- Reviewed by
Meenakshi Mukherjee's first book, The Twice Born Fiction (1971), examined the dominant themes and techniques of the Indian novel in English; the second, Realism and Reality: The Novel and Society in India, studies the origins and growth of novels in regional languages. Such an examination, Mukherjee argues, must combine sociological with literary analysis because indigenous writers modified the nineteenth-century British novelistic tradition of realism to accommodate the particular Indian reality around them—colonial politics and concomitant ideological tensions, economic deprivation and social circumscription, ritual strictures and religious rifts.
Whereas critics previously examined Indian regional literatures in isolation from one another, Mukherjee identifies a common pattern, albeit with regional variations, arising from shared determinants: esthetic, stemming from the Sanskrit [End Page 396] literary tradition of kavya (poetry), natya (drama), and itihasa (chronicle and fiction); philosophical, based upon the puranic heritage of oral narrative; metaphysical; and social. To define a generic, "distinctively Indian" novel and to displace an exclusively literary, Eurocentric critical approach, Mukherjee attempts to establish a "distinctively Indian" fictional esthetic. Part I of the book expounds the historical and theoretical framework of this esthetic, and Part II applies the theory to three Indian classics—Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's Pather Panchali (1929), Premchand's Godan (1936), and U. R. Anantha Murthy's Samskara (1965).
In her ambitious, broad-based analysis, Mukherjee poses incisive questions: Is the value of a literary work culture-bound? Or should literature transcend nationality to appeal to a universal readership? Is this ideal of universality a colonial construct in which "the world" is construed as essentially western? What are the interrelationships between language and culture, audience and esthetic expectation, literary form and literary convention? Mukherjee's answers are understandably tentative. In addition, a variety of disclaimers dot the Preface and text: the book is not a history of the Indian novel, Mukherjee admits; neither is it a comprehensive analysis of regional fiction in India; it does not establish precise distinctions between "Indian" and "western" literary elements, nor does it arrive at an explicit definition of the Indian novel.
In the later chapters, a sociological perspective is increasingly employed, sometimes to excuse mediocrity. Demonstrating that Saratchandra Chattopadhyay's (1876-1938) enduring popularity rests not on his creation of serious literature but of emotionally extravagant domestic drama, Mukherjee concludes, "Hence any literary evaluation of Saratchandra cannot quite be delinked from his cultural significance, and when the literary critics have finally given him up perhaps the sociologist will take up for further scrutiny the phenomenon that is Saratchandra." Pather Panchali, she notes, is by western novelistic standards sentimental and romantic, its structure "unwieldly"; yet Bibhutibhushan's "lack of selfconsciousness [sic] about techniques and cultural dialectics," resulting from his loyalty to regional and cultural determinants, Mukherjee deems his strength. And of Premchand's novel she states, "The paradoxes inherent in Godan [of mode, characterization, and theme], though not always creative or fruitful, have to be seen in terms of the peculiar tensions of Premchand's time, both in his life and in Indian literary history."
For a study professing to establish a native esthetic to fit the Indian novel, the book abounds with extraneous references to western theoreticians and literary works—to Lukaćs and Todorov, Frye and Eliade, to Don Quixote and Gulliver's Travels, Vanity Fair and Anna Karenina—ironically emphasizing the European roots of the Indian novel as well as revealing Mukherjee's awareness of the expectations of her occidental audience. Despite these flaws, Mukherjee's book is valuable as an original, insightful commentary upon the Indian regional novel. Further, it suggests a methodology for examining the means by which other derivative literatures within the colonized world reconciled the demands of western realism with the representation of indigenous realities.
Avtar S. Bhullar's India: Myth and Reality is quite another matter. An ethnocentric evaluation of fictions by Rudyard Kipling, E. M. Forster, L. H. Myers, and John Masters, it perpetuates the cliché that only a...