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.footnote1 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’.

All this, as Chaudhuri points out, rides roughshod over ancient and modern traditions of miniaturism in the Subcontinent—the use of ellipsis, rather than inclusion, as an aesthetic strategy. It ignores the crucial role of the novella and short story in Indian fiction—a genre Tagore introduced from France in the late nineteenth century, before it became established in England. Claims that the capacious, magical, non-linear novel could be seen as natural heir to the imaginary of the Ramayana and Mahabharata—‘at once contemporaneously postcolonial and anciently, inescapably Indian’—overlooked the stark contrast between the amorality of the Hindu epics and the impeccably liberal viewpoint of the postmodern best-seller: multicultural, anti-sexist, tolerant of difference and so forth; while to celebrate Indian writing as merely ‘overblown, fantastic, lush and non-linear’ was surely to endorse the old colonialist chestnut that rational thought and discrimination were alien to Indian tradition.footnote2

These arguments, first developed in a TLS essay, ‘The Construction of the Indian Novel in English’, together with a companion piece, ‘Modernity and the Vernacular’, form the twin-pillared introduction to Chaudhuri’s anthology, which runs from the 1850s to the present day and includes translations from Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Oriya, as well as writing in English.footnote3 The collection proposes both a historical narrative and a cultural contextualization for Indian literature—a sort of counter-manifesto to the assumptions of much postcolonial literary theory. Against conceptions of English-language writing as the natural medium of modernity, replacing a Babel of ancient tongues, Chaudhuri argues that Indian vernacular literatures are themselves modernity’s offspring, directly linked to the emergence of a bourgeois-secular sensibility and the development of a new, educated Indian middle class. The nineteenth-century Bengal Renaissance is taken as the paradigm here, with the work of Michael Madhusudan Dutt as first fruit of the social and intellectual ferment that would create an eclectic, precocious modernism in Calcutta at a time when the culture of Victorian England was still ‘provincial and inward-looking’.footnote4 A restless cosmopolitan, Dutt seized on the horizons opened by the Western education at the 1840s Hindu College and, later, at Gray’s Inn, before returning to re-engage with—and redefine—an indigenous cultural inheritance now fraught with interpretative tensions. ‘I hate Rama and all his rabble’, Dutt could write; like his epic 1861 poem Meghnada Badha Kabya, which reworks an episode from the Ramayana—inverting the status of the Hindu protagonists in much the same way that Milton’s troubled Satan dominates Paradise Lost—this is a statement less freely made, Chaudhuri suggests, in today’s BJP-ruled India. Similarly, the work of Rabindranath Tagore and his successors, hailed in the West as an expression of ancient Eastern wisdom, is read here as that of a modernist sensibility, working out its relation to a fast-changing world. In differing ways—conditioned by local levels of development, education, commerce—Chaudhuri traces the same moment at work within the other Indian vernaculars.

Nuance, ellipsis and the exploration of realist boundaries predominate within the selection of contemporary writing, as might be expected. Naiyer Masud’s 1996 Urdu story, ‘Sheesha Ghat’ (‘Wharf of Glass’) assembles all the elements from which magical realism would fashion a raucous extravaganza—bazaari clown, dacoit’s mistress—and creates instead a strange tableau of stillness and understanding, narrated with unfussed clarity by a boy who cannot speak. An extract from Krishna Sobti’s Hindi novella of 1991 Ai Lakti (Hey, girl) is all dialogue, notes on actionset as stage directions: the conversation—mostly one-sided—of an old lady on her deathbed, talking to her daughter. The quiet domestic scene is the setting for wild flights of the night, flashes of anger and terror mixed with gentle chafing, women’s memories, sharp advice. Nirmal Verma’s Hindi story ‘Terminal’ (1992), set within a strange symbolic landscape (almost Prague), displays a scrupulous sympathy for its lovers and the gulfs between them. Fine translations suggest a language of precision and sensitivity, without bluster or hullabaloo: writers silently stalking their prey.footnote5

Their setting is enriched by an illuminating series of pieces—essays, memoirs and letters as well as fiction—that provide some sense of modern India’s discussion of its own cultural process: Tagore’s 1892 account of the Shahzadpur postmaster—his model—reading ‘The Postmaster’ in the Bengali press; the newly orphaned literati in Bose’s contestatory vision of a ‘Tagore-less’ Calcutta; Pankaj Mishra’s depiction of the sullen mood of the Indian universities on the eve of the neoliberal transformation, mired in hopeless caste violence; Ashok Banker’s deregulated Bombay. There are interesting discussions of literary multilingualism—with poets proposed as its most creative Indian theorists—and of traditional forms. In a memorable reading of a Tamil love lyric—a sulky concubine’s complaint about her lover and his wife—framed within its interior and exterior landscapes, A. K. Ramanujan explores the basis of Sanskrit aesthetics: ‘what is contained mirrors the container’. Chaudhuri’s argument here is that it is impossible to be interested in a canon without some idea of a community or a nation’s history and, even more important, some conception of how it sees itself.footnote6

There are omissions from this collection, of course, and some of them are important. This is an India innocent of the trauma of Partition or communal violence; one that has never known war with its neighbours, a communist movement or an industrial working class. Small-town and village life predominate over the teeming city. High-caste experience, though questioned, is preponderant. Nevertheless, this is a rich and stimulating collection, striking proof of the sheer literary excellence within what Chaudhuri calls the ‘multiple traditions’ of Indian writing.

How then are we to make sense of Rushdie’s famous remark that he could find scarcely a single vernacular text worthy of inclusion in his own compendium of Indian literature?footnote7 How are we to account for such startling disparities in Indian writers’ fortunes, if not on the basis of apparent literary worth? What is the relationship between regional, vernacular literatures such as these and ‘world literature’, if one can speak of such a thing? What governs the access of writers—or, as here, entire traditions—to the world stage? Two recent accounts, by Franco Moretti and Pascale Casanova,footnote8 have remapped the realm of world literature, proposing radically new—and divergent—approaches. Both tip their hats to Goethe; but for both—in stark contrast to his egalitarian Weltliteratur ideal—the inequalities of global literary practice over the past 200 years are almost as glaring as those of the economic sphere. For Moretti, taking an analogy from world-systems theory, world literature is ‘one, and unequal’, structured by periphery and core. For Casanova, drawing on Paul Valéry and, above all, Bourdieu, it is governed by national accumulations of cultural capital, the most powerful cities then governing access to literary recognition on a world scale. For both it is a zone of conflict, a ‘struggle for symbolic hegemony’ (Moretti) or a ‘perpetual contest for legitimacy’ (Casanova). Both employ market metaphors: debt, importation, direct and indirect loans, in Moretti; capital accumulation and literary ‘value’ in Casanova. For both, initially, the dominant centres are England and France.footnote9