literature, Indian

literature, Indian
   The somewhat reluctant granting of independence to India and Pakistan in 1947, and similar measures legally according national recognition and sovereignty to British Asian, Caribbean, and East African communities approximately a decade later, produced, if only through its very protracted clumsiness, a more complex and tortured sense of identity. Subsequently, maturing British Asian writers of the post-colonial period had the task of clarifying the complexity of their own identity, a task which was not straightforwardly apparent to a generation of readers who expected and desired from their fiction the affirmation of territorial loyalty and nationalism.
   Sheer market pressure has since ensured a flourishing identity for British Asian fiction. Consequently, the London scene has tended to be dominated by a few great literary names. Arguably, even these figures continue to wrestle with the problem of what is entailed in adopting a ‘brown’ perspective or ‘Eastern eye’ in a Britain still resistantly occidental in the self-perception of its white majority. These writers are also preoccupied by familiar long-term problems in relation to their home countries, where race, caste, gender and religion are matters still painfully shaped by neocolonialist-bred clashes of privilege, city and rural economic poverty, and an unbowed human spirit.
   From the start of the 1960s, the writings of the former Indian soldier Paul Scott (including The Jewel in the Crown) perpetuated a great deal of the enduring hold of the older Commonwealth ‘neo-imperial’ view of ‘British’ Asia and of Asian Britons, including long-time residents in Britain. Scott’s work was further extended by a television version of Scott’s Raj Quartet in the 1980s, which helped to launch the career of the British Asian actor Art Malik. Scott’s writings and back-up interviews given before the end of his life are full of conviction, especially on religious differences, and they demonstrate a glorious eye for both class and caste hypocrisies. However, they tend to focus on the perspective of whites exhibiting English mores in the sub-continent. Salman Rushdie, of wealthy Bombay Indian parents but British-educated and based now in London, has managed in one of his novels (The Satanic Verses) to move away from such ‘English’ parochialism. He has done this by showing readers how the secular and materialistic Asian middle classes, both in Britain and in the subcontinent, confront identity and cross-cultural alienation problems in their own right. However, he failed in another area, the attempt to reconcile Islam with the modern capitalist spirit of opportunism and liberated sensuality, to the extent of endangering his own personal safety. His earlier novels (written after being told at his English public school that he would never make ‘writer’ status) were criticized, especially in Pakistan, for alleged betrayal and condescension towards genuine Asian values, although Rushdie himself (a respectful agnostic) has always denied any intention or desire to ‘blaspheme’.
   Born in Trinidad of Indian parents and now based in London, the novelist V.S.Naipaul has had an output as famous and widely appealing as Rushdie. However, his novels and occasional interviews reflect more confidence in the wider Asian diaspora, and a disgruntled affection for the bourgeoisie of all races. Also his characters show a profound irritation with ‘Christian’ or ‘Western’ secular criticism of a confident, modern Moslem perspective on life.
   Similar optimism, even in the midst of some of the most appalling homophobic, racist and sexist Western inner-city environmental dereliction, is shown by two more tentatively established Asian British writers, whose London bases and left-wing views clearly shape their metropolitan sophisticated fiction. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who now lives in the USA, has written several key novels (as well as film scripts for Merchant-Ivory Productions) about the British experience and (mis)understanding of India, particularly Esmond in India and the Booker prize winner Heat and Dust. A similar perceptiveness about landscapes and prejudice, as well as ‘time’ and ‘history’ in more contemporary eras than those attempted by Scott, has been shown by Hanif Kureishi. His televised and filmed scripts (such as My Beautiful Launderette) have ensured that Asian gays/bisexuals, and anti-Thatcherite Asians, often in poverty-stricken South London, have voices and characters.
   The myriad other Indian writers in English who have reached front ranks of literary status include Anita Desai, Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth. English literature today would be as poor without Indian writing as it would have been in the first decades of the century without Irish writing.
   Further reading
    Nelson, E. (ed.) (1993) Writers of the Indian Diaspora: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press (a collection of essays, excellent in overall sweep and very good on the new younger writers in London).
    Paniker, A.K. (ed.) (1991) Indian English Literature Since Independence, New Delhi: Indian Association for English Studies (a collection of critiques favouring multicultural ‘inheritance’).
    Williams, H.M. (1977) Indo-Anglican Literature 1800-1970, Bombay: Orient-Longman (clear and trenchant, providing the longer historical perspective without which even post-1960 fiction in Britain is incomprehensible).

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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