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Land or Language: Three Indian Narratives in English

Meenakshi Mukherjee, in her essay titled “The Anxiety of Indianness: Our Novels in English”, says:

The unspoken premise in this war [between writing in English and writing in other Indian languages] is that writing in English and writing in the other Indian languages are antithetical enterprises marked by a commitment to, or a betrayal of, certain undefinable cultural values.

And isn’t that an essential part of the essence of English literature written by Indians? Here, we should include literature written by people of Indian nationality and people who are ethnically Indian. Let’s talk about some of the books that changed the perception of Indian literature in English:

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Picture credit: Goodreads

It’s been decades since the release of Salman Rushdie’s sordid tale, Midnight’s Children. The book was awarded the Booker Prize in 1981, the James Tait Prize, and the English Speaking Union Literary Award. It was declared to be the Best Booker Prize novel in 25 years in 1993.

The book tells the tale of two boys born at the stroke of midnight on August 15th, 1947 — and switched at birth. It’s a riveting narrative of the consequences of a chance, and the play of the environment around oneself in shaping one as an individual. It’s a postcolonial narrative; a postmodern tale. It’s filled with elements of magical realism, and it takes you on a journey.

But, what makes the novel even more realistic is the use of colloquial words in Indian languages. Whether it be due to the awkward exclamations, or the out-of-place idioms, as an Indian narrative set on Indian soil, every English-language book sometimes falls short. But, Salman Rushdie perfectly incorporates Indian expressions into the narrative — and he localises the English language to his advantage.

Bombay Stories by Sadat Hassan Manto

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Bombay Stories is a collection of short stories written by Manto during his stay in the city. Manto was young when he arrived in the city of dreams, and between the grandeur and splendour, he managed to also observe the gritty “lowlives” that the city was teeming with. To him, Mumbai held the borderline-ostentatious glitter of the Taj Hotel on one end, and the single candle burning in the kaccha walls of a house in the slums on the other — and there was so much in between.

Bombay Stories narrates the tales of the people overlooked by the mainstream narrative of the time — the prostitutes, workers, writers, artists, pimps, and aspiring actors. Aside from the unique subject matter, the stories are also beautifully sentimental, leaving an unforgettable print on the reader’s mind.

Like Rushdie, (although, Manto was writing much before the birth of Salman Rushdie) Manto brings to the story a narrative that is uniquely Indian. The incorporation of local Bambaiya slang, the detailed description of the setting, and the attempt to bring forth the personality of the characters in a language that they would never use — it all coalesces into a brilliantly real depiction of the back streets of 1930s Bombay.

About a story in the book, Ten Rupees, the New York Times writes: “Manto plays with our expectations of the standard fate of the young girl preyed on by older men, building up a scene out of a Joyce Carol Oates story or a David Lynch film.”

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Picture Credit: Goodreads

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is perhaps the most widely read Indian novel as of late. Set in 1960s Kerala, the novel is a narrative about family. It tells the story of twins between the years of 1969 and 1993. It’s a non-linear narrative, and when you think about it, it’s not all about the story.

Arundhati Roy creates a vivid picture of reality — messy and filled with mistakes and regrets and bitterness. The book carries the heavy weight of the underlying discussion of caste and cultural politics in the country. It takes you through the history of the strained thread of the causes of the character’s predicaments, and weaves the overlooking social code that governs all of them into the narrative.

The New York Times calls The God of Small Things: “...a novel that turns out to be as subtle as it is powerful, a novel that is Faulknerian in its ambitious tackling of family and race and class, Dickensian in its sharp-eyed observation of society and character.”

It’s not impossible to convey the stories, the ideas and the experiences of India in the English language, even if there always remains a divide between the exact lived experience — the multiculturality and multilingualism of it — and the words written in what is essentially a language foreign to the experiences. However, English is not a language foreign to the country, nation of India anymore, because we have taken the language given to us and we’ve made it ours.

So, while it is a struggle to find the balance between the alienation of stories from the culture and the gatekeeping of them due to discrepancies in language, it’s a tightrope worth walking, because at the end of it is a world of possibilities and opportunities for Indian writers.


Mrunal Rajadhyaksha is a student currently studying English Literature in Ruia College. She is passionate about reading, art and history, and the sea. She plays the guitar as a hobby.


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