An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English

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Item Code: NAF601
Author: Aevind Krishna Mehrotra
Language: English
Edition: 2013
ISBN: 9788178241517
Pages: 424 (Through and B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 9.5 Inch X 7.0 Inch
Weight 900 gm
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Book Description
Back of the Book

This book is an illustrated history of two hundred year of Indian literature in English. It starts by looking at the introduction of English into Indian’s complex language scenario around 1800. It then takes up the canonical poets, novelists, and dramatists, as well as unjustly forgotten figures, who have made significant contributions to Indian literature in English.

It comprises twenty-fore chapters, written by Indian’s foremost scholars and critics. Each chapter is devoted either to a single author (Kipling, Tagore, Sir Aurobindo, R.K. Narayan), or to a group to authors (the Dutt family; diasporic writers), or to a genre (the novel; poetry; drama).

This is a book for the non-specialist general reader. Biographical information on major literary figures is provided, and in most cases their work is historically contextualized.

A unique feature of the book is the illustration. They range from rare photographs and drawings to comic books and popular prints, and have been collected especially for this volume, making it the first illustrated history of any of the Indian literatures. William Jones and Thomas Macaulay, Henry Derozio and Toru Dutt, Bankim and Tagore, Kipling and Naipaul, G.V. Desani and Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan and Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Sarojini Naidu and Anita Desai, Gandhi and Nehru, Mulk Raj Anand and Aubrey Menen, Verrier Elwin and Salim Ali, Jim Corbett and M. Krishnan, Nissim Ezekiel and A.K Ramanujan, Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, Given Patel and Girish Karnad, Social reformers and religious thinkers, conservationists and hunters, Presidency College and St Stephen’s College, drama and translation, this Volume covers everything of literary significance that has happened in India.

About the Author

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is a well-known poet, critic, and translator. His books include The Transfiguring places (1998) and The Absent Traveller: Prakrit Love Poetry from the Gathasaptasati (1991). He has edited the Oxford Indian Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets (1992).


There have chiefly been two previous histories of Indian literature in English: Indian Writing in English (4th edn. 1982) by K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, and A History of Indian Literature in English (1982) by M.K. Naik. Indian Literature in English (1990) by William Walsh Limits itself to the twentieth century and is sketchy even then.

No literary history can be expected to cover everything, and I am only too well aware of the omissions in this one. Most saddening is the absence of Ananda Coomaraswamy, the art historian, and a discussion of periodicals, journals, and little magazines in English. Essays on these topics were commissioned along with two others (The Historian as Author' and 'The Pulp Artists'), but they failed to reach us. We hope to recommission them for inclusion in a future edition.

The other omissions, if omissions they be, arise from the kind of history this is from the way it has been planned and executed. Though conceived as a comprehensive and wide-ranging whole, so that it takes up not only the canonical poets, novelists, and dramatists of the past two hundred years but also scientists, social reformers, anthropologists and naturalists who have by broad consensus enriched the body of Indian writing in English, it is made up of separate essays, each by a different contributor. To these essays, which are devoted either to a single author (Rammohan Ray, Kipling, Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, R.K. Narayan) or to a group of authors (The Dutt Family Album: And Toru Dutt’, ‘From Sugar to Masala: Writing by the Indian Diaspora') or to a genre ('The Beginnings of the Indian Novel', 'Poetry Since Independence'), the contributors have brought their own points of view and their own writing styles. In these omnibus essays which deal with a group of authors or a genre, the decision to include or leave out a particular essay. The editorial guidelines only asked that authors’ dates of birth and (where applicable and available) death be mentioned, and that critical vocabulary be kept to a minimum. As there were going to be footnotes, references to secondary material have been avoided.

Written by specialists, this is a book for the non-specialist reader. Biographical information on authors who feature in it has been provided, and the account of their work is historically contextualized. The essays themselves can be read selectively, to follow, for instance, the development of a genre-poetry, the novel-over two centuries, or in the order in which they appear, which is chronological. A word of caution, though, is necessary. Since this is not a narrative literary history whose possible plots 'can be reduced to three: rise decline, and rise and decline' (David Perkins in Is Literary History Possible?, 1992), there is not one continuous story but several disjunct ones being told in these pages. Nor is there a unifying voice running through the text; beginning is not tied to conclusion, nor past to present.

Applied to Indian literature in English, which is made up of discrete units and has come about more through a process of accretion, words like 'development' and 'growth' are perhaps inappropriate. Few writers claim an 'Indo-Anglian' descent, indeed most would not miss the opportunity to deny it. Since the literary pasts they have drawn on have invariably been multiple and other than their own, stretching from the earliest English poems to Gunter Grass, the sense of belonging has never been very strong. For a literature whose development has been piecemeal and ragged, or like a fresh start each time, an encyclopedic arrangement which eschews both continuity and closure has seemed appropriate.

Unlike an anthology, a literary history cannot afford to be too partial or too quirky. Whereas the appeal of an anthology is strongly connected with its editorial slant, a literary history expresses a general consensus. However, if the history is of a literature which has not been much historicised, and of which the earlier attempts at a history have been lick like acts of enumeration, consensus can be difficult to reach and here looks tentative rather than authoritative. Since the notion of what is authoritative has in any case been shown. up as temporary, if not altogether ephemeral, perhaps this is only a blessing in disguise.

A second and related question facing the historian of Indian literature in English is whether the ‘India in 'Indian literature in English' is coterminous with the India of the political map, or is to be used in a wider, imaginative sense. As I discovered, the answer is a bit of both.

An international border is rigorous, but literary borders are porous, ill-defined, and overlapping, especially if the literature is new and has a colonial past. Often its writers, to their discomfiture, fall in two, sometimes more, literary territories. Among this number are Kipling and Bharati Mukherjee, one born in Bombay and the other in Calcutta, one British and the other a naturalized American, one a stoical imperialist and the other emphatically a part of contemporary American literature. Kipling, like nobody else, described Anglo-Indian life in the late nineteenth century; Mukherjee, a hundred years later, writes about Indian immigrants to the New World. To have left out either for reasons of nationality would have meant leaving out a part of the experience of India, of the Indian experience. It would have made the history more cohesive but less complete. While literary borders are porous, they do not seem porous in the same way to everyone. Seeing it from London, Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West include Bapsi Sidhwa and Sara Suleri, two Pakistani authors, in the Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947-97 (1997). Seeing the same border from New Delhi, I had, in this case, a different perspective from which soft literary borders and hard international boundaries looked much the same. Had I included Pakistani writers who have engaged in certain ways with events and issues unmistakably Indian, I would have had no grounds for excluding writers from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and perhaps from Myanmar and Nepal. But this book would then have acquired a quite different literary and political contour, and become a history of the literature in English of the Indian subcontinent.

Literary borders meet also in Wiltshire, where V.S Naipaul lives. Marked prominently as a feature in there literatures- Caribbean, British, and Indian-Naipaul is at home in none. ‘One of the most important voices in the story of modern literature’, Rushdie says in the introduction to his anthology, ‘is regrettable absent from this book, not by our choice, but by his own.' For those who believe it is possible for a writer to have more than one literary nationality, or perhaps not have any, Naipaul, who has made the wounding pursuit of self-definition his lifelong work-in-progress, is an iconic figure.

In contrast to Naipaul, but of an earlier generation, is Aubrey Menen. In ‘How I was initiated into the Best Tribe’, an essay in Dead Man in the Silver Market (1954), Menen wrote:

'Breathes there a man (it has been said) with soul so dead That never to himself hath said This is my own my native land?' I cannot answer the question but I find it flattering, if the principle behind it is true. I have a soul which so far from being dead is three times livelier than most other people's for I have no less than three native lands which, provided I pay my taxes, I can call my own.

Menen's ‘there native lands’ are England, where he was born educated, Italy, where he lived for most of his life, and Indian, where he spent his last year and where he died. However, there is a downside to the triple claim he makes, which, given his lively soul, he may not have seen. If V.S. Naipaul will foresee ably be remembered by three literatures, Aubrey Menen is in danger of being forgotten by at least two. Like ficus in crevices, writes can flourish between literatures (and between nations); they can, as well, disappear without a trace between them.

Future historians will view and interpret the past differently from us. Authors given several pages here may be dismissed by later historians in a brief paragraph; in much the same way, authors left out of earlier histories or mentioned passingly are covered at some length in this book. To write, or even compile, a literary history is to build on shifting sands. And yet the task cannot be wholly futile. 'Each history', David Perkins says, 'leaves a deposit of accurate information and reasonable interpretation to be synthesised by the next, along with the deposits of other previous histories.' This book has been long in the making and, even as it was being put together, several of its living subjects- V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, and Amitav Ghosh, among others-were putting out new books. An enterprise such as this, which tries to cover all the important literary ground from Rammohan Ray to Arundhati Roy, cannot endlessly keep pace; fresh material can only be incorporated in repeated revised editions. Meanwhile, it is hoped that the deposit of new information in the present volume is sufficiently accurate and thick, and the interpretations sufficiently reasonable and reasonably expressed.


This volume, which covers almost two hundred years of the literature written largely by Indians in English, has for its starting point the year 1800. The date has no literary significance but is chosen for its rough and ready usefulness: by 1800 there was no real challenge left to the British domination of India from either the other European powers neither in the region-the Dutch, French, and Portuguese-nor, except for the Marathas, from the native states. British domination eventually covered all aspects of Indian life-political, economic, social, cultural. The introduction of English into the complex, hierarchical language system of India has proved the most enduring aspect of this domination.

By 1800 the battles of Plassey (1757) and Buxar (1764) were fought and lost. Siraj-ud-Daula's defeat at Plassey was less at the hands of Col. Robert Clive than at those of the compradors of Bengal, the Jagat Seths. Seeing their profit margins reduced by Mughal impositions on their commerce, these wealthy Hindu and Jain merchants and bankers, together with powerful members of the nawab's court, plotted his overthrow, a conspiracy in which the East India Company joined. Militarily the battle was not more than a skirmish; according to one estimate there were only seventy-two dead after counting the figures on both sides, but as Joshua Marshman wrote in his influential Bharatvarsher Itihas (1831), it 'changed the destinies of sixty million people in a vast kingdom'.

Among those whose destiny it affected was Dean Mahomed (1759-1851)’ the author of The Travels of Dean Mahomet (1794), the first book ever written and published by an Indian in English. Born in Patna into a family that had traditionally served the Mughal empire, he joined, as had his father and brother before him, the East India Company's Bengal Army in 1769 and travelled with it as a camp follower and subaltern officer for the next fifteen years, going as far north as Delhi. His book, in the form of a series of letters to a fictive friend, is in large measure based on his experiences in the colonial army. In 1784 he emigrated to Ireland, settling down in Cork and marrying a young local Anglo-Irish woman. He also converted to the Protestant faith. In later life, after unsuccessfully running the Hindustani Coffee House near Portman Square, London, he set himself up as a ‘Shampooing Surgeon' in Brighton, where his herbal 'Indian Vapour Bath' was immediately popular and attracted the patronage of King George IV who, in 1822, bestowed a Royal Warrant upon him.

Plassey effectively brought Bengal under Company rule and, following Mir Qasim’s defeat, Buxar added the contiguous territory of Avadh to the areas already under British influence. The company now controlled the eastern Gangetic plain from Benaras to Calcutta. In the following year, 1765, the Mughal emperor appointed the East India Company his diwan (or chief financial manager) of the provinces of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, thereby enabling it to collect revenue on his behalf. Known as the Treaty of Allahabad, this arrangement has been called 'the truly inaugural moment of the Raj'. The Company's accession to diwani, Ranajit Guha says in An Indian Historiography of India (1988), ‘brought together in one single instance all the three fundamental aspects of colonialism in our subcontinent, namely, its origin in an act of force, its exploitation of the primary produce of the land as the very basis of a colonial economy, and its need to give force and exploitation the appearance of legality.'

There is to this inaugural moment of the Raj, as there was sometimes to the Raj itself, a touch of farce. When, thirty years later, the painter Benjamin West depicted the treaty-Lord Clive receiving from the Moghul the Grant of the Duanney-he showed the Mughal emperor Shah Alam in an imperial setting, seated under a canopy on a raised throne, from where he hands Clive a rolled document. There are elephants in the background and in the foreground attendants. Clive's party, consisting of six Englishmen, is shown on the left of the canvas. Some of the Englishmen appear to be talking in whispers to each other, as do some of the Indians. The reality was quite different: Clive actually received 'the Duan-ney' in his tent. Two of the six Englishmen in the picture were not present with him in Allahabad on that day, and the emperor's throne, far from being a canopied, oriental affair, was in fact Clive's dining table surmounted by an armchair.

At about the time Shah Alam was being reduced to a piece of rococo furniture, Captain James Rennell, who had already spent five years in the country and carried out extensive surveys of the coastal areas of southern India, was appointed by Clive as the first Surveyor-General of Bengal. The Bengal Atlas that Rennell brought out in 1779, the culmination of more than a decade's effort, was the first modern atlas of the province. As more colonial administrators realised the importance of cartography to empire building, Rennell's pioneering effort was duplicated in other British-controlled Indian territories, notably by Captain Colin Mackenzie in the Deccan, and by him and Major William Lambton, after the fall of Tipu Sultan in 1799, in Mysore. Corresponding with the labours of these soldier-engineers, the British set about mapping the intellectual, cultural, and historical dimensions of their new territories. Comparative philology, lexicography, and translation were some of the areas opened up by Sir Charles Wilkins, Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, sir William Jones, John Gilchrist, and Henry Colebrooke, all of whom are now remembered as pioneering ‘Orientalists'.

The British interest in Indian languages, as Halhed bluntly said, arose from the necessity of having to cultivate ‘a medium of intercourse between the Government and its subjects between the natives of Europe who are to rule, and the inhabitants of India who are to obey'. But the scholar-administrators who busied themselves with Persian and Sanskrit, 'Moors' and Bengali, were not always patronising in their attitude, nor did they put their newly acquired skills always to imperialist uses. Even Halhed, who wrote and printed one of the earliest Bengali grammars by a European, is remembered also as the first Englishman to be influenced by Oriental mysticism. The best known, Sir William Jones, the Calcutta Supreme Court judge and founder (in 1784) of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, built a formidable reputation as an Oriental scholar even before he made his passage to India. He engaged more comprehensively with Indian civilization than any Englishman has since: orthography, mythology, literature, chronology, chess, the zodiac, botany, music, and natural history are some of the subjects on which he contributed authoritative articles for the early volumes of Asiatick Researches. Described recently as 'one of the greatest polymaths in history', Jones laid the foundation of historical linguistics when, in the ‘Third Anniversary Discourse’ (1786), he made the assertion that Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin ‘have sprung from a common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists'. He went on to posit the notion of a common homeland for mankind, from which it had centuries ago migrated to different parts of the globe. The Hindus, he said,

Had an immemorial affinity with the old Persians, Ethiopians, and Egyptians, the Phenicians, Greeks, and Tuscans, the Scythians or Goths, and Celts the Chinese, Japanese, and Peruvians; whence, as no reason appears for believing, that they were a colony from any one of these nations, or any of those nations from them, we may fairly conclude that they all proceeded from some central country, to investigate which will be the object of my future Discourses...

The Utilitarian philosopher James Mill, perhaps remembering this and similar passages, was later to exclaim that the years spent by 'Oriental Jones' in India had been a waste.

Between Jones’s universalist and surreal ideas of race and Halhed’s administrative rulerruled paradigm there is a world of difference. Nevertheless, there had appeared by 1800 an assortment of texts in English-grammars, dictionaries, teaching aids, phrase books, and translations of literary works, digests, and compendiums-which, like Rennell’s Bengal Atlas, were meant to facilitate colonization and explain the new acquisition both Company’s servants in India and to an avid literary and Scientific community back home in England.

Editor's Prefacexv
1The English Writings of Raja Rammohan Ray27
2The Hindi College: Henry Deriozio and Micheal Medhusudan Dutt41
3The Dutt Family Album: And Toru Dutt53
4Rudyard Kipling70
5Two Faces of Prose: Behramji Malabari and Govardhanram Tripathi82
6The Beginnings of the Indian Novel92
7The English writings of Rabindranath Tagor103
8Sri Aurobindo116
9Two Early-Twentieth-Century Women Writers: Corenelia Sorabji and Sarojini Naidu126
10Gandhi and Nehru: The Uses of English135
11Verrier Elwin157
12Novelists of the 1930s and 1940s168
12R. K. Narayan193
14Nirad C. Chaudhuri209
15Novelists of the 1950s and 1960s219
16On V.S. Naipaul on India232
17Poetry Since Independence234
18From Sugar to Masala: Writing by the Indian Diaspora276
19Looking for A.K. Ramanujan295
20Salman Rushdie308
21After Midnight: The Novel in the 1980s and 1990s318
22The Dramatists337
23Five Nature Writers: Jim Corbett, Kenneth Anderson, Salim Ali, Kailash Sankhala, and M. Krishna351
24Translations into English366
Note on Contributors377
Further Reading381

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