Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Summary of Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist is an extreme criticism of Victorian society’s treatment of the poor. The workhouses that figure prominently in the first few chapters of the novel were institutions that the Victorian middle class established to raise poor children. Since it was believed that certain vices were inherent to the poor and that poor families fostered rather than discouraged such vices, poor husbands and wives were separated in order to prevent them from having children and expanding the lower class. Poor children were taken away from their parents in order to allow the state and the church to raise them in the manner they believed most appropriate.
In the narrative, the workhouse functions as a sign of the moral hypocrisy of the working class. Mrs. Mann steals from the children in her care, feeding and clothing them inadequately. The Victorian middle class saw cleanliness as a moral virtue, and the workhouse was supposed to rescue the poor from the immoral condition of filth. However, the workhouse in Dickens’s novel is a filthy place—Mrs. Mann never ensures that the children practice good hygiene except during an inspection. Workhouses were established to save the poor from starvation, disease, and filth, but in fact they end up visiting precisely those hardships on the poor. Furthermore, Mr. Bumble’s actions underscore middle-class hypocrisy, especially when he criticizes Oliver for not gratefully accepting his dire conditions. Bumble himself, however, is fat and well-dressed, and the entire workhouse board is full of fat gentlemen who preach the value of a meager diet for workhouse residents.
The assumption on the part of the middle-class characters that the lower classes are naturally base, criminal, and filthy serves to support their vision of themselves as a clean and morally upright social group. The gentlemen on the workhouse board call Oliver a “savage” who is destined for the gallows. After Oliver’s outrageous request for more food, the board schemes to apprentice him to a brutal master, hoping that he will soon die. Even when the upper classes claim to be alleviating the lower-class predicament, they only end up aggravating it. In order to save Oliver from what they believe to be his certain fate as a criminal, the board essentially ensures his early death by apprenticing him to a brutal employer.
The workhouse reproduces the vices it is supposed to erase. One workhouse boy, with a “wild, hungry” look, threatens in jest to eat another boy. The suggestion is that workhouses force their residents to become cannibals. The workhouse also mimics the institution of slavery: the residents are fed and clothed as little as possible and required to work at tasks assigned by the board, and they are required to put on a face of cheery, grateful acceptance of the miserable conditions that have been forced on them. When Oliver does not, he is sold rather than sent away freely.
Dickens achieves his biting criticism of social conditions through deep satire and hyperbolic statements. Throughout the novel, absurd characters and situations are presented as normal, and Dickens often says the opposite of what he really means. For example, in describing the men of the parish board, Dickens writes that “they were very sage, deep, philosophical men” who discover about the workhouse that “the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay. . . .” Of course, we know that Oliver’s experience with the workhouse is anything but entertaining and that the men of the parish board are anything but “sage, deep,” or “philosophical.” But by making statements such as these, Dickens highlights the comical extent to which the upper classes are willfully ignorant of the plight of the lower classes. Since paupers like Oliver stand no chance of defeating their tormenters, Dickens takes it upon himself to defeat them with sly humor that reveals their faults more sharply than a serious tone might have. Though Oliver himself will never have much of a sense of humor, we will eventually meet other boys in his situation who will join Dickens in using humor as a weapon in their woefully unequal struggle with the society that oppresses them.
Noah Claypole’s relationship with Oliver illustrates Victorian England’s obsession with class distinctions. The son of destitute parents, Noah is accustomed to the disdain of those who are better off than he. Thus, he is relieved to have Oliver nearby, since, as an orphan, Oliver is even worse off than he is. Dickens characterizes Noah’s cowardice and bullying as “the same amiable qualities” that are “developed in the finest lord.” Dickens shows that class snobbery is a universal quality, characteristic of the lowest as well as the highest strata of society. Moreover, snobbish behavior seems a component of class insecurity. The poor mercilessly taunt those who are poorer than they, out of anxious desire to distinguish themselves from those who are even worse off in life.
In protesting the parish’s treatment of Oliver, Dickens criticizes the Victorian characterization of the poor as naturally immoral, criminal, and filthy. His principal character, Oliver, after all, is virtuous, good, and innocent. Although we might expect a criticism of the popular conception of the lower classes to describe many lower-class characters who are essentially good, honest, and hardworking, Dickens does not paint such a simplistic picture. The character of Noah, for example, exhibits the same stereotypes that Dickens satirizes in the first several chapters. Noah, the son of a drunkard, seems to have inherited all of the unpleasant traits that his father presumably has. Big, greedy, cowardly, ugly, and dirty, Noah is the quintessential Victorian stereotype of the good-for-nothing poor man.
Part of Dickens’s motivation for writing Oliver Twist was to expose the horrid conditions in which the lower classes were expected to live, and, as a result, much of the narrative focuses on the sensationally disgusting settings in which the poor live their lives. At one point, Oliver and Sowerberry travel to a squalid section of town to retrieve a dead pauper’s body. The neighborhood is full of shop fronts that are “fast closed and mouldering away.” The people of this neighborhood have apparently been left behind by the economic expansion of the Industrial Revolution, which was in full force at the time of Oliver Twist’s publication. The bereaved husband’s wife does not starve to death as a result of her “natural” laziness—she starves to death because of the economic realities of the society in which she lives.
Oliver’s attack on Noah is an important moment in the development of his character. Most of the time, he is portrayed as sweet, -docile, innocent, and na├»ve—sometimes to the point of seeming somewhat dim. Indeed, it might seem that Dickens, in his fervent desire to exact his Victorian audience’s sympathy for the poor orphan, exaggerates by making Oliver angelic. Oliver’s fit of rage, however, makes him seem more passionate and human, like an ordinary child. Oliver, raised in the workhouse, has never seen a functioning family except for the Sowerberrys, who are childless. His sense of familial love and duty is strong enough to compel him to violently come to his mother’s defense. Dickens implies that loyalty to kin, and the desire for the love of a family, is an impulse with which children are born, not one that needs to be learned and nurtured.
Oliver’s trip to London parallels the migration of the poor to the urban centers of England during the Industrial Revolution. His hungry, exhausted condition is a result of the laws forbidding begging, and it leaves him vulnerable enough to accept the questionable charity of a band of thieves. Dickens clearly blames the crimes committed by the poor on the people who passed the draconian Poor Laws. Thus, in order to survive, Oliver must accept the aid of Fagin’s band. Oliver’s stay with Fagin’s band represents the first truly domestic experience in his life. Although Fagin’s house is filthy and derelict, it contains a relatively idyllic dinner scene, with plenty of food laid out in pewter dishes and no one to begrudge Oliver his full share of the food.
From today’s perspective, Dickens’s characterization of Fagin through Jewish stereotypes is one of the more uncomfortable aspects of Oliver Twist. Dickens characterizes Fagin as a “very old shrivelled Jew” with a “villainous-looking and repulsive face.” Victorians stereotyped the Jews as avaricious gold worshippers, and in accordance with that stereotype, Fagin’s eyes “glisten” as he takes out a “magnificent gold watch, sparkling with jewels.” True to the anti-Semitic stereotype, his wealth is ill-gotten—Fagin obtains it by having others do the thieving for him, and some of those others have even been hanged for doing Fagin’s bidding. Dickens’s narrator continually refers to him as “the Jew” or “the old Jew,” seemingly making Fagin into a representative for all Jews. When a Jewish acquaintance later took Dickens to task for his portrait of Fagin, Dickens responded that it reflected nothing other than the fact that a sizable number of the leaders of London thieving rings at the time were Jewish. Despite this answer, it is difficult to accept that his portrayal of Fagin does not involve a certain degree of bigotry.
Fagin also represents a harsh parody of the Protestant work ethic. Oliver is “anxious to be actively employed” because he notices that Fagin’s “stern morality” manifests itself when Charley and the Dodger return home empty-handed. Fagin rails about the “misery of idle and lazy habits” and punishes them by denying them dinner. Victorians castigated the poor for laziness, but the work ethic they preached was in some ways responsible for creating the perversion of that ethic that Fagin represents. As a result of the “stern morality” of charitable institutions, paupers have to choose between the harsh conditions of the workhouses and the harsh conditions of the streets. Because begging is a punishable offense, those who stay outside the workhouses are often forced to turn to crime in order to survive.
Oliver’s experience in the courtroom highlights the precarious position of the poor in the eyes of the law. Mr. Fang is an aptly named representative of the English legal system. The law has fangs ready to devour any unfortunate pauper brought to face “justice.” Without hard evidence or witnesses, and despite Brownlow’s testimony that he does not believe that Oliver is the thief, Mr. Fang convicts Oliver and sentences him to three months of hard labor. In Oliver’s weakened condition, the sentence is really a sentence of death.
Oliver’s inability to speak at his trial, caused by his exhaustion and sickness, metaphorically suggests the lower class’s lack of political power and ability to voice its own concerns in a public forum. In 1830s England, the right to vote was based on wealth, so the poor had no say with respect to the law. Moreover, the upper classes project their own conceptions of the poor upon them—to the point of blithely redefining poor people’s identities with no regard for the truth. Oliver cannot even say his name due to exhaustion and terror, so a court officer gives him the false name of “Tom White.” This process of inaccurate renaming occurs throughout the hearing, as Oliver is falsely named a “young vagabond” and a “hardened scoundrel” before he is eventually falsely declared “guilty.” But the name “Oliver Twist” is, in fact, no more authentic, as Mr. Bumble invents this name when Oliver is born. As these examples demonstrate, Oliver’s identity has been determined by other, more powerful people throughout his life.
Oliver enters a new world when Brownlow takes him home. The English legal system and the workhouses represent a value system based on retribution, punishment, and strict morals. The Brownlow household, in contrast, operates on a basis of forgiveness and kindness. After a life of false names and false identities imposed by others, Oliver comes into contact with a portrait of a woman he closely resembles. With this event, the novel’s central mystery—Oliver’s true identity—is established. In contrast to the courtroom, where a multiplicity of incorrect identities are forced upon Oliver, in the Brownlow home, Oliver’s resemblance to the woman’s portrait suggests the elusive nature of his true identity.
These chapters establish a relationship between clothing and identity. The disguise that Nancy wears when she enters the police station reveals key differences between the middle and lower classes in Victorian society. The crowning touch to her disguise is a plainly displayed door key, which marks her as a member of a property-owning class. Because she disguises herself as a middle-class woman, the legal system, in the form of the police station, recognizes her as an individual worth hearing. In the attire of the middle class, she gains both a social voice and social visibility. She becomes an individual rather than a member of the penniless mob.
Just as Nancy assumes a middle-class identity by changing her clothing, Oliver sheds his identity as a orphan pickpocket when he leaves behind his pauper’s clothes. Brownlow purchases an expensive new suit for him. Oliver thus assumes the identity of a gentleman’s son by wearing the clothing of a gentleman’s son. After he dons his new clothing, Mr. Brownlow asks him what he might like to be when he grows up. At the workhouse, the authorities never even bother to ask Oliver his opinion on the matter of his apprenticeship. In Victorian England, even more than today, an individual’s profession determined a large part of his or her identity. The fact that no one at the workhouse asks for Oliver’s opinion regarding his apprenticeship shows, once again, how much he is denied the right to define himself. Oliver’s situation symbolically represents the silence of the poor. The poor cannot define their social identity—instead, the empowered classes define the identity of the poor for them. Oliver and Nancy both gain a voice the moment they shed their pauper clothing.
Class identity is correlated not only with clothing, but with history as well. Once Oliver dons his fine clothes, Brownlow asks him to give his own version of his life history. Earlier in the novel, when Oliver wears pauper’s clothing, other people control his history and, therefore, his identity. When he is Sowerberry’s apprentice, Oliver attempts to assume control of his identity by denying Noah’s insults to his mother, but instead he receives a beating for trying to assert the correct version of his past. Once he sheds his pauper status, however, Oliver’s right to explain his past is firmly established. The fact that Oliver is an orphan further underscores his lack of connection to his past. Whereas the upper classes, and particularly members of the aristocracy, are able to establish their identities by tracing their genealogies, Oliver seems to have no genealogy.
Nancy imposes another false identity on Oliver in order to kidnap him: she calls him her “dear brother.” This statement is not entirely a fabrication—those who are denied families in the novel often seek out a family structure or are placed within family structures against their will. While a member of Fagin’s clan, Oliver is a figurative brother to Nancy, since both are subject to the paternal authority of Fagin and are dependent upon him for their food and shelter. Through Nancy’s regret at returning Oliver to Fagin, Dickens suggests that such a family, while providing companionship and a means for survival, is not ultimately nurturing or morally healthy. Nancy knows that for the rest of society, Oliver confirms the worst stereotypes of the poor as a member of Fagin’s pickpocket band. Oliver’s assumption of the identity of a thief comes with his assumption of the very same pauper’s rags he had worn before. Donning his old clothing, the most obvious indicator of his poverty, marks him as a representative of vice for -Victorian society.
Although most major characters in Oliver Twist are either paragons of goodness, like Oliver and Mr. Brownlow, or embodiments of evil, like Mr. Bumble, Fagin, and Sikes, Nancy’s behavior spans moral extremes. Dickens’s description of her manner as “remarkably free and agreeable,” combined with her position as a young, unmarried female pauper, strongly implies that she is a prostitute, a profession for which Dickens’s Victorian readers would have felt little sympathy. In his preface to the 1841 edition of the novel, Dickens confirms this implication, writing that “the boys are pickpockets, and the girl is a prostitute.” She also spearheads the scheme to bring Oliver back into Fagin’s fold. But her outburst against Sikes and Fagin for seizing and mistreating Oliver demonstrates her deep and passionate sense of morality. Most other “good” characters we meet are good because they have no firsthand experience with vice and degradation. Nancy knows degradation perfectly well, yet she is good. Her character is a forum for the novel to explore whether an individual can be redeemed from the effects of a bad environment.
At the same time, some critics have suggested that Nancy’s speech, in which she announces her regret for having returned Oliver to Fagin’s care, hints that the boys might also be involved in prostitution. Nancy, pointing to Oliver, declares, “I have been in the same trade, and in the same service for twelve years since.” The fact that Nancy points to Oliver even as she speaks about herself implies an absolute identification between the two characters. About this detail, as about Nancy’s own identity as a prostitute, the narrative is purposely vague—Victorian sensibilities mandated that explicit references to sexuality were largely avoided.
Oliver’s domestic relationship with Fagin and his gang contributes to the novel’s argument that that the environment in which one is raised is a greater determining factor on one’s character than biological nature. The need for companionship, Dickens suggests, drives people to accept whichever community accepts them in return. As Oliver begins to find humor and joy in the companionship of the thieves, it becomes evident how easy it is for Fagin to corrupt Oliver. With the institution of the oppressive Poor Laws, it is no wonder that penniless, friendless children will adopt as family any person who is generous to them and will readily adopt that person’s values. The Artful Dodger and Charley Bates are, aside from their crimes, quite likeable characters. As his name implies, the Dodger is highly intelligent, and Charley is given to bursts of uncontrollable laughter at little provocation. Both, one imagines, could have thrived in legitimate society, were that society willing to admit them to its ranks.

The fact that Oliver speaks and carries himself with a demeanor that is much more sophisticated than that of the rest of Fagin’s boys suggests that Dickens is using Oliver to show that even when people are born into squalid conditions, they can appreciate goodness and morality. When the Dodger and Charley pick Brownlow’s pocket, and again when Sikes and Crackit order Oliver into the house, Oliver reacts with shock and horror at the idea of stealing. It is unclear where he has acquired such moral fastidiousness. He could not have learned it amid the life or death struggles of the workhouse. The Dodger and Charley speak in the slang of street children, using expressions like “scragged,” “rum dog,” “peaching,” and “fogles and tickers.” But Oliver does not understand what such expressions mean. He himself speaks in proper King’s English: “I would rather go,” “you’re one, are you not?” Because even Mr. Bumble speaks with a comical vulgar accent, Oliver could not have picked up his refined speech patterns from him. It seems that Oliver’s careful speech is a symptom of his innate moral goodness.
Yet the suggestion that Oliver is innately good complicates Dickens’s argument that corruption is bred by the horrible living conditions of the lower classes, rather than inherently born into their characters. Descriptions of Oliver’s face, in fact, seem to suggest that morality can be born into character. Mr. Sowerberry enlists Oliver to serve in funerals on account of the “expression of melancholy in his face.” The usually unperceptive Toby Crackit notes that Oliver’s “mug is a fortun’ to him,” meaning that his innocent-looking face is worth money to the thieves. Mr. Brownlow sees clearly the resemblance between Oliver and the woman in the portrait, thus providing both himself and us with the first hint that the workhouse-born Oliver has an identity that is worth discovering. Dickens clearly protests against the idea propounded by Mr. Bumble, that the poor are born with an affinity for vice and crime. Yet it sometimes seems as if Oliver has been born with an affinity for virtue and love, just as he was born with his angelic face.
But even Oliver’s captivating face does not give him immunity against irrational malice, embodied by characters such as Bumble. Bumble names Oliver as a child born of “low and vicious” parents, reproducing the stereotype that the poor inherit a criminal nature. Moreover, Bumble narrates the incident of Oliver’s attack on Noah Claypole in the same light. Oliver was “low and vicious” for trying to define his identity on his own terms. Mr. Bumble shows Brownlow his own identification papers to prove his statement. His status as the middle-class beadle for a workhouse gives him the right to speak for Oliver and therefore to define Oliver’s identity as he sees fit. With his identification papers, Bumble has the power of the state to back up his word. Oliver only has his own word to back him up. Outside of the workhouse, Oliver has no legal existence unless he commits a crime and enters the courtroom. The poor are thus reduced to a public existence as criminals, corpses, and “idle, lazy” paupers living on state charity. The state chooses to recognize their existence only when they commit crimes, die, or enter the workhouses.
By contrasting two kinds of theft, Dickens shows how his culture is quick to condemn more obvious acts of theft, but ignores theft that occurs in more subtle ways. After presenting Sikes and Crackit’s botched attempt at theft, the novel quickly shifts to the scene of a very different form of thievery. Mrs. Corney, the middle-class matron of the workhouse, enjoys far more luxury than the pauper residents. They are crammed into tiny, unheated spaces, while Mrs. Corney enjoys a room to herself with a blazing fire during the bitterly cold winter. The amenities of her apartment, which draw Mr. Bumble’s eyes and heart in her direction, represent money that would have been more justly spent on the paupers under her care. Thus, her lifestyle is based on theft, but, because she is robbing those who have nothing, her theft will never be acknowledged.
The description of Mrs. Corney implies that the middle class controls conceptions of what is right and wrong, since church officials, intellectuals, and public officers—who have the authority to declare what is right and wrong—are all part of the middle class. With this control, they are able to ignore their own version of thievery—subtly shortchanging the lower classes—and at the same time condemn the lower-class version of thievery—stealing physical objects from the rich. The middle class’s sense of entitlement and belief that the poor are inherently morally wretched allow its members to easily rationalize the many ways in which they make sure the poor remain so.
Dickens uses an ironic dialogue between Mrs. Corney and Mr. Bumble to demonstrate their hypocrisy. Mr. Bumble remarks that Mrs. Corney’s cat and kittens receive better treatment than the workhouse paupers. The cats bask in front of a blazing fire while the paupers freeze in inadequately heated dormitories. Mr. Bumble remarks that he would drown any cat that was not grateful to live with Mrs. Corney. Mrs. Corney calls him a cruel man for saying that he would drown a cat. Mrs. Corney, of course, ignores her own great cruelty to the paupers, yet bristles at the implication of a drowned cat. By treating the paupers worse than animals, these so-called charitable officials violate their basic rights as human beings.
Mr. Bumble’s proposal to Mrs. Corney is a parody of a certain kind of middle-class marriage. Mr. Bumble whispers sweet nothings to Mrs. Corney, but for all of his romantic pretensions, his proposal is really inspired by Mrs. Corney’s material wealth. When she leaves the room, he verifies that her dishware is made from silver and that her clothing is of “good fashion and texture.” He assesses the exact condition of her furniture and ascertains that her small padlocked box contains money. At the end of this extensive inventory, he decides to go through with his proposal. During the Victorian era, many marriages were primarily economic arrangements, especially for people of middle-class status and above. Dickens, however, was a die-hard romantic. In Oliver Twist, he champions the romantic concept of marriage based on love. This idea will become increasingly important during the latter half of the novel.
With the introduction of Monks, the novel begins to take on the clear attributes of a detective story, especially because we are unsure of who the man is and why he might be interested in Oliver. Even Dickens’s description of Monks as “a dark figure” who lurks “in deep shadow” is mysterious. Furthermore, the chapter implies that Monks will be involved in the protracted unveiling of Oliver’s identity, and, after Monks’s conversation with Fagin, our curiosity seeks satisfaction from the lingering bewilderment. Monks’s claim that he saw “the shadow of a woman . . . pass[ing] along the wainscot like a breath” introduces a note of suspense and even of the supernatural, which grows more pronounced as the story continues.
Through Rose’s reaction to Oliver, Dickens presents delinquency as a problem determined by culture rather than by innate character. Upon seeing Oliver, Rose imagines his entire history at a glance. Unlike most adults who have tried to second-guess him, Rose’s hypotheses about his past and personality are accurate. She surmises that Oliver took part in the attempted burglary because he has never “known a mother’s love” or because he suffered “ill-usage and blows” and “the want of bread.” She names all the miserable conditions of poverty that may have “driven him to herd with men who have forced him to guilt.” Like Brownlow, and unlike the English legal system, the Maylies believe in forgiveness and kindness. Dickens uses these characters, who believe that Oliver is innately good but born into a bad environment, to show that vices can be combated by improving the material conditions of the poor rather than by punishing them. The Maylies recognize that Oliver’s surroundings have determined his behavior but not necessarily his nature, and, as a result, for the first time in his life Oliver is given the chance to narrate his life history on his own terms. This event is an important step in establishing his identity as separate from his surroundings.
The Maylie household in effect simulates a benevolent courtroom, giving Oliver a voice and actually listening to that voice. In this capacity, the courtroom of the Maylie household is wholly different from the typical courtroom of the English legal system. In the courtroom of Mr. Fang, which Dickens depicts in the novel, Oliver is not permitted to testify on his own behalf. Moreover, even in the absence of conclusive evidence, the magistrate still convicts him of the crime of pickpocketing. In the courtroom of the Maylie household, Oliver not only testifies for himself, but he also admits his part in the attempted burglary. However, rather than convict him, his testimony exonerates him, since the Maylies are more concerned with the fact that Oliver can be saved from committing further crimes than with punishing him for the crime that he committed. For the Maylies, Oliver’s entire history and personality matter more than any single action of his.
Losberne’s conversation with Giles and Brittles elaborates the two kinds of moral authority by which characters can be judged in Oliver Twist: the moral authority of the English court system and the higher spiritual authority of God. Losberne appeals to Giles’s fear of God’s higher authority to keep him from telling the constable that Oliver took part in the attempted burglary. His question to Giles and Brittles—“Are you, on your solemn oaths, able to identify that boy?”—asks them if they are morally able to identify Oliver to the law and live with the consequences. Losberne implies that Giles will be responsible for Oliver’s death if Giles’s statement sends him to the English courtroom, since the harsh, literal-minded authority of the English legal system would sentence Oliver to death for participating in a burglary. But the novel suggests that the higher, spiritual authority of God would sentence Giles to hell for complicity in the death of a child. Even though Giles, Brittles, and Losberne are all certain that it was indeed Oliver who committed the crime, the three men are in a position to exercise mercy, while the court system is not. The scene suggests that mercy is frequently more valuable than justice, especially when crimes or sins are committed within extenuating circumstances.
The maternal roles that Mrs. Maylie and Rose play in Oliver’s life place Oliver in a normal family structure for the first time in the novel, and Dickens’s characterization of the upper-class family complicates his original intention of giving voice to the poor. Oliver is the object of women’s kindness when both Mrs. Bedwin and Nancy step in to offer him some measure of maternal protection. But unlike Mrs. Bedwin and Nancy, the Maylie women are upper-class, and Dickens’s portrayal of them reveals an implicit bias toward the upper class that complicates his explicit attempts to speak for the poor. Blessed with the freedom and leisure to do nothing all day but read, pick flowers, take walks, and play the piano, the Maylies lead lives of perfect bliss, in which Oliver is thrilled to take part. Dickens condemns the money-grubbing tendencies of characters like Fagin and Mr. Bumble, but his idyllic portrait of the moneyed life almost makes Fagin’s and Bumble’s avarice seem more understandable.
The idyll of Oliver’s life with the Maylies is also related to their move to the countryside, and Dickens suggests that rural life is superior in all ways to city life. In the country, even poor people have “clean houses,” and woodland “scenes of peace and quietude” are described as sufficient comfort even for those who lead “lives of toil.” Dickens’s portrait of rural poverty as perfectly pleasant cannot be entirely accurate, in light of the vast numbers of peasants who chose to migrate to the city in his time. His description of the countryside as a site of class harmony may be a result of Oliver’s sudden migration into the ranks of the upper class as much as anything else. We already know that the condition of the poor in cities is horrific, and the extravagant lives of the wealthy people who live alongside them may look grotesque and downright immoral in contrast. But if the rural poor lead comfortable lives, there is no call to condemn the leisurely existence of the wealthy Maylies.
The relationship between Harry and Rose illustrates that although marriage based on love is difficult, Dickens values it more highly than marriage based on social station. However, Rose and Mrs. Maylie both believe that marriage based on love is problematic. Rose refuses to marry Harry for the same reasons that Mrs. Maylie says she should not. Rose calls herself “a friendless, portionless girl” with a “blight” upon her name. As a penniless, nameless girl, she says to Harry that his friends will suspect that she “sordidly yielded to your first passion and fastened myself . . . on all your hopes and projects.” In other words, she fears that outsiders will believe that she slept with Harry outside of wedlock and secured his hand in marriage in that way. Thus, she demonstrates her awareness of the tendency of “respectable” society to assume the worst about individuals of low social standing, a tendency that has almost ruined Oliver’s life time and again.
Rose’s fear that others would find her marriage to Harry “sordid” reveals the fundamental irrationality of the society whose opinion she fears. Victorians who belonged to the middle and upper classes often married for economic reasons. Individuals usually married someone from a similar economic and social class because, presumably, marrying down would harm their social and economic interests. Logically, we might assume that a marriage between two people of different classes was more, not less, likely to be based on love and higher spiritual values, since it would violate the material interests of at least one party. Yet Rose predicts that others would attribute her marriage to Harry to factors far less honorable than love. Society’s inclination to assume the worst about those of low social standing is so strong that it can lead to patently irrational conclusions.
Rose regrets that she cannot offer Harry an economically profitable and socially acceptable marriage, but Dickens criticizes socially or economically motivated marriage. Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney demonstrate one such marriage, and the Bumbles lead a miserable life. They dislike each other intensely. Mr. Bumble regrets marrying for “six teaspoons, a pair of sugar-tongs, and a milk-pot; with a small quantity of second-hand furniture, and twenty pound in money.” He bases his marriage on class similarities and not on personal compatibility, and the result is a complete disaster.
Like Nancy and Oliver, Bumble learns of the influence that clothing exercises upon identity. Bumble has given up his position as the parish beadle to become the workhouse master. Having exchanged one identity for another, he now regrets the change. After leaving his position as beadle, he realizes how important the beadle’s clothing was to the position. Dickens writes, “Strip the bishop of his apron, or the beadle of his hat and lace; what are they? Men. Mere men. Dignity, and even holiness too, sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine.” The power and dignity of privileged roles are not qualities inherent in the men who occupy them. They are, like clothing, merely purchased and worn, and they can be taken off as easily as they were put on.
The title of Oliver Twist is deceptively simple. Although it does nothing more than state the protagonist’s name, the central mystery of the novel is, in fact, the protagonist’s true identity. Oliver’s misfortunes have had much to do with the false or mistaken identities others have thrust upon him. Dickens conceals the solution to the mystery of his true identity, leaving just a clue here and there in order to move the plot forward. Various people seek to conceal Oliver’s identity for their own personal gain. Oliver’s identity is intertwined with Monks’s identity, and the connection between the two of them has shrouded both their identities in mystery. Once it becomes clear that Oliver and Monks are brothers, the novel enters its final stage. We begin to have some idea of who Oliver might be, but the story continues since Oliver himself has yet to find out.
The meeting of Nancy and Rose represents the clash of two very different worlds. Rose has been raised amid love and plenty, and, as a result, her virtue and kindness are almost unreal. On the other hand, Nancy has struggled for survival in the streets, and instead of conventional virtue, her life is full of crime and violence. Yet both were once penniless, nameless orphans. Rose simply had the good luck to be taken in by Mrs. Maylie, who offered her a road of escape from her unfortunate position. Now, Rose offers Nancy a similar road of escape, but it is already too late for Nancy. Their characters can be seen as part of Dickens’s argument that the environment in which people are raised and the company that they keep have a greater influence on their quality of character than any inborn traits. Rose and Nancy were born in similar circumstances: only the environment in which each was raised has made them so different.
Nancy’s decision to confront Rose with information about Oliver stands in opposition to her earlier decision to drag Oliver back to Fagin. Just as Nancy causes Oliver to become a thief earlier in the novel by sending him to Fagin, her decision to reveal the information she holds regarding his inheritance may cause him to become wealthy. Furthermore, Nancy’s honorable act directly contradicts Victorian stereotypes of the poor as fundamentally immoral and ignoble. It demonstrates that there are different levels of vice and that an individual who partakes of one level does not necessarily partake of the others. Nancy has been a thief since childhood, she drinks to excess, and she is a prostitute. Despite these tainting circumstances, however, she is incredibly virtuous where the most important matters, those of life and death, are concerned. With her character, Dickens suggests that the violation of property laws and sexual mores is not incompatible with deep generosity and morality.
In many ways, Nancy, the paragon of vice, appears here as more virtuous than Rose, the paragon of virtue. Rose stands to lose nothing by helping Oliver, but Nancy could lose her life. Fagin’s central threat to keep his associates from acting against his interests is the threat of legal “justice.” He knows in intimate detail the criminal activities of everyone in his social circle. Fagin can send Nancy to the gallows for talking to anyone outside his circle of criminal associates.
Nancy regrets her life of vice, but she refuses Rose’s offer to help her change it. Nancy sees herself, as Rose puts it, as “a woman lost almost beyond redemption.” It seems as if she herself assimilates to the judgments that intolerant characters like Mr. Bumble have passed upon her. Yet Nancy’s love for Sikes is more crucial to her decision to return to her old life than any belief that she has strayed too far from the path of moral goodness. The different light in which society treats Nancy’s and Rose’s romantic attachments reveals the extent of its prejudices against the poor. It is considered a virtue when a woman like Rose is unconditionally faithful to a respectable young man like Harry Maylie. Yet when a woman like Nancy displays the same fidelity to a dreadful fellow like Sikes, it becomes “a new means of violence and suffering.” This contrast demonstrates that socioeconomic status has the power to color all aspects of an individual’s life, even the private emotions of love and sentiment.
Although Fagin claims to be in partnership with his associates, protecting them in exchange for their loyalty, in the end, he manipulates them so that his own self-interest is better served. He watches the people around him with special care and translates his knowledge about them into power. A prime example of this strategy is his hope to use Nancy’s possible lover to control her through blackmail. Even worse, he reveals Nancy’s betrayal of the band’s code of silence to Sikes in the worst, most treacherous light possible. He describes her actions in such a way as to inspire Sikes’s murderous rage. Having Nancy killed is at least as beneficial to Fagin as to Sikes, but Fagin is unwilling to risk doing the deed himself. Instead, he uses his knowledge about Nancy and about Sikes’s character to manipulate Sikes into committing the horrible crime.
Oliver Twist explores different varieties of justice—that served by the English court system; spiritual or godly justice; and, with Sikes’s crime, personal justice, or the torments of conscience. Justice for Sikes’s “foulest and most cruel” of crimes is served almost instantly, as Sikes’s guilt immediately subjects him to horrific mental torture. The passages exploring his mental state are among the most psychologically intricate in the novel. Sikes cannot cleanse himself of Nancy’s blood, either figuratively or literally. Visions of Nancy’s dead eyes disturb him greatly, and he fears being seen. During his desperate flight from London, he feels as though everyone is watching suspiciously. Sikes’s remorse and paranoia shape and twist the world around him. The traveling salesman who claims to offer “the infallible and invaluable composition for removing all sorts of stain,” including bloodstains, is so canny in his offer to help Sikes remove his stains that the salesman could almost be a figment of Sikes’s haunted imagination. Likewise, the burning barn, which essentially serves no purpose in the plot, seems to be a herald of the fires of hell Sikes sees in his future.
Unlike Oliver, who spends much of the novel trying to discover his identity, Sikes desperately wishes to hide his identity. However, his dog, Bull’s-eye, acts as a kind of walking name tag. The animal follows him everywhere. Indeed, Sikes’s animal even leaves his mark at the scene of the crime—his bloodstained footprints cover the room where Nancy is killed. Bull’s-eye often functions as an alter ego for Sikes: the animal is vicious and brutal, just like its owner. Sikes’s desire to kill the dog symbolically and psychologically represents a desire to kill himself, the murderer he has become.
The long story surrounding Mr. Leeford’s marriage is told to demonstrate the disastrous consequences of economically motivated marriages. Dickens’s romanticism manifests itself in the difference between Oliver and his half-brother. Oliver, the child of Leeford’s love affair, is virtuous and innocent. Monks, the result of an economic marriage, is morally twisted by his obsession with wealth. This obsession with money leads him down a long, dark path of nefarious crimes and conspiracies.
Throughout Oliver Twist, Dickens criticizes the Victorian stereotype of the poor as criminals from birth. However, after a strident critique of the representation of the poor as hereditary criminals, he portrays Monks as a criminal whose nature has been determined since birth. Brownlow tells Monks, “You . . . from your cradle were gall and bitterness to your own father’s heart, and . . . all evil passions, vice, and profligacy, festered [in you].” Monks’s evil character seems less the product of his own decisions than of his birth.
Oliver Twist is full of mistaken, assumed, and changed identities. Oliver joins his final domestic scene by assuming yet another identity. Once the mystery of his real identity is revealed, he quickly exchanges it for another, becoming Brownlow’s adopted son. After all the fuss and the labyrinthine conspiracies to conceal Oliver’s identity, it is ironic that he gives it up almost as soon as he discovers it.
The final chapters quickly deliver the justice that has been delayed throughout the novel. Fagin dies on the gallows. Sikes hangs himself by accident—it is as though the hand of fate or a higher authority reaches out to execute him. Mr. and Mrs. Bumble are deprived of the right to ever hold public office again. They descend into poverty and suffer the same privations they had forced on paupers in the past. Monks never reforms, nor does life show him any mercy. True to Brownlow’s characterization of him as bad from birth, he continues his idle, evil ways and dies in an American prison. For him, there is no redemption. Like Noah, he serves as a foil—a character whose attributes contrast with, and thereby accentuate, those of another—to Oliver’s character. He is as evil, twisted, and mean while Oliver is good, virtuous, and kind. Oliver and all of his friends, of course, enjoy a blissful, fairy-tale ending. Everyone takes up residence in the same neighborhood and lives together like one big, happy family.
Perhaps the strangest part of the concluding section of Oliver Twist is Leeford’s condition for Oliver’s inheritance. Leeford states in his will that, if his child were a son, he would inherit his estate “only on the stipulation that in his minority he should never have stained his name with any public act of dishonor, meanness, cowardice, or wrong.” It seems strange that a father would consign his child to lifelong poverty as well as the stigma of illegitimacy if the son ever committed a single wrong in childhood. In the same way that the court is willing to punish Oliver for crimes committed by another, Leeford is ready to punish Oliver for any small misdeed merely because he hated his first son, Monks, so much.
One contradiction that critics of Oliver Twist have pointed out is that although Dickens spends much of the novel openly attacking retributive justice, the conclusion of the novel is quick to deliver such justice. At the story’s end, crimes are punished harshly, and devilish characters are still hereditary devils to the very end. The only real change is that Oliver is now acknowledged as a hereditary angel rather than a hereditary devil. No one, it seems, can escape the identity dealt to him or her at birth. The real crime of characters like Mr. Bumble and Fagin may not have been mistreating a defenseless child—it may have been mistreating a child who was born for a better life.
Yet Dickens’s crusade for forgiveness and tolerance is upheld by his treatment of more minor characters, like Nancy, whose memory is sanctified, and Charley Bates, who redeems himself and enters honest society. These characters’ fates demonstrate that the individual can indeed rise above his or her circumstances, and that an unfortunate birth does not have to guarantee an unfortunate life and legacy.

Analysis of Major Characters
Oliver Twist
As the child hero of a melodramatic novel of social protest, Oliver Twist is meant to appeal more to our sentiments than to our literary sensibilities. On many levels, Oliver is not a believable character, because although he is raised in corrupt surroundings, his purity and virtue are absolute. Throughout the novel, Dickens uses Oliver’s character to challenge the Victorian idea that paupers and criminals are already evil at birth, arguing instead that a corrupt environment is the source of vice. At the same time, Oliver’s incorruptibility undermines some of Dickens’s assertions. Oliver is shocked and horrified when he sees the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates pick a stranger’s pocket and again when he is forced to participate in a burglary. Oliver’s moral scruples about the sanctity of property seem inborn in him, just as Dickens’s opponents thought that corruption is inborn in poor people. Furthermore, other pauper children use rough Cockney slang, but Oliver, oddly enough, speaks in proper King’s English. His grammatical fastidiousness is also inexplicable, as Oliver presumably is not well-educated. Even when he is abused and manipulated, Oliver does not become angry or indignant. When Sikes and Crackit force him to assist in a robbery, Oliver merely begs to be allowed to “run away and die in the fields.” Oliver does not present a complex picture of a person torn between good and evil—instead, he is goodness incarnate.
Even if we might feel that Dickens’s social criticism would have been more effective if he had focused on a more complex poor character, like the Artful Dodger or Nancy, the audience for whom Dickens was writing might not have been receptive to such a portrayal. Dickens’s Victorian middle-class readers were likely to hold opinions on the poor that were only a little less extreme than those expressed by Mr. Bumble, the beadle who treats paupers with great cruelty. In fact, Oliver Twist was criticized for portraying thieves and prostitutes at all. Given the strict morals of Dickens’s audience, it may have seemed necessary for him to make Oliver a saintlike figure. Because Oliver appealed to Victorian readers’ sentiments, his story may have stood a better chance of effectively challenging heir prejudices.
A major concern of Oliver Twist is the question of whether a bad environment can irrevocably poison someone’s character and soul. As the novel progresses, the character who best illustrates the contradictory issues brought up by that question is Nancy. As a child of the streets, Nancy has been a thief and drinks to excess. The narrator’s reference to her “free and agreeable . . . manners” indicates that she is a prostitute. She is immersed in the vices condemned by her society, but she also commits perhaps the most noble act in the novel when she sacrifices her own life in order to protect Oliver. Nancy’s moral complexity is unique among the major characters in Oliver Twist. The novel is full of characters who are all good and can barely comprehend evil, such as Oliver, Rose, and Brownlow; and characters who are all evil and can barely comprehend good, such as Fagin, Sikes, and Monks. Only Nancy comprehends and is capable of both good and evil. Her ultimate choice to do good at a great personal cost is a strong argument in favor of the incorruptibility of basic goodness, no matter how many environmental obstacles it may face.
Nancy’s love for Sikes exemplifies the moral ambiguity of her character. As she herself points out to Rose, devotion to a man can be “a comfort and a pride” under the right circumstances. But for Nancy, such devotion is “a new means of violence and suffering”—indeed, her relationship with Sikes leads her to criminal acts for his sake and eventually to her own demise. The same behavior, in different circumstances, can have very different consequences and moral significance. In much of Oliver Twist, morality and nobility are black-and-white issues, but Nancy’s character suggests that the boundary between virtue and vice is not always clearly drawn.
Although Dickens denied that anti-Semitism had influenced his portrait of Fagin, the Jewish thief’s characterization does seem to owe much to ethnic stereotypes. He is ugly, simpering, miserly, and avaricious. Constant references to him as “the Jew” seem to indicate that his negative traits are intimately connected to his ethnic identity. However, Fagin is more than a statement of ethnic prejudice. He is a richly drawn, resonant embodiment of terrifying villainy. At times, he seems like a child’s distorted vision of pure evil. Fagin is described as a “loathsome reptile” and as having “fangs such as should have been a dog’s or rat’s.” Other characters occasionally refer to him as “the old one,” a popular nickname for the devil. Twice, in Chapter 9 and again in Chapter 34, Oliver wakes up to find Fagin nearby. Oliver encounters him in the hazy zone between sleep and waking, at the precise time when dreams and nightmares are born from “the mere silent presence of some external object.” Indeed, Fagin is meant to inspire nightmares in child and adult readers alike. Perhaps most frightening of all, though, is Chapter 52, in which we enter Fagin’s head for his “last night alive.” The gallows, and the fear they inspire in Fagin, are a specter even more horrifying to contemplate than Fagin himself.


Dr. D. B. Gavani
The 1980s witnessed a second coming for the Indian novel in English. Its messiah seems to have been Salman Rushdie. The appearance of Midnight's Children in 1981 brought about a renaissance in Indian writing in English which has outdone that of the 1930s. Its influence, acknowledged by critics and novelists alike, has been apparent in numerous ways: the appearance of a certain post-modern playfulness, the turn too history, a new exuberance of language, the reinvention of allegory, the sexual frankness, even the prominent references to Bollywood, all seem to owe something to Rushdie's novel. Nevertheless, to attribute everything to a single, personal intervention would be naive. The pretensions of the messianic critic are irrevocably deflated if he or she reads I. Allan Sealy's account of the origins of his own first novel, The Trotter-Nama. Written but not published before Midnight's Children, Sealy's novel, like Rushdie's, originally had a narrator born on the midnight hour of Indian independence. Although Sealy felt.that he had to drop this specific idea when he read Rushdie's novel, in the published versions of both stories the fate of the narrator still mirrors the fate of the nation. Sealy's view of the onvergence is that it represents `two writers responding to the same historical moment. They have read the same book, but the book is India. India is dictating, the country is doing the "thinking". We do not write but are written.' The question which follows from Sealy's statement is: what is the India that is writing these texts? Various economic and social pressures have led to the end of the so-called Nehruvite consensus in India. The idea of unity within - so central to the years of nationalist struggle and the building of the new nation state - has been displaced by an urgent need to question the nature of that unity. The issue of imagining the nation, the issue of the fate of the children of the midnight hour of independence, has become a pressing one throughout India. It is an issue which has been debated in all languages. The better novels in English of the past twenty years participate in this larger debate. If Rushdie ushered in a new era of Indian writing in English, it has to be acknowledged that he was more a sign of the times than their creator.
Rushdie's fame may have identified an international audience for Indian writers in English, but commercial developments in English-language publishing within India have played their part in enabling a new crop of novelists to come forward. Many writers who publish abroad now also insist on a separate Indian edition of their work. Ravi Dayal's publishing house has nurtured a group of writers identified with Delhi's elite St. Stephen's College-I. Allan Sealy, Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Tharoor, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Rukun Advani, Mukul Kesavan and Anurag Mathur were all students at this college in the early 1970s-who self-consciously acknowledge each other's influence in their books. The setting up of Penguin India in 1985 and the emergence of Rupa Paperbacks and Indialnk have provided a marketing network able to deliver more affordable English-language fiction to the expanding urban middle class. It is the world of this middle class which provides the mostt obvious context for the new Indian writing in English. The ex-schoolteacher Ranga Rao (b. 1936) is no Stephanian and his Fowl Filcher (1987) is able to communicate a vivid sense of rural and provincial life, but he still acknowledges that `the nation itself has moved from the village centrism of the Gandhian era to the city-centrism of the post-Nehru period.' Some critics, however, believe that India's writers in English have taken advantage of this trend to retreat into a metropolitan or cosmopolitan elitism which produces a literature intended only for the English-reading privileged classes within India or the international public outside.
Such views cannot simply be dismissed as reactionary traditionalism: if nothing else they alert the literary critic to the question of the relationship between the novels of the 1980s and the Indian regional languages. One of the legacies of Midnight's Children was a vibrant model for rewriting English in dialogue with those languages. Anita Desai has claimed that it was only after `Salman Rushdie came along that Indian writers finally felt capable of using the spoken language, spoken English, the way it's spoken on Indian streets by ordinary people.' However, Desai's account is not quite accurate. Contemporary novelists rarely attempt street-wise realism. More often they bring different languages into comic collision, testing the limits of communication between them, celebrating India's linguistic diversity, and taking over the English language to meet the requirements of an Indian context, a perspective which receives perhaps its most explicit statement on the often-quoted opening page of Upamanyu Chaterjee's English, August (1988): `Amazing mix ... Hazaar fucked. Urdu and American ... I'm sure nowhere else could language be mixed and spoken with such ease.' Nevertheless this kind of reshaping of the language is not entirely without its anxieties. In English, August, for instance, the promise of a novel written in a new kind of desi English rather fizzles out in favour of a continual self-conscious questioning of its own linguistic boundaries. The hero, Agastya, like his creator an employee of the Indian Administrative Service, is confronted with a variety of views on the role of English in India when he finds himself a member of the college-educated elite cast adrift on a posting to small-town India. One view he encounters is that India's writers in English are hopelessly alienated from the national culture, `full with one mixed-up culture and writing about another, what kind of audience are they aiming at'. From this kind of perspective `there really are no universal stories, because each language is an entire culture ... great literature has to have its regional tang.
New novelists of the 1980s such as Chatterjee (b. 1959) have tried to demonstrate that, on the contrary, the Indian `tang' is not a pure essence but the masala mix of a culture that has always been able to appropriate influences from outside the subcontinent. From this point of view, English is implicated in the polyphony of Indian languages, its colonial authority relativised by entering into the complexity which it describes. Yet translations between the languages that participate in this polyphony are not likely to be an easy process of matching like to like. Hierarchies exist that structure the relationships between India's languages. The English language has a privileged place in Indian culture. It is the language of the former coloniser and remains an elite language, the language of getting on, the language of business, the language identified, above all, with modernity. The best of the novelists, as we shall see below, bring to their writing an awareness of the inequality of access to English and the problems of communication between different classes and cultures within India. Both English, August and its less well-received successor, The Last Burden (1993), explore the conflict between tradition and modernity in contemporary India without simply privileging one over the other. Indeed it is difficult not to read the troubled relationship between the narrator and his dying mother at the centre of The Last Burden as a subtle allegorical account of precisely this conflict.
For some critics the very playfulness of the kinds of language used in recent novels confirms the privileges of a class of Indians without any anxieties attached to their uses of English, and secure enough in their own elitism to experiment with a language they have often spoken from birth. From this kind of perspective the abrogation of standard English is the sign of a certain cultural weightlessness, the deracinated insouciance of elite college boys, or the alienation of those who have lost touch with the national community (if there is such a thing). No doubt social and economic privilege has been important, perhaps even necessary, to the creation of a cultural space in which to rewrite the language of the coloniser. By no means were all of the novelists of the 1980s Stephanians, as Shama Futehally (b. 1952), who was educated in Bombay and Leeds, archly points out in the preface to her Tara Lane (1993), but compared to writers in other Indian languages the novelists writing in English do seem to come from a rather uniform and narrow class band: academics, editors, and other inhabitants of the book trade abound. Even so there are problems with assuming the existence of some homogeneous national community from which these writers are distanced by their practice of writing in English. After all, in a country which still has very low levels of literacy, literature in whatever language is not a popular form. Furthermore, it has been argued that `the nation has first to be imagined to become real', and these novelists make their own contribution to that process, often in ways that directly raise the issue of the role to be played by the English language in the wider community as part of the broader debate about the identity of the nation as a whole.
It seems to have been the success of Midnight's Children which gave these writers the confidence to address such issues. Prior to Rushdie's example the writer in English was more often seeking to demonstrate just how Indian he or she could be while writing in an `alien' language. In Rushdie's novel the literal cracking up of Saleem represents the end of one cycle of the national imaginary, the fracturing of Nehru's promise `to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell'. The figure of the fissuring body politic recurs in Beethoven Among the Cows (1994) by Rukun Advani (b. 1955). Advani's narrator fears he is doomed `to see India crack up like the fragments of my multi-channelled mind'. The death of Nehru in the novel's opening chapter figures as the loss of innocence both for the narrator, who is leaving behind his boyhood, and for the nation for whom the loss of its integrity looms-an idea imaged by the fundamentalist threat to an Indian architectural heritage which includes the Babri Masjid, the Golden Temple, and the Taj Mahal. The allegorical parallel of the growth to maturity of the individual and the growth of an independent India is a recurrent feature in many novels of the period, but not always in Advani's terms of a nostalgia for a lost unity.
Amit Chaudhuri
There is a suggestion that Nehru's inclusive rhetoric was always a mask for an exclusive reality. In Futehally's Tara Lane, for instance, Nehru's promise that `all of us will stand as one' is haunted by bad faith from the moment it is made. The family of industrialists from which the daughter-narrator comes regards her desire to act on Nehru's speech and collect for famine relief as going `too far'. As the novel proceeds and the daughter moves out of the cossetted world of the extended family into the city of Bombay, the paternalistic view of society which represents her father's factory as a treasure house which provides both for the family and the workers is revealed as a deception operating in the interests of the middle classes: `I was protected as if by ear-muffs, and learnt to nod or smile or talk through the metaphorical slits in the muffling'. The family is constantly wrapping and protecting its possessions, drawing boundaries between itself and the crowd outside: `You had to make sure that the object in question was locked away against thieves, wrapped up against monsoon damp, moth-balled against termites, guarded from stains, not paraded before servants'. The unity of the Nehruvite image of India is revealed to be a denial of the nation that lies beyond the family's boundaries.
In Rushdie's fiction, Bombay has served as the place wherein the fractured nation becomes defined by heterogeneity, a place where India's different cultures meet, and where India meets the world, but subsequent representations of India's great commercial city have by no means uniformly endorsed an idea of Bombay as a post-modern utopia. Amit Chaudhuri was born in Calcutta in 1962, but brought up in Bombay before going to university in England, where he lived until recently. In his fiction Bombay figures as the symbol of a disorienting modernity to be contrasted with Calcutta, `the only city I know that is timeless'. Both A Strange and Sublime Address (1991) and Afternoon Raag (1993) are permeated by a lyrical sense of the loss of self. What for Rushdie is a supplementarity of identity, the possibility of an idea of Indianness built on the very differences within the culture, is for Chaudhuri more often a lack, a sense of disorienting loss. In Chaudhuri's third book, Freedom Song (1998), the child's Calcutta is still present but has been changed by two decades of communist rule and political violence across the country. In his fourth, A New World (2000), Chaudhuri writes of a more ambivalent Calcutta, a city no more than a minor place of transit: in fact the focus is not the city but a small family with a divorced son visiting from America.
Much more in tune, perhaps, with Rushdie's comic sense of the lived complexities of Bombay's hybrid culture is Ravan & Eddie (1995) by Kiran Nagarkar (b. 1949), one of the few novels which is set totally outside the middle classes. Nagarkar, like Rushdie before him, has worked in the advertising industry, but he has also had a career writing in an Indian language, Marathi, his novel Saat Sakkam Trechalis (1974)-subsequently published in translation as Seven Sixes are Forty-Three-having enjoyed great critical acclaim. Itself originally begun in Marathi, Ravan & Eddie is set in a Bombay chawl and follows the growth of the two boys of the title whose relationship symbolises the tensions and divisions of India. Ravan is a Marathi-speaking Hindu. Eddie is a Goan Catholic. The lives of the two communities in the chawl run parallel, but at the same time, in defiance of the logic of geometry, `here parallel lines which should meet only at the horizon criss-cross each other merrily'. In Nagarkar's Bombay the assertion of difference is constantly being thwarted by strange cultural continuities, none stranger than when the Christian boy joins a right-wing Hindu organisation in order to win the prize of a book of stories from the Mahabharata. For all its detailed sense of cultural difference, and for all the farcical comedy of Eddie's mother dragging him from the stage to return him to the bosom of his own community, Nagarkar's novel suggests that this world is also joined by shared stories which are not the special property of any particular group. The chawl, with its different floors given to different communities and different stories, is itself an ironic but not pessimistic restatement of the persistence of Nehru's vision of the nation as a mansion with many rooms.
Perhaps the most sustained response to the opportunities created by Rushdie's precedent has come in Amitav Ghosh's fiction. Originally from Calcutta, Ghosh (b. 1956) was the first of the band of Stephanians to respond with gusto to the challenge of Midnight's Children. Having completed postgraduate training at Oxford in Social Anthropology and currently living in New York, where he teaches, it comes as no surprise to find that Ghosh is a writer concerned with India's place in larger international cultural networks, whose fiction seems directly informed by contemporary academic debates about colonialism and culture. His first novel, The Circle of Reason (1986), very much written in Rushdie's magical realist mode, attempts to recover a continuing tradition of cultural exchange for India westwards across the Indian ocean to the Gulf states and Egypt. In an Antique Land (1992) returned to this issue, combining travelogue with historical reflection in a text which challenges the privileges of the academic anthropologist's 'scientific' gaze. The Calcutta Chromosome (1996) is also concerned with the relationship between science, history, and colonialism in a futuristic detective story. His most recent novel, The Glass Palace (2000), meditates on large historical and nationalist issues such as diaspora, migration, refugees, colonial hegemony, and the economic and cultural subjugation of populous regions by the West.
Ghosh is obviously a novelist given to generic inventiveness and he has been taken by some critics to be a champion of post-modern cultural weightlessness, but his writing is as interested in the ties that bind as in the transitory nature of global culture. The most impressive of Ghosh's novels remains his second book, The Shadow Lines (1988), which deals with relations between the different arms of a prospering bhadralok family, the DattaChaudhuris, displaced from Dhaka to Calcutta by the Partition. At the centre of the novel is the figure of Tridib who teaches the nameless narrator that all communities, indeed all identities, are imagined or narrated: `Everyone lives in a story ... they all lived in stories, because stories are all there are to live in, it was just a question of which story.' Nevertheless, it would be misleading to suggest that Ghosh's novel is uninterested in the particularities of specific cultural locations. If the nation is a fiction, whose boundaries are capable of being reimagined and redrawn, it nevertheless remains a powerful determining presence, as too are the histories of colonialism and racism which haunt the relationships between the Datta-Chaudhuris and the Prices, English friends-of-the-family across two generations. The Shadow Lines is a novel filled with the specificities of names, dates, and places, a novel in love with some kinds of cultural difference even while it seeks to imagine a way beyond others. Moreover it shows that different narratives of the self and the nation can collide with devastating effects. Part of its brilliant sense of the complications of cultural identity is its perception that even where cultural difference is radically asserted, when Tridib is killed in a communal riot while visiting his family's old home in Dhaka, it can be shadowed by lines of connection. The riot has been started by the theft of the prophet's hair in Kashmir, in a city thousands of miles away, in a country from which Dhaka is now partitioned, with the two countries, India and East Pakistan (as it was at the time of the riot) `locked into an irreversible symmetry by the line that was to set us free-our looking-glass border'. This last metaphor, the figure of the mirror, runs throughout the novel as the sign of those relations which paradoxically connect nations and individuals even as they divide them.
In some respects, The Shadow Lines can be thought of as a historical novel. Like Midnight's Children, it is interested in recuperating histories squeezed out of the state's homogenising myth of the nation. The riot which kills Tridib in Ghosh's novel has fallen from the pages of history, unrecorded in Calcutta newspapers, Ghosh suggests, because the state and public institutions regard war alone as a `properly' historical conflict. A series of young novelists has followed Ghosh in trying their hands, with varying degrees of success, at writing historical narratives that display a revisionary scepticism about narrow definitions of the nation. But where The Shadow Lines adapts the family romance to this purpose, these writers have more often resorted to a hyperbolic epic mode. Among them is I. Allan Sealy (b. 1951), another Stephanian who turned from writing a doctoral thesis in Canada on Wilson Harris to produce The Trotter-Nama (1988). Sealy has since written several more books: Hero (1991); From Yukon to Yucatan (1994), a travelogue in which he returns to North America and turns the western gaze back on itself; and The Everest Hotel (1998). But his most striking achievement remains his epic chronicle of a family of Anglo-Indians, a community whose presence troubles the imagining of the nation in terms of the expression of some homogeneous cultural authenticity, an idea which the novel suggests is derived from a colonial mentality. As with Saleem in Rushdie's Midnight's Children, the reader is always aware of the struggle of Eugene, the narrator, to include everything in his family chronicle. Indeed Eugene explicitly contrasts his inclusive narrative method, the method of the 'nama' or chronicle, with that of European historiography:
Sealy's novel implies that historiography as a genre is complicit with the colonising tendencies of the ideas of the European Enlightenment, and with its confidence that all histories can be reduced to a universal narrative modelled after its own. History-writing in the novel is the province of the Anglo-Indian Montagu, whose narrative is `the best an historian could do', but consequently leaves out not only the fantastic events with which the novel is concerned but also much of what makes up everyday life: `The bequest of a school occupied him for an entire chapter, while of breakfasts and recipes he made no mention.' Sealy's chronicle form, in contrast, offers to the reader history novelised in the sense that it is open to the diversity of perspectives and languages circulating in the world. Eugene does not speak the privileged language of truth. What he says is continually interrogated, interrupted and undermined in ways that could be thought of as an attempt to write a kind of newly postcolonial history.
The name is an old Indianised form and part of Sealy's attempt to unseat historiography is the attempt to displace the genres of the coloniser with those of the colonised. For Sealy this displacement does not take place in the interests of a return to some pre-colonial, essentially Indian identity, an option hardly open to an Indian writer in English, but rather one which involves a distinctively Indian version of modernity. Sealy himself has said that there are countless Indian forms that can be `revived and intelligently reworked' so that `Indian modernism need not be a wholesale imitation of foreign objects'.
A similar idea of using traditional Indian literary forms for the purposes of historical narration underpins Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel (1989). Tharoor (b. 1956) is another international Indian who went on from St. Stephen's to a career with the United Nations. Perhaps rather too relentlessly, his novel adapts the story of the Mahabharata to an allegory of modern Indian history. As the tongue-in-check title suggests, The Great Indian Novel takes an irreverent view of the development of modern India which is in tune with the scepticism of many recent historical novels. Similarly he shows few qualms about taking on one of the great epics for such purposes. Rather than simply placing contemporary material in traditional forms, which would be in danger of reproducing the kind of orientalism that has always defined India in terms of the glories of an unchanging past, novelists of this period have been much more willing to rewrite the genres of Indian literary tradition. Nor has Indian tradition simply been understood to be a repertoire of classical literary forms. Hindi film, for instance, has had an important influence on recent fiction, providing a set of symbols, new kinds of narrative technique (as in Ruchir Joshi's The Last Jet-Engine Laugh, 2001), and, in novels such as Sealy's Hero and Tharoor's Show Business (1994), a new subject matter. For these and other novels soaked in the world of popular cinema, definitions of Indian `tradition' in terms of eternal high-cultural forms are being broken down.
The desire to adapt the European form of the novel to indigenous literary traditions is not new. As early as the 1930s Raja Rao understood the need to tell the history of the nationalist struggle in a form which looked beyond the colonial model of historiography to the `sthalapurana' or legendary history of the village. In the process, formal history is crowded together with memory, folk-tale, and gossip. If this seems to anticipate novels like Midnight's Children and The Trotter-Nama, where it differs from them is in the absence of an intrusive narrative voice fracturing the surface of the tale and drawing attention to the process of telling. The 'chutneyfication of history', to use Rushdie's own phrase, is a process of preserving the distinctive tanginess of India, but it is a process which transforms what it preserves. Moreover the chutney metaphor contains within it the idea of a variety of ingredients that go together to make a history which cannot be captured by any one representative part. Rao's novel was able to make use of the single village as a metonym for the nation. The Indian village was often the idealised antithesis of Western industrialism in the literature of the national movement. Recent fiction has been more concerned with the modern metropolis, but it has also importantly been sceptical about any stable relationship between the nation and its symbols. Rushdie's Saleem cracks up under the weight of representing the nation. Sealy's Anglo-Indians are part of the nation but their relation to it is much more problematic than that of Rao's villagers. In contemporary Indian writing in English, the impossibility of using any particular group as a metonym for `the people' seems to be itself a recurrent trope.
1995 saw two new novelists address the issue of translating Indian history into the novel: Mukul Kesavan (b. 1957) and Vikram Chandra (b. 1961). For Kesavan, an academic historian by profession, the question of how to write a national history without reproducing the categories of colonialism is an explicitly pressing problem. Drawing on his own research into the relationship between the Muslim population and the nationalist movement, Looking through Glass (1995) looks at a community which is often erased from nationalist histories and in the process offers a different, less heroic perspective on the closing years of the struggle for independence. Kesavan's novel begins in the present, with a young photographer taking the ashes of his grandmother to the Ganges. En route he falls from a railway bridge in pursuit of a picturesque shot, but wakes up to find himself in 1942 amid the Quit India agitation. Not only has he travelled across time, but also across cultures: he is taken in by a Muslim family whose Urdu newspaper he cannot even read. In a sense photography is evoked in this framing narrative as the governing metaphor of the whole story. The photograph promises to deliver unmediated reality to its viewer, but the image is framed and focussed in ways which always leave something out of the equation. Kesavan's hero becomes mired in history in a way which implies that the historian can provide not a clear window onto the real, but only a lens which frames and refracts what it sees.
If all these novelists share an interest in retrieving suppressed histories, they also foreground, in their different ways, the act of narration. The process of examining exclusions from the national imaginary seems to have brought about a recognition of the nature of history as itself a form of narrative which relies on literary devices, such as emplotment and metaphor, to create its meaning.
In these recent historical novels, the nation tends to be written in terms of its unruly excessiveness. Their form often takes on the shape of what it describes. The Sanskrit aesthetic principle of excessive saying or 'atyukti' is practised to demonstrate that these novels exceed restrictive conceptions of national boundaries. Digressions, repetitions, and fantastic events push the traditional form of the novel to its limits and often at the centre of the textual carnival is the body itself. In Sealy's The Trotter-Nama and another rambling mock-epic, Khushwant Singh's Delhi (1990), for instance, the body plays an important role as an image for the unruliness of the history not only of Delhi but also of the country of which it is capital. The hijra (eunuch) at the centre of Singh's novel is a sign of the heterogeneity of the nation and Sealy's narrator, Eugene, who begins his story with a dream of `gulab jamuns in warm syrup', is as enormous as the narrative he produces. The sense of a world filled with endless desire which emerges from some of these novels might be taken to be the literary expression of a new middle-class consumerism which, like the bounteous film-world of the hit Hum Aapke Hai Kaun (1994), suggests a world of goods which have only to be imagined to be obtained. It is possible to see in some of these novels a refashioning of the old, orientalist image of India as perpetual change, defined by multiplicity, a kind of endless narrative opportunity, to fit with a new reorientation to the global free market. At the beginning of Vikram Chandra's Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), another novel replete with epic digressions and fantastic events, not to mention a delight in sex and food, the recently foreign-returned Abhay listens to `his father's ancient typewriter beat out its eternal thik-thik, creating yet another urgent missive to a national newspaper about the state of Indian democracy.' While what follows is a reworking of history and myth, one wonders whether in this opening rhetorical gesture pressing contemporary political issues are not being put aside to create a space for the idea of India as endless narrative potential. This raises the question of whether Indian politics is trivialised by a novel which returns again and again to the idea of a world constructed of endless narrative.
Chandra is certainly another writer who, like his novel, floats between continents, dividing his time between the United States, where he attended graduate school, and Bombay. The story of Red Earth and Pouring Rain revolves around the fate of Sanjay, reincarnated as a monkey that Abhay shoots for stealing his new jeans from the washing line. When Yama, god of death, enters the story to claim the dying monkey, Ganesh intervenes with a deal. If Sanjay can tell his story and keep everyone entertained, he will be saved. His story begins in the period when mercenaries and princes, along with the East India Company, were fighting over the remains of the Mughal empire. Chandra's fictional characters mix not only with gods but also historical figures like Begum Samroo and James Skinner. History in the novel becomes `The Big Indian Lie', but he warns, `do not think that this story is untrue, because it is itihasa; thus it was.' In the novels of Rushdie, Sealy, Ghosh, and Kesavan, this idea is made the centre of a political inquiry into the ownership of stories, an aspect of the new historical novel which seems absent from Chandra's sense of history as 'Leela, the great cosmic play'. What Chandra does do, like Sealy in The Trotter-Nama, is to explicitly differentiate his method from a Western tradition identified in terms of an Aristotelian desire for straight lines and defining essences. In response, Chandra offers the familiar trope of India-as-heterogeneity, but one of the novel's strengths is that it does not simply produce an exoticised spectacle of otherness for a Western readership. Abhay, the foreign-returned student, has to step into the gap created when Sanjay is too exhausted to continue by telling a tale of his scholarship days in America, `the crucible in which the world's most weightless and alluring myths are perfected'. The crowd that gathers to listen remains as fascinated by this tale drawn from an entirely different mythology, a road movie which takes them across desert skies and into the big city of Houston, as by Sanjay's story of fantastic deeds from India's past. Western modernity is in this way reproduced not as the privileged sphere of truth and reason, but as the site of another mythology which is just as enticing as India's own-a perspective Chandra's novel shares with Sealy's travelogue, From Yukon to Yucatan.
In imposing contrast to the ways in which so many of the recent novels draw attention to history as itself a story stands the classic realism of Vikram Seth's mammoth A Suitable Boy (1993). This is set in the early 1950s, formative years of the Nehru period, with the passing of the zamindari abolition legislation and the first election of the post-independence era looming. For all its copious realism, it is difficult not to see this novel too as an allegory of nationhood. Where it differs from Rushdie's other literary children is in the confident way that it subscribes to an idea of Indian history as a progress towards the goal of a secular, commercial society in the image of conventional Western models of national development. The novel is based on a romance plot, the choice of a suitable boy for the heroine, Lata Mehra; but although she shows signs of independence, the novel is ultimately one of conformity and what it represents as the inevitability of bourgeois life. The man Lata chooses is neither the son of the Calcutta's high society, nor the Muslim boy whose friendship scandalises Lata's mother, but Haresh Khanna of Prahapore, a man who is foreign-returned but from a British technical college rather than the kind of elite institution which Seth himself attended. Moreover it is the shoe trade for which he is being trained, a business profession which brings with it the spectre of the loss of caste. Haresh would seem to represent Seth's idea of properly bourgeois man emerging from religious superstition and social snobbery. Along with its sense of the inevitability of a particular kind of national development-for Haresh's success is surely intended as a parable for the times-comes a nostalgia for a feudal world of Urdu literature and courtly entertainments. A Suitable Boy would seem to affirm the idea that the destiny of middle-class India lies in casting aside an obstructive concern with traditional identities in pursuit of secularism in its liberal economic mode. With such confidence about the future of the nation, what is to be left behind can be romanticise in a nostalgia for a world that it views as inevitably lost.
What A Suitable Boy shares with some of the more experimental narratives is its size. Male writers, especially, seem to have been drawn to reimagining the nation on an epic scale, a pretension to inclusiveness even where the inevitable failure of that ambition is signalled in the more meta-fictional narratives. Perhaps their assertion of a right to rewrite national history is itself the expression of a certain privilege to which Indian women do not easily gain access. Be that as it may, women writers have recently been having their own say about who constitutes the nation. A series of novels, including The Dark Holds no Terrors (1980), Roots and Shadow (1983), That Long Silence (1988), and Small Remedies (2000) have esta blished Shashi Deshpande (b. 1938) as perhaps the leading writer who deals in a direct way with the situation of women in urban, middle-class life. Educated in Bombay and Bangalore, where she lives, Deshpande turned to writing relatively late after bringing up her children and training as a journalist in the early 1970s. Her novel The Binding Vine (1992) is filtered through the fears, hopes and uncertainties of an urban middle-class consciousness. The narrator, Urmi, who lives in Bombay, has recently lost her daughter, but she is drawn out of her grief by two experiences, both of which challenge the boundaries of her world. The first is the discovery of a trunk belonging to her dead mother-in-law, packed with poems and diaries, which, to Urmi's surprise, reveals her to have been a woman of great imaginative powers, trapped, violated and eventually killed by a man she did not love. In the process the domestic sphere is revealed to have histories of its own which have gone previously unrecorded. The second experience challenges the limits of Urmi's domesticity, not through confronting it with an image of the history of its repressions but by revealing the contemporary realities of life for women of less privileged classes. Visiting a friend in hospital, Urmi meets the distraught Shakuntala, whose daughter has been brutally beaten and raped. Their developing relationship, haunted by the figure of the daughter who remains unconscious in hospital, is a difficult and uneven one. Although Urmi assumes direction of Shakuntala's life, her modern, reforming gaze has to accept its own limits. Urmi's English-speaking background is a different world from the Marathi culture inhabited by Shakuntala, just as her mother-in-law's poetry, written in Kannada, and which Urmi struggles to translate into English, comes from an unimagined past. Translation becomes a governing metaphor in the novel for the gaps which separate the different cultures that make up the nation, especially as they affect the question of the place of women in the national community.
Gita Hariharan (b. 1954) has not adopted Deshpande's realist mode, though there are thematic similarities in their fiction. Hariharan came to writing after a career as an editor and journalist and shows an interest in literary experimentation in a less epic mode than many of her male counterparts. Whereas nearly all of those novelists who have toyed with the epic tradition have laid some kind of claim to the cultural authority of the Mahabharata, Hariharan's A Thousand Faces of Nights (1992) and The Ghosts of Vasu Master (1994) are concerned with rewriting folk tales and children's stories. In the latter, a retired schoolteacher, Vasu Master, succeeds in winning over the problem child Mani by storytelling. The stories are reworkings of the Panchatantra. A.W. Ryder's translation of the famous collection of tales, cited in Hariharan's notes, describes the Panchatantra as a 'niti-shastra', a textbook of 'niti' or the wise conduct of life. While it is more concerned with the domestic space than the epic canvas of history, the novel explores what it means to be a good citizen and places the problem squarely in relation to the question of what constitutes Indian modernity. Vasu comes to recognise `the necessity of reconstruction' from the `dismantled parts of various ideas, beliefs, models' that are his inheritance. His willingness to use whatever lies at hand as material for the stories that eventually seem to heal the boy suggest an attitude to traditional culture which treats it as an open resource for the future, not a closed, epic authority, but something that can be rewritten for present needs. In the mode of Raja Rao's adaptation of the folk form to the story of the nationalist struggle, Hariharan's novels stand as a repudiation of the orientalist view of India as defined by the glorious high culture of antiquity. A Thousand Faces of Night focussed more specifically on the positioning of Indian women in relation to this orientalist idea of tradition. Hariharan herself returned to India after attending graduate school in the United States and this novel is an account of the foreign-returned Devi's attempt to find a way of living in contemporary India, cunningly interleaved with the tales of heroes and heroines told to her as a child by her grandmother: her use of these tales as part of a fluid tradition of storytelling questions the closed idea of `tradition'. She anticipates something of Vikram Chandra's sense of Indian culture as an infinite set of perpetually circulating narratives, but her novel has a keener sense of the way these narratives can become ossified into constricting forms, particularly in relation to the way that they are used as containing narratives for women. The achievement of A Thousand Faces of Night lies in its sense of the way stories can both liberate and enslave, an insight it shares with Ghosh's The Shadow Lines.
A similar struggle to fashion female autonomy in the context of received narratives faces Ammu, the heroine of Arundhati Roy's 1997 Booker-Prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things. Roy (b. 1960), who trained as an architect and has also written filmscripts, is on her mother's side from a Syrian Christian family and was brought up in South India. Her heroine, who shares Roy's regional and religious background, is a divorcee struggling against the fate laid out for her by convention: `She was twenty-seven that year, and in the pit of her stomach she carried the cold knowledge that for her, life had been lived. She had had one chance. She made a mistake.' Having already transgressed community boundaries by marrying a Hindu, she compounds the `mistake' by taking a `chance' across the boundaries of caste and falls in love with Velutha, a `paravan'. Like A Thousand Faces of Night, Roy's novel places its heroine's story in the context of traditional Hindu narratives. The ferocity of the policemen who beat Velutha to death is foreshadowed by a description of Bhima's beating of Duhshasana; the policemen regard Velutha's relationship with the high-caste Ammu as a parallel to the unrobing of Draupadi by Duhshasana in the Mahabharata. Roy shows how such traditional narratives close off possibilities for women, but it is not only against Indian tradition that Ammu and her foreign-returned daughter (the novel's narrator) must struggle to define themselves. Heart of Darkness and The Sound of Music, to give but two rather incongruous examples, present Ammu and her daughter with alternative identities which they find equally alienating. Narratives of colonialism and westernisation play their own parts in shaping the choices facing these women. If sometimes this novel seems a little unsubtle in the way it handles such allusions, it does provide a powerful imaginative statement of the way people can find themselves `trapped outside their own history'. Roy's romance plot, as so often is the case with recent Indian writing in English, stands in a self-consciously uneasy relation to the larger story of the nation. `Something happened', writes Roy, `when the personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of a vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation'. Just as the narrator of The Shadow Lines struggles to find a record in the national press of the riot that was a tragedy for his family, so Roy's novel records the dislocations between the `Small God' of individual lives and the `Big God' of the nation. In the novels of the 1980s and 1990s, domestic and personal stories never simply mirror an evolutionary course of national development. Both sides of the relationship are more often presented as fractured in themselves and neither simply reflects the other. In Roy's terms, `the God of Small Things' remains in an uneasy relationship with its avatar, `the Big God.' The mirror of history is cracked and distorting.
An overview of contemporary Indian fiction in English reveals an incredible array of talent. Many of the novelists seem to regard India's wealth of literary and mythical tradition as freely available to rewrite in the present. A different perspective might construe this trend as the self-serving attempt by sections of the elite to represent their own modernity in terms of a continuity with India's past, papering over the cracks in the national imaginary, as it were, to affirm their own authenticity. Similarly, the celebration of plurality and openness could be understood as doing the ideological work of economic liberalisation, presenting Indian identity in terms of the shifting surfaces of late capitalism, privileging mobility and cosmopolitanism over local cultures and communities. Such interpretations do fit some of these novels. They offer a useful corrective to those versions of literary criticism which too complacently celebrate post-colonial literature as a subversive rewriting of the authority of the colonial centre. But perspectives which take the more jaundiced view of Indian fiction in English should not be allowed to present an overly-simplified picture. It is true that many of these novelists are foreign-returned or divide their lives between India and other places. It is also true that marketers of the Indian novel in English have also shown great canniness. There has developed, over the past few years, a sense that India sells abroad.
St Stephen's College, Delhi; contemporary photograph. The college is famous for much else besides its novelists. In 'The St Stephen's School of Cricket: A Requiem', Ramachandra Guha writes: 'I played cricket for St Stephen's alongside two future Test cricketers, a future twelfth man, two former captains of Indian Schoolboys, half a dozen Ranji players... These were the heroes, and justly so, of the lesser gifted of my contemporaries-Amitav Ghosh, Rukun Advani, Mukul Kesavan, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Shashi Tharoor, and others. Where without cricket would be "The Stephanian Novel", indeed "The St Stephen's School of Literature"?' (The Stephanian, April 1996).

Yet any assumption that recent writing is simply doing the ideological work of the globalised middle classes has to concede the complex nature of the relationship between culture and class, especially in the contemporary Indian situation. The idea of India has been subject to reassessment across the whole range of Indian culture in the past two decades, from Bollywood to literary criticism. This broader context, which suggests the need to consider Indian writing in English in relation to the literature of the Indian languages, also suggests that these novels cannot just be dismissed as the treason of an intellectual elite. Originating in conquest and colonialism-still a badge of and means to privilege-the medium by which India communicates with the outside world and often by which the Indian languages communicate with each other, English is perpetually on the internal and external boundaries of Indian culture. By virtue of this position, Indian writing in English is uniquely placed to re-imagine the nation. If it has sometimes acted as the instrument of a globalising culture, moving over the surface of Indian culture without acknowledging its privileged position; or, alternatively, rethematising India as an endless narrative possibility, an infinitely open market, then equally it has been used to situate modernity in relation to India. It has been deployed to call the globalisation of culture to local account, to foreground the difficulties of translation and the possibilities of dialogue. Indian English fiction of the 1980s and 1990s, in short, force us to more fully think through the consequences of regarding English as one of India's languages.