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Combining methods of book history with literary insights, Priya Joshi has written an unusual account of India's encounter with English [End Page 506] novels in the nineteenth century, going on to suggest how that encounter shapes Indian novelists in the twentieth century. She has delved into publishers' records in England, as well as catalogues of libraries in India, to find out what was being exported and what was being consumed in the colony. Based on available facts and figures, she has drawn up charts that throw light on the reading habits of the early generations of English-educated Indians.
On the basis of such data, she argues that although literary novelists like Austen, Dickens, and Thackeray were read, a much larger impact was made by popular writers like G. W. M. Reynolds, Marion Crawford, Marie Corelli, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, or Wilkie Collins, as demonstrated by the profusion of adaptations and imitations of these writers in the Indian languages. (Scott, in fact, seems to have been the only canonical writer to influence Indian writers of the time.) Joshi's speculations on the reasons for the appeal of these colorful and sensational novels in colonial India form an interesting section of the book. If this fiction served as "what Gramsci has called a psychic stimulant among its readers," Joshi wonders, how does one explain the consistency in response across class, profession, and location all over the country for well over half a century? These and other questions raised by her will hopefully be taken up by subsequent researchers for further exploration.
Joshi's work is divided into two parts: "Consuming Fiction" and "Producing Fiction." The first draws substantially upon archival research pertaining to the starting of special colonial editions by London publishers in the mid-nineteenth century, the sale and dissemination of these books in India, and the nature of their reception as revealed by the circulation registers of libraries in India and the reviews of these books in Indian periodicals. The "book" is seen both as an object of trade as well as a site for cultural transaction. Joshi quotes a little-known reviewer in Madras Christian College Magazine who admitted to regularly skipping parts of these British novels because the details were too unfamiliar: "I hurry over graphic descriptions of scenes which to me are outlandish, inventories of articles of furniture which it will never fall to my lot even to dream of buying." This comment leads Joshi to reflect on the conditions that generate realism and those that favor counter-realism in narrative fiction.
All this is meant to provide a background for the second half of the volume, which focuses on writing by Indians. Establishing cause-and-effect patterns is difficult in the field of cultural production, and the links between the two halves of the book are not always clear. But the four chapters in the second half dealing with Indian writers and texts—from colonial to postcolonial—can be read on their own terms. Many novelists are mentioned in passing, but the central focus is on four—Bankim Chandra Chatterji (1838-1994), Krupa [End Page 507] Satthianathan (1862-94), Ahmed Ali (b.1910), and Salman Rushdie (b.1947). Chatterji is the only writer in this group who did not write in English (except for an early amateurish effort), and the available English translations of his Bangla novels are far from adequate, but Joshi uses him for examining the interface between two languages and more than two literary traditions in the early years of the novel in India. The other three writers span a century of Indian English writing, but have hardly ever been seen in a common frame. The choice of minority writers (Christian, woman, Muslim) is not dictated by political correctness, but because they provide convenient examples of the widening arc of the writer's concern—from an individual's growth within the family to the social documentation of a city, and finally to the political history of the nation.
Joshi's 162 pages of text followed...