Indian English literature

Indian English literature

Indian English Literature (IEL) refers to the body of work by writers in India who write in the English language and whose native or co-native language could be one of the numerous languages of India. It is also associated with the works of members of the Indian diaspora, especially people like Salman Rushdie who was born in India. It is frequently referred to as Indo-Anglian literature. ("Indo-Anglian" is a specific term in the sole context of writing that should not be confused with the term "Anglo-Indian"). As a category, this production comes under the broader realm of postcolonial literature- the production from previously colonised countries such as India.

IEL has a relatively recent history, it is only one and a half centuries old. The first book written by an Indian in English was by Sake Dean Mahomet, titled "Travels of Dean Mahomet"; Mahomet's travel narrative was published in 1793 in England. In its early stages it was influenced by the Western art form of the novel. Early Indian writers used English unadulterated by Indian words to convey an experience which was essentially Indian. Raja Rao's "Kanthapura" is Indian in terms of its storytelling qualities. Rabindranath Tagore wrote in Bengali and English and was responsible for the translations of his own work into English. Dhan Gopal Mukerji was the first Indian author to win a literary award in the United States. Nirad C. Chaudhuri, a writer of non-fiction, is best known for his "The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian" where he relates his life experiences and influences. P. Lal, a poet, translator, publisher and essayist, founded a press in the 1950s for Indian English writing, Writers Workshop.

R.K. Narayan is a writer who contributed over many decades and who continued to write till his death recently. He was discovered by Graham Greene in the sense that the latter helped him find a publisher in England. Graham Greene and Narayan remained close friends till the end. Similar to Thomas Hardy's Wessex, Narayan created the fictitious town of Malgudi where he set his novels. Some criticise Narayan for the parochial, detached and closed world that he created in the face of the changing conditions in India at the times in which the stories are set. Others, such as Graham Greene, however, feel that through Malgudi they could vividly understand the Indian experience. Narayan's evocation of small town life and its experiences through the eyes of the endearing child protagonist Swaminathan in "Swami and Friends" is a good sample of his writing style. Simultaneous with Narayan's pastoral idylls, a very different writer, Mulk Raj Anand, was similarly gaining recognition for his writing set in rural India; but his stories were harsher, and engaged, sometimes brutally, with divisions of caste, class and religion.

Later history

Among the later writers, the most notable is Salman Rushdie, born in India, now living in the United Kingdom. Rushdie with his famous work "Midnight's Children" (Booker Prize 1981, Booker of Bookers 1992, and Best of the Bookers 2008) ushered in a new trend of writing. He used a hybrid language – English generously peppered with Indian terms – to convey a theme that could be seen as representing the vast canvas of India. He is usually categorised under the magic realism mode of writing most famously associated with Gabriel García Márquez.

Bharati Mukherjee, author of "Jasmine" (1989), has spent much of her career exploring issues involving immigration and identity with a particular focus upon the United States and Canada.

Vikram Seth, author of "A Suitable Boy" (1994) is a writer who uses a purer English and more realistic themes. Being a self-confessed fan of Jane Austen, his attention is on the story, its details and its twists and turns.

Shashi Tharoor, in his "The Great Indian Novel" (1989), follows a story-telling (though in a satirical) mode as in the Mahabharata drawing his ideas by going back and forth in time. His work as UN official living outside India has given him a vantage point that helps construct an objective Indianness.

Other authors include Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Arundhati Roy, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Raj Kamal Jha, Jhumpa Lahiri, Bharti Kirchner, Khushwant Singh, Amit Chaudhuri, Amitav Ghosh, Vikas Swarup, Rohinton Mistry, Kiran Nagarkarand C R Krishnan.


It would be useful at this point to bring in the recent debates on Indian Writing in English ("IWE").

One of the key issues raised in this context is the superiority/inferiority of IWE as opposed to the literary production in the various languages of India. Key polar concepts bandied in this context are superficial/authentic, imitative/creative, shallow/deep, critical/uncritical, elitist/parochial and so on.

The views of Rushdie and Amit Chaudhuri expressed through their books "The Vintage Book of Indian Writing" and "The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature" respectively essentialise this battle.

Rushdie's statement in his book – "the ironic proposition that India's best writing since independence may have been done in the language of the departed imperialists is simply too much for some folks to bear" – created a lot of resentment among many writers, including writers in English. In his book, Amit Chaudhuri questions – "Can it be true that Indian writing, that endlessly rich, complex and problematic entity, is to be represented by a handful of writers who write in English, who live in England or America and whom one might have met at a party?"

Chaudhuri feels that after Rushdie, IWE started employing magical realism, bagginess, non-linear narrative and hybrid language to sustain themes seen as microcosms of India and supposedly reflecting Indian conditions. He contrasts this with the works of earlier writers such as Narayan where the use of English is pure, but the deciphering of meaning needs cultural familiarity. He also feels that Indianness is a theme constructed only in IWE and does not articulate itself in the vernacular literatures. (It is probable that the level of Indianness constructed is directly proportional to the distance between the writer and India.) He further adds "the post-colonial novel, becomes a trope for an ideal hybridity by which the West celebrates not so much Indianness, whatever that infinitely complex thing is, but its own historical quest, its reinterpretation of itself".

Some of these arguments form an integral part of what is called postcolonial theory. The very categorisation of IWE – as IWE or under post-colonial literature – is seen by some as limiting. Amitav Ghosh made his views on this very clear by refusing to accept the Eurasian Commonwealth Writers Prize for his book "The Glass Palace" in 2001 and withdrawing it from the subsequent stage.

The renowned writer V. S. Naipaul, a third generation Indian from Trinidad and Tobago and a Nobel prize laureate, is a person who belongs to the world and usually not classified under IWE. Naipaul evokes ideas of homeland, rootlessness and his own personal feelings towards India in many of his books.

Jhumpa Lahiri, a Pulitzer prize winner from the U.S., is a writer uncomfortable under the label of IWE.

Recent writers in India such as Arundhati Roy and David Davidar show a direction towards contextuality and rootedness in their works. Arundhati Roy, a trained architect and the 1997 Booker prize winner for her "The God of Small Things", calls herself a "home grown" writer. Her award winning book is set in the immensely physical landscape of Kerala. Davidar sets his "The House of Blue Mangoes" in Southern Tamil Nadu. In both the books, geography and politics are integral to the narrative. In his novel Lament of Mohini [] (2000), Shreekumar Varma [] touches upon the unique matriarchal system and the "sammandham" system of marriage as he writes about the Namboodiris and the aristocrats of Kerala.


A much over-looked category of Indian writing in English is poetry. As stated above, Rabindranath Tagore wrote in Bengali and English and was responsible for the translations of his own work into English. Other early notable poets in English include Derozio, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Joseph Furtado, Armando Menezes, Toru Dutt, Romesh Chandra Dutt, Sarojini Naidu and her brother Harendranath Chattopadhyaya.

In modern times, Indian poetry in English was typified by two very different poets.
Dom Moraes, winner of the Hawthornden Prize at the precocious age of 19 for his first book of poems "A Beginning" went on to occupy a pre-eminent position among Indian poets writing in English.
Nissim Ezekiel, who came from India's tiny Bene Israel Jewish community, created a voice and place for Indian poets writing in English and championed their work.

Their contemporaries in English poetry in India wereJayanta Mahapatra, Gieve Patel, A. K. Ramanujan, Rajagopal Parthasarathy, Keki Daruwala, Adil Jussawala, Arun Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre, Eunice De Souza, Kersi Katrak, P. Lal and Kamala Das among several others.

A generation of exiles also sprang from the Indian diaspora. Among these are names like Agha Shahid Ali, Sujata Bhatt, Melanie Silgardo and Vikram Seth.

Indo-Nostalgic writing

Indo-Nostalgic writing is a somewhat loosely defined term encompassing writings, in the English language, wherein nostalgia regarding the Indian subcontinent, typically regarding India, represent a dominant theme or strong undercurrent. The writings may be memoirs, or quasi-fictionalized memoirs, travelogues, or inspired in part by real-life experiences and in part by the writer's imagination. This would include both mass-distributed "Indo-Anglian" literature put out by major publishing houses and also much shorter articles (e.g. feature pieces in mainstream or literary magazines) or poetry, including material published initially or solely in webzines.

Certainly, Indo-Nostalgic writings have much overlap with post-colonial literature but are generally not about 'heavy' topics such as cultural identity, conflicted identities, multilingualism or rootlessness. The writings are often less self-conscious and more light-hearted, perhaps dealing with impressionistic memories of places, people, cuisines, Only-in-India situations, or simply vignettes of "the way things were". Of late, a few Indo-nostalgic writers are beginning to show signs of "long-distance nationalism", concomitant with the rise of nationalism within India against the backdrop of a booming economy.

In addition to focusing on nationalism or any universal themes, many writers emerged out with innovative ideas and techniques in writing poetry. It is a pity that there are many writers whose writings still remain unnoticed either due to lack of source to get their works recoganised or less opportunities does not knock the doors of the right person. Writers like Krishna Srinivas, M.K.Gopinathan, etc have contributed enormous poetry collection to the growth of Indian English Literature. Krishna Srinivas concentrated on all sorts of social aspects in his poetry, and M.K.Gopinathan poetic mission is to spread peace in the minds of the readers. M.K.Gopinathan's anthologies includes, "I go on for ever", "A Fresh Rose" and "It is not my fault" which contained interesting subjects of day to day life.

Typically, the authors are either Western-based writers of Indian origin (e.g. Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry), or Western writers who have spent long periods of time in the subcontinent, possibly having been born or raised in India, perhaps as the children of British Raj-era European expatriates or missionaries (e.g. Jim Corbett, Stephen Alter). Or, they may even be Anglo-Indians who have emigrated from the subcontinent to the West. Third Culture Kids (TCKs) often grow up to produce Indo-Nostalgic writings that exhibit palpably deep (and perhaps somewhat romanticized) feelings for their childhoods in the subcontinent. Accordingly, another common theme in Indo-Nostalgic writing is "rediscovery" or its cousin, "reconnection".

Of course, for mass-distributed authors, Indo-Nostalgic writings may not necessarily represent "all" of their literary output, but certainly would represent a high percentage; it is their sweet spot, after all. Finally, it is worth noting that the markets for such writers are almost entirely in the West; despite the rapid growth in the incomes of urban Indians, the sales of English-language literature within India (other than books required for educational degrees or professional purposes) are minuscule compared to sales in the West, even if one includes pirated copies.


*Haq, Kaiser (ed.). "Contemporary Indian Poetry". Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1990.
*Hoskote, Ranjit (ed.). "Reasons for Belonging: Fourteen Contemporary Indian Poets." Viking/Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2002.
*King, Bruce Alvin. "Modern Indian Poetry in English: Revised Edition". New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987, rev. 2001. ("the standard work on the subject and unlikely to be surpassed" — Mehrotra, 2003).
*King, Bruce Alvin. "Three Indian Poets: Nissim Ezekiel, A K Ramanujan, Dom Moraes". Madras: Oxford University Press, 1991.
*Mehrotra, Arvind Krishna (ed.). "The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets". Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1992.
*Mehrotra, Arvind Krishna (ed.). "A History of Indian Literature in English". New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
*Parthasarathy, R. (ed.). "Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets (New Poetry in India)". New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1976.
*Souza, Eunice de. "Nine Indian Women Poets", Delhi,Oxford University Press, 1997.
*Souza, Eunice de. "Talking Poems: Conversations With Poets". New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.
*Souza, Eunice de. "Early Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology : 1829-1947." New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005.
*Srikanth, Rajini. "The World Next Door: South Asian American Literature and the Idea of America"'. Asian American History and Culture. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2004.

ee also

*Indian literature
*List of English poets from India

External links

* [ Indian English Literature Forum]
* [ The Poetry House]
* [ Telugu stories and articles on Telugu fiction]
* [ Blog: Discussion on Indian Writing in English, (no new post since December 04, 2005)]
* [ List of English Books by Authors of Indian Origin]
* [ Indian Writing in English - Authors Bibliographies

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