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.
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.