restricted access R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao and Modern English Discourse in Colonial India
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R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao and Modern English Discourse in Colonial India

Indigenous Indian novel-writing in english dates back to at least the mid-nineteenth century. Its "origin" owes as much to the educational reforms called for by both the 1813 Charter Act and the ensuing 1835 English Education Act of William Bentinck as to the circulation, representation, and purchase of English literature and culture among members of the Indian upper classes in nineteenthcentury India. While we are not at liberty to assume that novel production in Britain and colonial India underwent simply parallel routes, we may still argue for the possibility, in the case of Englishwriting in India, of a nascent space in which British and Indian social codes and value systems began to intersect and mutually determine one another. More specifically, the translation of certain progressive British social codes and cultural values of the Enlightenment into Indian terms entailed something like a new episteme, within whose rigor Indian writers started to produce novels assuming a critical stance towards what were now viewed as "backward" Indian social and cultural practices. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's 1864 novel, Rajmohun's Wife, for instance, utilizes a social reformer's zeal in its depiction of a middle-class Hindu woman's abuse by her husband.1 However, by the early twentieth century, many writers began' to insist on the Indian "content" of their material, an increasingly prevalent tendency no doubt informed by the corresponding rise of nationalism and all the organized movements of civil disobedience. [End Page 169]

It is within the folds of this complex history that we may understand the imbrications of the discourses of nationalism, colonialism, and modernity in the Indian colonial context. I would argue that, in order to effectively read early Indian literature in English (for the purposes of this essay, "early" signifies the period of the 1930s and 1940s), one needs to see how, in this period, the alliance of nationalism and colonialism produced India's modern "moment" and how the writing of a certain kind of fiction participated in this inauguration of modernity. Indeed, the uneven terrain of Indian colonial history, on which numerous nationalist struggles for independence were played out in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, yields nothing more startling than a picture of this very alliance between nationalism and colonialism, which, in a sense, secured India's modernity in the early twentieth century.

However, the alliance of nationalism and colonialism will not seem quite so startling if we remember that both these ideological formations had a shared stake in the larger Western bourgeois discourse of progressive liberal humanism, emerging as a symptom of modernity in the 1930s and 1940s. In their studies of the strategic exclusion of the subaltern from national narratives of emancipation, such Indian Marxist historians and theorists as the Subaltern Studies historians and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak have pointed out that nationalism, or the organized resistance to imperialism, will itself always participate in "the cultural aspects of imperialism" as long as organized resistance to imperialism is a bourgeois movement.2 Bourgeois liberatory discourses of nationalism, in other words, cannot function in oppositional ways to discourses of imperialism because they are already aligned with discourses of imperialism, even contained within them. That discourses of nationalism did not evolve oppositionally to the British colonial apparatus; that the social determinations of class are such that the indigenous bourgeoisie participated in all "the cultural aspects of imperialism," from attending British universities to producing a nationalist rhetoric which came right out of the Western rational tradition: these are the crucial formulations that many Anglophone Indian authors and critics have not yet found themselves articulating in their expression of Indian national identity. What is "Indian" is seen as oppositional to or a corrective of what is "British," when, in fact, what is (bourgeois) "Indian" has effectively already been contained by what is "British." As for the subaltern classes, they may be positioned precariously at the margins of both nationalist and colonial discourse, "not situated outside the civilizing project but . . . caught in the path of its trajectory" (Sharpe 143).3

R. K. Narayan (b. 1906) and Raja Rao (b. 1908), two early Indian...