restricted access Imagining India (review)
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Reviewed by
Richard Cronin. Imagining India. New York: St. Martin's, 1989. 203 pp. $39.95.

In his 1984 essay "Outside the Whale," Salman Rushdie criticizes the imperialistic "comeback" of the British Raj in film and television productions such as Gandhi, A Passage to India, Jewel in the Crown, and The Far Pavilions. The question of British nostalgia for or subversion of the Empire in such productions aside, the phenomenon of the Raj "comeback" underscores the fascination India continues to exert on the British imagination in postimperial times. This fascination is borne out by the recent proliferation of critical studies of British writing about India by such English scholars as Angus Wilson, Malcolm Bradbury, and David Selbourne. Reflecting a contrastive interest in such literature, Indian critics including G. K. Das, Shamsul Islam, and K. Bhaskara Rao have written book-length commentaries on Forster, Kipling, and Paul Scott respectively. Other Indians have, con-versely, [End Page 680] focused on the nationalistic fictions of Raja Rao, Khushwant Singh, Manohar Malgonkar, Chaman Nahal, and Ahmed Ali.

In Imagining India Richard Cronin disregards the purely political aspect of imperialism or nationalism in British or Indian writing about India. Rather, he juxtaposes novels, travel narratives, and autobiographies written in English by both European and Indian authors in an effort to answer Forster's insistent question in A Passage to India, "How can the mind take hold of such a country?" This question haunts the work of otherwise dissimilar writers such as Kipling and Rushdie, Narayan and Naipaul, Gandhi and Nehru, Jhabvala and Desai. Addressing the problem of creating India by "imagining" it, Cronin concludes that both Western and Indian authors writing in English fail either temperamentally or aesthetically to represent India in its infinite diversity.

Despite differences predicated upon the races of their authors and knowledge-power relations, Cronin perceives a shared paradox in such "English-Indian" novels as Kim and Midnight's Children: both Kipling and Rushdie are outsiders who attempt to accommodate the whole of India in a genre and language alien to the country. By contrast, "Indian-English" novels by Narayan and Balraj Khanna among others, which rewrite English as an Indian dialect and the novel as an indigenous genre, portray only a small segment of India. Cronin contends that the complementary structure of these two types of novels—the former moving inward from the outside, the latter from the inside outward; the one trying to overcome a disabling foreignness, the other a limiting parochialism—that this movement and counter-movement form the pattern of all writing in English about India. For instance, Indian travel narratives record journeys that writers undertake to find the country and themselves—as did Gandhi and Ved Mehta—and journeys that become flights from India and the self—as with Naipaul and Jhabvala.

In his concluding chapters, Cronin emphasizes the ultimate paradox of English-language writings about India: the country cannot be circumscribed in a language not its own and in texts of limited length; it can only be represented as unrepresentable, its presence implied only by its absence, as in A Passage to India. Omitting formal sociolinguistic examination, however, Cronin fails to convince that it is the English language that accounts for the indeterminacy of India in English literature. He ignores the successful nativization of English by Raja Rao, who integrates structural, stylistic, and culture-specific discoursal strategies into the language to portray India in microcosm. And he neglects to examine how works in regional languages accommodate indigenous realities that English-language works cannot. (Meenakshi Mukherjee conducts such an examination in Realism and Reality: The Novel and Society in India.)

Hardly the typical academic study, Cronin's book has its roots, as he admits, in his own inability to "imagine" India. Searching for a way to represent India to himself through the work of other writers, he finds a parallel failure of the imagination. But in leading us through the "failures" of authors from Forster to Desai, Cronin provides an engaging and sympathetic narrative about the difficulty of trying to encapsulate India in literary and critical books. [End Page 681]

Harveen Sachdeva Mann
Loyola University of Chicago
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