Dr. Sanjiv Kumar
Assistant Professor, Department of English, Central University of Haryana
The towering figures of Indian English Fiction like Raja Rao, Mulkraj Anand, R.K. Narayan and Kamala Markandaya had a strong commitment to expose the harsh realities of life to effect the desired transformation in society. Nationalism, partition, poverty, peasantry, subjugated women, rural-urban divide, East-West encounter, feudal practices, casteism and communalism were some of the themes quite closer to their heart. Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and Kamala Markandaya are deified as path-breakers of Indian writing in English for their portrayal of contemporary Indian life in a truthful manner. If Raja Rao was upheld as “an Indian writer using mysticism to explore the spiritual unity of east and west,”
R.K. Narayan was acclaimed by V.S. Naipaul for his interest in ”the lesser life that goes on below: small men, small schemes, big talk, limited means: a life so circumscribed that it appears whole and unviolated, its smallness never a subject for wonder, though India itself is felt to be vast.”Similarly, Mulkraj Anand and Kamala Markandaya are revered for “Anand (was) to Indian people what Anton Chekhov was to Russians: a profound interpreter of their lives, an analyser of their deepest conflicts, a verbaliser of their agonies” and for the dominant theme of Markandaya being “the intersection of rural and urban life in India and the unrealized dreams of peasants seeking their fortunes in the factory.” Besides, the partition narratives present a harrowing picture of the consequences of separation so much so that an entire generation had to bear that stigma for one reason or the other. In an essay written in 1989, Anita Desai is all praise for Indian English Fiction of those days when she comments:
The changing landscapes of life, politics, geography, hunger, love, are explored in contemporary Indian fiction, as in literature of the country’s past…. A character in R.
- Narayan’s story is both “from far away’ and going “far away again’ not unlike Indian authors today… Indian authors are impelled by a knowledge of the past and a visionary stance toward the present; they take keen notice of the struggles.”
Taking a departure from the first generation of Indian English novelists, the Postmodern Indian English novelists have concentrated on an entirely new-fangled set of themes which are as wide-ranging and complex as the life in the age of globalisation is. Engrossed with the emerging issues like globalisation and subsequent multiculturalism, postfeminism, cyber-feminism, queer theories, cultural conflicts, diaspora sensibility, glamour, consumerism, commodification, BPOs, upward mobility and consequent erosion of ethical values, and transforming public sphere, the present generation of novelists seems to have buried down the erstwhile fundamental issues. It is in this context that the present paper aims at exploring the range of themes undertaken by the postmodern Indian English writers.
‘Postmodernism’ in itself is a complex phenomenon as it is neither a complete negation nor an acceptance of modernism. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines Postmodernism as “of, relating to, or being any of various movements in reaction to modernism that are typically characterized by a return to traditional materials and forms (as in architecture) or by ironic self-reference and absurdity (as in literature)” or “of, relating to, or being a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language.” Holding the realities to be plural and relative, it involves the belief that most of the seeming realities are only social constructs, as they are relative and subject to change with the temporal or spatial changes. Postmodernism emphasizes the role of language, power relations, and motivations and is against the sharp distinctions such as male
versus female, straight versus gay, white versus black, and imperial versus colonial. Perhaps, taking clue from the generalised definition of the term, postmodern Indian English writers have taken excessive advantage and liberty to evade even the key social concerns like poverty, debt-ridden farmers, and underprivileged sections of society. The postmodernist discourses have made the issues of identity and nationality as all the more complex. It is quite amazing that even the novelists who are being conferred the covetous prizes like Nobel, Booker or Pulitzer have now no ink left for the portrayal of poverty which brings India disgrace for it being the home of the largest number of poor people. Present generation of Indian novelists in English seemed to have travelled far from a rich literary heritage which championed the cause of even the most underprivileged in the novels like So Many Hungers and Untouchable. Apart from it, to hide their apathy, the novelists like V.S. Naipaul who is held in high regard by the countrymen, shun India with harsh satiric remarks like “Indians defecate everywhere,” and “No other country I knew had so many layers of wretchedness, and few countries were as populous… country where, separate from the rest of the world, a mysterious calamity had occurred.”
Cross-border migrations being common during colonial/postcolonial period, and more frequent during the reforms period, there are scores of Indian diasporic writers including Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Nirad C. Choudhury, Shashi Tharoor, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Bharati Mukherjee, Amitav Ghosh, M.G. Vassanji, Farrukh Dhondy, Amit Chaudhury, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kiran Desai, to name only a few who have lured the readers and academia across the world by producing the literature depicting typical diasporic sensibility among the émigré and expatriates. Their works capture the essential diasporic complexities by reflecting upon Jacques Lacan’s concept of mimicry which “reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called an itself that is behind. The effect of mimicry is camouflage….it is not a question of harmonising with the background, but against a mottled background, of becoming mottled—
exactly like the technique of camouflage practised in human warfare.”1 This mimicking tendency goes hand in hand with other concepts like interstice, hybridity or liminality
resulting into diasporic ambivalence characterised by love-hate relationship with the native or alien culture, Freudian heimlich-unheimlich dichotomy where ‘heimlich’ signifies “pleasures of the hearth” while ‘unheimlich’ signifies “terror of the space or race of the other” further leading to the generalised politics of home and abroad. The portrayal of nostalgia for the native culture is beautifully contrasted with Indian diaspora’s temptation towards the glamourised Western World. Meanwhile, the double consciousness of the Indian diaspora abroad, like other diasporas, is “not merely double, but a reality that involves the crossing of an indeterminate number of borderlines, one that remains multiple in its hyphenations.” The Indian diasporic literature has been quite rewarding for the authors of Indian origin and the compatriots because it fetched Nobel Prize for V.S. Naipaul, Booker for Salman Rushdie and Kiran Desai and Pulitzer for Jhumpa Lahiri.
The novels like Midnight’s Children, A House for Mr. Biswas, Such a Long Journey, The Palace of Illusions, Desirable Daughters, Inheritance of Loss, A Suitable Boy, The Assassin’s Song, Difficult Daughters, English, August, The God of Small Things, The White Tiger, One night @ Call Center, and many others established new canons in Indian writing in English. First two books in the list i.e. Midnight’s Children and A House for Mr. Biswas made India take pride in the authors of Indian origin who could sense the essential predicaments of Indians at certain points of history i.e. one during the independence and consequent partition, and another during the colonial days of utter poverty and deprivation which made people sign the bonds for Indentured labour. In spite of the fact that the whole oeuvre of the two celebrated writers is derivative of their Indian experience, the reader finds the characteristic elements of empathy, concern and commitment for the real issues troubling
ordinary Indians (which were the guiding principles for the first generation of Indian English novelists) lacking in great measure. In addition to that, the Indians had to reconsider their sentimental approach to these writers with the publication of Naipaul’s Indian Trilogy whose titles—An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilisation and India: A Million Mutinies Now signify the sarcastic attitude of the novelist towards the land of his ancestors.
With the changing Indian realities in the context of globalisation and immigration, national identity as well as the literature is bound to change. We have emerged from the darkness of illiteracy to near universalization of elementary education: from darkness of superstition and colonial subjugation to the realisation of ‘selfhood’; from the trauma of partition to the celebration of multiculturalism and inter-culturalism, from the hegemony of caste-based hierarchy to sanskritisation and upliftment of dalits and subalterns; from a sluggish economic growth rate to a resilient growth rate; from under-developed country to an emerging nation; from the borrower of technology to the domineering status in science, technology and software engineering; from a country of indentured labourers to a capable diaspora abroad and one of the most attractive foreign direct investment destination; and from restricted access to transport, communication and career options to a massive road and rail network (along with metro trains, bullet and Duronto trains) and easy access to telecommunication and web-services; from a limited number of English language speakers to India now taking pride in hosting probably the largest number of industry-ready professionals who are proficient in both spoken and written English, besides phenomenal transformation in every walk of life. Now, “India is big and India is young. Its size and its demographics, together with its growth potential, have made it a fashionable market. Marketers from around the world and within India are betting big on these two aspects of the country….” Erstwhile begging bowel is now identified as a nation already ‘emerged’ and as one of the fastest growing economy; previously agriculture based economy is now gearing towards more sophisticated service-led economy; the agenda of self-sufficiency and over-reliance on indigenous products are now replaced by global competence and consumerist practices of open-market; the decadal growth of female literacy rate has surpassed the male literacy rate; and Indian culture as a whole seemed to have undergone phenomenal transformation. Similarly, the social sector has also shown tremendous growth during eleven five-year plans and the erstwhile vulnerable sections like women, unorganised labour, farmers, scheduled tribes, scheduled castes, and backward classes are now given importance so much so that they are not only provided with insurance cover, finance packages or reservation in jobs, but also with the confidence that they now hold the important political and administrative posts at national and state levels. Further, the eight Millennium Development Goals and targets are largely contributing in eradication of extreme poverty and hunger; universal primary education; gender equality and women empowerment; reduction of child mortality; improvement in maternal health; combatting HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; environmental sustainability; and most importantly, global partnership for development.
Now, it is the time when ‘Sanskritisation’, consumerism and commoditization characterise Indian sociology. M.N. Srinivas’s concept of ‘Sanskritisation’ in Indian context denotes “the process by which a low Hindu caste, or tribal or other group, changes its customs, ritual, ideology and way of life in the direction of a high and frequently, “twice- born” caste. Generally such changes are followed by a claim to a higher position in the caste hierarchy than that traditionally conceded to the claimant caste by the local community.” Similarly, globalisation and consequent rise of Indian middle class which is estimated to touch 267 million in next five years (National Council for Applieed Economic Research, 2010) has literally deconstructed the typical Indian way of life by giving more importance to consumerism, commoditization and Epicureanism. “Interestingly, as per NCAER findings, the middle class that represents only 13.1 per cent of India’s population currently owns 49 per
cent of total number of cars in India, 21 per cent of TVs, 53.2 per cent of computers, 52.9 per cent of ACs, 37.8 per cent of microwaves and 45.7 per cent of credit cards.”
Erstwhile sacrosanct values like austerity, self-restraint and life with limited means are now considered old-fashioned. Now, we are in the blind race of accumulating more and more wealth and consuming the materialistic pleasures to the every possible extent. The emerging realities signify that “there is an inclusion for some and an exclusion, or marginalisation, for many. There is affluence for some and poverty for many. There are some winners and many losers. It would seem that there are two worlds that co-exist in space even if they are far apart in well-being.” If this is what we call transformation then there is nothing wrong in the new generation of writers like Chetan Bhagat (IITian turned banker turned writer), Aravind Adiga, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Suketu Mehta presenting to us the rural-urban divide, consumerism, commodification, glittering metropolitan culture, upward mobility, spell of westernization, openness in relations, and changing principles guiding our ethics and morals.
Life style has now become as fast as twenty-twenty cricket, social institutions have become quite fragile, our goals have become as short lived as a puff of cigarette, fashion and glamour as essential as air to breathe, and life without cellphones and laptops unthinkable. According to the latest report of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, India has the remarkable tele-density of 70.89% out of which 67.98% subscribers use cellphones or wireless sets and only 2.91% use wire-line phones and Broadband subscription has reached to
11.87 Million in March 2011 from 11.47 Million in Feb. 2011. In the age of Orkut, Facebook, Google and other popular sites, we are proud to have more friends on social networking sites than in real life. With an obsession of chatting, surfing, tweeting, mailing, e- matrimonial, e-invitations, e-governance, e-banking e-ticketing and e-everything, we have lost community spirit, respect for social institutions and celebrated Indian legacy.
So, if we consider Literature as subject to change with socio-political and economic pressures and refer to C.S. Lewis for whom “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become,” Postmodern Indian English Fiction is very much close to that definition of literature when it is termed either as ‘twitterature’ or ‘glitterature’. Indian chicklit novels (following the Chick lit genre popularised by Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary) including Rajashree’s Trust Me, Swati Kaushal’s Piece of Cake, Varsha Dixit’s Right Fit Wrong Shoe and Xcess Baggage, and Shobha de’s Novels present to the readers a spicy flavour of life. Similarly, the feminist literature has evolved with a new set of terminology under the postfeminist approach. The women issues are now discussed with a preconceived notion that no two women could have one set of problems and so any attempt to reach to a consensus regarding common issues of woman, would be a futile effort. Ironically, on the one hand cyber-feminism is debated in the context of Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs”, while on the other hand ecofeminism is now being revived afresh.
Moreover, the socio-politcal and cultural transformations in Indian culture have led to the demands for the legalisation of gay & lesbian rights, revocation of IPC Section 377 by Delhi High Court stating that “sexual orientation is a ground analogous to sex, and that discrimination on sexual orientation is not permitted under Article 15,” legalisation of live-in relationships, and popularity of queer theory and literature which is a sort of redefinition of sexuality in the pretext of postmodern celebration of differences. The best-selling novels of N.Raj Rao’s The Boyfriend (the first gay novel from India) and Hostel Room 131 and the much hyped launch of website http//www.allthingsqueer.net show an entirely different orientation of Indian culture towards postmodern “celebration of differences in race, gender, culture, and religion as well as in other areas of life.” The queer has now become so common
Thus, it can be affirmed that the trajectory of Indian English fiction has not been linear; rather, the whirls of social, economic and cultural transformations reshaped it as an entity entirely different from what it used to be. With India taking pride in all sort of success stories in different spheres of life, and with a number of failures in the form of scams and scandals, Indian English fiction has portrayed the newly defined social, economic and cultural realities. It is only because of their sensitivity towards the changing national realities with the fine mix of fiction that Chetan Bhagat, Aravind Adiga, Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri and many other Indian English writers are among the largest selling authors today. Besides, they are writing in tune with the global changes, multicultural environs and cosmopolitanism which obviously impress the readership beyond spatial boundaries. They might have failed to achieve the stature of Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan or Mulk Raj Anand but they have the propensity for the depiction of emerging issues, though by excluding certain dark sides of multiple realities of ‘new India’—poverty, hunger, displacement on the name of development and denotified tribes.
Qtd. In Homi K.Bhabha, The Location of Culture (Routledge, 1994) 121.