The Indian conquest of English

The new novels of India are being read around the world, but they are being written in the language of the conqueror. Peter Popham explores an improbable success
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The Independent Online
Fifty years after India's independence, we in Britain seem far more enthusiastic about marking the golden jubilee than India itself. It is not hard to see why. For India, the attainment of freedom was overshadowed by Partition, and the massacres and mass migrations that accompanied it; any celebration is bound to be tinged with bitter regret. For the British, on the other hand, it is as one cynic put it, "the anniversary of our munificence in giving away such a jewel".

But if that is one rather creepy, narcissistic reason for cheer, there is another which is perhaps better founded. Indian English goes from strength to strength. The conqueror's tongue, so useful in enabling educated Indians from every part of the country to talk to each other on linguistically neutral ground, has not merely survived Britain's departure: it has gone on to achieve an extraordinary identity of its own. Thanks to Salman Rushdie more than any other single individual, it has risen to the challenge of evoking the phantasmagoria of India. In becoming emancipated from British English, it has not become quaint or folkloric in any normal meaning of the term. It requires no indulgences. Yet all this is from a country that is about as culturally remote from Britain as it is possible to be, in which English remains the medium of a tiny minority. Its richness and vitality are mysterious.

The best Indians write so well that their work betrays no effort. But there is no doubt that the effort required to master such an alien tongue is immense. In a contribution to the recent issue of Granta devoted to India, Nirad Chaudhuri, the Indian author, who was 100 last year, described his own method. "I did not learn English from Englishmen," he wrote, "nor hear it spoken by native speakers till late in life." He learned enough from his Bengali teachers "so that when I entered university life in 1914 I didn't have to consult dictionaries ... Nonetheless an acute anxiety troubled me when I was writing my first book, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, in 1947 and 1948. I asked myself whether what I was writing would sound like English to those born to the language. I knew, unless it did, no English publisher would accept my book.

"I adopted a special method to rid myself of the worry. I read what I had written aloud and then also read a passage from some great book of English prose in the same way. If the two sound effects agreed I passed my writing ... This method proved itself. When, after the publication of my book in England on 8 September 1952, the BBC read out certain passages from it, I said to myself: 'That was the sound I had in my mind's ear.'"

Since Chaudhuri's debut in the year of independence, recognition in the West of Indian literary achievement has been slow to build. But after the success of Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry and a handful of others, the door has been battered down; hopeful young Indians carting their manuscripts to publishers in London or New York today find they have arrived in the middle of a modest but palpable Indian boom.

The most celebrated beneficiary of the boom so far is Arundhati Roy, a woman from Kerala in the extreme south, whose first novel, The God of Small Things, is published by Flamingo in three weeks. Roy, who trained as an architect in Delhi and has had two of her scripts filmed to critical acclaim, gained instant fame when the London agent David Godwin, stunned by her manuscript, took the first plane to Delhi and signed her up. That judgement was confirmed when world rights were bought for half a million pounds.

Roy is the rarest sort of commodity in publishing, being possessed of an amazing elfin beauty as well as great talent. But there is nothing commodity-like about the book itself: the result of five years' work, it is deeply personal, and so vivid that its evocations of the Kerala landscape colonize the reader's own imagination. It also displays to the greatest degree possible the special Indian relationship with English: possessing the extreme intimacy that is the fruit of the sort of effort Chaudhuri writes of; yet simultaneously able to play with the language in a way that only those raised some distance from the birthplace of English - whether Irish, African or Indian - seem capable.

But Roy is also painfully aware of the problematic cultural implications of the intimacy which she enjoys. "Ammu said that Pappachi was an incurable British CCP," she writes in The God of Small Things, "which was short for chhi-chhi-poach and in Hindi meant shit-wiper. Chacko said than the correct word for people like Pappachi was Anglophile ... Chacko told the twins that though he hated to admit it, they were all Anglophiles. They were a family of Anglophiles. Pointed in the wrong direction, trapped outside their own history, and unable to retrace their steps because their footprints had been swept away ..."

Roy is one of the newer Indian writers introduced this week on Radio 3 by Noah Richler in a series of five programmes. Taken together they give a good indication of the variety and multifarious richness of Indian writing today. Shashi Tharoor is there, satirical author of Show Business, a farce about Bollywood, and The Great Indian Novel, whose previous day job was head of peacekeeping for the UN in Bosnia, and who is now secretary to Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general.

Upamanyu Chatterjee's first novel, entitled English, August, describes the coming of age of a young civil servant dispatched to the formidable trouble zone of the state of Bihar. Chatterjee now works as he chief of Bombay's slum redevelopment office. He describes himself as writing "as a gentleman plays cricket" and aims to write one novel every Olympics.

Mukul Kesava is the only one of the five who is overtly indebted to the Salman Rushdie school of magic realism: his novel Looking Through the Backwards-Forwards View Glass is a fall through history to the time of Partition, the horror of prescience relieved by fantastic humour. Finally there is Vikram Chandra, who has followed his door-stopping debut novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, with a collection of stories entitled Love and Longing in Bombay. With his light American accent and openness to American influences such as Raymond Chandler, Chandra represents a growing trend among the younger generation of studying in the United States and then staying where they are. Many of India's better-known writers have settled abroad.

Yet the example of Arundhati Roy and the others demonstrate that the wellsprings of English within India still flow abundantly. But what exactly is their writing for? Are they writing purely for themselves? For their peers within Indian cities? Or for the benefit of the whole world?

Arundhati Roy, according to Noel Richler, is "writing out of her own need and urgency"; certainly her book has an intensity and brilliance that renders such questions largely redundant. Richler points out, however, that both Shashi Tharoor and Roy herself are Bengali (Roy part-Bengali), and therefore part of the rich Bengali literary tradition. Throughout India's big cities, there are closely printed, densely written broadsheet newspapers and weekly and monthly magazines; and the highly articulate reception given to India-related projects like the new Granta, testifies to the liveliness of the literary world within India.

And then there is the world beyond, the huge importance of getting a British or American publisher, the lure of Arundhati-sized advances. "Part of you," Richler suggests, "is inevitably writing with the world in mind."

Yet the contradictions and the difficulties remain: of writing for the world about your own country, when the vast majority of your compatriots will not understand what you are saying.

"People ask me sometimes, who are you writing for?" Vikram Chandra tells Noah Richler in the course of one of the Radio 3 programmes. "Are you writing for a western audience or an Indian audience? But that distinction falls apart when you look at it a little more closely. What is meant by an Indian audience? Are we talking about the intellectuals in Bombay or the tea-planters in Darjeeling? ... What you can finally tell stories for are the people who are sitting right in front of you. Once it goes over the loudspeakers out into the world outside, you have no control over it."

The writer has been appointed India correspondent for 'The Independent'.