- Caste as Indian:The Anglophone Critic and the Question of National Identity
Introducing K. S. Narayana Rao's "The Indian Novel in English: A Search for Identity," first published in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 4, No. 2 (special number: "Commonwealth Novel"), summer 1972, pp. 296-303.
Returning to K. S. Narayana Rao's pithy essay on the Indian English novel's "search for identity," a lightly revised version of a paper he had given to the National Council of Teachers of English in 1970, I expected to find a document of its time, largely of archival value. Rao was writing in an era—which didn't really end until well into the 1980s—when Anglophone Indian literature was largely read within the paradigm of 'Commonwealth Literature.' The genteel inclusiveness of that paradigm was premised on the idea of English as one of a white colonial Prospero's many gifts, Anglophone writing itself a testament to the virtues of the imperial project, the disadvantages and depredations of colonial rule quietly elided in favor of the seeming ecumenicism of that house of many mansions, English Literature. The gap between literature mainly written in England, that zealously-guarded house, and Anglophone literature, very much a poor cousin, would be covered by an awning provided by the idea of the Commonwealth. A largely political formation intended to preserve British influence and trade relationships would be given a global cultural presence.
What strikes me now is both how prescient Rao was about the problems and perplexities of writing in English in his time and how much, despite the much-hyped story of a subcontinent "finding its voice" and writing comfortably in a language that it now fully accepted as its own, he anticipated the tensions, fractures, and lines of debate which shaped the Indian Anglophone novel well into the nineties. Indeed, these have yet to recede entirely. Rao begins by noting the ineluctable tension between anticolonialism and a "strong but [End Page 23] puzzling sentimental attachment to the English language" (296). The earliest practitioners of Indian Anglophone writing would, of course, feel that tension very powerfully, but even as late as Arundhati Roy's 1997 classic The God of Small Things, the elegant confidence in wielding literary English did not preclude thematizing the tensions between rejecting Anglophilia and a deep enjoyment of the English language. It remains the case, for all the hype, that even though "the number of Indian writers who write in English is an impressive one," English-speaking Indians are a minority and the outsize global representative status of the Anglophone Indian novel must continue to be interrogated. This is not a point about authenticity but rather a question of power and the high profile of English as "a six-armed god," to use poet and novelist Vikram Seth's resonant phrase. Rao was keenly aware of questions of readership and if it is no longer the case that "the Indo-Anglian novelist has to look beyond the national boundaries"—being now assured of a readership "at home"—it nonetheless remains the case that the imprimatur of the "global" is still underwritten by the much-coveted approval of Western critics and academies. What Rao may not have foreseen is the meteoric rise of less-than-accomplished Anglophone novelists like Chetan Bhagat and the huge readership they have primarily in India with their appeal largely to the burgeoning and youthful corporate middle-classes who are largely upper-caste and Hindu.
Even as he stressed the distinctly Western origins of the Anglophone novel in India, its inevitable reliance on not only a language that was not yet quite "at home" in its Indian residence but also a form that derived from Western models, Rao was attuned to the many vernacular traditions on which the genre drew. He argues—sending genres sliding into each other with a degree of creative imprecision—that the novel "existed in Sanskrit as romance at a time when the English language was in its infancy" and points to works that were "considered standard works of fiction" (297, my emphasis). While it is true that Sanskrit words such as 'kadambari,' once used to describe fictional romances, are now...