history traces the complex evolution of Indian literature in English from the year 1800, by which time British dominion in India was virtually complete and when the English language first began to be introduced as an interface with the subjugated people. And it traces this evolution all the way down to the logical conclusion of this process: the growing interest, today, not only in original Indian literature in English, but also in translations from the Indian languages into English — translations that are aimed, moreover, primarily at Indian audiences.

Indian literature in English owes its evolution not only to its most famous names, V.S. Naipaul, Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, or to other novelists and creative writers, but also to social reformers, political leaders, scientists, scholar-gypsies, and more. And so the 24 essays in this volume range from Raja Rammohan Roy, Henry Derozio and Michael Madhusudan Dutt, to the diaspora and the “after-Midnight novelists”.

Here, then, is a history that does not claim to be the last word on the subject — and Mehrotra apologizes at the outset for the absence of the art historian, Ananda Coomaraswamy, and of a discussion of periodicals and little magazines in English. Yet, it brings us all the clamour, colour, and diversity of Indian voices that have expressed themselves in English. For it is not, and has never been, all Rushdie and Roy. If Kipling is here, so is Aurobindo Ghosh; and not only R.K. Narayan, but also Verrier Elwin and Nirad C.Chaudhuri, with entire chapters to themselves. The chapters, too, have been written by a diverse panel of contributors — and what this might take away in terms of consistency of tone and treatment, it more than makes up for by way of perspectives. Contributors include Pankaj Mishra on R.K. Narayan (“writing from deep within his small and shrinking world”), Mehrotra himself on A.K. Ramanujan (“a master of disguise”), Shanta Gokhale on the dramatists, and Arshia Sattar, who has herself done an excellent translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, on translations into English.

This is an illustrated history, and what a difference that makes. I first turned the pages all through to look at the pictures, some of them familiar, others rare and intriguing, and several of them accompanied by marvellous details. First the collage on the cover (though it could have been made less drab) — so many faces, including Ramanujan with his parents’ portrait imprinted on his forehead; Seth, Desai, Ghosh, Sealy; Nehru gazing into the distance, and above them, Imtiaz Dharker’s line-drawing of Nissim Ezekiel, with round spectacles and flowing hair. There are many more delights inside, although the reproductions are of uneven quality.

I was struck by the cover of that interesting 19th-century enterprise, “Mookerjee’s Magazine (New Series) of Politics, Sociology, Literature, Art, and Science, including chiefly History and Antiquities, Geography and Travels, Bibliography and Oriental Literature, Jurisprudence and Commerce, & c”. Elsewhere, a photograph of the forgotten Palghat-born novelist, M. Anantanarayanan, on whose name John Updike composed a poem: “I missed his book, but I read his name” — “I picture him as short and tan./ We’d meet, perhaps, in Hindustan./ I’d say, with remarkable elan,/ Ah, Anantanarayanan —/ I’ve heard of you. The Times once ran/ A notice of your novel, an/ Unusual tale of God and Man.” The final illustration in the book, rather fittingly, is from a production at the Guthrie Theatre of Girish Karnad’s play Nagamandala, in translation.

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