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New Left Review 13, January-February 2002

Mapping the gap between received versions of Indian writing in the West, and the varieties of form and language in the Subcontinent itself: stereotypes of projection, mechanisms of stratification in the filtering of literary value.



What is Indian literature? The question is sharply posed in this fine and, in many respects, polemical collection, whose explicit aim is to rebut prevailing Western expectations of what postcolonial Indian fiction ought to be. [1] Amit Chaudhuri, ed., The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, London 2001, 638pp, 0 330 34363 7; henceforth, PBMIL. I would like to thank Susan Daruvala for her perceptive comments and criticism on an earlier draft of this essay. Its editor Amit Chaudhuri argues that the critical and commercial reception accorded Midnight’s Children has erected Rushdie’s work as ‘a gigantic edifice that all but obstructs the view of what lies behind’. This in turn has created a highly prescriptive set of assumptions. First: the new Indian novel must be written in English, the only language deemed capable of capturing modern subcontinental realities: Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Urdu and the rest need not apply. Secondly, while eschewing realism, its tone and structure must be relentlessly mimetic: since India was a ‘huge baggy monster’ its fiction, too, must be vast and all-inclusive. Its voice must be ‘robustly extroverted’, clamorously polyphonic, rejecting any nuance or delicacy. Its subject-matter must be fantastical, its narrative non-linear: ‘Indian life is plural, garrulous, rambling, lacking a fixed centre, and the Indian novel must be the same’.

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Francesca Orsini, ‘India in the Mirror of World Fiction’, NLR 13: £3

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