Indian English Literature

Indian English Literature

Indians first started learning English for the purpose of trade and commerce. The first Indian author in English, Dean Mahomet, published his memoirs, The Travels of Dean Mahomet, in 1794. Dean Mahomet adopted the epistolary form. The book is in the form of thirty-eight letters. The Travels of Dean Mahomet is probably the only account by an Indian of life with the East India Company. This text can be considered as the foundation of Indian English Literature. The first Indian English novel is Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Rajmohan’s Wife. 

For long, Cavelley Venkata Boriah’s’s “Account of the Jains” published in 1809 has been considered the first published work by an Indian in English. It is only in 1996 that a historian, Michael H. Fisher, brought Dean Mahomet’s work to light.

Raja Rammohun Roy‘s essay, “A Defense of Hindu Theism” (1817) is the first original publication in prose in the history of Indian writing in English. Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833) was the greatest social, religious and cultural reformer of the period. In 1828, he founded the Brahmo Samaj, a reformist Hindu movement. He fought for women’s rights, and lead a movement against Sati. He was one of the founders of the Hindu College, Calcutta. He is one of the founding figures of Indian English Literature. 

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-94), the father of the Bengali novel and author of Rajmohan’s Wife (1864), is the first Indian novel in English.

Romesh Chunder Dutt (1848-1909) a member of the Indian Civil Service is remembered for his verse translations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. He wrote novels in Bengali, two of which he translated into English. The Lake of Palms (1902) and The Slave Girl of Agra (1909). His most famous books are the two volumes, Economic History of India (1902 and 1904). He was also the first to write literary history: The Literature of Bengal (1879). 

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) was named Narendranath Datta by his parents. At the age of eighteen, he became a disciple of the great mystic, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. After Sri Ramakrishna’s death in 1885, he founded the Ramakrishna Mission which is an order of monks devoted to social reform. His Complete Works, the first volume of which appeared in 1907. It contains speeches and lectures where he spoke of spiritual uniqueness of India and the greatness of Hinduism. Some of his works include Raja Yoga (1896), Karma Yoga (1896), Jnana Yoga (1899) and Meditation and Its Methods and The Secret of Work. Indian English Literature took a turn towards Eastern philosophy with the coming of Swami Vivekananda. 

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a poet, playwright and novelist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. His autobiographical works in Bengali, My Boyhood Days and Reminiscences are among his early works. Tagore’s prose writings in English were primarily in the form of lectures, through his letter to Mahatma Gandhi, ‘The Great Sentinel’. Sadhana (1913), his first prose work in English, is based on lectures he gave on Indian philosophy at Harvard University. Of his many collections of lectures, Nationalism (1917) is most relevant today. 

Indian English Literature
A painting by Rabindranath Tagore.

Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) has to his credit many volumes of prose writings on philosophical, religious, social, and cultural subjects. He has been called “The inaugurator of modem Indian criticism“. He studied classical languages at Cambridge University and got a First class First rank in his degree. He qualified for the Indian Civil Service. He came back to India in 1893 and started teaching English at Maharaja’s College in Baroda. He resigned his position when the British partitioned Bengal in 1905. He was arrested in 1908 as a terrorist. He settled down at the French enclave of Pondicherry, and continued his yogic quest. He was joined by a French woman, Mirra Alfassa (later known as the “Mother” in the Aurobindo Ashram), who recognised him as the guru. He retired into seclusion, but continued his literary work; in addition to poetry (including the epic Savitri) he produced many poetic dramas. Some of his other works include  Synthesis of Yoga (1948), Essays on the Gita (1922) and The Secret of the Veda. He is one of the founding figures of the genre of philosophy in Indian English Literature. 

Sri Aurobindo‘s essays can be divided into three broad categories: religion. social issues and literary criticism. His most famous works in the field of religion and spirituality are The Life Divine (1939-40), The Synthesis of Yoga (1948) and Heraclitus (a comparative study of Greek philosophy and Vedantic thought). Many of his essays on social issues first appeared in Arya, a monthly he founded in 1914. Books on social and cultural issues include The Renaissance in India (1920) and the Foundations of Indian Culture (1953). His literary criticism appears in The Future Poetry. He recognised the achievement of Walt Whitman, calling him “the most Homeric voice since Homer“. 

Nationalist leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Mahadev Govind Ranade were great orators. Perhaps the greatest orator of the period was V.S. Srinivasa Sastri (1869-1946), a leader of the Moderates. He was known as “the silver-tongued orator of the Empire“. He also wrote a number of biographies, including Life and Times of Sir Pherozeshah Mehta (1945) and My Master Gokhale (1946).

The most famous writer in the field of Indian philosophy and religion was S. Radhakrishnan (1888-1975). He taught philosophy at leading universities in India and abroad, and rose to be President of India. He was a prolific writer, whose works include Indian Philosophy (in two volumes, 1923, 1927), The Hindu View of Life; (1926) and The Principal Upanishads (1953).

Khushwant Singh, better known as a novelist and journalist, has the credit of writing the standard scholarly work on his community: A History of the Sikhs, published in two volumes (1963, 1966). Some of his other works include Train to Pakistan (1956), A history of the Sikhs (1963), The Company of Women (1999), Truth, Love & a Little Mal… (2002), Delhi: A Novel (1990). Khushwant Singh produced important works which set up the trend of Indian English Literature. 

Important Indian critics include Krishna Rayan, Meenakshi Mukherjee is another important critic, whose The Twice Born Fiction (1971) is devoted to Indian English fiction: in Realism and Reality (I985), she studies the growth of the novel in Indian languages.   

Nirad C. Choudhuri important works include The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951), Thy Hand, Great Anarch! (1987),  A Passage to England (1959) which is a travelogue; books on Indian society, culture and religion include

The Continent of Circe, The Intellectual in India (1967), Hinduism: A Religion to Live By (1979) and Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse (1997); biographies include Scholar Extraordinary: The Life of Max Miiller (1974) and Clive of India. He denounced India as the “The Continent of Circe“, a land where the original, energetic Aryans had been turned into slothful pigs by the climate. 

Ved Mehta, author of eighteen books, of which just one Delinquent Chacha (1967), is a novel. Born in Lahore in 1934, he became blind at the age of four and was educated at a special school for the blind at Bombay. His first book, Face to Face (1957) is autobiographical. His non-fiction includes a travelogue, Walking the Indian Streets (1961), The Fly and the Fly-Bottle (1963) based on interviews with British intellectuals, and The New Theologian (1966) an attempt to evaluate the ideas of Christian theologians coping with the secular world. John is Easy to Please (1971) contains some of his best essays of literary criticism. Daddyji (1972), Mamaji (1979), Vedi (1982), The Ledge between the Streams (1984), and Sound-Shadows of the New World (1986) describe his family and childhood. 

Vikram Seth (1952) was born in Calcutta and educated in Dehra Dun. He is one of the frontrunners of Indian English Literature. He won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, and graduated in 1975 with honours in philosophy, politics and economics. His first book, Mappings, published by Writers Workshop, Calcutta, in 1982, contained poems written in English along with a few translations of Indian poets. His second book, From Heaven Lake (1983), which won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, attracted a wider readership. His second book of poetry, The Humble Administrator’s Garden (1985) won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Asia. The Golden Gate helped him gain international fame. All You Who Sleep Tonight (1990), his third collection of poems won critical acclaim. Beastly Tales from Here and There (1991) contains simple narrative poems with regular metre and rhyme. Seth retells animal fables from India, China, Greece, and Ukraine, and “directly from the land of Gup”. He has also published a book of translations, Three Chinese Poets (1992).

His first conventional novel, A Suitable Boy (1993), became famous even before publication for receiving a very large advance from its publisher.

His latest novel, An Equal Music, is much more like The Golden Gate, which was a romance set in California. An Equal Music is set entirely in the West, and there is no Indian element whatsoever. Life in modern London is recreated in loving detail, with some scenes set in Vienna and Venice. The style is slow and convoluted, very different from the simple linear narrative of A Suitable Boy

Amitav Ghosh‘s first novel is The Circle of Reason (1986). The hero, an orphan, is called “Alu” (potato) because his head is shaped like a lumpy potato. Ghosh’s second novel, The Shadow Lines (1988) won the Sahitya Akademi award. It is an introspective work, centring around the growth and maturity of a nameless narrator. In Joseph Conrad’s novel The Shadow Line (1916), the narrator crosses the line dividing early youth from maturity as a consequence of his experiences as the captain of a ship. In Ghosh, the lines have wider ramifications — they are the lines on a map which separate countries in an atlas, the lines which divide cultures, the lines which separate reality from imagination. His fourth novel, The Calcutta Chromosome (1996), is centred around Ronald Ross’s discovery of the malarial parasite in 1895. Of all his novels, it is his third novel, In an Antique Land (1992) which is nearest to non-fiction prose. Some critics have considered it a travelogue. His Ibis trilogy, Sea of Poppies (2008), River of Smoke (2011), Flood of Fire (2015) is included. He is also one of the frontrunners of Indian English Literature. 

Mulk Raj Anand, one of the frontrunners of Indian English Literature, (1905-2004) is well known for his novels Untouchable (1935), Coolie (1936), Two Leaves and A Bud (1937). Untouchable‘s introduction was written by E.M. Forster. He spent WW II working as a scriptwriter for the bc where he became a friend of George Orwell. His 1942 novel, The Sword and the Sickle was reviewed by George Orwell. His other prominent novels include The Village, Across the Black Waters, The Private Life of an Indian Prince.

Raja Rao‘s (1908-2006) novels include The Serpent and the Rope (1960), which is a semiautobiographical novel recounting his divorce with Camille Mouly. Rao’s involvement in the nationalist movement is reflected in Kathapura (1938), which shows Gandhi’s teachings of non-violence.  The Cow of the Barricades (1947) is a collection of short stories. He respected women and he asserts, “Women is the Earth, air, ether, sound, women is the microcosm of the mind“.  His works are deeply rooted in metaphysics. Cat and Shakespeare (1965) is a metaphysical comedy which answers the metaphysical question posed in his earlier novels. In 1998 he published Gandhi’s biography Great Indian Way: A Life of Mahatma Gandhi.

Anita Desai (1937) wrote her first novel Cry the Peacock (1963), Clear Light of Day (1980) which is autobiographical in nature, Fasting, Feasting (1999) which was Booker prize finalist in the year ’99, Zigzag Way (2004) and her collection of short stories, The Artist of Disappearance (2011). In 1984, she published In Custody – about an Urdu poet in his declining days.

R.K. Narayan’s (1905-2001) first novel Swami and Friends (1935) made an instant appeal to some of the leading writers and critics in England. Graham Greene hailed it as “a book in ten thousand“. His important works include: Swami and Friends (1935), The Bachelor of Arts (1937), The Dark Room (1938), The English Teacher (1945), Mr.Sumpath (1949), The Financial Expert (1952), Waiting for the Mahatma (1955), The Guide (1958), The Man-Eater of Malgudi (1962), The Sweet – Vendor (1967). Collections of short stories: Malgudi Days (1941), Dodu and other stories (1943), Cyclone and other stories (1944), An Astrologer ‘s Day and other stories (1947) Lawley Road and other stories (1956),  A Horse and Two Goats (1970).

Arun Joshi’s (1939-1993) important works include The Foreigner (1968), The Strange Case of Billy Biswas (1971), The Apprentice (1974), The Last Labyrinth (1981), Survivor (1975, short stories). An existentialist novelist writing in line with Albert Camus and Franz Kafka, Arun Joshi shifted his focus from social realism to psychological realism. Arun Joshi’s works are an illustration of the Indian variety of existentialism.

Manoj Das was born in Balasore, Orissa, in 1934. Besides collections of short stories and novels for adults, he has written children’s tales and fables, and a booklet on Sri Aurobindo. He writes both in English and Oriya. A Bride Inside a Casket and Other Tales. Man who Lifted the Mountain and other Fantasies, The Submerged Valley and Other Stories and Cyclones (a novel) are his better-known works.

Subhadra Sen Gupta was born in 1952. She has been writing regularly since 1976. Her first collection of short stories titled Good Girls are Bad News. She also writes fiction for children. The Children’s books are (1982), The Mussourie Mystery (1986), and Bishnu, the Dhobi Singer (1996) and its sequel Bishnu Sings again (1998) set in the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar, History Mystery Dal and Biryani (2000). She has also written a non-fiction book Devalya, Great Temples of India (2000).

Raji Narasimhan was born in Madras, Tamil Nadu, in 1930. Her publications include four novels: The Heart of Standing is You cannot Fly (1973), Forever Free (1979), Drifting to a Dawn (1983), and The Sky Changes (1991). The Marriage of Bela and Other Stories (1978) is a collection of her short stories. Her book of criticism, Sensibility UnderStress: Aspects of Indo-English-Fiction (1976) is recommended reading in the English literature department of some universities in India. Her first story The Poor Folk Around Town was published in Quest in 1969. A Toast to Herself was first published in Indian Literature in 1986. 

Shashi Deshpande‘s important works include: The Legacy and Other Stories (1971), It was the Nightingale (1986), The Miracle (1986), The Intrusion and Other Stories (1993), The Dark Holds No Terror (1980), If I Die Today (1982), Roots and Shadows (1983), Come up and be dead (1983), It was Dark (1986), That Long Silence (1988) The Binding Vine(1992),  A Matter of Time (1996), Small Remedies (2000). 

Henry Derozio published two volumes of verse: Poems (1827) and – The Fakeer of Jungheera: A Metrical Tale and Other Poems (1828). The Fakeer of Jungheera is a long poem about Nuleeni, a high-caste Hindu widow, who is about to be burnt on the funeral pyre of her husband. The two poems of Derozio, both of them sonnets, qualify to be considered nationalist. Other poems include-“The Harp of India” and “To India–My Native Land“. 

Toru Dutt, one of the most important poets of Indian English Literature like Derozio, also died young; moreover, she died of tuberculosis. These were collected posthumously as Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan (1882), with an introduction by Edmund Gosse. Toru Dutt died in 1877 but not before she had finished a French novel, Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers (1979). She also left an unfinished novel in English called Bianca, or the Young Spanish Maiden. This manuscript was later published in the Bengal Magazine in 1878. Toru’s Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan is an example of the translation of ancient myths into the late 19th century Indian English. Sita is a poem written by her which is based on three happy children in a dark room Abju (died at the age of 14), Toru and Aru. The Lotus is a perfectly crafted poem with profound cultural implications. It is a Petrarchan sonnet. In English poetry, Wyatt, Milton, Wordsworth, and other famous poets used this form. Our Casuarina Tree is one of her finest works. 

Kamala Das is important to discuss when we talk of Indian English Literature.  known by her pen name Madhavikutty and first book of poetry, was Summer in Calcutta. Her second book of poetry, The Descendants was even more explicit talking of women’s issues. The only novel she wrote was named Alphabet of Lust. The name of her autobiography was My Story published in the year 1976. Some of her important works include An Introduction, My Grandmother’s House, The Looking Glass, Words, Relationship, The Old Playhouse, Summer in Calcutta etc.

Attippat Krishnaswami Ramanujan was born in 1929 in Mysore. The Interior Landscape (1967), Speaking of Shiva ( 1972), Hymns for the Drowning (I981) and Poems of Love and War (1985) are some of his better known translated works. Some of his important poems include Self-Portrait, which is a popular device of modern painters in which the painter paints himself, A River and Love Poem for a Wife–I.

Jayanta Mahapatra came to poetry somewhat late in his life and is vital when we have to talk about Indian English Literature. He was already thirty-eight when he published his first collection, Close the Sky, Ten by Ten (1971). That same year, another collection, Swayamvara and Other Poems appeared. Both these collections show promise rather than real achievement. After a gap of five years, Mahapatra published two collections of much better poems, A Father’s Hours (1976) and the much-acclaimed A Rain of Rites (1976). After several collections have followed including Waiting (1979), The False Start (1980), Life Signs (1981), Selected Poems (1987), Burden of Waves and Fruit (1988), Temple (1989), A Whiteness of Bone (1992). Relationship (1980), a long poem in many sections, won the Sahitya Akademi award for 1981. Mahapatra has also published a collection of short stories in English and collection of original poetry in Oriya. From 1979 to 1985 he edited a journal of creative writing called Chandrabhaga. He was also the founding editor of Kavya Bharati. Other Important poems include Dawn at Puri, Indian Summer Poem, Hunger, Evening Landscape by the River

Important poems of Arun Kolatkar include The Bus, Jejuri,  A Low Temple, Chaitanya.

Rajgopalan Parthasarathy was born in Tiruparaitturai, Tamil Nadu. His only major published collection is Rough Passage (1977). Rough Passage is divided into three sections, Exile, Trial, and Homecoming.

Keki Nasserwanji Daruwalla was born in Lahore in 1937. His volumes of poetry include Under Orion (1970), Apparition in April (1971), Crossing of Rivers ( 1976), Winter Poems (1980), The Keeper of the Dead (1982), and Landscapes (1987).

Important works include Rumination which is under Under Orion. Routine is a poem from Apparition in April and Crossing of Rivers (Caesar) is one of his best poems.

Perhaps the earliest Indian English play was written in 1831, when Krishna Mohan Banerji wrote The Persecuted or Dramatic Scenes illustrative of the present state of – Hindoo Society in Calcutta.

Indian literature in English develops in the world of theatre as well. Playwrights like Mahesh Dattani, Vijay Tendulkar, Badal Sircar and notably Girish Karnad. Mahesh Dattani’s important works include Tara (1995), Dance Like a Man (2000), Bravely Fought The Queen, Do The Needful, Final Solutions, Night Queen, On A Muggy Night In Mumbai, Seven Circles Round The Fire and Thirty Days In September. Vijay Tendulkar’s important works include Silence! The Court Is in Session, Sakharam Binder, Ghashiram Kotwal which was considered as the longest-running plays (The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie). His script for Manthan (1976) won the National Film Award for best screenplay.

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