- The Indian Novel in English:A Search for Identity*
The Indian struggle for independence from the British rule showed a strange paradox: an intense but understandable dislike of the British occupation of the country and an equally strong but puzzling sentimental attachment to the English language. In fact, the departure of the British from India produced a near-violent campaign to retain English as a national language and a unifying tool for the country. The birth of a new nation also generated a new impulse to create new literary works in every language of Indian origin as well as in English, which some claimed as an Indian language. Those who had been writing in English before the country won her independence now took to writing in that language with redoubled vigour, as it were, and many newcomers joined them, with the result that, although the English-speaking Indians were, and still are, a minority, the number of Indian writers who write in English is an impressive one. Of this group of writers who write in English, the Indian novelists are the most conspicuous both for the quantity and quality of their output. Such an output will impress us as an even more remarkable achievement if we bear in mind the fact that there is no such thing as a tradition of novel writing in India dating from the ancient times.
Ancient India produced many great things but not a novel as we understand it today. Ā nō bhadrāh rtavō yantu viswatah1—may noble thoughts come to us from all sides—said our ancestors some four thousand years ago. They might well have added, noble things too. For the Indian novel and short fiction in their present form, both in English and in the Indian languages, are an importation from the West generally and from England in particular. While we had several forms of literature before, including such things as champu (a composition which employs both the prose and the verse media), the modern Indian novel and the short story owe their existence to the West. The novel existed in Sanskrit as romance at a time when the English language was still in its infancy. Dandin's Dasakumāracharita (sixth century), Bâna's Kādambari (seventh century), and [End Page 26] Subandhu's Vāsavadatta (seventh century) have been considered standard works of fiction. An English scholar named Horrwitz says that "Bâna has written the best Sanskrit novel."2 Indeed, the word kādambari is used at least in three Indian languages (Kannada, Telugu, and Marāthi) to denote a novel.
Even the short story in its present form as a complex, subtle, and highly artistic work is a borrowing from the West. Of course, ancient India was a treasure trove of short fiction, and we exported a good quantity of it to the West and appeared to have got in return the modern short story. It is common knowledge that stories like those of the Panchatantra3 with their device of the frame story travelled west and influenced Western literature including Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Today some of them exist in the West in modified, garbled, or changed versions, such as the Welsh story of Llewellyn's dog, Gelert.4 The very story of the migration of these tales is a fascinating one. The Oxford scholar Macdonell holds that "the history of how Indian fairy tales and fables migrated from one country to another, to nearly all the peoples of Europe and Asia, and even to African tribes from their original home in India, borders on the marvellous."5 But modern Indian fiction is Western in its origin and inspiration. When the Indians awoke to what are now the most popular forms of literature among the authors and the reading public in India, namely the short story and the novel, they must have said to themselves, "But Westward look, the land is bright!"6
The novel is a well-established form in Indian languages, without a readily visible trace, if I may say so, of foreignness about it, although it is perfectly clear that the novels and the novelists have often been inspired...