- The Indian English Novel:Kim and Midnight's Children
"Is this an Indian disease, this urge to encapsulate the whole of reality?" (75), asks Salman Rushdie in Midnight's Children. The answer is, I think, yes, but it is a disease to which only those like Rushdie, who write about India in English, are vulnerable. To write about India in any of its vernaculars, even in Hindi its national language, is inevitably to divide it. Rushdie knows as much. In 1956 Nehru divided India into six states: "But the boundaries of these states were not formed by rivers or mountains, or any natural features of the landscape. Language divided us . . ." (186). Writing in Gujarati, or Tamil, or Bengali confers on the writer a regional identity that unavoidably takes precedence over his identity as an Indian. That is why the Indian novel, the novel that tries to encapsulate the whole of Indian reality can, as yet, be written only in English. And this is odd, because English is the first language only of the smallest of India's racial groups, the Anglo-Indians, and of the tiniest of its classes, the few thousand middle and upper class families who speak English in their homes and educate their children abroad or in India's English-style public schools.1
Saleem Sinai, Rushdie's hero, loses control of his bicycle and hurtles downhill, away from the middle-class enclave of British-built houses where he lives, isolated from and superior to the swarming life of Bombay. He [End Page 201] crashes into a language march: Marathis demanding that Bombay be ceded to Maharashtra and voicing their contempt of Gujaratis (188-189). Marathi is Saleem's "worst subject" at school, and his Gujarati is as bad as his Marathi. Saleem, in this episode, is the true representative of all Indian English novelists. He mounts his bicycle—so very English a machine—and crashes into India, with its teeming masses who stare into his face and speak to him in languages that he cannot understand. One thinks of the end of A Passage to India: Fielding, Aziz, Stella, and Ralph capsizing their boats and in doing so disrupting a religious ceremony that they cannot fathom. Saleem is an outsider, a "little princeling," a "young nawab," a "lord," but it is because he is an outsider that India seems one to him, that he can aspire to encapsulate the whole of it. His English language at once separates him irrevocably from India and makes the whole of India available to him, just as the exclusive hill on which Saleem lives isolates him from Bombay, but at the same time transforms the city into a panorama spread before him, at his feet.
The paradox of the Indian English novel is that it is the only kind of Indian novel there is, and it is scarcely Indian at all: it is rather like the swimming pool of the Breach Candy club in Bombay that Saleem's house overlooks. It was for many years the only swimming pool in the city, patriotically shaped like a map of India, and yet a pool from which all Indians were excluded. The paradox of the Indian English novel is so strong that it overpowers differences of race. Indian English novels have more in common with each other than with novels set in India written in any of India's native languages. Salman Rushdie has more in common with Rudyard Kipling than with Premchand or Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. It is an ancestry that he resists as energetically as Saleem resists the notion that his real father is an Englishman. Rushdie looks for some alternative, non-English tradition of novel writing, and finds it in the work of Marquez and of Grass, but, for all his efforts, Midnight's Children is better seen as a postindependence version of Kim.
The first thing that Kipling and Rushdie have in common is impudence, the impudence of the trespasser. Kipling, an Englishman who spent the first five years of his life in India, and returned for nearly seven years as a young man, sets himself to imagine the whole of a subcontinent. There will...