As a widely discussed subject matter, not many would look into the “Indianness” of a Marathi or Bengali novel. However, when it comes to Indian fiction in English, the idea of ‘Indianness’ creeps in – either to assert one’s personal identity, or as an obsession that resides inherently in both reader and writer. This has been said to originate because of the language itself – English, which so happens to be no ordinary language but the language of India’s traumatic colonial past. Additionally, it also carries with it all the significance and privilege that the world links with the language. It may not be further from the truth to suggest that ‘English’ is – and will continue to be – a ‘necessary evil’. Acknowledging this truth would clear a path to understanding the strong emotions associated with underscoring the term ‘Indianness’ – what Meenakshi Mukherjee calls in her popular essay – ‘The Anxiety of Indianness’ (2607).
The path now opens up to theoretical discussion in a postcolonial or postmodern light. Indian writers may have sensed that it was imperative to carve a niche out for Indian Fiction in English which would have an independent identity without dragging around the label of ‘imitation’. Essentially, it was a conscious or subconscious effort to affirm their independent identity. Similar to Henry Louis Gates’ theory of ‘The Signifyin’ Monkey’, an Indian idiom of English was developed (396) as a subconscious or conscious effort of resistance against colonial powers. The infusion of indigenous terminology in English writing is a preferred technique as seen in works of Sarojini Naidu or A. K. Ramanujan or R. K. Narayan. It can be rather confidently said that these writers draw on the multifarious bhasha literatures for their inspiration; for, although the “English” books were respected, the bhasha literatures were loved (Mund 174). When Macaulay insisted on developing a class of Indians: “Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect,” it was as though our writers wished to highlight the Indianness of blood first and foremost.
The next question offers itself naturally: What is this Indianness that these writers wish to adhere to? To quote the prolific Kannada writer, V. K. Gokak, “Indianness of Indian writing consists in the writer’s intense awareness of his entire culture,” (22). K. R. Srinivas Iyengar states that,
“India or Indianness include the choice of subject… texture of thought and play of sentiment [,] the organization of material [and] the creative use of language,” (698)
In essence, Indian writers – be it poets, novelists or dramatists – have chosen the English language as a medium to communicate their identity in the larger global prospect by skillfully ‘Indianizing’ the English language. This comes through not only in terms of language, but in themes, and ultimately in the very soil of and blood of each character. Why look Westward for inspiration when India had its own great mythological characters and heroes? For instance, Sarojini Naidu’s Village Song resonates with the cry of Radha’s love for the flute-player Krishna.
The Indian novelists contributed greatly to give form to Indian Writing in English. It was common knowledge – at least among the widely-read and scholarly – what the “West” thought of and imagined the “East” to be. This was later articulated in great detail by Edward Said in his Orientalism, where the Occident often referred to “the mysterious Orient” on the basis of fantasized stereotypes (34). Our own novelists never took it upon themselves to present India in any such “exotic” limelight. As a result, the genre of Fiction in Indian Writing in English is filled with a plethora of novels that portray the raw beauty of the Indian landscape – there were no pretentions and the writers were never ashamed to bring out the very essence of “Indian atmosphere” through their characters.
R. K. Narayan is a prolific Indian novelist, who has become a household name, with an assortment of well-loved books under him. Spanning from Swami and Friendsto The English Teacherto The Bachelor of Arts, Narayan never ceases to envelope his reader into a veritable exciting world with relatable characters and scenarios. To understand the mindset of an adolescent Swami and the emotional cyclones he goes through at the beginning of the Independence struggle, it would be integral to understand the Indian cultural outlook and the decisive, charged atmosphere of the period. Swami’s classroom situation and his headmaster are reflective of the present educational system in India which was in dire need of reformation. The same is also mirrored in Narayan’s The English Teacher. Swami’s friend Rajam represents the colonial attitude of one who arrives, dominates and conquers and leaves with no attachments and with not so much as a glance to the destruction they have wreaked behind them. Swami, the youngster, collectively represents the mass of Indian youth of the period and their reactions toward the colonial powers.
It may seem stereotypical, but of all the students in Swami’s class, those with brain and brawn get most recognition, viz. Sankar – the brain, and Mani – the brawn. Once again, the importance given to grades is made conspicuous – the preference of theoretical knowledge over its practical application.
There was a belief among a section of boys that if only he [Sankar] started cross-examining the teachers, the teachers would be nowhere. Another section asserted that Sankar was a dud and that he learnt all the problems and their solution in advance by his sycophancy. He was said to receive his 90% as a result of washing clothes for his masters. (5)
The only other issue that is given grave importance is religion, and is a temperamental issue largely emulated in India. Narayan also brings in the element of variety by employing the character of Ebenezar, the Scripture Master who Swami believes to be “a fanatic”. Narayan appears to willfully permit this character to deliver discussions that come across as audacious and even scandalous.
‘Oh, wretched idiots!’ the teacher said, clenching his fists, Why do you worship dirty, lifeless, wooden idols and stone images? Can they talk? No. Can they see? No. Can they bless you? No. Can they take you to Heaven? No. Why? Because they have no life. (3)
Swami’s obsession with Cricket is also a very relevant comparison to a typical Indian youth.
Female characters of the Indian novel have sculpted their iconic positions in the literary world because of the individuality in their characters and the firmness in their determination – each of these characters stands out as a representation of all women in India. Indian fiction is brimming with the complexity of the female psyche and has presented to the world many unforgettably unique characters – Kannagi from Silappathikaram, Sita from Ramayana, Draupadi of the Mahabharata¸ and Poonguzhali from Ponniyin Selvan, to name a few. When the great epics themselves fail to depict their headstrong women in all the detailed, glorious light they deserve, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni depicts Draupadi in a most empathetic fashion.
Where Nobel Prize laureate V S Naipaul thrashed all women writers, saying that he found no woman writer his literary match, Chitra Divakaruni shows exemplary modus operandi, moving away from the traditional themes of feminist writing to re-imagining a legendary past. Bannerjee employs the novel idea of narrating the Mahabharata in the shoes of Draupadi. Draupadi innately carries within her the essence of an earthy, Indian woman – loyal, devoted, and strong with a streak of wild independence. She served all her five husbands loyally and gave up her love for Karna to protect her brother. Draupadi balances her persona as a familial, traditional wife and a strong, independent woman, wisely. In a culture that still judges preferences on the basis of skin colour, Bannerjee paints a woman who is comfortable in her own skin, with no expectations or reserved judgements.
Perhaps the reason Krishna and I got along so well was that we were both severely dark-skinned. In a society that looked down its patrician nose on anything except milk-and almond hues, this was considered most unfortunate, especially for a girl. I paid for it by spending hour upon excruciating hour being slathered in skin-whitening unguents and scrubbed with numerous exfoliants by my industrious nurse. (8)
At the same time, the need for protection of the girl child in a terribly patriarchal society comes across vibrantly – the naïve, innocent young girl on whom the duties of a typical housewife are imposed. Unlike the pretty picture posed by the Mahabharata, the undertones of resentment toward a mother-in-law who asks the Pandavas to share Draupadi like a mere object are revealed to the reader.
I bent over a smoky fire fueled by cowdung, cooking brinjal curry under the watchful eye of my mother-in-law. The kitchen was tiny and airless. My back ached. The smoke made my throat burn. Sweat poured into my eyes. I wiped it off furiously. I wasn’t going to give my mother-in-law the satisfaction of thinking that she’d reduced me to tears… (105)
It would be impossible to discuss ‘Indianness’ in the Indian English novel, without bringing up Raja Rao’s Kanthapura. With all its political drama, the novel runs with the very heartbeat of India. This comes through even in its basic form of narration, done in the style of a sthalapurana, by an old woman of the village. The very idea of cozy evenings of storytelling with an older woman is intrinsic to Indian tradition. Although the question of Raja Rao’s style of writing continues – “whether his novels… are novels proper or philosophical disquisitions, mythical fables, or symbolic exercises presented through ramshackle stories (38)” – Kanthapura remains a well-beloved favourite among all Indians.
Moorthy, the protagonist of the novel, leaves for the city and returns, armed with Gandhian principles and philosophies. He takes an active stand to encourage these philosophies in the others. The novel begins with a prologue set in the form of a hari-katha – a popular South-Indian form of story-telling, which gives the readers an insight into the major theme of the novel – the struggle against the British Raj. In this prologue, Raja Rao draws a comparison of this struggle to the rescue of Rama’s wife Sita from the demon king Ravana.
Far down on the Earth you chose as your chief daughter Bharatha, the goddess of wisdom and well-being. […] But, O Brahma! […] men have come from across the seas and the oceans to trample on our wisdom and to spit on virtue itself. They have come to bind us and to whip us, to make our women die and our men die ignorant. O Brahma! Deign to send us one of your gods so that he may incarnate on Earth and bring back light and plenty to our enslaved daughter… Siva himself will forthwith go and incarnate on the Earth and free my beloved daughter from her enforced slavery. (11)
Raja Rao employs an innovative approach of discussing the larger struggle of Indian independence within the context of a small South-Indian village and through the character of the protagonist – Moorthy.
The Diasporic Indian writers have also succeeded in establishing a new phase of the Indian identity in lands overseas. Under the canon of Indian Diasporic literature emerge the names: Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rohinton Mistry and Kiran Desai, to name a few. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies provides readers with a collection of short stories dealing with feelings of alienation, identity crisis and dislodgement among Indians abroad. In the Interpreter of Maladies, one story stands out in particular – Mrs. Sen’s. This story revels in the diasporic theme wholly. It talks about Mrs. Sen who arrives in America with her husband still attired in her elaborate sari and the red pigment on her forehead. The ‘Indianness’ discussed earlier courses instinctively within her, wherein she balances adapting to the new American culture while holding onto her Indian roots.
Although Mrs. Sen is physically present in the Unites States, it is not difficult to notice that on the inside, she is pining for her homeland and the Calcutta life. Her ‘Indianness’ comes through, as she continues to practice her usual Indian rituals and listens to cassettes of people talking in her own language. “The mention of the word [India] seemed to release something in her. She neatened the border of her sari where it rose diagonally above her chest…. ‘Everything is there’” (113). ‘Everything is there’ suggests that her identity – which is at the core of everything she possesses – rests solely in India. For Mrs. Sen, the ‘Indianness’ of her character comes from the practice of her customs and rituals.
The ‘Indianness’ of Indian Fictional characters unfolds in various ways. It could simply be deference to existing systems of India while subtly trying to bring about a change or it could come through in the maintaining of one’s own independent identity while still being intrinsically Indian. It may also reveal itself by standing strong for the philosophies and values of India, holding onto one’s patriotic identity; and it may also come across from the following of Indian rituals and traditions. The current scenario in Indian English Fiction tends to be divided between an insecurity about the identity of ‘Indianness’ and a bold stance to boost this identity.
Mukherjee, Meenakshi. “The Anxiety of Indianness.” Economic and Political Weekly. vol. 28, no. 48, 1993, pp. 2607-2611.
Kachru, Braj B. “The Indianness in Indian English.” Taylor and Francis Online. Vol. 21, no.3, 1965, pp. 391-410, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00437956.1965.11435436. Accessed 14 October 2016.
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Narayan, R K. Swami and Friends. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. Print.
Fallon, Amy. “VS Naipaul finds no woman writer his literary match – not even Jane Austen.” The Guardian, 2 June 2011. p.11.
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Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies: Stories of Bengal, Boston and beyond. New Delhi: Harper Collins, 1999. Print