- Genres of Modernity: Contemporary Indian Novels in English
Dirk Wiemann symbolically sets the tone of his book with the front cover picture of an advertising board bearing the words "Now, 20,000 sq. ft. of pure shopping joy in Hyderabad." It stands as an insignia of contemporary India fast tilting toward globalization and heterogenization, toward the vernacular of postcolonialism and postmodernism. The whole process in India first started with Hyderabad in the mid-nineties at the initiative of the then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chanderbabu Naidu. In the same context, Wiemann explores some significant contemporary Indian novels in English in an effort to locate the "indigenous diversifications" of Indian "modernity in the present," which subvert universal European modernity in favor of a vernacular variety of modernities. In the process, he resorts to "a refiguring of the present" as a "call for transforming the contemporary moment and forging the conceptual and political instruments adequate to this task" (7). Wiemann puts forward his basic hypothesis of multiple Indian [End Page 258] modernities in space, time, and history with the help of John Berger's G, Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, and Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. These three works commonly mark "radical discontinuities, conjuring up a plurality in heterogeneous time, presented and experienced as 'the turning of a corner in which an altogether different present happens, which was not foreseen' " (4).
The first half (chapters 2-6) of Wiemann's book treats one of the chief markers of modernity, namely, "time." In the process, it decenters Walter Benjamin's notion of "homogeneous empty time" of European modernity through a rereading of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Chidren, Sashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel, and Kiran Nagarkar's Cuckold as "national allegories," all of which point to "a multiplicity of aesthetic strategies of disclaiming/de-claiming Indian standard time" (7). Along with "time," Wiemann considers "home," which is closely linked to "time" in the context of vernacular Indian modernity. With these two aspects of modernity, Wiemann situates these texts in a discursive environment that has, "at least in the case of India, produced some of the most influential theoretical propositions concerning post-coloniality" (13). European modernity anchors itself in homogeneity, uniformity, singularity, and universality—a kind of "self-sufficiency" that gets "reconstructed and questioned in Indian critical conceptualizations of the national/modern" (15). This reconstruction and questioning, Wiemann believes, creates a space for speculating about possibilities of "alternative narratives of modernity," which diverge into a discursive frame of "transmodernity" and succeed in producing "a different discourse" by "interrogating the presuppositions that underwrite its precedent Other, Western colonialism, on which it has to remain fixated, however, in order to be able to combat it" (28).
Wiemann carefully conceptualizes his hypothesis of multiple Indian modernities based on heterochronic time in the postindependence period by closely considering four contemporary Indian novels in English—namely, Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel, Vikram Chandra's Red Earth and Pouring Rain, Nagarkar's Cuckold, and Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. These texts in their own different ways reconfigure the original parameters of European modernity, which are necessarily sustained by homogeneous empty time. In Wiemann's view, Tharoor in his historical novel of Indira Gandhi's emergency relates India's modernity "in terms of the epic," so that "this modernity becomes, at one level, legible as fundamentally different: not as derivation of European prime modernity but, in an emphatic version of the paradigm of the national/modern, as a rerun, or rather re-enactment of the events codified in Mahabharata" (85). Tharoor calls forth epic authority for "a secularist-liberal agenda," which replaces "the original myth of the one [End Page 259] absolutist dharma [righteousness] by the new" (100). This new agenda will "instruct the good Indian citizen to stick to dharma that will be grounded in personal truth, and—apart from tolerance—will prescribe no societal obligations whatsoever" (100-101). Chandra's Red Earth and Pouring Rain similarly subverts universal European modernity through unorthodox projections...